Eve of Passion
Book 3 in the Wintersage Weddings/Harlequin Continuity Series
The Silk Sisters—longtime friends Janelle, Sandra and Vicki—have turned their business savvy into a top-tier event agency. And in the wealthy enclave of Wintersage, Massachusetts, there’s an abundance of lavish parties, society drama and longing hearts to keep them busy.
Premier event planner Janelle Howerton swore off dating after college. Now her father wants her to make nice with an influential donor to his congressional campaign. After all, it’s just one date….
Billionaire Ballard Dubois wants to help Darren Howerton win the election. But he wants Darren’s daughter more—and his desires seldom go unfulfilled. Suddenly “one date” quickly spirals into a hot relationship, and celebrity gossip sites crown them the new “it” couple. And when Ballard proposes all of a sudden, Janelle shocks herself by saying…yes!
As the wedding date looms, Janelle and Ballard wonder: Is this marriage a mere political ploy? Or could this become a real, lifelong love?
Eve of Passion
The minute he walked into the room, Janelle knew she was going to regret working from home this morning. But she’d awakened with a horrendous headache, the third one this week, and try as she might, the stress-free yoga DVD she’d purchased and the two ibuprofen she’d downed thirty seconds after rolling out of bed were not helping. The headache and tired shoulders and general feeling of fatigue were becoming an everyday occurrence for her and while she didn’t want to become worried, she was.
Sitting at the dining room table with vendor contracts spread out in front of her, she looked up into the eyes of Darren Howerton Sr. and wanted to groan with annoyance. Sure, he was her father and there was no other man on this planet that she loved more, but his mere appearance in this room, at this time of day, meant he was about to ask her to do something. And from the way he pulled out the chair across from her with ever-so-slow movements before sitting and staring at her with almost apologetic eyes, she knew she was on point with her assessment.
“Hi, baby girl,” he greeted her, smoothing his paisley-print tie down in front of him.
“Hi, Daddy,” she replied expectantly.
“Are you busy? I need to talk to you.”
While her father didn’t openly suggest that Janelle’s career as an event planner took a second seat to Howerton Computer Technologies, as Sandra’s parents did with her career, his almost complete disregard of her career was a dead giveaway this was how he felt. So whenever he asked if she was busy, it really didn’t matter if she said she was or not—he would proceed with whatever it was he wanted. She’d blame that on her mother if Susan Howerton hadn’t died suddenly in a car accident five years ago. At any rate, Darren Howerton had gone from his own mother’s overindulging arms straight into the arms of a young and eager-to-please wife, who made him feel as if he’d hung the stars and the moon. After her death, Darren expected Janelle to pick up the torch and treat him the same way. In addition to moving back to her childhood home to help her father cope, she’d slipped right into the pattern of expectancy her mother had created. She was basically there for whatever her father needed. Back then, it had been best for both of them. Janelle hadn’t wanted to be alone—fear an alltoo-prevalent part of her life at that time. And her father hadn’t been able to be alone either; he would surely have died of a broken heart if he had been.
“What can I do for you, Daddy?” she asked, attempting to let the past remain there.
“Ballard Dubois. Do you know who that is?”
Janelle figured she probably should, and maybe if it hadn’t felt as if someone were driving spikes into her temples for the sheer hell of it, she could have given it a little more thought. But things being as they were, she didn’t even try. “I don’t think I do. Why? Should I?”
Her father raised thick eyebrows, probably at the spike in her tone, but he didn’t speak of it, just continued on. She wasn’t even surprised—her wants and needs were always secondary.
“He runs Dubois Maritime Shipping with his father, Daniel. Hudson Dubois is the family patriarch, the old coot. Each generation of Dubois is insanely intelligent, shrewd and devoted to that company. But Ballard’s the one with his hand on the pulse of a growing political concern—health care.”
Janelle watched as her father talked, engrossed by the slightly raspy sound of his voice and the aristocratic air he exuded when speaking about his business. What she couldn’t figure out was where all this business and political talk was going. Two years ago her father had decided to hand over the reins of HCT to Darren Jr., who was three years older than Janelle and much more suited to work in the family business than she ever claimed to be. Not one to be idle, Darren Sr. announced his candidacy for a seat in the state House of Representatives about six months ago.
