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A Hint of Scandal

A Hint of Scandal by Tara Pammi
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"Kimberly, do you take this man, Alexander King, to be your lawfully wedded husband, until death do you part?" Nooooo.

Olivia Stanton looked around in alarm. Had she said it aloud? Her fingers slipped on the satin ribbon that held the elaborate orchid and white rose bouquet in her hand. Her heart pounded. The calm, bespectacled priest looked back at her patiently. She released the breath she'd been holding and pulled another one in. The scent of the flowers in her hand enveloped her, the sweet smell intensifying her panic.

Seconds ticked by. The silent anticipation of the guests behind was her a tidal wave threatening to pull her under.

Her gaze collided with Alexander King's: blue, cool and unflappable. His composure in the face of her anxiety grated on her already-taut nerves. Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. Her heart roared in her ears, a thundering beat in contrast to the silence enclosing them.

She couldn't do this. Yes, they had done it before, Kim and she—pretended to be each other. Usually Kim pretended to be Liv, to save her from getting into trouble with their father, with the school authorities. So she owed it to Kim. Her successful, accomplished twin had saved her ass more times than Liv could count.

But to marry Alexander King in her place… An extreme step even for her.

"I can't marry him today. I'll be back soon."

Her twin's words rang in her ears. If Kim, who was ever dependable and unwavering, had to leave at the last minute, in a panic, surely it had to be something serious. Wouldn't Alexander understand if she pulled him aside and explained everything?

"Don't tell Alex. He'll be disappointed in me. He despises even a hint of scandal."

What kind of a man was her twin involved with if she couldn't confide in him over her doubts on the most important day of their lives?

A hand at her elbow, the touch infinitely gentle, pulled her back into the waking nightmare. She tilted her head. Alexander's blue gaze trapped hers, shooting questions she wasn't equipped to answer. Yet his gaze was gentle. He must care for her sister, for she had never spied a trace of tenderness in him before. Because even in the very little time she had spent with her sister's successful, intensely private fiance, Olivia had realized that Alexander King hated her guts.

"I don't want to lose him."

Kim's desperate plea pumped blood back into her numb brain. Ungluing her tongue from the roof of her mouth, Olivia took a deep breath and uttered the scariest words of her life. "I do."

His face settling into benevolent lines, the priest relaxed. "I pronounce you husband and wife. You may now kiss the bride."

The bottom dropped out from under her. Alexander's hands on her bare shoulders sent sparks of raw sensation zinging through her. He pulled her closer as she fought the awareness spreading to every inch of her. The scent of his soap and skin seeped into the air she breathed. The pad of his thumb felt rough against the sensitive skin of her cheek.

He was going to kiss her. Olivia couldn't move. The truth dawning on her was immobilizing her thought processes. Only one thing flared inside her mind like a gaudy neon sign. She wanted nothing more than to sink into his kiss.

He bent his mouth toward her and her heart pumped harder and faster. His breath mingled with hers and unbearable longing consumed her. It was too much to fight. More than she could resist.

No.

Mere seconds before his mouth touched her lips she turned her head, anchoring her hands on his chest. His mouth landed at the corner of hers, his lips soft and firm at the same time.

Heat blasted through her everywhere, inside and out. From where his mouth touched her. From his all-too-possessive hands on her hips. And an overpowering need that she couldn't misinterpret. What was the matter with her?

His blue gaze seared hers, curiosity and awareness shooting out at her from its bright depths. His grip on her waist tightened as he pulled her to him. The solid wall of his body was a taste of heaven against her curves. Not succumbing to the temptation of his kiss was the hardest thing she had ever done in her life.

She fought the groan rising through her. This was all she needed. A pithy curse fell from her lips. His head tilted toward her as if he had heard it. Her chest constricted with fear, the corset of the intricate designer dress cutting off her breath.

Alexander King was nothing if not astute and ruthless. How long before he discovered her deception?

Alexander King studied his wife's face, alarm bells ringing inside his head. The rapid beat of the pulse at her neck, the restless way she shied away from making eye contact with anyone, the way she had sidled away from his kiss. Something wasn't right.

As though aware of his continued scrutiny, her brown gaze flew to his and then moved away. Something was different about her.

