Authors: Laura Moore
HE WEDDING WAS
over. It had been flawless and deeply moving. After the Mass, the exchange of vows, and the tender kiss Ward and Tess had shared, Tess had broken with ceremony in the most wonderful way: she and Ward had gone directly to Tess's brother, and Christopher, his aide, the rest of the Casari family, and the newlyweds had walked together out into the late-winter afternoon. There hadn't been a dry eye in the church.
As predicted, Anna and her staff at the trattoria had pulled out all the stops. The tables were decorated in a symphony of white hydrangeas, roses, peonies, and calla lilies. Ropes of ivy were woven among them. Candles in glass holders and in sconces attached to the walls cast a warm glow. The dinner itself was a feast for the senses, with bowls of sorbetto to cleanse the palate between courses. Wine had flowed freely. The dinner's triumphant conclusion was the wedding cake, a sponge cake soaked in liqueur, its layers filled with whipped cream and raspberry jam, each slice served with a tulle pouch containing candied almonds to symbolize the bitter and the sweet in life.
After the flutes had been filled with prosecco, Reid stood and gave his speech as best man.
Quinn knew her brother had worked hard on his speech, but the best part was when he veered away from his prepared words to talk about what had moved him most at the weddingânot the last few minutes of the ceremony, when Tess and Ward exchanged their first kiss as man and wife, but rather the moment when Tess had chosen to walk out of the church holding on to both her older brother's and Ward's hands.
“It was beautiful, because that's exactly what Tess is: beautiful inside and out.” With a smile Reid raised his glass to her.
“Evviva gli sposi!”
Around the rustic interior, cries of
“Evviva gli sposi!”
echoed Reid's. Laughter and applause erupted as Tess rose and kissed Reid, and Ward and he embraced heartily.
When the music began and Tess and Ward took to the floor, Ethan found Quinn. “Hey, how are you?”
She swallowed. “Honestly? A little teary and a lot choked up. It was wonderful, wasn't it? Every moment, beginning to end. And Reid's and Anna's speeches rocked.”
“So, a good wedding.”
“Yes. It feels strange to admit it,” she said with a shaky laugh. “But this was a very, very good wedding. Tess was radiant.”
“She was.” His fingers clasped hers and squeezed gently. “Have I mentioned that when I saw you enter the church, you took my breath away?”
Oh God, Ethan was tearing her heart to pieces with his tenderness. A part of her wanted to run to the table where she'd left her beaded clutch, dig out her phone, and start making frantic calls, canceling the plans she'd set in place. Ethan was everything she wanted. What if she lost him?
He raised his hand and rubbed her trembling lower lip with the pad of his thumb. “Come dance with me.”
For a second she stared up at him, drinking him in. She hadn't had a chance to comment on how suave and cosmopolitan he looked in his perfectly cut suit, crisp white shirt, and tie that matched his eyes. With her heart and mind in turmoil, words were difficult.
“Hey, why the sad face, sweetheart?”
She gave a slight shake of her head and pinned a smile to her lips. “Too many emotions, that's all.”
With her smile in place, she stepped into the circle of his arms, hating that she knew exactly how much time was left before they would have to leave. Hating, too, that Ethan would follow her with that sexy gleam in his eyes she loved so well. They would walk out of the restaurant with his hand resting protectively, possessively, on her lower back.
Of course the song the DJ played next was an Italian one.
She caught the words
and even with her limited Italian, Quinn understood their meaning.
Their gazes held for a second before he pulled her close, her head resting against his chest, the silk of her dress brushing his trouser legs. As one, they began to sway to the beat. His scentâclean notes of soap, citrus, and woodâfilled her, so familiar and yet so potent, just like Ethan himself. She closed her eyes and forgot everything but the sweetness of being in his arms, stealing these last few moments for herself.
The song was nearing its end when Ethan's feet came to an abrupt halt. Opening her eyes, she looked up. Tony Saunders was standing beside Ethan.
“May I cut in and claim a dance with this beautiful woman?” he asked with a smile.
Ethan raised a brow. “Only with the greatest reluctance, and because I happen to know you're a happily married man.” Angling his head, he whispered in Quinn's ear, “To be continued, sweetheart,” before releasing her and stepping back.
It was another slow dance, the DJ doubtless intending to please the older guests before the night grew wilder. Just as wellâQuinn wasn't up to busting a move on the rented dance floor. And she sensed that Ethan's father's request to dance stemmed from a desire to talk privately rather than boogie down.
Ethan had inherited his father's lean build and coloring. While Tony's eyes were a paler shade of gray, they shared the same piercing intelligence.
“How are you, Tony? It's so good to see you and Cheryl. Too many years have passed.”
“Yes, it's definitely been too long, but I would have recognized that smile of yours anywhere, even now that you have all your teeth.” His laughter joined hers and there was still a thread of it in his voice when he continued. “Right now I'm happier than I have been in many months. Ethan has healed better than I could have hoped.”
She didn't miss his meaning. “So you see it, too.”
