Events manager Sylvie Smith is organizing a glittering fund-raising event: a wedding show in a stately home. She has even been roped into pretending to be a bride… a bride who's five months pregnant!
The bride everyone is talking about!
It should be every girl's dream to design a wedding with no expense spared, but it's not Sylvie's. Longbourne Court was her ancestral home, and she's just discovered that the new owner is Tom McFarlane—her baby's secret father. Now Tom's standing in front of her, looking at her bump.…
Chance would have been a fine thing.
The message couldn't have been plainer.
She was the enemy and so she'd been left to twiddle her thumbs without the courtesy of a cup of coffee to help fill the time.
Not a problem. Her nerves were already in shreds without adding a surfeit of caffeine to the mix. And she hadn't twiddled her thumbs either. She didn't have time to waste thumb-twiddling. Didn't have time to waste, full stop.
Instead she'd occupied herself finalising the details of an Indian-style wedding she was coordinating for a supermodel. She'd even managed to track down an elephant that was for hire by the day.
She'd also soothed the nerves of a fading pop diva who was hoping to revive her career with a spectacular launch party for her new album.
All of which had helped to keep her from dwelling upon the approaching meeting. When—if—it ever happened.
She knew she was the last person in the world Tom McFarlane wanted to see. Understood why he'd want to put off the moment for as long as was humanly possible. The feeling was mutual.
The only thing she didn't understand was why, when he'd been so obviously avoiding her for the last six months, he was putting them both through this now.
She checked the time again. Ten to three. Enough was enough. Her patience might be limitless—it was that, and her attention to detail, that made her one of the most sought-after event planners in London—but her time was not.
This meeting had been Tom McFarlane's idea. The very last thing she'd wanted was a meeting with a man she hadn't been able to get out of her mind since she'd first set eyes on him. A man who had been about to marry her old school friend, and darling of the gossip mags, Candida Harcourt.
All she wanted was his cheque so that she could settle outstanding bills and put the whole sorry nightmare behind her.
She closed down her laptop, packed it away, then crossed to the desk and the receptionist who had been studiously ignoring her ever since she'd arrived.
'I can't wait any longer,' she said. 'Please tell Mr McFarlane that I'll be in my office after ten o'clock tomorrow if he has any queries on the account.'
'I should already be somewhere else,' she said, cutting short the woman's protest. Not strictly true—her staff were more than capable of dealing with any crisis involving the album launch party, but sometimes you had to make the point that your time—if not quite as valuable as that of a billionaire—was still a limited commodity. And maybe, on reflection, he'd be as glad as she was to avoid this confrontation and just put a cheque in the post. 'If I don't leave now—'
The receptionist didn't answer but a prickle of awareness as the woman's gaze shifted to somewhere over her right shoulder warned her that they were no longer alone.
Turning, she found her view blocked by a broad chest, wide shoulders encased in a white linen shirt. It was open at the neck and the sleeves had been rolled back to the elbow to reveal brawny forearms, strong wrists.
A silk tie had been pulled loose as if its owner had been wrestling with some intractable problem. She didn't doubt that, whatever it was, he'd won.
Despite the fact that she'd spent the last six months planning Tom McFarlane's wedding, this was only the second time she'd actually seen him face to face.
Make that forehead to chin, she thought, forced, despite her highest heels, to look up. She'd known this was going to be a difficult afternoon and had felt the need to armour herself with serious clothes.
The chin was deeply cleft.
She already knew that. She'd seen photographs long before she'd met the man. Tom McFarlane wasn't much of a socialite, but no billionaire bachelor could entirely escape the attention of the gossip magazines, especially once his marriage to the daughter of a minor aristocrat—one who'd made a career out of appearing in the glossies—had been announced.
The cleft did nothing to undermine its force; on the contrary, it emphasised it and, for the second time, her only thought was, What on earth was Candy thinking?
From the moment she'd bounced into her office demanding that SDS Events organise her wedding to billionaire businessman Tom McFarlane, Sylvie had known exactly what Candy had been thinking.
This was the fulfilment of her 'life plan'. The one with which, years ago, she'd enlivened a school careers seminar by announcing that her 'career plan' was to marry a millionaire. One with a house in Belgravia, a country estate and a title. The title was negotiable; one should apparently be flexible—the size of the bank account was not.
Why waste her time sweating over exams when she had no intention of going to university? Students saddled with overdrafts and loans held no interest for her.All her effort was going to be put into perfecting her natural assets—at which point she'd performed a pouty, cheesecake pose—and making the perfect marriage.
Everyone had laughed—that was the thing about Candy, she always made you laugh—but no one had actually doubted that she meant it, or that she was capable of achieving her goal.
