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Today’s wedding was officially on the record as the worst wedding Hailey Miller had ever attended.
Too bad it happened to be her own.
Her long white train dragged behind her like baggage she couldn’t abandon. The wind whipped her veil into her face, and if the ominous dark clouds overhead were a sign for the future, she’d say that it was going to rain any minute.
“Great. Just great,” she muttered. Eight more blocks, and she’d finally be at her hotel. Then she could grab her belongings and hightail it out of endlessly sprawling Houston before her ex-fiancé Evan found her.
It would have been an easy trip if her cab driver hadn’t kicked her out for lack of money. It was far more challenging in stiletto heels that bit into the tops of her feet with each step. No doubt she had blisters the size of quarters on each foot.
The scent of rain swelled in the air, and the humidity weighed her curls down. People brushed past her, dodging around her as though she was one more obstacle as they hurried to their destinations. The lights from the cafes and shops appeared warm and inviting compared to the cool temperatures outside.
She pushed past the pain in her feet. She needed to get to the hotel before Evan. There was no way she could face her ex. Not after spotting him behind the alter making out with her wedding planner. She should have trusted her instincts on that one. Instead, every time that nagging thought pushed its way into her mind, she had chalked it up to cold feet.
Part of her feared he’d still try to save face and tie her down. That was what Evan was good at, talking her into things she didn’t want to do. It was how she ended up in Houston, how she found herself only planning events for his company, and how she almost walked down the aisle despite her intuition telling her otherwise.
A roar of thunder ripped through the late afternoon sky. Seconds later, heavy drops fell, soaking her dress and hair. Her veil clung to her damp skin, trapping her arms against her body.
Houston felt even more overwhelming in the rain. Cars rushed by and the only other person on the sidewalk pushed past with their umbrella without a single thought or backward glance to the drenched bride marching down the street.
The wind whipped the veil around her, covering her eyes and blocking her vision.
“Argh!” She yanked the veil out of her hair and bunched it into a ball before shoving the whole thing into the nearest trash can. Whirling around, she kicked at the train.
Missed. Hailey stumbled forward, her feet landing in a puddle.
“Damn it, damn it, damn it.” Righting herself, she glared at the back of her dress. She had to have a train. Fighting against the hard boning in her corset, Hailey bent to gather the dirty clammy satin fabric in her arms.
A cold wave of water washed over her. Her breath stuck in her lungs at the sudden shock of cold. Goose bumps pricked her skin as tiny rivulets ran down her back and through her hair.
She was in the middle of Houston, soaked and dirty and a runaway bride.
Shit, shit, shit. The tears battered at the emotional barriers she struggled to keep up.
What had she been thinking, walking so close to the gutter? She should have known to stay on the other side of the sidewalk.
Peering through the tendrils of hair glued to her face, Hailey spotted a dark gray Porsche stopped a few feet ahead. The car that ran through the puddle.
She straightened, her muscles stiff and her dress limiting every movement. Her throat constricted as she worked her tight jaw.
The driver’s door opened, and a tall, dark-haired man stepped out of the sleek sports car.
Stunned, she could only stare. And for some unexplainable reason, her heart began to throb, the pulse full and hard.
Before she could open her mouth, she found herself trapped in the piercing gaze of Jace Hartman, Evan’s business partner, and only an hour ago, the best man at her wedding.
“Damn it, Hailey, there you are.” Jace moved with quick, efficient strides and stopped right in front of her. He gazed at her warily, as though expecting her to bolt any minute. His mouth formed a hard, flat line. “What the hell were you thinking?”
“Of all the people to find me,” she muttered. Sharp, cynical Jace was the last person she wanted to see. Now would be the perfect moment for a bolt of lightning to come out and strike her. Or him. She glanced around desperately. Anytime now would be acceptable.
Nope. No lightning bolt. She was stuck facing Jace.
Well, she wasn’t helpless, and she didn’t need saving.
“Why are you here?” she demanded. “Are you bringing me back to Evan, or are you trying to save our events contract?”
Jace gazed down at her with that smug, knowing expression of his. “And here I’d thought you’d be happy to see me.”
“Get out of here, Jace.” She shot him the darkest look she could manage. Unfortunately, it was difficult to feign toughness when she was shivering. “I’m not dealing with you. You just drowned me with a puddle.”
She moved to brush past him.
Jace blocked her path. “I don’t think the puddle is the worst thing to happen to you this afternoon.” His eyes held hers. “Dodged a bullet today, didn’t we?”
Hailey stiffened, and she dropped her gaze to his chest where his white shirt, growing damp from the rain, clung to the muscles of his pectorals. Rather impressive pectorals.
She pulled her gaze back up to his face. “You’re not taking me back to Evan.”
“You just dodged the bullet. I’m not shoving you back in front of it.”
That left one reason Jace was here. She should have known better. She’d been helping Jace’s company, Sun Tech, with the launch for their Houston office for the past six months, and their opening party was in three weeks. When it came to Jace, business always came first.
She shivered and her skin prickled, not from the cold air but at the idea of continuing to work for Sun Tech, and thus with her lying ex. “I’m quitting the contract.”
Jace didn’t even flinch. His eyes hooded as he looked her over. Oddly, something about his stance or expression didn’t feel accusing or superior. “So how did you find out about the cheating?”
Her head went light. For a split second, she stopped shivering as she tried to process what Jace had admitted.
“Excuse me?” Her voice sounded distant and far away.
Two vertical lines formed between Jace’s brows. “Evan didn’t tell you?”
“You knew??” Her stomach dropped with a sickening swoop. Jace had known all along. How many other people knew while she was the naïve fiancée?
