R U E B L O O D T E X A S
Isabella Trueblood made history reuniting people torn apart by war and an epidemic. Now, generations later, Lily and Dylan Garrett carry on her work with their agency, Finders Keepers. Circumstances may have changed, but the goal remains the same.
Emily Sutton's fiancé caught up with her in the library of the elegant San Antonio mansion where he lived with his parents. Michael Chambers was normally blessed with a ready smile, but she noticed that today he looked somber, even a little nervous. How odd, Emily thought. Michael's self-confidence was usually as vast as the state of Texas; it was one of the characteristics that had first attracted her to him.
"Hi, Michael, what's up? You're looking worried." She was already running late for her appointment at Finders Keepers, but Emily paused in the doorway, her arms clutched around the massive three-ring file binder that contained the complex details of their wedding arrangements.
She shifted the heavy weight of the binder from one arm to the other. There were moments when she felt sure the inauguration of the President of the United States couldn't necessitate more paperwork than the elaborate wedding ceremony her mother and Mrs. Chambers had planned over the past three months. Her mother had loved every minute of the planning, of course, even though she and Mrs. Chambers both complained repeatedly that the engagement was much too short for them to put on a truly stylish affair.
Thank goodness Michael needed to have the wedding ceremony behind him before he embarked on his election campaign for governor of Texas, Emily reflected wryly. Otherwise she couldn't begin to visualize what their respective mothers might have attempted. The importation of the royal guards from Buckingham Palace, maybe?
Emily grinned, glad that she'd been able to make her mother so happy, just by saying yes to all her fancy wedding plans. She leaned against the door, once again shifting the weight of the binder to her other arm. Michael still remained silent and she felt her first twinge of true concern.
"You look really worried, honey. Tell me what's wrong."
He didn't respond and her stomach lurched with a premonition of disaster. "Michael, talk to me. Has there been an accident? Oh my gosh, is it one of my parents?"
"No, not that...."
"Is your dad's heart playing up again? Please don't try to cushion the blow, you're just making me more scared."
He shifted from one foot to the other, so ill-at-ease that his discomfort seemed almost fake. "I can't marry you," he said, avoiding her gaze. "We have to call off the wedding."
Shock momentarily paralyzed her. Then relief surged through Emily, leaving her knees feeling shaky. She suppressed a slightly impatient sigh. She'd noticed before that she didn't share Michael's rather cruel sense of humor, and she was too busy today to be tactful.
Glancing at her watch, she gave a weak smile. "Michael, I'm sorry, but I don't have time to play games. I'll see you this evening at five o'clock. Remember we have the cocktail reception for the bridal party and family members at your father's club, and then we have the dinner for out-of-town guests right afterwards."
Compulsively organized as always, she opened the file and read out the column of arrangements that affected Michael. "It's black tie tonight, of course. My parents are bringing me, so there's no need for you to pick me up. By now, your brother should already have left for the airport to pick up your groomsmen who are flying in from Dallas. Harrison Turner and Carter Blayne. Those are the two groomsmen I've never met, if you remember. They'll need transportation tonight, because they're not renting cars for some reason. I have written in on my schedule that your brother will drive them to the dinner, but he hasn't been pinned down on this and you know Jordan is always a law unto himself. He may choose to cooperate, or then again he's just as likely to blow off the entire night's events."
She snapped the ring binder shut, taking a calming breath. The mere thought of Jordan was always enough to provoke a frisson of irritation so, with the ease of long practice, she switched her train of thought. "Oh, and if you have a spare second, you might go and say a couple of soothing words to your mother. She's fussing about the dinner menu again, and Sidney is beginning to lose his cool."
Emily managed a tired smile, although her prospective mother-in-law had been really hard to manage this morning. "Try to convince her that serving smoked pheasant appetizers simply isn't an option at this point. She'll have to be content with the ten varieties of hors d'oeuvres she's already selected."
Michael rubbed his forehead. "Who is Sidney?"
