Under the millionaires m.., p.9

Under the Millionaire's Mistletoe, page 9

 

Under the Millionaire's Mistletoe
 


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  “I think, for some perverse reason, you’d like me to be afraid of you. But the man I remember was decent and kind.”

  He watched her lips, a soft coral pink. He hadn’t intended on kissing her. But her lack of recognition of him had galled. And besides, she had been standing under the mistletoe. What was a husband supposed to do? “I was sick. I wasn’t entirely myself.”

  “Some things don’t change.”

  Another first, someone defending him to himself. “And some things change completely, Mrs. Maitland.” For instance, he now had the wife he’d sworn he’d never burden his life with.

  “I’m not Mrs. Maitland. I never took your name. It didn’t seem right.”

  He didn’t know whether he was relieved or affronted. “Just my house. My money. My life.” He curled his hand around the newel at the base of the stairs.

  Her eyes narrowed and her hands went to her hips. “You’re swaying, and talking almost as much gibberish as you were that last day on the island. Go to bed.”

  “Come with me.” He was in no state to do anything other than sleep. But she didn’t know that. “I’ve been sleeping alone for so long.”

  “Luke.” She said his name with such frustrated impatience, and none of her earlier trepidation, that maybe she did know.

  “That wasn’t how you used to say my name.” He’d heard her the times when she’d thought he was sleeping. And even when she’d known him to be awake, there had been such tenderness in her voice. “And not how I dreamed of hearing you say it.”

  “First my hands, now my voice. Any other parts of me you dreamed of?”

  Luke smiled. “I don’t think you want to know.” Color climbed her cheeks.

  Two

  Luke woke alone in a broad, soft bed. Nothing unusual about the alone part, but the bed was a different story altogether. The snow-white sheets smelled fresh and clean and felt crisp against his skin. A feather pillow cushioned his head. Opening his eyes, he scanned the room. A miniature Christmas tree stood on the dresser. Christmas?

  Then he remembered last night. Though he’d been so exhausted, it was all a little vague. Coming home. Finding Meg, the woman he’d married out of desperation and anger, here. And he remembered the mistletoe. That memory was crystal clear. He also recalled his last sight of her hurrying up the stairs away from him.

  Throwing back the covers, he strode to the window and pushed the curtains wide, needing to orient himself to the time and the season. Outside, ponderosa pines framed a panoramic view of Lake Tahoe. A leaden sky hung low and oppressive with the threat of snow but gave no real clue as to the time of morning.

  He stretched, easing his shoulder through a full range of movement. It was his shoulder that had started it all. A gash from a handsaw dropped from the roof of the almost-completed school building. In the heat and humidity the cut became infected. The infection steadily worsened. And the remote Indonesian island’s depleted medical supplies hadn’t run to the antibiotics he’d needed.

  He’d only gone to the island to fulfill a long overdue promise to his mother to take a closer look at the Maitland Foundation’s work there. She’d headed up that office until her death a year ago. But while seeing the foundation’s work, he’d discovered his half brother’s duplicity. And the visit had nearly ended up costing his life.

  He’d also discovered Meg.

  And got himself a wife.

  A wife he now had to un-get.

  A movement on the path leading up from the lake toward his house caught his eye. His wife. Meg. Not Meg Maitland. But Meg…he couldn’t even remember her surname. Wearing sweats and a form-fitting, long-sleeved top, with her hair tied into a high, swinging ponytail, she jogged along the path toward him, her breath making small puffs of mist in the air. Caesar trotted at her side, a stick in his mouth. His dog at least had known him last night, even if he now seemed more than happy with his allegiance to her.

  She glanced up, saw him, then averted her gaze. Was he—? Luke looked down. He wore boxers—one of his few purchases on the way home. So, what was her problem? Whatever it was, she definitely wasn’t looking back his way. She tossed the stick for Caesar and when he returned with it, she bent over and fussed with him for a while before disappearing round the side of the house.

