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Serving as maid of honor at a wedding was hard enough. If you were trying to avoid someone—such as your intended fiancé—it could be unbearable.
From across The Plaza's crowded reception room, Tamara eyed Sawyer Langsford—or as he was more grandly known in some quarters, the Twelfth Earl of Melton.
She reflected that some things—say, an uncaged lion—were best considered at a distance. Sawyer was an unpleasant reminder of the match her father and his had given voice to making for years. And then, Sawyer had never vocalized his thoughts about marrying her, leaving her in a perpetual state of unease.
If she was wary and even hostile, it was also because her personality and Sawyer's were so different—he being so much like her tradition-bound but ambitious, aristocratic father.
Damn Sawyer for being here today. Didn't he have a drafty English castle somewhere that needed his attention? Or at least a moldering dungeon where he could sit and brood?
What was he doing playing the part of one of Tod Dilling-ham's debonair groomsmen?
If only he looked like a dark, unhappy aristocrat fighting private demons. Instead, he was all golden leonine prowess, owning his domain and topping most people in the room.
If she were being fair, she'd say a society wedding wasn't all that surprising a place for her to run into Sawyer. Almost unavoidable, really, since Sawyer spent a great deal of time in New York for his media business.
But she wasn't in the mood to be fair. Today, as Belinda Wentworth's maid of honor, she'd had to stand at the altar, a smile pasted on her face, aware of Sawyer mere feet away among the other groomsmen.
As the Episcopal priest had intoned the words that would join Belinda and Tod in wedlock, Sawyer's gaze had come to rest on her. He'd looked every inch the aristocrat in white tie and tails, his black tuxedo accentuating his masculinity and air of command. His light-brown hair had reflected gold, caught in a beam of light filtering through one of the church's stained-glass windows, as if some deity in a whimsical mood had decided to spotlight a naughty angel.
Shortly after that moment, the Wentworth-Dillingham nuptials had gone hopelessly awry.
Tamara would have been consoling Belinda at the moment, if the bride were anywhere to be found. But Belinda had disappeared along with Colin Granville, Marquess of Easterbridge—the man who had interrupted the wedding ceremony with the shocking news that his Las Vegas marriage to Belinda two years earlier had never been annulled.
Now, from across the room, Tamara watched with a sinking heart as her father, Viscount Kincaid, approached Sawyer and the two men began to chat.
After a moment, Sawyer looked across the room, and his gaze locked with hers.
His face was handsome but unyielding—the stamp of generations of conquerors and rulers on his face. His physique was lean and solid, like a soccer star in his prime.
Just then, the side of Sawyer's mouth lifted in silent amusement, and Tamara felt her pulse pick up.
Disconcerted, she quickly looked away. She told herself her reaction had nothing to do with physical attraction, and everything to do with annoyance.
To bolster that thought, she wondered whether Sawyer had had advance notice of what Colin had intended—and perhaps more, had been feeding Colin inside information. She hadn't seen Sawyer near Colin earlier at St. Bartholomew's Church. But she'd seen them speaking at social functions in the past, so she knew them to be friendly.
Tamara's lips compressed.
Trust Sawyer to be friends with a villain like Colin Gran-ville, Marquess of Easterbridge, who'd just acquired another title: wedding crasher extraordinaire.
She looked around, careful not to glance in Sawyer's direction. She couldn't find Pia Lumley, either. She wondered whether the wedding planner—part of her and Belinda's trio of girlfriends—had managed to catch up with the bride after encouraging all the guests to repair to a show-must-go-on reception at The Plaza. Or whether Pia was closeted somewhere, in fits over the nuptial disaster that had befallen them all today.
The last time she'd seen Pia, the pixie blonde had been walking away from James Carsdale, Duke of Hawkshire, another friend of Sawyer's, and toward the swinging doors that admitted the waitstaff. Perhaps right now someone in the kitchen was waving smelling salts under her friend's nose, trying to revive her from a dead faint.
Tamara sighed, but then her gaze landed on Sawyer again, and their eyes connected.
His mouth lifted sardonically, and then he turned his head to exchange a few words with her father before both men glanced at her.
A moment later, she realized with horror that Sawyer and her father were heading in her direction.
For a split second, she thought about trying to get away. Run! Duck! Disappear!
But Sawyer was advancing on her with a mocking look in his brown eyes, and her spine straightened.
If the media baron was searching for a story, she'd give him one.
Of course, a delicious scandal had just landed in his lap with the Wentworth-Dillingham almost-wedding, but she could always add icing to the cake for him.
