Rules of the Game
Stardust, Texas: Book 2
A year to the day after she’d been dumped at the altar, and two days after her thirtieth birthday, Jodi Carlyle followed the advice of her cognitive behavioral therapist and crashed a wedding.
“You need to do this,” Dr. Jeanna had said, “Not only to break free from the shame cycle you can’t seem to snap out of, but also to stop being such a rule-follower. Good girls finish last.”
“You think?” Jody had asked, trying not to sound snarky. Whenever she snarked, Dr. Jeanna scribbled wildly in her notebook.
“You’re not enjoying life.” Dr. Jeanna steepled her fingers. “It’s time for a change.”
Jodi knew that. It was the main reason she’d started seeing a counselor.
That and the fact she was still having dreams of cheerfully strangling Chaz with a blue garter for leaving her stranded in front of three hundred wedding guests wearing a white dress and glass slippers like some deranged Cinderella while he caught a plane to the Cayman Islands with a knock-kneed stripper named Chrysanthemum Jones, and several million dollars embezzled from the Stardust Bank and Trust.
The glass slippers had been Chaz’s idea. He’d wanted to drink champagne from one at the reception. He was showy like that.
Hammering the shoes into smithereens on the back steps of the wedding chapel hadn’t made her feel any better, so she’d picked up her glass and her I’ll-show-you-attitude that Mom sometimes called stubbornness and turned those wedding day lemons into lemonade. She’d used social media to announce she’d been jilted and that she was turning the reception into an impromptu fundraiser for Dallas Children’s Hospital. She asked people who’d sent gifts if she could liquidate them for charity and received an overwhelmingly positive response. In the end, what could have been a pity party turned into a celebration of life, and she’d raised seven thousand dollars for the hospital.
Take that Chaz Amos.
But even though she was proud of her “in the moment” triumphant, ever since then, whenever she heard the word “wedding” or came across anything bridal related, her knees would lock up and her stomach would quake to the point where would she had to brew herself some ginger tea.
Believing it would soothe her wounds, well meaning friends and relatives couldn’t resist the mantra, it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, but if one more person said that to her, Jodi swore she was going to lose it.
And that bothered her.
She hated being controlled by fear. Hated that by doing so she affectively allowed Chaz to win.
It wasn’t until her younger sister Breeanne asked Jodi to be the maid of honor at her Valentine’s Day wedding, that Jodi knew she had to do something.
Flooding technique, Dr. Jeanna called it. Exposure therapy.
The doctor had started small, asking Jodi to hold wedding-related items—garters, invitations, Jordan almonds—until she could do it without breaking into a cold sweat. Slowly, Dr. Jeanna exposed her to more and more stimuli until she declared Jodi ready for the coupe de grace.
Which meant attending…ahem…crashing a wedding.
In retrospect, if she’d been smarter, she wouldn’t have chosen one of the most high profile weddings in Texas to crash. But when it came to New Year’s Day weddings the pickings were kind of slim, and she’d always wanted to see inside the Grand Texan Hotel when it was decked out for the holidays and besides she had an invitation, albeit it was one she’d fished from Breeanne’s trashcan.
Unfortunately, she failed to fully consider the consequences of intruding upon the union of the Lieutenant Governor’s son to the daughter of the Betsy Houston, one of the new owners of the Dallas Gunslingers baseball team.
Hindsight was most definitely an ironic bitch.
At noon on January first, her last guest of the season checked out of Boxcars and Breakfast, her unique B&B made from old boxcars that she’d renovated herself. And she’d closed the business until the following Monday. Early January was her slowest time of year and she didn’t have a single booking for the upcoming weekend.
Four days. She had four whole days all to herself for the first time since she’d opened the B&B a decade ago.
She waved her only employee, and best friend in the whole world, handyman Hamilton Gee, off on his annual ski trip that she gifted him with as a Christmas bonus. She packed up her suitcase, and told a little white lie to her close-knit family about where she was going—a white lie she promptly felt guilty about—and drove from her hometown of Stardust over two hours west to Dallas.
Jodi checked into a Motel Six, just down the road from The Grand Texan, spent an hour doing her makeup. Dressed in a slinky emerald ball gown she’d gotten for seventy percent off at Neiman Marcus’s online post-Christmas sale. Even on deep discount it was the most expensive, and the most elegant, garment she’d ever owned, including her own wedding gown. May it rest in shreds.
Yes, buying the dress meant spending over two weeks revenue, but if she was going to pull this off, she had to look the part. Which entailed, besides the dress and a sleek new hairstyle, arriving in a limousine. Although, to save money, she planned to grab a taxi back to the Motel Six when the wedding was over.
And everything was trucking along according to plan.
