One dressmaker. One billionaire. Two broken hearts. How long could it last?
Darlington Vineyard is the perfect wedding venue, and Andie Gray has always made sure she had a date booked, with or without a fiance. Her dreams come true when she lands the perfect man to go with the perfect venue, but then she discovers he’s not who she thought he was. All of a sudden love and fairy tales no longer make sense, leaving her questioning everything about her life…
Taylor Ballin knows what he wants, and love isn’t it. He’s been burned before, and it won’t happen again. How was he to know that offering to pay for his sister’s wedding would bring bridal seamstress Andie Gray, with her maddening allure, into his world and tear down the walls he’d built around his heart?
She’s the kind of woman he’s spent ten years avoiding, and he’s everything her ex is. But the pull between them is unavoidable and neither of them can fight it. Perhaps a no-strings-attached kind of deal is exactly what they both need.
Or is it the one thing they should avoid?
Andie couldn’t tear her eyes away from the mirror.
She looked—felt—pretty. Prettier than she ever had before. Her breath caught in her throat. It felt like a chokehold. She wasn’t used to these mixed feelings. She wasn’t used to feeling beautiful and shattered at the same time.
Ever since she was a child, she’d dreamed about her perfect wedding at that beautiful vineyard in Darlington, with fairy lights and paper lanterns as far as the eye could see. Surrounded by flowers and loved ones. A wedding that looked as though it had just been pulled from a Disney movie. She’d always wanted it, dreamed of it. It would be perfect. Magical. She’d believed in fairy tales, and that was going to be hers.
She struggled to believe in anything now.
‘You ‘kay, babe?’ Harley said, plucking another pin from her mouth and sticking it in the side of the wedding dress.
Andie blinked at the mirror, forcing herself to breathe again, her eyes drifting down at the magnificent wedding dress she was wearing. It shouldn’t affect her like this. It was just a dress, after all.
‘Tell me again why I have to wear this thing?’ she said, her voice shaky. She forced herself to take another deep breath before she worked herself into a panic attack.
Harley pulled the remaining pin from her mouth and stuck it in near Andie’s hip. Andie cringed as the pin pierced her skin. She hoped she wouldn’t bleed on the dress. For Harley’s sake.
‘Your measurements are closer to the model’s than mine,’ Harley said, frowning at the last pin she’d just stuck in. She tugged on the fabric and Andie felt like her insides were being squeezed up to her throat. ‘I need to pull it in a couple more inches. I swear that girl has no hips.’ Harley leaned to the side to write her notes in her book.
Andie turned a little and eyed her reflection. As beautiful as this dress was, the mermaid cut just didn’t feel flattering on her. No doubt that model thrived in dresses like this. While the model was only slightly curvy and mostly skin and bones, Andie was a tad more generous in the hips and chest, her waist a little thicker.
‘What’s wrong with the mannequin?’ Andie said, glancing up at the time. She had a ten o’clock who should be arriving any moment, and she did not intend on meeting them in a wedding dress.
‘You can only do so much on a mannequin,’ Harley said, rising to her feet and gathering up her work. ‘And since this monster refuses to come to the fittings and insists on complaining the fit is wrong at the photo shoot, I need to make do with what I’ve got.’ She stilled, studying Andie. ‘It’s never bothered you before.’
Andie swallowed. She’d tried not to let what happened affect her work. She knew it would be hard to continue working in a bridal shop after her engagement fell through. But she had to try her best. Had to keep herself distracted.
‘That was before …’ she muttered, feeling herself taking short, quick breaths. God, it was hard to breathe in this thing.
‘Of course,’ Harley said, her expression apologetic. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t think. It’s still recent.’
Indeed, it was. Six weeks had done nothing to ease the pain. She heard the phone ring from the front room, and Harley grimaced at her, her arms full of fabric scraps and notes.
‘Do you mind getting that?’ she said. ‘I need to deal with all this before I forget what needs to be done.’
Andie’s eyebrow lifted and she glanced down at the dress she was wearing. ‘In this?’ Harley grimaced again. ‘I know. I’ll only be a minute. Then I’ll help you get out of that thing.’
