His Island Bride
“Here’s another one,” Jace Jardine said, his arm brushing the potted palm as he stretched across the teak desk and picked up the Sydney newspaper with the headline “TROUBLE IN PARADISE”. Then he sat back in his chair and began to read out loud…
“Is the peal of wedding bells a death knell on the Jardine family’s world-famous Wedding Belles Resort on Raintree Island? Six high-profile couples have ended up in the divorce courts shortly after tying the knot there, and now this tropical idyll for lovers on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef may soon be coming to an end. Could nuptials at this renowned wedding resort jinx a marriage before it even begins? Only time will tell.”
There was more, but in disgust Jace threw the newspaper on top of the others from London, Los Angeles, and Tokyo. It joined various online reviews that one of the resort’s staff had printed up for the three Jardine brothers after their arrival from the mainland a couple of hours ago.
The rattan fans whirling overhead were the only sound in the room—that’s if Jace didn’t include the whirling thoughts of everyone deliberating the implications of all this. His parents owned the resort, but it was still a family concern and he was worried. He looked at his mother who sat behind the large desk, her face troubled and tense. Then he looked at his two older brothers who sat on the other chairs opposite him. He was grateful that at least his father wasn’t privy to this. It was important Glenn Jardine continue his physical therapy in his room and stay away from any of these discussions. Very important.
“It’s clear we need to do something about this,” Roarke Jardine said with a frown. He took his eldest brother status seriously, as Jace knew he would. “We’ve done a damn good job and have successfully marketed Wedding Belles Resort to the world. People travel far and wide to be married here. We have…we had…” he corrected, his mouth tightening, “a good reputation. Unfortunately, now we have to work even harder and show them this place isn’t a curse on marriages.”
Seth Jardine, the second eldest brother, nodded with a grimace. “I totally agree, Roarke.”
“Yeah, this is really bad timing,” Jace chipped in. “We don’t need this right now.”
There was silence for a moment.
“The question, boys,” their mother, Vivienne Jardine, began, “is what can we do to fix the situation?”
“It has to be something fast,” Roarke stated, saying what they were all obviously thinking. “Something that will put all this gossip to rest. Something that will…” He sat up straighter, his face clearing. “I’ve got it! Dammit, I’ve got the perfect solution!”
“Great!” Jace said, thankful his brother had come through with an idea and so quickly too. They could count on Roarke to fix things. “Tell us what it is then. Don’t keep us in suspense.”
All at once Roarke’s gaze cut the distance between them, making Jace suddenly feel a little uneasy. “There’s only one thing that can be done fast, Jace, and it’s all up to you.” He paused. “You’ll have to find a woman and marry her.”
Jace shot off the chair with the speed of a bullet. He didn’t think he was hearing right. “No way, buddy-boy. Don’t think you’re going to pull that one on me.”
“Of course you’ll have to stay married for a couple of years,” Roarke continued as if Jace hadn’t spoken. “At least until all mention of a jinx has been put to rest.” He leaned back in his chair looking pleased with himself. “And you can help Mum and Dad run the place while you’re here and get it back to its former glory.”
Jace stared down at his brother, trying to get his head around this. “You can’t be serious?” But he could see he was. Deadly serious. “If anyone should marry, Roarke, it should be you. You’re the eldest.”
Roarke stayed sitting in his chair, his expression firm. “You’re the only one who can be spared from the boatyard right now. Seth and I need to stay in Sydney. We have some important business coming up over the next twelve months.”
“And I’m the Operations Director for Jardine’s Luxury Boats, remember?” Jace snapped. Roarke was the Managing Director and Seth the Production Director. None of them could be spared. There had to be another way.
Roarke was already shaking his head. “Jace, look, we all know some of our rivals want to poach Matt from the company, and that we can’t keep him as Deputy Operations Director for too much longer. He’s been chafing at the bit to get more experience and is only staying out of loyalty. So why not let him step in and do your job for a couple of years? It would be ideal for him and for us.”
“Not for me,” Jace growled. Did they have any idea what they were asking? Settling down here on the island would be like cutting off his legs. It was a great place to visit once a year, but he’d never wanted to live here, preferring instead the city lights of Sydney and beyond.
