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Preston Armstrong was not a fan of weddings. Not even when he'd been the groom. Since his divorce ten years ago, he was even less entertained by overpriced ceremonial gatherings. He considered himself a practical businessman. That mind-set had taken him from a poor childhood to the top of the corporate ladder.
So, attending a marriage ceremony and seeing Amie McNair front and center of attention as a bridesmaid took his irritation to a whole deeper leveleven now at the reception. Especially given that she'd ignored him for the past two months.
And most especially since she looked sexy as hell in a peach-colored bridesmaid's dress. Weren't those gowns supposed to be ugly, hated by bridal attendants around the world? But then, beautiful Amie with her luscious curves and confidence could probably make a burlap sack look sexy as hell. She'd won all those beauty-pageant titles for a reason.
Although he thought she was more alluring now with her at-ease boho look than the old runway-glitz photos that still periodically showed up in the social pages. Even her signature-designed coral teardrop earrings and necklace held his attention. Particularly the way that pendant nestled between the swell of her breasts.
He tipped his aged bourbon back, the sounds of the reception wrapping around him as he put in his required appearance at the McNair wedding event. He glanced at his watch, figuring he had to put in another half hour before he could check out and head back to the office. It was quiet there at night. He got more work done.
If Amie would talk to him alone for five damn minutes, he could reassure her that the closet encounter would never have happened if he'd known who she was. From the horrified expression on her face when her grandmother introduced them, clearly Amie didn't want anything to do with him either.
Business and pleasure should be kept separate. Always.
He didn't have the time or patience for awkwardness. He was confident. In charge. But that had all changed the minute he'd looked across the social function and saw a woman who'd flipped his world upside down.
This whole wedding week had gone to a new level of uncomfortable, to say the least. Being around Amie at work, they could keep things professional, if tense. It wasn't easy with all those thoughts of their explosive encounter hammering through his memory, but he managed to keep his boardroom calm intact.
However, the parties this week reminded him too much of that night he'd met her at the newlyweds' engagement shindig.
He'd meant it when he'd told her that impulsive encounter wasn't the norm for him. While he wasn't a monk, impetuous sex with strangers had never been his style. He'd spent a large part of his adult life married and monogamous. Then after his divorce, affairs had been careful, sensual but civil, with no long-term expectations.
He had affairs. Not hookups. And he sure as hell didn't have anonymous sex with a woman more than a decade younger than him.
Until Amie. Nothing about her followed a familiar pattern for him.
Keeping his hands to himself today was an exercise in torture, just as at work. Hints of her sucker punched his libido. The soft scent of her perfume lingering in his office after a meeting. The heat of her as she stood near him in a crowded elevator. And the list went on since she worked in the same building, her role as a renowned gemologist crucial to some of the most popular Diamonds in the Rough jewelry lines.
Up on the small stage in the oversize barn, the country band returned from their break, taking their place again and picking up instruments. Although to call it a barn didn't do the space justice. The reception was being held at the McNairs' hobby ranch, Hidden Gem, so the place was high end rustic, just like the company jewels.
Gold chandeliers and puffs of white flowers dangled from the rough-hewn rafters. Strings of lights crisscrossed the ceiling, creating a starlit-night atmosphere. Bouquets of baby's breath and roses tied with burlap bows on the tables made him recall his earlier thought about Amie classing up a burlap sack. The inside had been transformed into rustic elegance, with gold chairs and white tulle draped throughout.
At the entry table next to the leather guestbook, seating cards were tied to horseshoes that had the bride's and groom's names engraved along with the wedding date. A cowbell hung on a brass hook with a sign that stated, Ring for a Kiss.
Good God. He wanted out of here. He knocked back the rest of the bourbon.
Amie's cousin Stone McNair, the former CEO of Diamonds in the Rough, was the groom, and there was no doubt he believed in all this forever, happily-ever-after nonsense as he twirled his blonde bride around on the dance floor.
