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Despite the years of practice, she couldn't remember when she'd had a harder time holding on to that smile. But then again, she'd never had to survive a day like today. Her wedding day.
Only she wasn't the one getting married.
The ballroom looked exactly as she'd imagined. White cloaked tables circled the black granite dance floor. Pink roses and silver candles floated in glass bowls, the light reflected by mirrored chargers beneath. In every corner, towering plants reached right up to a moonlit night revealed by the soaring glass ceiling. A romantic ballad played as the bride and groom met for their first dance, love shining in their eyes.
Just like she imagined, Emily thought, her stomach twisting, except for the identity of the bride and groom.
"How are you holding up?" a quiet voice asked behind her.
Emily turned to face her older sister. Wearing a pink bridesmaid's dress identical to her own, Aileen's brows were pulled together in a concerned frown. "I'm fine," Emily answered automatically. "The wedding was beautiful, and no one deserves it more than Kelsey."
As little as a week ago Emily could never have imagined that the wedding her cousin had planned would end up as Kelsey's own wedding to Connor McClane, Emily's high school boyfriend.
"And how many times have you said that line today?"
"To everyone who's actually had the courage to come up to me. Which, considering the number of people here, hasn't been all that many. Everyone is much too busy talking about me to actually bother talking to me."
"Well, it's not every day that a wedding goes off as planned, only with a completely different bride and groom," Aileen noted.
"And it's not every day a woman learns her fiancé got another girl pregnant and proposed only to get back into his family's good graces."
It had, in fact, been Thursday, mere days before her wedding.
Shoving hurt and humiliation aside, Emily insisted, "Besides, it's not just a line. I am happy for Kelsey. And for Connor."
Connor had come back to town with the specific purpose of stopping Emily's wedding to Todd Dunworthy. He was the one to discover Todd's hidden agenda. Along the way, Connor had also fallen in love with Kelsey.
"I know you are," Aileen said, "and we're all glad Connor found out what Todd was up to before you married the jerk. I still can't believe how completely he fooled all of us."
But Todd had fooled all of them, including Emily's parents, who had seen him as the perfect future son-in-law. Maybe she should have felt better, knowing she wasn't the only idiot in the bunch, but she didn't. Instead, the betrayal had shaken her foundations.
Her whole life she'd followed the plan her parents had laid out for her—going to the right schools, wearing the right clothes, being seen with the right people. She'd always done what she was told, never crossed the line… except for a brief moment of teenaged rebellion, when she jumped over it and into Connor's arms.
Intense, rough around the edges, Connor McClane had been nothing like the boys at her prep school. For a few short weeks, she'd been thrilled by the youthful infatuation and by veering so far off course from the map her parents had drawn out for her life. But before long she'd realized dating Connor wasn't as much about following her own dreams as it was about defying her parents. Knowing Connor deserved better, she'd broken things off with him.
Almost ten years later his call to congratulate her on her engagement had come as a surprise, and she'd impulsively sent him a wedding invitation. A decision that had changed all of their lives, she thought as she watched Connor spin his new bride into his arms.
"Connor saw through Todd right from the start," Emily said.
So why hadn't she?
Was she that gullible, that naive? How could she trust her own feelings—or trust in love—again?
"Connor's a P.I. He's trained to look for those kinds of things. Don't be so hard on yourself," Aileen advised. After a few more minutes she said, "I'm going to go up and say good-night to Ginny and Duncan. I promised I'd tuck them in."
Aileen's daughter and son had been the flower girl and ring bearer. Like Emily, Aileen and her family were staying the night at the hotel.
"Give them a kiss for me."
"I will." Aileen disappeared around the tall palms sheltering Emily from the rest of the room.
Maybe she should go with her sister, Emily thought. Not that Aileen needed help with her kids, but any escape was a good escape.
She'd almost decided on the cowardly action when a deep voice murmured, "I've been wondering what the most beautiful woman in the room is doing hiding in a corner."
