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The Purchased Wife

By:Michelle Reid

GETTING from flight arrivals to the airport's main exit was like taking a long walk through hell. The whole route was lined with baying reporters, flashing light bulbs and a cacophony of questions aimed to provoke an impulsive response.

Xander kept his mouth clamped tightly shut and ignored provocations like, 'Did you have anything to do with your wife's accident, Mr Pascalis?' - 'Did she know about your mistress, - 'Did she run her car off the road to kill herself?'-'Is there a good reason why you withdrew her bodyguard last week?'

With his eyes fixed directly ahead Xander just kept on going, six feet two inches of mean muscle power driving long legs towards the airport exit with no less than three personal security men grouped around him like protective wolves guarding the king of the pack.

Through it all the questions kept on coming and the camera bulbs flashed, catching his severely handsome dark features locked in an expression of blistering contempt. Inside, his fury was simmering on the point of eruption. He was used to being the centre of media interest, speculation-scandal if they thought they could make it stick. But nothing-nothing they'd said about him before had been as bad or as potentially damaging as this.

He hit the outside and crossed the pavement to the waiting limousine where Rico, his chauffeur, stood with the rear door open at the ready. Dipping into the car, the door shut even before he'd folded his long frame into the seat, while outside his security people dispersed in a prowling circle that kept the reporters back until Rico had safely stashed himself back behind the wheel. Ten seconds later the car moved away from the kerb and another car was pulling into its place to receive his men. 'How is she?' he lanced, rough toned, at the man sitting beside him.

'Still in surgery,' Luke Morrell replied.

The granite set of Xander's jaw clenched violently on a sudden vision of the beautiful Helen stretched out on an operating table, the object of a surgeon's knife. It was almost as bad as the vision he'd had of her slumped behind the wheel of her twisted wreck of a car with her Titian-bright hair and heart shaped face smeared with blood.

His jaw unclenched. 'Who is with her at the hospital?' There was a short hesitation before, 'No one,' Luke Morell answered. 'She refused to allow anyone to stay.'

Turning his dark head, Xander fixed his narrowed gaze on the very wary face of his UK-based personal assistant. 'What the hell happened to Hugo Vance?'

'Nell dismissed him a week ago.'

The simmering silence which followed that tasty piece of information began to burn up the oxygen inside the luxury car. 'And you knew about this?'

Luke Morrell swallowed and nodded. 'Hugo Vance rang to let me know what she'd done.'

'Then why the hell was I not told-?'

'You were busy.'

Busy. Xander's lips snapped together. He was always busy. Busy was a damned bloody way of life! 'Keep something like that from me again and you're out,' he seared at the other man with teeth-gritting intent.

Luke Morrell shifted tensely, wishing to hell that the beautiful Helen had remained locked away behind the gates of their private country estate instead of deciding it was time to venture out and take a look at life.

'It was an accident, Xander. She was driving too fast-'

A pair of wide shoulders shifted inside impeccable dark suiting. 'The point is-why was she driving so fast?'

Luke didn't answer. In truth he didn't need to. Xander could put two and two together and come up with four for himself. Yesterday his name had been splashed all over the tabloids alongside a photograph of him standing outside a supposedly discreet New York restaurant with the beautiful Vanessa DeFriess plastered to his front. His skin contracted against tightly honed face muscles when he thought of the incident. Protecting Nell from embarrassing scenes like that was a duty from which he never shirked. But his bodyguard of the evening had been distracted by a drunk trying to muscle in on them, and by the time the drunk had been hustled away and the frightened Vanessa had been peeled off Xander's front, a convenient reporter had already got his sleaze-grabbing photograph and slunk away.

Nell would have been upset, angry-who the hell knew what went on inside her beautiful head? He'd stopped trying to find out a year ago when she'd married him to a fanfare of 'Romance of the New Century' then promptly refused to share his bed. By the time she'd finished calling him filthy names ranging from power-driven fiend to sex-obsessed moron, he no longer wanted her anywhere near him. Liar, jeered a voice inside his head. You just had no defence ready when you were hit with too many ugly truths, so you backed off to hide behind your pride and arrogance. Photographs of his relationship with Vanessa had been the catalyst then, he remembered. Tasty snippets of truth printed in with the lies that had made it impossible for him to defend himself. He had been with Vanessa the week before his marriage. He had wined and dined her at a very fashionable restaurant then taken her back to her apartment and gone in with her. The fact that he'd been doing it on the other side of the Atlantic made him stupidly-naively believe he was safe.

