Saved by the Bride
Author:Fiona Lowe

Chapter One

Who knew that being a klutz and combining it with a distrust of wedding bouquets could lead to a black eye?

Annika Jacobson automatically touched the four-day-old berry-colored bruise with its spectacular vivid yellow edges with the tips of her fingers as if that would will it away.

“Stop it.” Nicole Lindquist from Whitetail’s Affairs with Hair leaned forward and captured her hand. “I’ve concealed it with makeup but if you keep tapping it with your fingers, you’ll ruin all my hard work.”

“Sorry.” For the thousandth time in ninety-six hours, Annika asked herself why she hadn’t just caught the damn flowers. Everyone outside the old Whitetail church knew that Jennifer would throw her bouquet to her best friend and they’d all discreetly taken a step back so it could happen. She’d known it too and had thought she was up for the task but at the last minute she’d panicked and moved sideways, thinking it would leave Melissa wide open for the catch. In her own inimitable, uncoordinated style, she’d misjudged it completely and the only thing she’d caught was a wad of firmly packed tulip stems to the cheek. Stems which packed a hell of a punch. All in all it had capped off a day she’d been dreading for months.

Not that she didn’t think Jennifer’s marriage was a good idea, it totally was. Jennifer, unlike herself, had been born to be married and Carl was a great guy, but their wonderful wedding, where the town had made them celebrities for the day, had been their last day in Whitetail. They too had joined the parade that led out of town toward jobs in Madison, Milwaukee, the Twin Cities and beyond. Their departure made the economic situation very real and meant that after a decade, she was the only member of her graduating class still living in Whitetail. Financially, she was barely holding on herself because personalized calligraphy was a luxury few in town could now afford and her almost nonexistent bank account had her seriously worried. Reggies, the biggest employer in the town, had been shedding jobs for a year and had now pulled out completely. The business park lay idle and her beloved town was shriveling before her eyes—slowly languishing on the curve of a pristine northwoods lake.

Sadly, beauty and fresh air didn’t pay the bills and the town desperately needed a new industry to survive. She thought of her two overdue rent notices and knew deep in her heart she needed a regular job to survive. A job so she could stay in Whitetail where she belonged.

“I’m just nervous, is all.” She glanced around at the other four expectant faces, the core group of the Whitetail Chamber of Commerce who’d joined her in the limousine for moral support. At least they thought it was moral support. Annika felt it was more along the lines of making sure she didn’t back out of “the plan.” Just the thought of “the plan” made her sick to her stomach so she tried to joke. “At least this party’s full of out-of-staters and no one will have read about my epic failure in The Bugle.”

Melissa Bergeron, the owner of the Northern Lights Boutique and the woman who’d lent Annika the evening dress she was now wearing, made a funny face as if she was trying not to laugh.

“What?”

“They might have seen it in the online edition.”

Annika’s stomach rolled on acid and not much else. “Since when does The Bugle have an online edition? I thought Eric was still learning how to use the Guttenberg press?”

“His grandson, Joshua, is home for the summer and as part of his IT project to get the seniors online, he’s taken the paper to the web, complete with a subscription deal,” said John Ackerman, the proprietor of Whitetail Market and Video. “This week’s the inaugural edition and Jennifer’s wedding video is the first click-through feature.”

“Joshua’s wonderful and he made everyone at the center have a practice,” said Ella Norell, a vibrant senior with a passion for gardening and cake decorating. “Anni, you looked quite pretty before you sprawled on the grass.”

Annika almost dropped her head into her hands before realizing she wasn’t allowed to do that because it would ruin her hair and makeup. Life was so much easier wearing her ink-stained jeans and pulling her hair back in a ponytail. So she gave a shuddering sigh instead as that was the only option open to her. After twenty-nine years she knew she couldn’t hide how uncoordinated she was from her small hometown, but the world didn’t need to know.

The internet knows. “Oh, God, why did it go live this week? The video’s probably been uploaded everywhere and someone at the party will have seen it.”

Nicole nodded in sympathy. “Don’t worry. Just think of it as more of your exemplary community service.”

When Annika was twelve and on a 4-H hike, she’d organized a group of girls to carry out an injured Sally Tomie on a stretcher made of sweaters. On their arrival back in Whitetail, both the town and her often-distracted parents had gushed with pride. Annika had been “helping out” ever since.

“Me being suckered by treacherous tulips wasn’t part of any plan to get Whitetail on the map.”

Neither was the town’s current plan of having her gate-crash an engagement party hosted by the head of AKP Industries from Chicago, which was being held at his vacation house on Lake Whitetail. Sean Callahan’s company had bought the business park from Reggies and as the mayor’s volunteer assistant, she’d made numerous telephone calls, sent emails and even snail-mail letters requesting an appointment to discuss the future plans for the park. Without a business plan the town would die and she was determined not to let that happen. She’d put in hours of work but all she’d got back was silence. Utter, devastating silence.

