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By Joanna Wayne
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGloria Dalton's voice quavered above the crinkly sounds of squashed satin as she gave Nicole a warm hug. "This is a magnificent reception, and you are such a beautiful bride."
"Thank you, Aunt Gloria."
"I can practically see Gerald now, strutting around like a peacock pointing out to everyone in heaven that you're his daughter. And Malcomb is such a nice man. Not only successful, but thoughtful and considerate. That's a rarity these days."
"I agree," Janice Dalton said, walking up to join her mother and Nicole. "The last available, charming, rich bachelor in Shreveport and you got to him first. Just my luck."
Nicole linked her arm with her cousin's. "As if you were ready to settle down with just one man."
"Hey, it could happen."
Gloria parked her hands on her hips. "I should live so long."
"Spoken like a mother," Janice said, smiling. The smile faded the second her mother walked away. Then Janice studied Nicole's face closely. "What's up with you?"
She continued to scrutinize her cousin. "So where's that lovin' glow brides are supposed to emit?"
Nicole stood in the middle of the posh University Club, forced a half smile to her face and wished Janice couldn't always see right through her. It came from growing up together, being best friends as well as cousins, though the two were different in a lot more ways than they were alike. "What could possibly be wrong?" she asked.
"I don't know. Maybe you're concerned because you just vowed to sleep with the same man for the rest of your life. That would frighten the hell out of me."
"I promised to share my life with a man who loves me."
"That's what I said. But I must admit, if you're going to tie the forever knot, the gorgeous and distinguished Dr. Malcomb Lancaster is the way to go."
"I'm glad you approve."
"I do. He's a keeper. And he has no living family - which means you have no in-laws. How lucky can you get?"
"I'm certain if Malcomb's parents were alive, they'd be perfect dears, just as he is."
"So back to my original question. What's eating you?"
"You just don't give up, do you?"
"Only when it's to my advantage."
Nicole sighed and glanced around to make certain no one was listening to the conversation before she answered. "I know it sounds ridiculous, but I have this crazy feeling that if everything seems this right, something bad must be about to happen."
Janice put an arm around her shoulder. "Nicole, you're crazy. Just concentrate on the honeymoon and screwing your new husband's brains out on some fabulous Greek island."
"That I can handle." Nicole started to say more, then scanned the room in hopes of spotting Malcomb. She could use one of his reassuring smiles about now.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the clatter of breaking glass and the sound of her brother's grating distress signal.
"Uh-oh. Uh-oh. Uh-oh," Ronnie was repeating, over and over.
The music kept playing, but even the dancers on the floor stopped to stare. Grabbing handfuls of satin, Nicole held her gown up and rushed toward her autistic brother. "Please move back and don't touch him," she said, keeping her voice as calm as she could manage.
The crowd separated enough so that she could see the problem. The top tier of the elaborate wedding cake had toppled to the table, landing upside down, and the crystal toasting flutes lay in shattered shards on the polished floor of the ballroom.
Apparently Ronnie had bumped into the table or else become fascinated by the cake and tried to touch it or pick it up. Though twenty-one on his last birthday, he was short and scrawny, looking more like an awkward teenager than a man. His social functioning skills were almost nonexistent, and she was never sure what he might do in a stressful situation. He was rocking back and forth now, thick locks of his brown hair falling into his face.
Someone stepped on the back of her gown. She turned to rescue it, but by the time she did, Malcomb had reached Ronnie. She breathed a sigh of relief, then felt her blood run cold at the sound of Malcomb's strident voice.
"Look what you did to the cake, Ronnie." He clutched the back of Ronnie's shirt collar and held his face over the splattered tier of cake and the huge gobs of white icing and smashed sugar roses that were smeared across the pink linen tablecloth.
Ronnie flailed his arms like a crazed boxer as he tried to break from Malcomb's grasp. Nicole forced her way through the stunned guests as myriad pent-up emotions exploded inside her. "Take your hands off of my brother," she ordered, her voice shaky but her stance firm. "Let me handle this."
Malcomb's gaze met hers. His dark eyes blazed, frigid and accusing. For a second, she thought he was going to strike her, and in that instant something strange and incomprehensible seemed to rip though her.
"Let's just take it easy. This was a little accident. No harm done," her uncle John said soothingly.
Nicole dragged in a quick, jagged breath as Janice's father stepped forward and attempted to calm the situation. The room grew silent except for the rhythmic clunk and splat of Ronnie's shoes as he rocked back and forth, his palms spread over his ears.
The situation was surreal, like a nightmare that had sprung to life and taken total control. Then, just as suddenly as it had erupted, the nightmare began to subside. The muscles in Malcomb's face and neck relaxed and his lips split into a tentative smile.
"You're right, John. No harm done." He touched a reassuring hand to Ronnie's shoulder. "Just a cake, Ronnie. Not important at all. I'm sorry I got upset with you."
Ronnie kept his hands over his ears, but his rocking slowed as the tension that had spiked the air began to abate.
Malcomb stepped toward Nicole, took her shaking hands in his and met her gaze. The blind fury that had darkened his pupils a few seconds ago had gone, but a stony glaze remained, and she felt as if she were looking into the eyes of a stranger.
"I'm sorry, Nicole. I just wanted our wedding day to be as perfect as my love for you. I guess I lost it there for a few seconds. Can you forgive me?"
The mood of the guests changed, the sympathy shifting to Malcomb in palpable waves. Everyone was ready to forgive and forget. She should be, too, only something chilling and hard seemed to be choking her.
"I need some time alone with Ronnie," she whispered, her voice husky and strained.
"I understand. But I'm here for you, darling, if you need me."
Excerpted from Attempted Matrimony by Joanna Wayne Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.