Private Lives

Carole Mortimer is one of Mills & Boon’s best loved Modern Romance authors. With nearly 200 books published and a career spanning 35 years, Mills & Boon are thrilled to present her complete works available to download for the very first time! Rediscover old favourites – and find new ones! – in this fabulous collection…A dangerous temptation…Fin McKenzie deals expertly with any problems that arise in her domestic help agency—finding a naked man fast asleep in a bed is no exception! But this beautifully sculpted man has a rugged, gorgeous, and rather familiar face…Fin knows immediately that she must keep Jake Danvers away from her family. He is a reminder of a past nightmare of pain and tragedy. But that doesn't stop Fin from giving in to the dangerous temptation of her potent attraction to Jake!

Private Lives

Private Lives Carole Mortimer


Table of Contents














   ‘THERE’S a man in the bed!’

   It was too early in the morning to be listening to fairy-tales!

   ‘Fin, there’s a man in the bed!’ The voice on the other end of the telephone line was more urgent this time.

   And it was far too early in the morning for obscene telephone calls!

   ‘Fin, I know you’re there, listening to this, because that stupid machine hasn’t come on, so for God’s sake answer me!’ The voice was no more than a hoarse whisper down the line, but nevertheless the panic in the tone seemed to be increasing. ‘Do you think I should call the police?’

   Fin had been listening to the tape of received messages that ‘that stupid machine’ had made since she closed the office for business the evening before, but at the mention of the police she turned her full attention back to the telephone conversation in hand. ‘Ella, is that you?’ she frowned.

   ‘Of course it’s—–’ The other woman broke off abruptly, drawing in deep controlling breaths as she realised she had raised her voice in her agitation. ‘Of course it’s me!’ she confirmed almost desperately, her voice low again. ‘I’m at Gail’s cottage, doing my usual check, and there’s a man in the bed!’

   Fin couldn’t help smiling at this repetition of those words. ‘Then lock the door behind you and leave them to it!’ she advised with indulgence. She had seen and done a lot of unusual things the last two years since she had set up in business, walked unwittingly into all sorts of embarrassing situations, and finding one of their clients in bed with her boyfriend was the least of them!

   She hadn’t been sure her idea would work out when she had first bought a decrepit old van, painted it bright colours, daubed a catchy name on the side, and advertised herself as a sort of ‘Girl Friday’, no job too big or too small, too difficult or too trivial. She wasn’t so sure that that had ever been strictly true, but she had always done her best to find someone else who could do the job if it really was out of her sphere to do it properly.

   During the first year she had done everything required herself, from walking a Siamese cat on a lead for its owner because he felt too ridiculous doing it himself, to collecting children from school for busy parents, to keeping watch over people’s homes for them while they were away, as they were doing at Rose Cottage now for Gail Moore.

   The business had expanded in the last year, so that now she had two part-time assistants working for her too: a school-leaver who didn’t want to go into a routine office job—this work could never be called routine!—and Ella, a woman in her fifties, bored with being a housewife with her husband out at work all day and her children all having left home by now, either because they had married, or gone on to further education that required them to live near their university.

   Ella’s first job of this morning had been to check on Rose Cottage while Gail was away in London, working, during the week. Obviously Gail had come back early—with a friend!—and forgotten to let them know not to call in this morning. Poor Ella sounded devastated!

   ‘You don’t understand, Fin,’ Ella came back exasperatedly now. ‘Gail isn’t here; he’s alone in the bed!’

   That did put a slightly different light on things. ‘Have you checked—of course you have,’ she answered her own question as she realised she was only adding fuel to the fire. ‘Maybe Gail invited a friend down to use the cottage while she’s away and just forgot to mention it to us.’ She frowned, chewing on the end of the pencil she had picked up when the call first came through, having expected it to be someone requesting her home-help services rather than this! ‘Why don’t you ask him?’ she suggested gently, wondering why Ella hadn’t already done that. She soon got her answer!

   ‘Because he’s drunk!’ her employee announced disgustedly. ‘The bedroom stinks of whisky! And there’s an empty bottle and glass lying beside the bed,’ she added triumphantly, as if to show she hadn’t drawn her conclusion as to the man’s condition without due cause.

   Even so, calling in the police did seem a little extreme in the circumstances. If this man actually was a friend of Gail’s the other woman wasn’t going to be too pleased if they had him arrested!

   ‘Look, I—–’ Fin broke off with a dismayed groan as one of the messages she had been half-heartedly listening to hit her like a bombshell; this was all she needed! ‘I’ll be out to the cottage myself as soon as I can get there, Ella,’ she told the other woman distractedly.

   ‘I can’t just go away and leave him here,’ the older woman protested, scandalised at the very idea.

   ‘No, I—of course not,’ Fin accepted, hoping that she had misheard the message on the tape. ‘Go outside, Ella, and—and wait on your bicycle,’ she advised vaguely before ringing off, removing her hand from the receiver as if it were red-hot as she realised that she had just literally told the poor woman to ‘get on her bike’! What must poor Ella think of her?

   It had been that particular message left on the answer-machine that had so unnerved her, of course, and she frowned as she rewound it, ready to play it back again, giving it her full attention now.

   ‘I tried your home number earlier and there was no reply,’ came the slightly reproving voice of the secretary of the amateur dramatics group Fin belonged to. ‘We have a catastrophe on our hands, darling,’ Delia continued heavily. ‘Gerald Dunn has thrown a wobbler and withdrawn from the production as our director! It’s just too bad of him at this stage of the proceedings,’ she complained waspishly. ‘But it means we shall have to call an emergency committee meeting Wednesday night—that’s tomorrow—to try and pull the thing back together. As a committee member, you have to be there, Fin.’ Again that autocratic edge entered the other woman’s voice. ‘Eight o’clock sharp, at my house.’ The message ended abruptly.

   There had been no mistake; that was exactly what Fin had thought the message contained the first time she heard it!

   There had been no one at home to take the call the previous evening because she had been out with Derek, and her mother and stepfather had been invited out to a dinner party.

   And Derek wasn’t going to be at all pleased about the emergency committee meeting being called for tonight. Fin had been cast in the group’s latest play, and tonight had supposedly been one of the precious nights off from rehearsal for her, and Derek had intended taking her out for a meal. It would be no good suggesting they still go out for the meal after the meeting either, because if Gerald really had withdrawn from the play then they could be talking for hours about finding his replacement.

   Just over three weeks before the play was due to go on at the local theatre and they had no director!

   Fin had known Gerald wasn’t happy the last few weeks, having recently changed his job and feeling the strain of the uncertainty of that with a wife and baby at home to support; the added pressure of the responsibility for directing the play was obviously too much for him. And who could really blame him? Actually, they should all respect him for the fact that he wasn’t too proud to stand up and say he had made a mistake in taking on the job in the first place! It didn’t put the rest of the cast in a very good position, but at least it was honest.

