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One Bride Too Many: One Bride Too Many / One Groom To Go Jennifer Drew ONE BRIDE TOO MANYMarriage was never in the cards for Cole Bailey. But his grandfather is demanding he marry a ""nice"" girl—and soon! When he asks his old chum Tess Morgan to hook him up with her single friends, she's less than thrilled. How can she prove SHE'S the perfect one…and that there's simply one bride too many?ONE GROOM TO GOZack Bailey is determined to avoid the marriage trap. It's bad enough that he has to guest-star on a women's home-improvement show. Gorgeous host Megan Danbury is so picky, he's ready to swear off females for good! But when sparks start flying on the set, Zack sees Megan in a whole new—and very attractive!—light. Maybe he's more than ready to suit up and walk down the aisle after all! Duets™ Two brand-new stories in every volume…twice a month! Duets Vol. #59 What could be better than one sexy hero who wants like heck to avoid marriage? How about two? Talented mother-and-daughter writing team Jennifer Drew is back with a hilarious Double Duets with linked stories about bad-boy twin brothers Cole and Zack Bailey—and the women who catch ’em! Duets Vol. #60 Look for an exciting Western theme in this volume! Silhouette Romance author Gayle Kaye makes her Duets debut with a fun, sassy story. Joining her is new author Anne Gracie who takes us to Montana and gorgeous sheriff J. T. Stone. Enjoy! Be sure to pick up both Duets volumes today! One Bride Too Many One Groom To Go Jennifer Drew www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) Contents One Bride Too Many (#u4b38fac9-dc4e-5a48-a981-14278643efcf) Chapter 1 (#u615581df-aabd-5b94-b5a4-060751677c1c) Chapter 2 (#u6ce5a6a8-45be-5a59-8fef-5cc89b5a351b) Chapter 3 (#u0cde2f6b-546d-5dff-8ee7-c0345e3fbc5d) Chapter 4 (#u0e211852-011f-593f-8184-6a75be9d196f) Chapter 5 (#u4de3c077-cbc0-5694-a124-3227197e012e) Chapter 6 (#ub36a4120-bdd2-5708-805c-0754cb66482b) Chapter 7 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 8 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 9 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 10 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 11 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 12 (#litres_trial_promo) Epilogue (#litres_trial_promo) One Groom To Go (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 1 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 2 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 3 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 4 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 5 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 6 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 7 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 8 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 9 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 10 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 11 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 12 (#litres_trial_promo) One Bride Too Many “So, do I kiss a nice girl on a first date?” “I suppose it depends on whether she likes you.” As if anyone in her right mind wouldn’t like Cole, she thought. “Come on, Tess. Teach me some nice-girl rules.” “Don’t get smashed on the first date?” “Good point, but if I were stone-cold sober, would you let me practice?” “Cole, please…” Her heart was racing so hard she was afraid he’d hear it. “I’ll take that as a yes.” Once she would have done anything for a good-night kiss from him. Now she had a chance to see if he lived up to her fantasies. The flesh around her mouth tingled as he gently touched it with his lips. His tongue slid between her teeth as he covered her mouth, drawing her into the best kiss of her whole dating career. Dear Reader, What could be better than one sexy, hunky hard-hat hero who wants like heck to avoid marriage? How about two? Bad-boy twin brothers Cole and Zack Bailey are about to lose their bachelor status. They need to find nice-girl brides or risk their marriage-minded grandfather’s wrath. It will take two special women to convince these reluctant grooms to head for the altar, and Tess Morgan and Megan Danbury are up to the task! Cole’s Ms. Right is a face from his past. He makes a deal with Tess for some matchmaking, but his real interest is in the matchmaker! Being reunited with a high school crush is an intriguing fantasy for us (Jennifer Drew is the pseudonym of mother and daughter Barbara Andrews and Pam Hanson) and provided inspiration for Cole’s story. Then there’s Zack…. From the minute he creates chaos on the set of Megan’s home-repair cable TV show, she’s bothered and bewildered. They, too, strike a bargain…and then the sparks start to fly! We hope you enjoy the results! Jennifer Drew P.S. We love hearing from readers. Please write to us at P.O. Box 4084, Morgantown, WV 26504. Books by Jennifer Drew HARLEQUIN DUETS 7—TAMING LUKE 18—BABY LESSONS 45—MR. RIGHT UNDER HER NOSE For Laura Huff Herring, Jody Myers Berry and Sue Rozman Delia (1960–1998). Nothing finer ever came out of the Motor City. 1 HE’D EAT SOME CAKE, kiss the bride and look for a virgin, maybe not in that order. Cole Bailey pulled into a spot as far away from the sprawling Tudor-style building as possible. As an uninvited guest, he didn’t want to make his pickup look conspicuous by using the Detroit country club’s valet service. This wasn’t where he wanted to be. He’d been crazy to let a coin toss decide whether he or his twin brother, Zack, would be first to buckle under to their grandfather’s unreasonable demand of marriage. His immediate problem was to figure out a smooth way to crash the wedding reception of his mother’s friend’s niece. He drew a blank on her name, not surprising considering how mad he was at Marsh Bailey, his maternal grandfather and more recently evil nemesis. The parking lot was crowded with enough high-ticket wheels to stock a ritzy dealership, but that was fine for him. Big receptions meant a lot of the bride’s friends would be looking for a good time. There was nothing like a wedding to make shy girls bold and nice girls naughty. Unfortunately, the last thing he wanted right now was a fling. He wasn’t here for a good time. Darn! How could the old codger do this to the family? He and Zack had to marry nice girls and settle down, or their grandfather would sell their shares in the family business. That would leave controlling interest in Bailey Baby Products in the hands of strangers on the board of directors. It didn’t really matter to Zack and Cole, because they had great hopes for their construction firm, but their mother would be devastated. The company was her life now, and she ran it as well as her father ever had. Only an autocrat like Marsh Bailey could believe the company would be better off with a male at the helm. He was deluding himself if he thought marriage would turn any of his three grandsons—the twins and their half brother, Nick—into management material. Worse, how could Marsh do this to his daughter, his only child? Since their stepfather’s death two years ago, Cole’s mom lived for her job as CEO of Bailey Baby Products. To retain control of the business when her father was out of the picture, she needed votes from the stock that at least two of her sons stood to inherit. Nick was the lucky one. He was still in college, and Marsh hadn’t started pressuring him to get married yet. Cole rubbed his chin, which was smooth for a change because he’d taken the trouble to shave after work. He shrugged his shoulders, feeling confined by the jacket of his seldom-worn charcoal gray suit. Maybe all the hard manual labor he did trying to make a go of his and Zack’s company had beefed up his shoulders. He ran his finger under the collar of his white dress shirt and loosened his conservative wine-colored tie a little. He was twenty-eight years old and had spent his whole life trying to prove to his grandfather that he wasn’t like his father, Stan Hayward—not that Cole had ever set eyes on the guy. Marsh had made sure of that. He’d sent Stan packing, threatening him with jail if he came near his pregnant seventeen-year-old daughter again. The Bailey surname was the one listed on the birth certificates. Cole snorted derisively, but walked toward the clubhouse. He’d lost the flip to Zack with his own coin. He had to be the first to go wife-hunting, and he couldn’t let his mother down—not that she even knew about this marital blackmail. Marsh insisted his grandsons marry soon, and their brides had to be nice girls, his code word for virgins. Just because Grandad’s own brother had messed up his life by marrying “a henna-haired hooker,” the old man was paranoid about letting a bad girl—or in his daughter’s case, a bad boy—into the family. Cole stopped to admire one of the finest domestic sports cars ever to roll off the line in the Motor City, but he knew he was only procrastinating. He wanted to go to this reception like he wanted a case of poison ivy. Everything about weddings soured his disposition, especially the necessity of having one himself in the not-distant-enough future. “Hey, will you help me?” a female voice called. He heard the distress call before he saw the damsel. “Please! It will only take a minute.” He hurried down the row of cars, spotting a pink dress with big puffy sleeves and enough skirt for a circus tent. Only a bridesmaid would wear a Halloween costume in June. He spotted her problem as soon as he got close enough—her taffeta tail was caught in the trunk. “My bow is stuck,” the voice said from behind a gift-wrapped box the size of a washing machine, “and I dropped my keys under the car.” “Let me take that.” He put the bulky but not heavy package on the ground. The bridesmaid made a stab at twirling and trying to retrieve her keys with the toe of one pink satin shoe, but only succeeded in kicking them farther under the blue compact. Cole bent to look under the car and felt around until he found her keys on one of those stretchy wrist things that she obviously hadn’t bothered to use. Retrieving her keys took a few seconds longer than necessary because he found the view from that angle pretty spectacular. If the rest of the woman’s legs matched her shapely ankles, it was criminal to dress her like a wad of cotton candy. Back in the days when he’d semiwillingly wasted half his weekends every summer going to weddings, he’d developed a theory about bridesmaids—their only real function was to look really bad so the bride looked better. “Thanks, I really appreciate…You’re one of the Bailey twins!” she said, sounding more astonished than the situation merited. He stood, trying to get a look at her face under a hat that was more awning than headgear. “Cole Bailey?” “Yes,” he agreed, wondering how she knew him and coming up blank. “We went to high school together. Remember British lit?” “My worst subject. I shouldn’t have taken it, but I needed one more English class to graduate.” “I remember that.” She whipped off the hat, revealing a mass of reddish brown hair tortured into sausage curls. He still drew a blank. “No wonder you don’t recognize me. This hairdo Lucinda dreamed up for her bridesmaids belongs in a nursery rhyme. I’m Tess Morgan. I helped you with Shakespeare.” “Tess Morgan? No way!” He remembered pudgy little Tess. He and Zack used to tease her just to see her blush. Her cheeks would get flaming red. “I guess I’ve changed some.” “I guess!” One thing hadn’t changed. Her cheeks reddened in embarrassment at the comment he’d intended as a compliment. He remembered one of their nicknames for her—Miss Prim and Proper. “I only tutored you because you promised never to tease me again if you passed the class.” “Did I keep my promise?” He honestly didn’t remember. “You graduated a year before I did, so I guess you more or less did. Anyway, would you please open the trunk? I feel like an idiot trapped by my own car.” “Oh, sure.” He unlocked it and lifted out the wide ribbon of cloth. “Thanks. I appreciate it.” He caught himself staring and had to remind himself that this was Tess Morgan, clueless Tess. In high school she’d been so naive and wholesome, the guys had called her Soapy. “Let me tie it for you.” He surprised himself by offering. “Oh, would you? I don’t know why they had to be long enough to go around a hippo.” He felt clumsy trying to make a bow out of the slippery streamers, especially since the one that had been caught in the trunk had a black smear. “Can you do it?” she asked, looking over her shoulder. “Sure, no problem.” He fumbled with the thing, managing to turn the grease spot so it didn’t show. No need to make her self-conscious by mentioning it. The big bow did her slender waist a grave disservice, in his opinion. “Is Lucinda a good friend of yours?” he asked. He now knew the bride’s name, but he had serious doubts about her character. What kind of woman made a friend show up in public looking like Little Bo Peep? “We go way back.” She didn’t elaborate. “I’ve done this bit so many times, people are starting to think I’m a professional bridesmaid.” “Can I carry that for you?” He nodded at the gift-wrapped box. Chivalry aside, the bulky package looked as if it could be a good ticket into the reception. Who would question a guy who came in with a bridesmaid and a really big present? “Would you mind? It’s not heavy, but it’s bulky. Lucinda is into wicker, so I got her a chair at the import store. Unfortunately they don’t deliver.” Not so unfortunate for him. “I’d be glad to.” He hefted the box and walked beside her toward the clubhouse. How could one person change so much and so little at the same time? She had the same tentative smile, but he didn’t remember her lips being so lush, no thanks to the metallic pink lipstick that was probably supposed to match the dress. Her eyes were bluer than he recalled, but maybe ten years ago she hadn’t looked at him so directly. She had apple cheeks, part of the reason he and Zack had enjoyed making her blush, but there was nothing plump about any part of her now, including her face. She had golden-tan skin, a cute nose and arched brows, altogether a pretty package. “I didn’t see you at the church,” she commented. “I’m not big on weddings. It’s a bachelor phobia.” “Oh, you’re still single?” “You sound surprised.” “A little. Girls liked you a lot in high school—more than Zack even, but I shouldn’t tell you that.” “It’s my brother you shouldn’t tell. He thought he was quite a ladies’ man back then.” Since winning the coin toss, Zack was the happy twin, free to continue playing the field. He was also the one who could get a date with a complete stranger anytime just by saying, “How about it?” Cole wasn’t at all eager to begin wife-hunting, but he hoped to get a date or two at this reception. Zack would have too much fun trying to give him advice on how to get a woman if he struck out. “Is Zack married?” “No, we’re both lonely bachelors. What about you? Are you married?” “No—and don’t pretend you’re surprised.” He protested weakly, but he wasn’t at all surprised. As far as he knew, she hadn’t had a boyfriend in high school and probably still put men off with her wholesomeness. It had had nothing to do with looks. She’d always been too reserved, too self-contained—maybe too shy. “Meeting the right person isn’t easy,” he said glumly, thinking of his grandfather’s unrealistic expectations. Maybe in Marsh’s day virgins panting for husbands were plentiful, but the old