Authors: Chantelle Shaw
‘Let’s go home,’ she said softly, trying not to think about the possibility that Primrose Cottage might not be their home for much longer.
Holly was half-asleep by the time Emma had driven through the village and parked outside the cottage. Deciding to forgo giving the little girl a bath, she quickly carried out the routine of pyjamas, teeth cleaning and bedtime story, and then tiptoed from Holly’s bedroom. An omelette was not a substantial meal after a long day at work, but it was all she could be bothered to cook for her dinner. But first she needed to phone Nunstead Hall to let Cordelia know she was home.
It was ridiculous for her pulse-rate to quicken as she made the call, but to her annoyance she could not control it—nor prevent the lurch of her heart when a gravelly, accented voice greeted her.
‘Emma—I assume you have arrived home safely?’
‘Yes, thank you.’ Was that breathy, girly voice really
hers? And why did the sexy way that Rocco drawled her name make her feel hot and flustered? A glance in the hall mirror revealed that her cheeks were pink, she noted disgustedly. Having successfully put him out of her head for the past hour, she was dismayed when the image of his arrogantly handsome face filled her mind.
Sexual awareness had taken her by surprise from the moment she had followed him into Nunstead Hall and seen him properly for the first time, she acknowledged ruefully. He had dismissed her at first, after a cursory glance. But later, when she had taken off her coat in the kitchen, he had trailed his mesmeric amber eyes over her in a lingering appraisal, the memory of which sent a quiver down her spine.
Oh, hell. She gripped the phone tighter and fought to control her rising panic. She had never expected to be physically attracted to any man ever again. It was just chemistry, she assured herself. A mysterious sexual alchemy that defied logical explanation. It was inconvenient and annoying, but she was a mature woman of twenty-eight, not a hormonal adolescent, and she refused to allow her equilibrium to be disturbed by a notorious playboy.
‘I hope your daughter was not upset that you were late to collect her?’
Once again Rocco’s deep voice made her think of rich, sensuous molten chocolate. She drew a ragged breath and by a miracle managed to sound briskly cheerful. ‘No, Holly was fine. She’s in bed now, and I’m just about to cook my dinner, so I’ll say goodnight, Mr D’Angelo.’
‘Rocco,’ he insisted softly. ‘My grandmother has been talking about you all evening. She is clearly very fond of you, and now that I feel I know everything about you it seems too formal to address you as Mrs Marchant.’
‘Right …’ The word emerged as a strangled croak.
What on earth had Cordelia said about her? Emma wondered, feeling highly uncomfortable with the idea that Rocco knew ‘everything’ about her. Her flush deepened, and she had a strange feeling that he sensed her discomposure and was amused. She pictured his mouth curving into a slow, sexy smile, and was shocked to feel her nipples harden.
It was suddenly imperative that she end the call. ‘Well, goodnight … Rocco.’
, Emma. And thank you again for your help tonight.’
Rocco’s expression was thoughtful as he replaced the receiver and strolled back into the sitting room at Nunstead Hall. He could not deny that he was more intrigued by Emma Marchant now he had learned that she was a widow. According to Cordelia, Emma’s husband had been dead for three years—yet she still wore a wedding ring. Three years was a long time to grieve, he mused.
His jaw tightened. Why was he thinking about her? Heaven knew he had enough to deal with—including the problem of how he could take care of his grandmother. He did not have the time or the inclination to pursue an inconvenient attraction to a woman who came with baggage that included a young child.
Emma loved Saturday mornings, with their promise of two whole days that she could spend exclusively with her daughter. But the weekend started badly when she picked up the post from the doormat and opened a letter from her landlord, informing her that he had decided to put Primrose Cottage on the market. The two months’ notice she had been given to move out was more than Mr Clarke was legally bound to offer, and she appreciated his consideration, but she felt sick at the prospect of uprooting Holly from her home and trying to find somewhere else to live.
‘You promised we could make cakes, Mummy,’ Holly reminded her over breakfast.
did.’ Her appetite non-existent, Emma crumbled her uneaten piece of toast onto her plate, ready to feed the birds, and smiled at Holly’s eager face. There was no point in fretting and spoiling the weekend, she told herself.
But the arrival of the estate agent later in the morning to take measurements and photographs of the cottage emphasised the stark reality of the situation.
