Hotter Than Ever

“What’s going on, Dylan?” Fear darted through her. “Is everything okay? Is Chris all right?”

“He’s fine,” Dylan said quickly.

“Then what is it?”

He shuffled awkwardly, raking a hand through his short blond hair.

“Look,” he started, his voice a tad hoarse, “Chris is…um…aw shit, there’s no easy way to say this, okay? So I’m just going to do it, and I want you to know that doing this brings me no pleasure. You and me…we don’t really get along, and then there was that whole visit thing and…you know, what you saw at my place…which you never brought up again, and I’m really grateful for that, by the way—”

“Oh for the love of God,” she interrupted. “Quit babbling and say what you came here to say.”

“Chris left.”

Claire blinked. “What?”

“He left.” Misery flashed across Dylan’s face. “He couldn’t go through with the wedding. He…uh, he doesn’t think you two are right for each other.”

Shock slammed into her, so powerful she nearly keeled over.

Chris was calling off the wedding?

A rush of humiliation joined the unwavering shock. Oh God. The groom backing out at the last minute was definitely not part of her childhood fantasy.

As tears filled her eyes again, she looked at Dylan with dismay. “I can’t believe this.”

He looked upset. “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t be the one telling you this. My brother is a bastard for running away, and I promise you, I tried to get him to do the right thing. I told him it was his responsibility to talk to you, but I guess he thought it would be too painful or something.”

“Wait a minute,” she burst out, as something suddenly registered. “What do you mean, he left?”

Dylan’s throat jumped as he gulped. “He left. As in, no longer here.”

“You mean he left the country club?” Her mouth dropped open. “He just drove away?”

There was a quick nod.

Her pulse careened into cardiac-arrest territory, her throat tightening with horror when she realized what that meant. “He’s going to make me face all those guest by myself?” Her breathing went shallow. “I’m the one who has to tell everyone there won’t be a wedding?”

Shock flitted through Dylan’s eyes. “What? No, of course not. Don’t worry, my mom will make the announcement.”

Agony and embarrassment heated her cheeks as she pictured Dylan’s sweet mother getting up there in front of hundreds of strangers and telling them they’d wasted their time in coming here.

“You can’t put that on Shanna,” she moaned. “Oh God. This is so humiliating!”

“Claire. Hey, calm down, honey. Take a deep breath.”

She ignored him, her brain continuing to run over all the mortifying implications of Chris’s cowardice.

“I have to tell my parents,” she mumbled between unsteady breaths. “And Father Thomas. Oh gosh, do you think Frank Lowenstein will expect us to reimburse him for renting out the Lavender Ballroom?”

Her hands started shaking again. More and more thoughts flew into her head. “My boss is out there, and all my colleagues. I can’t go out there and have everyone feeling sorry for me.” Her gaze darted toward the mirror again. “Oh shit, I can’t be wearing this gown when they see me.”

The next few minutes were a blur of irrationality, a heart-pounding, panic-induced daze that somehow ended with Claire’s wedding dress turning into a pool of fabric at her feet. She had no recollection of getting undressed—and apparently no sense of modesty, either—but suddenly she was wearing nothing but a strapless white bra and matching thong, completely on display for her runaway groom’s brother.

And yet when it finally dawned on her that she’d just stripped down to her underwear, she couldn’t even dwell on the fresh round of embarrassment because a new realization had swooped into her head.

“Where am I supposed to go?” she said miserably. “Is Chris at our apartment?”

Dylan looked utterly disoriented, his green eyes moving from her nearly naked body, to the discarded wedding gown, then up to her face. “I don’t know,” he sputtered. “Look. Claire. You’re freaking out and you need to dial it down, okay?”

“Where am I supposed to go?” she repeated, raising her voice over the loud drumming of her heart. “I don’t even have a car! My parents drove. Oh shit, my parents. They’ll want to take me home. I can’t go home with them, Dylan! They’ll hover over me and my mom will stuff me with cookies because she thinks cookies are the solution for all of life’s troubles, and—”

A sharp sting on her cheek made her head jerk up.

She blinked in shock and reached up to rub away the pain. “Did you just slap me?”

Dylan’s perfectly sculpted jaw tensed. “No, I flicked you.”

“You flicked me?”

“Yes.” He moved closer and gripped both her shoulders. “Get it together, McKinley. My brother is the asshole in this equation, okay? My mom is handling the guests, so there’s no reason for you to go out there at all. You don’t need to face your boss or coworkers, and if you’re not ready to talk to your parents, then you don’t have to. And fuck all those country club jerks from Chris’s firm. You don’t owe them any explanations. Understand?”

She nodded, feeling numb.

“But you’re right,” Dylan went on. “Chris is probably at the apartment, so maybe going back there isn’t a good idea at the moment. Unless you’re ready to get the big talk over with?”

She shook her head. Talking to Chris was definitely on her agenda, but not now. As furious as she was that he’d taken off instead of handling the situation like an adult, she couldn’t deal with him right now. Not until she got far, far away from this stupid country club and made sense of her muddled thoughts.

“I guess I can go to a hotel,” she said in a tired voice. “Can you drop me off?”

Without waiting for his response, she hurried toward the suitcase and carry-on she’d left beside the door. She and Chris had been scheduled to leave for their honeymoon immediately following the reception, so her bags were already packed and waiting.

She kept her back to Dylan, rooting around in her suitcase and pulling out the first item of clothing she found, which happened to be a bright blue sundress. She yanked the dress over her head and smoothed it down her body, not caring that you could see the white band of her bra, thanks to the dress’s backless halter style, or that the skirt was indecently short. This dress had been meant for Aruba, the first stop on their three-week honeymoon.

Except there wouldn’t be a honeymoon. Or a wedding.

“I can’t believe he just left,” she whispered.

The warm hand on her bare shoulder made her jump. “I really am sorry,” came Dylan’s husky voice.

Claire couldn’t help a derisive snort. “No, you’re not.”

“Yes, I am.”

“Bullshit.” For the first time since Dylan arrived to drop his bomb, hot tears stung her eyes. “You’re loving every second of this. You hate me and you probably think I had it coming, huh?”

Now he sounded irritated. “That’s not what I think at all, Claire.”

Sarcasm dripped from her voice. “Sure, Dylan, because you were dying for me to be your sister-in-law. Well, congrats, you won’t ever have to see me again after today, so just do me a favor and stuff your sorries in a sack, okay? All I want from you right now is to help me carry this stupid suitcase and drive me to a hotel.” Her lips tightened. “Do you think you can handle that, soldier?”

A muscle in his jaw twitched, his green eyes flashing with resentment, but the hard look quickly faded into resignation. With a curt nod, he picked up her suitcase and said, “I can handle that.”