She'd already looked like coming close a couple of times. Maybe, rising thirty, she'd realised that time was running out and she'd jettisoned everything but the core plan although, inflation being what it was, she'd upgraded her ambition to billionaire.
A better question might have been, What on earth had Tom McFarlane been thinking?
An even dumber question.
It was a truth universally acknowledged that a smile from Candy Harcourt's sexy mouth was enough to short-circuit the brain of any man who could muster more than one red blood cell. She might have bypassed her exams but she hadn't stinted on the midnight oil when it came to enhancing her career assets which were, it had to be admitted, considerable.
Gorgeous, funny—who could possibly resist her? Why would any man try?
And while Tom McFarlane might give the impression that he'd been rough-hewn from rock—and eyes that were, at that moment, glittering like granite certainly added to the impression of unyielding force—she had absolutely no doubt that he was a male with red blood cells to spare.
Something her own red blood cells had instantly responded to with the shocking eagerness of a puppy offered something unspeakable to roll in.
As their eyes had met over Candy's artfully tumbled blonde curls, the connection had short-circuited all those troublesome hormones which had been in cold storage for a decade and they'd instantly defrosted.
She was not a puppy, however, but a successful businesswoman and she'd made a determined effort to ignore the internal heatwave and stick to the matter in hand. Fortunately, the minute he'd signed her contract, Tom McFarlane—who obviously had much more important things to do—had made his excuses and left.
Just thinking about those ten long minutes left the silk of the camisole she was wearing beneath her linen jacket sticking to her skin. But she'd got through it then and she could do it again.
It was part of the job. As an event planner she was used to handling awkward situations—and this certainly came under the heading of 'awkward'. She just needed to concentrate on business, even if, feeling a little like the space between the rock and the hard place, it took all her composure to stiffen her knees, stand her ground, keep the expression neutral.
'If you don't leave now?' he prompted.
'I'll be in trouble…' Wrong. She was already in trouble, but with the hardwood reception desk at her back and the rock blocking her exit she was stuck with it. Reminding herself that drooling was a very bad look, she summoned up a professional smile and extended a hand. 'Good afternoon, Mr McFarlane. I was just explaining to your receptionist—'
'I heard.'He ignored the hand. 'Call whoever's expecting you and tell him he'll have to wait. You're mine until I say otherwise.'
What? That was outrageous but the glitter in those eyes warned her that provocation had been his intent. That he was waiting for the explosion. That he would welcome it.
Not in this life, she thought, managing a fairly creditable, 'She. Delores Castello,' she added, naming the pop diva. 'So you'll see why your request is quite impossible.' She wanted this over and done with, not dragged out, but when a man started tossing orders around as if he owned the world, it was a woman's duty to stand her ground and prove to him that he did not.
Even if the knees had other ideas.
'I do have a window in my diary,' she began, flipping open the side pocket of her bag.
If she'd hoped to impress him with her client list the strategy signally failed. Before she could locate her diary he said, 'What's impossible, Miss Smith, is the chance of you getting another chance to talk me into settling your outrageous account.'
Sylvie grabbed her bottom lip with her teeth before she said something she'd regret.
The man was angry. She understood that. But her account was not outrageous. On the contrary, she'd worked really hard to negotiate the best possible cancellation deals, pushing people to the limit. She hadn't had to do that but she had felt just the smallest bit responsible for what had happened.
She would have told him so if her lip hadn't been clamped between her teeth.
'Your call, Miss Smith,' he prompted, apparently convinced that he'd proved his point. 'But if you walk away now I promise you you're going to have to sue me all the way to the House of Lords to get your money.'
He had to be kidding.
Or, then again, maybe not.
Glacial, his voice went with the raw cheekbones, jutting nose, a mouth compressed into a straight line. It did nothing to cool her. Like a snow-capped volcano she knew that, deep beneath the surface, molten lava bubbled dangerously. That if she wasn't careful the heat would be terminal.
Tom McFarlane was made from the same stuff that centuries ago had driven men across uncharted oceans in search of glory and fortune. He was their modern equivalent—a twenty-first-century legend who'd worked in the markets as a boy, had been trading wholesale by the time he'd been in his teens, making six-figure deals by the time he'd left school. His first million by the time he'd been twenty. The expression 'self-made man'could have been invented just for him.
He was the genuine article, no doubt, but, much as she admired that kind of drive and tenacity, his humble beginnings had made him a very odd choice of mate for Candy.
He might be a billionaire but he had none of the trappings of old money. None of the grace. He wasn't a man to sit back and idle his time away playing the squire.
There was no country estate or smart London town house. Just a vast loft apartment which, according to an exasperated Candy, was on the wrong side of the river.
