A Baby to Make Her His Bride
BOOK 4 in the Four Weddings and a Baby Quartet
The reason that they will meet at the altar? Their baby!
Fleeing her very public divorce, socialite Vienna is shocked to find her private hideaway already occupied. Gruff and brooding Jasper was presumed dead—just like Vienna’s love life. So her instant connection to him is unexpected, yet completely undeniable…
One night is all Jasper can offer Vienna. The people closest to him always get hurt. Then scandal strikes, forcing them to fly to Chile as a couple for the whole world to see! But when Jasper learns Vienna is carrying his baby, he must take things one step further to protect them both…with his diamond ring!
Read all the Four Weddings and a Baby books:
A Baby to Make Her His Bride
BOOK 4 in the
Four Weddings and a Baby Quartet
“You’re bringing reporters to my doorstep?”
— Micah, A Baby to Make Her His Bride
When I started planning Four Weddings and a Baby, I knew there would be a wedding that was crashed by the groom’s secret baby. I literally got out my pink and blue index cards and started matching everyone:
- Book 1: Groom with Secret Baby Mama (Cinderella’s Secret Baby)
- Book 2: Bride with Best Man (Wedding Night with the Wrong Billionaire)
- Book 3: Brother of Bride (who is standing in for Father of Bride) with Maid of Honour (A Convenient Ring to Claim Her)
Then I got to Book 4 where the groom’s sister will fall for the Secret Baby Mama’s brother. Makes sense, right? Except, when I started writing, Vienna was already married (to a jerk.) Amelia’s brother was missing.
These are the problems I set up for myself. By the end of book one, I knew Jasper was alive and Vienna was secretly divorcing. I had a good idea why she has been playing the Good Girl for far too long, but I didn’t have a handle on Jasper until I delved into what had happened to him while he was absent.
They’re both suffering some ‘Am I good enough?’ twinges and Vienna didn’t even think she could get pregnant, so it’s your average pair of messy people trying to make it work. #SpoilerAlert: they eventually do and they’re wonderful together.
All of the books in my Four Weddings and a Baby series stand alone, but if you love interconnected stories and a visit with three other couples living their HEA, you’ll want to read the others first. Otherwise, jump right in to: A Baby to Make Her His Bride. Happy reading!
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A Baby to Make Her His Bride
Vienna Waverly parked outside the house she owned but had never seen.
Her brother, Hunter, had bought it a month ago, in the most bizarre way.
“Can I use your numbered shell to buy a house without telling you why?” he had asked. “It’s nothing criminal, I swear.”
“I didn’t think it would be, but I thought you were dissolving those.” They each had a shell company that Hunter had set up to protect their assets while they’d been in litigation with their stepmother.
“I will, but this came up,” he had said.
“What did?” Vienna liked to think she and her brother were close, but it was more accurate to say they were close—adjacent. Kitty-corner. They always had the other’s back, but they also kept things from each other, usually in an effort to protect. She loved Hunter to bits and would do anything for him, but this had been a very odd favor.
“It’s fifty years old,” he had continued in his brisk, close-the-deal manner. “Off-grid, upgraded with solar and water filtration. Great location. The current owners run it as a vacation rental, so it’s furnished and in good repair. I’ll take it offline, though. There won’t be any maintenance or management to worry about. I’ll cover all the fees and taxes and explain why I want it in a few months. Then you can do whatever you want with it. Until then, you can’t mention this to anyone, not even Neal.”
She had barely been talking to her soon-to-be ex-husband, so that had been an easy promise to make.
“Does Amelia know about it?”
“I’ll tell her.” Hunter had left a distinct pause. “When the time is right.”
He had only been married five or six weeks at that point, to a woman who had kept secrets of her own—including the fact that she’d had Hunter’s baby. There’d been a massive scandal over the revelation, including his last-minute cancellation of his wedding to one of Vienna’s best friends.
Since then, Hunter and Amelia had seemed to be falling for each other. If he was hiding something this big from his new bride, however, that was a huge red flag.
“I need your answer now, Vi,” he’d prodded.
“That’s really all you’re going to tell me?”
Since there were also things she wasn’t ready to tell him, she had felt obliged to trust him even though he was leaving her in the dark. “All right. Yes. Go ahead.”
“Thank you.” He’d sounded relieved. “I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t important.”
She would not have leaned on Hunter’s executive assistant to get here without any trace appearing in her own accounts if it hadn’t been important, either. She would eventually reimburse all the expenses for her two chartered flights, her company credit card and her temporary phone on the Wave-Com account, but dropping off-grid was exactly what she needed right now.
When she had landed in Nanaimo, on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, a company-leased SUV had awaited her with a full tank of gas and all the groceries she would need. She hadn’t told Hunter’s PA where she was going, but had asked him to forward her new number to Hunter so he would have it when he needed it.
