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He was checking his phone.
Zoe Parker twitched with irritation as she watched the groom's best man thumb a few buttons on his smart phone. Discreetly, at least, but honestly. Her sister Millie and her husband-to-be Chase were saying their vows, and Aaron Bryant was texting.
He was unbelievable. He was also a complete jerk. A sexy jerk, unfortunately; tall, broad and exuding authority out of every pore. He also exuded a smug arrogance that made Zoe want to kick him in the shin. Or maybe a little higher. If she could have, she would have reached across the train of her sister's elegant cream wedding dress and snatched the mobile out of his fingers. Long, lean fingers with nicely square-cut nails, but who was noticing? She certainly wasn't.
She turned back to the minister, determinedly giving him her full attention. Maybe Aaron the Ass would pick up a few pointers. Honestly, the man was a gazillionaire and was a regularly attender at Manhattan's most elite social functionsdid he really need a brush-up course on basic etiquette? Based on his behaviour since he'd strode into the rehearsal forty-five minutes late last night, clearly impatient and bored before he'd so much as said hello, Zoe was thinking yes.
She glanced at Millie, who thankfully had not noticed the phone. She looked beautiful, radiant in a way Zoe had never seen before, her eyes shining, her cheeks flushed. Everything about her was happy.
Zoe smothered the very tiny pang of something almost like envy. She wasn't looking for Mr Right. She'd gone for too many Mr Wrongs to think he existed, or to want to find him if he did. Although admittedly Millie's almost-husband was pretty close. Chase Bryant was charming, genuinely nice and very attractive.
Just like his brother.
Instinctively Zoe slid her gaze back to Aaron. He was still on the phone. Forget charming or nice but, yes, he was most definitely attractive. A faint frown creased his forehead and his lips thinned. He had nice lips, even pursed as they were in obvious irritation. They were full, sculpted, yet completely masculine too. In fact, everything about this irritating man was incredibly masculine, from the breadth of his shoulders to the near-black of his eyes and hair to the long, lean curve of his back and thigh
'By the power vested in me, I now pronounce you husband and wife.'
Zoe yanked her gaze upwards from her rather leisurely perusal of Aaron Bryant's butt in time to see Millie and Chase kissand Aaron slide his phone back into the side pocket of his suit blazer.
The congregation broke into spontaneous and joyous applause and Millie linked arms with Chase as she turned to leave the church. Aaron followed and, as maid of honour, Zoe had to accompany him up the aisle. She slid her arm through his, realising it was the first time she'd actually touched him since he'd breezed in too late to the rehearsal to practise going through the recessional together.
Now she was annoyingly conscious of the strength of his arm linked in hers, his powerful shoulder inches from her cheekand her fingers inches from his pocket. With the phone.
Zoe didn't think too much about what she was doing. On the pretext of adjusting her bridesmaid's dress, she slid her arm more securely in Aaron's and her fingers slipped into his pocket and curled round the phone.
Chase's other brother Luke and his fiancée Aurelie fell in step behind them and they processed out onto the church steps and the summer sunshine of Fifth Avenue. Aaron pulled away from her without so much as a glance, and in one fluid movement Zoe took the phone from his pocket and hid it in the folds of her dress.
Not that it mattered. To all intents and purposes, according to Aaron she'd ceased to exist. He was gazing at his brother as if he were a puzzle he didn't understand and absent-mindedly patting his pocket. His phoneless pocket.
Zoe took the opportunity to tuck the phone among the blossoms of her bouquet. A little judicious tugging of ribbon and lace, and you wouldn't even know it was there.
Not that Zoe even knew what she was going to do with Aaron Bryant's phone. She just wanted to see his face when he realised he didn't have it.
Apparently that moment wasn't going to be now, because someone approached him and he dropped his hand from his pocket and turned to talk to whatever schmoozy bigwig wanted to hear about Bryant Enterprises, blah, blah, blah. This was so not her crowd.
It was Millie's crowd, though, and it was certainly Chase's. Millie was marrying into the Bryant family, a trio of brothers who regularly made the tabloids and gossip pages. Aaron certainly did; when Zoe flicked through the mags during the slow periods at the coffee shop, she almost always saw a picture of him with some bodacious blonde. Judging from the way he'd dismissed her upon introduction last night with one swiftly eloquent head-to-toe perusal, skinny brunettes were not his type.
