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The Billionaire's Contract Bride
By Carol Marinelli
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"They're never going to believe us." Taking Aiden's hand, Tabitha stepped out of the car, her mouth literally dropping open as she watched the guests milling on the steps of the grand old Melbourne church like a parade of shimmering peacocks.
"Why ever not?" Aiden didn't look remotely fazed, waving cheerfully to a couple of familiar faces in the crowd.
"They're never going to believe us," Tabitha repeated, after taking a deep steadying breath, "because I don't look like a society wife."
"Thank God," Aiden muttered. "Anyway, you're not a society wife; you're merely pretending to be my girlfriend. So if it's any consolation, you're allowed to have sex appeal. They'll think you're my last wild fling before I finally settle down."
"They'll see through it straight away," Tabitha argued, refusing to believe it could all be so simple. "I'm a dancer, Aiden, not an actress. Why on earth did I agree to this?"
"You had no choice," Aiden reminded her, before she could bolt back into the car. They started to walk, albeit slowly, towards the gathering throng. "I played the part of your devoted fiancé at your school reunion in return for you accompanying me to my cousin's wedding. Simple."
"No," Tabitha said, pulling Aiden's hand so he had to slow down. "Simple would be telling your family that you're gay. It's the twenty-first century, for heaven's sake; it's not a crime any more!"
"Try telling that to my father. Honestly, Tabitha, it's better this way, and don't worry for a second about not looking the part - you look fabulous."
"Courtesy of your credit card," Tabitha scolded. "You shouldn't have spent all that money, Aiden."
"Cheap at half the price; anyway, I wouldn't dream of throwing you into the snake pit that is my family without a designer frock and shoes. Oh, come on, Tabitha, enjoy yourself. You love a good wedding!"
After slipping into the pew and idly scanning the Order of Service, Tabitha let her jade eyes work the congregation, and though it galled her to admit it she had never been more grateful for the small fortune that had been spent on her outfit. What had seemed appropriate for the multitude of weddings she had attended this year definitely wouldn't have done today.
Her dress had been a true find, the flimsy chiffon fabric a near perfect match for her Titian hair, which she wore today pinned back from her face but cascading around her shoulders. Her lips and nails were painted a vibrant coral that matched her impossibly high strappy sandals and beaded bag perfectly, and Tabitha felt a million dollars. It was a colour scheme Tabitha would normally never even have considered, with her long red curls and pale skin, yet for once the gushing sales assistant hadn't been lying: it all went beautifully.
The guests that packed the church seemed to ooze money and style - for the most part, at least. But there were more than a couple of garish fashion mistakes to giggle over that even Tabitha recognised - born, she assumed, from a bottomless wallet and an utter disregard for taste. Aiden took great delight in pointing out each and every one, rather too loudly.
An incredibly tall woman with the widest hat imaginable chose to sit directly in front of Tabitha, which ruined any hope of a decent view of the proceedings. But even with Aiden's and Tabitha's combined critical eyes there wasn't even a hint of a fashion faux pas in sight on this ravishing creature. Height obviously didn't bother this woman either, judging by the razor-sharp stilettos strapped to her slender feet. Oh, well, Tabitha shrugged, it must be nice to have so much confidence.
Only when the woman turned to watch the bridal procession did Tabitha start with recognition. Amy Dellier was one of the top models in Australia, and, judging by the extremely favourable write-ups in all the glossies Tabitha devotedly devoured, she was all set for international fame. Suddenly the golden chiffon and coral which she had been so pleased with only a few moments ago seemed a rather paltry offering, standing so close to this stunning woman.
As the organ thundered into the 'Bridal March' they all stood, every eye turning as the bride entered and started her slow walk down the aisle. Every eye, that was, except Tabitha's. She had seen more brides this summer than a wedding photographer. Instead, some morbid fascination found her gaze constantly straying to Amy Dellier. She truly was beautiful - stunningly so. Not a line or blemish marred her perfect complexion, and her make-up highlighted the vivid aquamarine of her eyes.
"Excuse me." A deep voice dragged her back to the proceedings. "I need to get past."
The voice was deep and sensual, and as she turned her head Tabitha almost braced herself for disappointment. It probably belonged to some portly fifty-year-old who did voice-over commercials part-time. But there was nothing disappointing about the face that met hers. If Amy Dellier was the epitome of feminine perfection, then standing before Tabitha was the male version. Jet hair was brushed back from a strong haughty face, and high cheekbones forced her attention to the darkest eyes she had ever seen. At first glance they seemed black, but closer inspection revealed a deep indigo, framed with thick black spiky eyelashes. The heady scent of his cologne and his immaculate grooming indicated he was freshly shaven, but the dusky shadow on his strong jaw conjured images of bandanas and tequila, a world away from the sharp expensive suit he was wearing. He looked sultry and masculine - animal, in fact. As if no amount of grooming, money or trappings could ever take away the earthy, primal essence of man.
"Of course." Swallowing nervously, she pushed her legs back against the pew in an attempt to let him past - but her bag was blocking the way, with Aiden's foot on the strap. Aiden, totally mesmerised by the wedding, was happily oblivious to the obstruction he was causing.
"Sorry." His apology was mere politeness, exactly as one would expect when a stranger had to push past - the same as at the movies, when the inevitable hordes returned with their dripping ice-creams and you had to lift your legs up and squash back into the seat to let them past. Except demi-gods like this never appeared at the movies Tabitha attended - at least not off screen - and this moment seemed to be going on for ever.
If he didn't want to fall, he had no choice but to steady himself briefly on Tabitha's bare arm as he stepped over the small bag. The pews were impossibly close, each jammed to capacity with guests. As his hand touched the flesh of her arm Tabitha found she was holding her breath; two spots of colour flamed on her carefully rouged cheeks as he brushed past her, the scent of him filling her nostrils.
Aiden turned then, a smile of recognition on his face as he mouthed hello to this delicious stranger. The bride was passing, and he had no choice but to stand between Tabitha and Aiden as the procession slowly passed.
It was probably only a matter of seconds. It seemed to last for ever.
Never had she felt such awareness - the whole focus of her attention honing in on this everyday occurrence. Her skin was stinging as she stood next to him, every nerve in her being standing rigid to attention, so painfully aware of his close proximity. But all too soon it was over; the procession had dutifully passed, allowing him to slip into the pew in front and Tabitha to finally breathe again.
Excerpted from The Billionaire's Contract Bride by Carol Marinelli Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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