Dearly Beloved by Peggy Jaeger

Chapter Two

Monday morning came around again as it does every week, and I was at my desk when my intercom

“Isabella Harrington is here for her appointment,” Charity told me.

“Send her in.”  I rose and crossed to the office door. When I opened it, one of my favorite new clients was smiling
at me.

Isabella was a blonde-haired, green-eyed pixie of a girl who wore a perpetual smile on her lovely, rosy- cheeked face. She’d attended a friend’s wedding in Heaven I’d organized a few months ago and had been so charmed with the whole package, she’d fired her then wedding planner with a text sent as the buttercream-frosted cake had been served and hired me before the end of the

She was alone today, but I’d met her handsome fiancé, Jackson Rainier, previously.

“Jack’s not with you?” I asked, accepting her fervent hug and returning it.

“He’s been on duty since yesterday morning,” she told me. “Another thirty-six-hour shift. But I’ll see him later when he’s off-call.”

Rainier was a medical resident finishing up a fellowship in pediatrics at a Manhattan hospital. The two had met when Isabella, then a Barnard undergraduate, volunteered at a community fundraiser for pediatric AIDS relief where Jack had been the resident in charge of the event. To see the two of them together was to know what true love really looked like.

“I’m glad you’re here,” I said. “I received the pricing on those favors you liked, and before I ordered them, I wanted to make sure you were okay with the cost.”

She waved her perfectly manicured hand in the air. “It doesn’t matter what the cost is; I want them. Go ahead and place the order.”

I’d found when dealing with Isabella Harrington, this was a common statement. At twenty-four, she had the world in front of her and an older brother behind her who was footing the bill for the entire wedding. I’d yet to meet the elusive Slade Harrington, but to hear Isabella talk about him, he was the most loving, adoring, generous—you get the picture—brother on the planet. The subject of Isabella’s parents was a sore topic, and though ravenous curiosity swam through me like a hungry lion in search of plump gazelles, I never asked why it was her brother’s signature on the payment checks.

We made ourselves comfortable in my seating area and got down to business.

“Your gown is in,” I told her, referring to my laptop with her opened file on the display screen, “so we need to make an appointment for your first fitting.”

“You’re going with me, right?” she asked as she took a sip from the water bottle Charity had brought her. “I was still with my old planner when I ordered it, so you haven’t seen it on me. I want an honest opinion, and I know you’ll be truthful.”

“Of course I’ll go with you. Do you want to invite anyone else? Jack’s mother? Any of the wedding party? Your mom?”

Her beautifully sculpted nose wrinkled at the mention of her mother.

Sore subject, remember? I didn’t push.

“No,” she said, with a determined shake of her head. “I just want you.”

A speck of sadness shot through me.

The wedding party was small, made up of Jack’s married sister as the matron of honor, her small daughter as flower girl, and Jack’s childhood friend as best man.

This was such a different wedding from any other I’d planned for brides in the Harringtons’ social set. Usually, the typical rich-girl society affair I’d put together consisted of scores of sorority sisters in the party paired with an equal amount of just-as-wealthy old-network-fraternity groomsmen. From gown fittings to seating arrangements, table settings, favors, and even bridal-registry gift shopping, brides were encircled by a gaggle of twittering attendants, all desiring exactly what the bride-to-be had—a rich, up and coming, politically connected groom-to-be. Those brides were my bread and butter when I’d first started out in New York, and my business had thrived financially, bringing with it more and more vapid, spoiled, and demanding young women with access to Daddy’s bank accounts and Mommy’s demands.

Isabella Harrington was the opposite of every upper-class bride I’d ever worked for.

“Okay, let’s call and set something up. What’s your schedule like this week?”
While I was on the phone to the Manhattan bridal boutique, my office door opened. I had one eye on my computer date planner while the other spotted
Charity escorting a figure into my office.

A very large, male figure.

Isabella put her finger across her lips to hush whatever he’d been about to say. At the same time, I got an available appointment.

“Wednesday at ten okay for you?” I asked Isabella.

She told me it was and I confirmed it. That done, I hung up and turned around.

