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'Dawn, and in front of us the idyllic English country scene. Smell that grass. Look at that thin stream of sunlight driving night-shadows down the velvet hills'
How long did he have to stay here?
With an exasperated roar, Heath flipped channels, silencing the farming programme. All he'd smelled so far was cow dung. And it was raining.
Resting his chin on one arm, he slammed his foot down on the accelerator. The Lamborghini roared drowning out the birdsong. Perfect. He missed the concrete jungleno smells, no mud, no cranky plumbing. Why Uncle Harry had left him a run-down country estate remained a mystery. Heath was allergic to the countryto anything that didn't come with dot-com attached. His empire had been built in a bedroom. What did he need all this for?
And it was only after asking himself that question that he spotted the tent someone had erected on a mossy bank just inside the gates spotted the small pink feet sticking out of the entrance. Forget hating the place. He felt proprietorial suddenly. What would he do if someone pitched a tent outside the front door of his London home?
Stopping the car, he climbed out. Striding up to the tent, he unzipped it.
A yelp of surprise ripped through the steady drum of falling rain. Standing back, he folded his arms, waiting for developments. He didn't have long to wait. A strident pixie crawled out, screaming at him that it was the middle of the night as she sprang to her feet. Red hair flying, she stood like an irate stick insect telling him what she thought of him in language as colourful as the clothes she was frantically tugging ona camouflage top, and shot-off purple leggings that displayed her tiny feet. One furious glance at his car and he was responsible for everything from frightening the local wildlife to global warming, apparently, until finally, having got over the shock of being so rudely awakened, she gulped, took a breath, and exclaimed, 'Heath Stamp ' Clapping a hand to her chest, she stared at him as if she couldn't believe her eyes.
'Bronte Foster-Jenkins,' he murmured, taking her in.
'I've been expecting you'
'So I see,' he said, glancing at the tent.
Expecting Heath to arrive? Yes, but not her reaction to it. He wasn't supposed to arrive at dawn, either. Around midday, the postmistress in the village had suggested. Heath Stamp, hip, slick, rugged, tough, and even better looking than his most recent images in the press suggested. This was a vastly improved version of someone she'd dreamed about for thirteen years, two months, six hours, and
'You do know you're trespassing, Bronte?'
And as delightful as ever.
The years melted away. They were at loggerheads immediately. She had to remind herself Heath was no longer a wild youth who'd been locked up for bareknuckle fighting, and who used to visit Hebers Ghyll on a release programme, but a successful Internet entrepreneur and the new owner of Hebers Ghyll, the country estate where Bronte had grown up, and where her mother had been the housekeeper and her father the gamekeeper. 'The estate has been deserted for weeks now'
'And that's an excuse for breaking in?' 'The gates were open. Everything's gone to pot,' she told him angrily.
And that's my fault?'
'You own it. You tell me.' Heath's inheritance had a special hold on her heart for all sorts of reasons, not least of which she considered the estate her second home.
While Heath had gained nothing in charm, Bronte registered as he turned his back, he clearly still couldn't care less what people thought of him. He never had.
He'd walked off to give them both space. Seeing Bronte again had floored him. Since the first time he had visited the estatewhere ironically his real-life uncle Harry had used to run a rehabilitation centre for out-of-control youthsthere had been something between him and Bronte, something that drew the good girl to the dark side. He'd tried to steer clear, not wanting to taint her. But he would think about her when he sat alone and stared at his bruised knuckles. She was light to his darkness. Back then Bronte had represented everything that was pure, fun and happy, while he was the youth from the gutter who met every challenge with his fists. He'd worshipped her from afar, had she only known it. That buzz between them surely should have died by now.
'That tree was struck by lightning, and no one's moved it,' she said, reclaiming his attention.
He hadn't even realised he'd been staring at the old tree, but now he remembered Uncle Harry telling him that it had stood on the estate for centuries.
'It'll stay there until it rots, I suppose,' she flared.
'I'll have it moved.' He shrugged. 'Maybe have something planted in its place.'
'It would mean more if you did it.'
He threw her a glance, warning her not to push it. But she would. She always had. Bronte loved a campaign whether it was free the chickens, or somewhere for the local youth to hang out.