   Fin had begun to wish herself that she had never got involved with the production—Private Lives, one of Noël Coward’s highly entertaining dry-wit comedies; but, as Derek had complained repeatedly the last few weeks when she had been required to spend at least two, sometimes three evenings a week at the local village hall, rehearsing, a private life was something they didn’t have at the moment, and wouldn’t have until the play was over. She hardly dared tell him that as from next week those rehearsal nights increased to five nights a week and Sunday afternoons!

   But at the moment Fin had something much more pressing to deal with than either Derek or the difficulties with the play; poor Ella was still ‘on her bike’ outside Rose Cottage, with a drunken stranger prostrate on the bed upstairs!

   She switched on the answer-machine again and hurried out to the van parked outside, a new van now that business was so successful, much more reliable for getting around in, the old one having had a tendency to break down at the most inconvenient moments. Not that she managed to get out on jobs herself as much as she used to, finding that she was spending more and more time at the tiny office she rented in town, doing tedious paperwork that Derek, as her accountant, assured her had to be done for the efficient running of the business. Although she still had the dubious honour of walking the Siamese cat daily, its owner refusing to trust anyone else with it!

   And so the unexpected trip out this morning, when she had thought it would be yet another two or three hours stuck behind her desk, was something of a treat for her. As long as she didn’t have to deal with a violent drunk once she got to the cottage!

   Ella sat on the grey stone wall outside the picturesque cottage in this little Bedfordshire hamlet, although her bicycle was propped up against the wall beside her, just in case of a quick getaway being necessary, Fin guessed wryly.

   The cottage looked peaceful enough from the outside; in fact, it looked lovely in the early-June sunshine, with a lot of the flowers in the garden in bloom, a wild rose trailing above the arched doorway and pretty pink roses blooming there; Fin couldn’t really take seriously the possibility that at any minute some drunken homicidal maniac was going to come lurching out of that green-painted door and attack them.

   Ella obviously found it a little hard to believe too with hindsight, looking shamefaced as she climbed down off the wall to join Fin as she got out of the van. ‘Maybe I should just have woken him and—–’

   ‘No, no, you did the right thing in calling me,’ Fin told her with a reassuring smile, her short red curls gleaming in the sunshine, a sprinkling of freckles across her nose and cheeks, as she squinted up at the cottage.

   She stood barely five feet in height even in her white track-shoes, was as slender as a teenager, and certainly didn’t look the twenty-one years she was, with her face bare of make-up and dressed in close-fitting jeans and a white T-shirt with a disparaging remark about mornings printed on its front.

   ‘Don’t worry,’ she laughed softly as she saw Ella’s look of uncertainty at her ability to deal with the ‘intruder’ with the disadvantage of her diminutive size, ‘I’ve taken a course in self-defence.’ It had been necessary when she’d first set up in business; some men had been mistaken about the type of ‘services’ she provided then, and hadn’t been prepared to take no for an answer! That didn’t happen very often nowadays, thank goodness, most people in the area knowing exactly what she was prepared to do and what she wasn’t. And that was one of the things she wasn’t!

   ‘I’ll come with you anyway,’ the older woman offered with a frown.

   ‘It really isn’t necessary,’ Fin told her with a dismissive laugh, but making no further protests when she saw that Ella was determined to accompany her, trailing behind Fin as she entered the low-beamed kitchen.

   Everything looked as neat and tidy as usual in here, no porridge that was ‘too hot, too cold, or just right’, no chair that was ‘too hard, too soft, or just right’ either, and so Fin knew she had been right about the fairy-tales. Although she didn’t think Ella would appreciate her humour over the matter just now!

   And Ella had been right about one thing: there was a man in the bed, Fin discovered when she looked in the nearest of the two bedrooms at the top of the stairs. It was Gail’s own bedroom, but there was indeed only one person in the bed. He was spread-eagled across the middle of it, and looked as if he had been so for some time, by the disarray of the duvet.

   The room was in shadow, with the curtains drawn across the window, shutting out the bright sunshine, the man in the bed no more than an untidy lump beneath the duvet. A fact, Fin acknowledged with a frown, that must have been very disturbing for Ella when she had first arrived.

   The man was big and tall—Fin could tell that much from the amount of space he took up in the bed—and his hair was thick and dark as it lay against the cream-coloured pillow-case. And his breathing was low and even, not quite a snore, as he slept. An alcohol-induced sleep, from the smell of whisky in the room and that empty bottle and glass on the floor, Fin guessed too.

   Their entrance to the cottage hadn’t disturbed him in the least. And he was equally unaffected by their presence in the bedroom!

   If they had had any idea of who he was there might have been something amusing about the situation. Might …

   Well, whoever he was, at the very least they were perfectly within their rights to demand an explanation from him for his presence here, Fin decided, crossing the room to pull back the curtains with a determined movement of her hands, sunlight instantly flooding the cheerfully furnished bedroom with its cream and red colour-scheme.

   The only reaction from the man in the bed was a disgruntled snort before he rolled over and buried his face in the pillow to shut out the intrusive light.

   Fin ruefully raised her brows in Ella’s direction as the other woman still stood in the doorway. ‘That achieved a lot,’ she murmured self-disgustedly, moving to shake the man as he lay burrowed beneath the duvet now. “Wake up,’ she instructed briskly, hoping the tone of her voice would penetrate, at least. When it didn’t she shook him again. ‘We would like to talk to you.’ That ‘we’ was put in just in case he could hear her, the two women at least protection for one another. She hoped!

   Another grunt was her only reply, the duvet pulled more firmly about his shoulders.

   It was this defensive action that spurred Fin on to her next move. ‘Obviously more drastic measures are needed here!’ she told Ella wryly, reaching out for the bedclothes.

   Ella’s eyes widened in protest as Fin’s meaning became clear to her. ‘Fin, I don’t think—– Oh, dear,’ she groaned weakly as Fin wrenched the duvet away to reveal that the man who lay beneath it was completely naked! ‘Oh, dear. Oh, dear, oh, dear,’ Ella gasped breathlessly.

   Oh, dear, oh, dear, oh, dear, indeed!

   The man was lying face-down on the bed, but nevertheless the naked width of his shoulders, tapered waist, perfectly moulded buttocks, and long muscular legs, all covered with fine dark hair, showed that he was a fine specimen of mature manhood.

   And still he didn’t move!

   ‘Wow,’ Ella breathed softly into the complete silence that had fallen over the bedroom in the last few seconds.

   Fin looked at Ella. Ella looked back at Fin. And suddenly they were grinning at each other like bemused adolescents.

