of Geoffrey Holland and Giselle Rockwell was a pleasant enough affair, Kirsty admitted. She’d been invited along with the rest of the Knight family to attend, and for once the weather was perfect. The Regalton Hotel was one of the hotspots popular with the international super-rich set, who favored a different hotel each season or so it seemed. Guests from all across the globe had flown in to stay at the hotel, and even those living in London had been assigned their own rooms. The whole thing must have cost a fortune, she decided as she sipped from her champagne and let her eyes wander across the hotel’s roof garden and patio, where the feast took place. Giselle’s family would foot the bill, she assumed. They were a family of extraordinary wealth, after all.
She was standing with her Mum and Dad, who had also decided to step out for this occasion. The engagement party at the club had been a little out of their league, and quite fortunately so, or else they’d have been there to witness Kirsty’s meltdown. As it was, others had told them about it, and Mum had fretted quite a bit. She’d simply ascribed it to having had a bit too much to drink. She doubted whether Mum had accepted that excuse, however. Her parents both knew she wasn’t keen on alcohol and only rarely touched the stuff.
“Nice occasion,” Dad commented as he let his gaze travel across the bride and groom who now, post wedding, were celebrating by hitting the cocktails.
“Yes, they must have spent a bundle,” Kirsty’s mother decided. She might be a member of the Knight family but she had a sense of frugality that Geoffrey and his new bride obviously didn’t share. Burying her brother a couple of years ago had cemented her position that simply because she’d been born into wealth that didn’t mean she had to flaunt it and behave like some of the nouveaux riches who couldn’t be knocked off the front pages of the tabloids showing off the kind of debauched lifestyle that had taken her brother’s life.
“Are you also staying here, dear?” Mum asked.
Kirsty wavered. She’d been assigned a room but wasn’t very keen to stay for either dinner or party. There wasn’t much to celebrate, after all. Since the incident at the club she wanted to put some distance between herself and Geoffrey without appearing ungrateful to Giselle for going to all this trouble.
“I think I’ll just go home,” she finally told her mother.
“I was thinking the same thing,” Mum replied. “Although it’s very considerate that they’ve reserved us a room in case the party runs late.”
“I don’t think I’ll stay very long,” she announced quietly. She’d spotted Stuart who was standing with his brothers on the other side of the wedding canopy, where the reception was being orchestrated by the accomplished staff.
Dozens of wedding guests were milling about, sipping champagne and gaily prattling while the bride and groom positively beamed, surrounded by their loved ones and looking the picture of health, wealth and happiness.
Stuart was studiously ignoring her, just like he’d been ignoring her for the past few weeks now. Ever since he’d had her transferred to the sales office she hadn’t heard or seen him. It hadn’t lessened the pain she was feeling in her heart, the longer she was away from him the more certain she was that she loved him. It was just like her, of course, to fall for men who didn’t want her. First Geoffrey, and now Stuart. Although it looked like Geoffrey had wanted her after all, but not in the way she’d always envisioned it in her youthful naiveté.
“You’re right,” she finally said on impulse. “I might stay after all.” The fact that Stuart had just glanced in her direction, his dark eyes glittering dangerously, had nothing to do with that decision, of course.
“Stuart is looking particularly handsome, isn’t he?” Mum commented.
“Yes, he is,” she agreed softly.
“I always thought he was the most sensible and likable one of the lot,” Mum continued. “Especially after what he did for you, of course.”
She looked up sharply. “What do you mean? What did he do for me?”
Mum gave her a curious look. “Well, you know. The whole Geoffrey thing?”
She felt her cheeks flush as they usually did when Mum mentioned Geoffrey.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said a bit too vehemently.
“You know how much you fancied Geoffrey, dear,” Mum reminded her.
A fresh wave of mortification washed over her. Did the whole world know about her ‘secret’ crush? “I didn’t know you knew,” she muttered, mortified.
“Everybody knew, darling. It wasn’t a big secret. And I won’t tell you it didn’t have us worried a great deal, seeing what sort of person Geoffrey is.”
“What sort of person…” She was genuinely puzzled now, confusion holding her in its grip. “What do you mean what kind of person he is?”
“You know, a real playboy—oh, I don’t mean to tell you that he’s a bad sort, of course. It’s just that he’s one of those butterflies, always flitting from flower to flower, sucking out the nectar before fluttering on.” Her mother’s eyes had shifted to Geoffrey and she was gazing at him a little angrily, Kirsty felt.
Geoffrey? A Playboy? Suddenly some stories were coming back to her, about Geoffrey and some girls at school. There had even been rumors he’d once made a girl pregnant, and his family had paid for an abortion. She’d discarded the stories as filthy rumors back then, but now she wondered if they were true.
“Geoffrey is not a man who should get married, if you ask me,” Mum went on. “He simply can’t help it, but I’m pretty sure he’ll break this girl’s heart.”
