Under the Millionaire's Mistletoe, page 11
“What else were we going to do once I came home?”
She swallowed. “Well, there was…our honeymoon. People asked about that.” Which now that his return was real would be a divorce instead. Meg tugged at her hand and he allowed it to slide free.
Luke folded his arms across his chest and she could read nothing of his thoughts, how he felt about the stories she’d had to make up because she hadn’t been able to tell people he married her out of desperation. It had seemed important that nobody, and especially the half brother he was so keen to disinherit, knew the true circumstances. “Do we know where we’re going for that?”
“You wanted St. Moritz or Paris, but I wanted Easter Island.”
“So we compromised?”
Meg allowed a small smile. “Um…no. We settled on Easter Island because you’ve been to St. Moritz and Paris before, but neither of us has been to Easter Island. And besides, we both wanted to see the statues.” They had talked about the statues in one of their bedside conversations.
“I agreed they’d be amazing to see. Doesn’t mean that’s where I’d take my bride. I’d definitely go for a little more luxury. A little more hotel time, something a little more romantic.”
“That’s how people know how smitten you are with me.”
“Hey.” She smiled at his indignant expression. “It was my fantasy.”
“Was it not supposed to be reality-based?”
“You’re saying it’s beyond the realms of possibility?” Her smile faded. Of course someone like him, a multi-millionaire, consistently named in most-eligible-bachelor lists, wouldn’t really ever be interested in her, Meg Elliot, nurse. “Your friends believed it,” she said in her defense, then frowned. “At least they said they did. They thought I was good for you.”
“That’s not what I meant. I was talking about realistic honeymoon destinations, not the reality of you and me together.”
But Meg was on a roll. “They said I’m not like the women you’ve dated in the past—ones who don’t challenge you emotionally, who let you shut yourself off from them. You must have finally realized what’s important in life, must have trusted your ability to give and receive love.”
“All my friends said that, or just Sally, who thinks one psych paper in college makes her Carl Jung?”
Meg hesitated, then sighed. “Mainly Sally,” she finally admitted. But she’d so wanted to believe her, wife of one of Luke’s friends, that she’d bought into her assessment.
Luke’s sudden burst of laughter was the last thing she expected. “So, Easter Island, I can’t wait to see those statues.”
“It’s not funny.” He was still laughing at her. “I didn’t realize when I agreed to this pretence how complicated it would get. I thought I’d come here and, well…I guess I didn’t really think about it at all. But there were people with questions and expectations and I had to tell them something.”
“I’m sure you did the best you could.”
“But you would have handled it better? What would you have told them?”
“To mind their own damn business.”
“You can’t say that to people. And certainly not to your friends.”
“I can and I do. And friends are the ones who take it the best.”
“That’s not my style.”
“I guess I might have told them we were going somewhere private where I could keep the island promise I made to my wife. That would have been almost as effective at getting them to stop asking questions. They know I don’t make promises lightly.”
And just like that any trace of levity left his face, but he had to be joking still. Regardless, the sudden change threw her off balance, swept away any sense she’d had that she might be in control of their conversation.
To avoid the questioning intensity in his gaze and the confusion it stirred, she stooped and picked up the ribbon and began rolling it up. “That promise…” she said lightly, trying to inject a touch of dismissive humor into her voice “…it seems like it was a lifetime ago. Like we’re not those same two people.” She had the ribbon half rolled up when he caught the end. She studied their hands, joined by a strip of red velvet. His large and tanned, hers smaller and pale but thankfully steady.
“Look at me, Meg. And let me look at you.” He still sounded far too serious for her peace of mind. She could almost imagine a trace of need in his voice. “I held your face in my mind for so long. I can’t quite get enough of the real thing.”
Which seemed the oddest thing to say about her. She had a talent for blending in and going unnoticed. She was the type of person people often forgot having met. Slowly, she looked up. He kept perfectly still as her gaze tracked over his torso, settling inevitably on his face, on the eyes that showed his wanting.
“I’m going to kiss you.”
An even bigger surprise. She swallowed and shook her head. “That would be a bad idea.” Because if he kissed her, she’d kiss him back, and then he’d know she wanted him. But while she knew she should just turn and walk away, she didn’t. Her feet wouldn’t listen to her head. He lifted the red velvet, drawing her hand up with it, and then he captured her wrist, raising her hand farther till he touched her fingertips to his jaw. A shiver passed through her and the velvet dropped again to the floor.
She used to touch his jaw like that when he was sick and weakened and feverish. But he was far from sick or weak now, and if anyone was feverish, it was her.
He turned his head and pressed a kiss to her palm. Warmth, heat, liquefied her bones. “I remembered your touch.”
She couldn’t stop herself, she cupped her palm around his jaw. So smooth now, so strong. He framed her face with his hands and lowered his head toward hers.
She had time to back away.
She stayed precisely where he was.
