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Authors: Christi Barth

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Planning for Love

BOOK: Planning for Love
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Planning for Love
By Christi Barth

Hopeless romantic
Ivy Rhodes
and
anti-Cupid
Bennett Westcott
request the pleasure of your company for
their disaster of a courtship

Wedding planner Ivy Rhodes is the best in the business, and she’s not about to let a personal problem stop her from getting ahead. So when she’s asked to star in the reality TV show
Planning for Love,
it doesn’t matter that the show’s videographer happens to be a recent—and heartbreaking—one-night stand.

Bennett Westcott admits he didn’t handle his encounter with Ivy very well. But looking at her beautiful smile—and great body—through a camera lens every day? He can’t be faulted for suggesting they have some no-strings fun.

The more time they spend together, the more Ben realizes Ivy isn’t the wedding-crazed bridezilla he’d imagined. But if he doesn’t trust himself to make a relationship last, how can he convince Ivy to give him another chance?

97,000 words

Dear Reader,

August has a special feel for me. Not only is it my birthday month (and I’m firmly in the camp of celebrating a birthday month—one day just isn’t enough) but since I’m in North America, August is also the last hurrah of summer. It’s the time before my daughter goes back to school and lazy weekends at the beach start drawing to a close. In my professional life, August is also the one month of the year I try to take a break from the crazy travel schedule.

So with all those things combined, you know what that means, right? I become self-indulgent and get in as much reading as possible. That’s why I’m thrilled we’re kicking off the month of August with the first book in the fun and flirty new contemporary romance trilogy, Aisle Bound.
Planning for Love
by Christi Barth releases the first of August, and I hope you love it as much as I do. It’s got all of the elements I adore in a contemporary romance: humor, passion, likable characters and, best of all, a happy ending. Christi is a wonderful, fresh new voice in contemporary romance. This book was so much fun to edit, and if you love contemporary romance, please check it out!

Not only do we have
Planning for Love
releasing in August, we also have quite the lineup of debut, new-to-Carina and returning authors in a variety of genres. This month, I’m excited to introduce debut authors Bronwyn Stuart, Ruth Diaz and Jacqueline M. Battisti, each writing three very different genres, but each bringing us three amazing stories. Bronwyn presents us with a passionate historical romance,
Scandal’s Mistress,
while Jacqueline blazes onto the writing scene with her first romantic urban fantasy,
The Guardian of Bastet.
Ruth’s book,
The Superheroes Union: Dynama,
is exactly what you might imagine it to be from that title: a fast-paced superhero female/female romance.

Also offering up urban-fantasy fare this month in the GLBT category are authors Heidi Belleau and Violetta Vane, with their co-authored male/male urban fantasy
The Druid Stone.
And if the male/male genre is what you enjoy, make sure you also check out L.B. Gregg’s August re-release of
Men of Smithfield: Mark and Tony,
a spicy contemporary male/male romance with a lighter edge.

If you’re a fan of romantic suspense, we have two to help you indulge your cravings. Tina Beckett offers up
In His Sights,
while fans of Adrienne Giordano’s Private Protectors series will be pleased to see her back with another action-packed installment in
Relentless Pursuit.
If you’ve never read Adrienne’s books,
Relentless Pursuit
is an excellent place to get attached to her sexy heroes and strong-willed heroines. Or, if you want to start with something shorter, check out Adrienne’s novella,
Negotiating Point
in the
Editor’s Choice Volume I
collection.

New Carina Press author Kaily Hart kicks off her paranormal romance series Fabric of Fate with
Rise of Hope.
Will fate alone determine their future or can they carve out their own destiny?

Rounding out our August releases are three returning Carina Press authors. Joely Sue Burkhart’s
The Bloodgate Warrior
is an erotic fantasy romance sure to knock your socks off! Robert Appleton returns with another science-fiction offering in
Cyber Sparks.
And bestselling author Rebecca York brings us the sequel to
Dark Magic
with the novella
Shattered Magic.

I think you’ll find something in this month’s collection to help you indulge. And, hey, since it’s my birthday month, celebrate with me by indulging in more than one. I won’t tell!

We love to hear from readers, and you can email us your thoughts, comments and questions to
[email protected]
. You can also interact with Carina Press staff and authors on our blog, Twitter stream and Facebook fan page.

Happy reading!

