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Rosie had never been to a cremation before. Even when her dad had died eight years before, there had been a funeral. Friendsand he had had a surprising number of them, bearing in mind he had spent the majority of his life blearily watching the sun rise and set from the bottom of a whisky glasshad come to pay their respects. Rosie had known few of them. Her own friends had tagged along to give her moral support. At the age of eighteen, she had needed it. From recollection, a distant cousin who had turned out to live a scant three blocks away, in an impoverished two-bedroomed bungalow on a council estate remarkably similar to theirs, had shown up and expressed regret that he hadn't been a more consistent family member.
For all his drunken ways and love of the bottle her father had been a jovial alcoholic and the number of people who had turned out on that brilliantly hot summer day had been testimony to that.
She had arrived late. It was bitterly cold and a series of small mishaps had made the journey far longer and more arduous than it should have been: Ice on the tracks. Rush hour on the tube. Signal problems as she had neared Earl's Court. It hadn't helped that she had purposefully decided to arrive late so that she could sneak into the back of the chapel and disappear before the service was finished. She had anticipated blending into the crowds.
Hovering now at the back, Rosie felt her heart begin to thud at the scant clutch of people who had shown up for the cremation of Amanda Di Capua, nee Amanda Wheeler. Having made the effort to attend the ceremony, she was now desperate to leave, but her unsteady legs had a will of their own. They propelled her forwards so that she neared the group at the front. She kept her eyes firmly fixed on the plump middle-aged man addressing them in a crisp, no-nonsense voice.
Of course, he would be there: Angelo Di Capua. Why kid herself that she hadn't seen him? The instant she had stepped into the chapel her eyes had swivelled in his direction. He was easy to spot, but then hadn't he always been? Three years was not nearly long enough for her to have buried the memory of just how tall, how striking, how impossibly good-looking he was. In a packed room, he had always had the ability to stand out. It was just the way he was built.
The horrible, sickening nervous tension that had begun to build over a week ago when she had received that phone call informing her of Amanda's deathwhen she had decided that she would attend the funeral because Mandy had, after all, once been her closest friendwas spiralling into an unstoppable wave of nausea.
She forced herself to breathe and drew her thick coat tighter around her.
She wished that she had brought Jack along with her but he had wanted no part of it. His bitterness towards their one-time friend ran even deeper than hers.
The service ended whilst she was still lost in her thoughts and she felt the blood drain away from her face as the group of mismatched people began to turn around. She found that she couldn't really recall any of the ceremony at all. The coffin had disappeared behind a curtain. In a few minutes, another batch of mourners would be arriving to replace them.
Angelo would surely come over to speak to her. Even he had some rudimentary politeness, and she forced herself to smile and walk forwards as though she was happy to mingle with the handful of people nearing her.
Angelo was among them. Beautiful, sexy Angelo. How must he be taking the death of his young wife? And had he even seen Rosie yet? She wondered whether there was still time to flee the scene but it was too late: a young woman was walking towards her, holding out her hand and introducing herself as Lizzy Valance.
"I phoned you. Remember?" She wiped her eyes with a handkerchief, which she stuffed into the top of the black dress that barely seemed equipped for the job of restricting some of the biggest breasts Rosie had ever seen in her life.
"Yes. Of course "
"I got your name from Mandy's address book. Plus you were logged in her mobile phone, but I would have got hold of you anyway, cos she always talked about you."
"Oh really?" Rosie's mouth twisted. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Angelo talking to the vicar while glancing surreptitiously at his watch. He hardly looked like a grieving husband, but then what did she know? She had seen neither him nor Amanda for a very long time, had no idea how life had treated them. She was dimly aware of Lizzy talking, reminiscing over the good times she and Mandy had had, although it seemed those times had become fewer and further between towards the end because of Mandy's drinking.
Rosie didn't want to know. She didn't want to hear about her ex-friend's trials and tribulations. The times of feeling sympathy for Amanda were long over.
"How did she die?" She interrupted Lizzy abruptly. "You just mentioned an accidentwas anyone else involved?" Whatever conversation Angelo had been having with the vicar was at an end and he was turning around towards her. Rosie focused on the small, curvy brunette with the massive bosoms and willed herself into a state of composure but she had to clasp her hands tightly together in front of her to stop them from shaking.
"Thankfully, no. But she had been drinking. It's awful. I told her over and over again that she should get some help, but she never wanted to admit that she had a problem, and she was such fun when you know."
"Excuse me. I really have to go."
"But we're all going back to the little pub by her house."
"I'm sorry." Rosie could sense Angelo walking towards her, breaking free of the twenty or so people around him. The urge to run away as fast as her feet could take her was so overpowering that she thought she might faint.
She shouldn't have come. Life was a tough business and there was no room for nostalgia. She, Jack and Amanda might have started their story together, but it certainly hadn't ended up that way, and she just should have let sleeping dogs lie.
She had known that she would see Angelo here. How could she have kidded herself that she wouldn't have been affected? She had given her heart to him, lock, stock and barrel, and he had taken it, broken it and walked off into the sunset with her best friend. Had she really imagined that she had managed to put all that behind her sufficiently to face him once again?
Lizzy had drifted away, leaving her standing on her own, a prime target for the man bearing down on her.
"Rosie Tom. Well, well, well, you're the last person I expected to see here. No, maybe I should rephrase thatyou're the last person welcome here."
Of course he had seen her. The second the brief service had concluded and he had half-turned, he had spotted Rosie and instantly he'd felt every muscle in his body, every pore and nerveending, spasm painfully with the combined weight of loathing and a certain heightened awareness that angered him almost as much as the sight of her did.
