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Welcome to the blog of Catherine Gayle, USA Today bestselling author of Contemporary and Regency Romance.

Another Sneak Peek: Power Play

June 24, 2017

                        Chapter One

                                     Mackenzie

Paul was waiting for me outside the airport after my flight landed in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and I got through customs, just as he’d promised he would be. As soon as I saw him, my heart started beating like a conga. Anticipation. Excitement. Nerves. Maybe more nerves than everything else combined.

I’d arrived already wearing my wedding dress, toting a single carry-on bag filled with everything I owned in the world, so we could get married as soon as possible. Paul wanted to take me straight to the ceremony as soon as I got off the plane. There wasn’t any reason to delay, as far as he saw it.

I had to admit, I’d agreed with him entirely. At least when it came to not waiting. Why wait, when we already knew we were perfect for each other? That this was it? There wasn’t any good reason, as far as I could tell.

The wedding was going to be on the beach with the crashing waves in the background. I couldn’t think of anything more perfect or romantic.

We’d been talking online for months, and we both knew that we were meant to be together. He was the one. Paul Spicer was going to be my forever, and I was finally going to live the life I’d only dreamed of for so long—just like the happy-ever-after endings in all the romance novels I used to sneak off one of my foster mother’s bookshelves late at night, when she thought I was in my bed asleep.

Granted, she probably knew I was still up and reading by flashlight until all hours of the still-dark morning. She just chose not to admonish me over it. There were far worse things I could have been doing than reading romance novels, as evidenced by so many of the other foster kids who’d come and gone through her house over the years.

But the truth was, those books had been filled with unlikely pairings, and they always worked out for the best. Even the ones that were only intended to be marriages of convenience, or the arranged marriages.

Paul and I had a leg up on most of those fictional characters, in that we’d already been talking to each other for months.

We knew each other.

We were going to make this work, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind. Yeah, it might take a bit of time for us to get used to each other, but what couple didn’t need that? There were bound to be arguments over the correct way to load the dishwasher or whether to squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom or the middle of the tube. That didn’t mean we couldn’t make it work, though.

I still missed Jack and Donna. Out of all the foster homes I’d lived in, theirs had been my favorite. But life moved on, so I had to move on, too.

Which was precisely why I was here at this point in time. Now was the moment for me to find my forever, one just as happy and lasting as theirs was.

But now that I was on the ground, no longer floating up in the clouds, I noticed that Paul had an enormous dog standing at his side, a realization that made my breath catch in my throat. And the fact that it was barking and growling caused me even greater pause.

Was it a Doberman? A pit bull? I couldn’t be sure. I’d never paid much attention to the distinguishing characteristics of dog breeds. There didn’t seem to be a point in worrying about what type of dog a particular beast was since they all terrified me in equal measure.

I tried to swallow my fear and focus on all the positives. I recognized Paul from the pictures he’d sent, even if he looked quite a bit older and a great deal paunchier than he’d let on. But everyone posted the best photos of themselves on dating websites, I supposed. It wasn’t a crime to put your best foot forward. Maybe those pictures were a few years old or something, and he’d just wanted to make a good impression on me. I’d taken a few dozen selfies before settling on the one I’d use, so I couldn’t exactly complain that he’d been deceitful in selecting a photo that put him in the best light possible.

I had to admit that the black leather getup he was wearing took me by surprise, though. Not to mention the leash and studded collar he held in his hands. Shouldn’t the collar be on the dog? And definitely the leash. Someone needed to keep that beast under control, especially out in public.

And then there was the fact that he hadn’t even mentioned he owned a dog. Most people probably wouldn’t think that was such a big omission, but I wasn’t most people.

I’d never been what was considered normal, and I doubted I ever would be. Especially not when it came to dogs.

I’d never done well around them, not since I was seven years old and living with yet another set of foster parents, who’d owned a mean pair of poorly trained Rottweilers that were always snarling and barking at me. And then one day, one of them had done more than just posture—he’d bitten me, nearly taking a chunk of my leg along with him. At the hospital, the social worker had told my foster parents that either the dog had to go or I did.

That had been the end of my stay with those foster parents. I couldn’t say I was disappointed, outside of liking the way that particular foster mom had cooked. In some of the homes I’d stayed in over the years, the food was just awful.

But…dogs. Yeah. Needless to say, it wasn’t my fault I was terrified of them.