The wholly masculine sound sent a shiver down Emily's spine. She knew without turning who stood behind her. She was a little surprised she hadn't felt electricity arcing along her nerve endings, like an early warning system, before Javier Delgado ever spoke.
From the moment they first met at Kelsey and Connor's impromptu engagement party, Javy had had an undeniable effect on her. But Connor's best friend and best man also had a reputation as a ladies' man. And right now, after what had happened with Todd, he was exactly the kind of man she wanted to stay far, far away from.
Unfortunately, being in the wedding party together meant their paths had crossed more often than she would have liked in the last few days. And darn it if her pulse hadn't skipped a beat every single time.
Turning to face him, she offered a small smile, keeping her expression as remote as possible, a smooth surface completely hiding the turmoil beneath—or so she hoped. "Javy," she said with a chiding tone, "don't you know the bride is the most beautiful woman in the room?"
Javier grinned, and Emily knew her facade might have been as smooth as glass, but as transparent, as well. At least where this man was concerned.
Whenever he looked at her, Emily sensed he saw through her—through the perfect smile, through the too-polite chitchat, through to all the insecurities and failures she sought to hide. While she—she couldn't read him at all.
He was too handsome, too sexy, too much of everything she'd recently learned to distrust.
He was dressed in a tux. The black suit was the perfect complement to his dark hair and eyes, while the crisp white shirt contrasted with his gorgeously tanned skin. He'd brushed his hair back for the ceremony, but a hint of natural wave threatened to break free with only the slightest provocation.
Like a woman running her fingers through the dark strands…
Curling her fingernails into her palms, Emily forced her gaze back to the ballroom. But even with her eyes locked on the dance floor, she heard the rustle of palms as Javy stepped closer. Felt him against skin left bare by the strapless gown.
The aftershave he wore blended with the flowers and vanilla candles, providing a masculine element missing from the too-feminine scents. His breath stirred the fine hair at the nape of her neck, and Emily had the foolish thought that she should have worn her hair down.
Like any hairstyle could possibly provide protection against a man like Javier Delgado.
"Kelsey does look amazing, doesn't she?"
His words barely registered. He hadn't just brushed his lips against her ear when he spoke, had he? No, he wouldn't have. He couldn't have….
Maybe if she asked him to repeat the sentence, he'd do it again, and she'd know for sure.
An unfamiliar heat pooled in her belly, sapping the strength from her legs. The warning system that failed her earlier rang out loud and clear, but Emily couldn't bring herself to step away. She was afraid if she moved at all, it would be to sink into the tall, masculine body surrounding her.
"I… um…" Emily swallowed. "Yes, Kelsey looks beautiful."
She and Aileen had styled her cousin's curly red hair into an elegant twist and applied a sophisticated, smoky-eyed makeup, which down-to-earth Kelsey rarely wore. But Kelsey's gown was too heavenly for anything less. Thanks to her friendship with a local dress designer, Kelsey had had a gorgeous ivory strapless gown altered in a matter of days, and even though the dress wasn't custom-made, the fit certainly was.
But Emily knew it wasn't the hair or the makeup or the wedding gown. The love and happiness glowing in her expression as she gazed at her new husband made Kelsey the most beautiful woman there.
"And I don't think I've ever seen Connor so happy," Javier added.
"You sound surprised." Emily turned to face Javy, thinking she'd be better off if she could keep an eye on him. Or maybe not, she realized as her heart did another tap dance inside her chest when she gazed up at his handsome face.
"I guess I am. My friend never struck me as a 'falling head over heels for a woman' kind of guy."
Emily had a feeling Javy's statement said more about his own relationships than it did about Connor's. "Because the two of you are so alike?"
"Used to be," he said easily enough, but the slight frown pulling at his eyebrows contradicted the unconcerned acceptance. "But things change."
"Yes, they do…." Emily's voice trailed off as three middle-aged women walked by, exchanging knowing looks and smug smiles.
"Hello, Emily," one called out, arching her eyebrows and making a point of looking from Emily to Javy and back again, their seclusion in the out-of-the-way corner suddenly taking on a salacious air.
