Read an Excerpt
Who was she?
Dark red hair hung down her back, and as she shifted, the color changed like tongues of fire. Her tall, slender body was encased in a shimmering silvery grey gown that clung to her like moonlight on a dark night.
Rakin Whitcomb Abdellah had arrived at the giant white gazebo in the garden in front of the house where the guests were gathered in time to see the bride and groom link hands in front of the celebrant. It had surprised him that it had taken the usually responsible Eli only a matter of weeks to set aside the caution of a lifetime and to fall head over heels in love with his bride. But what had astonished Rakin more was the fact that Eli was marrying a Kincaid at allsince, less than a month ago, Kara's own sister had jilted Eli. Yet, once his gaze settled on the wedding group, it was the maid of honor with her glorious hair and eye-catching beauty who captured Rakin's attention as she moved forward to take the bouquet of red roses from the bride.
This could only be Laurel Kincaid, the woman who'd jilted his best friend Eli less than a month before their wedding day.
The woman who Eli had suggested could be the solution to all Rakin's problems.
A child, no more than three or four years old, strutted forward bearing a fat cushion. Rakin squinted and made out the two rings perched on top. Laurel stepped forward and held out a hand to guide him, but he tugged away, clearly reluctant to stand beside two flower girls. Instead he barreled his way between Eli and his bride Kara Kincaid, eliciting both chuckles and sighs as he stole hearts.
The maid of honor was scanning the guests.
Above the bouquet of red roses, her eyes were green. The brightest emerald Rakin had ever seen. Unexpectedly, her gaze landed on him. Time stopped. The murmurs around him, the sound of Kara saying her vows, the heady fragrance of the Southern blooms all faded from Rakin's consciousness. There was only her.
Then she glanced away.
And the tension that had gripped him slowly eased.
Eli had warned him that his ex-fiancée was a beauty, yet Rakin hadn't been prepared for his body's reaction to her as their eyes had locked. Lust. Becoming romantically entangled with her was not an option. For starters, she was a Charleston Kincaidnot some nymphet with pleasure on her mind. And, if he took Eli's advice, the proposal he intended to put to her had everything to do with business, and nothing to do with pleasure.
Despite the gorgeous green-eyed, auburn-haired wrapping, Laurel Kincaid had Do Not Touch written all over her.
Yet even so, Rakin could scarcely wait for the ceremony to end, for the moment when he congratulated the newlywedsand Eli introduced him to the maid of honor. Then he would decide whether she would fit in with his plans.
The rich scent of jasmine and gardenia announced that summer had arrived in the South.
Her sister's wedding was being held at the Kincaid family home, a two-and-a-half story elaborately embellished federal mansion where Laurel had grown up. The imposing facade flanked by decorative balconies, each with a pagoda roof, had always been home to Laurel and her siblings.
But at the moment she was less concerned with the details of the wedding venue than the identity of one tall dark and handsome stranger. Laurel had a pretty good idea of the identities of all the guests at her sister's wedding; after all, Kara had originally run all the guests' names past her when this was supposed to have been her own wedding.
And the stranger with the dark, exotic good looks hadn't been on it.
So where did Kara know him from? And why had her sister never mentioned him before?
If she didn't quit shooting surreptitious glances at the man her sisters would have her married off to him in an instant. And she wasn't interested in him; she simply wanted to know who he was.
Laurel averted her gaze and watched as Eli took Kara's hands in his, the gold of their newly donned wedding rings glinting in the late afternoon sun. Unexpectedly her throat tightened.
Oh, no. She wasn't going to cry!
She'd never been the type to gush tears at weddings . She always smiled and said the right thing at the right time. So why was she suddenly feeling like this? This wedding was a joyous occasion, not a time to shed tears.
And heaven knew what interpretation people would put on it if she did start to cry. She scanned the enormous number of guests all dressed up and smiling. Laurel could think of at least one or two who would put the worst possible slant on it. Then the damage would be done, and rumors would be rife around the city that she was heartbroken about Kara marrying Eliafter she had broken off her own engagement to him.
Laurel was utterly delighted for them both. She was relieved she wasn't marrying Eli.
But no one would believe that if she started to weep.
