She fluffed her white ball gown dress, adjusting the tulle beneath the skirt, and sat down on the chair in the bridal suite of the hotel where her wedding was to be held.
She pulled a bottle of champagne out of the ice bucket and chugged down a healthy gulp of Dom Perignon straight from the bottle. Letting the bubbles settle, she repeated the action a couple of more times because she needed to get drunk. And on that thought, she took another hefty sip.
She was alone because she’d insisted she needed a few minutes by herself since getting that text. Her bridal party, consisting of her best friends, her sister, Aurora, and her brothers, because Owen had included them as his groomsmen, waited in the outer room. Impatiently if their loud voices were anything to go by. It had been hard to convince her mom to step out, along with her oldest brother, Linc, who Chloe had asked to walk her down the aisle.
Her father had passed away three months ago, and they hadn’t been close. But she was glad he wasn’t here to see this day. He’d be furious. Not because his daughter had been left at the altar but because he would have been embarrassed in front of friends, family, and business associates, and she couldn’t deal with his reaction on top of everything else today. As it was, Chloe couldn’t look at her mother’s worried expression. Couldn’t handle the pity in her friends’ eyes or the fury in her brothers.
If there was one good thing about Owen ditching her via text message, it was that her brothers couldn’t pound the man into the ground. And given the chance, they would. The Kingston siblings were nothing if not protective.
She glanced around the beautiful suite with plush chairs, makeup strewn around, her veil sitting on the counter, and wondered how she’d come to this point. She’d chosen who she thought was the perfect man. A tax attorney who never took risks, enjoyed staying home, and who’d promised to be faithful. He’d ticked off all the most important qualifications in her life, making her feel secure and comfortable and, most importantly, safe from being cheated on like her mother had been.
The screen on her phone sitting beside the headpiece said otherwise: I’m sorry. I met someone who completes me. What I feel for her is more than two people who are comfortable together, like we are. I know I should have told you sooner. Face-to-face. But I really was going to marry you. Until I woke up this morning and just … couldn’t. Forgive me. I hope you find the love and excitement I have.
Chloe’s stomach twisted in a combination of hurt and embarrassment. Of all the cowardly actions … that’s what she got for choosing a man with a weak handshake who couldn’t look her brothers in the eye. As they’d told her, over and over again, they hadn’t thought Owen was good enough for her. But had she listened? Oh, no. She’d made her safe choice, and she’d intended to stick with her decision.
Had she loved Owen? Looking into her heart, she was forced to shake her head. No. She’d cared for him, that much was true. But love, like her brother and his best friend, Jordan, had found with each other? No, Chloe couldn’t say she’d experienced that all-encompassing emotion.
In truth, love scared her, because her mom had loved her father so much she’d stayed in an extremely miserable marriage with a serial cheater and had lost out on the opportunity to embrace who she was and be happy. Maybe that was why Chloe was angry at Owen for how he’d handled things but not devastated over losing him.
Dammit. She lifted the bottle and took another long drink. She should have looked inward and called things off first, but who was she kidding? She never would have done it. Chloe was the good girl who always did the right thing, made the risk-free choices, and behaved as expected of her. Canceling the wedding wasn’t something Chloe Kingston would ever have done.
A knock sounded loudly on the door, startling her. “Chloe? I’m coming in,” her brother Linc called out.
She’d been alone in this room long enough, and she’d come to a decision, at least for tonight. It was time she told her family what she had planned.
“Okay!” she called out just as the door opened and Linc stepped inside, looking handsome in his black tuxedo. His gaze immediately zeroed in on the nearly empty champagne bottle in her hand.
“Not a word,” she threatened him, waving the bottle in front of her. “I deserve this.”
He nodded, his expression somber. “You do.”
She lifted the bottle to her lips only to find it empty. Oh, well. There was more where this had come from. At least the bubbly liquid was beginning to do its trick, going to her head and lifting her mood.
Linc looked relieved and she chose not to enlighten him that, by the time the night was over, champagne would be the lightest drink she consumed.
