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The Wedding Planner Millie Criswell Weddings were her business…When she began her bridal consultant business, Meredith Baxter expected to coordinate bouquets and bow ties, not receive a billionaire's surprise proposal! Her latest customer, wealthy bachelor Adam Morgan, was the catch of the century. But why was he asking her to make such an important commitment? Why was he so desperate for a wife?Finding a bride was his!Any woman would do for the in-name-only marriage Adam needed. Yet, with Meredith he'd get a partner…a mother for his kids…and hopefully a lover for himself. Adam had to convince the lovely wedding planner to start preparing their ceremony–time was of the essence. So he set out to change their relationship from strictly business…to strictly pleasure. Adam Morgan was every woman’s ultimate dream…every wedding planner’s financial fantasy! Meredith reached into her portfolio and pulled out an assortment of wedding invitation samples and cake photos, spreading them out on the leather desktop. “These are just samples, of course. I have others, if none meet your needs.” What would meet Adam’s needs, or rather who, was seated right in front of him. Meredith Baxter, with her bow-shaped, kissable mouth and figure that conjured up erotic thoughts, was an incredibly sexy woman. “You’re frowning, Mr. Morgan. Is something the matter?” Pushing the material back to her, he shook his head. “Just use your own judgment, Miss Baxter. The only requirement I have is that the date be set and the invitations printed immediately.” “But you don’t have a bride—” “No buts about it, Miss Baxter. Plan the wedding…as if it were your own.” “Millie Criswell rules when it comes to humor and passion. Don’t miss The Wedding Planner!” —Bestselling Silhouette Desire author Leanne Banks Dear Reader, Welcome to another month of wonderful books from Harlequin American Romance! We’ve rounded up the best stories by your favorite authors, with the hope that you will enjoy reading them as much as we enjoy bringing them to you. Kick-start a relaxing weekend with the continuation of our fabulous miniseries, THE DADDY CLUB. The hero of Mindy Neff’s A Pregnancy and a Proposal is one romantic daddy who knows how to sweep a woman off her feet! Beloved historical author Millie Criswell makes her contemporary romance debut with The Wedding Planner. We are thrilled to bring you this compelling story of a wealthy bachelor out to find himself a bride…with a little help from the wedding consultant who wishes she were his only choice! We’ve also got the best surprises and secrets. Bailey Dixon has a double surprise for Michael Wade in Tina Leonard’s delightful new Western, Cowboy Be Mine. And in Bonnie K. Winn’s The Mommy Makeover, a dedicated career woman is suddenly longing for marriage—what is her handsome groom’s secret? With best wishes for happy reading from Harlequin American Romance… Melissa Jeglinski Associate Senior Editor The Wedding Planner Millie Criswell www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) ABOUT THE AUTHOR Millie Criswell is a national bestselling author and winner of the Romantic Times Magazine Career Achievement Award and the Reviewer’s Choice Award. She’s published more than a dozen historical romance novels, but is making her contemporary category romance debut with Harlequin American Romance. Millie lives in Virginia with her husband and her neurotic but loving Boston terrier. Her daughter is a practicing attorney in Florida and her son attends law school at West Virginia University. Contents Chapter One (#u6735c393-b53e-5087-8c0a-780c97cfc6b8) Chapter Two (#u3f183863-5c0f-50b1-8d86-274c711b8414) Chapter Three (#u89f97800-028f-5b02-be7c-3f42a90d07d3) Chapter Four (#u7c5065bb-d7ae-5182-997d-d437bfb47b0e) Chapter Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fifteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Sixteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seventeen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eighteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter One Adam Morgan was certifiable, totally irrational and just plain-old nuts. Money couldn’t buy happiness. Well, it obviously couldn’t buy sanity, either. For all his money, good looks and breeding, the man seated across the round mahogany table from Meredith, looking so earnest in his two-thousand-dollar Armani suit and three-hundred-dollar white shirt, while he tossed sunflower seed remains all over her new carpet, was a few slices short of a two-dollar loaf of white bread. She continued to stare at him in disbelief, wondering if she’d heard him correctly. When he repeated himself, there was no doubt in her mind that a large vacuum existed between those well-shaped ears. “I need a wife, Miss Baxter. I’d like you to find me one as soon as possible. I’m on a tight deadline, and I’m willing to pay handsomely for your effort.” He cracked another sunflower seed between his flashing white, oh-so-very-straight teeth. It was obvious he flossed regularly. Another reason to dislike him. Gazing at the checkbook now being waved in her direction, her toe started tapping against the mauve carpeting. When nervous, some people chewed their nails, toyed with the ends of their hair or gnawed the inside of their cheek. Meredith tapped. In fact, she was tapping so fast at the moment she could probably qualify for a job at Radio City dancing with the Rockettes. Her right knee knocked against the underbelly of the table, and she pressed it with her palm to stop the motion. She was an excellent wedding planner and took pride in making her customers’ special day the most perfect it could be. But she wasn’t a magician or a marriage broker. Adam Morgan didn’t need a wife. He needed a shrink. And with his millions, he could afford the best psychiatrist Morgantown had to offer. “Perhaps you don’t understand what it is I do, Mr. Morgan. I’m a wedding consultant, not a matchmaker. Best Laid Plans will be happy to arrange for a church, rent a banquet hall for the reception, take care of the flowers, music and catering. But we don’t enter into bridal selection—unless, of course, you’re talking about bridal gowns. Those we can find.” Flicking an imaginary speck of dust off his expertly tailored navy-blue jacket, Adam Morgan drummed manicured fingers on the table. Everything about the man was manicured, from his perfectly coifed dark, wavy hair, to his highly polished cordovan wing tips. Meredith was pretty certain that if she were to take a peek at his boxers, there would be a crease in the silk material. He was definitely the silk-boxer type. “Is there a problem with my attire, Miss Baxter? You keep staring at my lap.” Adam’s brow lifted, as if in challenge, though his expression remained bland. He suppressed the urge to laugh at the woman’s obvious embarrassment. With her red hair and milky complexion, he suspected the lovely Miss Baxter couldn’t hide much of what she was thinking. And what she was apparently thinking at the moment was quite intriguing. If his situation wasn’t quite so dire, he’d be tempted to investigate further. “Ah, no. There’s no problem.” Hoping her face wasn’t the color of a cooked lobster—she hated her fair complexion—Meredith entwined her fingers and set them before her, trying to look businesslike, and doing her damnedest to keep her disappointment from showing. When Morgan had strolled into her store thirty minutes before, she had recognized him immediately. His photo was constantly in the newspaper, either in the business pages or society section. When he’d announced that he wanted her to plan his wedding—a rather extravagant affair for a thousand people—she’d nearly passed out. The dollar signs flashing behind her eyelids had rendered her dizzy. But when he’d added the crazy stipulation about the bride…Well, she knew he was having a good laugh at her expense. Because if it wasn’t a joke, than it meant that Adam Morgan, heir to the Morgan Coal Mining and Manufacturing fortune, was a deranged lunatic. The pile of seeds on her carpet was growing, making that seem a likely possibility. The wealthy bachelor didn’t bother to hide his frustration. The adoption deadline was closing in on him, and he didn’t have the time to explain his motives, nor was he in the habit of doing so. Most who worked for Adam followed his instructions to the letter. Obviously the redhead had a mind of her own. “I am well aware of the functions of a wedding planner, Miss Baxter. I came to you because my time is extremely limited. I have three months to find a bride, plan a wedding and get married. Which is why I’m willing to pay you a considerable amount of money for your trouble. I realize that finding a bridal candidate is not in your usual job description, and you will be compensated accordingly.” Meredith’s greedy little heart was beating faster than a KitchenAid mixer. Money really was the root of all evil, and she could certainly use some. And, well, even if Morgan was a little bit nuts, what harm could it do? After all, it was his money, his decision, if he wanted to buy himself a wife. All she had to do was find the unfortunate female. Answer: If she pulled off Morgan’s wedding, which was sure to be the wedding of the decade, she’d have more business than she could handle. Society types tended to follow each other’s lead like sheep. Trends were set, fashion dictated and accepted, because they didn’t have the guts to exert their individuality. Except for Adam Morgan. Planning a wedding without a bride was definitely a novel idea. “I assume you have some criteria for your future bride,” she asked, unable to believe she was actually discussing the possibility with him. Now who was nuts? Reaching into his