It’s official. I’m in the seventh circle of hell.
I’d gotten rid of the boss who was possibly the devil’s daughter, only to have her replaced by her evil twin…a wedding planner who breathed fire.
The worst part was, it didn’t have to be this way.
In my purse, I had the list of names Cody had given me and I’d already called three of them, one of which I’d all but fallen in love with. She was the sweetest lady ever and her Mississippi drawl had left me sort of homesick and longing to go back home and see my family.
But this morning, I’d been jerked out of a sound sleep by the buzzer.
It was Charles, Claire’s personal driver and when I’d managed to stumble downstairs, it was to find my soon-to-be mother-in-law waiting with a prim, prissy piece of work by the name of Estelle Chastain, the only wedding planner worth working with.
At least according to Claire.
I hadn’t had any coffee. That was the only reason I could think of to explain why I’d let them sweep me into the car and off to the offices of Magnifique. Estelle Chastain was the owner, she’d informed me, and she normally didn’t work with brides directly, but of course, for the Bouvier family, she’d make any exception.
I sighed, feeling spiteful and disrespectful. I guessed I was supposed to feel honored. Instead, I was wishing I’d beaten Claire to the punch and called Ashley Evans of Mississippi and hired her without actually going out to meet her like I’d planned. Claire would’ve been pissed, but I doubted she would’ve forced me to cancel since the Bouvier reputation would’ve been on the line.
Estelle and Claire bent their heads over the computer, talking in hushed tones as they gazed at something on the screen. Neither one of them even pretended to pay attention to me. Why should they? I was only the bride. Now my lack of caffeine was doing something other than making me groggy. I was starting to get annoyed.
“What do you think, Claire?”
“It’s lovely. Doable on our time frame?”
Estelle looked at me over the laptop, a look of polite disapproval in her eyes. “Three months is cutting it short.” Then she looked at Claire with a simpering smile. “But I’m not called the miracle worker for nothing.”
They looked at me with barely veiled distaste.
“It is my wedding,” I said softly. “Don’t you think I should see whatever it is that’s ‘doable’ in three months?”
It was July now. Edward and I had decided we wanted to get married in October and since that was a short timeframe, he’d suggested we get married at his parents’ estate. We could have it outdoors and planned to have tents in case of bad weather. That meant one problem was solved—finding a venue on short notice. Now we just had to get caterers and a band and a dress…oh, hell…
I felt queasy just thinking about, but it was what Edward had wanted.
Claire’s mouth tightened at the corners, but Estelle gave me a pleasant smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “Of course, dear.”
I pushed back from the desk and went around the long, conference styled table. There was a flutter in my stomach that could have been anticipation. It quickly turned to dread as I saw the color scheme and mock-ups of bridesmaids dresses. “No.” I shook my head. “That’s…so not me.”
Claire waved a hand dismissively. “This will be a more elegant event than what I’m sure you’re used to, Gabriella. Just let us handle the details—”
“I don’t want you to handle the details.” Closing my hands into fists, I fought to keep my voice level. “It’s my wedding. I want my mother and I to have a say in it.”
Estelle closed the laptop and stood. “I think I’ll get us all some coffee.” She gave Claire a sympathetic look before leaving.
Once the door closed, Claire’s icy blue eyes narrowed slightly. “Tell me, Gabriella. Just how do you propose to pay for a wedding of this magnitude? Do you or your parents have the money to afford it?”
That dread was now growing, spreading through me like a river of ice. Clenching my hands into fists, I inclined my head. “No.” The word was like gravel coming out of my throat.
Edward and I had already talked about that. Since a majority of the guests would be friends of the family and other important people in the Bouvier social circle, he didn’t feel right about asking my parents to pay for it.
I tried not to read too much into the implication that my parents couldn’t possibly afford the sort of wedding we needed to have. I’d known that agreeing to let him pay for it would mean having to put up with Claire, but I’d been foolish enough to think I’d still actually have some say in things.
