Veil of Night, page 1
By Linda Howard
A LADY OF THE WEST
THE TOUCH OF FIRE
HEART OF FIRE
AFTER THE NIGHT
SHADES OF TWILIGHT
SON OF THE MORNING
KILL AND TELL
NOW YOU SEE HER
ALL THE QUEEN’S MEN
DYING TO PLEASE
CRY NO MORE
KISS ME WHILE I SLEEP
TO DIE FOR
COVER OF NIGHT
DROP DEAD GORGEOUS
UP CLOSE AND DANGEROUS
By Linda Howard and Linda Winstead Jones
Other Books by this Author
About the Author
SIX WEDDINGS IN FIVE DAYS. HOLY SHIT.
All Jaclyn Wilde could think was that her mother, Madelyn, who was her partner in Premier, the events planning firm to hire in the greater Atlanta area if you wanted your guests to be impressed, must have been sipping a couple or twelve champagne martinis when she’d accepted so many bookings so close together. It wouldn’t have been nearly as bad if the bookings had been anything other than weddings: a party was simple in comparison to a wedding, because they were relatively free of emotional turmoil. A wedding, on the other hand, was fraught with every emotion known to man. It wasn’t just the brides; it was the bride’s mother, the groom’s mother, the maid of honor, the bridesmaids, the parents of the flower girl and the ring bearer, the cousins who weren’t invited to be in the wedding party, what colors to choose, the date, the location, the damn font on the friggin’ invitations …
“Jaclyn Wilde,” the clerk called, interrupting Jaclyn’s increasingly stressed and frantic thoughts.
The clerk’s voice was too cheerful. Didn’t she realize it was inappropriate to sound cheerful when you were collecting payments for traffic violations? Maybe it was asking too much that she sound glum, but she could at least sound bored and noncommittal, instead of all but dancing with glee at taking someone’s money.
Jaclyn stifled her irritation; it stemmed more from the almost impossible workload facing her during the coming week than it did from paying her speeding ticket. Adding to her stress was the fact that because they’d been working so hard, she’d forgotten to mail in the money for the speeding ticket, and today was the day it was due, so she’d either had to take time off from work—thereby increasing the stress by getting behind—or have a warrant issued for her arrest. Yeah, that would be a real stress-reducer.
Being late was her fault. If the city of Hopewell, where she lived and where she’d received the ticket, had been set up to receive online payments, she could have handled it that way, but it wasn’t. She got up, silently forked over the cash, and a minute later was striding down the hall, the speeding ticket already forgotten because that particular item had just been checked off her to-do list.
She glanced down at her watch. She had just enough time to get to her next appointment—Carrie Edwards, a bitch for all seasons, and one of the reasons why six weddings in five days was looming as Mission Impossible. Carrie’s wedding wasn’t even one of the six; her wedding wasn’t for another month, but Carrie was taking up way too much of their time with her histrionics and constant flip-flopping on decisions. One bridesmaid had already told her—Carrie, not Jaclyn—to go fuck herself, which was a first in Jaclyn’s experience. Usually, no matter what the bride did, the members of the wedding party would grit their teeth and see it through. Even when they did drop out, they’d make polite excuses. Not this girl; she’d let Carrie have it with both barrels, and hadn’t minced words.
When the blow-up happened, Jaclyn had stepped out of sight, allowed herself a wide smile and a fist pump, then schooled her expression and returned to try to forestall a hair-pulling, eye-gouging catfight. She’d have loved to see Carrie with a black eye, but business was business.
If she hadn’t been so wrapped up in her thoughts she might have been faster on her feet, but when a door suddenly swung outward she was caught by surprise and slammed into the tall, dark-haired, dark-suited man who stepped into the corridor. She gave a short, sharp “Oomph!” The impact knocked her briefcase from her hand and sent it spinning across the gray-tiled floor. She felt one foot, elegantly shod in three-inch heels, begin to slip, and in panic instinctively grabbed the man’s arm to steady herself. Her free arm slipped inside his open jacket and she grabbed a handful of shirt fabric, holding on for dear life. The side of her arm brushed against something very hard, and there was a very brief glimpse of leather before she made the startled identification of holster, followed by gun, then cop. Considering she was in city hall, the conclusion was both logical and inescapable.
The arm she grabbed turned to iron as the man immediately tensed it to hold her weight; he half-turned, his other arm sliding around her waist to catch her. For a brief moment, no more than the second needed for her to catch her balance, she was held firmly against a very warm, very solid, indisputably male body.
He released her the moment she was sure-footed, but he didn’t back away. Not immediately, anyway. She blew out a shaky breath. “Wow. Whew.” Her heartbeat, thrown into high gear thanks to the collision and almost falling, was pounding against her rib cage so hard she could feel the thuds. A spill on the floor of city hall would’ve been par for the course on this perfectly crappy day, but the last thing she needed right now was to break an ankle or something. Even a sprained ankle, at this point, would throw Premier into a time crunch they simply wouldn’t be able to handle.
