Authors: Rachel Gibson
I would like to express my heartfelt thanks
to the romance readers who have
faithfully supported me
since the publication of my very first book.
This one is for all of you.
The first time Clare Wingate found herself in a strange…
Sebastian Vaughan pulled his white T-shirt over his head and…
“He told me it didn’t mean anything,” Clare said, and…
Sebastian reread what he’d written and scrubbed his face with…
“We didn’t have sex.”
Clare raised her hand and knocked on the red door…
The day after Lucy’s wedding, Clare had taken a vow…
When Clare walked into the living room, Sebastian stood with…
She’d wrapped the fishing pole and reel in pink ribbon…
The second week of September, Sebastian boarded an international flight…
The first week of December, a light snow dusted the…
Clare moved among various members of her mother’s social clubs…
Sebastian was far from bored. He was intrigued and interested…
Clare reached for a research book on peerage and cracked…
On the twenty-fourth of December the Boise Towne Square Mall…
“Merry Christmas.” Clare wrapped her arms around Leo and gave…
Sebastian picked up the knife and cut several turkey sandwiches…
Three days after Clare’s birthday Sebastian called, and she discovered…
Sebastian walked into the carriage house feeling as if he’d…
Clare poured a cup of coffee and looked out the…
he first time Clare Wingate found herself in a strange bed, she’d been twenty-one, the victim of a bad breakup and too many Jell-O shooters. The love of her life had dumped her for a blond art student with an impressive rack, and Clare had spent the night at Humpin’ Hannah’s, holding down the bar and nursing her broken heart.
The next morning she woke in a bed smelling of patchouli oil and staring up at a poster of Bob Marley, the guy snoring beside her drowning out the pounding in her head. She hadn’t known either where she was or the snoring guy’s name. She hadn’t stuck around long enough to ask.
Instead, she’d grabbed her clothes and bolted. As she’d driven home in the cruel light of morning,
she told herself there were worse things in life than random sexual encounters. Bad things like flunking out of college or getting caught in a burning building. Yeah, those were bad. Still, a one-night stand wasn’t for her. It had left her feeling disgusted and disturbed. But by the time she reached her apartment, she’d chalked the whole thing up to a learning experience. Something a lot of young women did. Something to learn from, and something that was good to know for the future. Something she vowed would never happen again.
Clare had not been raised to reach for a shot glass and a warm body to make herself feel better. No, she’d been raised to curb her impulses and contain her feelings behind a perfect facade of warm smiles, kind words, and impeccable manners. Wingates did not drink too much, talk too loud, or wear white shoes before Memorial Day. Ever. They did not wear their hearts on the sleeves of their cashmere sweater sets, and they most certainly did not jump into bed with strangers.
Clare may have been raised on restraint, but she’d been born a romantic. In the pit of her soul she believed in love at first sight and instant attraction, and had a bad habit of leaping into relationships before she looked. She seemed destined to suffer repeated heartache, painful breakups, and the occasional drunken one nighter.
Fortunately, by her late twenties she’d learned to put into practice the restraint she’d been taught. For her reward, at the age of thirty-one, destiny blessed her and she met Lonny. The love of her life. The man she’d met at a Degas exhibit, and who swept her off her feet. He was beautiful and romantic and not in the least like the heartbreakers she’d dated in the past. He remembered birthdays and special occasions, and was brilliant when it came to floral arrangements. Clare’s mother loved him because he knew how to use a tomato server. Clare loved him because he understood about her work and left her alone when she was under a deadline.
After a year of dating, Lonny moved into Clare’s home, and they spent the next year in total sync. He loved her antique furniture, and they both loved pastels and had a passion for texture. They never fought or even argued. There was no emotional drama with Lonny, and when he asked her to marry him, she’d said yes.
Lonny really was the perfect man. Well…except for his low sex drive. Sometimes he didn’t want sex for months at a time, but really, she told herself, not all men were horn dogs.
Or so she believed, right up to the moment she’d rushed home unexpectedly the day of her friend Lucy’s wedding and found him
in flagrante delicto
with the Sears service technician. It had taken her several stunned moments to process what was happening on the floor of her walk-in closet. She’d stood there with her great-grandmother’s pearls in hand, too shocked to move, while the man who’d fixed her Maytag the day before rode her fiancé like a cowboy. And none of it seemed quite real until Lonny glanced up and his shocked brown gaze met hers.
