This Time Around:
The Bennett's Bastards Series, Book Two
Melville’s Cross, May, the worst day of Rafael Bennett’s life.
Rafe leaned back against the bedhead, his long legs stretched out before him and crossed at the ankles, a glass of bourbon in one hand and a boring, long-winded deposition in the other. He took another swig from the glass, the alcohol burning his throat as he swallowed it down, and tried to focus. He’d been reading the same paragraph for twenty minutes and it still hadn’t sunk in.
He was distracted.
Because of her.
“‘Abby has a new man,’ they said. ‘We want to fuck with his head,’ they said. ‘It’ll be fun,’ they said,” Rafe groused under his breath, imitating his brothers and the conversation they’d had the week before. “Fun. Right,” he said, and downed the shot of bourbon.
“Fun” was not a word he had much to do with these days. “Work” was the prominent word in his life now. And “tired”. That was a word he definitely associated with. So when the chance came to get out of the city and spend a relaxing weekend with his family, talking shit with his brothers, teasing his sister and sizing up her new man, how could he refuse? Because at the time he’d agreed to join them, he’d forgotten about her.
The woman drove him crazy with that mischievous grin of hers, and the way her hips would sway when she walked—towards him or away from him, it didn’t matter. She was mesmerising. And dangerous. As beautiful as she was intelligent, and as passionate as she was insane, she had a temper as fiery as her hair and man, could she hold a grudge.
A slow smile spread across his face as he remembered how she’d looked at the town picnic just hours before. So sexy. So enticing. Dressed like the pin-up girls you saw painted on old World War II bombers, licking pink frosting off a cupcake with that talented tongue of hers and staring him down from across the village green, daring him to take action, to take her.
But he hadn’t.
He hadn’t walked over to her, hadn’t driven his hands through her hair, and hadn’t pulled her to him and claimed her mouth with all the passion she inspired in him. Instead, he’d avoided her, had kept his hands to himself and behaved like the staid gentleman everyone thought he was.
Everyone except her.
Rafe tossed the document aside and poured another finger of bourbon, sighing quietly as he swirled the rich amber liquid around in the glass.
She was getting married soon, and Rafe had rules about that sort of thing. He was a lawyer, a respected member at his firm and most importantly, he was not his father. Ulysses Bennett may have given in to temptation time and time again, dabbling with every other woman who crossed his path, but Rafe was not so foolish. He’d witnessed first-hand the destruction his father’s indiscretions had caused, the anguish and the heartbreak. So he’d always vowed to take his relationships seriously.
And he had.
“Is that drink for me?”
Jane’s small hand reached out and took the glass, her silky hair trailing over his chest as she leaned up to sip from the tumbler, her naked breasts pressed against his side.
Rafe swallowed hard as he fought to contain the violent emotions welling within him: the excitement and lust he’d felt at finding her in his bed dressed in nothing but a pair of his boxer shorts and silk necktie; his regret, knowing he’d never share another moment like this with her again; and the guilt of sleeping with another man’s woman.
Even one as undeserving as Sam Lyndon.
“What are you thinking about?” Jane said, reaching across him to slide the tumbler onto the bedside table.
“You don’t want to know.”
Sighing heavily, she settled back against his side. “Not this again, Rafe.”
“What do you want me to say, Janie? That I’m happy for you?”
“That would be a start.”
“Well, I’m not.”
Jane swung her leg over Rafe’s hips and straddled his body. “I’m getting married, not taking a vow of chastity,” she said, emphasising her point by rocking her hips and mashing their bodies together in all the right ways. A moan escaped him and his eyelids fluttered shut. She felt so good. He gritted his teeth. It felt so wrong.
Opening his eyes, he frowned up at her. “Or monogamy, apparently.”
Jane shrugged. “Just one of the perks of marrying a swinger,” she purred, until he grabbed her hips and ceased her movement. Her shoulders slumped and her mouth twisted. “What?”
“You know what. Since when are you into swinging? You’ve always been an adventurous lover, but swinging? Really?”
