The best man...for the bridesmaid?
Standing at the altar, Damien's breathless as the woman he loves walks towards him - to marry another man. Knowing bridesmaid Zoe's watching him makes it harder still. The opposite of the bride, Zoe's too loud, too vibrant, too...everything. She's the only woman he really can't stand!
Catching Damien looking at her critically, Zoe can't resist provoking him. Just once she'd like to see Mr Perfect lose his cool - she can tell there are fireworks smouldering behind those pale blue eyes.
Before the wedding night's over Zoe will succeed in breaking Damien's iron-hard self-control...but their unexpected connection will threaten to undermine everything they believe about themselves and what they really need...
(UK release to be announced when confirmed - UK customers should be able to buy ebooks from Harlequin!)
Damien felt the muscles of Zoe's torso tense quite clearly, even though his fingertips were only lightly resting on her shoulder blade, and it pulled him out of whatever delightful bubble he'd lost himself in. For a moment he'd been totally focused on the dancing, neither regretting the past-of what might have been had he met Sara first-or yearning for a future that would never be his. How odd, that it was with this woman he'd found a sense of calm in this nightmare of a day.
No more, though. The unusual softness that had been in Zoe's eyes was gone, replaced with the more familiar hard, cheeky, taunting one, and he mentally kicked himself for forgetting he was dancing with an unexploded bomb.
'I'm impressed,' she said, but the look in her eyes told him this compliment had a sting in its tail. 'I didn't think a man like you would be any good at something like this.'
Ouch. There it was. But gentler and more skilful than he'd expected.
A man like him. What was so wrong with that?
He found he couldn't let her remark go unchallenged. Dancing had been a good momentary distraction, but now she'd ruined that he'd resort to a bit of one-upmanship with Zoe , if that was what she wanted.
'A man like what?' he said through his teeth, still smiling, as he flicked his wrist and spun her out to the side.
She didn't miss a step, her hips moving like molasses, accentuated by the clinging fabric of her bridesmaid's dress.
'Oh, you know…' Her voice was light and breezy. 'Uptight. Buttoned-up.'
He ignored the comment, even though he noticed the movements of his torso became less fluid with each step, despite his efforts to the contrary. He bunched his shoulders, one after the other, and let them drop again. 'I'm not uptight.'
Zoe didn't answer-not with words-but her smile hitched to one side, giving her an impish air.
Oh, no? the smile said.
Damien shook his head, narrowing his eyes. And he made his lower half move more freely, just to prove to her wrong. It wasn't quite the same as when he'd been truly relaxed a few moments before, but it was better than nothing, and he threw in a few dips and turns, just to keep her from noticing the difference.
She kept up, of course, adding her own brand of spice to each shift of weight, each wiggle. Grudgingly, he gave her silent credit.
But Damien didn't want to notice just how easy it was to dance with Zoe St James, didn't want to admit they complemented each other in any way at all, despite the growing sense of heat travelling up his body or the skipping of his pulse in his veins, so he tore his gaze away from hers, looked beyond her shoulder.
And instantly regretted it.
Without wanting to, he sought out the bride and groom on the crowded dance floor. They'd finished with any pretence of doing proper steps now and just clung to each other, her head resting on his shoulder, eyes closed in a state of bliss. A horrible emptiness settled on Damien.
Since his partner was probably the lesser of the two evils, he switched his gaze to her and found her studying him. Without letting him lead, she released of his hand, stepped out, free arm raised, and then moved back in again, coming close. Much too close.
Sara would never have danced with him like this, not even if they'd been a couple. And suddenly he was angry with Zoe for causing him to make comparisons, for making him notice who she wasn't, because that ache was growing now, filling his chest, catching his breath.
No, this wasn't Sara. She would never be Sara. And, on some entirely primal-and completely unreasonable-level, he wanted to make her pay for that.
He caught her in a ballroom hold, using slightly more pressure than normal, and saw her eyes widen in response. Surprise, however, was quickly doused by defiance.
Damien turned, letting her have the unhindered view of the happy couple, but unfortunately, the nature of the dance meant that every few bars he was faced with the sight of them again. And he couldn't help torturing himself by looking, by wondering what if…
When he looked at his partner again she blinked slowly as a mischievous smile played on her lips. 'I'd thank you for the pleasure of dancing with you, but it would be a lie,' she said.
Damien knew he shouldn't rise to the bait, but his defences had been eroded by the acid of this happy day. 'Believe me,' he replied, 'the feeling is entirely mutual.'
