Beckett’s big form blanketed her far smaller one as he increased his thrusts, driving her toward that cliff of mindless insensibility her orgasms always conferred. He braced his weight on his forearms, head tucked into her throat, lips tight against the sensitive juncture of neck and shoulder.
He’d slipped into bed, naked and urgently erect, stripping off her nightgown with a muttered imprecation before bestowing a hard kiss that caused her to open to him, his mastery of her senses chasing away the last vestiges of sleep.
Her body instantly responded, the flush of arousal dampening her core, nipples tightening with desire as his big hands cupped and molded her breasts. There was no need for additional foreplay although he tested her readiness with a finger before settling between her thighs and entering her.
It was a vastly familiar, nightly routine, one she desperately anticipated—to her shame—and their coupling tonight should have culminated the same way. With a climax, the sensation giving her the connection she craved, however fleeting, because that was all Beckett would give her.
But this time, the raw, torn center of her chest that was her excuse for a heart somehow rallied and hardened, pain and heartbreak numbing the physical delight her husband consistently drew from her, and Grace lost sight of that climax.
The magic of Beckett’s body, those long, smooth muscles of his shoulders beneath her clutching hands diminished in allure and her thighs loosened from around his sinewy flanks. She shuddered, finally accepting her legal servitude for what it was and her channel spasmed in concert around his thickness. Her husband groaned deep in his throat, a curious sensation against her skin as he came, her involuntary clench drawing out his seed.
As he’d done countless times before, he pulled away from her to drop onto the mattress, withdrawing the flesh that was both the source of physical delight and a cruel reminder of her only role in his life. The space he put between them was immeasurable, though in truth she could feel the heat of his body radiating but a mere inch from hers.
Rather than close her eyes in the darkness and seek the oblivion sleep afforded as she did all the other times, Grace slipped from their bed and made her way to the attached bathroom. Closing the door quietly, she flipped on the light and ran water into the basin. As it gently steamed, she found a cloth to saturate and used it to wash her husband from her body.
A white visage stared back from the mirror, long, pale tangles of hair flowing over narrow shoulders, big gray eyes smudged with pain and resignation. She blinked and her reflection changed, now blank, mouth set in a thin line, those same eyes shuttered and empty, as her outside appearance caught up with her ravaged inside. Her belly was the last to protest the death of whatever intense emotion she’d felt for Beck, the acrid taste of acid burning up the back of her throat, and she gagged.
The sound echoed back from the tiles and she hurriedly turned on the faucet back on to muffle it. Dipping her head to sip at the cold water, she welcomed the shock against her cheek and lips. She swallowed and soothed her nausea enough to straighten and dash the droplets of moisture away.
A tap on the door made her whirl to face it, her breath stuttering in her lungs. Beck was never tentative, never respected closed doors, and that too seemed to be a sign. Something had changed, whether for the better or not to be determined. She found she couldn’t answer, couldn’t find her voice, and so tugged the heavy wooden panel open.
“What’s wrong?” Her husband stared into her face, blue eyes a shade darker as he narrowed them.
“Nothing.” She was surprised at how normal she sounded—her new normal. And equally surprised he displayed any concern when it came to her.
“What are you doing in here?” His gaze swept down her body, his cock stirring against his thigh.
Ignoring the flutter of interest—sex had never been their issue—she forced a tiny smile, one that didn’t feel like it fit. “Whatever people usually do in a bathroom. Take your pick.”
Sarcastic humor wasn’t something she used or was proficient at, and Beckett’s eyebrows climbed his forehead. He said, “I thought I heard you being sick.”
And if that were a symptom… Wouldn’t that fall in with his plans? As well as his father’s and hers. Outnumbered… “I wasn’t sick.”
Another assessing stare, like a probe of her brain. “Then come back to bed.”
Or what, she mused? She didn’t recognize this Grace, or at least, this side of her, and thought to sleep on it, the better to deal with Beckett another time. She slipped past him, his firm belly coasting over her arm, drawing an unwanted awareness, and went to her side of the bed that was the only place they’d connected since before their marriage.
