Pretend to be famous bachelor Julian Cooper's girlfriend? Some women might be thrilled with the requestnot Gretchen McAlister. Her job is planning weddings, not being the best man's date. But after Julian's latest celebrity breakup, "ordinary" Gretchen is the perfect PR ploy.
Julian is against the whole plan until he meets Gretchen. Honest and beautifuleven beneath her fancy makeoverhis new "girlfriend" makes him want something more, something real
Enjoy a special Texas Cattleman's Club: Lies and Lullabies
bonus prequel short story from Janice Maynard
Reclaimed by the Rancher
About the Author
In 2002 Janice Maynard left a career as an elementary teacher to pursue writing full-time. Her first love is creating sexy, character-driven, contemporary romance. She has written for Kensington and NAL, and is very happy to be part of the Harlequin family--a lifelong dream. Janice and her husband live in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains. They love to hike and travel. Visit her at www.JaniceMaynard.com.
Read an Excerpt
"Pardon me," Natalie said, leaning in toward the man sitting across from her. "Could you run that by us again?"
Gretchen was glad Natalie had said it, because she was pretty darn confused herself. The four owners and operators of From This Moment wedding chapel were seated at the conference room table across from a man wearing an expensive suit and an arrogant attitude she didn't care for. He wasn't from the South; that was for sure. He was also talking nonsense.
Ross Bentley looked just as annoyed with the women's confusion as they were with him. "You advertise From This Moment as a one-stop wedding venue, do you not?"
"Yes," Natalie said, "but usually that means we'll handle the food, the DJ and the flowers. We've never been asked to provide one of the wedding guests a date. This is a wedding chapel, not an escort service."
"Let me explain," Ross said with a greasy smile that Gretchen didn't trust. "This is a very delicate arrangement, so this discussion will need to fall within the confidentiality agreement for the Murray Evans wedding."
Murray Evans was a country music superstar. On his last tour, he'd fallen for his opening act. They were having a multiday wedding event at their facility next weekend, the kind the press salivated over. Those weddings usually required a confidentiality clause so that any leaks about the event are not from the venue. Frankly, Gretchen was getting tired of these big, over-the-top weddings. The money was nicemoney was always nice, since she didn't have muchbut carefully addressing thousands of invitations in perfect calligraphy wasn't that fun. Nor was dealing with the high-and-mighty wedding guests who came to these kinds of shindigs.
"Of course," Natalie replied.
"I represent Julian Cooper, the actor. He's a longtime friend of Mr. Evans and will be attending the wedding as the best man. I'm not sure how closely you follow celebrity news, but Julian has just had a big public breakup with his costar of Bombs of Fury, Bridgette Martin. Bridgette has already been seen out and about with another high-profile actor. As his manager, I feel like it would look bad if Julian attended the wedding alone, but he doesn't need the complication of a real date. We just need a woman to stand in and pretend to be with him throughout the wedding events. I assure you there's nothing inappropriate involved."
Gretchen knew of Julian Cooperit would be impossible not toalthough she'd never seen any of his films. He was the king of dude filmslots of explosions, guns and scripts with holes big enough to drive a truck through them. That wasn't her thing, but a lot of people loved his movies. It seemed a little ridiculous that he would need a fake date. His sweaty, hard abs were plastered all over every billboard and movie preview. While Gretchen might not appreciate his acting skills, she had a hard time discounting that body. If a man who looked like that couldn't get a last-minute date, she was doomed.
"What kind of woman are you wanting?" Bree, their photographer, asked cautiously. "I'm not sure I know many women who would look natural on the arm of a movie star."
"That's understandable," Ross said. "What I'd really prefer is an average woman. We don't want her to look like an escort. I also think it would go over well with Julian's female fan base for him to be seen with an everyday woman. It makes them feel like they have a shot."
Gretchen snorted, and Ross shot a cutting look at her across the table. "We'd be willing to handsomely compensate her for the trouble," he continued. "We're willing to pay ten thousand dollars for the woman's time. Also, I can provide additional funds for salon visits and a clothing allowance."
"Ten thousand dollars?" Gretchen nearly choked. "Are you kidding?"
"No," Ross said. "I'm very serious. Can you provide what we're asking for or not?"
Natalie took a deep breath and nodded. "Yes. We'll make arrangements and have someone in place to meet with Julian when he arrives in Nashville."
"Very good. He flies into Nashville tonight and he's staying at the Hilton." Ross reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a leather wallet. He extracted a handful of cash and pushed it across the table to Natalie. "This should cover the incidentals I discussed. The full payment will be provided after the wedding is over."
Without elaborating, he stood up and walked out of the conference room, leaving the four women in stunned silence.
