Shadowed Stranger Carole Mortimer
Table of Contents
TREES overshadowed the narrow lane she was riding down, and several large holes in the road made her bicycle wobble precariously. Birds were singing in those trees, the sound of children laughing happily as they played in the brilliant sunshine.
Children laughing …? There shouldn’t be any children laughing here. The only house in this area, at the end of this small country lane, was Orchard House, and it had been unoccupied for quite some time now. She knew that some of the village children played there, but if Billy were one of them …
Yes, there he was, right in the middle of a crowd of other youngsters, the game of five-a-side football obviously well under way, jumpers being placed on the ground as goalposts.
Robyn came to a halt, straddling her bicycle. Her brother was enjoying the game; for some reason she couldn’t see, football was an obsession with him and his impish face was alive with glee as he scored a goal through the makeshift goalposts.
‘Billy?’ she called to him. ‘Billy!’ more firmly as he seemed not to hear her.
He looked up impatiently. The two of them were very much alike, both blond and fair-skinned, although Billy’s manner was the more aggressive. ‘What is it?’ he asked impatiently.
‘You know you shouldn’t be in here.’ She felt rather silly now, the other boys were looking at her as if she had no right to be here. And maybe she didn’t, but neither did they! Billy had already been in trouble with her father once about trespassing into the grounds at Orchard House, and if he were caught again he would be in real trouble.
‘Stop interfering!’ her brother snapped, obviously embarrassed at her bossy attitude in front of his friends.
‘This is private property,’ she told them all firmly. ‘The last time Constable Fuller caught you he gave you all a warning, the next time it might be rather more serious.’ Especially for Billy. Her parents had been so shocked and upset when the local policeman had called at the house to tell them of Billy’s trespassing.
‘I’m sorry, Billy,’ she said, and meant it. ‘But I think you should play football somewhere else.’
‘There isn’t anywhere else,’ he snapped.
‘Well, you can’t stay here—any of you,’ she added meaningly.
The other boys started to wander off, shooting her resentful glances as they went. She felt awful for spoiling their fun, but if she had heard them there was a fair chance Constable Fuller would too if he should go by, and she knew for a fact that most of these boys would be in as much trouble as Billy if they were caught here again.
‘I bet you’re great at a party,’ Billy muttered once there was just the two of them left.
Robyn sighed. ‘I did it for your own good.’
‘That’s what Dad always says before he keeps me in or stops my pocket-money.’ He kicked moodily at some of the stones on the driveway.
‘I’m sorry, Billy,’ she told him ruefully. ‘I didn’t mean to break up your game. Am I forgiven?’
He seemed to think about it for a while, but she knew he would soon get over his mood—he always did. ‘Okay,’ he finally accepted. ‘But help me look for my football first. It had just been kicked into that long grass among those trees when you interrupted us.’
‘All right,’ she agreed cheerfully, leaving her bicycle on the side of the gravel driveway of the house as they went to find the ball.
The grass was almost up to their knees, the ball nowhere in sight. But there were lots of wild daffodils growing in the grass, and Robyn couldn’t resist picking some of them.
‘That’s called stealing!’ Billy appeared at her side with his football.
‘I know, but—–’ Just at that moment a car turned into the driveway, the wheels going over Robyn’s bicycle with a telling crunch of metal. The car came to an immediate halt.
Robyn’s instant reaction was to duck behind a wide tree trunk, pulling the suddenly immobile Billy with her. ‘What’s a car doing driving in here?’ she whispered. ‘This house isn’t occupied.’
‘How should I know?’ her brother said impatiently. ‘But I bet your bike’s a mess.’
‘I know,’ she groaned, envisaging the twisted metal.
‘Ssh!’ she quietened him. ‘Someone is getting out of the car.’
She watched as the man came around the back of the car, bending down to inspect what was left of her bicycle. He straightened, looking about him with narrowed grey eyes. He was a handsome man, although rather unkempt-looking, his hair long and out of style, although it gleamed with a clean black sheen, his eyes grey and piercing, his nose long and straight, his mouth set in a rigid line. He was very leanly built, although firmly muscled, his denims old and faded, the shirt he wore clean but unironed. He would be in his late thirties, Robyn guessed, his expression harsh, deep lines grooved into his face beside his nose and mouth.
She had been so mesmerised with the aggressively male attractiveness of him that she had forgotten to hide, something she realised too late as he spotted her and strode angrily towards them.
‘Now you’ve done it,’ Billy glared at her.
‘Shut up!’ she snapped.
‘Come out of there!’ the man’s angry voice ordered. ‘Come on, I know you’re in there,’ he added at their delay.
‘Now we’re for it,’ Billy muttered, dragging Robyn behind him as he stepped out into view.
Robyn looked up at the stranger, all six foot one of him, feeling like a midget herself at only five feet two inches. On closer inspection the man looked gaunt, very pale beneath his tan, the harshness to his features more noticeable.
‘Well?’ he barked as they remained silent. ‘What have you to say for yourselves?’
‘Sorry?’ Billy said hopefully.
He received an impatient look for his trouble. ‘I gather that distorted hunk of metal on the driveway belongs to one of you?’
‘My sister,’ Billy muttered, obviously realising this man was a force to be reckoned with.
Robyn’s violet eyes flashed. ‘It was a bicycle before you drove over it,’ she snapped her indignation.
Glacial grey eyes were turned on her. ‘I’m well aware of what it was. What I want to know is what it was doing on my driveway.’
She gasped. ‘Your driveway?’
‘That’s right.’ He pushed the untidy dark hair back from his forehead as if it annoyed him.
‘You live here?’ Billy’s eyes were as wide as saucers.
The man’s mouth twisted. ‘I do. Your names?’ he rasped.
‘William,’ Billy supplied, obviously disconcerted by this man owning Orchard House, seeing his days of playing football here fast disappearing. ‘Er—Billy, actually—sir.’
‘And you?’ Piercing grey eyes were now turned on Robyn.
‘Robyn,’ she supplied abruptly. After all, she had only come in here to help Billy. Although there were the condemning daffodils in her hand!
‘Robyn …?’ he prompted.
‘Castle,’ she muttered, feeling like a juvenile caught out in a misdemeanour, and not the eighteen-year-old she really was.
‘You too?’ he eyed Billy.
‘Yes,’ he muttered.
The man nodded. ‘You have two minutes to get off my land,’ he told them grimly. ‘And take the bicycle with you.’
Robyn grimaced. ‘I doubt it’s worth the trouble.’
The man took out his wallet, taking out some notes. ‘It’s only the back wheel,’ he held out the money towards her. ‘This should replace it.’
She looked at him suspiciously. ‘You’re offering to pay for the damage?’
‘As long as you’re both gone in the allotted two minutes. And make sure any of your hooligan friends know not to come trespassing here again.’
‘Hooligans …?’ Robyn gasped.
‘What else would you call yourselves?’ he mocked, looking down at their identical clothing of denims and tight tee-shirts, although Robyn’s were slightly more disreputable than Billy’s.
She always dressed casually on Sundays, her job in the library calling for smartness at all times. ‘You are in the eyes of the public,’ Mr Leaven had told her on the one occasion she had dared to wear trousers. She had never dared again.
But Sundays were her own, and if she wanted to wear her old denims and one of Billy’s tee-shirts then surely that was up to her. The fact that both items were now a little the worse for wear was still nothing to do with this arrogant man.
‘You only have a minute left to take the money and run,’ the man drawled. ‘I would advise you to do just that.’
‘Yes, sir,’ Billy interrupted her, taking the offered money. ‘Thank you, sir. Come on, Robyn. Robyn!’ he said pointedly when she looked like continuing the argument.
She shook off his hand, reluctantly following him to the driveway, unaware of the fact that the man had followed them until he opened his car door in preparation of continuing on his way to the house.
