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It was the perfect day for a wedding.
The sun was shining, the breeze was warm and soft, and all along the edges of the gravel path that led from the carved wooden lych-gate to the metal-studded door of the little village church the early flowers of spring were blooming purple and gold and white. In the trees, newly covered in soft green foliage, even the birds were chirping softly to each other.
It was the perfect day and the perfect setting for an elegant English country wedding.
But in Guido Corsentino's mind, nothing could be perfect about the wedding towards which he was heading, his long, savage strides covering the ground with furious speed. And the mood that gripped him was far from idyllic; totally at odds with the bright sunlight of the day, the relaxed and smiling attitude of the crowd that had filled the narrow country lane.
they'd gathered there to see all the friends and relations of the bride and groom arrive in gleaming fleets of chauffeur-driven limousines. They'd watched them emerge, the men in smart, tailored morning dress, the women looking like so many brightly coloured birds of paradise as they made their way through the small churchyard. They'd oohed and aahed at the sight of the bride, slender and beautiful in her white silk gown, the antique lace veil covering her pale face, arriving at the church almost exactly on time to meet her groom.
And now they lingered, chatting quietly as they waited for the newly married pair to emerge from the church, hand in hand, as husband and wife.
they hardly spared a glance for the tall, dark, handsome man who strode past them, his total concentration fixed on the weathered stone building ahead. the few who looked his way took him for just one more of the wedding guests, though his black shirt, black trousers and loose black jacket were much more relaxed than the formal frock coats and top hats of the earlier arrivals. And if they noted the hard, cold set of the expression on his stunning, strongly carved face they took it for simple irritation that he was late and that the ceremony had already begun without him.
The truth was that Guido Corsentino was exactly on time. He had planned his arrival at the church for one very precise moment, and that moment was just about to arrive. And when it did he would be ready for it.
Ducking his black-haired head so as to dodge the low arch of the wooden lych-gate, he marched up to the closed door of the church and came to an abrupt halt. A dark smile of grim satisfaction curled the corners of a wide, expressive mouth as he caught the faint sound of music and voices from the cool interior.
He couldn't have timed it better.
Pausing to fasten the single button on his jacket, straighten the cuffs of his fine black cotton shirt, he reached for the door handle. As his fingers touched it, his heart kicked once, hard and high, at the thought of whatof who he would see beyond it. A memory surfaced with a cruel stab and an added twist of something darker and more primitive low down in his body.
The memory of another wedding, another setting so very different from this one. Another time, another place....
The need to see her just once more warred savagely with the need to walk away to never see her lying face again. But the real reason he was here, the reason he had travelled thousands of miles just for this, came back in a rush, stiffening his spine and hardening an already coldly savage heart. Almost fiercely his head came up, he flexed his broad shoulders. His dark head held high, he opened the door as little as possible, and slipped quietly inside.
The bride and groom stood at the far end of the long aisle, facing the altar, their backs to him. the groom was the tall, narrow-framed man he was expecting, his thin blond hair already disappearing to display a bald spot near the crown of his head. He wore the formal frock coat as if he was born to the partat least, as much as Guido could see from his back.
Beside him, shehis bridewas tall too; tall and slender. A blur of white.
White! Something inside him rebelled savagely at the thought. Bile burned in his stomach, lifted to his throat, making him swallow hard in distaste.
The name escaped him in a whisper of savage fury. Luckily the choir was singing some hymn so that no one heard him. Everyone had their attention on the front of the church too, and hadn't noticed his arrival.
So they didn't see the way that his face set even harder, his lips twisting in anger and the bitter taste of disgust flooding his mouth with acid.
Amber Wellesley wasn't entitled to wear white. He had made very sure of that.
But perhaps she had lied to her new fiancé about that. Just as she must have lied to him about something else. Something much more important.
She had lied when she had said she loved him.
His dark bronze eyes focused on the woman in white who stood at the altar steps, totally unaware of his presence.
Now that his gaze had cleared again he could see how the wonderful glory of her chestnut hair was piled high on her head, fixed with ornate silver pins over which the delicate veil tumbled in a waterfall of gauze. He had once known how it felt to unpin those burnished locks, comb them loose, feel them tumble over his hands, his skin."
Guido's breath hissed between his teeth as he muttered a curse to himself. Already his heartbeat had lurched, threatening his ability to breathe right. His mind was flooded with burning erotic images that were totally inappropriate to standing in a church, watching the subject of those imaginings preparing to marry another man. He mustn't think this way. Must not let his mind wander onto paths that would too easily distract him from his purpose.
With a brutal effort he dragged his thoughts back from the direction in which they were heading and clamped down on the wayward imaginings. Cold, calm control was what he needed now. He had to play this just right.
He was a few minutes early anyway. But that didn't matter. He had planned this for just the right moment. the choir was coming to the end of the hymn.
Folding his arms across his broad chest, he leaned back against the heavy wooden door and prepared to wait.
The church was full of the scent of flowers. the perfume from sprays of roses and lilies that spilled out from the ornate holders on each side of the altar, and from the arrangements of tight little rosebuds and lily of the valley that decorated the end of every pew, flooded the air thickly. Amber's senses swam with every breath she drew in, making her feel nauseous and faint.
