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Victoria Rutherford had fantasized about her wedding day since she was a little girl. She'd imagined that she'd wear a beautiful white off-the-shoulder gown with a wide, lacy skirt and a ten-foot train trailing behind her. She'd pictured her father walking her proudly down the aisle of a candlelit cathedral decorated with flowers and filled to the brim with friends and family. She'd dreamed of a groom waiting at the end of that aisle who watched her approach with a beaming smile on his handsome face, a groom who loved her so much she could feel it emanating from him.
Well, that might have been what she'd fantasized about, imagined, pictured and dreamed of, but it definitely wasn't how this wedding would be.
That wasn't how her wedding would be in any way, shape or form.
Because there she was, standing in a public rest room across the hall from the judge's chambers where the ceremony would begin in ten minutes. And rather than a beautiful white off-the-shoulder gown, she was wearing just what she'd been dressed in when she'd arrived in her old hometown of Whitehorn, Montana, early that morning—navy-blue slacks and a lightweight pale blue sweater set.
There would be no gown. No cathedral full of well-wishers. No proud father to give her away.
And there certainly wouldn't be a beaming groom emoting a great love for her.
Never in her wildest fantasies, imaginings, pictur-ings, or dreams had it occurred to her that part of the real estate deal she'd come to Whitehorn to take care of on behalf of her mother and terribly ill father would have involved getting married this afternoon.
The shock of it all showed on her face as she stared at herself in the rest room mirror. Her normally healthy peaches-and-cream skin was pale. Her usually lush lips were washed-out, too. Only her blue eyes and what she considered reasonably long eyelashes offered any color at all. Even her wavy blond hair seemed to have lost its life, falling to just below her shoulders much more limply than it had when she'd left her father's bedside in Denver at dawn.
"Some bride you'll make," she said to her reflection.
Then again, under the circumstances, what could she expect?
Who forced a person to marry him these days? she asked herself, still reeling from what had transpired since her arrival in Whitehorn.
She'd come back to the Montana town to do what ill health prevented her parents from doing—sign the papers that sold their once profitable but now failing ranch.
In its glory days the ranch had been home to her, her mother Clarissa and her father Charles. A glorious home that had provided an income substantial enough to launch her father into several other business ventures and make him a wealthy man. One of the wealthiest in Whitehorn.
But then her dad had gotten sick with degenerative kidney disease and his medical expenses had begun to drain away everything.
Her father had always been in robust health and hadn't seen a reason to carry more than the bare minimum of medical insurance. He'd been sure that he would always be able to afford whatever the insurance didn't cover should he or his wife become ill.
But he'd underestimated just how expensive prolonged medical care could be.
In the three years since he'd gotten sick he'd had to sell off everything but the ranch to foot the bills. He'd held on to it even though he and Victoria's mother had had to move to Denver to be near the dialysis treatments that were keeping him alive.
But the ranch had been generating far fewer profits without her father running it and had, in fact, become a strain on her parents' already overburdened financial situation.
Victoria had helped out where she could, but a college philosophy teacher's salary—even at Boston University—was hardly enough to pick up the slack. And so, reluctantly, her parents had opted to sell the ranch.
Although Victoria hadn't been in on the decision, she didn't doubt that it had been a sad day when it was made. She knew how much her father loved that ranch. She knew that nothing short of desperate need would have brought him to that point, despite his denial that the need was all that desperate.
So the ranch had gone up for sale.
Within two weeks a buyer had made an offer. By proxy. None of them had realized how important the cloak of that proxy was.
Until today when Victoria had learned the truth.
Well, part of it, anyway.
She'd learned who was lurking behind that proxy and what were his terms for finalizing the sale, though not why he was setting those terms.
Adam Benson was the buyer.
"Adam Benson," she whispered to the mirror, as if she'd have more luck getting it to sink in if she said his name out loud.
There are people in every life who aren't forgotten. Who can't be forgotten, no matter how hard you try. For Victoria, Adam Benson was one of those.
Victoria remembered the son of her father's ranch hand and her mother's maid long ago. She remembered him and what she'd done to him, to his whole family.
She never thought of him without feeling ashamed of herself. And guilty. Very, very guilty.
She would have thought she was the last person on earth whom he would want anything to do with. And for good reason. Instead, he was making the sale of the ranch contingent upon one thing—her marrying him.
"It's crazy," she told her image in the mirror. Totally and completely crazy.
Maybe the man had gone insane since the last time she'd seen him when they were both teenagers.
But he hadn't seemed insane when she'd met with him that morning at his insistence. Cold. Calculating. Arrogant. But not insane.
She hadn't found it strange when the Realtor had said the buyer wanted a moment alone with her before signing the papers. She'd figured he might want to ask when the furniture would be removed or who among the ranch hands were worth keeping and who weren't. Something simple, innocent.
In her wildest dreams it had never occurred to her that she would find herself alone in a room with Adam Benson.
The years had been kind to him—that was the first thing that had struck her when she'd recognized him.
He'd always been a good-looking guy and time had only improved upon that.
He was tall—Victoria judged him to be at least six-two—and had a muscular, athletic body in a suit that had to have cost four thousand dollars if it cost a penny. His shoulders were broad and straight, blocking her view of anything behind him. His waist was narrow, his hips lean, and his legs long and thick.