man needed a wake-up call. This was the twenty-first century! It was a lot easier to find a playmate than a longtime partner. They climbed the steps at the main entrance of the imposing pseudo-Elizabethan clubhouse, its stucco walls gleaming white and the timbers freshly stained a deep mahogany brown. He’d lucked out in connecting with Tess and her big box. Private security was hovering like dark-suited ghosts, and when he saw the gift room off the foyer, it was pretty clear why. Besides wicker, the bride was obviously into silver and other pricey stuff. He didn’t need Tess’s prompting to carry her gift in with the others and put it in a corner. TESS WAITED while Cole discreetly made her gift disappear in the treasure trove of Lucinda’s loot. He’d been a hunk in high school—she’d sighed over his picture in the yearbook for an embarrassingly long time—but he’d matured and lost his boyish cuteness. Now he was drop-dead gorgeous. His face was sun-bronzed, and a light crease line in his forehead made his dark brows and eyes even sexier. A few minutes ago she’d been furious with Danny-the-creep Wilson for breaking his promise to go to the wedding with her. Now she was glad he was off sailing with his boss and some clients. She was tired of men like him, male friends who cadged meals, borrowed money and called her “good buddy.” It would be a small, if short-lived, triumph to walk into the grand ballroom with Cole. He was just another pal from her past, but no one here knew that. Why did she have so many male friends and no real boyfriend? Guys called her when they wanted to whine about work or the women who did them wrong. They never seemed to notice she was ripe and ready, not even after she slimmed down to a size eight and learned to lose at everything from tennis and video games to battles of wit. Cole smiled broadly when he returned from disposing of her present. “Thanks for carrying it,” she said, smiling. “From now on, I give nothing but towels.” “Towels are nice,” he said in a tone that labeled them boring, “but I’m glad we got together. Big receptions are a drag when you don’t know anyone.” “Except the happy couple, of course, but they only have eyes for each other.” He offered his arm. She took it, more than a little impressed by the way his bicep strained against the sleek, dark sleeve of his suitcoat. They walked into a ballroom that reeked of old money—a blend of greenhouse flowers, high-priced liquor and expensive perfumes. He dropped his arm, and she felt let down. Of course, she couldn’t expect him to hang with her all evening just because they’d once taken the same class. “Fancy affair.” He sounded vaguely disapproving. “Yeah, I guess.” She knew he was much more likely to feel comfortable at a society wedding than she was. His grandfather was wealthy and important, and the twins had grown up in the lap of luxury, so to speak. Not that Tess wasn’t inordinately proud of her family. Dad was a high-school coach who thought it was more important to teach values than win games, and her mom taught reading skills to kids who would otherwise wash out of the system. Her older sister, Karen, was a third-grade teacher with a peach of a husband and two adorable girls, Erika, five, and Erin, seven. Tess was the family maverick, but thankfully she had a natural flair for business. She’d built up a successful baby store on her own and had recently moved to a high-rent location, the Rockstone Mall. So far the store was thriving, mainly because she stayed current on all the latest gadgets, gimmicks and gizmos made for little people. “I prefer receptions at a lodge hall or in the back room of a restaurant,” Cole said, scanning the enormous room. “Where the girls are more fun because they’re tipsy?” she teased, wondering why she felt free to say whatever came to mind with him. He laughed. “There is that.” It was a huge reception, but the majority of the guests were north of forty. Lucinda’s parents had lots of friends, but Tess’s weren’t among them. It was only an alphabetical accident that she and Lucinda were old friends. Since grade school, L. Montrose and T. Morgan had been paired up. They’d renewed their friendship when Lucinda’s dad had called in a favor with the mall management corporation and gotten his daughter a job doing publicity for Rockstone, where Tess had her store. For the first time in her life, Lucinda had been out of her depth, possessing little flair for promotions. No surprise, she’d come to rely on Tess for sympathy and suggestions. Tess glanced at the sturdy little wristwatch she’d managed to slip past the bride’s last-minute inspection. She was genuinely fond of her longtime friend, but this wedding had brought out the worst in Lucinda, turning her into a control freak. A slightly plump blonde, she’d dressed the seven bridesmaids in nursery-rhyme costumes that made them look like pink pumpkins. She said it gave the wedding a quaint ambience. Tess came to the reception with one thought—how soon could she sneak away without being missed? She was enjoying her moment in the sun with Cole, but no doubt he’d soon be snatched away by one of the many predatory, but not necessarily single, women who were looking for a way to milk a little fun out of an otherwise dull affair. Fortunately the dinner was a buffet, and Lucinda wasn’t going to share the limelight by having her quaint maidens on display at a head table. Unfortunately there were still little rituals that demanded Tess’s presence—single girls diving for the bouquet as though they believed the prize was a wedding of their own, bachelors tussling manfully over the garter, the bride and groom smearing cake on each other’s lips so they could do the giggle-and-smooch bit. Why had she agreed to yet another stint as a bridesmaid? Tomorrow she’d take this silly dress to her sister and let Karen make kids’ costumes from the yards and yards of material in the skirt. Her nieces would love having pink taffeta Halloween costumes, if they didn’t wear them out before then playing dress up. A waiter came toward them with a tray of champagne in glass goblets, not the plastic throwaways that smelled like nail polish. “Drink or dance?” Cole asked, snagging one for both of them with a casual thanks. “Hard choice.” She wondered if he actually wanted to dance with her or was only being polite. “Both, then.” He lifted his glass and clinked it against hers. “To the happy couple.” “To Mr. and Mrs. Menton.” She took a tiny sip, then a more substantial one. It tasted a lot better than the usual bubbly vinegar served at receptions. “You didn’t say whether you’re a friend of the bride or the groom.” “I’m equally fond of both,” he said. “Good champagne. I usually hate it,” he said, draining the goblet determinedly. “A friend of the couple? I’m surprised Lucinda never mentioned you.” She finished her champagne and looked around for a place to put the glass. Cole took it and put both on a passing tray. “I’m more a friend of what’s-his-name,” he said. “Menton.” “Doug. His name is Doug.” “Guess I don’t actually know him,” he admitted sheepishly. “So Lucinda invited you?” He was up to something, and she was intrigued. “Not exactly. My mother is a friend of her aunt.” “Then why…” “You’ve caught me!” He touched his finger to her lips. “I’m crashing the party. Will you keep it a secret?” She nodded, and he took his finger away, leaving her lips with an oddly tingling sensation. “But why?” “Just for kicks. Want to dance?” “Sure, why not?” She didn’t kid herself. He hadn’t crashed the reception just to glide across the waxy hardwood floor with an old school acquaintance, but he really could dance. Responding to the firm pressure of his fingers on her satin-armored waist, she followed his lead with exhilaration. “You’re making me look good,” she said a trifle breathlessly. “You are good.” He sounded surprised, but she didn’t care. Dancing with Cole was incredibly…stimulating. Her dress rustled, Cole hummed, and her ears buzzed. Could it be she was feeling tipsy on one glass of champagne? “What do you do?” he asked, his lips so close to her forehead she could feel a warm whisper of air when he spoke. “Do?” He pressed the hand he was holding against his chest and twirled her around a flat-footed couple who were shuffling across the floor without much regard for the music. “Job, career, work?” His sarcasm got through to her. “I have a store at Rockstone Mall.” “Let me guess. Flower shop?” “No.” “Pet supplies—doggie sweaters and gourmet treats for pampered cats?” “No, I’m into pampering babies. My store is Baby Mart.” The song ended, and the band members stood up for their break. Did they have to take one now? “As a matter of fact, Bailey Baby Products is my main supplier. Your company’s high chairs outsell all competitors five to one,” she said enthusiastically, groping for common ground to keep him with her a little longer. “My grandfather’s company,” he said dryly. “Zack and I have a construction business.” “That’s nice.” This conversation was going nowhere, and he obviously wasn’t focused on her anymore. Well, he wasn’t her date, however pleasant it was to have a gorgeous man in tow. “Thanks for the dance,” she said as casually as possible. “I need to speak to a friend over there.” The friend was imaginary, but the technique was all hers. When a guy started looking through her, beyond her or over her head, she liked to be the one who walked away. She headed toward the universal haven of unescorted women, wishing she’d had room for a hair pick in the tiny satin drawstring bag that came with the dress. Staring at herself in the mirror, she wished she could wet down the sausage curls and loosen the stiff nylon petticoat, but it would take more than that to get Cole Bailey to go home with her. Dang, where did that thought come from? She was swearing off champagne forever! After touching up her lipstick, she went back to the reception, killed an hour gossiping with Lucinda’s younger sister, then filled a plate at the buffet and sat at a table with the bride’s great-aunt, who was allergic to every food from grapefruit to garlic and liked to talk about it. Tess murmured sympathetically and picked at the smoked salmon, but she couldn’t help tracking Cole. It wasn’t hard. For an uninvited guest, he certainly wasn’t trying to be inconspicuous. In fact, he zeroed in on the most eye-catching women and was never without a dance partner. Lucinda had assigned little jobs to all her attendants, and Tess had the task of organizing the bouquet toss. The clubhouse had once been a millionaire’s mansion, and the front hallway had a curving staircase wide enough for a 1930s musical comedy number. Naturally Lucinda wanted to stand above the rabble when she tossed her artfully arranged bunch of orchids. “Use the mike,” Lucinda commanded when she swished by to give Tess her marching orders. “Can’t I just…” “It’s the only way everyone will hear you in this huge room.” Lucinda’s way was always the only way. Tess had an urge to mutiny, but after the honeymoon, Lucinda would be back at the mall, her lunch buddy and walking partner. Most brides became real people again after their big day. “I hate mikes.” Lucinda was impervious to pouting unless she was doing it. Tess went to the head table and located the dreaded instrument, which the groom’s father was kind enough to test by blowing into it. The result was a whining whistle. “Here you are, little lady.” Next he’d pat her head! “Eh, ladies…girls…women…” The mike made her too nervous to remember what was politically correct. The band was taking their forty-third break, and conversation prevailed. “Can I have your attention? Please!” “Talk up a bit, little lady,” her coach prompted. “The bride is going to toss her bouquet!” That got them. Tess wiggled her tongue trying to get enough saliva to finish the announcement. “Eligible women go to the grand stairway,” she directed, surprised when the groom’s dad took the microphone away from her. “Come on, gals. Who’ll be the lucky little lady to snag the bouquet?” Tess crept away before he thought of doing an interview on why she wanted to be the winner. In fact, she didn’t. She’d caught the bride’s bouquet at four previous weddings, mainly because she could be trusted to return it to the newlyweds. Obviously the magic didn’t work on a skeptic like her. Judging by the stampede, Lucinda had invited an army of unwed women, although some of the throng gathering at the foot of the stairs had to be women looking for love the second or third time around. The foyer was large with striking black-and-white checkerboard tiles on the floor. The walls were loaded with cloudy old oil paintings in heavy gold frames. Lucinda had gone to the top of the stairs so she could descend dramatically, her train hooked up to avoid a tumble. Her dress was ivory silk with an overskirt of antique Belgian lace from her grandmother’s wedding gown. Tess had never seen a bride who didn’t look beautiful, and Lucinda was no exception. It was the glow, not the trappings. It was her job to announce, “Here she comes!” and whip the crowd into a frenzy. She intended to stand to the side and avoid the crush, but women jockeying for position outflanked her. She found herself squeezed in on all sides, threatened by a tall girl’s bony elbow to her right and a pair of spike heels backing into her. Tess’s silly bow had come untied again, but she was too squashed to reach behind and redo it. She caught a glimpse of Lucinda nodding at her from the top of the stairs, her signal to make the big announcement. “Here comes the bride!” she called, not that everyone couldn’t see that. A woman with jet-black hair gave her a hard hip thrust on the left, but Tess couldn’t escape the press. They’d boxed her in on all sides. Lucinda was descending with much-practiced stateliness. She threw from the halfway point, putting enough oomph into the toss to give the bouquet some spin. Tess put out her hands defensively with no thought of catching it, but the flowers were coming directly at her. Hands were everywhere, reaching, grabbing and snatching. She heard an ominous rip and was nearly knocked off her spike heels as two contenders got their hands on the delicate arrangement of exotic blooms. Neither woman would let go. They pulled until they split the prize, tearing the orchids away from the wiring. Tess heard another tearing noise and knew she was in trouble. The crowd thinned with a mix of disappointed grumbles and good-humored laughter. Tess found herself standing alone with her skirt hanging limply on the tiles behind her. The wretched satin streamers had been torn loose, taking the back of the skirt with them. She knew the semi-transparent petticoat wasn’t enough to conceal a view of her pink bikini panties, and a couple of the groomsmen were strolling her way. She knew they’d noticed when they stopped and pretended to study one of the dark old oil paintings on the wall in front of her. Freddy, a pale blond, freckle-faced guy pretending to be an art lover, had already tried to corner her in a Sunday-school room at the church. He had breath like a sewer and at least seven arms. She’d rather get sucked into quicksand than let him get his hands on the part of her anatomy that was now hanging out of the ruined dress. Reaching behind and grabbing a handful of satin, she tried to bunch it together enough for modesty’s sake while she edged her way out the door. This reception was over for her. She felt the jacket descend on her shoulders before she saw her rescuer. “Let’s go,” Cole said, putting his arm around her shoulders to hold his suitcoat in place. “Gladly!” “Crazy ritual. I’d rather take on a wolf pack than get in the middle of a scramble for the bride’s bouquet.” “I wasn’t trying for it,” she said. “I was in charge of getting the women together.” “You certainly did an admirable job,” he teased, pushing open the door with his free hand. Spotlights lit up the front entrance, and lightposts illuminated the whole of the parking area. A few smokers lounged on the steps enjoying the wonderful June evening, and a tipsy couple were doing something that resembled dancing on the asphalt drive. He guided her toward the car, keeping his jacket firmly in place with his arm. She was happy to see her little compact, which was as out of place between a Mercedes and a Lincoln as she was at this reception. “I owe you,” she said. “This makes twice you’ve rescued me.” “No thanks necessary. Do you have your car keys?” “Yes, and I can actually reach them this time.” She dug into the little purse and extracted them, rather pleased when Cole took them and unlocked the door for her. “About owing me,” he said as she slid out of his jacket and onto the car seat. “There is one little thing you could do for me.” “What?” She was genuinely surprised that Cole Bailey could need anything from her. If truth be told, she was hopeful that the favor involved spending more time with him. “You’ve always had a lot of girlfriends, if I remember right. Do you still?” “I guess. I’ve never given it much thought.” “Are some of them…I mean, do you still have some sweet unattached friends who’ve never been married?” “I don’t exactly run a club for old maids.” She was liking this less and less. