The sun shone overhead as Knox Sinclair pulled into a parking spot at the Bridal and Wedding Expo in New Jersey. He cut the engine and turned to his newly engaged stepsister, Holly, who sat in the passenger seat, her body vibrating with excitement. Unlike Knox, who dreaded dealing with wedding-related things ever since his marriage had blown up around him over a year ago.
Was he over his ex? Yes. Did he carry a grudge against his cheating former wife and disloyal stepbrother? Also yes. Any rational man would.
“Ready?” he asked Holly.
Her brown eyes lit up, making Knox’s feelings about the bridal expo irrelevant and this event all the more important.
“Beyond ready! I can’t wait to check out all the booths,” she said. “How awesome is this going to be?”
He held back a sarcastic reply because he loved his younger sister. “Too bad Miles had to be out of town for work and can’t be the one to walk you around,” he said of her future groom, a mergers and acquisitions attorney.
Reaching over, Holly patted Knox’s cheek. “Good thing you love me and are willing to take his place. Come on. It’s going to be fun!” Holly unhooked her seat belt and opened her car door, turning to face him before letting herself out. “Besides, you know you’d do anything for me. I’m the baby of the family.”
He rolled his eyes. “Someday that reasoning is going to wear thin,” he said on a chuckle. But she was right.
He’d adored her from the day they met. Knox and his father had opened their home to a four-year-old Holly, her thirteen-year-old brother, Theo, and their mother, Knox’s father’s new wife, Addison. Holly had been adorable and exuberant, and she’d latched on to Knox. She’d been in need of an older brother, and he’d had patience where Theo had none. The selfish bastard still lacked any indulgence for his sister. Hell, he was missing most human emotions that weren’t aimed at helping himself.
“No, it won’t.” She grinned and hooked her arm in his.
He resisted the urge to rub the top of her head like he had when they were kids, knowing she’d be annoyed for the day if he messed up her hair. Today was her day. He was just happily paying for whatever choices she made.
Their parents had separated when Holly was eighteen and in college. Knox’s dad had passed away shortly after the divorce was finalized, leaving everything to Knox, including the football team he owned. The New York Warriors were in Knox’s blood. And Holly was his family. Knox had taken it upon himself to support his sister, whose mother had disappeared to Palm Springs with another wealthy man she’d met.
“Let’s go.” She started their walk to the building, and he matched her shorter strides.
They reached the doors and he opened one for Holly. Together, they walked inside, and the cool air-conditioned lobby shocked him into paying attention.
“We need to sign in and get our badges.” Holly led him toward the end of a long registration line, and he settled in to wait.
She rose onto her tiptoes and looked around, trying to see around the crowd in front of them.
“Looking for something?” he asked.
She sighed and turned back to face him, a pout on her lips. “I was looking for a rack with maps or brochures, but I guess we’ll get them when we register. I want to check the layout of the exhibit. I already know which vendors I want to see, but I need to make sure of their location. And I need to talk to Jade.”
“Jade?” His brain came to a halt at the name, and his cock jerked in excitement.
“Come on, Knox, you know. Theo’s ex,” Holly said.
Yeah, he knew. Jade Dare. The woman who’d experienced the same betrayal he had. And the woman he’d had a serious attraction to at a time when he’d been in a shitty marriage with a wife he could never make happy.
He recalled the night Theo had walked into the restaurant where Knox and Holly were having dinner, with a familiar I’m up to something smirk on his face and a beautiful young blonde on his arm. Knox hadn’t recognized the woman until their introduction. The last time he’d seen Jade, she’d been a teenager attending Asher and Knox’s business school graduation.
The female with her arm hooked into Theo’s had grown into a gorgeous woman. With a statuesque body, long, wavy hair he wanted to wrap around his hands, unique navy eyes that ran in her family, and plush glossed lips he’d like to kiss. Finding out she was Asher’s younger sister had been a shock.
