Excerpt for Ryder’s Bride

The yacht couldn’t have been more perfect. Too bad it was melting right in front of Claire Maddox’s eyes.

Inside the stifling tent, the five-foot-long ice sculpture, bottom-lit by a ring of small bulbs, was enthusiastically dripping into a drain pan. Claire’s stomach twisted into a boatload of knots. Taking care of the elaborate ice sculpture was her most important job today. Unfortunately, it would soon be a big lump of slush if the bridal party dawdled much longer.

Two months ago, Jane Quinn had suggested the ice sculpture as a wedding day surprise for her fiancé, Derek Mallory—a replica of his much-loved yacht, Night’s Watch. Since Derek was Claire’s most important client at Brides Bay Concierges, she’d impulsively volunteered for the job, assuring Jane that she could carry it off without a hitch. After all, that’s what Brides Bay Concierges did. They took on any bizarre or challenging request made by their wealthy and pampered clients and carried it off with aplomb.

For BBC, failure was not an option.

Having pulled off a similar ice sculpture job once before, Claire knew the drill. On that previous occasion—a twelve-year-old boy’s birthday party—everything had gone off beautifully. Then again, the temperature on that late April day had been sixty-three degrees, with a stiff breeze blowing in off Brides Bay. Today, the Weather Channel had predicted a postcard-perfect Maine summer day, with a sunny high of eighty-three degrees. But it felt like a hundred degrees and climbing in the sweltering canvas tent, with not a cloud in the sky or a whisper of breeze off the water.

And Claire’s confidence was melting almost as fast as the yacht.

So far no one appeared to have noticed the mini global warming catastrophe that was going on inside the tent. In fact, the guests, most of them out-of-towners, seemed mightily impressed by the accurate rendering of the groom’s pride and joy. A parade of chic men and women had circled the display stand below the head table, voicing their approval of the sculpture. Now though, everyone had either gone back to their assigned seats or were milling around the groomed lawn of the leafy park where the reception was being held.

“I don’t understand why you let those idiots just dump that damn thing and leave,” Betsy Pike hissed. Understandably, the wedding planner was having her own mini meltdown. “You should have made them keep it in their refrigerated truck for at least another half hour. Bridal parties are always late when they go for photos. Don’t you know anything about weddings?”

Claire smoothed her clammy hands down the sides of her beige silk sheath. “The guys were really apologetic about everything. They were early because they gave themselves extra time for traffic out of Portland, and they couldn’t stay because they had another delivery with a moved-up deadline. What was I supposed to do, Betsy? Let the air out of their tires?”

“That’s exactly what I would have done,” Betsy said. “We do whatever it takes. Whatever, Claire.”

Whatever it takes was generally Claire’s motto too, but she was hardly about to commit vandalism. “Look, they assured me that the sculpture would be fine for at least four hours, since it wasn’t going to be directly exposed to the sun.”

Betsy waved her arms in a dramatic arc. “Does it look fine to you? And what about the water level in that pan? It’s already at least half an inch deep. It’s probably going to overflow the stupid thing soon. What happens then? It’ll be fine, all right. A fine mess.”

Claire hadn’t been worried about the possible drain problem until a minute ago. A small drain at one end of the pan was connected to a hose that normally discharged water from the slowly melting ice onto the grass underneath the table where it would be absorbed. But the accumulating water didn’t appear to be draining, or at least not quickly enough. She snuck a look around at all the Jimmy Choos and Manolo Blahniks on the well-shod guests and felt her stomach twist again.

“There must be something wrong with the drain or the hose,” she said, keeping her voice as low and steady as she could manage.

“Great, just great.” Betsy’s expression was beginning to resemble a feral dog’s. “Jane is going to be heartbroken if her fabulous surprise turns into a freaking fiasco. And believe me, I’m not taking the blame for it. I’ll make sure she knows exactly who screwed up. Trust me on that.”

While Claire doubted that classy Jane would go ballistic on her, she nevertheless felt a chill slither down her spine. Her business was heavily dependent on her wealthy Promise Island clientele, most of them one-percenters from New York and Boston who had built vacation homes here. A single negative word from a resident like Derek or Jane could demolish her livelihood overnight.

Not going to happen. “Betsy, how about we take a pass on pointing fingers and just focus on fixing the problem?” Claire kicked off her pumps and dropped down to her knees. There was nobody else around to handle the problem, and it was her responsibility anyway.

“Oh my God, what do you think you’re doing?” Betsy gasped.

Claire lifted the white skirt that surrounded the table. “I’m going to find out what’s going on and fix it.”

“But you’ll ruin your dress. Just stop and let me try to find some guy to take care of the problem.”

“Betsy, trust me. I can do it. The last thing I need is someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing to be messing around with this sculpture.”