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound…” “Weird?” “My intentions are honorable.” He smiled ruefully. “I’d really like to meet some nice women.” “Is that why you crashed the reception?” Surely this man could get a date in a convent if he put his charm to work! She was far more puzzled than pleased by the prospect of playing matchmaker for him. “Weddings are usually a good place to meet…people.” “You seemed to be doing well enough.” She bit her tongue, angry at herself for letting him know she’d noticed. He shrugged. In shirtsleeves, his shoulders were broad and muscular. Her fingers itched to touch them. “I’d like to meet someone our age.” “I’m a whole year younger than you are!” “Point taken. But do you have any nice friends?” “All my friends are nice—at least most of the time.” She was thinking of Lucinda. “But I’m not good at setting up blind dates. It’s the best way I know to lose friends.” She suspected he was too much man for most of the single women she knew. But oddly enough he didn’t intimidate her anymore. She knew he’d never be interested in her—she was just his pal—but at least he didn’t make her stammer, stutter and shake anymore. “How about this.” He took a coin from his pocket. “Heads, you introduce me to some of your friends. Tails, I give you a tour of the baby plant and a sneak preview of some new products that will be available soon.” She was tempted, but didn’t entirely trust him. “I’m not much on games of chance,” she said. “What is your game?” “Tennis, but I wouldn’t stand a chance against an athlete like you. I do play pool occasionally.” She didn’t mention that she’d grown up practicing on her dad’s table in the basement, or that she played in a weekly league in the winter. “Pool it is. Same stakes. Do you like one game, sudden death or two out of three?” “Two out of three.” Her second game was usually better than her first. She needed warm-up time. “I’ll follow you. Where do you want to play?” “You forget I did the Cinderella bit—ball gown to rags. Maybe a rain check?” Which would give her time to wiggle out of the bet, she thought, realizing how little she wanted to fix him up with someone else. “If you’re afraid you can’t beat me…” “No way!” “I’ll follow you home. You can change, and we’ll go to the closest bar with a table.” “It’s late, Cole.” “Not even eleven.” “I’ve had a long day.” “No disadvantage. I was on the work site at six a.m.” “Do you always get your own way?” His grin was all the answer she needed. She gave in, but darned if she’d let him win! 2 THERE WAS NOTHING Cole liked less than waiting for a woman to get dressed—except, of course, looking for a wife he didn’t want. He told Tess he’d wait in the truck while she changed her torn dress, but he was too restless to sit. He got out of the driver’s seat and started pacing in a broad circuit in the parking area as soon as she went inside her ground-floor apartment. She lived in one of a hundred or so small units in the brick complex, all with individual entrances either on the ground level or off a second-floor balcony that ran the length of each building with stairs at both ends. He approved. He liked a floor plan that allowed tenants their own private entrances and didn’t waste space on a lobby. The apartments were thirty or forty years old, built when buildings were still laid out in rectangular patterns with straight service roads. Today builders, including Zack and him, favored curving roads and cul-de-sacs for an illusion of spaciousness and privacy, but the place was well maintained and still looked good. Much of the vast sprawl in Wayne County was a conglomerate of enclaves linked by expressways and major roads. He knew it like the back of his hand, but never tired of the architectural diversity. He’d rate Tess’s place as ho-hum, a haven for singles and young couples with a smattering of seniors who’d given up their homes in favor of easy maintenance and social-security living. At least she didn’t live with her parents. Stopping to look at his watch, Cole thought about the evening so far. The wedding reception had been about what he’d expected—a bunch of casual acquaintances and a few strangers pretending they lived the high life all the time. At least no one had challenged his presence. He even got propositioned. Mrs. Donaldson wanted to give him a tour of the clubhouse, promising she knew some hidden niches where no one ever went. She’d conveniently forgotten he’d played soccer with her son in middle school. He politely declined! As for the younger women, he’d had a hard time separating college girls from jailbait. Except for seeing Tess again, the evening had been a bust, but it forced him to be realistic. He wasn’t going to find the girl of his grandfather’s dreams at a party or a bar, which pretty much eliminated his usual stomping grounds. Maybe Tess would open some doors for him, not that he deserved her help after the rough time he gave her in high school. But they were both adults now, right? Fortunately, she didn’t seem to hold a grudge. She was the kind of woman who could be a good friend without all the game-playing that went with relationships. And she was the only person he knew who could help him meet some nice girls. First he had to beat her at pool. He’d be sporting, though, and not win by too much. He couldn’t expect her to help solve his problem if he humiliated her. “Bailey, where are you?” she called, managing to startle him, because he’d expected to wait the typical half hour most females required for a simple change. “Here.” He walked toward her from a row of cars parked south of his truck. “Are you ready for a…” He nearly said lesson, then saw what she was carrying—a case that could only contain one thing. “You have your own pool stick?” “I play in a league in the winter. If you want to call off the bet…” “No way.” He had a hard time seeing Tess as a pool hustler, but she’d suckered him into a challenge he really needed to win. At least it would be more fun—and easier on his conscience—if she could give him a good game. “Get in.” He opened the door of his truck for her. “I thought I’d drive my car, and you can follow. That way you won’t have to bring me home.” “Get in. I don’t mind bringing you back.” In the light from the cab she looked more like her old self, only better, much better. Jeans and a form-hugging white tank top did a lot more for her than the bridesmaid getup. She’d pulled all the sausage curls into a ponytail that bounced as she scampered into the pickup. One of the nice things about taking a date in the truck was checking out her back view without being obvious as she climbed to the seat. Tess had a round, firm bottom, but of course she was no date prospect and never would be. Being with her was more like taking a ride with his sister—if he had one—or maybe a first cousin, which he also didn’t have as far as he knew. No telling what his biological daddy had in the way of relatives, since Cole had never heard boo from the man. Apparently he’d taken Marsh Bailey’s threats seriously way back when. Cole’s deceased stepfather was the man who’d been a true father to him, and Zack felt the same way. “I know a place not too far from here where we should be able to get a table without a long wait,” she said. He shrugged and let her give him directions. “It’s not a tie-and-jacket kind of place,” she warned. “All the better. Where did you learn to play pool?” “My dad loves it. Has a table in his basement.” “Now I’m getting worried,” he teased. “Yeah, sure. How many times have you lost at anything?” “Well, I’m still single. I certainly haven’t won the girl of my dreams yet.” And he wouldn’t be looking for her if he hadn’t lost the toss to Zack with his own coin. “About what you want me to do—not that I plan to lose,” Tess said, “you actually expect me to fix you up with a blind date?” “Maybe several.” “You’re serious? I mean, you’re not going to break any of my friends’ hearts just for fun, are you?” “I’m serious.” His answer came out sounding grim. “Why now? “You have a mother. You know how they get when grandkids fever hits,” he said, giving her the first plausible reason that came to mind. The truth was too bizarre to lay on someone he hadn’t seen for ten years. “I guess, but my sister has two kids. I’m more or less off the hook for now. So you want to meet a nice girl to make your mother happy?” She sounded puzzled but not disapproving. “I promised to give it a try, but working in construction I don’t meet many girls I’d want to take home to Mom.” He didn’t like this conversation, and the pool place wasn’t as close as he’d like it to be. “Well, I’d hate to disappoint your mom.” She patted the case resting on her thigh. “But I’m looking forward to a sneak preview of Bailey’s new line. My shop is getting a reputation for handling the latest baby products.” He urged her to tell him more about her store without paying much attention to what she said. His interest in baby monitors and infant seats was nonexistent, especially since anything baby related reminded him of his grandfather’s high-handed manipulations. They got to the pool hall. Buck’s wasn’t the kind of place he would’ve expected Tess to like. It was a workingman’s tavern with thick black glass windows and a neon beer sign over the door. He left his jacket and tie in the truck and followed Tess into a murky interior that reeked of smoke and boilermakers. “Hi, Tess! How’s my sweetie?” a bearded little man who’d never see seventy again called as she walked in. “Doing great, Barney.” “Gotcha self a live one?” another grizzled old man asked from the brass-railed bar. “Ready for plucking.” Bar regulars were territorial, and the stools belonged to old-timers, mostly men and a few women with faces that didn’t match their vivid hair colors. What Cole saw at the tables helped explain why Tess felt comfortable here. They’d largely been taken over by twenty-somethings, young professionals trying to dress down and still look cool in designer jeans. The two groups seemed to tolerate each other well enough, with the possible exception of a few tough-looking young guys probably looking to prove something by hitting on classy girls. Tess waved at a few younger people but headed directly toward the rear of the building. The pool tables were behind swinging Dutch doors in a back room with an old-fashioned metal ceiling. She’d chosen well. She scrawled her name on a chalkboard, but they were the only ones on the waiting list for a table. “What can I get you to drink?” he asked “A light beer, please. Playing pool is thirsty work.” He’d expected her to order a soda or possibly white wine, but then, he didn’t know much about the Tess of today. He fetched a couple of brews and stood with her watching the action. Finally a couple of giggling girls abandoned their table and left with some guys in motorcycle boots and belts so heavily studded they probably pinched their bellies when they leaned over. “You’re the challenger,” she said. He racked the balls and tested the weight of the stick he’d chosen. The shaft had been sanded and the tip replaced recently. This place took their pool seriously. Tess broke the rack and sank a striped ball. He liked the way she leaned over the table and studied her options. She had a loose, casual style, but once she committed to a shot, she went for it like a pro. She impressed the hell out of him. This bet wasn’t the sure thing he’d expected. “Nice shot,” he said as she sank another ball. In fact, it was too nice. Beating her was going to take some off-table strategy. He stepped behind her and leaned when she leaned, reaching over her to take her wrist as she lined up her next shot. “Maybe if you straighten your wrist just a little…” He began coaching. “Cole Bailey!” She used her hips like a pair of cannon balls and knocked him away from the table. “I do not need lessons!” she said, confronting him like a raging rhino. “If you touch me again, the match is off.” “Understood,” he said, feeling like a jerk. “Some girls appreciate a few pointers.” And a little touchy-feely to go with the sport, he thought, vowing not to forget Tess was different from most women. He walked to the other side of the table so he wouldn’t have to watch the little tail twitch she used unconsciously when she was ready to take her shot. She might play killer pool, but she was still at square one in the boy-girl game. Men challenged each other for the competition, but it was a whole different contest to play with a woman. I’m a chauvinistic jerk, he thought when she missed her next shot. He could win this bet without rubbing against her backside or distracting her with thinly disguised hugs. After all, this was Tess. He still owed her for getting him through English lit. “Sorry,” he mumbled as he stepped up to take his first shot. “I was only trying to be helpful.” “Yeah, sure.” She frowned in disbelief. He called his shot, knowing he deserved to flub it for trying to use sex to distract a friend. But Tess would keep her word if she lost the match, and he didn’t have any better ideas for meeting nice women. He couldn’t get help from Zack. His brother wouldn’t recognize a nice girl if she came wrapped in tissue and ribbons. He cleared the table and won the first game handily. Fortunately, guilt didn’t blunt his skill. “That makes me one up,” he said cordially. “Want to concede now?” “No way! The bet is two out of three. I’m always a slow starter.” “Nice stick you have,” he said, because he found silence between them awkward, not that balls crashing and people talking and laughing at the other eleven tables didn’t fill the room with noise. “Seventeen ounces. My dad gave it to me when our team won the league championship last winter.” “I’m impressed.” He actually