Beauty and the Billionaire:The Wedding

By: Jessica Clare

“Goodness gracious, what is that?” Maylee’s southern drawl sang out to Gretchen as she entered the Buchanan Real Estate office downtown.

With a foot holding the door open, Gretchen carefully hauled her tray inside, careful not to hold it too close and get red-and-white icing all over her black sweater. “Happy holidays to you, too.”

Maylee giggled, trotting out from behind the desk and hurrying forward to get the door. “It’s not every day the boss’s fiancée shows up with a doughnut mountain. Y’all will have to forgive me if I’m a little startled.”

“It’s called a religieuse l’ancienne—it’s a three-foot-tall centerpiece made from éclairs. It’s supposed to look like a nun. Or a cone. Or something.”

“Well, you’ve definitely got the ‘something’ part down. It looks more like Santa Claus.” Maylee hurried forward to give Gretchen a hand.

Gretchen brightened. “That’s exactly what I was going for. Santa Claus . . . or a nun. At any rate, I saw it on a TV show and wanted to try making one.” Or three. Well, it was more like four, since the first two fell apart, but she wouldn’t share that with Maylee.

The other woman was giving her a sympathetic look. “Stress-baking again?”

“Is it obvious?” Gretchen set the tray on top of Maylee’s desk and smoothed her hands down her too-tight-fitting pants. All the pre-wedding diets were a disaster, mostly because when Gretchen was anxious lately? She baked. Cookies, tortes, pies, pralines, you name it.

And lately? She was really, really stressed.

“It’s not obvious,” Maylee said in a sweet voice, “other than the fact that this is the third time you’ve been here this week to drop off some cookies.” She poked a red éclair with a pink fingernail. “This stuff edible? The cleaning crew will be wantin’ to know. They love it when you’re stressed.”

“Should be, unless I totally fucked it up.” She stared down at the éclair mountain. It was a French monstrosity meant to be a centerpiece to a bakery window or a Christmas display, but hers just looked . . . well, it did look like a stack of éclairs. Or Santa Claus. “I’m going to tackle Yule logs next. Actually, I was thinking of making several different Yule logs—all in different flavors with different swirl patterns and different sizes—and stacking them together and adding some marzipan flames on top. Or maybe some sugar-work flames. What do you think?”

Maylee clutched the sides of her tweed skirt. “I think I’m getting fatter just thinking about it.”

“Yeah, me too.” Didn’t mean she wouldn’t be making it, of course. That was how she rolled lately—over caffeinated, over sugared, and completely stressed out.

“You should be relaxing. Only a week before your wedding!”

“Oh god, don’t remind me. I might have a nervous puke all over the floor.”

Maylee fell silent, looking troubled. “Weddings are supposed to be wonderful, Gretchen.”

Yeah, they were, but this one was starting to feel a little cursed. “How’s yours going, by the way?”

The sweet smile returned to Maylee’s round face. “Oh, I really don’t know. Griffin’s great-aunt and his cousin Alex want to organize it all since he’s an earl.” She shrugged. “I mostly need to just show up and not look like a doofus.”

“Lucky bitch,” Gretchen teased, and Maylee giggled again. “Can we switch weddings? That sounds perfect to me.”

“Hands off. Griffin’s mine.”

“Well, I didn’t say I wanted your bridegroom. Just the wedding planning.” Gretchen wouldn’t trade Hunter for all the earls in the world—especially not stuffy, incredibly proper Griffin, who was the polar opposite of his frizzy, countrified fiancée. “Speaking of, where’s my one and only?”

“Conference call,” Maylee said, pulling an éclair from the top of the religieuse l’ancienne and nibbling delicately on it. “Should be done in a minute. And this is amazing. Bless your heart for baking this all up.”

Gretchen sighed and picked up a magazine from a nearby table. “I’ll wait.” Hunter was doing his best to clear his calendar so they could go on a honeymoon immediately after the wedding, but with the holidays nearly arrived and the usual end-of-year business items that had to be wrapped up, he was extremely busy. It made it hard when she was feeling needy and wanting to talk to him, but she was content to wait for a bit. He’d make time for her. He always did.

