As an experienced wedding planner, I was prepared for nearly every kind of emergency that might occur on the big day.
Except for scorpions. That was a new one.
The distinctive movement gave it away, a sinister forward-and-back scuttle across the tiles of the pool patio. In my opinion, there wasn’t a more evil-looking creature in existence than a scorpion. Usually the venom wouldn’t kill you, but for the first couple of minutes after you’d been stung, you might wish it had.
The first rule for dealing with emergencies was: Don’t panic. But as the scorpion skittered toward me with its grasping claws and upward-curved tail, I forgot all about rule number one and let out a shriek. Frantically I rummaged through my bag, a tote so heavy that whenever I set it on the passenger seat, the car would signal me to buckle it in. My hand fumbled past tissues, pens, bandages, Evian, hair products, deodorant, hand sanitizer, lotion, nail and makeup kits, tweezers, a sewing kit, glue, headphones, cough drops, a chocolate bar, over-the-counter medications, scissors, a file, a brush, earring backs, rubber bands, tampons, stain remover, a lint roller, bobby pins, a razor, double-sided tape, and cotton swabs.
The heaviest object I could find was a glue gun, which I threw at the scorpion. The glue gun bounced harmlessly on the tile, while the scorpion bristled to defend its territory. Pulling out a can of hair spray, I ventured forward with cautious determination.
“That’s not going to work,” I heard someone say in a low, amused voice. “Unless you’re trying to give him more volume and shine.”
Startled, I looked up as a stranger moved past me, a tall, black-haired man dressed in jeans, boots, and a T-shirt that had been washed to near annihilation. “I’ll take care of it,” he said.
I retreated a couple of steps, shoving the can back into my bag. “I… I thought hair spray might suffocate him.”
“Nope. A scorpion can hold its breath for up to a week.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He crushed the scorpion beneath his boot, finishing with an extra grind of his heel. There was nothing a Texan killed more thoroughly than a scorpion or a lit cigarette. After kicking the exoskeleton into the mulch of a nearby flower bed, he turned to give me a long, considering glance. The purely male assessment jolted my heartbeat into a new frenzy. I found myself staring into eyes the color of blackstrap molasses. He was a striking man, his features bold, the nose strong, the jaw sturdy. The stubble on his face looked heavy enough to sand paint off a car. He was big-boned and lean, the muscles of his arms and chest as defined as cut stone beneath the worn layer of his T-shirt. A disreputable-looking man, maybe a little dangerous.
The kind of man who made you forget to breathe.
His boots and the raggedy hems of his jeans were skimmed with mud that was already drying to powder. He must have been walking near the creek that cut through the Stardust Ranch’s four thousand acres. Dressed like that, he couldn’t possibly have been one of the wedding guests, most of whom possessed unimaginable fortunes.
As his gaze swept over me, I knew exactly what he was seeing: a full-figured woman in her late twenties, with red hair and big-framed glasses. My clothes were comfortable, loose, and plain. “Forever 51,” my younger sister Sofia had described my standard outfit of boxy tops and elastic-waist wide-legged pants. If the look was off-putting to men – and it usually was – so much the better. I had no interest in attracting anyone.
“Scorpions aren’t supposed to come out in the daylight,” I said unsteadily.
“We had an early thaw and a dry spring. They’re looking for moisture. Swimmin’ pool’s going to draw ’em out.” He had a lazy, easy way of talking, as if every word had been simmered for hours over a low flame.
Breaking our shared gaze, the stranger bent to retrieve the glue gun. As he handed it to me, our fingers touched briefly, and I felt a little jab of response beneath my lower ribs. I caught his scent, white soap and dust and sweet wild grass.
“You’d best change out of those,” he advised, glancing at my open-toed flats. “You got boots? Running shoes?”
“I’m afraid not,” I said. “I’ll have to take my chances.” I noticed the camera he had set on one of the patio tables, a Nikon with a pro-level lens, the metal barrel edged with red. “You’re a professional photographer?” I asked.