“I thought you were sick,” she’d said stupidly, and then, without another word, gathered up the hem of her silk and tulle bridesmaid’s dress and ran from the house. The drive to the church was a blur, and she’d been forced to spend the rest of the day in a pink puff of a dress, smiling like her life hadn’t jumped the rails and sailed off a cliff.
While Lucy read her vows, Clare felt her heart break piece by piece. She’d stood at the front of the church, smiling as she fell apart inside until she was hollow and empty, except for the pain squeezing her chest. At the wedding reception, she pushed the corners of her mouth up and raised a glass to her friend’s happiness. She felt it was her duty to make a suitable toast, and she did. She would rather have died than ruin Lucy’s day with her own problems. She just had to remember not to get toasted. She told herself that one small glass of champagne wouldn’t hurt. It wasn’t
like knocking back straight shots of whiskey, after all.
Too bad she listened to herself.
Before she opened her eyes the morning after Lucy’s wedding, a feeling of déjà vu crept into her pounding head. It was a feeling she hadn’t experienced in years. Clare peeked through scratchy eyelids at morning light falling through a wide crack in the heavy curtains and spilling onto the gold and brown quilt weighing her down. Panic tightened her throat, and she quickly sat up, the sound of her pulse beating in her ears. The quilt slid down her bare breasts and fell to her lap.
Within the lighter shadows of the room, her gaze took in the king-sized bed, a hotel desk, and wall lamps. In the armoire across from her, a Sunday morning news program was on television, the sound turned down so low she could hardly hear it. The pillow beside hers was empty, but the heavy silver wristwatch on the bedside table and the sound of running water behind the closed bathroom door told her she was not alone.
She pushed the quilt aside and practically jumped out of bed. To her dismay, she wore nothing from the day before but a spritz of Escada and a pink thong. She scooped up the pink bustier at her feet and glanced quickly about for her dress. It was
thrown across a small couch along with a pair of faded Levi’s.
No doubt about it, she’d done it again, and like those few times years before, she couldn’t remember the important details after a certain point in the evening.
She remembered Lucy’s wedding at St. John’s Cathedral and the reception afterward at the Double Tree Hotel. She remembered running out of champagne before the first round of toasts, forcing her to refill her glass several times. She recalled trading in her champagne glass for an old-fashioned filled with gin and tonic.
After that things got a little sketchy. Through a boozy haze, she recalled dancing at the reception, and she had a vague mortifying memory of singing “Fat Bottomed Girls.” Somewhere. She had flashes of her friends, Maddie and Adele, renting a room in the hotel for her so she could sleep it off before she had to go home and confront Lonny. The hotel mini bar. Sitting at the bar downstairs? Maybe. Then nothing.
Clare wrapped the bustier around her middle and endeavored to fasten the hooks between her breasts as she moved across the room toward the couch. Halfway, she tripped over one pink satin sandal. The only crystal clear memory in her head was that of Lonny and the repairman.
Her heart pinched but she didn’t have time to dwell on the pain and utter astonishment of what she’d seen. She would deal with Lonny, but first she had to get out of that hotel room.
With the corset hooked partway between her breasts, she reached for her pink fluff of a bridesmaid’s dress. She threw it over her head and battled yards of tulle, twisting and turning, fighting and pushing, until she had it down around her waist. Out of breath, she shoved her arms through the spaghetti straps and reached behind her for the zipper and little buttons on the back of the dress.
The water shut off and Clare’s attention flew to the closed bathroom door. She grabbed her clutch purse off the couch and in a rustle of tulle and satin raced across the room. She held up the front of her dress with one hand and scooped up shoes with the other. There were worse things than waking up in a strange hotel room, she told herself. Once she got home, she’d think of something worse too.
“Leaving so soon, Claresta?” said a rough male voice only a few feet behind her.
Clare came to an abrupt halt against the closed door. No one called her Claresta but her mother. Her head whipped around and her purse and one shoe fell to the floor with a muffled thud. The strap of her dress slipped down her arm as her gaze landed on a white towel wrapped around the
bottom row of hard six-pack abs. A drop of water slid down the dark blond line of hair on his tanned stomach, and Clare lifted her gaze to the defined chest muscles covered in tight brown skin and short wet curls. A second towel circled his neck, and she continued to look up past his throat and stubble-covered chin to a pair of lips pulled into a wicked smile. She swallowed, then glanced into deep green eyes surrounded by thick lashes. She knew those eyes.
He shoved one shoulder against the bathroom door frame and folded his arms across his broad chest. “Good morning.”