was. He’d never played league pool, but he knew it attracted good players. It was his turn to break, and he found himself wanting badly to win without giving her a turn to shoot. Maybe he needed to prove to himself he was the better player. No question his dirty trick had distracted her in the last game. Hell, it was hard for him to concentrate just thinking about it. He could still feel her snug against his front, her bottom wiggling just enough to make him wish she was a date, someone he could take home with him. “Idiot!” he muttered under his breath. This was Tess. She’d lost the baby fat, but that didn’t make her fair game. He felt uncomfortable enough using her to meet other women without toying with her. A friend didn’t treat a friend that way. He made a couple of mediocre shots, but his heart wasn’t in them. He’d basically stolen the first game. When his third shot bounced an inch away from the hole, he was happy enough to relinquish the table to Tess. He hadn’t exactly thrown the game, but his sloppy playing gave him what he deserved—a loss. “Even up,” she said with satisfaction. “Now let’s see some real pool.” As the winner of the previous game, it was her turn to break the rack. Cole narrowed his eyes, concentrating on the balls and trying not to see the way her breasts filled out her tank top when she leaned over the table. Women always had the power of distraction on their side, but he had more riding on this game than an opportunity for cheap thrills. He squeezed the pool cue until his knuckles were white. He wanted out. He didn’t want to get married, especially not on his grandfather’s timetable. But he knew darn well his mother would be ousted as CEO unless the stock stayed in the family. A young hotshot MBA would come in and take Mom’s place. Even assuming Nick, his half brother, would get his share, he and Zack had to come through for her. Balls moved on the bright green table, but his gaze was unfocused. His whole future could depend on Tess Morgan’s ability to push balls with a stick. If she introduced him to someone he decided to marry… Or if she won and refused to help… Cole forced himself to pay attention. He was in trouble. Two more shots, and she’d be the winner. He’d lose the game and the bet without getting another shot. “Oh, no!” She sounded genuinely distressed. She’d missed her shot. He’d been sure she was going to beat him, and it took a minute to realize he still had a chance. He bit his lower lip, telling himself not to get cocky. He could still blow it. Wiping first one palm, then the other, on the sides of his pants, he tried to psych himself up to win. “Number seven in the side pocket.” He called his shot as a courtesy of the game even though it was obviously his only option. The cue ball banged the seven ball in with a satisfying thud. “I knew you couldn’t miss that,” Tess said in a tone of disgust. As the shooter, he could still miss the next shot and lose the bet. He didn’t like the angle between the eight ball and the cup. He’d made harder shots, but he’d missed easier. Holding his breath, he went for it. The thud of the eight ball going down the hole was music to his ears. “Well, I guess you’re the winner,” Tess conceded. She put out her hand to congratulate him. It was soft against his work-hardened palm, and he didn’t feel particularly elated at beating her. “You shot a great game,” he said. “Oh, sure, I lost two out of three, and I was trying hard to win,” she said with a look of disgust. “Getting a blind date for you of all people seems ludicrous. Tell me you were only kidding.” “Not kidding.” “Do you have a list?” “List?” He reluctantly dropped her hand, but still felt a vague need to comfort her for losing. “Shopping list, wish list, list of likes and dislikes.” “No, nothing like that.” He laughed self-consciously. “Everyone has some likes or dislikes. Give me a clue of what kind of person you have in mind.” She sounded grumpy. “Well, I’d rather she didn’t pick her teeth in public.” “Be serious!” “I am. I went with a girl—briefly—who had a teeth fetish. The minute she finished eating, out came the floss.” “None of my friends would be that gross.” “That’s why I need your help. You know things about them. I trust your judgment.” She was putting her stick in the case when two women walked up to the table. “Are you through for the night?” A platinum blonde batted lashes heavy with mascara. “The table is all yours,” Tess said. “I’m leaving.” “How about a challenge match?” the other woman said to Cole. He checked out her breasts—it would be hard not to notice them since they stuck out in all the glory silicone could produce—and backed away a step. “Thanks, but I’m calling it a night,” he said. “Pool isn’t the only game we play.” The blonde was wearing a skirt so short it looked like black leather underpants. She sidled up to Cole, took his arm and rubbed her hip against his. “I’m leaving,” he insisted. On his other side, the well-endowed friend wrapped her arm around his waist with the subtlety of a boa constrictor closing in on its prey. He tightened his buttocks when her hand crept downward. “He’s with me.” Tess faced down the two predators, cue in hand. Cole didn’t know whether to laugh or be embarrassed. “Too bad.” One of them—he didn’t know or care which—patted his butt. Any annoyance he might have felt was tempered by the fact that he’d tried to win a pool game by snuggling up to Tess’s backside. “Let’s go,” he said, taking her cue and her arm. Women, he’d learned early on, could be just as obnoxious as men when they were on the make. He had to credit Marsh for trying to protect him from the dregs of the female gender, but the old man should give him credit for some sense, not to mention taste in women. “Well, that was fun,” Tess muttered as he followed her out to the parking area. “Where were those two when they could’ve done my game some good?” “By taking my mind off mine? I don’t think so.” He didn’t tell her she was distraction enough. “How about stopping for something to eat?” He was reluctant to let the evening end although he didn’t know why. “No, thanks. I’ve had enough excitement for one evening.” She wasn’t exactly sarcastic, but she made her point. “Coffee then?” He knew he was a glutton for punishment. “I don’t think so.” “I’m pretty busy at work,” he said, slightly miffed by her refusal, “but I can be free next Saturday.” “Free?” She seemed distracted as she got into the truck. “To meet someone. You know, a date to pay off your wager,” he said, after climbing in on his side. “I’m surprised the barflies back there didn’t interest you.” “You think bimbos are my type?” She’d scored a point there. “No, I guess not, but in high school you did—” “That was ten years ago. Even the Bailey boys have to grow up eventually.” He wasn’t so sure about Zack, though. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to insult you.” “That’s okay.” He was still disgruntled, but he wanted to close the deal on the blind dates. “Maybe one date Saturday and another Sunday.” “How many friends do you expect me to serve up?” He didn’t miss the distaste in her voice, and he felt like squirming on the seat of the truck. But she’d lost the pool match, and he wasn’t going to let her welch on the bet. “Even though I won, I’ll be more than happy to give you a tour of the factory,” he offered, hoping to soften her resistance. “And a sneak preview of the new product line?” If seeing a bunch of baby stuff would make her less reluctant to help him, it was a small price to pay—even though it meant deluding his grandfather into thinking he cared a rat’s ass about the business. He couldn’t show the new line without going to his mother, and she was sure to mention it to the almighty chairman of the board, Marsh Bailey. Damn, life was complicated for a guy who only wanted to build houses. “Yes, a sneak preview,” he promised. “I’ve heard about a baby-wipe warmer that plays a lullaby. And remember how happy my mom will be if I finally meet some nice girls.” “I suppose anyone you’d go out with has to be good-looking,” Tess said. He’d only managed to mollify her for a minute. “Not conventionally pretty. I can appreciate an interesting face.” He felt challenged not to sound shallow. “Tall, short, blond, brunette?” “Personality is more important.” She was making him sound like the blurbs on women’s magazines by the checkout counter at the supermarket. “How do you define nice?” she pressed. “Be reasonable, Tess. It’s not about defining anything. It would be nice if she doesn’t sleep around. Is that nice enough for you?” “I’ve never really thought about it.” She sounded so prim he wanted to shock her pants off by planting a good, hard, lip-smacking kiss on her disapproving lips. Wouldn’t that be a good way to scuttle the whole plan? Just make his little matchmaker so mad she’d get him the blind date from hell. “I’m sure any friend of yours is a good person,” he assured her. “Except maybe Lucinda,” she said thoughtfully. “That was the worst bridesmaid’s dress in the history of weddings.” He laughed in agreement. “But you did look cute with those curls.” She slapped his thigh. A little gasp told him she’d acted on impulse and surprised herself. “One of the deadly duo in the bar slapped my butt as we were leaving,” he said, wanting her to know women stepped out of line as often as men, herself included. The high moral ground was a sweet perch, he discovered. He wasn’t sure whether his comment would help or hurt his cause, but even in the dark he could tell Tess’s cheeks had flushed apple red. 3 WHEN SHE’D HAD the chance to play pool with Cole Bailey, why didn’t she play for stakes that were fun? She thought of male pool players’ favorite come-on, a bet to see who made coffee the next morning, not that she still had a thing for one of the bad-boy Bailey twins. Tess continued glumly rearranging the display of Kozy Kountry bedding and accessories, not one of the best merchandising decisions she’d ever made. Baby Mart customers hadn’t snatched up the comforters quite the way she’d hoped, not surprising since the cow looked more comatose than cute. One thing she’d learned early on—it didn’t really matter that infants could see black and white better than pastels. The product had to appeal to grandparents and other gift-givers. That meant adorable designs and clever gimmicks. She really wanted a jump on Bailey’s new line so she could stock the most promising items ahead of her competition. But she was having a hard time convincing herself it was worth finding a date—or maybe even several dates—for Cole. A little winged cupid would make a cute quilt design, but she couldn’t see herself in the role. The big question was, who, who, who? Even her friend Mandy, who was practically paranoid about blind dates, might be tempted to go out with Cole, but Tess had even less enthusiasm for matchmaking than she did for dopey-looking cows that weren’t selling. And she hadn’t even had the presence of mind to put a limit on the number of dates she was willing to arrange. Her choice would have been zero, but as her sister, Karen, had pointed out when she talked it over with her on the phone, at least Tess would get to see Cole again herself. Did she want to stay in contact with him at any price? Her saner self said forget it, but she’d had such a wild crush on him in high school, she didn’t want him to disappear again without giving her a chance to see how wrong she’d been to idolize him. Face it, she’d been using him as a standard ever since, and it was time to get him out of her system for good. Certainly this matchmaking scheme would do the job. She hated it already. She slapped another red label with a reduced price over a cow’s lolling tongue and thought about the way Cole had plagued her in high school. He’d been a stinker but so cute she’d welcomed any attention from him, even his devilish teasing. She’d had a tremendous crush on him but had never deluded herself into believing they’d ever be a couple. Cole dated cheerleaders and party girls who, if not exactly brainless, were definitely dedicated to having a good time. Imagine, Cole Bailey wanted her to find a woman for him. He had a pretty vague idea of what made a girl nice, though. Thank heavens she’d fully recovered from her girlish infatuation! Cole had walked away from the women in the bar, but she was still convinced boys like Cole grew into men who were heartbreakers. Reformed or not, he wasn’t going to make her suffer the pangs of unrequited love again. Already he had her thinking like the heroine in a Victorian romance novel. So he was gorgeous, lean, hard-bodied and darkly handsome. She could see men like that any day for the price of a movie ticket. The person she’d like to meet had to be sweet and reliable, a good companion for the long haul. She wasn’t a love-struck adolescent easily impressed by a good-looking exterior. Oh, he’d be easy to fix up, she thought crossly as she finished marking down the slow sellers in the baby-bedding display, but she didn’t want to set up any of her friends for a big disappointment. Cole might think he wanted a nice girl, but how may hearts would he break before he found the right one—if such a person existed? He’d gone this far without committing himself to anyone. She’d expect a cow to wander off one of the quilts before a bad boy like Cole settled down with a nice girl. Unfortunately, she’d lost the bet. Cole had distracted her in the first game—had he ever! But she’d blown the third and decisive one on her own. It was too late to complain about his underhanded tactics. Anyway, she’d never admit to him that having his arms around her had ruined her concentration. She owed him, but she hated to put any of her friends at risk. Should she issue a medicine-bottle warning with every offer of a date? Beware—this hunk may be dangerous if taken seriously. If she did, who would accept? If she flashed a picture of Cole, every single friend she had would beg for the opportunity to go out with him. Maybe she could lay a high-school yearbook on the coffee table and casually point out his senior class picture. He’d only improved with maturity. Much as she hated to admit it, her big sister had been right about one other thing. Not only did she owe Cole for losing an admittedly foolish bet on pool, but he’d gotten her out of an embarrassing situation with Freddy at the wedding. He probably would’ve moved in on her like a snake after a mouse—her least favorite scenario. Her clerk, Heather, was busy showing car seats to a customer, so Tess stayed out front. She spotted a petite blond woman flipping through a rack of infant outfits and hurried over to offer assistance. “Tess, how are you?” the woman asked when she turned and recognized her. “Jillian, hello.” Tess smiled automatically as she did with any customer. “Can I help you with something?” “I hope so. I’m so excited! My sister is having twins, two girls if the doctor is right. Naturally I need something special for her baby shower.” Jillian Davis was in kickboxing class with Tess and was so good she could easily have been the instructor, except she already had a supergood job as a bank loan officer. She was one of those adorable women who made other women feel as if they had spinach stuck in their teeth and a run in their panty hose. In her spare time, Jillian volunteered for community causes and usually ended up as chairperson. “We have some darling stretch jammies, almost like aerobics outfits for infants,” Tess