inside coat pocket, the fastidious businessman extracted an envelope and placed it on the table, pushing it toward her. “Here’s a list I’ve put together. Intelligence being the most important quality, of course.” Meredith’s green eyes widened. She would have guessed big breasts. Wealthy men like Adam Morgan usually went for flash not substance. Trophy wives. Although he probably wasn’t old enough to have a sweet young thing dripping from his arm. She guessed him to be about thirty-four or -five. He needed another ten, fifteen years for that. Meredith had read in the newspaper about his struggle to adopt his dead sister’s two children. Marriage was probably a stipulation of the adoption procedure. Single parents were not usually successful candidates. After studying Adam Morgan, it was easy to see why he needed a wife to bring some normalcy to the proceedings. “Do you make it a habit to woolgather, Miss Baxter?” Her cheeks blossomed again, and Adam swallowed his smile. Meredith Baxter would never win a game of strip poker. Glancing at his gold Rolex, he frowned at the likely possibility that he was going to be late. He never allowed himself to be late for an engagement. Punctuality was the mark of an organized mind. “I have an appointment with my attorney in twenty-five minutes. I’m afraid I need an answer or I shall be forced to go to your competitor.” She looked into eyes as gray as the rain-laden clouds outside, at the long fingers toying with the red Windsor knot at his throat, at the impressive width of his shoulders, the swarthy tint to his complexion, and she wondered if he was as businesslike and controlling in bed. “Miss Baxter?” Meredith forced her attention back, then smiled, somewhat hesitantly. “Though your request is unusual and not something I’m usually confronted with—most grooms already have a bride when they come to me—I accept the job, Mr. Morgan. I require a deposit of ten thousand dollars, due to the magnitude of the wedding you have in mind.” And due to the stack of old bills she’d yet to pay. “Excellent.” Without batting an eyelash or breaking a smile, he wrote out the check, scribbled his signature, which was totally illegible, and stood, handing it to her. “Be at my house at ten o’clock tomorrow morning, and we’ll get started on the media coverage.” Her eyes widened, and her voice grew small. “Media coverage?” “The quickest way to find a bride, Miss Baxter, is to use the media. Once the story gets out that I’m looking for a bride, the newspapers and television stations will be only too happy to aid us in our search. I intend to use them shamelessly. As will you.” “I will?” She swallowed with some trepidation. “You’re darn right, you will. Those vultures have hounded and exploited my family for years. I think some payback is in order. And I am very good at paying back, make no mistake about that.” The feral glint in his eyes made Meredith a believer. Adam Morgan was a man used to getting his own way. “Weddings are supposed to be joyous occasions, Mr. Morgan. Some people wait their whole lives to find the right person, fall in love and get married. Are you sure you’ve thought this through? I mean—what about love?” He didn’t bother to hide his disdain at the question or at her impertinence in asking it. “You’re beginning to sound like a poorly written romance novel, Miss Baxter.” She stiffened, her chin lifting a notch. “I happen to love romance novels, Mr. Morgan.” He started to say something—sarcastic, no doubt!—then thought better of it and said instead, “I’m not the romantic type. I don’t have time for hearts and flowers and happily ever after. In my opinion what I’m doing can be likened to a business merger. Two sides with similar views and interests coming together to form a successful union for the good of the company or, in this case, the good of the family unit.” “So, in the immortal words of Tina Turner— ‘What’s Love Got To Do with It?’ I think I understand.” The man was cold, heartless. She pitied the poor woman who was foolish enough to marry him. He looked at her strangely. “Who is Tina Turner?” Meredith held out her hand. “An old family friend, Mr. Morgan. Don’t worry about a thing. Your upcoming nuptials are in excellent hands.” Gazing down at those excellent hands, he said before releasing hers, “Your polish is chipped, Miss Baxter. And you have a run in your left stocking.” Her mouth dropped open at the man’s audacity, her eyes clouding in anger, and she didn’t notice how the corners of his mouth had tilted. “Thank you very much, cretin, Neanderthal, arrogant meathead,” she said between gritted teeth, but he was already out the door and didn’t hear her. “Anyone I know, sweetie?” her assistant, Randall, asked, emerging from the back room in time to catch a glimpse of the man through the plate-glass window. He’d just returned from delivering six candelabras to the First Baptist Church, where the Sanders wedding would take place on Saturday morning. Meredith forced down her anger. “Adam Morgan, our new client.” She explained the details of the unorthodox wedding arrangement and the man’s obnoxious observations, making Randall grin. With his bleached-blond hair, tanned complexion, and brilliant blue eyes, Randall Cosby looked like a California beach boy. He was slight of build, but muscular, and had no difficulty performing the arduous tasks of lifting and hauling necessary to his position. He worked for Meredith part-time while attending law classes at West Virginia University. “The man’s obviously got good taste in women.” “What do you mean?” “If he noticed the run in your stocking, sweetie, then he was staring at your legs. And your legs are one of your best features.” He looked down at his own and pulled a face. “Mine are just too skinny and straight. No curvature at all to them. I’ve been cursed with brains and no body.” Meredith laughed. One of the things she liked best about Randall was his honesty. He was going to make a wonderful lawyer. “Thank you, I think. But I don’t believe Mr. Morgan was looking at my legs for any reason other than to find fault. He’s a stickler for details. And he’s going to be a royal pain in the butt to work with.” Randall began straightening the bridal magazines on the long glass display counter. “Handsome, though. From what I saw of him, he’s a very good-looking man, and quite a natty dresser.” Randall was into clothing in a big way. “Yes, he is that,” Meredith agreed, a sigh escaping her lips. “But he’s too arrogant and structured to suit me. I prefer someone a bit more animated. Adam Morgan is definitely not my type.” Randall arched a disbelieving brow. “Mickey Mouse, he’s not.” He shook his head. “Sweetie, you are way too picky. I used to think I was choosy, but you are much worse. I don’t think there’s a man alive who could live up to your expectations. The Prince Charmings of the world are few and far between. You’re going to have to settle for a mere mortal if we’re ever going to plan one of these fabulous weddings for you.” “I’m not in any rush to get married.” She intended to wait for her knight in shining armor, no matter how long it took. There was someone special out there for her; she just knew it. “Well, your mother is. Last time I visited Louise at the nursing home—we shared the loveliest boxed lunch from Grabber’s Deli—she asked if you and I were dating. I told her that you weren’t my type.” He rolled his eyes, making Meredith laugh again. “Mom’s worried she’s going to die before I can produce grandchildren for her to dote on. She’s always trying to fix me up with the male nurses who work at Pleasant Acres. I guess she doesn’t think I can get a date.” “She worries about you, sweetie. We all do.” Meredith smiled at her employee. “That’s good, because that leaves me to worry about more important things. Speaking of which, we’d better get back to work. I’ve got to prepare myself for my meeting with Morgan tomorrow. I’m bearding the lion at ten.” He arched a brow. “Hmm. Sounds interesting.” “Interesting isn’t the word for it, Randall. Nauseating, aggravating, but definitely not interesting.” ATTORNEY PETER WEBBER leaned back in his tufted, red-leather swivel chair and noted the unusually high color on Adam Morgan’s cheeks. As his lawyer for the past ten years, and best friend long before that, Peter was quite attuned to the man’s shifting and often foul moods. Adam was displeased or distracted about something, and he would no doubt let him know soon enough what it was that was bothering him. “As you suggested, I hired the wedding planner. We’ll be meeting tomorrow morning to iron out the specifics of the upcoming wedding.” “What’s he like?” Peter began making notes on a yellow legal pad. Adam was a stickler for recording even the most mundane details of every conversation. “He is a she. Meredith Baxter from Best Laid Plans.” “Cute.” “She’s attractive enough, I guess.” Adam had always been intrigued by redheads. And she had the best-looking legs he’d seen in a very long time. Well-defined calves, shapely ankles. He adored the way her cheeks filled with color whenever she became embarrassed, which, judging by what he’d already observed, was often. “I meant the name of her business.” “Oh.” Adam squirmed restlessly in his seat, and Peter swallowed his smile. He hadn’t seen the man this distracted in a while. “What does Miss Baxter think of your plan to wed?” “From the peculiar way she was staring at me, my guess is she thinks I’m a first-class nut.” “You are known for your eccentricities, Adam. The woman sounds astute. And did you litter her floor with sunflower seeds, as is your usual habit?” Taking the handful of seed husks he was about to toss on the floor, Adam shoved them into his suit pocket and ignored the question. “Meredith Baxter is young