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It would be the wedding of the year. In an elegant, luxurious church in the heart of London, crowded with wealthy, glamorous people, Amos Falcon, the financial giant whose name inspired awe and fury in equal measure, was to escort his stepdaughter down the aisle to be the bride of Dan Connor, a man of wealth and importance in the television industry.
Not that that would impress Amos Falcon. It was common knowledge that he had wanted to marry his stepdaughter to one of his own sons but had failed: one of the few times in his life when he hadn't got his own way.
The excitement level was rising. The wedding wasn't until midday, but the television cameras had been in place an hour earlier. Gossip said the entire Falcon family would be present, which meant Amos's five sons, who hailed from England, America, Russia and France. Some were famous. Some were wealthy. All were notable. And nobody wanted to miss so many fascinating arrivals.
'Travis Falcon,' sighed one young female journalist. 'Oh, I do hope he turns up. I always watch his television series and I'd love to meet him.'
'You reckon he'll really come all the way to London from Los Angeles?' queried Ken, the cameraman with her.
'Why not? He went to Moscow last month for Leonid's wedding. Hey, who's that?'
A buzz of anticipation greeted the arrival of a luxurious car, which disgorged an expensively dressed couple. But then there was a faint groan of disappointment. This man wasn't Travis.
'Marcel Falcon,' Ken mused. 'The French brother. And the one in the car just behind is Leonid.'
He focussed his camera on the two brothers as they climbed the steps to the great entrance and disappeared inside, then switched quickly back to another car from which a man and woman had emerged.
'Darius,' he said. 'English.'
'What about Jackson?' she asked. 'Surely he's English as well, and after Travis he's the best known because of those TV documentaries he does.'
'He's not a guest. He's the best man and he'll arrive with the groom. After that it'll be Amos and Freya, the bride. Ah, look who's getting out of that car! Freya's mother, the present Mrs Amos Falcon.'
Mrs Falcon was in her fifties, trim, well-dressed, but with an air of quiet reserve that made her stand out in this exotic atmosphere. She hurried up the steps, as though the spotlight made her uneasy.
Just inside the church Darius, Marcel and their wives were waiting for her. They embraced her warmly, and Darius said, 'This must be a happy day for you, Janine. Freya has finally escaped the terrible fate of being married to one of us.'
His stepmother regarded him with wry affection.
'You know very well that I'm fond of you all,' she said, 'and if Freya had really wanted to marry one of you I'd have had no problem. It was the just the way Amos Well, you know '
They nodded, understanding her reluctance to be candid about Amos's determination to get his own way. It had come close to bullying, but a loyal wife couldn't say so.
'How did you persuade him to give her away?' Harriet, Darius' wife, murmured. 'I should think it was the last thing he wanted to do.'
'It was,' Janine said wryly. 'I told him if he wouldn't do it, I would. When he realised I meant it he gave in. Exposing a family disagreement in publicwell '
'It would have made people laugh at him,' Harriet said. 'And he couldn't have that. You know, marrying you was the best thing that ever happened to Amos. You're the only person who can make him stop his nonsense.'
'Shh!' Janine put a finger to her lips. 'Never tell him I told you.'
'It's a promise.'
A cheer from outside put them all on alert.
'Travis,' Harriet said at once. 'When you hear them cheering you know it's Travis. I'll bet he's blowing kisses to them, putting his arms around girls in the crowd.'
'Not if Charlene's with him,' Janine observed. 'He's almost paranoid about considering her feelings.'
'And the joke is that it doesn't bother her,' Darius observed. 'He can do as he likes because Charlene knows she's got him just where she wants him.'
'Sounds the perfect arrangement to me,' said his wife.
'And you should know,' he said, smiling at her. 'You snap your fingers and I jump to attention, don't I?'
The look they shared seemed to sum up the air of joyful contentment that permeated the whole family these days. One by one the sons had found wives who were perfect for them.
Darius had turned his back on the society women who would gladly have been his to marry Harriet, a girl from the island he owned. Marcel had rediscovered love with Cassie, a woman he'd once known and lost. Travis had sought Charlene's protection against an intrusive press, only to find that his need of her went further and deeper than he could have dreamed. And Leonid's love for Perdita had survived quarrels and misunderstandings because their union had been fated from the moment they met.
Only one son was left: Jackson, who had introduced Freya to Dan Connor, the man she would marry today.
'Does anyone know anything about the groom?' Harriet asked.