Vivienne shifted in her chair, and Jace spun toward her. He was her youngest son. He was sure she would make Roarke see sense. “Mum, back me on this. I think marriage is going too far, don’t you?”
An uncomfortable look crossed Vivienne’s still-attractive face. “Jace, I’m sorry, but I have to agree with Roarke. We need to save the resort. Bookings have already dropped off and if the business starts to go under…” She swallowed hard. “It wouldn’t be good for your father’s health,” she said, a catch in her voice.
Jace’s gut clenched at the mention of his usually healthy father. The mild stroke had happened two weeks ago during his parents’ visit to a great aunt in Sydney. Raintree Island had a small, though excellent, medical facility, but they’d all been grateful their father had been close to one of the bigger hospitals.
“Mum, you know I’d do anything to help out. Anything. But there must be some other way.”
“There isn’t,” Seth said.
Jace glared at the middle Jardine son. “Shut the hell up, Seth.”
Their mother put up a hand. “No, your brother is right, Jace. We have to put a stop to these wild stories. It’s unfortunate that a lot of celebrity weddings this year have ended almost before they’ve begun. As much as I believe a wedding is for life, maybe it’s a sign of the times. We can’t be blamed for that, and I’m not about to see all our hard work go down the drain. It’s important to your father and me.” She blinked rapidly. “Now more than ever.”
Jace looked at his mother for a couple of seconds, a sinking feeling in his stomach. He was beginning to see there really was no other way. Christ! Needing time to think, he walked over to the large window and looked out.
Raintree Island was a small island, with the resort on one side and a small town of around seven thousand people on the other. Nestled among the rainforest, Wedding Belles was a two-story hotel with a section exclusive to the family, surrounded by a collection of private bungalows. A large restaurant spilt out onto a terrace, a swimming pool, tennis courts, and farther along was the golden sand of a sweeping bay.
The resort hadn’t always been here. This part of the island had been Jace’s family’s holiday home ever since he was little. Then, eleven years ago, his parents had decided to turn it into a premier wedding destination resort that they would run themselves. They had been sick of the corporate life on the mainland where his father had started up Jardine’s Luxury Boats twenty years earlier, and being happily married themselves, they moved to the island permanently to make people’s dreams come true.
As young men, Jace and his brothers had stayed in Sydney—Jace to finish university, and Roarke and Seth to take over the boat business with the help of his father’s right hand man. Now their right hand man had moved on and the three Jardine sons were in total charge. Monetarily the boatyard would be able to support the resort in the short term, but in the long term they couldn’t sustain it. The resort had to get back on its feet—or go under.
And he was being tasked with saving it. Saying it was temporary didn’t negate the fact that a couple of years was a damn long time. Sure, in a year’s time he could probably make a case for traveling back and forth to Sydney, doing more and more work at the boatyard as his father’s health improved.
If it improved.
Knowing he was trapped, he swallowed hard and turned to face the room. “I’ll do it.”
In an instant, the atmosphere changed to one of great relief.
“Thank you, son,” Vivienne said huskily.
He shrugged, only because he couldn’t think of anything else to do. He was rarely at a complete loss but this time he was, and it wasn’t just about one thing. It was about a couple of things. “The question is now, who am I going to marry?”
“You’re never short of women friends,” Seth pointed out without hesitation.
Jace acknowledged the comment with a wry twist of his lips. He was as conceited as any man who knew women appreciated his good looks and comfortable lifestyle. Oh yeah, and he figured he was a nice person too. “I’m sure they would jump at the chance, Seth, but I don’t want to tie myself to any of them. They’re terrific women and great in bed…” He stopped and sent his mother an apologetic look. “Nevertheless, I can’t see any of them living here for a month let alone a year or two. They’d be heading back to the city in next to no time, and that would completely defeat the purpose.”
Of course, if they did head back to the mainland, he would have to go with them. Suddenly, his hopes rose but as quickly fell. He couldn’t do that to his parents. They needed someone here—him—to help them put the resort back on its feet, not only with putting the rumors of a jinxed resort to rest, but to help them physically run the place now that his father’s health was in the balance.
“Brooke would be ideal.”
Jace stiffened at his mother’s words. “What?”
“Brooke Martin. She’s lived on the island since she was nine and she’s the resort wedding planner. She’s not involved with anyone either. She’d be perfect.”