and hopefully malleable. I don’t want someone who’s going to question my every decision. The most important thing is for me to gain permanent custody of Allison’s children. I don’t care if the whole world thinks I’m nuts. I’ll do whatever it takes, spend however much money is necessary, to adopt Andrew and Megan. I promised Allison I would.” And Adam never went back on a promise. The attorney was living proof of that. At fourteen, Peter’s parents had been killed in a car accident, leaving the young man virtually penniless. The Webbers’ lavish lifestyle and opulent house on the hill had been a facade for a mountain of debt and unpaid bills. Adam had convinced his father to take custody of Peter and see to his welfare and schooling. Allistair Morgan had never been a substitute father to Peter—he’d barely been a real one to Adam—but he had provided the monetary means for him to obtain a law degree. With the stipulation, of course, that upon passing the bar exam he would become the Morgans’ family attorney. The Morgans had a slew of business lawyers and financial advisors, but the shrewd old man wanted someone he could trust implicitly, someone who would look out for his children’s interests after he was gone. That someone had been Peter, and it was a role he performed with dedication and devotion. “I’m sure once Miss Baxter is apprised of the seriousness of your situation,” Peter said finally, “she will view you in a different light.” Staring out the window, Adam watched the bustling traffic below. Thinking another light needed to be installed in the intersection, he made a mental note to suggest it at the next meeting of the Morgantown Planning Commission. Frowning, he turned back to answer Peter’s question. “The woman’s a dreamer, a romantic. Besides, I don’t care if she approves of what I’m doing or not. I’m paying her to plan and perform, not to ponder and pontificate.” The attorney’s interest was piqued. Adam was usually nonplussed about most things. “Perhaps I’ll stop by your house tomorrow morning and take a look at this wedding planner firsthand. She sounds intriguing.” “Meredith Baxter is not your type, Webb. She’s a redhead, not a blonde.” “A redhead!” Peter’s smile turned mischievous. “I’ve always been a sucker for redheads. They blush so charmingly, don’t you think?” Adam didn’t know why, but for some reason Peter’s comment grated on him. “I don’t have time to discuss your taste in women. I’ve got more pressing problems at the moment.” Adam’s mood had been foul and erratic of late, which worried Peter. The man hadn’t had a date in six months; his sister’s recent death had only complicated matters. Aside from business meetings and obligatory social engagements relating to the charities he funded, and that damned model train set he fiddled with, he didn’t have much of a life. “Maybe your problems and your attitude would improve if you went out with a woman. How long’s it been since you’ve had sex? You live like a damn monk up there in that monastery you call a house. Engineer Adam must be running low on steam by now.” The gray eyes flashed annoyance. Adam hated being teased about his passion for model trains. His father had tormented him most of his adult life about his hobby. And he sure as heck didn’t like being quizzed about his nonexistent sex life. “My sexual needs are not a topic of discussion, not even with you, Webb.” Adam lowered himself onto a nearby chair. “So let’s drop it. Maybe if you channeled your sexual desire into your work, you’d get more of it done.” “Is that what you’re doing? Using your work and your business as a substitute? Because let me tell you, Adam, old buddy, that’s not going to work. One of these days when you’re least expecting it—boom! You’re going to explode like a damn volcano.” Adam smiled condescendingly. “My, my, that is an interesting metaphor. It seems you and Miss Baxter have something in common. She likes to read torrid romance novels. I’m sure the eruption of a volcano has been used countless times to describe sexual climax in one or more of those lurid tales.” “Sounds to me like you’re the one who should be reading them, Adam. You might learn something. And you might be able to experience love and romance vicariously through the pages of a book, since you’re not performing it for real.” “You’re starting to sound like my mother, Peter, and that’s the deadliest of mistakes.” Peter was wise enough to know when he’d pushed too far, and from the dangerous expression on his best friend’s face, that time had come. “How is Lilah? Still exploring the mysteries of India?” Adam’s mother had left West Virginia shortly after her husband’s death six years ago to travel the continent. She had not seen fit to return, not even for her only daughter’s funeral, which was in keeping with Lilah Morgan’s personality. She’d always loved herself more than anyone else. Bitter at the slight she had shown his sister, Adam had also been relieved. He had no desire to see his mother, who would likely muck up the adoption proceedings with her histrionics, at any rate. “Yes, thank God! She’s still there. I just hope she stays away for the next three months, until we can get everything finalized.” Peter hesitated before bringing up the next subject, which he knew would bring pain to his friend. But he also knew there was no getting around it. Adam wanted to be apprised of any and all developments concerning the murder of his sister. “There’s been no word on Curtis Tremayne. The district attorney’s office doesn’t have any new leads as to his whereabouts, and the private investigator we hired hasn’t turned up anything yet. It’s as if he’s fallen off the face of the earth.” At the mention of his former brother-in-law, Adam’s eyes flashed quicksilver. He had warned Allison about marrying the handsome gold digger, but she’d fancied herself in love with Tremayne and hadn’t listened. Now she was dead. The bastard had strangled the sweet, lovely woman with his bare hands after beating her viciously beforehand. The sight of Allison’s battered body, when she was dying, had sickened Adam’s stomach and his mind. He would never forget what his sister had endured for the sake of love. The only good that had come out of Allison’s relationship with Curtis Tremayne had been their daughter, Megan, and son, Andrew. Adam had promised Allison on her deathbed that he would keep the children from Tremayne and adopt them as his own. “Hire more investigators. I want that guy found. It’s been three months since my sister’s murder, and we’ve had no justice, no closure. I want him to pay for what he’s done.” Peter scribbled on his notepad. “I’ll get right on it. Anything else?” “I want the media contacted about my plans to marry. You can coordinate your efforts with Miss Baxter. You’ve probably had more experience in dealing with the press than she has. Though she looks a damn sight better than you.” The good-natured lawyer grinned. “You want national coverage—Good Morning America, the Today Show?” Adam nodded. “I want the world to know that Adam Morgan is looking for a wife.” “You’re going to make yourself a target for those who won’t agree with what you’re doing.” The tall man shrugged. “It’s a small enough price to pay to honor my sister’s last request, don’t you think? And I’ve got you and Miss Baxter to run interference for me.” Adam finally smiled. “I think the woman is up for the challenge. How about you?” Chapter Two Meredith might have been bearding the lion at ten, but the only thing growling this morning as she made her way up the flagstone walk to the mansion’s wide double doors was her stomach. She’d been running late and hadn’t had time for breakfast. Issuing a cease-and-desist order to her stomach, she sucked it in, tugged at the hem of her royal-blue wool suit jacket, checked her stockings to make sure they were run free—she wasn’t going to give that voyeur another reason to stare at her legs—and quickly admired her manicure: Wild Rose, and not a chip in sight. Let the cretin try to find fault with her today, she thought, smiling defiantly. Banging the heavy brass door knocker three times, she turned to survey her surroundings while she waited. The house sat atop a hill and overlooked the city below. The view was spectacular, she had to admit. The grounds were as well manicured as the man who owned them. The acre front lawn was as green as a piece of crushed velvet, unusual for this early in spring, and didn’t have one unsightly weed growing in it. Not that weeds would dare grow in Adam Morgan’s lawn. Giving silent thanks that she didn’t have to mow such a monstrosity, she smiled at the thought of her own postage-stamp-size yard, which suited her to perfection. She had more weeds than lawn, and what wasn’t taken up with weeds was covered with flowers of every sort imaginable. Flowers were her passion. She wondered if Adam Morgan had any passions, besides sunflower seeds, that is. It had taken her almost an hour to vacuum the carpet after he’d left yesterday. She knew now what Gretel had felt like following the breadcrumb trail. Glancing at the plantings of white and red begonias lining the drive and front walk, she shook her head in dismay. Anyone with half a brain knew it wasn’t wise to plant begonias until after Derby Day, which wasn’t until May, and usually after the last frost. Not that such a thing mattered to Adam Morgan, who had more money than God, and probably wasn’t the least bit bothered by such trivial matters. No doubt he had an army of gardeners who took care of such things. Glancing at her watch to find that it was now five minutes after the hour, she frowned and banged the knocker again, harder this time, wondering why old houses never had doorbells. She was about to make an off-color comment about