The Organized Bride
The Professional Bride
Snow Valley Series
About the Author
Copyright © 2015 Pepin Publishing
This is a work of fiction. The characters, names, places, incidents, and dialogue are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form whatsoever without prior written permission of the publisher except in the case of brief passages embodied in critical reviews and articles.
Interior design by Christina Dymock
Cover design by Christina Dymock
Created with Vellum
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Janel’s multi-grain pancakes stuck in her throat and her heart sank as she read the text from her department head, Dr. Ford.
Budget cuts went through. The trip is cancelled. Sorry. May have to cut your hours too.
Janel let the phone clatter to the table.[_ Stupid university funding issues._]
Once again, the Powers That Be had pulled funding from an academic program and pumped it into athletics, because “that’s what makes the alumni happy.” What she wouldn’t give to sit down with some of those highfaluting contributors and explain the importance of the archeology department.
Drizzling more syrup on her pancakes, Janel heard the girl in the booth across the aisle crying quietly. She wasn’t the only one having a bad day.
Janel glanced over. Two women talked in hushed tones. The older of the two was put together, like a thousand-piece puzzle in an old folks’ home. However, it was the younger woman who caught Janel’s envious attention: she had gorgeous black hair that hung so long it was pressed between her back and the booth’s leather seat.
The older woman leaned across the booth. “I’ve dropped him as a client and I promise your next—”
The younger woman cut her off. “I’m done.”
“But you could do two, maybe three more contracts. Think of the money you’re throwing away.”
Janel perked up. If someone was throwing away money, she’d love to take out the trash. A heap of cash could come in really handy right now. At this point, the only way to get to Guatemala and finish her degree was if she paid for the trip. Unfortunately, her checking account resembled a jack-o-lantern—full of holes and a wicked smile. She didn’t dare get her hopes up. The trip would cost more than she could ever make working part-time.
There was a sigh. “It’s not about the money. My mom’s sick; I need to be with her. They don’t know if … she might not …”
“Oh, darling, I didn’t know.”
Janel took a sip of orange juice. No matter how hard I think life is, there’s always someone who’s got it worse.
Finishing off her breakfast, Janel pushed her plate to the edge of the table. Her server, an adorable kid who looked like he belonged in a high school classroom instead of waiting tables on a Tuesday morning, smiled. “I’ll be right back with your check.”
He moved across the aisle to the women at the next booth. “Can I get you anything?”
The older woman said, “I need a hot chocolate. Kiera?”
The girl shook her lovely hair. “No, I’m leaving.”
“I’ll be right out with that.”
The boy hustled off, and the conversation between the women continued. Janel kept her head down and her ears tuned in.
“I’m sorry, Pamela. I hate to leave you in a lurch.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll find someone else. It takes a special person to do this work, but there are wonderful women out there who are looking for a career with these kinds of benefits. You just take care of your mom.”
Janel threw back the last of her orange juice. This sounded like an opportunity. Even if she couldn’t pay for her dig, she could at least increase her income. As long as the job was flexible enough to work around her classes, she’d be happy to quit her job in the lab cataloging other people’s work and doing data entry for minimum wage.
“Thanks.” The girl with the gorgeous locks gathered her jacket, one of those fitted ones in a flashy pattern that Janel always looked at but passed over because they only went with two outfits.
After the two hugged goodbye, the blonde sank back down in her chair and rested her chin on her hand and her elbow on the table. When her hot chocolate arrived, she gave the server a grateful look and stirred in the whipped cream as it melted.
Janel took her check, figured an exact twenty-three percent tip—she didn’t have a dime to spare, but the server needed to make a living too—and left the fake leather book on the table. As she stood, the woman sighed again.
Janel paused midstep, remembering. For the first three months of her senior year of high school, she’d watched the Wall of Fame fill up with pictures of the Students of the Month, secretly disappointed she never made the cut. One cold December day, she’d asked her math teacher how students were nominated. He’d told her the students get the form from the front office and ask a teacher to fill it out and turn it in. She’d stared at him, her mouth dragging across the floor. That was it? Come January, her picture was on the wall, and she never forgot the lesson: If you want something in life, you have to make it happen.
She took off her glasses, cleaned the lenses on the hem of her T-shirt, and put them back on.
What’s the worst that can happen?
She crossed over the center aisle. “Excuse me?”
The woman looked up and smiled politely. Her lipstick, the perfect combination of gloss and color, had left a mark on the cocoa mug. Remarkably, she still had full color coverage. Effortlessly stunning in her tailored navy-blue suit and silk scarf, she carried herself with a sense of confidence Janel envied.
“I couldn’t help but overhear that you’d just lost an employee. Might I enquire about the position?” Janel swallowed. Might I enquire? The phrase felt right when talking with a woman who looked like she was born in a power suit, but it sounded funny coming out of Janel’s mouth.
The woman stood up and looked Janel in the eye, and Janel found herself straightening under the scrutiny. She held still, feeling like she was going through an MRI machine, exposed and x-rayed. Her skin tingled. She didn’t think anyone had looked at her that closely in a long time. It was a little unnerving, and yet she didn’t feel judged, just read.
The woman smiled as she offered her hand. “I’m Pamela Jones.”
Pamela gestured to the empty booth. “Have a seat. Are you dating anyone?”
Janel sat, thinking of Alfred. Were they dating? Two dates in as many months didn’t constitute a relationship. “Not at the moment. Why?”
“This job is not conducive to preexisting relationships.”
“Oh, okay.” What did that mean?
“Tell me about yourself,” said Pamela.
“I’m working on my PhD in archeology. I teach two entry level classes and work as an aide to one of my professors.”
“Are you local?”
“What’s your five-year plan?”
Janel tried not to blink too much or too fast; her mom always said it made her look like a fish. These were regular interview questions, but she hadn’t prepped for a job interview this morning. “I was scheduled to go on a dig in Guatemala, but the funding fell through. It was my thesis project, and now I’m going to have to scramble to come up with something else if I want to graduate in the spring.
“After that, I want to teach in the archeology department and take sabbaticals to follow through on a few theories I have.”
“Your parents must be very proud.”
Janel lifted her shoulders. “That’s what they say.”
Pamela reached over and patted her hand. “I have a good feeling about you.” She reached into her purse and pulled out a card. “Stop by the office later on this afternoon for an orientation. If you’re still interested, we’ll talk.”
Janel put the card in her coat pocket. She needed a good hour to polish her résumé and review some online tips for the interview. “I look forward to it.”
As the ding over the front door announced her departure, Janel glanced over her shoulder at Pamela, who took her picture with her cell phone and waved gracefully.
The whole thing had happened fast, and it was a bit bizarre. Janel wasn’t sure if it was legal to ask questions about an interviewee’s personal life, but she shrugged it off because it wasn’t exactly an interview.
Having her picture taken bothered her though.
Was she going to end up on some random web page? Pamela didn’t seem like the shady type, but there was this esoteric aura about her … Janel shook her head. There was no such thing as magic or mystics. Feeling the business card in her pocket, she decided to Google the company the minute she got home. She’d been either smart with a dash of bravery or really stupid to jump into a job she knew nothing about.
According to Janel’s hurried research, the company was real but covert. They worked exclusively by word of mouth, and the only helpful information on the website was a phone number for the main office. Janel dialed it and set an appointment with the receptionist.
The office was on the third floor of a twenty-five-story building. The people in the elevator were dressed as if they had important meetings with overseas clients—all sleek lines and splashes of color. Janel wondered if her gray slacks and purple button-up top were dressy enough for this job. If she had to buy suits, she’d be out of there faster than you could say “credit limit.”
The elevator deposited Janel in front of a reception desk, where the same logo from the website—a cursive BMB—hung at eye level on the wall.
A cute redhead without a single freckle talked on the phone and waved a quick hello to let Janel know she’d be off in a second. Janel wondered if, when they were dishing out freckles in heaven, she’d accidently taken this girl’s smattering. She’d never minded her freckles—she thought they gave her face character—but when she came in contact with someone who had flawless skin like Tina, as Janel read on her nameplate, she wondered if she was missing out on something.
“That won’t be a problem. We’re the best brokers in the business,” Tina said into the phone.
Janel worried her bottom lip. Brokers? She didn’t have experience brokering anything. She managed her expenses well, but there was no way she was going to tell someone what to do with theirs.
Off to her left, three seats and an ornate coffee table waited for clients. The carpet was short and had that new-carpet smell.
Tina finished her conversation and turned to Janel. “How can I help you?”
“I’m here for an orientation.”
Tina checked her computer screen. “Janel?”
“Harrison is expecting you. If you’ll follow me?”
Harrison turned out to be a thirty-something ex-athlete who looked like he could still play. He had a few smile lines and an office that belonged in a decorating magazine.
After a quick introduction and the cursory “nice to meet you,” Tina excused herself. Harrison directed Janel to a swivel seat at a small round table with a glass top. He took the chair across from her and grabbed a file and two pens that looked like they had been waiting there for her arrival. In fact, she caught her name typed on the label attached to the tab.
If nothing else, these people are efficient.
“You probably have a lot of questions, but if you’ll wait until I finish with the orientation packet, it may answer most of them.”
“Our company is called Billionaire Marriage Brokers. We have a large and extremely private list of billionaire clients who are looking for a spouse. Before we continue, I’ll need you to sign this privacy agreement. Anything we discuss from here on out will be considered confidential information.”
Janel’s heart rate spiked, and then her jaw dropped.
Was this guy for real? Why on earth would a billionaire need a dating service?
She realized she was staring at Harrison like he’d grown horns, and quickly composed herself. She would be happy to file profiles or enter personal information into a dating database as long as it paid better than the university lab. She signed the paper, and Harrison flipped it over and picked up the next paper in the stack.
“I need to run a background check on you, if you’ll sign this.”
Janel signed. With billionaire clients, they probably expected a clean staff.
“This is our code of conduct.”
Oh great, the dress code. She tucked her scuffed shoes under her seat.
“I’ll give you the basic run-through. Page one: no drugs, drinking to the point of drunkenness, and no smoking.”
He looked up, and Janel smiled to reassure him that she wasn’t a drug addict or an alcoholic.
“Page two: You will use clean language, no physical violence, no bad mouthing clients or other employees, you’ll dress appropriately for each outing, and do all in your power to maintain the high standards upheld by Billionaire Marriage Brokers. Initial here.”
“Do I have to wear suits all the time?”
“No. Trish will cover your wardrobe at the end of the orientation.” Harrison patted the stack of papers.
“Page three …”
Janel promised all sorts of strange things, including that she would maintain an exercise program (twenty minutes a day or more according to her personal preferences), work to settle differences in a calm voice (that one was strange, she hadn’t yelled at anyone since her big brother threw her in the swimming pool on graduation night), and plan vacations around her client. By the time they were through, she thought her head was going to explode with all the rules bulging out. None of them were really over-the-top, and she didn’t foresee any differences between the way she lived her life and the way they asked her to behave on the job. It did seem strange that they were making her legally promise to keep her area clean, and they hadn’t even told her what she’d be doing.
She should have asked, but Harrison clearly assumed she knew what was going on and she’d feel stupid saying, By the way, what position am I applying for? Besides, Harrison might be her new supervisor, and she didn’t want to look like a half-wit before she started the job. She decided to ride it out and find an opportunity to ask questions later.
Harrison flipped the last sheet of paper, one verifying she had a legal driver’s license and that her insurance was up to date, onto the top of the pile. He turned the whole thing over, tapped it on the table to align the sheets, and slipped it all back in the folder with her name on it.
Checking his watch, he said, “Your next stop is Kimberly in accounting. She’ll be setting up your payroll and expense account. I’ll show you the way.”
Expense account! Sweet.
Kimberley’s office was less of a showpiece and more of a work space. She had several filing cabinets lined up along the east wall, each one neatly labeled. There was a traditional cubical desk in light grey with a laptop and printer, as well as a plant that looked like it was watered all year so that it would bloom for three days.
Harrison tapped lightly on the open door before walking in, Janel a few steps behind. “Hey, Kimberley. This is Janel. Pamela wants her on the Ryburn account.”
Harrison left without glancing back, and Janel turned her attention to Kimberly, who had three pens sticking out of her messy blonde bun.
Kimberly pushed away from her desk and rolled over to one of the filing cabinets. She pulled a file out of a middle drawer and then another from the drawer next to it. She rolled back to the desk and pulled up a credit card site. Flipping open the first folder, which also had Janel’s name on the tab, she pulled out a sheet of paper with a credit card attached. She removed the sticky rubber things and handed it to Janel. “Sign the back of that, will you?”
Janel’s palms were sweaty. The deeper she went into BMB, the harder it would be to get out. She hated wasting people’s time. But if she backed out now, she’d leave a mess of paperwork. And BMB’s employees had all been so kind. She could work with them; she was sure of it.
She took a pen from a coffee mug with a picture of the Grand Canyon on the side, and signed the card.
Kimberley asked her to create a password, typed the numbers in on three different screens, and wrote them on four separate pieces of paper. “If you ever need to get in and see what’s in the account, this is the place to go. Here’s your opening balance. Anything over this amount will have to come out of your pocket.”
Janel sucked in. This was more than she made in three months. “What kinds of things am I spending money on?”
Kimberley put the credit card paper, the credit card, and a blank balance sheet in a blue envelope. “You know, the basics. Gas. Whatever you need. It will be replenished on the fifth of every month.”
“Do I need to keep receipts?”
“If you’d like. Your account manager will monitor the monthly statements and let me know if anything is amiss. I need your personal checking account information and a cancelled check to set up the direct deposit.”
Janel dug through her purse for her checkbook. She was digging a hole for herself here. Harrison was an easy bluff: sign a few papers, agree to confidentiality, and promise to keep her nose clean. Not that bad. But Kimberley plowed through credit cards and bank accounts like she was handing out lollipops. Janel needed a moment to catch her breath.
“You’re good to go. I put your salary information in this envelope.”
Resisting the urge to snatch the green envelope and open it immediately, Janel asked the first question that came to mind, “Is the position considered full-time or part-time?” Her studies came first, and if this job was going to interfere, she’d have to find a way to leave now.
“It will depend on the week; the hours change. But it’s flexible. You can work out a schedule with Mr. Ryburn.”
Janel ran her finger along the envelope. This might work. “Sounds good.”
“You’ll need to give that to Trish.” Kimberley pointed at the envelope. “Go down this hall. The first door on your right is the restroom and the second is Trish’s office. She’ll give you all the information on Mr. Ryburn and get your calendar set up.”
Finally, some firm answers. “Thank you.”
Once in the hallway, Janel looked around to see if anyone was watching. When she was sure she was alone, she slipped into the restroom, locked the door, and slid open the envelope to check her salary.
Janel fell against the door. What in the world was going on around here? Janel took in the travertine tiles and stained wood moldings. These people dealt in money. For just a split second, she wondered if there was something illegal going on, but, Pamela was too put together. Janel considered herself a good read when it came to people. Pamela may be high-end, but she was not a crook.
Peeking at the sum again, Janel grinned. She could finance her dig.
Then she took a steadying breath. There had to be some sort of mistake. There was no way they were throwing around this much money.
She flipped around, ready to march back to Kimberley’s office to set things straight. With her hand on the cool door handle she paused, remembering the conversation she’d overheard this morning, the one where Pamela mentioned the “big money” the girl was turning down. If she did this job, even for one year, she’d not only be able to heat her apartment this winter, she’d be able to buy plane tickets and equipment for her trip. She giggled. She was finally going to get her shot, and this job could make it happen. Who cared what she did? She could do anything for a year.
Throwing her shoulders back, she slipped out of the restroom and knocked lightly on the next door down.
“Hi, I’m Janel.” She held out her hand and the woman took it with a smile.
“Trish. Nice to meet you.”
Trish’s hair was pink—well, half pink. The other half was so white it practically glowed. The cut was short and feminine and made her eyes stand out. In fact, all of Trish would stand out, from her zebra-print dress to her pointed snakeskin boots.
Trish didn’t release Janel’s hand, but used it to pull her into the office. If you could call the space made up with a makeup table, animal print furniture, and a rack of evening gowns an office. There was a makeup table, fashion magazines, and low couches in wild prints.
“Let’s take a look and see what we have to work with.” Trish reached up and slipped Janel’s glasses off.
“I just want to see your eyes. They’re beautiful, a nice mix of grey and blue. We’ll need to darken up your hair color just a bit to make them pop, but it shouldn’t be a big deal.”
Janel took her glasses out of Trish’s outstretched hand and slid them back on.
“I can see why you chose those frames. The dark color draws attention to your eyes just like the hair color will. Good choice,” said Trish.
Janel held back a laugh. She’d picked the frames because they were the only ones in her price range that didn’t look like bug guards.
Trish slipped the paperwork out of Janel’s hand and sat down on the sofa. “Let’s see what kind of expense account we have to work with, shall we?” She slid her eyes over the numbers and smiled. “This is great. We can do all sorts of damage with this.” She glanced up and took in Janel’s clothes. A tiny crease appeared between her perfectly sculpted brows. “Are you free tomorrow?”
Janel nodded. Classes didn’t start for another couple of days.
Picking up the phone, Trish pressed a button. “Tina? What’s tomorrow look like for me? Hmm, can you push that to Thursday? Okay, block me out, I’m going shopping.”
She stood up and handed the envelope back to Janel. “Bring that card and meet me in the lobby at eight-thirty tomorrow morning. Dress comfortable and don’t worry about your hair too much. I’ll get you in at a salon.”
Janel’s stomach churned. What started out as a new job was quickly taking over her whole life. New clothes, new hair, money to burn … Well, not burn, but money! It was all a bit much, and she was afraid she was getting in over her head. “Are you sure it’s okay to use this card to shop for clothes?”
Trish shrugged. “And makeup and hair and massages and lunch with the girls and flowers and whatever else you need; it’s your personal expense account. Your free-spending money to make it easy to maintain the code of conduct. You’re a Billionaire Broker’s bride now and you need to look the part.”
Janel felt her stomach drop to the floor and her blood pressure spike. “Excuse me, did you say bride?”
Lowering herself into a chair across from Pamela, Janel held on to the armrests to stop her hands from shaking.
Pamela gave her a radiant smile. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here to greet you; a friend of mine is gravely ill. He arrived unexpectedly this afternoon and needed some legal advice.” She rubbed her lips together and the corner of her eyes dropped.
Janel wondered about the friend, but wasn’t about to pry. Besides, before they were done here, she planned to ask a whole host of questions. Since seeing her annual income, she wasn’t willing to walk out. How could she, when all she’d ever wanted, all she’d ever dreamed of since she was a little girl digging for dinosaur bones in the sandbox, was within her grasp? She would listen to Pamela. Even if marriage was…drastic.
Pamela came to herself. “Have you ever heard of a mail-order bride?”
Janel shook her head, not sure she liked the idea of being a bride, let alone being “on order.”
“Before the internet made it possible to e-date someone on the other side of the world, marriage prospects were usually limited to a woman’s geographical area. If she were lucky, she had perhaps fifteen eligible bachelors in town to choose from. Some towns had more, but some had less.
“Factor in other women of marrying age, take out the drunkards, the abusers, and the laze-abouts, and you’re left with two to three men. Sometimes, you were left with nothing.”
Janel found herself nodding along.
“Women weren’t the only ones with slim pickings. When men went out to homestead a piece of land, they realized there were a lot more single men on the prairie than single women. They also realized the benefit of having a woman as a partner. Though it seems old-fashioned, a partnership made up of two people with complementary skill sets is productive and fulfilling for each participant.
“To find a partner, the men would place ads in newspapers for a bride. After corresponding for a time, or sometimes after just one letter, the woman would board a train or stagecoach, meet the man in his town, and they’d be married and back on his farm before nightfall.”
Janel blinked. This woman was delusional. “It’s not like that anymore. Like you said, people all over the world can fall in love. Why would a wealthy bachelor come to you? They don’t need help getting married.”
“Our clients value what a marriage can bring to their lives and recognize the benefits that come from a union that is beneficial to each party. We offer them the opportunity of marriage without all the fuss.”
“I don’t understand. What exactly would I have to do?”
Pamela typed a few words into her laptop and smiled. “Mr. Ryburn is a new client. He’s thirty-two, never been married, no children. He made a fortune building an idea company that focuses on new electronic gizmos.” She swiveled the laptop around so Janel could see the picture on the screen.
The guy looked good. Too good. Janel chewed her lip as she studied his strong jaw brushed with two-day stubble. It couldn’t be that he hadn’t shaved for the picture, because his neck was smooth. Nope, the look was sculpted, and the barbershop artist did a fantastic job. His dark brown hair and tan skin gave him a dangerously sensual edge, while his easy smile could transform a tiger into a kitten.
She slumped in her chair.
“Darling, what’s wrong?” Pamela looked from her to the screen.
“Guys that handsome never go for the girl who gets straight A’s and loves to dig up skeletons and pot shards. I’m sorry, but—”
“Nonsense. I’ve already sent him your picture and a brief bio. He’s on board.”
Janel’s skin tingled again. She rubbed her arms to get rid of the goosebumps, eyeing Pamela. What was she, some sort of enchantress? She had to be. Otherwise Janel wouldn’t be considering marrying a complete stranger. “I think I should go.”
“Why?” Pamela asked, surprised.
Where to start? “I think marrying someone for their money is wrong.”
“Which is exactly what you should be thinking.”
“Then why …?”
“You aren’t marrying him for his money, you’re becoming a partner in a marriage corporation. I’m not going to lie to you, being a wife is a job. Back in my younger days, it was considered a viable career.”
“I still feel like it’s using him.”
“Do you feel like you could contribute to this union? Aren’t you smart, capable, organized? Do you have managerial and leadership qualities?”
Janel had gone over her résumé. She was all those things and did have the qualities needed. “Yes.”
“Trust me, you’ll bring as much to this marriage as Nick will.”
“But, why me?”
“I told you I had a good feeling about you.” Pamela winked. “I’ve been at this a long time, longer than BMB, and my feelings are never wrong.”
Contemplating Nick’s picture, Janel thought of the last boyfriend she’d had that was seriously good-looking. Davey Lyman in the eighth grade. Of course, that was before she beat him in the science bee and he decided Cherri Steel and her devil-may-care attitude toward grades was more attractive than Janel and her fascination with history. Janel cringed internally as she asked, “Can I see the picture you sent?”
Pamela clicked away, and soon the photo Pamela had taken with her cell phone at the pancake house popped up. Janel put on a calm mask as she leaned forward to look over the image. Her black yoga pants looked good. Thank you, Warrior II. Her scarf and jacket were cute, if a bit faded. The messy bun and the wisps of hair around her face looked like she’d done them that way on purpose instead of getting caught in the wind. But it was the small smile and hopeful look in her eye that made her feel less self-conscious. Still, even though it wasn’t a bad shot, the girl in that photo was nowhere near the league—heck, she couldn’t even afford to buy a ticket to watch a game in the same league—as the guy in that picture.
“We have an extensive prenuptial agreement signed by both parties that Lisa Marie will go over with you and Mr. Ryburn on Thursday. The wedding will be scheduled for the following Monday morning. Trish will help you pick out something when you shop tomorrow.”
“Wait.” Janel held up her hand. “You’re saying we aren’t going to date. We just get married?”
Pamela rubbed her temple with her fingertips. “Arranged marriages are my specialty. In twenty years of business, I’ve only had three early termination contracts. Many of our brides are married several times over before they retire. It’s a lucrative and fulfilling career.”
Janel thought of the woman she’d seen crying this morning. Was she one of the three? It felt like too much of a coincidence that Janell had stumbled upon the scene.
“Under normal circumstances …” Pamela sat tall and tugged on her jacket. “Well, this isn’t a normal case. But no, there is no dating period, because it’s not a romantic relationship—it’s a job. This isn’t a setup, it’s an interview. Don’t let the job title scare you off.”
Janel nodded. It wasn’t a marriage where “first comes love”—it was business.
“I suggest you spend the weekend packing,” said Pamela.
“Well, yes, you’ll be moving into Mr. Ryburn’s house.”
“I have to live with him?”
“A wife usually lives with her husband, darling. It makes coordinating and establishing solid communication much easier.”
Janel felt sick. “I need to set something straight. I know some women may crawl into bed with strangers, but I am not one of them.” Sheesh, this place was a glorified prostitution ring for the wealthy.
Pamela didn’t miss a beat. “Mr. Ryburn has renovated a personal suite for you. In fact, he has a decorator standing by to finish up so you can move in on Monday; he just needs to know your favorite color.”
Oh, that was different. “Um.” Her own room—wait, her own suite, that didn’t sound so bad. “Purple.” She bit her cheek. With a little jolt of pain came a modest jolt of courage. “So I don’t have to have sex with him?”
Pamela smiled. “There’s no sexual or physical component to the marriage unless both parties agree to it. Think of it as a business marriage: two people contractually coming together to help further one another’s goals. After the first year, we have a review, and if things are going well the contract can be extended. If not, or things change, then we file for a no-contest divorce and the marriage is terminated.
“I want you to bring a list of your goals on Thursday. The three of us will sit down and discuss your goals and his, before you sign the prenup.”
Janel relaxed for the first time since she’d heard the word “bride.”
Pamela turned her computer back around and asked, “Now that you’re up to speed, are you ready to move forward?”
Janel took a moment. She wanted that PhD more than she wanted anything, ever, and that included the ten-speed she’d begged her parents for when she was eleven. When someone had a dream that big, they had to work for it; it doesn’t just fall in their lap. She’d been working, scrimping, and slaving like a dog for the last six years. What was one more year?
But could she marry a stranger, live in his house, and work as his wife? She’d never pictured herself married. At twenty-eight, and with an embarrassingly small amount of experience in the dating world, she still didn’t feel prepared. However, she’d been working since she was sixteen, so she knew how to work hard. She could do this if she thought about it as a job rather than a marriage. What did Pamela say? It was a contract. She was a contracted employee, and she’d be a good one.
“I’ll do it.”
“Great! I’ll send a notice to Mr. Ryburn and schedule the meeting for Thursday at ten.”
As Pamela’s nails clacked across the keyboard, Janel had the horrifying thought that Pamela had just emailed her fiancé. She wondered what sort of man he was. Was he all business or a playboy? And what prompted him to sign up with a marriage broker? He was gorgeous as all get out, and loaded—so what was wrong with him?
Nick Ryburn turned his phone over and tapped the email from Pamela. His heart did a stutter step. He was officially engaged. The magnitude of the situation wasn’t lost on him, and he sank into his cushioned office chair.
Nick tapped his fingers on the desk. He was either an idiot or a genius for agreeing to marry a woman he’d never met. He pulled his chair closer to the desk. There was no use rehashing the mental debate that got him to this point. He’d given his word, and he planned to follow through.
He pressed the intercom button on his phone and could hear the corresponding beep through the open door. He never yelled for his assistant, Brenda, even if the door was open. It just felt rude.
“Can you come in here for a second?”
While he waited, he forwarded the prenup to his lawyer and asked him to go over it.
