Wedding Date in Malaysia

Chapter One

‘Right, so I haven’t told you about the bridesmaid yet.’

   Harry raised an eyebrow as Martin concentrated on reversing his four-by-four into one of the restaurant’s parking bays. What was wrong with the bridesmaid?

   Was she some predatory gold-digger? Or worse still a party girl? He glanced at the harbour twinkling with a thousand lights—like a party!—and winced. Being linked with a woman like that at the moment wouldn’t do his image makeover any good.

   When Martin didn’t continue, even after switching off the engine, Harry’s gut clenched, but he pushed his shoulders back. He had every intention of taking his best man duties seriously, even if that included dealing with a difficult Bridezilla of a bridesmaid.

   Though, could a bridesmaid technically be a Bridezilla? That term, by definition, belonged to the bride, didn’t it?

   Oh, for God’s sake, Harrison, concentrate.

   ‘C’mon, spit it out. Why’d you say “the bridesmaid” like that? As if it was in italics or something?’

   He needed to know what he was up against. Agreeing to be Martin’s best man was supposedly step one in Operation New Leaf. He needed to convince the world—or at least the trustees of the charity he wanted to partner with—that he was a changed man who’d given up his playboy ways.

   Playboy ways that weren’t entirely earned, he reminded himself.

   Earned or not, it didn’t change the fact that he had the kind of reputation entirely deserving of italics.

   ‘You’re taking a long time answering the question, Martin.’ It wasn’t setting his mind at rest.

   ‘I’m just trying to think of the most tactful way of putting it.’

   This was going from bad to worse!

   Hold on… ‘I’ve met Susie.’ He’d met Martin’s intended yesterday when he’d flown in from Switzerland. ‘She’s a sweetheart.’ Which was true. ‘I can’t imagine her having a gorgon of a girlfriend, let alone choosing someone like that to be her bridesmaid.’

   ‘Oh, Ellie isn’t a gorgon. She’s just…sad.’

   He eased back to stare at Martin. Sad?

   ‘She’s the one who was engaged to Susie’s brother.’

   He wracked his brain. Susie’s brother…?

   Martin rolled his eyes. ‘You’re jet-lagged.’

   Considering he’d only flown in yesterday from the other side of the world, he didn’t feel too bad. But he had been burning the candle at both ends lately. Though not in the way the tabloids would suggest. He’d had a lot on his mind, but he’d have to switch gears now he was back in Australia—for both Martin’s sake and the sake of Operation New Leaf.

   ‘James died… I guess it’d be over twelve months ago now.’

He slapped a hand to his head. ‘Drowned. Great guy. Awful tragedy.’

   ‘That’s the one.’

   ‘Aw, c’mon, Martin, put yourself in her shoes.’

   ‘I know! I know! And I don’t mean to sound unsympathetic, but she’s the maid of honour, for God’s sake. Is it really too much to ask her to put on a brave face and be happy for Susie?’

He grimaced. His friend had a point.

   ‘She’s bringing down the whole tone of the celebrations. It’s like no one can be too happy or festive around her. This is supposed be one of the happiest times of my life—of Susie’s life—something we remember forever. Instead, it’s turning into a wake.’

   Harry shifted on his seat. ‘Why the hell did Susie ask her, then? And if she’s grieving—’ if she’d been in the process of planning her own wedding ‘—why on earth did this Ellie agree to be Susie’s bridesmaid?’

   Martin raised his hands, a mystified expression on his face. ‘I’m all ears if you can explain to me why women do what they do, why they make the decisions they make, when those decisions seem to defy logic. When I asked her why she chose her, Susie said, “Because it’s the right thing to do.” Right thing for who? That’s what I want to know.’

   Harry let out a slow breath. He of all people knew how difficult relationships could be.

Not romantic relationships, though. He avoided those like the plague.

   ‘The two families are close. Susie’s mum and Ellie’s mum have been best friends since kindergarten. And once they married, the two couples went into business together. So Susie and Ellie grew up together. They’re more like sisters than friends.’

   The word sister had his gut clenching. If Susie and this Ellie were that close then they’d probably do anything for each other, regardless of the cost to themselves. That was something he understood.

   ‘So this is where you come in, Harrison.’