'Zoe, the photographer wants some shots of the wedding party.' Amanda, Zoe's mother, elegant if a little fraught in pale blue silk, hurried up to her. 'And I think Millie's train needs adjusting, darling. That's your job, you know.'
'Yes, Mum, I know.' This was the second time she'd been Millie's maid of honour. She might not be as organised as her sisterwell, not even remotelybut she could handle her duties. She'd certainly given Millie a great hen party, at any rate.
Smiling at the memory of her uptight sister singing karaoke in the East Village, Zoe headed towards the wedding party assembled on the steps of the church. The photographer wanted them to walk two blocks to Central Park, and Chase looked like he'd rather relax with a beer.
'Come on, Chase,' Zoe said as she came to stand next to him. 'You'll be glad of the photos a couple of months from now. You and Millie can invite me over and have a slideshow.'
Chase's mouth quirked in a smile. 'I'm not sure who that would torture more.'
Zoe laughed softly and went to adjust Millie's aforementioned train. 'Has Mum sent you over here to fuss?' Millie guessed, and Zoe smiled.
'I never fuss.'
'That's true, I suppose,' Millie said teasingly and they started walking towards Central Park. 'You don't know the meaning of the word.'
An hour later the photos were over and Zoe was circulating through the opulent ballroom of The Plaza Hotel, a glass of champagne in hand. She'd been keeping an eye out for Aaron, because she still wanted to see his face when he realised he didn't have his phone. During the photos she'd taken the opportunity to remove the phone from her bouquet and put it in her clutch bag. The little luminous screen had glowed accusingly at her; there were eleven missed calls and eight new texts. Clearly Aaron was a very important person. Was it a scorned lover begging him back, or some boring business? Either way, he could surely do without it for an hour or so.
It was easy enough to keep track of him in the crowded ballroom; he was a good two inches taller than any other man there, and even without the height his sense of authority and power had every female eye turning towards him longinglyand Zoe was pretty sure he knew it. He walked with the arrogant ease of someone who had never needed to look far for a dateor a willing bed partner.
Zoe's mouth twisted downwards. She really disliked this man, and they hadn't even had a conversation yet. But they surely would; they were seated next to each other at the wedding party's table. Although, come to think of it, Aaron seemed perfectly capable of ignoring someone seated next to him. He'd texted during a wedding ceremony, after all.
Smiling, she patted her bag. She looked forward to seeing the expression on his face when he realised he didn't have his phoneand she did.
Aaron Bryant surveyed the crowd with edgy impatience. How long would he have to stay? It was his brother's wedding, he knew, and he was best mantwo compelling reasons to stay till the bitter end. On the other hand, he had a potential disaster brewing with some of his European investments and he knew he needed to keep close tabs on all the interested parties if Bryant Enterprises was going to weather this crisis. Automatically he slid his hand into his pocket where he kept his phone, only to remember with a flash of annoyance and a tiny needling of alarm that it was gone. He'd had it during the wedding, and he was never one to leave his phone anywhere. So where had it gone? A pickpocket on the way to Central Park? It was possible, he supposed, and very frustrating.
People had started moving towards the tables, and with a resigned sigh Aaron decided he'd stay at least through dinner. His phone, thankfully, was backed up on his computer, and he could access everything he needed at the office. It was password-protected, so he didn't need to worry about information leaks, and as soon as he got to the office he could put a trace on it. Still, he didn't like being without it. He was never without his phone, and too much was brewing for him not to be in touch with his clients for very long.
He approached the wedding-party table, steeling himself for an interminable hour or two. Millie and Chase were wrapped up in their own world, which he couldn't really fault, and his relationship with his brother Luke's fiancée Aurelie was, at best, awkward.
A few months ago he'd tried to intimidate her into leaving Luke, and it hadn't worked. He'd been trying to protect Luke and, if he were honest, Bryant Enterprises. Aurelie was a washed-up pop star whom the tabloids ridiculed on a daily basis, not someone Aaron had wanted associated with his family. Admittedly, she'd staged something of a comeback in the last year, but relations with both Luke and his fiancée were still rather strained.
He slid into his seat and offered both Luke and Aurelie a tight-lipped smile. He couldn't manage much more; his mind was buzzing with the stress of work and the half-dozen crises that were poised to explode into true chaos. A woman came to sit next to him and Aaron glanced at her without interest.
Zoe Parker, Millie's sister and maid of honour. He hadn't spoken to her last night or this morning, but he supposed he'd have to make some conversation over the meal. She was pretty enough, with wide grey eyes and long, dark hair, although her skinny, sinewy figure wasn't generally his preference. She glanced at him now, her lips curving in a strangely knowing smile.
