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The last thing she wanted was a walk. The air was raw and the grey skies heavy but Ashley was jittery. Her morning had been spent on a stuffy train, watching the bleak and unfamiliar landscape whizzing by while she psyched herself up to meet her new boss. Telling herself that there was no need to be jittery and that he couldn't possibly be as intimidating as the woman at the employment agency had implied.
Unfortunately, her arrival at his imposing manor house had done little to reassure her—because the powerful and wealthy Jack Marchant wasn't there. And when she'd asked Christine—his part-time housekeeper—when he was expected, the middle-aged woman had raised her eyes to heaven in that you-tell-me kind of way.
'Oh, you never can tell with Mr Marchant,' she'd pronounced airily. 'That man is a law unto himself.'
Now, as Ashley made her way along the frozen lane, flexing her fingers inside her woollen gloves to try to keep them warm, she realised that Jack Marchant seemed to have a daunting effect on women of a certain age. The woman at the employment agency had already described him as 'formidable'—a word which covered a multitude of sins, in Ashley's experience. Did that mean he was bad-tempered and bossy—or just rude enough not to bother turning up to meet his new secretary?
Not that it mattered what he was like— his personality was irrelevant. Ashley needed this job and she needed the money. Badly. It was a lucrative short-term contract and she could put up with pretty much anything—even this brooding northern landscape where the air seemed so cold and so biting.
She still wasn't good at change—even with all the practice she'd had growing up in the care system, and then being passed from one foster family to another. She still got that claustrophobic feeling of dread whenever she had to meet new people and ease herself into a different situation. Learning what people liked—and, more importantly, what they didn't like. Listening out for what they said—but looking in their eyes to see what they really meant.
Because almost from the cradle, she had learnt to read between the lines. To differentiate between words and intent. To trace the truth behind a smile. She had learned her lessons well. It had been a survival technique at which she had grown to excel and one she still instinctively practised all the time.
Her fingers fractionally warmer now, she stood still for a moment as she looked around her. Leafless trees stood sentry over the bare branches of the high hedgerows and over to the left lay the wild expanse of the moors. It was a lonely place, she thought—with a stark and austere air to it. But as she walked further up the incline of the lane towards the brow of a hill she could see the distant spire of a church and the jumble of rooftops. So at least there was a village—with people and shops and who knew what else?
And if she turned to look the other way, she could see Blackwood Manor spread out below her. From this distance, it looked even more imposing than when she'd been inside—its elegant grey form straddling the land and making her realise just how large the house was. From here she could see its dark woods and the scattering of outbuildings—as well as the distant glitter of a lake.
She looked down at the estate and tried to imagine what it must be like to own that much land. Was that what made Jack Marchant so 'formidable'? Did having buckets of money corrupt you, as people often said it did? She was so lost in this particular daydream that at first she barely registered an unexpected sound until it grew louder, and closer. An unfamiliar noise was reverberating through the air and it took a few seconds for Ashley to realise that a horse was approaching.
Taken off guard, she felt disorientated—a feeling which only increased when she saw a colossal black shape thundering down the lane towards her. It was a huge beast of a thing, which looked as if it had sprung straight from some childhood nightmare— its powerful limbs rippling beneath the dark silk of its glossy coat. On its back was a man who, stupidly, wasn't wearing a protective helmet, so that the wind streamed through his raven hair. Ashley blinked.
She became aware of faded blue jeans, a powerful body—and a face which was hard and forbidding. And she found herself staring into a pair of steely eyes—eyes as black and fathomless as a starless night.
Standing transfixed in the middle of the lane, she was stilled as much by the expression on the man's face as the sensation of seeing such an enormous animal at such close quarters. But suddenly the horse seemed almost on top of her and she jumped out of the way with a little yelp. Instantly, the horse reared up in alarm— just as a large black and white dog rushed out from one of the hedgerows and began to chase after it.
Suddenly, everything became a blur and she heard a succession of noises. Another whinnying sound. A muffled but furious curse—followed by a sickening thud— before the horse crumpled to the ground, swiftly followed by the man riding it.
The dog was barking dementedly. It came running up to her—as if demanding that she help—and Ashley rushed forward, scared at what she might find. The horse struggled to its feet, but the prone shape of the rider was terrifyingly still. Fear clutched at her throat as she crouched down beside him and bent over him. Was he was he dead? Her heart raced as she touched his shoulder with shaking fingers. 'Hello? Hello? Are you okay? '
The man moaned and Ashley winced. 'Can you hear me?' she questioned urgently—because hadn't she read somewhere that you were supposed to keep injured people from drifting into unconsciousness? 'I said—can you hear me?'
'Of course I can hear you—when you're inches away from my ear and bellowing into it!'
His voice was deep and surprisingly strong—and more than a little irritated. Thick lashes parted by a fraction to reveal a gleam of the steely eyes she'd seen just before he'd fallen and Ashley felt a huge rush of relief flood over her. He was alive!
'Are you hurt?' she questioned.
He grimaced as he stared up into a wide pair of anxious eyes and trembling lips and his own mouth hardened. What a stupid question! Why act concerned when it was her own stupid behaviour which had caused the fall in the first place? 'What do you think?' he questioned sardonically as, gingerly, he moved his leg.
For a moment Ashley was distracted by the movement and even more by the muscular thigh which was covered in faded denim. She swallowed. 'Can I can I do anything?'
'Well, you could start by giving me some space,' he growled. 'Stand back, woman— and let me breathe.'
His voice was so authoritative that Ashley found herself obeying him, watching as he tried to stand up—but he didn't make it any further than kneeling. At this, the dog went completely crazy—barking and leaping at the man until he silenced it with a terse command.
He seemed to slump—before sitting back down heavily in the lane and, instinctively, Ashley moved closer. 'Look, you really shouldn't move.'
'How do you know what I should do?'
'I read it in a first-aid book. And if you're hurt—which clearly you are—then I could go and get help. I think you should stay put. I've got my mobile, I can ring for an ambulance. You might have broken something.'
Impatiently, he shook his dark head. 'I haven't broken anything. It's probably just a strain—and certainly nothing to fuss about. Wait a minute.' At this, he tried standing again, and then groaned.
Ashley didn't move as he gathered his breath, taking the opportunity to have a closer look at him. Because he was the kind of man who made you want to keep on looking
Even his current crumpled stance couldn't hide his impressive height, the broad sweep of his shoulders or the powerful, denim-clad legs. His windswept hair was raven-black and his eyes looked blacker still. At some time he might have been in a fight—or perhaps an accident— for there was a tiny scar by the side of his lips. Sensual lips, Ashley found herself thinking—though their cushioned curves were outlined by a hardness which seemed to have been stamped on them indelibly. Perhaps because they were twisted in pain from his fall.
His features were too rugged to be described as conventionally handsome—but something about his presence made him seem compelling. He exuded a rampant masculinity which should have unnerved her—but oddly enough, did not. Because in that moment—wasn't he injured, and therefore a little vulnerable?
'I can't possibly think of leaving you— not like this,' she said stubbornly.
He shook his head. 'Of course you can! It's getting late and these lanes aren't good to walk on in the dark. Especially when the cars come speeding along.' Granite-hard eyes bored into her curiously. 'Or maybe you know the area well?'