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Love Me

Love Me

Brittney Merriweather has it all. Or at least she thinks she does. As the only daughter of the wealthy, notorious Merriweather family, she’s grown up rich, spoiled, and entitled. With her two older brothers having recently married, it seems like the perfect time to tie the knot herself. So she’s gotten engaged—to a boring, but eminently suitable man from her own class and station in life—and she thinks she’s made all the right choices. Until she travels to the family’s historic Denver home to plan her wedding and meets the man of her dreams.

Matt Monroe is a renowned bad boy and womanizer who’s tough, dangerous, and too used to having his own way. For years, he’s been waiting to cross Brittney’s path, and when they finally meet, it’s not an accident. He knows the terrible secret she doesn’t know, and as he insinuates himself into her life, his plans unfold in ways she never could have predicted. Nothing is as it seems. Is he saint or sinner? Is he good guy or bad?

As their worlds collide and their passions ignite, she’s about to learn that all the money in the world can’t buy her what she really needs. Brittney gambles all on love. But is Matt a bet worth taking?

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CHAPTER ONE

“A July ceremony could be problematic.”

“In what way?”

Brittney Merriweather frowned at the wedding planner her mother had hired.

The man, Mr. Gregory as he liked to be called, was so polished and manicured that he nearly shimmered with acumen and perfection.  Her mother, Jacquelyn, dealt with only the most renowned and expensive professionals, so there was no doubt he would perform brilliantly.  Brittney’s wedding would be spectacular.

Why couldn’t she muster any enthusiasm for the occasion?

“July in Colorado can be tricky,” he explained.  “We could hit a hot patch of weather and everyone would be miserable.”

“Or we could get lucky,” Brittney countered, “and be blessed with some of Denver’s ideal summer temperatures.  Everyone would be happy.”

“And that time of year,” he continued, “there are always late-afternoon thunderstorms.”

Brittney shrugged, undeterred.  “Then we’ll schedule it for two o’clock, before the clouds have a chance to build up over the Front Range.”

“It’s only three months away.”  Mr. Gregory glared at Jacquelyn, hoping to find an ally.  “If we could just delay a bit, maybe into September…?”

“She refuses to delay,” Jacquelyn replied.  “I already tried to convince her.”

“July it is then.”

He flashed a wan smile and clapped his hands as if it was what he’d wanted all along.  In all actuality, he was aghast at the speed with which she was forging ahead.

But Brittney was determined—even though she couldn’t figure out why.

There was no reason to hurry.  She’d only known her fiancé, Andrew Fitzroy-Jones, for six months, so she could have stretched out the engagement.  She could have ordered the designer gown from Paris, could have spent months haggling over colors or themes, but it all seemed so unnecessary.  Especially with the bad economy.

When so many people were struggling, she felt uncomfortable wasting a ton of cash on a frivolous party.

Andrew disagreed, though.  As did her mother.  They saw nothing wrong with squandering a fortune on the event, and when the three of them were so at odds over the tone and the cost, it was becoming more and more difficult to reach a consensus on even the smallest issue.

Brittney would make a choice and instantly be overruled.  So far, she’d managed to win on the location and date:  July fifteenth at the family’s historic mansion in Denver.  She’d lost on every other detail.

She couldn’t decide if she should keep fighting or if she should simply give up and go with the flow.  Her mother was like a force of nature.  She always got her way, and Brittney had learned from bitter experience that it was easier to relent.

With her two brothers, Dustin and Lucas, recently picking unsuitable brides—over Jacquelyn’s vehement objection—Jacquelyn had a point to prove with Brittney’s nuptials.

She had decreed that the affair be grand and ostentatious—whether Brittney consented or not.  Andrew was obscenely rich, charming, and sophisticated, exactly the sort of man Jacquelyn wanted for a son-in-law, and she was almost desperate to bring the union to fruition.

She was eager to show the world that at least one of her adult children was sane.

Brittney had met Andrew at a gallery opening in New York City, and from the moment they’d been introduced, they’d been destined to end up together.

They had so much in common:  good looks, staggering affluence, societal position, and a taste for the finer things in life.

He was a thriving hedge fund manager who had an unequaled knack for making money.  He’d risen from humble roots to achieve a level of success that impressed even his fiercest critics.

A brash upstart and impetuous financier, he donated to the appropriate charities and owned property at the most exclusive addresses.  He patronized the proper vacation spots and was photographed at the most lavish galas, so he was deemed to be one of America’s most eligible bachelors.

And Brittney had snagged him for her own.

Or maybe she should remember that he had snagged her.  She was one of the country’s great heiresses, her male ancestors having built the Merriweather empire during the waning days of the Old West.  They’d been hardscrabble pioneers and prospectors, but had parlayed those meager beginnings into goldmines, railroads, and real estate.

Though Brittney and her brothers were several generations removed from that industrial foundation, their fortune stretched to infinity.  It provided her and her brothers with the lazy trappings of leisure and privilege that seemed nearly immoral.

Brittney and Andrew.  Old money and new.  Beauty, brains, wealth.  The perfect couple.  The perfect match.

She sighed.  Why wasn’t she brimming with excitement?  Why couldn’t she be happy?

