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"You think I'm charming," Jefferson King said with a smug smile. "I can tell."
"Charming, is it?" Maura Donohue straightened up to her full, if less-than-imposing height. "Do you believe I'm so easily swayed by a smooth-talking man?"
"Easily?" Jefferson laughed. "We've known each other for the better part of a week now, Maura, and I can say with certainty there's nothing ‘easy' about you."
"Well now," she countered with a smile of her own. "Isn't that a lovely thing to say."
She was pleased. Jefferson read the truth on her features. No other woman he'd ever known would have been complimented by knowing that a man thought her difficult. But then, Maura Donohue was one in a million, wasn't she?
He'd known it the moment he met her.
In Ireland scouting locations for an upcoming movie from King Studios, Jefferson had stumbled across Maura's sheep farm in County Mayo and had realized instantly that it was just what he'd been searching for. Of course, convincing Maura of that fact was something else again.
"You know," he said, leaning one shoulder against the white-washed stone wall of the barn, "most people would be leaping at the chance to make some easy money."
She flipped her long black hair behind her shoulder, narrowed sea-blue eyes on him and countered, "There you are again, using the word ‘easy,' when you've already admitted I'm not a woman accustomed to taking the easy way."
He sighed and shook his head. The woman had an answer for everything but damned if she wasn't intriguing enough that he was enjoying himself. As the head of King Studios, Jefferson was moreaccustomed to people falling all over themselves to accommodate him. When he rolled into a town looking to pay top dollar for the use of a location, those he dealt with were always eager to sign on the dotted line and collect their cash.
Not Maura, though.
For days now, he'd been coming to the Donohue farm to talk to its stubborn owner/operator. He'd plied Maura with compliments, tempted her with promises of mountains of money he knew damn well she could ill afford to turn down and in general had tried to make himself too amiable to resist.
Yet she'd managed.
"You're in my way," she said.
"Sorry." Jefferson stepped aside so she could walk past him carrying a sack of God-knew-what. His every instinct told him to snatch the heavy load out of her arms and carry it for her. But she wouldn't accept or appreciate his offer at help.
She was fiercely independent, with a quick wit, sharp tongue and a body that he'd spent far too much time thinking about. Her thick black hair fell in soft waves to the middle of her back and he itched to gather it up in his hands to feel its sleekness sliding across his skin. She had a stubborn chin that she tended to lift when making a point and a pair of dark blue eyes fringed by long, inky-black lashes.
She was dressed in worn jeans and a heavy Irish knit sweater that covered most of her curves. But winter in Ireland meant damp, cold weather so he could hardly blame her for bundling up. Still, he hoped she invited him into her house for a cup of tea, because then she'd strip that sweater off to reveal a shirt that gave him a much better peek at what she kept hidden.
But for now, he followed her out of the barn into an icy wind that slapped at his face and stung his eyes as if daring him to brave the Irish countryside. His ears were cold and his overcoat wasn't nearly warm enough. He made a mental note to do some shopping in the village. Buy a heavier coat if he could find one and a few of the hand-knit sweaters. Couldn't hurt to endear himself to the local merchants. He'd want everyone in the tiny town of Craic on his side as he tried to sway Maura into renting King Studios the use of her farm.
"Where are we going?" he shouted into the wind and could have sworn he actually saw the wind throw his words back at him.
"We 're not going anywhere," she called back over her shoulder. "I'm going to the high pasture to lay out a bit more feed."
"I could help," he said.
She turned and looked him over, her gaze pausing on his well-shined, expensive black shoes. Smirking then, she said, "In those fine shoes? They'll be ruined in a moment, walking through the grass and mud."
"Why not let me worry about my shoes?"
Lifting that stubborn chin of hers, she said, "Spoken like a man who needn't worry about where his next pair of shoes might come from."
"Is it all rich people you don't like," Jefferson asked, an amused smile on his face, "or is it just me?"
She grinned back at him, completely unabashed. "Well now, that's an interesting question, isn't it?"