At an emergency town meeting held two days ago when then-mayor, Donna Wakeen, had unexpectedly blown off the town by running away to Chicago to a job that paid, Annika had suddenly found herself appointed acting mayor despite a thousand reservations of her own including the accusatory internal voice that said, You need to focus on your career.

She’d silenced the voice, accepted the temporary position and while looking for a way to move forward, she’d posed the general question, “What is Whitetail good at?”

The town, on a post-wedding high, had replied exactly that. Weddings.

Nicole had told everyone how Hobin, Wisconsin, had been successful with weddings and they only had a red barn for receptions. Annika had pointed out that surely Wisconsin only needed one small town for weddings. Nicole had enthusiastically argued that as Whitetail was close to the Minnesota border, they were in the perfect position to attract couples from Minneapolis/Saint Paul and they had a lot more to offer than a barn. Then she’d waved a glossy magazine article about Bridget Callahan’s engagement.

Despite John Ackerman’s opinion of the family—“worst vacationers ever. They never spend a cent in the town”—suddenly everyone was pushing Annika to use Donna’s invitation to attend the engagement party and go convince the bride-to-be to have her wedding in Whitetail.

“It will put us on the map just like Chelsea Clinton did for Rhinebeck,” Mrs. Norell had claimed, and the town had enthusiastically agreed.

Annika thought the plan to be utterly insane. The daughter of a billionaire who’d never supported Whitetail wouldn’t even consider getting married in a tiny northwoods town. No, she’d be having a glitz-and-glamour wedding at a venue like Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

Just like yours was going to be.

She banished the thought so fast she almost gave herself whiplash. The town’s outrageous wedding plan wasn’t hers. Whitetail needed real jobs with a long-term future but as Sean Callahan hadn’t accepted any of her offers to take a meeting, she had no choice but to resort to gate-crashing his daughter’s party. When she finally did meet him, she wouldn’t be talking about weddings—she’d be talking about the business park and the future of Whitetail.

Al, the owner-driver of Whitetail’s Feel Like a Star car and carriage service, brought the limousine to a halt near a clearing in the dense pine trees. He turned to them and said, “The gates of the Callahan property are just up ahead. The four of you need to get out and I’ll collect you all after I’ve delivered Anni to the front door.”

Annika’s heart kicked up. This crazy plan was actually happening. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breath out.

Nicole, her eyes shining and with a smile that broke through the strain of grief which had circled her since the start of the year, tucked a stray strand of Annika’s hair into place and gave her face a final dust of powder. “Don’t be nervous. We’ve made you look so amazing we hardly recognize you. You’re going to fit right in with those Chicago socialites.”

Mrs. Norell added, “Anni, just remember Tess in the movie Working Girl. She gate-crashed a wedding and talked business. Oh, Harrison Ford was gorgeous back then.”

Annika was too stressed to point out that was the movies and the eighties, where as this was real life. Her real life.

John gave her a supporting smile tinged with hubris. “You might mention that my fruit and vegetables are equal to what their cook brings in from Chicago.”

“John, she’s going to be talking about weddings,” said Melissa as she adjusted the strapless dress. “Tell Miss Callahan I can order in any number of wedding dresses.”

“Out,” Al said firmly. “Leave the poor girl alone.”

They scrambled across the seats and out into the sweet evening air and a minute later Al drove the vehicle through the open and imposing gates with their monogrammed K in the center, up the long drive and came to a stop halfway around the circle. As he opened the door for her, he said in his best chauffeur’s voice, “This is the Callahan’s cabin on the lake.”

She gave him a tight smile. “Thanks, Al.”

The property was closer to the town by boat than by car and she’d never been here before. She moistened her lips and stepped out, and as she was smoothing down her dress it hit her that not only was she a walking example of the Whitetail Chamber of Commerce, she carried the expectations of the entire town on her now bare and nervous shoulders. Her stomach spun like the spin cycle of the washing machine she couldn’t afford. Why had she let the town talk her into this?

Jobs and the future. Your future.

As she watched the limo pull away and disappear down the wide sweep of driveway, she took in a deep breath and turned to face the Callahans’ lakeside cabin. She instantly wondered if the rich took pleasure in irony. She supposed a small and simple fishing cabin might have existed once, but not anymore. The setting sun cast a golden glow on an imposing classic American house with a silvery-gray cedar-shake exterior, white windows and a shingled roof, and it reminded her of an era long passed. Four enormous stone chimneys rose majestically but only those with an eye for detail and some knowledge of architecture could tell they also marked the spot where the original house ended and the huge modern extension started.

The house—Kylemore, according to its copper nameplate—loomed above her, its steeply pitched roof dwarfing her and her bravado.

She smoothed down her dress and squared her shoulders. She could do this.

Then she laid eyes on the headset-adorned security guard. Her stomach lurched so hard it almost tugged her sideways. Crap. Security. It hadn’t occurred to her to factor that into her plans.

