Lara Templeton was glad of the delicate black lace obscuring her vision and hiding her dry eyes from the sly looks of the crowd around the open grave. They might well suspect she wasn’t grieving the death of her husband, the not – so – honourable Henry Winterborne, but she didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of confirming that for themselves. So she kept herself hidden. Dressed in sober black from head to toe, as befitting a widow.
A grieving widow who had been left nothing by her husband. Who had, in fact, been little more than an indentured slave for the last three months. A detail this crowd of jackals would no doubt crow over if it ever became public knowledge. Her husband had had good reason to leave her with nothing. She wouldn’t have wanted his money anyway. It wasn’t why she’d married him, no matter what people believed. He hadn’t left her anything because she hadn’t given him what he wanted. Herself. It was her fault he’d ended up injured and in a wheelchair for the duration of their marriage.
No, it wasn’t your fault, if he hadn’t tried to – Lara’s churning thoughts skittered to a halt when she realised that people were looking at her expectantly. The back of her neck prickled. The priest gave a discreet cough and said sotto voce, ‘If you’d like to throw some soil on the coffin now, Mrs Winterborne…’
Lara flinched inwardly at the reference to her married name. The marriage had been a farce and she’d only agreed to it because she’d been blackmailed into it by her uncle. She saw a trowel on the ground near the edge of the grave and even though it was the last thing she wanted to do because she felt like a hypocrite, she bent down and scooped up some earth before letting it fall onto the coffin. It made a hollow sounding thunk. For a moment she had the nonsensical notion that her husband might reach out from the grave and pull her in with him and she almost stumbled forward into the empty space.
There was a gasp from the crowd and the priest caught her arm to steady her.
Unbelievable,thought the man standing nonchalantly against a tree nearby with his arms crossed over a broad chest. He fixated his gaze on the widow, but she didn’t look his way once. She was too busy acting the part, practically throwing herself into the grave.
His mouth firmed, the sensual lines drawing into one hard flat one. He had to hand it to her. She played the part well, dressed in a black form – fitting suit that clung to her willowy graceful frame. Her distinctive blonde hair was tied back in a low bun and a small circular hat sat on her head with a gauzy veil obscuring her face. Oh, he had no doubt she was genuinely grieving…but not for her husband. For the fortune she hadn’t been left.
The man’s mouth curved up into a cruel smile. That was the least Lara Winterborne, neé Templeton, deserved.
The back of Lara’s neck prickled again. But this time it prickled with heat. Awareness. Something she hadn’t felt in a long time. She looked up, shaking off the strange sensation, relieved to see that people were moving away from the grave, talking in low tones. It was over.
A movement in the distance caught her eye and she saw the tall figure of a man, broad and powerful, walking away, towards the cars. He wore a cap and what looked like a uniform. Just one of the drivers.
But something about his height and those broad shoulders…the way he walked with loose – limbed athleticism snagged her attention. More than her attention. For a fleeting moment she felt dizzy because he reminded her of…No. She shut down the thought immediately. It couldn’t be him.
Snippets of nearby whispered conversation distracted Lara from the stranger and as much as she tried to tune it out, some words couldn’t be unheard: Is it really true? She gets nothing?…Never should have married her…She was only trying to save her reputation after almost marrying one of the world’s most notorious playboys…
That last comment cut far too close to painful memories, but Lara had become adept at disregarding snide comments over the past two years. Contrary to what these people believed, she couldn’t be more relieved she’d been left with not a cent of Winterborne’s fortune.
She would never have married him in a million years if she hadn’t been faced with an impossible situation. A heinous betrayal by her uncle. Nevertheless, she wasn’t such a monster that she couldn’t feel some emotion for Winterborne’s loss. But mostly she felt empty. Weary. Tainted by association.
The grief she did feel was for something else entirely. Something that had been snatched away from her before it ever had a chance to live and breathe. Someone. Someone she’d loved more than she’d ever thought it possible to love another human being. He’d been hurt and tortured, because of her. He’d almost died. She’d had no choice but to do what she had, to save him further pain and possibly worse.
Swallowing back the constriction in her throat Lara finally turned away from the grave and started to walk towards where just a couple of cars remained. She wasn’t paying for any of this. She couldn’t afford it. As soon as she was returned back to the exclusive apartment she’d shared with her husband, there would be staff waiting with her bags to escort her off the premises. Her husband had wanted to maintain the facade as far as the graveside. But then all bets were off. She was on her own.
She clamped down on the churning panic in her gut. She would deal with what to do and where to go when she had to. That’s in approximately half an hour, Lara! She ignored the voice.
One of the funeral parlour staff was standing by the back door of the car, holding it open. She saw the shadowy figure of the driver in the front seat. Once again she felt that prickle of recognition but she told herself she was being silly, superstitious. She was only thinking of himnow because she was finally free of the burden that had been thrust upon her. But she couldn’t allow her thoughts to go there.
She murmured her thanks as she sat into the back of the luxurious car. The last bit of luxury she’d experience for some time. Not that she cared.
A long time ago, when she’d lost her parents and older brother in a tragic accident, she’d learnt the hard way that nothing external mattered once you lost the people you loved most.
But clearly it hadn’t been enough of a lesson to protect her from falling in love with – the car started moving and Lara welcomed the distraction. Not thinking of him now. No matter how much a random stranger had reminded her of him.
Unable to stop her curiosity though, she looked at the only part of the driver’s face she could see in the rear – view mirror – his face was half hidden by aviator style sunglasses, but she could see a strong acquiline nose and firm top lip. A hard, defined jaw.
Her heart started to beat faster even though rationally she knew it couldn’t possibly be – at that moment he seemed to sense her regard from the back and she saw his arm move before the privacy window slid up without a sound. Cutting her off.
For some reason Lara felt as if he’d put the window up like a rebuke. Ridiculous. He was just a driver! He’d probably assumed she wanted some privacy…
Still, the disquieting niggle wouldn’t go away. It got worse when she realised that while they were headed in the right direction back to the Kensington apartment she’d shared with her husband, they weren’t getting closer. They were veering off the main high street onto another street nearby, populated by tall exclusive townhouses.
Lara had walked down this street nearly every day for two years and had relished every second she wasn’t in the oppressively claustrophobic apartment with her husband. But, it wasn’t her street.
The driver must be mistaken. As the car drew to a stop outside one of the houses, Lara leant forward and tapped the window. For a moment nothing happened. She tapped again, and suddenly it slid down with a mechanical bzz.
The driver was still facing forward, left hand on the wheel. For some reason Lara felt nervous. Yet she was on a familiar street with people passing by the car.
‘Excuse me, we’re not in the right place, I’m just around the corner, on Marley Street.’
Lara saw the man’s jaw clench, and then he said, ‘On the contrary, cara. We’re in exactly the right place.’
That voice. His voice. Lara’s breath stopped in her throat and in the same moment the man took off the cap and removed his sunglasses and turned around to face her. She wasn’t sure how long she sat there, stupefied. In shock. Time ceased to exist as a linear thing.
His words from two years ago were still etched into her mind. ‘You will regret this for the rest of your life, Lara. You belong to me.’
And here he was to crow over her humiliation. Ciro Sant’Angelo.