Reclaiming His Bride excerpt

What am I doing here? Lantana smiled blindly over the table at Jeremy, the cute photographer contracted for events at their resort. His best friend, Vince, sat beside him, with his fiancée—Lana’s sister Cami—snuggled at his side. The air was relaxed, the food good and the conversation friendly, but she couldn’t help kicking herself for agreeing to join them. It was late September, the hotel had only been open three weeks, and she needed some time alone.

“What have we here?” Blake Bahlmann’s voice cut through the noise and it was all Lana could do not to cringe. Now she was in for it.

“Hey, Blake, come join us,” Cami offered, gesturing to a chair.

Lana carefully avoided meeting his gaze, but she could tell from his stance, hands in the pockets of his jeans, that he was unhappy. She told herself he had no right to be—but it wasn’t really true. They were still married. Technically. This hadn’t been intended as a double date—Cami had invited all of the sisters to join them that night, but somehow the other four had begged off or changed their minds as the evening progressed. And one of Vince’s best friends had backed out, leaving a very awkward, totally unintended, pseudo-date situation. The fact that Jeremy seemed no more interested in her than she was in him was irrelevant.

“I’m afraid I can’t right now. I’m the on-call manager at the hotel tonight and only popped in to pick up my order,” Blake explained. “I’d like a quick chat with Lana, though.”

She swallowed and smiled in his direction, though she avoided meeting his gaze. “I’m sure it can wait until morning.”

He grabbed her hand, which had been sitting on the table top. “No, I’m afraid it can’t.”

She looked back at her companions and widened the smile, hoping it didn’t look like a grimace. “We’ll only be a minute. Excuse me.” She rose and allowed him to pull her across the room to a quiet corner near the door.

When he rounded on her, his pale blue eyes were as cold as a Nordic winter. “You’re on a date?”

She wanted to tell him it was none of his business—she even opened her mouth to do so when good sense kicked in. “I know what it looks like, but you’re wrong. It was supposed to be a big group, but somehow it ended up being just the four of us. Nothing’s going on. Unlike some people I know, I consider marriage to be sacred. If you’d sign the divorce papers, I’d be able to move on.” Not that she was interested in getting involved with anyone again after the way he’d broken her heart and trampled on her fragile trust.

The muscle along his jaw ticked. “You know what I want.”

“Not going to happen.” No way was she giving him another chance. She wasn’t stupid enough to put her heart on the line a second time, even if her fingers itched to brush away the lock of hair that fell over his forehead. She could smell his musky cologne mixed with the spicy Italian scent of the pizzeria and again felt the pain of his betrayal.

He crossed his arms over his broad chest, dark brows rising. “Your call. But until it’s official, you’re not dating someone else.”

She wanted to rip out her hair. “It’s not a date. It’s a group of friends—”

“Who happen to form two couples,” he interrupted. “Spare me.”

“Hey, Pot, Kettle’s calling.” He had a lot of nerve to think he had any right to lay into her for a pizza with friends.

His lips thinned and his eyes grew dangerous before his shoulders loosened. “And that wasn’t what you thought it was, either.”

“Right. Sorry, but I got a better visual of your interlude than you think.” When the pain of seeing him with another woman tried to get past her protective walls, she forced all thoughts of that day away.

“I don’t know how you could have, since nothing happened.” He waited a few beats, and his tone softened a little, though the earnestness of his gaze filled his voice. “I would never cheat on you.”

“Funny how I’ve heard that before.” She held up her hands to stop his rebuttal. This was an old argument and she wasn’t having it tonight. “Forget it. Sorry I brought it up. I’ll be more careful next time Cami invites me to go out with them.”

He shook his head. “Not good enough.”

She drilled a finger into his chest. Fury roared through her. “You don’t get to dictate to me.” She was going to make some comment about how he wasn’t her boss, but caught herself in time, since he sort of was—at least at the hotel.

He grabbed her hand and held on tight enough she couldn’t get it out of his grip, but not hard enough to hurt her. “If you go back in there and sit down, I’m telling everyone about us. I don’t know why we didn’t do it ages ago.”

Lana sucked a breath through clenched teeth. “Fine. Let me get my purse and make my excuses.” She yanked on her wrist, but he didn’t release it.

His face softened and his voice dropped several degrees, turning velvety. “I want another chance with you, Lana.”

Several emotions rolled through her: grief and longing topping the list. “I’m not my mom. I’m not going to look the other way.”

