The heels of Elizabeth Lockyer's shoes ricocheted against the pavement as she wove her way through the crowd, dodging tourists and side stepping speeding couriers on pushbikes. Each click of her heels corresponded with the rhythm of her heart. Precise, fast and furious. The redness of her cheeks and the stinging of her blue eyes had nothing to do with the blistering heat of a Sydney summer day but everything to do with sexism. Rampant, raging sexism. Her heartbeats quickened with her walking pace as she expended some of her angry energy into the concrete beneath her feet.
The presentation she had given last week had been good, one of her best, concise in detail and accurate in its content. The client had been pleased enough to have signed a lucrative contract, but had she received any words of praise, a crumb of recognition? No. All she’d got for her long hours of hard work were bags under the eyes and a humiliating slap on the wrist.
As an exercise in masochism she mentally enumerated her failings as delivered by her head of department. The red suit she had worn had been unsuitable, her manner verging on intimidating, her voice too strident, too brisk. Elizabeth had bitten back the retort that these traits were respected and admired in any colleague as long as he was a man, but what would have been the point? She’d have to show them that she wasn’t just the boss’s daughter but a force to be reckoned with in her own right. Again.
Lost in these thoughts she was oblivious to the midday sun pounding down into the narrow chasm caused by the Sydney’s tall buildings. Heat bounced up off the pavement onto her legs, fumes from creeping cars mixed with the dry air as people scurried about their business.
She stopped for a minute and leant against the cool marble slab that adorned the wall of a bank, closing her eyes she breathed deeply already she felt calmer. A few more minutes and she’d be ready to throw herself back into the business world. Her calm was interrupted by the opening bars of Beethoven’s Song of Joy.
‘Elizabeth Lockyer.’ She snapped into her mobile phone, annoyed more with herself for not turning it off, than the caller who was interrupting her stolen solitary moments.
‘On your right, four cars down.’ The warm tones of Joshua’s voice floated through the airways as her eyes followed the cryptic message. Across the road and several cars away stood Elizabeth’s one moment of madness in the shape of her husband. While waiting for the lights to change she recalled the time eight months ago when Joshua Corrigan had come into her life. In an uncharacteristic moment of recklessness, she had married him. Every day since that civil ceremony in Las Vegas she had asked herself why because marriage at thirty-two had not been in her life plan, not if she was to reach the goals she had set herself.
As she approached her husband she saw appreciative glances being thrown his way from every woman who passed him and had the answer to her question. She’d have to be in her coffin to not respond to the raw magnetism packaged in one man. Elizabeth had been caught hook, line and sinker.
He emitted a sexual attraction, which acted on her like a homing beacon making her forget that their marriage not only threatened her career but also her peace of mind. Glancing at her watch she gauged there was just enough time for a quick coffee before she had to be back at the building that Lockyer employees half derisively, half affectionately called the Lock-up.
Joshua stood impassively watching her as she drew level with him, standing with his legs slightly astride and his arms crossed over his broad chest radiating a rocky, impervious strength that always had a disastrous effect on her legs. Legs that minutes ago had stridden purposefully along the streets now seemed weak and her irresponsible heart was performing cartwheels.
‘Get a grip on yourself girl.’ she muttered under her breath, determined to control her emotions. Ignoring her body’s reaction she forced her mind to focus on all the negatives of the man in front of her. The sight of his dark green, ancient and battered MG was the irritation she needed to pull her down to earth, that and Joshua’s casual clothes. Open necked shirts with rolled up sleeves and bone coloured chinos were not what successful lawyers wore to work. As for his hair, no matter how good the cut there was always a piece that stuck up at the back, defying all efforts to keep it down.
Elizabeth moved her eyes away from his hair, to his face and realised that she had never seen him so grim and serious. Brown eyes that usually were crinkled in amusement glittered at her with the hardness of diamonds and his sensuous mouth that was made for laughter was flattened into a tight, cold line.
‘What's going on Josh?’ she asked and shivered despite the warmth of the day.
‘Get in and you'll find out.’ Elizabeth gasped and her whole body bristled at his curt command. How dare he throw orders at her? Oh boy, she thought, this was turning into one hell of a day. First problems at work and now issues in her private life were pursuing her. Well she’d about had enough of men giving her orders and expecting her to turn herself inside out to obey. She had an important meeting so Joshua and whatever was bothering him could wait. Her chin tilted with defiance as she looked up at the stony faced stranger standing before her.
‘I don’t have time right now Josh.’ she snapped and turned to go, dismissing him immediately from her thoughts and letting them return to her earlier problem. She jerked to an abrupt halt as Joshua’s hand circled the top of her arm, his grip a fraction short of being painful as he held her still. Her shocked eyes met his.
‘Make time Beth.’ Joshua said softly. They stood together, their bodies almost touching, locked in a silent battle of wills as the city ebbed and flowed around them.
‘Don’t be ridiculous, I have to get back to the office.’ She hissed through clenched teeth, attempting to pull her arm away from his hand, which tightened a fraction.
‘I’ll throw you in the car if I have to.’ And one look at his face convinced her that his threat was serious but then so was she.
‘Let me go or I’ll…’
‘Scream.’ He finished the sentence for her, ‘struggle, make a scene?’ He raised a mocking eyebrow and Elizabeth knew she was beaten. It wasn't the steel in his eyes or the persistent hand on her arm that had defeated Elizabeth, it was the curious stares from the passers-by. Eventually someone she knew would come by, tongues would start wagging and the rumour mill would turn. Gossip. If there was one thing Elizabeth hated and avoided at all costs it was being the centre of gossip.
‘Okay, but thirty minutes, max.’ She said regaining the initiative by laying down clear boundaries to her capitulation and with bad grace she manoeuvred herself into the car seat, which was too low for elegance and a tight skirt. The old leather seat sagged uncomfortably even under her slender body and she wriggled her bottom about trying to avoid a spring that pressed against her where no spring had any right to go. After wrestling with a seat belt that needed a mechanics degree to operate she turned to placate her husband.
‘Josh, please be reasonable and make this quick. I’m really not having a good day. Could you drop me off at the Lock-up afterwards? I've a departmental meeting at one.’ She gave him what she hoped was a winsome smile while keeping her teeth firmly clenched together.
‘Not anymore you haven’t. I rang you at work first and they told me where to find you. The person I spoke to also mentioned you’d be back for a meeting so…’ Elizabeth’s pulse quickened and she prayed that this was all a bad dream, ‘I cancelled it.’ He said calmly, driving away from the kerb and crunching up through the gears.
‘You've done what?’ Her voice rose to a shriek, horror and outrage battling for supremacy in her voice.
‘Cancelled your part, I mean.’ He clarified, as if that would make things better.
‘Oh my God.’ Elizabeth rummaged in her bag for her phone, which seemed to have worked its way to the bottom of her overlarge handbag. Her hands rummaged around her wallet, tissues, make up bag, diary. Everything but her mobile phone. In desperation she tipped the contents of her bag onto the floor to be confronted with the awful truth.
‘My phone, where's my phone?’ A note of panic touched her voice. Briefly her mind replayed a scene from minutes ago when Joshua had taken it out of her slack hand.
‘I threw it in the rubbish bin.’ He said with a calmness that made Elizabeth gasp.
‘Have you gone mad?’ For he had spoken normally as if it was the most natural thing in the world to drop expensive items into the city bins.
‘No Beth,’ he reassured her, smiling slightly, ‘I think I've just regained my sanity.’
‘Your phone, I need it.’ She demanded, holding out her hand. Without taking his eyes off the road, Joshua took her hand and took it to his lips. A light, fleeting kiss that sent shivers of pleasure rippling up her arm and made her for a microsecond forget the world.
