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Finding the first gated entrance she'd come to locked, she had decided to walk, and had been going for some time before realizing that there had to be a more obvious route to the house than this. The path she'd started along had seemed established enough at first but had gradually petered out, but it was such a beautifully restful area in which to stroll, she'd decided to keep going just to enjoy being out of the car after her long drive from London and breathe in this fresh country air. She'd retrace her steps in a minute, she thought, and drive further on down the hill. Mia, the friend who'd invited her to spend Christmas here in the family home she shared with her brother, had been characteristically vague with her instructions.
"Just drive through the first big gate you come to," she'd said airily. "You can't miss it."
A little later, and with a painful stab of anxiety, Fleur recognized the familiar prickling at the back of her neck which usually heralded one of her bouts of exhaustion, and she kicked herself for being an idiot. She knew that if she wanted to stay well, she had to take care of herself, and she knew she had been overdoing it in the run-up to Christmas. They'd been working late at the laboratory for the last two weeks, and today's long drive to Cornwall hadn't helped. It would have been better to have waited until tomorrow, Christmas Eve, before leaving London, but Mia had persuaded her to come a day early.
"None of the other guests will have arrived, and my darling brother won't be there either, not until Christmas morning, so we'll have the house to ourselves," she'd enthused. "It'll be like old times in the dorm!" The two girls had been at the same boarding school and had remained firm friends ever since, though this was the first time Fleur had visited Pengarroth Hall.
Spotting a flat tree trunk just in front of her, Fleur sat down on it gingerly—she knew she wouldn't be able to stay there long because it was clearly very cold and damp, but it would do for her to rest there for just a few moments. She glanced at her watch—it was four o'clock already and starting to get dark—before closing her eyes briefly.
Suddenly, from out of nowhere and causing her to jump, a strong voice interrupted her thoughts.
'Good afternoon. Can I help you?'
The enquiry was brusque, with no hint of Christmas cheer about it, and Fleur looked up quickly, scrambling to her feet. She was confronted by a tall man wearing a mud-smeared wax jacket and heavy boots—and a rather forbidding expression on what was clearly a very handsome face. A shotgun hung over his shoulder. His eyes were darkly penetrating as they stared down at her, and she couldn't help feeling a tremor of apprehension—mixed with something else she was not going to acknowledge!— as she returned his gaze. Then she straightened her back, and she smiled—obviously this was the gamekeeper, or some other person employed at Pengarroth Hall.
'I don't need any help at all, thanks,' she said brightly. 'I've been enjoying a stroll in these wonderful woods, that's all.'
He didn't answer for a moment, unable to drag his gaze from the most delectable female features he'd seen in a long time. Then, 'Well, you are on private property. This area is not open for walkers. The public right of way is much further back up the hill,' he said bluntly. 'The notice is clearly marked.'
Fleur bristled at this show of pomposity. There was no need to be quite so horrible about it, even if she had been trespassing which, as an invited guest, was not the case. She attempted a thin smile, irritated with him now and not wanting to reveal that she was going to be staying at the house, or that she was a long-time friend of one of the owners.
'Oh, really?' she said. 'I really must be more careful where I put my size threes, mustn't I.' She glanced at the gun. 'Do you shoot trespassers?'
His firm mouth twisted slightly at the question, and he pushed a damp stray lock of dark hair back from his forehead. 'I'd better show you the way back in case you get lost. There are several different paths,' he said.
Fleur stared at him coldly. She could rely on her own brain and sense of direction, thank you. She certainly didn't want any favours from this surly individual. 'Don't bother yourself. I don't need any guidance, thank you,' she said tightly.
'Well, daylight will be gone soon,' he said. 'Please make your way back to the road.' He looked straight down into her cool green eyes before adding, 'This section of the grounds is being restored—blight damage to some of the trees has meant considerable replanting, and we don't want the new saplings to be disturbed by people tramping where they shouldn't.' Then he nodded briefly, turned around and walked away without another word.
