Chapter Two

“One more hour I promise,” Creighton said as he entered the office and smiled at Sandra, who sat on the sofa they had made love on a few hours before.

“I’m in no hurry,” she said, looking at her phone. “Nana said the kids are fine. Grace is helping make bread and Brandon is with Papa in the garden.

“Maybe we can get a quiet lunch before we go back,” he suggested, setting down in his chair and opening the lid to his laptop.

“Sounds good. If I can wait that long to be alone with you,” she smiled, twirling her reddish-brown hair around her finger.

“If I had fifteen minutes, I’d take care of your problem,” he told her with a wicked grin.

“Don’t worry, there’s always time when you’ve finished,” she promised.

“If a marriage has done anything for you, it’s made your appetite for sex insatiable,” he teased, watching her move her hand up the inside of her thigh.

Sandra smiled as she watched him out of the corner of her eye. She knew how much he enjoyed watching her touch herself and teasing the man was her favorite pastime. The problem was, it made her own jeans feel tight and hot.

Creighton tried to ignore her, but it was getting difficult. Before leaving Yorkshire, he was tempted to bring along the new remote-controlled vibrator they purchased a few months back, and as he watched her provocative teasing, he wished he had.

“Stop it,” she warned him in a soft, husky whisper as she moved her hand to the button of her pants.

“What?” he asked innocently, reclining back in his seat to watch her.

“I know what you’re thinking, and you said you didn’t have time. Finish your work so we can leave.

“Fine,” he grumbled, closing his laptop lid and standing up.

With a feigned disgruntled expression, he walked to her. Leaning over her, he kissed her hard and passionate then groaned and walked to the door.

“Just don’t finish without me,” he told her with a wicked grin. “Unless you take pictures that we can look at later.

Sandra smiled as she straightened up in her seat and sighed. It wasn’t that she was necessarily anxious to make love, it was just teasing him was too much fun to allow the opportunity to pass.

Still smiling to herself, she picked up the man’s phone and stepped into the bathroom, unfastening her blouse and snapping a selfie of her exposed breasts. That should keep him interested for a few more days, she thought with a smile, then closed the door and unzipped her pants.

Sandra returned to her husband’s private office a few moments later, setting his phone back where she had taken it from his desk. In the back of her mind, she knew she would pay for the photos she had taken, but it was definitely a price she would enjoy paying.

Taking her own phone out of her purse, she sat down quietly on the sofa, tucking her feet up underneath her crossed legs. It had been over a month since anyone heard from Sabrina, and she was worried. Although she posted a weekly update on Facebook with news about everything going on in Paris, it wasn’t the same thing as seeing her for Sunday dinner.

Sandra had promised Creighton she wouldn’t interfere with his sister’s choices, but she couldn’t help it. She knew Sabrina was unhappy. She had announced her engagement more than two years ago and yet no significant plans were made. They all knew she was getting married to a man she didn’t love in an attempt to move forward with her life and forget about Giovanni. It wasn’t what she wanted, and Sandra felt the need to help her realize it. She just had to do it in a way Creighton wouldn’t get angry with.

With a determined sigh, she sent a text to her sister-in-law asking how things were going. She was trying to figure out a way of getting Sabrina and Giovanni in the same place, at the same time, but she had to do it without appearing as if she were meddling. Much to Sandra’s surprise, her phone buzzed, alerting her to a text message. Sabrina was at her desk and was happy to hear from her.

We all miss you, Sandra replied. When are you coming home? Grace is already two years old and talking and Brandon has been asking about you. He starts school in the fall and his daddy has signed him up for football lessons. He has so much he wants to tell you.

There, she thought. That should wake up the Aunt in her and set her on the road to a guilty conscience.

I’m sorry, I really miss you guys. Tell Brandon I’ll see him soon. Andre wants to meet with Mum and Dad and discuss wedding plans. He’s thinking September would be a good time for the wedding. It’s right before the winter line so we should be able to arrange a week or so for a honeymoon.

September? That only left two months to figure a way to get Giovanni back to England and set up a chance meeting between him and Sabrina.

“I’m sorry, Sandra,” Michelle said as she stepped into the office. “I need Monsieur Ashford’s approval for New Hope Technology’s summer party.