   But the grins suddenly turned to alarm as the man in the bed finally began to move, the sudden chill perhaps, the bright sunshine, obviously now having made an impression on his numbed senses. And Fin heard Ella catch her breath anew as the man rolled over on to his back.

   He was beautifully, magnificently male, looked like Michelangelo’s ‘David’. And yet Fin’s own gasp was for quite another reason than his male beauty.

   Not him! Any other man in the world but him!

   It couldn’t be him, not here. This was sleepy Bedfordshire, miles away from London. Although, a mocking little voice inside her head reminded, the trains in this area now ran directly into London, which was the reason Gail had bought the cottage here in the first place!

   But it wasn’t him. It couldn’t be. The longer Fin stared at that harshly hewn face, the more she convinced herself that she had to be mistaken, that there was merely a facial resemblance.

   His hair was thick and dark but streaked with grey, over-long, almost down to his shoulders. Long eyelashes rested on cheekbones that looked as if they were carved out of granite, the nose long and straight, perfectly sculptured lips, slightly parted as the deepness of the breathing increased now that he was lying flat on his back, the angle of his chin thrusting and aggressive even in sleep.

   He didn’t look quite the same, Fin decided, the hair more unkempt than she remembered, and this man looked older—of course he looked older, she rebuked herself impatiently; if this was the man she thought it could be then he was years older, must be in his late thirties now. But it couldn’t be him, she tried to convince herself again, at the same time continuing to look down at him with that same initial fascinated horror.

   ‘This doesn’t seem quite—fair,’ Ella announced firmly, moving to cover the man’s nakedness with the duvet, obviously misunderstanding Fin’s interest for one of voyeurism!

   When it wasn’t this man’s nakedness—magnificent as that might be!—that held her enthralled, but the terrible sense of familiarity that just looking at this man gave her …!

   But before she could make any attempt to defend her interest to the other woman the man in the bed finally began to stir, Ella stepping back from the bed almost guiltily now, leaving Fin in his direct line of vision as the man’s lids were raised above the most incredible pair of aquamarine-coloured eyes she had ever seen! Thick dark lashes added to the incredible depths of that colour, a dark ring of blue encircling the iris to add to their uniqueness, the gaze so piercing, even on waking, that Fin felt pinned to the spot. She was the one who had a perfect right to be here, and yet she felt like fleeing—at the same time knowing she couldn’t have moved if she had tried!

   He blinked up at her for several seconds, frowning darkly, obviously aware, somewhere at the back of his mind, that she shouldn’t be here, that she definitely hadn’t been when he’d fallen asleep. He didn’t seem to have seen poor Ella at all as she stood at the back of the room near the door, concentrating on Fin with effort. ‘Who are you?’ he asked gruffly, as if just the effort of talking hurt the dryness of his throat.

   Now they were back to the original fairy-tale, only this one didn’t seem to be running true to form at all; wasn’t she supposed to be the one asking the questions? And there was such a lot she would have liked to ask …! ‘I’m one of the Little People—–’

   ‘Oh, my God …!’ He gave a pained groan, his pallor increasing, his cheeks looking grey now. ‘Oh, God!’ he groaned again, his eyes wide now as he stared at her disbelievingly. ‘I don’t believe this is happening to me!’ He shook his head, looking up towards the ceiling, his gaze returning reluctantly to Fin, heaving a shuddering sigh as he saw she was still there. ‘Most people imagine they see pink elephants; I have to see “little people”!’ His gaze turned sharply towards the door as Ella gave a snort of laughter she tried to control but couldn’t quite manage to. ‘Another one!’ he gasped his dismay, his skin seeming to take on a green sheen now.

   Fin had realised the mistaken assumption he had made almost as soon as Ella had, and had trouble restraining her own laughter; this man really thought she was a hallucination brought on as the result of too much alcohol. One of the ‘little people’, indeed. She might not have explained herself very well, but really …! ‘You don’t understand—–’

   ‘Of course I do,’ he nodded firmly. ‘You’re one of the “little people”. Are you an elf, or a pixie, or—–?’

   ‘I run a business called Little People!’ she snapped tautly, bright spots of colour in her cheeks, her freckles standing out against the livid colour. She might be small and delicately made, but she wasn’t in the least fairy-like, and her very delicacy hid a strong-willed determination.

   ‘Hm?’ The man still looked totally befuddled by the conversation, running a hand through the length of his hair.

   ‘Little People,’ Fin repeated through gritted teeth. ‘It’s the name of the business I run. It’s on my van outside if you would care to look,’ she added exasperatedly as he still didn’t look convinced by this explanation.

   ‘It is?’ He began to look hopeful that he wasn’t going insane after all, although the suspicion still remained in his expression. ‘Perhaps I had better—– Ah.’ He halted in the act of getting out of the bed as he looked down and obviously realised that he didn’t have any clothes on.

   Fin spied a pair of denims on the bedroom floor that had obviously been discarded there some time the night before, studiously avoiding looking for any other clothing he might have thrown down so carelessly as she hurried over to pick the denims up for him. ‘Here.’ She held them out towards him.

   He took them slowly, frowning as his suspicion deepened. ‘How did you know …?’

   She kept her gaze determinedly turned away from Ella as she heard the other woman give a choked cough to hide her squeak of guilt. ‘Logic,’ Fin dismissed with a briskness that defied questioning, turning away discreetly as he pulled the denims up his long legs, standing up to fasten them before padding over to the tiny window across the room that looked out over the driveway.

   God, he was tall, well over six feet, powerfully built, moving with all the feline grace of a caged tiger.

   Strange she should liken him to that particular animal, Fin realised with a startled jolt; the tiger had always been the animal she considered the most beautiful!

   His hair was so thick and dark now that she could see it properly, the grey among the darkness more noticeable now that it curled down on to his shoulders. His face seemed harsher in profile as he looked out of the window, those incredible-coloured eyes narrowed, his mouth a thin slash of displeasure between clenched jaws.

   Some of that displeasure was due, Fin would hazard a guess, to the fact that he was now fully aware of the fool he had made of himself minutes ago, concerning her identity, some of it was due to the colossal hangover he probably now realised he had—and the rest was due to a hard cynicism that certainly hadn’t materialised overnight!

   One of his hands still rested on the window-sill when he turned back into the room, challenge in every line of his hard body, cold assessment in his eyes as his gaze raked over her without mercy. ‘Just who are you?’ he repeated his initial question, this time with impatience.

   Fin, still squirming from the impact of that harsh scrutiny, felt as if he had looked at her, from the top of her bright red curls, her heart-shaped face with its liberal smattering of freckles, down over the slenderness of her body in the T-shirt and denims—and found her wanting. God, she didn’t just feel as if he had, she knew damn well that he had!

   She straightened, drawing herself up to her full five feet in height, moving forward slightly to hold out her hand in formal greeting. ‘Fin McKenzie,’ she introduced herself. ‘And this is Ella Morgan, one of my assistants.’