Brenda came in a moment later, with her ever-present SmartPad resting in the crook of her arm.
“Please shut the door.” Nick waited until she’d settled into the chair across from him before he spoke. “I have news.”
Brenda flipped open the pad and tapped the note-taking app. Poised with her fingers over the keypad, she waited.
“I’m getting married next Monday morning.”
Brenda looked up, but didn’t start typing. “You’re what?”
“I’m getting married.”
Nick jumped from his chair and paced. “I signed up for a matchmaking service. We’re meeting Thursday morning to sign the prenup, and then the wedding will be Monday.”
Brenda continued to stare at him like a fish in a feeding pond. She finally tapped the screen. “Do you need a tux, flowers, or reservations for the honeymoon?”
Nick closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. He needed to tell Brenda the whole story or she’d think he was nuts. “What I am about to tell you is confidential.”
“Sorry, I know you don’t gossip.”
Brenda cleared her throat and moved her hands from the keypad to the arms on the chair as Nick plunged forward.
“Don’t judge me, okay?” He flopped back into his chair. “I’m so tired of going to functions with women who see my money first and me second. They expect gifts, and not little ones either. Half the time they’re crawling all over me in the car on the ride home. It’s false and infuriating.”
Nick ran his hands through his hair. “I’m not looking for a one-nighter. I just want someone I can rely on, someone real. Pamela specializes in bringing two people together who can help further one another’s goals.”
He paused. There was no point revealing his desire for a family. That wasn’t what this marriage was about. For him, it was about putting up a wall between him and the women who thought he could be bought with long legs and a bright smile. According to Pamela, Janel needed funding for her PhD. As far as reasons went for a short-term arranged marriage, that seemed like a good one. How many people worked on campus for a tuition waver or applied for grants to support their academic endeavors? He could understand how Janel would see this as a viable way to fund her education. While the women who chased after him wanted a free ride, Janel was busy working her way through school. And it wasn’t like she was out to trap him into anything. She’d sign the papers and walk away in a year.
“We’ll be married for a year, and then there’s an evaluation. If we want to continue the marriage as is, we can extend it or renegotiate the prenup. If not, we can get a divorce.”
He forced himself to meet Brenda’s shocked gaze. Brenda had been married for fifteen years and claimed they were the best years of her life.
“I’ve looked for someone, I really have, but I’m tired of it all. I hate the games, the cryptic text messages, and the constant emotional drain. It shouldn’t be this hard.
“One of my buddies used this service, and he seems happy with the way things are going. The money chasers leave him alone, and his wife is a wonderful person. So, I decided to look into it. I met the owner, Pamela, one day for lunch, signed a contract and a code of conduct, and now she says she’s found a wife for me.”
If Brenda’s eyebrows got any higher, they’d fall off her forehead. “And you haven’t met her?”
“I’ll meet her on Thursday.”
“I’m only telling you all this because you’re going to have to work with her. She’ll need access to my calendars, both work and personal. I’ll also need her informed about the company meetings when spouses or dates are included in the invitation.”
Brenda’s fingers flew as she took down the instructions.
Nick paused. “I want her to have access to me. If she calls, let me know. If she comes in, I want to see her. I need you to treat her like she’s really my wife and not some glorified intern. If you do that, then the rest of the office will follow.”
“Shall I also buy her flowers on Valentine’s Day and pick up something for Christmas?”
“No … Maybe. I’m not sure how all that’s going to work out.”
“What’s your cover story? How did you meet? And why hasn’t anyone met her before?”
“Ah. Well, I’ll talk to her about that on Thursday. It would be best if we were on the same page.” Nick ran his hand through his hair, cursing under his breath. He needed a haircut. “Will you make time for me to get to the barber tomorrow?”
Brenda smiled knowingly. “I’ll get you the first appointment with Reggie on Thursday morning. You should have time for a shave and a haircut before meeting your …?”
“Fiancée.” Nick slapped the table. “In fact, let’s start letting people know I’m engaged. Just start a little rumor. Then, in a week or so, I’ll tell everyone we eloped.”
Nodding, Brenda said, “Sounds good.” She clicked the sleep button on her pad and stood to leave.
Nick rolled the tension out of his shoulders. He didn’t realize how hard it was to tell someone he was getting married. Married. How could one word hold so much promise and responsibility?
“Thanks, Brenda. You’re good at what you do.”
“And don’t you forget it.”
Nick clicked on the image of Janel to make it fit the screen. She was pretty in a wholesome way he hadn’t seen in a long time. She was more real than he expected, with her hair coming out of the ponytail and her basic attire—she didn’t sparkle or flash. He liked it. She was comfortable with her beauty.
He read her bio again, taking in every little detail, although there weren’t many. She was almost done with her PhD and he’d barely graduated with a bachelor’s. At least she had goals in life. Most of the women he’d dated had him at the top of their to-do list. He realized all that was behind him now, and felt free for the first time in years. Instead of the strain and stress of socializing, he’d have a partner who would guard him from the gold diggers—and Pamela guaranteed her brides weren’t gold diggers; they were honest and hardworking employees.
As she was an equal partner in this contract, though a wife who would share his home, Nick needed to keep a professional distance. If Janel was as beautiful in person as she was in the picture, staying professional could be difficult. He already felt a connection to her.
Another email popped up from Pamela—Janel’s preferred color was purple. He quickly scrolled through his contacts until he found the interior designer’s number.
“Hi. It’s Nick. Hey, you can go ahead and finish that suite. Purple. It’s up to you. Thanks.”
Everything should be ready for Janel to move in on Monday. His house had two suites on the east end. He had his own suite done in tans and natural stone, but no one touched the other suite in the five years he’d lived there. When he met with Pamela and she mentioned needing a room for his wife, he felt like the space was waiting for that exact moment.
It was going to be a busy weekend.
There was a strange thunk under his desk. When he looked, he realized his leg was bouncing. Every time his shoe hit the floor it made a noise. Placing his hand on his knee to hold it still, he wondered, Am I nervous?
He was always a little on edge when signing contracts, but as long as his attorney gave the thumbs up, it was something he got through with a semblance of calm.
This was a good move for him. Not only would it take him off the meat market, it would bring someone into his home. He’d built his dream house and then dreaded walking through the door to find it empty. Someone to come home to—a wife—was going to be very good for him.
If it was so good for him, why was his leg bouncing again?
Janel rolled over, checked the time on her cell phone, and groaned.
It wasn’t that she disliked shopping; it was just that she’d spent hardly any money on herself for years. Fashion didn’t matter when she was sequestered in the library or out in the summer sun on a dig in Utah where no one cared if you wore name-brand clothing.
As she made her bed, she found the copy of The Five Love Languages Tina had handed her yesterday on the way out the door. “Why do I need this?” Janel had asked.
“It’s required reading for all brides and grooms.”
“It talks about the way people receive and give love. We like to use it as a tool to help couples express appreciation.”
Janel had cringed at the idea of being part of a couple because it fit like a size-too-small shirt, Janel pressed the button for the elevator.
“You’ll need to read it before your prenup meeting.”
“No problem.” She doubted she would get much sleep anyway.
Fluffing her pillow, Janel acknowledged that she’d been right about not getting any sleep, but the love book had little to do with it. Instead, resurrecting her files on the Guatemalan dig had kept her reading, planning, and daydreaming about what she was going to do with her new income till the wee hours of the morning.
She resisted the urge to call Professor Ford and tell him that the dig was back on thanks to some private funding she’d lined up. It was better to wait until she was locked into the contract and everything was sure. Besides, it was all a bit much. Mr. Ryburn might be some kind of a jerk, and Janel could end up as Pamela’s fourth early termination contract. Wouldn’t that be a great way to start out on the new job?
If all went well, she could live off her expense account and sock away the salary. She could send in the funds and the paperwork to get approval in the first month. Once she got that, she could buy plane tickets and supplies the next month, and it would continue like that until she was knee-deep in ancient Mayan ruins and done with the “Ryburn account.”
She tucked the required reading into her purse and headed out the door to meet Trish. Upon entering the Billionaire Broker’s building, she spied Trish leaning against the security guard’s desk, looking like a supermodel or superhero with that half pink hair, waiting for her close-up.
Trish linked arms with Janel, spun her right back around, and ushered her outside and into the back seat of a waiting limo. “We have an appointment in fifteen minutes at Salon Lemonnier. Depending on how long it takes them to shave off the rough edges, we’ll order in lunch or grab something quick. Then we’ll spend the rest of the day shopping.”
In no time, Janel was caught in Hurricane Trish. She had her hair wrapped in enough foil to receive images from the Mars Rover, her feet soaked in a pool where little fish ate the dead skin off her heels, one woman buffed her fingernails and she sat taller, no doubt a byproduct of the massage that took six years of grad school tension out of her shoulders.
Trish had other brides scheduled at the salon for “maintenance,” and she took this time to catch up with them, making sure they had their calendars organized and giving them fashion advice for upcoming events.
Janel was introduced to both girls in passing. As she settled into her stylist’s station, she gave the other brides a careful once-over.
The taller one had everything together. Though she closed her eyes to relish the hand massage, she didn’t seem haughty, just happy to have a moment to relax.
The shorter girl had a hint of country twang in her speech, and her blond hair would have made a pageant queen jealous. She talked to her stylist about her little brother, a high school bulldogging champion, saying how much she missed him and was proud of his accomplishments.
Janel’s first impression, that BMB brides were gold diggers, took a hit.
Janel put aside her curiosity about the brides and opened her book. She read through the introduction and was halfway through the quiz to find her own love language when her stylist, Clair, scooted her back toward the sinks to wash out the colorant. Once in the swivel chair, Janel looked for a difference, but her dark hair just looked dark. Clair swung her around and pulled out a pair of scissors.
“I want to keep the length.”
Clair patted her shoulder. “Of course. I’m just going to shape it. How do you feel about bangs?”
“I prefer not to have them.”
“Are you sure? They’re really in right now.”
“I’ve never had good luck with bangs. They’re so high maintenance.”
Clair exchanged a look with Trish. Trish backed up Janel with a shake of her head.
Clair sighed with enough drama to fill a stage and agreed, “No bangs.”
For what seemed like an eternity, Clair pulled and snipped while the pile of hair on the floor grew to alarming thickness. Janel was sure she’d have nothing left. Clair finally set the scissors down and pulled out bottle after bottle of hair products, slathering them all over her scalp and down to the tips.
“You have a great wave and I want to use that.” She pulled out the blow dryer and a hand-shaped diffuser and set to work.
When she was finished, Janel tentatively reached up to touch her hair. “Wow.”
Clair beamed. “Do you like it?”
Turning this way and that in the mirror, Janel took in her luscious waves. She rarely wore her hair down, and when she did, she flat-ironed it smooth. Clair had amped up the body, and the romantic waves, cut in choppy layers, framed her face and cascaded down her back. It was a little shorter than before, but not much.
“Instead of going with one color, I added low lights to your natural shade.”
Trish stepped forward. “I like it. It’s not as dramatic as a solid black would have been, but the waves don’t need the drama. Did you do her eyebrows too?”
“It works with her skin tone.”
“Her eyes really pop, don’t they?”
“Love it,” said Trish. “What do you think?”
Janel pointed at her head and asked, “Can I do this?”
“Sure, it’s all in the diffuser. I’ve put together a basket with the products I used and there’s a blow dryer with the attachments. They’ll have it for you at the front desk.”
[_Blow dry and go—I can totally handle that. _]“Thank you, that was very thoughtful.”
As she handed over her credit card to pay for the morning, she chewed at her lip.
Trish gave her a knowing smile. “That’s what the money’s there for. Don’t fret.” She picked up the basket, all wrapped and tied with a teal ribbon, and headed for the door where their limo waited out front. “Besides, we’re about to set that card on fire.” She grinned mischievously as she handed the basket to the driver who moved to put it in the trunk.
Janel sighed. She hoped Mr. Ryburn’s love language, or “language of appreciation” as she preferred to call it, wasn’t gift giving. If he intended to express his appreciation by showering her with flowers, jewelry, or shopping trips, he’d stress her out.
She chewed her lip again. What if his language was gifts and she’d be required to buy him something?! She had no idea what men wanted. Janel slid into the limo, crossed her legs, and folded her arms. No matter how many times she told herself this was just a job, it felt like a lie. She did the only thing she knew how to do when she was worried: she pulled out her book and studied, determined to pass this test and get the money for the dig if it killed her.
As Janel exited BMB’s elevator the next morning, she tugged at her new teal leather jacket. The short heel on the brown, calf-high boots clicked against the tile, causing Tina to turn in her direction. Janel’s cheeks flushed.
Tina’s eyes widened. “Wowza!”
Pressing her hands to her cheeks, Janel whispered, “It’s too much.”
Trish! This was all Trish’s fault. She’d pulled this outfit together in a small boutique when Janel was too worn out to put up a fuss. A teal leather jacket—for the love! When she’d dressed this morning, she’d felt like a million bucks. Now, waiting to meet a man who really was worth a billion bucks (or more), she felt like an imposter. Panic seized her chest and she let out a small squeak.
Tina rushed around the desk and wrapped Janel in a warm embrace. “It’s going to be okay.”
Janel managed to ask, “Is he here?”
Tina pulled back. She kept a tight grip on Janel’s upper arms, as if her job was to keep prospective brides from running away.
Janel looked around. She couldn’t find the entrance to the stairwell, and since the elevator shut behind her and rushed off to another floor, it wasn’t like she had anywhere to go or hide.
“He’s waiting in Pamela’s office. Listen, if you need a minute, I can bring you a bottled water or something and you can wait here until you’re ready.”
Janel shook her head, releasing the floral smell of some product she’d run through her hair that morning. Lavender. The deep perfume soothed her nerves. She looked down the hall.
“No, I’m ready.” As ready as I’m going to be. Just rip off that Band-Aid and be done with it.
Tina let go of Janel’s arms, and Janel’s stomach jerked. She could use a friendly face in the room. “Can you bring me water anyway? My mouth is really dry this morning.”
“Sure thing. Just go on in and I’ll be right behind you.”
Pressing her lips together to make sure she hadn’t licked away her lip gloss, Janel turned to face her future. Whatever happened in this meeting would mean the difference between achieving her lifelong goal and having to erase the last two years of research and start over.
She knocked lightly on the cracked door before pushing it all the way open and waiting to be invited in.
Nick’s leg bounced as he waited in Pamela’s office. He still had a hard time believing he was engaged. It was a good thing Reggie was a master barber, because Nick’s hands weren’t steady enough to hold a razor today.
Pamela’s phone beeped. “Janel is on her way back,” she said, nodding toward the door as there was a small knock.
Nick stood to meet his bride and almost fell back into his seat at the sight of her. She was stunning. He’d spent every spare moment studying her picture, trying to acclimate to her beauty, but she still managed to take his breath away. Her hair was different, wavy, and it seemed like there was more of it, but maybe that was just the new style.
“Hello, darling. Come in, come in.” Pamela moved to take Janel by the hand. “I’d like you to meet Mr. Nicolas Ryburn.”
Nick offered to shake hands. When they touched, he had the strangest urge to turn her wrist and kiss just above her knuckles. Mentally shaking himself, he withdrew his hand. This wasn’t going to be that kind of marriage, and he needed to stay professional if this was going to work. One day, he’d have a woman to romance and the family he’d always hoped for. But for now, he needed time away from the singles’ scene.
Janel pressed her lips and held eye contact.
“Nick, this is Janel Fendrick.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” she said.
“The pleasure’s mine.” Nick realized it was a true pleasure to finally shake the hand of the woman who had been on his mind for days. Besides staring at her photo, he’d dodged questions about his engagement and fiancée. Finally speaking to her would take a lot of stress out of his life.
“Shall we get started?” Pamela gestured to the two seats in front of her desk.
Nick put his hand on the back of Janel’s seat and pulled it away from the desk just a bit. He kept his hand there until she’d seated herself.
Janel smiled up at him, and he noticed that her blue-gray eyes, accented with charcoal liner, held a vulnerability that made him want to hold her close and slay dragons.
Why didn’t he notice them in the picture? She adjusted her glasses, and he realized he hadn’t been able to make out her eyes in the photo because her glasses had a slight glare. He tore himself away before things became awkward, and took his seat.
“We have a few things to go over before your meeting with Lisa Marie.” Pamela pulled out a black leather book and flipped open to the first page. “You two will need to pick rings.”
Nick leaned forward to get a better look at the five rings and their descriptions on the page. The rings were included in the fee he paid for the service, so the prices weren’t listed. They were big, “notice-me” rings with real diamonds and expensive metals.
“Which one do you like?” he asked Janel.
Janel rubbed her ring finger. “Are they all that size?”
Pamela tipped her head. “These are the rings included in the wedding package. If you want something different, we could send the two of you over to the jeweler’s.”
Nick tried to hide his irritation. The rings weren’t cheap. Pamela had assured him they didn’t charge overhead on the bands, and said he was welcome to pick something out himself and bring it in for the wedding. Choosing a ring for a woman he’d never met was not Nick’s idea of an enjoyable afternoon, so he had signed for the invoice and tried to forget about it.
If Janel was the type that wanted big jewelry—and her earrings indicated that she liked big and shiny pieces—then they might be in trouble.
“No, they’ll be fine.” She continued to rub her finger, which was turning red from the abuse.
Nick sighed. “What is it?”
Janel shifted in her seat. “I work in a lab with a lot of dust, and sometimes I’m elbow deep in plaster. I’m afraid I’d get something that showy dirty, or lose it in a mold.” She shrugged apologetically. “It happened to my professor once. We had to disassemble the display and redo the whole thing.”
The tension in Nick’s shoulders melted away. She didn’t want something bigger; she wanted something smaller, more functional. He turned back to the page. “What about this one? It has a band and the stone setting. That way you could wear the band at work and put on the stone to go out.”
“I didn’t notice that before. It’s got gold and platinum, so I could wear it with anything. I like it.”
Pamela beamed as she flipped the page. “Okay, how about your ring, Nick?”
He turned to Janel. “What do you think?”
“It’s your ring.”
“I know, but I’d like your opinion.”
She looked closely at each ring, then flipped back and forth between the women’s and men’s pages. “How about this one? It looks like they belong together.”
The ring was wide and flat with a band of gold inlaid against platinum. The design was simple, yet elegant. It was the one he would have picked. He took it as a sign and nodded at Pamela.
“Now, I need to know which love language you speak and hear.”
It took Nick a moment to realize she was talking about that book he’d had to read. He’d been embarrassed by his test results. What kind of a man ties his love language score between quality time and physical touch? How needy did that make him sound?
He’d spent a couple days contemplating the test results, and determined that his best memories growing up were the times his family just hung out together. That explained the quality time, but the physical touch one still made him blush and wonder at the validity of the test. He’d had plenty of women use physical affection to get at him, and it always turned him off.
At any rate, he wasn’t going to embarrass his bride by telling her he required physical contact to feel appreciated in the marriage. Janel shouldn’t think he was buying his way into her bed. Even though Pamela assured him that Janel knew that he knew the bedroom boundaries outlined in the marriage contract, Nick didn’t want to approach the off-limits area.
Curious about her results, he gestured to Janel, who blushed. “I was a tie between acts of service and physical touch,” Janel intoned.
Pamela typed that in and then looked at Nick.
If the deep blush making its way through the smattering of freckles across Janel’s cheeks was any indication of her embarrassment, then she was brave to share her full results. Maybe hearing his would ease her discomfort.
“Quality time and physical touch,” he said, grateful that his voice held steady.
He was rewarded for his bravery with a smile of gratitude. Janel was honest, even when it was hard for her. He liked that.
They talked for a few minutes about their schedules. Besides her teaching and the time she’d need to write her thesis and prepare for a dig, she was pretty free.
“I hope you won’t be bored with me. I work a lot,” he said.
Janel laughed, and Nick found that he enjoyed the way the sound made his chest warm. “It doesn’t sound like much,” she said, “but I’ve got a lot of research to do. I think I’ll be fine.”
Pamela pressed her palms together. “That wraps things up here. I’ll take you two down to Lisa Marie’s office and you can sign the prenup. After that, we’re good until Monday.”
She turned to Janel. “Are you packed up? The movers will be there at seven on Monday morning. You’ll have time to give them instructions before you leave for the ceremony.”
“Thanks. That will help out a lot.”
“Is her suite ready?”
He nodded. “The paint is drying as we speak. The furniture should be there later today, and the designer was going to work Saturday on the finishing touches.”
“Sounds like everything is in place. I’ll see you two on Monday. Don’t be late.”
Nick held the door open for Janel as they walked down the hall. He almost placed his hand on the small of her back to guide her into Lisa Marie’s office, but caught himself just in time. He looked down at his hand. It was an inconsequential gesture that he’d done a million times when escorting a women to a table at a restaurant. So why did he hesitate now?
Did it mean more because this woman would be his wife?
He’d have to watch himself. With her living just across the hall … well, the space between their rooms was more like private sitting rooms what with the couches and all. They could become too familiar and lose the professional barriers they’d need if this was going to work. He steeled himself to proceed with caution.
Janel tried to keep her breathing steady as they entered Lisa Marie’s office. Nick was better-looking in person than he was in his picture, a picture she hadn’t been able to get out of her mind last night. With the way she concentrated on it, she could have picked him out in a police lineup in a matter of seconds.
He was clean shaven today, and she could smell the deep scent of sandalwood. He also looked like he’d just had a haircut. Though she appreciated the effort, she wondered what he looked like tussled.
Slow down there, girl. This is your new coworker, not your boyfriend.
Janel took her seat as Nick held the chair for her again. It was nice to be with a man who treated her with respect. She found herself responding like a duchess. It was a side of herself she’d never really seen before, but then, she’d never been with a man who treated her like a lady. The men she’d dated were polite, just not truly attentive.
Two sets of identical papers were placed before them, and they were directed to initial or sign almost every page as Lisa Marie explained each clause.
Basically, she wasn’t entitled to any of his money or other assets, ever. Even if he died while they were married, the money would go to his mother as stipulated in his will. Janel was fine with that. The only money she wanted was her salary, and that would be waiting in her savings account when the year was up.
She refused to look at Nick as Lisa Marie went over the physical relationship clause. She signed quickly to get that part over with. It wouldn’t have been so uncomfortable if she didn’t find herself attracted to her fiancé. She’d worked with other men she found attractive, and as long as they didn’t encourage those feelings, they would get along just fine.
Halfway through the stack, there was a knock on the door.
“Sorry,” said Tina as she came in. “I thought you all might like something to drink.”
As she handed a cold plastic water bottle to Janel, she raised one eyebrow. Janel gave her a quick nod. Things were going well. Nick took a water and Lisa Marie asked for coffee.
“You know what? I think we could all use a quick breather. I’ll grab my own coffee and be back in a minute.”
Lisa Marie walked out behind Tina, leaving Janel alone with her fiancé. Nick twisted the lid to his water back and forth. He stared at the western painting on the opposite wall, but his eyes weren’t focused.
“You look bored,” she said.
“Sorry. It’s not your company, I assure you. I spent an hour and a half listening to my lawyer go over this thing yesterday. It’s waterproof. You’ll be fine, too. I asked him to look at your end of things.”
Had he noticed how closely she listened? How many questions she asked? She tried not to look self-serving in front of him, but this was all new to her. And she couldn’t afford to pay an attorney and then walk away if all this wasn’t what she wanted. Next to Nick, Janel was the poor country mouse, and she felt every bit of her dowdiness wash over her.
Nick tapped his fingers on his stack of papers and grimaced.
Janel’s stomach dropped. Was he having second thoughts? “What?” she blurted.
“Phil, my attorney. He’s a great guy, don’t get me wrong. He gave me a half-hour lecture on the sanctity of marriage.”
Janel looked down at her hands. “Oh.”
“Is this your first marriage?”
She nodded, her nerves doing strange things to her stomach, her throat, and her brain, all at the same time.
“Did anyone try and talk you out of it?”
Janel groaned. “No one knows. My parents are going to flip, and I mean F.L.I.P. flip.” She covered her mouth with her hands. She shouldn’t have said that. It wasn’t very professional to announce to your fiancé, three days before the wedding, that your parents didn’t know you were getting married.
Nick chuckled. “They aren’t the only ones. My mom will have a canary.”
Janel let out a silent prayer of gratitude and patted his arm. “At least you told your lawyer.”
“And my secretary.”
She threw her arms in the air. “Great, you’re two up on me.”
When Nick laughed, the sound resonated within her and chased away the icy dread. Nick had a deep voice, one that commanded attention but was gentle. His laughter went right to her bones and made her smile. She realized that spending time with him at their weekly planning meetings wouldn’t be a problem; she was going to enjoy it very much.
“Are you inviting anyone to the ceremony?” she asked.
Nick cleared his throat. “I wasn’t planning on it.”
“Me neither. Let’s just keep it low-key.”
Lisa Marie came back in with a steaming cup of coffee the color of dirt, and Janel took a sip of her water. As time went on and they signed more papers than it took to buy a small island, she felt more at peace with her decision to go through with this.
Nick was a great guy, they seemed to get along well, and he wasn’t going to make a big deal about meeting her family.
Maybe she should cancel her standing Sunday dinner with her parents this week. She couldn’t seem to come up with a viable excuse, though. She knew she couldn’t tell them she needed her beauty sleep because she was getting married in the morning, and she couldn’t say she was sick because her mom would just haul her home for some motherly attention and a couple days of R&R. Nope, she was going to have to suck it up and eat dinner with her parents and somehow not tell them she was getting married the next day.
Saturday night, Nick left the charity dinner early. Staying to socialize and flirt didn’t seem right, now that he was engaged. He rubbed his tired eyes. Just a couple more days and his life would be different. Attending events used to be fun. Had he changed that much in the last few years? Did he forget how to party? No, he knew perfectly well how to end up being rolled into his car, driven home by someone much more sober, and woken up by a raging headache the next morning. The whole situation didn’t sound as entertaining as it used to.
[_Maybe I’m getting old. What’s next, a midlife crisis? _]He rubbed his thumb along his jaw. This whole engaged-to-a-stranger situation could be considered a midlife crisis.
He pulled into the five-car garage that smelled like concrete sealant and shut off the engine. Next to his parking spot was an empty space reserved for Janel’s car. He pulled the keys out and took off his seatbelt. Technically, he wasn’t middle-aged, so marrying Janel and her stunning eyes could not be a crisis.
Nodding once, he made his way into the house. The mudroom was in perfect order. He’d have to let the household staff know there would be one more person living there and that they would need to clean her suite as well as his. One more thing to add to his growing to-do list. A wife was a lot of work.
He slipped off his shoes and left them next to the bench before heading up to his suite. There was a strange rustling noise coming from Janel’s room, and Nick wondered if the painters had left a window open for ventilation. There were often people in his home when he wasn’t there, but they usually cleared out by the time he pulled in.
He peered through the open door to see Erica, his interior designer, taking the plastic off a new pillow and slipping it into a pillowcase. Her chin-length hair shook as she puffed it between her palms. His curiosity got the better of him and he stepped into the room.
Erica jumped and let out a scream.
