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From bridesmaid to bride...
Stepping into her sister's place at the altar beside gorgeous tycoon Flynn Ashton, Helena Morrison hopes saying ''I do" and uniting their two families will finally be enough to redeem her in her father's eyes. It has nothing to do with the fact that she's always held a special place in her heart for her childhood crush!
But after embarking on the perfect Tuscan honeymoon, their paper marriage dissolves to ash as an unexpected heat flares between them... Dare Helena dream that this convenient marriage could be the fresh start they've both been searching for?
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Sophie Pembroke has been dreaming, reading and writing romance ever since she read her first Mills and Boon, so getting to write romances for a living really is a dream come true! Sophie lives in a little Hertfordshire market town with her scientist husband, her incredibly imaginative seven-year-old daughter, and her adventurous, adorable baby boy. Get all of her latest news first at www.SophiePembroke.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Flynn stared at her, a hint of panic in his usually calm and collected brown eyes. Helena gazed back, hoping she looked slightly less like a small wild animal caught in the open by a predator than he did.
She had to admit, though, that was unlikely. This was very new territory for both of them.
'While I know that what we just did was very noble and right and championed the cause of true love and so on...what on earth do we do now?' Flynn asked.
Helena's mind whirred with the possibilities, just as it had been doing since the moment her sister ran out of the door, leaving her holding both the pearlencrusted ivory wedding dress and the proverbial baby. They didn't have much in the way of options, and one choice kept rising to the top of the very short list.
'Help me out of this dress.' She placed Thea's wedding dress carefully on a padded armchair, then twisted to try and reach the zip at the back of her own flamingo-pink bridesmaid's dress. Not a chance. No one had arms that bent like that.
She looked up at Flynn. He was still staring at her.
Men. Hopeless in a crisis.
Although, actually, before today she'd have wagered that Flynn would be pretty good in an emergency. By all accounts, he'd handled the discovery that his fiancée had slept with his brother less than twenty-four hours before their wedding with remarkable aplomb. He'd managed the news that he was about to inherit sole responsibility for a multinational media conglomerate without breaking a sweat. He'd even let the aforementioned fiancée, Helena's sister, run out and elope with her true love moments before the wedding without looking particularly perturbed.
But apparently Helena in her underwear was pushing him too far.
With a sigh, she turned to present him with her back and the offending zip. 'Just undo me, yeah?'
Flynn hesitated a moment before she felt his warm fingertips against her back. 'Why am I doing this?'
'Because I need to get changed. Into that.' She pointed at the wedding dress and felt Flynn's hands still at her back.
'No. No, you don't. We'll just go down to the church and... '
She spun round to face him. 'And what? Tell every business associate you have plus a nice collection of reporters—not to mention both sets of parents—that the wedding of the year is off?' Helena shook her head. That option was very firmly a last resort. Never mind the tabloid fallout, or the impact on company shares—her father would have a heart attack.
'Surely that has to be better than us getting...' He waved a hand between them and she rolled her eyes.
'Married, Flynn. Go on, you can say it. It's not actually a dirty word. You were all set to do it with my sister, and I suspect you weren't any more in love with her than she was with you. As evidenced by the fact you just told her to elope with Zeke.'
'That was different,' Flynn argued. 'Thea and I had a plan. There was...paperwork.'
The man was completely business bound. Grabbing the file the wedding planner had put together for Thea, Helena pulled out a spare invitation, grabbed the pen from its loop and scratched out her sister's name to replace it with her own. Then, as an afterthought, she scribbled a few lines on the back on it. 'Paperwork,' she said, handing it to Flynn. 'Happy now?'
'"I, Helena Morrison, promise to marry Flynn Ashton purely to avoid the hideous fallout of my sister's elopement,"' Flynn read. 'Helena, this is—'
'Keep going.' Helena reached behind her to try and work the zip down the last few inches, finally succeeding in wriggling the strapless dress past her hips and into a heap on the floor.
Flynn turned his back on her, and Helena bit back a smile. He was so proper.
'"Furthermore, I agree to renegotiate this contract once the official Morrison-Ashton company business issue thing is dealt with. Signed, Helena Morrison."' He placed the makeshift contract carefully on the table as if it were a real and important document. 'Company business issue thing?' he asked, sounding puzzled.
'You know—the whole reason you and Thea were supposed to be getting married in the first place. Whatever that was.' Helena stepped into her sister's wedding dress and prayed to God that it fitted well enough to avoid comment. Thea was taller by a couple of inches and Helena had more in the way of curves, but as long as it did up and she could avoid tripping over the hem she'd probably be okay.