“I was thinking five hundred thousand,” she heard her mother say to Mr. Gregory, and she was yanked out of her miserable reverie.

“What?” Brittney asked.

“Mr. Gregory inquired about the budget,” her mother said.  “We can host an intimate celebration for five hundred thousand.”

“Dollars?” Brittney gasped.

“Yes.”

“Absolutely not, Mother.  I refuse to let you spend that much.”

“How will you stop me?”

“I’m the bride.  Don’t my wishes count?”

“Not when you’re being foolish.”

“How am I being foolish?  I’ve told you and told you what I want:  a simple ceremony—here in the mansion—followed by some hors d’oeuvres and drinks.  That’s it.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“And no more than fifty guests.”

Jacquelyn was thin, graying, her slender physique as brittle and harsh as her personality.  She rolled her icy blue eyes with disgust and focused her attention on Mr. Gregory.  She ignored Brittney as if Brittney wasn’t present, and Brittney muttered, “Would you excuse me for a few minutes?”

She slipped out of the room and strolled to the rear of the house, to the solarium that looked out over the garden.

It was a lovely spring morning in Denver, the grass so green, the sky so blue.  Off in the west, the Rocky Mountains towered over the city, their snowy peaks a stark reminder that winter wasn’t completely gone.

The flowers were blooming, the trees heavy with leaves, and she wondered how many more times she’d be able to stand in the quiet spot.

With her father’s death the prior year, everything was changing.  The glorious residence—with its carved woodwork, frescoed ceilings, and antique furnishings—was her favorite place on the entire planet.

But none of them had ever lived in it.

Jacquelyn puttered around in Santa Fe where she claimed to be an artist.  Dustin was an idle bachelor and occasional movie producer in Los Angeles.  Brittney and Lucas travelled constantly, not really having any permanent location, although Lucas had recently gotten married and settled in Boulder with his wife, Faith Benjamin.

The mansion—which represented so much of their past—sat empty decade after decade.  They used it for their infrequent gatherings when their Colorado-based business drew them to Denver for meetings.  So Lucas had decided to sell it to the historical society so it could be turned into a museum.

She’d tried to dissuade him, but couldn’t, so her wedding would likely be the last time she’d ever have the right to call the house her own.  It was the reason she’d insisted on holding the ceremony in the front parlor.

Andrew had wanted to rent a ballroom in New York City, but Brittney had been adamant.  They would have their wedding in her family’s historic home, and she wouldn’t consider any other venue.

In the windows of the solarium, she could see her reflection.  Her golden blond hair curled down her back.  It was sun-streaked from a recent jaunt to the Caribbean, her skin tanned a warm bronze color.  She should have appeared healthy and fit, but she was much too thin, with stress weighing heavily.

Any bride—with her big day approaching—would kill to be so slender, but Brittney had slimmed to the point of emaciation.  No amount of nuptial preparation, no amount of pretending to be glad, could reverse the haggard look in her striking green eyes.

She laid her palm on the cool glass of the window.

“What am I doing?” she murmured to herself.  “Why am I getting married?”

“I give up,” a male voice replied.  “Why are you getting married?”

Frowning, she whipped around.

A man was in the doorway, insolently leaned against the frame.  He was older than she was by a few years—she was twenty-six—but he seemed to be much more aged, as if he’d done too much and was exhausted by his experiences.

He was incredibly handsome, tall and imposing, his broad shoulders filling the narrow space.  He had piercing blue eyes and thick black hair that he wore too long.  It was tied in a ponytail that dangled down his back.  Though he was dressed casually in a leather jacket, jeans, and boots, there was an air of authority about him that unnerved her.

He was probably the type who thought with his fists, a cop or maybe a boxer who roamed the physical world of threats and retaliation.  He’d drink alone in dark, smoky bars and pick up dumb, busty women who were too clueless to know better.

In other words, he was the total opposite of her fiancé:  suave, urbane, charming Andrew Fitzroy-Jones.  Andrew was forty, stable and mature and established in his habits and routines, while the guy before her oozed testosterone and danger.

He rattled her composure.  He made her want to run away and keep on running.

“Who are you”—she assumed the haughty manner of the rich princess she’d been raised to be—“and why are you in my home?”

“The door wasn’t locked.  I strolled in without knocking.”

“Which doesn’t answer my question.  Who are you?”

He reached into his jacket and pulled out a business card.  Displaying his own haughty arrogance, he waved it in a taunting way—as if she was a puppy that might come over and fetch.

They engaged in a brief standoff, but she quickly lost their little war.  She was no match for his brand of cocky conceit.  She stomped over and yanked the card out of his hand.

“Talbot Security?” she said, reading the name of his company.

“Yup.”  He gave a slight, mocking bow.  “Matthew Monroe, at your service.  They sent you their number one guy.”

“And you’re here because…?”

“Why do you think a private security firm would show up?  To provide security.”

“To who?”

“To you.”

“To me?  I don’t need any security.”

“Your fiancé would beg to disagree.”

“Andrew hired security?  Why?”

“I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that it’s to ensure you’re safe.”

“Safe from what?”

