She glanced down at the royal blue evening gown she’d chosen on her whirlwind shopping trip she’d dragged her bodyguards on earlier that day. She was dressed to kill, or to do battle at the very least. Without false modesty, she knew she looked her best.

High-class, posh, a far cry from her preferred jeans and flip-flops and brightly polished toes. Tonight, she fit into Theron’s world. Her world too, for that matter, just one that she’d never fully embraced. She had the money and pedigree, just not the desire to fit in.

“What time should we leave?” she asked anxiously.

She couldn’t help the surge in her pulse when she imagined making it to the party too late. It made her want to break into a cold sweat that she’d arrive only to see the happy couple already engaged.

Marcus smiled reassuringly. “The opera has only just begun. We have quite awhile yet. Not to worry, I’ll have you there in plenty of time. Try to relax and enjoy your dinner. It would be a terrible thing if you got to the party and promptly fainted at Theron’s feet from hunger.”

“Then again, it might be just the thing to stop the show,” she said mischievously.

He chuckled and shook his head. “I’m almost sorry I agreed to help you, Bella. I would have rather pursued you myself.”

“And if my heart weren’t already lost to Theron, I would most gladly lead you on a very merry chase,” she said with a grin.

“Then let me say this, and I won’t broach the subject again,” he said. “Should things not go the way you’d like…I ask only that you remember me.”

She reached over to take his hand this time. “Thank you, Marcus. You’ve been a wonderful friend in the short time of our acquaintance. I hope you’ll remain my friend no matter what. This is a lonely city when you know no one.”

“I’d be honored. Now eat. I insist. They have the most wonderful desserts here.”

Theron sat broodingly in his chair as the performance yawned on before him. Beside him, Alannis watched the stage with rapt attention, her face aglow with delight. Sophia was less enthused, but she still focused her attention forward.

Just before the performance had begun, Reynolds had reported that Isabella was meeting Marcus Atwater for dinner after a day of shopping. There wasn’t a whole lot Theron could do at that point given that he was firmly entrenched in his evening. In the end, he gave Reynolds strict instructions to stick to Isabella like glue and make damn sure that Atwater didn’t take advantage of her.

He was tempted to send a message to Reynolds from his BlackBerry, but he wasn’t sure that Alannis was so ensconced in the performance that she wouldn’t notice, and he’d promised that no business would interfere tonight.

Still, he’d requested periodic updates from Isabella’s security team, and he’d find a way to check his messages even if it meant a trip to the bathroom.

For the entire next hour, he fidgeted, ready to be done. It irritated him that on a night he should be relaxed, that he was forced to think about Isabella’s well-being. She was seeping into his life in a manner that didn’t sit well with him. What did it say when he couldn’t enjoy an evening with his future wife for thinking about Isabella Caplan?

Alannis touched his arm, and he was jerked from his thoughts.

“Theron, it’s over,” she whispered.

He glanced quickly to see the curtain drawn. Had he missed the encore entirely? Another nudge from Alannis had him rising to his feet. He offered her his arm and filed out of his box, Sophia and two of his security team following behind.

“And how did you enjoy the show?” he asked as they made their way to the waiting limousine.

“It was wonderful,” Alannis gushed. “I do so love the opera. There was a time…”

She ducked her head, but not before he saw a bright blush form on her cheeks.

“There was a time, what?” he prompted.

“Oh, there was a time that I wanted to be an opera singer,” she said self-consciously.

“And why didn’t you pursue it?”

She smiled and shook her head. “I wasn’t good enough. Besides, father wouldn’t have had it. He thinks it’s a vulgar career.”

Theron raised an eyebrow. “I wouldn’t have thought such talent could be considered vulgar.”

“Oh, he thinks any career that lands you on stage is inappropriate for a young girl. He’d much prefer that I marry well and give him grandbabies.”

Something flashed in her eyes before it quickly vanished into blandness.

“And what do you want?” Theron asked curiously.

“I like children,” she said simply before turning to her mother.

Theron ushered them into the car and settled in himself as they started for the hotel. His hands were clammy, and he shook his head in disgust over his apparent nervousness. He prided himself on his control and his calm. Nothing about this situation should cause him any anxiety. He had his future mapped out, and everything was proceeding exactly as planned.

After that reminder, he relaxed in his seat. He felt in his pocket for the ring then let his hand fall when he reassured himself that it was there.

Traffic moved quickly, and a half hour later, they arrived at the hotel. Alannis yawned as Theron helped her out of the car.

He smiled and took her hand. “I hope you aren’t too tired for the party.”

“What party?” she asked in surprise.

Sophia smiled and tucked her arm in Alannis’s. “He’s planned a party in your honor, dear. It’s a very special night.” She winked at Theron behind Alannis’s back, and Theron felt his unease increase.

“A party for me? It sounds so exciting,” Alannis said, her eyes sparkling in delight.