~Angela James
Executive Editor, Carina Press

www.carinapress.com
www.twitter.com/carinapress
www.facebook.com/carinapress

Dedication

To my husband—so much more than I ever planned for,
and
a die-hard romantic!

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the MRW Critters for helping me become a better writer with every meeting.

Thanks to Angela James and her entertaining Twitter feed for the head’s up about her yen for a book just like this one. Her pain-free polishing makes the work of writing fun.

And, therefore, thanks to Eliza Knight for forcing me onto Twitter.

Chapter One

All weddings are similar, but every marriage is different.

—John Berger

Ivy Rhodes lay sprawled at the bottom of the stone steps, feet tangled in the straps of a large black duffel bag. Everything hurt and, to top it off, she thought she’d heard her dress rip. At the very least, the pale pink satin had to be smudged from her ungraceful slide down the sweep of old stones dominating the foyer of the Great Hall at Café Brauer. Worst of all, the round lens of a video camera bobbled less than an inch from her nose.

“Are you kidding me? You’re filming this?” Ivy’s voice rose to a high squeak on the last word. Her famous, unflappable composure threatened to crack. Because who wouldn’t be flustered when their humiliating clumsiness got recorded for posterity on a wedding video? She dropped her cheek back to the cool stones and waited for a wave of dizziness to subside. Hopefully, if any of the caterers needed to walk by her to finish setting up the ballroom, they’d avoid stepping on anything important, like her dress or her head.

“Ollie, you idiot! Get out of the way.” The deep, baritone voice issuing the command buzzed with almost as much annoyance as Ivy felt.

A pair of highly polished dress shoes entered her limited field of vision, replacing the scuffed loafers belonging to the cameraman. Hoping this indicated the camera was gone, Ivy lifted her head once more. Not only had the camera disappeared, but an incredibly handsome man now crouched in front of her.

Although it was true almost every man looked good in a tux, this one in particular was downright yummy. Broad shoulders filled out his jacket. Impeccable tailoring emphasized the vee shape of his torso. His chin had a movie-star cleft deep enough to anchor a small boat. A streaky thicket of blond hair set off piercing blue eyes. Combined with his unusual-for-April-in-Chicago tan, it gave him a bit of a surfer look.

“Are you okay? Here, let me help you up,” he said, without waiting for an answer. Strong arms lifted her off the floor, cradling her against a very firm chest. Her long dress, albeit possibly streaked and torn, cascaded down to his knees. It was like a scene out of a movie: the formalwear, the romantic pose, the Prince Charming look-alike carrying her. Or, to be perfectly honest, one of several favorite fantasies she mentally thumbed through instead of counting sheep. Ivy’s heart did a quick flip flop. These things never, ever happened to her. This moment was well worth a few scrapes and bruises.

“Not that I’m complaining, but where are we going?” she asked.

“To find you a chair. We need to assess your injuries before you try to stand.”

What a strangely technical thing for him to say. Not at all the warm, charming words she’d hoped to come out of his lips. “Are you a paramedic?”

“Nope. But I am certified in advanced first aid. I just don’t want you to sue me.”

“What?” Ivy craned her neck around to meet his eyes. “You’re being nice to me to sidestep litigation?” And with that, her personal ocean of humiliation snaked out a riptide, sucking her even deeper. Prince Charm-less was more like it. “Put me down right now,” she demanded.

“As soon as I find a damn chair!” He turned left into the Great Hall. Early afternoon sunlight beamed in through the wide windows, casting a golden haze across the top of the enormous room.

Ivy waved her hand at two hundred gilt Chivari chairs framing the round banquet tables in perfect arcs. “Take your pick.”

He toed out the nearest chair, dumped her on it, then planted his hands on his hips. “Well? You hurt anywhere?”

“Pretty much everywhere.” Like black ink from an enraged octopus, the sexy stranger oozed with annoyance and attitude. Ivy just couldn’t figure out why her tripping down the stairs had set him off. At the most he looked to be in his mid thirties. Far too young for a case of terminal crankiness.

“I meant did you break anything?” The man knelt on the floor and looked at her with expectant eyes.

“I only fell the last few…hey!” He’d pushed the hem of her dress to her knees and rotated her left ankle. She jerked in response and tried to pull her foot out of his grasp.

“Like I said, I’m certified in first aid. Stop wriggling around and let me check you out.”

His touch was surprisingly gentle, and the warmth of his hands soothing. Wonderfully big, deft hands. She wondered how many other of her body parts he planned to handle in a similar fashion. Whoops. Far too long since her last date if her body responded this quickly to someone so disagreeable. “Usually I get at least a cocktail before someone gropes under my skirt.”

