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'I just do not believe it!' muttered Christa Lennox. 'What the hell is that man doing?'
Titan, the Border terrier, lying at the foot of Christa's desk, sprang up and looked at her enquiringly with head cocked to one side.
'Don't bark, Titan!' she warned him sternly.
She opened the window and leaned forward to get a better view of the opposite wall, squinting through the dancing shadows of the trees nearby. Her gaze was riveted on a man perched precariously at the top of a ladder, hacking away at the guttering and filling a sack suspended from a rung.
Yet another thieving toerag trying to take what he could-and in broad daylight too! Well, she'd darned well show him he wasn't going to get away with it-two burglaries in a fortnight were two too many! On top of the tragedy of dear Isobel dying so suddenly three weeks ago, it was just all too much
Christa swung away from the surgery window and raced through Reception, closely followed by Titan. She ran towards the ladder at the side of the car park, her auburn hair escaping from its clips and springing out in a mad bob. No point in ringing the police on a Sunday-it would take hours for them to come.
She and Titan skidded to a halt at the bottom of the ladder.
'If you're trying to nick lead from the roof, you're too late-it's all gone!' she yelled up at the man. 'Get down now, or I'll call the police!'
Titan joined in by barking ferociously and adding an extra growl or two for good measure. The man twisted round and looked down, frowning. He had tied a large handkerchief round his lower face so that only his eyes were visible. Trying to remain anonymous, thought Christa scornfully. 'Titan! Titan! Be quiet!' she commanded.
The dog lay down, panting with its tongue lolling out, and watched her adoringly. The man's glance flicked over to Christa, slowly taking in her angry upturned face and sweeping over her indignant figure.
There was a pause before he said rather irritably, 'Well-what is it?'
Christa, put her hands on her hips. 'I want to know what on earth you're doing up there!'
He raised an eyebrow. 'Excuse me?'
'Could you tell me why you're on the roof?'
The man leaned on the ladder, a flash of annoyance in the clear blue eyes that met hers, then whipped the handkerchief from his face, revealing tanned good looks and an irritated expression.
'Not that it's anything to do with you, but I'm examining the guttering-it looks as if it's on its last legs.'
Christa wasn't to be put off. 'Examining the guttering, my foot!' she said angrily. 'Come down now!' she ordered. 'I can't carry on a conversation when you're up there!'
He shrugged, half-amused. 'Oh, for God's sake of all the bossy women ' He descended the ladder, leaping lightly down the last three rungs, and the little dog sprang up and would have thrown himself at the man's legs if Christa hadn't grabbed his collar.
'Don't worry, Titan-I can handle this.'
Titan sank back unwillingly and Christa turned back to the man and demanded peremptorily, 'Well? What have you got to say for yourself?'
He leaned against the wall in front of her with hands stuffed into his pockets, his eyes narrowed, ranging coolly over her. 'Do you always sound like a headmistress? Now just what's bugging you?'
A moment's doubt-could this guy really be a thief? He seemed so assured, so brazen. Surely a thief would have taken off by now? He stared at her boldly, and she decided that he was just bluffing it out, conning her into thinking he was a legitimate builder.
Christa drew herself up to her full five feet six inches and said majestically, 'I want to know what excuse you've got to give for this daylight robbery-taking a chance because it's a Sunday and the place is empty, I'll bet! '
He laughed out loud and Christa blinked. He didn't seem a whit worried by her threat to call the police or her accusation-in fact, he looked totally relaxed, in charge of the situation, no sign of being intimidated. She glared at him, looking him straight in the eye, and he stared impudently back at her, making fun of her. The cheeky bastard!
She shouldn't have looked at his eyes- massive error! She was taken aback by their compelling shade of deep, clear blue, fringed with black lashes and well, they were incredibly unusual even sexy-which, of course, was nothing to do with the situation whatsoever, she thought irritably.
The man had a tall, spare figure, dressed in faded shorts and a ripped shirt, revealing a muscled torso. He could have got a job playing the lead in a James Bond movie or doing ads for some exotic men's shaving lotion, reflected Christa And for a split nanosecond she felt an unexpected flutter of excitement somewhere in the region of her stomach.
It took her unawares, made her cross because after her experience with Colin Mait-land, she was off all men for a very long time, wasn't she? She crushed the desolate, empty feeling that seemed to be a reflex action whenever she thought of that unmitigated rat, and told herself to stop reacting like a teenager being turned on by some celebrity just because the man in front of her was reasonably good looking.
She cleared her throat and said sternly, 'If you're not pinching lead, who gave you permission to look at the guttering-if that's what you were doing?'
