excerpt: Contractually Yours
For the hundredth time in two days, Caroline Duplessis pushed Replay on the DVD player to study the video of the world’s most respected and feared international corporate raider calling off his wedding from the altar rail.
The wedding photographer in the vestibule had picked up his deep baritone clearly in the huge St. Louis Cathedral in the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter. D’Estrehan had looked over the diamond-bedecked crowd as stoic as if his face were chiseled from the same stone his heart must have been carved from.
Caroline zoomed in to study his eyes. No blink. No flicker. Nothing but black irises in dark brown pupils staring out over the distinguished well-wishers.
Ruthless. They had called him cold-blooded and ruthless as they filed out of the church.
Caroline just called him dream killer.
From the tabloids, she knew the groom had gone back to business as usual that very evening. The heartbroken bride could not be found.
Caroline glanced down at the sheaf of bills and her extremely small bank balance spread across the coffee table that doubled as a makeshift desk in her home office. Her studio apartment wasn’t big enough for a proper desk, even if she could have afforded one. No other way around it, the end of this wedding meant the end of her fledging wedding planning service, Weddings Divine.
Her phone rang and Caroline jumped, startled at the jangling intrusion on her pity party. Was it another bill collector?
Her best friend since grade school, Paula, was on the line. “Want to do some lunch? The gang’s getting together for a nice long girl chat.”
The thought of food made Caroline’s stomach flop. “No. Not today. Thanks.”
“Are you still brooding over the wedding? Honey, there will be other opportunities.” While Paula was sympathetic, she didn’t understand. Born with a trust fund, Paula worked as a kindergarten teacher because she loved her job, not because she needed her paycheck.
The Winters-D’Estrehan wedding was supposed to be Caroline’s big break into the very exclusive and very profitable New Orleans high-society wedding circuit.
Fresh out of business school, Caroline had borrowed every penny she could scrape together, including money from her parents, to get Weddings Divine off the ground, but after two years, she still hadn’t been able to penetrate New Orleans’ close-knit echelon of founding families.
Also an outsider, Laurel Winters had been willing to give Weddings Divine the break Caroline so desperately needed.
Laurel needed a quick wedding in two months, max. Caroline didn’t ask why the need for haste. She didn’t need to know. All she knew was that Brandon D’Estrehan’s wealth and power made him an international icon.
His success story had graced every financial periodical, every social magazine and every gossip rag to hit the newsstand in the last six months. Phoenix Rising was the most aggressive and the most victorious corporate takeover company in the world. Caroline had planned to piggyback on that fame and fortune to get Weddings Divine into the black.
Paula lowered her tone to a gossip whisper. “Has anyone figured out why he called off the wedding? I haven’t seen a word about it in any of the papers.”
“I haven’t either,” Caroline answered vaguely, distracted by unfreezing the video. The camera rolled while guests from all over the world filed out of the cathedral into Jackson Square, tittering under their collective breaths. New Orleans would buzz about this one for months to come.
“I’ll bet it was something that bride of his did. She was the worst Bridezilla I’ve ever seen.”
“She was under a lot of pressure. After all, she was a society nobody marrying New Orleans’ most eligible bachelor.” Caroline had dodged around the paparazzi that tracked every move the fiancée of Brandon D’Estrehan made, doing her best to be invisible while Laurel sparkled like a Baccarat champagne flute.
While Laurel might be the most difficult bride Caroline had ever had to humor, she was also the wealthiest. Or she would have been as soon as she and Brandon D’Estrehan promised to love and cherish unto death did they part.
“How can you defend her?” Paula persisted. “You worked days, nights and weekends. Whenever she crooked her little finger, you were there.”
“With all the planning we had to do for a wedding this size, I had to be available every minute Laurel could spare to get the job done.” And Caroline had done it well. She had accomplished the impossible, pulling together the wedding of the season in six weeks.
She had been rewarded by at least a half dozen leads for new clients that should have catapulted Weddings Divine over the line from living on borrowed money to making a profit.
“I admit Laurel was difficult to please, but I felt sorry for her. She had no friends or family to help. I don’t know what I would do without my mom to help with my wedding when the time comes.”
Caroline stared at Brandon D’Estrehan’s image on her screen. He continued to stand at the front of the cathedral, immobile, while everyone left. “And the groom wouldn’t involve himself in a single decision.”
At the time, Caroline had realized how fortunate she was. Her own wedding, should that day ever come, would be so different. Her wedding day would be rich with hugs and kisses from those who wished her the best. And, most of all, she would be marrying a man whose eyes sparkled when she entered the room. Not a man with no joy in his expression. She was determined to wait for Mr. Right no matter how long it took.
“Come to lunch with us. You’ve worked hard. You need to play,” Paula insisted.