The smile I’d automatically put on my face froze in place at my first glimpse of the man who’d entered the room. There was a subtle resemblance to Isabella in his coloring, but he was a number of years older. Both had the same ash-blond hair, cut through with swaths of wheat, honey, and flax. Isabella’s hair had a natural curl to it, silk threads drifting over her shoulders in a tumbled mass. His hair was cut shorter on the sides, longer at the top, with the same thick,
luxuriant layers arranged in a disarray of waves.

For a hot second, my hands vibrated with a desire to run through all that disorder and clutch on tight.

If the old saying “clothes make the man” was true, this guy had made it to the top of the stratosphere.

A deep pink candy-striped tailored shirt covered him from neck to waist, broad shoulders to wrists, the collar opened and popped, the cuffs perfectly aligned. I was one of those women who loved colors on a guy— even pastels—and knew it took a confident man to pull off anything other than somber and professional blues, grays, and blacks.

His dark trousers fit comfortably down his long, long legs, dropping from a trim waist in a straight line all the way to polished loafers I knew cost a month’s rent on my previous Manhattan hovel. He carried a sports jacket over one arm, and if I had to guess, every stitch of clothing on him had been hand tailored.

Isabella’s face broke into a wide, show-stopping smile that lit my office in all four corners.

“At last you two get to meet,” she said. Slinking her arm through the crook of his elbow, she added, “Colleen, this is my big brother, Slade.”

“Commonly referred to as ‘the checkbook,’ ” he said, while he stretched a hand out to shake mine, a disarmingly wry grin pulling at his full lips.

His hand remained out, waiting for me to take it. For some wacky reason, my brain wouldn’t send an order to my muscles to extend mine to his.

Isabella giggled and swatted his arm, all sisterly affection behind the hit. The sound was enough to propel me out of my paralysis. I leaned forward and gave his hand a firm,
professional squeeze.

Immediate warmth spread through my fingers like I’d dropped them into heated bath water, seeped up my wrist, then slid the length of my arm in one solid, sizzling glide. My biceps contracted, vaulting the heat onto my shoulder, which stiffened in response, before relaxing enough to let it soak through my system.

St. Brigid preserve me.

Amber irises shot with tiny flecks of aged cognac narrowed as the inky black of his pupils expanded.

His hand remained in mine, his eyes focused on my own. I don’t know what he saw in them, but on his ruggedly handsome, chiseled-from-stone face a smidgen of confusion, a speck of bewilderment, and a splash of intrigue all mixed together while we stood there.

My abdominal muscles contracted, and I wasn’t even wearing the dreaded spandex today.

This wouldn’t do. I hadn’t been this discombobulated by a man since…well…let’s not even go there. Attempting to shove some professionalism back into my office, I pulled my hand from his and said, “Isabella has never referred to you that way.” Good gracious, was that my voice? It sounded like an army of frogs had invaded the back of my throat. “But it’s nice to meet you, Mr. Harrington.”

“Slade is fine.” He folded his hands into his trouser pockets.

If my voice mimicked web-toed croaking amphibians, his sounded like a lazy morning after a night packed with warm Irish whiskey and scorching sex.

Deep toned and low, with a scratch of gravel and a tiny smolder of smoke, those three words almost made me respond, “Slade is way more than fine,” but I kept my thoughts to myself and indicated the chairs.

As we sat, I cleared the frogs and said, “I’m glad you could join us today. I have some questions about the guest list. The invitations need to go out soon, and I want to assure you I have all the correct names and addresses.”

With a nod to his sister, Slade said, “I’m sure the list is perfect. Izzy wants to keep the wedding small, and that’s fine with me.”

I handed each of them a set of printed sheets and then referred to my own papers. With a visual sweep of  the list, I asked a question I’d been considering before Isabella arrived. “I don’t seem to have your father’s mailing information, Isabella.”

There was a subtle but profound drop in the air temperature of my office. At the mention of their mutual father, brother and sister both took a swift, audible breath.

It was Slade Harrington who broke the silence. “He won’t be coming.”

There was frost in his voice, and his face had frozen into a mask of steely, hard-pressed resolve. From what Isabella had told me of her brother’s profession, I knew he ran the family business, a venture capital and investment company. He had an MBA from Wharton and had graduated from Harvard, originally, with a law degree. Added in was a PhD in economics. Very authoritarian and forceful careers. I was happy I would never need to sit across from him at a negotiation table. This was what I imagined his corporate take-no- prisoners face looked like. It was a little scary and a whole lot of intimidating.