In the winter-infused chapel, she was radiantly striking. Tall and slender as a reed, with that peculiar shade of vibrant auburn hair that never failed to draw attention. She was pale and looked as though, with that hair colouring, she should have had freckles, but her skin was satin-smooth, creamy and unblemished and her eyes were the colour of sherry.
She had the glorious, other-worldly beauty of a woman designed to make men lose their minds. Angelo's mouth thinned with displeasure as he fought to stop the floodgates to the past that were opening up.
"This is a public place," Rosie said coolly. "You might not welcome me here, but I have every right to pay my respects."
"Don't make me laugh. You and Amanda parted as sworn enemies. How did you hear about her death anyway?"
She had had her hair cut. The last time he had seen her, it had been long, tumbling over her shoulders and down her back. Now it was still wavy, but cut in a graduating bob that fell to her shoulders. She looked as chic and eyecatching as she always had.
"I had a call from Lizzy, her friend."
"And you immediately thought that you would bury the hatchet and rush here to shed big crocodile tears. Do me a favour."
Rosie took a deep breath. She found that she couldn't quite look at him. Too many memories. Not that it mattered whether she actually looked at him or not. In her mind, his image was stamped with ruthless efficiency. The raven-black hair close-cropped; those fabulous eyes that were a peculiar shade of opaque green; the harsh, unforgiving angles of his face that heightened his sexual appeal rather than diminished it; a body that was lean and muscular and lightly bronzed.
"I wasn't going to shed any tears," she said quietly. "But we grew up together. And, now that I've come, I think it's time for me to leave. I just Whatever's happened, An-gelo, I'm sorry for your loss."
Angelo threw back his head and laughed. "You're sorry for my loss? We'd better step outside, Rosie, because if we don't I might just burst out laughing again, and somehow that doesn't seem appropriate for the inside of a chapel."
Before she could protest, her arm was in a vice-like grip and she was being frog-marched out, her breath coming and going in staccato bursts, her brain in complete shutdown mode.
"You're hurting me!"
"Really? Surprisingly, I don't honestly care." They were outside, standing to one side in the bitterly cold, gathering gloom. "Now, why the hell have you shown up here?"
"I told you. I know there's a lot of water under the bridge, but Amanda and I go back a long way. We were at primary school together. I felt sad about the way things turned out."
In the darkness, she couldn't make out the expression on his face. She didn't have to. His voice was as sharp as a shard of glass. This had been a big mistake.
"I'm not buying it. You're a gold-digger and, if you think that you can show up here and see if there are any nuggets for the taking, then you can think again."
"How dare you?"
"Let's not go down that road, Rosie. You and I both know exactly how I dare. I should have known better than to expect anything else from a semi-clad waitress I happened to meet at a cocktail bar once upon a time."
Rosie saw red. Her hand flew up and she felt the sting of flesh meeting flesh as it hit his cheek, sending his head back. Before she could back away, he was holding her wrist, pulling her towards him until she could breathe in that uniquely masculine scent she had always found so intoxicating.
"If I were you, I wouldn't try that again."
"I'm sorry," she muttered, appalled at her lack of self-control and even more appalled at the way her body was reacting to the proximity of his. She tried to wriggle free of the steel band of his fingers around her wrist and just as suddenly as he had caught her hand, he released it to step back.
"I just don't appreciate being called a gold-digger. I'm not here to see what I can get from you, Angelo. You must think I'm crazy, to imagine for a second that I would"
"Once an opportunist, always an opportunist."
"I've already told you that"
"So you have. It's a well-worn road, Rosie, and not one I'm about to travel down again." His mouth twisted in a cynical half-smile. Even after all this time, and with enough loathing and bitterness towards the woman standing in front of him to sink a ship, Angelo still couldn't tear his eyes away from her face. Any more than he could have controlled his reaction when he had felt her supple body pressed up close against his.
"Angelo, I haven't come here to argue with you."
"Fine." He shrugged in a gesture that was exotically foreign and typically sexy.
From the very first instant she had laid eyes on him, Rosie had been bowled over. She had been working in London for over a year, serving drinks in an expensive club for well-heeled members, most of whom, she had clocked very early on, were married men either having illicit affairs or arranging to. Not even on the rough council estate where she had been brought up had she had to fend off so many unwanted advances.
It wasn't exactly what she had dreamt of when she had left behind her life of no hope and limited chances. Growing up, she'd had big plans to work in one of the high-class restaurants, starting from the bottom and working her way up and into the catering side of it. She loved cooking. She was good at it. But the high-class restaurants had all knocked her back. Do you have any qualifications? Have you been to any cookery schools? No? Well sorry. Don't call us, we'll call you if anything comes up
So she had ended up dressed in skimpy clothing, serving over-priced drinks to overweight businessmen. Her incredible looks had assured her a generous income and what choice had she had? She'd needed the money. And then, one night, dead on her feet, she had looked across the room and there he wasAngelo Di Capua. Six-foot-four of pure, unadulterated alpha male surrounded by six well-dressed businessmen, wearing a bored expression on his face. Had she but known it at the time, that was the very instant her fate had been sealed.
She surfaced from memory lane to find Angelo staring down at her with eyes that were as cold as the wind whipping through the layers of her clothes.
"You want to be civil?" Angelo shot her a curling smile that sent shivers racing up and down her spine. "Let's play that game, then. What have you been up to for the past few years? Still trawling cocktail bars in search of wealthy men?"
"I never did that."
"So many things we disagree on." Yet it hadn't always been that way. Before everything had collapsed, he had considered her to be the best thing ever to have happened to him. Just thinking about it now made something deep inside him twist with pain.