   He made no effort to take the proffered hand, his gaze moving sharply to Ella as she stepped reluctantly away from the doorway. ‘And what does she assist you at?’ he drawled disparagingly, making no effort to give her his own name either.

   He thought they were the intruders! No, he didn’t; Fin immediately rejected that idea: intruders would hardly have gone to the trouble of waking him up in the way they had. He was deliberately trying to make them feel uncomfortable because of his own earlier embarrassment.

   Well, Fin, for one, didn’t feel in the least at a disadvantage. She knew she had a perfect right to be here, and she wanted an explanation as to why he was here. ‘I believe we are the ones who should be asking the questions, Mr …?’ She paused pointedly, but once again he chose to ignore her prompting to give his own name, meeting her gaze coolly, one brow raised in calm challenge. ‘We’re contracted to keep watch on the cottage whenever Gail is—– She didn’t tell us you were going to be here,’ Fin added stubbornly, refusing to be the one put in a position of explaining herself.

   He shrugged unconcernedly, crossing his arms in front of his bared chest, a plain gold watch on the wrist of his left arm. ‘That’s OK; she didn’t tell me about you either!’

   Impasse, Fin realised frustratedly. What should she do now? As far as she was aware, the man had done nothing but get drunk, very drunk, and fall asleep in Gail’s bed—without Gail. Naked. Fin mustn’t forget that, couldn’t forget it. Even now, with the denims resting low down on his hips to cover most of his nakedness, the tanned hardness of his chest caused her pulse to give a leap!

   And there was still that disturbing feeling she had that she knew this man. While he was standing up like this, his very size dominating the small confines of the room, that feeling was all the stronger. But she had been so young that she couldn’t remember exactly …

   ‘I’ll get in touch with Gail and have her call you,’ he added with arrogant dismissal.

   You may go now, Miss Whatever-your-name-is, Fin realised resentfully. He certainly had the damned arrogance of—– ‘I shall be telephoning her myself, Mr …?’ Once again she paused, and this time the determination in her face brooked no argument; she would at least know his name before she agreed to leave.

   ‘Danvers,’ he came back smoothly. Too smoothly? Had he taken those few minutes’ respite to give himself time to think of another identity for himself that would protect his anonymity …? ‘Jac—Jake Danvers,’ he added more confidently.

   But Fin had noted the slip, couldn’t help wondering if it really was significant or if she was just imagining things where there was nothing. But there had been that ‘Jac’, and, although the name was different, the initials were the same, J.D. …

   She nodded abruptly, frowning, deeply disturbed. ‘We’ll leave you in peace now, Mr Danvers.’ She gave a strained smile. ‘If you should need to contact us, we’re in the book,’ she offered with a politeness she was far from feeling. But if he really was a friend of Gail’s …

   ‘Under Little People,’ he acknowledged drily, the humour evident in his voice not reaching the coldness of his eyes.

   ‘Under Little People,’ she confirmed tersely, deciding then and there that she would try to contact Gail herself as soon as she got back to the office. The sooner the puzzle over this man’s identity was cleared up, the better it would be for everyone.

   Not least Fin’s mother …

   ‘… JUST thought I should let you know, so that there’s no confusion, that my uncle will be staying at the cottage for a while,’ the recorded message told Fin dismissively. ‘He’s pretty capable of looking after himself, so I don’t think you’ll need to go to the cottage again until after he’s left,’ Gail added hastily. ‘But if you could just keep a distant eye on him …?’

   Fin switched the machine off as she realised that was the end of the message. The ‘confusion’ had already occurred. And Fin would hazard a guess on the reason Gail had asked for a ‘distant’ eye to be kept on Jake Danvers—that she was well aware of the fact that he wouldn’t welcome any intrusion into his privacy!

   She had tried to contact the other woman, once she’d got back to the office, at the telephone number she had for her in London, but there had been no reply. Gail was an actress, had been playing in a supporting role in one of London’s longest-running plays for the last nine months, and so at the moment she found it easier to stay in town during the week, and usually only managed to get down to the cottage on a Sunday overnight, hence her need for Fin to keep an eye on the cottage while she was away. Fin could only assume that the other woman was either sleeping at the moment after a late night at the theatre the night before, or else she was actually out; either way, Fin hadn’t actually been able to talk to her personally yet. What she had found, when she’d decided to leave calling Gail again until later in the day and got down to listening to the rest of her overnight messages, was that one of them was from Gail herself!

   It didn’t bother Fin that the check on the cottage was no longer necessary at the moment; they had always had a flexible arrangement on that—no doubt when Gail was ‘resting’ once again she would move back to the cottage permanently anyway. But uncle? It wasn’t exactly that Fin doubted the other woman’s word, it was just—well, Gail was a tall, leggy blonde with an effervescent personality, none of which, except perhaps the height, bore any resemblance to the taciturn man Fin had encountered at the cottage earlier. The facial characteristics of the two were dissimilar too, Gail’s eyes a deep, deep brown, her complexion fair, her mouth wide and smiling. But if Jake Danvers wasn’t really Gail’s uncle, then what was he? What, indeed …?

   It was really none of her business, Fin supposed ruefully; Gail was twenty-five, old enough to know exactly what she was doing. And take the consequences for it!

   Nevertheless, Fin’s own curiosity about Jake Danvers continued, and she went out of her way later in the morning to drive past the cottage, just to see if she might not get another glimpse of him. And reassure herself of how ridiculous her thoughts concerning his identity this morning had been, she tried to convince herself.

   She could see a movement out in the garden at the front of the cottage, hesitating only fractionally before turning the van down the gravel driveway, telling herself she was only making the call to let Jake Danvers know she had heard from Gail, and knew who he was now. It was a valid enough reason, but it wasn’t the true one …

   It was him out in the garden; he was pulling up weeds from the flowerbeds, didn’t acknowledge the arrival of the van, or her footsteps on the gravel as she crossed to stand beside the wall, looking over at him, by even so much as a brief break in his concentration on the back-bending work.

   He looked less strained than he had this morning—less hung-over, perhaps!—that grey tinge gone from his cheeks now, and instead sweat glistened on his face and body from his exertions, his skin seeming to have gone an even deeper brown just in this short time he must have spent out in the sun today, his hair falling untidily to his shoulders.

   Fin’s pulse skipped a beat just from her looking at the sheer animal magnetism of him, colour burning in her cheeks as he turned suddenly and caught her watching him with avid interest.

   He straightened abruptly, eyes narrowing almost accusingly, almost as if he really hadn’t been aware of her presence there, his attention so intent on something else. But surely not on weeding the garden, Fin doubted sceptically.

   ‘You again!’ he rasped harshly, looking down his arrogantly long nose at her. ‘Maybe you aren’t really one of the “little people”, but you certainly can creep around like one!’ he told her disgustedly.