“I’m sorry, Chloe. Owen’s a bastard.”
“Yes, he is. He should have told me sooner, and he should have done it in person. But he didn’t and I have to handle the cards I’ve been dealt.
Linc nodded. “I’ll go out and tell everyone to go home.”
“No. Well, you can tell some of the guests to go home.”
She pushed herself up from her chair and ignored the light spinning in her head. She hadn’t had much to eat today, but there were appetizers galore almost ready to be served. At least that had been the post-ceremony agenda, followed by a three-course meal.
“What are you talking about?” Clearly concerned, Linc walked over and put a hand on her shoulder. “Mom wants you to come home with her. She and Aurora want to be there for you.”
She thought about spending her wedding night in her mother’s mansion-like house, her mom wringing her hands and trying not to cry for all Chloe had endured. “No. I want you to take Mom home. Take everyone in the family home.” She stepped aside and his hand fell to his side.
Linc narrowed his gaze. “What about you?”
Her brother wasn’t stupid and he knew her well. No doubt he saw the wheels in her mind spinning.
“You sublet your apartment and moved out. The boxes are in storage because you were supposed to live with Owen after your honeymoon.” He winced at the mention of more plans that wouldn’t be happening.
Plans she had no intention of thinking about yet.
Chloe drew a deep breath. “I have the honeymoon suite booked in the hotel tonight. I’ll stay here. After my friends and I take advantage of the party that’s already paid for. I’ll just call it my non-wedding party.” She let out a champagne-induced laugh and spun around, grabbing for the counter before she fell over.
“Chloe,” Linc said in his stern, big-brother voice.
Ignoring him, she sat down, hiked up her gown, and unhooked the straps on her too-high-heeled, glittering sandals. “I can’t dance in these,” she said, kicking them across the room.
Her brother, who always had an answer and a solution, appeared concerned and at a loss. Before Chloe could reassure him, he strode to the door, pulled it open, and yelled for his fiancée. “Jordan! Get in here!”
“Reinforcements won’t help,” Chloe warned him, letting out another laugh, this one more of a giggle. Apparently she’d had more to drink than she’d realized, and she’d always been a lightweight.
Jordan, a gorgeous woman with jet-black hair, wearing an exquisite emerald-green gown, which Chloe knew had had to be let out to accommodate her early-pregnancy belly, rushed inside. “Is everything okay?”
“Chloe thinks she’s going to party with her friends tonight. She wants her family to leave. Tell her she needs to go home with Mom and let us all take care of her,” Linc ordered.
His frown would scare off most people, but Chloe had grown up with him. He’d do his best to exert his command, but she’d made up her mind. And he’d never been able to intimidate Jordan, who glanced at Chloe.
A silent understanding passed between them, woman to woman.
Jordan had grown up the daughter of the Kingston family’s housekeeper, yet she and Linc had been best friends for years, and she’d been his personal assistant since he’d joined Kingston Enterprises after earning his MBA. Of everyone, Jordan knew how to handle him best. She always had.
And Jordan also understood the need to make her own choices. Chloe had faith her soon-to-be sister-in-law would support her.
“Linc,” Jordan said, walking up to him and wrapping an arm around his waist. “I think Chloe knows what she needs. You can’t just order her around and expect her to listen.”
He blinked in shock. “You think her getting drunk is the answer to what happened here?” he asked.
“I think,” Jordan said slowly, “it couldn’t hurt. Let her do what she wants, and you can step in and play big brother tomorrow.” She ran her hand over Linc’s back. “I know you want to make it all better, but you can’t. Not right now.”
Chloe shot Jordan a grateful glance. “I owe you,” she mouthed to her.
Chloe wished Jordan had taken her up on her offer to be a bridesmaid after she’d gotten engaged to Linc. But Jordan had issues with feeling like an outsider thanks to their very different backgrounds, and she felt she’d be coming in late and hadn’t wanted to rock the boat. Chloe intended to make Jordan feel more like family than the closest family member. She still would do that after she celebrated her un-wedding.