'I don't have to ask anyone's permission- I own the house.'
She stared at him witheringly. 'You own the house? Don't be ridiculous! How can it belong to you? Dr Maguire only died three weeks ago and probate can't have been granted yet.'
He said quietly and without apparent emotion, 'Isobel Maguire was my mother. She left me Ardenleigh in her will.'
'Oh, my God ' Christa's hand flew to her mouth, her eyes wide with embarrassment. 'I'm really sorry-I didn't realise ' Her voice faltered, and she gazed at him in a stunned way. So this was the mysterious son, Lachlan, that Isobel had rarely mentioned, and who, as far as she was aware, had never visited his mother
'Perhaps you should make sure of your facts before making accusations,' the man suggested coldly, an edge of sarcasm to his voice.
'I had no idea who you were. If you'd let us know you were coming I wouldn't have leaped to conclusions when I saw you with a handkerchief over your face on the roof,' she protested, slightly stung that he was putting all the blame on her for not knowing who he was. 'We've had such a spate of burglaries I thought you were yet another thief.'
He nodded rather wearily, pushing his spik-ily cut thick hair back from his forehead. 'The handkerchief was to protect my lungs from the showers of dirt I was disturbing-but, yes, I guess you're right. I should have told the practice I was coming. It's all been a bit of a rush.'
Her tone softened. 'We knew Isobel had a son, but we had no idea where you lived.'
'I flew in from Australia on Friday and came up from Heathrow yesterday. I stayed in a pub last night, but tonight I'll stay here if there's a habitable room.'
'You couldn't make it to her funeral?'
'No,' he said curtly. 'It was too late by the time I was contacted by her solicitor-I didn't even know she'd died until a few days ago.'
Christa bit her lip. How could she have been so tactless? It was shocking that no one had known how to find him to tell him about his mother. He must feel terrible about that.
'I'm so sorry ' she repeated, and her voice trailed off, but the man had turned his attention back to the building. Christa looked at him more closely. Now she knew who he was, she saw the family resemblance to his mother, who had also been tall and with those clear blue eyes. There was no doubt he had inherited the good looks that ran in the Ma-guire family.
The man looked sadly at the vast untidy lawn, the dense undergrowth beneath the trees at the end of the garden. 'Everywhere looks very neglected When I was young the garden was always immaculate, and that little copse well managed. I guess my mother had no interest in the place.'
'She was too busy,' said Christa defensively. 'Isobel's work meant everything to her-and being on her own, of course, it can't have been easy, having to look after everything.'
'I don't suppose it was easy, but frankly it looks as if it's falling down. I can't believe she left it in such a state.'
'I know she kept meaning to have things done. There never seemed to be time.'
'A great pity,' observed the man with some asperity.
He didn't seem to have much sympathy for his mother, reflected Christa, even though Isobel had been alone and had worked so damned hard that it had probably contributed to her death. There was something rather well, callous about his attitude.
'It may have been that latterly she wasn't feeling very well and hadn't the energy to turn to domestic matters,' suggested Christa rather coldly.
Lachlan nodded. 'Maybe you're right,' he conceded. 'But just look at the state of those windows and woodwork I used to escape through that window when I was a kid and was about to get a belting for something I'd done–I think it would fall out now if I opened it!' He turned and held out his hand, saying briskly, 'Anyway, it's about time we introduced ourselves. I'm Lachlan Maguire and you are.?'
'I'm Christa Lennox, and I am or rather was your mother's colleague, her junior partner in the practice.'
The expression on Lachlan's face changed subtly from pleasant to wary, the blue eyes widening slightly. He repeated tersely, 'Christa Lennox? You worked with my mother?'
'Why, yes ' Christa looked at Lachlan, puzzled. 'Is there something wrong?'
'No no, of course not.' Then he added casually after a pause, 'I used to know a man called Angus Lennox-are you a relation, by any chance?'
A look of wry amusement flickered across Christa's face. 'Ah the black sheep of the family wicked Uncle Angus,' she remarked. 'How did you know him?'
Lachlan idly kicked a stone away from his foot. 'Oh he used to come to the house sometimes.' He looked up at Christa, a spark of curiosity in those clear blue eyes. 'And do you know what he did to deserve that reputation?'
Christa shrugged. 'Oh, I don't know all the details and it's a tragic story. I know that he left his wife and child and my father was so outraged by his behaviour he wouldn't speak about him, then Angus was killed in a car crash-a long time ago now.'
Lachlan nodded sombrely. 'I remember that happening as you say, it was a long time ago.' He smiled. 'Anyway, enough about your wicked uncle-tell me how you came to work with my mother.'
