The Bride He Stole For Christmas by Caitlin Crews
HAD TIMONEY GEORGEnot felt dead inside, she might almost have enjoyed this lavish dinner the night before her farce of a wedding.
It was merry enough, as suited a pre-wedding gathering on Christmas Eve. The guests were well-heeled and far too well-bred to speak directly of the many unfortunate undercurrents flowing up from the old stones all around them. The groom was well-liked in this particular circle, having considered himself a scion thereof for many decades. Two of his previous wives had been great favorites here as each had been part and parcel of this same crowd, as likely to claim power in Whitehall and international stock exchanges as in the titles so many had inherited.
Everything tonight was the height of sophistication, in deference to both her uncle’s self-regard and his bottomless ambition. To say nothing of the groom’s.
Too bad about the tart of a bride, Timoney thought from her position at her uncle’s right, with a glimmer of her former wry humor.
But she locked it away. Because she didn’t feel things anymore. She’d already had her fill.
Timoney looked around the hall instead. Her childhood home,entailed away to her uncle after her father’s death, was done up like a stately Christmas card.Aunt Hermione was renowned for her joylessness in all things, which Timoney suspected was directly related to her endless pursuit of the skeletal figure she liked to coldly tell her rather softer and rounder teen daughters was the height of elegance. True enough, as collarbones like hers essentially acted as clothes hangers for couture. And yet despite the iron self-control and what had to be a lifetime of gnawing hunger, the woman was possessed of an excellent eye for decoration.
If Timoney had been of a more poetic bent, she might have indulged herself with imagining that tricking out the old family hall was how Hermione expressed herself in ways otherwise unavailable to her as the thin-lipped, thinner-hipped, and much younger wife of Timoney’s loathsome uncle Oliver.
But poetry was far too emotional. Aunt Hermione was likely good at decorating because she was, herself, a decoration. And like all the other trophy wives here tonight, her true vocation was in making her husband happy—likely so he’d go off and be happy elsewhere and leave her to her poinsettias and evergreen boughs.
You would do well to learn a little something from Hermione, Timoney told herself, bracingly.After all, she was staring down a futureas a trophy herself.
Though a rather tarnished one, as her uncle never hesitated to remind her.
She slid her gaze toward her groom and was pleased to find that even tonight, one more sleepless nightbefore the wedding,she felt the same wealth of nothingshe’dfelt since her uncle had announced that Timoney’s choices were stark. Either marry his business associate,Julian Browning-Case,or be cut off from the family forever.
It wasn’t that Timoney liked her extended family all that much that the loss of them would be devastating in any way. But after losing her parents—and afterward, losing what was left of her heart so wholly and irrevocably—she didn’t have it in her to walk away from what she had left. She also knew that her parents would have hated it if she had. They had always told her that Oliver might have faults, but it was better to believe that he was doing the best he could.
Timoney had seen no evidence of that. But really, it was the least she could do after her scandalous behavior had, according to her uncle, blackened the family name forever.
Shewas well awarethather uncle’s real concern had nothing to do with the family’s reputation. It was her reputation, not the family’s, and why would anyone care what the orphaned daughter of the former heir got up to? The Georges had old money and unlike some, had held on to it. And every family with a drop of noble blood in England had at least one embarrassing member. Especially among the younger generations, who tended to perform for the pages of Tatler—especially if it horrified their parents. It was an excuse for her uncle to flex his power as the head of the family, that was all.
But none of that mattered any longer. Julian Browning-Case, while not what Timoney would describe as doting in any way, was not openly vicious.He was three times her age, had not insulted her even when her uncle did, and was shaped like a man who could look forward to future heart trouble. To that end, the kindestadvice heraunt hadever given her—moments before entering the engagement party a month ago that Timoney had worked to pretend wasn’t happening as it did—was a pointed reminder that the Browning-Cases were not known for being particularly long-lived.
Hermione had seen Timoney balk, just outside the doors of the hall. And because Oliver had not, it had likely felt safe for her to lean in and offer a dollop of her own brand of wisdom.