“Well, then, perhaps you should follow my advice and let Estelle and I handle things? I am footing the bill, after all.”
Estelle returned a moment later—without coffee.
I saw why when a cart was rolled in by a woman in neat black uniform, complete with a white apron. I wanted to roll my eyes, but settled for going back around the table, dropping down into the chair and pulling out my phone. Since my input wasn’t going to be needed, I saw no point in paying attention to any of it. I shot Cody off a text, desperately needing to vent.
I’m not sure who is getting married here. Me…or your mother.
He responded within seconds.
I got a feeling I’m not going to like where that comment came from, honey.
I told him, keeping it short and sweet.
His response was equally so.
I smothered a laugh, knowing neither of the women at the end of the table would appreciate the humor.
Are you censoring yourself?
As I waited for his response, I glanced up to see Estelle and Claire accepting cups of coffee from the lady in the neat black dress. She glanced my way, but I shook my head. I wanted coffee, but I didn’t want to do anything that remotely resembled cooperation.
My phone buzzed.
I couldn’t cram enough ugly words into one text so I went with that. Gabs, just tell her to back off.
“Do you have a particular color scheme you’d like, Gabriella?” Estelle asked.
For a second, I was so surprised I’d been asked anything that I could only stare at her.
Claire didn’t look pleased at all as she gave her opinion. “I think we should go with the black and white theme. It’s timeless, classic, elegant.”
“It’s boring,” I said. I closed the text and opened the gallery on my phone, pulling up some pictures I’d downloaded when I’d thought my opinion might matter. “Actually, I kind of wanted to go with plum, orange and gold.”
Claire’s eyes widened. “You’re joking.”
“No.” Lifting my chin, I rose and pushed my phone over toward them.
Claire didn’t even look, but Estelle took the phone and she studied it for a moment. To my surprise, a small smile curved her lips and she nodded as she looked from the phone to me and then back again.
“This would go well with your coloring. That auburn hair, deep brown eyes.” She nodded again, her expression thoughtful. “Give me a moment.” She tapped the keys on her computer, doing whatever it was she did with her program.
Claire was still frowning when Estelle said her name, but then she looked at the screen. The frown didn’t go away completely, but she sighed, some of the tension draining from her shoulders. “Those colors are so…garish.”
“No,” Estelle contradicted, making me want to stand up and cheer.
Okay, maybe she wasn’t as bad as I’d first thought.
She continued, “They are simply brighter than you would typically use, but they suit Gabriella. We’ll work the color scheme to suit the setting and the style of the wedding, however, as this is a fall wedding, I think this could be very appealing.” She glanced at me. “Are you buying a white dress? Pure white or are you thinking ecru, ivory…?”
Estelle closed her eyes as if my indecision was trying her patience.
I almost did the same, but that wasn’t going to help me here. I needed a lot more than patience to help just then. I needed a damn drink. It wasn’t even noon, either. I appreciated her working with the colors I wanted, but that didn’t mean I wanted to be treated like a damn child.
“I’ll be looking at dresses this week,” I said, fighting the urge to snap the words out defensively.
“Let me know when you go so I can make plans to go with you.” Claire studied the screen a moment longer and then sighed, her face drawn up like a prune. “If that’s the colors she insists on going with…”
“This isn’t a shirt!” I held up the mess of black straps that my future brother-in-law expected me to wear over my panties.
This was getting ridiculous. I’d already let Flynn take some shots of me wearing only a half-buttoned white dress shirt and I’d had the strangest feeling it was his. He’d denied it, of course, but I’d kept catching a scent that I’d known was his. Now I could smell it on me and it was driving me nuts.
“No, you’re exactly right,” Flynn said as he set up the camera.
We were doing the next set in front of the faux brick. Or we would if I’d change and that was very much up for debate right now. I was starting to see some of Claire in her youngest son. Flynn McCreary was the half-brother of Cody and my fiancé, Edward, but all three of them had gotten their mother’s pig-headedness. That wasn’t totally fair, I admitted. Cody was a bit more easy-going than his brothers.
