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If there was one thing Jennie Hunter had a gift for, it was getting away with blue murder. Unfortunately, her magical powers deserted her suddenly and unexpectedly one New Year's Dayaround the same time a dishevelled arrangement of trumpet lilies and greenery hit her in the chest and then fell upside down into her waiting hands. How had that happened?
She'd been actively retreating as her stepbrother's new bride had turned her back and hurled her bouquet over her shoulder into the waiting crowd. What had Alice done? Fitted it with a homing device? Jennie wouldn't have put it past her. Since she'd got engaged to Jennie's stepbrother she'd been trying to pair all her single friends off, and Jennie had become her pet project.
A damp, puffy hand clapped her on the shoulder. 'Don't worry, Jennie. It'll be your turn soon!'
She turned to give Cousin Bernie a smile that could probably have been more accurately described as a sneer. If he'd left a sweaty mark on her vintage satin bridesmaid's dress, she'd stuff this bouquet down his throat, petal by petal.
Your turn soon. How many times had she heard that today?
She looked down at the jumble of flowers and leaves in her hands, then turned it the right way up. Why had she clutched on to it when it had collided with her? Must have been a reflex. A whole herd of single women had been frothing at the mouth at the thought of securing this prize; she should have let one of them mow her down and scoop it up. As it was, she could feel their resentful eyes on her as the assembled wedding guests surged forward to say their farewells to the bride and groom before they got into their car.
Jennie was shoved along with the rest of the crowd, still holding the offending bouquet. There was nowhere handy to dispose of it, so she really didn't have much choice. She stood at the back of the crowd for a while, watching Cameron and Alice as they said their goodbyes, and even her current healthy dose of cynicism for 'true love' couldn't stop her sighing.
Alice looked gorgeous in her nineteen thirties vintage gown, like a willowy debutante. And Cameron? Well, he couldn't take his eyes off his new wife. And that was how it was supposed to be with newly-weds, wasn't it? The bride was supposed to be the centre of her groom's universe, his reason for living.
An unplanned scoffing sound escaped her lips. She disguised it as a cough and decided that this was as good a time as any to plunge through the crowd and say her farewells. Once she'd hugged her smug-looking stepbrother, she turned to Alice. The bride glanced down at the flowers in Jennie's hands and a satisfied gleam appeared in her eyes.
Jennie stifled another huff by stretching her lips wide. She held the bouquet up and did her very best to look pleased. Alice grinned back and pulled her into a hug.
'You deserve to find your special someone,' she whispered in Jennie's ear. 'Just wait until you meet him. He'll turn your world upside down and you'll be so happy you won't know what to do with yourself.'
What a pity Jennie had decided recently that she liked her world the right way up, thank you very much. Now, if only it would consent to stay that way.
She closed her eyes briefly, trying to mentally rearrange all the things recent events had turned on their heads. It took all her effort not to let out a giant sigh. However, by the time Alice released her, Jennie's eyes were open and full of the usual sass and sparkle everyone expected to see there. She was putting on an awfully good show.
And then the bride and groom were gone, accompanied by a flurry of confetti, shouts of good wishes and the rattle of tin cans. Their car sped up the curving drive of the exclusive country house hotel and Jennie felt all the air leave her lungs in one long whoosh.
Finally, it was over.
Now Alice and Cameron had left, people would just concentrate on drinking too much, catching up with long-lost relatives and dancing in a way they would regret when they found the inevitable videos uploaded onto FriendPages tomorrow.
Her plan was to find a quiet corner, kick off her heels and toast the death of her hopes and dreams with as much champagne as she could lay her hands on.
He watched as she turned and walked away
No. Jennie Hunter didn't just walk. Walking was too ordinary a word. But he couldn't think of either a verb or an adjective that summed up the sideways sway of her hips, the elegant length of her stride as she crossed one foot in front of the other.
The bridal bouquet hung at her side, loose in her fingers, as she navigated the gravel driveway in heels. Other female guests picked their way across the uneven surface, but not Jennie. She didn't even look down, every step giving the impression she was gliding on a smooth and polished surface. Her ash blonde hair swung round her shoulders, just short enough to give him glimpses of a long and graceful neck.
A neck he'd suddenly discovered he would dearly like to wring.
Unfortunately, that wasn't an option. Not tonight, at least.
She joined a group of people and he could hear her laugh, clear and bright above all the others. She came alive at parties. Not surprising, since she'd made them her life's work. Being one of the most talked-about socialites on the London party scene had stood her in good stead when she'd started her own event-planning business. Everybody wanted to be at a party where Jennie Hunter was.