He released her wrist and held out both hands. “Look all you want. I have nothing to hide, baby.” His voice was low and had the silky Southern edge that always made her go soft when he used his favorite endearment.

Furious that he was starting to get to her, and that he would call her baby, she whirled around and returned to the table. By the time she got there, she’d managed to get her expression calmed to apologetic even though she was still steaming inside. “I’m sorry. Something’s come up back at the hotel. I’ll have to catch up with you guys another time.” She included all of them in her words, ending with Jeremy. “It was good to meet you again. I hope we get another chance to talk.”

“Same here. I hope you’re able to straighten things out quickly.” His smile was friendly, but not particularly concerned or upset. He was a nice enough guy, but even if there had been no Blake in her past or present, she and Jeremy never would have clicked.

“Thanks.” She flashed him one of her best smiles, then collecting her purse, said goodnight and headed back for the door.

Blake was still standing there—this time with his takeout container—tall, suave and infuriating.

“You didn’t have to wait for me,” she snapped as soon as he’d followed her out the door.

He put a warm hand onto the small of her back. “Verisimilitude, baby.”

“Don’t call me baby.” Deciding he had a point, though, about making it look like a real work emergency, when she got onto the road, she headed for the hotel to check things out.

A quick walk through the public areas of the hotel proved all was well with the wedding clean up, the restaurant, bar and spa. She veered back through the entry and then went up to her office. There was always a pile of work to do, so she’d take an hour or so to clear some of it out before returning home for the night.

Blake sat in front of the television in his suite, letting the news fill the silence as he tried to focus on forecasts for the Portland resort. Instead he kept seeing Lana sitting at the table with her sister, Vince and Jeremy. Why had he reacted like that? Did he really think she would start chasing someone else? Jeremy knew Blake and Lana had something going on—though no one knew the particulars. Except Alex, but as Lana’s father’s executor, he seemed to know more about everyone than any of them would have liked.

Like the fact that Blake was married to Lana. He wished he hadn’t let her convince him to keep their elopement to themselves. It was only supposed to be for a few days—a week at the most—but after their breakup neither had mentioned it to their families. He didn’t think even Cami knew about them.

Which brought him right back to Lana again, and their defunct relationship. Did he really think she would listen to him if he acted like some Neanderthal?

He pushed away the laptop and stood, crossing the room for a drink of water. As the cool liquid slid down his throat, his cell phone rang. The light tempo announced it was his mother. Blake sighed, then swallowed the last of the water as he fished the phone from his pocket.

“Good evening, Mother. How are you tonight?”

“We’re going to a party at Luther’s—it’s going to be terrific. All the best people will be there. What are you doing dear?” She frequently reminded him of the social opportunities he was “giving up” by working in the Colorado Rockies.

He looked around his sterile suite and wished he had something planned. Something that would satisfy her and get her off his back. “Nothing much, just taking care of some work issues and enjoying dinner.” He glanced at the barely touched pizza that sat across the room. He doubted anyone would reference his lack of interest in food since his argument with his wife as enjoying it.

“Eating alone again, darling? Really, you need to get out more. That little town is hardly conducive to your meeting the right kind of woman. Did I mention Charity says hello?”

The sound of his father’s voice rang in the background, telling his wife they were nearly there and to get off the phone.

“Well, I ought to go, Blake. We’ll arrange to visit soon, okay? Maybe you can show me what’s supposed to be so great about the place.”

He could imagine the pinched look her face had taken on with that comment—it was the way she always looked when she disapproved of Blake’s decisions. And since she disapproved often, he’d seen it a lot.

He slipped into placation mode. “If nothing else, I’m sure you’ll love the spa. It’s first rate.” He spoke with forced enthusiasm. He didn’t know if he could handle his parents at the hotel right now, not with everything else that was going on.

“You should get a treatment as well. You know it’ll make you feel more relaxed. Then maybe you can attract the kind of woman a man from our family deserves. Bye, bye, sweetheart.” She hung up without giving him a chance to reciprocate.

Blake tossed the phone onto a nearby overstuffed chair and fished a soda out of the fridge. He desperately wanted a shot of whiskey—or three—but being on call meant he shouldn’t indulge. If he drank one, he might not stop there. And if there was one thing he was raised to be, it was a professional.

