by Robin Chawner
Stephen Rossmore is used to getting what he wants. After all, he's built up one of the most powerful shipping empires in all of the 19th century New York. But he more than meets his match in Devon Ramsay, a woman ready to defy society in order to take her place at the helm of the family's business.
Joined in business, bound by love, and then torn apart by deception--who will be able to overcome the effects of being jilted at the altar?
Or will all of it end with one last kiss...?
ISBN 1-59431-507-8 Romance/Suspence/Contemporary
Cover Art by Shelley Rodgerson
Also available in RTF and HTML formats.
Sarah Ramsay, mother of the bride-to-be, had never seen a more dismal gathering of reserved guests. An underlying tension picked at the raw scab of her nerves and crackled in the air as a few dry throats cleared in uneasiness and a few subdued coughs resounded. The atmosphere did not bode well for what was supposed to be the auspicious beginning of married life for the baby of the Ramsay family, twenty-three year old Devon. Sarah’s youngest child seemed supremely confident and relaxed for all outward appearances, but Sarah recognized that proud tilt of Devon’s chin and the discipline she was exerting to keep it there. Devon would not succumb to fear or trembling, but Sarah might.
Edward Ramsay looked mutinously about and surveyed the three guests who clung to their half of the room as if battle lines bloodied the floor. Only Damien McGrath, Stephen Rossmore’s best man, met his eyes squarely and without animosity. He even offered Edward a tight smile, which amounted to a friendlier greeting than the groom’s parents had conveyed. But Damien’s stoic countenance mirrored the concern of everyone else in the room, and Edward Ramsay began to think that he and his wife should have stopped their daughter by forbidding her from making this brutal mistake for which someone would pay dearly. They knew inevitably that “someone” would be Devon.
Edward glanced at his wife. After thirty-five years of marriage, they didn’t need words to express what they had both simultaneously concluded. They no longer eagerly awaited the joining of Devon’s life with Stephen’s - despite their original regard for the man and their recent support of Devon’s choice to marry Stephen, even after a failed first attempt to unite the couple had ended in total disaster. Despite the fact that Stephen had some justification for presuming that Devon had theoretically reneged on that first attempt, thereby voiding the relationship. In spite of the fact that both Sarah and Edward had in the past actively condoned a reconciliation between the two and even believed a marriage to Stephen would provide great happiness to Devon. But then again, those poorly formed assumptions had taken shape before Stephen lashed out in competitive revenge against the Ramsays’ shipping business, an act of blatant retaliation for Devon’s failure to make an appearance on her wedding day.
Because of such well-meaning suppositions, Sarah and Edward had made a grievous error. They’d thought that Devon and Stephen belonged together and suited one another extremely well. They’d believed that the young couple could rectify their former differences and resolve any past misunderstandings. That’s what they had thought, but they were wrong. They could feel it. Stephen would lay the blame on Devon. She alone would pay the price for this insolence and infringement on his freedom, this manacle called marriage, and he would want retribution for what he would see as her galling hubris.
Stephen hadn’t yet arrived and Edward began to hope that he wouldn’t. The hour of two o’clock had long ago passed and the other guests had grown more tense and restless with the mounting minutes. Everyone in the room probably considered the same possibility, that the groom had foregone his own nuptials. Edward at one time feared that Stephen would not show up for this ceremony but now he prayed for that very outcome. Stephen’s absence would amount to a most bountiful blessing.
No such luck.
Stephen Rossmore, renowned for his punctuality and tact, seemed supremely unconcerned that he’d kept the Ramsays waiting. He walked straight past Devon’s parents, offering neither apologies for his tardiness nor greetings at his arrival. He deliberately chose not to acknowledge them at all. His only concession to anyone in the room came at the extravagance by comparison to his treatment of each Ramsay as persona non grata, and in their own home, took the form of a curt nod to his own mother and father. His best man followed his lead without a word or a look of instruction.
The cleric, who nearly jumped to his feet and gathered his Holy Bible as soon as Stephen entered the room, took a last sip of wine and reluctantly put the glass aside. As this man of the cloth stood opposite a very serene-looking Devon in preparation for officiating at this wedding, he noticed the transformation that took place over the small crowd. Everyone watched the approaching groom, an occurrence not altogether unique, and in general, rather a natural reaction. But not under these circumstances, considering the way they all glued their eyes to the groom’s broad back. The guests stood warily, their nerves obviously frayed, their faces wan with distress. Nobody cracked a smile, and those expressions of despair suggested what he had already surmised about this wedding - something wasn’t quite right.
