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A FLORIDA WEDDING. Complete with wide expanse of glistening beach, crashing cerulean waves, magical pink-gold sunset and warm, sultry breezes. White rose petals were scattered along the fine-grained sand, dancing and twirling with every gentle wind. The couple even now pledging their undying love stared deeply into each other's eyes, their hands clutched together, their lips softly parted in expectation of the coming kiss.

Was there anything sweeter? Anything more romantic?

Was there anything more gagworthy?

Shaye Holling expelled a frustrated breath and gazed down at her seashell bikini top and grass skirt. Who picked this kind of crap for bridesmaids? Someone who wanted them to look like hideous beast monsters, that's who. The uglier the bridesmaids, the prettier the bride.

God, she was afraid to ponder what the richly dressed crowd of onlookers thought of her let-me-give-you-a-lap-dance hula outfit. I probably resemble one of the slutty undead.

Pale, that was Shaye. Pale skin, pale hair. More than one person had teased her throughout the years, calling her Casper, Snow Queen, Vampire, Albino. The esteem-crushing list went on and on. The only color she possessed came from her eyes; they were a deep, rich brown and were, in her opinion, her one redeeming feature.

She could have used the self-tanner her mom had sent her for this event, but the consequences from the last time she'd tried that type of product were still too fresh in her mind: frighteningly orange skin; diseased-looking, spotty hands and horrified stares. Maybe she should have spent a few hours in a tanning bed. They might blister her from head to toe, but at least she'd have some color. Fire-truck red, of course, but it was a color.

As she stood there, a new idea for her business, Anti-Cards, popped into her mind. I must admit you brought religion into my life, she thought, gazing at the bride, who also happened to be her mother. I finally believe in hell.

She sighed. The long length of her silvery-white hair dusted her shoulder, a perfect mimic of the creamy satin slip dress billowing at her mom's ankles. Was there anyone more beautiful than Tamara soon-to-be Waddell? Anyone more surgically enhanced? Anyone else who went through men like sexual Kleenex?

This was what? Her mom's sixth marriage?

At that moment, her mom looked over at her and frowned. "Back straight," she mouthed. "Smile."

As always, Shaye pretended not to notice the helpful commands. She focused her attention on the minister.

"To love, honor and cherish... " he was saying, his smooth baritone drifting through the waning sunlight. Mostly, Shaye heard blah, blah, blah before she blocked his voice altogether.

Love. How she despised the word. People used love as an excuse to do ridiculous things. He cheated on me, but I'm going to stay with him because I love him. He hit me, but I'm going to stay with him because I love him. He stole every penny from my savings, but I'm not going to press charges because I love him. How many times had her mother uttered those very words?

How many times had her mother's boyfriends groped Shaye herself, claiming they'd only done it because they had fallen out of love with her mom and into love with her? Her, a mere child at the time. Perverts.

Shaye's father was another prime example of such "love is all that matters" idiocy. I have to leave your mom because I've fallen in love with someone else. Apparently he'd fallen in love with several someone elses.

After his last wife had cheated on him and then divorced him, Shaye had sent him an "I'm so sorry" card. What she had really wanted to send was a "Finally getting what you deserve sucks big-time, doesn't it" card. Of course, none had been available - which was the reason she'd started making her own. Anti-Card business was booming. Seemed there were a lot of people out there who wanted to tell someone to fuck off - in a roundabout way.

She worked eighty hours a week, but it was worth it. Thanks to popular cards like "I'm so miserable without you, it's almost like you're here" and "You can do more with a kind word and a gun than with just a kind word," she provided jobs for twenty-three like-minded women and made more money than she'd ever dreamed possible.

Life, for the weird-looking little girl who'd never met her parents' expectations, was finally good.

"You may now kiss the bride," the pastor said.

Thank God. Shaye expelled a relieved rush of breath, her shoulders slumping as her tension melted away. Soon she'd be on a plane, flying home to Cincinnati and her quiet little apartment. No signs of romance to irritate her there. Not even a cat to bother her.

