Authors: Janet Woods
Tags: #Contemporary Romantic Comedy
‘Being resentful is destructive, Leon,’ she’d always said to him. ‘Use the brains the good lord gave you to better yourself. Make a plan. Always move forward, and never look back until you find your place in life.’
When he’d graduated from university with an engineering degree she’d been the proudest person in the room. He’d had it copied, written her name next to his and presented it to her in a frame. She’d hung it in the lounge.
‘He’d put his plan to Sarah one day. It was simple. Escape to the sunshine, make more money than he could spend in one day, and provide himself with a happy family life. On his children he would lavish all the love he’d never received himself as a child. He’d told her he was going to Australia, and when he’d found his place he would invite her over for a holiday.
Now he’d found his place, and his ideal of family life was just a finger’s length away - like a carrot dangling under the nose of a donkey. He just hoped he’d be fast enough to catch it. He’d even found a dog. Perhaps it was time to write to Sarah.
‘No. I never had a dog,’ He ran his fingers through the rough iron gray hair on Wee Georgie’s head when he came back with the stick. ‘You’re a fine looking mutt, aren’t you. I wouldn’t mind one like you around.’
The catch in his voice made Darcie gaze sideways at him. There was something wistful about his face - an expression almost of yearning that brought a lump to her throat. She gently squeezed his hand. ‘Did you have a very rough childhood?’
He didn’t know what surprised him most, her intuitive reaction, or the fact that he told her, ‘I was raised in foster homes.’
‘That must have been awful.’
She looked so horrified he stopped and turned to face her, smiling. ‘They were all very nice, caring people, only I didn’t appreciate the fact until I grew up.’
She kissed his cheek. ‘They didn’t do a bad job, at that.’
He liked that kiss, there was something affectionate about it. He could use this angle - play on her sympathy. No, it wouldn’t be fair!
Yet he had an urge to kiss her soft peachy mouth - to drown in her loving.
She’d asked him about casual affairs. There had been too many to remember, faceless women who’d offered him temporary love. Helen had lasted longer than the others -Helen had held him because she’d offered him nothing, and he’d enjoyed the challenge of it. Now he knew she’d used him in the way he’d used his casual affairs - and he didn’t like the cheapness of it.
It would be easy to get Darcie into bed, to take advantage of her. She was already halfway there. But the difference between her and the other women was her vulnerability. She needed him, and in the short time he’d known her he sensed that she understood him.
Strange as it seemed to him, he knew this fact intuitively. Her attraction went beyond the mere carnal. Darcie Channing was tuned into his wavelength. He wanted her, but the awful thing was he might have to set her free before he could have her - and he didn’t know if he had it in him to do that.
So he held her hand briefly against the imprint of her kiss and said gruffly. ‘Would you prefer it if I moved back to my room, Darcie?’
He didn’t know whether to be relieved or sorry when she smiled and gently shook her head, because staying together would be much, much harder.
* * * *
There had been a subtle shift in their relationship, Darcie mused as she slipped into bed that night.
Something had happened to Leon in the forest, something that had caused him to take the pressure off her. He’d been relaxed for the rest of the day - and when relaxed, Leon turned out to be at his most dangerous. His warmth and charm lulled her into a sense of euphoric oneness that made her drop her guard.
It was obvious the staff at the inn adored him. They couldn’t do enough for him. Leon brought out the best in people. He smoked the evil smelling cigar Harry gave him without coughing once - inquired after baby Rose and made the appropriate noises when an instant photograph of a wrinkled looking infant with a bald head was shoved into his hand by a proudly smiling father.
She smiled as she picked up the book she’d bought to read on the plane. She’d just immersed herself in the story when a knock came at the door.
Leon entered with a tray balanced on his hand. ‘I thought you might like a cup of tea and some biscuits before you went to sleep.’
‘We had some half an hour ago.’
He grinned as he set the tray on the side table, and sat on the side of the bed. ‘Your light was on so I thought you’d like some more.’
She placed the book down on the bed.
His eyes looked innocently into hers - they were too innocent. ‘Good book?’
‘Excellent.’ She hoped he wasn’t going to give her trouble - then contrarily, hoped he would. ‘What did you really want, Leon?’