   He snapped to attention. ‘Me?’

   ‘I want you to do everything in your power to cheer her up, to get her to loosen up and enter into the spirit of the thing.’

   What?

   ‘You’re good at getting people to laugh and let their hair down. Nobody throws a party like you do.’

   Hell. He was supposed to be shedding the Harrison ‘party boy, bad boy, can’t-be-serious-for-a-moment’ routine. He dragged a hand down his face. God, he was so typecast.

   And whose fault is that?

   He’d hoped acting as Martin’s best man would help him present a more responsible image to the world, not reinforce his current one.

   ‘But I only want you to cheer her up. Save any other shenanigans for some other girl, all right?’

   He glanced at Martin. Was he asking him to just platonically cheer her up?

   ‘No hanky-panky with the bridesmaid unless—’ Martin bumped shoulders with him ‘—you’ve changed your view on relationships. It comes to all of us, you know?’

   That was an out-and-out lie, but he didn’t bother challenging him on it. For God’s sake, the man was marrying the woman of his dreams in three months. He obviously believed in true love and happy-ever-afters. But for some people that kind of long-term commitment didn’t stick, the ability to go the long haul wasn’t in their make-up. ‘Nope, no change on that front.’

   ‘Ellie’s a hearts-and-roses kind of girl. She and James were childhood sweethearts. They’d never dated anyone else.’

   Seriously?

   ‘I wouldn’t like to see her get hurt.’

   He raised both hands. ‘Definitely not my type. I run a mile from women like that. Best behaviour,’ he promised.

   ‘Besides,’ Martin added, ‘it’d cause a bit of an uproar.’

   What did that mean?

   ‘I’m relying on you, Harrison. I don’t want any drama marring my wedding.’ He leapt out of the car. ‘Ready?’

   ‘Ready,’ he agreed, pushing out of the car.

   Martin and Susie had booked out a restaurant with stunning views of Sydney harbour. They’d wanted all the interested parties—families, close friends, and wedding attendants—to meet each other before the big day.

   The restaurant was small, which made it feel crowded, and it looked as if he and Martin were the last to arrive. And despite what Martin had said, the atmosphere was convivial.

   He met Susie’s parents and chatted with Martin’s—who asked after his mother, though not his father—and a few of the couple’s nearest and dearest before Martin bustled him over to a woman in the middle of a group of other women.

   ‘Ellie, I’d like you to meet my best man, Harrison Gillespie. Harrison, this is Ellie Hawthorne .’

   He found himself staring down into the brightest blue eyes he’d ever seen. They smiled into his as she held out her hand. ‘It’s lovely to meet you, Harrison. I’ve heard a lot about you.’ She rolled her eyes at Martin. ‘And I’m Ella.’ She stressed the second syllable.

   He took her hand and found himself encompassed in warmth and…welcome. He frowned. She made him feel welcome. He couldn’t work out how. Or why he wanted to rest in that welcome, put up his feet and just…be.

   He shook himself. Jet lag, he must have it bad this time around. ‘I’m pleased to meet you too, Ella.’ He stressed the second syllable in the same fashion she did, which made her eyes dance.

‘You don’t have a drink. Let’s remedy that.’

   She smiled and he immediately relaxed. Ella’s entire demeanour calmed any concerns he might’ve had. Her expression was the same as the one that the women who always avoided him wore—the ones who dismissed him as frivolous and not to be trusted with their hearts—determinedly friendly but determinedly distant too.

   Ella couldn’t currently avoid him so she was doing the next best thing—putting him firmly in the friend zone. He loved the friend zone.

   ‘Susie is trying to get your attention, Martin. Leave Harrison with me.’ Ella took Harry’s arm. ‘He’s in safe hands.’ She turned to the assorted throng around her. ‘You’ll have to excuse us,’ she said. ‘We have important bridesmaid and best man business to discuss.’

   Her hand on his arm tightened and he went on immediate high alert. Whenever Lily seized his arm like that, it meant she needed rescuing. Who the hell was hassling Ella?

   He hated men who preyed on vulnerable women. He’d be more than happy to set the guilty party straight.