Nick put up his hands. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Erica pressed her hand to her heart and smiled. “I’m sure I’ll miss those five years you just took off my life, but if you say you like the room then I’ll forgive you.”
“How come you’re here? Doesn’t Brad take you out on Saturday night?” One of the reasons Nick had hired Erica was that she was happily married to one of his oldest friends.
Erica grabbed another pillow and started the process all over again. She talked loudly, so he could hear her over the crackling plastic. “He’s out of town. I was happy to have something to do tonight.”
Nick took a minute to observe the room. The walls were a light gray with white trim. Erica had a window seat built with bookshelves along one entire wall. The four-poster bed was draped with purple. He reached out to touch the fabric and found that it slipped through his fingers like warm water. The bedspread was a purple base with gold and silver thread woven through. There were at least seven pillows in color-coordinated pillowcases or covers.
“It’s tall.” The mattress came up to his stomach. If he remembered right, and he was pretty sure he could remember almost everything about Janel, the top of her head was at his eye level, which would make her three inches or so shorter than him. With a mattress this high, Janel would have to jump to get into bed each night.
“It’s a top-of-the line pillow top. Your guests will sleep on a cloud.”
“That’s good.” Erica not only thought of style and design, she’d contemplated Janel’s comfort as well.
There was a desk on the same wall as the door to the bathroom that led to the walk-in closet. He walked in to inspect the tile and fixtures since the last time he’d seen it everything was white sheetrock.
The area was light, whimsical even, compared to the dark colors and natural stone in his room. He liked the glass tiles in the shower. Teal and purple tiles were scattered randomly through the clear tiles on a white background. The dark cabinets were a nice contrast to the light colors.
The closet was filled with organizational tools. There were plenty of empty shelves and closet rods, as well as a shoe rack and a belt organizer. A box of wooden hangers sat in one corner. He went over, ripped the plastic off of a set, and hung them on the nearest rod. He did the next set, placing it on a different rod, and then continued till the large box was empty. Placing all the plastic in the box, he took it out to Erica, who was unwrapping a gilded, full-length floor mirror.
“I have to admit,” she said as she stuffed the bubble wrap in the box he brought out, “I was surprised you picked purple.”
“I didn’t. My fiancée did.” Nick grinned.
Erica let out a squeal and clapped her hands. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“We’re eloping on Monday. I was trying to keep it under wraps.”
“So, are you two moving over to this room? I wish I’d known. I would have added a few more masculine touches. Maybe I can get something over here tomorrow.”
“No. I like it just the way it is. Besides, I want her to feel comfortable.”
Erica swatted his arm. “I can’t believe you.” She looked around the room, tipping her head this way and that, before nodding once. “Yep. I’m officially done.”
“It looks amazing.”
Erica hefted the box of garbage onto her hip.
Nick protested, “I can carry that out.”
“Nonsense. It’s light as a feather. Have a great night, and congratulations.”
“Thanks.” Nick walked over to the bed and ran his hand along the brocade pillow. Erica was good. The nightstand coordinated with the bed, but it didn’t match the desk. It gave character to the room. He sat down on the window seat and looked Janel’s room over once more.
The title was both exciting and disappointing.
She had been nervous about the prenup, and he wished he’d told her earlier that it protected her as much as it protected him. She’d relaxed after he mentioned Richard had looked things over. That was good; it showed a bit of trust on her part. They also seemed to be on the same page as far as telling people about their marriage. His mom would be furious. However, she was on the other side of the country, visiting his brother and his wife and adoring her first grandchild. With any luck, she’d never know the marriage took place.
He looked forward to having Janel move in. Their first meeting went well; perhaps a little too well, as he found himself attracted to her in a way he hadn’t planned on. He supposed that’s where the disappointment came in. He couldn’t pursue her romantically—well, technically he could, but they’d just met and she wasn’t expecting to be swept off her feet. But with a woman so lovely sleeping less than a hundred feet away, not pursuing her was going to be difficult.
It was for the best though. His heart was tired, worn out from falling for women who only saw him as a notch on their designer belts. They played games.
Nick rubbed his eyes. Was he playing a game? He’d had his moments of doubt, wondering if this would really work out or if he’d end up feeling trampled on by the end of the year. He hoped not. As Nick had learned when he’d started his business, sometimes hope was all you had to go on.
Janel woke Monday morning to someone banging on her apartment door. She glanced at the clock and groaned. She’d overslept. Who oversleeps on their wedding day?
She pushed the sheets back and reached for her robe. Wrapping her robe around her shoulders and tying it with a jerk, she opened the door just as Trish was about to unleash one of the overly muscular movers to break it down.
Trish walked in, took one look at Janel, and began issuing orders. Her hyper yet controlled energy filled the space and set Janel on edge. “You have seven minutes to shower.”
Janel ran to the bathroom, slamming the door behind her. After their shopping trip together, she knew that when Trish said seven minutes, she meant seven minutes. The woman was a human stopwatch.
Trish gave instructions to the crew. Thankfully Janel had packed her wedding suit, shoes, and accessories in a garment bag last night, and hung the bag on the back of the bathroom door.
“Two minutes!” Trish called through the door. Janel rinsed the face wash off and jumped out.
“Here.” Trish cracked the door and shoved her arm through. She held out a clean set of panties and a bra. Janel muttered her thanks and made sure the door was firmly shut before letting her towel drop to the floor.
Two seconds later, as Janel tried to shimmy into the panties while her legs were still wet, Trish’s arm appeared with a pair of yoga pants and a t-shirt. “One minute.”
Janel was certain that meant whether she had the clothes on or not.
They were five minutes late to her appointment and Clair was in a tizzy.
“Did you moisturize this morning?”
Trish folded her arms. “She overslept.”
“I used that special face cleaner stuff you gave me.” Janel felt the need to defend herself. This was her wedding day. Yeah, she wanted to look good, but wasn’t sleep important? “At least, I won’t have bags under my eyes.”
Clair gave her hair an extra tug as she squeezed out the excess water from her super quick shampoo, but didn’t say anything else about being late.
Janel worked to calm her racing heart. This was her wedding day, and she had no idea how she was supposed to feel. The idea that she didn’t know how to be a wife had her fingers drumming every surface they could find. Did the other brides have training?
Trish walked by as her brows were being shaped, did a double take, and pressed Janel’s hand flat against the seat. “No cold feet now,” she said with a reassuring smile.
Janel felt the tears build and it had nothing to do with losing a few eyebrows. “I feel so unprepared.”
“I understand this has all happened for you at light speed. It’s not usually like this. I promise you, I’m not going to drop you at the wedding and run. I’ll be there to train you as the week goes on. Okay?”
Janel flipped over her hand and gave Trish’s a light squeeze. It was just a job. “Okay.”
“Are you going to make it through this? You look a little pale.”
Guatemala. Guatemala. “I’ll be fine.”
“I’ll find you some juice. You probably need a little sugar.”
After being filed, buffed, blow-dried, and waxed, Janel was ushered into a changing room, where everything she needed to get dressed was laid out. Trish must have unpacked her bag.
She hurried through the process, barely checking to make sure her button-up blouse was tucked in before throwing on the jacket. She blew out of the changing room and stopped short, as everyone in the salon had gathered to see her finished look. Tugging at her jacket sleeve, she asked, “How do I look?”
Trish walked over and took her hand. Gone was the harried drill sergeant. Instead, Trish moved with deliberate steps to the long mirror on the far wall, taking Janel with her.
Janel hardly dared to look up, but when she did, she smiled. Her hair and makeup were stunning: not too much volume, but enough to consider the curls romantic, and not enough makeup to draw attention, but enough to enhance her eyes and fill out her lips. The jacket fit perfectly, accentuating her trim waistline. The suit had come in black pinstripe, cream, or purple. She’d decided on the purple, because the black looked too much like something you’d see in a boardroom, and the cream looked too much like what a bride would wear. The purple was a nice combination of both—just like her marriage.
Clair appeared beside her and pulled a few curls over her shoulders to frame her face.
Janel hugged her. “Thank you.”
The ladies clapped and giggled as Trish ushered her out the door.
Before she knew it, Janel was walking into Pamela’s office to get married, and Nick was looking at her like she was the only person in the room. Her butterflies from earlier returned, times ten. She felt her face flush and thought that if anything, Trish would be happy that she wasn’t pale-faced anymore.
Nick couldn’t breathe. The moment Janel walked in, looking as beautiful as any woman he’d ever seen, he lost the ability to pull air in through his lungs. He blinked, hoping to clear his head and restart his operating system. Harrison nudged his arm, and Nick looked down to stare at the flowers in his hand rather than his fiancée.
He crossed the room to intercept Janel to have a second with her before the justice of the peace started.
He had to clear his throat to find his voice. “I know this isn’t a traditional wedding, but it’s traditional for the groom to buy the flowers.” He held out the bouquet of white lilies. “I thought you might like a bouquet.”
Janel took the flowers and closed her eyes as she breathed in their intoxicating scent. She looked up from lowered lashes. “Thank you. They’re perfect.”
That moment, that one little moment, was worth the hours he’d spent last night tossing and turning, debating if he should give them to her or not. His heart beat wildly in his chest. He was on the verge of marrying this beautiful woman, and he was shocked to realize he felt happy about it, really happy. He hadn’t expected the amount of anticipation that raced through him.
“We’re ready.” Pamela waved everyone closer as the officiator, dressed in a bad brown suit and sporting a comb-over, took his place in front of the desk.
Nick offered his arm to Janel, who only hesitated a second before slipping her hand over it. He led her to the front, with Trish on her left and Harrison on his right acting as official witnesses, ring bearers, and maid of honor and best man
Even with the ring exchange, the ceremony took less than five minutes.
The justice of the peace refrained from the traditional you-may-kiss-the-bride line. Nick reeled from being pronounced a husband as Harrison shook his hand and congratulated him. Trish hugged them both, and soon they were standing in front of the receptionist’s desk getting their picture taken. He was sure that once the photos were delivered, he’d look like a man who had a cold glass of water dumped on his head.
Pamela congratulated them one last time and then headed back to her office. Harrison slapped him on the back, and soon they were left with Trish, who hugged Janel again.
“Take today and get settled in. I’ll be over bright and early to help you get oriented.”
Trish tucked them in the elevator and gave them a wave as the door closed, leaving them truly alone for the first time.
Though Nick had looked forward to taking Janel home and seeing her settled in her new room, he suddenly felt nervous about the whole thing. What if she hated it? He didn’t know if it was her style … Really, he didn’t know anything about her. He should have waited for her to pick things out instead of rushing forward. This all happened so fast, as in five-minute-marriage-ceremony fast, and he wanted to slow things down.
“Would you like to stop for lunch?” he asked.
“Sure.” Janel played with one of the leaves in the bouquet. Her eyes weren’t focused on anything in the elevator.
“Penny for your thoughts?”
Janel’s head snapped up, “I’m not having second thoughts.”
“Wait, what?” His hand went out to her elbow, but he didn’t make contact. “You’re having second thoughts?”
“No.” Janel adjusted her glasses and looked at the floor, where Nick was sure his heart had fallen. “It just hit me. We’re married.”
“Married,” she said again as if he hadn’t heard her. Or, perhaps, she hadn’t processed it yet, like when a computer is loading a web page real slow, so the user clicks on the link a couple times hoping to hurry it along.
“I know.” He pointed at his ring.
She looked down at the wedding set on her left hand, looking every bit the woman admiring the ring that represented her matrimonial hopes. But instead of having a bright, happy face, she looked concerned.
Taking a deep breath, she shook out her hand, threw back her shoulders, and gave him an honest smile. “Sorry. I feel like I’ve been on a high speed train since I woke up. I don’t think I even ate breakfast.”
The elevator doors opened to the lobby. As they made their way through the lunch crowd, Nick wondered if she was too nervous to eat this morning. Perhaps she was more upset about the changes taking place than he realized. After all, she was the one who had to move. He handed his ticket to the valet and asked, “Why didn’t you have breakfast?”
He threw his head back and laughed. So much for nerves. He’d probably worried more over the flowers than she worried about moving.
“It’s not funny. Trish almost broke my door down, and Erica about pulled my hair out for being late to the salon. I didn’t dare mention food for fear of what the makeup artist would do.”
The valet arrived with his car, and another valet opened Janel’s door while Nick handed off a tip.
As they slipped on their seatbelts, Nick took a moment to appreciate her long legs in the pencil skirt and the way her curls fell across her shoulders.
She caught him looking and asked, “What?”
As he shifted the car in gear, he threw caution to the wind. He caught and held her gaze. “For the record, skipping breakfast was worth it.”
Her cheeks flushed as she ducked her head and tucked her hair behind her ear.
Nick pulled into traffic and thought, That blush was worth it, too.
Lunch went by too quickly as Janel and Nick traded brief life stories. The more Janel learned about Nick, the more she respected his position in life.
After college, he’d started his computer business while working nights to pay the bills. He struggled for a few years before he finally had an idea that took off in a big way. He used the new cash flow to hire good employees and grow the business. Now, he spent most of his time making contacts and managing departments.
As they pulled into his long driveway, Janel’s hand flew to her chest. The house was huge! Easily as big as the whole apartment building that housed her studio rental.
Nick parked out front and came around to open her door. “Normally, I’d pull into the garage, but who wants to start a tour with the mudroom?”
If the house was this impressive, Janel could only imagine how beautiful the mudroom would be. She would’ve loved to start there, especially if the mudroom led to a kitchen. She’d been cooking over a hot plate for two years, and the idea of having an oven thrilled her.
Nick typed in a security code and opened the door. “I gave you a code already. I hope you don’t mind.”
“What is it?”
Nick gave her a small smile. “It’s today’s date.”
He picked their wedding date as her code. It was sweet. Inside, Janel wanted to melt like one of those women starring in a romantic comedy. On the outside, she gave him a small smile and said, “That should make it easy to remember.”
Janel walked into the center of the entryway and spun in a slow circle. Two stories above their heads hung an amazing chandelier with dozens of lights. Off to the right was a library, and to the left was an office. Both rooms used dark wood for the shelves and furniture, and both had wood floors covered in beautiful Persian rugs, as well as overstuffed furniture that Janel knew she’d be comfortable in for hours on end. The office had a desk with lion’s paws and a computer. There were wall sconces, can lights, and small lamps here and there. The rooms could be bright and welcoming or low-lit and intimate.
Surrounded by so much wealth and quality, Janel wondered how impressed she was supposed to act. She’d told him over lunch that she grew up middle-class, and suddenly she felt self-conscious for reasons she couldn’t put her finger on – and she’d only been in the entryway. She decided there was no harm in complimenting him on his home, as she could see by the hopeful expression in his eyes that he wanted her to like it.
“Do you spend much time in here?” She pointed to the library.
“Not as much as I’d like. I usually end up spending my time in there.” He pointed to the office as his cell phone rang. “Speaking of work, can you hang on just a minute?”
Janel wandered into the library to browse through the books while Nick rushed into the office and opened the laptop. She ran her fingers along the spines, testing the textures of the old covers against her skin. Many titles were classics, though she found a few mysteries and one or two history books as well. With the rooms open across the hallway, she caught snippets of Nick’s conversation, though she tried not to listen in.
“Can you put them off? No, don’t tell them. I’ll take care of it.”
A large book on the coffee table caught her eye. She knelt on the soft rug and lifted the cover to find a stunning photograph of an ancient Mayan temple. Flipping through pages full of breathtaking images, she felt a thrill of excitement. In less than a year, she would be standing at the top of a temple much like the one on the page.
“Find anything you like?” Nick asked as he entered the room.
“These photos are amazing.”
He stood near her, and she tipped her head back to look at him. “Have you looked through here?” she asked.
“I haven’t had a chance. It just got here this morning.”
“What do you mean?”
He squatted next to her. “Your bio said your dissertation was on the Mayan pyramids. I wanted to see what you were interested in, so I ordered it Friday. When it arrived, I didn’t have time to do much more than unwrap it and set it here.”
Janel was stunned. She couldn’t think of the appropriate thing to say. No one had ever made an effort to understand her work before. Her parents were supportive and would listen when she was excited about something, but they never went out of their way to learn more about her chosen field of specialization. The few boyfriends she’d had were caught up in their own studies. She looked back down at the book and hoped he didn’t see the moisture in her eyes. It was just a book, but it meant more than that.
“I’m touched. Thank you.”
It was quiet for a moment. Then Nick’s phone chirped. He glanced down and sighed. “I hate to do this, but I have an important client who insists on meeting with me this afternoon. Will you be okay if I head to the office for a while?”
Janel blinked. She didn’t think much about what would happen after the marriage, but she kind of planned on them spending the day together. Plus, he hadn’t finished giving the tour. She didn’t even know where the bathroom was. As far as jobs went, the orientation was sorely lacking. Of course, if she was going to make this work, she’d have to fly solo eventually. “I’ll be fine.”
Nick held out his hand to help her off the floor. When she stood up, she felt a slight squeeze, and he didn’t let go right away. Nick was like an electric blanket, she realized: every time she touched him, warmth spread through her body.
“There’s one thing I have to show you before I go.” It was only when he went to move that he noticed he was still holding her hand. He dropped it like a kid caught stealing a cookie, and motioned for her to follow him. Walking up the circular grand staircase to the loft on the second floor, Janel did her best not to peek or gawk at the home.
“This is the private living area. I rope off the staircase when I throw a party. No one but you and I, and the maids, will come up here.”
The balcony at the top overlooked the gathering room. It reminded Janel of the books she read about old English parties and children allowed to spy from the top of the stairs as guests entered the home. From this high, she could see everything that went on in the large room below. Several sets of couches or chairs divided the room into different zones, which no doubt made it easy for people to gather in small groups and mingle. A black grand piano stood in one corner.
“Do you play?” she asked.
“No. I hire a pianist when needed.”
Of course you do.
They walked through a private sitting room. The wall directly opposite the balcony had a built-in entertainment center, a big screen TV, and a set of shelves full of contemporary titles. Several magazines were fanned out on the glass-topped coffee table, and a huge leather couch faced the TV. The room was smaller than the great room downstairs, but it was anything but small. Nick moved to a door on the left and placed his hand on the doorknob.
“This will be your room.” He swung the door open and stepped back, so she could go in first.
Stopping just inside the door, Janel pressed her hands to her face. The room was beautiful. She had her own set of bookshelves waiting for her books, which sat in four boxes nearby. The window seat was a treasure aged to perfection, with beveled edges and an overstuffed cushion.
Everything was beautiful, but it was the bed that caught her imagination. Big enough to hold a family of bears, the fabric swags and the mountain of pillows brought out a desire to jump in and never get up. While the room had a feminine feel with the deep purple accents, it was elegant and mountains above the dorm-like living she came from.
She walked over to the bed and brushed her fingers across the velvety pillow.
“Do you like it?”
She looked up to see him standing in the doorway with his back straight. “It’s perfect,” she whispered.
Nick’s shoulders relaxed. He came into the room and went to the desk, where a laptop sat, exactly like the one in his office downstairs, along with a pile of sticky notes and several expensive-looking pens. “I’d like you to take over managing the household staff.”
“Two maids, a chef, a gardening crew, a plant guy, a pool company does the hot tub, and there’s a list of contractors I’ve worked with in the past if any repairs pop up. All the information is in here.” He clicked open a file. “You can read through it and let me know if you have any questions. I gave everyone the day off, so you could get settled in without a bunch of people around.”
Janel nodded. “That’s very thoughtful of you, thanks.” She glanced at the computer screen, where a long list of spreadsheets and Word documents stared back. Let the work begin.
Nick’s phone chirped. He pulled it out and glanced at the screen. “I really have to go. You can wander through the house and make yourself at home.” He waved his hand toward the boxes near the wall. “Unpack, grab some food. Whatever you want.” He put his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels.
Janel went to the boxes and ripped the tape off the top of the closest one. When he didn’t leave, she asked, “Was there something else?”
Nick ran his hand through his hair, messing it up just enough that he looked handsomely unpolished. Her older brother worked hard to get that look, and Nick came by it naturally.
“I’m going.” He flipped around. She watched as his long strides took him to the door, where he paused and turned back to her. His forehead creased as he hesitated. “Bye?”
She laughed and shooed him out the door. “I’ll be fine. Go.”
He ducked his head and walked out. She waited until she heard his footsteps disappear down the stairs before she went back to her boxes. Looking around her room, she was amazed at the care he’d taken to help her feel comfortable in his house … her house … their house? Well, it wasn’t really her house, as her name wasn’t on the mortgage. And according to the papers she’d signed, it would never be hers officially.
She looked at the bed. Still, this was her space, at least for the next year, and she loved it. The colors were perfect and she’d felt at home the moment she walked in. She paused as she placed a textbook on the middle shelf. If it was her room, then why did it feel empty when Nick left?
Nick cringed as Brenda came through the door preceded by the smell of Chinese takeout. As she arranged it on the buffet table on the far end of the room, he checked his phone for messages or texts. He’d put it on silent before entering the meeting, but he wondered if Janel was waiting on him to eat dinner and if she’d call to find out what was taking him so long.
It wasn’t like they had a history of sharing meals besides lunch this afternoon, or that she’d miss him. He just felt this pull to be at home with her. Perhaps it was because his father rarely missed dinner with the family. It was one of the ways his parents built a solid foundation for him and his brothers. Not that Nick’s current situation was anything like the marriage his parents shared. Still, that pull wouldn’t let him relax.
Then there was that strange feeling he got as he left this afternoon. Usually he thrived on work; there was nothing more exciting, captivating, or downright interesting than development meetings like this one that focused on a chip that would allow a gaming system to coordinate with 3D televisions. Only this time, when he got the call, he wanted to blow the whole thing off and show Janel around his home … their home.
Blowing off his biggest client would have been poor business. Blowing off Mr. James would have meant an end to business. Whatever circumstances had brought the executive into town, they also meant Mr. James wouldn’t be back for a month. It was now or never, and Nick couldn’t afford “never.”
His mind wandered back to the house. He was proud of the floor plan, having worked tirelessly with the architect to create a home that would accommodate a family as well as entertain large numbers. That’s why there were two rooms at the top of the stairs. Janel’s was actually the master bedroom. His room could be converted into two bedrooms, one for a boy and one for a girl. Then the family would have private space, away from all the distractions and noises, where they could just be together and do things like play board games or watch cartoons on Saturday mornings.
As much of a playground as the rest of the house was, and he’d wanted it that way for when his kids were teenagers, the upstairs was his nest and he never let anyone but the maids up there … until Janel.
The think-tank group lined up at the buffet.
Nick pulled Brenda aside. “Will you call Janel and let her know I won’t be back until late?”
“My—” He looked around to see who was listening. Charli had her head bent over the Mo Shu Pork, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t hear. “—wife. Janel.”
“I don’t have her number,” Brenda whispered.
“It’s in my contacts list.”
“Right. I’ll let her know.”
Nick took his place in the back of the line. When he settled in his seat with a full plate, Charli asked in a voice loud enough for the whole room to hear, “When did you get married?”
Nick felt his face burn. Never ones for subtlety—indeed, she’d thrown herself at him on multiple occasions—women like Charli were one of the reasons he’d contacted Pamela in the first place. He was thankful he and Charli only had to work together when their companies collaborated on a project. Otherwise she was safely on the other side of the city.
“Charli, you’ve got to be joking.” Darrin slapped his hand on the table and laughed.
Nick cleared his throat. “Actually, I was married recently.”
“I thought I spotted some new hardware.” Charli brushed her fingers over his wedding ring, and Nick had an urge to douse his hand in sanitizer. He settled for wiping his hands with his napkin.
“Are you serious?” Darrin pointed his chopsticks at Nick. “If you went and got married without letting me throw a bachelor party, I am going to be majorly ticked off.”
Nick held up his hands as if to say, “What do you want me to do about it?”
“It’s not too late. We could do it this weekend.” Darrin perked up like a horse at the starting gate.
Nick smiled. He could only imagine the type of bachelor party Darrin would throw, and he knew full well it wasn’t the way he wanted to start a marriage. He said, “Sorry, man, the ring is on the finger. You’ll have to work on Tray over there. He looks like he could use a night out.”
Tray shoved an egg roll in his mouth and lifted his shoulders.
Mr. James, head of the partnering company, returned from making a private call in the hallway, and they were soon back to work. As the hours stretched on, Nick’s hope of spending the evening with Janel melted away like a snow cone on a July afternoon. By the time he drove home and climbed the stairs to his nest, Janel’s door was closed. He showered and changed as quietly as possible, hoping he didn’t disturb her.
After setting his alarm, he fell into bed smiling. It wasn’t a bad day; he’d gotten married and sealed the deal on a new chip that was sure to make a lot of money.
His smile faded. He would have felt much better if he’d been able to see Janel before he went to sleep to find out what she thought of the house and if she’d read over the household account information … and maybe, if he was lucky, to see her blush just once more.
Pulling the covers up over her head, Janel tried to hide from the voice that was bound and determined to ruin her few good hours of sleep.
When Nick’s secretary called last night to say he wouldn’t be home for dinner, she’d asked, “Do you know what time they will be done?”
“These meetings have gone on all night before. It could be an hour or it could be six hours. I’m sorry, I wish I had more information.”
“No, that’s okay. Thanks for thinking to call me.”
“Mr. Ryburn asked me to.”
“Well … thanks.”
“Have a nice night.”
She’d tried to wait up for Nick, thinking that they should at least say good night to each other on their wedding day. She’d propped herself up in bed with the laptop to familiarize herself with the house accounts. There was a lot more to running the house than she would have ever thought possible. After an hour of checking shift changes for possible overlap, she decided Pamela should have found Nick someone with experience in the hotel industry. But then, Janel wouldn’t be lounging on half a dozen pillows in her own private suite. She gave a wicked little grin. The perks far outweighed the stress.
Long after the exterior safety lights clicked on, making her view of the rear gardens enchanting, her wedding day caught up to her. She slid the laptop to the other side of the huge mattress and conked out.
“Janel!” The voice was in her room.
“What is it with you and waking me up? Do you hate me?” Janel threw the covers off her head.
Trish waited at the end of the bed, her hair pulled back in an intricate braid that hung over one shoulder and her clothes completely wrinkle-free. The only thing worse than being woken up when you’re still tired, is being woken up by someone who looks that good in the morning.
Trish ran her fingers over the pad resting in the crook of her arm. “You have a meeting with your personal trainer in fifteen minutes.”
Trish looked up. “Here.”
Janel pulled the sheet up to her chin. Not that her pajamas were skimpy; she’d worn a light cotton pair of shorts and a fitted tank to bed. The idea of a strange man in her bedroom made her uncomfortable. An image of some guy holding her feet down while she did sit-ups on the plush rug flashed through her head. “He’s coming to my room?”
“No, he’ll meet you in the gym downstairs. You just need to throw on some workout clothes and I’ll brief you on the rest of your day on the way.”
Janel stumbled to the closet and pulled out a pair of cutoff sweats, a sports bra, and a t-shirt with a small hole over her left shoulder blade.
