- Pub. Date:
Caledon, South Africa, is supposed to be just a stop on the way to Christmas in Cape Town, part of Angie’s long-avoided homecoming. She never expected to star in a bizarre comedy of errors, but here she is: convincing a handsome stranger to be her fake boyfriend for the day.
Ezra Johnson, the handsome stranger in question, turns out to be a pleasant distraction from both the wedding and thoughts of her first family Christmas without her father. And he seems to loathe weddings just as much as she does. He’s the perfect temporary companion.
But a lot can happen in twenty-four hours. Including a connection so strong it tempts them both into thinking of something more permanent…
One-click with confidence. This title is part of the Carina Press Romance Promise: all the romance you’re looking for with an HEA/HFN. It’s a promise!
This book is approximately 70,000 words
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If the universe wanted Angie Roux to get home for Christmas, it had a hell of a way of showing it.
In the four hours she'd spent driving that day, Angie had been caught in stop-and-go roadworks four times; had been stopped by a traffic officer twice; had to change a flat tire, and now this.
A crowd of them, standing outside the brick chapel next to the café she'd stopped at. She'd never actually seen the chapel in use before, though she wasn't surprised she'd encountered it now, considering the universe's current treatment of her. She just hoped the 'if you talk to me, I'm going to punch you in the face' expression she'd perfected at a young age would deter–
'How did you get outside so quickly?' a tall woman asked, walking toward her.
Angie looked behind her, and then, when she saw no one else, looked back at the woman. For good measure — her 'talk to me at your own peril' expression rarely didn't work — she asked, 'Are you talking to me?'
'Of course I am.' The woman frowned. 'You should still be inside. They're signing the register.'
'Okay,' Angie replied slowly. 'What should I be doing inside?'
'Waiting for them,' the woman answered with an impatient sigh. 'Have you never attended a wedding before? Aren't you thirty-two? Thirty-five? This can't possibly be ...' She trailed off when Angie took a step back. Then another.
'Where are you going?'
Angie didn't answer. Instead, she turned around and began to walk back to her car. Her strides were slow, as if that would somehow mitigate that she'd left someone midconversation. Even if said person was trying to insult her.
The insult hadn't landed though. Angie had never thought looking older was an insult. In fact, she considered it a compliment. She carried herself maturely, which came with a certain amount of authority. Authority that had helped her growing up as the oldest of three girls.
She was more insulted by herself and how slow she'd been on the uptake. The people outside of the chapel were celebrating a wedding. Which seemed pretty clear to her now, when it was too late. When she'd already walked into a wedding.
She shuddered, her steps quickening.
'You've done enough to me today,' she muttered to the universe. 'Please, not this.'
As if in answer or punishment, a car turned into the gravel car park. Her feet stopped at her dilemma: because she'd taken the quickest route to her rental car, she was walking in the middle of the car park. She'd have to move to avoid being run over. Except she had nowhere to go.
There were empty parking spaces on either side of her, but that would risk being trapped or having to manoeuvre around the car — no, cars, she saw, taking in the line that had begun to form behind that first car — which would likely involve talking to people. Going forward wasn't an option at the moment and back meant ...
She shuddered again.
But then she was hooted at — multiple times — and that first car edged forward, forcing her back. Resisting the temptation to show the driver an impolite hand gesture, Angie gritted her teeth and turned around.
She tried to walk stealthily toward the crowd, so the woman who'd spoken to her earlier wouldn't see her. Angie kept an eye on the woman, but she paid no attention to Angie. Relief soothed some of the apprehension in Angie's chest. She might be able to make it to the café she'd come to without attracting any more–
'Hey.' A young woman with pink highlights stopped her. 'Are you trying to get back into the chapel?'
Why did everyone think she wanted to get in the damn chapel?
'Oh,' the woman said disappointedly. Seconds later she brightened. 'You're arranging something cool for them for when they come out, aren't you? Please tell me it's a flash mob!'
'It's not a flash mob,' Angie responded immediately. Apparently managing the woman's expectations was more important than getting herself out of her current predicament. 'I am trying to arrange something for them, but I have to get past you to do that.'
'You're too late,' the woman said, panic in her eyes. 'They're here.' Her expression turned sympathetic. 'I'm sure they'll forgive you though. You can go through here.'
The woman stepped back, creating a path for Angie before nudging Angie forward. The man she bumped into glanced back with a frown, then his eyes lowered over Angie and he nodded, shifting so Angie could move forward. The couple in front of him did the same, as did the people in front of them, until finally, Angie found herself with an unobscured view of the wedding party as they made their way out of the chapel.
