Authors: Helen Brooks
‘I was about to when you materialised.’
‘With that?’ He eyed her bucket with scathing disgust.
‘You might as well use an eggcup. Where’s your garden hose?’
‘I don’t have one.’ She glared at him, her eyes narrowed.
‘Give me strength…’
As he disappeared back into his own garden Willow stared at the spot where he’d been, her cheeks burning, and not wholly because of the heat from the fire, which was intense. What a horrible individual and how dared he growl at her like that? Anyone would think she’d done this on purpose. Couldn’t he see it was an accident? She’d hardly meant to send stuff into his stupid garden.
As the breeze mocked her by gathering a handful of paper and causing it to pirouette over the wall she groaned softly. He had a point, of course he had a point, and she would have apologised if he hadn’t rushed in all guns blazing. She slung the remaining contents of the bucket on the fire. It treated the paltry amount of water with the contempt it deserved and blazed fiercely as if to confirm she was fighting a losing battle.
She was just about to run back to the house for more water when there was a scrambling noise and the man reappeared. ‘Stand back,’ he said tersely.
‘What?’ She stared at him, taken by surprise.
‘I said, stand back.’ He bent down to someone on his side of the wall as he spoke, adding, ‘OK, Jim, I’ve got it.’
Willow saw the garden hose in his hand a moment before the jet of water hit the flames. For a minute or two all was hissing and spitting and belching smoke, ash from the fire covering her and the surrounding area along with droplets of water. She had instinctively moved when he’d shouted at her, but she was still near enough to the bonfire
for the spray to reach her. She stood, utterly taken aback as she watched him douse the flames as though he was enjoying himself. He probably was.
‘That’s done it.’ He passed the hose back to the unseen assistant and turned to look at her. ‘Never start a bonfire without having the means at hand to put it out should something like today happen,’ he said with what Willow considered sickening righteousness, and then he grinned at her.
She stared at him. The piercing blue eyes were set in a tanned face that was more rugged than handsome and topped by black hair that reached the top of the collar of his open-necked shirt. His smile showed dazzling white teeth and he seemed totally at ease on his perch on the wall now the imminent danger was over. ‘Morgan Wright,’ he said calmly when she continued to gaze dumbly at him. ‘As you may have gathered I’m your next-door neighbour.’
‘Willow Landon,’ she managed at last, suddenly aware of how she must look as the blue eyes washed over her. ‘I—I moved in last week. I’ve been doing some gardening,’ she finished lamely.
He nodded. He was dressed in a blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up and black denim jeans, and his whole appearance was one of strength and virile masculinity. Willow knew she was filthy, her hair bundled up into a ponytail and no make-up on her face. She had never felt at such a disadvantage in the whole of her life. ‘I’m sorry about the fire,’ she said stiffly after a moment had ticked by, ‘but I was about to see to it, like I said.’ She took a deep breath and forced herself to add, ‘But thank you for your help. I’m sorry to have bothered you.’
His eyes had narrowed slightly at her tone. ‘Self-pres-ervation,’
he drawled after a moment’s silence. ‘There’s a wooden summer house on my side of the wall and I’d prefer not to see it go up in smoke just yet.’
‘I hardly think that would have happened.’ She eyed him coolly.
Dark eyebrows rose in a wry quirk. ‘Your mother ought to have warned you about being so friendly,’ he said, his blue eyes laughing at her. ‘Folk could get the wrong impression.’
She knew she was being unreasonable in the circumstances. Unforgivably unreasonable. And she wasn’t usually this way. Somehow, though, everything about this man caught her on the raw. She swallowed hard, willing her voice not to falter when she said, ‘Thank you again. I’d better start clearing up,’ as she turned away, wishing he would disappear as quickly as he’d arrived.
‘Want some help?’ The deep voice was unforgivably amused.
‘No, I can manage.’ She didn’t look at him as she spoke.
‘I’ve no doubt about that but the offer still stands. Two pair of hands make light work and all that.’