“I’m not really in the mood to play.” Caroline was too embarrassed to explain her financial mess, especially since the decisions she had made went against all the rules of good business.
“If you change your mind, we’ll be at The Court of Two Sisters drinking mimosas and munching on boiled shrimp.” Paula rang off, clearly not happy with her friend.
Caroline ran the video back and asked herself once again if she could have done anything to avert this calamity.
On the screen, Brandon D’Estrehan filled the doorway, looking like every bride’s dream in his black tuxedo, contrasting white shirt, dark chocolate hair, and olive skin. “Laurel, I must speak to you in private,” he said.
That was it. That was the moment all Caroline’s excruciatingly detailed plans fell apart.
Laurel had turned into sugar and spice, giving Brandon her best little-girl smile. “We’ll have a lifetime to talk after the ceremony. We shouldn’t keep our guests waiting any longer.”
“I assure you, Laurel, you don’t want to have this conversation in front of witnesses.” He took his bride’s elbow and escorted her out of the room, closing the door behind him.
That was the end for the Winters-D’Estrehan wedding.
And the end of Weddings Divine.
All the prospective clients had cancelled. No bride wanted her big day to be tarnished by association with the biggest wedding scandal of recent memory. And New Orleans society had a very long memory.
Caroline clicked off the video and took a deep sip of her herbal tea to calm her queasy stomach. Her hands shook as she lifted her cup.
She had planned to recover, to rise from the ashes and begin again. She had already resigned herself to starting over on a much smaller scale and begin again the very, very steep climb up the New Orleans social ladder. Until her early morning phone call.
The call from her banker had turned this wedding from socially disastrous into financially catastrophic. Apparently, the extremely large check Laurel had used to pay her final balance the night before the wedding had bounced.
And the payoff for the short-term loan her parents had secured for her using their home as collateral was due within the week.
Caroline popped the DVD out of the player and tucked it into her briefcase. There was no help for it. She would have to look into Brandon D’Estrehan’s hard, flat eyes and demand payment from the man who had ruined her dreams.
Brandon hung up the phone with more force than necessary. “We lost the deal.”
His lawyer and best friend, Jack, cradled his head in his hands. “Should I ask why?”
“Same as the last one. These little mom-and-pop enterprises don’t want to sell out to a playboy.” He scrubbed his hand through his hair. “They’d rather close their operation and lay off their employees than hand over their life’s work to a womanizer. How in hell did I get that reputation to start with?”
Jack gave his friend a sympathetic smirk. “It’s unfair.”
“But then, nobody ever promised that life was fair, did they?” Brandon suppressed his anger. It served no purpose.
“Your name and face sells gossip rags. The paparazzi don’t worry about truth as much as money.” Jack thumped the airtight contract on Brandon’s desk. The contract the shop owners refused to sign for sentimental reasons. “You’re the most staid, practical-minded man of your age and wealth I’ve ever known.”
It was true. While women always made themselves available when he needed an arm ornament and Brandon enjoyed beautiful female companionship as much as the next red-blooded guy, his heart and soul was Phoenix Rising. He would never let a woman get between him and business.
He picked up a tabloid that had been delivered with the morning mail, scanned the headlines about how his broken marriage put him back on the market, and crumpled it in disgust.
Jack crossed over to the third-story window and looked down at the crowded sidewalk below. “I walked through that mob of women holding Marry Me signs getting to the office this morning. They’re worse now than they were before the engagement announcement.”
Brandon joined him, glancing past the mob to the hypnotic flow of the muddy Mississippi River less than a block away from his French Quarter office. “Hard to believe that six months ago, only the business world knew about Phoenix Rising.”
“That’s the price you pay when you’re single, photogenic, and shortlisted for Time magazine’s Man of the Year, not to mention People Magazine’s and Cosmo’s Most Eligible Bachelors lists.”
Taking over companies was like paying poker. The cards a player held counted, but only as much as the attitude the player projected. Brandon had always projected a severe, no-nonsense image to keep up his bluff over the competition. Celebrity fame was not part of that image.
“Threaten them with a lawsuit and get me off their lists.”
“Freedom of speech laws being what they are, you’re out of luck. There’s nothing libelous about printing public facts and photographs along with opinion pieces about what a great matrimonial prospect you are.” Jack pointed to the magazines on the credenza. “Have you read the advance copies yet? They’re really rather flattering.”
“Throw money at the publishers and buy them off, then.”
“You can’t buy your way around everything, Brandon. Some things aren’t for sale.” Jack held up a video. “By the way, that last tape of Laurel sobbing outside the cathedral cost you well into six figures to keep out of the public eye. I think we got them all now.”