“Summer party?” Sandra asked with wide eyes. “Of course. That’s in three weeks. It’s perfect!

“Excuse me?” Michelle asked with a frown.

“I…just forgot about it, that’s all,” she answered, hoping she didn’t sound guilty of plotting against her husband’s wishes. “What are the plans?

“Your husband thought a few days at Euro Disneyland, as well as a tour through France, would be the perfect holiday for our employees from overseas. I need him to approve the budget for the event.

Sandra took the papers the woman held in her hand and briefly glanced over them. It was going to be expensive - very expensive - but their London based company had grown to more than two hundred and fifty employees, and their Paris firm was nearly as large. They would provide discount airfare for their Australia, New York, and Milan branches, and for Debbie and Russell Oliver from Kansas, who were celebrating their second wedding anniversary, as well as their kids.

NHT had rented an entire chateau for the heads of the plants and the resort hotels for the rest of the guests. Transportation and tour guides were hired for those who wanted to see France, and special dinner reservations were arranged in Paris for the company’s last night together. Four days and three nights’ worth of fun, relaxation, and morale-building camaraderie was what the employees needed, and exactly what Sandra needed to make Sabrina realize she was still in love with Giovanni.

“This looks great,” Sandra nodded as she tried to contain the plans already forming in her mind. “I think we should arrange a few extra spaces for anyone who may have people that want to join at the last minute.

“Not a problem,” Michelle said with a smile. “So, do you approve the plans in your husband’s place?

“He keeps telling me I’m his partner and I need to be more pro-active in New Hope’s functions. I can’t think of a better time to start. Set everything in stone with my blessings. Don’t forget to invite Donato and his family. After all, he has been a part of this whole thing from the beginning.

Michelle nodded, took the papers Sandra signed, and left the room.

Sorry, I got called away, she typed into her phone. Why don’t you plan on coming to NHT’s company party next month and bring Andre with you? It would be the perfect time for the family to get to know him. More in a casual setting than making him feel like he’s being ganged up on, here at home. Creighton has practically rented all of Euro Disney, and there will be fun and food and loads of relaxation.

It sounds like fun, Sabrina texted back. Send the details and I’ll be there.

I’ll forward them as soon as they are finalized. Can’t wait to see you. The family is going to be thrilled you’ll be there. NO BACKING OUT! You’ve canceled too many plans the past few months and we won’t let you out this time. Your brother will even send a driver to make sure you make it.

LOL. I promise I’ll be there. Love and kisses to all.

Love and kisses to Andre, Sandra typed with a snarl on her face, then ended the conversation as the office door opened again.

“Guess what?” Sandra said as her husband walked through the door. “Sabrina and Andre are going to come to the company party.

“How did you arrange that?” Creighton asked with an amused smile.

“I told her about it and put the family misses you, guilt trip on her.

“You are an amazing woman, Mrs. Ashford,” he smiled as he moved back to his desk and sat down, picking up his forgotten phone.

“More than you can imagine,” she smiled as she walked toward him, watching as he slipped his phone into his pocket.

“What have you done?” he asked, wrapping his arms around her waist and pulling her into his lap.

Damn, she thought. How was it, this man knew what she was thinking even before she opened her mouth? She had hoped he couldn’t read her mind this time. The pictures, the secret plans. Too much was riding on his being ignorant of her motives for the time being.

“I approved the budget for the party without you,” she said, thinking of the only excuse she could come up with on short notice.

“That’s great,” Creighton said with an enthusiastic smile. “I knew you would step up to the challenge if the moment presented itself.

“It is going to be expensive,” she told him. “You know that, don’t you?

“As long as everyone is happy, that’s all that counts.

“That they will be,” she answered as she leaned into his shoulder, hugging him tightly. “If all works out as planned, they will be very happy.

Sabrina shut off her phone and returned to the designs sitting in front of her. Three weeks. That’s how long she had left to decide if marrying Andre was really what she wanted or not. Still, a part of her accused herself of acting out of desperation. Everyone in her family was happy and in love and she felt pressured to follow suit. Maybe she was rushing things. After all, she’d only known Andre for four years, and at times she wasn’t sure if she knew him at all.