"Oh, sorry. I've spoken to him so often, I forgot you wouldn't know. He's the chef at your dad's club."
She turned to go, but Michael hurried across the room and grabbed her arm, interposing himself between her and the door. "Dammit, Emily, will you stand still for a minute and stop rattling off lists? I shouldn't have allowed you to go on about all those arrangements." He crossed his arms and stared at her with a touch of defiance. "I wasn't joking just now. I can't marry you. We have to call off the wedding."
"Call off the wedding?" Once again, it seemed to Emily that the world stopped. Only this time it didn't immediately start moving forward again. She blinked and swallowed hard, trying to bring her vision back into focus. "Not ... marry me?"
Michael drew in another deep breath and shook his head. "That's right. I'm sorry, but we have to call off the wedding. I just can't go through with it."
Panic froze her in mid-breath. Michael was a decent man, her good friend. There was only one rational explanation for what he was saying. She gasped, frantically trying to suck in enough air to speak. "Oh my God! You've discovered that you're suffering from some incurable disease!"
"No." His manner was so brusque she knew he had to be hiding something terrible.
"Don't try to protect my feelings--"
"I'm not protecting you!" Michael yelled. He lowered his voice with visible effort. "I'm fine, Emily, never healthier. But I can't marry you."
He was serious, Emily realized. Dead serious. Michael was just fine, except that he wanted out of their marriage. Her brain, overloaded with details ranging from the color of table linen for the prenuptial bridal dinner (cream with centerpieces of yellow rosebuds) to the gifts for her six bridesmaids (specially designed gold pins from Tiffanys) refused to find space for the unpalatable fact that the reason for all these elaborate preparations had just vanished. On a whim of Michael's, with no reference to her wishes, the wedding was off.
It was now ten-thirty on Friday morning. On Saturday evening, in less than thirty-six hours, fifty important out-of-town guests and three hundred movers and shakers from the state of Texas expected to see Emily Sutton, heiress to the Sutton land development fortune, married to Michael Chambers, prospective candidate for governor of Texas. Unfortunately, it seemed that half the bridal couple wouldn't be available.
Moving with great care, Emily walked across to the antique burlwood desk and set down the ring binder. The hundred-and-fifty page tome of meticulous planning that had suddenly been rendered as useless as a dead battery.
"Is there some special reason why you no longer want to marry me?" she asked. Amazingly, shock had so stifled her emotions that her voice emerged sounding coolly interested rather than heartbroken.
"There are a lot of reasons," Michael said vaguely. He shoved his hands into his pockets, and paced the library, seeming to regain his natural confidence as he paced. "For one thing, there's obviously no sexual spark between the two of us. I know we agreed on this marriage for practical reasons, but in this day and age, didn't it bother you that we've been engaged for three months and neither one of us has found the time to take a weekend away and actually make love to each other?"
Now he noticed that they'd never made love? She'd been wondering for weeks why not. Emily flushed, touching her engagement ring. The four-carat diamond solitaire --big enough to make a statement, not big enough to be vulgar -- suddenly felt heavy and out of place on her finger. Twisting the ring, she decided this wasn't the very best moment to confess that she hadn't made any sexual overtures to Michael because their celibate relationship had been a source of considerable relief to her.
She gave an explanation she hoped he would accept. "We have frantically busy schedules, both of us. I'm sure our sexual relationship will be just fine once we get around to it."
"Once we get around to it?" Michael shot her an incredulous glance. "You're attractive, but you seem to have almost no sex drive. When we kiss, it's as if we're friends, not potential lovers. That's strange, really, considering--" He pulled himself up short. "Anyway, I know this marriage of ours was never supposed to be a love match...."
Wasn't it? Emily wondered, no longer listening to Michael's attempt to explain the inexplicable. No, she supposed she had to grant him that much. She'd been determined to make her marriage last a lifetime, and she'd promised as much when Michael asked her to marry him. But neither of them had exchanged vows of everlasting love. Neither of them had mentioned passion. They'd simply committed themselves to a relationship based on friendship, mutual trust and loyalty. The qualities her adoptive parents shared in their marriage. The very qualities Emily had always wanted in her own marriage.
