Todd Aston III's reputation as a playboy preceded him; he wore power as seamlessly as he wore his custom-cut suits. But Marina Nelson had promised her sister who was marrying Todd's cousin that she'd help him plan the perfect wedding. And somehow, between tasting cakes and modeling wedding dresses, Marina discovered that she wanted Todd and that Todd wanted her. She was powerless to prevent the inevitable. Yet the harder she fell for Todd, the more she realized that he didn't trust marriage-minded women.
Which made her grandmother's offer of a million dollars to whichever Nelson sister married him a big problem.
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Would you do it if I beg?"
Marina Nelson was careful to keep from smiling at Julie's dramatic plea. Of course she was going to agree to help her sister, but not right away. After twenty-four years of being the baby of the family, it was nice to finally have a little power.
"You know I'm busy," she said slowly. "It's the start of a new quarter and I have a full class schedule."
Julie sighed. "Yes, and your work is very important. But so is this. I wouldn't ask if it wasn't. I really need someone to take charge while I'm on this business trip. We have similar taste and you're organized and I thought..." Julie tucked her blond hair behind her ears and looked sad. "Am I asking too much? I am. I know it's crazy. I'm the one getting married, not you. So I should do the planning. But this trip to China is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Six weeks of Ryan and I working together before we settle in to being married and parents."
Marina glanced down at her sister's stomach. Julie was only about three months along and not showing at all. One of the advantages of being tall, she thought humorously—it takes longer to see the bump.
"I can see how a trip to China would be far more thrilling than the messy details of choosing a menu and picking out flowers," she said, still not allowing herself to smile. "Not to mention deciding on a dress. What if you hate what I pick?"
They were close enough in size for the actual gown itself not to be a problem. Any minor tailoring could be done right before the wedding, after Julie got back.
"I won't," Julie promised earnestly. "I swear, I'll love it. Besides, you'll send me pictures, right? We talked about that. You'll upload them into e-mail and I'll write back with my opinion." Her blue eyes widened.
"Marina, please say yes."
Marina sighed heavily. "No. I can't. But thanks for asking."
Julie's mouth dropped open, then she reached behind her for one of the small, floral sofa cushions and swatted Marina with it.
"You're horrible! How could you let me go on and on like that? I was practically begging."
Marina laughed, then grabbed the cushion. "There's no 'practically," Julie. You begged. You whined. I have to tell you, I was a little embarrassed for you."
Julie sighed. "So you'll do it?"
"Of course. You're my sister. Just give me a list and I'll take care of everything."
"You have no idea how you're helping. Between getting married and our trip and closing on the new house, my life is a nightmare."
They sat in Ryan's study—an uncomfortably modern condo in West Los Angeles. It had a great view and electronic everything, but it lacked color and soul, except for a few throw pillows Julie had contributed. Rather than try to make it homey, Julie and Ryan had decided to buy another house that they both liked. Marina knew that Willow, their middle sister, was going to oversee the minor renovating Julie and Ryan's new place needed, which left the wedding to Marina.
"I think of this project as practice," Marina said with a grin. "I can figure out what I want and don't want should I ever take the plunge."
"Oh, please.You'll get married," Julie said confidently.
"The right guy's out there somewhere. You'll find him."
Marina wasn't currently looking, but it would be great when it happened. Assuming she could trust herself to fall in love without losing her soul in the process.
"Until then, just call me the wedding planner," Marina said. "Now, where's that list of yours?"
Julie reached into her purse, then straightened without removing anything. "There's just one other thing."
Julie drew in a breath. "Okay, so this is Ryan's wedding, too, and he's a little nervous that it's going to be too girly. He wants a vote in what's happening."
Marina didn't get the problem. "Fine. You two can argue all you want, then e-mail me the compromise. I don't care."
"Um, yes, well, that's not exactly the plan. Ryan wants a representative to be with you for all the important decisions. The food, the cake, the band, the decorations, the flowers."
"A representative? Like his mother?"
Marina had never met the woman. No doubt she was perfectly lovely, but another opinion could seriously slow the process.
Julie tried to smile and failed miserably. "Actually, no. More like Todd."
"Todd? As in Todd Aston the Third, all around rich guy and jerk?" Marina couldn't believe it. "Anyone but him," she muttered.
"He's Ryan's cousin and they're as close as brothers. You know that. Todd is the best man and he offered to help. Do you hate me now?"
"No, but I should." Marina sighed. "Todd? Yuck." Nearly six months ago, the three sisters had been introduced to their maternal grandmother for the first time in their lives. Grandma Ruth had been estranged from her only daughter, the girls' mother, ever since Naomi had run off and gotten married.
