Have you chosen which one of your young gentlemen you’re going to marry, Victoria?”
Stunned, Victoria Chandler stared over the silver tea service at her grandmother. Heart pounding in her chest, Victoria carefully set the clinking cup and saucer on the antique clawfoot cocktail table in front of her. From out of nowhere came the childhood chant “liar, liar, pants on fire”. “I . . . er . . . no. I’m still trying to decide.”
Clair Chandler Benson’s nut- brown face creased into an indulgent smile. “You told me you were having trouble choosing from your four young men. It’s a dilemma not many women are faced with. But you’ve been blessed with the same striking looks as your great- grandmother. Like you, she had long black hair, hazel eyes, and honey- colored skin, a vision. However, I have complete faith your heart will guide you in the twenty- one days you have left.”
Feeling as if the floor shifted beneath her feet, Victoria fought the panic that threatened to overwhelm her. “Grandmother, why don’t I wait and decide at the end of summer, when things aren’t so hectic at the stores?”
Clair shook her blue- gray head of hair. “That won’t do at all. It will be beyond the cutoff date and you’ll lose Lavender and Lace.” Victoria’s tenuous hold on her emotions slipped.
Fear widened her eyes and left her momentarily speechless. “You- you’re serious, aren’t you?”
“I’ve never been more serious about anything in my entire life,” Clair answered. “I know we haven’t discussed it in some time, but I thought I had made myself quite clear. I remember our agreement well. We were sitting in this very room and I gave you six months to get married or I would call in the loans for your three stores. Victoria, you did mark your calendar, didn’t you?”
Slowly Victoria rose to her feet. Her eccentric grandmother wasn’t playing. She meant every word. Fool that Victoria was, she thought she could evade the issue by telling her grandmother that she couldn’t choose between four men. The trouble was, there were no men in her life— and that was the way Victoria wanted to keep it.
“Grandmother, marriage is a serious matter.”
“Of course it is. You’re talking to someone who celebrated her thirty- fifth wedding anniversary last month.” Clair smiled, showing natural white teeth. “I completely understand your apprehension. After my first husband died I never dreamed I’d find anyone like him. Then I met Henry at a charity dinner. I’m sure you’ll be as fortunate as I was in finding a wonderful second husband.”
“Men have changed since then. They aren’t all honest and forthright like grandfather,” Victoria said with a tinge of anger.
“I know that, dear, but you’ve picked the best Fort Worth has to offer; a doctor, a lawyer, a cattleman, and a banker.” Clair looked at her only grandchild with unabashed pride.
“Although, I must admit I rather favor the cattleman, since you mentioned his ranch is in the area. It would be nice to have a horse man in the family again. Your great- great- grandfather, Hosea Chandler, was a buffalo soldier with the Ninth Cavalry unit.”
Victoria groaned inwardly. Those nursery rhymes again. Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. At the time, she knew even her unconventional grandmother wouldn’t have believed Victoria was dating an Indian chief. Out of nowhere a “butcher” and a “baker” had popped into her head. Before she knew it they became a cattleman and a banker.
“What if I can’t make up my mind?”
“Oh, dear.” Distressed, Clair paused in adding a dollop of cream to her specially blended tea. “Then you might have a problem.”
“What do you mean?” Victoria’s stomach muscles clenched.
“You know how much your grandfather and I love you, and I was afraid I’d lose my nerve and call off the whole thing. On the other hand, you know how much pride I take in a person keeping their word. So, I turned everything over to my lawyer.”
Victoria slumped into the nearest chair. “Grandmother, how could you have done this to me?”
“Because I love you. You’re thirty years old and still dragging your feet about remarrying and carrying on the Chandler name. I simply decided to help you.”
Sheer panic propelled Victoria once again to her feet. She felt trapped as she glanced around the sitting room full of overstuffed furniture, antiques, and heirlooms that had been handed down through fivegenerations of Chandlers. The Chandlers had been a prominent and well- respected family in Texas since reconstruction and each generation coined the name with pride. She wondered if the hardships her ancestors endured were any greater than hers had been when she was married to a selfish, greedy man who demeaned her and took from her until nothing was left . . . not even her self- respect. The thought of marriage tied her stomach in knots.
Unconsciously, Victoria shook her head. “I need more time.”
“You have twenty- one days.” Clair picked up her tea and took a sip, then assessed her granddaughter critically. “Perhaps if you bring your young men over, on separate visits of course, your grandfather and I can help you choose one. You’re so compassionate, you’re probably worried about the three losers, but it can’t be helped.”
