More Than a Convenient Marriage?(4)

By: Dani Collins

  “I’ve always known about him.” She set aside her wine with a frown of distaste. “I think that’s off.”

  “Always?” Gideon repeated. “You’ve never mentioned him.”

  “We don’t talk, do we?” Golden orbs came back, charged with electric energy that made him jolt as though she’d touched a cattle prod to his internal organs.

  No. They didn’t talk. He preferred it that way.

  Their server arrived with their meals. Gideon asked for Adara’s wine to be changed out. With much bowing and apologies, a fresh glass was produced. Adara tried it and stated it was fine.

  As the server walked away, Adara set down her glass with another grimace.

  “Still no good?” Gideon tried it. It was fine, perhaps not as dry as she usually liked, but he asked, “Try again?”

  “No. I feel foolish that you sent back the first one.”

  That was so like her to not want to make a fuss, but he considered calling back the waiter all the same. Stating that they didn’t talk was an acknowledgment of an elephant. It was the first knock on a door he didn’t want opened.

  At the same time, he wanted to know more about this supposed brother of hers. Sharing was a two-way street though and hypocrite that he was, he’d prefer backstory to flow only one way. He glanced at the offending wine, ready to seize it as an excuse to keep things inconsequential between them.

  And yet, as Adara picked up her fork and hovered it over her rice, she gave him the impression of being utterly without hope. Forlorn. The hairs rose all over his body as he picked up signals of sadness that he’d never caught an inkling of before.

  “Do you want to talk about him?” he asked carefully.

  She lifted her shoulder. “I’ve never been allowed to before so I don’t suppose one more day of silence matters.” It was her conciliatory tone, the one that put everything right and allowed them to move past the slightest hiccup in their marriage.

  What marriage? She wanted a divorce, he reminded himself.

  Instinct warned him this was dangerous ground, but he also sensed he’d never have another chance to understand if he didn’t seize this one. “Who wouldn’t let you talk about him?” he asked gruffly.

  A swift glance gave him the answer. Her father, of course. He’d been a hard man of strong opinions and ancient views. His daughter could run a household, but her husband would control the hotels. Her share of the family fortune wasn’t hers to squander as her brothers might, but left in a trust doled out by tightly worded language, the bulk of the money to be held for her children. The male ones.

  Gideon frowned, refusing to let himself be sidetracked by the painful subject of heirs.

  “I assume this brother was the product of an affair? Something your father didn’t want to be reminded of?”

  “He was my mother’s indiscretion.” Adara frowned at her plate, her voice very soft, her expression disturbingly young and bewildered. “He lived with us until he left for school.” She lifted anxious eyes, words pouring out of her in a rush as if she’d held on to them for decades. “My aunt explained years later that my father didn’t know at first that Nico wasn’t his. When he found out, he had him sent to boarding school. It was awful. That’s all they’d tell me, that he’d gone to school. I knew I was starting the next year and I was terrified I’d be forgotten the same way.”

  A stitch pulled in his chest. His childhood predisposed him to hate the thought of any child frightened by anything. He felt her confusion and fear at losing her brother mixed with the terror of not knowing what would happen to herself. It made him nauseous.

  Her expression eased into something poignant. “But then we saw him at my aunt’s in Katarini over the summer. He was fine. He told me about his school and I couldn’t wait to go myself, to be away from the angry man my father had turned into, make new friends...” Her gaze faded to somewhere in the distance. “But I was sent to day school in New York and we saw Nico only a few more times after that. One day I asked if we would see him, and my father—”

  Gideon wouldn’t have known what she failed to say aloud if he hadn’t been watching her so intently, reading her lips because he could barely hear her. Her tongue touched the corner of her mouth where a hairline scar was sometimes visible between her morning shower and her daily application of makeup. She’d told him it had come from a childhood mishap.

  A wrecking ball hit him in the middle of his chest. “He hit you?”