He ignored her quip. “Good movement on this side.” In short order he checked her other ankle, and performed an equally thorough examination of her knees and wrists. She hissed in a breath when he found the cut on her arm. “Doesn’t look too bad. More like a deep scrape.”

“Yeah, well, you’re not the one wearing it.” Irritated equally by his demeanor and the stinging pain in her arm, she shook him off. “Who are you?”

“Here we go.” He let out a long sigh and pushed to his feet. “Bennett Westcott, True Life Productions.” After a quick rummage in his lapel pocket he produced a business card. “Obviously you’re a bit shaken up, but overall I’d say you are fine. However, if you feel it necessary to contact a lawyer regarding this incident, I understand.”

Confused, Ivy took the card, glanced at the bold red and black lettering. “Did I miss something? I fell down a couple of stairs. Unless you totaled my car in the parking lot or plan to kneecap me later, it’s safe to say litigation isn’t even a remote possibility.”

“Look, I’m trying to step up and do the right thing by not denying responsibility for your fall.”

A few wisps of hair brushed her cheek when she slowly shook her head. “Still not a clue where you’re coming from.”

“You must’ve tripped over our tripod bag. Ollie kicked it in front of the stairs right before you landed.”

Aha! Now it made sense. In this crazy world where people sued over coffee being too hot, she understood at least a little of his paranoia. “Bennett, I slipped on an ice cube. The caterers dropped a bag of ice earlier, and missed a few when they cleaned up. Your duffel bag didn’t help me stick my landing, but it didn’t cause the problem, either.”

The scowl dropped off his face and everything in his body relaxed. “You have no idea how relieved I am to hear you say that. Ollie!” he bellowed. “Get your butt in here and apologize.”

A thin, wiry man who barely looked strong enough to support the video camera propped on his shoulder shuffled slowly through the entryway. His eyes were downcast, his entire demeanor that of a beaten puppy. “I’m really sorry,” he mumbled.

“We’re in the clear. She’s not going to sue,” her rescuer announced, relief pinging in every word. His speech pattern also changed. The witness-on-trial formality of his speech pattern relaxed into a normal, conversational tone.

“I promise. Truly, I don’t blame you at all. Do you need me to sign an affidavit to that effect?” Ivy asked, at this point only half joking.

Ollie swung the camera to the floor and rushed forward to pump Ivy’s hand. “Thank you so much. It was an accident, you know. I kicked the bag behind me without looking, and when I turned around you were on the floor, so I started filming. Reflex, you know?”

“You can make it up to me by erasing that footage.” No response. Ivy watched Bennett and Ollie exchange a glance loaded with subtext. Too bad she couldn’t translate it. “The wedding hasn’t even started yet, so you won’t need to edit much,” she continued, letting a pleading tone slip into her voice. Their persistent silence was a bad sign. Petty though it might be, there was no way she’d allow her ungraceful tumble to be saved on some random cousin of the bride’s wedding video. “Come on, guys, this is ridiculous. I’m not even a guest at this wedding.”

In a blur of unexpected speed, Ollie retrieved his camera from the floor and aimed it at her. The record light glowed red. “Can you say that again, and look straight into the camera for me?”

“What? I will not,” she fumed. “Bennett, what’s with your friend?” Enough was enough! As the wedding coordinator, it was her job to handle crazy relatives. A deft mix of courtesy, charm and humor usually did the trick. But there were times a line had to be drawn, and this was it. No way could she do her job with this nut shoving a camera in her face every two minutes.

To her surprise, Bennett gestured to Ollie to keep recording. “Are you confirming you did not receive an invitation to this wedding? And you got all dressed up and came anyway? That you are, in fact, a wedding crasher?”

Ivy lifted a hand to her mouth to halt an onslaught of giggles. She couldn’t wait to tell her assistant, who would laugh her ass off at the accusation. “Oh, my God. Is that what you think?” No wonder the two acted so weird. And really, who could blame them? Catching an unwanted guest in the act could’ve guaranteed their footage ending up on the local news. Plus, they’d be touted as heroes for “saving” the wedding. The truth would be a huge letdown.

“Didn’t you admit as much?” Bennett countered.

Ivy vigorously shook her head from side to side. “Hardly! I’m not a guest, but I’m certainly not crashing, either. My name is Ivy Rhodes. I’m doing day-of coordination for Tracy and Seth.”

