Patrice put down her list, took off her bifocals and let them rest on the gold chain around her neck. “Caroline Mayer is the best up-and-coming wedding planner in the entire Fort Worth area! Weddings masterminded by her are incredible, memorable events!”
“So you mentioned,” Jack said drily, trying not to think about the elegant woman who had shot him down and then walked off without a backward glance. It wasn’t just her refusal to be intimidated by him that kept Caroline Mayer in his thoughts. Or the tousled layers of copper hair that framed her face and curved against her chin. It was the mix of innocence and cynicism in her crystal-blue eyes. The sense that she’d been around the block more than once when it came to business and having her pride hurt.
He’d heard she had not come from money, yet she was elegance defined, from her high femininely sculpted cheekbones and pert nose to the slender curves on her five-foot-five frame.
She knew how to dress—as had been evidenced by her pale pink business pantsuit, silk shell and heels. She knew what understated jewelry to wear. The only thing lacking in her presence, Jack had noted, was perfume. Caroline hadn’t worn any.
Although the subtle sunny fragrance of her hair and skin had been pleasurable enough. He wondered, when she did wear perfume, what kind of scent did she favor? Something light and innocent, or mysterious and deeply sensual?
Oblivious to the direction of his thoughts, Jack’s mother pressed on. “Is it money? Did you not offer her enough? Is that it?”
“We never got to the part about the money,” Jack admitted reluctantly. “And I told you, if you’re going to get married, I want to be the one to pay for it.”
Patrice frowned. “Was there a conflict with the time frame I selected, then? Is that the problem?”
Jack thought of the ramrod set of Caroline Mayer’s slender spine and the seductive sway of her hips as she stalked out. Coming or going, she was one beautiful woman—who now couldn’t stand the sight of him. Jack cleared his throat. “We never got that far, either.”
Clearly exasperated, Patrice threw up her hands. “Then why did she say no?”
Because she’s a wedding planner, not a spoilsport. And I made the mistake of being honest with her about my sentiments regarding the impending nuptials, Jack thought irritably. Caroline hadn’t accepted the fact he was only trying to protect his mother from a mistake that could destroy her. Aware his mother was still waiting for a plausible explanation, Jack said finally, “It was just a personality thing, Mom.” Clashing personalities. “The woman took an instant dislike to me.”
Astonishment warred with the skepticism on her face. Patrice furrowed an artfully shaped brow. “I know you can be a bit linear at times, especially when you’re involved with your work …”
Why not just say it? Jack thought. There are times when I lack people skills….
“But surely Caroline Mayer has worked with her share of engineers and other task-specific people before. She knows how, well … unromantic … and practical to the point of insanity … you all can be.”
“Thanks, Mom,” Jack said wryly.
“You know what I mean. I know you sometimes say and do the wrong thing, but it’s always obvious to me you mean well and have a good heart.”
“Well, she apparently didn’t think so,” Jack muttered.
“Why on earth not?” His mother looked all the more perplexed and incensed.
Not about to go down that road, Jack shrugged and said carefully, “Bottom line—I think I just annoyed her on a lot of levels, and she decided she would rather not have to deal with me.”
“I don’t want anyone else,” Patrice said stubbornly.
Dutch Ambrose, Patrice’s fiancé, chose this time to wander into the room. On the surface, the guy was the perfect husband for his petite blonde mother. Tall, rangy, slightly stooped—at sixty-two, Dutch had a ready smile, a full head of thick white hair and the kind of deep ever-present tan that came from years spent at the beach and on the golf course. He dressed in sneakers, bright plaid golf pants, solid polo shirts and cardigan sweaters. He’d been practicing his shot in the study, and had his putter and a golf ball in hand. “What’s the problem?” Dutch asked genially, as unerringly polite as ever.
Patrice looked over at the fiancé she’d only known three months, and explained the difficulty Jack had encountered with Caroline Mayer.
Jack had only to look at his mother’s face to know where this was going.
“I’ll call her again,” Jack promised. “I’ll get down on my knees and beg, if necessary.”
“No,” his mother said even more firmly, giving him The Look that had always preceded a grounding when he was a kid. “You won’t.”
“WHO IS HERE TO SEE ME?” Caroline asked her administrative assistant from her office in Weddings Unlimited.