For those of us who make practical instead of romantic marriages, Hermione had said with a curious expression on her face—as if, Timoney had reflected from the usual distance from which she observed anything these days, seeing her niece for the very first time. Perspective is everything. One must always weigh one’s—ah—expected future solitude against the manifold joys of one’s actual marriage while it exists in its current form. It is a delicate math.
That was the closest Hermione had ever come to any kind of surrogate maternal expression.That, too, was just as well.
Because Timoney did not wish to think too much about her parents—or her actual, horribly missed mother. It was too hard. Too painful,though it was nearly three years ago now.The two of them had been gone so quickly, so suddenly. And then everything had changed so rapidly. One terrible, irrevocable event after another so that Timoney rather thought that if she had the capacity to feel anything inside any longer, anything at all, a night like this might have wreckedher.
For surely it ought to be painful to be back here in this house where she had once been so happy.When joy had been at the heart of everything, waiting around every corner, filling all of these ancient rooms. Some of her fondest memories were of running through these halls that had seemed far lighter then, lit upwith her parents’ love for each other. And their boundless delight in her.
She had been on the verge of her twentieth birthday whenshe’dgotten the callthat an icy road on a cold March evening had taken away the two peopledearest toher. Mere miles from this old manor house, hidden away in hedges and stone.
Uncle Oliver had wasted no time.As the new head of the family, hewas in charge of the George fortune—and Timoney’s trust—until her twenty-eighthbirthday. But he hadn’t wished to trouble himself with paying for her until then. He had yanked her out of her beloved finishing school in the French Alps two weeks after her parents’ funeral. Once she’d come back to the house he’d already claimed as his, he had informed her that for the next eight years she was to do as he bid her because, as far as he was concerned, she was a charity case. And it was too bad for Timoney that he was no fan of charity.
Even then, he had offered her choices, such as they were. She was to marry to suit him—because she would be a useless drain on him for nearly a decade aside from her ability to please his rich friends and access their wealth and favor—or she was welcome to make her own way in the world.
Timoney wet her lips with the wineon the table before her, an easy way to check to make sure her mouth was in the polite near-smile shape that was expected of her. And she nodded along, pretending to listen as the swell of conversation went on all around her.
Something in her shifted, almost unpleasantly, as she thoughtof the girlshe’dbeen back then. Puffed up with outrage and grief.Filled with a deep loathing of her evil uncle and appalled at his demands. Did he really think he could treat her like a chattel? She was newly twenty then, and modern—not a medieval twelve.
She’dtold him where he could go, she’d swanned off to London, and she’d taken the first job she could find. It turned out she was an excellent fit to do a bit of PR for a corporation she’d never heard of and didn’t care to learn much about. But that was the benefit of her brand of public relations. Timoney didn’t need to move the product—she threw the parties. She already had the kind of connections businessmen in suits were always gasping to exploit, so it mattered littlethat she knew nothing at all about the things they got up to in their endless meetings. All that mattered was that she was blonde and could get certain names to turn up, which guaranteed press.
And for a good eighteen months she’d had a lovely time.She’d shared a flat in Central London—it was more a house, really, but they all called it a flat because that felt more career-girls-in-the-Smoke—with a few girls she knew from school. All of themhad been in the same sort of purgatory, cast out into the world by the heads of their families with vague expectations that they should prove they weren’t entirely useless—even though everyone knewthat in five years or ten or so the trust funds would start kicking in and all the proof would be pointless.They’d all been playing the same sort of waiting game in those years, tradingthis party for that in all the trendiest corners of giddy London, all of them counting down the daysuntil they could stop pretending.
It would be better, Timoney had often thought back then, not to know that there was a future, fixed date upon which one would never have to worryabout paying a bill again. Especially when she couldn’t go beg Daddy to do it for her like her friends.
Then she’d met Crete Asgar and she’d stopped thinking of any future that didn’t involve him.
Even thinking his name here, now, at a table filled with the kind of braying toffs he disdained, made her fight backa deep shiver.
There was a straight line between that fateful night and this one.It had all beenheaded for disaster from the start—though she hadn’t known that then. She hadn’t known, or wanted to know, a thing but Crete.