“I don’t like this,” Linc muttered.
“You don’t have to.” Jordan tugged on his hand. “Let’s go talk to the family.” She glanced at Chloe. “Who do you want me to send in to be with you?”
Chloe forced a smile. “Send my bridesmaids in, please. And tell anyone who isn’t family that wants to stay and party to stick around.” She would enjoy tonight if it killed her.
“Chloe, why don’t you let us stay, too?” Linc asked, attempting to handle things one last time.
“Because you’d all kill my fun. You’d sit around with concerned looks, waiting for me to fall apart. And I’d be worried about all of you, and that would defeat the purpose of a party.” The explanation made sense to her.
“Linc, come.” Jordan tugged at his hand, and soon she’d led him out of the room.
But not before he stopped, walked over to Chloe, and pulled her into a brotherly hug. “You deserve the very best, and I promise you the right person is out there. I love you, Chlo.”
She tightened her arms around him, accepting the love she’d never gotten from her father. “I love you, too. Just let me have this night. Tomorrow is soon enough to face things.”
Linc groaned. “Okay, Scarlett O’Hara. But we will talk then.”
Of that, Chloe had no doubt.
In the morning, Linc would do his best to take over, and she’d just have to deal with him then. God, she adored her family. Her love life might suck, but she had a support system not many people could claim. The problem was, come tomorrow, she’d be smothered in worry by well-meaning relatives.
But tonight was for her.
After watching Linc and Jordan walk out, Chloe rose and dug for the ballet flats she’d planned to wear once her feet began to hurt. She slipped them on so she could dance. After all, they’d paid for a high-priced DJ, and she intended to enjoy every moment until she crashed. There might come a time when she cried, but she refused to think about her pain.
Just then, her friends piled into the room, and she braced herself to explain her plans for the evening one more time.
Then they’d have fun.
* * *
“Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, dear Dad, happy birthday to you.” Beckett Daniels’s family finished singing to their father and followed the lyrics with a round of applause.
“Make a wish, Kurt,” Audrey, Beck’s mom, said to her husband.
He looked around at his wife, Beck, and his other two sons, Drew and Tripp, and smiled, the gratitude in his expression obvious. Then he paused and blew out the candles.
Beck wondered, as he did every year, if his father wished for everyone sitting at this table’s health and well-being. God knows that was Beck’s annual birthday prayer. They’d all learned years ago how fragile life could be after losing Tripp’s twin, Whitney, when they were teens.
The server reached over and lifted the cake. “We’ll slice it and be right back. I’ll take your coffee orders then,” he said and walked away.
“I don’t know about you but that cake looked delicious,” his mother said. “And that frosting? Mmm. I can’t wait.”
Tripp, a pediatrician, grinned. “I’ll take a big chunk, myself.”
Andrew glanced at their father. “You look like you could use a slice, Dad. Have you lost weight?”
Beck shifted his gaze back to his father, noting the more drawn look in his lower face. “Now that Drew’s mentioned it, you do look thinner.”
His father waved a hand through the air. “I’m fine, boys. Don’t worry about me.”
Beck always worried. But tonight they were at his father’s favorite steak restaurant. There might have been a time the Daniels family couldn’t afford a restaurant this fancy or expensive, and Beck and his brothers had put themselves through school on loans, but they’d always had love. And now Beck, Tripp, or Drew could more than cover the cost of taking their parents out for an extravagant dinner.
His father looked up, his eyes widening. “And there’s our dessert.”
Beck tried to get his mother’s attention to see if she’d give him an inkling about his dad’s health, but she was busy digging into the cake the server had placed in front of her first. He held back a groan, telling himself he shouldn’t jump to conclusions. It wasn’t like he spent all his time thinking about his sister, but she was always there, ready to pop into his mind and remind him how quickly things could change. How fast life could turn to loss.
“Beck? I asked if you’d like a piece?” his mom asked.