And it was very familiar. Uncomfortably so.

My former fiancé, commonly referred to by my sisters as Vlad the soul-sucker—because that’s what he did: suck your soul dry—had the same expression on his face most days.

Long story better left untold.

I had never wanted to ask my next question so much in my life—why not?—but I knew I was treading on some very slippery family-dynamic ice, so instead I said, “Then, I’m going to assume you or Isabella’s stepfather will be walking her down the aisle.”

“I will be.” His tone left no doubt of it.

Isabella, silent up to now, glanced down to her lap at her folded hands, her bottom lip tucked under her top teeth at one corner of her mouth. Slade slid a look at his sister, and I was charmed at the way his face and body softened. He reached over and took one of her hands, giving it a gentle tug. When she lifted her gaze to his, he lowered his chin and asked in a voice devoid of all the chill it had possessed a moment before, “Unless you want Fred to walk you down. It’s okay with me if you do.”

She squeezed his hand, and a tremulous smile skidded over her face. “No. I want you to. But…”

“What, Izzy?”

She glanced over at me and then back to her brother. “Well…I got a call the other day. From Daddy.”

Granite was softer than Slade Harrington’s jaw right then.

Isabella licked her perfectly plump lips, darted a look at me again, then focused back on her brother. “Don’t be mad at me. Please?”

“You’re not the one I’m mad at.” Slade pulled his hand from his sister’s, folded his own together, and rested them in his lap as Isabella had. His poor knuckles blanched from the amount of pressure he was using to hold them still, and his body was as rigid as a carved marble statue.

I didn’t know much about the Harrington family history, and from the way this conversation was progressing, I didn’t want to.

“Let me guess why he called,” Slade said to his sister. “He heard you were getting married, probably from one of his polo cronies who heard it from one of their trophy wives. He wants to be included. Wants to run the show. Maybe even wants to play dear-old-dad and walk you down the aisle. How am I doing?”

Isabella’s delicate shoulders slumped, and she stared back down at her lap.

“Izzy, look at me.” His words were a command, but he’d gentled the tone.

She did.

“We talked about this. About what would happen if he came to the wedding. About why he shouldn’t.”

“I know. It’s just…” She shrugged and my heart went out to her.

Both Slade and I asked at the same time, “What?”

I physically felt the knife-like, antagonistic glare he shot me slice through my skin like a paper cut, swift and cutting and sharp.

I’d been put in my proverbial place, without a doubt.

Images of the last time I’d seen Vlad—I mean, Harry—sprang to the front of my mind. The way his dark eyes had cooled over and turned cruel while he accused me of being cold, career driven, and neglectful of his needs were a twin to Slade Harrington’s hostile, hard, and flinty glower.

I clamped my lips together so hard they tingled and then leaned back in my chair, moving physically and emotionally away from their conversation.

Isabella’s expressive eyes swam with moisture, her lashes barely holding back the tears from tripping down her cheeks. She looked at her brother and said, “He sounded so hurt because he hadn’t known about the wedding. That we’d…that I’d never called to tell him.”

“Sweetheart, we both know what a manipulator he is when it comes to your feelings. And,” he added when she started to speak, “how appearances mean everything to him. He wants to
play father of the bride so everyone can see what a great dad he is, what a chip off the old block. You realize that, right?”

Isabella nodded, her eyes swimming. “I do.” She lifted her gaze back to his, and my heart turned over a tad when a fat tear slid down her cheek. “But he is my father.”

“Just because you have some of his DNA, it doesn’t make him a father.” His voice had turned to a distinctly disgusted timbre, and I couldn’t help but wonder who was the real villain here? Old man Harrington, who probably wanted to walk his daughter down the aisle, or Junior who seemed to have more issues with Daddy than Isabella did?

This conversation was getting a bit too personal for me, and I did have other things I needed to do, not spend time on family drama I knew nothing about, so I decided to step back into the scene and get the planning conversation back on track. They could discuss their father’s presence—or lack of it—on their own time and in private.

“Why don’t we bookmark this discussion for now and talk about the rest of the list?” Before either of them could respond, I jumped right in. “Isabella, you and Jack decided at our last meeting you wanted no more than eight to a table, right?”