‘Fine,’ Andie muttered, shuffling towards the front room.
Shuffling, because that’s all she could do in this damn thing. It hugged her body so tightly she worried that bigger steps would either kill her or make her burst out of the dress. And Harley had put too much work into it to damage it now. She reached the phone just in time and booked in yet another anxious bride for an appointment. She wondered why so many brides were anxious when planning the biggest day of their lives. She hadn’t been anxious about her wedding at all.
Perhaps she should have been.
Writing a note next to the appointment in the book, she hung up the phone and heard the jingle as the front door opened.
Her ten o’clock was here and she was still in this damned dress.
‘I won’t be a moment.’ She finished writing the note and glanced up.
Had she stopped breathing again?
It was magnificent.
He was magnificent.
Broad, strong shoulders filled his suit well. She’d warrant the rest of his torso was just as solid beneath his shirt. Shoulders like that almost guaranteed it. His suit was tailored to fit and boy, did it fit him well. His strong thighs seemed to hold promises. Was that possible? And his shoes were neat, polished, squared at the toes. She lifted her gaze and felt her heart pound against her chest.
He was taller than her. If she had her highest heels on, she would only reach his shoulders. God, even his neck looked strong. He had dark brown hair that was slightly too long but neatly trimmed, a perfectly square jaw sporting trimmed stubble, and his eyes—she couldn’t quite discern them. His gaze made her feel both intimidated and as though she was a specimen.
This was not her ten o’clock.
Her ten o’clock went by the name of Libby Ballin. And he was no Libby Ballin.
She was like a wild deer caught in the headlights.
Her eyes were wide and round, her auburn hair tied in a neat bun at the base of her head, her fringe resting to one side. Her nose was straight, her chin pointed, her neck slender. Something stirred inside him and he banished the feeling. His eyes followed the rest of her, falling to the roundness of her breasts looking as though they might burst out of the strapless dress. Tay’s gaze followed her curves, lingering at her supple hips before he realised what she was wearing.
A wedding dress.
He cleared his throat, dropping his gaze. A feeble attempt to regain control over himself. Hell, when had he ever been the kind of guy to lose control around a beautiful woman? His eyes shifted back to look at her again—still frozen in place—and he diverted his gaze once more. Obviously, the woman was here for a fitting. And therefore, was already with someone. Not that it mattered. He had neither the time nor the patience for relationships.
‘I was assured we had the first appointment.’
He barely recognised his own voice. Rough. Choked. Annoyed? He sure as hell felt annoyed. He’d told Libby to get the first appointment of the day. He was short on time and needed this done and dusted as soon as possible. He didn’t have time to wait until another woman finished a lengthy fitting. Hearing no response from the woman, he glanced back. She still hadn’t moved. His whole body clenched, though from annoyance or stopping himself from taking her in his arms, he wasn’t entirely sure. Perhaps a bit of both.
‘Does anyone work here?’ he called out, a little louder to reach anyone out back.
He didn’t shift his gaze from the woman, and hadn’t missed her flinch when he’d
called out. Curious. He took a step closer, then another. She blinked. He could see the rise and fall of her chest and he hated that each heave made him pulse below the belt.
He stopped when he reached the reception desk. ‘Pretty dress,’ he said, hoping it sounded casual instead of choked. ‘When’s the wedding?’
She blinked again, her brow creasing, something changing in her eyes. They were mysterious. A shade of green that could almost be mistaken for brown unless you were up close. He nodded, indicating the dress she was wearing. Slowly, her eyes dropped. His eyes followed, noticing her white knuckles as one hand pressed against the appointment book and the other clutched a pen.
‘Oh,’ she said shakily, slowly releasing the pen and lifting her gaze to meet his again. ‘It’s not … mine.’ His eyebrow lifted. Her cheeks reddened. ‘I’m just helping Harley with some adjustments.’ She laughed awkwardly. ‘This is supposed to be for a photo shoot but the model refuses to come for the fittings.’