   The name of her business had been a talking point from when she had first started out, but one of her advertising slogans at the time had been that ‘she came in, did the job, and left again, without bother or hindrance to her client. Almost as if she had never been there at all’. Just the way the ‘little people’ were reputed to do. There had been the added factor of her name, but she had always skimmed over that particular part of it.

   ‘I didn’t try to hide the fact that I was here,’ she defended a little indignantly. ‘I came down the driveway in the van.’ She pointed to the yellow-coloured vehicle parked a short distance away.

   His mouth twisted, and he almost seemed to wince at the brightness of the colour. ‘You would certainly have thought I would have noticed that!’ He gave a scornful shake of his head. ‘But I was deep in thought,’ he dismissed impatiently. ‘I didn’t hear you arrive at all; you could have given me a heart attack, creeping about like that,’ he accused hardly.

   Surely it wasn’t her fault that he hadn’t heard her! And she knew what she would like to give him!

   Oh, goodness, this second visit, meant to be a conciliatory one, was turning out to be as much of a mistake as the first one had been!

   ‘Gail rang and left a message for me.’ She deliberately kept her voice light as she tried to salvage the situation by explaining her reason for being here now at all. ‘She told me that you’re here on a visit,’ Fin smiled.

   His mouth twisted with hard mockery. ‘I already knew my reason for being here!’

   He certainly wasn’t about to make this easy for her! ‘But, as you may recall, I didn’t,’ Fin pointed out softly, determined not to allow him to force her into losing her temper. Then they would really be in trouble!

   He shrugged, as if her lack of knowledge concerning his presence here really wasn’t his problem, his expression scathing. ‘And now you do,’ he dismissed, looking at her expectantly.

   And, now that she had had her say, he wanted her to leave again, his gaze told her. He really was the rudest man she had ever had the misfortune to meet!

   Fin straightened, any feelings of a need to be friendly towards this man, because Gail had asked her to, and because he was a stranger to the area and she would truly have liked to make him welcome, fading rapidly at his continued rudeness. Obviously he didn’t want to feel welcome, just wanted to be left alone with his rudeness. Well, that was easily arranged!

   She turned to leave, but a loyalty to Gail made her hesitate slightly, to try to reach him just once more. ‘If there is anything you need during your stay here—–’

   ‘I’ll contact the Little People.’ He acknowledged the offer with a derisive inclination of his head. ‘Although I don’t really see the occasion arising,’ he added arrogantly.

   Neither did Fin. In fact, she hoped it didn’t, didn’t particularly want to see this man ever again, not least because of his disturbing resemblance to that other man from the past. ‘I’ll leave you in peace, then,’ she said in abrupt farewell.

   His mouth quirked, dark brows raised over mocking eyes the colour of aquamarine. ‘Now that would be a novelty!’ he drawled without even attempting to hide his sarcasm.

   Fin knew, without needing to look in a mirror, that her freckles would be standing out lividly against the sudden redness of her face. But at that moment she didn’t care about how she looked, was fighting a battle within herself to hold on to her temper. Like a lot of red-haired people, when she lost her temper it was like Guy Fawkes Night and the Fourth of July fireworks all going off at the same time. It didn’t happen very often, thank goodness, but this man was pushing her to the limits of her politeness; she had never been treated with such derision in her life before!

   She drew in several deep breaths of air before even attempting to speak. ‘You will find, Mr Danvers …’ she spoke in carefully controlled tones, relieved to find that terrible tide of anger she had felt wash over her beginning to fade; she had never lost her temper with a client yet, even if some of them could be a little difficult. But, strictly speaking, Jake Danvers wasn’t her client, he was just staying in the house of someone who was, and if the worst came to the worst she would take comfort from that knowledge before she ripped into him! ‘… that we are a pretty friendly crowd in this area, and—–’

   ‘And Gail assured me you also respect a person’s privacy!’ he cut in harshly.

   Fin bit back the retort she had been about to make to the accusation, thinking, really thinking, about what he was saying to her. Discretion and quiet efficiency were attributes that were clearly promised by her service, and at the moment she was breaking one of her own rules and staying here when she clearly wasn’t wanted. And that was unforgivable.

   She nodded abruptly. ‘That’s true too,’ she bit out tautly, so tense that she felt her back begin to ache. ‘Enjoy your stay in the area, Mr Danvers,’ she added with a formal politeness that had to be forced.

   ‘I intend to,’ he drawled condescendingly, his gaze sweeping over her with mocking pity, his stance one of pure challenge still.

   Fin turned away with a sharp intake of her breath, conscious of that aqua-coloured gaze on her the whole of the time it took her to walk back to the van—and it seemed to take forever!

   What an insufferable man! She didn’t care who he was, he had no right to treat her or anyone else in that arrogantly dismissive way that didn’t just border on being insulting but definitely was!

   And she intended settling the matter of just who he was at the earliest opportunity, and had the proof one way or the other in her bedroom at home. Maybe she should have gone home earlier and done that before making this second visit to him; if what she suspected was true then she might have at least had some ammunition of her own to throw at him among all his insulting behaviour! But in a way she didn’t want her suspicion confirmed, knew things would be much easier if Jake Danvers was exactly who he said he was!

   In the meantime she had to meet Derek for lunch, and the last thing she wanted was to be late for that; God knew, she was going to get enough hassle from him once he knew about the committee meeting this evening!

   ‘No, it’s not on, Fin,’ he reacted with predictable stubbornness when she told him about the meeting once they had eaten their sandwich lunch in the café they usually frequented for that meal. She had thought he might take the news of their broken date better on a full stomach; she had been wrong, and his handsome face flushed with his displeasure.

   As Derek was tall and blond, with rugged Robert Redford-like good looks, Fin had tried, on several occasions, to convince him of how wonderful he would look up on stage himself. All to no avail. He didn’t believe, as a respectable accountant, that he should make himself conspicuous in that way, certainly didn’t believe his clients would have much respect for someone who made such a public exhibition of themselves. Fin’s ‘clients’ were apparently a different matter entirely!

   As her accountant, which was how the two of them had first come to meet, he knew she only earnt a comfortable living doing what she did. In fact, on more than one occasion in the past he had accused her of merely playing at working. With walking the Siamese cat on its lead as her first job directly after lunch, Fin wasn’t so sure that he wasn’t right.

   ‘My mother telephoned this morning and invited us both to dinner tonight, and as we already had a date for this evening I felt confident in accepting for both of us,’ Derek continued reproachfully.

   Then he shouldn’t have done, was Fin’s first thought, not when his invitation had been to take her out for a meal. But she knew she owed a lot of her reaction to still feeling disgruntled from her conversation with Jake Danvers earlier, that she normally wouldn’t have felt this resentment; she liked Derek’s parents, had always got on well with them. But Jake Danvers’s rudeness had upset her, and she had come straight from that encounter to lunch with Derek.

