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“All in favor?” asked Daisy Vashon, her perky gaze popping around the circle of five on the pool deck at the Sunny Autumn Seniors Community in Port Aidin, Florida. It was mid-June, and the sun was climbing toward its zenith.
“We’re voting?” Lizbet Blythe responded in surprise. “Why are we voting?”
They’d just added twenty grandsons and great-nephews to their matchmaking database. Why would they hesitate to use it a second time?
“I think we should have some kind of a formal process to approve new matches,” Daisy responded. “We’re wielding considerable power here.”
“I told you it would work,” said Sam, still smug from last week’s success matchmaking JW Sterling’s grandson Morgan. A former NASA computer programmer and bona fide genius, Sam had been supremely confident from the get-go.
“They’re going to be so happy together,” Hannah Sprite sighed with obvious satisfaction. Her great-niece Amelia had arrived back at JW’s condo that night sporting a diamond the size of a sparrow’s egg.
“I’m in favor,” stated JW.
Lizbet was surprised to hear the former Army general admit it out loud. “I never would have taken you for a romantic.”
“I’m not a romantic,” he returned with a glower. “I’m a realist.”
“Anything above a ninety-percent match is practically a guarantee,” said Sam.
“Don’t get cocky on us,” warned Hannah.
“Why do we have to vote?” Lizbet repeated.
She was as thrilled as any of them that Sam’s computer matchmaking algorithm had worked the first time out. But now it was her granddaughter Jillian Korrigan who needed their help, and this was no time for hesitation. Jillian had to be absolutely heartbroken at the way Edmund Stafford had left her standing at the altar last Saturday.
“I’m in favor,” Daisy declared, holding up her hand and wiggling her fingers.
“It’s just a formality,” Hannah said to Lizbet, raising her own hand. “We’re all in favor.”
“I’m in,” Sam affirmed, and they all stared expectantly at Lizbet.
She thought about protesting again on principle. But it seemed simpler to just agree. She raised her hand.
Sam came to his feet in the mid-morning sunshine. He was wearing navy Bermuda shorts, a white T-shirt and a canvas fishing hat. “All for one, and—”
“To the Bat Cave,” Daisy spoke over-top of him, extending her arm to point toward Sam’s garage.
Sam frowned at her. “I don’t think that quite completes the metaphor.”
“The Bat Cave?” JW challenged, clearly not impressed by the nickname.
“The bunker?” Hannah suggested, rising as well.
“Tactical headquarters,” JW stated with authority.
“He’s gone ape with power,” Daisy sniffed. “We never should have let him treat it like a military operation.”
Lizbet came to her feet along with her friends, a sense of excitement building in her stomach.
“I’ve made a few refinements to the program,” Sam offered as they all moved toward his condo.
“I thought you said it was perfect.” Lizbet didn’t like the idea of changes. The matchmaking algorithm had worked amazingly well on its trial run. She didn’t want anything to mess it up for Jillian.
“Just a few tweaks,” Sam assured her with a secretive smile. He wasn’t normally playful. Then again, he wasn’t normally this talkative, either.
Lizbet tried not to feel nervous about interfering in her granddaughter’s life as the five of them trooped through the patio door of Sam’s condo, traversing the living room and the hallway before entering his garage. After Sam had written the computer program, they’d each contributed information on their granddaughters and great-nieces to potentially match up with Morgan’s grandson. Now, they’d added grandsons and great-nephews to the database.
The dim, stuffy space was lined with workbenches, industrial shelving and computers. Red and green LED lights blinked on various pieces of electronic equipment. Sam lit the fluorescent overheads then flipped other switches so that two large fans started to circulate the air.
The centerpiece of the setup was an L-shaped metal computer desk in the middle of the room with two computer monitors. Instead of sitting down at the keyboard as he usually did, Sam motioned for Lizbet to take the swivel chair.
“Me?” she asked in surprise.
“You do the honors.”
Feeling unaccountably privileged, she took a seat in the battered black chair. As soon as she sat down, she spotted a big red button on the center of the screen. It was labeled: Matchmaker.
