Read In Bed With a Stranger Online

Authors: India Grey

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Fiction, #Sagas

In Bed With a Stranger (6 page)

BOOK: In Bed With a Stranger
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As she got nearer she raised a hand to shield her eyes from the sun, and the hem of the tunic rose to reveal another inch of pale gold thigh.

‘Aren’t you forgetting something?’

‘I’ve been trying to forget a lot of things,’ he drawled, vaulting out of the pool and looking her over speculatively as he reached for a towel. ‘It’s a whole lot easier now you’ve appeared looking like that.’

‘Like what?’ she asked distractedly, looking down at the olive-green silk tunic and frowning. ‘Oh—yes, I know, this is far too short to wear on its own, but I’m going to wait until the last minute to put on my white trousers or—’

He reached out a dripping hand and took hold of her chin, tipping her face up and stopping her from saying any more.

‘Like you’ve been lit up from the inside.’

It was true. Maybe it was the low, syrupy sunlight or some clever kind of cosmetic he knew nothing about, or maybe it was just her smile and the sparkle of her eyes and the sheen on her hair, but she seemed to glow. To radiate beauty.

She rolled her eyes. ‘Ah. That would be the industrial sander the masseuse used to remove the top five layers of my skin.’

Kit slid his hand up her arm, beneath the loose sleeve. ‘So underneath this you’re even more naked than before?’ he asked, lazily caressing her skin as he smiled into her eyes.

‘You could say that … But we don’t have time. That’s what I came to remind you—that it’s nearly six o’clock. We need to go.’

Of course. To meet the mother he hadn’t seen for almost
thirty years. That was the other thing he’d been trying to forget.

You could only go on blocking things out for so long. It all caught up with you in the end.

CHAPTER SIX

T
HE
Atlas mountains gleamed like icebergs in the distance, their snowy caps stained pink in the setting sun. Leaning back against the front seat of the huge Mercedes Kit had borrowed from the hotel, Sophie felt its last rays warm her face and kept her eyes fixed straight ahead.

Apart from the mountains, there wasn’t much to see—just an endless stretch of dry red earth sparsely covered with even dryer khaki-coloured scrub—but she had to focus on something so that she didn’t keep turning to look at Kit. His big hands, powerful on the steering wheel. His deep golden-brown forearms against the white linen shirt he wore with the sleeves rolled back. The way his thigh muscles rippled when he changed gear. His profile—stern, distant, perfect. ‘You’re staring at me,’ he remarked with a faint smile, not taking his eyes from the road.

‘Sorry.’ Hastily Sophie looked away. ‘
I
was trying not to.’ Kit ran a hand over his face, rubbing his fingertips tentatively over the worst of the gashes on his cheekbones. ‘Let’s hope she’s not expecting some clean-cut merchant banker in chinos and an Oxford shirt,’ he drawled with heavy irony, ‘because if so she’s going to be
very
disappointed.’

‘You could never disappoint anyone.
I
, on the other hand …’

Flipping down the sun-visor, Sophie peered despondently at her own face in the little mirror. Why had she thought it
was a good idea to be flayed with a pan scourer? Her skin wasn’t so much lit up from the inside as on fire. She grabbed her make-up bag and took out a bottle of foundation to tone down her scarlet cheeks, but as she went to squirt some into her hand the car bounced over a pothole and a jet of ivory-rose skin-firming make-up, complete with SPF and AHAs and probably a PhD or two, gushed out onto her trousers.

Her
white
trousers.

She let out a wail of dismay, and began scrubbing at it with the ragged remains of a tissue, instantly making it about five times worse. ‘What am I going to do now?’

Kit glanced across. ‘Take them off. I told you you didn’t need them anyway—it looks even better without.’

‘To you, maybe, but that’s because your judgment is clouded by testosterone. I don’t think that wearing a knicker-skimming minidress is something most etiquette experts would advise when meeting one’s prospective mother-in-law for the first time. She’ll think I’m, I don’t know … some kind of … tart.’

Running out of steam, she stopped scrubbing and looked at Kit. He was staring ahead, his face perfectly blank, but there was a muscle twitching in his jaw and on the steering wheel his knuckles showed white through the bronzed skin of his hands.

‘This is the woman who cheated on her husband and let him bring up another man’s child while she ran off with her lover, remember? I hardly think she’s in a position to
judge
anyone.’

Sophie’s heart skipped a beat at the ice that edged his words. She sensed a tiny crack had opened up in the dam that held back his emotion. She hesitated, moistening her lips, afraid of saying the wrong thing, of driving him into himself again.

‘How well do you remember her?’ She kept her voice as casual as possible, dabbing at the stain on her trousers again
in the hope that it would look as if she were just making idle conversation.

‘I don’t remember much about her at all,’ he said tersely. ‘I was only six when she left.’ There was a pause. Sophie put her head down, though she wanted so much to look at him, to touch him, but she knew there was a far greater chance of making him clam up again if she did.

