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The Marriage Proposition
By Sara Craven
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter One"And tonight," Angela said triumphantly, "we're going to the Waterfront Club."
Paige, who'd been brushing her hair, stopped and gave her friend a steady look.
"Isn't that Brad Coulter's place?" she queried.
"Well, yes." Angela picked up a bottle of scent from the dressing table, sniffed it abstractedly and put it down again. "Is there a problem?"
"I certainly hope not." Paige paused. "Unless you're taking your matchmaking talents for a run-out."
"Brad, my sweet, is an attractive and eligible man, and he's clearly smitten. So where's the harm?"
"You seem to have forgotten one small detail," Paige said evenly. "I happen to be a married woman."
Angela snorted. "Try reminding your husband of that. Some marriage - when you don't even live in the same country."
Paige shrugged. "That's the way it suits us. At least until the divorce comes through," she added drily.
"Well, there you are," said Angela.
"However that doesn't mean I'm going to do anything to upset the applecart in the meantime." Paige resumed work on her hair. "The grounds will be two years' separation. Clean, tidy and final. And nothing for the scandalmongers to get their teeth into."
Angela raised her eyebrows. "Are you claiming that Nick has beenequally discreet?"
Paige put the brush down, and began to rub lotion into her hands. "I've never made any claims on Nick's behalf," she pointed out. "He leads his own life."
"You can say that again." Angela's tone was waspish. "If he wasn't prepared to waive his bachelor ways, why on earth did he ask you to marry him?"
"He had his reasons."
"And why the hell did you agree?"
Paige smiled at her in the mirror. "I had mine, too."
"You make it all sound so rational," Angela grumbled.
"And yet you were only together for - how many weeks?"
"Just over seven, if my memory serves me," Paige said reflectively.
"It's hardly the kind of thing you forget," Angela returned, and Paige's lips tightened.
"No. But it's the kind of thing you want to escape from with as little hassle as possible."
"I suppose so." Angela frowned. "On the other hand, in such a brief time you didn't really give it a chance to succeed. Have you thought about that?"
"Believe me, the marriage had failure written into it from day one. But it was a mistake which can be put right, simply and painlessly. However, in the meantime I prefer attractive men - however eligible - to keep well away, until the dust has settled." Paige replaced the cap on the hand lotion. "And that includes Brad Coulter."
"My sweet, you're going home tomorrow, and everyone visits the Waterfront at least once during their stay on St Antoine. It's one of the rules." Angela's tone was persuasive. "And it's hardly an intimate dinner à deux. Jack and I will be with you, after all." She paused. "And I know that Brad's reserved a special table for us."
"Besides, as you all live and work on St Antoine, you can't really afford to upset him," Paige supplied resignedly. She pulled a face. "I don't really have a choice in all this, do I?"
"Now you're making me feel guilty." Angela glanced at her watch. "Hell, it's time I was getting ready too." She squeezed Paige's shoulder. "And look gorgeous. Competition is fierce at the Waterfront." She winked cheerfully, and vanished.
As the door closed behind her friend, Paige unpinned her determined smile and leaned forward, resting her elbows on the dressing table and cupping her chin in her hands as she studied herself.
The trouble is, she thought, I'm not actually a competitor, and even if I was I doubt if I'd be battling for Brad Coulter. Or anyone, for that matter.
Because all I really want is my freedom.
Angela had spoken about her brief marriage as if it had been a love match that had somehow come off the rails.
What on earth would she have said if she'd known the truth about Paige's ill-starred foray into matrimony? That it had been nothing more or less than a business deal. A form of words to enable Nick Destry to take his seat on the board of Harrington Holdings.
Her great-grandfather had no doubt thought he was being very clever when he'd made it a legal requirement for only members of the family to serve on the board. But then he'd been born into an era of large families. He had probably expected future generations to be equally fruitful, and equally successful at keeping intruders at bay, she decided objectively.
In his time, too, financing for the company had been easier to obtain. A series of gentlemen's agreements conducted in London clubs. All very cosy and agreeable.
She supposed the deal struck with Nick Destry's merchant bank had been much the same - except that Nick was no gentleman. And cosiness and affability had not been included in his make-up. Nor had fidelity or a sense of decency, she reminded herself tautly.
Apparently he'd made it clear from day one that he was unimpressed by the company's record in recent years, and that he would only negotiate the finance they needed in return for a measure of control. When old Crispin Harrington's ruling on family membership had been pointed out to him, he'd shrugged.
"I'm unmarried and you've got a single daughter," he'd told Paige's father with cool insouciance. "We'll have a ceremony to make it legal, then the lady and I can go our separate ways." A pause. "I presume divorce won't affect my status on the board?"
And, gasping, Francis Harrington had admitted it wouldn't.
Divorce, Paige thought, was not a contingency that would ever have occurred to her great-grandfather - or not where the Harrington name was concerned, at least. Other people might lead that kind of erratic life, but it could only be deplored and pitied. Certainly never emulated.
He must be spinning in his grave at this very moment, Paige thought, grimacing.
But then her own head had whirled when the scheme had first been tentatively proposed to her.
"I've made it quite clear to Destry that the decision is entirely yours," her father had said anxiously. "That there'll be no coercion of any kind and that the entire arrangement must be strictly temporary, leaving you free to get on with your own life after the statutory period."
Paige had sat very still, her hands folded in her lap. She had looked at her father, but she hadn't seen him. The image in her head had been a very different one - a dark, impatient face, with a high-bridged nose and strong, hard mouth. Not handsome, but with an intrinsic dynamism that surpassed conventional good looks. And charm, when he chose to exert it.
That mouth could soften, she'd thought detachedly.
Twist ruefully into a smile to make your bones melt - if you were susceptible to such things.
A tall, lean body, wide-shouldered and narrow-hipped that looked equally good in City suits and casual gear.
A low voice with a cool drawl, that could also resonate with hidden laughter.
As a package, it couldn't be faulted.
And she hadn't wanted any of it.
She looked at herself, slowly and with consideration. Took in the light brown hair with the elegant blonde highlights, the wide cheekbones, the green eyes with their curling fringe of lashes. The cool, almost tense lines of her mouth.
And he, she thought flatly, hadn't wanted her either. Checkmate. Death to the king.
She should have said no there and then. Every instinct she possessed had screamed at her to curtly refuse to lend herself to something so blatantly opportunist - and medieval.
Her father had expected her to reject the idea. She'd seen it in the defeated slump of his shoulders. The faint greyness which had replaced the usual ruddiness of his complexion. And this had scared her.
She'd said, her voice faltering a little, "Are you telling me this is the only way you can get the finance you need? That a seat on the board is the price?"
Her father had not met her gaze. "The bank requires a measure of control for this kind of injection of capital." He'd sounded as if he was repeating something he'd learned by rote. "They reserve the right to impose conditions. This is one of them. And, because of Crispin's absurd rule, this is the only way it can be achieved."
Excerpted from The Marriage Proposition by Sara Craven Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.