As I refocused their attention, Slade Harrington shifted a side-glance my way. From his expression, I wasn’t sure if he was impressed with the way I’d barreled straight through their discussion and gone back into wedding-planner mode, or if he was plotting fifty ways to cause my demise. It was a toss-up.

A half hour later, after a few witty exchanges between the siblings about which relatives and friends should be kept away from one another, and with Isabella back to her usual happy self, I suggested we take Slade on a tour of the inn.

Since it was ridiculous to all drive separately, Isabella and her brother hopped into my car.

“You’re going to love the inn,” Isabella told Slade from behind us. I was a little taken aback when he’d slid into the passenger seat next to me. Having all that long, lean male in my office, seated across from me with room to spare, had been one thing. Having him so close now within the confines of the car was quite another. And because of his proximity, I noticed a few things I hadn’t in my office, like the subtle—yet totally enthralling—scent of his cologne. It reminded me of the deep woods after a rainfall, strong and earthy, as it drifted over to me while I maneuvered out of my parking lot and onto the county road, aiming for Inn Heaven. I’m a sucker for warm, masculine scents, and his was so appealing, I had a momentary flash of sliding my nose up his neck and sniffing to my heart’s content.

I took a giant breath to get a grip on my thoughts when we stopped at a traffic light.

While Isabella went on about all the inn’s attributes in gushing detail, my gaze slid to where Slade’s hands rested on his thighs.

His thick, muscular, hard thighs.

A rush of what it would feel like to be tucked between those strong limbs galloped through my head.

Oh, my.

His long, straight fingers were ringless, the knuckles drizzled with sparse tufts of the same wheat color in his hair. Isabella had mentioned at one of our previous meetings her brother was unmarried, a state he had managed to retain despite the best efforts of the most vigorous Park Avenue mothers of marriageable girls.

Isabella maintained her brother was the quintessential confirmed bachelor and playa.

Playa was the appropriate term. A quick Google search had yielded thousands of photos of him attending everything from society events to the opening of new, trendy restaurants and nightclubs at home and oversees. And in
every one of those photos, he had a different supermodel/actress/pop star at his side. The most recent ones I’d found showed supermodel Katya Yurlenko frequently on his arm.

“Colleen’s sister manages the inn, plus she’s a pastry chef. When Jack and I were at Maisy Dimple’s reception here a few months ago, he said Maisy’s wedding cake was the best thing he’d ever tasted. He snuck two pieces. Maureen made it.”

Pride flowed through me because it was true. My youngest sister was without doubt one of the most imaginative and creative bakers I’d ever come in contact with in all my years working in the wedding industry. And I’d come in contact with a lot.

A whole lot.

She’d abandoned her dreams of opening her own bakery when her twin asked her to go into business together. When Eileen took sick, Maureen stayed by her side, promising she wouldn’t let anything happen to her sister’s dream of having one of the best bed and breakfasts in the state. In doing so, she’d given up her own dreams and desires.

My gaze flicked over to see Slade’s attention focused on me as it had been in my office. While his sister spoke, his expression turned thoughtful and his gaze drifted down to my lips and then back up again, his brows lifting slightly.

“That’s some praise,” he said. “Think I can hope for a…taste of something?” His eyes shot down to my mouth again, and I swear he wasn’t talking about vanilla layer cake with mascarpone filling and buttercream frosting.

When was the last time a guy had looked at me like he wanted to devour me like a confection?

Let’s be real here: never.

I tried to swallow, but my mouth had gone desert- dry, all the moisture in my body dropping down to my lady parts.

This wouldn’t do. Not at all. I prided myself on my polished professionalism and poise when dealing with clients, and to date, I’d never had my lust-ometer react to anyone connected with any of the weddings I’d planned.

Until now.

Remember Harry, I told myself. Slade and my ex could have been brothers from another mother. Arrogant. Conceited. Proud.

“Maureen is usually baking something,” I said as I turned the car into the inn’s lengthy driveway. “Cupcakes. Pastries. Scones. Her baking talents are famous in these parts. I’m sure if you ask nicely, she’d be happy to let you taste whatever she’s got.”

Isabella giggled again.

Her brother turned around in his seat to face her. “What’s so funny?”

You, Mr. I-won’t-put-anything-in-my-body-that’s- not-good-for-it. I haven’t seen you eat a piece of cake since my sweet-sixteen birthday party.”

“That’s not true.”

“Yes, it is. You shun sugar like vampires shun the sun.”

