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BOOK: Bride in a Gilded Cage
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‘The reception will be at my house. It’s not too far from yours in Recoleta.’

Everything seemed to be impacting upon Isobel at once. She said shakily, ‘I’ve never even been to your house. Was your mother at the church? I don’t even know what she looks like—what if she hates me?’

As if Rafael could hear the hint of hysteria in her voice, he said placatingly, ‘Yes, she was at the church, and she won’t hate you. My house isn’t much different to yours, and my older half-brother couldn’t make the service, but hopes to come to the reception.’ His hand tightened on hers, as if he could see something she was unaware of on her face. ‘I thought we’d get there ahead of everyone else so you could have a bit of space.’

At that moment Isobel felt very keenly the absence of a girlfriend—someone who could have been her bridesmaid, someone to confide in. But she’d never had close girlfriends. She’d always wanted such different things from the rest of her peers. And so here she was with Rafael, and
he
was the one to anticipate her need for some time on her own.

She said nothing and took her hand back from his. Before long they were driving through the exclusive suburb of Recoleta, pulling up outside impressive gates. Isobel tried to hide her reaction. This house they were approaching was nothing like her family home. It was grand and palatial on a level that made
her
home look like a gatehouse.

The car pulled up in a gravel courtyard surrounded with flowering trees which kept it secluded and private. An impressive array of vintage cars was lined up on one side, and despite herself Isobel’s interest was piqued. She’d always loved old cars.

But Rafael had come around to open her door and was waiting for her, hand outstretched. Thoughts of anything else disappeared. Isobel had no choice but to take his hand, and hated the tingle of awareness that raced up her arm, the inevitable blooming of heat.

Staff in pristine black-and-white uniforms were waiting for them at the top of the steps. They blurred and morphed into a jumble of names and faces as Rafael introduced them all. As soon as the introductions were made they scattered, and only a housekeeper was left to guide them into the house. Isobel remembered her name: Juanita. And also the fact that she looked none too friendly.

Rafael turned to Isobel. ‘Come, I’ll show you to your room, where you can freshen up. The guests will be arriving at the back of the property, where a wedding marquee has been erected for the reception.’

Isobel ignored his outstretched hand this time, and followed him slowly up the stairs. To her surprise the walls weren’t hung with stern portraits of ancestors. Instead there were modern works of art which she guessed weren’t copies.

Despite herself she asked, a little breathlessly as she tried to keep up in her long gown, ‘Is this your family home?’

Rafael waited at the top of the stairs, hands in pockets and looking so rakishly handsome that Isobel had to cling onto the banister. He shook his head, ‘No. My family home is in Barrio Norte—again not far. I bought this about ten years ago.’

‘Oh…’ Isobel climbed the last few steps and followed Rafael as he led her down a wide, luxuriously carpeted corridor. At the end he indicated two doors which were facing each other.

He opened the door on the left and led the way in to reveal a suite of rooms. ‘They’re two identical suites, both with bedrooms, bathrooms and dressing rooms.’

Isobel guessed this was his domain by its dark colours and unashamedly masculine furnishings. She was too bemused to feel anything else at the moment, and followed him to another door, through a sitting room which had a state-of-the-art audio-visual system.

This door led into another sitting room, a mirror image of the first, albeit in softer, more neutral tones.

He turned to face her. ‘I appreciate that this has all moved quite fast, Isobel, and I’ll respect your need for some space and privacy at the start of our marriage. While I do expect you to share my bed, I won’t expect you to take up the more traditionally intimate role of sharing my rooms until you’re ready.’

Spots danced before Isobel’s eyes, and the fire in her veins was starting to bubble threateningly. But Rafael had already moved on and was heading for the bedroom. Isobel stomped after him, holding up her dress.

She walked in to see him standing at the open door of a dressing room, and when she looked she saw that every surface, nook and cranny was filled to overflowing with a wardrobe of clothes and shoes. Her own tatty luggage stood still packed in a corner, as if someone had deemed it not even worth unpacking.