“You’re the wedding planner?” Ollie turned on his heel without another word and left the hall, head down and shoulders rounded in disappointment.

Bennett’s reaction was the complete opposite. He pulled out another chair and straddled it, arms crossed over the back. “Sorry. The kid’s young, and is sure every gig we do has the potential for major drama. Instead of paying his dues, he plans to catapult to stardom on a clip of the bride falling off a chair during the Hora. Anyway, it’s a huge relief to know you’re one of us. No wonder you took the whole thing in stride. Now we can relax and get to know each other before all the craziness starts.” He flashed a killer grin. It revealed the matched set of dimples bracketing his lips.

It was the kind of grin certain to charm a woman, and Ivy was no exception. Absolved of the threat of pending litigation, his personality had done a complete turnaround. Standoffish, irritable guy now exuded warmth and friendliness from his sky-blue eyes. If she read the signs correctly, he was trying to hit on her. Temptation and harmless flirtation beckoned.

Then her mind caught up to her hormones and told her something was off. He spoke as if they were in this together, but she’d reviewed all the vendor contracts just this morning in preparation. She’d stake her entire paycheck for this event on not having one for a videographer. “Back up a minute. Now I need to turn the question back to you. Aren’t you a wedding guest?”

“Nope. I told you, we’re with True Life Productions.” He reached forward and tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. His glancing touch sent a shiver down her spine. Ivy wanted to dismiss it as an unwelcome distraction. Oh, who was she kidding? There was nothing unwelcome about his fingers trailing softly from her ear down the side of her neck. Irritated at her body’s betrayal, she swatted his hand away.

“But the bride and groom didn’t hire a videographer.” Ivy took a deep breath and smoothed her hair to make sure the triple layer of hairspray still held the majority of her French twist in place. “Look, I didn’t plan this whole wedding. Day-of coordination means I only show up to run the rehearsal and actual wedding day. But Tracy and I met last month to discuss all the details. We went over every vendor contract. You must have your dates or venue wrong,” she insisted.

“Chicago. Great Hall of Café Brauer. Sunset. Third weekend in April.” Bennett ticked the points off on his fingers. “It all adds up to me. Why do you care, anyway? Got something against videographers? Cause if that’s it, you can relax. I’m also the director, and as a rule, we’re much more suave and exciting.” He waggled his eyebrows at her.

Ivy bit back a smile at his antics and mustered a stern glare. “I care because this wedding cost a fortune, and I’m sure your services run into the thousands.” Then she remembered a seminar on con artists from her last association meeting, and another possible angle flashed through her mind. “Are you the ambulance chasers of the wedding world? Do you follow catering trucks around to find the hot weddings? Is this a scam, where you show up and tape everything, and then strong arm the bride and groom into paying?”

“Oh, they aren’t paying for us. We’re paying them.”

Utter confusion swamped her. They were talking in circles. The clink of glassware filtered in from the hallway. It was a timely reminder the caterers had yet to place the wineglasses and water goblets on the tables. Once they finished, she would set the place cards in their Star of David–shaped holders and hand-written menus. In other words, lots to do and the clock was ticking. A glance at her watch confirmed less than two hours before the wedding march began. Her to-the-minute itinerary didn’t include a time slot to solve the mystery of the uninvited, albeit borderline irresistible video guy! “Bennett—”

“Call me Ben.” He rose from the chair, and Ivy was forced to tip her head back a little to maintain eye contact. Easily several inches over six feet, most of it was in his legs. The satin stripe on his tuxedo pants only emphasized his height. “I can see what happened. Tracy didn’t tell you she won the contest. Probably thought you’d flip out or something. Most wedding coordinators aren’t wild about us interfering with the big day.”

“What contest?”

“Our show holds a contest every year. Whoever wins not only gets featured on the show, but we pay for their honeymoon. The only catch is that if they do win, we have to tag along and film the whole thing.”

“What show?” Suspicion reared inside her. Reality wedding shows were a dime a dozen, and Ivy loathed most of them. Her profession tended to be portrayed in an unflattering light.

He ran a hand back and forth along the ladder-back chair. Carefully pushed it back into place at the table, tucking it neatly under the bright yellow tablecloth. “
WWS.
You know,
Wild Wedding Smackdown
.” Ben, anticipating her reaction, at least had the grace to wince.

BOOK: Planning for Love
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