The Seven Year Proposal
Originally published as: THE BRIDE SAID, “FINALLY!”
"I need a favor. And I need it from you," the low, distinctively male voice drawled.
As the velvety sound surrounded her, tingles of awareness slid down Jenna Lockhart's spine. She knew that rich, familiar murmur. Unless she was hallucinating...The blood rushed hot through her veins. She turned slowly toward the door, telling herself all the while she had to be imagining it. That the romantic notion was prompted by the equally shocking elopement of her sister, Dani, and Beau Chamberlain several weeks before. Just because Dani had found the man of her dreams and married him, just because wedding fever was sweeping the town of Laramie, Texas, did not mean that the man of Jenna's dreams would waltz back into her life on a moment's notice. Did it?
Drawing a deep breath, Jenna lifted her eyes, curious to see who had entered her exclusive boutique just seconds before. She closed for the day. And promptly felt her knees turn to jelly. Well over six years had passed since she had seen the man who had broken her heart all to pieces, but Jake Remington hadn't changed a bit. Except, perhaps, to become even more handsome and self-assured. He was a good six inches taller than her five-foot-nine-inch frame, with a penchant for casual clothes, and an even more casual manner that belied his enormous wealth and good fortune.
"What are you doing here?" Jenna demanded.
Looking completely at ease with himself in the ultra feminine surroundings, he circled around the one-of-a-kind wed-ing and evening dresses on display. Once at her side, he tipped back his black Stetson, revealing layers of thick jet-black hair. As he scanned her from head to toe, reluctant pleasure tugged at the corners of his lips. "I wanted to congratulate you on your success." Jake lifted his glance back to her eyes. "Your clothing designs have been in the news all month. Dani created quite a stir when she wore one of your dresses to the premiere of Beau Chamberlain's new movie. Reportedly, every starlet in Hollywood now wants one of your originals."
That was true. Due to her growing success, Jenna was booked solid with appointments. She was taking the time between now and then to prepare for the onslaught. And perhaps look at hiring someone besides Raelynn to help her in the shop. But not wanting to disclose all that to Jake, Jenna merely shrugged and returned his steady glance, albeit with a lot less admiration. "You've done very well for yourself. I hear J&R Industries is a multimillion-dollar conglomerate."
Jake pushed back the edges of his black sport coat, and placed his hands on his waist. His sexy grin widened. "You've kept up."
Jenna turned away, trying hard not to notice how taut and trim his midriff was beneath his olive-green shirt and snug black jeans. "Hard not to, if you read the business pages of all the major Texas newspapers-and I do."
Following her around the shop, Jake said, "I would have called for an appointment, but I didn't think you'd see me."
Struggling not to recall how good it had felt to be held against that warm, strong chest, Jenna refused to look at him as she shut down her computer for the night. "You were right." She remembered without wanting to how much he had hurt her, abandoning her the way he had. "I wouldn't have."
Jake looked at her steadily, serious now. "What happened between us was a long time ago."
Funny, Jenna thought. It seemed like just yesterday to her. Though in reality it had been six years, eight months, ten days...nineteen hours. But who was counting? She smiled thinly. "What's your point?"
Jake's expression was suddenly as vulnerable as it was grave. "I want us to be friends again."
Jenna didn't want to think of Jake as vulnerable, because if she did it meant he had a heart, and that was definitely not true. Jenna locked her cash register. "Not possible."
He leaned across the sales counter. "How will you know unless you try?", he asked.
Every muscle in her body went stiff with tension. "I'm not interested in trying, Jake," she told him flatly, ignoring the settling way her senses stirred at his close proximity.
Jake regarded her with so much smug male assurance it took her breath away. "Same old stubbornness and fiery temperament."
"Same old arrogance and conceit," she shot back, refusing to be distracted by the enticing, woodsy scent of his skin.
Instead of being insulted, Jake merely grinned, and looked the more entranced. "Jenna, I have a proposition for you."
As Jenna recalled, what he'd said was that he needed a favor from her. In her opinion, those were two very different things. "I'll just bet you do," she replied. Grabbing a clear plastic garment bag, she slipped it over a wedding dress on the overhead rack.
"I need you to make a complete wardrobe."
Jenna knelt and gently folded the edges of the beaded satin gown into the bag. "I don't design men's clothing." And even if she did, she wouldn't design anything for him!
Jake also knelt to help, holding the bottom of the bag tight. "It's for the lady in my life."
Resisting the urge to deck him, Jenna zipped the garment bag closed. "Now I'm really not interested."