She watched Geoffrey closely, now seeing him through her mother’s eyes. And what she saw shocked her. He was actually flirting with one of the bridesmaids! Her vision of Geoffrey, which had always been roseate and dominated by hearts and flowers, suddenly took on a different hue. “What did Stuart do?” she asked in a low voice, not sure she wanted to know the truth.
“He had a long talk with Geoffrey, he did,” said her mother matter-of-factly. “Told him in no uncertain terms that if he thought he was going to use and abuse you like the many girls strewn along his path he had another thing coming. Told him he’d rearrange his face if he so much as laid a finger on you.” Mum nodded seriously, obviously approving of Stuart’s intervention. “And good thing that he did, for that man would have ruined you for sure if given the opportunity.” She took Kirsty’s hand and patted it. “Would have broken your heart, he would.”
Kirsty’s eyes were filled with tears once again, but now not from anguish and misery but gratitude. “Stuart did that for me?” she breathed softly.
“Oh, yes. Looked out for you, didn’t he?” She lovingly touched Kirsty’s cheek. “You should grant yourself fortunate to have a cousin like him, dear.”
Kirsty felt she was being rocked violently by the turbulence of these new discoveries. But then she told herself firmly that the only reason Stuart had intervened was to protect the family’s reputation. Another scandal, coming on the heels of his father’s death in a coke-induced crash would have been bad for business, she told herself, even as her eyes sought out Stuart. In spite of her vow not to let this influence her judgment, she saw him in an entirely different light.
“I have to go,” she suddenly muttered, nausea sweeping through her and compelling her to seek out the ladies’ room. She rushed inside the hotel as quickly as her feet could carry her, and when she reached the lavatory was violently sick, the emotions once more affecting her stomach adversely.
Stuart saw her flee inside the hotel and looked on with worry etched on his features. He’d been admiring her from afar. He’d decided she looked more beautiful than the bride, with the pretty cream-colored dress with muslin bodice and hemmed with tulle. She’d applied minimal make-up, as was her habit, which also set her apart from the bridal party, all women heavily made up. He liked the understated way Kirsty accentuated her fresh-faced beauty and he couldn’t deny the lurch of agony he felt roiling in his gut at the knowledge that he would never hold her in his arms again, never kiss those soft lips or experience the gentle caress of her silky hair as he let the luminous strands slip through his fingers.
In spite of his vow to steer clear of her and to allow her to lead her own life unencumbered by his intrusions, he excused himself to his brothers and went after her with long strides. Inside, he quickly found the way to the ladies’ room, and hesitated but for a moment before pushing inside. Her face had turned white as a sheet before she’d fled inside and he needed to know she was all right.
The only person in attendance was Kirsty. “What’s going on?” he demanded when she looked up, startled. He had a pretty good idea what was wrong. Attending the wedding of the man she loved—watching Geoffrey get married to another woman—had probably gutted her, shattering all her hopes and dreams. He shoved his hands in the pockets of his trousers and leaned against the door, preventing it from closing so as not to make her feel crowded.
Turning back to the mirror, she coldly told him, “I’m perfectly fine, Stuart. Just a little queasy, that’s all. Too much champagne, I shouldn’t wonder.”
He nodded and made to turn away. She didn’t want him here, that much was obvious.
“Stuart?” she suddenly called out, and he saw that her lower lip was quivering slightly. “I want to apologize for that night—at the club?”
“That’s all right.” He spoke curtly. “You had every right to be upset.”
“I didn’t know about… Geoffrey.”
He frowned. The mention of the name Geoffrey still had the power to bring ice to his voice. “What about Geoffrey?” he asked tersely.
“Mum… Mum just told me what you did for me.” She cast down her eyes, then seemed to garner strength and raised her head, lifting her chin. “I see now that what you did was the right thing to do and I just wanted to thank you.”
He frowned in bemused bewilderment. What was she saying?
“Geoffrey… Geoffrey is not the man I thought he was all these years,” she added after taking a deep breath. “So thank you for looking out for me.”
“That’s all right.” The unexpected admission had taken him by surprise.
“Thank you for doing right by the family.” She gave him an almost imperceptible nod, her lips tightly compressed. “Our reputation is our highest good. I can see that now.”
Anger lanced through him. Did she really think the family’s reputation was his sole concern? But instead of correcting her impression, he grunted, “You’re welcome.”
The moment Stuart had left, Kirsty sagged against the marble sink. It had taken all her self-control not to fall apart. The moment he’d stepped into the small space it was as if he’d filled it to capacity, the raw wound of her love for him twisting her gut into knots and her throat into a painful mass of bunched muscles. She’d caught a whiff of his scent, the potent mixture of cologne and alpha male that was all Stuart and had the power to turn her legs to jelly and her heart into a quivering mess. She’d wanted to cry, scream and shout and pound her fists against his chest until he took her in his arms and declared his everlasting love for her.