Andre Marez was a handsome, successful photographer in his own right. All the women thought so, and she was amazed that he had taken an instant liking to her. Four years they had been together, and although he asked her to marry him more times than she could count, she didn’t agree until…Sabrina paused in her thoughts, remembering the day she agreed to his proposal.

It wasn’t passion, or a deep desire for romance, and certainly not out of love that she said yes. She only agreed after reading the local gossip column that Giovanni Vigano had taken a wife in South Africa. Once the news was out that she had accepted Andre’s proposal, Sabrina heard Giovanni had divorced and was a single father to an infant child. The mother had left him and the baby, disappearing in the night without a word of goodbye.

She still remembered the flutters of anxiety that raked her soul after hearing that he was once again free. Giovanni had been her first and only lover. It was only natural that she would have second thoughts about an engagement to another man…wasn’t it?

With a heavy sigh, she thought back over the years. She and Giovanni had made so many plans for their future together, and all of that had been shattered in a matter of hours. She knew a part of her would always love the handsome young Italian, but after his brother kidnapped her and Sandra and tried to kill them, all she could feel was the cold hand of fear gripping her heart. Even now, she could feel the horror of their experience and shivered as she thought back on the event so long ago.

Silvano Vigano had arranged their kidnapping in hopes of gaining a considerable amount of money. He used his association with the man sent to prison for trying to kill Creighton, Konrad Bachmeier. Together, they plotted the abduction of Creighton’s new bride, but Sabrina had gotten in the way. Her involvement was accidental, yet she suffered alongside her sister-in-law.

They were held at gunpoint and forced to travel across half of Europe to a sex clinic outside Dijon France, where their deaths had been planned. If it hadn’t been for Sandra’s determination and cool head, they would have been killed. She had literally saved both their lives.

It was all too much to simply forgive the name Vigano. Even if the one she loved wasn’t a participating partner in the crime. She broke off their engagement as soon as they were safe, and never saw Giovanni again. As much as she had dreamt of the man, she secretly feared that he would work his charms on her, and she’d surrender to his will. The love she had for Giovanni was deep, but the fear was stronger. Surrendering to him was something she couldn’t allow. Silvano destroyed any hope of their being happy, and life eventually moved on for both of them.

“Are you ready for lunch?” Andre asked, poking his head around the door to her office.

Sabrina glanced up, realizing she had forgotten all about their date.

“I’m sorry,” she said, adjusting herself in her seat. “I have a million things to do and only three weeks to get them finished.

“What happens in three weeks?” he asked with a disapproving grunt as he lowered his muscular frame into the seat opposite her.

“Sandra called and invited us to my brother’s company party,” she answered with a forced smile. “It’s a huge event. They plan a summer party every year, and this year is especially large. Everyone from New York to Australia will be attending, and Sandra asked that we join them.

“I suppose that will give us time to discuss the wedding plans with your parents,” Andre said with a hesitant smile. “I’m sure I can arrange a conference call between them and my mother.

“It’s a time to relax and enjoy ourselves, not worry about everything else,” she grumbled.

“We haven’t much time before we’re supposed to walk down the aisle. It might be nice to know what’s happening before then, don’t you think?

“I really don’t have the energy to discuss this,” Sabrina said as she shifted through the stack of designs in front of her. “As you can see, I have a ton of work to do between now and then.

“Fine, I’ll leave you alone, but you have to eat eventually. I’ll pick you up at six and take you to a romantic supper before you go home and work until dawn. My mother wants to speak to you this weekend about the wedding. Do you think you can afford five minutes, at some point, to discuss it?

“I’ll try and make the time,” she told him as he stood and leaned over her desk, kissing her gently on the cheek.

“Don’t try, just do it.

Sabrina watched as he walked out of the office, leaving her alone to complete her day’s tasks. She had to admit, the man was definitely handsome and very suave when he wanted to be, but the closer she was getting to saying I do, the more the past was beginning to invade her thoughts.

At first, he made her forget everything and think only of him, but as the weeks turned into months, she felt as if he had changed. He seemed more domineering and demanding, and much more impatient with her overwhelming workload. She was starting to second guess her decision to marry him…again.

With a heavy sigh, Sabrina pushed the thoughts aside and turned her attention back to the drawings. There was far too much work to do and too little time to complete it. The last thing she needed was to allow her mind to wander between the past and the future. It was the present that demanded her attention, and that was a lover she would not be able to deny.

