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Her Fake Billionaire by Tasha Fawkes, M. S. Parker (1)

Chapter 1

Karen

Crashing Daniel's wedding had been a bad idea. A very bad idea. A horrible mistake. One of the worst of my life. Chalk up another one for Karen. I stared at my reflection in the mirror of the ladies' room tucked into the corner of the empty fellowship hall connected by two long hallways on either side of the sanctuary. Above me, I heard the wedding bells ringing and a muffled cheer followed by a wave of clapping echoing through the walls and making their way into the small, three-stalled bathroom in which I hid. I had rushed in here, locked the door, and braced myself on the sink, half-sobbing, half-laughing with a crazy woman laugh over what I had just done. I stared at my mascara-smeared cheeks, my skin pale and pasty, a wild, disbelieving look in my widened eyes.

"What have you done?"

My reflection merely stared back at me with an expression of horror, eyes wide and mouth slack.

Oh God. Why had I done it? When the hell was I going to grow a backbone and quit trying to please my parents? How many times would I stoop to humiliating histrionics to please my parents? I was twenty-six freaking years old. Why had I done that? Why?

I didn't even want Daniel anymore. I didn't love him, not really. My parents said they did but they loved his money more. I groaned, the sound muffled and dull in the small space. I didn't think it would be so awful. It hadn’t seemed like it would be so horrible. After all, that's why that part was in the wedding liturgy, wasn't it? The words spoken by the pastor at the wedding had said them, hadn't he? His voice, booming over the guests in the church echoed in my head, taunting me.

"If any of you has reasons why these two should not be married, speak now or forever hold your peace."

Well. I had spoken out, but not even a quarter of the way through my practiced speech, I had already begun to lose steam. Four hundred guests, eight hundred pairs of eyes – plus those of the pastor, the bride and the groom, the bridesmaids and groomsmen, stared at me as if I'd lost my mind. But there I was, standing up in the middle of the pew halfway down the groom’s side of the church, stating why Daniel and Ashley shouldn't marry each other.

"Because you can't love her, not as much as I love you! Because… because you promised to marry me…!" And it just got worse from there. I babbled, stammered the lame excuses, sounding like the angry, bitter woman that everyone believed I was.

As I paused to take a breath in the middle of my ill-conceived and delivered rant, I could hear the silence. Actually hear it. It was that quiet. The look on Daniel's face as he turned and stared at me in open mouthed dismay would taunt me every day for the rest of my life. What made it even worse was the look of pity - pity! - on Ashley’s face as she too stared at me. An awkward cough from someone behind me had jolted me back to full awareness.

I saw the two groomsmen standing between the front pew and the steps leading up to the altar glanced at Daniel, then at each other before both, of like mind, headed in my direction.

At that very moment, I wished that the floor would open up and swallow me whole. My heart pounded, my ears rang, and I felt lightheaded. Disbelief at my own audacity swept through me. I felt the heat burning my face.

Total. Complete. Utter. Mortification. I felt my shoulders curling forward, my bottom lip trembling, my movements slow and jerky as, with as much dignity as I could muster, I mumbled an apology. Barely able to see through the tears swimming in my eyes, I made my way to the side aisle, men quickly standing to allow me to pass, women abruptly turning their knees to the side, no one wanting in any way to slow my escape. To make it worse, the two groomsmen took up their positions, one on either side of me, both gently clasping my upper arms to escort me from the nave. As if I need an escort. I shook off their hands and quickly made my way out. I managed to trap the sobs of humiliation in my throat as I quickly walked out of the nave and into the narthex, my legs feeling as weak as cooked noodles as I stumbled through the first door to my left, which eventually brought me down a hallway to the fellowship room and this horrid bathroom.

I stared again at my reflection in the mirror, frowning as I took a good look at my slender yet voluptuous figure, my hair that people said looked like corn silk, draping down past my shoulders, and my most unique feature, my dark blue eyes. I'm not hard to look at, and that's not conceit, but simple fact. So what did people see when they looked at me? I tried to see myself as someone else would, but I saw beneath the surface, beneath the veneer of supreme confidence and some would say, haughtiness.

I was well aware of how I came across to people: opinionated, snobby, self-absorbed and all that. In reality though, if someone just took the time to look beneath the surface, and I mean really look, they might realize that I was just… that I was just over-compensating, putting up a wall, and a rather obnoxious one at that, to keep people from seeing the real me. From knowing the real me. The scared and non-confident me.

