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"I heard some of it from him," she admits. "I think I heard the rest from Jamie."
I grin. That doesn't really surprise me.
"I sent her packing," I say. "And I never asked her to walk me down the aisle, even though she's the only parent I've got."
"Parent?" she repeats. "You know better than that, Texas. Family's what you make of it, and that woman may have given birth to you, but she's not your family, not really."
I look around this room filled with friends, and have to nod. "I know," I say. "But you're family, and I love you." I take a deep breath. "Would you walk me down the aisle?"
I think I see tears in her eyes, but I don't say anything. I just give her a moment to gather herself, even while I'm holding close to my heart the knowledge that my request moved her. "h.e.l.l yes, Texas," she finally says. "You better believe I will."
Moments later, Damien calls me over to where he stands chatting with Evan. He pulls a flat silver box out of his pocket, and hands it to me.
"I can open it?"
I rip the paper off. I lift the top off to reveal a beautiful necklace with a silver chain and sunshine-yellow gemstones. "Damien, it's lovely." I glance down at the emerald ankle bracelet I always wear, feeling spoiled.
"I remembered the flowers on your wedding gown. I thought this would match them."
My heart twists at his thoughtfulness. "But that was the first dress," I explain.
"I know," he says, as Evan reaches over and grabs a large box off the floor. He sets it on the table, and I look between the two men with curiosity. "Go ahead," Damien urges. "Open it. I think you'll find the necklace appropriate, after all."
Wary, I pull off the lid, and find myself gazing down at my beautiful, missing wedding dress.
"I have a few friends who have a unique ability to track down internationally shipped items that have gone missing," Evan says.
"Oh." I glance at Damien, wondering if that means what I think it does. But his face reveals nothing. To be honest, I really don't care how or where he found my dress. I'm just glad it's arrived.
"Alyssa's coming to the house in the morning. She'll take care of any alterations on-site," Damien adds, and I lean over and kiss him impulsively, this man who takes such exceptionally good care of me.
"Thank you," I say to Damien, then turn to include Evan. "Thank you both. You saved me."
A sense of relief sweeps over me, and for the first time since I started this wedding planning thing, I feel truly stress-free. It feels nice.
I reach out and hold tight to Damien's hand. This, I think, is the only thing that's important.
The party continues until well into the night, and it's almost two by the time we get home. I'm about to strip and fall into bed when I realize that I've missed a call. I put the phone on speaker and listen as the message plays.
"Hi, Nikki, this is Lauren with the flowers for tomorrow. I just wanted to let you know that we're all set. It was last minute, but we were happy to make the change."
I frown and glance at Damien, who looks as confused as I feel.
"So we'll be there in the morning to set up, this time with the lilies and gardenias. And we're sending a selection over to Sally, too, for the cake. Thanks again, and we can't wait to see you tomorrow. Congratulations again to you and Damien."
The call ends, and I stare at the phone like it is a serpent.
What the f.u.c.k?
What the b.l.o.o.d.y f.u.c.k?
"She switched them," I say. "My mother actually f.u.c.ked with my wedding." I meet Damien's gaze. I know mine is angry. His is murderous. Not because of the flowers-I sincerely doubt he cares about sunflowers versus gardenias-but because of what that woman has done to me over and over and over.
"It's like she's reaching out from Texas and twisting the knife. Like there is no pleasure in her life unless she's s.c.r.e.w.i.n.g with me."
I stalk around the bedroom, trying to get my head together. I feel cold and angry and out of control. Whatever pleasure I'd felt when Damien and Evan presented me with my wedding dress has been swept away. It's as if this wedding will never truly be my own. And now I either have to endure a wedding with my mother's stamp upon it, or I have to spend my wedding day sorting out this mess.
"Dammit," I howl.
"It will be okay," Damien says, pulling me into his arms.
"I know it'll be okay. It's not like we're talking about curing cancer. But that's not the point. She just went and turned the whole thing around on me."
"And at the end of the day, we'll still be married," he says reasonably.
I am in too b.i.t.c.hy a mood to listen to reason, but it's still there. Inescapable and true and hanging in the air between us.
I stalk around the room a bit more, while Damien eyes me with trepidation, as if I'm a bomb about to go off.
Finally, the bubbling anger cools, leaving calm calculation.
I feel the p.r.i.c.kle of an idea, and slowly it grows. After a few more laps around the room, I stop in front of Damien.
"I can fix this," I say.
"What do you mean?"
"I can howl and complain that she f.u.c.ked up my wedding. Or I can turn it around on its ear, flip my mother the bird, and say that she didn't f.u.c.k up my wedding, she did me a favor."
My smile is slow. "Yes. And I'll tell you why." I grab the collar of Damien's shirt, pull him toward me, once again feeling light and free. I kiss him hard. "I can tell you," I repeat, and then flash a smile full of wicked intentions, "but you're going to have to make me."
I stand on the third-floor balcony looking out at the calm Pacific. It is a beautiful evening, perfect for an outdoor wedding.
It is almost sunset. Just about time for the ceremony to begin.
Damien is beside me, his arm around my waist. The expanse of his property, lush green fading to pale sand, spreads out before us.
Usually, the beach is empty this time of day. Right now, however, it is dotted with white tents and glowing lanterns. Guests mingle, indistinguishable from this distance, and I hear the soft strains of Frank Sinatra drifting up to us. Beyond the line of tents, the paparazzi are camped out, ready to pounce.
I can't help but smile at the thought that we're pulling something over on those vultures.
Beyond them, the Pacific glows a warm purple tinged with orange from the swiftly setting sun.
Soon, I think. Soon I will be Mrs. Damien Stark.
