Authors: Jenna Bayley-Burke
For Tina, who supported me with zip lines and rafting, makeovers and city tours, and the promise of a girls’ weekend in Vegas if I would just finish the book!
“The most important thing is to enjoy your life–to be happy–it's all that matters.” Audrey Hepburn
“Where are you?” Trent blurted before Xavier could get out as much as a hello.
His lips curled in a smirk. Pressing his phone to his ear, he didn’t bother to hide the annoyance in his voice. “I’m on vacation, remember?”
“You were supposed to pick up Jaime this morning. It’s noon.” His best friend sounded like a petulant child, not a man about to be married.
“I’m on my way.” Xavier stared down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the relaxation he’d found while exploring the monument evaporating into the summer heat. Thank goodness Trent couldn’t see him wince. Trent’s bride was not his favorite person, and the thought of having to spend time with a copy of her in the form of her sister wasn’t high on his list of things to do.
“Good. My last email has directions to her apartment.” Trent sighed, the worry leaving his voice. “She’ll be able to keep you on track.”
“On track?” He rubbed at the tightness creeping back into his neck as he stood and started down the stairs.
“You left Paris two weeks ago. You’re no closer to Oregon than you were when you got off the plane.”
“Hey, lighten up. I hate to break it to you, but there’s more to see in this country than the Rogue River.” Running a hand through the bristles of his newly shorn hair, Xavier opted not to explain that the start of his trip had been delayed due to business. Trent would want to talk about either buyers, marketing strategy, or ask for tickets to the fall runway shows for his bridezilla, and Xavier had effectively left his life as CFO for Marie-Chloe behind, at least until he returned in September. The design house his family had kept in high fashion for generations would be better for his temporary absence. Without a mediator, his father and sister would actually have to try communication and compromise.
“Allison needs her sister. Jaime has a way of calming her down.” Trent broke into his thoughts. “Besides, I need you here sooner rather than later.”
“Like I have a choice now that you’ve saddled me with a babysitter.” Why was everything such a rush? The wedding wasn’t for nearly three weeks. Getting to Oregon sooner wouldn’t move the date up.
Xavier clicked off the call and stood for a moment, watching the tourists milling about. Fortunately, he’d seen most of what he wanted to see in DC. From the back pocket of his cargo shorts he pulled the moleskin notebook and unwrapped the brown leather tie holding the book closed. Leafing through pages of his mother’s dated design sketches, he found the list and made a tiny check next to Lincoln Memorial.
His gaze drifted over the scrawling script. He shook his head at all the things his mother had hoped to show her children but never managed to. As a designer, she’d never been without a journal, so the haphazard list of all the things about her home country she’d wanted to share with her unborn child was a forgotten two pages between pencil drawings of evening gowns.
He’d found it last summer when he’d started cleaning out her rooms. He hadn’t mentioned it to a soul. It was between him and his mother, and since she’d died, there wasn’t much to say.
Behind his sunglasses, he blinked, his eyes stinging from the sun. He might as well get Allison’s sister and see if she were any more adventurous than her sibling. She’d need to be if she was along for this ride.
Jaime knew she should have taken the bus. The back of her neck prickled with heat beneath her thick, dark brown hair. Sitting outside of her old apartment building, she checked her watch for the hundredth time. So much for the morning.
She struggled with the urge to think all of this was a sign she wasn’t supposed to leave DC and return home to Oregon. When she’d called her father in Mexico for advice, her stepmother had decided it was all fate. Jaime wasn’t one for fate, but having her car stolen and now having her ride back home half a day late, she did have to wonder if she wasn’t supposed to stick her head into the gaping mouth of her sister’s wedding circus.
But her sister wanted her there, and her mother wanted her home. Without the excuse of a job, she had no reason not to go back.
She’d turned in her keys by noon as required, and then called the number Trent had given her for Xavier to find out where he was. His automated voicemail gave no clues.
His lack of courtesy annoyed her all the more because of the time she’d spent trying to figure out how to look presentable on this trip. She wanted to make a good first impression on her soon-to-be brother-in-law’s best friend, but as the midsummer sun slid down the sky she wished she hadn’t so much as brushed her hair.
He wouldn’t notice what she looked like anyway. He came from a country famous for women never getting fat, and she’d never been thin. Instead, she was strong
able to go rock climbing on weekends and run the Cherry Blossom 10K every spring
but no matter how many trips to the gym she logged, her backside could rival J.Lo any day.
A giggle bubbled up at the image.
Xavier was her ride to Oregon, not a blind date. She shook her head and tried to stretch out the kink in her neck that came from sleeping on the floor of her empty apartment last night. After yesterday’s disasters had piled up like trash at a landfill, she’d been stuck without so much as a pillow.
A stranger had stolen more than her car. They’d taken her sense of security and replaced it with a gnawing dread in the pit of her stomach. Her heart had stalled the moment she went to finish packing her car for the cross-country drive and was met with an empty parking space.
The anger and shock had hit her like breaker waves. She knew enough about Washington, DC crime statistics to realize exactly what an empty space meant. Her legs had wobbled as she climbed the steps back to her apartment to make the call to the police, hating that this might forever cloud her memory of her time in the city.