He pressed his lips together. So, the woman had found her words. Such a sweet voice. It’s not hers.
Didn’t mean she was available. Not that it changed anything. He was grateful for the bench between them.
‘You work here?’ he said. She nodded. He let out a breath. At least they didn’t have to worry about waiting for someone else to finish their fitting. But where the hell was Libby? He tapped his hand on the bench. ‘I’m here for a ten o’clock.’
She squinted, her lips pursed, supple. Then she shook her head, her hair flicking against her chin as she moved. ‘No, you’re not. You must have the wrong place.’
The wench didn’t even check her appointment book. He pressed his fingers into the bench and glanced down at the book. ‘Libby Ballin, see? Ten o’clock.’
She slammed the book shut. ‘Yes, but you are not Libby Ballin. I spoke to Libby Ballin and she sounded very much more feminine than you do. Now, if you’ll excuse me.’ She started shuffling towards the back room.
His eyes fell to her full ass, watching as she wobbled awkwardly. That dress looked rather restricting. How did anyone move in it? He didn’t care. He tore his gaze away from her and took a deep controlling breath. He had to get this over with.
‘Is she here?’ he called after her.
She turned slightly—only her head, he noticed. ‘Who?’
She squinted again, pressing her lips together. ‘No.’
He watched her shuffle through the curtain separating the rooms and turned back to examine the front of the store. So, Libby was late. Damn it. She knew he had meetings all afternoon. A long five minutes must have passed before the woman wandered back out to the front room, halting when she saw him. She’d changed from the wedding dress into a black pencil skirt, black heels, and a tucked-in white satin shirt. It was clear this woman meant business.
‘You’re still here,’ she said.
He opened his mouth to retort when the door opened and Libby came flying in ungracefully. ‘Oh, God, I am so sorry,’ Libby said, her breathing rushed. She glanced briefly at him and smiled. ‘You made it.’ Before waiting for a response, she focused back on the woman. ‘I didn’t realise how late I was. I haven’t missed it have I?’
The woman’s countenance seemed to change immediately. Appealing to the target audience, he supposed. After all, Libby was her customer. ‘Of course not,’ the woman said, taking Libby’s coat and indicating towards the back room. ‘I’m Andie.’ Andie. ‘Come this way, Miss Ballin. We keep the gowns out the back—makes it more private. This is all about you, after all. Can I get you some champagne?’
He was sure Libby blushed. ‘Oh, my,’ Libby said. ‘Champagne. Of course I’ll have a glass.’
‘Just the one?’ Andie said, her eyes sparkling. His teeth clenched. This was why he’d opted to come with Libby. He couldn’t have anyone taking advantage of her and charging more than they should. Especially since he was the one paying for it. ‘Are your bridesmaids joining you, Miss Ballin?’
‘Please, call me Libby,’ Libby said, laughing awkwardly. ‘I’m sure it’s not what you’re used to, but I don’t want to show my bridesmaids until I’ve made a decision. I didn’t want to encumber them with telling me lies about a dress they don’t like but think I like, you know?’
Encumber? Hell, even being in a classier environment seemed to make Libby sound more sophisticated.
‘I understand,’ Andie said, ushering her towards the back room. Her voice was silky smooth. Tay didn’t trust her. He followed. ‘Well, don’t you worry. We will find the perfect gown for your day.’ Andie turned towards him once Libby was safely through the curtain. ‘Most men aren’t allowed in the back room,’ she said defiantly.
He shrugged his suit jacket off and draped it over her arm—the one holding Libby’s coat—and flashed her a smile. She glared at him. ‘I’m not most men.’
He made a move for the back room, but she stepped between him and the curtain. Her eyes shot daggers. He could smell her, since there was little space between them. Something sweet, light, but not overpowering—her perfume—and something womanly, intoxicating. Her. He could feel the warmth of her body and felt it shoot to his core.
‘I don’t know who you are—’ she started.
‘I’m the money,’ he said, matter-of-factly. She squinted. He made another move for the curtain, but she stepped in front of him again. Her body was practically pressed against his.
