Wife By Force(3)

By: Caro LaFever

“Back for good?” he murmured.

“I’ve been here for more than three months. This isn’t a holiday.” She needed some space. She wasn’t running away, she only needed to find her composure. Setting the empty champagne glass on the terrace ledge, she moved past him, stepping down the marble steps onto the gravel of the garden path.

Cravenly, she hoped and prayed he would stay behind.

He didn’t.

The crunch of his shoes on the gravel told her he was following.

Walking with a measured pace, she tried to impose a tight ball of discipline on herself. But her brain buzzed with scattered thoughts and her emotions bubbled in her heart with a frantic beat. Stopping at the fountain, she dipped her hand in, hoping it would cool her down.

“Your father is happy you are back.”

He wanted to make small talk. Chat. Overlook all the harsh words lying between them. Bitter antagonism flashed through her, pulsing. “I know,” she managed through gritted teeth.

“He missed you during these years.”

Her head came up. “Do I detect criticism in your tone?”

“I merely made an observation.”

“Keep your observations to yourself.” The snap of her words spat into the night.

“Ah.” The burn of his dark stare singed her face. Watching her. Analyzing. Stupidly, she’d let him see into her, note her resentment.

But only for a moment.

“I didn’t mean to be so sharp.” That was the best she could do as far as an apology. He didn’t deserve more. She forced herself to give him a steely smile.

The moonlight slanted over his face, highlighting the strong jut of his nose, the stark line of his jaw. He was not a pretty man. He hadn’t been a pretty child either. At the time, she hadn’t cared. What were mere looks to a child’s pure heart? Yet that fateful night many years ago, she’d seen something cruel and brutal, and the impact had never left her. His manner tonight reinforced what she’d realized in that last confrontation between them.

He was cold to the core.

What did it really matter, though? He was not a part of her new life and never would be. He’d made that decision for both of them and she heartily agreed with it. Now. “I’m a bit tired. It meant nothing.”

“Nothing? I would say it’s at least interesting.” He put his hands in his pockets and her gaze tracked the movement, noting how the linen of his pants stretched across narrow hips and strong thighs.

“Not interesting at all.” She moved around the fountain.

He followed. “I detected a bit of irritation in your voice.”

“Not true—”

“Maybe even a bit of dislike.”

Lara managed a laugh. “I don’t know you. How could I dislike you?”

“We grew up together.”

“That was a long time ago.” Memories flooded her heart in a poignant wash. “I’ve been gone for twelve years.”

“True.” He stopped, inches from her side. “This is why I find it interesting you are irritated. I would say even angry. At me.”

His distinctive smell reached her for a second time, spice mixed with man.

He was too near, too close.

Legs trembling, she sat on the fountain ledge. This couldn’t be. She couldn’t let this man, of all men, cause a physical reaction in her. As the years had passed, she became accustomed to being immune to men. Immune from desire or need or want.

Her dead husband had made sure of that, hadn’t he?

Brushing the thought aside, she stared at her clenched hands. Why was this old attraction for this stranger from her past still alive? This was awful, horrible. Not only did it worry her, yes, it made her angry. “I’m not angry. With you or anyone.”

The night shadows played around them. The trees whispered above, the fountain sparkled and spat, a roosting pigeon warbled. Why didn’t he go away? The man appeared completely content to let the silence continue. He stood, a tall silhouette upon the night sky, his arms now crossed on his chest.

“Carlotta appears happy.” Maybe mindless chatter was her best defense against everything he stirred inside her.

“My sister will be happy with Sandro. She listened to my advice.”

“What?” she bristled. “You chose your sister’s husband? And she agreed?”