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Some men in Isandro's position would have whined about press intrusion. He didn't. He considered he had little to complain about in life, and he knew it was perfectly possible, even for someone whose financial empire drew the sort of global media attention that his did, to have a private life.
Of course, if his taste had run to falling out of nightclubs in the small hours or the routine attendance of film premieres with scantily clad models, it might have been more difficult, but neither pastime held any appeal for him.
He viewed security as a necessary evil, a side effect of successlike midges in the Highlandsbut he was hardly a recluse who lived his life behind ten-feet-high walls.
If he had had a family to consider, possibly he might have seen potential danger lurking around every corner, but he didn't. He only had an ex-wife, with whom he exchanged Christmas cards these days rather than insults, and a father he had very little contact with. Given that he was confident in his ability to look after himself, Isandro was not alarmed when the electronic gates that guarded the entrance to his English estatewhich did actually have ten-feet-high wallsdid not swing open as he approached, for they were already open.
Slowing his car, he swept the area with narrow-eyed, irritated speculation. While he didn't automatically assume this suggested anything dark and sinister, it did suggest a carelessness that he did not expect from those who worked for him.
The groove between his dark, strongly defined brows and his level of irritation deepened as his glance lighted on a brightly coloured bunch of balloons attached to an overhanging branch that looked incongruous beside the discreetly tasteful sign that simply read 'Ravenwood House: Private'.
He had owned Ravenwood for three years, and in that time on the admittedly rare occasions he had visited he had never found cause for complaint, which was nothing less than expected. He employed the best, be they corporate executives or gardening staff, paid them extremely well and expected them to earn their salary.
It was not a complicated formula but one that he found worked, and if it didn't.. He was not a man renowned for patience or sentimentality in his professional or personal life. If those in his employ didn't perform to the high standards he expected and deliver the goods they did not remain in his employ.
He opened the window, reached out and caught hold of the string dangling from the balloons. As he tugged two popped on the branches and the rest rose into the air, embracing their freedom. Following their merry progress with his eyes, he frowned before he pulled his head back in. He was not ready to read anything significant into the open gates or the balloons, but there had been a recent staff change, and the housekeeper did play a pivotal role at Ravenwood.
The previous postholder had not only been efficient, but had combined excellent man-management skills with the ability to blend into the background. She had never been obtrusive.
Under her watch he could not imagine open gates, invisible security or balloons. It was always possible none was connected with the new housekeeper, and he kept an open mind on the subject, innocent until proved guilty. No one could say that he wasn't scrupulously fair, and he made allowances for human error.
What he couldn't live with was incompetence.
He was prepared at this point to believe that the new housekeeper was as perfect as his personal assistant, who had interviewed the candidates, had indicated. He trusted Tom's judgement, as the younger man had always shown it to be excellent and it had been his efforts and diplomacy that had gone a long way to soothing local ill will when Isandro had bought the hall.
Three years ago the local community had greeted the change of ownership of the local estate with deep suspicion bordering on hostility. The family that had given the house and the village their name had contributed nothing tangible to the local economy in decades, and the previous owner spent more time falling out of nightclubs and entering rehab clinics than repairing the roof or earning money to do soso the locals' blind loyalty to them seemed perverse to Isandro.
With Tom's help he had addressed the situation with his usual pragmatism. He did not wish to be best friends with his neighbours, but neither did he want the inconvenience of being at war with them. The initial stream of complaints had faded to a trickle and visits from officials with clipboards from conservation and heritage groups that had halted work on the house and grounds had lessened and eventually vanished. He made a point of employing only local artisans and firms on the restoration work and made a donation that had put a new roof on the leaking church.
He considered the situation resolved.
Of all the houses he owned, this was the one where Isandro felt as close to relaxed as he ever did. It was beautiful and he enjoyed beauty. He invited none but his closest friends, and even then rarely. He never drove through the gates without feeling he was shedding the pressures of work.
