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'Will you, Damien Halliburton, take Chelsea London to be your lawful wedded wife?'
The minister's words blurred into one long onerous drone as Caleb, acting as best man to his mate and business partner, fidgeted inside his tux, stifled a yawn, and pretended as best he could to pay attention.
'I do,' Damien said, his voice deep and true, his eyes all for his admittedly scrumptious new bride.
Though he couldn't deny that Damien had seemed happier since Chelsea appeared on the scene, Caleb had long since decided that that kind of indiscriminate happiness was for chumps. Not only was it fleeting, once gone it invariably took a little piece of you with it.
And Caleb liked himself and all his pieces. Quite a bit in fact.
He enjoyed his privileged life. He adored the pursuits that came with it: tennis, sailing, golf, drinks at the club. The capacity to spend the occasional weekend basking on a private beach somewhere didn't go astray.
And he thrived on his work. He took great pleasure in doing whatever it took to land ostensibly ungettable clients for Keppler, Jones and Morgenstern day traders. Others in the biz thought him ruthless in his tunnel-visioned pursuit of the big fish. But the simple fact was he'd always found it too easy to make people say yes.
He'd been told by a former weekend getaway companion it had everything to do with a distracting glint in his eyes. It blinded people to the fact that he never switched off, he was always, always silently working out a way to come out on top.
To her credit it had taken him several seconds to realise she hadn't meant it as a compliment, or in fact a come-on, and by that stage she'd walked out his door never to darken itagain.
Caleb glanced across the altar and caught the eye of Kensey, a bridesmaid, who also happened to be Chelsea's older sister. She was dark where Chelsea was fair, and he had always preferred brunettes.
He glinted for all he was worth.
Kensey's eyes grew wide before she flipped her left ring finger at him from beneath her bouquet. A gold wedding band flashed his way.
His smile only widened as he offered a shrug by way of apology, but as he moved his gaze away the smile twisted into a grimace. Was the whole damn world getting married?
He gave himself a mental pat on the back for deciding not to bring a date to this thing. Weddings stirred up all sorts of irrational emotions in people. He'd seen it before. Perfectly levelheaded gents cut down by a giddy mix of floral scents, blinding amounts of pink satin, and over-indulgence in cake frosting.
Finding that scrunching his toes in his shoes wasn't proving distracting enough to keep him from yawning again, Caleb looked over the extensive crowd that filled the elegant city church.
He called upon his well-tuned affluence radar to decide which unsuspecting guest would be signing on the dotted line as a client by the end of the night.
The groom's divorced, but friendly, parents sat in the front row weeping all over one another. If they didn't end up renewing their vows by the end of the month he'd eat his shoes. But they were already Damien's clients so they didn't count.
His own parents, the estimable Gilchrists, a couple who had taken the 'till death' part of their own wedding vows so seriously he wouldn't be surprised if they one day throttled one another, had naturally wangled the next best seat in the house: row two, on the aisle. They were no doubt the filthy-richest pair in the room, but they had never forgotten the year he'd lost all his pocket money running a secret Spring Racing betting ring while in middle school and thus wouldn't part with a cent of their precious dough. Talk about the ungettable get.
Damien's Aunt Gladys gave him a little finger wave from the fifth row. Caleb winked back and she all but fainted on the spot. He knew without a doubt she would have given him a perfume-scented cheque within five minutes of him courting her. But where was the thrill in that?
Masses of other faces he'd never seen and never particularly wanted to again soon passed him by in a Technicolor blur.
Until his brain slowly caught up with his eyes and he realised halfway down on the left side he'd passed over a swathe of long brunette waves, the immobilising combo of soft blue eyes fringed by impossibly long dark lashes, and the kind of soft, sweet, wide, pink mouth any sane man would kill for. Would die for.
Her name launched itself smack bang in the centre of his unsuspecting consciousness from somewhere deep inside like a guided missile gone astray.
His eyes retraced their journey over the colourful crowd, sweeping across row after row, even though he knew it couldn't have been her.