And Timoney was pleased that her heart had been ripped out and trampled, because it no longer beat too hard. It no longer threatened to burst.She could stand here,on the night before her wedding to another man she hardly knew, and congratulate herself on feelingvery littleat all.
Because after a whirlwindsix months as Crete’smistress,he had finished with her two months ago. Brutally.
She felt proud that she could think of it that way. Such a quiet little sentence. He had finished with her.Such bloodless words to describe that scenein that penthouse of his, all modern anglesand cold lines set up there above the Thames, wherehe’dtaken everything that Timoney was, shredded it, then set it all on fire.
It’s better this way, she assured herself. There’s nothing left to worry about losing.
She heard her uncle’s voice from beside her and snapped back into the here and now, at this holiday dinner party that was supposedly in her honor.
“I hopeyou aren’t lapsing off into any unfortunate second thoughts,”UncleOliver said coldly at her elbow. Timoney had no memory of the rest of the party rising from the banquet table, but they must havedone. Fornowshe could see straight across to her favorite tapestry on the far wall, though staring about the brightly lit, festive room didn’t warm her as it might have once. It could have been ash for all she cared.
Maybe it was.
“I don’t have thoughts, Uncle,” she replied coolly. “Second or otherwise. You have forbidden it.”
His hand was on her elbow then, and he squeezed far too hard, but she did not give him the satisfaction of wincing.No, indeed. She felt the pain of it, and some part of it thrilled her.That she could feel even a sensation like that, her uncle’s brand of quietly sadistic violence, and react not at all.
“Julian tells me that you declined his offerof a drink last night,” her uncle hissed into her ear. “I thought we were agreed on our course of action.” Meaning he’d ordered her to offer the groom a preview of what he was purchasing.
“I will be marrying Julian soon enough,” Timoney said, turning her gaze toward her uncle. And maybe itwasn’tentirely true to say she felt nothing. Only that she showed nothing. Because, she could admit, she took no little pleasure in the way she gazed dispassionately at this man whose distaste for her seemed to bounce off her now. Like rubber. She especially liked that it clearly enraged him. “Sono reason to rushinto it.”
“What sudden preciousness is this?” her uncle snarled. He leaned in closer, across the corner of the table they shared. “You’re damaged goods, Timoney. Thatcretin’sfingerprints are all over you. You flaunted yourself on his arm and he made no secret of the base physicality of your union in every photograph taken by the baying press. Yet you darepull on a cloak of false modesty?”
Timoney pointedly tugged her elbow out of his grasp. “It’s not modesty, Uncle. It’s strategy.Why givemyselfaway for free with the wedding so soon? What if he was disappointed?” She shrugged as if they were discussing livestock. Well. She supposed they were. “Damaged goods or not, why would a man pay full price for something when he’d already had it at a discount?”
If she wasn’t already ruined—and not in the way her uncle imagined—this would destroy her, she was sure. This cold, dispassionate discussion of the marital rightsshe’dbe expected to perform tomorrow.
Said marital rights that were, she waswell aware, somethingher elderly husband was eagerly awaiting. Julian had made his interest in her clear since the momenthe’dlaid eyes on her here at one of her uncle’s dreadful soirees not long after she’d slunk back to the ancestral pile in shame, still licking her wounds.
Though it was more accurate to say that shewasn’tso much licking wounds as she was attempting to...pretend that she was stilla person.Instead of the tiny little pile of crushed-out cinders that Crete had left behind him that night.
It hadtaken her uncle only a few weeksto talk her into this marriage that benefited him the most. He had ranted on about the shame she’d brought on the family. About the stain of itthat would clingto his own three daughtersif Timoneywas allowed tocontinue her downward spiral.
By his reckoning, havingbeen sullied and discarded by the likes of Crete Asgar—as infamous for his entirely self-made wealth as for his contempt of the sort of hereditaryriches that Oliver now possessed—Timoney was no better than the sorts of addicts one could find cluttering upthe streets. Oliver did not view such addictions as diseases. They were choices, he liked to declare. For it was one thing to genteelly pop painkillers like all the women in Oliver’s circles did to survive their practical marriages. It was something else again to allow one’s weaknesses to be so visible, and Timoney was already on the wrong side of that equation.