His lamp was on, the bulb casting a warm, amber glow and highlighting her husband’s sculpted chest and abdomen. Ignoring the way he drew her, she scooped up her nightgown and dropped it over her head, the silky fabric soothing as it enveloped her from head to toe. As armor, it was flimsy, but she was learning to take advantage of every little thing.
“There’s no need to wear that.” Her husband’s voice was quiet but implacable as he climbed onto the mattress. The covers whispered as he drew them up and she focused on the thread of sound as it spoke to something deep within. A tiny whisper of rebellion.
Ignoring him, she lay down and pulled the sheet over her, her back to him, listening to the sudden silence.
It stretched out for an eternity before there was movement. She tensed, but a click sounded and the room plunged back into darkness. He kept his distance, as always, now their nightly ritual was over.
“If there’s something going on with you, let’s hear it.” His tone was tense, annoyed to her tutored ear.
She supposed the darkness invited confidences, if reluctant ones, but she’d never again give him something to use against her. Maybe she was slow to learn but had painfully absorbed the essential lesson when it came to Beckett. He had the power to hurt her, whereas she had virtually none to retaliate. Except perhaps to take refuge in silence.
No, she wasn’t yet equipped to win even a war of words, not without a plan, and seeing as she’d only just come to recognize she was worth more than her current status as a pawn, she required some time.
Beckett didn’t press the matter, doubtless writing off an aberration with ease. After all, wasn’t she the malleable, meek, and mild young woman he’d reluctantly married?
She drifted along the edges of slumber, no longer yearning for the man she once loved with all the agonized intensity a star-struck girl might feel toward a handsome, virile male who’d swept her off her feet. The same man who had pursued her with single-minded intent, wooing and charming her, promising her such wonders in broadening her horizons.
It had been nearly thirteen months of tension and bewilderment, married to a man who’d become a stranger—if she’d ever really known him during their brief courtship. Courtship. Ha. Beckett didn’t want her. He’d only wanted to have sex with her, the thrill being in the chase, the prize being the debauching of his competition’s daughter. Except he’d lost in the end, forced to marry her, and all because of faulty birth control.
If Grace had a heart any longer, it might have winced at the irony. Her hand eased down to rest on her belly—her empty belly. She clenched the material of her nightgown tightly and fought the memory of her loss. That child wasn’t meant to be, but Beckett was now bound to her and determined she produce an heir… That’s why we married, Grace. So we’d better make the old men happy. His oft-repeated, sarcastic reminder, even after the miscarriage… But she wasn’t going to think about that.
She fell into the kindness of sleep, her fingers relaxing their tense hold, her cheeks free and dry of tears for the first time since their wedding night.
Fingers laced behind his head, Beckett considered the change he’d sensed in his little bride. Whatever it was, it had unsettled him enough to follow her to the bathroom, and then, curiously, he’d been loath to face her. Had to force himself to request admittance, to face … what?
One of these things is not like the others, he mused, something atavistic pricking his senses. Grace looked so fragile, bereft, and the feelings he harbored for her, walled off by the blow to his ego and pride, had scrambled to scale that barrier.
He’d shoved them back with an effort, the memory of the hint of sarcasm in her voice giving him pause. And then she ignored him? It tasted like his own medicine and he didn’t care for the scald on his tongue. Or the shame.
He really didn’t like where this was going, this soul searching, like there was an upheaval of the status quo in his future. His bride might skitter around, avoid his direct stares, but she’d never ignored him. A smirk pulled at his upper lip. Bride. Grace Langdon, now Kilmer, none of that hyphenated bullshit, was indeed his wife. And whatever colored her thoughts, it would make no difference to their relationship. She didn’t have the spunk, nothing to force him to deviate from the path directed by bitterness and resentment.
Even the thought of the ‘r’ word caused him to shudder, and he shook it off. Whatever they had, it wasn’t a relationship. An arrangement perhaps, a business arrangement. Turning on his side, he peered toward his wife, who curled up as far from him as their big bed allowed. His palms itched to pull her up against him, strip that ridiculous piece of fabric from her sweet body, and take her again. He’d readily admit to craving her physically, the hard kernel of his resentment and betrayal forgotten when he wrapped her in his arms. Giving way to softer emotions, the way he’d regarded her before marrying her for the greater good.
