Caroline, who was usually pretty attuned to these things, felt something did seem to be odd about this match. And that was as off-putting for her as it apparently was for Jack.
And for them to be trying to tie the knot in less than two weeks … Something was definitely strange about his. No wonder Jack was trying to stop it. He must feel something was just a little off, too.
Telling herself that it was her job to arrange weddings, not lives, Caroline cleared her throat, as well. If Patrice and Dutch wanted to marry for reasons of compatibility and companionship, as she was one day wont to do, if at all, then that was their business and no one else’s.
Especially since Caroline knew better than anyone that True Love simply was not fated to happen for everyone.
Some people, like her, had one shot at big romance, if they were lucky, and if that failed … well, odds were it wouldn’t happen again.
That didn’t mean a person couldn’t be happy and pursue other dreams, like owning their own business, or one day adopting a child who wouldn’t otherwise have a home, as her mother had, and she planned to do when the time was right.
“A wedding in April is tough to arrange, even a year in advance.”
“For anyone else, probably,” Patrice concurred, one successful businesswoman to another. “For you? Honey, we’ve heard you work miracles.”
CAROLINE WASN’T SURE how it happened. One minute she was standing there explaining why she couldn’t take on the Gaines–Ambrose wedding, the next she was agreeing to have dinner with the family at Jack’s place the following evening. They would pay her for the consult, of course, to discuss other options for the family.
To her relief, once that was set, they all left as unexpectedly as they had arrived.
As soon as the coast was clear, Sela came back in to ask with her customary frankness, “Why did you agree to that?”
There were pluses and minuses to having an assistant who was the same age her own mother would have been, who often viewed herself as the replacement to the mom Caroline had lost to illness when she was eighteen. The plus was that she had someone to act as a parent to her when she still needed one. The minus was that she sometimes found herself explaining things she would rather not have, to the veteran mother of five grown children, grandmother to eight, and full-time arbiter of love.
Caroline sighed and ran a hand through her hair. “Honestly? I don’t know.”
Sela studied her over the rim of the folder in her arms. “It had something to do with Jack Gaines, didn’t it?”
“Of course not!” Caroline successfully fought back a flush of embarrassment.
To no avail—she still didn’t fool the woman who had seen her through the tumultuous aftermath of her failed engagement and the beginning of her business. “The little girl, then,” Sela persisted gently.
That assertion, Caroline noted, was a little closer to the mark. “Maddie was everything I would ever want in a daughter.” And it wasn’t just her short cap of dark brown hair and expressive little face, or her big blue-gray eyes with the fringe of long lashes. It was the way the little girl carried herself—with big-girl confidence. The affection she showed her dog. The liveliness in her smile.
Maddie was a ray of sunshine in an otherwise gloomy spring day. And she deserved better than a daddy who would try and derail his own mother’s wedding.
Caroline didn’t doubt that Jack had misgivings. They might even be warranted. But his going behind a loved one’s back to try and achieve a different result than the one his loved one wanted reminded her of another man, and another time, and her own resulting heartache….
She wouldn’t visit that kind of unhappiness on anyone.
Particularly a little girl caught in the cross fire of the family brouhaha sure to come if Jack stayed on this particular path.
So for that reason, and that reason most of all, she was going to do what she never did—get personally involved in a situation that was really none of her business, and see what she could do to dissuade him. And to do that, she was going to have to meet with him alone. Again.
Jack was standing on a ladder, his head in the elevator shaft, when the walkie-talkie on his belt let loose with a static string of mostly unintelligible words. “Who’s here to see me?” he asked above the sound of power drills, reverberating from several floors above.
“Caroline Mayer,” a cool voice said behind him.
Jack ventured a look down at the elevator floor. From his perch on the ladder he saw those crystal-blue eyes staring up at him.
Hoping she was there to make peace—not cancel on his mom and the rest of the family for that evening—Jack hooked the walkie-talkie back on his belt, set his tools on the metal shelf and climbed down the steps until they stood face-to-face. Desire caught fire inside him, throwing him off guard. “We have to stop meeting like this.”
She propped her hands on her slender hips. “Ha-ha.”
The pulse in her throat was throbbing much too quickly. He twisted his lips into a crooked line, then murmured offhandedly, “Glad you think I’m funny.”
She made no effort to mask her pique. “What exactly were you doing?”
Jack shrugged. “What does it look like I was doing? I was taking apart a security camera that isn’t functioning the way it should.”
Temper flared in her cheeks, turning them a rosy coral. “Don’t you have people who do this sort of thing for you?”
Yes, he had employees. Two hundred of them, in fact, most of who were at this very moment working on the computer and phone and satellite systems all over One Trinity River Place. Comprised of office space, retail stores, restaurants and luxury condominiums in the heart of downtown Fort Worth, the high-rise was a visible testament to his success and that of his four best friends. But, Jack noted, Caroline did not seem any more impressed with his achievement than she was with his efforts to protect his family.
So be it.
“That doesn’t mean I can’t work, too,” Jack shot back, keeping his eyes on hers. “In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a hands-on type of guy.”
Who was always putting his foot in his mouth, especially around her, Jack thought, noting her telltale blush of awareness at his unintended pun.
“Not that I …” He started to apologize, stopped at the ice in her eyes.
“What?” She was daring him to go on. To take the opportunity and make some sort of pass. Which he knew she would promptly reject.
Determined to come out the victor in this little battle of wills, Jack relaxed, shook his head. “Nothing.”
Caroline scoffed and glanced away. As she did so, Jack noticed the pulse jumping in her throat. Was it his imagination, or was the heat of their two bodies, standing so improbably close together, making the elevator cage really warm?
Jack drew a deep breath. Once again, he noticed her lack of perfume. And the sunny, subtle fragrance of her hair and skin.
He wondered if that was by accident or design, and what kind of fragrance she would choose when she did wear perfume. What would she wear on a date? Or to make love …
Not that he needed to know that. The two of them were already at an impasse and never likely to go down that road. Which was yet another reason to keep this unexpected tête-à-tête short, Jack thought.
He put a suitable amount of disinterest in his manner—the kind he had used to push away women. After his wife had left, the word had gotten out what a mistrusting cynic he had become.
“What did you need?” he asked curtly.
She looked equally ambivalent. “To warn you.”
Jack’s brow furrowed. He thought he had been the one calling the shots, since it was his family who had been trying to employ her services. “Oh?”
“I thought about it overnight and I’ve decided to plan your mother’s wedding for her.”
Jack bit down on an oath. He massaged the rigid muscles along the base of his neck. “Does she know?”
Caroline looked at him, nonchalant. “Not yet.”