She picked at a loose bead on the bodice of her wedding gown. Tightening her fingers around the decoration, she yanked. The thread gave with a snap, and she tossed the bead aside.
Of course, Jace would know. And after hours, days, and months working together, he had never mentioned a word.
“You’re an asshole.” To her horror, her voice cracked. As if this day couldn’t get any more mortifying. All she wanted was to go home, burn her wedding dress, and have an ugly cry in the shower. Instead, she had to hold it together in front of the man who hired her simply because she had been engaged to his friend and business partner.
Jace’s eyes were sharp and assessing, and his voice was in utter control when he spoke. “Hailey—”
“Save it. I don’t want to hear anything you have to say. This has been humiliating enough. Now if you don’t mind…” She hiked her sodden train up in her arms and walked past him with as much dignity as a runaway bride could manage in the middle of a rainstorm.
“Hailey—” Jace grabbed her arm. The motion was so sudden, she whirled around and bumped into his warm, broad chest. The wedding dress squished between them with a wet squick.
For a second, she froze, her chest pressed against his. His scent surrounded her, warm and musky and familiar. Then, to her surprise, and horror, a warm current sizzled from where Jace’s large hand circled her wrist.
She pulled away from him. “Go away.”
“I can’t believe you knew and said nothing.” She yanked her wrist out of his grasp.
His gray eyes darkened, their depths suddenly as stormy as the clouds surrounding them.
“I didn’t know,” he growled at her.
Her round of insults halted on her tongue.
“Right.” She didn’t bother to hide the skepticism from her voice.
She rubbed the spot where his fingers had touched her as she considered him. For once, Jace’s face was readable—he was dead serious. He ran his fingers over his hair, but not a single strand fell out of place.
“How long have I known you?” he asked.
“Too long.” Since she had planned his company launch in San Francisco six years ago. Back when she thought he may be interested. Only to find out he wasn’t.
“Too long to bullshit you. I didn’t know until this afternoon. Evan told me when he realized you ditched him at the altar.” He glanced in the direction of her hotel. “Everyone is searching for you. Your parents are worried.”
A trickle of dread ran down her spine as she followed the line of his gaze. She wasn’t ready to face anyone. Not now. Not when she was trying to process this revelation about a man she had been engaged to for over a year.
She squeezed the train to her chest.
Jace sighed. “I have an idea. Let’s get out of the rain. Do you want to talk in a coffee shop?”
She shook her head. “I need to figure out where to stay tonight.”
She had sold her apartment in San Francisco to move in with Evan in Houston, her parents were at the same hotel as her honeymoon suite, and honestly, she didn’t want to face everyone. She couldn’t bear the looks of sympathy. Not right now.
She’d rent a room; except she’d conveniently left her ID and credit cards in the hotel she was now avoiding.
If only those bridal magazines had mentioned the importance of carrying your wallet to the wedding, this whole situation could have been prevented.
“Stay at my apartment.”
The train fell from her slack arms and landed with a splat at her feet. “What?”
The side of his mouth quirked up. “Is that a no?”
“That’s a hell no.”
The smirk remained on his face, but she ignored it. That smoldering look may work on some woman—okay, pretty much on all woman—but it wasn’t going to work on her.
“Then get in the car, and I’ll drive you wherever you want,” Jace said.
Her feet cheered in response.
“It won’t make me change my mind about the contract.” She tried, and failed, to ignore the anxiety bubbling up into her lungs. Her contract with Sun Tech was by far her most important, and thanks to Evan’s suggestion that she only work on one contract while she planned their wedding, it was her only contract.
And she was walking away from it.
He shrugged his shoulders. “I’m offering dry clothes, a warm bed, and a place to hide for the evening. In return, we can talk a little business. We’re both adults here.”
Do it, her feet screamed at her, demanding relief from the too tall, too tight heels.
A warning bell clanged in the back of her mind but was quickly dulled by one image: a place to hide for the evening. A place to regroup and figure out her next steps.
“My own bed, no doubt.” Not that she was concerned Jace would try anything.
“I have a fold-out futon with your name on it.”
Jace did know how to sway people to his side. Then again, after the events of today, it wasn’t going to take much to talk her into his side of thinking.
She eyed him warily. “All you have to offer is a futon?”
“That or my bed.”
“The futon will do.” She could hide out there, at least for tonight. Tomorrow, after she had a plan laid out, and got her clothes and wallet back, she could make a final decision on the Sun Tech contract and buy a plane ticket home.
“Did I mention I have a warm shower?” Jace added.
That sealed the deal.
Hailey lifted her chin. “I’m going to ruin your car’s interior.”
He shrugged and opened the door for her. “I don’t care.”
Of course he didn’t.
“Thanks,” she muttered before she climbed into the vehicle. The interior smelled of new car and leather, and a digital touch-screen console glowed softly from the center of the dash.
Her feet celebrated the second she sat in the passenger seat and kicked her shoes off. However, her relief was short-lived as Jace got in the driver’s side.
She tried to ignore how much room Jace’s broad shoulders took up in the sports car’s small interior, or how good the mingled scent of Jace and leather smelled.
Jace twisted to buckle his seat belt, his arm brushing against hers. She jumped at the contact.
“Are you okay?” Jace asked.
“I found out Evan is cheating on me and ran out of my wedding. I’m grand. Thank you for asking.”
“Just don’t run out on me,” Jace said, his voice that sexy, low register that always caught her attention.
Hailey forced her gaze away from Jace and out the passenger window. Unsure of what to do with her hands, she twisted her fingers into her damp gown.
One night. What was one night with her cheating ex’s friend and business partner?
End of Excerpt