I’d been so excited about finally finding my happy ever after that I hadn’t thought to ask if Paul had any pets. That was mistake number one. With any luck, it would be the last mistake I’d made when it came to my plan.

Steeling my spine against the fear that had me itching to turn around and climb right back onto the plane, I put my best effort into my smile and crossed over to the man I was going to marry.

The dog let out a warning growl as I approached, which had me freezing in my tracks.

“Come on,” Paul said, crossing his arms in front of him in what could only be termed impatience. “He won’t hurt anyone unless I tell him to.”

For some reason, that didn’t bring me much consolation. I swallowed hard and bit down on the inside of my cheek, hoping the pain would be just what I needed to work up a bit of courage and do what Paul asked of me. “You never mentioned you had a dog,” I said, hating how stupid and feeble it made me sound.

“Didn’t I?” Paul replied. “Well, I do. Are you coming over here, or what?”

Or what, I thought to myself. Still, despite the anxiety causing me to visibly shake, I forced one foot in front of the other until I was standing right in front of Paul. The dog barked again, and I jumped what must have been a foot in the air.

Paul eyed me up and down, his inspection feeling more like a leer than an appreciative gaze. “Come on, then. We’ve got to get to the beach if we’re going to be on time for the ceremony.” He held out the collar, undoing the latches on it.

“I don’t…” I shook my head, sure I was misinterpreting the situation. “That’s not for me, is it?”

“Of course it is. You’re going to be my wife. The Bible tells us that a wife’s duty is to submit to her husband. Well, you’re going to submit to me. You’re going to wear a collar. You’re going to walk on a leash. You’re going to wear what I tell you to wear and do what I tell you to do. And when you misbehave… Well, we’ll deal with that when the time comes.”

The dog growled again, but in my mind, it might as well have been Paul doing the growling. The way he’d said we’d deal with my misbehavior left me no doubt about what he intended.

I’d paid attention to the news. I knew about the sex trafficking that went on in some parts of the world. And even if he didn’t want to sell me, even if he just wanted to do things to me himself…

Nope, I couldn’t allow myself to think about things like that. And I definitely wouldn’t allow him to treat me that way.

I couldn’t believe this. Not any of it.

I shook my head, as if that could change the situation, but nothing changed. Paul was still standing there with the dog and the collar and the leash, and he was looking at me with extreme impatience, and this was quickly turning into my worst nightmare. No, even worse than my worst nightmare, which was saying something, since I’d lived in more than a dozen different foster homes over the years.

I’d thought I had it all figured out. This was supposed to be my fairy tale. My page-turning romance. My happy ever after. Maybe it would take us a little time to sort things out, but Paul was supposed to be handsome and kind and honest and gallant. That was how it always worked out, in the end. Wasn’t it?

The way things stood, there was nothing kind or honest about him. If there were, he would have been upfront about his expectations. Heck, he wouldn’t even have this kind of expectation of me. There was no point mentioning the handsome part. He certainly wasn’t. And gallant? If I weren’t already so close to tears, I might have burst out laughing.

But there wasn’t anything funny about this situation. Nothing at all.

“I think I’ve made a mistake,” I said when my voice came back to me.

Not just any mistake, either. A huge one. Massive, even. The biggest mistake I could ever dream of making. Actually, in my wildest dreams, I never would have come up with something this bad. I didn’t even have enough money left to get on a plane and go back home. As if I had a home to go back to. Ha. What a joke. I might be able to afford a decent meal and a night in a motel, if I was lucky.

If only it were a joke. That might make me laugh, but all I wanted to do right now was cry.

I wished I still had a phone number for Jack and Donna, but they’d moved at some point when I was with a different foster family, and I’d completely lost them. They would have helped me out, I was sure of it. I could have probably found someone in the system who could have pointed me in the right direction to find them, but I had never done anything like that. I had been certain I’d be fine on my own.

But I didn’t have anyone else I could turn to.

And I didn’t have anywhere I could go.

“A mistake?” Paul sneered, sounding eerily like his dog. I jumped when the dog barked again. Paul advanced on me, and the dog came with him, making me want to turn and run even though that was apparently the last thing you were supposed to do around an aggressive dog, right? Running only made them think you were prey, something to be chased. But were aggressive men like aggressive dogs? And if I didn’t run, what would happen to me? Would he put that collar around my neck and drag me off to become his sex slave?