It might have helped if she had been able to sleep the night before, or eat something this morning, but both rest and food had proved impossible for her.
Which was hardly surprising under the circumstances. "Every girl has the right to feel nervous on the night before her wedding," her mother had assured her. "A little blusher will soon improve the look of those pale cheeks."
And Amber had forced a smile, submitting herself to her mother's ministrations as Pamela Wellesley wielded the blusher brush, the mascara wand, with enthusiasm, then stepped back to view her handiwork.
"You still look a little wan," she murmured, frowning as she did so. "Really Amber, you seem as if you're about to leave for your execution, not your wedding. Is there something wrong?"
"No!"it was too fast, too vehement, and it made her mother's eyes narrow sharply.
"No second thoughts about Rafe?" "No."
Of that she was sure at least. Rafe was kind and gentle and had been a good friend to her. it was not his fault that there wasn't any great passion between them. it was not his fault he was not."
Noshe wouldn't let that name into her mind. Not today, of all days.
"You haven't had a row?" "Oh, Mum, how could anyone ever have a row with Rafe?" it would help if she didn't know only too well what was going through her mother's mind. it wasn't the thought that her daughter might actually have rowed with her prospective husband, the man she was supposed to love, that was really troubling her, but the thought of what might happen if the wedding was called off. the uncomfortable scandal that would follow, the embarrassment."
Pamela had lived for months on the prestige she had gained from the fact that her daughter was going to marry one of the St Clair family, and she would hate the way she would lose face if anything happened.
"No. you're right, it's just nerves." "Well, I know something that could help with thata glass of somethingsome champagne"
"No! Nothingthank you, Mum."
Amber forced herself to add the second part of her sentence, knowing that once again she had come so close to giving herself away. the note of near-panic in her voice had sounded so sharply in her own ears that she couldn't believe that Pamela hadn't heard it. But her mother could have no idea of just what memories she had stirred up, and if Amber wasn't careful she would risk raising questions she had no hope of answering.
"I'm fine, honestly," she assured her mother. "Or I will be when today is over."
When today was over and all the memories she had tried to lock away could go back into the secret part of her thoughts where she had hidden them for the past year, until the plans for this very different day had dragged them out into her mind again. When she could put the past behind her for good, she hoped.
The sudden silence around her in the church jolted Amber out of her reverie, dragging her back to the present. the choir had stopped singing, the glorious sound of their voices dying away, and the priest stepped forward to begin the real heart of the ceremony.
"We are gathered here together to join this man and this woman!"
Amber found that her mouth had dried painfully and she had to swallow hard to relieve the tightness in her throat.
Could she really do this? Could she go through with this wedding, knowing that her heart wasn't truly in it? She was fond of Rafe. She loved him in a quiet, gentle wayin the way that good friends loved each other. And a year ago, he had helped her escape from the worst situation of her life.
But she could never give her heart to him as she had once given it to another man. Given it and had it ripped to shreds, the tiny pieces tossed back at her without a care. With only supreme contempt on his face.
With a violent mental effort, Amber clamped down tight on the Pandora's box of memories she'd risked opening again. She was not going to let that happen. She was not going to let that man's name into her thoughts, into her world, ever again. He had ruined her life once and she had barely recovered from it. She was not going to suffer that way ever again.
That was why she was marrying Rafe.
Turning her head, Amber looked up into the face of the man at her side, surprised to find that he looked paleas pale as she imagined she must look herself. His jaw seemed tight, his mouth compressed. But then, as he realised her eyes were on him, he glanced her way too, and flashed her a brief smile.
Immediately Amber felt some of the cruel tensions that had tightened her spine, twisting in her nerves, slacken and ease, and she slid her hand into his where it hung at his side. His skin was cool, his response muted. He just let her fingers rest in his. But that was Rafe's way. He made no major demonstrations of affection; they hadn't even slept together. He had said he was happy to wait and that was how Amber preferred it.
She would be OK with Rafe. Safe and secure. And that was all she wanted in life now. She'd known passion once and it had frightened her. it had turned her into someone she didn't recognise and she never wanted to see that person again. She'd left the dark days behind her and she was moving forward at last.
"If any person present knows of any reason why these two should not be joined!"
The priest intoned the words in a voice that made them sound so solemn, so ominous, that in spite of herself Amber felt a tiny shiver run down her spine. it was deliberate, she knew. the cleric was Rafe's uncle and he had joked with them before the ceremony that this was their last chance to back out; to escape the marriage vows.
"I'll wait a good while after I've said it," he'd teased. "Just to make sure that if anyone wants to say anything they can." "then let him speak nowor forever hold his peace" there, it was said. the words were out. the challenge had been made and now they could continue with the wedding service.
No one would answer it. No one ever did. Amber had no idea just how many weddings she had attended in her life but at all of them those words had been spoken in one form or another and no one had ever stepped forward to "speak now" instead of forever holding peace.
But still, there was always that long-drawn-out moment that seemed to go on forever. the awkward, rather nerve-racking moment when everyone paused and listened and waitedand no one ever spoke.
But everyone wondered just what would happen if someone did.
Of course, no one spoke this time. And Rafe's uncle beamed with delight and satisfaction as he drew in his breath to continue once again.
"In that case"