‘And make sure you remember what I said,’ his voice was harsh. ‘I don’t want you or any of your friends here again.’ He swung into the car, slamming the door after him before driving off.
‘He needn’t worry, we won’t be back,’ Robyn exploded. ‘Rude man!’ she added with disgust.
Billy burst out laughing at her indignant expression. ‘He had a right to be annoyed.’
She looked down disgustedly at her bike. ‘Just look at this! It means I’ll have to get the bus to work tomorrow now,’ she groaned; the bus service to this sleepy little village was not very reliable at the best of times. The bus company seemed to take buses out of service without informing the people waiting for them. Before she had taken to riding her bicycle the three miles each way to Ampthull she had been late for work many times simply because they had decided not to run the bus she usually caught on that particular day.
Billy helped her pull the bicycle up on its one straight wheel and one bent one. ‘Maybe he’ll give you a lift in his Jag,’ he teased.
She grimaced, putting the daffodils in the front basket. After all, he hadn’t asked for them back! ‘Is that what it is?’ The type of car the man had been driving hadn’t been of particular interest to her, what he had done with it had been.
‘Mm,’ her brother smiled appreciatively. ‘Fantastic, wasn’t it?’
Robyn looked down pointedly at her bicycle. ‘I didn’t notice. I’d better get this home and see if Dad thinks it can be salvaged.’
‘I’ll help you,’ Billy offered instantly, lifting the damaged wheel off the ground while Robyn took control of the handlebars. ‘Here’s your money,’ he handed it to her.
She took it and put it in her back pocket, not even bothering to count it. ‘Why are you being so nice?’ she asked suspiciously.
He gave her a look of feigned innocence, looking quite cherubic with his baby blond curls and fresh-scrubbed look. ‘I’m always nice to you,’ he grinned.
‘Like hell you are—–’
‘I’ll tell Mum you’ve been swearing,’ he announced triumphantly, a look of satisfaction to his face.
‘Oh, I see!’ She had to smile, humour got the better of her. ‘You don’t want me to tell Mum and Dad about the game of football, right?’
‘Right,’ he admitted reluctantly. ‘You won’t, will you? Dad said he would stop my pocket-money for a month if I did it again.’
She raised her eyebrows questioningly. ‘Then why did you?’
Billy sighed his impatience with her. ‘Are you going to tell them or aren’t you?’
She sighed. ‘Of course I’m not.’
He immediately dropped the damaged end of her bicycle. ‘See you later,’ he grinned before running off.
‘I didn’t promise,’ she called after him.
He turned round and poked his tongue out at her. ‘I know you,’ he scorned. ‘You won’t let me down.’
Little devil! The trouble was he knew she wouldn’t let him down. She seemed to have spent the majority of her eighteen years getting Billy out of one scrape or another—and covering up for him. The five years’ difference in their ages had made her protective towards him, over-protective on occasion, forging a bond between them that meant she would always stand by him, no matter what he did.
It took her twice as long as it should have done to get home, mainly because of Billy’s defection, and it was with some relief that she leant her bicycle up against the garden shed before going into the house.
‘I’ll have a look at it later,’ her father assured her when she explained that it was damaged. ‘Did you happen to see Billy while you were out?’
She hastily looked away. ‘I think I might have done, I’m not too sure.’
Her father gave her a reproving look, not fooled by her evasion for one moment. ‘He’ll be home for lunch, I presume,’ he said dryly, one eyebrow arched enquiringly.
‘Oh yes—Yes, I suppose so. He usually is, isn’t he?’ She bit her lip at her slip-up, seeing her father’s amused smile and smiling back at him.
Her father owned the local shop and post office, her mother actually running the shop part of it, her father running the post office and delivering groceries to the people in the village who found it difficult getting down to the shop, mainly the older members of the community. It was a good arrangement, the shop was very profitable, and even Robyn occasionally helped out on her days off from the library when they were particularly busy.
‘What’s actually wrong with your bike?’ her father frowned now, sitting back comfortably in his chair, puffing away contentedly on his pipe, the newspaper open in his hand, enjoying the luxury of his one day off.
Robyn looked uncomfortable. ‘The back wheel’s a bit bent,’ she told him lamely.
‘Very,’ she admitted with a grimace.
He put the newspaper down. ‘How did that happen?’
‘A slight accident,’ she revealed reluctantly.
‘Accident?’ her mother repeated sharply as she bustled into the room with the vase of daffodils. ‘You haven’t had an accident, have you, Robyn?’ She looked anxiously at her daughter’s slender body.
Robyn and Billy both took after their father with their fair colouring and lean frames; their mother was short and dark, her figure on the portly side. She loved village life, enjoyed running the shop, although she enjoyed looking after her family most of all; her cooking was out of this world. Robyn often teased her mother about the fact that she only had to look at one of her own delicious cakes to put on pounds, whereas the rest of them could eat any number of them and not put on an ounce.
‘Not me, Mum,’ she grinned at her. ‘My bike. It—er—It sort of got driven over,’ she told them ruefully.
‘Were you on it?’ her father asked concernedly.
‘No,’ she laughed. ‘I was—I was picking those flowers for Mum,’ she explained, omitting the fact that they had been growing in the garden of Orchard House when she picked them. ‘My bike was on the side of the road and the car drove straight over it.’
‘Did it stop?’
‘Oh yes,’ she answered her mother. ‘Did you know that someone was living in Orchard House?’
Her mother nodded. ‘Mr Howarth. He’s been there two or three weeks now. Was he the one who drove over your bicycle?’
‘Yes, but it was my fault. I shouldn’t have left it outside his home. I was in the woods on the other side of the road picking those wild daffodils for you when it happened,’ she invented. ‘Mr Howarth?’ she questioned curiously, wondering why her mother hadn’t mentioned him before.
‘Richard Howarth—Rick, I think he said.’ Her mother rearranged the flowers in the vase. ‘He’s had the odd piece of grocery from the shop. I think he must do his main food shopping in Ampthull, because he’s only ever had the occasional loaf of bread and a few jars of coffee.’
‘Actually I don’t think he does shop in Ampthull,’ Robyn said slowly. ‘I don’t think he shops anywhere.’
‘You mean he doesn’t eat?’ Her mother was scandalised, believing that food was the panacea for all ills.
She shook her head. ‘Not so that you would notice.’ She frowned. ‘It was really strange—by his clothes he looked down and out, really unkempt, and yet he was driving a Jaguar, this year’s model too. You don’t suppose he stole it, do you?’ she asked eagerly, sensing a mystery.
‘Don’t be silly, Robyn,’ her mother said sternly. ‘Mr Howarth seems to be a highly educated man. Maybe he’s just an eccentric.’
‘Maybe.’ But she didn’t think so. Rick Howarth hadn’t liked them on his land, had wanted to protect his privacy at all costs. He looked and dressed like a tramp, and yet he drove a very expensive car, and as her mother had said, he spoke in a highly educated voice. Perhaps her mother was right after all, maybe he was an eccentric.
Her mother frowned now. ‘I don’t like to think of him not eating.’
Her husband put down his newspaper. ‘How about the fact that I’m not eating?’ he grinned at her. ‘Isn’t lunch ready yet?’
‘You’re always thinking of your stomach!’
Robyn chuckled as her mother flounced out of the room to serve the lunch. ‘It would serve you right if Mum didn’t give you any,’ she told her father.
He laughed. ‘She wouldn’t be that cruel!’
No, she wouldn’t. Her parents had a very happy marriage; they were ideally suited in every way, and their business partnership was as successful as their personal one.
The bus service was erratic as usual the next day, and Robyn arrived ten minutes later at the library, earning a disapproving look from Mr Leaven.