Despite her nerves, she couldn’t help but grin. “This is your refinement?”
Sam moved the mouse, and a text field came up below the button. “Type in her name.”
Lizbet drew a breath and began to type her granddaughter’s name, hoping against hope for something above ninety percent. Even though she knew there was no way for the clandestine matchmaking strategy to make up for her past behavior, she was determined to help her family. There were reasons she hadn’t been invited to Jillian’s fancy wedding in DC. Chief among them was that she barely knew her grandchildren.
She was the first to admit that she’d never been a good mother. Her hectic career and years of international travel had alienated her from her children. She’d had a brief fling in Paris one year, breaking up her marriage. And her daughter Sandy, Jillian’s mother, had refused to forgive her for that.
But it didn’t mean she didn’t love them all. And it didn’t mean she wouldn’t do everything in her power to help any one of them. If this computer program worked for Jillian the way it had for Morgan, her granddaughter’s broken heart would heal.
Daisy clapped her hands together. “Hit the button. Hit the button.”
Lizbet held her breath and clicked it.
Hearts and flowers exploded on the screens, swirling around in a gaudy montage, while sappy music swelled through the speakers. It looked like cupid was on an acid trip.
“You are such a geek,” Hannah mocked.
“Too much?” asked Sam.
“Here it comes,” Lizbet announced, watching the screen images part, revealing a white background.
“Devlin Camden,” Daisy read aloud.
“That’s my great-nephew,” said Hannah, excitement clear in her tone as she squeezed Lizbet’s shoulder. “He’s Amelia’s brother. We’re going to be related. We’re going to be sisters-in-law.”
“That’s not sisters-in-law,” cautioned JW.
“Oh, he’s a handsome one,” said Daisy, bending to squint at the right-hand screen.
Sam nodded to the other screen. “Looks like we’ve got ourselves a ninety-two-point-three.”
Lizbet let out a breath of relief. That was a great compatibility score. And she especially liked that Devlin Camden was related to Hannah. Hannah was part of a large but incredibly close-knit family. To Lizbet’s mind, she was the perfect mother, the perfect grandmother and aunt as well. Surely her grandson would be good for Jillian.
“How are we going to get them together?” asked Hannah.
Lizbet returned her focus to the screen, taking in the details on Devlin. Jillian worked as an event planner in DC, while Devlin owned a classic-car restoration business in Phoenix. It wasn’t immediately obvious how their paths could be made to cross.
“Nobody said it would be easy,” JW pointed out.
Daisy gave a giggle. “But it’s definitely going to be fun!”
The Tarleton International Black-and-White Ball would be the crowning event of the company’s three-day conference in Washington, DC. Every detail had to be beyond perfect. Luckily, Jillian Korrigan knew exactly how to manage details.
They’d received a beef shipment from Alberta last night, with the lobsters coming from Maine this morning. The giant white roses had been purchased from Ecuador, while custom-ordered linens, silver, china and candles had arrived throughout the morning at the Empire James Hotel’s service entrance.
Crossing the main lobby, toward the Hester Ballroom, her business partner, Shari Sharp, fell into step beside her, tapping her finger on her tablet as they walked.
“We’re missing a dozen speakers from the sound system,” said Shari. “The freesia is violet instead of dark pink, and the shiitake mushroom order was shorted, so the sous chef is threatening suicide.”
Jillian had been up and working since five, so her brain was already humming on all cylinders. “Delta Music on Hyder can supply the X-Cad 950s on short notice. We can live with the violet. But you better hide all the sharp knives for the next twenty minutes or so.” She stopped near the bottom of the escalator. “Talk to Chef Gerard’s assistant Phillip, not Aaron. Aaron couldn’t find his rear-end with both hands and a flashlight. But Phillip will track something down to fix the mushroom problem.”
“Got it,” said Shari, typing on the tablet with one hand. “You still think we should hide the knives?”
“Better to be on the safe side.”
Shari finished typing and looked critically up at Jillian. “How’re you holding up?”
“Fine,” Jillian answered shortly.
