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Rick Bradford stared at the Victorian mansion elegantly arranged in front of him and then down at the note in his hand before crumpling the piece of paper and shoving it in his jeans pocket.
He'd checked with his friend Tash earlier. 'You're sure you got that right? Nell Smythe-Whittaker rang and asked if I'd drop round?'
'For the tenth time, Rick, yes! It was the Princess all right. And no, she didn't mention what it was about. And no, I didn't ask her.'
For the last fortnight Tash's brain had been addled by love. His lip curled. Not that he had anything against Mitch King and it was great to see Tash happy but, as far as he could tell, her street smarts had all but floated out of the window. Why hadn't she asked the Princess what this was about?
Because she was viewing the world through rose-coloured glasses, that was why. His lip curled a little more. He wasn't sure he could stand being a third wheel in her and Mitch's hazy, happy little world for much longer. It was time to move on. Tomorrow he'd head up the coast, find work somewhere and
He lifted a shoulder.
First he'd find out what Nell Smythe-Whittaker wanted. You won't find that out by standing here on the footpath like some dumb schmuck.
Blowing out a breath, he settled a mantle of casual, almost insolent assurance about himself. The people from Nell's worldprobably including Nell herselflooked down on the likes of him and he had no intention of giving them, or her, the satisfaction of thinking he cared two hoots either way.
Would Nell look down that pretty autocratic nose at him? He hadn't spoken to her since they were ten years old. He could count the number of times he'd seen her since thenand only ever in the distanceon one hand. They'd never spoken, but she'd always lifted a hand in acknowledgement. And he'd always waved back.
It had never felt real. It had always felt somehow apart from the daily humdrum. He scratched a hand across his face. Stupid! Fairy tales! He was too old for such nonsense.
You're only twenty-five.
Yeah? Well, most days he felt as if he was fifty.
Clenching his jaw, he pushed open the gate and strode up the walk to the wide veranda with its ochre and cream tessellated tiles. With an effort of will, he slowed his strides to a saunter and planted a devil-may-care smirk on his face.
Up closer, he could see that Nell's fancy castle needed some attention. Paint peeled at the window trims and flaked here and there from the walls. One section of guttering leaned at a drunken angle and the wider garden was overgrown and unkempt. Here and there he caught sight of the silver wrappers of crisp packets and chocolate bar wrappers winking in the sunlight.
So the rumours were true then. The Princess had fallen on hard times.
Ignoring a doorbell he had little faith would work, he lifted his hand to knock on the ornately moulded front door when voices from the partially open French windows further along the veranda halted him. Words didn't just drift out on the summer air. They sped.
'You won't get another opportunity like this, Nell!'
A male voice. An angry male voice. Rick's every muscle bunched in readiness. He hated bullies. And he really hated men who bullied women. He stalked down to the windows.
'You are a sleazy, slimy excuse for a man, Mr Withers.'
He paused. Her voice held no fear, only scorn. She could obviously deal with the situation on her own.
'You know it's the only answer to the current straits you find yourself in.'
'Is that so? And I suppose it's a coincidence that this particular solution is one that will also line your pockets?'
'There isn't a bank manager in Sydney who'll loan you the money you need. They're not going to touch that business plan of yours with a bargepole.'
'As you don't happen to be a bank manager and I no longer have any faith in your professionalism you'll have to excuse my scepticism.'
Rick grinned. Go, Princess!
'Your father won't be pleased.'
'That is true. It's also none of your concern.'
'You're wasting your not inconsiderable talents.' There was a silence. 'You're a very beautiful woman. We'd make a good team, you and I, Nellie.'
'Stay where you are, Mr Withers. I do not want you to kiss me.'
Rick straightened, instantly alert.
In the next moment a loud slap rang in the air, followed by scuffling. Rick leapt for the window, but it burst open before he could reach it and he found himself pressed back against the wall of the house as Nell frogmarched a man in a shiny suit along the length of the veranda, his earlobe twisted between her thumb and forefinger, and all but threw him towards the gate. 'Good day, Mr Withers.'
The suit straightened and threw his shoulders back. Rick went to stand behind Nell, legs planted and mouth grim. He folded his arms and flexed his biceps.
The suit gave the kind of smirk Rick would give a lot to wipe off his face except he wasn't that kind of guy any more.
