Relief flooded her, and she beelined toward the sound. She tugged the door open and—
“Marty?” Lacey stared down at her husband of two hours, total shock momentarily preventing her from comprehending the scene before her. The slightly muffled version of The Pink Panther theme song coming from the pants around her husband’s ankles kept time with the ring pouring from the receiver of the telephone she still had cupped to her ear.
“Lacey! I can explain,” Marty said as he frantically tried to extract himself from the woman he was screwing and yank up his pants at the same time, which was no easy feat given the restrictive confines of the filled-to-bursting storage closet. In his struggle, he knocked a mound of snowy-white linens off the shelf behind him, and they toppled onto his paramour with a thunk, shoving her torso flat into the table she was draped over.
“Shit!” she wailed, floundering until the cloths fell to the floor in a heap.
Lacey focused more intently on the woman ass up in front of Marty. Black curls arranged in an updo, a tasteful navy dress bunched around her bare thighs. Navy chiffon, to be exact. The very same chiffon she’d picked out for her bridesmaid dresses.
Shock gave way to a gut-wrenching sense of betrayal. “Becca?” Her brain thrashed around in search of a stronghold, a port in this most ludicrous of storms, and she uttered the first thing that came to mind. “But you said he had woman-hips.”
“Hi, this is Marty. Leave a message,” the oh-so-familiar voice chirped in her ear.
“Hi, Marty?” she said into the previously forgotten phone. “This is Lacey. You’re a lying piece of shit asshole.” She disconnected and hurled it against the corridor wall, where it connected with a satisfying crunch.
Marty flinched. “Honey, it’s not what it looks like.”
Why do people always say that? she wondered dully.
Becca tugged at the hem of her dress and stared at the floor, slump-shouldered and unwilling to meet Lacey’s gaze.
“What it looks like is that you’re having sex with one of my oldest friends in the linen closet of our reception hall. Unless, of course, she’s lost something in her vagina and you were gallant enough to try and fish it out for her. With your penis. If that’s the case, I suggest using a larger lure.”
A whispered “Ouch” over her shoulder clued her in to the fact that the three of them were no longer alone. Her skin prickled like she’d been dipped in rubbing alcohol, but she kept her gaze locked on Marty.
He winced, his cheeks turning a fiery shade of red. “No need to be rude, Lace.” The ensuing silence was so absolute that when he fastened his tuxedo pants, it sounded like a grizzly bear traveling down a zip line.
“Please tell me you’re not chastising me over my lack of manners right now. Because if I thought that were true, I just might get one of those stupid shrimp forks your mother insisted we have and jam it into your eye.”
He gaped at her as if he’d never seen her before and wasn’t all that thrilled with the view. Well, bully for him. She knew the feeling.
“Lacey, we were going to tell you. But things got out of hand, and then the merger…” Becca’s blue eyes pleaded with her. For what? Understanding? Forgiveness?
She was fresh out of both.
Tears pricked the backs of her lids, and she stared at two of the people she thought she could count on most. Lifting her trembling hand, she tore off her wedding and engagement rings, then set the now meaningless symbols of commitment carefully on the table.
“That’s it?” an outraged voice bellowed from over her shoulder. “You’re going to let them off that easy? Oh, no way. Not on my watch.” Her maid of honor and sister from another mister, Cat Thomas, pushed past her and peered in. Her green eyes were a bit bleary as she treated the couple in the closet to a death stare. “I should kick your prissy little ass.”
She was probably talking to Becca, but it was a fitting threat for both of them, and that made the whole thing even more awful. Marty wouldn’t have even considered bending Lacey over a table, never mind one in the linen closet of a public place, but there he’d been, doing exactly that with her friend. On their wedding day.
“Cat, stay out of it,” a low male voice murmured.
Lacey closed her eyes and bit back a groan. Of all the people to have witnessed her shame, Galen Thomas would’ve been her last choice. Cat’s brother had been away for the past eight months training for a fight, and he’d just returned to Rhode Island. Lacey had been so sure he would still be at home recovering, she’d never expected him to come to the wedding.
