Running From the Storm
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She was gazing drowsily into the fire when Zander’s hand softly stroked her cheek.
She smiled dreamily and turned her face up to his, giving a sigh of pleasure as his mouth brushed hers.
Her lips parted beneath the light pressure of his, and when he deepened the kiss her arms went around his neck. Her whole body melting, she kissed him back.
Then, suddenly scared by her own reaction to that kiss, she drew back, demanded raggedly, ‘Why did you do that? You had no right to kiss me. Don’t ever do it again. I hated it!’
As soon as the words were out she knew she’d made a bad mistake.
She sat still as any statue as his hands moved to cup her chin and tilt her head back, so that she found herself looking up into his handsome face, intriguingly inverted.
‘So tell me,’ he said silkily, ‘if my kiss is such anathema to you, why did you kiss me back?’
About the Author
LEE WILKINSON lives with her husband in a three-hundred-year-old stone cottage in a Derbyshire village, which most winters gets cut off by snow. They both enjoy travelling, and recently, joining forces with their daughter and son-in-law, spent a year going round the world ‘on a shoestring’ while their son looked after Kelly, their much loved German shepherd dog. Her hobbies are reading and gardening, and holding impromptu barbecues for her long-suffering family and friends.
Recent titles by the same author:
CLAIMING HIS WEDDING NIGHT
CAPTIVE IN THE MILLIONAIRE’S CASTLE THE BOSS’S FORBIDDEN SECRETARY MISTRESS AGAINST HER WILL
Did you know these are also available as eBooks? Visit www.millsandboon.co.uk
Running from the Storm
THE twelfth-century, lichen-covered church was filled with the fragrance of roses and lilies and the strains of Mendelssohn’s traditional and well-loved Here Comes The Bride.
Bright sunshine slanted through the stained-glass windows and, as the trees in the churchyard moved in the breeze, made changing kaleidoscope patterns across the backs of the polished pews and the grey stone slabs of the floor.
Nothing seemed quite real as Caris walked slowly up the aisle on the arm of her Uncle David. Her father, still angry with her, had refused to give her away.
A man, presumably the best man, was waiting by the chancel steps. He had his back to her and she couldn’t see his face.
There was no sign of her groom.
On both sides of the aisle the congregation turned their heads to look and smile at her as she passed in a froth of white tulle that, even then, she knew was all wrong for her.
She did her best to smile back, but her face felt set and stiff, as though it was made from wax, and she couldn’t.
As she reached the chancel steps she was aware that her bridegroom had joined her and was standing by her side.She didn’t look at him.
The elderly priest stepped forward, gathered the congregation’s attention with a glance and began with the traditional words, ‘Dearly beloved, we are gathered here together …’
While the wedding service solemnly progressed, Caris stared straight ahead and asked herself what she was doing here.
When they reached the point where she and her bridegroom needed to make their vows and she still refused to look at him, he took her upper arms and turned her to face him.
His green eyes were cool, commanding; his blond, well-shaped head had that slightly arrogant tilt she knew so well.
‘Say it, Caris.’
But she couldn’t. This was all wrong! She couldn’t, wouldn’t, marry Zander!
Dropping the bouquet of pale-pink roses she carried, she turned and, gathering up her full skirts, fled down the aisle between the rows of gaping guests, tears pouring down her cheeks.
She could hear him calling after her, ‘Don’t go, Caris … Don’t go …’
But she had to. No matter how much she loved him, she wouldn’t marry a man who didn’t love her, who could well suspect that he had been trapped into marriage.
Gasping for breath, sobs rising in her throat, she reached the gloomy inner porch of the church and flung open the heavy door.
Stumbling through into the outer porch, she was met by bright sunshine and a brisk breeze that blew the folds of the fine silken-net veil over her face.
The dreamer was endeavouring to tear off the suffocating veil when she awoke and, sitting bolt upright, found she was in her own bed, the uncertain light of a rainy, late-spring morning filtering in.
Even so, it was a few seconds before the panic subsided and the sight of her familiar room, with its pastel walls and pretty, flowered curtains, steadied her a little.
Somewhere nearby a car door slammed and she could hear the unmistakable sounds of the quiet, tree-lined street coming alive—Billy Leyton’s motorbike being kicked into life, the shush of tyres on the wet road, next door’s dog barking.
Right on cue, the bedside alarm-clock announced with a loud jingle that it was seven-thirty.
‘It was a dream,’ Caris said aloud as she brushed a hand over her wet cheeks and reached to switch off the alarm. ‘Just a dream.’
But a haunting, reoccurring dream that had disturbed her sleep and, like some earthquake, shaken her world, causing the ground beneath her feet to open into a gaping chasm.