A tremble started in her toes but then, out of nowhere, part of the 4-H pledge rolled through her brain, stalling the wobble at her knees. I pledge my heart to clearer thinking. She took in a calming breath, letting the sight of the sparkling water on the lake soothe her. As steadily as one can in three-inch heels, she walked purposefully to the front door with her head held high and a smile pasted on her face. “Good eve—”

“Name.”

The security guard barked out the word so loudly, so unexpectedly and so very un-Wisconsin-like, that she wavered precariously on her heels as her composure fled. “Ann...Donna Wakeen.”

Damn, damn, damn. She stifled a groan. She’d practiced over and over what she needed to say and now the first time she’d opened her mouth she’d gone and fluffed it.

Distract with chitchat. She smiled again and this time her cheeks ached as she tried to keep the edge of anxiety out of her voice. “You must be from Chicago.”

A grunt was all she got as he studied his clipboard and followed with, “You’re not on the list.”

I’m not on the list!

Don’t panic yet. She opened the ridiculously small but exquisitely beaded evening purse and pulled out a folded piece of thick, embossed paper. Paper she knew cost a fortune because a calligraphy client had once asked her to price it. “Here’s my invitation.”

The stone-faced man stared at it impassively. “You’re not on the list which means I can’t let you in.”

Her heart pounded against the figure-hugging bodice of the dress. It had never occurred to her that holding the invitation wouldn’t be enough to gain entry. Frantically trying to think, she crossed her fingers in the folds of her dress. Forgive this bending of the truth. It’s for a good cause. She tried to peer at his list. “Oh, dear, aren’t I? My P.A. assured me she’d telephoned and given the RSVP. Clearly there’s been a miscommunication.”

His dark eyes showed no emotion and he turned away, speaking into the mouthpiece of his headset. Annika strained to decipher the words but his voice was a low and unintelligible rumble and all she caught was “Donna.” He turned back. “You got your cell on you?”

She smiled brightly. “Yes.”

He nodded and then said “yes” into his mouthpiece before looking directly at her. “Neiquest or Callahan?”

“Pardon?” She had no clue what he was talking about.

He spoke slowly, his expression shrewd. “Are you friends of the Neiquests or the Callahans?”

Understanding dawned. “Oh, right, um, the bride’s father.” Well, that’s kind of close to the truth seeing the impossible-to-contact Sean Callahan is the reason I’m here.

He tapped his clipboard. “Your phone’s not ringing.”

“Ah, no. Should it be?”

“If you were Donna Wakeen then, yeah, it would be.”

He flicked some gum with his tongue, the action of a man in total control and holding all the keys to the kingdom. “The dispatcher just rang the number and got her voice mail. I don’t know who you are, lady, but no one gate-crashes a Callahan party on my shift.” His stance widened to block the doorway and his hands moved to his hips. “I’ll be asking you to leave now.”

She could hear the animated sounds of the party and she was so very close to her goal and yet so very far away. Desperation flooded her. “This invitation was for the mayor and she couldn’t come and—”

“Do you need me to escort you off the property?” His expression was granite.

Her cheeks burned with mortification. “No. Thank you, I can find my own way.”

“Good.” He continued to stare at her as if she was a June bug he could squish whenever he chose.

With her confidence in tatters, she somehow managed to muster up her dignity, turn very slowly on her heels and stalk down the blacktop into the fast-fading light. As the pine trees enveloped her and the noise of the party became a low buzz, a smolder of fury burned inside her, slowly gaining heat. What did manners cost? If that was the caliber of the staff Callahan hired then she wondered at the type of person this billionaire was. Easy—undeniably rude!

The balls of her feet burned and with a rough tug she pulled off her sandals and sank down into soft pine needles. Okay, so she’d tried to use another person’s invitation to gain entry but only because Callahan hadn’t responded to any of her communications. Why had she even thought he might? According to older residents, the Callahans had been coming to Whitetail for years but unlike most other vacationers, they’d kept themselves aloof from the town. Each summer they buzzed the lake with their powerboats and Jet Skis, and every Thanksgiving they cut down a Christmas tree and, without a backward glance, headed back to Chicago.

Always taking, never giving.

The smolder ignited into a hot flame that quickly took hold until a fire raged. Damn it all, good people were hurting and this family owed her a meeting. Owed Whitetail a meeting. She’d always been good, always done the right thing, and her dealings with AKP Industries were no different. She’d gone through all the correct channels and what had it got her? Squat. Now the town had gone to enormous lengths to get her ready for this party so she could meet Sean Callahan, and she didn’t need to imagine their reaction if she returned without meeting him—she could taste their disappointment in her already. She hated letting people down.

She heard a band start up followed by cheering. Given the volume of noise and combining it with the fact it was a warm and balmy summer night, she knew everyone was dancing outside. She should be there. Not dancing but mingling outside in the crowd and finding the man she needed to meet.

