Renowned bachelor Damian wasn't looking for commitment, and Laurel didn't date arrogant men, but when they collide as guests at the Wedding of the Year, their mutual red-hot attraction is undeniable.
Yet they are left with more than just sensual memories of their night together and, when Damian discovers Laurel is carrying his child, he demands she marry him! Laurel might have said “I do” for the sake of her baby, but it will take more than their potent passion to make this convenient marriage realâ¦
AMIAN SKOURAS did not like weddings.
A man and a woman, standing before clergy, friends and family while they pledged vows of love and fidelity no human being could possibly keep, was the impossible stuff of weepy women's novels and fairy tales.
It was surely not reality.
And yet, here he was, standing in front of a flower-bedecked altar while the church organ shook the rafters with Mendelssohn's triumphal march and a hundred people oohed and ahhed as a blushing bride made her way up the aisle toward him.
She was, he had to admit, quite beautiful, but he knew the old saying. All brides were beautiful. Still, this one, regal in an old-fashioned gown of white satin and lace and clutching a bouquet of tiny purple and white orchids in her trembling hands, had an aura about her that made her more than beautiful. Her smile, just visible through her sheer, fingertip-length veil, was radiant as she reached the altar.
Her father kissed her. She smiled, let go of his arm, then looked lovingly into the eyes of her waiting groom, and Damian sent up a silent prayer of thanks to the gods of his ancestors that it was not he.
It was just too damned bad that it was Nicholas, instead.
Beside him, Nicholas gave a sudden, unsteady lurch. Damian looked at the young man who'd been his ward until three years ago. Nick's handsome face was pale.
Damian frowned. “Are you all right?” he murmured.
Nick's adam's apple bobbed up and down as he swallowed. “Sure.”
It's not too late, boy, Damian wanted to say, but he knew better. Nick was twenty-one; he wasn't a boy any longer. And it was too late, because he fancied himself in love.
That was what he'd said the night he'd come to Damian's apartment to tell him that he and the girl he'd met not two months before were getting married.
Damian had been patient. He'd chosen his words carefully. He'd enumerated a dozen reasons why marrying so quickly and so young were mistakes. But Nick had a ready answer for every argument, and finally Damian had lost his temper.
“You damned young fool,” he'd growled, “what happened? Did you knock her up?”
Nick had slugged him. Damian almost smiled at the memory. It was more accurate to say that Nick had tried to slug him but at six foot two, Damian was taller than the boy, and faster on his feet, even if Nicholas was seventeen years younger. The hard lessons he'd learned on the streets of Athens in his boyhood had never quite deserted him.
“She's not pregnant,” Nick had said furiously, as Damian held him at arm's length. “I keep telling you, we're in love.”
“Love,” Damian had said with disdain, and the boy's eyes had darkened with anger.
“That's right. Love. Dammit, Damian, can't you understand that?”
He'd understood, all right. Nick was in lust, not love; he'd almost told him so but by then he'd calmed down enough to realize that saying it would only result in another scuffle. Besides, he wasn't a complete fool. All this arguing was only making the boy more and more determined to have things his own way.
So he'd spoken calmly, the way he assumed his sister and her husband would have done if they'd lived. He talked about Responsibility and Maturity and the value in Waiting a Few Years, and when he'd finished, Nick had grinned and said yeah, he'd heard that stuff already, from both of Dawn's parents, and while that might be good advice for some, it had nothing to do with him or Dawn or what they felt for each other.
Damian, who had made his fortune by knowing not just when to be aggressive but when to yield, had gritted his teeth, accepted the inevitable and said in that case, he wished Nick well.
Still, he'd kept hoping that either Dawn or Nick would come to their senses. But they hadn't, and now here they all were, listening to a soft-voiced clergyman drone on and on about life and love while a bunch of silly women, the bride's mother included, wept quietly into their hankies. And for what reason? She had been divorced. Hell,
had been divorced, and if you wanted to go back a generation and be foolish enough to consider his parents' marriage as anything but a farce, they were part of the dismal breakup statistics, too. Half the people here probably had severed marriages behind them including, for all he knew, the mealymouthed clergyman conducting this pallid, non-Greek ceremony.
All this pomp and circumstance, and for what? It was nonsense.
At least his own memorable and mercifully brief foray into the matrimonial wars a dozen years ago had never felt like a real marriage. There'd been no hushed assembly of guests, no organ music or baskets overflowing with flowers. There'd been no words chanted in Greek nor even the vapid sighing of a minister like this one.
His wedding had been what the tabloids called a quickie, an impulsive flight to Vegas after a weekend spent celebrating his first big corporate takeover with too much sex and champagne and not enough common sense. Unfortunately he'd made that assessment twenty-four hours too late. The quickie marriage had led to a not-so-quickie divorce, once his avaricious bride and a retinue of overpriced attorneys had gotten involved.
So much for the lust Nick couldn't imagine might masquerade as love.
A frown appeared between Damian's ice-blue eyes. This was hardly the time to think about such things. Perhaps a miracle would occur and it would all work out. Perhaps, years from now, he'd look back and admit he'd been wrong.
Lord, he hoped so.
He loved Nick as if he were his own flesh and blood. The boy was the son he'd never had and probably never would have, given the realities of marriage. That was why he'd agreed to stand here and pretend to be interested in the mumbo jumbo of the ceremony, to smile at Nick and even to dance with the plump child who was one of the bridesmaids and treat her with all the kindness he could manage because, Nick had said, she was Dawn's best friend and not just overweight but shy, too, and desperately afraid of being a wallflower at the reception afterward.
Oh, yes, he would do all the things a surrogate father was supposed to do. And when the day ended, he'd drive to the inn on the lake where he and Gabriella had stayed the night before and take her to bed.
