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The Unfaithful Wife(4)

By:Lynne Graham

‘Do you think he kept pornographic pictures in that box just for fun?’

Leah’s stomach curdled. She lowered her pounding head.

‘Now if he took the trouble to retain a copy of the juicy skeleton he trailed out of my family closet—’ Nik’s deep voice held a renewed edge of harshness ‘—he also kept the original of the certificate, and since I have exhausted every other avenue it is obvious to me that he must have given it to you.’

‘He didn’t give anything to me!’ There was a quiver of hysteria in her tremulous response. She was in shock—deep shock—and in no state to combat his continuing pressure for her to produce something that she had not even known existed and certainly didn’t have.

‘You can’t hold it over me. Just try and I will break you...’

‘You’re crazy!’ she suddenly sobbed.

‘This far, I have been remarkably kind and patient. I have been on a leash for five years,’ Nik grated in an embittered undertone. ‘I was only safe as long as I stayed married to you. I thought you might run home to Daddy. But you never did and one thing did become clear to me, gruesomely clear over the years. You are in love with me—’

‘What?’ Leah interrupted shakily.

‘You are obsessed with me. Do you think I don’t know this?’ Nik sent her a shimmering look of contempt. ‘Any normal woman would have left me by now and given up all hope of having her love returned...but not you! You stayed the course, loyal to the bitter end, obscenely faithful and well-behaved, giving me no excuse to complain of the devil’s bargain I made!’

‘Faithful’? Hysteria was tearing at her convulsing throat. Dear heaven, he actually believed what he was saying! Nik believed that she loved him. He thought she had stayed because she loved him. Paul’s name hovered on the very tip of her tongue but sixth sense warned her not to muddy the waters further. One thing at a time...only which? she wondered wildly. Life as she knew it had been shattered in the space of a few hours.

‘I am not in love with you,’ she murmured with as much dignity as she could contrive, her teeth gritting behind her peach-tinted lips. Absolute humiliation engulfed her as she appreciated that all along Nik had been thinking that his neglected, unwanted wife was just dying of love for him in spite of his complete indifference towards her. The ego he must have...the utter, unashamed conceit.

‘Listen, you’re talking to the guy who was your seventeenth birthday present!’ he slung back with savage derision.

‘I b-beg your pardon?’

‘Did you pick me out of some society magazine? Or did you see me in the flesh first? Did you take one look and rush to Daddy and say, “Daddy, this is the one I want!”?’

He was serious. He was actually serious. Her lower lip had parted company from the upper, a hectic pink firing her cheeks to dispel her previous pallor. ‘You have to be out of your mind!’

‘We are going to have this conversation. I have waited five years to stage it!’ Nik asserted, skimming her with glittering dark eyes. ‘All I know is that dear Max did your dirty work for you. I was hunted down like an animal—’

‘You are an animal...an insult to the species!’ Leah abruptly burst out. ‘And your conceit is staggering!’

‘Cristo...my perfect lady of a wife can actually raise her voice,’ Nik drawled, surveying her with flaring dark eyes. ‘You don’t like the truth. It hurts your pride. But I know I was trapped quite deliberately. I didn’t even know who your father was that first time I came to the house. I was lured there by a third party, offering me a business proposition. And your father just so happened not to be available when I arrived.

‘But, lo and behold, you were. Romantically tending flowers in the conservatory, wearing something understated and white, literally armed to the teeth with virginal wiles...Theos, I remember it so well.’

‘It wasn’t like that!’ she gasped in outrage.

‘Any hot-blooded Greek would have looked twice and lingered,’ Nik told her with scorn. ‘And there you were, all shy smiles and blushes, eating me up with those big blue eyes as if you hadn’t had a square meal in a week!’

‘Stop it!’ Leah hissed, her voice breaking.

Nik studied her with unyielding derision, his beautiful mouth twisting. ‘So I was invited to dinner and you played the piano like a concert pianist and sang like an angel. Your every cultured virtue was paraded for my philistine benefit and somehow business never came into it. It might interest you to know, pethi mou, that I only had two questions I wanted answered that night but couldn’t ask—’

‘Really?’ Leah was staring blankly into space, every ounce of her remaining self-discipline directed at rescuing her shattered composure and combating the painful tidal wave of memories threatening to assail her. Two very different people...one encounter...such differing recollections of the same event.

