One fine summer evening, Molly King’s life crashed to the floor and shattered into a million pieces.
Around her, the vicarage’s reception room sharpened with the buzz of whispers. Fine teacups clinked back onto matching saucers. And sensing scandal, people stared first at Molly and then at the handsome couple in the doorway.
Disbelief numbed Molly, and she stared too, unable to rip her gaze from the two newcomers.
Then the man she loved with all her heart slipped an arm around his stunning companion’s waist, dipped his head, and kissed her red lips.
Molly screamed inside.
“Brian. Abby. We’d almost given up on you.” Kathleen Harrington, their hostess, hurried to the couple. Her high voice was a piercing trill that scraped Molly’s jagged nerves.
Kathleen knew this woman?
“So sorry, Aunt Kath.” Brian kissed Kathleen’s angular cheek. “The traffic down from London was awful. But it’s great to be back in the old place and see everyone again.”
He said it loud enough for the room to hear, backing it up with that charm-infused grin of his. People relaxed, murmured their approval, and like happy little bewitched sheep, gathered around him and his new squeeze at the door.
Molly’s only way out was blocked.
Trapped by the tall arching windows behind her, she huddled at the opposite end of the reception room, dreading the moment Brian saw her.
God, what a fool she was. He’d been gone three months, and she’d wanted to wow him when he returned. She glanced down at her figure-hugging turquoise dress. She’d bought it for him. Its delicate lace sleeves graced her slim arms, and its sweetheart neckline presented her small cleavage like a gift. The soft silk tightened into a jewel-studded gathering at her hips before flowing mermaid style to her knees. What had she been thinking? It wasn’t the type of dress villagers in Appleby wore, and she’d garnered plenty of looks when she’d entered the vicarage earlier. The type of looks a call girl collects in church. But she’d wanted to show Brian she wasn’t frumpy, that she could be everything he wanted her to be.
The dress had looked perfect in the boutique mirror yesterday. The turquoise colour had made her light-blonde curls and pale-blue eyes shine. And the matching high heels had raised her diminutive five-foot-four to something decent.
It wasn’t so perfect now.
Molly glanced at the couple. Was it on purpose the beauty with Brian was the exact opposite of everything she was? The woman stood almost as tall as Brian’s six foot in her baby-pink heels. Her matching pink dress moulded her slender curves as if cut for her, and her curtain of chestnut-brown hair swished around her face, framing the luminance of her skin.
With a trembling hand, Molly smoothed back her wild nest of blonde curls. How did she even compete? Compared to the woman with Brian, she looked like a tacky turquoise cake topper. Her only saving grace was that she wasn’t making a complete laughing stock of herself by wearing the come-to-bed turquoise heels as well. She’d stepped out in a comfortable pair of flat shoes instead. But that wasn’t much consolation.
She looked up again, and her gaze collided with Brian’s. Satisfaction swept across his features, very much like a spider who’d spotted a fly, and she gasped. He was only a year older than her, but this wasn’t the laid-back lad who’d left Appleby three months ago. This Brian was polished, more in control. His usually tousled dark hair was combed back in rigid perfection. His tall lean body was encased in a fine navy-blue suit. And the boyish charm of his lazy smile no longer reached his coal-black eyes. The city had swallowed the country boy she’d known and spat out a sophisticated cold man.
He whispered something in his companion’s ear. The woman shot Molly a cool glance that gauged her from head to toe and then dismissed her as irrelevant in the space of a second.
Sudden anger roiled through Molly, breaking through her numb shock and propelling her forward. How dare he… She didn’t have to take any of this. But she’d moved only a step when Brian and his new girlfriend pushed through the crowd and made their way towards her. Curious gazes followed them.
Damn him! He couldn’t let her keep a little dignity. He had to make her the centre of attention. And reining in her turbulent emotions, almost choking on them, she schooled her features into polite indifference and waited.
“Molly, wonderful to see you.”
“Brian.” She didn’t return his smile.
“I’d like to introduce Abby.” He wrapped an arm around the brunette’s waist again. “My fiancée.”
Was she still standing?
