The Virgin's Seduction
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I’ve always wanted to write—which is not to say I’ve always wanted to be a professional writer. On the contrary, for years I only wrote for my own pleasure and it wasn’t until my husband suggested sending one of my stories to a publisher that we put several publishers’ names into a hat and pulled one out. The rest, as they say, is history. And now, one hundred and sixty-two books later, I’m literally—excuse the pun—staggered by what’s happened.
I had written all through my infant and junior years and on into my teens, the stories changing from children’s adventures to torrid gypsy passions. My mother used to gather these manuscripts up from time to time, when my bedroom became too untidy, and dispose of them! In those days, I used not to finish any of the stories and Caroline, my first published novel, was the first I’d ever completed. I was newly married then and my daughter was just a baby, and it was quite a job juggling my household chores and scribbling away in exercise books every chance I got. Not very professional, as you can imagine, but that’s the way it was.
These days, I have a bit more time to devote to my work, but that first love of writing has never changed. I can’t imagine not having a current book on the typewriter—yes, it’s my husband who transcribes everything on to the computer. He’s my partner in both life and work and I depend on his good sense more than I care to admit.
We have two grown-up children, a son and a daughter, and two almost grown-up grandchildren, Abi and Ben. My e-mail address is email@example.com and I’d be happy to hear from any of my wonderful readers.
The Virgin’s Seduction
ELLIE came to find her as Eve was shovelling manure out of Storm’s stall.The work should have been done that morning, but Mick hadn’t turned in today and Eve had offered to help out.
Nevertheless, Eve felt a little self-conscious when the old lady raised her handkerchief to her nose before saying, ‘Come outside. I want to talk to you.’
Eve didn’t argue. You didn’t argue with her grandmother, and the old lady’s cane tap-tapped its way back along the aisle between the row of empty stalls. Meanwhile, Eve jammed the fork she was using into her wheelbarrow and, after checking to see that she had no dirt on her hands, followed Ellie out into the crisp evening air.
It was November, and the scent of woodsmoke banished the smell of the stables. Already there was a tracing of frost on the trees in the copse, and the lights that surrounded the stable yard had a sparkling brilliance.
‘Cassie’s coming tomorrow.’
The old lady waited only long enough for Eve to emerge from the doorway before making her blunt announcement, and her granddaughter’s stomach tightened. But she knew better than to show any obvious reaction, and with a shrug of her thin shoulders she said, ‘Don’t you mean Cassandra?’
‘No, I mean Cassie,’ retorted the old lady shortly, wrapping the woollen pashmina she was wearing over her tweed jacket tighter about her ample form. ‘I christened my daughter Cassie, not Cassandra. If she wants to call herself by that damn fool name, I don’t have to follow suit.’
Eve acknowledged this with a wry arching of her dark brows, but she thought it was significant that Ellie was wearing the wrap Cassie had given her several years ago. Was this a sign that she’d forgiven her daughter at last? That the rapidly approaching demands of old age had reminded her that her time was slipping away?
‘How long is she coming for?’ asked Eve casually, aware that, whatever Ellie said, this was not going to be an easy time for any of them. She and Cassandra could never be friends, and it might be easier all round if she simply moved into a hotel for a couple of weeks.
‘She didn’t say.’ Ellie’s tone was grumpy. ‘As usual, I’m supposed to accommodate myself to her needs. Oh, and by the way, she’s bringing some man with her. I don’t know who he is, but knowing Cassie he’s probably someone who can help her with her career.’
‘Oh, well…’ Eve tried to sound philosophical. ‘If she’s bringing a boyfriend I doubt if she’ll be staying long. He must have commitments; a business, maybe.’ She tugged her lower lip between her teeth. ‘What do you want me to do?’
Ellie’s eyes, which were extraordinarily like her granddaughter’s, narrowed in surprise. ‘Why should I want you to do anything?’ She gave a shiver as the wind, which had a decidedly northerly bite to it, whistled across the stable yard. ‘I just thought I ought to—to—’
‘To tell you,’ she insisted tersely. ‘If I could put her off, I would.’
‘No, you wouldn’t.’ Eve’s tone was dry. She wasn’t taken in by her grandmother’s last remark. ‘You’re really delighted she’s coming to see you, even if she is using this place as her own private hotel. As usual.’
‘Look, I understand where you’re coming from, Ellie. I do. So—would you like me to find somewhere else to stay while she’s here? I’m sure Harry—’
‘We’ll leave the Reverend Murray’s name out of this.’ The old lady looked scandalised at her suggestion. ‘You can’t stay with him. It wouldn’t be seemly. In any case, this is your home. I don’t want you to move out.’