suggested. “No, something more feminine, I think. By the way, I’ve almost decided to drop kickboxing.” Jillian gave a cursory glance at the outfits Tess pointed out. “I’m absolutely fascinated by yoga. It enriches the total person, and the yoga academy looks like a wonderful place to meet Mr. Right.” When Jillian started moaning about how difficult it was to meet the perfect man, it usually meant she’d had a bad date the night before. “How about quilts? I have a really good sale on them today.” Jillian took a quick look at the cutesy cows and shook her head. Darn, thought Tess, all those attributes and good taste, too. Did the woman have no flaws? She looked up to offer another suggestion and saw Cole striding through the mall entrance to the store. Someone could make a fortune by devising a calendar with no Mondays if they were all as bad as they were today. He was wearing jeans so threadbare she was afraid to look closely for fear of learning the color of his underwear. His ensemble included dusty tan work boots and a faded blue T-shirt with a Detroit Lions football logo. Jillian perked up so much she looked two inches taller and a shade blonder. “Hi, Tess,” Cole said offhandedly, eyeballing Jillian with slightly narrowed eyes. “Don’t let me interrupt with a customer.” “Oh, I’m a friend of Tess’s, not a customer.” Jillian was quick with the smile. Wrong on the first count, Tess thought, ready to write off any sale she might have made to her non friend. “Nice to meet you.” Cole was quick with the handshake. They both had good people-meeting skills—glad hands, big smiles, eye contact. “I’m Jillian Davis.” “Cole Bailey.” Still pressing her hand. “Actually I’m a customer today, too. I need two baby gifts because my sister is expecting twins.” “No kidding? I’m a twin myself.” “What a good omen! I’m sure to find perfect gifts here.” “Looks like Tess has anything you might want for babies. What’s this?” He picked up a Kozy Kountry crib sheet. “Cows. Cute.” “It is, isn’t it?” Jillian looked at them again. “Look at all the things that match it—a quilt, a bib, even a wall hanging! I couldn’t be more excited about twins if I were having them myself. Of course, I’m not married…not even involved with anyone right now.” “Hey, you’re in luck,” Cole said. “Tess only has a few quilts left, and they’re marked way down.” One word from Cole, and Jillian was grabbing up cows without even checking the prices. “I think this will do it,” she said a little breathlessly. “I can just see the little darlings cuddling up with these adorable cows.” Jillian wiggled her shoulders under a champagne silk blouse that matched her skimpy skirt, and it occurred to Tess that banks were open by now. “I’ll write them up fast,” she promised. “You must be expected at work.” “Oh, my boss is so understanding,” Jillian assured her. “The shower is tonight, and this is absolutely the only time I have to shop today.” Cole caught Tess’s eye as Jillian carried her selections to the counter. “Her?” He mouthed the question. “No way.” She spoke in haste, then wondered if this could be a way out for her. It would almost certainly save one or more of her friends from the pain of being dumped by a Bailey. “Her!” he said in an emphatic whisper, nodding. Convenient or not, Tess didn’t like it. If he could come into a baby store and find a woman he wanted to date, why bother involving her at all? He chatted up Jillian while Tess tallied the purchases. She should have been delighted to get rid of the cows, but the inane conversation at the counter was so distracting she had to check the total twice. “Actually, I came here today because Tess promised to do me a small favor,” Cole said. “What’s that?” Jillian’s tone questioned whether there could possibly be anything a hunk like Cole needed from a drab shop girl like Tess. Or maybe Tess only wanted her to have nasty thoughts. Perfect people should have noble, uplifting thoughts. If Jillian’s were unpleasant, then she didn’t qualify as perfect. “She promised to fix me up for Friday.” Jillian’s jaw dropped. She recovered quickly, but Tess had seen what she’d seen. “I thought you said Saturday.” She didn’t want any part of this pickup. “Change of plans. You will vouch for me, won’t you?” he asked. “I vouch,” she said, disgruntled by how pointless it had been to worry about finding him a date. “I didn’t know Tess had such a beautiful friend.” Cole focused those dark smoky gray eyes on Jillian’s pert little face. She giggled. “Do you want a date Friday?” Tess asked Jillian. “Well, I don’t know. I never accept blind dates, but I have seen you, haven’t I? And Tess vouches for you.” Whatever that meant, Tess groused to herself. “I had in mind a late dinner, maybe pick you up at eight,” Cole suggested. “That would be very nice.” Tess had to give her credit for not showing too much eagerness. Jillian scooped up two big plastic bags and power walked to the exit, feet perfectly straight so there was no suggestion of a duckwalk. In a fair world, she would at least have had thick ankles or saddlebags on her hips “I guess you’re not here to buy a baby gift,” she said to Cole when they were alone. “Jillian is probably planning to have a set of twins with you as the daddy after that come-on.” “Doubt that, but thanks for…” “I know, vouching for you.” Whatever that meant. “She’s perfect. I don’t know why she’s still single except she has a dynamite career. I hope you have a good time.” “Thanks, I probably will, but I doubt she’s perfect.” Oh, come on, Tess wanted to say. “She’s a petite blonde with a perfect haircut.” There was that word again—perfect. “Plus she has porcelain skin with a flawless complexion, sky-blue eyes, a really tasteful wardrobe…” “Whoa, I meant it when I said it’s what’s inside that counts.” “Oh.” This was a new side of Cole Bailey. “Well, she works with a lot of volunteer groups including the Humane Society, so she must care about animals and people.” “Well, you’ve helped me without even picking up the phone. Thanks, Tess. But I came here about the new products. I have to go to a builders’ supply place east of here, so I stopped on the way to tell you I’ll set up a sneak peek as soon as possible.” “And to check whether I’d arranged a date for you yet?” “That, too.” He grinned broadly. “But I knew I could trust you to keep your word. I’ll let you know how it goes with…” He hesitated. “Jillian. Jillian Davis. You can call her at Industrial Savings and Loan.” She watched him leave, surprised that his long, sexy stride still seemed so familiar. She didn’t know how the date would go, but at least some of the comatose cows were gone. COLE QUIT WORK early, which for him still meant putting in a twelve-hour shift to take advantage of the long summer day, and pulled up to the brick building that housed the research department and administrative offices of Bailey Baby Products. He’d called ahead to make sure his mother would be there, not that she ever left her office at a normal quitting time. If workaholism was inherited, everyone in the family but little brother Nick, Junior, had gotten it from Marsh, although with the twins it was more a matter of survival for their fledgling company than a compulsion. He took the elevator to his mother’s third-floor office suite, hoping Marsh wasn’t in the building. How many kids were expected to call their grandfather by his first name as soon as they started talking? It didn’t much matter what Cole called him after the big blowup they’d had when he and Zack started their construction business. It’d been nearly a year since either twin had been at the plant, although for their mother’s sake, they were civil to their grandfather during occasional dinners at her house. Still, Cole didn’t want to bump into the old man. If he saw Cole, he’d harp on wanting him to take an interest in the family business. The outer office was deserted. Sue Bailey worked long hours because she loved it, but didn’t expect her employees to sacrifice their home lives for the company. “Mom?” The door to her inner office was slightly ajar, and Cole stepped into the cool interior. Somehow his mother had managed to make an efficient working office seem warm and inviting. She loved aqua, and the deep pile of the carpeting was a vibrant, dark shade of her favorite color. The tinted windows of the corner office were flanked by lighter aqua drapes. White walls and sleekly modern white metal furnishings left no doubt that this was a place of business, but one side of the room had a low round conference table surrounded by comfortable chairs with seats upholstered in a geometric pattern of black, white and aqua. “I’ve got a date with a nice girl Friday night,” he said without preamble. His mother always looked happy in her work environment, but when she looked up at him she was positively glowing. He and Zack were doing the right thing—or rather, he was. His twin’s turn would come soon enough. Their mom had been rocked by the death of Nick, Senior, her husband, a good man who gave his stepsons as much attention as his own son, Nick. She put all her energy into running the business to forget her sorrow, and it helped her immensely. After two years of widowhood, she was like her old self again, Cole thought. But if she lost control of the plant because of her father’s high-handed manipulations, she’d be devastated. “That’s wonderful, Cole!” She gave him a hug and walked to a table where a big pitcher, damp with condensation, was on a tray with two tall glasses. “Would you like some iced tea?” It wasn’t his favorite beverage, but he was thirsty enough to drink Detroit River water. “What’s this thing?” Cole examined a gizmo on her desk while she poured tea for both of them. He wasn’t sure whether it was supposed to entertain babies or make them want to crawl back into the womb. He played with the weird spiral-shaped labyrinth wondering if maybe he’d accidentally hit on the truth when he told Tess his mom wanted grandchildren. Maybe part of her enthusiasm for her job came from loving babies. She had a lot to offer as a grandmother, so long as she kept the more bizarre Bailey toys away from them. “It’s a toy. It must be a winner because you’re playing with it,” she teased. He dropped it like a hot rivet. She’d gotten him on that one, and he grinned sheepishly. “Tell me about your date.” She handed him the iced tea and daintily sipped hers. “She’s a friend of an old acquaintance. Remember Tess Morgan?” “Isn’t she the sweet girl who tutored you in British lit?” “That’s her. She owns Baby Mart in the Rockstone Mall. She’s doing me a favor by introducing me to friends of hers. I promised her a sneak peek at the new product line.” He walked around the office, noting without enthusiasm that she still had tons of pictures of him, Zack and Nicky on the walls. The cutesy photos used in early catalog ads embarrassed him. Poses of curly-haired twins with Bailey toys made him remember how bored he’d been as a child model—bored but successful. To her credit, his mother had refused to let them work for any of the agencies that besieged them with lucrative offers. She even stood up to Marsh in limiting how much work they did for the annual Bailey catalogs. It was one of the rare disputes his mother had actually won when it came to showdowns with Marsh. She did much better these days, but as chairman of the board, he was still a tyrant. “I guess there’s no problem at this late date,” Sue said thoughtfully. “The new catalog will be ready next month for wholesale Christmas orders. A leak now wouldn’t be serious.” “Tess isn’t an industrial spy,” he said dryly. “Of course not. Actually, this is a good time to give her a preview. We have a display set up in one of the design labs for some potential investors.” “Investors? Is Marsh going to go back on his word and agree to a buyout before he retires? Does he want to go public?” “He’s always playing around with the possibility. It’s his way of keeping everyone on edge.” His mother didn’t sound concerned. Cole was. It wasn’t his employees Marsh wanted to unnerve. Cole’s grandfather was holding the threat of a sellout over his head and Zack’s. He’d better find Ms. Right soon and insure that his mother wouldn’t lose control of the business. “Why don’t you and Tess join your grandfather and the investors tomorrow? Their tour is scheduled for 9 a.m.” He’d rather eat nails! “I had in mind a private sneak preview. You know, give her a chance to look it over without the pressure of having Marsh there.” “A private showing with Tess. I see.” His mother smiled—slyly, he thought. “She’s only a friend. I owe her. Tess and me? No, no way. Not my type at all, and she remembers me less than fondly from high school.” “If you say so. Why did you persuade her to help you get dates?” When his mother put it that way, it did sound ludicrous. When had he ever needed help meeting women? The only blind date he’d ever had was Zack’s fault. Some girl wouldn’t go out with him unless he found a date for her friend. “She’s not getting me dates, Mom.” Maybe he sounded juvenile, but he wanted his mother to be perfectly clear on this. “She’s only putting me in the loop with some nice women. I don’t meet any when I spend all my time on the job.” “She’s doing this just so she can see our new line?” She sounded skeptical. “No, I’m showing it just to be nice.” “Then why?” He hadn’t been grilled like this since he drove without a license when he was fifteen. “She lost a bet.” He was getting The Look. His mother was a head shorter than he was, and slender to the point of being too thin, but when she raked him with her smoky gray eyes, he still squirmed. “Two out of three games of pool.” “This was a fair contest?” she asked, accusing him. “Tess plays in a pool league. I nearly lost to her. Anyway, I can’t leave the site of the condos we’re building during the workday. I was thinking of bringing her around nine in the evening.” “Okay. The after-hours codes have changed, so I’d better write them down for you.” She took a legal pad and wrote a neat series of numbers and letters. “Your grandfather has been tinkering with the new security system again. He’s obsessed with catching industrial spies.” “He’s not happy unless he can meddle,” Cole said with undisguised bitterness. He wished Marsh would be content fiddling with mechanical things and leave people—especially his family—alone. “The important part is punching in these numbers at exactly twenty-minute intervals. There’s a panel in the lab as well as in the hallway.” She pointed with one neatly polished, but not long, fingernail. “Best to set the timer on your watch. There’s only a thirty-second margin for error.” “Got it. Thanks a lot, Mom.” He bent his head and kissed her soft, smooth cheek. “Don’t let the security alarm go off. It would put your grandfather in a dither.” He patted her shoulder, then bolted for the door. “Trust me, Mom.” He wasn’t sure he trusted himself when it came to picking a wife, but he did have a date Friday night. She was a friend of Tess’s, so she had to be a nice girl. Didn’t she? 4 “WHY ARE WE sneaking in?” Tess asked in a breathy whisper. “We’re not sneaking.” Cole answered a little louder than necessary to make his point. “This feels sneaky. It’s dark and creepy in here.” “The corridor lights dim automatically at night, that’s all. My mother has no objection at all to having you see the new products. The catalog will be out pretty soon anyway.” “I still feel like a yuppie cat burglar. Why are you wearing all black?” “These