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Life is like ice cream: you have to take it one lick at a time.
If ever there had been a moment to follow Gran's example and check her reflection in the mirror before she opened the front door, Elle decided, this was it.
On her knees and up to her rubber gloves in soapy water when the doorbell rang, she hadn't bothered to stop and fix hair sliding out of its elastic band. And there wasn't much she could have done about a face pink and shiny from a day spent catching up with the housework while everyone was out, culminating in scrubbing the kitchen floor.
It was the complete Cinderella workout.
She couldn't afford a fancy gym membership and, as she was always telling her sisters, cleaning was a lot more productive than pounding a treadmill. Not that they'd ever been sufficiently impressed by the argument to join in.
Even sweaty Lycra had to be a better look than an ancient shirt tied around the waist with an equally geriatric psychedelic tie. Sexier than the jeans bagging damply around her knees.
It wouldn't normally have bothered her and, to be fair, the man standing on the doorstep hadn't made much of an effort, either. His thick dark hair was sticking up in a just-got-out-of-bed look and his chin was darkened with what might be designer stubble but was more likely to be a disinclination to shave on Saturday, when he didn't have to go into the office.
Always assuming that he had an office to go to. Or a job.
Like her, he was wearing ancient jeans, in his case topped with a T-shirt that should have been banished to the duster box. The difference was that on him it looked mouth-wateringly good. So good that she barely noticed that he'd made free with a name she'd been trying to keep to herself since she'd started kindergarten.
Swiftly peeling off the yellow rubber gloves she'd kept on as a 'Sorry, can't stop' defence against one of the neighbours dropping by with some excuse to have a nose around, entertain the post office queue with insider gossip on just how bad things were at Gable End, she tossed them carelessly over her shoulder.
'Who wants to know?' she asked.
Her hormones might be ready to throw caution to the wind they were Amery hormones, after allbut while they might have escaped into the yard for a little exercise, she wasn't about to let them go 'walkies'.
His voice matched the looks. Low, sexy, soft as Irish mist. And her hormones flung themselves at the gate like a half-grown puppy in a let-me-at-him response as he offered his hand.
Cool, a little rough, reassuringly large, it swallowed hers up as she took it without thinking, said, 'How d'you do?' in a voice perilously close to the one her grandmother used when she met a good-looking man. With that hint of breathiness that spelled trouble.
'I'm doing just fine,' he replied, his slow smile obliterating all memory of the way she looked. Her hair, the lack of makeup and damp knees. It made crinkles around those mesmerisingly blue eyes and they fanned out comfortably in a way that suggested they felt right at home there.
Elle had begun to believe that she'd bypassed the gene that reduced all Amery women to putty in the presence of a good looking man.
Caught off guard, she discovered that she'd been fooling herself.
The only reason she'd escaped so far, it seemed, was because until this moment she hadn't met a man with eyes of that particularly intense shade of blue.
A man with shoulders wide enough to carry the troubles of the world and tall enough not to make her feel awkward about her height, which had been giving her a hard time since she'd hit a growth spurt somewhere around her twelfth birthday. With a voice that seemed to whisper right through her bones until it reached her toes.
Even now they were curling inside her old trainers in pure ecstasy.
He epitomised the casual, devil-may-care, bad-boy look of the travelling men who, for centuries, had arrived on the village common in the first week of June with the annual fair and departed a few days later, leaving a trail of broken hearts and the occasional fatherless baby in their wake.
But, riveted to the spot, her hand still in his, all it needed was for fairground waltzer music to start up in the background and she'd have been twirling away on a fluffy pink cloud without a thought in her head.
The realisation was enough to bring her crashing back to her senses and, finally letting go of his hand, she took half a step back.
'What do you want, Mr McElroy?'
His eyebrows lifted a fraction at the swift change from drooling welcome to defensive aggression.
'Not a what, a who. I have a delivery for Lovage Amery.' Oh, no
Back to earth with a bump.
She hadn't ordered anythingshe couldn't afford anything that would require deliverybut she had a grandmother who lived in a fantasy world. And her name was Lovage, too.