‘No, really.’ She met the blue gaze again and the impact was like a small electric shock. She felt muscles clench in her stomach as everything in her recoiled from the attraction, but her voice was steady when she said, ‘I think I’ll go and have a wash and leave the clearing up until tomorrow, actually. Give it a chance to die down completely.’
‘Good idea—you don’t want to burn yourself.’
Again his eyes were laughing; the covert mockery was galling. Warning herself not to rise to it, Willow pretended to take his words at face value. ‘Exactly. Goodbye, Mr Wright.’
‘Morgan. We’re neighbours, after all.’
She nodded but said nothing, walking back to the cottage and aware all the time of his eyes burning into her back. She didn’t look round when she reached the door but she knew he was still sitting on the wall watching her; she could feel it.
Once inside the cottage she leant against the door with her eyes shut for a long moment. Great, just great. What an introduction to her nearest neighbour. Now he would think she was a dizzy female without a brain in her body, which wasn’t exactly the sort of impression she wanted to impart to folk hereabouts.
He had been laughing at her the whole time. Well, not the whole time; he had been too angry at first, she amended, opening her eyes with a soft groan. And she hadn’t made things any better, going for him like that. But he had been so totally supercilious and aggravating. And that little lecture about having a hose handy when she had a bonfire; how old did he think she was? Still in nursery school?
She levered herself off the door. She was wet and cold and dirty and it was going to take ages to clear up outside tomorrow. She just hoped Mr Know-It-All stayed well clear. If she saw him again for the rest of her life it would be too soon…
waited until the door had closed behind Willow before he jumped down into his garden. He landed beside his gardener-cum-handyman, who eyed him wryly. ‘I could be wrong but I got the impression she didn’t appreciate your help overmuch.’
‘Don’t you believe it—she was bowled over by my charm.’
‘Oh, aye, you could have fooled me. Pretty, was she?’
Morgan smiled. Jim and his wife, Kitty, had been with him for ten years since he’d moved into the manor house after making his first million or two as a young man of twenty-five. They lived in a large and very comfortable flat above the garage block, and ran his home like clockwork. Kitty was a motherly soul and a wonderful cook and housekeeper. Now in their early sixties, the couple had been unable to have children of their own. Morgan knew they looked on him as the son they’d never had and he, in his turn, was immensely fond of the tall, distinguished-looking man and his small, bustling wife.
‘Hard to tell exactly what she did look like under all that dirt,’ he said offhandedly, turning and surveying the littered grounds as he added, ‘I’ll help you start clearing up this lot.’
He thought about what Jim had said, though, as he began to fish pieces of blackened paper out of the swimming pool with the large pool net. Green eyes and red hair, nice combination, and a good figure, but definitely a prickly customer. The way she’d glared at him…He stood for a moment, smiling slightly to himself. It had been a long time since a woman had scowled at him like that; since he’d discovered he had the Midas touch where property was concerned and risen to dizzying heights in the business world they normally fell over backwards to be seen on his arm. There was no vanity in this thought, merely a cynical acknowledgement of the power of money.
Beginning work again, he pictured her in his mind’s eye. There had been a nicely rounded, firm little
in those jeans as she’d marched away down the garden, her silky red ponytail swinging in indignation.
To Morgan’s surprise, he felt a certain part of his anatomy respond to the memory, becoming as hard as a rock. In answer to his body’s reaction, he said out loud, ‘She’s too young.’ She didn’t look a day over twenty, all brighteyed and bushy-tailed. He preferred his women to be sophisticated and worldly-wise, happy to be shown a good time but without any delusions of till-death-us-do-part and
charming, easy company. He worked hard and played hard and he was sufficiently wealthy to do both on his terms.