Eve was dismissive, but the old lady wasn’t finished. ‘This is Northumberland,’ she said, with a quaver to her voice. ‘Not north London. You’re not living in some smelly squat now.’
That was a low blow, but it was a sign that her grandmother wasn’t as blas? about Cassie’s visit as she pretended. Ellie seldom if ever mentioned where Eve had been living when Ellie had arrived to rescue her, and she could see from the old lady’s expression that she already regretted speaking so bluntly. But Ellie must remember that the last time Cassie was here she and Eve had barely said a word to one another.
As if needing some reassurance, she added, ‘Are you saying you don’t want to be here while Cassie’s staying?’ All the ambivalence she was feeling about the visit showed in her lined, anxious face. ‘Because if you are—’
‘I just thought it might be easier all round if I left you to it,’ Eve muttered unwillingly. She didn’t want to hurt the woman who was her closest relative and her friend.
‘Well, it isn’t,’ declared her grandmother, pushing the hand that wasn’t holding her cane into her pocket for warmth. ‘So we’ll say no more about Henry Murray. And it’s too cold to stand here gossiping, anyway. We’ll talk about this again later. Over supper, perhaps.’
But they wouldn’t, Eve knew. Her grandmother had spoken, and in her own way she was just as selfish as Cassie. Oh, she would never have abandoned her child at birth, or ignored its existence for the first fifteen years of its life. But she liked her own way, and Eve rarely felt strongly enough about anything to argue with her.
‘You’ll be in soon, won’t you?’ Ellie asked now, and Eve nodded.
‘As soon as I’ve got Storm back in his stall,’ she promised.
Her grandmother looked as if she would have liked to say something more, but thought better of it. With a farewell lift of her cane, she trudged away towards the lights of the house.
The hired Aston Martin ate up the miles between London and the north of England. Jake liked motorway driving, mostly because the journey—this journey—would be over that much quicker. He hadn’t wanted to come, and the sooner this trip was over the better he’d like it.
‘Shall we stop and have some lunch?’
Cassandra was being determinedly cheerful, but for once he didn’t respond to her lively chatter. This was wrong, he thought. He shouldn’t be here. Bringing him to meet her mother smacked of a relationship they simply didn’t have.
Oh, they’d been spending time together, off and on, for the past six months, but it wasn’t serious. Well, in his case it wasn’t, anyway. He had no intention of marrying again. Or of setting up home with someone like Cassandra, he conceded ruefully. He liked her company now and then, but he knew that living with her would drive him up the wall.
‘Did you hear what I said, darling?’
Cassandra was determined to have an answer, and Jake turned his head to give her a fleeting look. ‘I heard,’ he said. ‘But there’s nowhere to eat around here.’
‘There’s a service area coming up,’ protested his companion. ‘There, you see: it’s only another five miles.’
‘I’m not in the mood for soggy fries and burgers,’ Jake told her drily. He glanced at the thin gold watch circling his wrist. ‘It’s only a quarter of one. We should be there in less than an hour.’
‘I doubt it.’
Cassandra was sulky, and once again Jake permitted himself a glance in her direction. ‘You did say it was only a couple hundred miles,’ he reminded her. ‘As I see it, we’ve covered at least three-quarters of the journey already.’
Cassandra gave a careless shrug. ‘I may have underestimated a little.’
Jake’s fingers tightened on the wheel. ‘Did you?’
‘Well, yes.’ Cassandra turned towards him now, all eager for his forgiveness. ‘But I knew you’d never agree if I told you it was over three hundred miles from London.’
Her fingers slipped over the sleeve of his sweater, seeking the point where the fine black wool gave way to lean, darkly tanned flesh. The tips of her fingers feathered over the dark hairs that escaped the cuff of his sweater, but he didn’t respond to the intimacy of her touch. Three hundred miles, he was thinking. That meant they had at least a couple of hours to go. It also meant they would have to stop somewhere for Cassandra to toy with a salad and sip a skinny latte. Although she rarely ate a proper meal, she insisted on drinking numerous cups of coffee every chance she got.
‘You do forgive me, don’t you, darling?’ She had nestled closer now and, in spite of the obstacle the centre console presented, she laid her head on his shoulder. ‘So—can we stop soon? I’m dying for the loo.’
Faced with that request, Jake knew he didn’t have any option, and although he didn’t say anything he indicated left and pulled off the motorway into the service area she’d pointed out. It was busy. Even in November, people were always going somewhere, and Jake had to park at the far side of the ground. He just hoped the car would still be there when they came back.