'And just think of all the free firewood,' she said casually.
She was working on him. When hadn't she? And now it all came flooding backwhat she'd done for himand how he used to envy Bronte her simple life on the estate with her happy family. He'd felt a hungry desperation to share what they had but had never allowed them to draw him in, in case he spoiled it. He'd spoiled everything back then.
He was still hard and contained.
And Hebers Ghyll? Was in the pending file. And Bronte?
Heath raked his hair with impatience.
This was all happening too fast, way too fast. She hadn't expected to feel as shaken as this when she saw Heath again. Heading for the shelter of some trees where the thick green canopy acted like a giant umbrella, she sucked in some deep steadying breaths. She had to remind herself why she was hereto find out what
Heath's plans for the estate were. 'I heard the new owner was going to break up the estate' 'And?'
'You can't.' Bronte's heart picked up pace as Heath came to join her beneath the branches. 'You don't know enough about the area as it is today. You don't know how desperate people are for jobs. You haven't been near the place for years'
'And you have?'
Bronte's cheeks flared red. Yes, she'd been away, but her travels had been geared towards putting what she had learned at college into practice. As a child she had dogged Uncle Harry's footsteps, trying to be useful and asking him endless questions about Hebers Ghyll. He'd said she was a good lieutenant and might make a decent estate manager one day if she worked hard enough. When she left school Uncle Harry had paid for her to go to college to study estate management. 'I've been away recently,' she conceded, 'but apart from that I've lived on the estate all my life.'
'So, what are you saying, Bronte? You're the only one who cares about Hebers Ghyll?' Heath's chin dipped a warning.
'Well, do you care,' Bronte exclaimed with frustration, 'beyond its value?'
'I'd be foolish not to care about its value.'
'But there's so much more than money here.' And she had been prepared to camp out on the road leading up to the old house for as long as it took to prove that to him. 'Why else do you think I scrabbled round my parents' attic to find the old tent?' Heath's dark gaze flashed a warning, which she ignored. 'Do you think I like camping out in the rain?'
'I don't know what you like.'
The gulf between them yawned. It might have been easier to explain and convince Heath if she had seen him recently. The shock of seeing him again after all these years was something she hadn't anticipated. It wasn't how tall he was, or how good-lookingit was the aura of danger and unapologetic masculinity she found so unnerving.
'So, Bronte,' Heath observed in the laid-back husky voice that had always made her toes curl with excitement, 'what can I do for you?'
She exhaled, refusing to think about it. 'By the time I got back here, Heath, Uncle Harry was dead and everything was in a mess. No one on the estate or in the village had a clue what was going to happenor whether they still had jobs'
'And your parents?' Heath prompted.
She guessed Heath already knew the answer to that. The lawyers would have filled him in on what had happened to the staff at Hebers Ghyll. 'I can only think Uncle Harry must have realised he was gravely ill, because he gave my parents some money before he died. He told them to take a breakto fulfil their lifetime's ambition of travelling the world.' She was hugging herself for reassurance, Bronte realised, releasing her arms. It was hard to launch a cogent argument in defence of the estate while Heath was staring at her so intently. He knew her too well. Even after all this time he could sense what she wasn't saying. He could sense how she felt. They had always been uncannily connected, though when Heath had first arrived on the estate she'd been more concerned that the ruffian Uncle Harry was trying to tame would tear the head off her dolls. The feeling Heath inspired in her now was very different. 'I can't believe you're the Master of Hebers Ghyll,' she said, shaking her head.
'And you don't like the idea?'
'I didn't say that'
'You didn't have to. Perhaps you think Uncle Harry should have left his estate to you'
'No,' Bronte exclaimed indignantly. 'That never occurred to me. You're his nephew, Heath. I'm only the housekeeper's daughter'
'Who walked in here and made herself at home.' He glanced at her tent.
'The gates were open. Ask your estate manager if you don't believe me.'
'That man was employed by Uncle Harry's executors and no longer works for me.'
'Well, whoever he was ' Bronte's voice faded when she realised Heath had only owned the estate five minutes and had already sacked one member of staff.
