Authors: Sara Craven
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #General
Flora’s lips parted in a soundless gasp. She stared up at Marco. “You—can’t be serious.”
“Why not?” He shrugged. “I have to return there, and you need to escape. It solves several problems.”
And creates a hundred others.
She thought it, but did not say it. She said slowly, “Marco—why do you want me with you?”
He put his lips to the agitated pulse in her throat. “You have a short memory,
Do you really not know?”
They’re tall, dark—and ready to marry!
Don’t delay. Order the next story
in this great new miniseries…
Marriage in Peril
me something,’ said Hester. ‘Are you absolutely certain you want to get married?’
Flora Graham, whose thoughts had drifted to the ongoing knotty problem of informing those concerned that she didn’t want her spoiled and brattish nephew as a pageboy, hurriedly snapped back to the immediate present, the crowded and cheerful restaurant, and her best friend and bridesmaid eyeing her with concern across the table.
‘Of course I do.’ She frowned slightly. ‘Chris and I are perfect for each other; you know that. I couldn’t be happier.’
‘You don’t look particularly happy,’ Hester said judicially, refilling their coffee cups.
Flora rolled her eyes in mock despair. ‘You wait until it’s your turn, and you find yourself in the middle of a three-ring circus with no time off for good behaviour. My mother must have been having one of her deaf days when I said I wanted a small quiet wedding.’
‘Then why don’t you have one?’ Hester met her astonished look steadily. ‘Why don’t you ask Chris to get a special licence, and slope off somewhere and do the business? I’ll happily be one witness, and maybe Chris’s best man would be the other.’
Flora went on staring at her. ‘Because we can’t. We’re committed to all these arrangements—all that expense. We’d be letting so many people down. It’s too late.’
‘Honey, it’s never too late.’ Hester’s voice was persuasive. ‘And I’m sure most people would understand.’
Flora gave a wry shake of the head. ‘Not my mother,’ she said.
And, my God, certainly not Chris’s.
‘Anyway, don’t you want to do your bridesmaid thing? I’ve arranged for you to catch my bouquet afterwards.’
‘Having observed you closely since the engagement party, I think I’ll pass,’ Hester said drily. ‘I’m not ready for a nervous breakdown.’ She paused. ‘Talking of engagements, I see you’re not wearing your ring. Would that be a Freudian slip?’
‘No, I damaged a claw in the setting last week, and it’s being repaired.’ Flora’s frown deepened. ‘What is this, Hes? You’re beginning to sound as if you don’t like Chris.’
‘That’s not true,’ her friend said slowly. ‘But, even if you hate me for ever, I have to tell you I think you could do better.’
Flora gasped. ‘You don’t mean that. I
Chris, in case you hadn’t noticed.’
Hester was silent for a moment. ‘Flo, in all the years we’ve known each other I’ve seen you with various men, but never in a serious relationship with any of them. Although that’s fine,’ she added hastily. ‘You’ve never slept around, and I admire you for sticking to your principles.
I always thought that when you fell, you’d fall hard. Passion to die for—heaven, hell and heartbreak—the works. And I don’t see much sign of that with you and Chris.’
‘I’m glad to hear it,’ Flora said calmly. ‘It sounds very uncomfortable.’
‘But it should be uncomfortable,’ Hester returned implacably. ‘Love isn’t some cosy old coat that you slip on because it’s less trouble than shopping for a new one.’
‘But that isn’t how I feel at all,’ Flora protested. ‘I— I’m crazy about him.’
‘Really?’ Hester was inexorable. ‘In that case, why aren’t you living together?’
‘The flat needs work—decoration. We want it to be perfect. After all, it’s going to be my showcase, and it’s taking longer than we thought.’ Flora realised with exasperation how feeble that sounded.
‘That,’ said Hester, ‘hardly suggests that you can’t keep your hands off each other. And I suppose the cost of refurbishment prevents you sneaking off together for a romantic weekend in the country?’
‘When we’re married,’ Flora said defiantly, ‘every weekend will be romantic.’
‘Be honest, now.’ Hester leaned forward. ‘If Chris came to you tomorrow and said he wanted to call it off, would it be the end of your world?’
‘Yes.’ Flora lifted her chin. ‘Yes, it would.’ She paused. ‘Perhaps Chris and I aren’t the most demonstrative couple in the world, but who says you have to wear your heart on your sleeve?’