'To join both sides of the business and pro-vide...well, to give the company an heir.'
An heir. A child. Maybe even children, plural. Helena swallowed, then pulled the wedding dress up over her chest. She'd cross that very high and scary bridge when she got to it. Or not. Maybe she could dig a tunnel instead.
Okay, thinking was clearly not her friend today. The exhilaration of Thea's escape, of being the one left behind to fix things, of this whole crazy plan, thrummed through her veins. She felt high on excitement in a way she hadn't since she was sixteen.
What she was about to do might be insane but at least it made her feel alive.
For now, at least. 'This doesn't have to be a permanent arrangement, anyway,' she said, manoeuvring herself around to Flynn's side, wedding dress still trailing. 'Lace me up?' No zips for the bride. Apparently corset ties were the order of the day.
He obliged without argument, yanking the ties more than tight enough to keep the dress up and tying them in a very efficient bow at the base of her spine. Apparently she was about to marry the one straight man in Europe more comfortable with putting clothes on a woman than taking them off.
'That wasn't the arrangement with Thea,' he told her.
Helena spun round to face him, a fake smile on her face. 'Yes, well. I'm not Thea, am I?' Something she seemed to have been pointing out to disappointed friends, relatives and acquaintances for most of her life. Mostly her father, first wondering why she couldn't be better behaved, more obedient, less trouble. Until trouble had caught up with her at last and suddenly she was perfectly happy to stay home, stay out of trouble, stay safe.
But it hadn't been enough. Then he'd wanted to know why she couldn't have her sister's drive, or brains, or brilliance. Never mind that she was less trouble than Thea at last, that she kept their whole family on an even keel, dealing with the fallout from Thea's latest romantic mishaps.
Just like today, really.
This. This one thing—marrying her own sister's fiancé to safeguard the family name, business and reputation—if this didn't make up for the mistakes of her past, nothing ever would. This was her chance.
She could be enough for Flynn. She might not be Thea, but she was still a Morrison. She could give him what he needed, and maybe marrying him could give her absolution after eight long years in the wilderness.
As long as he never found out why she needed absolution. Flynn, of all people, would never understand that.
Flynn's eyes were serious as she looked into them, steady and firm, and Helena's smile slipped away. He was the ultimate man with the plan, she remembered from overheard business talk and the endless wedding preparations. Could he even do this? Be spontaneous enough to marry a stand-in bride?
'Are you sure you want to do this?' he asked, and Helena rolled her eyes.
'I don't think either of us can be sure about that, given that we've had all of about five minutes to think about it.' There was always a chance that she'd regret this moment, this idea for the rest of her life. But right then...the risk seemed worth it.
'I will walk down there and tell everyone it's off,' Flynn said. 'Just say the word, and you're free.'
Somehow, Helena knew that he'd planned to say those words anyway. That he'd have given Thea a last-minute out too, even if Zeke hadn't come home for the wedding. Flynn was a fair, kind, considerate man. And he might not have been the husband she'd imagined for herself, not least because he was supposed to have been her brother-in-law, but she could have done a lot worse. He was a safe choice. He'd never force her, or trick her or be anything but upfront and honest. It was...refreshing.
This could work, one way or another. Maybe they could make a friendly marriage, for the sake of the family and the business. Or, more likely, it might last a month and then they'd quietly end the whole thing. Either was fine. Flynn wouldn't make a fuss; she knew that much about him. They were the calm two now, the ones who smoothed over rough edges at social gatherings, who kept the joint family dinners his mother insisted on civil, even in the face of insurmountable odds. Between them they'd even hidden the fact that Thea and Zeke had slept together on the villa terrace during the rehearsal dinner from the hundred guests inside. Maybe they were meant to be together.
And even if it didn't last, the marriage would have served its purpose as a spectacular PR stunt for Morrison-Ashton and Flynn would be free to find a bride who'd give him heirs by the dozen, if he wanted. Win-win, really.
'I'm sure,' she said, and Flynn smiled.
'Then let's go to church.'
Flynn wasn't his brother. He didn't like surprises, didn't want the risk-taking high, or the buzz from making spur-of-the-moment decisions that Zeke seemed to crave. Flynn liked to work from a plan, to know what was coming and prepare accordingly. His very existence, and the fact of his birth, was the definition of unplanned—but Flynn had always felt that there was no reason his life had to follow the same pattern. A childhood of believing he was an 'unexpected variable', or just a straightforward 'mistake'—depending on whether he was eavesdropping on his father or mother's conversation at the time—had made it very clear to him how deviating from a plan could screw things up. Never mind that he'd been the plan. It was Zeke who had come along and screwed everything up. But Zeke was blood, the true heir they'd really wanted but thought they couldn't have. Not somebody else's unwanted child, brought in to fill a void as a last resort.
