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The Unfaithful Wife(5)

By:Lynne Graham

He had been proud of her beauty, her education, her musical gifts. Those had all been saleable social commodities, she registered now. Max had been ambitious for her. He had wanted her to marry a man of wealth and position. He had always lived on the fringes of high society. He had been keen for his daughter to achieve a passport into that same society. Leah had grown up denied the warmth of family life but cocooned from harsh realities. Dependancy had been bred into her bones, along with a desperate need to win her father’s love and approval.

How could she ever have guessed that Max was not a legitimate business man? How could she ever have dreamt that her privileged upbringing had been financed by something so vile as the contents of that safety-deposit box? And how could she have even begun to suspect that he had blackmailed Nik into marrying her?

Finally she understood the cruel charade of her marriage, too late for her to do anything any differently. The five years had gone, couldn’t be reclaimed either for her or for Nik. No wonder he despised her; no wonder he was so willing to believe that she knew the secret he had been prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to conceal. ‘To protect my family’, he’d said. Ironically, she didn’t want to know the source of the pressure put on him.

He could keep that skeleton in the closet forever. In any case, Nik’s family were strangers to her. He had a mother and three sisters whom she had never met. She had often wondered whether they wondered about her and how Nik had explained so peculiar a marital relationship. But had he even bothered to explain? Like Max, Nik was not in the habit of explaining himself unless he chose to do so.

How could he think she loved him? The ultimate humiliation. Not only a husband forced virtually at the point of a gun into marrying her, but a male convinced that even after five years of his excruciating neglect, indifference and infidelity she still loved him! The wife from hell who would cling like a limpet through thick and thin.

Yet as the water continued to beat down on her, Leah slowly began to register a curious sense of burgeoning inner strength which she had never felt before. She even managed to feel sorry for Nik. He was afraid that she intended to try and employ her father’s blackmail beyond the grave...hence all the threats, the bullying, the intimidation. The news that she was in love with another man and couldn’t wait to get a divorce would surely be manna from heaven, a bolt of joyous blue across Nik’s horizon!

She had wasted five years of her life...not one hour, not one day more would she sacrifice! Her father had once been her sole authority. She had allowed Nik to take over that role. Without any argument, she had tolerated Nik’s behaviour, even protected him sooner than let her father know that she had not been able to make a success of her marriage. Pride had done that, stupid pride.

And she had been afraid, afraid of so much for so long. Afraid of leaving her safe cocoon of monied privilege to face the outside world. Afraid of her father’s contempt and fury. Afraid that the truth about her marriage might literally kill her father with his weak heart. No more fear, she told herself now.

If Nik had been a victim, she had been too. And at least she wasn’t making as much noise about it as he was, she reflected grimly. His conceit still staggered her. Did he really think that that tender first love of a particularly naïve teenager had outlasted the first six months?

A loud knock sounded on the door.

‘Open it!’ Nik demanded roughly.

Mentally she blocked her ears. She had had enough of him for one day...enough of him forever. She tasted the concept, and experienced a surge of positively heady relief. Nik did not possess a single virtue which appealed to her. Five years ago it had been an attraction of total opposites on her side. Sweet seventeen, choosing with her heart and her leaping pulses, not with her head.

‘Leah!’ Nik raked with driven impatience.

He was not a male who respected her sex. He pursued one bimbo after another. Brunette, redhead, blonde. He didn’t discriminate. But they all had motorway-length legs, bounteous breasts and big hair. Leah possessed none of those attributes and once that had been a source of torment to her, damaging an already weak self-image.

But she was worth so much more than that and she had Paul to thank for that discovery. Paul had woken her up from her slough of inadequacy and passive acceptance. Paul had taught her to put herself first. The way Nik did; the way Nik had always done. Nik had rejected and humiliated her from the outset of their marriage. What did she have to feel guilty about now? Hadn’t she already paid for her father’s sins? And the payments in terms of her pain, loneliness and misery stopped now for all time, she swore to herself.