   He searched the vicinity as she led him towards the bar, but couldn’t find a likely suspect. He frowned. Perhaps her covert urgency had another cause. ‘Do we have important bridesmaid and best man business to discuss?’ Was there something he needed to do, a problem he needed to solve or—?

   ‘Oh, I don’t know. Probably.’

   She shrugged without looking at him and continued towards the bar. She had short dark curls that danced as she walked—glossy, shiny and the colour of the icing on a chocolate éclair.

   The thought made him blink. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten anything sweet and sticky. He wasn’t much into desserts, but if someone set a chocolate éclair in front of him now, he’d wolf it down and relish every bite.

   He frowned. She was nothing like he’d expected. After Martin’s description, he’d pictured a pale waif with tragic eyes brimming with tears, and a general air of inertia. Not this lively woman who moved with brisk purpose.

   She sent him a smile as she slid up onto a stool. ‘If the truth be told, I just needed a little break from the gathering horde.’

   Her smile removed any sting from the words and he suddenly realised that she no longer held his arm, although the imprint of her fingers continued to burn on his flesh. It occurred to him then that her former touch had been mercifully brief.

   Or do you mean mercilessly?

   The thought made him swallow.

   ‘I mean, I love them dearly, don’t get me wrong, but they can be a bit much en masse.’

   Hold on, she’d been desperate to get away from…

   He glanced back the way they’d come and found a large proportion of the room sending covert glances Ella’s way—biting lips, shaking heads and heaving sighs.

   He turned back to Ella, who wasn’t looking at him but studying the wine list. She’d been desperate to get away from all of that commiseration and pity? Pursing his lips, he nodded. He supposed it must get a bit suffocating after a while.

   She clapped the wine list shut. ‘What’ll you have?’

   ‘A beer.’

   ‘Would you like to try one of these new-fangled craft beers?’

   He really didn’t care and she interpreted his shrug as such because she didn’t ask any other questions, merely pointed to one of the beers on tap and ordered a glass of white wine for herself.

‘So…you prefer Ella?’

   ‘I do. Not that anyone pays the slightest bit of attention.’ There was the tiniest edge to her words, but before he could attempt to decipher what that meant, she sent him another of those discombobulating smiles. ‘And you prefer Harrison?’

   Actually, he didn’t. ‘I like Harry, but my parents insisted on calling me Harrison and, therefore, so did the teachers at school. And therefore so did all the kids at school.’

   Their glasses were set in front of them and she raised hers to clink it with his. ‘Harry it is, then.’

   And something inside him unwound. Just like that. Something that felt as if it had been wound tight his whole life.

   ‘So…’

   She leaned towards him and he wondered if he’d read her incorrectly and that maybe she was about to start flirting with him.

   ‘Do you know what Martin and—?’

   A middle-aged man clamped a hand to Ella’s arm, and her words stuttered to a halt. ‘How are you doing, Ellie dear?’

   ‘I’m well, Uncle Aubrey, and you?’

   ‘It’s nice to see you making such an effort for our dear Susie’s sake.’

   ‘Well, I’m very happy for Susie, and this is a night of celebration.’

   ‘Och, you’re a good lass.’

   Uncle Aubrey patted Ella’s hand as if… Harry blinked. As if she were a sad puppy!

   ‘You’re doing your parents proud.’

   And then he left, and Ella turned back to the bar and gulped wine, avoiding Harry’s gaze. ‘That was Uncle Aubrey, who’s actually Susie’s dad’s second cousin, so not really an uncle at all, but you know how these things are. I’d have introduced you, but…’

   ‘He didn’t really give you the chance.’

   She straightened. ‘So what I was going to ask was, has Martin let anything slip about…?’

   Her gaze moved to a point behind his right shoulder and her words trailed off again. He swung around to find a slender woman standing there, staring at Ella with tears in her eyes.

   ‘Hello, Adele, how are you?’

   Tears fell. ‘Oh, Ellie, I don’t know how you can stand it. When you should be here with…well, you know.’

   He found himself wanting to shout, Her name is Ella, not Ellie!

   ‘No, no, don’t mind me.’ Adele dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. ‘I’ll just—’

   ‘Oh, no you don’t.’ Ella slid off her stool, wrapped an arm around the other woman’s shoulders and steered her to a seat between both of them. ‘You’re not crying on Susie’s shoulder. Not tonight. Tonight is a happy night. Have you met Harry yet? He’s Martin’s best man.’

