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"Excuse me, but-"
Josie nearly jumped out of her skin. Not only was the deep masculine voice unfamiliar, it was totally unexpected. Though there were houses scattered about the countryside, none was close enough to invite curious neighbors to stroll over, particularly on a dreary fall afternoon.
But even as she turned quickly away from her van to face him, she remembered that the owner of Westbrook was also staying "on the place" in a cottage, as the realtor had offhandedly explained. He hadn't explained a few other vital bits of information, however, and she was suddenly very conscious of her faded jeans, sloppy sweatshirt, and the disastrous state of her once-neat braid.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."
Josie looked up into apologetic gray eyes, and for an instant couldn't say a word. He had a slight southern accent, which she liked, and the words were certainly sincere enough-but neither was responsible for her silence. She wasn't a woman who judged someone on first appearances and, in fact, tended to be so cautious that she made up her mind only after knowing someone for quite a while-but her initial impression of this man was so positive it was bewildering.
It had to be his looks, she thought dazedly. Now she knew what "drop-dead gorgeous" really meant. He was a couple of inches over six feet with the wide-shouldered, powerful build of a natural athlete, ruggedly set off at the moment by jeans and a mostly blue flannel shirt. No wedding ring, which might or might not mean he was single. He had black hair-not dark, not sable, and not any shade of brown, but raven black-cut in a layered, neat style of medium length with short sideburns and a natural widow's peak as rare as it was dramatic.
His eyes were such a light gray they appeared almost silver, very sharp and vibrant, and they were set beneath winged brows as dramatic and memorable as the widow's peak. The rest of his face was just as striking, gifted with high cheekbones, a perfect nose, and a mouth that was utterly masculine and filled with sensuality and humor. He had a strong jaw that showed a great deal of character and perhaps just a touch of stubbornness.
All in all, it was a remarkable face.
Josie knew she stared up at him for only a few seconds, but it seemed much longer. Clearing her throat, she managed to say, "It's all right-I'd just forgotten you were staying at the cottage. That is, if you're the owner?"
He nodded and smiled. "Marc Westbrook."
"An ancestor built the house back in the thirties," he explained. "It's been in the family, one way or another, ever since."
"I see." Gathering her scattered wits, she noticed two things then. One, that he was carrying Pendragon, and two, that his left arm-the one he was using to cradle the cat-was in a cast from elbow to knuckles. And since she had missed both those rather obvious facts while she'd stared at him like an idiot, it said a great deal about the effect he had on her.
For heaven's sake, she had noted the lack of a wedding band while completely missing the cast and the cat!
Belatedly recalling her manners, she extended a hand. "I'm Josie Douglas." She no longer expected people to react to the name; Douglas was fairly common, after all, and without the singularity of her father's name to stir memories, few knew who she was.
"Welcome to Westbrook, Josie Douglas," he replied.
His grip was firm but careful, the touch of a powerful man wary of his own physical strength. It was probably usual for him to be cautious because big men often were, she thought, but she also knew that she did look a bit fragile.
She had long considered it her curse that she frequently roused protective instincts in the men she met; she assumed it was because she was slender, small-boned, and always pale. She looked helpless, apparently. Never mind that she seldom needed help and even more rarely wanted it; few males asked, they simply tried to help her.
The handshake lasted just a bit longer than necessary, and Josie could have sworn her flesh actually tingled when the contact with his was broken. Ridiculous. Of course it's ridiculous. What on earth was wrong with her?
Conjuring up what she hoped was an impersonal smile, she said, "I met Pendragon a couple of hours ago."
"Met him? I thought he was yours," Marc Westbrook said, with a glance down at the cat in his arms.
"That's why I came over here, to return him to you."
She looked into the enigmatic china-blue eyes of the big black cat, then shook her head. "No, he just showed up a couple of hours ago. But he can't be a stray, surely?"