“No.” Brooke was the last woman he should marry. And the last person he wanted to see. He’d crossed her path a few times over the years but that had been unavoidable. He couldn’t imagine asking for her hand in marriage.
“I know you were an item years ago but—”
“Let it go, Mum. It isn’t a good idea.”
“Actually I think a reunion romance is best,” Roarke’s voice cut into the conversation. “The press will lap it up.”
Jace stiffened. “I don’t want any mention of our past relationship known to the media.”
Roarke arched a brow. “What’s the harm, Jace? They’ll be more likely to believe the marriage will last if they think you and Brooke have a past together.”
Jace hated being backed into a corner. And he hated the thumbscrews that were being applied and tightened bit by bit. Was the next step a torture rack?
“What if someone leaks your past relationship to the press?” Seth pointed out. “They’d have to ask why you didn’t mention it and what you’re hiding. It could bring it all tumbling down.”
Jace glared at his middle brother. “I didn’t say I’d marry Brooke in the first place.” They were assuming too much. Far too much. “Besides, she hates my guts, remember? She’s not going to agree.”
“She doesn’t hate you,” his mother said soothingly.
He arched a brow. “Really? I think you’d better look again, Mum.”
Brooke had been his lover for one summer when she’d been seventeen and he’d been nineteen, and her expectation that he would stay on the island with his parents after they opened the resort had been totally off-base. Her declaration of love had him thankful he was going back to the mainland. He hadn’t wanted to hurt her, but to him their summer affair had been just a fling, that’s all.
Yet he hadn’t been cold-hearted enough to tell her he wasn’t ready to settle down. Even back then he’d known that would have been too devastating on her emotions. Instead, he’d explained that his parents wanted him to follow in his two older brothers’ footsteps and finish university, before getting the necessary experience in the family boat-building business. And that had been the truth. He had felt a strong sense of obligation to his parents who had worked hard to make such a success of the business.
Of course, it hadn’t been the whole truth.
She’d never forgiven him.
“Sweetheart, listen, I find none of this pleasant either,” his mother said, “but you have to know that Brooke will lose her job if the resort goes under. Then what will happen to her, Jason? She supports her grandmother, remember. Not to mention most of the island depends on us for their livelihood.”
The weight of the world settled over Jace. “I know, Mum.”
Vivienne took a breath, then slowly exhaled. “I don’t mean to put all this on your shoulders, but you marrying in front of the world’s media and showing them you can stay happily married is the only solution.” There was a fleeting pause, and an odd look came into her eyes. “And frankly, I can’t see you with anyone but Brooke.”
He forgave his mother for being such a romantic. His parents had been lucky enough to have a good marriage. As for himself, frankly he couldn’t see himself married to any woman, let alone Brooke Martin, no matter how beautiful she was. At the thought, he let the image of Brooke come into his mind. He rarely did that and despite himself, his pulse rate increased and something softened inside him. It had been a couple of years since he’d last seen her, but every time they’d run into each other here at the resort, her deepening beauty had taken his breath away. She’d been a lovely-looking teenager who’d now grown into a gorgeous woman, with waves of blonde hair falling to her shoulders, a slim figure, and eyes as blue as the water lapping the beach. If they hadn’t had a past together, they would certainly have become lovers. He had no doubt about that. As it was, their history was what would keep them both sane over the next few years.
If they married, he reminded himself.
Then he looked over at his family and sighed, giving into pressure.
For better or worse.
It was going to be an interesting marriage.
“You want to change wh—” Brooke stopped speaking upon seeing the man standing in the open restaurant doorway, watching her as she discussed the nuptials of the young couple sitting with her by the pool. Oh Lord. She’d heard the Jardine brothers had arrived on the island by plane this morning, but she’d been hoping against hope that the youngest Jardine had stayed in Sydney. Clearly he hadn’t.
That meant the big guns had been brought in now. Three sharpshooters…three playboys…three men committed to supporting their parents until their father was back on his feet again. Usually the sons came at Christmas when the resort was closed for the week. Alarm lifted the fine hairs on her arms, despite the warm tropical breeze. So this was more serious than she suspected. It could only be about the reports in the media.