“Are you all right, ma’am?”
He bent his head down as he spoke, and his breath, scented with spearmint chewing gum, brushed her temple. His voice was a warm baritone, with a slight rasp that roughened it just enough to take the tone from mellow to something … more. She didn’t know just what that more was, just that it was there—Wait a minute. Had he just called her ma’am?
Did she look that haggard?
Jaclyn squashed her initial annoyed reaction. The badge he wore explained the “ma’am.” Actually, being almost anywhere in the South explained it. He wasn’t commenting on her appearance; he was a cop, a civil servant on his best behavior. She blew out another breath, and realized she hadn’t yet released her grip on either his arm or his shirt. He couldn’t step back, not as long as she clung to him. She forced her fingers to unclench from both shirt and arm, and she took the necessary step back to put some distance between them.
“I’m fine,” she said as she looked up at him. “Thanks for catching me. I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going.” A small part of her brain, the part reserved for hormones and irrational decisions, gave a wolf whistle. Abruptly she felt both overheated
He gave a slight smile, a nice and natural, easy curve of his lips. “Not the best layout here, as far as traffic goes.”
“Don’t mention traffic to me,” Jaclyn said, almost under her breath.
He shot a quick glance of comprehension in the direction from which she’d come, and his smile widened a little. She liked that smile more than she should.
In her line of business, Jaclyn met a lot of men; unfortunately, they were usually about to get married. Not always, of course, but it took something special to get her attention this way: a certain look, an unexpected chemistry … and to be honest, it had been a very long time since she’d had the time to admire any man.
She didn’t have time now, either. She had to really hurry, or she’d be late.
“Thanks again. Sorry I almost smashed you flat.” She gave the polite cop a quick nod of her head, a friendly—but not too friendly—good-bye, then looked around for her dropped briefcase.
The case had spun all the way across the wide hall, coming to a stop against the far wall. Before she could reach for it, a man in stained jeans and a dingy T-shirt stretched tight over an enormous beer belly laboriously bent down and picked up the case. “Here ya go, ma’am,” he said, holding the slender case out to her in one meaty paw and smiling a ridiculously sweet smile for such a rough face.
“Thank you,” Jaclyn said as she gripped the handle, giving the burly guy a warmer smile than she’d given the cop, because she wasn’t attracted to him at all, so being nice to him didn’t seem as dangerous as being nice to the cop. As she strode away down the hall she mused on how cockeyed that reasoning was, on a logical basis, but how rock solid it was on some gut-level feminine instinct. She didn’t have time for the cop, didn’t have time to be attracted to him, so she wasn’t about to do anything that might attract him.
As she walked away, she was almost certain that he was watching her, but she didn’t dare turn around to look. She didn’t need to turn around; she could practically feel the bull’s-eye his gaze was painting on her back.
She hurried out to the parking lot, using her remote to unlock her steel-gray Jaguar just before she reached it. In almost one motion she opened the door, tossed her briefcase onto the passenger seat, and slid behind the wheel. Her first action then was to hit the door lock, a safety precaution she’d taken so often it was second nature to her now. As she turned the key with one hand, she was pulling the seat belt into place with the other.
She didn’t need another ticket, so she kept an eye on the speedometer. She especially wasn’t going to speed on the way to a meeting with Carrie Edwards; it was all she could do to keep the car heading in the right direction, and even then she flirted with the idea of calling her mother and saying, “I’m throwing up, have hives, and probably the measles; can you handle my meeting with Carrie?” So what if Madelyn was occupied with getting the final details in place for a wedding tomorrow, and had the rehearsal to get through? Madelyn was the one who had taken Carrie’s booking in the first place, so it was only right she should share some of the joy of dealing with her.
Jaclyn sighed. No, she couldn’t do that to her mother. Well, maybe she couldn’t. She certainly wasn’t in a hurry to meet with Carrie, who was the worst of the worst in a business that often seemed to bring out the worst in some women. Sometimes a client would be a delight from start to finish, but just as often one of the principals would make her think there really was something to be said for getting married at a courthouse or an all-night chapel in Vegas—not that she’d be foolish enough to say so aloud. After all, weddings were her bread and butter.
Today’s meeting with Carrie was at Premier’s office, located in Buckhead, but tomorrow there were several consultations—with the caterer, the cake-maker, and the florist—that would take place at the reception hall in Hopewell. Carrie’s initial orders had been made months ago, but there were several last-minute decisions to be made and Bridezilla was dragging her feet. The bride should be going to the vendors for these consultations, but Carrie had insisted on holding court and making them all come to her. In her mind, she was Important, which meant people came to her instead of the other way around.
