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An alarm shrieked through the cold December night.
The loud deafening noise sounded like a banshee as Aidan Castle pulled his Jeep into to the garage at the Double L Ranch.
He and Johnny Darrow, head of security at Castle Department Store, had been in charge of setting up a state-of-the-art security system at the secluded Fort Worth ranch owned by Nico Lamon and named after his mother Lila Lamon.
Stepping out of the black Jeep, Aidan glanced around while he hurried to check the alarm, the chilly night air hitting him with a zing. No one in sight. The new system still needed some tweaking, so he might have triggered something.
He’d reached the garage keypad to disarm it when the alarm stopped and the night went silent.
His cell buzzed. The alarm company calling to check.
Aidan answered and identified himself. “I think I triggered something when I opened the garage door. We’re still working out the kinks. I’ll call back if I need you.”
He started inside, his hand on the doorknob into the hallway off the back of the kitchen, when he heard a scream, followed by loud laughter. Kids?
Or a woman, maybe?
Waiting a couple of beats, Aidan stayed still. Maybe he should have let the alarm company send the sheriff out.
Glancing around, he looked for a weapon. All the guns were locked up in the gun cabinet in Nico’s office inside the house.
When he spotted a big wrench lying on a worktable, he grabbed it. Carefully opening the door, he silently slipped into the big, dark kitchen. Nothing out of the ordinary there. Outside, the wind picked up. A winter storm cloaked the night with threats of bad weather.
Aidan would worry about that later. Right now, he had to find out whom or what had tripped that alarm.
Then he saw the empty champagne bottle on the counter and a wineglass with a bright red lipstick stain on its rim.
Definitely a woman.
Okay. How to proceed?
Aidan moved from the kitchen to the big den across the hall, his Doc Martens making very little noise, his eyes adjusting to the muted light.
He came around the tan leather sectional, the heavy wrench raised, and stopped in a quiet skid. There, face-down on the couch like a fallen flower, lay a woman wearing a wedding dress.
Aidan had never encountered anything like this, and he wasn’t in the mood for games on this cold Wednesday night. Tired after a long day at the site of the latest Castle endeavor, a high-tech digital and electronics store located at a new tech complex not far from the ranch, he only wanted a sandwich and some sleep.
The creature on the couch let out a soft moan that sounded like the last of her sobs.
Putting the wrench down on a table, he walked over and stared at her. She was breathing, her back moving against the pearls that glistened down the high-necked sleeveless wedding dress. Dark copper-streaked hair shimmered in the muted glow from the backyard security light shining through the windows on the other side of the room.
Not sure if he should poke her or call out, Aidan bent down and pushed a thick strand of her hair off her face.
The woman groaned and lifted a hand to slap at him, hitting ineffectively into the air. “Go away.”
“Hey,” Aidan said, something in her voice tapping on a nerve. “Hey, who are you and why are you here?”
She groaned and lifted her head, her eyes going from two slits to two round, surprised orbs. “You.”
“You,” Aidan echoed, still kneeling beside her, the scent of her shampoo now on his fingers.
Cara Lamon, Nico’s younger sister, lifted on her elbows to stare at him with big luminous gray eyes that spoke volumes.
The last time they’d seen each other had been the day after the Wild West Costume Ball at the Lone Star Castle store three months ago. That night, even though they rubbed each other the wrong way in so many ways, they’d both had too much champagne, followed by too many stolen kisses in a quiet corner.
When they’d finally stopped making out, she’d stared up at Aidan with those stormy-gray eyes and said, “I’m sorry. I’m secretly engaged.”
Then she’d left the party.
The next morning, she’d come downstairs from a guest room at the estate, only to find the whole family celebrating his sister Annabelle’s newfound happiness with none other than Johnny Darrow. Cara had taken one look at Aidan before turning to head back upstairs.
Apparently, she was the kiss-and-run type. The same type who’d teased him and mocked him in high school.
She’d hightailed a beeline out of Texas in a big hurry, obviously heading back to Italy to plan her secret marriage.
So why was she now here wearing a wedding dress?
Cara Lamon’s nightmare continued. She could see it all so clearly in her mind. Her doubts had made her question her fiancé. Her lawyer had done some asking around, discreetly hiring a private investigator. He didn’t like what he’d found so he’d talked her into creating a prenup to be sure. She’d already given Trey part of the money for his charity—all done with full transparency and following the routine protocol—so why the rush to get married? The lawyer told her a prenup would either seal the deal or the groom would balk and walk away with the money he already had. Lamon Foundation money, part of which she’d transferred into a holding account. She’d found it distasteful to ask for a prenuptial agreement and yet … she needed to know if Trey loved her or only wanted her money.
So many times, she’d been infatuated and then she’d balked and run away before things went any further. Trey had been the first man to get her to the altar. Almost.
She could see herself standing in her wedding gown, her hair caught up in crystal clips, her shoes white satin Lamon pumps with the famous scrolled black L on the sole and sparkling crystal flowers across the toebox.
That nightmare had happened an hour before the wedding, after she’d finished getting dressed. A secret wedding, an elopement of sorts. Romantic and very exclusive. He wanted her all to himself, no cameras and no nosy family or friends. When her lawyer had explained the prenup to Trey, he’d balked, accusing her of not trusting him. She’d never seen him so angry. Then they’d talked, and he’d convinced her that he loved her and they didn’t need paperwork. They belonged together. They’d kissed, and … the whole prenup thing had seemed silly. But she’d suddenly realized the wedding would be a big mistake. Like the others, he only wanted her money and status.
