Who Gets To Marry Max?
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Max’s To-Do List
1. Acquire new company and partner.
2. Talk brother into asking partner’s daughter to marry him.
3. Host party so said proposal will take place.
4. Speak with butler about guests and refreshments.
5. Become completely distracted from all of the above by butler’s niece.
Sidney’s To-Do List
1. Replace usual uniform with sexy black dress.
2. Finish making chocolate desserts.
3. Keep Max's brother from flirting with women other than his intended fianc?e.
4. Explain to Max that his butler, my uncle, is sick. Offer self as replacement.
5. Try to run party smoothly while falling hopelessly in love with Max.
It’s another wonderful month at Mills & Boon American Romance, the line dedicated to bringing you stories of heart, home and happiness! Just look what we have in store for you….
Author extraordinaire Cathy Gillen Thacker continues her fabulous series THE LOCKHARTS OF TEXAS with The Bride Said, “Finally!” Cathy will have more Lockhart books out in February and April 2001, as well as a special McCabe family saga in March 2001.
You’ve been wanting more books in the TOTS FOR TEXANS series, and author Judy Christenberry has delivered! The $10,000,000 Texas Wedding is the not-to-be-missed continuation of these beloved stories set in Cactus, Texas. You just know there’s plenty of romance afoot when a bachelor will lose his huge inheritance should he fail to marry the woman he once let get away.
Rounding out the month are two fabulous stories by two authors making their Mills & Boon American Romance debut. Neesa Hart brings us the humorous Who Gets To Marry Max? and Victoria Chancellor will wow you with The Bachelor Project.
Wishing you happy reading!
Associate Senior Editor
Who Gets to Marry Max?
To Corinne Everett, fellow author and friend, for indefatigable support and breathing lessons!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
NEESA HART lives in historic Fredericksburg, Virginia. She publishes contemporary romance under her own name, and historical romance as Mandalyn Kay. An avid theater buff and professional production manager, she travels across the U.S. producing and stage-managing original dramas. Her favorite to date? A children’s choir Christmas musical featuring The Pirates of Penzance.
Books by Neesa Hart
MILLS & BOON AMERICAN ROMANCE
843—WHO GETS TO MARRY MAX?
I first had the idea for this book when I was six years old. I had thirty-five Barbie dolls and three Kens. The odds weren’t so good. Besides, Ken liked to wear clothes that matched Barbie’s, and that didn’t seem, well, quite as alluring as my brother’s G.I. Joes, which had all those neat uniforms.
I made do with Joe while my brother wasn’t looking, but wistfully longed for a Barbie doll companion that was up to snuff.The thought reoccurred to me when I went to college—the odds there for me weren’t much better than poor Barbie’s! This time, there were no G.I. Joes to be had, although there was a Marine Corps base right up the highway.
Still, the thought lingered, and—this truly is the best part of being a writer—eventually I got to see it through to the end. Max is a special guy. He charmed me from the beginning, and had, I thought, just what it took to turn a woman’s head even if G.I. Joe was in the room down the hall. Hope you enjoy him as much as I did!
She looked good in black.
Sidney studied her reflection. She hadn’t thought she’d like it, but now that she wore it, she had to admit she was glad she’d splurged on the outfit. Auspicious occasions, her uncle Philip claimed, demanded auspicious clothing. And being in the Hudson River valley home of Max Loden, financial guru and world’s most enigmatic bachelor, she supposed, was just about as auspicious as it got.
The luxurious fabric, which had seemed so incredibly impractical, highlighted the best aspects of her figure with exquisitely tailored perfection while somehow managing to downplay her flaws. It skimmed her hips and fell gracefully to the floor, giving her an air of sophistication she suspected she was going to urgently need. The short jacket, with its structured shoulders and waist-trimming fit, inspired her Miracle Bra to new levels of achievement.
Perhaps, she thought whimsically, she might survive this encounter after all.
“What the hell is going on here?”
Or, maybe not. Sidney took a deep breath before she turned to face him. At the fierce look on his face, she had to stifle a grin. She could easily picture him saying, fee, fi, fo, fum. Sidney schooled her countenance into an appropriately solemn expression. “Hello, Mr. Loden.”
“Mad Max,” as his enemies and even some of his friends called him, was everything she remembered and more. Elegantly clad in a black tuxedo, he towered over her. His melt-her-kneecaps gaze swept her from head to foot. “Sidney.” He sounded simultaneously baffled and annoyed. “Where’s Philip?”
She straightened the lapels of her catering jacket to disguise the customary nervousness she felt in the presence of the indomitable Max Loden. It was his eyes, she’d decided years ago. They had a way of dismantling her. “I’m afraid you’re stuck with me,” she said. “Uncle Philip’s not here.”