   It was because she knew that Derek’s presumption in accepting the invitation for both of them wasn’t really the reason she felt so irritated that she tried to answer in a reasoning tone. ‘And usually I would be pleased to go, you know that,’ she placated. ‘But tonight’s meeting really is an emergency.’

   Derek looked at her exasperatedly. ‘More important even than our relationship?’ he challenged sharply.

   The two of them had been seeing each other fairly regularly for almost six months now, and, while she didn’t feel any wild racing of her pulse, or a deep yearning to spend every minute of every day with Derek, she did enjoy his company, and the dates they had together; apart from Derek’s resentment towards her interest in amateur dramatics, they actually had a lot in common, and she had to admit that the idea had crossed her mind that Derek might one day ask her to marry him. But his question now sounded to her suspiciously like a direct challenge—possibly a choice between being in the play or going out with Derek.

   She frowned across the table at him. ‘I didn’t think they were in competition with each other,’ she said with slow uncertainty—because if they were it wasn’t a choice she would be able to make without a lot of thought!

   ‘They aren’t, but—– Oh, Fin!’ He sighed his impatience with her. ‘You throw yourself one hundred per cent into everything you become involved in—–’

   ‘I didn’t think that was such a bad thing,’ she frowned, having always tried to see through to the end any commitment she made—which was why she never made commitments lightly.

   ‘It is if that one hundred per cent doesn’t include me!’ Derek complained irritably, his hand moving to clasp hers across the table. ‘Fin, we’re supposed to be a couple—–’

   ‘You’re being unfair now, Derek,’ she cut in dismissively. ‘I don’t complain about the fact that you play squash once a week, that you go to the gym three nights a week after work—–’

   ‘Because they were well-established patterns of my life when we first started going out together,’ he claimed defensively. ‘You surely aren’t suggesting I give those up?’

   Heaven forbid! ‘Of course I’m not.’ She shook her head with a rueful smile, gently removing her hand from within his; this was only a café, in the middle of town, in the middle of the day, not a romantic candle-lit restaurant! ‘I’m just claiming the same right to have my own interests without—complaint from you. I was already involved with the Sovereign Players when we met, too,’ she rushed on as she could see he was about to pick her up on her choice of words; but what else could she call it? ‘Admittedly I wasn’t actually acting in the last production,’ she conceded. ‘But I was involved.’


   ‘I really have to go, Derek,’ she told him briskly after a brief glance at her wrist-watch. ‘I have a lot to get done this afternoon.’

   He eyed her resentfully as she prepared to leave. ‘And dinner with my parents this evening?’

   ‘I’ve just finished explaining why I can’t go out with you this evening,’ she said exasperatedly, not at all impressed with the scowling displeasure on his face. ‘Give your parents my apologies. They’ll understand,’ she said with certainty as he still glared at her.

   ‘Maybe they will,’ he grated with a nod of his head. ‘But I don’t! Perhaps you need to sit down and rethink your priorities, Fin,’ he suggested hardly.

   She grimaced at his stubborn anger. ‘I made a commitment when I went on to the committee of the society; nothing in my life has changed for me to even think about breaking that commitment.’ She sighed her impatience.

   Derek’s expression remained implacable. ‘What about your commit—–? Is that what all this is about, Fin?’ he asked with sudden suspicion, eyes narrowed. ‘Are you trying to force some sort of declaration from me about our relationship by your stubbornness over this? Because if you are, it’s—–’

   ‘I’m not!’ she snapped, furious—if he could only see it!—at even the suggestion that she would even think of stooping to such subterfuge. She wasn’t even sure what her answer would be if he ever should propose, let alone want to force the issue in any way! She was doing exactly what she claimed she was: honouring a commitment. ‘I think we had better just leave this subject alone for now, Derek,’ she told him tautly. ‘Before one of us—–’ and she wasn’t sure which one it was going to be! ‘—says something they will later regret.’ She drew in a controlling breath. ‘Why don’t you telephone me later, and—–?’

   ‘You probably won’t be at home!’ He eyed her resentfully still.

   It was obvious, to Fin, at least, that he wasn’t in the mood to be reasoned with at all, that they were only making the situation worse by continuing to talk at all. ‘Derek, maybe you’re the one who needs to sit down quietly and rethink your priorities,’ Fin said quietly.

   He looked alarmed at the finality in her tone. ‘What do you mean?’

   ‘I’m not really sure.’ She frowned, chewing on her bottom lip. ‘Maybe—–’

   ‘Look, I’m sorry if I’ve been a bore, darling,’ he cajoled regretfully, reaching across the table for her hand once again, smiling encouragingly. ‘Maybe I have been a bit unreasonable—all right,’ he nodded, his smile a little strained now, ‘a lot unreasonable,’ he conceded tightly. ‘I’m a bad-tempered …!’ He shook his head self-disgustedly. ‘I know it’s no excuse for my behaviour just now, but I’ve had one hell of a morning; please forgive me?’ He attempted a little-boy look that didn’t quite come off—perhaps he was right about his decision not to go on the stage! ‘Of course I’ll call you later, Fin,’ he smiled again. ‘Just put my foolishness down to disappointment at not being able to spend the evening with you after all.’

   And his parents, she could have added, but didn’t … God, he made it sound as if they would be forgoing a romantic evening together, when in reality it would be nothing of the sort, not under the watchful eyes of his parents! She liked the Soameses very much, found his father sweet, if a little henpecked, his mother always warm and friendly. But, as Derek was their only child, and at twenty-seven he was still a bachelor, they tended to view all his girlfriends with an eye to their being his future wife. And, although Fin knew by the warm welcome she always received from them that they approved of her, it was still a little unnerving to be constantly under inspection when in their company. Or, at least, to feel as if she was.

   She gently squeezed Derek’s hand before releasing it. ‘I shouldn’t be too late back tonight, if you do want to call me …?’

   He nodded, obviously reassured by her smile. ‘And if you do manage to finish early enough we could still go out for a quiet drink together.’

   ‘Yes,’ Fin agreed vaguely, not wishing to get into another argument, but already sure in her own mind that the meeting tonight would go on for some time. But there was no point in upsetting Derek again now by telling him that, and she did have an appointment to get to … ‘Talk to you later,’ she told him distractedly as she bent to kiss him lightly on the cheek.

   Fido, the Siamese, enjoyed his walk that afternoon, as usual. His name wasn’t really Fido, it was something exotically unpronounceable, which his stockbroker owner shortened affectionately to Filly. But Fin called him Fido for the simple pleasure of watching the expression on people’s faces when she was out walking him on the extended lead she kept in the van for him, and she brought him back to her by calling out ‘Fido’, and this arrogant-looking Siamese cat appeared from whatever spot he had been exploring at the time-usually the dustbins!