“He’s a Wall Street banker.”  Mr. Monroe shrugged as if his comment was self-explanatory.

“He’s not a banker.”

“Banker, stockbroker, hedge fund manager.”  He made a waffling motion with his fingers.  “Those crooks caused a lot of misery for a lot a people.  These days, it’s not uncommon for them to be uneasy.”

“Uneasy about what?”

“Bodily harm.  Personal injury.  Arson.  Death threats.”

“Death threats?  Andrew?”

“Yes.”

“That’s the most ludicrous thing I’ve ever heard.”

“In his line of work, it pays to be cautious.”

“But not to be silly.  I’m in my family’s home in plain, boring Denver, Colorado.  I’m not about to be attacked by lunatics.  So if you’ll excuse me?”

She gestured to the hall for him to leave, but he was as obtuse as she could have predicted.  He didn’t budge.

“I can’t go anywhere,” he maddeningly claimed.  “My orders are to stick to you like glue.”

“In your dreams maybe, but not in mine.”

For some preposterous reason, she’d presumed she could intimidate him with her five feet six inches of height.  He was every bit of six feet, weighed two hundred pounds that was all muscle, and he blocked the door like a brick wall.

She glared up at him and was momentarily lost in the blue, blue of his eyes.

He was too big, too handsome, too, too…everything.

“Do you mind?” she said, indicating that he should move out of her way.

“Nope.”

“I have to get back to my mother.”

“To fuss over the wedding?”

“Yes, not that it’s any of your business.”

“Honey, for the next few months, you are my business.”

“I’m not your honey.”

“If you say so, ho—“

She cut him off.  “You may call me Miss Merriweather.”

“Yes, ma’am.  And you can call me Matt.  Everybody does.”

“I’ll stick with Mr. Monroe.”

“Whatever floats your boat.”  He studied her, his intent gaze starting at the top of her head and inappropriately slithering down to her toes.  “Why don’t you want to get married?”

She scowled.  “What on earth are you talking about?”

“When I walked in, you distinctly said, ‘why am I getting married’.”

“I did not!”  She would deny the remark until her dying day.

He smirked.  “Lying about it won’t change anything.  I heard you loud and clear.”

“You are the most rude, insensitive jerk I’ve ever met.”

“Yes, I am.  Are you developing a case of cold feet?  What’s the matter with your precious Andrew that has you so worried?”

“I’m not worried,” she fumed.

“Because from where I’m standing”—he continued as if she hadn’t spoken—“it’s obvious that you don’t have to settle.  You’re rich and pretty; you can take your pick of husbands.  If your buddy Andrew isn’t making you happy, you should keep looking.”

“Thanks for the advice, Mr. Monroe.”  She batted her lashes as if she was a helpless female.  “I won’t forget it.”

“You shouldn’t.  I’m a good judge of character.  I won’t ever steer you wrong.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake.  Would you move?”

“I might—if you tell me where you’re going.”

“First, I’m calling Andrew.  I want him to contact your employer and have you dragged out of here.”

“Won’t happen,” he confidently stated.

“We’ll see, won’t we?”

“Yes, we will.”

She shoved at his chest, which was like pushing a block of granite.

“Okay,” she grumbled, “you’ve proved your point.  You’re bigger and stronger than me, macho man, and I can only proceed if you decide to let me.  Now move!”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said again.

He was extremely pleased with himself, and he grinned a slow, sexy grin that—if she was more susceptible to that sort of behavior—might have made her knees weak.  Then he stepped aside and motioned for her to pass.

She stomped by him and headed to the front parlor where her mother and Mr. Gregory were huddled together and comparing color swatches.  They were so absorbed in their task that they didn’t notice she’d returned.

She grabbed her cell phone and dialed Andrew several times, getting his voicemail with each attempt.  Finally, she slammed her thumb on the off button and hunkered down on the couch.  She should at least try to participate in her mother’s conversation with Mr. Gregory, but she couldn’t focus.

She was too distracted by Matt Monroe.

Why would Andrew hire him without informing her?

She was rich, but fairly innocuous, unknown to the masses and unrecognized as anyone important when out in public.  She’d always been able to travel and live alone without a guard tagging after her.

Yet suddenly, Andrew felt that security was required.  Why?  He was two-thousand miles away in New York.  If he needed protection, why would Brittney need it too?  Why had he dumped vain, obnoxious Matthew Monroe into her lap?

She glanced up, and Monroe was loitering in the hall, leaned against the far wall and watching her.

He winked.  The ass!

“I realize you wanted yellow,” her mother said as if from a great distance, “but could we—“

“What?”  Brittney wrenched her gaze from Monroe and stared at Jacquelyn.

“We discussed having yellow as one of your colors, but I really like this peach.”

“I don’t care what you choose,” Brittney snapped, aware that if Jacquelyn liked peach, then peach it would be.  “Mother, did you know that Andrew hired security for me?”

“Yes.  He mentioned it last week when he called.”

“He never told me.”

“You were out.”

“The guy is already here.”

“Yes, he’s been doodling around all morning, checking the locks.”

Brittney hadn’t previously noticed, but now that she had, she couldn’t take her eyes off him.  He was lurking like a statue, like a specter, and she wanted him gone.