She realized Shari meant well, but she was far too busy to have this conversation again.
“I wasn’t looking for platitudes,” said Shari.
“I know what you were looking for. And it’s fine.” It had been three weeks since Edmund had walked out on her. Quite frankly, she was relieved to be back at work.
“You don’t have to be here, you know.”
“Of course I have to be here.” Leaving the conference for Shari to manage alone was unthinkable. Even if she had gone on her honeymoon to Hawaii, she’d planned to be back in time for this event. Tarleton International’s corporate conference was one of the largest events UpNext had ever undertaken.
Shari touched her arm. “Jillian, your life has been turned completely upside down.”
“I’m over it.” Jillian was determined to be over it. And when she was determined to make things happen, they happened. Ask any of her business colleagues, her friends or her family.
“You can’t will away emotional angst.”
“Sure you can. You simply refuse to dwell on it. It also helps if your friends can find a way to shut the hell up. Did you hear anything more on the power problem on the trade show floor?”
“Did you at least eat that quart of triple-fudge caramel crunch ice cream I bought you?”
“Sure, I did,” Jillian responded with sarcasm. “Because I can really use the extra 2,327 calories.”
“You’re making that number up.”
Jillian shook her head. “I’d have to jog four hours and six minutes to burn that all off.”
“You actually did the math?”
“Of course I did the math. Who doesn’t do the math?”
“You’re not normal.”
“I’m perfectly normal,” Jillian countered. “It’s the rest of the world that’s a little off.”
Shari obviously fought a grin. “Did that sound more reasonable inside your head than it did coming out of your mouth?”
Jillian drew an exaggerated sigh. “I’m fine, just fine. It’s better that he called it off before it was too late.”
“What would have been better is if he’d called it off before you showed up at the church in your two-thousand-dollar wedding gown.”
“I meant it was better he called it off before the ceremony. If he was already having doubts, the marriage was doomed to failure.”
“He wasn’t having doubts. He was having sex with Marsha Olson.”
“Why are you pushing this?”
“Because you’re not angry yet. You deserve to be stinkin’ mad at the jerk, and you’re taking it all in ice-cold stride.”
“I take everything in stride.” Jillian prided herself on being cool under fire.
“You take a caterer dropping a wedding cake in stride. You take a band missing their connection in Newark in stride. You take a hotel double-booking the ballroom in stride.” Shari’s voice rose. “What you don’t take in stride is your groom walking out with five hundred people already seated in the church.”
Jillian’s phone chimed inside her blazer pocket. “They were mostly his friends anyway.” That was how it went when you married…well, nearly married into one of DC’s most prominent political families.
“I say we take a hit out on the bastard.”
Jillian extracted her phone. “I say we make sure Tarleton International’s conference is one for the record books.”
“Are you saying success is the best revenge? Because I could probably get on board with that.”
Jillian wouldn’t allow herself to want revenge. The breakup was what it was, and she would deal with it. But she nodded to Shari anyway to end the conversation.
The call was from their Transportation manager. “Everything okay, Serge?” she asked into the phone.
“I’ve got a delivery truck broken down on North Capitol,” he opened. “Mechanic’s on the way, but the refrigeration unit’s shut off, and we’ve only got so much time for the shellfish.”
“Can you send a backup truck?”
“I’ve got one on standby, but it’ll run us four thousand dollars.”
“What does the contract say?”
“The original truck has until two o’clock to deliver and a ten-degree temperature variation. But the chef is telling me that’s cutting it too close on both the time and the temperature.”
Jillian quickly ran the variables through her mind. “Dispatch the second truck. But let’s make a note for future contracts, so this doesn’t happen again.”
“You got it, boss,” said Serge, immediately signing off.
“Anything insurmountable?” asked Shari.
“Shellfish rescue. We should check on the trade-show power problem.”
Shari’s narrowed eyes told Jillian the conversation about Edmund wasn’t over. But she switched back to business, retrieving one of the two cell phones on her belt. “Let me check on that.”