‘There are no other properties to rent in Little Copton, but
have a couple of houses on my books that are up for sale,’ the agent told her. ‘They’re both bigger than this place, though,’ he added. ‘Four bedrooms, couple of bathrooms
and big gardens—they might be out of your price range.’
‘I don’t have a price range,’ Emma said dismally. ‘I can’t afford the deposit necessary to secure a mortgage. If I could, I’d snap up Primrose Cottage.’
She sighed. Holly was so settled in the village; she attended the local nursery and her name was down for the primary school where all her little friends would go. But now it looked as if they would have to leave Little Copton and move to a town where there were more properties available to rent.
The peal of the doorbell drew a frown. She wasn’t expecting any visitors, and her heart sank at the thought that it might be another estate agent come to take details of the cottage.
‘You look as though you’re having a bad morning.’
Yes, and it had just got a whole lot worse, Emma thought silently, feeling her heart jerk painfully beneath her ribs when she pulled open the door and stared at Rocco D’Angelo’s stunningly handsome face. It should be illegal for a man to smile the way he was smiling, with a lazy, sexy charm and a bold gleam in his golden eyes as he subjected her to a leisurely appraisal. His gaze lingered rather longer than was appropriate on her breasts. Perversely, she wished she was wearing something more flattering than a long-sleeved grey jersey top that had shrunk in the wash.
‘You seem to have something on your shirt.’
Following Rocco’s gaze, Emma glanced down and discovered that her chest was spattered with fine white powder. ‘It’s flour,’ she muttered, blushing as she attempted to brush the flour from her breasts. ‘We’re baking cakes, and Holly whisked the ingredients a little too enthusiastically.’ To her horror she realised that her nipples were jutting provocatively beneath her clingy top. A glance at Rocco’s face
told her he had noticed, and she quickly crossed her arms in front of her, feeling thoroughly flustered. ‘Are you here for a reason, Mr D’Angelo? Because I’m rather busy.’
Dark eyebrows winged upwards at her sharp tone. ‘I thought last night that we had agreed on Rocco?’ he drawled. ‘And, yes, there
a reason for my visit. Perhaps you could invite me in so that we can discuss it?’
Rocco glanced over Emma’s shoulder into the narrow hallway of the cottage and tensed when a man emerged from a room at the back of the house. Was she busy entertaining a boyfriend at ten o’clock in the morning—or had the guy spent the night with her? For some reason the idea darkened his mood, and that in itself was irritating. He had convinced himself last night that he wasn’t interested in his grandmother’s nurse. But he had changed his mind when Emma had opened the door, looking delectably gorgeous with her red-gold hair framing her pretty face. Her fitted jeans skimmed the soft curves of her hips, and her too-tight top moulded her full breasts, evoking a hot throb of lust in his groin as he imagined pushing the stretch material aside and cradling the bounteous mounds of flesh beneath.
The last thing Emma wanted to do was invite Rocco into her home, but good manners prevented her from saying so and she reluctantly moved to one side, so that he could step into the hall. He immediately dominated the small space, the top of his head brushing against the wooden ceiling beams that were a feature of the old cottage. He was too big, too dominant and way too overwhelming, she thought, hiding her irritation as the estate agent walked towards them, making the hallway feel even more cramped.
‘I’ve taken all the photos I need.’ The agent cast a curious look towards Rocco before focusing his attention on
Emma. ‘I like the way you’ve done the place up. It’s fresh and bright and I believe it will sell pretty quickly.’
‘I’m in no rush for it to be sold,’ Emma said heavily, ‘but I expect the landlord will be pleased.’ She opened the front door again, to allow the agent to leave, and then turned to face Rocco. He was intruding on her precious time with Holly and she was impatient for him to go. ‘What was it you wanted to discuss?’
‘Where are you moving to?’ Rocco parried her question with one of his own.
She shrugged. ‘I don’t know. I only heard this morning that the owner has decided to sell Primrose Cottage. I’d like to stay in the local area, but if I can’t find somewhere affordable to rent I may have to consider moving closer to Newcastle.’
‘Cordelia would miss you if you moved away.’
