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Грэхем Линн

Christakis's Rebellious Wife

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NIK WAS ENSCONCED in his limo with a very beautiful blonde. Jenna had seemed the perfect antidote to his difficult morning. She was light-hearted and fun and she wasn’t looking for anything serious. She had invited him back to her apartment and neither of them had any illusion about what was to happen there. Now she snuggled up against him, her hand fastening possessively to a long, powerful thigh. He stiffened, resisting a strong urge to shake her off. He was getting a divorce, he reminded himself obstinately. He was a free man. It was past time he acted on that change of status.

Jenna shifted almost onto his lap to kiss him. In a defensive move, he threw his head back and her lips caught his jawline instead. The scent of her washed over him and she smelled wrong to him. Not bad, just somehow and inexplicably...wrong. He lifted a hand to her shoulder, long fingers accidentally brushing her hair. It felt coarse instead of silky and he didn’t want to touch it. In a fury he willed himself to stop making crazy comparisons. Maybe that was why the normal, healthy male response to an approach from a willing, attractive woman wasn’t happening for him.

Thee mou...his body was demonstrating all the reaction of a solid block of wood, he acknowledged in mounting frustration. Something was messing with his head and his libido and he didn’t know what but neither was he prepared to discuss the problem with his therapist. He had been forced to explore quite enough unpleasant issues with the good doctor and, while he had every respect for the lady’s common sense and discretion, there were still some things he refused to share. He might have unburdened himself of the dark weight of his dysfunctional past and felt stronger for it, but the freedom to return to his former taciturn habits was equally a relief. Sharing anything did not come naturally to a male with his reserved nature. And such acknowledgements were only one more unnecessary reminder that being involved in any way with Betsy was still ruining his life, cutting off his choices and reminding him of his boundaries while stifling the raw energy, the voracious sex drive and the sheer ruthlessness that had always healthily compelled Nik forward in life.

His mobile phone buzzed and he dug it out with an apology, but he already knew he wasn’t going back to Jenna’s apartment. Clearly she didn’t attract him enough, he reflected grimly. When he added in the unthinkable, that for the first time in his life he might fail between the sheets, it was sufficient to crush his need to test himself and prove that he had left his marriage behind him.

No, to achieve that goal he required a rather more civilised approach, he conceded broodingly, momentarily forgetting his companion. Taking some of the aggro out of the situation between him and Betsy would be a good strategic move. That didn’t mean he was going to give her a cartload of money or grant any of her ridiculous requests or, worse still, talk to her as Cristo had so ludicrously suggested. He didn’t want to talk to Betsy. He wouldn’t keep his temper if he talked to her and any gain from his breaking of the ice between them would be swiftly destroyed by a fresh flood of hostility and mutual resentment. No, talking of any kind was off the table. Diavelos, the lawyers could do the talking.

* * *

The day after the legal meeting, Betsy set out the items for sale on the new shelves in the shop and stepped back to assess the display.

She might have gone through hell since her marriage had broken down but, when it came to work, her overwhelming need to keep busy and mentally challenged had ironically ensured that the same months were astonishingly productive and creative in business terms. The little farm shop selling fresh veg, fruit and eggs, which Nik had grudgingly allowed her to open in one of the redundant farm buildings behind the hall, had tripled in size to house the baked goods and home-cooked ready meals she had sourced. Since then she had added the card and gift section, where she stocked everything from potpourri to local crafts. Across the yard, work was noisily progressing as a former ruined cottage was transformed into a small coffee shop.

Behind the counter, her manager, Alice, was chatting cheerfully to a regular customer stocking up for her weekly shop. Betsy had initially hired Alice to ensure that she was always available when Nik was at home, but even though she was now able to work much longer hours the arrangement still worked well. After all, the business had expanded and Alice was good at dealing with the financial side of things, while Betsy was happiest handling suppliers and sourcing new goods.

Furthermore, Alice had the wisdom to understand when not to ask awkward questions. Divorced from a cheating ex and raising three children, she knew all about sleepless nights and heartache. Alice had not said a word when she came into work some mornings and found all their produce rearranged, the fruit so shiny it looked polished and the tiled floor so clean you could see your face in it. Time after time Betsy had taken refuge in work when she couldn’t sleep.

But there was a far more practical reason behind her industry and the long hours she put in.

Betsy’s ultimate goal was to make Lavender Hall self-sufficient because she was mortified by the prospect of hanging on Nik’s sleeve for the rest of her days. If she built up the business enough it could support her and cover the wages bill for the staff required not only to run the business but also to maintain the house and garden. In truth, claiming a very large slice of Nik’s fortune had not solely been an act of aggression or revenge but more of a counter-attack to his unreasonable demand that Lavender Hall be sold. The house offered Betsy an unparalleled resource as a business base from which she could earn her own living and she had lots of even more ambitious ideas on the back burner for the future.