Her jaw dropped. She walked closer.

‘Consider it your trousseau,’ Rafael said easily, as she looked in horror at row upon row of undoubtedly designerlabel clothes. Her skin crawled with the sensation that he’d bought her, like some sort of living, walking doll.

She rounded on Rafael, white with fury boiling over. ‘How
dare
you?’

His jaw tightened. ‘How dare I what, Isobel? Provide for my wife?’

Isobel was shaking. ‘How dare you presume to buy me a wardrobe full of clothes that will go to waste? I don’t wear designer outfits. How dare you presume to think that I’ll just fall into your bed, and how dare you presume to patronise me and give me
my space
until such time as I’m ready? Well, I’ll tell you something now. I’ll
never
be ready, and as for—’

Her words were stopped when Rafael’s mouth came crashing down on hers, his arms tight around her. Isobel’s hands were fists crushed against his chest, trying to push him back. The same inevitable reaction was pooling in her body and between her legs, but this time she knew what it was and fought it with all her strength, even though she ached to just sink and give in. She couldn’t. Too much was at stake.

She stiffened and shut her mouth in a tight line against Rafael’s sensual ministrations. He seduced and cajoled, and after torturous seconds Isobel found her resolve weakening under a welling of need. To her utter disgust and chagrin her body was betraying her again, softening, ripening, opening, instinctively wanting to allow this man access.

Rafael’s mouth gentled, and when he took it away Isobel’s head fell back. She sucked in a breath when she felt his mouth press hotly where her pulse throbbed at the base of her neck.
Big hands moulded her body, skimmed over curves, and her wedding dress felt constrictive. Without knowing how he’d managed it, Isobel felt something soft at the back of her legs, and suddenly the world was tipping. She fell back onto the bed in an ungainly sprawl. Shock and mortification washed through her in waves at seeing a still pristine Rafael standing looking down at her. She struggled inelegantly to sit up, hampered by the dress and her own sense of disorientation.

He flicked a look to the open dressing room. ‘There is no negotiation on the wardrobe. You’ll wear those clothes if I have to dress you myself. I will not be made a laughing stock in public because you insist on wearing the kind of bargain basement dresses you got away with in Paris.’

Isobel could feel that her veil had come off somewhere, and more waves of humiliation rose up as she rested back on her hands, still unable to stand up from the bed, seriously afraid her legs wouldn’t hold her up.

She opened her mouth, but Rafael cut her off brutally. ‘I could have these rooms stripped bare in a few hours and insist that you move into mine today, but I will extend you the benefit of the doubt for now and assume that you are merely coming to terms with your new life.’

He bent down and came close, snaked a hand around Isobel’s neck. The skin of his hand burned against her bare skin.

‘And, yes, Isobel, you
will
fall into my bed—whenever and however I want. We’ve just proved that you want me just as much as I want you. However, I think your lack of experience will make restraint for you harder to bear…’

Isobel knocked his hand away, but more because he was ready to let her go than because of her strength—and that made her even angrier. To her intense relief he stood up and moved back a few feet. She sat up. ‘Don’t believe that you
know everything, Rafael. Just because I didn’t have a boyfriend in Paris it does not mean I didn’t have lovers.’

Right now, the thought of him suspecting she was still a virgin made her clammy with horror. Would he think that she’d waited for him?
Had she on some level waited for him?

She went even clammier and did her own impression of raking her eyes up and down his body, tried to inject as much disdain into her voice as possible. ‘Perhaps I’ve not had the indiscriminate quantity of
your
experience, but quantity does not always equal quality.’

Rafael stepped back and chuckled dangerously. For the first time in long minutes Isobel felt as if she could breathe again.

‘I’ll leave you to freshen up. And you might want to put on a little make-up to take down that flush in your cheeks. People will suspect that we’ve been getting a head start on our wedding night.’

He calmly and insouciantly walked to the door and then turned back. ‘The photographer will be ready soon, so when you come down we’ll get the photos out of the way. I’ll be waiting downstairs.’