the rudeness of having been kept waiting, when the door was thrust open by the scowling man himself. Adam Morgan didn’t look at all happy to see her; the feeling, she could assure him, was mutual. “You’re late, Miss Baxter. I abhor lateness. It’s a sign of a disorganized mind.” The attack was so sudden she didn’t have time to ponder why his maid or butler hadn’t answered the door. Drawing herself up to her five-foot, five-inch height, which barely met his chin, she responded, “For your information, Mr. Morgan, I was not late. I’ve been standing on your porch for a full five minutes waiting in the cold for someone to answer my knock. “And while we’re on the subject, I would think someone with your resources could afford an intercom system, or, at the very least, a working doorbell.” Tossing a handful of sunflower seed husks into the potting soil of one of the tall, spiral holly bushes flanking the massive front door, he stared at her as if she’d lost her mind. “A doorbell in a two-hundred-year-old historical house? I don’t think so, Miss Baxter. Aside from the fact that it would look incongruous to have something so modern as a doorbell cluttering up the facade, it would ruin the exquisite stone—stone my great grandfather quarried himself and hauled up this hill on a wagon.” His voice was filled with such passion when he spoke about the mansion that Meredith’s earlier question was now answered: apparently the house ranked right up there with sunflower seeds. Admirable. “My housekeeper had an emergency and had to leave. If you’re cold—” He stared at her chest, as if he could sense that her nipples were puckered, making Meredith extremely grateful she wore a suit jacket. Not bothering to reply she followed him into the walnut-paneled study, where a fire burned cheerfully in the grate. The only cheerful thing about the room, she noted. The colors were somber and restrained, much like the man himself. The burgundy velvet drapes matched the two Queen Anne chairs flanking the fireplace. The leather-bound volumes lining the shelves, though attractive, and no doubt expensive, didn’t add much in the way of relief. It was obvious the antique furnishings had been designed for looks not comfort. Seating herself on a straight-backed chair fronting the impressive mahogany desk, she reached into her portfolio and pulled out an assortment of wedding invitation samples and cake photos, spreading them out on the leather desktop. “These are just samples, of course. I have others, if none meet your needs.” What would meet Adam’s needs, or rather who, was seated directly in front of him. Meredith Baxter, with her bow-shaped, kissable mouth and a figure that conjured up X-rated thoughts, was an incredibly sexy woman. And as Peter had so succinctly pointed out, he hadn’t been with a woman, sexy or otherwise, in a very long time. “You’re frowning, Mr. Morgan. Is there something the matter? As I said, I have other samples I can show you.” Pushing the material back to her, he shook his head. “Just use your own judgment, Miss Baxter. I don’t really care what the cake and invitations look like. Those are trivial matters for the female mind.” Meredith bit the inside of her cheek, reminding herself of the ten thousand dollars sitting in her bank account. “The only requirement I have is that the date be set for Saturday, June 21. I want the invitations printed immediately.” “But—” Was the man insane? Duh! “No buts about it, Miss Baxter. I have a deadline to meet. We both do, as a matter of fact.” “But you don’t have a bride. How can you possibly set a date for the wedding without a bride? Certain details have to be decided, and—” “The wedding plans will proceed. I’m sure you’re going to need every bit of the time allotted to pull this off. You have less than twelve weeks to finalize everything.” Realizing that she would probably be fired for what she was about to say, Meredith plunged ahead anyway. “Making wedding plans without a bride is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. I naturally assumed when you laid out your ridiculous scheme that you intended to find the bridal candidate first, then proceed with the arrangements. I can’t plan a wedding without a bride. It just isn’t—” Ignoring her protest and pointed opinion, and without revealing so much as a flicker of the annoyance he felt, Adam moved from his desk to the floor adjacent to where Meredith sat and proceeded in his expensive designer suit to execute a series of sit-ups. At the man’s outlandish behavior, Meredith’s mouth dropped open in disbelief. “Mr. Morgan!” “I think better when I’m exercising,” he said nonchalantly, as if everyone in America exercised in an Armani suit. “Care to join me? It gets the blood pumping to the brain.” It also afforded one an excellent view of long, silky legs, which got the blood pumping elsewhere. “In your case I don’t think it’s working, or else you wouldn’t have made such a stupid suggestion.” Adam paused, then sat up, hugging his knees as he gazed into her earnest face—a face he was growing more attracted to with every passing moment. “I think you’re forgetting who is paying for all this ‘stupidity,’ Miss Baxter. If I want to hold this wedding the day after tomorrow with a chimpanzee for a bride, I will. “You’ve been hired to plan and execute, not to give opinions, unless they’re asked for. I don’t recall asking, do you?” Meredith cursed inwardly as a flush crept over her cheeks, and she tried to keep her temper under control. The man was totally infuriating! He deserved to marry a chimpanzee. Preferably one who smelled bad and had large teeth. Adam rose to his feet at the same time the study door opened and Peter Webber entered. The lawyer, who’d overheard the tail end of their conversation, smiled widely at the outspoken woman. Meredith Baxter didn’t sound the least bit malleable. In fact, she sounded quite the match for the irascible millionaire. “Don’t let Adam intimidate you, Miss Baxter. He’s very good at it, you know.” “Meredith Baxter meet my attorney, Peter Webber,” Adam said, performing the introduction. “Or should I say former attorney? I’m thinking of making a change.” Peter smiled, not at all bothered by Adam’s remark. The millionaire threatened to fire him at least once a week, sometimes twice. He had yet to carry out his threats. “Nice to meet you. I understand we’ll be working together on the media coverage.” He held out his hand, and Meredith took it, deciding in that instant that she liked Peter Webber. He was tall, very good-looking in an Ivy League sort of way, and he appeared to be a whole lot nicer than his client. The twinkle in his blue eyes said he didn’t take Adam Morgan too seriously. But then, who in their right mind did? “I’m looking forward to it, Mr. Webber.” “Call me Peter, or Webb. I’ve never been one to stand on ceremony.” “Me, neither. It’s Meredith.” Though she directed her comment to Peter, she was staring directly at Adam, who looked decidedly ill at ease, and not at all pleased that she and his attorney were hitting it off so well. “You may call me Adam in private, Miss Baxter. But I’d like you to maintain the formalities in front of the press corp and when in the presence of my staff and business associates. At those times business protocols should be maintained.” “I’m all for keeping our relationship strictly business, Mr. Morgan, so you needn’t worry I’ll cross the barriers you’ve erected.” She turned her back on the mogul, as if his concerns didn’t matter at all. “I believe you wanted to discuss the media coverage with me, Peter. I think we may have a problem with the chimpanzee angle.” She met his grin with one of her own. If anger could have produced steam, Adam would have blown it out through his ears. He was doing a darn good impersonation of Old Faithful about to erupt. Even the sight of the infuriating woman’s too-tight skirt, hugging her impossibly firm, taut— “Adam!” Peter called out for the second time. “Your phone’s ringing. Do you want me to answer it?” With a shake of his head, Adam cursed himself for allowing the wedding planner to interfere with his concentration, then picked up the receiver and was quickly absorbed in a multitude of work-related problems. While Adam conducted business matters, Meredith and Peter discussed the various media strategies they wanted to implement. Peter suggested that they begin their campaign with local newspapers, radio and television stations, then work their way up to the national broadcasters, which made perfect sense to Meredith, who admittedly didn’t know a press release from a grocery list. They’d just finished their discussion when Adam’s niece and nephew wandered into the room. In the space of a heartbeat, Meredith became enraptured. The Tremayne children were adorable. To his credit, Adam had shielded them from the media circus surrounding his sister’s murder, so this was the first time she’d had the opportunity to observe them. At eight, Andrew appeared to be a typical boy. His uncombed hair looked like a bomb had recently exploded in it, the right knee of his pants was torn—Morgan was sure to disapprove of that—and his shoelaces were untied and trailing on the floor. The engaging grin he flashed made Meredith suspect the child would grow up to be a heartbreaker, just like his uncle was purported to be. Two years younger, Megan was on the shy side and hid behind her brother during Peter’s introduction. Her two front teeth were missing, but that didn’t detract from her dimpled smile when she chose to show it. A bedraggled teddy bear named Murphy was hugged tightly to her chest. The bear, Peter explained, had been a gift from her mother shortly before the woman’s tragic death. The attorney ruffled the boy’s dark hair. “How’s it going, sport?” Kneeling