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'Ladies and gentlemen welcome to Sicily. Please keep your seat belts fastened until the aircraft has come to a standstill.'
Laurel kept her eyes fixed on the book in her lap. She wasn't ready to look out of the window. Not yet. Too many memories waited therememories she'd spent two years trying to erase.
The toddler in the row behind her yelled a protest and squirmed, smacking both his legs into the back of her seat with a force that jolted her forwards, but Laurel was aware of nothing except the hot ball of stress that burned at the base of her ribs. Normally reading soothed her but her eyes were recognising letters that her brain wouldn't compute. Even as part of her was wishing she'd packed a different book, another part of her knew it wouldn't have made a difference.
'You can let go of the seat now. We've landed.' The woman seated next to her touched her hand gently. 'My sister is a nervous flyer too.'
Laurel heard the quiet voice from somewhere in the distance and slowly turned her head. 'Nervous flyer?'
'It's nothing to be ashamed of. My sister once had a panic attack en route to Chicago. They had to sedate her. You've been gripping that seat since we took off from Heathrow. I said to my Bill, "That girl doesn't even know we're sitting next to her. And she hasn't once turned the page of that book." But we've landed now. It's over.'
Absorbing the startling truth that she hadn't turned the page once during the flight, Laurel stared at the woman blankly. Kind brown eyes looked back at her. The woman's expression was concerned and motherly.
Laurel was surprised she was even capable of recognising that expression, given that she'd never seen it before, especially not directed at her. She had no memory of being left wrapped in supermarket bags in a cold city park by a mother who didn't want her, but the memories of the years that followed were embedded in her brain like shrapnel.
She had no idea why she would suddenly feel tempted to confess to a stranger that her fear had nothing to do with flying and everything to do with landingin Sicily.
The other woman filled the silence. 'We're safely down now. You can stop worrying.' She leaned over Laurel and craned her neck to see out of the window. 'Just look at that blue sky and that view. It's my first time in Sicily. And you?'
Small talk. Conversation that skimmed the surface but never dipped into the murky ocean of feelings beneath.
This, Laurel could do. 'It's not my first time.' Because the woman's kindness deserved some reward, she added a smile to the words. 'I came here on business a few years ago.' Mistake number one, she thought.
The woman eyed Laurel's skinny jeans. 'And this time?'
Laurel's lips moved, the answers flowing automatically even though her brain was engaged elsewhere. 'I'm here for my best friend's wedding.'
'A real Sicilian wedding? Oh, that's so romantic. I saw that scene in The Godfather, all that dancing and family and friendsfabulous. And the Italians are so good with children, of course.' The woman threw a disapproving look at the passenger behind them who had read her book throughout the flight and ignored her fractious toddler. 'Family is everything to them.'
Laurel stuffed the book in her bag and undid her seat belt, suddenly desperate to escape from the conversation. 'You've been so kind. Sorry I've been such boring company on this flight. If you'll excuse me, I have to go.'
'Oh, no, dear, you can't leave your seat yet. Didn't you hear the announcement? There's someone important on the plane. Some VIP or other. Apparently they have to leave before the rest of us.' Peering past Laurel out of the window, the woman gave an excited gasp. 'Oh, just look at that. Three cars with blacked out windows have just pulled up. And those men look like bodyguards. Andoh, my, you have to look, dear, it's like something out of a movie. I swear they have guns. And the most gorgeous man you've ever seen has just stepped onto the tarmac. He's got to be at least six foot three and spectacular to look at!'
No, she wasn't expecting a man. She wasn't expecting anyone. To avoid an unwanted reception committee, she'd told no one which flight she would be on.
Her chest felt ominously tight and suddenly she wished she'd kept her asthma inhaler with her instead of putting it in her bag in the overhead locker.
An invisible force drew her head round and she found herself looking out of the window.
He stood on the tarmac, his eyes obscured by a pair of aviator sunglasses, his attention apparently fixed on the commercial aircraft that had just taxied to a halt. The fact that he was allowed such unprecedented access to the runway said a great deal for the influence he wielded. No other civilian would have been extended such a privilege, but this man wasn't just anyone. He was a Ferrara. A member of one of the oldest and most powerful families in Sicily.