“Is something the matter?” the young woman asked, drawing Brooke back to the couple at the table with her.
She dragged her gaze from the doorway. “What? Oh no. I just lost my train of thought.” She tried to focus. “Um…so you want to change the time of your ceremony tomorrow? I’m not sure that’s possible,” she said, hedging and trying not to think about being watched.
“But my best friend is flying in and she won’t be able to get here until after lunch. I couldn’t go ahead with the ceremony without her.”
When things were normal around here it would definitely have been a problem, but with the way things were heading and bookings having dropped off dramatically, there would be no difficulty at all in changing the time of the ceremony. Not that she could tell their guests that. It would only feed rumors of a declining business.
“I’ll have to speak to the marriage celebrant first,” Brooke warned. “He might have to move a few things.”
“Oh Brooke, if you could get it all sorted we’d be forever grateful,” the young woman said, getting to her feet with her fiancé.
Brooke managed to smile at them. If she had a dollar for every time one of the guests had said that she’d be a rich woman. Not that she minded. This was her job and she loved doing it. There was nothing more exciting than seeing couples with stars in their eyes. It reminded her of herself with…
Protector of the People.
Hero to the Rescue.
White Knight… Not hers, of course.
He was still there in the doorway. She could see him out of the corner of her eye, his presence like the rainforest behind the resort—magnificent to look at, but watch your step or you could easily get swallowed up by it all.
The couple left then and suddenly Jace was coming toward her. She tried to appear casual as she stood up and started to gather her paperwork, hoping to make her escape. She didn’t need this right now. She was too worried about other things.
She planted a cool smile on her face and looked at him. “Oh hello, Jace.” Up close the full impact of him hit her and she was amazed that she actually sounded normal. Dressed in a polo shirt and casual trousers he was gorgeous; his shortish dark hair, sharp blue eyes and lean cheeks highlighted by the rays of the sun. How did he look so good all the time?
“It’s been a while.”
“Yes.” Not long enough.
Apart from a few pleasantries between them over the years when they’d inadvertently crossed paths, they’d both kept away from each other as much as possible. And that’s the way they both liked it.
If only she’d been able to take some time off to go stay with her grandmother for a few days, she wouldn’t have had to meet Jace again now. But with one wedding tomorrow, and one the following day, she needed to be here.
“Come for a walk along the beach with me.”
Brooke blinked. “A wa…walk?” Suddenly, she knew this was bad news. “Why?”
“I want to talk to you.”
The resort was going under. It could only be that. “Sure. Okay.” But she just stood there.
“Here, give me that paperwork.” He took it out of her hands and gestured to the waiter to come and collect it, then cupped her elbow.
His touch sent a tingle through her and she tensed and quickly pulled her arm back. “I can walk without your help, Jace.” She didn’t need him to support her. She would take this on the chin—and worry about how she would cope later.
They didn’t speak until they came to the edge of the sand where she stopped to take off her sandals. She noticed he was watching what she was doing. “You’re not taking your shoes off?” she said, just for something to say.
“I’m not in the mood to frolic in the shallows.”
And she was?
She shrugged and walked to where the sand was damp and compact but not wet and Jace fell into step beside her, shoes and all. By silent consensus, together they walked along the palm-fringed beach to where the coast curved out of view. Generally the sand beneath her feet and the tang of salt in the air relaxed her but not this morning. If she had to leave the island, how would her grandmother survive without her? Especially now that the old lady was having health problems? Gran had moved here as a young bride and she knew everyone. Many people would look after her if necessary but it wasn’t the same as family. Recently Brooke had even offered to give up her room here at the resort and move back home to the other side of the island, but Aida Martin was fiercely independent and had vetoed the suggestion.
Brooke’s heart constricted as she remembered her childhood. Her grandparents had done so much for her, having taken her in when their son and his wife—Brooke’s parents—had died in a car accident on the mainland when she was little. Her grandfather had died a few years later. She missed him. Missed them all.
All at once, Jace stopped walking and she put aside her memories and stopped too, then took a deep breath and turned to face him. “You said you wanted to talk, Jace. Go ahead. I’m ready.”
Had the sand just wobbled beneath her feet? “Wh…what did you say?”
His expression was unreadable. “Brooke, I need you to marry me.”