Jefferson laughed. The women he was used to were more coy. More willing to agree with him no matter what he said. They didn't voice opinions for fear he wouldn't share them. He hadn't enjoyed himself this much in way too long.
And it wasn't just the women, either, he mused. It was everyone he knew back in Hollywood.
Came from not only being a member of a prominent family, but from being the head of a studio where dreams could be made or shattered on the whim of an executive. Too many people were trying too hard to stay on his good side. It was refreshing as hell to find someone who didn't care if he had a good side.
Maura slammed the gate of her small, beat-up lorry, then leaned back against it. Folding her arms over her chest in a classic defensive posture she asked, "Why are you trying so hard, Jefferson King? Is it the challenge of winning me over that's driving you? Are you not used to hearing the word ‘no'?"
"I don't hear it often, that's true."
"I imagine you don't. A man like you with his fine shoes and his full wallet. Probably you're welcome wherever you go, aren't you?"
"You have something against a full wallet?"
"Only when it's thrown in my face every few minutes."
"Not thrown," he corrected. "Offered. I'm offering you a small fortune for the lease of your land for a few weeks. How is that an insult?"
Her mouth worked as if she were fighting a smile. "Not an insult, to be sure. But your stubborn determination to win me over is a curiosity."
"As you said, I do love a challenge." Every King did. And Maura Donohue was the most interesting one he'd had in a long time.
"We've that in common, then."
"Shared ground at last. Why not let me ride with you up to the high pasture? You can show me the rest of your farm."
She studied him for a long, quiet moment as the wind buffeted them both. Finally, she asked, "Why do you want to come with me?"
He shrugged. "Honestly, I've nothing better to do right now. Why is it you don't want me along?"
"Because I don't need help," she pointed out.
"You seem pretty sure of yourself," he told her.
"And I am," she assured him.
"Then why should you care if I ride along and help out if I can? Unless you're worried that you're going to be seduced by my lethal charisma."
She laughed. Threw her head back and let loose a loud, delighted roll of laughter that touched something inside him even as it poked at his pride. "Ah, you're an amusing man, Jefferson."
"Wasn't trying to be."
"Which only makes it that much more funny, don't you see?"
Hunching deeper into his overcoat against the cold, Jefferson told himself that she was no doubt trying to reassure herself that he wasn't getting to her. Because he knew he was. She wasn't nearly as distant as she had been the first time he'd driven onto the Donohue farm. That day, he'd been half expecting her to pull out a shotgun and force him off her land.
Not exactly the picture of Irish hospitality.
Thankfully, he'd always been the patient one in the family.
Trying a different tack now, he said, "Look at it this way. While you drive me around your place, you can have the chance to elaborate as to why you don't want to take me up on my offer to rent your farm for an already mentioned exorbitant amount of money."
She cocked her head to study him and her black hair danced in the cold wind like a battle flag. "Fine then. Come along if you must."
"A gracious invitation, as always," he muttered.
"If you want gracious," she told him, "you should head down to Kerry, go to Dromyland Castle. They've fine waiters, lovely food and neatly tended garden paths designed to make sure their visitors' fine shoes don't get ruined."
"I'm not interested in gracious," he told her, heading for the side of the car. "That's why I'm here."
After a moment, she laughed shortly. "You give as good as you get, I'll say that for you."
She joined him at the door of the truck. "But if you don't mind, I'll drive my own lorry."
"What?" Jefferson realized he'd gone to the right side—what should be the passenger side—but in Ireland, the steering wheel was on the right. "You do realize you guys have the wheel on the wrong side of the car."
"It's a matter of perspective, now isn't it?" She shooed him off and he rounded the front of the small truck, walking to the other door. "Wrong side, right side, makes no difference, as they're both my side."
Jefferson leaned his forearms on the roof of the truck. "Believe it or not, Maura, I'm on your side, too."
"Ah now," she said, grinning, "that I don't believe, Jefferson King, as I'm thinking that you're always on your own side."
