Married by Christmas

By: Carole Mortimer

CHAPTER ONE

'Who is that gorgeous-looking man over there?' Sally gushed eagerly at Lilli's side.

Until that moment, Lilli had been staring sightlessly at a barman across the room as he quickly and efficiently served drinks to the multitude of people attending what had so far been a pretty boring party.

Or maybe it wasn't the party that was boring; maybe it was just Lilli who felt slightly out of sync with the rest of the people here: if the babble of noise was anything to go by they were having such a good time.

She hadn't attended a party like this in such a long while, and so much had happened in the preceding months. Once upon a time, she acknowledged, she would have thought this was a great party too, would have been at the centre of whatever was going on, but tonight-—well, tonight she felt like a total outsider, rather; is the only sober person in a room full of inebriates must feel. Except she had already consumed several glasses of champagne herself, so that wasn't the reason she felt so out of touch with this crowd with which she had once spent so much time.

As for gorgeous men, the house was full of them— gorgeous and rich. When Geraldine Simms threw a party, this a pre-Christmas one, only the rich and beautiful were invited to attend, in their hundreds. Geraldine's house, in a fashionable part of London, was as huge and prepossessing as its neighbours, and tonight it was bursting at the seams with bejewelled women and handsome men.

Lilli dragged her gaze away from the efficient barman, obviously hired for the evening. It was time she looked away anyway—the man had obviously noticed her attention several minutes ago, and, from the speculative look in his eyes, believed he had made a conquest! He couldn't have been further from the truth; the last thing Lilli was interested in was a fling with any man, let alone someone as transient as a hired barman!

'What gorgeous man?' she asked Sally without interest. Sally was the one who had persuaded her to come in the first place, on the basis that a Geraldine Simms party, an event that only happened twice a year, was a party not to be missed.

'Over by the door— Oh, damn it, he's disappeared again!' Sally frowned her irritation. She was a petite blonde, with a beauty that could stop a man in his tracks, the black dress she almost wore doing little to forestall this.

Lilli had met her several years ago, during the usual round of parties, and, because neither of them had any interest in becoming permanently entangled with any of the handsome men they encountered, they often found themselves spending the evening together laughing at some of the antics of the other women around them as they cast out their nets and secured some unsuspecting man for the evening. Rather a cruel occupation, really, but it had got Lilli and Sally through many a tedious occasion.

'He must be gorgeous if you've taken an interest,' Lilli said dryly, attracting more than her own fair share of admiring glances as she stood tall and slender next to Sally, her hair long and straight to her waist, as black as a raven's wing, eyes cool and green in a gaminely beautiful face, the strapless above-knee-length red dress that she wore clinging to the perfection of her body. Her legs were long and shapely, still tanned from the summer months, the red high-heeled shoes she wore only adding to her height—and to the impression of unobtainable aloofness that she had practised to perfection over the years.

'Oh, he is,' Sally assured her, still searching the crowd for the object of her interest. 'He makes all the other men here look like callow, narcissistic youths. He— Oh, damn,' she swore impatiently. 'Oh, well,' she sighed, turning back to Lilli with a rueful grimace. 'That was fun while it lasted!' She sipped her champagne.

Lilli's eyes widened. 'You've given up already?' She sounded surprised because she was. On the few occasions she had known Sally to take an interest in a man, she hadn't given up until she had got him! And, as far as Lilli was aware, her friend had always succeeded...

'Had to.' Sally grimaced her disappointment, taking another sip of her champagne. 'Unobtainable.'

'You mean he's married,' Lilli said knowingly.

Sally arched her brows. 'I'm sorry to say that hasn't always been a deterrent in the past.' She shook her head. 'No, he belongs to Gerry,' she explained disappointedly. 'As far as I'm aware, no woman has ever taken one of our hostess's men and lived to tell the tale. And I'm too young to die!'

Lilli laughed huskily at her friend's woebegone expression. Sally was exaggerating, of course, although Geraldine's succession of lovers was legendary. In fact, Lilli doubted there were too many men in this room the beautiful Geraldine Simms hadn't been involved with at some time or other during the last few years. But at least she seemed to stay good friends with them, which had to say something about the bubbling effervescence of their hostess!