Brandon closed the hurricane shutters, casting the room into shadows, and glared. “Do something, Jack. I’ve got too many sensitive mergers in the works that require discreetness.”
Jack shrugged. “Your engagement was doing the trick. Being a celebrity bachelor doesn’t generate nearly as much interest if the bachelor isn’t eligible anymore.” He shoved the worn, handwritten list at Brandon. “Take a look and pick another one.”
“There’s got to be a better way.”
“If there is, I can’t think of it.” Jack put the list on Brandon’s desk. “Getting married isn’t a bad plan. It worked quite well for a while. My apologies again that my staff didn’t uncover the scoop on Laurel until it was almost too late. And I blamed your suspicions on your reluctance to get married. Be it blackjack, business or women, your poker sense always seems to be right on. I’ll never again doubt your intuition.”
Brandon picked up the list and put it down again. “It was an easy mistake to make. Laurel had all the qualities we’d been looking for. She could dazzle with her smile, make small talk with anyone from dockworker to foreign diplomat, and put together an impromptu dinner party for twenty with less than an hour’s notice.”
Jack smiled. “It didn’t hurt that she could make love to a camera better than any Hollywood starlet.”
“Yes, she would have been the perfect wife if she hadn’t already been married to that octogenarian in Italy.”
Jack flipped on the lamp next to the bookcase. “It was still a good plan, wasn’t it?”
“I have to admit it was. I completed more deals in the last two weeks with Laurel around to keep the press at bay than I’ve accomplished in the last three months.”
“Then pick another bride.” Jack looked his friend in the eyes and promised, “This time I’ll listen better when your gambling instincts kick in.”
“Me, too.” Brandon had made his company a success by studying hard, working harder, and finding the right combination of business acumen and instinct to make the right decisions. He had let his head overrule his gut feeling with Laurel. It was a mistake that wouldn’t happen again.
As Jack headed back to his office, Brandon sipped cold coffee and glared at the closed shutters that blocked his view as well as kept out prying telescopic lenses.
He ignored the flashing light on his phone that meant his executive secretary, Mrs. Willoughby, needed his attention as he glanced at the list of prospective brides. Even though he didn’t relish the hassle of bride hunting again, his instincts were screaming that marriage was the right way to keep all the paparazzi diverted and get back to business.
Knife-like tension stabbed him between his shoulder blades. He had just enough time for a quick workout in the company gym. Forty-five minutes on the punching bag would clear his head and give him time to shower before his video conference with the CEO of the doomed beverage distribution company.
Phoenix Rising was built on turning bad businesses into good ones, providing jobs when those companies would have closed their doors and keeping food on the table for all the families who would have gone hungry without their paychecks, like his had when his dad lost his job. He would do anything, including sacrifice his unwedded state, to keep Phoenix Rising growing in the right direction. Woe unto anyone who stood in his way.
He opened the door, and there stood Mrs. Willoughby, blocking his exit. Or rather, blocking a petite brunette’s entrance.
La petite looked familiar, but Brandon couldn’t remember where they might have met. He did a quick mental scan of all the women on his list. They were all blonde, curvaceous, and easy to pick out in a crowd.
Brandon studied the woman he could barely see behind Mrs. Willoughby’s solid form.
The woman took a step to the side, and he caught a better glance before Mrs. Willoughby shifted to blockade her again.
She must be scrappier than she appeared. She had breached the barriers of his first-floor security team and now attempted to thwart his mastiff of an executive secretary. And she showed no sign of cowering or trembling.
At his discreet nod, his long-time assistant reluctantly stepped to the side, although Mrs. Willoughby looked ready to throw herself into the breach should she think it necessary.
The best word to describe the intruder’s beauty was subtle. She had an understated elegance that a photographer would miss amidst the glitz and glamour that the media preferred.
He inspected her from the top of her sleek mink-brown chin-length hair, onward past her amber eyes so stunning the color had to come from colored contacts, down past her modest breasts, her athletically trim waist and hips to her simple flats. She was the exact opposite of all the women on his list.
She didn’t fidget under his inspection. Instead, she simply gave him back the same scrutiny in kind.
She had a quiet, confident presence. Still waters run deep, his grandfather would say about this woman.
She reached around Mrs. Willoughby and extended her hand. “Mr. D’Estrehan, I need to speak with you.”
He joined his palm to hers, surprised to feel her grip was not as delicate as it looked. He had thought he had become jaded, but now, a spark of interest travelled through him. No. More like a bolt of lightning.
As if she felt it, too, she dropped her hand and rubbed it on her thigh.
“What can I do for you?”
Mrs. Willoughby scowled as she spoke first. “Miss Duplessis was Laurel Winter’s personal wedding planner. She has a DVD she thinks you’ll want.”