She folded her arms across her chest. “I’m a late bloomer. What of it?”
“You’re not a late bloomer, Jane, you’re being led by the nose.”
“Meaning you think Sam is taking advantage of me,” she said.
“Yes, I do.”
Staring at him for a long moment, her emerald eyes narrowed and she anchored her hands to her hips. “Exactly how stupid do you think I am?”
Rafe frowned at the question. “What?”
Jane slid from his lap and proceeded to dress. “I’m not some innocent little girl anymore, Rafe, so easily swayed by a handsome face and pretty words.”
The bottom fell out of Rafe’s gut and he felt as though she’d slapped him, her words stinging his raw nerves. An innocent girl easily swayed? Was that truly what she thought of their past? He sat heavily on the edge of the bed, incredulous anger bubbling beneath his skin. “Is that why you’ve been punishing me all these years? Because you think I tricked you out of your virginity with a come-hither smile and my witty charm?”
It certainly wasn’t how he remembered it.
“I don’t appreciate the sarcasm,” Jane said, her eyes glowing green fire.
“And I don’t appreciate the accusation,” Rafe fired back. He ran his hands through his hair, then laughed in disbelief and shook his head. “For fuck’s sake, Jane, you’re smarter than this. Our past aside, you’ve known Sam Lyndon for less than six months, and I don’t know how the hell he’s managed to dig his claws in so deep in such a short amount of time, but I can tell you one thing.”
“Oh, and what’s that?”
“He’s taking you for a ride, and what’s worse is you’re letting him. He’s not a swinger, Jane, he’s a swinging dick. He fucks every woman who crosses his path and doesn’t spare them or you a second thought as he does it. It is completely beyond me how you can even think of marrying this fuckwit when he has zero respect for you.”
“At least he wants to be with me. You couldn’t get far enough away from me.”
Rafe was on his feet in an instant, his hands gripping her shoulders and his tall frame towering over hers. “You know I didn’t want to leave you behind. Just like I know you will never be happy with that prick.”
Jane shrugged him off. “I shouldn’t have come here. I don’t know what I was thinking,” she muttered, and then she stopped and looked up at him, a frown pulling at her delicate features. “And how the hell was I punishing you?”
“You know exactly what I’m talking about, Jane.” She pursed her lips and shook her head, defiant to the end. Fine. He’d spell it out for her, then. “Every time you break up with someone, you rock up on my doorstep, knowing full well I won’t turn you away. Why? Why is it my shoulder you want to cry on, my bed you want to sleep in? I left you once and only because I had no other choice. You’ve left me so many times I’ve lost count. I’m done, Jane. I can’t—won’t—be your whipping boy anymore.”
Jane’s mouth flapped open but for once she was silent. Rafe would have laughed had the situation not been so damned depressing. He’d loved this woman once. Adored her. Worshipped her. Now all he felt in her presence was pain and loneliness. It was his own fault. He should have put an end to their trysts a long time ago, should have moved on, but—
No. No buts.
It was time to let her go.
He reached around her to unlock the bedroom door, then turned away to refill his glass. The door slammed shut as he slammed down the bourbon, the burn of the alcohol all too familiar on this disaster of a day.
Pouring another shot, he sighed quietly. “Goodbye, Janie.”
Melville’s Cross, August, the second-worst day of Jane Melville’s life.
“Jane, put the fork down and step away from the cake.”
Jane Melville glared over the top of her not-wedding cake, silently daring her almost-maid-of-honour to try something foolish—like pry the triple layer coconut cake from her cold, spinsterly hands. The cake she’d worked on for the better part of two days. It was a freaking culinary masterpiece.
And a colossal waste of fucking time.
She shoved another forkful in her mouth. “Back off, Bennett. It’s my non-reception and I’ll pig-out if I want to,” she said around the fluffy, coconutty goodness dissolving on her tongue. “Besides, I’m eating for two.”
Abby tsked and rolled her eyes. “Yes, I’m sure gorging yourself on an entire wedding cake is exactly what the baby needs.”
“What would you know?”
