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Cathy Gillen Thacker
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The Virgin's Secret Marriage

Joe Hart had made one crucial mistake in his long climb to success, and now finally-seven years after being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time with the 'boss's daughter'-- he was finally being given the chance to undo the damage caused by his foolishness. This was important for a couple of reasons. One, Joe had wanted to return to his home state of North Carolina, and the team he had grown up watching, for as long as he could remember. And two, he figured if he could come to terms with the heiress who had deliberately misled him and crushed his heart, see her for the deceitful manipulator she really was instead of the starry-eyed virgin he recalled every single night in his dreams, he might finally be able to move on in that arena, too. Because if there was one thing, Joe wanted, it was a wife and kids, of his very own. And to achieve that, he had to quit brooding over the past and put Emma Donovan out of his heart and his mind once and for all.

Ever a pragmatist, Joe figured just seeing the sought-after wedding planner from a distance, pitting the reality of who she was now against the romantic fantasy he recalled, would do the trick in disavowing him of the desire he felt.

Because if he could see Emma, be within striking distance of her, and not want her, well, then he would truly know he was over her. Past the reckless mistakes they had made. Ready to move on and build a personal life and a family for himself, too.

In the meantime, though, he had the rest of the Hart clan. His mom, his four brothers, his sister, her son. Now that he was back in the United States, back in his hometown of Holly Springs, he would be able to see a lot more of them. Joe was looking forward to interacting with them on a daily basis, as an adult, instead of a kid. That was if this meeting ever ended, he mused, in mounting frustration.

The Carolina Storm hockey team owner-multimillionaire Saul Donovan-seemed to have no end to the rules and regulations he wanted to go over, before he and Joe signed their names on the dotted lines of Joe's contract. "All team members are expected to give back to the community that supports them and participate in local charities. You can select your own. Or my wife Margaret and the rest of the team's public relations staff will help you."

"No problem," Joe said, looking over at his new boss. The fifty-something man was just under six feet, and a little soft around the middle. But there was nothing soft in his light green eyes. "That's something I've always done whether it was required or not."

Saul looked at Joe over the rim of his half-glasses. "And the team sponsors a hockey camp for young kids. You'll be expected to help out with that this summer, as well."

Joe nodded, not sure why he felt as if he were being called out on the carpet like an errant teenager-in the past few weeks and the meeting this evening Saul had been nothing but businesslike and professional thus far in his treatment of him. He just knew he was on edge. Waiting for the proverbial axe to fall. Swallowing around the tension in his throat, he looked Saul in the eye and imparted sincerely, "I have a nephew who might want to participate in that."

That was, Joe amended silently and ruefully to himself, if he could convince his older sister a burning interest in athletics was a good thing for her twelve year old son. Not an easy task, given the way Janey's marriage to Christopher's dad had turned out.

Saul nodded approvingly, then glanced down at the sheet of paper in front of him. "And that brings us to the last item on our agenda." Saul put down his pen, set his jaw.

Ah, shoot, Joe thought. Here it comes. The dressing down I've been waiting for.

"I'm willing to overlook what happened years ago on one very important condition," Saul continued sternly. He took off his glasses and dropped them on the desk, gave Joe the full benefit of his decidedly lethal glare. "You stay away from my daughter."

Like he wanted to get in that kind of mess again? And be sent back to the minors or benched? At the height of his pro career? "Believe me, I intend to keep my distance, and then some," Joe promised firmly. He not only wanted to exorcise Emma from his soul, in the most expedient practical way possible, he had no desire to speak to the beautiful brunette heiress ever again.

"I mean it," Saul reiterated, frowning. "I don't want Emma hurt."

Joe didn't want to be hurt, either. And Emma Donovan had torn his heart apart. To the point Joe had more or less sworn off love and intimacy ever since the night he had been caught trying to sneak a sobbing, angry Emma and her suitcase back into her college dorm. Only to come face-to-face with her equally angry father. Who, to this day, still did not know the full extent of what had happened-or almost happened-- that night, before Joe had learned the truth and come immediately to his senses, much to the rebellious Emma's chagrin.

As the increasingly uncomfortable staring match between Joe and Saul continued, Coach Thaddeus Lantz leaned forward and interrupted. "I think Joe gets it, Saul."

Joe nodded obediently, indicating that was indeed the case. Boy, did he get it. If he screwed up this time, there would be no second chances. Saul would do everything in his power to see Joe was finished in the world of professional hockey. And as owner of one of the best teams in the NHL, and soon to be solely in charge of Joe's destiny, Saul was powerful enough to accomplish it.

Saul Donovan backed off only slightly. "Given the line of work Emma has chosen, and where she has located her office, it may not be so easy to avoid her," he warned Joe.

