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Bound By Marriage

By:Nalini Singh

Bound By Marriage
Nalini Singh

       Chapter 1





The last person Jess Randall expected to see as she walked out of the  arrival gate at Christchurch International Airport, was the man she was  about to marry.

"Gabriel. What are you doing here?"

"You've been living in L.A. for a year and that's all you have to say?"

Flustered, she leaned forward to drop a quick kiss on his cheek. It felt  unfamiliar, awkward. "Sorry, I was just surprised. Aren't you busy with  station work?"

"I wanted to talk to you about something. But first things first." He  bent his head and, without any prelude, kissed her full on the mouth.

Knocked completely off her bearings, she couldn't do anything but clutch  at his shirt in an effort to keep herself upright. Her heart was a  staccato drumbeat in her ears, her blood a rush of thunder. And all  around her burned a rough male heat that demanded everything she had.

It was the most intimate kiss they'd ever shared, the closest their  bodies had ever come. And it made her nerves tighten in sheer panic. Not  because she didn't like it, but because she did.

"Welcome home," he said, releasing her. The look in those green eyes was  unmistakable-Gabriel Dumont was a man more than ready for his wedding  night.

Legs not quite steady, she watched him pick up her bags. He led her  through to the domestic part of the airport and across the road to the  landing field used by smaller planes. The Jubilee, one of Angel  Station's two planes, sat waiting for them.

Fear-of Gabe's expectations, but mostly of her own inexplicable response  to his touch-had such a stranglehold on her that she was barely aware  of hopping on board. Over the past year, she'd convinced herself that  her marriage would be a calm, steady, business-like affair, never once  considering what it might mean to be Gabriel's wife in truth … to be  touched and claimed in ways that obliterated the distance she needed to  survive this bargain.

Her heart stuttered as he settled in beside her, taking the pilot's  seat. Taking control. A man who knew what he wanted and exactly how he  wanted it, her fiancé was not someone who could ever be ignored.

Though he was tall and undeniably strong, his musculature was lean and  powerful, not bulky. When he moved it was like watching a wild stallion  in its prime; healthy and magnificent and proud. The faded burn scars on  his left arm and back took nothing away from that-they possibly even  contributed to the overwhelming sense of masculinity that surrounded  him. Add in the pure green eyes and that sun-shot hair, and it almost  seemed as if he'd become more beautiful in the year's absence … more wrong  for her.

Gabe might have the looks that stopped women in their tracks, but it was  the same kind of beauty as that of a tiger in the wild-dangerous and  definitely untouchable. Not for the first time, she wondered at the  lunacy of her decision to marry a man she knew so little about,  notwithstanding that she'd grown up as his neighbor.

"So, what did you learn in L.A.?" he asked, long after they were safely in the air.

Still unsettled by the effect of his kiss, she had to fight to keep her voice calm. "That I can paint."

"We both knew that, Jess. It was why you went to the States in the first place."

"True." She'd wanted to study under renowned painter Genevieve Legraux.  "What I meant was I found out I could paint on a level that might  support a career." It had been a startling discovery for a woman who'd  spent her whole life helping her parents on their small sheep station,  snatching only pieces of time for her art.

"Genevieve encouraged me to submit my work to some galleries." She'd  even dared send something to Richard Dusevic, an Auckland-based and very  well connected gallery owner who could make or break an artist's  career.

"You didn't mention that during my calls."

She shrugged, her mind flicking back to those twice-weekly  conversations. They'd lasted no more than a few minutes at most but had  inevitably left her feeling lost and confused. "I wanted to show you the  actual paintings." Because she knew that Gabe took nothing on faith.  "They should be arriving soon-I shipped them."

The sun glinted off his hair as he nodded. "Will you miss Los Angeles?"

"No." She looked out the window. They were passing over the patchwork  quilt of the Canterbury Plains. Soon they'd be in the Mackenzie Country,  a stunning piece of paradise hidden in the shadow of New Zealand's  Southern Alps and the only place she'd ever truly called home. "I needed  to get out of here for a while but not for always. I'm back to stay."                       
       
           



       

"Are you?"

Picking up the edge in his tone, she turned from the window. "What kind  of a question is that? We're getting married … unless you've changed your  mind?" Maybe he'd actually fallen in love with one of those sensual,  confident women who graced his bed in an ever-changing parade. Her hands  curled into fists at the thought.

"I'm ready." He made a small adjustment to the controls. "It's you I'm worried about."

"I promised I'd return ready for marriage. And I have." Shell-shocked by  the twin blows of her father's death and the foreclosure of Randall  Station, she hadn't had the strength to be anyone's wife twelve months  ago, much less that of a man like Gabriel.

"Damon and Kayla have separated."

Her mind couldn't make sense of the words. "What? But I thought you said Kayla was pregnant."

"Heavily. Your boyfriend walked out on her three months ago."

It was a slap. "Damon is my friend, nothing more." Her fists tightened hard enough to hurt.

"No matter how much you wish otherwise?" He glanced at her, eyes so icy she could see nothing except her own reflection.

"Yes. No matter how much I wish otherwise," she admitted, in spite of  her humiliation. "He never loved me, not like he loves Kayla."

"Doesn't much seem like it. The boy's running around with anything in possession of a pair of breasts."

The blunt words brought heat to her cheeks. "He's hardly a boy. He's the  same age as me." And twenty-six was plenty old enough to grow up and  grow up hard.

"He's acting like a child right now." Gabe ignored her statement. At  thirty-five, he was nine years older and the gap was never more apparent  than at times such as this.

"How did it happen?" she asked, white noise crashing through her mind. "And why didn't you tell me before?"

He gave her an odd look. "Didn't Damon?"

"What?" She tucked her hair behind her ears. "No, we haven't talked since I left."

"Never?"

"No," she lied, trying not to think of that single phone call Damon had  made from a bar four months ago. He'd been drunk, but he'd said things  no married man should have said … things she shouldn't have listened to.  "Is it looking bad?"

"Rumor is they're heading for divorce."

"Poor Kayla."

"Hypocrisy, Jess? I didn't expect that from you."

Her cheeks blazed anew. "No matter what you think, I wouldn't wish that  kind of pain on any woman. Unless … did she ask for the separation?"

"Not from the way she's looking."

"I can't believe Damon would walk out on his marriage."

"Maybe he finally realized what he'd given up." There was no mistaking  the challenge in Gabe's voice. "What are you going to do?"

"Do?" She was still reeling from the implications of his first sentence.

"We're getting married tomorrow and I plan on us staying that way. So if  you're intending on chasing off after Damon, you sure as hell better  tell me now."

Jess took a shuddering breath and let it out again. "How am I supposed to make any kind of decision right this second?"

"The same way you decided to marry me and use my money to go to L.A."

"Don't you throw that in my face! You agreed to me leaving the area for a year."

Tanned skin pulled tight over the ruthless angle of his jaw. "Answer the damn question. Do you want to get married or not?"

In truth, she didn't really have a choice. If she backed out, she'd lose  her last fragile grip on the land that had once been Randall Station.  "How much to buy back Randall?" Gabe had never particularly wanted it.  The only reason he'd stepped in during the foreclosure was because she'd  gone to him begging. But that didn't change the fact that he now owned  it. Owned her.

He snorted. "You didn't have that kind of money then and you don't have it now.

Neither does Damon."

Both undeniable facts. She also owed Gabe for the year in L.A.-a year  she'd so desperately needed to grow up. And growing up was exactly what  she'd done. She might love Damon, but she'd made a promise to her father  on his deathbed and she would keep it. A Randall would always remain on  Randall land. "I'll marry you."

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