Since coming to England almost three years ago, she had fought hard to push all thoughts of Zander and the past out of her mind, and over the last six months she had started to believe she was succeeding.
Despite the gloomy economic climate, the estate agency she ran kept her so busy that, immersed in work, she could sometimes go for days on end without thinking of him, days on end without picturing his face.
In consequence she had gradually gained some kind of shaky equilibrium. She was able, at last, to look back and put their relationship into perspective.
It hadn’t been all bad.
Though it had ended in tears and heartache, for a while she had enjoyed the kind of happiness that she had never known existed.
And hadn’t it been said repeatedly that it was better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?
Pleased that she was able to think that way, she had congratulated herself on her newly found emotional stability.
Now, all because of a dream, that had been swept away. She was once again off-balance and Zander was back in her head, his handsome, strong-boned face clear in her mind’s eye.
All at once she felt cold and bereft. Churned up and desolate. All the old bitterness back.
But she wouldn’t let a dream throw her into emotional chaos again. She was no longer the vulnerable, inexperienced, round peg in a square hole she had been when they had first met.
The painful three years she had just lived through had made a great deal of difference. Now, to all intents and purposes, she was a self-possessed, successful businesswoman in her own right.
If the assurance—the air of confidence, the polish—was only a veneer, these days she didn’t allow anyone to get close enough to even scratch the surface, so who was to know?
To outsiders, she was what she appeared to be.
Partly reassured by this restored vision of a calm, secure, well-ordered life, Caris made her way to the bathroom to brush her teeth and shower.
When she was dried and dressed for the day—in a grey, lightweight business suit, discreetly made-up, her long dark hair taken up into a knot, small gold studs in her ears—she went through to the kitchen to make herself some toast and coffee.
It was the Saturday morning of a bank holiday weekend, a busy, working Saturday as far as Caris was concerned, in spite of the weather.
After a cold, wet spring and almost a week of heavy and prolonged rain, everyone had been hoping that, with the prospect of a warm front moving in, the bank holiday would stay dry.
But it was raining yet again, and the latest forecast had been for continuing heavy rain and severe thunderstorms.
In spite of the inclement weather and the continuing recession, Carlton Lees, the estate agency Caris now owned, was doing quite well.
After the death of her aunt, finding it almost impossible to run the agency single-handed, she had taken on a local girl, a cheerful eighteen-year-old named Julie Dawson.
Julie, who did the secretarial work and held the fort while Caris was out with clients, had proved to be an absolute godsend.
Sensible and mature for her years, when sales had started to pick up she had been quite willing to come in early and work late whenever it had proved to be necessary.
Properties in and around the quiet market town of Spitewinter, though moving relatively slowly, were at least moving, and just at present there was no lack of interested clients.
This was due partly to the only other estate agent in town closing down, and partly to the fact that several of the more sought-after properties had recently come on to the market.
The most notable of these was a small manor house dating from the fifteen-hundreds. It had been owned by a famous writer who, at ninety-eight, had recently died and left it to a distant cousin.
The cousin, who lived in Australia, had no desire to keep it. Wanting a speedy sale so he could buy his own ranch, he had put Gracedieu onto the market, causing a buzz of excitement and interest in the property world.
An article about the sale—lavishly accompanied by pictures of the house, estate and the ‘sole agent, Miss Caris Belmont’—had appeared in one of the most prestigious magazines:
Gracedieu, a unique example of a small, sixteenth-century manor house, is an absolute gem. It stands in its own delightful estate which is complete with an old water-mill and a hamlet of picturesque, period cottages,especially built in the late seventeen-hundreds to house the estate workers …
This coverage had caused even more interest and, despite the astronomical asking price and the fact that it had been somewhat neglected by its previous owner, there were several potential buyers waiting to view the place.
The first of these had an appointment for that afternoon, and Caris knew her attention should be focused on getting a quick sale at the asking price.
But, though she tried her hardest to banish all thoughts of Zander, she found it impossible to get him out of her mind.
The Old Vicarage, bequeathed to her by her aunt, along with what had then been a struggling estate agency, all at once seemed too big and too empty, with nothing but regrets and ghosts from the past to keep her company.
Impatient with herself, anxious to get away, she jumped to her feet, grabbed her bag and mac and headed for the door.
Beaded with raindrops, her modest car was waiting on the driveway, and in a moment or two she had left the house behind and, with wipers clicking rhythmically, was heading into town.
Passing the library, she joined the light stream of traffic flowing through Spitewinter’s High Street and across the old humpbacked bridge that spanned the willow-hung river, brown and swollen now because of all the recent rain.