Well, Fleur thought as she watched him disappearing through the gathering gloom, she'd give him ten out of ten for carrying out his duties. He'd certainly put her in her place. Say what you mean, and mean what you say—a man after her father's heart, that was for sure! She shook her head briefly as she thought of her parents—Helen and Philip—who were, unusually, spending Christmas in Boston this year. She couldn't remember a time when they'd not all spent the festive season together at home. But Professor Richardson, a renowned lecturer in mathematics, had seized an opportunity to mix business with pleasure, so the usual family plans had been changed.
She retraced her steps, making sure she was going the right way. It was obviously her own fault that she'd fallen foul of Mia's vague directions, and she'd known almost straight away that the path she'd chosen was not the one which would lead to the house. But she'd thoroughly enjoyed her stroll in the woods—shame that she'd had to meet up with the dour groundsman and spoil it.
It was now practically dark by the time she got back to the car. No wonder the gate had been locked—it was a wonder that they hadn't put coils of barbed wire all around it to keep everyone out!
Half a mile further down the hill, Pengarroth Hall came into view, and as Fleur approached she saw the gate which Mia had said she couldn't miss. It was wide open and inviting and, making her way slowly up the curving drive to the front door, she felt a rush of renewed pleasure at the thought of being somewhere different, with different people, for the holiday. Mia had said she'd invited several other friends along as well.
"The only one you'll have met before is Mandy,' Mia had said on the phone. 'Remember Mandy? She's a real laugh.'
Oh, I remember Mandy, Fleur had thought, a total man-eater, but yes, she'd be fun.
'All the others work with me at the office, but I promise not to allow any shop talk,' Mia had said. Mia was employed by a very successful PR company in London—a far cry from Fleur's research work in one of the city's teaching hospitals. Although their lives had taken such different paths since school and university days, they had never lost touch, and it was Mia's free and easy personal life, unconstrained by the wishes of demanding parents, that had caused Fleur many pangs of envy. Philip Richardson had had such plans for his only child—it had never occurred to him that she might have had some ambitions of her own. But, dutifully, Fleur had attained her science degree, as he'd directed, and was also careful not to introduce too many boyfriends to her parents. Not that her mother would have objected but, like Fleur, the woman was in thrall to the intellect and influence of the man in their lives, and both of them did their best not to cross him.
Now, in answer to the clanging of the ancient bell, the door was opened by a tall, rather straight-faced woman in her mid-fifties, Fleur guessed, but her broad smile was engaging enough as she introduced herself quickly.
'Oh, hello. I'm Pat—I'm housekeeper here,' she introduced herself.
'Hi, I'm Fleur Richardson.' Fleur smiled back.
'Yes, I was told you'd be the only one arriving today. Do come in. You obviously found us all right.' She stood aside as Fleur entered. 'Mia's washing her hair,' she added. 'I'll tell her you're here.'
As soon as she set foot in the place, Fleur knew that Pengarroth Hall was a home in every sense of the word. She was aware that the building was more than two hundred years old and had been owned by Mia's family for four generations, but it felt beautifully warm, cosy and welcoming. The entrance hall where she was standing was enhanced by a gigantic Christmas tree, glistening with tinsel, baubles and lights, standing at the foot of the wide staircase. In the corner was a huge grandfather clock, along the walls were a couple of low sofas, a well-worn table with some daily papers scattered about and in another corner on a low armchair a very old black Labrador snoozed, its grey-whiskered jaws and body almost lost amongst the squashy folds of an ancient blue velvet cushion. When it became aware that Fleur was standing there, the animal opened one eye, took a long deep breath, then went back to sleep. Fleur couldn't help smiling. How different all this was from her parents' well-kept mid-thirties house in Surrey—to say nothing of her own smart London flat. But she felt almost embraced by the atmosphere here, and knew she was going to love every minute of the holiday.