Father Mark studied the young woman in front of him. She hadn’t even turned around to witness her betrothed coming toward her. She didn’t flinch or move a muscle. He began to think she must have succumbed to some sort of shock, but that conclusion quickly disintegrated when she acknowledged his observation with a sweet smile, a sweet smile tinged with sadness.
Stephen planted himself at Devon’s side without deigning to give her the courtesy of a greeting or a glance, yet he kept his face passively calm. He appeared to the onlookers as a solemn man who prepared to undertake a very serious commitment, and with that interpretation, the clergyman began the recitation of those ancient words that bound two people together for the duration of their lives. At the point in the ceremony which required the speaking of vows, the first glitch in the beautifully stirring recitation of Gospel took place.
Father Mark spoke to the couple. “Please join hands and face each other.”
Stephen didn’t budge.
The cleric refused to continue.
“Stephen, please,” Devon whispered under her breath.
The biddable bridegroom turned to face his entrancing bride, but his eyes never met hers and he made no overture to entwine his fingers into her outstretched palms. Instead, he stared over the top of her head.
The clergyman decided to overlook the obnoxious display and proceeded. “Do you, Devon Elisabeth Ramsay, take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband?”
The priest followed one line with another until he had exacted all the required oaths from Devon regarding her promises to love, honor and obey in any variety of circumstances. When she completed her vows, he addressed the man at her side. “Do you, Stephen William Rossmore, take this woman—”
“Let me save you some time, Father,” he cut in with a smile that left his eyes cold and shaped his mouth into a sinister arc. “I already took her. And as good as it was, it isn’t worth a lifetime stuck with her.”
With that stinging announcement, Stephen gave Devon the briefest of glares, turned on his heel and blazed a path of gaping disbelievers in his wake.
But the joke was on him as much as on Devon. He had wanted to spend a lifetime at her side. He had fallen so hopelessly in love with her that when she crooked her finger, he had wanted to come running. He would have given her the world, all that he had to offer, anything. But all of that had changed irrevocably. And yet, in that split second when he had looked into her soft, welcoming, wounded eyes, he could have lost his way. In fact, he would have drowned in the sweet torment of her brown orbs if he hadn’t snapped his head away with such rapidity. Therefore, he’d acted out of necessity, he told himself, desperate to salvage that struggling sense of self-preservation he’d only recently found. If he had spent a moment longer at her side and in front of a priest, he might have lost his resolve as well as his pride. And all of his hard-won sanity.
Devon curled her lip in a harsh impression of smile. She hadn’t anticipated that Stephen would go to such lengths to humiliate her, but in some obscure way she understood why he had done it. Of course she was realistic enough to concede that they hadn’t repaired any of the damage they’d done to one another in the past few months. In spite of that single night of tormentingly memorable lovemaking, nothing else had really changed. The hurt still cut deeply, the mistrust rampaged mercilessly, and the lack of good, honest communication festered like a contagious disease. Her miscalculation stemmed from her belief that he would go through with the ceremony, and once married, they would rebuild their relationship at that starting point. Her oversight came about only because she didn’t know that Stephen was capable of hatred, let alone the depth of loathing he obviously felt for her. But she should have expected this. She should have known. Stephen was always so exacting. And so unforgiving.
Stephen’s callous and blatantly cruel actions had almost frozen her in her tracks, as she knew he’d intended, but she refused to cower. It was not in her nature. Besides, her pride would not allow it. She chose the riskier course of action by following him out into the hall, and as she felt the politely misdirected stares of the shocked occupants of the room, she held herself even more rigidly, refusing to exhibit any emotion at all.
As soon as Devon closed the door on that suffocating drawing room and her own pretense of calm, her eyes riveted to the front door and the figure of her former fiancé as he quickly approached it. Practically tripping in her haste to catch up with his long strides, she simply yanked the hem of her gown a little higher and walked even faster. Her heart thudded in rhythm with her footsteps, the sound echoing a fear such as she’d never known, racing with the numbness that was beginning to work as an anesthesia over her mind and body. But she couldn’t submit to it. Not yet. In direct opposition to her screaming fear, she picked up some scraps of calm, a few remnants of courage, and focused with a singleness of mind and spirit on what she knew she must do. With a gesture as vital to existence as that of a lifesaving towline being held out to a feeble, injured ship, crawling to a port of safety and healing, she touched the sleeve of his shirt.
