The Wedding Bargain. Yvonne Lindsay
on Burton’s face as he’d been left standing at the altar. An expression Shanal had missed seeing completely, thank God, or she might not have stopped running at all.
Raif had long known Burton was avaricious—he’d always had to both be the best and have the best, by any means possible. But there was another edge to him, as well—and that edge had been clear on his face for a split second as he’d seen his latest intended acquisition flee from him. Raif might not have had much to do with him over the past three years, but he knew that Burton Rogers was not a man who enjoyed being thwarted.
Shanal struggled to sit upright, tugging flowers and her veil from her jet-black hair without any heed to the pins that must be raking her scalp. She tossed the destroyed blooms and filmy material to the walkway at her feet. She turned to Raif and grabbed his hands. He was shocked at how cold she felt already. As if she was chilled to her bones.
“Take me away,” she implored. “Take me far away, right now.”
It was the last thing he’d expected her to say.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Just, please, get me out of here,” she begged, her bewitching, pale green eyes shining with unshed tears.
It was the tears that undid him. He thought about his Maserati, parked a good two blocks away. Only a handful of people had come out of the cathedral so far, but more were bound to follow soon. He and Shanal would never make it to the car before someone reached them, he thought, and once the crowd got to them, Shanal would be fielding questions left and right from a slew of concerned family members and friends wanting to know why she’d walked out on her own wedding. She didn’t look as if she was up to conversation right now. As he swiftly considered their options, a taxi rounded the corner. Raif secured Shanal’s small hand in his and pulled her to her feet.
“C’mon,” he said, as he bolted for the sidewalk, towing Shanal along behind him.
He raised his hand to get the cabbie’s attention. To his immense relief the guy pulled over, his eyes as round as saucers and his mouth hanging open as Raif yanked open the back door and guided Shanal inside. He barked his address to the startled driver as he yanked the door closed behind them.
Shanal sat next to him, pale but finally seeming more composed, as they pulled away from the curb and down the street. Raif cast one look through the back window. The crowd on the sidewalk outside the cathedral had grown. In its midst stood Burton, his eyes fixed on the retreating cab. Even from this distance Raif felt a prickle of unease. The groom, understandably, did not look happy.
Raif faced forward again. Burton’s happiness had never been a priority of his, and as long as the man didn’t take his anger out on Shanal in any way, Raif admitted to himself that he was delighted that his nemesis’s day had been ruined.
He and Shanal had little privacy in the cab and Raif maintained his silence until, nearly forty-five minutes later, they reached his home. His phone, already on Silent for the ceremony, vibrated continuously in his trouser pocket. He knew exactly who was calling—and he had no intention of answering him.
“What are we doing here?” Shanal asked as the cab drew away, leaving them outside Raif’s single-level home nestled at the edge of the family’s old and well-established vineyard. “It’s the first place he’ll look, isn’t it? He’s bound to have seen us getting into the cab together.”
Raif’s eyebrows shot up. “I hadn’t realized we were meant to be hiding from him. You really don’t want him to know where you are? You’re absolutely certain you don’t want to work this out with him?”
In response, Shanal shuddered. “No, I can’t. I...I just can’t.”
Raif reached past her to unlock his front door, then gestured for her to precede him. The incongruity of the situation struck him. He’d always imagined bringing a bride back here to his home one day—just not exactly like this. But if she wanted to get away from Burton, then the least Raif could do was let her freshen up before she headed off to...wherever it was she planned on going from here.
“Can I get you something to drink?”
“Some water, please.”
She followed him into the open-plan living area, her heels clicking and the multilayered skirts of her gown making a swooshing sound on the hard surface of the tiled floor. In the kitchen, he poured her a glass of mineral water from the fridge and handed it to her. She took a long drink.
“Thanks,” she said, putting the glass down on the granite countertop with a click. “I needed that. Now where are you taking me? We can’t stay here.”
Taking her? What made her think he was taking her anywhere? She’d asked him to get her away from the wedding. He’d done that. Surely that was where his involvement began and ended. Not that he was unwilling to help her, but she’d always been so aloof toward him, had always kept him very firmly at a distance. Why would she be depending on him now? It was so unlike her.
Shanal obviously realized what he was thinking. “I’m sorry, that was presumptuous of me. What I meant was, can you help me to get away for a bit? I’m kind of stuck.”
She held her arms out from her dress in a gesture of helplessness. She was right. She was stuck, and in what she was wearing right now. She didn’t even have a purse with her.
Raif studied her carefully. Her face was stretched into a tight mask of strain and her eyes had the look of a frightened animal. Even though this shouldn’t be his problem right now, he racked his brains for something he could do to help her—somewhere she could go to get away from this whole mess. Ethan had chosen a fine time to marry his long-time fiancée, Isobel, and head away on a honeymoon cruise in the Caribbean, Raif thought uncharitably. A smile twisted one side of his mouth as an idea bloomed in his mind.
“How about a cruise?”
“A cruise?” Shanal looked surprise.
“Yeah. On a riverboat. I have a friend who has just re-engined and refurbished one of his fleet. He was moaning about not having time to run the motor in before it gets repositioned farther up the Murray. A nice, slow trip up the river sounds like just what you need and you’d be doing Mac a favor by getting some hours on the engine, as well.”
“How soon can we leave?”
“You’re serious? You want to do that?”
“Let me make a call.”
He stepped out of the living area and into his office on the other side of the hall. He checked his phone. Yup, there were several messages, most of them from the same number—Burton Rogers. He deleted those without listening. Let the guy simmer in his own juices for a while. He frowned a little when he recognized Shanal’s parents’ number. He’d have to let them know she was okay, but first he needed to contact his friend.
Now, where had he put Mac’s contact details... Aha! Raif spied the business card his friend had given him when they’d last caught up for a drink in Adelaide, and keyed the number into his phone. A few minutes later it was all set.
Shanal was standing at the large bifold glass doors that faced the vineyard when he came back into the room. She’d slid his jacket off her shoulders and had pulled the last of the pins from her hair, leaving it to cascade down her back like a long, wavy black river of silk. His hand itched to reach out, to touch her hair, to stroke it. Stupid, he told himself. The persistent physical attraction that had ignited back when he was a schoolboy continued to simmer beneath the surface, but he knew better than to act on it. Shanal herself had taught him that lesson. He’d gotten this far through his life without setting himself up for another smackdown like the one she’d dealt him twelve years ago, and he certainly wasn’t going to set himself up for one now.
“You okay?” he asked.
She sighed, her body wilting from its strong stance. She shook her head. “No, I’m not. I don’t think I’m ever going to be