Wife By Force

By: Caro LaFever

Lara turned and looked through the pane glass of the terrace doors. The colors of the women’s dresses blended into a kaleidoscope of silk and satin and status. The men’s dark suits, white dress shirts, black tuxedoes, offered contrast. The flash of diamonds, the sparkling light of the chandeliers, the glint of class and glamour.

Her bittersweet memories blurred her gaze for a moment.

She’d played dolls in this elegant room, with the rain splashing the terrace doors. She and his sisters had used the chic settees as castles, the antique tapestries lining the walls as backdrops, the marble statues as pawns in their play. The room had been merely their playground, nothing to be impressed with.

Not aristocratic. Haughty. Intimidating.

Like he’d shown himself to be.

Then and now.

He moved through the room as if he owned it all, which he did, and owned everyone who scattered before him. He never smiled; instead he nodded with cool arrogance. Lara watched as grown men almost genuflected before him. He accepted it as if it were his due. What pride. What an ego. Nothing like years ago. Then he’d been a lanky teenager who grinned and laughed. Who hadn’t hidden everything he was thinking behind a cold mask.

Who hadn’t been capable of betraying those who loved him.

However, that had been a lie too, her memory of him as someone other than an imperious aristocrat. Another of his lies. Or maybe she’d been lying to herself.

Not anymore. Never again.

She was no longer a dreamer. She was a realist.

She took a deep sip of champagne and turned away to stare at the rolling lawn darkened with night shadows. She would get through this week, suffer his presence at his sister’s wedding, and then odds were, she’d rarely see him. After all, since she'd been back in Italy, she hadn’t seen him at all. He’d been wheeling and dealing in Dubai or someplace exotic. Inevitably, he’d leave for another important business deal somewhere else in the world. Leaving her free to make a new life where she belonged.

The click of the door opening made only a slight sound, but it shot through her. The air immediately hummed with life, catching her off guard. It was him. She knew it. The realization shook her—she still felt this old instinctive bond.

It shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t happen.

“So,” he said from behind her. “You are back.”

A flutter of panic slid across her skin at the thought of being alone with him. She thought about running down the steps, into his park, away from this. But she’d learned to confront now, learned to stand instead of run.

She turned around to face him.

The golden light spilling from the terrace doors slid across his shoulders, highlighting their broad length. Gilding his black hair, the glow brushed along the tough edge of his jaw. The rest of his face was hidden in shadows.

“Yes.” She looked at the shadowed garden once more. She would ignore him. Ignoring wasn’t running. And honestly, she had nothing to say to him, not anymore. He’d made clear he felt nothing except contempt for her.

Why was he here, then? Why had he followed her out here when he could so easily be surrounded by the adoring crowd inside? What could he possibly say to her that hadn’t already been said?

She breathed in the warm air, redolent with honeysuckle and the tang of salt. Pulling her wayward emotions together, she reminded herself of what she’d practiced over and over. The words she’d say, the actions she’d take when she at last saw him.

Distance. Disdain. Dismissal.

He moved to stand beside her. A faint whiff of his cologne drifted to her, the clean bite of citrus mixed with a deeper cut of spice. Beneath it lurked the smell of him, musk and man. Unique to him. His impact on her defied her determination to pay no attention to him. She hadn’t planned for this awareness of him, this draw, hadn’t realized how hard this would be.

“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.”

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