When she stepped out of the closet, Trish made a face like she’d swallowed bad fish. “What are you wearing?”
“What happened to the yoga pants?” asked Trish as they left Janel’s room.
“I wear those in public, I’m not going to get them all sweaty.”
Trish clenched her jaw. “Okay, I will put ‘shopping for proper exercise attire’ on our list of things to do this week. And unless you are going to a yoga class, never wear those in public again. Got it?”
Janel nodded absently as she craned her neck to see into Nick’s room. It looked like he hadn’t slept in the bed last night. A maid bustled out carrying the shirt he wore to the wedding, and Janel wondered if he’d slept at all or just changed clothes. Janel nodded a greeting to the maid as Trish started down the list on her pad.
“You’ll meet with Steve, your personal trainer, every Tuesday morning at seven.”
Janel bristled. Why should she have to work out? She was not a trophy wife; that wasn’t part of the deal. If B.M.B. was trying to turn her into one, she’d have a few words with Pamela. “Why do I need a personal trainer?”
“It’s part of our ongoing services. We find that people who exercise are generally happier in life, they are better and more creative at problem-solving, and can participate in a variety of activities due to their physical stamina.”
Janel paused on the stairs. “What happens if I get fat?”
Trish looked over her shoulder. “Excuse me?”
“If I get fat, do I get fired?”
Trish’s mouth dropped open. “What? No.”
“Then why do I have to work out?”
Trish stepped up so they were on the same level and put her arm around Janel. “This marriage is as much about you as it is about Mr. Ryburn. You’re a busy student, you teach classes, and you’re planning a huge archeological dig in another country—you need to take care of yourself, and we’re trying to help. A personal trainer is a perk. You don’t have to work out; but you’ll be healthier and happier if you do.”
Janel considered Trish’s words. It couldn’t hurt to get in better shape. She’d need to haul her own gear into the Guatemalan jungle, and she might as well be strong enough to do it. “Okay. This guy isn’t going to yell at me or anything is he?”
“Steve will walk you through the machines in Nick’s gym so you understand how to work each one on your own.”
Nick’s gym. Was he offered the same “perks,” or did grooms get off easier than brides?
“On subsequent visits he’ll teach you different types of workouts so you don’t get bored.”
“Uh-huh. Does Nick work out?”
Trish didn’t miss a step. “He alternates weightlifting and running.”
Janel remembered the way Nick’s suit fit, and his broad shoulders. Yeah, he works out. She quickly changed her focus from Nick’s physique to Trish’s instructions.
“Now, after your session, you’ll have time to shower and get dressed for the day. Then you’ll meet with the staff—Did you read the information Nick put together for you?”
“Yep. Wait, how did you know about that?”
They reached the bottom of the grand staircase and crossed the gathering room to the stairs that led to the basement. This level was just as impressive as the rest of the house. The theater room was located under the garage, the game room was insane, the gym was immaculate, the mother-in-law apartment was stunning, and a hot tub waited off the patio. There was also a bar, a pool table, a water feature, a reading nook, and a couple of guest rooms. Janel could spend weeks down here!
“Standard procedure. Nick gave us a job outline when he signed up.
“We’ll have a short break for lunch and hit the stores for some workout clothes. I have to be back to the office by three, so you’ll have some time this afternoon to input your school schedule into the system. I have a new phone for you.”
Janel started to protest—there was already so much “new” in her life that she was off-balance.
Trish held up her hand. “We kept your old number. The new phone is compatible with Nick’s. You guys can see real-time updates to your calendar, talk at the push of a button, and do a whole bunch of other things that I don’t have time to tell you about because Steve hates it when people are late.” Trish opened the door and motioned for Janel to go in first.
Janel entered the gym, took one look at Steve, and stepped backward into Trish.
Steve was built like a locomotive. He had more muscles in his arm than Janel had in her whole body. She wondered if he took steroids.
Steve smiled in welcome, and Janel thought her heart would jump out of her chest in fear. He looked at her like the mechanic looks at her car every time she brings it in—she was a lemon and he was about to make lemonade. At that moment, Janel swore she would never be late for her workout, because if that was Steve’s welcome face, she had no desire to see Steve’s upset face.
The day went by quickly, and by the time Janel returned home with an arm full of shopping bags, she was ready to go to bed. Nick’s chef, Enzo, made two dinners, and she found hers in the warming drawer under the oven.
A warming drawer was a luxury Janel never thought she’d have. It was beautiful with its stainless steel finish and easy-grip handle. She spent the next couple of minutes running her fingers over every surface in the kitchen. The long day listening to Trish give her the dos and don’ts of fashion was worth it to come home to this room.
As she sat down at the table to eat, she realized she hadn’t heard from Nick all day. She played with her new phone, finding the text icon and debating over what to say. She finally just typed a quick hello and asked if he wanted her to keep his dinner warm or put it in the fridge.
Fridge, we ordered take out. Thanks.
Janel speared an asparagus and chewed as she read through his schedule for the next couple of days. He was booked from sunup to sundown, which didn’t leave much time for them to see each other.
As far as employers go, Nick was pretty easygoing. The staff all seemed to like him. Since they were aware of the sleeping arrangements in the house, she wondered if they would resent her coming in and taking over, but she didn’t sense any hostility. They were good at their jobs, and as long as the quality of their work stayed the same, she didn’t foresee any problems.
After finishing her dinner, a chocolate craving took hold and wouldn’t let go. Janel rummaged through the kitchen and found minimal baking supplies. She couldn’t make her grandma’s brownies without chocolate chips, so she grabbed her keys and headed to the store. She bought enough supplies to make brownies, cookies, and a cake, should the mood hit. She hadn’t had a real kitchen in years and she wasn’t about to let this one go to waste. Someone should be able to enjoy the household amenities, because it wasn’t going to be Mr. “I’m At Work” Ryburn.
Back at home, Janel put the brownies in the oven and spent the next thirty minutes filling out her calendar. When she hit “save,” her and Nick’s days blended together.
Well, at least she was cyber-connected to her husband.
Nick scrolled through his calendar, which had officially become the “Ryburn calendar”, with his events highlighted in green and Janel’s in purple.
Janel started school in one week and it looked like she’d be teaching a couple classes as well as monitoring a lab. She had a few hours set aside for research and writing her dissertation.
A biweekly visit to the salon appeared excessive. Janel didn’t seem like the type to go overboard on pampering herself, but Pamela had said that was part of the package when he signed up, so he shrugged it off. All in all, Janel was busy, but her evenings were free.
He tossed his phone on the desk in front of him. It wasn’t like his schedule was going to open up anytime soon. If they hadn’t gotten married on Monday, it would have been three, maybe four weeks before he’d be able to take a morning off again. Development for the new chip had hit a snag, and the late nights stretched out before him like a lonely country road.
Much later that night, or more accurately, early the next morning, Nick finally made it home. The house was dark, but not empty. Funny how just knowing Janel was asleep upstairs made a difference in the atmosphere.
Entering the kitchen, Nick was overwhelmed by the smell of fresh-baked goods. Chocolate baked goods. He followed his nose to a white plate holding a large brownie, covered in thick chocolate frosting and topped with chopped walnuts, waiting on the bar. There was a purple post-it note next to the plate that simply read, For Nick.
He fished a fork out of the cutlery drawer.[_ This_] brownie demanded a tool for consumption. He took the plate and the note over to the table to eat. After two heavenly bites, he needed milk, and opened the fridge to find a half-gallon of chocolate milk, only partially drunk, waiting on the shelf. Nick shook his head in amazement. He could get used to having Janel around real fast.
The brownie disappeared in no time. Nick leaned back in his chair and rubbed his belly. For some reason, he was proud. Proud that this brownie came from the kitchen he’d designed. He downed the last of his chocolate milk and set the glass in the sink, pondering the strange effect Janel had on him. He hadn’t seen her since the wedding, and yet she’d managed to make him feel cared for just by leaving a brownie.
Pausing at the top of the stairs, Nick noticed Janel’s door was slightly open. If they were more familiar with one another, he’d consider it an invitation to let her know he’d made it home. Even though they were married, they weren’t familiar—yet. He grinned. There were ways to fix that.
He ran back down the stairs to his office and wrote his own post-it note, sticking it just inside her door.
Nick quickly got into bed, shut his eyes, and willed sleep to come before he thought any more about how close he and Janel could really become.
The next morning, Janel found a post-it note on the light switch just inside her bedroom door. It said, Best brownie ever! Couldn’t find the pan—please make more.
Grandma always said her brownies were magical. Perhaps they were. She flipped the post-it over, wondering if Nick was still in the house. She wasn’t about to go knocking on his bedroom door. Maybe she’d catch him in the kitchen.
Throwing a robe on over her pajama bottoms and tank top, Janel ran down the stairs. She pulled up short at the sight of Nick rinsing his bowl in the sink. She’d forgotten how stinking gorgeous he was. He was already dressed for a day at the office.
Squaring her shoulders, she tried to appear casual—like she didn’t feel at all conspicuous in her bathrobe in a stranger’s house. Funny, she’d only been here a few days and already it felt like home.
“Morning,” she chirped.
Nick looked up from the soap bubbles and fumbled with his bowl.
Janel opened the freezer and pretended not to notice the flush climbing up his neck.
Recovering quickly, Nick replied, “Good morning.”
Retrieving two individually wrapped brownies from the freezer, Janel held them out to Nick. “I, um, got your note. If I’d known you wanted more, I wouldn’t have frozen them. But—” She pumped her eyebrows. “You haven’t lived until you’ve tried Grandma’s Brownies frozen.”
“Really?” Nick looked intrigued as he accepted both brownies.
“Go on.” Janel inclined her head.
“I just had breakfast.”
Janel crossed to the pantry and found the oatmeal. “I won’t tell.”
Nick grinned wickedly, and Janel’s grip tightened, bending the cardboard oatmeal tube.
He sucked in a breath as his teeth cut through the cold frosting, and chewed slowly.
Turning away, Janel was able to regain her thoughts. “Well?” She measured out a serving of oatmeal and added water. “Good, right?”
“Oh, my, ghoofreid.”
Janel laughed. “I’ll take that as a ‘yes’.” She put her bowl in the microwave and set the cook time.
Nick took another bite. Tipping his head to the side, he looked from the brownies in his hand to the freezer and back.
“What?” Janel asked.
Nick swallowed. “I’m not sure frozen is my favorite.”
“You like them better at room temp?”
“I think I’m going to have to try both, together, in order to figure it out.”
The microwave beeped, and Janel retrieved her breakfast. “Are you trying to tell me you need more?” she asked over her shoulder. “There’s a whole pan’s worth in the freezer.”
Nick tore open the freezer. He looked in and then shook his head. “I just don’t see how those are going to last.” He snatched three bags. “See, they’re disappearing fast.”
Janel laughed. “Okay. Lucky for you, I bought enough supplies for two batches.” She’d bought enough for four, but she had a feeling Nick didn’t need to know that.
“No rush.” Nick snatched another brownie baggie.
Janel’s hand went to her hip. “No rush?! At this rate, they’ll be gone by dusk,” she teased. She didn’t mind at all that Nick loved her baking.
Nick lifted his shoulders. “I’ll be gone all day. I need to stock up.”
“In that case …” Janel retrieved a brown lunch sack from the pantry. “You’ll need a way to carry them.”
Nick’s eyes sparkled. “Good idea.”
Janel opened the bag and Nick emptied his hands. After folding over the top, Janel handed it to Nick.
Nick leaned over and kissed her cheek, causing Janel’s heart to thump loudly against her ribs.
“Thanks for the sweets.” Nick’s breath caressed Janel’s cheek.
Paralyzed by the jolt of desire that coursed through her, Janel didn’t reply as Nick pulled away. They made eye contact, and he looked as surprised as Janel felt.
“Have … Have a great day.” Her words came out raspy, and her stomach flipped.
Nick stepped back. “I will, now.” He blinked twice and then held up the lunch sack. The movement was an afterthought, and Janel wondered if he’d meant that something other than the brownies had improved his day.
Grandma’s magic brownies broke the ice. Later that day she received her second text from Nick.
How was class?
Janel stared at it for a moment. Should she answer right away? She checked his calendar. Nick was in a budget meeting. She didn’t want to bother him, but he’d sent a text so she could at least reply.
Good/Busy. I always have a couple students who want to add the class late and then have to scramble to catch up. Correcting first assignments now.
She bit her lip as she hit send, wondering if she’d said too much. Maybe she should have kept it short.
His reply was encouraging. They’re lucky to have you. I remember a couple instructors who weren’t that nice.
Janel smiled. That was sweet of him. She stared at the phone. Was she supposed to text back? Ugh. She was so unskilled at electronic conversations. It gave her way too much time to second-guess herself, and she much preferred to see the guy’s face. Now that she’d waited this long, it felt awkward to send another message. Besides, wouldn’t that make her look needy or something?
With a beep, a picture came through. Janel squinted and pulled the phone closer. She burst out laughing. The image was of the bottom of the lunch sack, where one lonely brownie, with smashed frosting no less, awaited its fate.
Wow, you have a serious chocolate problem. ;) I’ll see what I can do to help.
Not fair to tease…
No teasing, what time are you going to get home?
There was a delay, and Janel tapped her fingers on her desk. Was she being too presumptuous?
Eventually his answer came. Sigh. Late. Sorry.
The disappointment ran deep. Deep enough that it made Janel wrap her arms around her middle. Janel was usually pretty even-keeled: she didn’t get too upset about things, or too excited about them either—unless they involved Mayan mummies and tombs. What was it about Nick that caused these caveman reactions—or rather, cavewoman reactions? First she’d had the desire to taste the chocolate on his lips this morning, and now she felt let-down enough that all she wanted to do was blow off correcting papers and hit the hot tub for some R&R. That type of thinking was so unlike her.
With a start, she realized Nick was waiting for her response.
No worries. Chocolate will keep.
Janel looked at her desk calendar. Since she’d explained—as much as the confidentiality agreement would allow—the private funding she procured for the expedition to Professor Ford, he’d helped her create a timeline to complete preparations for the dig. She might not be in the right mindset to correct papers, but she was always ready to work on her thesis.
Even as she perused applications from grad students who wanted to be a part of the crew, her mind wandered back to Nick. He’d looked so good this morning: his hair still wet from the shower, and the way it felt when his lips brushed her cheek! If a kiss on the cheek felt like that, she could hardly imagine how incredible a real kiss would feel.
The image of Nick pulling her close overtook all thoughts of applications. Janel spent a few minutes in her new happy place before jerking herself away. Crossing her arms on her desk, she dropped her head onto them.
Over the course of several days, Janel and Nick began communicating through sticky notes, desserts, and texts. Much to Janel’s relief, their texting communication came easy as long as she didn’t analyze the breaks. She’d text Nick right up until a class started and then she’d have to stash her phone, creating an hour-long pause between texts. She realized Nick probably did the same thing, and the pauses most likely meant he was working, not freaking out over what she typed.
Though she enjoyed e-flirting, Janel wished they’d have the chance to spend more time together. Their weekly planning meetings were held over the phone instead of over a meal, and usually happened during Nick’s lunch and her short break between classes. He swore that would change as soon as this project was over. Phone conversations were quick and to the point and left a lot to be desired. But this is what she’d signed up for, and as far as jobs go, this one was cake.
For Janel, the next month was a whirlwind of new students, new responsibilities, new clothes, and a new home. The house was great. In fact, it was better than great: it was her private playground. She ran every morning on the treadmill, except for Thursday mornings when Steve worked her through a new type of torture. The morning he tried to get her to Zumba was a morning she’d never live down. It was just too funny watching a guy that big salsa his way through the grapevine. Between her laughter and her lack of attention, she’d ended up tangled in some weight-resistant contraption, and it took Steve five minutes to get her out. At one point, she thought he’d have to call in the fire department to use the Jaws of Life. Not cool. They stuck to weightlifting and body conditioning after that.
She caught Nick in the kitchen a couple of times. Usually he was rinsing out a cereal bowl as she raced through to grab a granola bar and a breakfast shake on her way to class. There were several other people who worked in the house throughout the day, so it wasn’t uncommon to bump into someone. Nick, however, was a rare treat. And what a treat he was, with his button-up shirt rolled up at the cuffs and his tie flung over his shoulder so he didn’t spill on it. She full-on admitted that he was fun to look at. Janel found his easy masculine confidence attractive and looked forward to getting to know him better—if his schedule would ever let up!
About a week into October, Janel got a surprise text from Trish.
Big weekend. We need to shop.
Clicking over to her calendar, Janel realized that Saturday was marked in blue, blue being an event she and Nick would share. The mayor was hosting a masked ball for a fundraising event, and she was scheduled to go with Nick.
She quickly texted back: Mask???
I’ll pick you up tomorrow at 3.
She pushed the ball and costumes out of her mind in order to negotiate with the airlines. Her first paycheck would pay for the seats, and she wanted to get the travel arrangements in place.
The next afternoon, Janel settled into the passenger seat of Trish’s eco-friendly car.
Trish gave her a one-armed hug hello. “How are things going?”
Janel shrugged. “They’re fine.”
“Are you excited about the ball?”
“More like scared out of my mind.”
Trish patted her hand. “You’ll be fine.”
Janel thought about it. She was pretty used to the idea that she was married. Besides the move and the new apartment there wasn’t that much that changed in her life. She still did all the things she did before; she just slept in a different place and had much better technology. She smiled as her phone chirped.
How’s your day? Nick asked.
Good. Shopping for something for the ball.
Can you grab me something too?
Janel felt her skin grow cold. She’d done other odd errands for Nick over the past month. Mostly stuff for the house like letting the electrician in or making sure he’d set the security system in the morning before she left; but she’d never shopped for him. She pressed her hands to her cheeks.
“What is it?” asked Trish.
“Nick wants me to pick him up something to wear to the ball.”
“So, I’ve never bought anything like this for myself. I have no idea what women are supposed to wear, let alone a guy.”
“That’s why you have me. Text him back and tell him you have it covered.”
“If you say so.” Janel typed, No problem.
Thanks. Any chance you’re making brownies tonight?
Janel tipped her screen so Trish couldn’t see it. I was in the mood for peanut butter cookies.
With chocolate chunks?
Can’t wait to try them!
Two hours and a dozen dresses later, Janel finally had a completed look for the ball. The store had a complementary costume for a man and Trish swore it was perfect.
“It’s better that you go as a matching couple to solidify your marital status in people’s eyes. Nothing says ‘solid couple’ like matching costumes,” she said.
After saying goodbye to Trish, Janel hauled the garment bags up the stairs to her room. The enormous walk-in closet was only partially filled with her things, so she had a full rod to commit to the dress and suit. As she pulled the heavy skirts out so they wouldn’t wrinkle, she debated on taking Nick’s to his room. In all the weeks she’d spent in the house, she’d never once set foot in the master suite. It was just too personal to walk into a man’s bedroom and she wanted him to trust her not to snoop, so she gave him his space.
At one o’clock on Saturday afternoon, Brenda marched into Nick’s office and kicked him out. “You have to stop at the barber’s for a shave before the ball tonight.”
He panicked. “The ball’s tonight? I didn’t get a costume.”
“I thought you said Janel was taking care of that.”
Nick rubbed his short beard. He hadn’t had time to shave for four days, and it was starting to itch.
He quickly texted Janel: Did you find a costume for me?
Yes. Hope you don’t mind, we match.
Nick grinned. He’d seen couples come in matching costumes to previous fundraisers and thought the idea was great. Don’t mind. Can you send a pic?
When the image came through, he groaned. She’d gone medieval on him. The pants would most likely be tight, and the lace at the collar would itch. The evening just went from bearable to stifling.
Do you like?
It’s fine. I’ll be home by 5:30.
As Nick slid his phone into his pocket, he realized that this was the first night since they’d been married that he would be home before dark, and the first time he’d take his wife on a real date. Over the last several weeks, he’d spent a lot of time texting her and even more time thinking about her. He was nervous that he’d built her up in his mind only to be disappointed that night.
He showed the picture to the barber, and the man shaped his scruff into a pointed goatee and trimmed his hair so it looked more like he meant to have longer hair and not so much like he hadn’t had a haircut in six weeks. He liked the length, but the waves tended to get unruly if let go for too long.
Making it home with seconds to spare, he rushed up the stairs. Janel’s door was open. Nick paused at the threshold, acutely aware that this moment marked a change for him and Janel.
They’d been friendly and flirty for a month, just not in person. The stranger he’d brought home on their wedding day was long gone. He’d connected with Janel, albeit through text messages, in a way that was hard for him to believe. Their connection was obvious by the way she got his jokes, encouraged him when he was discouraged, and kept a steady supply of home-baked goods on hand. He knocked before pushing the door open wide.
She wasn’t in the room, but he could hear music coming from the bathroom. He went to the closed door and knocked loudly. There was a scream from the other side, and he quickly yelled, “It’s Nick.”
“Nick? You scared the living … you scared me.”
“Sorry. I need to get my costume.”
“It’s in here, just a second.”
Nick placed his hand against the doorframe and tapped his finger while he waited.
It didn’t take long before Janel opened the door. Her hair was already piled on her head in a fancy array of curls. Soft tendrils framed her face, and Nick noticed she had a long and elegant neck.
“I was just about to put on the gown. Your suit is in my closet.”
Following her into the master closet, Nick took in her cotton shorts and tank top. She had a thin frame, but her body had shape; she looked fit and healthy in a way that had his mind blinking like a cursor waiting for someone to type a word.
“Here you go.”
Looking quickly to the clothes on the hanger so she wouldn’t notice him noticing her, Nick suppressed a groan. No doubt Dillan would have a field day with his ensemble. He usually went as James Bond, and one year he’d donned a Zorro costume, but he had never worn lace. Maybe he could leave that part off. He grabbed the hangar.
“How long till you’re ready?” he snapped.
“About twenty minutes.”
“Perfect, I’ll meet you in the sitting room.”
Hurrying, Nick chastised himself for being short with Janel. He’d have to communicate clearer. They worked so well together, he almost thought she could read his mind—which was ridiculous considering the short amount of time that they’d been married.
After a quick rinse in the shower, he struggled into the tight pants and loose shirt. He shrugged on the jacket with a grunt. It was made of velvet and would be too warm for October. Looking at the pile of leather and lace still on his bed, he shuddered. He did his best to put things where they should go, but the costume just wasn’t coming together.
He needed this night to go well. There were several companies he wanted to work with; he had so many big ideas and just needed the resources to bring them to fruition. Arriving late, in a frenzy, and in a ridiculous costume would put him at a disadvantage. What was Janel thinking?
In the midst of trying to wrap a piece of leather around his shoulder he heard a light knock on the door.
“Nick, um, I think we’re going to be late.”
Nick looked at the clock on his nightstand, and this time he didn’t suppress his groan. Cursing, he tucked everything under one arm, including the ridiculous boots, and stormed to the door. He yanked it open, marched past Janel, and dumped it all on the couch. “You got me a defective costume,” he said. “You need to ask me before you pick something that requires an instruction manual.” He picked up a wad of lace. “I don’t even know what this is.” He shook it and threw it on the couch.
He pulled the jacket off as he turned to face her. His anger floated away like clouds on a summer afternoon. His arm got stuck halfway out and halfway in the jacket. Was he trying to put it on or take it off? He couldn’t remember.
Janel’s bare shoulders were smooth and creamy against the deep purple dress. It hugged her figure and made a heart shape over her bodice, giving her the appearance of a generous figure. The skirts were full and he couldn’t see her legs, but the grace in which she carried herself was enough to knock him speechless. She bit her lip, and he immediately felt guilty for snapping at her. He pulled the jacket on.
She blinked a few times as she approached the couch, and he hoped she wasn’t trying to hold back tears. “I’m sorry. I was told most couples wear these types of costumes to the ball.”
Nick sagged like a forgotten house plant. “Other people do, but I don’t.”
Nick thought of all the couples he’d seen and somewhat envied because of their boldness for wearing matching costumes. “You know what? I’ve never gone to the ball with a wife. Tonight will be full of firsts.”
Janel smiled. “It’s my first ball—ever.”
“Then I guess we should try to be on time.” He looked down at his clothes. “You’d think a guy who could build a computer from scraps would be able to get dressed.”
Janel chuckled. “I think we can figure this out.” She pulled his arms straight out to the sides and told him to keep them there. Then, she proceeded to wrap the leather pieces around his forearms and tie the laces. She grabbed what turned out to be a belt and slid it around his waist. When she leaned in close, he could smell coconuts and vanilla. It was an exotic combination, and he found himself closing his eyes and getting lost in the scent.
All too quickly, Janel pronounced him ready to go. He slid on the boots, which were surprisingly comfortable, and asked, “How do I look?”
Janel appraised him, her eyes sliding over him like a caress. “You look dashing.”
He raised one eyebrow. “Dashing?”
“Yes. Dashing.” Reaching up she brushed her fingers over his goatee. “This is the perfect touch.” She looked up into his eyes, her fingers softly resting just below his lips.
Nick stared into her perfect blue pools, and everything he thought was important evaporated—the ball, being on time, and making the connections he was hoping to make. Every part of his being centered in on her touch, her nearness, and her breath that came in short spurts, lifting her chest to strain against the dress.
Nick lowered his voice and reached out to brush his fingers up her arm. “I should have thought about this earlier, but no one will be looking at me.”
Janel whispered, “Why not?”
“You’re too beautiful to look past. As long as I’m with you, I won’t have to worry about a thing.”
Janel’s cheeks pinked and she backed away, breaking the bubble around them and sending his worries crashing back in. He resisted the urge to take her by the shoulders and pull her close, to convince her of her beauty, and watch her embrace it. It would take some time and be a most enjoyable experience. Instead, he offered her his arm and escorted her to the limo waiting out front, just like a dashing prince should do.
Funny thing, he didn’t feel like a prince—he felt more like Tarzan.
Janel wondered at Nick’s ability to make her blush. Other men had admired her, especially since she had a biweekly appointment at a salon and a relentless personal trainer, but none of their compliments felt as personal or as honest as Nick’s. It was as if he could see right into her soul and pull out the very thing she needed to hear before she knew she needed it. She wondered how he was able to do that when they’d spent less than twenty-four hours together in their month-and-a-half long marriage.
Maybe it was the same way she knew he needed a calming influence tonight. He didn’t wear his nerves on his sleeve, but she’d seen the stress in the set of his jaw. When he snapped at her, she understood it wasn’t so much what she’d done that caused his mood as it was his worry over the evening. After helping him through the mini crisis, he’d relaxed once again.
Relaxed Nick was much more intimidating than Nick when he was agitated. She could handle a grizzly bear. Ninety-five percent of her department was made up of male professors, assistant professors, and students. They all had bad days, and most responded well to a calm voice and intelligent assistance. Like when Professor Ford’s computer crashed at the beginning of the semester, he ranted like a child who’d dropped his ice cream cone until Janel pulled up his files that had automatically saved to the cloud.
Nick was no exception to the rule, and as far as tantrums went, his was mild.