Amid joyous applause, the brow-lifted, cheek-implanted groom laid a sloppy wet one on Shaye's mom. The glowing couple turned and strolled down the aisle, the lyrical thrums of a harp echoing behind them. Shaye inched closer to the water, away from the masses, escape within her grasp now that everyone was filing toward the reception tent.

She'd done her daughterly duty (again), and there was no more reason to stay. Besides, she wanted out of the chafing shell bra and itchy grass skirt ASAP.

 

"Where are you going, silly?" one of the other bridesmaids said, latching on to her arm with a surprisingly iron grip. "We're supposed to take pictures and serve the guests."

So, the torture wasn't over yet. She groaned.

After an hour of posing for a photographer who finally gave up trying to make her smile, she found herself serving cake to a line of champagne-guzzling guests. Most of them ignored her, merely swiping up their cake and ambling away. Some tried to talk to her, but (she was guessing) found her too abrupt and quickly retreated.

When will this end? I just want to go home. But the line had stopped moving, prolonging her torment. Grrr. She glanced up. A man had claimed his dessert, but hadn't stepped out of the way. Instead he watched her, studied her.

"Can I help you?" she asked.

"I'll take a little slice of you if you're serving it," he replied, balancing the plate in one hand and swirling his champagne with the other. His green eyes twinkled with merriment.

He wore a white shirt unbuttoned at the collar, a loosened black bow tie, and formfitting black slacks. His sandy hair was perfectly cut, not a strand out of place. A groomsman, she recalled.

"Sir, you're holding up the line." She forced a hard tone and severe expression as she returned to slicing cake and scooping it onto plates. She'd learned at an early age that it was best to keep people at a distance from the very first. And if she had to make them hate her to do so, so be it, because she could not allow herself the slightest inkling of softer emotion, the very thing that led to disappointment, rejection and heartbreak. "Move. Now."

The man didn't walk away as she'd hoped. "I think perhaps I need to - "

"Shaye, darling," her mother called airily. The expensive scent of her perfume wafted from her, blending with the aroma of sugar and spice as she floated to Shaye's side. "I'm so glad you've met your new stepbrother, Preston."

Stepbrother? Not another one. Showed exactly how much contact Shaye had had with her mom these past few years. She hadn't known that groom number six had children. Actually, she hadn't even met her newest daddy until an hour before the wedding.

Shaye glanced at Preston. "I've never played well with others," she said to smooth the edge of her earlier rudeness. But that was it, nothing more.

"So I hear," he said, chuckling.

He was even more handsome when he laughed like that. Looking away, she gathered two plates and passed them to the people behind him. "It was nice meeting you, Preston, but I really need to finish serving the guests."

The band chose that moment to break into a soft, romantic ballad. Preston still didn't take the hint and move away. "I never thought I'd say this, but would you like to dance with me, little sister? After you're finished here, of course."

She opened her mouth to say no, but no sound emerged. She wanted to say yes, Shaye realized. Even though her stepbrothers and sisters changed more frequently than her clothing and she'd most likely never see this man again, she wanted to say yes. Not because she was attracted to Preston or anything like that, but because he represented everything she'd always denied herself. And need to keep denying yourself. Safer that way.

"No," she said. "Just... no." Once again she turned her attention to the cake.

Her mother uttered a strained laugh. "There's no reason to be rude, Shaye. One dance won't kill you."

"I said no, Mother."

There was a heavy pause, then, "You," her mom said, voice suddenly hard. She pointed to one of the other horrendously clad bridesmaids. "Take over the cake. Shaye, come with me."

Strong fingers curled around Shaye's wrist. A second later she was being dragged out of the reception tent to the edge of the beach. Here we go again... She sighed. This always happened. Whenever she and her mom were forced to share the same space, Tamara always erupted, and Shaye always left reminded of what a disappointment she was.

God, I don't need this. Sand squished between her sandaled toes as a warm, salty breeze wrapped itself around her, swishing her grass skirt over her knees. Slivers of ethereal moonlight illuminated their path. Waves sang a gentle, soothing song.