When I laughed out loud at the description, Slade squinted even more, and I swear, the heat seeping from his steely glare sliced like a laser beam right through me. My hands suddenly turned to two sweaty claws as they gripped the steering wheel. My thighs pressed in close together, and I could feel a little tickle of pressure in the lower edge of my spine. This guy should bottle whatever it was swimming around in him that gave off such a hot alpha vibe. He could sell it on the open market and make himself even richer.

I threw the car into park as Isabella asked, “When was the last time you had a cookie? A slice of pie? Anything even hinting of butter or white flour?”

While she’d been speaking, Slade slid from the car, and opened her door.

I was already out and standing with my keys in my hand.

“Just because I don’t make a daily habit of eating junk food doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy something sweet now and then, Isabella.”

The tone in his voice reminded me more of a father than a big brother and gave me a whole lot more insight into their relationship.

“There’s nothing wrong with eating well. Ask your fiancé. He’s a doctor. I’m sure he can tell you why you should eat healthy, nutritionally sound food.”

Isabella alighted from the car, giggled again, and then rose up on her toes to kiss her brother’s cheek. “How old are you?” she asked, cocking her head to one side and nailing him with a wide-eyed stare. “Because you sound more like my grandfather than my brother right now.”

Slade shook his head and closed the car door behind her. He took her arm and said, “Come along now. Child.

Isabella giggled again and wrapped her free hand around the one held in Slade’s hand. When she leaned into him and he dropped a kiss on the top of her head, my brotherless little heart sighed with longing.

Awww. Maybe I was wrong about him being a jerk like Harry.

And when his gaze lit on mine, his perfectly arched eyebrows lifting just a fraction in a condescending manner, the longing fled, replaced by a dollop of pique.

No. It looked like I wasn’t wrong at all.

I lifted my chin, planted a fake smile on my face as I regarded him, and said, “Shall we?”

 Chapter Three

“See?” Isabella said as soon as we were through the front door. “Isn’t it gorgeous?”

Slade glanced around the wide, open foyer. After they’d signed the ownership papers for the inn, my sisters had spent two solid weeks touring around New England, visiting antique and specialty antiquarian shops for period-perfect furnishings. The foyer was bifurcated by a wide, carpeted staircase (think Gone with the Wind) that stopped at a central landing and then split into two sides to lead up to the second floor. The carpeting covering the stairs and landing was a lush, plush, deep red Maureen referred to as harlot scarlet. But Eileen had loved it, so her twin gave the okay to have it installed despite thinking it made the foyer resemble what my grandmother calls a bawdy house.

“It smells great in here.” Isabella lifted her chin and gave the air a decided sniff.

“That’s Maureen’s lemon curd. She must be doing a tasting today.”

“A tasting?” Slade asked, sliding his gaze from the foyer table to me. He held one of the inn’s promotional pamphlets Maureen kept displayed on the table.

“For wedding cake selections,” I answered. “She gives the prospective bride and groom a few varied tastes of the flavors she can bake for their cake.”

He turned to his sister. “Let me guess what you decided on. Some kind of chocolate-coconut combination, right?”

Isabella socked him in the upper arm. “I hate that you know my weaknesses so well.”

“Not so much your weaknesses as your obsessions.” He looked back at me, a grin just this side of heart-stopping tugging at the corners of his delectable mouth. “The very first time I took her trick- or-treating she fell in love with those little chocolate- covered coconut bars and ate them all. She didn’t touch any of the other stuff. And her bag was filled to the top with all kinds of candy.”

“I don’t remember hearing you complain,” Isabella said, “especially when you ate every piece I didn’t want.”

Before I could stop myself, I said, “I thought you didn’t eat sweets?”

Those gorgeous eyes regarded me through his thick lashes. “I eat…all sorts of things.”

Holy Mother of the Lord. Was it me, or was there a whole world of meaning in that little statement that went beyond just eating candy? The tiny hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up at attention as a shiver sluiced down my spine and slipped under my thong. Unable to stop them, my thighs pressed together as a little pulse of awareness shot between them.

“When I was a teenager, though,” he continued easily while I stood there, practically hyperventilating with…something, “I didn’t care too much what I ate, and anything sweet was appreciated.”

“Now there’s a customer after my own heart.” Maureen came from the direction of the kitchen dressed as she usually was—opposite to me in every way.

