'Charity,' Xander repeated in a voice as thin as silk. 'Well, that explains the need to drive like a maniac. Now explain to me why you dismissed Hugo Vance...'
Nell froze where she lay curled on her side, her moment of triumph at her own quick thinking fizzling out at the introduction of her ex-bodyguard's name. She moved, ignoring the creases of pain in her ribs to drag herself into a sitting position so she could grab her knees in a loose but very defensive hug, her hair slithering across her slender shoulders to float all around her in a river of rippling Titian silk.
'I don't need a bodyguard,' she muttered.
'I have three,' Xander replied. 'What does that tell you about what you need?'
'I'm not you.' She sent him an acrid look. 'I don't stride around the world, playing God and throwing my weight around-'
His eyes gave a sudden glint. 'So that is how you see me as a god that throws his weight around?' The silken tone gave her no clue as to what was about to come next. 'Well, my beautiful Helen,' he drawled in a thoroughly lazy attitude, 'just watch this space-'
In a single snaking move he was off the chair and leaning over her. The next second and he was gathering her hair up and away from her face. A controlled tug sent her head back. A stifled gasp brought her startled eyes flicking up to clash with his.
What she saw glowing there set her trembling. 'You're hurting-'
'No I'm not,' he denied through gritted teeth. 'But I am teetering, cara mia, so watch out how many more lies you wish to spout at me!'
'I'm not lying!'
'No?' With some more of that controlled strength he wound her hair around his fingers, urging her head back an extra vulnerable inch so as to expose the long, creamy length of her slender throat.
'You were leaving me,' he bit at her in hard accusation. 'You were speeding like a crazy woman down that lane because you were leaving me for another man and you got rid of Vance to give yourself a nice clean getaway, only that damn tree got in the way!' .
Caught out lying so thoroughly, she felt hot colour rush to her cheeks. His eyes flared as he watched it happen. Defiance rose in response.
'So what if I was?' she tossed back at him. 'What possible difference was it going to make to the way you run your life? We don't have a marriage, we have a business arrangement that I didn't even get to have a say about!' Tears were burning now-hot, angry tears. 'And I dismissed Hugo a week ago, much that you noticed or cared! I have a right to live my own life any way I want-'
'And let another man make love to you any time that you want?'
The raking insert closed Nell's throat, strangling her breath and the denial she could have given in answer to that. Her angry lips followed suit, snapping shut because she didn't want to say it. She did not want to give him anything that could feed his mammoth ego.
The silence between them began to spark like static, his lean face strapped by a fury that stretched his golden skin across the bones in his cheeks as their eyes made war across a gap of barely an inch. Then his other hand came up to cover her throat, light-fingered and gentle but oh, so menacing.
'Say it, yenika,' he encouraged thinly. 'Live dangerously...' He thought she was holding back from admitting she had taken a lover, Nell realised, and felt the triumph in that tingle all the way down to her feet. She moistened her lips-tempted, so desperately tempted that she did not know how she managed to keep the lie back. Their eyes continued to war across several taut, suffocating seconds. It was exciting, knowing that she had the power to shatter his precious ego with a single soft word like yes.
The tips of his long fingers moved on her throat, locating a wildly beating pulse. Nell needed to take a breath, her ribs were hurting under the pressure she was placing on them, and in the end she managed a short, tense tug of air into her lungs before improvising shakily, 'If you want to strangle m-me then go ahead; I'm in no fit state to stop you.'
Surprise lit his face. He glanced down to where his fingers curved her throat, dark lashes curling over his eyes before lifting again to view the way his other fingers were knotted into her hair. There was yet another second of taut, breathtaking stillness in which the entire world seemed to grind to a halt. Then the fingers began to slide again, moving almost sensuously against stretched, smooth, creamy flesh as they began to make a slow retreat.
Relief quivered through her, parting her lips on a small, soft gasp. The fingers paused, she held her breath again, felt a different kind of excitement erupt as she flicked a look into the deep, dark, swirling depths of his eyes and saw what she'd always seen there.
Xander had always desired her and Nell had always known it. Whatever else had motivated him into marrying her, the desire had always been the added incentive that made the deal worthwhile.
'You remind me of a sleeping siren,' he murmured. 'It is the only thing that has kept you safe for the last year. Give me one small hint, cara, that you have given to someone else that which I have resisted and you will spend the rest of your days regretting it.'