Dared she translate ‘care’ into ‘love’? Unconsciously Zoe shook her head. But could she stop herself? Her bones tightened. Fine tremors attacked every inch of her tense frame.
Flaring black brows drew together as the episode in Spain came back to taunt him. From her attitude towards him this afternoon, her worrying relationship with Sherman, he was as sure as dammit that she’d outgrown that schoolgirl crush. In any event, it was time to spell out precisely what he had in mind.
‘Needless to say, it would be a marriage on paper. I wouldn’t expect you to share my bed. Simply my life and my home for the next two years when, with guidance, you’ll be able to prioritise your values and decide what you really want to do with your life and how best to manage your future inheritance. Naturally, an annulment would follow,’ he impressed gently, concerned for her.
He could see how her slender hands were shaking, even though they were tightly clasped together in an attempt to disguise it. And all the natural colour had ebbed from her face. His voice lowered with soft persuasion. ‘In the meantime as my wife you would be protected from the likes of Sherman, men who would marry you for your money, exploit your open, generous nature and make your life a misery. Try to remember, your future inheritance is no secret. Word gets around and brings the low-life out of the woodwork.’
Zoe got to her feet with difficulty. She felt giddy and nauseous with the pain of hearing his proposal, featuring so often in her soppy daydreams, turn into such a nightmare. But she managed, albeit shakily, ‘As a proposal of marriage, that sucks!’
She wasn’t going to cry. She never cried! But her wretched eyes had other ideas and flooded her face with scalding, humiliating rivers. Scrubbing furiously, she shot at him, ‘So by your
reckoning no one could love me for me. Only for my money! That makes me—’ her voice threatened to disintegrate ‘—feel—feel really good about myself!’
Her objective was the door. She managed six inches before she was cradled in his arms, the free-flow of her tears soaking his shirt.
For a few short moments Javier held her in self-loathing silence. He hadn’t meant to hurt her. The muffled sobs that were shaking her supple frame mortified him. ‘Don’t cry,’ he murmured against the silky top of her head. He had to comfort her. Had to. Her hair smelled of summer flowers. ‘Of course you’ll be loved for yourself, I promise you. You are beautiful, intelligent and spirited. How could you not be?’ he impressed.
No more sobs. Her body had stilled within the circle of his arms. Poor scrap! He patted her shoulder blades, the avuncular intention somehow getting lost as his hands slid down to the narrow span of her waist and lingered there.
‘I was clumsy,’ he confessed. How soft and warm her skin felt beneath the thin fabric. ‘But the thought of you throwing your life away on the likes of Sherman got me on the raw. You deserve better. Much better. I just want to protect you.’
Slowly, Zoe’s head came up. She could hardly breathe for the welter of emotions that were making her heart beat as if she’d just run a marathon. When he’d said she was beautiful he had sounded sincere. He must mean it. And he’d been so quick to recognise how hurt she’d been, quick to offer the comfort of his arms. More than comfort. She felt her body stir, the core of her melt; her eyes swept up to mesh with his.
Eyes awash with tears. Glowing and golden, damp, naturally dark lashes tangled. Lush mouth vulnerably parted, very slightly quivering. Was she still hurt, unsure of her own worth? A solitary tear slid down to the corner of her soft lips. He vented an interior savage oath for his earlier crassness just as a wash of tenderness drenched through him. This girl needed kissing…
ZOE was having a hard time keeping her cool. She wanted to throw her arms in the air, punch holes in the sky, shout and leap all over the place. Sheer joy made her feel as if she were about to explode.
She’d got a silly grin on her face and didn’t care who saw it. Her love-drenched, sparkly eyes swept the length of the lodge’s wide terrace to where her brand-new husband was keeping a watchful eye on his father as he confidently coped with his walking cane and the broad flight of steps down to the south lawn where the buffet table was ready for the guests.
His six-feet-plus athletic frame was clothed in formal pale grey suiting, his dark hair gleaming in the early July sun. He was so spectacular. Her heart jumped beneath the fitted jacket of her cream silk suit as she lovingly assimilated every line of his impressive profile. Lingering on the perfect blade of his aristocratic nose, then the set of that sensual mouth, the high slashing cheekbones.
