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He was back.
Heath stood on the moorland rise that was positioned almost exactly halfway between the two houses that had shaped his life in the past. Up above him, high on the steep hill, was the big old-fashioned stone building known as High Farm. Neglected now, and desperately in need of repair, the window frames crumbling, the garden overgrown, it looked bleak and unwelcoming as the winds lashed the trees behind it. Further down in the valley was the Grange, elegant, well cared for, with sweeping lawns, a flourishing rose garden and there, at the side of the big golden-stoned house, the glint of blue where the swimming pool gleamed in the sunlight.
One of these houses had been the place he had grown up in but had never truly been able to call home. He had spent most of his childhood and adolescence there but he had never belonged. Always been on the outside. And once the man who had brought him there had died, any trace of warmth or 'family' had vanished with him.
The other house he'd been totally excluded from. Not even allowed through the door, never mind into any of the elegant, expensively decorated rooms. Just once he'd crossed the threshold, getting as far as the hall and that was as far as he'd managed. That time he had been ejected with a hand on the collar of his shirt, a knee in his back, thrown out onto the rain-soaked gravel driveway, landing on his face with such force that he had been picking bits of stone out of the grazes for days to come.
He was back but there was no way that he was home.
He kicked a pebble out of his way, watched it bounce along the path then fall into a rough patch of grass. This had never been his home even when he had thought, had hoped that it was. Ten years before, a penniless adolescent, he had turned his back on it without a second thought, driven out by one last betrayal, one last rejection, that had been more than he could take. Heading out into a night so vile it had seemed as if all the devils in hell were howling in the wind that whirled across the moor, and the icy rain had almost blinded him as it swept into his eyes, plastered his hair to his skull.
With only the clothes he stood up in and his paltry savings in his pocket, the amount so small that he would now think more than twice about even tossing it into a beggar's collection pot, he had vowed that one day he would be back. That one day he would return. But not until he had the status, the wealth, the power, that meant that neither the Nicholls family nor the Charltons would ever be able to make a move against him again.
It had taken him ten years, but now he was ready. They said that revenge was a dish best served cold and in those years he had had time to become as cold as ice, and more than ready to make a meal of his vengeance. Already things were set in place, he had played the first card, moved the first domino that would soon have his enemies' every last defence crashing down to the ground.
Once again the blustering wind fretted at his hair, blasting it across his frowning forehead and into his narrowed eyes. As he pushed it back he felt the ridge of the scar that ran along his cheekbone, smiling grimly as he recalled just who had put it there and why.
Before the week was out, Joseph Nicholls would regret that blowand many more.
And Joseph's sister? What about Kat?
Thinking of her had been a mistake. He found that he was shaking his head roughly in an attempt to drive away the memories that simply thinking of her had dragged up from the dark chambers of his mind. Chambers where he had thought that he had buried them for good.
He had things to do; plans to put into action. And he was not about to let the memory of the girlthe woman nowwho had once taken what little was left of his heart and trampled it under her feet distract him from his purpose now that his aim was almost achieved. He would see her later of course. How could he come back to Hawden and not come face to face with her? He could never leave without exorcising the bitter legacy she had left him with, the scars that went deeper than the ones on his body, on his face that her brother and her husband had put there.
He would have to see her one last time before he left Hawden Valley for good. But he had other things to do first. Other memories to erase, cruelties and injustices to avenge. He was ready to show the families who had treated him as less than the dirt beneath their feet that they no longer had any power over him. Instead, he was now the one with all the control in his hands.
Katherine NichollsKatherine Charltoncould wait a while longer. He had to see her to close the door on what had once been between them and know that everything was now behind him. That would be the last thing he had to do before he could shake the dirt of Hawden from his feet. One look and then he could walk away for good.
'There is someone to see you, Mrs Charlton.'
Kat's attention was on the papers in front of her so that she didn't look up in response to Ellen's arrival in the room, only frowning her confusion when the housekeeper paused inside the door with her announcement. She hadn't heard the bell, or a knock at the door, so this hesitation, rather than going ahead and telling her just who had called, was puzzling. As was the strictly formal, 'Mrs Charlton'. The housekeeper usually just called her Kat.
Of course when Arthur had been alive, it had been different. He had always insisted on the strict formality that he had been brought up with. But Arthur had been gone for almost a year now, and the regime he had imposed had been one of the first things that Kat had got rid of as soon as she possibly could.
'Who is it, Ellen?'
'He said to say someone from London,' Ellen said and her tone alerted Kat to the fact that this was not just any 'someone'.
But then she remembered just who was supposed to be arriving here today, and everything fell into place. Nothing had been the same around here for months now. Not since Arthur's untimely death and the awful discoveries that had been made in the aftermath of that event. And today was the day when she found out just where she stood. If she stood at all and wasn't lying flat on her face.
'show them in, Ellen.'
She knew her tension showed in her voice. This was Arthur's solicitor after all, the person who held the details of their futures in her hands. And Ellen's future was tied up with the place every bit as much as Kat's own, as was the future of so many of the workers on the estate. So many more people who had been let down by her husband. That was one of the reasons why today was so important.