Outside. The thought rocked her. Most people would be in the garden, leaving the house fairly empty. With a determined pull, she strapped her dainty shoes back on her feet. There was more than one way to skin a cat so there was more than one way to get into that party.

She just had to find it.

* * *

Finn Callahan downed his third Leinenkugel, and wondered how much longer he had to stay at his sister’s engagement party. After months of living and working in Mexico and becoming used to a more casual dress code, he found that his tuxedo clung to him as tight and constricting as a straitjacket. The starched collar of his shirt scratched and itched, and with an abrupt pull, he undid the offending bow tie and shoved it into his pocket.

Why on earth had Bridey wanted a formal engagement party? The question immediately begged a bigger one—why did she even want to get married? It wasn’t like either of them had been raised to actually witness any benefits from the institution. He took another slug of his beer, wondering what was going on in his sister’s pretty head that made her insist the party be up at the lake. This meant his long-since-divorced-but-still-acrimonious parents had to spend an evening together in a house they’d once shared and his second stepmother now considered to be very much her own. Happy families didn’t come close.

After the stiff smiles and overly bright attempts at conversation by the current and ex-wives of Sean Callahan had worn him down, he’d retreated to the library because it was the only room in the house he liked. It was the one place Sean had left untouched during the massive renovation. Quiet and tucked away in the back corner, it meant he was unlikely to be disturbed, but it also gave him a partial view of proceedings. From here he’d know when to reappear so as not to miss the toasts.

He gazed out one of the many windows, past the live band in full swing out on the terrace, past people dancing on the floating dance floor under the stars and toward the lone twinkling light in the middle of the lake. He smiled at the faint yellow glow, loving what it represented—his island and his cabin. A real cabin, unlike this monolith that his father had built to impress and in the process lost the soul of Grandpa’s place.

He checked his work email on his phone—nothing from Henrico so thankfully no disasters at the new plant. Still he wouldn’t mind one if it got him out of Kylemore. He ate a club sandwich from the platter that Esther—the indomitable housekeeper—had brought in for him and then he looked for something to read. A vast array of women’s magazines were scattered across the low table along with an angling magazine and a bunch of plastic toy building bricks. When he’d been a kid, his father had never allowed him in here to read, let alone play. He turned away from the toy bricks and crossed the room to the wall of bookshelves. With a practiced eye, he quickly found Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

He settled into the wingback chair in the far corner of the large room and the book fell open to his favorite scene, read to him so many times by his grandfather. As he reread the well-known words he could hear Grandpa’s booming voice telling the story and the noise of the party fell away.

A soft thud made him look up. A beaded purse lay on the rug. He immediately heard a louder thump followed by a heartfelt, “Ohh, shit! Ouch.”

He was instantly on his feet and just in time to see a long, creamy leg pointing ceiling-ward into the room with the back of the knee pressed against the windowsill. Five brightly painted red toes peeked out of a ridiculously high-heeled shoe and a pair of manicured hands gripped the sill as the leg tried to bend to find purchase. A grunt of effort reverberated as loudly as a bass drum and he glimpsed a head, saw the second leg appear and then the head vanished.

Someone was doing an exceptionally clumsy job of trying to climb through the window. He should’ve been outraged but then again most thieves didn’t raid homes dressed in evening wear. The absurdity of it added an extra something to what so far had been a very long evening. Someone had obviously drunk far too much champagne so instead of calling security, he decided to check it out himself.

He raised the window higher and leaned out into the shadows. He couldn’t make out much more than the outline of what he assumed was a woman’s body lying upside down against the side of the house. He couldn’t see anyone else. “Most people use the door.”

A gasp shot through the air followed by a beat of silence. “I’m not most people.” The Midwest accent combined resignation with attitude—an intriguing combination.

“Exactly what are you doing?”

“Do you think we could leave the explanations until after you’ve helped me up? My head’s about to explode from too much blood.”

“I guess that’s an option.” His gaze slid along the curve of one fully exposed leg and then snagged on the clear view of white, cotton panties. He took a second look to make sure he’d seen right. He couldn’t even remember the last time he’d seen plain, classic briefs, and combined with evening wear, well, it was just wrong. The luxurious material of the dress demanded French lace or a skimpy thong, not utilitarian cotton. Even so, he suddenly felt hot, which was ridiculous, and he quickly pulled the dress over both legs to cover her up. Standing to one side, he gripped her wrists and pulled. Her legs moved sideways, knocking into his head.

“Whoa, what are you doing? I’m slipping. Just pull me straight up!”

The bossy tone, not unlike the one Bridey had used when she’d demanded he attend her party, irritated him and he started to regret his offer of help. He much preferred women who didn’t say very much. “Listen, Legs, I was trying to spare you an element of indignity.”

A strangled sound that was half groan and half laugh floated up to him. “I left dignity behind at the last mile post. Do whatever. Just get me up.”

He knew exactly what he had to do but he wasn’t certain she was going to like it. “Hold the windowsill with your left hand.” Keeping a firm grip on her right wrist and losing the battle not to take a second peek at the utilitarian underwear, he managed to maneuver himself so he stood between her legs. “Wrap your legs around my waist.”

