When Stephanie Willingham and David Chambers meet at a wedding, enough sparks fly to start an inferno! But it's not just their chemistry that draws them togetherâ¦ Stephanie needs money to pay down her family's debts and David needs a fiancÃ©eâfast! So they strike a dangerous bargainâ¦
Before they know it, they have a full scale blaze on their hands: for their cool engagement of convenience is anything but! As the passion rages between them, can they make it to the altar for real?
AVID CHAMBERS sat in the back row of the little Connecticut church and did his best to appear interested in the farce taking place at the altar.
He had the sneaking suspicion he wasn't managing to pull it off very well, but then, how could he?
Lord, what utter nonsense!
The glowing bride, the nervous groom. The profusion of flowers that made the chapel look like a funeral parlor, the schmaltzy music, the minister with the faultless vocal cords intoning all the trite old platitudes about loving and honoring and cherishing one anotherâ¦
David frowned and folded his arms. He felt as if he were sitting through the second act of a predictable comedy, with act threeâThe Divorceâlurking in the wings.
“Dawn and Nicholas,” the minister said, his voice ringing out with emotion, “today you embark upon the greatest adventure of your young livesâ¦”
Beside David, a woman with a helmet of dark hair sat clutching her husband's arm with one hand and a frilly handkerchief with the other. She was weeping silently and wearing a look that said she was having the time of her life. David's blue eyes narrowed. Other women were sobbing, too, even the bride's mother, who certainly should have known better than to be moved by such saccharine sentiment.
Any human being over the age of thirty should have known better, dammit, especially the ones who'd been divorced, and their number was legion. David suspected that if a voice suddenly boomed down from the choir loft and demanded that all those who'd lost the marriage wars stand up, the shuffling of feet would drown out the cherub-faced man at the altar.
“Nicholas,” the minister said, “will you take Dawn to be your lawful wife?”
The woman next to David gave a choked sob. David looked at her. Tears were streaming down her cheeks but her mascara was intact. Amazing, how women came prepared for these things. The makeup that didn't run, the lace hankiesâ¦ you never saw a woman carrying a hankie except at weddings and funerals.
“In sickness and in health, for richer or for poorerâ¦”
David slouched in his seat and tuned out the drivel. How much longer until it was over? He felt as if he'd spent the last week airborne, flying from D.C. to Laramie, from Laramie to London, from London to D.C. again, and then to Hartford. His eyes felt gritty, his long legs felt as if they'd been cut off at the knees thanks to the hour and a half he'd had to spend jammed into the commuter plane that had brought him to Connecticut, and sitting in this narrow wooden pew wasn't helping.
The church dated back to 1720, some white-haired old lady who might have stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting had confided as he'd made his way inside.
David, suspecting that two and a half centuries of history would boil down to pews so closely packed that he'd end up feeling exactly the way he felt now, had offered what he'd hoped was a polite smile.
“Really,” he'd said.
The smile hadn't worked. He knew, because the old lady had drawn back, given him a second, narrow-eyed stare that had swept over him from head to toe, taking in his height, his ponytail, his stirrup-heeled, silver-tooled boots, and then she'd raised her eyes to his and said, “Yes, really,” in a tone that had made it clear what she thought of a Westerner invading this pristine corner of New England.
Maybe she was right. Maybe he shouldn't have come to the wedding. He was too tired, too cynical, too old to pretend that he was witnessing a miracle of love when the truth was that those two kids up there had about as much chance of succeeding at the thing called wedlock as a penguin had of flying to the moon.
The bride lifted worshiping eyes to her young man. Her smile trembled, full of promises. Pledges. Vowsâ¦
And right about then, David suddenly thought of the world's three biggest lies.
Every man knew them.
The check is in the mail.
Of course, I'll respect you in the morning.
Lie number one, at least, was gender neutral. As an attorney with offices in the nation's capitol, David had spent more time than he liked to remember sitting across his desk from clients of both sexes, either of whom had no trouble looking you straight in the eye and swearing, on a stack of Bibles, that whatever sums were in dispute were only a postal delivery away. And they usually wereâso long as you assumed United States mail was routed via Mars.
The second lie was unabashedly, if embarrassingly, male. If pressed, David would have had to admit offering it himself, back in the days of his callow, hormone-crazed youth.
The memory made him smile. He hadn't thought of Martha Jean Steenburger in years, but he could picture her now, just as clearly as if it had happened yesterday.
Martha Jean, home for the summer after her freshman year at college, somehow much, much older than her eighteen years and as gloriously endowed as any sixteen-yearold boy stumbling into manhood could imagine. Martha Jean, eyeing him with interest, making him blush as she took in the height and muscle he'd added since she'd last seen him. She'd flashed him a hundred-watt smile across the barbecue pit at the Steenburgers' July Fourth party and David had gulped hard, then followed her swaying, denim-clad backside to the calf barn and up into the hayloft, where he'd nervously tried to plant a kiss on her parted lips.
“But will you respect me in the morning?” Martha Jean had said with a straight face, and when he'd managed to stutter out that of course he would, she'd chortled in a way that had made him feel dumb as well as horny and then she'd tumbled him back into the hay and introduced him to paradise.
Ah, but the third lieâ¦ The dark scowl crept over David's face again. It, too, was supposed to be strictly male, but any man over the age of puberty knew that women told it just as often and with devastating effect, because when a woman said, “Trust me,” it had nothing to do with sex and everything to do with love. That was what made it the most damnable falsehood. For all he knew, it had started as a whisper made by a ravishing Eve to a defenseless Adam, or a promise breathed in the ear of Samson by Delilah. It might even have been the last vow made by Guinevere to Arthur.
