Robert Harrington was an older, just as charming, and just as steely, version of his son. She had known by the expression on her mother’s face when he entered the hospital room that his days as a single man were numbered. They were married within the month, and Reece Harrington had become her stepbrother. Laurel had avoided all of them during the following year whenever she could.
The small band played in one corner of the room, the delicious buffet was arranged in another; the private reception room at this leading hotel filled with friends of Laurel and Giles. To be truthful most of them were Laurel’s friends, the people Giles had invited only acquaintances from the firm he worked for. He had only been in London for about eighteen months and so had not made a lot of friends of his own. But he got on with most of Laurel’s friends, and had made them his own.
He was late. One of the people he worked with had told her they thought he might still be working, that he had been when she left. Laurel had tried calling, but as most of the building had already closed down for the night the switchboard was also closed down. Still, she wasn’t too concerned just yet; the party wasn’t really due to start until eight o’clock, although almost everyone seemed to have arrived already.
The management of the hotel had made a nice job of decorating the room, and a lovely iced cake stood in the middle of the buffet table, ‘Happy Engagement’ written on it stop. She even had the ring in her handbag, having picked it up from the jewellers on her way to work this morning, it having needed to be made smaller. It was Giles’ grandmother’s ring, a ruby surrounded by large diamonds, and although Laurel found the setting a little old-fashioned she had been honoured when Giles told her it had belonged to his grandmother.
But where was he? It was getting dangerously close to eight o’clock, and he still hadn’t arrived.
‘You look lovely, darling.’
She turned in time to be enveloped in the heady perfume her mother wore, receiving a brief hug. If she looked lovely, then her mother looked radiantly beautiful! Amanda was as petite as she, her golden hair slightly longer and softer in style, the make-up perfect on her beautiful face, the black dress she wore clinging to her slightly fuller curves. They could have been mistaken for sisters, with Amanda only the slightly older, much more glamorously beautiful one.
‘You do look lovely, Laurel.’ A hint of spicy cologne pervaded her nostrils as Reece, his black evening suit tailored to him perfectly, bent to lightly brush her lips with his. ‘Where is your elusive fiancé?’ he drawled, brows arched.
Her mouth still tingled from the contact with his, her cheeks flushed, a feverish glitter to her eyes. ‘I hope you enjoy the party,’ she murmured politely. ‘Please go and get yourself a drink.’ She vaguely pointed in the direction of the bar behind them.
Broodingly dark eyes studied her for long timeless minutes before Reece calmly interrupted Amanda’s light chatter. ‘Martini?’ He took her arm and led her over to the bar, both quickly swallowed up in the crowd, although Reece stood slightly taller than most of the men in the room.
Laurel was getting irritated now. Where was Giles? Surely he didn’t have to work this late, tonight, of all nights? The announcement of their engagement was due to be made at eight-fifteen; if Giles didn’t arrive soon she was going to have to delay it.
She turned sharply to the waiter that hovered at her elbow. ‘Yes?’ she invited worriedly.
‘This note has just been delivered for you.’ He thrust the small envelope into her hand before hastily making his exit.
Laurel frowned as she slit open the envelope. She and Giles had received many cards of congratulations since she had told people of their forthcoming engagement; but this didn’t look like one of them.
All colour drained from her cheeks as she read the short message written inside, her hands shaking so badly that she didn’t have the strength to protest when the note was taken out of her hands, Reece reading it quickly.
‘The bastard!’ He looked up at her anxiously, his arm going about her waist as she would have swayed.
‘He gave no indication,’ she mumbled into Reece’s chest. ‘Said nothing when I saw him two days ago. Oh God!’ She looked up at him with pained eyes. ‘What am I going to do with all these people? And then there’s the presents and cards that will have to be returned,’ she groaned. ‘I——’
‘Laurel, do you trust me?’ he prompted intently.
She looked up into the golden-brown eyes, unable to look away. ‘Yes,’ she answered dazedly, knowing she did trust him.
‘Then let me handle this,’ he told her.
‘Laurel, let me,’ he insisted tersely.
She searched the harshness of his face, the determination of his mouth and chin. ‘Yes,’ she accepted dully. ‘You do what you think best.’
He squeezed her arm reassuringly before turning and making his way to the microphone, silencing the music as he stepped forward to speak. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he greeted warmly. ‘I’m glad you could all make it tonight. I hope none of you will be too disappointed when I tell you there has been one little change in the proceedings.’ The silence in the room was deathly now as everyone waited expectantly.
Laurel groaned with humiliation, dropping down into a chair as her guests remained mesmerised by what Reece was saying. A ‘little change’, he called it; she would have described Giles defection completely differently! He had changed his mind, he had written. Couldn’t go through with it, he had added. And just as an afterthought, Could he have his grandmother’s ring back!
As soon as Reece had told everyone the engagement was off she was going to hide herself in her flat for the next twelve hours until necessity meant she had to come out to open the shop in the morning!
‘With the fascinating enchantment of all women, Laurel has changed her mind,’ Reece continued amiably.
She appreciated his help, but as she was the one at the party it was obvious she wasn’t the one to have changed her mind!
‘Much as she likes and respects Giles she has decided, for the sake of their happiness, that she can’t marry him,’ Reece went on.
She could sense the pitying looks directed at her even as she bent her head so that she shouldn’t actually see them, knew everyone must have guessed at the truth by now.
‘I hope you’ll all understand when I tell you that Laurel has realised she can’t marry Giles because it’s me she loves, and that she has accepted my request that she become my wife,’ Reece announced proudly.
Laurel’s head shot back disbelievingly. He couldn’t really have said that!
SHE knew he had as people surged forward to offer their congratulations.
‘He’s beautiful, darling.’ Heather, one of her more outrageously outspoken friends, eyed Reece covetously as he left the microphone to cross the room to Laurel’s side. ‘I’d change my mind, too, if he asked me.’ She gave the man who had accompanied her to the party a disparaging look before walking off.
‘Gorgeous,’ Polly agreed as she bent to kiss her cheek. ‘And I fell for the “brother” routine this afternoon,’ she grimaced.
‘He’s a lucky man.’ David, Polly’s husband, hugged her warmly.
‘Behave yourself,’ Polly glared at him. ‘If I don’t hit you Reece might, and he looks a powerful man to me.’
‘Darling!’ her mother kissed her, smiling happily. ‘What a lovely surprise.’