The cool ambience of the villa’s interior, all white marble floors, watery green colour-washed walls, elegant classic furnishings, did nothing to soothe her tumultuous emotions.
Had he reverted to the part of a polite stranger to hide the fact that he was sick to his stomach thinking about what—honour-bound—he’d have to do if she proved to be carrying his child? Stick by her for the rest of his life, give up the bachelor freedom he relished and had still felt free to follow during the latter part of their paper marriage?
‘You’ll want to freshen up after the journey. I’ll show you to our room.’
Zoe all but leapt out of her skin. She hadn’t heard him follow her inside. Heart thumping wildly, she decided she hated him. Really and utterly!
‘Don’t bother.’ Her voice was nicely chilling she noted with empty satisfaction. ‘Teresa can show me where I’m to sleep.’
She perfectly remembered the round, smiley señora from her previous stay here. Full-time housekeeper when Javier’s parents or guests were in residence. She wished Teresa would appear right now, or her husband, Manuel, who seemed to have disappeared entirely since he’d delivered them here from the airport.
Someone—anyone—to act as a buffer between her and Javier, the husband who didn’t want her, who almost certainly regarded what had happened between them as a deeply regrettable one-night stand and shuddered every time he thought about it.
But his firm hand beneath her elbow was guiding her to the foot of the sweeping marble staircase with its delicate iron-work bannisters and he was telling her, ‘On my instructions Teresa’s gone back to her home in the village. Manuel, too. Honeymooning couples need to be alone, wouldn’t you say?’
Zoe tripped over her own feet as the breath whooshed out of her lungs at that cynical statement. This honeymooning couple needed to be alone so that the hired staff wouldn’t be tempted to gossip about how unloverlike they actually were!
Misery and shame overwhelmed her. If she hadn’t enthusiastically encouraged him to bed her they wouldn’t be in this weird situation! And she wouldn’t have to be pretending that she could take it in her stride when in reality she felt as if her heart were shattering.
Suddenly, the elegant staircase looked like a sheer cliff face. Zoe’s buckled knees began to shake. Shooting her an amused look from heavily veiled smoky eyes, Javier swept her up into his arms before she could fully collect herself and carried her up the stairs with no effort at all, tutting mildly when she squirmed and huffed, ‘Put me down!’ as they approached the open arched doorway of the magnificent master bedroom.
‘It’s tradition. The groom carries his bride over the threshold.’
Desperately trying not to let her body’s instinctive response to his reveal itself as he slowly slid her down his impressive length and settled her prone upon the bed, she immediately came back with a raspingly breathless, ‘There’s no one around to applaud your performance, so you needn’t have risked a hernia!’
She was wallowing in the fallout of her own shame. That night had been so special to her, just a horrendous mistake as far as he was concerned. And as if to emphasise that embarrassing fact he stepped smartly back from the bed as if he didn’t want to be anywhere near her.
Scrambling into a sitting position—no way was she just going to lie where he’d put her, like an invitation he would never dream of accepting, ever again—she pouted. ‘In case you’d forgotten, we’ve been married for almost a year, so I’m hardly a “bride”. So all that carrying over the threshold is just a sick joke. You never carried me over anything before.’
A sick, hurtful joke, a mockery of everything she’d hoped this marriage would be. Tears stung at the backs of her eyes. She willed them not to fall and swallowed convulsively, her head downbent, her fingers knotted together, her poor heart getting another mangling when Javier mused softly, ‘I remember what must have been the last time I carried you. You were ten years old and had spent an entire Sunday racing around the zoo, trying to see everything at once. You were too tired to make it back to the car. You fell instantly asleep in my arms. It was as if someone had switched you off. I remember thinking what a cute scrap you were, in spite of those long, gawky legs and dirty little face!’
He backed off doorwards, clipped practicality to the fore, as if he was wondering where that soppy memory had come from. ‘Have a shower and a nap. Teresa unpacked for you so you’ll find your gear in the dressing room. We’ll have a late supper.’ Leaving her to remember how the seeds for an adult love had been sown in the child she had been in the days when he had been like a big brother, caring and kind, the nicest, most wonderful person she knew.
Slotting the arched wood into the doorframe with exaggerated care, Javier gritted his teeth and pulled a long hiss of breath into his lungs. It had been a close-run thing. He only had to look at her to want her, his body threatening to take control and blow his cerebral plans to smithereens.
When he’d made love to her from the starting point of the possessive anger he’d not known he was remotely capable of he’d experienced the most mind-blowing event of his life. She’d been spectacular, a fast and eager learner. He knew he would only have to go back into that room and take her in his arms, kiss her, to instigate the repeat performance his whole body was aching for.
Even now the temptation to stride straight back into the bedroom was eating into his brain like acid, slyly telling him that she was his wife, that they’d already made love, that she’d proved beyond all possible doubt that she was highly sexed and passionate, and that denying himself another slice of that heaven was a ridiculous sacrifice.
But something else had happened that night, hadn’t it? He stalked towards the stairs, through the house, out to the swimming pool, dragging his T-shirt over his head as he went.
Love had happened. It might have slammed into his brain like a sledgehammer at the time but with sober hindsight he recognised that it had been growing for over a year.
Shedding his shorts, he dived into the cool green waters, his lean, powerful muscles taut with frustration. Throughout the long years he had known Zoe she had engendered every emotion known to man. Delight, exasperation, compassion, caring, anger, possessive jealousy. And now love, the mother and father of all emotions. Love, deep, passionate and unblinkered. He knew her faults—that she could be head-strong and stubborn—and he knew her strong points, her liveliness and generosity of spirit. The way she walked, the way she smiled—he adored everything about her. For the first time in his life he was totally and irredeemably hooked.
His jawline grim, he powered through the water, burning all that edgy energy, scornful now of his pofaced, blinkered behaviour when he’d so nobly decided to propose an unconsummated marriage to keep her out of the clutches of the likes of Sherman. Not allowing himself to acknowledge that he’d wanted her for himself because he’d been in love with her.
Now he was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Wanting to take that beautiful face between his hands and kiss that lush mouth until she quivered with wanton anticipation, peel the clothes from her lovely body and pleasure her until they were both damn near expiring from sexual overload.
But knowing that he mustn’t. Couldn’t. Shouldn’t. He had never had any trouble getting any woman he wanted—in fact he’d perfected the knack of fighting them off, and that, instead of stoking his ego, had begun to bore him.
Zoe was different. He was diving deeper and deeper in love with her with every passing second. He had to teach her to love him back, to want to spend the rest of her life with him, have his children—
He groaned, increased the pace of his furious strokes, churning the erstwhile placid water. His selfishness appalled him. What he wanted shouldn’t be the main issue here, not while his poor darling was worrying herself silly over the possibility of pregnancy.
She had a whole lot of living to do before she settled down to the responsibility of motherhood and he knew she was troubled and edgily anxious. Hadn’t he witnessed her reaction, the way she’d snapped and brought up the troubled subject when in answer to her question he’d replied, ‘As long as it takes.’ Meaning, of course, that the length of their stay here was dependent on the time it took for him to make her love him just half as much as he adored her.