Sandra sat at her desk, typing the last chapters to her newest children’s book about Max the Dog when Creighton came stomping through the back door. The rain started as a slow mist yesterday and turned into a full summer downpour today. In the back of her mind, she promised not to scream at him for tracking mud through the house she had spent two hours cleaning, but she knew it was about to happen. She had spent a very frustrating morning cleaning with two whining children underfoot, and she wasn’t in much of a mood to start all over again.

“Are you busy?” Creighton asked poking his head around the corner of the living room.

Sandra glanced up from the table she used as a desk and drew a deep breath. At least he had taken his boots off before he tramped this far.

“I’m almost finished, can it wait?” she asked in a sharp tone that warned him she’d had a bad day, and he should not interrupt her.

“It can. Where are the kids?” he smiled.

“Taking naps and don’t you dare wake them up. It was a bitch getting them to sleep.

Creighton fought the urge to laugh at her choice of verbiage but knew if he cherished his life, he’d let it drop.

“I have some work to do in my office, but I’ll keep an ear open for them so you can finish.

“Thank you,” she answered.

She watched a rugged smile cross his lips, promising her that he was home and taking care of everything, just as he always did. Creighton winked before pushing away from the doorframe, silently padding down the hallway to his office.

Sandra drew a deep breath and watched him disappear. She knew she had help all around her, with family living within steps of their farm, but she always felt like she was interfering when she asked for help. The truth was, she loved spending time with her children and husband, but there were times when she just wanted half an hour to herself.

With a relieved smile, she removed her old iPod from the end table drawer where she kept it, then slipped her earbuds into her ears. She knew it was safe for her to ignore life around her as she continued typing. The last chapter was always the hardest for her to write, but it consisted of the most anticipated pages of the entire manuscript, and she was nearly there.

Sandra began typing again, a renewed vigor invading her veins as her fingers flew over the keyboard. Her publisher had been hounding her the past month to get this book finished, but since the birth of Grace, she had learned life was much more complicated. Now, the mother of two, she always seemed to find a mountain of excuses to postpone the submission, dragging out the release of this new book longer than she should have.

Somewhere beyond her earphones, she could hear her cellphone ringing but chose to ignore it. She had to get finished. A few minutes later Creighton came into the room, his phone in his hand, and the 'I’m sorry to bother you' look plastered across his handsome face. Reluctantly, she removed the earphones and looked at him, praying she didn’t look as irritated as she felt.

“It’s Sabrina,” he told her. “She wants to know if you would be willing to loan your wedding gown to her, for a fashion show she has scheduled this weekend.

“Can she use the pictures instead?” Sandra asked, not willing to release her grip on the one-of-a-kind dress her sister-in-law had given her six years ago.

“She needs it as a grand finale in the show, so the pictures won’t work.

“But I don’t want it altered to fit some tall skinny blonde,” Sandra snapped.

Creighton placed the phone to his ear to tell his sister the deal was off, but before he could utter a word, his eyes widened, and he smiled.

“Sabrina said you could model it yourself, so nobody else touches it,” he offered.

“A trip to Paris?” Sandra asked, a twinge of excitement winding its way up her spine. “But I can’t leave the kids.

“Then we’ll all go. It will be nice to get away from the rain for a while.

“Can we go to the beach?” she asked excitedly as she thought about spending time in the warm sun.

“If you’d like,” he answered with a smile, remembering the first time she met him at the resort in Corte d’Azur.

“Then I’ll do it,” Sandra said with a smile.

“You know people will be staring at you,” he told her gently. “I know that really bothers you.

“But you’ll be there, right? And Sabrina? I’ll have you to focus my attention on, so I won’t have to look at anyone else.

Creighton chuckled as he turned back to the phone, then frowned slightly as he listened to his sister on the other end. Sandra knew the girl could be as wound up as Irena when she was excited, but she also knew she had her brother wrapped around her little finger.

“Alright, we’ll be there,” Creighton said with a heavy sigh.

He hung up the phone and started out of the room without looking back at his wife.

“What?” she asked, stopping his bare feet from padding away.

“She said you’ll be walked down the runway with one of the male models,” he answered.

“And you don’t like that idea?” Sandra asked, knowing the answer before he gave it.