“Excuse me?” Her voice rose an octave.

He grinned at the fact he’d made her take-charge tone waver, but she had absolutely nothing to worry about. Not only did he prefer women who didn’t readily offer up opinions, he was also very fond of breasts. Legs had never really done it for him. “Relax, it’s pure physics. We’re using my weight to counterbalance yours.”

“Oh, God, I did say do whatever, didn’t I?” She suddenly let out a shriek. “Quick, the sprinklers just came on!”

Her smooth, warm legs came in hard and fast against his body before she crossed her ankles behind him. His blood pounded south. Just physics, right?

He tugged firmly on her forearms, as much to bring her straight up as to banish his body’s response to her. It had been weeks since he’d reacted like this to any woman and they’d been women he’d been able to see. Why the hell was this happening with one he couldn’t see?

A moment later, with her legs gripping him even harder, a flash of wet, emerald-green bodice appeared, followed by even more creamy skin. Then, framed by sodden mousy-colored hair filled with pine needles and twigs, vivid blue eyes stared straight at him. Eyes that reminded him of cornflowers and kaleidoscopes. Eyes that seemed to be having a great deal of trouble focusing. She swayed backward.

“Don’t faint on me. Take a deep breath.” Instinctively he put his arm around her waist to steady her and the action brought her hard up against his chest. She smelled like fresh pine, summer flowers and simpler times. He leaned back, suddenly needing to keep some distance.

She gulped in air, her chest heaving, and suddenly her eyes cleared, filling with relief. “The room’s stopped spinning.”

“That’s a good start.” Her legs continued to grip him like a vise, draining his blood from his brain. Somehow, he managed to choke out, “You can probably put your feet on the ground now.”

Thick, chestnut lashes blinked and droplets of water splashed against her pale cheek. He watched, fascinated, as a flush crawled up her neck, staining her skin pink.

With lightning speed, she dropped her legs, slid off the windowsill and stood tall and dripping on the rug. Despite being soaking wet and bedraggled, “Legs” held herself with an air of composure that matched the vestiges of style and coiffure which were sharply at odds with the fact she’d entered the house in a questionable way. He couldn’t detect a single strand of guilt.

She tugged at her dress, straightening it as if she scrambled through windows every day, and then she hit him with a clear and direct gaze. “Thank you very much, Mr., er...”

No apology. Interesting. He decided to wait and see how she played it. “Finn.”

“Thank you, Finn.”

She spoke clearly and with no sign of a slur, which immediately ruled out drunkenness as the reason she’d attempted to climb through the window in such an inept way.

Her gaze darted around the room as if she was trying to get her bearings. “This is a lovely room.”

“I like it.” He closed the window, his blood now fully back where it belonged—oxygenating his brain. “By the way, most people come through a window head first, legs last.”

She nibbled her bottom lip. “Yeah, my game plan was a bit off and gymnastics was never my strong suit.”

Again, it wasn’t an answer he’d expected and her apparent honesty disarmed him. He took a closer look at her face, seeking any expression that told the real story. She wasn’t pretty in the conventional way although under the mess of makeup, she had good bone structure. He noticed a dark smudge near her eye. “Have you hurt your cheek?”

“Oh, God, can you see that?” She touched the top of her right cheekbone and let out a low wail. “Sadly, it’s not mascara but an almost-healed black eye from when I missed a catch.”

He couldn’t help himself and laughter won out. “So gymnastics and ball games aren’t your thing?”

Her mouth tilted up into a self-effacing smile, joining him in the joke. “To be honest, it’s all sports including crossing the road.”

He couldn’t help grinning at her. “And yet knowing that, you tried to climb through a window in an evening dress?”

“It’s always important to give it your best shot.” Her hands came up to grip her arms and she took a shivery step toward the throw rug on the couch. “Do you mind?”

Her question momentarily jolted him out of his intrigue and activated his manners. “Sure, go right ahead.” He’d get her warm and then drill her. He poured a shot of Scotch from the crystal decanter and handed it to her.

She stared at it for a moment before accepting the glass and downing it in one gulp. Her pupils instantly dilated to wide, jet discs, almost obliterating the piercing blue. Coughing, she sank onto the leather couch and gasped out, “Water?”

He squirted some soda into another glass and she swallowed it all. “Better?”

“It burns all the way down.”

“That’s the general idea.” He sat down next to her. “Who are you?”

She hesitated for a moment as if battling with herself. “Donna.”

“Donna, who?”

The blue eyes suddenly flashed with silver. “Finn, who?”

He could have told her he was Finn Callahan, third generation of the Chicago Callahans, previously of County Clare, Ireland, and currently heading up the Mexico division of AKP Industries, but the fact she didn’t seem to know him was oddly liberating. “Just Finn.”

