Authors: Lisa Shadow
Deceiving the Groom
Copyright © 2015 by Lisa Shadow
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author. The only exception is by a reviewer, who may quote short excerpts in a review.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Claire stared over the railing of the short bridge and into the lapping waters below. The early morning sun sparkled over its surface, but she barely noticed. Today there was no distraction from the gut-twisting injustice that had been curdling her insides for the past ten years.
She closed her eyes. Memories skipped through her mind. She’d lost everything—the farm, her parents, and now she was about to lose the last thing that still mattered to her. She could do this. No way would she let nerves stop her. Opening her eyes, she checked her watch. It was almost time. Without removing her shoes she threw her leg over the railing.
A burst of breeze fanned her hair over her shoulders. The frosty edge in the spring air caught in her lungs, yet her hands felt hot as they clung to the wooden rail.
She fought the urge to climb down and make a run for her car parked in the parking space over the hill. She could, it wasn’t too late. All her things were in the trunk. She could drive off. Make a fresh start somewhere…
No—it was too late to back down. People were counting on her. If only saving the most important person to her didn’t have to come to this. Schemes, revenge. Ugly words but her only hope.
She tilted her head and looked at the sky. White clouds parted over dazzling blue. The beep of her watch broke the silence of the morning, the sound barely audible over the rushing of blood in her ears. She clenched her teeth and said a silent prayer, hoping God would understand and perhaps even forgive her motives.
Claire twisted her head and looked at the place where a pathway met the crest of a hill. As if on cue, a figure sprinted onto the summit. Her fingers gripped tighter for an instant before she let go, and plunged into an icy embrace.
Liam Channing’s sneakers pounded against the pavement. Hot air rushed out of his chest in a faint white fog. His muscles flexed and he forced another spurt of speed up an incline. His calves burned but he relished the sensation.
He hurtled over the hill as he did every morning, following the twisting path that led down to the water’s edge. A piercing scream lanced the air. He halted, gaze flickering across the soft green slopes of the park. Seeing nothing, he stepped lightly down the path. The splash of water drew him to the narrow river.
Pale arms rose from the surface. A head bobbed, then plunged down, disappearing under the grey-blue mirror. The adrenaline already pouring through his body exploded. He leapt to the edge, kicked off his shoes in two sharp flicks, and dove into the water.
A flailing form broke the surface gasping for breath. Liam grasped the wispy limbs and dragged them against him. The wiggling, slippery body was almost weightless. He swam to the embankment, careful to hold the hair covered face above water. Still carrying her, he lay her gently on a flat patch of grass.
Liam smoothed away the lengthy gold strands plastered over her face. His fingers brushed over arched cheekbones and full pink lips. Wet fabric, now rendered transparent, clung to a generously curved chest that rose and fell steadily. A wave of relief washed over him. Luckily for her, she wouldn’t need his rusty CPR skills. Her long ash colored lashes parted to reveal clear blue eyes.
His heaving breaths stilled. Those eyes hit him like a shot of brandy. He glanced down to her feet where one was bare and the other still encased in a pointed white high heel shoe. His gaze ran over her sodden form. Her long curved thighs were exposed where her dress had ridden up to the swell of her hips.
Liam fought the rush of heat and gazed back to her face. What was he, a hormonal teenager?
. Her large eyes blinked again. They seemed to pull him forward, as if he was about to fall and tip into them.
Claire’s vision cleared. The face swimming above her came into focus. Water dripped from the strong plane of his forehead and drizzled down his cheek to drip off the smooth dented bump of his chin. Droplets splashed onto her chest in icy rivulets. She blinked again and peered into the stranger’s molten brown eyes. Her skin rose in bumps and the air sunk its frigid teeth into her wet skin. Yet her blood sizzled hot, electric.
What the hell happened? Had the wrong man rescued her? These were not the cold calculating eyes of a man who destroyed lives. A firm hand slid behind her ear and cradled her skull.
“Are you alright? Can you talk?”