The limo pulled up outside the Grand Texan at six forty, twenty minutes before the ceremony was set to begin. The valet who helped her from the car cast approving glances her way. When she pressed a twenty-dollar bill into his palm, his smile widened.
A million white twinkle lights turned the hotel into a fairytale castle. The hum of voices, the rustle of skirts, the whistle of the bell captain buzzed the air with festivity. A modicum of slush from the New Year’s Eve snow flurry dampened the ground, the dropping night temperature threatening to freeze it to ice.
Jodi drew her coat tighter around her shoulders, clutched the silver beaded evening bag she’d surreptitiously borrowed from her parents’ antique store, Timeless Treasures, and jockeyed for position in the middle of the well-heeled crowd streaming toward the front entrance.
The hotel itself was as impressive as she imagined it would be—Texas elegance in all its swaggering, staggering glory. She tried not to stare as she moved along with the throng. If she hoped to pull this off she could not look like what she was, a small town girl in over her head.
She could do this. She would do this. Hell. High water. Whatever. She’d been stuck in neutral for far too long. Time to fully shake off Chaz’s betrayal.
Up ahead lay the pavilion where the ceremony was being held. A columned altar had been set up beneath the domed ceiling decorated in golden angels, white poinsettias and silver bows. Security guards funneled guests over stone footbridges wreathed with more twinkle lights, and flanked by sparkling fountains.
One of the security guards met her gaze, and narrowed his eyes.
She heard the thundering of her heart, felt it slamming against her chest. Oh no! Had he seen right through her? Had she made some kind of serious country-bumpkin faux pas? Darn it, busted before she ever got started.
The guard stepped toward her.
She broke out in a cold sweat.
Jodi moved behind a tall man, shrank her shoulders, and willed herself to sink down until she was invisible. The way she used to do when she was four years old and her mother, Vivian, left home alone and someone would come to the front door. She’d slip behind the couch and pretend she was something tiny like a grasshopper or an ant or a Ritz cracker. Vivian had a bad habit of disappearing for days at a time, leaving Jodi with big boxes of Cheerios on the kitchen table, orange juice in the fridge and the terrifying threat that mean people would take her away if she dared opened the door.
Until the day she ran out of cereal and risked opening the door when a knock came and people did indeed take her away. But Vivian had been wrong. They weren’t mean people. In fact, they bought her a hamburger and ice cream and a Barbie and new clothes and took her to live in a clean place with people who smiled a lot and never hit her or left her alone.
And Jodi never saw her mother again.
In the crowd beside her, a young woman was yammering on the cell phone. Jodi heard the sharp snap of the guard’s shoes as he stalked across the floor, and her stomach rolled over.
“Miss,” he called. “Miss.”
This was it. Busted.
“Miss.” The guard’s raised voice was insistent and he was so close she could feel his body heat. Why had she picked this wedding of all weddings to crash? Her palms went hot and sticky.
She imagined being hauled out of the building, everyone staring and pointing.
She deserved it. Crashing a wedding was not an above-board thing to do. She might as well throw her hands in the air and surrender. Guilty as charged. Cringing, she turned to face the security guard, and confess.
But he touched the shoulder of cell phone girl. “Miss, could you please turn off your cell phone and put it away?”
Not her. He hadn’t been talking to her. Jodi exhaled forcefully, lungs aching from holding her breath, her knees bobbling.
Safe. She was safe.
On the other side of the footbridges, the crowd spread out, fanning toward the entrance to a smaller pavilion. Eight bulky men in cowboy hats and dark suits, dark sunglasses, holster bulges underneath their jackets, microphones nestled in their ears stood sentinel, Arnold Schwarzenegger arms’ positioned imposingly over broad chests.
Octuplet cowboy Terminators.
Not out of the woods. Not by a long shot. These guys were Texas State security detail.
Jodi slowed. Not at the sight of the bodyguards. She’d expected them.
No, what snatched her breath from her lungs was her first unobstructed view of the altar. It was a heart-shaped archway twined with stargazer lilies opened in full bloom. Stargazer lilies. Chaz’s favorite flowers. The damn altar was almost identical to the one she’d stood under a year ago on this same date. The panic she’d come here to squash snaked around her spine, strangled her. She felt so stupid. So foolish.
What were the odds the bride would chose stargazer lilies?
Memories pelted her. Chaz kissing her for the first time beneath the mimosa tree at Boxcars and Breakfast between the caboose that served as a dining room for the guests and the royal blue Santa Fe Pacific railway car where he’d been staying while he looked for a house to rent in Stardust. The way he’d proposed to her at the best restaurant in town over less-than-stellar bananas foster. The thrill she’d felt as they planned the wedding, Chaz weighing in on everything—which at the time she’d thought was romantic—but now she understood it was all about control.
Honestly, she found the scent of stargazer lilies nauseating. She’d learned her lesson. No more idealizing love.
