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Wellington Estate, the Hamptons
Reese stood On the small platform in the elegant sitting room furnished in eighteenth-century antiques, smoothing her hands down the satin. The wedding gown fit her waist just right, hugging her body to her hips before flaring in a dreamy swirl of tulle that floated to the floor, one hundred yards total. She had only one issue with the dress, and, unfortunately, the problem was getting bigger. Or technically, smaller. With a frown, she reached into her strapless bodice and adjusted her right breast.
"Don't bother." Amber met her gaze in the full-length mirror, her words muffled by the pins in her mouth, her hands fingering the bodice at the seam. "We need cream puffs."
With a sigh, Reese dropped her hand to her side, staring at her reflection. Proof positive that God was indeed male. Because there could be no justice in a world that declared a woman must lose weight in her boobs first.
"Is that the best my seamstress, bridesmaid and future sister-in-law can come up with?" She sent Amber a dry look. "Your breasts are shrinking so bring on the cream puffs?"
The redhead's face flushed with pleasure. "Your brother and I aren't engaged."
"Yet," Reese said with a smile.
Amber removed the pins from her mouth. "We're here to talk about your wedding," she said. "And at this rate, you won't have anything left to fill out your dress. Do you want the bodice looking like the empty bucket of a bulldozer as you make your way up the aisle?"
Her friend stabbed a pin through the fabric under Reese's left arm before she went on. "I told you to stop stressing about the wedding and let the event planner do her thing."
"She's driving me crazy."
"You hired her to do a job," Amber said as she continued to work, her voice firm. "So let her do it."
"But she keeps forgetting it's my wedding," Reese said. "Why else would she act as if she has such a vested interest in the bride and groom's first dance?" She blew out a breath. "I swear I spend more time defending my choices to her than anything else."
Amber shot her a concerned look. "Keep this frantic pace up and I'll be altering this dress the day of your wedding. Which, I might add" she jabbed the last pin into place "is only six days away."
The knot of anticipation tightened in Reese's belly. Six days to ensure every detail was just right. But as she stared out of the second-floor window at the manicured grounds of Bellington Estategrounds that included several formal gardensa sense of peace rolled through her body. June in the Hamptons was gorgeous. Spring showers had done beautiful things to the one hundred acres that surrounded the twenty-five-bedroom, historical home, the closest thing to a castle that Reese could find.
The perfect place for her fairy-tale wedding.
But it wasn't the antique-adorned rooms, the priceless artwork, or the towering stone turrets that had sold her on the location. Yes, the grounds were perfect for an outdoor wedding reception. Yes, the restaurant-quality kitchen had a walk-in freezer capable of housing as many ice carvings as she wanted, personally inspected and approved by the sculptor located half a state away. But what convinced her to book the wedding here was the stately feel, the sense of serenity that Bellington Estate brought. It had been worth the two-year engagement to Dylan.
The right location for the right wedding to the right man.
Satisfaction swelled, and she let out a contented breath. It certainly beat an impulsive ceremony in a county courthouse. The swirl of roller-coaster, nauseating excitement. And a cocky Mason in his military fatigues, his feet shifting impatiently as they stood before the judge. Reese in her simple sundress
Anger and hurt rose up, as familiar as her own reflection, and she pressed her lips flat, shoving the ten-year-old memory aside. That was then, and this was now. Dylan made her happy. He made her laugh. They were a great team, not only professionally in her position as chairman of fundraising for The Brookes Foundation, his family's charitable organization, but personally, as well. They rocked the compatibility charts in every way.
Dylan deserved a beautiful wedding. After all these years, she deserved one.
Reese glanced back at her bodice and tried to shift her left breast higher, hoping to fill the gap.
"Rearranging them isn't going to help. The girls are looking a little malnourished."
The male voice slid through her consciousness, triggering long-suppressed emotions that came bubbling up like an ominous ooze. Her heart set up house in her throat, making speech impossible, and Reese slowly removed her hand from her bodice. Shifting her gaze in the mirror, she took in the lean, muscular form lazing against the doorjamb. The familiar potent power and arrogance were not lost in the reflection as, arms crossed, Mason Hicks met her eyes in the mirror.
