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The Purchased Wife(4)

By´╝ÜMichelle Reid

'I hate you so much,' she gasped out then burst into tears, the kind of loud, hot, choking tears that came with pure, agonising delayed shock and brought people running and had Xander letting go of her to shoot to his feet.

After that she lost sight of him when a whole army of care staff crowded in. But she could still hear his voice, cold with incision: 'Can someone explain to me, please, why my wife shares a room with three other sick individuals? Does personal dignity have no meaning here...?'

The next time Nell woke up she was shrouded in darkness other than for a low night lamp burning somewhere up above her head. She could open her eyes without having to force them and she was feeling more comfortable, though she suspected the comfort had been drug-induced. Moving her head on the pillow in a careful testing motion, she felt no pain attack her brow and allowed herself a sigh of relief. Then she began to take an interest in her surroundings. Something was different, though for the life of her she couldn't say what.

'You were moved this afternoon to a private hospital,' a deep voice informed her.

Turning her head in the other direction, she saw Xander standing in the shadows by the window. Her heart gave a helpless little flutter then clenched. Private hospital. Private room. 'Why?' she whispered in confusion. He didn't answer. But then why would he? A man like him did not leave his wife to the efficient care of the National Health Service when he could pay for the same service with added touches of luxury.

As she looked at him standing there in profile, staring out of the window, it didn't take much work for her dulled senses to know his mood was grim. The jacket to his dark suit had gone and he'd loosened the tie around his throat. She could just pick out the warm sheen of his golden skin as it caught the edges of a soft lamplight. For a moment she thought she saw a glimpse of the man she had fallen in love with a year ago.

The same man she'd seen on the evening she'd walked into her father's study and found Xander there alone. He'd been standing like this by her father's window, grimly contemplating what lay beyond the Georgian glass with its hand-beaten distortions that had a knack of distorting everything that was happening in the world beyond.

That was the night he had asked her to marry him; no fanfare, no romantic preliminaries. Oh, they'd been out to dinner a couple of times, and Xander tended to turn up at the same functions she would be attending and seem to make a beeline for her. People had watched curiously as he monopolised her attention and she blushed a lot because she wasn't used to having such a man show a desire for her company.

Twenty-one years old and fresh back from spending three years high up in the Canadian Rockies with a mother who preferred getting up close and personal with pieces of driftwood she found on the shores of the Kananaskis River than she did with living people. Nell had gone to Canada for her annual two-week visit with the reclusive Kathleen Garrett and stayed to the end when her mother had coolly informed her that she didn't have long to live.

Nell liked to think that her quiet company had given her mother a few extra years of normal living before it all got too much. Certainly they became a bit more like mother and daughter than they'd been throughout Nell's life when previous visits to her mother had made her feel more like an unwanted distant relative. Coming back to England and to her father's busy social lifestyle had come as a bit of a culture shock. She'd gone to Canada a child who'd spent most of her life being shunted from one boarding-school to another with very little contact with the social side of her industrialist father's busy life. Three years living quietly with her mother had been no preparation for a girl who'd become a woman without really knowing it until she met Alexander Pascalis.

An accident waiting to happen... Nell frowned as she tried to recall who it was that had said those words to her. Then she remembered and sighed because of course it had been this tall, dark silent man looking out of the window who'd spoken those words to her. 'A danger to yourself and to anyone near you,’ he'd rumbled out as he'd pulled her into his arms and kissed her before sombrely asking her to marry him.

She looked away from his long, still frame, not wanting to go back to those days when she'd loved him so badly she would have crawled barefooted over broken glass if that was what it took to be with him. Those days were long gone, along with her pride, her self-respect and her starry-eyed infatuation.

Her mouth was still dry, the muzzy effects of whatever they'd given her to stem the pain making her limbs feel weighted down with lead. When she tried to lift her hand towards the glass of water she could see on the cupboard beside her, she could barely raise her fingers off the bed.

'I need a drink,' she whispered hoarsely.