He’d been so drawn to her, past everything he’d felt for other women in his life, and there had been a lot of them. Her youth, her sweetness smoothed his rough edges and brought out certain emotions he’d shelved when his mother died and his father ruled their home. He’d desired her too and thought she was the complete package until she betrayed him.
He was sure he’d heard her being sick earlier, and of course, the idea she was pregnant again had leaped in his mind. Grace had proven to be fertile, after all, and apparently, he was no slouch either. One freaking time without the protection he faithfully employed. One. He’d trusted her when she insisted she had taken additional measures, and without trust…
Knowing sleep would elude him, he checked the digital clock and swung his legs over the side of the mattress, his feet landing soundlessly on the soft nap of the rug Grace had placed on either side of the bed. She was always doing those little things, as though to see to his comfort.
Dispatching the errant thought, he dragged his briefs on and padded out of the bedroom and down the hall, assured by the soft inhalations behind him that his wife was deep in slumber. A hitch threw off his stride when he considered she’d likely cried herself to sleep yet again, but he powered forward, having locked all those softer emotions down again. Maybe it was shameful of him to be so careless of her feelings, but he’d grown a callus over his honor.
Gaining his study, he booted up his laptop and video-called Kalim. His friend was likely just getting home from a night of carousing, the lifestyle Beckett had been forced to moderate in recent months. Because he’d been trapped into a marriage. He ignored the inconvenient little voice reminding him that it took two to make a child. And he definitely pushed away the awareness that he’d chosen to stay with Grace when she wasn’t … with child anymore. Maybe his honor was still intact, honoring his vows because he hadn’t stayed for love. He’d never risk that.
“Beck!” Kalim’s delighted voice cut into the quiet and Beckett hurried to tone down the volume, even as he surveyed his friend’s familiar features.
“You’re home,” he said as if it wasn’t obvious.
“A few minutes ago. What’s up?” A faint, feminine giggle sounded behind him.
“Nothing.” And wasn’t that sad? Truly, nothing, as though he was in limbo. “You have company. I won’t keep you.”
“No worries, man. Becky’s in no rush.”
His own carnal needs recently assuaged, Beck chose to take Kalim at his word. Besides, anticipation made things sweeter. Lord knew his thoughts of having Grace at the end of a long, difficult day kept him on his mettle. “Have you thought any more about my proposal?”
“Business? C’mon, Beck.”
“We’re in such different time zones. The old man wants an answer for the board meeting tomorrow.”
Kalim ran a hand through his jet-black hair and rolled his eyes. The motion looked cartoonish on the screen and Beckett fought a smile. His handsome friend was substantively vain.
“We’ll take the glamor line. Not much call for business wear here.”
“That works. I’ll send a formal contract after the meeting.”
“Sure. In fact, I’ll come over to sign up. It’s been too long since I’ve seen you.”
“That’s great. We’ll hit a few clubs.”
“Anywhere I might find a woman,” Kalim replied. “How’s married life?”
Kalim was one of the few people who knew the actual circumstances of his marriage—a shotgun wedding, in this day and age! Bemoaning his fate under the influence of a couple of shared bottles of his friend’s secret stash, Beckett told Kamil how neatly he’d been trapped. He’d also met Grace, if briefly.
A long breath huffed through his nose as he considered his answer. Grace had definitely drawn him like no other, a slight, almost waif-like young woman, hovering on the peripheral of her father’s sphere. George Langdon, the patriarch of an old family business, and one his own parent coveted. He thought back, considering.
Not his usual type, there’d been something about her, her virgin status notwithstanding… A quiet, sweet beauty with simmering depths. Depths he had to plumb and cultivate, as possessive as he’d ever known himself.
Realizing he’d been silent for some time, he mentally snorted. Why would he hide his thoughts from his friend? “Married life is about the same. Living with the enemy.”
“Enemy, Beck? That’s harsh. And whose choice is that?”