When the proverbial poop hit the propeller, was what she had meant.
That would happen shortly after Neal was served his divorce papers. Vienna’s PR team was cued up with instructions to go on the offensive at that point, with statements that the divorce was a fait accompli.
Never in her life had she been such a sneaky, cutthroat person, but her requests for a quiet, uncontested divorce had been met with faux hurt, promises they could continue trying for a baby, and subtle threats about going to the press with a tell-all about the Waverlys.
That had been last year, when Hunter had been steeped in that ugly court case with Irina, their stepmother. Vienna hadn’t wanted to add to his stress with her own drama, so she had simply asked Neal for space. She began spending all her time at their apartment in Toronto while he remained in Calgary, where he was Wave-Com’s VP of Sales. She had quietly changed her driver’s license, redirected her mail and opened a separate bank account. As long as she maintained the illusion that they were happily married, making herself available for Neal’s work engagements and inviting him to a handful of her family appearances, Neal hadn’t cared.
She told people they were separated, though. Not a lot of people, but solid character witnesses for when the time came.
Nevertheless, she knew Neal would play the victim and say this had come out of the blue. He would claim he wanted to reconcile. There was too much money at stake for him to go quietly. Too much cachet in being Hunter Waverly’s brother-in-law.
This story would be yet another gold mine for the clickbait sites, but scandal was unavoidable. That was what Vienna had come to accept. The best she could do was exactly what she’d done. She had waited until Hunter had left with Amelia on a belated honeymoon so the blast radius wouldn’t scorch them too badly.
Now she was taking cover herself to ride out the fallout. The address on the conveyancing documents had brought her to Tofino, one of the soggiest places in Canada, located where the western edge of the country dropped into the brine of the Pacific Ocean.
Neal didn’t know this house existed. Only her lawyer knew where she had gone.
Soon, she promised herself. Soon she would be divested of the worst mistake of her life. She would be free to do what she wanted.
With a sigh of relief, she stepped from the SUV. After the long drive across the island, her body thanked her for the stretch. Her nostrils drank in the cool fragrance of cedar and pine and fir. The chatter of squirrels hidden in their boughs was cheerfully deafening, drowning out the rush of the ocean against a shoreline she couldn’t see.
She left everything in the vehicle, wanting to see inside first. It was supposed to have solar power and a well so she assumed she would have functioning electricity and plumbing, but she had a propane camp stove and a large jerry can of water just in case.
The tall, skinny house had probably been avant-garde in its time, built over the edge of an embankment like this. A narrow wooden walkway, reminiscent of a drawbridge, took her from the graveled driveway to a pair of entry doors flanked by stained glass windows.
She would bet anything that sunshine had not broken through these panels in at least a decade. Nature had closed in around the structure, giving it a distinct “forgotten castle swallowed by brambles” vibe, complete with a moat of empty air between the wraparound veranda and the tree trunks that stood sentry a few feet away.
Maybe a tree house was a better comparison. Either way, she was in love. The siding might be weathered gray, and she imagined the roof was more moss than shingles, but she understood what it was like to be neglected for years, yet still hold potential. This was the perfect place for a dejected princess to shake off the spell she’d been under and awaken into her new life.
The paperwork promised that the keypad on the door had been returned to its factory setting, which was four zeroes, but when she punched that in, it didn’t work.
Annoyed, she walked around to where another small bridge connected a side door to the garage. Both of those doors were locked, so she continued to the back.
Here the deck opened into a massive outdoor lounge and dining area with a barbecue built for crowds. The expansive view of the ocean over the treetops stopped her in her tracks.
Wow. Thank you, Hunter.
She took a few deep breaths, grounding herself in the moment so she would remember it, then turned to the two sets of sliding doors interspersed with three wide picture windows.
Clean windows, she noted with a shiver of premonition. It struck her that the deck was swept clean of needles, the furniture was all right side up with the blue-and-yellow-striped cushions in place. The barbecue was uncovered.
Wait a minute. Was that door open? The screen was closed, but the glass behind it was wide open.
Her heart tripped as she scraped the screen out of her way and saw that yes, she was able to walk right in.
She expected—hoped?—to see water damage on the floor. That would mean that the previous owners or a property agent had irresponsibly forgotten to lock up properly, but no, it was clean as a whistle in here. Everything was in good order.
With her heart battering her rib cage, she took in that there had been updates carried out over the years. The floors were not the dreaded shag carpet or yellowed linoleum. There was a bright blue-and-black mat that she stepped on as she called out, “Hello?”
She was every idiotic woman who had gone down to the basement in a horror movie, but a more rational side of her mind was telling her some vacation renters had been given faulty information.
Was she even in the right house?
“Hello? Is anyone here?”
