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It was all about saving face. From the tailor-made dinner suit and austere white dress shirt he wore, to the antique gold cufflinks at his wrists, to his hard-won air of indifference. Every breath Jake Bennett took this evening was directed towards getting through his brother's engagement party without incident and with honour intact.
'Where's your tie?' murmured his soon-to-be sister-in-law as she stopped beside him, her eyes sharp and her smile wry. 'The one I gave you earlier this evening. The one you're not wearing.'
'In my pocket.' Where it was staying.
Not what Madeline Mercy Delacourte wanted to hear. 'Something wrong with it?' she enquired ever so sweetly.
'Maddy, it's lilac! He liked Madeline. He did. But lately she'd gone a little insane.
'It's lilac for a reason, Jacob. Seriously, if you looked any more formidable this evening I wouldn't have any guests left.'
'Well, I try,' he murmured. 'And stop trying to corrupt my apprentice.'
'Po?' Maddy's eyes narrowed with concern. 'What's he done?'
'You want to know what I found in the dojo showers this afternoon?'
'Xena warrior princess?'
'Lavender soap. Little squares of it, imprinted with fat naked cherubs. Have you any idea what sort of message soap like that sends a class full of black belts?' A snigger from Madeline. Clearly she did. Clearly Jake's formidable fagade needed work. 'Po said he got them from yott.'
A peal of laughter this time. 'Sorry,' murmured Madeline once she'd managed to collect herself. 'Have you enlightened Po as to the soap's unsuitability for that particular bastion of rampant masculinity?'
'I thought you might have a word with him.'
'What? And deny you the opportunity? What sort of future sister-in-law would I be if I did that?'
'A helpful one?'
'That's me,' she said. 'I'm all about the help. Tell you what. You manage a smile in the next twenty minutes and I'll find Po and talk soap. Deal?'
'Deal,' he said and smiled.
'Damn,' she said, and Jake's smile widened.
Shooting him a decidedly dirty glare, Madeline swanned off to mingle with the elegant throng gathered in the glittering cocktail bar of Singapore's Delacourte Hotel.
That Madeline and Luke's engagement needed to be celebrated in such moneyed style was a function of Madeline's insane wealth and of a society that expected such an introduction to her betrothed as their due. The proud presentation of family, the underlying tow of big business, and, most importantly, the forging of profitable alliancesall would take place here tonight. Singapore demanded no less of its inhabitants and, for the chance to do business and grow rich here, Singaporeans willingly paid the price.
As far as the proud presentation of family was concerned, the Bennett siblings and their partners were here en masse. Tristan and Erin had flown in from Sydney. Hallie and Nick and their month-old daughter had arrived this morning from London. Serena and Pete had flown in from Greece early afternoon and hit the ground running. Serena was currently immersed in the crowd somewhere. As for Pete, he'd just moved silently into position at Jake's side.
Did they think he hadn't noticed the way they were shielding him? The way they'd taken it in turns to keep him company all evening? Monitoring his mindset and his attitude and heaven knew what else. Fussing over him, as if he couldn't be trusted to take care of himself?
It was enough to give a man a stabbing headache.
'Look,' he said to Pete as another ripple in the evening air announced the arrival of yet more guests to the party. 'I'm fine. Everything's under control. She's not even here.'
'Nice if you were right,' said Pete with a heavy sigh. 'But you're not. Jianne's just arrived, along with her aunt and uncle if Luke's description of them is anything to go by.'
Jianne's aunt being married to Madeline's most powerful business partner.
Jianne having recently settled in Singapore and Madeline having met her and taken a liking to her. Jianne Xang-Bennett. Jake's estranged wife. 'You want a beer?' asked Pete.
'Later.' A prickling sensation at the back of his neck almost caused Jake to turn around and see for himself what twelve years' worth of living apart had wrought in his wife, but he resisted the notion as he'd resisted the thought of alcoholic fortification and endured the sensation of being observed as best he could.
Pete nodded unsmilingly, his piercing blue gaze stabbing across Jake's shoulder. 'She's seen us.'
This was not news.
'Madeline's herding her towards Hallie and the baby,' continued Pete as the prickling sensation at the back of Jake's neck subsided and silvery laughter graced the room. 'What is it with women and babies?'