She flipped through the magazine idly and then gazed down at the ring on her hand. A week from now, it would be paired up with a wedding band. The wedding that was both the pride and plague of her last year would finally happen. She’d be married to the man of her dreams.

They just had to make it until then.

Gretchen flicked past another page in the magazine, too distracted to pay much attention to it. It wasn’t that there was a problem between her and Hunter. Hunter was perfection, and she counted herself as the luckiest woman on earth to have him. But for most of this year, it had felt like one problem after another leading up to the wedding. She’d had bridesmaids get knocked up by her groomsmen. She’d had groomsmen drop and others take their places. Heck, even her agent had bailed on the wedding. Kat was supposed to be a bridesmaid but had moved to Europe a few months back to be the assistant to some big German author, so she’d had to replace her, too. And then Gretchen had had to move the date from spring to fall because of Hunter’s work or Audrey’s baby. After that, the date had been pushed yet again, and here she was, getting married on Christmas Eve, because at some point, she’d decided that was a good idea. And she’d gone through so many bakers and caterers that she was pretty sure there weren’t any left in New York State that she hadn’t fired. Her wedding planner had taken off to Vegas for an entire month. And on top of it all? Buchanan Manor had water damage in the ceiling and an entire wing had been closed off. The workers had promised her and Hunter that they would be done in time for the wedding—which was going to be taking place at the manor—but she wasn’t so sure.

Heck, she wasn’t sure of anything anymore, except that she desperately wanted to just be married and move on to the next chapter in their lives. To be able to relax and just enjoy being together.

The door opened and a small woman walked in. Gretchen looked up automatically, and the woman visibly recoiled at the sight of her. Well, okay, that was different. Did she have flour on her face? Gretchen surreptitiously licked her thumb and brushed it over the corners of her mouth just in case.

The woman moved to the front desk, a large manila envelope clutched in her hand. She leaned in over Maylee’s desk, her hair nearly touching the poor, mangled religieuse. “I’m here to see Mr. Buchanan.”

“Did you have an appointment?” Maylee pulled out her planner.

“I don’t, but he’s going to want to see me.” She looked over at Gretchen again, then leaned farther in toward Maylee. Her voice dropped. “It’s imperative.”

Okay, well now Gretchen was curious. She pretended to flip another page, watching the woman out of the corner of her eye. The woman was pretty, with cute little nude heels that showed off her perfectly tanned calves despite the fact that it was winter. She wore a black turtleneck over a short red skirt and had a Christmas tree pin over the breast of her sweater. It was a very cute, very together look that Gretchen would have never been able to pull off.

Maylee gave the woman an uneasy look, her gaze flicking to Gretchen. “Mr. Buchanan just finished his call. I don’t think—”

Down the short hallway, the door to Hunter’s office opened. He stepped out, adjusting his jacket, and Gretchen felt a little flutter at the sight of him. He was so handsome. God, just looking at him did all kinds of dirty things to her. Some people might not like the heavy scars across his face, but they revved her engine like nobody’s business. Just thinking about him made her all hot and bothered, and she crossed her legs so she could squeeze her thighs tight. She’d worn sexy underwear today, since she’d planned on coming in to the office. Maybe a lunchtime quickie was in the works . . . but his office was all windows. So . . . maybe not.

Damn it.

His eyes lit up at the sight of her in the lobby, and then his gaze moved to the woman waiting at the counter with the envelope. His expression grew cold, distant.

And that was odd. Gretchen felt a weird prickle of alarm.

“Mr. Buchanan,” the woman said, stepping forward. “I need a moment of your time.”

His jaw clenched in the way it did when he was pissed, and then he nodded. “Get in here.” He pointed at his office, then glanced back at Gretchen. “Give me a moment.”

“Sure,” she said, bewildered at his stiff tone and rude treatment of the woman. This wasn’t like her Hunter. Her sweet, thoughtful, romantic Hunter was always gracious, always kind. But the look he was shooting the woman who smugly strolled into his office was full of disdain and even dislike.

What . . . what was going on?

The moment Hunter’s office door closed, Gretchen got to her feet and put the magazine down. She tiptoed over to the door, ignoring Maylee’s small protest. She was going to be the boss’s wife—she could do what she liked. And right now, she wanted to know what was going on.

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