are the only clean jeans I could find, and I have a lot of black T-shirts. Do you see me wearing a ski mask?” “I still feel funny.” “I cleared it with the head honcho, who also happens to be my mother.” “Not your grandfather?” “Kicked upstairs to chairman of the board.” He didn’t want to talk about the old man. “Here we are. I have to punch in the after-hours code.” He pulled out the slip of paper his mother had given him and entered the sequence of numbers on the panel beside the door. “Just like in spy movies.” She giggled nervously. “Are you going to eat the code when you’re done?” “Can’t. I have to enter another sequence of numbers at twenty-minute intervals.” He opened the door and snapped on the bright overhead lights, gesturing for her to go ahead of him. He stepped into the big room behind her and took a couple of seconds to set his watch. “What happens if you don’t?” She seemed more interested in the security system than the products she’d come to see. Darn, he’d forgotten about her raging curiosity. How long would it take for her to ferret out his real reason for wanting to meet her friends? “The lab self-destructs, and we fall through a trapdoor in the floor to a chamber of horrors. We’ll be strapped into giant high chairs, forced to eat mushy beets and spinach and subjected to talking toys until we’re both raving lunatics.” “Imaginative. I’ve never seen a lab with a wall border of lambs, kitties and ducks.” She glanced around at the large lab, white and sterile-looking except for the wall decorations. The products were displayed on long, waist-high worktables with specifications printed on neat cardboard signs. Cole followed her gaze until it rested on a huge photo of Zack and him as kids. They were floating on an inflated water ship, one of Bailey’s colossal failures thanks to a tendency to sink when the passengers weighed more than forty pounds. “That must be you and Zack!” Tess walked over to the glossy framed blowup. “You were adorable! Oh, and look at this one!” She walked over to a shot of a gap-toothed Zack crawling out of an inflated imitation of a sewer pipe while Cole sat astride the top. Either his mother or his grandfather had hung the damn twins photos everywhere. Tess walked around the room pointing out advertising poses he’d erased from his consciousness long ago. His masculinity did a nosedive as she cooed over each and every cutesy curly-haired image. “Did you get to keep every toy you posed with?” she asked. “Not after we sliced up the inflated giant beach ball with a dagger from Marsh’s World War II collection. Seems as though all our toys were metal after that. I thought you wanted to see the new products.” He liked babies but hated their equipment. Just being around all the baby stuff made him nervous, even though he could shingle a roof three stories up without a qualm. The world of bottle liners and diaper bags gave him the willies. His grandfather had tried for years to snare him into the family business, but both he and Zack were adamantly opposed to having any part of it. It was a measure of Cole’s indifference that he’d never been in this lab. “There are handouts for every product,” he told Tess. “You can take one of each with you.” He was actually enjoying her interest in the stuff, following her and taking in her reactions. She commented on everything she saw without a single cloying oh or ah. “Here’s a winner,” he said skeptically. She slowly wandered over to see what he was pointing at. “An inflatable potty for traveling. It’s ingenious.” She took a sample disposable liner and one of the handouts. “Where’s the baby-wipes warmer that plays lullabies?” “I wouldn’t know one if it came up and bit me on the butt,” he said, grousing. “You’re really not interested in any of this, are you?” “Nope.” She lingered beside a Swedish-designed stroller that sold for more than his first car in high school, then exclaimed over a state-of-the-art high chair in screaming neon lime green. He was bored out of his socks by the displays but found himself enjoying the way she moved around the room. Her khaki walking shorts showed enough leg for him to see hers were sleek and smooth-skinned. Her waist was tiny, not much larger than the span of his hands. It had been criminal to bulk it up with yards of pink material at the wedding reception. Tonight she was wearing a blue knit T-shirt. With eyes like hers, she shouldn’t wear any other color—they shone like a pair of pricey sapphires. Easy as she was to watch, he couldn’t share her enthusiasm for the products. He knew Bailey Baby Products was a highly lucrative business, but he didn’t want to be lured by the prospect of easy money. He wanted to build his own designs, well-constructed, pleasant, affordable homes for people who’d never see the inside of a pretentious mansion like Marsh Bailey’s. Cole and Zack had hopes of winning some commercial bids that would put their business on a firmer footing. “Here’s the baby-wipes warmer!” she said enthusiastically, her voice amplified and made lyrical by the silent vastness of the lab. He walked over and watched her pick it up. A little beeping sound went off and didn’t stop when she put it down. “What’s that?” she asked. “The timer on my watch. Time to enter the code. It will just take a sec.” He had thirty seconds. No sweat. He went to the wall panel in the lab, trying to recall the code—three-seven-five-eight-nine, or was it six? Marsh had deliberately made it as random as possible. Why couldn’t he use some significant sequence like family birth dates? The system was supposed to keep out thieves, not grandsons. He reached into the back pocket of his jeans and took out his billfold, where he’d stashed the code, counting seconds and pretty sure he was running out of time. The dull thud he heard wasn’t reassuring. “What was that?” Tess asked. “The locks engaged.” He punched in the code his mother had given him, but nothing happened. The door wouldn’t open. He tried again in case he’d made a mistake. Still no results. “Can’t you open the door?” “No.” He tried a third time, but it was futile. He should have set his watch to allow extra time, but thirty seconds had seemed plenty long enough to punch in the code even if he had to look at the paper. Why did Marsh have such an elaborate system? Any thief who knew enough technology to get into the building could probably figure out a way to get out, but here they were, trapped in the lab. Unfortunately he wasn’t a professional burglar and anything he might try could result in costly damage to the system. “There has to be a way out,” she said. “Not if Marsh’s damn anti-spy gadgetry works. I wish his James Bond DVD collection would self-destruct!” “Do industrial spies really steal plans for baby stuff?” She sounded more curious than panicked. “How would I know? I haven’t had anything to do with the business since Zack and I gave each other haircuts to get out of posing for the catalog.” “What do we do now?” “Wait for the baby police, I guess.” She laughed. He glowered at her. “I don’t suppose you have a cell phone in your purse?” he asked. She shook her head. “No, but isn’t that a phone over there?” He walked over, annoyed because he’d been too rattled to notice it. It was dead. “The phone service must cut off when the doors lock,” he said. “Why?” If this were a spy thriller on the big screen, the heroine would be clinging to him like spandex. He could imagine Tess in a role like that, unlikely as it seemed. “Probably so anyone trying to steal the butt warmer can’t call a cohort to pass on the secret design,” he said in a husky whisper. He had an odd notion he wanted to hear her laugh again. “What do we do now?” she asked. “Good question. Let me see if I can short out the system.” Nuts to Marsh. If he ruined something, it wasn’t his fault. This was a lab. There had to be tools. He opened one of the cupboards under every workstation and found a screwdriver and a pair of pliers. “Isn’t there a night watchman or something?” she asked, hovering behind him as he removed the casing from the control panel on the wall. “There’s a whole crew of security people, but I’d rather get out of here before anyone comes.” “You said we weren’t sneaking in.” “We weren’t.” He didn’t want to look like a dope for getting the code sequence wrong, but the jumble of bunched wires was a puzzle with no solution. “Look at all the colored wires. Just like a movie where the right one will deactivate a bomb and the wrong one will—” “It’s not a bomb,” he grumbled. “Can I pick the color?” “Why not?” “Yellow, pull out a yellow.” “Yellow as in no parking, no passing and crime-scene tape.” “Good point. So do you want to try the green as in go?” He caught a green wire snaking through a bunch of other colors and yanked with the tip of the pliers. A shrill alarm sounded on the other side of the door. “Wrong wire.” She shrugged with a nonchalance he didn’t feel. He didn’t relish being known as the idiot grandson. “Try the blue,” she suggested. “We’re locked in with all that racket in the hall. What else can happen?” “The walls could move in and crush us.” “Like Poe’s ‘Pit and the Pendulum.’ You remember that story,” she said enthusiastically. He’d never read it, but then, he hadn’t had Tess as a tutor that year. She’d read Macbeth aloud, scene by endless scene, then made him admit some of it was exciting. He ripped out the blue wire. Nothing happened as far as he could tell. The door was still bolted shut. “Cole, does it seem a little chilly in here?” She hugged her arms across her chest. “Yeah, it does.” She wasn’t exaggerating. He looked around but couldn’t find a thermostat to regulate the air-conditioning. “Maybe when you pulled the blue wire…” she said, her lips turning blue. The whole lab was one bizarre booby trap, he realized. Marsh had gone from designing clever toys in his early days to this diabolical trap. Cole tossed the pliers on the counter. No way was he pulling another wire. The red one would probably turn the floor into a giant griddle. “Wonder if the wiper thing works as a hand warmer,” he mused. Tess was shivering too much to answer. The vents were sending out Arctic blasts, making a mockery of energy conservation. “The SWAT team should be on their way. Until then, we’d better share body heat,” he said. He stepped behind her and wrapped his arms around her. The heat generated between her back and his chest was nothing compared to the inferno where her bottom snuggled against his lap. “I’m warm now.” She tried to squirm away. “I’m not.” “Well, too bad! You got us into this.” “You wanted to preview the new line.” “Not if it meant being freeze-dried!” “My grandfather likes to tinker.” “Your grandfather should be committed!” Her teeth chattered like a pair of windup joke teeth, and he could feel a shiver ripple down her spine. The door flew open with a bang, and they both whirled around, arms half raised in anticipation of some really tough cops. “That’s a pretty harsh judgment, young lady.” “Grandfather.” Cole forgot about calling him Marsh. “I’m glad you’re taking an interest in the business, Cole.” Marsh Bailey radiated intimidation from his razor-sharp features and cold blue eyes to the immaculate press of his silvery gray Italian suit. He was the only person Cole knew who’d never owned a pair of jeans. The man didn’t even loosen his tie on the rare occasions when he watched a public affairs program on TV. Cole instinctively put his arm around Tess’s shoulders, surprised at how square and rigid they felt. “This isn’t a very nice way to treat one of your best customers, Mr. Bailey. The Baby Mart, which I own and operate, sold thirty-two of your inflatable play tents for Christmas last year.” “Thirty-two. I’m impressed. That’s more than the Toy Warehouse in any of their north side stores. But that doesn’t explain why you and my grandson set off the security system. If I hadn’t been checking the surveillance screen for reception problems, you’d be looking down the barrels of some high-power firearms.” “The timing to enter the code the second time is off.” His grandfather always made Cole feel belligerent. “I can vouch for that,” Tess said. “I saw Cole set his watch.” “Then it seems I owe you an apology, Miss…” “Tess Morgan.” Marsh never apologized. He believed the rich didn’t have to be sorry for anything. Cole had braced himself for a verbal flogging, and the old man was making nice with Tess. “Now that you’ve seen the new line, Miss Morgan, what do you think of it?” “The lime-green high chair won’t sell. The design is wonderful, but the color will clash with almost everyone’s kitchen. The portable potty is a stroke of genius, though.” Marsh ran his finger over the pencil-thin mustache he’d worn for as long as Cole could remember. His iron-gray hair was clipped to within a quarter inch of his skull. It was more than coincidence that both Cole and Zack wore their thick hair semilong and their faces clean-shaven when beards would have been more convenient. “The potty is one of my designs.” The old man actually puffed up. “The high chair also comes in sandy white for the American market.” Cole took Tess’s hand. He’d had more than enough baby business for one night. “About the yellow wire,” she said as he pulled her to the corridor. “Activates the sprinkler system.” Marsh followed them through the doorway. “This has been a very satisfactory test of my new system.” TESS SPENT the rest of the week thinking about the new Bailey line—the one Cole had handed her, not the baby stuff. Why ask her to become involved in his love life? Either he’d had too much champagne at the reception or a Bailey built brick wall had bounced on his head. She wished he’d remained nothing but a glossy memory in the yearbook. Or did she? Certainly he made life more interesting. She’d been trapped by a mad inventor—well, a quirky one, anyway—and suspected of industrial espionage. Even better, she’d told Marsh Bailey what was right and wrong with his new products. Would that she could do the same for Kozy Kountry cows! As she lolled in her oversize yellow sleep shirt, munched microwave popcorn and watched Bride of Frankenstein, Cole was wining and dining Jillian Davis, of all people. If Tess had ever had any aspiration to be a matchmaker, this would have killed it. Jillian wasn’t even on her Z list of possible dates for Cole, although, with brilliant hindsight, she had to admit her fellow kickboxer was probably his type. He thought so, anyway. Darn, why had Marsh tried to turn the lab into the house from Dr. Zhivago? She’d been blissfully ignorant of how it felt to have Cole’s strong arms wrapped around her for real, not as a tactic to beat her at pool. She was going to remember the moment long after portable potties were forgotten in the mental haze of advanced old age. The door buzzer aroused her from speculation about whether Cole had curly black hair on his tummy. Not that it mattered to her. Someday she’d find a man who was right for her, one who’d make analytical comments about Bride of Frankenstein while he nuzzled her throat and did other nice things. She checked her spy hole, as she liked to call it. Cole’s face was distorted like the image in a fun-house mirror, but there was still no mistaking how cute he was. Darn again! She didn’t want him to see her in a nightshirt, and she especially didn’t want to hear about his wonderful date. Opening the door as far as she could without taking off the chain, she peeked out at him. “Hi. Can I come in?” “I’m not