Managing a nod, she watched the women walk away, heads bent together as they whispered to one another.
"Who the he—heck are they?"
Face flaming, Emily said, "Those are some of my mother's friends."
But Emily was well aware that friends of her mother often had daughters her own age. Daughters Emily had beaten out in long-ago beauty pageants or for homecoming queen or for the lead role in some forgotten play. They were more than happy to see her publicly humiliated.
Keeping her gaze averted, Emily stared into the distance, not wanting to see the pity in Javy's dark eyes.
"You know," he said softly, "I think you might be one of the bravest women I've ever met."
Emily let out a sharp laugh, the sound grating like broken glass against her throat. "And here I was, just thinking I'm the world's biggest coward."
Tears burned her eyes at the admission. Ducking her head, Emily turned away from Javy, horrified by the thought of breaking down in front of him. She didn't make it more than a few yards when she heard his steps on the granite floor behind her.
Catching her arm, he steered her to the left. "Come on. No more standing on the sidelines. Let's dance."
Vaguely aware of a romantic ballad playing in the background, Emily shook her head. "No. Forget it."
"Because I'm not dancing," she argued as he turned her toward him.
"I've given people enough reason to talk about me. Last thing I need to do is anything else to attract attention."
Javy smiled slowly. "Too late."
Emily didn't realize what he meant until he slid an arm around her lower back and pulled her body into his. He'd led her to the center of the dance floor, and unless she wanted to walk off mid-dance, she had little choice but to stay where she was. And when her arms automatically wrapped around his broad shoulders, she knew she wouldn't be going anywhere.
His dark eyes looked almost as velvety black as the night sky above, and the sexy spark she saw in his gaze put the Milky Way to shame. He danced like a man who knew how to move his body… and how to make a woman respond. His hands trailed down her spine to the curve of her hips; his thighs brushed against hers in time with the music, each step making her breath catch in anticipation of the next. With the stiff stays lining the strapless bodice of her dress, she couldn't possibly feel the beat of his heart. Which meant the wild, crazy rhythm was hers alone…
"Relax," Javy commanded, his voice a husky whisper in her ear. "Forget that anyone's watching."
Emily had forgotten about the guests lining the edges of the dance floor. Any tension he had picked up on was strictly from locking her knees to keep from puddling at his feet. She tried to take a calming breath, only to inhale his cologne, the enticing scent drawing her closer to the spot where his broad shoulder met the tanned column of his neck.
"Unless you want to give them something to really talk about," he murmured, and she doubted he meant the scene she'd make running from the dance floor.
"No. I couldn't," she said, her voice a weak, broken sound.
"Come on. You can't be that worried about what people are going to say."
"I'm here, aren't I? The only thing worse than being here and having all these people talk about me behind my back would be to stay home and have them talk about me without any restraint at all."
"So show 'em you don't care," he encouraged, lifting a hand and running his index finger from the nape of her neck down… over her bare skin… until he hit the top of her dress, where he traced the line of the zipper to the small of her back.
Half surprised the small metal teeth didn't simply melt away, Emily swallowed hard and searched for an argument to keep herself from doing the same. "I do care. I should care. Today was supposed to be my wedding day. I was supposed to be marrying the man I loved and—"
"But you didn't. And you're relieved."
"Of course I'm relieved. Who would want to be married to someone who cheated and lied?"
"I mean, you're relieved because you didn't love him."
Emily pulled back far enough to meet his gaze. If his dark eyes had slowly peeled away her clothes, she wouldn't have been surprised—he had that kind of reputation. But she hadn't anticipated the way his knowing look stripped bare all the insecurities she'd tried to hide. Totally exposed, she struggled to duck behind an indignant front.
"What makes you so sure? You don't know me. You don't know—"
"I know when a woman's in love, and I know when she's heartbroken. And you, sweetheart, are neither."
Posted March 27, 2011
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Posted February 16, 2014
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