The floor plan was an open concept arranged around a massive river stone chimney. On her right, the kitchen had been given a complete makeover with Shaker-style white cupboards and granite countertops. The oval dining table was antique oak, the sitting room furnishings out of fashion but in good repair.
Her gaze lurched back to the wooden bowl on the table. That fruit was real! Two green bananas, an orange and a bright red apple with a sticker on it.
Through the open tread stairs that rose from the back of the sitting room, she could see a desk in the window near the front door. There was a laptop on it, closed, but plugged in with a coffee mug beside it.
Someone was definitely here!
In fact, steps inside the pantry began to creak under the weight of someone climbing them.
Snakes began to writhe in her middle as her morbid gaze stared into the open door of the pantry. This was her house, but she wasn’t an idiot. She turned to leave the way she’d come in.
“Who are you?” The rumble of a deep, unfriendly voice behind her lifted the hairs on the back of her neck.
She turned back and found not a scruffy squatter, but a fit, well-kept thirtysomething in a gray T-shirt and gym shorts, one who radiated the dangerous energy of a gathering storm.
Her senses were accosted by lake-blue eyes that pierced so far into her soul she shivered. His jaw was clean-shaven and looked hard as iron. The glower he wore was even harder. His legs were planted like hundred-year-old oak trees.
He looked her up and down as though she were a squirrel he’d have to shoo out with a broom. His thick brows went up, demanding she answer.
Habits of a lifetime had her wanting to make an apology and slink away. I’m nobody. Confrontation had never worked out for her, but she had to start standing up for herself. She wasn’t actually in the wrong here, even though he was making her feel that way.
“Who are you?” She kept her tone polite, but chilly. “This is my house.”
“No, it’s not.” His confidence was so absolute, it caused uncertainty to roll in her abdomen, instantly putting her on the defensive.
“I can show you the proof on my phone—” She looked to her hands and found only a key fob. She’d left her phone in the car, but, “This is 1183 Bayview Drive. That was the number on the post at the end of the drive.” She pointed in that direction.
His thick brows crashed together.
Ha. She was relieved to have scored a point for once in her life. See? She was not always wrong.
“Kindly explain why you’re in my house,” she repeated.
His eyes narrowed further. “Vienna?”
Her heart lurched. She’d come here hoping not to be recognized.
Jasper Lindor was about to start his daily workout in the basement when he heard someone try the keypad on the front door. He had changed the code when he arrived here, but a contract killer wasn’t likely to try a legal entry anyway. Nor was law enforcement.
He listened to a single pair of light footsteps follow the wraparound deck to check the side door then move to the deck at the back.
Had someone found him or was this person lost? Either way, he was annoyed. He was in the middle of placing a thousand dominoes with delicate precision. He needed another month before he could tip the first one and knock them all down. He didn’t want that jeopardized.
When he heard the screen door scrape and the call of a female voice, he let out a hacked-off sigh.
She wasn’t trying to hide her presence, so Jasper didn’t, either. He came up the stairs to the inside of the pantry only to find her leaving.
She had a spectacular ass. That was his first base impression. Snug jeans cupped a beautiful heart-shaped rump. Her sleeveless top exposed arms that were toned and tanned. Her long hair hung loose to the middle of her back. The brunette color held ash-blond highlights, the sort that pricey salons dispensed. All of her gleamed with the polish only money could buy.
Real estate agent? He should have let her leave, but recent betrayals had made him into the suspicious sort. Had she planted something while she was here?
“Who are you?” he demanded as he swept the rooms with his gaze.
She turned around and— Damn, she was lovely.
His guts twisted as he took in the wavy hair framing wide cheekbones and a flawless complexion. Beneath her peaked brows, her gray-green eyes took him in. Her narrow chin came up.
“Who are you?” She gave off an aloof, condescending air, the kind that still had the power to needle him all these years later, when he was no longer the broke teenager standing in a grocery store parking lot. “This is my house.”
“No, it’s not.” He knew who owned this house, but even as she rattled off the house number, his brain made the outlandish connection to the handful of photos he’d seen online.
She stiffened. Confusion shifted in her eyes as she tried to place him. Wariness.
“Did Hunter send you?” His thoughts belatedly leaped to his sister and her new baby. “Did something happen?”
“I’m asking the questions,” she insisted in a haughty way that grated. Her jaw lifted a notch so she was looking down her nose at him. “Who are you? This house is supposed to be empty.” She faltered as though mentally reviewing whatever data she’d been given. “At least, Hunter said it wouldn’t be used for vacation rentals anymore. Does he know you’re here?”
“Yes.” Jasper grew cautious himself. He wasn’t reassured to learn his intruder was Hunter’s sister. She seemed genuinely surprised the house was occupied and didn’t seem to know who he was, but she could still ruin his plans.
“Do you work for him? Who are you?” she demanded.
“You really don’t know?”