   Richard, the cat’s owner, assured her that his little darling could only eat fresh fish lightly steamed, but Fin knew from experience that the ‘little darling’ would sink his delicate little white teeth into anything, given the chance—including her ankles if he was feeling particularly disdainful of the world. Which he very often was!

   Maybe in future she should start to call him Jake …!

   She had deliberately not thought of how objectionable his behaviour had been during her second visit this morning, but he really was the most arrogant, insufferable, totally obnoxious individual she had ever had the misfortune—–

   Her indignant thoughts were brought to an abrupt end by a loud cry that sounded like a baby in distress! And when she turned around it was to find that, during her preoccupation with Jake Danvers, Fido had wrapped his lead twice around a lamp-post and was now protesting loudly at the confinement to his movements. Another few seconds and Fin would probably have found herself flat on her backside on the pavement when the lead tightened at her end!

   ‘Thanks for the warning,’ she ruefully told Fido as she untangled him from the lamp-post, receiving an indignant nip or two from pointed white teeth for her trouble. ‘I probably deserved it,’ she crooned softly as she stroked the cat’s silky fur, his chocolate and milky-coffee-coloured markings of championship standard. ‘My mind is firmly back on the job in hand,’ Fin assured him as she placed his delicate paws back on the pavement.

   Obviously thinking of Jake Danvers was dangerous to her health as well as her peace of mind!

   But at the same time she acknowledged that she also knew she had omitted a few of his attributes in her earlier description of him: Jake Danvers was also the most ruggedly attractive man she had ever seen.

   But he could also be something much, much more dangerous …

   ‘Oh, Fin, thank God I managed to catch you before you went home!’ Gail breathed her obvious relief.

   Fin frowned at this second telephone call from the other woman in twenty-four hours. Admittedly she hadn’t spoken to Gail personally the last time, but, nevertheless, Gail’s message had been clear enough.

   She had only called in at the office herself on her way home to close up for the evening, this call coming through before she’d had chance to switch on the answer-machine.

   ‘Only just,’ she replied derisively, looking down ruefully at the key in her hand she had ready for her departure. ‘I got your message earlier, Gail.’ A little late, but she had got it! ‘Everything seems in order at the cottage.’ She crossed her fingers at this blatant mistruth; the last thing it had seemed at Rose Cottage today was ordered. ‘So—–’

   ‘That’s just it,’ the other woman cut in agitatedly. ‘It isn’t in order at all. Fin, I’m worried about Jake,’ she added anxiously.

   Oh, dear, it was going to be another one of those calls, Fin realised with dismay, where she had to play a guessing game, trying to discover what was actually being said to her.

   She sat down wearily in her chair. It had been a long and trying day, and she was just too tired now to play any more games. And most of the reason it had been such a trying day had been because of Gail’s ‘uncle’!

   ‘In what way?’ she prompted evenly; from the little she had seen of Jake Danvers, he wouldn’t welcome anyone’s feeling ‘worried’ about him!

   ‘He—he’s being difficult!’ Gail seemed somewhat reluctant to put the actual problem into words now that it came down to it.

   Fin sighed. ‘He’s your friend, Gail; I’m sure you know better than most what he can be like.’

   And it really was none of her business if Gail was having problems with him. Sorting out personal relationships, family or otherwise, was not one of the services her agency offered; there were professional agencies for things like that. It wasn’t that she wasn’t sympathetic to Gail’s obvious concern, it was just—well, it was Jake Danvers!

   ‘So do you, by the sound of it,’ Gail realised with rueful humour. ‘A little of Jake goes a long way, hm?’ she acknowledged drily.

   ‘Yes,’ Fin agreed tersely, glancing impatiently at her wrist-watch; time was pressing on, and she had her tea to eat before getting ready to go out to the committee meeting. She also had something else to do before she did any of those things, and needed to get home.

   The other woman drew in a ragged breath. ‘Look, the thing is, Fin—I don’t know what Jake has told you about himself—–’

   ‘Not much,’ she told her pointedly.

   ‘No. Well.’ Gail sighed. ‘He’s a pretty private sort of person. Is quite fanatical about it, actually, but … Look, I’ve tried several times to reach him by telephone this afternoon,’ this last bit came out in a rush, ‘just to make sure he’s settled in OK. But each time I called the line was dead. I contacted the operator after the last time, a few minutes ago actually, and she said the telephone has been unplugged from the connection!’ Gail revealed incredulously.

   It seemed a rather stupid thing to do when the cottage was as remote as it was. But, as Gail said, Jake Danvers was a very private person, and she was sure he had a very good reason for disconnecting the telephone … ‘Gail,’ she said slowly, ‘exactly what is it you’re worried about?’

   ‘Oh, God, I don’t know,’ the other woman said exasperatedly, and Fin had a brief image of the usually coolly capable blonde running agitated fingers through her long tresses. ‘He’s become so unpredictable. He had become almost a hermit, living out in the wilds of—– Well, from living a very solitary sort of life, he suddenly started flitting about all over the place; I don’t know what he’s doing half the time. And now he’s disconnected the damned phone!’ she concluded with a wail.

   Fin could hear the near-desperation in the other woman’s voice now. She felt sorry for her predicament, knew Gail had a performance this evening, that there was no way she could come down here herself to find out what Jake Danvers was up to. ‘Have you thought of contacting the police, if you’re that worried about him?’ she suggested gently.

   ‘He’d kill me!’ Gail groaned with feeling.

   She didn’t think now was the right moment to point out that he would hardly be able to do anything if, as Gail seemed to think—otherwise, why else was she so worried?—he might have done something desperate!

   ‘Gail, he didn’t appear the suicidal type to me, if that’s any help,’ she reasoned gently, vividly able to recall the hard mockery in those strange-coloured eyes, and the arrogant twist to those sculptured lips. No, he didn’t look the suicidal type at all to her! Besides, if he was who she thought he was then surely ten years ago would have been the time when he might just have felt desperate enough to have taken his own life. Although she obviously had no idea what might have happened in his life during the following ten years …

   ‘It isn’t,’ Gail snapped impatiently.

   ‘Do you want me to drive out to the cottage and check on things there for you?’ Fin heard herself offering without even being aware she was about to do such a thing. But what else could she do? Gail was obviously worried out of her mind about the damned man, and over the last year the other woman had become a friend as well as a client.

   But Fin already knew it was an offer she would regret, however it turned out. She already regretted it!

   ‘Oh, would you?’ Gail pounced gratefully—almost as if that weren’t what she had been angling for the whole time! ‘I really would be grateful.’

   ‘You don’t know how grateful,’ Fin muttered.