‘Sorry.’ He shook his head and she caught the glimpse of a mischievous smile. Elizabeth winced as he changed down the gears again for a red light and brought the car to a stop.
‘Why can't you get a decent car instead of this heap of rust?’ she complained, taking her frustration out on his car for attacking Joshua’s car was as good as attacking the man himself.
‘This heap of rust suits me.’ he patted the leather steering wheel like a beloved dog, ‘I know its good and bad points and it knows mine. It's like an old relationship.’
‘It’s a car not a person, it’s for getting from A to B, that's all.’
‘Which is what it does.’ he agreed with an affability that made her long to hit him. How could he be so indifferent at the messages he was sending to the business world?
‘It doesn’t look good Josh. People looking for a lawyer will draw all sorts of conclusions from the car you choose to drive. They’ll think you don’t get enough work if you can’t afford a decent car and therefore you’re not good at your job.’
‘Is that how you judge a man Beth, by the car he drives?’
‘It’s how the world works,’ she snapped.
‘I’m not interested in what the world thinks of me and I’ll get a prestige car when I have an image to maintain and when I can afford one. Probably in that order.’ Elizabeth laid her hand on his arm, the bright red of her nail varnish looking garish against the muted blue of his shirt.
‘Josh, whatever is worrying you, we can talk about later. Let me out. Please.’ Taking his eyes off the road he glanced at her. For a moment she thought his resolve wavered,
‘Josh, stop messing about. I'm serious.’ Elizabeth started replacing items in her handbag, scooping things up without really looking.
‘So am I Beth, so am I.’
Elizabeth stared out as the city passed them by. The wind blew her dark hair around her face and the hot air stung her eyes causing them to water. She fought the tears back, denying that they were caused by anything other than the hot air. There was no place for tears of frustration or any other emotions in her well controlled and ordered life. For now she had no choice but to sit, a captive of her husband and let him drive her where he wanted and it soon became clear that he was driving her home.
Enclosed in the lift the silence pulsed between them building in intensity with each floor they passed. Elizabeth studied the safety notice or watched the numbers change with each floor, anything to avoid looking at Joshua and meeting his eyes. The lift crawled upwards, taking an eternity to reach the penthouse and Elizabeth breathed a sigh of relief as the door opened and she could finally escape the confines of the metal box and enter her spacious home.
She flung open the door and hurried in to put as much distance between herself and Joshua. At once automated lighting, music and air-conditioning clicked on to the pre-set conditions. Usually Elizabeth shed the worries and stresses of the day when entered her apartment. It was her sanctuary where she could drop her façade, relax and unwind. Today the glare of white walls bore into her eyes and there was no comfort in the dark, leather lounge brooding on the plush carpet. The only life in the room came from the gleaming rosewood dining table and the blood red roses placed in the centre.
Composing herself with deep breaths Elizabeth turned to face Josh, her arms crossed and a steely hint in her voice,
‘Now,’ she said, attempting to regain the upper hand, ‘what's this all about?’
‘I've never heeded your ‘don't mess with me’ pose and I'm not going to start now.’ Joshua replied tartly, taking the wind out of her sails.
‘Just say what you have to say,’ she snapped. ‘I have work I could be doing.’
‘Even if I don’t,’ he answered as he walked to the dining room table, his long strides eating up the length of the room.
Carefully, with meticulous precision, which grated on Elizabeth’s nerves, he opened his old and battered briefcase and placed a wad of papers on the polished table. Then he looked at her and said nothing. Elizabeth shot Joshua a questioning glance and approached the table. Tentatively she reached out her hand as if the papers before her were an injured animal and she was unsure if they would welcome or snarl at her touch.
She turned the pages one at a time, her forehead wrinkling as she scanned the words before her. Then she lifted her eyes and looked at him, her voice husky as she spoke,
‘These weren't meant to come until next week, after I'd...’
‘Told me our marriage was over.’ Joshua cut in. ‘A fait accompli. Without any discussion or input from me.’ She flinched at his angry words, unsure how to proceed now she was dealing with a situation she wasn’t quite prepared for. Stay calm, she told herself, stay focused. Maybe it was better this way, having her hand forced for when is the right time to talk divorce? Despite shaking inside her outward image was calm and aloof as her mouth twisted into a smile, half wistful, half bitter,
‘I made a mistake Josh, I think it's time to acknowledge that.’ He shook his head in rejection of her words.
‘I know our marriage is almost non-existent, but it’s not too late. Why,’ he whispered, ‘why give up without even attempting to rectify what’s wrong?’
Beth swept her dark fringe away from her forehead, which creased with concentration as she searched for the words to explain. How did she explain that the trouble was with her? She had met him too early before she’d established herself and built a solid base for her career and she had married him because she couldn’t bear to let him go.
‘When we married we didn’t know each other, but you were so different from any man I’d known. To you I wasn’t the boss’s daughter or a colleague to compete against or a challenge to conquer. I allowed you to sweep me off my feet,’ her face softened at the memory, ‘and I loved it.’
She ran her hand along the warm table top, the rich brown of the wood with flecks of gold reminded her of Joshua’s eyes. The eyes she deliberately avoided meeting now.
‘But it was a fairy tale Josh and this is our reality. It wasn’t until we were back home that I realised I couldn’t afford a husband like you.’
She risked a glance his way. He stood statue like listening intently to her words, his face impassive, a closed book to her. With each word she had spoken she felt as if an icicle was growing in her heart, a cold knife that she was wielding to injure them both. She shivered as an icy finger traced the length of her spine.
‘A husband like me?’ he repeated his voice flat, controlled and emotionless.
‘Maybe I'm the wrong wife for you. I imagined we'd work together, forging up the corporate ladder. Partners in work and life. Successful, dynamic and …’
‘Instead, like Wonder Woman, you've burst through the glass ceiling and I'm floundering from month to month. What a disappointment I must be.’ Ignoring the hurt in his voice Elizabeth pressed home her point,
‘You’re too nice Josh, there’s no place for sentiment in business. Not if you’re heading for the top.’ There. She’d said the words that needed saying, now maybe he’d understand that there was no future for them.
‘If being at the top means knifing people in the back and then climbing over their bodies I’m content where I am. What a man I'd be! Never mind that I'd never get a good night’s sleep again.’
‘That's what I mean, Josh. You’ve no killer instinct. You allow sentiment to cloud your judgement,’ argued Elizabeth.
‘At least I can live with myself.’
‘But I can't.’ She put her hand to her mouth as if forcing back the words that had to be said, ‘That’s why I want a divorce, we hardly see each other anyway, so the separation papers are only formalising the reality.’
‘So what sort of husband do you want?’ He enquired, his tone as casual as if he was asking if she took sugar in her tea while his eyes seared into her.
‘Does it matter?’ she answered, while a weariness she had never known before crept over her.
‘To me, yes. I want to know what type of person you’ll be replacing me with.’
‘I won’t be replacing you with anyone.’ She protested, repulsed by the thought of another man in her bed.
‘What, haven’t you got anyone waiting in the wings? I don’t believe that.’
‘I don’t care what you believe but if I do ever marry again it will be to someone with drive and ambition. Someone who is going in the same direction as me.’
Elizabeth tidied the papers into a neat pile and from the floral centrepiece rose petals dropped onto the legal documents. Red tears for the end of a schoolgirl dream. She looked straight at him, her heart heavy for them both. Her actions were hurting him but soon he would realise the pain was necessary. She wondered at the intensity of her feelings. That she would never lie in his arms again, never watch in silent wonder as he... She brought her thoughts back to the present and answered his question, ‘Someone like my father, I suppose.’
