A Bride For Christmas
‘Tell me again why I’ve bought this wedding salon.’ Guy Carver was approaching Sandpiper Bay with dismay. ‘You didn’t say this place was a hundred miles from nowhere.’
‘You want to expand.’ On the line from Manhattan, Guy’s partner sounded unperturbed. ‘Sandpiper Bay makes more sense than any other place in Australia. I told you…’
‘You told me what?’
‘It has the world’s best surf,’ Malcolm said patiently. ‘It’s surrounded by arguably the world’s loveliest National Park, and half Hollywood owns property at Sandpiper Bay. Where are you now?’
‘On the outskirts. It looks…’
‘Don’t judge until you see the town. Even my wife thinks Sandpiper Bay is great. She’s furious you’re doing the planning and not me.’
‘As if you could plan a Carver Salon.’
‘What’s there to plan?’ Malcolm demanded. ‘Order a lake of ice-grey paint, give the widow a paintbrush and take a few days off.’
‘I don’t have time for a few days off,’ Guy snapped, irritated by his partner’s cheerfulness. ‘I need to be back in New York on the twenty-sixth for the Film Conglomerate do.’
‘We can handle Conglomerate with our hands tied. Spend Christmas on the beach.’
‘Or not.’ Christmas was a wasted day as far as Guy was concerned, and he had better things to do than surf. This year he’d timed this trip deliberately so he’d be flying home on Christmas Day. Christmas mid-air would get him as far away as was possible from useless sentiment.
He’d joined the coast road now, and he had to admit the place did look spectacular. Sandpiper Bay appeared to be a tiny coastal village bordering a shimmering sapphire sea, with rolling mountains beyond.
‘So what am I looking for?’ he demanded of Malcolm.
‘A shopfront on the beachfront shopping strip. It’s called Bridal Fluff.’
‘Bridal Fluff?’ He didn’t explode. His voice just grew very calm. ‘Did I hear right?’
‘Sure did. The ex-owner’s one Jenny Westmere. Widow. Apart from her dubious taste in naming her salon, she sounds competent. We’ve offered her twelve months’ salary to make the transition easier.’
‘There can’t be a transition from Fluff to a Carver Bridal Salon,’ he said grimly. ‘I’ll gut the place.’
He was turning into the main street now, and what he saw made him blanch. Bridal Fluff was indeed…fluff. The shopfront was pastel pink. The curtains in the windows looked like billowing white clouds, held back with pink and silver tassels. A Christmas tree stood in the window, festooned with pink and silver baubles, and a white fluffy angel smiling seraphically down on passers-by. The name of the shop was picked out in deeper pink, gold and silver. ‘What the…?’
‘Don’t judge a book by its cover,’ Malcolm said hastily, guessing what he was seeing. ‘We don’t need to give this woman any organisational role. We’re just keeping her on the payroll to keep the locals happy. Every other salon we’ve acquired, the previous owner has been so chuffed to be associated with the Carver salon that the takeover’s been a piece of cake. The bottom line is money. I’ve checked the books. I said it was a good buy and I meant it.’
‘And if it’s not…?’
‘If it’s not we’ll just have to wear it.’
Malcolm had worked with Guy for years. Guy’s reputation for dazzling event management left everyone he worked with stunned, but his personal reputation was for being aloof. Malcolm’s cheerful nature, combined with a brash business acumen that matched Guy’s, made them a formidable team. Together they’d built the Carver empire into the most lucrative events management chain in the world.
‘No need to fret,’ Malcolm was saying now, all breezy certainty. ‘You and Mrs Westmere will get on like a house on fire.’
‘Jennifer Westmere. I told you. The widow.’
‘Great,’ Guy muttered, pulling into a parking lot by the pink door. ‘Middle-aged, frumpy and dressed in pink?’
‘Nah,’ Malcolm said, though he was starting to sound uneasy. ‘The reports I have say she’s young. Twenty-eight.’
‘And I’m stuck with her?’
‘The contract stipulates twelve months’ employment.’
‘I’ll buy her out,’ Guy said grimly. ‘I should have stuck to Manhattan and Paris and London. I understand weddings there.’
‘Then we’d miss out.’ Malcolm cheered up again. ‘Now you’re expanding the Carver Salons worldwide, it’s time we moved into Australia. Sandpiper Bay’s more hip than Sydney or Melbourne. There’s a huge buzz about the Carver Salons expanding. So go meet the lady with the pink fuzz. Make friends.’
‘Not even close,’ Guy muttered as pulled his car to a halt and finished the conversation. ‘Friends? As if.’
Jenny was kneeling on the floor and tackling about a hundred yards of hemline when he walked in. It was the fourth time she’d been around this hem. The dressmaker had thrown her hands up in horror, and now Jenny was left holding the baby. So to speak.
‘I know it’s not right,’ the bride’s mother was saying. ‘We practised last night, and as she swept up the aisle I was sure the left side was longer than the right. Or was it the right longer than the left? Anyway, I knew you’d want to check. It has to be perfect.’
‘Mmphf,’ Jenny mumbled through pins, and then the door swung open.
This man’s weddings were known throughout the world. He was known throughout the world. The phone call to Jenny offering to buy her premises had left her poleaxed.
‘But why?’ she’d stammered, and the man handling the deal for Guy had given her an honest answer.
‘Eight of the ten most prestigious weddings in Australia have been held within ten miles of Sandpiper Bay in the last two years,’ Malcolm had told her bluntly. ‘There’s a caveat on new businesses in what’s essentially a historic commercial district. Setting up a business from scratch would be complex. Our people have checked your premises. Your building is big enough for us, and you already have a reputation for providing service. We’ll do the rest. If you’re at all interested, then we just need to settle on a price.’
She’d named a figure that had seemed crazy. Ten minutes later the deal had been sealed.
Jenny had replaced the receiver, stunned.
‘It’s more money than I ever dreamed possible,’ she’d told her mother-in-law, and when Lorna had heard how much she’d gasped.
‘That’s wonderful. You’ll be able to buy Henry whatever he needs.’
‘I will.’ Jenny smiled her delight. Even Lorna didn’t know the depths of her despair at not being able to provide Henry with optimal medical treatment.
‘But what will you do with yourself?’
‘That’s just it. They’re offering me a job, doing what I’m doing now, only on a salary. Twelve months’ paid work, with the possibility of extending it. Holidays,’ she said dreamily. ‘Sick pay. Regular income with no bad debts.’
‘And Guy Carver as your boss? Working with someone the glossies describe as one of the world’s sexiest men?’
They’d grinned at each other like fools at that-a twenty-eight-year-old widow and her sixty-year-old mother-in-law letting their hormones have their head for one wonderful moment-and then they’d put their hormones away and thought seriously about what it entailed.
‘Does he have any idea what he’s letting himself in for?’ Lorna had demanded. ‘A country wedding salon…’
‘It won’t be a country salon for long. Currently the international jet-setters and the rich locals bring their own planners. Carver wants that business. I’m guessing most locals will stop being able to afford him.’
‘Just like the rest of the businesses in this town,’ Lorna said, grimacing.
‘Sandpiper Bay’s changing.’
‘It’s being taken over by the jet-set,’ Lorna agreed. ‘Every property within a twenty-mile radius is being snapped up at extraordinary prices by millionaires who spend two weeks of every year here.’
‘We can’t stop it.’ Like Lorna, Jenny was ambivalent about the changes to their rural backwater, but there was little choice. ‘The guy acting for Carver said if I didn’t agree then they’d buy out the old haberdashery and set up in opposition. We’d be left with the brides that couldn’t afford Guy.’
‘Which would be most of our brides.’
‘Right. I’d go under. As it is, my wealthy brides subsidise my poorer ones.’
‘Which is why you’re a lousy businesswoman.’ Lorna gave her daughter-in-law a subdued smile. ‘Like me.’
‘Which is why I’m selling,’ Jenny said firmly. ‘We have no choice.’
So the arrangements had been fine. Sort of. Up until now it had been phone calls and official letters, with the business operating as normal. Only there was suddenly a lot more business, as people heard the news. Jenny was fielding phone calls now from as far away as California, from brides thrilled with the prospect of a Guy Carver wedding. She’d put them off, not clear when she’d officially be running Carver weddings, not really believing in the transition herself. But now the man himself was standing in the doorway.
‘I’m looking for Jennifer Westmere,’ he said, in a rich, gravelly voice, and Jenny’s current bride gasped and pointed down.
Jenny pushed aside a few acres of tulle and gave Guy a wave. ‘Mmphf,’ she said, and gestured to the pins in her mouth.
‘I’m here on business,’ he said enigmatically, and Shirley, the mother of the bride she was looking after, gave a sound that resembled a choking hen.
‘You’re Guy Carver. You’re taking over this salon. Ooh, we’re so excited.’
Guy stilled. Uh-oh, Jenny thought. One of the stipulations in the contract was that this takeover be kept quiet until the salon had been transformed to Carver requirements. But that hadn’t been stipulated until the third phone call, and in the interim Lorna had managed to spread the news across Sandpiper Bay.
There was nothing she could do about that now. She watched as Guy sat, crossing one elegantly shod foot over the other. ‘Carry on. I’ll watch,’ he said, his voice expressionless.
Great. Jenny went back to pinning, her mind whirling.
The man was seriously…wow! He was tall and dark, almost Mediterranean-looking, she thought, with the sleekly handsome demeanour of a European playboy. Not that she knew many European playboys-to be honest, she didn’t know a single one-but she imagined the species to have just those dark and brooding good looks. He looked almost hawk-like, she decided, and she also decided that the photographs she’d seen in celebrity magazines didn’t do him justice. His magnificently cut suit and his gorgeous silk tie screamed serious money.
Actually, everything about him screamed serious money.
There was a Ferrari parked outside her front window.
Guy Carver was sitting in her salon.
Was he annoyed about the lack of confidentiality? Was he annoyed enough to call the deal off?
‘What’s the problem with the dress?’ Guy asked in a conversational tone, and she mmphfed again and waved a hand apologetically to the bride’s mother.
‘The hem’s crooked,’ Shirley Grubb told him, beaming and preparing to be voluble. ‘Kylie’s not getting married in a crooked dress.’
‘When’s the wedding?’
‘Next Thursday.’ Shirley looked smug. ‘I know two days before Christmas is cutting it fine. We were so lucky to get the church. It’s just this dratted dress that’s holding us up.’
‘When was the dress ordered?’
‘Oh, she’s had it for years,’ Shirley told him, ready to be friendly. ‘When Kylie turned sixteen I said we’ll buy your wedding dress now, while your father’s still working and while Jenny’s here to organise it. No matter that you don’t have a fella yet. Just don’t put on too much weight. That was four years ago, and now we can finally use it.’
‘Um…right,’ Guy said mildly. ‘When’s the baby due?’
‘Mid-January,’ Shirley said, and beamed some more. ‘Aren’t we lucky we got the dress made? When we ordered it I told Jenny to leave heaps to spare at the hem. I was six months gone with Kylie before my old man did the right thing, and here’s Kylie got her fella the same way. Hot-blooded, we are,’ she said, preening. ‘It’s in the genes.’
Guy appeared to be focussing on the tip of one of his glossy shoes. Wow, Jenny thought. Guy Carver chatting to Mrs Grubb. Has he any idea what he’s getting into?
She went on pinning. It gave her breathing space, she thought. So much tulle…
‘Why did you choose Bridal Fluff to organise your wedding?’ Guy asked conversationally, and Jenny winced. She just knew what Shirley would say, and here it came.
‘Lorna-that’s Jenny’s mother-in-law-and me went to school together. Lorna won’t charge me.’
Ouch. This technically wasn’t her salon any more, Jenny thought. Nor was it Lorna’s. It belonged to Guy.
‘So this arrangement was made a long time ago?’
‘When we were girls. Lorna always said she’d plan my wedding, and any of my kids’ weddings and any grandkids’ weddings, and when I rang up last month she said sure.’
‘Lorna isn’t planning your wedding,’ Guy said mildly. ‘It seems Jenny is. And Jenny works for me.’
For the first time Shirley seemed unsure. Her mouth opened, and failed to shut again.
‘You mean,’ she said at last, ‘that we have to pay?’
It was time to enter this conversation. Jenny carefully removed the remaining pins and set them into her pin box.
‘Any arrangements I made before Mr Carver purchased the business will be honoured,’ she said. ‘I’ll take care of Kylie’s wedding.’
‘And the rest of them?’ Shirley looked affronted.
‘Maybe in my own time,’ Jenny said. ‘Not from this salon.’
‘Well…’ Shirley was about to start a war, Jenny thought, and Shirley’s wars were legion.
‘Leave it, Ma.’ For the first time Kylie spoke up. She was a pale, timid young bride, and only the fact that her prospective husband was even more timid than his fiancée-and totally besotted-made Jenny feel okay about the wedding. But now Kylie had a flush to her cheeks, and she turned to Guy as if she was trying to dredge up the courage to ask him something important. ‘Mr Carver…?’
‘Yes?’ Guy was staring down at Jenny-who was meeting his look and holding it with a hint of defiance. Things were about to change in her life because of this man, and she wasn’t sure that she liked it.
‘When did you buy Bridal Fluff?’ Kylie asked, and Guy turned and gazed at the bride.
It wasn’t a great look, Jenny thought ruefully. The first of her brides that Guy was seeing was a waif of a bride in a vast sea of tulle. Her dress had been made when she’d had a size eight waist. It had been close fitting then. Now two strips of satin had been sewn into the waist to accommodate her advanced pregnancy. Jenny had attached a loose-fitting lace camisole to disguise the bulge a little, but it was no small bulge. The fact that the bulge kept changing meant that the hemline kept changing as well.
As well as that, Kylie’s mother had definite ideas on what a bride should look like-which was a vision in every decorative piece of lacework she could think of. The veil even had tiny cupid motifs hand-sewn onto the netting. Seeing the veil turned into a train, Jenny estimated Guy was looking at approximately eight hundred cupids.
This was not one of her most elegant brides.
‘Do you officially own this place yet?’ Kylie asked, and Guy nodded, with what appeared to be reluctance.
‘Then I’m a Carver Bride,’ Kylie said, suddenly ecstatic. She held her hands together in reverence. ‘Like in those glossy magazines we buy, Ma. I’m the first Australian Carver bride. I reckon we ought to phone some reporters.’
‘No,’ Guy snapped, rising and looking at Kylie in distaste. ‘You’re not a Carver Bride. You are Mrs Westmere’s responsibility. My takeover was supposed to be confidential, and the name-change won’t happen yet. There’ll be no Carver Brides until my people are here and we can get rid of this…’ he gazed around the salon with distaste ‘…this fluff.’
Had he made a mistake? Guy watched as the hem-marking continued. ‘It’s a small place,’ Malcolm had told him. ‘The council has the power to make all sorts of complications, like refusing our requests to expand the building. We need to keep the locals on our side. Make an effort, Guy.’
Maybe he hadn’t made an effort. But really…Kylie, a Carver Bride? Some things were unthinkable. And what had happened to the confidentiality clause? It could be a disaster.
He waited on, ignored by the Grubbs, which suited him. Finally the hem was finished, and Kylie and her mother sailed off down the street to spread the news. Indignation was oozing from every pore.
They might be indignant, but so was he.
‘I understood this takeover was to be kept quiet,’ he said, in a voice that would have had his secretary shaking. Cool, low and carefully neutral.
It didn’t have Jenny quaking. ‘Your accountant, or whoever he is, should have said that earlier. My mother-in-law had ten minutes between offer and acceptance where that stipulation wasn’t known. Ten minutes can mean a lot of gossip in Sandpiper Bay.’
‘It means I can call the contract off.’
‘Fine,’ she said and tilted her chin. ‘Go ahead.’
He was taken aback. She should be apologising. He’d come all the way here to find the terms of the contract had been breached, and all she was saying was take it or leave it.
He’d come a long way. Maybe it didn’t matter so much. If he worked hard to get the place sleek before anyone important saw it…
That meant he also had to get rid of unsuitable clients. Fast. Clients like the Grubbs had no place in a salon such as this.
‘Why the hell did you take that pair on?’ he demanded of Jenny, watching through the pink-tinged window as Shirley tugged her daughter into the butcher shop next door.
Jenny was still on the floor, gathering pins. When she answered, her voice was carefully dispassionate. ‘It’s obvious, isn’t it? They’re local, and I’m the local bridal salon.’
‘They’ll do your reputation no good at all. And as for you being the local bridal salon…We have a contract. Unless I walk away, you’re no longer in charge. And you won’t be doing weddings like this.’
‘Right.’ Jenny sat back on her heels and eyed him with disfavour. ‘So the Pregnant-with-Tulle-and-Cupids isn’t a Carver look?’
He choked. She eyed him with suspicion, and then decided to smile. ‘Great,’ she said. ‘That’s the first positive I’ve seen. I hoped you’d have a sense of humour.’
He collected himself. ‘I haven’t.’
‘Yes, you have. I can see it. It’s a pity it seems the only good thing I’ve seen.’ She went back to gathering pins.
His jaw dropped. She was criticising him, he thought, astonished. She was on his staff. Criticism was unthinkable.
He tried to remember when he’d last heard criticism from his staff-and couldn’t.
‘You realise things are going to have to change around here?’ he said cautiously. ‘There’ll be less fluff, for a start.’
She thought about that as she kept sorting pins, and suddenly she smiled. Which threw him all over again. It was an amazing smile, he decided, feeling more than a little confounded. Somewhere his vision of the Widow Westmere was being supplanted by this girl called Jenny. This woman? Okay, a woman. Her body was slim and lithe. Her glossy brown curls were cut in a pert, elfin haircut, which, combined with her informal jeans, her T-shirt and the smattering of freckles on her nose, made her look about fourteen.
But she wasn’t fourteen. There were lines around her eyes, soft lines of laughter-but more. There was that look at the back of her eyes that said she’d seen a lot. There was not a trace of fluff about her.
This woman was a widow. There had to be some tragedy…
He didn’t need to know, he told himself. She was here for twelve months to smooth the transition. Her leaving after that would be marked with a card of personal regret. When his secretary put those cards before him to sign he could hardly ever put a face to the name.
He liked it like that. He’d gone to a lot of trouble so it was like that.
He gazed around the shop, searching for something to distract him. Luckily there was plenty of distraction on offer.
‘Three Christmas trees?’ he said cautiously, and Jenny nodded, whatever had amused her obviously disappearing, the edge of anger creeping back.
‘Lorna put up the big one in the window. She organises it halfway through November and it drives me nuts. Pine needles everywhere. The one in the entrance is a gift from Kylie’s fiancé-he works in a timber yard and came in with it over his shoulder, looking really pleased with himself. Then the guys at Ben’s work brought me one. How could I refuse any of them?’
‘My husband,’ she said, and there was that in her voice that precluded questions.
‘So…’ he said, moving on, as she clearly intended him to do. ‘We have three fully decorated Christmas trees, two mannequins in full bridal regalia and one groom in what looks a pretty down-at-heel dinner suit. Plus Christmas decorations.’
‘They’re not Christmas decorations,’ she said tightly as he gestured with distaste to the harlequin light-ball hanging in the centre of the room and the silver and gold streamers running from the ball to the outer walls. ‘The ball and streamers are here all year round.’
‘Nope,’ she said, with a hint of defiance. ‘We run the most garishly decorated bridal salon in the southern hemisphere. Our brides love it.’
‘Carver Brides won’t.’
She nodded. ‘You’ve made that plain. It wasn’t kind-to swat Kylie and Shirley like that.’
‘If anyone publishes pictures of Kylie as a Carver Bride…’
‘They won’t. They might be provincial, but they’re not stupid.’
‘They sound stupid. What the hell was Malcolm about, buying this place?’ Guy demanded, and Jenny’s face stilled.
‘You don’t like it?’
‘It’s a backwater. Sure, it’s scenic…’
‘Do you know the average income of our locals?’
‘What has that to do with it?’
‘A lot, I imagine,’ she said. ‘There’s two types of business in this town. First there are the businesses that provide for the original inhabitants. The likes of Shirley and Kylie. Those who you consider stupid. Then there are those that cater for the elite. We have no less than twenty helicopter pads in the shire. Millionaires, billionaires-we have them all. In your terms, not a stupid person in sight. The town has a historic overlay and a twenty-acre subdivision limit, so development is just about non-existent. In the last ten years every place coming onto the market has been snapped up by squillionaires. You know that, or you wouldn’t have bought here.’ She hesitated. ‘You really want to get rid of the likes of Kylie?’