She loved working in the library, had a passion for books that bordered on obsession. Just to touch a book to anticipate devouring its pages, filled her with a warm pleasure. Which was the reason Mr Leaven hardly ever gave her the job of tidying the fiction shelves. She would become lost to her surroundings, engrossed in a newly discovered book, and the other books on the shelves would remain in disarray.
Consequently she was quite surprised when Mr Leaven told her to tidy the books back into order, although she quickly made her escape before he changed his mind.
She wasn’t quite as happy when she saw who she was to be working with. Selma! No wonder she had been sent to work with her; everyone else had probably opted out. Not that Selma wasn’t friendly—she was, too friendly upon occasion. She thought nothing of recounting all the intimate details of her life to anyone who happened to be around at the time. The trouble was that she demanded equally intimate revelations in return.
There was no opportunity today to linger over a newly discovered book, listening half-heartedly as Selma chattered on about the fantastic new boy she had met over the weekend, becoming more friendly with him in those two days than Robyn intended becoming with any man before she married him!
‘What about you?’ Selma stopped in the H section, well out of Mr Leaven’s view.
Robyn blinked her puzzlement. ‘What about me?’
‘Do you have a boy-friend, silly?’ Selma giggled.
Robyn blushed. When around Selma, a girl very popular with the opposite sex, she felt more than a little embarrassed about her own boy-friendless state.
‘You mean you don’t?’ Selma saw that blush and interpreted it correctly.
Irritation flashed in her violet-blue eyes. ‘I didn’t say that,’ she snapped.
Selma looked interested. ‘So you do have a boy-friend?’
‘I—Yes. Yes, I have a boy-friend.’ Now why had she said that, why lie about something that wasn’t after all important?
‘What’s his name?’
‘His name?’ Robyn repeated slowly, licking her lips to delay answering. ‘It’s—er—it’s Richard,’ she said in a rush. ‘Rick, actually—Rick Howarth.’ God, this was getting worse, the lie was becoming deeper and deeper. It was just that she couldn’t stand Selma’s derision.
The other girl always had at least one man in tow, whereas Robyn had only ever had the odd date, and very rarely with the same boy twice. She wasn’t interested in football or cars, and as that seemed to be all her dates ever wanted to talk about she usually ended up by not saying a word all evening. It had earned her the reputation of being ‘stuck-up’, an erroneous impression, but one that seemed to have lasted. Consequently she very rarely dated, something Selma had probably heard about.
She certainly had all of the other girl’s attention now. ‘Where did you meet him?’ Selma wanted to know.
‘He—He’s just moved into Sanford,’ at least this part was true! ‘I met him at the weekend.’
‘Is he nice?’ Selma asked eagerly.
Robyn nodded. ‘Yes.’
The other girl frowned. ‘Don’t you want to talk about him?’
She concentrated on her work with an intensity she was far from feeling. ‘Not particularly,’ she replied in a bored voice.
‘Keeping him to yourself, are you?’ Selma teased, not at all offended by Robyn’s attitude.
‘Something like that,’ she nodded, wishing this conversation over.
‘When are you seeing him again?’
‘I—er—Tonight, probably,’ she invented, wishing she had never started this.
‘Going anywhere nice?’ Selma wanted to know.
‘I’m not sure. Probably just to his house.’ Robyn wished she could move away, put an end to these lies, and yet she knew that this job usually took most of the morning to complete. If Selma was going to ask her questions about Richard Howarth all that time …! She was going to run out of conversation about him any moment now!
Selma’s eyes widened. ‘You’ve met his parents?’
She shook her head. ‘He has his own house.’
‘He does?’ That took the other girl aback.
‘Yes.’ She moved on to the I section, getting nearer and nearer Mr Leaven’s desk, and she hoped nearer to ending this discussion.
Selma looked wistful. ‘I’ve never been out with a boy who had his own house. I usually have to wait until his parents go out.’
Wait for what? Robyn almost asked. Selma was a pretty girl, black hair kept long past her shoulders, deep brown eyes, a clear complexion, a nice slim figure, and yet she had earnt herself rather a bad reputation with the boys in the area. Most of them were willing to go out with her for a while, but they all ended up marrying someone else. It was a shame really, because she was a very nice girl given the chance to be.
‘He must be quite rich to own his own house,’ she remarked now.
‘I have no idea.’ Robyn moved up to the J section, luckily almost in view of Mr Leaven.
‘Or does he just rent it?’ He had obviously stepped down in Selma’s estimation if he did.
‘Would you two girls kindly get on with your work—quietly.’ Mr Leaven suddenly appeared behind them. ‘It may have escaped your notice,’ he continued in an angry whisper, ‘but this is supposed to be a library, a place where people can come to quietly read and study. Your voices—–’
‘Ssh!’ A woman at a nearby table looked up to glare at him. ‘Can’t you read?’ she hissed, pointing to the sigh that read ‘QUIET, PLEASE, PEOPLE WORKING’.
‘Get on with your work!’ Mr Leaven snapped at Robyn and Selma before returning to his desk.
‘Oh dear,’ Selma giggled. ‘That’s put him in a bad mood for the rest of the day!’
Indeed it had, and Robyn kept out of his way as much as possible. She kept out of Selma’s way too, not being anxious to reopen the subject of Rick Howarth. She felt slightly ashamed of herself for using him in that way, even if he didn’t know about it. She had thought it would get Selma off the subject of her having a boy-friend, and instead she seemed to have made matters worse. She hoped she would have forgotten all about it by tomorrow.
The bus service was dreadful again that night, and the shop was already closed and her mother in the kitchen when she entered the house. ‘The bus,’ came her moody explanation for her lateness.
Her mother nodded. ‘I thought you might be late, so I made a casserole for dinner.’
‘Lovely!’ Robyn ran upstairs to change into her denims and tee-shirt, the rumblings of her stomach making it a hurried change. She was always ravenously hungry in the evenings, and so was Billy. Her brother didn’t utter a word as he ate his portion of the chicken casserole.
‘I mended your bike today, Robyn,’ her father told her, eating his meal at a more leisurely pace.
‘You did?’ Her eyes lit up with gratitude, as she thought of not having to catch the bus again tomorrow.
‘Mm. I took one of the wheels off your mother’s old bike. She never rides it anyway.’
‘So you didn’t need to buy a new wheel?’ she frowned.
‘No,’ he shook his head.
‘That means you’ll have to give the money back,’ Billy emerged from eating his dessert long enough to utter.
‘Money?’ their mother repeated sharply. ‘What money is this, Robyn?’
She refused dessert, although she knew the apple pie would be delicious—her mother’s cooking always was. ‘Mr Howarth gave me some money yesterday when he drove over my bicycle. I’d forgotten all about it.’ She reached into the back pocket of her denims, taking out the notes she had stuffed there yesterday.
‘Wow!’ Billy breathed slowly, looking at the two crumpled ten-pound notes Robyn held in her hand.
‘Wow, indeed.’ Their father looked disapprovingly over the top of his glasses. ‘You had no right accepting money from Mr Howarth, not when you openly admitted it was your fault for leaving your bike on the road.’
Robyn was still dazed herself by the amount of money Rick Howarth had given her. Her bike was only an old one, more or less ready for the scrap-merchant who came round every couple of months—the whole thing wasn’t worth twenty pounds! ‘I’ll give it back,’ she said hurriedly.
‘You most certainly will,’ her father said firmly. ‘And as for you, young man,’ he turned towards Billy, ‘how did you know Mr Howarth gave Robyn some money?’
‘I told him,’ Robyn instantly defended. ‘Last night.’
‘Yes, that’s right,’ Billy agreed eagerly. ‘Last night when we were playing Monopoly.’