He left and closed the door behind him. Isobel picked up a pillow from the bed and threw it at the door, where it bounced ineffectually back onto the carpet. Which was exactly how she felt—
ineffectual.

Knowing it was useless, but wanting to do something, Isobel hauled herself off the bed and went to the interconnecting door to their rooms, her dress swishing around her feet. She locked it, relishing the sound it made. Unfortunately, it gave only the merest hint of a veneer of security. Rafael couldn’t be locked out for ever, and she was very much afraid that he’d already found a way into a place within her that had no lock and key.

Going into her new bathroom didn’t help matters. Rafael had been right. She was flushed and her eyes were overbright. Her mouth was slightly swollen and pink from his kiss. With a cry of disgust, Isobel splashed her face with cold water and went to find her make-up bag so that she could eradicate the damage. The awful thing was, she knew if Rafael hadn’t stopped when he had they might well be on their way to consummating this marriage—virginity or no virginity.

Rafael stood at the window of his study and looked out over the lush expanse of lawn to where he could see guests already walking up the pathway to the beautifully decorated marquee. He could hear the faint strains of music. Waiters greeted the guests with glasses of sparkling vintage champagne. The wedding had taken place in the late afternoon so the sun was starting to set, staining the sky in a dusky mauve colour.

As soon as the light dipped further the fairy lights strung in the trees would come on, along with flaming lanterns.

It was a perfect wedding. It was exactly as Rafael had envisaged it happening. He realised something in that moment. Despite his lack of choice in the matter, he knew that Isobel was right for him. He felt it deep in his bones; it was what he’d sensed three years before. And he also felt it in a more strategic part of his anatomy, which was still hot and hard. It had taken more restraint than he’d thought he possessed not to follow her down onto that bed and take her there and then, up in her bedroom.

He recalled her as she’d stood in front of him, just before he’d kissed her, her chest rising and falling rapidly. Hands balled into fists. Veil askew. Spitting like a cornered cat. And he could not remember ever being so blindsided by lust for a woman. He’d been unable to stop himself from hauling her
into his arms. And to feel the way she’d put up her resistance and then melted into him so deliciously, kissed him so passionately, the way no novice could possibly kiss—it had sent some welcome sanity into his hot and tangled brain.

She was artful, and she knew exactly what she was doing. He was used to manipulative women. He’d learnt at the hands of one of the best: his ex-fiancée.

She’d all but admitted up there that she was no virgin, so her shy little moves and blushes were just an act, designed to bring him to the edge of his control. And he had no doubt that once she’d brought him to that edge she’d drive him back again. Teasing him to show him that she was in control. Did she have some plan to drive him into another woman’s arms so that she might even initiate a divorce?

His mouth firmed. He wouldn’t let her get away with this. The ultimate triumph would be his when she lay underneath him, panting and sobbing for him to take her.

A knock sounded on the door and he turned to see a paler, albeit still slightly mutinous-looking Isobel standing on the threshold. ‘Juanita told me where to find you. The photographer is waiting outside. He says the light is falling…’

Schooling his features, and fighting the surge of lust which nearly blindsided him again at the sight of her, Rafael strode to his new wife and reassured himself that once she was tamed they would have a very nice life indeed. He took her by the arm and said sanguinely, ‘I’d better make the most of your cooperative mood.’

CHAPTER FIVE

A
FEW
hours later Isobel knew that it was sheer grit keeping her from collapsing in a heap. Her face was numb from smiling, her hand aching from shaking hands. And at every step of the way Rafael was at her side, carrying her along. After the photographs had been taken, with her parents and his mother, who had seemed friendly enough, Rafael had led Isobel and her parents back into his study, where their respective lawyers had been waiting.

There, the basic and sordid reality of their marriage had hit home. Hard. It had been nearly too much to take in—to think that this deal had been born out of her grandfather’s desperation to save the
estancia
at all costs, and Rafael’s father’s manipulative machinations.