“It’s actually a dress.”
“A dress?” I gaped at him before holding up the…dress…by the shoulders. It was literally nothing but ribbons of cloth. They were thicker where my breasts would be and I could see a similar thickness down near the lower part as well. To cover my crotch, I guessed. I just hoped my underwear could work under it. I didn’t even want to consider going without.
“I might as well not be wearing anything.” I tossed it back at him. “I’m not wearing this.”
He snatched it out of the air. “You agreed to do some full body shots as long as you weren’t completely naked, Tennessee. We agreed on the price, you signed the contract. Now hold up your end of the bargain.” He tossed the dress back at me and went back to adjusting the camera.
Or playing with it.
I couldn’t tell anymore. Half the time I thought he did shit like that just to mess with me. I wondered if he’d have behaved the same way if we hadn’t slept together the first time I’d modeled for him. The biggest mistake of my life, especially since I’d met his oldest half-brother only a couple of days later and now I was stuck with this asshole as family.
Finally, I spun on my heel and stormed behind the screen. “Why isn’t Cody here for any of these?” I asked as I shrugged out of the dress shirt and hung it on the hook. Gazing at the strappy, ribbony mess I held, I tried to figure out how to put it on.
“He had another assignment. Some cologne deal. Sadly, he’s not just here to be your teddy bear, Tennessee.”
I would have snarled at him, but just then, I was more pissed off at the dress.
It took a ridiculous amount of time to get it on and almost as long to smooth the straps into place so that my nipples didn’t show. My bra didn’t work under this at all. Luckily, I’d worn fairly skimpy, black panties and they didn’t show much under the material of the skirt. Still, I felt more than naked as I slid out from behind the screen.
Flynn shot me an unreadable look and then jerked his head toward the stool in front of the mirrors.
Sighing, I sat down. I needed to ask Kendra if all photographers were this moody. Then I remembered that Kendra and I weren’t on the best of terms at the moment and that just made me even more annoyed. “What now?”
He just grunted.
A minute later, his hands were buried in my hair and I closed my eyes, fighting not to let it show how much it affected me to have his hands on me. He tousled and teased and when he was done, I didn’t bother to look at my reflection. I didn’t want to see what he’d done. Before I could get up though, he grabbed the make-up case.
“You promised I’d be wearing a mask, remember.” I averted my face, but he just cupped my chin and brought my face back around.
“It’s for the eyes. They still show.”
His own intense cadet blues caught me and held my gaze for a moment that lasted forever. My heart sped up and I forced myself to look away, mouth suddenly dry, chest tight.
“Fine,” I said, my voice coming out husky. “Just do whatever.”
I closed my eyes and told myself to think about Edward. The wedding. Imagine your dress…your perfect dress.
Flynn’s fingertip brushed over my eyes, destroying my concentration.
“Don’t you know how to use a brush?” I asked.
“I’d constantly be throwing them out. I don’t want to use the same ones on different people. This works just as well.”
His fingertip smoothed up, up, up…all along the fragile skin of my eyelid. Whoever knew that bit of skin could be so sensitive? Then again, with his reputation, Flynn probably did.
“Do you have any eyeliner?”
“In my purse.” I started to slide off the stool, but his hands came up and caught my waist, holding me in place.
“I’ll get it.”
I curled my hands around the stool and told myself to stay. I closed my eyes again. “You’re a man of many talents. You take pictures, you do make-up. Do you give haircuts too?” I hoped the sarcasm would help get me back on level footing.
“You don’t want scissors in these hands anywhere near your hair, Tennessee.” The weight of my purse dropped into my lap and I opened my eyes.
I pulled out the liner I usually used, but when I went to turn to the mirror, he stopped me.
“I’ll do it,” he said. “I know the look I’m going for.”