If the stiffening of her best friend’s shoulders wasn’t enough to chastise her for such an insensitive comment, her quiet gasp and wide eyes were.
“I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that,” Abby said, smoothing the distraught look from her lovely face. But her words were stilted, her voice brittle as she absently smoothed her hand over her belly.
Abby couldn’t have kids, a point of contention that had contributed to her divorce several years before, and a constant source of heartache for her tender-hearted friend. Although, Jane had to admit, Abby was dealing with it much better these days. Now she had someone in her life who loved her unconditionally.
Abandoned by her appetite, Jane pushed the cake away. “I’m sorry, Abbs. I didn’t mean it like that.”
Gracious as always, her friend laid a hand over hers and squeezed her fingers. “I know,” she said, then grinned. “But I’m still taking the cake.”
Jane snorted, her lips twitching into a short-lived smirk.
Watching as Abby removed the bride and groom from the top of the cake and hacked it to pieces, an air of detachment settled over her. It was no longer her wedding cake, just a pretty mess of flour and sugar and coconut cream. Still, the thought that the hundred or so guests milling about inside the town hall were about to shove it down their gullets made her sick. It was bad enough they were still out there eating her food and delighting in her misery, just waiting for her to make an appearance so they could look down their noses at her.
Well, let them eat her not-wedding cake.
I hope they choke on it.
The kitchen door swung open as the wait staff came and went, their silver platters laden with food and drink, and every time it opened, snippets of murmured conversations drifted through the doorway. Jane strained to hear them but couldn’t make out what was being said, which she conceded was probably for the best. The last thing she needed was to go postal because some old biddy couldn’t keep her opinions to herself. Jane could already see tomorrow’s headline: Jane Melville stranded at the altar, pregnant and penniless. She figured that was probably better than: Jane Melville burns town hall to the ground with wedding guests inside, teaching gossips a lesson they’ll never forget.
Jane blew out a frustrated breath. She knew the stories would start sooner or later with the whys and the hows and the wherefores. In a town as small as Melville’s Cross good gossip was better than sex. Not that any of them would know good sex if it jumped up and smacked their arse. And while being the great-great-granddaughter of the town’s founding father afforded her some protection from the poisonous clothesline prattle, she knew better than to hope it would shield her completely.
She was off to a good start though, what with Abby whisking her away from the sudden glare of infamy in the church to the relative safety of the kitchen in the hall before too many people figured out what was going on. With its single point of entry and limited space, it was easy to keep the looky-loos out in the main hall where they belonged. Of course, having two of Abby’s enormous brothers standing guard at the kitchen door didn’t hurt.
No one fucked with the twins.
Jane smiled as she remembered watching the whole Bennett clan—her second family—arrive for the ceremony. Well, almost all of them. Henry, Sally, Paul, Sophie, Crispin, Avery, Tobias, Charlie and his girls, Oliver and his current arm-candy, and Abby’s fiancé Wolf. Hell, even Ulysses Bennett had made an appearance. The only one missing was….
She wasn’t sure what she thought would happen between them after their falling out back in May, but she’d hoped he’d still be at her wedding. A fool’s dream perhaps, considering how adept he’d been at avoiding her every attempt to contact him over the last month.
And she still wasn’t sure how she felt about that little fly in her ointment.
With a heavy sigh, Jane picked up the tiny bride from where it lay on the table and stared at it, comparing its slender waist and slinky white gown to her slightly distended belly and the loose fitting lacy number she’d picked up at a second hand shop. After all the time she’d spent dragging Abby from one bridal boutique to the next, trying on gown after gown and always leaving disappointed, she’d begun to despair at never finding the perfect dress and had resigned herself to walking down the aisle naked. It was only while hunting through an op-shop for a completely unrelated item that she’d stumbled upon the dress she now wore. Standing in the dressing room, staring at herself in the mirror and she’d just known: I’m getting married in this dress.
But apparently not.
