Under the Millionaire's Mistletoe, page 10
“I don’t really understand why you hate him so much. He can be a bit creepy, but he’s had a tough life.”
Not like you. The implication was clear. That was how Jason had got to Luke, too, playing the sympathy card, explaining how hard done by he’d been because of Luke’s dead father, their father, a man who’d never acknowledged him, playing on Luke’s feelings of guilt. So he’d given him a house, a job, money. And then Jason had betrayed him by blackmailing his mother. A fact he hadn’t discovered till he was in Indonesia going through some of her possessions. He’d threatened to very publicly expose her dead husband’s indiscretions, which according to Jason, were many and damning. In doing so, he’d not only stain the memory and reputation of their father, but more importantly, would harm the image of the charity he’d founded. A charity that meant the world to Luke’s mother.
Luke had told Meg none of the details. Maybe he should have because it sounded as though Jason had been playing on Meg’s sympathies, too. All Luke had shared with her, when his death was looking like a distinct possibility, was that he didn’t want to die knowing Jason, as his closest living relative, might benefit in any way. “So how much help did you accept from him, and what did you mean by creepy?” The very thought of Jason anywhere near Meg was creepy. The man had the moral code of a hyena.
She shoved her hands deeper into her pockets. “He has an…unusual way about him. But he tried to be helpful. He gave me names of people and professionals for if I needed any work done, told me which restaurants were good. Things like that. But it was Mark who suggested the private investigator I used to try to track you down.”
“Of course I looked. But the investigator didn’t turn up anything. So I went back there as soon as I got my visa renewed.”
“To the island?”
“Yes.” Sorrow clouded her eyes. “Where did you go? Where did everyone go?”
He hated the thought of her going back there. That it was for him made it even worse.
She’d left because the situation on the island had deteriorated rapidly into one of chaos and violence. She’d actually argued that she should stay with him, but the local staff had convinced her that they could care for him until the plane arrived to airlift him and a wounded islander to the nearest hospital for treatment.
“I don’t know what happened to it, but the plane never arrived. We gave it a day, but after fresh fighting broke out, we fled the village and then the island.”
She nodded. “No one I spoke to had heard of you or any of the villagers we knew. At least they said they didn’t. There was nothing left of the village itself. Or the school.”
He heard the bleakness in her voice. It had made her sad, and it had made him angry. But there was nothing either of them could do about it now. The village had been caught in the middle of an escalating dispute linked to a decades-old conflict. “I know some of them got away. Were able to start afresh.” That small truth was the best he could offer her.
She walked on, visibly subdued. Despite his earlier resolve to keep his distance, Luke slipped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her closer to him. The future would separate them, but they shared a past that no one else would understand. And he would offer her what comfort he could—the comfort of a friend—inadequate as it might be.
He still had questions, but now no longer seemed the time to ask them. They walked the rest of the loop in silence. His arm still about her shoulders. Her leaning subtly into him. He should let her go, but something about walking like this, with her, was deeply peaceful. He remembered that about her, a feeling of stillness and calm when she’d been the one nursing him.
The house, festooned with Christmassy boughs of greenery, came into view. In the eight years he’d lived here he’d never once decorated for Christmas.
He’d thought about putting up a tree one year, but if he put a tree up, then he’d have to buy ornaments. And, well, it just never happened. There was no point for a man living on his own. But this morning he’d noticed festive touches everywhere. Red bows on the uprights of the stairs, Christmas towels in the guest bathroom, a Christmas tree decorated in only white bows and white lights, simple but effective. “Where will you go?”
She stiffened. “That’s not your problem or your concern. But,” she drew in a deep breath that lifted her shoulders, “can I stay till Monday? Till my car’s ready. It’s at the mechanic’s. That’s why the committee meeting was here last night.”
He stopped, forcing her to stop with him and looked at her. “Of course you can stay.” He should be grateful. He’d been thinking two or three weeks, maybe a month, would be reasonable. But the thought of her leaving Monday was like having the rug pulled out from under his feet. Now that she wanted to go, he wanted to keep her near. Surely he ought to at least know his wife a little, if only so that he knew how she was likely to play it during their divorce.
Plus it would look strange to both his friends and hers if his wife left so soon. Ultimately, of course, they’d have to deal with it. But there was no hurry. “Stay as long as you need.”
“Thank you,” she said softly. “But Monday will be good.” She gently turned down his offer. He’d wanted her gone, so he had no call to feel rebuffed. It had been like that back on the island. The conflicting feelings she evoked. The desire to have her near, the resenting of that desire and then the desire to have her back when she left. Turns out it wasn’t contrariness caused by being bedridden.
She smiled at some hidden thought. She had the sweetest-looking lips. Eminently kissable. For all the admonishments he’d delivered to himself, he couldn’t help wondering what she’d do if he kissed her again. No mistletoe, no audience.