Her mom's velvety brown eyes - eyes exactly like her own - narrowed slightly. She dropped Shaye's hand as if touching it could cause premature wrinkles. "You're treating my guests as if they're diseased."

Shaye wrapped her arms around her middle. "If you knew me at all," she said softly, "you'd know I treat everyone like that."

"I don't care how you treat everyone else! You will treat everyone here, including Preston - no, especially Preston - with respect. Do you understand me? Just - " she shoved a wisp of hair from her face " - pretend you have a heart for a few hours."

That stung. Badly. But Shaye forced herself to smile. "Why don't you go find your new husband and let him calm you down? This kind of upset will only cause you to shrivel up like a raisin."

Gasping in horror, her mom patted the skin around her eyes, feeling for crow's feet. "I just had Botox. I shouldn't have a single line or crease. Do you see a wrinkle? Do you see a goddamn wrinkle? I can't lift my brows to find out - the muscles won't work."

Shaye rolled her eyes. "Are we done here?"

Her mom stomped her foot and ground out, "I've finally found the love of my life. Why can't you understand that and be happy for me?"

"Uh, hello. This is the sixth love of your life."

"So the hell what? I've made mistakes in the past. That's better than cutting myself off from relationships like you've done, just to avoid getting hurt." She paused, raised her chin. "You spurn everything male, Shaye. You never date."

No, she didn't. Not anymore. She'd always been leery of the roads she would have to travel to obtain the fabled happily-ever-after. At one point, however, she had tried the dating thing. She'd quickly discovered that men never called when they said they were going to call. They weren't interested in her as a person; they were interested in getting her out of her clothing. They admired other women when they were supposed to woo her.

They lied, they used, they cheated. And they weren't worth the trouble.

Shaye twirled a strand of grass around her finger. "I wish you all the best with your new husband, Mother." No reason to rehash everything. Again. "Now, I'm going home."

"You're not going anywhere until you've apologized to Preston." A finger was shoved in her face. "You treated him shabbily, and I won't have it. I won't have it, do you hear me?"

She had treated him shabbily, and she felt bad for it. But she wouldn't apologize. That would invite conversation. Conversation would invite friendship, and friendship would invite emotion. Emotion, ultimately, would invite everything she'd worked so hard to avoid. "Do you truly expect me to obey a parental command from you? Now? After a childhood of being raised by nannies?"

"Well, yes" was the hesitant response.

"You're forgetting something. I'm the Ice Princess of Bitterslovakia, the Grand Duchess of Bitterstonia and the Queen of Bitterland. Isn't that what you've called me over the years?"

A gentle roll of waves splashed in the distance.

"I should have known you'd act this way," her mom snapped. With an angry flip of her wrist, she tossed a dark tress over her shoulder and glared out at the water. "All I've ever wanted was a nice, normal daughter. Instead I'm stuck with you. You won't be happy until you've ruined my wedding."

"Which one?" Shaye asked dryly, pushing aside her hurt. She much preferred the icy numbness she usually surrounded herself with. That numbness had saved her during childhood, sweeping her away from depression and desolation and into a life of satisfaction, if not contentment.

"All of them, damn it." Tamara didn't face her, but continued to stare out at the pristine water. Another splash sounded, this one closer. "You're jealous of me, and because of that you've never wanted me to be happy. Every time I'm close, you do something to hurt me."

Of all the things her mother had said, that cut the most. After all, Shaye was here because she wanted her mom to be happy. She'd never shoved the woman from her life, because, despite everything, she did care. It was something she'd fought against and hated, but there it was. The girl who wouldn't let herself care for anything or anyone else still wanted her mommy's approval. Ugh. "Don't blame me for your misery. You alone are responsible."

"Conner and I wanted this day to be perf - " Tamara's eyes widened, glazing with lust as her words jammed to an abrupt halt. "Perfect." She sighed dreamily. "Hmm. So perfect."