in front of Megan, he held out his arms. “Don’t I get a kiss from my favorite girl?” Meredith watched Peter quickly win over the little girl, who not only gave him a kiss but a hug as well. She noted with interest that no similar affection was bestowed upon her uncle, whose tone of voice had risen several octaves while he continued to berate one of his plant managers, making the child shrink further in response. A few moments later Peter’s beeper went off, calling him back to his office, and Meredith was left to fend for herself with the children, which didn’t bother her in the least. She adored kids and hoped one day to have some of her own. Engaging them in conversation, she soon had Megan and Andrew revealing all sorts of details about themselves, like how Megan hated brussels sprouts, how Andrew had broken his arm last year by falling out of a tree, and how their dog Barnaby was not allowed in the house because he tinkled on the carpet. The children, laughing aloud at some of the silly jokes Meredith told, were completely at ease in her presence; the effortless, friendly exchange between them was not lost on Adam, who had a very difficult time communicating with his niece and nephew. He was a man who talked to CEOs of major corporations, political figures and civic-minded leaders on a regular basis, but became tongue-tied and ill-at-ease when he had to converse with his dead sister’s children. Noting that Meredith had no such problem, Adam’s previous pique was all but forgotten, replaced instead with intriguing thoughts and possibilities, and he heard himself saying, “Why don’t you stay for lunch, Miss Baxter, so we can continue our discussion of the wedding.” Though startled by the invitation, Meredith’s stomach, which had been rumbling like a cement mixer at the most inopportune moments, made up her mind for her, as did the two children, who were tugging her hands and begging her to stay. “Please say you’ll have lunch with us, Miss Baxter,” Andrew implored, his sister bobbing her head in agreement. “You don’t have to worry about the food. Mrs. Fishburn made it before she left, not Uncle Adam.” For once Adam didn’t admonish his niece and nephew about butting into grown-up affairs that were none of their concern. Meredith’s heart went out to the two lost little souls. She couldn’t imagine being so young and having to deal with the death of someone who comprised your whole world, and having to face the fact that your father, the man you were supposed to love and look up to, had been accused of killing your mother and was gone now, too. “All right,” she said, realizing her heart had suddenly jumped to her throat. “I’d love to.” OVER A DELICIOUS MEAL of chicken salad, fresh fruit and nut bread, Meredith and Adam discussed various locations where the wedding and reception could be held, finally deciding on the fashionable Morgantown Country Club, where Morgans had been members since its inception shortly after the Civil War. When the discussion turned to bridal candidates, the children had their own advice to offer. “Make sure the ladies you talk to like model trains, Miss Baxter,” Andrew advised. “Uncle Adam loves playing with his trains.” Eyes widening, Meredith glanced up from her salad to observe the man seated across from her, wondering what else he liked playing with. Her knee started knocking and she grabbed it. “Is that so?” Adam’s ears were as red as his necktie, and he seemed genuinely embarrassed, a fact she found quite charming. “Yep. Uncle Adam doesn’t let anyone—” “That’s quite enough, Andrew. I’m sure Miss Baxter isn’t interested in my personal habits and hobbies.” He looked to her for confirmation, but found none. “Quite the contrary, Mr. Morgan. The more I know about you the easier it will be to find someone who’s compatible, chimpanzees notwithstanding, of course.” He replied to her teasing smile with an imperious arch of his brow. “He doesn’t like dogs, I know that,” Megan said, turning to look out the dining room window at Barnaby, who bore a marked resemblance to Little Orphan Annie’s dog Sandy, and was staring in at them with a forlorn expression. Barking several times, the mutt wagged his tail in hopeful reprieve. Adam’s voice softened. “Now, Megan, it isn’t that I don’t like dogs. But we have some very expensive Aubusson rugs on the hardwood floors, and the dog can’t seem to distinguish between them and the grass.” “But Barnaby’s lonely outside, Uncle Adam. He’s just nervous because this is a new house, and he’s scared of all the changes, that’s all.” Meredith wondered if the little girl was speaking about the dog or herself. From the blank look on her uncle’s face, it was doubtful he noted the difference. “Rules are rules, Megan. And what did we learn about rules?” “They’re not to be questioned, but obeyed,” the two kids recited in unison, making Meredith eager to jump across the table and shake some sense into the obtuse man. But she wouldn’t. It was obvious Adam Morgan truly loved his niece and nephew, but was out of his element when it came to relating to them. Instead of talking to Andrew and Megan on a level they could understand, he spoke to them as if he were discussing a merger in a boardroom. It was none of her business. It was better not to get personally involved in the problems of a business client. Morgan would just have to work things out as best he could. But the children… She hated thinking that those adorable, lovable children would grow up to be carbon copies of their pompous millionaire uncle—hard, unyielding, unable to love. Her appetite suddenly gone, Meredith made an excuse to leave and hurried out of the mansion, vowing not to get emotionally involved with anyone who lunched with three-fork place settings. And who didn’t love dogs. Chapter Three Despite the bucolic name, Pleasant Acres Nursing Home was located downtown on High Street, only a short distance from Morgantown General Hospital on one of the town’s main thoroughfares and within walking distance of Meredith’s business, which is why she’d chosen the facility for her mother. Louise Baxter’s degenerative heart condition, which had been diagnosed as acute myocarditis two years before, was slowly killing her. Absolute bed rest and a proper diet were essential, and Meredith realized from the first that she would need help in providing the kind of adequate nursing care necessary to handle her mother’s illness. Stepping into the spacious black-and-white-tiled foyer of the brick building, which had been designed to look like Jefferson’s Monticello, she waved to Flo Welch, the gray-haired receptionist seated at the entry station, and skirted around Henry Mullins’s dachshund, who had escaped the confines of the old man’s room again, with the hope, no doubt, of making it out the front door this time. Henry suffered from Alzheimer’s, and he wasn’t able to provide the dog with the kind of attention it craved. Proceeding down the wide hallway, whose soft yellow walls always made her hungry for her mother’s lemon meringue pie, she whistled at the colorful macaw perched outside Mrs. Hammond’s suite, waved at the old lady seated in the doorway, then stepped next door to her mother’s room. Pets were an integral part of the nursing home’s policy, and residents were encouraged to keep one. Meredith had yet to convince her mother that a puppy or kitten would be a good companion for her. Louise Baxter, though sick in body, still had a stubborn streak a mile wide running through her, and she’d never been overly fond of any of the many strays Meredith had adopted while growing up. Entering the suite, she noted the middle-aged woman had one eye on the TV screen and the other on the clock resting on the nightstand beside her antique brass bed. The nursing care facility did its best to make every patient’s room as homey as possible from the red and gold chintz curtains at the window to the colorful braided rug covering the linoleum floor. In an attempt to make her feel more comfortable, many of the furnishings in the suite came from Louise’s own home. Bric-a-brac and dozens of photos lined the windowsills and occasional tables, reminders of happier times in the Baxter family. Meredith was a few minutes late and knew her mother was sure to comment, as Adam Morgan had commented this morning. She wasn’t disappointed. “Thought you might be coming by, Merry, though I expected you a bit earlier. Is everything all right?” She kissed her mother’s cheek and worried at how pale she looked. The older woman’s condition seemed to deteriorate with every passing day. Only a heart transplant could prevent the inevitable. But Louise’s health insurance didn’t cover it, and Meredith didn’t have the resources to pay for the expensive operation and recovery period. The resulting guilt weighed heavily upon her slender shoulders. Taking a seat on the love seat, she kicked off her high heels and wiggled her toes, emitting a sigh of relief, and wondered again for the hundredth time why she insisted on torturing herself for the sake of fashion. She should have followed the lead of that actress who wore tennis shoes with her business and evening attire. “Fran Weaver and her daughter came in for a fitting of Heather’s wedding gown,” Meredith finally explained. “They got into a huge argument about the headpiece.” She screwed up her face in disgust as she recalled the unpleasant incident. “I thought at one point they might actually come to blows. Heather was totally exasperated at her mother’s insistence that she wear a rhinestone tiara instead of a traditional tulle veil.” Fortunately, Meredith had managed to convince Fran that the tiara would not be appropriate with Heather’s dotted-swiss gown. But only after Heather had burst into tears and locked herself in the dressing