Proof of Their Sin

By: Dani Collins

CHAPTER ONE

NOT FOR THE first time in the last several weeks, Lauren Bradley wondered where she should draw the line between becoming the bold, independent woman she’d always wished she could be and behaving like a shameless, demanding radical. Words like licentious, brazen and embarrassment trickled through her mind with increasing frequency as she walked that blurry border.

Unsurprisingly, when those hurtful words echoed in her head, they were always pronounced in her mother’s thin, distressed voice.

Flicking one long, brunette braid over her shoulder, Lauren silently told her absent mother to pipe down while she regarded the woman behind the counter of this exclusive hotel salon. The woman had just given Lauren the most excruciatingly polite brush-off and the habits of a lifetime urged Lauren to slink away in quiet disgrace.

But her heart was beating for two these days, knocking hard against the wall of her breastbone and bouncing back on a spine that had to harden to contain it.

Dare I? she wondered with a shiver of apprehension.

Oh, she knew she appeared to be just one more hick tourist come to New York looking for a posh hairstyle to take home as a souvenir, but this meant so much more to her than that. Lauren stood on the threshold of taking control of her life in a way she’d never imagined, but to do so meant shoving past the old Lauren who always smilingly took a backseat to everyone. If she didn’t dig deep and find her true spirit right now she might as well collect her luggage from upstairs and retreat to the empty rooms of her grandmother’s mansion where she could raise her baby with all the fear of drawing attention its mother had suffered most of her life.

No. Lauren locked her knee, surreptitiously putting her foot down.

She allowed the salon receptionist to finish the call she’d used to try to dismiss her. Ingrained manners were a pain that way. Besides, Lauren needed the extra seconds to gather her courage and manufacture a gracious smile for the woman who gave her a strained Still here? smile as she hung up.

“I believe there’s been a miscommunication,” Lauren said with the most warmly modulated yet implacable tone she could muster. “I’m attending the Donatelli Charity Ball this evening.”

The woman, a little younger than Lauren’s nearly twenty-five, widened her eyelash extensions with a fraction of respect. Exactly. Paolo Donatelli was a man who made every woman stand taller and suck in her stomach.

A zing of empowerment swept through Lauren. She was name-dropping, sure, but she’d never before had the gall to try it. Over her mother’s gasp of horror, she heard her grandmother say, Good girl! Clenching her fingers on the strap of her carry-all purse, Lauren added daringly, “You’re certain you have nothing for Bradley? Mrs. Ryan Bradley?”

Her mother would have a stroke over such audacity, but Lauren stood her ground, pronouncing the name with delicate precision because, honestly, what was the use in being Mrs. Bradley if she shrank from all it afforded her?

“Mrs. Bradley...” The salon hostess searched her book while her plucked brows came together in concern. “It sounds familiar—”

A stiletto-thin man appeared from behind the privacy wall of translucent bricks. Groomed to perfection right down to his buffed fingernails, he greeted Lauren with the warmth of an old friend, even though she’d never seen him before in her life.

“Mrs. Bradley, of course we have time for you. So good to see you out during what must be a very difficult time. May I express on behalf of myself, my staff, and in fact our entire country, how sincerely sorry we are for your loss. Captain Bradley was a true hero. If there is anything we can do to ease your pain and make up for his sacrifice, we are at your service.”#p#分页标题#e#

Now Lauren did feel like the most conscienceless snake oil salesman in the world, allowing the man to sweep her into the interior of the salon, minions scampering before him to remove traces of previous clients.

Guilt rose to tense her shoulders; there was still time to go back. All she had to do was turn and leave. People would stare but she could be gone in a matter of seconds.

She swallowed and allowed confident hands to seat her. The elastic hoops were peeled off her two thick braids and then her new BFF was fanning his hands through her hair, picking up the strands that fell to her waist.

“This is your natural color, isn’t it? What a treasure. Your husband must have adored this mane.”

Lauren had thought he had adored her. Don’t ever cut it. Promise me, he’d said a thousand times. Everyone in her life had encouraged her to keep her hair long and Lauren, always the good girl, had complied.

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