   The tears dried up. ‘Best man? Oh! So he’s not your date?’

   For a moment he wished he were so he could wipe the relief from this woman’s face.

   ‘We were just having a best man and bridesmaid confab.’

   ‘Oh, then I won’t interrupt.’

   With that she leapt up and disappeared back into the crowd. The nosy so-and-so. She’d just wanted to find out who the hell he was.

   Ella stared into her glass with pursed lips. She had pretty lips, but it was the curl resting against one dusky cheek that caught his attention. No matter how much he might want to, he couldn’t reach out and wind it around his finger, and—

   Stop it!

   He rolled his shoulders. Old habits and all that. He just hadn’t realised how ingrained they were. He was not going to flirt with Ella Hawthorne . He wasn’t flirting with any woman.

   Ella pulled in a big breath that made her chest rise. He averted his gaze and refused to notice anything. He especially wasn’t going to notice the sweet curve of her chest.

   ‘Okay, let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way.’ Resentment lurked in the back of those blue eyes, but he didn’t think it was directed at him. ‘Have you heard about James yet?’

   With someone else he might’ve hemmed and hawed, treaded softly, but he sensed she’d prefer straight talk. He went with his gut and nodded. ‘Susie’s brother who died over a year ago.’

   Her lips twisted. ‘Eighteen months.’

   That was a year and a half. ‘And you were engaged to him.’

   ‘That’s right.’

   He stared at her for a long moment. ‘So how are you really doing?’

   She stared back, her eyes not wavering from his. ‘Actually, I’m doing really well.’

   He believed her.

   And then he frowned. From where he was sitting, Ella was doing a fine job of putting on a brave face. What was Martin’s problem?

   ‘Ellie, dear.’ An elderly woman came bustling up on his other side.

   Ella pasted on a bright smile. ‘Have you met Harry yet, Aunt Edith?’

   She introduced him as Harry rather than Harrison and he found himself absurdly touched.

   ‘Susie’s grandmother on her mum’s side is one of five sisters and Edith here is the eldest.’ Her smile widened. ‘You can imagine what Christmas dinner is like, can’t you?’

   He recognised her pre-empt attempt at diversion—trying to get in before she became an object of pity and subjected to yet more platitudes. He sensed her quiet desperation returning. It didn’t show in her face, but he saw the way her fingers tightened around her wine glass in the same way they’d tightened on his arm earlier.

   It occurred to him then that Ella was close to her breaking point. If someone didn’t do something soon, she could go off like a firecracker. If she did, Martin and Susie’s celebrations would be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

   And Ella would hate herself forever.

   He didn’t know how he knew that, only that he did. And he couldn’t let it happen. He leapt into the breach. ‘Five sisters? I’m guessing Christmas is rowdy. Really rowdy. And fun.’ He thrust his hand out towards the older woman. ‘It’s nice to meet you.’

   Edith frowned. ‘I…’

   ‘Are you ladies on the blue lagoons already? Way to go!’ Ella leaned closer as she held up a hand to high-five the other woman and her scent—all peachy freshness—dredged his senses. ‘It’s clearly going to be a good night.’

   She had the kind of smile that could fell a man. Not to mention gumption. She was digging deep to keep up this front. He was determined to do whatever he could to help her.

   Edith heaved a gusty sigh. ‘You don’t need to put a brave face on for us, Ellie. We understand what you’re going through. Dinner is about to be served and we’ve saved you a seat at our table. We don’t want you feeling lonely. We widows need to stick together.’

   He felt Ella flinch and in that moment he saw it all. It wasn’t that Ella was so sad—it was that everyone else still was. And they were projecting it all onto her.

   Damn it all to hell.

His hands clenched and unclenched, even as his heart went out to not just Ella but everyone else as well. They probably didn’t know they were doing it. But trying to keep James alive through Ella—martyring her on some awful altar of remembrance—wasn’t fair. It made him want to…

   He rolled his shoulders. He wasn’t sure. But he wanted to do something.

