Cassandra Hall decides not to waste the honeymoon. She sets off to London. What was supposed to be her dream week turns into a nightmare time of introspect, self-doubt. Then she meets James, literally falling at his feet in an attempt to save his Afghan hound from colliding head on with the traffic.
James is witty, charming, too good-looking and also–not available. Despite this, Cassie is captivated by him. What follows is a week of fun, companionship and a bonding that Cassie has never experienced.
James, sensing Cassie’s unhappiness, goes out of his way to make up for her jerk of a fiancé’s rejection. He is drawn to her vulnerability–something he finds disturbing, threatening to shatter all he thought he knew about himself. Cassie, he senses, is falling in love with him. He ought to back away but cannot. Cassie bravely makes her true feelings known and when he rejects her, he knows he has broken her heart. He is left confused, guilty because . . . James has a secret.
Cassandra Hall stared across the park. A fresh autumn breeze teased at her shoulders, cool fingers determined to infiltrate the gap between neck and coat. Hastily, Cassie pulled up her collar.
The day was September mellow. Trees whispered to one another, shedding their tiresome load of brown and russet, mocking the aged park attendant as he struggled to keep up with the deepening blanket of leaves. A gentle sky, cream and blue-tinged, held a warm sun. The rays danced upon her knees, and yet Cassie shivered. Her toes felt numb inside her new, wildly expensive boots, but then she was numb all over.
She raised her head, gaze caught by a line of Prussian blue weaving and skipping across the expanse of lush green. Cassie smiled. The frustrated teacher called out, pleading with her pupils to maintain a straight, orderly line, but the excited children ignored her, giggling into gloved hands. A day out in the park was obviously an exhilarating break from the tedium of the classroom. Sighing, Cassie turned her head away. Oh to be five again, innocent, happy, and carefree.
Her gaze drifted across to the lake where lovers made the most of the Indian summer. Gaudily painted rowboats dotted the pewter water, trailed by a lone duck taking his final swim before boarding the last flight south for winter. Cassie wished she could go with him.
The wind picked up, whipping at her hair, carrying with it the infectious laughter of some love-struck couple. Cassie felt sick. Everywhere she turned, reminders of love reared up to slap her in the face. Love. Now that was funny. The way she felt had little to do with love. It was all about betrayal, humiliation. So what could she do about it? Not much. Go home maybe? Cut short her week in London? She dug her hands deep into her coat pockets, clawing at the lining, resentment battling with humiliation in her soul. Martin had paid for this week, and as he oh so generously had pointed out, it would be a shame to waste it. “You should go,” he’d urged her. Generous? No. Insensitive? Definitely.
Jane’s caustic remark bounced around in Cassie’s head. Her best friend had acidly pointed out Martin was just trying to ease his conscience. So be it. A week in London, although alone, beat the alternative hands down. Walking through her home village of Ambury, stoically trying to deflect well-intentioned arrows of sympathy was something she could do without. Besides, Cassie had a sneaking suspicion the villagers’ show of compassion masked their true sentiment. Triumph. Cassandra Hall—prettiest, most popular girl in school—had finally got hers and then some.
“Sod them!” Cassie kicked at a fallen conker. “They can all go to hell.”
Her bravado was short-lived, and a wave of misery crashed over her, seeping into every pore. She wanted to scream out with the unfairness of it all. Once again, she focused on the innocent grey-blue lake. How easy it would be. It must be fairly deep, ten meters or twelve maybe? Who would hear her call out as frigid waters spilled over her head? Would anyone care as the icy depths devoured her?
A frantic yell pierced her cloak of self-pity, and she jerked her head around in time to catch a flash of silver-blond disappear into a copse of graceful willows.
“Wait until I get my hands on you, you ungrateful bitch!”
Cassie watched, fascinated, as a man dressed in paisley pyjamas crashed between the trees, desperately trying to catch up with his four-legged prey. She would have laughed except Madonna executed a textbook three-point turn and veered to the right…to the park gates. Cassie’s heartbeat accelerated as imminent tragedy unfolded before her eyes.
He’d never catch up. The dog was much too fast, too agile, as graceful as a gazelle in flight. Gaze flitting to the cacophony of traffic beyond the park fence, Cassie didn’t waste time thinking it through. The glorious silver mane brushed against her legs, and she propelled herself off the bench with hot rod thrust.
Clearly, Madonna didn’t appreciate the heroic gesture. As Cassie and dog rolled among the mulched leaves, the canine yelped its frustration at this undignified rugby tackle. Conveying her pique, she sank sharp teeth into Cassie’s arm.