Besides, the way he looked at her in this dress was more disturbing than any snappish comment. His eyes had drawn her to him like nothing she’d ever experienced before.
Touching him was what caused the spark. If she hadn’t reached out to feel his goatee, the fire between them would have stayed silent instead of roaring loud enough to drown out her thoughts and create a place where just the two of them existed. It startled her enough to step away, and she found that the intensity broke at her movement, leaving her slightly disoriented.
In the driveway, it took a moment to get Janel and all her skirts situated in the limo. Once she was sufficiently tucked in, Nick shut the door and went around the car to get in through the other side.
Janel took a moment to calm her racing heart. This thing with Nick, whatever it was, couldn’t continue. She finally felt like she had her feet underneath her with this job, and she couldn’t afford to mess it up by flirting with her husband.
All right, that sounded weird, but it was the truth. She couldn’t flirt with her husband. Not in person. Text flirting didn’t feel real. She pressed her hand to her cheek. How could she have been so shortsighted? She should have known that eventually they would have ended up in the same room together—check that, in the backseat of the same limo together.
She wanted to bang her head on the window. Marriage wasn’t supposed to be this complicated. At least, not the way Pamela made it sound.
The driver opened the door for Nick.
They needed a safe topic. “Why aren’t we taking your car?” she asked.
“I didn’t want to deal with the traffic. It’s easier to have a driver for an event like this.”
A car?! Psh. Janel ran her hand over the plush leather seat.
Despite her mental eye roll at Nick’s version of “a car,” it wasn’t long before Janel could see why he preferred not to drive. A long line of sports cars, limousines, and high-class SUVs curled up the tree-lined drive to the governor’s mansion. Valets hustled here and there, reminding her of a stirred up hornets’ nest in their yellow jackets.
Janel placed her mask over her eyes, careful not to mess up Clair’s airbrushed cat eye affect. Though she hated to admit it, the mask was her favorite part of the costume. Made from satin that matched her dress, it also had short black feathers and black beads that caught the light. She used her compact mirror to pull the hair out from under the thin band, and smiled at Nick as he slipped on his mask. He paused when he caught her eye.
“Where’s your glasses?” Nick asked.
“They didn’t really go with the mask so I put in contacts. I don’t normally wear them because my eyes tend to dry out quickly, but I should be okay for tonight.”
Nick touched her temple. “If they start to bother you, let me know and we can leave.”
Janel’s mouth was suddenly dry. “I packed some drops.” She held up the velvet bag tied to her wrist, grateful that her hand was steady, because the rest of her wasn’t. “I should be okay.”
They soon pulled to the front of the line, and a young man with slicked back hair opened her door and offered his hand. Janel clicked her knees together, slid around, and planted both feet on the ground before trying to extract herself and her dress from the car. She wasn’t sure, but she thought she felt Nick push a bundle of fabric out as she stood up. She stepped aside so he could join her.
Nick offered his arm.
Janel took it and leaned over to whisper, “Dashing.”
Nick shook his head slightly and looked at the stairs. Janel grinned. Your turn to blush.
Even though it was October and there was a slight chill in the air, the French doors lining the back wall of the house were thrown open, and the party went from the front of the house all the way through the gardens. There were food tables in strategic locations and waiters wandering around with trays full of appetizers and drinks. Janel declined a glass of wine, remembering the lengthy code of conduct she’d signed, and instead took a stuffed mushroom off a passing tray.
Nick moved them from group to group, introducing her as his wife to his colleagues and acquaintances, always keeping in constant physical contact with her in some way. He held her hand as they wove through the crowd, or rested his fingers on her lower back while they chatted with other couples. The touching needed to happen; they were supposed to be married. Well, they were married, but they were supposed to act married in these types of situations.
The problem with Nick’s light caresses was that Janel had a hard time disguising the fact that his touch made it hard to concentrate on people’s names and basically on anything more than staying upright and smiling. Actually, smiling wasn’t hard; the way her heart fluttered made that part easy.
Most people offered congratulations on their elopement. A few women looked her over like competition they wanted to destroy in the most harmful way possible. Janel ignored them.
Each time Janel heard Nick say, “This is my wife, Janel,” her stomach did a little flip. She held tight to his arm, not ready to go solo among so many strangers.
“Nick!” A buxom blonde, wearing an angel costume Janel was sure wouldn’t get her to heaven, wrapped her arms around Nick for a full-body hug.
Janel stepped back, allowing him space to greet his … friend?
“Nick, you look positively scrumptious tonight.”
Janel’s blood heated. Nick did look scrumptious, but this woman had no right to look.
Nick wasted no time in saying, “Charli, I’d like you to meet Janel.”
He stepped away from Charli and put his hand on Janel’s back, urging her forward.
“Nice to meet you,” said Charli, in a tone laced with everything but nice.
Janel glanced at Nick and his frozen smile, and back to Charli with her gaze traveling over Nick’s body. Nick nudged her again, and Janel took it as a signal that she’d have to be the forward one.
“It’s nice to finally meet some of Nick’s associates.”
Charli cleared her throat. “Some of us were beginning to think he made you up.”
Nick scratched at his neck and pulled the lace away from his skin. He hadn’t touched it all night, but for some reason, it bothered him now. Janel looked back at Charli and wondered what had gone on between the two of them. Nick gave Janel a “help me” look, and she jumped to the rescue, all too happy to have the go-ahead to get rid of Charli.
“You know how it is. New love is a whirlwind and sometimes…” She placed her hand on Nick’s arm and looked deep into his eyes. Struck by the depth of attraction she found looking back at her, Janel said the first thing that came to mind, her voice all breathy and aching. “It’s too extraordinary to share with the world.”
Nick slid his hand around Janel’s back. They stood that way, lost in each other, until Charli cleared her throat again.
“Well!” Charli lifted her champagne glass. “To the happy couple.” She threw back the glass and downed the drink.
Janel giggled. “Thanks,” she called as Charli skittered away.
Nick didn’t let go of her like Janel thought he would. Instead, he leaned over to whisper in her ear. “You were … extraordinary.”
As his warm breath brushed her bare neck, it was all Janel could do to keep from melting into him.
“Do you feel up to sending a few more women scampering away?”
Janel worked to center her thoughts. Being near Nick, breathing in the deep, musky scent of his skin, made it difficult to follow his train of thought. “Women?”
Nick grinned wickedly. “There are a couple I’d like to tell to get lost and I can’t.”
Janel finally caught on. “You can’t, but your wife can.” She tapped her chin thoughtfully.
The corners of Nick’s eyes lifted. “Yes, she can.” He brought her hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles.
At that moment, Janel would have taken on a den of angry lionesses for Nick.
“Let’s get started.”
After forty-five minutes of mingling, and in some cases running interference before another woman could grapple a hug from Nick, Nick put his hand over Janel’s and leaned in close. “This is Darrin, watch out.” He winked and turned to greet the handsome man with a Cheshire grin and a well-endowed redhead on his arm.
“Nice costume.” Darrin smirked.
Nick ignored his jibe, but he flushed. To anyone else, it could have meant the room was warm. Janel knew it was because he was truly embarrassed to be caught by his guy friend in what could be considered tights. It wasn’t the first jab at his manhood because of the costume. Every time someone teased him, Janel’s guilt dug a little deeper. Despite his discomfort, Nick managed to put on a smile. “Darrin, I’d like you to meet Janel.”
Darrin placed his hands on Janel’s shoulders giving them a light squeeze. Janel smiled politely. His hands were cold. She shivered, though she doubted it was all from his chilly embrace. She’d spent the last hour keeping women off of Nick and hadn’t expected attention from anyone of the male persuasion.
“You are real.” Darrin cupped her face with his hands, and Janel pulled her chin back. She didn’t like being handled. “I’ve never seen Nick whipped enough to wear tights before.”
Laughing, he let go of her face and wrapped one arm around her shoulder and the other around Nick. His poor date had a smile plastered on as if she enjoyed the show, but she looked more like she wanted out of the night.
Janel hated the way Darrin harped on Nick’s costume. She felt bad enough already.
“Nick, you dog. You really did get hitched.” Darrin dropped his arm around Nick, but kept a tight hold on Janel, crushing her to his side. “I can see why you’ve kept her to yourself for so long.”
Darrin’s eyes slid down her face and to her chest. Janel placed both palms on his side and pushed hard enough to create an acceptable amount of personal space between them.
The moment Janel vacated the property, Darrin’s date plastered herself across his chest.
Janel gave her a sincere smile, hoping she wouldn’t blame her for Darrin’s behavior. He hadn’t introduced the woman and Janel had no idea what her name was. The girl ignored Janel and whispered something in Darrin’s ear. He gave her an appreciative look and said, “In a second.”
“Fine. I’m going to the powder room.” She sulked away, leaving a trail of heavy perfume in her wake.
Darrin looked Janel over again, and she had to force herself not to throw her arms across her chest to shield it from his view. She loved this gown, loved the way it made her feel feminine and delicate, but the way Darrin looked at her made her wish she’d bought the yeti costume instead.
“Nick, where did you find her? And can you get me one too?”
Nick took Janel’s hand, laced his fingers with hers, and pulled her partially behind him. “Sorry, you’ll have to find your own.”
Taking the not-so-subtle hint to back off, Darrin stepped away and grabbed a drink off a passing tray. “See you again soon, Mrs. Ryburn,” he said as he left.
Nick tugged Janel around and she tipped her head back to smile up at him. Their eyes met, and they shared a silent understanding. She’d keep away the easy women, and he wouldn’t let men like Darrin—or Darrin himself—come near her again. When she finally tore herself away from Nick’s gaze, Darrin was long gone. She breathed a sigh of relief.
At midnight, everyone removed their masks. There was another hour of mingling, and then the party started to thin out. Janel had never been introduced to so many people in one night. Her head spun as names and faces blended like chocolate chip cookie dough. When they left for the night, she leaned her head back against the headrest in the limo and sighed.
Nick laughed. “You did great.” He patted her hand and then pulled away. She looked down and wondered why he didn’t hold her hand in private, when they’d been practically glued together all night. His constant physical contact didn’t get any easier to think through as the night wore on, but it did become natural. According to their “Love Language Test,” they both showed affection—er, appreciation—through physical touch. Patting her hand was nice, but Janel thought the gesture was a bit underwhelming.
Perhaps the handholding and caught-up-in-each-other moments were just for show on Nick’s part.
Wait, on Nick’s part?
Weren’t they for show on her part too? Not if she was honest with herself. She’d enjoyed every moment of being held by Nick and let herself be a part of him and his life for the night.
She felt silly thinking there was something more in his attention than giving the right image to their marriage. Of course, that’s all he wanted. He’d asked her to become a buffer between him and them. Well, she’d buffered, and her pride felt every blow.
It took another hit as Nick removed lace and leather. When he was done, he shrugged off the jacket and wadded everything inside.
“I’m sorry about the costume. I’ll do better next time.”
Nick placed the bundle on the floor. “Thanks. But, it was as much my fault as yours, I should have communicated better.”
It was nice of him to let her off the hook. He’d been such a good sport about the costume—really, he had—that it only made her feel worse. She played with her ring. “We’ll get the hang of things.”
“I’m sure we will.”
Nick’s voice was casual, lacking the strain from earlier. Janel decided he wasn’t angry with her and would probably let the whole thing go. She’d learned a valuable lesson, and planned on putting it to use before the next event.
Janell tipped her head from side to side, trying to loosen the knots in her neck. Since they had about twenty minutes before they got home, she reached up and started pulling the pins out of her hair. Clair didn’t believe in hairspray, but she must own stock in the bobby pin company. There were enough pins in Janel’s up-do that she’d be stopped and strip-searched by airport security. She lifted her hands to her hair.
“What are you doing?” asked Nick. His eyes were wide as if she were doing something improper.
Janel wanted to put him at ease. “I think Clair has found a new way to torture people.” She pulled a pin out and held it up. “Death by bobby pins. Here, will you hold these?”
Nick slowly opened his palm and, one by one, she laid the pins inside.
Just before they pulled into the drive, her dark cinnamon hair finally came loose and tumbled around her bare shoulders in large curls. “Thanks.” She scooped the pins from his hand, her fingertips brushing his palm. The air grew heavy and warm as she became aware of the way Nick watched her. His broad chest fell with each quick breath.
Before she could meet his gaze, her door opened and the driver said, “Miss?”
She took the exit, hoping the crisp air would cool her cheeks.
They walked to the front door, keeping space between them as the wheels of the limo crunched down the gravel drive.
Nick entered his code, and the lights automatically came on. Janel lifted her skirts and headed quickly for her suite. They didn’t talk as they climbed the stairs and crossed the sitting room.
When she got to her door, Nick softly called her name. She half turned toward him, afraid that if she faced him fully, she’d do or say something that would give away her internal fight over professionalism versus digging her fingers into Nick’s hair and pulling him close.
“Thank you for a wonderful evening.”
She curtsied and then blushed, thinking it was stupid and formal, but in a dress as amazing as this, it was completely natural. “Thank you for taking me to my first ball.”
He nodded, and she gave a little wave before closing her door behind her. As she sank against the wood, she realized she’d been holding her breath.
Nick changed into pajamas and climbed into bed. The evening exceeded his expectations. If he hadn’t been married to Janel, he would have kissed her at least a half dozen times. He had a beautiful wife, whom he was attracted to at every turn, and he was afraid to kiss her, afraid of ruining what they had, which was sweet. He enjoyed their texting banter and notes, looked forward to it when he got up in the morning. Why would he mess that up?
Punching his pillow and rolling onto his side, he mentally berated himself for his cowardice. The fact of the matter was that he entered into a contract for a business wife, not a love match. He needed to remember the purpose of his marriage. It wasn’t to find a soul mate; it was to find a partner. There was a huge difference between the two.
Janel held up her end of the bargain. She was brilliant at keeping women off him. Of course, in order to send the message, she was often close enough he could smell her vanilla shampoo or feel her skin brush his.
Holding Janel was instinctive.
Rolling to his other side, he felt a surge of anger as he thought about Darrin’s behavior. It was obvious the guy made Janel uncomfortable, and the way he held her face made Nick want to shove him into the seafood buffet.
After kicking off the blankets and tossing a few more times, Nick decided sleep was not going to happen. He needed to calm down, so he got up to raid Janel’s cookie jar. As he rounded to corner of the gathering room, he saw a light on in the kitchen. So much for trying not to wake up Janel.
She was sitting on the counter in a pair of black spandex shorts and a pink tank top, holding a pint of ice cream wrapped in a dishtowel on her lap. Her hair was still down, brushing her bare shoulders, and he remembered the excruciating pleasure that came from watching her slowly remove the pins to free it in the soft light of the limo.
She smiled shyly when she saw him in the doorway. “Ice cream?”
“What flavor?” He opened the silverware drawer and grabbed a spoon.
He groaned. “You know all my weaknesses.”
She laughed. “I highly doubt it.”
He stood in front of her and dipped his spoon into the pint, taking a generous portion. She had her glasses back on, and he decided he liked the way they perched on her face.
“Hey.” She pulled the carton close and gave him a dirty look.
He rested his free hand on the counter next to her as he finished off his spoonful and reached for more.
She let him have another taste and then quickly downed three small bites.
“Not so fast,” he warned, teasing her by moving his spoon closer to the pint and then pulling it away.
“I have to, or you’ll eat it all.”
He reached again, but she pulled the carton behind her. He reached farther and soon they were teasing and wrestling for the next spoonful. Janel giggled when he tickled her side. She turned quickly and their faces were close enough that he could feel her breath on his lips. Neither of them moved, and then, with each heartbeat, they drew closer together.
He didn’t want her to back away this time, to break the spell. They weren’t in a crowded ballroom or the back of a limousine. They were in his kitchen, his home, where it was perfectly natural for a husband to kiss his wife—with or without a contract. He reached up and traced his thumb across her jaw, giving her one last chance to tell him no.
She closed her eyes and sighed, tipping her head into his hand. His spoon clattered as it hit the counter and Nick brushed his fingers up her arm to her neck. Janel dropped the ice cream behind her and hesitantly threaded her hands into his hair. As their lips met, she pulled him closer.
He deepened the kiss, the flavors of chocolate and mint feeding the fire building deep inside. He kissed her jaw and her neck before coming home to her lips. He couldn’t get enough of her. She was all the security and acceptance of family, the challenge of a new product, and the excitement of jumping out of an airplane, rolled into one beautiful woman.
Her reception made him powerful, strong, and yet he wanted nothing more than to protect her and hold her close, to show her the feelings pulsing inside of him. When they pulled apart, gasping for breath, barely an inch separated their mouths, and yet it was too much. Nick swallowed and Janel brushed her fingertips across his goatee and then jerked.
“I feel cold,” she said.
Nick couldn’t imagine what she was talking about, he was burning up inside.
Janel’s eyes grew wide, and she pushed him back. Jumping off the counter she twisted to check her backside. “Oh, man.”
Melted ice cream covered the counter and her shorts. Nick raised an eyebrow as he considered ways to clean her off.
Janel read his look, and her cheeks took on that pink color he adored. She swatted at his arm, and ran to the linen drawer. Grabbing several cloths, she doused one in the sink, wrung it out, and tossed it to him. “You, wipe off the counter.”
Nick chuckled. “I knew things were getting warm in here, but …”
“Ha, ha.” Janel threw the towel she used on her shorts in the sink with a sigh. She bit her lip and lowered her eyebrows. One of her tank top straps slipped down over her shoulder, and Nick forced his eyes away from her skin.
“I’ve got to change, and then I should probably get some sleep.” She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and refused to make eye contact.
Nick sucked in. “Did I do something wrong?”
Janel pulled the strap back in place as she shook her head. “I don’t want you to think that I—” She took a deep breath, “—that I expect more out of this marriage than what’s in the contract.”
Dropping the rag on the counter, Nick mentally kicked himself. He may have been open to more than just the contract, but she had a plan. In less than a year she’d be gone, off on her adventure and starting the life she’d always dreamed of. His dreams of family were just that: his.
He felt things shift and looked around the room. He loved his house, loved it as much for the future family he pictured sharing it with, as anything. Tonight, for just a brief moment, he allowed himself to believe that he’d found the person to build all that with.
He shook his head. “I got caught up in the moment.”
Janel’s shoulders dropped. “That’s not what—”
Nick cut her off. “It won’t happen again.”
She nodded once and left the room. He listened to her light footsteps, and then waited another five minutes before following her up the stairs and falling into his bed where he tossed and turned until his alarm went off.
A week later, Janel sat at her desk, balancing the household account. The numbers weren’t at all interesting, and she banged her head against the wood, just once and just hard enough that hopefully she knocked some sense into her brain.
For a whole week Nick had been avoiding her, and they were back to communicating through text with a rare phone call thrown in. She knew he was busy—every moment on their calendar was filled with green appointments—but she felt as though she had been pushed aside.
They’d had such an enchanting time at the ball. Could she use that word, enchanting? Sure she could. She’d been in a gown and he’d been a gentleman.
And then that kiss.
That kiss made her cheeks flame every time she thought about it. She couldn’t stop thinking about the way his hair felt between her fingers, or the way he held her as though she was breakable though his passion was unmistakable.
She dropped her forehead to the desk with a thunk and left it there. After the kiss, she’d tried to tell him that she wasn’t kissing him to get something out of him. She’d noticed that in people at the party. They played up to him, complimented him, and then asked for a donation to their charitable cause or for the opportunity to pitch an idea.
She wasn’t like those people.
Okay, technically Nick’s money was the reason she entered into the marriage. But it wasn’t like she was after his house, business, or investment. In fact, she wasn’t even sure if he had investments. She’d contracted for a finite sum, a sum she worked for. She got a paycheck, but that wasn’t what she saw when she looked at him. What she saw was the way his eyes brightened when she blushed or how he anticipated her needs and met them without making her feel indebted. She kissed him because she was attracted to him and had feelings that she hadn’t identified, but for some reason felt safe enough to share. Her explanation had gone completely wrong, and she’d offended him.
She picked her head up and rubbed her bleary eyes. It was no use. She needed to see him again. He didn’t want to see her—at least, that’s what a hundred green appointments on their calendar told her.
Her phone alarm went off, warning her that it was time to leave for class. She reluctantly rubbed at the red spot on her forehead before putting her phone in her purse and slinging it over her shoulder. She made her way to the garage, grabbing a jacket from the coat closet before climbing into her junker. When she turned the key nothing happened, not even a whir-whir.
She bit back a curse. Of course this would happen on a test day. Any other day of the semester and she could call in sick. If she didn’t administer the test today, the whole class schedule would be thrown off, and there was always at least one student who would complain to the department head. With the paperwork for her project in review, the last thing she needed was a complaint.
“No, not today.” She tried again with the same result.
As she offered up a prayer for help, the garage door went up. Janel whipped around to see Nick’s car pull in. Her jaw dropped. He wasn’t supposed to be home at this hour. In fact, his calendar said he had a meeting with his HR director, Robert. She knew because she poured over his calendar like a teen girl over Cosmo. She looked up, silently asking God if this was His doing.
Nick climbed out of the car, his phone pressed to his ear, and looking every bit as wonderful as the night they’d kissed. Janel let out a wistful sigh. He was clean-shaven, and for a brief moment Janel wondered what it felt like to kiss him without the goatee. He caught sight of her and forced a smile. Great. She’d been downgraded to the same smile as Charli.
Janel climbed out of her car and leaned against the door.
“Rob, I love that idea.” Nick put his thumb over the receiver and raised his eyebrows. “Everything okay?”
“My car won’t start.”
“You have class, right?”
“In—” she checked her phone. “—fifteen minutes.”
He nodded quickly. “You can take one of mine.” Nick jerked his head toward the other cars in the garage. Giving her an encouraging smile, he moved his thumb aside. “Are you sure about that?” he asked as he walked in the house.
Janel looked around the spacious garage. Besides her junker and Nick’s luxury vehicle, there was an SUV and a convertible. Biting her lip, she fought against the panic swelling up inside her. She couldn’t just take one of his cars. They were expensive and shiny. She folded her arms and shook her head.
Janel took out her phone and considered calling a taxi. She bit her lip: by the time they got here, she’d be late enough that the class would automatically dismiss.
“How will that affect overall morale?” Nick came back into the garage. He stopped when he saw Janel hadn’t move. Shaking his head and smiling, he took Janel by the elbow and pulled her to the SUV. “What about sick days?” he said into the phone as he opened the door and motioned for her to get inside. “Uh-huh.”
Janel climbed in. If it had been anyone else, she wouldn’t have accepted the offer. With Nick, she knew he wasn’t trying to get rid of her by putting her in his car; he was helping. Even though he was in the middle of multitasking, he prioritized her needs and took care of them. She loved that he wasn’t making a big deal about it or making her feel indebted to him. None of this “if I scratch your back” business.
Nick tucked the phone against his shoulder, grabbed the seat belt, and leaned across her to click it in place. Janel felt her pulse quicken as his scent washed over her. Nick put the key in the ignition and the car came to life. He pulled the phone away from his ear and leaned back, the smell of his shaving cream hanging in the air. “She’s yours until you get yours fixed or …” He glanced over his shoulder at her rust bucket and turned back, lifting one side of his mouth in a crooked grin. “… have it recycled into something useful.” He used the same teasing tone he’d had when trying to steal her ice cream.
Janel’s breath caught, and the air between them charged with memories of the last time they were this close. Janel tipped her head, considering Nick’s nearness and the way it made her feel.
“Hello? Nick, are you there?” Robert’s voice interrupted their space.
Nick stepped back. “Have a good class.”
He was back on the phone before Janel could tell him “thank you”.
She carefully backed the SUV out of the garage and pushed the button to put the door down. Once she was on a main road, she hit the gas and raced to campus. The surge of adrenaline spiking under her skin had nothing to do with her speed and everything to do with Nick. Being that close to Nick, if only for a moment, made it impossible for her to deny her feelings. She wanted what they had shared over ice cream. It wasn’t only the steamy kisses she desired. It was Nick and his goodness that melted every bit of her resistance.
He was such a good man, everything she’d ever needed or wanted and didn’t know she was looking for. He took care of her without making her feel incapable. It wasn’t that she couldn’t buckle her seatbelt; it was that he’d wanted to do something for her, something that said he cared. She couldn’t deny it any longer. She was falling for him, and she needed to act on it before they grew further apart.
Class was a blur as half her brain worked over the problem of how to show Nick she cared when he was determined to avoid her. Thankfully, she’d taught the same chapters every semester and could do it on autopilot.
As soon as class was over, she jumped back in Nick’s SUV and drove home, hoping to catch him.
The sliding garage door revealed his absence. Janel dragged her feet up the stairs to her suite. Flopping onto her bed, she stared up at the ceiling. There had to be some way to connect with Nick. Some way to let him know she was willing to explore more between them. He could keep the money and the stuff—she wanted the man.
Nick wasn’t sure if Janel planned to go home after her class, but he wasn’t taking any chances. He’d moved too fast the other night with that kiss and assumed too much. Putting himself out there, and being rejected, was downright embarrassing, and he wasn’t about to make a fool of himself twice.
He entered his office elevator and ran his hands through his hair. Nick considered his biggest advantage in the business world was his ability to read people. If that was true, how could he have misread Janel? Her every action and reaction that night told him she wanted him just as much as he wanted her.
Caught up in replaying the tug-of-war over ice cream, trying to decide where he went wrong, Nick didn’t pay attention as Darrin threw his arm between the almost shut doors.
“Hey,” said Darrin.
“Hey,” replied Nick as he stared at the carpet.
“Man, you don’t look so good.” Darrin shoved Nick’s shoulder. “Old lady troubles?”
“You could say that.”
“Blow her off. Let’s go to Vegas this weekend.”
Nick barely held back his surprise. “I’m married.”
“Right. It’s obviously not agreeing with you. You need to play—be free.”
Nick considered it. He had the money, he had the time, and he had enough troubles … a weekend in Vegas would be easy.
The image of Janel leaning her cheek into his palm came to mind. Nope. There would be no trip to Vegas. Not as long as his ring was on her finger. No, that was a lie—not ever again. He’d tasted something much sweeter than anything he’d ever find on the Strip. Just like when a new product rolled out, a benchmark was set and there would be no point looking at an inferior product.
Not that Janel was a product.
Janel was his and he was hers—at least for the rest of the year. Nick wanted to honor that, honor her. Would she know? Probably not. Especially since he was doing everything he could to avoid her. But he knew, and that was what mattered.
Janel walked through the lab on autopilot. The smell of ancient dust tickled her nose.
For days, she’d wandered through life completely wrapped up in her thoughts of Nick. He never made it home before she went to bed, and he was gone before she woke up. They were going to have to meet up at some point. Janel wanted that point to be sooner rather than later. The more time that went by, the lonelier she felt without his notes or texts.
She tapped lightly on her advisor’s door and waited for his invitation to come in. Professor Ford sat behind his cluttered desk, his glasses perched on his forehead. Janel sat down in the green leather seat across from him.
“You wanted to see me?” she asked.
“Yes, I got an email from my buddy in Tikal. He said you haven’t sent the request forms or filed for the permits.”