Seeing her on Theo’s arm? A gut punch that had him wanting to look out for her. Few escaped Theo unscathed. But Knox had been married at the time and kept his opinions … and desire, to himself. Which was not to say he hadn’t warned Asher to keep an eye on the new man in his sister’s life, but even Knox could never have imagined the lows to which his stepbrother would go.
“Knox?” Holly waved a hand in front of his face. “Where did you go?”
“I’m right here and I remember Jade.”
“Of course you do.” Holly tucked a strand of her shoulder-length brown hair behind her ear. “You had a thing for her,” his sister said, as if his feelings had been obvious.
“Don’t be ridiculous. I was married when we met.” He followed the people in front of him, stepping forward.
Holly did the same. Turning to him again, she tilted her head. “Right. You were married to that horrible woman but you weren’t dead. Of course you noticed how beautiful Jade is. It’s just that, unlike our asshole sibling, you didn’t act on the attraction when you were already with someone else.” She put her hand on his arm and leaned against him, offering comfort.
“It’s okay. I’m over Sofia.” He didn’t want his sister worrying about him, and he rarely gave that bitch a thought.
As for Jade, he couldn’t deny he was looking forward to seeing her again. Not something he’d admit to Holly, who tended to be overly interested in his love life.
“Good. So seeing Jade won’t be awkward. Because she’s the event coordinator at the Meridian Hotel, and I’m dying to get married there. I thought it would be better to see her in person than pick up the phone and say, Hi, this is Holly Matthews, your cheating ex-fiancé’s sister.” Holly shuddered. “That would be uncomfortable.” She wrinkled her nose in disgust. “But I always got along with
Jade, so hopefully an in-person meeting will work out.”
The line inched forward, and they moved along with the crowd.
“No reason to worry,” Knox assured her. “I’m sure Jade’s a professional. She won’t hold Theo’s behavior against you.”
Almost twenty minutes later, they reached the registration booth and were handed their badges and packets. Holly carried a huge tote bag, and Knox had a hunch, by the end of the day, he’d be carrying it once she’d filled it with samples and brochures.
She took a few minutes to scan the map and mark her targets before she grasped his arm and they were on their way. After an hour, he had to hand it to her; she navigated the massive event hall like a pro, pausing at already crowded tables to pick up brochures, enter giveaways, and take business cards. The vendors she had real interest in she paused to introduce herself, talk, and make an impression. He knew she’d been accumulating a mental list of who she wanted to make appointments with to follow up. With a lot of luck, her fiancé would be the one to tag along to those meetings.
“This is Jade’s booth,” Holly said, pausing.
The corner location had no long table blocking it off from the people walking by. Instead the entire space was open and carpeted, allowing for meet-and-greet conversations and making it much more welcoming than talking across a counter. High-top tables were strategically placed with brochures and bottles of water on each, providing a place for visitors to rest. A young girl was busy replacing each drink and the pamphlets someone took, showing good business sense by Jade.
“I love the tulle backdrop with the fairy lights,” Holly said, her brown eyes sparkling.
“It’s beautiful.” And so was the woman talking to clients.
Pale blonde hair pulled into a loose braid hung down her back, and the delicate features he remembered drew him in once more. And as she talked, her hands waved expressively in the air, causing him to grin. Whatever they were discussing, she obviously loved her job.
Holly nudged him in the side. “It’s good to see you smile.”
He’d been thinking the same about Jade. She looked good. Happy. And he was glad.
“I told you that you liked her.”
He rolled his eyes. “What are you, ten?”
Holly perched her hands on her hips. “Is it so bad that I want to see you happy?”
“No, but I know that gleam in your eye. You want to matchmake, and that’s where I draw the line.”
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever you say,” she muttered. But he knew nothing he said would deter Holly when she was on a mission.
He could handle his life, his choices, his women. If he decided to make a move on Jade, he didn’t need his sister arranging things to his advantage.
“Do you want to go talk to Jade?” he asked.
Holly shook her head. “Not yet. Let her finish with her current people first.”
Having Jade’s full attention? Knox couldn’t argue with that.
Jade Dare wrapped up her conversation with a woman she felt sure would be a bridezilla if she booked Jade and the Meridian’s services. She’d kept a forced smile pasted on her face until the woman walked away.