She nodded slowly, as if acknowledging the surname-less pact. “So, Finn, why are you hiding out in the library in the middle of a party?”

The perceptive question hit hard. Over the years he’d honed a variety of tactics when faced with family occasions and the fact she’d worked out so fast that he was hiding, rankled. This woman with her round, bright eyes should be apologetic and grateful instead of questioning him. “Given your unorthodox entrance, I’m the one that should be asking the questions.”

She shrugged and a knowing smile creased into round cheeks. “It’s well known that guilt makes us grumpy.”

“In that case you should be as grumpy as hell.”

She tilted her head in consideration of the accusation. “Maybe, but mostly not.”

“And how do you figure that?”

“Sometimes breaking a few rules is what has to happen so fairness can prevail.”

“That’s an interesting philosophy.” One she shared with his father and some of his business associates, but not him. A stickler for the rules, he always argued the point of what constituted fair and to whom.

He passed her the platter of sandwiches with the intention of relaxing her so she’d say something to give him a clue as to why she was here.

She picked up two sandwiches and unlike most women he knew, bit deeply into one as if she hadn’t eaten in days.

“Tell me how this philosophy is working out for you.”

“It’s a recently adopted attitude and I’m still ironing out the kinks. Basically, I’m feeling my way.” She smiled, but her eyes twinkled with purpose. “So why you are here?”

The answer was as complicated as it was easy. “Business.” Family and commercial. Sadly, the two couldn’t be separated and he knew which one he preferred. “And you?”

“Same.”

He tried not to frown, wanting to keep his disbelief hidden. Bridey had insisted that the party not be filled with AKP contacts unless they were her friends or longtime personal friends of the family. Granted, he’d been in Mexico a lot lately but if Donna was a friend of his sister’s, surely she would have mentioned Bridey’s name by now. “What sort of business?”

“Um, warehouses.”

She bit her lip again and his gaze zeroed in on a bead of moisture while his brain kicked him hard. Focus. “You don’t sound very certain.”

“It’s complicated is all.” She pushed some escaped strands of hair behind her ears, the action quick and decisive. “So if you’re here for business, you’d know Sean Callahan?”

And we’re getting warmer. The mention of his father’s name sent a thousand warning flags up in his head. “Sure.”

She picked at the second sandwich. “He’s a hard man to get hold of.”

And he was, but why would she know? How did she know? Everyone at AKP had been sworn to secrecy about company matters especially with the Mexico expansion. Was she a spy from Paper Again, a rival company who’d been trying to get information on the new plant? Nah. He immediately ditched the idea because as a spy she was incredibly inexpert.

A rogue thought pinged into his mind and took hold. Unless of course this whole “damsel in distress” thing was an act to sucker him in. After all, he’d been rescuing birds, animals and women since he was a kid so deliberately setting him up for help would be the perfect way to get to his father. Hell, it had already worked up to this point. He’d pulled her into the house, into his arms, warmed her up and fed her!

He cursed the unauthorized internet news article about him published a few months back that had basically said, “the soft side of Finn Callahan.” God he hated the press.

Press! The thought exploded in his head with the clarity of a brilliant cut diamond. This was just the sort of thing a tabloid reporter would do to get an exclusive. The last thing he needed right now was the press sniffing out dirt on him or finding out that Sean had been missing some important AKP meetings. He still didn’t understand what was going on in his tycoon father’s head but if the shareholders got wind of it in this financial climate, it would send jitters through the stock prices. He sure as hell didn’t need an article about how it took one generation to create a company, the second generation to increase it and the third to lose it.

His gut seethed but he didn’t have enough evidence on “Legs” just yet so he had to play it cool and detached. Pretty much how he played all things family with his father. He gave her an encouraging smile. “I guess you just have to know how to contact him.”

“And you do?” She’d leaned forward slightly, her face alive with interest.

Bingo! Ms. Donna had just made a fatal mistake in her almost perfect modus operandi—an enthusiasm for her target. All that was left to do was expose her by reeling her in, hook, line and sinker. “I’ve got his private number.”

Excitement zipped and fizzed in Annika, following fast behind the effects of the Scotch, which was warming her up in the most delicious way, but in the process making it really hard to concentrate. Finn was making it really hard to concentrate.

From the moment she’d slammed into his broad chest and looked into those questioning coal-black eyes, she’d been out of her depth. At five foot eleven inches, she was used to being taller than some men but Finn had the height of a basketball player, and the solid bulk of a toned athlete. She felt tiny in comparison, which was unusually disconcerting. That and the fact she’d wrapped herself around him like a pole dancer. Just thinking about it made her hot and bothered, which was silly because she knew from the tips of her bruised toes and to the apex of her dented heart that tall, handsome men, dark or blond, spelled disaster for her. All men really.

Thank you, Ryan. When she’d returned to Whitetail after that heart-hammering debacle she’d decided that the more handsome the man, the easier he was for her to resist. Granted, Whitetail hadn’t thrown up any opportunities for her to test her theory in two years, but Finn in his tailored tuxedo slotted perfectly into the top category of “beyond gorgeous” so he was a perfect test case.