He nodded, knowing it would make her happy. “Hit me up,” he said. “And make it a big slice.” Pushing sad thoughts out of his head, he focused on enjoying the here and now. Something he was still learning how to do, many, many years later. Losing a sibling to leukemia had been harsh and difficult, and they all still suffered the aftereffects all this time later.
“Hey, when we finish eating, who wants to head to the bar downstairs and have a drink?” Drew, the lawyer in the family, asked.
“I’m in,” Tripp said, shoveling the cake in his mouth as he spoke.
Laughing, Beck lifted a piece onto his fork. “I’ll join you,” he said, then took the cake into this mouth. The chocolate melted and he damn near moaned out loud. “This is amazing,” he said, going in for another bite.
“Mom? Dad?” Tripp turned their way. “Want to come?”
“Oh, no. You boys stay out and have some fun. We’re just going to go home like the old people we are.” She grinned and they all rolled their eyes.
His mom had married his father after she’d graduated college. Then she’d gotten pregnant with Drew at the age of twenty-three. Now fifty-eight, she looked a lot younger than her years. Nobody would call either of his parents old. But if they wanted to go home, everyone understood.
A little while later, with the check taken care of and goodbyes said to their parents, Beck, Tripp, and Drew made their way out of the restaurant and headed toward the main lobby bar.
A nighttime hotspot, the lobby was crowded, people lining up past the entrance and mingling in the main room and around the fountain in the center.
“I guess we’re not getting near the drinks any time soon,” Drew muttered.
“Doesn’t seem like it.” Tripp stopped walking so they could talk and regroup.
“Do you want to go somewhere else? Or we could head back to my apartment and have a few drinks there.” Beck didn’t care as long as he spent time with his siblings.
“Your place sounds good. I’m not looking to pick anyone up tonight,” Drew said.
“I’ll get us an Uber.” Tripp pulled out his cell.
They began to head toward the side entrance where it was quieter and they could more easily locate their ride share when a burst of feminine laughter caught Beck’s attention.
He glanced up in time to see a bride walking across the lobby, surrounded by three other women in matching dresses.
“Gives a whole other meaning to women going to the ladies’ room together,” Beck said to his brothers.
Tripp laughed only to be tag teamed by two of the bridesmaids.
“Ooh, you’re cute,” a pretty brunette said.
“I saw him first, Wendy. Go find your own guy.” The proprietary woman grabbed Tripp’s elbow and hung on tight.
Beck’s sibling raised his eyebrows but didn’t attempt to disengage his new appendage.
“I’ll take this one then.” The woman with auburn hair latched on to Drew.
Beck didn’t know whether to be insulted or relieved that none of the women had chosen him.
“I know you!” The bride, who had obviously gotten waylaid because she just joined them now, tripped and fell against Beck’s chest.
He braced his hands on her bare forearms, steadying her as he helped her stand up straight. When she didn’t wobble, he released her and met her gaze. Long blond hair fell in waves around her exquisite face, and blue eyes with a darker rim around the edges stared back at him, reminding him of someone he knew.
“Beckett Daniels, right?” she asked.
“Yes.” There was a familiarity to her features. He knew her, he just couldn’t place her. “And you’re…”
“Chloe Kingston. Linc’s sister.” She treated him to a megawatt smile that had the power to knock him on his ass.
Son. Of. A. Bitch. Linc, his one-time best friend. Now a man he barely spoke to.
“You and my brother are business competitors,” she said and let out a little hiccup. Clearly she was as drunk as her bridesmaids.
“That would be putting it mildly.” But he wasn’t about to elaborate on his relationship with her brother. If Linc hadn’t seen fit to tell her the sordid details, he wasn’t going to go there, either. It was a time in his life he’d much rather forget.
Looking at Chloe, her flushed cheeks, in her inebriated state, he assumed the ceremony had already taken place. “So you kept your maiden name?” he asked. Because she hadn’t introduced herself as Chloe Kingston Something-or-Other.
