“Cook. Stavros informed me that I liked to cook for you and frequently went to the market for ingredients. I wondered if I was any good at it.”
A peculiar expression lit his face. “That’s right. You did. I hadn’t thought about it in a while, but yes, you did often cook a meal for me on my first night home.”
“Were you gone very often?” she asked.
He paused for a moment then slowly nodded. “I’m afraid I was. I was often out of the country on business. Sometimes we went weeks without seeing each other.”
“I can’t imagine it,” she said softly. “I missed you in just the few hours we were apart this morning.”
He kissed her again. “And I missed you, pedhaki mou.”
She settled against his side as they continued the ride home. She was a bit tired, but there was no way she’d tell him that. The day had been nearly perfect, and they still had the evening together.
M arley fidgeted and tugged at her dress as she surveyed her appearance in the mirror. Sapphires glinted from both ears, and the matching necklace lay against the skin of her neck.
“You look beautiful, agape mou.”She turned to see Chrysander behind her. She sucked in her breath as she took in his appearance. The excellently tailored black suit fit him to perfection, drawing attention to his muscular build. The white shirt contrasted with his bronze skin, dark hair and golden eyes, and quite frankly, she felt like drooling.
“So do you,” she finally managed.
He chuckled and walked toward her. “Beautiful? Surely you can do better than that.”
“Gorgeous? Devastatingly handsome? So good-looking that I’m tempted to fall on you and tear your clothes off?”
“I like the way you think.”
“I wasn’t joking,” she muttered.
“Are you ready? The car is waiting for us below.”
She took a deep breath and twisted her engagement ring around her finger with the pad of her thumb. “As ready as I’ll ever be.”
He reached for her hand and tugged her into his arms. “It won’t be so bad. I will be with you the whole night.”
She reached up on tiptoe to kiss him. “I’m a coward. I fully admit it.”
He took his time exploring her lips, moving with a sensual thoroughness that left her weak and breathless. When they drew apart, she could see he was as affected as she was.
“I think we should leave now,” he said hoarsely. “Otherwise we won’t be going anywhere for a very long time.”
They rode to the hotel, and Marley could see several limousines lining the circular drive outside the main entrance as they pulled up. She swallowed nervously as she saw the glitz and glamour of the people stepping from the cars and entering the hotel. She suddenly felt underdressed and unprepared.
When they reached the front entrance, the doors were opened and Chrysander stepped out, extending his hand to help her from the car. He tucked her arm securely underneath his, and they walked inside the hotel.
Butterflies performed a rendition of the River Dance in her stomach as they entered the large ballroom. A jazz band played softly from a small stage at the back of the room. Waiters circled with trays of wine and champagne while others offered a selection of hors d’oeuvres.
Chrysander murmured to one of the waiters as he took a glass of wine from the tray, and a few moments later, he returned with a glass of mineral water for Marley.
As she scanned the room, glass in hand, she mentally groaned as she saw Theron and Piers and then Roslyn. While she knew they’d be in attendance, she’d truly hoped to avoid them as much as possible. That wasn’t going to happen, she mused as she saw Theron start across the room toward Chrysander.
Her first reaction was to excuse herself to the ladies’ room, but Chrysander’s grip tightened on her fingers as though he knew of her impending flight.
“Chrysander,” Theron said by way of greeting. His gaze skimmed quickly over Marley, and he offered the briefest of nods. At least it wasn’t a full-blown snub, nor did he scowl at her.
She listened as the two exchanged pleasantries, and then Theron gestured toward Piers and a distinguished older gentleman who was standing beside him. She hung back as Chrysander started toward his brother, but he tugged her along with him, and her dread increased.
Piers frowned when she and Chrysander approached. The older gentleman smiled broadly and uttered a polite greeting to Chrysander. A woman Marley assumed was his wife also offered an enthusiastic hello from his side.
Chrysander urged her forward. “Senhor and Senhora Vasquez, I’d like you both to meet Marley Jameson. Marley, this is Senhor Vasquez and his wife. They’re here from Brazil on business.”