Well, logically it could. She was Damien's sister. But the groom had never once mentioned his sister was coming home from Boston for the wedding and for the first time in nearly a decade. If he had it was not the kind of crumb of information that would slip Caleb's mind.
But he saw nothing but a sea of unfamiliar faces, none of which made his stomach clench as hers did. Or more precisely as hers had. Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away
The last time he'd laid eyes on her he'd been a twenty-two-year-old business school graduate who'd been perfectly happy to bank on his family name to get where he was going. While she'd been a nineteen-year-old humanities wunderkind prepared to go to the far end of the earth to find a place where nobody knew her family name.
They'd been friends since high school, combatants just as long, and lovers for just one night, the day before she'd left to take up a scholarship at Harvard, the first of several top-class schools she'd flitted between since, and never looked back.
Never written a postcard, nor a letter, nor an email. No carrier pigeons had been employed by her, nor telephones rung on his behalf.
He frowned and curled his toes into his new black leather shoes until they hurt. He'd searched every pew and couldn't find the brunette waves, the smoky blue eyes, or the wide pink mouth. He must have imagined her after all. Great hulking fool he had always been when Ava Halliburton had been the subject of discussion
Caleb looked at the groom blankly as a ripple of laughter washed over the crowd.
'You're on, buddy,' Damien said.
'On what exactly?'
'The ring?' Damien said, loaded smile playing about his mouth telling Caleb it wasn't the first time he'd been called.
'Right,' Caleb said. 'Apologies. I was a million miles away.'
And a million years ago.
'Not the kind of thing I want to hear right now.' Damien's smile didn't slip a millimetre but Caleb had known the guy long enough to know his patience was thinning.
Caleb slid a finger into a tiny side pocket of his waistcoat and pulled out a skinny white gold band encrusted with diamonds. He summarily dropped it into Damien's upturned palm lest it rub some of its unwelcome romance upon him.
From there the wedding zoomed to a brisk conclusion.
The kiss was the best part. Damien grabbed Chelsea around the waist, dipped her halfway to the floor and planted one on her that had the two-hundred-strong crowd whooping it up in the aisles.
That's my boy, Caleb thought, glad his friend wasn't becoming a complete sap now that he was locked down.
Caleb followed the couple down the aisle, arm in arm with Chelsea's sister, who he could see out of the corner of his eye was grinning at him. He feigned boredom as he stared blankly towards the bright light of a video camera at the end of the aisle.
'I was afraid you might be about to faint on us there for a moment,' Kensey said.
He let his mouth kick into half-smile. 'Me? Faint? Simply not in me, honey.'
'So you're a fan of big white weddings, then?'
'Nowhere I'd rather be on a Saturday night.'
'Really? Must have been the way the light was hitting your cheeks that made you look like someone had walked over your grave.'
'Must have been,' Caleb said.
Though he couldn't help but look to the left in search of a pair of pretty sky-blue eyes and long dark hair.
After a good long hour of photographs taken around the iconic Brighton beach huts, Caleb finally stepped out of his limo in front of the Halliburtons' house at the upper end of Stonnington Drive.
He stretched his arms overhead, let out an accompanying groan, and once the other groomsmen, Chelsea's brother-in-law and one of Damien's cousins, had moved on through into the house, he let his gaze swing straight to the second-floor window, third from the right.
Ava's bedroom window.
Between two beats of his heart he went from thirty-two-year-old man of enviable experience to twenty again, riddled with wild hormones and unable to help watching the sway of cream curtains flapping gently at the window, wondering if Ava was up there sleeping, studying, getting dressed, getting undressed
Today the window was closed. No lights were on. His mind eased.
His hormones were another matter.
He jogged around the side of the massive house, hoping the exercise might relieve some of the tension he'd carried with him from the church.
The Halliburtons' manicured back lawn had been overtaken by two massive white brightly lit marquees. They draped languidly across the yard like decadent Bedouin tents. A ten-metre gap between them left a makeshift cork dance floor open beneath the stars. Fat pale purple bows were wrapped around the two-hundred-odd antique bronze chairs and the round tables were heavy with white roses, crystal glasses and gleaming silver cutlery.
