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"If any man can show just cause why this man and this woman should not be joined in holy matrimony, let him speak now or forever hold his peace."
Lena Fuller's stomach rolled as if she'd just gorged herself on junk food and then gotten on the worst roller coaster. Was it her imagination, or was every person inside the church holding their breath?
No, wait, that was just her.
But she wasn't imagining that everyone was staring at her. Although she supposed wearing a wedding dress made that a given.
She looked across at the man she was marrying. Wyn Rand. Flawless features. Aristocratic D.C. family. challenging job. Limitless future.
Wyn was the perfect man for her. Nothing like the men her mother had paraded through her childhood. He respected her and appreciated her intelligence. He didn't treat her like a piece of meat, assuming the only thing she was good for was warming his bed.
All of her friends were jealous that she'd snagged such a wonderful man. so why were the butterflies threatening to break through her stomach in a replay of Alien?
Her eyes drifted from Wyn with his pearly-white smile and confident gaze to the line of men standing diagonally behind him. Her gaze skipped purposely to Colt Douglas, one of her best friends.
He was three back in line, put there because she'd asked Wyn to include him in the wedding party. Wyn had never liked Colt, although Lena still didn't understand why. But Wyn had reluctantly acquiesced because it had been so important to her. She wantedneeded Colt standing beside her on this important day.
She wasn't sure what she was looking for, maybe a smile of encouragement or a calm certainty she couldn't seem to find inside herself. It definitely wasn't the intense, laser-sharp stare Colt leveled at her. Nor the beginnings of a frown as the space between his brows wrinkled. Lena felt an answering pucker pull at her face.
No, wait, she should be smiling.
"I object." The small voice behind her quivered, but everyone heard the words anyway.
And suddenly Lena could breathe again.
Wyn's shocked gaze morphed into a glare that he directed somewhere over her shoulder. Something in the back of the church clattered loudly against the stone floor. The preacher sputtered, "Excuse me? II've never actually had anyone object."
No, probably not.
The preacher looked at her with a befuddled expression, as if she could tell him what to do next. As if this happened to her on a regular basis.
"I can't let you do this, Lena. I'm in love with Wyn. We've been having an affair for the last two months." Mitzi, her youngest aunt's oldest daughter, raced from the line of bridesmaids to stand between her and Wyn.
Lena focused in on her cousin's face. Peaches-and-cream beautiful, her eyes sparkling with the innocence of youth. An innocence she had no doubt this girl was about to lose. Wyn's mother was not going to be happy, and the woman was connected enough to make Mitzi's life hell. Lena tried to dredge up some sympathy for her but couldn't.
She watched mutely as Wyn attempted to pull Mitzi out from between them, to make her disappear, as if he could make the problem go away.
He hadn't even tried to deny it. And deep down, Lena wasn't surprised. Wyn didn't ask forgiveness of anyone especially his future wife. Former future wife.
Mitzi leaned forward, straining against Wyn's hold. "I'm so sorry." yeah, right.
"I didn't mean for it to happen, Lena, honest. I ran into him at a club one weekend. We had a few drinks. one thing led to another."
Despite the shock and pressure suffusing her chest, Lena's own temper began to break through. How could this all be happening? on her wedding day.
"If you tell me he slipped and his dick fell into your vagina I'm going to strangle you."
A nervous titter went up from the congregation beside her. Lena shot the entire mob a glare. Several of them stirred, the century-old wooden pews creaking beneath the weight of their guilty consciences.
"Mitzi, shut up." The first words Wyn bothered to speak and they were seriously less than helpful.
Around Lena chaos finally erupted. A cacophony of noise reached out to grab her. Pain burst through her chest when she looked into Wyn's eyes and realized that it was true. Guests talked to, at and above each other, making it difficult to pick out single voices from the crowd.
Her mother's high-pitched squeal, "I always said your daughter was a whore," joined her aunt's "At least she isn't a stuck-up snob who thinks she's better than everyone else."
Lena cringed at her aunt's words. She was not a snob. She just preferred not to associate with her mother's family. Frankly, they were all cut from the same self-absorbed, overly emotional cloth and she just didn't have the energy to deal with them. Putting up with her mother was draining enough.
Two of her cousins, Barley and Matthew, grabbed Mitzi's arms and tried to pull her away from the mass of people pouring up onto the steps of the sanctuary. Lena's best friends had rounded on the poor girl, their faces livid as they yelled at her for ruining Lena's wedding. And through it all, Wyn wouldn't let Mitzi go.