After all, didn't a number of his newspapers publish the pseudonymously-authored Pink Pages of Mrs. Jane Hollings—bane of society hostesses and tart-tongued nemesis of social climbers everywhere?
Tamara pressed her lips into a thin line.
"Tamara, my dear," her father said, his expression hearty, "you remember Sawyer, don't you?" He chuckled. "No introductions are necessary, I assume."
Tamara felt her face stiffen until it resembled a frozen tundra. "Quite."
Sawyer inclined his head. "Tamara…it's a pleasure. It's been a long time."
Not nearly long enough, she thought, before gesturing around them. "It looks as if you'll be the subject of your own newspapers after the wedding debacle today." She arched a brow. "Mrs. Jane Hollings is one of your columnists, isn't she?"
A ghost of a smile crossed Sawyer's lips. "I believe so."
She smiled back thinly. "I can't imagine being the topic of your own gossip would sit well with you."
His lips curved easily this time. "I don't believe in press censorship."
"How practically democratic of you."
Rather than looking offended by her jab, he seemed amused. "The earldom is hereditary, but the title of media baron was acquired in the court of public opinion."
It was on the tip of her tongue to ask what else was he-reditary—his arrogance, perhaps?
Her father cleared his throat. "Let's turn to a more pleasant subject, shall we?"
"Yes, let's," she agreed.
Her father's gaze swung between her and Sawyer. "It seems like only yesterday the previous earl and I were sitting in his library, sipping fine bourbon and speculating over the happy possibility our children might one day unite our families through marriage."
There it was again. As far as hints went, it was about as subtle as a sledgehammer.
She resisted the urge to close her eyes and groan, and she was careful not to look at Sawyer.
Apparently, just as she'd feared, seeing her and Sawyer as part of the bridal party had been giving her father ideas—or rather, bringing back old ideas. Very old ideas.
She'd grown up hearing the story told and retold. Years ago, before Sawyer's father had passed away, her father and the Eleventh Earl of Melton had already been chummy enough to talk about a dynastic marriage between their two families—one that would unite their respective media empires, as well.
Unfortunately for her, as the eldest of three female half siblings—each the product of one of the viscount's successively brief marriages—she was the logical selection to fulfill dynastic aspirations.
And, likewise, Sawyer, as the successor to the earldom, since his father had died five years ago, was the natural choice on the other side.
Fortunately, both her younger sisters weren't in attendance today, but instead were tucked away at their respective universities. She knew she could withstand Sawyer Langsford. She didn't want to worry about her younger and more impressionable sisters.
After all, she conceded somewhat grudgingly, Sawyer had massive appeal for the opposite sex. She'd seen evidence of that herself over the years, which served as yet another on her very long list of reasons to dislike Sawyer.
"Not that silly story again," she said, attempting to laugh off her father's words.
She looked at Sawyer for confirmation, but realized he was regarding her thoughtfully.
He nodded toward the band, which was playing a romantic tune. "Would you like to dance?"
"Are you joking?" she blurted.
He arched a brow. "Isn't it our job as members of the wedding party to make sure the show goes on?"
Well, he had her there, she admitted. She certainly had some obligations as the maid of honor. And assuming he wasn't a double agent for Colin Granville, erstwhile wedding interloper, she supposed he did, too.
"Splendid idea!" her father said. "I'm sure Tamara would be delighted."
She shot Sawyer a speaking look, but he just gestured pleasantly, as if to say, after you.
She preceded him to the dance floor.
She held herself stiffly in his arms, and the side of Sawyer's mouth quirked up in acknowledgment.
Her smooth, upswept red hair contrasted with her peaches-and-cream complexion, and the difference hinted at the dual sides of her personality: fiery, but poised.
She reminded him of the American actress with the fairytale role—what was her name? Amy Adams.
But with attitude. A lot of attitude. And he had a feeling this Cinderella or Snow White wasn't waiting for a prince on a white steed to come save her.
Tamara had always marched to the beat of her own drummer. Viscount Kincaid's wild child. The bohemian jewelry designer with an apartment in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood.
In fact, today she looked about as demure as he could ever remember her appearing. She wore a formfitting strapless ivory gown with a black satin sash.
But instead of the Kincaid family jewels, she wore a star-burst necklace accented with black onyx, along with similarly styled drop earrings. He'd guess the jewelry was one of her own designs.
As she moved, a small rose tattoo peeked and disappeared above the bodice of her gown, right over the outside slope of her left breast—beckoning him, tantalizing him…reminding him why the two of them were like oil and water.
