Haley Kent groaned aloud. All she wanted was to return one little favor to her best friend, and instead she had walked straight into an inferno of unforeseen consequences halfway across the world.
And with no one to save her.
She crossed her fingers and scrunched her eyes. For about the millionth time in a row, she called upon some sort of divine magic to whisk her back to the sanity of her cool New York apartment, and away from the mad nightmare India had turned into.
“It would be wise to keep your eyes open, Haley. I wouldn’t want you falling into the fire,” a mildly accented and mocking voice whispered in her ear.
Haley’s eyes sprang open. She’d scream like a banshee if her throat weren’t already raw from her previous efforts. But the pot of flames before her had not vanished. And the priest reciting mantras in a foreign language hadn’t changed, as she so yearned, into the faux Ming vase her aunt had given her for Christmas.
She turned her head and glared at the man sitting cross-legged beside her, dressed in a traditional Indian white silk suit, a heavy garland around his neck, and an impressive turban on his head. So much for wishing he had turned into her doorstopper. Or her chopping board.
Still very much her groom in the making. She whimpered in desperation.
Anjali had called it an epiphany when she came up with her bright idea. And really, who was Haley to mess with her best friend’s epiphanies? But Rajeev Yuvaraj had minced Anjali’s oracle sightings into tiny specks of dust in one powerful move.
And now she, not Anjali, was getting married, probably already married for all she knew, given the language barrier.
“I’d rather eat hot coals than be here.” Her head spun as she looked out into the vast garden adorned with everything colorful and festive. She sat flat on the floor of a raised stage, surrounded by heavy brass vases filled with flowers and framed pictures and statues of Indian deities. Guests dressed in elaborate clothes, glittering in the sunlight, watched with excitement and merriment as the groom and his totally-against-it bride—that would be her, by the way—tied the knot.
This just couldn’t be happening to her.
“The power is in your hands, Haley, as I’ve said before.” He leaned closer. Shivers rushed down her spine. Her skin heated and her breath quivered from pure frustration. “Tell me where Anjali is, and I’ll make this marriage disappear. You still have time and I give you my word.”
“Your word?” Haley’s high-pitched voice disturbed the priest’s incantations. She lowered her head under his disapproving glance, but Rajeev’s chuckling spurred her on. “All you’ll do is take her back to her father, who will make her your wife. She doesn’t love you—she loves someone else. It would never have worked out between the two of you. You know, in America…”
“You are no longer in America. And here in India, I am king. Come, we must circle the sacred fire and ask the lords of the planets to remove all obstacles from our way so we may have a happy married life.” Sarcasm laced his tone as he rose to his full height, all six-foot-four inches of it. Haley stayed seated—except for her right hand, which followed him without her permission.
“This is barbaric. It’s enslavement, Mr. Yuvaraj.” She yanked the hand cuffed to his wrist—an unnecessary precaution to keep her from fleeing. The opulent red and gold bridal sari she’d kicked and screamed her way into, the layers of pure gold jewelry, and the tons of flowers threaded through her long blond hair ensured she stayed rooted to the floor next to him, with no hope of making a run for it. But really, where would she have run to anyway?
Anjali had said it would be so easy. She had everything figured out. She would get what she wanted and once Haley executed their plan, after a day or two tops, she’d have the whole of India to get over her lying cheating boyfriend. What a better way to get over Ted, Anjali had said, than in India. Except Anjali hadn’t taken into account how her betrothed would react when he discovered they’d scammed him… big time.
Haley glanced up at him. “Yes, we deceived you, and I’m sorry. Anjali had no other option out of this arranged marriage with you. Her parents watch her every move. She had no choice. But what you’ve done in return is unjustified.”
“Unjustified?” With no effect whatsoever, he hauled her up flush against his body. The impact slowed her senses. His cologne found a way into her pores and teased her nerves. His nearness suspended her breath. She swayed and his hand spanned the small of her back, keeping her steady. The side of her breast brushed his chest and her nipples hardened as liquid warmth spread throughout her body.
She jerked away from him, her brows drawing together. She blamed her reaction on the situation, the Indian air, and the cumbersome pounds of cloth and flowers she wore. It wasn’t a reaction to the man beside her. Still, this was the second time she had experienced such sensations while being near him.
The first had occurred when he’d threatened to have her arrested not more than six months ago. Clearly her entire association with him left much to be desired.
He tugged her back to his chest. “Impersonating my fiancée while she is traipsing the world with her lover and leaving me for the fool requires due payback, as you Americans would say. I expected a bride and a bride is what I will have. Again, it is within your power to end this. Simply tell me where Anjali is.”
Oh, Anjali, what have you gotten me into? Yet, betraying Anjali’s friendship remained out of the question. She just wouldn’t do it. She couldn’t. Not after what Anjali had done for her. She needed to think, remain passive, let him think he’d won before she struck back and escaped.
