The Billionaire's Matchmaker

By: Barbara Wallace

Chapter One



Gabby Wilson had perfected the art of covering up the things she wanted to forget with a few brushstrokes of burnt sienna and emerald green. In a painting or a photograph, she could frame a whole other version of who she was, and she had been doing exactly that for damned near eight years. She didn’t want the people in Chandler’s Cove to remember the impetuous, rebellious girl she used to be, the one who had made the pages of the Chandler’s Cove Gazette twice—not for scoring a last-minute goal or writing an award-winning essay but because she’d been the youngest resident to get a free ride to jail, courtesy of the sheriff’s department. One more time, the sheriff had joked, and she’d get her own plaque on the wall.

She wasn’t that Gabby anymore. Now she was an artist with an affinity for mixed digital media, blending her love of photography with her penchant for quirky expression. A respectable, tax-paying citizen who stayed out of trouble.

Well, mostly.

Still, a part of her missed the old days. Maybe just the thrill of them, the unexpectedness that each day brought.

Unexpectedness—yes, that was what it was. Maybe that explained why she was striding up to her reclusive neighbor’s massive stucco monolith on a brisk winter afternoon in Chandler’s Cove. Earlier today, she’d received a mysterious message from Mr. Bonaparte’s butler, asking her to come by.

She had just about reached the granite steps when a familiar six-foot-two figure emerged from the house. A piece of her past, here, of all places.

“Well, well, if it isn’t Gabby Wilson,” he said.

“T.J.?” she said.

T.J. Shepherd took off his sunglasses and grinned. Something went hot and dark in Gabby’s gut. “Hi, Gabby.”

She hadn’t seen T.J. in almost a decade—not since high school. They’d grown up in the same area, gone to the same schools, but it wasn’t until they’d been paired up in a chemistry lab freshman year that she got to know him. The T.J. she’d remembered had been nice, funny even, but way too into computers and technology. He could drone on and on for hours about megabytes and RAM and stuff that bored her to tears.

That T.J. had been a bookish, quiet guy who rarely loosened the leash on his life. His reticence and caution had intrigued her in those days. But the man standing before her now had done a complete one-eighty. He had a dangerous sexiness in the way he stood, the smile playing on his lips.

“What, uh…What are you doing here?” Gabby said, the syllables a little harsher than she intended. T.J. Shepherd’s appearance on the doorstep of the Bonaparte mansion was about as incongruous as a hippo in a ballet.

Not that he looked anything like a hippo or anything that would belong in a ballet. Heck, if it hadn’t been for his eyes, those ocean-colored green-blue eyes of his, she wouldn’t have believed it was really him. He didn’t look one bit like the nerdy guy she remembered from high school.

She shook her head, and found her wits again. For Pete’s sake, this was T.J. She’d known him practically from birth.

“I had an appointment with Mr. Bonaparte,” he said, interrupting her wayward thoughts. He thumbed toward the door.

“But…I thought you lived in Boston or something.”

The boy she had known and the man she saw now were two different people. The one who had left Chandler’s Cove for college had been a scrawny guy with glasses and an affinity for buttoned-up polos. In a weird way, she’d liked that buttoned-up side of him. It seemed to dare her to figure out what it would take to get T.J. to unbutton.

The man standing before her now was as far from buttoned-up as he was from the moon. Taller, broader, and more defined, as if Channing Tatum had morphed into T.J.’s body. He still had the same eyes and sharp, lean features she remembered, only now they danced with hidden secrets and a sexy tease. And when he’d smiled at her—

Well, she wasn’t here to think about that. Not at all.

“I’m sort of between residences,” T.J. said, and once again she reined in her runaway thoughts. “I’m meeting with Mr. Bonaparte about a…potential job. I’ve been here for a few days, visiting my grandma at the same time, and I thought I’d take the opportunity to call on Mr. Bonaparte. Since he travels so much he’s pretty hard to catch.”

T.J.’s explanation made sense but a part of Gabby thought there was a piece missing to the story. He’d been gone a long time and his return felt, well, sudden. Maybe because seeing him had hit her with a hot, fast rush of something that sure as heck wasn’t nostalgia.