‘I didn’t want to imply all the locals are stupid. But if Kylie can’t afford me…’
‘She won’t be able to afford you. None of the real locals will. Why do you want me to stay on?’
‘To ease the transition.’
‘There won’t be a transition. You’ve just told Kylie there won’t be Carver Brides until your people are here. I thought…according to the contract…I’d be one of your people.’
He might as well say it like it was. ‘You won’t have any authority.’
Any last hint of a smile completely disappeared at that. ‘So the offer to employ me for a year was window dressing to make me feel good about you guys taking over?’
‘I can’t employ you if you seriously like…’he stared around him in distaste ‘…fluff.’
‘The fluff’s Lorna’s’
‘Lorna’s my mother-in-law,’ she said. She was speaking calmly, but he could see she was holding herself tightly on rein. ‘Lorna set this salon up forty years ago. She had a stroke eight years ago, and advertised for an assistant. I got the job and met Ben. Now it’s my business, but Lorna still puts in her oar. Lorna’s been incredibly good to me. If she wants pink, and the locals like pink, I don’t see why she can’t have it.’
‘Carver Salons are sleek and minimalist.’
‘Of course they are. So you’re here to toss the fluff?’
‘I’ll do the preliminaries,’ he told her. ‘That’s why I’ve come-to decide what needs to be done. By the look of it, we’ll start from scratch. We’ll gut the place. My staff will take over the rebuilding, and everything that comes after.’
‘But you’ll still employee me?’
‘We envisage a smooth transition.’
‘You’re employing me for local colour?’
‘I didn’t say that.’
‘You didn’t have to. I can’t see me fitting the image of a Carver Salon consultant.’
‘Have you ever met a Carver Salon consultant?’
‘As it happens, I have,’ she said, almost defiantly. ‘A year ago I had a…well, I needed a holiday, and my parents-in-law sent me to Paris. I wandered through your salon, just to see how the other half live. Only of course I wasn’t up to standard. I hadn’t been in the salon for two minutes before I was asked to leave.’
‘If my staff thought you were possible opposition, then…’
‘Now, that’s the funny thing,’ she said. She’d risen and moved over to one of the Christmas trees. The angel on top was askew and she started carefully to adjust it. Then she began to check the lights, twisting each bulb in turn, taking her attention from him. ‘They didn’t even ask why I was there,’ she said over her shoulder. ‘I could have been there to talk about my wedding. I could have been there to make enquiries about anything at all. But I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and carrying a small backpack Lorna had given me.’ She gave a rueful smile. ‘The backpack was pink. Anyway, they obviously sorted me as a type they didn’t want. They asked me to leave, and suddenly there was a security guard propelling me onto the pavement.’ She shrugged. ‘Given my opinion of Carver Salons, I should have told you to take your very kind offer to buy this salon and stick it. But of course it’s a very generous offer, and I need the money and the thought of me being in opposition to you is ridiculous.’
There was a moment’s silence then. Guy thought about his Paris staff. They were the best. They ran weddings that were the talk of the world.
They’d kicked this woman out. She must have been humiliated.
Maybe he needed to be a bit more hands-on.
He didn’t like to be hands-on.
He thought suddenly of the first wedding he’d planned. He’d been home from college, where he’d been studying law-a career his parents had thought eminently suitable but which bored him stupid. Christa-the girl he’d been dating since both their mothers had organised them to their first prom-had been managing his social life, and that had bored him, too. Then Christa’s sister had announced her engagement to someone both families thought entirely unsuitable.
Louise had wept on Guy’s shoulder. Without parental support, and with no money of her own, she’d been doomed to have a civil ceremony and go without the party she’d longed for.
Intrigued, Guy had set to work. He’d painted cardboard until his hands were sore, transforming a small local hall into a venue that looked like a SoHo streetscape. He’d organised the local hotdog vendor to set up in a corner. The pretzel seller had come as well-and why wouldn’t he have? An inside venue in the middle of a hot August had been a welcome change. Guy had built and painted a bar, made of plywood, but it had looked fantastic. Guests had had to pay normal price for hot dogs and pretzels and beer, but the wealthy guests had been intrigued rather than offended. He’d persuaded buskers to come, including a rap dancer with a hat out for offerings. He’d been hands-on every step of the way, and he’d loved it.
The bride had been ecstatic. Christa and Guy’s mother had been less so. But when Guy had been approached the following week to do another wedding, and another, they’d been forced to stand by as Guy’s career took off in another direction.
He remembered the family horror-his fledgling company had had to fly by the seat of its pants, and to risk money was unthinkable. Christa had been beside herself with rage. But he’d kept on. It had been fun, and he’d never known what fun was until he’d thrown aside the mantle of family responsibility.
When had he stopped having fun?
He could hardly remember. All he knew was that after Christa had been killed it had become his refuge-organising vast numbers of people in glittering social events that held no personal attachment at all.
His firm had grown, so he was now no longer hands-on. He employed hundreds-staff handpicked for their artistic and business acumen.
Would they have kicked this woman out on the street? He didn’t know, and maybe he shouldn’t care as long as they did their job well. But now he thought back to that first wedding, and remembered Louise’s joy. He looked at Jenny, her face a trifle flushed and more than a trifle defiant, and he thought, Hell, she must have been demoralised.
What had she said?
A year ago I had a…well, I needed a holiday, and my parents-in-law sent me to Paris.
She’d had a what? A breakdown? What had happened to the husband?
‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
‘It wasn’t your fault.’
It was, though, he thought grimly. He took the credit for Carver weddings. He took responsibility for his staff.
‘You don’t really want to employ me,’ she said. ‘Do you?’
‘I’d rather this place was kept open for business during transition. I had hoped to keep the acquisition quiet until I got my staff in place, but now it’s got out…It’s unfortunate, but nothing we can’t handle. I want the place open for queries and future bookings. You need to be the front person. I’ll give you a pricing structure so you can give brides an idea of what we offer. Run the weddings you have now under…’He hesitated, then said, without bothering to hide his disdain, ‘Under Bridal Fluff. New bookings will be under Carver Salon.’
‘New bookings will be expensive?’
‘You don’t need to tell me that.’ She grimaced, and he was aware of a stab of…regret?
Once upon a time he’d tried to make his functions wonderful because they created joy. He hadn’t heard of the concept of exclusive. He’d lived on a shoestring.
He’d learned the hard way that was nonsense. That last day with Christa…‘If you loved me you’d keep doing law. Your father’s expecting you to take over the family firm. Your mother’s scared you’re gay. Guy, you play with paints. Paints! And me…How do you think I feel being engaged to a wedding planner?’
She’d said the words with such scorn. Then, two hours later, she was dead. If she’d lived he was under no illusion that their relationship would have been over, but he knew that his life decision had killed her. And his father…His father had heard of Christa’s death and it had been as if he’d said goodbye to the son he’d now never have. A wedding planner…Two days later he’d had a stroke, and he’d never recovered.
Guy hadn’t gone back to law. He’d known he’d be good at this, but right there and then he’d vowed that he’d be a corporate success. Their deaths had been crazy and unnecessary. No one was going to throw wedding planner at him as a term of derision.
He worked hard. He kept to himself. He made money and he carefully didn’t know people. His life decisions would never hurt anyone again.
He had become exclusive.
The telephone cut the stillness, and he welcomed it. He motioned Jenny to answer, then picked up a catalogue to flick through while she spoke.
Here were Bridal Fluff weddings over the past few years, catalogued down to the last ghastly feather.
He flicked through. And paused.
One bridal couple smiled out from the pages, dressed like a pair from the set of Cabaret. He looked more closely, taking in details of the setting.
The whole theme was Cabaret.
It was actually rather good. It’d be good even as a Carver Wedding.
He flicked through a bit more. Fluff, fluff…But every now and then something different.
There were just a few weddings in here that showed talent. He glanced up at Jenny, and she was smiling and making hand signals. A second phone lay on the reception desk. She was motioning to him to lift it.
He lifted it and listened.
‘…be there for Christmas. About three hundred people. Barret’s pulled strings and found someone who’ll marry them, so you don’t need to worry about the licence. All we need you to do is to turn a Christmas feast into a wedding feast. I’ll outline details in my fax. The most important thing is that Anna needs a wedding gown, and she’s caught up on location until she gets on the plane. But she trusts Carver implicitly. If he approves it, it’ll be fine. There’ll be six bridesmaids and six groomsmen. I’ll fax through sizes. Anna’s only stipulation is that she’d like a traditional wedding-the same as she saw at home when she was a little girl.’ The woman hesitated. ‘She said something about pink tulle.’
‘Oh, we can do pink tulle,’ Jenny told her, sounding chirpy and still smiling. ‘Mr Carver’s good at pink tulle.’
Guy stared at Jenny, astounded.
‘You’ve been really lucky,’ Jenny continued, ignoring Guy’s astonishment. ‘Mr Carver had stipulated there’d be no weddings from this salon until his people were in place. But as luck would have it Mr Carver himself arrived here this afternoon. I regret I personally won’t be involved, but I know I’m leaving you in good hands. Sure, it’s fine that you put out a press release. If you could fax us a copy it’ll let us see exactly what tone we need to set. The figure per head is perfectly acceptable. Goodbye.’
And she replaced the receiver with a definite click.
Guy stared at her. Jenny stared straight back, still smiling. Her chin jutted out just a little, and she held his gaze and didn’t break.
‘What the hell have you done?’ he demanded, and she smiled some more, a tight, strained smile that didn’t reach her eyes.
‘I just quit.’
‘The contract says my continued employment is optional. If I wish to leave at any time then I can. I know it was put there as a sop, so I’m letting you off the hook. I’m walking out now. Any remaining Bridal Fluff brides will be looked after by me from home. The salon’s yours.’
‘But you’ve just booked a wedding.’
‘I have. It sounds just your style.’
‘You were on the phone. Didn’t you hear?’
‘I heard nothing. Only Barret and Anna…’ He paused as an appalling thought hit. ‘Barret and Anna? You don’t mean…’
‘Barret and Anna,’ she agreed, smiling benignly. ‘Surely you of all people know Barret and Anna? Barret’s just won…is it his second Oscar or his third? And Anna’s on the front cover of this month’s Glamour.’
‘They’re getting married?’ he said stupidly, and she nodded. She walked over to the desk and picked up her handbag. It was of ancient leather, he noticed, his mind settling on details as if they were important. It looked as if it was falling apart.
‘On Christmas Day,’ she said, following his gaze to her handbag, flushing, and putting it behind her. ‘That gives you ten days to organise it. I’ll send my father-in-law to clear the store of my gear. We’ll have it out of here by tomorrow night, so you’ll have a clear run. You’ll need it,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘Three hundred people in ten days…’
‘It’s a very good idea,’ she said. ‘You know Anna’s a local girl? She’s hardly been home for twenty years, and by local I mean Sydney, but she bought a property here two years back. She and Barret flew in here after Amazon Trek for a break, and the town went nuts. It seems they were planning a Christmas party, but suddenly they’ve decided it would be an excellent time to get married. Only nothing’s organised. A blank canvas, Mr Carver, just how you like it. So now you have your very first Australian Carver Bride raring to go. Three hundred guests on Christmas Day.’ She smiled some more. ‘Ten days. You’ll be very busy. But me…I have a little boy, who’ll have Christmas with his mummy. Which is just as the world should be. Now me and my disreputable handbag will take ourselves out of your life. Good luck, Mr Carver. And goodbye.’
THIS was no drama. Guy watched her go with mixed feelings. There was a part of him that felt a strange lurch that she should walk away, and it had nothing to do with the bombshell she’d thrown at him. As usual, though, he attempted to shove personal thoughts aside and slip back into business mode.
It was difficult to shove the vision of Jenny away. The way she’d carried her handbag…
Barret and Anna. He had to think.
Barret Travers and Anna Price had a hugely powerful media presence. With Barret in a movie, an immediate box office hit was assured, and Anna’s profile was almost the same. Their impending wedding would turn the eyes of the world right here.
To what? He couldn’t put on a huge, media-circus-type wedding with this much notice. The booking was only five minutes old. He had to cancel, and fast.
That shouldn’t be a problem. He’d phone Malcolm and get contact details straight away. But before he could lift his phone the fax machine on Jenny’s desk hummed into life. Bemused, he watched the feed-out, recognising it for what it was. A press release.
‘Barret and Anna to Wed!’ the caption blared. ‘Wedding to be in Sandpiper Bay, Australia. Guy Carver’s first Australian wedding.’
They’d had it planned before they’d contacted Jenny, he thought. They’d had this press release ready to go.
Why? What could possibly add more media hype to this pair?
Carver’s first Australian wedding. Guy thought about it, and his heart sank.
Anna had been pilloried in the press for her bad taste. Of course she’d want pink tulle, he thought. Pink tulle would be right in her league.
How to get pink tulle but still be thought cool by the cognoscenti?
Have a Carver wedding.
He had to cancel.
He stared down at the press release. Specifically at the tiny cc…
This was not a press release sent early just as confirmation to him. This was a press release which was simultaneously being read by every media outlet in the western world.
They’d been expecting his yes as perfunctory. Jenny had given them their yes, and they’d told the world.
If he pulled out now…
Carver Event Management pulling out would be news. People knew he was in Australia. Jenny had just confirmed it. So why couldn’t he organise the wedding? No matter how carefully he explained it, Anna would take his refusal as a personal slight, and the world’s press would agree.
Which meant problems for Anna.
The paparazzi spent their life reporting on Anna-and Barret. Barret was a loud-mouthed boor, but he was number one at the box office. In contrast, Anna was struggling a little. A few months ago she’d spent time in drug rehab. and the press had had a field-day. Her life seemed to be together now, but the media still wavered between idolatry and ridicule.
If they knew he’d knocked her back-International Events Organiser Guy Carver Refuses Anna/Barret Wedding-the world’s press would say it served her right. They’d say she’d got what she deserved and the balance might well tip on the side of ridicule.
Which she didn’t deserve.
Damn, he didn’t get emotionally involved. He didn’t.
He was. Right up to his neck.
He thumped the desk with his fist, and a fluffy stuffed dog, endowed for some reason with a disembodied head, started nodding in furious agreement. He stared down at the stupid creature and came close to throwing it through the pink-tinged windows.
Jenny was outside the window.
Over the road was the beach. A group of teenagers were clustered by the side of the road, leaning on their surfboards and chatting to Jenny. She was laughing at something one of them said.
‘Of course she looks free. You’ve just sacked her.’
Except he hadn’t. She’d walked out on him. The thought was astonishing.
Focus on this wedding. How long did he have? Ten days?
The idea was ridiculous. He went through his top people in his head, trying to figure who could come.
No one could come. Everyone held parties at Christmas. And every event he had in his mental diary was major. There’d be repercussions if he pulled anyone out.
For a wedding like this, at this short notice, he needed local people. He needed…Jenny.
She was climbing into an ancient Ford, a wagon that looked more battered than the decrepit vehicles the surfers were using. While he watched, she backed out of the parking spot, then headed right. Her wagon passed the teenagers and did a backfire that made everyone jump.
‘She’d be hopeless,’ he told no one in particular, and no one in particular was interested.
‘I can’t ask her.’
No one was interested in that, either.
He stared at the fax again and swore. ‘Do I care if the wonderful Anna’s career goes down the toilet?’
He did, he thought. Damn, he did. Two months ago he’d catered for a sensational Hollywood ball. Anyone who was anyone had been present. He recalled a very drunken producer hitting on Anna. When she’d knocked him back he’d lifted her soda water, sniffed it, and thrown it away in disgust.
‘Once a tart, always a tart, love,’ he’d drawled at her. ‘You’re not such a good little actress that you can pretend to be something you’re not for ever.’
Guy had intervened then, handing Anna another soda water, giving her a slight push away and deflecting the creep who’d insulted her by showing signs of investing in his latest project. But he’d seen Anna’s white face, pretence stripped, and he’d also seen how she’d stared into the soda water, taken a deep breath, and then deliberately started to drink it. To change your life took guts-who should know that better than him?
If Anna wanted him to cater for her wedding then he would.
‘Even if it does mean I have to go on bended knee to the Widow Westmere.’
Jenny pulled into the front yard of her parents-in-laws’ farm, switched off the ignition, took a few deep breaths-how to explain all this to Lorna and Jack?-and a car pulled in behind her.
Ferrari engines were unmistakable. What are the chances of someone else with a Ferrari pulling into my yard? she thought, and decided she ought to head inside fast, close the door and not even look out to see whether Mr Guy Hotshot Carver was on her property.
‘Mrs Westmere,’ he called, and the moment was lost. She sighed, leant back on her battered wagon with careful insouciance-and folded her arms.
‘I’d like to talk to you about your contract.’
‘It’s clear,’ she said, trying to be brusque. ‘I have the right to work for you for a year, and I also have the right to walk away any time I like. Your business manager seemed to think I’d be jumping all over myself to stay, but the obligation is on your side; not mine.’
‘I’d like you to stay.’
‘Nah.’ She should be chewing gum, she decided. She didn’t have the insouciance quite right. ‘You’re pleased to be shot of me.’ Then she broke a bit-she couldn’t quite suppress the mischief. ‘Or you were until I landed you with the wedding of the century. You’re going to have to cancel on the biggest wedding we’ve seen in this place. What a shame.’
‘I can’t cancel.’
‘Come on. You can afford to lose one wedding. All that hurts is your pride. And pride doesn’t matter to you. Just look what you did to Kylie.’
‘Is that you, Jenny?’ Jack’s voice interrupted, and Jenny hauled herself away from the wagon and abandoned the insouciance. ‘I need to go inside. You need to go…wherever rich entrepreneurs go when they’re not messing with this town. See you later.’
‘Do you have someone out there?’ Jack called.
‘Jenny, I need to talk to you.’
‘Mrs Westmere,’ she flashed. ‘It’s Mrs Westmere, unless I can call you Guy.’
‘Of course you can call me Guy.’
‘Bring your visitor in, Jenny.’
‘Go away,’ she said.
‘I need you.’
‘You don’t need anyone. You come waltzing into town in your flash car…’
‘It’s borrowed from a friend.’
‘You borrowed a Ferrari?’ she demanded incredulously. ‘Someone just tossed you the keys of a Ferrari and said, “Have it for a few days.” Like he has one Ferrari for normal use and another to lend to friends.’
‘His other car’s an Aston Martin,’ he said apologetically. ‘And his wife drives a Jag.’
‘I so much don’t need this conversation.’ She made to turn into the house, but he stepped forward and caught her shoulders. The action should have made her angry-and at one level it did-but then there was this other part of her…
He really was a ludicrously attractive male, she thought. She wasn’t the least bit afraid of him. Well, why should she be when she had Lorna and Jack just through the screen door? But there was more than that. His grip felt somehow…okay.
It wasn’t the least bit okay. This was those damned hormones working again, she thought. She’d been a widow for too long.
But she had protection-against hormones as well as against marauding males. She hadn’t answered Jack, and Jack and Lorna had grown worried. Now the front screen slammed back and Jack was on the veranda. Jack was a wiry little man in his late seventies, tough as nails and belligerent to go with it. He was crippled with arthritis, but he didn’t let that stop him.
‘Who’s this?’ he growled, before Jenny could say a word. He stalked stiffly down the veranda, trying to disguise the limp from his gammy hip, trying to act as if he was going to lift over six feet of Guy Carver and hurl him off the property.
Guy dropped his hands from Jenny’s shoulders. He didn’t step away, though. He stood a foot away from her, his eyes filled with quizzical laughter.
‘You have a security system?’
‘I surely do,’ she answered, taking a grip of her wandering hormones and turning to face her in-laws. ‘Jack, Lorna-this is Guy Carver.’
Lorna was out on the veranda now. She’d pushed her wheelchair though the doorway, rolling to the edge of the ramp but no further. Lorna had once been a blousy, buxom blonde. Her hair was still determinedly blonde, and her eyes were still pretty and blue, but a stroke had withered one side of her body. One side of her face had very little movement and her speech was careful and stilted.
‘Mr Carver,’ she managed.
‘He says we can call him Guy.’
‘Why are you manhandling my daughter-in-law?’ Jack barked, and the lurking laughter behind Guy’s eyes was unmistakable.
