The CEO's Accidental Bride

By: Barbara Dunlop

One




Zach Harper was the last person Kaitlin Saville expected to see standing in the hallway outside her apartment door. The tall, dark-haired, steel-eyed man was the reason she was packing her belongings, the reason she was giving up her rent-controlled apartment, the person who was forcing her to leave New York City.

Facing him, she folded her arms across her dusty blue Mets T-shirt, hoping her red eyes had faded from her earlier crying jag and that no tear streaks remained on her cheeks.

“We have a problem,” Zach stated, his voice crisp, and his expression detached. His left hand was clasped around a black leather briefcase.

He wore a Grant Hicks suit and a pressed, white shirt. His red tie was made of fine silk, and his cuff links were solid gold. As usual, his hair was freshly cut, face freshly shaved, and his shoes were polished to within an inch of their lives.

“We don’t have anything,” she told him, curling her toes into the cushy socks that covered her feet below the frayed hem of her faded jeans.

She was casual, not frumpy, she told herself. A woman had a right to be casual in her own home. Where Zach Harper had no right to be in her home at all. She started to close the door on him. But his hand shot out to brace it.

His hand was broad and tanned, with a strong wrist and tapered fingers. No rings, but a platinum Cartier watch with a diamond face. “I’m not joking, Kaitlin.”

“And I’m not laughing.” She couldn’t give one whit about any problem the high-and-mighty Zach Harper might encounter during his charmed life. The man not only got her fired, but he also had her blackballed from every architectural firm in New York City.

He glanced past her shoulder. “Can I come in?”

She pretended to think about it for a moment. “No.”

He might be master of his domain at Harper Transportation and at every major business function in Manhattan, but he did not have the right to see her messy place, especially the collection of lacy lingerie sitting under the window.

He clenched his jaw.

She set her own, standing her ground.

“It’s personal,” he persisted, hand shifting on the briefcase handle.

“We’re not friends,” she pointed out.

They were, in fact, enemies. Because that was what happened when one person ruined another person’s life. It didn’t matter that the first person was attractive, successful, intelligent and one heck of a good dancer. He’d lost all rights to…well, anything.

Zach squared his shoulders, then glanced both ways down the narrow corridor of the fifty-year-old building. The light was dim, the patterned carpets worn. Ten doors opened into this particular section of the fifth floor. Kaitlin’s apartment was at the end, next to a steel exit door and a fire alarm protected by a glass cover.

“Fine,” he told her. “We’ll do it out here.”

Oh, no, they wouldn’t. They wouldn’t do anything anywhere, ever again. She started to step back into the safety of her apartment.

“You remember that night in Vegas?” he asked.

His question stopped her cold.

She would never forget the Harper corporate party at the Bellagio three months ago. Along with the singers, dancers, jugglers and acrobats who had entertained the five-hundred-strong crowd of Harper Transportation’s high-end clients, there was a flamboyant Elvis impersonator who’d coaxed her and Zach from the dance floor to participate in a mock wedding.

At the time, it had seemed funny, in keeping with the lighthearted mood of the party. Of course, her sense of humor had been aided that night by several cranberry martinis. In hindsight, the event simply felt humiliating.

“The paper we signed?” Zach continued in the face of her silence.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she lied to him.

In fact, she’d come across their mock wedding license just this morning. It was tucked into the lone, slim photo album that lived in her bottom dresser drawer beneath several pairs of blue jeans.

It was stupid to have kept the souvenir. But the glow from her evening on Zach’s arm had taken a few days to fade away. And at the time she’d put the marriage license away, those happy minutes on the dance floor had seemed somehow magical.

It was a ridiculous fantasy.

The man had destroyed her life the very next week.

Now, he drew a bracing breath. “It’s valid.”

She frowned at him. “Valid for what?”

“Marriage.”

Kaitlin didn’t respond. Was Zach actually suggesting they’d signed a real marriage license?

“Is this a joke?” she asked.

“Am I laughing?”

He wasn’t. But then he rarely laughed. He rarely joked, either. That night, she’d later learned, was quite the anomaly for him.

