The Wedding Bargain. Yvonne Lindsay

The Wedding Bargain - Yvonne Lindsay

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they would be struggling to meet paying their utilities, let alone affording the basics like food.

      Her decision to run away from Burton would affect them all.

      She’d find a way around it. She had to. The alternative simply wasn’t an option. And maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, after all—maybe it was just her panicked mind that was making it seem worse than she thought. Right now, though, she needed distance. Distance and a healthy dose of perspective. Raif had offered her both unquestioningly.

      But what was his angle? Was he doing this because he wanted to help her—or just because he wanted to hurt Burton? He’d come to see her at her parents’ home three months ago after her engagement had been announced. He hadn’t wasted time on niceties such as saying congratulations. He’d come straight to the point and said he was there to talk her out of marrying Burton. She’d told him the wedding would go ahead no matter what he had to say, and had very firmly asked him to leave, without hearing him out. She knew there was bad blood between him and Burton; she’d gotten the sense from what Burton had said that it had been some idiotic male rivalry over a woman. Whatever had happened, Raif had clearly carried a grudge, and she’d assumed that was what had motivated him to see her.

      A deep and painful throbbing started behind her eyes. It was all too much to think about. Right now she felt as if she could simply crawl under the covers of the bed in the room next door and go to sleep for a week. Instead, she forced herself to move and put on a pair of socks and the shoes Cathleen had left behind.

      When Shanal looked up into the mirror, her reflection was that of a stranger. She never usually wore this much makeup—hadn’t really wanted to, even today—but Burton had insisted she allow him to send along a makeup artist during her preparations on the morning of their special day. She’d acquiesced, thinking it didn’t matter, but as each layer of cosmetics had been applied she’d felt as if her true self was being hidden. As if pieces of her were being pushed further and further into obscurity.

      Was that what it would be like being married to Burton? His decisions overriding hers and suffocating everything that defined her until her very identity was buried beneath what he wanted? She bent over the bathroom basin and scrubbed her face clean, desperate to grab that part of herself back again.

      A knock at the door turned her mind willingly away from questions she couldn’t face and didn’t want to answer.

      “You okay?” she heard Raif ask through the door.

      No, she was not okay. Not right now. But she had to hope she would be. “You can come in,” she answered.

      He did, and she noticed he’d changed into a pair of well-worn jeans that hugged his hips, and a navy sweater. The fisherman’s rib knit clung to his broad shoulders, making him look impossibly strong and masculine. As if he could take on the weight of the world and barely notice the strain. She certainly hoped that was the case, because at this moment she felt even closer to fracturing apart than she had half an hour ago.

      “We should hit the road. I’ve loaded up a bag in the Jeep with some things for you. Clothes of mine you can borrow—y’know, track pants, sweaters and a thicker jacket than that one of Cathleen’s. They’ll be far too big for you, but at least you’ll be warm. We can stop somewhere and get you some underwear, toiletries and anything else you think of, on the way through.”

      She nodded. It was such a relief to simply hand over her care to him. To have someone else do all the thinking for a change. Shanal followed him out of the room, not even sparing a glance for the mound of tulle that still lay on the bathroom floor.

      “I need to call my parents,” she said as they reached the door to the garage. “To let them know I’m okay.”

      “Already done,” Raif answered smoothly. “They send their love.”

      Did they? Or did they send their recriminations, their fears for the future now that she’d dashed their only hope for a secure retirement? The financial settlement Burton had agreed to pay her on their marriage would never happen now—in fact, she probably wouldn’t even have a job after this.

      “Are...are they all right?”

      “They’re worried about you, but I assured them you’re being cared for.”

      She swallowed a sob and murmured a response, but something in her tone made Raif whip his head around and study her carefully.

      “It’ll be okay, Shanal. You did the right thing.”

      But had she? Or had she simply destroyed not only her parents’ future, but her own, as well? Raif opened the passenger door of the Jeep for her to climb up before he walked around to the other side.

      “Mac is stocking the houseboat with everything you’ll need for a week, at least,” Raif said as he settled in the driver’s seat and hit the remote for the garage door.

      “I’ll pay you back, Raif. I promise,” she said brokenly.

      “Don’t worry about that right now,” he replied. “Why don’t you put your seat back a bit and close your eyes. You look done in. Try and get a little sleep, huh?”

      She did as he suggested, but found her mind was too active to sleep. Instead she listened as he called his younger brother, Cade, and arranged for him to collect the car that Raif had left parked near the church. Guilt sliced deep as she considered everything he had done for her so far today. And now he was going out of his way to drive her all the way to Mannum so she could take time out.

      For someone she’d never exactly treated well, he seemed to be prepared to go to great lengths for her. Maybe it was just a measure of the man he was, she thought, as she heard him laughingly warn his sibling not to drive the Maserati too fast through the Adelaide hills on the way to his property. A man who, she had to admit to herself, she didn’t know very well at all. When he ended the call he turned on the radio, tuned to a classical-music station. She was surprised, thinking him more likely to be into popular music or rock than anything resembling culture.

      But then again, what did she really know about him aside from the fact that he was her best friend’s cousin? Sure, he’d always been there when Ethan had invited her to attend family functions at The Masters. But Raif was three years younger than her and back when she’d met him, that three-year age gap between him at fifteen and her at eighteen going on nineteen had seemed huge. She’d mentally filed him away as a child, and had barely given him a second thought.

      She’d recognized he had a crush on her early on, but had ignored it—and him, too, for the most part. He had been easy enough to ignore at first, especially since their paths didn’t cross all that often. When she thought of him even now, she tended to think of the child he had been. Shanal hadn’t really noticed when he’d left childhood behind for good.

      Until now.

      Until she’d realized the boy had most definitely grown into a man. A man she could depend upon when it seemed she had no other options available to her.

      She opened her eyes and watched him as he drove, his concentration on the road ahead, his hands capable and sure on the wheel. He was a bit more leanly built than Ethan, but aside from that the family resemblance was strong. Just over six feet tall, with dark hair brushed back off his forehead and blue eyes that always seemed to notice far too much, Raif, like the rest of the Masters family had more than his fair share of good-looking DNA. Added to that was the perpetual tan he wore, a byproduct of his work outdoors on the vines that grew in the various vineyards run by The Masters. But even so, the differences were there if you looked hard enough. There was a suppressed energy about Raif, whereas his cousin was calm and measured in everything he did. Raif projected a more physical and active air.

      There was no doubt he was a man who thrived on action and on thinking on his feet. His spontaneity was one of the reasons it had been so easy to continue thinking of him as the child he’d once been—impulsive and thoughtless, never considering the consequences. Today had been a perfect example of that. What was it that Ethan often said about Raif? Ah, yes, he was the kind of guy to always leap before

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