Sputtering coughs wracked her chest when she tried to speak, but she nodded.
Liam’s gaze lingered on her face. He placed a hand behind her back and guided her to sitting. “I’m taking you to the hospital.”
Claire shook her head and reached for his arm, gripping his T-shirt. The hospital was not part of the plan. “No, I’m fine.” Her voice was raw and husky, harsh compared to his smooth tone.
“You don’t look fine. You look half drowned.” His gazed passed over her again, drawing her attention to the state of her appearance.
“I’m okay, I promise,” she said, making an effort to inject a little more confidence into her words. She leaned forward and wiped water from her face with her fingers.
“At least let me take you home then. Where do you live?”
Claire glanced at the man crouched beside her. His warm brown eyes scrunched in the corners. Was that concern she saw? It was a slap in her half frozen belly. She blinked, realizing he waited for an answer.
“I don’t live here. I just arrived this morning.” She scooped her hair back and squeezed out the excess water, trying to hide the trembling of her fingers. “I haven’t even found a hotel yet…everything was closed.”
A faint line appeared between Liam’s eyebrows. A suspicious line that made her hold her breath for a moment. It evened out, replaced once again by concern. “Come with me and let’s get you dry. Do you have clothes? A car?”
Claire nodded. Liam stood and offered her his hand. She took it and rose slowly to her feet with a wobble. His arm wrapped around her waist, steadying her. She felt the press of his body against hers and gasped. Soaked clothing transformed the innocent touch to the intimate press of skin to skin. She straightened, creating a gap between them. Liam’s arm remained around her waist as she led him to her car.
The five minute drive to Liam’s house had only been punctuated by the chattering of Claire’s teeth, and the blare of the heater turned to maximum. In the privacy of Liam’s oversized bathroom, Claire slid a powder blue dress over her hips. It clung to her body like a saucy hug. She tugged it at the bust letting it settle into place just right. Looking in the mirror above the sink she brushed her damp gold locks over one shoulder and smoothed gloss over her lips with her finger. She leaned back and assessed her reflection.
There was no use being coy about it, she looked good. Good enough for a superficial jack-ass like the man who destroyed her family for money to go for anyway. Blonde enough, tall enough, busty enough, pretty enough—yeah exactly the right combination
kind of man liked to pursue. She’d learned that lesson the hard way.
Claire ran her index finger under the rim of one of her eyes where eyeliner had smudged. Her eyes were the only thing that didn’t fit the picture. No matter how she power-packed her wardrobe, no matter how assertive the point of her shoes, she couldn’t make her eyes less round, her face less innocent. She just hoped they no longer screamed ‘use me’ the way they used to.
She returned her lip gloss to the overnight bag that had been in her car. Her stomach tightened like she’d eaten something bad. He was going to see through her act. Couldn’t one con artist spot another?
Her heart sped up in the small space left inside her ribs. The conviction she’d had that very morning, the sureness of her motives seemed liquid now. It ran through her fingers as easily as the water she had fallen into. Claire blinked and the image of Liam’s penetrating brown eyes flashed in her mind. So what if his gaze had felt warm? So what if he
nice? Looking nice meant nothing, it was what a person did.
She glanced around his bathroom. It had that kind of expensive bathroom fixtures seen in magazines but was hard to imagine people actually using. In addition to concealed knobs, the bathroom was all clean lines and mosaic tiles that flowed up to the ceiling. Clearly this man was doing well off the misfortune of others.
But he had pulled her from the water just as she’d been guaranteed he would—and brought her back to his house to change and recover. That was nice wasn’t it? Yet his gaze hadn’t been all concern when he’d looked at her. There’d been more, there’d been the undeniable flare of desire. So maybe it wasn’t thoughtfulness… Maybe he expected a thank-you-for-saving-me shag.
Crap, what was she doing here?