‘Mm,’ their father looked sceptical. ‘Well, you can return that money as soon as possible,’ he told Robyn.
‘Tonight,’ her mother put in firmly, standing up. ‘I have an extra casserole and an apple pie to go over to Mr Howarth. I was going to get Billy to take it over, but you might as well take it, Robyn, as you’re going anyway.’
Robyn stood up to help clear the table. ‘Do I have to, Mum? I don’t mind taking the money back, but do I have to take the food too? Besides, it’s my night to do the washing-up.’
‘Billy can do it. Oh yes, you can,’ his mother insisted as he went to protest. ‘Your father has had a hard day.’
‘But I was going to football practice,’ Billy moaned.
‘This will only take you five minutes, you can go to your football practice afterwards.’
‘Yes, Dad.’ He dutifully went into the kitchen, knowing when their father used that tone that he would brook no argument.
Robyn knew that there was no point in her arguing either. She was going to have to take that casserole and pie over to Orchard House whether she wanted to or not. And she didn’t want to. Spending a couple of minutes giving Rick Howarth back his money was one thing, delivering a food parcel was another. If only she hadn’t told her mother that she didn’t think he was eating! She had put herself in this predicament by a few thoughtless words. And what Rick Howarth would make of her bringing him food she wouldn’t like to guess!
‘I don’t know why you’re so miserable,’ Billy muttered as he wiped up. ‘At least you got out of this!’ He pulled a face.
‘Shame!’ she said unsympathetically, packing the food into a tin so that she could carry it more easily. ‘Just think yourself lucky you don’t have to go and face the ogre. After yesterday I don’t fancy seeing him again.’
‘What was that?’ her mother asked as she bustled out of the larder with a jar of her homemade marmalade.
‘Nothing, Mum,’ Robyn answered hastily. ‘Has that got to go too?’ she indicated the jar.
‘Yes. I thought of sending jam, but not everyone likes jam, But I know he likes marmalade, he bought a jar when he first moved in. Now can you manage all that?’
Robyn balanced the jar on top of the tin. ‘I think so. If you could just open the door for me?’
The tin weighed heavy in her arms, and despite her reluctance to reach Orchard House she found herself hurrying down the road, anxious to get rid of her heavy burden.
Orchard House looked unlived-in and neglected, and if it weren’t for the Jaguar parked outside and the thin spiral of smoke coming from the chimney she would have said the place was empty. There were no curtains at the windows, no sign of movement within.
Her knock on the front door received no reply, so she went around the back and tried there. Still no answer. But he had to be there, he would hardly go out and leave a lit fire. Besides, there was the Jaguar, his transport.
She knocked again, and still receiving no answer she tentatively turned the doorhandle and walked in. There were a couple of used mugs in the sink, but other than that the kitchen was bare, the cooker looked unused, the cupboards apparently empty. Surely no one could actually live in such discomfort?
Which brought her back to the whereabouts of Rick Howarth. He obviously spent little time in the kitchen, so leaving the tin and the jar of marmalade on the kitchen table she decided to search the rest of the house. Each room proved to be empty of furniture and habitation, having a musty smell to it. The last bedroom she came to seemed to be the one with the fire in, although the room still struck chill. There was a single bed, a table containing a typewriter, one hard-looking chair, and no other furniture.
Robyn repressed a shiver as she went back downstairs. How could anyone live in such starkness of human comfort? That brought back the question of why Rick Howarth was living in such conditions. Could her first assumption be correct, could he be a thief on the run?
And yet a village certainly wasn’t the best place to use as a hideout, a town was much better for obscurity, and Rick Howarth appeared to her to be intelligent enough to realise that. In a village the size of Sanford you couldn’t even sneeze without the neighbours knowing about it, and a newcomer aroused much attention; her own mother’s interest in Rick Howarth was evidence of that. Her mother wasn’t a nosey person, and yet even she seemed to have learnt a little about the new occupier of Orchard House.
But where was he? The house was empty, and yet he didn’t appear to be the type who enjoyed gardening. Did he look any type?
She returned to the kitchen, in a quandary about what to do. She couldn’t just leave the food here, he would wonder where it came from, and if she took the food back home her mother would want to know why. But she could have to wait ages for him to come back, she had no way of knowing—–
‘What the hell are you doing in here?’
Robyn swung round, paling as she saw Rick Howarth standing dark and dangerous in the doorway.
THE jar of marmalade she had been toying with slipped out of her hand and smashed on the tiled floor with a resounding crash, and she groaned as the sticky contents began to spread all over the floor. ‘Do you have a cloth?’ she asked desperately, going down on her hands and knees to begin picking up the bigger pieces of glass.
‘What the hell—–!’ Strong sinewy fingers came out and Rick Howarth grasped her arm roughly, pulling her effortlessly to her feet. ‘Are you stupid, girl?’ he rasped, looking down at her contemptuously as she struggled to be free.
Her head went back, her eyes flashing deeply violet in her anger. ‘Of course I’m not stupid, Mr Howarth,’ she snapped. ‘You just startled me, and I—I dropped the marmalade.’
‘I can see that.’ His mouth twisted.
‘Then you can also see that the floor is in a mess,’ she scorned.
He gave an impatient sigh before moving to the cupboard under the sink unit, taking out some ragged pieces of material and throwing them down on the table in front of her. ‘Here,’ he said abruptly, ‘help yourself.’
‘Thanks,’ she muttered, getting down on to the floor once again to wipe up the broken glass. It really was a mess—glass among the sticky concoction that was all that was left of her mother’s beautiful home-made marmalade.
‘I’m still waiting to find out what you’re doing in my home,’ he said tersely, his face a harsh mask, deep lines grooved beside his mouth.
He was no better dressed than he had been yesterday, the denims and shirt were still as disreputable, although the over-long dark hair looked newly washed, slightly waving as it grew low down over his collar.
‘I did knock,’ she told him resentfully. ‘And when there was no answer—–’
‘You just walked in,’ he finished coldly.
‘No!’ Robyn defended indignantly. ‘Well—yes. But it wasn’t quite like that!’
‘It never is.’ Rick Howarth’s mouth twisted contemptuously.
Colour flooded her cheeks at his rude manner. ‘I didn’t come here to be insulted—–’
‘If you didn’t violate people’s privacy perhaps you wouldn’t be,’ he snapped angrily, his eyes cold. ‘This is the second time in as many days that I’ve caught you on my property uninvited. Well?’ he quirked an eyebrow mockingly. ‘No comeback?’
Robyn bit her lip. ‘No,’ she admitted reluctantly, knowing she couldn’t deny the truth. ‘But—–’
‘Don’t go into lengthy explanations,’ he said dismissively, obviously bored by the subject—as he was probably bored with her! ‘Sufficient to say you were trespassing, the reasons don’t really matter. And today you’re doing it again, although you have some nerve actually entering the house.’
‘I told you, I—–’
‘You knocked and there was no answer,’ he scorned. ‘When that happens it’s the usual practice to go away and come back some other time.’
Robyn stood up at last, dropping the glass and sticky rags into the bin in the corner of the room. It was still sticky on the floor, but if Rick Howarth wanted it any cleaner he could damn well do it himself.
‘I was going away,’ she snapped. ‘I am going away, and I don’t intend coming back again—ever!’ She moved to the table, taking the lid off the tin. ‘I’ll just leave these with you,’ she slammed the dishes down on the table. ‘If you could return the crockery when you’ve finished with it I’m sure my mother would be grateful.’ She made a great clatter, deliberately so, as she put the lid back on the tin, just wanting to get away from this rude, ungrateful pig of a man.
He came over to look at the casserole and the pie. ‘What’s this?’ he rasped, his eyes narrowed.