He kissed with exquisite gentleness. His lips were soft and seeking as though he was savoring the taste of her in the same way she savored the taste and feel of him. He kissed, drew back a fraction, kissed again, brushing his lips over hers. He angled his head, deepened the kiss, teased her teeth and tongue. Her mouth parted beneath his. His kiss was…beautiful. It was perfection. The way they fit so naturally together held an aching rightness. Made her feel that she’d been missing this, him, for so long.
She slid her arms around his waist and stepped into him. And still he kissed her, his fingers threading deeper into her hair.
Meg forgot all the reasons why this was a bad idea and lost herself in his kiss, in the simple joining. He gave of himself, made no demands, and because of that swept her away, a leaf delighting in the wind, flying for that brief time between tree and ground.
And for that brief time it was just him, just her, no past or future, just the now and this kiss, his lips against hers.
Too soon, but what had to be minutes later, he lifted his head, his hands still framed her face, his thumbs lazily stroked her cheeks.
“Remind me in what possible way that could have been a bad idea. I’m thinking it was one of the best, if not the best idea I’ve ever had.”
She opened her mouth to speak and waited for her brain to provide the words.
He slid his hands over her shoulders, down her arms, till he held both her hands in his. And Meg knew she was in deep, deep trouble because all she could think was that she wanted him to kiss her again and then she wanted more. Much, much more.
The chiming of the doorbell broke through the sensory spell he wove. Her first reaction was disappointment. Her second, as sanity returned, was relief. That kiss could only have led to places they couldn’t go, not without horribly complicating what was already a far-too-complicated situation, and not without threatening the safe cocoon she’d spun around her heart.
She started for the door.
“Leave it,” he said.
But she’d remembered who it likely was. “Um… No. We can’t.” We can’t leave it and we can’t go where you’re thinking. Where I was thinking. Wanting.<
Luke looked from the broad cedar door to Meg. “You know who that is?”
Meg glanced at her watch. “Maybe.” They were punctual, a little early even, which normally she’d rate as a good quality.
“So it’s someone for you?”
“Whoever it is, send them away. I don’t feel like company today.”
“I can’t do that.”
The chimes rang softly through the house again. “Because I think it’s the caterers.”
His eyes narrowed on her. “Why are there caterers ringing my doorbell?”
“Because they’d like to come in?” She kept her tone hopeful and innocent.
“Meg?” His tone was anything but hopeful or innocent. She’d have said more suspicious and accusing.
“They have some setting up to do. For the dinner tonight.” The doorbell rang again and was followed by an insistent knock.
“Open it. And then I think you better tell me what dinner they’re setting up for.”
Meg let the small army of caterers in, guided them through to the kitchen and took as long as she could showing them anything and everything she thought they might need to know. She didn’t leave till it became obvious she was only getting in their way.
She went back to the entranceway where she’d left Luke, where he’d kissed her, but he wasn’t there. The red bow was back in place on the post. She could look for him, but she’d doubtless see him soon enough. In the meantime, she had things she needed to do. Like run away before she started acting on three months’ worth of daydreams.
In her—Luke’s—bedroom she pulled a plain black suitcase from the wardrobe and dropped it onto her—his—bed and unzipped the lid. From the top dresser drawer she gathered her underwear and put it into the case. The second drawer contained Luke’s clothes. She opened the third drawer and pulled out her T-shirts.
“What are you doing?”
She tensed at the sound of his voice and spun, her T-shirts clasped to her chest, to see him standing in the doorway. “Packing.”
“You do have a knack for stating the obvious.”
“We agreed I’d go as soon as you got back.”
“And then we agreed Monday, because your car is at the mechanic’s.” Luke strolled across the room and positioned himself in front of the wide window that most days allowed forever views out over the lake. Today, ominous clouds hid the far, snow-capped mountains, restricting the view instead to the lake’s edge. “What is it you’re frightened of?”
“Nothing.” And even though he wasn’t looking at her, she clutched the T-shirts a little tighter, a flimsy barrier against his questions, his insight.
“Now, me, I’m frightened of you.”
A ludicrous notion. “I don’t think so. You hold all the power here. Your house, your territory.” Not to mention his looks, his wealth, her weakness for him.
“What scares me, Meg,” he said to the window, “is the way I feel when I look at you. And the way those feelings intensify when you look back at me.”
His words stilled her, made her want to hope. She covered the foolish, unlikely hope with glibness. “And I’ll just bet you’re a ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ kind of guy.”
“Sometimes,” he said quietly. “Not always. Sometimes the fear is to protect us.”
Meg placed the T-shirts on top of her underwear, spreading them so they hid the scraps of lace that were her secret indulgence. Plain, practical Meg liked pretty, sometimes even sexy, lingerie.
Luke crossed to the dresser. She’d divided the space on top in half. One-third, two-thirds, actually. A third for his things, a watch and a framed photo of his mother only needed so much space. The two-thirds on the right was littered with her things. Perfume, a pair of earrings, a scented candle and… “Don’t touch that.”
He turned with a curling photo in his hand. “This?”
“Yes,” she sighed, “that.”
“I didn’t mean don’t touch it. You can have it. Throw it out if you like.”
He lifted a questioning eyebrow.