As Shari dialed, they stepped onto the escalator, moving up to the mezzanine level. Jillian scrolled through her text messages, checking for any additional problems as they crossed the Hester Ballroom lobby. The decorations would be hung by now, the tables and chairs set up, crystal and china in place for nine hundred.
“Power problem’s solved,” said Shari. She scrolled her way through a document on her tablet, making a brief notation.
“That’s good,” Jillian nodded, still reading her texts. “The marketing lunch is underway in the conference center. There was a small glitch in the video linkup to Berlin, but it’s been solved.”
A security guard outside the ballroom recognized them and pushed open the door.
“Afternoon, ma’am,” he greeted Jillian. “Ma’am.” He nodded to Shari.
“Afternoon,” Jillian nodded, thanking him for opening the door.
They passed through the doorway into the huge ballroom, and Jillian’s feet stopped moving. As the layout came into focus, her chest tightened, and a buzzing sound changed the pressure in her ears.
It hadn’t occurred to her. It simply hadn’t occurred to her that with the white linens, gold accents, towering floral arrangements, and sparking gauze draping, the room would look a whole lot like her wedding reception. Her heart squeezed tight with a sharp pain as a picture of her ornate cake flashed through her mind. It had been multitiered, white with dappled gold leaf, crowned by a delicate crystal heart.
She’d designed it herself. Just like she’d planned every detail of the wedding and reception to the finest degree. It should have been perfect, an event to remember. The guests should have laughed and chatted and danced the night away.
But nobody’d had a chance to enjoy the party. Nobody had danced to the playlist. Nobody had enjoyed the cake. Jillian hadn’t even had a chance to taste the cake. She’d been looking forward to the custom, butter-lemon recipe.
“Looking good,” Shari noted with approval.
Jillian swore under her breath.
“Huh?” Shari twisted her head. “What did you say?”
Jillian battled the embarrassing spurt of distress. “Nothing. I was just thinking I wanted some cake.”
Devlin Camden let out a whoop as his JZ450 motocross bike arced into the air across the finish line at the Desert Heat Motocross Track. He’d barely inched out his archrival and good friend Luke Norris in the last twenty feet. His tires hit the track. His knees flexed, levering him back into the seat, while dirt flew out behind him in a rooster tail. The small, local crowd cheered, and he revved his engine and gave them a wave of appreciation, along with a show of skidding in a circle on the run out.
Luke gave him a thumbs-up as he passed.
The two hundred-dollar first prize would barely cover his gas and oil, but there was nothing he’d rather do on a Sunday afternoon. He gunned the engine, making his way to the track exit and the mechanical area.
Since it was the final event of the afternoon, he went directly to his pit. There, he rolled the bike onto his trailer and peeled off his sweaty helmet. It was nearly a hundred degrees in the shade in July outside of Phoenix. In another few hours, when the sun went down, it might moderate to eighty. He stripped off his body armour, getting down to his T-shirt and riding pants, raking back his soaking wet hair before taking a long drink from his water bottle.
“Nice run,” called Troy Maklin, one of the racers who’d dropped out because of a mechanical problem. Devlin waved a thanks as Luke pulled his motorbike onto the trailer next to Devlin.
Luke stripped off his own gear, taking a drink from a bright orange plastic bottle.
“Time for a cold one?” he asked Devlin.
“You know it,” Devlin responded, as he cinched down the straps to secure his bike.
He collected the stray hand tools from the deck of his trailer, placing them all in his gray metal box. Then he stowed the toolbox in the back of his compact truck, retrieving a couple of cans of beer from the cooler. The ice had melted, but the water was still cold. And the beer would be wet, which was the most important attribute.
Luke jumped down from his trailer and accepted the can of beer. “Nice run.”
At six-feet even, he was slightly shorter than Devlin, with a slightly broader build, sandy blond hair and lighter skin tones. He owned several car dealerships in the area around Timeless Auto Restoration, Devlin’s classic car shop. The two had met at one of the many car auctions in the Phoenix area, when Luke had outbid the field on one of Devlin’s 1969 Mustangs.
