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By Jenna Bayley-Burke
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Jenna Bayley-Burke
All rights reserved.
"You're getting married." Miranda Rose choked on the words, her throat constricting, stomach twisting, and soul shriveling like a lone grape forgotten on the vine.
"Tomorrow." Callum Kerr's voice held more excitement than she'd heard since their law school graduation, when he'd transitioned from student to textile mogul. From the stillness in the background, he was most likely closed in his office just like she was, only his feet were probably on the desk. And he was smiling. She could tell from the warmth in his voice.
She cleared her throat, refusing to betray any emotion. He didn't know she'd spent nearly a decade in love with him, and now was obviously not the time to share that unnecessary tidbit. "Do you want me to review your prenuptial agreement?"
"You're a probate attorney. Besides, I'm not bothering with it."
She sat up straighter, fear for him filling the cracks of her broken heart. "You can't do that, Cal. If this woman doesn't want to sign one, then she's only after your money."
"Don't worry, I know what I'm doing. So, you'll come to Vegas for my wedding?"
"You're getting married in Las Vegas?" Oh, his mother must be thrilled. But if Bridie Kerr couldn't keep her only son from eloping to Vegas, what hope did his friend with benefits have? Benefits about to be revoked, permanently.
"Tomorrow at eight. Bring the dress you wore to Dave and Tina's wedding."
"You want me to drop everything and fly to Nevada to watch you marry a complete stranger without a prenuptial agreement while I wear an old bridesmaid dress? Have you lost your mind?"
"I need my best girl standing beside me. Besides, you said you'd wear it again. That's why I had the zipper fixed and sent it back to you."
She dropped her forehead to her desk blotter, just how that zipper had been broken flashing through her mind. For almost ten years, they'd been enjoying delicious trysts whenever a wedding or christening put them in the same city. Their liaisons were the only kind of relationship she had time for if she hoped to make partner next year. And now he'd ripped them away, and wanted her to watch as he put up a white picket fence to keep her out.
"Which flowers were your favorite?"
Miranda looked up, seeing the dozen different vases of blooms perched on every available surface of her office. When she'd picked up the phone to call him it had been to ask why her usual birthday bouquet had arrived a day early and morphed into a collection of mismatched arrangements. Had it really only been minutes ago?
Her throat tightened, as if he were choking the hope from her. "They're all lovely, thank you."
"You must have a favorite."
She did. Him. The way things had been. Drama-free rendezvous and a birthday tradition of exchanging flowers for pizza since their birthdays were only a day apart. "The bouquet of multicolored roses you usually send is my favorite."
"Truly." The scents from the mélange of flowers clashed, the air in her office growing thick and sickeningly sweet. "Since you'll be in Vegas for your birthday on Saturday, should I send you pizza there? Or will your bride object to gifts from former lovers?"
He laughed, rich and full. "You can take me out for pizza since you'll be there."
"We're not going on a date during your honeymoon." She got up from her desk, needing to move her limbs to let out the feeling of being trapped, forever in love with a man who'd never even considered loving her back.
"It's going to be a great weekend. I'm flying everyone in for the wedding, but I'll make sure we get plenty of time to ourselves."
He couldn't have hurt her deeper if he'd punched her in the stomach.
"Cal, if you do this, if you get married, our relationship has to change." She nearly choked on the words. She wished she could threaten never to see him again if he went through with it, but they shared three godchildren and dozens of friends. He'd gifted her with a future of having her feelings scraped raw like knuckles on a cheese grater.
"It's a change for the better. Do you think Anna is old enough to be a flower girl?"
"She falls as much as she walks. It might be nice for Rob and Molly to have some alone time before the new baby comes. I could watch her so they could have a night to themselves." Having her favorite baby girl around would be a welcome distraction.
"You'll be busy taking care of me, not babysitting. We'll make the wedding no kids."
"You could use some time getting to know your goddaughter. At some point you may want to introduce her to your new bride. Assuming you keep the new Mrs. Kerr around after she fleeces you of your inheritance. No point in showing the kids your mistakes."
Silence hung in the air and she hoped her words hit home. "Jealousy does not become you."
She didn't bother denying it. "You're a fool to rush into marriage without a prenup so soon after losing your father. Was this gold digger even interested in you before you went from heir to principal?"
"I have this handled. I just need you there to handle me a little bit."
She gritted her teeth and shook her head. She cared about him too much to let her own grief get in the way of his future. "I'll be there, but I'm serious: I won't put my hands on a married man. I'm only going so I can talk you out of this."
"My mind is made up, doll. Though I look forward to all the ways you might persuade me to see things your way." His low rumble of a laugh vibrated through her and a shiver of uneasy anticipation straightened her spine.