Jodi stopped short, giving serious thought to throwing in the towel and going back home, when someone smacked into her.
The impact knocked her off balance, and she stumbled in unaccustomed high heels, fell to her hands and knees with a loud clop that echoed off the high domed ceiling. Her purse spun across the polished marble, skidding to a halt at the toes of one of the burly cowboy bodyguards and spilling the contents—lipstick, a hairbrush, pepper spray, condoms. The condoms were a last minute addition. She hadn’t even known why she’d put them in there.
She grabbed for the condoms, anxious to get them out of sight, when a big hand reached from behind her and closed over the packets at the same time a strong manly arm clamped around her waist and hauled her to her feet.
Her cheeks stung as smartly as her knees.
Wobbling, she snatched the condoms from the anonymous fingers. Heard a soft masculine chuckle. Smoothly, the owner of those fingers retrieved her purse and her remaining belongings. She grabbed at those too, stuffing everything into the purse and out of sight.
Except for the metal skeleton key with the heart shaped head resting in his big palm. He shifted the key from his palm to his fingers, extended the key toward her.
“Not mine,” she said and finally had the courage to take a quick peek at his face.
Tall, dark and handsome, well built, easily topping six-foot. Gorgeous. A bone-melting smile. Pearly whites. But of course he had perfect teeth.
Oh crap. She was a sucker for tall, dark, and dashing.
But despite the dapper tuxedo and debonair bow tie, he managed to look rugged and ultra-masculine.
It was probably the beard. Normally, she wasn’t a fan, but his beard was thick, full and neatly trimmed. He looked to be one of those guys who sprouted facial hair easily, each follicle steeped in testosterone. His eyes were sharp as needles too, the lux color of roasted coco beans. He carried himself with the bold air of someone accustomed to both being in charge, and getting his way. Something about him seemed vaguely familiar, but she was certain they’d never met before.
“The key fell out of your purse,” he said in a deep voice that sent her knees into a Pride and Prejudice swoon.
Okay, she’d borrowed the purse from Timeless Treasures. Maybe the key had been inside it.
Last summer, her sister had given her an antique hope chest with skeleton key locks, but no key that fit. Ever since then, Jodi had been looking for a key that would open the trunk. Maybe this one would do the trick. She wrapped her fingers around the key. The metal was still warm from his body heat.
Knock it off! She was supposed to be getting over Mr. Tall, Dark and Wrong, not falling for another one.
“You really should look into taillights,” he murmured. “Or at the very least, a backup beeper.” He paused, his smile deepening into a grin that would have given Cary Grant a run for his money. “Not that I’m complaining. Knocking into you is the most excitement I’ve had all week.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t have been tailgating.” She dropped the key into her purse. She’d been on the verge of apologizing when he’d made that crack about taillights and backup beepers.
“Come on, you can’t seriously expect any red-blooded male not to tailgate a caboose like that.” He craned his head around for a better look at her backside.
Train metaphors. She could so love a man who used train metaphors. Reason enough to get the heck away from him.
“Excuse me.” Jodi spun from his reach, more because his comment aroused her than offended and she couldn’t figure out what that was all about.
“I’m sorry. That was a douchy thing to say, but you do have a great caboose,” he called after her.
In a desperate bid to quell the blush blooming at the base of her throat, Jodi envisioned stepping into an icicle shower. That cooled her off momentarily until she paused, and turned back for another look at the sexy hunk of man. Why was she encouraging him?
“I’m guessing most women fall all over lines like that,” she said dryly.
“Most women, yeah.” He canted his head, narrowed his eyes and kicked up the charge on his smile. “But you’re not most women, are you?”
Dammit, why did he have to make that sound like such a good thing? Pulse thumping far too erratically, she ducked her head and breezed past the bodyguard who reached out and snagged her by the elbow on her way past.
“Whoa there, ma’am. Hang on a sec.”
She stopped, her heart sliding to her toes.
The bodyguard extended a shovel-sized palm. “Invitation.”
Jodi opened her purse to take out the invitation originally meant for her sister, Breeanne, and brother-in-law to be, Rowdy Blanton, a field manager for the Dallas Gunslingers, when it dawned on her that the invitation had not been her purse when the contents spilled out. Oh no. She must have left it back at the motel.
“Invitation,” he repeated.
“I…I…I…” she stammered, still so dazzled by Mr. Tall, Dark and Smart Aleck she couldn’t think of a quick response.
“If you can’t produce an invitation, I’m going to have to ask you to turn and head the opposite direction,” the cowboy bodyguard said. His tone was pleasant but his eyes said, don’t even think about bullshitting me.
“It’s…um…” Say something. Why couldn’t she think? Why was her brain mushy?
“She’s with me.” Mr. TDSA handed an invitation to the bodyguard.