“Since he landed his first photography assignment, Ethan's traveled the world and seen so much. But I think being embedded with these soldiers changed him. He was with them for such a long and intense period that they stopped being simply the subjects of his documentary. The friendships he made, the camaraderie they enjoyed, those things touched him. To have lost those very same friends in the IED attack when he was sparedâ¦well, you've glimpsed the scars he carries.”
“Yes, I have. Both inside and out.”
For a moment neither spoke as they followed the music's notes.
“You know what else I would have recognized anywhere, Quinn? Your generous spirit. You may not remember this, and for that matter Ethan might not, either, but you were always rooting for him when he was learning how to rope cattle. There's a memory I have of listening to you talk to him as he was leading you on that pony. You told him that the next time he roped a steer, he'd be as fast as your dad. Ethan came awfully close. I like to think it was because you believed in him that he did so well.” He paused a beat. “I've heard from Erin Miller a little of your plan.”
She raised her head to look into his kind eyes.
“I doubt my saying that Ethan's a man who follows his own path is news to you, Quinn. He can be stubborn as a mule. But I think that of all the people who love him, he's least likely to ignore you.”
“I'm afraid he won't forgive me.”
“It may be that first he needs to forgive himself.”
Ethan was holding three flutes of prosecco when Quinn and his dad stepped off the dance floor. After they'd clinked glasses and toasted again to Ward and Tess's happiness, Ethan said, “You haven't lost your moves, Dad.”
“Your mom likes to have date nights at the Jam Cellar. Speaking of which, it's time Cheryl and I do a little showing off.” Taking Quinn's hand, he raised it to his lips in a courtly gesture. “A pleasure, Quinn. Let's keep in touch.”
“He's smitten,” Ethan observed as his father moved off.
“Many people say I take after him.”
She could see it. Especially when Tony and Cheryl took to the dance floor. It was there in his athletic grace, the way he angled his head to gaze into his wife's eyes, the way he smiled.
She made a show of squinting. “You sure you weren't adopted?”
He laughed. “From my mother's labor stories, I think not. At the risk of spreading more doubt in your mind, now that you've seen my dad twirl my mom around, do you care to dance?”
Not enough time left. The car service would be arriving in fifteen minutes. “Actually, I need to use the ladies' room. And then I was thinking that maybe you and I could slip away.”
“Your duties are over?” When she nodded, he said, “By all means. I've been waiting to get you to myself.”
She found Anna talking to one of her waiters. The man smiled at Quinn and then with a nod slipped through the kitchen's swinging door, leaving them alone.
“Anna, do you have anything I can use as a blindfold? It's to surprise Ethan.”
Amazingly, Anna didn't question the request. “Lucky devil. He's totally got my stamp of approval, by the way. Hang on, I've got just the right thing.”
Quinn waited by an abandoned tableâthe dance floor was getting crowdedâand made sure to avoid eye contact with any of the guests so that no one would approach.
Anna returned a couple of minutes later. “Here you go.” She smiled as she pressed a folded silk square into Quinn's hand.
The black and white pattern was distinctive. Given its history, it was unforgettable. Quinn stared at it warily. “Anna, wait. Isn't this your grandmother's scarf?”
“Good for you for recognizing it. I brought it with me today in case Tess needed to âborrow' something, but your mom had already lent her those gorgeous pearl earrings.”
“Really, all I need is a dish towel orâ”
“Nope.” Shaking her head, Anna backed up a step. “What we have here is a clear case of karma. Have fun, Quinn. He's a keeper.”
The clock was ticking down and Quinn's feet were dragging as if made of lead. When she went to collect her clutch and slip the scarf inside, she spotted Tess and Ward leaving the dance floor, hand in hand.
She wound her way past the tables to intercept them. After giving them each a hug, she asked, “Are you off?” Their flight to the Turks and Caicos left early in the morning.
“Soon, after we make the rounds.”
“Well, I get to say it first, then. Have a wonderful time, Mr.Â and Mrs.Â Knowles.” She hugged Tess again. “I'm going to miss you. This tall dude, not so much.”
A hand slipped about Quinn's waist, and her breath caught in her throat as her heart flip-flopped. Unable to resist, she leaned against Ethan.
Ward nodded to him and stuck out a hand for Ethan to shake. “Take care of my little sister while I'm away. Take even better care of my horse.”
Quinn stuck her nose in the air. “Definitely will not miss you,” she said, but then spoiled the effect by launching herself at her brother and squeezing tight. “So happy for you, Ward,” she whispered.
“Love you, sis.”
Exchanging yet another hug and kiss with Tess, she let the newlyweds move off to speak to Tess's uncle Frederico, who was talking to Mr.Â and Mrs.Â Vecchio. “They've got it, I know they do,” she murmured to Ethan.
“The kind of love and commitment to see it throughâboth the bitter and the sweet that life will yield.”
His mouth brushed her temple. “I agree. Ready to blow this joint?”
She drew a breath. “Yes.”
can now say with authority that Italians not only know how to eat, they also know how to party,” Ethan said.