“With this dress, it’s sort of obvious. I look like a five dollar hooker.” I made a face at him.
“Watch it.” A hint of his old humor danced in his voice. “Nobody looks like a five dollar anything when I’m done.”
I bit my lip to keep from laughing—you never want to laugh when somebody has an eye pencil that close to your eyeball. I’d thought, had hoped, some of that weird tension had disappeared, but when I glanced at him when he deemed me finished, his shoulders were as straight as always and his face was still closed off, still unreadable.
He was, like his brothers, an extremely attractive man, but there was none of the openness I associated with his older brothers. Flynn was more like a sculpture, something carved from marble. Cold. Unyielding.
Slowly, I slid from the stool, fighting a chill in the dress that was little more than strings held together by a wider edge of fabric on the sides. When I’d agreed to pose as long as I was clothed, I hadn’t imagined I’d still end up exposing this much skin.
“Where do you want me?” I tried not to fidget. Not only was it an annoying habit anyway, but if I moved around too much in that dress, I knew I’d end up flashing him.
He went rigid.
“By the damn wall,” he snapped as he raked his hand through his dark brown hair. “Why the hell do you have to talk so much?”
Stung, I stared at his back, unable to speak for a few seconds. After having his hands on me, I was both pissed and grateful for the reminder of what an ass Flynn truly was. Finally, after I managed to peel my feet from the floor, I headed toward the brick wall. Somehow, though, all the rules I’d learned over the past few sessions and all the little tricks I’d taught myself seemed to drain out of my head. I couldn’t relax. I felt like a stick with moveable arms as I stood there.
After about ten minutes, Flynn lowered his camera and glared at me. “What in the hell is wrong with you?”
“I could ask you the same thing!” I slammed my hands down on my hips, my temper finally getting the best of me.
I didn’t realize what the movement did to the dress until Flynn’s gaze dropped. Mine did as well and I saw that one of the straps had moved and my nipple was now perilously close to popping out.
Spinning around, I fumbled it back into place while I spoke to him over my shoulder. “I don’t know what’s going on here, Flynn. You want me to model for you, but when I agree, you yell at me or treat me like I’m some ignorant child. Would you just yank the stick out of your ass already? If I’m not up to your high standards…”
I turned around. As much as I didn’t want to look at him, I would’ve felt like a coward continuing with my back to him.
Sucking in a breath as I went, I was ready for him to argue. What I wasn’t ready for was Flynn to be right there, only inches away. His mouth came down on mine, hard and fast. His tongue plunged inside my mouth and my hands came up automatically, grabbing the front of his shirt. To push him away, I told myself, but then his hands cupped my face, tilting my head back to deepen the kiss and I found myself holding tight to the soft cotton.
Flynn…my heart sighed as his tongue curled around mine.
Oh, shit, the rest of me screamed, waking me from the moment.
I shoved him back.
“Dammit, you son of a bitch!” I glared at him.
He reached for me again, but I backed away. “Don’t!”
Hands up, I tried to ward him off. I had to, because if I didn’t, I didn’t know if I’d be strong enough to resist him twice. Edward… “Don’t,” I said again as he eased closer. My voice was breathless. “If you touch me again, I’m telling Edward.”
“Yeah.” He snorted and reached up, catching a fist full of my hair. His voice was rough as he held my head in place. “Sure you will. Do that and I might as well post the pictures as they are. No pointing in hiding anything anymore if you’re going to let the cat out of the bag.”
“What…you…” I sputtered, glaring at him.
He closed the distance between us one more time, his eyes on mine, the blue so dark it was nearly black.
I held my breath, hoping he’d stop himself, but when he dipped his head to kiss me, I shoved him back with all my strength. “You son of a bitch, I said, no.”
He backed away then, his eyes on my face.
I wrapped my arms around myself, torn between screaming and crying, caught between need and rage. Edward…
Then, as I stood there trembling, he turned around and stormed out, the door slamming behind him with a loud bang.