Authors: Tessa Radley
America’s Publisher of Contemporary Romance
To writers and teachers—
To Daphne Clair and Robin Donald for running the Kara School of Writing, without which I would never have plucked up the courage to write
And to Barbara Samuel for touching my heart and Emma Darcy for encouragement when I needed it most
To the editors who have helped me on my way—
Karin Stoecker for making me believe
Dianne Moggy for graceful advice and enthusiasm Briony Green for her time and patience and excellent advice, which I will never forget
To my dream team—
Karen Solem and Melissa Jeglinski, who brought my dreams to life
To my writing group—
Karina Bliss, Abby Gaines and Sandra Hyde, friends and writers who fill my day with laughter
To my family—
Tony, Alex and Andrew, thank you for always believing and being there every day. You guys make each day special!
Rebecca Grainger wrapped her arms around her stomach, nausea welling up. If she could only stop thinking about it, then maybe the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach would subside. The wedding was her priority, Rebecca told herself. Focus on that. She’d already been paid for arranging it—in full—the cheque flung at her last night.
Last night. That kiss. No, don’t think about last night.
Concentrate on the wedding. An Asteriades event. A desperate glance swept the tables laden with glittering silver cutlery and Baccarat glasses, the slim crystal vases each bearing six glorious long-stemmed white roses on the tables.
Naturally she’d had unlimited resources at her disposal, and no expense had been spared for Damon Asteriades’s wedding. The vaulted ballroom ceiling of Auckland’s San Lorenzo Hotel had been draped in soft white folds of fabric to give the dreamy, romantic mood of a bower. Garlands of ivy and hothouse white roses festooned the walls, filling the ballroom with heady scent. Brass wall-mounted sconces held torches that added an intimate glow, while the vast room had been heated to allow women to show off an astonishing array of flimsy designer gowns even though the winter air blew cold outside.
In the centre of the otherwise empty dance floor, Damon Asteriades performed a graceful manoeuvre, twirling his new bride to the melodious strains of the “Blue Danube” waltz, his dark head close to her pale blond hair. He was one hundred per cent gorgeous Greek male from the top of his overlong jet-black hair to the tips of his tanned fingers, with a Greek male’s hotheaded certainty that he was always right. And right now Rebecca wished he were a million light-years away.
“My son is a fool.”
At the voice of Soula Asteriades—Damon’s mother and widow of the powerful Ari Asteriades—Rebecca smiled and said, “Damon wouldn’t care for that description.”
“And look at you, Rebecca! My dear, did you have to wear scarlet? Like a red flag to a bull?” Soula sighed. “That wicked dress will only fuel the tales that grow in each retelling.”
Rebecca laughed and glanced down at the extravagant Vera Wang dress she wore. “Let them gossip. I don’t care. At least I’m not stealing the bride’s thunder and wearing white.”
“But you should’ve been. You would’ve made a beautiful bride. If only Ari had been here—he might have knocked some sense into the boy’s head.”
Shocked, Rebecca stared at the older woman. “Soula?”
“This wedding is a mistake, but now it’s too late. My son has made his choice and he must live with it. That’s my last word.” Soula disappeared into the throng surrounding them.
Disconcerted, Rebecca turned her attention to the dance floor. Damon chose that moment for an uncharacteristic display of public affection—brushing a kiss across the top of his bride’s head. The bride tilted her face up, revealing astonishment but none of the sparkling joy expected. Rebecca couldn’t help wishing that Damon was where she was right now—in hell.
She couldn’t bear to watch. She closed her eyes. Her head ached with a combination of inner tension, the strain of the day and the residue of last night’s wine. She wanted the wedding over. Done. So that she could rid her mouth of the bitter taste of betrayal.
“Come. Time for us to join them.”
Rebecca’s painful thoughts were jogged by a touch on her cold, clammy arm, and she became abruptly aware that the music from the stylish ensemble on the raised dais was fading. Savvas, the bridegroom’s brother and best man, stared at her expectantly.
She forced a smile. “Sorry, Savvas. I was miles away.” He gave her a wide grin. “Stop worrying, everything’s magnificent. The flowers, the menu, the cake, the dress. Women will be queuing for you to organise their perfect day.”