‘This is fun, isn’t it?’ Cassandra said, after they had served themselves and occupied a table for two by the window. As usual, she’d helped herself to a salad, carefully avoiding all the mayonnaise-covered options and sticking to lettuce, tomato and peppers. She sipped at the bottled water she’d had to choose when no skinny latte was available. ‘It gives us a bit more time on our own.’
‘We could have spent time alone if we’d stayed in town,’ Jake reminded her flatly. He parted the two slices of his sandwich to discover the almost transparent piece of ham covering the bread. When would the British learn that a ham sandwich needed a proper filling? he wondered gloomily, as a wave of nostalgia for his homeland swept over him. What he wouldn’t give to be back in the Caribbean right now.
‘I know,’ Cassandra said, reaching across the table to cover his hand with hers. Long scarlet nails dug into the skin of his wrist. ‘But we’ll have some fun, I promise.’
Jake doubted that. From what Cassandra had told him, her mother was already well into her seventies. Cassandra had been a late baby, she’d explained, and her brother, her only sibling, was at least fifteen years older than she was.
Jake wasn’t absolutely sure how old Cassandra was. In her late thirties, he imagined, which made her half a dozen years older than he was, though that had never been a problem. Besides, in television or theatre age was always a moot point. Actresses were as old as they appeared, and some of them got ing?nue roles well into their forties.
‘So, tell me about Watersmeet,’ he said, trying to be positive. ‘Who lives there besides your mother? You said it’s quite a large property. I imagine she has people who work for her, doesn’t she?’
‘Oh…’ Cassandra drew her full lips together. ‘Well, there’s Mrs Blackwood. She’s Mummy’s housekeeper. And old Bill Trivett. He looks after the garden and grounds. We used to have several stable hands when Mummy bred horses, but now all the animals have been sold, so I imagine they’re not needed any more.’
Jake frowned. ‘Don’t you know?’
Cassandra’s pale, delicate features took on a little colour. ‘It—it has been some time since I’ve been home,’ she said defensively. Then, seeing his expression, she hurried on, ‘I have been busy, darling. And, as you’re finding out, Northumberland is not the easiest place to get to.’
‘There are planes,’ Jake commented, taking a bite out of his sandwich, relieved to find that at least the bread was fresh.
‘Air fares are expensive,’ insisted Cassandra, not altogether truthfully. ‘And I wouldn’t like to scrounge from my mother.’
‘If you say so.’
Jake wasn’t prepared to argue with her, particularly about something that wasn’t his problem. If she chose to neglect her mother, that was her affair.
‘Doesn’t Mrs Wilkes have a companion?’ he asked now, his mind running on the old lady’s apparent isolation, and once again he saw the colour come and go in Cassandra’s face.
‘Well, there’s Eve,’ she said reluctantly, without elaborating. ‘And my mother’s surname is Robertson, not Wilkes.’
Jake regarded her enquiringly, and with evident unwillingness she was obliged to explain. ‘I changed my name when I moved to London,’ she said tersely. ‘Lots of actors do the same.’
‘Mmm.’ Jake accepted this. But then, because he was intrigued by her apparent reticence, he added, ‘And what about Eve? Is she some elderly contemporary of your mother’s?’ Faint amusement touched the corners of his thin mouth. ‘Doesn’t she approve of you, or what?’
‘Heavens, no!’ Cassandra spoke irritably now, and he wondered what he’d said to arouse this reaction. ‘Eve is—a distant relative, that’s all. Mummy brought her to live with her—oh, perhaps ten years ago.’
‘As a companion?’
‘Partly.’ Cassandra huffed. ‘She actually works as an infant teacher at the village school.’
Jake made no response to this, but he absorbed both what she’d told him and what she hadn’t. It seemed from his observations that Cassandra resented this woman’s presence in her home. Perhaps she was jealous of the relationship she had with Cassandra’s mother. Possibly the woman was younger, too, though that was less certain. Whatever, Jake would welcome her existence. At least there would be someone else to dilute the ambivalence of his own situation.
They reached the village of Falconbridge in the late afternoon. The traffic on the Newcastle by-pass had been horrendous, due to an accident between a car and a wagon. Luckily it appeared that no one had been hurt, but it had reduced the carriageway to one lane in their direction.
The last few miles of the journey had been through the rolling countryside of Redesdale, with the Cheviot Hills in the distance turning a dusky purple in the fading light. Despite his misgivings about the trip, Jake had to admit the place had a certain mystery about it, and he could quite believe Roman legions still stalked these hills after dark.