I was the biggest fool on the face of the planet.

But what other choice did I have? None, the way I saw it. I had no options left open to me but to go along with whatever he wanted. The problem was, I didn’t think I had the nerve to do it.

“Well?” Paul demanded, his beast of a dog growling at his side. “Are you coming over here so I can put this on you, or am I going to have to punish you?”

“I can’t,” I spluttered, tears threatening to spill free.

“What do you mean, you can’t?”

“I mean I can’t. I can’t do this. Not any of it.”

His eyes flashed with heat, giving me an inkling of the rage he was keeping tightly in check. “So the deal’s off?”

I could only manage a nod, because my voice had failed me. But I doubted he had any intention of keeping that rage in check at all once he had me in the collar, so there wasn’t any question about it. I couldn’t marry him.

Paul glared, and for a moment, I thought he was going to grab me and force me into it anyway. Or set his dog on me. Or whip out a knife or a gun and kill me on the spot. Maybe I should stop reading so much fiction, because my imagination was quickly running away with me. I’d gone from an arranged-marriage romance to an action-packed thriller in less than two minutes.

“Guess you’d better find yourself a flight home,” Paul ground out. Then he whistled for the dog to follow him, turned on his heel, and stalked away.

“With what money?” I shouted after him. Don’t ask me where I got the courage to ask that much, because the last thing I wanted was for that dog to come back over here. Still, I’d started, so I might as well get the rest out. “I spent everything I had to get here. I don’t have enough to go back.”

“Sounds like your problem. If you don’t want to give yourself to me, I’m sure there are plenty of other men with similar tastes around here who’ll pay you for your time. Maybe you can fuck enough men to book a flight home after a couple of weeks. If you’re any good.”

He thought I should become a prostitute. Good lord.

But…there might not be any other options for me. I didn’t have a legal right to stay in Mexico without marrying him. I didn’t have any money left after booking my flight here, so there was no way for me to get a return flight. How could I possibly go home? Granted, I didn’t even know where home was anymore.

Everyone was always telling me to get my head out of the clouds, to take a look in front of me and see the world for what it really was and not for what I wanted it to be.

Maybe now was time for me to start to listen.

I was such a bumbling idiot. Too bad I hadn’t smartened up a bit sooner.

My tears fell freely down my cheeks, threatening to stain my dress with running mascara, but I was powerless to stop them. I really, really wished I could call home right about now. But when you spend your entire childhood moving from one foster home to another, you don’t really have any roots. There was no one to call, nowhere I could go.

I was well and truly on my own in a foreign country, and I didn’t have a way out of it.

                                                                     Riley

“Another,” I said to the bartender, slurring the word slightly.

He gave me a quizzical look, as if he hadn’t understood me—or at least, in my heavily drunken state, it seemed as if that was what he was doing—but when I lifted the shot glass in the air and waved it around to show him it was obviously empty, he got the message, pouring another shot and setting it on the bar in front of me.

I couldn’t exactly tell him what I needed in words that he’d understand. I was a fucking Canadian, after all. While I knew enough French to get by in Quebec, I didn’t know a lick of Spanish and I hadn’t bothered to learn any before coming down here. They always said money was the universal language, right? Something like that. And I had plenty of money to toss around, thanks to my pro hockey career with the Portland Storm. I earned more in a year than my parents and brother could ever dream of earning in an entire lifetime.

The plan for this week in paradise was to use my money to get what I wanted without making an ass of myself and getting beat up. And what I wanted was to get drunk. I definitely wanted to spend it on that a hell of a lot more than on Amanda and her fucking clothes and her fucking hair appointments and spa appointments, and especially more than I wanted to spend it on her fucking flights for my brother to come down and fuck her in my own goddamned fucking bed. Fucking bitch.

Fuck her.

Actually, no. I wouldn’t be fucking her anymore, thank you very much. I’d leave that one to Colby if he was dumb enough to take her back. Considering how I’d found them out, something told me he might just be that stupid.

Yeah, so maybe I was drunk off my ass, but I didn’t give a flying fuck.

Damn, that was a lot of fucks, even for me and taking my highly inebriated state into consideration.

I could use a good fuck, come to think of it. Some pretty Mexican senorita. Someone whose name I wouldn’t remember in the morning. Then I could shove it in Amanda’s face, because I doubted she would be getting laid tonight.