   Ella’s strength, though, astounded him. She kept her chin high, she kept the smile on her face. ‘That’s very thoughtful of you, Edith.’

   She’d pushed all of that boiling bubbling frustration and desperation back deep down, and he winced. That couldn’t be good for her.

   ‘We’re looking forward to hearing all your news, Ellie love, and talking about old times.’

   Dear God. He might not be able to do anything else, but he could at least rescue her from a dreary night spent on the widows’ table.

   ‘I’m sorry, Edith, but I’ve already claimed Ella for the evening. As best man and bridesmaid we obviously have important wedding business to discuss.’

*

Ella had to fight an entirely inappropriate laugh at the shock on Aunt Edith’s face.

   ‘But perhaps after dessert we can join your table for a…’

   He glanced towards Edith’s table and the jug of bright blue cocktail sitting there, and she swore she heard him swallow, which had her fighting another laugh.

   ‘…for a drink. I’d like to meet all of Susie’s family.’

   Edith hefted up her ample bosom as if to challenge him, but before she could splutter out an argument, Harry slid from his stool and took Ella’s hand to help her down from hers. ‘You’ll have to excuse us, but Martin and Susie must be wondering where we’ve got to.’

   He didn’t drop Ella’s hand as she’d expected, but led her away from Susie’s flabbergasted great-aunt towards the table where Susie and Martin sat with their parents. Ella glanced back at Edith with a smile and a shrug, but it didn’t stop the guilt from rolling through her.

   Edith and her sisters had loved James so very much. She understood how much they missed him. She missed him too, but—

   ‘How can you stand it?’

   Harry lowered his head to murmur the question in her ear and it stirred the hair at her temples, sending prickles along her nape and raising the fine hairs on her arms. She didn’t know if that was the result of the question he’d asked or the effect of the man himself.

   Not that she had any intention of taking Harry Gillespie seriously. She’d heard all about his reputation, thank you very much. She had no intention of falling victim to his playboy charm. She wasn’t falling for anyone’s charm, playboy or otherwise. She barely managed to suppress a shudder at the thought.

   Before she’d managed to formulate a response to his question, though, they were standing at Susie and Martin’s table.

   ‘You’re joining us?’ Susie’s eyebrows rose and her teeth worried her bottom lip.

   Ella bit back a sigh. She truly was the black widow—the kiss of death to all fun and frivolity. No wonder Edith had tried dragging her off to the widows’ table. It wasn’t that she was trying to prevent Ella from feeling lonely. It was that she didn’t want Ella raining on anyone else’s parade.

   If they’d only give her half a chance, she’d show them that she could be the life and soul.

   Well, you know how to fix that. Return to the fold

   She flinched at the thought. Tried to cut it dead. Couldn’t face it. If she surrendered her dream now, she couldn’t help feeling it would be the slow death of who she was.

   Except following her dream was making everyone else unhappy!

   Maybe they were right. Maybe she was being reckless and selfish. She was so tired of being on the outer, of constantly having to justify her choices…of being the source of so much worry. James’s death had hurt everyone so badly. Did she really have it in her to keep hurting them?

   She suddenly realised she had a death grip on Harry’s hand and loosened her hold. Her eyes burned, but she forced up her chin. Next week. She’d tell them next week. Monday. She’d say she’d made a mistake, would return to the family business…and to a life of dull, secure monotony.

   But deep inside her a voice whispered that she shouldn’t have to surrender all her dreams simply to make everyone else happy.

   ‘Auntie Edith told me she was organising for you to sit with them.’

   Had there been phone calls prior to this evening’s gathering about how best to handle Ella? She’d bet there had been. Why couldn’t they acknowledge that she was making an effort? They’d all lost James. Not just her.

   Pulling in a breath, she let it out slowly. She knew how much they were hurting, and she’d do anything she could to change that. But it was as if whenever she was in the room the family didn’t see her any more, all they could see was James’s absence.

   She was trying to do her best by and for Susie. Why couldn’t Susie return the favour? Unlike Ella, the family was letting her move on. Didn’t she have it in her to extend some of that grace to Ella? Rather than relegating her to the widows’ table?