Her thick, curly red hair was secured into a messy knot on the top of her head, a pencil sticking through it. Her freckled face had nothing on it but a generic, drugstore-brand moisturizer. She wore a pale sky-blue T-shirt under a flour-covered apron that covered her from torso to knees. Embroidered across the front flap was Keep Calm and Add Butter. Under it, old, faded jeans fit over her narrow hips and lanky legs like a second layer of skin. I didn’t even
need to look down to know her feet were shod in flip-flops.

Maureen valued comfort and ease in everything in life, including how she appeared to the world. Such a contrast to the way I presented myself to others. I couldn’t imagine going out
of the house without makeup, hair blown out and styled, my body covered in an outfit that screamed
successful businesswoman, much less shod in shoes that cost ninety-nine cents at the local hardware store.

I introduced my sister to Slade, charmed when his eyes lit with mirth as his gaze dragged down to her apron and read the message.

“Your sister said you’re doing a cake tasting today.”

“I’ve got three couples coming in this afternoon, so I’ve been getting everything ready. Would you like a tour of the inn and the facilities? Get a feel for how Isabella’s wedding will look? I can take a break while everything cools.”

She looked over at me and cocked her head. I nodded.

For the next several minutes, the four of us made our way through the inn. Slade asked dozens of questions about the operational side of the business— something probably near and dear to his entrepreneurial heart—and Maureen answered every one of them efficiently and with as few words as possible.

He seemed impressed at the size of the main ballroom, evidenced by the way his eyes took in every inch of the spacious area. The tables were already set for the next event, a luncheon meeting of the local Chamber of Commerce Maureen was hosting the next day. Slade asked about the menu, where she obtained her staff for events, the time devoted to setup and takedown. All topics I knew Maureen loved to talk about. She was a wealth of knowledge about her business, never shy when it came to discussing all aspects of it. It was her personal life she kept quiet from everyone, including her family.

Even though she’d been baking since before the sun rose, her commercial kitchen was its usual spotless and shining space, all the industrial appliances sparkling and clean. Maureen’d had a mild case of cleaning OCD when she was a
kid, and it had followed her into adulthood. When our sister took ill, Maureen’s obsessiveness about having her surroundings clean and germfree proved to be a good thing when Eileen’s immune system had been compromised by

After a quick trip up the main staircase to the guest rooms and then a view of the garden where Isabella and Jack would say their vows, we were back in the foyer.

“You’ve a charming place,” Slade said. Glancing down at his sister, he added, “I can see why you wanted to be married here instead of at the Carlyle. It’s perfect for you and Jack.”
With a fast grin, Isabella nodded. “It is, and I’m so glad you agree.” She threw her arms around his chest and squeezed.

When he dropped his chin to the top of her head and hugged her back, my heart gave a little sigh. Growing up, I’d always dreamed about having a big brother. When I was old enough to realize I couldn’t— Cathleen held the distinction of being the oldest, with me right behind her—I changed that to a younger one. After the birth of the twins, my mother had declared her baby-making machine was now and forever closed, and I had to deal with the fact I’d be growing up in a cloud of estrogen.

As I watched the Harrington siblings’ show of affection toward one another, that old wish pushed to the front of my mind again.

In the next instant when Slade’s gaze turned and he smiled that sexy smirk and winked at me, I forgot all about not having a brother and wanted nothing more than to have a man in my life.

Isabella pulled back and, after a glance at the diamond-encased watch on her wrist, said, “I need to get back. If I leave now, I’ll miss most of the traffic.”

She hugged Maureen, then Slade slid his hand into my sister’s.

“The next time I visit,” he told her, “I’ll want to sample some of those cake choices.”

Maureen smiled back at him. “Just have Colleen tell me when you’ll be back with Isabella, and I’ll have some ready.”

In the car, he turned to me and said, “Your sister’s inn is beautiful, quaint, and looks like she does a good business.”

“She’s usually booked every weekend with weddings and their guests plus the events she hosts during the week. And during peeping season she’s booked solid.”

“Peeping season?”

I flicked a quick look at him while I drove, then turned back to the road. “Autumn. It’s called leaf- peeping season in these parts. From mid-September until early November, when the leaves change colors. New England autumns are famous worldwide for the tree color changes. Haven’t you ever been up here during the fall?”