It didn’t appear that she would have any control over her wedding, but she could exert a small bit of authority with Monroe.  Despite what he assumed, despite what Andrew had arranged, Monroe was not staying.

She marched to the hall, shutting the door on Jacquelyn and Mr. Gregory.

Monroe looked amused, as if he’d been expecting her to be flighty and fickle and she’d proved to be exactly that.

“You!” she barked.  “Come with me.”

“You’re the customer.  I’m happy to oblige.”

She seized his wrist and started off, even as she wondered what she was hoping to accomplish.

What was her plan?  To throw him out bodily?  As if she could!  She only weighed a hundred and twenty pounds.

They arrived in the mudroom behind the kitchen, and she stopped and whirled around.  She’d intended to berate him for his high-handed manner, then push him outside, but somehow, she’d landed herself in precisely the wrong spot.  She was wedged into the corner, and he was facing her, standing much too close and overwhelming her with his masculine size and presence.

They froze, both shocked by the abrupt, intimate positioning.  The air seemed charged with electricity, a powerful chemistry flowing from him to her.

He felt it too, and he was as disconcerted as she was.  A frown marred his brow.  He studied her eyes, then her mouth, giving her the distinct sense that he was thinking about kissing her.  Which was ridiculous.  But still, she was certain the notion was raging through his head.

Would he dare?  Would she let him?

She laid her palms on his broad chest and shoved hard.  Thankfully, he stepped away without argument.  With the extra space between them, the frenetic atmosphere diminished, but it didn’t vanish altogether.

If he was a magnet, she was metal.  She had to grab onto a nearby shelf to keep from rubbing up against him and purring like a contented cat.

“I don’t want you here,” she said.

“I realize you don’t.”

“I don’t want you following me.  I don’t want you watching me.  I don’t want you providing your unbearable brand of security.”

“All right.”

He grinned as if it was all a big joke, and his disregard ignited her temper so that she was positively rippling with fury.  She couldn’t remember when she’d last been so incensed.  She couldn’t remember when she’d ever felt so alive.

“Why are you laughing at me?” she seethed.

“I’m not laughing,” he insisted, but he was.  Evidently, he thought she was hilarious.

“You’re incredibly impressed with yourself.”

“I definitely am.”

“Well, I’m not, and I don’t need you prowling the halls and making my blood boil every two seconds.”

“Your blood’s boiling?  Am I having that much of an effect on you?  What would dear old Andrew think if he knew?”

“Shut up.”

“Your wish is my command.”  He made an insufferable motion over his lips as if he’d turned a key in a lock.

“Go away,” she ordered.  “Go away and don’t come back.”  She yanked open the door.  “If I catch you sniffing after me again, I’ll call the police and have you arrested.”

“May I say something?” he asked.

“No, you may not.”

He spoke anyway.  “Your fiancé signed a contract with Talbot Security that authorizes us to be here.  If you call the police, they’ll just release me.”

“That may be, but before you’re set loose, I’ll have the extreme pleasure of seeing you in handcuffs for a few minutes.”  She flashed a satisfied smile and pushed him out onto the porch.  “Goodbye.”

“Goodbye,” he responded and off he went.

He loped down the stairs and out to the driveway.  For such a large man, he was particularly graceful and light on his feet, moving with the natural ease of a dancer or wide receiver.

He disappeared around the corner, and she took a deep breath, held it, let it out.  Feeling as if she’d dodged a bullet, she headed off to rejoin her mother.

*          *          *          *

“Do you have her?”

“No.”

Matt pressed the phone to his ear as he shifted on the seat of his restored ’66 Mustang.  It was the only item of value he’d ever owned.

He was parked across the street from the Merriweather mansion, the front windows in full view, the drapes open.  Through his binoculars, he could peer down the long yard as Brittney entered the living room and flopped onto the sofa.

“But you met her?”

“Yup,” he replied.

“What’s she like?”

“Pretty, snooty, unhappy.  Much too thin.  She looks like a damned Sri Lankan refugee.”

“Why is she so skinny?”

“Because she’s miserable—but she doesn’t realize that she is.”

“Will she go through with the wedding?”

“If I had to guess, I’d say yes.  Her mother seems intent on it happening, and I can’t see Brittney bucking the woman’s authority.  Mrs. Merriweather is a tyrant, and I doubt Brittney has ever stood up to her.”

“So what’s your plan?  Why didn’t you grab her when you had the chance?”

“Give me a few days.  I’m betting I can convince her to leave with me of her own accord.  We wouldn’t have to resort to any harsh measures.”

“You’re counting on the old Monroe charm?”

“It hasn’t failed me yet.  The sparks are flying between us, my man.  If I can’t persuade her to run off with me, nobody can.”

A resigned sigh wheezed in the phone.  “Okay.  You can have a week, but that’s it.  If you haven’t finished it by then, we’re doing it my way.”

“Like your idea is better,” Matt scoffed.

“One week.”

“Yeah, yeah, one week.  I heard you the first time.”

He hung up and chuckled to himself.

Poor Brittney Merriweather.  Poor little, unloved rich girl.