With a wave of disgust—or possibly morning sickness—she tossed the tiny plastic bride aside and picked up the groom, glaring at his smug little face and wishing it was the real thing so she could slap him senseless and scream at him and kick him in the balls with her very pointy bridal shoes.
I’m such an idiot.
And after all her arguing with Rafe to the contrary, apparently she was still a sucker for a handsome face and pretty words.
Sam Lyndon had conned her good.
As she’d waited for the groom to arrive, excited and anxious to begin her new life, he’d been emptying out her bank accounts and boarding a plane to God knows where.
And how did she know this?
Because Rachel, the bimbo he’d run off with, had the audacity to send her a text message explaining the situation in no uncertain terms. Oh! And a photo of her holding two boarding passes while sucking Sam’s cock. And Jane knew it was Sam’s cock. The strawberry coloured birthmark on his junk was a dead giveaway.
But just as she began silently wishing the cabin pressure in the aeroplane would make Rachel's fake boobs explode, something shiny caught her eye.
A minute later Abby sniffed the air around her. “What is that smell?”
Jane snapped shut the lighter in her right hand and stared at the small plastic groom in her left, smirking at the blistering hole where his genitals used to be.
“Give me that!” Abby said, snatching the lighter out of her hand.
Jane shrugged, unrepentant. “What? You took my cake away.”
Her friend sighed and slowly shook her head. “Come on. We’ll take you home.”
Wolf appeared behind Abby and draped his suit jacket around her bare shoulders. “It’s getting chilly out,” he said, pressing a kiss to her temple. And then he lowered his mouth to her ear and said something that made her smile.
Jane wanted to grin at them like she usually did, wanted to bask in the heat of their adoration for one another and celebrate their happiness for the miracle it was. Ordinarily she was their most enthusiastic cheerleader, but now her lips were frozen in a permanent flatline. She had nothing left to give. Not today. So she just stared at them, watching as Wolf stroked Abby’s cheek with the blade of his finger, as one corner of her mouth lifted at whatever he was murmuring in her ear.
And Jane simply felt… cold. So cold. And not from the chill in the air, either. No, this chill came from inside her, deep down in the dark place she tried so hard to hide from the world. The place that held all her darkest memories and unfulfilled desires and all the broken pieces of herself that she’d never figured out what to do with or how to fix. Thirty-two years of shit just swirling around in the pit of her soul, draining every ounce of happiness out of her. Usually it was easy for her to keep it all locked away, like a monster in the basement.
Unable to look at her friends any longer, she turned away. “Let’s go.”
Shoving the kitchen door open so she could peek outside, she spied the Bennett twins still standing guard. Both of them watched her as she stepped into the hallway.
“How are you feeling, sweet pea?”
Toby’s nickname for her had always made her smile, had always made her feel like she really was one of the family, but today… nothing.
She felt nothing.
Apathy shrouded her every move, every thought.
She did hear something though. “Let me through, you walking man-bun.”
“Make me, you pompous arsehole.”
“Let me see my sister.”
“She’s more my sister than yours, dickwad.”
Peering between the wall of muscle that was Toby and Charlie Bennett, Jane saw their younger brother, Oliver, arguing with her older brother, Richard.
She reached up and tapped Charlie’s shoulder. “Let him through,” she said quietly.
“Ollie, stand down,” Charlie said, then he stepped aside to let Richard through.
Taking her hand, he led her away from the Bennetts. “I appreciate them taking care of you and all, but for fuck’s sake, Janie, they’re not the only ones worried about you.” He shoved his hand through his hair and she noticed how dishevelled the usually immaculately groomed Dr Richard Melville looked. “How are you feeling? Do you need anything?”
Not giving herself time to ponder his concern, she shook her head. “Abby and Wolf are taking me home now.”
“Oh. Okay,” he said, and then he took his jacket off and gave it to her. “Put this on. There’s a storm coming in over the mountains. It’ll be cold outside.”
Sliding her arms into the sleeves of Richard’s jacket made her feel so small, like she was a kid again, playing dress ups in their parent’s clothes. She wrapped the jacket around her, absorbed his body heat. “Thank you,” she said, her voice flat and lifeless.