Get a grip.
Her eyes fell onto her mother.
Now there was reason to cry. Elizabeth Kincaid was a legendary Southern beauty. Everyone said she'd have been crowned Miss South Carolina, if she'd ever enteredbut soft-spoken, eternally elegant Elizabeth had too much class to enter beauty pageants. Instead, after her family had fallen on hard times, she'd married Reginald Kincaid and become one of the most accomplished hostesses in Charleston and brought cachet to the nouveau riche Kincaid name.
She was smiling as she watched Kara and Eli tie the knot.
Yet the mother of the bride almost hadn't made it to the wedding. She'd been arrested for killing her husband. The police had believed they'd had enough evidence to make a case. In the past months, in the very darkest moments, Laurel had worried that her mother might actually be convicted of her father's murder.
But her mother had been cleared.
And now suspicion for her father's death rested on the brooding half brother Laurel and her siblings had learned about at her father's funeral. Laurel would never forget that dayor the shock that her father had been living a secret double life for decades.
Now Jack Sinclair sat beside his mother, Angela Sinclair. Her father's mistressand life-long love.
On Angela's other side sat her other son. The Sinclairs had been invited here today because Elizabeth Kincaid believed in always doing the Right Thingeven when it cost her dearly. The contrast between the half brothers was stark. Alan had none of Jack's dark moodiness. Blond and light, he was like the sun bursting through his half brother's dark thunder cloud.
Laurel decided she was becoming fanciful.
"You may kiss the bride," the celebrant was saying.
Eli bent forward, a head taller than his bride, and Laurel found herself looking away to give the couple a moment of privacy. Of course, she looked straight into a pair of dark eyes.
The generously proportioned bedrooms that Laurel, Kara and Lily had once occupied on the second floor of the historic federal mansion had been transformed into an impromptu bridal dressing-room wing for the wedding day. Pausing just inside the doorway of Kara's childhood room, Laurel took in the leftover feminine paraphernalia scattered around the room.
Open shoe boxes spilled tissue paper over the carpet. A posy abandoned by one of the flower girls lay on the bed. The fine lace veil that Kara had worn for the ceremony was already carefully draped over a chair back. On the dresser, between cut-glass perfume bottles, were four sparkling tulip glasses, and a bottle of champagne chilled in an ice bucket beside the dresser. A good way to calm the bride's nerves while she freshened up, Laurel decided.
Amidst the mayhem, Kara stood in front of a cheval mirror examining the hem of her wedding dress critically. "I haven't torn a hole in the hem, have I, Laurel?"
Moving forward, Laurel squinted at the delicately scalloped edge that Kara was holding up. "Not that I can see."
"Thank heavens." Relief filled her younger sister's voice as she let the beautiful white fabric drop. "I thought I might have put a heel through it when I came back down the aisle."
"Relax. It's all fine." Laurel scanned her sister's face. Kara's skin glowed, needing no added artifice. The shimmer of eye shadow accentuated her green eyes, but her lips had lost the gloss they'd worn before the ceremony. Laurel's mouth quirked up. "You make a beautiful bride, Mrs. Houghtoneven without touching up the gloss that your groom kissed off."
It was true. Kara's radiance had given her the kind of beauty that came from inner happiness. Taking care not to crush the delicate wedding dress, Laurel gave her sister a tentative hug. But Kara had no such scruples and flung her arms around Laurel.
"Thank you, oh, thank you, for jilting Eli!"
Laurel looked into eyes almost the same green as her own, eyes they'd inherited from their mother. "Believe me, if I'd married your groom it would have been the biggest mistake of both our lives."
It had been one thing to drift into an engagement with Eli, but once the time to plan the wedding had arrived, Laurel had been distressed to discover her heart wasn't in it.
Instead of daydreaming about wedded bliss, she'd found herself dwelling on how static her life had become.
And what it would take to get a life. To her discomfort, writing out lists of wedding guests who'd accepted their invitations to the big day had not even featured.
That was when Laurel had created the How to Get a Life List.
Jilt Eli. Item No. 1 on the List, as she'd started thinking of it, had looked so stark, so cruel when she'd stared at the two words topping the otherwise blank piece of paper, that she hadn't known if she was capable of breaking off her engagement to Eli.
