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"If any of you can show just cause why they may not lawfully be married, speak now or else forever hold your peace."
Belinda smiled encouragingly at Bishop Newbury.
The reverend returned her smile and opened his mouth to continue
before fixating on something in the pews over Belinda's shoulder.
Belinda heard it then, too. The footfalls sounded ever closer.
it couldn't be.
Belinda heard the commanding words fall like an anvil on her heart.
A sick feeling gripped her. She closed her eyes.
She recognized that voiceits tone bland but edged with mockery. She'd heard it a million times in her dreams
her most illicit fantasiesthe ones that left her blushing and appalled when she woke. And when she hadn't heard it there, she'd had the misfortune of catching it from a distance at a society event or in a television interview or two.
There was a rustling and murmuring in the congregation. Beside her, Tod had gone still. Bishop Newbury looked quizzical.
Slowly, Belinda turned. Tod took his cue from her lead.
Even though she knew whatno, whoto expect, her eyes widened as they met those of the man who should have been a sworn enemy to a Wentworth like her. Colin Granville, the Marquess of Easterbridge, heir to the family that had been locked in a feud with hers for centuries
and the person who knew her most humiliating secret.
When her eyes connected with his, she felt longing and dread at the same time. Even under cover of her veil, she could tell there was challenge and possessiveness in his gaze.
He loomed large, even though he wasn't up at the altar with her. His face was hard and uncompromising, his jaw square. Only even features and an aquiline nose saved him from looking harsh.
His hair was the same inky dark brown that she remembered and a shade or two darker than her own chestnut. Brows winged over eyes as dark as they were fathomless.
Belinda raised her chin and met his challenge head-on.
How did one crash a wedding? Apparently, the ticket was a navy business suit and canary-yellow tie. She supposed she should be glad he'd at least settled on formal attire.
Then again, she'd hardly seen Colin the real-estate mogul in anything other than a power suit that did nothing to disguise his athletic build. Well, except for that one night.
"What is the meaning of this, Easterbridge?" her uncle Hugh demanded as he rose from his seat in the first pew.
Belinda supposed someone should be standing to defend the honor of the Wentworths, and Uncle Hughas the head of the familywas the logical choice.
She scanned the settled mass of New York and London high society. Her family seemed aghast, but other guests looked fascinated by the unfolding drama.
Her bridesmaids and groomsmen appeared ill at ease, even her friend, Tamara Kincaid, who was always self-assured.
Off to the side of the church, her other close friend and wedding planner, Pia Lumley, had blanched.
"I say, Easterbridge," Tod spoke up, irritated and alarmed. "You were not invited today."
Colin shifted his gaze from the bride to her intended, and his lips curled. "Invited or not, I would hazard to guess that my position in Belinda's life entitles me to a say in these proceedings, wouldn't you?"
Belinda was acutely aware of the hundreds of pairs of interested eyes witnessing the show unfolding at the altar.
Bishop Newbury frowned, clearly perplexed, and then cleared his throat. "Well, it appears I'm compelled to resort to words that I've never had to use before." He paused. "Upon what grounds do you object to this marriage?"
Colin Granville, Marquess of Easterbridge, looked into her eyes.
"Upon the grounds that Belinda is married to me."
As the words reverberated off the soaring walls of the cathedral-size church, gasps sounded all around. Behind Belinda, the reverend began to cough. Beside her, Tod stiffened.
Belinda's eyes narrowed. She could detect mockery in Colin's expression. It lurked in the area around his eyes and in the slight lift to the end of his mouth.
"I'm afraid you must be mistaken," Belinda stated, hoping against hope that she could prevent this scene from getting worse.
As a matter of precise accuracy, she was correct. They had been married oh-so-briefly, but no longer were.
Still, Colin looked too sure of himself. "Mistaken about our visit to a wedding chapel in Las Vegas over two years ago? Regrettably, I must disagree."
There was a collective gasp from the assembled guests.
Belinda's stomach plummeted. Her face felt suddenly hot.
She stopped herself from replyingfor what could she say that wouldn't add to the damage? I'm sure my brief and secret marriage to the Marquess of Easterbridge was annulled?
No one was supposed to know about her impetuous and hasty elopement.
Belinda knew she had to move this scene to a place where she could face down her demonsor, rather, one titled demon in particularin a less public way. "Shall we resolve this matter somewhere more private?"
Without waiting for a response, and with as much dignity as she could muster, she gathered up the skirt of her wedding dress in one hand and swept down the altar steps, careful not to make eye contact with anyone among the congregated guests as she held her head high.
The sun shone through the church's large stained-glass windows. She walked intermittently through beams of sunlight slanting through the air.
Outside, Belinda knew, it was a perfect June day. Inside, it was another story.
Her perfect wedding was ruined by the man whom family and tradition dictated she should loathe most in the world. If she hadn't been wise enough before to think he was despicableon that one night in particularshe certainly did now.
When she drew abreast of the marquess, he turned to follow her across the front of the church and through an open doorway that led into a corridor with several doors. Behind Colin, Belinda heard Tod, her erstwhile groom, follow.
When she stopped in the corridor, she heard a louder rustling and murmuring break out in the church. Now that the principal parties had exited the area of worship, she assumed the congregants felt at greater liberty to voice their whispers. She could only hope that Pia would be able to quiet this affair, though she was realistic enough to believe, too, that the effort would be mostly in vain. In the meantime, she could hear Bishop Newbury state to the wedding guests that there had been an unexpected delay.
She ducked into an unoccupied room nearby. Looking around, she concluded from the sparse furnishings and lack of personal belongings that the room probably served as a staging area for church functions.
Turning around, Belinda watched both the groom and her alleged husband follow her into the room. Colin closed the door on the curious faces still looking at them from the main area of the church.