No kidding, given the fact Emma had chosen to work alongside Joe's mother, who still did not know that Emma and Joe had ever been personally acquainted or even dated!

"You leave that to me, sir. I have no intention of running into your daughter at The Wedding Inn. Or anywhere else." His mother might own and run the premiere wedding location in all of North Carolina. And Emma might now be-according to his mother anyway-the best, most sought after wedding planner in the state, too. To the point the two women were now working side by side more often than not. But that did not mean Joe had to get involved in the family business. Or ever put himself in a position where he actually had to speak to the impulsive heiress.

"Emma is over there this evening, you know."

One of many reasons why Joe hadn't told his mother he was in town. Yet. "I'm planning to crash at a hotel in Raleigh, until I can get the rest of my stuff moved here," Joe said. He already owned a home. He had purchased one a year ago in his home town, as an investment, but never gotten around to furnishing it. Mostly because he hadn't expected to be living here again quite so soon. And wouldn't be now if Saul hadn't come through with the offer to play right wing on the Carolina Storm.

"Have you checked in to that hotel yet?" Saul asked, a little more kindly.

"Uh, no." Joe had been picked up by his Raleigh-based sports and entertainment attorney, Ross Dempsey, and come straight to this meeting from the airport.

"Then stay here," Saul encouraged, accurately reading Ross Dempsey's wordless entreaty to be more cordial to his newest player.

Joe cast a confused look at his attorney, who nodded encouragingly, then turned back to Saul. Making sure he had understood the invitation correctly, Joe asked, "You want me to stay here, at your estate?"

Talk about going hot and cold and hot again. He was beginning to see where Emma got her mercurial changes of mood.

Saul nodded, all cordial businessman and paternal kindness once again. "We've got plenty of guest rooms upstairs."

Joe hesitated. He knew from the talk among other athletes that this was par for the course for any new players on the Carolina Storm hockey team. Saul Donovan wanted the team to feel like family. And he did everything in his power to keep morale high and engender player loyalty, to him personally, as well as the team. His methods worked. The Storm had the highest re-signing statistics, and best player satisfaction survey scores, in the league. The mess with Emma aside, Joe was lucky to be signing on here, and he knew it.

"You'd be doing us a favor," Saul continued kindly. "My wife and I are going to Southern Pines for a golf tournament. And-given the rash of mysterious break-ins in Holly Springs lately-I'd prefer the house not be empty." Saul paused. "There is only so much a state of the art security system can do."

Joe knew from his brother, Mac, the Holly Springs Sheriff, that the bandit or bandits recently plaguing the central Carolina area were very savvy. Able to get past electronic security systems with ease.

"I'd be glad to look after the place for you," Joe volunteered. He figured, given past mistakes, it was the least he could do.

"We'll be back tomorrow evening, so it would just be for the next twenty four hours," Saul continued.

"No problem," Joe said easily, willing to do his part. "Emma--?"

"Is rarely here. When she does come over, she calls first. She knows we're going to be out of town, so she won't be stopping by the estate." Otherwise, Saul made it pretty clear by the look he gave Joe, there would have been no invitation.

Joe breathed a sigh of relief.

Saul nodded at the general counsel for the team. He handed over the contract that Joe and his own sports attorney, Ross Dempsey, had already scrutinized, and a pen. Joe glanced through the pages, too, and noted it was just as they had agreed. Five years, with a no-trade guarantee. Aware again at the enormity of the risk he was taking, for the jump in salary and a chance to play on a better team, under a much better coach, he signed on the appropriate line. Saul Donovan followed suit.

It was done. He was now a member of the Carolina Storm hockey team. The two men stood, shook hands in a way they never would have done seven years ago, when Saul had nearly derailed Joe's pro career. "The press conference announcing your return to Raleigh is set for Monday morning at nine a.m. at the arena in Raleigh."

"I'll be there," Joe promised.

Emma's mother, Margaret, appeared in the doorway. Joe had never had any dealings with her, but he knew her by reputation. Margaret was a public relations whiz. She had helped her husband turn his sandwich shop into a franchise of successful restaurants nationwide, and now headed up the Carolina Storm's p.r. department. With her dark hair and pretty green eyes, she was as beautiful as her only daughter and dressed for the drive to Southern Pines, in tailored yellow golf slacks and matching sweater set. "Saul, are you about ready to leave?"

Saul nodded. "Just let me get my suitcase and golf clubs."

They all said goodnight and Saul walked Coach Lantz and the two attorneys out.

