Jessica Hart

Birthday Bride

Release Date: 1998

Sexy, glamorous … Claudia tried to think of three good things about being thirty as she sat on the plane on her way to celebrate her birthday. Well, her fellow passenger, David Cool-as-a-Cucumber Stirling, certainly wasn’t one of them! But they were stuck with each other whether they liked it or not. Worse, for the next few weeks they had to pretend to be husband and wife! The situation wasn’t ideal, but they did have something in common – he was about to turn forty to her thirty – and he wasn’t bad-looking, either. And so, perhaps, sexy, glamorous and wed was right for her time of life?


'The sheikh's guest quarters are pretty much like a hotel and you're free to come and go as you please most of the time. I'm going to involved in meetings, so nobody will be surprised if you spend your days with Lucy.'
'It's not the days I'm worried about,' said Claudia with something of a snap.

'I'm not planning any long nights making mad, passionate love to you if that's what you're afraid of,' he sneered.

She eyed him with dislike. 'The thought never crossed my mind,' she said coldly.

'Then what's the problem?'

'The problem is that I've had the worst year of my life, and all I wanted was to get away. And now that I've got away, I'm going to have to waste my precious two weeks holiday pretending to be married to the most arrogant, unpleasant man I've ever had the misfortune to meet! On top of that, I'm facing the prospect of hurtling into middle age tomorrow in your company, instead of spending my birthday with friends! Isn't that enough of a problem for you?'

David looked exasperated. 'Why do you keep harping on about turning thirty?' he demanded.

'It's no different from any other age.'

'It will be for me,' she said sullenly. 'I'm going to have a crisis, and I don't want to have it with you!'

'In that case, you'll have to pull yourself together, won't you?' he said, unmoved. 'I'm sure I don't need to remind you that it was your idea. I'm not exactly ecstatic at the prospect of spending the next fortnight with the silliest, most exasperating woman I've ever met!' he added with brutal candour. 'Unfortunately, it's too late to change things now. As far as everyone else in Telama'an is concerned, we're married until I can put you on a plane out of the country. Believe me, that moment can't come soon enough for me, but until then we're just going to have to make the best of it.'

'And what if I simply refuse to act as your wife any longer?' Claudia tilted her chin belligerently. 'I could tell Amil the truth tomorrow morning. I'm sure he wouldn't abandon us here.'

'You could do that,' David agreed pleasantly. 'And I could tell Justin Darke just what you're doing out here, couldn't I?'

Winter-grey eyes clashed with smoke-grey as they locked gazes. Claudia longed to tell him that he could say what he chose, but it might be extremely embarrassing for Lucy and the unknown Justin, let alone for her, if David spread it around that she had flown out on such a ridiculous errand. She knew how rumours worked, and nobody would ever quite believe that she had been joking.

She knew, too, that the whole stupid situation was her own fault. She couldn't really blame it on David. Telling Amil that she was married had seemed such a brilliant idea at the time, and look where it had got her!

Suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of defeat, she dropped her eyes and slumped back down into the chair. 'I don't believe this,' she said, tired, querulous and on the verge of tears. 'I wish I'd never heard of this stupid country! First the plane is delayed, then it almost crashes, then it's a choice between spending two days in a dump in the middle of the desert or being jolted around in the most uncomfortable vehicle I've travelled in, and now this! Turning thirty in the middle of nowhere and wasting my entire holiday pretending to be married when all I wanted was a good time!'

David looked at her slumped in the chair, her blonde hair pushed despairingly behind her ears and her face screwed up with the effort of not crying. He couldn't decide whether he wanted to put her over his knee and spank her, or gather her into his arms and tell her that everything would be all right.

He compromised in the end with brusque understanding. 'Look, let's leave it. We're both tired, and maybe things won't seem so bad in the morning. Why don't you have a wash and then we can try and get some sleep?'

'I suppose so.' Claudia nodded dully, exhaustion rolling over her like a wave. She wasn't sure she could even get up off the chair, let alone get ready for bed.

In the end it was David who filled the basin for her, found a towel and handed her her bag. Moving like a automaton, Claudia took off her make-up, washed her face, cleaned her teeth, and ventured down the corridor to a dark, noisome lavatory. By the time she got back, she had recovered sufficiently to remember her qualms about the most difficult bit: getting into bed with David.

He was stretched out on the bed when she came in, legs crossed and arms beneath his head. He watched with an ironic expression as Claudia pointedly turned her back and pulled on a baggy T-shirt before wriggling with difficulty out of her bra and into clean knickers. It was stuffy in the little room, and she didn't think she could bear to wear anything else, but at least she was decent.

David had obviously considered that keeping his trousers on was enough to preserve the decencies, but his bare chest was unnerving. Claudia wondered if she could ask him to put a shirt on, but didn't want him to know that it bothered her.