Zoe smirked, and Damien's blood rose a few degrees in temperature. She wasn't supposed to be enjoying this. He wanted her off his back. Avoidance had failed. Charm had failed. The only artillery he had left in his current state of mind was the blunt truth.
'Look, I don't like you and you don't like me, but let's just get through this dance-for Luke and Sara's sake-then we can go our separate ways.'
And then, because looking at Zoe made him feel clammy and out of control, his gaze slid inevitably back to Sara.
Zoe twisted her head to follow his line of sight and then whispered in his ear. 'I've seen you watching them.'
That got his attention. That got his focus one hundred percent back on his partner. An icy electric shock arced from his chest down to his stomach. She hadn't guessed, had she? Because, if Zoe St James knew his secret, there was no doubt in his mind that she would broadcast it far and wide.
'I'm happy for them,' he mumbled, and his feet suddenly felt like bricks, causing him to miss a step.
Zoe's smirk grew, enveloping her in an aura of smugness. 'It's more than that,' she said and then her eyes widened and little-a penny dropping into place, somewhere in the back of her head. 'There's something about what they've got, about that-' she pulled her hand from his and waved it in the direction of the bride and groom '-you can't keep your eyes off.'
Damien held his breath while Zoe began to laugh.
'Who'd have thought it? Damian Stone, not living up to his name, actually having an emotion other than pride for once.'
Pride? What was she talking about? Everyone thought he was a stand-up guy, someone they could depend on in a crisis. What was proud about that? And how dare Zoe St James judge him?
'Well, at least I have some pride,' he countered. 'Having no sense of shame isn't considered an asset by most people.'
Her mouth dropped open and a little gasp slipped through her lips.
Damien couldn't hide his slow smile. Now he understood just why Zoe enjoyed firing off her little verbal darts so much. There was a lovely glow of satisfaction to be had when one hit home.
Her eyes narrowed. 'You stuck-up…unbearable…'
Now he was tempted to laugh, never having seen this woman without just the right sarcasm-laced word for any occasion. It was oddly gratifying to see her speechless, even for just a few seconds, because he was sure her talent wouldn't desert her for too long.
Unfortunately, his plan to silence her backfired. It was then she decided to pull out the heavy artillery, get a really personal.
'What is it about Luke and Sara that gives the great Damian Stone that faraway look in his eyes, I wonder? Just what is it that turns him into a big-eyed puppy dog with his tongue lolling out?'
Pins and needles tingled up Damien's spine. He knew she was spouting nonsense, just hunting for ammunition, but if she kept talking-and Zoe St James would always keep talking-she might just stumble onto the truth. He had to get her out of here. Out of earshot of any of the other wedding guests and especially Luke and Sara.
They weren't far from one of the entrances to the marquee now and, with a bit of nimble footwork, he spun her in that direction, then hauled her through the muslin-draped doorway. Once they were out into the cool night air, he dropped all pretence of dancing-dropped her-except for one hand, which he kept firmly clasped in his as he dragged her towards the formal gardens, ignoring her squeals of protest.
He marched down gravel paths edged with low box hedges, towards the sound of running water. When they were far enough from the marquee not to be heard, or even to be stumbled upon, Damien put on the brakes and turned to face Zoe, throwing her hand back to her as if he'd been contaminated by its touch.
'What exactly is your problem?' he said, his voice thin from the effort of keeping a lid on his temper.
She grabbed her hand back and held it to her torso with the other one, rubbing it furiously. 'Ow!' Her mouth stayed open as she searched for more words. When they came they were worth the wait.
'What's my problem?' She shook her head in disbelief. 'This, from the guy who is so far up his own backside he can probably see his tonsils!'
There it was. Zoe gold-although its properties were closer to those of petrol as far as Damien was concerned.
'That's enough.' Far too much. She'd do well to heed the silky tone that had crept into his voice. When his employees heard it, they scarpered.
But Zoe, as always, didn't know when to stop, didn't know when too much was too much. She just battled on, pointing out his flaws, circling round the undiscovered truth, but getting closer to it every second.
He tried to shut up by various methods: further warnings, ignoring her. He even tried to reason with her, but that runaway mouth just kept on jogging.
'I don't know what's got you all churned up today,' she said finally, her hands on her hips, her breath coming in short pants, which was emphasising the rise and fall of her breasts in a way Damien was trying very hard not to notice. 'Maybe you're just jealous because Luke has Sara and you've got no one. But until you can climb down off that self-made pedestal and act like a human being instead of something carved out of marble I doubt any woman would say yes to you anyway!'