It would be the best possible way to get over his disappointment at not having taught Nick well enough to protect him from the pain that surely lay ahead, and it would purge his mind of all this useless, sentimental claptrap.
Damian looked at his current mistress, seated in a pew in the third row. Gabriella wasn't taken in by any of it. Like him, she had tried marriage and found it not to her liking. Marriage was just another word for slavery, she'd said, early in their relationship...though lately, he'd sensed a change. She'd become less loving, more proprietorial. “Where have you been, Damian?” she'd say, when a day passed without a phone call. She'd taken his move to a new apartment personally, too; he'd only just in time stopped her from ordering furniture for him as a “surprise.”
She hadn't liked that. Her reaction had been sharp and angry; there'd been a brittleness to her he'd never seen beforeâthough today, she was all sweetness and light.
Even last night, during the rehearsal, there'd been a suspicious glint in her dark brown eyes. She'd looked up and smiled at him. It had been a tremulous smile. And, as he'd watched, she'd touched a lace handkerchief to her eyes.
Damian felt a twinge of regret. Perhaps it was time to move on. They'd had, what, almost six months together but when a woman got that look about her...
Damian blinked. Nicholas was hissing at him out of the side of his mouth. Had the boy come to his senses and changed his mind?
“The ring, Damian!”
The ring. Of course. The best man was searching his pockets frantically, but he wouldn't find it. Nick had asked Damian to have it engraved and he had, but he'd forgotten to hand it over.
He dug in his pocket, pulled out the simple gold band and dropped it into Nick's outstretched hand. Across the narrow aisle, the maid of honor choked back a sob; the bride's mother, tears spilling down her cheeks, reached for her ex-husband's hand, clutched it tightly, then dropped it like a hot potato.
Ah, the joys of matrimony.
Damian forced himself to concentrate on the minister's words.
“And now,” he said, in an appropriately solemn voice, “If there is anyone among us who can offer a reason why Nicolas Skouras Babbitt and Dawn Elizabeth Cooper should not be wed, let that person speak or foreverâ”
The double doors at the rear of the church flew open and slammed against the whitewashed walls. There was a rustle of cloth as the guests shifted in the pews and turned to see what was happening. Even the bride and groom swung around in surprise.
A woman stood in the open doorway, silhouetted against the sunlight of the spring afternoon. The wind, which had torn the doors from her hands, ruffled her hair wildly around her head and sent her skirt swirling around her thighs.
A murmur of shocked delight spread through the church. The minister cleared his throat.
The woman stepped forward, out of the brilliance of the light and into the shadowed interior. The excited murmur of voices, which had begun to die away, rose again.
And no wonder, Damian thought. The latecomer was incredibly beautiful.
She looked familiar, but surely if he'd met her before, he'd know her name. A man didn't forget a woman who looked like this.
Her hair was the color of autumn, a deep auburn shot with gold, and curled around her oval, high-cheekboned face. Her eyes were widely spaced and enormous. They were...what? Gray, or perhaps blue. He couldn't tell at this distance. She wore no jewelry but then, jewelry would only have distracted from her beauty. Even her dress, the color of the sky just before a storm, was simple. It was a shade he'd always thought of as violet but the fashion police surely had a better name for it. The cut was simple, too: a rounded neckline, long, full sleeves and a short, full skirt, but there was nothing simple about the body beneath the dress.
His gaze slid over the woman, taking in the high, rounded breasts, the slim waist, the gentle curve of her hips. She was a strange combination of sexuality and innocence, though the innocence was certainly manufactured. It had to be. She was not a child. And she was too stunning, too aware of herself, for it not to be.
Another gust of wind swept in through the open doors. She clutched at her skirt but not before he had a look at legs as long and shapely as any man's dream, topped by a flash of something black and lacy.
The crowd's whispers grew louder. Someone gave a silvery laugh. The woman heard it, he was certain, but instead of showing embarrassment at the attention she was getting, she straightened her shoulders and her lovely face assumed a look of disdain.
I could wipe that look from your face, Damian thought suddenly, and desire, as hot and swift as molten lava, flooded his veins.
Oh, yes, he could. He had only to stride down the aisle, lift her into his arms and carry her out into the meadow that unrolled like a bright green carpet into the low hills behind the church. He'd climb to the top of those hills, lay her down in the soft grass, drink the sweetness of her mouth while he undid the zipper on that pale violet dress and then taste every inch of her as he kissed his way down her body. He imagined burying himself between her thighs and entering her, moving within her heat until she cried out in passion.
Damian's mouth went dry. What was the matter with him? He was not a randy teenager. He wasn't given to fantasizing about women he didn't know, not since he'd been, what, fifteen, sixteen years old, tucked away in his bed at night, breathing heavily over a copy of a men's magazine.
This was nonsense, he thought brusquely, and just then, the woman's head lifted. She looked directly up the aisle, her gaze unwavering as it sought his. She stared at him while his heartbeat raced, and then she smiled again.
I know what you're thinking, her smile said, and I find it terribly amusing.
Damian heard a roaring in his ears. His hands knotted at his sides; he took a step forward.
“Damian?” Nick whispered, and just at that minute, the wind caught the doors again and slammed them against the whitewashed walls of the old church.
The sound seemed to break the spell that had held the congregants captive. Someone cleared a throat, someone else coughed, and finally a man in the last pew rose from his seat, made his way to the doors and drew them shut. He smiled pleasantly at the woman, as if to say there, that's taken care of, but she ignored both the man and the smile as she looked around for the nearest vacant seat. Slipping into it, she crossed those long legs, folded her hands in her lap and assumed an expression of polite boredom.
What, she seemed to ask, was the delay?
The minister cleared his throat. Slowly, almost reluctantly, the congregants turned and faced the altar.