The Bought-and-Paid-For Wife. Bronwyn Jameson
the housekeeper. Perhaps because of the old-fashioned feather duster poking out from under one arm.
“Sorry to interrupt.” Even though she addressed her boss, the woman’s gaze flicked over Tristan, not curious, not nervous, but sizing him up. The dislike in her expression suggested she recognized him. “Andy needs to speak to you.”
“Thank you, Gloria. I’ll take it in the library.”
The pause was deliberate. He got the distinct impression that, like her employer, she would relish tossing the guest out on his backside. And then turning the dogs on him.
“Show him to the sitting room.”
“No need.” Tristan’s gaze shifted to Vanessa. “I lived here for twelve years. I can find my own way.”
That registered like a slap of shock in her rain-on-water eyes but she didn’t comment. Instead she inclined her head and played the gracious hostess. “Can Gloria bring you tea? Or a cold drink?”
“Would that be safe?”
The housekeeper made a sound that fell midway between a snort and a laugh. Her boss, however, didn’t appear to appreciate his gibe. Her lips compressed into a tight line. “I won’t keep you long.”
“Don’t hurry on my account.”
She paused, just long enough to cast him a long, frosty look over one shoulder. “Believe me. I never do anything on your account, Tristan.”
Uttered with the perfect mix of scorn and indifference, it was a killer closing line—one he would have paid with a salute of laughter at another time, in another place. With another adversary. But this was Vanessa Thorpe and she was already halfway across the foyer, her head bent in earnest conversation with her employee.
He couldn’t distinguish words, but the low lilt of her voice packed the same impact as her million-watt smile.
It created the same sting of heat as when he’d gripped her arm…and that heat still prickled in the palm of his hand. Flexing his fingers helped. Allowing his gaze to drop below her shoulders didn’t.
She wore a little dress—a sundress, he supposed, although the milk-pale skin it revealed hadn’t seen much sun. Very little skin lay bare; this was not a provocative dress. The silky material didn’t cling as much as flow with the subtle curves of her body. It was classy, expensive and feminine. The kind of dress that whispered woman to every red-blooded male cell he owned.
At the door to the library, she gave final instructions to the housekeeper who hurried off. To fix his tea, with a side of lemon, milk and arsenic, he presumed.
For a long moment the only sound was the retreating squeak of rubber soles and then, as if she felt the touch of his gaze or the cynical whisper of his thoughts, Vanessa pivoted on the heel of one of her delicate sandals. The skirt flared out from her legs, revealing a hint of bare thigh.
Making his skin prickle with renewed heat.
Their eyes met, clashed, held, and he saw a flash of something in her face, quicksilver fast. Then it and she were gone, from the room but not from his blood.
Damn it to blazes, he could not be attracted to her. He would not allow it.
With a growl of aggravation, he shut his eyes and rubbed the back of his neck. Twenty-six hours he’d been traveling. Longer from when he left his Northern Beaches’ home for the airport in Sydney’s south end.
He was tired and he was wired, running on adrenaline and fixation on his goal.
How could he believe anything he felt right now? How could he trust anything in the turmoil of emotions elicited by his return to Eastwick, Connecticut? To this, the home where he’d grown up, where he’d felt cherished and secure, only to have that comfort blanket yanked from under his adolescent feet without any warning.
Guess what, darling? We’re going to live in Australia. You and your sisters and your mother. Won’t that be exciting?
Twenty years later he was back and his heightened responses—the heat, the bitterness—weren’t all about Vanessa Thorpe.
He expelled a long breath and forced himself to move farther inside.
She’d changed things, of course. The colors, the furnishings, the mood. His footsteps echoed in the cavernous foyer, soaring to the two-story ceiling and bouncing off walls painted in a medley of pale blues. Where he remembered the warmth of a childhood home, now he felt nothing but an outsider’s detachment.
Ignoring the tight sensation in his gut, he executed a slow three-sixty and took in the matched mahogany hall stand and side table, the pair of watercolor seascapes, the vase of long-stemmed blooms. The place was as perfectly put together as Vanessa Thorpe, as carefully executed as had been her plan to snare a multimillionaire three times her age.
For two years Tristan had fought the will that gave her everything bar a token bequest to him, Stuart Thorpe’s only child, a deliberate act to show he’d chosen wife over son as his beneficiary. Tristan had filed motion after motion while he searched for a loophole, an angle, a reason.
He’d never doubted that he would win. He always did.
Finally, from out of the blue, he’d caught his lucky break. An anonymous allegation contradicting what his legal team had learned about the young widow. Initially, all they’d heard was good—Saint Vanessa with all her charity committees and voluntary work and her unstinting devotion to an ailing husband.
But a second round of discreet inquiries had revealed another slant on Vanessa Thorpe. No solid evidence, but enough rumors from enough different sources to point toward the smoke of a secretly guarded fire. Evidence would not be easily attained two years after the fact but it might not prove necessary.
He was banking on an admission of guilt to close this thing off, granting his mother all that was rightfully hers. Winning would not make up for her life’s disappointments and unhappiness, but it would serve to reverse the gross injustice of her divorce settlement.
Twenty years late but it would redress the balance. It was just and fair. And at long last, it would set things right in Tristan’s mind.
Vanessa put down the receiver and slumped over the library desk, weak with relief. Plans had changed. Andy would not be arriving at the door any minute, making her meeting with Tristan Thorpe even more difficult than it promised to be.
And she knew, from experience, that anything involving Tristan would prove more difficult than it needed to be.
Time after time he’d proven that, obstructing the execution of probate at every turn, refusing each effort to compromise, threatening to never give up until he had his due. All because he’d cast one look at her age, another at her background and thought Hello, gold digger.
Vanessa knew plenty about narrow-minded bigots, but still she’d given this one time to reassess. She’d called, she’d extended that invitation to visit, she’d given him every opportunity to take a fair settlement from the estate. She’d thought he deserved it, even though Stuart had decided otherwise.
But Tristan remained inflexible. A greedy, heartless brute and bully. Too bad she refused to be intimidated.
Reflexively she lifted a hand to rub at her arm. She hated that his touch had left a remnant warmth, that she’d felt the same heat from eyes the changeable blue of summer on the Sound. From the depth of his dark drawl and the scent of rain on his clothes and the contrast between civilized suit and uncivilized—
An abrupt knock at the library door brought her head up with a guilty start. But it was only Gloria, her brow puckered with concern. “Is everything all right, hon? Do you need to go out? Because if you do, I can deal with himself.”
The last was issued with a sniff of disdain that made Vanessa smile. For a brief second she considered taking that option, mostly because it would tick him off. But she needed to find out what he wanted