2

Their mother and both grandmothers swooped down on Mia like peregrine falcons diving for a hapless mouse. Katie laughed as her baby sister was alternately squeezed, kissed, cheek-pinched, and cooed over.

Mia held out her left hand, showing everyone her simple diamond solitaire.

“Very nice,” Katie said, leaning in for a glance.

“Married,” Grandma Tessa said with obvious delight. “To that nice boy, David? He’s not Italian, but he’s very handsome. Is the family Catholic?”

“Mama Tessa, you worry too much,” Mom said as she kissed her daughter’s forehead and brushed her streaked hair off her face. “My baby is going to be married. I’m so happy.”

Katie watched the show and fought tears of happiness. “Way to go, Sis,” she called when Mia looked at her. “Make the weekend all about yourself.”

Mia grinned. “I’m really excited, Katie.”

“That’s all that matters.”

Francesca pushed off the counter she’d been leaning against and joined the affection competition. “Congratulations, Mia.”

“Don’t be sad,” Mia implored, grabbing her hands and squeezing them. “Please, Francesca.”

“I’m not sad,” her sister protested. “I’m thrilled for you.”

Katie knew Francesca was telling the truth, even if the Grands wouldn’t believe it. Eight years ago, right on schedule, she and Brenna, her fraternal twin, had been married in a lovely double ceremony. While Brenna was still happily married to Jeff, Francesca had become a widow at the tender age of twenty-one. Busy with getting an education, Francesca preferred staying single and independent. A philosophy that violated everything the sisters had ever been taught.

Grammy M clapped her hands for silence. “When is the wedding to be?”

A hush fell over the kitchen. Francesca and Katie glanced at each other. Katie remembered the fund-raiser she’d just agreed to organize and tried not to panic. Not soon, she thought silently. The fund raiser was going to take all the free time she had.

Mia reached for a cherry tomato and popped it into her mouth. “We’re not sure,” she said after she’d finished chewing. “This summer. Probably sometime in July.”

Katie did the math. The fund-raiser was at the end of May, which meant if the wedding was in mid-July, there would be only six weeks left. Which meant she wouldn’t be sleeping much between now and then.

Grammy M nodded. “We’ll have to get started right away.”

Grandma Tessa sighed. “July is so pretty with the vines and the leaves. You’ll be a beautiful bride, little one.”

Katie’s mother grabbed a pad of paper from the stack under the wall phone. “We need to start a list. How many people? What kind of food? Mia, have you thought about invitations yet? I suppose we need an actual date for that.”

“In case anyone is interested, David and his father are coming over for dinner tonight,” Mia said.

That set off another flurry of activity. The two grandmothers returned their attention to the cooking. Katie’s mom shrieked something about the dining room table not being set right and rushed out of the kitchen. Francesca excused herself, leaving only Katie and Mia with nothing to do.

Mia sidled up to her. “So what do you think? I mean, really.”

“I remember the day you were born,” Katie said softly. “Mom and Dad were desperate for a son, but I wanted you to be a little girl. They even let me name you. And now you’re all grown up. I can’t believe my little sister is getting married.”

Mia’s dark eyes widened. “So you’re happy for me?”

Katie thought about how Mia had always known what she wanted from a very young age. Not only was she intelligent enough to be considered gifted, she had the uncanny ability to choose exactly the right path for herself.

Mia had found her handsome prince. Did it get any better than that?

“I’m thrilled for you,” Katie promised. “I want you to have the most beautiful wedding ever, and I want you to be delirious with joy for the rest of your life.”

“I will be. David is so great.”

“How old is he?”

“Eighteen, like me. We met during orientation.” She wrinkled her nose. “He’s a freshman, which is kinda weird, but okay, too.”

Katie swallowed. Eighteen? Somehow she’d assumed that her sister’s fianc? was older-maybe a grad student. Mia had started college at sixteen, which meant she and David weren’t in the same class. “But you’re a junior. What happens when you graduate? Don’t you still want to go to Georgetown for your master’s?”

“Sure.”

“What about David? He won’t be finished with his undergraduate degree. Won’t that be a problem?”

Mia dismissed her concern with a flick of fingers tipped in bright purple. “We’ll work it out.” Her expression turned pleading. “Be happy for me, Katie. I really need that.”

Katie gave in with a smile. She’d never been able to deny Mia anything. If her sister wanted to get married, then Katie would make sure that happened.

“You got it, kid,” she said.

