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The Man Behind the Scars

By:Caitlin Crews

The Man Behind the Scars
Caitlin Crews

       CHAPTER ONE

IT WAS one thing to boldly decide that you were going to capture a rich  husband to save you from your life, and more to the point from the  desperate financial situation you'd discovered you were in through no  fault of your own, Angel Tilson thought a bit wildly as she stared  around the glittering ballroom, but quite another thing to do it.

She didn't know what her problem was. She was standing knee-deep in a  sea of wealthy, titled people. Everywhere she looked she saw money,  nobility and actual royalty, filling the sparkling ballroom of the  Palazzo Santina and threatening to outshine the massive chandeliers that  hung dramatically overhead. She could feel the wealth saturating the  very air, like an exclusive scent.

The whole island seemed to be bursting at the seams with this prince,  that sheikh and any number of flash European nobles, their ancient  titles and inherited ranks hanging from their elegant limbs like the  kind of fine accessories Angel herself could never afford. It was the  first time in Angel's twenty-eight years that she'd ever found herself  in a room-a palace ballroom, to be sure, but it was still, technically, a  room-with a selection of princes. As in, princes plural.

She should have been overjoyed. She told herself she was. She'd come all  the way from her questionable neighborhood in London to beautiful  Santina, this little jewel of an island kingdom in the Mediterranean, in  order to personally celebrate her favorite stepsister's surprising  engagement to a real, live prince. And she was happy for Allegra and her  lovely Prince Alessandro-of course she was. Thrilled, in fact. But if  sweet, sensible Allegra could bag herself the Crown Prince of Santina,  Angel didn't see why she couldn't find herself a wealthy husband of her  own here in this prosperous, red-roofed little island paradise, where  rich men seemed to be as thick on the ground as Mediterranean weeds.

He didn't even have to be royal, she thought generously, eyeing the  assorted male plumage before her from her position near one of the grand  pillars that lined the great room-all Angel needed was a nice, big,  healthy bank account.

She wanted to pretend it was all a game-but it wasn't. Not to put too fine a point on it, but she was desperate.

She felt herself frown then, and made a conscious effort to smooth her  expression away into something more enticing. Or at least something  vaguely pleasant. Scowling was hardly likely to appeal to anyone, much  less inspire sudden marriage proposals from the sort of men who could  buy all the smiles they liked, the way common folk like Angel bought  milk and eggs.

"You can just as easily smile as frown, love," her mother had always  said in that low, purring way of hers, usually punctuated with one of  Chantelle's trademark sexy smirks or bawdy laughs. That and "why not  marry a rich one if you must marry one at all" constituted the bulk of  the maternal advice Chantelle-never Mum, always Chantelle, no age ever  mentioned in public, thank you-had offered. But thinking about her  conniving, thoughtless mother did not help. Not now, while she was  standing knee-deep in another one of Chantelle's messes.

Hurt and fury and incomprehension boiled inside of her all over again as  she thought of the fifty thousand quid her mother had run up on a  credit card she'd "accidentally" taken out in Angel's name. Angel had  discovered the horrifying bill on her doormat one day, so seemingly  innocuous at a casual glance that she'd almost thrown it in the bin.  She'd had to sit down, she'd been so dizzy, staring at the statement in  her hand until it made, if not sense in the usual meaning of the term, a  certain sickening kind of Chantelle sense.

Once she'd got past the initial shock, she'd known at once that her  mother was the culprit-that it wasn't some kind of mistake. She'd hated  that she'd known, and she'd hated the nausea that went with that  knowing, but she'd known even so. It was not the first time Chantelle  had "borrowed" money from Angel, nor even the first "accident", but it  was the first time she'd let herself get this carried away.

"I've just received a shocking bill from a credit card account I never  opened," she'd snapped down the phone when her mother had answered in  her usual breezy, careless manner, as if all was right with her world.  Which, at fifty thousand pounds the richer, perhaps it was.