He had to be one of the second-shooters hired by George Gantz, the wedding photographer. I extended my hand. “I’m Avery Crosslin,” I said in a friendly but businesslike tone. “The wedding coordinator.”
He gripped my hand, the clasp warm and firm. I felt a little shock of pleasure at the contact.
“Joe Travis.” His gaze continued to hold mine, and for some reason he prolonged the grip a couple of seconds longer than necessary. Unaccountable warmth swept over my face in a swift tide. I was relieved when he finally let go.
“Did George give you copies of the timeline and shot list?” I asked, trying to sound professional.
The question earned a blank look.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “we’ve got extra copies. Go to the main house and ask for my assistant, Steven. He’s probably in the kitchen with the caterers.” I fished in my bag for a business card. “If you have any problems, here’s my cell number.”
He took the card. “Thanks. But I’m not actually —”
“The guests will be seated at six thirty,” I said briskly. “The ceremony will begin at seven and finish with the dove release at seven thirty. And we’ll want some shots of the bride and groom before sunset, which happens at seven forty-one.”
“Did you schedule that too?” Mocking amusement glinted in his eyes.
I shot him a warning glance. “You should probably spruce up before the guests are up and out this morning.” I reached into my bag for a disposable razor. “Here, take this. Ask Steven where there’s a place you can shave, and —”
“Slow down, honey. I have my own razor.” He smiled slightly. “Do you always talk so fast?”
I frowned, tucking the razor back into my bag. “I have to get to work. I suggest you do the same.”
“I don’t work for George. I’m commercial and freelance. No weddings.”
“Then what are you here for?” I asked.
“I’m a guest. Friend of the groom’s.”
Stunned, I stared at him with wide eyes. The creepy-crawly heat of embarrassment covered me from head to toe. “I’m sorry,” I managed to say. “When I saw your camera, I assumed…”
“No harm done.”
There was nothing I hated more than looking foolish, nothing. The appearance of competence was essential in building a client base… especially the upper-class clientele I was aiming for. But now on the day of the biggest, most expensive wedding my studio and I had ever orchestrated, this man was going to tell his wealthy friends about how I’d mistaken him for the hired help. There would be snickers behind my back. Snide jokes. Contempt.
Wanting to put as much distance as possible between us, I muttered, “If you’ll excuse me…” I turned and walked away as fast as I could without breaking into a run.
“Hey,” I heard Joe say, catching up to me in a few long strides. He had grabbed the camera and slung it on a strap over his shoulder. “Hold on. No need to be skittish.”
“I’m not skittish,” I said, hurrying toward a flagstone-floored pavilion with a wooden roof. “I’m busy.”
He matched my pace easily. “Wait a minute. Let’s start over.”
“Mr. Travis —,” I began, and stopped dead in my tracks as I realized exactly who he was. “God,” I said sickly, closing my eyes for a moment. “You’re one of those Travises, aren’t you.”
Joe came around to face me, his gaze quizzical. “Depends on what you mean by ‘those.’”
“Oil money, private planes, yachts, mansions. Those.”
“I don’t have a mansion. I have a fixer-upper in the Sixth Ward.”
“You’re still one of them,” I insisted. “Your father is Churchill Travis, isn’t he?”
A shadow crossed his expression. “Was.”
Too late, I remembered that approximately six months earlier, the Travis family patriarch had passed away from sudden cardiac arrest. The media had covered his funeral extensively, describing his life and accomplishments in detail. Churchill had made his vast fortune with venture and growth capital investing, most of it related to energy. He’d been highly visible in the eighties and nineties, a frequent guest on TV business and financial shows. He – and his heirs – were the equivalent of Texas royalty.
“I’m… sorry for your loss,” I said awkwardly.
A wary silence ensued. I could feel his gaze moving over me, as tangible as the heat of sunlight.
“Look, Mr. Travis —”
“Joe,” I repeated. “I’m more than a little preoccupied. This wedding is a complicated production. At the moment I’m managing the setup of the ceremony site, the decoration of an eight-thousand-square-foot reception tent, a formal dinner and dance with a live orchestra for four hundred guests, and a late night after-party. So I apologize for the misunderstanding, but —”