Victoria looked at the seventy-two-year-old woman who sat before her, lovable and cuddly in chiffon and pearls, and wanted to shake her. But experience had taught Victoria that when her grandmother was in one of her stubborn moods, she developed tunnel vision. It was easier trying to reason with a two- year- old child. Still, for Victoria’s own sanity, she had to try. “I’m not marrying anyone in twenty- one days.”
“You will if you want to keep Lavender and Lace,” Clair reminded her, then leaned back on the blue silk couch. “I told you, it’s in my lawyer’s hands now. I can’t change it. And it isn’t as if you don’t have any prospects. At least you can choose your own man. In the past, women seldom had that luxury.”
True fear began to creep up Victoria’s spine. “Grandmother, don’t do this. You know how much my shops mean to me. If you love me, you’ll stop this now.”
“It’s because I love you that I won’t stop. Besides, I have complete confidence that you’ll decide within the time left.” Clair looked at her granddaughter with steadfast brown eyes. “When your precious father and mother were killed in that tragic boating accident eigh teen years ago, you became the daughter I never had. Each night I say a prayer for that man who pulled you to shore safely.
Victoria, your father would have wanted me to guide you in this matter. I’ve only got a few good years left and I want to see you happily settled before I go.”
“I am happy,” Victoria cried.
“You can lie to yourself, but not to me. I see the wistful look in your face when you see a baby or a small child.” Clair set the delicate china on the table.
“You are a sensitive, caring woman. You want and deserve children of your own.”
Her grandmother’s perceptiveness caught Victoria off guard. She had tried to forget her dream of children just as she had tried to forget her failure as a wife. Apparently, she was successful at neither. Her shoulders straightened, causing her emerald green wrap dress to tighten across her hips and rise above her knees.
“Many women want children. My wanting them doesn’t proveanything,” Victoria said, taking a seat beside her grandmother. A gentle hand caressed Victoria’s shoulder length hair.
“It might not, if you didn’t also crave what’s required in order to have children.”
Blushing, Victoria stood and walked to the open French doors on the other side of the room.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes, you do.” Shrewd eyes swept Victoria’s rigid posture.
“You stayed with Stephen out of a sense of duty, not love. You’ve yet to find the man who can kiss you senseless.”
“Grandmother!” Victoria whirled, her mouth open in shock.
“Oh, my darling Victoria,” her grandmother said, her eyes twinkling mischievously. “Sometimes you’re such an innocent. It’s going to be a pleasure to watch you fall in love and blossom.”
“Where is grandfather?” Victoria asked as she stepped onto the terrace and looked out over the immaculate lawn to the fl owergardens beyond.
“Perhaps he can talk some sense into you.”
“Henry is in the rose garden and he and I are in perfect agreement.” Clair folded her hands in her lap. “We both decided the best way to get you to the altar was through Lavender and Lace. You wouldn’t raise an eyebrow if we threatened to cut you out of our will.”
Anger replaced irritation and fear. Victoria stalked back to her grandmother. “I earn my own way, just like I earned Lavender and Lace. I slept in the back office to cut expenses, did without, and worked fourteen hours a day to make the first store successful.”
Clair was undisturbed. “Against my advice and wishes, but you proved me wrong. I’ve never been prouder of you.”
“Then give me the time to pick my husband,” Victoria said, unable to keep the pleading note out of her voice. She’d spent the last eight years regaining her self- respect and her independence; she wasn’t about to let a man destroy her again. “Let me choose in my own time.”
Her grandmother shook her coiffured head. “You have twenty-one days or the lawyer will call in the loan. I’m thinking about letting DeShannonmanage the stores for me. They’ll give Henry’s niece a reason to get up before noon.” Clair took a sip of tea. “Although I don’t know what she’ll do once she gets to your office. She’s as flighty as a hummingbird,” she said almost to herself.
Clair picked up a wafer- thin cookie and critically eyed the cherry center. “Hard to believe your grandfather is related to that family,” she continued.
“Oh, well, that’s their side of the family. What I intend to do is preserve mine. The Chandler bloodline will continue in you.”
Discarding the cookie, Clair picked up her cup of tea and drew in a long, deep breath. “Smell those roses. Your grandfather is working hard to keep them pretty in hopes you’ll change your mind about a civil ceremony and get married in the garden. I hate that you won’t be a June bride, but you can’t have everything. April is a beautiful month to get married.”