'Says the man whose niece had to be prised from his arms earlier this evening a full hour after she'd fallen asleep.'
'Hey, just because she fell asleep on me and not you,' said Pete. 'Face it, you haven't got the touch. Besides, it was my turn.' More of that deliciously female laughter sounded in the background. 'Jianne's becoming better acquainted with our niece. Her niece too, come to think of it. You probably don't want to look.'
'You're probably right.' But Jake did turn and look, and cursed himself for his weakness as the image of an older, breathtakingly beautiful Jianne arrowed into his brain.
She was still the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. Flawless skin, with an abundance of glossy black hair piled high on her head, Jianne had been built slender and carried with her an air of innocent sweetness that Jake had worked hard to forget. Beauty aside, Jianne Xang had also been born into a family whose personal wealth surpassed that of small countries. A minor detail she'd neglected to mention until after they were married.
Not that he was resentful or anything.
It was just that had he known her background he'd have thought twice before asking her to share his common life. Too sheltered for the household full of motherless half-wild siblings that had been in Jake's care. Too gentle to cope with the rawness of their emotions and his. They'd broken her.
He'd broken her.
It was a wonder she'd stayed as long as she had.
It wasn't curiosity that made Jake keep watching her. Curiosity was a mild emotion, easily mastered. This need to drink down every tiny detail of Jianne's appearance clawed at him with the strength of hauntings too long denied.
Jake watched in silence as baby Layla waved tiny fists at Jianne from the safety of her mother's embrace. Jianne's rosebud lips curved. Hallie said something and Jianne looked up, startled, and shook her head. No. Whatever the question, the answer was no.
He wanted to look away. He would look away. Soon.
And then Jianne turned her head and looked straight at him through the eyes of an enchantress. Dark as night and deeper than oceans, the western tilt to them a legacy from a great-grandmother who'd been half British on the outside, but on the inside wholly Chinese. Just like Jianne.
Jianne's smile faltered. Jake couldn't even begin to summon his.
He was only vaguely aware that beside him one brother growled beneath his breath, and that across the room another had stilled.
And then Luke stepped into the line of sight between them, bearing orange juice for Hallie and champagne for his guest. Attentive host or the first line of defence? Jake didn't much care. The manoeuvre allowed him to breathe and regroup and smile tightly at Pete, who refused to smile back.
How long would he have to endure this party now that Jianne and her family had arrived? Fifteen minutes? Half an hour? Because he didn't belong here in this rarefied world of extreme wealth and ever so polite society. He suffered it, that was all, while the beast inside him paced its cage and craved escape.
He looked to the vast wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, wishing for wings and for freedom from duty. He looked for a service entrance, another way out, though he knew he wouldn't take it.
He needed to get this over with. Meeting Jianne. Conversing with her. A polite 'how are you'nothing less would do. An honest 'you're looking well'. Small talk about the weather. Something. Anything. And then he'd ask her the question that had taken hold of him and wouldn't let go until he got an answer.
'I told Madeline and Hallie that this was never going to work,' said Pete from his post at Jake's side. 'I argued this not insignificant point at length but did they listen? No.'
'I'm fine,' said Jake, squaring his shoulders as the prickling sensation between his shoulders beleaguered him once more. 'Everything's fine.'
Pete scowled his dissent. But he said no more.
They were all of them herethe Bennett siblings Jianne had once tried to nurture as if they were her own. Every last one of them, here in this room. Jianne had hoped, had clung to the hope, that time and maturity on her part would lessen the daunting impact they had on her, but that wasn't to be. Jianne watched them exchange glances at the sight of her. She watched them move to protect what was theirs.
Jacob, the centre. The heart of this family. The strength, first son.
The man she'd once given her body to and with it her heart and her soul.
Jacob, with his back turned towards her.
Current husband, a dozen years estranged.
They didn't know, no one knew, how hard it was to put one foot in front of the other and enter that room with her composure in place. Timid rabbits had no place in a room full of watchful waiting tigers. Not if they wanted to survive.
I'm not a rabbit. Not a rabbit. Jianne closed her eyes and let the silent litany wash through her before opening her eyes again and pasting a smile on her face as her aunt and uncle moved to her side and Madeline came forward to greet them. Madeline welcomed Jianne's aunt and uncle first, hierarchy understood and respect given, before turning to Jianne and drawing her into a perfumed embrace.
