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Louis Christophe Jumeau slammed the door of the Range Rover and favoured it with a look of pure loathing. Really, he should have known better than to trust in a car-rental agency which proudly proclaimed that it was the only one around for fifty miles. Lack of healthy competition invariably equalled a third-rate service; he had been proved right. He should have arranged his own private transport. He could easily have used his helicopter and had one of his own top-of-the-range cars on standby to collect him from the airfield.
But he had wanted to check out the transport links for himself. Over-indulged, wealthy patrons would expect efficient links to Crossfeld House, should they decide to get there by train, as he had. And onwards by caras he, unfortunately, had chosen to do.
He cursed fluently under his breath, flicked open his mobile and was rewarded with a robust 'no signal' sign.
Around him, in the darkening winter light, the countryside was desolate and unwelcoming. There was also the threat of snow in the air. It seemed to be an ongoing threat for the inhabitants of Scotland and one he would have taken more seriously had he been in possession of a crystal ball and predicted that his rental carnone finer than this, sonny!would have taken its last breath on a desolate road in the Highlands some forty minutes away from his destination.
He rescued his coat from the back seat of the old Range
Rover and decided there and then that the one and only car-rental agency for fifty miles around would soon be facing stiff competition, or he would pull out of this particular investment fast enough to make the heads of its five desperate sellers spin.
Crossfeld Housean addition to his already bulging portfolio of boutique hotels around the world and country-house hotels across the UKwould be pleasing but was hardly essential. Its unique selling point as far as he was concerned was its golf course. It had been enthusiastically lauded for its 'challenging qualities', which he cynically interpreted as 'unkempt to the point of unplayable'.
But he would see for himself. If he ever made it to the place on foot.
He would also be in a position to conclusively sort that other little problem out.
He slung on his coat against the bitter December winds and began walking in the direction of the manor house, his mind moving along from the problem he could not currently solvenamely his lack of carto the problem ahead of him which he most definitely intended to solve. To be precise, his friend's sudden infatuation with a girl who, from all descriptions, fitted neatly into the category of gold-digger. Even never having met her, Louis could recognise the type: too pretty, too poor and with a mother hell-bent on getting rid of her five offspring to the highest bidders.
His mouth curled into a smile of grim satisfaction at the prospect of showing up on the doorstep of the Sharp family. Nicholas might be rich and successful but he was also naive and way too trusting for his own good. Mother Sharp might be able to shuffle her pretty little daughter up for inspection and Nicholaswhose visits to Crossfeld House on the pretext of checking out the edifice had become ever more frequentmight well have ended up as compliant bait at the end of the hook. But he, Louis, wasn't born yesterday.
And Nicholas was nothing if not a lifelong friend whose honour and bank balance Louis had every intention of protecting.
Fully absorbed by his train of thought, he was only aware of the roar of a motorcycle when it was virtually on top of him. It pelted past him in a whirl of gravel, ripping apart the eerie silence of the countryside like a shriek within the hallowed walls of a cathedral and then spun around, decelerating so that the rider, dressed entirely in black with a matching shiny black helmet, could inspect him.
More than anything else, Louis was enraged by what he considered wildly reckless driving.
'Very clever,' he said with biting sarcasm, bearing down on the rider and standing intimidatingly close. 'Get your kicks that way, do you? Or do you think that this is your private racetrack and you can ride this thing however fast you want?'
In the middle of reaching up to remove her helmet, Lizzy's hands stilled and then dropped to her sides.
Up close and personal, this guy was bigger, taller and looked a lot meaner than she had expected. Whilst she knew this part of the countryside like the back of her hand, along with everyone in it, she was still sharp enough to realise that she was in the company of a stranger and there was nothing within screaming distance to disturb the isolation of the landscape.
She couldn't make out the guy's face but his voice was like a whiplash, raising the hackles on her back and making her want to meet his attack head-on.
'I didn't have to stop for you.'
'Are you going to take that helmet off so that I can see who I'm dealing with?'
Alone on a dark road, surrounded by acres of barren isolation and staring down a man who looked as though he could snap her in half if he put his mind to it: the helmet was staying on. Let him think that he was dealing with another man. One with a high voice.
'Was that your car back there?'
'Very good, Sherlock.'
'I don't need to stay here and listen to this.' She gave a few warning revs of her engine and waited for his apology, which was not forthcoming.
Instead he stood back, folded his arms and gave her a long, speculative look. The rising moon caught the angle of his face and she drew her breath in sharply.
The man might be aristocratic, arrogant and high-handed, but he was beautiful. Black hair was blown back to reveal the harsh, arresting contours of a face that was shockingly perfect. His mouth was drawn in a tight, displeased line but it didn't take much imagination to realise that under different circumstances, it would be curving and sensuous.
'How old are you?' Louis asked suddenly. The question caught Lizzy unawares and for a few seconds she was silent, wondering where he was going with it.
'Why? What business is it of yours?'
'You're a kid, aren't you? That why you don't want to take the helmet off? Do your parents know that you're riding that thing like a bat out of hell, putting other people's lives in danger?'
