The Groom's Revenge
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“Did you ever want to marry me?” About the Author Title Page CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER TWO CHAPTER THREE CHAPTER FOUR CHAPTER FIVE CHAPTER SIX CHAPTER SEVEN CHAPTER EIGHT CHAPTER NINE CHAPTER TEN CHAPTER ELEVEN CHAPTER TWELVE CHAPTER THIRTEEN CHAPTER FOURTEEN Copyright
“Did you ever want to marry me?”
India searched his face for the vital answer. “Or was it all just deceit from the start?”
Aidan gave a small, grim smile that made her heart clench. I always believed that marriage wasn’t for me, but you came close to making me change my mind. From the moment I met you, I couldn’t keep my hands off you, and it seemed you felt the same. And that magic is still there.”
“Magic!” India echoed cynically, fighting to suppress the way her mind replayed erotic images. “That’s something of an exaggeration.”
Aidan’s smile was positively beatific, in unnerving contrast to the devilishly wicked gleam in his eyes.
“I don’t have to exaggerate,” he drawled lazily. “My memory is perfectly clear, and, believe me, it needs no embellishment. Which will make our living together so much more interesting.”
KATE WALKER was born in Nottinghamshire, England, but as she grew up in Yorkshire she has always felt that her roots were there. She met her husband at university and she originally worked as a children’s librarian, but after the birth of her son she returned to her old childhood love of writing. When she’s not working, she divides her time between her family, their three cats, and her interests of embroidery, antiques, film and theater, and, of course, reading.
The Groom’s Revenge
The single, emphatic syllable was the one word no one was expecting to hear.In the circumstances, it was the last thing any of the congregation in the tiny village church could have anticipated.
It was just one word, but it was enough to shatter the happy, festive atmosphere of what should have been India’s most wonderful day and turn it into the worst nightmare she had ever had.
Only seconds before, her uncle, the celebrant, had smiled encouragement at the couple standing before him, his eyes meeting India’s green ones through the fine lace of her veil.
‘And now we come to the most important point in the service—your vows. Aidan...’
The man at his niece’s side had straightened noticeably. His dark head had lifted, his shoulders going back as if in preparation for the responsibility he was about to undertake. The slight movement had drawn India’s eyes to him at once. She’d seen the tension stamped onto his face, the tightness of the muscles around his strong jaw. Immediately all her own nerves had vanished, her earlier tremulous smile growing, becoming stronger.
She would never have believed that her husband-to-be would share her own apprehension at this important moment, and the realisation that he did had warmed her heart, making her slide her hand into his at his side. She had been just a little disconcerted to find that Aidan made no response. Instead he had simply let her hand rest where it was, not closing his own strong fingers around it as she had expected.
‘Aidan, do you take India to be your wife...?’
The familiar words, heard so many times before at other, far less personally significant moments, had echoed round the small medieval church, seeming to hang in the air along with the delicate scent of the banks of cream and gold flowers that framed the altar.
India’s heart had skipped a beat at the thought that the moment she had been waiting for was finally here. In just a few more seconds it would all be official and she would be Aidan’s wife, no longer India Marchant but India Wolfe.
‘Until death do you part?’
Until death do you part. She would be Aidan’s, and he hers for the rest of her life.
The idea was so amazing that it had stopped her thought processes, leaving her unaware of the fact that her uncle was no longer speaking, his ritual question complete.
By the time she’d registered that fact, the silence that had followed had already become just a little too drawn out, too significant to be simply the result of the need to take a steadying breath or impose the necessary control to be able to answer with confidence. The seconds had dragged on and on, extending the wait into a nerve-stretching endurance test.
William Marchant’s questioning prompt had been echoed by a spontaneous murmur of curious interest from the congregation, crammed into the dark wooden pews in the body of the church. Behind the ornate lace of her veil, India hadn’t been able to help smiling to herself at the thought that her family and friends might have anticipated that the bride might find her courage had deserted her at this vital moment, but not the groom.
At least, not this particular groom. Aidan Wolfe, the notorious ‘Lone Wolfe’; a man with a reputation for being a ruthless businessman with a mind like a steel trap, so unsure of himself that he was lost for words? Never!
‘Aidan—do you take...?’
It came out harshly, almost savagely. The single word slashed through the priest’s reiteration of the question with a cold violence that stopped it dead, creating a silence so complete, so taut, that it was as if all the air in the church had suddenly frozen into a sheet of ice, obliterating all sound.