His razor-sharp gaze darted around the spacious kitchen of his Hudson River home—although, Sidney mused as she thought of the sprawling structure, the term was loosely applied. Her staff had seized the kitchen, and were functioning at their usual peak efficiency. Rows of hors d’oeuvre trays lined the stainless steel countertops. Three of her pastry chefs put finishing touches on an assortment of desserts and handmade chocolates. Champagne glasses, freshly polished, stood in neat rows, and her assistant busily rushed about making careful notes of each procedure. Evidently done with his inspection, Max met Sidney’s gaze. “What do you mean he’s not here?”
“Uncle Philip isn’t well.”
That turned his generally fierce expression into a full-blown scowl. “Not well? He’s ill? What’s wrong with him?”
She refused to let the bulletlike pace of the interrogation rattle her. “He has the flu.”
“The flu—are you sure?”
“Very. He was extremely upset that he couldn’t be here for you this weekend.” She clasped her hands behind her back to keep from fidgeting.
“Hell.” Max rubbed at the muscles of his neck. The motion, she noted, spread his black jacket open to emphasize a broad chest that had been rumored to make women swoon.
Sidney made a mental note to thank Philip for encouraging her to abandon the jeans and sweatshirts she usually wore when she supervised a party this size. Although she spent her time behind the scenes, and would generally remain invisible to Max’s guests, both the cut and the cost of the black jacket and trousers boosted her confidence. “Uncle Philip sends his regrets,” she told Max.
“His—” He swore. “Is he going to be all right?”
The question would have surprised many, she knew. Max Loden had something of a reputation. People called him all sorts of names—compassionate was not generally one of them. Had it not been for her uncle’s long relationship with him, Sidney, too, might never have seen behind Max’s implacable facade to the heart of this amazing, if daunting, man. She tilted her head to one side to study him. “I’m sure he will be.”
“Does he need anything? Has he seen a doctor?”
Not for the first time, Sidney decided that every story she’d ever heard about “Mad Max” Loden was completely unfounded. No man could inquire after the health of his butler with that rough and tender voice and be missing his heart, no matter what his critics said. “Yes, he has. And he’s quite fine. I stocked his refrigerator and his pantry before I left.”
“The flu can be dangerous for a man his age.”
Heartless indeed, she mentally scoffed and felt her inner knot of tension begin to unwind. Even Philip’s home was another of Max’s flagrant generosities. While most butlers lived in their employers’ homes at their employers’ whims, Max had provided Philip with a personal retreat for his off-duty hours. “Yes, it can. That’s why his doctor confined him to bed.”
“Is someone with him?”
“You’re all the family he has.”
“Except you,” she said quietly.
He stared at her for long, disconcerting seconds, his silver gaze searching her face. Everything else about him was dark. His hair, his expression, his countenance, even his voice. But those eyes were positively brilliant. “Shouldn’t you be taking care of him?” Max prompted.
“He wanted me to take care of you instead.”
Max lifted one eyebrow in an expression she was willing to bet sent his employees scrambling. “That sounds like Philip.”
“He knew this weekend’s house party was exceptionally important to you. He briefed me that your brother, Greg, is considering an engagement to Lauren Fitzwater. That, with any luck, Greg will finally muster the nerve to ask the young lady to marry him—and that you hope the relationship will further your efforts to merge Loden Enterprises with Edward Fitzwater’s electronics company.”
Max’s eyebrows lifted. “Philip’s in top mental form, I see.”
Sidney nodded. “He also explained that the younger Mr. Loden probably wouldn’t respond favorably to that information, and that you’d prefer discretion from the staff. Without Philip here to command them, he was worried they might not understand the importance of decorum. Since the Fitzwaters and several of your investors will be present this weekend, this particular event could prove both profitable and beneficial to your long-term goals.”
“It could,” he agreed.
“And, knowing that, Philip was extremely concerned. He knew how much you have riding on this event. He’d already employed my staff to assist your own for the weekend, and, in his absence, he asked me to supervise.” She finished the speech and breathed a mental sigh of relief.
Max studied her for long seconds. “Philip told me you’re in business for yourself now.”
The note of admiration in his voice almost felled her. Not in her wildest imagination had she pictured him admiring her for anything. Not when his first impression of her had been as a miserably unhappy adolescent who’d cowered from him for no apparent reason, and every subsequent impression would have been formed while watching her cater his friends’ parties and assist her uncle. Though she’d seen him from a distance, this was their first substantial conversation in years. “I am,” she said.
“You run a temp agency.” He drummed his fingers on the counter. “Waitstaff and caterers,” he clarified, still holding her captive with his gaze. “As Philip explained it to me, you started the business after your divorce.”