‘I was just turning her in the right direction. Towards you.’
‘It’s okay, Jack,’ Jenny told him. ‘Mr…Guy’s just leaving.’
‘Look at the car,’ Lorna said, suddenly distracted. ‘What is that?’
‘A Ferrari,’ Guy said, bemused, and at that the screen door swung open again.
‘Don’t come out, Henry,’ Jenny said quickly, but it was too late. Henry was already on the veranda.
She winced. She badly didn’t want Guy to see Henry. He’d already shown himself to be insensitive. How much damage could he do now?
For the crash that had killed his father had left Henry so badly burned that for a while they’d thought he might not live. The six-year-old was slowly recovering, but the scars on the right side of his face were only a tiny indication of the scars elsewhere. His chest and his right leg bore a mass of scarring, and he was facing skin graft after skin graft as he grew.
Henry should be a freckle-faced kid facing life with mischief and optimism. There were signs now that he could be again, but the scars ran deep. His thatch of deep brown curls stopped cruelly where the scarring began, just above his right ear. His brown eyes were alive and interested-thank God his sight had been untouched-but he’d lost so much weight he looked almost anorexic compared to most six-year-olds. His right leg was still not bearing weight, and he used crutches. His freckles stood out starkly on his too pale skin. Standing on the veranda in his over-big pyjamas-Lorna was sure he’d have a growth spurt any minute, and she sewed accordingly-he looked a real waif. The surgeons said that in time they’d have his face so normal that, as he matured, people would think of him as manly and rugged, but that time was a long way off from now.
‘I want to see the car,’ Henry said.
She held her breath, waiting for Guy to respond. If she had her druthers Jenny would keep her private life absolutely to herself. A private person at the best of times, these last two years had been hell. She’d been forced to depend on so many people. The locals had been wonderful, but now she was finally starting to regain some control of her shattered life, and the look of immediate sympathy flashing into Guy Carver’s eyes made her want to hit him.
What’s wrong with your little boy…?
How many times had that been flung at her since Henry had recovered enough to be outside the house? It was never the locals-they all knew, and had more sense than to ask about his progress in front of him. But the squillionaires who arrived for a week or two were appalling, and she wanted to be shot of the lot of them.
Maybe now she’d sold the business she could move, she thought. She could get a great place if she was prepared to go inland a little. But Jack and Lorna had lived here all their lives. She and Henry were all they had.
She couldn’t leave.
So now she flinched, waiting for Guy to say something like they all did. What’s wrong? or, Gee, what happened to your kid? Why is he so scarred? Or worse, Oh, you poor little boy…
But Guy said nothing. He had his face under control again, and the shock and sympathy were gone. Instead he glanced at the Ferrari with affection. ‘It’s a 2002 Modena 360 F1,’ he told Henry, man to man.
‘It’s ace,’ Henry whispered, and something in Guy’s face moved. Something…changed.
‘If it’s okay with your mother, would you like a ride?’
Henry’s small body became perfectly still. Rigid. As if steeling himself for a blow.
‘You’re kidding,’ she said to Guy.
‘I don’t kid,’ he said, and his voice had changed, too. It had softened. ‘I mean it. I’m assuming this is your son?’
‘I’m Guy,’ he told Henry. ‘And you are…?’
‘Henry,’ said Henry. ‘Is this your car?’
‘Do you have a car like this?’
‘I have a Lamborghini back in New York.’
‘Wow,’ Henry breathed, and looked desperately at his mother. ‘Is it okay if I take a ride with him?’
‘Dinner can wait,’ Jack growled. Jenny’s father-in-law was looking at the car with an awe that matched his grandson’s. ‘If anyone offered me a ride in such a car I’d wait for dinner ’til breakfast.’
‘You’re next in the queue,’ Guy said, and grinned. ‘I’d take you all at once,’ he added apologetically, ‘but it’s hard to squeeze three people in these babies. Jenny, you can go third.’
‘I don’t want to go.’
‘Is it okay if I take Henry?’
‘Of course it’s okay,’ Jack snapped, as if astounded that anyone could ask that question. ‘Isn’t it, girl?’
‘Fine,’ she said, defeated, and Henry let out a war-whoop that could be heard back in Main Street. Then he paused.
‘You don’t mean just sit in it?’
‘Of course not.’
‘Can we go out on the coast road?’ Henry asked, eyeing his mother as if she’d grown two heads. Never go with strangers… Her consent meant she knew this guy and trusted him. His mother had a friend with a Ferrari. She could see she’d just raised herself in his estimation by about a mile. ‘The coast road winds round cliffs. With this car…it’ll go like it’s on rails.’
‘You won’t go fast?’ She knew her voice was suddenly tight, but she couldn’t help it.
‘We won’t go fast,’ Guy told her, and there was that tone in his voice that said he understood.
How could he understand?
The remembrance of his hands on her shoulders slipped back into her mind. Which was dumb.
‘Henry’s in his pyjamas,’ she said, too quickly, but suddenly that was how she felt. As if everything was too quick. ‘Does he need to change?’
‘No one notices who’s in a Ferrari,’ Guy told her. ‘They only notice the Ferrari. If you’re in a Ferrari you can wear what you d-whatever you like. You’re cool by association. Are you ready, Henry?’
‘Yeah,’ Henry breathed, and tossed aside his crutches and looked to his mother for help to go down the ramp. ‘Yeah, I am.’
‘He seems lovely.’
‘He’s not.’ Back inside, Jenny was trying to explain the extraordinary turn of events to her in-laws. ‘He won’t do Kylie’s wedding. She’s not good enough to be a Carver Bride.’
‘Kylie is a bit…’ Lorna said, and Jenny glowered and tossed tea into the pot with unnecessary force.
‘Don’t you come down on his side. Kylie and Shirley were great to us.’
They had been. All of those dreary months when Jenny had needed to be in the hospital-for three awful weeks Henry had not been expected to live-Kylie and Shirley and a host of other locals had run this little farm, had ferried Lorna and Jack wherever they’d wanted to go, had filled the freezer with enough casseroles to feed an army for years, had even taken over the organisation of local weddings. The town had been wonderful, and Jenny wasn’t about to turn her back on them now.
‘I know they’re fabulous,’ Lorna told her. ‘And of course I promised we’d do Kylie’s wedding. But they won’t hold us to more than that. I was just so upset. With Ben dead, and we thought we’d lose Henry…’
‘You would have promised the world,’ Jenny said. ‘Shirley knows that. She tried it on with Guy this afternoon-and why wouldn’t you? But I will do Kylie’s wedding for cost, and Guy can’t stop me. I’ll just organise it from here.’
‘And the rest?’
‘He can have the society weddings. I don’t want them.’
‘They’re the only ones that make us money.’
‘We’ll survive. He paid heaps for the business-more than its worth. But I don’t want Guy Carver as my boss.’
‘There’d be worse bosses,’ Jack said, and Jenny sighed.
‘Just because the man has a Ferrari…’
‘What’s he driving Henry for?’
‘To wheedle his way into getting me to work for him,’ she snapped. ‘The man’s a born wheedler. I can see it.’
‘He doesn’t look like a wheedler to me,’ Lorna said. She’d been laying plates on the table, but now she stilled her wheelchair and turned to face her daughter-in-law. ‘Jenny, it’s been two years. We know you loved Ben, but maybe it’s time you moved on?’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘He looks quite a catch,’ Jack said, crossing to the door to look-hopefully-out. With a bit of luck there’d be time for a ride for him before dinner was on the table. ‘A Lamborghini at home, eh?’
‘You think I should jump him because he owns a Lamborghini?’ Jenny asked incredulously, and Jack had the grace to look a bit shamefaced.
‘I just meant…’
‘He just meant don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,’ Lorna said decisively. ‘I’m asking the man to tea.’
‘Watch me,’ Lorna said, plonking a fifth plate on the table. ‘I just know the nice man will stay.’
The night was interminable. Jenny couldn’t believe he’d accepted Lorna’s invitation. She couldn’t believe he was sitting at her dining table with every appearance of complacency.
This was a man international jet-setters regarded as ultra-cool-the epitome of good taste. If they saw him now…
For a start he’d walked in the front door without even appearing to notice Lorna and Jack’s decorations. The Christmas after Ben had been killed, when Henry’s life had hung by a precarious thread, Lorna had decreed Christmas was off. ‘It doesn’t mean anything,’ she’d declared. ‘I’m tossing all my decorations.’
Twelve months later she’d rather shamefacedly hauled out her non-tossed decorations. Jack and Jenny had been desultorily watching television, with Henry on the sofa nearby. They’d been miserable, but they’d fallen on the decorations like long-lost friends. That night had been the first night when ghosts and fear and sadness hadn’t hung over the house, and this year Henry had demanded his grandparents start sorting the decorations on the first day of November.
So there was a reason why the decorations were just ever so slightly over the top, Jenny conceded. She’d hauled Henry’s chair close beside her. He was leaning on her, still lit up after his ride in Guy’s wonderful car. He was tired now, but Jenny thought there’d be trouble if she tried to send him to bed. Lorna and Jack were chatting to Guy as if they were entertaining an old friend, and Henry was soaking in every word.
He had a new superhero.
As for Jenny…Jenny was trying to block out the flashing lights from the real-sized sled in the front yard. The house and the yard were chock-full of Christmas kitsch. She loved every last fluffy pink angel, she decided defensively, trying not to wonder what he was thinking of her. If Guy didn’t like them, then he could leave.
Guy Carver would be a minimalist, Jenny thought, watching Lorna ladle gravy over his roast beef and Jack handing him the vast casserole of cauliflower cheese. He’d like one svelte silhouette of a nativity scene in a cool grey window.
Jenny could count five nativity scenes from where she was sitting.
‘The decorations are wonderful, Mrs Westmere,’ Guy told Lorna, and Jenny cast him a look of deep suspicion as Lorna practically purred.
‘Jenny thinks maybe the front yard is a bit over the top.’
‘How could you, Jenny?’ Guy said, and cast reproachful eyes at her.
‘Are you staying until Christmas?’ Jack asked, and Guy said he wasn’t sure.
‘Why I’m asking,’ said Jack, obviously searching for courage, ‘is that every year Santa comes to Sandpiper Bay.’
‘If you’re asking me to wear a Santa suit…’ Guy said, suddenly sounding fearful, and Jenny looked at Guy’s Mediterranean good looks and thought, Yeah, right. Santa-I don’t think so. ‘Then, no.’
‘No, no,’ Jack assured him. ‘We have a very fine Santa. Bill went to a training course in Sydney and everything. But the thing is that every Christmas morning Santa drives through the town tossing lollies-’
‘From the fire truck,’ Henry interrupted, which just about astounded Jenny all by itself. Normally when visitors came Henry was seen but not heard. Henry had been a happy, cheerful four-year-old when his father’s car had collided head-on with a kid spaced out of his brain on cocaine. Now Henry’s world was limited to hospital visits, physiotherapy clinics and his grandparents’ farm. For Henry to go with Guy tonight had been astonishing, and the fact that he was chirping away like a butcher’s magpie now was even more so.
‘See, there’s the problem,’ Jack explained, growing earnest. ‘The problem with Christmas in Australia is that it’s at the height of summer. In summer there’s fires. Last year the fire truck got called away. One minute Santa was up top, handing out lollies, the next he was standing in the middle of Main Street with a half-empty Santa sack while the fire truck screamed off into the distance to someone’s burning haystack.’
‘Goodness,’ Guy said faintly; Goodness, Jenny thought, suddenly realising where this was going.
‘Now, if you were here, young man, in your Ferrari…’
‘Santa could use your Ferrari,’ Henry said, suddenly wide-eyed. ‘Cool. Course it’s not the real Santa,’ he explained, while Guy looked as if he was trying to figure how he could escape. ‘He’s a Santa’s helper. Mum told me that last year. I sat in the back of our car and the fire engine came right up and Santa gave me three lollies.’
‘That was before it was called away,’ Jenny said, trying not to get teary. Too late-she was teary. Dratted tears. She blinked them away, but not before Guy had seen. She knew he’d seen. He had hawk-like eyes that could see everything.
‘Mr Carver’s going home before Christmas,’ she told Henry, feeling desperate. ‘Aren’t you, Mr Carver?’
‘I’m not sure,’ Guy told her. ‘And the name is Guy.’
‘You’re not seriously thinking of doing the Anna/Barret party?’
‘I’d need help.’
‘A party?’ Lorna intercepted, bright-eyed. ‘What sort of party?’
‘Anna and Barret’s wedding.’
‘Anna and Barret…’ Lorna paused, confused, and then confusion gave way to awe. ‘You don’t mean Anna and Barret?’
‘I mean Anna and Barret.’
‘They’re getting married? Here?’
‘If we can cater. If your daughter-in-law will come back as a member of my staff.’
‘Jenny,’ Lorna said, eyes shining. ‘How wonderful.’
‘It’s not,’ Jenny said. ‘He won’t do Kylie’s wedding.’
‘We can do Kylie’s wedding,’ Guy said.
She eyed him with disbelief. ‘As a Carver Wedding?’
‘I don’t think-’
‘She wouldn’t like my style of wedding.’
‘Anna wants pink tulle. Surely you give the clients what they want?’
‘If it fits into my-’
‘That is such an arrogant-’
‘Will you two stop it?’ Lorna said, stuttering in an attempt to get this sorted. ‘Jenny, you need to help him.’
‘As a matter of interest,’ Guy said calmly, ‘could you help me if you wanted to?’
‘Do what?’ she said, trying to disguise a child-like glower. But he saw it and his lips twitched. No wonder the glossies described him in glowing terms, Jenny thought. Until now she’d wondered how the head of what was essentially a catering company had become someone that the gossip columnists described as hot property. Now she knew. Guy would just have to look at you with those eyes, that held laughter…
The man was seriously sexy.
‘Do you have the resources to run a wedding for three hundred on Christmas Day?’ he asked, and she had to make a sharp attempt to haul her hormones into line. ‘Are we arguing about something that’s an impossibility?’
‘It’s not impossible,’ she said, and then thought maybe she shouldn’t have admitted it.
‘Why is it not impossible?’
‘Anna says she wants pink tulle?’
‘So?’ The laughter was gone now, and she could see why he was also described as one of the world’s best businessmen. She could see the intelligence…the focus.
‘So we could give her a country wedding. Kylie-style. It would be so unexpected that she’d love it.’
‘We could put on a country dance,’ Jack contributed. ‘It’s great weather this time of year. Haul some hay bales out into the paddock for seats, some more for a bar, and shove a keg on the back of the truck.’
‘Keg?’ Guy asked faintly.
‘Fosters,’ Jack told him. ‘Gotta be Fosters.’
‘He means beer,’ Jenny told him, putting him out of his misery. ‘I don’t think this crowd would be happy with only beer.’
‘Drink’s the least of my problems.’
‘So what’s your problem?’
‘Finding clothes for the wedding party in ten days. Sourcing food. Finding staff to wait on tables and clear up afterwards.’
‘Piece of cake,’ Jenny said, and then thought that was stupid. What was she letting herself in for?
‘How is it a piece of cake?’
‘Make Kylie’s wedding the first Australian Carver Wedding and I’ll tell you.’
‘Kylie doesn’t want a Carver Wedding.’
‘You’re making huge assumptions here,’ she flashed, and Henry stirred and looked up at his mother in surprise. Lorna shifted her wheelchair sideways so she could take his weight, and he moved his allegiance to his grandmother. As if he wasn’t quite sure who his mother was any more. ‘What’s the difference between Anna and Kylie?’ she demanded. ‘Career choice and money. Nothing more. Kylie’s got herself pregnant, but Anna ended up in drug rehab. Two kids getting married. Kylie does want a Carver Wedding, and she asked first.’
‘You’d seriously make me-’
‘No one’s making you do anything,’ she told him. ‘Including staying at our dinner table.’
‘You’re telling me to leave?’
‘I don’t like what money does to people.’
‘The man hasn’t finished his dinner yet,’ Jack protested. ‘Have a heart.’
‘It’s a bit rude to invite him to eat and put him out,’ Lorna added, looking curiously at Jenny.
‘Jenny’s just itching for a fight,’ Jack told Lorna, speaking across the table as if no one else was there. ‘Dunno what’s got into her, really.’
‘It’s hormones,’ Lorna decided. ‘You have a nice cup of tea, Jen.’
‘She could do the wedding if she wanted to,’ Lorna said, turning to Guy. ‘She’s the cleverest lass. I used to run the salon, making dresses for locals and organising caterers for out-of-towners. Only then the out-of-towners grew to so many that I had to employ Jenny. It was the best thing I ever did. Her mum didn’t have any money, and her dad lit out early, so there wasn’t enough to send Jenny to anywhere like university. She took on an apprenticeship with me. She’s transformed the business. She’s just…’
‘Lorna!’ Jenny said, almost yelling. ‘Will you cut it out? Mr Carver doesn’t want to know about me.’
‘Yes, I do,’ he said mildly. ‘I need to persuade you to use some of your skills on my behalf. Where could you get caterers on Christmas Day?’
‘You tell him, lass,’ Jack said. ‘Don’t hide your light under a bushel.’
She stared wildly round, but they were all watching her expectantly. Even Henry.
‘This town is full of retirees,’ she said at last, trying desperately to get her voice under control. ‘Most of them have a very quiet Christmas. If we had all the food planned the day before-if we settled on country fare that all the women round here can cook-if Anna settled for a late wedding and if we told the locals that they could come to the dance afterwards-there’d be queues to work for us.’
‘Locals come to the ceremony?’ he said, incredulous.
‘Not the ceremony. The idea would be that there’d be a huge party afterwards, with workers welcome. Think of the publicity for Anna and Barret. If you got onto that nice PR person I talked to this afternoon…’
Guy stared at her, poleaxed. ‘It might…’
‘It might well work,’ she said. ‘She’s not squeaky clean, our Anna, and this would be great publicity.’
‘You know about Anna’s past?’
‘The world knows about Anna’s past. This wedding will be great for her.’
‘It would,’ he agreed, and suddenly Jenny’s eyes narrowed.
‘That’s why you’re thinking of doing it,’ she said softly, on a note of discovery, thinking it through as she spoke. ‘I couldn’t understand…’ But suddenly she did, seeing clearly where her impetuous nature had landed Guy. ‘The Carver empire doesn’t need this wedding, but Anna needs the Carver emporium.’ She bit her lip. ‘I should have thought about that when I was contacted. Oh, heck. I was angry with you, and I didn’t think.’
To say Guy was bewildered was an understatement. That Jenny was sensitive enough to see connotations that he’d only figured because he moved in those circles…
His estimation of the woman in front of him was changing by the minute. Gorgeous, smart, funny…
He didn’t do gorgeous, smart and funny. He didn’t do complications.
He rose, so sharply that he had to make a grab to catch his chair before it toppled. ‘I need to go.’
‘You haven’t had coffee,’ Lorna said mildly, but he didn’t hear. He was watching Jenny.
‘You agree to staying on my payroll until Christmas?’
‘Can Kylie have a Carver Wedding?’
‘Yes,’ he said, against the ropes and knowing it.
She hesitated, but then gave a rueful smile. ‘Okay, then. I’ve never worked for a boss before.’
‘What about me?’ Lorna said, indignant, and Jenny grinned.
‘That’s different. I walked into your shop for the interview and Ben was there. I was family from that minute on.’
‘You were, too,’ Lorna said, and reached over and squeezed her hand.
Something knotted in Guy’s gut that he didn’t want to know about. He backed to the door.
‘Where are you staying, young man?’ Jack asked.
‘My secretary booked a place for me. Braeside?’
‘You been there yet?’
‘You’ll never find it,’ Jack said with grim satisfaction. ‘It’s up back of town, by the river. Tourists get lost there all the time.’ It seemed a source of satisfaction. Jack was looking at him with what seemed to be enjoyment.
‘I have directions.’
‘I’ve seen the directions they use. You’ll be driving through the mountains ’til dawn. Jenny’ll have to take you.’
Jenny stilled. Then she nodded, as if she agreed. ‘You will get lost. I’ll drive there, and you can follow me.’
‘What fun is that?’ Jack demanded. ‘You haven’t had a drive in his Ferrari. I’ve got a better idea. You drive him home in his Ferrari and then bring it back here. Then pick him up on the way to work tomorrow morning.’
‘I can’t drive a Ferrari,’ Jenny said, astonished.