'You look stunning,' said Madeline approvingly.
'Thank you.' The strapless floor-length ivory and blood-red gown, made from the finest silk, was a gown meant for extroverts, not wallflowers. The saleswoman had assured her that the wearing of such a gown would give Jianne all the confidence she needed and more, no matter how awkward the social encounter. The saleswoman had been dead wrong. 'I shouldn't have come,' murmured Jianne. 'This wasn't a good idea.'
'Stay,' coaxed Madeline softly. 'I happen to think it's a very good idea. Come, I'll introduce you to the newest Bennett warrior. The Bennett uncles are still in shock.' Smiles came easily to Madeline these days, and Jianne made an effort to respond in kind. 'It's a girl.'
Baby Layla was a tiny darling with sapphire-blue eyes, alabaster skin, and a shock of auburn hair. Hard to stay distant when a baby smiled a toothless smile and promptly filled her mouth with her fist.
'Layla, this is your auntie Jianne,' said Hallie with a courtesy Jianne hadn't expected. And to Ji, 'Would you like to hold her?'
'Me?' Jianne blinked. 'Yes! I mean, no! I mean. what if she cries? That wouldn't be good.' A vision of her cradling a wailing Layla while all around her wrathful Bennett uncles closed in on them was not an image she wanted to make reality. 'Your brothers would descend.'
'They wouldn't dare,' said Hallie, shooting at least two of them a warning glare. 'They promised me their best behaviour this evening and there are wives enough here to ensure it.'
The notion that those wild-edged Bennett boys had finally allowed themselves to be tamed held a great deal of appeal for Jianne, but as she glanced away from baby Layla and scanned the room she figured Hallie's statement for optimism rather than reality.
Tristan watched her coolly from his position by the window. Pete stood beside Jacob, his expression grim. As for Jake Jacob wasn't looking her way at all, and because of it Jianne allowed her gaze to linger.
Jacob's suit clung to broad shoulders, powerful legs, and a lean and elegant torsoa testament to the glories of dedicating oneself to the martial arts. His hair was still thick and black and cropped shorter than ever. The lines and planes of his profile had grown sharper but it was still a face to put angels to shame.
From him came an almost visible aura of raw power kept on an incredibly tight leash. Undiluted power had always been an intrinsic part of Jacob's make-up.
The leash was new.
She looked away, just for a moment, just to regroup, and when she looked back Jacob's gaze clashed with hers, those vivid blue eyes of his coldly dismissive and his face set and stern. Jianne stilled, a rabbit caught in a hunter's crosshairs. She wasn't wanted here. She didn't belong here. She'd been wrong to come.
'Stay.' A broad-shouldered man stepped in front of her and broke her eye contact with Jacob. Luke Bennett, Madeline's intended, those golden eyes of his warmly encouraging as he handed her a glass of champagne. 'Please.'
'Please,' echoed Hallie anxiously. 'Jake needs to see you again. He does. He just he doesn't quite know it yet.'
'Perhaps you could give me a call when he does,' said Jianne with a strained smile. 'I really don't see what a forced meeting will achieve. Not harmony.'
'Harmony's overrated,' said Luke. 'Occasionally it's best just to step back and let it all explode.'
'Luke defuses bombs,' said Hallie by way of explanation. 'Or not.'
'I'm sure you know what you're doing,' Jianne told Luke politely. 'Just as I'm sure you know what happens to those at the centre of such explosions.'
'We can protect you,' said Luke.
'I don't doubt it.' Certainty enveloped her and firmed her footing. Here at last in this place that glowed with new life and promise was old familiar ground. 'But you won't.' They'd act instinctively to shield the one they loved. They'd shield Jacob. And Jianne would bleed.
'Trust us,' said Luke.
But Jianne was no longer the hopeful young bride who'd once thought she could shower love on a wild and broken family and receive love in return. 'Trust must be earned,' she countered quietly.
'All right, don't trust us.' Grim determination replaced Luke's earlier encouragement. 'But stay, and watch us do everything we can to make you feel welcome here this evening.'