“Would I ask if I did?” Her knuckles were white where she fisted her hands at her sides.
Interesting. She wasn’t as full of lofty self-assurance as she was trying to seem.
He gave his clean jaw a rub. Keeping his beard off was a nuisance, but he was relieved to know that it had changed his appearance enough from his own dated online photos that she didn’t recognize him.
“Tell me first why you’re here. Are you with anyone? Your husband?” She had one, he recalled with a flick of his gaze toward the windows that looked onto the driveway. “Someone else?” he added with a twist of his lips.
A flash of indignation crossed her expression. She didn’t like being called unfaithful. Something more vulnerable followed—perhaps a realization that she was alone with a stranger because she lifted her chin and spoke with bold dishonesty.
“My husband is right behind me. You should definitely leave before he gets here.”
“Don’t lie to me, Vienna,” he said wearily. “I hate liars.” He really did.
“Well, I dislike people who pretend they know me when they don’t. Are you going to tell me who you are and what you’re doing in my house?”
“Your house.” He ran his tongue over his teeth, still judging that a fib.
She took fresh issue and stood taller.
She was on the tall side for a woman, with a figure that was willowy but indisputably feminine. Pretty. So damned pretty. He couldn’t help noticing even though she was very married.
Beauty on the outside didn’t mean beauty on the inside, he reminded himself starkly.
But the fact that she hadn’t known he was here, and didn’t recognize him, told him she wasn’t working for REM-Ex.
“I’m Jasper Lindor, Amelia’s brother.”
She seemed to stop breathing. She stood so still only her lashes quivered as her gaze bounced from his hairline to his gym shoes.
“Do you have proof?” she asked shakily. “Amelia was told you were dead. Hunter wouldn’t keep something like this from her.”
“She knows I’m alive. So does our father. I’ve seen them.” Once. It had been too short a visit, both heartening and heartbreaking. “I’m not ready to go public on the reasons for my disappearance, so Hunter let me stay here.”
She tucked in her chin. Her brow crinkled as she tried to decide whether to believe him.
If trust was a two-way street, they were both circling the block, unwilling to turn onto it.
“My passport is upstairs.” Worse for wear after all this time, but he’d managed to hang on to it. “Shall I get it?”
“No. I see the resemblance,” she murmured, her gaze traveling over his features with a thoroughness that made his chest itch. She cocked her head, relaxing a little. Her tone warmed. “Is this why Hunter was so strange about buying this property? I had no idea you were alive or staying here. That must have been such a relief for your family to learn you were okay.”
“Okay” was a stretch. He barely slept. He was haunted by the death of his friend and couldn’t help feeling threatened by a woman who posed as much physical danger as a knitted blanket.
None of that could be erased or fixed, but he was taking steps to achieve some justice. It all hinged on keeping that fact he was alive, and back in Canada, under wraps a little longer.
“Why are you here?” he asked bluntly.
She sobered. A flash of injury in her eyes was quickly screened by her lashes. Her mouth pursed.
“Seeking some ‘me’ time.”
“And you picked this house? Out of all the houses your family owns?” He didn’t know exactly how many there were, but he would bet there were several condos, cottages and cabins to choose from.
“I’m allowed to come to a house that I own.”
From what he’d read—and he’d read very little about her because she hadn’t seemed relevant to his situation—Vienna had struck him as the quintessential vapid heiress: feckless and superficial. She was always pictured in the most classically perfect clothing, wearing the same meaningless smile whether attending a fundraiser or an award banquet or her brother’s canceled wedding. She didn’t have a job, didn’t have kids, and somehow kept her head above water despite a habit of flooding proverbial toilets.
“Well, this house is occupied. I want to be alone, too.” He tilted a flat smile at her. “That’s why no one knows I’m here.”
“I wouldn’t have come if I’d known,” she said in a burst of defensiveness. She folded her arms and glanced over her shoulder to the SUV in the driveway. “I can’t go anywhere else, though. Someone will recognize me. The gulls will flock in.”
“Paparazzi.” She curled her lip in rueful disgust. “I’m embarking on the latest mile of the Waverly Walk of Shame: divorce.” She lifted her brows facetiously to emphasize what a disgrace that was in some eyes.
All he heard was paparazzi, “You’re bringing reporters to my doorstep?” His blood pressure shot up to pound behind his eyeballs. “Come on, lady.”
She jerked her head back, eyes brightening.
“It’s not your doorstep. It’s mine,” she reminded snippily. “And no, I took precautions. No one knows I’m here. That SUV is leased by Wave-Com. I have a burner phone like some kind of drug lord and my PR team use a secure chatroom. I went to a lot of effort to insulate myself—and Hunter, and Amelia, and Peyton—from what will be a feeding frenzy. I refuse to stand in the pillory anyway, just because my presence here is inconvenient for you. This is my house. I’m staying right here.”