But back here in the UK, his young, sweetly besotted future bride had been avidly following his every move as it was recorded in the New York gossip columns via the internet. The sneaky little witch had told nobody. His mouth gave a grim, uncontrolled twitch. She'd come to him down the aisle of the church dressed like an angel in frothy silk tulle and gossamer lace. She'd smiled at him, let him take her cool little hand, let him place his ring on her slender white finger, let him vow to love, honour and protect. She'd even allowed him that one traditional kiss as they became man and wife. She'd smiled for their wedding photographs, smiled throughout the long wedding breakfast that followed and even smiled when he'd taken her in his arms for their traditional bridal dance. If there had ever been a man more ready to be a willing slave to his lovely young bride then, by the time they reached the hotel suite where they were to spend their wedding night, he, Alexander Pascalis, was it.

She'd waited until then to turn on him like a viper. A cold, glassy-eyed English version of a viper, who'd spat words at him like ice picks that awoke this handsome prince up from his arrogant dream-world instead of the prince awakening his sleeping beauty with the kind of loving that should have made her his slave for life.

And sleeping beauty she was then-too innocent to be real. That same innocence had been her only saviour on their miserable wedding night. Still was, did she but know it.

Because his marriage might have turned into a disaster even before he'd got around to consummating it but his desire to possess the beautiful Helen had remained a strong, nagging entity amongst the rubble of the rest.

'I suppose you know why she dismissed Vance?' he queried now, dragging his mind back to the present crisis.

There was a tense shift beside him. Xander turned his dark head again and a warning tingle shot across the back of his neck when he saw the new guarded expression on his employee’s face. Luke was wary-very wary. There was even a hint of red beginning to stain his pale English cheeks.

'Spit it out,' he raked at him.

Luke Morrell tugged in a breath. 'Hugo tried to stop her,' he claimed defensively, 'but Nell took offence-'

'Tried to stop her from doing what?'

Luke lifted up a hand in a helpless gesture. 'Listen, Xander,' he said in an advisory voice that sounded too damn soothing for Xander's liking, 'it was nothing serious enough to need to involve you but Hugo was concerned that it might...get out of hand, so he...advised Nell against it and she-'

'Advised her against doing what?' Xander sliced right through all of Luke's uncharacteristic babbling, and by now every bone in his body was tensing up as his instincts shot on full alert. He was not going to like this. He was so damn certain of it that his clenched teeth began to sing.

'A man,' Luke admitted reluctantly. 'A-a friend Nell's been seeing recently...'

Nell felt as if she were floating. It was a really strange feeling, all fluffy and soft yet scary at the same time. And she couldn't open her eyes. She had tried a couple of times but her eyelids felt as if they'd been glued down. Her throat hurt when she swallowed and her mouth was so dry the swallowing action was impossible anyway. She knew where she was. Had a vague recollection of the car accident and being rushed by ambulance to hospital, but that pretty much was the sum total of her recollection. The last clear thing she remembered was gunning the engine of her little open-top sports car and driving at a pace down the long driveway at Rosemere towards the giant iron gates. She could remember the wild sense of elation she'd felt when the gates had swung open with precision timing to let her shoot right through them without her having to drop her speed. And she could still feel the same sense of bitter triumph with which she'd mocked the gates' efficiency as she'd driven past them. Didn't the stupid gates know they'd just let the trapped bird escape?

Escape. Nell frowned, puzzled as to why the word had jumped into her head. Then she was suddenly groaning when the frown caused a pain to shoot right across the front of her head.

Someone moved not far away. 'Nell...?' a deep, darkly rasping voice said.

Managing to open her eyes the small crack that was all they would allow her, she peered out at the shadowy outline of a man's big, lean, dark-suited bulk standing stiffly at the end of her bed. Xander, she recognised. Bitterness welled as her heart gave a tight, very painful pinch. What was he doing here? Had corporate earth stopped turning or something? Nothing less would give him the time to visit her sickbed.