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The roses were glorious.
Heavy-petaled, crimson peach and palest blush-pink, they glowed through the florist's window. Even through the glass Gray Mackenzie could almost smell their lush perfume.
Around her the honking horns and squealing brakes of Oxford Street faded away to nothing. As if in a dream, she watched herself turn and push open the door to the neat little florist shop.
She would buy a dozen of them.
For herself. Just because she wanted to.
It was a gesture totally unlike her, of course. Lingering jet lag, perhaps?
Gray worried her lower lip. She'd arrived only last night after a hellish flight from Philadelphia, and this morning her pale cheeks showed the strain.
"Yes, miss. 'Ow can I 'elp you?" The proprietor was short, red-cheeked and impatient to get on with his work, though he was trying hard not to show it.
Gray pointed. "Those roses in the window. They'remagnificent. No, not the modern hybrids. There, to the rightthe old ones. The centifolia roses with the densely packed petals. 'Lisette,' aren't they?" She delighted in the cluster of rich fuchsia blooms tucked in an elegant crystal vase.
There was something sad about her, the bald-headed proprietor thought. Not like the usual Yanks who came in here, flashing their plastic, talking fast and loud. Only hybrids would do for their sort.
But this one was different. Careful and slow in her speech, she was. And she was a rare and proper beauty, what with that auburn hair spilling over her shoulders and skin that seemed almost too translucent to be real.
And those eyes! Purest sea-blue, they were. They put him in mind of a tropical beach at dawn.
The florist frowned, wondering why such a beauty went about dressed in a dark skirt and a nondescript gray jacket. Then he sniffed. None of his business, after all.
But the flowers were.
He nodded, approving her choice. "Quite right, miss. 'Petite Lisette.'
'Normandica' over 'ere. I've a few 'Fantin Latour,' as well. You know something of roses?"
"Not a great deal. It's just a hobby." Gray knew the blooms must be terribly expensive. "I thinkyes, I'll take them. All of them."
The florist's estimation of her soared several notches. She had good taste, this red-maned Yank. But perhaps she didn't understand exactly what she was looking at. "That will be ten pounds each," he murmured discreetly, just in case she wanted to back out.
Gray's eyes flickered. The figure was extortionate!
She did a quick calculation, counting nearly two dozen cut stems. In one sweep she saw most of her cash going.
But those roses would be worth every penny. Every shilling, she corrected herself, savoring the rich-veined damask of the petals, drinking in their heady scent. "I'll take them all," she said decisively.
Yes, it was time she put the past where it belonged and treated herself to something special.
The florist gave her an approving smile. "Very good, miss. I'll just fetch some paper to tie them up." A moment later, he disappeared into a curtained alcove.
Behind Gray the front door opened with the tinkle of a bell. Chill air swirled through the little shop. Crimson petals dipped in the swift currents and Gray brushed a curl from her cheek.
Behind her came the creak of a floorboard, and then the rasp of a dry voice.
A familiar voice, even after five years.
A voice straight out of her nightmares. "Lovely, aren't they?"
She spun about, her heart pounding. Dear God, don't let it be him. Anyone but him!
But the man in the shadows by the door was broad-shouldered, his skin bronzed from long hours in the sun. Bleached nearly white, his long hair feathered low over his eyes.
Brown eyes, not green.
Not like her ex-husband's at all.
Gray squinted into the shadows. Appearances could be changed, after all. She of all people knew that.
The low, dry voice continued. "Such a pity that they die so soon after they're cut." The man's brow rose when Gray did not answer. A smile drifted over his lips. "Sadly, that is often the way with things of beauty. They never last, you know."
Suddenly all the old panic arose. Gray felt her hands begin to quiver. The cold eyes narrowed, studying her, frankly curious now.
"Ex-excuse me. II must go." She spun about and stumbled to the door, fear tightening her throat.
Behind her the curtain swished open. "'Ere, miss, come back! You've forgotten your roses!" But Gray was too busy stumbling through the impersonal crowds of Oxford Street to hear.
"JUST OVER THE HILL, it is. Take the first roundabout and then watch for the second turning. That road will take you direct to Draycott Abbey, miss."
Gray smiled her thanks to the healthy, red-faced village boy and put her rented Mini into gear, trying to forget the curiosity that had gleamed in the boy's eyes as she had asked directions to the abbey.
When are you going to stop being so jumpy? she asked herself angrily. It's been five years, after all. Why can't you just let it go?
But Gray knew why.