She’d kissed him once. Back at the camp. The minister had left his bedside after marrying them. Darkness had fallen and Meg sat quietly by his side. She used to sometimes sit there and talk to him as he dozed, telling him stories from her childhood, as outside, unseen night insects sang.
The evening after their marriage she’d kept his hand in hers and Luke had lain there, eyes closed, trying to listen to what she said, but mainly just listening to the sound of her voice, the sound of home.
When he’d asked, after realizing it was something he should have asked first, she had talked about the boyfriend whose desertion had precipitated her trip to work with the foundation. About how she specialized in finding men who needed her for a time, emotionally, financially or physically, but then dumped her when the need had passed. Initially, she laughed at her own stories, but then, as she talked about her dreams of a family of her own, her voice changed, there was a catch to it, and then she stopped talking altogether. He opened his eyes to see a tear rolling down her cheek.
She tried for a smile. “Some wedding night, huh.”
And she did. She moved from her chair to sit on the side of his bed.
She leaned down.
He brushed the tear away with his thumb and then slid his hand round to the back of her head, pulled her closer still and kissed her, slow and sweet, and he forgot about the pain and thought maybe he’d died and already gone to heaven.
She sat back up looking as shaken as he knew he’d feel if he wasn’t so damn sick. Instead, he felt…a little better.
“Not bad for someone on death’s doorstep.” She tried to make light of what had just passed between them.
“Wait till I’m better.” He winked. “I could make you forget all your sorrows.”
“Is that a promise?”
“If you want it to be.”
“Then get better. And I’ll hold you to it.”
“Now that’s what I call an incentive.”
It was the last time he’d been alone with her. The next day, she’d left on the boat that was to bring back supplies to replenish those raided from the island’s medical facility.
But he wasn’t sick now. He stopped walking and pulled her closer, let her se
Beside them, Caesar growled deep and low. Meg stiffened and looked away. “Someone’s here.”
They rounded the side of the house to see a red Corvette driving away. Luke watched till Jason’s car disappeared from sight before dropping his arm from Meg’s shoulders and heading into the house. He hated what Jason had done to his mother, and hated the thought of him anywhere near Meg. He wanted the man out of his life for good.
The homemade wreath adorning his front door swung as he pulled the door open. Controlling his breathing, he stepped inside and held the door for Meg. She stood on the path at the base of the stairs watching him, her expression unreadable, her nose and cheeks pink from the cold.
Finally, looking straight past him, she climbed the stairs. He shut the door behind them and watched as she unwound her scarf. The peace and connection he’d found in her presence only minutes ago had vanished. She’d shut herself off from him.
He stood between her and the closet and took her scarf from her hands. “You don’t understand.”
“And I don’t need to. Families are complicated. It’s your business. It’s nothing to do with me.” She unzipped her jacket.
“You’re my wife.”
She stilled for a second, looking at her hands. “In name only.”
“But still my wife.” He didn’t know why he was invoking the “wife” clause; he should be the last one reinforcing it. But he wanted her to understand.
“Don’t tell me you aren’t thinking about how soon you can divorce me, if you haven’t started proceedings already.”
“I haven’t started proceedings.”
“Yet. But you’ll be at Mark’s office first thing Monday morning?”
Luke said nothing. Meg looked up, met his gaze and nodded her understanding.
As she shrugged off her jacket, he moved to stand behind her, helped ease it from her shoulders and down her arms. He caught the scent of green apples but couldn’t afford to be distracted by it. “You can’t tell me you don’t want to get divorced, too?” She turned, they were so close that he could encircle her with his arms. Hold her. Tell her everything. His wife in name only. Or they could not talk at all. He could taste her lips. Touch her skin. Feel her heat.
“Of course I want it, too.”
Divorce, they were talking about divorcing.
“That’s why I don’t need to get involved in your personal life. Any more than I already am.”
He hung up her jacket. “Any more than you are?”
She swallowed. “I’m living in your house. And I’ve made friends with some of your friends and their partners. I couldn’t help it. When they learned about me, they wanted to meet me, to get to know me. They’ve been kind. I like them.”
He nodded, gave her time to go on.
“Julie finally left her husband. She stayed here for a week when she first left. And Sally and Kurt are expecting their second child. She’s due in three months. I said I’d help with babysitting when she went into hospital. And when she came out. You know how organized she is. Of course that might not be so easy now.” She was talking fast, not meeting his gaze. “And I’m sorry. It just sort of happened.” She looked up at him, apology in her eyes.
Just like he used to when he’d been sick, he’d gotten distracted by the soft cadence of her voice rather than focusing on the specifics of her words. The details of her supposed crime had washed over him. And today there had been the added distraction of his very real ability to do something about it. He could reach out, trail a finger down the softness of her cheek, touch it to those lips. Desire stirred.
Meg stepped back from Luke, the husband she didn’t know, away from the warmth in his eyes. Warmth that had her thinking things she had no business thinking. She blamed the window. She’d come back from her walk with Caesar and looked up to see him standing at the wide picture window, wearing only boxers, his torso lean and sculpted, and a purely feminine thrill of appreciation had swept through her.