Because this was a big and very expensive wedding—the groom was the son of a state senator—they’d all agreed. And naturally, the bride had insisted that Jaclyn be there as well. Carrie Edwards did a lot of insisting. Tomorrow was shaping up to be another crappy day, just on the basis of dealing with Carrie, plus she had the first of those six-weddings-in-five-days to get through. Even though Madelyn was handling the wedding, inevitably there were last-minute emergencies that required extra help, even if it was nothing more than spending time on the phone locating an emergency replacement for a limousine that was the wrong color, or wouldn’t start, or the flower girl threw up on the groom and a new tuxedo was needed. On the day of a wedding, they had to be ready for literally anything to happen.
Jaclyn arrived at the office barely five minutes before the scheduled meeting. Naturally, Carrie was already there, waiting in her private office. Diedra, Jaclyn’s assistant, sat at the outer desk, which was piled with books and fabric swatches and photographs. She gave Jaclyn an exaggerated expression of sympathy, and frustration, as she nodded toward the office door.
Jaclyn squared her shoulders and turned the door handle. She didn’t have a chance to step into the room before Carrie turned, an expression of dissatisfaction on her beautiful face. She was truly stunning: a curvy, perfectly proportioned figure, golden blond hair, smooth skin, clear green eyes. Her personality, though, ran the gamut from nasty to mean. “What kind of coffee is this? Surely you can afford a better brand. This is too bitter. And I have to say, your secretary—”
“Diedra isn’t my secretary, she’s my assistant,” Jaclyn interrupted as she stepped inside and closed the door behind her. She ignored the comment about the coffee, which she personally liked very much. No one was holding Carrie down and pouring the coffee down her throat, so she was free not to drink it if she didn’t like it. After all, she could have chosen from a variety of flavored teas, or even soft drinks.
“Well, she was rude.” Carrie didn’t like being interrupted. She also didn’t like not getting her way in all things. She was still carrying a grudge because Jaclyn hadn’t been able to book Michael Buble for the reception. Get real. Jaclyn hadn’t embarrassed herself by even trying.
“In what way, dear?” She made her tone soothing, and tacked on the “dear” even though her tongue almost shriveled with distaste when she forced herself to say it. Sometimes a comforting “dear” or “honey” could soothe the most fractious of clients—then again, some clients would have required a tranquilizer dart. Carrie would probably need the same dosage one would use on a mad rhino.
“She tried to make me wait outside, instead of in here.”
“That’s because I don’t like people in my office unless I’m also here,” Jaclyn said calmly. “I’m sure you understand.”
“Don’t be silly. Why should you care?”
“Because I keep confidential information in here. I suppose I’ll simply start locking the door. I should have been doing that anyway.” The confidential information wasn’t anything relating to security or credit card numbers, but rather the details of weddings—and, yes, some clients would pay dearly to find out what so-and-so was planning, or how much someone else paid. Weddings were a cutthroat business.
Carrie gave her a hard, cold look, but evidently realized she wasn’t going to get any traction on this issue, so she moved on to her next complaint. “I’ve changed my mind about the bridesmaids’ dresses,” Carrie said. “The shade of the fabric is too plain, all of them in gr
Jaclyn bit her tongue. The poor bridesmaids had already paid for the hideous dresses, and Carrie, of course, hadn’t chosen an inexpensive fabric. The color wasn’t hideous, but the design certainly was. She’d tried to steer Carrie away from flounces and bows, but if Carrie ran into anything even remotely resembling good advice, so far she’d invariably run in the opposite direction. When the unfortunate bridesmaids found out about this change—when they found out they were going to have to pay for another dress, and this time a hefty charge for a rush order would be included—they’d probably all storm out. The girl who’d let Carrie have it and quit the wedding party was apparently the smart one.
“Carrie,” Jaclyn said in a purposely soothing voice, “it’s really too late to make this change. I think you’ll be very happy with the look of the bridesmaids’ dresses, when you see them with the flowers you’ve chosen.”
“I’m thinking of changing the flowers, too,” Carrie said, a gleam in her eye telling Jaclyn she was actually enjoying being difficult. “They’re just not right. I was studying the sample pictures last night, and they look like someone vomited Pepto Bismol. I saw the most wonderful arrangement in a magazine. If I change the flowers, then I also need to completely redo the bridesmaids’ look.”
“This will be quite an expense for your friends.”
Carrie’s lips pursed, her eyes narrowed. “They won’t mind. This is my special day, and they’ll do whatever I want them to do.” In her tone was an unspoken or else.
“If you insist, you can call the dressmaker and—”
“I want you to do it,” Carrie said carelessly. “I don’t have time.” She opened her expensive, oversized handbag, withdrew a fabric sample, and slapped it onto the desk. Jaclyn could tell at a glance it was a fine, heavy silk—another expensive choice, something that would set each bridesmaid back several hundred dollars, perhaps even more than a thousand. “Besides, when I called her this morning to discuss the matter, she was hateful and unreasonable.”
LINDA HOWARD SERIES:
Other author's books:
- Shadow WomanThe Complete Mackenzies CollectionMr. PerfectAll the Queen's MenMidnight RainbowDiamond BayThe Woman Left BehindTo Die For
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