The ivory invitation with its elegant calligraphy and lacy embellishments felt more like a humiliation time bomb just waiting to blow up in Madison Daniels’s face than a beautiful wedding announcement. Man, did she have a problem.
Mitch, her big brother by three years—her only brother—was actually getting married this weekend. Married.
She was totally happy for him. Thrilled, even. His fiancée, Lissa, was a great gal, and they’d become quick friends. Lissa would never do her brother wrong. A Hallmark movie could be based on the two. Met freshman year at University of Maryland, fell madly in love, got great corporate jobs straight out of college, and the rest was history.
No, Mitch and Lissa weren’t the problem.
And a wedding held deep in Northern Virginia’s vineyards definitely wasn’t the problem.
Not even her semi-lunatic parents, who owned and operated a very profitable online store called DOOMSDAY “R” US and would likely be hawking gas masks to the guests, were the problem. In fact, she’d take an asteroid with “Earth’s My Bitch” emblazoned on it and headed her way over this.
Her gaze dropped to the invitation, down to the list of attending bridesmaids and groomsmen, and winced. She blew out a slow breath, stirring the long strands of brown hair that had escaped her messy twist.
Right across from her name, separated by a few innocent dots and written in crimson ink, was the name of the best man: Chase Gamble.
God hates me. That was it. Well, she was the maid of honor, and any of the other Gamble brothers would’ve been fine as best man. But oh no, it had to be Chase Gamble. He was her older brother’s best friend, confidante, homie, whatever—and otherwise known as the bane of Madison’s existence.
“Staring at the invitation isn’t going to change a damn thing.” Bridget Rodgers leaned a plump hip against Madison’s desk, drawing her attention. Her assistant was a study in how a fashion disaster on some people could work for others. Today, Bridget wore a fuchsia pencil skirt paired with a purple peasant shirt sporting large polka dots. A black scarf and leather boots completed the look. Mysteriously, she actually looked good in what should have been a clown’s costume. Bridget was bold.
Madison sighed. She could use a little bold right now. “I don’t think I can deal with this.”
“Look, you should’ve taken my advice and invited Derek from the history department. At least then you’d be having wild monkey sex instead of lusting after your brother’s best friend during the whole wedding. A man who’s already rejected you once, might I add.”
Bridget had a point. She was crafty like that. “What am I going to do?” Madison asked, glancing out the window of her office. All she could see was the steel and cement of the museum next to her building—the Smithsonian, which always made her chest swell with pride. She’d worked hard to become one of the privileged few who got to work for this amazing cultural institution.
Bridget leaned down into Madison’s face and caught her attention again. “You’re going to put on your big-girl panties and deal with it. You may have a secret, undying love for Chase Gamble, but if he hasn’t recognized your awesomeness by now the man is clearly mental and so not worth this angst.”
“I know, I know,” Madison said. “But he’s just so… infuriating.”
“Most men are, Sweetie.” Bridget winked.
“It’s fine he’s not interested in me. Disappointing, but I can deal. And I can even forgive him for changing his mind the one time we almost hooked up. Well, sort of.” She laughed without much humor and stared at her best friend, willing her to understand. “But he’s constantly poking at me, you know? Teasing me in front of my family, treating me like a kid sister, when all I want to do is shake him…and get him naked.”
“It’s just one weekend—how bad can it be?” Bridget asked. She was trying to add the voice of reason to what was going to be the worst weekend of Madison’s life.
Dropping the invitation on her desk, she leaned back in her chair and sighed, idly contemplating calling the history department.
Ever since she could remember, there was Chase. Always Chase. They’d grown up on the same block in the suburbs of DC. Her brother and Chase had been inseparable since, well, forever. Which meant, being the baby of the family, Madison had nothing better to do as a kid than follow behind Mitch and his friends.
She’d idolized Chase. It was hard not to with his masculine beauty, easy candor, and downright illegal dimples. As a boy and into adulthood, Chase had a fierce protective streak that could make a girl’s heart do a little flutter in her chest. He was the type of guy who would rip off his shirt in the middle of Snowmageddon and give it to a homeless person on the street, but there’d always been this raw, dangerous edge to him.
Chase wasn’t the kind of guy anyone messed with.
Once in high school, a boy had gotten a little too frisky with her in his car parked outside her parents’ house, and Chase had just been leaving when he’d heard her muffled protests as a hand went somewhere she didn’t want.
After that run-in, the guy didn’t walk right for several weeks.
And the occurrence pretty much cemented a puppy love that just wouldn’t die.
Everyone and their mother had known she had it bad for Chase throughout high school and the first two years of college. Christ, it was a well-known theory that wherever Mitch and Chase were, Madison wasn’t too far behind. Sad as it was—and it was pathetic—she had attended the University of Maryland because they had.