"You're sure this is what you want?" Damien asks as the air fills with the thrum of his helicopter. It swoops down in front of us to settle gently on the helipad.
I take one more look at the panorama spread out before me. "I'm sure," I say, raising my voice to be heard over the rotors.
Below us, Gregory and Tony are loading suitcases into the bird.
I rise up on my toes and kiss Damien, hard and fast and deep. I pull away, breathless, and smile at the irony-it took a shove from my mother to drive home something I should have realized all along.
I press my palm to Damien's chest, wanting to feel the beat of his heart beneath my hand. "It's not the walk down the aisle that matters-it's the man waiting for me when I get there. You said it yourself, it's the only wedding I'll ever have, and this is the way I want it." No stress, no drama, no paparazzi. No polite chitchat, no worries about music or food or flowers or unexpected relatives showing up out of the blue. Just Damien and those two little words-I do.
"And all the work you've put into the reception?" he asks, even though we talked about this last night-about how I'd been working so hard for perfection that I lost sight of what Damien already knew-that so long as we end up as man and wife, "perfect" is a given.
Still, I indulge him by answering again. I understand he needs to be certain that I am sure I want to do this.
"The party's important, too," I say. "And they'll have a great one." I nod toward the beach. "Trust me. Jamie has it under control. If anyone knows how to make sure a crowd has a good time at a party, it's my best friend." I smile more broadly. "I asked Ryan to help her. They'll party through the night, and anyone who has a mind to can watch us get married in the morning. And Evelyn promised to spin the c.r.a.p out of it for the press."
Damien's smile is as wide as my own. "I love you, Ms. Fairchild," he says.
"You won't be able to say that much longer. Soon it'll be Mrs. Stark."
He takes my hand and tugs me toward the stairs. "Then let's go," he says. "The sooner, the better."
We hurry hand in hand down the stairs, then sprint for the helicopter, heads down, laughing. Damien helps me aboard, and once we're strapped in, he signals the pilot and the bird takes off.
So, with the guests waving goodbye from the beach and the paparazzi snapping wildly, we elope into the sunset, leaving our wedding guests to eat our food, drink our champagne, and dance into the night.
Damien and I stand on a beach beside a foaming sea that is shifting away from the gray of night into a cacophony of colors with the rising sun. That was something else I'd realized: I couldn't get married at sunset. I had to have a sunrise wedding.
I am wearing my wedding dress and the necklace that Damien gave me, and when I saw the look in Damien's eyes as I walked the short distance down the aisle to him, I knew that whatever trouble it took to rescue the dress was worth it. I feel like a princess. h.e.l.l, I feel like a bride. And in Damien's eyes, I feel beautiful.
I am not wearing shoes, and I curl my toes into the sand, feeling wild and decadent and free. There is no stress, there are no worries. There is simply this wedding and the man beside me, and that is all that I need.
In front of us, a Mexican official is performing the ceremony in broken, heavily accented English. I am pretty sure I have never heard anything more beautiful.
"Do you take this man?" he asks, and I say the words that have been in my heart from the moment I first met Damien. "I do."
"I do," says Damien in turn. He is facing me as he speaks, and I can see the depth of emotion in his dual-colored eyes. Mine, he mouths, and I nod. It is true. I am his, and always will be.
And Damien Stark is mine.
A few feet away, a small boy who has been paid some pesos is holding Damien's phone, streaming video of our wedding back to Malibu, where Jamie is projecting the ceremony onto one of the tent walls, just in case any of the guests are still sober and awake after a long night of partying.
Here on our beach, the official p.r.o.nounces us man and wife. The words crash over me, heavy with meaning, filling my soul. "That day," I whisper, my heart full to bursting. "That day when you asked me to pose for you-I never expected it to end like this."
"But it hasn't ended, Mrs. Stark. This is just the beginning." His voice sounds full to bursting, and his words are absolutely perfect.
I nod, because he is right, and because I am so overwhelmed by the moment I can manage nothing else.
"I'm going to kiss you now," he says, then captures my mouth with his. The kiss is long and deep, and all around us the locals clap and cheer.
I cling to Damien, never wanting to let go, as the sun continues to rise around us, casting us in the glow of morning.
Perfect, I think. Because the sun will never set between Damien and me. Not today, not ever.
If you loved the Stark Trilogy, you won't want to miss WANTED.
The first book in J. Kenner's hot new Most Wanted series Coming soon from Bantam Books Read on for an excerpt ...
I know exactly when my life shifted. That precise instant when his eyes met mine and I no longer saw the bland look of familiarity, but danger and fire, l.u.s.t and hunger.
Perhaps I should have turned away. Perhaps I should have run.
I didn't. I wanted him. More, I needed him. The man, and the fire that he ignited inside of me.
And in his eyes, I saw that he needed me, too.
That was the moment everything changed. Me most of all.
But whether it changed for good or for ill ... well, that remains to be seen.
Even dead, my uncle Jahn knew how to throw one h.e.l.l of a party.
His Chicago lakeside penthouse was bursting at the seams with an eclectic collection of mourners, most of whom had imbibed so much wine from the famous Howard Jahn cellar that whatever melancholy they'd brought with them had been sweetly erased, and now this wake or reception or whatever the h.e.l.l you wanted to call it wasn't the least bit somber. Politicians mingled with financiers mingled with artists and academics, and everyone was smiling and laughing and toasting the deceased.
At his request, there'd been no formal funeral. Just this gathering of friends and family, food and drink, music and mirth. Jahn-he hated the name Howard-had lived a vibrant life, and that was never more obvious than now in his death.
I missed him so d.a.m.n much, but I hadn't cried. Hadn't screamed and ranted. Hadn't done anything, really, except move through the days and nights lost in a haze of emotions, my mind numb. My body anesthetized.