The phone on the counter buzzed and Alice answered it. ‘It’s for you,’ she told Betsy.

Edna, the hall housekeeper, was on the line. ‘You have a visitor, Mrs Christakis. Is it still all right for me to take the afternoon off?’ the older woman asked anxiously.

Edna and her husband, Stan, who kept the garden, had provided sterling ongoing support on the home front after Betsy had had to cut back on staff after Nik’s departure. With Nik and his high expectations of instant service removed from the equation, there had been no need for a fancy private chef, a driver or a flock of maids.

‘Of course it is,’ Betsy assured her while abstractedly wondering why she had not named the visitor. Obviously someone familiar, possibly Cristo or even his wife, Belle, she thought hopefully, because she was in the mood for some uplifting company.

Betsy liked Belle, a leggy Irish redhead with boundless vitality and a great sense of fun. Belle had slowly become a trusted friend in spite of the fact that what Belle had to say about Nik was pretty much unrepeatable. Betsy, in turn, admired the way Belle and Cristo had taken on responsibility for the five kids Belle’s mother had had during her long-running affair with Cristo and Nik’s late father, Gaetano. Nik would never have sacrificed his personal freedom on such a score, she conceded painfully, wondering how she had contrived to be so blind to the reality that the man she wanted to father her child didn’t even like children.

Smoothing her stretchy black skirt down over her hips and twitching down the pushed-up sleeves of her pink honeycomb-knit sweater, Betsy left the shop and cut through the walled garden to the door in the ten-foot wall that led straight into the hall’s vast rear courtyard. When Nik had protested her desire for a commercial outlet at their home, she had reminded him of the size of that wall and had added that the opening up of the former farm lane would preserve their privacy from both customers and traffic. He had remained stalwartly unimpressed, giving way solely because he had known she needed something to occupy her while he travelled abroad so much.

And yet now here she was, running not the hobby shop he had envisaged but her own thriving business, she reflected ruefully, striving to raise her flagging spirits with that comforting reminder. Who would ever have thought she had that capability? Certainly not her parents, who had never expected much from her. It had been her grandmother, a retired teacher, who had ensured that Betsy got the help she needed with her dyslexia. In truth, Betsy’s parents had never really had much time for Betsy and had been ashamed of her reading and writing difficulties. In fact she was convinced that she had been an accidental conception because even as a child she had been aware that her parents resented the incessant demands of parenthood, no matter how much her grandmother tried to help them out. Her parents had died in a train crash when Betsy was eleven. By then her grandmother had already passed away and Betsy had had to go into foster care, the first seed of her conviction that she would never ever want children already sown by her own distinctly chilly upbringing.

Cutting through the spacious empty kitchen, Betsy hurried through to the big hall and came to a startled halt when she saw the tall, broad-shouldered male with blacker than black hair, standing poised with his back turned to her by the still-open front door.

Nik had already surveyed his surroundings with keen interest, instantly noting the changes since his exit six months earlier. The furniture was a little dusty. There were no fresh flowers adorning the central table, not even a welcoming fire burning in the massive grate. But superimposed over that picture was a misty image of Betsy twirling round the same hall before restoration had made the building habitable.

‘Isn’t it just amazing?’ she had exclaimed in excited appeal on their very first visit to Lavender Hall, her face lit up like a Christmas tree.

‘It needs to be demolished,’ Nik had countered, unimpressed.

‘It’s not past saving,’ Betsy had argued. ‘Can’t you feel the atmosphere? The character of the place? Can’t you imagine what it would look like with a little work?’

A little work with a wrecking ball, Nik had thought grimly, uninspired by the chipped and broken bricks and the floor puddled by drips from gaping windows and a leaking roof. She had dragged him off on a tour, chattering with bubbling enthusiasm about how the Elizabethan property was a treasure chest of history and on the endangered historic buildings list. Right from the start he had thought it was a horrible house and about as far removed from his idea of a comfortable and suitable country home as it was possible to imagine. But he had recognised that Betsy had fallen madly in love with the dump and, even though it wasn’t what he wanted, he had agreed to buy it for her, a generous act that had rebounded on him many times in the following months when the costs of restoration had risen to outrageous levels.

Ne...yes, he had been a decent, caring husband, Nik reflected with brooding hostility. He had tried to make his wife happy, had given her everything she had ever wanted with the single exception of that last impossible demand of hers, and he still could barely credit that their marriage had been destroyed by her desire for, of all things, a baby. Her careless dismissal of the idea of having a child had been so convincing before their marriage.