Now he was hers!
She blithely discounted the time limit, the hands-off rule he’d put on their marriage. Javier didn’t know it yet, poor deluded darling, but she would do all in her power to make him rethink that preposterous scenario!
That kiss had had her changing her mind at the speed of light about vehemently turning down his hurtful suggestion of a paper marriage. True, he had stepped back, gently put her away from him, but in those blissful, mind-blowing moments when that kiss had turned into something eager, primal and shattering she had felt that strong body harden in raw response and had known, just known, that she could turn their marriage into a proper one, make him happy, give him children.
During the three weeks since she’d accepted his less-than-flattering proposal—with an equally unflattering, ‘I might as well marry you, if it will get you off my case for a couple of years’—she’d been sorely tempted to instigate another of those wild and cataclysmic kisses. But with new maturity she knew she had to be patient, play the waiting game, because if he knew how she really felt about him he’d retract it and probably run a mile.
‘Come and join your guests, nuera. They are few but they expect you, sí?’ Isabella Maria, wildly elegant in a flowing peacock-blue brocaded silk coat topped by a cartwheel hat, tucked her hand beneath Zoe’s elbow. ‘I am too happy to know my son has at last taken my advice to marry to complain too much about that quiet civil ceremony or the wedding celebrations that could be mistaken for a wake.’
‘I know what you mean.’ Zoe swallowed a giggle as she fell in step beside her mother-in-law, her eyes glowing beneath the shallow brim of a cream tulle hat decorated with tiny yellow rosebuds. Seated stiffly at the table, Grandmother Alice and her ancient companion/housekeeper looked like black crows and the Ramsays, Ethel and Joe, in their Sunday best didn’t look much more festive.
‘Javier wanted a really low-key wedding,’ Zoe confessed cheerfully. ‘Just our immediate family and the Ramsays who would have been very hurt to be left out—he’s always treated them like equals, not a bit like paid servants.’
‘And this is what you wanted?’ Isabella Maria had no interest in the Ramsays’ standing in her son’s household. ‘You could have had the wedding of the year, a marquee packed with the great and the good, the cream of society, music and dancing, everyone admiring and envying you.’
Not giving Zoe the chance to explain that she would have married Javier in the back of a dustcart with two tramps hauled up off the street as witnesses if he had so directed, Isabella Maria slowed her steps and lowered her voice, ‘A word of advice, nuera, in future don’t let Javier get all his own way. He is tough when he needs to be and can appear remote. But underneath he has the soft heart. And you, my dear, have emerged into quite a beauty. Use the gifts nature gave you wisely and you will twist him round your smallest finger.’
As Zoe had been thinking along similar lines since the revelation of that steamy, X-rated kiss the advice was unnecessary. But Isabella Maria had thrown in a remark about having given her son advice on the subject of marriage. She was about to ask what pearls of wisdom had been offered, but the words died in her throat as Javier strode to meet them. If he was impatient of their painfully slow progress he didn’t show it. The smoky eyes were slightly veiled and his voice was light as he told them, ‘The caterers are waiting.’
The smile he shafted in her direction was full of knee-buckling charm, his hard jawline faintly blue-shadowed. Zoe’s heart began to race as she firmly quelled the almost imperative need to trace the lines of that devastatingly handsome face with the tips of her fingers.
Instead, she tucked her hand beneath his arm, her fingertips tightening all on their own, seeking his male warmth, the taut male flesh beneath the fine fabric of his jacket. Her body swayed close to his as they descended the terrace steps. Curvy hip against the narrow male equivalent, thigh brushing thigh, creating unbelievable tension. Wild rose colour mounting to her cheeks, Zoe was making no apologies. No one but she and Javier knew this was supposed to be a paper marriage, excluding intimacies. But wouldn’t everyone think it highly peculiar if the newly wedded bride and groom avoided each other like the plague?
But his urbanity as he handed her to her place opposite her grandmother couldn’t be faulted. Zoe laid her bouquet of pale yellow and cream roses on the pristine white table-top, her heart still crashing around like a wild bird in a cage. Hadn’t Javier felt anything of the sexual excitement that had been making her breathless, weak at the knees? He had shown no sign of being similarly affected.