Fighting for control over your own life was terrifying. Jasper was a very intimidating man, crossing his arms so those mountains he called shoulders seemed to bunch even higher.
Hunter wouldn’t be helping him if he was dangerous, she reassured herself. In fact, Hunter had sworn this house wasn’t being used for anything criminal. Jasper wasn’t a fugitive evading justice, just a really imposing recluse who was annoyed because his privacy had been invaded.
“We’re adults,” she pointed out, trying for a more conciliatory tone, but she could feel the strain in her voice. “Family.”
She offered a welcoming smile, genuinely happy to meet Amelia’s brother, but for some reason their gazes clashed like steel on steel, sparking and hot. Her throat felt scorched.
His glower rejected her overture and his disapproval rolled toward her like a fugue, seeping into the heart of her insecurities.
Not you. You’re not wanted. Get lost.
She resisted giving in, refusing to run like a coward. It was her house.
She waved at the wide rooms around them.
“I’m sure we can make this work. We both seem to be motivated to keep our presence here quiet.” She certainly was. “It seems like a big enough place that we should be able to share it without getting in each other’s way. I brought my own groceries.”
One dark brow lifted, unimpressed.
“I’m only staying a week.” Once the initial shock wave passed, she would fly to Europe to attend a wedding. “I have to be seen in public at least once before Hunter and Amelia get back. I’ll surface in Toronto so they won’t be inundated at their home in Vancouver.” Hopefully. “I have a plan. This isn’t my first time in the goat rodeo of bad publicity.”
“I won’t even make noise! I brought my art things.” So she could finally work on her own projects, rather than curating finished pieces for others. “Are you really going to refuse to let me stay here?”
“I can’t, can I?” His voice dripped sarcasm. “Mi casa es tu casa.”
What a grump.
Vienna walked outside to collect her bag and exhaled a huge sigh of bottled-up tension. Was she out of her mind to stay? His attitude was pretty much her worst nightmare, having grown up with her stepmother radiating that same pained tolerance.
It’s my house, she reminded herself.
But she really should start communicating more frankly with her brother. He’d been going through a lot with his new marriage and new baby, so she hadn’t wanted to be a bother. She never wanted to be a bother, but nearly everyone treated her as though she was.
She needed to grow up and grow a pair. She knew that. She needed to stop worrying about what other people thought of her and go after what she wanted without shame or guilt.
She had come this far on that journey already, hadn’t she? This was not the time to let her courage fail her.
Yet, when she walked back in to face Jasper’s judgmental gaze, and the sensation that he saw all her flaws clear as day, it took everything in her to say, “I’ll take one of the guest rooms. Don’t worry about moving out of the big one.”
His snort as she sailed under his nose suggested he was not worried at all, but she held her head high as she took her suitcase up the stairs.
She set it down in a bedroom that was adjoined to another through a Jack and Jill bathroom. A brief exploration showed her a reading nook on the landing then she peeked into the primary suite where the blue-and-yellow decor was fresh and bright. The room was dominated by a pillow-topped king-size mattress in what looked to be a waterbed frame built of massive timbers. Light poured in through the glass doors to a balcony with a limitless view of the ocean.
Aside from a bookmarked spy thriller on the night table and a flannel shirt hanging over the back of a chair, the room looked unoccupied.
Amelia had always made Jasper sound so human. Her stories were always mixed with distress that he was missing, but now Vienna thought about it, Amelia’s mood had lightened recently. Vienna had thought it was more to do with how well she and Hunter had been getting along, and the honeymoon to the South Pacific that they had impulsively planned, but now she thought perhaps the switch had happened when Amelia had learned her brother was alive.
For Amelia’s sake, Vienna was thrilled that Jasper had survived his disappearance, but he certainly wasn’t anything like the doting brother Amelia had described. He seemed embittered and gruff. Hard.
Maybe that’s just how he feels about you.
Stop it. She had been to therapy. She knew self-defeating thinking when it rang in her head.
Actually, that ringing was the door chime. He was going in and out while she was lingering up here, avoiding him.
She made herself go back downstairs and found Jasper had brought in most of her groceries.
“How long are you staying?” he asked, and set down the insulated box holding meat and dairy.
“I like to cook and knew I’d have time.”
The reality of sharing a house with him caused her stomach to pitch. She had never been so aware of a man. Not in this way. She’d suffered the friction of a difficult marriage where more went unsaid than was ever acknowledged aloud. Simply being a woman meant she’d endured the company of men who made a woman feel unsafe, but that wasn’t why she felt so uncomfortable right now.
Physically, she sensed no danger from Jasper. Emotionally? His unfriendliness stepped right on her old bruises. She was right back to feeling that every word or deed could be a giant misstep while she felt obliged to get along because their siblings were married.