Finally, Bree reached out and counted the money. "He left two grand. I think that will buy some really nice highlights and a couple fancy outfits, don't you, Amelia?"
Amelia, the caterer and resident fashionista, nodded. "It should. But it really depends on what we have to start with. Who can we possibly get to do this?"
"Not me," Bree insisted. "I'm engaged, and I've got to be able to take all the pictures. You're married and pregnant," she noted.
Amelia ran her hand over her rounded belly. She had just reached twenty-two weeks and found out that she and her husband, Tyler, were having a girl. "Even if I wasn't, I've got to cook for five hundred guests. I'm already in over my head on this one, even with Stella's help."
They both turned to look at Natalie, who was frantically making notes in her tablet. "Don't look at me," she said after noticing them watching her. "I'm the wedding planner. I'll be in headset mode keeping this show on track."
"There's got to be someone we could ask. A friend?" Gretchen pressed. "You grew up in Nashville, Natalie.
Don't you know anyone that wouldn't mind being a movie star's arm candy for a few days?"
"What about you?" Natalie fired back.
"What?" Gretchen nearly shrieked in response to the ridiculous question. They'd obviously lost their minds if they thought that was a viable solution. "Me? With Julian Cooper?"
Natalie shrugged off her surprise. "And why not? He said they wanted a normal, everyday woman."
"Just because he doesn't want a supermodel doesn't mean he wants /we. I'm hardly normal. I'm short, I'm fat and never mind the fact that I'm horribly awkward with men. I clam up whenever Bree's musician fiancé comes by. Do you really think I can act normal while the hottest star in Hollywood is whispering in my ear?"
"You're not fat," Amelia chastised. "You're a normal woman. Plenty of guys like their women a little juicy."
Juicy? Gretchen rolled her eyes and flopped back into her chair. She was twenty pounds overweight on a petite frame and had been that way since she was in diapers. Her two sisters were willowy and fragile like their ballerina mother, but Gretchen got their father's solid Russian genes, much to her dismay. Her pants size was in the double digits, and she was in a constant state of baking muffin tops. Juicy wasn't the word she would use.
"You guys can't really be serious about this. Even if I wasn't the last woman on earth that he'd date, you forget I work here, too. I'll be busy."
"Not necessarily," Bree countered. "Most of what you do is done in advance."
Gretchen frowned. Bree was right, although she didn't want to admit it. The invitations had gone out months ago. The programs and place cards were done. She would need to decorate the night before, but that didn't preclude her from participating in most of the wedding day activities. "I handle a lot of last-minute things, too, you know. It's not like I'm sitting around every Saturday doing my nails."
"That's not what I'm implying," Bree said.
"Even so, it's ridiculous," Gretchen grumbled. "Julian Cooper? Please."
"You could use the money, Gretchen."
She looked at Amelia and sighed. Yes, Gretchen was broke. They'd all agreed when they started this business that the majority of their profits would go into paying off the mortgage on the facility, so they weren't drawing amazing wages. For Amelia and Bree it didn't matter so much anymore. Bree was engaged to a millionaire record producer, and Amelia was married to a rare jewels dealer. Gretchen was getting by, but there wasn't much left over for life's extras. "Who couldn't?"
"You could go to Italy," Natalie offered.
That made Gretchen groan aloud. They'd found her Achilles' heel without much trouble. She'd had a fantasy of traveling to Italy for years. Since high school. She wanted to spend weeks taking in every detail, every painting of the Renaissance masters. It was a trip well out of her financial reach despite years of trying to save. But Natalie was right. With that cash in her hand she could immediately book a flight and go.
Italy. Florence. Venice. Rome.
She shook off the thoughts of gelato on the Spanish Steps and tried to face reality. "We're overworked. Things are slower around the holidays, but I don't see a three-week Italian vacation in my future. He could give me a million bucks and I wouldn't be able to take off time for a trip."
"We close for a week between Christmas and New Year's. That would cover some of it," Natalie said. "Or you could go later in the spring. If you work ahead with the printing, we can get someone to cover the decorating. What matters is that you'd have the money in hand to go. What can it hurt?"
"Yeah, Gretchen," Bree chimed in. "It's a lot of money, and for what? Clinging to the hard body of Julian Cooper with a loving look in your eyes? Dancing with him at the reception and maybe kissing him for the cameras?"
Gretchen tightened her jaw, choking down another argument, because she knew Bree was right. All she had to do was suck it up for a few days and she could go to Italy. She'd never have another opportunity like this.
"Besides," Bree added, "how bad can faking it with a sexy movie star really be?"