‘Oh, surely you can do better than Theodore James Lockyer.’ His sensuous lips twisted in an ugly sneer.
‘How can you say that?’ she cried, rising up in hot defence of her father. ‘You’ve never even met my father.’
‘No, you’ve made sure of that. Is that why we married in front of two strangers? Have you always been ashamed of me?’
‘No.’ she cried, ‘It wasn’t like that.’ She was horrified that he could put that interpretation on their wedding day, ‘I didn’t want a big wedding that would turn into a media circus. Only us. You didn’t object at the time.’
‘No you’re right, I was happy to go along with what you wanted because I didn’t want any ghosts at our wedding because you’re wrong about your father Beth. I have met him. Many years ago and you may notice he has not been in any hurry to renew our acquaintance.’
‘My father is a very busy man.’ She said hurt by the cynicism in his voice and brutally ignoring the truth of his words. ‘I don't expect you to understand.’
He crossed to her, putting his finger under her chin he forced her face up to look at him.
‘But I do Beth, more than you would imagine.’ His handsome face swam and blurred before her as she fought back humiliating tears. Pulling away from his hold she crossed the room and stared out of the large window, wrapping her arms around her body for she felt like she was falling apart.
‘I won't sign the papers immediately.’ His words were as unbending as her back.
‘Why?’ she whispered, ‘why cling to the corpse of our marriage?’
‘If our marriage was stillborn it was as much your fault as mine.’ His voice was rough with emotion.
She turned and crossed to him then, laying a hand on his bare arm.
‘Please Josh, please, no apportioning of blame.’
Joshua studied her delicate face for traces of emotion. Trying to read what thoughts were going through her mind. A tinge of pink highlighted her cheekbones and her blue eyes had darkened to the deep ocean on a stormy day. Joshua gazed down into the depths of her eyes and felt himself drowning. Drowning in sorrow and despair. Her closeness scrambled his thinking, confused his body and whipped his emotions to the core. Against his ribs his heart beat a violent tattoo. He had to get away. With difficulty he asked,
‘I going to get a drink of water, do you want one?’ Elizabeth shook her head and he left the room, almost tripping in his haste to put some distance between them.
For a minute he stood struggling to compose himself, surrounded by cold, stainless steel in the sterility of the spotless, modern, kitchen. As he’d brushed past her he had smelt the fragrance of her perfume. Elizabeth disliked modern fragrances, preferring the old fashion types; favouring the heady scents of lavender, the delicate pot pourri of rose and his favourite the Lily of the Valley.
She had worn it last night and the sweet fragrance had risen up to meet him wherever his lips had lingered, on her throat, behind her ears, in the cleft between her breasts. The lilies of the valley, a flower of contrasts, like his wife tiny and delicate but strong and enduring. His senses stirred at the memory of Beth. How she looked, how she felt, how she tasted.
The potency of their lovemaking had touched his soul and they almost had recaptured the sweet intimacy they’d enjoyed in the early days of their marriage. Almost, the expanding void that was their marriage had been filled. And now this. The contrast between last night and now seemed too confusing for Joshua and he pinched himself hard on the delicate inside skin of his forearm, wondering if the pain would wake him up from this nightmare.
When he received the divorce papers today he felt as if he’d been poleaxed. His body had doubled over in pain and the wind had been knocked from his lungs but while his heart had denied what his eyes were seeing his mind was glad that the uncertainty and chaos of their marriage could now be dealt with.
Automatically he filled two glasses with ice and chilled water before he remembered that Beth had refused a drink. How quickly it had become natural to do everything for two, in pairs. Think. He had to think. He knew the time had come to take some action. He wouldn’t let their marriage be crushed to ashes, to be blown away in the draughty corridors of the divorce courts. Time, he needed more time. Time and a reason for them to be together every minute of the day so he could, would make her love him. An embryo of an idea was growing in his brain. He would buy that time with an ultimatum and then use any weapon he could to fight for his wife. His most powerful weapons were the physical attraction they had for each other. He knew he’d have to stoop low to use them but now he had nothing to lose. He’d been used and discarded by the Lockyer’s before and walked away without fighting back, he’d be damned if he was going to go without a fight this time for his happiness depended on Beth.
Could he do it? He looked at his wife standing still by the huge, picture window. What did she see as she looked through the glass? The ever changing view of the harbour or was she looking back over their months together, watching her own private movie as it rolled through her mind. Engrossed in her world she jumped when Joshua offered her the glass.
‘Thank you,’ she muttered, sipping the water.
‘When we married, did you love me?’ He asked, the intensity in his look boring into her, searching for her answer in her body as if her words couldn't be trusted.
‘What is love Josh?’ she sighed, ‘Nothing but an idealised emotion for lust.’ She stared down into the glass, watching the ice melt and merge with the water. Just as they had melted and merged with each other last night. ‘But it’s not enduring. It doesn’t last.’
‘So what was the point of getting married?’
‘Because I couldn’t bear to let you go. If I’d refused your proposal you would have left my life forever. I wasn’t ready for that.’
‘But you are now and I’m to be discarded like last year’s fashions.’ He slammed his glass down onto the table, causing more rose petals to shake loose and fall, ‘Thanks a lot.’
‘If that’s the way you want to look at it.’ She shrugged and rolled the glass damp with condensation across her forehead, completely unconscious of how sensual the action looked. She looked across the room at him, ‘You’re a nice guy, Josh. Too nice. I'm sorry Josh, but that’s the truth and nice guys finish last.’ She clenched her hands into fists, ‘and I have to be first. I have to be.’
‘You saw the solicitors last month, so what was last night. My consolation prize or one more for the road, old buddy?’ He saw her flinch as the resentment and contempt in his voice cut into her like shards of glass but he couldn’t hold back. So honesty and integrity counted for nothing? A torrent of words erupted from his mouth, hot with anger, raging and relentless now the dam of months of silence had been breached.
‘Do you know what your words have made me? Do you?’ He yelled. ‘I'm a kept man. Worthless for anything but bedroom antics. I'm Elizabeth Lockyer's gigolo.’ His angry words echoed around the room.
‘Please Josh.’ She whispered, her only defence against his anger. ‘It's not true.’
‘Yes it is. Look around this place. Your apartment.’ he insisted, ‘Bought by your father for your twenty-first. It's in your name, furnished by you. There’s nothing of me here. It’s as if I'm a barely tolerated guest who has outstayed his welcome. If you removed my clothes there would be no evidence that a man called Joshua Corrigan had ever existed.’
‘That's ridiculous.’ she challenged, looking around as if to find proof to refute his words.
‘I’m not in your life Beth, I never really was.’ He said softly, something like despair creeping into his voice. Maybe their relationship was like pushing a heavy boulder up hill and soon he was going to stumble, loose his footing and then the boulder would roll down smashing his hopes, his dreams and killing a part of his soul.
He looked at his wife, her forehead wrinkled with worry, her eyes bright with unshed tears, her usually immaculate makeup in dire need of a touch up. How easy it would be to walk away now, leaving her vulnerable and unprotected. She would bury that side of her beneath a ruthless and callous outer shell, to become a clone of the heartless robots of the corporate jungle. He took a deep breath before he gambled his marriage away,
‘You have a choice Beth. I'll fight these proceedings every way I can or you can give me eight days, one for each month or our marriage.’ Would that be long enough he wondered, it would have to be, he'd make it so.
‘And what's going to happen during this time?’ She asked, relaxing now his painfully true tirade had stopped. He looked at her with a severe, humourless smile.
‘I'll be the sort of husband you want.’