'I see you've your bit of rough. So that's the way you like it?'
'I'm afraid, Mr Withers, you're never going to find out how I like it.' She glanced behind her and met Rick's gaze, her green eyes beautiful. 'Hello, Mr Bradford.'
Her voice reached out and wrapped around him like a caress. 'Hello, Princess.' He hadn't meant to call her that; it just slipped out. Those eyes widened and continued to stare into his until the breath jammed in his throat.
'Well, you needn't think your bit of rough is going to get you out of your current jam and'
'Oh, do be quiet, you horrible little man.'
Those green eyes snapped away and Rick found he could breathe again.
And then he looked at her fully and what he saw made him blink. Nell looked as if she'd just stepped out of some nineteen-fifties movie. She wore a dress that made every male impulse he had sit up and stare. It had a fitted bodice that was snug to the waist and a skirt that flared out to mid-calf. It sported a Hawaiian beach print complete with surf, sand and palm trees.
'Mr Bradford is ten times the man you are and what's more he has manners, like a true gentleman.'
He did? In the next instant he shook his head. They were reading from different scripts here.
Without another word, Nell turned and took his arm. 'I'm so glad you could drop around.' And she led him back along the veranda, effectively dismissing the other man. 'I'm terribly sorry. I'd take you through the front doorI don't want you thinking I'm taking you in via the tradesman's entrance or some such nonsensebut I can't get the rotten thing open. I'm also afraid that you'll have to excuse the mess.'
She led him through the French windows into a large rooma drawing room or parlour or music room or something of that nature. Whatever it was, it wasn't the kind of room he'd had much experience with and, despite her words, it wasn't ridiculously messy, but there were haphazard piles of boxes everywhere and piles of papers on the only piece of furniture in the rooma small side table.
'Why can't you get the door open?' He detached his arm from hers. Her warmth was too warm.
'Oh, I don't know.' She waved a hand in the air. 'It's jammed or swollen up or something.'
Why hadn't she had it looked at?
None of your business. He hovered by the French windows until he heard the clang of the front gate closing behind the suit. He glanced behind to make sure anyway. He turned back to Nell. 'What was that all about?'
Those green eyes caught fire again. 'He's an estate agent who wants to sell my house, only I'm not interested. In more ways than one! He turned out to be a seriously sexist piece of work too. I can tell you now, Mr Bradford, that if you try any of the same tricks you'll meet with the same fate!'
She was a slim blonde firecracker. In a retro dress. He wanted to grin. And then he didn't.
The fire in her eyes faded. She made as if to wipe a hand down her face only she pulled it away at the last moment to clasp both her hands lightly in front of her.
She was so different from the last time he'd seen her.
'I'm sorry, that was an unforgivable thing to say. My blood's up and I'm not thinking clearly.'
'It's all right,' he said, because it was what he always said to a woman.
Nell shook her head. 'No, it's not. I have no right to tar you with the same brush as Mr Withers.'
That was when he noticed that behind the blonde princess perfection she had lines fanning out around her eyes and she wasn't wearing lipstick. 'I'd prefer it if you'd call me Rick.'
The hint of a smile played across her lips. 'Are you up for a coffee, Rick?'
And, just like that, she hurtled him back fifteen years. Come and play. It hadn't been a demand or a request, but a plea.
He had to swallow the lump that came out of nowhere. He wanted to walk out of those French windows and never come back. He wanted.
He adjusted his stance. 'I thought you'd never ask.'
She smiled for real then and he realised that anything else that had passed for a smile so far hadn't reached her eyes. 'C'mon then.' She hitched her head and led him through the doorway into a hallway. 'You don't mind if we sit in the kitchen rather than the parlour, do you?'
'Not at all.' He tried to keep the wry note out of his voice. His type was never invited into the parlour.
Her shoulders tensed and he knew she'd read his tone. She wheeled around and led him in the other directionback towards the front doorinstead. She gestured into the large room to the left. 'As you'll see, the parlour is in a right state.'
He only meant to glance into the room but the sight dragged him all the way inside. In the middle of the room something huddled beneath dust sheetsprobably furniture. It wasn't that which drew his attention. Plaster had fallen from one of the walls, adjacent to an ornate fireplace, and, while the mess had been swept up, nothing had been done about the gaping hole left behind. A rolled-up carpet leant against another wall along with more cardboard boxes. The light pouring in at the huge bay window did the room no favours either. Scratching sounded in the chimney. Birds or a possum?
