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If Damien Stone had been a woman, he'd have become a bit of a standing joke by now. Three times a bridesmaid was unlucky, apparently. Double that number would have knelled the bells of matrimonial doom. Clucking aunts would have reminded him of that at every opportunity, told him to get a move on before he was left on the shelf.
But no one had ever made the mistake of thinking Damien was a girl, and he hadn't been a bridesmaid once, thankfully. Nobody seemed to mind he'd been a best man so many times. If anything, other men clapped him on the back and congratulated him for such an accomplishment. No, Damien didn't think there was anything unlucky about it.
It meant his friends respected him, thought him a stalwart ally. It took a certain kind of person to stand beside a friend at the front of a church, as that man prepared to utter the most lifealtering words of his existence. Someone who was reliable, who knew how to get things done. Someone with a little dignity. He supposed he should be flattered.
But more than that, he was thankfulbecause he was going to need to draw on all of that experience if he was going to survive this day.
Six times now he'd worn a buttonhole as he stood beside a good friend. Six times he'd stood at the front of a pretty stone church in the hush just before the bride made her entrance.
But never before had his palms been so sweaty or his heart run around inside his ribcage like a wind-up toy gone mad.
However, never before had the woman of his dreams been standing at the doors of the church, about to make her way down the aisle towards him.
He turned and looked at Luke, his best friend, and Luke gave him a fortifying smile and clapped him on the back. Damien swallowed. He was glad it was Luke standing here beside him. He didn't think he could have made it through the day if it had been anyone else.
He tried to smile, but a nerve in his cheek made his lip twitch. Humour flashed in Luke's eyes and Damien thought his friend was about to make one of his usual wry remarks, but just at that moment there was a ripple of movement behind them. Row upon row of heads turned towards the back of the church, like some nuptial Mexican wave, and the organ began to play.
He couldn't look back at first, had to prepare himself for what he was about to see. This was it. No turning back after this. The future would be set in stone.
It was only when Luke nudged him in the ribs that he sucked in a stealthy breath through his nostrils then looked over his shoulder.
She was perfect.
He didn't really look at the dress. Just her.
But then Sara Mortimer always had been pretty wonderful in his eyes. He'd thought so from the day he'd seen her across the room at a crowded bar, laughing with Luke, and had felt as if he'd been hit by a truck. Side on.
After today the rest of the world would be left in no doubt about her perfection, either. The white satin dress was pure class, and her soft blonde hair had been caught up in a twist of some kind behind her head. She wore a veil and a simple tiara and held a bunch of lilies, tied together with a thick white ribbon.
Sara was poised and elegant, intelligent, kind. He couldn't find one fault with herapart from her taste in men, maybe.
He let go of the breath he'd been holding and grabbed another while he had the chance.
It seemed to take ages for the bridesmaids to waft past in a cloud of dull gold. Well, most of them wafted. The maid of honour had too much of a wiggle in her step to do anything as graceful as waft.
It wasn't just Sara's taste in men that let her down, then. Damien had never really understood why Sara was friends with Zoe. Another one of the bride's glowing qualities to add to his list, he supposed.
Where Sara was slender and cool and sophisticated, Zoe was too everything. Not in the same classand that didn't refer to her parents' wage brackets. Damien wasn't a snob. No, Zoe was too loud, too uninhibited. Too busting out of her bodice, if his eyes served him right. Was it even legal to have that much cleavage in a bridesmaid's dress?
For some bizarre reason, just her presence jarred his senses and irritated him. Or was that just the eye-watering perfume? She caught him looking at her and her expression took on a saucy glimmer. She knew she got under his skin. Couldn't she have left it alone for just one day? And today of all days? He was sure she did whatever she did on purpose, just to goad him.
And now Sara was almost at the front and he'd been distracted, which only served to exasperate him further.
Thankfully, at that moment the last of the bridesmaids peeled away, leaving him with a vision of only Sara. He forgot instantly about bulging necklines, saucy glimmers and ginger curls popping out of their grips. In comparison, Sara was like a cool stream on a hot summer's day. As she approached, she even gave him the smallest and softest of smiles. Sadly, he didn't manage to return it; that nerve in his cheek had gone into overdrive. For a moment, though, their eyes connected and something flashed between them. Something bittersweet he was sure would haunt him on restless nights for years to come.
Because then Sara's gaze was on the man standing next to him, and her father placed her hand in Luke's and stepped away. Now it was Damien's turn to be forgotten, to be totally pushed out of someone else's mind by another.
The bride and groom stepped forward, eagerly looking at the minister. All eyes were on Sara and Luke, the happy couple, but all Damien could do was close his lids for a second, let his fingers close around the ring in his pocket.
Luke's ring. For Sara.