Standing up, switching off the shower, she was in the act of reaching for a towel when the door was suddenly struck with shocking force. The lock buckled and gave, the door slamming back on its hinges, framing Nik in the doorway. His lean, powerful body whipcord-taut, he glowered at her with eyes of flaming jet.

‘What did you lock yourself in here for?’ he demanded ferociously.

Clutching her towel to her small, slender frame, Leah was shattered by his violent intrusion but she was also furious. ‘Have you gone out of your mind?’

White teeth flashed against sun-bronzed skin, his narrowed gaze outraged. ‘I was concerned for your welfare!’

Her welfare? Or her safety? Was that why he had kicked down the door like the Neanderthal he was? Had he been afraid that she planned to throw herself out the window? Of course that might have been embarrassing for him.

Dealing him a veiled glance of disbelief, Leah stopped to gather up her discarded clothes.

‘Your skin has the bloom of a camellia.’

Her lashes lifted slowly as she straightened. She blinked. Nik was staring at her in the most unbelievably disturbing way, his veiled gaze working intently over every exposed inch of flesh in view, resting on her full mouth, lingering unapologetically on the pale swell of her breasts above the towel.

‘Drop the towel,’ he said thickly.

Shocked into rigidity, Leah quivered with incredulity. Nik regarded her expectantly. And he was expecting that towel just to drop at his request. It was written all over him, in every poised line of his lounging stance.

Unintentionally, she collided with burning black eyes and it was like having a blowtorch turned on her. Her mouth ran dry, her lungs struggled for oxygen. Heat flamed over her skin as it tightened over her bones, a tiny twisting sensation spiralling through her stomach. Her breasts felt peculiar, suddenly heavy and full, her nipples tautening into almost painful sensitivity.

‘You’re so tiny and yet so perfectly proportioned,’ he mused lazily in the pulsing silence.

Leah just couldn’t believe that he was talking to her like this. And yet on some subconscious level she wasn’t surprised. This was Nik as she had never known him and yet as she had always known he could be. There was something dangerously fascinating about the raw sexual charge that emanated from him, the elemental atavism of a very physical male. A ‘predator’, he had called himself with astonishing candour. And a predator he was, she registered.

‘Would you please excuse me while I get dressed?’ she murmured without any expression at all.

‘You are not serious?’ he breathed, as if she were the one behaving oddly.

Leah shivered with fury, disgust flooding through her in waves. Nothing but bitterness, loathing and resentment lay between them but Nik could obviously rise above all that to think about sex. Why? Purely because she was half-naked. Seemingly that was all it took to stoke the ever glowing coals of Nik’s powerful libido.

‘I want to get dressed,’ she said shakily.

‘You’re shy.’ Nik tasted the word with purring satisfaction. ‘And you have waited one hell of a long time for me.’

Leah laughed. She couldn’t help it. Laughter with an hysterical edge just spilled from her strained lips, shattering the silence like breaking glass.

‘Stop it...’

Her clothes fell from her arms as she turned away and covered her contorted face with spread hands that were trembling. The hysteria had come from nowhere and attacked without warning. She was furious that he should witness her loss of control. But she was even more devastated when she felt his arms close round her from behind. For a split-second she was so rigid that she imagined herself cracking under the stress of shock and breaking into pieces.

He was pulling her back into the hard, masculine heat of his body, threatening her with a disturbing physical contact she had never had. And she couldn’t believe that he was actually touching her. It was so unreal. For five years this man had treated her like a leper. And now all of a sudden, when she was least equipped to deal with him, he was reaching out and touching as though that were his right. But it was not his right and she did not want his hands on her.

‘Maybe you don’t know where that certificate is,’ Nik conceded half under his breath, lowering his dark head. ‘Maybe he destroyed it, overlooked the copy. But maybe it’s still out there in somebody’s safekeeping, like a bomb waiting to be activated...’

His terminology made Leah shiver. Nik was slowly, smoothly turning her round to face him. She had never fully appreciated how much stronger than a woman a man could be until Nik, impatient of her unresponsiveness, simply lifted her clear off the carpet and spun her like a doll back to him.