It didn't bother her, she told herself firmly. After all, wasn't she going to be thirty the next day? She was supposed to be on the verge of becoming a mature, sophisticated woman who could deal with any situation. She wasn't going to be thrown into a tizzy by a man's chest, for heaven's sake!

Taking a deep breath, she turned. David wondered if she knew how much more appealing she looked with her face bare, tucking her hair behind her ears in an unconsciously nervous gesture. Her legs seemed to go on forever beneath the T-shirt, and as if suddenly aware of much thigh it exposed, she tugged at the hem in a futile attempt to make it a bit longer.

'Shall I turn the light out?' she asked quickly.

David too thought it would be easier in the dark.

He waited as she crossed to the door and pulled the switch. The room was plunged into blackness and she had to feel her way back towards the bed, trying not to think about the cockroaches. Her foot touched something metal, an she put out a hand, only to encounter firm male flesh beneath her fingers.

Whipping her hand back with a muttered apology, she hesitated. Now what? Was she supposed to just jump in next to him? It was all very well being mature and sophisticated, but how did mature and sophisticated women cope with getting into bed with perfect strangers? Perhaps she would wake up tomorrow on her thirtieth birthday miraculously knowing the answer?

The bed creaked, and she could hear David shifting his weight. 'There's plenty of room,' he said calmly out of the darkness.

Claudia reached down a cautious hand again and this time found mattress. She edged closer. It would be more dignified to sit down on the edge of the bed and then swing her legs up.

Unfortunately, dignity evaporated as soon as something scuttly brushed against her foot. With a muffled shriek, Claudia leapt onto the bed, landing in a scramble of limbs on top of David.

'Ouf!' he gasped, and his arms instinctively went out to steady her. 'That's the first time a girl has literally jumped into bed with me!'

'It was a choice between you or a cockroach,' said Claudia, flustered by the feel of his warm flesh and trying desperately to disentangle herself.

'I'm flattered!' David sat up, more disturbed by finding her tangled up with him than he wanted to admit. 'Look, stop floundering around. I'll get off and brave the cockroach.' He swung his legs onto the floor. 'Right, now you lie down.'

Somewhat reassured by his prosaic, not to say brusque, attitude, Claudia did as she was told, tugging down her T-shirt which had ridden up disastrously and turning onto her side so that she could cling to the side of the bed. David didn't sound in the least like a man who had seduction on his mind, but it didn't stop her tensing and clutching at the edge of the mattress as it sagged with his weight.

'Relax,' he said irritably as he settled his lean length beside her. The bed was so narrow that it was impossible not to touch each other. He tried to turn away from her so that they back to back, but he ended up hanging half way out of the bed. 'This is ridiculous, he muttered, and rolled over so that they lay like spoons, Claudia's back curled into the shelter of his body and his arm over her. 'There, that's better. At least I'm not trying to sleep suspended in mid-air now.' He shifted slightly. 'Comfortable?' he asked Claudia.

'Oh, yes, of course.' Sarcasm was the best refuge against a disturbing awareness of the body lying so close to hers. 'I'm squeezed onto two inches of a lumpy, flea-ridden mattress with a man I only met for the first time this morning. How could I not be comfortable?'

'Things could be worse,' he pointed out with hateful reasonableness.

'How?' said Claudia grumpily.

'You could still be sitting on those orange plastic chairs at Al Mishrah, for a start.'

'There's that, I suppose,' she allowed grudgingly, but it didn't really help her to ignore the hard strength of David's body lying against hers. Her spine registered each rise and fall of his chest, and she could just feel the hairs on his forearm where it rested just below her bare arm. If she moved her hand just a fraction, she could run her fingers over them, and the thought made her shiver with inexplicable temptation.

David felt the slim body quiver and he sighed. 'You can stop tensing every time I move,' he told her in a resigned voice. 'I'm not going to pounce on you. Quite apart from anything else, I'm dog tired. If I move my arm, it's because I'm trying to get comfortable, not because I'm about to make a grab for you, all right?'

'All right,' she mumbled, feeling foolish.

'Let's try and get some sleep, then,' said David. 'Tomorrow's going to be a long day.

' Sleep? Sleep? How could she possibly sleep when her heart was booming, and her body burning with awareness? Claudia lay rigidly, listening to his slow, steady breathing, resenting his ability to relax so utterly. He might as well have been sharing the bed with an oddly shaped bolster for all the notice he took of her. His lack of interest ought to have been reassuring, but somehow Claudia found herself wishing that he had been a little more embarrassed at the situation. Anyone would think he slept with strange women every night.

Perhaps he did, she thought, and a tiny sigh escaped her. She didn't know why, but the idea was oddly depressing.

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