Clair glanced sideways at the silent Victoria. “Do you think you could manage to get pregnant right away?” The older woman looked wistful. “I don’t want to rush you, but we’re all getting older. A boy would be nice, but we could name a girl Chandler to carry on the name, or you could hyphenate Chandler with your married name. Which idea do you like best?”
“Why ask me when you obviously have everything planned?” Victoria said tightly. “You probably have my obstetrician all picked out.” Clair looked thoughtful. “I haven’t. Perhaps I should begin looking into the matter. The best ones are difficult to get.”
Her head pounding, Victoria plopped into an ornate straight- back chair near the terrace window. How could you love someone and want to throttle them at the same time?
Two days later, the anger and frustration Victoria felt about her grandmother’s unimaginable proposition hadn’t diminished. She sat in one of downtown Fort Worth’s most elegant restaurants and couldn’t have cared less. Her salad fork pinged against her plate as she speared an olive.
“Grandmother, how could you do this to me?” she said absently. Seated across the restaurant table from Victoria, Bonnie Taylor lifted a perfectly arched brow and slowly smiled. “So that’s why you’ve been so preoccupied during lunch. I thought there was a problem with one of your stores.”
“If grandmother has her way, they won’t be my stores in nineteen days.”
“So, she was serious about her ultimatum?”
“Yes,” Victoria said. “My sweet, loving grandmother deliberately badgered me into borrowing money from her to open another store, planning all along to use the loan as leverage to force me to remarry. I could kick myself for thinking she was just being fanciful and that she’d forget all about her plan in a couple of months.”
“I take it the old girl proved you wrong.”
“In spades. Unwittingly, I helped her scheme by insisting I put up the other two stores as collateral in case something happened to me. If I default on the loan, I’ll lose everything.”
Bonnie’s light brown eyes sparkled as she looked around the posh dining room, with its high crystal chandeliers, breathtaking murals of angelic cherubs in a blue sky, and hovering waiters in white dinner jackets. “Well, you picked the right place to find a husband.” She waved a slender hand toward the floor- to- ceiling draped window twenty feet away from them. “The hotel across the street spans three city blocks. There has to be at least two hundred eligible men registered there and probably half that many are prowling the halls in the attached convention center. Minutes from here is the historic stockyards district, where I bet you’ll find another hundred men.”
Bonnie ignored Victoria’s warning look and continued. “If you don’t feel like going to all that trouble, there’s a man sitting about four tables behind you near the balcony who hasn’t taken his eyes off you since you came in. I’ll bet—”
“I’ll bet he either has one of those smoldering looks guaranteed to make a woman’s knees weak or he’s showing a toothy smile that helped an orthodontist put a hefty down payment on a Porsche,” Victoria said without looking behind her.
Bonnie smothered a laugh. “I think he was trying to pull off a combination of the two.”
“Men! Most of them think all they have to do is show some muscle, be reasonably good looking and a woman will swoon at their feet.”
The teasing look vanished from Bonnie’s face. “I haven’t seen you this steamed in a long time.” “Can you blame me?” Victoria asked, leaning back in her seat. “I’ve boxed myself in. If I don’t find someone to marry, I’ll lose Lavender and Lace.”
Bonnie frowned. “I know you’re scared and angry, and you have a right to be, but marriage isn’t that bad. I love being married.”
“Of course you do. You’re married to a man who worships the ground you walk on. My exhusband only worshiped my bank account,” Victoria said bitterly.
“I know Stephen betrayed you, but not all husbands are monsters. Dan is the best thing that ever happened to me.” Bonnie’s voice softened. “I can’t imagine my life without him.”
Victoria nodded. “Maybe because he’s an architect, he wants to create, not destroy. The best decision you ever made was getting bids on renovating that old building for your art gallery. I vividly remember your jaw coming unhinged when Dan came by to give an estimate. He was just as taken with you. I think he loves you now more than he did when you were married five years ago. Stephen’s so-called love for me didn’t last past the honeymoon cruise.” She crunched on a piece of lettuce. “I’ve been attracting the rejects ever since.”
“Part of that is your fault, Victoria,” Bonnie replied gently as she picked up her wine glass.