“What is it going to be, Haley? This is your last chance. Freedom for Anjali’s whereabouts or…”
She shook her head.
“I see you’ve progressed from falling quite disastrously out of windows for your friend’s sake, to getting married on her behalf too.”
He had to bring the window incident up, didn’t he?
Anjali’s parents had sprung the engagement to Rajeev on her with no prior warning whatsoever. It had been a strictly private, family-only affair, so Haley had taken it upon herself to hand-deliver a letter Max—the true love of her life and the man with whom Anjali had currently eloped—had written Anjali. He wanted Anjali to find it on her pillow the instant she came back to her room. Since it was better for Haley to risk getting caught at Anjali’s house than to risk Max being found, Haley had decided she was up for the task And since going through the front door as she always had before would not be allowed under the circumstances, Haley had gone in through the window to Anjali’s bedroom on the first floor of the elaborate house. Getting in had been easy. Getting out? Not so much.
“You would have broken a few limbs if I hadn’t caught you. You were lucky you only lost half of your skirt in the process.”
He had to bring up the skirt part of that incident, didn’t he?
What he had been doing outside at that particular moment, Haley would never know.
“I would have been perfectly all right getting out of the window without your help, thank you very much.”
Still, there he had been when her footing had failed her and she had promptly fallen into his waiting arms. Her miniskirt had caught on something as she fell and the accident had left a good few inches behind, leaving a bit of her panties on show—not that he’d even looked at them. He’d set her back on her feet and had sternly threatened to have her thrown in jail for breaking and entering if she didn’t tell him who she was and what she’d been doing.
“Yes, well, that shows you the lengths I’m willing to go for my friend. So please, do go to hell.” She hadn’t answered his interrogative questions then either. Instead she had used all her strength and ran away from him as fast as she could.
“Indeed.” He gave her a cold dazzling smile then turned to the priest. “Carry on,” he said in English—for her benefit no doubt. “I can’t wait to make her my wife.”
Soon she was hugged and congratulated and blessed and kissed by the guests once the priest had satisfied himself that they were indeed married. Fresh panic seized her.
“Please help me, someone. Anyone, please. This man kidnapped me. Who gets married in handcuffs?” Using all her strength and barely succeeding, she managed to raise her arm with his just a little, trying to wave it at the people before her. Vigorous nods and loud cheers accompanied her outburst. Why had she expected a different result? With the language barrier, they must think her so freaking happy to be married, handcuffs or not. But really, didn’t anyone think the handcuffs an odd addition to the ceremony? Surely they were, weren’t they, even for an arranged marriage?
He forced her to move toward a massive table bedecked with insane amounts of food, and then he unlocked the cuffs and forced her into a chair.
“Stay,” he ordered, pulling his chair even nearer to her. She was between a wall and Rajeev; she wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And even though her stomach pleaded and then grumbled at her to eat something, she wasn’t about to give in. Her captor didn’t mind her stubbornness one bit. He enjoyed his food, oblivious to her, and spoke with his guests in his language in quiet and expressionless tones.
But then he turned his attention back on her. His eyelids drooped a little as his gaze slid over her mouth as if he were kissing her lips with his eyes. Her throat became dry, and her heart beat so hard it hurt her chest. At once she remembered every one of those enflamed isolated stirrings that had ricocheted through her when she’d fallen into his arms at Anjali’s house. When she’d slid down the length of his body as he set her down, she had become mesmerized by him, by his scent, and by his aphrodisiac hazel eyes, veiled with the thickest, silkiest-looking, darkest eyelashes.
He had awakened something foreign in her that she couldn’t understand, but was curious about. At the time she hadn’t known he was going to be Anjali’s fiancé—not until Anjali had shown her pictures of him and admitted that he scared her… a lot. He was too worldly, too big, and yes, too scary. She’d also called him an ‘old grouchy bear not even honey could lighten up.’
“Anjali was right about you,” she said.
“How so?” He sat back in his chair, his gaze bold and unapologetic.
“You’re an old grouch.” She maintained eye contact even though her body had started liquefying from her knees up.
He threw his head back and laughed, really laughed. She wanted to hit him over the head with anything she could get her hands on.
“Should we go upstairs to my bedroom, Mrs. Yuvaraj?”
“Do not call me that. I am not your wife.”
“On the contrary, you are very much my wife, in every sense of the word.”
He couldn’t take her to his bedroom. She’d be a goner once that happened. She had to do something.
When he rose, she grabbed his hand and sank her teeth into the flesh at the base of his thumb. She squeezed her teeth shut, wondering when the man would lift her off his body by her hair.
“Let me know when you’re done,” he said, with all the calmness in the world.
Was this really, really happening to her? In this century? She unclamped her teeth and stomped her foot. “You can’t do this. You simply can’t do this.”