Oh, Damien was feeling very human at this moment, thank you very much. Nothing cold and dead about his racing pulse, or the jumpy feeling that made him reminded him of a pressure cooker just about to pop its lid. He needed to move, to shout, to run, to do something to release whatever was building inside of him. And that sensation seemed to grow with every syllable spilling from Zoe St James's mouth.
She opened it again, and Damien decided he couldn't take another second. He had to shut that smart mouth up. And only one way came to mind.
It was stupid. Reckless. But the cocktail of stress, disappointment and adrenalin egged him on until he had no other option but to slip his hand behind Zoe St James's neck, drag her to him and kiss her.
Damien had marched her down a path that led to a large stone fountain with a wall surrounding it. Zoe grabbed onto it with one hand as the other made a mess of Damien's shirt, bunching it up so hard she doubted the creases would ever be erased. That flimsy grip on the cotton and his hand at the back of her neck were the only things that were preventing her from taking a swim.
Apart from his lips, of course.
She should pull away and slap him, shouldn't she? Who the hell did he think he was? But she didn't pull away. She didn't slap him. Because, unfortunately, Mr Perfect was living up to his name in the kissing department too.
It started out hot and hard and…hot some more, but after a while it changed, slowed. The kiss became more about tasting and exploring than competing and raging. Zoe stopped gripping onto the fountain and placed that hand on his chest too, snaked it round his neck, matching him, as his long fingers uncurled and began to explore the fine hair that curled into ringlets at the base of her skull.
Damn her impulsive nature. It was entirely responsible for starting all of this. First off all, it had got hold of her mouth and had run away with it, then it had poked a stick at a caged tiger to see what it would do. And now it knew just what the tiger was capable of, it wasn't particularly inclined to stop!
This was Damien Stone, remember? Pull away.
He's not attracted to you. He doesn't even like you. And it shouldn't matter just how good he tastes or exactly what he's doing with his lips. Save yourself the humiliation and end this. And if you want to salvage some of the non-existent pride of yours, you need to end this first.
But Zoe had never been one for listening to advice. Especially her own.
And the kiss, although it was still slowing in tempo, was building in intensity. In fact, she thought the tops of her ears might have just caught fire. What was more, she really didn't care.
Damien had been kissing her for quite some time now, and he certainly seemed to be enjoying himself just as much as she was, seemed to be immersed in the moment. Of course she could be wrong. This could just be him on autopilot. But, crikey, if all this slow expertise was what he managed when he was only halfway invested, imagine what the full blast would be like! Forget the tips of her ears-she'd have to throw her entire body in the fountain.
She let go of his shirt, now creased beyond all hope, and explored his torso, running her fingers between jacket and shirt, letting her palms slide across his back.
Perhaps he did find her attractive after all. Maybe all that pent-up aggression and haughtiness had just been in the Stone version of pigtail-pulling. She knew she shouldn't let it, but that thought burrowed deep inside her and started to glow. She couldn't stop it, not when she spent a lifetime of being invisible to most men like him, men who were way out of her league. She sighed as Damien's lips left her mouth and headed towards her ear.
It was then they heard footsteps on the gravel path. They both froze, not even coherent enough to pull hands and lips away from each other, ending up stuck together like a parody of Rodin's famous statue.
'Damien, there you are. Sara was looking for you a moment ago and, oh…um…sorry.'
It was Luke's voice. Zoe tried to shrink herself sideways. Not easy you when you were as generously proportioned as she was. But at present Damien was shielding her from Luke's view, and for some reason he didn't want Luke to find out who he was with, and that was fine by her. She didn't want this moment of temporary insanity being reported round the wedding reception any more than he did.
But trust Damien to choose this moment to stop doing the perfect thing. He found the strength to move, stepped back and stared at her. The heat rushed from the top of her ears straight into her cheeks.
'Oh! Zoe…!' Luke was frowning and smiling at the same time, although the smile was starting to win. 'Sorry… Just didn't think you two… Like I said, I'll come back-' he grinned '-later.'
Footsteps on gravel again, getting quieter. And then it was just a trickle of the fountain, the rasp of their breath and the noise of the party from the marquee, otherworldly and muffled.
Neither of them spoke. Not with words. But Damien's face began to get very eloquent, and the emotions on display were not what a girl wanted to see after a kiss like that.
Shock. Confusion. Even a little bit of guilt, if she wasn't mistaken, although she couldn't guess why. His mouth pulled down and she felt as if he'd taken a huge step backwards, even though he hadn't actually moved. It was that last emotion that really put the cherry on top.
That was when she slapped him.
Copyright © 2012 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Copyright © 2012 Fiona Harper
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books SA.
Cover art used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
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