His mouth hardened, although he was unaware of it. When he had first entered the business world he’d been taken for a ride once or twice, but it had been valuable experience and he’d learnt from it. Very quickly he’d understood he couldn’t afford to take anyone or anything at face
value. The same applied to his love life. At twenty-four, just before he’d hit the big time, he’d met Stephanie. Stephanie Collins. Blonde, bright, beautiful. When they began dating he thought he was the luckiest man in the world but after six months she’d sent him a typical ‘Dear John’ letter and disappeared into the blue yonder with a balding, wrinkled millionaire. Ironic, really, because if she’d waited a year or so he could have given her everything she’d ever wanted and without being pawed over by a man old enough to be her grandfather. But, again, the episode had taught him plenty for which he was grateful.
He nodded mentally to the thought. In fact the Stephanie thing had woken him up to the fact that the whole for-ever scenario wasn’t for him. His parents having been killed in a car crash when he was just a baby, he’d been shunted round various relatives until he’d gone away to university at the age of eighteen. From that point he’d made his own way in the world, but until Stephanie he hadn’t faced the need he had of belonging to someone, of putting down roots and having a home that was his. The need had made him realise he was vulnerable and he hadn’t liked that.
Morgan straightened and threw the net to one side. No, he hadn’t liked that at all. But then the money had started to roll in. He had been able to buy this place and also a chrome and glass one-bedroomed apartment in London where he stayed weekdays. And nowadays all he required of his women was honesty, which was why he made a point of only dating successful career women who were as autonomous as he was. And he was satisfied with that. His square chin came up, thrusting slightly forward as though someone had challenged him on the statement.
One of the dogs pushed its nose into his hand and he didn’t have to look down to see who it was. Bella had been the first of the German Shepherds he’d bought a couple of years after acquiring the manor house and she was still his favourite. As a puppy she’d had a weak stomach and been prone to vomiting attacks that could swiftly put her life at risk; many a time he’d sat up all night giving her sips of a rehydrating formula prescribed by the local vet. Maybe it was that that had created the special bond between them. She had grown into a strong, beautiful animal who was as intelligent as she was gentle, but in spite of her sweet temper she was the undisputed leader of his five dogs. And she always knew when he was disturbed about something or other.
‘I’m all right, girl.’ He looked down into the trusting brown eyes. ‘Thinking a bit too much, maybe, that’s all.’ He glanced over to where Jim was still picking up fragments of charred paper, his progress hampered by the other four dogs who were chasing bits here and there. Then his gaze moved over the beautifully tended grounds until it rested on the fine old house in the distance, the mellow stone and mullioned windows set off perfectly by the exquisitely thatched roof.
He was a lucky man. He nodded mentally to the thought. Answerable to no one and in complete control of every aspect of his life. And that was the way things would stay. Snapping his fingers at Bella, he made his way to the house, the dog following at his heels as she always did, given half a chance.
Kitty looked up from rolling pastry as he walked into the kitchen, her round, homely face enquiring. ‘Put the fire out, did you?’ she said, asking the obvious. ‘What was the lass
thinking of to do that? I hope you read her the Riot Act—she could have had the roof on fire. Bit simple, is she?’
Ridiculously he didn’t like that. Remembering the spark in the green eyes, he said quietly, ‘Far from it. She struck me as impetuous, that’s all.’
‘Oh, aye?’ Kitty was a northerner and always spoke her mind. ‘Plain daft, I’d call it. Still, let’s hope she’s learnt her lesson.’
Morgan wondered why he was feeling defensive on the girl’s behalf when she’d behaved so foolishly. With Bella following he walked through to the drawing room at the front of the house, the windows of which overlooked wide sweeping lawns and manicured flowerbeds. Pouring himself a whisky from the cocktail cabinet in a corner of the room, he flung himself into a chair and switched on the massive TV with the remote. An inane quiz show came on the screen and after channel-hopping for a while he turned the TV off, drained his glass and made his way to his study.
The room was masculine and without frills, a floor-toceiling bookcase occupying one wall and his massive Edwardian twin-pedestal desk dominating the space. The study could appear cosy in the winter when Kitty saw to it a good fire was kept burning in the large ornate grate, but now the room merely had the air of being functional. He sat down at the desk.