He whirled around in distaste, the repugnance clearly showing in his eyes, along with a fleeting speck of admiration because she chose to bravely follow him.
“Stephen,” Devon reverently intoned, her voice the softest whisper, “one last kiss?”
It was the barest hint of a question, more of a statement and a challenge that she knew he dare not deny. One last kiss. It had started as a childish game, the request for a final kiss before parting. But that innocent taunt had somehow bound them together time and again. It had forged them into one whole, had invited her to yield at his request, had provided a solemn vow which they both swore to honor.
Devon knew that he had long ago given his promise to obey the request, but she had never called upon that promise. She was choosing a moment of profound importance to test his fealty to honor and he looked as if he might refuse. He might refuse, her head pounded and her heart choked, and that hurt more deeply than his contempt for her, and his refusal to marry her.
Stephen’s expression mirrored his thoughts as his blue-grey eyes deviated to a steely cloudy grey - the color of emptiness, lifelessness, revulsion. He glared into her upturned face and a battle of emotions which he swore he’d never again feel raged up within him. He had already died inside because of her treachery, and when he looked at her, he no longer wanted to feel anything. He wanted nothing, except to make her experience all the suffering he’d endured on her behalf - and she had just unwittingly given him the opening he needed, he thought with an almost perverse pleasure. He might actually enjoy showing her exactly how hateful he found her.
With utter distaste, he lowered his mouth to hers in a harsh, grinding, punishing kiss, his lips brutally assaulting hers in a choking attack that took all and gave nothing. In a display to degrade and steal from her, he insolently thrust his tongue deep into her throat, barely restraining the urge to stifle her breath with his mouth. But Devon didn’t protest or back off. She didn’t fight back or flail against him. She didn’t behave the way any other woman would have - but he should have known that. She had never been like anyone else.
Devon accepted the brutality he forced upon her by softening her lips beneath his and welcoming his kiss. Her tongue bravely sought to intimately touch his, and she could feel him hesitate, could feel his confusion. He wanted to dominate and humiliate her but she wasn’t cooperating, and he wasn’t sure how to proceed. He started to pull away in angry disgust, so she just as forcefully wrapped her arms around his neck, lightly touching her fingers to the hair curling at his nape. This time, his mouth grappled with hers in a kiss far less degrading but just as punishing as the previous one, and as his hands reached out to mold her against his body, she went willingly.
Stephen wanted to keep on kissing her, and in so doing, he wanted to forget. He wanted to wipe clean all the ugliness of the past months and the pain that had gone along with it. He wanted to feel things as they used to be, with Devon melting in his arms and his heart full of the blinding love it had always held for her. But he couldn’t wash away the bitter agony that had crippled him and left him hollow, and he refused to succumb to such blindness any longer. Their love had ceased to exist, and his love for her had died a slow, lingering, and very painful death. Now only the shell of his body remained, and the core of blazing hatred that had taken up residence where his heart had once lived.
Devon could sense Stephen’s internal fight against yielding to her and the memories of their shared passion, but she very much wanted him to yield. If her subtle coaxing and welcoming invitation of her arms and mouth and body could intensify that struggle within him, then she would gladly continue her efforts. She would wage a battle of her own, a battle against his defenses, and she would fight with the only weapons at her disposal. She would do anything to get through to him, and so she offered him the sweetness of her mouth and the promise of more. She knew that if she could just keep making him feel something, anything, she had a chance to reach him.
But he knew that too.
He abruptly pushed her away.
His eyes glittered flecks of sparking blue, the telltale sign that his passion was rising, but his face was cold, his teeth clenched, his body held rigidly, and she watched his eyes return to the color of emotionless grey. Grey. The void. The closed door to his soul. The wall that barred the world, and especially her, from reaching him. Ever.
Stephen turned his back on her, stormed over to the front door, and disappeared onto the street outside. Out of her house and out of her life. The clatter of his carriage pulling away sounded like a death knell. A proclamation of the end.