“And you’ll help plan the wedding? And help me when Grammy M wants to put me in too many ruffles and a thirty-foot train that went out of style like twenty years ago?”

Katie made an X above her left breast. “I swear. I’ll defend you against ugly wedding gowns. We’ll pick out something really special and all of us will make it for you. This will be the best wedding ever.”

“Thanks.” Mia hugged her. “There’s just one more thing.”

Katie laughed. “Why am I not surprised?”

“Because you and I have a special bond and there always is.” Mia glanced around to make sure they were still alone, then leaned close. “Can you take care of David’s dad tonight? I’ve met him and he’s really great, but he’s, you know, a dad.”

“And?”

Mia sighed. “Katie, come on. This is us. The Marcellis. We’re not exactly average. The Grands are going to fuss, and Mom and Dad will probably want to check his teeth or something. I don’t want to think about what Grandpa Lorenzo will say about me getting started on having babies right away. You’re so normal. Just be nice to him. You know, be charming.”

Katie remembered that David’s father was single. “Great. So you’re using me as bait.”

“A distraction. Remember, you’re the one who’s so good with people. So keep him busy enough that the rest of the family doesn’t freak him out.” She arched her eyebrows. “He’s not that old and he’s really cute. Well, in a Dad sort of way. You might really like him.”

“I might.”

Of course, there was the problem of having just convinced the female members of her family that she’d already met the perfect man in the form of Zack Stryker. Still, she wasn’t opposed to helping out her sister.

“I’ll see what I can do,” she said.

“Great. You’re the best.” Mia twirled in place. “Tonight is going to be so amazing.”

Zach Stryker consciously relaxed his hands on the steering wheel. As he and his son drove steadily north, he struggled to find the right words and the right to say them.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” came to mind, along with, “Could you be more successful at screwing up your life?”

He reminded himself that anger and sarcasm would only make David dig in his heels. His son had inherited many good qualities from his father, but he’d also inherited a large dose of Stryker stubbornness. In the eyes of the law Mia and David were both adults. There was nothing to prevent them from running off and eloping. Zach was determined to keep that from happening. Which meant playing along with the engagement…for now.

“Have you met Mia’s family before?” he asked.

“Sure.”

“Do her parents know about the engagement?”

Some of David’s teenage confidence slipped. “I, ah, don’t know. Mia said she was gonna tell everyone today. You know, before we got there.” He shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

Some of Zach’s tension eased. If Mia’s parents didn’t know about this idiotic engagement, then there was a chance they would object. What normal parents would want their eighteen-year-old daughter marrying a kid with no life experience and no job? Mia was David’s first girlfriend, for God’s sake. He knew as much about being a husband as he did about solving the issue of global warming.

“We’ll just have to see how it goes,” Zach said, striving for noncommittal. “So tell me about the family.”

David shoved his too-long blond hair off his forehead and slumped down in the seat. “Mia’s the youngest of four sisters. Katie’s the oldest. Brenna and Francesca are a year younger. They’re twins, but they don’t look alike.”

“Any of them married?”

“Brenna. Her husband’s a doctor. I don’t know much about Francesca except she’s like really hot. Mia said she could have gone into modeling, but she’s not that shallow.”

David continued to talk about parents and grandparents, but Zach wasn’t listening. None of this information was new to him. When David had first admitted he was serious about someone, Zach hadn’t been concerned-not until his eighteen-year-old son had asked for money from his trust fund so that he could buy the girl in question an engagement ring.

At that point Zach had been tempted to lock David in his room for the next five years or until he came to his senses. Whichever happened first. Reality had prevailed. Instead of searching out a secure location, he’d learned as much as he could about Mia’s family and had come up with several plans to keep the happy couple from tying the knot. One of those plans had already been put into action.

Katie Marcelli had not been hired by accident. She was going to owe him big time for her new contract, and he intended to use that to his advantage.

Zach was determined to keep David from screwing up his life. If the kid wanted to get married in a few years…like ten or twelve…when his career was established and he knew what he wanted, that was great. But not now. Not like this.

“That’s the exit,” David said, pointing to the sign above the highway. He fished a sheet of paper out of the front pocket of his khakis and read off the directions.

Zach drove along two-lane roads. It was already dark, and the small country signs were difficult to read. A rock clunked against the side of his car, and he winced at the thought of a chip in his paint job. He didn’t have many personal pleasures in his life, but his one-year-old dark blue BMW 540i was one of them.

