Proof of Their Sin(6)

By: Dani Collins

He held her in contempt, though. She could see it. Like everyone else, he believed Ryan Bradley had been beyond reproach. Everything she did, every action she took, should be an honor to her fallen hero of a husband. What Lauren wanted or needed didn’t matter. She certainly shouldn’t look at other men. Sleeping with them was a crime worthy of a scarlet A. And if that man happened to be her husband’s best friend? Well, that put her somewhere lower than a garden slug.

Which was a judgment she might have accepted if she had been the one incapable of fidelity, but Ryan was the adulterer, not her. That was the other reason she’d allowed herself to make advances on Paolo that night. Her marriage had been over months before Paolo confirmed Ryan’s death and made it official.

With a dignity she’d found somewhere between hating herself and feeling grateful to this man for the baby in her womb, she left off touching her hair, clutched her pocketbook to hide her nervous trembling, and said with a hint of challenge, “You look very nice, too. Thank you.”

His gaze slammed back to hers, sharp with disbelief at her subtle criticism of his manners.

Holding that hostile stare was hard, but she wasn’t as timid as she used to be. At least, she was trying not to be.

A light of reassessment altered his expression and she felt as though the charged air between them ramped up several notches.

With a lift of one brow that seemed to say, Is that how we’re playing? he offered his arm. “I didn’t see your name on the guest list. What a pleasant surprise to have you turn up anyway.”

By that she understood she was hideously unwanted here. It was almost enough to make her run barefoot back to Montreal.

“I’m making a point of doing a lot of things I barely dreamed of before,” she retorted lightly.

Avoiding the flash of warning in his gaze that asked, Before what? she set a tentative hand on an arm that felt as hard as banded steel.

“Traveling alone, trying new styles...” She would have gone on, but touching him again made heat coil through her.

This arm had held her in a dozen ways three months ago. Protective across her shoulders. Comforting behind her lower back. Soothing when it tightened across her stomach and drew her into his spooned strength. Resistant across her chest when he’d tried to refuse her sexual invitation, then vital and possessive when he’d draped her thigh over his forearm, making her his.

Physical need, stronger than any she’d experienced in her life, made her falter, tightening her hand on his sleeve, leaving her weak and quivering and fighting to hide it. They’d only taken two steps and she couldn’t prevent herself from swaying against him as she fought to regain control of herself.

His arm turned to marble beneath her touch and he glared down at her. Everything in him gathered with rejection, like she was a leper.

“May I?” A man with a camera stepped before them.

Lauren froze in a kind of preternatural fear while Paolo condensed into a statue of impatient tolerance, willing to put up with her closeness out of duty.

Appearances, she thought. Heavens yes, we can’t let down appearances.

Rather than smiling at the camera, she lifted her bitter gaze to Paolo’s, seeing yet one more person in a sea of them who hid authentic feelings behind a facade. How disappointing to find out he was like all the rest.

Incredulity flickered in his dark brown eyes. And challenge. He didn’t like being found wanting. Not at all. As their stare held, heat crept into his gaze, burning with knowledge. Intimate, sexual knowledge. He picked her apart and left her in pieces as the camera flashed, momentarily blinding her to Paolo’s final rebuff of all she offered.

“Beautiful,” the cameraman murmured, reviewing the camera’s screen.

“Grazie,” Paolo said dismissively, and drew her away. “Champagne?”

“After I’ve eaten,” she demurred, searching for a private corner where she could get this over with and disappear. Seeing him was far, far harder than she’d expected. He’d been incredibly remote the morning after as the press release was read. She’d been frozen herself, just trying to get through the days until the funeral. The Bradleys had closed ranks, creating a buffer that kept Paolo from approaching. At least, that’s what Lauren had thought at the time, when she’d spared a thought beyond her inward twisting of anguish, grief and guilt. She’d been grateful not to speak to Paolo after the shameless way she’d behaved.

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