As soon as said woman and her meek fiancé were out of sight, Jade turned to Lauren Connelly, her assistant and best friend. “No, I will not work with her. One of the perks of my family owning the hotel has to be my ability to turn down people I don’t want to deal with. Life’s too short. When she calls, say we’re booked. Forever if need be.”
Lauren tipped her head and laughed, her chic long bob swaying around her face. “Twenty bridesmaids and don’t worry about the budget, I’ll work on my father?” she said in a perfect imitation of the woman, down to the hair flip. “Can’t say I blame you.” She shuddered just as Jade had. “And that poor man. He needs to grow a backbone or his life is going to be hell.”
“Amen,” Jade muttered. In her business, she met all kinds of people, male and female alike. “He’s never going to be happy.” That much she could confidently predict.
Lauren glanced around their assigned venue space with a quick and experienced eye. “Layla, can you put some more water on the tables?” Stepping toward Jade, Lauren spoke, her voice lowered. “I think that bridezilla’s group of friends snagged all the waters from every table.”
“No problem,” Layla said, putting down the book she’d been reading. The fourteen-year-old hopped off the stool she’d been sitting on and walked to the hidden area behind a curtain, where they kept the extra supplies.
“Your sister is great. She’s been so helpful!” Lauren smiled as they then watched her set up each table just so.
“She is,” Jade murmured. Layla was technically Jade’s half sister, but since Layla’s mom, Serenity, had raised Jade and her four siblings, nobody dealt in words like half. They were a family, period.
“Wouldn’t she rather be with her friends?” Lauren asked.
“I think something is going on. Teenage angst or boy drama. I’m not sure which. Maybe both.” Jade shrugged. “She asked if she could hang out with us today. I thought she’d enjoy keeping busy.”
“Aah. Poor kid. Middle school sucks. But she looks up to you and it’s so cute to see.”
Jade smiled. “We’re ten years apart. You’d think it would be awkward, but because my family spends so much time together, there’s no real distance between any of us.”
Something her father and stepmother had made sure of. After Jade’s mother’s mental illness and death by suicide – not something Jade ever wanted to think about — the family had closed ranks. Her older brothers, Asher, Harrison, and Zach, had painful memories of their birth mother. Jade and her twin, Nick, had been two when she’d left. They had no memory of anyone but Serenity as their mother, and that’s what Nick and Jade called her. But Jade still feared what her real mother had done and what that meant for her own mental health.
“Speaking of men…” Lauren’s voice broke into the morose thoughts and facts she tried hard not to dwell on.
“We weren’t.” She narrowed her eyes at Lauren, aware her friend would veer off into personal territory. “We were discussing my sister and, before that, bridezilla.”
Lauren opened a water bottle and took a sip. “Just pretend we were discussing men. Are you still on a man-fast? Because it’s been a year and a half since you broke up with Dickhead, and I think it’s time you get out there.” She twirled around and her long brown ponytail swung with her. “Mix and mingle. My neighbor invited me to go to a bar with some friends this weekend and you should come.” She turned pleading eyes on Jade.
Eyes Jade knew were meant to manipulate. She’d done it often enough during their college days at NYU when she would try and get Jade to go somewhere she didn’t want to be. Jade suffered from migraines and anxiety, and she considered herself lucky Lauren had stuck around back in the days when partying was everything in college. A lot of her high school friends had gotten bored of her issues.
“Thanks for the invite. I’ll think about it.”
Lauren raised an eyebrow. “You’re lying.”
Unable to hold it in, Jade burst out laughing. “You know me too well.”
“Is it because of the man-fast?” Lauren asked, her tone serious.
Jade took a quick glance at the rear of the exhibit, making sure Layla was back to reading, with no chance of overhearing their conversation. Man-fast was what Jade called the time since she’d broken up with that lying, cheating SOB, Theo Matthews, her then fiancé. And before that, she’d ended things with Douglas Webster, who’d only wanted her for her family money.