He anticipated the next few days of rare relaxation, his wide sensual mouth twitching into a half-smile as he drove slowly through the pillared entrance. A moment later he was reversing.
The balloons snagged in the branch could have been accidental; this was not. Bizarrely tucked in beside one classical pillar was an upturned packing case.
With a mixture of growing incredulity and irritation, Isandro read the handwritten sign propped on it that informed him the eggs were free range and cost one pound per half dozen. There was no sign of the eggs mentioned, just a jar that was stuffed with coins and several notes suggesting trade had been briskthe area had an unusual level of honesty.
Long brown fingers beat out an aggravated tattoo on the steering wheel. He had driven halfway down the long horsechestnut-lined driveway and was trying to rediscover his mellow mood when the noise hit hima mixture of music, laughter, dogs barking and loud voices.
'What now ?'
Angular jaw set, he swore and floored the accelerator. A moment later he hit the brake, bringing the vehicle to a screaming halt on the top of the rise that gave him the first view of the delightful Palladian mansion considered by those in the know to be an architectural gem set in a parkland setting complete with lake, folly and beautifully tended formal gardens.
The manicured west lawn, where on occasion he watched invited guests play a game of croquetand where he had spent the journey from the airport picturing himself enjoying the silence and solitude, sipping some brandy and perhaps catching up on some reading after the month of intense negotiationswas barely visible beneath the massive marquee, several smaller satellite tents, makeshift stage, cluster of stalls and what appeared to be a small yes, it was a funfair of sorts, he realised as he identified the giant teacups slowly spinning to the strains of an early Tom Jones number, the volume so loud even at this distance to vibrate in his chest.
Staring in unwilling fascination at the surreal spectacle, he started like someone waking from a nightmare as a voice over the loudhailer system announced the winner of the best behaved pet competition to be Herba result that, judging from the volume of the cheers and clapping, was popular.
Isandro swore loudly and at length in several languages.
The person responsible for this outrage would not be around to regret this invasion and misuse of his trust for long. For that matter he might sack the bunch of them because while this might have been the brain child of one personpresumably the new housekeeperthe rest of his staff must have sat back and let it happen, including his highly paid so-called professional security team.
Great! So much for leaving stress behind. His resentment levels rose as he mentally said goodbye to his much-needed, greatly anticipated break So what if after a couple of days he'd get bored with the inactivity and grow restless? The point was he wouldn't have the option of being bored now.
The feeling he had wandered into some sort of alternative universe intensified as a balloon that had presumably followed him up the drive floated past his head. It snagged on a branch and poppedthe sound breaking Isandro free of his teeth-clenched scrutiny of the disaster scene.
His dark eyes as warm as ice chips, he reversed with a screech of rubber back to the intersection in the drive and took the secondary road that led directly to the stable block at the rear of the house, which seemed blessedly free of the insanity taking place elsewhere on his property.
Entering the house via the orangery, he snapped grapes from the vine that grew in coils across the roof as he went. He made his way to his study, not encountering a soul to demand an explanation of or vent his simmering anger on. When he reached the inner sanctum, however, he did discover someone: a small child he had never seen before, who was almost hidden by his desk as she spun around in his swivel chair.
The child saw him and grabbed the desk to slow herself, leaving a neat imprint of sticky finger marks on the antique wood. His lips twisted in a grimace of distaste. He had few friends with children and his exposure to them had been limited to brief appearances at baptisms bearing appropriate gifts. None had reached this child's age yet. Five? Six? he speculated, studying the grubby freckled face.
'Hello. Are you looking for the toilets?'
The question was so unexpected that for a moment Isandro did not respond.
'No, I am not.' Was it normal for a child to be this self-possessed? She definitely didn't seem even slightly fazed to see him.
'Oh.' Hands on his antique desk, she began to twist in the seat from side to side. 'The lady was but the other man was looking for Zoe. Are you looking for Zoe, too? I can do fifty spins and not be sick. I could probably do more if I wanted to.'
