Read an Excerpt
She'd just witnessed a train wreck.
Oh, no, not a literal one, Pia shook her head now at the wedding reception. But a figurative one was just as bad.
It was funny what a train wreck looked like from one end of a church aisle, with yards of ivory satin on display and the mingled scents of lilies and roses in the June air. As a wedding planner, she'd dealt with plenty of disasters. Grooms with cold feet. Brides who'd outsized their wedding dress. Even, once, a ringbearer who'd swallowed one of the rings. But surely Pia's always-practical close friend would have no such problems at her wedding. Or so Pia had thought up until about two hours ago.
Of course, the passengers in their pews had all been agape as the Marquess of Easterbridge had stridden purposely up the aisle and announced that, in fact, there was an objection to Belinda Wentworth marrying Tod Dillingham. That, in fact, Belinda's hasty and secret marriage to Colin Granville, current Marquess of Easterbridge, had never been annulled.
Collectively, the cream of New York City society had blinked. Eyes had widened and eyebrows had shot up in the pews of St. Bart's, but no one had been so gauche as to actually faintor pretend to.
And for that, Pia was grateful. There was only so much a wedding planner could do once the dog ate the cake, or the cab splattered mud on the bride's dress, or, as in this case, the legal husband, for God's sake, decided to show up at the wedding!
Pia had sat frozen in her position off the center aisle. Angels, she'd thought absently, were in short supply today. And on the heels of that thought had come another. Oh, Belinda, why, oh, why didn't you ever tell me about your Las Vegas wedding to, of all people, your family's sworn enemy?
But in her gut, Pia had already known why. It was an act Belinda regretted. Pia's brow puckered, thinking of what Belinda was dealing with right now. Belinda was one of her two closest friends in New Yorkalong with Tamara Kincaid, one of Belinda's bridesmaids.
And then, Pia heaped some of the blame on herself. Why hadn't she spotted and intercepted Colin, like a good little wedding planner? Why hadn't she stayed at the entrance to the church?
People would wonder why she, the bridal consultant, hadn't known enough to keep the Marquess of Easterbridge away, or why she hadn't been able to stop him before a very public debacle ruined her friend's wedding and Pia's own professional reputation.
Pia felt the urge to cry as she thought of the hit that her young business, Pia Lumley Wedding Productions, would take. The Wentworth-Dillingham nuptialsor more accurately now, almost-nuptialswere to have been her most high-profile affair to date. She'd only struck out on her own a little over two years ago, after a few years as an assistant in a large event planning company.
Oh, this was horrendous. A nightmare, really. For Belinda and herself.
She'd come to New York City from a small town in Pennsylvania five years ago, right after college. This wasn't the way her dream to make it in New York was supposed to end.
As if in confirmation of her worst fears, right after the bride and both her groom and her husband had disappeared at the church, presumably to resolve the irresolvable, Pia had been standing in the aisle when a formidable society matron had steamed toward her.
Mrs. Knox had leaned close and said in a stage whisper, "Pia, dear, didn't you see the marquess approaching?"
Pia had smiled tightly. She'd wanted to say she'd had no idea that the marquess had been married to Belinda, and that, in any case, it wouldn't have done any good to intercept His Lordship if, in fact, he'd still been married to Belinda. But loyalty to her friend had kept her silent.
Mrs. Knox's eyes had gleamed. "You might have avoided a public spectacle."
True. But, Pia thought, even if she had known enough to try to stop him, the marquess had been a man on a mission, and one who had at least sixty pounds and more than six inches on her.
So Pia had done what she could do after the fact in order to try to save the day. After a quick consultation with assorted Wentworth family members, she'd encouraged everyone to repair to a show-must-go-on reception at The Plaza.
Now, as Pia looked around at the guests and at the waiters passing to and fro with platters of hors d'oeuvres, the low and steady murmur of conversation allowed her to relax her shoulders even as her mind continued to buzz.
She concentrated on her breathing, a relaxation technique she'd learned long ago in order to help her deal with stressed-out brides and even more stressful wedding days.
Surely, Belinda and Colin would resolve this issue. Somehow. A statement could be issued to the press. With any luck something that began with Due to an unfortunate misunderstanding
Yes, that's right. Everything would be okay.
She shifted her focus outward again and, right then, she spotted a tall, sandy-haired man across the room.
