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It was being billed as the wedding of the yearthe union of Manhattan's most romantic couple. And as far as Kara deMontaine could see, the media was right on the money with this one. She stood in the back of the packed Saint Patrick's Cathedral surrounded by society's elite. This was her world, her circle. And yet, she felt totally alone as she waited to be escorted down the aisle to her seat.
The unexpected wedding of publishing magnate Tristan Sabina had turned into the event of the spring season. She wished she could look at it as just another party, but she was almost thirty and still single. So every wedding she attended was turning into a trial, a kind of endurance event that made her realize she was probably never going to be a bride. She tried to shake off the melancholy that seemed to wrap around her like an Hermès silk scarf. But she couldn't.
It had nothing to do with Sheri Donnelly, the bride. Kara knew little about her, but she had heard that Sheri was very sweet. She'd also heard a firsthand account from her older sister, Rina, that Sheri's dress was one-of-a-kind exquisite.
Kara felt a longing that she'd been unable to shake lately. That longing to wear a white dress. To see her groom, standing at the end of the aisle waiting for her. To walk through a church filled with onlookers all envious of her, because on this one day she was the most beautiful woman in the world.
She felt the sting of tears in her eyes as she remembered lying in bed with her mother on lazy Sunday mornings and talking about her dream wedding. Rina always curled up on the right side and Kara on the left in her parents' king-sized bed. Back then she hadn't realized that she wasn't afairy-tale princess. Hadn't realized that being almost six feet tall and big boned would make most men a little hesitant around her.
She closed her eyes and heard the sweet, soft voice of her mother as nothing more than a dream.
Alisha deMontaine had died when Kara was sixteen, just before she was to make her rounds as a debutante. Rina had made her debut a year earlier.
Rina and Kara were as opposite as two women could be. Where Rina was petite, thin and revered for her beauty, Kara was tall, a bit on the solid side and known for her charitable work.
Kara sniffed and blinked rapidly, knowing that, while it was okay to cry when the bride appeared, sobbing before the event started would be a major faux pas.
A hand fell on her shoulder and a snowy white handkerchief appeared in front of her eyes. The hand holding it was tanned, masculine and very large.
"A wedding day is a day of joy," the man said in a deep, strong voice with a thick Spanish accent.
She glanced up into hazel eyes. He was stunningly handsome and staring at her with concentration. He was also taller than her, which made him about six-two or six-three. She cleared her throat and quickly wiped her eyes. "Tears of joy."
He quirked one eyebrow at her. And there was something arrogant in the way he did it. "I know women."
No doubt. He exuded a blatant sexuality that probably drew more women to his side than he wanted. Then again, he looked as though he was more than able to handle any situation, even a flock of women descending on him. Okay, she was getting a little hysterical. She took a deep breath. Poise was something she was known for. It was time to find it. Time to get control.
"You might know women," she said, "but you don't know me."
He nodded. "Let's change that. I am Count Guillermo de Cuaron y Bautista de la Cruz.And you are?"
She knew who he was. He was in the tabloids all the time for his escapades around the world. And Rina traveled on the outskirts of his circle of friends.
Guillermo always had a beautiful woman on his arm. Never a pudgy heiress like her. Dang it, she was trying to be more comfortable in the size-twelve body that she had. Nothing could get her down to a zero. Nothing. She'd dieted more times than she wanted to admit.
"Kara deMontaine," she said, holding her hand out to him.
He took it and brushed his lips across the back of her hand. "Now that we are no longer strangers what has you teary eyed on this happy day?"
She shook her head. Yeah, like she was really going to tell this stunningly gorgeous man that she was upset because she was never going to be a picture-perfect bride. "You wouldn't understand."
"My friends call me Gui."
"Gui," she said without meaning to. She liked the way his name sounded on her lips. And she loved his voice. The accent made her want to listen to him all day.
"Kara, tell me. I have three sisters and numerous cousins. I'm a good listener."
There was something very kind and understanding in his eyes. She wanted to pour out the entire sad truth. That she'd probably never marry like this. Never find a man to cherish her. Never be a bride envied by the world. But she couldn't say those words out loud to this man. He was handsome, actually almost beautiful with his classical features, dark blond hair and multihued eyes. A fantasy man, and she was a married-for-her-money kind of girl. "It's a silly thing."
"Ah, that means it is actually a very personal thought. Something that means a lot to you," he said.
God, she didn't want him to be perceptive enough to know what was really bothering her. She had made her peace with who she was and how she looked, and that worked for her only because everyone believed she was happy living in Rina's shadow. And most days, she was. "Please don't."
"Don't try to pretend you really care what I have to say or what upset me. I know I'm the last woman you'd normally look at."