Because her ex-husband was free again. Because all the high-tech equipment in the world hadn't kept him behind bars.
Away from her.
And now it was just a matter of time until he tracked her down, just as he'd sworn to do.
Her fingers clenched against the steering wheel as she fought down dark memories. Memories of what he'd threatened to do if she revealed any part of the dirty little arrangements he excelled at.
But Gray had revealed what she'd heard. Every detail, every damning fact she had spilled to a packed courtroom and an army of eager reporters.
And the last thing Matt had screamed before he was jostled out of the courtroom was that he'd find her somehow. And when he did, he'd make her pay.
Biting down a jerky breath, Gray sailed through the roundabout and eased the gearshift to low. She tried to tell herself she was making too much of the situation. Matt had escaped, yes, but the security officers in Washington had assured Gray it would be just a matter of days until he was back behind bars.
Meanwhile, they had told her, a visit to Englandespecially to this quiet little backwater of Sussexwould be an excellent idea.
As Gray drove, she went over the conversation, looking for details she might have missed then. But no, the officerHarrington, wasn't it?had been calm, professional and totally unalarming.
There was absolutely nothing to worry about, he'd promised her. Not with all the levels of protection and security that had surrounded her case.
Yes, she was to go off to Sussex and work. Leave the heavy stuff to them, he'd ordered briskly.
The man was a professional. Of course he was right, Gray told herself as forested estates rushed past in a blur of green. She had to forget all this brouhaha about her ex-husband and concentrate on her work.
Especially now, when she had the assignment of a lifetime before her.
At that moment, a second lane came into view. Above the trees Gray caught a quick glimpse of weathered towers and stark stone walls.
Her heart began to pound.
How well she remembered her friend Kacey's letters describing the great moat-encircled structure with its picturesque stone gatehouse and climbing roses. Blond-haired Kacey, the new bride of the Twelfth Viscount Draycott, had been an un-shakable friend to Gray at a time when she had desperately needed one.
And Gray was determined to do her best work for Kacey now.
She shoved the gearshift into Second and sent gravel flying up, savoring the feel of the Mini as it hummed down the narrow drive.
As she passed beneath a line of overhanging oaks, the years seemed to slip away. Suddenly she was young again, with all things possible.
Without warning a speckled brown deer darted across the road. She slammed her foot onto the brake and wrenched the wheel violently, barely managing to avoid the animal.
Gray's breath hissed free. Her fingers gripped the wheel. Abruptly, she remembered another time she'd driven down a quiet country lane, remembered how much she'd been enjoying the feel of speed and control when a dog had shot out onto the road.
Matt had cursed and wrenched the wheel away from her. That night, they'd had their first disagreement. Their first full-blown quarrel. Their first
White-faced, Gray clutched the wheel, struggling with fear and raw despair. Down, down, she pushed them, back into the dark cubicle she reserved for her past. For anything to do with the other woman she'd been before her name had been changed, and her features altered.
Before she'd become Gray Mackenzie.
Put everything to do with Matt out of your mind, the counselors had ordered. You're Gray Mackenzie now. Forget that Moira Jamieson ever existed.
With a ragged breath, Gray sat back.
She ought to be happy, after all. She was making a name for herself at last. Her work was found in architecture quarterlies and trade publications on three continents. She was almost established enough to pick and choose her assignments.
She was a success, by anyone's standards.
But inside, Gray knew differently. Inside she was still shy, gawky Moira Jamieson, an uncertain little nobody from a backwater town in central Maine.
Matt had known that, too. In fact, he'd never let her forget it.
Out of the corner of her eye Gray saw a dark shape separate from the thick woods.
Her heart lurched as a tall figure emerged from the dark tree line. Gray stiffened, half-expecting to see her ex-husband's sullen face swim into view before her.
But it didn't, of course. Matt would never find her here, not on this quiet estate tucked away in the middle of the English countryside. With any luck he might even be back behind bars already.
Keeping that thought firmly in mind, Gray turned to study the man walking toward the car. The moment she did, she regretted it.
Heat poured into her cheeks; her breath caught in her throat. He was nothing at all like her former husband. Hard, keen eyes the color of wintry seas stared back at her from a rough, weather-hardened face. His nose was high and his lips were full. Dark and thick, his hair brushed the top of his broad shoulders.
It was a face capable of much pride, Gray thought. A face capable of much stubbornness. It was also a face dark with secrets, secrets that would not be easily revealed to anyone.
And it was indeed the face of a stranger, just as she'd known it must be.
Yet somehow not quite a stranger?