I looked down at my shot glass, which was once again empty. That wasn’t going to work for me. I intended to drink enough tequila tonight that my ankle wouldn’t hurt anymore. Hell, I wanted to drink enough that I wouldn’t even remember my name when it was all said and done. I definitely didn’t want to remember Amanda’s and Colby’s names. That sounded like the best plan.

So I caught the bartender’s eye and held up my empty shot glass again. He chuckled, but he came over and poured more tequila for me.

“Just leave the bottle,” I said, placing a few bills on the sticky, filthy countertop—enough to pay for the entire bottle and then some.

But he shook his head and said, “No comprende,” and he walked off with the bottle, but not before I caught sight of the huge grin on his face.

Bullshit. The asshole had understood me perfectly well. He just didn’t want to leave the bottle with me.

I wasn’t a belligerent, violent drunk—more the sullen, sulky sort.

He had no way of knowing that, but still. He ought to give me the benefit of the doubt until I proved otherwise.

Frustrated with everyone and everything, I lifted the shot glass to my lips, but a glimpse of something soft and white filtered into my vision off to the side, drawing my attention to the edge of the open-air, beachside cantina. Except, it wasn’t an it at all—it was a pretty blonde in what could only be described as a wedding dress. In the moment before she glanced back over her shoulder, as if checking to be certain that no one was following her, I noticed the tears streaking down her cheeks, threatening to stain her dress with her mascara.

And the sight of her and those tears and that damned wedding dress just pissed me the hell off.

Don’t ask me why, exactly. I wasn’t mad at her—just at whatever had caused her to cry like this on her wedding day. Maybe I was simply commiserating with her or something. Today was supposed to be my wedding day, after all. Right now, I should be down on the beach, saying my vows, but instead I was in here trying to drink myself into a stupor.

Before I could think about what I was doing, I’d climbed off my stool at the bar and was stumbling my way over to her, my frustratingly empty shot glass in my hand. “Don’t cry, baby doll,” I said when I stood before her, reaching over to tip up her chin. Actually, I was surprised I didn’t slur the words, because I was a lot more wasted than I’d initially thought I was, considering how difficult it was to avoid stumbling.

She looked at me with huge, brown, tear-filled eyes, trembling slightly at my touch.

I couldn’t say I blamed her for being scared of me, once I thought about it. I mean, I’d always been a big guy compared to the average Joe, and I was drunk off my ass. Plus, I was a stranger. She definitely should be wary. There was no way for her to know I wanted to help her, not hurt her.

The way she shook felt like an admonishment, though. I took my hand away from her chin once I remembered to use my brain.

“Who are you?” she forced out between sobs and hiccups.

“Riley Jezek,” I said. “Who are you?”

“Mackenzie Cain.” Then she narrowed those tear-filled eyes at me. “Wait, why am I telling you anything?”

“Because you want to trust me.”

“I don’t know you. I don’t know anything about you.”

“Come on,” I said, winking in an attempt to put her at ease. “Come have a seat and let me buy you a shot. We can get to know each other.”

“I don’t drink. And I especially don’t accept drinks from strange men.”

Of course she didn’t drink. That would make everything too simple.

There was a niggling thought poking at the back of my mind—something about her being a lot smarter than I was, given my current state of drunkenness and her unwillingness to accept a drink from someone she didn’t know, but that thought annoyed me. I banished it as quickly as it had arrived. Because, while I might be drunk and a stranger, I wasn’t a danger to her—only to myself, in my current state.

I wanted to help her. But how was she supposed to know that, especially when considering the degree of my inebriation?

“Well, let me buy you a soda,” I said, feeling slightly desperate to get her to come with me, for reasons I would never understand even if I made an attempt to—and at present, I wasn’t making any such attempt. “Or if not soda, then water. Something.

Why did it matter if she came and talked to me? I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it mattered. A lot. Maybe more than it should, since I didn’t know her or anything about her.

She still didn’t budge.

“Look, I just want to help you out. I’m not some creep—”

“How am I supposed to know that?” she cut in, sounding slightly panicked, which was probably smart of her, come to think of it. “Why should I trust you? I trusted Paul, and look where that got me!” The more she talked, the more hysterical she sounded.

That just wouldn’t do.

“Where did it get you?” I asked cautiously, because I certainly wasn’t following, and I didn’t think my current state of confusion had anything to do with the excessive quantities of tequila I’d consumed tonight.