When she reached Carlton Lees, which was at the end of a row of Dickensian shops situated in a wide, cobbled street by the river, she parked in her usual spot beneath the trees and ran to let herself in, her mac around her shoulders.
Julie hadn’t yet arrived, and everywhere was quiet. After attending to the messages and emails, Caris found her client for that morning had been forced to cancel and had requested an appointment for the following week.
That dealt with, she tried to concentrate on the routine work, but tenuous threads of the dream still clung, sticky and inescapable as a spider’s web, and in spite of all her efforts she found her thoughts going back three years.
Back to when her home had been in Upstate New York, and she had joined Belmont and Belmont, her father’s well-respected law firm in Albany. It was there she had first met and fallen in love with Zander …
She had been sitting behind her desk one Friday evening, checking some legal documents before she went home, when her father had looked in to wish her a good vacation. ‘You’ve earned it,’ he’d added.
Austin Belmont, a clever, not to say brilliant lawyer, was a cold, unapproachable, irascible man who rarely handed out praise.
For as long as she could remember she had done her best to please him—with scant success. Now, his spoken approval left her open-mouthed and gasping.
Some half an hour later, she had just filed away the documents she’d been working on, and was about to go home, when the internal phone had rung.
‘I’m sorry to bother you, Miss Belmont …’ The firm’s usually unflappable secretary sounded a little flustered. ‘But I have a Mr Devereux here. I wonder if you could possibly see him?’
Devereux … The name rang a bell, though Caris couldn’t immediately think why. ‘Does he have an appointment?’
‘He was supposed to see Mr David, but I’m afraid there’s been a mix-up. We have the wrong date down, and both Mr Austin and Mr David have already left. I was on the point of leaving myself.’
Knowing Kate Bradshaw would need to pick up her daughter from the child minder, Caris said quickly, ‘That’s quite all right, Kate. If you would like to show Mr Devereux through before you go, I’ll do what I can to help him.’
She heard a slight but unmistakable sigh of relief before the receiver was replaced, and guessed that their disgruntled client had been giving the poor woman a hard time.
A moment later there was a tap at the door and he was ushered in.
For some reason Caris had pictured him as being short and portly with grey, thinning hair and jowls, wearing a stuffy suit and tie.
The man who strode in, however, was attractive and self-assured, and carried with him an aura of power and authority.
He was somewhere in the region of twenty-seven or twenty-eight, she judged, blond and broad-shouldered, well over six-feet tall, dressed in smart casuals and looking anything but stuffy.
Beneath the thick, sun-streaked hair his handsome face was lean and tanned, with strong, clear-cut features and long, heavy-lidded eyes beneath curved brows several shades darker than his hair. His mouth, at first glance austere, held a hint of passion that sent shivers running up and down her spine.
Rising to her feet, she held out her hand. ‘I’m Caris Belmont, Mr Devereux.’
She was vexed to find that, instead of being composed and businesslike, her voice sounded very slightly breathless.
Taking her hand, he said formally, ‘Miss Belmont.’
As those long fingers wrapped around hers she felt an electric tingle run up her arm, and thought a trifle dazedly that she had read about that kind of thing happening in romantic novels but had never quite believed it.
Pulling herself together, she said, ‘I gather there’s been some kind of mix-up over the date of your appointment?’
His green eyes cool, he said a shade brusquely, ‘So I understand. Though I must point out that the mistake wasn’t mine.’
‘No. I do apologize.’
If she had hoped for some softening in his attitude, she was disappointed. Clearly he wasn’t the kind of man who took kindly to being brought on a wild goose chase.
She resumed her seat and, indicating the black leather armchair in front of her desk, asked politely, ‘Won’t you sit down?’
When he made no move to follow her suggestion, she added, ‘I may be able to help you.’
He studied her with great deliberation for a moment or two before raising a well-marked brow and asking, ‘In what way?’
Annoyed by the cool mockery, she said stiffly, ‘I am a qualified lawyer.’
His manner holding a faint but unmistakable touch of incredulity, he drawled, ‘Really?’
Her soft mouth tightened. How could she ever have thought him attractive? she wondered furiously. The man was so arrogant!
‘Yes, really,’ she said frigidly.
‘How old are you, Miss Belmont? Let’s see, you must be all of twenty-two—twenty-three at the most?’
Caris bit her lip. He had expected to see one of the senior partners and clearly he thought he was being fobbed off with an inexperienced junior.
Which in a way he was, honesty made her admit.
‘I can’t see that my age matters.’
‘Then suppose I phrase that question differently. Have you had any actual experience?’