‘Sometimes,’ Hester said gently, ‘you simply can’t help yourself.’ She drank the rest of her coffee and reached for her bag, and the bill. ‘However, if that’s how you really feel, and you’re sure about it, there’s no more to be said.’ She pushed back her chair. ‘On the other hand, if you ever have doubts about what you’re doing, I’ll be around to pick up the pieces. Sal the demon flatmate is off to Brussels for three months, so I’ve a spare room again.’
‘It’s a sweet offer,’ Flora said gently. ‘And I don’t hate you for making it, even though it’s not necessary.’ She gave Hester an affectionate grin. ‘I thought it was supposed to be the bride who got the pre-wedding jitters, not the bridesmaid.’
‘I’d be happier if you were jittery,’ Hester retorted. ‘You act as though you’re resigned to your fate. And there’s no need to be. You’re gorgeous and the world is full of attractive men waiting to be attracted.’ She dropped a swift kiss on Flora’s hair as she went past. ‘And, if you don’t believe me, check out the guy over there at the corner table,’ she added in sepulchral tones. ‘He’s had his eyes on you all through lunch.’ And, with a conspiratorial wink, she was gone.
Flora ought to have left too. Instead she found she was reaching for the cafetière and refilling her cup again. Maybe she should include sugar this time, she thought, biting her lip. Wasn’t that one of the treatments for shock?
Because she couldn’t pretend that Hester’s blunt remarks had just slid off her consciousness like water off a duck’s back.
Stunned, she thought wryly, is the appropriate word.
And all from an innocuous girlie lunch to make a final decision between old rose and delphinium-blue for Hester’s dress.
And it wasn’t the drink talking either.
In vino veritas
hardly applied to a glass of Chardonnay apiece and a litre of mineral water.
No, it was clear this had been brewing for some time, and, with a month to go before the wedding, Hester had decided it was time to speak her mind.
But I really wish she hadn’t, Flora thought, biting her lip. I was perfectly content when I sat down at this table. And I’ve enough on my mind without doing a detailed analysis of my feelings for Chris, and seeing how they measure on some emotional Richter scale I never knew existed.
I love Chris, and I know we’re going to have a good marriage—one that will last, too. And surely that matters far more than—sexual fireworks.
She felt her mind edging gently away from that particular subject, and paused quite deliberately. Because that would also be all right once they were married, she reassured herself, and that previous fiasco would be entirely forgotten.
She glanced at her watch and rose. Time was pressing, and she would have to take a cab to her next appointment.
On her way out of the restaurant she remembered Hester’s parting remarks and risked a swift sideways glance at the table in question. Only to find herself looking straight into the eyes of its occupant.
He was very dark, she registered as she looked away, her face warming with embarrassment, with curling hair worn longer than she approved of. He was also startlingly attractive, in an olive-skinned Mediterranean way. The image of an elegant high-bridged nose, sculptured cheekbones, a firm chin with a cleft in it, and a mobile mouth that quirked sensuously under her regard accompanied her out of the restaurant and into the sunlit street beyond.
My God, she realised, half-amused, half-concerned. I could practically draw him from memory.
And, damn you, Hes. That was something else I didn’t need.
She stepped to the edge of the kerb and looked down the street for an approaching taxi. But there wasn’t one in sight, so she started to walk in the required direction, pausing every now and then to look back.
She didn’t even see her assailant coming. The first hint of danger was a hand in her back, pushing her violently, and a wrench at the strap of her bag that nearly dragged it from her grasp.
Flora felt herself go sprawling, the bag pinned underneath her, as she filled her lungs and screamed for help. On the ground, she covered her head with her hands, terrified that she was going to be punched or kicked.
Then she heard men’s voices shouting, a squeal of brakes, and the sound of running feet.
Flora stayed still, exactly where she was, the breath sobbing in her throat.
She could hear someone speaking to her in husky, faintly accented English.
‘Are you hurt,
? Shall I call an ambulance for you? Can you speak?’
‘She may not talk, mate, but she can yell. Nearly took me eardrums out,’ said a deeper, gruffer voice. ‘Let’s see if we can get her to her feet.’
‘It’s all right.’ Flora raised her head dazedly and looked around her. ‘I can manage.’
‘I don’t think so.’ The first voice again. ‘I believe you must accept a little help,
Flora turned unwillingly in the speaker’s direction, to have all her worst fears confirmed.
Seen at close range—and he was kneeling beside her so he could hardly have been any closer—the man from the restaurant was even more devastating. His mouth was set grimly now, but she could imagine how it would soften. And his eyes, she had leisure to note, were green, with tiny gold flecks. A whisper of some expensive male cologne reached her, and, suddenly keen to get out of range of its evocative scent, Flora hauled herself up on to her knees.