The word rang inside India’s head like the stunning aftermath of a violent blow to her skull, and she felt as if all the air had been driven from her lungs, leaving her gasping for breath. He couldn’t have said...
Her lips formed the word but no sound came out. With her green eyes wide and dark with shock, her face losing all colour, she could only stare at the man she had come here to marry.
Aidan’s hard profile was etched against one of the small, paned windows. His proud, dark head was held high, revealing the strongly carved bone structure that gave his features a power that went far beyond the restrictions of such inadequate descriptions as ‘handsome’.
A weak shaft of sunlight slanted through the stained glass, spotlighting his strong, tall frame before falling in a warm, soft pool on the stone flags at his feet. But there was nothing warm or soft about the man himself, the hard lines into which his face was set seeming to be mirrored by the elegant severity of the formal morning dress he wore. Seeing him like this, India suddenly felt as if cold, cruel fingers had gripped her heart and twisted it savagely.
He still hadn’t touched her hand, ignoring it where it was linked with his own, and his eyes—eyes she knew to be dark as polished ebony—were obdurately turned away from her, staring deliberately straight ahead. Not even a flicker of a sidelong glance gave any indication of the fact that he was aware of her presence in any way.
Clearly uneasy, her uncle tried again, the concern that made his voice rough and uneven scraping over India’s already raw nerves so that she had to bite down hard on her lower lip to hold back a cry of distress.
‘I said, do you—?’
‘And I said no!’
At last he moved, swinging round to face India as he spoke. And, seeing his expression, she could only wish that he had kept his head turned away after all.
This wasn’t the man she knew! This harsh-featured creature with the burning dark eyes, the blaze of contempt in them searing over her, wasn’t the man she had fallen head over heels for.
The savage look that swept over her white face clearly noted the shocking contrast between her colourless cheeks and the fall of long jet-black hair, arranged into ornate curls and topped with a small silver coronet for this special occasion. But no flicker of emotion, no hint of reaction revealed that he was in any way affected by how devastated she looked. For the first time since she had met him, India found that she really understood just why he had been given that rather disturbing nickname.
Her use of his name was as shaky as she felt her grasp on reality had become. She didn’t even know if the hand that clasped his arm was to draw his attention or to provide herself with some support against the worrying weakness that threatened to overwhelm her. She feared that she might actually collapse in a pile of white silk and antique lace right at his elegantly shod feet
‘Please don’t play games...’
It was all she could think of. It had to be some appalling joke, something in unbelievably bad taste, and she tried to force a smile that showed she understood.
It was met with an obdurately hostile glare of rejection, his face so hard and unyielding that she felt as if her gaze had physically slammed into something as solid as a brick wall, and he shook her hand from his arm with a rough movement.
‘No game, darling.’ His tone turned the endearment into the worst obscenity he could possibly have flung at her. ‘I said no, and I meant no.’
In the ranged pews, the gathered guests could only stare in stunned silence. The sombre shock in their expressions seemed suddenly in almost comical contrast to the colourful gaiety of their clothes.
‘Never more so, sweetheart,’ he assured her with dark flippancy.
The scent of the flowers seemed heavier now, rich and oppressive, making her stomach chum nauseously.
‘You can’t mean...’
“‘Can’t mean”?’ Aidan echoed sardonically. ‘What can’t I mean, darling? God, do I have to spell it out for you? All right then—’
His hand coming out fast as a striking snake, he caught hold of her wrist, yanking her towards him so roughly that she spun round in a semi-circle, ending up facing the congregation, her back to the altar.
Through unfocused eyes she was aware of her father in the front pew, his round face patched the red of anger and the white of concern as he got to his feet, hastily restrained by her mother’s warning hand.
He had never wanted this marriage, she recalled miserably. Initially he had warned her against linking her life with a man of Aidan’s background and reputation, but, just lately, swayed by her determination and conviction, he had seemed to come round to the idea. Now she was forced to wish that she had given more weight to his doubts.
‘Let’s make it absolutely clear. No, I will not marry you.’
Each word was delivered with icily brutal precision, the overly clear enunciation aimed at ensuring there could be no possible room for misunderstanding.
‘I will not take you for better for worse, in sickness and in health, for richer for poorer—especially not that—or any other of those totally meaningless promises that you were expecting me to mouth so compliantly before all of these persons here present.’