'He owns a big television production company,' Travis explained. 'His documentaries made Jackson a star.'
'It's nearly time for things to start happening,' Janine said.
'Yes,' Travis agreed. 'We ought to take our places. I thought Dan and Jackson would have been here by now. I wonder what's keeping them.'
* * *
'Aren't you ready yet?' Jackson called through the half-open door of the bedroom. 'The car's downstairs.'
'I'm here,' Dan said, appearing. 'Just a few last-minute things to get right.'
The mirror threw back a reflection of two men in their thirties, both tall and handsome, both dressed for a wedding.
Jackson was the better looking, with a quick, teasing smile that could transform him. Observers sometimes said that of all Amos Falcon's sons he most resembled him. His lean face and firm features came from the same mould as his father. Amos's white hair had once been light brown, as Jackson's still was, and their eyes were an identical deep blue.
The differences between them were subtle. A lifetime of demanding his own way and usually getting it had given Amos's face a harsh, set look, as though it rested on stone. The same features in Jackson were gentler, as perhaps his father's had been many years ago. Only the future would determine how much closer the resemblance would one day grow.
'Do I look all right?' Dan demanded, studying himself in the mirror.
'You look fine to me,' Jackson said, grinning. 'The perfect picture of a deliriously happy groom.'
Dan threw him a withering look. 'Just shut it, will you? There's no such thing as a deliriously happy groom. We're all shaking with nerves at the plunge we're about to take.'
'Come to think of it, you're right,' Jackson mused. 'My brothers were all on edge at their weddingsat least until they got their brides safely riveted. Then they relaxed.'
But even as he said it he knew there was something more behind Dan's tension. Dan was in his prime, wealthy, and with a streak of confidence that seemed to infuse his whole life. It had helped him build up Connor Productions, known for its colourful documentaries. It had also carried him through many affairs of the heart, which he'd survived by being wary of commitment.
But when Jackson had introduced him to Freya that wariness had begun to desert him, until suddenly, without warning, he'd made a determined and forceful proposal. Jackson knew that because he'd been sitting two tables away in the same restaurant, and had clearly heard Dan say, 'That's it! My mind's made up. You've simply got to marry me.'
Freya had given the rich chuckle that was one of her attractions, and teased, 'Oh, I've got to, have I?'
'Definitely. It's all settled. You're going to be Mrs Connor.'
He'd slipped a hand behind her head, drawing her close for a kiss, untroubled by the crowd of other diners who'd laughed and applauded. The next day he'd bought her a diamond ring, and celebrations had commenced.
Jackson was glad for both of them. Freya had been his stepsister for six years. Their relationship might be called 'jumpy'. Sometimes they were cordial, and sometimes she challenged him.
'Who are you to give me orders?' she'd demanded once.
'Yes, you were. You don't even know you're doing it. You're just like your father.'
'That's a terrible thing to say!'
'Why? I thought you admired him.'
'Some of the time,' he'd replied wryly. 'I don't like his way of giving orders without even realising he's doing it. But that doesn't mean I'm like him, and don't you dare say I am.'
'Oh, yeah?' 'Yeah.'
And their sparring had ended in laughter, as it so often did.
He thought fondly of her nowa sensible girl with brains enough to have passed her nursing degree with top marks, who could yet enjoy a squabble and give as good as she got. She would never be a great beauty, but her looks were agreeable. Dan had chosen well, he reckoned.
Almost at once after their engagement he'd had to leave to film a documentary on the other side of the world. He'd returned a week before the wedding and seen that his friend was on edge. He'd attached little importance to this, considering it standard bridegroom stuff. Even Dan's heavy drinking on his stag night had not alarmed him. It had merely underlined his duty to get Dan safely through the ceremony.
'Come on,' he said, opening the front door. 'Time to go.'
'Just a moment,' Dan said quickly. 'There's something'
'Stop panicking. I've got it.'
'The ring. Look.' Jackson reached into his pocket for a small box, which he opened to reveal a gold ring. 'That's what you were getting worked up about, wasn't it?'
'Of course. Of course.'
The tension in Dan's voice made Jackson regard him kindly and clap him on the shoulder. 'Everything's all right,' he said. 'Nothing can go wrong now. Time to go.'
In moments they were downstairs, greeting the chauffeur, settling into the back seat of the car.
It wasn't a long journey to the church but the traffic was heavy that morning. As they crawled along at a snail's pace Jackson gave a sigh of frustration.