‘Course you can,’ Jack said roundly. ‘If you can make your ancient bucket of bolts work, you can make anything work. Her wagon’s held together with string,’ he told Guy. ‘She ought to buy another, but she’s putting every cent she owns into a fund for Henry’s schooling.’ His face clouded a little. ‘There’s been a few costs over the last couple of years we hadn’t counted on.’
Of course, Guy thought, his eyes moving to Henry’s face. The little boy’s face was perfect on one side, but on the other were scars-lots of scars.
‘I can’t drive a Ferrari,’ Jenny said again, and he forced himself to think logically. Which was hard when his emotions were stirring in all sorts of directions.
‘Yes, you can,’ he said, and managed a smile that he hoped was casual.
‘There you go, then,’ Lorna said, triumphant. ‘Jack and me will put Henry to bed. Henry, your mother is going to have a drive in the lovely car. Isn’t that great?’
‘Ace,’ said Henry.
IT FELT weird, Jenny thought as they walked across the yard towards his car. It was almost dark. She should be reading her son his bedtime story.
She shouldn’t be climbing into a Ferrari.
‘You drive,’ Guy said, and tossed her the keys.
‘This is a bad idea,’ she muttered. ‘This is a borrowed car. Surely your friend wouldn’t agree to me using it?’
‘If you crash it I’ll buy him another.’
The idea made her stop in her tracks. ‘You’re kidding.’
‘Why would I kid?’
‘I don’t want to go with you,’ she said, and it was his turn to pause and stare.
‘You have ethical objections to money?’
‘You should be charging Kylie. There’s no need for you to be broke.’
‘Isn’t there?’ she snapped, and glared.
‘Giving your services for free is noble, but…’
‘You have no idea, do you? This community…we’re here for each other. We do what has to be done, and asking for payment-’
‘Your career is a bridal planner. Selling yourself short is stupid.’
‘When Ben was killed, Henry was injured, and he had to spend months in a burns unit in the city,’ she snapped. ‘Jack has macular degeneration-his eyesight’s not what it should be-and Lorna hasn’t driven since her stroke. Shirley Grubb was one of a team who took it in turns to drive Jack and Lorna down to see us. Twice a week for nearly six months. Every other day they drove Lorna into the bridal salon and someone stayed with her all the time. The business stayed open. There were casseroles-you can’t believe how many casseroles. And you know what? Not a single person charged us. Did they sell themselves short, Mr Carver?’
‘Guy,’ he said automatically, and opened the driver’s door of the Ferrari. ‘Get in.’
‘I’m not driving.’
‘You are driving. You need to bring it home yourself, so you can try it out now.’
‘We can take my wagon.’
‘Your wagon backfires. Backfiring offends me. And I have no intention of being lost in these mountains for want of a little resolution on your part. Get in and drive.’
It was such a different driving experience that she felt…unreal.
The road up to Braeside was lovely. It followed the cliffs for a mile out of town, and the big car swept around the curves with a whine of delight. By the time the road veered inland, following the river, she had its measure, and was glorying in being in control of the most magnificent piece of machinery she’d ever seen.
‘Nice, huh?’ Guy said, five minutes into the drive, and she flashed him a guilty look. She’d been so absorbed in her driving that she’d almost forgotten he was there. Almost.
‘You get this wedding working for me and you can keep it.’
She almost crashed. She took a deep breath, straightened the wheel, and tried to remember where she was.
‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
‘I’m not being ridiculous. I’ll merely pay my friend out. It’s not like it’s a new car.’
‘It’s not like it’s a new car,’ she said, mocking. ‘No, thank you, Mr Carver. My salary is stipulated in the contract. I’ll take that, but that’s all. I’d be obliged to you for ever, and I’ve had obligations up to my neck. So leave it.’
He left it. There were another few moments of silence while Jenny negotiated a few more curves. It was so wonderful that she could almost block Guy out-and his preposterous offer.
‘Feels great, doesn’t it?’ he said, and she was forced to smile.
‘Yet you don’t want it?’
‘I couldn’t afford the trip to Sydney to get this serviced,’ she told him. ‘Much less the service itself. Leave it alone.’
‘I’m not used to having my gifts knocked back.’
‘Get used to it.’
‘I’m not for sale, Guy,’ she said roughly. ‘And don’t interfere with my life. I intend to do these two weddings and then get out of your business for ever. You’ll go back to Manhattan and live your glamorous life, a thousand miles from mine-’
‘What do you know about my life?’ he said, startled, and she screwed up her nose in rueful mockery.
‘I’ve spent the last two years in doctors’ waiting rooms.’
‘So I reckon I’ve read every issue of Celebrity magazine that’s ever been printed. With you being rich and influential, and associated with every celebrity bash worthy of the name, your life is fair game. I know how rich you are. I know you don’t like oysters and you never wear navy suits. I also know you were in a car crash with your childhood sweetheart about fifteen years ago. Her father and your father were partners. She’d been at your parents’ company Christmas dinner alone, and then she’d collected you from some celebrity bash you’d been organising. She was killed outright. Your parents disowned you then. They said she’d been drinking because she was angry. They said if you’d stayed in the family law firm like you were supposed to it would never have happened. And you…The glossies say you’re still grieving for your lost love. Are you?’
‘No,’ he said, stunned.
‘I hope you’re not.’ She took a deep breath, deciding whether to be personal or not. What the heck? ‘It’s hard,’ she confided. ‘Ben’s only been dead for two years, but you know, my photographs of Ben are starting to be clearer than the image I hold in my head. I hate that. Are you better at it than me? Can you remember…what was her name? Or do you only remember photographs?’
‘It was Christa,’ he said, in a goaded voice. ‘I can’t imagine why you’d be interested enough to read about us.’
‘I wasn’t very,’ she admitted. ‘It was just something to read in the waiting room-something to take my mind off what was happening to Henry. But I remember thinking it was crazy, wearing the willow for someone for fifteen years.’
‘So how long do you intend to wear the willow for Ben?’
‘You’re living with his parents.’
‘That’s because they’ve become my parents,’ she said. ‘Sometimes I wonder whether I fell in love with Ben himself or if I fell in love with the whole concept of family. Like you tonight, looking round the dining table and looking…hungry.’
‘I didn’t,’ he said, revolted. ‘Can we leave it with the inquisition?’
‘Sure,’ she said, and she thought maybe she had pushed it too far. This man was supposed to be her boss. She should be being a bit deferential. Subservient.
He didn’t make her feel subservient. He made her feel…
She didn’t understand how he made her feel. She tried to conjure Ben up in her mind. Kind, gentle Ben, who’d loved her so well.
‘It’s tough,’ he said into the stillness, and she wondered what he was talking about. ‘The first Christmas was the worst, but it’s still bad,’ he added, and she knew he knew.
‘But it’s tough.’
‘I’ve got thirteen years before I catch up to you in the mourning stakes,’ she snapped, and turned the car into the front yard of Braeside. ‘Here’s your guesthouse.’
It was a fabulous spot, Guy thought, staring around with appreciation. The moon was glinting through bushland to the river beyond, hanging low in the eastern sky over the distant sea. The guesthouse was a sprawling weatherboard home, with vast verandas all around.
‘I’ve heard it’s sumptuous,’ Jenny said, climbing out of the car to stretch her legs.
‘You’ve never been inside?’
‘The likes of me? I’d be shown out by security guards.’
‘I’m sorry about Paris.’
‘I shouldn’t have told you about Paris.’ She hesitated while he hauled his gear from the trunk. ‘Are you serious about me driving this thing home? You realise it’ll be parked near chooks.’
‘Feathery things that lay eggs.’
‘Park it as far away as possible,’ Guy said, sounding nervous.
‘Okay. I was just teasing. I might even find a tarpaulin. I’ll collect you tomorrow at nine, then. With or without chook poo.’
‘Fine,’ he said. He turned away. But then he hesitated.
‘Thank you for tonight,’ he said. ‘And we really will give Kylie a great wedding.’
‘I know we will.’ She trusted him, she thought. She wasn’t sure why, but she did.
But suddenly she didn’t trust herself.
She should get into the driver’s seat, she told herself. Guy needed to walk away.
But then…and why, she didn’t know…it was as if things changed. The night changed.
‘Jenny?’ he said uncertainly.
‘I know,’ she said, but she didn’t know anything. Except that he was going to kiss her and she was going to let him.
She could have pulled back. He was just as uncertain as she was-or maybe he was just as certain.
He dropped his holdall. Moving very slowly, he reached out and caught her hands, tugging her towards him. She allowed herself to be tugged. Maybe she didn’t need his propulsion.
‘Thank you for dinner,’ he said, and she thought, He’s making this seem like a fleeting kiss of courtesy. Though both of them knew it was no such thing.
‘You’re welcome,’ she whispered.
His lips brushed hers, a feather touch-a question and not an answer.
‘You’re very welcome,’ she said again as he drew back-and suddenly she was being kissed properly, thoroughly, wonderfully.
She’d forgotten…or maybe she’d never known this heat. This feeling of melting into a man and losing control, just like that. There was warmth spreading throughout her limbs. A lovely, languorous warmth that had her feeling that her world was changing, right there and then, and it could never be the same again.
She kissed him back, demanding as much as he was demanding of her. Tasting him. Savouring the feel of his wonderful male body under her hands. Guy Carver…
This was crazy.
She, Jenny Westmere, mother of Henry, wife of Ben…To kiss this man…
She was out of her mind. Panicked, she shoved her hands between her breast and his chest, pushing him away.
He released her at once. He tried to take her hands but she’d have none of it. She was three feet away from him now. Four.
‘No?’ His eyes were gently questioning. Not laughing. She couldn’t have borne it if he was laughing. ‘No, Jenny?’
‘I only kiss my husband,’ she said, and the words made perfect sense to her, even if they didn’t to him.
But it appeared he understood. ‘You’re not being unfaithful, Jenny. It was only a kiss.’
Only a kiss? Then why was her world spinning?
‘I’m not some easy country hick…’
‘I never thought you were.’
‘You’re here until Christmas. Will we see you again after that?’
‘We’re ships passing in the night.’ She took a deep breath and steadied. ‘So maybe we’d better do just that-pass.’
‘I’m not into relationships,’ he said, not even smiling. ‘I’m not about to mess with your tidy life.’
‘My life’s not very tidy,’ she confessed. ‘But thank you. Now…I think I’d better go home.’
‘You’re brave enough to drive the Ferrari by yourself?’
‘Something tells me it’d be far more dangerous to stay here with you,’ she muttered. ‘But I’ll pick you up in the morning. As long as you promise not to kiss me again.’
‘You want me to promise?’
‘Yes, I do,’ she said, and if her voice sounded desperate she couldn’t help it.
‘I won’t kiss you again. I know a mistake when I see one.’
‘I’m a mistake?’
‘Absolutely,’ he told her. ‘This whole place is a mistake. I should leave now.’
Only of course he didn’t. He couldn’t. He booked into the fantastic guesthouse he’d been delivered to. He rang Malcolm in New York and confirmed that there was no one who could get here on short notice to take over organisation.
‘Scooping the Barret and Anna wedding is fabulous, though.’ Malcolm was chortling. ‘Every bride in Australia will want you after this. It’s just as well you’re there to do it hands-on. You’ll use the local staff? Great. Make sure you don’t mess up.’
The local staff? Guy thought of what he had to build on-Jenny and, by the sound of it, a crew of geriatrics-and he almost groaned.
‘It’s the best publicity we could think of,’ Malcolm said jovially. ‘I’ll manage the Film Conglomerate do. We’re fine.’
Only they weren’t. Or he wasn’t. Guy lay in the sumptuous four-poster bed that night, listening to owls in the bushland outside, and wondered what he was getting into.
He didn’t know, and he didn’t want to find out.
And five miles away Jenny was feeling exactly the same.
When she got back to the farmhouse Henry was asleep and Lorna and Jack were filling hot water bottles from the kitchen kettle.
‘Did you have a nice ride, dear?’ Lorna asked, and for the life of her Jenny couldn’t keep her face under control. Lorna watched her daughter-in-law, her eyes twinkling.
‘He seems very…personable,’ she said, speaking to no one in particular, and Jenny knew her mother-in-law was getting ideas which were ridiculous.
They were ridiculous.
She scowled at her in-laws and went to bed. But not to sleep. She stared at the ceiling for hours, and then flicked on the lamp and stared at the picture on her bedside table. Her lovely Ben, who’d brought her into this wonderful family, who’d given her Henry.
‘I love you, Ben,’ she whispered, but he didn’t answer. If he was here he’d just smile and then hug her.
She ached to be hugged.
‘Yes, by Ben,’ she told the night. ‘Guy Carver has been here for less than twenty-four hours. He’s an international jet-setter with megabucks. He kissed me tonight because I’ll bet that’s what international jet-setters do. He’s your boss, Jennifer Westmere. You need to maintain a dignified employer-employee relationship. Don’t stuff it up. And don’t let him kiss you again.
‘He won’t want to.
She wasn’t sure who she was arguing with. If anyone could hear they’d think she was crazy.
‘Ben,’ she whispered, and lifted the frame from the bedside table and kissed it.
She turned off the lamp and remembered the kiss.
Not Ben’s kiss.
The kiss of Guy Carver.
JENNY arrived at Guy’s guesthouse the next morning wearing clothing that said very clearly she was there to work. Plain white shirt, knee-length skirt, plain sandals. Guy emerged dressed in fawn chinos, a lovely soft green polo shirt with a tiny white yacht embroidered on the chest-Jenny bet it had to be the logo of the world’s most exclusive yacht club-and faded loafers. He looked at what Jenny was wearing and stopped dead.
‘The Carver corporation has a dress code,’ he said.
‘What’s wrong with this?’
‘It’s frumpy.’ It was, too. In fact, Jenny had worked quite hard to find it. There’d been an international lawn-bowls meet in Sandpiper Bay two years ago, and she’d helped organise the catering. The dress code for that had meant she’d had to go out and buy this sophisticated little outfit, and she hadn’t worn it since.
‘It’s my usual work wear,’ she lied. ‘Yesterday I was too casual.’
‘We were both too casual,’ he agreed, and she blushed.
Right. Get on with it.
‘So where do you want to start?’
‘I’ve come here to plan the refurbishment of the salon.’
‘That’s important. But there’s the little manner of two weddings…’
‘Leave the planning to me,’ he said, and she subsided into what she hoped was dignified silence. She was this man’s employee.
He’d kissed her. She should forget all about that kiss. She should…
Let’s not aim at the stars here, she told herself. Let’s just be a good little employee and put the memory of that kiss on the backburner.
But not very far back.
He was out of his depth.
They’d purchased three salons so far in this round of expansion. In each of those, Guy had visited early, taken note of the features of the building as they were, then brought his notes back to his cool grey office in Manhattan and drawn them up as he’d like them to be. With plans prepared, he’d sent a team of professionals to do his bidding, and six months later they’d opened as a Carver Salon.
Now, thanks to Lorna’s indiscretion, the Carver name would be used before he could leave his imprint.
He had to get rid of the fluff, and fast. Instead of sitting down, calmly planning for the future, he was trying to figure how he could get this place clear so if the media arrived to see the latest Carver Salon they’d see something worthy of the name. How to transform fluff to elegance in a week?
And how to ignore Jenny, sitting silently at her desk? She sat with her hands folded in front of her, a good little employee, waiting for instructions.
What was it about this woman that unnerved him?
Why was she so different?
He didn’t do relationships. He didn’t…
‘Phone Kylie,’ he said at last, goaded. ‘Tell her she’s having a Carver Wedding.’
‘I already have,’ she said meekly.
He was out of his depth. He needed help here.
‘I need your assistance,’ he snapped, and she nodded, ready to be helpful.
‘Will you cut it out?’
‘Cut what out?’
‘I don’t know where the hell to start,’ he confessed, and watched as she struggled to keep the expression on her face subservient.
‘You’re asking for my input?’
‘I want some solid help here,’ he told her. ‘I assume you’re not just the girl who mans the desk? You’ve been running this place on your own since Lorna’s stroke.’
‘But you’re in charge. I’m waiting for orders.’
‘We need to get a dumpster,’ he said in exasperation. ‘Something to get rid of this lot.’
‘You have two weddings to organise before Christmas and you’re planning to redecorate the salon?’ she said cautiously. ‘Right.’ She lifted the phone. ‘I’ll order a dumpster.’
‘Dresses,’ he said, in increasing frustration. ‘We need to organise a wedding dress and attendants’ outfits.’
‘They might take some time,’ Jenny said, and started dialling.
He lifted the phone from her hand and crashed it down onto the cradle.
‘If I don’t get some solid help here I’ll-’
‘Sack me?’ she said, and smiled.
Damn the woman. He knew she was competent. He wanted to take her shoulders and shake her.
He wanted to kiss her.
That thought wasn’t helping things at all. His normally cool, calculating mind was clouded, and it was clouded because this woman was looking up at him with a strange, enigmatic smile.
This woman who was as far from his life as any woman he’d ever met. This woman who was up to her neck in emotional entanglements.
He took a deep breath, turned, and paced the salon a couple of times, trying to clear his head. He knocked one of the bridal mannequins and spent a couple of minutes righting it.
He turned to Jenny and she was watching him, her eyes interested, her head to one side like an inquisitive sparrow.
Forget she’s a woman, he told himself. And forget she’s an employee. Let’s get this onto some sort of even keel.
‘Jenny, I’m out of my depth here,’ he told her. ‘I don’t know where to start.’
She stilled. The faint smile on her face faded. He’d shocked her, he thought. Whatever she’d been expecting it hadn’t been that.
There was a long silence.
She could keep up the play-acting, he thought. And she was definitely considering it. The role of subservient employee was a defence. He watched as indecision played on her face. Finally she broke. Her face was incredibly expressive, he thought. He saw the exact moment she put away the play-acting and decided to be up-front.
‘Two weddings,’ she said. ‘The biggest problem is the dresses. We need to get things moving. There are three local women with the capacity to sew fast and well.’
‘No.’ She shook her head. ‘They’re all up to their ears in Christmas preparations.’
‘There are a couple of oldies I know who love baby-sitting,’ she said. ‘They have very quiet Christmases, so they may be prepared to help. Jonas Bucket had an accident at work some years ago and is confined to a wheelchair. He loves Christmas cooking. So if I…’
‘What are you talking about?’ He was lost.
‘Mary, Sarah and Leanne are my seamstresses,’ she said patiently. ‘Mary and Sarah have small kids, and Leanne’s having eighteen people for Christmas dinner. If I ask them to sew for me they’ll say no. But if I say I’ve already organised childminding and cooking and house-cleaning-and someone to set Leanne’s table-then they’ll jump at the chance to escape by sewing. Now…’
‘Now what?’ he said, stunned.
‘You’re the boss,’ she said, ‘but if I were you I’d sit down and write the menu for the Barret and Anna wedding. We need to get the food ordered right away. They’ve elected to do a Christmas theme, so we’ll keep it like that. Roast turkey and all the trimmings.’
‘For a sophisticated-?’
‘She did say pink tulle,’ Jenny said, though she sounded a bit less certain of her ground.
‘So she did,’ Guy said, thinking fast, and then looked up as the doorbell tinkled.
It was Kylie. She was dressed in pregnancy overalls with a white T-shirt underneath. With her face flushed with either nerves or excitement, and her blonde curls tied up in two pigtails, Guy decided she looked like one of those Russian Mazurka dolls. If you pushed her she’d topple over and then spring right up.
‘Hi, Kylie,’ Jenny said, and Guy winced. This woman was a client. His first Australian Carver Wedding…
‘Mum just rang me,’ Kylie said, with a nervous look aside at Guy. ‘She says Mr Carver’s agreed to do my wedding.’
‘He has,’ Jenny said. ‘But there’s no need to change your plans. We’ll do your wedding exactly as we’ve planned it.’
‘No,’ said Kylie.
There was a moment’s silence. ‘No?’ Jenny said at last, cautiously, and received a furious shake of her head in reply. ‘You don’t want a wedding?’
‘Of course I want a wedding,’ Kylie said. ‘Me and Daryl are really excited. But…’
‘But what?’ Jenny asked.