Glancing at the Aubusson carpet underfoot, he cautiously caught the back of the chair before she could put her boast to the test. 'I'm sure you could.'
'You picked grapes.' The kid stared at the grapes he had carelessly plucked from the vine as he had walked through the orangery. 'You're not meant to do that,' she said, shaking her head. 'You'll be in big trouble, and maybe even go to jail.' The thought seemed to please her.
'Thanks for the warning. Want some?' She seemed so at home he almost began to wonder if the place had been invaded by squatters and nobody had seen fit to mention it to him!
'Can't. You're a stranger. And they're sour.'
Isandro's head lifted at the sound of the musical voice with just a hint of attractive huskiness.
'I'm in here!' The kid bellowed back into his right ear, making him wince.
A moment later a figure appeared in the doorway. The body that matched the voice was not a let-downanything but! Tall, slim, dark-haired with the sort of figure that filled out the faded denim jeans she wore to perfection. His immediate impression was of sinuous supple grace and an earthy sexuality that hit him with the force of a hammer between the eyes. Though the main physical response to her appearance was somewhat lower than eye level.
Isandro's aggravation levels reduced by several notches as he studied this new arrival, who didn't just have a great body but a vivid, expressive face he found himself wanting to look at. Stare at.
She possessed the most extraordinary eyeselectric blue that tilted slightly at the cornersand a mouth that made any man looking at it think of how it would feel to taste those plush pink lips Isandro exhaled and reined in his galloping imagination. He had a healthy libido but he prided himself on his ability to control it.
'Georgie, you shouldn't be in here. I've told you. Oh !' Zoe stopped halfway through the open doorway of the study. Her blue eyes flew wide as she sucked in a tiny shocked breath, registering the presence of the tall figure who was towering over her niece.
The strange reluctance she felt to enter the room was strong, but not as strong as her protective instincts, so, with a cautious smile pasted in place, Zoe stepped forward.
There had been many occasions in her adult life when she had been accused of being too trusting, too inclined to assume the best of others, but since Zoe had acquired responsibility for her seven-year-old twin niece and nephew she had developed a new caution that bordered, she suspected, on paranoia, at least when it came to the safety of her youthful charges.
Under the pleasant smile, her newly awoken protective instincts were on full alert. She moved towards the man whom she had not seen outside. And she would have noticed him, because despite the casual clothesexpensive casualhe definitely wouldn't have blended in with the carefree and relaxed people milling around outside.
She doubted that face did relaxed or carefree.
Without taking her eyes off the incredibly handsome stranger any more than you'd take your eyes off a stray wolfand the analogy was not inappropriate, as he had the entire lean, hungry look going onshe held out her hand to her niece.
'Come here, Georgina,' she said in a tone meant to convey a sense of urgency without overly alarming her niece. Not that the latter would be likelyGeorgie was friendly to a fault and she had no sense of danger whatsoever. Real parents probably knew how to make their kids sensibly cautious without scaring them witless and giving them umpteen issues later in life but Zoe wasn't a real parent and most of the time she felt like a pretty sorry substitute for not one but two brilliant parents.
She took a deep breath and fought her way clear of the oppressive weight of emotions that continued to hit her when she wasn't expecting it. There wasn't time to feel angry at fate or the drunk driver whose carelessness had taken away the twins' parents. There was barely time to comb her hair some days!
'I'm sorry. I hope Georgina wasn't bothering you.' It was more polite than 'what the hell are you doing in here?' but in her experience it was always better to try a smile before you brought out the big stick.
Though it would take a very big stick indeed or even a small army to make this intruder leave if he didn't take the hint, she thought, sliding a peek at him under her lashes and looking away quickly. The heat climbed into her smooth cheeks as she realised her scrutiny was being returned, though there was nothing remotely surreptitious or apologetic about the way his dark eyes were wandering over her.