Don’t make waves, Vienna.
It had always been her job to make everyone else feel comfortable, no matter what it cost her. She fell back on that habit as he came back with the jerrican of water.
“I was planning to make halibut tonight. There’s enough for two.”
He put the jerrican down in a corner on the floor. His casual strength was mesmerizing, but the way he eyed her as if looking for a catch kept a wall of antagonism between them.
“I thought we were going to stay out of each other’s way.” He picked up the little sack of fair-trade coffee beans and tucked it into a cupboard.
“We’re—” She didn’t dare call them family again. “In-laws. We should get to know each other.” Maybe then she would quit feeling like she was walking on hot coals.
“I know who you are, Vienna,” he said pithily.
“Really? How?” She prickled under his laser-sharp stare, feeling painfully transparent yet affronted. How could he possibly know anything about her when she had no inkling herself? She had lost any sense of self years ago. “Online trolls, I suppose?” She was instantly stinging with the poison of false reports. “I’ll disregard what your sister has said about you, then, and believe everything I’ve read.”
She hadn’t read much. Amelia had insisted he wasn’t the kind of person to walk away from a job or get someone killed, but that was what he’d been accused of. And maybe Vienna ought to give more credence to that, because the warning that flashed in his gaze was downright lethal.
All he said, however, was, “Touché.”
His acceptance of her remark did nothing to alleviate the uncomfortable tension in her belly. She didn’t care whether he approved of her. She didn’t.
She went back to stowing items in the refrigerator.
“I thought this said ‘pastille’ and you’d brought a huge box of candy.” He was holding her brand-new case of plein air colors. “You’re a pastel artist?”
When she overcame her imposter syndrome enough to call herself any kind of artist, yes, but her whole body wanted to fold in on itself that he was touching her things. It was as if he was looking straight into her and it hurt.
“Sculpture,” she joked past the suffocating sensations. She crossed to take the box from his hands and tuck it away with her pads and colored pencils, moving the whole lots to the far end of the dining room table. “The hammer and chisel won’t bother you, will it?”
“Not while my heavy metal is playing.”
He cocked a brow that said, I can play that game too.
“I’ll pull your car in.” He picked up her key fob and exited out the side door, the one that led to the garage.
She let out another pent-up breath and was finishing the groceries when he returned.
“Is there a path to the beach?” she asked. “I’d like to walk off my travel.”
And get away from these oppressive undercurrents.
“I’ll take you. It’s overgrown. You might get lost.”
It was August, so the ground was dry and the air warm, but there was coolness in the shadows beneath the boughs of the trees that spoke of old growth and time measured in centuries.
Jasper walked this path every day. It was easy enough to follow, but it would be just like a city girl to wander into the ferns and get disoriented. The last thing he needed right now was to have his sister-in-law lost in the woods.
Why did that word bother him so much? They were related by marriage. That was a true fact and, someday soon, he would regain his old life. He would visit his sister and her baby and would cross paths with Vienna and her husband—
No. She was divorcing. That was why she was here. She was taking cover while it was announced. The gossip sites did love a celebrity breakup, but she wasn’t a celebrity in the league of an American pop star. How bad could it be? From what he’d read…
Huh. She’d put him in his place on that one, hadn’t she? He’d been subjected to false reports himself, so he had some sympathy on that front.
“What did she say?” he asked over his shoulder.
“Who?” Her voice was farther behind him than he’d realized.
He had spent half his life off-grid, so ducking branches or stepping over roots was as easy as a flat sidewalk for him. He stopped and watched her pick her way carefully down a short drop, clinging to a sapling. She paused to drink in the moss-laden branches around them, expression serene and all the more appealing for that softness.
“My sister,” he clarified, yanking his thoughts from where they shouldn’t go. “You said you would disregard what she had said about me and believe what you’d read online.”
“Oh. Um. I don’t know. That everything online was wrong,” she said wryly. “That you looked after her when your mom passed and taught her to drive. Things like that. She said you probably would have killed Hunter with your bare hands if you’d been around when she turned up pregnant.” She chuckled dryly, but he thought he caught a glimpse of agony in her expression before she blinked and looked curiously to where a crow was cawing in the trees.
“It sounds as though our father was prepared to do that when he showed up at Hunter’s wedding.” The fact Jasper hadn’t been there for Amelia, and had instead caused her and their father untold distress, was a continuous knife of guilt in his belly.
“Tobias was pretty livid,” she agreed, smile oddly wistful. “I think it’s nice that you’re so close, though. It makes me envious.”
“You and Hunter aren’t close?”
“Not in the same way. Our upbringing was very different from yours.”
“Wow.” He would go ahead and believe his first impression of her, if that was how she talked. If the opinion of people like her mattered to him, he would point out that his net worth was in the same neighborhood as hers.