Rafael had presented a cheque for an astronomical amount of money to Isobel’s parents, and they’d signed a contract to say that the deal was now closed, all terms and conditions met.

Isobel had been disgusted by her parents’ unashamedly avaricious response. They were seeing only the dollar signs of their inheritance coming their way at last, and not the fact that their only daughter was being forced into a marriage she didn’t want. She’d felt intensely alone.

One of the women who had helped Isobel into her dress
earlier in the day had appeared as they’d come out of the study and taken her upstairs, where she’d taken off her veil and shown her a little wrist-tie on the train of the dress so she could keep the dress up and out of her way while she danced with Rafael for the traditional first dance.

Not knowing what to expect for that first dance, she’d been surprised when Rafael had spoken to the band and then started the crowd clapping rhythmically to the music of ‘La Chacarera,’ a traditional Argentinian folk dance. He’d taken off his jacket and tie, opened the top button of his shirt, and he looked so rakishly handsome that for a second Isobel had felt seriously overwhelmed.

Her chest had felt tight. She’d always found the simple dance impossibly romantic, its trademark being the intense eye contact between the man and the woman as they circled each other, with arms held high, turning without touching in a mesmeric series of back-and-forth steps to the beat of the music. It was a game of advance and retreat, and Isobel couldn’t help but feel that it mirrored how she felt about Rafael, being alternately drawn to him and wanting to get as far away as possible.

The truth was she couldn’t have broken eye contact even if she’d wanted to, and there had been something incredibly intimate about it. Eventually, when Rafael had caught Isobel into him at the end, and everyone had clapped raucously, he’d just said,
‘I’ve got you now…’
And it truly did feel as if he had caught her, for good.

The band had switched to a different number then, to Isobel’s intense relief. The dance had had a more profound effect on her than she cared to admit.

Now, Isobel felt a little removed from everything. The fact that she was the joint owner of her grandmother’s estate still
hadn’t fully sunk in. Nor the fact that her parents would not have to worry about money for a long time, if ever again. Nor the fact that she was now married to the man who’d made countless women stare at her jealously all evening. She wanted to shout at them the truth of her sham marriage and tell them that they were welcome to him. But the fact was not one of them would
expect
that their marriage was anything more than arranged. Two great families coming together. Strategically sharing assets.
Love?
People would guffaw at the thought.

And then the tiny hairs stood up on the back of Isobel’s neck. It was the extra-sensory response that was becoming annoyingly familiar whenever Rafael had left her side for longer than a few minutes. She saw him approach her through the crowd, another tall, dark man by his side. It was only when they drew closer that she could see the startling resemblance; they were both breathtakingly handsome. Rafael confirmed her suspicions.

‘Isobel, I’d like you to meet Rico Christofides—my older brother.’

Isobel held in a gasp of recognition. She’d had no idea that the legendary Greek industrialist was Rafael’s half-brother. They were similar in many ways, mainly in height and build, but where Rafael’s eyes were dark, Rico’s were a steely-grey. And unnervingly direct. There was something unbearably harsh about his features and it surprised her, as in comparison it made Rafael seem a little softer. That made her belly quiver. She didn’t want to think of Rafael as soft. The man she’d read about in the papers was not soft.

She held out her hand. ‘Pleased to meet you.’

‘Likewise.’ He shook her hand, and Isobel felt nothing at his cool, impersonal touch. This brother did not have the same cataclysmic effect on her. Isobel was almost disappointed—
as if she’d wanted some reassurance that Rafael’s touch
wasn’t
uniquely disturbing to her equilibrium.

‘Business in Europe delayed me, so I couldn’t make the church.’ His voice was deep and attractively accented, but nevertheless it, too, had little effect on Isobel. All Rafael had to do was say her name and her bones melted.

Rafael had come round to pull Isobel into his side. She automatically stiffened against his possessive hold. ‘It’s nice that you could make it to the reception.’