Jake stood, and hand beneath her elbow, gallantly help Jenna to her feet. "I'll do anything you want."
Still tingling from his brief, but sure touch, Jenna carried the gown back to the storeroom. Wishing her heart would stop pounding and resume its normal beat, she carefully hung the gown on the rack. "I'm still not interested, Jake." To her dismay, Jake showed no signs of leaving despite her less-than gracious hints. He moved back to let her pass and continued speaking if she had already agreed to accommodate him. "The thing is it's a rush job."
Her exasperation mounting by leaps and bounds, Jenna strode back out into the carpeted showroom. She went to the desk behind the sales counter and reached for her Rolodex. "I'll give you some names and send you on your way."
"I don't want anyone else. I want you."
"Too bad," Jenna replied, forcing herself to remember how much he had hurt her instead of how very well he kissed, "because you're never going to have me." Ever again.
Jake quirked a brow. Desire, pure and simple, was in his eyes. "Don't make promises you may not be able to keep."
Her temper flaring, Jenna poked a finger at his chest. "And don't you presume to know what is in my heart or on my mind."
Outside, a red sport utility vehicle with tinted window pulled up to the curb and parked just ahead of Jake's charcoal gray truck and Jenna's sporty white convertible.
Obviously perturbed by the interruption, Jake glanced at his watch and frowned. "She's early."
Like that matters! Jenna thought, incensed.
Unable to believe his audacity, never mind his lack of consideration for her feelings, Jenna turned to Jake furiously. "You are so out of here," she said just as the driver alighted from the truck. To Jenna's amazement, it wasn't some glamorous young babe Jake was dating, but a plump, pleasant looking woman in her mid to late fifties, wearing jeans, boots and a blue denim work shirt. She had a straw cowgirl hat pulled over her wild salt-and-pepper curls and a red bandana tied around neck. She walked to the rear door on the passenger side. Realizing this woman was only the chauffeur Jenna began to frown again.
Jake moved between Jenna and the window, adeptly blocking her view. He tugged her behind a three-mannequin display of evening wear in the boutique window. Meanwhile, though the chauffeur had opened the passenger door and was holding it wide, no one was getting out.
"Look, I'm begging you," Jake said urgently. He clamped both his hands on Jenna's shoulders and held her there in front of him when she would have bolted. "Alex's been through a really rough time. When she saw your designs on TV she fell in love with them. I promised her I'd get you to design her some dresses, just for her. Exactly what she wants. Down to the very last detail."
Finding his request more unbelievable than ever, Jenna snapped at him, "So break the promise. That's certainly not anything you've hesitated to do before."
Reminded of the heartless way he had betrayed her in the past he showed a moment's regret. Then, recovering, he went on matter-of-factly. "It's not that simple, Jenna."
Jenna scoffed again. "It is to me. Besides, I have confidence in you," she continued sweetly, favoring him with a withering look. "You'll think of something, Jake. You always have." The driver turned to Jake and lifted her hands in exasperation. Jake nodded his understanding signaling the driver to "I'll double your usual fee," Jake said urgently, fastening his attention on Jenna once again. Jenna shook her head, thinking, This man really needs to have his head examined. "No!"
"Triple." Jenna rolled her eyes. "You must really be desperate."
Jake muttered, lifting one hand from her shoulder and, rubbing the back of his neck. "You have no idea how much."
Jenna wasn't sure whether to tell Jake what she really thought of him, or just pity him. "Find some other ex-girlfriend to torture," she said in a low, bored tone.
Jake dropped his other hand, stepped back. Where he had gripped her shoulders, Jenna continued to tingle warmly. Too warmly.
"There is no one else," he said, dispirited.
Looking into his mesmerizing silver-gray eyes, still feeling the awareness that shimmered through her at his touch, Jenna could almost-almost-believe that. Which only proved that once a fool, always a fool, she reprimanded herself. "No one else who knows how to operate a sewing machine, you mean," she replied archly.
Without warning, the limo driver snapped to attention once again. Sensing something was about to happen, Jake and Jenna both looked in the direction of the car. Seconds later, Jake's "lady" vaulted out, clutching what looked to be a squirming bullfrog in both hands. She was muddy, unkempt, with a baseball hat planted backwards on her head, covering a mop of long and tangled strawberry blond hair that obviously hadn't seen a brush all day. Olive-green overalls and a dingy T -shirt, several sizes too big, hung from her slender figure. She wore pink-rimmed sunglasses, high-topped basketball sneakers. A backpack in the form of a monkey was slung over one shoulder. Relief and amusement-and irritation at Jake for not having explained further-flowed through Jenna in equal quantities, making her want to deck him all over again.
