Authors: Ruth Cardello
Also by Ruth Cardello
Lone Star Burn
Taken, Not Spurred
The Legacy Collection
Maid for the Billionaire
For Love or Legacy
Bedding the Billionaire
Saving the Sheikh
Rise of the Billionaire
Breaching the Billionaire: Alethea’s Redemption
Come Away with Me
Home to Me
Somewhere Along the Way
The Barrington Billionaires
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2016 Ruth Cardello
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Montlake Romance, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Montlake Romance are trademarks of
, Inc., or its affiliates.
Cover design by Kerrie Robertson
To my parents, who are both gone now, for instilling in me a belief in family and forgiveness. It’s impossible to have one without the other.
Don’t panic. It’s just a wedding.
Chelle Landon held her bouquet of flowers tightly against the front of her ill-fitting bridesmaid dress. Her mother had suggested she get the bodice taken in, but Chelle was in denial. Who wants to go to the seamstress and say, “Smaller. Smaller. No, even smaller than that”? She might not be flat-chested, but she didn’t have what the strapless dress had been designed to cling to.
She turned away from the people who had filled Fort Mavis’s small church to the brim and tugged one side of the dress up.
I should have worn that padded strapless bra my mother suggested. But no, I had to choose a lace demi because I wanted to feel sexy.
She shifted again and tugged at the other side of the bodice.
Instead, I feel like a five-year-old playing dress-up.
She was lucky to be part of this bridal party. Horse trainer Tony Carlton was famous in Texas, and his northerner soon-to-be wife, Sarah Dery, was a beloved addition to the area. As one of their closest neighbors, Chelle had been a natural choice of friend. She and Sarah went to lunch at least once a week. It was not only a privilege to be in the wedding, it was also a pleasure.
Or so she kept telling herself.
The wedding was making her face her love life—or lack of one. Chelle glanced around the small church. At the end of the ceremony, the pool of single men would officially be down another man.
Chelle looked the happy couple over again. It wasn’t that she wanted Tony or that she thought he belonged with someone else. Anyone who spent five minutes with the couple could see how happy they were. It was simply the idea of there being one less opportunity in a town that was beginning to suffocate her.
Beside Tony was the best man, Charles Dery: rich, gorgeous, and paired with his fiancée and the maid of honor, Melanie Hanna. Tony’s brother, Dean, was paired with Lucy, one of the bride’s friends from college. He was attractive and only a couple of years older than Chelle, but they had gone on one date when he’d moved to the area, and there hadn’t been a spark.
Height-wise, Chelle should have been paired with Dean, but that would have put David with Lucy, and no one wanted that. Not after Lucy had broken David’s heart and gotten engaged to someone else, or so the gossip mill claimed. Chelle hadn’t wanted to pin Sarah down on the subject so close to her wedding. Thus, David and Chelle rounded out the bridal party.
David Harmon. A respectable choice with a reputation for being a man of good character. Any woman would be lucky to land him. Sadly, Chelle had never felt anything for him, either.
Chelle snuck a look at the people in attendance again, and Bobby Mulner winked at her. She shot him a small smile and looked away. If she hadn’t grown up with him, he wouldn’t be a bad choice. He owned a trucking business and was slowly buying up land in the area in preparation for diversifying his company.
At least, that’s what he’d told her the last time he’d asked her out. It hadn’t changed her answer, though. All she could see when she looked at him was the snot collection he’d kept in his desk in fourth grade.
Chelle shuddered at the memory.
I need to get out of this town.
Men were out there. Single, wonderful men. Melanie was proof that leaving Fort Mavis brought new and wonderful opportunities.
I don’t even need a fiancé. At this point, I’d take one hot romp.
Who knew that her decision to wait until her wedding night to have sex would have brought her here, to a place full of regret, not for what she had done but for what she hadn’t? She considered saying yes to Bobby, just to get it over with, but she wasn’t that desperate yet.
Is it wrong to want more? To think I should feel something when I look into a man’s eyes?
I didn’t know virginity had an expiration date. Good until . . . oh my God, if I turn twenty-six and haven’t slept with anyone, the man I finally do have sex with will think I’m a freak.
After a certain age, having had sex, even too much, sounds better than trying to explain why you’ve never taken the plunge—so to speak. Men saw it as a problem, a symptom of something, rather than the culmination of a strict upbringing and a shallow pool of choices.
And it’s not an ailment I can discuss with anyone. Chronic chastity. The most blatant symptom? Envying Ava Edwards, who slept with half the guys in high school, because even she is married now.
Chelle felt a mild panic set in as the minister had Sarah and Tony repeat their vows.
I am standing next to the only other women in my age group in Fort Mavis who are single, and they are both engaged.
Slow down, everyone. I need a little more time.
“If anyone here knows a reason why these two cannot wed, speak now or forever hold your peace,” the minister said, looking up from the couple for a moment.
“I do,” Chelle said to herself, not realizing that her voice would carry in the silence of the church.
Everyone, including the bride and groom, turned to Chelle in shock. If death could come from embarrassment, Chelle would have died on the spot. With her cheeks burning red, she glanced at the people seated in the church pews and met the deep-blue eyes of a man standing in the back of the church. He arched one eyebrow in response to her sustained gaze.
An entirely different kind of heat spread through her. He was tall, with broad shoulders that his dark suit accentuated rather than concealed. His blond hair was long enough to have a boyish curl to it, but there was nothing boyish about him. No, he was all man and, even if just for that moment, his attention was all hers.