‘I remember her perfume,’ he said with rusty reluctance. ‘And I remember that I thought she was very beautiful. I also remember her saying goodbye.’

Sophie couldn’t stop herself from lifting her head to look at him then.

‘Oh, Kit—that must have been terrible.’

His face was still inscrutable, his heavy-lidded eyes narrowed as he kept them fixed on the empty slash of black tarmac in front of them.

‘Not at the time. She promised she’d be back soon. She’d been away before …’ his mouth twisted into a kind of smile ‘… living at Alnburgh you’d have to or else you’d go mad—so I had no reason not to believe her. She told me to look after the castle while she was away, because it was going to be mine one day. I’m not sure now if that was wishful thinking or deliberate deceit.’

Sophie turned to look out of the window. The empty scrubland had given way to softer terrain now—grassland where cows stood in languorous groups and horses grazed, their shadows long and spindly-legged in the sinking sun. Up ahead clusters of houses clung to the hillside: tiers of reddish brown interspersed by tall palm trees.

‘She was probably trying to—I don’t know, soften the blow a bit.’

Kit gave a hollow laugh. ‘Believe me, if there’s going to be a blow it’s better to feel the pain and deal with it.’

He dragged a hand through his hair, making it stand up at the front, and showing the lighter streaks where the sun had
bleached it. Sophie’s stomach constricted with lust and she looked away quickly.

‘Is that where she lives, up there?’ she asked, gesturing to the village on the hill.

‘Yes.’

He might be utterly unmoved, but she was suddenly nervous enough for both of them. The stain on her jeans seemed to have spread in diameter and intensified in colour. Impulsively, she kicked off her little gold sandals and frantically tried to wriggle out of her trousers without undoing the seat belt.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Taking these off. I think tarty is better than dirty, although—’

Assailed by doubt, she broke off and bit her lip. Kit sighed.

‘Why are you so bothered by what she thinks? And so determined to make excuses for her?’

Sophie took a deep breath in, pressing down on her midriff to quell the cloud of butterflies that had risen there.

‘I just want her to like me,’ she said quietly.
To approve
, corrected a mocking voice inside her head.
To not see you as the grubby girl from the hippy camp.
She tugged down the green silk tunic and lifted her chin an inch. ‘And I suppose it seems like I’m making excuses for her because I don’t like jumping to conclusions about people, or thinking the worst of them without seeing for myself. People used to do that about us all the time when I was growing up.’ She looked out of the window and added in an undertone, ‘And because at least one of us has got to be on speaking terms with her when we get there or it’s going to be a very, very awkward evening.’

Villa Luana was a little way out of the village, set into the hillside, surrounded by olive trees and cypresses and pines that perfumed the warm air with their dry, resinous scent. Like Alnburgh, there was something fortress-like about its
high, narrow-windowed walls and towers, but if Alnburgh had come from some Gothic horror story, Villa Luana was straight out of Arabian Nights.

They drove through a gate and pulled up in a courtyard where the evening shadows gathered in pools of deep indigo. Ornate silver Moorish lanterns lit up walls that were the soft pink of tea roses. A man dressed in the traditional white djellaba appeared through an open doorway and gave a silent half-bow, indicating with a sweeping gesture of his arm that they should go into the house.

Sophie’s nerves cranked up several notches, but Kit’s stride was utterly nonchalant, vaguely predatory as she followed him into a huge, high-ceilinged room. Several long windows with delicately inlaid surrounds were set into each wall, giving a panoramic view across the hillside.

It was so beautiful that for a moment Sophie forgot to be nervous and walked across to one of the windows with a low gasp of astonishment. In the west the sun appeared through the branches of the trees like a fat, warm apricot, bathing the villa’s garden in syrupy light and unfurling ribbons of shadow across velvety lawns and a mirror-still pool. Beyond that lay the mountains—ink-dark and majestic.

‘Welcome to Villa Luana.’

The voice came from behind her and, though it was soft, it still made Sophie jump. Automatically she looked at Kit. In the golden evening sun his face looked curiously drained of colour, but his eyes glittered like frosted steel as he looked at his mother.

Slowly Sophie turned to follow his gaze.

The woman who came towards them was small, slender, dark-haired and still very beautiful. For some reason Sophie had expected her to have adopted the Moroccan style of dressing, or an English version of it, but she was dressed in an exquisite black linen shift dress that owed more to the couture houses of Paris than the souks of Marrakech. Her oval face
wore an expression of perfect serenity, though as she came closer Sophie could see lines etched into her forehead and around her eyes.

Eyes that were exactly the same silver-grey as Kit’s.

She stopped a few feet away from him.

‘Kit. It’s been such a long time.’ Her voice was low, but it vibrated with suppressed emotion. She was gazing at him; hopefully, avidly, as if he held her future in his hands. As if she was afraid he would disappear again.