‘Ouch.’ Major mistake, she thought, wincing. She’d ripped her tights and grazed her legs when she fell. Her elbows and palms were sore too.
‘Come on, ducks.’ It was Voice Two. A burly arm went round her, lifting her bodily to her feet. ‘Why don’t I pop you in the cab and take you to the nearest casualty department, eh?’
‘Cab?’ Flora repeated. ‘I—I wanted a cab.’
‘Well, I could see that, and I was just pulling over when that bastard jumped you. Then this other gentleman came flying up, and the mugger legged it.’
‘Oh.’ Flora made herself look at the ‘other gentleman’, who stood, smiling faintly, those astonishing eyes trailing over her in a cool and disturbingly thorough assessment. ‘Well—thank you.’
He inclined his head gravely. ‘Your bag is safe? And he took nothing else?’
‘He didn’t really get the chance.’ She gave him a brief, formal smile, then turned to the cabbie. ‘I need to go to Belvedere Row. I’m supposed to be meeting someone there and I’m going to be late.’
‘I hardly think you can keep your appointment like that,’ her rescuer intervened firmly. ‘At the least you require a clothes brush, and your cuts should also be attended to.’
Before she could protest Flora found herself manoeuvred into the back of the cab, with the stranger taking the seat beside her.
‘The Mayfair Tower Hotel, please,’ he directed the driver.
‘I can’t go there.’ Flora shot bolt upright. ‘My appointment’s in the other direction.’
‘And when you are clean and tidy, another cab will take you there.’ An autocratic note could be detected in the level tone. ‘It is a business meeting? Then it is simple. You call on your cellphone and explain why you are delayed.’
‘So what’s it to be, love?’ the driver demanded through the partition. ‘The Mayfair Tower?’
Flora hesitated. ‘Yes—I suppose.’
‘A wise decision,’ her companion applauded smoothly.
She sent him a steely glance. ‘Do you enjoy arranging other people’s lives?’
His answering smile warmed into a grin. ‘Only those that I have saved,’ he drawled.
Deep within her an odd tingle stirred uneasily. She tried to withdraw unobtrusively, further into her corner of the taxi.
‘Isn’t that rather an exaggeration?’
He shrugged powerful shoulders that the elegant lines of his charcoal suit accentuated rather than diminished. The top button of his pale grey silk shirt was undone, Flora noticed, and the knot of his ruby tie loosened. For the rest of him, he was about six feet tall, lean and muscular, with legs that seemed to go on for ever.
He wasn’t merely attractive, she acknowledged unwillingly. He was seriously glamorous.
‘Then let’s say I spared you the inconvenience of losing your credit cards and money. To many people, that would be life and death.’
She smiled constrainedly. ‘And my engagement ring is at the jeweller’s, so really I’ve got off lightly.’
That was clumsily done, she apostrophised herself silently, and saw by his sardonic smile that he thought so too.
She hurried into speech again. ‘Why the Mayfair Tower?’
‘I happen to be staying there.’
There was a silence, then she said, ‘Then you must let me drop you off before I take this cab back to my flat, to clean up and change.’
‘You are afraid I shall make unwelcome advances to you?’ His brows lifted. ‘Allow me to reassure you. I never seduce maidens in distress—unless, of course, they insist.’
Her mouth tightened. ‘I dare say you think this is very amusing…’
‘On the contrary,
, I take the whole situation with the utmost seriousness.’ For a moment, there was an odd note in his voice.
Then he added with cool courtesy, ‘You are trying to shrug off what has happened, but you have had a severe shock and that will bring its own reaction. I do not think you should be alone.’
‘You’re very kind,’ Flora said tautly. ‘But I really can’t go with you. You must see that.’
‘I seem to be singularly blind this afternoon.’ He took a slim wallet from an inside pocket of his jacket and extracted a card. ‘Perhaps a formal introduction may convince you of my respectability.’
Flora accepted the card and studied it dubiously. ‘Marco Valante,’ she read. And beneath it ‘Altimazza Inc’. She glanced up. ‘The pharmaceutical company?’
‘You have heard of us?’ His brows lifted.
‘Of course.’ She swallowed. ‘You’re incredibly successful. Whenever your shares are offered my fiancé recommends them to his clients.’
‘He is a broker, perhaps?’ he inquired politely.
‘An independent financial adviser.’