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Susannah Everly Maxwell had been hiding in the bathroom for half an hour. For a bride on her wedding night, that was at least twenty-nine minutes too long.
She'd left the shower on, hoping Trent would assume she was still bathing, and the cascade of warm water had turned the room into a sauna. The towel knotted at her breasts hung heavily, saturated with moisture. Steam smothered the mirror, forming a blank screen of mist.
She knew she should go out into the bedroom, where her new husband was waiting, but she couldn't force herself to do it.
Her new husband
None of this seemed real. Reaching out one fingertip, she began to write on the glass.
Mrs . Trent Maxwell
She'd penned the name a thousand times, in the turquoise ink she'd loved back in high school. But before she could finish the last syllable, the condensation pooled and began to run. It was like trying to write with tears.
Her reflection appeared in the open spaces, fractured into a collection of mismatched parts. Ironically, this stranger draped in the white towel, wreathed in clouds of steam, looked more like a bride than she had this afternoon at the courthouse.
But not a happy bride. A broken Picasso bride, or maybe a ghost bride from some terrifying urban legenda confused wraith who would never find her way out of the mist.
She touched her damp cheek, as if she needed to confirm that she was made of solid flesh. Her new diamond ring sparkled in the mirror.
After all this time, she was really Trent Maxwell's wife. For one year, anyhow. Not exactly the "forever" she used to dream of.
Suddenly, hard knuckles rapped against wood.
Staring at the door, she put her left hand against her heart, which once again thump-jogged in place.
Stop that, she commanded it. But her heart ignored her.
"Susannah? Are you all right?"
He didn't turn the knob. He probably knew it was locked. Not that the flimsy button would have kept him out if he'd really wanted to come in. And he would come in, sooner or later, if she didn't emerge. The Fates had blessed Trent Maxwell with a lot of gifts, but patience wasn't one of them.
She'd fallen for Trent when she was just a kidnot all that much younger than her little sister Nikki was now. Susannah had thought she was so grown-up, ready to be in love. Now, watching Nikki struggle with hormones at the oh-so-mature age of sixteen, she knew better.
It had all been dreams. She'd fantasized about standing at the altar beside him. She'd dreamed of cooking him spaghetti and darning his socks, though she had no clue what that meant.
But those dreams had gone up in flamesquite literallyeleven years ago. Since then, she and Trent had barely exchanged fifty civil words.
Now here she was, a thirty-year-old woman, embarking on a one-year marriage of convenience. How dry those words sounded! They didn't capture any of the heart-skittering anticipation. He was only ten yards away, and waiting for her to come to bed. This would be a real marriage, he'd insisted. And, because she needed a husband, she had agreed.
But maybe she wasn't trapped. She had one last hopea piece of paper hidden in her nightstand that somehow might miraculously save her.
She tried to imagine handing it to him. Tried to visualize his face as he read it. What would he say? They'd been so close once that they could finish each other's sentences. But the bitter years lay between them now like a continent of ice. Her new husband was a stranger to her, and she had no idea how he would react.
His voice wasn't angry. Not yet. That would come later. Later, when he read the paper. When he found out what her plans were for this, the first of their 365 nights of married life.
Her gaze returned to the pieces of woman reflected between the finger-written letters. Mrs Her eyes shone. Trent Her lips were parted, vulnerable.
Who was that woman? Suddenly horrified, she drew her eyebrows together. That woman looked like a victim.
Ridiculous. No one had abducted her, tricked her or sold her into wedlock. The bargain had been her idea, the only sensible escape from an impossible situation. It was just that marriage to Trent had seemed so much more manageable when it was weeks, days, even hours in the future, instead of right here, right now.
But she could handle it. She wasn't weak. Ask anyone, from the lowliest fruit picker on her payroll to the richest buyer on the market. You could even ask her grandfather's ghost, which was probably still prowling the halls of Hell, carrying his favorite switching strap.
They'd all tell you. Susannah Everly faced her problems. She took her medicine. And she did it with her chin held high.