Attraction aside, her biggest problem was that she’d been out of her depth before she’d met Finn. The fact she’d even considered that she could pull off a stealth entry to the house was a testimony to her desperation. When she’d ruined the perfect look that the town had gone to so much trouble to organize for her so she could blend into the party, she’d immediately wanted to flee. But perhaps the Gods of Fairness really did exist and had finally deigned to intervene. She wanted to pinch herself because given everything that had happened up to this point, she couldn’t believe she was actually sitting next to a man who not only knew Sean Callahan but knew how to contact him.

Yes! She gave a silent squeal. He’d been remarkable in his lack of concern over her illicit entry, avoided the obvious question of, “What the hell are you doing?” and had been generous with food and drink. She wasn’t going to second-guess why he hadn’t handed her over to security—she’d just accept it as a gift. She was absolutely certain he’d help her meet Sean Callahan, CEO of AKP Industries.

Working hard to keep her mind on the game and not on the sharp, clean scent of his cologne as it mixed in with something essentially masculine, she did everything she could to sound casual. “His private number? Wow, you must be really close to him.”

“Not really.” The words sounded unexpectedly curt but then he shrugged, softening the tone. “Business is business.”

She didn’t really understand what that meant because in Whitetail all business involved a community connection but she brushed it aside as being irrelevant to her needs. “So you can get a message to him?”

He raised his brows and gave her a cat-who-ate-the-cream smile. “I can.”

She tried to rein in the quivering anticipation that leaped in her belly. It was all to do with being close to getting Sean Callahan’s private number and nothing to do with the way the peak of Finn’s top lip said, “Kiss me.”

Nail the deal. “I’ve been trying to meet with him for weeks.”

“To discuss,” he raised his fingers, wiggling them like quotation marks, “warehouses?”

It seemed an odd gesture but she nodded enthusiastically. “Do you think you could arrange a meeting with him for me?”

He rubbed his chin thoughtfully, the soft sound of the rasp of stubble the only noise in the room. “I suppose I could set that up.”

Please, please, please. “But will you?”

He stretched his arm along the length of the couch and all the hair on her body rose in a delicious tingle. She held her breath as she scanned his face, everything hanging on his reply.

“Yes.”

Relief poured through her, setting up a euphoric swirl, and this time she couldn’t stop the squeal of delight from erupting from her lips. “Thank you. You have no idea how much I appreciate this.”

“Oh, I think I do.” His palm curved around the back of her neck, his fingers winding their way into the fallen tendrils of hair.

She stilled as the warmth of his hand built on the heat from the Scotch, and then like a fireball it exploded into jubilation. Her head spun even faster than when he’d pulled her into the room, and she pressed her hand to his chest to stop herself from falling forward. “You’re right. You’ve made me incredibly happy. Thank you.”

His eyes, like unfathomable pools of ink, stared down at her, hypnotically, as if pulling her toward him. She automatically leaned in, kissing him gratefully and briefly on the cheek.

Like a slow-motion sequence, his head dropped forward, his hair tickling her forehead and then his lips touched hers, their pressure firm and coaxing.

Shocked surprise hurtled through her and the tiniest part of her said “Stop now” but it was silenced by the alcohol in her veins and the sheer joy that she’d secured the interview. It’s just a kiss. What did it matter if it was with a virtual stranger—it made a crazy sort of sense given everything that had preceded it this evening.

And it had been such a long time since she’d been kissed.

She opened her mouth under his and sighed. He tasted of malt, of hot, starry summer nights and a tantalizing sense of long-lost joy. With her hand still pressed against his chest, she curled her fingers under the gaps between the studs of his formal shirt, and the tips met hot skin and taut muscle. Her breath hitched and her palm itched to feel more.

His hands slipped down her neck, caressing her bare shoulders and journeying along her arms—the touch leaving a trail of intoxicating bubbles that joined together into an effervescence of unadulterated need. She ached in a way she’d forgotten she could, and all the while his tongue continued its invasion of her mouth in the most delicious raid that had her reconsidering the antisocial behavior of pirates.

One of his hands rested on the top of the zipper at the back of her dress while the other cupped the weight of her breast through the beaded material. Her nipple immediately rose, pushing against the constraints of the bodice, and tingles dived deep. More.

She leaned in closer but he suddenly whipped his hand away from her breast, and was gripping the tops of her arms. Her breast sobbed, her mind snagged and suddenly she was being hauled upward. Her feet hit the floor hard. The next moment, Finn broke all contact, spinning away from her and striding straight toward the decanter.

As her breathing slowed and her vision started to clear, it took her wet and throbbing body a few seconds to catch up with her brain. When it did, it was met with a comprehensive list detailing all the reasons why Finn stopping the kiss was a seriously good idea. Not kissing strangers was a basic safety rule up there with looking both ways before crossing the street. Plus she was here on a mission for the town and she couldn’t let herself get sidetracked by sex. The tiny rebellion of reawakened womanhood was duly reprimanded and squashed.