  Fifteen minutes later, Luke, showered and fully dressed, rummaged through his kitchen cupboards looking for something to eat. The pantry was better stocked than he ever remembered it being.

  At the sound of footsteps, he turned. She, too, had showered and now wore appealingly snug jeans and a red-and-white sweater. She looked fresh and innocent, like she ought to still believe in Santa Claus. But looks could be deceiving. He had a lot of questions for her. Questions he intended to get answers to today.

  He hadn’t exactly behaved with his trademark calm detachment last night. A fact he regretted. But he couldn’t quite bring himself to regret kissing her. It might have been his only opportunity. Soon she would be out of his house and out of his life. That’s what they’d agreed should happen if—when, she’d insisted—he came back. Though they hadn’t discussed time frames.

  “Do you want me to make you lunch?” she asked.

  “Lunch? I usually start with breakfast.”

  A smile twitched at her lips. “After midday, I usually call it lunch.”

  He remembered that smile, how easily and often it played about her mouth, how it made her blue eyes sparkle like sunlight on water, reminding him of the lake he loved. Making her smile had been one of his few pleasures when he’d been laid low. “You’re kidding me.” He knew he’d been tired, but…he searched the kitchen. The clock on the microwave read one-forty. And he knew that wasn’t a.m.

  “You must have been exhausted.” She watched him warily.

  He nodded.

  “Sit down. I’ll make you a sandwich.”

  Was she was trying to soften him up, being all sweet and obliging, this woman installed in his house, his life? Did she want something from him? Of late, it seemed everyone—friends, enemies, officials—wanted something.

  His cynicism must have shown because her hands went to her hips. “Oh, for goodness’ sake, sit down.” She pointed, straight-armed, at one of the bar stools behind the breakfast bar. “I’m not going to try and poison you and I don’t want anything from you. I’m offering—and it’s a one-time-only offer—to make you lunch. While you look infinitely better than you did back on the island and much better than you did last night even, to be honest, you still don’t look great. And as from now, I’m going to refuse to care.”

  Luke smiled as he strolled to take the seat he’d been ordered to. So, his Florence Nightingale wasn’t all sweetness and light. He liked her better for it. It made her more real. He watched her moving about his kitchen, opening and shutting cupboards and the fridge with what he deemed unnecessary force. She didn’t bother asking him what he did or didn’t want on his sandwich, which didn’t bother him, because he was so ravenous he didn’t care.

  He’d never sat here and watched a woman in his own kitchen before. He wasn’t sure he liked it.

  Gradually, her movements slowed and gentled to some thing practiced and efficient as she set about putting the sandwich together for him. He watched her deft hands with their delicate fingers, watched the sway of her hips and the curve of her rear as she crossed the kitchen for this or that, and decided that a woman in his kitchen wasn’t entirely a bad thing. A few minutes later, she slid the plate across the breakfast bar toward him. “Thank you.”

  The simple courtesy seemed to surprise her, which shouldn’t surprise him. He hadn’t exactly been Mr. Charming last night. Or this morning.

  Luke turned his attention to the sandwich. He was halfway through it when a cup of coffee materialized beside his plate. He looked up and met her gaze. Her earlier stony expression had softened. “Thank you,” he said again.

  And was rewarded with a soft smile and felt again a glimmer of the brief connection they’d once shared. “You’re w
elcome. You still drink it black?”

  He nodded. Not that there’d been the option of having it any other way of late. She turned her back on him and adjusted the radio till she found a station playing Christmas carols. She wore her hair out and the soft curls brushed just past her shoulders. He’d never seen it out before. On the island, for practicality’s sake, it had always been tied up. And last night, apart from that single tendril she’d allowed to curl beside her throat, it had been twisted into something fancy at the back of her head. He hadn’t realized that it was quite so long or silky and his fingers itched to touch it, to know the feel of it. He clenched his fists and his jaw. Hair was hair. He did not want to know how hers felt. What he wanted was to get his life back to normal.