exactly dressed.” “You look decent to me. I really need to talk to you.” “Your grandfather’s not going to have us arrested for trespassing, is he?” She took off the chain and let him step into her snug little living room. “Nice place.” He looked at the gray and pink striped satin couch—impractical, maybe, but she loved it—and the two deep rose velvet armchairs. The rest of her furniture was salvage from relatives or thrift-shop bargains, but she liked the touch of class her good furniture gave the light beige carpeting and white walls of the bland apartment. “Are we in trouble for sneaking into the lab?” “We didn’t sneak.” “Of course not, but I’ll pass up any more tours of Bailey Baby Products, not to sound ungrateful.” She didn’t want to hear about his date, but eventually she’d run out of inane chatter. “Next time you set me up,” he said, plopping down on the couch, “I’d prefer it’s with someone you know better.” He dipped into the metal mixing bowl of popcorn without invitation. “Help yourself.” “Oh, do you mind?” She didn’t mind sharing her popcorn. She strenuously objected to arranging dates for him. “You may remember, I didn’t set you up with Jillian. You engineered that.” “Yeah, you’re right.” “So, didn’t you have fun?” She couldn’t pretend to be sorry. There was something about Jillian that was too perfect. “I don’t want to talk about it. What are you watching?” “Bride of Frankenstein.” “That about sums up my evening.” “That bad?” She had this terrible guilt-producing reaction—glee. “Have some more popcorn,” she offered. “No, thanks. We had a big dinner, surf and turf at Trocadero’s.” “You do a first date right. Didn’t she like it?” “I guess she did. That’s not the problem.” “What is?” She stopped the VCR. She owned the tape and could watch it anytime. Truth to tell, he looked so glum the date had to have been interesting…to her. “We went back to her apartment afterward.” “Horrors,” she said dryly, not at all sure she wanted the intimate details. “For coffee and lemon bars.” “Exactly what I thought,” she lied. He was dressed in tan pants and a black knit shirt that highlighted rippling muscles and dark, broody eyes. If Jillian had blown the date with Cole, her head had to be stuffed with sawdust. “She slipped into something more comfortable—a fuzzy white robe shorter than my undershirts and fur-ball slippers that went plop, plop, plop.” “A girl has to relax sometime. So you had coffee and dessert. She can’t make drinkable coffee? Her lemon bars were sour and soggy?” “No, they both were perfect.” “Of course, perfect. Why are you here, Cole? Do you have something to complain about?” “You’ve never been to her place, right?” “Right, she’s only an acquaintance. I hardly know her at all.” “She has wall-to-wall…” He took a deep breath. “Stuffed animals.” “Stuffed as in taxidermy?” “No, the kind kids play with—plush bears and giraffes all over the furniture, dogs and kittens in wicker chairs, a duck, a whale, even a fuzzy turtle. There wasn’t any place to sit without an avalanche of toy animals plummeting down on my head.” “You’re exaggerating.” “No.” He shook his head solemnly. His hair tumbled in spikes over his forehead, and she wanted to comb them back with her fingers. Maybe that was the point of the styling. “When we got to her door, she warned me to be quiet so we wouldn’t wake the babies.” “I didn’t know she was a single mother.” “She isn’t. She’s a loony who talks baby talk to inanimate objects. Baby talk!” Tess laughed…and laughed some more. Even when her ribs started to ache, she couldn’t stop laughing at the expression on his face. “I knew nobody could be as perfect as she seems,” she said by way of explanation when his glum expression finally dulled her mirth. “I didn’t come here for sympathy,” he said caustically. “I’m calling in your marker. You still owe me some introductions.” “Some! I understood one before we played, and you met Jillian in my store. She counts.” “I didn’t get any help from you.” “I vouched for you.” “Whatever that means. You still owe me.” “If you’re serious about this…” “Dead serious.” “Then you have to give me some idea of the kind of person you’d like to meet. And why!” “I’m not into lists.” “Or explanations?” “Object—matrimony. Isn’t that enough? I’d just like to meet some nice women.” “Nice meaning pure, untouched, unsullied, sweet, virtuous, kind, generous…” “You talk too much!” He moved so fast she didn’t have time to protest…or time to enjoy the quick kiss he planted on her parted lips. “Just serve me up a smorgasbord of eligible women. I’ll do the rest.” Sure, she should sell him to her friends so he could break their hearts Bailey style. 5 HE COMPILED the list. Actually, he cheated a little by picking Zack’s brain. They agreed on the basics—a sense of humor, pleasant personality and appealing looks. Truth to tell, they both favored lush breasts and a backside that didn’t sag or spread, but what man didn’t? Cole could have included lips like Tess Morgan’s on his wish list, but he prudently decided to omit physical attributes. He shouldn’t have kissed her. Friends didn’t smooch, especially not when the male friend wanted the female friend to find dates for him, a chore not to her liking. That was strange. Women he knew were usually so eager to play matchmaker, he’d assumed it was genetic. He hadn’t planned to drive all the way to the Rockstone Mall on Monday when he had a full crew to supervise at the site, but he needed to make a trip to a home and garden superstore. He decided to run into the mall first, ask Tess to lunch, pick out what his crew needed, then eat and give her the list she insisted was necessary. What could be more efficient? He wouldn’t be making a special trip through heavy workweek-morning traffic just to see Tess. This time he surveyed the situation before he barged into the Baby Mart. A blue-haired grandmotherly type was paying for some clothes at the counter, much better choices than the silly cow stuff. He should’ve been warned off Jillian when she took his caustic comment seriously and actually bought those dumb-looking quilts. Come to think of it, Tess owed him for helping her get rid of them. The clerk looked about seventeen, round-faced with blunt-cut dark hair. No doubt Tess survived by using less expensive part-time help when she could. It was the only way a small business could make it today. He had the financial head in the partnership with Zack, and he was in awe of Tess’s success. Just keeping the door open in a retail store was a major accomplishment, and the Baby Mart seemed to be thriving. “Can I help you, sir?” The employee was prettier than the sum of her parts, too young for him, but… “Cole, I didn’t expect to see you today. He’s not a customer, Dawn.” Tess shooed the young girl away. “Have to make another trip to Builder’s Supply.” Not that he hadn’t bypassed a dozen sources closer to their construction site. “I thought maybe we could grab lunch. I have the list.” “Okay, I guess.” He’d expect the same degree of enthusiasm if he asked her to bait a hook with a live worm. “Let’s go.” He stepped halfway behind the counter, took her hand and started to lead her out of the store. “Wait, I need my purse.” “No, you don’t. I’ll buy.” “My comb…” “Be serious, you look great.” It was true. If he didn’t know her from way back as prim and proper Tess, he’d be fooled by the way her glossy reddish-brown hair fell forward on her shoulders and her lips formed a sultry pout. She looked like a good time waiting to happen. He’d be glad when this wife hunt was over. He didn’t much like the way it made him feel to assess women as if they were beauty pageant contestants. “I’ll be right back after lunch, Dawn,” she called as he steered her out of the store. He drove from the mall parking lot to another equally crowded one at Builder’s Supply. Cole was impatient with traffic and in a hurry to get back to work. “Just as I remembered.” He nodded at a little lunch wagon with a red-striped awning that sold spicy Italian sausages on hard rolls. “We can shop, eat and talk about the dates you’re arranging for me.” To her credit, she waited patiently while he matched some trim for the twelve-unit condo he and Zack were building. After he loaded it on his truck, they walked to the lunch wagon, then carried paper sacks and disposable drink containers to the patio tables adjacent to the store’s garden center. “Just like Trocadero’s—their parking lot, that is,” she teased. “Wait until you taste the lemon-pepper mustard. This is more fun than fancy food with Jillian.” His face suddenly felt hot. Why shouldn’t it? They were picnicking beside a couple of acres of asphalt paving that simmered under the intense heat of the noonday sun. “I’ll test it.” She peeled the paper wrapping on the sourdough bun and dipped the end into a little cup of sandwich spread. He watched, fascinated by her technique. Her tongue curled out and touched the yellowy mustard, then she savored the little dab with slow relish. “You’re right!” She smiled impishly. “I can feel the buzz all the way to my toes.” She bit into the sausage and roll with so much gusto he forgot about eating his sandwich until she finished and was sipping daintily at a cola. “Aren’t you going to eat?” “Do you want mine?” he asked. “No, thank you. I just wondered why you’re not eating.” He wondered himself. It’d been six hours since he grabbed a bowl of cereal for breakfast, and he was usually famished by noon. “I’ll show you my list first,” he said. He had to stand up to extract the folded yellow legal-pad paper from the left pocket of his jeans. Frowning skeptically, she watched him so closely he almost checked to see if he was unzipped. “This is pretty silly,” he grumbled, sitting back on the flimsy plastic chair. He took a huge bite of sausage and roll, vigorously chewing it to mask his discomfort. “Not at all. I have some people in mind. In fact, I have the list in my purse, but you didn’t give me time to get it.” “Why bring your list to work? You weren’t expecting me.” Her cheeks heated up, and he remembered how much he used to enjoy baiting her. He didn’t quite manage to hide a grin when she picked up one of the paper napkins and scrubbed at her mouth, removing the last trace of lipstick. “Did I get all the mustard?” she asked. “All but a tiny dab here.” He tweaked the end of her nose with his finger. “I didn’t get any on my nose!” “Are you absolutely sure of that?” “Not without a mirror,” she grudgingly admitted, “and, of course, I don’t have one because I don’t have my purse. Okay, let’s see it.” She reached toward the sheet of paper he still held in his left hand. “Don’t laugh,” he cautioned, not that she could be intimidated. “I lost my sense of humor when you dazzled me with your pool hall prowess,” she complained. He handed over the list, not sure whether to be embarrassed by the characteristics written in a dark scrawl with a thick-leaded carpenter’s pencil. “Am I reading right?” she asked. “Number four is inexperienced?” “Maybe a bad word.” He felt six inches high. “No, I get your meaning. You want to be able to teach her a thing or two.” “Not exactly!” He choked. “Chew your food.” She didn’t want to do this, so she was making him suffer, another thing Tess did very, very well. “Are you sure you didn’t copy this from a medieval handbook for husbands?” “Let’s just say, if her little black book has fewer pages than mine, I’ll be happy.” “Like that wouldn’t apply to every unmarried woman I know.” Was it possible sweet little Tess was nurturing a grudge for all the times he’d provoked her in high school? She was certainly stomping on his list with hobnail boots. He wasn’t going to give her any more ammo by revealing his grandfather’s horror of tainted women. “You’re not making this easy for me,” he mumbled. “Sorry. We both want this to be over. I like requirement number nine—family oriented. I adore mine, especially Erika and Erin.” “Your nieces, right?” “Yeah.” When she smiled without the snide expression, her face lit up. “Here’s a practical one. You like to be outdoors, so naturally you would enjoy a woman who shares your interest.” “I’m glad you approve,” he said dryly, wrapping the uneaten portion of his bun so she wouldn’t notice. Anyone could lose his appetite once in a while. “Several of the names on my list qualify so far,” she said. “Who?” “Let me compare your list with mine and decide who’s perfect for you. Then I’ll see if any of my friends are interested in meeting you.” “I don’t want a perfect woman. Someone like you would be fine.” “Thanks a lot…I think.” Whether from the heat of the day or internal combustion, her cheeks were glowing sunburn-red. “I didn’t mean it as an insult.” Dang, had he made her squirm this much in high school? He chugged the rest of his root beer, which he didn’t like and didn’t remember ordering. “By someone like you, I meant a nice, attractive woman with interests of her own and not a whole lot of dating experience.” “How do you know I haven’t dated multitudes of men since you knew me in school?” “I don’t know. Sorry.” A guy does know, he thought, trying not to let her see his smugness. “Why are you making this so complicated?” “I have too many possibilities on my list—friends, sisters of friends, cousins of friends, friends of friends, customers, friends of customers, relatives of…” He laughed defensively. “That narrows it down to all the eligible women in the greater Detroit area.” “Not quite, but I have at least a dozen good prospects. I’ll mull it over, then negotiate.” She stood and brushed crumbs from the lap of her short, swingy, flowered skirt, forcing him to notice those spectacular legs again. “Negotiate, as in union contract?” “You have to realize, some of my friends may not be interested in meeting you.” He did the wrong thing—he laughed. “I have to get back to work,” she said forcefully. “By the way, I do want to thank you again for letting me preview the new product line. It was quite an experience.” “One I’m trying to forget,” Cole muttered. TESS WENT BACK to work seriously considering signing up for a yoga class. Nothing she’d learned in the self-assertive discipline of kickboxing had helped when Cole showed up at the store without warning for the second time. She was embarrassed to remember her pounding heart and racing pulse. He’d startled her. That could be the only possible explanation for her purely involuntary adrenaline rush. Instead of working on the next week’s work schedule, she laid Cole’s list and hers side by side on her desk in the back room. The numbered lineup of unattached friends spilled over onto the back of her page, even though she’d printed their names in ant-size letters. She flipped the paper and put her own name at the bottom of the list in tiny, barely legible script. She belonged in this anthill, too. Cole would get his fill of the eager and the eligible. Meeting Mr. Right was the Mount Olympus of dating, and the older a woman got, the harder it was to scale up to where the Greek gods were hiding. She stabbed at the paper with the pen point, obliterating her name. What had she gotten herself into? Anyway, she said she would set him up, and she would, and why had Cole wrapped his sausage and bun instead of eating it? Did being with her zap his appetite, or was it the prospect of an endless string of blind dates? More puzzling, why was he gung ho to have her help him meet women when he didn’t have the slightest bit of trouble getting acquainted with them wherever he went? She