A cold feeling invaded her stomach.

“We’re married, Kaitlin,” he told her, steel eyes unflinching.

They were not married. It had been a lark. They’d been playacting up there on the stage.

“Elvis was licensed by the state of Nevada,” said Zach.

“We were drunk,” Kaitlin countered, refusing to believe such a preposterous claim.

“He filed a certificate.”

“How do you know that?” Her brain was revving into overdrive, calculating the possibilities and the potential consequences.

“Because my lawyers tell me so.” He gave a meaningful glance past her shoulder, into the apartment. “Can I please come in?”

She thought about her mystery novels covering the couch, the entertainment magazines that were sitting out on the coffee table, the credit card and bank statements in piles beside them, revealing her shopping habits for the past month. She remembered the telltale, half-eaten package of Sugar Bob’s doughnuts sitting out on the counter. And, of course, there was the box of sexy underwear on full display in the afternoon sunshine.

But, if he was telling the truth, it wasn’t something she could ignore.

She gritted her teeth and ordered herself to forget about his opinion. Who cared if he found out she had a weakness for Sugar Bob’s? In a matter of days, he’d be out of her life. She’d leave everything she’d ever known, start all over in another city, maybe Chicago or Los Angeles.

Her throat involuntarily tightened at the thought, and her tears threatened to freshen.

Kaitlin hated being uprooted. She’d started over so many times already, leaving security and normalcy behind as she moved from one childhood foster home to another. She’d been in this small apartment since she started college. And it was the only place that had ever felt remotely like home.

“Kaitlin?” he prompted.

She swallowed to clear the thick emotions from her throat. “Sure,” she told him with grim determination, stepping aside. “Come on in.”

As she shut the door, Zach took in the disarray of packing boxes littering the apartment. There wasn’t anywhere for him to sit down, and she didn’t offer to clear a chair. He wouldn’t be staying very long.

Though she tried to ignore it, her glance shifted involuntarily to the underwear box. Zach tracked her gaze, his resting on the mauve-and-white silk teddy her friend Lindsay had bought her for Christmas last year.

“Do you mind?” she snapped, marching over to pull the cardboard flaps shut.

“Not at all,” he muttered, and she thought she heard a trace of amusement in his tone.

He was laughing at her. Perfect.

The cardboard flaps sprang back open again, and she felt the unwelcome heat of a blush. She turned to face him, placing her body between Zach and her underwear.

Behind him, she spied the open box of Sugar Bob’s. Three of the doughnuts were missing, transferred from the white cardboard and cellophane container to her hips around nine this morning.

Zach didn’t appear to have an ounce of fat on his well-toned body. She’d be willing to bet his breakfast had consisted of fruit, whole grains and lean protein. It was probably whipped up by his personal chef, ingredients imported from France, or maybe Australia.

He perched his briefcase on top of a stack of DVDs on her end table and snapped open the latches. “I’ve had my lawyers draw up our divorce papers.”

“We need lawyers?” Kaitlin was still struggling to comprehend the idea of marriage.

To Zach.

Her brain wanted to go a hundred different directions with that inconceivable fact, but she firmly reined it in. He might be gorgeous, wealthy and intelligent, but he was also cold, calculating and dangerous. A woman would have to be crazy to marry him.

He swung open the lid of the briefcase. “In this instance, lawyers are a necessary evil.”

Kaitlin reflexively bristled at the stereotype. Her best friend, Lindsay, wasn’t the least bit evil.

For a second, she let herself imagine Lindsay’s reaction to this news. Lindsay would be shocked, obviously. Would she be worried? Angry? Would she laugh?

The whole situation was pretty absurd.

Kaitlin anchored her loose auburn hair behind her ears, reflexively tugging one beaded jade earring as a nervous humor bubbled up inside her. She cocked her head and waited until she had Zach’s attention. “I guess what happens in Vegas sometimes follows you home.”

A muscle twitched in his cheek, and it definitely wasn’t from amusement. She felt a perverse sense of satisfaction at having put him even slightly off balance.

“It would help if you took this seriously,” he told her.

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