"I wouldn't think so, he's been too well fed-and he certainly doesn't have the beat-up, ragged appearance of a stray tomcat. But I've been out here for nearly two months, and the first I saw of him was when he rattled my screen door a few minutes ago." He set the cat on the mailbox platform, and Pendragon curled his tail around his forepaws and regarded them both placidly.
His eyes were definitely odd for a black cat, Josie reflected. They were Siamese eyes, vibrant blue and just faintly crossed, yet he didn't show any other sign of Oriental ancestry. He was large-boned and solid rather than slender, and his glossy black coat didn't have so much as a speck of white anywhere that she could see. And he was unusually large, weighing every ounce of what Josie guessed to be twenty pounds.
"Do you suppose he belongs to one of the neighbors, then?" Josie suggested, but rather doubtfully.
"As I'm sure you noticed on the drive out, neighbors are few and far between. Most of the land around these parts is pastured. There's a horse farm about two miles or so from here-they raise Thoroughbreds-and maybe half a dozen houses within a ten-mile radius, but that's it."
Josie knew; one of the reasons she'd picked this place was its virtual isolation. Of course, that was when she'd imagined the owner of Westbrook as being some elderly man, a widower, perhaps, who was renting out the main house because it had gotten too big for him, or something like that. But she should have asked. She really should have asked. Because she certainly hadn't expected a devastatingly handsome man somewhere in his mid-thirties with vivid eyes and a lazy voice who liked cats and seemed to have time on his hands. . . .
What a landlord.
"He might belong to somebody around here," Marc Westbrook was going on, "but I wouldn't know who to ask."
Concentrating on the conversation, she said, "Then I guess we should give him the run of the place and see if he sticks around. If he does . . . an ad in the local paper asking if anyone's missing a black cat?"
"Suits me. We'll give it a few days. As a matter of fact, it's nice to have a cat around."
"They're good company," she agreed. "And Pendragon seems very polite."
Marc smiled. "Agreed. So, we'll wait and see. And we'll let him decide whose bed he takes over at night."
There was a brief silence that Josie found a bit unnerving. Casting about, she gestured slightly toward his left arm and asked, "An accident?"
"So they said. A drunk driver crossed over the median and I couldn't get out of his way."
"So was he." Marc didn't seem to think that needed elaboration, because he continued in a lighter tone. "As far as I was concerned, it wasn't all bad. I hadn't had a vacation in years, and I hadn't realized how badly I needed one until I spent most of the first couple of weeks sleeping. The injuries were relatively simple; the ribs knit, and the cast came off my leg two weeks ago, so all I have to put up with is the inconvenience of having a cast on my left arm."
"Wouldn't you know it? Murphy's law. But even it's better now than it was; the damn thing started out covering the entire arm."
The explanation answered Josie's major question, but she asked anyway. "So you're convalescing?"
"That's the idea. My doctor thought I wouldn't rest in the city-I work in Richmond-so knowing I owned this property, he insisted I exile myself out here. Unfortunately for me, my doctor also happens to be my best friend from college, so he considers it his right to push me around."
Josie had the shrewd notion that nobody pushed Marc Westbrook around, not even his best friend, but she didn't say so. Instead she said, "I'd say this would be a good place to heal. Quiet. Peaceful."
His mouth twisted slightly, and the silvery eyes gleamed with amusement. "Yeah, right. Miles away from everything, and too far out for cable; so far, I've resisted the lure of a satellite dish, but it's only a matter of time until I give in to my lesser self. For the first time since college, I'm caught up on my reading, and I've discovered a dozen new ways to play solitaire."
"Well, let's put it this way-the arrival of the mailman is the high point of my day; I have all the Richmond newspapers sent out here, as well as several from surrounding cities." His smile became even more crooked. "Until the accident, I led the very busy, not to say frantic, lifestyle of a criminal lawyer, and all this peace and quiet is driving me nuts."
She was amused and not unsympathetic, but also a bit uneasy. While there was nothing wrong with having an attractive man nearby-she was a normal woman, after all-she had an awful lot to do and only a year in which to do it, and she certainly didn't want anyone looking over her shoulder while she did it. Particularly not a criminal lawyer. Of course, since Marc was obviously recovered except for the arm, he would no doubt be returning to Richmond and work soon.
Probing as delicately as possible, she asked, "It won't be much longer, surely? I mean, after two months?"
"If my friend the doctor has his way, a few more weeks. This cast is due to come off in thirteen days-precisely-and after that it shouldn't be more than a couple of weeks before he has to admit I'm fit for work."
Josie couldn't help smiling, but her amusement changed to embarrassment when he went on dryly.
"So you don't have to be afraid I'll make a nuisance of myself for too long."
He chuckled, a low sound of genuine amusement. "No, you didn't say so, but I don't blame you for wondering. I'll admit, finding out I'd have a tenant in the house raised my spirits a bit, and I do hope you won't get too upset with me if I borrow a cup of sugar now and then-but I promise I won't try to use you to alleviate my boredom."
"Fair enough." She managed to keep her voice light, but she knew her face was still filled with color because she could feel the heat. It was another of her curses; her skin was very pale, but embarrassment instantly brought a vibrant blush to her cheeks. It gave her away every time, dammit. But at least he didn't comment.
"Good. Now-that said, can I help you unload the van?"
Josie had brought the first load of her belongings to the house early this morning; this was the second and final load, and it was a bit sobering that all her worldly possessions-except for quite a few boxes of books that were in storage-could be stuffed in the cramped space of two vans. . . . She glanced behind her at the vehicle, still about a quarter full, then at her watch. It was almost five, and with winter approaching, it would soon be dark.
She hesitated for an instant, then said, "I think I'll leave the rest until tomorrow."
Mildly, he said, "I can manage pretty well even with the cast, you know."
Josie eyed him. "I don't doubt it. But I've had enough for one day, I think. Look, I was going to make some coffee-would you like some?"
"I'd love some," he accepted promptly. "Even with a coffee maker, I don't seem to have the knack."
"How do you know I do?" she asked in a wry tone as she reached back to close the van's side door.
"I don't-but the odds say your coffee has to be better than mine."
"We'll see." But she wasn't too worried, because the truth was she knew she could make very good coffee. She used a specially blended fresh-ground variety filled with taste. And a percolator.
As if he had understood their conversation, Pendragon jumped down from his perch and preceded them up the sidewalk to the house, his tail high. Dignified.
Josie had a hunch that the cat would indeed stick around, for a while, and that a newspaper ad would produce no one who had misplaced a beloved pet. There was just something about Pendragon, an air of independence and pride even greater than usual for a feline, and it spoke of self-sufficiency. Still, someone had certainly fastened the decorative collar around his neck and provided a name tag. . . .
He had been somebody's cat long enough to earn himself a peculiar name, at least.
She dismissed thoughts of the cat as they went into the house, leading the way through the jumble of boxes and furniture still under dustcovers while Marc followed her.
"I should have had this place cleaned before you moved in," he said suddenly. "The last time must have been right after the interior was painted, and that was six months ago. I'd forgotten how dusty a house could get."
She glanced back over her shoulder to see him frowning slightly as he looked around. "A little dust certainly isn't going to hurt me," she told him. "Besides, I'm sure I'll settle in better if I spend the first few days cleaning for myself. It's an excellent way to get to know a house."
"I could get somebody out here-"
"No, please, I'd rather do it myself." She pushed open the swinging door leading to the kitchen.
Following, Marc said, "If you're sure." He looked around at the bright kitchen, which boasted a line of windows along one side to admit plenty of light, and was painted a cheerful pale yellow. The remodeling work had gone well in here, he decided, and the decision to practically rebuild the room had definitely been the right one.
All the appliances were new, as well as the deep double sink and sparkling fixtures; the tile countertops had been redone in a lovely white marbleized pattern, and the original old wooden table in the center of the spacious room had been replaced by a combination breakfast bar and work island. But even with all the improvements, the room still retained the cheeriness and warmth Marc remembered from his childhood.