He sighed. Seeing her here confirmed all his worst fears and darkest thoughts about her. He so wanted to be wrong, but he suspected this wasn't a woman who could commit to anything for a month, let alone a lifetime. She'd fooled him. Maybe not on purpose, but he'd been duped, all the same. And that didn't sit easily with him. He was a man used to reading people in the blink of an eye, and he was rarely wrong. Why this woman? How had she managed to distract him from the truth?
He moved to get a better view of her as she approached the hotel entrance. Her recent lack of sociability had made her hard to find, but he'd known she'd planned to be at her stepbrother's wedding. Cameron Hunter had opted for a very private and exclusive affair. Friends and family had been sworn to secrecy, so it hadn't been easy to find out the exact location without causing suspicion, but he'd done it eventually.
He stepped out of the bush he'd been hiding in and straightened his tie. He hadn't crashed this wedding for nothing. Now the bride and groom had left, it was time to get what he'd come for. No, not revengealthough seeing her had started that beat pulsing inside his headbut the truth.
Who was Jennie Hunter? Who was she really?
When the last fluttering streamers of toilet paper tied to the back of Cameron's car had disappeared from view Jennie pivoted on her designer heels and headed back inside. Her arms went limp and the heavy bridal bouquet swung by her side, hooked loosely on a finger by its wide satin ribbon.
Suddenly she felt really tired. Exhausted. The smile she'd worn for Alice and Cameron as they'd driven into Happy Ever After started to fade. When she looked up and saw who was coming towards her the smile froze her features, making her face feel brittle.
Aunt Barbara swayed a little on her sensible heels. 'My favourite niece,' she announced loudly, the words bleeding into one another. She opened her arms wide and Jennie had no choice but to walk into the hug.
She was careful to extricate herself quickly and cleanly before her aunt's thick foundation left a smear on her dress. Secretly, she thought Auntie Barb's penchant for orange-coloured make-up kept half her family's dry-cleaners in business.
'Come on,' she said gently, putting a steadying arm around the other woman's shoulders. 'Why don't we go and find Marion?'
Her stepmother was an expert at situations like these, always brimming with patience and grace that Jennie could only aspire to. She'd been the only mother-figure in Jennie's life for the last twelve years, and Jennie liked to think that they had the same sort of bond she'd have had with her own mother, if she'd lived long enough to see her daughter grow up. Well, attempt to grow up. There were some members of the family who had their doubts about that one.
Steering Auntie Barb through the smattering of guests who hadn't made their way back to the bar was harder than Jennie had anticipated. She scanned the crowd, desperate to locate the familiar serene features of her stepmother.
No luck. Just her father leaning on the reception desk in the lobby, waiting to talk to the clerk.
Auntie Barb turned to Jennie and squinted up at her. 'You're a good girl, really,' she said, patting her arm. 'And don't you mindit'll be your turn soon, you mark my words.'
Okay. That was it.
One parent was as good as another, Jennie decided, as she altered course and headed straight for her father.
Auntie Barb erupted into movement and noise. 'Dennis!' She lunged at him and puckered up once more.
Jennie's mouth twisted into an off-centre smile. There was something very satisfying about seeing Dennis Hunter, president of Hunter Industries and ruler of all he surveyed, being engulfed in one of his sister's squashy orange hugs.
Jennie met his pleading eyes over the top of Auntie Barb's shoulders. What have you done this time? they said, but at least these days the familiar exasperated expression was tempered by an indulgent smile.
'Look who I found,' she said, making sure there was a twinkle in her eye as she delivered the words.
'Impossible child,' she heard her father mutter as her aunt lost interest in her one and only brother and turned to ask the reception clerk which way the bar was. The girl nodded in the direction of the pumping music and coloured lights emanating from the function room.
Her father swatted at a large orange smudge on his lapel with a handkerchief.
'I don't know how you managed to avoid it,' he said wearily. 'She gets me every single time.'
'It's a manoeuvre I've perfected over the years. Be nice to me and I might even teach it to you one day.'
Her father grunted. 'Oh, yes? And just how much will that set me back?'
'Nothing,' Jennie replied, and leaned forward to give him a kiss on the cheek, giving the orange smudge on his chest a wide berth. 'I told you the day I borrowed the start-up money for my business that it would be the last time I'd sponge off the old man.'
Her father gave another grunt. One of the I'll-believe-it-when-I-see-it variety, then he looked her up and down.
'I must say, despite my reservations about wearing secondhand stuff'
'It's vintage. Like the stuff in your wine cellar. Supposed to get better as it gets older.' She batted her lashes and gave him her sweetest look. 'Just like you, Daddy.'
His mouth folded into a rueful smile. 'Impossible child.'
'You wouldn't have me any other way. Now ' Jennie folded her arms and looked him straight in the eye ' I had the strangest feeling you were just about to pay me a backhanded compliment, so you might as well spit it out.'