She tightened her grip on the phone and cleared her throat. She couldn't let him know his little announcement had flattened her hopes like some kind of emotional drive-by. "You go ahead and dream about how you'd like me to convince you to stay single. Because if you go through with this, Cal, I swear on all that is holy, those dreams are all you'll ever have of me."
"She'll do it." Callum Kerr leaned back in his executive chair and steepled his fingers, meeting the stare of his father's executor across the expanse of his desk. "You can tell my loving cousin he won't be inheriting the estate and liquidating it any time soon."
"Two days ago you said you didn't want any part of it, and now you're acting like this is a settled matter. The family trust states that if you are not married by your thirty-fifth birthday, the assets are distributed to the next eligible heir. You only have two days."
"I went to law school, Mickey. I know how to read a trust." Just as he knew his cousin planned to dissolve generations of work to fund his own partying and vacations. Callum had made his own fortune and didn't care to be strong-armed into anything by an archaic family time line, but this wasn't about him.
His godfather leaned forward, the lines on his face deepening with his disappointed expression. "Do you have a plan B?"
Getting married was plan B. His pulse spiked and his gut plummeted. She'd come through, just the way she had at his father's funeral a month ago. She'd been everything he didn't even know he needed in that terrible week. "I'll handle my bride. You handle the rehab rat. Be sure to tell him never to contact me again."
The older man smiled and relaxed into the wingback chair. "I'm not going to bother with him until we're certain you are in a position to inherit."
"I won't let him get within spending distance of the Kerr assets. Offering Callum's to a competitor was the final straw. Those department stores belong to my mother's family, not the Kerrs. I'd gladly hand over what I didn't earn, but he can't have her legacy. That jealous twit is going to finally get what he has coming to him. Nothing."
"Do you know who it is?" Rob, one of their law school classmates, asked as the flight attendant offered a selection of glossy magazines. His wife, Molly, selected a family mag and leaned back in the recliner Cal's jet was outfitted with. "My money is on that florist from the funeral."
Miranda managed a weak smile. That would explain the flower overkill for her birthday. "I don't have any ideas."
From the seat across the aisle Kristin nudged her sleeping husband. Sean hated to fly, so he'd already taken something that seemed to have calmed him a bit too much. "When you were staying at the penthouse before the funeral, there was never anyone you noticed?"
Miranda shook her head and blinked against the memories of that week. His father had died without warning, slumping over his desk during a project meeting. She'd been on this same plane within hours of the phone call when he'd said, "I need you now."
No one had been in the penthouse when she arrived, or the entire week she stayed with him. Just the two of them together, medicating with sex because it was the only thing that seemed to help. Whenever anyone she knew lost a parent it ripped open her scar of being orphaned and taken in by an aunt who'd never wanted children.
And Callum didn't know how to be anything but stoic. She knew that sex was the only emotional release he allowed himself. As if she could cock suck away his unhappiness. She'd been happy to comfort him in any way she could, but learning he was marrying someone else just a month later chilled her blood.
He'd used her. Really, she'd let herself be used. Been one of those stupid girls she hated because they had no self-respect. The only things keeping her head up were that no one knew of their hookup habit and her belief that she could save him from the clutches of the mystery gold digger. She had to.
"You know what I think?" Molly asked before being interrupted by an overhead announcement. She turned away, as if something so mundane trumped the reason Cal was throwing everything away. Well, not everything. Just her.
The flight crew had the nerve to start the safety video, leaving her to wait on what the family therapist had to say. What good was being friends with a psychologist if she could be too distracted by safety procedures to tell you why your friend had lost his ever-loving mind?
Miranda waited patiently through takeoff — while her travel mates enjoyed the champagne and fresh strawberries — and then she couldn't take it another minute.
"Molly, you were saying?" Miranda leaned into the aisle, because she could use any edge right now. The more ammunition she had to keep Cal from this disaster, the better.
"What? Oh, about the mystery bride?" She sipped her orange juice as if they had all the time in the world. "Dollars to doughnuts, his mother found someone he couldn't resist. He always jokes about the heiresses she throws into his path, but I think after losing his father he's more apt to choose a new anchor."
Rob smiled at his wife as he turned toward the rest of the group, all listening intently. "This calls for a baby bet. Hundred bucks says Cal knocks her up before New Year's."
Her friends began a rowdy wager of dates and birthdays. Miranda tried to look the part as she sank back into her seat, nausea hitting her like waves against a battered cliff.
