STARR AMBROSE

Our Little Secret by STARR AMBROSECHAPTER 1

Lauren Sutherland stood on the slush-covered Georgetown sidewalk and reminded herself that wrecking her sister’s marriage was the responsible thing to do.

Sisters looked out for each other.  Especially when one sister insisted on being an irresponsible idiot.  Meg would thank her for this later.

Probably.

Lauren cast a speculative glance at the house.  The red brick edifice to old money was exactly the home she would expect for the man who was possibly the third most influential person in Washington, D.C.  Meg had always been attracted to power, so that was no surprise.  That was why she’d taken a job with Senator Harlan Creighton III in the first place.  The lecherous creep.  But marrying the elusive and infamous – not to mention much older – bachelor was a surprise even to Lauren’s jaded expectations.  She had already chewed through three fingernails on the plane ride here.

At the thought, Lauren clenched her hand into a fist, hiding the evidence of her nervous habit.  Being a good example took its toll.

A gust of wind snuck under her coat and up her skirt, reminding Lauren that she didn’t need to stand outside in the chill March air.  Might as well go inside where she could warm up, get into some comfortable clothes, and confront Meg.  Her sister would put up a fight, but Lauren knew the best solution would be a quick annulment.  Surely Meg would see that, too.

Briefcase in one hand and suitcase handle in the other, Lauren dragged the wheeled bag up the walk toward the front door, weaving a path around spots of melted snow that were trying to refreeze into ice.  She would have worn hiking boots and jeans instead of her prim black business suit, but Jeff had objected.  Her fiancÚ said she had to make a good impression on the Senator, and anyway the suit went with the expensive-looking red wool coat Meg had sent her.  Lauren didn’t know why she should care what the Senator thought when he wasn’t going to be a family member for longer than it took to get Meg to an attorney.  And the expensive coat was obviously some sort of bribe to buy Lauren’s approval.  Which Meg wasn’t going to get.  What she was going to get was a lecture on inappropriate behavior and old men who use power and money to buy everything they want, including women.

With her indignation nicely pumped up, Lauren set down both pieces of luggage and rang the front door bell, prepared to burst her sister’s bubble.

She never heard footsteps through the heavy door, but seconds later a deadbolt clicked and the door opened.  Prepared for Meg’s ecstatic grin, she blinked in confusion. She stood face to face with a frowning dark-haired man in worn jeans and a crewneck sweater.

This wasn’t the hired help, not in those clothes.  And he was far too young to be the Senator, though his demeanor said he belonged in this house.  Lauren’s first thought was that she had the wrong house.  But she couldn’t, because the limo driver had dropped her here, and he certainly knew where Senator Creighton lived. 

Which led to her second thought:  holy cow, why hadn’t Meg mentioned this guy?   He wasn’t the type who escaped notice, especially by someone as fond of good-looking men as her sister.  Lauren was certainly noticing.  She noticed the flashing blue eyes that gave away a sharp intelligence, the strong jaw that implied decisive action, and the athletic build…well, a woman could spend a long time appreciating a man with a body like that.  Even an engaged woman.

As she stared, the man’s expression gradually cleared, the attractive mouth curving into an ironic smile.  “Well, well, well,” he drawled in a voice as richly masculine as the rest of him. “Look who’s back.”  Before she could respond, his hand darted out, grabbed her sleeve, and yanked her inside.

“Hey!”  Startled, Lauren swatted at the hand that had already released her, and backed away until she felt the wall.  It occurred to her that she’d been right about the decisive action.  He had a commanding presence, too.  But she hadn’t expected a physical assault, and eyed the man warily.

Steely blue eyes assessed her in return.  He crossed his arms and planted his feet firmly in front of the door, as if she might try to bolt for the street.

“What did you forget?” he asked.  “The number for the off-shore account?”

Lauren tried to find an appropriate response, but between his confrontational attitude and his distracting, um, distraction, all that came out was, “Huh?”

His appraisal was more frank than hers had been, and downright disconcerting as his gaze traveled her body from head to toe.  She squirmed and tried to ignore the little shiver that crept across her shoulders.  “I guess I know why he fell for you,” he finally said.  It might have been flattering if he hadn’t sounded so disgusted.

“You do?”  Her brain was regaining traction.

“Don’t get your hopes up.  I’m not here to congratulate you on your marriage.”

“My marriage?”  She suddenly understood the problem.  “You think I’m Meg!”  She didn’t question why this drop-dead-gorgeous hunk would be angry with Meg.  Her sister went through men like candy, and he wouldn’t be the first guy she’d dropped like a day-old sucker.  Even if Meg’s judgment seemed to have slipped on this one.

One dark eyebrow lifted, a good look for him.  “Is this part of the game?  Who do you expect me to think you are?”

“I’m Meg’s twin sister, Lauren.”