She cringed. Uncle Philip, it seemed, was certainly quite liberal with the details of her private life. She wasn’t prepared for the idea that Max Loden had an intimate view of her failures. “That’s true.”
“And you supply extra personnel for large events and household needs.”
“And parties like this one.”
“I see.” He continued to stare at her.
“Was there something else you wanted, Mr. Loden?”
“Max.” His voice was nearly a whisper. He seemed to be studying her. Without warning, he grabbed her hand and tugged her toward a door at one end of the kitchen.
She gave him an anxious glance. “Is something wrong?”
Max looped his fingers under her elbow as he hurried her toward the pantry. “Maybe.”
Sidney decided not to resist. If she did, he’d probably make a scene. Max loved scenes. It was one of his quirks. “Chip,” she called out to one of her assistants, “Can you take those lobster crepes out when the buzzer rings?”
“Sure.” He lifted his eyebrows.
Sidney ignored him. Max steered her into the relative quiet of the pantry. The door swung soundlessly shut behind them. “Why are you here, Sidney?” His voice had dropped to a low rumble.
The only light in the cramped space came from the slight space around the door. With a sharp tug on the string, she switched on the overhead light. A mistake, that, she mused. The single light bulb made his expression more fierce. Gathering her calm, she met his gaze. “Uncle Philip—”
Max cut her off with a wave of his hand. “I know. Philip’s sick. He asked you to stand in. You haven’t answered my question, though. I want to know why you agreed.”
“I’d do anything for him. He was very worried that he—”
“Couldn’t be here.” Max moved a step closer. “You told me. But Philip told me that you almost never supervise parties yourself. You leave that to your assistant.” His eyebrows drew closer together. “Kelly—” She could almost see the gears turning in his brain.
“Lars,” Sidney supplied.
Max’s nod was short. “That’s right. You run the business and assist your clients with event planning, but she handles the events on site. Isn’t that right?”
He nodded. “It’s right. So I want to know why you made an exception in my case.”
“Why did you decide that this particular event needed your personal touch?”
Gritting her teeth in frustration, she resisted the urge to tell him it was rude to interrupt. “I knew uncle Philip was particularly worried about not being here, and that he’d rest easier if he knew I was.”
He frowned. “Is that what he told you?”
“Not in so many words, but he was very agitated about missing this event.”
Max watched her through a narrow-lidded gaze. “Is that the only reason?”
She swallowed. “What other reasons would there be?”
He raised one hand to rest it on her shoulder. The slight pressure of his fingers eased her closer to him. “I don’t know, Sidney. You tell me.”
Her breathing turned shallow. He couldn’t possibly know the effect he was having on her—the effect he always had on her. By design, she saw him rarely. Most of what she knew about Max, she knew from her uncle. She stayed out of his way whenever possible simply because he had this ability to melt her bones. “Max, I—”
His fingers tightened. “Damn it,” he whispered.
“What’s the matter with you?”
“Damn it,” he said again.
His eyes drifted momentarily shut. When they opened again, she saw the resolve in them. “I want you to stay here this weekend.”
Sidney blinked. Oh, Lord. Not that. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me. I want you to stay here.”
Vintage Max, she mused. No explanations. No commonsense argument. Direct, and straight to the point. What Max wanted, he was used to getting. She’d been afraid of this when she’d spoken to her uncle. Max had a lot riding on this weekend. He’d want to make sure someone was covering for Philip. He couldn’t know that three uninterrupted days with him would shrink her into a bowl of nerves. “I don’t think—”
“There are twenty bedrooms in this place, not including the guest quarters where Philip usually stays when we’re out here. You could have the apartment to yourself.”
“Your staff is going to stay, aren’t they?”
She reached for her patience. “Not all of them. Only the few that I’ll need for early morning. You have an ample household staff to cover whatever happens during the night. You won’t need any extra help until your guests start moving around tomorrow.”
“I want you to stay.”
She stifled a groan. “I know you—”
He leaned closer to her and said, with a soft insistence that curled her toes, “I’m serious.”
She couldn’t decide what he meant by that. “I can see that.”
“Philip would stay.”
“It’s Phillip’s job to stay.”
“He won’t like it if you leave.”
She recognized the lightning-fast change in strategy. He wasn’t getting his way by bullying her, so he’d switched to guilt as a maneuvering tactic. “He doesn’t like being sick, either, but he is. I had planned to stay with him tonight.”
Max eased his hand down her arm to cup her elbow. There was something oddly intimate about the slight heat of his fingers seeping through her jacket. “I appreciate your concern about Philip. I’ll send someone over to take care of him.”
Sidney felt herself losing ground. “I really feel I should check on him myself.”