Heavens, anyone would think they were trying to poison him! ‘What does it look like?’ she derided, sighing at his blank expression. ‘It’s food, Mr Howarth. Chicken,’ she indicated the deepest dish. ‘Apple,’ she pointed to the other one.
‘What’s it doing here?’
‘My mother thought you were in need of sustenance.’ She gave the impression that she personally couldn’t give a damn if he expired of starvation in front of her eyes.
His mouth tightened, his eyes glacial. ‘Your mother?’
‘Mrs Castle. She runs the village shop,’ Robyn explained with sarcastic patience.
‘Ah yes, I remember her,’ he nodded, his gaze sharpening. ‘And who gave her the impression that I looked in need of being fed?’
Once again colour stained her cheeks. ‘Well—I—–’
‘You did,’ he accused. ‘Well, I don’t need any hand-outs, Miss Castle,’ he told her furiously, his eyes glittering dangerously. ‘So you can tell your mother—–’
‘No, Mr Howarth, you can tell her, when you return the dishes.’ She walked to the door, two bright spots of angry colour in her cheeks. ‘I’m certainly got going to tell her what an ungrateful swine you are!’ and she flung open the door.
‘Just a minute,’ he ground out, grasping her arm in exactly the same place as before, adding further bruises she was sure. ‘Don’t be in such a hurry to leave.’
‘But you said—–’
‘I didn’t ask you to leave.’
‘You were rude about my mother,’ she flared. ‘She was only trying to be friendly, and you threw her gesture back in her face.’
‘Okay, okay.’ He let go of her arm, running a hand round the back of his neck in a weary gesture, looking down helplessly at the casserole. ‘Maybe I was a little ungrateful.’
‘A little?’ she scoffed.
‘Okay, I was rude,’ he accepted with a sigh.
‘You were, very.’
His mouth twisted into the semblance of a smile, the first lessening of his harshness that she had seen. ‘Don’t go over the top, Miss Castle,’ he drawled. ‘Just tell me what I have to do with this,’ he indicated the casserole, ‘to be able to eat it.’
Robyn frowned. ‘You heat it up.’
‘How?’ he asked helplessly.
She searched his hard face for any sign of mockery, but could see none. ‘You really don’t know how?’
‘I would hardly be asking if I did,’ he derided.
‘But I—You—Surely you must have been eating something in the time you’ve been here?’ She was incredulous at the thought of him not eating at all, although the whipcord leanness of him didn’t seem to indicate that he had been over-indulging.
He shrugged his broad shoulders. ‘The odd sandwich. And apples.’ He held up the apples he had brought in with him. ‘My dinner—I ran out of bread this morning.’
Robyn shook her head. ‘That’s ridiculous! What are you trying to do, kill yourself?’
Rick Howarth’s face darkened. ‘Mind your own damned business, Miss Castle,’ he rasped angrily, his features once again hard. ‘My eating habits are none of your concern.’
‘My comment wasn’t meant literally,’ she told him coldly, her head held high in challenge. ‘Although you don’t look well,’ she added daringly, waiting for the explosion.
It didn’t come; his face was suddenly pale. ‘I don’t feel well,’ he admitted shakily, swaying slightly on his feet.
Robyn rushed to his side, her arm going supportively about his waist. Although if he did pass out she would never be able to hold him up! ‘Sit down,’ she instructed firmly, envisaging an argument and not getting one as he pulled out one of the kitchen chairs and sat down. ‘When did you last eat?’ she asked concernedly.
‘I told you, I had the last of the bread this morning.’
She really didn’t like the look of him, he was very pale. ‘How much?’ she probed.
He shrugged. ‘One slice, I think.’
‘And before that?’
‘I had some apples yesterday,’ he said after a moment’s thought.
Robyn sighed. ‘No wonder you’re feeling weak! I’ll heat up the casserole for you if you’ll just sit there.’
His mouth twisted. ‘I wasn’t thinking of going anywhere.’
She was conscious of him watching her as she moved about the kitchen, miraculously finding a saucepan, a plate and some cutlery. The cooker was a very old model, probably left here by old Mrs Bird who had last lived here. But at least the cooker worked, that was something.
She turned round to find Rick Howarth still watching her, obviously completely recovered from the weakness that had suddenly washed over him. ‘Will you stop staring at me?’ she said irritably, muttering to herself as she burnt her finger on the rim of the saucepan. ‘Now look what you’ve made me do,’ she accused crossly, backing away as he stood up to come towards her, very dark and overwhelming in the close confines of this small room.
‘Let me see.’ He held out his hand for hers.
She shook her head. ‘It’s nothing.’
‘I want to see,’ he repeated firmly.
Robyn thrust her hand at him, gritting her teeth as he took his time inspecting it. She surreptitiously watched him beneath lowered lashes. He really was a very handsome individual, so much so that it gave her the butterflies just to be near him. But there was a mystery about him, one that made her feel nervous of being alone with him like this. After all, she didn’t know the first thing about him.
His mouth twisted derisively. ‘Just a superficial burn.’ He dropped her hand, his touch having been gentle but firm.
‘I could have told you that!’ She turned back to the cooker, her emotions disturbed as she served the casserole on to a plate before putting it down on the table.
‘Thanks.’ He sat down and began eating, slowly at first, and then with increasing appetite. ‘This is very good,’ he looked up long enough to say appreciatively.
‘I’m sure my mother will be glad to hear that,’ Robyn snapped sarcastically.
He sighed. ‘Look, I’ve apologised—–’
‘No, you haven’t,’ she instantly contradicted, placing black unsugared coffee in front of him, having found an old tin kettle that she had boiled the water up in on the top of the cooker, but unable to find milk or sugar. The store-cupboard contained only coffee, the refrigerator was completely empty.
‘Maybe I haven’t,’ he accepted grudgingly. ‘But precocious kids—–’
‘Kid!’ she cut in indignantly, her eyes blazing.
Rick Howarth smiled at her reaction, looking a lot less grim now that he had eaten something. ‘All right, schoolchildren of an indiscriminate age—–’
She drew an angry breath. ‘I’m not a schoolgirl, Mr Howarth. I’m eighteen.’
His gaze ran insolently over her slender body. ‘You aren’t very filled out for an eighteen-year-old.’
‘And you’re the scruffiest individual I’ve ever seen,’ she told him furiously, angered by his outspoken insults. She might not be voluptuous, but she had all the right curves in the right places—even if he was blind to them.
‘I am, aren’t I?’ he agreed with casual acceptance.
‘Yes!’ she snapped. ‘And your hair needs cutting too.’
He sat back, his plate empty. ‘What are you like as a barber?’
Her eyes widened to large violet orbs. ‘I’m not offering to cut your hair for you!’
‘But I—I don’t even know you!’
His smile was mocking. ‘Do you have to know someone before you can cut their hair?’
She was near exploding point at his audacity. ‘I came over here to return your money—Oh goodness,’ she groaned, ‘I haven’t given it to you.’ She took it out of her pocket and put it on the table. ‘I didn’t need it after all,’ she explained. ‘Besides, this was much too much.’
He made no effort to pick up the money, almost as if it meant nothing to him. ‘How come you didn’t use it?’
‘Dad took one off another bike we had. Anyway, as I was saying, I only came here to return that money and deliver the food—–’
‘Talking of food—–’ he eyed the apple pie she had just taken from the oven.
‘Help yourself,’ she slammed the dish down on the table. ‘I didn’t come here to act as your cook or to cut your hair!’
‘Your mother really is a very good cook.’ He quirked one dark eyebrow. ‘I don’t suppose you can cook as well?’
Robyn flushed. ‘Not as well, no. Why, were you thinking of offering me a job as your housekeeper?’ she scorned.
‘That’s not a bad idea.’
‘It’s a lousy idea. Look, I have to go now. I’ve been here far too long already.’ Her parents would wonder what on earth she was doing over here all this time.
