Choosing You

CHAPTER 1

Taryn shivered and then the warmth of her fiancé’s arm closed around her shoulders. By June, the weather should cooperate more.

However, standing in the nearly flowerless Chapparal Estate and Gardens in Napa Valley, the bride-to-be had to use her imagination to see the extravaganza she expected for her wedding. Taryn and Jeff had flown in from Dallas to finalize the details of their destination wedding in northern California.

“Not the wedding choice for January, huh?” Jeff asked.

“No, but it will be amazing by summer. I still can’t believe we’re able to snag it in high season. You’ll have to thank Brad again for connecting us with his Silicon Valley friend.” Brad was one of Jeff’s partners in his software company. “It’s too bad the woman had to cancel her wedding, but I’m glad we could grab the date. I was beginning to think we’d have to get married at the VFW in Lawton. Now, I’m thanking God and doing a happy dance.”

“Happy dance? I thought maybe you were just cold.”

Taryn laughed. “Am I cold or am I trying to sucker you into cuddling?”

“You don’t have to sucker me into touching you.” Jeff pulled her around to face him and kissed her. Taryn’s lips warmed with the touch of his, and she lifted to her toes and pressed herself closer to him. The difference between them was almost comical.

Barely five feet, two inches of blonde dynamo who made a living in corporate event planning matched up with six feet, four inches of methodical, taciturn computer programmer. Taryn brought Jeff out of his shell. Jeff kept Taryn grounded. Taryn had fallen in love with a man she could count on.

Jeff had fallen in love with a woman who introduced passion and spontaneity into his life while keeping him organized. If she didn’t know Jeff was so perfect for her, she’d feel lucky. But their connection didn’t feel like luck. It felt like kismet.

A rush of cold air blew up her back. The hem of her jacket lifted with her arms as she wound them around Jeff’s neck, but the tremor flowing up and down her spine now had more to do with the sweet pressure of Jeff’s tongue against hers. The close crop of his sandy hair prickling her fingertips. Jeff bent his knees and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her up until her chest was even with his. Her nipples hardened under her sweater.

He might be a quiet, endearingly goofy, and even nerdy guy who spent most of his life hunched over his electronics, but the man could melt a glacier with his kiss. He’d become her dream, and Taryn Lieber couldn’t wait to become Mrs. McConnell.

Hearing the crunch of tires on the tree-lined gravel road behind them, Taryn brought her arms down to Jeff’s chest and pushed back. Jeff groaned and stared down at her. The softness of his light brown eyes sharpened with desire. She reached up and dragged her thumb across the full bow of his lips. He flicked his tongue against the pad of her finger.

“Chill out, man. Someone’s coming.”

“You’re the one rubbing my lips.”

“You’re wearing my lipstick. Hold on, I think I have a tissue in my purse.”

Taryn cleared the shimmering pink evidence of their kiss from Jeff’s face just as the property’s wedding coordinator, Alison, jumped out of her Jeep and strode toward them.

Earlier in the morning, she gave them a tour, showed them the catering menus, and recommended local flower shops and photographers before leaving them to wander on their own.

Afterward, they explored the property to get a feel for the place where they’d be getting married in six month’s time. They strolled through the estate house and its expansive grounds, which promised fields of daffodils by spring.

Weather permitting, Taryn and Jeff planned to marry outside under a canopy of sycamore trees in the sunken garden, highlighted by a pond encased in stones and dappled by lilies. The wedding would take place on one side of the pond in a large circular lawn carved out of the garden.

They had the option of installing a gazebo for the day, but Jeff thought that was over the top. Over the top didn’t bother Taryn. She ran wild implementing all the grand ideas she ever had about a wedding. However, whenever Jeff expressed a sincere opinion about something, she gave in.

“I see you’re soaking in the atmosphere.” Alison waved a hand at the gorgeous scenery around them. “Chaparral is idyllic, isn’t it? It’s even better in the summer. You’ll see. We’re well away from the city, so you can see the stars. Inside or outside, we can create the perfect launching point for your life together. What did you say your daughter’s name was?”

“Olivia. She’s six—almost seven,” Jeff answered.

Taryn squeezed Jeff’s hand as her heart squeezed in her chest. Olivia’s mother took off before Olivia turned two and hadn’t seen the child since. Taryn planned to adopt the little girl after the wedding. At one time, the thought of an instant family made Taryn run the other direction from any guy with kids. Then, she met Jeff.

From minute one, she felt differently about being a stepmother. Having the curly-haired angel in her life was as meant to be as her falling in love with Jeff. She could see Olivia skipping down the aisle in her flower girl dress. They hadn’t picked it out yet, but they both knew it would be pink and she’d have bright Gerber daisies in her hair.

Like every little girl, Olivia was fascinated with the idea of a wedding—the fancy dress, the party, the food, and the dancing. Every day they were gone, Taryn and Jeff called his parents so they could give Olivia an update.

“It will be wonderful, I know. I held a corporate event here some years ago. Once everything is set up, it’s absolute magic.” Taryn voice bubbled with excitement. She had earmarked the Chapparal Estate as a potential wedding venue before she’d even had a candidate.

Taryn planned marketing events for a living—first at an agency and now at Azur, a technology company in Dallas. Work got crazier by the day since the company announced a merger with another firm, Midsummer Technologies.