“Oh, no. No, no, no.” She waved her hand through the air, her long nails a pale white color. “I’m not married.” A deeper flush rose to her face. “I was left at the altar.”
Beck blinked, then stared at her, stunned. “What kind of asshole would stand up a gorgeous woman like you?” Despite her relation to his sworn enemy, Beck couldn’t deny the fact that the girl he’d met in college was all grown up and one hell of a knockout.
“You’re sweet.” She sniffed and he was afraid he’d triggered a crying jag, but she forced a smile instead. “He found someone who completes him,” she said, using quotation marks with her fingers. “And he hopes I find the love and excitement he has.” She finished with more finger quotes.
She sniffed again. “But the bastard did it by text. And I’m celebrating because everything is paid for, and I think just maybe he did me a favor. Even if I sometimes want to cry.” She fluttered her thick black lashes, and Beck was afraid she’d do just that.
He didn’t know what to make of Chloe or what to do with her. On the one hand, he wanted to beat the crap out of the man who’d hurt her. On the other, he needed to remember she was Linc’s sister and he ought to stay far away.
“Anyway.” Chloe interrupted his train of thought, which was going in a direction he didn’t like but which still held some appeal. “I figured why let everything go to waste? So we’re partying! Come with me!” she said, tugging on his sleeve.
He glanced at his brothers, who were preoccupied with her bridesmaids, and rolled his eyes. No matter what they decided to do, he was not going in there and dealing with her brother.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Her wide smile dimmed. “Why not? You want to dump me, too?” Her pout was too fucking adorable, and her words hit him in the gut.
“No, I don’t want to dump a beautiful … umm … bride like you. But Linc and I aren’t on the best of terms.”
“Oh!” Her smile returned. “Well, that’s no problem. Linc’s not here. I made my family go home. I didn’t want to see their sad, worried faces at my non-wedding party.” She flung her arm, gesturing toward the double doors on the far side of the lobby.
“Your brother left you drunk after being … well, he just left?” Beck stopped himself before he reminded her she’d been dumped.
Still, he was shocked. She had three brothers. If she were his sister, no way would Beck have abandoned her on a night like this. Then again, his sister wouldn’t have the opportunity to fall in love or get married, though it had been on the bucket list she’d made near the end. A list of experiences she wished she could have and ones she wanted Beck to enjoy in her place.
“Come dance with me.” Chloe slipped her soft hand into his, raised his arm, and twirled around until dizziness had her crashing into him once more.
He found himself wrapping an arm around her waist and hauling her sweet curves against him. Inhaling, he took in her delectable, warm scent and wanted to bury his face in her neck and nibble on her fragrant skin. His cock jerked in agreement.
“What do you say? Are we going to party with the ladies?” Tripp asked, glancing at Drew, his arm around the brunette, before looking back at Beck.
His brothers, like Beck, dated without thinking about settling down. They probably saw these women as easy pickings.
Beck felt Chloe’s body, soft and warm against his. He glanced down and her gorgeous eyes stared back at him, those lips puckered up like she was waiting for a kiss.
Jesus. How could he send her off to continue getting wasted on her own? At least that’s the excuse he gave himself when he nodded at his brother and said, “Why not? Let’s go party.”
“Yay!” Chloe clapped her hands, her pleasure obvious. Then she grasped his hand and led him toward the ballroom, his brothers and their women following.
The room had been decked out for a gala. Between the flowers, the décor, the gold chairs, and the centerpieces, no money had been spared. His heart hurt for the drunk would-have-been bride. He might despise her brother, but Beck wouldn’t blame his sister for Linc’s actions or wish bad things on other people in their family.
“Let’s dance,” she said and, without waiting for him, sashayed onto the makeshift dance floor.
Before deciding whether or not to join her, he watched as she began to sway to the music, her body coming alive to the beat. A veritable princess in her ballroom gown. What kind of asshole would dump this woman? From being in the real estate business, he was aware of her job as Kingston Enterprises’ lead decorator. She furnished any building purchased or leased out by Kingston Enterprises, and though their aesthetic was more staid than what Beck and his company preferred, Chloe was clearly beautiful as well as talented.