His feelings would be hurt. Her family would be devastated. But writing it down had brought such a sense of catharsis that Laurel had known she'd had no other choice.
She and Eli were simply not meant to be.
To spare his feelings, she'd told him she couldn't marry him until the upheaval in her lifeher father's murder, the shocking discovery of his other family and the anguish of her mother's arresthad settled down. But the overwhelming relief in Eli's eyes brought home the knowledge that she wasn't the only one who wanted out.
Almost a month had passed since she'd jilted Eli. Today her ex-fiance was celebrating the happiness he'd foundwith her sister. Eli had gotten himself a life.
However, until putting on Item No. 2red-lipstickthis morning during the final preparations, she had done nothing more about tackling the rest of the List. Breaking the strictures of a lifetime was proving to be daunting. Despite the List which she carried in her purse as a constant prod to action.
That had to change, she had to start living. Really living.
Like that electric moment during the ceremony when she'd met a pair of dark eyes and she'd been jolted by a surge of energy. That had been living.
Extricating herself from her sister's arms, Laurel lifted the bottle of champagne from the ice bucket and filled two of the flutes, then passed one to Kara.
She raised her glass in a toast. "Be happy."
"Oh, I am. Today is the happiest day of my life."
Her sister sparkled like a fairytale princess.
Laurel couldn't stop a stab of envy. She took a quick gulp of champagne before setting it down.
"Eli and I had always been such good friends, and I think we both hoped that would be enoughI know I did. But it wasn't. We lacked that special connection that you two have." They hadn't even shared the kind of physical attraction that had blasted through her after one lingering look from a stranger.
"It's love. Real love. He's my soul mate. I'm incredibly fortunate." Kara had gone all dreamy-eyed. Then her gaze sharpened. "How funny that you're the one Eli spent the most time with while we were growing up"
"That's because we were the same agein the same year at school and invited to the same social functions," Laurel pointed out.
"But you've never met his other close friend."
"Rakin Abdellah?" Laurel had heard plenty about the grandson of a Middle-Eastern prince with whom Eli had become close friends at Harvard. "Such a pity he didn't make it to the wedding."
"He's here!" Kara put her glass down beside Laurel's, then slid onto the stool in front of the dresser. She picked up a wide-toothed comb. "Eli introduced us when he came up to congratulate us after the ceremony."
Laurel hesitated in the act of taking the comb from her sister. Was it possible.?
"Where was I?"
"It must've been when Flynn swatted the flower girls with the ring cushion and you went after him before he caused more chaos."
Waving the comb in the air, Laurel spread her hands. "How typical! I always miss the man. Every time Eli caught up with him when Rakin visited on business, I had something else going on. Maybe we're just never destined to meet." But she couldn't stop wondering whether the tall, lean man responsible for that shock of awareness during the ceremony could possibly be Eli's best friend.
"What was he wearing?" she asked Kara urgently.
"Rakin!" Laurel shook her head at her sister. "The man you were telling me about."
"I don't knowthe only man whose clothes I'm focused on today is Eli."
Laurel laughed at her sister's goofy expression. Dismissing the hunk, she started to smooth Kara's hair where the veil had been fastened earlier. "Speaking of Eli, you'd better re-apply your lipstick," she told her sister.
Kara slanted her a wicked look via the mirror. "What's the point? It will only get kissed off again." Then her gaze narrowed. "Laurel, you're wearing red lipstick!"
Laurel shot her younger sister an indulgent look. "If you've only just noticed it can't be such a big deal."
"You've decided to go ahead with your plan to stop playing it safe!" Kara had stilled. "I know you told me you were going to spread your wings and work on being a bit more uninhibited, but I hadn't seen any more signs of it since I warned you to take careand not to go too crazy."
"Can you see me, Miss Responsibility, going crazy?" asked Laurel with a light laugh.
"Okay, I shouldn't have told you to be carefulI've been wishing I never said anything. You should have some fun. What about getting Eli to introduce you to Rakin?"
"Don't you dare!" To stop her too observant sister from interfering, Laurel said, "Did you notice how protective Cutter's been of Mom today?"