Another lurch in her stomach sent her into the stall once again, and heaving into the bowl. What was happening to her? And then, as she washed her face at the sink it hit her like a tidal wave. Could it be? With an anguished cry, she stared at her own features in the mirror. Her blue eyes were wide with shock and surprise. Was it possible that she was with child? Stuart’s child?
She made the quick calculation in her mind and realized that her period was overdue by at least a fortnight. She touched her face with cooling hands and closed her eyes on the mixture of pleasure and horror at the notion she might have conceived Stuart’s child. Then love soared in her bosom and she touched her flat belly, a smile lighting up her features. Stuart might not love her, but the child he’d fathered would be a permanent reminder of the love she felt for him.
at the door and Kirsty heaved herself up off the bed to open it. Fully expecting to find her mum or dad or both, she was surprised to see Stuart’s large bulk framed in the door opening.
He was scowling at her and growled, “You weren’t at dinner.”
Then, after hurling this accusation at her, he stepped past her.
Her heart had constricted from the moment she’d laid eyes on him.
“I—I’m not really in the mood for dinner and parties,” she admitted, though she’d be damned if she was going to reveal the reason. After discovering that she might be pregnant she’d quickly gone down to the lobby, and found the hotel store carried a small supply of pharmaceutical necessaries, amongst which was a pregnancy test. That same pregnancy test now rested on the sink in the bathroom, indicating that her suspicions were well-founded: she was pregnant!
She’d sunk down on the bed staring before her with unseeing eyes, her head swimming with visions of herself raising a baby boy with Stuart’s rugged features, pressing the child to her heart and nurturing it with all the love and affection she could muster. She’d remained there until Stuart came knocking.
He stared at her. Something was wrong. He could see it in her eyes, on her face. At dinner, now in full swing downstairs, she’d been conspicuously absent, and after suppressing the urge to find her for all of half an hour, he’d ambled over to where his aunt was seated and had asked quietly what was going on with Kirsty. His aunt had told him with a frown of worry that she had no idea. That she hadn’t seen her daughter after the reception had ended. She’d leaned over and put both hands on Stuart’s cheeks and told him seriously, “You better go and have a look—I’ll bet she’s hauled up in her room.”
Why that should be so his aunt hadn’t told him, but it wasn’t hard to guess. This was Geoffrey’s wedding, after all, the man she’d always hoped to marry. Now she was left a mere spectator as the ceremony progressed. The moment Geoffrey and Giselle had exchanged vows he’d glanced over to Kirsty and when he saw the tight expression on her pale face his own face had darkened into a furious scowl. She was still pining for the guy. Of course. What did he expect? A woman with a heart as big and kind as Kirsty’s was incapable of falling out of love on command. When he’d discovered her absent from the wedding dinner he’d known she was probably crying her eyes out, holed up in her room.
He shouldn’t concern himself with her anymore, he told himself. His task was done. Geoffrey was married and he’d warned him to stay away from Kirsty. But he remembered how sickly pale she’d seemed in the lavatory and he couldn’t help but go in search of her one last time, to make certain that she wasn’t doing anything foolish like slashing her wrists in a bid to permanently numb the pain of her broken heart.
Kirsty glanced away from Stuart. She didn’t want him to see the anguish in her eyes as she stood within ten feet of the man she loved, knowing full well that soon she would have his child and he didn’t care about her. She would never tell him that the baby was his, she vowed. She didn’t need his pity, or to even have him in her life simply because he felt so obligated by his strong sense of duty.
“Shall I call for a doctor?” he asked now.
The note of concern in his voice touched her deeply, but she shook her head, her red mane shifting like a curtain of misery across her pale features. She turned away from him. “I’ll be fine. I’ll just take a pill and—”
Suddenly he jerked her around so that she was facing him, his hands trapping her wrists. “Don’t be a fool, Kirsty,” he growled fiercely. “Don’t do it.”
Her eyes widened. “What are you talking about?” His touch and proximity sent shivers of need coursing through her body, and her breathing quickened, as did her heartbeat. To feel the power of his hands on her like this reminded her of that night in Nice, when it had been just the two of them together in a hotel room, a large accommodating bed nearby, the same way it was now. She was panting a little, she realized, the low drag of desire rolling through her lower belly. She moistened her lips, as if fully expecting his kiss.
“Don’t do anything foolish just because Geoffrey is getting married,” he admonished her harshly, then abruptly let go, jerking his hands away in disgust.
Her legs unable to carry her quaking frame, she dropped down on the bed, staring up at Stuart. “What?!”