Even though he was turned away from her, the hair at the back of her neck prickled as a sense of familiarity and foreboding hit her. When he turned to speak to a man who'd approached him, she saw his face and sucked in a breath.
And that's when her world really came to a screeching halt. In her head, engines collided, the sound of crunching metal mixing with the smell of smoke. Or was the smoke coming out of her ears?
Could this day get any worse?
Him. James Fielding aka Mr. Wrong.
What was James doing here?
It had been three long years since she'd last seen him, when he'd abruptly enteredand then promptly exitedher life, but there was no mistaking those seduce-you, golden Adonis looks.
He was nearly a decade older than her twenty-seven, but he hardly looked it, damn him. The sandy hair was clipped shorter than she remembered, but he was just as broad, just as muscular and just as impressive at over six feet tall.
His expression was studied rather than the fun-loving and carefree one she'd memorized. Still, a woman never forgot her first loverespecially when he'd vanished without explanation.
Unknowingly, Pia started toward him.
She didn't know what she would say, but her feet impelled her forward, as anger sang in her veins.
Her hands clenched at her sides.
As she approached, she noted that James was speaking with a well-known Wall Street hedge fund managerOliver Smithson.
".Your Grace," the older and graying man said.
Pia's stride faltered. Your Grace?
Why would James be addressed as Your Grace? The reception room held its share of British aristocrats, but even marquesses were addressed as My Lord. As far as she knew, Your Grace was a form of address reserved for.dukes.
Unless Oliver Smithson was joking?
The thought flashed through her mind, and then it was too late.
She was upon them, and James spotted her. Pia noted with satisfaction the flicker of recognition in his hazel eyes.
He looked debonair in a tuxedo that showcased a fit physique. His facial features were even, though his nose wasn't perfectly sloped, and his jaw was square and firm. Eyebrows that were just a shade darker than his hair winged over eyes that had fascinated her in their changeable hue during their one night together.
If she wasn't so fired up, the impact of all that masculine perfection might have knocked the air from her lungs. As it was, she felt a sizzle skate along her nerve endings.
She could be excused for being a fool three years ago, she told herself. James Fielding was sex poured into civilized attire.
Though his rakish air, so undeniable when she'd first met him, had been tamed, both by his clothes and his demeanor, she sensed that it was still there. She was intimately acquainted with it.
"Ah, our lovely wedding planner," Oliver Smithson said, seemingly oblivious to the tension in the air, and then laughed heartily. "Couldn't have predicted this turn of events, could we?"
Pia knew the comment was a reference to the drama at the church, but she couldn't help thinking grimly that it applied just as well to the current situation. She would never have expected to run into James here.
As if following her line of thought, James raised an eyebrow.
Before either of them could say anything, however, Smithson went on, addressing her, "Have you made the acquaintance of His Grace, the Duke of Hawkshire?"
The Duke of ?
Pia's eyes went wide, and she stared in mute fury. So he really was a duke? Was his name even James?
No, waitshe knew the answer to that question. She had, of course, reviewed the guest list for the wedding. She'd had no idea, however, that her Mr. Wrong and James Carsdale, Ninth Duke of Hawkshire, were one and the same.
She felt suddenly light-headed.
James glanced at Oliver Smithson. "Thank you for attempting to affect an introduction, but Ms. Lumley and I have met before," he said before turning back to her. "And please address me as Hawk. Most people do these days."
Yes, they were more acquainted than anyone could guess, Pia thought acerbically. And how dare Hawk stand there so haughty and self-possessed?
Her gaze clashed with that of the man who was an intimate stranger to her. Angling her chin up, she said, "Y-yes, I-I've had the pleasure."
Immediately, her cheeks flamed. She'd meant to make a sophisticated double entendre, but she'd undermined herself by sounding unsure and naive.
Damn her stutter for making an appearance now. It just showed how flustered she was. She'd worked a long time with a therapist to suppress her childhood speech impediment.
Still, Hawk's eyes narrowed. Without a doubt, he'd understood her intended dig, and he didn't like it. But then his expression turned intense and sensual, before changing again to a perplexing flash of tenderness.
Beneath her sleeveless brown sheath, Pia felt a frisson of awareness, her breasts and abdomen tightening. Surely she was mistaken about that fleeting look that appeared almost tender?
Was he feeling sorry for her? Was he looking down at her, the naive virgin whom he'd left after one night? The thought made her spine stiffen.