Fuck, he didn’t need a lecture. He’d been well and truly caught in a trap only partly of his own making because his father saw the pregnancy as a bloodless manner of assimilating old man Langdon’s business. Beck had grudgingly married Little Miss Innocent No Longer. Furious and feeling powerless for the first time in his twenty-six years, he sought reassurance in the fact Grace would bear the child and then be set aside like brides in arranged marriages of old, while he lived his life. Carried on as the carefree bachelor. He’d been that pissed.
His conscience twinged again as the memory of Grace’s miscarriage surfaced in his head, something else he dispatched instantly. It fucking hurt—he gritted his teeth. So not going there, not even with his best friend, how he’d looked forward to being a father once he’d become accustomed to the idea.
They might have reconnected over the tragedy if it wasn’t for the repeated interference of the fathers. All he could fathom was his value as a stud and Grace’s as a broodmare, fueling his resentment. He decided he wasn’t going to forge a connection, other than a sexual one, with the woman who’d orchestrated his confinement in this … this prison. He’d been there for her, helped her through the loss of the child—as she’d helped him—but it wasn’t grounds for an actual marriage.
“I’d say it’s probably an equal choice. We’re making the best of the situation. She does her thing. I do mine.” His thing included long hours at the office, followed by appearing at any events his father deemed appropriate for his heir. Then coming home and finding his bride in their bed and slaking his need, refusing to admit to himself that thoughts of her had been continually flirting along the peripheral of his mind. He had no idea what Grace did during the day and was determined not to cultivate an interest. He sought her out for sex, the only time they spent together of late.
His brow creased at that realization. How long had it been since they’d even shared a meal or spoken in passing? His confounded conscience twinged louder.
“Is your father still pressing for an heir?” Kalim leaned forward in his chair, his features slightly distorted by the proximity to the screen.
“Of course. And hers as well.” It was his turn to pass his fingers through his hair. “The idea of a grandchild seems to have drawn both the old men together. They’ve formed some sort of strange partnership, even outside of the business.”
“Much like the drawing together of families via the arranged marriages we have here.”
Beck barked a strangled laugh. “Indeed. And maybe it diverts them because I’m essentially running the business.”
“Not the worst thing then. And your wife is lovely. She’s sweet and charming, regardless of … what transpired to bring about your union.”
Beck couldn’t argue. Having sex with Grace was no hardship, and he took pride in his skills in bed. Never left her unsatisfied, and if anything was true, it was the old adage that sex leveled the playing field, because his wife definitely met his physical needs. Another lick of shame lashed him when he thought about how he’d shamelessly used her desperate need to please him. Teaching her—he clamped down on that thought. “I suppose she is. She is.”
“And you appear to have your cake and eat it too.”
“Excuse me?” That faint lecturing tone was back in his friend’s voice, atop of the idiom.
“You are continually photographed in public with beautiful women on your arm. Women who aren’t your wife.”
Beckett shook his head. “Smoke and mirrors, Kamil.”
“As you say.”
It was true. The public perception be damned because he was faithful to Grace, monogamous. His father accepted his contention when he’d inquired and presumably passed it on to his wife’s father because he hadn’t been given any grief from that quarter. Though old man Langdon ascribed to the idea of having a mistress—if one could guarantee discretion, of course.
One might think that even as a married man Beck would sample the buffet of willing women, but he hadn’t. He wasn’t that kind of guy anymore. Nope, just one who avoids all the responsibilities of marriage, other than the physical ones. Shit. Those vagrant thoughts and pricks of conscience were coming more and more often, and he resented the hell out of them. He scrambled to shore up that figurative wall.
“You know the business, Kalim. It’s expected of me to have those models out and about. And I, too, have honor.” He did. Maybe he didn’t always exercise it with Grace, but he wasn’t a cheat.
“I know that about you, Beck. But one must consider the optics. How does Grace feel about you squiring all those women?”
He shrugged, shockingly aware of a shard of anxiety in his gut. “I have no idea. I told you, we live quite separately. And she’s never expressed any interest. I doubt she has any idea.”
Silence stretched out and Kalim’s face tightened. “Women seem to know far more than we foolish men understand. But as you say. However, we should discuss your perception of the future, my friend.”
“I fear you’re stuck in the present, and quite miserable.”
