"Is this what you're looking for?"
Keira Grayson heard the man's voice and knew what it meant without having to look. Even though she was crouched down, rooting among the fallen leaves by the notice board, she knew what he had in his hand. Not the pants, she pleaded silently, please let it not be the pants.
"They are yours, then?"
That voice again. It was two parts James Bond to one part Royal Shakespeare Company, and she just knew that this was going to be excruciating. Wincing as her thighs protested, she began to push herself to her feet. Goose bumps dimpled her arms as the wind whipped across the church steps. Her fingers were numb, and only her face felt warm and glowing.
"Forgive me for the intrusion, but do you need any help getting up?"
"I'm fine. Thanks. Really."
Keira turned like a snail, trying to put off the moment she had to face the owner of that voice as long as possible. It was just what she didn't need when she was late for the Wedding of the Century. Then again, it was a tiny humiliation compared to the way the year had turned out so far. What was losing your knickers in front of a handsome stranger compared to all that? She stuck on a smile, but her heart still pounded as she saw the stranger who'd picked up her thong from the church steps. Why couldn't he be some harmless old gentleman with weak eyesight? Why did he have to be tall and dark and totally gorgeous?
He also had very dark blue eyes, a lovely natural tan (most likely from wintering in the Caribbean, like you do when you have a cut-glass accent like that) and an interesting nose. It would have been a boringly straight nose, but it had definitely seen some action at some point. Keira had seen similar noses before, but she doubted if Mr. Scarily Handsome's had been damaged in a gang fight or "a bit of bovver down the boozer", as her next-door neighbour liked to put it.
She doubted if Mr. Scarily Handsome had ever been in the boozer in his life. He looked made for sipping a single malt in some tweedy pub or propping up his college bar with a pint of real ale. It didn't stop him from being hot, though, and right now he was gazing down at her with a look that flirted between amusement and politeness.
"If you aren't sure," he went on, "perhaps it would be best if I kept hold of it? We wouldn't want the bride to find it here on the steps, would we?"
Keira was torn between curtseying and melting in a pool of drool. She went for the middle ground as usual: polite and friendly. Even her mum would have been proud of her. "No, er... We wouldn't, and it does, um, appear to be mine. It was in my handbag, you see, it's so small, the bag, that is, and there's hardly any room for a mobile, and I was looking for my lipstick and..."
"...it just fell out?" he said, like a teacher who'd found her up to no good behind the bike sheds. Not that Victoria Lane Primary had bike sheds since a disaffected ex-pupil had set fire to them. Not that many of the kids had bikes. Whatever, thought Keira. Mr. Scarily Handsome hadn't been near Victoria Lane; she'd have bet her gas bill on that.
He managed a small smile, his eyes doing that sexy crinkly thing at the corners. Keira's stomach did a sexy crinkly thing too, which annoyed her immensely.
"Ah." As he held out his finger, the thong wiggled tantalizingly and her cheeks heated up again.
"Thanks," she said, holding out her hand to take her knickers off the cheeky sod.
Her heart skipped a long, slow beat, and it was all she could do not to stare. It was his hands. Up close, she could see the myriad of tiny scars dusting his fingers and knuckles, like the sprinkles on a child's cupcake. She dragged her gaze upward to his eyes. Dark blue, they were, like the indigo at the end of the rainbow, and right now they were looking puzzled. She felt a blush of shame flame her cheeks, and she smiled reassuringly.
"Is there anything wrong?"
She shook her head and gave him an even bigger smile. He must think she was a grinning idiot, but it didn't matter. He was probably self-conscious enough without her making it worse, and besides, everyone had scars. It's just that hers were buried deep inside.
"Nothing. Really. It's just a bit...chilly out here. Thanks for finding, er...it. I'm staying at my friend's after the wedding, and I hadn't got time to collect any proper underwear--"
"I grabbed it at the last minute," she said patiently. Whew, this was like explaining a maths problem to one of the less able pupils. "It was a joke Christmas present from a friend, you see, and I was in a rush to get to the wedding, and I just stuffed it into my handbag and..." She sucked in a breath, desperate to tell him they were just so not her kind of pants. "It even has the price tag on," she added, then instantly wished the words back. Okay, that was it. She was going to curl up and die, right here and now, on the steps in front of him.
"Really. It's fine. It could have happened to anyone."
She eyed him suspiciously. "You're not teasing me, are you?"
"I wouldn't dare, believe me."
She didn't. Opening her bag, she squashed the pants in the bottom as best she could, hoping Mr. Scarily Handsome would carry on up the church steps without saying anything else. When she glanced up from her bag, she found him still gazing down at her in an intense way that made her want to look away or melt on the flagstones in a puddle of shame.
A cool gust of wind blew round the corner, and she tugged her wrap tighter. "I suppose I'd better get inside."
He raised his eyebrows. "Yes, better not risk hypothermia. Or pneumonia."
Keira bridled. This dress wasn't that low. "You think so?"
A smile touched his lips. "Not really. Bride or groom?"
"The bride, Carrie. She's a colleague from school."
"Then you'll want the pews to the left of the altar."
"Is it really that important?" she asked as the wind pasted her dress to her legs and goose bumps raced up her thighs.
"Absolutely vital. Particularly if the bride decides to get herself abducted by another man. That's where the tradition comes from. In medieval times, women were often forced to marry. The groom needed his right hand free to defend his bride from other suitors."
O-kayy, the man was mad as a fish as well as scary. "I don't think that's likely to happen," sniffed Keira. "Carrie and Matt are crazy about each other. I think we'd have known by now if she was going to be swept off her feet at the altar."
"Even so. Better to be safe than sorry."
Mr. Scarily Handsome narrowed his eyes and pushed back the cuff of his jacket to uncover a tanned wrist with a chunky watch. It was all dials and gold case and thick leather strap, just like the one she'd once dreamed of buying for Alex, back in the day when she'd thought he was worth it.
"Ah. At last. Here she is."
Keira followed his gaze to the bottom of the church lane. A silver Rolls Royce had pulled up at the kerb, the paintwork gleaming in the pale October sun.
"I must be getting back to the groom," he said, adjusting the creamy rose in his buttonhole. "And tell him his bride has just arrived."
"So you're the best man, then?" she asked.
Best man? Tom Carew gazed down at the achingly sexy girl in front of him and caught his breath. Her question had momentarily floored him, and that didn't happen very often. Almost never, in fact. Tom didn't allow himself to be caught off balance by anyone these days, let alone a woman. But how, he asked himself, could he ever be described as a "best man"? He wasn't even sure if he was a good man, let alone the best. All morning he'd expected someone to come up, tap him on the shoulder and say, "Excuse me, sir. Aren't you here under false pretences? We hardly think you qualify for the position."
They hadn't, of course. No one at the wedding, apart from perhaps his friend, the groom, thought he was anything but a gentleman. In fact, only two people on the planet knew the real and very ugly truth.