Janel jolted as though she’d stuck her finger in a light socket. “What? They aren’t due until the 25th.”
Professor Ford’s eyebrows shot up. “It’s the 27th.”
Janel pressed both her hands to her cheeks. No, she couldn’t have missed the deadline. The amount of red tape it took to get permission to excavate a Mayan temple was outrageous. If she missed one deadline, she’d have to start all over again. “Is it too late?”
“Henry filed an extension, but you only have until tomorrow morning.”
Janel cringed. The permits were easily over a hundred pages—in Spanish. She jumped to her feet. Her classes were done and Nick was scheduled for some R&D meeting tonight. If she worked straight through till morning, she might be able to do this.
“Wait,” said Professor Ford. “Is everything all right? You’ve been distracted for the last couple of days, and it’s not like you to miss a deadline.”
“Yeah, I’m fine. It’s just … personal.”
Professor Ford’s eye dropped to her ring. Janel could see the wheels turning.
Quick, secret engagement + Janel’s change in behavior + husband he’s never met + her reluctance to talk about her wedding = controlling and possibly abusive husband.
He squared his shoulders. “You know, if you need help…”
Janel fought the urge to laugh. Nick was the farthest thing from an abusive husband in the world. She plopped back into her chair. “It’s not what you’re thinking.”
He waited, his fingers steepled and his brow low.
Janel weighed how much she could tell him and still honor her confidentiality agreement. As long as she didn’t talk about how they met and focused on the issue at hand, she’d be safe. “Nick’s … amazing. We just … I said something stupid, and now there’s this distance. I don’t know how … Ugh! Marriage is not supposed to be this hard.”
Professor Ford barked a laugh. “Marriage is the hardest thing you’ll ever do.”
“Harder than filing for a dig in Guatemala?” she pressed.
He leaned back in his chair and spoke softly. “A hundred times harder.”
“Thanks for the pep talk.” Janel sighed.
Professor Ford considered her. He seemed to have let go of his suspicions.
Janel folded her hands in her lap.
“It’s worth it. When you get to where Marion and I are, you can see that the bumps in the road were just bumps. They aren’t roadblocks.”
Janel twisted her ring on her finger. She and Nick would never get to that point. They had an expiration date. Janel’s eyes stung, and she blinked to hold back the tears. Had she missed her chance with Nick?
“Janel, you can get through this. All you have to do is study it out like you always do.”
“Thanks.” Janel stood and moved quickly to the door. “I’ll have those requests filed by tomorrow morning.”
“I’ll let Henry know they are on their way.”
Shutting the door behind her, Janel hurried down the hall. Everything she needed was on her dresser at home. She pulled out her phone and blocked out the entire night. Not that Nick would be home anyway. It just felt good to have something to put on her evening instead of staring at Nick’s green boxes on the calendar while she ate dinner—alone. She needed to get her focus back.
The whole point of this marriage was to get her to Guatemala. It was her goal, her drive, and her life, until one mind-numbing kiss from Nick turned her brain to mush. No more mush! From here on out, she’d keep her head when it came to South America and her husband.
Now, if she could just get her heart to cooperate, everything would fall into place.
Nick was surprised to see Janel’s light on when he pulled up the driveway. She was usually sound asleep before he came home. He pulled into the garage and cut the engine. Letting out a sigh, he hauled his sorry butt out of the car. He couldn’t keep this up. Staying at the office until all hours of the night and getting up early were taking a toll. He’d fallen asleep at his desk twice this week.
Brenda woke him up in time for his meetings, but she didn’t look too happy about it. She probably suspected that all was not well at home and that he was using his work schedule to avoid the issue. The woman wasn’t dumb. Thankfully, she merely pursed her lips, handed him notes, and left him to handle his private life on his own.
He plunked his keys in the bowl next to the back door.
Taking his shoes off in the mudroom, Nick tiptoed up the stairs. He paused at the top. Janel’s door was wide open, and from here, he could see that her bed was empty.
A few quiet steps gave him the angle he needed to find Janel asleep at her desk. She didn’t look at all comfortable, with her neck kinked and her glasses askew.
Nick looked from her room to his. He sighed as he set his shoes down just inside her door. He couldn’t just leave her there.
What on earth could have kept her up this late? He pulled his phone from his pocket and checked their calendar. She’d blocked out the night, but didn’t say what for. Was she waiting for him? Did she feel the emptiness in the day like he did?
He hit the lights as he passed the switch. The glow from Janel’s laptop would be enough to see by, and hopefully she wouldn’t wake up too much as he transferred her to the bed.
“Janel,” he whispered.
“Hmmm.” Janel moved and hit the computer’s touch screen, cutting out the screen saver and revealing a document with an official seal in the corner. Nick leaned over and made out the word “Guatemala.”
He had to hand it to her: she was determined to make this happen. She put as much effort and concentrated focus into her trip as he had in creating his IdeaTech. Funny how a guy could feel jealous of a country.
Nick set his phone down, took the Spanish-English dictionary off Janel’s lap, and set it aside. Sliding his arms under Janel’s knees and behind her back, he lifted her off the chair. She sighed and rested against his chest. The warmth that spread through his body was a testament to his need to keep away from Janel. He simply couldn’t help himself from hugging her closer before laying her on the blankets. He brushed her hair away from her face, and she leaned into his palm in her sleep. Nick’s heart pounded. The sound was too loud in the quiet room. It would be easy to kiss her, just a small one on her cheek or forehead.
He stepped back, sliding his hand out, and waited to see if she stirred. She didn’t. Man, she was out.
Nick ran his hand through his hair. He was exhausted.
He went to shut the computer when an email popped up.
Files due by 9 a.m. our time.
It was from a Professor Ford.
Nick clicked through the open files. It appeared Janel was almost done. But if she slept in, she’d miss the deadline. Picking up her phone, Nick set an alarm for 6:30 A.M. and set the phone on her nightstand.
Once in his own room, he set his alarm for six. That would give him enough time to shower and shave before Janel’s alarm went off. He could make sure she was up before he left.
Shaking his head, he wondered if he really would be able to keep his distance from her. It seemed every time he got near her, he couldn’t help but find a way to be close. Like when he buckled her into the car. She could have done that herself, but he wanted the excuse to touch her. He was definitely drawn to her. But he’d misread her once already. Unless she gave him a clear sign, he’d keep his feelings to himself.
Janel woke in a panic. She couldn’t remember going to bed or setting her alarm. She pressed her hand to her cheek. The only thing she remembered was a dream about Nick tucking her in bed. She rubbed her face. It was so real.
Stumbling to her desk, she found her glasses and slid them on. The room was still dark, and the sun wouldn’t be up for at least an hour. She turned on the lamp and sat down to get to work. Now wasn’t the time for dreams—at least not the kind she was having. The dream she needed to focus on was the one about to evaporate if she didn’t get her permit papers turned in.
Her phone chirped. Probably Professor Ford. She pressed the speaker phone button without checking the caller ID.
“Hello, is Nick there?” asked a woman’s voice.
Janel gave her phone a funny look. Who would call her phone looking for Nick? “Brenda, is that you?”
“No, this isn’t Brenda. Can I please speak to Nick?”
“Nick’s busy at the moment. May I take a message?” Janel sorted through her notes.
“No, you may not. I want to speak with Nick.”
Who was this chick? Janel didn’t like the idea of any woman thinking she could demand Nick’s attention like that, and she fully acknowledged that her hackles were up. “You can’t speak with Nick right now, but this is his wife and I’d be happy to take a message.”
The woman didn’t say anything as Janel tapped her fingers against the desk.
“Did you say wife?” the woman finally asked.
“Yes, I did.” She pushed the button to take the phone off speaker and pressed it to her ear.
“How long have you been married?” The woman’s voice sounded small, and Janel wondered if she’d been too harsh. If this was a business associate she could have handled it more professionally. Of course, if it was an ex-girlfriend or one of those women from the ball, she needed to be firm.
“Well,” the woman huffed. “That explains a lot.”
“Tell Nick that his mother will be there in fifteen minutes to congratulate him on his wedding.” Click.
What? Janel pulled the phone away from her ear and saw the home screen. Her phone had a picture of a Mayan temple for wallpaper. This phone had plain blue wallpaper.
How did she get Nick’s phone?
It wasn’t a dream. Nick had tucked her in bed last night. He must have accidentally switched their phones. She looked at the doorway in horror. What had she done?
Breaking into a run, Janel screamed, “Nick!” as she burst out of her bedroom door. With every step, she cursed under her breath. Racing across the sitting room she ran through his bedroom door and pounded on the door to the bathroom, where she could hear the shower going. “Nick!” She pounded again and the water turned off.
The door flew open just as she considered slamming her shoulder into the heavy wood. Nick stood there with a towel wrapped around his waist, his hair plastered to his forehead and water trickling down his immaculate body. Janel stared for a full five seconds before she remembered why she was there and a fresh wave of panic made her hands shake as she held up his phone.
“You took my phone.”
Nick raised his eyebrows. “Sorry.”
Janel waved her hands. “No, you took my phone and I answered this one and it was a woman and she was demanding to speak to you and I was mad ‘cause she called my phone and I thought she was a stalker ex-girlfriend and I told her we were married.” Janel pressed her free hand to her cheek. “I told her we were married, Nick!”
Keeping one hand on the towel, Nick placed his other hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay. We’ve told lots of people we are married.”
Janel’s voice wobbled. “Not our parents.”
Nick took the phone out of her hand and checked the caller ID. His face went pale.
Janel felt stupid. “I’m so sorry.” She’d ruined everything. She said all the wrong things! Any trust they’d developed over the past three months was too vulnerable to withstand a blow like this.
Nick tossed the phone on the bed and ran his hand through his hair. “She was going to find out sooner or later.”
Tears came, telling Janel she was more sensitive when it came to Nick than even she had realized. The moment he’d buckled her into that SUV, her heart grabbed a hold of him and she didn’t want it to let go. If she’d ruined things, she’d never forgive herself either for causing trouble with his family or for falling in love.
Janel gasped. Was she falling in love with Nick? Janel looked into his worried eyes. Nick was kind; he cared for her and for her comfort, working hard to make sure her needs were met. He did small things that showed her she mattered to him, from loaning her his car to buying a book about the things she studied. He laughed with her, teased her, and when they were together she felt complete.
And while her stomach flipped and her heart lifted when he touched her, it was more than that. The feelings she had were long-term, like the feelings she had for her family: they were always there and would always be there, never fading, but growing stronger as the years went by.
Yep, she loved him.
As the weight of her realization hit her, she grabbed Nick’s hand, and a small sob escaped.
“What’s the matter?”
Janel shook her head. Now was not the time to bare her soul. She said, “She’s on her way over.”
Nick looked down at the towel around his waist and then back up at her. He had a wicked grin, like someone who was about to jump out of an airplane. “What we need is damage control.” He wiped away the last of her tears. “I’m going to get dressed and you’re going to change into something less rumpled.” She looked down to inspect the damage, but he hooked his finger under her chin and brought her eyes up to meet his. “We need a united front. My mother’s a no-nonsense kind of woman.”
“Do you want to tell her about BMB?”
Janel didn’t blame him. She’d rather not tell her parents either. “Then what do we say?”
“I … Let’s meet back here in five minutes, okay?”
Janel ran into her room. She grabbed a brush and yanked it through her hair as she rummaged through the closet, looking for something to impress her mother-in-law. Finally settling on a blouse and a tight pair of jeans, she hurried to apply some makeup.
Once Nick was dressed, he grabbed his phone off the bed and sent a text to Brenda to cancel his morning meetings. She replied quickly despite the early hour.
Nick went in search of Janel. He found her in her bathroom putting on mascara. She glanced at him in the mirror and gave him an unsure smile before finishing up. Stunning, even in jeans and a loose-fitting shirt, she’d combed her hair, and it was all he could do not to reach out and run his fingers through the silkiness.
“Let’s meet her in the library.”
“Is she going to be mad?”
They hit the bottom stair just as the bell rang. Janel held back while Nick opened the door. Mom brushed past him with a curt “hello” and stood with her hands on her hips, facing Janel.
Nick plastered a smile on his face. “Mom, this is Janel. Janel this is my mother, Rebecca.”
Janel offered her hand and smiled. With a shaky voice, she said, “I’m sorry for being rude on the phone. I didn’t know who you were.”
“Well, that was obvious.” Mom took her hand and they shook, though it didn’t look like she was melting much.
“Let’s have a seat.” Nick motioned toward the library.
He and Janel took the couch, and Mom took the loveseat. Her eyes bore into Nick, and he was briefly reminded of the time he and his brother jumped off the roof onto the trampoline and Jared ended up with a broken arm.
She pulled her purse off her shoulder, crossed her legs and folded her arms. “So, how did this happen?”
Nick cringed. He glanced at Janel, feeling a need to protect her from the unpleasantness that occurred because he hadn’t been honest. It was time to come clean. He didn’t want to rush through things, this would take a deep explanation.
“Janel and I dated for a while …”
Nick stopped. Their regular explanation just wasn’t going to work here. Hang the confidentiality agreement. If he was going to make this all work with Janel, he needed to start by being honest about how they met—at least to their families.
“Janel and I were set up by a marriage broker.”
Mom held up her palm. “A what?”
Nick sighed and placed his elbows on his knees. Janel wasn’t sitting close enough that their bodies touched. He needed her support in this. If they looked at all weak, Mom would pick up on it. She needed to know they’d entered into their marriage by mutual consent and desire.
Janel placed her palm on his back. The simple touch let him know she was behind him, ready to jump in if needed. He was grateful for her silent show of support. He knew she had a deadline to meet, and every minute spent with his mother was one less she had to work on her applications.
Nick took a breath before jumping in. “I was looking for something, something more than just another dead-end relationship. I wanted a partner in life. I’d heard about this marriage broker. She specializes in what she calls business marriages.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I signed up for her service, and about two months later, I met Janel to sign the prenup and we were married.”
“Wait, you didn’t know her before you married her?”
“I don’t understand. How could you want to marry a person you’d never met?”
“The brokerage specializes in creating mutually beneficial relationships.”
“I see.” Mom turned to Janel. “And what do you get out of this?”
Janel cleared her throat. “I lost the funding for my PhD and this will take care of that.”
“So you married him for his money.” Mom’s accusation was in her voice and her glare. Nick leaned back so his shoulder touched Janel’s.
Janel stiffened. “As per our contract, I earn a salary. I don’t want, nor do I expect, anything more than the money I earn.”
“Uh-huh, and how do you earn that money?” Mom’s eyes flicked over Janel.
Nick sat up taller. “It’s not like that.”
“Then, what’s it like, Nick? You’ve been avoiding me for three months, and then I find out that you’re married to some woman I’ve never met and whom you didn’t meet until the marriage. What am I supposed to think?”
Janel turned to see what he would say.
Nick swallowed. “Our marriage helps us both. Janel is invaluable here. I, I don’t know what I’d do without her.”
Janel smiled up at him. “Really?”
Janel’s cheeks turned pink. Nick watched the color spread, relishing the thought that his happiness was her happiness. This woman, this woman undid him. Nick leaned closer, his heart beating wildly.
“Nick. Focus.” Mom stood up, slinging her purse strap over her shoulder. “How is a business marriage supposed to really help you? She may be a fine business partner.” Mom sniffed. “But don’t you want love and children?”
Nick rubbed his jaw, unsure of what to say. He did want those things—he wanted them with Janel.
He wanted Janel.
Nick studied her. She was his equal in all the right ways, yet she wasn’t his clone. She was quite different from him. Those differences didn’t weaken their relationship; they strengthened it. Perhaps, if given time, Janel would see they were a match that could last much longer than a year.
He stood up and offered his hand to help Janel off the couch. Now was not the time to bombard Janel with declarations of love and ask her how many children she wanted. Right now, he needed to get his mother out of their house, so Janel could finish her application.
Mom had a right to be upset and worried, as any good mother would be, but he didn’t want to attack something he held dear—his wife. Though Mom was a good person at heart, she often put up a hard shell that came across as gruff and uncaring.
He turned to his Mom. “I know this has been a shock.”
“Why don’t I take you to breakfast and fill you in on what’s been going on?”
Mom looked pointedly at Janel. “Are you coming?”
Nick jumped in before Janel could answer. “She’s got an important deadline this morning.”
Janel’s eyes went wide. It was almost like she’d forgotten about her application. Was it possible that she’d placed their marriage above her dig? The thought warmed Nick’s heart.
“It was nice meeting you, Mrs. Ryburn.” Janel gave Mom a nod and slipped past Nick. He squeezed her hand before letting her go, and she rewarded him with a smile that lit up his whole day.
It was a good thing, because breakfast was going to be awful.
Though Janel left the library looking like the picture of calm, she tore up the stairs like a bargain shopper the day after Thanksgiving. She couldn’t believe she’d been so upset about Nick’s mother that she’d forgotten about her dig! If Nick hadn’t said anything, she probably would have volunteered to go to breakfast with them. Then all her hard work and her marriage to Nick would have been for naught.
She paused at the door. Would it have been for nothing? If she never went to Guatemala and still got Nick, would she be okay with that? A quick check of her heart told her she would. She loved him more than she loved the idea of a Mayan dig—and that was saying something.
Glancing at her computer, she had to wonder if Nick felt the same way. What if Rebecca, her mother-in-law—what if she talked him out of their marriage? What if she convinced him that it was as crazy as she thought it was? Pamela had called Janel a business partner, but was Janel really all that? She didn’t feel like she brought as much as Nick did to the marriage. He was making her dreams come true, and she just kept his home life moving along. Was that really a balance? She guessed it was. By doing what she did, she freed Nick to pursue his dreams at IdeaTech.
It’s not crazy. Janel sank into her chair. [_It’s wonderful, and messy, and better than … than … anything and everything. _]She sighed. Life with Nick would be a challenge, but a good challenge, like pushing yourself to accomplish something worthwhile, something that made you excited to wake up every morning.
Despite the ring on her finger, Nick wasn’t a guarantee. She needed to finish these forms. Strange how her old plan became her backup plan and her backup plan had become her new plan.
With a small smile, and the image of Nick in a towel tugging at the back of her mind, Janel worked for an hour, making painfully slow progress. Fighting against the panic, she plowed forward. At 7:30 A.M., her phone rang.
She hit the speaker button without looking at the caller ID, then panicked, wondering if Rebecca had her number. “Hello?” she asked tentatively.
Janel’s fingers skittered across the keyboard at the sound of Nick’s voice. She hadn’t expected to hear from him. “H-Hi. How was breakfast?”
There was a pause. “Do you want the truth?”
“Always.” Janel braced herself.
Janel groaned. “She hates me, doesn’t she?”
“I don’t think she hates you personally. I think she hates the idea that I got married and lied about it.”
“Nick, I’m sorry. I should have, we should have been honest with her from the start.” Janel’s stomach dropped. She hadn’t been to see her parents since before they got married. In the beginning, it was difficult to come up with an excuse for Sunday dinner. Last Sunday, she’d rattled off a reason without even thinking hard. She needed to fix that. Her parents didn’t deserve to be left in the dark.
“You’re quiet. What are you thinking?” asked Nick.
“About my parents.”
“Do you want to invite them over?”
Janel paused. “I should probably talk to them alone first. It would be better, especially with my dad.”
“Let me know what you need, okay? I’ll do whatever I can to make this easier on you.”
Janel cradled the phone to her ear. “Thanks.”
There was a pause, and then Nick asked, “Are you busy?”
Janel considered the books and papers strewn across her desk. “Just a bit.”
“Gerry from HR is on his way over. He should be there any minute.”
The doorbell rang, and Janel cringed. She didn’t have time to do an errand for Nick. “Sounds like he’s here.” Janel jumped from her chair and charged down the stairs. The sooner she got this over with the better.
“Good. He should be able to help.”
“Help? Help what?” She paused at the door, waiting for instructions.
“Help translate. He’s fluent in Spanish. Served some sort of church mission in Guatemala.”
Janel whipped open the door. “Gerry?”
Smiling, the man with the short haircut and baggy suit waved. “Hola.”
Janel grinned and motioned him inside. “I’ll grab my laptop and meet you in the library.”
“You can use the office,” offered Nick.
“Are you sure?”
“It’s all yours.”
Janel was halfway up the stairs. “How did you know I needed help?” Come to think of it, she hadn’t told Nick about the deadline, and yet he’d mentioned it to his Mom.
Nick cleared his throat. “I’m just pulling into the office. I have to go.”
“Okay. Thank you so much.”
“No problem. Bye.”
Janel hung up the phone and continued her mad dash to grab her things. Entering her room, she tripped and almost fell. Turning to see what caught her toe, Janel found a pair of Nick’s shoes just inside her door. She looked from the shoes to the bed and back again. Pressing her hands to her cheeks, she blushed. It wasn’t a dream. Nick must have seen the forms on the computer. Tears formed. How did he manage to give her exactly what she needed? She touched the Spanish-English dictionary on her desk. Remembering the interpreter waiting in the library, Janel wiped away the tears and gathered her laptop and notes.
She paused to straighten Nick’s shoes. She should take them to his room and write him a thank-you. She grimaced. A note just didn’t seem like enough, not after he’d saved her expedition.
Gerry turned out to be a gold mine of assistance. He had her proposal proofed, interpreted, and finished with twenty minutes to spare. She asked a few questions about his church service, and he fueled her desire to get to Guatemala by talking about the wonderful people and beautiful landscape. Janel let him out and sent a copy of the official email to Professor Ford.
Sitting back in Nick’s chair, Janel contemplated the morning. Nick couldn’t be angry with her. In fact, he was just the opposite—caring and supportive in her time of need. And forgiving of her blunder. He could have been upset that she’d blabbed to his mother, but instead he pulled close to her to work through the issue. What did he say? They needed a united front? That was exactly what he’d done and what had set her at ease. When she and Nick worked together, the sense of unity strengthened her feelings for him.
He’d cared for her much too tenderly to be angry. So if he wasn’t angry, why had he avoided her—well, avoided her when she was conscious?
She smiled as she thought about Professor Ford’s advice to study it out. As if husbands came with a textbook.
Janel bolted upright in the chair. She did have a textbook. Taking the stairs two at a time, Janel made it to her room in record time. Scanning her bookshelves, she grinned when she pulled the Love Languages book off the shelf.
Thumbing through the front of the book, she remembered that she and Nick both spoke the language of physical touch. That explained why it was so instinctive to touch him and for him to touch her. It was their mutually understood form of communication.
Her other language was acts of service, so of course she melted when Nick buckled her seatbelt or sent someone to help her translate applications.
Nick’s second language was quality time. Janel plopped down on her bed. She didn’t know how to speak that language. She tapped the cover. Learning a new love language couldn’t be much harder than interpreting Spanish. She adjusted her position and dove into the book with more enthusiasm than she’d dug into the Guatemalan government forms.
She quickly understood that quality time included listening to Nick, giving him her undivided attention in a relaxed atmosphere where he felt free to discuss his ideas and thoughts. As she read, a plan formed.
By noon, Janel had finished reading, showered, and changed, and she was headed toward Nick’s office. He had appointments on the other side of the city this morning, and she hoped to find his office empty.
After asking the receptionist where to go, Janel found Nick’s nameplate on the wall next to an opulent office. She waited for his assistant to get off the phone and then gave her a friendly smile.
“Hi, I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Janel.”
“Oh, my goodness.” Brenda jumped to her feet and came around the desk. She took Janel’s hand, and instead of shaking it, she pressed it between her palms. “I’ve heard so much about you.”
Janel used her free hand to tuck her hair behind her ear. “Really?”
Brenda nodded and in a conspiratorially tone said, “I have to ask if you brought brownies.”
Janel laughed. “I’ll make you a deal: if you help me get a night off for Nick, I’ll make you a whole batch.”
“Done—I’m a sucker for chocolate.”
Some things are universal.
Brenda went back around to her computer and pulled up Nick’s calendar. Janel brought out her phone and did the same. Her heart stuttered. What if Nick didn’t want her?
“Let’s see what we can do here,” said Brenda.
Janel pressed her lips together. She’d never know if she didn’t try.
“What about sales?” Nick asked Brenda as she straightened up his office, putting files away and snagging his empty soda can.
“There has to be someone I can meet with.”
Brenda dropped the can in the garbage by his desk and gave him a stern look. “You’ve spent the last week and a half managing this company to death. You’re micromanaging your managers and they are going to revolt. Go home.”
Nick checked his calendar one more time. His spot was empty, the first and only empty spot for the next few weeks since he’d spent every minute he didn’t have a meeting lining up a meeting.
This could be bad. He didn’t want to go out with the guys. However, he didn’t want to go home. What if he bumped into Janel in the kitchen, or worse, the hot tub? He’d managed to smooth things over with his mother. She was still miffed, but the time limit on the marriage contract and the prenup helped to ease her concerns. He was sure, if she spent some time with Janel, she would love his wife just as much as he did.
When he’d helped Janel into bed the other night, he’d had to exercise huge amounts of self-control not to kiss her forehead. Her forehead, for the love of Pete. Every time he got close to Janel his body hummed with joy, and when they touched, little explosions of happiness filled his chest. Kissing her was like standing in the middle of a fountain of euphoria: it shot up, around and through him. He couldn’t resist that much pressure; it was good pressure, he quite enjoyed it, but it would lead him to places Janel didn’t want to go—yet. He should spend his spare time working on a way to win her over.
As he stared at the calendar, a cell filled in with purple. Janel had something going tonight. Nick pulled the phone closer to his face. Her post said she had a dinner appointment.
That was strange. Janel never scheduled appointments in the evening. He clicked on the slot to see if there was more information, but the comments section was empty.
She wouldn’t be meeting another man; their prenup specified no dating other people while they were married. Up to this point, Janel had lived not only by the letter of the law, but by the spirit of the prenup. She’d been his dedicated wife in so many ways that he couldn’t imagine she would change now. Besides, who would she meet? Nick’s stomach tightened like a fist. He had no idea who she would meet up with, but it was highly possible that there were dozens of men on campus lining up to take her out.
What if one of her professors asked her to dinner to discuss her project? Would that be considered a date, or would it get around the prenup? He ran his hands through his hair, and the feel of Janel threading her way through his hair and pulling him closer rushed over him.
He needed to figure out where she was going.
He could text her. She always answered his texts. He stared at his phone.
A text wouldn’t tell him what he really wanted to know. If he hurried he could see her before she left. He wouldn’t have gotten to this point in life if he couldn’t spot a lie from a mile away.
Grabbing his jacket, he hurried out the door. Brenda waved as he passed her desk. At every red light, he checked the clock on the dash. Janel’s dinner was scheduled for seven; if he didn’t get there before she left, then he’d be forced to wait up for the answers he was determined to get.
What kind of a creep asked out another man’s wife? Maybe Janel didn’t wear her ring to school. He’d seen her leave with it on the day she borrowed his car. She could have slipped it off before she got to campus. He squeezed the steering wheel. Wasn’t she the one who asked for a smaller, less conspicuous ring? If she was cheating on him, it was not going to end well for the guy.