'How are things, Aaron? You don't mind if I call you Aaron?'
'Of course not.' He forced a small smile back. 'We're practically family, after all.'
'Practically family,' she repeated thoughtfully. 'That's right.' She flicked her long, almost-black hair over her shoulders and gave him another smile. Flirtatious? Noknowing. Like she knew something about him, some secret.
Dismissing her, Aaron turned to the walnut and blue-cheese salad artfully arranged on the plate in front of him. He'd just taken his first bite when he heard a familiar buzzan incoming text or voicemail. Instinctively he reached into his pocket, only to silently curse. It couldn't be his phone that was buzzing. He heard the sound again, and saw it was coming from Zoe's lacy little clutch bag that she'd left by the side of her plate.
He nodded towards it. 'I think your phone is ringing.'
She glanced at him, eyebrows raised. 'I didn't bring my phone.'
Aaron stared at her, completely nonplussed. 'Well,' he said, turning back to his salad, 'something's buzzing in your bag.'
'That sounds like an interesting euphemism.' Aaron didn't reply, although he felt a surprising little kick of something. Not lust, precisely; interest, perhaps, but no more than a flicker. 'Anyway,' she continued, her tone breezy, 'that's not my phone.'
There was something about the way she said it, so knowingly, so provocatively, that Aaron turned towards her sharply, suspicion hardening inside him. She smiled with saccharine sweetness, her eyes glinting with mischief.
'Whose phone is it, then?' Aaron asked pleasantly, or at least he hoped he sounded pleasant. This woman was starting to seriously annoy him.
Zoe wasn't able to reply for someone had tapped their fork against their wine glass and, with a round of cheers, Millie and Chase bowed to popular demand and kissed. Aaron turned back to his salad, determined to ignore her.
The phone buzzed again. Zoe made a tsking noise and reached for her bag. 'Someone gets a lot of messages,' she said and, opening the little clutch, she took out his mobile.
The expression on Aaron Bryant's face was, Zoe decided, priceless. His mouth had dropped open and he stared slack-jawed at the sight of his phone in her hand. She glanced at the screen, saw there were now fourteen texts and nine voice-mails, and with a shake of her head she slipped it back into her bag.
She glanced back at Aaron and saw he'd recovered his composure. His eyes were narrowed to black slits, his mouth compressed into a very hard line. He looked as if he were carved from marble, hewn from granitehard and unyielding and, yes, maybe even a little scary. But beautiful too, like a darkly terrifying angel.
Zoe felt her heart give a little tremor and she reached for her bread roll as if she hadn't a care in the world. 'Where,' Aaron asked in a low voice that thrummed through his chest and through Zoe, 'did you get that phone?'
She swallowed a piece of roll and smiled. 'Where do you think I got it?'
His eyes blazed dark fire as he glared at her. 'From my pocket.'
He shook his head slowly. 'So you're a thief.'
She tilted her head to one side as if considering his statement, although her heart was beating hard and adrenalin pumped through her. 'That's a bit harsh.'
'You stole my phone.'
'I prefer to think of it as borrowing.'
She leaned forward, anger replacing any alarm she'd felt. 'Yes, borrowing itfor the duration of my sister and your brother's wedding reception. Because, no matter how much of a bigwig business tycoon you might be, Aaron Bryant, you don't text during a wedding ceremony. And I don't want you ruining this day for Millie and Chase.'
He stared at her, colour washing his high cheekbones, his eyes glittering darkly. He was furious, utterly furious, and Zoe felt a little frisson offear? Maybe, but something else too. Something like excitement. Smiling, she patted her bag with the still-buzzing phone. Good Lord, he received a lot of calls. 'You can have it back after Millie and Chase leave for their honeymoon.'
Aaron's expression turned thunderous and he leaned forward, every taut line of his body radiating tightly leashed anger. 'I'll have it back now.'
'I don't think so.'
She saw him reach for the bag and quickly she grabbed it and put it in her lap. Aaron arched an incredulous eyebrow.
'You think that's going to stop me?' he murmured, and it sounded almost seductive. Zoe felt a sudden, prickling awareness raise goosebumps all over her body. Before she could make any answer, Aaron slid his hand under the table. Zoe stiffened as she felt his hand slide along her thigh. The man was audacious, she had to give him that. Audacious and fearless.