Her eyelashes swept upward, and she pinned him with a crystal-clear green gaze.
"What game are you playing?" she asked without preamble.
"Game?" he responded, his expression mild.
She looked annoyed. "My father refers to an arranged marriage, and in response, you ask me to dance?"
"I'd call that stoking the fire."
"I guess I should be relieved you aren't accusing me of a more sinister deed than asking you to dance."
She didn't seem to find his response the least bit amusing.
"Since you mention it," she said crossly, "I wouldn't be surprised if you had advance notice of Colin Granville's wedding escapade."
"Wouldn't you?" Interesting.
Their movements sent them skirting past another couple.
"Everyone knows you and the Marquess of Easterbridge are friends." She wrinkled her nose. "The aristocratic secret handshake, and all that."
He raised his eyebrows. "Colin is his own agent. And for the record, there's no secret handshake. It's a blood covenant—knives, thumbs, a full moon. You understand."
She didn't even bat an eyelash at his attempt at humor. "Your friendship doesn't extend to plotting society scandals?"
"It would help sell newspapers," she pointed out.
What would help him sell newspapers would be getting his hands on her father's media empire, he thought.
"Let's get back to the subject of my so-called game," he said smoothly. He exerted subtle pressure at the small of her back to guide them in a different direction.
"You're feeding the beast," she said emphatically.
By tacit agreement, over the years they'd avoided each other as much as possible whenever they'd had occasion to be at the same social function. The expectation of marriage had been like the white elephant in the room.
"Maybe I want to feed the beast." He'd always tolerated the older generation's wedding machinations, but lately things had taken a different turn.
She looked startled. "You can't be serious."
He shrugged. "Why not? We'll probably both marry someday, so why not to each other? A dynastic marriage is likely to be as good as any other."
"I have a boyfriend."
He scanned the crowd. "Really? Where's the lucky man?"
Her chin jutted out. "He could not attend today."
"Tell me you're not dating another sad sack." What a waste.
She gave him a withering look.
"So that's why you're attending the wedding without a date," he continued, knowing he proceeded at the risk of incurring her wrath.
"It hasn't escaped my notice you're here alone, as well," she shot back.
"Ah, but there's a reason."
Her eyes narrowed. "Which is…?"
"I'm interested in merging Kincaid News into Melton Media. Your father is happy to oblige…if I marry his daughter." He cocked his head, and then echoed Viscount Kincaid's words with mock seriousness. "'Keep everything in the family, you see.'"
Her eyes widened, and then she said something under her breath.
"Exactly," Sawyer agreed, and then his lips quirked up. "After all, look at all the trouble you and your sisters have given him so far. You've all refused to fall in line. Your father's pinning his hopes on the third generation."
The song ended, and she made to pull away from him, but he tightened his arm around her waist. He sensed her resistance for a moment, but then he swung her deftly in a semicircle as the band moved into the next song.
He wasn't ready to let her end their conversation just yet.
And then, she felt good in his arms, he admitted, as delicious curves pressed against him.
If she were anyone else, he'd have been charming her into giving him her phone number—and maybe more. He'd have looked forward to sleeping with her.
He'd have to play his cards more carefully with Tamara, but the end reward would be infinitely greater.
Tamara gave him an artificial smile. "You sound like my father. Are you sure you're not the same person?"
Sawyer returned her smile with a feral one of his own. Tamara's father was fit and trim for a man of seventy, but that's where the physical similarity between the two of them ended. However, the viscount's salt-and-pepper hair and grandfatherly visage disguised a sharp mind and cutthroat business instincts.
"We've both got the stomach for high stakes," Sawyer responded finally.
"Yes, how can I forget?" she retorted. "Business before pleasure and family."
He shook his head. "So bitter for someone whose lifestyle has been bankrolled by the family fortune."
"It's been at least a decade since I was young enough to be bankrolled, as you put it," she countered. "I support myself these days—by choice."
He raised his eyebrows. So Tamara's image of an independent woman was more than mere show.
"I think the word bitter applies to different circumstances—like going through three divorces," she said pointedly.
"And yet, the viscount strikes me as someone who's far from unhappy with life. In fact, he's such a romantic, he's trying to get you to walk down the aisle."
"With you?" she scoffed. "I think not."
His eyes crinkled with reluctant admiration, even if it was at his expense. "You're a blunt-spoken New Yorker."
She arched a brow. "A woman after your own heart, you mean? Don't you wish!"
"My first marriage proposal, and turned down flat."