room. “Frances always was one to put on airs,” the older woman said, her tone clearly disapproving as she brushed graying wisps of hair from her ashen cheeks. Frances Weaver had been one of Louise’s cleaning customers after Henry Baxter’s death had left his wife and daughter almost destitute. Though she’d worked hard to provide for Meredith, Louise had felt shame at having to clean the toilets of women who had once been her friends. “What else happened today?” Her mother enjoyed listening to the day’s events, eagerly awaiting even the smallest tidbit of gossip. Meredith tried to provide a steady stream of news to take Louise’s mind off her illness and the loneliness that resulted from residing in the nursing home. “Randall got an A on his criminal law test.” Louise’s smile couldn’t have been prouder had she been the law student’s mother. “I know. He came by to visit earlier and brought me a half-dozen chocolate chip cookies. Wasn’t that sweet? He’s such a nice boy.” Meredith knew what to expect next, and she braced herself for it. Her mom made the same speech at least once a week. “I don’t know why you don’t think about dating him, Merry. A girl could do a lot worse.” Knowing Randall’s dating preferences ran in a different direction from her own, Meredith smiled patiently at the suggestion. “We’re just friends, Mom. I’ve told you that before.” “I want to see you married and settled before I die, honey. I don’t want to go to my grave knowing you’ll be left all alone.” “Now, Mom, you know I’m not going to let you die, so you needn’t worry about that,” Meredith said, wishing she really had that kind of divine power. At this point she’d settle for a magic wand—one she could wave and, with a flick of her wrist, cure her mother’s heart ailment, find herself a Prince Charming and locate Adam Morgan a bride, so she could get the annoying man out of her hair. “I’ll get married in my own good time, and you’ll be around to spoil the heck out of your grandchildren.” At her mother’s sharp gasp, Meredith followed her gaze to the small television set suspended from a ceiling bracket in the far corner of the room. Adam was being interviewed on a segment of the local news about his plan to wed. A handsomer man did not exist on the face of the planet, Meredith was sure of it, and she tried to ignore how the sound of his deep voice had the power to send tingles up and down her spine. “What on earth is that odious man up to now?” Louise asked, not bothering to hide her dislike. She fought the urge to groan. Her mother blamed the Morgans for her husband’s death due to black lung disease, a condition he’d developed while working in the Morgan coal mines. Meredith had hoped to postpone the discussion of her newest client until she could figure out a way to break the news gently to her mother. Only now that wouldn’t be possible. “Isn’t it a bit unorthodox to plan a wedding without a bride, Mr. Morgan?” Bill Simmons of WNPB News asked. “A wedding? He’s getting married?” Shaking her head in disbelief, Louise added, “Who would marry such a man? The poor woman must really be hard up.” “Uh, Mom, there’s something we need to talk about—” But before Meredith could elaborate, Adam Morgan took the words right out of her mouth. “I’ve hired Best Laid Plans to organize everything, from the bridal selection to the reception. Together we’re planning a big event to mark my departure from bachelorhood to happily married man.” Adam was smooth, she’d give him that. She only wished she had his facility with words, especially now, since her mother was staring at her as if she were Judas Iscariot in the flesh. “How could you, Meredith? You know how I feel about the Morgans. They killed your father—they ruined our lives.” Louise Baxter’s face was unnaturally flushed, and Meredith knew that any kind of excitement or stress wasn’t good for her. “I was hoping to prepare you, Mom. I didn’t know Morgan would be interviewed so quickly.” She crossed to the bed, plumping the foam pillows behind the ailing woman’s back. “Now take a deep breath and calm down, or I’ll ring for the nurse to give you a sedative.” Despite the obstinate set to her chin, Louise did as instructed, much to Meredith’s relief. “I don’t understand any of this, Merry.” “It’s just business, Mom. I needed the money that Morgan was willing to pay. I’ve got inventory to purchase, payroll to make, and Adam Morgan’s offer was too good to refuse. After all, I do plan weddings for a living, and he is getting married.” “Rich people always get what they want.” “He doesn’t seem like a bad guy. A little nutty perhaps, but not altogether bad. Morgan needs to marry quickly in order to gain custody of his niece and nephew. “You remember how brutally his sister was murdered, leaving those two kids at the mercy of their deranged father?” Louise tsked loudly, indicating she did. “Well, Adam Morgan is planning to adopt them and provide a stable home.” How stable, Meredith couldn’t be certain. After all, they’d be living with him. And he wasn’t exactly what she would call sane by normal definitions. “Allistair Morgan was scum. I’m sure his son is the same. Blood always tells.” Louise had more to say, but one of the nurses came in just then with her dinner, and Meredith was provided a reprieve, which she took without hesitation. Kissing her mother goodbye, she said, “I’ll see you tomorrow, Mom. I’ve got to get home and fix dinner for myself, let Harrison out before he pees on the floor.” Harrison, her golden retriever, was named after Harrison Ford because he was so darn cute, and because Meredith had had a huge crush on the actor ever since Han Solo had piloted his way into her impressionable young heart. “You be careful, Merry. And get all of your money in advance. Don’t trust Adam Morgan.” Assuring her mother that she would only trust the man as far as she could spit, which wasn’t all that far—she knew that, because she and her next door neighbor Ricky Trumble used to have spitting contests when they were kids—Meredith hurried out the door and headed for home. PULLING INTO HER GRAVEL driveway ten minutes later, Meredith set the brake on the red Mitsubishi Eclipse and gathered up her things. The amber light from the front porch lamp illuminated Peter Webber’s handsome face. He was sitting on the brick steps blocking her door, holding a huge paper bag on his lap that smelled suspiciously like Chinese food the closer she approached. Her stomach, apparently forgetting the wonderful lunch she’d shared with the Morgans only hours before, roared appreciatively in response. “Hi, Meredith. Hope you don’t mind me darkening your doorstep without calling, but I neglected to get your business card before I left Adam’s, and I didn’t have your home phone number.” “If that’s Chinese food, and if you’ve brought enough to share, then you’re forgiven.” Unlocking the door, she invited him in, and they were immediately assaulted by Harrison, who was as eager to greet them as he was to rush out the door to take care of pressing matters. “Did you see Adam’s interview?” He unloaded the small white cartons of delicious-smelling food onto the green-lacquered table in her kitchen. Like the rest of the house, the room was cozy, which was Meredith’s euphemistic way of saying microscopic. “It was a last-minute thing, so I went ahead without consulting you. Hope that was all right.” She waved away the objection and got down a couple of plates from the cupboard, fishing in the drawer for silverware and hoping to find forks that weren’t horribly mismatched. Her housewares, like her furniture, were what Meredith referred to as eclectic, which sounded so much nicer than mishmash or garage-sale specials. “I’m only involved in this media blitz because Adam wanted me to be. I’m not comfortable in the spotlight.” Peter seemed surprised. “As pretty as you are? I find that hard to believe.” The unexpected compliment took her off guard, and she smiled with a great deal of uncertainty. “Give me five minutes and you’ll see just how hideous I really am.” Hurrying into her bedroom, Meredith tore off the uncomfortable suit and pantyhose and slipped on a pair of faded red sweats that had seen better days. Stuffing her aching feet into furry slippers that resembled white bunny rabbits whose whiskers moved when she did, she thought about removing her makeup, but decided against it. The poor man wasn’t ready for such a shock before dinner. Meredith emerged to find that the attorney had let the dog back inside and was now lying supine on the living room floor, trying to get the one-hundred-fifty-pound canine off his chest. Harrison considered anything on the floor fair game, including, and most especially, people. “Harrison, leave Peter alone. It’s time for dinner. Now go to your blanket. Shoo!” The dog obeyed, but not before getting in one last swipe of his tongue down Peter’s face. The attorney laughed, mopping up Harrison’s exuberance with what used to be a clean white hankie. “Guess my idea of playing and your dog’s are two different things. I’ve never been much good at wrestling. Is he always this friendly?” She shook her head. “No, not always. He’s very protective when the need arises, but he likes most people, especially when he finds one brave enough to crawl around on the floor with him.” Peter took a seat at the table situated near the window and began serving himself out of the cardboard containers. “Your attempt to make yourself ugly didn’t work,” he remarked, his grin teasing. Meredith choked on her eggroll and reached for the glass of iced tea next to her plate. She liked Peter, hoped they would be friends, but that instant sexual attraction required for any good relationship was missing between them, unlike the spark that had ignited when Adam Morgan first