Xavier Moreau and his lackadaisical time-management skills weren’t helping matters. Anxiety twisted in her belly. She had enough saved to get across country by car and into an apartment, but if she had to use her start-up money just to get back to Oregon, she’d wind up nearly thirty and living at home.
Without a car.
She rubbed her throbbing forehead. Perhaps someone had tattooed an L there while she slept. At least the mental image made her grin. She had to keep smiling or her eyes might flood with tears.
She slid the keyboard of her cell phone open and shut as she pondered what to do next. If he wasn’t here in the next hour, she’d take a cab to the bus station and hope she could get a ticket. She slunk down on the hard metal bench and stared around the street she’d called home for so long.
Tour buses didn’t drag people through this part of Washington, DC. Just a mile from the capital, the clean and well-cared-for neighborhood lacked the gloss and polish of the more upscale parts of the city used in the tourism reels. She could have walked the short distance to the school she’d taught at, but had been warned not to. A few blocks over, the windows were barred and the storefronts gated each night. The carcass of her old compact had probably ended up in one of the alleys, parted out within hours of being stolen.
Her stomach churned with worry that Xavier might have gone meandering in the wrong area. Frustration with his tardiness waned as she began to worry that he had found some sort of trouble in a country where he might have difficulty with the language. She’d be able to understand him because she’d spoken Spanish since birth, relying on it completely for visits with her father’s family in Mexico. Spanish and French weren’t so far apart. She’d wound up teaching both languages to the students in school.
A sleek red convertible turned the corner and Jaime’s eyes widened. No one drove that kind of car in this neighborhood. She stood, knowing it must be Xavier. Good thing she traveled so light. If she’d had luggage she wouldn’t have been able to fit any of it in the small car.
Still, a sports car was far more efficient and comfortable than a Greyhound bus. If they took turns driving, they could make it in three days. The car slid next to the curb and she could finally see the man who’d delighted in taunting her sister. Allison complained
about how he’d tortured her with every questionable item of French cuisine while she and Trent were in Paris. Jaime’s cheeks lifted in a grin in remembrance of a particularly colorful cheese tirade.
Xavier Moreau unfolded himself from the seat, standing taller than she thought possible beside the tiny car. To keep herself from staring, she took him in piece by piece. The khaki cargo shorts were slung low on his slim hips, a bright white V-neck tee clung to his broad shoulders and caressed the definition of his chest. A few days’ worth of stubble softened the hard line of his jaw and the hollows of his cheeks. His long Patrician nose led to deep-set, sage-green eyes. Their gazes caught and Jaime realized he studied her in the same way.
She straightened, watching him rake a hand over his closely cropped brown hair. When Allison had described him his hair had been down to his shoulders and almost black. Somehow cutting it had lightened it, or perhaps that was the result of driving around for two weeks with the top down in the summer sun.
“J’aime?” he asked, his accent so thick it made her name sound like foreplay, as if he were purposely making it seem like a pet name.
“Xavier. It’s nice to finally meet you.” She stepped to the curb and hoisted her bag into the slot that would have held a back seat in a normal-sized vehicle.
Rounding the car, he caught her hand when she reached for the door handle. Leaning close, the warm smell of musk and man enveloped her while he slid his fingers against her bare arms and pressed fleeting kisses to each of her cheeks.
“And a pleasure to meet you as well,” he said, with not the slightest trace of an accent.
Her skin tingled when he withdrew his touch. Puzzled, Jaime swallowed against the fleeting moment of physical intimacy. It’s a cultural hello, she reminded herself, not an invitation for more. Her father’s whole family greeted people the same way. She blinked, trying to remain cool as she focused on the door he opened for her.
“I think I do a fairly good American accent, no?” He gestured for her to get in the car, standing beside the door as she sat. “Is that everything, or do you have more luggage in your apartment?”
“That’s all. Most of my things were packed and sent ahead. I had to clear out of my apartment by noon.” She made a show of looking down at her watch, noticing he didn’t wear one when he closed the door for her.
He circled the car to the driver’s side and slid into his seat without a word of apology. He started the car, pulling smoothly onto the quiet street. His lack of remorse for making her wait quelled her instant lust.
She wanted to give him a lesson in common courtesy, but decided to let it go in the name of getting the trip started on the right foot.
“I appreciate you giving me a ride.”
“Is that what I’m doing? I thought Trent must be blackmailing you into getting me to the church on time.”
“Is that what he told you?” She turned in her seat to view his profile as he drove.
“He mentioned you had made the trip to Oregon in four days before. I think it was a not-so-subtle hint to get a move on.”
“Trent did say you’d been in the States for two weeks.”
He nodded. “I never planned on breaking any speed records to get across the country. I came to the States to see America, not drive through it.”
Oh, that did not bode well for her plan to share driving and make it home as quickly as possible. Since they’d gotten such a late start, they probably wouldn’t make it past Pennsylvania today.
Jaime cleared her throat as they pulled up to a stoplight, trying to think of a polite way to phrase, “Take me home,
She stared out at the sidewalk, her pulse jumping as she recognized a teenage girl with spiky orange hair, another girl doing her best to look Goth in head-to-toe black and a tall, athletic-looking boy standing together. The moment they spied her in the car, they went absolutely wild, waving frantically and yelling her name at the top of their lungs.