“Christ!” Cassie gasped. “You little…”
It was evidently a case of “sticks and stones.” The dog strained to get away, her aristocratic head whipping round ready to inflict more incisor damage. Cassie’s arm throbbed, and her knees smarted from being dragged along the ground. But she wasn’t about to give in, and she clung to her prize with pterodactyl tenacity.
Tanned hands deftly unwound her fingers from blond locks and dragged the haughty, unrepentant beast over to the bench seat. Cassie tried to stand, but her legs gave way, and with a painful thump, she fell back onto her backside. Air struggling to fill her lungs, she watched the stranger slide the slip lead over the dog’s patrician head before threading it through the wrought iron latticing.
“Stay there, you revolting animal!”
Madonna, by now, looked bored.
“I’m so sorry…”
Cassie took in a gulp of steadily chilling air and looked up into cerulean blue eyes. Legs still shaking, she took the offered hand and stumbled to her feet.
“Are you hurt?”
His voice was deep, melodious and tender…making her feel curiously vulnerable.
“No.” She bit back a sob of pain. “Yes.”
He scanned her over, eyebrows knotting together when he saw the tear in her sleeve. They were exquisitely shaped eyebrows, fine and yet setting off a very masculine forehead. Cassie wanted to giggle. Here she was, recently savaged by a walking carpet, and she was noticing his eyebrows? His eyelashes were amazing too—long, thick and coal black. Hysteria, she reasoned. I’m in shock.
“She bit you?”
The eyes darkened to indigo, the smooth forehead creasing with worry.
“I don’t think she drew blood.” Cassie pulled at the toggles on her coat and shook her arms free. “No…no blood.” There was, however, a bruise the size of a golf ball forming, two Dracula indents at the centre.
His lips were drawn in concern. “Look perhaps we’d better have a doctor check you over. Dog bites can be dangerous.” He turned and threw the sulking Madonna a malevolent glare.“Even pedigree ones.”
“No.” Cassie shook herself free from his searching eyes. “Really, it’s fine. Look, the skin’s not even broken, and I’m well up to date on my tetanus jabs. I know about these things, you see. My dad’s a vet…” Realizing she was rambling, she clamped her mouth shut. He didn’t look convinced. Probably thinks I’m going to sue, she thought.
“I’m okay. Just wet.”
“You’re a mess.” He raked his fingers through midnight blue hair.
The last time Cassie had seen hair that colour had been on Elvis’s head, and his had come out of a bottle. Not so with this stranger. The soot eyelashes were testament to that. And anyway, who was he to say she looked a mess? He was running around London barefoot and in stupid pyjamas. He smiled then, and her heart skipped a beat. Her pique was forgotten. Why, she didn’t know; only that for a brief moment, she felt faint.
She dragged herself away from those hypnotic eyes to stare down at her legs. Her tight were shredded at the knees, and her boots scuffed to high heaven. The burgundy Wallis coat lay in a crumpled heap, caked in mud. A gust of wind swirled above her chest, and she wrapped her arms around her body.
The boyish smile disappeared to be replaced with concern. “Look my house isn’t far from here. Just on the other side of the park. Come home with me. You can clean up a bit, and I’ll make some tea.”
This time Cassie didn’t shrink from the proverbial hand of friendship. Loneliness filled her heart. She couldn’t remember conveying her agreement, but she must have done because he bathed her in that warm smile, relief radiating from those luminous eyes.
“It’s the least I can do. You’ve saved me from an early grave.”
“Oh?” Cassie hugged herself tighter. In true British fashion, the weather had made another of its notorious U-turns, and dirty grey clouds now scurried above their heads, dragging the sun’s frail warmth with them.
“Christ!” The stranger banged his fist against his forehead. “I’m a prize idiot. You must be freezing.”
With bullfighter panache, he wrenched free of his dressing gown and draped it across her shoulders. Underneath, his chest was bare, smooth, and well muscled. Not quite Spartan warrior fit but pretty impressive all the same. Another giggle gurgled in Cassie’s throat. “Do you always run around London in your PJ’s?”
“Pardon?” The eyebrows connected again. “Oh…” Full lips parted in a wide grin, displaying even white teeth. “No. I was in the shower. I’d just got back from the airport, and I was knac…it doesn’t matter. The stupid housekeeper must have left the door open on her way out, although I’ve told her time and time again. My pyjamas were the first things that came to hand. When Miss Asheera Madonna Blond Ambition over there makes a break for freedom, there’s no time for wardrobe inspection. She’s faster than Carl Lewis on an overdose of energy drink.”
“Yes. Afghans are sight-hounds. Very fast. They are free spirits…” She rambled again.