Michael was amazingly good-looking, Emily thought, watching his lips move without hearing a word of what he was saying. She wondered why she'd never felt even a twinge of physical attraction toward him. She pondered this for a second or two, then dismissed the question as one that no longer held any interest for her.
Despite the fact that she had never lusted for Michael's body during their engagement, she'd intended to be the best possible wife for him, and she'd recognized that included being an active sexual partner. Just last week she'd bought a sexy black negligee for their honeymoon, proving to herself that she was willing to do whatever it took to keep her husband happy.
Sex had always struck her as a significantly overrated activity, but she wasn't neurotic about it. Dammit, Emily reassured herself. She was not neurotic about sex. Just because she was more aware than some of her contemporaries that getting carried away by passion could have serious consequences, it didn't mean she was a prude. She wanted children, she knew men liked to have sex on a regular basis, and she was quite sure she could learn to enjoy a modest program of sexual activity. That's why she'd carefully selected a prospective husband who looked as if he'd know how to go about the whole thing tastefully, without the excessive panting and pawing she found such a turnoff.
Besides, she'd always assumed that what she and Michael shared was something much more important than messy emotions like lust and carnal desire. She liked Michael's company, admired his achievements, and envied his deep family roots. Surely those were better - stronger - grounds for marriage than a physical attraction that was likely to burn itself out within weeks of the honeymoon?
Emily felt a spurt of betrayal when she thought back over the past three months. Michael had assured her numerous times that she was going to be the perfect wife for him, the ideal partner for a man burning up miles on the trail to the governor's mansion. Only last week, after their dinner with Senator Drysdale and his wife, he'd told her that she was the sort of woman most political candidates could only dream of finding. Socially gracious, well-educated, but never pushy, Michael told her proudly that she burnished his image whenever they appeared together. What had happened between last Wednesday and today to change his mind?
Emily realized she'd been so wrapped up in her own thoughts that she'd given less than half her attention to Michael's rambling explanation as to why he was calling off the wedding. In the end, though, perhaps it didn't matter that she wasn't much wiser about his motives now than she had been ten minutes ago. However closely she'd listened, would she have heard any explanation that could make sense out of such a crazy decision?
"I'm counting on you to help me come up with a reasonable explanation for this last-minute cancellation," Michael was saying, in a jolting echo of her own thoughts. "We neither of us want to provide any more fodder for the scandal sheets than we need. Our breakup is bound to be reported by the local San Antonio media, especially coming right before the wedding like this. If we're unlucky, this is a story that could get picked up by the national tabloids. We mustn't forget how easily my campaign for governor could hit a road-block. I know I don't need to remind you, honey, how important it is that we don't do anything to derail my fund-raising prospects at this stage of the game. These days, if you can't please the money men, you can't hope to run a campaign."
She winced at the endearment, but she could see he hadn't even noticed the casual intimacy of the way he'd called her honey. Hurt made her angry. "Yes, I can see that your fund-raising prospects are your first priority right now."
Michael gave no indication that he noticed the sarcasm dripping from her reply. "I knew you'd understand, Emily. I value your opinion, you know, even though I can't marry you, and I sure would appreciate anything you can think of that would keep my campaign moving along on an upward swing."
How about a swift, hard kick in the pants, Emily thought wildly. That ought to give him some satisfactory upward propulsion.
"It's vital for us to have some sort of plausible story to tell before tonight's dinner," Michael said. He sent her a smile that Emily found infuriatingly patronizing. "I'm perfectly agreeable to pretending that it's you who called it off." His smile deepened, then changed into a warm chuckle. "Who knows? If you're seen ditching me, maybe that'll increase my sympathy ratings with the women voters."
"Or maybe they'll all start wondering what I found wrong with you," she said.
His worried frown instantly reappeared. "Damn! I was joking, but you have a point. Hmm.... We'll have to think about that some more. There must be some way for us to pull this one out of the hat."
