The Wedding Bargain. Yvonne Lindsay
gathered here in the cathedral believed this to be the happiest day of her life. Everyone except the one person who’d tried to talk her out of it. She flicked a glance sideways, but she couldn’t spot Raif Masters, Ethan’s cousin, in the crowd of two hundred guests jammed into the pews. She knew he was here, though. From the moment she’d walked down the aisle, accompanied by both her parents—her father in his wheelchair, on a rare appearance in public—she’d felt the simmering awareness that she felt only in Raif’s presence.
“Into this estate these two persons present come now to be joined.”
A buzzing sound began to build in Shanal’s ears and her chest grew tight. A tremor in her hands made the heavy bouquet quiver—releasing another burst of cloying scent.
“If anyone here has just cause why Burton and Shanal may not be lawfully joined together, let them speak now or forever hold their peace.”
Silence stretched out in the cathedral—silence filled with the ever increasing buzz in her ears and the erratic pounding of her heart.
It was a very long time.
She thought for a brief second of her parents. Of how her father had always loved and provided for her mother. Of how her mother had always stood rock solid by her man, even now with all the uncertainty their future promised. Would Burton ever be that rock for her? Could he be? The priest’s words echoed through her mind. ...just cause...not be lawfully joined together...speak now...
“I do,” Shanal said, her voice shaking, unsure.
Burton inclined his perfectly coiffed head, a puzzled twist to his lips. “Darling? That’s not your line, not yet, anyway.”
She dropped her bouquet, unheeding now of the scent of the flowers as they fell heavily on the carpeted altar, and worked her three-carat, princess-cut diamond engagement ring from her finger. A princess for his princess, Burton had said when he’d slid it on her hand—its fit perfect, of course.
Shanal thrust the ring toward him. “I can’t do this, Burton. I’m so sorry,” she choked out.
It was the first time she’d ever seen her erudite fiancé at a loss for words. With the perfect manners that were so much a part of him, he automatically accepted his ring back from her. The moment his fingers curled around the symbol of their future together, Shanal turned away from the priest in his raiment, her groom in his hand-finished tuxedo, and gathered her voluminous skirts in her hands.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered in the direction of her parents, who sat in the front pew, their faces masks of shock, dismay and concern.
Then she ran.
* * *
Raif Masters had listened to the priest intoning the ceremony—a ceremony he was attending only as a favor to Ethan, who was away on his own honeymoon. Shanal Peat and Ethan had been friends for so long that it was almost as if she was part of the Masters family. It was only right that someone from the family be there for her today. He just wished it wasn’t him. If Raif had had his way he’d have been anywhere but here. The idea of watching his cousin’s best friend marrying Raif’s nemesis was only slightly more appealing than spending the day passing a kidney stone.
He was already plotting his escape from the festivities at the earliest opportunity when he heard the objection request. He had, in fact, briefly considered standing up himself, because he did object to this wedding—on more than one level. But Shanal had made it perfectly clear a couple months ago that it wasn’t his place to say anything. She hadn’t wanted to hear it when he’d tried to explain to her that Burton Rogers was not the kind of man she should be tying herself to—literally or figuratively. Not for five minutes, let alone the rest of her life. But she had blinders on as far as Rogers was concerned, which, no doubt, was exactly as the other man liked it.
When Ethan had asked him to attend the wedding in his stead, Raif had objected quite emphatically, pointing out that he had no desire to see Rogers stand up to marry Shanal. In fact, he had no desire to see the other man, period. Even before the messiest parts of their history there had always been something about Burton that made Raif want to plant a fist in his arrogant face.
Ethan had brushed over his objections, reminding him that with all that was going on at The Masters, their family’s resort and winery, he was the only one who could get away for the ceremony. Even so, it made Raif sick to his gut to see her willingly link herself to a man who lived by a single-minded agenda—doing whatever it took to make his life perfect, no matter who got hurt along the way. In Raif’s experience, Burton was careless with others and only out for what he could get. He was the man Raif still held responsible for the death of his ex-girlfriend, Laurel Hollis, no matter what the coroner’s findings had delivered.
Rogers had managed to walk away from the canyoneering accident without an ounce of blame, but while Raif hadn’t been witness to it he had always believed there was more to the incident than had been disclosed. And he hadn’t given up on finding out the truth one day, either. But for now, he had to sit and watch the woman he’d desired ever since he was a schoolboy with a crush that had lasted for longer than he cared to admit, marry a man he neither liked nor trusted.
Younger than her by three years, Raif had always found his relationship with Shanal awkward, right from when they’d first met fifteen years ago. Once she’d embarrassingly shattered his more intimate aspirations toward her—and in front of his entire family into the bargain—their interactions had been peppered with veiled barbs and verbal sparring when they’d crossed paths. But his attraction toward her had never dimmed, in spite of it all. And while they had never been close, he did truly care about her and wanted her to be happy.
He’d borne all that in mind when he’d gone to see her when the engagement was announced. Raif didn’t believe that Burton Rogers was capable of making any woman lastingly happy, and had wanted to warn Shanal. He should have known better. Once she’d overcome her surprise at his visit, she hadn’t hesitated to tell him he was wasting his time when he’d strongly urged her to reconsider her marriage to her boss. In fact she’d told him, with her usual economy with words, to butt out. And he had.
Now the entire cathedral was paralyzed in disbelief—Raif no less so than the people seated on the pew next to him.
Had his words been the catalyst that now sent her flying past him in a flurry of tulle and diamantes on her way down the aisle and out the front doors?
The stricken expression he’d spotted on her face galvanized him into action. Whatever their differences, she needed help. And since the reason she needed help was that she’d taken the advice he had given, he felt he owed it to her to be the one to come to her aid.
The doors of the church clanged closed in front of him and he pulled one heavy wooden panel open and shot down the steps in hot pursuit of the vision in white that raced across the road without looking, and into the gardens beyond. That was where he found her—she’d stopped running by the time he caught up. Her breath was coming in great gasps and her usually glowing, light bronze skin now looked pale and sallow. Raif guided her to a bench and pushed her head down between her knees before she collapsed right there on the gravel path.
“Breathe,” he instructed, ripping off his suit jacket and draping it over her bare, shaking shoulders, dwarfing her delicate frame. Adelaide in July was not warm, and dressed as she was in a strapless gown, she’d freeze in no time. “Slow and deep. C’mon,” he said encouragingly. “You can do it.”
“I...had...to get...away,” she gasped.
He was shocked by how anxious she was. Shanal was always the Queen of Calm. Nothing unnerved her. Except maybe the carpet python he’d slipped in her bag when he was fifteen.
He rubbed her shoulders through the fine wool of his jacket. “Don’t talk, just breathe, Shanal. It’s going to be okay.”
“No, no it’s not.”
Her words came out strangled, panicked.