Lean, strong face tensed by the forbidding tenor of his thoughts, Nik swung round with a frown just as Betsy surged through the kitchen door. She looked harassed, her pale blonde hair tumbling round her delicate, flushed features, making her eyes look more mauve in hue than ever and emphasising the pink, pillowy, luscious shape of her unpainted lips.

Instantaneous desire lit Nik up inside in a firework burst of startling heat that took his breath away. Without the smallest warning everything he had failed to feel in the limo with Jenna the day before surged through him, tightening every muscle in his body and setting off a fast-beating pulse at his groin that made him want to smash something in sheer frustration.

‘Betsy,’ he breathed in growling acknowledgement.

One glimpse of her visitor and Betsy had frozen in place like someone who had run head first into a solid brick wall. Why on earth hadn’t Edna warned her? His sexy-as-sin voice washed over her like rich vanilla ice cream coated in melted dark chocolate, vibrating down her taut spinal cord... Nik’s voice, the first weapon in his considerable arsenal of attraction. Nik here at the hall where she had never expected to see him again! His sudden appearance was a huge shock and she blinked rapidly and snatched in a stark breath, striving to brace herself for what could only be bad news of some kind.

‘What are you doing here?’ she gasped strickenly before she could think better of openly revealing her dismay.

‘I needed to see you.’

Unconvinced, Betsy simply stared back at him. His dark grey pinstripe designer suit was faultlessly fitted to every muscular angle of his lean, powerful body. Big and strong, he was a brutal force of nature beneath that sleek, sophisticated façade he wore to the world. In all the months they had lived apart he had made not one single attempt to see her, so why now? Her brain, however, was stuttering to a halt when confronted with Nik in the flesh. Those lean, darkly beautiful features of his drew her in like a fire on a freezing day. She didn’t want to look but she couldn’t help herself. He had the gorgeous face and classic body of a mythical god, eyes shimmering bright as emeralds, awakening a primal attraction that was rooted so deep inside her she didn’t know where it began or how she would ever be free of its sway. Her skin prickled, tiny hairs rising at the nape of her neck as she subdued a responsive shiver. Her heart was racing.

And then mercifully a voice from outside broke into the smouldering silence. ‘Come back here!’ a man was shouting.

The pitter-patter of rushing paws and an unforgettably familiar bark made Betsy’s eyes fly wide in recognition and she hurtled to the door to peer out. An ecstatic bundle of wriggling, whining terrier dog leapt up into her arms and covered every part of her he could reach with delighted doggy kisses.

‘I’m very sorry, sir. He leapt through the window of the car,’ Nik’s driver confided in breathless pursuit.

Nik was tempted to remark that that had to be the most life Gizmo had shown in the two months since he had retrieved the dog from Betsy. With a nod of dismissal to his driver, he thrust the front door closed with an impatient hand and studied the tableau before him. Betsy was down on her knees on the tiled floor smiling and laughing and the terrier was bouncing and leaping around her, the pair of them enacting a mutually jubilant reconciliation scene that even Nik could not remain untouched by. He knew he had made the right decision.

‘You brought him here to visit me?’ Betsy questioned, glancing up enquiringly, utterly confused by the dog’s sudden appearance.

‘No, he’s here to stay,’ Nik informed her wryly. ‘He’s not happy away from you.’

‘But he’s your dog,’ she framed uncertainly, gathering Gizmo into her arms and stroking him to calm him down.

‘He was only mine until he met you,’ Nik retorted, compressing his mouth into a sardonic line while he noted as she bent over the dog the slight definitive bounce of her small breasts below her sweater, which told him that she was wearing nothing underneath. He became so hard in that split second that he was in literal pain.

Giving Gizmo back to her was an extraordinarily generous gesture and an astonishing move from a male as cold-blooded and unforgiving as Nik, Betsy reflected in bewilderment while she struggled to understand his reasoning. Unfortunately, Nik might be gorgeous but he was also complicated, impossibly so. She had never had much idea what went on inside his handsome head and once again he had taken her very much by surprise.

Gizmo was a stray, who had been knocked over by Nik’s limousine months before Betsy even met Nik. He had taken the dog to a veterinary surgery for treatment and when nobody came forward to claim him he had asked the vet to try and find him a home. When that had failed, Nik had baulked at the prospect of putting the little dog into a council home for strays where he would ultimately be put down if he still failed to attract a new owner. Against all the odds, Nik had taken in Gizmo himself, introducing the little animal to a roof garden and a life of luxury food, dog walkers and groomers.

While Betsy reflected on Gizmo’s humble beginnings as a stray, Nik was wishing he had stayed safe at the office. Watching Betsy shower affection on his dog filled him with conflicting feelings. He wanted to look at her but he didn’t want to be with her or note the way the sunlight flooding through the windows gleamed over her impossibly pale blonde hair, accentuating her porcelain-perfect skin and haunting blue eyes. He especially didn’t want the intensely sexual arousal currently coursing through his big, powerful body like a runaway train.