“You’re my wife. I don’t want a strange man walking beside you, especially while you’re wearing that dress. That dress represents the day you married me, the day all my hard work and plans came together. I don’t want to look at it on our daughter, many years from now, and remember that you wore it for another man.

“Then you do it?” she suggested. “That way, it won’t matter to me how many people are watching. I’ll have you beside me to keep my mind distracted.

Creighton looked at her for several long seconds as he considered this, then softly nodded his head.

“I’ll let her know we’re changing her plans,” he answered, then left her sitting in the room to smile after him as he returned to his office.

She nearly burst into laughter as she placed the earbuds back in her ears. There were times when Creighton Ashford could be domineering and demanding, but he belonged to her and she liked it that way.

Forty-five minutes later, and Sandra’s new book was at last finished. She contacted her publisher and sent an electronic copy to him for editing, then closed her laptop and sat back in her chair.

Now, she could concentrate on their upcoming trip. She was excited to go on a holiday, even if it was a few short days. It had been well over two years since she was able to go anywhere that didn’t involve Creighton’s business or a family affair. As much as she would love to spend a family holiday at the beach, she really just wanted to have some time alone with her husband. Maybe she could get her grandparents, or Creighton’s parents, to take Brandon and Grace for the weekend.

She knew the yacht was still in dry-dock, and there wasn’t enough time to get her ready, but they could always rent a boat. A little scuba diving, some parasailing, maybe a poker game or two, and she’d feel young and free, just as she had six years ago when she surrendered her innocence to Creighton. It was exactly what they needed to reset their love affair, and perhaps she’d have a chance to work on Sabrina at the same time. Who knows, maybe a miracle would present itself and help her achieve both her goals.

Sabrina rushed from one model to the next, making certain every pleat and every line was perfect before they walked down the runway. Two hundred and fifty worldwide buyers were present to witness her first real show. By the end of the day, she could have her designs in every boutique across Europe, as well as the United States and China.

Sandra and Creighton had arrived an hour earlier and were helping as much as possible, but it was Sabrina’s show and she appeared to have it all in hand. She looked haggard, with strands of long hair hanging loose from the clip she had pulled it back with, and she was a bit short-tempered, but everyone seemed to understand. Fortunately, Sabrina’s assistant, Marie, acted as a buffer between the designer and a room full of tense tears so nobody had a complete breakdown.

“Alright you two,” Sabrina began, pulling her hair out of the clip and fluffing it with her hand. “Let’s get you ready. Sandra, could you pull your hair over your shoulder…no, not like that…no that doesn’t look right.

Sabrina fussed for several moments with Sandra’s hair until she finally decided the first way was best after all, then moved to Creighton, who was wearing one of two of her male designs. A three-piece black mourning suit. She adjusted his tie, smoothed his hair, and frowned at the light beard her brother always wore.

“You couldn’t shave, even once?” she growled.

“My wife likes it,” he assured her with a wicked smile. “She says it tickles in all the right ways.

“Don’t get gross. I don’t have the patience for it.

Creighton reached out and held his sister by the shoulders, stopping her anxious fluttering. She looked up at him with an angry frown, then lost all steam when he pulled her into his embrace, holding her against his chest for several long seconds.

“I’m very proud of you, Sis,” he said gently, bringing the eyes of the models gathered around to look at them in surprise. “You’ve exceeded yourself, far beyond anything I ever gave you credit for. Now, calm down and let us finish this thing. The designer needs to spend a few minutes on her own appearance before taking center stage.

Sabrina wrapped her arms around her brother’s waist and returned his hug, calming her irritation down several degrees. She loved her brother and needed him at that moment, more than she was willing to admit.

“Thank you for everything,” she said softly. “And I’m sorry I’ve been such a bitch.

“I’ve survived two pregnancies with Sandra and four book deadlines,” he smiled as she pulled out of his embrace. “That was nothing compared to her mood swings.

Sandra slapped him on the arm and hugged Sabrina tightly before stepping to the curtain to wait for their introduction.

“That was very nice,” she told her husband. “She needed you to tell her that.

“She’s a good kid,” he replied softly. “I just wish she was happy.

Sandra glanced up with surprise seeing the concern echo in the dark blue eyes, but then the curtain opened and there was no time to discuss his comment further.

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