She really was quite lovely, in a quiet, understated way. For some reason, however, he couldn’t chase the image of another woman from his mind when he looked at her.

He glanced away, his jaw tight as they walked through the lobby toward the ballroom. When they entered, the band struck up and confetti fell from the ceiling.

Alannis looked up, her eyes rapt. She held her fingers up to catch the flurries as they spiraled down like crazy, neon snow.

“Oh, it’s wonderful, Theron,” she breathed.

He nudged her forward again, his heart pounding with each step they took. His hand drifted into his pocket as they neared the center of the room. The edges of the box scraped against his fingers, and he fumbled with it, coaxing the velvet box inside free.

Would she be as excited when he asked her to be his wife? Would he? Or was he about to make the biggest mistake of his life?

“Alannis…” he began, cursing the fact that his voice was so shaky.

She turned and looked up at him, eyes shining and a smile curving her lips. Lips that he had no desire to kiss. “Yes, Theron?”

Isabella sat forward in her seat, straining to see out the front window. “What’s the hold up?” she asked desperately. “Why aren’t we moving?”

Marcus took hold of her shoulder. “It’s a wreck, Bella. Calm down, sit back. We’ll get there. He won’t propose as soon as the party starts.”

She stared out the window at the sea of cars all at a dead stop. They’d never get out of this in time.

In a burst of frustration, she reached for the door handle and yanked the door open.

“Bella, what are you doing? Get back in the car. You can’t go running through the streets of New York City,” Marcus exclaimed as she clambered out.

She turned and bent to stare back into the car where he sat. “I have to go, Marcus. We’ll never make it in time and you know it. I have to get there before he proposes. I can’t…” She swallowed and looked away for a moment. When she looked back, tears clouded her vision. “I have to go. Thank you for everything.”

She closed the door, picked up the long skirt of her dress in her hands and ran through the traffic, ignoring the honks as she cut in front of cars trying to inch forward. She heard the shouts of Reynolds and glanced back to see that he was hotf

ooting it down the street after her. Turning, she kept on running. She didn’t have time to stop and explain.

Unsure of where she was going, she kept to the sidewalk, paralleling the traffic. When she saw an unoccupied taxi, she ran to the window and tapped.

The cabbie gave her a disgruntled look and rolled down his window. “Look lady, no one’s going anywhere in this mess.”

She held up a hand. “Please, can you tell me how to get to Imperial Park Hotel? How far am I?”

His eyes narrowed as he stared back at her. “As the crow flies, not far. If you cut over from this street a block then up two, you’ll be six or so blocks from the hotel. Just head straight for five blocks, turn left and you’ll see it as soon as you round the corner.”

With a murmured thanks, she gathered her dress, shed her shoes and took off running as fast as she could go.

“Hey, lady, you left your shoes!” the man shouted from behind her.

By the time she’d gone three blocks, it had started to rain lightly. Not that it mattered. She already looked a fright, and her hopes of looking like a million dollars when she burst into Theron’s engagement party were doomed.

When she rounded the corner of the last block, the heavens opened and it began to pour. Blinking the water from her eyes, she dashed toward the hotel, avoiding the puddles that were already forming beneath her feet.

Please, oh please, let me be on time.

Her hair was plastered to her face by the time she made it under the awning. Water dripped from her body and from the sodden mass of her ruined dress. Her feet ached, and she was sure she’d cut her right foot on something.

Ignoring the inquisitive looks thrown her way, she rushed past several people who were trying to hurry inside. Skidding on the polished floor, she righted herself and ran as fast as she could with a wet dress wrapped around her legs.

As she neared the ballroom, she heard cheers from inside and then mad clapping. No. She couldn’t be too late, she couldn’t.

She thrust herself inside the door, her gaze wildly searching the crowd gathered. There, in the middle, stood Theron and Alannis. Alannis was beaming from head to toe as she gazed lovingly up at Theron who was smiling down at her. Around them people clapped and then they brought their glasses up in a toast.

The words were lost to Isabella. She heard nothing except the buzz in her ears. She saw nothing but how radiant Alannis looked. It was a stark contrast to how dead Isabella felt in that moment.

Slowly, every part of her aching, she turned, tears swimming in her eyes, and walked slowly back out of the ballroom. She nearly ran into Reynolds as he hurried up to her. Keeping her head down, she continued on, ignoring his demands to know if she was all right.

All right? Nothing would ever be all right again.

Gradually the sounds of laughter and happiness diminished, and she was left with only the murmur of the people milling about the lobby.

A tear slipped down her cheek, and she made no move to wipe it. Who would notice? It would look like she was caught in the rain as she had been.

As she neared the entrance, Marcus ran in and stopped abruptly in front of her.

“Isabella, are you all right?” he demanded. “That was a foolish thing you did.”

He caught her shoulders and spun her so that she looked at him. And then he must have seen the misery in her eyes because his tirade ceased, and gentle understanding shone in his eyes.

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