He smiled, appearing genuinely amused.  An even better look.  “The mistaken identity routine – I thought you’d be smarter than that.  Sorry, it won’t work.  Gerald described you.  Red coat, Pendleton scarf, medium-length brown hair.”  He looked her up and down pointedly, causing a curious flutter in her stomach.  “That’s you.  I’ll admit the diamond ring’s a bit small, but that’s your problem.”

The last comment jolted her out of her fantasies.  His description of her might be right, but his attitude was all wrong.  It had always been irritating to be mistaken for her sister, even though they were identical twins.  But insulting the sensibly-priced ring Jeff had picked out was crossing the line.

She let her disdain show.   “Look, I don’t know who you are, but I told you, I’m not Meg.  I’m Lauren.  And whoever Gerald is, he’s wrong.”

The man actually laughed, and Lauren noted with irritation that he looked good doing it. “Gerald’s never wrong.”

If he hadn’t sounded so arrogant about it, she’d have been more sympathetic.  Maybe he thought she was easily intimidated.  She stepped toward him, right up to the creamy-beige sweater, stuck her face close to his and said in slow, distinct words, “I’m not Meg, and Gerald’s wrong.”

She was close enough to smell him, a clean, open-air smell, like pine trees and sunshine.  She could even feel the heat from his body.  Or maybe it was hers.  Someone was over-heating.

He held her gaze for several seconds, then yelled, “Gerald!” loud enough to make her flinch.

Footsteps pounded down a staircase and vibrated through the gleaming floorboards until a young man appeared at the other end of the spacious foyer.  He pushed wire-rimmed glasses back up his nose and put a hand over his tailored vest as he fought to catch his breath.  “What?”

The man lifted a hand as if he were presenting Lauren for an introduction.  “Well?  Is this her?”

“Megan!” the young man cried happily.

Lauren felt her frown deepen and she spoke to the new man in carefully enunciated words.  “I am not Meg.”

“Give it up, lady,” her accuser began, but Gerald interrupted.

“Wait, wait, Andrew,” he said, staring at Lauren intently while flapping a hand at his handsome but pushy friend.  Stepping closer, Gerald peered at her face, then made a slow circle around her.  Lauren stood still, shifting her eyes cautiously to follow him.  He might be small, but he had an air of authority and she knew his judgment was going to carry weight.

He finally spoke, using one arm to support his elbow as he tapped a thoughtful finger against his chin.  “She does look like Megan, but the hair is too long.”

“Too long?” Lauren blurted in disbelief.  “If anything, mine is shorter.  Do you even know Meg?  Her hair is halfway down her back!”

“She cut it two days ago,” Gerald informed her with a superior air, as if she should have known that.

Lauren hesitated.  She hadn’t actually seen her sister in several months.  “She did?”

He nodded, an arrogant sort of affirmation that said he knew many things about Meg that she obviously didn’t.  “Megan now has a very stylish feathered cut that just brushes the top of the collar, with a few wispy bangs.”  His fingers sketched invisible locks on his own forehead in demonstration.  “Plain, but striking, if you have the right sort of face.  Which, of course, our Meg does.  She –”

The man he’d called Andrew wasn’t listening to the rest of the fashion commentary.  “It could be a wig,” he suggested.  Before Lauren could duck, he reached out and tugged a lock of hair.

Her response was instinctive.  “Hey, back off!”  She kicked him in the shin.

“Ow!”  Bending his knee, he grabbed his bruised leg.  “Jesus, lady, I wasn’t attacking you.”

“You grabbed me,” she accused, then tacked on, “twice,” in case he thought she had overlooked the way he’d pulled her in the door.  In fact, the way he’d reached out and pulled her toward him had been quite memorable.

While they glared suspiciously at each other, Gerald mused, “No, that’s definitely not Megan.  She had her hair layered for fullness.  She would never let anyone style it that way, all straight and flat and...”  He stopped as Lauren shot an annoyed glance his way.  “So you must be Meg’s sister Lauren,” he concluded.

“Ha!  Finally!”  Lauren flung her hand toward Gerald in an exasperated gesture as she turned to the man who, gorgeous or not, had the audacity to imply that she was a liar.  “See?”

“Okay, okay.”  He tested the ability of his right leg to hold his weight.  It looked sturdy enough to Lauren, so he’d better not be expecting an apology.  “You’re not Meg.  I was wrong.  Not that it wasn’t a logical mistake,” he added in an undertone.

She crossed her arms and sniffed her dissatisfaction.

“Probably cracked my shin bone,” he muttered, taking a few limping steps to enhance his performance.

She watched, unmoved.  His leg looked perfectly fine to her.  “Who are you, anyway?”

“Drew Creighton,” he said absently, concentrating on his wounded leg.  The big baby.  With a slight sneer, he added, “Nice to meet you, Aunt Lauren.”

Time shuddered to a halt.  Lauren felt her mouth open stupidly.  “What?”

She had his attention again, and his slow grin was wicked with satisfaction.  “I’m Senator Creighton’s son.  Which makes me your sister’s new step-son.  And, it seems, your nephew.  Aren’t blended families fun?”