I've had a couple of historical posts recently, so I wanted to change it up this week because I've got a big contemporary release coming out in just eight days (hey, my motto's "Sexy in every century" for a reason).
Today I'm sharing the first chapter of my book The Wedding Week (which first appeared as a novella in One Week in Hawaii). It's a sexy, fun contemporary romance set in beautiful Hawaii. In it you'll meet Annie Kalani, a no nonsense wedding planner, and the man who makes her want to break all the rules, Chris Benson.
If you like what you read, you can preorder The Wedding Week for $2.99:
And without further ado...
Annie Kalani wedged her iPhone between her shoulder and her ear as she readjusted the tower of boutonniere boxes under her left arm. “How does a bridesmaid lose an earring in a three-room suite? It must be there somewhere.”
Her assistant Jemma’s voice came thin and high through the phone’s speaker. “She may have snuck a cigarette behind my back while I was coordinating the big reveal.”
Annie stopped dead in her tracks. “What?”
“I know, I know. There are so many people in this bridal suite, she just got out.”
She closed her eyes for a brief second and sent up a prayer to the wedding gods. It was the Friday evening before Memorial Day—the official kickoff of Wedding Week at the Kuhio Resort & Spa, and the start of the busiest three months of her year. Stapling a surly bridesmaid to a caterer’s chair was not how she wanted to ring in the season, but she would do it if she needed to.
“Was she wearing her dress while she was smoking?” she asked, keeping her voice as calm as she could. Couples paid a premium to have her orchestrate their big day. If she panicked, they panicked, so she never panicked. Visibly.
Jemma let out a little huff of relief. “She had a bathrobe on, thankfully.”
“At least we won’t have to Febreze the dress. Just her. There’s some dry shampoo that deodorizes in the kit. Get Johnny to give her a once-over with that, and then swap out her earrings for the pearl studs. They should be in a tiny Ziploc in the front pocket of the kit.”
“Johnny’s almost packed up,” Jemma fretted. The temperamental hairstylist was the best in Oahu, and he knew it. Experience told Annie that love and a little ego stroking was the best way to get him to do what she wanted.
“If he gives you a problem, send him my way,” she said, mashing the elevator’s up button with her pale pink, manicured finger. “And it wouldn’t hurt to mention that we have the booking for Jessica McCreedy’s wedding next May. The budget is unlimited.”
“I’ll let him know.” She could hear the grin in Jemma’s voice.
They said goodbye just as the elevator’s door slid open. With the boxes wedged against the wall, Annie let the phone slide down her arm, catching it in her hand to end the call. Alone in the quiet, she breathed deeply. One mini crisis a wedding. That was all she would tolerate, and the future Mr. and Mrs. Mark Liu just had theirs.
Wedding Week was all about putting out fires as fast as they sprang up. Celebrations at the Kuhio had two-a-day bookings for weddings Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, a fiftieth wedding anniversary dinner Wednesday, a Thursday rehearsal dinner, and five events the following weekend. Things would go wrong—they always did—but Annie would be there to fix them. The groom was late? No problem. The father of the bride got drunk? It’s handled. The flowers didn’t show up? On top of it. Being a planner was like juggling fourteen flaming torches while standing en pointe, and she loved it.
The elevator dinged, and she was out in the hall—boxes and all—in seconds flat. Things were running a few minutes behind schedule, but the buffer time she had built in should take care of that, so long as they didn’t slip any further.
At least the groom hadn’t presented any problems. Yet.
As she approached the groom’s suite, the door opened, and Josh, the wedding photographer, walked out while tucking a lens into his camera bag.
“You’re moving fast, Kalani,” he said with a jerk of his chin at the boxes in her hands. “Boutonnieres?”
“Late boutonnieres. I know we all run on island time, but remind me to kill the florist next time I see him.”
Josh laughed as he ran a hand over his shaved head. “You can’t do that. He’s the only florist you like. Besides, the groom’s good to go.”
Her eyebrows shot up. “Really? He didn’t seem like the type to be ready on time.”
Josh grinned as he passed her. “Got you.”
With a sigh, she shifted the boxes back under her arm so she could knock. The door swung open to reveal a groomsman—this one called Dan—with a drink in hand. “Hello, wedding planner!”
She gave him a once-over and nudged through the door. “Your tie is undone.”