didn’t buy his excuse about not finding nice women on his own. She could keep him supplied with a new date every night of the week and double book him for lunch and dinner on the weekend. She’d begin with friends from high school. They’d at least know him by reputation—the Bailey twins’ legacy had endured at least until Tess’s class graduated, if not longer. Lucinda deserved to sit on a jellyfish on her tropical paradise honeymoon. If it weren’t for that ludicrous dress, Tess’s bow wouldn’t have been caught in the trunk and Cole wouldn’t have paid the least bit of attention to her. Now she was really stuck—matchmaker to a man of many conquests. She flipped the sheet, wrote her name above contestant number one, then blacked it out letter by letter. The phone interrupted her as she turned the n in Morgan into an inky square. “Baby Mart, how may I help you?” she automatically answered. “Ms. Tess Morgan?” The woman spoke with diligently cultivated culture. “This is she.” She couldn’t say, “Yeah, it’s me,” to this voice. “This is Dorothea Danzig, Mr. Marsh Bailey’s personal assistant. Mr. Bailey would be honored if you would attend a reception to launch the new catalog this Saturday evening.” “Me?” So much for outclassing the classy voice on the other end of the line. “You are the owner of Baby Mart?” “Yes, I am.” She said that satisfactorily, hardly a gasp of astonishment in her businesslike response. “Cocktails from seven to nine in the Windsor Room of the Sherman Arms Hotel, then dinner at nine. May I add your name to the guest list, Ms. Morgan? Mr. Bailey will provide transportation, of course.” “I’d be very pleased to attend.” Did that sound all right, or was there a little wheeze in pleased? “Splendid. Your limo will be there at 6:30 p.m., if you’ll be so kind as to give me your home address.” Home address? Yes, she had one! She gave it triumphantly. She was going to ride in a limo, a limo as in prom night, wedding…funeral procession! “You may, of course, bring an escort if you like. I believe you’re a friend of Mr. Bailey’s grandson, but it’s completely optional whether you choose to invite someone. The event is black tie.” Tess repeated the date and time, scribbling them on the margin of her list as the call ended. Was it because she’d liked the portable potty? Or because lime green reminded her of lizards, pond scum and diet lime soda? More likely, Cole’s grandfather was trying to use her to entice his grandson into taking an interest in the business. The Bailey men were leading her on a flimsy rope bridge over very sticky quicksand. She could only hope her common sense was an adequate safety net. GETTING DATES for Cole proved as easy as locating a free cat. Friday night was a snap. Tess had gotten reacquainted with a classmate, Jordan Collins, who’d recently moved back to the area. She was on the thin side, but Cole hadn’t made a point about size or shape. “I had a huge crush on Cole in high school,” Jordan admitted when Tess called her that evening after work. “But didn’t everyone? He was so adorable in a naughty sort of way.” “Certainly not me,” Tess lied. Saturday was even easier to book. A real friend, Margo Hendricks, volunteered when Tess groused to her over lunch on Tuesday. She’d never met Cole, but a longtime relationship with a live-in boyfriend had fizzled a few weeks earlier. “I hate all men, and I hate blind dates even more,” Margo said. “But if I do this for you, we’ll be even for all the time you spent listening to me sob about Rick.” “You’ll be perfect,” Tess declared. She didn’t have a free minute to tackle a really serious problem until Friday. What should she wear to a reception at the Sherman Arms? She took a long lunch break and covered the stores in the mall, deciding she really couldn’t afford five hundred dollars for a midnight-blue evening gown shimmering with a touch of deep violet even though it made her look thin and feel like glamour personified. After work she resorted to desperate measures—she went to her sister. Karen agreed to loan anything she owned in exchange for Tess keeping Erika and Erin overnight sometime soon so she and Duke could relive their wedding night at Martino’s Resort and Spa. “You don’t know what pleasure is until you bask in one of their heart-shaped hot tubs,” Karen enthused. “I can’t decide which dress to wear,” Tess said, trying not to imagine Cole rising up in a cloud of mist and leading her to a bed covered in black satin sheets. “I’ll have to take some home.” “Come back tomorrow. It isn’t as if Royal Oak is as far away as the moon.” “Can’t. Have to work in the morning. Then get my hair done.” “A French twist, have it piled up in a French twist.” “Maybe.” It was a good idea, but if she gave her big sister any encouragement, Karen would want to choose everything from eye shadow to toenail polish. By Friday evening, Tess still hadn’t decided. Five of Karen’s best dresses were spread out on her bed, and she’d just taken off a sixth when the door buzzer summoned her. She slipped into a short pink robe and hoped she didn’t have a visitor who expected to come inside. Why was she not surprised to see Cole’s image in her spy hole? Was this part of his blind-date ritual, reporting to her on the state of the date? She opened the door a crack. “I’m not dressed.” “I don’t mind.” He sounded sheepish but adamant. “Good or bad date?” “Maybe a few suggestions so you can do better next week.” “I didn’t enlist for the duration of the war!” “You didn’t enlist at all. You were drafted. Got any popcorn?” “I’m not dressed for company.” How could she resist his pathetic smile? “Oh, come in.” “I’ll pretend you’re at the beach. Guess you’d have to take off more for that. Would you be more comfortable if I took my shirt off?” “Don’t!” “Just kidding, not that I have much sense of humor left after that date. I thought she was going to attack me with a steak knife.” “Oh, dear. Let me put some popcorn in the microwave. You’re kidding about the knife, right?” “I took her to a place that specializes in steaks. She doesn’t eat meat.” “That’s not unusual.” She set the timer, conscious of Cole hovering near the sleeve of her robe. “She doesn’t wear leather, she doesn’t step on bugs and she only eats salad made with produce that comes with six different labels guaranteeing no chemicals were used in producing it. She made the waiter bring an empty bag from the kitchen. The lettuce flunked.” “It’s smart to be careful about what you put in your body.” Tess felt defensive. After all, he was the one insisting she find dates for him. Could she help it if there were no perfect women on the dating circuit? “I have no problem with vegetarians, but when I order a twenty-five-dollar porterhouse, I don’t want it seasoned with sarcastic remarks.” “She lectured, huh? No need to be testy about it with me.” The popcorn bag inflated, and she tried to guess the moment when the kernels were through exploding but not yet scorched. “Why do you want popcorn if you’re stuffed with prime beef?” “I didn’t eat most of it. There’s more.” “It gets worse?” “Jordan likes to purify her mind through abstinence—no drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, chocolate…” “Good for her. She sounds like a great marital candidate.” “No sex.” “Oh. Are you sure…I mean, you want someone who doesn’t sleep around.” “No sex, period.” He looked grim. “Come on, you’re making that up.” “Except, of course, we do have to consider the future of the human race, so a weekend schedule is acceptable—after marriage, of course.” He started pacing, hands hooked in his pockets. “Jordan was pretty intense in high school, now that I think about it. Made straight As, worked as a candy striper at the hospital. Now she has a good job in the insurance industry.” “She probably spends her days denying payment for doctor-ordered treatment. I won’t go into her health care theories except to say they involve a lot of yogurt. She has naturally curly hair and…” She followed his pacing into the kitchen, then put out her arms like a crossing guard to stop him. “And she weighs ninety pounds with her pockets full of nails.” He slumped over a kitchen chair. “Maybe you’re making snap judgments because you really don’t want any blind dates.” She stood over him feeling like a prosecutor with a guilty defendant. “Untrue. And I’m not being picky. I can’t have a long-term relationship with a woman who calls me a Jack the Ripper of sweet-faced bovines.” “Speaking of that, did I thank you for helping me unload the comatose-cow quilts?” “No, and don’t change the subject. She really did call me a serial cattle killer, and she was pointing a steak knife at me when she said it.” He pointed at her little wooden rack of knives on the counter. “Sorry. She just moved back here.” “Not your fault. I’m not good at blind dates, I guess.” “Everyone hates them.” “Women, too?” “I’d rather have my eyelashes removed.” She took the popcorn out of the microwave and yelped when hot steam singed her fingers as she opened the bag. “Let me. There is one more small point for future reference. Maybe you could find me a more—let’s say substantial woman.” “As in well-endowed?” “Sort of.” “I thought appearance didn’t matter,” she said, putting her hands on her hips. “I want to get married, possibly to someone who doesn’t look embalmed.” “You’re not being nice. Jordan had a tremendous crush on you in high school.” “Lots of girls did—on Zack or me.” He nonchalantly stuffed a handful of popcorn in his mouth. “You are such a—” “Male?” There was that. “That’s why I liked you,” he said as he munched. “You didn’t. It was fun having a girl as a friend.” She snorted, but he was too busy chomping to notice. She wandered into her living room, belatedly wishing she’d closed the bedroom door. The bed was easily visible and so loaded with clothes it looked like a rummage sale. “Packing to go somewhere?” He followed her, glancing curiously through the open door. “No, trying to decide what to wear.” “Another wedding?” He licked his buttery fingers. “Thankfully, no. Just a party. It’s at the Sherwood Arms, so I probably should dress up.” “Who are you going with?” “Feel free to ask me anything.” “If you’re ashamed of him…” “There is no him. It’s just a party. I can invite someone if I like, but when have I had time to concentrate on my love life? Yours is a full-time job. Now, if you’ve had enough snack food…” The phone rang just as she was gearing up to tell him what she really thought about his hunt for a woman. She picked it up and listened while her real friend, Margo, happily explained how she and Rick had reconciled. Tess carried the cordless as far from Cole as she could, short of barricading herself in the bathroom. “Sure, I understand,” she said into the phone. “I’m delighted for you, but I have someone here. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” She dropped the receiver on the charger. “Your date canceled.” “For tomorrow night?” “Of course for tomorrow night! You may be booked until Christmas for all I know, but Margo is the only one who would call me to cancel.” “I know that.” He licked his upper lip. Even his tongue was sexy. “That means…” “Cole, I cannot find someone else for you by tomorrow.” “No need. I have something else in mind.” “In that case…” She took his arm, hoping to propel him toward the door. “Now I’m free to go to your shindig tomorrow night.” Cole had a teasing glint in his eyes. “You don’t mean…” “You said you need a date.” “I said could bring, not need!” “It’s the least I can do after all the trouble you’ve gone to for me.” “You don’t need to pay me back, Cole.” “How could I ever pay you back for a stuffed animal fanatic?” “She was your choice!” “Or an armed and dangerous vegetarian?” “Not my fault,” she grumbled, counting the reasons matchmaking was a thoroughly thankless job. “What time should I pick you up?” She had a revelation. She could see the cartoon image of an angel on her right shoulder and a devil on the left. After a very brief struggle, the guy in red won. “It will work better if you meet me at the Sherman Arms Hotel. Be in the lobby at six-thirty,” she said. No way was she going to let him see the limo his grandfather was sending for her! “Okay. By the way, black isn’t your color.” He glanced toward the bedroom, where half the dresses on the bed were black. “No, but it’s yours. The party is black tie. That won’t be a problem, will it?” Underneath his golden-brown tan lay the blanched visage of a man who’d just been trapped into wearing a tux. “See you tomorrow evening,” she said, purring. 6 THE MOST stunning woman Cole had ever seen was standing beside a giant flower arrangement in the center of the vast hotel lobby. She was wearing a long shimmering blue dress, sleeveless and slit well above her knee. With her upswept hairdo she resembled a princess. His mouth went dry as he wondered what his chances were of meeting her. He glanced around and didn’t see Tess. What was this mysterious business about meeting her here? He walked toward the lovely vision, half expecting her to vanish like a mirage. Instead she turned slightly and looked directly at him with a mischievous little smile. “Tess.” He hadn’t felt so winded since the last time his midsection had connected with a football helmet. “Did you have trouble parking?” she asked with suspicious sweetness. “I managed to get into the parking garage after I maneuvered around all the stretch limos. The street is clogged with them.” “Must be some fancy affair going on. You cleaned up well—the tux looks good.” “You, too.” He was trying not to stare, but his eyeballs had a will of their own. “It was nice of you to come,” she said serenely. “It’s the least I could do after all you’ve done to help me.” He felt a sudden rush of gratitude that tonight’s blind date had canceled. “Why didn’t you let me pick you up? I borrowed Zack’s vintage Mustang.” “Oh, meeting here worked better.” She smiled so slyly he was even more mystified. “Glad you didn’t wear black,” he said softly. “Glad you did.” Enough of this small talk, he thought. He wanted to tell her she looked gorgeous, stunning, fantastic, but this was Tess. He couldn’t tell a friend she was so beautiful he felt as if he’d fallen on his head and was seeing stars. “Shall we?” He offered his arm. “What’s this party for, anyway?” “It’s in the Windsor Room,” she said, which didn’t answer his question. The hotel worked hard to create old-world ambience. The staff spoke in hushed voices, and no litter would dare appear on the faux Oriental carpeting. They passed a cluster of massive burgundy leather chairs, and Cole thought how much fun it would be to pull Tess down on his lap and… “Hey, how did you get here?” he asked, increasingly curious about her metamorphosis from shop girl to elegant partygoer. “Here we are.” She smiled brightly and ignored his question. The lobby was shabby compared to the grandeur of the ballroom. He took in the gold-flecked marble walls and a chandelier big enough to light Toledo. Tables were arranged in a large T and covered with place settings on white linen. It was the centerpieces that really caught his eye. Huge arrangements of orchids, exotic lilies and other florists’ fancies were festooned with baby rattles and clusters of pink and blue pacifiers. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/jennifer-drew/one-bride-too-many-one-bride-too-many-one-groom-to-go/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.
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