Which made her feel like the worse kind of fool since Trey had mentioned the other half of the money he needed. Urgently. For the orphans in Botswana. Was she so pathetic and desperate she could fall for a smooth-talking, good-looking Lothario even after she’d been so careful? Her head said yes. Her heart said no. Trey loved her, didn’t he?
Even so, she’d turned the tables on Trey Wellington and all his claims of a royal British lineage that dated back to King Alfred himself. After asking Trey to come to her suite for one last kiss before the wedding so he could see her in her beautiful dress and somehow be honest with her, she’d left the lawyer to greet him at the altar while she’d hopped a private jet straight to Texas. With cake and champagne on board. She couldn’t marry him. It wasn’t about signing contracts or who had the most money. It was about falling in love and knowing she could trust the other person. She’d withheld telling her mother and brother about Trey, which meant she hadn’t been thinking clearly. Had Trey manipulated her and charmed her to the point that she couldn’t make a rational decision?
She’d come back to her favorite place to clear her head and try to get over her heartache.
Now, she was having another nightmare. Aidan Castle kneeled beside her, that inky tuft of black bangs hanging over his winged brows with a rebel attitude that made her remember how he’d kissed her at the costume ball. Kissed her over and over. And she’d liked it. But she’d been engaged at the time, and … she wouldn’t be unfaithful to Trey.
Trey the betrayer. Trey, who even now was probably trying to woo another clueless socialite. Trey, whose kisses didn’t feel quite the same after she’d kissed Aidan.
When would she ever learn that men could not be trusted? Hadn’t her own father taught her that lesson?
Right now, however, Trey wasn’t her problem. The man staring at her with those charcoal eyes was. This man she’d thought about way too much since that crazy kissing night. This quiet, brooding man had made her doubt herself and her need to hurry and get married.
The one man she didn’t need to see sat staring at her like a hawk about to attack a dove.
“Aidan, the high-tech prince,” she said with a still-drunk grin. “I need more champagne.”
She lifted and twisted toward sitting, satin crinkling all around her like brittle ice, her eyes misting in spite of her refusal to cry anymore. “Guess what? I didn’t get married.”
Holding up one of her exquisite white satin Lamon pumps with the dainty crystal-embossed flowers sprayed across the vamp, he nodded. “That’s obvious since I didn’t find your groom hovering around anywhere,” he said, standing to find a seat on a nearby ottoman. “So what happened, Cara who kisses in corners?”
No sympathy. The man sometimes came across like a machine.
Except when he kissed her. Nothing mechanical about his lips. They worked just fine.
The imprint of his kisses had made her doubt her plans to get married. And that doubt had gone deep beyond the surface. Her instincts had hinted that she’d rushed into this romantic, secret elopement with a man she didn’t really know.
Maybe because she’d longed for love and Trey had offered it and the world, too?
Humiliated, she lashed out at Aidan. “What are you doing in my house?”
“Your house?” He pushed at those enticing bangs, shooting her a winning smile. “It’s called the Double L—for Lila Lamon. Remember?”
“How can I forget?” she said, her own hair falling around her face, deflated and flat in the same way she felt. Then she sat straight up. “Oh, no. Aidan, my brother and mother think I’m in Bali on a special project. Trey and I … we were going to Bali for our honeymoon. They didn’t know about the marriage. And I’d like to keep it that way.”
He lifted one long leg and folded it across the other knee, his jeans nice and worn, his Doc Martens broken in. “Why did you go to such lengths to keep this non-marriage a secret?”
“I told Annabelle and you,” she said, wishing she hadn’t drunk that whole bottle of champagne after eating too much wedding cake. Wishing she’d never kissed him or told him her big secret. But he’d been rude to her that night, which made kissing him to get even the best kind of revenge.
Only, that notion had backfired in a big boom of attraction. Instead of hurrying away, he’d tugged her into his arms and returned the kiss. Two or three times.
“We don’t count,” Aidan said to her admission. “But Nico won’t be happy, and you know your mom would have wanted to be at your wedding.”
“He speaks the truth,” she said, awe in her words, her arms crossed since she’d suddenly gone into a chill. “You actually care?”
“I didn’t say that.” Heading to the fireplace, he worked with a starter and twigs to get a fire going. “Why don’t you get a shower and I’ll cook us some food?”
“Do I smell?” she asked, sniffing her dress.
Her beautiful off-the-rack Lamon dress, high-necked and sleeveless, dainty, feminine, and channeling Jackie O.
Suddenly, she couldn’t breathe. She had to get out of this wedding gown.
He turned. “What?”
“Help me.” She tried to pry the tiny pearl buttons away, her fingers dragging at her back, her breath coming out in big gulps now. She couldn’t wait. After foolishly keeping the dress on so she could hurry away, now she only wanted it off her body. “Aidan, please.”
He came running as she ripped the back of the dress, pearl buttons scattering all over the big rug in front of the sofa.
His hands stilled on her shoulders. “Cara?”
“I have to change.” Holding the dress up with her hands pressed against her chest, she ran out of the room, her heart breaking and ripping like the now-ruined gown.
Tears streaming down her face, Cara vowed to never fall in love again. Especially with the man who’d kissed her months ago and had now witnessed her meltdown.
End of Excerpt