‘It’s bad luck for you to see the wedding dress before the day.’
Clearly, she was clutching at straws. Despite barely coming to his shoulders, she looked up at him defiantly, her jaw set. It was … cute. Alluring. Damn it. ‘I’ll take my chances.’ She didn’t budge. He bent lower, bringing his face closer to hers. ‘Move aside, Andie, unless you would like us to take our business elsewhere.’
Leaning that close was a bad idea. He hadn’t realised just how intoxicating she was until it was too late. He dropped his gaze to her lips and wondered if she tasted as sweet as she smelled. Her mouth twitched. Her lips were set in a fine line. He’d like to kiss that stubbornness away. She swallowed, then stepped aside, pulling the curtain back for him.
He straightened, taking a deep breath to steady himself. ‘Good choice,’ he said. ‘I’ll have some of that champagne, too. Can’t let Libby have all the fun.’
She hesitated, her eyes following him as he moved to sit himself in one of the plush chairs. He could feel her gaze on his back and wondered if he should be worried that she might start throwing real daggers at him.
She hated him.
Sure, she might have been infatuated when she first laid eyes on him. But the son of a bitch was an arrogant bastard. At least she’d discovered that before she got in too deep …
How dare he think he could waltz into the room where his fiancée was choosing her wedding dress. It was practically the only secret a woman could have in her wedding. The one surprise she had for the groom, assuming the groom actually wanted to be involved in the wedding planning at all. It seemed this one wanted to be too involved. Damn him.
She hung Libby’s coat on the designated hook and clutched his suit jacket. She considered simply tossing it on the nearby seat to make a point, but thought better of it. He was The Money, as he so gallantly put it. That meant she couldn’t afford to piss him off. She hung his jacket up next to Libby’s coat and touched her hands to her cheeks. The simple motion of hanging it up swamped her in his essence, his cologne. And she’d be lying if she said it didn’t make her stomach turn in the most inappropriate way.
He’s getting married.
She took a deep breath, straightened her outfit, and moved to the fridge to get the champagne and three glasses. As a personal preference, she didn’t usually drink while she had customers. But one glass couldn’t hurt, right? God knows she needed it. She lifted the glasses and the champagne to take back out to the main room and was startled when Harley sped in, her eyes wide.
‘There’s a man out there.’
‘I know,’ she sighed.
‘A man,’ Harley repeated. ‘Why is there a man in the gown room?’
‘He insisted on being there,’ she said, rolling her eyes. ‘Arrogant pr—’
‘Well, he’s obviously not the gay best friend,’ Harley said, peeking out at him again.
‘Who is he?’
‘He’s The Money,’ she said, deepening her voice to show her annoyance.
Harley’s eyes widened. ‘The groom?’
‘Well, he’s clearly not her father.’
‘Eesh. Poor girl,’ Harley said, taking two of the glasses and grabbing a fourth from the shelf. Andie smiled. It seemed she would be joining in on the champagne as well. ‘Doesn’t he know it’s the bride’s thing?’
‘He said he’ll take his chances,’ she muttered, walking back out to the room.
She plastered a fake smile on her face and saw the smug look on his. He wanted to make this difficult for his bride? Well, she might just have to make it difficult for him. She poured the champagne into the glasses and distributed them, raising hers in her traditional toast.
‘To the perfect wedding gown for the stunning bride.’
She could feel his gaze on her, burning through her like a flame. She kept her focus on Libby. Libby was her customer. Libby was the one who would be making the decisions. Not her controlling arrogant fiancé.
‘Now, Libby,’ she started, seating herself on the ottoman in front of Libby, her back towards the man. ‘Do you have a certain style in mind?’
Libby sipped her champagne, her cheeks tinged. ‘Oh, I’ve been terribly unorganised,’ she started. ‘It’s all happened so quickly. I don’t even know where to start. Should I know what I want? Oh, tell me I haven’t wasted your time.’
Andie smiled. ‘No time wasted at all,’ she assured her. ‘I have all day.’
The man behind her cleared his throat. ‘Exactly how long is this going to take?’