With that flashback she thought ofjust how much she’d seen her father in the past six months. It hadn’t been often since he’d completely thrown himself into the campaign. At any rate, she hadn’t seen him this excited about anything since her mother’s death. That was why she’d stopped what she was doing and tried like hell to ignore her headache to listen attentively to what he was saying. She owed him that much and probably ten times more after all she’d put him through when she ended her engagement with Jack.
“Health care is taking care of itself,” she replied, “or rather, the current president is wading through those muddy waters.”
“My platform needs a strong backing in this area,” Darren continued as if she hadn’t spoken at all. “Ballard, through his foreign and domestic dealings, has developed his own core of health-care reform supporters. Having Ballard and Dubois Maritime backing me would be beyond beneficial. It would give me the push I need to build an even bigger margin between myself and Oliver Windom.”
In Janelle’s estimation, Oliver Windom didn’t stand a chance against the weight the Howerton name carried in Massachusetts. Still, she could tell her father felt very strongly about this. “Okay, I understand what you’re saying. How will you go about getting them to back you?”
Darren smiled and Janelle almost faltered. It had been so long since she’d seen a genuine smile on her father’s face. Sure, he’d appeared happy during the holidays and then at small family gatherings when Darren Jr.—DJ—had come into town. But for the most part, the day his wife died, the joy seemed to have died in him. Her heart ached at the thought.
“I’d like for you to schedule a meeting with Dubois. Visit him in his Boston office and talk to him about the campaign.”
All other thoughts fled from Janelle’s mind as she completely grasped what her father had been saying.
“You want me to get Ballard Dubois to support your campaign? Me? Not DJ?” she asked her father, more than a little amazed at what he was suggesting. It was obvious that since DJ had already taken over the family business, he was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps, and as such would be the one building his family’s legacy.
“DJ already has his hands full with the rollout for next year. Competition is fierce and HCT has to stay on top of the market.”
She nodded, understanding what her father had just said, and the fact that he hadn’t really answered her question.
“I have a business to run, too,” she told him. “The mayor’s executive assistant emails me at least four times a day about the homecoming dance and we have three more weddings before the end of this year.” She was just as busy as DJ and she was certain that DJ hadn’t been the one to swear off dating for fear of getting hurt and embarrassed the way she had been before. She was absolutely positive he wasn’t the one who had almost been raped.
Darren leaned forward, his charcoal-gray suit jacket adjusting to the movement as he let his arms rest on the table, his gaze intent on his only daughter. “I need you to do this for me, Janelle. It’s very important to the campaign.”
Say no. Say no. Scream the one-syllable word and then run like hell before he gets a chance to really work his persuasion skills. It wasn’t worth it; the risk far outweighed the gain. Didn’t it?
“I don’t have time to go to Boston right now, Daddy. I have vendors to interview, two site visits in as many days and a Skype conference with a French designer at the end of the week. I just can’t,” she told him, her heart pounding with the mere thought of going on this date, whatever the reason.
Darren shook his head. “You know, you look more like Susan every day,” he began, his voice a little lower, his eyes… Were they blurring?
“Sometimes I hear you talking on the phone and I could swear it was her. I just listen and remember and miss her all over again.”
She reminded him of her mother. Of course, she did look like Susan Howerton with her high cheekbones and eyes often called exotic due to their natural upward tilt. They also shared the same chocolate-brown complexion and wide smile. Janelle knew all this, had known it all her life. Still, when her father said it, when it caused him to miss her mother even more, she never knew what to say or how to handle it.
“You know she was the one to first talk about politics. She was sure it was the direction I needed to go in. It took me too long to realize she was telling the truth.”
Janelle took a deep breath, listening to her father’s deep and somehow desolate voice.
“I’ll see if I can work a quick trip into my schedule, Daddy,” she said, clenching her fingers as she did. “But I cannot make any promises.”