“All alone in Mexico with no way to get home. And no home to go to even if I had a way to get there.” She sniffled, and a fresh wave of tears started filling her eyes. “How could I have been so stupid?”

I didn’t know what I’d expected her answer to be, but it definitely wasn’t that. “You’re not stupid. You’re just young and maybe a little idealistic.”

“Clearly too young,” she bit off.

That gave me pause. Especially since she’d already told me she didn’t drink. “How old are you?” I asked.

“Twenty-one,” she said on a sniffle.

Definitely a good deal younger than my twenty-nine, but I kind of liked the idea of being with someone young and innocent. It’d be good for me to see life through her eyes for a while. If I could manage it.

“You’re going to ruin your pretty dress if you keep crying like that,” I said gently, brushing the tears from her cheek with the pad of my thumb. She jumped slightly at the contact, but I decided not to let that bother me. This Mackenzie was clearly upset, and she didn’t know me from Adam. “Come on,” I said. “Come sit with me and we’ll figure it out.”

“Figure what out?”

“What we’re going to do about it,” I said. Then I took one of her hands in mine and tugged slightly until she relented and followed me over to a somewhat clean table in the corner.

“What do you mean we?” she asked through her tears.

Good question, but it was one for which I didn’t have a ready answer. With any luck, my tequila would guide me to the answer soon.

I pulled out one of the chairs, grabbed a napkin off the table, and used it to wipe down the chair. Once it was as clean as I could get it, I nudged her to sit. Then I took the chair next to her for myself without bothering to check if it needed to be cleared off. Judging by the slightly damp feeling under my ass and left thigh, that had been a mistake, but it was too late to do anything about it now.

“I don’t know wh-what you mean,” Mackenzie stuttered, sniffling.

The table was kind of gross, too, but there was a napkin canister in the middle of it. I grabbed one and pressed it to her cheeks, stopping the mascara-laden tears from dripping onto her dress. Then I pressed another napkin into her hand so she could mop up her nose.

“What do you mean, you don’t know what I mean?” My brain started spinning from the complexity of the question.

“When you said we’d figure out what we’re going to do about it.”

“I meant I want to help you out.” And to my unending surprise, I meant it. “Tell me what happened.”

“What happened is I was an idiot.”

“I doubt that.”

“You don’t know me. Trust me, I was an idiot.”

“Maybe I want to know you.”

“Why would you want to know me?” A fresh wave of tears filled her eyes, which, in the bright Mexican sunlight reflecting off the ocean in the late afternoon, looked the same color as my favorite cream-laden, sugar-rich coffee, the kind I woke up to every day when the team was on the road.

Eyes like those, I could easily lose myself in. And happily, too. “I bet your story’s not as bad as mine,” I said, hoping maybe I could get her to smile.

Not quite, but she did lift a brow in a look of pure derision. “Try me,” she challenged.

“All right, I’ll go first.” I reached for my shot glass, but it wasn’t there. Must have set it down somewhere when I’d brought Mackenzie over here. Damn. “This was supposed to be my honeymoon.”

“Supposed to be?” Mackenzie sniffled again, but she no longer sounded like she was going to break down in a fresh bout of tears at any moment.

“Yeah. Supposed to be. I was on a road trip with my team, but I got hurt.” I pointed down to my ankle when she raised a brow, but I kept going. “So, they sent me home early, since Amanda and I were going to fly down here for our wedding and honeymoon when the team had a break. But when I got home, I walked in on her in bed with someone else.”

“Ouch,” Mackenzie said, scrunching up her nose in the cutest way. I wanted to kiss that nose.

“Yeah, that hurt worse than my ankle does. But that wasn’t even the worst of it.”

“No?”

“Nope.”

“How does it get worse than that?”

I couldn’t get over how engrossed she’d become in my story. She was leaning toward me, resting her chin on her linked hands, her elbows propped up on the filthy table, and her eyes were locked on mine.

I was definitely getting lost in those eyes. In fact, with as much tequila as I’d had tonight, I was well on my way to losing everything, and not caring one fucking bit. “You see, it was my brother she was in bed with.”

She let out an outraged gasp. “Your brother?”

“The one and only.”

“That’s awful.”

“Told you my story was bad.”

“I still think mine’s worse,” she said.

“Yeah? I doubt it.”

“No, I know mine’s worse.”

“Try me.”