“I’d say I have good reason for steering clear of men,” Jade muttered. “And would you stop saying those words? We’re here to sell a fantasy for happily ever after, not run people away,” she said of the visitors looking at their brochures and photos.
Lauren sighed. “One of these days, you’re going to give in and go out again. I just know it.”
“Hi!” A perky redhead walked up to Jade and Lauren, ending the conversation, for which Jade was grateful.
“Hello,” Jade said, smiling. “How can we help… Oh! Natalie! It’s good to see you. I’ve talked to so many people today, I just dove in without realizing I knew you.”
The attractive woman laughed. “Six months and counting!” she said, her smile as big as her obvious excitement.
She was one of the brides Jade always enjoyed talking to. “I know. You remember Lauren, right?”
“Of course!” Both women spoke at the same time and laughed.
“What are you doing here today?” They’d booked all her vendors already.
“Jason is having a guys-only day, so I figured I’d come sign up for some of the giveaways. I’m feeling lucky!” Natalie said.
“Well then, why don’t you enter ours? We’re giving away a night in the bridal suite at the Meridian. You never know. You might end up staying for free.” Lauren winked at Jade and led Natalie toward the giveaway table, giving Jade a few minutes of blessed peace and alone time.
She picked up a bottle of water from a table, opened the cap, and took a long sip. As she replaced the top, a female voice called her name.
She put the bottle down and turned.
“Jade, hi!” Holly Matthews, her most recent ex’s sister, rushed over and engulfed her in a hug. “I’m so happy to see you!” Holly exclaimed loudly in Jade’s ear.
“Let her go, Holl,” a deep, masculine voice said. “You’re squeezing the life out of her.” A rumbling sexy chuckle followed.
Holly laughed and released her. “Sorry. It’s just been way too long. I missed you.”
Jade smiled. “I missed you, too.” She should have kept in touch with Theo’s sister. They weren’t all that far apart in age and she’d always liked her. “What are you doing at the bridal expo?”
“She’s getting married,” the same masculine voice said, drawing her attention.
Jade met Knox Sinclair’s amused gaze, and she let out a rush of air. He was Holly’s brother, Theo’s stepbrother, and the man whose wife Theo had slept with when he’d cheated on Jade. It wasn’t a great connection to have, and they hadn’t commiserated after.
“Hi, Knox,” she said to the handsome man who’d made an impression the first time they’d met.
“Jade.” He tipped his head in greeting.
Her name on his lips sent tremors of awareness shooting through her. With his dark hair, hazel eyes that appeared more green than brown, and a face that was close to perfect, she couldn’t help being attracted to him. He had a straight nose, a strong jaw, and full lips she’d imagined kissing. And yes, she’d felt guilty about it, since she’d been with Theo at the time. But she hadn’t acted on the attraction, which was more than she could say about her ex.
Knox, the football team owner, always in a sport jacket and slacks, was more her type than Theo, the right winger for the New York Rockets, had been. She’d never dated an athlete before, but Theo had been persistent, and she’d been ready to try again after her first broken engagement. Theo had taught her a hard lesson. She had shitty taste in men, bad judgment, and no business dating.
“How are you?” she asked him.
Even his genuine smile with straight white teeth drew her in. “I’m good. And you?”
“Busy.” She gestured around the booth.
“Impressive display,” he said, following her wave.
Pride filled her and she smiled. “Thanks. We worked hard.” She looked to where Lauren had stood, but her assistant had stepped aside to talk to Holly. She hadn’t realized she and Knox had been left alone. “What brings you to the bridal expo?”
“Holly’s engaged, and she asked me to come since the future groom is out of town.”
His indulgent tone when he spoke of his stepsister was so different than Theo’s had been. He’d had no patience for Holly, her bubbly personality, or her desire to please. And they were blood relatives. Looking back, there’d been red flags she’d ignored about Theo’s behavior, and she wanted to kick herself for being so blind.
“Holly! Congratulations,” Jade said, walking over to where she and Lauren stood.
“Thank you. I’m very happy,” Holly said. “Look!” She held out her fingers to show off her ring.