“No kidding!” He grunted in Madonna’s direction. “I’ve a good mind to leave her tied to the bench all night—except my sister would murder me. The dog’s hers, by the way. I’m just babysitting. Ungrateful walking floor mop. The dog, I mean, not my sister, although she can be a spoiled little bi…sorry. This isn’t getting you warmed up, is it, and it’s starting to rain.”
True. Large splats dropped from the sky, but strangely, Cassie’s chill had melted away. His voice was intoxicating.
“Come on.” One hand on her elbow, he pointed her in the direction of the park gate. “If we run, we can do it in five.”
“And Madonna?” Cassie glanced over her shoulder to where the dog studied the sky with apprehension, bemused expression clearly stating it wouldn’t do to ruin the hairdo.
“I suppose you’re right.” He worked at the knot. “Come on Lady Godiva, and no funny business, or it’s the last Crufts Best in Show you’ll ever see.”
A sharp tug of the lead, and Madonna broke into a stride that would have made Pavlova weep. Graceful, fluid, so regal.
Her owner was pretty good, too, and Cassie struggled to keep up with his long gait. Her knees throbbed, and her head pounded from days of suppressing her emotions. It occurred to her she could be playing a dangerous game here. After all, who was this man in the garish night attire? And how did she know the Afghan belonged to him…or his sister? He could have borrowed Madonna to use as a babe magnet. And then again…Cassie stole a glance at her disheveled apparel and wrinkled her nose. Some babe!
They reached a pillar-box red door just as the heavens decided to quit pussyfooting around and let rip with monsoon ferocity. Cassie was beyond aiming for chic. Water ran in icy rivulets down between her collar and neck. Her hair, she knew, was well on its way to Medusa snake effect. So much for anti-frizz.
“Here,” he slipped the lead into her hand. “Watch her. She’s as slick as an oil spill and just as hard to clean up after.”
He turned the key in the door, but before he could open it fully, Madonna wrenched free from Cassie’s grasp, shot between his legs, and disappeared into the house.
Her hand flew to her mouth, and she stared in horror at the muddy trail now snaking across what she imagined was very expensive flooring. “Oh…I’m sorry.”
His eyes shut in silent curse, and Cassie wanted to die.
“And the ditzy cleaner isn’t back until Friday. Never mind. It’s not your fault. I should have warned you about her Houdini tendencies. Aristocratic blood, my arse. More like fucking peasant. Excuse my French.”
Cassie would have excused Swahili; she only wanted to get out of the rain. She got her wish. Huddling her inside, he slammed the door behind them.
Cassie’s jaw didn’t so much as drop as disengage from her skull. The house was stunning. Awe-struck, her gaze scanned the high beamed ceiling before coming to rest on the huge sash windows. She counted at least eight. The floor was a plank oak expanse, original she imagined, and buffed to a mirror shine. The errant housekeeper might have been crap at dog watching, but she certainly was handy with the beeswax. The furniture was authentic cracked and scuffed cozy. Squashy leather in muted shades of taupe and hazelnut brown. Burnished gas lamps dotted the white-stuccoed walls. Turned to dim, they bathed the room in warm, bronze shadows. The back wall boasted a stone fireplace so vast Cassie imagined you could spit-roast an ox in it. The grate was neatly stacked with logs ready to be lit, and their apple scent mingled with the heady aroma of pine, vanilla, and sandalwood candles. Somewhat feminine touches, she mused, and yet the room was so masculine.
“I love it.” The words spilled from her lips, hushed and reverent.
“Yes, it is lovely, isn’t it?” He pulled the sodden dressing gown from her shoulders. “Alex is a genius at the interior decor. I wasn’t so sure about the open plan thing but it works.”
It was an understatement. Cassie felt as if she’d stepped into the pages of an OK! shoot. Her mother would have been gutted by jealousy. Her efforts at interior design couldn’t really compete. Thinking of her mother brought reality crashing back down on her head. Together, they’d spent hours, painstakingly putting the new house in order, poring over material swatches, deciphering the intricacies of the paint colour code and for what? Her temples throbbed. She could never live in that house now.
Light pressure on her shoulders dragged her back from the depths of her not too distant past.
“Are you okay? You look a little pale?”
“It’s nothing. I’m…I’m fine.” The sob burst out from its confines. “No. No I’m not.” Hot tears scalded her eyes before spilling down her cheeks. “I should be though, shouldn’t I? I’m on my honeymoon.”
Viviane Brentanos was born in Reading U.K. in 1958. Her father is English and her mother is French. although there is a strong vein of Spanish on my maternal grandmother’s side. She was educated at various schools before completing Sixth Form College at St Peter’s Huntingdon. Writing is her passion. She writes romance with a quirky, humorous Brit twist.