‘It’s Mum’s wedding,’ she burst out. ‘And Daryl’s mum’s. They’ve been at us for ever to get married, and of course we want to, but we didn’t want this. We thought maybe we’d just have the baby and then go somewhere afterwards and get married quietly. But from the minute we told them we were expecting they’ve been at us and at us, until finally we cracked. And that dress…Mum had you make it for me when I was sixteen. She chose it. Not me. Every week since then Mum gets it out and pats it. Do you know how much I hate it?’
‘No,’ Jenny said, stunned.
‘I can’t tell you,’ Kylie declared. ‘But I loathe it. I would have gone along with it. Fine, I said to Daryl, whatever makes them happy. But when Mum rang and said I could have a Carver Wedding I thought suddenly, A Carver Wedding! I could maybe have it like I want. Elegant. Sleek. Sophisticated. Something so when our kids grow up they’ll look at our wedding photos and think, Wow, just for a bit our parents weren’t assistants in a butcher’s shop. If you knew how much I hate pink tulle…’
‘Your six bridesmaids are in pink tulle,’ Jenny murmured.
‘Exactly.’ Kylie’s colour was almost beetroot as she desperately tried to explain herself. ‘It was bad enough when I was skinny, but now I’ll look like a wall of cupids coming down the aisle, with a sea of pink tulle coming after.’ She turned to Guy. ‘They say in the fashion magazines that you can perform miracles. Get me out of cupids and pink tulle. Please.’
There was a deathly hush.
‘We can’t,’ Jenny said at last. ‘Kylie, the dresses are finished. There’s less than a week to your wedding, and we have another enormous wedding to cater for on Christmas Day.’
The passion went out of Kylie like air out of a pricked balloon, and defeat took its place in an instant. She’d expected this, Guy thought. Her request had been one last stand, but defeat had been expected.
‘That’ll be for someone rich, I’ll bet,’ Kylie said, but it wasn’t said in anger. It was said as a fact, and there was a wealth of resignation in her voice. ‘Someone who can afford any wedding she wants and who has enough guts to stand up for it.’
Guy looked suddenly at the girl’s hands. They were scrubbed almost raw. There were jagged scars on two fingers.
‘You work in a butcher’s shop, Kylie?’ he asked her, and Kylie bit her lip.
‘Yeah. Morris’s butchers next door. That’s why I could come so quickly. But I should be back there now.’
‘You’ll work there after you’re married?’
‘Course I will,’ she said. ‘It’s Daryl’s dad’s shop, and there’s no way we can afford for me to stay home. We’re having a week’s honeymoon staying at Daryl’s auntie’s place. I’ll have another week off when the baby’s born. Then we’ll set up a cot in the back.’ She shook her head. ‘Sorry. It was dumb to ask. I gotta get back.’
She sounded totally resigned, Guy thought. Accepting.
Jenny was watching him.
What had Kylie said when she first arrived? They say in the fashion magazines that you can perform miracles.
He couldn’t perform miracles. Of course he couldn’t. But…
‘Anna wants pink tulle,’ he said slowly, and Jenny nodded. She seemed…cautious.
‘That’s no problem. We can order more.’
‘But Anna will be more than happy with a kitsch wedding,’ he said. ‘Jenny, you said you have three through as he spoke. ‘From the sound of the fax they sent me, kitsch is exactly what she wants. And Anna has six bridesmaids.’
‘So we swap,’ he said, and his organisational mode slipped back into place, just like that.
Jenny’s presence-Jenny herself-had somehow thrown him off course. He’d been feeling out of control since yesterday, but suddenly now he’d slipped back behind the wheel, knowing exactly where he was going.
‘We’ll take Kylie’s wedding dress and bridesmaids’ dresses and we’ll alter them to fit Anna and her followers,’ he said. ‘Jenny, you said you have three dressmakers ready to go? Let’s get the measurements and get them started. Kylie, your bridesmaids…’
‘Mmm?’ She was staring, open-mouthed. ‘What’s kitsch?’ she said.
‘What your wedding was, and what it won’t be any more,’ he said. ‘My alternative bride and her friends will think it’s fun. It’s fun when you’re not forced into it. Do your bridesmaids all have little black dresses? The sort of thing you wear when you want to be elegant?’
‘Course,’ Kylie whispered, not seeing where he was going. ‘I mean, everyone has to have a black dress. For when you dunno what else to wear.’
‘Would they be upset to lose the pink tulle?’
‘You have to be kidding. They hate pink tulle as much as I do. Two of them are my sisters, and three of them are Daryl’s sisters, so they have to do what our mums say. The other one’s my best friend, and Doreen says the pink tulle makes her look like a Kewpie doll.’
‘Right,’ Guy said. ‘Let’s go for an elegant Christmas theme. Deep crimson and a rich, dark green.’
‘Seven dresses?’ Jenny said faintly.
‘Six bridesmaids in their lovely black dresses. It means they won’t have to spend a cent, and they’ll have already chosen something that looks great on them. There’ll be no one-style-suits-all disasters. They’ll wear their hair sleek and elegant-up if it’s long, in sophisticated chignons, or if it’s short I’ll arrange really good cuts. I’ll do it myself if need be. Black strappy shoes. The only colour about them will be a beautiful crimson and green corsage. That’ll bring in a tiny Christmas theme, which seems appropriate at this time of the year. I’ll get onto a Sydney florist this afternoon and organise the best.’
‘What about me?’ Kylie whispered. ‘And the men?’
‘Gangster-style suits and hats,’ Guy decreed. ‘We’ll hire them from Sydney or fly them from New York. What do you think?’
‘Gangsters?’ Kylie said, the beginnings of anticipation curving the sides of her mouth into a smile. ‘Hats and braces and white shoes?’
‘You’ve got it.’
‘Daryl will love it.’
Guy smiled. ‘Great. And you…’ He looked at Kylie for a long minute while Jenny watched in dumbfounded silence. ‘Kylie, let’s not try to disguise your pregnancy. Let’s be proud of it. I’m thinking pure white shot silk-Jenny, can we get shot silk?’
‘Sure,’ Jenny said, dazed.
‘A really simple dress,’ Guy said. ‘Shoestring straps and a low sweetheart neckline that accentuates those gorgeous breasts.’ Kylie started to blush, but he wasn’t distracted. He’d grabbed the pad beside the phone and was sketching. ‘Like this. Practically bare to the breasts. Softly curving into your waist, accentuating the swell of pregnancy, curving in again, and then falling with a side slit from your thigh to your ankles. I bet you have great legs.’
Kylie was staring at the sketch, entranced. ‘Daryl says…’ She subsided. ‘Yeah,’ she whispered. ‘My legs are…okay.’ The sketch was growing under Guy’s hands and she couldn’t stop watching. ‘Wow. That even looks like me. What are you doing to my hair?’
‘Piling it up in a thousand tiny curls on top of your head,’ he said. ‘The simplicity of your bridesmaids’ hair will accentuate yours. We’ll thread the same crimson and green though your hair-just a little. You’ll carry a tiny bouquet of fern and crimson rosebuds. And if you want…’
‘Wh-What?’ she stammered.
‘We’ll thread tiny silver imitation pistols through the ribbon of your bouquet. You’re a gangster’s moll. This is a shotgun wedding and you’ve got your man.’
Kylie stared. Jenny stared. Then, as one, they burst out laughing.
‘My mum will hate it,’ Kylie said when she finally recovered.
‘It’s a Carver Wedding. Take it or leave it.’
‘Oh, I’ll take it,’ Kylie whispered, smiling now through the beginning of unshed tears. ‘Yes, please.’
‘You’re a magician.’ Kylie had left them to spread her news. Guy was left with Jenny, who was staring at him as if he’d grown two heads.
‘I’m no magician,’ he said, but he was aware of a tinge of pleasure. It was a pleasure he hadn’t felt for a long time. And…was there also a tinge of excitement? He wanted to do this well, he thought, and when he tried to figure out why he knew that it had little to do with the reputation of the Carver empire. It was all to do with making Jenny smile.
And he had made her smile. She was definitely smiling.
‘I need to organise cars,’ he said, trying to move on.
‘There are limousines booked.’
‘Limousines won’t do. Transfer that booking to Anna’s, if you can. For Kylie we need to get Buicks, or something similar. We’ll take the theme right through.’
‘We’ll never get them locally.’
‘I’ll try Sydney.’
‘Kylie can’t afford-’
‘We’ll cover the cost ourselves,’ he said. ‘As the first Australian Carver Wedding, it’ll more than pay for itself in publicity. As for dress, we’ve done gangster-type weddings in my other salons, so gear shouldn’t be a problem. I’ll fly in costumes for the waiting staff.’ He paused. ‘I assume you have staff booked?’
‘Of course I have staff booked,’ she said, incensed. ‘This wedding is planned down to the last pew ribbon.’
‘We’ll use some of those resources for the Anna and Barret wedding. We’ll design the wedding for Kylie from scratch, and use the basis of Kylie’s for Anna’s. It’ll work. I’ll need to paint sets for the gangster setting. I’ll see if we can get a smoke machine from Sydney.’
‘A smoke machine…’
‘It creates the haze without the health risk. I should have everyone smoking either cigars or Gauloise, but I’ll bet you have laws preventing it.’
‘There you go, then. A smoke machine it is. Now, let’s look at these dresses and see if any of them might fit without alterations.’
‘You’re good,’ she said, on a note of discovery, and Guy stopped making lists and glanced up at her.
‘You said you could even cut hair?’
‘There’s nothing I haven’t been landed with in the years I’ve been building this business. I know my stuff, Jenny. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.’ He smiled at her look of scepticism. ‘You don’t need to worry,’ he said softly. ‘We’ll look after Kylie. The first Australian Carver Wedding will go off with a bang.’
‘It surely will,’ she said, awed, and then suddenly, as if she couldn’t help herself, she slipped out from behind the counter, took two steps forward and kissed him.
It was nothing like the kiss they’d shared last night. It was a kiss of gratitude, nothing more, and why it had the capacity to make him feel as if his feet weren’t quite on the ground he couldn’t say.
‘You’re making Kylie happy,’ she said softly. ‘Thank you.’
‘Think nothing of it,’ he said, or he tried to say it, but the words weren’t quite there. He was staring at Jenny as if…
He didn’t know what.
This wasn’t the type of woman that attracted him.
He hadn’t exactly been celibate since Christa had died. What had Jenny said? It was crazy, wearing the willow for someone for fifteen years. He hadn’t. Or maybe he had, but only in the sense that he never got emotionally involved. Where relationships went he used his head and not his heart. It did his firm’s reputation good if he was seen with A-listers on his arm. He chose glamorous women who could make him laugh, but who knew commitment was neither wanted nor expected.
She was dressed like a prim secretary. Like a repressed old maid. Like something she wasn’t. He knew she wasn’t. Because otherwise why would his body be screaming that it wanted this woman-he wanted this woman?
She was a complication, he told himself desperately, and he’d spent his entire adult life making sure that he had as few complications in his life as possible.
‘I need to go check the facilities at Anna’s property,’ he said, and if he sounded brusque he couldn’t help it.
She grabbed her bag. ‘It’s in the hills, north of town.’
‘I’ll find it,’ he said, and she hesitated and then put her bag down again.
‘You want me to stay here?’
‘Fine.’ Back to being subservient. ‘I’ll make lists of what’s needed.’ She hesitated. ‘That is, if you want me to?’
‘I want you to.’
What was it between them? What was this…thing? It felt like some sort of magnetic charge, with both of them hauling away from it.
‘Fine,’ he repeated, and he left-but some important part of him stayed behind. And he couldn’t for the life of him think what it was.
THEY worked brilliantly as a team-apart.
For the next few days plans for the two weddings proceeded as swiftly as for any function Guy had organised in Manhattan. Most of it was down to Jenny. Guy just had to hint at a suggestion and she had it organised. She seemed to know every last person in a twenty-mile radius of Sandpiper Bay. He needed oysters? She knew the couple who leased the best oyster beds. He wanted lobsters? She knew the fisherman. Fantastic greens? Her husband’s best friend had a hydroponic set-up where they could get wonderful produce straight from the grower.
Jenny wrote out a menu for Anna’s wedding, and when Guy read it he grinned. It was inspired. Yabbies, prawns, oysters, lobsters, scallops-seafood to die for, and all in enough quantities to make their overseas guests drool. After the main courses the menu became even more Australian-pavlovas with strawberries and cream, lamingtons, ginger fluff sponges, chocolate éclairs, vanilla slices, lashings of home-made berry ice-cream, bowls and bowls of fresh berries…
Guy thought of how much this would cost in New York, and then he looked at the figures Jenny had prepared and blinked-and then he thought he’d charge New York prices anyway. It would mean he could put more into Kylie’s wedding. He could employ a really excellent band…
But this was all discussed by phone. Guy had left Sandpiper Bay to make a sweep of Sydney suppliers. The time away let him clear his head. In truth, the day he’d tried to find Anna’s property he’d become thoroughly lost. He’d got back to the salon flustered and late, and Jenny had merely raised her brows in gentle mockery and not said a word. She’d known very well what had happened, he thought, and he didn’t like it. He didn’t like it that she could read him.
So he’d gone to Sydney. He wasn’t escaping, he thought. It was merely that things needed to be organised in Sydney.
On Monday, three days before Kylie’s wedding, five days before Christmas, he returned.
The beach was crowded-summer was at its peak and there were surfing-types everywhere.
Bridal Fluff was closed.
What had he expected? he asked himself. Jenny had told him things were going well. And besides, he didn’t want to see her.
He let himself into Bridal Fluff. There was a typed list on the desk, of everything that had to be done for the two weddings, with a neat tick beside everything that had been done.
She was good.
He didn’t want to think about how good she was.
He drove back to his guesthouse, dumped his gear and made his way disconsolately down to the lobby. He needed something to do. Anything. Even if it was just to stop him thinking about Jenny.
Especially if it was to make him stop thinking about Jenny.
‘You should go to the beach,’ the guesthouse proprietor told him. ‘It’s a wonderful day for a swim.’
‘I need to-’ he started, and then thought, No, he didn’t need to do anything. ‘The beach looks crowded.’
‘That’s just the front beach,’ his host told him. ‘There’s no need to be crowded at Sandpiper Bay. All the kids go to the front beach. They say the surfing’s better there, but in truth it’s just become the place to be seen. And being so near Christmas there’ll be lots of out-of-towners coming for picnics. Family parties and such. If you want a quiet beach, I can draw you a map showing you Nautilus Cove, which has to be one of the most perfect swimming places in Australia.’
So ten minutes later he was in the car, heading south for a swim.
There were two cars at the side of the road when he pulled up-expensive off-roaders-and he was paranoid enough to be thankful they weren’t Jenny’s. ‘There might be a couple of locals there,’ he’d been told. ‘But they won’t mind sharing.’
Actually, he did mind sharing, but it was a bit much to expect to have the beach to himself. And two cars hardly made a crowd.
There were a few empty beer cans by the side of the road. That gave him pause for a moment. In this environmentally friendly shire, roadside litter was cleared almost as soon as it happened. Were the owners of the off-roaders drinking?
No matter. He could handle himself. He just wanted a quick swim. He tossed his towel over his shoulders and strode beachwards. As he topped the sand hill, the cove stretched out before him, breathtakingly beautiful. Golden sand, gentle surf, sapphire sea. There was a group of youths at the far end of the beach-the off-roaders’ occupants? Surely not, he thought, frowning. They looked too young to be driving such expensive cars. Someone was yelling. It looked a small but intimidating group of youths. Drunken teenagers showing off to each other?
He didn’t want trouble, and they looked like trouble. He’d find another beach.
But then he hesitated. A figure broke from the group. Someone shoved and the figure stumbled. There was raucous laughter, cruel and jeering.
Someone was in trouble. They were a few hundred yards from him, and it was hard to see. But then…He focussed. It was a woman, he thought, and the woman seemed to be carrying a child. She took a few more steps towards him.
She was trudging through the soft sand, carrying Henry. Henry was clinging to her, his face buried in her shoulder, as the taunts followed them.
‘Get the hell off our beach!’ they yelled. ‘Take your deformed kid with you.’ A beer can hurtled through the air. It didn’t hit Jenny, but it hadn’t landed before Guy was hurtling down the slope as if the hounds of hell were after him.
She was carrying a bag which looked a load in itself. She was concentrating on putting one foot in front of another, making sure she kept her balance in the soft sand. She didn’t see him approach, every fibre of her being concentrating on getting off the beach-fast.
He reached her and put out his hands and stopped her. She flinched backwards.
She looked up at him, her face pale and gaunt, but as she saw who it was relief washed over her. She almost sagged. ‘G…Guy. Get us out of here,’ she stammered.
Another beer can headed in their direction. ‘You’re not moving fast enough,’ someone yelled from the group. ‘Hey, mister, keep away from them. The kid’s a mutant.’
‘Go,’ Guy said urgently, and put his body between her and the barrage of cans and foul language. If he could have picked her up and carried her he would have, but picking up Jenny and Henry and their gear was a bit much even for someone with superhero aspirations. ‘Go on up to the road,’ he told her. ‘Get to my car and wait for me.’ ‘But-’
‘Go.’ He tugged his cellphone from his belt. ‘It’s 000 for emergency here, isn’t it?’
She went. She didn’t have a choice.
He stood his ground and dialled, and two seconds later he had a response. He stood facing the teenagers and spoke into the phone, loudly and firmly. Loud enough for them to hear.
‘There’s a group of what looks like under-aged drinkers on Nautilus Cove,’ he told the officer who’d answered his call. ‘I’m guessing they’ve been driving drunk, and none of them look old enough to hold a driving licence. Their cars look expensive. The kids’ average age is about sixteen, so I’m guessing the cars are stolen. They’re throwing beer cans at a woman and child on the beach. It’s ugly.’
‘We’ll have someone there in minutes, sir,’ the operator said. ‘Can you stay on the line?’
‘Sure. You’ll hear everything that goes on.’ Ten or eleven youths were staring at him now, with the uncertainty that stemmed from being drunk and out of control and seeing someone acting in control. They could turn on him, he thought, but he had a window of opportunity to stop that happening. They didn’t know who he was, he sounded authoritative, and they were too drunk to act fast.
‘If those cars are stolen,’ he said, loudly but calmly, ‘then you all have a major problem. The police are on their way. You can stay and get arrested, or you can go now.’
They stared at him in silence, drunk and still aggressive, but obviously trying to think. One took a menacing step forward.
Guy didn’t budge. His face stayed impassive. ‘The road into this beach is a one-lane track,’ he said, conversationally, as though informing them of something important they should have remembered. ‘If you try and drive out, you’ll meet the police coming in. They’ll block your way.’
There was a further uneasy silence. Then, ‘Hey, Jake, I’m off.’ One of the kids at the back of the group sounded suddenly scared. ‘It’s my old man’s car. If I’m found in it I’ll be grounded for years. As far as I’m concerned you pinched it. Not me.’ He turned and stumbled away, half-running, half-walking, heading northwards along the beach. Around the headland were more beaches and bushland, where maybe he could hide himself and then head home to be innocent when his father found the car missing.
‘Geez, Jake, my old man’ll do the same,’ another said, already backing and starting to run. ‘Mac-wait up.’
‘But you guys’ve got the keys,’ Jake yelled, and hurled another can after his retreating mates.
Some of the other kids were backing away now. Half seemed inclined to stay with Jake. The others seemed inclined to run.
‘We’re on our way,’ the policeman said on the other end of the phone line, and Guy nodded and held the phone helpfully out towards the kids.
‘The police are on their way. This officer says so. He’d like to talk to you. Jake?’
‘Go to hell,’ Jake yelled.
‘Is that Jake Marny?’ the officer asked.
‘I’ll ask him,’ Guy said, and held out the phone again. ‘He says are you Jake Marny?’
‘Geez-he knows us. The cops know us,’ one of the kids yelled, panic supplanting aggression in an instant. And that was enough for them all. They were stumbling away, heading after the first two boys. For a long moment Jake stared at Guy, murder in his eyes, but it was the drink, Guy thought. Underneath, Jake was nothing but a belligerent kid-and a kid alone now, as his friends deserted him. He picked up another can and hurled it, but he didn’t have his heart in it.
‘What will you do, Jake?’ Guy said, and Jake turned and found all his mates had gone without him.
He turned and ran.
The police arrived before Guy had made it up to where he’d parked his car. He told them what had happened, briefly and succinctly, and left them to it. They’d radioed in the registrations of the cars as soon as they saw them. They knew the kids.