"Consult with your campaign manager," she said, her jaw clenched. "I'm sure Jeff Greiff will have an opinion. He always does. And after all, this is a political issue, isn't it? There don't seem to be many emotions involved."
"You're wrong," he said, suddenly solemn. "At least on my side, there's quite a lot of feeling, even though we both always recognized this was pretty much a marriage of convenience. I really do care about you, Emily. It's just that I need to be so careful--"
He pulled himself up short. "Anyway, thanks for suggesting I should get in touch with Jeff. That was a great idea, I'll give him a call."
"Sure. Don't let me keep you."
Her sarcasm finally penetrated Michael's cloud of self-absorption. He had reached for his cell phone, but he put it down on the desk without dialing, his expression contrite and faintly ashamed. "I'm real sorry, Emily. But this will turn out for the best, you'll see."
He leaned forward and, to her horror, she realized he was planning to hug her, or maybe even give her a comforting kiss. She hastily stepped backward, out of his reach.
"Don't touch me!" She was humiliated by the hurt and panic that she could no longer screen out of her voice.
Michael's expression softened into a sympathy that she didn't want and couldn't bear to see. "I have a high regard for you and your adopted family, Emily, a very high regard. Even though things haven't worked out between the two of us, I'm glad that my father and yours have already entered into a business partnership for that new land development in Laurel Acres. And I want you to know that if I can count on your father for the promised campaign contributions, then he can count on me to get him all the business introductions he can possibly use for his own personal business projects, quite apart from my family's commitment to the Laurel Acres project. Any doors that might have been closed to him in the past... Well, I'll personally guarantee to make sure that they spring open. The Chambers family name carries a lot of power in this state, and you've earned the right to have me use some of that power on behalf of your adoptive family."
Earned the right? The shock was well and truly wearing off, Emily realized. She was so hurt by Michael's suggestion that their engagement had been nothing more than a subsidiary clause in a business deal, and so disgusted by his casual shattering of their promises to each other, that she was about to say all sorts of things she would undoubtedly regret. Thinking first and speaking much later had prevented her making a lot of bad mistakes in her life. No point in changing the habits of a lifetime at this traumatic moment. What she needed to do right now was to get out of here so that she could draw the tattered remnants of her pride and dignity back around her.
Averting her eyes, she picked up the wedding arrangements binder and clutched it to her chest, deriving irrational comfort from its familiar weight, even though all the documents tucked carefully inside were now so much waste paper.
"I can't stay talking to you any longer, Michael. I have an appointment all the way across town." She was fiercely glad now that she'd never told him about her decision to consult with Dylan Garrett of Finders Keepers. Especially glad that she'd never even breathed a hint as to why she might want to hire the services of a private investigator. Her desire to find her birth mother seemed an intimate yearning that she was glad she'd never shared with Michael.
She glanced at her watch, surprised that some part of her brain was still functioning clearly enough to enable her to note that it was already ten-thirty-eight. "Unless the traffic is miraculously light, I'm already going to be late."
"Of course, don't let me keep you. We're just about finished here, aren't we?" "You could certainly say that."
"Then I'll let you go." Michael was obviously as anxious to get away from her as she was to get away from him. She could see his fingers quivering over the buttons of his cell phone. "I really appreciate how understanding you've been about this, Emily. I knew you would be, though. You're one class act, but you know that, don't you?" He looked at her almost wistfully. "In so many ways, you'd have made the perfect governor's wife."
She was a class act in grave danger of tossing her cookies if she didn't get out of this room in the next thirty seconds. Without saying another word, Emily swung out of the library, proud that she was sufficiently under control to close the door quietly behind her.
Emily had never made a scene in her life, and she wasn't about to give Michael Chambers the satisfaction of seeing her create one now. When you had no idea where you came from, it wasn't a good idea to give people cause to ask questions about your stability, or even your manners.
Ever the lady -- even if she hadn't been born one -- Emily walked quietly from the room.
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