  And that did not include having a wife in it.

  She’d made herself a coffee, too, and picked up her cup, cradling it with two hands as she leaned back against the counter on the far side of the kitchen.

  Luke returned his attention to his sandwich and didn’t look at her again until he was finished. But when he did he found her gaze still steady on him.

  “You were hungry?”

  “Apparently.”

  “I can make you another one. Or get you some fruit.”

  “It’s my house, Meg. I can look after myself.”

  She bit her bottom lip.

  “So, tell me—” They both spoke at once.

  “You first,” she said.

  “Tell me about the last three months.”

  She shrugged. “I left the island, came back here. It took a while to convince Mark of the truth of my story and that your letter to him hadn’t been signed under duress. Putting in the tree house incident was what clinched it. He figured you wouldn’t have told that story to anyone you didn’t trust. Even at gunpoint.” Her eyes danced.

  “And you’re now the only person in the world apart from Mark and me who knows.”

  “My lips are sealed.” She pressed the lips in question together.

  But they hadn’t always been sealed like that. They’d parted for him last night. Let him into her warmth.

  “Mark was great. He went along with everything, helping explain my presence to your friends. Apparently, you’re so deeply private that no one was surprised they hadn’t heard of me. Only pleased to meet me. And Mark helped me look for you.”

  How hard had they looked and how much had Mark—his attorney and his friend—helped her?

  Kind, intelligent Mark. In those moments Luke had tried to be altruistic, he’d thought that if he didn’t make it back, Meg and Mark might be good for each other. He wasn’t feeling altruistic now. Far from it.

  A too-familiar tension started to build. It was getting old, the second-guessing, the not knowing who to trust. “Do you want to walk?” He needed to get outside, to get moving.

  And he needed to remember who his friends were. They weren’t many but they were true. And Mark was one of them. Luke had no need or right to doubt him.

  As for Meg, he wanted to trust her, but the jury was still out on that one. In reality, he’d known her only a few days in Indonesia and he’d been perilously ill most of that time. His judgment couldn’t possibly have been sound. He’d been betrayed before by people he’d thought he knew. And he didn’t truly know why she’d agreed to marry him.

  “Sure.” Gentle, trusting. She gathered up their few dishes, put them in the dishwasher, then followed him to the front door.

  He opened the closet wondering whether his jacket would still be there. It was. On the same peg he always hung it on. The first one. So, she hadn’t got rid of his stuff or even moved it for her own convenience. He’d wondered how much of his presence she’d expunged from the house when she’d kept him from his bedroom last night.

  A red jacket hung beside his. He reached for it and the scarf hanging with it, passed them to her, then held open the front door.

  As she walked past him, he caught the scent of her hair, green apples, and he had to fight an urge to stop her so that he could lower his head and inhale that freshness, inhale some of her seeming innocence. The sort of innocence a man could want to take advantage of.

  “Jason hasn’t bothered you?” Because Jason, his half brother, was exactly the type of man who would take a perverse pleasure in abusing innocence.

  She hesitated. “Depends on what you mean by bothered?”

  He pulled the door shut behind them. “Care to explain?”

  They walked down the stairs together. “He comes around a lot. At first he was suspicious, a little bit antagonistic even. He had a lot more questions than anyone else about our relationship and our…marriage. And he seems to come round only when no one else is here.”

  At the foot of the stairs, she bent to pat Caesar, who’d bounded up, joyous at the prospect of another outing. Luke was sure his dog—part Alsatian, part something that really, really liked to fetch sticks—used to have more dignity, but he’d dropped to the ground and rolled over for Meg to scratch his belly. She had nice hands, delicate and gentle. And soothing. And he would not think about her hands. Specifically, he would not think about her hands on him. She straightened. “I gather I’m not the type of woman you usually dated.”