Her father coughed into his fist and shuffled his feet. 'I was just going to say that I'm glad my new daughter-in-law was so insistent about that dress.'
Alice had been very determined to have her own way on that matter. But since she and the other bridesmaid, Coreen, ran a vintage clothing business, there wasn't much Jennie could have done to dissuade her.
This particular dress had been part of their stock and Jennie had fallen in love with it the moment she'd clapped eyes on it. And who wouldn't have melted at the sight of the oyster-coloured satin shift dress, cut to perfection. Pure elegance. It fitted Jennie as if the dressmaker had peered into the future and crafted it to her exact measurements. She really shouldn't have made such a fuss about it when she'd bought it, because it had stuck in Alice's mind. And once something was stuck in Alice's mind, it didn't shake loose again easily.
So, when Alice had started making wedding plans, she'd started badgering Jennie about the dress. It was a crying shame to leave it sitting in the back of the wardrobe, apparently. Then Alice had gone on and on about a pair of shoes she'd once owned and how, when something was such a perfect fit, it just didn't do to chicken out of wearing it.
Jennie hadn't been about to tell Alice that, actually, she had worn the dress. Just once. And that, right now, she'd rather have worn a Bo-Peep monstrosity in polyester than put it on again. But that would have led to too many questions. Questions with answers she wasn't prepared to supply. So she'd worn the dress, and all day it had quietly mocked her.
He father coughed. 'I was just saying I think you look that you're.'
That's about as expressive as her father got. Sometimes even back-handed compliments were just too hard for him to get out.
'What he's trying to say is that you look stunning.'
Jennie felt an arm curve around her waist and she turned to find her stepmother smiling at her, looking more relaxed than she'd been in weeks. She'd pulled the whole wedding together in record time, because Cameron had been too impatient to wait any longer and had insisted he was marrying Alice the first day of the new yearstarting it right, as he'd put it.
Marion broke eye contact and looked wistfully in the direction of the wide sweeping drive leading away from the hotel.
'They're going to be fabulously happy. You know that, don't you?' Jennie said and gave her a reassuring squeeze.
'Busted,' her stepmother replied, then gave a little laugh. 'That's the thing about being a parent No matter how big and clever they get, you just can't stop them being the centre of your universe, can't switch off the internal radar that turned itself on the day they were born.'
That was all Jennie had wanted from her father after her mother had diedto know that she was even a little blip on his radarbut it had taken a couple of years to work out how to make herself shine brightly enough to get his undivided attention.
Marion sighed. 'It's so stupid. All I can think about is that we won't be seeing Cameron so often for Sunday lunch any more. It seems so selfish.'
Jennie rubbed her stepmother's arm. 'Nonsense,' she said, deciding to lighten the mood. 'I've tasted Alice's cooking, remember? I can guarantee you'll be seeing plenty of them.'
They both laughed, knowing they were supposed to, then her stepmother pulled away and turned to face her. 'And what about you? Are you "fabulously" happy, too?'
Jennie froze. She hadn't seen that coming, didn't know how to answer. Nobody ever asked her those kind of questions. They might ask her where she got those darling shoes from or who did her hair, but nothing that probed below the surface. Most people didn't think she was anything but surface. If little girls were supposed to be sugar and spice and all things nice, then when this little girl had filled out and grown up, all anyone had expected to see was cocktails and fluff and all that stuff. She'd been waiting for years for someone to ask more of her, to expect more of her.
Then one day, someone had looked deeper. Someone had decided to see if there was anything under all the fluff. She'd hoped there was, but his actions had spoken volumes on the matter.
She shook her head. She wasn't going to dwell on thaton him. And she didn't look for those kinds of questions now. Didn't want them.
'You're looking tired,' Marion said, frowning. 'What's the matter? You don't normally drift off like this unless there's a man involved somewhere along the line and you haven't been yourself since you got back from Mexico.' She left the inference hanging in the air.
Jennie shrugged and looked away. She didn't mention that, despite plans to holiday in Acapulco, she'd actually been in Paris. A last minute surprise. But telling her parents that would only make them curious.
'It was that stomach bug I got out there. Really took it out of me.'
'I'll say,' her father interjected. 'Hardly saw anything of you over Christmas.'
She folded her arms across her chest. 'Well, I'm all better now, so you can both stop fussing and checking up on me. Honestly!'
Her father chuckled. 'Don't you stick that bottom lip out at me, my girl. It used to work when you were eight, but it's well past its sell-by date.'
Jennie hadn't been aware she'd been doing anything in particular with her bottom lip, and she sucked it in and pressed the other on top of it. 'Better?' she mumbled through her closed mouth, with just a hint of a flounce in the way she threw back her shoulders.
'Much.' Her father did his best to give her a stern look, and failed.
Marion started to laugh gently. 'You're priceless, Jennie. One of a kind.'