Marley smiled and exchanged pleasantries with the older couple then relaxed against Chrysander. Piers was being polite, and Theron had joined the group minus the complete indifference he’d shown in her presence a moment earlier. Maybe she could endure the evening after all.
Chrysander reached down and squeezed her hand, and then he faced the others, odd tension on his face. “Marley has agreed to be my wife. We plan to marry while we’re here in New York. We’d be honored if you all could attend.”
A gasp sounded behind Chrysander, and Marley whirled around to see Roslyn standing a few feet away, shock reflected on her face. She recovered quickly, but not quick enough for Marley to wonder what she could possibly have found so shocking about the announcement. As she turned and looked at the others, only the Vasquezes looked congratulatory over the news.
Piers’s and Theron’s expressions both mirrored Roslyn’s shock. Then their surprise turned to outright distaste. Chrysander shot them warning looks, but Marley was at a complete loss. She trembled against Chrysander, and his grip tightened on her hand as if he understood her desire to flee.
How could their engagement possibly be news? They were engaged before her accident, and yet everyone acted as though it was a recent development. An unpleasant one at that.
After the obligatory well wishes from the Vasquezes and more from a few people nearby who’d overheard, the conversation switched to more mundane topics. Marley remained silent, numb to the talk around her. Chrysander loosened his hold on her hand, but he slid his arm around her waist and anchored her firmly against him. There was no escaping, no matter how much she might wish it.
The conversation turned to the possible building of a hotel in Rio de Janeiro, and while Marley remained silent, only observing the others, Chrysander’s arm never strayed from around her waist.
As the evening wore on, more people offered their congratulations on the upcoming wedding, and soon the room buzzed with the news. The constant smile Marley wore was starting to wear on her. As if sensing her strain, Chrysander whirled her onto the dance floor as a slow jazz song floated melodiously in the air.
She sighed as she melted into his arms. “Thanks. I needed that.”
He smiled and leaned down to nibble at the corner of her mouth. “You are the most beautiful woman in the room. The men all look at you with lust in their eyes, and it’s enough to make me want to pound them into the ground.”
“Mmm, as much as I like the macho act, I’d much prefer if you took me home and worked off some of that male arrogance in another way.”
“You tempt me.”
She smiled up at him. “I was very serious.”
He sighed. “As much as I would like to do just that, I’m afraid I am stuck here for the evening. If it becomes too much for you, I can have Stavros take you back to the apartment.”
As if she’d leave him here with Roslyn, Miss Super Assistant.
Despite the fact that Chrysander’s brothers and Roslyn seemed determined to treat her as a pariah, there were many others who went out of their way to be gracious to Marley and include her in conversation. She actually found herself enjoying the festive atmosphere despite the evening’s inauspicious start.
It was growing late when Chrysander leaned in close to her ear and murmured, “I need to speak with my brothers. Will you be all right for a few moments?”
“Of course, silly,” she said with a smile. “I’m going to visit the ladies’ room. You go on.”
He kissed her then strode toward his brothers. Marley took her time in the bathroom. It was a nice reprieve from the endless chatter and the dark glances thrown her way by the Anetakis contingent.
“You can’t hide in here forever,” she said to herself. Squaring her shoulders, she exited the bathroom and walked back toward the ballroom. As she passed one of the smaller meeting rooms, she heard Chrysander’s voice through the open door. She faltered and came to a stop, debating whether to continue or stay and wait for him.
The next words she heard made her decision for her.
“Damn it, Chrysander, there is no need to marry her. Put her up in an apartment somewhere until the child comes. Don’t tie yourself to her and give her access to everything you own.”
Her mouth rounded in shock at Piers’s angry words.
“She is pregnant with my child,” Chrysander said icily. “That I choose to marry her is none of your concern.”
She moved closer to the door, not caring whether they saw her. What right did Piers have to talk to Chrysander so?