The way her voice dropped to a husky purr, as if she wanted to peel off her dress and dance naked in the moonlight, had Shaye blinking in confusion. "Um, hello. Arguing here."

"Man." There was a hypnotized quality to the word, an entrancement that spoke of passion and secret fantasies. "My man."

"What are you talking about?" Shaye dragged her gaze to the ocean. Her mouth fell open in shock.

There, rising from the water like primitive sea gods, were six gloriously tall and muscled barbarians. The moon settled reverently behind them, enveloping them in a golden halo. Each of them carried a sword, an honest to God, I'll-slice-you-into-a-million-pieces sword, but she couldn't seem to make herself care. They also carried unconscious scuba-clad men, some anchored under their arms, others draped over their backs. Again, she couldn't make herself care.

The warriors were shirtless, and all of them possessed sinewy washboard abs, skin so tanned it resembled liquid gold poured over steel, and faces any male super-model would have envied. Only better. So much better.

Unbelievable... surreal... magnificent.

Shaye gulped, and her heart skipped a beat. Heated air snagged in her lungs, burning and licking her with white-hot flames. All six of the warriors were suddenly looking at her as if she'd make a tasty meal, no silverware required. Strangely enough, she wanted to splay herself on a table, naked, offering her body as the dinner buffet. All you can eat. No charge.

She moistened her lips, her mouth watering, her skin tingling, her stomach clenching. I'm turned on. Why the hell am I turned on? More important, why wasn't she running?

Closer and closer they came. So close now she could see the silvery water droplets sliding down their hairless chests and gathering in their sexy navels. The water slid lower, lower still...

Snap out of this, dummy, she thought dazedly. Her gaze snagged on the man in the middle, and for a moment she forgot to move. Forgot to breathe. Dangerous, her mind supplied. Lethal. He was taller than the rest, his dark-blond hair hanging in a wet tangle around his wickedly mesmerizing features. His eyes... Oh, Lord. His eyes. They were blue-green, neither color blending with the other but standing alone, and so erotically seductive she felt the pull of his gaze all the way to her bones. Her nipples hardened, and an ache throbbed between her legs.

There was something wild about him, something untamed and savage, a deceptively calm glint in his expression that said he did whatever the hell he pleased, whenever the hell he wanted. And as she stared at him, he stared at her. He studied her face, searing arousal flickering in those magnificent eyes of his, deepening and mixing the blue-green to a smoldering turquoise. But the arousal was quickly followed by a glint of anger.

Anger? Was he mad? At her?

"Mine," her mom said on a wispy catch of breath, still lost in some sort of trance. "All mine."

Never ceasing their confident swaggers, the warriors exited the water and dropped the still-unconscious scuba-men on the beach. Arms now free, the warrior in the middle cocked his finger, beckoning Shaye over to him. Shivering, drowning in his maleness, she somehow managed to shake her head no. Go to him, her naughty mind beseeched. She shook her head again, violently this time.

The man's smooth chin canted to the side, and he frowned. "Come here," he said, his voice a husky whisper that drifted over the small distance, as intoxicating and heady as an erotic caress.

Another shiver slipped down her spine, so intense she almost fell to her knees. What would happen if he actually touched her? What would happen if he trailed those luscious pink lips along her every curve and hollow?

Stop, Shaye, a small, rational voice inside her commanded. Just stop.

"Come here," he repeated.

"Yes," her mom said, already stepping toward them. The dreamy glaze in her eyes darkened with eagerness. "I need to touch you. Please let me touch you."

The part of Shaye that acknowledged these men were dangerous also acknowledged there was something wrong with her mom - and with herself - but she still couldn't seem to care. A stunningly intense sensual fog was weaving through her mind, and nothing else mattered.

"Fight this," she told herself. "Fight this, whatever it is." Waging a mental war, she kicked and shoved at the sudden images of herself and that man, naked and straining together, his mouth on her breasts, his fingers slipping inside her, her legs parting, giving him better access...

"No. No!" she ground out. Even as she spoke, a blanket of calm settled over her thoughts. A familiar, icy wall encased her emotions, pushing away everything but the need to escape.