‘Hasn’t it?’ Kit drawled quietly. ‘Almost thirty years, in fact.’

‘Yes.’ The acid in his tone must have stung her because she turned away sharply, and noticed Sophie for the first time.

‘And you’re Kit’s fiancée.’

‘Yes, I’m Sophie. Sophie Greenham.’ Perhaps it was nerves that made her go forward and give Juliet a hug instead of just shaking her hand. Or perhaps it was because, despite her incredible poise and elegance, there was something fragile about her, something vulnerable that made Sophie feel the need to compensate for Kit’s hostility. ‘It’s such a pleasure to meet you.’

‘And you. A pleasure and a privilege.’ Juliet gave Sophie’s shoulders a squeeze, and Sophie understood that she was grateful. ‘Now, it’s such a beautiful evening I thought we could eat on the roof terrace. Philippe will bring us drinks and we can all get to know each other a little better. I want to hear all about the wedding.’

If the view from the reception hall downstairs was beautiful, from the roof terrace on top of the house it was breathtaking: a melting watercolour in tones of ochre, burnt sienna, indigo and gold.

The sun was touching the horizon, painting the dry earth blood red. Kit leaned against the wall, breathing in the scent of pine and thyme and woodsmoke drifting up from the villageand waiting for the adrenaline rushing through his veins to subside.

Seeing her again had brought it all back. The bitterness. The resentment. The anger. His jaw ached from clenching his teeth together, literally biting back the torrent of recrimination that swirled around his brain.

He had come here for answers, not to make polite small talk about weddings. Behind him he could hear Sophie keeping up a stream of gentle conversation as she admired the view, the fruit hanging from the lemon trees that stood in pots around the terrace, the piles of silk cushions on the low couches.

He had never loved her more.

Closing his eyes, he let the sound of her sweet, slightly hesitant voice steady him, and felt his hostility ebb. He heard the manservant arrive, glasses clinking together as a tray was set down. His hands, gripping the edge of the wall, were numb again. The sound of a champagne cork made his taut nerves scream.

He wanted nothing more than to gather Sophie into his arms and take her away. Somewhere where he could shut the world out, and forget it all.

‘I thought we should have some champagne, as it’s a special evening,’ Juliet said. Her voice was exactly as he’d remembered it too. Summoning a bland smile, he turned round to face her.

‘Thanks, but I’m driving.’

‘Oh—no, I’ll drive,’ Sophie said, her eyes darting from his face, to Juliet, and back again.

‘You’re not insured. It’s fine. I’ll just have mineral water.’

Juliet said something to the manservant, who melted away again. Kit looked away from Sophie’s anguished face and out over the hillside again.

‘I can see why you left Alnburgh,’ he said, not bothering to hide the acid in his tone.

‘It’s certainly warmer here,’ Juliet said with a small, uncomfortable laugh. ‘But Alnburgh is beautiful too. You’ve no idea how much I missed it when I first came here.’ She stopped short, obviously aware that she had strayed too soon into dangerous territory, and then turned to Sophie. ‘But I want to hear all about you. When Kit said he was engaged I was so thrilled. Tell me about yourself—what do you do for a living?’

Sophie took a gulp of champagne and nearly choked on the bubbles. Too late, she realised that Juliet’s glass was still untouched and that she was probably supposed to wait for some kind of toast. Luckily the pink dusk hid her blush.

‘If I say I’m an actress that makes it sound terribly grand,’ she said, awkwardness making the words spill out too quickly. ‘I’m not trained, and, apart from a season I did at The Globe earning peanuts for wafting a palm leaf over Cleopatra for two hours a night, I mostly do bit parts in TV and film.’

‘How exciting.’ Juliet’s eyes kept wandering to where Kit stood a little distance away, his massive shoulders silhouetted against the crimson-streaked sky. ‘I’m sure you’ll get your big break soon.’

‘Oh, I don’t really want it, to be honest. I don’t long for stardom or anything; in fact I’d absolutely hate it. Being an extra was just something that allowed me to earn money and travel and which didn’t need a whole lot of exams, but I’d give it up tomorrow if I could.’ She giggled and took another gulp of champagne. ‘The film I’ve just done was about vampires and involved getting done up like a specialist hooker every day for six weeks.’

Philippe came back, carrying a huge tray loaded with tiny dishes and a bottle of mineral water, its sides frosted with condensation. He put the tray on the low table between the two cushion-strewn couches. Juliet motioned for Sophie to sit down.

‘And what about you, Kit?’ Juliet said softly. ‘You’re in the army?’

Kit came forwards. The last, flaming rays of the sun lit up his scarred face as he sat down on the couch opposite.

‘EOD,’ he said tersely, dragging a hand across his torn cheek. ‘As you can probably tell.’

BOOK: In Bed With a Stranger
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