Rico sent a mockingly amused glance to Rafael. ‘I congratulate you both and wish you luck, but don’t expect a reciprocal visit to
my
wedding any time soon. I won’t be so easily caught.’

Isobel all but rolled her eyes at this further evidence of the insufferable arrogance running in the family. She elbowed Rafael in the ribs when he moved to pull her closer, and smiled sweetly at Rico. ‘Oh, believe me, after today I’m over weddings myself.’

Rico tipped his head back and let out a shout of laughter, before shaking his head and saying to Rafael, ‘I think you may have met your match, little brother.’

Their mother came along then to greet her oldest son, and a very definite tension spiked the air between the three of them. Isobel guessed that while Rafael and Rico undoubtedly got on and respected each other, there was a slight uneasy wariness between them, too, and she found herself wondering about their history, about who Rico’s father was, and if that was why he hadn’t taken over the Romero business.

After a few minutes of conversation Rafael’s mother made her excuses, pleading tiredness, and left. A lot of the guests had already left, too, and Rico had drifted away to talk to a stunningly beautiful woman.

Rafael followed her look and said tightly, ‘I wouldn’t go there, if I were you. My brother has a notorious reputation.’

Isobel snorted delicately and looked up at Rafael, trying not to let his sheer dynamism affect her. But already she felt a little breathless. ‘No more notorious than you.’

He came round in front of her and lifted her hand to his mouth, pressing a kiss against it. ‘Ah, but now I’m a reformed, happily married man who has eyes only for his wife.’

Everything about him was mocking, but still Isobel couldn’t help a quiver of longing rushing through her. She was so disgusted with her reaction that she ripped her hand from his. ‘I’m quite tired now. I think I’d like to go to bed.’

Rafael’s eyes smouldered. ‘My thoughts exactly.’

Panic flared.
‘Alone.’

Rafael’s face went stony-hard; his eyes turned to black. In that moment Isobel amended her previous thought that he wasn’t as harsh as his brother. Now they could be twins.

‘You are my wife, Isobel, and we will be sleeping together. This will be a proper marriage—in bed and out. Now, are you going to come and say goodnight to our guests and walk out of here like the dignified woman that you are? Or are you going to make me put you over my shoulder? Either way, I don’t think the spectators would be disappointed. The latter option would give us a nice romantic edge and keep the coffee mornings buzzing for a few days. It’s up to you.’

Isobel tipped up her chin and looked at Rafael coolly, belying her nervousness. ‘You don’t have to carry me anywhere like Tarzan.’

‘Pity,’ he drawled, ‘I was hoping you’d give me an excuse.’

Within minutes he’d led Isobel around the wedding marquee as they made their goodbyes to the remaining guests—including his brother, Rico, who now had the beautiful woman
clinging to him like a limpet and looking as if she’d just won a lottery ticket worth millions. The avaricious glitter in her eyes was unmistakable.

In that moment Isobel caught a glimpse of how a man like Rafael could grow cynical. And then, with her hand caught firmly by Rafael’s, he led her through the moonlit garden and into the house. Panic was like a frantic caged bird beating against her breastbone as they drew closer and closer to the bedroom doors.

Rafael opened his door, and then turned and picked Isobel up into his arms so fast that her breath caught and she felt dizzy. ‘What are you doing?’

As if she weighed nothing, Rafael said, ‘Carrying you over the threshold.’ And he did just that, before putting her back on her feet on the other side. His bed loomed large and threatening through the door of the bedroom, just feet away. Rafael kicked the door closed.

Isobel backed away and watched as Rafael started to open his shirt, to reveal the start of a bronzed chest, a few whorls of dark hair. She put up a hand, panic strangling her voice. ‘Wait—stop.’

Rafael’s fingers halted on his buttons. Intense irritation spiked through the burn of desire rushing through his blood. All he could see was Isobel, standing before him, her pale shoulders bare, gleaming in the dim light. The delicate swells of her breasts were tantalisingly visible just above the bodice of her dress. Something caught his eye, and he looked down to see her twisting her hands.