She was already wary of Matt, and she had every reason to be suspicious.  After he was through with her, she would never be the same again.

He liked her more than he’d imagined he would, but he hated wealthy people, and he had to remember that fact.  If he left her sad, if he left her life in shambles, she had the money to buy herself some therapy and get over it.

Whatever was coming toward her, it couldn’t be stopped.  Some things were meant to be, and this was one of them.  It was like a bad train wreck that couldn’t be avoided, and he wouldn’t suffer an ounce of guilt or regret over what he was about to do.

Sample Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

“A July ceremony could be problematic.”

“In what way?”

Brittney Merriweather frowned at the wedding planner her mother had hired.

The man, Mr. Gregory as he liked to be called, was so polished and manicured that he nearly shimmered with acumen and perfection.  Her mother, Jacquelyn, dealt with only the most renowned and expensive professionals, so there was no doubt he would perform brilliantly.  Brittney’s wedding would be spectacular.

Why couldn’t she muster any enthusiasm for the occasion?

“July in Colorado can be tricky,” he explained.  “We could hit a hot patch of weather and everyone would be miserable.”

“Or we could get lucky,” Brittney countered, “and be blessed with some of Denver’s ideal summer temperatures.  Everyone would be happy.”

“And that time of year,” he continued, “there are always late-afternoon thunderstorms.”

Brittney shrugged, undeterred.  “Then we’ll schedule it for two o’clock, before the clouds have a chance to build up over the Front Range.”

“It’s only three months away.”  Mr. Gregory glared at Jacquelyn, hoping to find an ally.  “If we could just delay a bit, maybe into September…?”

“She refuses to delay,” Jacquelyn replied.  “I already tried to convince her.”

“July it is then.”

He flashed a wan smile and clapped his hands as if it was what he’d wanted all along.  In all actuality, he was aghast at the speed with which she was forging ahead.

But Brittney was determined—even though she couldn’t figure out why.

There was no reason to hurry.  She’d only known her fiancé, Andrew Fitzroy-Jones, for six months, so she could have stretched out the engagement.  She could have ordered the designer gown from Paris, could have spent months haggling over colors or themes, but it all seemed so unnecessary.  Especially with the bad economy.

When so many people were struggling, she felt uncomfortable wasting a ton of cash on a frivolous party.

Andrew disagreed, though.  As did her mother.  They saw nothing wrong with squandering a fortune on the event, and when the three of them were so at odds over the tone and the cost, it was becoming more and more difficult to reach a consensus on even the smallest issue.

Brittney would make a choice and instantly be overruled.  So far, she’d managed to win on the location and date:  July fifteenth at the family’s historic mansion in Denver.  She’d lost on every other detail.

She couldn’t decide if she should keep fighting or if she should simply give up and go with the flow.  Her mother was like a force of nature.  She always got her way, and Brittney had learned from bitter experience that it was easier to relent.

With her two brothers, Dustin and Lucas, recently picking unsuitable brides—over Jacquelyn’s vehement objection—Jacquelyn had a point to prove with Brittney’s nuptials.

She had decreed that the affair be grand and ostentatious—whether Brittney consented or not.  Andrew was obscenely rich, charming, and sophisticated, exactly the sort of man Jacquelyn wanted for a son-in-law, and she was almost desperate to bring the union to fruition.

She was eager to show the world that at least one of her adult children was sane.

Brittney had met Andrew at a gallery opening in New York City, and from the moment they’d been introduced, they’d been destined to end up together.

They had so much in common:  good looks, staggering affluence, societal position, and a taste for the finer things in life.

He was a thriving hedge fund manager who had an unequaled knack for making money.  He’d risen from humble roots to achieve a level of success that impressed even his fiercest critics.

A brash upstart and impetuous financier, he donated to the appropriate charities and owned property at the most exclusive addresses.  He patronized the proper vacation spots and was photographed at the most lavish galas, so he was deemed to be one of America’s most eligible bachelors.

And Brittney had snagged him for her own.

Or maybe she should remember that he had snagged her.  She was one of the country’s great heiresses, her male ancestors having built the Merriweather empire during the waning days of the Old West.  They’d been hardscrabble pioneers and prospectors, but had parlayed those meager beginnings into goldmines, railroads, and real estate.

Though Brittney and her brothers were several generations removed from that industrial foundation, their fortune stretched to infinity.  It provided her and her brothers with the lazy trappings of leisure and privilege that seemed nearly immoral.

Brittney and Andrew.  Old money and new.  Beauty, brains, wealth.  The perfect couple.  The perfect match.

She sighed.  Why wasn’t she brimming with excitement?  Why couldn’t she be happy?

“I was thinking five hundred thousand,” she heard her mother say to Mr. Gregory, and she was yanked out of her miserable reverie.

“What?” Brittney asked.

“Mr. Gregory inquired about the budget,” her mother said.  “We can host an intimate celebration for five hundred thousand.”

“Dollars?” Brittney gasped.

“Yes.”

“Absolutely not, Mother.  I refuse to let you spend that much.”

“How will you stop me?”

“I’m the bride.  Don’t my wishes count?”

“Not when you’re being foolish.”