"This is the lady in your life?" Jenna asked, guessing the little girl's age to be about five or six.
"The one and only," Jake smiled as the little scamp marched toward him. Jake turned to Jenna, sexy mischief in his eyes. "What did you think I meant?"
Too late, Jenna realized it had been a test, to see if she still had feelings for him, and she had failed. Hardening her heart against any further involvement with him, she said, "I don't design children' s clothing, either."
Outside, the chauffeur waved cheerfully at Jenna, gestured to Jake she'd be back in a minute, then took off down the street after she ushered the child toward the shop.
"I was hoping you'd make an exception for Alexandra, here," Jake continued as the child sidled up to him for a one-armed hug.
"That's okay, Daddy," Alexandra leaned against Jake's side, her head resting against his waist. "I didn't want any dresses anyway. And stop calling me Alexandra. You know I only wanta be called Alex." Carefully transferring the frog to one hand, she grabbed onto the sleeve of Jake's casual black blazer with the other and tugged fiercely. "Let's go, Daddy."
His eyes still on Jenna, Jake shook his head. "Not yet, honey, I've got business to do."
The pout that formed on Alexandra's pretty face was immediate-and potent. "You've been doing business all day," she grumbled as the frog leapt from her hand and hopped across the floor of the shop. "I want to go to the ranch house now," she repeated stubbornly, Racing after her frog, she called over her shoulder, "It's brand-new. Daddy built it just for us, so I'd have somewhere I could play outside, and have horsies and dogs and cats and stuff, Only I don't have none yet."
Jenna looked at Jake, too surprised by his revelations to be concerned with the amphibian escapee. "I didn't think your family was summering here anymore." They had stopped at the time of Jake and Jenna's failed elopement. "My folks don't, although they keep the ranch for an investment and loan out the house to friends from time to time."
"Then why would you build a place here, if you no longer have family vacationing in the area?"
Jake shrugged. "I loved coming to Laramie when I was a kid." He shot a glance at Alex, who had throw off her monkey backpack and pink sunglasses and was hopping around after her frog, well out of earshot. "I figured Alex would love it too."
Jenna smiled, unable to resist a dig after the way his family's snobbish attitudes had hurt her. "Are you sure that's wise? Laramie is a great place. Friendly. Warm. Caring. Intimate. But on the social register-well, we really can't compare with your native Dallas now, can we?" She looked at him steadily, daring him to claim otherwise.
Jake stared back, regarding her with the same steady intensity. "I never thought you'd be a snob."
"Okay, reverse snob," Jake amended.
Before they could continue their discussion, Alex's chauffeur stepped into the shop. Jake turned to the older woman, affection etched on his face. It was, Jenna noted curiously, a feeling that was returned. "Jenna," Jake said warmly, "this is Clara, our housekeeper, the lady who keeps us all sane. Clara, I'd like you to meet Jenna Lockhart, the lady I've been telling you and Alex about."
"I heard you two knew each other as kids," Clara said.
Jenna nodded. "We used to see each other every summer. But that ended a long time ago. We haven't seen each other since."
Jake gave Jenna a look that said: "And it's a loss to us both."
Jenna gave Jake a look that said: "Speak for yourself."
Alex popped up from behind the sales counter. She waved the bullfrog in the air. "Hey, everybody, I got him!" "Well, nice meeting you all, but as you can see I'm closing my shop for the day."
"Goody! Did you hear that, Mr. Froggie? We get to go to the ranch!" With a wave at Jenna, Alex darted back out the door.
"Nice meetin' you!" Clara said, waving as she headed out the door after Alex. Jake frowned at his daughter, who was already climbing back in the truck. "This probably isn't a good time for us to talk," he conceded with a frown.
Jenna breathed a sigh of relief. "I'm glad you finally realize that."
"We need to go to dinner together," Jake said firmly. Jenna's eyes widened. Determined not to put herself in an emotionally vulnerable position with him again, she scoffed derisively. "In your dreams!"
Jake's eyes darkened with legendary confidence. "I'll be by to get you around eight o' clock,"he promised as she stalked away from him.
Jenna concentrated on putting the Closed sign on the front door. Then opened it and held it wide for him. "Don't hold your breath," she muttered sweetly as she waved him toward exit. But clearly, Jake was counting on getting his way. As always. "Wear something casual," Jake advised as he sauntered toward the door. "I want you to be comfortable." He gave her a smile that reached his eyes. "We have a lot to talk about. "