Growing up, he had been a never-ending source of torment for Lacey, either unaware or unimpressed with the fact that she’d harbored a serious crush on him since grade school. In spite of his ribbing and her efforts to act like she couldn’t care less, over the years they’d forged an uneasy alliance for Cat’s sake. She hated him seeing her at her lowest point. Especially after he’d warned her about Marty the year before.
His muttered, “Watch yourself, squirt. He’s spineless, and spineless people don’t care who gets hurt, so long as it’s not them,” had stuck with her far longer than it should have.
Or maybe not long enough, she thought glumly and took one last look at the train wreck in front of her.
“I’m fine, Cat. Galen’s right. I need to go before any of the other guests see this.” She met Marty’s miserable gaze. “You’ll be hearing from my lawyer. Don’t try to contact me. I have nothing to say to you.”
She turned to Becca and the ache in her gut increased tenfold. For a brief moment, she wondered if it should be the other way around. Shouldn’t his betrayal hurt worse? But before she could catch hold of the thought, it burned away under the heat of white-hot anger at Becca. The third amigo. The other sidekick for the force that was Cat. The person she could call when she just wanted to vent instead of plot to take over the world. If Cat was the meat of their sandwich, Lacey and Becca were the slices of bread.
Sweet, sweet Becca was now Becca the Betrayer.
“And you?” She cast around for something to say, to lash out, to make her pay, but all she could muster was, “I want my ’N-Sync T-shirt back. Then lose my number.”
Becca’s mouth opened and closed soundlessly, her pink cheeks going chalk white.
The tears were coming soon. They were building at the back of her throat like an imprisoned scream. She had to get out of there, fast. Cat took her arm and led her across the hall with a hissed, “Bastards,” over her shoulder. Galen fell into step on her other side.
“Is this a nightmare? Please tell me this is a nightmare,” Lacey murmured under her breath.
“This is no nightmare, squirt. This is the luckiest day of your life,” Galen said, his tone grim.
“Not the time, bro.” Cat popped her brother hard on the shoulder with a balled-up fist.
“It’s the truth. That guy wasn’t good enough to wipe your shoes. And your friend there is getting exactly what she deserves. A jellyfish of a man for a jellyfish of a woman. She always was weak.”
There was an uncharacteristic compliment buried in that statement, and it registered briefly through her shock, but she didn’t have a chance to dwell on it. They’d reached the main reception hall filled with her family and friends. The black cloud of dread hanging over her thickened. The wedding was supposed to have paved the way for two of the city’s most high-powered law firms to merge into one big family firm. Now that might never happen and, despite the circumstances being out of Lacey’s control, her mother was going to be furious.
She paused and ran a hand over her hair, the strains of “Mony Mony” pouring through the doors increasing her agitation tenfold. “I have to go in there, don’t I? To tell them something?” Her voice warbled and she bit her lip.
“Nope. Galen will tell them. I’ll drive you to your apartment to change your clothes, and we’ll go get smashed!” Cat held up a hand for a high five.
“Not going to happen,” Galen cut in. “You’re already smashed,” he said to his sister before turning to Lacey. “And you’re in no condition to drive. You’re still in shock, and when this hits the fan, it’s going to get ugly.”
He was right. Cat had been sipping mimosas all morning and had drunk more than her share at cocktail hour. Her flaming-red hair had escaped its confines and the makeup that had been flawless—if liberally applied—earlier in the day was now smudgy around her bleary green eyes. It would be wrong to let her get behind the wheel. Lacey had enjoyed a couple herself, but clearly not enough to dull this pain. Galen had hit the nail on the head. She was one false move from shattering into a million pieces.
Run away, her mind screamed. For once, she went with impulse over common sense.