  “I guess not. You’re definitely shorter.” Meg barely came up to his chin. Her eyes narrowed suspiciously but she didn’t say anything and he fathomed the reason for her skepticism. The last woman he’d dated was Melinda, an ex-model, willowy and glamorous. Who wouldn’t in a million years have even contemplated a six-month stint of voluntary work in third world conditions. That was, in essence, the biggest difference.

  “I met your last girlfriend.”

  “You did?” He couldn’t imagine the two of them having anything in common. He started for the path and she walked at his side.

  “She called around one day and Jason arrived just a few minutes after. He told her I was your wife, although I suspect she’d heard something to that effect already. And then he told me she was your ex-girlfriend.”

  And wouldn’t Jason have enjoyed that spot of stirring. “How did she take it?”

  “She smiled.”

  “That’s good,” he said hopefully. Melinda had broken it off with him several months before he’d gone to Indonesia. She had no cause to be upset.

  “It wasn’t a happy smile.”

  “Oh.”

  “I know it’s none of my business, but why did you and her break up?”

  Maybe she had a little cause. He cleared his throat. “Because I didn’t want to get married.”

  “Which kind of explains the not-so-happy smile.”

  “I guess.”

  “She was very beautiful.” She said it with a kind of awe. But as beautiful as Melinda had looked, she had nothing on Meg, whose source of beauty had nothing to do with the clothes she wore and everything to do with what shone from within.

  “Perhaps you should explain to her why you married me,” she said quietly.

  “I’ll think about it.” He couldn’t see that it would achieve anything, but Meg seemed to want it. Maybe to ease her own conscience. She seemed so earnest. So innocent. “How old are you?”

  A grin tilted her lips and coaxed one from him in return. Admittedly, it was an odd question to ask his wife. “Twenty-eight,” she said. Nearly ten years younger than him. A world of difference in age and cynicism. Maybe it was that openness to her that made her look so young, so appealing.

  Meg broke their tenuous connection as she turned away and continued walking toward the lake. “I learned your age from our marriage certificate.”

  That piece of paper legally binding them. He’d need to set about unbinding them as soon as possible, because despite their verbal agreement that she’d leave when he got back, she was legally his wife. She’d have rights if she chose to exercise them.

  She’d helped him, he owed her something. Certainly more than mere gratitude. How much more would be the pivotal question. And Mark would no doubt have an opinion on that as well as the
most efficient and effective way to undo what he’d done. Set them both free. “What day is it?”

  “Saturday.”

  He’d call Mark on his personal line later, set up a meeting for first thing Monday morning. The sooner that was sorted, the better. Regardless of how much she was likely to cost him. In the meantime, he’d be friendly but distant. He didn’t want to alienate her. But on the other hand, he didn’t want to encourage her to think there was anything more to their marriage than her having the use of his house until his return. He also needed to talk to Mark about Jason.

  At the water’s edge, they negotiated age-old granite boulders. As she clambered between two rocks, he offered his hand. Her glance flicked to his face, she took his hand—hers cool and fragile in his—and then eased it free as soon as the need passed, sliding it into her jacket pocket. He could almost want it back. He shoved his own hands into his pockets. “You were telling me about Jason. That at first he was suspicious…” Jason was an unscrupulous slimeball with a talent for ferreting out people’s weaknesses. But he hid that side of his nature well and knew how to ingratiate himself with people.

  “Then something changed. Once he accepted our…marriage,” she glanced away as she said the word, “…he got a whole lot nicer, started offering to help me with things. But he had a lot of questions about where you were, why you weren’t home with me. I’d told him, like you suggested, that you’d stayed on to straighten out things with the charity on the island and that you’d be home in a couple of months.”

  The track along the shore narrowed, forcing them to walk close, down-padded shoulders occasionally brushing. “Did you accept his help?” he asked.

  “What do you mean?”

  “A simple question.”

  “But there was something weird in the way you asked it, like you were accusing me of something.”

  “I wasn’t accusing you of anything. Jason’s offers of help have been known to take many forms.”

 
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