He reminded himself not to stand directly below any of the dozen chandeliers. He was no engineer but he couldn't for the life of him figure out how the outrageous things wouldn't bring the whole deal crashing down upon their heads.
He took a deep breath, tucked his hands into his tuxedo trouser pockets and sauntered inside, familiarising himself with all exits, making instant friends with a passing waiter so he'd get first look in at the hors d'oeuvres, before making a beeline for the nearest bar.
He ordered something heavy and straight up. The burning liquid had barely touched his lips when an all too familiar female voice from behind him said, 'Caleb Gilchrist, as I live and breathe.'
His glass clinked against his teeth as he swallowed more than was entirely sensible on an empty stomach.
'Well, if it isn't little Ava Halliburton. In the flesh,' he said as he turned, a nonchalant smile already planted steadfastly upon his face.
And, oh, what a choice of flesh.
Her long dark hair hung from a centre part just as it had when she was nineteen, and it was still, oh, so sexily mussed, as though she'd spent hours running agitated fingers through it. Her blue eyes were luminous in a round face that had always made her look younger than she was. A naturally wide smile hovered cautiously upon her mouth and her cheeks were flushed.
The champagne glass between her fingers exposed fingernails bitten to the quick. She wore a shapeless, sleeveless dark pink lace dress that stopped square below her knees. It was offbeat, slightly too big and not quite formal enough for the occasion.
She hadn't changed a bit.
A distant relative of some sort appeared from nowhere to capture Ava's attention. She shot Caleb a quick 'I'm sorry' with her eyes before she turned towards much pinching of cheeks and 'I knew you when you were this big' remarks.
Caleb took a step away, towards the bar, where he put down his glass and gladly took the reprieve.
Ava Halliburton. It had been some time since that name had made him curl his fingernails into his palms.
At twenty-two, confused and smitten, and only hours after the most raw, tender, surprising night of his young life, he'd followed her to the airport, and five minutes before she was due to check in and fool that he was he'd asked her to stay for him.
And he'd been serious. In that crazy moment he'd been prepared to throw away the thought of ever being with another woman if he'd been able to have just her.
Because in her warm, willing arms he'd thought for the first time in his young life he'd truly glimpsed happiness.
Yep, happiness, that old chestnut.
And it had taken her about, ooh, half a second to refuse and take flight.
He braced himself to suffer the onrush of unbearable frustration he'd associated with her memory for a long time after she'd left him standing there in the middle of the airport terminal.
But the onslaught never came.
While she looked as if she'd stepped out of her high-school yearbook, the intervening years had changed him so much he was a different man. For one thing he was far less easily moved by things like loveliness and sweetness and sky-blue bedroom eyes.
If he were in the mood for romanticising things he might think she'd made him immune to all that, made him seek out the company of women who didn't have a chance in hell of touching him in that way. But he wasn't in such a mood. Therefore he decided that in the past ten years he'd been lucky to experience enough lovely, enough sweet, enough feminine eyes of every colour not to be so impacted as he had been by her, and by her leaving, ever again.
That was until Ava's spare hand, the one not swirling champagne hypnotically in its flute, reached up to finger a strip of thin brown leather at her neck.
A long thin strip of brown leather. One that looked a heck of a lot like one that once upon a time had accommodated a chunky wooden locket he'd given her as a birthday gift.
He'd put his photograph inside as a joke. She'd left it in there. For years.
The last time he'd seen the locket was on that night, the one night they'd spent together. Lying bundled up in a pile of clean towels and thermal blankets in a suspended shell of a canoe in the Melbourne University boat shed on a cold winter's night, basking in one another's afterglow, he'd opened it. Seen his picture. And his future. Or so he'd thought.
The idea that she might have yet to remove it dug in its claws and refused to be displaced.
Caleb's eyes remained riveted to the fingers playing with the leather strap. It lifted gently away from her creamy décol-letage and then slid back against her. He wondered if the leather had been warmed by all that soft female skin.
The tips of his fingers began to tingle.
He followed the line of the necklace to find it dipped beneath the V of Ava's dress. There was no way of knowing what she kept there now, nestled between her breasts.