“Not because of means,” she said, cross and defensive. “Our father remarried. Hunter was tapped to take over the family business and it’s not exactly a dry cleaning outlet. He was busy with that so we had a very different upbringing from each other.”
“You don’t work for Wave-Com?” It was a national communications conglomerate. There had to be room for her.
“No. My—Neal does. He’s the VP of Sales and Marketing.”
Her ex, he presumed.
“I couldn’t believe who Amelia married,” he admitted and started walking again, still astonished his sister was married at all.
He’d been in a remote village on a tributary of the Bío-Bío River, tanned deeply enough to pass for a local when a stranger had come looking for the Canadian who was reputed to be staying in the area.
I’m working for your sister’s husband. You can trust me, he had said to Jasper in Spanish.
Like hell. Jasper had impatiently waved him away, sending him downstream.
The next day, the man had come back with a story from Amelia’s childhood that Jasper genuinely believed she wouldn’t share with anyone except someone she trusted. By then, he’d been gone more than a year. A year in which he’d made very little headway, despite constant efforts to raise investigations in Chile. Along with causing a painful loss, REM-Ex had cut him off from more than his family and his resources. He had lost his reputation and very identity.
It had been a gamble to trust that stranger, but he had reasoned that his dad and sister already believed he was dead. He had climbed aboard the private jet and read up on his sister’s husband while flying back to Toronto.
“Hunter was about to marry someone else,” he recalled. “That doesn’t exactly sound like a love match for Amelia.” That was eating at him, even though Amelia had seemed happy when he’d seen her.
“Hunter wouldn’t have let it get that far if he’d known about Peyton,” Vienna insisted behind him. “Eden has since married someone else, too. It all worked out for the best.”
“It certainly worked out for me,” he said ironically. “I got a free flight back to Canada, but I can’t help worrying she married him for my sake.”
Jasper pulled his own weight. He solved his own problems. People came to him for solutions. He didn’t rely on others. It galled him that his sister had had to come to his rescue and he couldn’t help wondering what it might have cost her.
“They married for Peyton’s sake,” Vienna assured him. “It was bumpy at first, but I’ve never seen Hunter as relaxed as he is around Amelia and Peyton. I don’t know what kind of father I thought he would be. Ours was…”
He stopped again, turning to see her cheeks were hollow, her mouth pensive.
“What?” he prompted.
She shrugged it off. “Hunter has always been very supportive and concerned about my welfare, but he’s different with them. He’s very open and loving, more so than I’ve ever seen him. It’s cute.” Her expression softened, then brightened. “Oh!”
She brushed past him to where the trees opened onto the beach.
“I was starting to think the climb back up wouldn’t be worth wherever it was you were taking me, but this is beautiful!”
She shaded her eyes as she scanned the cove formed by an arm of treed land extending outward to the south. Ahead, a small island with exactly three trees stood in the water. It was just far enough away that it remained unreachable on foot even when the tide was out. The sky was an intense blue, the sun glittering off the green water, illuminating the foam of the incoming waves. The sand was granite-gray and littered with kelp, utterly empty of human occupation.
The wind dragged at her hair and pressed her clothes to her front. He would have pegged her for a white sand, all-inclusive beach type, not so much raw nature, but she was entranced.
A sense of accord settled over him. He was a loner and had become very proprietary about this small stretch of paradise, but if he had to share it, he was glad it was with someone who appreciated it.
She glanced at him and caught him staring at her. Her carefree joy faltered into uncertainty.
He looked away, rebuking himself. Not her. For many reasons.
“There’s a hotel around that outcrop. I walk this direction.” He began negotiating the thick fence of gnarled driftwood thrown up on the beach by eons of wind and waves.
Tension filled the silence between them as they walked across the untouched sand.
Vienna told herself it was the breeze playing in her hair, snapping it against her face, that made her feel so sensitized. She was an artist, naturally affected by tangy, earthy aromas. That was why she wanted to take off her shoes, so she could feel the shifting temperatures in the sand. That was why her eye wanted to watch the sunshine paint itself over the planes of his body and the angles of his face.
It had nothing to do with that moment when they had come onto the beach, when she had suddenly felt noticed. Seen.
Most people only saw a curated version of her. She engineered it that way. She hid behind layers of perfect manners and pretty clothes, flawless makeup and carefully styled hair, protecting her thoughts and feelings with whatever image she thought they wanted to see. She was the Wave-Com Heiress or Neal Briggs’s Wife. Hunter Waverly’s sister or Peyton’s Auntie Vienna. She hated that she had to put up all these fronts. It was exhausting, but the nakedness of being herself was worse.
The wildness of the empty beach had called her out of her shell, though. For those vibrating seconds, she’d simply existed as part of the world. She was alive and unstoppable and beautiful because of the marks that flotsam and time had left upon her.