‘I don’t understand.’ Elizabeth said, gripping the back of a chair with such force that the knuckles of her hand gleamed white. ‘What do you mean?’
Nothing was going the way she’d planned. With the papers arriving early she’d been taken off guard. All her carefully reasoned arguments had died on her lips as she examined the impassive face in front of her. Joshua’s open face that usually showed every emotion was now clamped shut to her, his feelings hidden. His motives a mystery. She felt as confused as if she’d turned on the television and was receiving another programme’s words to the show she was watching.
She’d been so certain that Joshua would sign the papers after he’d heard her out. So sure that he’d give her what she wanted because he always had before. Or had he. Unbidden memories of their time together came to her mind. Times when Joshua had gently but firmly not bent to her wants and demands and had quietly got on with his life. There was, she concluded another side to her husband and that side was facing her now as he explained his ultimatum.
‘It’s perfectly simple and straightforward. For eight days I will give you the type of husband that you desire. Ruthless, ambitious, dynamic then we’ll discuss divorce on my terms.’ He said in a voice stripped bare of emotion.
Elizabeth laughed at Joshua’s words but the sound was hesitant, uncertain, echoing around the quiet apartment. It was the laugh of a person who knew that a joke had been told but wasn’t entirely sure that they’ve understood the punch line. The thought of Joshua in a role completely opposite to his own character was absurd and her imagination ran riot with images of Joshua being the hardened business man. The laughter died on her lips as she looked at her husband for the hard line of his lips and the bleakness in his eyes made her shiver.
Before her stood a grim faced stranger. His strong body held tense and his voice flat and harsh. She didn’t think he’d carry out his threat and make the divorce as long and as nasty as possible but another tiny shiver mocked her as she thought of her father’s reaction to a public washing of dirty linen, the ensuing shock waves would push the dial right off the Richter scale.
‘You couldn’t do it. Let’s face it Josh, you’re a pussycat.’
‘Even the domestic tabby has claws Beth. And the bigger felines…well they’re hunters. Swift, ruthless and without mercy. Are you positively sure I’m not one of those?’ He asked, his voice dropping low reminded Beth of the start of a growl and caused another wave of shivers to flow through her body this time unbidden shivers of desire.
A hot flush crept up her body while a tantalising sensation tingled between her legs. Under the gaze of two brown eyes that watched her silently she willed herself to stay calm and still like prey being stalked by a tiger. She shut her eyes regretting her choice of predator but opened them again at Joshua’s voice,
‘Well? Is it a deal?’ he asked his arms crossed against his broad chest and no hint of softening in his face.
‘Of course not. The whole idea is ridiculous.’ It was time to bring this ludicrous conversation to an end, she opened her mouth to tell him so but he cut her off.
‘What’s the matter Beth? Scared?’ Taunted by his words she replied scathingly,
‘No. Too old to play silly games.’
‘But your whole life is a game. An adult version of snakes and ladders. A deal falls through and you slide down the snake. A nice bonus and it’s up a ladder you go. A promotion and wow, zip up another ladder. T.J. frowns and you’re back down at the beginning. Have you noticed that not many people make it to the end of the game.’
He crossed to her and tilted her chin up so he could look deep into her eyes. ‘Now I want us to play another game Beth. Poker. Winner takes all.’ His fingers stroked her jaw line with an exquisite tenderness and she closed her eyes as his thumb traced the outline of her parted lips. As she stood mesmerised by this slight touch she knew once again that if she were to keep the promise she made to herself years ago that she would have to break free from the hold that Joshua had over her.
‘So do we have a deal or do I ring up the tabloids.’ He murmured. Her eyes snapped open and a cold reality replaced the warmth of his touch.
‘Even the most lurid paper would have a hard job finding muck to rake through.’ She retorted, determined not to give way to his threats.
‘Oh I don’t know,’ mused Joshua, ‘I can see the headlines now. My life as a rich woman’s toy. And who knows what history they’ll find if they start digging.’
Elizabeth’s blood ran icy cold in her veins as she remembered the last time the Lockyer name had been the focus of a media circus. Truths, half-truths and innuendos fed to the papers by unnamed sources, ‘close friends’ and even closer enemies. She closed her eyes to block out the scene before her and plunging herself back through these memories. Her father’s face tight with rage and her mother’s sobs echoing through the mausoleum they lived in. Opening her eyes she snapped herself back to the present that still held the forbidding man who her husband had become.
‘You wouldn’t?’ she stared at him, horrified by his words and the thought of reliving the past.
‘Wouldn’t I? I’ve dealt the first hand Beth. Let’s see who blinks first.’ She pulled away from him, putting as much distance between them as possible with her mind looked for hidden traps in his arrangement. Another eight days, she tapped her fingers on the table, a little over a week. What difference could it make if in the end she achieved her goal? She had instructed the papers to be sent on the first of next month so… even giving Joshua this time she would still be getting the divorce process in motion earlier than she planned. She frowned as she wondered how her solicitors could have made such a blunder but maybe it would work out for the best after all.
‘Oh for heaven’s sake, have your wretched eight days.’ Elizabeth agreed and realised that this was the second time today that her easy going husband had got the better of her, ‘In the long run it won’t make any difference.’
‘You never know.’ He said holding out his hand to seal the arrangement. Elizabeth relaxed a fraction for this small gesture was part of the Joshua that she knew. He had no use for long-winded, formal documents. For Joshua a handshake would always be enough. She put her hand in his and his large, warm hand engulfed her tiny one. Looking up into his eyes she read only an unyielding determination in his face, which unsettled her again.
Suddenly she was eager to get back to the office where she understood the rules, away from the tension filled apartment and this unfamiliar man.
‘Well,’ she said with a nervous laugh that tinkled around the apartment, ‘I’d better get back to work. I’ll have some explaining to do.’
She picked up her bag, her mind already racing ahead, focusing on the things she would have to do to straighten out this afternoon’s mess. She’d get a taxi back and plead the need for time out after her reprimand this morning. Although part of her rebelled at using such tricks another part argued that if they were going to treat her like a weak, emotional woman then they could put up with her behaving like one. How odd she thought, her whole world had turned upside down yet she still managed to function, clinging to the mundane events in the hope they would counterbalance the chaos.
‘Just a minute,’ said Joshua, ‘I haven’t finished yet.’
Elizabeth looked at him her head tilted in inquiry. ‘I’m attending the Sullivan’s Charity Ball tonight and I want my wife at my side.’
‘Oh no. No, you’re not showing me off like some trophy wife. No way,’ she exclaimed, ‘Especially not at the Sullivan bash. T.J.’s had enough problems with the shareholders as it is regarding his takeover bid. That is one function I couldn’t attend even if I wanted to. I was planning on staying back this evening and working, in fact after this afternoon I’ll have to.’ She turned to leave and was already mentally hailing taxi in a Fraser Street.
‘You’re not listening Beth. For all our marriage I have deferred to your needs and wants and at times I’ve been little more than a doormat. But it’s different now. This doormat has grown teeth and I’m more than ready to bite. It’s what you said you wanted. It’s what you’ve just agreed upon but don’t worry you won’t be attending as Elizabeth Lockyer, you’ll be there as Beth Corrigan. And to make sure you don’t renege on our deal I’ll pick you up at six.’
Beth opened her mouth to protest but stopped at the look on Joshua’s face,
‘I’m not asking Beth, I’m telling.’ Beth’s mulish expression and defiant tilt of the head prompted him to add, ‘I’ll come and drag you out of your office if necessary.’
‘You wouldn’t,’ she dared, even as her body thrilled at the thought of Joshua is his new role as the dominant alpha male.