She hopped in, fired up the engine and Jefferson moved fast to climb in himself, since he was sure she'd have no qualms about driving off and leaving him standing where he was. She was hardheaded. And beautiful. As stubborn as the hills here were green.
Watching the big American striding across a sheep-dung-littered rainy field on a blustery day was a fine thing, Maura mused. Even here, where he was so clearly out of his element, Jefferson King walked as if he owned the land. The edges of his gray overcoat flapped in the wind like a ghost's shroud. His thick black hair ruffled as though spirits were raking their cold fingers through it and his delicious-looking mouth was twisted up into a sneer of distaste. And yet, she thought, he continued on. Carrying sacks of feed across muddy ground to tip and pour the grain into troughs for her sheep.
As the feed hit the bottom of the troughs, the black and white creatures came scampering ever closer, as though they'd been starved for weeks. Greedy beasts, she thought with a smile as they nudged and pushed at the great Jefferson King.
To give him his due, he wasn't skittish around the animals as most city people were. They tended to look on mountain sheep as they would a hungry tiger, wondering if the beasties were going to turn on them with fangs and the taste for human flesh. For a rich American, he seemed oddly at home in the open country, though for some reason, the man refused to wear stout boots instead of his shiny, no doubt hideously expensive shoes.
He laughed suddenly as a head butt from the sheep nearly sent him sprawling face-first into the muck. Maura smiled at the sound of his laughter and told herself to ignore the swift, nearly debilitating rush of heat that swamped her. An impossible order to obey, she thought as she watched the wide smile on his face lighting up his features.
Her knees went wobbly and she knew her body was not listening to her mind.
Jefferson King was a man meant to be ogled by women, she thought, eyeing his fine physique. Broad shoulders, narrow hips and large hands with more calluses on them than she would have imagined a Hollywood type to have. He had long legs, muscular thighs and a fine ass if anyone were to ask her opinion.
And he was only a temporary visitor to the lovely island she called home. She had to remember that. He'd only come to Ireland looking for a place to make a movie. He wasn't here on the Donohue Farm because he found her fascinating. He was here to rent her land, nothing more. Once she'd signed his bloody papers, he'd be off. Back to his own world that lay so very far from hers.
Well. She didn't like the thought of that.
And so, she continued to draw out the negotiations.
"They act like they haven't eaten in weeks," Jefferson said as he walked toward her.
"Aye, well, it's cold out. That'll make for heartier appetites."
"Speaking of," he hinted broadly.
They'd fallen into a routine of sorts since his arrival. Maura had hardly noticed it happening, but there it was. Jefferson spent most of the day at her farm, following her about, touting the merits of the deal he was trying to make her and then they ended the afternoon over a bowl of soup and some hot tea in her kitchen. Strange how she'd come to look forward to that time with him.
Still, she said, "You could ask the sheep to share their meal with you if you're that hungry."
"Tempting," he said, pushing one hand through his hair to sweep it back off his forehead. "But I'd prefer some of that brown bread you gave me yesterday."
"Fond of soda bread, are you?"
He looked down at her from his great height and she could have sworn she saw actual sparks glittering in his pale blue eyes. "I'm fond of a lot of things around here."
"Oh, you've a smooth tongue on you, Jefferson King." And her knees wobbled even more as she thought of the many uses that smooth tongue of his could be put to.
"And well you know it," she told him, plucking two long strands of her hair out of her eyes. "But you're wasting your time trying to wheedle me into signing that contract of yours. I will or I won't and nothing you can say will sway me in either direction."
"Ah, but it's my time, isn't it?"
"It is indeed," she said and was silently glad he hadn't given up just yet.
In truth, she'd been considering his offer seriously since the moment he'd made it. Her mind had raced with possibilities. With the money he was offering her, she had tried to imagine what she could do to the centuries-old farmhouse that had been in her family for forever. Not to mention the changes she could make to the farm itself.