For she had appeared in too many papers Oliver’s friends actually read, clearly in thrall to her unacceptable lover.
What next? he had thunderedat a family dinner a week or so after she’d returned.Would she turn to modeling—which, in his mind,was merely prostitution by another name.
I will take that as a compliment, Uncle, Timoney hadreplied over her chilled soup with a flash of her former defiance. I had no idea you rated my looks so highly.
That had gotten hera slap.
More than that, it had gotten her uncle thinkingabout how best he could use her looks to his advantage.
You’re the spitting image of your mother, he had said not long after. Timoney knewthis wastrue, and it was one more thing painful for her to try not to think about. She grew more like her mother every day. The blond hair, the wide smile, the pointed chin.So similar, and yet Crete had seen to it that there was nothing resembling the spark of joy in her that had always brightened her mother’s gaze.
It was better not to think of such things. It only made her sad.
Beside her, her uncleseemed to still be turning over the notion that Timoney mightactually haveacted strategically in his interest. But she knew it wouldn’t last. She had only to inhale too loudly to agitate him anew.
“On that note,” she said now, “I believe I will call it a night. I expect tomorrow will be long.” And arduous in more ways than one.
“You and Julian will be staying in his guest suitetomorrow night,” her uncle told her coldly. “He does not wish to travel after the reception.And I had better not hear of any impediment to a swift and comprehensive consummation of your union.”
“What a pity we can’t gather everyone round for viewing of the marital sheets,”Timoney said drily.
Uncle Oliver’s gaze was scathing. “To what end? That is a ceremony for virgins. I think we both know that there is notan unspoiled inch on your body, girl. Not after letting that animal rut all over you.”
Timoney couldn’t keep herself from thinking about the way he’d said that as she left her own party, smiling distantly at the assembled guests, all of themcold likeAuntHermione, cruel like her uncle, or simply self-satisfied like her husband-to-be.They would go on, no doubt toasting their own wealth and consequence, well into the wee hours.
Maybe there would be so much toasting it would stave off the worst of any comprehensive consummating.
“Tomorrow, my dear,” said Julian when she crossed his path, his creased and reddened faceperhaps a shade too jolly for her liking.
“Tomorrow,” she agreed, and had to force the ends of her mouth to curve.
Soon enough, she told herself harshly as she took herself out of the grandhall, she would be lying beneath that man.Far more intimately acquainted with his brand of jolly than she liked. It was not a pleasant thought. It had been better in the abstract, when the wedding was someday,not soon. Not tomorrow.
Timoney stopped at the foot of the stairs that led up toward the bedchambers. She looked toward the banquet hall she’d just left. Then, following an urge she could hardly name, she turned and fled out into the cold gardens.
Because Timoneyknew full well that she would do as women always had. Or she hoped she would. She would lie back, close her eyes, and think not of England,but of the manwho had imprinted himself upon her so completely that it was not clear to her that she would ever take another breath without feeling him somehow inside her all over again.
She was glad she’d thought to grab her cloak on her way outside, for the night was cold. A mist made the winter garden mysterious, especially when the moon shone through.
It was a silent night indeed.
And ifTimoney had let herself feel, all the things that moved inside her then might have taken her to her knees. Right there where the flowers would bloom again in spring, long after she had calcified and died anew inside this marriage of hers. Long after Julian carried her off to his estate, sampled her, and then added her to his collection of stodgy statuary that was often written up in guidebooks, or so he claimed.
Shedidn’tbuckle or fall over. She drew the warm cloak around her and sank down on the first stone bench she found, letting her eyes fall shut.
And she worked so hardto keep herself from thinking about Creteor that last night with him too closely.But tonight was the last time she would be able to think about him as a singular event in her life. In her body.
From tomorrow forward,Crete would be the gold standard—butthere wouldbe Julian, too. And here, in the privacy of this frozen garden, she allowed herself to take a peek at all the thingsshe truly felt about that notion.
Shock. Despair. Horror.
And a kind of resoluteacceptance, becausethere was no changing this.
Crete Asgar had swept into her life like a wildfire,burned her to a crisp, then had left nothing in his wake save charred ground.
