The Bought-and-Paid-For Wife. Bronwyn Jameson

The Bought-and-Paid-For Wife - Bronwyn Jameson

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didn’t invent anything.”

      “No? Then where did these rumors suddenly sprout from?”

      He took a second to answer, just long enough for Vanessa to note that the muscle still ticked in his jaw. “I received a letter.”


      “Does it matter?”

      “Yes, it does,” she fired back at him, her earlier disbelief growing indignant. “It matters that someone is slandering me.”

      He regarded her in silence, a long taut moment that fanned Vanessa’s gathering fury.

      “I’m giving you the chance to deal with me privately, here and now,” he said finally, his voice low and even. “Or would you prefer to take this to court? Would you like to answer all the questions about who and where and how often under oath? Would you like all your society friends to hear—”

      “You bastard. Don’t you dare even think about spreading your lies.”

      “Not lies.” Something glinted, brief and dangerous in his eyes. “I intend to dig deep, Vanessa, if that’s what it takes to discover all your dirty little secrets. I will find every truth about you. Every last detail.”

      Vanessa’s head whirled with the implications of his threat. She had to get away from him, to cool down, to think, but when she tried to escape he blocked her exit. And when she attempted to stare him down, he shifted closer, hemming her into the corner where she couldn’t move without touching him.

      Her resentment rose in a thick, choking wave. She wanted to sound icy, imperious, but instead her voice quivered with rage. “You start by turning up at my home uninvited. You manhandle me. You threaten me with your nasty lies. And now you’re resorting to physical intimidation. I can hardly wait to see what you try next.”

      Their eyes clashed in a lightning bolt that was eight parts antagonism, two parts challenge. She knew, a split second before he moved, before his hands came up to trap her against the wall, that the two parts challenge was two parts too much. And still she couldn’t back down, even when his gaze dropped to her lips and caused a slow sweet ripple in her blood. Even when he muttered something low and unintelligible—perhaps an oath, perhaps a warning—beneath his breath.

      Then his mouth descended to hers, catching her gasp of indignation.

      For a second she was too stunned by the sensation of his lips pressed against hers to react. Everything was new, untried, unfamiliar. The bold presence of his mouth, the rough texture of his skin, the elemental taste of rain and sun and man.

      Everything was unexpected except the electric charge that flushed through her skin and tightened her breasts. That was the same as when he’d touched her, the same as when he’d watched her walk away, the same as when she’d turned at the library door and caught him staring.

      She heard the accelerated thud of her heartbeat and scrambled to compose herself, to reject that unwanted response. But then he shifted his weight slightly and she felt the brush of his jacket against her bare arm. For some reason that slide of body-warmed fabric seemed more intimate than the kiss itself, and the effect shimmered through her skin like liquid silk.

      The hands she’d raised to shove him away flattened against his chest and the slow beat of his heart resonated into her palms. With a shock she realized that she wasn’t only touching him but kissing him back, just now, for one split second. Oh, no. A thousand times no. Her eyes jolted open, wide and appalled, as she pushed with renewed purpose.

      His mouth stilled for one measured second before he let her go. The message was clear. He’d instigated this. He was ending it. Damn him. And damn her traitorous body for reacting to whatever weird male-female chemistry was going on between them.

      Red-hot anger hazed her vision and she lashed out without conscious thought. He dodged her easily, catching her arm before she came close to landing a blow. And that only infuriated her more. She wrenched at her captured arm and the jerky action caught the Lladro Girl with Flowers she’d set down on the cabinet.

      In slow motion she saw the delicate figurine start to topple but she couldn’t move fast enough. The sound of its shattering impact on the marble floor filled the silence for several long brittle seconds. Vanessa pressed the back of one trembling hand to her mouth, as if that might silence the anguished cry deep inside her.

      But when she started to duck down, he intercepted her, his hand on her arm holding her steady. “Leave it. It’s only an ornament.”

      An ornament, yes, but this one was a gift from her childhood—a symbol of where she’d come from and all she’d dreamed of leaving behind.

      But only a symbol, her pragmatic side reminded her. She’d had to grow up too practical for dreams and symbolism. This incident signified only one thing: she’d allowed Tristan Thorpe to cut through her cool, to upset her enough that she’d lashed out in temper.

      And she would eat dirt before she gave him the satisfaction of knowing how deeply he’d affected her.

      “Are you all right?”

      The softened edge to his voice caught her off guard, but she shrugged that aside along with his touch. He was probably worried that she’d start weeping and wailing. Or that she’d turn and throw some more of her ornaments at his infuriating head.

      No doubt it was as hard and as cold as the marble tiles underfoot.

      Gathering the shards of her poise, she turned and met his eyes. “I will be fine once you get out of my house.”

      The concern she’d detected in his voice turned steel-hard. The muscle she’d noted earlier jumped in his jaw again. “You enjoy your house while you can, duchess.”


      “It won’t be yours once I prove your adultery. Not the house, not any of these pretty things you’re so concerned about breaking. All bought and paid for with Thorpe money.”

      “Good luck with that,” she said coldly, while the anger resurged with new fervor. She had to get out of here before she did start hurling things at him, if only to show how little they mattered. “If you’ll excuse me, I have another appointment. If you have anything else to say, please say it through my lawyer.”

      “That’s it?”

      “Except for one last thing…Please close the door on your way out.”

      Tristan hadn’t planned on following her. After closing the front door, he’d been intent on getting to one place only—his attorney’s office in Stamford. He had a letter to deliver. He had instructions to employ the best investigator—a team of them, if necessary—to follow up every rumor about her secret assignations, to find this mystery man whatever the cost.

      Even though he’d prodded her about seeing the same man today, he didn’t believe she would be foolish enough to flaunt her lover so openly. Not when she stood to lose everything she’d set her cap at when she had married the old man.

      With all his focus trained on what she’d said and not said, on what he’d done and wished he hadn’t, Tristan drove straight through the intersection of White Birch Lane and Beauford when he should have turned right. Half a mile farther on he realized his error and pulled over. Waiting for a gap in the traffic, he beat himself up about missing the turn. And while he was at it, he beat himself up some more for making such a hash of his first meeting with Vanessa Thorpe.

      Sure she provoked him. Everything about her had needled him long before he came face-to-face with her kick-gut beauty. But did he have to react to every goading statement, every challenging eye-meet, every disdainful lift of her chin?

      Did he have to kiss her?

      The hell of it was he didn’t remember making a choice. One second they were going at it, biting verbal chunks out of each other’s hides, the next he had her backed against the wall tasting the provocation of her lush lips. And the hell of that was how

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