Darren smiled. He stood then and came around the table. His hand was on hers as he leaned down closer, kissing her on the cheek. “You’ll do wonderful, baby girl, just wonderful,” he said before standing and leaving her alone once more.
When he was gone, the only thing that Janelle could recall about her father’s presence was that he smelled like Calvin Klein Obsession cologne. That scent was just as dependable as her father had always been in her life. She’d always been able to count on him, always been able to run to him or her mother with whatever issues she had and know without a doubt they’d move mountains to fix them. Yet she hadn’t come running home to them the night Jack had assaulted her. She hadn’t run to anyone, for that matter. She’d handled the situation entirely on her own and she was still doing so. The only difference now was that she was tired of hauling guilt and fear around like carry-on luggage.
“I need your help, Janelle. I’m desperate,” Rebecca Lockwood said from the other end of the phone. “I cannot bail on this client. Mal Harford is the owner of Pacific Royal Airlines. He’s eccentric, to put it nicely, his wallet’s bigger than his mouth, and what he wants he gets, all the time. Please say you’ll do this for me.”
Sitting in her office two days after the very strange conversation with her father, Janelle had thought she’d managed to escape drama for today. She had been wrong.
“Slow down. Wait a minute. What are you asking me to do exactly?” She really didn’t want to do anything. Her workload was big enough and the Parents’ Association was driving her absolutely insane over this homecoming. Clients that just signed checks and let her do her job were her favorite and she wished she had more of them.
Rebecca took a deep breath, let it out on a heavily exaggerated huff that made Janelle roll her eyes, then continued, “My younger sister Alexa just called to tell me she’s having surgery on Friday morning. Her husband is serving his second tour in Iraq and she has a six-month-old daughter and nobody to help take care of either of them. So I have to leave for Colorado first thing tomorrow morning.”
“Okay, sorry to hear that. Hope the surgery and the caretaking go well,” Janelle replied with a nod, her attention traveling to the window, where she could see the sun finally beginning to set.
“Thanks,” she said on another huff. “So what I’m asking you to do is supervise Harford’s charity masquerade ball for me. This is a yearly event and I had to beat out six other bids to get the contract. It’s Friday evening and all the vendors are in place. Everything is paid for and my staff will be on hand to assist. But this guy’s one of my biggest clients this year and I’d like to have his return business. So I need somebody really fantastic to be here just in case something goes wrong.”
Janelle didn’t immediately respond.
“But nothing will go wrong,” Rebecca continued. “I promise. There are just some really important people coming to this benefit and I want to make sure they have the best experience ever. But I have to be there for Alexa. So can you help? Please don’t make me beg, Janelle,” she finished finally.
Janelle couldn’t help but smile. She’d known Rebecca for four years, since meeting her at an event-planning conference in Orlando. They’d kept in close contact since then, seeing each other at least twice a year at other industry events.
“You’re talking about this Friday, right? As in day after tomorrow?” she asked.
“Yes. I’m sorry for the short notice, but Alexa has to have this surgery sooner rather than later.”
“I understand,” Janelle said because she did. There was nothing she wouldn’t do for Sandra or Vicki, who were the closest she would ever have to sisters. If they lived across the country and were having surgery, she’d be on a plane to them, as well.
“And all I have to do is supervise? Everything else is done?”
“Yes. I even called all the vendors to confirm this morning. I’ve briefed my staff and we did a last site visit at lunch today. So if you say yes, I can brief you on everything now and send you a complete copy of my file.”
She couldn’t say no. Janelle knew there was no good way to back out of this, and really, she didn’t want to. For as busy as she was here in Wintersage, she felt as if getting out of town for a few days might be good. Things in the Howerton household had become quite tense with the election growing closer. Not to mention the fact that having a chance to work with Mal Harford—even secondhandedly—was a great coup for her career.
“I can give you thirty minutes to brief me. Then I need you to send me everything you have on Har-ford and this event. I’ll make some adjustments and see when I can get up to Boston,” Janelle told her.
Rebecca used one of those thirty minutes to thank Janelle and swear her debt and gratitude. Then they got down to business, which was a welcome distraction in Janelle’s hectic life.