India flinched away from his black parody of the wedding service and the vows they should by now have made if events hadn’t taken this appalling, devastatingly unexpected turn, bringing her hopes and dreams falling in tiny pieces around her.
In an act of instinctive self-protection, she tried to lift her hands to cover her ears, only to have Aidan force them down again, ebony eyes blazing harshly into green.
‘Listen, damn you! I want you to hear this. I want you to know that I will not marry you now or at any time in the future. I would rather die than surrender myself to such an imprisonment—accede to what I know is no more than the worst form of a lie.’
Abruptly he released her, dropping her hand as if he felt that to touch her might actually contaminate him in some way. Drawing in a deep, ragged breath, he raked strong fingers violently through the dark silk of his hair, ruffling its shining sleekness.
‘I’m sorry, babe, but that’s how it’s going to be.’
The sunlight brought out the burnished gleam of the coppery strands in the darkness of his hair, the rough movement of his hand making a single lock fall forward over his broad forehead. With the memory of the many occasions on which, in the past, she had been able to smooth such a wayward strand back from his face clear in her mind, she found that her fingers itched to do just that. Perhaps if she could just touch him...
But the set of his face and the cold burn of his eyes shrivelled the idea even as it formed, and suddenly the bitter truth was more than she could bear.
‘You’re not sorry at all!’ she cried sharply, the gnawing pain deep inside biting even harder when a tiny, almost imperceptible inclination of his head seemed to indicate a careless confirmation of her accusation.
‘You’re not sorry because—because...’
Her throat closed over the words. Because you don’t even care. She couldn’t bring her tongue to form them, and had to swallow convulsively in order to stop herself from choking on the knot of pain that had formed.
She had always known. Right from the very start of their whirlwind romance, she had known that Aidan’s feelings didn’t really match hers—not in the fullest sense. He wasn’t the one who had been stunned to find that this amazing person, this man who had knocked her so completely off balance, both physically and emotionally, could actually want her. So, when he had asked her to marry him, she hadn’t thought twice. She had said yes at once, and then had pushed for the wedding to be as soon as possible, terrified he might change his mind.
But how could he do this? How could he just stand there, so cool and calmly collected, when with each word that he spoke he was destroying her world completely?
‘Don’t do this.’ Her voice was low, so fiercely controlled that it sounded almost as cold as his. ‘Don’t make me hate you.’
The broad, straight shoulders lifted in a gesture of carelessly contemptuous dismissal.
‘I will hate you! I’ll hate you with all my heart! If you do this, Aidan, I’ll never forgive you—ever!’
He smiled; he actually smiled. But the curve of his lips held no warmth or trace of humour, making his response a bitter mockery of everything it should have meant.
‘Fine,’ he declared crisply. ‘That’s just fine with me. In fact, my lovely India, that’s exactly the way I want it.’
And with that hateful smile still lingering on his sensual mouth, he turned on his heel and strode away from her, going swiftly down the aisle, his footsteps echoing in the stunned silence.
With a wild gesture, India flung back the antique lace veil, revealing a pale oval face in which her bright green eyes blazed like burning emeralds above high cheekbones, her normally full, generous mouth drawn tight with tension.
‘You can’t do this! You can’t just walk out on me!’
Aidan spared her a swift, scathing glance over his shoulder.
‘Watch me!’ he flung at her.
Acting purely on instinct, totally beyond rational thought, India dashed forward, snatching the bouquet of cream roses from the grasp of her open-monthed chief bridesmaid.
‘I said no!’
As she spoke she flung the bouquet after him, watching the gorgeous flowers, chosen so carefully and so happily only a few weeks before, sail through the air, heading straight for Aidan’s broad back.
But some intuition of his own, or some movement glimpsed out of the corner of his eye, must have warned him. With reflexes as swift as a cat’s he turned, one long hand coming out to catch the bouquet just before it crashed to the ground.
For a long moment there was an intent, brittle silence. Aidan’s dark, unreadable eyes clashed with India’s over-brilliant green ones over the heads of the congregation, holding her transfixed like some small wild animal frozen in the headlights of an oncoming car. But then Aidan abruptly broke the taut contact. Glancing down at the bouquet he held, he twisted it round consideringly, a thoughtful look on his face. A moment later that reflective expression was replaced by another of those unexpected and far from humorous smiles.