‘I’d miss her, too.’ Emma bit her lip at the prospect of having to leave the village she loved and the many friends she had made in the past three years, since she had moved into Primrose Cottage with her month-old daughter. She had built a life for herself and Holly here, away from all the painful memories of Jack.
‘Why don’t you buy the cottage yourself?’ Rocco’s voice interrupted her thoughts.
‘I’d love to, but it’s impossible. I’m a single mother, and my nurse’s salary simply won’t stretch to buying a house.’
The scent of Rocco’s cologne teased her senses, and in the small hall she had nowhere to look but at his broad-shouldered figure. He was dressed in pale jeans and a thick oatmeal-coloured sweater, topped by a black leather jacket; the look was casual yet sophisticated—and heart-stoppingly sexy. Emma resented her fierce awareness of him. She wished he would explain the reason for his unexpected visit, but he seemed in no hurry to leave.
‘Cordelia told me your husband died. Did he not leave some sort of provision for you and your daughter such as a life insurance policy?’
Emma almost laughed at the suggestion that Jack might have behaved with any degree of responsibility. In fact she had been awarded compensation from the fire service after his death, but the money had all gone on settling his huge credit card debts that she had been unaware of until she had sorted through his paperwork.
‘Unfortunately not,’ she said crisply, her tone warning Rocco that it was none of his business. She faced him square on, preventing him from walking down the hall. ‘Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but I have a lot to do this morning …’
‘Mummy, I iced the cakes …’
Emma turned her head and stifled a groan when Holly trotted out of the kitchen, her hands coated in sticky white icing. Thank heavens she’d had the foresight to cover her daughter’s clothes with an apron, she thought ruefully. She’d forgotten that she had left Holly stirring the icing while she dealt with the estate agent, and could not blame the little girl for becoming impatient.
‘I can see you have, sweetheart,’ she murmured, wondering if any icing had actually made it onto the cakes.
Holly stared curiously at Rocco. ‘Are you a ‘state agent?’
‘You mean an
state agent,’ Emma corrected, but Holly’s attention was focused on the big man who dominated the narrow hall. Usually a shy child, she seemed unconcerned by the presence of a stranger in the cottage, and Emma understood why when she glanced back at Rocco and realised with a sinking heart that her little daughter had been charmed by his smile.
‘Hello, Holly.’ His deep voice was as soft as crushed
velvet. No, I’m not an estate agent. I am your mummy’s friend.’
Emma wanted to demand. But Holly appeared happy with the explanation.
‘What’s your name?’
To Emma’s surprise Holly gave Rocco a wide smile. ‘Me and Mummy made cupcakes. You can have one if you like.’
The man could charm the birds from the trees—and obviously every female from the age of three to ninety-three, Emma thought irritably, adding the proviso
bar this one
. ‘I don’t think … Rocco …’ she stumbled slightly over his name ‘ … has time at the moment. He was just leaving,’ she added pointedly, flicking him a sharp glance.
He returned it with a bland smile and an amused gleam in his eyes before turning his attention back to Holly. ‘I would love to try one of your cakes—if Mummy doesn’t mind?’
‘She doesn’t,’ Holly assured him innocently. ‘I’ll get you one.’
‘I think we’d better clean you up first,’ Emma told her daughter. Determined to take charge of the situation, she pushed open the sitting room door and gave Rocco a cool look that did not disguise her annoyance. ‘Perhaps you would like to wait in here?’
‘Thank you.’ As he stepped past her into the room he briefly brushed against her. The contact was fleeting, yet it sent an electrical current shooting through her body, making her skin tingle as if each of her nerve-endings was acutely sensitive. What would it feel like to be held against his broad chest? To have his arms curve around her and pull her close so that her thighs were pressed against his? Colour surged into Emma’s cheeks and she jerked back
from him so violently that she hit her head on the door frame.
‘Easy,’ he murmured gently, as if he were calming a nervous colt. His amber eyes rested speculatively on her flushed face. ‘Coffee would be good with a cake—black, no sugar.’
Lord, what she wouldn’t give to wipe that arrogant smile from his lips, Emma thought furiously as she stalked into the kitchen. She didn’t understand why she was so wound up. Normally she was a calm, even-tempered person, but Rocco D’Angelo got under her skin. She would make him one cup of coffee and then insist that he leave—and too bad if he preferred proper coffee beans, because she only had cheap instant granules.