Morgan gazed musingly at the tooled-leather writing surface without reaching for the stack of files he’d brought back to work on. When he’d got home at the weekend Kitty had been full of the news the village grapevine had passed on. A woman had bought Keeper’s Cottage and was living in it alone, and to date she’d had no visitors. He
hadn’t been particularly interested; if he’d thought about it at all he’d probably jumped to the conclusion the woman in question was a middle-aged or retired individual who wanted a bit of peace and quiet from the hurly-burly of modern-day living.
He raised his head, his eyes taking in the tiny dancing particles of dust the slanting sunshine through the window had caught in its beam.
But the occupant of Keeper’s Cottage was far from being old. The woman who had glared at him with such hostility was very young and attractive and clearly had a mind of her own, which begged the question—why had she chosen to live in such seclusion? Did she work? And if so, where? Who was Willow Landon and why didn’t she like men? Or perhaps it was
rather than the whole male gender, she didn’t like?
This thought caused his firm, sensual mouth to tighten and he leaned back in the big leather chair for a moment, drumming his fingers on the padded arms.
This was crazy. Annoyance with himself brought him reaching abruptly for a file. It didn’t matter who Willow Landon was or what had brought her to this neck of the woods. He’d probably never talk to the woman again; in all the time he’d lived here he had made a point of not becoming friendly with the neighbours. This was his bolt hole, the place where he could be himself and to hell with the rest of the world. His London apartment was where he socialised and conducted out-of-hours business affairs—other affairs too, come to it.
Morgan opened the file, scanning the papers inside but without really taking them in. He had ended his latest
liaison the week before. Charmaine had been a delightful companion and—being a high-grade lawyer with nerves of steel and keenly intelligent—she was at the top of her profession and much sought after. Only he hadn’t realised she thought it perfectly acceptable to endow her favours to other men on the occasions she wasn’t seeing him. Unfashionable, perhaps, but he had always had an aversion to polygamy and he had told her so, as he’d thought quite reasonably.
Charmaine had called him pharisaical after throwing her cocktail in his face. What was the difference, she’d hissed, in sleeping with other men before and after an affair, and not during? They both knew they didn’t want a for-ever scenario, and they had fun together and the sex was great; why couldn’t he just go with the flow and enjoy it? Other men did.
He had looked into her beautiful, angry face and known any desire he’d had for the perfectly honed female body in front of him had gone. He didn’t want to go where someone else had been the night before; it was as simple as that. He gave and expected fidelity for as long as a relationship lasted, and he couldn’t operate any other way. The scene that had followed had been ugly.
Smiling grimly to himself, Morgan cleared his mind of anything but the Thorpe account in front of him. He needed to check the figures very carefully because something hadn’t sat right with him when he’d glanced at them at the office. He had found his gut instinct rarely failed him.
Sure enough, a few minutes later he found a couple of discrepancies that were enough to raise question marks in his mind about the takeover that was being proposed. He’d have to go into things more thoroughly once he was back
in the office, he decided, slinging the file aside and raking his hand through his hair.
The movement brought the faint smell of woodsmoke into his nostrils and he frowned, his earlier thoughts taking hold. Women were a necessary indulgence but they were a breed apart, and Charmaine had reminded him of the fact. Not that he’d needed much reminding. And that applied to all women—angry, green-eyed redheads included. She certainly had a temper to go with the hair, that was for sure. His mouth twisted in a smile. Not that he minded spirit in a woman. It often made life interesting. He’d never understood men who liked their women to be subservient shadows, scared to say boo to a goose.
He stretched his long legs, reaching for another file and feeling faintly annoyed at how he’d allowed himself to become distracted. Within moments he was engrossed in the papers in front of him and everything else had vanished from his mind, but the faint scent of woodsmoke still hung in the air.