“How am I being foolish?  I’ve told you and told you what I want:  a simple ceremony—here in the mansion—followed by some hors d’oeuvres and drinks.  That’s it.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“And no more than fifty guests.”

Jacquelyn was thin, graying, her slender physique as brittle and harsh as her personality.  She rolled her icy blue eyes with disgust and focused her attention on Mr. Gregory.  She ignored Brittney as if Brittney wasn’t present, and Brittney muttered, “Would you excuse me for a few minutes?”

She slipped out of the room and strolled to the rear of the house, to the solarium that looked out over the garden.

It was a lovely spring morning in Denver, the grass so green, the sky so blue.  Off in the west, the Rocky Mountains towered over the city, their snowy peaks a stark reminder that winter wasn’t completely gone.

The flowers were blooming, the trees heavy with leaves, and she wondered how many more times she’d be able to stand in the quiet spot.

With her father’s death the prior year, everything was changing.  The glorious residence—with its carved woodwork, frescoed ceilings, and antique furnishings—was her favorite place on the entire planet.

But none of them had ever lived in it.

Jacquelyn puttered around in Santa Fe where she claimed to be an artist.  Dustin was an idle bachelor and occasional movie producer in Los Angeles.  Brittney and Lucas travelled constantly, not really having any permanent location, although Lucas had recently gotten married and settled in Boulder with his wife, Faith Benjamin.

The mansion—which represented so much of their past—sat empty decade after decade.  They used it for their infrequent gatherings when their Colorado-based business drew them to Denver for meetings.  So Lucas had decided to sell it to the historical society so it could be turned into a museum.

She’d tried to dissuade him, but couldn’t, so her wedding would likely be the last time she’d ever have the right to call the house her own.  It was the reason she’d insisted on holding the ceremony in the front parlor.

Andrew had wanted to rent a ballroom in New York City, but Brittney had been adamant.  They would have their wedding in her family’s historic home, and she wouldn’t consider any other venue.

In the windows of the solarium, she could see her reflection.  Her golden blond hair curled down her back.  It was sun-streaked from a recent jaunt to the Caribbean, her skin tanned a warm bronze color.  She should have appeared healthy and fit, but she was much too thin, with stress weighing heavily.

Any bride—with her big day approaching—would kill to be so slender, but Brittney had slimmed to the point of emaciation.  No amount of nuptial preparation, no amount of pretending to be glad, could reverse the haggard look in her striking green eyes.

She laid her palm on the cool glass of the window.

“What am I doing?” she murmured to herself.  “Why am I getting married?”

“I give up,” a male voice replied.  “Why are you getting married?”

Frowning, she whipped around.

A man was in the doorway, insolently leaned against the frame.  He was older than she was by a few years—she was twenty-six—but he seemed to be much more aged, as if he’d done too much and was exhausted by his experiences.

He was incredibly handsome, tall and imposing, his broad shoulders filling the narrow space.  He had piercing blue eyes and thick black hair that he wore too long.  It was tied in a ponytail that dangled down his back.  Though he was dressed casually in a leather jacket, jeans, and boots, there was an air of authority about him that unnerved her.

He was probably the type who thought with his fists, a cop or maybe a boxer who roamed the physical world of threats and retaliation.  He’d drink alone in dark, smoky bars and pick up dumb, busty women who were too clueless to know better.

In other words, he was the total opposite of her fiancé:  suave, urbane, charming Andrew Fitzroy-Jones.  Andrew was forty, stable and mature and established in his habits and routines, while the guy before her oozed testosterone and danger.

He rattled her composure.  He made her want to run away and keep on running.

“Who are you”—she assumed the haughty manner of the rich princess she’d been raised to be—“and why are you in my home?”

“The door wasn’t locked.  I strolled in without knocking.”

“Which doesn’t answer my question.  Who are you?”

He reached into his jacket and pulled out a business card.  Displaying his own haughty arrogance, he waved it in a taunting way—as if she was a puppy that might come over and fetch.

They engaged in a brief standoff, but she quickly lost their little war.  She was no match for his brand of cocky conceit.  She stomped over and yanked the card out of his hand.

“Talbot Security?” she said, reading the name of his company.

“Yup.”  He gave a slight, mocking bow.  “Matthew Monroe, at your service.  They sent you their number one guy.”

“And you’re here because…?”

“Why do you think a private security firm would show up?  To provide security.”

“To who?”

“To you.”

“To me?  I don’t need any security.”

“Your fiancé would beg to disagree.”

“Andrew hired security?  Why?”

“I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that it’s to ensure you’re safe.”

“Safe from what?”

“He’s a Wall Street banker.”  Mr. Monroe shrugged as if his comment was self-explanatory.

“He’s not a banker.”

“Banker, stockbroker, hedge fund manager.”  He made a waffling motion with his fingers.  “Those crooks caused a lot of misery for a lot a people.  These days, it’s not uncommon for them to be uneasy.”

“Uneasy about what?”

“Bodily harm.  Personal injury.  Arson.  Death threats.”

“Death threats?  Andrew?”

“Yes.”

“That’s the most ludicrous thing I’ve ever heard.”