“What about you? What are you doing here?” he asked.

Oh yeah, back to the reason she was here. Which had nothing to do with ghosts from the past. Ghosts who had cut off all communication, at a time when she was hurt and vulnerable.

“I had a message that Mr. Bonaparte wanted me to come up and see him. Even though he’s lived here for years, I’ve never met him. I’m hoping he wants to commission me for some artwork or something. I don’t know. The message wasn’t really specific. Anyway, I’m…here.” God, she was rambling. What was wrong with her? She never rambled.

It had to be her nerves. A lot rode on this appointment. Sure, she had that gallery in Chicago that wanted to take a look at her work, but that was far from a done deal. Especially with Gabby’s reputation hanging in the balance after that stunt she’d pulled last year. She’d grown up a lot since then and had a whisper of a second chance. She couldn’t let anyone or anything distract her, or she’d be forced to go back to that job working in her mother’s lingerie store. Helping a woman in her eighties wrangle her way into a set of Spanx wasn’t quite how Gabby envisioned using her creative skills.

T.J. took a step closer. She swallowed hard. Reminded herself to breathe.

Maybe she was just hormonal, because she’d never reacted to him quite like that before, or maybe it was just that he had filled out, in a lot of ways and in all the right places. Or maybe it was because he had this confidence, a demeanor that said he owned this little space of the world, and that was intoxicating as hell.

“We should get some dinner, get caught up,” he said.

His proposal sent a trickle of temptation through her veins. “I…I can’t. I’m leaving for California tomorrow. A cross-country art journey kind of thing.” Journey was an understatement. This road trip was a chance at an art show that could take her career to the next level.

“That’s too bad.”

“Yeah. Maybe next time.”

“Our timing was never right, was it?” he said.

She shrugged. “We were two different people then.”

“Sometimes opposites attract—”

“And sometimes they repel. That I remember from chemistry class.” And from past history with T.J. He might be sexy as hell now, but she would bet dollars to gigabytes that he was still as technology focused as ever—even more so since it was his livelihood.

She was no longer the girl who’d talked him into skinny dipping in Geraldine Martin’s pool. Or the one who had convinced him to make them fake IDs so they could go bar hopping during junior year.

She was finally on the right track, rather than getting derailed by bad decisions. And she had no plans to entangle her world with T.J.’s, not after the way he had let her down years ago.

“Is that all you remember from chemistry class?” he asked.

No, she also remembered his patience in explaining the complex theories. The way he’d answered her every question, never making her feel stupid for not understanding chemistry. The hours he’d spent after school helping her study. How she’d begun to notice him and wonder about him, and want more time with him. But then when he had finally asked her to go out with him, she’d panicked and told him it would be better if they just stayed friends. Was that why he had let her down years later?

“That was all a long time ago,” she said finally. “Anyway, I need to get to my meeting with Mr. Bonaparte.”

She started to brush past him, but he put a hand on her arm. Just a whisper of a touch, but it jolted her. “Are you going by yourself to California?”

“I put up an ad, looking for a co-pilot. You know, someone to split the driving and the cost.” Babbling again. For Pete’s sake, what was wrong with her? Since when did a touch on her arm turn her into a chattering fool? She nodded toward the door. “Anyway, I better get to my appointment with Mr. Bonaparte.”

T.J.’s gaze held hers for a long time, as if he wanted to say something else. Then he slipped on his sunglasses again and gave her a nod. “Maybe another time.”

She almost agreed—a polite, auto response—then she stopped herself. Years ago, T.J. used to be her good friend, the person who had helped her survive puberty and high school and her mother’s constant chaos. But after T.J. left for college and Gabby stayed behind in Chandler’s Cove, they had lost contact and their friendship. She’d sent him a couple of emails, left him a voicemail when she’d needed him more than ever, and there’d been…nothing in return.

He completely ignored her efforts at staying in touch.

That had hurt. T.J. had been the one person she’d truly, completely trusted, the only one who knew the real Gabby. And when her life had crumbled and she’d needed him most—

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