As her name fell from his chiseled lipsthe first time she'd heard it from him in three yearsshe was swamped by thoughts of a night of blistering sex between her white embroidered sheets.
Damn him. She rallied her resolve.
"What an unexpected pleasure," Hawk said, his lips quirking, as if he, too, knew how to play at a game of hidden meaning.
Before she could reply, a waiter stopped beside them and presented them with a platter of canapes with baba ghanoush puree.
Staring down at the appetizers, Pia's first thought was that she and Belinda had spent an entire afternoon choosing the hors d'oeuvres for today.
Then, as another thought quickly followed, she decided to go for broke.
"Thank you," she acknowledged the waiter.
Turning back to the duke, she smiled sweetly. "It's a pleasure to savor. Bon appetit."
Without pausing a beat, she plastered his face with a fistful of eggplant.
Then she turned on her heel and stalked toward the hotel kitchen.
Dimly, she recorded the astonished gazes of the hedge fund manager and a few nearby guests before she slapped open the kitchen's swinging doors. If her professional reputation hadn't already been ruined, it was surely going down in flames now.
But it was worth it.
Hawk accepted the cloth napkin from the waiter who came scurrying over.
"Thank you," he said with appropriate aristocratic sangfroid.
He carefully wiped baba ghanoush from his face. Oliver Smithson eyed him. "Well." Hawk wiped his lips against each other. "Delicious, though a bit on the tart side."
Both the appetizer and the petite bombshell who'd delivered it.
The hedge fund manager laughed uneasily and cast a look around them. "If I'd known the Wentworth wedding would be this exciting, I'd have shorted it."
"Really?" Hawk drawled. "This is one stock that I'm betting won't fall in price. In fact, isn't notoriety the route to fame and fortune these days? Perhaps the bride will have the last laugh yet."
Hawk knew he had to do what he could to dampen today's firestorm. Despite the affront to his person, he thought of the pixie wedding planner who moments ago had stormed away.
He also wondered where his friend Sawyer Langsford, Earl of Melton, had gone, because right now he could use some help in putting out the blazes that were burning. He was sure Melton could be recruited despite being one of Dillingham's groomsmen. Sawyer was a distant relative and acquaintance of the groom's, but he was an even better friend of Easterbridge's.
Hawk realized that Smithson was looking at him curiously, obviously debating what, if anything, to say at an awkward moment.
"Excuse me, won't you?" he asked, and then without waiting for an answer, stepped in the direction in which Pia had gone.
He supposed he shouldn't be so dismissive of a valuable business contact, but he had a more pressing matter to attend to.
He flattened his hand against the swinging kitchen door and pushed his way inside.
As he strode in, Pia swung around to face him.
She was unintentionally sexy, just like the firstand last time they had met. A compact but curvy body was bound in a satin dress that hugged everywhere. Her smooth dark blond hair was caught up in a practical, working-glam chignon. And then there was the smooth-as-satin skin, as well as the bow lips and the eyes that still reminded him of clear amber.
Her eyes flashed at him now, just as Hawk was doing a quick recovery from being hit with all that stop-and-go sexy at once.
"C-come to find me?" Pia demanded. "Well, you're three years too late!"
Hawk had to admire her feistiness, much as it came at his expense at the moment. "I came to check on how you're doing. I assure you that if I'd known you'd be here"
Her eyes widened dangerously. "You would have what? Run in the opposite direction? Never have accepted the wedding invitation?"
"This meeting comes as much of a surprise to me as it does to you."
A little surprisingly, he hadn't caught a glimpse of her until she'd come upon him at the reception. Of course, he'd been among the throng of four hundred invited guestsand one decidedly uninvited oneat the church. And then everyone, including him, had been transfixed by the appearance of Easterbridge. Who the hell would have known the bride had a husband stashed awaywho was none other than London's most famous landowning marquess? But that shock had been nothing compared to the surprise of seeing Pia again and seeing the mingled astonishment and hurt on her face.
"An unfortunate surprise, I'm sure, Your Grace," Pia retorted. "I don't recall you mentioning your title the last time we met."
A direct hit, but he tried to deflect it. "I hadn't succeeded to the dukedom at the time."
"But you weren't simple Mr. James Fielding, either, were you?" she countered.
He couldn't argue with her point there, so he judiciously chose to remain silent.
"I thought so!" she snapped.