‘You’ll take care of Mrs Westmere and Henry?’ they asked.
‘Sure,’ he told them, and headed up the track to find them.
They’d reached his car. Jenny was leaning back on the bonnet, still hugging Henry, her face buried in his hair
She looked up, and he saw that her face was rigid with tension and with anger. She was fighting back tears.
The little boy was huddled against her, and clinging. His body language was despairing.
Guy had never had anything much to do with children. He’d met Malcolm’s kids, beautifully dressed and with precocious social manners. He was godparent to their youngest, and sometimes he even took them gifts.
‘Thank Mr Carver,’ their father would say, and the appropriate child would smile.
‘Thank you, Mr Carver. This is a cool present.’
They were well-trained, well-adjusted kids, with two solid parents and all the advantages in the world.
But this mite…He was too thin. He was wearing some sort of elastic wrap on one of his legs and around his chest. His face was scarred and it was creased with crying. But now he faced Guy with the same sort of determination Guy saw in his mother. He wouldn’t show the world he was upset. He blinked back tears and gulped.
Guy’s heart twisted. This had nothing to do with how he felt about Jenny. Here was a whole host of other emotions.
He didn’t get involved.
Too late. He looked from Jenny’s face to Henry’s and back again, and he was so involved he knew that from this minute on nothing would be the same again.
‘Tell me what happened,’ he said, and something about his voice made Jenny’s face change. Her defences slipped a little.
‘We were going to have a picnic,’ she whispered, and he reached forward and took the basket from her grasp. It suddenly seemed to be unbearably heavy. He would have liked to take Henry, too, but Henry was clinging to his mother as if he’d never let go. ‘Jack’s been delivering Christmas presents. He dropped us off at one, and was going to pick us up at three. But…’
‘But I reckoned without Henry’s scarring,’ she whispered. ‘Those kids…They arrived about fifteen minutes after we did. They were dreadful-weren’t they, Henry?’
Jenny shook her head, but Henry, surprisingly, took over. ‘We had a ball,’ he said. ‘Mummy threw it to me and I missed it, and it rolled along the beach and ended up near one of the men’s beer cans. When I went to get it he said I was deformed. He said, “Get lost, you ugly, deformed little s…”’
Henry’s words were spoken almost exactly as he’d heard them. Guy heard the vindictiveness in the child’s bleak recital, and he flinched. He tried to find his voice but it wasn’t there. There weren’t words.
He wanted to-
‘Don’t,’ Jenny whispered, and he knew she was reading the primitive desire that was starting to build-to launch himself back down the beach and punch Jake and his mates until they bled.
It would achieve…nothing. And the police were there. They’d be taken care of.
‘Why do you think they said that?’ he said at last. He didn’t recognise his voice. He didn’t recognise his feelings. Dumb fury and more…
‘I don’t know,’ Henry whispered.
‘I don’t know, either.’ He was fighting desperately for the right words here. For any words at all. ‘It surely isn’t because you’re deformed, Henry. You’re wearing an elastic bandage and you have a couple of manly scars. That doesn’t make you deformed.’
‘The boy kicked me.’
‘He was probably jealous,’ Guy said, swallowing his anger with a huge effort.
He set Jenny’s picnic basket on the ground and hauled it open, inspecting its contents with a critical eye. It gave him something to do. Independent or not, afraid of relationships or not, he wanted to hug them and hold them close, but he knew they’d accept no such gesture. And such a gesture wouldn’t help. Nor would violence. He had to come up with something better.
‘I thought so,’ he said, feeling his way. ‘There’s pink lemonade in here. And great food. They only had beer. Jealousy makes people say funny things. Do you think that’s it?’
‘I don’t know,’ Henry said, staring down at the pink lemonade. ‘That’s silly.’
‘Not as silly as calling you names.’ Guy took a deep breath and turned his back to them both. ‘When people have been angry about things they’ve called me names, too. A lady burst into tears at a swimming pool once. She called me a poor thing. She was stupid. I’m not a poor thing at all. Take a look at this.’
He tugged his shirt over his head, baring his back. They’d be seeing the myriad of scars running down the left side of his body. He heard Jenny’s intake of breath and he winced. The last thing he wanted was sympathy, but this was the only thing he could think of to do.
His scars were a bleak reminder of the night Christa had been killed. She’d been speeding in her father’s Maserati and she had been furious. ‘Why can’t you be a lawyer?’ she’d screamed. ‘I refuse to be married to some dope who organises tinpot weddings and doesn’t have any money to even pay for a decent car. You drive a van with a wedding logo on it. I’ll be damned if I’m ever seen in it.’
She’d slammed her foot on the accelerator, making the point that the van he drove could never be as fast as this. Guy could still see the truck in front of them, the driver’s face frozen in horror as their car slid on black ice, over to the wrong side of the road, straight into him. They’d hit almost broadside, killing Christa instantly and throwing shards of splintering metal into his side.
He’d learned not to hate his scars, but until now he’d never been grateful.
‘Would you call me deformed?’ he asked Henry, his tone carefully neutral.
‘You’ve been cut,’ Henry whispered.
‘And you’ve been burned. Most people start out as babies with no marks on them, but as interesting things happen they get marked. We all get marked from life. Somewhere I read that the native people in Australia deliberately make scars on their chests to show they’re grown up. I think the more marks you have on you, the more interesting you become.’ He smiled at the little boy, searching for a response. ‘So you and me, Henry…we’re really interesting. And drunk people, stupid people, get jealous. Or sad that they’re not mature. Those guys on the beach were stupid kids who’d drunk too much. They’ll be sick soon, and they’ll go to sleep and wake up with a headache, and then they’ll know they’ve been dumb and they’ve been wrong. But meanwhile we should enjoy our day.’
Enough. He’d made his point. Now he needed to lighten up. ‘Hey, there’s more here than pink lemonade,’ he said, turning back to the basket. ‘Do you have enough picnic for me, too?’
‘Yes,’ said Henry.
Jenny was doing a lot of silent blinking.
He glanced back to the beach, where a couple of the youths had been caught before they’d disappeared round the headland. He could see glimpses of them though the trees-police and kids. The kids were gesticulating wildly after their mates.
They needed to leave here, he thought. He didn’t want any more invective as the police brought the kids up to the cars. ‘Are there any more beaches around here, Jenny?’ he asked.
‘There’s another cove about a mile south,’ she managed, in a voice that was none too steady. ‘But…we haven’t got a car.’
‘So it’s the Ferrari,’ Guy said, and grinned. ‘Three people and a picnic basket in a Ferrari? We need to squash. And we need to leave now, before we have police watching. I think what I intend to do might be just a little illegal. But desperate times call for desperate measures.’
‘Everyone in your car?’ Henry said, brightening immediately. ‘Now?’
‘Absolutely now,’ Guy said, with a lot more certainty than he was feeling. ‘Let’s go.’
So independent, aloof Guy Carver had a family picnic. Jenny couldn’t believe it. She’d seen this man in celebrity magazines. She’d never dreamed he could be…human.
But human he was. From squashing them all into his Ferrari, from helping her to put on suncream, from making sand bombs…
He was more than human. She thought of the gift he’d given Henry by showing him his scarred back and the tears kept welling. Such a gift was beyond value. Henry had been given back his pride.
But she couldn’t say anything. Guy was acting as if the whole ugly incident hadn’t happened, and so must she.
They ate lunch, and Henry chattered about anything and everything, a contented six-year-old having a blissful day out with a man who drove a Ferrari and had life scars. What a hero. She watched as Guy spoke to him man to man, and her son’s dreadful day disappeared to nothing and hero-worship took its place.
She didn’t blame Henry. She was getting pretty close to hero-worship herself.
Guy lent her his cellphone. She contacted Jack to tell him Guy would be bringing them home, so not to worry about collecting them. Then they spent a couple of hours in the shallows, teaching Henry to float. The little boy hadn’t spent much time in the water since his accident and he was nervous. Up until now Jenny hadn’t persuaded him to put his face under water, but he’d do anything Guy asked. By mid-afternoon he was floating, kicking his scarred little legs, taking a brief gasp of air and floating again.
‘I’m swimming,’ he gasped, exultant, lit with happiness, and Jenny had to do a whole heap of blinking all over again.
Finally he was exhausted. Guy carried him up the beach and towelled him dry while Jenny packed the picnic gear. They loaded everything once more into the Ferrari, and Guy drove home with Henry’s legs on his knee, picnic gear covering Jenny and a liberal supply of sand coating everything.
‘Every Ferrari should look like this,’ Jenny said, squashed and happy. ‘It’s perfect.’
‘It is,’ Guy said, and smiled at her, and Jenny felt her heart flip and flip again.
She was so close…
Don’t, she told herself fiercely. This man is not of your world. He is nothing to do with you. He just happens to be wonderful right now.
But not tomorrow?
Then they were pulling into the farm and Jack was limping down the steps to greet them, looking worried.
‘There’s been news about trouble with some kids on the beach,’ Jack growled. ‘Jenny, the police rang and say they want a statement from you. What happened? What’s wrong?’
‘Nothing’s wrong,’ Jenny said quickly. ‘Something’s right. Mr Carver taught Henry to swim.’
‘I can swim, Grandpa,’ Henry said sleepily. ‘I can really, really swim, and Mr Carver says one day I’ll be a champion.’
‘You’re a champion already,’ Jack said gruffly, and lifted his grandson out of the car. He looked from Jenny to Guy, and then looked at his little grandson. His mouth twisted. Maybe the police had told him what had happened, Jenny thought, but he had the sense to let it go.
‘Mother, Mr Carver’s taught our Henry to swim,’ Jack boomed, and Lorna waved her delight from the veranda.
‘How wonderful. Mr Carver, what are you doing for Christmas?’
‘It’s Guy,’ Guy said. ‘And we’re putting on a wedding on Christmas Day.’
‘But not until late,’ Lorna called. ‘Christmas dinner’s always at midday. You’re to come to us. Now, no argument. A place will be laid.’
‘You’re coming for Christmas?’ Henry said sleepily, and Jenny watched Guy’s face as he stared at Henry.
He was fighting something, Jenny thought. And he was…losing?
‘I’ll come,’ he said. ‘If I can get all the arrangements in place…I’ll be here.’
‘He’s lovely.’ Late that night Jenny was sitting on the veranda with her mother-in-law, watching the stars over the distant ocean and listening to the soft clicking of Lorna’s knitting needles.
‘Of course Guy,’ Lorna said, and smiled. ‘Jenny, he’s just what you need.’
‘I don’t need anyone.’
‘Of course you do,’ Lorna said equitably. ‘You’re a lovely, healthy young woman. You’ve lost Ben, and that’s dreadful, but Ben would be the first one to say you shouldn’t spend the rest of your life grieving.’
‘I could never leave you,’ Jenny said, and Lorna looked at her face and saw the emotions working there.
‘So you are feeling…?’
‘Of course I’m feeling,’ Jenny burst out. ‘He’s gorgeous, and I’d have to be non-human not to feel that. But he can have any woman he wants. He’s a squillionaire. As soon as this wedding’s over he’ll go back to his life in New York.’
‘And if he asked you to go with him?’
‘He won’t,’ she said definitely. ‘And even if the impossible happened and he did, do you think I could take Henry away from all this? There’s no way, and you know it.’ She gave herself a mental shake and managed a grin. ‘Okay, he’s gorgeous, and if he happened to kiss me again…’
‘He kissed you?’ Lorna squeaked, and Jenny’s grin firmed.
‘There’s things that even you don’t know, Lorna Westmere. It’s true I find him enormously attractive, and the memory of Ben won’t hold me back. But it’s only for a few days and then it’ll be over.’
Guy spent much of that night awake. Thinking of Christa.
Thinking of Jenny.
He’d loved Christa, he thought. He remembered the bleakness, the guilt, the horror of those weeks after she’d been killed, but in contrast…He remembered the joy of Christa’s life, how she’d made him laugh, how when she’d agreed to marry him he’d felt like the luckiest man in the world.
But then things had changed. She’d hated his new career. There’d been fight after fight. The relationship had soured to the point where if she hadn’t been killed it would have been over.
He’d thought he’d been in love and he’d been wrong, and such a fundamental mistake had stayed with him ever since. Hell, if he could be so wrong about someone he’d believed he loved so much, how could he ever commit again?
‘So what the hell are you thinking of now?’ he demanded of himself aloud, and there was only one answer.
‘You’re thinking she’s gorgeous. You’re thinking that she’s been through hell and her little boy needs someone and…
‘You’re thinking of marrying?’ It was an incredulous demand into the darkness. ‘You’re thinking of taking them home?’
The idea was so far out of left field that he almost laughed.
It wouldn’t mess with my life, he told himself. She’d come back to New York. We’d get the best medical attention for those scars. Henry could go to school. Jenny could work in the company.
And live with you?
Of course live with me, he told his alter ego, letting the picture of domestic bliss build. I have a huge apartment. There’s room to spare. Henry could have his own wing, and Jenny and I…
There was the nub of the matter. Jenny and I.
Jenny. Jenny as she’d been today, dressed only in a bikini, all womanly curves, defending her son, defiant, taking on all comers. Jenny squashed into his Ferrari, giggling with her son, meeting his eyes over Henry’s head and sharing his laughter.
You haven’t even slept with the woman, he told himself, and he sounded desperate, even to himself. How do you know you want her every night for the rest of your life?
Because I do, he thought, suddenly sure.
It was crazy. It was way too fast. But the thought of Jenny in his bed was suddenly immeasurably enticing.
It’s too soon, he told himself, his heart for once agreeing with his head. The way you’re feeling…It might just be sympathy.
It’s not sympathy and you know it.
It might be. You thought you loved Christa.
You wouldn’t be committing in the same way, he told himself. You can stay independent. What’s the harm? If it doesn’t work, what do you have to lose?
Nothing if you stay independent.
Can you stay independent?
Maybe. I can try.
KYLIE’S wedding took place two days before Christmas, and it was more than Kylie and Daryl had ever dreamed of.
Kylie moved though her wedding day in a blissful whirl. She looked totally in love with her wedding-and totally in love with her man. Daryl, too, looked as if all his dreams had come true. He had the woman he loved, and he had a wedding ceremony that would be the talk of the district for years.
For it was a true Carver Wedding.
The man had brilliance, Jenny thought, gazing round the transformed hall where the reception was being held. It was no longer a hall. Instead it was a smoky gambling den, straight out of the nineteen-twenties. Guy had spent the last few days painting sets, organising props, training a couple of acting students he’d flown in from Sydney, throwing himself into this wedding as if it was a vastly publicised celebrity wedding instead of the wedding of two butcher’s assistants with no profit to be made at all.
His work was worth it for the sheer pleasure it gave, Jenny decided. It was fantastic. As every guest arrived they gasped in wonder, joining instantly into the pleasure of make-believe mingled with a true-love wedding. The press, arriving to see the first Carver Wedding in Australia, were hauled right into the theme, being directed to point their cameras at the groom’s right side and make him look good or they’d be wearing concrete shoes before they knew what had hit them.
The photographers didn’t know where to point their cameras next. Even Shirley Grubb abandoned her need for pink tulle and embraced the theme with enthusiasm.
‘Oh, Jenny…I’ve been dreaming of this wedding since Kylie was born, and I so wanted everything to be right,’ she confided towards the end of the evening. ‘I was so upset when Kylie told me she wasn’t doing it my way. But now…My two sisters are here. Their daughters had flash weddings in Sydney-no money spared-and you know what? They’re jealous. They’re jealous of their little sister who married Fred Grubb and never has any money to her name.’ She hugged Jenny, and there were tears slipping down her face. ‘He’s fabulous,’ she whispered. ‘You’re so lucky.’
Guy was fabulous? Jenny was lucky? Jenny examined the comment from all sides, then decided to ignore it and hand out a few more drinks.
She couldn’t quite ignore it.
Guy was everywhere, working hands-on, making sure the event went without a hitch. He was dressed as a bodyguard, armed and dangerous, his slicked-down hair making his face look somehow menacing, his mock pistols too obvious, moving among the crowd, making amiable if-you-don’t-have-a-good-time-I’ll-punch-your-lights-out comments-sure his wedding couple were safe.
I’d think I was safe if I had him for a bodyguard, too, Jenny thought while she dispensed drinks. But she shoved the notion aside and went to make sure the cake, an overblown affair, adorned with a miniature gangster and his bride driving away in their fancy car-where had Guy found these props?-was ready for cutting.
She put the thought of Guy to one side.
But she stayed achingly aware of him.
He moved through the wedding with his customary efficiency, ensuring each and every guest took home memories to cherish. Whether it was adroit flirting with the bridesmaids, bullying Uncle Ern to take Cousin Cecilia onto the dance floor, or removing the third glass of champagne from fifteen-year-old Bert’s grasp and replacing it with cola. ‘That stuff is a lady’s drink-I never touch it,’ he told the kid, who gazed at Guy in suspicion and then decided that maybe cola really was okay. Wherever there was a need, there he was.
But at any given moment Guy knew Jenny’s whereabouts. She was dressed in a pert maid’s uniform, doing the same as him, working the crowd. He watched her laughter and her affection for these people. He watched as people responded to her with affection, and the more he saw of her the more his mind had to dwell on.
The night wore on. The crowd started to thin.
His awareness of Jenny built.
And the crazy idea from the night after the beach incident became louder and louder in his head. You’re thinking of marrying?
Yes. Yes, he was.
He couldn’t stay independent without her, he thought. It was a dumb notion, but maybe if he married her and kept her safe he could get her out of his system?
Or not. Whatever.
You’re thinking of marrying.
Jenny had no time to talk to Guy until Daryl and Kylie had driven away, their found-for-the-occasion Buick trailing a suitable clattering of ancient shoes and tin cans. The guests dispersed with reluctance, the crew cleared the mess, and Jenny was left with Guy.
‘That was fantastic,’ she told him as they emerged into the warm night air, glad to be free of the fog inside. ‘It was the best wedding.’
‘It was, wasn’t it?’ Guy said. He flicked a switch and the lights of the hall disappeared. They were left in darkness, their two cars standing in solitary state in the abandoned car park. ‘I’d forgotten how much fun it was to be hands-on.’
‘I loved it.’ She sighed in exhausted pleasure. ‘There’s no nicer thing than a truly happy wedding.’
‘No,’ he said, and paused.
It was one a.m. It was time she was home, Jenny thought ruefully. Henry would be awake at six, and the next day was huge. There was still planning to do for Anna and Barret’s wedding, and Christmas was in two days’ time.
Christmas without Ben was awful. She’d hated the last two Christmases. But now…things had changed, she thought, and she wasn’t sure how. All she knew was that in the last few days she’d changed. She was no longer dreading Christmas.
Because of this man?
Maybe, but he didn’t have to know it, she thought. He’d set something free in her that she hadn’t known was imprisoned. She felt light and happy and young.
Whoa. This man was dangerous, she decided. Happy and young or not, she was Henry’s mother, and she needed to go home to bed.
‘Goodnight, Guy,’ she said, and turned away, but his hands came out and caught her shoulders, turning her back to face him.
‘Mmm?’ She had to stay cool, she told herself. She mustn’t let him see that just by touching him he could…he could…
He kissed her.
She let him kiss her. How could she not? It was a lovely, languorous kiss, a kiss to melt into, a kiss to lose yourself in. He was so big and dangerous and warm and safe and wonderful…
These were crazy thoughts. She was crazy, she decided, as the kiss went on and her entire being was consumed with the feel of him, the thought of him. Guy…
It was a magic end to a magic evening-to be kissed by Guy. Her life had been barren for too long. To have this man’s hands hold her, to have this magic sensation drifting through her…It was wondrous.
The kiss went on and on, and she took as much as she gave. It was a healing, she thought as she savoured the feel of him. It was a lovely way to end her mourning.
And at some deep, primeval level she knew it was more than that. There was no thought of Ben as she kissed him, but as he pulled away at last she caught at the ragged ends of her self-control and told herself that of course this was because of Ben. She was a widow, and now she was re-emerging to the outside world. This was nothing more than a reawakening. So she sighed with absolute pleasure as he broke the contact, as he held her at arms’ length and smiled down at her in the moonlight. She sighed with pleasure and tried to hold back the regret that the kiss was at an end. And she tried to think of Ben.
‘You’re beautiful,’ he said, and she managed to smile back.