“Slade only goes places where there are beaches, warm water, and naked girls,” Isabella piped up from the back seat. I caught her eye roll in my rearview mirror.

“Not true.” He turned to her. “Sometimes the water is cold.”

She burst out laughing, and I followed suit.

“Well, since the wedding is in October, you’ll be getting a first-hand view of the natural beauty around here,” I said. “In fact, Isabella, my photographer, Kolby, has already mentioned a few places he’d like to shoot you and Jack before and on your wedding day. I’ll send you the link to his website so you can see what he means. You can let him know the spots you like.”

A few minutes later, it was my turn for one of Isabella’s vivacious hugs.

“I’ll be down on Wednesday morning for your fitting,” I told her.

“Can’t wait,” she said, then hugged her brother. “Drive safe.”

 “Yes, Mom. You, too. Text me when you get back.”

She climbed into her fabulous car, called out, “Yes, Dad,” then, with a final wave and a cheeky grin, sped out of my office parking lot, gravel and dust in her wake.

Slade let out a breath and shook his head, hands fisted on his hips.

The afternoon sun hit him from behind, haloing his head in a bright circle of light. With the sun shadowing his face, his eyes darkened to amber like a warmed, barrel-aged ale.

A girl could get drunk from those piercing eyes, from that penetrating stare, especially if it was zeroed in on her, like it was, right now, on me.

I remembered my previous thought that Slade was way more than fine. But fine didn’t seem to do him any kind of justice. God must have been in a particularly good mood the morning He spliced Slade Harrington’s genes together.

“Well,” I said, internally wincing at how lame I sounded. I shifted my purse to the opposite shoulder, my car keys still dangling from my hand. “You probably want to head back, too. Beat the traffic. It gets a little rubber-necky
this time of day in some spots.”

“I’m not concerned. I cleared my schedule for the afternoon. I didn’t know how long this was going to take, and I didn’t want to run out on Izzy and race back to the city for a meeting. She’s been begging me to drive up here and get a look at the inn, see the area, for a couple weeks. Today was the first day I could manage.”

“I’m sure she appreciates your being here. You two seem very close.”

He nodded. “We are. She’s a good kid. Sweet, unspoiled. Smart. She deserves a shot at happiness. If this is what she wants for her wedding, I’m going to do whatever I can to make it happen.”

His love for her was, again, apparent. I was a wee bit envious of that kind of affection.

I stared at him for a moment, mulling over how I wanted to ask him what I’d been dying to ask since we’d been in my office.

Finally, because there was no other way to get around it but bluntly, I said, “I feel like we need to discuss your father. Come to a decision about where he fits in the wedding.”

When the warmth in his expression shifted to ice, a weaker-willed person might have stopped there. Since I’m not weak and my parents have always told me I have a real problem with knowing when to quit, I pushed on. “It seems to me as if Isabella wants him to be included. Whether in a father-of-the-bride role, or simply as a guest, I really do think she’d like him to attend, but, for whatever reason, she’s reluctant to press you on it.”

Did I say ice? What’s colder than ice? Because whatever it is, that was the expression floating in Slade’s eyes right then as he glared at me.

Warning bells blared in my head, but that thing about me not knowing when to quit? Yeah, it’s real.

“I think Isabella’s afraid of upsetting you if she tells you how she feels or asks your permission. She loves you so much and respects your opinion.”

“You don’t know anything about my sister. Or me.” He lowered his hands from his hips, kept them fisted at his sides. “Or our relationship with our father.”

“True, but I get the sense—”

He barreled over me as if I hadn’t said a word. “You’ve been hired to do a job, Miss O’Dowd. I suggest you do it and keep your thoughts about my family to yourself. You’re a wedding planner, not a family counselor.” His voice dropped a level, deepening as it became softer. The cadence became clipped, the tone more…lethal.

If this was the way he acted in business, it was a wonder he hadn’t been convicted of corporate homicide yet.

“Look, I’m not asking simply to be nosy,” I said, my voice rising in opposition to his. “I really do have to plan all this out. There’s still the rehearsal and the dinner after it left to deal with. Then there’s the reception seating. Plus, if he is included, I’ll need to make sure he has a room, a tuxedo, and find out if he’s bringing a guest.”