He looked down and tugged at one of the bow tie’s ends. “We were just trying to figure it out on YouTube. Gary’s got his done, but everyone else is struggling.”
She lifted the boxes. “Let me put these down. Then I’ll help.”
Dan led her over to a sideboard that also served as a bar. She eyed the levels on the decanter of scotch she’d checked on that morning. About half gone. Calculate that across half a dozen groomsmen plus the man of the hour and it wasn’t too bad. She’d certainly seen more sauced bridal parties on both ends of the gender spectrum before.
She glanced around the richly appointed room. Two groomsmen she’d met at the rehearsal sat on a plush, pale blue couch in front of a Dodgers game. Gary shook his head as he tried to show Dan and Andrew how to take one bold step into manhood and tie a real bow tie. And one man stood with his back to all of them, on his phone. That must be Chris, the late groomsman. She had a dossier on all of the wedding party, but what was on paper often didn’t tell her the whole story. Like the fact that Chris, a Los Angeles chef, hadn’t been able to get away from his restaurant until the morning of the wedding. That meant Annie had spent a good part of the early hours of setup tracking his flight, praying there would be no delays. Now that he was here, all she cared about was that the man was dressed and on time for the actual ceremony.
She would deal with him when he got off the phone. For now, she had tie-struggling groomsmen to put out of their misery.
A movement at the edge of her field of vision caught Annie’s attention. She turned on her nude three-inch high heels and found herself staring at a naked groom.
Well, not naked—wrapped in a towel—but that meant he was wearing a lot less tux than he was supposed to be.
She raised an eyebrow. “Mark, you aren’t dressed.” Before the wedding day, she tried her best to be accommodating, understanding. On the day? Not so much. Her job was to make sure Mark Liu and Karen Curen got to the gauze-covered bamboo pergola that would serve as their altar and said, “I do.” To do that, Mark needed to be clothed. Now. No excuses. No exceptions.
“I was a little late getting in the shower,” he said as he sheepishly ran a hand through his wet hair. Hair that should be pomaded and swept into a perfect, sixties-esque side part, per Karen’s instructions. Time for Mark to learn how to use a hair dryer.
Eric, Investment Banker Groomsman, had detached himself from the Dodgers game long enough to pour a couple of tumblers of Macallan 18. Ice cubes clinked in the glass that he started to hand to the groom.
“Oh no.” She surged forward to intercept the scotch. “Dress now. Drink later. You get married in twenty-six minutes.”
With her free hand squarely on Mark’s shoulder, she pushed him toward the bedroom. “Don’t forget the shirt studs.”
The groom dutifully trudged into the bedroom, sending only a brief, wistful glance at the baseball, booze, and bro time waiting for him in the living room.
When she turned back, she found Frat Boy Dan eyeing her and the glass of scotch in her hand. “Are you going to drink that?”
She could sense the slight edge in his voice. A bossy woman intruding on Man Time. No, not just a woman. A wedding planner, the kind of woman who made her living thinking about lace versus satin. Runners or full tablecloths. Venetian hour or plated desserts. She was the enemy, an intruder, and sometimes groomsmen gave her a hard time. What Dan didn’t know was that her job demanded that she be able to put him in place with ruthless efficiency, all while wearing a pastel, flowered Karen Millen sheath dress and a smile.
For now, however, she’d start with a friendlier approach. “I would like this scotch more than you know,” she said, putting the glass down, “but someone’s got to drive these stilettos. Now, why don’t I help you guys with your bow ties?”
Five minutes later, five groomsmen’s bow ties were in perfect order. The sixth was still pacing back in forth in front of the massive windows looking out over the water to Diamond Head.
Annie planted her hands on her hips, ready to order Late to the Party Chris to grab his tie and get in line, when the man hung up his call. He turned a pair of intense, soulful eyes on her, and he lifted a hand to scrape over the faint trace of a beard. “Are you going to tie me up too?”
The innuendo flowed through her, thick and sweet as golden honey that came to pool between her legs. Oh, this was bad. This was very, very bad.
He was a handsome man in a rugged sort of way. He wore his tux well, but something about him told her that this man was more comfortable in jeans and a t-shirt—broken in and comfortable. Pair that with his short black hair and the loose, confident way he stood with his left hand thrust in his pocket, and he was all sorts of gorgeous.
He was looking at her expectantly, his head cocked, and Annie realized that she was checking out his lean body rather than answering his question. She cleared her throat. “Do you need help?”