He breathed deep, sensing a delay in having his needs met. His suspicion that his new wife was playing the game of a tease made him grind out, ‘Isobel? What is it?’

The confidence and fiery bravado that he’d become used
to was gone, and suddenly she looked very young. Through the make-up he could see dark shadows under her eyes, and something clenched in his gut. But he quashed it. She was acting. That was all. Testing her control over him. He was certainly not about to let her see how much he wanted her.

Isobel bit her lip, her eyes darting to Rafael and then away again. More concerned than irritated now, despite himself, he said, ‘Isobel—’

She blurted out, ‘I just…I really want to go to bed alone. This has all happened so fast, and I’ve barely even seen you since we came back to Argentina. Two weeks ago I was living in Paris and yet here I am…It’s a lot to take in.’

Isobel forced herself to look at Rafael, her hands wringing together even tighter, knuckles showing white. She couldn’t do this—couldn’t just let him take her to bed like this. For so many reasons—not the least of which was her response to him, and how much it confused her, and how she had to get it under some kind of control so that she could cope. But right now she couldn’t. And she was terrified he’d touch her and scramble all her thoughts. He’d done that in the church earlier with his kiss. And then when he’d kissed her again in her bedroom she’d very nearly lain back and given herself up completely.

Rafael just looked at her, his face unreadable in the shadows of the dark room. Eventually he let out a breath and ran a hand through his hair. Tension vibrated off him in waves, enveloping Isobel.

‘I’m not in the habit of forcing unwilling women into my bed, Isobel, and I’ve no intention of starting now with my wife. Please, by all means, go to your own bed.’

Isobel looked at him warily, suspicion coiling deep within her that he was giving in too easily. There had been an element
to his voice she hadn’t missed but couldn’t place—almost as if he wasn’t entirely surprised. He’d stuffed his hands into his pockets, and his face was as blank as before, but a muscle twitched in his jaw.

Sensing that she was on a very short leash, Isobel backed away towards the connecting door. ‘Thank you.’

But when she reached it she realised that it was still locked from when she’d locked it earlier. Flushing with embarrassment, she stalked back and past Rafael to go out through his main door, and heard his softly mocking, ‘You really don’t need to lock me out, Isobel. Soon enough you’ll be welcoming me with open arms.’

Isobel’s hand was on the knob, and her heart hammered when she heard Rafael call her name. Back straight, she tensed even more when she realised he was right behind her. Panic nearly made her sway. Had he changed his mind?

She started to turn around, to plead if she had to, but every word died on her lips when she felt his hands at the top of the back of her dress. She couldn’t move.

‘I don’t think you’re going to be able to get out of that by yourself…let me help.’

Speechless, and feeling as though she was burning up from the inside out, she felt Rafael take the zip and slowly pull it down—all the way until the knuckles of his fingers touched the bare, sensitive skin just above her buttocks. She still had a hand on the knob of the door, and her other hand held the now gaping dress to her chest. Burning all over, she managed a strangled sound of something vaguely coherent and pulled the door open.

All she heard as she fled to her own room was a soft, dark chuckle. She shut her bedroom door behind her, resting against it for a long moment before a curiously unsatisfied
ache down low in her abdomen registered. It was an ache that she didn’t want to think about, and she resolutely ignored it as she undressed and crawled into bed.

The morning came with a somewhat rude awakening: the sound of a tray banging down by Isobel’s bed. She sat up in a panic, not knowing for a second where she was. It all came flooding back, though, when she saw the sour features of Juanita as the housekeeper drew back the heavy curtains and allowed sunlight to flood the room.

‘Good morning,’ Isobel said faintly.

Juanita all but ignored her, turning at the door to say curtly, ‘Your husband is in the dining room. He is waiting for you.’

And then she was gone. On the tray that Juanita had delivered was a glass of orange juice. As much as Isobel would have liked to ignore the summons, she was wary of antagonising Rafael.

BOOK: Bride in a Gilded Cage
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