Jessica Hart

Christmas Eve Marriage

Release Date: 2004

Winner Romance Writers of America RITA® Award 2005

The only thing Thea’s looking for on her vacation on the Greek island of Crete is a little R and R – she certainly doesn’t expect to find herself roped into being Rhys Kingsford’s pretend fiancée! It definitely isn’t relaxing being around Rhys – in fact being with him is exciting, exhilarating … and everything Thea’s ever wanted! Back home, Christmas is coming and reality sinks in. Perhaps it was just a holiday fling? Rhys is a single dad, and Thea’s not sure there’s room in his life for her. But Rhys has other ideas.

Excerpt

Rhys got to his feet. ‘Will you be all right having Sophie for the day?’ he asked, looking down at Thea, who put on a martyred air.

‘It’ll be a terrible struggle lying here in the sun all day,’ she sighed, ‘but I expect I’ll cope somehow.’

Rhys laughed and got up from the lounger. Walking over to the pool, he hunkered down to have a word with Sophie. Behind her glasses, Thea admired his back view. Not many British men could carry off shorts that well, but Rhys had just the right lean, brown, I-spend-my-life-squinting-at-far-horizons look about him.

Clara was splashing over to talk to Rhys, hauling herself up to fold her arms on the edge of the pool and dangle there while she carried on an animated conversation with him, punctuated by giggles from both girls.

‘What was all that about?’ Thea asked as Rhys straightened and headed back to her with an odd expression on his face.

He didn’t answer directly, nodding down at her lounger instead. ‘May I?’

‘Sure.’ A little surprised, Thea shifted her legs over so that he could sit down, and put down her book.

It felt very intimate to have him so close. He was sitting facing her, so that her arm was very close to his bare knees, and her legs were almost touching his thigh.

Her heart had started that slow, painful thumping that interfered with her breathing again, and she was very glad of the sunglasses that hid most of her expression which otherwise would be a dead giveaway. Without them she might as well have kiss me, kiss me! emblazoned on her forehead.

That was it, Thea, cool, calm and in control!

She swallowed hard. ‘If Clara was putting in a plea for an ice-cream run later, we’ve got a whole tub in the freezer.’

‘No,’ said Rhys slowly, ‘it was a little bit more delicate than that.’

‘What?’ God, it was hard to concentrate when her entire body was jangling with the awareness of how close his hand was and how easily he could smooth it along her thigh.

‘She was pointing out that Kate was making a poor job of pretending not to watch us from her terrace.’

Thea lowered her sunglasses and glanced surreptitiously over the rim to the Paine’s terrace, where Kate was indeed sitting at the table where she had a perfect view of what was going on at the pool.

‘You can hardly go over and tell her to stop looking,’ she pointed out. ‘It’s her terrace. She can sit where she wants, surely.’

‘That’s not quite what Clara had in mind.’ There was a thread of amusement in Rhys’s voice that made Thea look at him suspiciously.

‘Oh? What exactly does Clara have in mind?’

‘She thinks it would be a very good idea if I kissed you goodbye.’

‘Oh ...’ The breath leaked out of Thea’s lungs and she couldn’t get it back, especially when Rhys smiled quizzically.

‘She seems to be taking the whole pretence very seriously!’

That was because Clara was determined to turn pretence into reality, thought Thea, but she had better not tell Rhys that.

‘I know.’ Her answering smile was decidedly nervous. ‘I think it’s something to do with having a vivid imagination. I wonder where she gets her ideas from sometimes. Television, I suppose. Nell’s always complaining that she watches too many soaps.’

Oh, great, now she was babbling. Rhys was talking about kissing her, and all she could do was witter on about television. Thea took a deep breath and make herself shut up.

‘So what do you think?’ asked Rhys after a tiny pause, presumably to check that she wasn’t going to start drivelling on about something else.

‘Um … about a goodbye kiss?’

‘Yes.’

‘Well, I … I suppose it wouldn’t do any harm. I wasn’t sure Kate was entirely convinced last night.’

‘That’s what I thought.’

Another silence, longer this time. Long enough for Thea to wonder if he could actually hear her pulse booming.

‘We’d better make it look good, then,’ said Rhys.

‘Might as well.’

Thea was mortified to hear her voice disappear into a squeak. ‘Let’s give it a go,’ she tried again. That was better, casual, relaxed, no big deal. This wasn’t about getting involved, it was about feeling good and keeping it light.

The trouble was that it didn’t feel light. It felt dangerous and disturbing as Rhys leant forward, very slowly. She could change her mind if she wanted to, but now his hand was on her thigh, warm and firm, and her heart was slamming against her ribs, making it hard to breathe and even harder to think.

Deep inside her, anticipation churned, quivering out to the end of her fingers and the tips of her toes, but all at once he was hesitating. Don’t say he had changed his mind?

It was too much for Thea. As if of their own accord, her hands lifted to his arms, sliding upwards to wind around his neck and pull him towards her, or maybe she didn’t need to pull him, maybe Rhys was closing the distance between them anyway, but however it happened, they were kissing at last and the release from all that anticipation was so intense that Thea gasped in spite of herself.

His lips were so tantalising, the hand smoothing over her thigh so warm and so sure, it was enough to make a girl forget what she was doing. Thea certainly forgot to think, forgot anything but the sheer pleasure of kissing and being kissed, of being able to touch him at last, run her hands over his back and savour the feel of his hard, strong body.

Fortunately, Rhys had himself under better control, or who knew where it would have ended? He pulled back slightly to look down into her face with an expression Thea couldn’t quite identify.

‘Very good, Thea,’ he said.

‘Just getting into my part,’ she said a little unsteadily, and Rhys smiled.

‘You’re a natural.’ Reaching out, he stroked a finger down her cheek in a gesture so tender it dried the breath in Thea’s throat, and then got to his feet. ‘I’d better go. See you later, girls,’ he called as he headed off to his villa.

‘Bye!’ they yelled, as if nothing unusual had happened at all, and it was perfectly normal for him to kiss Thea and then get up and walk off.

Thea was just grateful that she was already lying down and didn’t have to try and walk anywhere. She was quite sure that her legs wouldn’t have held her if she had been upright. It was bad enough trying to behave normally as it was, with this shaky feeling and that odd jittery sensation under her skin.

So much for calm, cool and in control.

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