Used to this with all her brides, Jade lifted her hand to admire the beautiful emerald-cut diamond. “Gorgeous. I’m thrilled for you.”
“Thrilled enough to be my wedding coordinator and help me find a date at your hotel?” Holly clasped her hands together. “Please?”
Jade glanced at Lauren, who winced from behind Holly’s back. “I’d really love to work with you, but we’re booked for the next year. When did you have in mind?”
Holly glanced at Knox, who shrugged.
“Your call,” he said. “What did you and Miles discuss?”
She bit down on her lower lip. “We figured a year, but I admit I was hoping to find an opening sooner.”
Jade wrapped an arm around Holly’s shoulders. “It’s difficult to plan a wedding on short notice if you’re looking for all the bells and whistles. Why don’t you give me a call at work. I’ll look at my calendar and check the soonest open date. In the meantime, sign up to win a free night in a Meridian suite.” She pointed to the sign-up area.
Holly, looking disappointed, nodded. “I guess I knew that. I was just hoping things would go my way. Can you call if you get a cancellation? I know that’s highly unlikely.”
“Of course. Leave your number with Lauren. If something opens up, I promise you’ll be my first phone call.” Jade didn’t mention that, should such a thing happen, another bride-to-be would be devastated. She’d been down that road herself, and the thought made her ill.
“Hey! Let’s take a picture of all of us together,” Holly said. “Come on, move over here.” Despite attendees walking in and out of the booth, Holly directed Jade and Lauren to stand in front of the fairy lights.
Knox stood to the side, arms folded across his chest.
“You, too! Come on.” Holly grabbed his arm and pulled him across the floor. “Stand here.” She nudged him between Jade and Lauren.
His broad shoulder rubbed against her arm, and her nipples puckered in reaction.
“I don’t think it’s necessary for me to be in the photo,” Knox said, his voice gruffer than before.
Jade reached out and touched his shoulder. “Stay. You’ll be good PR for the hotel.”
Holly nodded. “See? Now step back.”
“I can take the picture,” Layla offered, placing her book on a stool.
Holly smiled. “That would be great. I want to put it on my Instagram.” She handed Jade’s sister her cell phone.
“As long as we’re doing this, can you make sure to get the hotel and business logo in the photo?” Jade gestured to the Meridian Hotel Events sign.
A few minutes and photo attempts later, they had the money shot, and everyone was happy with the end result. Holly immediately posted the picture and tagged them all. Lauren crossed the booth to talk to a woman who had a question, and Layla settled back onto her chair to read.
“Before we go, I want to enter the giveaway,” Holly said. She stepped over to the table with the forms and filled out her entry.
Jade stood with Knox and he met her gaze. “How have you been?” he asked.
She assumed he was referring to getting past the heartbreak they’d both experienced. “I survived Theo if that’s what you’re asking.”
He shook his head. “That’s not what I want to know. How are you?” Those gorgeous hazel eyes studied her intently.
“I have work, friends, close family. I’m good,” she answered honestly.
His smile warmed her. “I’m glad.”
“All set.” Holly joined them. “I’ll be calling you to book when you’re free … and to see if something opens up.”
Jade nodded. “Sounds good. I’ve missed you,” she told the other woman.
“Me, too.” Holly tipped her head to the side. “Do you have dinner plans when the expo is over? We should all go out, right?” she asked, nudging Knox not too subtly with her elbow.
Jade bit the inside of her cheek. At this point she was certain Holly was trying to push Jade and Knox together, which would be as awkward as it sounded.
“Why not?” Knox surprised her by saying. “I’m free.”
Holly’s eyes lit up. “Jade?”
The woman was impossible to say no to. “Sure. I can make it around seven thirty? Somewhere mid to uptown would be easiest.”
“Not a problem,” Knox said. “Holly will make a reservation since it was her idea.” His sexy lips turned up in a grin.
“How many people are we? Lauren, can you make it?” Holly asked.
“Sorry,” Lauren said as she joined them. “I have a plans.”