He drew her out of the crowded foyer of the church and off to a quiet hallway. She loved the cathedral. Even though her family wasn't Catholic, she'd been to the church a lot just to walk around and study the architecture.
"What do you know of me? Were we not just introduced?" he asked.
She blushed, thinking of all the stories she'd heard about him. Tristan she'd known for ages, because his sister, Blanche, and her sister were best friends. So she knew stories of Gui, Tristan and Christos. She'd heard about Seconds, the clubs they co-owned together, and about their wild parties, and had seen with her own envious eyes the beautiful women who always surrounded them.
"I'm Rina's sister," she said, as if that would explain it all.
"Ah. Well, what did Rina tell you about me?" he asked.
Rina protected Kara as if she were her mother. She'd warned Kara to stay away from men like Guillermo. Men who were too confident in how they looked and their ability to win over any woman. "Just that Listen, can you please just let this go?"
"I think it means the same thing in practically every language, querida."
"I'm not your darling," she said through clenched teeth, hating the fact that she'd always been emotional and cried so easily. If not for that, Guillermo would never have noticed her and she wouldn't be having this conversation.
"Why does that make you defensive?" he asked.
"Gui," he said. "I'm not going to let this go." She shook her head. "Why do you care?"
"Because you look so sad. I want to make you smile."
"Make me smile?" she asked, unable to believe he really would. "I'm the fat sister. The nice sister. The one no one pays any attention to."
Gui stroked one finger down the side of her face, running lightly over a cheekbone and the line of her jaw. "You are exquisite, Kara. Not fat at all. Why do you believe this?"
"Because I look in the mirror before I leave the house."
"Maybe your mirror is distorted," he said.
His hand cupped her face and she caught her breath at the way he touched her. It was almost as if he was compelled to. "No. Don't be silly."
He shook his head. "Tell me what made you cry."
"Nothing in particular. I was just staring at this lovely venue and thinking about the bride."
"Sheri and Tristan are meant to be together," he said. "Did you love him?"
"No. Tristan has always treated me like a little sister. And I've never thought of him that way." She was horrified that anyone would think she was crying because she'd been in love with the groom.
"Then why?" he asked again.
She took a deep breath, knowing she was going to tell him, if only to stop this crazy conversation. But she couldn't while he was touching her or looking at her. She took his hand in her own and pressed his handkerchief to his palm.
"Because I'll never be that kind of bride."
She walked away from him, because she did have some pride. And there was something compelling about Guillermo de la Cruz that made her want to tell him all of the secrets she usually kept buried down deep inside her soul.
With her long, thick black hair, olive skin and exotic eyes, Elvira looked like a Mediterranean sex goddess as she sat at the center of a table surrounded by her crowd of admirers. Gui would like to think he wasn't one of them, but he refused to lie to himself and Elvira had always been his weakness.
The fact that he'd resisted her charms since she'd married his old friend Juan was something he prided himself on, but he did still lust after her. And as a Catholic, he knew that sin in thought was just as bad as sin in the flesh.
Rumors had always abounded about him and Elvira, despite the fact that he'd tried to keep his distance. There was something about her that drew his attention, and his interest never went unnoticed by the tabloids.
Gui glanced around the reception, which was being held at the most fashionable hotel in Manhattan. In a while he'd be stepping up to give the toast to Sheri and Tristan, and he should be concentrating on that. Instead, he was fixated on a woman Elvira. He'd been obsessed with her since he was eighteen.
"See something you like?"
He glanced over at Christos, who'd come up next to him and was handing him a glass of champagne. Christos had recently married as well.And though the institution had always been one Gui dreaded, he had to admit that his friend looked happier than he had in years. In fact, if pressed, Gui would be forced to say that marriage had changed Christos for the better.
"Which one?" Christos asked.
Gui knew better than to admit he'd been watching Elvira, so he skimmed the crowd and spotted Kara deMontaine.
"Um tall, thick curly hair " he said.
"Ah, the younger deMontaine girl. Kerri?"
"Kara. Do you know her?"
"Not well. I do know Rina fairly well. She's very protective of the girl."
"Yes. She tore someone to shreds once for a comment they made about her."
Gui said nothing, just took a sip of his drink, pretending he was unable to take his eyes off Kara. Her hair was thick and black, and it curled around her face like a Botticelli angel's. She was tall, at least five-ten. And her figure was full. Her curves were generous, but she could never be called fat. He'd been sincere when he'd complimented her. She wasn't a classically beautiful woman like Elvira, and she'd never draw men to her the way that his ex-lover did, but there was an innocence about Kara that was refreshing.