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'Oh, no, no.' Beth pushed again, harder this time, even as she told herself it was pointless. She was locked out. If she had been standing outside her flat in London that wouldn't have mattered. There were at least a couple of neighbours always around that she could have called on in the block in which the flat was situated, and one of them could have telephoned her sister who had a spare key for emergencies. But this was not London
She glanced somewhat wildly about her, vitally aware she was clad in nothing but bubblegum-pink silk pyjamas with spaghetti shoulder straps. The dark windy night was not encouraging. And rain was forecast.
When a cold nose nudged one hand she glanced down at the big dog who was surveying her with impatient eyes.
'I know, I know,'she muttered.
'We're out here and your dinner's in there, but it was you who insisted you needed the loo a minute ago.'
And it was her who had followed Harvey outside with the torch so she could make sure he didn't disappear into the blackness. Which was doubly daft in hindsight, considering he knew it was dinner time—Harvey's favourite moment of the day—and also that there was nowhere he could really go. The garden surrounding the little cottage she was renting was all neatly fenced.
A gust of wind brought the smell of smoke on the air, reminding Beth she had lit the fire in the sittingroom a few minutes before. And the guard wasn't in front of it but standing to one side of the slate hearth.
Panicking now, she scurried round the outside of the cottage to see if any of the windows just might be on the latch, although she doubted it. When she had arrived at the place half an hour ago, travel weary after a journey she wouldn't have wished on her worst enemy but hugely relieved to have found the isolated building in the dark, everything had appeared shuttered and closed. After retrieving the front door key which had been hidden under a plant pot as the agent had told her, she had lugged all her stuff inside, only stopping to bung perishable food into the little fridge before she had stripped off for a wonderfully welcome shower.
Once the stickiness of the tortuous journey—which had consisted of traffic jam after traffic jam—had been removed she hadn't been able to face the thought of dressing again, and so had pulled on her pyjamas before opening a bottle of wine and lighting the fire. Harvey's enormous basket established in a handy corner, and a tin of his favourite food open in the tiny cottage kitchen, she'd been about to feed him when he'd made it plain he needed to be let outside for a moment.
'Ow!'As she slipped on something squelchy and ended up on her bottom in something which smelt utterly disgusting, her eyeballs rattled with the jolt to her system. The urge to cry was suddenly and very childishly paramount, but instead she recovered the torch which had fallen out of her hand and struggled to her feet. Harvey seemed to have quite forgotten about his dinner and was entering into this new game with gusto, jumping about her and barking delightedly. He'd found the long journey from London to Shropshire boring but this was altogether more like it.
Thankfully the torch still worked, but Beth didn't need its light to tell her a fox or badger obviously skulked about the cottage garden at night. The smell on her pyjamas and fluffy mules did the job more than adequately.
Walking round the building to the front door again, she stood for a moment, shivering in the cold May night. The day itself had been quite warm, too warm in view of the hours spent stuck unmoving in traffic, but the night air had a bite to it which said summer wasn't quite round the corner yet.
She would have to smash a window and climb in somehow; there was nothing else for it. Beth gazed at the beautiful old leaded lights in the sitting room windows. All the glass was the same, and when she had drawn up earlier and admired the mullioned effect she had thought then they must be quite valuable. The cottage was tiny and chocolate boxy, complete with thatched roof, wooden beams throughout and all the charm one would expect considering it was a couple of centuries old. But charm didn't help her right at this minute.
Harvey's stomach was rumbling and the game had lost its appeal. He began to whine and when an enormous long-haired German shepherd dog whined it wasn't the same as a poodle.
Beth couldn't hear herself think.
'All right, all right.' She shushed him with a click of her fingers. She was going to do a considerable amount of damage if she smashed one of these lovely old windows but she couldn't think of any other course of action. As far as she could recall, she hadn't passed another dwelling place for some miles once she had turned into the long lane which had eventually led to the cottage. Besides which, she was hardly dressed to go tramping round the Shropshire countryside.
She shone the torch on the window as she pressed the glass. Each window was stone mullioned and the leaded lights appeared to be supported by steel bars behind them. She wasn't even sure she could climb in if she did manage to break the glass. Of course she could smash one of her car windows but she'd freeze to death in there tonight, and in the morning she'd still have the same problem, her car keys and everything else being in the cottage.