"Right," Chantelle had drawled out, in that slightly shocked way of hers  that told Angel that, as usual, her mother had not thought through to  the consequences of her actions. Had she ever? Would she ever? "I've  been meaning to talk to you about that, love," Chantelle had murmured.  "You won't want to ruin Allegra's do this weekend with this sort of  unpleasantness, of course, but we'll have loads of time afterward to-"                       
       
           



       

Angel had simply ended the call with a violent jerk of her hand, unable  to speak for fear that she would scream herself hoarse. And then cry  like the child she'd never really been, not when she'd had to play the  adult to Chantelle's excesses from such a young age-and she never cried.  Never. Not over Chantelle's innumerable deficiencies as a mother and a  human being. Not for a single reason that she could recall. What problem  did tears ever solve?

Fifty thousand, she thought now, standing in the middle of the dazzling  ballroom, but it didn't feel real. Not the fairy-tale beauty and  elegance of the palace around her, and not that stunning number either.  The sickening enormity of that sum of money rolled through Angel like  thunder, low and long, and she wasn't sure, for a moment, if she could  breathe through the sheer panic that followed in its wake, making her  skin feel clammy and her breath shallow. Fifty thousand pounds.

Neither she nor Chantelle had a hope in hell of paying off a sum that  large. In what universe? Chantelle's single claim to fame was her  marriage to beloved ex-footballer and regular subject of tabloid  speculation and gossip Bobby Jackson. It had resulted in Angel's  wild-child half sister, the sometime pop idol, Izzy, who Angel did not  pretend to understand, and very little else. Aside from notoriety, of  course. Chantelle had been a market stall owner before she'd set out to  net herself one of England's favorite sons. No one had ever let her  forget it. Not that Chantelle seemed to care-she got to bask in Bobby's  reflected glory, didn't she?

Angel had learned better than to inquire after the state of Bobby and  Chantelle's deeply cynical union      a long, long time ago, lest she be  subject to another lecture from her relentless social climber of a  mother on how marriage, if done correctly and to a minor celebrity like  big-spending and large-living Bobby, was simple common sense and good  business. Angel shuddered now, trying to imagine what it was like to  remain married to a man that everyone in the whole of England knew was  still sleeping with his ex-wife, Julie. If not many others besides. How  could Chantelle be so proud of her marriage when every tabloid in the UK  knew the shameful state of it? Angel didn't know.

What she did know was that there were certainly no heretofore  undiscovered stashes of pounds sterling lying about Bobby's house in  Hertfordshire or the flat in Knightsbridge Chantelle preferred, or  Chantelle wouldn't have had to "borrow" from her own daughter in the  first place, would she? The truth was, Angel suspected that Bobby had  cut Chantelle off from his purse strings long ago. Or had emptied out  that purse all by himself, with all of his good-natured if shortsighted  ways.

Angel couldn't seem to fight off the sadness that moved through her then  as she thought-not for the first time-what her life might have been  like if Chantelle had been a normal sort of mother. If Chantelle had  cared about someone other than herself. Not that Angel could complain.  Not really. She'd always been treated well enough by Bobby's rowdy brood  of children from his various wives and lovers-even by Julie, if she was  honest-and the truth was that carelessly genial Bobby was the only  father she'd ever known. Angel's real, biological father had done a  runner the moment seventeen-year-old Chantelle had told him she was  pregnant. Angel had always been grateful for the way the Jackson  clan-especially Bobby-had included her. They'd tried, and that was more  than others might have done. But at the end of the day she wasn't a  Jackson like the rest of them, was she?

Angel had always been far too aware of that crucial distinction. She'd  always felt that boundary line, invisible but impossible to ignore,  marking the difference between all of them, and her. She'd always been  on the outside looking in, no matter how many Christmases she spent with  them, pretending. The Jacksons were the only family she had, but that  didn't make them hers. All she had, for her sins, was Chantelle.

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