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His Forbidden Bride
By Sara Craven
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"I'VE been giving matters a lot of thought," said George.
"And I feel very strongly that you and I should get married."
Zoe Lambert, who had just taken a mouthful of Chardonnay, managed by a superhuman effort not to choke to death.
If anyone else had made a similarly preposterous suggestion, she would have laughed them to scorn. But she couldn't do that to George, sitting across from her at the table in the wine bar, with his untidy brown hair, and crooked tie.
George was her friend, one of the few she had at Bishop Cross Sixth Form College, where he was a member of the maths department, and after the weekly staff meeting they usually went for a drink together, but they'd never had a date as such. Nor was there the slightest spark of attraction between them. And even if she'd ever been marginally tempted to fall in love with George, the thought of his mother would have stopped her dead in her tracks.
George's mother was a frail widow with a tungsten core, and she took no prisoners in her bid to keep her son safely at home with her, an obedient and enslaved bachelor. None of George's sporadic romantic interests had ever thrived under the frost of her pale blue gaze, and she planned that none of them ever would. And those steely eyes would narrow to slits if she found out that her only son was in the town's one and only wine bar with Zoe Lambert of all people, let alone proposing marriage.
She took a deep breath. "George," she said gently. "I don't think ..."
"After all," George went on, unheedingly, warming to his theme. "You're going to find things difficult now that you're - alone. You were so brave all the time your mother was - ill. Now I'd like to look after you. I don't want you to worry any more about anything."
Except your mother poisoning my food, thought Zoe. Urged on, no doubt, by her best friend, my aunt Megan.
She winced inwardly as she recalled her aunt's chilling demeanour at the funeral two weeks earlier. Megan Arnold had curtly accepted the commiserations from her late sister's friends and neighbours, but had barely addressed a word to the niece who was now her only living relative.
Back at the cottage, after the service, she had refused all offers of food and drink, staring instead, in silent and narrow-eyed appraisal, at her surroundings.
"Never mind, dearie," Mrs Gibb, who'd cleaned the cottage each week for Gina Lambert over the past ten years, whispered consolingly as she went past a mute and bewildered Zoe with a plate of sandwiches. "Grief takes some people in funny ways."
But Zoe could see no evidence of grieving in her aunt's stony face. Megan Arnold had stayed aloof during her younger sister's months of illness. And if she was mourning now, she kept it well hidden. And there'd been no sign of her since the funeral either.
Zoe shook away these unpleasant and uneasy reflections, pushed a strand of dark blonde hair back from her face, and looked steadily at her unexpected suitor with clear grey eyes.
"Are you saying that you've fallen in love with me, George?" she asked mildly.
"Well - I'm very fond of you, Zoe." He played with the stem of his glass, looking embarrassed. "And I have the most tremendous respect for you. You must know that. But I don't think I'm the type for this head-over-heels stuff," he added awkwardly. "And I suspect you aren't either. I really think it's more important for people to be - friends."
"Yes," she said. "I can understand that. And you could be right." But not about me, she thought. Oh, please God, not about me.
She swallowed. "George, you're terribly kind, and I do appreciate everything you've said, but I'm not going to make any immediate decisions about the future." She paused. "Losing my mother is still too raw, and I'm not seeing things altogether clearly yet."
"Well, I realise that, naturally." He reached across the table and patted her hand, swiftly and nervously. "And I won't put any pressure on you, I swear. I'd just like you to - think about what I've said. Will you do that?"
"Yes," Zoe told him, mentally crossing her fingers. "Of course I will."
My first marriage proposal, she thought. How utterly bizarre.
He was silent for a moment. "If you did think you could marry me at some point," he said hesitantly, "I wouldn't want to - rush you into anything, afterwards. I'd be prepared to wait - as long as you wanted."
Zoe bit her lip as she looked back at the kind, anxious face. "George," she said. "I truly do not deserve you." And meant it.
It was hard to think about anything else as the local bus jolted its way through the lanes half an hour later, but she knew she had to try. Because George's extraordinary proposal was only one of her current problems. And possibly the least pressing, bless him.
She had come to Astencombe to share her mother's cottage three years ago when she had left university, and not long before Gina Lambert's condition had first been diagnosed. But the property was only rented. It had belonged to Aunt Megan's late husband, Peter Arnold, and he had agreed the original lease with his sister-in-law.
Zoe suspected this had always been a bone of contention with his wife, and, since his death, Aunt Megan had raised the rent slowly and steadily each year, although as a wealthy and childless widow she could not possibly need the money. She had also insisted that maintenance and repairs were the responsibility of her tenant.
Gina, also a widow, had eked out her husband's meagre company pension with her skill as a landscape artist, but it had been a precarious living, and Zoe's salary as an English teacher had been a welcome addition to the household budget. Particularly when the time had come when her mother had no longer been able to paint.
Finding a local job and living at home was not what she'd planned to do originally, of course. At university she'd met Mick, who'd intended, after graduation, to travel round the world for a year, taking what work he could find to earn his living on the way. He'd wanted her to go with him, and she'd been sorely tempted.
In fact, she'd gone home for the weekend to tell her mother what she meant to do, but had arrived to find Gina oddly quiet, and frail-looking. She had stoutly denied there was anything the matter, but Zoe had soon learned through the village grapevine that Aunt Megan had made one of her periodic descents the day before, and, as Adele who lived next door had put it, "There'd been words."
Zoe had spent the whole weekend trying to tell her mother about her plans, and failing. Instead, obeying an instinct she barely understood, she had found herself informing Mick that she'd changed her mind about the trip. She'd hoped against hope that he loved her enough not to want to go without her, but she'd been rudely disappointed.
Mick, she realised with shocked hurt, was not about to change his mind - just his choice of travelling companion. And the love she'd blithely thought was hers for ever had proved a very transient affair instead. Within days she'd been comprehensively replaced in his bed and affections.
But it had taught her a valuable lesson about men, she thought wryly, and maybe it was better to be dumped in England than the middle of the Hindu Kush. Since Mick, she'd had no serious involvement with anyone. And now she'd been proposed to by George, who did not love her either. History, it seemed, was repeating itself.
If I'm not careful, I shall get a complex, she told herself.
Looking back, however, she had no regrets about sacrificing her independence. The job and the village might have their limitations, but she was so thankful that she'd been there for her mother through the initial tests, the hospital treatments, and subsequent brief remission. And through her mercifully short final illness. Even at the last Gina's warmth and optimism had not deserted her, and Zoe had many memories to treasure in spite of her sadness.
But the fact remained that she'd reached the end of a chapter in her life. And she didn't see the rest of her life being devoted to Bishops Cross college. She had the contents of the cottage, and a little money to come from her mother's will as soon as it was proved. Maybe this was her chance to move on, and make a new life for herself.
One thing was certain. Aunt Megan would not be sorry to see the back of her.
Excerpted from His Forbidden Bride by Sara Craven Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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