These men, whoever - whatever - they were, were dangerous, their intentions obviously malicious. They had swords, for God's sake, and they radiated lust. Blood lust, sexual lust, she didn't know.

They were almost upon her.

Scowling, fear cresting, she reached out and latched on to her mom's arm, jerking Tamara to a halt. "Don't go near them."

"Must... touch."

"We have to get help, warn the others. Something!"

"Let me go." She struggled against Shaye's hold, desperate to free herself. "I have to - "

"We have to go back to the tent. Now move!" Dragging her flailing mother behind her, Shaye raced toward the reception area, toward the laughing voices, soft music and unsuspecting guests.

As she ran, she dared a glance behind her. The men hadn't slowed, hadn't turned away. Lust and hunger intensified in their features as they followed her.

"Help us," she shouted, kicking sand with every step. She swept the curtain aside and entered the tent. "Someone call 911!"

No one heard her. They were too busy dancing and drinking themselves into oblivion, thanks to the open bar.

"Let me go," her mom continued to shout. When that failed to gain her freedom, she sank her sharp little teeth into Shaye's arm.

"Goddamn it!" Shaye did the only thing she could think of: she hooked her foot behind her mom's ankles and pushed, sending the bride hurling backward into the dessert table. Food and platters crashed to the ground, but at least her mom remained horizontal, trying to catch her breath.

Several people glanced at Shaye, then at the fallen bride. Their eyes widened, some in confusion, some in horror, but mostly in amusement.

"There are men - " Shaye pointed " - out there. Dangerous men. They have swords. Does anyone have a gun? Did someone call 911?"

Reoriented, her mom jolted to her feet, unconcerned that red-and-white frosting now streaked her ten-thousand-dollar dress. She elbowed her way past the guests. "I need him. Let me go back to him."

"Tamara?" her new husband asked, incredulous. He rushed toward his bride and locked her in his arms, his expression concerned as she struggled to break free. "What's wrong with you, kitten?"

"I need... him." The last word was uttered on a relieved, happy sigh.

The six sea gods had jerked back the tent flap. They stepped inside, consuming every inch of breathable space and blocking the only exit. Immediately the music screeched to a halt. The male guests cowered, as if death had just arrived, and the females gasped in bliss, already moving toward the warriors, reaching out, eager to touch them.

"Get out of here," Shaye growled. "We have weapons. Guns... and... and other menacing stuff."

All six sets of eyes scanned the crowd, drinking in every detail... searching... searching... and then locking on her. She trembled, dizzying warmth spearing her. Naked images tried to rush through her again. Sweaty skin, flushed, pink with arousal...

Not again! She forced her mind to remain blank.

Who were these men? How did they do that? How did they make her long to forget who and what she was and simply enjoy the pleasures she somehow knew they could give her?

Fighting a wave of panic, Shaye quickly grabbed the cake knife from the ground and held it in front of her. Icing smeared her hand; her heart thumped erratically in her chest. In high school she'd picked a few fights with her stepsiblings. Yes, it had been her misguided attempt to keep them at a distance so she wouldn't begin to like them only to lose them a few months later, but she'd actually managed to win some of those fights. Not that any of her brothers and sisters had carried knives or sported more muscles than two body builders fused together.

The warrior in the middle, the exquisitely formed blond giant who had beckoned her over to him on the beach, motioned her over once more. There was still a hint of anger in his eyes, still a too-sensual pull about him. Now, however, he seemed all the more predatory. Sexual. In the well-lit tent, she could see the silver hoop winking at his nipple.

"Come," he said.

Everything inside her might scream to obey, to go to him, to suck that hoop into her mouth while she ground herself against his erection, but she gulped and shook her head. "No." Erection. God. She hadn't even looked there. But she knew, as if the knowledge was imprinted on her every cell, that he was aroused.

His kissable, lickable lips lifted in a slow, wicked smile, as though he'd wanted her to deny him. "I will delight in showing you the error of your ways."

Yep. He'd wanted.

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