Apparently, when she'd pointed that out to him, he'd laughed, ridiculing those who paid a fortune for a classy address to look across the river at him.
She'd been forced to hide a smile herself when Candy had told her that. Had thought, privately, that there had to be billionaires out there who would be less abrasive, easier to handle.
But maybe not quite so much of a challenge.
The chase might have been chillingly calculated but Sylvie was pretty sure that when the quarry had been run to earth and the prize claimed, the result would have been hot as Hades.
Maybe Candy was, when it came right down to it, as human as the next woman and had fallen not for the money, but for the testosterone.
The fact that Tom McFarlane had exactly the same effect on her, Sylvie thought as, not waiting for her answer, he turned and walked across reception to the wide-open doors of his office—leaving her to follow or not, as she chose—did not make her feel one whit better.
On the contrary.
But if Candy had thought she'd got him where she wanted him, she'd been fooling herself.
She might have momentarily brought him to heel with her silicone-enhanced assets but he wasn't the man to dance on her lead for long.
Unlike his bride, however, Sylvie wasn't in any position to cut and run when the going got tough. This wasn't 'her' money. Her account was mostly made up of invoices from dozens of small companies—single traders who'd done their job. People who were relying on her. And, sending a stern message to her brain to stay on message, she went through the motions of calling her very confused assistant and explaining that she would be late.
The call took no more than thirty seconds but, by the time she'd caught up with him, Tom McFarlane was already seated at his desk, a lick of thick, dark brown hair sliding over the lean, work-tempered fingers on which he'd propped his forehead as he concentrated on the folder in front of him.
An exact copy of the one that must have arrived in the same post as his bride's Dear John letter. The one he'd returned with the suggestion that she forward it to the new man in his ex-bride-to-be's life.
Except he hadn't been that polite.
She'd understood his reaction. Felt a certain amount of sympathy for the man.
She might honestly believe that he'd had a lucky escape, but obviously he didn't feel that way and he had every right to be hurt and angry. Being dumped just days before your wedding was humiliating, no matter who you were. Something she knew from first-hand experience.
She and Tom McFarlane had that in common, if nothing else, which was why she understood—no one better—that an expression of sympathy, an 'I know what you're going through' response, would not be welcome.
If she knew anything, it was that no one could have the slightest idea what he was feeling.
Instead, she'd tucked the account and the thick wad of copy invoices into a new folder—one of the SDS Events folders rather than another of the silver, wedding-bells adorned kind she used for weddings—and had returned it with a polite note reminding him that it was his signature on the contract and that the terms were payment within twenty-eight days.
She hadn't bothered to remind him that five of those days had already elapsed, or add, After which time I'll place the account in the hands of my solicitor…
She'd been confident that he'd get the subtext. Just as she'd been sure that he would understand, on reflection, that coordinating a wedding—even when you were doing it for an old school friend—was, like any other commercial enterprise, just business.
She'd hoped for a cheque by return. What she'd got was a call from the man himself, demanding she present herself at his office at two o'clock the next day.
She hadn't had a chance to tell him that her afternoon was already spoken for since, having issued his command, he'd hung up. Instead, she'd taken a deep breath and rescheduled her appointments.And been kept waiting the best part of an hour for her pains.
When she didn't immediately sit down, Tom McFarlane glanced up and she felt a jolt—like the fizz of electricity from a faulty switch—as something dangerous sparked the silver specks buried in the granite-grey of his eyes. The same jolt that had passed between them on their first meeting. Hot slivers of lightning that heated her to the bone, bringing a flush to her cheeks, a tingle to parts of her anatomy that no other glance had reached since…no, forget since. She'd never felt that kind of response to any man. Not even Jeremy.
What on earth was the matter with her?
She'd never done anything at first sight. Certainly not love. She'd known Jeremy from her cradle. Actually, that might not have been the best example…
She certainly didn't intend to change the habits of a lifetime with lust. Mixing business with pleasure was always a mistake.
But it meant that she understand exactly what Candida had been thinking. Why she hadn't settled for some softer billionaire. Some malleable sugar daddy who would buy her the country estate and anything else she wanted…
'I'd advise you to sit down, Miss Smith,' he said. 'This is going to take some time.'
Usually, she and her clients were on first name terms from the word go but they had both clung firmly to formality at that first meeting and she didn't think this was the moment to respond with, Sylvie, please…
And since her knees, in their weakened state, had buckled in instant obedience to his command, she was too busy making sure her backside connected securely with the chair to cope with something as complicated as speech at the same time.
He watched as she wriggled to locate the safety of the centre of the chair. Continued to watch her for what seemed like endless moments.