His eyes drifted to the wall safe and he thought of what was in it, then forced himself to look away—it would only remind him of what he’d lost. He thought of the hurt and anger in Lana’s eyes after he pulled her away from dinner, and felt that familiar tug of guilt. Damn it, he’d overreacted.

He took another fortifying swig of his soda and set it on the counter before heading for her office. She might not be there anymore, but if she was, he better apologize.

The back corridors of the hotel were quiet, and Lana decided this had been a good idea, coming to work for a while. During the day there were so many people running around, phones ringing, faxes coming through, that she had trouble staying on task. As she tapped away at her computer, she admitted to herself that knowing Blake was in the next room during the day and could pop up at any moment wasn’t helpful either. She did better when he was on the road.

She was getting into the swing of things when someone came to her office door and stood in the opening. Blake, she realized even before she lifted her head to look his way. She’d always been unnaturally aware of his presence in a room.

He watched her, and they sat in silence for a long moment. Her throat ached as she thought about what they’d once shared. Their romance had been a whirlwind: quick, sweet and exciting. Forbidden—or at least they’d chosen to treat it as forbidden, as there were definitely strange angles and twisted relationships to consider—he had been her boss at the Chicago hotel, and she was the owner’s daughter. Not entirely unlike the current situation since her dad had died the previous spring and left the hotel to her and her sisters.

She and Blake had married quietly on a whim within a month of their first date, and eleven days later it had been over. She tore her eyes away, staring back at the monitor. “Is there something I can do for you?”

“I’ve spent the past hour trying to convince myself that I was justified in the way I acted tonight. I haven’t been able to do it.” Blake shut the door behind him and walked over to the desk. “It was knee-jerk—I want to be the one eating dinner with you, hearing bits about your day. I know you’d never date someone else while you were still married to me.”

Hot tears stung her eyes as she stared at the screen. Her sight swam and she had to fight to keep the tears from falling. “And now you’re working the guilt angle.”

“I’m not working an angle, Lana. It’s called an apology.”

She looked up, met his blue eyes and saw sincerity. “Fine. Apology accepted.” A tear fell and he reached across the desk, wiping it away with his thumb. The tenderness nearly undid her. She pulled back. “I’m going to finish this up, then head home. When I come back tomorrow, I’ll pretend none of this happened and that we can get back to our usual professional relationship.”

“I wish you’d reconsider. I thought the other night proved there’s still something between us.” His voice was low and a little sultry, winding through her system.

She couldn’t meet his gaze, but her eyes strayed to his firm, expressive lips over the sexy cleft in his chin. “It was a mistake. I shouldn’t have let it happen.” The memories of their night together after the hotel’s opening gala still hit her at random moments, taking her by surprise. When she closed her eyes, she still tasted his kisses, the rush of rightness she’d always felt in his arms. It made keeping her distance harder than ever. She returned her gaze to the screen and began typing with the hope that he would take the hint.

A moment later he left, the door standing open behind him. Though she stayed another hour, she couldn’t concentrate on work anymore.

When Lana came into the house her father had bought for his daughters, she found Delphi sitting at the kitchen island, her laptop open and a stack of papers beside it. Delphi—short for Delphinium—was the fifth in line of the six daughters, and only six months Lana’s junior—the result of one of his many affairs.

“That was a late dinner,” Delphi commented, peering over the glasses she only wore for reading. Her short-cropped blond hair created a halo against the light behind her.

“I went back to the hotel to do some paperwork. It looks like you brought yours home.” Lana hung up her purse and jacket, then moved into the kitchen.

“Kay Jones wants these numbers by tomorrow, but I have that crazy wedding this week and it’s taking up most of my time.” Delphi rubbed her neck. “Can’t wait until it’s over. Jill is the bride from Hades.”

Lana smiled despite herself. Even though Jill was being a serious pain, she would leave the hotel never knowing that Delphi disliked her, or realizing all of the little tweaks the staff was doing in the background to make her wedding go smoothly. “It’s a good thing you’re so amazing at your job then.”

“Right.” Delphi folded up the glasses and set them on the stack of papers, then shut down the computer. “My brain is fried. Was the pizza any good?”

“Yeah, it was great. It ended up just being the happy couple, me and Jeremy, though. Everyone else bailed. You should have come.” Maybe then Blake would have let her finish dinner.

Delphi shook her head. “Too much going on. If Jeremy was there, all the more reason for me to stay away.”

