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Christmas At His Command
By Helen Brooks
Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Copyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Oh, no, please, please don't do this to me." Marigold shut her eyes, thick dark lashes falling briefly on honeysmooth skin before she raised them again to glare at the dashboard in front of her. "'What are you doing to me, Myrtle? We're miles from anywhere and the weather's foul. You can't have a tantrum now. I didn't mean it a mile or two back when I called you crabby."
The ancient little car didn't reply by so much as a cough or a splutter, but Marigold suspected there was a distinctly smug air of "You should think before you speak" to Myrtle's demeanour as the car's four wheels settled themselves more comfortably into the two inches of snow coating the road in front of them. The old engine had been hiccuping for the last half an hour or so before dying completely.
Great. Just great. Marigold peered out into the driving snow that was already coating the windscreen now the wipers had ceased their labouring. In another hour it would be dark, and here she was, stuck in the middle of nowhere and with what looked like a very cold walk in front of her. She couldn't stay in the car - she'd freeze to death out here if no one came along - and for the last little while there hadn't been sight of a house or any dwelling place on the road.
She reached out and unhooked the piece of paper with the directions to Sugar Cottage off the dashboard, wondering if she had taken a wrong turning somewhere. But she hadn't, she assured herself in the next moment. She knew she hadn't. And Emma had warned her the cottage was remote, but that had been exactly what she wanted. It still was, if only she could get to the flipping place!
She studied the directions again, frowning slightly as she concentrated on working out how far she still had to go along the country track, her fine curved brows drawing together over eyes which were of a vivid violet-blue. The last building had been that "olde-worlde" thatched pub she'd passed about ten miles back, and then she'd driven on for - she consulted the directions again - probably another mile or two before turning off the main road into a country lane. And then it had been just a rough track for the last few miles. Perhaps it wasn't so far now to Sugar Cottage? Whatever, she had no choice but to start walking.
She allowed herself one last heartfelt sigh before turning and surveying the laden back seat. Right. Her wellington boots were in her old university knapsack along with an all-enveloping cagoule that nearly came down to her toes! She had packed her torch in there too after Emma had emphasised umpteen times how isolated and off the beaten track the cottage was. Mind you, Emma had been more concerned about the electricity failing - a common occurrence in winter apparently - or Marigold having to dig her way to the car from the front door. They'd both assumed she'd actually reach the cottage before any dramas reared their heads.
There was a large manor house across the other side of the valley, Emma had said, but basically the small cottage in Shropshire she had inherited from her grandmother in the spring was secluded enough for one to feel insulated from the outside world.
And right now, Marigold told herself firmly as she struggled into her thick, warm fleece before pulling on the cagoule, that was worth braving a snowstorm for. No telephone and no TV, Emma had continued when she'd offered Marigold the use of the cottage over Christmas - her grandmother had refused to allow any such suspect modern inventions over the threshold! And the old lady had baked all her own bread, kept chickens and a cow in the paddock next to the house, and after her husband died had remained by herself in her home until passing away peacefully in her sleep aged ninety-two. Marigold thought she'd have liked to meet Emma's grandmother.
The cagoule and wellington boots on, Marigold quickly repacked the knapsack with a few necessary provisions from the bags of groceries piled high on the front passenger seat. She would have to leave her suitcase and everything else for now, she decided regretfully. If she could just reach the cottage tonight she'd sort everything out tomorrow somehow. Of course, it would have helped if she hadn't left her mobile phone in the flat back in London, but she'd been three-quarters of the way here when she'd remembered it was still sitting by her bed at home and it had been far too late then to go back for it.
The last thing she did before leaving the warm sanctuary of Myrtle's metal bosom was to stuff the directions to Sugar Cottage in her cagoule pocket. Then she climbed out of the car, locked the door and squared her shoulders.
Finding the cottage in a snowstorm was nothing, not after what she'd been through in the last few months, she told herself stoutly. And if nothing else it would be a different sort of Christmas, certainly different to the one she'd had planned with Dean. No doubt right now he and Tamara were sunning themselves on the Caribbean beach she'd chosen out of the glossy travel brochures they'd pored over for hours when they'd still been together. She couldn't believe he was actually taking Tamara on the holiday which was to have been their honeymoon. On top of all the lies and deceit, that had been the ultimate betrayal, and when one of their mutual friends - awkward and embarrassed - had tipped her the wink about it she'd felt like going straight round to Dean's flat and socking him on the jaw.
She hadn't, of course. No, she had maintained the aloof, dignified silence she'd adopted since that first white-hot outburst when she'd found out about the other woman and told Dean what a low-down, slimy, no-good creep he was as she'd thrown her engagement ring in his blustering face.
The familiar welling of tears made itself felt deep in her chest and she gritted her teeth resolutely. No more crying. No more wailing after what was dead and finished. She had made herself that promise a couple of weeks ago and she'd die before she went back on it. She wanted nothing to do with the opposite sex for the foreseeable future, and if this cottage was really as far away in the backwoods as Emma had suggested she might just make her an offer for it now. Emma had confided she was thinking of putting it on the market in the new year.
Marigold began walking, hardly aware of the snowflakes swimming about her as her thoughts sped on. She'd been thinking for some time, ever since the split with Dean at the end of the summer, in fact, that she needed a complete change of direction and lifestyle.
She had been born and bred in London, gone to university there, where she'd started dating Dean in the last year of her art and design degree, and after her course ended had found a well-paid job in a small firm specialising in graphic design. She had worked mainly on posters and similar projects to start with, but when the firm had decided to diversify into all manner of greetings cards her extensive portfolio of work - accumulated throughout her training years - had come into its own, and she had found herself in the happy position of working solely on the new venture. Dean had proposed about the same time - twelve months ago now - and she had thought her future was all set. Until Tamara Jaimeson came on the scene.
"Ow!" As though the thought of the other girl had conjured up an evil genie, Marigold suddenly found herself falling full length as her foot caught in what was obviously a pothole in the rough road. The snow cushioned her landing to a certain extent but when she tried to stand again she found she'd wrenched her ankle enough to make her grimace with pain, and now all thoughts of a remote little studio, somewhere where she could freelance both to her present firm - who had already expressed interest in such a proposition - and others, couldn't have been further from Marigold's mind.
She could only have been limping along for ten minutes before she heard the magical sound of a car's engine behind her, but it had seemed like ten hours, such was the pain in her foot.
It was still quite light but she dug into her knapsack and brought out the torch nevertheless, moving to the edge of the road by the snow-covered hedgerow. She couldn't risk the driver of the approaching vehicle missing her in the atrocious weather conditions.
The massive 4x4 was cutting through the snow with an imperious regality which highlighted its noble birth and also underlined poor Myrtle's less exalted beginnings, but the driver had already seen her and was slowing down, even before she switched on the torch and waved it frantically.
Excerpted from Christmas At His Command by Helen Brooks
Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.