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Kate reached the last item in the file, closed her eyes, closed the file and counted to ten. Then she opened her eyes, opened the file and started again. The bell above the door jangled, telling her someone had entered the office, but she didn't move from her crouch in front of the filing cabinet. In fact, it was hard to move at all with all the boxes piled around her.
At any other time a voice like that would've had her swinging around in curiosity
and anticipation. The voice was deep and masculine, with an intriguing British burr. A lot of tourists with a lot of different accents passed through this part of the world and Kate loved accents. She'd once meant to travel to some of those faraway places and immerse herself in different cultures, different languages. But that was before she'd fallen pregnant with Jesse. This particular accent, though, was her all-time favourite and could turn her insides to mush in the space of a heartbeat.
'I won't be a moment,' she called.
Half hidden by the desk, her customer probably couldn't see her. And although she usually made it a point to deal with prospective customers first, she took a deep breath and carefully examined the file again, lifting out and checking each document before moving to the next one.
Darn it. It wasn't there. Where had she put it? The accountant had wanted it last week. She'd promised to get it to him today. She slapped the side of the filing cabinet as if it were its fault. She glanced around at all the boxes and groaned.
'Is something wrong?'
She couldn't resist that accent any longer. 'I'm sorry.' She turned. 'I
She blinked. Air squeezed out of her lungs. Oh, dear Lord, who cared about finding receipts for boat repairs when a man like this stood in her office?
She tried to catch her breath, but it flitted in and out of her lungs with more speed than grace, evading her every attempt to harness it. She thought she ought to stand, but the longer she stared at him the more the world tilted to one side and, as she had no desire to fall flat on her face at his feet, she decided she'd better stay right where she was. Very carefully, she lowered her knees to the ground so she knelt rather than crouched. More stabilitythat was what she needed. And breakfast. She absolutely, positively shouldn't have skipped breakfast. Low blood sugar and all that.
She tried to hold back a sigh, but her mystery man had such a beautiful face to go with the beautiful British accentnot to mention a superb bodyand it had been a long time since she'd beheld such a perfect example of masculine beauty that she had no hope of containing it. It came out on one long low breath. His too-short hair, as far as she could tell, was his single flaw. But it gleamed rich and dark in the half-light of her office and she could imagine its crispness against her palms with more clarity than sense.
She shook herself. 'Hello.' Her voice came out normal. She had no idea how. She even managed a smile.
'Hello,' he said again in that to-die-for accent, but he said it slowly, as if making a discovery. Then he smiled. Firm, sensual lips. Cheek creases.
The world abruptly stopped tilting and something slammed into her stomach with the impact of a missile. It felt wrong and rightboth at the same time. It didn't make sense.
The man's eyes widened, his lips pursed for a brief moment, and she wondered if he'd felt the impact too.
Another sigh welled up inside her. And yearning. She expelled the sigh on one hard breath, but could do nothing with the yearning. She forced herself to her feet. 'I'm sorry to have kept you waiting.'
She glanced at the clock on the wall behind himeleven a.m. The day was yet young. She had plenty of time to find receipts for boat repairs and visit her accountant. She had all the time in the world.
'Is everything all right?'
Just in time she stopped herself from saying, It is now, because that was crazy talk. Fanciful.
She was a single mother with a child. She didn't do fanciful.
Not any more.
Her tourist had dark eyes that crinkled at the corners. They were nice eyes and they looked at her with concern. 'I'm sorry. Yes, I'm fine. Just a bit distracted.' By him. But she didn't want him to know that.
She blew a strand of hair out of her face and ordered herself to stop ogling the poor man, decided she'd buried herself in her work for far too long and that she'd better start getting out a bit more. 'I'm just having one of those mornings, you know?'
'Yep.' He gave one hard nod. 'Know exactly what you mean. Today, I can absolutely relate to that.'
Their gazes met and a surge of fellow feeling passed between them. In the dim light of her office she couldn't work out if his eyes were brown or dark grey. She'd need to be closer to tell for sure, but they were clear and direct and she found herself liking them.
Her day suddenly started to look up. 'How can I help you?' She pulled the reservation book towards her.
He smiled again and her knees gave a funny little wobble. She'd bet she looked a wreck. She resisted the urge to pat down her hair and straighten her shirt.
He didn't look a wreck. He looked impeccable in a charcoal-grey suit. Italian, she'd bet. Actually, she wouldn't know an Italian suit if it leapt up and bit her on the nose. It could be Bond Street for all she knew.
She knew shoes though, and those shoes were definitely Italian leather.
'I actually want to speak to your employer, Kate Petherbridge.'
'I was here at nine o'clock this morning.' He pointed to the glass door, which had the office hours printed across it. The previous owner's office hours. Kate hadn't got around to having them changed yet. 'Nobody showed up, which at the time I thought pretty unprofessional.'
She'd moved into this office two days ago. She'd figured they'd need the extra room at home now. But there was still so much to do. Her shoulders started to sag. He smiled again. Her knees gave another funny wobble. Outside, a magpie started to warble.