Sally glanced across the room again. 'But he is so gorgeous...' she said longingly.

Lilli gave a shake of her head. 'Okay, I give up; where is he?' She turned to look for the man who was so attractive that Sally seemed to be about to throw caution to the wind and challenge Gerry for him, on the other woman's home ground, no less!

'Over there.' Sally nodded to the far side of the elegantly furnished room. 'Standing next to Gerry near the window.'

Sally continued to give an exact description of the gorgeous man but Lilli was no longer listening to her having already located the intimately engrossed couple, feeling the blood drain from her cheeks as she easily spotted the man standing so arrogantly self-assured at Geraldine's side.

No!

Not him. Not here. Not with her!

Oh, God...! How could he? How dared he?

'Isn't he just—? I say, Lilli, you've gone very pale all of a sudden.' Sally looked at her concernedly.

Pale? She was surprised she hadn't gone grey, shocked she was still standing on legs that seemed to be shaking so badly her knees were knocking together, surprised she wasn't screaming, accusing. What was he doing here? And so obviously with Geraldine Simms, a woman with the reputation of a man-eater.

'Are you feeling okay?' Sally touched her arm worriedly.

She wasn't feeling at all, seemed to have gone completely numb. It wasn't an emotion she was unfamiliar with, but she had never thought he would be the one to deal her such a blow.

Oh, God, she had to get out of here, away from the noise, away from them!

'I'm fine, Sally,' she told her friend stiltedly, the smile she forced not quite managing to curve her lips. 'I—I think I've had enough for one night. It's my first time out for months,' she babbled. 'I'm obviously out of practice. I—I'll call you.' She put her champagne glass down on the nearest available table. 'We'll have lunch.'

Sally looked totally bewildered by Lilli's sudden urgency to be gone. 'But it's only eleven-thirty!'

And the party would go on until almost morning. In the past Lilli would probably have been among the last to leave. But not tonight. She had to get out of here now. She had to!

'I'll call you, Sally,' she promised distantly, turning to stumble across the room, muttering her apologies as she bumped into people on the way, blind to where she was going, just needing to escape.

She had a jacket somewhere, she remembered. It was in a room at the back of the house. And she didn't want to leave without it, didn't want to have to come back to this house again to collect it. She didn't want to ever have to see Geraldine Simms again. Not ever!

Where had they stored the coats? Every room she looked in appeared to be empty. One of them turned out not to be as empty as it at first appeared, a young couple in there taking advantage of the sofa to make love. But there were no coats.

She would just abandon her damn coat in a minute, would send someone over tomorrow for it, would just have to hope that it was still here.

She thrust open another door, deciding that if this room proved as fruitless as the others she would quietly leave and find herself a taxi.

'Oh!' She gasped as she realised she had walked into what must be the main kitchen of the house. It wasn't empty. Not that there were any chefs rushing around preparing the food for the numerous guests. No, all the food, put out so deliciously on plates in the dining-room, had been provided by caterers.

A man sat at a long oak table in the middle of the room, his dark evening suit and snowy white shirt, with red bow-tie, tagging him as part of the elegant gathering in the main part of the house. Yet he sat alone in the kitchen, strong hands nursing what looked to be a glass of red wine, the open bottle on the table beside him. the only light in the room a single spotlight over the Aga.

But Lilli could see the man well enough, his dark, overlong hair with distinguished strands of grey at the temples, grey, enigmatic eyes in a face that might have been carved from granite, all sharp angles and hard-hewn features. From the way his long legs stretched out beneath the table, he was a very tall man, well over six feet, if Lilli had to guess. She would put his age in the late thirties.

She also knew, from that very first glance, that she had never seen him before!

She really was very much out of touch with the party scene! Once upon a time she would have known all the other guests at any occasion she went to, which was ultimately the reason they had become so boring to attend. But tonight there were at least two men present that she hadn't encountered at one of these parties before—one she didn't know at all, the other she most certainly did!

Her mouth tightened at her thoughts. 'I'm sorry to have disturbed you,' she told the man distractedly, turning to leave.

'Not at all,' the man drawled in a weary voice. 'It's quite pleasant to meet another refugee from that free-for-all out there!'

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