Brian was watching her, sifting for her reaction to the ton of bricks he’d just dropped on her head. Hurt, shame, loss, all rioted in Molly, but she refused to give him the satisfaction. With a strength of will she was proud of, she forced a smile to her lips. “Fiancée? Congratulations.”
Her nonchalance hit the mark. Brian’s eyes narrowed, and the rest of the room lost interest. Abby’s eyes had shone with veiled hostility, but now she relaxed. With a smile, she ever-so-casually raised her manicured left hand. The pebble-sized diamond on her ring finger glittered fiercely in the sunlight.
“And such a beautiful ring,” Molly muttered on cue, the words like gravel in her mouth. She didn’t need to be a diamond expert to see that Brian had bought something worth far more than what the average villager earned in a year. Her heart constricted as if a merciless hand had squeezed it dry.
Abby simpered. “It was all so fast, but we couldn’t be happier.” Her cultured voice had a breathless girlish quality that sat at odds with the razor-sharp light in her blue eyes.
Suddenly, the desperate need to put miles of distance between herself and this couple overwhelmed Molly. “I’m glad. If you’ll excuse me…?” And she moved to step past them.
But Brian’s quick hand on her arm stalled her. “Don’t run off yet, Molly. I told Abby you’d help with the wedding plans. You and Sophie and the other girls.”
What? No way! She snatched her arm back and glared a warning at him. A warning he smirked away.
“Daddy insists we have a church wedding,” Abby said, seemingly oblivious to the tension. “Nothing else will do. But we don’t want to wait too long, do we darling?” She smiled up at Brian.
A flicker of annoyance shot through Brian’s eyes, and Molly stared, but it was gone as quick as it had come, and he returned Abby’s smile. “Of course not. Uncle Ian can arrange it in a matter of weeks.” He raised Abby’s hand to his lips. “You’ll make a beautiful summer bride.”
Giggling, Abby turned to Molly. “It’s so exciting! Daddy wanted somewhere bigger, but I can’t wait to get married in an old church with bells ringing and apple trees outside.” Her expression shifted to winsome pleading. “Oh, say you’ll help with the planning. It would be just fabulous if you did.”
Molly gritted her teeth. Either the woman was a total airhead, or she was gleefully rubbing Molly’s face in the ruins of a failed love. A love that, in Molly’s dreams, had got as far as Appleby’s church altar to promise her life like her mother and grandmother before her. In despair, she looked at Brian, letting the pleading reminder of all he’d ever promised her fill that look. But his expression was unyielding, impassive. Her shoulders slumped in defeat. It was as if he was gone from her forever.
Then on a steadying breath, she straightened. So be it. But she wouldn’t let them add insult to injury. She turned to Abby with all her dignity. “You’ll find plenty of other people to help you. Appleby’s a close-knit kind of place.”
“I’m sure. Such a quaint little village.” Abby’s cut-glass accent was dismissive.
Brian’s expression twisted. He hadn’t missed the emphasis on the word ‘little’. “You’ll love Appleby, darling. I’ll take you on a tour tomorrow.”
Molly smiled inwardly at his defensive tone, and the imp of mischief rose in her. “Just be careful,” she said to Abby. “Those cowpats get everywhere. And those runaway goats? My God, but they’re a menace! They’ll gobble you whole, diamond ring and all.”
Abby’s expression cooled.
“It’s not like we’ll be living here once we’re married, darling,” Brian soothed, shooting Molly a quelling look.
Molly hid another smile. She’d exaggerated, but little Miss Precious more than deserved it. But then the lightness evaporated. She shoved past them. “Excuse me. It’s getting late.”
“How’s your Nan, Molly?” Brian asked as she passed.
She stopped and turned back with a frown. “Fine. She’s fine.”
“I heard she had an operation a month ago. Her leg, was it?”
“I didn’t know you still took an interest in things here, Brian.”
He shrugged. “I’ve missed the place.” His dark gaze captured and held hers. “And it is good to see you again, Molly.”
Hope beat in her chest like a crazed butterfly, and her yearning heart grabbed at the possible hidden meaning in his words before she could stop it. In desperation, she searched his eyes for something more…