Typical, Laurel thought. When you want him, he's nowhere to be seen. And when you don't
Her kindly neighbour craned her neck to get a better look. 'Who do you think he is? They don't have a royal family, do they? Must be someone important if he can skip Customs and just drive onto the runway. And what sort of man needs all that security? I wonder who he's meeting?'
'Me.' Laurel rose to her feet with all the enthusiasm of a condemned man preparing to walk to the gallows. 'His name is Cristiano Domenico Ferrara and he's my husband.' Mistake number two, she thought numbly. But not for much longer. She was about to become an ex-wife. A wedding and a divorce in the same trip. Killing two birds with one stone.
She wondered about that saying. What was good about killing two birds?
'I hope you have a really nice holiday in Sicily. Make sure you try the granita. It's the best.' Ignoring the worried look of her kindly neighbour, Laurel removed her bag from the overhead locker and walked down the aisle to the front of the plane, grateful that she'd worn heels. There was something about high heels that gave you confidence in a tight situation and she was definitely in a tight situation. Passengers whispered and stared but Laurel was barely aware of them. She was too busy wondering how she could get through the next few days. It would be the biggest test of her life and she had a feeling it was going to take more than a pair of killer heels to see her safely through it.
Stubborn, arrogant, controllingwhy had he come to meet her? Was he punishing her or himself?
The pilot hovered at the top of the metal steps. 'Signora Ferrara, we had no idea we had the pleasure of your company on board' His forehead was shiny with sweat and he cast a nervous glance towards the formidable welcoming committee assembled on the tarmac. 'You should have made yourself known.'
'I didn't want to be known.'
His fawning attention was uncomfortable to witness. 'I hope you enjoyed your flight with us today.'
The journey couldn't have been more painful if she'd been tied to a cart and dragged back to Sicily.
How stupid of her to have thought she could just arrive in her own time and that no one would notice. Cristiano had probably had the airports monitored. Or maybe he had access to the passenger lists.
When they'd been together, the extent of his influence had left her open-mouthed with disbelief. In her job she was used to dealing with celebrities and the super-rich but the Ferrara world was nothing short of extraordinary.
For a short time she'd lived that life with him. That glittering, gilded life of immense wealth and privilege. It had been like tumbling onto a bed of goose down after a life spent sleeping on concrete.
Seeing him standing at the bottom of the aircraft steps, Laurel almost lost her footing. She hadn't seen him since that day. That awful day, the memory of which could still make her run to the bathroom and heave up her guts.
When Daniela had insisted that she stick to her promise and be her maid of honour Laurel should have pointed out the impact of that request on everyone involved. She'd thought there was no limit to what she'd do for friendship, but now she realised she'd been wrong about that. Unfortunately that clarity of thinking came too late.
Reaching into her bag, Laurel pulled out her sunglasses and put them on. If he was playing that game, then so was she.
With the pilot standing nervously behind her and all the passengers absorbed in the unfolding drama, she lifted her chin and stepped through the open door.
The sudden punch of heat was a shock after the chilly fog of London. The sun blazed down on her, spotlighting every reluctant step. Her heels clunked on the metal and the only thing preventing her from falling was her death grip on the rail. It was like descending into hell and he waited on the tarmac like the devil himselftall, intimidating and unnaturally still, flanked by dark-suited security men who waited at a deferential distance for his command.
It was so different from the first time she'd arrived here, full of excitement and anticipation. She'd fallen in love with the island and the people.
And one man in particular.
She couldn't see his eyes, but she didn't need to see them to know what he was thinking. She could feel the tensionknew that he was being sucked back into the past just as she was.
'Cristiano.' At the last moment she remembered to inject casual indifference into her tone. 'You didn't have to break off from closing another mega-deal to come and meet me. I wasn't exactly expecting you to hang out the welcome flags.'
That hard, sensuous mouth flickered at the corners. 'How could I not meet my dear, sweet wife from the airport?'
