“Wow. That was so slick, I didn’t see it coming.” She crossed her arms, tightening her T-shirt—sunny yellow today—over her chest. “I’d really prefer to skip it, if it’s all the same.”

With a couple of drunken ballerina sidesteps, she tried to skirt him.

“Cia.” He easily stepped in front of her, halting her progress and preventing her from slamming the door on the conversation.

Her irises transformed into deep pools of blue. “You called me ‘Cia.’ Are you feeling okay?”

His brow quirked involuntarily as he filed away how mesmerizing her eyes became when he called her Cia. It was worth a repeat. “This is important or I wouldn’t have asked. You proposed this marriage as a way to rebuild my reputation. That’s not going to happen by taking a picture of our marriage license and posting it on the internet. With my nice, stable wife at my side during this event tonight, people will start to forget about Lana.”

With a sigh, she closed her lids for a beat. “Why did you have to go and make the one logical point I can’t argue with? Let’s pretend I say yes. Are you going to complain about my outfit all night?”

Here came the really tricky part. “Not if you wear the dress I bought you.”

Fire swept through her expression, and she snapped, “I specifically asked you not to buy me clothes.”

“No, you ordered me not to, and I ignored you. Wear the dress. The guests are the cream of society.”

“And you don’t want to be ashamed to be seen with me.” Hurricane force winds of fury whipped through her frame, leaving him no doubt she’d gladly impale him with a tree limb or two if her path happened to cross them.

“Darlin’, come on.” He shook his head. “You’d be gorgeous in pink-and-teal sofa fabric, and I’d stand next to you all night with pride. But I want you to be comfortable alongside all those well-dressed people. Appearance is everything to them.”

“To them. What about you? Are you that shallow, too?” Her keen gaze flitted over him.

“Appearances aren’t everything, but they are important. That’s what a reputation is. Other people’s view of how you appear to them, which may or may not reflect reality, and that’s what makes the world go round. All you can do is present yourself in the best possible light.”

Her ire drained away, and a spark of understanding softened her mouth. “That’s why you got so angry when I said I didn’t care if you slept with other women. Because of how it would look.”

And here he thought he’d covered up that unexpected temper flare. Must need more practice. He rarely let much rile him, and it was rarer still to let it show. A temporary, in-name-only wife shouldn’t have that kind of effect. He shrugged. “People talk and it hurts, no matter how you slice it. I would never allow that to happen to you because of me.”

If Lana had been of the same mind, he’d never have met this fierce little conquistador now called Mrs. Lucas Wheeler. A blessing or a curse?

“I’m sorry I suggested it. It was insensitive.” With a measured exhale, she met his gaze. “I’ll go. But I want to see the dress before I agree to wear it. It’s probably too big.”

Well, then. She’d conceded not just the point but the whole match. A strange tightness in his chest loosened. “It’s hanging in your closet. Try it on. Wear it if you like it. Throw it in the trash if you hate it. We should leave around seven, and I’ll take you to dinner afterward.” He risked squeezing her hand, and the cool band of her wedding ring impressed his palm. “Thanks. I promise you’ll have fun tonight.”

She rolled her eyes. “I don’t even want to know how you plan to guarantee that.” She let their hands slip apart and successfully navigated around him to leave the kitchen. Over her shoulder, she shot the parting volley. “See you at seven-ten.”

Later that night, Lucas hit the ground floor of their house at six fifty-five. When Cia descended the stairs at seven on the dot, his pulse stumbled. Actually stumbled. He’d known the floor-length red sheath would look amazing on her as soon as he’d seen it in the window.

Amazing didn’t cover it. She’d swept her hair up in a sexy mess of pins and dark locks and slipped black stockings over legs that peeped through the skirt’s modest slit.

“Darlin’, you take my breath away,” he called up with a grin contrived to hide the fact that he was dead serious. His lungs hurt. Or at least something in his chest did.

Compared to his vivacious wife, Lana was a pale, lackluster phantom flitting along the edges of his memory.

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