‘Just try me. This is the new look me remember, no-nonsense and ruthless. Hey, I could get used to this.’ Joshua’s throaty laugh followed her out of the apartment and echoed in her ears all afternoon.
The first thing Elizabeth did on reaching the office was to phone her solicitor and vent some of her frustration at the cause of her bad day. There had been profuse apologies, assurances and consternation at her threat to take her business elsewhere but no explanation of how the mistake occurred leaving her a valued but dissatisfied client. And now she was staring at her computer screen, wrinkling her brow in concentration as she tried to make sense of the data before her. For the first time in her life she was unable to immerse herself in work forgetting any problems she might be having. The workday dramas and challenges that stimulated and drove her seemed to be draining her energy leaving her flat and listless. Or it might be Joshua’s threat to front up in person and drag her away that was making her edgy and tense. A swift glance at her watch told her she had only a few minutes before she’d have to leave.
Her fingertips massaged her temples where a small pulse threatened to throb its way to a full-blown headache. Simultaneously the fax machine whirled, her phone rang and her computer beeped the arrival of another e-mail. For what seemed like a lifetime Elizabeth stared at the inanimate objects that ruled her life, unable to decide which demand to attend to first. Indecision and confusion spun in her agitated mind. She grabbed the phone and put it to her ear only to hear the dead drone of a disconnected line.
‘Are you ready?’ Joshua’s voice from the doorway made her jump. His presence filled the room as she sensed his determination radiate into every corner of her office. He looked ready for a fight and perfectly capable of putting her over his shoulder if she demurred. She wasn’t ready by any means but she’d go to the moon with him at the moment, anywhere was better than the office.
‘I won’t be a minute,’ she said quickly shutting down her computer and grabbing her bag and briefcase. Earlier she had run to her office to escape Joshua, now she was doing the exact opposite. Running to him to get away from the confines of her square box. Nothing made sense to her anymore, only the feeling she had when he took her elbow as they left the room together.
‘I’m not going to do a runner.’ She stated through clenched teeth.
‘You won’t have the chance.’ He replied. As they walked down the corridor Elizabeth became aware of the curious eyes of her colleagues raised briefly over their workstations to watch her and Joshua.
‘Elizabeth,’ T.J. Lockyer’s sonorous voice boomed down the hall. Elizabeth stopped dead in her tracks. Her eyes closed briefly with chagrin and felt Joshua’s hand on her arm tighten a fraction. It was just her luck that her father happened to be out of his eerie on the top floor and prowling around her workplace. Still, she’d take this moment to introduce Joshua to her father. She turned to face T.J. along the length of the hall.
‘T.J.’ she started, ‘this is…’
‘I know who it is.’ Elizabeth’s father gave Joshua a look that should have laid him out cold, ‘Ring for security to escort this… person out of my building. Then come to my office, I have things to say to you.’ He marched away without glancing back to see if she followed, secure that his commands would be obeyed. Elizabeth stood as stunned as if he’d thrown iced water over her. She was aware that every eye in the place was upon her and felt Joshua remove his hand from her arm. Was he telling her to go or giving her a choice? There was no real choice. To upset her father by leaving with a soon-to-be ex-husband was not a good career move but Joshua’s snakes and ladders analogy had hit a raw nerve. She sucked a big breath into her lungs to ensure that her voice would carry and called out to her father’s retreating back,
‘It’s all right T.J. I’ll see Josh out. We’re just leaving. We have an engagement tonight that we can’t be late for. I’ll pop in to your office first thing tomorrow.’ She gulped at her own temerity. Tomorrow she would suffer her father’s displeasure but she had to get out of the building immediately or she’d scream or faint or break something.
Her hand shook slightly as she put it through the crook of Joshua’s arm and willed her legs to walk with a controlled dignity when she really wanted to run down the fire escape stairs and out of the building. Joshua’s free hand squeezed hers and she was absurdly grateful for the warmth and support of that small gesture.
‘That was very impressive,’ murmured Joshua as they walked through the underground car park to Elizabeth’s car, a new, red shining Mercedes, the antithesis of Joshua’s old bomb.
‘It was stupid and I’ll pay for it later.’ Tomorrow’s meeting with her father would be unpleasant but Elizabeth was basking in a flame of defiance and had no regrets about her behaviour-for the moment.
‘Why did you do it then?’ Joshua smiled down at her and she felt the warm glow spread through her reddening her cheeks.
‘To show you that you were wrong. You let go of my arm because you thought I’d go running like the dutiful daughter and employee and do as I was told.’ She turned on him, ‘you thought that I would go back on my word. Didn’t you?’
‘Yes I did. Why didn’t you?’ She read admiration in his eyes and something more. Something that scared her silly and that she had to escape. The love he had for her that would trap her, bind her, and control her. She tore her eyes away from his and addressed the floor to the garage,
‘Because you’re not the only one who can keep their word Josh.’ He took the car keys from her trembling hands,
‘I’ll drive. You’re still shaking like a leaf.’
‘That suits me. And you can tell me why T.J. wanted you thrown out of the building.’ Elizabeth demanded recovering her equilibrium as she pondered this new development.
‘If your father had his way I would be thrown off the building.’ said Joshua dryly, reversing out of the parking spot. ‘As for the why. Years ago we had a falling out so when you married me he probably took it personally.’
Elizabeth opened her mouth to speak but Joshua cut her off. ‘For more details ask T.J. Our points of views are different and I don’t intend being judged a liar by you. After all he’s the one you’ll believe.’ Joshua told her with an edge of bitterness in his voice.
Elizabeth took her time in the shower, rolling her neck and shoulders under the water attempting to gain relief from the tight knots in her body, allowing the steady stream to massage her neck and scalp. Normally she would ask Joshua for a neck massage which would turn into a full body massage which would lead to… She cut off the images abruptly dismayed how her body responded to her vivid imagination. Turning the water cold to she punished herself for this moment of weakness and to banish her erotic thoughts. After Elizabeth needed to rub herself fiercely to get some warmth back into her body and then towel dried her hair. At the bedroom door she stopped, gobsmacked and speechless by what lay on the bed.
The dress was one of Elizabeth’s rare fashion mistakes and had been consigned to the back of the wardrobe months ago but Joshua had remembered it and was indicating it was his dress of choice for tonight’s ball. What had looked ravishing on her in the shop had metamorphosed into an object of vulgarity as soon as she’d got it home. The low cut back and the richly exotic red was passable but the sequins and the side slit that reached nearly up to her hipbone made her shudder. If darling Josh thought she’d be seen wearing that in public…
She opened her wardrobe and pulled out a ubiquitous little black number that nearly every other woman would be wearing. It was safe and discreet. Individuality would be achieved with carefully chosen accessories. And if Joshua didn’t like it he could go alone or wear the red dress himself.
She was concentrating on painting her lips when Joshua appeared in the doorway. Warily she eyed him in the mirror wondering what his response would be to her open defiance. His dark hair was tousled, his bow tie falling loose over the opened neck of his crisp, white shirt. Underneath his stern features lay a weariness that she had never observed before. Had it always been there and she’d been too absorbed in her work to notice? Her resolve to make tonight a battle dissolved until she remembered the red dress.
‘I’m nearly ready.’ She rose from her seat and hoped her apparent eagerness would counterbalance any issues over what she had chosen to wear. ‘I’ve only got my shoes to put on.’
‘But you’re wearing the wrong dress Beth.’ He stated coolly, his eyes never leaving her face. What did he expect? She had already acquiesced to attending the ball and made a creditable effort to look good but it still wasn’t enough. Her anger reignited as flaming as the dress. She flung out her arm indicating the despised garment that still lay seductively on their bed.