She blinked a few times, as if trying to hold back more tears. But it didn’t work. A fresh drop spilled over and trailed mascara down her cheek.

I snagged a napkin from the holder and dried her off, but she only started crying more. She tucked her hands in her lap and stared down at them.

The urge to drag her onto my lap and hold her until she stopped crying nearly overwhelmed me. Shit, I was a mess. Maybe I shouldn’t have had so much tequila, but it was too late now. The damage was done.

“I was so stupid!” she finally forced out through a fresh wave of sobs.

“Promise, no one could be stupider than I was. My fiancée and my brother were screwing each other behind my back,” I reminded her. “And it had been going on a long time, but I didn’t catch on until I walked in on them. No clue until then. Massive idiot, right here.” I reached overhead and pointed down at myself. My self-deprecating admission was enough to draw out a tiny smile and a halfhearted laugh, at least.

But then her expression shifted again, and this time I could only describe it as morose. Her tears started up again, but she didn’t seem to notice or care, simply allowing them to drip from her cheeks onto the filthy table between us. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she forced out.

“How about you start with trying to explain it to me, and then we can figure it out from there?”

She wouldn’t meet my eyes, but she finally started talking, telling me about how she’d sold everything she owned and flown down to Mexico to marry a man she’d never met before, only to discover he was her worst nightmare in human form and now she didn’t have anywhere to go or any money to get there even if she did.

By the time she stopped talking, she’d nearly emptied the entire napkin dispenser, using them to dry her eyes and wipe her nose. I found myself vibrating with rage that some despicable piece of shit had taken advantage of someone so obviously sheltered and trusting—maybe too trusting—and then left her on her own in a foreign country, where she didn’t even speak the language.

My anger over Mackenzie’s situation meshed with my anger at Amanda and Colby, until I was one big, hot ball of mad.

Even worse, my anger was being fueled by tequila.

Not a good combination.

But then something that I never would have expected came to me. A way to get back at Colby, to shove it in Amanda’s face, and to solve Mackenzie’s situation, all in one fell swoop.

“Why don’t you marry me?” I asked when she came to a lull in her explanation and reached for another napkin to dry her eyes.

Yeah, maybe it was the tequila talking, and maybe I shouldn’t listen, but it was too late to talk sense into me. I’d already tossed the question out there, and to be honest, I didn’t want to take it back.

“Have you lost your mind?” she asked me, her tears coming to a sudden stop as she gawked in my general direction.

“Maybe. Probably. But who cares?”

She didn’t look convinced of my sanity, which meant she was smarter than she gave herself credit for.

“Seriously,” I said, taking one of her hands in mine.

I couldn’t get over how soft her palm was, brushing the pad of my thumb over the delicate skin. It made me think of how soft she must be all over. She definitely had a tender heart, one that ought to be cared for and protected instead of stomped all over like the asshole who’d lured her down here had done.

I could do a lot worse than marrying her, that much was certain.

“Look,” I continued, “you’ve already got the dress on and everything. I bet the officiant I’d arranged for is still available. We can do this. We can get married, you and me. Right here, on the beach with the waves and the sunset and all. You can come home to Portland with me. No need to worry about not having somewhere to go. I make more than enough money, so that’s not an issue.”

The only problem I could come up with was that we didn’t know each other, but that could be solved with time. Maybe she wouldn’t like the way I loaded the dishwasher, and maybe she wouldn’t like the way I squeezed the toothpaste from the center of the tube, but those were the kinds of things every couple had to sort out.

Something told me Mackenzie would never be a cheating bitch like Amanda had been, so she was already miles ahead of my ex, as far as I was concerned.

Besides, she was sweet and pretty and didn’t deserve what had happened to her any more than I’d deserved what Amanda and Colby had done to me.

“But…why would you do that?” she spluttered, those big brown eyes boring into mine.

Revenge probably wasn’t the right answer to give her, but it was the one currently screaming for prominence inside my head. I forced it aside, wishing I had another shot of tequila to help me come up with something better, and said, “Because I can’t stand seeing a pretty girl like you crying on her wedding day, and I want to do something about it.” A flimsy response, sure. But it was all my tequila-soaked brain could come up with in the heat of the moment.

Apparently, flimsy was better than nonexistent, because after an almost painful pause, Mackenzie nodded resolutely. “All right. Let’s do it. Let’s get married.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Apparently, I wouldn’t be spending my honeymoon all alone, after all.

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