'Oh, Harvey.' The urge to cry was back. This, on top of everything else that had happened lately was too much. Why, when she was trying to pick herself up and sort herself out, was she hampered at every turn? It just wasn't fair. She sniffed miserably and Harvey, now sensing all was not well, pressed protectively against her legs. She plumped down on the doorstep and put her arms round the shaggy neck, tears running down her cheeks. And it was like that, huddled into the warm animal fur, that she first noticed moving lights on the hillside.
Someone was driving down the lane leading to the cottage! Jumping up, she dashed past her car and the small area of lawn which made up the front garden and opened the big swing gate, holding Harvey's leather collar as she waited for whoever it was to reach them. She shone the torch anxiously into the road, hoping the vehicle owner wouldn't just drive straight past. It wasn't as if she looked as though she might be a dangerous mugger or something, she reasoned frantically, not in her pyjamas. But for that same reason she wanted any potential rescuer to see Harvey and know she had the sort of guard dog it wasn't wise to ignore. You heard such horrible things these days about women being attacked when they asked strangers for help.
It seemed an eternity before the car reached them but it could only have been a minute or two. Then brilliant headlights lit up the darkness, swallowing the meagre light from the torch. A large estate car swept by before Beth could blink. For an awful moment she thought the driver hadn't noticed them standing on the grass verge, but then she heard the screech of brakes after the car had disappeared from view round a bend in the road. A few seconds later it reversed and came to a stop at the side of them.
The window wound down and a deep male voice, in tones of mingled amazement and amusement, drawled, 'What the dickens are you doing out here dressed like that?'
Enjoying myself? For a moment she almost let her tongue rule her brain before logic told her she had to get this guy on her side, whoever he was. Biting back the caustic retort which had sprung to her lips, she said evenly, 'I appear to have locked myself out when I was seeing to my dog. I don't suppose you've got anything in the car I could force the door with?' She swung the torch in the direction of his face as she spoke and saw him flinch as the bright light hit his eyes.
'Sorry.' She lowered it immediately but the brief glimpse had been enough to tell her the man was dark-haired and youngish; beyond that she hadn't been able to see.
'You're asking me to do a bit of breaking and entering?' Amusement was definitely paramount now and Beth had to take a deep breath before she could say sweetly, 'I suppose so, yes. Can you help?' She was shivering from head to foot and in a minute her teeth would being to chatter, and this clown found the situation funny. The unfeeling so-and-so.
She hoped it was her shaking he had noticed and not the way her nipples were standing out like chapel hat pegs against the thin silk of her pyjama top. Not that she could do anything about it; she couldn't even cross her arms over her chest with one hand holding Harvey's collar and the other clutching the torch.
'A bit,' she said steadily.
'Which is why I'd like to get back in as soon as possible.'
The engine was turned off and the driver's door opened, a big figure uncurling itself from the dark depths of the vehicle. The next moment she was being handed a bulky jacket which must have been on the passenger seat beside him.
'Here, put this on,' he said easily, glancing down at Harvey who had begun a low rumbling growl in the back of his throat.
Beth didn't try to stop the dog; in fact she made a mental note to give him an extra handful of his favourite biscuits once they were inside. The man was tall—very tall—and intimidatingly broad-shouldered and muscular from what she could ascertain in the dim light. She didn't like to shine the torch up into his face again to get a good look at him but she was feeling distinctly nervous, being so scantily clad.
The next moment the stranger crouched down so that his head was in line with Harvey's powerful jaws, his voice relaxed and soothing as he said, 'Steady, boy. No one's going to harm your mistress,' and offered a hand for the dog to sniff.
There was a brief pause and then the rumbling stopped and a large pink tongue licked the man's hand as Harvey's tail wagged a greeting. Beth wondered if Harvey would look quite so pleased with himself if he knew he'd just blown the extra biscuits.
'Nice dog.' The man stood up and stretched out a hand, saying, 'Give me the torch while you put the coat on.'
Beth didn't see any point in arguing. If he was going to hit her over the head with something and have his wicked way with her, it might as well be the torch as anything else. Clearly Harvey was going to be no help whatsoever.
The man pushed past her and walked to the cottage door as she slipped the jacket on. It drowned her, but right at this moment that was very welcome. She followed him, Harvey trotting at her side, and watched as he first tried the door and then walked round the building checking each window as she'd done. Of course he didn't end up sitting in fox or badger dung.
When he re-emerged from the back of the cottage Beth said a little testily, 'I'd already tried all the windows.'
He didn't comment on this. What he did say was, 'What's that terrible smell? Raw sewage?'
'I slipped over at the back of the house. I think an animal had been there.'