Suddenly Richard pulled her into his arms and hugged her tightly. “I know I’m pretty crap at being a big brother, Jane, but I do love you, and you don’t deserve what Sam did to you today. You know that, right?”
“I know,” she said, the sting of tears making their presence known. “And I love you, too.” When she pulled back she added, “Can you stay and help mum and dad clean up the hall? And someone needs to check on the rental car and—”
“Consider it done,” Richard said, and then he smiled. “Now, I want you to go home, take a long, hot bath, have a good cry, and eat a shitload of junk food. Doctor’s orders, okay?”
A tiny smile managed to lift her lips for just a moment and she threw her arms around him again. “Whatever you say, doc.”
The house was dark when Jane entered, which suited her mood. But three seconds later Abby followed her inside and down the hall and flicked on every light switch as she went.
And what was up with Richard being so… nice? Usually he was a selfish, entitled pain in her arse. But today…. Jane snorted, thinking she must really look like shit if Richard was taking pity on her.
Abby called out from down the hall. “Jane? Do you want me to run you a bath?”
Slipping Richard’s jacket off and tossing it over the back of a chair, Jane followed her friend’s voice and joined her in the bathroom. “No thanks. I just need help getting out of this damned dress.”
“Do you want me to stay with you tonight?”
Shaking her head, she said, “No, I’ll be fine.” And then she looked over her shoulder to where Abby was painstakingly unbuttoning the wedding dress and forced herself to grin. “Besides, you’re only offering so you can get out of clean up duty at the hall.”
“The thought did cross my mind,” Abby said before twisting her mouth into a grimace. “Especially since Richard will be there.”
“Yeah, he was weird earlier, being all nice to me and shit.”
“He’s your brother, Jane. He’s supposed to be nice to you.”
“Yeah, but… I don’t know. He seemed… different. Off, ya’ know?”
A quiet sigh sounded behind her as Abby continued popping buttons. “Laura left him.”
Spinning to face her friend, mouth open and eyes wide, Jane grabbed Abby’s forearms. “What? How do you know? And more importantly, why didn’t anyone tell me?”
“He said he didn’t want to take the spotlight away from you on your wedding day.”
“Maybe he should have,” she grumbled, then turned around so Abby could resume button duty. “Tell me everything.”
“Not much to tell really. He came to see us last night, me and Wolf. He didn’t say why Laura left, just that she had and then apologised for the stunt he pulled at your engagement party.”
Jane smirked. “Did you apologise for breaking his nose?”
“Fuck no! I was married to your brother for five years and he cheated on me for three of them. He should be thankful that’s all I broke. Still,” she said, the humour dropping from her voice, “he seems pretty upset.”
“Upset he got caught, perhaps. Probably diddling some nurse at the hospital. Idiot never learns.”
“I don’t know,” Abby said. “He seemed genuinely heartbroken.”
Jane repressed an unconvinced snort and kept any further thoughts on the matter to herself. She’d always been the more cynical of the two women and as much as everyone liked to joke otherwise, she did in fact know when to shut up.
A moment later, Abby announced, “There. All one hundred tiny bloody buttons undone.”
Jane shimmied out of her wedding dress and handed it to Abby.
“Where do you want me to put it?”
Another wave of nausea hit her and she swallowed back bile. “The rubbish bin seems appropriate.”
Abby held up the dress and stared at it for a moment, then said, “How about The Forge? Come over tomorrow for brunch and we’ll have a ceremonial dress burning, and I don’t know, eat leftovers and toast marshmallows or something.”
The first genuine smile Jane had felt all afternoon spread across her face at the idea of setting fire to the lacy symbol of her demise. “Deal,” she said. “And as we watch it burn I’ll have a ginger ale on the rocks and pretend it’s bourbon.”
“Mocktails all round,” Abby agreed. “Now, are you sure you don’t want me to stay with you tonight? It’s really no trouble.”