‘You’re not bad yourself, buster,’ she whispered. ‘Though I’m not sure I go for the hair oil.’
‘I’m serious,’ he told her.
Her smile faded and she looked up at him, wondering.
‘I want to ask you something.’
She didn’t want to talk. She so wanted to kiss him again. She desperately wanted to kiss him again. But…She was a sensible woman. She had to move on.
‘About Barret and Anna’s wedding?’ she asked. ‘Can it wait until tomorrow? I’m really tired.’
‘Jenny, I wondered if you’d be interested in marrying me.’
She stilled. The words seemed to echo over and over in the stillness. Marrying…?
He’s gone mad, Jenny thought at last. The romance of tonight must have gone to his head.
‘I beg your pardon?’ she whispered, and he raked his fingers through his hair-then remembered the oil slick. He stared down at his oily fingers with a rueful smile.
‘Urk. I’ve made a mess of that.’
‘Of my proposal.’ He took a too-big handkerchief from his breast pocket and carefully wiped his fingers clean. ‘I haven’t had that much practice, you see. I didn’t mean to do it.’
‘Then why did you?’ She was having trouble making her voice work. She was having trouble making anything work.
‘I could make you safe,’ he said, and she looked up at Guy’s earnest face, at his mock pistols and his slicked-down hair, and suddenly, irresistibly, maybe even hysterically, she started to laugh.
‘What?’ he said, sounding offended, and she bit back her bubble of laughter and tried to be serious. Or tried to be light-hearted. Or something.
‘I don’t need a bodyguard,’ she told him. ‘But it was a very nice offer. Thank you.’
‘I’m not offering you a bodyguard. I’m offering you a husband.’
She stilled at that, her laughter fading. It wasn’t a joke, then. He was…serious?
He was asking her to marry him?
The idea was so preposterous that she almost choked.
‘I’m already married,’ she said, before she could stop herself, and she watched as his face changed.
‘I’m married to Ben,’ she said stupidly.
‘Ben was killed two years ago.’
‘Yes, but…’ She took a deep breath, searching for…Searching for she didn’t know what.
‘I can’t remember him properly,’ she said inconsequentially. ‘I can’t remember the way he held me. I can’t-’
‘Jenny, it’s natural.’
Was it? She felt her heart clench with a well-remembered pain. Ben was dead. Move on, people said. Her own mother-in-law…Let Ben go. And she had tonight. For the first time she had. But to have this moment become a decision about the rest of her life…
Ben, her heart screamed. Ben. I’m not ready to let you go.
‘He’s my husband,’ she whispered. ‘He’s in my heart. I thought you at least would know that.’
Guy stood, gazing down at her in the silence.
‘I do know that.’
‘You make me feel different.’
‘You make me feel different, too,’ she said, and she put her hand up to his face and cupped the curve of his jaw. The feeling she had then…it was indescribable. Say yes, her heart screamed. Say yes before he changes his mind.
‘I can’t do it,’ she whispered. ‘You must see it’s impossible.’
‘Why is it impossible?’
‘Henry would come with us,’ he said strongly, taking her hands in his, trying to make her see where his thoughts had taken him. ‘You can’t tell me he’s getting optimal medical treatment here. The world’s best doctors are in New York.’
She stilled. ‘You’d take us both to New York?’
‘But our home is here.’
‘I have a massive apartment in Manhattan. You can see the Statue of Liberty from-’
‘Our home is here.’ Her voice was flat, without inflexion, and suddenly desperately weary. ‘Do you think I could leave Lorna?’
‘Lorna has Jack.’
‘She does. And she has me. And she has Henry. We’re family, Guy.’
‘You don’t need family.’
‘At Christmas?’ she whispered. ‘You’re saying that two days before Christmas? That I don’t need a family?’
‘This is ridiculous,’ she said, trying hard to be strong. ‘We hardly know each other.’
‘And yet you feel what I’m feeling.’
‘Jenny,’ he said, and the hands holding her shoulders suddenly firmed. ‘You’re lying.’
Of course she was lying. Whatever he was feeling she was feeling, too. Multiplied by about a thousand. He drew her into him, his lips met hers, and she felt…She felt…
The word slammed in her mind as the sensation slammed through her. Heat. A conflagration that was all-consuming, starting from her lips and flooding through the rest of her. As if she was dry tinder and a match had been held to the all-too-ready fuel.
She wanted him with every inch of her being. Her lips opened under his. She welcomed him with joy. Her hands came around his chest and tugged him closer.
The kiss went on and on. Neither could stop it. Why should they?
Guy had asked her to marry him. This man who was holding her, who was making her feel as if life itself could start now…
He was her employer.
The thought slammed into her mind and somehow it steadied her. The thought had her remembering that her feet were planted on Sandpiper Bay ground-and had to stay that way. Somehow she tugged back, and Guy gazed down at her in the moonlight, concerned.
‘What is it, sweetheart?’
What right did he have to call her sweetheart? She loved it, she decided. But…she couldn’t.
‘Guy, leave it,’ she demanded, and he let her take a further step back. The fact that her body was screaming to remain in his hold had to be ignored. It must be.
‘If you weren’t my boss I’d slap your face,’ she managed.
‘For taking liberties.’
‘You want to be kissed.’
‘You do.’ He was teasing her with his eyes. He was smiling down at her. And there was such…love?
She was imagining it. Love? No.
She was married to Ben.
‘I still love Ben,’ she said, and tilted her chin.
‘Maybe I still love Christa. But it’s memories that we love, and memories make cold bedfellows.’
‘You want me in bed?’ She’d started to shake, and it wasn’t from cold. Bed with this man…Bed with Guy…
‘A man would have to be inhuman not to want you in his bed.’
She could do it, she thought. She could just step forward into this man’s invitation and let her life be taken over.
She could be Guy Carver’s wife.
The thought scared her witless. She steadied, trying desperately to see his invitation for what it was.
For some reason he wanted her. Well, maybe that wasn’t so strange. Because she wanted him, too.
But he was a billionaire, and he lived in New York in a massive apartment. Henry would have the best doctors, and she…She…
She’d be Guy Carver’s wife.
It seemed so ridiculous that she almost laughed. Almost.
‘You don’t even know me,’ she whispered. ‘You don’t know Henry.’
‘I know that I want you.’
‘But I…’ She tilted her chin again and met his gaze, knowing what had to be said and knowing she had to say it. ‘Guy, I want family.’
‘Your name. Your millions. It’s a fantastic offer.’ She managed a rueful smile. ‘There’s probably thousands of women who’d jump at what you’re offering. And if I was alone maybe I could make a go of it. You’re saying we’re sexually attracted, and we definitely are, but that’s not enough to build a marriage. I’m Cinderella and you’re Prince Charming, but I have a feeling that marriage for Cinders had its downside.’
‘I’ve never heard any fairytale where they divorce,’ he said, startled, but she refused to smile.
‘No,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘But being all alone in his castle, with everyone knowing she’d come from rags to riches…she’d have to be grateful for ever. And if she’d had a son, then that little boy might feel the same and resent it.’
‘You’re flying off at tangents,’ he said, half laughing, and she grimaced.
‘I am,’ she said softly. ‘But I’m thinking forward. You see, I must. I have a future, but it’s inextricably tied up with Henry’s future, and Lorna’s and Jack’s and this little town.’ Her chin tilted some more. ‘When I first came here I was needful,’ she told him. ‘This little town made me happy, and I’ll not walk away because you make me feel wonderful.’
‘I make you feel wonderful?’ he demanded, pouncing on her words, and she felt a stab of sudden anger.
‘Of course,’ she said scornfully. ‘But you’ve jumped in at the deep end. You’ve figured for some reason that you want me, and the easiest way to have me is to install me in Manhattan and have me in the pieces of time you have left over from the rest of your life.’
‘What’s wrong with that?’
He couldn’t see?
She had to be grown-up for the pair of them, she thought miserably. She had to be sensible. Her heart had to be ignored. She was a married woman with a son to care for. With responsibilities. With Christmas in two days and she hadn’t even made her mince pies.
‘If you don’t know then I can’t teach you,’ she said. She took a deep breath, leaned forward and kissed him lightly on the lips. A feather kiss that was over before he could react. Then she stepped back and felt for the handle of her wagon door. She slid in, still looking at him.
‘Thank you for the proposal,’ she whispered. ‘It was…magic. But you’re my boss, Guy, and that’s the way it has to stay. Now I’m going home. To my family. I have Christmas to organise.’
He’d made a proper hash of that.
How could he go home to sleep? He couldn’t. So he made his way to the little beach where he and Jenny and Henry had swum only days before.
What was she asking him to do? Take Lorna and Jack as well as Henry back to New York with him?
No. She wasn’t asking anything of him, he thought. She was simply looking at his offer in surprise and rejecting it out of hand.
It wasn’t a ridiculous offer. He’d made it to no other woman but Christa.
Christa would have been happy with what he was offering Jenny, he thought. He could have provided everything she’d needed. She would have been able to do whatever she’d wanted.
Jenny wasn’t Christa.
Christa had been easier. He’d known what Christa had wanted. She’d wanted what their parents wanted: prestige and money.
He had that. He was offering it to Jenny, and she’d knocked it back. What else did he have to offer her?
So move on, he told himself. You offered to marry her because you felt sorry for her.
Was that right?
No. It was much more. He wanted Jenny in his bed.
So it’s sympathy and sex. You can find sex elsewhere. She doesn’t want the sympathy. You’ve made your offer and it’s been rejected. So move on.
Back to thinking of Jenny as an employee?
She wasn’t the least like an employee.
She was just…Jenny.
THE next day was frantic. Barret and Anna and entourage arrived, and had to be taken through the arrangements. Then the arrangements had to be tweaked so bride and groom were happy, and those tweaks weren’t insubstantial. Guy, who’d worked with both Barret and Anna before, did the front work while Jenny stayed in the background.
Last night might not have happened. She was briskly efficient and very, very capable.
‘There’s an extra bridesmaid? Get her here by two this afternoon and we’ll fit her out. We have half a ton of pink tulle, and our seamstresses are enjoying themselves.’
‘Anna doesn’t like the wedding cake? No, that’s okay. We’ll soak it in brandy and call it Christmas pudding for the party afterwards. I can get a couple of ladies onto sponge cakes now. Have her draw up details of decorations.’
‘Gifts for the bridesmaids? Pearls? Yes, it’s too late to get seven identical necklaces locally, but I can contact a jeweller in Sydney and have them couriered.’
She reassured him every time he called her, and after every call he felt about ten years old and as if she was his schoolteacher.
That was the tone she was taking, he thought. Cool, distant and bossy.
She was also never there. Every time he found an opportunity to visit the shop she was somewhere else.
‘She hasn’t finished her Christmas shopping,’ one of the sewing ladies told him.
The three women seemed to be having a wonderful time, sitting in the back room with a vat of coffee and half a ton of chocolate biscuits, their fingers flying. ‘I think she’s gone to find a present for Lorna.’
‘Hush!’ Guy turned to the shop’s entrance to see Jack pushing Lorna’s wheelchair inside. ‘I don’t like knowing my presents before Christmas Day,’ Lorna called. ‘So if you know, don’t tell. Guy, I’m pleased we found you.’
‘I’m busy,’ he said, and then thought maybe he shouldn’t be that blunt. Jenny obviously loved this woman. It was just…Lorna was part of the family thing that was threatening to engulf him.
‘I won’t hold you up,’ Lorna replied, her voice holding a hint of reproof. ‘And I’m not asking any favours, so you can stop looking like that. We just called to remind you that you’re doing the Santa run in your Ferrari tomorrow. You need to be at our place at nine. Henry’s really looking forward to it.’
Hell, he’d forgotten. He’d also forgotten Henry’s face when he’d thought it might happen.
Why not ignore a few buts here? he told himself. He could do this. It didn’t mean getting emotionally involved-or any more emotionally involved than he already was.
Okay, he’d do it, and then he’d walk away. He’d moved his return flight to the day after Christmas. His escape route was organised.
How could you ask a woman to marry you and then look forward to getting back to your own life?
He was having an internal conversation, watched by Lorna and Jack and three seamstresses, but the conversation went on regardless.
Easy, he told himself. I didn’t ask to join her life. I asked if she’d join mine.
No wonder she refused you.
‘Fine,’ he managed, and if he sounded ungracious he couldn’t help himself. ‘I’ll be there.’
‘Great,’ Jack said warmly. ‘We’ll hang up a stocking for you.’
‘Wait and see,’ Lorna said. ‘Our Santa does the best stockings.’
‘He’s still coming for Christmas dinner?’
‘Of course he is. He promised. And he’s coming at nine for stockings. He’s cute,’ Lorna told her daughter-in-law. ‘He drives a wonderful car. Henry thinks he’s the ant’s pants.’
‘Guy Carver is not the ant’s pants. He is an American billionaire who happens to be my boss…’
‘I’m sewing him a stocking.’
‘Lorna, he can’t have a stocking.’
‘Everyone in the whole world needs a stocking. Now, what will Santa put in it?’
Guy woke, as was his custom, at five a.m. There was nothing to do.
There had to be something. One of the biggest celebrity weddings of the year was scheduled for five this afternoon.
He lay and watched the weak rays of dawn flitter across his counterpane, mentally ticking off everything that had to be done.
He’d made huge lists, and Jenny had delegated.
Every person in the town seemed to have something to do. The normal sleeping-in-front-of-television end to Christmas Day was not going to happen in Sandpiper Bay. Jenny had hauled in every local, and a few tourists as well, and she’d given everyone a job.
And the best thing was that nearly all of them were doing it for nothing.
‘Barret and Anna can pay,’ Guy had growled, when Jenny had told him.
‘Yes, but most of the town’s folk believe in Christmas.’
‘So what’s that got to do with it?’
‘They believe it’s wrong to work on Christmas Day. But if it’s for something like aiding the tsunami effort it’ll strike a chord. One of our local kids is working in the international aid effort and…’
‘You’re asking Barret and Anna to give a donation to charity?’
‘No. I’m asking Barret and Anna to pay a fair price for labour and then we’ll give it away.’
‘It doesn’t make sense.’
‘Maybe for you it doesn’t,’ she agreed. ‘But for us…it’s our way.’ She glared at him. ‘If you want to take our profits for yourself…’
‘Whoa,’ he told her. And then he thought, What sort of employer/employee relationship was this? She’d just given away his profits.
But there had been no arguing, and now the whole town had jobs to do for the good of the tsunami relief effort. He could lie in bed and stare at the ceiling and think he should be back in New York.
Why should he be back in New York? Christmases back home were simply an excuse for ostentation.
He hated Christmas. Even before Christa had died he’d hated Christmas.
Five a.m. Nothing to do until nine.
He hated Christmas.
Nine. He walked up the veranda steps, carrying expensive truffles and vintage wine. The screen door slammed open and a pyjama-clad urchin catapulted through, crutches tumbling as Henry toppled forward to hug his legs.
A Labrador puppy came bouncing after him. The puppy reached Henry and Henry abandoned Guy. He sat down on the veranda and shoved his nose into the puppy’s soft fur.
‘This is Patsy,’ he told Guy, his voice muffled by puppy. ‘She was on my bed when I woke up, and she’s all mine, and I have to train her.’
‘That’s great,’ Guy said, feeling…emotional. That was the end of that resolution, then.
‘And there’s more.’ Small boy and pup looked up at him, eyes glistening with Christmas joy. ‘We’ve been waiting and waiting, and Santa’s been, and there’s stockings for everyone. But Mummy says we can’t open them until you come.’
‘Come on in,’ Jenny said, and he raised his eyes from her son and smiled at Jenny.
She was simply dressed in clean jeans and T-shirt-a T-shirt adorned with sequins carefully sewn on to make a picture of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
She had two glowing Santa Clauses hanging from her ears.
She was smiling. Who needed grinning Santa Clauses when there was a smile like this?
‘You’re overdressed,’ she told him. ‘A suit at nine on Christmas morning? Pyjamas are more the go.’
‘I don’t wear them,’ he told her, and she blushed. A great blush. It made him want to…
Keep it impersonal, he told himself harshly.
‘Well, at least wear a Christmas hat,’ she said, and handed him a hat. Then, when he didn’t react, she took it back, reached up and placed it on his head. A red and white Santa hat.
Forget the hat. She was so close. She smelled of pine needles and mince pies and…and Jenny.
There was mistletoe over his head. He couldn’t see it but he was sure of it. The desire to take her into his arms and kiss her senseless was suddenly overwhelming.
But Lorna was at the door, with Jack behind her, laughing and calling for them to come in.
‘It’s all very well for Henry,’ Jack complained, ‘he’s got his puppy. But every single one of my presents is still wrapped, and if we don’t get to these stockings soon I’m going to bust.’
Comparisons of this Christmas to every other Christmas he’d known were ludicrous. As a child he remembered formal Christmas mornings, drinks with business acquaintances where children were seen and not heard. A ludicrously over-the-top lunch where he was the only child-he hated the food and he hated the waiting, the waiting…Then his parents would sleep off their lunch, and some time towards evening his mother would call him in and they’d open their gifts. They weren’t permitted to open them early as ‘the tree looks so much better with gifts under it, and we’ll keep that effect until all our guests have gone.’
Whatever his gift was, it would have been exquisitely wrapped and he’d have to admire the wrapping.
It was never anything he wanted. It was always something someone had recommended. ‘Oh, we gave Guy a miniature violin-so sweet-I’m sure he’s musical. He takes after my side of the family, not his father’s…’
There was no violin today. This little family lived on a shoestring. The major present was the puppy. The rest of the gifts were…silly?
Some were silly, some were sensible-but it was a great mix. He watched as Henry unwrapped coloured pencils, a new collar and lead for his dog, and a vast parcel that turned out to be three months’ supply of puppy food-Henry was so delighted he couldn’t stop giggling, and there was a pause in the proceedings so Patsy could be photographed sitting on top of her future dinners…A rubber toy in the shape of a chook for Patsy, a game of wooden blocks that Henry received with joy…
Interspersed with these-for they took turns to open gifts-were the adult presents. Romance novels for Lorna, and a crazy device for massaging feet that Patsy took instant exception to. A new summer hat for Jack-he had to take off the reindeer antlers he was wearing, so he placed his new hat on and then propped his reindeer antlers over the top.
And for Guy…
He’d expected nothing. Of course he’d expected nothing. But there was a whole stocking stuffed with silly things. When he saw the stocking he felt his heart sink, expecting to be embarrassed that this family had spent money on his behalf, but the stocking simply made him laugh.
His very own pair of Christmas antlers-to go on top of his Santa hat. A red nose that flashed-‘Wear it now,’ Henry decreed, and he did. A mango-a perfect piece of fruit, wrapped with care, a vast red ribbon around it. He stared at the mango, and Jack grinned and handed him a knife and a plate and said, ‘Eat it now, mate-cos it’s Christmas.’ So he took off his red nose and spread mango from one ear to the other and it was the best thing he’d ever eaten.
What else? A boat made of ice lolly sticks-‘I wanted to make you a Ferrari,’ Henry told him, ‘but you’ve already got one. And this floats. I’ve put water in the bath all ready. You want to see?’ So they had to troop into the bathroom and watch Henry’s boat-the Jennifer-Patsy-take her maiden voyage round the bath, and then they had to rescue the Jennifer-Patsy and haul Patsy out of the bathtub and dry her, and then dry themselves, and then watch as Guy opened his last present, which was a glitzy magazine titled How to Plan Your Perfect Wedding.
‘Lorna’s idea, mate, not ours,’ Jack said hastily, and then they were all laughing, and Lorna was handing round mince pies and it was time to take the Ferrari on its Santa run.
Which was crazy all by itself.
Santa-the local police chief-was waiting at the police station. With a paper bag of mince pies at his side to keep his strength up, Guy collected Santa and his lollies. Then he followed Santa’s directions and made a clean sweep of Sandpiper Bay. Santa rang his bell with such strength that Guy’s ears would take months to recover. From every house came children and adults and oldies, and Santa tossed lollies indiscriminately. Even from the vast houses owned by the squillionaires came kids and dogs and men and women, all at various stages of Christmas, all smiling, all cheering as they got their lollies and then disappearing back into their homes to celebrate the festive season.
Their last stop was back at the farm. Santa had arranged for his wife to collect him from there. Santa emptied the remains of his sack onto their veranda, and then drove away in state in the town’s police car.