Rushing through the front door, Nick barely had time to register the smell of fresh-baked brownies before he stormed up the stairs. “Janel?” he called halfway up. “Janel.”
“I’m down here.”
Nick reversed directions and headed for the kitchen. Janel met him in the gathering room, wearing an apron over a pair of tight fitting leggings and a loose shirt that hung off one shoulder. Her hair was straight and hung in those big curls he loved, and she had a spatula smeared with chocolate frosting in one hand.
“You made it.” She smiled and beckoned him to follow her.
“What are you doing? I thought you had a dinner appointment,” he said as they made their way into the kitchen.
Janel ducked her head. She used the spatula to lift out a perfect brownie and set it on a square plate. “I do.”
Nick looked around the kitchen and saw dirty pans in the sink and the table set for two. “Are you hosting?”
Janel kept her head down as she placed another brownie on a different plate and then took them both over to the table. “I am inviting someone to dinner.”
Nick rubbed his hand over his stomach, where it felt like someone had just punched a hole. He watched as Janel pulled out her phone and typed a quick text. The thought of Janel with another man made him want to throw something, but standing here, facing the reality that she wanted a man that wasn’t him made him sick. His phone chirped and he pulled it out of his pocket.
Would you like to have dinner with me?
Nick looked up, but Janel was busy untying her apron. He looked again at the table. She’d laid out a dark tablecloth and set each place with care. She’d made a salad with dark greens, strawberries, and red onions, and there was a platter of flavored rice and salmon. It was all warm, so she must have just barely finished up. He was touched that she went to so much effort on his part. He looked at her again.
Maybe she wanted to clear the air and discuss their parents. That could be beneficial. Or maybe her parents had talked her into ending their marriage. He had no idea what type of people they were. For all he knew, Janel’s mother was just was protective as his. That could be bad, but it wasn’t anything they couldn’t overcome if they worked together. He glanced at the table. She wouldn’t have gone to so much trouble if she were going to break things off.
He typed back. Yes
Janel’s phone chirped. She glanced at it, and then up at him. Her cheeks colored, but she smiled and went to the table.
Nick pulled out her chair and waited until she was situated before taking his seat. She offered grace before taking some salad and passing him the bowl.
“I wanted to say thank you for loaning me your car. It’s been a lifesaver.”
Oh, so this was a thank-you dinner. He felt the tension between his shoulder blades evaporate. “No problem. It’s good for the engines to run every so often, and I don’t drive either of them enough.”
“Then why do you have them?”
“Because it’s nice to know that when I want to take a lazy drive up the coast I can do it in a convertible; or, if I need a four-wheel drive vehicle, I have it.”
Janel shrugged and took a bite of her salad. “Thanks for sending Gerry over, too. He was a huge help.”
“Did you get everything turned in?”
“Barely. But, thanks to you, we’re back on schedule.”
“Good.” Nick tucked in, determined to show her he enjoyed her cooking. As he tasted the salmon, which was really quite good, he wondered at his earlier fit of jealousy. He should have trusted her more. He took a sip of water and wiped his mouth with his napkin before asking, “Have you told people at school that you’re married?”
Janel picked at her food, keeping her head down as she talked. “I didn’t go around showing off my ring when school started, if that’s what you mean. Most everyone is aware of it by now. My students don’t know the difference because I teach entry level classes and get new ones each semester.” She took a sip of water. “Professor Ford was surprised. He’s my advisor. I’ve worked pretty closely with him for the past two years and I think he was offended that he wasn’t invited to the wedding. I told him we eloped and he relaxed a bit. Why do you ask?”
“I realized that you’ve met a lot of the people I work with, and my mother, but I haven’t met anyone in your life.”
She looked up and met his gaze. “Do you want to?”
Nick scratched his chin. Did he want to, or was it just his insecurities spurring him on? He tried to picture what she did, and the only images he had were of her in the ball gown or here at home. There was a whole other side to her that he had yet to discover. “Yeah, it would be great to see where you work and what you’re working on.”
“In that case, I’d be happy to show you around.”
Fidgeting, Nick wondered if it were wise to bring up their parents. Turned out, he didn’t have to.
Janel placed her hand on top of his. “I haven’t heard how things went with your mother, er, Rebecca.”
Nick leaned back. “They went as good as could be expected.”
“Is she angry?”
“More at me than at you.” He rubbed his chin. “I should have been honest. I didn’t plan on things getting—” He broke off. What was he supposed to say? That he didn’t plan on falling in love with his wife? That sounded stupid.
“Deep?” Janel offered.
“Yeah.” Nick met her gaze and he saw something there he hadn’t seen before. Or perhaps it had been there, and he’d not paid attention or tried to talk himself out of believing it.
Capturing her hand, Nick felt a slow burn start up his arm. “The important thing with Mother is for us to show unwavering conviction.”
Janel’s eyes flicked to their hands. She licked her lips and asked, “How do we do that?”
Nick enjoyed having her talk about “we” and “us.” It was another sign that she wanted in this relationship. Maybe not as much as he did—she might need some time for her feelings to develop—but it was a start. “We’ll start by taking her to dinner tomorrow night.”
Janel smiled as if she actually liked the idea. “Sounds good.” She played with her napkin.
“Did you talk to your parents?”
“Not yet. I’m having dinner with them on Sunday. I feel bad. They were so excited that I’d be there. We used to have dinner every Sunday.”
“You can again. We can have them over here.”
Janel considered this. “I would like that. I haven’t cooked for them since I was an undergrad.”
“Then it’s settled. A week from this Sunday—and every week after that, if you want.”
“Thank you.” Janel gave his arm a squeeze before taking another bite of her dinner.
Nick slid his dinner plate out of the way and pulled his brownie closer. Janel was still working on her salmon, and he had no desire to hurry away. “Tell me about your trip to Guatemala.”
For the next half hour, Janel outlined Ancient Mayan burial practices and explained her theory regarding the placement of bodies and what they said about Mayan beliefs in life after death. Her eyes danced as she talked about the Mayans, how they themselves new names at certain milestones and how they recorded their genealogy fastidiously. As she talked, he slid her brownie over and ate it too. She didn’t notice until she paused to take a drink and realized the spot was empty.
“You!” She playfully shoved his shoulder.
Nick pointed at the counter. “You have a whole pan full.”
“Those are for Brenda.”
Janel piled her silverware on her empty plate and set her napkin on top. “I made her a deal. If she got you an evening off, I would make her brownies.”
Nick softly thumped his chest. “I’ve been ambushed and I didn’t even see it coming.”
Janel laughed. “That’s kind of the point of an ambush.”
Letting the sound of her laughter wash over him, Nick enjoyed the happy bubbles floating inside his chest and finally let go of the jealousy and mistrust completely. Janel wanted to be with him. In fact, she’d gone to a lot of trouble to make this dinner happen, and it struck a chord of hope that she might feel at least a fraction of the way he felt towards her. “True,” he conceded.
Dinner was over, and Nick was nowhere near ready to let Janel go. After using his napkin one last time, he asked, “What else did you have in mind for tonight?”
Janel stood up and took her plate to the sink. “What, a home-cooked meal and one ill-begotten brownie aren’t enough for you?”
Nick lifted one eyebrow. “You didn’t plan anything else, did you?”
Janel bit her lip. “To be honest, I wasn’t sure I’d get you to sit down at the table, much less stay for a whole meal.”
He mentally cringed. Had he been so callous toward her that she thought him cold? His feelings toward Janel were anything but chilly. How could he be with her and not express how he felt, even with the smallest gesture or touch, without making her uncomfortable? But she’d planned the meal. She’d even enlisted Brenda in her scheme. If he was reading the signals correctly, she wanted to be with him. “Well, you did make my favorite brownies.” He winked, and Janel laughed.
“Speaking of which, I’m going to have to hide these, aren’t I?” She pulled the tinfoil out of a drawer and covered the pan. “Close your eyes.”
“So I can hide the brownies.”
“Nope. If you’ll steal mine right out from under my nose, then an unattended pan doesn’t stand a chance. Close ‘em.”
Nick sighed dramatically. “Fine.” He closed his eyes and waited for Janel to hide the brownies. As if she could mask their scent. He’d have them sniffed out in no time. She may win this battle, but he’d win the brownie war. And if he was careful and didn’t frighten her away by moving too quickly, he might win much more than brownies this evening.
Janel had no idea where she could put the pan so that Nick wouldn’t find it by rummaging around. “No peeking,” she called over her shoulder as she opened the freezer and shut it again. She finally settled on storing it behind the oatmeal in the pantry in the hopes that he wouldn’t look past the first thing on the shelf.
“Okay, you can open your eyes.”
“Am I allowed to look for them now or do I have to wait for you to fall asleep?”
Janel put her hand on her hip. “Those aren’t for you. Let’s do something to take your mind off of chocolate. Do you want to play pool?”
Nick considered it. “Naw. How about a video game?”
Janel made a face.
Snapping his fingers, Nick smiled. “Movie?”
Janel pulled out her phone as Nick placed his dishes in the sink. “I can check show times. I’ll bet we can catch a nine o’clock showing.”
Nick took her phone and set it on the bar above the sink. “I have something better.”
He set his phone next to hers and grabbed her hand. It was such a natural extension of their easy conversation over dinner and light teasing over brownies that she didn’t think much of it until he gave her a little squeeze. Then she had a hard time focusing on anything except the thrill of being close to him once again. Before she knew it, they were in the home theater room under the garage, and Nick flipped on the stage lights.
She’d only been in here once before, when she’d explored the house on their wedding day. Several rows of theater seats were placed on risers so that each seat had a clear view of the screen that took up the entire far wall. The final row wasn’t seats, but a long black leather couch. Instead of the traditional theater décor, the room was decorated like a pirate ship, with heavy timber, thick ropes, and a ceiling that looked like the night sky dotted with a thousand stars.
Nick opened a cupboard on the wall opposite the screen to reveal an impressive collection of movies. “Do you have a preference?”
“Um, I’m not a big fan of horror, but I don’t mind action/adventure.” She looked over the titles and pulled out one that was still in the wrapper. “I haven’t seen this yet.”
Nick opened another door to reveal a laptop computer, a Blu-ray player, and several other black boxes all connected with a hundred different wires. “Okay. While I get this calibrated, will you pop some popcorn and bring in some drinks?”
“Sure.” Janel slipped out, grateful that Nick could figure out all the techno stuff and all she had to do was work the microwave. She could do computers, but she preferred trowels and shaker screens. By the time she got back, Nick was sitting on the couch with a pad.
“What’s that?” She plopped the bowl of popcorn between them so it wouldn’t tip over, and set their drinks in the cup holders on the back of the chairs in front of them.
“The whole system can be operated from this pad.” Nick touched a picture of a light, and a slide bar popped up. He slid it to the right and the lights brightened; he slid it to the left and they were plunged into darkness.
Next, he touched the movie icon and then tapped play. As the disk loaded, sound blasted from the speakers. Janel pressed her hand to her chest, wondering if that’s what it felt like to break the sound barrier. Nick hurriedly pressed a few icons, and the roar came down to a reasonable level.
He looked at her and they burst out laughing.
“I should have checked that first,” he said.
“What?” Janel cupped her hand around her ear. “Movie techs are the worst?”
Nick smirked and threw a piece of popcorn at her. She threw one back, and he grabbed a handful.
Janel grabbed his wrist. “Wait, wait, the cleaning service will kill me if we get popcorn all over. Truce?”
Nick tipped his head to the side and lifted one corner of his mouth. “Okay, but only for the maid’s sake.”
Janel tucked her feet up on the couch, which wasn’t hard to do. The seat was as wide as a bed and just as soft. She concentrated on the popcorn and tried to ignore the thoughts of beds and Nick that continually distracted her from the movie.
Before long, their shoulders touched and the popcorn was half-gone. Janel ignored her cold feet for as long as she could. She tried to tuck them closer, but it wasn’t helping. After fidgeting for a few minutes, Nick asked her if she was okay.
“I always freeze at the movies. Aren’t you cold?”
“Hang on a sec.” Nick went to the pirate chest at the end of their row and pulled out a blanket made with some type of fur on one side and flannel on the other.
Janel put the popcorn bowl on the floor.
Nick sat close and threw the blanket over both of them. Then he wrapped his arm around her shoulder. “Your arms are like ice.”
Chuckling, Janel said, “It’s just like a real theater.”
Nick rubbed his hand up and down her arm to warm her skin. As he did, she remembered him brushing her arms as they kissed in the kitchen. She felt heat flood her face, and she leaned against his chest so he wouldn’t see her flush.
Nick adjusted so he could slightly recline into the corner of the couch, not letting go as he moved. Janel found a spot to rest just under his chin that was extremely comfortable.
Being with Nick, relaxed and close, was easy and right in a way that she’d never found with any other man. Her earlier worries that he would hide away from her or brush her off seemed ridiculous. Instead, he teased, flirted, and even looked for a way to extend their time together.
Being wrapped up in Nick’s arms made trying to watch the movie as difficult for Janel as doing geometry while patting her head and rubbing her stomach. She couldn’t figure out why the alien soldiers were planning an attack on Washington, and she stopped caring when Nick’s fingers trailed up and down her arm leaving waves of heat on her skin.
She bit her lip and focused on calming her racing heart, hoping Nick didn’t notice the change in her breathing. She’d planned dinner so they could get through the awkwardness created by her unfortunate choice of words with his mother, and it worked. The easiness of their relationship had returned. With it came a whole other level of feelings she’d only allowed herself to peek at.
Nick moved up to brush her cheek, and Janel let out a sigh as she relaxed into his arms. As his chest rose and fell, Janel realized they were breathing in sync; his breaths just as short as hers. The air charged with the feelings between them, warming Janel’s heart and skin.
She tipped her head to see if Nick was as affected by it as she was, and found him watching her instead of the movie. As their eyes met, he sank lower into the couch, placing her above him and running his thumb along her lips.
Nick’s eyes held a question wrapped in a promise.
Janel’s breath caught. Here was the man she’d fallen in love with, and he loved her back. The evidence was clear.
Janel traced the outline of his lips with her finger as her hair fell to the side, blocking out the big screen. She leaned down and he lifted up to meet her halfway, pulling her with him as he fell into the cushion.
Janel sighed against him as they kissed slowly, luxuriating in the joy of finding the one who cherishes you. Nick was masculine and gentle, and Janel wanted nothing more than to spend every moment of the rest of her life wrapped in his arms.
Nick’s face was smooth under Janel’s fingers, and he smelled like he’d put on aftershave that morning and only a hint of it remained. As long as she lived, she’d never forget that smell and the way it sent her heart soaring.
They continued tasting, kissing, and being lost together in the haze of happiness. They only touched the tip of the island they were creating, but it filled Janel with a sense of awe that such a place even existed.
When the final credits stopped, there was a loud, high-pitched whistle through the speakers that sent Nick diving for the control.
Janel laughed and rolled her eyes. “Stinking sound guys.”
Nick gave her a look, and her heart stutter-stepped. His hair was disheveled and his shirt rumpled and he was the most attractive man she’d ever seen. And he wanted her. The wonder of it left her gasping.
Reaching for one of the bottled waters, she took a long drink, feeling pleasantly tired out.
After pressing several buttons, the noise stopped and Nick dropped next to her. Janel offered him the water, and he finished off the bottle.
“Do you want to put in another movie?” Nick asked.
His lazy smile and contented look were all Janel needed. She shook her head and wrapped her arms around his middle, resting her head in that space—her space—between his chin and shoulder.
He played with her hair, running his fingers down the length of it and then twirling the end. The soft touches lulled her into a state of happy oblivion, and soon she was fighting to stay awake.
Nick lay down on the couch with his head on the armrest and pulled her to him. She snuggled into his arms, happy that they fit so well together, and closed her eyes as Nick kissed the top of her head. “You can sleep. I’m not going anywhere.”
Janel slid her hand over his chest and across his body. “No meetings?”
Before she dropped off, the thought crossed her mind that she was finally going to sleep next to her husband.
Janel awoke to the sound of a vacuum coming through the closed door and the feel of Nick tucking her hair behind her ear. She smiled shyly as he kissed the tip of her nose and said, “Morning, beautiful.”
“Good morning.” She looked around. The room didn’t have any windows and she couldn’t tell how long they’d slept. “What time is it?”
“It’s after eight.”
She groaned. “I have a class at eleven.” Thankfully, it wasn’t a Tuesday morning, or Steve would have stormed through the house, blowing his whistle, and demanding she “give him twenty.”
Nick chuckled, and Janel placed her palm on his chest to feel the deep sound against her skin. “I have a meeting at eight-thirty.” He picked up her hand and pressed his lips to her palm. “I’ll cancel it and we can have breakfast together.”
“I’d like that.”
Nick stood up and then offered her a hand. As he stretched his arms out to the side, he said, “I don’t know about you, but I have this strange craving for oatmeal.”
Janel dropped the blanket she was folding and made a mad dash for the door. Nick was right behind her, as she passed the maid and ran all the way up the stairs. She barely made it to the pantry door before him, where she turned her back to the door and barricaded the brownies. “If you want these brownies, you’ll have to go through me.”
Placing his hands on her hips, Nick leaned down to whisper, “Gladly.” As his warm breath tickled across her neck, Janel felt her resolve slipping. He kissed and nuzzled his way along her jaw and her arms moved around his shoulders. When their lips met, the kisses were strong and passionate, and Janel found herself swept away to that place where she was surrounded by the feel of Nick’s lips against hers, his warm breath on her skin, and his arms crushing her against him.
Nick pulled back and touched his forehead to hers. Janel held on to his arms, not ready to let go of this thing they were sharing, the connection they’d formed. She closed her eyes, breathing in the scent of him and storing it away.
“You know what?” Nick asked.
“What?” Janel breathed.
“I’m really glad Brenda sent me out the door last night.”
“Hmm, me too.”
Nick stepped back, ran his fingers down her arms and grabbed her hands. “I’m thankful enough that I’ll deliver those brownies myself.”
Janel gave him a dubious look.
He smiled. “Scout’s honor.”
“You know, I’ll text her to find out if they got there.”
Dropping her hands, Nick grabbed his phone. “I will send you a picture of her holding the plate to prove how happy last night has made me.”
Janel felt her cheeks flush. “I may be out of my mind, but I’m willing to trust you on this one.”
They ate a hurried breakfast, and Nick ran up to change clothes while Janel did the dishes. Nick came back in wearing one of his well-fitting suits. Janel loved him in a tie. She tipped her head. Of course, a towel wasn’t a bad look for the guy either. Biting her lip, she rinsed the last of the soap off her hands and reached for a dishtowel.
Nick came in close and ran his fingers through her hair. “I set up dinner at The Montego with Mother. Will seven work for you?”
Janel nodded. Spending the evening with Nick, even if Rebecca was there, was better than spending it alone. “I’ll be ready.”
Nick pressed a quick kiss to her temple, snagged the brownie pan, and then he was out the door.
Nick wiped his palms on his pant legs. Any minute now his mother would join them at the table—and then, who knew what was going to happen? She’d been less than complimentary when discussing Janel. Nick had managed to keep their conversations short, but he was nervous about exposing Janel to his mother’s frosty side.
For her part, Janel looked as calm and collected as ever. She’d worn her hair down with large waves. It brushed against her shoulders, and Nick was reminded of the way it tickled his arm when she leaned in for a kiss last night. As if her hair wasn’t driving him crazy, she tipped up her water glass to take a sip and winked. He checked his phone for the time. He hoped to get dinner over with and invite Janel back to the theater room.
He touched Janel’s knee under the table and gave her a look full of every kiss he intended on sharing. Janel blushed and leaned closer, ready to whisper something in his ear.
“Well!” declared his mother. “Here we are.”
Janel turned to face Rebecca and Nick slowly got to his feet to welcome his mother to the table. He pulled out her chair. “Evening, Mother.”
Janel smiled. “We’re so happy you could join us.”
There were those words again: “we” and “us.” Nick thrilled to hear them from Janel.
“I wouldn’t say no to my Nicky.” Mother placed her clutch on the table.
Nick didn’t miss the way she called him by his childhood nickname. Once again, his business sense kicked in, and he ignored Mother’s establishing her authority at the table.
The server arrived with three menus and took a moment to explain the specials. Everyone ordered, and he was off again.
Nick leaned back and rested his arm on Janel’s chair. She scooted closer to him, creating the vision of a happy couple. He realized with a start that they weren’t just portraying the image; they were a happy couple.
Before an awkward silence could take root, Mother smacked her fingers on the table, causing her flatware to jump. “This is ridiculous. Look at the two of you, carrying on as if this were a real marriage. It’s shameful.” She stood up and gathered her purse.
“Mother?” Nick stood as well, ready to grab her arm to keep her from running out. “What is the matter?”
Mother looked around to see who was watching. She lowered her chin. “I raised you better than this, Nick. Your father and I both did. What would he think of the man you’ve become, mocking the very thing that brought him the most joy in this life?”
“Wait a minute.” Janel stood. She was calm but determined. “Nick is a wonderful man.”
Janel took his hand. “He’s kind, and generous. He cares about people.”
Mother harrumphed. “As far as I’m concerned, you don’t’ have a leg to stand on or a say in this conversation.”
“I believe I’m as much of this marriage as Nick is.” Janel squeezed Nick’s hand, hard. She may have kept her voice steady, but her grip betrayed her anger.
“You are nothing more than a hired gun.”
Nick lifted his hand. “That’s enough, Mother. Janel has done nothing to earn your scorn.”
“She’s a gold-digger.”
Janel sank into Nick’s seat as if his mother’s words had pushed her down.
“Mother!” he said, exasperated and angry beyond belief. Dropping to one knee next to Janel, he pressed her hand to his heart. Turning to Mother, he said, “Janel is nothing like any woman I’ve ever dated before.” He turned back to Janel, though he continued to speak to his mother. “It doesn’t matter how we met or how quickly we married. What matters is that Janel is amazing. She’s thoughtful and kind, beautiful, and down-to-earth all at the same time. What really matters is that I love her.”
Janel placed her hand against his cheek, unable to grasp the words. If he meant them, if he really meant them, then it changed everything. “Really?”
“Yes, really.” He kissed her softly.
“I love you, too,” she whispered against his lips.
Mother sniffed, and Nick turned to see her wiping her eyes.
“Mother, when you stormed in the other morning, I realized that what I’d been looking for my whole life was what you and Dad had.”
Digging in her purse, Rebecca pulled out a tissue. “I’ve never forgotten the way he looked at me.” She dabbed at the corner of her eyes. “You have that same look when you look at her. I … I have to go.”
Mother rushed out, and Nick let her leave.
Janel frowned. “Should we go after her?”
Nick shook his head. “She needs some time. I think she’s softening.”
Janel looked around at the couples occupying the nearby tables. They had to have heard everything. “Maybe we should just go home.”
Nick flagged down a waiter and cancelled their order. He left a good tip and offered his arm to escort Janel through the dining area.
They didn’t say much on the way home.
As soon as the door clicked behind them, Nick backed Janel up against the wall, where he took her face in his hands and did his best to undo her efforts to look composed.
“Say it again,” she breathed the words between kisses.
Nick pulled back and touched his forehead to hers. “I love you.” His voice was husky with emotion, and she dipped against the wall as if her legs couldn’t hold her any longer. “Janel, will you be my wife?”
She gave him a questioning look.
“Not just in name, but in every way. I want to sleep with you every night and wake up with you in the morning. You are my perfect partner and I want a family, not right now, but eventually. I built this house hoping to grow into it and I’d like to do that with you. Please say yes.”
Janel slid her hands down to rest on his chest. She glanced at the ring on her finger, and Nick’s heart nearly stopped as he wondered if she would turn him down. Had he been too bold? Moved too fast? “If you need time—”
Janel placed a finger over his lips. “Yes.”
Nick’s heart kick-started like a supercomputer. He kissed her once and felt her grin against his lips.
“Let’s go watch a movie,” she whispered.
Later that night, as they lay snuggled together and contentedly dozing, Nick was amazed that he could build a house, but it took Janel to make it a home.
10 months later
Nick carried two bottles of water inside the Mayan temple, where Janel and a team of grad students worked to decipher the drawings on the wall.
It was a big effort to get the permits for this dig, but Janel was determined to see her theory either proved or disproved, and so she’d met with all the right people to make it happen.
Nick chuckled as he realized she’d had an easier time of winning over the Guatemalan officials than he did of winning over her parents. They were still miffed that he’d stolen their daughter, but they’d softened a bit when he promised to go with her to Guatemala to ensure her safety. The extra guards and their guns were worth the small fortune he’d spent once he got here and realized how remote and vulnerable they were.
Stepping over the electrical cords along the floor that connected to flood lights here and there, Nick ran his hand along the cool wall. Without the power, they’d be in complete darkness even in the middle of the day.
When he reached the end of the tunnel, he found Janel squatting in front of a plaque to the right of a sealed-off doorway. She drew a copy of the picture in a sketch book. He touched the bottle to her shoulder, and she looked up and smiled.
She stood up and took a drink from the bottle before answering. “It’s slow going, but we’re discovering new things every day.” Her eyes sparkled. “We should be able to open this door tomorrow.” She was in her element, making sure proper techniques were followed and that everything was categorized precisely.
“What can I do?”
“Will you draw these characters on this side while I finish up over here?”
“Sure.” He took the extra sketch pad, sat cross-legged in the dirt, and got started. Time passed quickly as he listened to the students express their different opinions on what they’d found. His drawings weren’t perfect, but they were a good enough representation that they’d be able to match them up with the photos. As the day wore on, the people thinned out until it was just him and Janel left.
Nick arched his back to work out the kinks, and Janel sat next to him leaning her head on his shoulder. “This has been quite an adventure,” she said.
“Are you happy?”
Janel nodded. “Quite.”
“Good.” Nick pressed a kiss into her hair.
Janel laced her fingers through Nick’s. “You know, we don’t have to wait till we get home to start our next adventure.”
Nick raised an eyebrow. They’d spent many nights talking about starting a family, but had agreed that Janel should finish her PhD first.
Janel ran her fingers through his week-old beard. “Being here has been a dream come true. I’m so grateful you supported me in this. But I’m ready to move on and work on our dreams.”
The sketchpad fell to the dirt as Nick pulled Janel into his lap.
She let out a squeak. “I didn’t mean right here.”
Nick pressed his lips to her neck. “Hmm, I can’t think of any place I’d rather be right now.” It was true. There were a dozen grad students back at camp and at least that many guards roaming the grounds.
As if reading his mind, Janel said, “Just a second.” She leaned over and grabbed the power cord that connected the nearest flood light to the generator and unhooked it.
As the light went out, Nick could still see a soft glow around the bend where the other lights burned brightly, but they were now enveloped in a cocoon of darkness should anyone happen to enter the temple where they were creating their dreams.
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As a special thank you for those who sign up for my newsletter, I’m sending out the second book in the BMB series, The Organized Bride, for FREE! Simply click here and the book will be sent to your inbox. You’ll also receive other wonderful recipes and updates from Lucy McConnell.