They made a left after the railroad tracks, then drove for three more miles. Finally David pointed at a well-lit wrought-iron arch and a small street sign reading PLEASURE ROAD.

“There it is.”

Zach slowed. The high beams from his car illuminated cultivated grape vines for as far as the eye could see. He recalled the multiple offerings from the Marcelli Winery in his local wine emporium. Even the low-end stuff sold for over ten bucks. None of the research he’d done on the family and the winery had indicated there was any financial trouble. Between the Marcelli legacy and David’s trust fund, it was going to be a hell of a prenuptial agreement.

Five minutes later he parked his car next to several others. The side door of the house burst open and Mia Marcelli raced into the night.

“You’re here! I told everyone about the engagement and they’re so excited. Hey, Mr. Stryker.”

That was as much as Zach heard. David had already sprinted from the car toward his intended. The teenage lovebirds embraced, then kissed. Zach’s stomach tightened in a combination of anger and frustration.

He slowly stepped out into the cool February night. Light spilled from the house. He saw several people standing by the open door, no doubt trying to get a look at the man who’d raised such a crazy kid. He wanted to defend his son, and himself, but that wouldn’t accomplish anything useful. Instead he was going to make nice, act friendly, and size up the opposition. Once he figured out who was on his side, he would suggest they get together to come up with a plan to break off the engagement.

Katie heard Mia run outside. The rest of the family gathered around the back door while she started opening the bottles of wine that had been chosen to accompany dinner.

“That should send David and his father screaming into the night,” Francesca said as she leaned against the counter. “Families like ours should only be allowed to greet people in groups of two.”

Katie grinned. “Mia’s already sweating that. She asked me to be nice to David’s father. Actually, I think I’m a sacrificial distraction so the Grands don’t scare the life out of him.”

Francesca raised her eyebrows. “Won’t that be difficult with your attention so firmly riveted on your new job and the hunk-in-a-suit you’ll be working with?”

Katie knew Francesca was only teasing, but she still felt embarrassed. “I know. I shouldn’t have lied, but they make me crazy. If I’d told them I wasn’t seeing anyone, they would have tortured me endlessly. Besides, the guy who hired me is all the things I claimed, and more.”

“Like what?”

“Like a first-class player. He dates starlets and models and society types. From what I’ve read, no relationship lasts longer than thirty-five seconds.”

“Hardly the kind of material to get your romantic heart to thumping.”

Katie wished that were true. “The bad news is, he’s really sexy. I can’t explain my hormonal reaction to him, but it’s amazingly powerful. How can I lust after someone I don’t even like?”

“Do you know him enough to make that kind of judgment?”

Katie shrugged. “I’m reasonably confident I won’t like him no matter how much we know each other.”

“As long as you’re not prejudging the situation.”

Katie laughed. “Good point. I’ll try to keep an open mind, while resisting the need to rip off my clothes in his presence.”

Outside car doors slammed. “Here they come,” Francesca said, then pushed off the counter. “I’ll leave you to comfort David’s father. I have to go make a quick call to my adviser.”

“Chicken.”

Francesca glanced over her shoulder. “Not even close. I just have really good timing.”

“You’re the one who likes to rescue people,” Katie called after her. “So rescue me.”

“This is definitely a save-yourself-first moment. I’m outta here.”

“Come in, come in,” Grandpa Lorenzo called from his place in the doorway.

Katie stayed in the kitchen, where she continued opening bottles of wine for their dinner. The Marcelli kitchen was generally a happy place, but tonight there was a festive air. As if the wine with dinner wasn’t enough, their father had already set several bottles of their best champagne to chill in the small wine refrigerator tucked under the counter by the alcove.

She glanced up and saw her parents surrounding Mia and David as the young couple entered the house. David’s father had yet to make an appearance.

Katie looked at David’s blond hair and pale skin and tried to picture the man. Maybe an older version of his son, she thought. If Mia was worried about him, he was probably shy and quiet. She frowned as she realized she didn’t know what he did for a living. A professor, maybe? She would like that. They could talk about books and-

A man walked into the kitchen and seemed to look straight at her. Instantly her stomach dived for her toes.

She’d read the expression in books and had never believed it, but at that moment all her internal organs zipped down her legs and splatted onto her feet.

She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t think, which was probably a good thing. Panic flooded her. While she was willing to accept being punished for lying, she resented the punishment not fitting the crime. This so wasn’t fair.