'And how.' He didn't bother to try to hide his amusement. She wasn't about to stand in the wind and cold discussing how she smelt. And he hadn't exactly been a gentleman to mention it in the first place.
'So, can you get me in?'she asked shortly.
'It's freezing out here.'
'Probably, but I don't intend to. There's no point in forcing the door or a window and causing a considerable amount of damage when you can contact the agent in the morning and ask them to call by. This place is rented by Turner & Turner, isn't it? The local estate agent?'
'So I suggest you come back to my place and get a good night's sleep and we'll sort it in the morning. You haven't got anything on the stove in there, have you? Nothing's going to cause a problem?'
Was he mad? She would no more think of going back to 'his place' than flying to the moon. Stiffly now, Beth said, 'I lit a fire. I can't leave it.'
'You already have,' he pointed out silkily.
'The guard wasn't in front of it.'
'There's hardly any smoke coming out of the chimney so it's probably dying out already. It'll be all right.'
So now he was an expert on fires? 'I can't possibly just walk away; you must see that?'
'Of course you can.' The comment about the estate agent had told her he must be a local, and this was confirmed now when he added, 'I know John Turner; I'll call him myself in the morning and explain the situation.You'll be back in by ten o'clock. He'd prefer that than breaking and entering, I'm sure.'
She didn't want to be back in by ten o'clock, she wanted to be back in now.
'If you know him, can't you phone now?'
She could see the silhouette of his head shaking as he said, 'No can do. Friday night is John's snooker night with the lads. Nothing gets in the way of that.'
This was absolutely ridiculous.
'I couldn't possibly go home with you, Mr ?'
'Black. Travis Black. Why couldn't you come home with me, Miss ?'
'My name's Beth Marton and I'm not in the habit of accepting overnight accommodation with complete strangers,' she said tightly, refusing to acknowledge Harvey, who had set himself down at the side of Travis Black for all the world as though he was his dog instead of hers. The traitor.
'We're not strangers, we've introduced ourselves.' It was lazy and the amusement was back tenfold.
'And rest assured I'm not so desperate for female company that I've seized on your unfortunate predicament with rape and pillage in mind. It's a genuine offer; you'll sleep alone, especially in view of that unusual scent you're wearing.'
Swine. Dignity was hellishly difficult in view of the pink silk pyjamas and the smell, but Beth made a stab at it as she said crisply, 'Thank you for the offer but I couldn't, Mr Black. There's Harvey, for one thing.'
'I wasn't proposing you tie him up and leave him here. Of course he comes too.' He turned at this point, beginning to walk back to his car.
'Still, it's up to you.'
'Where are you going?' Beth knew her voice was too shrill but she couldn't help it. He wasn't going to just leave her here, was he? No one would be so hard-hearted would they?
'Home.' He didn't bother to turn round.
'It's late and it's been a long day. I'm hungry, tired and it's beginning to rain. You can come with me or stay here—it's up to you.'
She didn't move until he had actually seated himself in the car; she couldn't quite believe he was just going to drive off. When he started the engine she admitted defeat, especially with the few spots of rain turning into a steady downpour.
She hurried across the garden to the gate, Harvey bounding at her heels, and tapped on the driver's window. It lowered. This time she kept the light just clear of his eyes but allowed the torch to give her a clear view of his face. It was an interesting face. Not handsome exactly—it was too rugged for that and the bright light showed up a scar on one chiselled cheekbone, but it had something which would make any red-blooded woman take a second glance. His hair was ebony-black but she couldn't determine the colour of his eyes with the brightness of the light distorting everything.
'I can't stay out here all night,' she muttered.
'There might not be anyone else pass by.'
'Sure fire bet,' he agreed pleasantly.
'My house is the only other building along here and the lane finishes at my front garden.'
And he had just been going to drive off knowing that? 'Where do I put Harvey?' she asked stiffly.
In reply he got out of the car and opened the back of the estate. Harvey jumped in and settled on the big blanket there as though he had been doing it all his life. Beth glared at the animal as Travis pulled the door down. He then walked round the vehicle and opened the passenger door for her without saying a word, but she just knew he was smiling inside.
She slid in.
'Thank you.' It was said through gritted teeth.
'My pleasure.' He closed the door very gently.
Posted August 20, 2013
I've read many of Helen Brooks but I think this is her best.
A yummy Hero who is not a jerk, and is
crazy about the Heroine.
This a very similar to A Christmas Bride, also by Brooks.
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