His grin was a little lopsided as he set his phone down on a table and picked up either end of his bow tie. Slowly he wove them together, manipulating the black silk into a perfect knot. His fingers would be elegant if it wasn’t for the white slashes of healed scars that were visible even from where she stood. An image flashed through her head—those fingers playing over the smooth skin of her breasts—and a fierce blush exploded over the back of her neck, rushing to her cheeks.
“How did I do?” Chris asked, tugging at the tie to straighten it before letting his hands fall to his side.
He was flirting with her. It wasn’t exactly uncommon behavior for a groomsman, especially when you threw alcohol into the mix, but this was different. This time, Annie wanted to flirt back.
No. You have rules.
“You look fine,” she said, pushing away the throb of arousal that rolled through her. “Are you planning on stowing that cell phone for the ceremony?”
He glanced at the phone on the table. “Will you take it away from me if I say no?”
Her eyes narrowed, her expression frosty where his was teasing. “If I need to. Confiscating technology is part of the job.”
“Then I guess I’ll turn it off.” He swept the phone up as he walked by her, hesitating only to whisper, “But it would have been more fun if you took it from me.”
Heat shot through her, and she glanced around to see if anyone had just witnessed that exchange. All of the men were fixated on the Dodgers game.
She blew out a long, steady breath. This Chris guy was just messing with her—his own version of a test the way that Dan had challenged her about the Macallan. Nothing more.
Behind her, the bedroom door flew open, and Mark burst out dressed in everything but his tuxedo jacket. “How do I look?” he asked, a mile-wide grin plastered on his face.
“Like a man who’s about to lock himself to a ball and chain,” said Eric with a laugh.
Annie allowed herself the tiniest of eye rolls. “Okay, Mark, time to walk down to the ceremony. This wedding gets going in twenty minutes.”
The groom nodded. “My jacket’s in the bedroom. Hold on.”
He turned back and… Rip!
Everyone froze as the rending of fabric echoed through the room. All of the color drained from Mark’s face. His hand flew to his shoulder, and he pulled at his shirt. “Shitshitshit. Karen’s going to kill me.”
Annie strode across the room, gripped Mark’s shoulder, and spun him around. A three-inch rip gaped at the back of his fine cotton tuxedo shirt.
“How bad is it?” asked the panicking groom as he tried to twist to look.
“Do you have a backup?” she demanded.
His lips pressed into a thin line. “Karen doesn’t like it. It doesn’t fit as well.”
Of course it didn’t. She looked at her watch. Nineteen minutes to ceremony. “Take it off.”
The groom and his party all stared at her.
“I have a sewing kit in here,” she explained, fighting to keep the exasperation from her voice. “Take the shirt off, and I’ll sew it back together. But someone’s going to need to iron the backup just in case.”
Mark started to unbutton the torn shirt as she looked around the room at more blank faces. “Not a single one of you can iron?” she asked.
Gary, the New York lawyer, shrugged. “Camilla won’t let me near the iron after I burned a hole in my brand new Brooks Brothers shirt a couple years ago.”
“I can do it.”
Chris stepped forward and unbuttoned his tuxedo jacket, letting it slide down his arms. She was one hundred percent positive that if she peeled his shirt off him she’d find strong, wiry muscle underneath there. Muscle she might have let herself indulge in thinking about if it wasn’t for the clumsiest groom in Hawaii.
“Good,” she said with a sharp nod. At least one of them could fend for themselves. Her mother always said that a real man was one who could cook, clean, and keep a house. A man who was the opposite of her father—often drunk, sometimes incarcerated, and rarely present.
She took Mark’s torn shirt, but not before fixing the other groomsmen with a hard stare. “You will each take a boutonniere. Then you will go to the ceremony location. You will stay at the ceremony location. No detours. No stalling. No more drinks until after the wedding vows are exchanged. Is that clear?”
The men murmured their agreement and shuffled out of the hotel room. She half expected them to hold hands, pairing off into field trip buddies like little kids.
She moved to her kit, a suitcase she’d planted in the room that morning. “Mark, how much have you had to drink today?”
“I had a scotch a couple hours ago,” he said shakily. “I was too amped up for anything else.”
“Good. Pour yourself another—a small one—and watch the game. I’ll be done with this in a moment.”
The groom shot her a grateful look and scuttled over to the couch.