Then she realized Jasper had been studying her in her unguarded moment.
How would he use it against her? How would he hurt and diminish her?
“I’ll save that for another day,” she said when they reached a creek that cut a wide swath across the sand. They couldn’t cross it without getting soaked to their knees, so they started back.
She surreptitiously looked at him as he walked in long, powerful strides beside her. His gaze moved constantly, ignoring the beauty of a champagne-like splash of a wave on a rock, or the majestic soaring of an eagle on an updraft. His watchfulness was unsettling, his rigidity adding to her tension.
“How long have you been here?”
Before that, he’d been missing for a year. If Amelia hadn’t learned she was pregnant, she would have gone to Chile to find him. She had rightfully smelled something fishy in the fact that Jasper’s employers had claimed he was dead, but refused to pay out his life insurance.
“You’re protecting your family by staying under the radar,” she realized.
His gaze raked her. “That’s one reason, yes.”
“Am I in danger?” She touched her chest.
“Not if no one knows we’re here,” he drawled.
“Only my lawyer, I swear.” She held up her hand as if taking an oath. “Hunter doesn’t even know what I’m doing, obviously. Otherwise, he would have told me this was not the place to ride things out.”
“He doesn’t know you’re getting a divorce? Why not?”
She’d been afraid he would talk her out of it.
“Call me old-fashioned, but I thought my husband should be the first to know,” she said ironically. “Once he receives the papers, I’ll tell Hunter.”
“Your husband doesn’t know?” Jasper choked on a humorless laugh. “That’s cold.”
She lurched to a halt.
“You know nothing about my life.” She was the cold one? Right now, sure, her voice was as frigid as the tundra during an ice age. Her heart had plunged to the bottom of a canister of liquid nitrogen, but Neal was the one incapable of basic human warmth. That was why she was walking away from her marriage and the bleak future he offered her.
Jasper stopped two paces ahead of her.
She willed her hot eyes not to well with tears of rage or, worse, the humiliation that had been such a constant companion all these years. But the deep, horrible suspicion that maybe she was to blame for the lack of love from her husband was always there, ready to choke her.
“You’re right.” Jasper’s cheek ticked. “I was out of line. Your reasons for divorce and how you go about it are none of my business.”
Her jaw almost fell to the sand. She really was going to cry now, because at no point in her marriage had her husband ever offered anything close to that sort of personal accountability. It was always, Don’t be ridiculous, Vienna. What about my feelings?
Fearful she would break down completely, she ducked her head and walked past Jasper without another word.
Ah, hell. He’d handled that poorly, hadn’t he?
Women were more vulnerable than men. They were vulnerable to men. He knew that. Even the trophy wives he wanted to lump her in with, the ones who seemed happy to use their looks to feather their nests, were physically smaller than men. They were objectified and subjected to sexism.
For all he knew, Vienna’s marriage had been abusive. He had no right to pass judgment on how or why she had chosen to leave it.
He was trying to hold Vienna at a distance, though. Trying to dismiss her as avaricious and manipulative so he wouldn’t admire things like how she moved with the grace of a gymnast.
They had reached the obstacle course of driftwood between the beach and the forest. She stepped atop a log and balanced her way along, shifting to the next and the next as she worked her way up the beach. She didn’t look back once, which told him how much he had annoyed her.
He followed, brooding, watching for the path back to the house in case she missed it.
They were almost there when she gave a sideways leap to a log that had been sanded by wind and waves to a smooth, slippery finish. Her foot shot out from under her and she waved her arms, about to topple onto a pile of broken driftwood.
Jasper reacted without thought, leaping to catch her into the front of his body, giving her that extra moment to find her balance again.
It was seconds—less than five—that he held her, but the feel of her slender back and the firmness of that gorgeous ass pressing into his groin left him branded by her shape.
At best, he expected a grudging thank-you, but when he released her and she looked back at him, her expression was startled and defenseless. Her gaze traveled over him as though she was seeing him for the first time. As though she was seeing through his clothes and touching his skin. Or wanted to.
There was such earthy, sexual awareness in her eyes, such wonder when she lifted her gaze to meet his, that it struck him as a delicious punch in the stomach.
He was experienced enough to know when a woman had decided he struck her fancy. He was man enough to consider it when one did. Everything about her appealed to him. Her flowing hair glinted with sunlight. Her soft mouth and naked lips were shiny and receptive. Kissable.
Damn, but he wanted to taste that mouth. Her curves enticed his palms to gather and stroke and something intangible within her called him to a brighter place, drawing him like a flame in the night. Beckoning.
It’s not infidelity if she’s divorced, the devil on his shoulder pointed out.
It could happen. They could.
Theoretically, he corrected dryly, as she blushed with mortification and jumped to the sand, hurrying up the path to the house.
That was probably for the best. An affair with her was a terrible idea.