A Deal With The Devil...
How else to describe the pact Jessica Randall had made with wealthy New Zealand rancher Gabe Dumont? In exchange for marriage and an heir, he would save her family property. The agreement was calculating, completely devoid of any tenderness, just like the man himself.
Their relationship was supposed to be a simple arrangement. Instead, it was fraught with secrets and mistrust, jealousy and ultimatums - emotions that wouldn't allow her to maintain the distance she needed. Worse, the sizzling attraction between them made this marriage of convenience decidedly inconvenient.
The last person Jess expected to see as she walked out of the arrival gate at Christchurch International Airport, was the man she was about to marry. "Gabriel. What are you doing here?"
"You've been living in L.A. for a year and that's all you have to say?"
Flustered, she leaned forward to drop a quick kiss on his cheek. It felt unfamiliar, awkward. "Sorry, I was just surprised. Aren't you busy with station work?"
"I wanted to talk to you about something. But first things first." He bent his head and, without any prelude, kissed her full on the mouth.
Knocked completely off her bearings, she couldn't do anything but clutch at his shirt in an effort to keep herself upright. Her heart was a staccato drumbeat in her ears, her blood a rush of thunder. And all around her burned a rough male heat that demanded everything she had.
It was the most intimate kiss they'd ever shared, the closest their bodies had ever come. And it made her nerves tighten in sheer panic. Not because she didn't like it, but because she did.
"Welcome home," he said, releasing her. The look in those green eyes was unmistakable--Gabriel Dumont was a man more than ready for his wedding night.
Legs not quite steady, she watched him pick up her bags. He led her through to the domestic part of the airport and across the road to the landing field used by smaller planes. The Jubilee , one of Angel Station's two planes, sat waiting for them.
Fear--of Gabe's expectations, but mostly of her own inexplicable response to his touch--had such a stranglehold on her that she was barely aware of hopping on board. Over the past year, she'd convinced herself that her marriage would be a calm, steady, business-like affair, never once considering what it might mean to be Gabriel's wife in truth...to be touched and claimed in ways that obliterated the distance she needed to survive this bargain.
Her heart stuttered as he settled in beside her, taking the pilot's seat. Taking control. A man who knew what he wanted and exactly how he wanted it, her fiancée was not someone who could ever be ignored.
Though he was tall and undeniably strong, his musculature was lean and powerful, not bulky. When he moved it was like watching a wild stallion in its prime; healthy and magnificent and proud. The faded burn scars on his left arm and back took nothing away from that--perhaps they even contributed to the overwhelming sense of masculinity that surrounded him. Add in the pure green eyes and that sun-shot hair, and it almost seemed as if he'd become more beautiful in the year since they'd last met...more incredibly wrong for her.
Gabe might have looks that stopped women in their tracks but it was the same kind of beauty as that of a tiger in the wild--more than a little dangerous, definitely untouchable. Not for the first time, she wondered at the lunacy of her decision to marry a man she knew so little about, despite the fact that she'd grown up as his neighbor.
"So, what did you learn in L.A.?" he asked, long after they were safely in the air.
Still unsettled by the effect of that kiss, she had to fight to keep her voice calm. "That I can paint."
"We both knew that, Jess. It was why you went to the States in the first place."
"Yes." She'd wanted to study under renowned painter Genevieve Legraux. "What I meant was that I found out I could paint on a level that might support a career." It had been a startling discovery for a woman who'd spent her whole life helping her parents on their small sheep station, snatching only pieces of time for her art.
"Genevieve encouraged me to submit my work to some galleries." She'd even dared send something to Richard Dusevic, an Auckland-based but very well connected gallery owner who could make or break an artist's career.
"You didn't mention that during my calls."
She shrugged, her mind flicking back to those twice-weekly calls. They'd lasted no more than a few minutes at most but had inevitably left her feeling lost and confused. "I wanted to show you the actual paintings." Because she knew that Gabe took nothing on faith. "They should be arriving soon--I shipped them."
The sun glinted off his hair as he nodded. "Will you miss Los Angeles?"
"No." She looked away and out the window. They were passing over the patchwork quilt of the Canterbury Plains. Soon they'd be in the Mackenzie Country, a stunning piece of paradise hidden in the shadow of New Zealand's Southern Alps and the only place she'd ever truly called home. "I needed to get out of here but not for always. I'm back to stay."
Picking up the edge in his tone, she turned from the window. "What kind of a question is that? We're getting married...unless you've changed your mind." Maybe he'd actually fallen in love with one of those sensual, confident women who graced his bed in an ever-changing parade. Her hands curled into fists.
"I'm ready." He made a small adjustment to the controls. "It's you I'm worried about."
"I promised I'd return ready for marriage. And I have." Shell-shocked by the twin blows of her father's death and the foreclosure of Randall Station, she hadn't had the strength to be anyone's wife twelve months ago, much less that of a man like Gabriel.
"Damon and Kayla have separated."
Her mind couldn't make sense of the words. "What? But I thought you said Kayla was pregnant?"
"Heavily. Your boyfriend walked out on her three months ago.""
It was a slap. "Damon is my friend, nothing more." Her fists tightened hard enough to hurt.
"No matter how much you wish otherwise?" He glanced at her, those green eyes so icy she could see nothing except her own reflection.
"Yes. No matter how much I wish otherwise," she admitted, in spite of her humiliation. "He's never loved me, not like he loves Kayla."
"Doesn't much seem like it. The boy's running around with anything in possession of a pair of breasts."
The blunt words brought heat to her cheeks. "He's hardly a boy. He's the same age as me." And twenty-six was plenty old enough to grow up and grow up hard.
"He's acting like a child right now." Gabe ignored her statement. At thirty-five, he was nine years older and the gap was never more apparent than at times like this.
"How did it happen?" she asked, white noise crashing through her mind. "And why didn't you tell me before?"
He gave her an odd look. "Didn't Damon?"
"What?" She tucked her hair behind her ears. "No, we haven't talked since I left."
"No," she lied, trying not to think of that single phone call Damon had made from a bar four months ago. He'd been drunk, but he'd said things no married man should've said...things she shouldn't have listened to. "Is it looking bad?"
"Rumor is they're heading for divorce."
"Hypocrisy, Jess? I didn't expect that from you."
Her cheeks blazed anew, hot enough to burn. "No matter what you think, I wouldn't wish that kind of pain on any woman. Unless...did she ask for the separation?"
"Not from the way she's looking."
"I can't believe Damon would walk out on his marriage."
"Maybe he finally realized what he'd given up." There was no mistaking the challenge in Gabe's voice. "What are you going to do?"
"Do?" She was still reeling from the implications of his first sentence.
"We're getting married tomorrow and I plan on us staying that way. So if you're intending on chasing off after Damon, you sure as hell better tell me now."
Bound By Marriage by Nalini Singh