She scooted under the table and turned over onto her back. Her dress would probably be a dirty mess by the time she finished, but that wasn’t a problem. Her apartment was only a four-minute walk from the fairground park, and she had a floral print dress that would work for a formal occasion like this. Besides, everyone’s eyes would be on the beautiful bride and her gorgeous hunk of a groom. It was a safe bet that no one would look twice at Claire.

Well, maybe nobody except that new neighbor of Derek’s. Twice today she’d caught Ryder Griffin eying her, his dark gaze lingering for several moments before refocusing on the wedding ceremony. According to Meg, her friend and business partner, Griffin was a retired hockey player. Apparently he’d been quite a star, and he was most definitely a heartthrob. He’d bought the house next to Derek’s on Promise Island and moved in a few weeks ago.

It was Claire’s house, actually. At least it still was in her mind. It was the house where she’d grown up, and all these years later her heart still stuck in her throat every time she thought about what she’d lost.

Before today, she had only seen Griffin once. She’d spotted him out the window of the apartment she rented over the Blueberry Lane Artisan Co-op. He was pumping gas into his pickup truck at the local Sunoco. The rest of the time he apparently stayed holed up on Promise Island. Because he was something of a celebrity, the townsfolk had already spent more than a little time gossiping about everything from why Griffin had moved to the Brides Bay area to why he was apparently determined to hide out.

Betsy lifted the table skirt and peered under at her, her thin brows snapped together in a scowl. “Just don’t knock the table over or do anything equally stupid, okay?”

“I’ll do my best,” Claire said drily.

The wedding planner dropped the skirt back in place and hurried away, her high heels clacking across the temporary dance floor. Thank freaking God. Claire needed to focus on the problem, not on Betsy’s geyser of negativity.

She inspected the short hose. It was attached to the bottom of the drain in the same way a garden hose connected to an outdoor faucet, and it extended downward toward the far side of the table where the open end rested in the grass. She’d thought a kink might be preventing the water from draining properly, but one look told her that wasn’t the case. When she placed her index finger over the opening, she could feel water coming out, though it was barely a trickle.

Crap. She had no choice but to detach the hose. Wiggling forward again, the hem of her dress rucking up to the tops of her thighs, she grabbed the coupling in her right hand and twisted it counter-clockwise.

It didn’t budge.

Double crap. She closed her eyes against a surge of resentment and frustration that all too often caught her off-guard. This was not supposed to be her life.

Suck it up, Maddox.

She gripped the coupling again. The rough metal edges of the collar dug into her skin as she twisted her wrist. But it was a no-go. That sucker wasn’t coming off without a wrench.

“Need a hand down there, Ms. Maddox?”

Startled, Claire involuntarily jerked on the hose. Fortunately, the table held steady. That ice sculpture weighed about two hundred pounds, so she figured it wasn’t going anywhere.

Other than melting all over everything, that is.

The man’s voice was deep and more than slightly amused. For the first time, she thought about how ridiculous she must look, lying flat on her back with her bare legs sticking out from under the table. In a belated attempt at modesty, she lifted her butt and tried to yank her dress back down to cover her thighs. Maybe this hadn’t been such a great idea after all.

“Uh, well, thanks,” she said, “but what I really need right now is a pipe wrench. Actually, any adjustable wrench would do. You wouldn’t happen to have one of those handy, would you?” She winced at how lame she sounded. “I’m trying to disconnect a hose,” she added.

“Yeah, I’ve got a toolbox in my truck. Just give me a minute, okay?”

Oh, wow, a savior. Maybe this was her lucky day, after all. “Fantastic. I’m not going anywhere,” she said, trying to sound breezy and in control. It was pretty silly, given her current circumstances. But a Brides Bay Concierge never admitted defeat, and Claire wasn’t going to start now.

* * *

Ry strode across the lawn, heading to his truck to get his toolbox. He would have offered to help the woman regardless of the circumstances, but the sight of her long, shapely legs sticking out from under that table had sealed the deal. Of course, he’d also gotten an eyeful of her pretty little ass as she’d dropped to her knees before rolling over and wriggling her way under the ice sculpture. Ry had always admired take-charge, competent women, and it looked like Claire Maddox fit that bill. Plus she had a killer body and a sweet face framed with long, silky blond hair.

He’d seen her a couple of times from a distance when she was at Derek’s estate. His buddy had hired her to look after his monster mansion whenever he was back in Manhattan, which was most of the time. Derek had given him one of her business cards and said he’d been recommending her services to all his Promise Island neighbors who weren’t already her clients. Ry had little doubt she’d like to add him to her client list, since he traveled a lot and would regularly need somebody to look in on his place.

He pulled his toolbox out of the club cab, sending up a silent word of thanks to his grandfather. A prairie farmer, Gramps had drilled it into his head that a man should never be too far away from any tool he might need. As the bridal party limousines were finally starting to arrive from the photo shoot, Ry knew he’d better not waste any time getting back to the tent. Whatever was wrong with the ice sculpture’s apparatus, it needed to be fixed fast.