Reese blinked, hoping the figure staring back at her was a trick of her imagination, the voice emanating from inside her head. Visual and auditory hallucinations would be most welcome in comparison. There were treatments for those, but all the medication in the world couldn't see her through a visit from Mason. And the intensely curious look on Amber's face was proof positive that her ex-husband was indeed. here.
"Girls?" Reese repeated, feeling stupid.
"Puppies," he said. His thickly fringed, hazel eyes were lit with mischief as he crossed the room in her direction. And every footstep ratcheted her heart rate higher. "Bazookas."
His disturbing gaze grew closer, and, just like when they first met, elicited the same burning low in her gut. His chest looked as cut as ever beneath his military, olive green T-shirt. And pretty soon he was standing next to her, near enough to smell his musky, masculine scent. Close enough to touch.
And her expression must have remained as blank as her brain.
"Boobs," he clarified.
The word finally shattered the trance, the same sensual web the man had magically spun so many years ago. But she was older now.
She narrowed her eyes at him, daring him to continue with his man-thesaurus listing of names for the female anatomy. Instead, he took the direct approach.
"Last time I saw you, your breasts were bigger," he said. "I think a few cream puffs are definitely in order."
"See, the man agrees with me," Amber said, eyeing Mason with interest. "At least have a little ice cream, Reese."
Mason's lips tipped up at one corner. "She loves creme brulee."
"Topped with caramel topping," Amber added, returning the smile.
Mason turned his attention back to Reese, and looked at her as if she was incapable of intelligent speech. No need to wonder why.
"Surprised to see me, Park Avenue?" The familiar, sexy rumble and the nickname added to the surreal nature of being transported back in time when she had laughingly told Mason her college roommates' nickname for her, Park Avenue Princess. And then he'd made the name his own, dropping the princess part. Which for some strange reason had pleased her to no end.
But she was not pleased to see Mason.
Days away from her wedding.
Reese gritted her teeth, struggling to retain her cool as the anger finally built high enough to surpass every other emotionshock, doubt and dread, just to name a few. Why was he coming to see her again? After ten years, why now? Right when all of her dreams were finally about to come true.
And since her appetite had been suffering from the stress of the planning, her chest shrinking, it only seemed fair his muscles should have gone soft, as well. Less sharply defined. Less capable of reaching out to the very core of what attracted a woman to a man.
Strength. Power. And a raw masculinity.
She forced her voice to remain smooth. "And the last time I saw you, you were dodging the dog tags I hurled at you."
"Your aim was good."
Quirking her lips dryly, she said, "I should have used your baseball bat."
"It still made a nice punctuation mark for your demand for a divorce." The corners of his eyes crinkled. "Claimed irreconcilable differences, if I remember right."
She tipped her chin higher. "Temporary insanity was more like it."
"A lust-induced state of insanity." Heat flushed through her like a flash fire, though he steadily held her gaze. His expression more reflective than affected, he murmured, "A drug, that."
Her chest pinched, making breathing more difficult. Bad enough he had to still look good, now the unwanted memories invaded. Memories of Mason making love to her. The incredibly intense state of happiness they'd achieved, right before it had all been blown to hell. Correction, right before Mason had blown it all to hell.
Remember, Reese. Never again.
"The sex wasn't a drug," she said, though, at the time, she'd thought the same thing. But God knows she'd learned her lesson the hard way. She was no longer susceptible to the whims of her hormones. "It was quicksand."
And just as deadly to her peace of mind. Her sanity.
He hiked a brow and studied her a moment more. "Maybe," he said softly, his lips curling at the edges. "But what a way to go."
The grandfather clock in the corner ticked loudly, but not nearly as loud as Reese's thumping heart. She smoothed a damp palm down her dress, and shifted her gaze back to Amber, who was looking incredibly entertained. "Can you give us a minute?"
"Of course. I'm done here anyway," Amber said. "I'm supposed to head back to the city to meet Parker for lunch."
"Then go," Reese said. "I'll ask Ethel to help me out of the dress."
She certainly wasn't going to ask her ex to unbutton her gown.