Seeing the bridesmaids clarified why Angie was in this situation. There wasn't — as Angie had begun to fear — a sign on her forehead identifying weddings as one of her least favourite activities, challenging people to change her mind. She was simply wearing an almost identical dress as the bridesmaids.
Hers was shorter, with a deeper neckline, but she could understand why no one had noticed those differences. Hell, she was wearing the dress and it had taken her a moment to.
It was unfortunate, and reinforced the voice in her head that told her she was too dressed up for a road trip. But the dress helped her feel confident, which was something she'd desperately needed to keep the unravelling at bay.
It was there even now, taunting her. Telling her she should have listened to the rational part of her that warned her against stopping at the café. Claiming that being mistaken as a bridesmaid at a wedding was punishment for not listening.
She took a breath to compose herself, to push the unravelling away, and told herself she'd expected this. She'd known the trip back to Cape Town would be hard. When she'd seen the green board with its white lettering indicating the turn-off to Caledon — when she'd put on her indicator and turned — she'd known it would be a challenge, too.
It had been three years since she'd been in Cape Town, after all. Three years since she'd seen her mother, her sisters. Three years since her father–
She stopped the train of thought. Tried to focus on something else. Like the fact that it had been even longer than three years since she'd been to Caledon. The last time had been with her family. Her whole family; not the incomplete unit it had become.
Fortunately, she didn't have time to dwell on that when the bride and groom appeared. The guests began throwing rose petals at the newlyweds, and it reminded her of the picture that sat on her mother's bedside table. It was of her parents on their wedding day. They stood at the top of the steps outside the church, looking at each other lovingly, happily, petals raining over their heads. The last time Angie had seen them together, the love had still been there, but the happiness had been missing ...
She swallowed and moved to the basket that had the rose petals in it, grabbing a handful and joining in on the excitement. Though it felt cringey, she clapped. When the photographer announced they'd be taking group photos, she tried to slip away ... And was foiled. Again.
'You should stand right in front, young lady,' an old man told her, shifting and blocking her way.
His entire head was white, sharply contrasting his dark brown skin, his face lightly lined with deeper creases around his eyes. He seemed like the type of person she might have liked had he not just stopped her from escaping.
She almost growled, but instead managed a polite, 'I'm not a part of this wedding.'
'Of course you are. And you're beautiful.'
'I'm sorry — what?'
'You're beautiful,' he repeated. 'You don't have to be afraid of being in front of the photographers.'
'Wow, thanks,' she deadpanned, adding his face to her rapidly growing list of people who didn't have any boundaries with strangers.
'Could you let me past?' she asked, keeping to her strategy of pretence. 'I'm going to go around the crowd so I can get to the front quicker.'
'Good idea,' he said approvingly, moving so she could walk past him.
She could feel his eyes on her, so she walked slowly around the edge of the crowd. When she passed enough people, she hid at the side of the chapel, where she fully intended on staying until she was out of this nightmare. It was pathetic, but she was willing to be pathetic for the sake of self-care.
As if to test that willingness, a couple began walking her way. She slunk deeper into the shadows, but they kept moving forward. When the woman pulled out a packet of cigarettes — seriously, they were going to smoke right next to a chapel? — Angie stepped back again.
She wasn't obscured, and the couple was almost near her, but there was nowhere to go. Her back was against the wall — or against the shrubs, as it were. She panicked for about a second, then decided she'd had enough of the damn wedding.
Swallowing her pride, she ducked through the shrubs.
It rattled. Or rustled. Or made whatever sound a shrub made when someone went through it. She groaned and almost pleaded with the powers that be to make sure no one saw her duck through a shrub to escape a wedding. But with her current luck, that would all but ensure someone would follow her through to ask why she wasn't in the photos.
Fortunately, the shrub hadn't been a large one, and she made it through relatively unscathed. Her hair needed some convincing to disentangle from the branches, but rather that than the dress. It had been expensive. And it was gorgeous. She'd bought it to soften her mother up when they eventually reunited. Instead, she'd worn it for a five-hour road trip.
Maybe she already was unravelling.
When the thought had her heart thumping against her chest, she swallowed and took a steadying breath. She could do this. She could make it to the café and wait the wedding out. She could.
She straightened and tried to formulate a plan. She was currently on the edge of a large field that was a hub of busyness. People milled around, carrying boxes or guiding cars into what seemed to be designated spots. Some of the cars were sedans, others trucks, and their spots seemed to depend on that distinction.
Her eyes lifted before she could confirm it, settling on the road she'd taken to enter the town, visible from where she stood. It was a reminder that she'd consciously made the decision to come to this place. Despite the memories it had of her life before she'd left South Africa — or perhaps, because of the memories — she'd decided to stop there.
Almost instantly the lid of the container she kept those memories in popped open and she remembered.