She threw back her veil and rounded on Easterbridge. "How could you!"
Colin was close, and she was practically vibrating with tension, her heart beating loudly. Until now, Colin was the embodiment of her biggest secret and her greatest transgression. She'd tried to avoid or ignore him, but today running was out of the question.
Outrage was, of course, not only the logical but also the easiest emotion to adopt.
"You had better have a good reason for your actions, Easterbridge," Tod said, his face tight. "What possible explanation can you have for ruining our wedding with these outlandish lies?"
Colin looked unperturbed. "A wedding certificate."
"I don't know what alternate reality you've been living in, Easterbridge," Tod replied, "but no one else is amused by it."
Colin merely looked at her and raised an eyebrow. "Our marriage was annulled," she blurted. "It never existed!"
Tod looked crestfallen. "So it's true? You and Easter-bridge are married?"
"We were. Past tense," Belinda responded. "And only for a matter of hours, years ago. It was nothing."
"Hours?" Colin mused. "How many hours are in two years? Seventeen thousand four hundred seventy-two, by my calculation."
Belinda rued Colin's facility with math. She'd been stupidly enamored by itby himat the gaming tables before their impetuous Las Vegas elopement. And now it had come back to haunt her. But how could it be true that they'd been married for the last two years? She'd signed the papersit was all meant to be wiped away.
"You were supposed to have obtained an annulment," she accused.
"The annulment was never finalized," Colin responded calmly. "Ergo, we are still married."
Her eyes rounded. She was a person who prided herself on remaining unruffled. After all, she'd faced down the occasional recalcitrant client in her position as an art specialist at renowned auction house Lansing's. But if her brief history with Colin was anything to judge by, the marquess had an unparalleled ability to get under her skin.
"What do you mean by not finalized? " she demanded. "I know I signed annulment papers. I distinctly remember doing so." Her brow furrowed with sudden suspicion. "Unless you misrepresented what I was signing?"
"Nothing so dramatic," Colin said with enviable composure. "An annulment is more complicated than simply signing a contract. In our case, the annulment papers were not properly filed with the court for judgmentan important last step."
"And whose fault was that?" she demanded.
Colin looked her in the eye. "The matter was overlooked."
"Of course," she snapped. "And you waited until today to tell me?"
Colin shrugged. "It wasn't an issue till now."
She was flabbergasted by his sangfroid. Was this Colin's way of getting back at her for leaving him in the lurch?
"I don't believe this." Tod threw up his hands, his reaction echoing her feelings.
She had decided to proceed without legal counsel in her annulment with Colin, even though she'd had only a cursory understanding of family law. She hadn't wanted anyoneeven a family attorneyto know of her incredible lapse in judgment.
Now she regretted the decision not to hire a lawyer. Clearly she'd committed another error in judgment. Not only had she not made sure her annulment had been properly finalizedbecause she'd wanted to forget about the whole sorry episode in Las Vegas as soon as possiblebut as a result she'd put her trust in Colin to see the annulment through.
Colin's gaze swept over her. "Very nice. Certainly a departure from the red sequin ensemble that you wore during our ceremony."
"Red is an appropriate color when marrying the devil, wouldn't you agree?" she tossed back.
"You didn't act as if I were the devil at the time," he responded silkily, his voice lowering. "In fact, I recall"
"I wasn't myself," she bit out.
I was out of my mind. That's right, she thought feverishly. Wasn't insanity a basis for annulment almost everywhere?
"Insane?" Colin queried. "Already trying to create a watertight defense to bigamy?"
"I did not commit bigamy."
"Only through my timely intervention."
The man was infuriating. "Timely? We've been married two years according to your calculation."
Colin inclined his head in acknowledgment. "And counting."
She was incredulous at his audacity. But then she supposed that, as her spouse, Colin felt he took precedence over Tod, an almost husband. And he'd be right, damn him. Even physically, Colin was more imposing. He was the same height as Tod but more muscular and formidable.
She rued her continuing awareness of Colin as a man. Still, it was a situation she intended to rectify forthwith to the extent she could.
"How long have you known we were still married?" she demanded.
Colin shrugged. "Does it matter if I arrived in time?"
She smelled a rat from his evasive response. He'd wanted to create a scene.
Still, he gave nothing away.
"You'll be hearing from my lawyer," she stated.
"I look forward to it."
"We're getting an annulment."
"Not today, however. Not even the state of Nevada works that fast."
He had a point there. Her wedding day was well and truly ruined.
She stared at him in impotent fury. "There are grounds," she insisted, reassuring herself. "I clearly must have been insane when I married you."
"We agreed on lack of consent due to intoxication, you'll recall," he parried.
"Yes, yours!" she retorted, annoyed by his continued sangfroid.
He inclined his head. "By our mutual agreement, due to a better alternative."
"Fraud should have sufficed," she responded tightly. "You completely misrepresented your character to me that night in Las Vegas, and after today, no one would disagree with me. This latest bit of Granville chicanery is for the history books."
He lifted an eyebrow. "Chicanery?"
"Yes," she insisted. "Delivering the news on my wedding day that you were derelict in filing our annulment papers."
"No need to impugn my ancestors by association," he responded calmly.
"Of course, there is," she contradicted. "Your ancestors are why we're in this current mess. They're the reason why" she gestured in the direction of the church "the crowd out there was electrified by the news that a Wentworth had married a Granville. What are we going to do?"
"Stay married?" he suggested mockingly. "Never!"
Belinda turned to exit just as Uncle Hugh and Bishop Newbury barged in.
As she brushed past her uncle, she heard her relative demand, "I hope you have a good explanation, Easter-bridge, though I can't imagine what it is!"
Apparently, all hell had broken loose in the hallowed sanctum.