Now Ruth was back and she wanted a relationship with her daughter and granddaughters. In addition, she had a burning need to connect her family with her second husband's family through marriage.
In a moment of dinner conversation that Marina was confident would go down in family history, she'd offered each of her granddaughters a million dollars if one of them would please marry Todd Aston the Third, her nephew—or maybe great-nephew, no one was sure—through marriage.
Julie had fallen in love with Ryan and Willow had found Kane Dennison, which left only Marina for toady Todd. Talk about bad luck.
For reasons she was still trying to figure out—maybe it had been a momentary brain injury—Marina had agreed to one date with the obnoxious Todd.
It's not that the guy wasn't good-looking—at least, that's what Marina had heard. She'd never actually seen the man. He was also wealthy and successful in his own right, rather than just inheriting from Mommy and Daddy. Ryan liked him and Marina thought Ryan was okay—especially after he'd shown the good taste to fall for her sister. But Todd?
His idea of a significant relationship was to date the same woman twice in the same week. He went out with models. How could she ever have a serious conversation with a man who dated women who were paid to starve for a living? It violated the female code.
Plus, initially he'd tried to break up Julie and Ryan. Marina thought that was pretty low.
"I'm not asking you to have his baby," Julie said.
"Just work with him on the wedding. Besides, it won't be too bad. He's a guy. He'll get bored at the first meeting with the florist and disappear. You'll have to deal with him once. Twice at the most."
"I don't want to deal with him at all," Marina said mournfully. "He's everything I don't like in a man." Talk about emotionally useless. Or so she imagined.
A sound came from the doorway. It sounded like someone clearing his throat. When Marina looked up she found a pretty good-looking guy leaning against the door frame.
He looked more amused than annoyed, but based on Julie's gasp and sudden blush, Marina was willing to go out on a limb and figure this was the infamous ToddAston.
"Ladies," he said with a nod. "Ryan let me in and said you were meeting in here. I've shown up for wedding duty. I'm also accepting a humanitarian award at the end of the month. Perhaps the two of you would like a shot at writing my bio for the event. It would certainly be entertaining."
"Oh, man," Julie muttered. "I'm sorry. That all came out more harshly than I meant it to."
Marina studied him. He was the walking, breathing definition of tall, dark and hunky. Great face with soulful eyes and the kind of mouth that made a woman dream about being taken against her will. Broad shoulders, a muscled chest and jeans skimming over narrow hips and yummy thighs. All in all, a great package. Too bad Todd's personality was stuck inside it.
He smiled at her. "You must be Marina."
"I am. Nice to meet you, Todd."
"Nice?" He raised one eyebrow. "That's not what I heard.You've already decided I'm an ass. Or is it an idiot?"
She shifted on the sofa, feeling just a tiny bit uncomfortable. "You go out with models. Their airbrushed perfection in magazines make regular women feel bad about themselves."
"Because of that, models shouldn't be allowed to date?" Logic? He wanted to use logic in a discussion about the objectification of thin, young women in modern society?
"Of course they should be allowed to date," she said smoothly. "I'm simply not interested in someone who's interested in them."
"Right," he said folding his arms over his chest.
"Because you assume that if they're beautiful they must be dumb. Therefore I like dumb women."
"I didn't say that, but thanks for clarifying."
His mouth twitched as if he were holding in a smile.
"I don't date dumb women."
"You should probably make up your mind about that," she told him.
"I'll get right on it."
"If you two are finished..." Julie pointed to the chair opposite the sofa. "Okay, then. So, we should get started with all this. The wedding."
Todd strolled across the room and took the seat offered, then pulled a PalmPilot out of his shirt pocket. "I'm ready."
Marina looked at him. "You're actually going to participate?"
"Right down to the organic seed we'll be throwing at the happy couple when they head off on their honeymoon." He leaned forward and lowered his voice. "We don't use rice. The birds eat it and it's bad for them."
She opened her mouth, then closed it. "Someone's been spending a little too much time on the Internet."
"Internet, bridal magazines, whatever. When it comes to wedding planning, I'm your guy." A challenge brightened his dark eyes. "I'm in this all the way. Are you?"
If he thought he could scare her off, then he was in for a wild ride. "I'm in. And just for the record, I define stubborn."
Ha! No way. He might think he was all that, but Marina was more than willing to take him on and win.
Julie sighed. "I thought you two might not get along, but I never considered this might become a competition. Listen. We're talking about a wedding. My wedding to Ryan. We need help, not a Las Vegas-style show. Bigger is not better. Don't be too creative. Let's just make it low-key and elegant, okay?"
Marina felt Todd's gaze shift to her. She stared right back at him and refused to be the first one to blink. "Julie, have I ever let you down?"
"No," Julie said slowly, as if she didn't want to admit it.
"So trust me.