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The Christmas Baby's Gift
By Kate Walker
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMARRY in haste; repent at leisure.
Peta turned her head up to the pulse of the shower and let the hot water pour down over her face until the heated pounding numbed her skin. And all the time she wished, deeply and fervently, that she could also make it numb her thoughts.
But nothing would erase the uncomfortable phrase from her mind.
Marry in haste; repent ...
The word escaped her on a cry of desperation and rejection and she hastily reached up and snapped off the shower, closing her eyes against the unwanted feelings.
In the sudden silence, the sound of her uneven, ragged breathing was unnaturally loud and disturbing. The sound of a harried animal, hunted and trapped, cornered with its back against the wall - and knowing there was no way out.
'No ...' she said again, more softly this time, shaking her head so that drops of water spun off from the long, deep brown strands and spattered against the elegantly tiled walls of the shower cubicle. 'Oh, no ...'
The silence was too much for her. Too heavy. Too disturbing. She had to turn the shower back on to escape the thoughts that plagued her.
The sound of another voice - male, deep, and resonant, only just avoiding being drowned under the fresh rush of water - came to her from the direction of the doorway between the bathroom and the adjoining bedroom, making her lids fly open, blue eyes staring at the cubicle door in shock.
Blurred and distorted through the thickly frosted glass, she could just make out the shape of her husband's tall, powerful figure, the rich colour of his hair. But she didn't need to see him clearly. Her memory and her imagination could instantly supply every detail of the rest.
And that imagination swiftly sketched in the strongly carved, harshly stunning features: powerful cheekbones, a long, straight nose and darkly lashed brilliant green eyes. The vibrant, glossy gleam of his hair, closely cropped against an unruly tendency to wave, the deep brown shot through with lights of fiery copper that made it burn and glisten in the sun. And all of that set on the tautly muscled body of a natural athlete with wide straight shoulders, broad chest, narrow hips and long powerful legs. Legs that always seemed to be planted so firmly on the ground, as if he was staking his claim to the earth on which he stood, marking it out as his.
'You in here?'
'Who else would you expect to find in your shower - your bathroom?'
Her voice didn't have quite the strength or the genuine lift of humour that she aimed for, but she was struggling with too many other feelings to be able to control it properly. Even at a distance of several metres, just knowing that Liam was there, in the doorway, made her naked skin tingle all over. It was as if the low, faintly husky rasp of his voice was like a caress over her exposed flesh, bringing the blood springing to the surface, and setting a pulse throbbing at her temples.
Peta pulled her head from under the running water to listen more clearly.
'What did you say?'
'I said, our. Not my shower, but ours. Our bathroom too.'
The reproof was low, light, good-humoured, but all the same it sent a shiver running down Peta's spine, chilling her blood in spite of the warmth of the water.
Our bathroom. Our shower.
Did he know what it did to her to hear those words on his tongue? To catch the deep, dark, faintly possessive note in the sensual voice? To recognise just what it was that had put it there?
To know that what he really thought he possessed was her?
To the rest of the world Liam Farrell might be her husband, the man with whom she was supposed to be celebrating her first wedding anniversary this late December evening. But Peta knew that the real truth was very much more complicated than that. And that was what had set her mind on its restless, disturbed pattern of thought for some days now.
'Shall I join you in there?'
There had been nothing in the least bit dangerous or threatening in the question. As a matter of fact, it had been asked in the easiest, most laid-back way. But all the same it had Peta stiffening in instant rejection, her heart lurching into pounding in double-quick time.
It was his silence that gave away his change of mood. The sudden total stillness of the blurred figure seen through the steamed-up glass of the shower door that revealed far more than anything he might have said just how much he disliked her response.
'I - I mean I was just coming out.'
It was simply the idea of him doing as he had said that had sent her thoughts into overdrive, her body into the sort of tension that made her nerves scream in protest, her skin colouring in a rush of blood that had nothing to do the warmth of the shower. But at the same moment the image in her head made her pulses race, her heart pounding in heavy excitement. Under the fall of the water, her already heated flesh tingled in sensual anticipation of the pleasure that had become such a dangerous part of her life.
'Okay. Come on, then.'
She could see through the frosted glass that he was reaching for the huge, thick white towel, shaking out its folds, holding it ready. And she knew that she had no excuse not to do as he said. To keep him waiting any longer.
Was she hearing right? Had there really been a note of warning in the low, steady use of her name? The noise of the still running water made it difficult to decide if it had truly been so or if it was simply her already over-sensitive mood that had made her believe it was there.
No mistaking that voice! The ominous undertone had her rushing to switch off the water once again, smoothing back the sodden dark strands of her hair.
How could she face him, feeling the way she was right now? There was only one way to do it, she told herself. Play it his way. The way it had been from the start of this marriage. The way she knew that Liam wanted it to be, because he had declared that openly to her face when he had not so much proposed as outlined a business venture to her. But for the past few months she had known that she couldn't go along with the original terms of their arrangement, and she had tried desperately to find a way of telling him so.
Marry in haste; repent at leisure. Once more the phrase echoed inside her head as she opened the door of the shower cubicle. But she pushed it away with all the strength she could muster, desperately dragging up the smile that she knew he would expect from her and praying it would hide the truth.
Marry in haste; repent at leisure.
The words had been plaguing Liam's thoughts all day long. He had woken up with them running on a loop through his mind and he hadn't been able to switch them off for more than a moment since.
He supposed it was inevitable that today, the first anniversary of his ill-considered rush into matrimony, would bring such thoughts to the surface. But, if the truth was told, he hadn't expected the feeling of self-reproach, the kick of What the hell have I done? to be quite so savage.
That wedding, just four days before the previous Christmas, had seemed like the answer to so many prayers - so many problems. But uncharacteristically he hadn't thought things through. There had been many developments along the way that he had just not anticipated. And this latest change in his circumstances was one that had knocked him completely off balance. How had he ever got himself into this situation?
Excerpted from The Christmas Baby's Gift by Kate Walker Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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