‘What about my hair?’ he drawled.
‘Go to a professional barber,’ Robyn advised impatiently. ‘I have to get home now, it’s starting to get dark.’
Rick Howarth stood up, looking infinitely more relaxed than when she had first arrived. ‘I’ll drive you,’ he offered.
‘There’s no need. It isn’t far,’ she babbled. ‘I can quite easily walk.’
‘I said I’ll drive you. I wouldn’t like you to get attacked on the way.’
‘In Sanford?’ she derided.
‘Anywhere,’ he said seriously. ‘There are woods on the way back to your home, you could be dragged in there and no one would be any the wiser.’
‘Thanks!’ her mouth twisted derisively. ‘If I felt all right about it before I certainly don’t now!’
He opened the door for her. ‘Okay, let’s go.’ He moved to unlock the car door.
‘Shouldn’t you lock up the house?’ she asked once they were seated in the car.
He eyes her with some amusement. ‘There’s nothing in there for anyone to take.’ He manoeuvred the car out of the driveway into the road.
Robyn frowned. ‘Why don’t you have any furniture?’
His mouth tightened. ‘How do you know I don’t?’ he asked suspiciously.
She swallowed hard, realising her mistake too late. ‘I—er—I—–’
‘So you went prying around my home,’ he said harshly, his face rigid with anger. ‘I should have known, I suppose. All women are the same, aren’t they, you just can’t leave a man’s privacy alone.’
Robyn gasped at his accusations. ‘I only looked—–’
‘Because you were damned nosey,’ he rasped.
‘Yes!’ His teeth snapped together angrily.
‘Please, Mr Howarth—–’
He drew the car to a halt. ‘This is your home, isn’t it?’ he said coldly, staring straight ahead of him.
She looked about them in a daze the short drive to her home seemed to have taken no time at all. ‘I—Yes. But—–’
‘Goodnight, Miss Castle. Thank your mother for me.’
‘I—Yes, yes I will.’ She scrambled out of the car. ‘I just wish you would let me explain.’
‘There’s nothing to explain.’ He accelerated the Jaguar forward with a screech of the tyres, the passenger door slamming closed with the force of the speed.
Whew! What a volatile man—one minute almost human, the next back to the cold hard stranger she had first encountered. Admittedly she had no right to be walking around his home, but if she hadn’t been worried as to his whereabouts she wouldn’t have done such a thing.
‘You’ve been gone a long time, dear.’ Her mother looked up from her knitting as Robyn entered the lounge. ‘Have you been round to Kay’s?’
How she would have liked to have used her friend as an excuse, to have avoided all the curious questions that were bound to be asked once her family learnt she had been with Rick Howarth for the last hour and a half. But she couldn’t deliberately lie.
She sat down in one of the armchairs. ‘Mr Howarth wasn’t feeling too well—–’
‘Oh dear,’ her mother frowned. ‘He isn’t ill, is he?’
‘No, it was just lack of food.’
‘Did he eat what I sent him?’
‘Yes, that’s why I was so long. I—I wanted to make sure he ate it.’
‘Very wise,’ her mother nodded thoughtfully. ‘I don’t like to see a man starve himself for any. reason.’
Somehow Robyn didn’t think Rick Howarth was in the habit of going without his food. But she didn’t think he was in the habit of getting it himself either! He had been totally lost in the kitchen, and she would swear that he hadn’t used the cooker once in the three weeks he had been in residence. He was obviously used to someone getting his food for him, which pointed to him having a woman somewhere in the background of his life. Or he had would be more appropriate, because he was very much alone now. Maybe his marriage had broken up—a man of his age was sure to be married, which would account for his bitterness towards women.
‘Well, at least he has a hot meal inside him now,’ she told her mother. ‘He said to thank you, and that you’re a very good cook.’
Her mother flushed her pleasure. It wasn’t often she received compliments on her cooking; her family all took such a luxury for granted, although they soon complained if there was anything wrong with it.
‘I think he should get himself a housekeeper,’ her mother said absently.
Robyn didn’t tell her that Rick Howarth had half-heartedly offered her such a position. ‘There isn’t anything to “keep” in that house.’ She bit her lip, realising she was being indiscreet. Rick Howarth certainly wouldn’t thank her for discussing him in this way.
Her father peered over the top of his newspaper. ‘What do you mean by that?’ he asked in a puzzled voice.
She shrugged. ‘He doesn’t have a lot of furniture, that’s all. But as he’s alone I don’t suppose he needs it.’ She stood up. ‘I think I’ll go and wash my hair.’ She hurriedly left the room, reluctant to talk about Rick Howarth any more.
Unfortunately everyone else seemed to want to know about him. ‘Did you see your boy-friend last night?’ Selma wanted to know the next day.
Robyn gave an inward groan, wishing she had never mentioned Rick Howarth to the other girl. ‘He isn’t my boy-friend,’ she told Selma irritably.
‘But you said he was.’
‘Well, he—he’s just a friend. And he happens to be male. That’s really all there is to it.’
Selma shrugged. ‘It’s okay by me if you don’t want to talk about him.’
‘I didn’t say that,’ Robyn sighed. ‘There’s just nothing to tell.’
‘Like I said, if you don’t want to talk about him—–’
‘There’s really nothing to tell,’ Robyn repeated sharply.
Selma gave her a knowing glance. ‘Had an argument, did you?’
‘No!’ she flashed, then realised that here was a way out of this. ‘Yes,’ she deliberately contradicted herself. ‘We did, actually.’
‘I shouldn’t worry about it,’ Selma shrugged. ‘If he’s really interested he’ll be back.’
Considering the fact that Selma and the boy she had met over the weekend had already finished Robyn was surprised that the other girl felt qualified to offer this advice.
And Rick Howarth wouldn’t be ‘back’ in her life at all, in fact she wouldn’t be too upset if she never saw him again.
Her bicycle was back in use, so she wasn’t late back home that evening, although the house was deserted when she went in. It was half day closing at the shop, so her parents should have been here. She found them out in the yard, her father covered in oil from where he was working under the van, her mother looking on anxiously.
‘What’s happened?’ Robyn whispered to her mother, knowing that her father wouldn’t welcome such a question. Having to do any sort of mechanical work on the van was guaranteed to put her father in a bad mood.
Her mother grimaced. ‘It broke down on the delivery this afternoon. Your father had to get Mr Jeffs to help him push it back here.’
‘Oh dear!’ She could imagine her father’s fury. ‘Has he been working on it long?’
‘About two hours,’ her mother told her softly. ‘Your dinner is in the oven. Your father and I will eat later.’
‘Out delivering the groceries for us on his bike.’
Her eyes widened. ‘The van broke down on the way to deliver the groceries?’
‘Mm,’ her mother nodded. ‘Billy’s been out delivering since he got home from school.’
Robyn’s father appeared from under the van, his face smeared with oil. ‘Hello, love,’ he muttered. ‘Pass me that spanner, Barbara. The one at your feet,’ he added tersely as she hesitated.
‘I think I’ll go in and have my dinner,’ Robyn whispered to her mother.
She smiled understandingly. ‘I should.’
‘Barbara, the spanner!’
‘All right, Peter,’ she said patiently, handing it to him.
‘I’ll be in in a moment,’ she told Robyn.
Her mother’s steak and kidney pie melted in the mouth; it was a favourite with Robyn. Her mother came in as she was washing up her used crockery.
‘Everything all right?’ Robyn asked.
She smiled. ‘I think your father is just about finished. Billy’s just got home too, so I think we might be able to have our meal now.’
Robyn frowned. ‘There’s still one box of groceries here.’
‘Oh yes, that’s Mr Howarth’s.’
