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'Would all the eligible ladies please move to the centre of the room? The bride will now throw the bouquet!'
Sophie Gruebella's gaze jumped from her fingertip, slowly rimming her glass, to the middle-aged DJ, then over to the women jostling for position on the Sydney ballroom dance floor. Her emerald-green gown rustled as she sat up straight and set her hands resolutely in her lap.
Uh-uh. No way. She was pleased her friend had found Mr Right. Wendy and Noah looked perfect together, particularly now, as he brushed a kiss over his wife's lips and Wendy swished her snow-white train out of the way, preparing to lob her roses into the excited skirted throng. But sadly, as far as Sophie was concerned, showing up today had been effort enough.
Practically everyone here knew she'd been unceremoniously dumped three months earlier. Self-medication consisted of a nightly overdose of anything resembling chocolate, and a cycle of romantic comedy DVDs, the happy endings of which made her all the more morose. She'd gained ten poundsand that was only under her eyes.
The humiliation of being tossed aside for a younger, thinner, more attractive woman was gradually losing its sting; she no longer considered herself in love with Ted, thank heaven. However, being the unassuming rather than assertive type, the blow to her self-esteem had been crushing. The notion of ever falling in love again, let alone literally chasing a wedding bouquet, left her feeling ill.
The DJ's dulcet tones resonated around the ballroom, which was decorated with the finest linen and flickering candelabra. 'Last chance, ladies. Who will catch the bouquet? Who's next in line?'
Sophie sighed. Would the happiness Wendy and Noah shared today ever be hers? Could she bear to open up and risk her heart again? Though it pained her to admit it, as more time passed, the less she believed. And heaven knew an extravagant ceremony and a licence were no guarantee any rainbow would last for ever.
As Sophie pondered, a striking masculine figure crossed her path. Her heartbeat skipped, and for a giddy moment that sick feeling in her stomach faded. Handsome in a dangerous 007 kind of way, he stopped slightly ahead and to the right of her. The tuxedo jacket, which emphasised the breadth of his shoulders, shifted as he retrieved a phone from his breast pocket. Profile earnest, long legs braced apart, he checked his watch, shook his head and, after a few indecipherable words into the cellphone, terminated the conversation.
A business call? Odd for a Saturday night. Sophie surveyed the room. His girlfriend must be among that mob limbering up. Because confident, killer-sexy guys like that always had girlfriendsand not well-padded, down-hearted specimens like herself.
Sophie pushed her glass aside.
In fact, it was high time she left.
As she scooped the last heart-shaped chocolate into her handbag, a collective whoop went up to the ceiling and something bright and fragrant landed in her lap. She looked down and gasped.
How on earth had Wendy's bouquet flown all the way back here? More impor-tantlyoh, Lordwhere could she hide?
With every eye drilled upon her, Sophie withered in her seat and the DJ hooted. 'Great throw, Wendy! Let's put our hands together for the shy little lady up the back.'
Over a smattering of applause, Sophie executed a wobbly smile. Even sent a little wave. When the show was finally over, and couples began to reunite, her friends Penny Newly and Kate Tigress hurried over.
Above the plunging neckline of a silver-sequinned gown, Penny's mouth twisted on a pout. 'I don't get it. Why would you want to catch the bouquet?'
Kate slapped Penny's arm. 'Don't be mean.'
Penny winced and rubbed the spot. 'I only meant that she's single at the moment. It's a bit of a waste.'
As far back as high school, Penny had been known for her beautiful blonde mane, ample bosom and lack of tact. However
Sophie exhaled. 'You're right. I'm the least likely to marry next.'
Kate sat down and squeezed Sophie's hand. 'You'll get back in the game, Soph. You'll find your soul mate. A man so well suited he'll practically be your twin.'
Sophie found a self-deprecating smile. 'Can we organise a twin without my spare tyre and tangle of hair?'
Preferably someone sleek and built.
Past Kate's shoulder, Sophie watched 007 frown into the crowd as he folded impressive arms over an equally impressive chest. Sophie frowned too. Where was the girlfriend?
A skilled hairdresser, Kate swept back a curl which had escaped from Sophie's upsweep. 'Just for the record, your cappuccino curls are gorgeous. And if you cut even an inch, you'll answer to me.' Her playful scowl eased. 'You should flaunt what you have, instead of always trying to hold it back.'