“What aren’t you understanding about this, Miss O’Dowd?” Slade asked, taking a step toward me. If he’d thought to intimidate me with his height, he’d miscalculated. Retreat wasn’t a word in my lexicon. I simply lifted my chin and stared right back at him.

“I understand a lot more than you think, Mr. Harrington. About all sorts of things. Arrogant and pigheaded men included.”

When he continued to stand like a plank of wood in front of me, his mouth turning down and creasing the sides of his jaw, I knew—knew—I should stop.


“This is your sister’s wedding,” I said, pulling deep for some form of professional calm. “Your only sister, and she loves you and wants you to be as happy on her big day as she is. If that means including a father she so obviously wants to include, then I think you should suck it up and let her, no matter what your daddy issues are.”

Daddy issues?”  I swear on Nanny Fee’s 120-year-old Bible, he snarled the words. His face turned the color of hothouse tomatoes, and his eyes widened to the size of poker chips.

In the next instant, his face changed again. It was mesmerizing the way he was able to pull in whatever irritation he felt for me and slap it back down. In a heartbeat, he turned back into Mr. Cool Controlled Corporate Icon. The look he tossed me was one I imagined royalty gave to their servants. As if anything I said or did was so unworthy of his attention and time, that he couldn’t be bothered acknowledging it.

His lids dropped, covering most of his eyes as if he was fighting to keep them open through a bout of boredom.

Why did that look, that totally derisive and insulting glare look so…hot?

When Vlad had looked at me like he wanted to squash me under his Italian designer loafers like an annoying ant, I’d gotten pissed and pissy. Slade Harrington’s disdainful expression caused a little niggle of heat to slide down my spine. For a scorching second, I imagined how much fun it would be to wipe the look off his face.

And by fun, I mean it in a purely sexual sense.

Before either of us was able to say another word, the shrill blast of Pink’s “Trouble” split the air. I reached into my purse and grabbed my cellphone. Nanny Fee danced across the screen.
Uh-oh. A call from my grandmother during the middle of the day was never a good sign. She wasn’t one given to chatting you up to shoot the breeze. No. A call from Fee usually meant trouble, hence the ringtone song I’d assigned to her.

I connected the call. “Nanny?”

“Number two. Good. I’ve got—”

“Hang on a sec, Nanny. I’m with a client.”
I slid the phone down to my side as I heard my grandmother’s voice continue speaking.

Slade had his car keys in his hand and was swiping his thumb along the fob, his gaze still zeroed inon me. Or more accurately, my mouth.

“Look,” I said again and after taking in a deep breath. “It’s not my intent to overstep. I have no desire to get into any family drama. That’s not what I was doing. I just want Isabella to have the wedding she’s envisioned. Like you said, it’s what I was hired to do.”

He waited a beat and then nodded.

“You don’t have to decide anything right now concerning your father. Just think about Isabella. What she wants and what you want for her. You two can discuss this privately and when I see her on Wednesday, she can let me know if there are any changes to the guest list. I won’t even ask her about it, I’ll just let her take the reins. Okay?”

Again, he waited a moment before giving me his reply. “Yes.”

When he said nothing further, the moment grew awkward, and I could still hear Nanny Fee’s voice spilling from my phone.

 “I’m sorry,” I said. “I need to take this call.” I held the phone up, Nanny’s voice going nonstop on whatever topic she’d called me about, oblivious to the fact I wasn’t listening to her.

He was staring at my mouth again, and the sensation of heat tickling at my core suddenly grew lava-hot under his scrutiny.

With one more curt nod, he turned and stalked to his car.

No “goodbye.”
No “It was a pleasure meeting you.”
No social nicety at all.
Just a dismissive, regal nod, and he was off.
He slid into his vehicle, and I swear I could actually feel the butter-soft leather of the seat slide across his slacks. With a quick, last glance at me, and as his sister had, he gunned the engine and sped out of the parking lot, a gravel dust storm gusting up behind him.

A hot guy in a fast car shouldn’t have sent my thirty-five-year-old insides quivering with lust and possibilities. Especially when there was no chance those possibilities could ever be realized.  I shook out of my musings and lifted the phone to my ear to hear Nanny saying, “—so what was I supposed to do? You tell me.”

Good Lord. Now what?

Heaving a huge sigh, I went back to my office to figure out what mayhem my grandmother had caused this time.