Just then, Mia appeared at the top of the stairs, wearing only her bra and pants, her head swathed in a large white towel.
'Hi-ya Fleur! Come on up—shan't be a jiff. Isn't this fun? I love Christmas!'
Happily, Fleur did as she was told, sitting on the edge of Mia's bed as Mia began rubbing her hair briskly.
'I hope you don't mind sharing my room,' Mia said breathlessly, 'and I'm asking the others to share as well.' She peered out from among the folds of the towel. 'It's not that there aren't enough rooms to go around in this place, of course, but I didn't like to give Pat all the extra work. And I know the boys won't mind sharing—you'll like them, Fleur. Gus and Tim are old friends in any case, and Rupert and Mat are really nice.' She draped the towel over the back of a chair and reached for her hairdryer.
'Of course I don't mind sharing,' Fleur said at once. 'It'll be like old times.' She paused. 'Your hair's grown so long, Mia. I've never seen it like that.'
Mia was strikingly tall, and her dark brown hair, reaching well below her shoulders, made her seem even taller. Her hazel eyes twinkled.
'Well, that's Mat's fault. He likes it this way,' she said, switching on the dryer.
Fleur raised her eyebrows. 'Oh? So Mat is—impor-tant—is he? The man of the moment?'
Mia smiled briefly. 'Sort of,' she said vaguely. 'We've been going out for a bit—nothing too heavy. In fact, I thought it wise to mix him up with others for Christmas— before we both get carried away.' She paused. 'What about you—anyone special on the scene?' She raised her voice slightly above the noise of the dryer.
'No, there isn't,' Fleur replied flatly. And probably never will be, she could have added, but didn't. Mia shot her an understanding glance, but said nothing. She knew that Fleur's father had always discouraged his daughter from having relationships. 'Don't waste your intelligence and education on marriage and children,' was his frequent advice to his daughter. 'There's plenty of time for that.'
'Well, let me remind you that next year we're both going to be twenty-seven,' Mia said, somewhat ruefully.
'Not that our biological clocks are running out exactly, but time does seem to be on wheels, doesn't it?' She switched off the dryer for a second and sighed. 'I love the idea of marriage and a family, but finding the right partner seems an impossible task. As soon as I get to know someone, really get to know how he ticks, I lose interest.' She gave a short laugh. 'It's obviously all my fault.' She waited a second before going on. 'Has there been anyone special since you and Leo split up?'
Fleur shrugged, looking away. 'No, not really. A few of us from work get together fairly regularly for drinks or a night out somewhere, but I always go home alone, like the good girl that I am.' Her lip curled slightly as she made that remark. Looking back on her time with Leo, when they'd meant so much to each other, she couldn't believe, now, that she'd allowed her father to come between them. But in the three years that had elapsed since that time, she'd come to realize that it had all been for the best, after all. Because she'd become utterly convinced that marriage was not for her. She would never risk being in the position which her mother had occupied all her life—to be subservient, having to fall in with every wish of her husband's. Although Fleur acknowledged that he was basically a good man, he had totally domineered his wife—and his daughter—because there was only one opinion that mattered: his own. And he could never accept that he might sometimes be wrong, or that others might be right. With her reasoning, analytical, intellect, Fleur know that it was fundamentally wrong for one human being—whoever he was—to always have his own way, and that she would never put up with that state of affairs.
She got up and went over to the window, gazing out across the garden and the woods beyond.
Mia, sensing her sudden sadness, said cheerfully, 'Well, unfortunately for the rest of us, when we were all young and innocent, you were the one that the guys all fancied, and we were very jealous, I can tell you. I don't know how you've managed to stay single for so long, Fleur Richardson, I really don't.'
It was true that Fleur had always been attractive to men, her dainty figure and heart-shaped face dominated by thickly lashed large green eyes crying out for attention and admiration. Plus those two other seductive characteristics—a high intelligence coupled with a teasingly vulnerable nature making men automatically feel protective towards her.