Margaret smiled at Joe. If she blamed Joe for what had happened with him and Emma, when Emma and he were just nineteen, she wasn't showing it as she handed Joe a piece of paper that held the security code for the house. "Let me show you around." She escorted him upstairs to the guest room she wanted him to use, then back down, through the back hallways, into the kitchen. Along the rear of the house was a separate wing that included a personal gym, weight room, indoor swimming pool with retractable roof, whirlpool tub, and dressing rooms. "Feel free to use any of this that you like," Margaret told him graciously.

"Thanks," Joe said. He would.

Margaret paused.

"What is it?" Joe asked, reading the worry in her soft eyes.

Margaret sighed. "I hate for you to be all alone in this big place, given what has been happening lately."

The break-ins again. He wished everyone would stop talking about it. But Joe supposed that was a hazard of living in a small town, some thirty minutes out of Raleigh. The residents weren't used to crime. So to them it was a very big deal.

"Not to worry, Mrs. D. I'm a big guy," Joe told her reassuringly. He could-and would-- take care of himself.

"Well, that went very well if I do say so myself," Helen Hart murmured, shortly after nine-thirty, as the last of the Shephard-Crowley wedding guests drove away.

"I think so, too," Emma Donovan agreed wholeheartedly with Joe Hart's mother. "Everything was just perfect, down to the last detail." And thanks to the fact that two families involved were socially and politically prominent in the state of North Carolina, and had possessed the foresight to time the ceremony for maximum press coverage, the highlights of the celebration were going to be on the eleven o'clock news.

"We're both going to get a lot more weddings because of this one," Helen murmured happily.

Emma nodded as the catering crew continued to clean up the last of the glasses, and the twenty-seven piece orchestra disbanded for the evening. Hard to believe that she and the widowed mother of the ex-love-of-her-life had become fast friends, as well as business contemporaries. But then, the fifty-six year old, mother of six, with the short red hair and amber eyes, did not know that Emma had ever dated or even met Joe. It wasn't that Emma meant to keep anything from Helen Hart. Just that she had never known how to bring it up, when Joe obviously hadn't. And maybe it was for the best anyway, since Emma was still bitter about the quick and easy way Joe had dumped her, for the sake of his career.

"It's just too bad all our clients aren't as easy to work with," Emma murmured, as she headed toward the office she leased in the business wing of The Wedding Inn.

Helen sent her a sympathetic glance, as Emma took out the Secret-service style earpiece and microphone she wore during weddings, and put them away. "You're thinking about the Snow-Posen nuptials next week, aren't you?" Emma nodded. Gigi Snow, the mother of the bride, was a real pill. And then some. Emma knew that she and Helen would both have their hands full the following week, pulling everything together for what was shaping up to be central Carolina's most expensive wedding of the year. "But tonight I am not going to think about that," Emma stated determinedly. Tonight, she was exhausted. So much so, in fact, she was thinking about doing what she rarely did, and nixing the drive back to her apartment in nearby Raleigh.

"Hey, Emma," the W-MOL news reporter, Trevor Zwick, asked as Emma and Helen walked back out into the marble floored foyer, with the sweeping circular staircase that dated back one hundred and fifty years. "You want to come with and the rest of the crew and get a bite to eat and a few beers before heading back to Raleigh?" Emma knew the news guys were wound up. All three were young, ambitious, single. All three had been known to hit on her whenever they crossed her path. And they had been cooling their heels since early that afternoon, getting the shots their news director wanted for the beginning and close of that evening's final newscast.

Emma smiled, aware it had been a long day for them, too. "Thanks, but--"

Rusty Crowley, the cameraman, came up to stand beside Trevor. He winked at Emma and then complained, "She thinks our lives are as boring as we do today."

Lee Wang, the producer, joined them. "No kidding. Couldn't ask for a slower news day." Weddings, Emma knew, weren't their favorite thing. They would much rather be filming action-anything. Trevor Zwick shrugged. "Hey, you never know. It is Friday night. There's still a chance somethin' exciting will happen before the eleven o'clock show."

"Yeah, we'll just keep the police scanner on while we eat," the cameraman said.

The producer shook his head and laughed. "Even an overturned chicken truck would be a step up at this point…" "Yeah, well, have fun, guys," Emma said, as the crew ambled on out.

"You headed back to Raleigh?" Helen asked, as she walked with Emma out onto the wide front porch of the palatial three-story white brick inn. And stood on the semi-circular pillared portico, with the black wrought iron railing and half dozen steps down, on each side.

"Actually, no. My parents are out of town for the weekend, so I think I'm just going to go over to their estate and spend the night there," Emma said, as employee cars and service vans continued to leave the parking area at a steady rate.

Helen's face creased with concern. "Be careful. It could be dangerous going into such a big house late at night, alone. And that place of your parents," unlike the Wedding Inn, which was located on the edge of Holly Springs, "is so isolated." Helen paused, acting as much like Emma's mother as her own. "Do you want me to call Mac and have someone from the sheriff's department escort you?"