Something nagged at the back of Gray's mind. Something Kacey had told her in one of her short letters before she'd left on her honeymoon with Nicholas Draycott?
Gray frowned as she saw the man scowl, then move directly in front of the car. Of all the colossal arrogance! The insolent fellow was blocking the road!
Reluctantly, Gray coasted to a halt, making no attempt to conceal her irritation. Muttering under his breath, the man stalked straight toward her.
A moment later, his black-clad legs banged full against the front fender, almost as if he were unaware that the car existed. Cursing roundly, he stared down at his knee, then looked back up at Gray.
Drinking, no doubt. Just her luck to run into an English lush! But sweet heaven, the man was tallwell over six feet.
Unconsciously Gray studied the hard muscles rippling beneath his soft dark shirt and the long thighs that braced and tensed as he moved around to stare at her through the open window.
And Gray stared back, pointedly and quite rudely.
Her interest was strictly professional, of course. Merely the impersonal concern of an artist assessing a possible subject.
But that explanation didn't stop strange tendrils of heat from licking at her cheeks and uncoiling through her stomach. And that knowledge only made Gray angrier.
She gulped down a deep breath, fighting for calm. Get a hold on yourself, Mackenzie. The man's a stranger, remember? Just a stranger.
"Where are you going, woman?"
His voice was low and richly accented. For some reason the sound of it made Gray flush, made the fine little hairs at the back of her neck prickle and rise.
"Straight up this driveif you'd just move out of the way, that is." Maybe even if you don't, Gray thought irritably.
"What business have you here?"
Her hands tensed against the steering wheel. "I might ask the same of you!"
Gray glared, but even then the man did not move back from the window. Clearing her throat, she tried a more direct attack. "Do you mind? I've just had a long ride from London and I was hoping to" She halted abruptly. "This is Draycott Abbey, isn't it? Don't tell me I missed the second turn."
With every word the man's black mood seemed to deepen. "Yes, of course this is the abbey, woman! And these are Draycott lands. But how in the name of all that's holy did I" He stopped, then plunged long fingers through his thick black hair.
Gray barely noticed his tension, too relieved by the assurance that she was finally near her destination. Soon she would be ensconced in one of the lovely old chintz-and flower-filled rooms Kacey had described. There she would be safe from Matt, safe from any and all distractions while she completed the work she'd come here for.
But the man outside the window continued to frown, showing no sign of being finished with his interrogation. "What sort of game are you playing at, woman?"
Gray felt her cheeks redden. Game? Was the fellow mad or just terminally rude?
"I've come on an assignmentfor Lord Draycott, not that it's any of your business." Suddenly she stiffened. "You can't begood heavens, you aren't Lord Draycott, are you? That is, I expected someone"
Shorter? Younger? Less imposing?
She didn't finish, held captive by the intensity of his slate-dark gaze.
"I? Nicholas Draycott?" The man's dark brows rose as he laughed bitterly. "By God, that's rich! The woman thinks"
Suddenly a rustling at his feet called his attention to the ground, where a sleek gray cat pressed against his black-booted ankles.
He seemed to catch back his words, his eyes narrowing. Gray didn't mean to give him time for any more questions. "Well, if you're not Lord Draycott, then I'm wasting my time here. So if you don't mind" she gestured at the gravel drive "I really would like to reach the abbey before the light goes."
The man's frown grew to a decided scowl. "Mind? Who am I to mind? When am I ever consulted about anything?" Suddenly he bent closer, his eyes scouring her face. "Ah! You must be the artist. American, I believe."
Gray merely glared. "Are you going to move or not?"
The slate eyes glittered. "I believe notMiss Mackenzie." Suddenly Gray felt coldvery cold. So what if he knew her name? Why did any of this matter?
But it did. For some reason it mattered intensely. Perhaps it was something about the man's face, something sad and bitter in the way he laughed
Enough, Mackenzie. Get out while you still can.
One last question leaped to her lips. "Who are you? What gives you the right to cross-examine me?"
Did she merely imagine that he stiffened? "I? I am Adrian. The caretaker, as you would call it."
Gray frowned. Caretaker? He was like no caretaker she'd ever met before. A tiny network of lines radiated from the corner of his eyes, and she had a sudden urge to touch them, smooth them.
"Have I everI mean, have we ever"
Ridiculous! Of course they hadn't met before.
But how else was she to explain the familiarity of that lean face, her instinctive knowledge of the pain that haunted those wintry eyes? The heat hidden in that stern mouth?