His voice was different from the last time she’d heard it. Lower, changed from a boy to a man. She hadn’t seen that smile in over twenty years, but she recognized that too. It was the same smile he’d worn as he’d talked her into playing War or Doctor or Dare. Each game had usually ended with her losing something. Her money. Her dignity. Her clothes. Sometimes all three.
Not that he’d had to do all that much talking. She’d always been a sucker for that smile, and for him. But she was no longer a lonely little girl, susceptible to smooth-talking boys with wicked smiles who blew into her life each summer and made her little heart melt. “Sebastian Vaughan.”
His smile creased the corners of his eyes.
“You’ve grown since the last time I saw you naked.”
With her hand clutching the front of her dress, she turned and pressed her back into the door. The cool wood touched her skin between the open zipper. She pushed a dark brown tangle of hair behind her ear and tried to smile. She had to dig down deep inside, into the part of her that had been pounded with good manners. Into the part that brought gifts to dinner parties and sent thank-you notes the second she got home. The part that had a kind word—if not thought—for everyone. “How are you?”
“Fabulous.” She licked her dry lips. “I suppose you’re visiting your father?” Finally.
He pushed away from the door frame and reached for one end of the towel around his neck. “We covered that last night,” he said, and dried the side of his head. As a boy, his hair had been blond like the sun. It was darker now.
Obviously they’d covered quite a few things she couldn’t remember. Things she didn’t even want to think about. “I heard about your mother. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“We covered that too.” He dropped his hand to his hip.
“What brings you to town?” The last
she’d heard of Sebastian, he’d been embedded with the marines in Iraq or Afghanistan or God knew where. The last time she’d seen him, he’d been eleven or twelve.
“Ditto.” His brows lowered and he looked at her more closely. “You don’t remember last night. Do you?”
She shrugged one bare shoulder.
“I knew you were shit-faced, but I didn’t think you were so gone you wouldn’t remember anything.”
It was just like him to point that out. He obviously hadn’t developed manners along with those abs. “I’ve never really quite understood that term, but I’m sure I wasn’t ‘shit-faced.’”
“You always were too literal. It means you were drunk off your ass. And yeah, you were.”
Her smile slid into a frown that she didn’t even try to stop. “I had reasons.”
“You told me.”
She hoped she hadn’t mentioned everything.
He made a turning motion with one finger. “Turn around so I can zip your dress.”
“Two reasons. If my father found out I’d let you run out of here with your dress half off, he’d kill
me. And if we’re going to have a conversation, I’d rather not stand here wondering if you’re going to fall the rest of the way out of that thing.”
She stared at him for several moments. Did she want him to help her out? It would probably be best if she didn’t dash from the room with her dress open in the back. Then again, she really didn’t want to stick around and converse with Sebastian Vaughan.
“In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m only wearing a towel here. In about two seconds it’s going to be real obvious I’m hoping I get to see you naked.” He smiled, showing a perfect row of straight white teeth. “Again.”
Her cheeks caught fire as she got his meaning, and in a rustle of satin and tulle, she turned and faced the door. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask him exactly what they’d done together the previous night, but she didn’t want the details. She also wondered what she’d told him about Lonny, but she supposed she didn’t want to know that either. “I guess I drank more than I intended.”
“You were entitled to tie one on. Finding your fiancé on all fours like a bronc would drive anyone to drink.” The tips of his fingers brushed her spine as he reached for the zipper. He chuckled and said, “I guess the Maytag man isn’t the loneliest guy in town after all.”
“It’s not funny.”
“Maybe not.” He brushed her hair aside and slowly slid the zipper up her back. “But you really shouldn’t take it so hard.”
She pressed her forehead into the wooden door. This could not be happening.
“It’s not like it’s your fault, Clare,” he added as if it were a comfort. “You just don’t have the right equipment.”
Yes, there were worse things than waking up in a hotel room with a stranger. One of those things was seeing the love of your life with a man. The other was zipping up her dress. She sniffed and bit her bottom lip to keep from crying.
He let go of her hair and fastened the two hooks at the top of the zipper. “You’re not going to cry, are you?”
She shook her head. She did not show excessive emotion in public, or at least she tried not to. Later, after she’d confronted Lonny and was alone, she would fall apart. But, she figured, if she’d ever had an excuse to cry, this was it. She’d lost her fiancé and slept with Sebastian Vaughan. Barring a flesh-eating disease, she didn’t think her life could get any worse than it was at that moment.