No, if it had been anyone else, he couldn't have made it through today. He couldn't have stood there and watched Sara marry anyone but Luke. He equally couldn't have refused when Luke had asked him to be his best man. Luke would have wanted to know why, and if there was one thing Damien was determined about it was that neither Luke nor Sarah would ever find out about his feelings for her, how they'd grown in strength, side by side with Luke's, as he'd fallen for his best friend's girlfriend.
He'd hidden those feelings successfully for the last eighteen months and he wasn't going to slip up now. No, Luke would never know. Even if it killed Damien to make sure of that.
Today of all days, Damien Stone needed to be the perfect best man.
As the congregation mumbled their way through 'Love Divine, All Loves Excelling', almost completely drowned out by the rabidly enthusiastic organist, Sara's cousin Tilly poked Zoe in the ribs with the stalky end of her bouquet.
Okay, maybe 'poked in the ribs' was a bit of an exaggeration. There was a bit too much squish where floristry met torso to accurately describe it as contact with bone. Zoe tried to ignore her, but Tilly leaned forward and whispered behind her lilies.
'Best man's hot,' she said, sneaking a glance across the aisle. 'Lucky you. As chief bridesmaid, you get first dibs.'
Zoe couldn't help glancing across at the man in question. How did he do that? Manage to look all grave and heartfelt as he sang, while other people just buried their noses behind their Order of Service and hit a few right notes in the chorus?
'If you like that sort of thing,' she mumbled back to Tilly.
If you liked tall, dark and handsome. If you liked long legs and good bone structure and that irritating sense of aloofness. Even now, with his mouth wide open, singing one of the long notes of the hymn, he looked good. Untouchable. And Zoe had never been interested in anything that was too good to be touched, one step removed from life, as if it was something behind glass on display in a museum. Life was for getting your hands dirty, for jumping in one hundred per cent.
'What?' hissed Tilly, forgetting to shield her mouth with her bouquet. She earned herself a stern look from the mother of the bride. A woman who managed to scare the pants off the normally irrepressible Zoe St James. If, as the old wives' tale threatened, Sara was going to age into a gorgon like that, she'd have to find herself a new best friend once she hit forty.
'Are you blind?' Tilly added, ignoring her aunt's stare. Obviously the black sheep of the Mortimer familywhich, funnily enough, put her a few notches higher in Zoe's opinion.
Zoe just rolled her eyes and shook her head ever so slightly. It was still enough motion, however, to send yet another curly tendril tumbling over her face. She was about to blow it out of her way when she caught the Gorgon's eye, and resorted to delicately tucking it behind her ear while the other woman's eyes narrowed.
She looked away, and her gaze was drawn inexplicably to the subject of their discussion.
No, not blind. Just not stupid.
She knew he couldn't stand the sight of her. Oh, he tried to hide it, and he actually did it rather well, but she'd been on the receiving end of similar treatment ever since she'd been old enough to open her mouth to recognise disapproval when she saw it.
Disdain. That was the word.
And that disdainful glimmer in Mr Perfect's eye when he glanced her way just made her want to deliberately provoke him. And Zoe wasn't one for resisting an urge whenever it hit. Life was too short. Just once she'd like to see him lose his cool, to see fire in those pale blue eyes instead of ice. In the past she'd got close a few times, but close wasn't good enough. What Zoe really wanted to see was the whole firework display.
Not today, unfortunately. She wouldn't do anything to upset Sara, and the poor deluded girl thought Mr Damien Stone was wonderful. Not as wonderful as the lovely Luke, obviously, but Zoe reckoned he came a close second in Sara's eyes. She turned to Tilly and made a silent gagging motion, to show just what she thought of her fellow bridesmaid's suggestion.
Whoops! The Gorgon was staring at them openly now, her mouth thinning. And Zoe really didn't want to see tiny snakes popping up all over her head and burrowing their way up through the stiff and elaborate dove-grey hat. She turned to face the happy couple again, clutched her bouquet and started singing sweetly.
Mr Perfect must've caught the sudden motion out of the corner of his eye, because his head turned slightly and he glanced across. Zoe ignored him. Ignored the flicker she saw in those eyes before it was quickly hidden again. She put on her best angelic face and sang loudly, all the while warmed by the imagination that she could hear Damien Stone's blood hissing faintly as it boiled in his veins.
Oh, how she wanted to see that firework display.
But not tonight, Zoe. Keep a lid on it. Sara and Luke had decided they didn't want fireworks at the end of the reception, saying that everyone did it now and it seemed a bit of a cliche, so she guessed they wouldn't welcome a similar display of the interpersonal kind. Damien Stone's fuse would have to go unlitfor now.
But that didn't mean she couldn't mess with his head a little, did it?