Callum Kerr closed the door to the honeymoon suite and pumped his fist in the air. Everything had gone exactly as he'd planned. He couldn't wait to have his marriage certificate sent to his fortune-hungry cousin. He had half a mind to hand-deliver it to New York tonight, just to watch Dirk grovel.
But his time would be better spent enjoying his new bride, and now that they were both in Las Vegas, the weekend glimmered with potential. Delicious fun could happen on the counter in the kitchen, atop the dining room table, against the rounded columns that broke up the floor-toceiling windows, even against the windows themselves at night with the lights of the Strip sparkling.
He wheeled his suitcase into the bedroom, taking note of the slender armless chaise by the window. Now that was a piece of furniture he could find a use for. He rubbed his hands together as he looked for her, tense with anticipation.
The sound of the shower caught his attention as he moved deeper into the room. The bouquets of roses he'd ordered decorated the bedside tables — one the kaleidoscope of rosebuds she liked, the other a deep red the wedding planner thought would better complement his kilt. Even with the room perfumed by the soft scent of roses, he recognized her crisp scent from years of enjoying Miranda's skin.
Her clothes hung neatly in the open closet, including the white silk dress he'd asked her to bring. Tina's all-white wedding had taken the theme a little too far in his opinion, especially since he'd had to wear a white tux that made him feel like a polar bear, but Miranda had looked amazing in the gathered gown. So good, in fact, he'd broken the zipper in his haste to get her out of it.
Along the vanity she'd lined up the items from her toiletry bag in single-file precision, from her dental floss to her birth control pills. She never overlooked anything, but after the way she reacted on the phone, he'd bet she'd never seen this coming.
He toed off his shoes as he unbuttoned his shirt and then pulled it from his pants. His clothes left a black trail on the white carpet as he slipped into the bathroom. She hadn't bothered with the lights, letting the brightness from the open bedroom door illuminate the posh space. He slid against the wall, watching as she paced behind the clear glass of the oversized steam shower and mumbled to herself.
Her toned body looked delectable as it cut through the wafts of steam, the streaming water darkening her brown hair and molding it to her shoulders. The pale granite framed two sides of the shower, making her lithe figure seem like a sculpture behind a smoky haze.
"Callum, you're not thinking rationally." She spoke so softly he knew she hadn't registered his presence. "No, he'll get defensive. Cal, don't do this." She shook her head and huffed a breath, blowing steam towards the glass. "No, he hates to be told what to do."
That he did. He'd thought by this point she would have seen through his plan. She always overanalyzed things from every possible angle. But this time, she had overlooked one important detail.
"Cal, your father wouldn't want you to do this." She groaned and fisted her hands in her hair, tugging at her scalp. He'd often wondered if she'd ever literally pulled her hair out. "Gah, that's too depressing."
Not to mention he was doing exactly what his father wanted. And his mother, though she thought she should have the only say in his choice of bride. But she was getting what she wanted out of this, so he didn't care to entertain her opinion.
"Cal, there will be no more pizza if you do this. And no 'homemade' dessert."
She even did air quotes around their code word. Something warmed within him, assuring him he'd made the right decision. He crept across the cool marble tile until he could press his hand on the warm glass of the steam shower.
She turned and reached for her tiny container of shower gel. She had half a dozen of those travel bottles with color-coded caps. How long had he known she used red for shampoo, yellow for conditioner, and green for shower gel? And when had it stopped being something he teased her about and simply accepted?
She lathered the gel in her hands, then spread the suds over her arms, shoulders, and what he hoped were her breasts. From behind she gave a little shimmy as her hands worked over her belly, down her slim hips to her legs. She bent over to wash her calves and his control snapped.
The metallic click of the shower door stole her breath. Cool air swirled around her as she turned, her heart seizing as she took in the hulking presence of a man stepping into her shower. On instinct her arms tried to cover her body and she forced a deep breath, intending to scream.
It wasn't until his hand had covered her mouth that Miranda registered Callum. She shoved at his broad shoulders as hard as she could, but he didn't budge. What the hell was he doing here? Coming into her room, her shower, and scaring her like a madman. She wasn't about to be the last thing he did before he had a ring slipped on his finger. She tried to twist free, but her every move only seemed to draw him nearer, until his body pressed hers back against the granite wall, warm and slick from her time in the shower.
"Relax, doll." Cal's deep baritone rumbled over the rush of water. "I'm going to take my hand away now, and you're going to give me a proper hello."
As he released her, she slapped his hands away but his body didn't budge. "What the hell are you doing?"
"Conserving water?" He gave her that sideways grin that usually undid her, but not this time.
Excerpted from Just Married by Jenna Bayley-Burke. Copyright © 2016 Jenna Bayley-Burke. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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