‘Mr Howarth’s …?’ she echoed in dismay.
‘Mm.’ Her mother heated up the gravy. ‘Billy didn’t think you would mind taking that one over.’
‘Well, I do! I don’t want to go over there, Mum,’ she said pleadingly. ‘I—I didn’t like him very much.’
‘Don’t be silly, dear, he’s very nice. He came over with these today,’ she indicated the carnations in the vase in the window. ‘Besides, Billy has to get his homework done now. And it won’t take you five minutes.’
‘Oh, all right,’ Robyn agreed grudgingly. ‘Just give me a few minutes to change.’
She checked the contents of the box on the way over to Orchard House, finding quite a few easily prepared meals. Well, at least he was going to start eating now. Her mother had also put in an individual steak and kidney pie. Robyn shook her head; her mother was never happy unless she was trying to fatten someone up.
Rick Howarth answered her knock today. ‘Well, well, well,’ he drawled mockingly. ‘If it isn’t Little Miss Castle!’
She gave him an impatient glare. ‘I brought your groceries.’
‘I’d given up on them,’ he held up the apple he had been eating.
‘Here you are,’ she held out the box towards him.
‘My father had a little trouble with his delivery van.’
He made no effort to take the box from her, opening the kitchen door wider for her to enter, which she did, reluctantly, shooting him a suspicious glance as he closed the door behind her.
‘I’m not staying,’ she told him stiffly, once again unnerved by him.
His eyes were narrowed to grey slits. ‘Why aren’t you?’
‘I wouldn’t want to be accused of snooping again.’
His mouth twisted. ‘So you hold grudges, do you?’
‘Certainly not!’ Her eyes flashed her indignation. ‘I just didn’t think you liked company.’
‘I don’t,’ he acknowledged abruptly. ‘Or at least, I didn’t.’
Her eyes widened, some of her resentment leaving her. ‘Are you saying you don’t mind my being here?’
‘Exactly.’ He threw the half eaten apple in the bin, holding up the steak and kidney pie. ‘What do I do with this?’
Robyn took it out of his hand, flicking the switch on the cooker and putting the pie inside. ‘I know what I’d like to do with it,’ she said vehemently. ‘And it isn’t anything pleasant.’
‘I didn’t think it would be,’ Rick Howarth said dryly.
‘Well, I can’t believe you’re so helpless.’ She peeled a couple of potatoes from the box and put them on to cook. ‘You look so—so—well, capable,’ she finished lamely.
‘Oh, I am,’ he leant back against the sink unit, ‘at some things. Cooking isn’t one of them.’
‘Neither is ironing, by the look of you,’ she grimaced at his clean but creased shirt.
He looked down at it too. ‘They turn out this way from the launderette.’
‘That’s because they should be ironed afterwards,’ she sighed. ‘They look expensive shirts too.’
‘Do they?’ his tone was distant. ‘It never occurred to me.’
Once again he had clammed up when she had got too personal. ‘Well, they do,’ she persisted stubbornly, wondering at her own nerve. This man had shown her more than once that he didn’t like any sort of interference from her, any reference of a personal nature. ‘You should iron them before wearing them,’ she added.
‘Are these ready yet?’ He lifted up the lid of the saucepan to look at the potatoes.
‘No!’ She angrily replaced the lid. ‘What on earth do you do here all day on your own?’ she asked with exasperation.
His expression became remote, his eyes cold. ‘This and that,’ he evaded tautly.
Robyn sighed. ‘Why are you so secretive?’
‘Why are you so nosey?’ he rasped.
She drew in a ragged breath, looking very young and vulnerable in a fitted light blue tee-shirt—one that definitely showed her curves!—and a navy blue and white cotton-print skirt, her short blonde hair newly washed, her face bare of make-up.
Rick Howarth was obviously aware of her youth too, his eyes narrowing ominously. ‘I must be insane,’ he muttered. ‘Or desperate,’ he added disgustedly.
‘Why?’ she asked in a puzzled voice, realising his mood had changed yet again. He certainly was a moody person!
‘Wasting my time talking to an eighteen-year-old,’ he answered bluntly.
Robyn gasped, paling at his intended insult, her hands shaking as she clenched them at her side. ‘You’re not only rude,’ she quavered, ‘you’re deliberately hurtful too!’ She ran to the door, intending to make her escape before she made a fool of herself.
She swung round, her bottom lip trembling precariously. ‘It’s all right, Mr Howarth,’ she choked, her look defiant. ‘I’ll leave and save you the trouble of wasting any more time.’
‘Robyn …’ He shook his head. ‘I didn’t mean it the way it sounded. I’m thirty-six. Do you know what that means?’
‘That you’re old!’ she retorted childishly.
His mouth quirked with humour. ‘I think I deserved that. Being thirty-six doesn’t necessarily mean I’m too old, it just means you’re too young.’
She frowned. ‘For what?’
He sighed his exasperation. ‘For—for this!’ His head lowered and he caught up her lips with his, moving them slowly against her in a slow, drugging kiss.
It was so unexpected that Robyn just froze, accepting the kiss although not exactly responding to it. She had been kissed in the past, although never by an expert as this man obviously was. His hands rested possessively on her hips, holding her to him, the pressure of his mouth increasing now, becoming more demanding. And she wasn’t able to meet that demand; her inexperience held her back.
Rick sensed her lack of response, raising his head to move savagely away from her. ‘I told you I was insane,’ he ground out. ‘Now I’ve just proved it.’
She blinked hard to clear her head. ‘How did you do that?’ she asked huskily.
‘Use your head, Robyn,’ he snapped, running his hand through his already untidy hair. ‘What I just did was totally out of character—–’
‘Kissing the child you still are,’ he corrected harshly. ‘God, I have to get back to civilisation!’
She swallowed hard. ‘But—–’
‘Would you leave?’ He turned his back on her, his shoulders rigid.
‘But your supper—–’ she said dazedly.
‘I can see to that myself. Will you just go!’ He raised his voice enough to make his point forcefully.
She went. What had happened in there? One minute they had been arguing as usual, the next Rick had been kissing her with a hunger that had made escape impossible. Not that she had really wanted to. That kiss had been devastating to her peace of mind, in fact she was still trembling from the contact of his hard body, his muscular thighs bruising against hers.
But he was hiding something, or from someone. Whichever it was he wasn’t the ideal man to be attracted to. And she was attracted, had been since the moment she first saw him, blazing anger and all. The harshness, the bitterness, shielded the natural sensuality of his nature—that much had been obvious from the way he had kissed her just now. That he rarely gave in to that sensuality was also obvious.
She would be curious to know what work he had done before coming here, what sort of life he had led. Whatever it was it had been vastly different from the way he was living now.
‘You’re looking a little flushed, love,’ her mother said worriedly when she arrived home a few minutes later.
Robyn blushed even more. ‘It’s just from the walk, Mum.’
Billy looked up from doing his homework on the dining-room table. ‘Sure it isn’t a case of loveitis?’
She frowned. ‘A touch of—–? No, it isn’t!’, she snapped angrily, blushing bright red after the intensity of the kiss Rick Howarth had just given her.
‘I bet it is,’ her brother taunted, sitting back in his chair to eye her mockingly. ‘What have you been doing over at Mr Howarth’s place all this time?’
‘Mind your own business!’ Robyn said tautly.
Billy’s interest quickened. ‘Why are you so defensive if he didn’t—–’
‘Shut up!’ she ordered shrilly, still in a state of confusion, remembering firm lips on hers, the warmth of Rick Howarth’s tongue as it ran tantalisingly over the sensitivity of her lower lip. The memory of that was too private to share with anyone, especially her tormenting little brother.
‘Robyn!’ her mother reprimanded.
She bit her lip. ‘I’m sorry, Mum. But he goaded me,’ she glared at Billy.