“I’m glad you found friends here, that you weren’t alone,” he said after a pause so long that she’d thought he hadn’t been going to answer.
His softly spoken words disconcerted her. She didn’t want to like him. At least not in the softening, melting way she could feel herself liking him. That was far more dangerous than the physical pull of attraction that she—and most likely the majority of the female population who came within his sphere—felt for him. She’d agreed to marry him because he’d believed—rightly—that his death was a real possibility and it had seemed imperative to him that Jason not be able to inherit. She’d been prepared to do anything to ease his agitation.
But he hadn’t died.
He was very much alive.
And watching her.
“But hopefully they have the good sense to stay away now that I’m back. All I want is peace and quiet.”
Meg remembered the dinner. He might want peace and quiet but he wasn’t going to get it. Not tonight, which was probably a good thing because Meg wasn’t so sure she wanted to be alone with him.
“Show me round the house.”
“I haven’t changed anything. You don’t need me to show you round it.” Regardless of what he did or didn’t need, she needed to put a little space between them. And she would—as soon as she’d told him about the dinner. Because the way they’d walked, with his arm around her, had felt so natural, and when he’d looked at her, he’d thought about kissing her and she’d wanted him to. It would feel so good, which would be all bad.
She was lonely. That was all. Her life had been on hold these last few months, but she was picking up the pieces again. She didn’t need to lean on Luke.
Her work with the Maitland Foundation since she’d been back had been a welcome distraction.
“You’ve been having parties. That’s a change.”
“Do you mean last night? That was a final committee meeting.”
“You put up Christmas decorations.” He continued, not taking her opening to ask what the committee meeting was for. “That’s a change. A bigger one than you know.” He flicked one of the red bows tied to the stair uprights. “I don’t usually do Christmas.”
It seemed a sad thing to say. She couldn’t imagine not marking Christmas in some way. “That’s not changing as much as adding something temporary.” She was going to have to tell him about tonight.
The bow slipped and they both reached to catch it, hands tangling as they trapped the red velvet against the smooth wood of the post, halting its downward slide. For a second they stilled. His warm hand covered hers, pinning it with the bow beneath it.
He was close again. And again his proximity, his warmth and scent had her resolutions slipping. Meg slid her hand from beneath his, bringing the broad ribbon with it, and took a step back. With nerveless fingers she smoothed out the loops of the bow. From the kitchen she heard the strains of “All I Want for Christmas is You.”
“Do you remember our promise?”
She glanced up to see him watching her closely, desire kindling in the depths of his eyes. He couldn’t mean the promise her thoughts had leaped to. He must have meant their vows. “To love and honor? And only those vows because there was no time to write our own. ‘In sickness and in health and to disinherit your brother and give me somewhere to live when I got back here.’”
A smile flickered and vanished. “That wasn’t the promise I was talking about.”
Oh. That promise. The one she’d secretly cherished in her darkest hours, something full of the possibility of tenderness and passion and the affirmation of life, and the one she’d now hoped he’d forgotten. “I don’t think anything we said or did back then applies to the here and now.”
“Some things transcend time and place,” he said evenly. “And a promise is a promise.”
Meg swallowed and tugged a little more at the bow.
“I sometimes thi
She took another step back. His smile returned, knowing and tempting. “If it helped, then I’m glad of it.” The bow came completely undone in her unsteady fingers.
He reached for the loose end, so that it became a connection between the two of them. “Did you ever think of it? Or did you forget about me altogether?”
She avoided the first of his two questions. “I didn’t forget about you.”
He pulled his end of the ribbon closer to him, bringing her hand with it. Then he lifted her hand, supported it with his own and with a sudden frown studied the ring that adorned her ring finger. “Our wedding ring?”
Meg shrugged, though with him cradling her fisted hand in his palm, nonchalance was the last thing she felt. “I had to have something. People were asking. I bought it over the internet so nobody would see me going to a jeweler’s to get it.”
“And this convinced them?” With the forefinger of his free hand he touched the simple thin gold band. “I would have chosen something a little more…expensive.”
“Its importance is in what it symbolizes, not what it’s worth. As I told your friends, this was all I wanted. Its simplicity and purity were the perfect representation of our relationship. Besides, I didn’t want to spend a lot.”
He straightened her fingers and the velvet ribbon whispered to the floor between them. “You paid for it yourself?”
“Of course.” She tried to ease her hand free, but he held firm. “It wasn’t much.”
“I can tell. And our engagement ring?” He looked from her hand to her face. “Where’s that?”
She shook her head. “We weren’t able to get a suitable engagement ring. It was hard enough getting the wedding band, which we had brought over from another island.” She filled him in on the details of the story she’d concocted for his friends. “You wanted us to choose the engagement ring once you came home, but I was going to argue against that. I like the band on its own.”
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