“You can’t mean to marry her!” Roslyn’s shrill voice rose. “Do you forget how she stole from you? That she tried to ruin your company? If you need any reminders, just look at the new hotels going up in Paris and Rome. Your hotels, Chrysander. Only they’re going up under your competitor’s name.”
A haze blew through Marley’s mind. Red hot. Like a swarm of angry bees, tidbits of information began buzzing in her head. And suddenly it was as if a dam broke. The locked door in her mind that she’d tried so hard to budge simply opened, and the past came roaring through with vicious velocity.
She swayed and gripped the door frame tighter. Nausea boiled in her stomach as each and every moment flashed like a movie in fast-forward.
Chrysander’s angry accusation of thievery. His ordering her from their apartment, his life. Her abduction and the months she’d spent in hopeless fear, waiting for Chrysander to answer the ransom demands. Demands he’d ignored.
Oh God, she was going to be sick.
He’d left her. Discarded her like a piece of rubbish. The half million dollars, a paltry sum to a man of Chrysander’s means, was an amount he’d been unwilling to part with to ensure her return.
Everything had been a lie. He’d lied to her nonstop since she’d awoken in the hospital. He didn’t love her or want her. He despised her.
She hadn’t been worth half a million dollars to him.
Pain splintered through her chest as she shattered. As everything she’d known as true suddenly turned black. Her heart withered and cracked, falling in pieces around her.
He hadn’t tried to save her.
The tortured cry that ripped from her mouth echoed through the room. She clamped a hand over her lips, but it was too late. Everyone looked her way. Theron flinched, and an odd discomfort settled over Piers’s face. She met Chrysander’s gaze, and she could see the truth in his eyes as he realized that she remembered.
As he started across the room toward her, she backed away, stumbling as she did. Oh God, she couldn’t face this. Tears blurred her vision. The image of his pale face only spurred her on.
Marley fled down the hallway toward the lobby. Chrysander called her name, but she didn’t stop. Sobs bubbled from her chest and exploded outward. She stumbled but regained her footing and pushed herself forward. Behind her, Chrysander cursed and called out to her again.
She was running for the exit, no clear destination in mind. She was nearly there when she met with a mountain. Stavros stepped in front of her and held her, and she exploded in fury, kicking and shoving. Her only thought was to get away, as far away from this place as she could.
She broke free but stumbled backward and fell to the floor. Stavros was down beside her, asking her if she was all right, and she knew she was trapped.
Pain cycled through her body, an unending stream of agony. She closed her eyes as Chrysander’s strong hands slid over her body. In an urgent voice, he demanded to know if she was hurt, but she was incapable of answering him. She curled into a ball, uncaring that she was in the middle of the hotel lobby.
Chrysander picked her up, and she could hear him saying her name. Curses fell from his lips, and then he barked orders for someone to summon a doctor. He strode away from the noise of the lobby, and a few moments later, he entered an empty hotel room.
As soon as he lowered her to the bed, she curled herself into a tight ball again and turned away from him. She flinched when he put his hand on her, his touch light and concerned.
“You must stop crying, agape mou. You’re going to make yourself ill.”
She was already sick, she thought dully. Utterly sick at heart. She closed her eyes, but still hot tears streamed down her cheeks, even as Chrysander wiped them away with his fingers.
She wanted to escape. Go some place where it didn’t hurt so much. Through the fog, she heard Chrysander conversing with the doctor. A moment later, she felt a prick in her arm, but she didn’t react. She didn’t care. And then she floated away, so grateful that the pain had receded. Her mind grew fuzzy as the veil of sleep descended over her. Oblivion. She reached for it. Embraced it and wrapped it around her as she slipped away to a place where there was no hurt and no betrayal.
Chrysander paced back and forth at the foot of Marley’s bed while the hotel physician administered the sedative. She was beyond distraught, and the doctor had moved immediately to prevent further upset.As the doctor stood and backed away from the bed, he looked at Chrysander, a grim expression on his face.