March 1, 1999
According to family legend, Chloe and Cassie would dream of their future grooms on their 25th birthday... Will their dreams come true?
According to family legend, Chloe wright was destined to dream of her future groom on her twenty-fifth birthday. The self-proclaimed pragmatist didn't believe in fate, but that very night she dreamt about an enigmatic stranger. And the next day he appeared.
Arizona Smith was everything Chloe had ever wanted in a man. But she wasn't about to fall in love, especially since Arizona never settled anywhere for long. Still, his electrifying kisses and irresistible charm had Chloe suddenly envisioning marriage - and children. Maybe there was something to that legend after all...
Cassie Bradley Wright knew the fantasy of being swept off her feet by her ultrasophisticated boss was just that - a fantasy. After all, Ryan Lawford was way out of her league. So the temporary nanny concentrated on bridging the distance between Ryan and his precious orphaned niece. But living under the same roof with this irresistible man wasn't exactly easy...
Business and balance sheets had once been Ryan's whole world. But those things seemed less important now that his adorable ward and her enticing caretaker had become an integral part of his life. Sweet Cassie was quickly turning into the woman of his fantasies, but was this determined bachelor prepared to take on the role of her dream groom?
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DREAM BRIDE by Susan Mallery
"I wish I was going to dream about the man I was going to marry," Cassie said and grinned. "I know how excited you are about it."
Chloe Bradley Wright looked at her sister. "Oh, yeah. Too excited for words." She fingered the soft lace of the nightgown she held. "Do I have to do this?"
"You don't have to do anything."
If only that were true, Chloe thought with regret. But she did have to wear the stupid nightgown. It was her twenty-fifth birthday and time for her to participate in the family legend. Not that she believed in magic of happily-ever-after. As far as she was concerned, falling in love or caring about someone was a one-way ticket to heartache.
She opened her mouth to express her opinion, then pressed her lips tightly together. She might not be a believer, but her sister, Cassie, had more than enough faith for the both of them.
Chloe stared into the face that was nearly as familiar as her own. Cassie was adopted, but younger by only months. The two girls had been together since Cassie was two weeks old and they were best friends. Chloe had shared her admittedly cynical opinion on more than one occasion, but Cassie's belief in the legend had never wavered. Who was she to try and change her sister's mind now? It was just for one night. What could it hurt?
"I'll wear it," she said, trying to sound gracious.
Cassie leaned forward and hugged her. "I knew you would," she said and bounced off the bed. Her short, thick brown hair swung around her face. "I'll go tell Aunt Charity. Won't she be surprised?"
"Probably not," Chloe muttered when she was alone. Aunt Charity has a sixth sense about these things. No doubt the older woman figured she already knew whom Chloe was going to dream about.
"I'm not going to dream about anyone," she said aloud as she pulled her T-shirt over her head, then slipped out of her jeans. "It's just a nightgown. It has no mystic powers. It's nearly the twenty-first century, for heaven's sake! No one believes that kind of thing."
She unfastened her bra and tossed the garment onto the floor, then picked up the nightgown. The cotton was cool to her touch and she shivered involuntarily.
"It's nothing," she insisted. But she hesitated before pulling the soft fabric over her head. What if the legend was true? What if she was really going to dream about the man she was destined to marry?
"What if people have been abducted by aliens lurking in cornfields?" she asked aloud.
"Oh, I don't think those stories are true," her aunt said as she entered the bedroom. Charity raised dark eyebrows. "So how much did Cassie have to twist your arm to get you to wear it tonight?"
Chloe shrugged as she smoothed the nightgown in place. "Not too much. I figure it's an inevitable rite of passage for Bradley women, as inescapable as birthdays and taxes. I'm just sorry she's going to be disappointed in the morning."
"Yes," Charity said as she moved to the bed and pulled back the covers. "It will be sad. Cassie is one of those rare types who is a true believer. There aren't many left."
Chloe had turned twenty-five that very day, but suddenly she felt like a ten-year-old with a favorite relative staring at a less than perfect report card, all the while telling her the low grades were fine, as long as she'd tried her best.
"You can't tell me you believe in the legend," Chloe said as she plopped down onto the edge of her bed.
Charity settled next to her. The older woman was of average height with the Wright family's dark eyes and hair. She had to be in her mid-fifties, but she could have easily passed for someone a dozen years younger.
"I've traveled all around the world," Charity reminded her. "I've seen many amazing things. As for magic and legends?" She shrugged. "Who's to say what's real and what isn't?"
Chloe snorted indelicately. "Give me a break. So you're saying that this nightgown is several hundred years old and is magical?"
"You never know."
Chloe fingered the soft cotton. "It's in pretty good shape for an antique."
"So am I, dear." Charity patted her hand.
"You're hardly an antique." She drew a deep breath. "It would be nice if it were all true, but I just can't take that step of faith."
"That's the reporter in you."
"Agreed. But someone in this family has to be practical. Between you and Cassie, you've always got your heads in the clouds."