  Her silence and embarrassed bite of her lip spoke volumes.

  His torso felt as if it split open and his teeth clenched so hard he thought they’d crack. His scalp prickled and his blood turned to battery acid.

  “I didn’t ask again,” she said in her quick, sweep-it-under-the-rug way. “I didn’t let the boys say his name. I let it go. I learned to let a lot of things go.”

  Like equal rights. Like bad decisions with the hotel chain that were only now being repaired after her father was dead. Like the fact that her brothers were still boys because they’d been raised by a child: her.

  Gideon had seen the dysfunction, the alcoholic mother and the overbearing father, the youngest son who earned his father’s criticism, and the older children who hadn’t, but received plenty of it anyway. Adara had always managed the volatile dynamics with equanimity, so Gideon hadn’t tried to stir up change. If he had suspected physical abuse was the underbelly of it all...

  His fist clenched. “You should have told me,” he said.

  Another slicing glance repeated the obvious. We don’t talk.

  His guts turned to water. No, they didn’t and because of that he’d let her down. If there was one thing his wife had never asked of Gideon, but that he’d regarded as his sacred duty, it was his responsibility to protect her. Adara was average height and kept herself toned and in good shape, but she was undeniably female. Her bones were smaller, her muscles not as thick as a man’s. She was preordained by nature to be vulnerable to a male’s greater strength. Given what had happened to his own mother, he’d lay down his life for any woman, especially one who depended on him.

  “At any time since I’ve known you,” he forced himself to ask, “did he—”

  “No,” she answered bluntly, but her tone was tired. “I learned, Gideon.”

  It wasn’t any sort of comfort.

  How had he not seen this? He’d always assumed she was reserved because she had been raised by strict parents. She was ambitious and focused on material gain because most immigrant families to America were. He was.

  And compliant? Well, it was just her nature.

  But no, it was because she had been abused.

  He couldn’t help staring at her, reeling in disbelief. Not disbelieving she had been mistreated, but that he hadn’t known. What else did he not know about her? he wondered uneasily.

  Adara forced herself to eat as though nothing was wrong, even though Gideon’s X-ray stare made her so nervous she felt as if her bones were developing radiation blisters. Why had she told him? And why did it upset her that he knew what she’d taken such pains to hide from the entire world? She had nothing to be ashamed of. Her father’s abuse wasn’t her fault.

  Sharing her past made her squirm all the same. It was such a dark secret. So close to the heart. Shameful because she had never taken action against her father, trying instead to do everything in her power to keep what remained of her family intact. And she’d been so young.

  Her eyebrows were trying to pull into a worried frown. She habitually noted the tension and concentrated on relaxing her facial muscles, hiding her turmoil. Taking a subtle breath, she begged the constriction in her throat to ease.

  “He went by his father’s name,” she told Gideon, taking up the subject of her brother as the less volatile one and using it to distract his intense focus from her. “I found his blogs at one point, but since he had never tried to contact us I didn’t know if he’d want to hear from me. I couldn’t reach out anyway,” she dismissed with a shrug. “Not while my father was alive.” She had feared, quite genuinely, that he would kill her. “But as soon as Papa died, I started thinking about coming here.”

  “But never told me.”

  She flinched, always sensitive to censure.

  Her reaction earned a short sigh.

  She wasn’t going to state the obvious again though, and it wasn’t as if she was laying blame. The fact they didn’t talk was as much her fault as his, she knew that. Talking about personal things was difficult for her. She’d grown up in silence, never acknowledging the unpleasant, always avoiding points of conflict so they didn’t escalate into physical altercations. Out of self-defense she had turned into a thinker who never revealed what she wanted until she had pondered the best approach and was sure she could get it without raising waves.

  “I didn’t tell anyone I was coming here, not even my brothers. I didn’t want anyone talking me out of it.” It was a thin line in the sand. She wouldn’t be persuaded to leave until she’d seen her brother. She needed Gideon to recognize that.

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