Jane took Abby’s hands in hers, gently squeezed them. They’d been best friends for as long as she could remember and she loved her like a sister, but all she really wanted right now was to be left alone. “Abbs, I’m fine. Besides, Wolf has been waiting for you in the car all this time.”
Her friend blushed and flicked some invisible lint from the wedding dress she’d draped over her arm. “Oh, he doesn’t mind waiting.”
Jane raised one brow in silent question.
A broad smile stretched across Abby’s pretty face as she explained, “For every minute I make him wait he’ll add another smack to my next spanking.”
“You’ve been in here for almost twenty minutes.”
She sighed happily. “I know.”
With a laugh and a shake of her head, Jane pushed her friend towards the door. “Go. Have a good night. One of us should.”
A slight frown appeared on her friend’s face. “If you change your mind….”
“You’ll be the first to know,” Jane promised, even crossing her heart as she said so.
With Abby finally relenting her nanny duties and leaving the house, Jane stripped out of her underwear and climbed into the shower. Then slapping her hands against the tiles, she finally let loose the scream that’d been building from the moment she’d realised she’d been duped. It erupted from deep inside her, tapped into that well of shit she kept buried and hidden from the world and bounced around the bathroom like a pinball. But the sound did nothing to relieve her grief or diffuse her rage.
It did little more than make her throat raw.
Her cloak of apathy well and truly shaken off, Jane’s emotions trampled her like a herd of startled elephants. She laughed in disbelief, she cried in resolution, she screamed again and vowed retribution against. She beat her small fists against the tiles then scrubbed every inch of her body ten times, the feeling of being unclean sticking to her like a bug on flypaper.
How could she have been so stupid?
She used to scoff at women who fell for smooth-talking conmen and their scams, was always so assured of her intellectual superiority, so certain that she’d never get caught in their nets. Well, who was having the last laugh now?
Sam Lyndon and Rachel What’s-Her-Face, that’s who.
Tired of working two jobs and finally in a financially secure position, Jane had been so damned eager to branch out on her own, to start her own business.
She’d trained at Le Cordon Bleu, for fuck’s sake, and she was going to show the world what she could do.
After Christmas she’d attended every culinary business function, industry luncheon and meet’n’greet cocktail hour she could beg, borrow or steal an invitation to, not once entertaining the idea of failure, because for Jane—for a Melville—failure wasn’t an option.
And yet here she stood, her ambition crushed, her bank accounts emptied, her bubble burst.
And it was no one’s fault but her own.
Never trust a man.
But she’d done it anyway.
As she stepped from the shower, she clutched her stomach and pressed her hand to her mouth. She dashed to the toilet, arriving just in time to throw up without making a mess on the floor. When her stomach was empty she slumped in a heap on the tiles and scrunched up her nose, the delightful aftertaste of stomach acid and coconut cake souring her mouth and throat.
“Morning sickness, my arse,” she muttered as she struggled back to her feet and rinsed her mouth out. “Morning, mid-morning, afternoon, evening, middle of the fucking night sickness is more like it.”
Staring at her reflection in the bathroom mirror, Jane hardly recognised the stranger looking back at her. With her face clean of makeup her freckles stood stark against her naturally pale skin, as did the dark circles under her eyes.
She looked as exhausted as she felt.
Standing sideways she smoothed her hand over her belly. The doctor had said she was around three months along, edging into her second trimester. Due to her naturally slender figure her stomach was already rounding out, enough to confirm who the father was. His family only did one size.
Jane had managed to hide her pregnancy for the most part under winter clothes and extra layers, so much so that not even Abby had noticed, but her best friend had known something was up. When she’d told Abby about the baby she wasn’t surprised—a little pissed off Jane hadn’t told her sooner—but not surprised.
“Two guesses who the father is,” she’d said.
“One actually,” Jane had replied. “Sam always uses protection.”
And Rafe Bennett didn’t.
Not with her, anyway.
And wasn’t that was going to be an interesting conversation?
Sighing quietly, she squeezed the excess water from her hair and felt it trickle down her back, then shivered as it slipped between her arse cheeks.
Jane growled. “Fuck my life.”