But all the questions tumbling out of her brainthe what, the who, the 'how much?' stuffhit a traffic jam as his smile widened, reaching the parts of her that ordinary smiles couldn't touch.
Her pulse, her knees, some point just below her midriff that was slowly dissolving to jelly. 'If you'll just take this.'
She looked down and discovered that this delectable, sinewy package that had those drooling hormones sitting up and begging for whatever trouble he had in mind was offering her a large brown envelope.
The last time one of those had come calling for 'Lovage Amery' she'd taken it without a concern in the world, smiling right back at the man offering it to her.
She'd been younger then. About to start college, embark on her future, unaware that life had yet one more sucker punch to throw at her.
'What is it?' she asked, regretting the abandonment of the rubber gloves. Regretting answering the door.
'Rosie,' he said. As if that explained everything. 'You are expecting her?'
She must have looked as blank as she felt because he half turned and with a careless wave of the envelope, gestured towards the side of the house.
She leaned forward just far enough to see the front of a large pink and white van that had been backed up towards the garage.
She stared at it, expecting to see some disreputable dog sticking its head out of the window. She'd banned her sister from bringing home any more strays from the rescue shelter. The last one had broken not only their hearts, but what remained of their bank balance. But Geli was not above getting someone else to do her dirty work.
'Where is she?' she asked. Then, realising this practically constituted an acceptance, 'No. Whatever Geli said, I can't possibly take another dog. The vet's bills for the last one'
'Rosie isn't a dog,' he said, and now he was the one looking confused. 'That's Rosie.'
She frowned, stared at the picture of an ice cream sundae on the van door, little cones on the roof, and suddenly realised what she was looking at.
'Rosie is an ice cream van?'
Elle frowned. Congratulations? Had she won it in one of the many competitions she'd entered in a fit of post-Christmas despair when the washing machine had sprung a leak on the same day as the electricity bill had arrived?
She hadn't had any warning of its arrival. No phone call. No letter informing her of her good fortune. Which was understandable.
This would have to be the booby prize because, desperate as she was, she wouldn't have entered a competition offering a second-hand ice cream van as first prize.
She wouldn't have entered one offering a new ice cream van, but at least she could have sold it and bought a new washing machine, one with a low energy programmethus dealing with two problems at oncewith the proceeds.
While unfamiliar with the latest trends in transport, even she could see that Rosie's lines were distinctly last century.
Already the sorry owner of an ancient car that had failed its annual MOT test with a list of faults a mile long, the last thing she needed was to be lumbered with more scrap.
'Congratulations?' she repeated.
'You appear to have twenty-twenty vision,' he teased.
'A very old ice cream van,' she pointed out, doing her best to ignore the gotcha grin, the faded black T-shirt clinging to those enticing shoulders and figure out what the heck was going on.
'Actually, she's a nineteen sixty-two Commer ice cream van in her original livery,' he said, without a hint of apology. On the contrary, he seemed to be under the impression that it was a good thing.
It beat the wreck in the garage, which had rolled off the assembly line when she was still in primary school, by thirty years. That was a stripling youth compared to Rosie, which had taken to the road when her grandmother was still in school.
'The old girl's vintage,' Sean confirmed. 'She's your Great-Uncle Basil's pride and joy, but right now she's in need of a good home.'
As he said this, he looked over her shoulder into the house, no doubt intending to emphasize the point.
He didn't visibly flinch but the hall, like the rest of the house, was desperately in need of a coat of paint. It was also piled up with discarded shoes, coats and all the other stuff that teenagers seemed to think belonged on the floor. And of course, her rubber gloves.
That was the bad news.
The good news was that he couldn't see where the carpet had been chewed by the dog that had caused them all so much grief.
'Vintage,' she repeated sharply, forcing him to look at her instead of the mess behind her. 'Well, it would certainly fit right in around here. There's just one small problem.'
More than one if she was being honest and honestly, despite the fact that the aged family car had failed its annual test and she was desperate for some transport, she wasn't prepared to take possession of a vehicle that was short on seats and heavy on fuel.