At least the ceremony in the chapel had been brief. One bridesmaid and one groomsmanAmie and her twin brother, Alex. Amie's dark brown hair was loose, in thick spiral curls that made him want to tug just to see what she would do.
To hell with standing around. He might as well confront the awkwardness. It wasn't as if she could run away from him here.
He set aside the cut-crystal glass and strode through the crowd, a who's who list of Texas rich and famous. Just like that night two months ago, he made his way to her, this time determined for closure rather than a start of something.
Getting her semialone here shouldn't be too tough.
The exclusive venue had plenty of dark corners arranged for privacy so guests could visit and catch up.
He stopped behind her, smiling over her shoulder at the mayor. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but Miss McNair promised me this dance."
Amie gasped, her mouth opening to protest. But Preston took her hand and pulled her onto the dance floor before she could speak. He hauled her out in front of the small chamber orchestra, moving quickly before the stunned expression could melt from her elegant face. Before a closed, frosty one took its place. He'd watched that transformation too often over the last eight weeks and it was time to put an end to it.
He slid an arm around her and drew her close, those dark brown curls brushing him. "You look lovely tonight. Especially for being stuck in a bridesmaid's dress."
"It would have been nice to be asked if I wanted to dance. What are you doing?"
"Dancing with the groom's cousin. A perfectly acceptable move, nothing to draw attention to us. Unless you cause a scene out here in front of your whole family, our business acquaintances and some mighty prominent politicians."
Which he definitely did not want her to do. Then, he would have to let her go. And he liked the feel of her in his arms again too much to have her walk away yet.
"Fine," she conceded, blue eyes predictably turning to ice as she spoke. "Let's dance for appearances. Gran's always saying it's good for the company if we show a unified front."
Oh, he had her here for more than appearances and business. He was going to find a way to get past her cold shoulder. He couldn't stop the attraction, and chances were slim to none that he would be able to act on it. But he could damn well do something to disperse the tension between them. He hoped.
Preston sidestepped another couple and swept her to a less crowded corner of the dance floor, mindful of the security guards posted around the perimeter of the event. "It's quite a party tonight. Congratulations to your cousin and his bride on their nuptials."
If Stone hadn't given up his role as CEO of Diamonds in the Rough, Preston wouldn't have been here. And the job was damn important to him. His job was all he had after the crash and burn of his personal life.
She smiled tightly, her body stiff and unyielding in his arms. "We do have all the tools for a first-rate wedding at our disposal."
The bride's thirty-thousand-dollar tiara had been custom designed for the event; in fact, a delicately understated piece that Amie had worked on personally for weeks. The tiara alone had created industry buzz and media coverage alike, a key piece in the company's new bridal collection.
"Do you realize this is the first time we've spoken about anything other than business?" He respected her work ethic, and discovering that admirable trait about her made this all the more difficult. Unlike her father, she was more than a figurehead. Amie contributed immeasurably to the company, so Preston crossed her path.
She angled closer and for an instant he thought maybe
his pulse sped. His gaze dropped to her mouth. To her lips, parted.
And then, too soon, her breath teased against his neck as she whispered, "I just want to make it clear, we won't be heading for the coat closet tonight."
There was no mistaking her determination. Too bad her method for delivering the news had him ready to sweep her off her feet and back to the cabin he'd reserved on the property for the night.
"I'm quite clear on that after your big chill these past two months." His hand twitched against her waist, the memory of her satiny skin still burned in his memory. "I'm just glad to know you're finally willing to acknowledge it happened."
"Of course it happened," she hissed between pearly-white teeth. "I was very much there."
The brush of her body against his was sweet torture. "I remember well."
Shadows shifted through her sky blue eyes. "Did you know who I was that night?"
Her words slowed his feet, stunning him. He picked up the dance pace again and asked, "Is that what you've thought all this time? That I played you on purpose?"
"Forget I said anything." She pulled back. "It doesn't matter now."
He strengthened his hold. "Not that you would believe me regardless of what I say. Although it was more than clear you didn't know who I was, and if you had, that night wouldn't have happened." He touched her face lightly. "And that would have been a damn shame."