‘Now dinner,’ Lorna declared, and Guy wondered how he could eat any more. But of course he did-and how could he ever have thought he couldn’t? He remembered the sophisticated Christmases he’d endured as a kid. There was no comparison. He ate turkey and gravy and crispy roast potatoes and every sort of vegetable he could imagine with relish. Then Jack demanded he light the pudding-and how could he not eat pudding after that?
‘Brandy sauce, brandy butter, cream or ice-cream?’ Lorna asked.
Jenny grinned and said, ‘He’ll have all four, Mum, just like everyone else.’
And Guy looked across the table and thought, She’s calling Lorna Mum and suddenly…suddenly he wanted to do exactly the same.
If he married Jenny he could…
Henry was down on the floor, subsiding into an afternoon nap with Patsy, and Guy thought, I wonder what the quarantine regulations are for taking dogs into the US.
‘It’s not going to happen,’ Jenny said softly, and he looked across the table and saw a flash of sadness behind the laughter that had been there all morning.
It was as if she knew that what he was offering was serious-but it wasn’t enough.
He couldn’t leave her.
‘No one sleeps before the washing up,’ Lorna said.
And Guy heard himself saying, ‘I’ll wash up. That’s my Christmas gift to you.’ He’d brought excellent wine and chocolates as gifts, but he knew now that they were dumb gifts. Sure, they liked them, but mangoes were better.
‘I won’t let you do it alone,’ Jenny said, and grinned. ‘Nobility is my middle name. Jack, Lorna-that means you sleep. Immediately. Henry and Patsy already are asleep. Guy, into the kitchen.’
‘Aren’t I the boss?’ he asked, and everyone smiled.
‘Not around here, mate,’ Jack told him, gripping his wife’s hand and holding it tight. ‘The women in this family make the rules.’
So they stood in the kitchen, and he washed and she wiped, and suddenly the noisy fun gossip faded to nothing. There was a silence which should have been a contented silence, but it was…tense.
‘Jenny?’ he tried softly, but when he glanced at her, her smile had faded and her face was rigid with strain.
‘Don’t say it, Guy,’ she whispered. ‘This is my family. This is my place. I’m not going anywhere.’
The wedding was due to take place at five p.m. They left at three. Only Patsy opened one eye and wagged a weary tail as they departed.
They drove in Jenny’s wagon as they had final supplies in the back. ‘Everything’s there,’ Guy told Jenny. ‘I ran a final check before I came to your place.’
‘And I ran a final check before everyone woke up,’ Jenny retorted. ‘Too many cooks, Mr Carver?’
‘Double-checking doesn’t hurt anyone,’ he replied as they drove down the magnificent eucalypt-lined driveway of Anna’s mansion. There was a cluster of expensive cars parked in front, obviously belonging to in-house guests. Within two hours there’d be hundreds of cars.
‘I’ll check the bride; you check the groom,’ Jenny told Guy, forgetting she was the employee again, but acting on a rule they both knew. The most important duty in any wedding ceremony is to make sure you have two live bodies willing to say I do.
They rang the bell, a butler opened the door-and here was the first discordant note of the day. A man’s voice was raised in fury.
‘You can’t do this, you bitch. I’ll ruin you. I’ll see your name raked across every tabloid and it’s no holds barred. If you call this off just because of some moralistic damned scruples then I’ll see you in hell. Have you got any idea of what this’ll do to your PR?’
Before they had time to step inside-and before the butler had time to do what he should have done in times of crisis-refuse admittance-Barret himself shoved his way past them. They stared after him as the movie star disappeared behind the house. There was the sound of a motor being gunned into life-and then the squeal of a car being turned too fast and driven too fast away.
‘There’s your groom, Mr Carver,’ Jenny murmured, wincing. ‘Now for the bride.’
Anna, surprisingly, seemed to still be in control. She was sitting on the second top step of the great staircase, as if her legs had given way, but as Jenny approached she even managed a shaky smile.
‘That’s two less guests for the wedding,’ she murmured. ‘We’re minus one groom and we’re minus one bridesmaid. Happy Christmas.’ She sniffed. ‘Oh, help.’
‘Happy Christmas to you, too,’ Jenny murmured, and sat down beside her while Guy looked on from below stairs. ‘Um…was that what I think it was? Have you just called off the wedding?’
‘You bet,’ Anna whispered. ‘I may live to regret it, but I don’t think so.’ She looked down to her butler. ‘Max, I won’t be needing you for a bit.’
‘Should I start phoning a few people?’ Max asked, sounding horrified. ‘Maybe I can stop a few coming.’
‘There’s three hundred people coming to this wedding,’ Guy said. ‘They’re coming from all over the world, and the wedding’s less than two hours away. Our chances of stopping the crowd are negligible.’
‘In that case go and have a stiff drink,’ Anna told the butler. ‘Or two.’
‘Stay sober, Max,’ Guy warned. ‘We’re going to need you.’
‘Yes, sir,’ the butler said. He looked at his mistress in concern. Then he looked from Guy to Jenny and back again. ‘Fix it if you can,’ he said softly. ‘I don’t think she’s seeing what she’s done.’
‘I’m seeing what I’ve done all too clearly,’ Anna retorted. ‘I found him with one of my bridesmaids. In Georgia’s bedroom. In Georgia’s bed. I haven’t done anything. Barret, on the other hand…’
‘Can you verify this?’ Guy asked the butler, and Max nodded.
‘I was coming upstairs to remind Miss Anna that you were to be here at three. Miss Anna was standing at Miss Georgia’s bedroom door looking…’
‘Gobsmacked,’ Anna said, and suddenly she giggled. It sounded dangerously close to hysterics. ‘You saw them, too, didn’t you, Max?’
‘Yes, miss. But…’
‘There are indeed buts,’ Guy said gravely. ‘I’d imagine Barret’s heading straight back to Hollywood. Anna, if he’s true to form he’ll slur your name in every ear that matters. People expect Barret to play around. They won’t feel sorry for Barret. They’ll feel sorry for you.’
‘I don’t care,’ Anna said, defiant, but Jenny saw the tremor in her fingers and knelt to sit beside her and take her hand. To her surprise, the woman gripped and held. Hard.
‘Where’s everyone else?’ Guy was asking, and Jenny thought, He’s done this before. He’s coped with disasters like this.
‘We had eggnog for brunch,’ Anna explained. ‘Barret made it. Everyone’s half-drunk already, so they’re sleeping it off. Or I thought they were sleeping it off. I don’t know how Barret managed…’ Her voice trailed away in disgust.
Good, Jenny thought. If she was up to technical thinking then maybe other sorts of thinking were possible, too. She glanced down at Guy, their eyes locked, and she could see that he was thinking exactly what she was thinking.
Guy had agreed to do this wedding because he felt sorry for Anna. Nothing had changed. And if Anna had to be protected…
‘No one must feel sorry for you,’ she said, and Guy nodded, as if he’d just been about to say the same thing.
‘What do you mean?’ Anna demanded, and Guy took over.
‘Anna, you’ve just come out of rehab. Everyone’s looking at you. If I know Hollywood, they’re expecting you to fail, and they’re half hoping you will. Half the people coming to this wedding will be coming out of curiosity.’ He hesitated, but then he went straight to the hard question. ‘Did you touch the eggnog?’
‘I drink soda water,’ she said stiffly, and Guy nodded.
‘I knew you’d say that. It’s why I’m giving you a Carver Wedding. You deserve a second chance. But, the way I’m seeing it, this could be your ruin. Unless we turn it around. Unless we make this into a celebration regardless. You’ve ditched all the other bad habits. Barret was simply the last habit you ditched.’
‘What…?’ said Anna.
‘Let’s get this organised,’ he said, striding up the stairs to join them. Anna and Jenny were still sitting on the second top stair. They shifted sideways and he sat down, too, so Anna had Jenny on one side and Guy on the other, with Max watching, stunned, from below. ‘We need to move fast.’
‘What…?’ said Jenny.
‘If people have flown from London and New York and wherever to see a celebration, and they don’t see one, they’re going to be disappointed,’ Guy said. ‘And it’s Christmas Day, which makes it worse. They’ll be hugely disappointed if they’re turned away without food. And hungry, disappointed celebrities can get nasty. If they don’t see you, they’ll talk about you until the next sensation happens.’
Anna shuddered. ‘Don’t.’
‘What should we do?’ Jenny asked simply, and waited.
‘We go ahead as if it was meant to happen,’ he said. ‘Anna, you need to act. When all your in-house guests wake and your other guests arrive, you greet them as if this is the best thing that can possibly have happened.’
‘I don’t know how…’
‘I know how,’ Guy said. ‘Jenny, the time to be taken for the ceremony needs to be taken up with something else. I want a map of the way to the beach-that’s about half a mile from here, isn’t it? Down through the hills? An easy walk? I thought so. As every guest arrives they’re to be handed a champagne cocktail, a tube of sunscreen and a bathing costume and sarong if they don’t have their own. Jenny, get onto the local store owners now. Tell them we’ll pay ten times face value if they have the stuff we need here in half an hour. Oh, and the camping store. I want as many folding tables as they have, plus beach umbrellas. Same price applies. Double it if you need to. As the workers arrive-our people are due here at four-they’ll start ferrying the wedding breakfast to the beach. I want people toddling over the sandhills, cocktail in hand-we’ll have people along the way replenishing glasses-arriving at the beach and seeing Anna in all her glory.’
‘All my glory?’ Anna said, gulping and looking awed.
‘You’ll be floating on a sea of flowers. You’ll be wearing a tiny bikini and holding a fruit cocktail-something non-alcoholic, but no one need know-something that looks truly splendid. We’ll have your bridesmaids-minus one, who I trust will take herself the way of your bridegroom-floating round on air mattresses. We’ll use all the wedding flowers and make them look sumptuous. And you’ll be saying Welcome to the rest of my life. This is who I am. A woman who can put on the best party in the world. It’ll make Barret look stupid and you look magnificent.’
‘But…’ Anna whispered. ‘But…’
‘There’s still the celebrant,’ she whispered. ‘There’s all the pink tulle. I have editors from the top celebrity magazines flying in especially to see a wedding.’
‘They will see a wedding,’ Guy said.
He took a deep breath.
‘Mine.’ And then he looked at Jenny. ‘Ours.’
For a moment there was nothing but silence. Jenny stared at Guy. Anna stared at Guy. And then Anna turned to Jenny.
‘You’d pretend to get married? But…’
‘There’d be no pretend about it,’ Guy said softly. ‘Anna, I love this woman.’
That’s me, Jenny thought dumbly. He’s talking about me.
‘I’ve already said I wouldn’t,’ she whispered, and Guy nodded and reached across Anna and took her hand.
‘I know. I was dumb.’
‘Excuse me, but you don’t want me sitting in the middle here,’ Anna said, sounding close to hysterics, and Guy grinned.
‘I’ve already proposed to the woman in moonlight. It didn’t work. I’m trying again. Stay where you are.’
‘Harumph,’ said Max from below, and Guy nodded.
‘You, too. I need witnesses.’
‘What…?’ said Jenny, and paused.
‘You mean what am I asking?’ Guy said. He hesitated, then ploughed on, a man making a confession before all. ‘This morning I opened my stocking and found a boat made with ice lolly sticks.’
‘So what?’ she whispered, and he smiled.
‘Let me finish,’ he said. ‘I need to. Jenny, fifteen years ago I turned my back on a career in law and used my savings to buy what must have been the most battered van our side of the Mississippi. I was so proud of that van. I used to walk round and pat it. But then…’
‘Then Christa was killed.’
‘She was,’ Guy said. ‘And the shock of her death made me think…well, that her values were true. I wanted to show myself that the sacrifice was worth it, and some warped, twisted part of my brain said the way to do that was make money.’
‘And you have,’ Anna said. ‘You’re such a success.’
‘Not a success if I can’t have my Jenny,’ he said, and his eyes were holding Jenny’s and they might as well be alone. ‘I met Jenny a little more than a week ago, and I love everything about her. I love her bravery and her honesty and her caring and her laughter. I love her son and her son’s puppy, and her mother-in-law and her father-in-law. I love the place where she lives. I was dumb enough to think maybe I could marry part of that and cart it back to New York, set it down as a possession. But it’s not like that, is it, Jenny? You refused me for all the right reasons.’
‘I’m not asking you that same question now,’ Guy said softly. ‘I’m asking if you’ll let me share your life. If you’ll let me take over where Ben left off-loving you, loving what you are and where you are, just…loving.’
‘I’ve been thinking,’ he went on, as if he was nervous that she’d say no before he’d fully explained. ‘After the Christmas stocking…all the way round Sandpiper Bay with Santa beside me…I thought.’
‘What did you think?’ Anna asked, awed, and Jenny thought she’d asked the right question. She should have asked it herself, but the words wouldn’t quite come out.
‘I thought I could move my base to here,’ he said. ‘I thought we could make Sandpiper Bay the wedding capital of the world.’ He grinned. ‘Though I think we’d need two sets of premises. We’ll take over the haberdashery and use part of it to incorporate Bridal Fluff. For any bride who wants fluff. And we’ll have a special rate for locals-kids who’ve lived in the district for years and can’t afford normal rates.’ He hesitated. ‘Maybe we could extend that idea to our other smaller premises, too,’ he said. ‘It takes thinking about, but then I’m not going to be working so hard in the future. I’m going to be doing a lot of lying on the beach, with our son and our puppy, and I can think things through then.’
‘Our son?’ Jenny said, astounded, and Guy’s smile became almost shamefaced.
‘It’s not my right to share Henry’s life,’ he told Jenny. ‘But if you’ll let me…I want to so much. You have no idea how much I want to share.’
‘You love Henry?’
‘Almost as much as you,’ he said, still gripping her hand, still holding her eyes, while Anna sat hornswoggled in between. ‘I thought I loved Christa, and my shock at her death left me thinking I didn’t know what love was. But I do know what it is. I know who it is. It’s you. My love. My Jenny.’
There was a moment’s stunned silence while everyone held their breath. Jenny didn’t move. It was left to Anna to respond.
‘Well,’ Anna said. ‘Well!’
‘Well,’ echoed Jenny. She shook her head, as if shaking off disbelief. ‘My thoughts exactly.’
‘Are you going to accept?’ Anna asked. ‘I only ask because…’
‘Time’s getting on,’ Max said from below, grinning broadly. ‘And I’ve thought of something. You can’t just swap from one wedding to another. There’s laws in this country. Four weeks’ notice before a wedding can take place.’
‘But we could make our promises today,’ Jenny whispered, and the whole world held its breath.
‘You mean it?’ Guy asked at last, and she smiled.
‘Of course I mean it. I shouldn’t. I loved Ben so much. But these last few days…I’ve been thinking and thinking, and the more I think the more I know Ben would say to grab life with both hands.’ She hesitated. ‘And I’ve been following your logic. Does this mean you want a shonky van again and not a Ferrari?’
‘It might,’ Guy said, cautious, and Jenny beamed.
‘Hooray,’ she said. ‘Then let’s do it. We’ll write it into the wedding vows. You get my wagon and I get the Ferrari.’
He lunged at her across Anna’s knees-and Anna, movie idol of millions, a woman who’d just been betrayed and whose wedding plans were in the dust, dissolved into helpless laughter while Guy Carver of the Carver corporation reached across her and kissed his intended bride as if there was no tomorrow.
GUY CARVER was a wedding planner extraordinaire. His own wedding was no exception. He would have liked to have had more than a few hours’ notice but, given the circumstances, what was achieved was little short of miraculous.
Firstly he barked orders at everyone, while Jenny and Anna looked on in admiration-and with just a touch of the giggles. Then he swept Jenny into her wagon and carried her back to the farm.
‘For I’m not doing this without consent,’ he said. Ignoring Jenny’s protest that Jack was her father-in-law, and no consent was needed, he carried her into the farmhouse as a groom carried his bride. He woke the startled Lorna and Jack and Henry and Patsy from their afternoon nap and asked with all the deference in the world whether there were any objections to his taking Jenny for his bride.
They were delighted.
‘It’s so lovely,’ Lorna sniffed. ‘We’ll miss you, sweetheart, but we always knew you’d move on.’
‘Then you’ll be disappointed,’ Guy said roundly. ‘You’re stuck with the lot of us for ever. Me and Jenny and Henry and Patsy and whoever else comes along. Mind, I’ll have to make the odd trip overseas-but maybe we can all go. Maybe you’ll even like New York.’
They were speechless-for a whole two minutes-and then Lorna started to plan.
‘So you’re getting married this afternoon?’
‘We’re having a ceremony this afternoon, to get Anna out of a hole,’ Jenny told her. ‘The press will indeed see a Carver Wedding. We’ll repeat our vows in a month for the legalities.’
‘We’ll repeat our vows night and morning for the rest of our lives,’ Guy said exultantly, but Lorna was concentrating on more important issues.
‘You need a dress, Jenny. Not the one you wore for Ben.’
‘No,’ Jenny said. She grinned, delirious with happiness and ready to be silly. ‘Maybe I can wear togs and thongs?’
‘Togs and thongs?’ Guy queried.
‘Bikini and flip-flops,’ Jack translated, and Guy’s face brightened.
‘I can cope with that.’
‘You can. She can’t,’ Lorna said roundly. ‘Jenny, dear…’
‘Mmm?’ Jenny was hugging Henry, who was carefully thinking about all the rides he was now going to get in a Ferrari. ‘Yes?’
‘I never suggested it when you married Ben-to be honest I loved it that we made your wedding dress together. But now…I don’t suppose you’d consider wearing mine?’
‘Yours?’ Jenny said, awed. ‘Oh…’
‘You’re practically the same size as I was forty years ago, and the fashions have come back…’ So they all trooped into the bedroom to Lorna’s camphor chest, and then Lorna realised that this was serious and turned and shooed out the menfolk.
‘You get back to Anna’s,’ she told Guy. ‘You’ll see Jenny at the ceremony and not before.’
But as Guy made his way out through the front door Lorna wheeled herself out of the bedroom in a hurry.
‘I know it’s a minor detail,’ she called, ‘but we need to know when and we need to know where.’
The when was eight p.m. The where was on the beach. The very loveliest time of day.
The beach was crowded with celebrities from all over the world, and almost every inhabitant of Sandpiper Bay. In their midst was Anna, bouncing around as if she had the world at her feet. Whatever mortification she was feeling, she was hiding it with brilliance.
It would be Barret who was mortified now, Guy thought, watching as Anna attracted everyone’s admiration. He could even feel sorry for Barret. Anna was lovely.
She wasn’t as lovely as Jenny.
Guy was standing on the shoreline, where sun-warmed sand gave way to sand made damp by the receding tide. There was a temporary altar behind him, and the celebrant was beaming before it. In truth, the celebrant was a little put out-she’d expected to marry superstars-but the fact that she was marrying Guy Carver and the wonderful Jenny, who everyone knew, almost made up for it.
There was only one attendant. Guy’s best man was Henry, who held the ring-the Sandpiper Bay jeweller had been delighted to open for such a need-with the reverence it deserved. Henry had his own attendant-Patsy was right by his side-but she wasn’t diverting Henry from ring-minding. His hero was at stake-a stepfather who had the marks of life upon him. He kept glancing up to Guy as if he might evaporate, and every time he did Guy looked down at him and winked.
Henry was practising winking back.
‘They look like two cats with one canary,’ one of the reporters said to her photographer, and the photographer sniffed her agreement.
‘If you get that lens wet you’re dead meat,’ the reporter said, but she sniffed, too.
And then the bride arrived. By tractor. You couldn’t get over these sand hills except by foot or all-terrain vehicle, so Lorna, dressed in her wedding best, drove a trifle erratically but with aplomb, while Jenny stood on the side and held on for dear life. The crowd-wisely-parted before them. Lorna reached her destination, flushed with success. Jack helped his daughter-in-law down and Jenny was deposited by Guy’s side. To be married.
‘With this ring I thee wed…’
Maybe the photographer’s camera did get wet then, for there was hardly a dry eye on the beach as Jenny and Guy stood together against a backdrop of setting sun and sea and mountains and were made one.
‘It’s a perfect Carver Wedding,’ Jenny whispered as their wedding kiss finally ended, and Guy smiled at her with a smile that said life for both of them was just beginning.
‘I brought you lousy Christmas presents,’ he told her. ‘I had to make up somehow. Merry Christmas, Mrs Carver. With all my love.’