Rebecca blinked at Savvas’s enthusiasm. Organising yet another Auckland high-society wedding was the last thing she wanted; yet she was thankful that he’d put her distraction down to anxiety about the success of the function. No one—not Savvas, nor anyone else—knew why she had fretted all day. Or why the memory of these particular nuptials would cast a pall over every wedding for years to come.
Oh, God, how could she have been so stupid last night!
“Come.” Savvas tugged her hand insistently.
She dug her sandal-clad toes in, not budging. “I don’t dance at weddings I’ve organised.” Over Savvas’s shoulder she met the bridegroom’s narrow-eyed gaze, read the disdain.
More fool her. She dragged her attention back to Savvas.
He chuckled, oblivious to the tension that strung her tighter than the violinist’s bowstring, his blue eyes lighting up with merriment, eyes so like his brother’s that her heart jolted. No, she reprimanded herself, don’t go there!
“No excuses. You’re not working tonight, you must dance. Come. It’s traditional, the maid of honor and best man join in next. Look, everyone’s waiting.”
A rapid glance around told Rebecca he was right. Hordes of exquisitely dressed couples had flocked to the edge of the dance floor and stood waiting for them. Even Damon’s mother was there, her eyes sympathetic. Rebecca raised her chin. Instinctively she touched the opal pendant that rested just above her breasts.
And then her gaze collided with blue. A cold, icy blue. Damon Asteriades was glaring now, disapproval evident in the hard slash of his mouth, his bride clamped in his arms.
Her best friend.
Rebecca tossed her head, slid her chilled hand into the crook of the arm Savvas offered and, forcing a parody of a smile onto her lips, allowed him to lead her onto the floor, the flouncy skirt of her scarlet dress swirling around her legs.
She would dance. Damn Damon Asteriades! She would laugh, too, wouldn’t let Damon glimpse the misery in her heart, the emptiness in her soul. Damon would never know what it had cost her to organise his wedding to Fliss, to help Fliss with the myriad choices of music, flowers, fabrics, or how sick and despondent she had felt trudging up the aisle behind the pair of them.
Nor would he ever know of her quiet desperation when the white-and-gold-robed priest had pronounced them man and wife. Of the ache that had sharpened as the bridal couple had turned to face the congregation. Fliss had been pale, but she’d managed to give Damon a flirtatious glance from under her lashes. And Damon had sought Rebecca’s gaze, his eyes blazing with triumph, as if to say, Nothing you can do now.
Oh, yes, she’d dance. She’d be as outrageous as ever, and not a soul would guess at the agony hidden beneath the brittle facade. They’d see what they always saw: brazen, independent Rebecca.
Never again would she allow herself to become vulnerable to this raw, consuming emotion. It hurt too much.
She smiled determinedly up at Savvas as he put an arm around her shoulder and ignored the glower from the midst of the dance floor.
“Hey, brother, my turn to dance with the bride.”
Startled by Savvas’s words, Rebecca surfaced from the numb place to which she’d retreated, a place where she felt nothing. No pain, no emotion. The sudden stop brought her back to the present, back to the ballroom. Savvas stepped away as the romantic melody faded.
In front of her stood her nemesis, the man she knew she would never escape.
Even in this dim light his blue gaze glittered. Only the bent blade of a nose that had clearly been broken more than once saved his face from the classic beauty his full mouth and impossibly high cheekbones promised. Instead it created a face filled with danger, utterly compelling and ruthlessly sensual. A modern-day pirate.
Hastily she looked away, grabbing for her departing dance partner.
But Savvas was gone, spinning Fliss away, Fliss’s wedding dress fanning out against his legs. Feeling utterly alone, Rebecca waited, heart thudding with apprehension, refusing to look at Damon.
“So, you are now trying to seduce my brother? Another crack at the Asteriades fortune, hmm?” Her head shot back at the cynical words. There was something dark and tumultuous in his eyes.
He was angry?
What about her?
What gave him the right to judge her? He didn’t even know her—hadn’t had the slightest inclination to get to know her.
“Go to hell,” she muttered through grimly smiling teeth and swung away.
“Oh, no, Rebecca.” A hard hand caught her elbow. “It’s not going to be that easy. I’m not going to allow you to cause a scene and leave me standing alone on the dance floor. You’re not making a fool of me.”