And the Kingston family, like Beck himself, was often the subject of tabloid gossip about the rich and famous. Which meant the devastation she was trying so hard to hide would soon be public knowledge. There was no avoiding that.
Maybe he should help her enjoy the night before she had to face her future. He stepped toward the dance floor just as another man joined her and pulled her to him, obviously grinding against her. She braced her hands on his shoulders in a clear attempt to push him away.
Beck rushed forward and shoved at the guy’s shoulder, breaking his hold on Chloe.
“What the fuck?” the man asked, his gaze going from the woman in the wedding gown to Beck. “She invited me. She came into the bar earlier and said she wants to party. I was just showing her a good time.”
Beck frowned, realizing Chloe’s non-wedding could get out of hand. “Well, she changed her mind, and she isn’t interested in what you’re offering. Get lost or I’ll have you thrown out.”
“I don’t need this shit.” The guy glared at Chloe before he turned and strode out.
One crisis averted, Beck thought.
Chloe grasped his arm and sighed. “Thank you. You’re my hero!” She lifted her arms and flung herself against him, giving him a nose full of her fruity-smelling hair. Once again her soft curves crushed his chest, tempting him, and his dick reacted.
Down, boy, he thought, because Chloe was in no frame of mind to fall into bed with a virtual stranger. It would be no better than taking advantage of her, and Beck would never stoop so low. Not to mention, he’d had a sister and he’d kick the ass of anyone who’d exploited her.
He looked overhead and saw his brothers having fun with the bridesmaids. They seemed fine and could take care of themselves. Catching Tripp’s gaze, he mouthed he was leaving and his brother nodded.
Beck braced his hands on Chloe’s waist and eased her away from him, looking into her glassy eyes. Yep, time to get this bride to bed.
“Come on, princess,” he said because that’s what she resembled. A fairy-tale princess. “Time to go. I’ll take you home.”
Her lower lip trembled, the first sign of outward fragility and hurt she’d shown since targeting him in the lobby. “I don’t have a home. All my things are in boxes. I was going to move them into Owen’s house after the wedding.”
“Owen the douchebag, huh? Okay, then how about your mom’s?” Her father had passed away a few months ago from a heart attack. While most people in the industry had shown up for the funeral, Beck had passed.
“Owen the douchebag.” She giggled at his description. “And no, I’m not going to my mother’s with my tail between my legs like a little girl.” She shook her head back and forth. “Nope. Not happening.”
He groaned. “One of your brothers, then?” And he’d better not have to show up with her on Linc’s doorstep.
She shook her head again, her expression adamant. “Either they’ll say I told you so or they’ll hover.”
Obviously neither option appealed to her.
“Don’t worry though. I have a plan,” she said, surprising him. “We’d rented the honeymoon suite for the night. I’ll just crash there.”
She started to walk away, but if this were a sobriety test, she’d fail in a heartbeat. She wobbled her first few steps, tripped, and he darted forward, making a split-second decision before she took a header onto the floor. Lifting her, he adjusted her until she was more secure. Her delicate arms wrapped around him, and she buried her face in the crook of his neck and shoulder.
“I’m tired.” Her lips moved against his skin, her breath warm against his flesh.
At the arousing sensation, his entire body shook with need. “Fuck,” he muttered as he walked, ignoring the stares as he carried her out of the ballroom.
“Can we?” she asked without lifting her head from his shoulder.
He stifled a groan. “No. You’re going to go upstairs to pass out cold.” Another man, the man he wished he could be, would take advantage of her just to show Linc Kingston what betrayal felt like.
But Beck had been raised right.
He stopped at the front desk and roused Chloe long enough for her to ask for her room key. Obviously they already knew her, and the bridal dress pretty much said it all. The man behind the counter handed over the key. And Beck made his way upstairs with the passed-out-again bride in his arms.
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