If his parents had stuck with the plan and never had Zeke, Flynn's life could have been very, very different.
So Flynn prized structure, deliverables, time-scales and, above all, a plan. But today, his wedding day, didn't appear to be about what Flynn liked or wanted.
He'd heard that before, from married friends. How the wedding day became all about the bride and her mother and her friends, and all the groom really had to do was show up and say 'I do'. Of course, every single one of those friends had actually married the woman they got engaged to...
Fear had clenched in his chest as Thea ran out of the door, tearing his carefully worked plan to shreds. Three years he'd been planning this, talking with his father, and hers, making sure they used the wedding to its full potential. Two years working on Thea, agreeing terms, gentling her along.
In the end, all the planning in the world hadn't been enough. Thea was gone, and that left him with.Helena.
Helena wasn't part of the plan, not even a little bit. She was another unplanned variable, he supposed. But maybe that meant something. Maybe together they could be more than a list of mistakes, of unexpected consequences.
Either way, she was the closest he was going to get to following his plan for the day.
He couldn't hide the relief he felt when he realised that Helena really planned to go through with her proposal. Yes, marrying his fiancée's sister raised its own collection of problems. And, yes, an argument could be made that any family or business situation that required this level of absurd subterfuge was seriously screwed up. And yet Flynn found himself agreeing that it was the best of a short list of bad options. Maybe it wasn't the original strategy, but it could at least be considered a contingency plan. It wasn't as if he hadn't discussed the possibility with his father, before settling on Thea as the most beneficial to the company.
This wasn't a love match and it never had been. Whichever of the Morrison sisters walked down the aisle on his arm, the purpose was served.
Thea might have understood a little better what she was letting herself in for, but Helena wasn't completely ignorant of the situation either.
Morrison-Ashton needed this. Its board, investors—everyone—needed to know that the future of the company was in safe hands.
And hands didn't come safer than Flynn Ash-ton's.
Flynn had his own reasons for wanting the match, of course, but surely Helena would realise that too. Thea had, quickly enough.
The company needed the PR boost and, even before he'd really believed he might inherit it one day, Morrison-Ashton had always been Flynn's priority. Now he stood to be CEO within the year...and he needed this more than ever. He needed the authenticity the match gave him. Married to one of the Morrison sisters, it wouldn't matter that he wasn't true Ashton blood. His adoption ceased to matter. Even the fact that his adoption had come through just as Ezekiel and Isabella Ashton had discovered that they were expecting their own flesh and blood child, Zeke, lost meaning as anything more than a crippling irony.
As a child, he'd been surplus to requirements, an inconvenience once the Ashtons had what they'd really wanted all along. And, as he'd grown older, he'd been a weapon in his father's hand, used to whip Zeke into shape, to make him earn his inheritance by fighting Flynn for every advantage, every opportunity. But as the husband of Thea—or Helena—Morrison, Flynn would be legitimate. Deserving. He'd belong at last.
Taking Helena's hand, he led her out of Thea's dressing room, down the stairs and out of the front door into the blazing Tuscan sunshine. With her body close against his, he could feel the tension in its lines and wondered how fast her heart must be beating right now. Maybe even as hard and fast as his.
Because, despite all his rational thoughts, Flynn couldn't quite lie to himself well enough to pretend there wasn't a chance this would prove to be a colossal mistake. This doesn't have to be a permanent arrangement. Helena's words echoed around his head. To her, this was only temporary; she was a stand-in bride for the occasion. But temporary didn't fulfil Flynn's needs for this marriage.
He needed permanence, he needed authenticity and he needed heirs. That was the plan and, given everything else that had gone wrong, he had to cling on to those facts. Once he married Helena, she was his for life.
He'd just have to figure out a way to convince her that he could be enough for her, that he was worth staying for. Once they got through this horrendous, confusing day.
Flynn blinked in the sunlight. Everything felt somehow more real outside. The summer sounds on the breeze—insects and dry leaves—disappeared behind a peal of bells from the chapel below.
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Book Description Harlequin, 2015. Mass Market Paperback. Condition: New. Never used!. Seller Inventory # P110373743211
Book Description Harlequin Romance Large Print, 2015. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0373743211