Zach Stryker, smooth sophisticate, powerful lawyer, and her newest client, stood in the center of the Marcelli kitchen.

Horror joined panic as she remembered all the things she’d told her mother and grandmother about him. She wanted to scream. She wanted to run. She wanted to disappear into a puff of black smoke.

Instead she was forced to just stand there, immobilized by frozen muscles, while Zach raised one eyebrow in obvious surprise.

“Katie?”

Her mother looked at her. “You two know each other?”

Before Katie could come up with some swell lie to cover the other lie she’d already told, Zach spoke.

“My law firm recently hired Katie to plan a big charity party for us.”

Katie braced herself, but it didn’t help. Not when Grandma Tessa scurried close and clutched Zach’s arm. “Ooh, so you’re the handsome man she was telling us about.”

Zach’s other eyebrow joined the first. Katie moaned softly as heat raced up her cheeks to her hairline. Oh, God. Now what?

Well, this being her life, it got worse.

Grammy M took Zach’s other arm. “Our Katie says you’re a very special man.”

“I-” She swallowed and tried again. “Not really.”

The corner of Zach’s mouth quirked. “You don’t think I’m special?”

“No. I mean-”

“Katie.” Grammy M’s gaze turned reproachful. “Don’t be insultin’ our guest.”

She wanted to die.

To complete the thrill of the moment, both Grands chose to release Zach and leave her alone with him. She clutched the last bottle of Cabernet to her chest and wondered what would happen if she hit herself in the head with it.

Zach shoved his hands into his slacks pockets. “Small world,” he said easily.

Of course, it was easy for him, she thought bitterly. He’d been invited to a free, live show.

“Just my luck,” she muttered, then sighed. The best course of action was to pretend none of this had actually happened. “So you’re David’s father?”

“Guilty.”

“But you’re so…” She hesitated, not sure how to phrase the obvious.

“I was seventeen when David was born,” he told her, answering her question without her having to ask it.

He leaned toward her. “You told your family you thought I was hot, huh?”

She winced as the heat on her face returned. “Those exact words never crossed my lips.”

“But something close.”

Obviously the man didn’t have an ego problem. Unfortunately she was hardly in a position to put him in his place.

For a second she thought about explaining why she’d said what she had, but he was unlikely to believe her. Women threw themselves at Zach. Why would he think she was any different?

“I’ll recover,” she said, striving for a light, cheerful tone. “Don’t sweat it.”

“Maybe I want to.”

His low words rubbed against her skin like velvet. Man oh man, he might be not her type, but did he know how to use what he had to the greatest advantage.

“We have a working relationship,” she told him. “I intend to respect that.”

“All work and no play…”

“I’ll risk being dull.”

“Want to bet I can change your mind?”

Yes! Her hormones had already taken a vote and offered their opinion. Part of her couldn’t believe he was coming on to her. And while sex without emotional commitment had never tempted her, she was suddenly all aquiver to find out if it had any redeeming qualities at all.

She was saved from answering when her father came up and claimed Zach.

“Let’s leave the cooking to the women,” he said.

Grandpa Lorenzo joined his son, slapped Zach on the back, and led him to the study.

Katie set down the bottle of wine and breathed a sigh of relief. She’d just survived the most humiliating experience of her life and deserved some kind of tasteful award.

Instead, Grammy M winked at her. “David’s father seems very nice. A strong man.”

Grandma Tessa picked up the refrain. “Smart, too. A lawyer. I can see why you liked him.”

Katie wanted to protest that “like” didn’t begin to describe what she felt, but she couldn’t at this late date. Okay-if God was trying to show her why it was stupid to lie, she’d learned her lesson.

Her mother leaned against the opposite side of the island. “Mia says David told her that Zach never remarried after his wife left. Could be he had a broken heart.”

“Time heals,” Grammy M said.

“A man who loved once is more likely to love again,” Grandma Tessa pronounced.

“One marriage leads to another.” Her mother beamed at her.

Katie leaned her elbows on the counter and covered her face with her hands. “Stop, I beg you.”

Grammy M patted her arm. “I’ll sit him across from you at dinner. He’ll spend the entire meal gazing into your pretty eyes, and by dessert he’ll be yours.”

Not knowing if she should laugh or cry, Katie contented herself with a strangled moan. “There are no words to describe my joy,” she whispered.

Her grandmother kissed her cheek. “I know, child.”

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