The Wedding Bargain. Yvonne Lindsay
what Ethan would expect him to do.
Sometimes family honor was a bitch.
“Fine,” he said with a huff of breath. “I’ll come with you.”
Relief swamped her and she put out her hands to grasp his.
“Thank you. I owe you so much already—”
Raif pulled away from her and stood up. “You don’t owe me anything.”
She felt his withdrawal as if it was a slap. She lifted a hand to her throat as she watched him go back inside the main cabin. God, she’d made such a mess of all this. Did he regret rescuing her today? She wouldn’t blame him if he did. It was one thing to whisk her away from the scene of her shattered future, quite another to continue on the journey with her. She was asking such a lot from him. And it wasn’t as if they’d ever been close.
Aware of his crush on her, she’d always made a point of keeping her distance, never doing anything to lead him on. She’d felt that in the long run, that was the kinder choice—though admittedly, that had been as much for her sake as for his. Ever since he’d transitioned from schoolboy to young man, there had been something about Raif that had made the hairs on the back of her neck stand to attention. Something indefinable that always put her on edge when he was around, and that made her uncomfortably aware of herself and her body’s reactions to him.
She’d told herself way back then that it was ridiculous. She had her whole life planned out, and someone like Raif had no place in it. He already had that devil-may-care attitude to life, while she was always quieter, more considered in her decisions. They’d had nothing in common whatsoever aside from Ethan as a link.
But that had been nearly a decade ago. A lot had changed, for both of them, since then. He’d become fully a man, and was now even more confident, more self-assured, with that air of entitlement and power that all the Masters men effortlessly exuded. And she? Well, she was still that nerd with her nose in her research, and she was no less discomfited by his presence than she’d ever been.
That moment back at his house, when his fingertips had touched her spine, had felt electric. All her nerve endings had jittered with the shock of it—and now the two of them would be confined together for the better part of the next few days. She started to wonder if she’d made a mistake in asking him to stay.
From inside, she could hear Raif’s deep voice as he talked to Mac. Soon after, the two men hugged briefly and Mac debarked. Raif assumed his position at the helm and started up the engine. Mac cast them off from the pier with a wave. As the boat eased into the murky river waters, swollen with recent winter rain, Shanal felt a little of the tension that gripped her body begin to ease. She rose from the chair and went inside.
“I guess this has put a spanner in everything for you,” she said, as Raif met her gaze.
His broad shoulders lifted in a nonchalant shrug. “It’s not a problem. I’ll let the family know I’ll be away for a few days, and besides, I have nothing more important to deal with right now.”
She felt the slight in his words—the implication that she was no more than a minor irritation to be dealt with—and stifled a sigh. “You’re probably wondering why I ran away.”
Again, that casual lift of his shoulders. “Not my business.”
She struggled to find the words to begin to tell him. To explain her sudden overwhelming sense of suffocation and irrational fear. Standing at the altar—was it only a couple of hours ago?—and listening to the priest had forced her to see the rest of her life stretching out before her. None of it being as she’d planned.
Sure, as Burton’s wife she’d still be heavily involved in her research—finding refuge in facts and figures and analysis—and she’d finally hold the position she’d craved for years. When it had come to negotiating their prenuptial agreement—a clinical document designed to appoint Shanal as head of research within the facility and to outline the terms of the large monetary settlement to be made to her upon their marriage—she’d had one thing only on her mind. Security. Not happiness. Not love—well, except for the love she bore for her parents, and her desire to lift the strain and sorrow from her father’s frail shoulders for the life he had left.
While everything had been under discussion and was being fine-tuned by their legal counsel, it had seemed to be a reasonable trade-off. Financial security for her parents and job security for herself in exchange for marriage to a handsome, wealthy, charming man who she simply didn’t happen to love. But perhaps love would come later, she had thought at the time.
Burton had made no secret of his attraction to her from the day she’d started working at the research facility that bore his name. They’d had the occasional date now and then. Nothing serious—or so she’d thought. But then he’d surprised her with his proposal of marriage. Shanal had avoided giving him an answer straightaway, certain that she’d have to tell him no, but wary of what her refusal might do for her chances of advancement within Burton International. But then her mother had taken her aside one day and disclosed the dire position that she and Shanal’s father were in.
Shanal knew that the medical-negligence claim against her dad about five years back had cost him heavily. A proud man, proud in particular of his skill and sterling reputation as a physician, he’d hidden the early symptoms of motor neuron disease, to his cost and, even worse, to the cost of the life of one of his patients. After that dreadful episode, he’d been forced to give up his cardiovascular practice. No one wanted a surgeon whose muscles were systematically wasting away, leading to unexpected twitching. And certainly no one wanted a man who’d let his pride stand in the way of someone’s life.
His malpractice insurance had covered some of the costs of the suit that had been brought against him. But bowed by guilt, and with his funds tied up in long-term investments that were time-consuming and expensive to convert into cash, her father had taken out a short-term loan to make a large private financial settlement on the family of his deceased patient. Using his home as security had seemed a good idea at the time, and he’d had every intention of paying the loan back out of investment income. Until the truth about his investments had been revealed.
He’d trusted his old school friend who ran a financial-planning company. A friend who had, unfortunately, turned out to be running an intricate Ponzi scheme. Shanal’s parents had lost every last dollar. Shanal had given up her rental and moved back home immediately to help them out.
While she earned a good salary and had some savings, she knew it wouldn’t support the three of them forever. For the time being, they were able to afford the loan payments and living expenses, but those expenses would soon rise beyond what she could handle, especially as her father’s disease took greater hold on his body and he grew more dependent upon assistance. It struck Shanal as cruelly ironic that while her father had paid dearly to buy security for his patient’s family, everyone in his own was now paying for it.
In a weak moment she’d shared her worries with Burton, who’d immediately proposed marriage again, saying he’d planned to make her his wife all along and that the timing was perfect now, since as her husband, he’d be able to help her and her family. For starters, he’d insisted on taking over her parents’ mortgage and offering a financial settlement to relieve her and her parents’ stress when they married. She had honestly believed she could go through with it.
The reality, however, had been an unwelcome shock. Once she’d agreed to become his wife, Burton had shown himself to be intent on taking over much more than just her parents’ mortgage. The overwhelming sense of loss of self that had struck her when she’d been standing at the altar still lingered like cold, bony fingers plucking at her heart—at her mind. She closed her eyes briefly and shook her head to try and rid herself of the sensation.
When she opened them, Raif was looking at her again with those piercing blue eyes. She felt as if he looked right through her, but at the same time couldn’t see what twisted and tormented