The family trips to the Eastern Cape. How she and her sisters, Sophia and Zoey, would nag until their father stopped barely an hour outside of Cape Town. How he'd always made it seem like some huge concession, stopping at the small town where he and Angie's mother had once lived. In reality, Daniel Roux had been happy to spend time at the casino that had become a major tourist attraction for Caledon. Angie and her sisters would play games in the arcade, before they'd all take the obligatory drive through town so her parents could reminisce. The detour would end in a meal at the café that was just a few metres away from where Angie currently was.
Her heart broke a little, and she closed her eyes, forcing air into her lungs. She hadn't thought about any of this in years. Had actively avoided it. And for the life of her, she couldn't figure out why she'd decided to come here now when she knew it would force her to face those memories.
Unless it didn't, she thought, opening her eyes again. She needed to distract herself. Or, at the very least, figure out how she could put herself back together again before she unravelled completely.
She walked along the edge of the field, staying close to the shrubs — since she was so comfortable with them now — in case she had to hide again. To avoid the wedding, or in case someone on the field noticed her and tried to get her to participate in the activities. She wasn't in the mood for that either.
A few metres later, she found a well-looked-after pathway. She supposed it was the usual way people got from the property that held the café to this field, though she had no idea why they'd want to. How many people needed to seek refuge from a wedding?
And on a related note — what were the chances that, if she took this pathway to the café, she'd need to seek refuge again?
Realising she didn't have much of a choice, she took the steps down to the pathway, consoling herself with the idea of hiding in the shrubs that lined it if she needed to. Which was so ridiculous she almost laughed. Knew her sister Zoey would, too, when she told–
She stopped the thought midway. She couldn't keep doing this. She'd already exceeded her quota of memories and nostalgia for the day. Sticking to that quota was pivotal to her mental health. She'd learnt that very early on in the life she'd built for herself after she'd left Cape Town.
She shook her head and walked into the open air again, immediately bumping into the old man she ran from earlier.
Seriously — what did I do to you? she asked the universe silently, before fixing a smile onto her face. 'Fancy seeing you here,' she said in a falsely bright voice.
'Where did you just come from?' he asked without preamble. 'Are you alone?'
'I just–' Oh, what the hell? 'No. My boyfriend's still back there.' She smoothed her dress down and offered him a chagrined smile. 'I'm sorry. Weddings are just so romantic, and with the group pictures being taken, we thought we'd take a moment to ourselves. Very quickly,' she assured him, ducking her head as if embarrassed. 'I'm sure we weren't missed.'
'I'm not sure that's true,' the man said with a frown. 'You're a bridesmaid. Part of the group.'
'Yes, well ... The family pictures are being taken,' she said, mentally crossing her fingers as if somehow, that would keep her from tripping over the elaborate tale she was weaving. 'I'm sure you can understand.' And leave me alone.
There was a pause, then the man smiled. 'Well, if the family pictures are being taken, I'm sure you aren't missed.'
'Me, too. I should probably run back though. Before they realise I've gone.'
Before you start asking about why my boyfriend hasn't come out of the shrubs yet, too.
She nodded her goodbye and walked in the direction of the café, hoping he wouldn't notice she wasn't heading back to where they'd first met. But at this point, she didn't care. She was counting on not having to see him again. Except when she looked over her shoulder, he was still following her.
She couldn't say anything about it. Perhaps the wedding celebrations had moved. Perhaps the photos were being taken elsewhere. Or perhaps he was checking that she was heading back to do her duties. He must have thought her a terrible bridesmaid. She didn't blame him.
The café was only a few steps away, and she didn't dare check if he was still behind her. Instead, she stopped walking and dug around in her handbag for her lipstick. She held it up triumphantly when she found it, before making as if she were heading to the bathroom in the café.
Her eyes widened as she entered and took in all the people there. People who were dressed smartly. Who were milling around as if waiting for something. Who were–
Damn it, who were wedding guests.
She didn't peek out the door to check for the old man as she'd intended to before snagging a table for herself. She looked, but none seemed to be free, and she was starting to draw attention to herself by not moving from the doorway. The last thing she needed was attention, especially not from wedding guests.
Wielding her lipstick in front of her as if some kind of shield, she moved farther into the café, her eyes sweeping over the room until it rested on a booth in the corner. There was only one man sitting there, papers strewn all over the table.
Not a wedding guest then.
Before she was fully aware of it, she was walking toward him.
And then she was sliding into the booth opposite him.
'Please,' she said, her voice surprisingly hoarse. 'Please pretend like I'm here with you.'
The man looked up and Angie blinked. Then did it a couple more times in case her mind was playing tricks on her. Or perhaps the universe was.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Wedding One Christmas"
Copyright © 2018 Therese Beharrie.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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