‘Thank you from the bottom of my heart,’ Betsy told him with tears in her eyes. ‘I’ve missed him so much.’

Restored to his proper home, Gizmo trotted off cheerfully to explore his old haunts.

Nik studied Betsy with smouldering green eyes and her heart gave a sudden jarring thud.

Betsy knew that look of hunger on Nik’s hard, handsome face and it burned through her like a lightning strike, riveting her to the spot. That light in his stunning gaze told her that he wanted her and she couldn’t stop her body reacting to that lure. An unbearable ache stirred at the apex of her slender thighs and she pressed them tightly together as if she could lock it in and deny it. Her breasts swelled beneath her sweater, making her all too aware of their bareness as her nipples were grazed by the wool.

‘Come into the sitting room,’ she urged, scrambling upright to lead the way as if he were a genuine guest visiting an unfamiliar place. ‘Why didn’t Edna tell me it was you?’

‘I asked her not to. I wanted to surprise you.’

‘Well, you’ve certainly done that,’ Betsy admitted truthfully, struggling to credit that he was actually with her in what had once been the home they shared, even if it did cross her mind that Nik had spent more time in hotel rooms round the globe than he had ever spent with her. But that look he had given her—her thoughts raced back to that, worrying at it like a dog at a bone. Why had he looked at her like that? Surely he could not still find her attractive? Nik had been a less than enthusiastic lover in the last months of their marriage, although, now knowing about the vasectomy as she did, she could finally comprehend his loss of interest. Back then she had only thought of sex in terms of getting pregnant and she had no doubt that he had found her attitude a turn-off. No, don’t think about sex, don’t think about sex, she urged herself feverishly.

Betsy hovered awkwardly. ‘Would you like a coffee?’ she asked, because she was eager for the chance to escape to the kitchen for a few minutes and pull herself back together again.

‘No, thanks, but I’ll take a drink,’ Nik declared, long, powerful legs carrying him across the room to the drinks cabinet, where he proceeded to help himself.

Unnerved by the fact that he could still confidently make himself at home while remaining utterly impervious to the discomfiture some men might have felt in the same situation, Betsy breathed in slow and deep to ground herself. ‘I gather you want to talk—’

Nik spun back to her with the liquid grace of movement that always caught her eye and frowned at her, black brows drawing down, wide, sensual mouth twisting in dismissal. ‘No. I don’t want to talk,’ he told her abruptly before he tossed back the finger of Scotch whisky he had poured neat and set down the empty glass again.

‘’ she began in confusion.

His spectacular green eyes zeroed in on her with penetrating force and a flock of butterflies was unleashed in her tummy while her heartbeat kicked up pace again. ‘I’m only here to return Gizmo.’

‘Oh...’ Betsy framed for want of anything better to say. A few months ago she would have shot accusations at him, demanded answers and would have thoroughly upset herself and him by resurrecting the past, which consumed her. But that time was gone, she acknowledged painfully, well aware that any reference to more personal issues would only send him out of the door faster. Nik had always avoided the personal, the private, the deeper, messier stuff that other people got swamped by. From the minute things went wrong in their marriage she had been on her own.

Nik scrutinised her lovely face, willing himself to find fault, urging himself to discover some imperfection that would switch his body back to safe neutral mode again. And yet on another level he was relieved, even satisfied by his arousal, grateful for the discovery that there was nothing at all amiss with his sex drive. Nor could he think of anything that could quench the swelling fullness of desire holding him rigid, unquestionably not the tantalising awareness that Betsy, all five feet nothing of her and regardless of her lack of experience before their marriage, was absolutely incredible in bed.

‘Se thelo...I want you,’ he heard himself admit before he was even aware that the words were on his tongue.

So Nik, so explosively unpredictable, Betsy reasoned abstractedly, colour rushing into her cheeks as a hot wave of awareness engulfed her. Jewel-bright eyes assailed hers in an almost physical collision and something low and intimate in her body clenched hard. Her legs turned so weak she wasn’t convinced they were still there to hold her up but she was held in stasis by the intensity of his narrowed green gaze.

‘And you want me,’ he told her thickly. It was classic, pure textbook Nik to tell her what she was feeling before she even knew it herself.

And Betsy knew she ought to argue and defend herself while telling him all the many reasons why that could not possibly be true, not least the fact that his deception and his willingness to turn his back on their marriage had made her hate him with the same passion that she had once loved him.

But, inexplicably, in that rushing silence filled only with the accelerated thump of her heart in her own ears, she said nothing, couldn’t find the words, indeed was plunged into so much confusion her mind was a mess of barely formed thoughts and reactions.


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