Between Marriage and Merger

By: Karen Booth

CHAPTER ONE

Lily Foster delighted in the idea of a wedding—two people so in love they vow to be together forever. The reality of a wedding, even as an observer, made Lily break out in hives. There she stood in the New York City Clerk’s Office, without the usual trappings of organ music or a minister or the bride in a flowing gown, and the nuptials still put her on edge. Her skin felt clammy. She couldn’t stand still. Her instinct was to run out of the building as fast as her pumps would carry her. But she couldn’t do that. She had to stay put. She’d been generously invited to the impromptu nuptials of her boss’s sister. Lily would’ve done anything for her boss, Noah Locke. To her own detriment, she adored him.

Still, for Lily, watching anyone get married was like unpacking a dusty old steamer trunk of miserable memories of her dream day that never was. When a woman has been left at the altar, no matter the reasons for it, she doesn’t forget it. Ever. And Lily’s world seemed hell-bent on dredging up the memory today.

“By the powers vested in me by the state of New York, I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

Tamping down her jealousy and choking back a sob of sentimentality, Lily watched as the bride and groom—Noah’s sister, Charlotte, and her new hubby, ridiculously handsome Michael, got lost in a passionate kiss. For that instant, she could feel the love between them. It was a life force that hit her from five feet away. Tears silently streamed down Lily’s cheeks. Charlotte, in a knee-length white dress that hugged her five-month baby bump, popped up on one foot, kicking the other into the air. It was like the cover of a fun contemporary romance. That was enough for Lily. She couldn’t watch anymore.

She pulled a tissue from her bag and dared to look at Noah, who was standing up for the groom. Noah wasn’t watching the kiss either. His hands were stuffed in the pants pockets of his slim-fitting gray suit. He was staring at his shoes, probably because they were beautiful and expensive, like everything in his life. Noah was a notorious playboy, so much so that the New York tabloids loved to play with him the way a cat bats about a mouse. Weddings were undoubtedly not Noah’s scene. Lily didn’t even need to ask.

It was no surprise that Noah chose to play the field. He was perfect—tall and trim, athletic but not muscle-bound, with expertly tousled sandy brown hair that was tidy around the ears and back, but a bit long on the top. His moss green eyes were hypnotic, or maybe it was the sum total of Noah that made Lily lose her words or her memory of what she was supposed to be doing. Noah was that guy. The one you can’t stop looking at. The one you can’t help but think about. Thankfully, Lily was beyond that for the most part. She’d spent the last two years training herself to ignore Noah’s beguiling features. She’d had no choice. As her boss, Noah was off-limits. Her job was too important. She was good at it, and even better, Noah and his brother, Sawyer, knew it.

Charlotte turned to Lily and Noah. Her newlywed smile took up nearly all the real estate between her diamond stud earrings. “Thanks for being our witnesses. Michael and I really appreciate it. I don’t know what to say. We just got a wild hair and decided today was the day.”

Michael leaned down and kissed the top of Charlotte’s head. These two were so adorable together it made Lily’s cheeks hurt. It also bruised her heart a little bit. She’d had an impossibly romantic love like that once. Or so she’d thought, but it had slipped right through her fingers, groom and all.

“Happy to do it. Congratulations.” Noah stepped in and kissed his sister on the cheek, then shook Michael’s hand.

Charlotte’s phone rang and she squealed, grabbing Michael’s arm and rushing out into the hall. Probably some famous well-wishers. The Locke family was known for their extensive connections.

“Want to grab a drink? It’s nearly five o’clock. No point in going back to the office.” Noah extended the invitation to Lily as if it were no big deal, as if she were just one of the guys, a role she suspected she would always have in his mind. He and Lily had done a few social things together, and they were always fun, but they filled Lily with pointless notions like hope and left her with sexy dreams, the kind where she’d wake up at 4:00 a.m. drenched in sweat and gasping for air. The sort of dream where you couldn’t bring yourself to open your eyes or get out of bed. You wanted to languish in it forever.

“It’s sweet of you to ask, but I think I’m going to head home, get out of these shoes and maybe do some reading.”

“Friday night. Headed to that bookstore you like? What’s it called?”

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