‘Well, now,’ he drawled lazily, lifting the flowers in mocking salute. ‘I believe that, traditionally at least, this means that of everyone here I should be the next person to be married. Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen to whoever catches the bride’s bouquet? But you’ll have to forgive me if I prefer to pass on this particular opportunity, or any other that presents itself. You see, the idea of a life of slavery to one woman is not something I can face with any degree of equanimity.’
India couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Life of slavery. He was talking as if she had trapped him in some way—but he’d been the one who had proposed to her!
And that had definitely not been just a ploy to get her into his bed. There had been no need for that. Physically, there had been no holding back on either part. But then, with Aidan, holding back was something of which she had never been capable.
‘But perhaps if you try again you’ll have better luck with someone else.’
Disdainfully he tossed the flowers back towards her, deliberately throwing them short so that even if she had made the effort to try to catch them they would still have fallen on the floor at her feet. The impact crushed the delicate blooms against the stone floor, scattering satiny cream petals over the flags.
‘You said you wanted to marry a rich man, my darling. But I’m sorry, it isn’t going to be me—even if I was the first through that door.’
And then she knew. India gave a small, shaken moan of distress, realising exactly what he meant.
‘I’m sick and tired of genteel poverty!’ Her own foolish words came back to haunt her.
‘You just watch me! I’m going to find myself a wealthy husband, one who can keep me in a manner to which I have every intention of becoming accustomed...
‘And I don’t plan on waiting for him to come to me. In fact, the very next rich man who walks through that door will find himself on the receiving end of such a campaign of seduction and enticement that he won’t be able to resist me. I’ll bet you anything you like I’ll have his ring on my finger before he knows what’s hit him...!’
It had been only a joke.
She tried to say the words but they wouldn’t form in her mouth, the knowledge that they weren’t strictly true closing her throat against them. She had only been half joking when she had made her impetuous declaration at her friend’s party—she had been half-serious too.
But when Aidan had walked into the room a short time later anything that had gone before had been forgotten in an instant, driven from her mind by a rush of sensual awareness so overwhelming that she’d been incapable of thinking of anything else.
But how had Aidan heard her crazy bet? He hadn’t even been in the house then—had he?
‘Aidan...’ she tried, but her voice was too weak to carry to him and, looking into the stony, set lines of his face, she knew that even if it had he wouldn’t have listened. Her small hesitation had been taken as evidence against her, used as proof of her guilt.
‘So I’m sorry.’ The dark intonation made it plain that sorrow was the very last thing he was feeling. ‘You’ll have to make do with what you’ve got; I have nothing more to give you. But don’t give up, darling. There are plenty more fish in the sea.’
One strong, tanned hand swept through the air in a gesture that took in all the congregation—all watching wide-eyed, stunned into stillness and silence by the drama unfolding before them.
Her family, her friends, India realised miserably. She had known that Aidan had no family living, and he had claimed that the speed with which their marriage had been arranged meant that his friends couldn’t make it to the service. But now she was forced to wonder if in fact he had ever invited them at all. Just how long had he been planning the revenge of this very public rejection?
‘I’m sure someone else here would be only too willing to oblige. Just don’t expect me to stand around and watch.’
And as soon as he had finished speaking he turned on his heel and strode away from her, walking out of the church and out of her life without so much as a backward glance.
THE flowers were the first thing that India saw when she let herself into the house at the end of a long, emotionally draining day. Instinctively she knew that they meant trouble, and trouble was something she already had more than enough of on her plate.
The gold and cream beauty of the roses glowed in the late evening sun, their colour in powerful contrast to the deep oak of the dresser on which they lay. They were glorious—there was no other word for them. A sight that would normally lift anyone’s spirits.
But it wasn’t the present bouquet that registered in India’s thoughts. Instead, her mind was filled with the memory of another, identical set of flowers lying on the ground at her feet exactly one year before.
‘Just don’t expect me to stand around and watch’.
Aidan’s last words reverberated inside her head, making her shake it hard in a vain attempt to drive them away. It was as if the year since she had heard them had never happened.
Aidan wouldn’t come back. She’d known that to be the truth in the moment that she had looked into his face and seen the unyielding cold steel of rejection etched into every line, darkening his eyes to obsidian.
Aidan Wolfe was a proud, ruthless man. He was someone who lived life by his own rules and ignored the restrictions of a more conventional approach. He had pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, coming from nothing to become the head of a multi-faceted corporation that he was now. He had a reputation for being as tough as they came, someone who didn’t suffer fools gladly and who gave no quarter at all in his business dealings. But she would have sworn that with her he could have been so very different.
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