The Wedding Bargain. Yvonne Lindsay
it weren’t for him, she had no idea where she’d be or what she’d be doing. She was not the impulsive type, and never had been. Every choice was always meticulously planned and carefully considered. Until today. When she’d run out of that cathedral, she’d had no plan in mind, no destination in her sights. She’d just wanted to get away, with no thought for what would come next. Thank goodness Raif had run after her when he did. He might not be someone she thought of as a white knight, but he’d certainly come to her rescue. And the certainty that he had the situation in hand for the time being was enough to let her relax. For now, at least.
A steady rain began to fall and Raif switched on the windshield wipers. The rhythmic clack-swish of the blades across the glass was soothing and Shanal let her eyes close again, barely even aware that she was drifting off into sleep. When she awoke she found she was alone in the car. She struggled upright and rubbed her neck to ease the kinks out. Looking around, Shanal couldn’t identify exactly where they were, but she spotted Raif exiting a small grocery store across the road. As he got back in the car he tossed a plastic bag in her direction.
“I didn’t want to wake you so I guessed your size.”
She opened the sack and spied a six-pack of multicolored cotton panties and some ladies’ toiletries inside. A blush bloomed in her cheeks at the thought of him choosing her underwear, but she pushed it aside. She should be grateful he was being practical about things.
“Thanks, it looks like you guessed right. And thank you again for helping me today. I—I don’t know what I’d have done without you.”
Emotion threatened to swamp her, and she felt his warm strong fingers close over one of her hands. A surprising tingle of response made her pull away. He gave her a sharp look.
“No problem,” he said steadily. “Are you hungry yet?”
She should be enjoying the sumptuous repast that had been booked at the reception center. Her stomach twisted. She couldn’t think of anything less appealing.
“I’m okay for now. How about you?”
“I can wait,” he said calmly as he started up the Jeep and swung back onto the road.
“Are we far from the river?” she asked.
“About ten minutes.”
True to his word, they pulled up at a small marina a short while later. The rain had stopped, but there was a cool wind blowing, and Shanal wrapped her arms around herself as they got out of the vehicle. She should have grabbed that jacket of Cathleen’s back at the house.
“Here, put this on.”
She caught the down-filled jacket Raif tossed toward her from the back of the Jeep, and gratefully slid her arms inside. Instantly, she began to feel the warmth, almost as if he’d closed his arms around her and given her the comfort she so desperately craved today. She followed him in silence to the pier where a man waited for them.
“Mac, this is my friend Shanal.”
Mac nodded a grizzled head in her direction. “Come aboard, I’ll show you around.”
Shanal was surprised by the luxury of the fittings on board. The boat, apparently one of Mac’s smallest, boasted three bedrooms and was more spacious than the compact town house she’d rented back in Adelaide before having to move home to help her parents. In fact, the layout was similar, the only major differences being the helm positioned near the dining area of the boat’s large main entertainment cabin, and the fact they were floating on the river.
“You driven one of these before?” Mac asked.
“No, but I’m sure Raif will show me.”
“Better you get Mac to show you now,” Raif said. “You’ll need to know what to do when you’re out on the water.”
She noticed he didn’t make mention of “we.” Shanal turned troubled eyes to him and fresh panic clawed at her throat. “You’re not coming with me?”
* * *
“Give us a minute,” Raif said to Mac, before drawing Shanal onto the deck at the front of the boat.
He was shocked to feel her trembling beneath his touch. She’d appeared calmer after that nap she’d taken in the car, and some of the shell-shocked look in her eyes had faded, but it was back again now, with interest.
“Here,” he said, pulling out one of the iron chairs that matched the glass-topped dining table on the deck. “Sit down.”
He squatted in front of her, taking both her hands and chafing them between his. He was worried at how icy cold she felt to his touch.
“I thought you’d be coming, too. You’re not going to leave me, are you?” she whispered.
Raif studied her, taking in the blatant plea in her beautiful green eyes and the worried frown that pulled between her brows. He hadn’t planned to go with her. Honestly, it had never occurred to him that she’d want him there with her. All he’d done today was remove her from a bad situation and organize the escape she had wanted. He hadn’t imagined she’d have any use for him beyond that.
And yet everything he knew about who she was—how strong and intelligent, how confident and admired—seemed to crumble before his eyes as he looked at her now. He’d thought the houseboat would be the ideal opportunity for her to get away and to think—to get things straight in her mind again before she went back to face the music. Why would she want him there for that? Why would she want any man around her when she’d just left her intended groom at the altar?
Though this was a woman who, in his experience at least, had no qualms about publicly humiliating men. Witness his own embarrassment when, in front of his entire family, she’d laughingly spurned his attempts to ask her to his high school graduation dance all those years ago. The sting of embarrassment had hurt far more than he’d ever admitted. Granted, it wasn’t on par with what she’d done to Burton, but her method of making clear she wasn’t interested had a way of staying with a guy.
“I’m sorry,” she said, interrupting his thoughts. “I’m asking for more when you’ve already done so much for me. It’s just...” She worried at her lower lip with her teeth and her gaze slipped out over the river that stretched before them.
“It’s just?” he prompted.
“I don’t want to be alone,” she whispered, her words so quietly spoken.
The sudden vulnerability in her voice, hell, in her entire body, hit him fair and square in the solar plexus. Her slender fingers closed around his.
“You’ve already packed a bag,” she said in a lame attempt at humor before becoming all serious again. “Raif, please? I know this is a big favor for me to ask, but I really need to be with someone I can trust right now. Just while I work things out.”
She trusted him? Well, he wished he could say the feeling was mutual, but he certainly didn’t trust her. During the drive here he’d had more time to think. When he’d talked to her after her engagement, she’d been so adamant that the wedding would go ahead. He doubted that anything he’d tried to say back then had been the trigger to change her mind. She’d certainly never before given his thoughts or feelings any weight in the choices she’d made. So what had changed things for her? She had to be holding something back, perhaps the very something that had put the haunted look in her eyes.
He considered her plea, turning it over in his mind. He wasn’t prepared for this. Still, what harm would it do? Working the viticulture side of the family business certainly had its advantages come wintertime in that things definitely slowed down for him once he’d finished winter cane pruning on the vineyard. There was no other pressing business holding him at The Masters, nothing to prevent him from taking a week off work, if that’s the time it took for Shanal to ready herself to face the world again. Besides, there were three bedrooms on the boat.
Movement in the cabin caught his attention. Mac was getting fidgety,