Jade narrowed her gaze. She’d been hoping her friend would be another buffer with Knox. The man’s sex appeal was potent, and Jade would have liked Lauren’s presence to play against Holly’s obvious matchmaking intentions. Then again, Lauren might hop on the set-Jade-and-Knox-up bandwagon.
“How about your sister?” Holly tipped her head toward her quiet younger sibling.
Jade shook her head. “My parents are picking her up later this afternoon.”
“So that makes three. Great! We can all catch up. See you later!” Holly started to walk off, her attention on her phone, probably looking for reservations.
Knox tipped his head. “Later, Jade.” He winked and strode off after his sister.
She tried not to drool as she watched him walk away, while wondering what she’d gotten herself into.
Knox was in a surprisingly good mood as he pulled out of the parking spot at the expo for the drive back into the city. Sure, Holly had manipulated him and Jade into dinner, but since it gave him an excuse to spend time with a pretty woman who intrigued him, he figured why the hell not go?
From the corner of his eye, he glanced at his sister. “You’re looking pretty smug.”
She turned to him. “About dinner? I am. About having to wait a year for the wedding? Not so much.”
“If you want to get married sooner, pick a different venue. I know the upscale places book out, but I guarantee you we can find you somewhere you’ll be happy.”
She frowned. “That’s my dream location.”
“Then we wait.”
Her cell phone rang and she answered the call. “Theo! Guess where I just went?”
Knox shook his head. She’d never stop trying to get her brother interested in her life.
“Oh! You saw the picture I posted?” She listened to the asshole’s answer. “Yes, I’m still with Knox.” She narrowed her gaze and glanced his way.
He shrugged and merged onto the highway.
“Fine.” She let out a groan. “Theo wants me to put him on speaker.” She hit the button on her screen. “You’re up,” she said to Theo. “What’s going on?”
“There are thousands of wedding planners in Manhattan. You don’t need to use Jade,” Theo said.
Knox set his jaw. What the fuck was Theo’s problem? He was the one who’d screwed things up with Jade. It shouldn’t matter to him whether Holly wanted to work with her or not.
“If I want to get married at the Meridian, she’s their wedding planner. Her family owns the hotel, and she runs their entertainment. You know that,” Holly said. “And the Meridian is at the top of my list.”
“A place is a place. Pick somewhere else. It’ll be awkward for me.” Theo’s voice sounded more like a whine.
“It’s not about you.” Knox was growing more pissed by the second. “It’s about Holly, and she is the only one who gets a say.”
He’d like to remind his stepbrother that Knox was the one paying for this wedding since their mother had disappeared with her latest wealthy pawn, and Theo hadn’t offered up a dime. But Knox would never make Holly feel bad.
“You’re so full of shit, Knox. It’s not about what Holly wants. You want to be around Jade. You always did have a hard-on for her. Guess you like my leftovers,” he said, chuckling, but there was anger beneath the sound.
Knox forced in a deep breath and gripped the leather steering wheel harder.
“Theo, cut it out,” Holly said, the joy from earlier leeched out of her voice.
Time to end this conversation. “I’d say it’s been a pleasure but we both know that’s a lie.” Knox glanced at Holly. “Disconnect the call.”
Theo did the honors and ended the conversation before she could hit the button on the phone.
“Hey. Don’t let him get to you. He’s always been self-centered and thinks everything’s either about him or someone’s done him wrong. None of this has anything to do with you.”
Holly sighed. “I know. He never takes responsibility. Anytime something bad happens to him, it’s someone else’s fault.” She picked at her nails. “I’m sorry for what he said to you.”
Knox reached over and grasped her hand. “Don’t take his shit on yourself. Come on. What happened to the smug, giddy woman who set her brother up tonight?”
Holly blinked in an exaggerated fashion. “Who, me?”
He laughed, glad her fun side had returned. “That’s better. Now get to work finding a restaurant for tonight.”
She turned up the radio and began scrolling on her phone, giving Knox time to think about Theo’s reaction. If a mere photo with Jade set his stepbrother off, Knox couldn’t imagine what he’d do if Knox really spent time with his ex.
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