“He told you to stay here, didn’t he?”
The man was too insightful, that was his problem—and he was making it her problem. Philip had argued with her for nearly an hour. Somehow, Max knew it, and didn’t hesitate to use the knowledge to his advantage. “I think you can understand why Philip would want—”
“Didn’t he?” Max prompted.
She squelched a sigh of irritation. Max knew Philip well. “Yes.”
Philip had worked for the Loden family for forty years. Two days after Max’s birth, he’d been promoted to senior butler. And he considered the care and tending of Max Loden his life’s work. When Sidney had informed him that she planned to leave her assistant in charge overnight, Philip had pushed himself up in his sickbed and given her a sound lecture on the importance of personal service. Sidney had no answer for that. She certainly couldn’t explain that she was sure to be wearing her heart on her sleeve by the end of the weekend.
“Then what’s the problem?” Max persisted.
Sidney frowned at him. “Uncle Philip doesn’t run my life, you know?”
“He runs mine pretty well.”
“And he can’t right now. He needs someone, and I want to be there for him.”
“By driving home at two o’clock in the morning? Do you have any idea what kind of people are on the road at that hour?”
“Overworked caterers who are being harassed by their clients?”
His scowl darkened his features. “Drunks and criminals.”
“I’ll be careful.”
He uttered a mild curse. “It’ll be almost four when you get there. You’ll get three hours sleep, and then drive back out here tomorrow. That’s inefficient and foolish.”
Blunt as usual, she thought irritably. “There’s more to life than efficiency, you know.”
His expression told her he thought that was ludicrous, and barely resisted the urge to tell her so. He shook his head instead. “What are you going to be worth to me tomorrow night, or the night after, if you’re exhausted?”
“I assure you, you won’t have any complaints.”
“I know I won’t if you stay here.”
“Why are we arguing about this?”
“Because you aren’t giving me my way.” He reached for the wall phone. “I’m going to send Charlie to your house to pick up your clothes.”
Sidney recognized the name of one of Max’s chauffeurs. “Max—”
He ignored the warning note in her voice. “Really,” he said. “I left Charlie in town with the limo. It’s a stretch. I never use the damned thing. Too pretentious, and parking’s impossible.” He punched a couple of numbers.
“Then why have it?”
He shrugged. “Because I’m supposed to. People expect it.”
Sidney abruptly pressed down the receiver button. “Max, stop it. This isn’t going to work.”
He ignored her. “Of course it will. If you call someone to pack a bag for you, Charlie can swing by your place, get your stuff, then stop at Philip’s on the way here to let him know your plans have changed.”
“That’s not—” She drew a deep breath. “I’m not staying.”
“He can be here by midnight if I call him now.”
“I hadn’t planned to work all weekend.” Sidney said.
That stopped him. “You had plans?”
Plans like fighting her way through her accounts, and trying, somehow, to dig her way out of the mess her tax accountant had left her holding. Plans like taking care of her uncle. Still, they were her plans, and while Max might have succeeded in taking over the lives of his family, her life was her own. “Yes. I do.”
“Hell. Can you cancel them?”
“Maybe I don’t want to. And why is this so important to you, anyway?”
“I just want you here to take care of things, Sidney.”
Something about that didn’t ring quite true. She frowned at him. “I know you’ll miss Philip, but—”
“I’m not trying to be a jerk about this, you know.”
“Really?” She raised a knowing eyebrow.
He stared at her. She pictured him rummaging through his mental bag of tricks for a new strategy. “I’ll make it worth your while,” he said softly. “What am I paying you for this? Four, five thousand for the weekend?”
She gritted her teeth. “There hasn’t been time to discuss the terms of the contract. Philip got sick this afternoon.”
“Did you already have an event for this weekend?”
“Did you have to cancel it?”
“I spread my staff out, and brought on some extra people. We’re fine.”
His low whistle parted her hair. “I hope you’re charging me a premium for this. How much overtime are you shelling out this weekend?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll make sure the bill hurts when you pay it.”
“I doubt it. Look.” He covered her hand where she still had her finger on the phone. “Whatever you’re planning to bill me, I’ll double it if you stay.”
He stared at her for several breathless seconds. “Because I’ve got a lot riding on this weekend and it’ll make me feel better if you’re here.”
“For a man with a renowned sense of business acumen, paying twice my fee for a little personal security seems a little rash.”
He shrugged. “Don’t let it get out. The stock market might crash.”
Not even a hint of humor showed in his expression. Sidney searched his face for some indication, even a flicker of evidence that he wasn’t absolutely serious. Finding none, she released a careful breath. “Are you going to let me out of the pantry—or do you plan to hold me hostage in here until I agree?”
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