   ‘Oh, but I do.’ The other woman had relaxed slightly, now that she knew Fin was going to help her, the smile evident in her voice. ‘I’m well aware of how bloody-minded Jake can be.’

   ‘As long as you remember you owe me one,’ Fin returned ruefully at the other woman’s shameless manipulation.

   ‘Oh, I will,’ Gail acknowledged lightly. ‘I have to admit, this was what I had hoped for when I called you.’

   ‘No!’ Fin said in exaggerated surprise. ‘Believe me, Gail, you aren’t going to win any awards with the sort of acting you’ve just shown me!’

   ‘Subtle as a sledge-hammer, that’s me,’ Gail accepted without offence, obviously just relieved that Fin was willing to be involved. ‘I have to leave for the theatre in about an hour,’ she added thoughtfully. ‘If you could just get Jake to give me a call before then I would be grateful.’

   She very much doubted that very many people ‘got’ Jake Danvers to do anything unless it was something he had already decided he wanted to do—and she wasn’t sure, especially with the evidence of the disconnected telephone, that telephoning Gail came under that category!

   ‘I’ll pass on your message, Gail,’ she said non-committally.

   ‘And tell him not to disconnect my telephone again!’ Gail added frustratedly.

   ‘You tell him not to disconnect your telephone again—if, and when, he calls you!’ Fin told her decisively.

   The other woman gave an amused chuckle. ‘Jake seems to have made his usual charming impact on you!’ she derided.

   ‘Oh, undoubtedly!’ Her sarcasm was unmistakable, even to someone with the subtlety of a sledge-hammer! ‘I’ve no doubt I’ll speak to you again soon, Gail,’ she said drily before ringing off, her humour fading as soon as she had replaced the receiver. She should have just ignored the telephone when it had begun to ring, shouldn’t have answered the call; now she had to go and see Jake Danvers again. And feel the sharp edge of his tongue again, no doubt. Three times in one day was just too much for anyone!

   The cottage looked picturesquely beautiful as she turned from parking the van in the driveway. But there was no Jake in the garden this time, and when she knocked on the door, albeit tentatively, there was no response, and when she turned the handles on the front and back doors she found them both locked. There was no car in the driveway to tell her whether this was just because Jake was actually out rather than just not answering her knocks, and it was impossible for her to see into the high windows of the garage itself to see if his car was parked inside. Not for the first time, at that moment, she cursed her lack of height!

   She was left with no other choice: she would have to use her own key to go inside the cottage and see if Jake Danvers was there and just not answering the door. After all, she had the owner’s permission to find out what had happened to him—even if the man himself was likely to be furious just at the sight of her again; he had made it pretty clear the last time that if he ever saw her again it would probably be too soon!

   She could feel the palpitations in her chest as she searched through her bag for her keys, finally finding them, only to drop them on to the front step in her agitation. God, it was ridiculous to feel so nervous; she had been asked to come here, wasn’t an intruder, and if—–

   ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing now?’

   She had been in the process of putting the key in the lock, but at the first sound of that harshly angry voice she gave such a startled leap that the hand holding the keys shot up in the air and the keys flew over her shoulder, hitting Jake Danvers in the chest with a painful thump. Fin winced as she turned just in time to see the keys make contact, although the man himself seemed unmoved by the bunch of heavy metal.

   All of Fin’s misgivings about the advisability of coming here at all returned with a vengeance as she slowly turned to face him fully. And then wished she hadn’t: he looked absolutely furious, his arms folded across the broad width of his chest now. Tall, dark, menacing, and absolutely furious! So much for her excuse of coming here as a favour to Gail because the other woman was so worried about him—he didn’t look as if he was the one in any danger, she did!

   ‘I can’t believe this!’ He ran an exasperated hand through the dark thickness of his hair. ‘“Use my cottage,” Gail said,’ Jake mimicked disgustedly. ‘“It’s very quiet there,”’ he continued scornfully. ‘“No one will disturb you if you don’t want them to.” Disturb me!’ he repeated as his eyes were raised heavenwards in open disgust. ‘I’ve been disturbed constantly one way or another almost since the first moment I arrived here! As for its being quiet—my God, a hotel lobby would be quieter during the busy season!’

   The fact that his criticism was completely valid, and that she was the main culprit for intruding on his privacy, didn’t make her feel any better.

   ‘What are you, Fin?’ He scowled at her. ‘Some sort of one-woman peace and quiet shatterer? Do you go around looking for people who just want to be left alone, and then do everything in your power to make sure that they aren’t? Is this one of the services of Little People: if someone expresses a need for privacy, you make sure they don’t get it?’

   His anger seemed to be increasing, not decreasing! ‘Very funny,’ she grimaced, still treading very warily.

   ‘It isn’t funny at all!’ he rasped, glaring at her accusingly.

   Did she look as if she was laughing?

   ‘Well?’ he demanded. ‘What do you want this time?’

   She had to bite her tongue to stop herself from making just as angry a retort. But the last thing she needed was to get into a slanging match with this man, and that was exactly what she would do if she answered him in kind. Besides—she tried to see this from his point of view—he had just walked up on her trying to enter his temporary home with a key! Obviously he had come out of the back door while she had tried to enter through the front.

   ‘Gail rang me,’ she told him flatly, deliberately keeping all emotion from her voice. ‘She thought there might be—some sort of problem here.’

   Jake’s eyes narrowed. ‘What sort of problem?’

   This man, committing suicide! Now that she was face to face with the man the mere idea of that was even more ludicrous than she had thought it earlier. She should have just insisted that Gail call the police rather than coming here herself and having to take the consequences of Gail’s over-protectiveness where this man was concerned. Anyone more arrogantly assured and capable of taking care of himself, thank you very much, Fin had yet to meet!

   She moistened her lips, shrugging dismissively. ‘Your telephone appears to have become disconnected—–’

   ‘I know,’ he nodded grimly. ‘I disconnected it!’

   She had already guessed that, damn it, giving him an impatient frown. ‘Wasn’t that rather an irresponsible thing to do, in the circumstances?’

   ‘What circumstances?’ His eyes were narrowed.

   She didn’t think he would appreciate the truth! ‘The cottage is pretty remote, and—–’

   ‘I know it’s remote; why the hell else do you think I came here?’ he said exasperatedly. ‘For God’s sake, what do I have to do to be able to actually get some sleep now that I am here?’ he demanded frustratedly. ‘I was rudely awakened this morning by two completely unknown women who had invaded my bedroom. And now this afternoon, when I again try to catch up on some sleep, I’m woken up by the sound of someone systematically trying all the doors of the cottage and snooping around the windows, trying to—–’

   ‘I wasn’t snooping!’ Fin defended heatedly, her cheeks warm with indignation. ‘Gail was worried about you when she realised the telephone wasn’t working! She asked me—–’

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