Her smile widened. That’s all she needed. This guy thought this could all be over with quickly. No doubt he had meetings to attend all afternoon. She knew his type. She just hoped, for Libby’s sake, that he didn’t need to go on business trips all the time like Joseph had. She didn’t bother to look at him, simply keeping her focus on Libby. All focus needed to be on Libby.
‘As long as it takes for Libby to find the perfect gown, of course. Did you know that the whole wedding really revolves around the gown? You wouldn’t think so, but it’s true. Once the gown has been chosen, everything else simply falls into place. That’s something you don’t want to rush’—she turned to face him—‘do you?’
His eyes narrowed, and she lifted a challenging eyebrow. Like she thought before, two could play at this game. He mumbled something, leaned back in his seat and crossed one ankle over his other knee. She turned back to Libby.
‘Don’t mind Tay,’ Libby said, waving a hand towards him. ‘He’s never particularly liked shopping. Typical man.’ Libby rolled her eyes.
Andie kept smiling and nodded slightly. ‘Why don’t you come this way, Libby? Have a look through the racks and pick out any gowns you would like to try. Then I can get a feel for what you like.’ She guided Libby towards the racks and, when certain they were out of earshot, lowered her voice. ‘Are you okay with him being here?’
Libby turned to face her, her expression confused. ‘I don’t really have a choice, do I?’ It wasn’t really a question, Andie noticed. ‘He’s paying for all of it. It’s really only fair that he attends all the appointments as well—see where his money is going.’
‘As long as you’re okay with him being here, we can accommodate. Not seeing the gown before the wedding is really just an old wives’ tale, anyway.’
‘I’m okay with it,’ Libby said simply.
‘All right, then,’ Andie said, holding a pair of white gloves out to Libby and donning a pair herself. ‘Now, while you’re looking through the racks’—she let her eyes show the excitement that every bride needed to see—’tell me how it happened.’
Libby smiled. Brilliant. Love-stricken. God, this man really had her under his charms. ‘Well,’ Libby started. ‘We’ve known each other forever—since we were children. I don’t think he really noticed me like that until a couple years ago, and there was suddenly just … something else … you know?’
Andie nodded. She did know. There was always something else. And it wasn’t always a good thing.
‘He went all out with the proposal,’ Libby said, running her gloved fingers along the gowns, studying each and every one of them. She paused on an extravagant princess gown and ran her hand along the fine tulle. ‘Oh, I love this one. I’m not sure I have the body for it, though.’
‘We can try it.’ Andie took it off the rack and handed it to a ready Harley to take to the dressing room. ‘How did he propose? Sometimes the story can influence the gown.’
‘He took me on one of his business trips to Broome,’ she continued, moving along the dresses. So, he does go on business trips … At least he had the decency to take her with him. ‘But he surprised me by organising to stay a couple of extra days and we spent a whole day exploring.’
Andie could tell the exact point that Libby fully immersed herself in the memory. She stopped moving, clutching the train of another gown to her chest, and she stared up at the ceiling dreamily. Andie parted the gowns slightly and glanced towards him. Tay. The name seemed to suit him. He was chatting on his phone, his expression annoyed. She couldn’t make out what was being said, but he certainly wasn’t happy. It only confirmed her suspicions of him. Even if he was incredibly handsome …
‘May I try this one?’ Libby said, jerking Andie back to the important situation at hand. ‘Certainly.’ Andie hoped Libby didn’t notice her gawking at her fiancé. She lifted the dress off the rack and handed it to Harley.
‘Anyway,’ Libby continued. ‘We went to some lovely cafés and had just come from the nicest restaurant I’ve ever been to. I didn’t suspect a thing, you know?’
Andie nodded and smiled when she realised Libby was waiting for a response. She was starting to feel like she didn’t really want to listen to the story anymore.
‘We went for a stroll along the beach at sunset. He led me out to the pier and dropped down on one knee and that’s when he proposed.’ She had that dreamy look again. Andie remembered having that dreamy look herself. Great lot of good that did for her. ‘It was … magical.’
She’d thought that, too.