Her attention had drifted back to the papers on the table in front of her as she heard Ellen's footsteps cross the hall. If it was the solicitor then she really hoped there was going to be some good news. Something she could hope to work with. Some way out of all the worry and the uncertainty that she had lived with over the past few months. So many people depended on her, and she would really love to be able to help them.
The extent of the problems Arthur had left her with had made her mind spin. The gambling and other sordid ways he had spent his money had been bad enough, but the full details of appalling business debts that had followed one after another, like a row of dominoes falling, the foreign names, this one huge corporationthe Itabira Corporation in South Americainvolved in the financial dealings, had left her reeling. But one thing was clear. Her late husband had ruined the estate, spending every last penny they possessed on the secret life he had been hiding from her ever since they had marriedeven before then, she admitted. The truth was that she had never known Arthur Charlton at all.
The man she had marriedthe man she had thought she was marryinghad never existed. If she had even suspected half of what she now knew about him she would never have considered his proposal.
If their visitor was the solicitor, then she had had a sex change, she realised, as the footsteps that came back across the hall were much heavier and more forceful than Ellen's had been. Definitely male. And definitely some male who put his feet down, as her grandmother had used to say, like ready money. Hard and firm and strongly in control.
Behind her the footsteps had come to a halt. The sudden silence told her that her visitor was close, standing in the doorway. But before she could look up a voice spoke and the sound of it sent her world into a violent, dizzying spin.
Her mind failed her, refusing to complete the sentence. The words wouldn't form inside her head. There was no way it could be him.
The word whispered from her mouth, the papers falling from her hands and onto the table as she forced herself to look up, to look towards the doorway. The man she saw there had an impact on her senses that made her whole world, her sense of reality, rock dangerously on its axis.
Hello, Kat. When she had thought that she would never, ever hear that voice again, it was almost as if he had come back from the dead and had walked into the room in some disturbing ghostly form. Back to haunt her present as he had her past.
It was Heath. The same and yet not the same at all. This was a bigger man, leaner, more muscled, stronger, darker. So different and yet so much the same. The wild boy he had been, the youth with lightning in his eyes, danger in his fists, and trouble in his heart, was still there. She could see him still in those molten ebony eyes. But the untamed, unkempt boy was now hidden, concealed under a more forceful, powerful, more polished veneer. A gorgeously sophisticated, polished veneer. A forcefully male, stunningly sexy appearance.
This man stood tall and sleek, once wild jet-dark hair tamed into an elegant crop. The long, whipcord-lean body was sheathed in a superbly tailored steel-grey suit that hugged the contours of his powerful frame, clung to a narrow waist and long muscular legs that were now planted firmly on the soft surface of the cream and blue carpet, handmade leather boots gleaming black against the pastel colours. An immaculate white shirt heightened the darkness of his complexion, the tan that could only have been acquired from a long timefrom lifein a country that had a much warmer climate than the Yorkshire moors. Around his shoulders hung a tailored black raincoat, unbuttoned and long, that made her think of some long-ago highwayman come to the door, pistols in his hand, ready to demand a ransom or that she hand over her jewellery. Andwas that an earring that sparkled against the olive skin of one ear lobe? A brilliant, deep green emerald that winked in what little light there was from the window. An ornament as fantastic and unexpectedand as exotically beautifulas the man who stood before her. 'It really is you.'
Once she would have been so happy to see him. But that had been in the days when they had been such friends. That was someone who was long gone, probably for ever. After the way they had parted, the dark threats he had tossed over his shoulder as he left, she knew that friendship was no longer what he felt for her or any member of her family. If his stiff and hostile body language, the cold glitter of those deep dark eyes, the unsmiling expression said anything it was that he had not come here for a nostalgic reunion.
And because of how it had once been between them, that look left her feeling shockingly and shivering cold.
From a distance she heard his voice again. A man's voice, deep and husky and touched by that unexpected and totally foreign accent. A voice she knew and yet had never heard before.
'Who else were you expecting?' he said.
The total lack of warmth in his tone sliced into her like a blade of ice, making the ground suddenly unsteady beneath her feet, her legs as unsupportive as cotton wool.
This man who had been such a vital, and essential, part of her life. So much more than a friend who had shared her childhood with her, the loss of her father, the beginnings of her adolescence, stood with her against her brother's tyranny, and had then just vanished. Walking out without a word of explanation, and making no effort at contact ever since. She'd cried her loss into her pillow for more nights than she cared to remember but he had put her right out of his mind, it seemed. She had not seen or heard from him in almost ten years.
Now, 'Hello, Kat,' he'd said. And that was all it took to turn her world upside down.
But then that was what he had threatened to do. He had said that one day he would be back and then he would turn the life they knew on its head.
'Who else did you think it might be, Miss Katherine?'
The touch of cynical humour, the dark mockery was new. Like his appearance it was so far from everything she had ever known of him. Her Heath had never looked like this. The Heath she had known had never had that sleek, sophisticated grooming that made him look like some glossy honed predator, who had prowled on silent paws, dangerous and alien, into the very civilised atmosphere of the home she had built. But then, she of all people knew how 'civilised' appearances could be misleading.
But in spite of that sophistication, that grooming, he still looked like some creature of the wild that was barely under control, eyes watchful, every muscle poised and taut ready for fight or flightwhichever was necessary.