He kissed her bare shoulder. ‘I’m that transparent, huh?’
‘I’m going to Perth tomorrow to see my lawyer. I wondered if you’d like to join me. He could put your mind at rest about the land at Petrel Point and we could work on that prenuptial agreement.’
‘You mean he could help pull the wool over my eyes, don’t you?’
His face closed up as he rose from the bed. ‘Why are you being so obdurate about this, Darcie? I’ll be leaving early, about seven. Please yourself if you come or not.’
‘All right,’ she said hastily as the door was about to close behind him. ‘I’ll come with you. After all, you have been appointed my keeper. But don’t expect me to sign any agreement. It will be a waste of paper.’
He gave her a brief wintry smile, and was gone.
Darcie rose before dawn to take Georgie for a run. When she returned the remains of two breakfasts were on the table, and Leon was nowhere to be seen.
Between them, she and Georgie wolfed down the lukewarm bacon and scrambled egg and washed down two pieces of cold toast with tepid coffee.
At 6.45 am, just after she’d changed into a navy wrap around skirt with matching jacket and lacy camisole top, Leon came striding into the chalet, all smiles. ‘Good, you’re ready.’
When she attached Georgie’s lead to his collar he gave a slight frown. ‘I’d forgotten about the dog.’ He chuckled when Georgie hung his head. ‘Well, I don’t suppose you’ll be any trouble. I’ll drop you off at the house. It has a nice secure garden and you won’t be alone there.’
‘My house in Perth.’
‘If you’ve got a house in Perth why do you need to build one at Petrel Point?’ she said as she followed him to the car park.
‘I like it here. I’m going to wind down my business interests, settle down and raise a family.’ He smiled as he unlocked the car and opened the door for her. ‘Does that answer your question?’
‘It raises more questions than it answers, actually.’
‘Like what?’ He settled himself behind the wheel and started the engine.
‘First you have to prove the Petrel Point land is yours, and then you have to win the bet.’
Guilt niggled at his mind - a guilt he was determined to squash. He
the land was his, but he couldn’t help feeling sorry that she was about to find out the hard way. As for marriage ...? He never placed money on a losing bet, besides, who would look after her if he didn’t? Her cousin certainly didn’t seem to want to. He gave her a determined look. ‘I was under the impression we had an agreement.’
‘It wasn’t an agreement it was a bet. I’m not signing anything without speaking to my cousin first.’
‘Ah ... and who was it talked about trust? Who was it who said she liked honesty, and hated deceit?’
‘I have no intention of deceiving you. You gave me a week in the kitchen if I recall. I intend to make you eat your words.’
‘Yes, you will, so you’d better start looking around for someone else to marry. Perhaps Helen will have you back.’
‘I don’t want Helen. I want you.’ His smile sent alarm bells ringing in her mind. ‘You have no idea how much I want you, Darcie.’
‘I think you’ve made that pretty clear,’ she snapped, feeling warmth flood her cheeks. ‘Unfortunately for you, I don’t want you.’
He took a strand of her hair in his hand and twisted it around his fingers. ‘You’re not a very good liar, Darcie. You
want me, and I’ll expect you to honor the agreement.’
The nape of her neck became a shivery playground of pleasure as he tucked the hair behind her ear with a tiny caressing motion. ‘And if I don’t honor?’
Leon shrugged. Then he’d offer her a decent job at the inn - create one if need be. One way or another he’d keep her at his side, and he’d court her with flowers, chocolates and theater tickets - romance her a bit. He might do that anyway.
A slow thoughtful smile crept across his face as he gazed at her. ‘You knew exactly what you were doing when you agreed to my proposition, didn’t you?’
‘Yes. I’m going to beat you at your own game.’
‘We’ll see.’ The thought of what was ahead of her following week didn’t bear thinking about - but he wasn’t going to spare her. He’d instruct the kitchen staff she was to perform her duties without help. In the meantime he’d make sure she enjoyed their time together. ‘Would you like to take in a show whilst we’re in the city?’
Darcie had only been to the theater once, and that had been a pantomime. She’d been young, but the color and vivacity of it had left an indelible impression on her mind. Her eyes began to sparkle at the thought of going again. ‘That would be wonderful. I went to see Puss in Boots once ...’ and she proceeded to tell him all about it whilst the car purred steadily through the leafy winding lane to join the main artery and the early morning traffic heading for Perth.