Looking much younger than her fifty-something years, Sela Ramirez shut the door behind her. Her vibrant red-and-gold dress sparkled in the late-afternoon sunlight as she crossed the all-white office and stood before Caroline’s sleek glass-and-chrome desk. “Jack and Patrice Gaines, a little girl named Maddie, her dog and another gentleman, Dutch Ambrose.”
He was here—the take-charge man with the arresting silvery gray eyes who had already commandeered her lunch hour, and had her thinking about him off and on most of the day. Caroline pushed away from her laptop computer and sat back in her chair. “You’re kidding.”
Sela propped a hand on the voluptuous curve of her hip. “You only wish I was kidding.”
Why did the wealthy always have to be so eccentric? Caroline wondered. Because they could….
“Would you like me to tell them you’re too busy to see them?” Sela asked.
“No.” Caroline sighed, thinking. If they were this determined, they’d find some way to see her. At least this confrontation, if that was what it was, would be private. There would be talk enough when word got out she had turned down the job, and speculation why—which, as a courtesy, she would not answer. Caroline went back to her laptop and finished updating her To Do list for the day, checking off all the items she had completed thus far. “Just give me a moment, and have them all come in. And, Sela, while they are here, hold my calls.”
A minute later, all four of her guests trooped in. Well, Caroline amended silently, taking a moment to study her uninvited guests. Jack strode in, looking every bit as reluctant to be there as she was to have him. His mother, Patrice, was every bit as blonde and petite and elegant as the photos that always appeared in the paper. And she smelled incredible, as if she were wearing one of the signature scents she had been famous for before she sold her business. She was on the arm of a dapper white-haired gentleman, who also looked to be in his early sixties. A little girl who was all tomboy followed. The color of her dark brown bob matched Jack’s. She wore a backward baseball cap, T-shirt and overall shorts, snow-white cotton athletic socks and dirty sneakers. She had a fluffy, and quite large, golden retriever loping at her side. Not on a leash, Caroline noted, but then, at least for the moment, the dog did not appear to need one. It looked intent on staying close to its mistress.
“We’ll cut straight to the chase,” Patrice said regally, after quickly and expertly making introductions. “I understand you’ve refused to plan my wedding to Dutch—and I want to know why!”
Jack regarded Caroline with a poker face—except for his silver-gray eyes. They were pleading for her not to give him away.
It would serve you right, she thought, if I did.
“Please help us,” Dutch Ambrose said.
Maddie stopped petting her dog, long enough to look up. “Can Bounder be in the wedding, too?” Her big blue-gray eyes danced with delight at the idea.
Caroline imagined the little tomboy walking down the aisle with a basket of flowers in her hands, the big beribboned dog beside her, and felt a seismic shift inside her—the increasingly loud ticking of her biological clock. The familiar longing for a little girl of her own, and the deeper, more elemental need to have someone, something, in her life—beside the business she had spent the past two years building—to love.
Aware this little girl was everything she had ever imagined in a daughter of her own, and more, Caroline told herself to be reasonable—not romantic. And the reality was she was still running a business and needed to concentrate on that, rather than her deep-seated, private longings.
Feeling calmer, she lifted a hand and pasted on the brisk businesslike smile that had soothed many a frantic bridal party.
“We’re getting ahead of ourselves here.” Boy, are we getting ahead of ourselves. Imagining what it would be like to have a child just as adorable as Maddie, as my own….
Jack cleared his throat and broke in. “I tried explaining to Mom that it just wasn’t going to work out. You and I—” he looked at Caroline with a meaning only she could read “—we’re just not on the same page.”
“So avoid her!” Patrice fumed, disapproving. She turned to her son and said impatiently, “I never said I wanted you involved in the planning of my wedding, anyway. You’re the one who insisted on paying for it!”
“And it would be my pleasure,” Jack reiterated with what seemed to be sincerity, Caroline noted. It was his turn to look distressed. “I just don’t understand why the nuptials have to be this month.”
This month? Caroline thought, a little shocked. April was already half over!
“When you get to be our age, you’ll understand time is not something to be wasted,” Dutch cut in with a wink and a grin.
Patrice smiled back at Dutch. She grasped his hand, looking up at him. “Especially with the two of us,” Patrice said quietly, with a meaningful expression. She squeezed Dutch’s hand once again.
Abruptly, silence fell.