"I'm back," Cassie announced as she bounded back in the room. She held something in her hand and before Chloe could figure out what it was, she tossed it in the air. Dozens of red, pink and cream rose petals drifted over Chloe, Aunt Charity and the bed.
"My contribution," her sister said with a smile as she settled in the small wing-back chair by the closet door.
Chloe pulled rose petals from her hair. Her irritation faded in the presence of such loving support. Who was she to fight against tradition?
"You win," she said as she stood up.
Charity rose as well. "It's best, dear. You'll see." She waited until Chloe climbed into bed, then tucked in the covers. "Sleep well."
When she'd left, Cassie moved close and crouched down. "Dream of someone wonderful," she instructed. "Rich and handsome and very loving." Her wide dark eyes softened at the thought. "Someone who will want to be with you forever."
"What a romantic," Chloe teased. "I'll do my best."
Cassie straightened. "In the morning, I want details. Lots of them."
"I promise. Oh, and thanks for the party. It was great."
Her sister smiled. "My pleasure." She walked out of the room and closed the door behind her.
Chloe leaned up on one elbow and clicked off the lamp, then settled onto the bed that had been hers since she'd turned thirteen. The room had been decorated several times, but except for three years in high school, she'd slept here her whole life. Everything about the room, the house and even the town was familiar to her. Yet tonight, it all felt different.
"Atmosphere," she told herself softly. It was all the talk of magic and legends. Even a confirmed cynic like her was bound to be affected.
She pulled the covers up to her chin and closed her eyes. Memories from her twenty-fifth birthday party drifted through her mind and made her smile. She'd wanted something small, friends and family only. Cassie and Aunt Charity had prepared dinner. The presents had been mostly gag gifts, which she preferred. Nothing sentimental for her.
She had a busy week planned at the magazine. She mentally listed all she had to do in the next few days.
As her mind relaxed and she started to get sleepy, thoughts of the legend intruded. According to family lore, several centuries ago a young woman had saved an old gypsy from certain death. In return the gypsy had given her a magic nightgown. If the women in her family—the Bradley family—wore this nightgown the night of their twenty-fifth birthday, they would dream of the man they were destined to marry. The union would be long and happy.
"Yeah, right," Chloe muttered as she turned on her side. "He'll probably come riding up on a white horse and sweep me away."
She knew exactly what she was going to dream about—what she always dreamed about. Nothing. Her nights were as quiet and uneventful as an empty drawer and that was just how she liked them. The nightgown wasn't magic. The legend wasn't real. And she was suddenly very, very sleepy.
DREAM GROOM by Susan Mallery
"He hungry," said twenty-six-month-old Sasha solemnly, her large blue eyes darkening with the first hint of worry. "He want peanny butter."
Ryan Lawford glanced from his niece to the "he" in question. Unfortunately the hungry creature wasn't a baby brother or even a pet. It was, instead, a beeping fax machine. Crumpled paper jammed the feed, gooey peanut butter covered the keys, while a sticky spoon sat where the receiver should be. His fingers tightened around the ten-page report that he was supposed to be faxing to Japan in less than twenty minutes.
"Me hungry, too," Sasha announced. "Me want esghetti."
"Sure," Ryan said, his teeth clenched, his blood pressure climbing toward quadruple digits.
Spaghetti—why not? He could just whip some up, maybe a nice salad and some garlic bread. Red wine for himself, milk for his niece. There were only two things standing in his way. Make that three things. First, unless the meal came in a little plastic dish with instructions on how long to heat it in the microwave, he wasn't going to be much help in the kitchen. Second, last time he'd checked, the only food in the refrigerator had been a half-empty jar of peanut butter that the fax machine had just consumed. Third, what the hell was he doing here? Children and their needs were beyond him. Helen and John had been crazy to make him Sasha's guardian.
He spun on his heel. "I'll be right back," he said, in an effort to keep Sasha from following him. Ever since he'd arrived at the end of last week to help with the funeral arrangements for his brother and sister-in-law, the kid had been dogging his every footstep.
Sasha wasn't deterred. Still clutching the jar of peanut butter to her chest, she trailed after him. "Unk Ryan? Go see Mommy?"
The phone in his makeshift office began to ring. He headed toward the back of the house. Sasha hurried to keep up.
"Unk Ryan? Me want M-Mommy."
Her tiny voice cracked. He didn't have to look at her to know that tears had started down her face. In the background the fax machine continued to beep. His phone rang again. As he reached for it, he eyed his computer and figured he would scan the pages and send them out using a modem.
He picked up the receiver and barked "Hello?" into it.
The jar of peanut butter dropped to the floor. Mercifully it didn't break, but now Sasha's tears began in earnest.
"Mommy," she sobbed as if her baby heart were breaking. Ryan grimaced. It probably was. Her chin wobbled, soft dark curls clung to her forehead and her tiny hands twisted together.