She pointed at Chris. “You come with me.”
She moved fast, ripping the dry-cleaning bag off the backup shirt that hung in the closet and sliding it from its hanger. When she turned back, Chris had the ironing board out and was in the bathroom filling the iron’s water chamber.
They worked in silence for a couple of moments, her repairing the shirt with tiny stitches and him moving methodically to iron the backup crisp and smooth.
“You’re good at that,” she said, tipping her head in his direction.
His crooked smile slid over his face again. “Courtesy of my first job. I did all the grunt work at my stepfather’s restaurant. If I was late or broke a dish, I got stuck ironing napkins. He wanted sharp corners, the same way every single time.”
“Is spending all that time in the restaurant what made you want to be a chef?” She didn’t know why she asked it. After tonight, she wasn’t going to see this guy again, but he was helping her. Asking felt right.
“Mark mentioned that I’m a chef?” he asked, flipping the shirt so he could do the second front panel.
“I have a file on all members of the wedding party.”
His eyes widened. “That’s not sinister at all.”
She shrugged. “During one of the first weddings I ever planned, I didn’t realize that one of the bridesmaids had an ex-husband and an ex-boyfriend in the wedding party. The men started brawling during ‘The Cha Cha Slide.’”
He barked a laugh—a sound as rich as chocolate and just as sinful. “You’re kidding?”
The beginnings of a smile tugged at her lips. “The bridesmaid wound up sobbing into my lap in the bathroom. That’s why I try to find out as much about you guys as I can beforehand.”
“So what else do you know about me?” he asked. The question should have been casual, but the low rumble of his voice made it sound like a promise of so much more.
She squeezed her thighs tight. She was at work. That meant no lusting after guests.
“I know enough about you,” was all she said.
“That’s a cop-out.”
“I’m like the CIA. If I told you what’s in the dossier, I’d have to kill you.”
He put the iron down. “And what’s the CIA’s policy on dancing with a guest? Hypothetically speaking, of course.”
Annie nearly jabbed herself in the thumb with the needle. There was no way she was going to dance with this man. She wouldn’t survive the feeling of his body pressed up against hers no matter how much she wanted it.
“Generally the CIA frowns on such activities,” she said stiffly.
“Generally?” The look he sent her might have scorched the panties off her if she hadn’t held herself back. Because she needed to hold back. She could never let herself slip. No matter how much she wanted to.
“Exceptions are made if the man asking is a widower over the age of seventy-five.”
“You’re a tough sell.”
She concentrated on the shirt in her hands. “I’m not looking to buy.”
Oh, but she wanted to. He smelled like he’d just gotten out of the shower, with a hint of salt and masculine spice underneath the soap. Her whole body hummed with awareness, and she couldn’t help but want to know what it would be like to have those full lips on her skin. She had rules, yes, but this man was ice cream on a diet. TV on a school night.
This was getting out of hand. She wasn’t a bridesmaid cliché looking for a wedding fling with one of the groomsmen. She was one of the most in-demand wedding planners in Hawaii, but a long time ago, she’d realized that she needed to be smarter, sharper, better than everyone else. She didn’t have the connections that some planners had. She didn’t have the bred-in taste or knowledge of etiquette of the ones who had old Hawaiian society roots. Instead, she had hard work, grit, and determination. That was how she’d made it this far, and it was how she was going to stay at the top of her game. Men like Chris? They weren’t in her plan. She would not throw herself at a man just because he had some scruff and scars and talked a good game.
After putting in the last stitch on Mark’s shirt, she tied the thread off and snipped it. Barely a seam. “Not too bad.”
Chris turned off the iron and rounded the board. “Let’s see.”
Before she could hand the shirt over, he ran his finger over the thin seam of stitches, pressing the fabric into her open palm. She fought a shiver as he said, “Looks good to me. I think you’ve saved Mark from passing out from stress.”
She scooted along the bed and pushed up to standing a few feet from Chris. “Time to get the groom dressed. Again.”
Chris laughed. “Are you going to use that schoolteacher voice on him?”
“What do you mean?” she asked with a frown.
He closed the gap between them until she had to tilt her chin up to look into those deep blue eyes of his. “You marched those men out of here like they were five. You get shit done, Annie Kalani. I like that.”
Then he took that slow, delicious smile of his and walked straight out of the room.
Again, if you like what you read, you can preorder The Wedding Week: