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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 herbecause the powerful and wealthy Jack Marchant wasn't there. And when she'd asked Christinehis 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 bossyor just rude enough not to bother turning up to meet his new secretary?
Not that it mattered what he was likehis 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 anythingeven this brooding northern landscape where the air seemed so cold and so biting.
She still wasn't good at changeeven 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 likedand, more importantly, what they didn't like. Listening out for what they saidbut 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 thoughtwith 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 villagewith 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 insideits 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 outbuildingsas 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 disorientateda 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 nightmareits 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 bodyand a face which was hard and forbidding. And she found herself staring into a pair of steely eyeseyes 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 alarmjust 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 cursefollowed by a sickening thudbefore the horse crumpled to the ground, swiftly followed by the man riding it.
The dog was barking dementedly. It came running up to heras if demanding that she helpand 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 urgentlybecause hadn't she read somewhere that you were supposed to keep injured people from drifting into unconsciousness? 'I saidcan you hear me?'
'Of course I can hear youwhen you're inches away from my ear and bellowing into it!'
His voice was deep and surprisingly strongand 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, womanand let me breathe.'
His voice was so authoritative that Ashley found herself obeying him, watching as he tried to stand upbut he didn't make it any further than kneeling. At this, the dog went completely crazybarking and leaping at the man until he silenced it with a terse command.
He seemed to slumpbefore 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 arethen 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 strainand 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 fightor perhaps an ac-cidentfor there was a tiny scar by the side of his lips. Sensual lips, Ashley found herself thinkingthough 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 handsomebut something about his presence made him seem compelling. He exuded a rampant masculinity which should have unnerved herbut oddly enough, did not. Because in that momentwasn't he injured, and therefore a little vulnerable?
'I can't possibly think of leaving younot 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?'
'No,' she said. 'Not at all well.'
'No, I guess if you did you'd have realised you shouldn't stand motionless in a blind spot in the path of a galloping horse,' he said drily, his hand rubbing at the back of his neck as he flicked her another look. 'Where do you live?'
'Actually, I've just moved to the area today.'
It seemed foolish in the light of his accident and the fact that she was crouching rather uncomfortably in a damp lane to be discussing what she was doing there. But there was something so insistent about the way he was looking at herthose hard black eyes firing out a questionwhich made it impossible for her not to answer. And impossible for her not to feel a little dizzy as if he were sucking all the strength from her with that strange, searing gaze of his. 'To Blackwood Manor,' she said.
Black brows arrowed together and his lips quirked into an odd kind of smile. 'Ah. So you live there, do youthe grey house which overlooks the moorland?'
Ashley nodded. Strange to think that the imposing manor was now her home. 'Yes.' She gave a little wriggle of her shoulders. 'It's not mine, of course. The house belongs to my new boss.'
'Really?' he mused, his black eyes flicking over her. 'And what's he like, this new boss of yours?'
'I don't know. I haven't met him yethe was out when I arrived. I'm his new PAwell, I'm more of a secretary really. He's ' She was about to start telling him that she'd been employed to type his novel for him but suddenly Ashley halted, feeling a fooland wondering why on earth she was telling this complete stranger her business. Was it something to do with that intense way he had of looking at her? Or the fact that it seemed easier to talk than to focus on the odd prickling of her senses, which seemed to stem from his rather daunting proximity.
She began to scramble to her feet to put some distance between them. Discretion was a necessary part of being someone's personal assistantand what if Mr Marchant got wind of the fact that she'd been blabbing indiscriminately to someone she'd just met? 'Actually, I'd better get going, if you're absolutely sure there's nothing I can do,' she said hurriedly. 'He might be back by now and I wouldn't want to keep him waiting.'
'Hold on a moment,' he said suddenly as he prepared to stand up. 'You can help me if you want. Just catch hold of my horse, will you?'
It was the first time that Ashley had even considered the riderless horse and now she glanced over at it. A great big powerhouse of a beastit was even more intimidating than its rider. Standing a little way down the lane, it was stamping its hooves in turn and snorting great clouds of smoky breath into the chilly atmosphere.
'Or are you afraid?' he questioned silkily, his gaze running over her face and lingering there.
She felt more fearful of that brilliant black gaze than of anything the horse could throw at herbut Ashley knew enough about self-preservation to realise when it was necessary to admit ignorance.
'I don't really know anything about horses,' she confessed.
He nodded. 'Then don't go near him. I'll manage,' he said. 'Hold still.'
Placing his hand on Ashley's shoulder, he rose slowly to his feet and she experienced the weirdest sensation as his fingers pressed into her flesh. Was it because she had so rarely been touched by a man that it felt suddenly intimate? As if that brief touch had scorched through her clothes to the chilled body beneathsetting her skin on fire. Little flames of something unfamiliar licked at the pit of her stomach and she swallowed as he steadied himself.
In the cool of the darkening afternoon, their eyes met and Ashley felt as if she were melting beneath the scorching impact of his gaze. Was it her imagination or did his mouth tighten and a little nerve begin to flicker at his temple? Was she alone in the bizarre thought that somehow it felt as if the most natural thing in the world was for him to take her in his arms? And to then crush her against that hard, powerful body of his She felt her mouth dry and then, abruptly, he pulled away and began to walk slowly towards his horse, making small crooning noises beneath his breath as he approached it.
Mesmerised, Ashley watched him as he sprang onto his horsethe way she'd seen it done countless times on TV. And it was as if his fall and the fact that he'd been temporarily winded had been nothing but a figment of her imaginationfor he made the movement look completely effortless. It was poetry in motion, she thought as he leaned over and patted the animal's flank and then glanced up to find her eyes still fixed on him.
For one insane moment she wanted to beg him not to goto stay and make her feel properly alive againso that she could experience that strange and disconcerting clamour of her senses once more. But the insanity passed as she looked up at him.
'Thanks for your help,' he said abruptly. 'Now go. Quickly. Before it gets dark and you startle some other hapless person with those big, wide eyes of yours. Casey! Here, boy!' The dog came running up and the man tightened his knees around the horse's sidessending Ashley one final mocking look before he began to canter off down the lane.