Lena stood in the center of it all, the motion and noise rushing past her, completely ignored.
Lena stared at her cousin. Nineteen. The girl was at least eight years younger than Wyn. And in maturity and experience, he was light-years ahead.
A red haze filtered across Lena's vision. She closed the few steps that had separated her from Wyn and hauled back and slapped him. "Bastard."
Wyn looked stunned. Unfortunately, the livid red handprint across his cheek did nothing to dampen his perfect New England aristocratic good looks. For that, she hauled off and slapped him again.
Spinning on her heel, Lena tried to walk away, but the crowd of people pressed in around her. Her mother. Her cousin. Her best friends. Wyn. Wyn's mother. The people who moments ago had ignored her in favor of yelling at each other suddenly wouldn't let her leave.
Their fingers plucked at her. Someone stepped on her train. The dress had cost her six months' salary but had been worth every penny. She'd dreamed of what she would wear on this day ever since she was six, and the reality had been perfect. Had being the operative word.
The nasty sound of ripping satin and tulle made her cringe and the ping of crystal beads as they hit the marble floor made her want to scream. Her body jerked, straining against the phantom hold. And then she was blessedly free.
People, flower petals and sequins trailed in her wake as she raced down the aisle. She stumbled on the torn train, stopping long enough to scoop up the material and throw it over her elbow.
God, she must look a sight.
Her veil clouded around her face, obscuring her vision and irritating the hell out of her. Lena reached up, yanked the thing off and threw it at someone as she flew by.
"Don't do anything rash, Lena. I'm sure you can work this out, dear," Diane, Wyn's mother, yelled behind her. The woman must really be panicked if she was willing to make that kind of public declaration. Diane was the perfect D.C. wife who spent her days organizing charitable events but didn't have an identity outside of her family and husband. Her face was frozen in place by too much Botox. Her hair was pulled back so tightly Lena wondered how the woman didn't have a permanent headache. And even on this day, her trademark single strand of pearls draped across the conservative neckline of her plum-colored dress.
That was what she'd almost signed up for. Relief washed over her.
But it was short-lived. Everywhere she looked there were people. Family, strangers, friends, enemies. All crying, yelling and full of pity.
She couldn't take it. It was all too much.
Pressing her hands over her ears, Lena looked for a way out.
She was halfway across the church when a calm in the center of the storm appeared. Colt stood beside the heavy wooden doors at the back of the church. His long and languid body was propped against the elegantly carved frame, both hands shoved into the pockets of his tux pants, one ankle crossed over the other as if he was just hanging out there, waiting.
He wasn't yelling. He wasn't freaking out.
She met his eyes, beautiful calm green eyes, so familiar and friendly. No pity or sorrow or anger or anything else, just Colt.
Relief pulsed beneath her skin, along with the urgent need to get out.
Her heels clicked against hard stone as she hurried toward Colt. Skidding to a halt, she looked into his eyes and said breathlessly, "Take me home."
"Get me out of this thing," she growled the minute her apartment door closed.
Not waiting for Colt to do as she'd asked, Lena craned her arms behind her, scrabbling at the tiny row of buttons running down the length of her spine. She struggled, twisting, trying in vain to reach them all and rid herself of the mountain of satin she'd crushed into the tiny passenger seat of his Porsche. That car definitely had not been made to hold two people and a wedding gown.
Brushing her fingers out of the way, Colt said, "Let me," and finished the job for her.
The slight tremor in her hands did not go unnoticed and Colt fought the urgeonce againto drive back to the church and beat the shit out of that sorry excuse for a man she'd almost married. The only thing that stopped him was knowing Lena wouldn't want him to make a scene. She hated drama. Never wanted to be the center of attention. While it would definitely make him feel better, it wouldn't do her any good.
He just hated to see her upset.
The bottom button had barely popped free before she was pushing the voluminous mess off her shoulders and down her body. Pulling at the slip beneath, she left the lump of satin behind. Miraculously, it retained its shape, a sad white bell of material with a hole where her body should have been.
She blew out a sigh of relief, pushing the swell of her breasts against the edge of the full-length bra that skimmed over her hips and waist. Colt tried to ignore the way his mouth went dry, telling himself it was a normal male reaction to any woman undressing in front of him.
This was Lena. They'd been friends since they were kids. And if he'd occasionally woken from erotic dreams about her in the past, he told himself that it was simply the pitfall of having a female friend. Men thought about sex all the time, right? It was inevitable that his brain would put two and two together eventually.