'He was a waste of space,' Heath rapped. 'And replaceable.'
Heath unnerved her. Was everyone replaceable in Heath's world?
'If there are so many people clamouring for jobs in the area,' he said, reclaiming her attention, 'it shouldn't take me long to find another man'
'Or a woman.'
Heath huffed a humourless laugh. 'Still the same Bronte.'
The last time they'd had this sort of stand-off she'd been twelve and Heath fifteen, difficult ages for both of them, impossible to find common ground. Those years had changed nothing, Bronte registered, conscious of her furiously erect nipples beneath the flimsy top. She casually folded her arms across her chest. 'When can we meet for a proper talk?'
'When you approach me through the proper channels.'
'I tried to call you, but your PA wouldn't put me through. I'm only here now because I was determined to talk to you.'
'You? Determined, Bronte?' The first glint of humour broke through Heath's fierce fagade.
'Someone had to find out what was going on.'
'And as usual that someone's you?'
'I offered to be a spokesperson.'
'You offered?' Heath pulled back his head to look at her through narrowed storm-grey eyes. 'What a surprise.'
'So, are you going to tell me what your plans are for the estate?' Why wouldn't her pulse slow down?
Because of that aura of bad-boy danger surrounding Heath, her inner voice supplied. The years hadn't changed itand they certainly hadn't diminished it.
'I'll tell you what I'm going to do,' Heath said.
'Yes?' She held her ground tensely as he strolled towards her.
'This place is a mess,' he said, his gesture taking in broken fences, crumbling walls and overgrown hedgerows, 'and probate took time. But I'm here now. What happens next?' She swallowed deep as he looked down at her. 'I make an assessment.'
'That's it?' she whispered, hypnotised by his eyes.
'That's it,' Heath confirmed harshly, wheeling away. 'You haven't been inside the house yet, I take it?'
Bronte's brave front faltered. 'No. I came straight here.' Now her imagination had raced into overdrive. The estate comprised a hall and a broken-down castle as well as a great deal of land. Uncle Harry had lived at the hall, and had always kept it as well as he could afford towhich wasn't very well, but if anything was less than perfect it was only because Uncle Harry spent so much of his money helping others. The original stained-glass windows were beautiful, she remembered, and there was a wonderful wood-panelled library where the log fire was always burning, and a spotless, if antiquated, kitchen, which had been her mother's domain. Was all that changed? 'What's happened, Heath?' she said anxiously. 'Can I help?'
'What can you do?' he said.
She was surprised he had to ask. And hurt that he had. It made her more determined than ever to find out what Heath's true intentions were. 'Rumours say you've already sold the Hebers Ghyll estate on'
'Anything else?' Heath demanded, folding his powerful arms across his chest.
His eyes were every bit as beautiful as she remembered and just as cold. She shook herself round. 'And bulldozersI heard talk of bulldozers.' There was no point sugar-coating this. She might just as well confront him with the lot. 'One rumour said you were going to bring in a wrecking crew to knock everything down, and then you'd build a shopping centre'
'And what if I did?'
Panic hit her at the thought that he mightthat he couldthat he had every right to. 'What about Uncle Harry?'
'Uncle Harry's dead.'
Heath might as well have stabbed a knife through her heart. Heath had always been closed off to feelings except on those rare occasions when he had lightened up in front of Bronte or Uncle Harry. Sometimes she wondered if they were the only people he had ever opened up to. And that was a memory so faint she couldn't believe it had ever happened now. 'For goodness' sake, Heath, you're his nephewdon't you feel anything?' To hell with the job she had intended to apply for. 'Does Hebers Ghyll mean anything to you? Don't you remember what Uncle Harry used to do?'
'For kids like me?' Heath interrupted her coldly. She'd taken him back to the past, and his father, Uncle Harry's wastrel brotherthe poor relation with the taste for violence. Only at the court's insistence had his father agreed to a period of rehabilitation for Heath at Hebers Ghyll under Uncle Harry's direction. And how he'd fought it. Heath had thrown Uncle Harry's kindness back in his face. A fact he'd spent his adult life regretting.