He had felt it the moment she had come to a halt next to him. Instead of meeting his eyes, even then she had seemed cagey. It wasn't just that the poised composure and the quiet, unassuming grace that were so much a part of her were missing. There was an edge to her every movement, a defiant tilt to her chin. Even now she fidgeted with the diamond choker at her throat, her teeth clamped on her lower lip. As though the necklace was strangling her.

Then there was the way she looked. Not that he hadn't expected Kim to look beautiful. Just that he hadn't expected her to look so…erotic in her wedding dress. What he would have expected to be understated elegance instead looked earthily sexy, right down to the bloodred lipstick—something he had never seen her wear before.

The sight of her white teeth tugging at the luscious curve of her mouth sent a stab of fierce lust coursing through him. He had been attracted to her before, of course. But it had been nothing like the blaze of need sweeping through him, tightening his lower body.

He wanted to bury his mouth in the crook of her neck, where her pulse hammered. The ivory-colored dress cupped her breasts like a lover every time she drew breath, daring him to replace its hold with his hands. A tiny birthmark on the slope of her breast cried out for his touch.

He stole a hand around her waist and pulled her to the side, away from his cheering friends. She instantly stiffened against him like a coiled spring. Tense, unyielding. He bent his head, a smile in place. Something earthy and floral assaulted his nostrils. He closed his eyes and fought for control over his libido. His hands tightened around her waist, pulling her closer to breathe in more of her delicious scent.

He frowned, trying to think clearly through the lust clouding him. What was so different today from the past six months? He'd had no problem taking it slow, as she had requested, whereas today he couldn't wait to get her into bed.

"Is everything okay, Kim?"

Looking somewhere near his shoulder, she smiled. The false brightness of her smile notched up his doubts a little more.

"Yes, thank you, Alexander." With a subtle movement, she slipped out of the crook of his arm. "I think the stress of the past few weeks has caught up with me."

A vague suspicion slithered in his gut. Something stirred just under the surface but he couldn't put his finger on it. "Alexander?"

Color blasted into her cheeks and for the second time in the past hour he heard a curse fall from her lips. A minute's regret slashed through him. There were blue shadows under her eyes. Her skin was drawn too tight over her features.

He prided himself on not missing the tiniest detail. Yet he had completely overlooked that she was tired. After all, she had singlehandedly planned the wedding, without a trace of anxiety and with minimum input from him.

Not only was she successful and sophisticated, she had an unblemished reputation, the respectability he needed in a wife and—the best part—she was the perfect role model for his sister. The increasing restlessness and unhappiness he had spied in Emily, the rumors floating around about his mother, meant he'd needed a wife and soon. Kim was the perfect solution.

Her hands went to her forehead, her long fingers rubbing at her temples. "I'm sorry. I'm just a little tired."

"You organized everything brilliantly, Kim. Everything went smoothly, without a ripple." He ran his finger over the inside of her wrist. "Perfect. Just like you."

Her chocolate-brown eyes widened and her luscious red mouth pinched into a thin line. "Yeah, it looks beautiful." She glanced around them once again, disbelief flickering in her face. "Thanks, I mean."

As the photographer arranged the wedding party around the entrance the missing piece clicked in his head. He looked around, searching for the pale pink outfits that indicated the bridesmaids. Of course. Olivia was missing. He should have known the reason Kim was upset. Everything else she had planned had gone so perfectly.

"Where's Olivia?"

"She…had to leave." Kim shrugged, her stiff shoulders betraying her. "Something urgent came up."

Irritation flickered through him. Olivia was nothing if not predictable when it came to being selfish and irresponsible. Yet Kim seemed surprised at every turn by her reckless twin. "I should have known it would be something to do with her. What has she done now?"

Her chin tilted up, her mouth narrowing into a stubborn line. Liquid fire flashed in her chocolate gaze, her withdrawal immediate. "Olivia didn't do anything."

The one point of contention between Kim and him. Her attachment to her selfish, troublemaking twin was beyond his understanding. He smoothed out the ire rising through him. "She always hurts you, Kim. Isn't it time to cut her out of your life like your father did?"

Olivia stared at him, aghast, her palms fisting at her sides. She couldn't believe the arrogance of the man. He was encouraging her sister to cut her off—the one person who cared about her. Her throat burned with anger.