“Maybe.” He didn’t want to think past tomorrow. Grace would hopefully conceive again soon, and he’d be free of expectations. Then maybe he’d pick up his life where he’d left off. Except he wanted a child and he wanted the mother of that child—sexually, anyway.
“I enjoy my current situation and all its opportunities, Beck, but you seemed so happy about Grace in the beginning. Perhaps your wounded pride has spent enough time railing at the situation. Especially if you were to become a father.” Kalim was the youngest son, and as such, his father’s expectations were less clear, and his friend did indeed enjoy the bachelor life.
But further to his pointed comment, did pride have a place in parenting? Was Kalim suggesting Beck was acting in a juvenile manner? If the shoe fits… With that sudden realization, all the implications of his current situation washed over like an icy surge of water. At the forefront was his reluctant acceptance that he’d been acting like a total asshole. A vastly immature asshole.
It had obviously taken this long for him to get past feeling trapped while ignoring the truth, but it kept popping up to stare him in the face. Kalim’s insightful questions and comments were falling on fertile ground.
Regardless of how his marriage had come to pass, the familial expectation was that he and Grace were to produce children, and he hadn’t bothered to consider the impact on those children. Immersed in his resentment of feeling manipulated, he’d been selfish. She hadn’t called him on it, instead, reaching out, trying to forge a connection, so who was the injured party here—
“We should have had this talk months ago,” he muttered.
“We did. And you did nothing but rant and rave about your … situation,” Kamil reminded him, confirming the fact he was only now seeing the forest for the trees. “And you most certainly weren’t open to considering anything other than gaining your freedom without impacting your business interests. Until tonight.”
“Is that a polite way of telling me I’ve been an idiot?” Infusing some humor didn’t ease the sting of the truth.
“Outrage at being snared and forced into a union not of one’s choosing, feeling so powerless, is difficult to swallow, my friend. At least in my country, both men and women are raised to expect an arranged marriage, though usually without the circumstances of a child on the way. But one must make the best of any situation, and you’ve had considerable time to come to terms with it. And you might want to consider your wife’s perspective. She, too, may well feel trapped.”
Beck considered his friend’s words. It wasn’t optimal, but Beck could now admit to the likely possibility Grace could have been his forever girl, had their connection progressed normally and she hadn’t lied about being on birth control. If he hadn’t known differently, he might have thought his father-in-law had put her up to it, catching a guy that way.
Despite his anger with her, it was apparent to anyone with eyes in their head how George Langdon perceived women in general, even his daughter. Keeping a mistress aside, the man saw his daughter as a means to an end. Beck’s own parent wasn’t much different. The glass ceiling in both of those men’s businesses was thick and impervious to the female gender, something Beckett was subtly addressing. His hypocrisy made him flinch.
Manning up, he said, “Maybe you can hang out your shingle, Kamil.”
“Marriage Counselor. Grace and I can be your first couple.”
Kamil laughed. “Unlikely, but professional input might not be such a bad idea. From everything I understand, trust is intrinsic in a marriage, much like having a business partner, and you might give a thought to repairing that breach.”
Grace was his business partner, now that he thought about it, one with benefits. Not the worst way to approach the future—a framework to resurrect a marriage on. He’d broach the subject with her tomorrow and hammer out an agenda by which they might move forward. He needed to forgive her or divorce her because both of them deserved a life different from the one he’d imposed.
“I’ll be in touch, Kamil.”
“You can name your first born after me.” His friend’s handsome features sobered. “I apologize. That was insensitive.”
Beckett mastered a flinch. “No problem, buddy. Rebecca awaits.”
“Becky. She’s rebelling. She thinks the diminutive makes her more Western.” With a smile, Kamil reached out and the screen went blank.
Beck stood, lowering the lid on the laptop and closed his eyes. He felt resolute, determined, and hoped it carried over to the morning. Grace loved him—she’d told him often enough, and had tried hard to connect with him in the beginning, after the betrayal. And when he’d established the boundaries in their marriage, she accepted them, ghosting around the place, never causing a hint of difficulty. She’d doubtless welcome any effort on his part to improve their … relationship. He wasn’t a total asshole. Or at least he wouldn’t be from this point forward.