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Tina Sharma stood at the front door of her home and closed her eyes. She inhaled deeply as she allowed the hot, fragrant breeze to waft along her skin and tug at her thin shirt. She had missed the heat of the night and the familiar scent of tropical flowers. She even longed for the chaotic noise and energy of Mumbai. Once she had thought they were out of her reach forever, but she was back and no one could keep her away. Not even her husband.
The unexpected tears stung in the back of her eyes as a sob clawed her throat. No, she decided fiercely. She wasn't going to do this. No more crying, especially over him. She had done enough of that to last a lifetime.
Her mouth trembled and her hands shook as the unpredictable emotions balled into a fiery knot in her stomach. Anger. Hate. Fear. She needed to keep it together if she was going to walk alone and unprotected into the lion's den.
Tina's eyelashes fluttered when she heard the door swing open. She had seen the luxury cars parked in the driveway and heard the loud, pulsating bhangra music as she had approached the house. Now she saw the men and women dancing to the primitive beat in the main hall. There was obviously a party going on.
Was it to celebrate her absence? Would the party end abruptly once she stepped inside? Perhaps that would be best, Tina decided as she pulled her gaze away from the guests. As much as she would prefer to have witnesses, she knew they would not be on her side.
"Memsahib!" the elderly manservant declared as he stood at the threshold.
Tina flinched. She wasn't used to being greeted as a married woman. But then, she'd been a wife for less than a year. Using all of the acting skills she could muster, Tina carefully smiled and stepped inside before she was denied access. "Hello, Sandeep. You look well." She was pleased that her tone was cool and friendly when she was a jumble of nerves inside.
The old man looked over his shoulder, as if he wanted to hide the signs that a lavish party was going on in her home. "Sahib didn't tell me you were returning tonight."
"He doesn't know." She removed the dark blue scarf from her head and let it fall around the collar of her shirt.
"Your hair!" Sandeep exclaimed, his eyes widening in horror. He winced at his unguarded words and abruptly bowed his head.
"Yes, I know," Tina said with a sigh. She wasn't offended. She had the same reaction every time she saw her reflection in the mirror. Tina self-consciously ruffled her fingers through the short tufts. Once she'd had ebony curls cascading down her back and had managed to get an endorsement deal for her crowning glory. Now her hair barely covered her ears. "It was a mistake."
Sandeep cautiously glanced up, his gaze returning to her chopped-off tresses. "And how was your vacation?"
Tina stilled. Vacation? Was that what Dev was calling it? Did he think she was under his spell and incapable of staying away? The hurt scored through her like a jagged knife, so swift and ferocious that she couldn't move.
Her "vacation" had been more like prison. Like hell. The memory of endless white walls, the acrid smell of disinfectant and the oppressive sense of despair washed over her. She gritted her teeth and struggled to stay in the present. "I'm glad to be back."
The servant took a few shuffling backward steps. "I'll go find Sahib!"
"No need." Tina raised her hand to stop him. She had the element of surprise on her side and she wasn't going to waste it. It was time to act like the mistress of the house instead of an intruder. She only needed the role for a moment and then she'd gladly discard it permanently. "I know you're busy with the party. I'll go find him. Where was the last place you saw Dev?"
Sandeep gave a guilty start and looked at his bare feet. "It's hard to say." His mumbling words were barely audible over the dance music.
Was it in the arms of a woman or two? Tina's lips twisted with bitterness. Or was it even worse than she could imagine? She almost wanted a hint of what she would see, but she wasn't going to ask. This was Dev's home and the employees had been with him for years. He had everyone's loyalty and she was the interloper. "Don't worry, I'll find him."
The manservant's shoulders sagged in defeat. He peered outside the door. "I'll have someone take your things up to your room. Where is your luggage?"
"I didn't bring any." She didn't plan to stay long.
Sandeep frowned but didn't voice the questions that were obviously going through his head. He reached out his hand, his fingers lean from decades of work. "Shall I take your purse?"