After two barren years it was a shock to be face to face with him. But the bigger shock was the fierce hunger that burned in the empty pit of her stomach, the deep craven wanting she'd believed had died alongside their marriage.
Despair hit her because feeling like this felt like a betrayal of her beliefs.
She didn't want to feel like this.
Cristiano Ferrara was a cold, hard, unfeeling bastard who no longer deserved a place in her life.
No, not cold. Automatically she corrected herself. Not that. In fact it might have been easier had he been cold. To someone as emotionally cautious as Laurel, Cristiano with his volatile, expressive Sicilian temperament had been dangerously fascinating. She'd been seduced by his charisma, his blatant masculinity and by his refusal to let her hide from him. He'd dragged an honesty from her she'd never given to anyone else.
Now, she was grateful for the extra layer of protection provided by the sunglasses. She'd never been good at revealing her thoughts to anyone. She'd always protected herself. To trust him had taken all her courage, which had made his careless betrayal all the more shocking.
She didn't see him move but he must have gestured because one of the cars drew up next to her and a door opened.
'Get in the car, Laurel.' His icy tone wrapped itself around her body and acted like brakes. She couldn't move.
Laurel stared into the interior at the luxurious evidence of the Ferrara success story.
She was supposed to climb inside without question. To follow his wishes without question because that was what everyone else did. In the world he inhabiteda world outside the limits of most people's imaginationhe was all powerful. He decided what happened and when.
Mistake number three had been coming back, she thought. Her anger, held tightly inside for two years, gnawed at her insides like acid.
She didn't want to slide into the car with him.
She didn't want to share that small, enclosed space with this man.
'I feel sick after the plane journey. I'm going to walk around Palermo for a while before I go to the hotel.' She'd booked somewhere small that would never appear on the Ferrara radar. Somewhere she could recover from the emotional demands of this wedding.
The breath hissed through his teeth. 'Get in the car or so help me I will put you there myself. Embarrass me in public again and you will regret it.'
Again. Because of course she had done exactly that. She'd taken his masculine pride and smashed it into pieces and he'd never forgiven her.
Which suited her fine because she'd never forgiven him, either.
Never forgiven him for abandoning her when she 'd needed him most.
She couldn't forgive or forget, but that didn't matter because she had no desire to rekindle their relationship. She didn't want to fix what they'd broken. This weekend wasn't about them, it was about his sister.
Her best friend.
Keeping that fact at the front of her mind, Laurel bent her head and slid into the car, grateful for the blacked out windows that shielded her from the goggling passengers who sat with their noses pressed to the windows of the aeroplane watching the drama unfold.
Cristiano joined her in the car and the door was closed on them. The doors locked with a solid clunk, a reminder that a member of the super-rich Ferrara family was always a target.
He leaned forward and spoke in Italian to the driver, the lilting expressive language sliding over Laurel with the softness of silk. He was an international businessman and he favoured Italian over the more guttural Sicilian dialect spoken by the locals although he could switch easily enough when it suited him. The fact that she loved hearing him speak to her in Italian had been one of their many private jokes.
The car moved forward, their departure allowing the rest of the passengers to finally disembark.
Laurel envied them their freedom. 'How did you know I would be on that flight?' 'Is that a serious question?'
No. If there was anything that the Ferrara family didn't know then it was because it didn't interest them. The scope and reach of their power was breathtaking, especially for someone like her who had come from nowhere. No one had cared who she was or where she was going.
'I didn't expect you to meet me. I was going to text Dani, or get a taxi or something.'
'Why?' His strong, muscular leg was dangerously close to hers, thrusting into her personal space. 'You wanted to find out if I'd pay the ransom if you were kidnapped?' Power throbbed from him and suddenly she realised why she'd been swept along by everything. She could barely think in his presence. Even now, his sexuality made her catch her breath.
She slid across the seat slightly, trying to widen the distance. 'The divorce will be final soon. You probably would have paid them to take me off your hands. Your stroppy, disobedient ex-wife.'
The tension in the car tightened to snapping point. 'Until the ink is dry on those papers, you're still a Ferrara. Act like one.'