‘Were you over the age of consent? And did Daddy intend to protect you from the big bad world out there and sexual predators like me? Marriage was not, nor would it ever have been, on my mind.’

Nausea stirred inside her, and a bitter tide of mortification she could not withstand followed in its wake.

‘Whose idea was it that I stay to dinner?’

Leah froze.

‘I thought so,’ Nik breathed. ‘Your idea. You told him you wanted me and that was that. He went digging and he dug up something that only two people alive knew about and neither of them would ever have talked about it!’

‘What did he dig up?’ she heard herself whisper helplessly.

‘You know...Max had plenty of warning that he was on borrowed time. He didn’t go to his grave without passing that secret on to you,’ Nik asserted softly.

‘He passed nothing on to me...’

‘And if you don’t have it you have to know who has.’

The chauffeur opened the door beside her and she almost fell out into the fresh air. She gazed down the quiet residential street in near panic. She wanted to run. She knew where she was: Nik’s Paris apartment where she had spent a quite unforgettable wedding night alone. He was unleashing everything on her at once, drowning her in a sea of shattering revelations, grinding her down with confusion, pain and humiliation.

‘Try it,’ Nik said very quietly. ‘Run and see what happens. I wouldn’t let you get as far as the street corner.’

Trembling, ashen, Leah entered the foyer in front of him and stepped into the lift.

‘Memories...’ Nik taunted, with a barbaric smile, as if he could see inside her.

Leah knew she was still in shock. She said nothing, knew she wasn’t up to the challenge. Nik had been prepared. Nik had been waiting for this day, craving its arrival, longing for his revenge...just as he must have longed for her father’s death to set him free from her.

‘There are many functions I can perform to order but sharing a bed with you sadly wasn’t one of them,’ he delivered. ‘He could make me marry you but he couldn’t follow me into the bedroom and force me to—’

‘Shut up!’ she screamed at him, the hysterical demand reverberating around the steel walls of the lift.

‘So why did you never tell him that?’ Nik persisted, going for the jugular when she was at her lowest ebb with predictable calculation. ‘Why didn’t you ever tell him the truth about our marriage? Don’t tell me that Max wasn’t desperate to hear the patter of tiny feet which would have made your position more secure!’

Her hands flew up to cover her convulsing face, a stinging flood of moisture dammed up behind her eyelids. ‘Please...no more,’ she whispered, and she didn’t care that she was begging.

A pair of hands gripped her narrow shoulders. ‘Ne...yes, you kept quiet about your pitifully empty marital bed all these years. Why?’

With a sudden superhuman effort which took him by surprise, Leah tore herself free and fled across the hall of the huge penthouse apartment and down the bedroom corridor. She picked a room at the very end and vanished into the en suite bolting the door behind her. Slowly she slid down the back of the door and then she was forced to fly up again and cope with the shuddering spasms of sickness tearing at her abdomen. When it was over, she took off her clothes with the attitude of a sleepwalker and entered the shower cubicle.

My father, the blackmailer. She repeated the words to herself over and over as she sank down in a corner of the shower and let the water descend on her in sheets. She felt so dirty. For the first time in her life she felt dirty and she didn’t know what on earth she could possibly do to make herself feel clean again. Nik had torn the safe foundations of her very childhood from her.

Her mother, who had died when Leah was four, was no more than a dim memory. The daughter of a minor English aristocrat, she had been cut off by her family for marrying Max. Max had never told his daughter why. He had never felt the need to explain himself.

Leah’s childhood had consisted of a procession of nannies followed by a succession of boarding-schools from an early age. Max had travelled incessantly. Whenever she had pleaded with him to let her live with him, he had always had a ready excuse. She had reached adolescence before she finally appreciated that she was excess baggage in her father’s life and he was essentially a remote, self-contained and cold man. None the less she had always been aware that he cared about her as he cared about nobody else.