stepped into her life. Just her luck to be attracted to a nerdy businessman instead of a suave, handsome attorney. “I bet you say that to all the ugly girls,” she quipped. “Now pass the sesame chicken and tell me what evil media things you’ve conjured up for our prospective bridegroom.” WHILE MEREDITH AND PETER consumed gargantuan proportions of moo shoo pork, fried rice and steamed dumplings, the prospective bridegroom was having a difficult time concentrating on the paperwork in front of him. As he mulled over P & Ls and production-cost analyses, Adam kept seeing Meredith’s face, her incredibly long legs, her firm, lush breasts… “Damn!” he cursed, his erotic musings having had the predictable effect. Moving restlessly to the window, he gazed out. The moon was full, the stars shining brightly in a sky as black as his mood at the moment. Adam hated distractions, and Meredith Baxter was proving to be a very big distraction, if the pressure in his groin was any indication. Perhaps if I call her… He glanced at his watch: seven-thirty. She’d be at home at this time of evening and would no doubt welcome a chance to discuss all those annoying, trivial wedding details that women were so fond of agonizing over. What nonsense is this? Gazing longingly at the crystal decanter of brandy on the credenza behind his desk, he decided that liquor could eliminate the restlessness he was feeling far better than talking to an opinionated woman, who would no doubt ramble on about petits fours and champagne fountains and whatever else was found at wedding receptions. He hadn’t a clue. The brandy burned like liquid fire as it made its way down, but it didn’t obliterate the memory of the smile on Meredith’s face when she teased him about marrying a chimpanzee, or the genuine affection in her green eyes when she told those stupid jokes to his niece and nephew about embarrassed zebras and black-and-white newspapers. She’d left out the one about the nun rolling down the hill. He smiled as he recalled Andrew and Megan’s joyful laughter. The children hadn’t had much to laugh about lately, what with their mother’s death, and having to adjust to a new school and surroundings. But Meredith had managed to lighten their spirits, and had made them forget the ugliness of their situation, if only for a little while. Something he’d been unable to do. He’d tried, of course. He truly loved Megan and Andrew. But he was out of his element when it came to children, schoolwork and the multitude of everyday problems kids seemed to have. But he wouldn’t admit his shortcomings to anyone, because if the courts knew how totally inept he was at being a parent, they would remove Megan and Andrew from his care, and no amount of money he could offer would make any difference at that point. If it hadn’t been for Peter’s persuasive argument with the court and the people at social services, Megan and Andrew would already be living in a foster home. Over my dead body! Deciding that his thoughts were becoming a little too maudlin, he put down the brandy and picked up the phone, dialing Meredith’s home number before he could change his mind. She answered on the third ring, and his heart gave a little zing when he heard her voice. There was laughter in the background—a man’s laughter—and the sound of it knotted his gut. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you had company.” “Mr. Morgan, is that you?” Meredith seemed genuinely surprised to hear from him. He felt like an ass. “I’ll call back tomorrow.” “No need. It’s just Peter. He brought over Chinese and we’ve been going over the media campaign. We’ve come up with some wonderful ideas I think you’re going to—” “Peter Webber is at your house eating dinner?” he interrupted, and the vein in his temple started throbbing. “Why, yes.” He could hear the smile in her voice, which made him even madder. “Would you like to speak to him?” Webb was the last person he wanted to talk to, especially now that he knew his so-called best friend hadn’t wasted any time putting the moves on the wedding planner he’d hired. “No. I don’t need to talk to Peter.” “Oh? Was there something else you needed?” A gross misunderstatement, if ever he heard one. “I was just calling to—” What? Hear the sound of your voice? Talk you into going to bed with me? “Get your reaction on the interview I did today. I thought it went well. Did you see it?” “Yes. I was at the nursing home visiting my mother when it aired. I thought you did very well.” “I hear chimpanzees from all over the country are calling the station at this very moment trying to get a date with me.” His attempt at humor was met with momentary silence, then she finally laughed, and Adam released the breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. She laughed! Adam’s forehead broke out in a cold sweat. He’d never felt such relief, not even when Fergus Industries’ bid to take over his corporation had failed last year. “Did you make a joke, Mr. Morgan?” The teasing note in her voice was unmistakable. “I’m impressed. There’s hope for you yet.” “I have my moments.” “Mmm.” The X-rated murmur went straight to Adam’s lap, but was quickly dispelled when she giggled and said, “Harrison, stop that! You’re tickling my ear.” Harrison? Who the hell was Harrison? Was the woman having a party? First Peter, now Harrison. How many men were at her house? He felt annoyed, left out, and wished he’d never called. “Harrison gets off on licking my ears and feet,” she explained. “He’s such a pervert, but really very cute. He’s also a bit too affectionate. I’m thinking of having him pruned. It may lessen his urges a bit, if you get my drift.” Adam’s loins tightened, and he felt the strongest urge to cross his legs. He developed an instant empathy for poor Harrison, whoever that poor, lovesick fool might be. “That’s rather drastic, don’t you think? Perhaps you should just tell him no. That’s been known to work on occasion.” “Believe me, I’ve tried. But it just makes him all the more aggressive and amorous. He paws my chest, tries to rub against my leg. I—” A strangled sound emitted from his throat. “Ah, there’s my call waiting,” he lied. “Gotta go.” Slamming down the phone, Adam took a deep breath, then poured himself a huge tumbler of bourbon and gulped it down, nearly choking in the process. He was as stiff as a two-week-old corpse. The woman had no shame. She spoke of intimacies as if they were front-page news, as if she were working at one of those phone-sex hotlines, where all you needed was a preprogrammed phone dialer and a healthy imagination. Unfortunately, Adam had both. Chapter Four “I quit!” Meredith threw her purse down on the counter, knocking several bridal magazines onto the floor in the process, dropped her portfolio at her feet and dared Randall, who was staring wide-eyed at her, to object to her decision. Which, of course, he did. “You can’t quit, sweetie. You own the place.” He came around from behind the counter and shoved a mug of coffee in her face. It was warm and steaming and smelled utterly delicious. “Here, drink this. It’s mocha almond fudge and it’s guaranteed to make even the most hideous problem dissolve straight away.” “Thanks.” The chocolate aroma soothed her immediately. Why did anyone need tranquilizers when chocolate was so readily available? “I know I’m being childish,” Meredith admitted, taking a sip and murmuring her approval. “But that—that man makes me nuts. He’s so damn arrogant, so damn…rich.” She’d thought after last night that maybe he had some semblance of common decency and, well…normalcy about him. Granted their phone conversation had been strange and disjointed, and she’d never truly figured out why he’d called—the lame excuse he’d given about the interview just didn’t wash—but she’d enjoyed their brief talk, even though he’d rudely slammed the phone in her ear. But every time she formed the opinion that maybe there was more to Adam Morgan than just a large bank account and an overabundance of arrogance, he went and did something stupid. Guiding Meredith to the consultation area, usually reserved for prospective clients, Randall took a seat on the green-and-rose-flowered-chintz love seat and urged his distraught employer to do the same. “At least he can pay the exorbitant bill we’re going to charge him, right?” His grin was infectious, and Meredith finally smiled. “I’m gonna stick it to him, Randall. You’d better believe it. I’m gonna nail that arrogant piece of pomposity for every grain of rice, every inch of ribbon, every damn candle that illuminates his glorious day.” “So, what’d he do? Make a pass? Try and molest you while you were strolling the sacred grounds of the Morgantown Country Club?” Meredith pulled a face. “Hardly. I doubt Morgan has enough animal instinct to recognize that I’m of the opposite sex.” Though she’d certainly recognized his gender right off, especially after a whiff of the heady musk aftershave he’d worn to their appointment. A fact that had made his rude comments seem all the worse. With a disappointed sigh she explained, “We met in the grand ballroom of the country club, where the reception will most likely take place. It’s a lovely room with huge crystal chandeliers, delicate French wallpaper and an oak parquet dance floor. Anyway, I wasn’t there fifteen minutes when he looked me over from top to bottom in the most insulting way possible, mind you, and suggested in that superior way he has that I might want to wear something different to our next appointment.” She looked down at her royal-blue suit. “What’s wrong with this? I know it’s the same suit I wore last time we met, but my green one’s at the cleaners, and I don’t have the money right now to buy another.” Randall patted her hand in a consoling fashion, his aggrieved expression