For a moment she couldn’t take it in and she frowned. So he wasn’t telling her she no longer had a job at the resort? There was something else on his mind. Then like a tsunami, it hit her. He’d finally come to realize something. He wanted her to marry him.
He loved her.
For the briefest of seconds she actually anticipated being in this man’s arms again…being loved by him and no other…a dream come true. How many times in those early months after he’d left her had she envisaged this scene?
And how many times had she cried herself to sleep for months afterward?
She angled her chin. “No, thanks.” Not in this lifetime.
“Sure you don’t want more time to think about it?” he quipped dryly.
“I don’t need more time, thanks.” If he thought she would come around, he was wrong. She wouldn’t, not ever. It made her instantly angry that he assumed she would. The arrogance of the man! Ten years and he expected her to—
“You have no choice, I’m afraid.”
She raised one eyebrow. “Really? Last time I looked I had a mind of my own.”
His jaw set. “Then you’d better start using it.”
Something clicked inside her then. He didn’t look surprised by her refusal. Or heartbroken. He merely looked…irritated. And that wasn’t the look of a man in love.
“Why are you asking me to marry you, Jace?”
“For the sake of Wedding Belles, of course.”
Good Lord, she was such a fool! Fancy her thinking he’d finally discovered he loved her and couldn’t live without her? What planet did she think she was living on? Maybe she’d have a visit from the Tooth Fairy next.
Thankfully she hadn’t let him know her thoughts. That would have been the ultimate in humiliation. “How will us getting married help the resort?”
The question set off a momentary turbulence in his eyes, before something inside him seemed to settle. “My family’s decided we need a high-profile wedding, and they think it should be a couple who will stay happily married, at least for the media’s sake. As we can’t trust anyone else to have such a vested interest in keeping Wedding Belles running, it has to be either me or one of my brothers. I’m the chosen one,” he said mockingly.
“I see.” Only too clearly now.
“It’ll be billed as a reunion romance and that will help convince everyone we can stay together this time. Love the second time around always sounds stronger and more lasting.”
She swallowed as even worse news slammed into her. “So you’re saying our past together will be dissected and talked about all over the world?”
His expression turned grim. “That can’t be helped. It’s better to get it out in the open, otherwise if someone leaks it they’ll start asking why we didn’t mention it. It might make them start looking more closely at the reason for our marriage and we don’t want that.”
She couldn’t believe how much all of this hurt. Jace had absolutely no qualms about using her—and their past—to save his family’s business.
None at all.
“It’s not just for our benefit,” he pointed out, watching her carefully. “If Wedding Belles goes under, then so do the livelihoods of most of the island. Not only do we provide jobs here, but the town’s tourist industry depends heavily on us, as you know.”
The reality of it all struck her then. She wished it wasn’t so but what he said was true. Everything that happened on this island was because of the resort. People had grown accustomed to having things, while keeping to their simple values. Lord, she could even understand where the Jardines were coming from with this, but why her?
Still, how could she take the idea of marriage to Jace seriously? “So you’re going to be the sacrificial lamb then? Or should I say a sacrificial pig…a pig who is going to throw himself on the open pit to save the village? And he wants me to jump in with him? How touching.”
His mouth set in a hard line. “Make fun all you like, Brooke, but what will happen to these people? Your people. Many will have to leave the island to get work. You’ll have to leave.” He paused heavily. “Have you forgotten your widowed grandmother?”
She gasped at the reminder, having been thinking about nothing else for days. “Don’t try and blackmail me.”
“It’s not blackmail. It’s a fact. And I won’t sit by while all my parents have worked for goes down the drain.”
Her mind filled with more thoughts. He’d used his parents as an excuse to leave the island all those years ago, but deep down she’d known he simply hadn’t wanted to stay with her. And now he was returning because of his parents? Strangely, this time she believed he was telling her the truth. It had to be the truth. He wouldn’t be thinking of coming back otherwise.
Yet how could she blame him for wanting to help his parents? She loved them dearly. Vivienne and Glenn Jardine had done so much for her, even if she suspected they’d felt sorry for her after Jace had left all those years ago. They’d taken her under their wing, giving her a job and even sending her overseas for various courses to help her with the hotel business. She couldn’t repay them by turning her back when they needed her most.