‘I’m not wearing that.’ She declared. ‘I hate it.’
‘I’ll help you change.’ He said ignoring her words and moving away from the door, bearing down on her, an unstoppable force. She backed away,
‘Telling me what to wear wasn’t part of the arrangement.’ Her back met the wall leaving her trapped to face Joshua,
‘But being ruthless was. And those cold-blooded people you so admire always get their own way don’t they? Or do you think they have a change of personality out of work hours?’
‘This is ridiculous.’ She said attempting to step past him but hitting a wall of freshly laundered shirt. She looked up into his eyes the colour of whiskey, no trace of humour or relenting in their depths.
‘I’ll be delighted to help.’ He said, his actions matching his words as she felt the zip of her dress sliding down, followed by his finger tracing the line of her spine. Goosebumps rose on her arms as he slipped the dress off her shoulders and fell to the floor, lying around her feet like a dark, mysterious pool.
Elizabeth fought the need to move her body closer to his, but as always she felt powerless in his field of desire. She was a minor planet being pulled by the gravity of a burning sun. For her own survival she had to learn to resist the attraction and deny herself heaven on earth. Wanting him against her better judgement, needing him but only in private. Feeling empty at the thought of life without him.
Elizabeth studied the pulse at his throat dimly aware that its beat matched the thumping of her heart. His warm breath on her neck caused a shiver to trickle through her body, like sand running through fingers. Her voice sounded husky as she fought for the will power to challenge him.
‘I think you’ll find dressing me won’t be so easy.’ His eyes darkened as they touched every part of her, taking in the matching lingerie, lingering on the lush curves of her breasts, pulling her closer to him he whispered,
‘Somehow dressing you isn’t what I have in mind.’ He placed a feather light kiss at the base of her throat. Other kisses followed, tracing a line up her neck and across to her ear,
‘You can put it on or I can continue to undress you. I know what I’d prefer.’ He murmured into her ear. ‘After all we only have eight more days.’
A murmur of protest mixed with need, escaped from her parted lips as Elizabeth struggled against her desire to pull him closer and bury her hands in his thick hair to push his head further down her craving body.
With a cry she tore herself away, stumbling over the edge of the bed. She grabbed the red dress, holding it close to her like a protective talisman.
‘Okay,’ she capitulated, ‘I’ll wear the wretched thing.’
With difficulty, she struggled into the dress whose flowing fabric seemed to have a mind of its own. She was acutely aware of Joshua as he studied each contortion of her slim body and every wriggle of her hips. His eyes never left her as she continued to touch up her hair and reapply her lipstick. She caught his eye in the mirror and snapped,
‘And stop looking at me like I’m a prostitute in a brothel because in this dress I feel like one.’
‘That’s good.’ He chuckled, ‘it’s time for a role reversal. Tonight you can be Corrigan’s whore.’ Startled by his words Elizabeth jerked the lipstick streaking red across her lip line. While her agitated hands dabbed at the mess with a tissue Joshua turned her to face him and ran his thumb across her lips smudging the lipstick some more.
‘That’s very good, it looks like you’ve been thoroughly kissed,’ he mocked, ‘glad to see you’re dressing in character.’
‘Piss off.’ She hissed as he laughed at her outraged expression. An uneasy thought floated in her mind like a wind-blown seed and landed in the fertile field of her mind then blossomed to flower. She turned to face him,
‘You’re enjoying this.’ She accused, ‘this isn’t about saving our marriage. You’re using this time to make life as unpleasant as you can. This is some sort of petty revenge.’
As Joshua turned his back and walked away from her words she struggled into her shoes, her fingers tangling in the intricate strapping. Succeeding in only getting one on she abandoned the fight with the other shoe and hobbled after him.
He stood in front of the hall mirror giving his full attention to the tying of his bowtie seemingly oblivious to her words. Despite her anger a pang of regret shook her. He always asked her to tie his ties, claiming she did a better job but they both knew it was another reason for them to be close. As if he had read her mind he turned to her,
‘Here’s a nice wifely duty for you. Come and see to my tie.’
‘With pleasure.’ She said, savagely yanking the ends together across his Adam’s apple. His hands came up to clasp her wrists.
‘I said tie it not strangle me.’ Letting go of her wrists his hands slid up her bare arms with exquisite slowness, coming to rest gently on her shoulders before starting their descent along her back.
‘If you don’t like what I’m doing you can tie it yourself.’ She said, putting her whole concentration on the tie so she didn’t feel his warm hands on her buttocks or feel the tightening of her nipples against the fabric of the dress. Roughly she pushed his chin up to give herself a better view of her work but it also exposed his neck, a neck she had kissed and nibbled many times and her tongue tingled to taste him again.
Elizabeth was aware that Joshua’s shallow breathing matched the rhythm of her own and knew that they were both a spark away from full ignition. Skilfully and quickly she formed the bow, being careful not to touch his skin and hoping her distant manner was torture to him as much as to her.
‘Thank you.’ He shrugged into his dinner jacket before walking back to her. Standing too close for her comfort but not close enough for her need.
‘Revenge,’ he murmured, ‘Now that’s an interesting idea and ironic considering the circumstances.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Revenge. If I had been after revenge I would have taken it years ago. Then you and the Lockyer Corporation wouldn’t be where you are now. Come out of your safe, secure world Beth and face some reality. I’d love to be a fly on the wall when T.J. hears you’ve been to the ball. Poor Cinderella. Now get your coat, we’ll take your car.’ He patted her cheek, ‘I have an image to build.’
A thousand fairy lights twinkled above Elizabeth’s head, as a kaleidoscope of dancers passed before her eyes. She’d been wrong about the black dresses. Gowns the colour of nature and some that would make nature squirm flashed before her eyes. Glasses chinked merrily blending with laughter and conversation and in a room full of people Elizabeth had never felt so alone and it was all the fault of Joshua Corrigan.
Somehow he’s engineered this humiliating evening and as her gaze focused on the empty wineglass she was turning through her fingers, her mind recalled the highlights. She had entered the venue’s marbled and mirrored foyer a good few feet behind Joshua like a submissive and obedient wife. He had easily achieved this effect by walking fast knowing she would be unable to match his pace in her high shoes so she had settled for walking at a dignified distance behind.
After offhandedly introducing her to some people as Beth Corrigan he melted away into the crowd and left her to correct his deliberate mistake. Although in fairness maybe he was trying to protect her for she had felt a definite frigidity in their manner when she’d made the correction. Obviously the Lockyer name was not well received by those with loyalties to the Sullivans. Yes, she conceded to herself, she could have made things easier by calling herself Corrigan but her name was Lockyer and she wasn’t about to change it for this evening, not at Joshua’s instigation and not so she’d be socially acceptable to people she was unlikely to meet again.
Most people had excused themselves politely and but those that hadn’t she’d engaged in laborious small talk and Elizabeth wondered when her social skills had rusted away into snappy company speak and technical jargon. Then there was the elderly couple that, in a parody of the ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine operated a two part questioning system that made her head spin. The man had asked endless questions about shares, pumping her for insider information, as if she’d divulge confidential information to anyone while the wife’s questions centred on children and family.
But it was Joshua’s indifference to her during dinner that had fuelled her anger and hurt her more than she could have imagined. He only seemed to remember her presence when she was talking to someone else then somehow he would deftly control the conversation and manage to exclude her. It was such a subtle manoeuvre cleverly executed by a master of manipulation that she wasn’t entirely sure she wasn’t imagining the whole thing but here she was in splendid isolation proof that she’d been moved about like a piece on a giant chess board.