She instinctively clenched her shoulder bag closer to her body. Tina forced herself to relax. "No, thank you," she said with a smile as she strode away. Sandeep wasn't the enemy, but she wasn't letting her passport or her money out of her sight. They were essential to regain her freedom. She had learned that the hard way when she had walked away from Dev while they were on a movie location in America. Today she wouldn't even let go of the rolled-up tabloid that was stuffed at the bottom of her bag. The one with her husband's picture on the cover. That photo and the accompanying story had lit a fire in her that still burned bright.
Tina walked to the center of the large entryway and stared at the sight before her. As she inhaled the stench of alcohol, sweat and cigarette smoke, she recognized a few of the guests. They were celebrities and actors whose faces graced billboards and movie posters. They still looked gorgeous, their damp hair and clothes plastered to their skin, as they moved feverishly to the heavy beat of the drums.
She narrowed her eyes and watched as two guests competed in a drinking game at the bar. So this was how her husband had spent his days while she was away. After reading the weeks-old tabloid, it shouldn't surprise her.
Tina wondered what the occasion was for the party. It had to be about business. The moment Dev was born he had been destined to reign this world. But it was not enough to take his rightful place at the top. He was driven to succeed, conquer new territories and gain incredible power. Money was secondary to this man yet every moment of Dev's day was consumed with business.
Well, almost every moment. She had been the exception. Once she thought that the aberration meant he loved her. Now she knew differently.
Tina continued to walk through the house. She wondered if he would claim that it was her welcome-back party. He was bold enough to try. And why not? He could lie and break promises without suffering the consequences. Dev was untouchable.
But her return had been impulsive. She hadn't known that she was coming back until yesterday. Now she wondered if that had been the wrong decision. Tina bit the inside of her lip as she walked farther away from the main entrance. Her goal was to show that she was no longer vulnerable. That she was stronger than her husband could imagine.
Tina hesitated before she moved deeper into the house. Once she had felt safe and comfortable here. She had even considered it her home. Now she knew it had been an illusion. Instead of being protected, she had ultimately been stripped of her power and freedom. Her fingers flexed nervously against her purse strap as she looked around, trying to remember where the closest exit was located.
She heard a group of people clapping and chanting loudly in the direction of the billiards room. Tina pivoted and marched to the back of the house, certain that her husband would be there. With his stunning looks, raw masculinity and star power, Dev was always the center of attention.
Tina rolled her eyes when she recognized the song the men were chanting. It had been from Dev's first hit movie. She had seen it countless times but she knew her husband was privately critical of his performance in it. He wouldn't play the song unless it was a special request for someone important.
She suddenly remembered the scene also included an actress. Would he be dancing with a partner? A certain ingenue? Bile burned in her stomach at the thought, but Tina kept moving. She needed to see this herself and not rely on other sources. She needed to know.
Tina entered the billiards room unnoticed. She was invisible in this brand-name crowd. Her crumpled tunic and baggy jeans didn't cause one head to turn. The only time the Hindi film elite noticed her was when she was on the arm of her husband.
Everyone was facing the center of the room, jumping up and down with their arms outstretched as they sang. She stumbled to a halt when she heard Dev's bold laughter. The sound pierced her heart.
He sounded carefree. Happy. Tina staggered back as the realization hit her like a fierce blow. How could he be like this after everything that had happened? Didn't he feel anything? Or was it just a relief to him?
Tina hunched her shoulders. Perhaps it was a bad idea to return for one final confrontation. She had always suspected that she had been a burden to Dev. She'd thought they had been desperately in love, but now she realized he had felt obligated to marry her. It hadn't helped that his parents had disapproved of the match. Of her.
Who could blame them? She was not worthy of him. His parents were Bollywood legends and she was from the slums. Dev had given up his parents' grand plans and eventually he'd given up on her.
Everyone had known it was bound to happen, believing she'd tricked him into marriage. They confused her with the bad-girl roles she had in those low-budget masala films. Perhaps Dev did, too. It had soon become obvious that she wasn't the brazen and sexy woman of his dreams. Dev had been ready to return to his playboy ways and he wasn't going to let a wife stop him.