“Cat, go tell Marty he can let the guests know why I’ve left. He’s a big, fat, stupid liar, so I’m sure he’ll come up with a plausible reason. But tell him if he makes it look like it was my fault, he’ll regret it. And make sure he tells them to take their gifts home. Oh, and try to manage my mother, okay? I hate to put you in that spot, but she is going to flip out and I can’t handle her brand of crazy right now when I haven’t even had a chance to have my own.”
“No problem. Leave The Admiral to me.”
Cat’s nickname for her mother usually brought a smile to Lacey’s face, but not today. Today, she winced at the accuracy of the name. Things hadn’t gone The Admiral’s way, and she wasn’t going to be happy with her little sailors. The question was, would she try to be understanding or would she blame it on Lacey—again?
“I owe you huge for this. I just need some time before I can face the fallout.” She turned to pin Galen with a frank stare, ready to beg if she needed to. But when she faced him fully for the first time, her heart hitched. His dark hair was tousled, and his chin bore the scruff that was ever-present unless he was prepping for a fight. True to form, he was underdressed in a sports jacket that stretched tight over his wide shoulders and jeans that had seen better days. She’d spent thousands of her waking hours picturing that face, and just as many sleeping hours dreaming of it. A pang of regret for what never was joined the other riot of emotions from this hellacious day, and when she met his brown eyes, the pity there was more than she could bear. The tears flowed freely and she swallowed the last morsel of her pride. “Can you get me the hell out of here, please?”
For a long moment, Galen held her amber gaze and didn’t respond, although his instincts were bleating up a storm. This is a baaaaad idea. His instincts were pretty fucking solid most days and had saved him a lot of pain, both in the ring and out. In fact, hadn’t he told Lacey not to marry this loser? He opened his mouth to remind her of that fact again but snapped it shut a second later when his instincts told him a move like that would earn him a high-heeled kick to the family jewels. “And go where?”
“Anywhere, blockhead,” Cat cut in with a roll of her eyes. “She has to get out of here. You two go. I’ll deal with everything here.”
Lacey gave her a weak smile. “Thanks, Cat. I’d be lost without you.”
“Tell me about it. And don’t worry. If Loverboy tries to throw you under the bus, I’ll make sure everyone hears the truth,” she assured Lacey, giving her arm a gentle pat.
Galen really didn’t want to get involved in this mess. Something had been happening over the past couple years, and he didn’t like it. The obligatory annoyance combined with grudging affection that guys typically felt toward the good longtime friends of their sisters had begun to change when it came to Lacey. She was no longer a gangly, awkward teen—and he knew it. Luckily, that was right about the time she’d saddled herself with Marty the dishrag, so it hadn’t been an issue. Hell, he’d only come because his sister’s latest boy toy had bailed, and she needed a plus one. “Listen, I—”
“Galen. Please. I can’t go back in there.” Lacey’s voice had lost the shrill gloss of panic and now sounded resigned. Beat down.
God, he was a sucker. He closed his eyes for a long moment and nodded. “Okay. I’ve got my bike, though.” He cast a dubious eye at her floor-length gown.
“We’ll make it work.” With the promise of imminent escape, she sounded stronger already. She jammed her arm through his so their elbows were locked and raised her chin. “Cat, I’ll call you later once I’m settled.”
“You threw your phone,” Galen reminded her.
“Indeed I did.” Her chin dipped a little before she rebounded like a champ. “Cat, I will e-mail you later if I can’t find a phone.”
“Cool. Love you, babe. And I promise, in a few months, after we’ve exacted our revenge, we’re going to look back at this and laugh,” Cat said.
Galen frowned and his sister shrugged. Between the two of them, they were screwing this up royally. Maybe he’d think of something good to say on the way out.
He led Lacey toward the main exit, but she tugged him toward the bar in the deserted lounge area. “One second.” She yanked her arm from his. “Excuse me, sir?” she called to the balding bartender washing glasses at an industrial-sized sink in the corner. Balancing precariously on the wooden footrest skirting the bar, she reached over the counter and plucked a bottle of champagne nestled in an ice bin. “Put this on my husband’s tab, would you? Marty Clemson, the wedding in the Rose Room.”