If Ross hadn't been personally responsible for Julian's career success, Julian would throttle him right this second.
"A date? A fake date? Really, Ross?"
"I think it will be good for your image."
Julian sipped his bottled water and leaned against the arm of the chair in his Nashville hotel suite. "Do I look that pathetic and heartbroken over my breakup with Bridgette?"
"Of course not," Ross soothed. "I just want to make sure that her management team doesn't outsmart us. She's already been seen out with Paul Watson. If you don't move on fast enough, you'll get painted as lovesick for her."
"I don't care," Julian exclaimed. "Despite what everyone thinks, I broke up with Bridgette six months ago. We only went out publicly because you insisted on it."
"I didn't insist," Ross protested. "The studio insisted. Your romance was a huge selling point for the film. They couldn't have you two break up before it even came out."
"Yeah, yeah," Julian said dismissively. "If I ever even look twice at one of my costars again, you haul me off and remind me of this moment. But now it's done. I'm over Bridgette and I'm way over dating someone just for the cameras."
Ross held up his hands. "It won't be like that. I swear. Besides, it's already done. She'll be here to meet you in about five minutes."
"Ross!" Julian shouted, rising to his full height to intimidate his short, round manager. "You can't just do stuff like this without my permission."
"Yes, I can. It's what you pay me to do. You'll thank me later."
Julian pinched the bridge of his nose between his finger and thumb. "Who is it? Some country music singer? Did you import an actress from Hollywood?"
"No, none of that. They tell me she's one of the employees at the wedding chapel. Just your everyday girl."
"Wait. I thought after what happened with that waitress you didn't want me dating 'regular' women. You said they were a bigger security risk than another star with her own career to protect. You said I needed to stick to women that didn't need my money or my fame." Julian had been dealing strictly with high-and-mighty starlets the past few years at Ross's insistence, but now, a regular girl was okay because he said so?
"I know, and normally that's the case. That waitress just wanted to dig up dirt on you to make a buck with the tabloids. There are a million women just like her in Hollywood. But in this scenario I think it's a smart choice. Women in Nashville are different, and it's an unexpected move. Your female fans will like it, of course, and so will the studios. I've been trying to get you a role as a true romantic lead. This could do it."
Julian didn't really want to be a romantic lead. At least not by Ross's definition. His manager's idea of a romantic film was one where the sexy blonde clings to his half-naked body while he shoots the bad guys. He'd already played that role again and again. When he'd pushed Ross on the topic a second time, he got Julian the "romantic" lead in a movie about male strippers. Not exactly hard-hitting, award-winning stuff. Hell, he'd be thrilled to just do a light romantic comedy. Something without explosions. Or machine guns. Or G-strings.
"I should fire you for this," Julian complained as he dropped down into his chair. It was a hollow threat, and they both knew it. Ross had made Julian's career. He might not be creatively fulfilled by big-budget action films, but the money was ridiculous and Julian needed every penny.
"It will be fine. I promise. It's not a real relationship, so I can break my own rules this once. In a few days, you can go back to Hollywood and date whomever you want."
Somehow, Julian doubted that. Since moving to Hollywood, he hadn't had the best track record with the ladies. The waitress had sold the story of their romance to the newspapers with some other juicy tidbits she'd gotten out of him. The dancer was just looking for a guy to pay for her boob job. So many others were after either his money or his leverage to get into show business.
Ross encouraged him to date other actresses to reduce that issue, but either way, there was usually some kind of confidentiality contract involved. Even with that in place, he'd learned quickly to keep private things private. He didn't talk about his family, his past anything that he couldn't bear to see in the papers. An after-the-fact lawsuit wouldn't undo the damage once it was out there.
Since his breakup with Bridgette, he hadn't really shown any interest in dating again. It was too damn much work and frankly, just not that fun. How was he supposed to find love when he couldn't even find someone he could trust?
Ross got up from his seat and put his drink on the coffee table. "Well, that should do it."
"Where are you going?"
"I'm leaving," Ross said.
"Leaving? I thought you said my date was on her way over."
"She is. That's why I'm leaving. Three's a crowd, after all. You two need to get to know each other."
Julian's jaw dropped as he watched his manager slip out of the hotel suite. He should've throttled him. He could get a new manager.
With nothing to do but wait, he slumped into his chair and killed time checking his smartphone for missed calls or updates from his family. His mother and brother lived in Louisville, and that was the easiest and most secure way to keep up with them, especially with his brother James's condition. James's attendant usually kept him up to date on how his brother was doing and shared any funny tidbits to make him feel more connected. Today, there were no messages to worry him.
About four minutes later, there was a knock at the door to his suite. His new girlfriend was punctual if nothing else.