How many males had done just that, over the centuries? Millions, probablyâincluding David.
“Well, they probably mean it, when they say it,” a fraternity brother had once told him. “Something about the female of the species, you know what I mean?”
It was as good an explanation as any, David figured. And all it took was one trip through the marriage mill for a man to learn that when a woman said a man could trust her, what it
meant was that he'd be a fool if he did. It was a hard lesson to learn, but he'd learned it.
Damn right, he had.
Put in the most basic terms, marriage was a joke.
Not that he'd given up on women. Taken at face value, he liked them still. What man wouldn't? There was nothing as pleasurable as sharing your bed and your life with a beautiful woman for a few weeks, even a few months, but when the time came to end a relationship, that was it. He wanted no tears, no regrets, no recriminations. Women didn't fault him for his attitude, either. David figured it was because he was completely up-front about his intentions, or his lack of them. He wasn't a man who made promises, not of forever-after or anything even approximating it, but he'd yet to meet a woman who'd walked away after he'd shown interest in her.
Jack Russell, one of his law partners, said it was because women saw David as an irresistible challenge. He said, too, that the day would come when David changed his mind. A wife, according to Jack, had a civilizing influence on a man. She'd run your home, plan your parties, help entertain your clients and generally get your life in hand. David agreed that that was probably true, but a good secretary and an inventive caterer could do the same things, and you didn't have to wonder what day of the week they'd turn your life upside down.
Love, if it even existed, was too dependent on men trusting women and women trusting men. It sounded good but it just didn't workâ¦and wasn't that a hell of a thing to be brooding over right now?
David sighed, stretched his legs out as best he could, and crossed his booted ankles.
Jet lag, that was his problem, otherwise why would he be thinking such stuff? The kids standing at the altar today deserved the benefit of the doubt. Not even he was jaundiced enough to be convinced this bride would do a Jekyll and Hyde after the honeymoon ended. The girl was the daughter of an old friend. David had watched her develop from a cute kid with braces on her teeth to charming young womanhoodâ¦and he'd watched her father and mother end up in divorce court. In fact, he'd represented Chase in the divorce.
There was just no getting away from it. Marriage was an unnatural state, devised by the female of the species to suit her own purposes, andâ
What was that?
David sat up straight and swung around. The church doors had flown open; the breeze had caught them and slammed them against the walls.
A woman stood silhouetted in the late afternoon sun. A buzz of speculation swept up and down the aisles.
“Who's that?” the weeper beside him hissed to her husband. “Why doesn't she sit down? Why doesn't someone shut those doors?”
Why, indeed? David sighed, got to his feet and made his way to the rear of the church. This was going to be his day for charitable works. Annie had kissed him hello and whispered that she'd seated him with a special friend of hers.
“She's no one for you to fool around with, David,” she'd said with a teasing smile. “Her name is Stephanie Willingham, and she's a widow. Be nice to her, okay?”
Well, why not? He'd been hard on the old lady outside the church but he'd make up for it by being nice to this one. He'd chat politely with the widow Willingham, maybe even waltz her once around the room, and then he'd cut out, maybe give Jessica or Helena a call before he flew back to D.C. On the other hand, he might just head home early. He had some briefs to read before tomorrow.
The woman who'd caused the commotion nodded her thanks. She was the bride's aunt; he'd met her a couple of times. She was a model, and probably accustomed to making theatrical entrances. He gave her a polite nod as she made her way past him.
David shut the doors, turnedâand found himself looking straight at the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.
She was seated in the last pew, as he had been, but on the opposite sideâthe groom's sideâof the church. Her face was triangular, almost catlike in its delicacy; her cheekbones were high and pronounced. Her eyes were brown, her nose was straight and classic and her mouth was a soft, coral bow that hinted at endless pleasures. Her hair was the color of dark chocolate and she wore it drawn back from her face in an unadorned knot.
With heart-stopping swiftness, David found himself wondering what it would be like to take out the pins that held those silken strands and let her hair tumble into his hands.
The image was simple, but it sent a jolt of desire sizzling through his blood. He felt himself turn hard as stone.
Damn, he thought in surprise, and at that instant, the woman's eyes met his.
Her gaze was sharp and cold. It seemed to assess him, slice through the veneer afforded him by his custom-made suit and dissect his thoughts.
Hell, he thought, could she tell what had happened to him? It wasn't possible. His anatomy was behaving as if it had a will of its own, but there was no way for her to knowâ¦
But she did. She knew. He was sure of it, even though her eyes never left his. Nothing else could explain the flush that rose in her face, or the contemptuous expression that swept over it just before she turned away.
For what seemed an eternity, David remained frozen. He couldn't believe he'd had such a stupid reaction to the sight of a stranger, couldn't recall a woman looking at him with such disdain.
Primal desire gave way to equally primal rage.
He saw himself walking to where she sat, sliding into the empty seat beside her and telling her that he wouldn't have her on a betâor better still, he could tell her that she was right, just looking at her had made him want to take her to bed, and what did she intend to do about it?
But the rules of a civilized society prevailed.
He drew a deep breath, made his way to his seat, sat down and fixed his attention on whatever in hell was happening at the altar because he was, after all, a civilized man.
Damn right, he was.
By the time the recessional echoed through the church and the bride and groom made their way out the door, he had had forgotten all about the womanâ¦
Sure he had.
* * *
Stephanie Willingham stood at the marble-topped vanity table in the country club ladies' room and stared at her reflection in the mirror.