Convicted, стр. 57

Standing in the glow of the setting sun with her toes in the sand, Claire gazed lovingly into the deepest, darkest eyes. The dark no longer proclaimed anger. The darkness from years ago was different—void, or more accurately—devoid—without. At that time, his eyes were windows to a tormented core whose only outlet was rage and cruelty, but the dark brown that returned her gaze today wasn’t empty. It reeled with emotions that the void eyes wouldn’t have understood. The new darkness swirled with an all-consuming passion that could ignite Claire in impossible ways with a single glance. They churned with love and adoration, pride and understanding, sorrow and regret. These eyes drank her in, claimed her, and fulfilled her every desire. They were the windows to a man—who once upon a time, signed a napkin that he knew was a contract. As an esteemed businessman, he forgot one very important rule—he forgot to read the fine print. It wasn’t an acquisition to own another person as he’d previously assumed. It was an agreement to acquire a soul.

The acquisition was long and painful. There were contract disputes and labor issues, but in the end, the soul found residence—within the businessman. No longer were the rules clear or was the world black and white. Now, color prevailed—especially shades of green.

Francis’ rich, deep voice echoed into the breeze. Claire remembered the day in 2010 when she was asked the same question: do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish until death do you part? Her answer hadn’t changed. Despite the traumas and her desire to forfeit that promise made three years ago, Claire suspected that in her heart, she never did. This ceremony was a reaffirmation of that prior commitment and a promise of a better relationship. With her long white sundress blowing around her legs—perhaps she was subconsciously planning this when she ordered her clothes—Claire inhaled without effort. The salty breeze penetrated deep into her lungs as the sensation of suffocation was gone.

While Francis prayed, Claire did too. It was a prayer of praise and gratitude. She admitted to disliking parts of the journey, but the destination was true paradise. As Francis announced their union, Claire and Tony kissed. When he backed away, she saw his devilish grin and heard him whisper, “Mrs. Rawlings, you are mine once again.”

Her retort teetered on the tip of her tongue. Finally, she swallowed the words and smiled at her handsome husband, deciding that a smart mouthed response wasn’t appropriate in the middle of her wedding. It didn’t matter. The gleam in Tony’s eyes told her he knew—he knew what she wanted to say and loved her as much for her restraint as for her cheekiness.

Madeline somehow had found time to bake a cake. Since Claire couldn’t drink alcohol, it wasn’t even discussed. The four of them celebrated their wedding, with cake and lemonade. Claire wondered if October 27th was now their anniversary, and whether it meant that December 18th no longer was. Perhaps they could find reason to celebrate both dates. After the reception, Francis and Madeline excused themselves to leave the newlyweds alone.

Within their suite, they found chilled fruit and sparkling grape juice. That, however, wasn’t the discovery that made Claire giggle and Tony’s devilish grin emerge. It was when he pulled the black satin mask from the pocket of his linen shorts and lifted a brow. That was when she couldn’t hold back her snicker. He’d kept it with him throughout the entire ceremony.

“I thought you wanted me to go into this marriage with my eyes wide open?”

Each one of his graceful steps lessened the distance between them and pulled an invisible cord, tightening Claire’s insides. Her sensitive nipples ached as their chests touched and he pulled her close. Slowly widening his grin, Tony answered, “That, Mrs. Rawlings, was meant metaphorically.”

Looking up to his handsome face, Claire opened her eyes wide and replied, “Oh, see, I thought you meant it literally.”

Bending down, he neared his lips to hers, and when she closed her eyes, she felt the sweet connection of their kiss. Before she could inhale, Tony’s teeth caught her lower lip, and Claire gasped.

He gently tugged and released. His lips moved to the nape of her neck and up to her ear. After he gently nipped at her lobe, his raspy voice sent shivers down her spine. “I knew it couldn’t stay hidden for too long.”

She opened her eyes wide, displaying her most innocent expression. It was too late—Tony’s seductive tone resonated through the suite. “No, my dear, no look of innocence, no deer in the headlights, you know exactly what I’m saying.” Once again tracing her lips with his finger, he added, “I believe it’s time we find something better for that smart mouth to do.”

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Nothing can prevent you from learning the truth so much as the belief that you already know it.

—Jon K. Hart

Sophia walked through their Santa Clara condominium one last time and took inventory of the moving boxes. Calling over her shoulder, she asked for the umpteenth time, “You’re sure Rawlings Industries will get all of this to Iowa for us?”

Derek came from the bedroom, magic marker in hand. “They said they would. We only need to have everything packed and labeled. They’ll even put the boxes in the appropriate rooms in our new house.”

Sophia contemplated his words: House—it sounded wonderful! Iowa didn’t. There wasn’t an ocean near Iowa City—no beaches—well, unless you included the rivers. Sophia had never imagined herself living in the middle of the country, surrounded by corn. Her husband’s embrace refocused Sophia’s thoughts. He whispered in her ear, “Tonight, they’re putting us up in an amazing hotel in San Francisco. Tomorrow, we’re flying by private jet to Rawlings Industries Corporate Headquarters. Timothy Bronson, the acting CEO, wants to meet both of us.” He nibbled her ear. “Baby, you can paint from anywhere; you’ve told me that before. This is a big break—Corporate Headquarters!”

“I’m happy for you, I am. I just don’t understand how this happened so fast. You said Anthony Rawlings wanted you there? Honey, that’s great, but he’s been missing since September. What happened?”

Exhaling, Derek peered deep into his wife’s beautiful gray eyes. “I’ve told you all I know, all that HR told me. When they scanned Mr. Rawlings’ home computer, they found a file about me. He even had a job proposal started. Timothy Bronson was made aware of the file, so he took it to the board of directors. They felt it was something Mr. Rawlings wanted, and together they reviewed my dossier and called. Mr. Bronson believes I can help in the effort to pull Rawlings Industries from its downward spiral.”

Sophia’s mind whirled. “Who scanned his home computers? Why would they do that?”

“Baby, I don’t know. This is a huge promotion; not just the money, or the title, but the responsibility. I’m going from a junior peon in a small subsidiary—to a junior peon at corporate!”

Sophia sighed. “Honey, I’m proud of you. I’m just not used to living so far inland. I’ve always lived near a coast, and the whole thing seems strange. I mean, after Mr. Rawlings was at my studio...I’m sorry—I just have a strange feeling.”

His arms tightened around her small waist, allowing his hands to linger on her firm, round behind. “Mrs. Burke, we’ll be busy! I learned one of the corporate lawyers—Miller, I think his name is—his wife has a design firm in Bettendorf, and”—his volume increased—“Timothy Bronson, who I keep mentioning. His wife used to work at an art museum in Davenport. They’re a little younger than us. Sue’s pregnant with their second child, but I’d bet you two would get along very well!”