He was solid, substantial, imposing, commanding. He'd become a man who filled a room all by himself. Whose power infused it and left no doubt that he was calling the shots and would have it no other way.
Maturity had chiseled his features to sharply honed lines. His cheekbones were high and his entire jawbone was so defined and strong that she thought one tilt of his prominent chin was enough to make other men pause.
His lower lip was slightly fuller than his upper, but, oh, what a divinely sensuous curve that upper one had developed just below a nose that was finer than any surgeon could ever sculpt.
His hair was raven-black and he wore it short on the sides, barely long enough on top to comb back and all so impeccable she'd wondered if he had it cut every day.
As if all that wasn't enough, dark brows arched over penetrating gray eyes the color of pewter. Eyes that hadn't left her from the moment she'd walked into the room. Eyes that hadn't wavered. Or warmed.
He'd laid out his terms then, in what Victoria had learned right away was actually a business meeting. A business meeting in which he had the upper hand. A business meeting that began and ended with an ultimatum—marry him and the deal went through.
Reject him and it didn't.
If she rejected him, not only did she nix the deal with him, but he assured her that he would use his wealth, power and influence to block the sale of the ranch to anyone else.
At first Victoria had thought he was out of his mind and hadn't taken either his ultimatum or his threat seriously. How could he prevent the sale to anyone else? He had no hold over her or her family or the ranch.
"One phone call," he'd assured her mildly, confidently. "Do you think any bank anywhere in the world would turn down a deposit of a couple million from me if all I'm asking in return is that it deny a loan to any buyer of yours?"
Cold. Calculating. Arrogant.
And deadly serious.
Victoria didn't know what had happened to Adam Benson in the years since he and his family had left Whitehorn. But she did know he had cash for the million-and-a-half offer he'd made for the ranch. And from the looks of him, that million and a half was pocket change.
She didn't doubt he had the money to make good on his threat.
But marry him? Why would he want her to marry him?
She'd asked that point blank.
But he hadn't given her an answer. Instead one side of that sensuous mouth had raised in a slow smile that was more smug and satisfied than amused.
All he'd said was, "Those are my terms. Marry me, we sign the marriage certificate first, then the papers for the sale. Or no deal."
It just didn't make any sense.
She hadn't believed what she was hearing.
And yet there he'd been, standing right in front of her, dwarfing her five-foot-six-inch frame and laying out his ultimatum as if he were demanding nothing more than the inclusion of the refrigerator in the sale.
She'd never envisioned herself as a home appliance and so had not jumped to agree to what he was insisting.
Her hesitation had inspired the playing of more of his hand.
He'd pulled out her parents' financial statements— something she had no idea how he'd gotten hold of, something she'd never seen herself. They proved in black and white just how much her parents needed the deal to go through, more even than they'd let her know.
As if that wasn't enough, he'd upped the ante with projections of the future costs of keeping her father alive.
In short, Adam Benson had let her know that he had her just where he wanted her and wasn't above coming in for the kill.
And this was the man she was going to marry.
That thought sent a chill through her veins.
Because no matter how good-looking he was—and he was drop-dead gorgeous—he was alarmingly austere.
The slight air of the bad boy that had been so alluring when they were teenagers had taken on a much harder edge. Now he seemed downright dangerous.
He was dangerous, she reminded herself. He was dangerous to her family's future.
Which meant one thing in Victoria's mind—she didn't have any choice but to marry Adam Benson. Whether she understood why he was pushing for it or not, whether she liked it or not.
"So buck up, because this is what you have to do," she told her reflection, noticing that her thoughts about this whole thing had washed even more color out of her face.
A knock on the rest room door made her jump and realize once more how unnerved she was by what she was about to do.
"Miss Rutherford?" came a voice from outside the door, a man's voice that she recognized as that of Adam Benson's assistant. "Mr. Benson says it's time for the ceremony."
Victoria's heart felt as if it were in her throat.
Time for the ceremony…
He might as well have said, "The gallows are ready for your hanging…"
In her mind that was what this really seemed like. And she wasn't sure she could go through with it.
But then she thought about her parents, childhood sweethearts who still adored each other.
She thought about her dad, his indomitable spirit and positive outlook still shining through even debilitating illness.
She thought of that financial statement Adam had produced that proved just how much they needed the money.
And she thought about the fact that she alone could make it happen. That she alone could ensure that her parents had what they needed.
She took a deep breath and held it until her face turned red and her shoulders had floated up as if attached to balloons. Then she exhaled and made sure her shoulders stayed there—straight and strong and determined— a miniature version of Adam Benson's own shoulders.
"I can do this," she told herself. No matter why he wanted her to. "I can do this."
The assistant knocked and called her name again.
Victoria pushed herself away from the counter where her hands had been clutching the edge without her even realizing it. She marched to the door, opened it and held her chin high as she crossed the hall to the judge's chambers where Adam Benson waited for her.
Cold as stone.
Somehow when she looked up at his face and took her place by his side, she couldn't help thinking that this was only the beginning of what he had planned for her….
"I now pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss the bride."
The wedding ceremony took fifteen minutes, start to finish. But when it was over Adam didn't kiss Victoria.