It was too bad Jeremy had started things off on the wrong foot with Delphi—they actually had quite a lot in common. Lana poked into the cupboards, but wasn’t hungry, so she finally grabbed a bottled water out of the fridge instead and headed for the stairs. “I guess I might as well get some sleep. I have a few more things to take care of before our morning meeting.”

“You’re such a work-a-holic,” Delphi said as she cleared away her things.

“And a work-a-holic like yourself would know.” She shared a grin with her half-sister before heading up the open stairway to her room.

The house had really begun to feel like home since all of George DiCarlo’s daughters—two by his wife, and four others by four other women—had come to live there a few months earlier. Becoming the youngest general manager in history for the DiCarlo hotel chain had been Lana’s goal since she was still in elementary school, and she had worked toward it with single-minded determination since she was a teenager. Getting the shocking news after her father’s death that she had four half-sisters in addition to the one she’d grown up with, had put all of their worlds in a tailspin. She still wasn’t sure how she felt about the new siblings.

Figuring out her feelings about the revelation and her father were far easier. Lana still thought her father could have found a nicer way to break the news to his daughters than leaving it for the reading of his will. And she couldn’t get over her fury with the way he’d played fast and loose with his marriage to her mom.

Lana walked past Cami’s door—she was probably staying over at Vince’s tonight—and smiled when she heard the recording of rain sticks that Sage loved so much as she passed that room as well. Finally, she arrived at her own room, all done up in shades of blue with a huge picture of the ocean hanging on one wall.

Her father had picked it out for her, chosen the color schemes and linens, selected furniture, decorations and the music that each of his daughters loved when he set up their rooms in Colorado. She supposed it was intended as an apology for everything he thrust upon them. Very few of the sisters had been happy when he virtually forced them to open up the newest hotel in the DiCarlo chain, and to cohabit ‘unless they were living with their husbands’ a phrase that had been placed there specifically for her, though the others didn’t know it.

She was the only one with a husband—at least at the moment, though Cami’s wedding date had been set and things between Joel and Sage were getting interesting.

After lining up her shoes in the bottom of the closet beside the others, she changed from her day clothes to a pair of pajamas and settled into bed.

Tonight, after her run in with Blake, she wished she could speak to her dad and ask him what he was thinking. Instead, she pulled out the first letter he left for her.

 

Dear Lantana,

I know this must all be a major shock for you, though unlike Cami, you at least knew about my less-admirable tendencies. I know you’ll be an amazing general manager, and that you’re ready for it. You’ve been walking in my footsteps for all of your life in so many ways. You should be proud of your accomplishments—I certainly am.

None of your half-sisters knew about the others. You’re all going to have a lot of adjusting to do as you get to know one another, but I know that if you can pull together, the six of you will accomplish something amazing. Sage will accept things, because fate is a real, living, breathing entity for her, but the rest of them are going to struggle with this news as much as you will, maybe more. They’re going to need a sure hand to guide them and bind them as a group. That’s you—just so you know. You’re the key to making everything work.

But hey, no pressure.

If you’re reading this, you’ve already heard the terms of the will, which means you know that I’m aware of your marriage to Blake. He’s a good man, sweetheart, devoted to you. I’m not telling you how to live, but don’t let your anger toward me stop you from finding happiness and a home of your own.

Never doubt that I loved your mother, whatever else happened in my life. It wasn’t the kind of all-consuming love you read about in novels, but it was sweet and comfortable. It worked for us, but it wouldn’t work for you—if Blake gives you the fire and warmth that you crave, don’t let him get away. And if you find upon reflection that what you have really is only warm and comfortable, have the strength to let him go. If he’ll let you.

I love you with everything I have.

Dad

 

It wasn’t long enough to say everything she wished to know—didn’t explain how he could love her mother so much, but constantly step out on her with other women. It didn’t explain how he could juggle his job, wife and six daughters sprinkled across the continent, and still find time for more affairs—but she knew from experience that he managed it.

Had her mother always known about the other women and looked the other way? Remembering the grateful way she’d treated George as he doted on her in the months before her death, Lana couldn’t believe her mother hadn’t known.

He was such a hateful jerk, and though she longed to rip up the letter and throw it away, to give his headstone a good, hard kick, and to damn him for not deserving her erstwhile hero worship, she folded the note and put it away instead.

She missed him every day.

She flipped off the light and slid down under the covers. Throwing a tantrum wouldn’t solve anything. And tomorrow was sure to be a long day.

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