She didn’t wait for a response but stalked out the door with the bottle clutched in her hand.
He stared helplessly after her, then looked back to the bartender. “Can you even do that?”
The guy shrugged. “What am I going to do, chase after her? Given the look on her face, I’m going to say that seems like a bad idea.”
Galen sighed, reached into his pocket, and pulled out a fifty. “Will that cover it?”
Two seconds later, he exited the building and glanced around. Lacey had stopped at his Harley and set down the champagne. She couldn’t ride with that gown on. She’d get them both killed. They were going to have to—
He paused mid-step when Lacey reached behind her neck. What was she going to do, strip?
“Some help here?” she mumbled, grappling with the hooks down her back.
Some help here? Little Lacey Garrity wanted his help taking off her wedding dress. The shy teen his sister had forced to drink four wine coolers before she would go skinny-dipping. And even then, she’d made them all close their eyes until she was in up to her neck. This was officially the weirdest fucking day of his life. “I’m not sure exactly what the plan is, but I can tell you right now, it’s ill-advised,” he said, ignoring the baser part of him that roared to life at the thought of seeing what was under all that dress.
“Damn it,” Lacey muttered, scrabbling at the catches.
He didn’t dare smile. She might not be gangly anymore, but she was still a little awkward, in the way that a woman was when she had no true sense of her worth. But that aside, the outer packaging was right and tight. Easy enough to put it out of his mind when she was engaged to another man. Not so easy now that her relationship had disintegrated and she wanted him to help her disrobe.
“I’ll help you if you tell me what we’re hoping to accomplish. You can’t ride on the back of my bike naked. You realize that, right?”
“I have a full slip under here that comes down to my knees. It’s no more revealing than some cocktail dresses I’ve seen, so don’t worry. I won’t get us arrested.”
The emotionless resignation in her tone made him want to go back into the hall and treat Marty Clemson to the uppercut that had earned him the nickname Whalin’ Galen. One shot, right to the fucker’s nonexistent chin. But then he saw the tremble. It wasn’t much, just a little shiver of uncertainty that snaked through her and left her readable. And what he read spelled sadness. The deep, I don’t even know what to do with myself kind of pain. Damn.
At that moment, if she’d asked him to dance a jig, he’d have considered it if it meant cheering her up even a little. He stalked up behind her to push her hands out of the way. “I’ll do it. We’re going to have to take it really slow riding. If we took a spill, your legs would be a mess.”
The slender line of neck teased him, and he vowed to make quick work of it. He’d gotten through the first trillion buttons and was about halfway done when her shoulders started to shake.
He froze. “Are you crying?”
“Can you hurry?” She loosed a pathetic sniffle. “I just want to go.”
He eyed the long line of pearls dubiously. Making an executive decision, he grasped both sides in his hands and yanked. The dress split in two down to the middle of her thighs. He let it drop into a pool at her feet and she didn’t even blink when she stepped out of it.
“Thanks,” she said with a brave, watery smile.
He nodded but opted not to speak. She was right. The slip did cover her, much in the way a coat of candy-apple-red paint covered a Mustang. It didn’t so much hide the car as it enhanced exactly how badass it was. Spaghetti straps of white silk lay in stark relief against the darker, golden skin of her shoulders. Her full breasts strained at the material binding them. If he looked a little harder he’d just be able to make out the contour of her nipples—
“Why are you staring at me like that?” Her sad eyes went wide. “Is there a bug on me? Is it a spider?” She screeched the last word and began frantically swiping at her slip.
“No, you’re fine. Stop it. I was thinking what a douche bag Marty is.” It was as close to the truth as he could manage, given the circumstances.
Dear Satan. I don’t know why you’re testing me, but I don’t like it. No love, Galen.