Read an Excerpt
The Playboy's Mistress
By Kim Lawrence
Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Copyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDarcy slid her pink feet - the bath had been very hot - into a pair of slippers and padded through the quiet flat to the phone. It was nice to have the flat to herself for once. Jennifer was a great flatmate, but she thought silence was something you filled with noise - preferably the loud, throbbing variety! Music-wise the two were not compatible.
Propping the phone against her ear, Darcy hitched the towel wrapped sarong-style, around her slender body a little tighter and waited for someone to pick up. She was just about to hang up when Jack Alexander answered the phone.
"Hi, Dad," she called cheerfully down the line. "Is Mum around?" She eased her bottom onto the table-top, anticipating a nice long natter.
"I'm afraid you can't speak to your mother, Darcy ... she ... she isn't here ..."
It wasn't the news that her hyperactive mother wasn't at home that struck Darcy as strange - her community-minded parent was on more village committees than she had fingers to count them on - it was the peculiar note that bordered on panic in her phlegmatic stepfather's voice.
Her post-warm-bath, pre-glass-of-wine, mellow holiday mood evaporated. Darcy wasn't psychic, but she did know Jack, and she had the nasty suspicion that the icy fingers tap-dancing up her spine knew what they were about.
Her heart was thudding as she lightly asked, "What is it tonight? Practice for the carol concert or the church roof committee ...?"
Jack would tell her what was up in his own good time - he wasn't the sort of man who could be hurried. An affectionate smile briefly curved her lips as her thoughts rested on the man who had married her mother - Darcy loved him to bits.
Darcy had been five and her elder brother, Nick, seven when Jack entered their lives. After a couple of years Clare had come along and then, much to everyone's surprise, the unplanned but much loved twins. The Alexanders were a tight-knit family.
"Neither," came back the strangled response. The line between Darcy's straight, well-defined, darkish eyebrows deepened; Jack sounded perilously close to tears. This, she reminded herself, is the man who delivered his own grandchild in the back of a Land Rover without breaking sweat. She immediately ditched tactful reticence in favour of the upfront approach.
"What's up, Dad?" she asked bluntly.
"It's your mother ..."
Anxiety grabbed Darcy's quivering tummy muscles in an icy fist; eyes wide in alarm, she shot upright from her perch on the console table. All sorts of awful scenarios ran through her head and with some trepidation she put the most alarming of these into words.
"Is Mum ill ...?"
"No ... no, nothing like that; she's ... she's ..." A noisy sigh of relief expelled, Darcy slid to the floor. "She's gone away."
"Away as in ...?"
"She's spending Christmas in a ... a retreat in Cornwall."
"But that's the other end of the country!" Darcy heard herself exclaim stupidly - as if the where mattered! It was the how and why that were infinitely more important. Her spinning head struggled to make sense of what she was hearing and failed miserably. No matter what else was wrong in her life, there had always been a solid, reliable, constant ... Mum ... No, this just didn't make sense - no sense at all!
"It wouldn't matter if it was down the road; they don't even have a phone," her stepfather came back in a heavy, doom-laden tone. "I don't know what I'm going to do! Everyone's asking after her. She's making the costumes for the school Nativity play, the WI want two-hundred mince pies by Thursday ... How do you make mince pies, Darcy ...?" he asked pathetically.
"We've got more important things than mince pies to worry about." As if he needed reminding of that! "Have you any idea at all why has she done this, Dad? Did you have a row or something?"
"No, nothing like that; she'd been a bit quiet lately ... but you're right; it must be my fault."
"Nonsense!" Darcy meant it. The day she found a man who was half as marvellous as Jack Alexander she was going to stick to him like superglue!
"Apparently she needs time alone. Are you still there ...? Darcy ... Darcy ...?"
"Sorry, Dad, I dropped the phone." There was a distinctly surreal feel about the entire situation. People like Cathy Alexander didn't suffer from identity crises, they didn't walk out on their family with no proper explanation!
"God, Darcy, what am I going to do ...?" She could hear the escalating panic in her stepfather's gruff voice. "Sam, Beth and the children arrive from the States on Friday. It's too late to put them off."
"No, you mustn't do that!" Darcy replied swiftly. Since Jack's daughter from his first marriage had moved to the States the opportunities for Jack to see her and his only grandchild were few and far between.
"Nick rang to say to expect him at the end of the week, and no doubt Clare will show up some time."
Darcy permitted herself a wry smile - it was so like Clare not to commit herself to a date.
"Your grandmother is likely to drop in on us at any moment. Can you imagine what she's going to make of this ...? At the last count we were doing Christmas dinner for fifteen people that I know of, and the Aga's gone out and I can't light it! I never did have the knack with the darned thing like your mother has ..."
Darcy could hear him gulp down the line. She took a deep breath; desperate circumstances required drastic solutions.
"Don't panic," she instructed her harassed stepfather with shameless hypocrisy. "If I pack now I should be there about ... There shouldn't be too much traffic at this time of night, should there ...?"
"Your skiing holiday, Darcy!" Darcy recognised a token protest when she heard it. "I know how much you've been looking forward to it ..." Darcy allowed herself a final indulgent moment to wistfully visualise crisp snow-covered slopes, twinkling mountain villages and the hunky outdoor type she had been destined to meet amidst the après-ski gluwein before she squared her slight shoulders.
"With my luck I'd probably have come back with several limbs in plaster." You had to be philosophical about these things.
Did her cancellation insurance cover family crises caused by the parent of the policy-holder unexpectedly needing to find herself...? Somehow Darcy didn't think so.
"You can't cancel," Jennifer insisted a little later that evening as she sat on Darcy's bed. Darcy smiled and continued to replace the skiing gear in her suitcase with clothes more suited to Christmas in a remote corner of the Yorkshire Dales. "You've been looking forward to it all year. I don't see why it has to be you; why can't Clare go home to help?"
Darcy laughed. "I don't think domesticity is really Clare's scene," she responded wryly. Her beautiful, talented and slightly spoilt half-sister had a heart of gold, but she needed therapy to recover from a broken fingernail.
"And it's yours ...?"
Darcy couldn't deny this. "I'll have to learn, won't I?"
Jennifer, seeing her friend wasn't to be dissuaded, sighed. "Well, I think you're being a fool."
Excerpted from The Playboy's Mistress by Kim Lawrence
Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.