The redhead's eyes lingered curiously as she passed by Mason, but Reese couldn't blame her. Mason exuded a barely restrained energy that underscored the kind of training that meant, when bad things happened, this was the guy who could take care of the problem. But as a husband, he was guaranteed to let you down.
Bracing herself, she turned to face her ex. "I'm sure you're not here to discuss my bra size."
"Nope," he said. "Though I do find the topic fascinating. What are you now?" He hooked a finger in her bodice, just to the left of her breastthe touch sending a sensual shock that left her briefly paralyzedtesting the fit. "B cup?"
She refused to let him see how he affected her. "It's none of your business."
"You're absolutely right," he said easily.
Their gazes locked, seconds ticked by in which she felt overwhelmed, over her head. Drowning in Mason's presence. Just like she had as a young university student. All from the smoldering hazel eyes and the simple masculine finger barely brushing against her skin. And he wasn't even touching anything vital.
Quicksand. He's quicksand, Reese.
And for some ridiculous reason she had the intense urge to explain, which made her even angrier.
"You met me while I was a stupid college kid," she said. "A naive junior who was still lugging around her freshman weight and her romantic ideals."
Turns out the romantic ideals had been easy to lose, dropped like a stone during her year of marriage.
The disturbing finger finally pulled away, and Reese's taut muscles relaxed a fraction. Until Mason dropped his hand to the satin at her waist, as if testing its size. "Those extra pounds looked good on you."
Heart tapping loudly, she stared at him and schooled her features into an expression of nonchalance. She would not let him know how disturbed she was by his presence.
"I liked your hourglass figure." His hazel eyes skimmed her body. There was no lurid component to the look, just a note of concern. "Now you look more like a half-hourglass."
Reese fisted her hand, refusing to take the bait. He was trying to get a reaction from her. But she would not play into his plans.
His brow crinkled in doubt as he fingered the netting at her thighs. "And the dress is a bit much, don't you think?"
The intricate beading on the bodice was beautiful, though the tulle skirt was fuller than she'd intended, floating around her legs like an ethereal dream. But the gown made her feel beautiful. Made her feel special. Just like Dylan did.
In the end, Mason had made her feel like dirt.
"In light of what you wore to our wedding " He rubbed the netting between his fingers and frowned, and there was a thoughtful curiosity to his expression. "I wonder if maybe you're overcompensating."
Anger surged, and she brushed his hand away, ignoring the sparks that arced up her arm. Her body was simply reacting to the memories. They had nothing to do with the man himself.
Reese turned to face him, braced for the battle ahead. "Trust me, Mason," she said firmly. "Our disastrous marriage was not on my mind when I chose this dress." Bad enough she had a wedding planner that questioned her every decisionnow she had to defend her choices to her ex-husband? "You need to leave now."
"But I just got here."
"Well, I have a wedding coming up. And I don't have time for your pathology."
His eyes creased with shocked surprise. "Pathology?"
Holding his gaze, she refused to back down as the silence lengthened around them. He knew well and good what she was referring to. When he'd finally returned from Afghanistan all those years ago, they'd tap-danced around the issues long enough to fill two seasons of Dancing with the Stars. Reese, gently trying to help.
Mason, coldly pushing her away.
Her ex finally broke their staring contest and headed in the direction of the door, and her heart soared, hoping he was leaving because of her insult. Instead, he turned and sank into a Louis XV-style, wingback chair. And her hopes sank along with him. He stretched out long legs encased in well-worn jeans that emphasized his raw power, and crossed his ankles. The lazy posture was all an act. Because beneath the laissez-faire attitude was a definite edge, as if he was always scanning his surroundings, taking in every detail. Looking for danger. Prepared to react.
Except, of course, when it came to relationships.
"Pathology," he repeated, now looking amused by her choice of words.
Irritation swelled. Wasn't it just like the man to treat the serious issues so cavalierly?
"Surely you didn't come all this way to give me a running commentary on my dress," she said.
Irritation swelled when he didn't elaborate. "Or comment on my figure."
"So" seeking comfort, she smoothed a lock of hair behind her shoulder "why are you here?"
And, even more importantly, how was she going to get the stubborn man to leave?