clearly stating that Adam Morgan had overstepped his bounds and committed the cardinal sin: criticizing one’s wearing apparel. “What is he, the fashion police or something?” “What he is, is a rich, snooty society snob who expects everyone to have had the same advantages as he. Well, I told Daddy Warbucks what he could do with his arrogant, rude and unwanted opinion. Then I did the only sensible thing I could think of.” “Uh-oh.” Shutting his eyes, Meredith’s assistant braced for the worst, knowing the woman, as sweet as she was, had a wicked temper when pushed. “Which was?” “I dumped a pitcher of water onto his lap, told him to get over himself and stalked out.” “Sacrebleu!” Randall, who was taking French lessons, liked interjecting new words he’d learned into the conversation whenever he could. Sacrebleu and mon dieu were at the top of his list at the moment. “Sacrebleu, is right! I think I just blew our ten thousand dollar deposit and the future of this business.” “I don’t suppose you’d consider apologizing.” Meredith jumped to her feet. “Apologize? To him? Absolutely not! Are you crazy? The man is a Neanderthal. He has no social graces whatsoever, despite his privileged upbringing and fat bank account. I’m sorry I ever accepted the job in the first place.” Meredith’s adamant feelings were reinforced a few hours later while seated at the mahogany table with one of her most important clients, who’d come into the store to discuss possibilities for a mother-of-the-groom dress for her son’s upcoming wedding. The door flung open and a blast of cold air entered, along with Adam Morgan. The wedding consultant gasped at the sight of the man, her face paling slightly, making Joan O’Connor turn her head to see what had caused such an overt reaction. “I’ve come to apologize,” he said, as if that would make up for his insufferable behavior. He was wearing a different suit from the one Meredith had doused earlier—gray wool with a matching vest and pearl-gray shirt, which just happened to make the color of his eyes stand out—and he looked none the worse for wear. In fact, he looked mouth-wateringly good. Yummy, even. Brushing the disturbing thought aside before she began to drool, she said, “I’m with a client right now, Mr. Morgan. If you care to have a seat on the sofa, I’ll be with you as soon as I can.” She wasn’t in any hurry to get rid of Mrs. O’Connor; the idea of making Morgan wait warmed her. He stood beside the table, not moving a muscle, as if he hadn’t heard a word she’d said. “I’ll buy you a new suit. In fact, I’ll buy you a whole new wardrobe. It’s the least I can do to make up for—” It was Mrs. O’Connor’s turn to gasp, though it was Meredith who turned beet red. The stupid man had made it sound as if she were his mistress, or kept woman, or whatever. It was obvious he’d given that impression to the stodgy matron, who was looking at her with shock and indignation. Like Adam Morgan, Mrs. William O’Connor was one of the First Families of West Virginia. She’d even had the distinction FFWVA emblazoned on her personalized license plate for all the world to see. It was purported that her grandfather, Willy Fitzwilliam O’Connor, was the first resident of Morgantown to have owned and operated a thriving bordello, though Mrs. O’Connor adamantly denied the scandalous assertion, which had been made by a Morgan. The O’Connors and the Morgans hadn’t gotten along since. Forcing a smile, Meredith said, “If you’ll excuse me one minute, Mrs. O’Connor, I need to deal with something.” The woman glared disapprovingly at Adam, then at Meredith, and gave a loud harrumph, clearly annoyed at the whole proceeding. “I’ll come back another time. I don’t like getting involved in matters that don’t concern me. And I certainly don’t like to be kept waiting. “And you, young woman,” she said to Meredith, “seem to have your hands full at the moment.” With an imperious lift of her chins, and pointing her nose in the air, she turned and stalked out the door, leaving Meredith speechless and standing with her mouth gaping open. But only momentarily. “Now see what you’ve done! You’re not only ruining my life, you’re ruining my business.” Adam stiffened, clearly not used to being castigated, especially by a woman—a woman he’d just apologized to. He did not normally apologize to anyone. “I can’t be blamed for the rudeness of your clientele, Miss Baxter.” “Rudeness of my—” She threw back her head and laughed, but there was no humor in it. Rather, the sound resembled nails raking down a blackboard. “That’s rich. You, of all people, calling someone else rude. How very novel.” Actually, she knew for a fact that Mrs. O’Connor was extremely rude to most everyone she encountered and was prone to meddling in matters that didn’t concern her, though she would declare otherwise. “I said I was sorry. I offered to buy you a new wardrobe to make amends.” “I don’t want a new wardrobe! I’m perfectly happy with the miserable one I’ve got.” Adam had never met a woman who didn’t like or want new clothes. His sister had purchased a new wardrobe approximately every six weeks, saying fashionable clothing lifted her spirits. Perhaps the young woman was spirited enough. Or perhaps she was just stubborn and opinionated. “My sister and mother always liked shopping for new clothes,” he explained. “I thought you might, too.” She heaved a sigh, for it was suddenly quite obvious that the man was totally clueless and had no idea he’d offended her. Where Adam Morgan came from money grew on trees, and the women in his life spent it freely, buying whatever they wanted with no thought to cost, designer label or starving children in India. Meredith, on the other hand, was on a fixed budget and spent only when it was absolutely necessary. Her business obligations came before her wardrobe, which admittedly lacked a certain flair and would probably have given Ann Taylor and Donna Karan heart seizures. “Sometimes, Mr. Morgan, it might be a good idea to stop and think before opening your mouth. Not everyone has had your advantages in life. And it’s not necessary to say every little thing that pops into your head.” She wanted to say “your thick head” but she refrained. He studied her. Meredith Baxter was quite different from any woman he’d ever known. She spoke her mind freely—albeit a bit too freely—was as organized in business as he was himself and didn’t mind going out on a limb if her instincts called for it. She’d so much as called him stupid over those wedding invitations. No one had ever dared do that before! But rather than be annoyed, he was impressed. He wondered if maybe he really was stupid. “Upon further reflection, Miss Baxter, that blue suit is very becoming with your red hair and green eyes. And it certainly fits you well.” Too well, as his body could amply testify. Only a surgical glove would have been more form fitting on her luscious body. “I shouldn’t have remarked on the frequency of its use. I apologize.” “Apology accepted.” She heaved another sigh, and his eyes followed her heaving bosom—up and down, making Meredith acutely aware that, though he was somewhat of a dolt, he was still all male. “Are we still on for tomorrow morning, then?” she asked. They had an appointment to review fabric samples. Adam Morgan intended to give input on the bridal gown and bridesmaid dresses, having apparently changed his mind about those seemingly trivial matters he’d spoken of previously. “Only if you promise to leave your water canister at home.” His lips twitched; her cheeks pinkened. “Two jokes in two days. My, my. I’m blown away by your sense of humor, Mr. Morgan.” “Adam. Please call me Adam.” She arched a brow. “You’re sure? Because—” “I’m sure.” He held out his hand, and Meredith took it. It was warm and firm, the knuckles lightly sprinkled with dark, masculine hairs. His hands exuded strength and confidence, maybe gentleness, and she was suddenly overcome with a pulsing sensation in her lower extremities that felt as if her heart had just gone into hyperdrive. Good gracious! she thought. I’m attracted to Daddy Warbucks. CURTIS TREMAYNE INHALED deeply of the cigarette clutched in his long, tapered fingers. His nails, once manicured religiously, were now jagged and dirty. He blew out a series of concentric smoke rings, then smiled sinisterly at the image projected on the TV screen—an image that provoked only one emotion: hatred for Adam Morgan. “Rich bastard!” he muttered, stabbing the butt out in a plastic ashtray that read Murray’s Roadside Garage, and rolling himself off the lumpy excuse of a mattress. The Howard Hotel wasn’t exactly the kind of accommodation he’d been used to frequenting. When he’d been married to Allison they’d only traveled first class, dined in gourmet restaurants and stayed in five-star hotels. His wife’s money had provided all the creature comforts a man in his position could want. Curtis liked only the best, which was why he’d chosen Allison Morgan, the darling of Morgantown society, the spoiled, pampered pet of her ruthless father Allistair Morgan, who’d been as rich as Croesus and as mean as a junkyard dog. Curtis had hated him on sight. Unfortunately, his wife was now dead, and he’d been cut off from all the Morgan wealth. Though he didn’t mourn Allison—he’d never been in love with the foolish woman—he did mourn the loss of his Hugo Boss suits and sleek black Jaguar, which he’d been forced to leave behind when fleeing his former home. It was a pity the way things had turned out. But, as usual, Allison had pushed his temper to the limit, always whining about his drinking, the women he fooled around with, the kids he never wanted and hadn’t paid attention to. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». 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