But even though Luke needed a wife by his thirty-sixth birthday or he would lose his inheritance, he had to say "No!" Well, that was what he tried to say, but somehow Cat left with a ring on her finger and a wedding date on her calendar. And Luke could only curse his grandfather's positively medieval blackmailing scheme and count the seconds till the wedding night.
Cat, of course, knows her own mindand her own heartand she wants Luke. Meanwhile, Luke is wondering how long this will play out, and hoping that it might be a little longer with each passing day. The problem is, he's quite capable of doing something very stupidlike falling for Cat.
Because sometimes love just doesn't take no for an answer.
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The Substitute Wife
By Dallas Schulze
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Let me get this straight. You're eloping to Las Vegas with an old lover and you're asking me to break the news to your fiancé that you're dumping him?" Cat stared at her stepsister in disbelief.
"Really, Cat, you don't have to make it sound so ... sordid." Devon Kowalski paused in her packing, her neatly plucked brows drawn together in a distressed frown, her lower lip hovering on the edge of a pout. With her big blue eyes and delicate features, she made a heart-tugging picture of hurt innocence. Cat, who knew for a fact that Devon had practiced that particular expression in front of a mirror, was unmoved. She arched her brows and waited, and, after a moment, Devon's expression shifted to a more genuine, if less attractive, pout. "You're the one who likes to read those trashy romance novels," she snapped. "I'd think you'd understand me wanting to marry for love."
"I understand wanting to marry for love," Cat said. "What I don't understand is how you can break off your engagement this way. You owe it to Luke to talk to him, tell him what's going on. You can't just put news like that in a note and ask me to hand it to the man."
"Well, I can't mail it. I mean, what if it doesn't get there or something? And it would be tacky to just leave a message on his answering machine," she said with a self-righteous air, as if inviting Cat to congratulate her on her sensitivity. What Cat really wanted to do was thump her on the head to see if there was anyone home in there.
Devon folded a blue silk nightie and tucked it along the side of the suitcase she was packing, then reached for a handful of panties and bras, all pastels and lace, and began tucking them into nooks and crannies.
Watching her, Cat racked her brain for what she could say to make Devon change her mind. Oh, not about breaking the engagement. Frankly, Luke Quintain should drop to his knees and thank whatever gods he liked that Devon's high school sweetheart had returned from the wilds of Minnesota or Michigan or wherever he'd been just in time to sweep Devon off her dainty size-four feet and out of Luke's life. Not that Devon was the Wicked Witch of the West, but she was spoiled and selfish and unlikely to make anyone a particularly good wife. Luke was definitely better off without her. Actually, the high school sweetheart would probably be better off without her, too, but that was his problem. No, it wasn't the engagement she wanted Devon to change her mind about, it was the method of breaking it.
Devon might think that leaving a message on the man's answering machine was tacky, but this wasn't much better. And Cat wasn't all that crazy about being the bearer of bad tidings. It wasn't that she expected Luke to lop off her head, but she hated the idea that whenever he thought of her it would be as the person who'd given him the news that his fiancée had run off with another man. Not that he was likely to think of her at all, she admitted wistfully. Once the engagement was broken, he would probably put Devon Kowalski and everyone associated with her right out of his mind. And even if he did think of her, it was clear that his taste ran to fragile little blondes with big blue eyes, not tall, leggy redheads with generous curves. Fragile was not a word that ever applied to a woman who stood five feet nine inches in her stockinged feet, Cat admitted with a faint sigh.
"Don't you think you owe it to Luke to talk to him, explain about Rick coming back from Michigan and how you realized you were still in love with him?"
"Luke will be upset. He might say mean things," Devon said, as if that explained everything, and Cat supposed it did. One of Devon's biggest talents was avoiding unpleasantness of any kind. As far as she was concerned, the thought that Luke might say something "mean" was reason enough to avoid the encounter. It would never occur to her that when a man found himself dumped four weeks before the wedding, he might be entitled to say one or two mean things.
Cat leaned one shoulder against the doorjamb and watched in silence as Devon zipped the suitcase closed and set it on the floor before going to her dressing table, where she began sorting through the rows of bottles, her expression serious as she considered the important question of what makeup to pack for an elopement.
Devon's room always made Cat feel a little like Gulliver entering the land of the Lilliputians, or maybe Dorothy stepping out of the tornado-tumbled farmhouse into Oz. The rest of the rambling old house was filled with mismatched furniture, worn rugs and faded draperies. A handful of nice, if slightly scruffy, antiques sat cheek by jowl with garage sale rejects. It was comfortable, livable, undistinguished. In contrast, Devon's room was all pale, polished wood and thick peach carpeting. Floral drapes in peach and soft, warm green hung at the windows. The overall effect was feminine without being frilly, and it suited Devon perfectly, which was the whole point, of course. Devon's bedroom was designed to complement her the way a black-velvet-lined jewelry box was meant to enhance a strand of pearls. And it succeeded admirably.
The peaches-and-cream prettiness of it always made Cat feel too ... everything. She was too tall, her coloring too vivid, her legs too long, her hair too red, too curly. It wasn't so much Devon's bedroom that made her feel that way, Cat thought, as it was Devon herself. When she'd first met Devon, she'd been a gawky thirteen-year-old, all legs and arms and hair. Devon had been twenty, a tiny, blue-eyed blonde, delicate as a china figurine. A brief spell of hero worship had died a natural death under the influence of Devon's benign indifference and unremitting shallowness. Even at thirteen, Cat had known there was more to the world than makeup and boys.
"I really think you should tell Luke yourself that you're breaking off the engagement," she said, giving it one last try. "If you're going to break his heart, you at least ought to do it face-to-face."
Devon shook her head as she selected half a dozen bottles and set them aside. "No. Luke has a nasty temper. I'm not going to let him spoil this for me. Besides, I'm not breaking his heart. He'll be mad, but it's not like he's in love with me or anything." She caught Cat's surprised look in the mirror and huffed a little sigh as she turned to face her. "Look, I didn't tell anyone this before, because it wasn't anyone's business, really, and I knew people would think it was ... well, maybe a little weird, but there's nothing wrong with it. No one was being hurt or anything." Devon must have seen Cat's total lack of understanding, because she stopped, drew in a deep breath and got to the point. "Luke and I had a ... um ... a sort of business arrangement."
"Business arrangement? I thought you were getting married."
"We were. That was the business part of it." When Cat stared at her blankly, she laughed, more annoyance than humor in the sound. "You shouldn't find it hard to understand. Don't they do that kind of thing all the time in those books you read? What do they call it?" She groped a moment, then smiled when she found the phrase she was looking for. "A marriage of convenience. That's what we were going to have. Only with sex, because, really, how convenient would a marriage be without sex?"
A marriage of convenience? Devon and Luke Quintain? The thought made Cat's head spin. That sort of thing didn't happen in real life. Real people didn't make pretend marriages. Except apparently they did, or at least they made pretend engagements, although maybe the engagement had been real, even if the marriage was - would have been - fake. And could you call it a fake marriage if they were sleeping together?
"Why?" It was the only word that managed to slip past her confusion.
Excerpted from The Substitute Wife by Dallas Schulze Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.