Emma shook her head. "Don't be silly. There's no reason to bother your son. I know the recent spate of burglaries are all anyone has been talking about but honestly, it isn't as if the thief or thieves have done much but help themselves to a few very expensive sets of golf clubs, and the occasional pantry or wet bar. No one's been hurt in any of the break-ins."

"Because no one's been home when any of the break-ins occurred,: Helen countered sagely. "The victims have all been out of town, or away for the evening. There's no telling what could happen if the thieves came face to face with someone they were burgling."

A shiver went down Emma's spine as she considered the possibility of that happening to her. Forcing herself to remain calm, she countered, "My parents have a state of the art security system."

Helen frowned, even more worriedly. "Mac told me the thieves have been getting around those."

And as Holly Springs Sheriff, Mac Hart would know, Emma realized uneasily. With effort, Emma pushed away her fear.

"Really," she promised Helen. "I'll be fine." All she needed was a long soak in a hot bath, some cozy pajamas, and a good night's sleep.

Determined to achieve all three within the hour, she strode wearily out to her BMW. As she made her way through the sleepy little town, and drove out to the estate her parents had purchased just two years ago, Meg couldn't help but think how much her life had changed from the time she was a little girl. Her parents were rich now beyond their wildest dreams, but when she had been in elementary school, her father and mother-both off whom had come from modest middle class backgrounds themselves-had still be struggling to turn Saul's Sandwich Shops into a national chain. Margaret and Saul had traveled so constantly, in fact, that they had been forced to put Emma in an all-girls boarding school in Virginia.

Always a serious student, Emma had excelled in the rigorous academic atmosphere. Free to devote themselves to selling franchises and opening new Saul's Sandwich Shops, Margaret and Saul had achieved the nationwide success and fame they wanted. By the time she graduated from high school, and gone on to Brown University in Rhode Island, her father had realized yet another long-held dream of his and purchased an NHL hockey team, the Carolina Storm. Emma had been excited about the purchase, and wanted to attend the games, meet the players, but her father-ever protective-had strictly forbidden it. Hockey players were bad news for women, he had said. If only she had listened to him… years ago… But she hadn't. And instead, had directly disobeyed him, and had regularly gone to see-not the pro team he owned-but a minor league AHL team in Providence, Rhode Island.

She had been enthralled by the physical agility, speed, skill, and determination of the young, handsome, players. One in particular, a sexy southern boy and North Carolina native, had really caught her eye…. Emma sighed. She knew better than to let herself think about that. If she did, she would be up all night, dreaming of a guy with tousled light brown hair, and golden brown eyes….

Scowling at her inability to get past what might as well have happened in another lifetime, it was so long ago, she punched in the security code, and watched the gates open, then drove up the lane. To her relief, the ten-thousand square foot house and grounds were as quiet and tranquil as ever.

She let herself in the slate blue southern colonial, with the white shutters and slate gray trim, and turning lights on, and then off, as she went, made her way up the front stairs to her bedroom at the far end of the hall. Emma pinned her hair up on the back of her head. She washed the day's grime off her face and took off her clothes while the tub filled, then sank chin-deep into the fragrant bubbles.

As she soaked, her thoughts turned once again to Joe Hart, and the sexy, frustrating-as-all-get-out havoc he had wrecked on her life. They had never made love. But she still couldn't forget the heat of his kisses, or the tender evocativeness of his touch. Still couldn't stop wanting him or wishing they'd…

Scowling, Emma opened the drain, and got out of the tub. And that was when she heard it. The sound of something-someone-moving around on the first floor, directly below her. In the workout room, or sauna….maybe…

Emma froze, panicked at the realization she was not alone. Then reached for the phone on the bathroom wall and still dripping water and bubbles everywhere, swiftly punched in 911. She barely had time to whisper what was happening, before Sheriff Mac Hart himself was on the line. "Emma. I want you to sit tight," he warned briskly. "Don't even think of going to confront whoever is in the house."

In the utter silence of the big house, Emma heard the distinct sound of a door shutting. Another opening. A deep throated male cough. A crash as something dropped. A muffled exclamation, swearing. She knew what Mac had said, but she was not going to sit there like a sitting duck, and wait for whoever was in the house to find her, alone and unarmed. Shaking with a mixture of adrenaline and fear, she pulled her floor length navy blue robe on around her and belted it tight. She needed a weapon, with which to protect herself. And she knew just where to find one.

The Brides of Holly Springs Book Series by Cathy Gillen Thacker

Cathy Gillen Thacker is the bestselling author of witty romantic comedies and warm, family stories whose books are published in 17 languages and 35 countries.