‘Certainly … Lots,’ she added recklessly.
‘Lots? My! You must be older than you look. So exactly how long have you been with the practice?’
‘Almost a year.’ She tried not to sound defensive.
She gritted her teeth.
‘And what exactly is your position here?’
She was pleased to be able to say, ‘I’ve just been offered a partnership.’
The gleam in his eye told her that he knew quite well she had deliberately left out the word ‘junior’.
‘Tell me, Miss Belmont, what is the relationship between yourself and the senior partners? As the surname is the same, I take it there is one?’
Seething inwardly, because she already knew what he was getting at, she curbed her temper as best she could and said briefly, ‘Austin Belmont is my father. David Belmont is my uncle.’
‘So it’s what you might call a nice, cosy little set-up.’
Her anger boiled over and she threw caution to the winds. ‘Mr Devereux,’ she said, her voice icy, ‘I accept that you have a genuine reason for complaint, but I find your attitude insufferable.’
‘And I find yours, shall we say, somewhat naive for a qualified lawyer.’
‘In that case perhaps you would prefer to wait and talk to one of the senior partners?’
‘I understood from your secretary that there is no one else available before Monday.’
‘I’m afraid there isn’t,’ she confirmed shortly.
He studied her heart-shaped face. She was quite lovely, he thought, with flawless skin, a short, straight nose, generous mouth, dark silky hair taken up into a neat coil, and almond eyes beneath winged brows the deep, purple-blue of pansies.
Eyes that at the moment were sparkling with anger.
It had been his intention to leave—his company’s new lawyer would be taking up her post in ten days’ time, and at a pinch his business could wait—but all at once he changed his mind.
This woman interested and intrigued him. As well as beauty, she had brains, character and spirit.
She also had a temper.
Deciding to test that temper a little more, he said, ‘I see.’ Glancing at her from beneath long, gold-tipped lashes, he added, ‘Well, if you think you can cope …?’
Forcing back an angry response, she said, ‘I can cope.’
‘Then the answer to your question is, no.’
She took a deep, steadying breath, before saying coolly, ‘Well, if you intend to stay, Mr Devereux, perhaps you’d like to sit down?’
Ignoring the chair, he came and sat on the edge of the desk, turning slightly to face her.
Suddenly he was much too close and instinctively she flinched away.
It was only the slightest movement, but he noticed it and looked amused.
This time she kept her cool, but her hand itched to throw something at him.
And he knew it, damn him. In fact the gleam in his eye gave her the distinct impression that he was enjoying needling her.
Before she could make any attempt to regain the initiative, he asked with smooth effrontery, ‘So after only a year, and young as you are, you’ve been offered a partnership? You must be exceptionally clever and talented.’
A flush rising in her cheeks, she said tightly, ‘I don’t claim to be either of those, Mr Devereux. But I graduated from one of the top English law schools with honours, and while I’ve been with the firm I’ve kept studying and learning.’
Her voice as dispassionate as she could make it, she went on, ‘If you knew my father and my uncle at all well, you would know that they have no time for nepotism. Any advancement in this firm has to be earned by hard work and competence.’
Yes, she certainly had a temper, but she knew how to control it, he thought admiringly.
Deciding to change tactics, he slid off the desk and turned to face her in one fluid movement.
When green eyes met deep blue, he said simply, ‘I apologize. While I believe I have every right to be angry, I shouldn’t have vented it on you.’
She wanted to say, no you shouldn’t. Instead, the wind taken out of her sails, she said inanely, ‘That’s all right.’
He gave her a smile that lit his eyes, put creases beside his mouth and sent his already powerful sex appeal soaring. ‘And you’re not still angry with me?’
That smile robbed her of breath and, unable to speak, she shook her head.
‘Yes, I’m positive,’ she managed.
His gaze dropped to her hands which were long and slim with neat oval nails, mercifully free from the dark-coloured varnishes he so disliked.
Pleased that she appeared to be neither married nor engaged, he asked, ‘Are you doing anything tonight?’
Taken by surprise, she echoed, ‘Doing anything?’
‘I mean do you have a date with a boyfriend, or a live-in lover waiting impatiently at home for you?’
‘Why not? A beautiful woman like you.’
‘For the last five years I’ve been working so hard I’ve had no time for boyfriends or live-in lovers,’ she told him pointedly.
Suddenly human and likeable, he pulled a droll face. ‘I suppose I asked for that.’
‘You did, rather.’
‘Well, now you’ve cut me down to size, how about having dinner with me tonight?’
Feeling a strange pang of regret, she said, ‘I’m afraid I can’t. I’m driving down to Catona tonight to start my vacation.’
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