She glanced at her watch and decided enough was enough. Time for a rare and welcome early night. She was tired of being shunned, tired of Joshua’s churlish behaviour and tired, period. If he thought she was totally powerless then he could think again. She was taking her car and going home and Joshua Bloody Corrigan could get a taxi, walk or crawl home for all she cared.
Standing alone, feeling like a social pariah Elizabeth watched Joshua led yet another willing female onto the dance floor and tried to analyse the conflicting emotions that surged through her like a road train. Anger. Jealousy. Pain. She had no right to any of these feelings. In eight days she would be free. Free to get her life back on its correct track. Free to keep the promise she made herself all those years ago when Steven had died. Soon she would be back in control and Joshua Corrigan would be a distant memory. So why did that thought hurt so much? A spontaneous peel of laughter from another guest seemed to emphasise the hollow emptiness she felt gnawing deep into the chambers of her heart.
Elizabeth eyes narrowed as Joshua held his partner closer to him as they moved around the dance floor. Oh let Joshua enjoy himself taking some petty revenge she thought. If his plan was to annoy her she would stay long enough to prove him wrong. With a lift of her head she decided to find a personable man who would swirl her around the dance floor. Elizabeth stepped out of her hiding place and bumped into another guest.
‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ Elizabeth apologised, smiling for her clumsiness but her smile froze as she realised that the other woman was looking at her with a discomforting look on her face.
‘Elizabeth Lockyer?’ There was surprise and something akin to dislike in the other woman’s voice.
‘Yes. Have we met before?’ Elizabeth replied wondering how the other woman knew her because she was sure they’d never met.
‘I’m Maxine Sullivan,’ stated the hostess of the Gala Ball. Elizabeth tried not to show her surprise, for before her stood not the stout middle aged matron of her imagination but a woman of the same age whose beauty was enhanced by the vulnerability of her grief and her black evening gown.
‘I was sorry to hear of your husband’s death.’ Elizabeth cringed at how trite the words sounded and also how belated for Tom Sullivan had lost his battle with cancer ten months previously.
‘Not half as sorry as I was.’ Maxine Sullivan replied, her voice suddenly as hard as her eyes. ‘So spare me the false sympathy and crocodile tears.’ Not so fragile after all realised Elizabeth totally at a loss for words.
‘I don’t know how you come to be here, but as you are, you can give your father a message from me. Tell him I’ll fight him through every court in the land and see him in hell before I let him destroy Tom’s life work. Now I think you and your tame lapdog,’ Maxine Sullivan nodded towards the corner of the ballroom, ‘had better leave.’ Before Elizabeth could respond Maxine Sullivan turned her back and glided gracefully away.
Any desire to dance had withered under Maxine Sullivan’s strange attack. Maybe her grief had unhinged her for Elizabeth had no idea what the woman had been talking about with her strange message to T.J. and was it Joshua who was the lapdog? Somehow Elizabeth didn’t think so for Joshua was still on the dance floor.
Her curiosity piqued Elizabeth edged her way around the room to the area indicated by Maxine Sullivan and found a place next to a marbled column festooned with fake greenery and more fairy lights spiralling up its length. She scanned her fellow guests for her lapdog.
‘All alone Libby? How unusual.’ The amused voice behind her could only belong to one person, a colleague and rival Stewart Evans. ‘It’s seldom our Princess Royal is not surrounded by a court of fawning sycophants.’ Although there were times Elizabeth wanted to wring Stewart’s neck right now she was grateful for a familiar and friendly face. As she turned to face him he took a step back as the full effect of her dress confronted him.
‘Libby, you look…stunning.’ He croaked, half choking on the mouthful of champagne he had just taken.
‘Stewart, I look like a hooker.’ His baby blue eyes swept her body, lingering on the slashed front.
‘But a high class one, I’m sure.’ He murmured with impish glee.
‘And that’s meant to make me feel better is it?’ she snapped as her father’s right hand man took a glass of champagne from a passing waiter and gave it to her.
‘As a matter of interest, how much do you charge?’ he raised his glass in silent salute laughing at the outraged expression on her face.
‘Do you want to drink that champagne or wear it?’ Elizabeth replied with saccharine sweetness taking a sip of champagne and glancing up at him over the rim of the glass. An idea formed in her mind as to how she’d show both Joshua and Maxine Sullivan that she was impervious to their behaviour and opinions. Stewart was an old friend and he was always ripe for mischief, she could flirt with him outrageously knowing he’d never overstep the mark. It was time to give Joshua a taste of his own medicine.
‘I was trying to cheer you up,’ Stewart complained, ‘but you seem to have left your sense of humour at home tonight.’
‘Don’t worry, I’m retrieving it by the moment.’ She took another sip, ‘but what are you doing here, Stewart?’
‘Enjoying myself. Looking around and keeping my ear to the ground.’
‘Snooping you mean.’
‘Let’s just say I’m here as T.J.’s ears and eyes. And I’d never lower myself to snoop.’
‘What’s going on Stewart?’ Elizabeth was struck with a thought. ‘Have you seen Maxine Sullivan tonight.’
‘We have crossed paths. Why?’
‘Some reference to a lapdog. She thinks we’re here together.’
‘Why exactly are you here? And more importantly does T.J. know?’
‘Mind your own business to both.’ snapped Elizabeth.
* * * *
Joshua took his dancing partner in his arms, and spoke intimately in her ear,
‘Give me your sexiest, come hither smile.’ Joshua’s partner Jean Potter smiled invitingly up at him but even as she complied with his wishes she questioned them,
‘I may be your personal assistant but I am also your friend. What game are you playing?’
‘Me.’ Replied Joshua, wounded innocence in his voice, ‘Why I’m networking, circulating amongst the guests. I’m being the successful, dynamic husband the macho, domineering male modelled on T.J. to make Beth happy.’
‘She doesn’t look very happy to me,’ commented Jean Potter, ‘and neither do you.’
‘Nonsense Jean, we’re both having a ball, if you’ll pardon the pun.’
‘If you don’t tell me what’s going on then I’ll go right over and ask Elizabeth.’ Jean threatened and Joshua knew that this was no idle threat. He sighed.
‘You may find this hard to believe but I am trying my damnest to save my marriage.’
‘You’re right, I do find it hard to believe. Are you sure you know what you’re doing?’
‘No Jean, I’m winging it.’
‘And setting up unsuspecting wives isn’t in my job description.’
Again Joshua whispered in her ear, knowing Elizabeth was watching his every move.
‘Your protest has been noted, Mrs Potter.’
‘There are times I hate you Joshua Corrigan,’ said Jean.
Joshua was aware how perfectly he’d played his part tonight. The possessive husband, demanding his wife’s undivided attention, managing to alienate and isolate her from the other guests. He was acutely aware his actions had resulted in her standing alone in the shadows, but now she wasn’t alone. He realised it was time to play the masterful role again and sighed.
‘There are times’ he answered ‘when I hate myself.’
* * * *
Seething with resentment Elizabeth jealous eyes followed Joshua now dancing with a vivacious redhead in a fuchsia pink dress.
‘I have to admire your husband’s stamina and ability to attract woman.’ Stewart’s words were like salt in an open wound. ‘Trouble in Paradise Libby?’
‘What do you mean Stewart?’ she hoped her answer sounded casual as she finished the last of her champagne.
‘Because your eyes have never left Joshua and because I know you so well.’ He sighed dramatically, ‘Oh Libby if you’d ever had looked at me with such longing I would never have left your side.’ Elizabeth smiled as remembered their brief romance. While it had fun, it had also been like fairy floss, a light, sweet affair with no substance.