Luckily, the merger was expected to close in the fall, which would give her time to get married and honeymoon before numerous events kicked off in October. Lately, she’d wondered how much longer she’d work in corporate events. She loved traveling and visiting new venues. She loved planning parties. She didn’t love the corporate part quite as much as anymore.

“Taryn is in love with the place. It is fantastic,” Jeff agreed. “So what else do we need to do? You already got our deposit, right?”

Taryn suppressed a laugh. That was Jeff. Right to the point.

“Yes, we have your deposit. I’ve got the date on hold. We can head back to the office. There is some additional paperwork for you to sign. We can take care of that now since you’re here. You’re in town for the next couple of days, right? If you want, I can squeeze you in with the caterer. He’s doing a tasting for another couple the day after tomorrow in the morning—dinner and cake. Since you’re out-of-towners, he said he could add you to the tasting, and you can take care of the menu while you’re here.”

“As long as it’s in the morning, we should be okay. Taryn and I need to drive back to San Francisco for our flight in the evening.”

Alison nodded. “Perfect. You can take a look at the menu and see if there’s anything in particular you want to add to the tasting.”

A surge of anticipation hit Taryn as Jeff read through the contract in front of them. Each decision brought them closer to becoming the family Taryn wanted. Each new moment with Jeff produced surprises and a life that was more than she could have hoped. She paused and thought of Jeff’s uncharacteristically romantic proposal.

One Friday last summer, Taryn left a lunchtime nail appointment, and when she got to the parking lot, her car was nowhere to be found. What she did find was a shiny black limousine and a chauffeur named Mark, who held a sign with her name on it.

“Mr. McConnell asked me to give you a ride.”

“To my office?” Taryn asked, starting to give the man the address.

“I’m not sure where you’re going ma’am, but I know it’s not back to your office. He told me to give you this and you’d know where to go.” The driver handed her a folded note.

You have the afternoon off. Don’t worry about work. Tell the driver you want to go to nerd heaven. Your next clue is waiting at the point of no return.

Taryn thought for a moment and grinned, directing Mark to Fry’s Electronics. Before dating Jeff, she had never heard of Fry’s—let alone visited it. The massive electronics, computer, and gaming store had everything from stuff you could use to build a computer from scratch, to every cable you could ever need to connect anything with a microchip, and every computer game under the sun.

The first time, Jeff dragged her there she wandered the aisles amazed, confused, and in shock.

“So this is nerd heaven.”

On another trip to Fry’s, when she no longer viewed it with any judgment or suspicion in her heart, she helped Jeff return some equipment the store didn’t want to take back.

“The sign says, ‘Returns,’ not the point of no return. Although you and I might be getting there, I want to speak to your manager.” She blasted the pudgy clerk who patronizingly told her that she clearly didn’t understand electronics if she thought she could return whatever it was Jeff had purchased. Taryn didn’t even remember what odd object she’d flung down on the counter while glaring, but they’d taken it back. When Taryn was on a mission, she didn’t take no for an answer, and she loved missions.

Upon reaching Fry’s, she headed straight for the customer service desk and gave the guy her name.

“Is there something here for me?”

The man behind the desk raised his eyebrows.  “You’re Taryn? Lucky guy,” he said, handing her a wrapped gift. “You’re supposed to open it.”

Inside the heavy package was a small combination safe.  The safe was locked and had a note taped to the top. Today, I’m full of bribes.

That one had required no thought. If Jeff ever wanted to bribe Taryn to go to Fry’s or a superhero movie with alien explosions, he took her to a café midway between her office and his. The café had the best crepes in the Dallas and the best peach cobbler—served up with a cold and creamy scoop of Blue Bell vanilla ice cream. Taryn climbed back into the limo and directed Mark to the café.

When she got to the restaurant door, she noticed a sign, “Closed for private party.” But then the door opened and there he was, looking nervous and adorable, which Taryn found sexy in its own way.

“You found it. I hoped you wouldn’t have any trouble. About half an hour ago, I had some serious regret about the whole idea.” Jeff shifted his feet, with one hand in his pocket.

“Of course, I found it. I’m the queen of scavenger hunts. I hope you have my car.” Taryn hugged him. Jeff assured her that one of his friends had driven the car back to his house. “Fun, but what’s the deal? I can’t imagine what you want that you brought me here and bought out the whole place. Who knew they even did that? You’re not going to ask me to go to Comic-Con are you?”

Taryn had her limits.

“No. I…” Jeff stuttered, pulling a small box from his pocket and turning it over and over in his hand before he got down on one knee.

“I’m not sure whether I’m bribing you with the promise of pie or the promise of the ring, but I’m hoping I can convince you to marry me. You put up with all my insanity, and I love you like I’ve never loved any woman. I want you to be my wife, and I want you to be a mother to my daughter—as if you aren’t already practically both of those things.”

Even though they’d talked about getting married, it was still a surprise. The best surprise. She’d, of course, said yes. Yes, to being his wife. Yes, to being a mother to his daughter. The wedding picture would be different than one she’d envisioned when she was a child, but it couldn’t be more perfect.

Jeff tapped her on the hand with his pen and brought Taryn back to the paperwork in front of her. She swept her signature right next to his on the dotted line of Chapparal’s contract.

He grabbed the catering menu. “This is the part that’s ultra important. The food.”

Taryn smiled and scribbled “Menu” on her notepad. She’d make sure Jeff got exactly what he wanted—at the wedding and forever after.