“It’s already done. I gave you a fair choice in return for your freedom, and you chose your friend over it. Now you’ll suffer the consequences.”
More consequences than marrying a man she didn’t know from Adam? She meant to say as much when he bent his knees, leaned toward her, and hefted her over his shoulder.
Haley’s head spun as she hung upside down. She slammed her fists against his muscular back to the sound of applause and confetti raining down upon them. He carried her, and what felt like the five hundred pounds of cloth and flowers she wore, up the winding staircase of his cool palatial home, unmindful of her hammering fists and high screeches of protest while calling him every horrible name she could come up with. She had a very small scope in that area.
He set her down before a humongous door engraved with a beautiful elephant.
“I’ll allow you some privacy. A moment,” he paused, “to collect yourself before I return to teach you some decorum and… perhaps claim you as my wife if you behave yourself befitting of one.”
A strangled gasp escaped her mouth. She couldn’t catch her breath then, her throat hurt and her body boiled under her exertions. She’d run out of insults too.
He opened the door to his bedroom and gestured she enter. A brief moment of madness gripped her in the gut. She wanted to bang her hands on his chest then fall at his feet and beg him to see she would do anything else but betray Anjali. But the thought of crying in front of him renewed her fight.
She took a deep breath and walked into the blatant masculinity of his room, her bridal wear bearing down on her body. The door closed behind her and the lock turned, imprisoning her as his scent still lingered in the air around her.
Think. Think. Think.
She charged for the windows, but tripped over the crystal beads hemmed into the bottom of the sari. She sat on the floor and began to bawl her eyes out, but then she stopped her sobbing midway. Crying wouldn’t help her.
First, she needed to divest herself of the bridal garb. She searched the room for her bags, hoping Rajeev had awarded her that one simple liberty.
He hadn’t. Instead, displayed on the bed, she found a red negligee of the sheerest chiffon and a bit of satin with a slit up to the hip.
He had to be kidding her.
But her mobility would definitely be increased.
She must escape at all costs. She fought to undo the sari, assured she’d be long gone before Rajeev came back to the room to find her dressed in the alluring and sparse nightie. She tried to remove the flowers from her head, but short of getting lucky and finding a pair of scissors to cut off all her hair, she couldn’t undo a single one. Never mind; she’d carry her heavy head with her.
Teach her decorum? Had he actually said that? Did he expect she would accept this bizarre marriage with an air of placidness and thankfulness? If so, he’d need to think again.
But minutes later, and with her out of breath, the windows remained unbroken, no secret trapdoors lay hidden, and no lock picked. She twirled around the room, hysterical as her choices diminished and the truth surfaced.
She was the prisoner wife of an Indian man god.
She knew getting help from the authorities in Delhi would get her nowhere. Anjali had said Rajeev could buy the world and still have money left over. Her cry for help would go unanswered.
But Ted. He would help her. She needed to give him her whereabouts and he’d take care of everything. He loved her; he’d told her so. He’d said she was the only one he wanted and needed and he’d never stop fighting for her.
With new fervor, she flung open every cupboard and closet. She shoved aside Rajeev’s clothes, searching for a hidden phone or tablet, and rummaged through all his drawers. The only thing she found in his bedside drawer was an earring that looked a little familiar to her. But she dismissed it at once. She had other things to worry about.
She faced the truth once again. He’d done an excellent job in keeping her isolated from the world. Crap.
But, at least she could wear one of his shirts to cover herself up a little. She picked one out of an outstanding number of shirts and put it on.
Haley spun around and stopped breathing as she took in the man standing in the center of the room. He’d removed the turban and his jacket and now wore only a plain, though of course Armani, shirt tucked into his black Armani trousers. She hadn’t gotten around to buttoning his shirt before he interrupted her.
“Gandhi would have turned the other cheek,” she said, desperation present in her voice.
“I am not as saintly.” His gaze roved the length of her body, taking in her nakedness beneath the lingerie. She held her breath as his blazing gaze scorched the delicate red lace scarcely concealing her breasts. Her nipples swelled. He glanced back up at her, daring her to react. She pulled his overly big shirt over her chest and tilted her head, narrowed her eyes and hoped for a show of indifference. When he grinned at her, she knew she’d failed.
“You’ll have to… force me.”
“Probably. But I feel you need a lesson in discipline first.” He rubbed the imprint of her teeth on his hand.
Would she leave him with a scar for life? She shuddered. He’d deserve it for marrying her against her will. “Oh? What are you going to do, send me to my room without any supper like I’m some rebellious ten-year-old because I bit you? You are holding me against my will. Or, do I have to remind you of that fact?”
“No. You deserve the kind of discipline appropriate for a woman your age.” He rolled the sleeves of his shirt up. Powerful forearms, splattered with fine straight hair intrigued her more than they should.