And she wasn't going to let him have any more power over her. Determined to get this over with, Tina took a shaky breath and plunged into the crowd. She stopped, her heart lurching when she saw Dev standing alone in the center of the circle. He held the guests captive as he performed the intricate dance step with effortless grace.
Tina's chest squeezed tight. Dev Arjun. Her first love. Her biggest mistake.
She stared breathlessly at her husband, unable to look away. Dev was lean and muscular thanks to years of training for his popular action-adventure movies. Tina shivered as she remembered how his strong and athletic build felt under her fingertips. His golden skin had been warm and rough and she had enjoyed watching his rock-hard abdomen clench as she'd teased him.
She flushed, her skin tingling, as she watched Dev finish the iconic dance, encouraging the others to follow along. Yet no one could match his confident swagger or his bold and precise moves.
As he raised his hands up like a conquering hero, Dev appeared taller than she remembered. Larger than life. Tina noticed how his dark shirt couldn't hide his broad chest and how his jeans encased his powerful thighs.
She wished she wasn't aware of how good he looked, but this was a man in the prime of his life. His strength and vitality came off him in waves. In the past she had yearned to have those powerful arms encircle her. Now she knew to keep her distance.
As his audience roared with their approval, Tina dragged her gaze to Dev's face. Only then did she notice the darker shadows and the deeper lines around his eyes. His angular features were harsh and mesmerizing. He looked older. Harder.
Dev bowed before he accepted a drink from one of his friends. He tilted his head back and her gaze locked with his. Dev froze. He held the glass midway as his eyes widened. Tina felt his shock quiver in the air.
His husky question scraped at her taut nerves. She wanted to melt back into the protection of the crowd. She wanted to run. She wasn't ready for this. She wasn't ready for him. But it was too late.
The room went silent. She couldn't speak, couldn't move, as Dev tossed down his drink and pounced. He moved with a swiftness that stole her breath. Her throat tightened as her heart thumped against her ribs. She suddenly felt cold as her muscles locked violently.
Dev captured her in his arms and gathered her tightly against him. She was trapped. She inhaled his spicy scent and tears sprang in the corner of her eyes as their most intimate memories assailed her.
Tina had imagined how she would act when she was finally in the same room as Dev. This was not part of the plan. She was supposed to be aloof. Icy cold. Untouched. Just like he had been during the last days they were together. This was the moment when she would take back her power and make her demands.
Instead, she remained silent as he slid his large fingers through her short hair. She stared at him as he firmly tilted her head back. Her mouth trembled with anticipation. She knew he was going to claim her with a hard and possessive kiss.
No! Tina reared her head back. What was she thinking? She couldn't lower her guard. This man was dangerous. He had weakened her defenses when they first met. Had turned his back on her when she'd been at her most vulnerable.
Tina felt Dev's arms tense as his eyes flashed. Was that hurt or anger? Suddenly he swept her in his arms.
Tina cried out in alarm as she grabbed the front of his shirt. She felt helpless and off-balance. Too close. "What are you doing?"
"Don't worry, jaan," he said as his crooked smile softened his harsh features. "I got you."
That was the problem! "Put me down," she ordered as she tried to get out of his hold. Dev's arms tightened around her. She was very aware of his heat and his strength.
"Not yet." She saw the gleam in his dark brown eyes as his smile grew wider. He carried her past the cheering crowd and through the door that led to the enclosed courtyard.
She craned her neck, looking around the lush garden. The fountain sprayed cold water and garlands of tiny white lights were draped on the thick bushes and trees. She heard Dev's footsteps on the stone walkway but she didn't see anyone else around.
"Put me down," she said firmly. "I don't know what you're up to, but that display was unnecessary."
Dev tilted his head. "Display? I was welcoming my wife home."
He couldn't be serious! She glanced at the top floor of their home where the bedroom was located. Panic coursed through her veins as the dark excitement curled around her chest. She was ashamed of her body's response. How could she feel this way about Dev? After all he had done to her? It was as if she was conditioned to accept his touch with unbridled enthusiasm.