She reached in and punched off the shower. Enough. She wasn't weak.
She unknotted the towel and let it slide to the ground. Then she plucked her gray, shapeless nightgown from the counter and tugged it over her head.
She wrapped her fingers around the warm doorknob and twisted.
"I'm sorry, Trent. I "
Her voice dwindled off. The silent shadows of the bedroom momentarily disoriented her. Was he gone? Instead of the hot voice she'd expected to hear accosting her, demanding an explanation, she was met only by quiet currents of dark air and the faint smell of roses.
That must mean Trent had opened the east window the roses had climbed as far as the second-story sill this spring and seemed to be trying to nudge the glass open with their pink-and-yellow faces.
She took a deep breath. She adored those flowers, just as she cherished every inch of Everly. She mustn't forget that. She might have grown to hate Trent, but she'd never stopped loving this beautiful ranch, set like a jewel in the middle of a thousand acres of peach orchards.
She was doing this to save Everly.
As her eyes adjusted, she finally saw Trent. He leaned against the window frame with his back angled to her, staring down into the side yard, though she knew he couldn't see much except the grapevine trellis that covered the wicker patio loungers.
Half his body was in shadow. He wore no shirt. Moonlight turned one muscular shoulder and arm to marble, then glimmered against the silver tip of his belt buckle before being swallowed up by the black of his pants.
Her heart tried once again to escape, but she squared her shoulders and forced it into submission. She had made promises. Maybe he'd let her out of them, and maybe he wouldn't. Either way, this had to be faced.
He tilted his head toward her. "Well, hello," he said with a smile that just caught the moonlight. "I was beginning to wonder if you'd climbed out the bathroom window."
"No." She tried to match his sardonic tone, and she was glad that he probably couldn't see her flush. "Of course not. Don't be silly."
"You think it's silly?" He moved toward her with a lazy confidence, as if he knew he had all the time in the world. As if he owned this night. As if he owned her, which, in a way, he did.
"Why silly? Are you trying to tell me you've really been in the shower all this time?"
She'd never been a good liar. The only person she'd ever needed to lie to had been her grandfather, and her pride had forced her to battle it out with him, toe-to-toe, instead. So now she hesitated just a moment too long.
Trent reached her just as she was opening her mouth to say yes, yes, of course I've been in the shower.
One eyebrow rose in that classic, mocking arch as he shook his head slowly. He laid his finger against her lips.
"No," he said. "Don't bother to fib. If you'd been under water all this time, you'd be as wrinkled as a raisin."
Instinctively, she folded her hands into fists. He glanced down at them, and his grin deepened. "Shall we look?"
Damn him he was so cool, so amused by her discomfort. When he touched her hand, she had to resist the urge to slap him. He hadn't bought the right to mock her.
But he had bought the right to touch her. He'd been very clear about that. No way in hell was he going to sign on for a year of chastity. "I'm no saint," he had said, with that maddening smile that made it impossible to tell how he really felt. "So you'd better decide whether you can deal with sharing my bed for a whole year."
He took one of her hands, gently pried open the fingers and held it up for inspection. Her fingers were warm and damp, but smooth. No wrinkles. She'd been in the shower a total of maybe five minutes, just long enough to scrub off her makeup.
"So what were you doing in there?" His gaze flicked across her wet hair and bare face, then skimmed the lumpy contours of her overwashed nightgown. "Not primping, apparently. Although it might have taken a while to dig up anything as unflattering as this rag."
"If I'd had enough money to buy a trousseau, Trent, I wouldn't have needed a husband in the first place."
He chuckled. Could this really be funny to him? Surely he, too, remembered how often they had dreamed of their wedding night. That fairy-tale dream had sparkled with magic, with lace and music and romance and roses. The reality was going to be so different .
But perhaps the fairy dust had been her dream, not his. Though they'd been close, she hadn't ever completely understood him, with his cryptic smiles and his elegant indifference. Perhaps, for him, it had just been about the sex.
"What exactly are you trying to accomplish with all this, Susannah?"