Long before they reached his house, a sizable and stately colonial looking residence overlooking the Swan River, she’d run out of things to say. Darcie knew she’d rattled on about nothing ... anything to take his mind off the personal aspect of their relationship. Now she exclaimed with delight. ‘This is lovely. How can you bear to sell it?’
‘I have no intention of selling it. I need a place in town. I have various business interests apart from the development company, and have to attend meetings and functions from time to time.’
She knew Leon was well off, but never in her wildest dreams had she thought ... so why did he need her land when he could have bought land further down the coast?’ Her eyes were troubled as she gazed at him. ‘I see.’
‘Don’t let the trappings of wealth worry you. Money is neither here nor there when it comes to relationships.’
‘It makes my block of land seem like nothing,’ she said. ‘Why do you want it so badly when you don’t need it?’
‘You have no idea of my needs.’ Leon felt unaccountably annoyed as he ushered her inside. She seemed to think everything had dropped into his lap. It hadn’t. He’d worked for it, and worked hard. Lines of tension appeared between his brow and he pressed his fingers against his forehead as he wondered where his housekeeper was.
‘Oh, yes I have. You said you need a wife and family.’
‘So, what’s wrong with that?’
‘Nothing, except ...’ She didn’t know quite how to say it.
‘Except what? Spit it out, Darcie.’
‘You can’t see beyond yourself. You see something, you want it and you go after it ... and regardless of what anyone else wants or feels. You seem to regard women as objects to fulfill your needs.’
The condemnation in her voice shocked him, but what shocked him more was the truth in her words. He didn’t have time to answer because she hadn’t finished with him.
‘You have a way with you, Leon, you draw people to you then take hostages.’ She turned her back on him and stared out of the window across the river. ‘There’s something ruthless about you.’
‘You have to be ruthless in business or you don’t get anywhere.’
‘But not in relationships, they should evolve naturally, and without pressure.’
He moved to stand beside her. ‘Years ago I made a plan. I would find my place in the world. I’ve achieved nearly everything I set out to achieve and now it’s time to slow down.’
‘You’ve done your killing, now you want the scalps as trophies.’ She sighed, and turned to face him, her eyes troubled. ‘Why me, Leon? Is it because I spoiled the plans you’d made for Helen? Is it revenge?’
She resolved then that she would see Helen and explain the situation to her. Perhaps she could bring them back together again.
He brushed a strand of hair back from a face that was pale and tense. Her mouth was trembling, her eyes dark with accusation. He could have told her that Helen meant nothing to him now but that would only reinforce the opinion she’d already formed of him. He wanted her. He ached for her, and he couldn’t risk letting her off the hook. Their relationship was too new - too vulnerable.
Instead of answering he took her face between his hands and gently kissed her trembling mouth into a yielding softness. If he brought this situation back to basics he’d keep her wanting him. ‘Right now, we could make love and forget everything,’ he whispered against her mouth.
‘Yes,’ she sighed, and Leon couldn’t decide if it was an answer or an invitation when she laid her face against his shoulder for a moment.
There was a baying bark from the back of the house.
‘Georgie,’ she breathed in alarm, then she was running after Leon, her feet sinking into a luxurious pale gray carpet.
A beautiful Siamese cat, its hackles raised on high, was yowling with frenzied fury from the top of the refrigerator. Tail wagging from side to side, Georgie gazed up at it with an idiotically pleased expression on his face.
Just then a woman came rushing through the kitchen door. The cat jumped down, took a swipe at Wee Georgie’s inquisitive nose in passing and went to weave around her ankles.
Leon clicked his fingers and Georgie immediately went to his side. ‘I hope Georgie didn’t frighten you, Anna.’
The woman laughed. ‘It would take more than a dog to frighten me, Mister Price.’ The woman gave Darcie a curious glance. ‘Is this the young lady you told me about when you phoned?’
‘This is Miss Channing.’ He took her hand, his smile an intimate caress that warmed her face. ‘Darcie, this is Anna. She and her husband look after the place when I’m away.’