She took a step back, placing a hand to her stomach. “Are you going to hit me?” Dread filled her stomach. God, what had she gotten herself into?
“I prefer to call it a spanking.” Done with rolling his sleeves up, he slipped his hands into his pockets and regarded her again.
The man couldn’t possibly be serious. No way. “You have got be to be kidding me, right?” She laughed so much, tears rolled down her eyes. He allowed her the amusement, just stood there with his legs braced apart, gorgeous and… staid.
She stopped laughing, bit her lip for a few seconds, and then said, “You’re serious?”
In answer, he unbuckled his belt. Moisture pooled in her pussy. No, totally wrong reaction. She had stepped backwards into an elaborate marble dressing table. The leather swished through the loops of his trousers as he closed in on her.
Her legs couldn’t move. Her brain stalled. She watched as he held the buckle in his palm and wrapped the leather around his hand. She grazed his golden skin with her gaze and followed the contours of his wide shoulders to the powerful collarbones visible through his tie-less shirt; the angles, planes, and sinewy muscles of his chest and abdomen—not in the least concealed by the fine fabric—and lower to the impressive bulge in his pants. Hmm… what was she doing?
She clenched her fists to stop from raking her fingers through his midnight blue-black hair. Would it feel as soft as it looked? If she dragged her hands all the way down his body, would it feel as hard under her palms as it looked? Stop it.
He stood so close to her now she could feel his breath, count the number of strands of his eyelashes. He lifted his other hand and cupped her cheek then wrapped his fingers around the nape of her neck, under the long bulky plait of her hair, strewn with a zillion flowers.
“You will always have a choice, Haley. Tell me where Anjali is and I won’t turn you over my knee and redden your backside.”
Fear, excitement, confusion, and lust all whizzed through her. She fought so hard to resist leaning into his big hand at her neck, to rest her heavy head in his palm.
“I thought you were going to teach me manners for biting you?”
“I’m an equal opportunist.”
“If I tell you where she is, what will you do about it now? You already married me.” Even saying it aloud shook her. She was married. To a stranger. With a belt wrapped around his hand. For her spanking. “Will you un-marry me so you can marry Anjali?”
“Unfortunately, I can no longer marry Anjali, but I can return her to her understandably very distraught parents.”
“So you will annul this marriage then if I tell you where she is?”
“Yes.” The tips of his fingers caressed her skin. His eyes darkened as his gaze turned down to her heaving breasts, almost spilling out of the fabric. His shirt had parted and cool air breezed over one of her nipples visible through the lace detail. The wetness between her legs grew. She’d never experienced anything as carnal as what he was making her feel and she couldn’t ignore it. It seemed whenever she was in his company, something went hopelessly wrong with her. “Eventually,” he murmured.
“I can’t,” she whispered, shaking her head. “I can’t tell you where she is. You don’t understand.”
Both his hands cupped her face now. His belt draped over the side of her breast, heating her blood. He glided his thumb over her lip, pulling it down so she wet the pad of his digit. She gasped at the intimate contact. He licked his lip. If he kissed her now…
“Very well then.” He dropped his hands from her and coiled his fingers around her wrist. She planted her bare feet into the luxurious carpet when he tried to steer her along.
“You’re not going to do this, are you? You’re trying to scare me, aren’t you? Just stop this.” He turned to look at her. She didn’t miss the way his gaze lingered on the amount of thigh she showed, courtesy of the slit in her negligee.
“I won’t allow this,” she screamed, yanking her hand out of his grasp and failing.
“Ah, Haley, you do try my patience.”
He moved with the speed and agility of a big wildcat and tossed her over his shoulder. He strode to the divan, sat, and swiveled her around so she lay flat on her stomach over his thighs, her ass presented to him like a cookie on a platter.
“Do you wish to tell me anything before I begin?”
“Yes. You’re an arrogant monster, a bully, a horrible, horrible—” The leather of his belt met her behind and every nerve and cell in her body froze. She had still believed he was trying to shock her into telling him Anjali’s whereabouts. That he spanked her, actually took his belt to her, stunned her.
“Ouch!” she cried, lost for how else to respond, struggling to get up from his lap. He held her down way too easily.
“I barely touched you. What is it you Americans would say? Ah. You’re being a drama-queen.”
“Okay, look—” He cut her off again this time with a searing spank, making her eyes sting. Once he’d flipped his shirt away from her backside, her thong did nothing to curb the smart and neither did the satin of the nightie. He struck her again, his belt catching the fleshy center of her butt. Again and again.
“Perhaps a total of ten will be sufficient to teach you a lesson.”
“I don’t need a lesson. You can’t do this to me. Goddamn you!”
“But you do. And I can.”
“A gentleman would never stoop so low as to hit a girl because she bit him.”
“True, but I am not dispensing this punishment because you bit me. I’m belting your lovely ass because the next time you want to bite me, you need to ask my permission first.”