They stood so close, their mouths only a couple of inches apart. He remembered how good she tastedand how complicated that had made things for them the past couple of months. Having an affair with her would be a bad idea, given he was her boss and she was the granddaughter of the major stockholder.
But God, he was tempted.
So was she. He could see it in her jewel-blue eyes and the way she swayed toward him an instant before she stepped back.
Grasping his wrists, she pulled his arms from her. "I'm not sure what spurred you to reminisce right now since you don't seem to be the type to get sentimental at weddings. But now is not the time or the place for this discussion."
His eyebrows rose in surprise. "You're willing to talk then? Later?"
She held up a hand. "Talk. Only. I mean that."
"Let's step outside"
"No. Not here. Not tonight."
He reached for her, sensing already she was just putting him off again. "Amie, if this is another stall tactic"
"We'll have our secretaries check our calendars and schedule a lunch next week. Okay? Is that specific enough for you? Now, I need to check on my grandmother." She spun away in a swirl of peach silk.
Standing in the middle of the dance floor, he watched her walk away, the sway of her hips and those million-dollar legs peeking through a slit in the dress. Stepping off the dance floor, he wondered what the hell he hoped to gain in a conversation with her. An affair, given their work connection, was a bad idea, but he wasn't in the market for anything long term. Not again.
He charged back to the bar for another bourbon on the rocks, ignoring a waiter's offering of the evening's signature beverage, a Mouton Rothschild favored by the couple. Tonight, bourbon would do just fine. Marriage hadn't worked out well for him. At all. Just ask his ex.
He was too absorbed with work, too much of a loner. After all, a boss couldn't party with his subordinates, which put a serious dent in any kind of social life. He wanted to say that's what had made him so susceptible to Amie that first night, but he knew it was more than that. He was a man of control. Calm. Yet, the second he'd seen Amie, he'd claimed her with that first look in an explosive chemistry that went beyond any he'd experienced before, even with his ex-wife.
No wonder his marriage had failed early on. He'd made a fortune and in the end it hadn't made a bit of difference when things mattered most.
Rather than subject their daughter to a divorce, he and his wife had tried to hold it together for their child. But theirs had become a marriage in name only. Eventually, his ex had found someone else. She'd told Preston her new love would at least be around, which was better for Leslie than an absentee father. He'd bought into that, feeling guilty as hell and incapable of giving his child what she needed.
He'd replayed that decision a million times over, wondering if he'd fought harder for his marriage, for his child, if life could have turned out differently. Guilt piled on top of more guilt.
His baby girl had flown out of control during her teen years. Drugs, alcohol, sex. He'd tried grounding her, taking away her car, her allowance. He'd planned to take a vacation week to spend time with her, let her pick the vacation spot. She'd turned him down.
He should have persisted. He'd thought about it. Then it was too late.
Leslie ran off with her boyfriend the day after graduation, seventeen years old, pregnant. She'd ignored all offers of help and advice, determined to put her parents and the lifestyle she hated behind her. She hadn't cared about wealth or private jets. Hadn't wanted her own driver or a massive home. She'd even snubbed a doctor's care.
She and her baby boy had died seven months into the pregnancy. Premature delivery. Something with the placenta presenting first. His daughter, Leslie, bled to death. The baby lived for two days before dying.
The Armstrong portfolio was worth billions and his daughter and grandson had died from lack of prenatal care because she hated him that much. So much, she wouldn't take a penny or the most basic advice from him.
Some days the senselessness of it made it nearly impossible to hold back the rage.
His child. Gone.
His ex blamed him. Damn it all, but he blamed himself, too.
So he put one foot in front of the other and existed.
Until that moment he'd seen Amie McNair. What was it about her? He wasn't the type to fall for a pretty face. But she was more than that. Not that he'd known as much that night. He'd just looked into her eyes and he'd seen
Something that scared the hell out of him. Something worth going back for.
A risk he couldn't take again.