“I needed something to show people when I went back to try to find you. Clearly, I don’t need it anymore.” The photo showed the two of them, Luke sitting up in bed, looking ill but still with a certain intensity to his gaze, and Meg perched beside him looking worried and pointing to something off camera. Their wedding photo. She didn’t even know why she’d left it out and on the dresser.
He was about to place the photo back where it had stood leaning against her perfume, when instead, he picked up the small crystal bottle and brought it to his nose. He closed his eyes and nodded. “Very Meg.” Opening his eyes, he studied her. “Flowers and sweetness.” Meg adjusted her T-shirts in the case.
“Tell me about this dinner the caterers in my kitchen are setting up for.”
She opened her mouth to speak.
He held up a warning finger. “I just want the facts. No evasive answers. What party do you have planned for tonight?” He frowned. “And if you’re planning a party, why are you packing as though you can’t get out of here fast enough.”
“There’s a Christmas dinner for the Maitland Foundation here tonight. Most of the really big donors will be here. I haven’t had all that much to do with the organization. I just agreed with Sally when she suggested that this house would be the perfect place for the dinner. And agreed with her that there was no reason it couldn’t be here.”
“She didn’t tell you that she asks every year if she could have it here, and that every year I tell her no?”
Meg swallowed. Sally had told her she’d bear the blame if Luke got back before Christmas, but it didn’t seem fair. “Actually, she did. But I couldn’t see any reason not to have it here. You have a beautiful home. And it’s so much more personal to have a dinner in a home than at a restaurant.”
Luke blew out a heavy sigh. The hands at his sides had curled into fists. And for a few brief seconds he shut his eyes. Meg contemplated sneaking out. Too soon he opened them again, the silver sharp and intent. “So why are you packing now?”
“Now that you’re back, I don’t need to be here for it.”
He crossed to the bed. Took everything out of her suitcase, dropped it onto the bedcover, then zipped the case shut. “Think again. If I have to be here for this dinner, then you most definitely do.”
She unzipped the case and gathered up the pile of clothes. “No, I don’t.”
“These donors who are coming, they know I have a wife?”
“Yes, most of them,” she said slowly, holding her clothes to her chest and hoping fervently that she’d covered her underwear with her T-shirts.
“Then they’ll expect you to be here. The Maitland Foundation and its donors espouse strong family values. You could cost it thousands if you don’t show, Mrs. Maitland.”
“That’s not fair.”
“You’re right, it’s not.” He smiled, devious and victorious. “I’ll leave you to start getting ready.” He stopped at the door and nodded at the clothes in her arms. “I’m sure the red will look fetching on you.”
Meg glanced down. There were only two red items in her arms and neither of them was a T-shirt.
Meg paused and wrapped her fingers around the polished wood of the banister. She’d made a point of staying out of the caterers’—and Luke’s—way while she showered and dressed and put up her hair. But now she barely recognized the entranceway that she’d last seen just a few hours ago. Her homemade decorations were gone. The stairs were twined with ivy, among which nestled hundreds of glinting fairy lights. Below her, an enormous Christmas tree, topped with a star, glittered and sparkled in silver and gold in the entranceway, scenting the air with the fragrance of pine. Tall candelabra stood either side of the front door. The house was filled with the delicate notes of a string quartet playing Christmas music. It was as though someone had waved a wand and transf
Luke strode through the doors thrown wide from the next room and had a foot on the bottom step before he looked up and stilled. A slow, knowing smile spread across his face. “I was just coming to get you. Our guests are starting to arrive, darling.”
The wand must have touched Luke as well. Before now, she’d only ever seen him dressed casually. Even then, and even when ill, he’d looked striking, had an undeniable charisma. But now, in an elegant tuxedo, its cut and custom tailoring accentuating the breadth of his shoulders and his lean strength, he looked devastating. A surge of possessiveness and pride swept through her. This man was her husband.
She quashed both the possessiveness and the pride. She had no right to feel possessive of a man who wasn’t in any way hers. And she had no right to the pride. He’d had to believe he was dying to offer marriage. Even so, he waited expectantly for her. And she couldn’t quite calm the leap of her pulse.
Part of his attraction was the way when he looked at her she felt like he only saw her, only thought of her, as though she fascinated him every bit as much as he fascinated her.
Meg held a little tighter to the banister. She had only one dress suitable for a dinner like this. And it was red. Now Luke would think, and he’d be right, that she wore the red lace beneath it. Or worse, and he’d be wrong, that she wore it for him.
She descended the stairs. Wearing the demure but fitted dress and too-high heels, she was well out of her comfort zone. Or maybe it was his silver gaze steady on her that made her hyperaware of her every movement.
Tonight. She just had to get through tonight without succumbing to his pull. When she was away from him again she’d be fine, but when he was near, he scrambled her thought processes till she didn’t know what she wanted, or till she wanted things she knew she oughtn’t.
She stopped a step above him and finally, defiantly, met his gaze. And looked quickly away, her defiance doused. Heat. She’d read heat in his eyes. For her.
It was insane.
As insane as the heat of the response deep within her that his gaze had ignited.
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