And she no longer loved Jace.
He’d killed any love she had for him years ago.
She shook off her emotions. “If it’s supposed to be a happy marriage then why pick the two of us?” she asked cynically, not for a minute thinking that Jace himself had suggested it.
He shrugged. “We do what we have to do. If we have to pretend we’re in love, then we will.”
“Well, I don’t think I’ll have a problem with it,” she said, mockingly referring to her teenage declaration of love. She’d been there, done that. “But I think you might.” And at least by getting it out in the open like this, she was letting him see she had no feelings for him whatsoever.
His eyes flickered with impatience. “Don’t concern yourself with me. I’ll manage fine.”
“I’m sure,” she snapped. He always managed. Then she realized she always managed too, and she would continue to do so.
But she had to wonder if this wasn’t some kind of joke—and a sick one at that—though she couldn’t imagine Jace pulling something like this just for fun. So that meant he must be serious. And if he was this serious about marrying her, did she have any choice in marrying him?
Marriage to Jason Jardine? What exactly did that entail? Did he mean a sexual relationship as well? No! She couldn’t handle making love with him. It would be too soul-destroying to have a physical relationship with him again. She wouldn’t allow it.
His voice broke through her thoughts. She needed to know exactly what he was asking of her. “Let me get this straight. This would be a purely non-sexual arrangement, right? And I’m assuming we would only stay married for as long as it takes for the resort to get back on its feet?”
Was that a flutter of relief in his eyes? How marvelous that made her feel—not! His brothers must really be putting the pressure on him.
“That could take a couple of years,” he pointed out.
“And you’re worried about staying celibate?” she said, pretending to misread him.
The playboy didn’t look happy as his gaze zeroed in on her but whether that was because of her comment she wasn’t sure. “No. Are you?”
“I don’t have sex,” she said, then bit her lip. She didn’t want to give too much away.
All at once he had a very curious look as if the thought of her abstinence intrigued him. Then he seemed to sober. “Well? Is it a deal?”
“Don’t rush me, Jace.” God, how had she got caught up in this?
Frustration washed over his face. “There’s a lot to be done. I need to know.”
His words reminded her she was just a commodity. That this wasn’t about the two of them at all. Her vision blurred for a split second. “I don’t care. You can’t expect me to make a decision like this with a moment’s notice.”
He stared hard as if judging her sincerity, then nodded. “Okay, but let me know as soon as possible. I have to start the arrangements.”
She suddenly felt the need to be alone. “You go back. I’ll stay here for a while.”
He looked up the isolated beach that was usually scattered with couples, but was now imprinted with only two pairs of footsteps in the sand. “Are you sure?”
“Yes.” She turned to look out over the gentle lapping ocean. “I want to be alone for a while.”
He stood for a minute more and she could feel him looking at her, then he turned his heels in the sand and walked off toward the resort. She didn’t watch him go. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of thinking he still drew her to him. Her blinkers had been removed long ago where he was concerned.
God, could she really agree to marry Jace Jardine? To be his wife, if only for a few years? They weren’t talking love, of course. She’d laid her heart bare for him once and he’d stomped on it. He hadn’t cared, and since then she’d acted as if she didn’t care either. These days she put on a happy face in her job as wedding planner. She’d grown very good at convincing everyone she was merely waiting for her own Mr. Right to come along, never once letting on that he’d been and gone. Never would she let herself love another man again—not after discovering all those years ago that she was pregnant.
With Jace’s baby.
She’d known he would feel trapped if she contacted him, and she hadn’t wanted any man who didn’t want her. Still didn’t. When she miscarried at five months, she was glad she’d kept the knowledge to herself. Only her grandmother knew.
She took a deep breath. No, she would never fully give her heart to any man ever again. She’d lost her parents, her grandfather, then Jace, and then their unborn baby. Too much anguish.
Yet how could she say no to Jace when it could affect not just the people on the island, but more importantly, her beloved grandmother? If the resort went under and she lost her job, she would have to move to the mainland to look for work. Then how would she look after her gran? The fact was, she wouldn’t be able to. There was no getting around it.
An hour later, after much heart-searching, Brooke finally gave in to the inevitable and decided she had to bite the bullet and marry Jace.
There was just no other option.