Walking, as she was always telling her sisters, was good for you. Shaped up the legs. Pumped blood around the body and made the brain work harder. And they all had a duty to the planet to walk more. Or use public transport.
She walked. They used public transport.
There was absolutely no chance that either of her sisters would consider using the bike when it meant wearing an unflattering helmet and looking, in their words, 'like a dork' when they arrived at school and college, respectively.
'Which is?' he prompted.
She didn't bother him with the financial downside of her situation, but kept it simple.
'I don't have a Great Uncle Basil.'
Finally a frown. It didn't lessen the attraction, just made him look thoughtful, studious. Even more hormone-twangingly desirable.
'You are Lovage Amery?' he asked, catching up with the fact that, while she hadn't denied it, she hadn't confirmed it either. 'And this is Gable End, The Common, Longbourne.'
She was slow to confirm it and, twigging to her reluctance to own up to the name, the address, he glanced back at the wide wooden gate propped wide open and immovable for as long as she could remember. The letters that spelled out the words 'Gable End' were faded almost to nothing, but denial was pointless.
'Obviously there has been some kind of mistake,' she said with all the conviction she could muster. Maybe. Her grandmother might well know someone named Basil who needed somewhere to park his ice cream van, but he wasn't her uncle, great or otherwise. And, even if she'd wanted toand she didn'tshe had no time to take on an ice cream round. End of, as Geli was so fond of saying. 'Please take it away.'
'I will.' Her relieved smile was a fraction too fast. 'If you'll just help me get to the bottom of this.'
'Some kind of muddle in the paperwork?' she offered. 'Take it up with Basil.'
'It's not a common name. Lovage,' he said, ignoring her excellent advice.
'There's a good reason for that,' she muttered.
One of his eyebrows kicked up and something in her midriff imitated the action. Without thinking, Elle found herself checking his left hand for a wedding band. It was bare, but that didn't mean a thing. No man that good-looking could possibly be unattached. And, even if he was, she reminded herself, she wasn't. Very firmly attached to a whole heap of responsibilities.
Two sisters still in full-time education, a grandmother who lived in her own make-believe world, and a house that sucked up every spare penny she earned working shifts in a dead-end job so that she could fit around them all.
'You don't like it?' he asked.
'No Yes ' It wasn't that she didn't like her name. 'Sadly, it tends to rouse the infantile in the male, no matter how old they are.'
'Men can be their own worst enemies,' he admitted. Then said it again. 'Lovage.'
This time he lingered over the name, testing it, giving it a deliciously soft lilt, making it sound very grown-up. And she discovered he didn't need the smile to turn her bones to putty.
She reached for the door, needing something to hang on to.
'Are you okay?' he asked.
'Fine,' she snapped, telling herself to get a grip.
The man was trying to lumber her with a superannuated piece of junk. Or, worse, was a con artist distracting her while an accomplicemaybe Basil himselfslipped around the back of the house and made off with anything not nailed down. Well, good luck with that one. But, whatever he was up to, it was a cast-iron certainty that flirting was something that came to him as naturally as breathing. And she was being sucked in.
'If that's all?' she enquired.
She hesitated a second too long.
'Right name. Tick. Right address. Tick'
'Annoying male, tick,' she flashed back at him, determined to put an end to this. Whatever this was.
'You may well be right,' he agreed, amused rather than annoyed. Which was annoying. 'But, while you might not know your Great-Uncle Basil, I think you're going to have to accept that he knows you.' He looked down at the envelope he was holding, then up at her. 'Tell me, are you all named after herbs in your family?'
She opened her mouth, then, deciding not to go there, said, 'Tell me, Mr McElroy, does she it,' she corrected herself, refusing to fall into the trap of thinking of the van as anything other than an inanimate object 'does it go?'
'I drove her here,' he pointed out, the smile enticing, mouth-wateringly sexy. Confident that he'd got her. 'I'll take you for a spin in her so that I can talk you through her little eccentricities, if you like,' he went on before she could complete her punchline, tell him to start it up and drive it away. 'She's a lovely old girl, but she has her moods.'
'Oh, right. You're telling me she's a cranky old ice cream van.'