‘Stewart, don’t give up your day job because you’re a lousy actor.’
‘But a good comedian because you’re smiling again. Seriously though, if only you’d chosen me. Think what a force we’d have been. Successful. Unstoppable. We could have conquered the business world.’
As Stewart echoed her earlier words to Joshua, she realised that Stewart was her perfect husband, handsome, intelligent and successful. Even though she’d known him many years she had never once considered marrying him but she had wanted to marry Joshua within two minutes of meeting him. Then she had an image of herself married to Stewart and laughed aloud,
‘Stewart you don’t need a wife like me. You need an accessory.’ What Joshua had made me tonight she acknowledged, arm candy. ‘You need a beautiful young thing with little brain but a lot of common sense. Someone who will always think you’re wonderful.’
‘Lead me to this woman if you ever find her.’ Elizabeth laughed again at Stewart’s absurd suggestion but he had lightened her mood. She loved to dance and now the band was playing one of her favourite tunes. Her foot tapped unconsciously in time with the music. Elizabeth had had enough of standing around. She laid one hand on Stewart’s arm,
‘Lead me to the dance floor.’ She commanded taking his glass from his hands and putting down both glasses on an empty nearby table. A look of panic crossed Stewart’s face,
‘Libby, you know I don’t dance.’
‘You do tonight.’ She said dragging him onto the dance floor and taking him in a reluctant dance hold. Keeping her feet firmly away from his they shuffled around the floor with other inept dancers while Joshua and his partner showed everyone up with their flashy dance moves. Elizabeth sighed with relief as the music faded and the dancers slowed to a halt waiting for the next tune to start. Stewart and Elizabeth by mutual consent turned to leave the dance floor but a hand took hers,
‘I think this dance is mine.’ said Joshua’s deep voice and Elizabeth felt a blush creep up her cheeks as if she had been guilty of some indiscretion. Joshua drew Elizabeth’s hand through his arm, holding her in a way that seemed to challenge the other man.
‘Libby?’ Stewart, bless him, was giving her the option of defying Joshua’s uncalled for rudeness but with her hand held firmly in Joshua’s possessive grasp she felt she had no choice but to go with Joshua. She smiled at Stewart and stayed by her husband’s side.
Joshua swirled her with unnecessary force back onto the dance floor then pulled her hard against him holding her close in a tight unyielding embrace.
‘You’re not a single woman yet so I don’t approve of my wife standing in cosy huddles with other men.’ He said realising that the anger he felt was real and not part of his act.
‘And I don’t like my husband drooling over some woman with more cleavage than dress sense.’ She shot back through clenched teeth. ‘If you’d got any closer you’d have fallen in and suffocated.’
‘And died a very happy man.’ Joshua agreed. As they moved around the floor their bodies swayed together as their feet kept time with the slow gentle rhythm but their words, fast and furious were dancing to a different beat. Elizabeth searched Joshua’s face looking past his impassive mask trying to get some inkling as to his uncharacteristic behaviour but found no answer in his handsome face.
‘Why did you bring me Josh?’ Elizabeth asked, hating the wistful note in her voice.
‘You’re my wife and until now you’ve hidden yourself away, as if trying to deny the fact. But tonight…tonight I decided to show you off. To let the world know that Joshua Corrigan was the type of man who could attract and marry the beautiful, successful daughter of a rich and powerful man. There isn’t a man in the room who wouldn’t want to be in my shoes right now and there are few women who wouldn’t want your life. So, smile. You’re enjoying yourself.’
‘So you are using me’ she accused, attempting to break from his grip but his increased hold on her body told her she was staying right where he wanted her to be. In his arms. ‘I’m not a toy to be picked up and put down when it suits you.’ She hissed through gritted teeth, ‘because that’s what you’ve been doing. And you’re only interested in the toy if someone else wants to play with it.’ His hand traced the curve of her back, briefly, tantalizingly brushing her bare skin.
‘That’s just it Beth. You should only be talking to me, smiling at me. Pre-empting my every need. I’m not prepared to share you anymore.’
‘In your dreams.’ She retorted, at the same time contemplating bringing the stiletto heel of her shoe down onto his foot.
‘That’s what you wanted, remember.’ Joshua murmured into her ear, his warm breath making her whole body shiver with pleasure while her mind continued the fight.
‘No, I wanted a dynamic go-getting husband. Not a control freak.’
‘You call it controlling but I see it as being single minded and strong willed in my desire to have my wife live only for me.’
‘It’s possessive and stifling and now I’m going.’ And you can’t stop me flashed the message in her eyes.
‘How are you going to get home?’
‘By car, of course.’ In the dim light she saw him shake his head.
‘Not without car keys.’
‘What have you done?’ He had thrown her mobile into a rubbish bin, what else was he capable of?
‘Removed your keys and wallet from your bag,’ and at her outrage gasp continued, ‘and don’t even contemplate asking the boyfriend for a lift. You’ll leave with me, when I want to.’ His hand tightened on her wrist, ‘They’re playing our dance Beth.’ He murmured, looking deep into her eyes, as the music changed into a deep sensuous beat, ‘Did you know that the tango originated in the bars and brothels of Buenos Aires?’
Held in his arms, his face close to hers Elizabeth felt mesmerised, completely absorbed in the scent, sight and feel of Joshua, lost in her husband and the music as they travelled across the dance floor using moves that were sometimes slow, sometimes quick but always sexually suggestive. Her eyes locked into Joshua’s Elizabeth knew that this dance would epitomise their marriage for the next eight days for the tango could sometimes resemble a fight and was sometimes a dance of extreme tenderness but whatever the moves it was always a dance of passion. The music changed again, slowing to a waltz and Elizabeth’s neck tingled as Joshua lent down to talk close to her ear,
‘For eight days Beth you belong to me. Body, mind and soul and never for one moment forget it. In fact…’ Elizabeth stiffened as the hand at her back tugged at the zip fastener, ‘I can make love to you right now on this dance floor.’ Elizabeth felt the zip give a fraction more. She looked into his face hoping to see his eyes crinkled with amusement, a teasing smile on his mouth. Instead his eyes glinted with an alien hardness and there was no hint of a smile on his lips.
‘Stop it Josh.’ If she tried to leave the dance floor would he try to stop her? Please don’t let there be a scene. She’d stand her ground and hope to heaven that he was bluffing.
‘Is that what you really want Beth. Or do you secretly deep down want to break out of your little gilt cage and be daring. We could dance over there behind the ferns there’s a hidden alcove with a small ledge for pot plants. I could lift you up onto the ledge, slip off your panties and ease into you.’ She saw him swallow. ‘Nobody could see, I would swallow your cries so nobody would hear.’ His voice whispered in her ear, ‘nobody would know, just you and me.’
Her mind clearly saw the images of their stealthy love making a hot, fiery flame of lust licked up her body, making her flesh tingle and her legs feel weak. Joshua’s voice continued its teasing,
‘You’d like that wouldn’t you?’
‘I will not make love to you amongst the pot plants.’ She hissed even as her mind replayed the fantasy as she leaned into him feeling the hardness of his body blending with the softness of hers.
‘It wouldn’t be love making Beth. It would be sex. Hot, frenzied, unstoppable sex.’ He pulled her close to him and she could feel that he wasn’t acting. He was as excited as she was.
‘Well?’ he asked. She grabbed the lapels of his jacket. She looked into his eyes and saw that the smoky glaze of desire had replaced the hardness. Her body quivered with need. Joshua looked up and over her shoulder and she felt his body tension change.
‘Just a moment, there’s someone I need to see.’ He then walked away, leaving her flushed cheeks, aroused and alone on the dance floor.