Jerking upright in her tapestry upholstered chair, Victoria stared at Bonnie. Despite being complete opposites in background and temperament, they had been best friends since they were in the sixth grade. They met when Victoria, painfully shy and lonely, had enrolled in Eastwood Academy after the death of her parents. The outspoken Bonnie had looked at the scrawny kid clutching her books, her eyes wide and frightened, and taken her under her wing. “My fault?”
Setting the long-stemmed glass aside, Bonnie explained. “You’re beautiful, independent, and successful. That’s intimidating enough to a lot of men. And since your divorce from Stephen, a trifle hard on a man’s ego. Only a fool, a schemer, or a man in love is going to let you tramp all over him.”
Victoria’s delicate features hardened. “After the fiasco with my ex- husband, can you blame me?”
“No, I can’t, but Stephen has been history for a long time. That is,” she paused, “until last week.”
“I can’t believe he had the nerve to call me,” Victoria snorted. “I hope the sound of the receiver crashing down gave him an earache for a week.”
She played with her salad. “Yesterday I learned the reason for his sudden interest. He lost another job.”
“He certainly made a mess of his life. On the other hand, you’ve got to get on with yours. I think your grandmother realized your hesitancy and decided to give you a little push.”
Victoria’s fingertips drummed out an angry beat on the white tablecloth. “But why did it have to be over a cliff?”
Bonnie laughed. “I’m glad to see you haven’t lost your sense of humor. Does it also mean you’ve decided to quit fighting and get married?”
For once Victoria didn’t have a quick answer. No matter how she tried to fi nda way out of the trap her grandmother had set for her, she came up empty. Clair Benson had Victoria’s signature on a legal document. The only way she could find a way out was to sign another legal document. A marriage license. Her stomach clenched. Never again had she wanted to give a man any control of her body or of her life.
“Well?” Bonnie prompted. Victoria looked at her friend waiting for an answer and knew she had only one choice if she wanted to keep her boutiques. Her face settled into determination. “I’ll do whatever it takes to save Lavender and Lace. Only this time the marriage will be on my terms. Not my grandmother’s. Not the man I choose. This time I’ll make the rules.”
“I don’t suppose you’re going to make this easy and fall in love in the next nineteen days?”
Victoria’s eyes narrowed. “Love has nothing to do with this. It’ll be a business arrangement. A simple transaction for which I’m willing to pay.”
Bonnie looked as if she wanted to argue, but all she said was, “How long do you plan to stay married?” “A year, tops. Anything shorter and grandmother can demand payment in full on my loan.”
Victoria twirled her fork. Bonnie pushed aside her salad plate. “I hate to bring this up, but how do you plan to keep your grandparents and everyone else from finding out the marriage is a sham?”
“My husband will travel a great deal. His being gone so much will lend credibility to the eventual divorce.” Glancing at the lobster chowder the waiter placed in front of her, Victoria picked up her soup spoon. Her appetite had returned.
Deep in thought, Bonnie didn’t pay any attention to the lasagna of shrimp, scallop and spinach set before her. Instead she said, “What you need is a man who has enough integrity not to want your money after the divorce, or one who has enough money not to want yours.”
“I know,” Victoria said. “I want him to quietly disappear when the time is up. Call it pride or what ever, but I don’t want it known that the only way I can get a man is to pay for one. Once was enough.”
“Then we need to add ‘discreet’ to his qualifications,” Bonnie said. Victoria put her spoon down. “You might as well be ‘kind,’ ‘sensitive,’ and ‘caring’ while you’re at it.”
With a secret smile, Bonnie looked at Victoria. “I have your man.” “What!” A wave of silence followed as stylish heads turned toward their table. Victoria ignored them. “Tell me you’re not kidding.”
Grinning, Bonnie shook her head, her dark, layered hair brushing against her cheeks. “My cousin, Kane Taggart, is thirty- six, single, and has all the qualities you’re looking for.”
“Kane?” Victoria’s dark brows furrowed. “That name sounds familiar.” Bonnie sucked her teeth. “Why, Victoria Chandler. I never thought you’d forget the name of the man you first slept with.” Outrage and indignation swept across Victoria’s face. “Stephen is the on—”
Laughter erupted from Bonnie. “I meant ‘slept’ literally. How could you forget the night you spent at my house, when that violent storm roared across the city around midnight? We had just graduated from high school, and my parents and your grandparents were out of town. We were shaking as much as the trees.” Bonnie fingered the stem of her wine glass. “Tornadoes had been sighted in the area and hail was so loud on the roof we had to shout to hear each other. The phone was out and there was a loud pounding at the door just as the lights went out.”