A buzz vibrated against her bottom. Claire pulled her phone from her back pocket. She glanced at the caller display and pressed ‘dismiss’ on the top of the screen. Just what she needed, Captain Blackmail checking up on her. Well the hell if she was pandering to him. She could do this on her own. She would do this, and without any goading from her pushy accomplice.
Claire pulled back her shoulders, picked up her bag, and stepped out into the hallway. She trod lightly in her heels in the direction Liam had shown her. The hallway opened into a bright kitchen. Liam stood with his back to her, setting a clear coffee pot onto its base.
He’d changed from the jogging gear he’d worn earlier. If she had thought he looked impressive in shorts that showed off the sinewy muscle of his thighs, his work finery displayed his physique to a whole new advantage. A crisp white shirt stretched across the breadth of his shoulders and tucked into belted black suit pants that clung to his waist just snugly enough to make sure she didn’t miss the taunt curve of his backside. Now this looked more like the man Claire had anticipated. He stood confidently in his opulent kitchen. Flecked white stone covered the counter and tiled most of the walls. Everywhere else polished wood shone with the gleam only a fanatical housekeeper could achieve. She suspected the amount of stone in this room alone could probably build a small house. Predictable, expected.
With her conviction mildly restored, Claire stepped forward. A floor board creaked under her shoe. Liam turned, the steam rising out of the cups in his hands not quite as hot as the smile on his lips. “You’re just in time,” he said, raising a cup.
Eyeing the coffee, the strain of holding her features neutral eased. “Thanks.” She crossed the floor and stopped safety on the opposite side of the kitchen counter.
Liam slid the coffee across the marble top along with a small crystal sugar pot and creamer set. Claire reached for the cup and brought it to her nose, shutting her eyes and taking a deep sniff. The heady aroma of the French roast zinged along her taste buds. So he brewed a fine coffee. It may rank on the list of qualities she deemed necessary in a man, but she would not be impressed by
. Claire opened her eyes and caught him watching her appreciatively, as though sniffing coffee was an intimate act.
Liam sipped from his own cup then cleared his throat. “I don’t think I properly introduced myself. Liam Channing.” He extended his hand across the bench.
Claire pressed her lips together briefly and her eyelashes dipped. “Claire,” she said and raised her gaze. She took his offered fingers and gripped them lightly. His hand closed around hers, swallowing it whole. Claire stifled the tremor in her throat.
“What brings you to Hopetown, Claire?” Liam released her hand and resumed his coffee.
Liam’s eyebrows rose. “What kind of business? It’s a relatively small town.”
“I’m here to see the double fronted store space that just opened up on Main Street. It looked perfect on the internet but I had to see for myself.”
A deep chuckle rippled from Liam’s throat. “You don’t say? And now here you stand in the landlord’s kitchen.”
Claire glanced around the kitchen. “Really?”
Another chuckle warmed the room, but it was the crinkles fanning his eyes that raised her temperature. “Yeah, really.”
“Well, I guess that makes things easier,” Claire said, humor entering her own tone.
Liam’s expression straightened and he regarded her silently for a moment. “So, how did you go from real estate shopping to flailing in the river?”
Her smile wavered. “Klutziness. What can I say? I got too close and slipped.”
Liam remained quiet. His astute gaze scanned her features. “A dangerous accident, it could have ended in disaster.”
Claire’s hand moved to her chest. “I know—” she slid her other hand across the counter and placed it over the one he rested on the cool surface, “—and I can’t even begin to thank you for what you did.” Her voice trailed off, soft and husky. “But I do. Thank you.”
“I’m ready, Uncle Liam!” A high voice squealed.
The two turned and Claire snatched back her hand. A little girl, with light brown curls pulled back in a ponytail and dressed in a plaid pinafore, rushed towards Liam. He scooped her up in his arms and rested her on his hip. A plump woman, graying black hair wound in a bun on the top of her head, descended the stairs slowly.
“Who’s that? Is she the drowned lady?”
Liam words were half laugh. “She’s not drowned. I told you upstairs, she just had an accident in the river. Her name is Claire.”