Everything changed her junior year in college, the night he’d opened his first nightclub.
After that…she did everything in her power to avoid Chase. Not that it worked or anything.
One would think in a city as overpopulated as Washington, DC, she’d be able to avoid the rat bastard, but oh no, the laws of nature were a cruel, unrelenting bitch.
Chase was everywhere. She’d rented one of the smaller apartments on the second floor of the Gallery, and weeks later, he’d bought one of the penthouses on the top floor. Even on family holidays, he and his brothers had seats at her parents’ dinner table, since they treated the Gambles like a flock of sons.
Working out at the gym, he’d be there pumping iron early in the morning while she did her daily pretend-run on the elliptical. And when he got on the treadmill? Oh, wow, who knew calf muscles could be so sexy? It wasn’t her fault that she stared and maybe drooled on herself a little. Had maybe fallen off the elliptical a time or two when he’d lifted his shirt, revealing abs that looked like someone stuck paint rollers under his skin for crying out loud, and wiped his brow with the hem.
Who wouldn’t be driven to distraction and take a tumble?
Hell, if Madison went to the local grocery on the corner, he’d be there, too, feeling up the peaches with his wonderfully long fingers—fingers that no doubt knew how to strum a guitar just as well as they knew how to work a woman into the height of sexual frenzy and then some.
Because she did know—oh, did she ever know how good he was.
Of course, half of DC probably knew how good he was with those hands of his by now.
“You have that look on your face.” Bridget raised a brow at her. “I know that look.”
Madison shook her head in denial. She really needed to stop thinking about his fingers, but there was no escaping her childhood crush—the embodiment of every fantasy she’d ever had. An infatuation she never grew out of and the reason why no other guy lasted longer than a few months, though she’d take that little ditty to the grave.
Chase was the Antichrist to her.
A really, unbelievably hot Antichrist…
Suddenly it was way too warm, and she tugged on the edge of her blouse and scowled at the invitation. It was only four days in the romantic, upscale vineyards. Hundreds of people would be there, and even though she had to deal with Chase during the rehearsal and wedding, she could easily find creative ways to avoid him.
But the nervous flutter in the pit of her stomach, the excitement that hummed in her veins, was telling a whole different story, because seriously, how was she going to steer clear of the only man she’d ever loved…and wanted to maim?
“Toss me that employee directory,” Madison said, wondering if Derek might be available after all.
The drive to Hillsboro, Virginia, on Wednesday morning wasn’t a pain, since everyone else was streaming into the city for his or her daily commute, but Madison was driving as though she was auditioning for NASCAR.
According to the three missed calls from her mother—who thought Madison had been kidnapped in the big, bad city and was now being held for an ungodly sum of money—the four text messages from her brother wondering if she knew how to navigate the beltway—because apparently little sisters couldn’t drive—and the voice mail from her father warning there was a problem with the reservations, she was late for brunch.
Who in the hell still ate brunch?
Thrumming her fingers against the steering wheel, she squinted as the late May sun glared off the exit sign. Yep—as she zoomed on by—she’d missed the exit.
Tossing a glare at her cell phone, because she so knew it was going to ring in a hot second, she darted into the other lane and took the next exit so she could backtrack to where she needed to be.
She wouldn’t be running late and be so…so discombobulated if she had spent last night packing like a normal, emotionally stable woman in her mid-twenties—a successful, emotionally stable woman—instead of bemoaning the fact she had to walk arm-in-arm down the aisle with Chase, because, for real, that was just plain cruel. The fact that Derek had another date that weekend and couldn’t accompany her was like adding insult to injury.
Her cell phone went off the moment the wheels on her Charger hit the correct exit ramp and she growled at it, wishing the damn thing into the tenth circle of hell. Were there ten circles? Who knew, but she figured by the time everyone got drinks in them and started talking about how Madison used to run around shirtless as a child, there’d be twenty circles to hell, and she’d have visited every one of them.
Tall black walnut trees crowded either side of the rural route she flew down, shading the road and giving it an almost ethereal feel. Up ahead, the deep blue of the mountains loomed over the valley. There was no doubt, as long as the weather held up, the outdoor wedding was going to be beautiful.
A sudden pop jerked her chin up and the steering wheel to the left, right, and then left again. Heart racing, she gripped the wheel as she weaved and crossed the centerline like a poster child for DUIs.
“Damn it,” she muttered, eyes going wide as she regained control of the Charger. A tire had blown—a mother-freaking tire had blown. “Why not?”
Debating whether or not to attempt the next ten miles on her rim, she strung together an atrocity of curse words that would’ve made her brother blush. She whipped the wheel to the right and coasted to a stop on the shoulder of the road. Throwing the car into park, she debated getting out and kicking the damn car. Instead, she did the mature thing: placed her head on the steering wheel and cussed some more.