The Wrong Wife(7)

By: Eileen Wilks

Not that the poverty bothered him. He'd lived in places a good deal worse before his aunt took him in, places where no one bothered to trim the grass or set out pots of grocery store mums to brighten a tiny front porch like someone had done here. No, he hadn't wanted to be there because he didn't know how to act around a regular family.

"Ryan!" a lilting voice had called out from somewhere above their heads. "I'm so glad you're here! I have to warn you, though." The voice had dropped confidentially. "Mom has been cooking all morning."

Gideon had looked up, right into a mermaid's eyes. A very dirty, landlocked little mermaid, with an elf's pointed face, skinned knees, and braids half undone, sat on the roof of that rundown mobile home, her bare feet dangling, and watched them solemnly.

"Is that bad?" he'd been startled into asking.

She'd nodded. "You have to eat it, you see." She looked him up and down, and her eyes brightened. "You look like you could eat a lot."

"He does," Ryan had said, laughing and lifting his arms. "Eats like a horse. Mom will love him. Come down from there, brat, you're confusing our guest."

Quick as that, she'd drawn her legs up, held her own skinny arms out, and leaned out into thin air, falling right into her brother's arms. Gideon had never forgotten the look on her face as she fell. Trust. Utter, joyous trust.

No, Gideon didn't understand Cassie. Not the little girl he remembered, or the young woman who stood across the room from him now in a gold and white Las Vegas suite, scattering crumbs on the thick carpet while she argued with her brother. But he did understand responsibility.

"Ryan," he said, deciding it was time they settled things. "You didn't come to my room to argue with Cassie."

The other man looked over at him. "No," he agreed slowly. "I came here to see if you needed your bones broken."

Cassie made an impatient noise that the two men ignored. "You thought I would hurt her?" Gideon asked.

"You were drunk," Ryan said bluntly. "So was I, or I wouldn't have let her go with you when you were in that shape."

Gideon nodded, accepting that. "Well?"

Ryan faced him. "She says you didn't hurt her. So the next question is, what do you plan on doing now?"

Gideon was silent. What was he going to do? Until Cassie had come out of the shower and announced her desire for an annulment, his course had seemed clear. He'd made promises. Never mind that he'd been drunk at the time. If anything, that made it even more important that he take responsibility for his actions—financial responsibility, at least. Money was the basis for this marriage, after all, however Cassie might try to deny it now.

Then Cassie had said she wanted an annulment. He couldn't let that happen. Gideon didn't know why it was so important, but he simply could not let her erase their marriage as if it had never happened.

After all, dammit, he wanted her. He ached, and the intensity of that ache unsettled him. He realized that one time with her would be not be enough. And didn't Cassie owe him something, too? "I promised her my support," he said slowly, forcing himself to think beyond the throbbing in his loins and the confusion in his mind. A piece of yesterday's jigsaw puzzle floated to the surface. "That was our deal, that I'd support her if she would marry me," he said, remembering. "She wants to paint."

"She needs to paint," Ryan corrected. "Not just because of the gallery owner who's interested in the direction she's taken with her work lately. That's important to her career, sure, but painting means more to Cassie than a career."

Cassie frowned and muttered something to her brother. Gideon didn't listen.

He understood what Ryan meant when he said Cassie needed to paint. Painting meant more to her than anything, including the husband she'd acquired in order to pursue her painting. He just hadn't thought Cassie could use people that way. He hadn't thought she could use him that way.

Yes, he decided, she did owe him. Chances were, though, her brother wouldn't care for the type of repayment Gideon had in mind. Gideon didn't want to lose Ryan's friendship. He had to set this up carefully. "What I decide has to be up to Cassie to some extent. I'm willing to settle funds on her."

"Marriage involves a hell of a lot more than a checkbook. If you're not—"

"He said it was up to me," Cassie interrupted.

She might as well have not spoken. "What I want to know," Ryan said to Gideon, "is whether you intend to dump my little sister or not. I had my reasons for encouraging this marriage—"

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