More Than a Convenient Marriage?(6)By: Dani Collins
She peered over the edge of the steep slope to where a rope was tied to the base of the wooden crosspiece and, without a word, looped the thin strap of her purse over her head and shoulder then maneuvered to the edge of the cliff. Taking up the rope, she clung to it as she began a very steep, backward descent.
Gideon was taken aback. “What the hell are you doing?”
She paused. Uncertainty made her bottom lip flinch before she firmed it. “Going swimming.”
“Like hell you are.” Who was this woman?
The anxiety that spasmed across her features transitioned through uncertainty before being overcome by quiet defiance. “I always did as I was told because I was scared my father would punish me. Unless you intend to take up controlling my behavior with violence, I’m doing what I want from now on.”
The pit of his belly was still a hard knot over her revelations about her childhood. He would never hurt her or threaten to and was now even more inclined to treat her with kid gloves. At the same time, everything in him clamored to exert control over her, get what he wanted and put an end to this nonsense. The conflicting feelings, too deep for comfort, left him standing there voicelessly glaring his frustration.
Despite her bold dare, there was something incredibly vulnerable in her stance of toughness though. An air of quiet desperation surrounded her as tangibly as the hardened determination she was trying to project.
She wanted to prove something. He didn’t know what it was, but bullying her into going back to the hotel wasn’t the way to find out. It wouldn’t earn him any points toward keeping their marriage intact either.
“It’s fine, Gideon. You can go,” she said in her self-possessed way. Papa doesn’t think the Paris upgrade is necessary. I’ll find my own way home after our meeting.
“And leave you to break your neck? No,” he said gruffly.
The way she angled a look up at him seemed to indicate suspicion. Maybe it was deserved. He was chivalrous, always picked up her heavy bags, but neither of them were demonstrative. Maybe he’d never acted so protective before, but she’d never tried to do anything so perilous.
“I won’t break my neck,” she dismissed and craned it to watch as she tentatively sought a step backward.
A completely foreign clench of terror squeezed his lungs. Did she not see how dangerous this was? He skimmed his hand over his sweat-dampened hair.
“Adara, I won’t hurt you, but I will get physical if you don’t stop right there and at least let me get behind you so I can catch you if you slip.”
She stared, mouth pursing in mutiny. “I don’t have to ask your permission to live my life, Gideon.” Not anymore, was the silent punctuation to that.
“Well, I won’t ask your permission to save it. Stay put until I get behind you.”
He sensed her wariness as he took his time inspecting the rope, approving its marine grade, noting it was fairly new and in good repair, as was the upright it was tied to. Assured they weren’t going to plunge to their deaths, he let his loose grip slide along the rope until his hand met Adara’s.
She stiffened as he brushed past her, making him clench his teeth. When had his touch become toxic?
Ask, he chided himself, but things were discordant enough. His assumptions about her were turned on their heads, her predictability completely blown out of the water. He didn’t know what to say or what to expect next, so he picked his way down the slope in grim silence, arriving safely on to the pocket of sand between monolithic gray boulders.
The tide was receding, but the cove was steep enough it was still a short beach into a deep pool. It was the type of place young lovers would tryst, and his mind immediately turned that way. Adara wasn’t even looking at him, though.
Adara shrugged against the sting of sweat and the disturbing persistence Gideon was showing. She thought they had an unspoken agreement to back off when things got personal, but even though she’d spilled way more of her family history than she’d ever meant to, he was sticking like humidity.
She didn’t know how to react to that. And should she thank him for his uncharacteristic show of consideration in accompanying her down here? Or tell him again to shove off? He was so hard to be around sometimes, so unsettling. He was shorting out a brain that was already melting in the heat. She desperately wanted to cool off so she could think straight again, but she hadn’t brought a bathing suit and—
Oh, to heck with it. She kicked off her flip-flops and began unbuttoning her shirt.
“Really?” he said, not hiding the startled uptick in his tone.
She didn’t let herself waver. Maybe this was out of character, but this was her new life. She was tossing off fear of reprisal, embracing the freedom to follow impulse.
“I miss Greece. My aunt let us run wild here. In Katarini, not this island, but we’d do exactly this: tramp along the beach until we got hot then we’d strip to our underthings and jump in.”
“Your aunt was a nudist?” he surmised.
“A free spirit. She never married, never had children—” Here Adara faltered briefly. “I intend to emulate her from now on.”
She shed her shorts and ran into the water in her bra and panties, feeling terribly exposed as she left her decision to never have children evaporating on the sizzling sand.
The clear, cool water rose to her waist within a few splashing steps. She fell forward and ducked under, arrowing deep into the silken blur filled with the muted cacophony of creaks and taps and swishing currents.
When her lungs were ready to burst, she shot up for air, blinking the water from her eyes and licking the salt from her lips, baptized into a new version of herself. The campy phrase the first day of the rest of your life came to her with a pang of wistful anticipation.
Gideon’s head appeared beside her, his broad shoulders flexing as he splayed out his arms to keep himself afloat. His dark lashes were matted and glinting, his thick hair sleeked back off his face, exposing his angular bone structure and taking her breath with his action-star handsomeness. The relief of being in the cool water relaxed his expression, while his innate confidence around the water—in any situation, really—made him incredibly compelling.
She would miss that sense of reliability, she acknowledged with a hitch of loss.
“I’ve never tried to curb your independence,” he asserted. “Marrying me gained you your freedom.”
They’d never spoken so bluntly about her motives. She’d only stated in the beginning that she’d like to keep working until they had a family, but he knew her better after her confession today. He was looking at her as though he could see right into her.
It made her uncomfortable.
“Marrying at all was a gamble,” she acknowledged with a tentative honesty that caused her veins to sting with apprehension. “But you’re right. I was fairly sure I’d have more control over my life living with you than I had with my father.”
She squinted against the glare off the water as she silently acknowledged that she’d learned to use Gideon to some extent, pitting him against her father when she wanted something for herself. Not often and not aggressively, just with a quiet comment that Gideon would prefer this or that.
“You had women working for you in high-level positions,” she noted, remembering all the minute details that had added up to a risk worth taking. “You were shocked that I didn’t know how to drive. You fired that man who was harassing your receptionist. I was reasonably certain my life with you would be better than it was with my father so I took a chance.” She glanced at him, wondering if he judged her harshly for advancing her interests through him.
“So what’s changed?” he challenged. “I taught you to drive. I put you in charge of the hotels. Do you want more responsibility? Less? Tell me. I’m not trying to hem you in.”
No, Gideon wasn’t a tyrant. He was ever so reasonable. She’d always liked that about him, but today that quality put her on edge. “Lexi—”
“—is a nonissue,” he stated curtly. “Nothing happened and do you know why? Because I thought you were having an affair and got myself on a plane and chased you down. I didn’t even think twice about it. Why didn’t you do that? Why didn’t you confront me? Why didn’t you ask me why I’d even consider letting another woman throw herself under me?”
“You don’t have to be so crude about it!” She instinctively propelled herself backward, pushing space between herself and the unbearable thought of him sleeping with another woman. She hadn’t been able to face it herself, let along confront him, not with everything else that had happened.
“You said we don’t talk,” he said with pointed aggression. “Let’s. You left me twisting with sexual frustration. Having an affair started to look like a viable option. If you didn’t want me going elsewhere, why weren’t you meeting my needs at home?”
“I did! I—”