Victoria completed the story. “It was Kane. He had driven through high winds and rain to check on us. Your parents called him when they couldn’t reach us.”
“It’s a wonder we didn’t knock him down the way we launched ourselves at him,” Bonnie laughed. “I don’t see how he managed to get out of his raincoat, because neither one of us would let go of him.”
Victoria giggled, Bonnie’s laughter infectious. “Yet somehow he got us settled in the hall, with pillows, blankets, a flashlight and a small portable radio he had brought. You went to sleep a couple of hours later, but I don’t think I dropped off until around dawn. Sometimes we talked, sometimes we just listened to the rain.”
A vague memory about that night tugged at Victoria. A deep, soothing voice and the gentleness with which she was held returned to her. Her parents’ hugs had been frequent, but quick. Her grandparents patted her on the hand or on the head. Victoria hadn’t realized how wonderful and reassuring it would feel to be held until Kane’s arms tightened each time her voice quivered or she shivered. Somehow she had never experienced the same sense of well-being in a man’s arms. She quickly attributed the reason to youthful embellishment.
“That morning he was gone. I don’t think I ever saw him again,” Victoria said quietly. “You must have. He was in and out of my house the entire summer and so were you. But you started dating Johnny Evans around that time and he was all you talked about until you went to college.”
Bonnie picked up her fork. “Anyway, Kane’s in town for a few days and he came by the house last night to say hello. He wasn’t there ten minutes before he asked about you.”
“You may not remember him, but he definitely remembers you,” Bonnie explained. “I detected a lustful gleam in his black eyes when he said your name.”
“I don’t want lust. I want a business arrangement,” Victoria said, her voice tight and final. She owed Kane her gratitude, not her body.
“That’s up to you and Kane.” Bonnie took a bite of pasta. “Come over to the house to night around seven and meet him. Dan should be home from work by then.”
“I don’t know, Bonnie. Do you think he’ll agree to my terms?”
“Kane has a big heart for anyone in trouble. Besides, what have you got to lose?”
Knowing what she had to lose right down to the last square footage, Victoria sighed and said, “I’ll be there.” At exactly five minutes to seven, Victoria walked up the curved stone steps to Bonnie’s home. A wide expanse of glass showcased the rosewood staircase and elegance of the house in the development Dan had helped design. Working together, Bonnie and Dan had built their dream house. Immediately, Victoria thought of Stephen. He had deroyedher dreams by working for nothing and grabbing with both hands for any and everything, she thought bitterly.
With grim determination, Victoria brought her mind back to the present. Shifting uneasily in her three- inch heels, she took a deep breath, then brushed an unsteady hand over her magenta colored raw silk jacket and skirt. She had come this far, she couldn’t back down now. No matter how repugnant marriage was to her, she couldn’t add another failure to her already seemingly long list.
She was the only child of brilliant parents, yet she was an average student. Not once did she get the lead in a play, make the honor roll or the cut for the drill team. She hadn’t dared try out for cheerleaders.
Her success on the girls’ softball team in her senior year hadn’t made up for the failures that continued to dog her after graduation from high school. Because she had dropped out of college at the end of her junior year to get married, she had failed to get her business degree from Texas Southern University.
Lavender and Lace was the one and only success in life that she could look upon as totally hers. She would keep it at all cost. Squaring her shoulders as she always did when faced with a problem, she ran a distracted hand through her wind- tossed hair, then rang the doorbell.
Her hand lifted again just as the heavily carved door opened. Her jaw slackened. Standing in front of her was the brawniest man she had ever seen. He had a rugged, dark brown face. Winged brows arched over piercing black eyes edged with thick lashes. A neatly trimmed mustache defined an uncompromising mouth.
Separately, his features weren’t noteworthy, but combined, they created an unusual picture of sharp angles and hard planes, as if someone had done the impossible and sculptured his face from a mountain of granite.
His tall, powerful body reinforced her impression of a mountain. At least six feet five, his white- shirted torso lent new meaning to the term “yard- wide chest.” Broad shoulders tapered to a surprisingly flat stomach and narrow waist. A hand- tooled belt, with the initials K.T. on the silver buckle, looped through faded jeans that displayed his muscular build with shameless disregard for propriety.
Her drying throat caused her to snap her mouth shut. Oh, God! How could I have forgotten a man this overwhelmingly masculine and intimidating?