“In his line of work, it pays to be cautious.”

“But not to be silly.  I’m in my family’s home in plain, boring Denver, Colorado.  I’m not about to be attacked by lunatics.  So if you’ll excuse me?”

She gestured to the hall for him to leave, but he was as obtuse as she could have predicted.  He didn’t budge.

“I can’t go anywhere,” he maddeningly claimed.  “My orders are to stick to you like glue.”

“In your dreams maybe, but not in mine.”

For some preposterous reason, she’d presumed she could intimidate him with her five feet six inches of height.  He was every bit of six feet, weighed two hundred pounds that was all muscle, and he blocked the door like a brick wall.

She glared up at him and was momentarily lost in the blue, blue of his eyes.

He was too big, too handsome, too, too…everything.

“Do you mind?” she said, indicating that he should move out of her way.

“Nope.”

“I have to get back to my mother.”

“To fuss over the wedding?”

“Yes, not that it’s any of your business.”

“Honey, for the next few months, you are my business.”

“I’m not your honey.”

“If you say so, ho—“

She cut him off.  “You may call me Miss Merriweather.”

“Yes, ma’am.  And you can call me Matt.  Everybody does.”

“I’ll stick with Mr. Monroe.”

“Whatever floats your boat.”  He studied her, his intent gaze starting at the top of her head and inappropriately slithering down to her toes.  “Why don’t you want to get married?”

She scowled.  “What on earth are you talking about?”

“When I walked in, you distinctly said, ‘why am I getting married’.”

“I did not!”  She would deny the remark until her dying day.

He smirked.  “Lying about it won’t change anything.  I heard you loud and clear.”

“You are the most rude, insensitive jerk I’ve ever met.”

“Yes, I am.  Are you developing a case of cold feet?  What’s the matter with your precious Andrew that has you so worried?”

“I’m not worried,” she fumed.

“Because from where I’m standing”—he continued as if she hadn’t spoken—“it’s obvious that you don’t have to settle.  You’re rich and pretty; you can take your pick of husbands.  If your buddy Andrew isn’t making you happy, you should keep looking.”

“Thanks for the advice, Mr. Monroe.”  She batted her lashes as if she was a helpless female.  “I won’t forget it.”

“You shouldn’t.  I’m a good judge of character.  I won’t ever steer you wrong.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake.  Would you move?”

“I might—if you tell me where you’re going.”

“First, I’m calling Andrew.  I want him to contact your employer and have you dragged out of here.”

“Won’t happen,” he confidently stated.

“We’ll see, won’t we?”

“Yes, we will.”

She shoved at his chest, which was like pushing a block of granite.

“Okay,” she grumbled, “you’ve proved your point.  You’re bigger and stronger than me, macho man, and I can only proceed if you decide to let me.  Now move!”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said again.

He was extremely pleased with himself, and he grinned a slow, sexy grin that—if she was more susceptible to that sort of behavior—might have made her knees weak.  Then he stepped aside and motioned for her to pass.

She stomped by him and headed to the front parlor where her mother and Mr. Gregory were huddled together and comparing color swatches.  They were so absorbed in their task that they didn’t notice she’d returned.

She grabbed her cell phone and dialed Andrew several times, getting his voicemail with each attempt.  Finally, she slammed her thumb on the off button and hunkered down on the couch.  She should at least try to participate in her mother’s conversation with Mr. Gregory, but she couldn’t focus.

She was too distracted by Matt Monroe.

Why would Andrew hire him without informing her?

She was rich, but fairly innocuous, unknown to the masses and unrecognized as anyone important when out in public.  She’d always been able to travel and live alone without a guard tagging after her.

Yet suddenly, Andrew felt that security was required.  Why?  He was two-thousand miles away in New York.  If he needed protection, why would Brittney need it too?  Why had he dumped vain, obnoxious Matthew Monroe into her lap?

She glanced up, and Monroe was loitering in the hall, leaned against the far wall and watching her.

He winked.  The ass!

“I realize you wanted yellow,” her mother said as if from a great distance, “but could we—“

“What?”  Brittney wrenched her gaze from Monroe and stared at Jacquelyn.

“We discussed having yellow as one of your colors, but I really like this peach.”

“I don’t care what you choose,” Brittney snapped, aware that if Jacquelyn liked peach, then peach it would be.  “Mother, did you know that Andrew hired security for me?”

“Yes.  He mentioned it last week when he called.”

“He never told me.”

“You were out.”

“The guy is already here.”

“Yes, he’s been doodling around all morning, checking the locks.”

Brittney hadn’t previously noticed, but now that she had, she couldn’t take her eyes off him.  He was lurking like a statue, like a specter, and she wanted him gone.

It didn’t appear that she would have any control over her wedding, but she could exert a small bit of authority with Monroe.  Despite what he assumed, despite what Andrew had arranged, Monroe was not staying.

She marched to the hall, shutting the door on Jacquelyn and Mr. Gregory.

Monroe looked amused, as if he’d been expecting her to be flighty and fickle and she’d proved to be exactly that.

“You!” she barked.  “Come with me.”

“You’re the customer.  I’m happy to oblige.”