She could remembereach and everymoment with such distinct and spectacular detail it was like punishing herself. Every touch of his hand. The first, life-alteringcurve of his hard mouth. The kiss that had knocked her sideways and stolen her heart.
She had given him her innocenceand in return, he had taken her apart.
He had made her body feel and do things she had not believedcould be real. She still woke in the night, her body electric and alive, her heart pounding so hard it hurt and his tastein her mouth.
Sometimes she would dreamthat she was still living with him, the heat of his possession making the whole of that penthouse glow, all its hard angles and edges softened by the fire in the way he looked at her. The way he held her. And howall-encompassing it was between them.
You are a terrible distraction, he had told her onceand, foolish girlthat she was, she had thought of that as a compliment.
To be able to distract a man of his singular focus. A man who had established himself with his single-mindedness. A manwho had been flung out of his father’s family the moment he was of age and left to fend for himself—because he was a bastard, evidence of an affair, and soundly unwanted.
Crete Asgar had not cared who wanted him. What he wanted was power.
It had taken him five years to make his first fortune. And then he had made so many subsequent fortunes that it had become something of an international sport to guess his net worth.
She should have known better than to imagine a man like thatwould ever welcome too many distractions.
Timoney stayed there on her cold bench,her eyes screwed shut as her heart began pounding again.
If she let herself, she could almost imagine that the Christmas Eve air was thick with the tension that had always hummed between the two of them. Only between them, and obvious from the start. She had looked up from her mobile, thereoutside a club in London so trendy it had already disappeared before that weekend had ended, checking in big names to another party. Shecouldn’tremember the supposed purposeof that particular evening.
What she could remember in stark detail was lifting upher gaze from the screen of her mobile when she’d sensed the man standing before her.
She could rememberher first sight of him so clearly. His dark black hair. The gleaming arrogance of his shocking blue gaze. He was tall and perfectly built, though she spent her life around men who could claim the same. Yet there was something about Crete Asgar. He was bolder. Wilder. It was as if he carried a storm with him, and it was evidentin the width of his shoulders, the hard planes of his face. He was a perfect combination of his Greek mother and Scandinavian father, and it was easy to imagine him as some kind of Spartan warrior, prepared to storm the gates of Valhalla if he wished.
Looking at him had felt like an ancient ritual, sparked with drums deep within herand ecstatic dancing beneath the hidden moon. Timoney had felt as if the act of locking gazes with himwas something like...obscene. Too precious and private to be happening out on a London street.
She’dseen a pulse beat in his neck.She’dseen a kind of recognition flaring his gaze.
He’dreached out his hand to slide it over her jaw, as if to test whether she was real, and she’d been lost.
It was possible she had never been found.
Crete had muttered a curse. He’d taken her hand, then led her away from her post and into the party.
She remembered the heaving club as if itwasa part of him, of them, of that mad current that had flared between them from the start. She had felt it between her legs.She’dfelt itall over her skin, like a terrible tattoo.
Terrible and wonderful, and then he had drawn her behind himinto what she realized, only much later, was a cloakroom.
Who are you?he’dasked, breathing her in, and then his mouth had been upon her.
She liked to think that she had found herself againat the stamp of his hard possession, the slide of his tongue against hers.
Crete had not so much kissed her as taken her, stormed her, claimed her forever.
And later, she would learn the details that made what happened there marginally less sordid—not that she had cared at the time. That his security detail had paid off the cloakroom worker and stood sentry at the door, so there was no possibility that anyone would walk in on them.
But Timoneyhadn’tknown that then. She had only been swept away. The fire between them so intense, so overwhelming, that her only choice had not beenwhether or notto surrender, but only how. Or how much.
She told herself to recast the scene in her mind, now, all these bitter months later. She told herself it had been a sickness on her partthat had led her to tear her mouth from his to follow a spark of feminine intuition shecouldn’tpossibly have named when she had so little experience to her name. Still,she’dsunk down onto her knees before him,because she’d wanted nothing more than to worship at the altar of... Whatever this was. Whatever he was.
Whoever he was.
She’dnever done such a thing in her life. She had neverwanted to do such a thing, but her hands had seemed to find the fly of his trousers of their own accord. Timoney had wrenchedthe zipper down, finding him huge and hot and pushing out to meet her.