   Ella did what she could to beat down the resentment. Susie had idolised James. Losing him had blown her world apart. It had blown all their worlds apart. In the grand scheme of things sitting with the great-aunts was a small sacrifice to make. And if she was honest she couldn’t care less where she sat.

   So why the pang at the thought of not sitting with Harry?

   Because, for all his playboy ways, he was a breath of fresh air. In the same way anyone who hadn’t known James would be a breath of fresh air.

   She opened her mouth to say she’d go and sit with Edith, but Harry spoke first. ‘Susie, your bridesmaid is too young to be banished to the great-aunts’ table.’

   It felt odd to have someone going into bat for her. Odd but nice.

   His mouth hooked up in a crooked grin and she saw the charm that must’ve won him at least a thousand hearts over the years. ‘That said, I can see you and Ella making up your own great-aunts’ table in another fifty years and getting up to all sorts of shenanigans.’

   Just for a moment Susie’s eyes met hers and they shared a grin—a ‘before James had died’ kind of grin. Ella pointed at her. ‘We are not drinking blue lagoons.’

   ‘What will we drink instead?’ Susie asked.

   ‘Champagne, of course. We’ll be on the bubbles, darling.’

   But the smile had already started to fade from Susie’s face. It was the same with everyone. They’d enjoy a brief moment with her, and then feel guilty because James was no longer here. In this instance, though, Susie’s smile became a frown. Her gaze lowered, and with a start Ella realised that her and Harry’s hands were still linked.

   ‘Mind you—’ Harry craned his neck towards Edith’s table ‘—they’ve just ordered another jug of blue lagoon. That could be the party table. You up for it, Ella?’

   Her cheeks burned and she tugged her hand free. She hadn’t realised she’d left her hand in his. It’d just been so nice to let someone else take charge for a moment that she’d let herself wallow in it.

   Dangerous.

   It struck her then how tired she was. Which meant she was getting closer and closer to her breaking point. And she had to guard against that with everything she had.

   Martin shot to his feet. ‘Of course you should sit with us.’ He gestured to the spare seats at the end of the table, but he didn’t meet Ella’s eye. He never met her eye.

   Wine was poured and the conversations continued around them, but nobody invited them into said conversation because…black widow…kiss of death.

   She wondered how soon before she could excuse herself, go home, climb into bed and pull the covers up over her head.

   She sipped her wine and glanced at Harry, found him watching her with a frown in his eyes. She didn’t know how to answer the question there, so she merely shrugged. ‘You’d have had more fun this evening if you’d surrendered me to Edith and her gang.’

   ‘You’re wrong. You and I have Very Important Things to discuss.’

   He said the words as if they should have capitals. ‘Oh?’

   ‘The thing is…’

   He leaned across the table towards her and it felt as if not just the table shrank but the entire room. It was possible that every eye in the room was on them, but in that brief moment she didn’t care.

   Which was also dangerous, but so damn freeing she couldn’t help glorying in it. She reminded herself about the playboy thing.

   ‘What is the thing?’ she found herself asking. Her pulse was not racing and her breath was not hitching.

   ‘You and I need to make a deal. Wedding attendants have to stick together. It’s the rules.’

   She fought a smile. ‘The rules, huh?’

   ‘Exactly. Which means I hereby solemnly swear to save you from the great-aunts’ table as long as you promise to save me from the scary ladies’ table.’

   She glanced in the direction he indicated and a laugh shot from her. A little too loudly, obviously, because it suddenly felt as if the entire room stared at her.

   ‘Susie’s cousins,’ she said, trying to school her features. ‘And I guess you could call them a little scary. But rumour has it there’s not a scary ladies’ table in all the land that holds any fear for you.’

   He wagged a finger at her. ‘Wrong answer. You haven’t promised me yet.’

   She choked back another laugh. ‘Okay, okay, you have a deal.’

   ‘Thank you!’

   He sounded heartfelt.

   ‘I could kiss you. Except I’m off kissing and romance and all of that nonsense.’

   ‘Oh, ho! Another drink for the gentleman, please.’ She seized a wine bottle and topped up his glass. ‘Colour me intrigued. This is a story I have to hear.’

   ‘It’s not as interesting as it sounds.’