He glared at her. “I know what you’re thinking, Kirsty. I know your heart is a mess right now. I know how it feels to ache for someone who doesn’t love you, and watch them love another. It’s pure agony. And I know that watching Geoffrey getting married to Giselle must be tearing you up inside, making you hurt like hell. But don’t do anything foolish.” He held up his hand when she made to speak, continuing like a man on fire. “He’s not worth it, Kirsty. Trust me on that. One day you’ll understand what I’m talking about. One day you’ll find yourself capable of loving another, and you’ll be glad I was here to stop you from—”
“Stop me from what?!” she hurled at him. His words had struck a chord. She did love another—and he didn’t love her back—and it did hurt like hell. How could he speak so eloquently, voicing what she was feeling deep inside?
“Stop you from taking your own life!” he grated out.
For a moment, neither of them spoke, Kirsty because she was too astonished and Stuart because he was too busy glaring at her. The emotions warring in her bosom were overwhelming her and suddenly she collapsed on the bed, sobs racking her chest and clogging up her throat until it was so painful she couldn’t speak, and then she heard the bathroom door opening and she looked up in alarm. “Stuart! No!” she cried out, but too late.
Stuart, who’d wanted to wet a washcloth, snatched the strange device from the sink and stared at it, blinking back his surprise. She was… pregnant? He stalked from the bathroom, the pregnancy test in hand, and stared at Kirsty, who sat gazing at him imploringly.
“You’re pregnant,” he stated quite lamely.
She bit her lower lip, her face a mask of anguish. “Yes, I am,” she admitted.
Elation lanced through him. “Is it mine?” he asked in a voice thick with emotion.
She nodded, and Stuart thought his chest would burst, his heart expanding and the lights in the room suddenly turning brighter. She was pregnant with his child! Then the truth hit him. She resented it. She loved Geoffrey, after all, but was carrying another man’s child! His exuberance was cut off at the knees when he watched the expression of anguish on her face, the dark shadows cloaking her eyes. She was suffering—she was in deep emotional pain. He now understood why. His mouth hardened and his eyes grew cold. “You’ll carry the child to term,” he told her in clipped tones.
When she heard the ice in his voice, Kirsty’s heart made a sudden agonized lurch, and then she understood that the news of the child brought him no joy at all. How could it? He disliked her intensely and had only used her body once to satisfy his male lust. Now she was simply another encumbrance, like his stepmother was. Something he was forced to ‘deal’ with, like he’d dealt with Caroline. “I have no intention of terminating my baby’s life,” she announced in a tone impregnated with as much cold hauteur as she was capable of.
“Good. And you’ll be my bride, of course,” he told her in the same curt tone, as if negotiating a business deal. “This child will not grow up without a father.”
Shocked and appalled, she looked into his eyes to see if he was serious. But of course he was. Stuart was nothing if not serious in any decision he took. “I won’t marry you,” she announced defiantly.
His scowl deepened. “Why? You’re carrying my child. A child that deserves to have both a father and a mother.”
“You’re only marrying me because it’s the right thing to do—because you want to avoid another scandal at all cost,” she accused him. “And I won’t do it. I won’t marry a man who doesn’t love me.”
The look on Stuart’s face told her enough. Disdain fueled his being and his expression was as harsh as his next words. “You will be my bride, Kirsty.”
It was bad enough that she would have the baby of a man she didn’t love, Stuart thought, but even worse if she would have to raise the child all by herself. Financially her parents would make certain she wanted for nothing, but she’d be judged harshly by society as a whole. Besides, a child needed both parents. He knew what it was like to grow up with only one parent and he didn’t want his child to face that ordeal. Kirsty might despise him but he was going to do right by her and their child.
“You will marry me,” he repeated harshly, “or else you and your child are on your own, cast out from the bosom of this family, forced to fend for yourselves.”
He was harsher than he needed to be, but if he wasn’t he might tell her how he really felt—what he really wanted to do right now, which was to make passionate love to her in celebration of the new life they’d created together.
She lowered her head, and whispered, “Very well. I will be your bride.”
He nodded curtly, standing before her wide-legged, his hands tightly folded behind his back lest they developed a mind of their own and invited her to her feet and folded her in his arms. “We will be married next week at the register office and you will move in with me. I’ll arrange everything.” She glanced up, and the hurt in her eyes was such that it rocked his soul, quaking his heart. Outwardly unmoved, he added, “You’re doing the right thing, Kirsty. For your child.” For our child, he should have said, but that phrase hit too close to home.
She had no other option than to agree, she knew. She loved him more desperately than she’d even thought, and to be his wife while he didn’t love her was like entering a crucible of her own choosing. But what other option did she have? And perhaps, she thought miserably as he left the room, he would grow to love her over time. Perhaps the child she would give birth to would soften his heart and he would transfer some of the love he was sure to feel for his child to its mother? Perhaps, though it was highly unlikely, she had to admit.