He grimaced. 'A right state is the, uh, correct diagnosis'
'Yes, which is why I currently prefer the kitchen.'
Her voice might be crisp, but her shoulders weren't as straight as they could be. He followed her into the kitchen and then wasn't sure if it was much better. The housekeeper had obviously upped and left, but how long ago was anyone's guess. A jumble of dishesmixing bowls and baking trays mostlyteetered in the sink, boxes of foodstuffs dominated one end of the enormous wooden table and flour seemed to be scattered over the rest of its surface. It smelt good in here, though.
She cleared a spot for him, wiped as much of the table down as she could and he sat. Mostly because it seemed the most sensible and least dangerous thing he could do. He didn't want to send anything flying with a stray elbow or a clumsy hip. Nell moved amid the mess with an ease and casual disregard as if she were used to it. He didn't believe that for a moment, though. The Princess had grown up in a world where others cleaned up the mess and kept things organised. This was merely a sign of her natural polish.
Or unnatural polish, depending on how one looked at it. She'd lacked it as a ten-year-old, but her parents had obviously managed to eventually drill it into her.
The scent of coffee hit him and he drew it slowly into his lungs. 'So you're moving out?'
Nell started as if she'd forgotten he was there. She sent him one of those not quite smiles. 'Moving in, actually.'
Moving in? On her own? In this great old empty mansion?
None of your business.
His lips twisted. Since when had he been able to resist a damsel in distress? Or, in this case, a Princess in distress. 'What's going down, Nell?'
She turned fully to stare at him and folded her arms. 'Really?'
He wasn't sure what that really referred tohis genuine interest or his front in asking a personal question. He remembered his devil-may-care insolence and shrugged it on. 'Sure.'
She made coffee and set a mug in front of him. Only when he'd helped himself to milk and two sugars did she seat herself opposite and add milk to her own mug. The perfect hostess. The perfect princess.
'I'm sorry. I'm so used to everyone knowing my business that your question threw me for a moment.'
'I've only been back in town for a fortnight.' And he and she came from two different worlds, even if they had grown up in the same suburb.
Even amid all the disrepair and mess, she shone like some golden thing. Him? He just blended in.
'I did hear,' he ventured, 'that your father had fallen on hard times.'
Her lips tightened. 'And nearly took the livelihoods of over a hundred people with him in the process.'
Was she referring to the workers at the glass factory? It'd been in the Smythe-Whittaker family for three generations. Tash had told him how worried they'd been at the time that it'd go down the proverbial gurgler, that more unemployment would hit the area. But 'I heard a buyer came in at the last minute.'
'Yes. No thanks to my father.'
'The global financial crisis has hit a lot of people hard.'
'That is true.' He didn't know why, but he loved the way she enunciated every syllable. 'However, rather than face facts, my father held on for so long that the sale of the factory couldn't cover all of his growing debts. I handed over the contents of my trust fund.'
'But I've drawn the line at selling Whittaker House.'
Her grandmother had left it to Nell rather than her father? Interesting. 'But you gave him your money?'
She rested both elbows on the table and stared down into her mug. 'Not all of it. I'd already spent some of it setting up my own business. Though, to be perfectly frank with you, Rick, it never really felt like my money. Besides, as I was never the daughter my father wanted, it seemed the least I could do.'
'But you're still angry with him.'
She laughed then and he liked the way humour curved her lips in that deliciously enticing manner. Lips like that didn't need lipstick. 'I am. And as everyone else around here already knows the reason, I'll even share it with you, tough guy.'
He leaned towards her, intrigued.
'Besides the fact he had no right gambling with the factory workers' livelihoods, his first solution was to marry me off to Jeremy Delaney.'
His jaw dropped. 'Jeez, Nell, the Delaneys might be rolling in it, but it's a not-so-secret secret that he's.' He trailed off, rolling his shoulders. Maybe Nell didn't know.
'Gay?' She nodded. 'I know. I don't know why he refuses to be loud and proud about it. I suspect he's still too overawed by his father.'
'And you refused to marry him?'
'Of course I did.'