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Carly Phillips

Secret Fantasy

A book in the Fantasies Inc. Series, 2001

PROLOGUE

MERRILEE SCHAEFER- WESTON flipped through the freshly delivered paperwork on her desk. The file in her hand held detailed information on Juliette Stanton-her likes, dislikes, dress size and even shoe size. Everything and anything necessary to prepare and make a woman’s fantasy come true. Juliette Stanton, otherwise known as Chicago’s Runaway Bride, was an unwilling public figure thanks to the scandal surrounding her aborted wedding and her illustrious senator father’s reputation. Now she was a client of Fantasies, Inc.

Merrilee read the first question she posed to all clients, though she knew the words by heart. What is your fantasy?

The answer always proved to be elusive. In Juliette Stanton’s case: To experience the luxury of being catered to and doted upon by a very special man. To feel desirable, be the center of his universe and forget the hurt of a broken engagement.

Now this was what Fantasies, Inc. was all about. Merrilee’s four lush island resorts were founded for the express purpose of making people’s dreams, wishes and longings come true. And though she could give Juliette only what she sought, Merrilee always tried to go that one step further, by giving her guests a happier ending than she, herself, had had.

A knock sounded at the door, calling her attention. She rose, expecting her ten o’clock appointment. “Come in.”

The door opened and a tall, imposing-looking man entered the room. “Mr. Houston?” At his nod, she gestured for him to enter. “I’m Merrilee Schaefer-Weston. Welcome to Secret Fantasy. I hope you had a good flight?”

He settled himself in the chair in front of her desk. “Perfect. Call me Doug, please.” He treated her to a charming grin that no doubt worked wonders on any eligible, breathing younger woman.

She braced her hands on the desk and got to the point. “I assume you have a fantasy you want fulfilled?”

“Doesn’t everybody?”

“Thanks to this business I’ve discovered that to be true.”

Though he laughed, Merrilee recognized his reluctance to talk. “Would you prefer to tour the island before revealing your fantasy?”

He shook his head and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I’m a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

Interesting, Merrilee thought. And as she looked into his eyes, she realized his discomfort was real. “Go on, please.”

He cleared his throat. “I’m coming off a relationship that ended badly. I was involved with a woman for the last two years but I wasn’t ready to commit. I didn’t tell her that though.” He ran a hand through his black hair. “Still, I thought things were going well-but appearances can be deceiving.”

“And relationships can be messy and sometimes unpleasant.”

“You understand.”

She nodded. More than he knew. She glanced at the thin band of gold and rubies encircling the third finger on her right hand-a symbol of the love she’d had too briefly and lost as a result of the Vietnam War. Her life hadn’t gone as planned, but then whose did? Fate generally took over. “How does your recent past relate to your present desire?” she asked Doug.

“My ex and I shared business and pleasure. We had fun and because she was well-connected in certain social circles, I trusted her information.” He shook his head, his frustration obvious.

“I take it she wasn’t reliable?”

“She was reliable until she asked outright when I’d be ready to get married. I wasn’t. But she seemed to accept it well, or so I thought. But she decided I was using her and fed me information that, inexplicably, I could no longer confirm once my story ran.” His lips twisted in a wry grin. “The typical woman scorned.”

“And were you? Using her, I mean?”

He paused, giving her question thought. That he didn’t answer her with an outright “no” told Merrilee he valued truth as much as she did.

He let out a groan. “At the time I would have said no. But looking back, I suppose half the thrill of the relationship was the personal-as opposed to professional-‘in’ she gave me to certain social circles and people I wanted to expose.”

She appreciated his honesty and nodded in empathy. “And now you’re here. So tell me-what is your fantasy?”

He leaned forward in his seat. “To make up for what I’ve done. I need to be able to look at myself in the mirror.” He drew a deep breath. “I need to know I can put a woman before myself.”

“So you’re asking me to…”

“Pair me up with Juliette Stanton, Chicago’s Runaway Bride. I know she’s booked to come down here.”

Merrilee narrowed her gaze. “And you know this how?” Because if he’d gone to the trouble to hunt Juliette down and discover information other reporters hadn’t, his agenda would bring Merrilee as well as Juliette Stanton nothing but trouble.

“A tip from someone who felt I needed to know. Look, that story I just mentioned? It involved Juliette Stanton’s fiance. And I have a hard time believing her run from the altar was coincidence. The gossip rags are holding her up for ridicule and the radio stations are running contests about why she ran. My gut tells me the woman’s hurting and I’m the cause. I want to help her get past it.”

“And what of your journalistic instincts? How do I know you aren’t looking to expose her story like the rest of the reporters out there? How do I know you won’t use the information should it fall into your lap?” Merrilee’s business and reputation, and Juliette’s well-being, hinged on his answer and his sincerity.

She held his gaze, making sure she didn’t miss anything, from a tic in his jaw to a flash of guilt in his eyes. But all she discovered was his ability to look her head-on.

He raised his shoulders in a shrug. “You don’t. Any man you fix her up with can conceivably find out the same information and use it against her whether he’s a reporter or not.”

Merrilee nodded. He had a point. Anyone could potentially uncover the reasons Juliette had run from the altar and expose them for money or personal gain-something Juliette, the senator’s daughter and runaway bride had to know going into her fantasy. She hadn’t put any restrictions or limitations on who or what kind of man she wanted to fulfill her needs. Merrilee inclined her head and waited for him to continue.

He didn’t disappoint her. “Look, I’m here, I’m spilling my guts and I’m giving you my word-I’m not looking to hurt her. That’s the best I can do.”

Merrilee nodded slowly. “Tell me something, Doug. Do you believe in happily ever after?” Merrilee needed to know more about Doug Houston’s character and intentions before she agreed to any match.

His eyebrows crinkled and his jaw clenched tight, then he let out a loud breath of air. “Yes, ma’am, I do. My parents are celebrating their fortieth anniversary this year.”

“That’s wonderful, but evasive. Not that I’m surprised, since you’re a reporter. But do you believe in happily ever after for you?

If I found the right woman, and if she could put up with me, then yes, I do.” His blue-eyed stare never wavered, then obviously satisfied he’d made his point, he stood. “I won’t take any more of your time but I’d appreciate it if you’d think about my request and get back to me.”

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