‘Boys will be boys,’ her mother sighed.
And men would be men! And at the moment Rick Howarth was a man seriously in need of a woman. His impatience with her inexperience had been evidence enough that it wasn’t really her he had been kissing, just a presentable female with a passable body. If he was married, as she suspected he was, then he would be used to—to a certain physical relationship, and that he was missing that relationship was obvious.
Billy grinned mischievously. ‘I only wanted to know if you and Mr Howarth—–’
‘Billy!’ his mother cut in. ‘Take your books and do your homework upstairs.’
‘Oh, but, Mum—–’
‘Go on,’ she ordered. ‘And you aren’t going anywhere until it’s finished.’
He collected up his books and moved to the door, poking his tongue out at Robyn as he moved out of sight of their mother. Robyn couldn’t really blame him, though. Normally she could take any amount of his teasing without complaint, usually gave back as good as she got. But not tonight, and not about Rick Howarth, not when she was feeling so raw about him.
‘Anything wrong?’ her mother asked gently.
‘Er—no. No, nothing is wrong,’ she managed a casual shrug. ‘I was a bit delayed getting back from Mr Howarth’s because I—I offered to get him his supper. He’s a bit helpless around a cooker.’
‘So I noticed, by the food he ordered. Everything out of a tin or packet.’ Her mother shook her head. ‘It wouldn’t do for your father.’
Robyn felt sure it didn’t really ‘do’ for Rick either. There was an air about him, a feeling that he usually demanded and received perfection in everything. Oh, she Wished she knew what the mystery was surrounding him!
They were particularly busy at the library the next day, this being the day for the local market, something guaranteed to bring more people into town, and consequently into the library. Robyn was on the check-out desk, stamping the books and taking in the cards, finding herself with a constant stream of people, so she was quite relieved when morning coffee-break came round, less pleased when she saw it was Selma and another girl in the staff-room.
‘Did he come round last night?’ Selma asked instantly.
Robyn wished, and not for the first time, that the other girl wouldn’t take quite such an interest in her love-life. By all accounts Selma had enough trouble keeping up with her own stormy relationships, apparently having found herself yet another boy-friend. Besides, Robyn was conscious of Joan’s interest in this conversation.
‘No, he didn’t,’ she replied stiffly, pouring herself a cup of coffee.
Selma shrugged dismissively. ‘Find yourself another one.’
She wished it were as simple as that. She just couldn’t get Rick Howarth out of her mind. He said he had to get back to civilisation—did that mean he would be leaving today, have disappeared from Sanford as suddenly as he had appeared? She knew she didn’t want him to do that, knew that for all her antagonism towards him she found him fascinating.
Things were still hectic after her break, and Mr Leaven took her off the front desk and put her on to tidying the non-fiction shelves. After Monday he seemed reluctant to allow her anywhere near the fiction section. He knew very well the medical section wouldn’t interest her at all, especially when she dropped one of the huge volumes on her toe.
She swore loudly, receiving a reproving look from Mr Leaven as she picked up the book, muttering to herself as she replaced it on the top shelf.
‘What did you say?’ Selma stood behind her, eyeing her flushed face curiously.
‘I said damn Oliver Pendleton. He wrote this book,’ she explained. ‘And I just crushed my toe with it.’
Selma tutted. ‘Never mind that now. He’s here,’ she announced triumphantly.
Robyn frowned. ‘Oliver Pendleton?’ she asked in a puzzled voice.
‘No, silly,’ the other girl sighed her impatience. ‘Your boy-friend, he’s here.’
‘Boy-friend?’ She gulped. ‘You mean—–’
‘Yes!’ Selma pulled her along beside her. ‘He just came to the enquiries desk,’ she appeared not to notice Robyn’s reluctance to follow her. ‘As soon as he said his name I knew who he was.’
Yes, it really was him. Standing authoritatively by the main desk, an air of detachment about him, was Rick Howarth.
AFTER the way they had parted the evening before Robyn was unsure of Rick’s reaction to seeing her again—after all, he had more or less thrown her out of his house. But she had a curious Selma looking on, obviously waiting for the big reunion.
‘Well, go on!’ Selma urged her forward.
There was nothing else for it, she would have to continue this charade—even though Rick wouldn’t have the faintest idea what was going on and would probably expose her for the liar she was.
She swallowed hard and moved determinedly forward, seeing Rick’s eyes narrow in recognition, his expression instantly one of wariness. ‘Hello, darling,’ she greeted huskily, colour flooding her cheeks at her use of the false endearment. ‘If you’ve come to take me out to lunch you’re a little early.’ She looked at him appealingly, hoping he would understand her silent plea.
He hid his surprise very well, his. gaze shifting momentarily to Selma as she stood several feet away from them, obviously listening avidly to their conversation, although trying to give the impression that she was interested solely in the row of books in front of her.
Rick’s eyes flickered with something that looked like anger, and for a moment Robyn thought he was going to denounce her as a liar. Then he smiled, a smile that didn’t reach the hardness of his eyes, although that wasn’t visible to anyone but her. ‘I don’t mind waiting,’ he drawled deeply. ‘After all, you’re worth waiting for.’ His eyes clearly mocked her now.
Her flush deepened, and she looked selfconsciously at Selma. ‘You can’t wait for me here,’ she told him abruptly. ‘I—I’ll meet you down at the café in the square in half an hour.’ She held her breath as she waited for his reply.
‘Okay,’ he shrugged. ‘Half an hour it is.’ He nodded abruptly and was gone.
She began to breathe easily again. Rick had no reason to do so, and yet he had helped her out. But she doubted he would actually go to the café, he had only agreed to help her save face in front of Selma. She was very grateful to him, though, and would have to go round to his house tonight and thank him—and explain! Explaining her deceit wasn’t going to be easy.
‘He’s gorgeous!’ Selma said ecstatically, her eyes dreamy.
Rick had looked rather handsome today. He always did to her, but today his clothes, fitted brown trousers and shirt, a cream jerkin zipped partway up his chest, had been quite smart. His hair was still too long, of course, but didn’t detract from his looks at all. Selma was right, he was gorgeous.
‘I wish I could meet someone like him,’ Selma added eagerly. ‘Do you think he has a brother?’
‘No. I—Well—He could have. I don’t know,’ Robyn finished lamely.
The other girls’s eyes were wide. ‘You don’t?’
‘No,’ Robyn answered abruptly. ‘We—we haven’t really discussed his family.’
Selma grinned. ‘I think I’d have better things to do when with a man like him too!’
Robyn blushed as the other girl’s meaning became clear to her. ‘Oh, I don’t—We don’t—I haven’t known him very long,’ she said awkwardly.
‘With a man like that I shouldn’t think you would need to.’
Her gaze sharpened. She didn’t like the way Selma kept referring to Rick. ‘A man like that?’ she queried tautly.
Selma smiled. ‘Well, he isn’t likely to want to just sit and hold your hand, now is he?’
No, he wasn’t, she had known that from the hard demand of his kiss. There could be no gentle prolonged wooing with this man, he was far too experienced to accept such an insipid relationship.
Robyn turned to leave; she still had the Art section to tidy. ‘I have to get back to work,’ she said stiffly. ‘And I think you’d better do the same,’ she added with a warning look in Mr Leaven’s direction.
Selma grimaced. ‘I don’t think he was ever young,’ she muttered, but went back to work anyway.
Only half Robyn’s mind was on what she was doing now, her thoughts all of Rick. What had he been doing here? The obvious answer was that he had come to take out a book!—but he hadn’t left with one. But he hadn’t come to see her either, because although the emotion had been quickly masked he had been surprised to see her here. She would ask him tonight, fully intending to go to Orchard House and thank him for his help.
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