She seized his wrist and started off, even as she wondered what she was hoping to accomplish.

What was her plan?  To throw him out bodily?  As if she could!  She only weighed a hundred and twenty pounds.

They arrived in the mudroom behind the kitchen, and she stopped and whirled around.  She’d intended to berate him for his high-handed manner, then push him outside, but somehow, she’d landed herself in precisely the wrong spot.  She was wedged into the corner, and he was facing her, standing much too close and overwhelming her with his masculine size and presence.

They froze, both shocked by the abrupt, intimate positioning.  The air seemed charged with electricity, a powerful chemistry flowing from him to her.

He felt it too, and he was as disconcerted as she was.  A frown marred his brow.  He studied her eyes, then her mouth, giving her the distinct sense that he was thinking about kissing her.  Which was ridiculous.  But still, she was certain the notion was raging through his head.

Would he dare?  Would she let him?

She laid her palms on his broad chest and shoved hard.  Thankfully, he stepped away without argument.  With the extra space between them, the frenetic atmosphere diminished, but it didn’t vanish altogether.

If he was a magnet, she was metal.  She had to grab onto a nearby shelf to keep from rubbing up against him and purring like a contented cat.

“I don’t want you here,” she said.

“I realize you don’t.”

“I don’t want you following me.  I don’t want you watching me.  I don’t want you providing your unbearable brand of security.”

“All right.”

He grinned as if it was all a big joke, and his disregard ignited her temper so that she was positively rippling with fury.  She couldn’t remember when she’d last been so incensed.  She couldn’t remember when she’d ever felt so alive.

“Why are you laughing at me?” she seethed.

“I’m not laughing,” he insisted, but he was.  Evidently, he thought she was hilarious.

“You’re incredibly impressed with yourself.”

“I definitely am.”

“Well, I’m not, and I don’t need you prowling the halls and making my blood boil every two seconds.”

“Your blood’s boiling?  Am I having that much of an effect on you?  What would dear old Andrew think if he knew?”

“Shut up.”

“Your wish is my command.”  He made an insufferable motion over his lips as if he’d turned a key in a lock.

“Go away,” she ordered.  “Go away and don’t come back.”  She yanked open the door.  “If I catch you sniffing after me again, I’ll call the police and have you arrested.”

“May I say something?” he asked.

“No, you may not.”

He spoke anyway.  “Your fiancé signed a contract with Talbot Security that authorizes us to be here.  If you call the police, they’ll just release me.”

“That may be, but before you’re set loose, I’ll have the extreme pleasure of seeing you in handcuffs for a few minutes.”  She flashed a satisfied smile and pushed him out onto the porch.  “Goodbye.”

“Goodbye,” he responded and off he went.

He loped down the stairs and out to the driveway.  For such a large man, he was particularly graceful and light on his feet, moving with the natural ease of a dancer or wide receiver.

He disappeared around the corner, and she took a deep breath, held it, let it out.  Feeling as if she’d dodged a bullet, she headed off to rejoin her mother.

*          *          *          *

“Do you have her?”

“No.”

Matt pressed the phone to his ear as he shifted on the seat of his restored ’66 Mustang.  It was the only item of value he’d ever owned.

He was parked across the street from the Merriweather mansion, the front windows in full view, the drapes open.  Through his binoculars, he could peer down the long yard as Brittney entered the living room and flopped onto the sofa.

“But you met her?”

“Yup,” he replied.

“What’s she like?”

“Pretty, snooty, unhappy.  Much too thin.  She looks like a damned Sri Lankan refugee.”

“Why is she so skinny?”

“Because she’s miserable—but she doesn’t realize that she is.”

“Will she go through with the wedding?”

“If I had to guess, I’d say yes.  Her mother seems intent on it happening, and I can’t see Brittney bucking the woman’s authority.  Mrs. Merriweather is a tyrant, and I doubt Brittney has ever stood up to her.”

“So what’s your plan?  Why didn’t you grab her when you had the chance?”

“Give me a few days.  I’m betting I can convince her to leave with me of her own accord.  We wouldn’t have to resort to any harsh measures.”

“You’re counting on the old Monroe charm?”

“It hasn’t failed me yet.  The sparks are flying between us, my man.  If I can’t persuade her to run off with me, nobody can.”

A resigned sigh wheezed in the phone.  “Okay.  You can have a week, but that’s it.  If you haven’t finished it by then, we’re doing it my way.”

“Like your idea is better,” Matt scoffed.

“One week.”

“Yeah, yeah, one week.  I heard you the first time.”

He hung up and chuckled to himself.

Poor Brittney Merriweather.  Poor little, unloved rich girl.

She was already wary of Matt, and she had every reason to be suspicious.  After he was through with her, she would never be the same again.

He liked her more than he’d imagined he would, but he hated wealthy people, and he had to remember that fact.  If he left her sad, if he left her life in shambles, she had the money to buy herself some therapy and get over it.

Whatever was coming toward her, it couldn’t be stopped.  Some things were meant to be, and this was one of them.  It was like a bad train wreck that couldn’t be avoided, and he wouldn’t suffer an ounce of guilt or regret over what he was about to do.

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