Rebecca tried to wrench free. The grip tightened. Big. Strong. Powerful. She didn’t have a hope of escaping Damon Asteriades. But the last thing in the world she wanted today was to be held in his arms, to dance with him.
She must have said it aloud, because his mouth flattened as he twirled her around to face him.
“Yes,” he hissed. His eyes had turned to flat, unforgiving cobalt chips. “You will dance with me.” His right hand moved to rest on her waist as the joyous bars of the next waltz struck up. “For once in your selfish life you will do something for someone else. I will not allow you to destroy Felicity’s day.”
As he’d already destroyed her.
Rebecca wanted to laugh hysterically. Damon had no idea…no idea that he would destroy Fliss, too. Dear, beloved Fliss, the closest thing she had to a sister. Her best friend. Her business partner. Or at least she had been until last night when, after the final wedding rehearsal, Fliss had signed her share in Dream Occasions over to Rebecca.
And why? Because Damon had demanded it.
The lord and master had made it clear he wanted all ties to Rebecca severed, and Fliss had obeyed. Rebecca had been hotly, impulsively furious. Yet under the fury there had simmered the unspeakable pain of betrayal. Rebecca knew why Fliss had capitulated. Hell, she even understood why her friend was so desperate to marry a man to whom she was so totally unsuited.
But Fliss should’ve known better, should never have agreed to marry him. Yet how could Fliss refuse? Because Fliss craved security—as Rebecca once had. Unlike a heroine tied to the train tracks in one of those ancient black-and-white movies, Fliss didn’t see the danger. She saw only Damon’s solid strength. His power and wealth.
Damon was too strong. He’d dominate her. Fliss would never stand up to him. Rebecca feared Fliss would wither and die. So last night Rebecca had decided to take matters into her own hands.
A cold line of goose bumps swept her spine. Rebecca gave a convulsive shiver at the memory of what had happened next.
God! She would never forget the thrust of Damon’s anger, his contempt…or his furious passion…as long as she lived. Not even the gallons of red wine she’d consumed later had dimmed the pain, the knowledge of what that one last desperate shot had cost.
“Fliss,” she said gently as Damon’s hand enfolded hers—trapping her—as he led her into the waltz.
Damon glared down at her, uncomprehending.
“She likes to be called Fliss. Or hasn’t she told you that yet?”
His black eyebrows drew together, and she was terribly aware of the heat of his hand on her waist, of the intimate pressure of his palm against hers, of his hot, sexy scent.
“Her name is Felicity,” he said repressively. “It’s beautiful. A happy name. The other sounds insubstantial, like fairy floss.”
“But she hates it. Or don’t her wishes matter to you?”
The name reminded Fliss of less happy times, of a childhood where she’d been shy, small for her age—of the bullying she’d endured at school as the child of a foster home, of the stark discipline meted out by foster parents who had their own two daughters to love. Rebecca knew because she’d been there, raised by the same distant but well-meaning couple. How could she explain it to Damon? She couldn’t! Rebecca reminded herself she was no longer the rock in Fliss’s life. It was up to Fliss to tell her husband what she chose.
Momentarily Damon looked taken aback, but already his face was hardening. “It has nothing to do with you what I call my wife. All I ask is that you refrain from ruining this day.”
Again the agonising sharpness pierced her heart. Rebecca pushed the pain away. She’d deal with it later, much later, when this appalling day was over and she was alone.
“And how would I do that?” She raised a brow, pretending an insouciance she was far from feeling, here, trapped within the heat of his arms, mindless of the other dancing couples surrounding them. “Savvas told me that everything is stunning—the flowers…the wedding dress…the wedding cake—that it’s a Dream Occasion. How could I possibly ruin it?” Each word she uttered was another blow to her already battered heart.
But he didn’t smile at her intentional pun on her business’s name. Instead his glower darkened. “Don’t be obtuse. I’m not doubting your professional ability, it’s your penchant for stirring up trouble that has me worried.”
If only she could hate him.
Damon despised her. And, at this moment, she didn’t like him much either. To be quite honest, more than anything in the world she wanted to kill Damon Asteriades, business tycoon, billionaire…and the blindest, most stubborn, most controlling man she’d ever met. If he’d been more attuned to her, he would’ve known that Fliss would be safe, that there’d be no catfight on the dance floor tonight. Rebellion stirred within Rebecca. Perhaps she should give him cause to worry. Punish him a little.