I came across as confident, and yes, rather spoiled, but truth be known, I was afraid that I would never be good enough nor deserving enough to find true, genuine love and affection. Why should I? I'd never gotten it from my own parents. They spoiled me rotten, no doubt about it, but it was like they thought that the more material things they gave me, the better parents they became. I didn't want for anything, at least materialistically. I always got what I wanted, until recently. Or they wanted, rather. Until Daniel dumped me for Ashley.

Who was the real Karen Queen? The Karen who deep down believed I wasn’t good enough for anyone - not my parents, not my former fiancé, Daniel Stone, no one…

So why the hell had I even considered crashing Daniel's wedding? I didn't really have anything against his fiancée, Ashley. Not really, other than the fact that somehow, she had literally stolen Daniel from my grasp. But actually, it was my parents who had wanted me to marry Daniel. It would've been a sham really. I didn't really believe in love, or marriage or all that happily ever after bullshit. They had wanted me - no, encouraged me - to marry Daniel for his multimillion dollar fortune that had been generations in the making, just like my daddy wanted. And what would Daniel obtain from the marriage? Political connections.

You see, my family comes from old family money and prestigious ancestry. My parents never let a new acquaintance leave before in some way informing them that we descended from the Mayflower lineage. But that old family money had been squandered over the generations, lost through poor business decisions, living beyond means, and a generational desire to lead bigger and better lifestyles. The marriage to Daniel was supposed to alleviate all that. A merger marriage, Daniel's mother had called it in whispered tones to my mother. So the marriage would have pleased Daniel's mother, who had political aspirations for her son, while my parents would have received the benefits of financial connections that they so desperately needed.

And what about me? I supposed my feelings didn't enter into the mix. And who needed affection or emotion when both sides would've gotten what they wanted from the deal, except for Daniel and me. Oh, early on, I had fancied myself falling in love with Daniel, but then I realized that was just wishful thinking on my part. I wasn't sure that I even knew what love was, or what it felt like. To be honest, I still hadn't even come to terms with the fact that Daniel had been so attracted and enamored of a woman like Ashley. In my mind, he had settled. She wasn't rich, not in the least. She worked at his publishing company as an editor and newbie writer. In her world anyway, Ashley had grown up on the 'wrong side of the tracks'.

So, to put it simply, I had been dumped by Daniel Stone, a catch by any standards, a multimillionaire and CEO of a very prosperous import export business, and on the side, the owner of a small but lucrative publishing company. He was on his way.

And where did that leave me? Somewhat bitter, still under my parent's controlling influence, uncertain of what I wanted or needed, and at the moment, devoid of any specific direction or purpose in my life.

But the real me? I again shook my head at my reflection, then shrugged away my suddenly maudlin thoughts.

"Grow a pair."

I knew that this was just the beginning. The gossip would travel like fire once the wedding guests left the church. In a matter of hours, all of New York City would hear of my behavior. It might even make the papers. After all, who the hell would speak up at that moment, that moment that was just another part of the wedding ceremony? I’ve never heard anyone speak up at that moment, never. Leave it to me to be the first.

Why the hell was that phrase even still part of the wedding ceremony anyway?

I heard the sound of distant voices and straightened, my hands tightly clasping the porcelain sink as I slightly turned, keeping my eyes on the door. No one could come in. I'd locked it. Maybe I would just stay here until the church emptied. Maybe, somehow, I could make my way home without bumping into anybody I knew. Fine and dandy for one night, but what about tomorrow, the next day, and the day after that?

I needed a drink. I needed more than one.

Finally, the sound of revelers and well-wishers faded. I glanced at my slim ladies' Rolex watch and realized that over an hour had passed. Only an hour since my moment of abject disgrace? If felt like forever. It would be safe to venture outside now, wouldn't it? The newlyweds would be gone, as would the guests, headed for the reception on the roof of the Hilton Grand a few blocks away.

I took one last look in the mirror, turned on the water faucet, splashed water on my face, then grabbed several cheap paper towels out of the dispenser and wiped away the mascara that ran down my cheeks. I reapplied and blotted my lipstick, stared at my reflection again for several moments, once again shaking my head in disappointment and dismay. I heaved a sigh.

Working up my courage, I stepped to the door and pressed my ear against it, satisfied I didn't hear anything or anybody. Ever so slowly, I unlocked the latch and opened the door an inch, then two. Still, I heard nothing.

Taking a steadying breath and swallowing hard, I stepped out of the bathroom and glanced down the hallway, relieved to find it empty. Everything remained still around me. Thanking my lucky stars, I quickly moved down the hallway, pausing again in front of the door that led into the church narthex. Like the hallway, it was empty. I quickly rushed to the front door, pushed the metal bar, and emerged outside into the cool and growing dusk of evening.