MaKayla thought taking a job as an event planner for a high-end hotel would be a wonderful lead into opening her own event planning business. However, a one-year no-contact clause leaves her clienteles if she quits. With nowhere to go, she is intrigued by Pamela Jones’s offer for a job running charities and overseeing contributions—until she finds out that to take her dream job, she also has to take Gabe … for better or worse.
Get your copy of [The Organized Bride, _]the next book in the BMB series, today[. _]Keep reading for a sample of the book or check out the other titles listed below.
The Billionaire Marriage Broker Series
Billionaire Marriage Broker’s weddings aren’t your typical arranged marriages. The owner, Pamela Jones, pairs couples with complementary needs and skills. Most of her couples fulfill their contracts and move on; but, if she has a[_ good feeling _]about a match, romance ensues. Follow this modern-day fairy godmother as she brings together brides and grooms who find more than they were looking for in a BMB marriage.
The Academic Bride
The Organized Bride
The Professional Bride
The Country Bride
The Protective Groom
The Resilient Bride
The Athletic Groom
The Snow Valley Series
Welcome to Snow Valley, Montana where ranchers and cowboys find love and romance in all seasons.
Love in Light and Shadow
Romancing a Husband
Magnolias and Moonshine
Sweet twists on some of your favorite chick flicks.
It Could Happen to Us
Never Ever After
The Destination Billionaire Romance Series
Beautiful locations, handsome heroes, and romance.
The Reclusive Billionaire
MaKayla fell into a chair at the bar, slid her high heels off her aching feet, and propped her legs onto the chair next to her. After a long day of making sure the decorations were up, the awards were in the right order, and the servers got the special dietary meals to the right tables, her toes needed a break. Technically, she was still on the job and needed to make sure the conference room was cleared out before she could go home and slip between her sheets. “What a weekend,” she moaned as she rested her chin on her hand.
“Are you Ms. Marzet?” asked a pretty blonde in an expensive suit. MaKayla had seen her throughout the night talking to different people. As the event coordinator for the hotel, MaKayla didn’t mingle with the guests. She was expected to stay behind the scenes, and she was good at it.
Painting on her occupational smile, she replied, “MaKayla, please.” Swinging her legs off the barstool, MaKayla winced at the pins and needles in her feet. She might need an ice bath for her piggies before bed.
“Oh, don’t get up on my account. In fact, I think I’ll join you.” The woman slipped off her shoes, set them next to MaKayla’s, and rested her elbow on the bar.
“Can I get you something?” MaKayla asked.
“A water would be great.”
The bartender overheard their conversation and winked at MaKayla. He offered two bottled waters and a dimpled smile. MaKayla said thank you without making eye contact. The guy was cute, dark skin and broad shoulders and all, but MaKayla wasn’t looking for anything right now; she needed to remain distraction-free. Once she had her own company, she could afford a few distractions. Focusing on the woman next to her, MaKayla handed her the drink.
“I’m Pamela Jones.”
“Nice to meet you.” They shook hands. Pamela had a firm grip that caught MaKayla by surprise. Limp meant wimp, and too many women out there just didn’t get it. MaKayla suspected Pamela got it and a whole lot more.
“You’re quite the party planner.”
MaKayla winced. “Party planning is cake compared to what I do here.”
Pamela tilted her head to the side. “How so?”
MaKayla swiveled in her chair so she faced the ballroom. Pamela did the same, and MaKayla felt that little thrill her work gave her. “It’s all in the details.” Her hands came up and she used them to accentuate her words. “Most people take for granted that the cloth napkins coordinate with the table cloths—that’s party planning. But what they don’t register, at least on a conscious level—because I fully believe it does click on a subconscious level—is that this particular shade of blue in the company’s logo was used on the invitation, the welcome banner in the hall, and the goodie bags they took home.”
Pamela’s face lit up. “I see. It’s tastefully done, but you’ve managed to associate this color with Bellview Inc.”
“Exactly. Now, by providing the attendees with a pleasant experience—good food, a few laughs, and a gift—they will also associate good feelings with the Bellview.”
“And therefore chose to do business with them in the future,” added Pamela.
MaKayla grinned. “Now you’re getting it.”
Pamela took a moment to scan the room, and MaKayla turned back to the bar to take a sip of water. Pamela slid her knees around to join her. “Do you apply the same principles to smaller gatherings?”
“I’d love to do an intimate dinner, but haven’t had the chance.”
“People don’t book hotels for small gatherings. I have a degree in public relations, but event planning is my passion. There’s such a rush having it all come together, and even when it doesn’t, there’s a challenge to be met.” MaKayla used her thumbnail to separate the wrapper from the plastic bottle as she talked.
“Why don’t you open a business? Surely you know enough people from working here that you could strike out on your own.”
MaKayla sat up straight. If Pamela had identified her exact ring size MaKayla couldn’t have been any more surprised. Ever since she was a junior in high school she dreamed of owner her own events company. One day … If she played her cards right, saved enough money, and made the right sort of contacts, she’d be able to give it a go. Pamela was exactly the type of contact MaKayla needed. If Pamela’s suit was any indication, she was successful at what she did and MaKayla would love to add her name to her future clients’ list. Unfortunately, that list wasn’t nearly as long as she’d like.
She shook her head as she replied, “I signed a contract when I started. I can’t solicit the hotel’s customers for at least a year after I quit.” She peeled the label all the way off and rolled it into a tight ball. With her parents in a vacation home in Mexico for who knows how long, her sister wrapped up in finishing her law degree, and her friends giving up on her because she was always working, MaKayla found herself willing to talk to this dynamic, yet motherly woman about her career plans. “I’d love to be out on my own; I just can’t afford to go without a paycheck for a year.”
“Hmm.” Pamela tapped her manicured finger against her lips. “Working weekend nights must make it hard to see your boyfriend.”
MaKayla looked up, startled at the question. “You’re right; that’s why I don’t have one.” That and a couple other reasons.
“What about marriage?”
“I’d love to be married one day, but it’s not in my foreseeable future.”
“Oh, you’d be surprised.”
MaKayla scoffed. “Yeah, like building a business and getting married simultaneously is feasible.”
Pamela laughed. “Darling, you have no idea.”
MaKayla gave her a disbelieving look, but she wasn’t about to press the point with this obviously well-off woman who could become a steady client. Maybe not for the hotel, but for her future. In fact, she had come asking for her by name … “I’m sorry to go on about myself. Did you need something?”
Pamela caught MaKayla’s eye and held it, searching into the corners of MaKayla’s soul. MaKayla had the feeling that Pamela was looking for something specific, like a missing puzzle piece. She didn’t look away.
After a moment, Pamela broke into a huge smile. “I’ve got a good feeling about you. If you want to quit this job and come work for me for a year, I’d be happy to help you get your business started.” Pamela reached into her clutch and pulled out a card.
MaKayla about fell off her chair. Apparently, whatever Pamela was looking for, she’d found it. “Are you serious?”
“Darling, I’m always serious. Now, call that number on Monday and set up an appointment for Tuesday morning sometime.”
MaKayla tapped the card on the bar as she watched the bussers pull the tablecloths off and stuff them in linen bags to take down to the laundry. She thought of all the events she’d pulled together in this room and the little thanks she got from it. Richard, her boss, didn’t appreciate the efforts MaKayla went to in order to please her clients—sometimes on ridiculously small budgets! Just that morning, he’d made a comment about MaKayla being replaceable by any fresh college graduate. If she stayed with the hotel, she’d be doing the same job in five years that she did today, no closer to owning her own business. The life she could live stretched before her like a long, predictable, boring hotel hallway.
All of a sudden, she was tired of spending every waking moment surrounded by tacky wallpaper and busy carpet. She should take a card from her parents’ deck and throw out the expected. Embark on a new adventure. After all, if they could do a one-eighty in their late fifties, why couldn’t she do one in her late twenties?
“You know what? I think I will.”
“Perfect! I’ll see you Tuesday.” Pamela smiled as she slipped back into her shoes.
MaKayla watched her leave and felt a thrill go up her spine. She read the card.
There was only a phone number, no address. She wondered what kind of job only lasted a year. Perhaps it was a special project of some kind. If Pamela would help her start her business, then she’d be happy to help out in any way she could as long as it paid the bills. This was an important step in the right direction. To get this year away from the hotel was an unexpected blessing.
She flipped over one of the napkins on the bar and sketched her logo, the one she’d designed in a business class in college. Back then, the assignment was more than just a grade; it was an expression of her secret dream.
If someone would have told her the Bellview event would have been a turning point in her life, MaKayla would have laughed out loud. Sure, everything went off without a hitch and the client was pleased, but for MaKayla personally, the night couldn’t have gone better.
You can find [_The Organized Bride _]wherever ebooks are sold.
To read the first chapter of [_Blue Christmas: A Snow Valley Romance _]keep reading.
Amber Appleby is not the blushing bride. She makes a career out of being a wife—a business wife that is. After signing divorce papers with her third husband, Amber’s looking forward to a few months in a tropical location when Pamela, owner of a matchmaking service for the ultra wealthy, calls her into the office to ask a favor. Will she walk the newly wealthy Rym through his first year of being a billionaire? Amber’s up for the assignment but Rym turns out to be a maverick—and a gorgeous one at that. Amber’s skills as a life coach are tested at every turn right along with her heart. Faced with a lawsuit that could wipe out the resort Rym’s grandpa built from scratch, Amber has to decide if she’ll protect her marriage or the thing that Rym loves most. Marriage was much simpler when love wasn’t involved!
Purchase your copy of [_The Professional Bride _]today.
If you’ve enjoyed the BMB books, you may also enjoy the Snow Valley series. Set in a small town in Montana, these books are full of cowboys, rock and roll, and romance.
You can read a sample from the first book in the series by continuing on.
“NOTHING SAYS CHRISTMAS LIKE freezing your tail off while waiting for someone to turn on the lights,” said Paisley, her breath puffing in the air. She stomped her heavy boots on the already compacted snow trying to get some feeling back in her toes.
“C’mon. You know you wouldn’t have it any other way,” said her brother, Sawyer. He bent over the stroller to tuck the blanket in a little tighter around his baby girl.
Paisley smiled down at her niece, Journey, wrapped in fluffy pink from head to toe and sleeping peacefully. Her adorable little nose was the same color as her pale pink blanket. The tiny vision had no idea they were about to kick off the Christmas season with a bang – literally.
At eight o’clock on the dot, Snow Valley’s mayor would flip the switch to light up Main Street and the huge evergreen tree in the middle of town. Then Buster Write would set off his vintage WWI cannon two streets away, startling cattle all over the valley and scaring sheep dogs under front porches.
“Do you think she’ll wake up?” asked Paisley.
“Naw, if she can sleep through my drums, she can sleep through Buster’s Bang.”
“The only reason she can sleep through your drums is because music runs in her veins,” said Amber as she squeezed through the crowd. She carried a cardboard cup holder with four steaming hot chocolates in one hand and had her four-year-old son, Peake, balanced on her left hip. As always, Amber looked every bit the rock star. Her clothes, from her high-heeled boots to her thick, fuzzy scarf, were edgy with just the right amount of class. If Paisley didn’t love her sister-in-law so much, she’d have to hate her for being so beautiful.
Sawyer took his son in one arm and a hot chocolate cup with his other hand and stole a kiss from his wife that said he appreciated her look as well.
Paisley made a face and Peake laughed.
“Are we bugging you?” asked Sawyer.
“Seriously, I think you two enjoy kissing in front of people.”
“All the world’s a stage,” said Amber. She and Sawyer tapped their cups together and Paisley rolled her eyes.
Amber distributed the cocoas, reminding Peake to wait for it to cool off. He blew into the hole in the lid, making an O with his lips. Amber pressed her hand to her heart as she melted at his adorableness. She asked Sawyer, “Do you think your mom and dad will come?”
Sawyer shook his head. “Doubt it. Dad didn’t sound so good this morning.”
Paisley looked around for her parents. Her dad threw out his back yesterday when he lifted the turkey from the oven. Thanksgiving dinner wasn’t ruined, but the day was one for the scrapbook. Dad ate standing up and mom pestered him to take a muscle relaxer and lay down.
Paisley checked the time on her phone. Fifteen minutes to go. Anticipating the Christmas magic that sprang to life when the lights came on gave her the same thrill as waiting up for Santa had when she was a kid. In the winters, the sun went down long before 6:00 p.m. so the Parks and Rec. Agency set up fire barrels around the town square. Families gravitated together, then called out to friends and chatted as they waited for the official start of Snow Valley’s Christmas season.
Breathing in the fresh pine scent coming from the twenty-foot tree, Paisley tipped her head back to see the stars. Everyone in town knew everybody else and sometimes the familiarity created problems, but tonight, under a blanket of winter stars and warmed by pine-fed fires, Yuletide goodwill permeated.
Paisley checked her phone. Five minutes. If her parents were going to make it, they’d be here by now. She scanned the crowd to see if she could spot her mom’s bright blue parka – the one she’d had since Paisley was thirteen and was totally embarrassed that her mother would walk around in public in something so old-lady-ish. She did one last sweep and a movement caught her eye.
One barrel over, a guy—a cute guy—in jeans and a designer coat, waved at her. Paisley’s heart stuttered and she ducked her head, tucking her dark mahogany hair behind one ear. The man’s blatant flirtation startled her. She took two quick breaths and dismissed the idea that he waved at [_her. _]She wore a thick coat and stocking hat. No way was she on her game tonight. He must have been trying to get someone else’s attention.
She checked over her shoulder to see if anyone waved back, but the Petersons huddled close and stared at the small stage. Someone tapped the microphone and Paisley turned her attention to the front, her cheeks burning with embarrassment at being singled out.
As Mayor Carl began a well-rehearsed speech on inviting the Spirit of Christmas to Snow Valley, Paisley let her eyes drift back to the stranger. He had to be just over six feet tall with wide shoulders. Dark hair peeked out from under his stocking hat and, heaven help her, curled up in the back. A hint of dark growth on his jaw gave him rugged appeal and Paisley wished she could see what color his eyes were. Please let them be brown.
As if he heard her silent plea, he turned to answer by raising one eyebrow and producing a lazy grin with “come hither” written all over it. The firelight illuminated his face with a golden glow.
Paisley jerked her attention back to the stage and sipped her cocoa to calm the butterflies in her stomach. They’re brown. Deep, dark, gorgeous brown.
Dying to steal another look, Paisley forced herself to face forward, refusing to flirt with him. She didn’t know who he was, but she knew one thing, strangers never stayed in Snow Valley longer than it took to experience Christmas in the town that does Christmas best. After snowmobiling, a romantic ride on the Polar Express, and a few kisses in front of a roaring fire, they’d leave, taking your heart with them.
Just as her resolve slipped away, the square lit up with Christmas joy and Paisley jerked at the cannon blast. Sawyer laughed at her, making some comment about jumping like a newbie. She smacked him in the arm, thankful to have something to focus on besides the man with the gorgeous eyes … and smile … and oh-my-gosh those curls. Paisley stomped her boots again, this time trying to jolt his brown eyes from her memory.
As the crowd dispersed, Amber gathered their cups and took Peake to the nearest barrel to watch them burn. Someone called Sawyer’s name and both he and Paisley turned toward the voice. To Paisley’s horror, her handsome stranger headed right for them. She squatted down to check Journey’s blanket and hide the way her cheeks burned.
“No way!” Sawyer grabbed the guy in a bear hug and pounded his back. “What are you doing here, man?”
Obviously Sawyer knew this guy, which made Paisley even more embarrassed she’d thought he was flirting when he was just being neighborly. For the life of her, she could not put a name with the face. In a town this size, grouping people together as families was easy; but, this guy didn’t look like anyone she knew. Not that being a stranger was a bad thing, oh no, on him, individuality looked good. He probably thought she was a jerk for snubbing him. Well, she’d have to make up for her inhospitable behavior. Standing up, she put on her friendliest smile.
“You remember my baby sister?” Sawyer said pointing at her.
Thanks for the clue. She wracked her brain, sorting through her brother’s old friends, trying to put a name with the hot dish giving her his undivided attention. An old friend could be good—really good. Maybe he’d moved back to town after finishing school and would stay longer than Christmas. This had possibilities written all over it. Their eyes met once again and Paisley’s insides melted.
“How could I forget our biggest fan?” He nudged her shoulder.
Great, she was back to being “baby sister” material. Thanks a lot, Sawyer. She shot her brother a dirty look. So much for possibilities.
“Clay?!” Amber shrieked and flung herself into the man’s arms.
Clay. Clay? Paisley took a step back. “No way,” she said. Looking both ways to make sure no one had heard her. Paisley coughed into her mitten. She glared at Amber, wishing she didn’t feel so jealous of that hug.
“You look positively transformed. What happened to the spikes and black lipstick?” asked Amber.
Paisley wondered the same thing. The last time she’d seen Clay Jett he was a skinny seventeen-year-old with black spikes in his hair and a dog collar. The only member of her brother’s high school band to try and make a living with music, Clay headed west the day after graduation and hadn’t been seen since.
The band didn’t hold his success against him. Although, there were times when Paisley wondered if Sawyer and Amber envied Clay’s gumption. Of course, they sang whenever they got the chance, the national anthem at the 4th of July picnic, Pastor John’s Easter sermon, and no funeral was complete without Amber’s rendition of Amazing Grace. But, once they had kids, their family came first. They made parenting look like so much fun, Paisley couldn’t wait to have kids of her own. Not that she was in a hurry. All things in God’s time, as Pastor John would say.
Paisley had seen Clay’s dad in town, but never thought to ask about his son. She ran her eyes up and down Clay, taking in the changes that were aaaaaall good. Even in snow clothes he looked amazing. Who knew there was so much yum under the black eyeliner and hair dye?
Sawyer cleared his throat and warned Paisley with a look. She turned away and tried to act as though she hadn’t seen him. Sawyer had “advised” her not to date the guys in the band and Clay in particular.
The warning came during her freshman year of high school. She and Sawyer were in the basement, a fresh plate of sugar cookies on the amp and Sawyer tapping his drum sticks against his thigh. Their dad gave permission for Sawyer to use the unfinished basement for band practice as long as he watched Paisley after school. The year she turned fourteen, a whole new set of rules came into play.
“They aren’t bad guys, but they’re a lot older than you.”
“They aren’t that much older. Sheesh. I’ve been hanging around them for four years. I know them just as well as I know you.”
Well, most of them. Nobody knew Clay. He didn’t even hang out with the band at school. He just drifted through the halls in his shredded t-shirts and ripped jeans.
Clay’s choice in clothing never bothered Paisley, it was his empty eyes she stayed up late at night thinking about. The dullness went away when Clay played his guitar and she loved to see his eyes brighten – like watching the sun rise over fresh snow—the energy took her breath away.
“We’re seniors and you’re a freshman. There’s a big difference.”
Paisley walked around the room, going through her pre-practice checklist and ignoring Sawyer. She knew where the guys liked to stand and how tall Amber liked the mic. No matter what she did, the height always needed adjusting.
“Okay?” Sawyer pushed.
Paisley tightened the mic stand hoping to get it to stay in place this time. “You don’t have anything to worry about; it’s not like any of them would ask me out anyway.”
“Who wouldn’t ask you out?” asked Bill as he clomped down the stairs. Jeb, Amber, and Clay, followed right behind. Bill had to duck as his feet touched the floor to miss a low-hanging joist. Paisley smiled. When they started the Iron Stix, the guys used to reach up and brush their fingers against the beam for luck. Amber gave Sawyer a kiss hello before snagging a cookie.
Paisley plugged in Bill’s keyboard, and said, “Sawyer’s worried I’m going to go all Yoko on you guys.”
Bill winked at her. “I’d ask you out to get your cookies, but since you give them away for free …”
Paisley’s face flushed at his obvious reference to the old saying: Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free. She concentrated on the soundboard while Bill plunked notes to help Amber warm up her voice.
Jeb leaned into his mic. “Test. Test.” His voice echoed off the cement walls.
They talked about throwing up padding to absorb some sound, but Paisley suspected they liked the added volume. Playing in the basement was like singing in the shower.
Jeb pulled away and gave her a thumbs up. “I’d take you out, but Lizzie’s the jealous type.”
Paisley rolled her eyes. His comment was the equivalent of waiting for pigs to fly. “Yeah, like she’d give you the time of day.”
Jeb shoved a cookie in his mouth and chased it down with a swig of soda. “She’s just playing hard to get.”
Jeb turned to Sawyer, clearly offended. “She’s like our little sister.”
Sawyer tapped the cymbal three times. “Can we just play?”
Paisley waited at the soundboard as Clay plugged in his bass. He hit a few cords and made an adjustment on his amp. A loud squeal echoed off the walls and everyone covered their ears. Paisley ran over and twisted a knob on the black box. The squeal was replaced by grumbling, but no one threw a dirty look at Clay. No one dared. Sawyer tapped on his snare and then twirled his sticks.
Paisley gave Clay a small smile and lifted her shoulders. He leaned in and she could smell the deep scent of men’s body wash; a scent she’d recently found a new interested in. “You’re more than just cookies,” Clay said quietly, brushing his fingers up her arm.
The connection happened so fast Paisley wasn’t sure it happened at all, except that her skin tingled where he’d touched her. She made her way back to the soundboard, wondering if Clay had adjusted his amp so she’d have to come over and fix it. She watched Clay out of the corner of her eye for most of practice. He didn’t act like he’d said a word and she decided the zing was their little secret.
A secret she’d kept to this day.
Paisley absently rubbed her hand up her arm, wondering if he’d thought of her at all since he left town. Sawyer may have had the authority to warn her off the band when she was fourteen, but she wasn’t fourteen anymore. If Clay was coming home, she would gladly chair the welcoming committee.
The crowd thinned out as Clay listened to Amber and Sawyer’s engagement and wedding story, asked about Sawyer’s job as an electrician, and met their kids. Clay’s eyes wandered to Paisley now and again, but Amber and Sawyer’s excitement over seeing their long-lost band-mate was hard to ignore for long.
Peake threw a snowball at his dad. Sawyer gave him a stern look followed by a promise to play later. The kid shrugged and continued packing snow anyway. Paisley admired his perseverance.
“We sent you an invite to the wedding,” said Amber, her lower lip pouting out.
Clay shuffled his feet. “Yeah, I wasn’t making much back then.” He held up both hands as if weighing his options. “Food or bus ticket? But, I wished you guys the best. Although, I’m not sure what you did, Amber, to deserve a drummer for a husband,” he said as he shoved Sawyer. “I guess it’s just bad luck.”
They joked back and forth, but Paisley’s mind was on Clay’s excuse and she wondered what other tough decisions he’d had to make in order to become a success in the music business. Her heart went out to him – alone in a strange city with hardly any money. She would have ached for Snow Valley, especially after getting an invitation to two of her best friends’ wedding.
Sawyer wasn’t sidetracked by the teasing any more than Paisley was. “Was it really that bad?”
“Sometimes.” Clay glanced at Paisley and then back to Sawyer. “But things got better. I’m working in production now. I hope to open my own studio soon.”
“That’s fantastic.” Sawyer smacked him on the back. “We need to get the band together. Bill lives in Boulder, but Jeb took over his dad’s place last year. I’m sure we could set something up. How long are you in town?”
Paisley caught herself leaning closer, hoping he’d say those magic words, “I’m home.”
“I’ve got a break between projects; I should be here at least through Christmas.” Clay looked her way again and this time Paisley turned her back.
Just like she’d thought. They come, they Christmas, they leave. Clay was no different than the rest of the holiday tourists in this town and she had no intention of giving him any more time or thought while he was here.
“Come on Peake, let’s go build a snowman,” she said, offering her hand.
She and Peake spent the next fifteen minutes using the snow piled on the sides of the walkway to build the base.
Amber interrupted their work and informed Peake it was way past his bedtime.
He looked at Paisley and they both groaned in protest as they made their way to the parking lot.
Paisley found herself scanning the area for Clay. When she didn’t find him, her heart drooped like a pathetic Christmas bow.
“Looking for someone?” asked Amber as she struggled to get the stroller through the snow.
“No.” Paisley knew she answered too fast. She also knew Amber would pick up on her defensiveness, so she added, “I just thought he’d say goodbye. You know, for old times’ sake.”
“His dad called and needed help getting the cows in. They busted through a fence when they heard the cannon.”
“Oh. Well, I guess that’s that.” Paisley reached down and grabbed the front of the stroller to help lift it over the curb.
Amber pressed her lips together as she dug in, her high-heel boots, though totally stylin’, weren’t made for wrestling a stroller through the Montana snowpack. “Sawyer’s trying to set up a reunion of sorts. Wouldn’t that be a kick?”
“Yep.” Paisley concentrated on traffic. She purposely didn’t ask questions and Amber was too busy gripping the stroller so she didn’t slip to press the topic.
Between the two of them, they managed to wrangle their way to Amber and Sawyer’s SUV. Sawyer arrived a few minutes later as they strapped Journey into the car seat. Peake slept on his shoulder.
Once the kids were buckled in, Paisley dashed down the street to her car. It was too darn cold to stand around chatting without a fire barrel nearby.
Clay’s disappearance didn’t stop Paisley from thinking about his easy smile and sultry eyes. She could dismiss his first wave as his attempt to say hi to an old friend. The second smile, the one that practically melted the snow, was harder to write off. Instead of being embarrassed when their eyes met, he looked, well … interested … and flirty … and like someone Paisley would have wanted to spend time with.
She scraped a film of ice off the windshield before getting in the car. Her disappointment that Clay hadn’t asked for her number surfaced as she put the key in the ignition. [It’s for the best. _]She shrugged and turned the key[. The heart can only be broken so many times._]
Lucy McConnell loves romance. She is the author of the Billionaire Marriage Broker series and contributes to the Snow Valley Anthology and the Echo Ridge Anthology.
Her short fiction has been published in Women’s World Magazine, and she has written for [Parents’ Magazine _]and[ The Deseret News_]. Besides fiction, Lucy also writes cookbooks. You can find her award-winning recipes under the name .
When she’s not writing, you can find Lucy volunteering at the elementary school or church, shuttling kids to basketball or rodeos, skiing with her family, wakeboarding, cycling, baking, or curled up with a good book.
You can get a FREE book from Lucy by clicking here, or check out her blog at lucymcconnell.wordpress.com.
Early on, Pamela Jones realized she had an unusual talent for putting two people together. Over the years, she's turned it into a successful matchmaking service for the ultra wealthy: Billionaire Marriage Brokers. While she specializes in "business" marriages -- paring people off because of their skills, education, or training -- she can spot a potential love match a mile away. When Pamela has a "good feeling" about a bride and groom - a business marriage can become so much more. Janel Fendrick is a go-getter. Her dream of excavating a Mayan temple is within reach -- until the funding is pulled and she's left scrambling for an alternative. Pamela Jones comes along with a proposal...and a groom! Janel hesitates, until she realizes that one year of marriage is a small price to pay to have all her dreams come true. What she doesn't realize, is that she's about to get more than she ever dreamed of.