Penny shrugged on a nod. 'And once your clothes fit again
' She came as close as Penny could to offering a sympathetic face. 'Well, you've always been quite pretty. Really.'
Kate shot Penny a daggers look at the same time as the music kicked off again and their respective boyfriendsbrothers they'd met a month earlierarrived to whisk both away for a romantic cheek-to-cheek.
Sophie gnawed her lower lip, refusing to give in to the tears prickling at the backs of her eyes. Kate meant well, but Sophie didn't want her pity. And, frankly, she was over wallowing in her own.
Yes, she'd recently limped away from her only long-term relationship. No, she wasn't Miss World. Truth was she might never find her true love, the man destined to sweep her off her feet. Lots of people didn't. Maybe, rather than the wedding-bell toll of tradition, she was meant to follow her own beat.
And, heck, perhaps that wasn't such a bad thing. Looking back now, she could see that the Sophie who'd been with Ted was a pale imitation of the woman she wanted to be. She'd been a shadow. An appendage who'd nodded and never made waves. Story of her life, really.
But no more. Starting now, this minute, she wouldn't fall back from speaking her own mind. Surely the last thing she needed was a husband setting her boundaries, making the rules?
On a burst of adrenaline, Sophie pushed up out of the chair. She was done worrying over what other people thoughtPenny Newly doubly so.
She hadn't taken two steps towards the exit before a hand on her elbow held her back. Puzzled, she pivoted around. She craned her neck back and her stomach looped the loop at the pair of diamond-blue eyes smiling down at her.
The man with the phone, and the shoulders and the chest, pressed the bouquet into her hand. 'You dropped this.'
As she absorbed the heat of his fingers curled over hers, his deep voicea blend of steel and richest sablevibrated through her. When his gaze slid to her mouth, the ground shifted beneath her feet and the room began a slow spin.
Thankfully, before she could make a complete fool of herself, Sophie's brain decided to work.
He'd seen the flowers fall from her lap when she'd stood. He was merely being a gentleman, filling in time.
Managing an unaffected smile, Sophie urged the flowers back. 'You keep them. For your girlfriend.' Or your wife.
'I'm unattached.' He took the bouquet and blindly set it on the tabletop. 'In fact, I wondered if you'd like this dance.'
Sophie blinked, then stole a wary glance around the room. This man was so out of her league. Was this some kind of joke? But when she met his gaze again, the sexual awareness that had started with a touch began to pour through her veins like thick warm cream.
Hooked by those eyes, she lifted one shoulder and let it drop. 'I was about to leave.'
Claiming her hand, he spoke over a shoulder as he escorted her away. 'Then I'm fortunate I caught you in time.'
Only upon reaching the middle of the floor did he fold her into the circle of his highly capable arms. Without another word he set a large palm against her back and began to dance.
Conscious of how her feet moved, as if programmed to follow his lead, she let herself relax against the hard plateau beneath his dress shirt and soak up the fresh, hot scent. When his thumb grazed the back of her hand she bit her lip as parched kindling sparked low in her belly.
Her eyes drifted shut.
Don't get excited. This is just a dance.
His deep voice hummed near her ear. 'Your dress is lovely.'
Her cheek all but resting against his shoulder, she melted a little more. 'It's been a while since I wore it last.' She shunted aside a vision of Jolly Green Giant satin stretched over her behind.
Yet he liked her dress. Had her luck changed? And to this extent? She was certain they hadn't met before. Had Noah ever made mention of this man? A work colleague from the bank, perhaps?
And why was she even asking herself these questions? She was supposed to be off men.
At least she kind of remembered thinking something like that
Her dance partner picked up the conversational thread. 'Black tie isn't a weekly dress requirement for most people.'
Maybe not. Still
'That tuxedo doesn't look so out of place on you.'
'It gets a decent workout. Hasn't seen a wedding in a while, though. It's been a nice day, with the church ceremony and the speeches' he whirled her around in a flawless move 'the bridal waltz.'
Yepall perfect. Right down to the hired Rolls-Royce. She scanned the opulent ballroom, wrapped in silk bows, glowing light and soft music. 'It must have cost of fortune.'
'I'm sure Noah thinks it's worth every cent.'
'Wendy too.' With both sets of parents passed away, she and Noah had covered all the expenses. Wendy's designer gown alone had cost thousands.