The Wedding Bargain. Yvonne Lindsay
him right now, so you can take all the time you need. It’ll be good for you, the perfect getaway. You’ll have time and space to think, and when you come back you can tackle what happens next with a fresh mind.”
Her lips twisted into a semblance of a smile. “Somehow I don’t think a fresh mind is going to make a big difference in resolving my problems, but thank you for all you’ve done. How soon can we leave?”
Raif calculated. It was just over an hour’s drive to Mannum, where Mac would have the houseboat waiting.
“I’ll need to get changed first. Do you want me to see if Cathleen left anything here that you can change into? We can always pick you up some more clothes on the way to the marina if you like.”
His younger sister had house-sat for him when he’d gone to France on a recent fact-finding mission relating to the family vineyard operations. Not that the place needed to be minded, but while Cathleen for the most part loved living with the rest of their family at The Masters, when the opportunity to be on her own arose from time to time, she clutched at it with both hands. He could understand why she felt like that. It was, after all, why he’d chosen to build here, on the fringe of the family’s oldest vineyard, as opposed to taking a suite of rooms in the family home. Sometimes a person just needed to be alone.
“Please,” Shanal said, plucking at the skirts of her gown. “I really want to get out of this. It’s a little attention seeking, don’t you think?”
It was good to see she still had a touch of the acerbic humor he’d borne the brunt of so often in the past.
“A little,” he agreed with a quirk of his lips. “Come with me and let’s see what we can find.”
He led her down the hall toward the guest wing of the house and to the room Cathleen had used. There, he slid open one of the wardrobe doors. For the first time ever he silently thanked his sister for her habit of leaving her things wherever she went. A clean pair of jeans and some tops were neatly folded on a shelf in the wardrobe. A lightweight jacket hung on the rail and there was even a pair of sneakers in a box on the floor.
“You two are about the same size, aren’t you?” he said, gesturing to the garments in the cupboard.
“Close.” Shanal nodded and reached for the jeans and one of the long-sleeved T-shirts, which she put on the bed behind them. “But even if the clothes aren’t a perfect fit, given the circumstances, I’d rather wear anything else than this dress. Can you help me get out of it? The buttons are so tiny I can’t do it on my own.”
Raif swallowed against the dryness that suddenly hit his throat. Undress her? Hell, he’d dreamed about this moment on and off since he was fifteen years old. He slammed the door on his wayward thoughts. This was neither the time nor the place to indulge in his fantasies, he informed himself firmly. She needed a friend right now, and that was what he’d be. Nothing more. Now and always, she didn’t want anything more from him—and he wasn’t going to set himself up for yet another rejection from her.
Shanal turned her back to him and lifted the swathe of her hair to one side. A waft of her fragrance, an intoxicating blend of spice and flowers, enticed him. Urged him to dip his head and inhale more deeply. He fought the impulse and breathed through his mouth. She wasn’t his to touch, or taste, or anything, he reminded himself.
She’d just run from her fiancé, and while every cell in his body was thrilled to bits about that—some cells more than others—he wasn’t the kind of guy to take advantage of it. Not out of any respect for Burton, because the man deserved nothing but his contempt. But for Shanal’s sake. Whatever had driven her to leave her wedding in the middle of the ceremony—and in the back of his mind he ached to know what it was that had triggered her last-minute change of heart—she was clearly shaken and upset. Unwanted attentions from a guy she’d rejected a dozen times over were the last thing she needed.
Raif took in a deep breath, then applied himself to his task. Shanal’s skin was a delicate bronze above the edge of her strapless dress. A color that signaled the mixed heritage of her Indian mother and Australian dad.
“I’m surprised you didn’t wear a sari,” Raif commented, determined to distract her from the fact that his fingers, usually dexterous and quite capable of the job at hand, had become uncharacteristically clumsy in the face of her proximity and the way that the tiny buttons, undone one by one, revealed more of her beautiful skin.
His fingers slipped on a button, brushing against her. Her skin peppered with goose bumps and he heard her gasp.
“Sorry,” he said, forcing himself to take more care.
“It’s okay,” she said, her voice a little husky. “And as to your question about the sari? Burton said he preferred me to dress more traditionally.”
Raif frowned and was unable to keep the irritation from his voice when he spoke. “Traditionally? For whom?”
Shanal didn’t answer his question. “I think I can manage the rest myself,” she said, stepping just slightly out of his reach and pressing her hands against the crystal-encrusted bodice of her gown to stop it from sliding farther down. “Thank you.”
“No problem. I’ll be down the hall getting changed myself. Just holler if you need me.”
Her pale eyes met his and he felt her trust in him as if it was a tangible thing. It was a surprisingly heady feeling. Shanal had always been so cool, so untouchable and in control. He’d never seen her this vulnerable, and the fact that she chose to put her trust in Raif when her guard was down... It meant a lot.
She gave him a small nod, then collected Cathleen’s clothes off the bed and turned to the bathroom. “I won’t be too long.”
“Take as long as you need,” he said, and left the room. In fact, take longer, he added silently. Because it sure as hell was going to take him a while to get his raging hormones under control.
Shanal closed the bathroom door behind her and stripped away her wedding dress. Without caring about any possible damage to the delicate and expensive fabric, she let it drop to the floor. She shuddered. Right now she felt so cold, deep down into her bones.
She quickly tugged on the jeans and sucked her tummy in a little to do up the zipper. Cathleen’s curves were just a bit more subtle than her own and it showed in the cut of jeans that she favored. Too bad, Shanal thought as she slid her arms into the sleeves of the T-shirt and pulled it over her head. Beggars couldn’t be choosers. That final thought held a painful irony she didn’t want to think about right now. She had enough on her plate.
There was still an air of unreality about what she’d just done. In fact, she could barely believe she’d done it. Run away from everything—everyone.
Burton would be angry, she knew. Justifiably so? Very likely. They’d had an agreement, and if she’d learned anything about Burton Rogers it was that he couldn’t bear to be thwarted, not to mention being humiliated in front of a cathedral packed with his peers. She certainly wasn’t in any headspace to face that right now.
It wasn’t that she was worried he’d get physical with his rage—no, that would be beneath his dignity—but how did you explain to a man, especially one who on the surface was every woman’s dream, that you no longer wanted to be his bride? All she knew was that she couldn’t go through with it. She needed space—time to think, to form a strategy to overcome this situation she’d put herself into.
Another shudder ran through her and she felt her chest constrict anew. Her breathing became difficult again and she closed her eyes and focused on one breath in, one long breath out. When the tightness began to ease, she reached for the logical side of her brain. The one that had weighed the options of Burton’s offer of marriage so carefully and had accepted it, knowing she didn’t love him. The tension returned twofold. No, she couldn’t even think about it. She felt so close to the breaking point. The two people