And then she taught herself what it was to worship a man, there on her kneeswith the music lighting her up, the drums deep within, and a need so profound it made her sway her hips back and forth as she knelt there and took him deep into her mouth.
She followed instincts shehadn’tknown she possessed, running her tongue up the length of him, then sucking him deep. Out here in a cold Christmas Eve, she told herself she should be ashamed. That she should feel wretched that she had esteemed herself so little, that she had debased herself like that, losing herself completely in the slide and the stretch of him inside her mouth.
But try as she might, thatwasn’thow she remembered it.
It was never how she remembered it.
For Timoney hadnever felt so alive, so powerful. She knew his strength by the way his hands gripped her hair, taking control of her, guiding her head,and then, as everything seemed to brighten, to get bolder, to crystallize into something—
He had pulled her away and stared down the length of his body,his chest moving and his face so intense with need and hunger that he had seemed nearly cruel.
But the kind of cruelty she wanted to wrap herself around and writhe against.
Have you ever done this before?
It had been a low, rough whisper.
And it had felt like a sacrament as she’dknelt and beheld him. A quiet, sacred moment, all theirs.
Timoney hadbeen lying to her friends for years, pretending she possessed the casualness and sophistication they all seemed to exude so effortlessly. They had assumed she had partaken of the same experiences they did, and she had never corrected that impression. But shecouldn’tlie to the stranger. To him.
She hadshaken her head, no.
And an expression she could not possibly have read had flickered across the carved sculpture of his face.
He had tucked himself away, wincing slightly, and had pulled her to her feet.
Have you ever done any of this before? he had asked.
Tell me, he had ordered her. Tell me what you’ve done.
Nothing, she had confessed.I’ve only been kissed once before, and not like that. And you’re the only man I ever...
Her voice had betrayed her, but she would have betrayed herself a thousand times again for the look on his face then.
So possessive.So deeply male it hurt.
Tell me your name, he had ordered her. And then tell me what it will take to make you mine.
She shuddered at that, here on her frigid bench on this lonely Christmas Eve, her body as alive and greedy as she had been thatnight.
And Timoney wanted to scream out all the anguish,all the artless fury thathe’dleft her with. His betrayal so absolute that it had taken her whole months to fully comprehend exactly what he’d done. Chucked her out. Forgotten her name.Washed his hands of her completely.
Yet tonight, when sheshould havebeen reveling in exactly how cold and dead inside she’d become, it was as if he was here.A ghostly presence in the mist, and it seemed deeply unfairthat any ghost could filla cold garden the way he had always overwhelmed a room.
She blew out abreath andtold herself not to be such a fool. For once.
Crete was immovable.A terrible wall of stone and silence, and some part of her had known that from the start.
And still she had run straight for all that brick and smashed herself apart.
“Have you fallen asleep,Timoney?” came the terrible, wonderful, familiar voice.
Timoney wrenched open her eyes, and as she did, the moon came out from behind the clouds.
And it was impossible, but Crete was there. He stood before her looking beautiful and dangerous, as ever. He was sheer male gloryin his typical uniform, one of those dark, bespoke suitsthat made love to his body in all the ways she longed to do.
It was not possible, and yet every hair on her body seemed to stand on end, so she knew that it was real. That this was no dream.
That somehow, Crete Asgar was stood in the remains of the garden while her uncle and her husband-to-be carried on toasting the wedding up in the manor house.
“Crete...” she whispered.
And all the feelingsshe’dbeen holding at bay slammed back into her, and worse, were lit up with hope.
Becausehe hadfinished with her because she’d committed the cardinal sin of telling him she loved him. Why would he be here, on the night before her wedding no less, unlesshe was finally ready to admit what she had always suspected, that he loved her, too? What else could bring him out on Christmas Eve?
“You can’t possiblymarry that old man in the morning,” he told her, and he did not sound like a man tortured by love. He did not sound tortured at all. Or in love. If anything, Crete sounded impatient. “I have standards, Timoney.Obviously any lover after me will be a downgrade. But this verges on an insult.”