A latent interest in his surroundings was sparked, and he felt a twinge of impatience when Cassandra shivered and hugged herself as if she was cold. ‘This place,’ she muttered. ‘I can’t imagine why anyone would want to stay here. Give me bright lights and civilised living every time.’
‘I think it’s beautiful,’ said Jake, slowing to negotiate one of the blind summits that were a frequent hazard of the road. ‘I know a lot of people who live in London who would love to leave the rat race and come here. Only not everyone has the luxury of such an escape.’
Cassandra cast him a disbelieving look. ‘You’re not trying to tell me that you’d prefer to live here instead of San Felipe?’
‘No.’ Jake was honest. Much as he liked to travel, there was nowhere quite as appealing as his island home. ‘But I was talking about London,’ he reminded her. ‘You have to admit, there are too many people in too small a space.’
‘Well, I like it.’ Cassandra wasn’t persuaded. ‘When you work in the media, as I do, you need to be at the heart of things.’
Jake conceded the point, but in the six months since he’d known her Cassandra had only had one acting role that he knew of. And then it had only been an advertisement for some new face cream, though she’d told him that advertising work certainly helped to pay the bills.
They approached the village over an old stone structure spanning a rushing stream. The original Falcon Bridge, he concluded, glad they hadn’t encountered another vehicle on its narrow pass. Beyond, a row of grey stone cottages edged the village street, lights glinting from windows, smoke curling from chimneys into the crisp evening air.
‘My mother’s house is on the outskirts of the village,’ Cassandra said, realising she would have to give him directions. ‘Just follow the road through and you’ll see it. It’s set back, behind some trees.’
‘Set back’ was something of an understatement, Jake found. Turning between stone gateposts, they drove over a quarter of a mile before reaching the house itself. Banks of glossy rhododendrons reared at one side of the drive, while tall poplars, bare and skeletal in the half-light, lined the other.
Watersmeet looked solid and substantial. Like the cottages in the village, it was built of stone, with three floors and gables at every corner. There were tall windows on the ground floor, flanking a centre doorway, uncurtained at present and spilling golden light onto the gravelled forecourt.
‘Well, we’re here,’ said Cassandra unnecessarily, making no attempt to get out of the car. She gathered the sides of her fake fur jacket, wrapping it closely about her. ‘I wonder if they know we’re here?’
‘There’s one way to find out,’ remarked Jake, pushing open his door and swinging his long legs over the sill. He instantly felt the cold, and reached into the back to rescue his leather jacket. Then, pushing his arms into the sleeves, he got to his feet.
The front door opened as he buttoned the jacket, and a woman appeared, silhouetted by the glowing light from the hall behind her. She was tall and slim, that much he could see, with what appeared to be a rope of dark hair hanging over one shoulder.
Obviously not Cassandra’s mother, he realised, even as he heard Cassandra utter an impatient oath. The distant relative? he wondered. Surely she wasn’t old enough to be the housekeeper Cassandra had mentioned?
The protesting sound as the car door was thrust back on its hinges distracted him. Turning his head, he saw Cassandra pulling herself to her feet and, unlike the other woman’s, her face was clearly visible.
‘Eve,’ she said, unknowingly answering his question, her thin smile and tightly controlled features an indication that he hadn’t been mistaken about her hostility towards this woman. ‘Where’s my mother? I thought she’d have come to meet us.’
The girl—for he could see now that she was little more—came down the three shallow steps towards them. And as she moved into the light cast by the uncurtained windows Jake saw her pale olive-skinned features were much like his own. He guessed her eyes would be dark, too, though he couldn’t see them. She barely looked at him, however, her whole attention focussed on Cassandra, but he saw she had a warm, exotic kind of beauty, and he wondered why she was content to apparently spend her days looking after an old woman, distant relative or not.
Her mouth compressed for a moment before she spoke. Was it his imagination or was she as unenthusiastic to see Cassandra as she was to see her? ‘I’m afraid Ellie’s in bed,’ she said, without offering a greeting. ‘She had a fall yesterday evening and Dr McGuire thinks she might have broken one of the bones in her ankle.’
‘Might have?’ Cassandra fastened onto the words. ‘Why is there any doubt about it? Shouldn’t she have had her ankle X-rayed or something?’
‘She should,’ agreed Eve, and Jake noticed that she didn’t let Cassandra’s agitation get to her. ‘But she wanted to be here when you arrived, and if she’d had to go to the hospital in Newcastle…’ She shrugged. ‘I’ve arranged for an ambulance to take her in tomorrow—’
‘An ambulance!’ Cassandra snorted. ‘Why couldn’t you take her?’
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