“Big-time,” Quinn managed to say with hardly a tremor.
They were seated in the back of the town car that Quinn had reserved. He was holding her hand as they talked, his thumb doing a slow sweep like an erotic metronome across the inside of her palm. She was only grateful that he'd chosen to caress that spot and not the inside of her wrist, where he wouldn't have been able to miss the hammering of her pulse.
She felt nauseous with nerves.
They'd reached the Brooklyn Bridge, and both fell silent, he presumably admiring the lights illuminating the bridge's suspension cables and the view of lower Manhattan, the newly completed Freedom Tower soaring above the other buildings. She beheld the same stunning view but could only think, with a growing despair,
I have to do it now, so he won't see where we're headed.
She withdrew her hand from his and opened her clutch. Her cold fingers touched silk. Pulling the folded square out, she spread it open on her lap and refolded it along the diagonal so the strip would fit around his head.
“What's that you've got?” he asked.
“A blindfold for you.” How could her voice be so even when her heart was jumping inside her chest like a jackrabbit?
“Are you kidding?” Laughter mingled with confusion in his question.
“I don't want you to see where I'm taking you until we're there. Please, Ethan?”
His gaze searched her face in the shadowed interior. She kept her teasing smile in place. Finally he shrugged. “Sure. Okay.” He turned his head so she could wrap the silk strip over his eyes. “Damn it, Quinn, I hope you're not taking me to a sex club. I don't intend to share you with anyone.”
The door to the Brendel Gallery was locked, but when the livery car pulled up to the address, Quinn saw a figure of a woman framed in the pale light of the first-floor window, watching, waiting.
Ethan was by her side. From his alert stance she knew he was listening to the street sounds to determine where they were.
She wanted the scarf off his head as much as he.
She wanted this over with.
The door swung open while her finger was still pressed to the buzzer. With a nod for the tall woman with raven-black hair and dramatic eyes, she guided Ethan inside.
“Are we here? Can I take this damned thing off now?” he asked, clearly striving to retain his good humorâfor her.
How quickly would her patience have evaporated had someone pulled this stunt on her? Even with him, the bitch in her would have emerged.
“Just a second,” she told him. “We're almost there.”
The reception area was empty, the lights dimmed. Dara Brendel pointed toward the room beyond and motioned to follow her.
Quinn's hand was on Ethan's elbow. “This way,” she said, guiding him into the white-walled space lined with photographs. Bringing him into the center of the room, she lowered her hand, and saw him stiffen with anticipation. Silently she moved behind him, unknotted the scarf, and stepped back, her eyes on him.
His reaction came quickly, even as he was turning, taking in and recognizing his workâQuinn knew there were at least fifty of his photographs displayed on the walls. “What the hell?” His head jerked in surprise when he saw Dara. “Dara? What's going on here?”
In answer, she rushed over to him and kissed his cheeks. “Oh, Ethan, it's so good to see you. I've been a mess, so freaked out about your injuries. So horribleâ”
“The pictures, Dara.”
“Your friend Quinn's idea. Of course I agreed.” She stepped back and cast Quinn a quick smile before hurrying from the room. For a moment, the tap of her heels against the poured-cement floor sounded. Then the gallery was silent.
“Are you going to explain what this is about, Quinn? Why are you showing me my photographs?”
She heard the tension in his voice. He was holding on to his temper but barely, and only because he hadn't yet fully grasped her motive for bringing him here.
“I'm not merely showing you your photographs. I'm showing you
Ethan. You can't deprive the world of your vision, of the things, beautiful and terrible, that you've seen. You have important, necessary work to do. You owe it to all the soldiers you knew in Afghanistan, and to the families and loved ones of those who died there. Your photographs and the book you make out of them will give every one of those people something no one else can, Ethan.”
While she spoke, his expression had shuttered, a default defense tactic. “I thought you understood why I can't finish the project, why I can't look at those photographs. I fucking helped get men
“No, you didn't. You were doing your job, just as they were doing theirs. Now you need to finish your job.”
“Sorry.” His tone was flat. “I have another one in California. Your parents gave me a contract. I signed it.”
She'd dreaded that it might come to this. “Consider yourself fired.”
“What?” The word came out with the force of someone on the receiving end of a blow.
“I'm one of your bosses. I'm firing you,” she said through numb lips. “Once you've finished your project, I'd of course be willing to rehire you.”
“So generous of you.” His sarcasm lashed her. “You may have overlooked one minor fact. Even if I intended to do as you ask, my equipment isâ”
“Upstairs, in Dara's apartment. I brought the boxes over myself when you were out getting your suits. Your luggage is up there, too. The concierge packed the rest of your things. You can stay with Dara or Erin. She should be here in a few minutes.”
His expression had grown stone cold. She'd watched it turn hard and remote as he listened to her and began to understand the scope of what she'd doneâall the calculations, planning, and deceptions that had brought them to this moment.
The words came out, escaping her in a doomed rush. “I love you.”
He looked at her. “God damn you, Quinn.”