'Come on,' he groaned. 'If it takes any longer, Dad and Freya will turn up before we do.'
'Is Amos really giving her away? I can't get my head round that.'
'Why shouldn't he? Oh, you mean because he wanted her to marry one of his own sons? When Leonid married Perdita there was only me left, and I told him to forget it. I like Freya, but not in that way.'
'I guess that's why you introduced me to her? Hoping I'd do what you wouldn't?'
'It wasn't like that,' Jackson said, shocked. 'Of course I was glad for her to know as many other guys as possible, but I wasn't making secret plans.'
'Aw, come on. You were hoping the old man would admit defeat. No way. He moved heaven and earth to stop this wedding.'
'What the devil do you mean by that?'
'When I was going out with Freya he came to see me. He wanted to warn me off. Said I should leave her alone, and if I didn'twell, there were a few hints about the damage he could do to me financially.'
'But you told him to get stuffed?'
'I didn't say anything. No chance. He said his piece and walked out, slamming the door. I guess he just took it for granted that I'd do as he said.'
'Yes,' Jackson murmured. 'He has a way of doing that. He scares people. But not you. You stood up to him and proposed to her. Good for you. She's a lucky girl to have a guy who loves her so much.'
'But I'm not in love with her,' Dan said explosively. 'I lost my temper, that's all. I'm damned if I'll let any man give me orders. Sorry, I know he's your father'
'That's all right,' Jackson said hastily. 'But are you telling me you only proposed to Freya because you were angry? I don't believe it.'
'Believe it. I just saw red. But then suddenly we were engaged andhell, I don't know. She's a nice girl, but I'm not in love, and if Amos hadn't tried to scare me out of proposing I'd never have done it.'
'I don't believe this,' Jackson said frantically.
'I was there at your engagement party, and if ever I saw two people in love'
'Yes, I played the devoted loverand you know why? Because Amos was there, looking fit to do murder. Oh, brother, did I enjoy that!'
'But he's giving her away.'
'I reckon his wife twisted his arm. Freya's her daughter and she wouldn't want him making trouble.'
Jackson tore at his hair.
'Let me understand this,' he said, aghast. 'You've let things get this far, and you're really saying you're not in love with the girl you're about to marry?'
'That's right. I'm not. But what can I do? She's obviously in love with me and I'm trapped. I can feel the noose tightening around my neck with every moment.'
'You should have been honest with her before this,' Jackson said furiously. 'Now you'll hurt her a lot more if you marry her without love and let her down later.'
In his agitated state Jackson spoke instinctively. Afterwards he was to curse himself for a fool, but by then it was too late.
'That's true,' Dan said, staring at him as though a light had suddenly dawned. 'And there's still time to put things right.'
As he spoke the car halted at traffic lights.
Dan opened the door and began to ease himself out.
'You go on to the church,' he said. 'Explain why I'm not with you. Make them realise I had no choice.'
'What? Don't be daft. You've got to go through with it now.'
'I can't. You've just made me understand that.'
'Dan! Don't you dare Come back.' But Dan had slammed the door and begun to run.
'Wait here,' Jackson told the chauffeur, scrambling out of the car. 'Dan! Come back. Come back.'
But Dan was running fast, darting in and out of the traffic which had started to move again. He reached the other side of the road and vanished down an alley. Jackson raced after him as fast as he could, nearly being hit by a car. But when he reached the street it was empty.
'Dan!' he yelled. 'You can't do this. Please!'
There was no answer.
'Where are you?' he cried. 'Don't hide from me. Let's talk.'
He tore along the road, searching everywhere but without result.
'I didn't mean it!' he shouted. 'Not the way it came out. I spoke without thinking but I never meant Don't do this.'
He ran up and down for a few more minutes before facing facts.
'Oh, no!' he groaned. 'This can't be happening. But it is, and I'm to blame. It'll be my fault if Oh, what have I done? What have I done?'
Windows were opening above him. He made a hasty exit, returning to the car and throwing himself into the back seat. 'Go on to the church,' he growled.
At last the building came in sight, and he groaned again as he saw the excited crowds and the cameras.
'Not here,' he said hastily. 'Go around the back.'
He slid down low, hoping not to be seen, and didn't sit up again until they reached the back of the church. He paid the chauffeur, adding a generous tip and putting his finger over his lips. Then he hurried through a rear door as fast as he could.