“Just barely made it past you in the end there,” Devlin acknowledged.
“You took a chance on the line there. That rut was pretty deep.”
“I’m naturally competitive.”
“You’re a glory glutton.”
“I really just wanted the two hundred bucks.”
“Luke? Devlin?” came the voice of Hank Morettini, the owner of the Desert Heat Motocross Track, as he made his way across the dirt parking lot.
Close to fifty years old, he was stocky but fit, with a head of gray hair and a habit of wearing white, pressed shirts on top of blue jeans, even at the dusty track.
“Hey, Hank,” Luke greeted.
“Beer?” Devlin asked.
Hank gave Devlin a nod. “Sounds good. We’ve got a check for you at the office.”
Devlin extracted another can of beer from the cooler. “Don’t worry about it,” he told Hank. “Keep it in the kitty.”
“Will do,” Hank easily agreed.
The local motocross association ran things on a shoestring and were always appreciative of donations. Since Devlin’s and Luke’s businesses were some of their strongest contributors, earning them prime signage near the start-finish line, it seemed silly to take the prize money.
Devlin handed Hank a beer. He popped the top and took a long swallow. “Just had a very strange conversation,” he told them.
“Not the zoning committee again.” Devlin’s thoughts went immediately to the trouble they’d had last summer with residents complaining of the noise.
There were some people on the county commission who wanted the motocross track rezoned to residential development. Every couple of years a petition would be circulated, extolling the virtues of peace and quiet. Never mind that the track had been here for decades, and the new residents had been fully aware of its existence when they’d bought their houses. Now that they’d move in, they wanted the whole area to organize around them.
“Not the zoning committee,” Hank assured them. “It was from the president of NMAC.”
That statement got both Devlin’s and Luke’s attention. The National Motocross Association Council supported the highest-calibre of events and riders in the country. It was hard to imagine they even knew of Desert Heat’s existence.
“They want to bring an event here in September.”
Devlin waited for the punch line.
Hank took another drink of his beer.
“Say again?” Luke prompted, clearly as confused as Devlin.
“They tell me it’s a regional event, only a class B qualifier, but there’ll be replacement points up for grabs.”
“Are you sure it was really them?” Devlin couldn’t help but ask. NMAC never used second- or third-tier tracks, and their schedule was set nearly a year in advance.
Hank chuckled. “I have to admit, I had the same thought myself. But it looks legit. They’re adding a race to the schedule. They want it in Arizona. Their technical guy likes our course and, get this, it’s contingent on you,” Hank was staring directly at Devlin, “agreeing to spearhead the local organizing committee.”
“What the hell?” The question was as specific as Devlin could get on such an outrageous statement.
Hank gave a confused shrug.
“I’m not an event organizer.”
“You’re a local board member.”
“That just means I’m a warm body at voting meetings.”
“They asked for you specifically.”
Luke clapped Devlin on the shoulder. “Clearly, your reputation is out there.”
“My reputation for what? Drinking beer in the parking lot?”
Devlin loved motocross racing, but he was a recreational racer, a weekend warrior. He wasn’t even trying to stand out at the state level, never mind nationally.
Hank turned serious. “The reputation of Timeless is growing across the state.”
It still didn’t make sense. Classic car restoration was not something that was normally associated with motocross. They were two completely different demographics.
“They know you’re a Desert Heat sponsor,” said Hank.
Devlin coughed out a laugh. “I’m not the kind of sponsor a national organization would go after.”
Luke looked as puzzled as Devlin felt. “Maybe they see Timeless as an up-and-comer?”
Devlin looked to Hank. “You’re sure this isn’t a practical joke?”
“I looked up the number on their website. Whoever was calling me was doing it from the NMAC national office. They’ve got an event organizer lined up.” He pulled a piece of paper from the pocket of his blue jeans. “Jillian Korrigan from UpNext Events will be calling you on Monday.”
“I’ll believe it when it happens,” said Devlin, taking another pull on his now-lukewarm beer.
He glanced around the rather shabby motocross track. Nothing about this made any sense at all.
End of Excerpt