He silently handed her a drink which she accepted with an unsteady hand and with no intention of drinking it. If one Scotch had her considering getting naked with a complete stranger then she didn’t need a second one. Finn downed his fast, his face a complicated crush of expressions, none of them easily readable. He placed the low-ball glass on the credenza and shot her a tight smile. A very different smile from the one he’d worn when he’d laughed with her over her lack of athleticism. That one had lit up those inky eyes like moonlight breaking through cloud, before carving into high and handsome cheeks, and weaving its way through sexy stubble.

This is officially awkward. Her mouth dried as she tried to think of something casually clever to break the stained silence, but she came up empty.

“Donna, how far are you prepared to go to meet with Sean?”

Okay, this was good; aberration over and now it was back to business. She could do that. She’d hoped to speak with Sean Callahan in Whitetail but if the only appointment she could get was in Chicago, then she’d go there. “Just tell me and I’ll do it.”

Black brows drew in so fast she almost heard them snap as they dug a deep V into the bridge of his long, straight nose. Every ounce of graciousness vanished. “And then I suppose you’ll write about it.”

Write about it? His change in demeanor had her second-guessing herself but using the logic that they were talking about a meeting, she realized that a detailed report for The Bugle was probably a good idea. “I’ll give an interview first.”

“I bet you will.” Disgust slashed his face and he pressed a button near the fireplace before sweeping up her purse. With deft fingers he undid the clasp and upended it.

“Hey, what are you doing?” Lipstick and her phone tumbled onto the floor and she scrambled for them, her heart racing in shocked surprise. She had no idea what had just happened but every part of her told her it wasn’t good.

Finn reached her phone first and held it high. “You’re not getting an interview, and you’re sure as hell not getting any photos of me in compromising positions.”

Photos? She stared at him wondering if he had some sort of mental problem. “What are you talking about?”

A steely expression stole all the humanness from his face and he stared at her like a thunderous, black angel with evil intent. “You can drop the innocent act because with a mouth like that, you’re not innocent at all, are you? What was the plan? Sex on the couch or the credenza with a photographer secreted at the window?” His lips thinned and barely seemed to move. “I don’t know who you’re working for but you better hope they’ve got bail money.”

Her heart hammered in her chest as she tried to make sense of his words and his complete character change but it was like she’d tumbled into a parallel universe. Everything looked the same but it was all oh so very different. “I have no clue what’s going on inside your head but you’re barking mad.” She lunged for her phone.

He caught her shoulders and held her firmly at arm’s length, as if she was a child. The slight creak of a door opening jerked his gaze up and beyond her.

She turned her head as far as she could, given his viselike grip on her, and saw a tall, silver-haired man striding into the room.

Sean Callahan. Annika instantly recognized him from the magazine picture Nicole had shown her. This was who she’d risked a concussion for. This was the man she had to speak to and she had to get to him before Finn said anything. She had to get free. Thinking fast she weighed her options—she could knee her captor in the groin but instead she chose the next one. Lifting a foot, she aimed a sharp kick squarely to his shin.

“Shit.” His hands fell away from her shoulders.

Ignoring the pain that ricocheted along her own leg, she bunched up her long skirt and ran toward the man who held the future of Whitetail in his hands. “Mr. Callahan, I’m so sorry to do this to you on your daughter’s engagement but I need to—”

“Mr. Callahan—” The security guard who’d refused her entry ran panting into the room with his paunch bouncing ahead of him. As his head came up for air, he saw her, raised his hand and said, “You!”

Her stomach fell to the floor as panic threatened to close her throat. She frantically glanced between the door, the three men and the now shut window. All escapes routes irrevocably cut off. “I can explain every—”

“Don’t listen to her.”

“Finnegan, what on earth’s going on?” Sean Callahan’s voice boomed around the chaotic room.

“You’ve caught me mid-citizen’s arrest, Dad.”

Dad? Annika’s chest muscles froze and she gagged on bile. Oh, God, why hadn’t she known Sean Callahan had a son? Why hadn’t she done some research rather than depending on what Nicole had told her? She looked at both the Callahan men, and now that she knew their relationship she could immediately see the genes they shared—the impressive height, the strong, square jaw and the deep brackets around a wide mouth just waiting for a reason to smile. Right now though, given the way both of them were staring at her, that reason was going to be a long time coming.

“I can take over for you, sir.” The security guard put his meaty hand on her arm. She struggled not to try and shake it off.

Tell them the truth. Tell them you’re the acting mayor of Whitetail. She toyed with that idea for about one tenth of a second. She’d broken into a house, wrapped herself around the owner’s son, allowed herself to be kissed senseless and to cap it off had kicked him as hard as she possibly could, treating his shin like a soccer ball. Oh yeah, they were so going to be believe her.