'There's no one else out here except for you! Trust a tourist to break down,' she muttered. Prickles of angry, nervous perspiration shot through her. 'If you're going to tackle this part of the world, then you should know to do it in a more reliable vehicle.'
'You should try telling that to the crook who owns the car-rental company by the station.'
'Ah.' Fergus McGinty could, she admitted to herself, be a bit shifty when it came to outsiders renting his cars. And anyone opting for the one and only Range Rover would have been cheerfully taken for the proverbial ride. She doubted the thing had been serviced since the start of the century.
'Friend of yours, is he?' Increasingly ill tempered, Louis allowed a short pause to elapse. 'So he's bound to know the teenager on the big bike when I decide to report you to your parents Which makes me think that you have no choice here but to graciously give me a ride to wherever it is I happen to be going. Either that, or you'll find yourself answering to the police for getting on that thing when you're under age.'
Lizzy was tempted to burst out laughing. Yes, she could see that the high tones of her voice might have led him crashing into the wrong impression, and it was pretty funny when you thought about it. But somehow she didn't think that this was the kind of man who would take very kindly to being laughed at. Something about the way he held himself made her think that, when there was any laughing to be done, he would be the one doing it at someone else's expense.
'You can't just leave that car there,' she objected, purely to be difficult.
Louis made an exaggerated show of looking around him before his glinting black eyes settled back on her, his reflection bouncing off the helmet. 'Why? Do you think there are people lurking behind the heather, waiting to steal it? Frankly, if anyone is stupid enough to break in and able to drive it away, then they're more than welcome. They would be doing the world at large a service.'
Lizzy shrugged. 'Where are you headed?'
'Climb off that machine and you'll find out.'
'Climb off? What are you talking about? I thought you said that I would be giving you a ride.'
'Did I say that? Must have been a crazy slip of the tongue. Why would I endanger my life by getting on the back of a motorcycle ridden by a kid who should be at home doing his homework? '
'I could leave you right here.'
'I really wouldn't consider that option if I were you.'
Lizzy recognised a threat when she heard one. 'Where are you going?' she repeated reluctantly. 'If it's out of my way, then you're going to have to wait here and I'll send someone out to fetch you.'
Louis almost laughed out loud at that. Send someone out to fetch him? For starters, he had had enough of the great Scottish countryside when seen at night from the perspective of a stranded driver. For another, he wouldn't put money on the odds of the boy doing his civic duty when it would be a lot easier to bike off into the night and get his own back for being taken down a peg or two by an outsider.
'Really? Well, we'll have to differ on that one. I'm going to Crossfeld House and you're coming with me.'
Crossfeld House! Lizzy froze.
'You know where that is, don't you?' Louis said impatiently. 'I can't imagine there are too many manor houses with golf courses in this part of the world.'
'I know where it is. Why are you going there?'
'I just wondered why you were going there, because you can't stay there It's, um, up for sale. I don't think they're renting out rooms any more. And if you've come to play golf then the course isn't that great. In fact, it's wrecked.'
'Is that a fact, now?' Louis looked narrowly at the slight figure dismounting the bike, standing back to let him get on. 'So I should leave my clubs in the car?'
'Definitely. Do you even know how to ride this?'
'You'll find out soon enough. Let's put it this wayI prefer to risk my neck at my own hands than at the hands of someone else.' He revved the engine and enjoyed the full-bodied sound of the throttle. It had been a long time since he had been on the seat of a motor bike. He had forgotten how free and powerful they could make you feel. It was going to be an enjoyable ride, especially when he intended to make full use of it by squeezing as much information out of his passenger as he possibly could. Communications with Nicholas had been frustratingly restricted to his friend singing the praises of the Sharp girl, interspersed with one or two essential facts and figures about the estate. But this lad obviously knew the area, was almost certain to know the Sharp family and who wasn't up for a bit of gossip? In a place like this, it was probably the mainstay of their existence!
'So,' Louis shouted encouragingly over the roar of the motorbike. 'If you know Crossfeld House, then you might know the chartered surveyor there Nicholas Talbot?'
'Sort of ' Lizzy clung to him. He wasn't kitted out for riding a motorbike, but he had managed to hitch his coat up, and through it she could feel the muscularity of his body. He had clearly ridden a motorbike before; it was apparent from the ease with which he manoeuvred it. 'Why?'
'I'm here to supervise what he's been up to. He should have sent reports back about the state of the place, but his communications have been erratic.'
'Really? So, you're his boss?'
'In a manner of speaking.'
'You're checking up on him?' Lizzy demanded angrily. 'That's awfulNicholas has been working really hard, actually!'
'So you know him?'
'I don't know him, but he's It's a small town, put it that way, and Nicholas has become a very popular member of the community.'
'Has he, now? Made friends ?'
'I think he might be interested in one of the girls here, yes ' Lizzy said in a guarded voice, although she had to shout that information over the noise of the engine. She realised that she had yet to discover the name of the guy to whom she was clinging for dear life but, that said, at least she knew that he wasn't dangerousat least, to her. But as for Nicholas, would he lose his job just because he hadn't filed daily reports to someone who was obviously a control freak?