Anger that she couldn't let out. What had Kim seen in this man? She glared at him. "She's my sister. I won't cut off my family as ruthlessly as you have just because they're not perfect."

His shoulders tightened under the handmade Italian tuxedo. His jaw tensed into a tight line. The forcefield of his anger encompassed her, drowning out the sounds around them.

Olivia braced herself, ready for his outrage to burst and choke her. After all, she had faced it countless times with her father. She had always frozen when the hurricane of her father's anger had burst. It was Kim who'd been the wall of steel that had saved her. Shame coursed through her. And here she was, mouthing off again and ruining Kim's chance with Alexander.

But the outburst she had expected didn't come. Instead, he smiled, his anger obviously under control. The lethal smile wrapped itself around her senses, almost successful in making her forget what had made her so mad to begin with.

"I provoked you," he said with a crease in his brow, as if he was contemplating her.

His asinine control grated on her nerves. She would have liked to see him blow his top. Then she would have had a measure of him. Instead, he had turned the tables on her, making her feel she should apologize instead. She did it, anyway. For Kim, she reminded herself for the nth time. "I'm sorry," she said, uncaring that she didn't sound sorry in the least.

The click of a camera brought her head up just as Alexander's arms enfolded her. She took a quick peek at the silver Rolex on his strong wrist. The metal shone on his brown skin, a contrast to the crystal blue of his eyes. He was an interesting study in genetics, with his Nordic father and Italian mother. If only it was her interest in genetics that had her heart drumming like a heavy metal rock band.

Only two hours had passed since Kim had left and this day already felt too long. She held herself rigid in his arms, her neck and shoulders aching at the pressure to stay still and not lean back into his corded strength.

His hands settled on the curve of her hips. Her cheek rubbed against his rougher one. Her breasts felt heavy, tight, and a throbbing in her lower belly shot its way between her legs. Arousal. Damn, the man was to be her sister's husband. Eventually. She closed her eyes and thought of Kim—the happiness in her face at their engagement, the sparkle in her tone whenever she had spoken of Alexander. It helped dampen the rush of sensation settling over her. Even if only a little.

She tilted her head to the side, ready to beg him to let her go. Instead, their eyes locked and she found herself caught.

"Relax, Kim. Remember this is supposed to be the biggest day of your life."

Olivia gripped the marble countertop in the exquisite bath in Kim's suite, everything within her rebelling at the idea of walking back into the banquet hall. It was a temporary respite before the reception began and she never wanted it to end.

To hell with the reception and the guests.

The expansive bathroom, with its perfectly placed sconces and chandeliers, the cool Turkish limestone tiles, was more than welcoming. She played with the idea of hiding out right there.

But hiding here would mean drawing Alexander's attention to her.

Her gut flipped at the thought.

She sprinkled cold water on her wrists and face, careful not to spoil her makeup. She wanted to scrub the whole lot off. But Kim always looked perfect and she wasn't going to quicken Alexander's race to the truth that the wrong twin—the imperfect one—had stood next to him and uttered vows. At least Kim had promised to be back by nightfall.

She stared into the gold-edged mirror, still unable to believe how different, how polished she looked. Her wild mass of golden-brown curls had been ironed into submission and set into a stylish chignon at the back of her neck. Her neck shone with an elegant diamond choker set in white gold—which she knew was a wedding gift from Alexander Perfect King—instead of her mother's heart-shaped locket on a black string, and her feet ached from the four-inch-heeled Christian Louboutin sandals that had already caused untold damage to her back. She scrunched her nose at Kim's makeup bag, where the tube of pink gloss was winking at her. Olivia Stanton in shiny pink lip-gloss was never going to happen. She could only go so far, even for her twin.

She reapplied her dark red lipstick. Battle-ready.

She took a deep breath, stepped out of the luxurious suite and walked toward the huge banquet hall. Almost at the entrance, she let her gaze fell on a small veranda to her right, and before she knew it she was looking at miles of gorgeous sand, her feet itching to feel the grainy texture.

With a sigh, she took an about-turn, determined to go for a swim by the end of the day. What was the fun in getting fake married on a Caribbean island if you didn't even dip your toes in the ocean?

Harlequin; October 2013
192 pages; ISBN 9781460319864
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: A Hint of Scandal
Author: Tara Pammi
 
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ISBNs
9780373131907
9781460319864