He was going to have to try harder to bring her back in line, make sure she didn’t ruin her life. Starting tomorrow.
Sleep had been impossible so he’d spent most of the night working in the office he’d set up here at Wakeham Lodge. Javier rasped a hand over his tough jawline and closed down his computer. It had been light for a couple of hours and the enticing aroma of coffee was beginning to filter through from the kitchen.
He stood up edgily and walked to the window that overlooked the sun-drenched south lawn. His heart jerked. Zoe. Throwing a ball for Boysie. Laughing, long limbs dancing in the early-morning sunlight, long hair flowing down her back like a silky silver-gilt river, flicking across her face. Bare feet, tiny shorts topped by a baggy T-shirt, the soft fabric caught by the breeze that moulded it to those pertly rounded breasts, that tiny waist.
Energetic. A young animal refreshed after hours of untroubled sleep. Just a kid on the brink of womanhood, blisteringly aware of her own sexuality. He stuffed his fists into his trouser pockets. In dire need of taming. A driven groan escaped him. What kind of guy tied himself to that kind of responsibility?
The answer came as she scooped the wriggling little dog up into her arms and buried her face in its hairy ruff.
A guy who cared. Who had always cared.
A muscle jerked at the side of his hard jaw. He turned and strode from the room, heading for a shower, a shave and a change of clothes.
There was nothing remotely childlike about the Zoe who presented herself for breakfast an hour later. The sleeveless shift dress in a heavy cream-coloured cotton was both casual and classy, perfect for a country house breakfast with the in-laws. Her glorious hair was smoothly coiled into her nape, emphasising the purity of her profile, and the narrow hem of her dress just covered her knees, but rode just above as she took her seat at the table.
Javier felt his throat close up. Serene, elegant, poised. But hellishly sexy. It screamed at him. He didn’t want to hear it.
He didn’t want to watch the curve of her lush mouth as she drank from her glass of orange juice, but he did. Those smiling golden eyes behind the ridiculously thick fringing lashes moved confidently between his parents as the light conversation passed over the eggs and racks of hot toast. He waited for those eyes to turn his way but they didn’t. He found himself willing her to look at him, but she didn’t, and cursed himself for a fool, losing control of the situation to the calm, surprisingly adult sexy witch sitting opposite.
She even managed a perfect, enigmatic smile when his mother archly enquired if she had slept well. He’d expected a raging blush or a sulky pout at the uncomfortable memory of what had passed between them.
His wife was starting to surprise him he recognised with a not unpleasant lurch of his gut.
‘I regret that Lionel and I have to leave today.’ Isabella Maria assumed a sorrowful expression, but her black eyes were dancing as she turned towards her son. ‘But I’m sure regret will be very far from your mind as you wave us on our way!’ She laid down her linen napkin, preparing to leave the table. ‘You must promise to bring Zoe to our summer home for a long visit. She will enjoy the views, the mountain air, you know she will. I am sure the business will survive if you are not poking your nose into every aspect every minute of every day, sí?’
Leaning back in his chair, Javier hooked his hands behind his head. Smiled, gave every appearance of being totally relaxed when rivers of a peculiar kind of tension were scalding in his veins. Drawled, ‘I make my own plans, Mama. As you know.’
His plans for Zoe had nothing to do with lazy, sybaritic days and long, perfumed nights. He didn’t go looking for trouble! A lazy brow arched. ‘Do you need help with your packing?’
A little under two hours later they projected a united front, the archetypal just-married couple as they waved goodbye to Javier’s parents. As the car Lionel had hired for the visit disappeared round the final bend Zoe just knew what would happen.
Javier stepped abruptly away, his arm dropping from around her shoulders. Emptiness washed through her like a chilling wave.
Even though she knew the display of closeness had been for his parents’ benefit she had treasured every moment, every smile, every touch and soft word. She felt sick with loss but he mustn’t know that. Javier believed she was still a rebellious brat, running out of control. The only way to disabuse him, show him that she was a grown woman, worthy of his respect for starters, adult female to adult male, was to do her utmost to tailor her behaviour to what he least expected from the bolshie t
eenager he saw her as.
Giving him the merest glance, her slight smile serene, she murmured, ‘I’m sorry to see your parents go, they’re darlings. But at least we can dispense with the play-acting. You must have found it a strain.’
Strangely enough, he hadn’t. Javier’s eyes narrowed on her delectable profile.
‘It’s such a beautiful day.’ A small, self-contained smile was aimed somewhere behind his left shoulder. ‘I think I’ll take a walk.’
In Sherman’s direction? Javier’s eyes snapped. No way! A strong hand descended on her shoulder before she could make good her intentions.
‘You need to pack,’ he stated firmly. ‘I want to leave for the London apartment before noon.’
This time Zoe looked directly at him, a frown peaking her brows above dismayed eyes. The city would be alien, hot and airless, clogged with traffic and tourists, and, ‘Boysie,’ she objected. ‘I can’t leave him, he’ll really miss me. He’d been abandoned when I found him—he’ll think it’s happening all over again!’
Quite apart from the likelihood of the little dog pining, here, with vast expanses of countryside to lose herself in, the home she was now totally comfortable with, she could hold her own in this strange marriage. She could take a crash course of driving lessons with a professional to pass some of the time, decide on a career as backup if her hopes to be a real wife to Javier, mother of his children, came to nothing. ‘Why can’t we stay here?’ she asked, her voice rising with desperation.
Any excuse to stick around, close to her lover? Every nerve in Javier’s body tightened. ‘The dog will be fine,’ he incised, holding onto his temper, hating the shaft of jealousy that churned his insides. He had never been jealous of anyone in his entire life. He sure as hell wasn’t starting now! ‘Will Ethel neglect to feed him? Will Joe kick him?’
His obvious sarcasm stinging, Zoe had to admit that he was right on that point. Both Ethel and Joe doted on the dog. Not wanting to leave him had just been an excuse. A poor one, too, she conceded as he told her firmly, ‘The world doesn’t owe me a living, I have to work.’
A dig at her? Did he think she was a parasite, content to live off the wealth her father had worked his socks off to accumulate? Her spine stiffened even as she felt hot colour flood her cheeks. She would just have to show him differently!
‘I could work from here,’ he conceded bluntly. ‘But don’t forget, the Ramsays were originally employed by my parents. There’s a strong bond of loyalty. As you’ll have noticed they’ve always been treated like part of the family. My dear mama will be on the phone on a daily basis, checking up on the newlyweds! We can’t hide separate rooms from Ethel and I’ll be damned if I’m going to bed down on that uncomfortable sofa for the foreseeable future.’