   She couldn’t work out if he was mock rueful or whether the regret was real. ‘Why don’t you let me be the judge of that?’ It had to be more interesting than her life at the moment.

   He sat back, gave a shrug. ‘Well, for reasons…’

   Ones he obviously didn’t want to go into.

   ‘I need to clean up my image. I have to channel less of the party boy and more of the clean-cut role model.’

   She glanced at the scary ladies’ table. ‘So you’re trying to stay away from temptation.’

   He huffed out a curiously mirthless laugh. ‘That’s the problem: it’s what everyone thinks—that I’m constantly on the prowl. Wherever I go, even if it’s just a quiet dinner with friends, compromising pictures of me somehow get leaked to the press, as if it’s a game. In reality they’re not compromising. In reality it’s usually just some girl who’s had too much to drink throwing her arms around me, and her friends snapping a picture.’

   Was he serious? But…that was awful!

   His eyes narrowed. ‘And experience tells me that the women on the table over there would find something like that a hoot, a great joke. And I’m tired of being the butt of everyone’s jokes.’

   ‘Oh, Harry.’ Her chest burned. ‘I’m sorry.’

   ‘Not your fault.’

   ‘Yeah, well, I could’ve been more sensitive rather than jumping to conclusions.’

   ‘Conclusions fed by the press.’

   She stared at him, wishing she could make him smile again. ‘We shouldn’t believe everything we read.’

   ‘Yeah, well, I’m not saying I’m a saint either.’

   It sounded like a warning. ‘I never thought that for a moment.’

   His gaze sharpened. ‘You and I—’ he gestured between them ‘—are on the same wavelength.’

   She took in that square jaw, the white-blond hair and those ridiculously broad shoulders and a pulse started up inside her.

   She pulled back. She had no intention of viewing Harry in that kind of light. But with his soulful brown eyes and wicked-as-sin grin, he was the kind of man who oozed sex appeal, and she’d be a fool to let her guard down around him. He might say he was trying to clean up his image but that could just be a line he was spinning. Or a promise he wasn’t capable of keeping.

   And she wasn’t in the market for anything like that. ‘What makes you think we’re on the same wavelength?’

   ‘You can’t breathe a word of this to another soul.’

   She wasn’t breathing too much of anything to anyone at the moment so she crossed her heart.

   ‘Before we came into the restaurant, Martin told me you were sad and asked me to cheer you up.’

   She sat back, stung, though his words shouldn’t have surprised her.

   ‘But it took me less than half an hour to work out that you’re not sad.’

   He knew that? How? And how could she convince everyone else of that fact?

   ‘You’re not sad, but everyone else is.’

   His words speared into all the sore places in her heart. It took all her strength not to lower her head to the table and close her eyes.

   ‘So I don’t need to cheer you up. What we need to do is find a way to cheer everyone else up or this wedding is going to be about as much fun as…’

   ‘Balancing the books?’ she offered. The thought of spending her life balancing books made her want to scream. Really loudly.

   ‘There’s a certain satisfaction in having balanced the books. No, this wedding is in danger of becoming a—’

   He broke off. ‘A wake?’ she said softly.

   He grimaced. ‘Sorry.’

   ‘Don’t be daft. No apologies necessary.’ She didn’t want him walking on eggshells around her.

   His gaze held hers and it felt as if he plumbed her very depths. And then he nodded and she let out a breath, realising he’d taken her words exactly as she’d meant them, that he’d accepted she wasn’t some delicate flower in danger of breaking.

   He sent a pointed glance at Susie and Martin and then hitched his head at the rest of the room. ‘We need to do something to fix this.’

   She’d been trying to, but her best efforts clearly weren’t good enough. But with Harry’s help…

   Maybe he was right. Maybe they were on the same wavelength. She leaned towards him. ‘I’d love to cheer everyone up, Harry. I’d love to make this a wedding Susie could look back on with pride, one not marred by grief.’

   ‘Then we’re on the same page.’

   She chewed the inside of her cheek. ‘Speaking of the wedding, do you know what they have planned? Something’s afoot and—’

   ‘Can I have a bit of shush?’ Martin chose that moment to rise to his feet and tap his wine glass with his knife to get everyone’s attention. ‘Susie and I have a rather important announcement to make.’