Tan like most of the men Chelle knew, but not with the toughened look ranchers had, this man was smooth, polished, and hotter than hell. He shot her a cocky grin that told her he knew exactly what she was thinking—and liked it.
Chelle licked her lips nervously.
But oh so attractive.
As if he’d heard her thoughts, his smile widened, and Chelle nearly passed out from the beauty of it. No one like him had ever come through her town. He belonged in a painting or on a movie screen.
But who is he?
She’d heard that Charles had famous friends. Could he be one of them?
He’d be the kind of mistake a woman would smile about later, regardless of how their time together ended.
She closed her eyes and thought,
If you’re listening, God, please forgive me for what I’m imagining doing with him.
She opened her eyes and felt another wave of desire flood her.
Unless you sent him for me, and then thank you.
The minister cleared his throat, then coughed loudly, and the sound pulled Chelle’s attention reluctantly away from the physical manifestation of her late-night fantasies. Tony and Sarah were looking at her with awkward intensity. In fact, everyone was staring at her.
It was only then that she remembered what she’d said aloud. She smiled sheepishly and waved her flowers in the air in a cheerlike move. “I mean, I do believe they should be together forever. Yay for them,” she ended and squared her shoulders. With that action, the bodice of her dress slipped down an inch, revealing the top of her lace bra. Chelle yanked it back up and turned to once again face Sarah and Tony with silent respect.
Once the minister began speaking again, Chelle snuck another glance at the man standing in the back of the church. He had his arms folded across his chest, and his eyes danced with amusement.
Suddenly, being the only single woman left in Fort Mavis was not such a bad thing.
Son of a bitch. I guess it has to be her.
Mason Thorne hoped that, despite her humorous display a moment ago, she could keep a straight face long enough to pose for a photo or two with him, or more if that was what was required. He was willing to pay her for her time. According to the ushers, the still-blushing bridesmaid with the dress she couldn’t keep on was the only single woman at the wedding.
She was a petite thing, slender with the kind of wholesome long dark-blonde hair that couldn’t be replicated in a salon. He guessed her to be in her midtwenties. Every inch of her was adorable.
But she wasn’t his type. That would make this ruse easier. He preferred women bold like a good whiskey or easy on the palate like his favorite beer. Chelle Landon looked sweet and way too innocent for his taste.
Mason prided himself on having good instincts when it came to women. On any other day, Mason would have said he loved women in general. Loved the way they smelled, the sounds they made during sex.
He’d heard men say women were all the same. Those men were idiots, and they were missing out without even knowing it. Exploring the nuances of what drove one woman wild or left her cold was fascinating.
Colleges should offer that as an elective.
Mason didn’t feel guilty about his long list of partners. They weren’t conquests. He never understood men who needed to prove themselves by chasing and dominating women. To him, it was like bragging about putting a leash on a puppy. If a man understood women at all, he could have them following him around, begging for sex.
That was the power of a mind-blowing orgasm. Although sometimes it could be too powerful. Trish Shugarts should have been a one-night stand.
Mason had met her at a movie premiere. They’d both had a little too much to drink, and she’d offered to go home with him. The sex that night had been mediocre at best. He’d never been one to leave a woman less than satisfied, though. So in the morning, he’d taken his time and made her come until all she could do was smile at him gratefully.
As they say, no good deed goes unpunished.
He hadn’t realized she was the daughter of Senator Bill Shugarts, a man who was already hell-bent on opposing any bill Mason put forth out of spite. How was Mason supposed to recognize a daughter Shugarts never took to any events? Politics was a dirty sport, though, and enemies were easy enough to come by. Shugarts would see Mason’s slipup as a deliberate move against his family. The level of emotion Shugarts would likely bring to every encounter outweighed the annoyance of what Mason was about to do.
Trish had called him the next day. She’d quickly revealed symptoms of the dreaded NBSNT (Never Been Said No To) syndrome that afflicted many daughters of rich men. She’d wanted to see him again, and when he’d refused, it had been as if a switch had flipped in her head. She’d gone from adoring to threatening to tell her father.
Damn my talented tongue and possessive women.
He didn’t like to lie, but not every situation benefited from the truth. In a moment of inspiration, he’d played the female-solidarity card and told her he was in a relationship and trying to change his ways. He’d said straying had been a huge mistake, one he was eaten with guilt over. All he could do, he’d said, was grovel for his girlfriend’s forgiveness and hope she stayed with him.
“What’s her name?” Trish had asked keenly.
“I’d rather not say,” Mason had said. “We’ve kept our relationship low profile for her protection. You know how the press is.”
“Everyone knows you don’t believe in relationships.”
Mason had held to his lie. Strong people could be intimidated. Crooked people could be forced to right their ways. But crazy? Crazy people played by their own rules and were best steered clear of. “Love changes everyone.”
If that had been enough to deter Trish, Mason wouldn’t have been late to the wedding. But she’d followed him to the airport and accused him of lying to her. She’d wanted to come with him, but he’d told her he was going to a wedding in Texas with his girlfriend.
“You? In love? I won’t believe that until I see it,” Trish had said.
Oh, you’ll see it. I’ll bring back the damn bridesmaid herself if I have to. I am not starting World War III with Shugarts because his daughter thinks I should be her bedside vibrator.
But I wish Chelle looked a little less eager. This is complicated enough. I don’t want to shed one problem and gain another.
He gave the adorably awkward bridesmaid another once-over, then smiled at her. She looked like a reasonable person. If he explained the situation to her, she might even enjoy helping him out.
He watched her tug at her drooping bodice again, and his cock twitched with interest. He reminded himself harshly,
This is not about sex. This is damage control.