'My own mother was ill some years ago and I was desperate to get a job here as my father had died, and Isobel offered me one. I loved your mother very much-she was a sweet woman and was extremely kind to me over so many things ' Christa's voice faltered slightly and she swallowed hard. 'I was devastated when Isobel collapsed and died so suddenly-I couldn't believe it. It'll be very difficult to find someone to replace her-we shall all miss her so much.'
Lachlan took a rag out of his pocket and wiping his filthy hands remarked, 'You won't have to look far if I take on this place.'
'What do you mean?'
For the first time a fleeting look of sadness crossed Lachlan's strong features. 'My mother left me a letter-you will have known from the post-mortem that her heart had been very damaged, and I think she knew she was on borrowed time. Amongst other things, she wanted me to take over the practice, and it's something I will have to think about very carefully. It's a big decision to make. The house needs such a lot doing to it, and the surgery at the side is rather the worse for wear- it's going to eat up money.'
Christa only heard the first part of his reply and stared at him with her mouth open in astonishment and shock.
'I beg your pardon? You would take over the practice?'
'My mother obviously wanted me to-and, anyway, what would be the point of having the house without a job up here?'
'And did she have any other wishes I should know about?' asked Christa tartly. 'You say she mentioned other things in this letter?'
Lachlan Maguire hesitated then said crisply, 'Nothing of consequence.'
Christa took a deep breath and swallowed hard, trying to compose herself. 'I suppose it had never occurred to me that I wouldn't become the senior partner after Isobel retired- we'd never really discussed it. Perhaps having worked here six years I assumed I'd earned that right.'
Lachlan looked thoughtfully at Christa. 'It must be a shock, but having started the practice and built it up, perhaps she had the right to say whom she would like to succeed her.'
'Isobel didn't build the practice up on her own-I think other people came into it too,' said Christa sharply, a slight flush of anger on her cheeks. 'I rather take exception to someone just waltzing into the practice without any discussion and.'
Lachlan held his hand up. 'Whoa! Keep your hair on! I haven't decided to take it all on yet-it's a big decision, leaving my job in Australia.' He flicked a quick glance at her flushed face and said lightly, 'Perhaps we can discuss this over a drink and not in the car park?'
She nodded coolly. 'A good idea-when do you suggest?'
'This evening about six? Come to the house and I'll see what's been left in the drinks cabinet.'
'Come on, then, Titan, we'll be going.' Christa bent down to ruffle the dog's head, and he leaped up and trotted at her heels towards the little terraced house she owned on the village green.
Lachlan watched her slim figure striding away and grimaced. Of all the people his mother had had to choose to be her colleague, he could hardly believe that it should be Angus Lennox's niece! It was extraordinary that Isobel should have picked Christa, of all people, to work with her. And now there was this poignant letter, Isobel's dying request
Lachlan felt his throat constrict as he reread it in his mind's eye, urging him to take over the practice. That was a reasonable enough wish and one that left him with a mixture of emotions-a poignant regret that they hadn't talked about it before her death, and pride and relief that Isobel must still have loved him enough to want him to carry on her work.
It was her other bizarre suggestion that had floored him-it was ridiculous, almost cheeky! Perhaps it was even a joke-but for some reason he was pretty sure his mother had meant every word, he could even hear her voice with that soft hint of determination in it.
He shook his head tiredly. He couldn't think about it now, his brain was a jumble of contrasting thoughts. Lachlan turned abruptly back towards the house and went in, slamming the door irritably behind him.
'How could she do this to me-never warning me that Lachlan was her preferred choice for senior partner?' muttered Christa angrily, as she opened her front door and went into the kitchen to make a cup of restorative tea.
A torrent of aggrieved feelings had been building up inside her as she'd walked home, a bitter sense of injustice mixed with bewilderment that a good friend like Isobel should apparently want a son she hadn't seen for years to take over the practice. Isobel had always said how she hoped that Christa would remain there when she retired, and from that Christa had assumed that she would take the surgery over. How wrong she'd been, she thought sadly.
Christa gazed out of the window at the people crossing the green towards the church, a peaceful scene in the mellow late afternoon light, and gradually she began to calm down. She didn't want to allow this to colour her view of Isobel, who had been so incredibly kind to her, not only when her mother had been ill but also when Christa's affair with Colin had disintegrated. Whatever had happened, Isobel had shown Christa that there was life after a broken heart, and had encouraged her to seek new interests, given her more responsibility in the practice. Christa would be forever grateful for that.