He tugged at the sleeve of her nightgown. The neckline was shot, so even that light pressure caused it to slip over her shoulder. She felt suddenly half-naked.
"This plain-Jane costume. Were you hoping it would turn me off? Did you think you could make yourself so ugly I'd run screaming from the marriage bed?"
"Good. Because that really would be silly." He set her hand free and put his forefinger under her chin. "The chemistry between us has nothing to do with packaging. It never has."
She couldn't deny it. Back when they were little more than kids, this fire between them had erupted like one of her grandfather's oil drills hitting a pocket of natural gas. Nothing had been strong enough to put it out. It had overpowered pimples and puberty, flus and hangovers, bad moods and bad hair, and even the day the skunk sprayed her right in the face.
It had even outlived love.
She still felt it, arcing between them now. A primal force. Blind and fierce and involuntary.
And dangerous. At least to her.
"Susannah." His voice was a whisper. He moved her wet hair from her shoulder and bent his head toward her bare skin. She made a small, trapped sound, knowing he was going to kiss her.
She couldn't let it happen. Her heart tripped on itself merely at the sound of his voice. The touch of his lips would cause it to explode.
Mumbling something meaningless, she jerked away from him, toward her nightstand. She couldn't breathe, but somehow she kept moving. That piece of paper was her last hope. Like the cyanide pill issued to soldiers, in case of capture.
She flicked on the bedside lamp. Then, her hands shaking only a little, she slid open the top drawer and felt around the stacks of papers inside. It should be on top. She'd written it hastily, only this afternoon.
"I have something ."
She glanced at him, hoping she didn't sound as nervous as she felt. To her surprise, he was smiling. Not a genuine, warm smile, of coursethose were rarebut his one-dimple teasing grin was pretty dazzling, too.
"Ah." He glanced at the drawer. "The practical princess strikes again."
"What?" He and Chase had always called her that, back when they were teenagers, and she'd been one inch less reckless than the two boys. But why now? Could he possibly guess what she'd written on that paper?
His dimple deepened. "I think I brought plenty, thanks, though it's nice to know you've got extra. Just in case."
"Extra what?" Then she realized what he meant. Condoms. Her breath came shallowly as she tried not to imagine the tumbled bed, the discarded silver wrappers littering the floor, their sweaty bodies braided together in the moonlight. "No. It's not that. I have something I want to show you."
Finally her fingers closed around the long white envelope. She pulled it out and extended it toward him. "It's something I'd like you to read. Something I'd like you to sign."
He didn't look at the envelope. The smile stayed in place, but it lost any hint of humor. Above it, his gaze held hers, cool and unblinking blue inside a thick fringe of black lashes. Oh, even when he was angry, he was lethally attractive.
The word was even colder than his eyes.
"Yes," she said, too quickly. "I got to thinking about things, today after the wedding, and I realized we hadn't really considered everything."
"No? It seemed to me the prenup your lawyer drew up was pretty damn thorough. He made it quite clear that I'll be shot if I'm caught crossing the Everly threshold with so much as one pillowcase from your mother's needlepoint collection." He lifted an eyebrow. "Which wasn't very likely in the first place, was it?"
"No. It was silly, but Richard's careful. He wanted to protect me"
"Was the medical certificate his idea, too?"
She felt heat crawling up her throat toward her cheeks. The medical certificate had almost scotched the whole deal. But when Trent had insisted on a physical relationship, she had insisted that he prove he was healthy. With his Don Juan past, it would have been insane not to.
"No, that was my idea. Richard doesn't know we that we agreed to"
"Consummate the marriage?"
"Right. So when he wrote the prenup, of course he wasn't thinking about things like that. That's what occurred to me today. That we hadn't provided for every contingency."
She felt foolish, still holding out the envelope. She pushed it a few inches closer, till its crisp edge almost touched his bare, bronze chest, like the tip of a sword.
He glanced down at it dismissively, those long eyelashes dusting his cheeks. "It's a little late to try to glue conditions onto this deal, don't you think?"