One of his staff members began discussing a difficult problem. Ryan couldn't concentrate. "Hold on," he said, set down the receiver and started toward Sasha. Before he could reach her, the doorbell rang.
He clamped his lips down on the curse waiting to slip out. What else could go wrong today? he wondered, then mentally banished the question. He didn't need to tempt fate to try harder to mess things up. Life was complicated enough.
He picked up the phone. "I'll call you back," he said and hung up before hearing a reply, then turned to Sasha. "We'll talk about your problem in a minute. I have to get the door."
The little girl sniffed. "Mommy," she whispered.
Ryan swallowed another oath. How was he supposed to tell a toddler that neither her mother nor her father was going to come home? For the thousandth time in less than a week, he cursed his brother for making him the sole guardian of his only child.
He crossed the wood floor of the foyer and jerked open the front door. "What?" he demanded.
A young woman stood on the porch and smiled at him. "Hi, Mr. Lawford, I'm Cassie Wright. We met after the funeral, but I don't expect you to remember me."
She carried two bags of groceries in her arms, one of which she thrust at him. He had a brief impression of average if pleasant features, chin-length thick, dark hair and big eyes.
"It's been nearly a week," she said as she stepped past him into the house. "I figured you would probably be pretty frustrated about now. Sasha's a sweet kid, but the terrible twos are called that for a reason. I knew you didn't have any kids of your own. Your brother's wife talked about you some when she was at school. So here I am."
She'd kept moving during her speech, and by the end she was standing in the center of the kitchen, surveying the disaster that had once been a pleasantly decorated room. Dishes and microwave-safe containers filled the sink, along with every inch of counter space. There were spills on the floor from his attempts to feed Sasha at the table, before he'd figured out that she was too small and, despite her claims to the contrary, really did need her high chair.
Cassie wright turned in a slow circle, then faced him. "I brought food, but a cleaning crew would have been a better idea."
Ryan didn't like feeling inadequate, but he was not equipped to take care of a child. "It's been a difficult few days."
"I'm sure." Cassie's friendly expression softened into sympathy. She set her bag of groceries on a chair, which, except for the floor, was about the only free space.
He looked at her, then at the bag in his arms, then back at her. "Who are you and why are you here?"
Before she could answer, he heard a soft shriek from the hallway, followed by the sound of small feet racing toward the kitchen. "Cassie!" Sasha called in obvious pleasure. The toddler barreled into the room as fast as her short legs would allow. She threw herself at the strange woman.
"Hey, Munchkin," Cassie said, crouching down to collect the child in her arms. She straightened and hugged Sasha close to her chest. "I've missed you. How are you doing?"
Sasha gave her a fierce hug, then rested her arm around Cassie's neck and gave her a wide grin. "Me help Unk Ryan."
Cassie looked at him. "Uh-oh. Sasha's heart is in the right place, but her helping tends to create disasters. You have my sympathy."
"The fax machine needs it more. She tried to feed it peanut butter."
Cassie winced. "Did you do that?" she asked as she wiped drying tears from her face. "Did you give the fax machine dinner?"
Sasha nodded vigorously. Her dark curls danced with her every movement. "Me hungry. Me help."
Ryan stared at the young woman in front of him. She was comfortable with Sasha, and the kid obviously knew her. So he was the only one out of the loop. "Who are you?" he asked.
Cassie set Sasha on the floor, then smoothed her palms against her skirt. She took two steps closer to him and held out her right hand. "Sorry. I should have been more clear. I'm Cassie Wright. I'm a teacher at Sasha's preschool. I've known her for about a year, and she's been in my class for the past six months." She met his eyes and her voice softened. "I'm so sorry about your recent loss. I thought you might be having trouble adjusting to life with a two-year-old, so I came by to see what I could do to help."
The feeling of relief was instant. He gripped her hand as if it were the winning lottery ticket, and he smiled at her. "This is great," he told her. "You're right. I don't have any kids, and I don't have any experience with them. I've been trying to do work, but Sasha follows me everywhere. It's nearly impossible to get anything done."
He released her hand and glanced at his watch. "I need to fax something to Japan. It's already late and I have to scan it into the computer before I can send it. Would you watch her? Just for a couple of minutes. I'll be right back."
He edged out the door as he spoke, then disappeared into the hall before she could refuse him.
His prayers had been answered, he thought as he saved the scanned documents into a file, then prepared to send them via modem. If Cassie whatever-her-last-name-was knew Sasha, she would be a great resource. He hadn't yet figured out what he was going to do about his niece. While he wanted to get back to San Jose as fast as he could, he didn't think that was going to be possible for a while. As if his own company didn't keep him busy enough, he had John and Helen's affairs to settle. He had to decide what to do about the big Victorian house his brother and sister-in-law had recently purchased. There were a thousand details he had neither the time nor the inclination to take care of. Unfortunately, there wasn't anyone else.
Cassie could help him with Sasha. Maybe she could babysit, or recommend someone who could move in full-time. That was what he needed, he decided. A nanny. Like Mary Poppins.