I'd made it! I hurried down the stone steps toward the sidewalk, passed a short span of lawn and thought that all I had to do was manage to get to my car, parked some distance down the street, and then I would find the nearest bar and—

"Karen!"

I froze, dismayed as I glanced to my left and saw my parents standing under the shade of a tree near the steps that led up to the church. I stiffened as I saw their expressions. My father, Eric, glowered at me, while my mother, Melanie looked at me with such a sense of disappointment that I felt tears flood my eyes. I blinked them back.

"Karen, how could you!"

I stared. "What?" What did she mean? My mother was the one who put me up to this! And shame on me, I'd allowed it. But now was not the time for more self-recrimination. I stared at her, then at my dad, my eyes now wide with disbelief. "But you're the one that wanted me to—"

"I certainly didn't suggest that you make a fool of yourself in front of hundreds of people," Melanie Queen said, her tone heavy with disapproval. "What I suggested, darling, was that you arrange to have a private word with Daniel before the ceremony—"

"You did not suggest any such thing!" I denied. "You told me to crash the wedding, to—"

"That's enough, young lady," Eric Queen muttered. "I don't believe I've ever been so embarrassed in my life. What made you think that that was the appropriate moment to object? In the middle of the wedding ceremony?"

I was struck dumb, speechless, but only for a moment. They had both put me up to this, whether they wanted to admit it or not. This wasn't the first time. As if it wasn't bad enough when Daniel had learned the truth and called me out on faking my own suicide the first time he tried to back out of the engagement. That was my mom's idea too. And now, they were trying to distance themselves? After—

"Karen," Melanie said, her tone softer now, but only slightly. "There's a time and a place. When I suggested that you… that you attend Daniel's wedding, and maybe speak your mind about being jilted, I certainly didn't mean to imply…" Her voice trailed off as she looked up and down the street, slightly shaking her head.

She hadn't suggested I attend Daniel's wedding, she had so much as suggested that I crash at, which I had, much to my regret. Would I ever live it down? Doubtful. I can't believe that once again, I had allowed my emotions and my behavior to be quite so swayed by my parents.

"All you care about is losing out on the money!" I accused. My voice broke. "All you care about is the family's financial future. You don't care about me. And you don't care about my happiness. You don't—"

"Now that's just about enough, young lady," Eric interrupted.

I turned on him. "You're the one that pushed me into that engagement with Daniel, even though we all know that I didn't love him, and he didn't really love me, either." I swallowed, my stomach roiling, so angry I couldn't stop myself even if I tried. "When are you going to truly care about me? Me, your daughter, not bait to attract a rich man who can turn around the family's fortunes?"

"Now that's enough!" Eric said, taking a step forward.

I stepped back, gazing at both of them, a myriad of emotions swirling in my brain, not the least of which was pain. I turned away, my voice breaking as I spoke over my shoulder. "It's true and you know it. When are you going to see me? When are you going to love me, and seek the best for me?"

With that, I turned and stormed off, no longer heading in the direction of my car, but the other direction, my head pounding, my pulse racing, looking for the closest bar. I didn't care. I would drink myself into oblivion, try to ignore the pain, the shock, and the sense of humiliation that made me want to crawl into a little ball and disappear. At this moment, I wanted nothing more than to run back, crying to my mother, to feel her arms around me, soothing me, comforting me, telling me that everything was going to be all right.

But that was the stuff of fairy tales. I would never get that from my mother. Never.

I entered a bar, abruptly startled by the change in lighting, and paused as I peered into the semi darkness. It was a nice enough looking bar, not an actual dive, but not one of the nicer ones I'd been in. I ignored the stares of several men, a few sitting at the far side of the bar, another couple in a booth near the door. Straightening my shoulders and lifting my chin, my fake-it-until-you-make-it attitude, I made my way to the bar and ordered a Manhattan cocktail, emphasizing that I wanted the Carpano Antica vermouth.

All I wanted to do at the moment was to get drunk. I slid onto a bar stool, crossed my legs, and tried to ignore the throbbing headache that started right between my eyes as the bartender mixed my drink and slid it carefully over to me. I delicately held the stem of the cocktail glass, lifted it to my lips with a barely trembling hand, and downed half of it before I came up for air. I saw the bartender gazing at me, so I finished the drink, then passed the empty glass back to him.

"Keep ‘em coming."