Back at the tent, he set the toolbox down beside the table and dropped to his knees, pulling out a ten-inch adjustable wrench and lifting up the table skirt. “This one should do it.”

“Oh, thank God,” Claire said before twisting her head to look at him. Her eyes widened, and her mouth formed a cute “O.”

“By the way, I’m Ry Griffin,” he said, giving her a smile.

She stared at him for a moment and then grabbed the wrench. “Claire Maddox. Nice to meet you, despite the weird circumstances.”

Switching her focus back to the hose coupling, she glared at it like it was the enemy. Then she clamped the wrench around the coupling and tightened the jaws. Ry felt bad that he wasn’t under there doing the work, but it was clear that Claire would rather fix the problem herself.

“Perfect. This is totally going to do the trick,” she murmured. “Now, can I possibly ask another favor?”

“Sure.”

“Could you find something to block the drain before I take off the hose? Like a saucer, maybe? Otherwise, I’m going to get tragically wet.”

Ry contemplated the mental image of Claire’s form-fitting dress getting soaked in a way that would surely show off every one of her sweet curves. Get your mind out of the gutter, dude.

“I’ll just cover the drain with my hand,” he said. “Use pressure to seal it.”

She twisted her head to peer at him. “Are you crazy? That water’s going to freeze your fingers right off.”

“Then I guess you’d better work fast. A saucer isn’t going to do a very good job of stopping up the drain. Not like my hand will.”

Claire shot him a quick grin. “Ah, right. I get it. Hockey players are tough guys.”

Interesting. She’d been curious enough about him to find out he’d played hockey. “Actually, I’m a former hockey player. But let’s just say I’m used to icy conditions.”

She huffed out a laugh at his lame joke. “Got it. Now, how about you do your manly thing and cover that drain before we make an even bigger spectacle of ourselves down here? Please,” she added a moment later, as if she’d just remembered that she sounded like she was ordering around a perfect stranger.

He found her take-charge attitude cute as hell.

Ry got up and shoved his hand into what was a truly bone-chilling half-inch or more of water, pressing down hard on the opening. “Ready up here.”

“Okay, here goes,” she said.

Ry heard a squeak as the coupling started to move, and then a hiss.

“Ack! The stupid thing just sprayed water all down the front of my dress,” she yelped.

Ry grimaced, wishing he’d insisted on doing the tougher job under the table. He wouldn’t have minded getting soaked—hell, it might even have gotten him out of playing his damn guitar at the reception, a reluctant promise he’d made to his buddy, the groom.

Ry had to admire Claire though. She just wanted to fix a problem for Derek and Jane’s sake, even if it meant wrecking her dress. She was definitely his kind of girl.

And man, he liked her legs a lot.

“You okay down there?” he asked after a few fraught seconds of silence. “No more catastrophes?”

“I’m one hundred percent fine. Your hand frozen yet there, Mr. Griffin?”

“Tough girl,” he said approvingly, ignoring the question. His hand was turning into a block of ice, but there was no way he was going to complain. “And, by the way, call me Ry. Mr. Griffin is my father.”

Ry was definitely not his old man.

Claire thumped the hose against one of the table legs. “Okay,” she said, “the little screen on this end of the hose was clogged with gunk. No wonder only a trickle of water was getting through. I didn’t give the ice guys a hard time before, but they’re going to get a supersized earful from me tomorrow. Now we’re into full refund territory.”

“Absolutely. They totally screwed you over,” he said.

“Okay, it’s clean now and I’m reattaching it. You still okay up there? We’re not going to lose any fingers to frostbite, are we?”

“The nearest hospital is in Brunswick, right?”

“Oh, jeez, I’m sorry,” she said in a worried tone. “I told you not to use your hand.”

“Relax, I’m fine. It was just another lame joke.”

“So, you’re a comedian too. Good to know. Okay, you can take your hand away.”

Ry gladly yanked his hand out of the pan and shook it a few times to get rid of the water and restore full circulation. When Claire slithered out from under the table, he reached down and helped her up. He manfully did his best not to stare at the way the soft, damp fabric of her dress clung to her full breasts.

“Yikes!” she said. “Your hand’s a complete block of ice.” She let go and quickly brushed her fingers down her rumpled dress to dry them off. Then she reached for his hand again, grasping it firmly between both of hers. “Here, let me try and warm it up for you a bit.”

“Uh, okay.” His cold hand really was no problem, but Ry wasn’t about to say no to the thoughtful gesture. Though Claire’s hands were half the size of his, they were silky smooth and the friction of her vigorous rubbing quickly did the trick. And damned if he couldn’t help thinking of returning the favor by warming her up, since she had to be pretty chilled from the water that had leaked onto the top of her dress.

That enjoyable train of thought was derailed a moment later when he heard an ominous creak and glanced over to see the yacht starting to slide off its base.