'But if you're having one of those kinds of days then' he shrugged 'it can't be helped.'
He glanced down at the items spread across her deskthe contents of her bag drying out after their dunking in the bay. Without warning, the strap had given way when she'd raced the passenger list down to Archie. It was her best shoulder bag too. Only quick reflexes had saved the bag, contents and all, from sinking to the bottom to lie cradled against the oyster-encrusted rocks metres below. They seemed a paltry treasuretwo bank cards, her driver's licence and medical card, a diary-cum-address book, the little paper money she'd had on her, a tab of aspirin that for some reason she hadn't thrown away, and a couple of soggy photographs. The one of Danny and Felice before they'd set off on their honeymoon was completely ruined.
'My bag fell in the bay.'
It was a completely ludicrous statementself-evidentbut the man opposite didn't laugh. He nodded as if he understood.
'That was right after I'd buried Mobythe goldfish.' That had not been a good start to the day. It was why she'd taken her favourite shoulder bagto try and cheer herself up.
He lifted one hand. 'For what it's worth, I hit a kangaroo in my hire car this morning.'
Even as she winced at the picture his words created, Kate decided then and there that their joint dispiriting tales of woe made this man a good omen. 'How fast were you travelling?'
'Eighty kilometres an hour.'
She winced again. Kangaroos didn't survive eighty-kilo-metre-per-hour collisions.
He suddenly shook himself. He leaned forward and offered his hand. 'I'm Simon Morton-Blake.'
Kate placed her hand inside his immediately. His long fingers curled around hers and he squeezed briefly. She squeezed back. They both smiled. His hair gleamed richer, darker. Reluctantly, or so it seemed to Kate, their hands parted company again. 'Pleased to meet you. I'm'
The smile slid off her face. 'What did you say your name was?'
His eyes narrowed. 'Why? Do you recognise it?'
Of course she recognised it, but Felice hadn't mentioned anything about family.
'The full title is Simon Morton-Blake, the seventh Lord of Holm' his lips twisted in self-derision 'but I don't expect you've heard of that.'
Her jaw dropped. 'You're a lord? Like
a real lord?'
'I am. Are you impressed?'
He raised an eyebrow and she wasn't sure who he was sending upher or himself.
'It doesn't seem to hold much cachet in Australia,' he commented.
'No, I don't suppose it does, but
' she peered up at him '
do you, like, have your own castle?' She could imagine him living in a castle. She could imagine him in a kilt.
Don't be ridiculous! He's English, not Scottish.
she'd give a lot to see him in a kilt.
'The estate does have a fifteenth-century manor house and quite a few sheep, but no castle, I'm afraid. Not even the ruins of a castle.' He gave a mock grimace. 'Have I fallen in your estimation?'
Kate laughed. Even though his name was Morton-Blake and he had to be some kind of relative of Felice's. Even though Felice hadn't mentioned anything about family, let alone family as distinguished as the seventh Lord of Holm.
He must be a distant cousin or something. Perhaps Felice had sent him a postcard extolling the beauties of Port Stephensand it had manyand how much fun she was having working for Kate's dolphin tour business.
But why hadn't she mentioned him? Why had Felice let Danny and Kate think she had no family at all?
'And you are?'
Kate snapped back to attention. 'Oh, I'm sorry.' She drew in a breath, tried to smile. 'I'm Kate Petherbridge.'
His face darkened and his eyebrows drew down low over his eyes as he placed his hands on her desk and leaned across it towards her. His eyes weren't brown but a dark smoky-grey.
'Then perhaps you can tell me where the hell my sister is?'
Very slowly, Kate sat. 'Sister?' Her mouth went dry. 'Felice is your sister?'
'Yes!' he shouted. 'And I want to know if she's okay.'
She sensed the concern behind his anger. 'Of course she is.' She made her voice crisp and businesslike, wanting to allay his worry as quickly as she could. 'Felice is perfectly fine and dandy.'
He closed his eyes, dragged a hand down his face and fell into the seat opposite. 'Thank God for that.'
His lovely broad shoulders went suddenly slack and it was only then that Kate realised how tightly he'd held himself. She frowned. She knew what it was like to worry about a younger sibling.
'I didn't know Felice had family.' In fact, Felice had led them to believe she was alone in the world. If Simon was a lord, what on earth did that make Felice?
And, more importantly, did Danny know?
Simon's eyes narrowed and his lips thinned. 'So that's the game she's playing, is it? Nevertheless, I am her brother. Are you doubting my verisimilitude?'
Kate wanted to close her eyes and wallow in that accent. She wanted to ask him to say that word again so she could watch the way his lips shaped it. She forced her spine to straighten instead. 'Do you have any proof?'
He leaned towards her again. 'You really don't believe me?'
She didn't know if he was angry or intrigued. 'I don't take risks with my staff's safety, Mr Morton-Blake.' Former staff's safety, she amended silently. Felice wasn't staff any more. She was family. 'I don't know you from Adam and I only have your word that you're who you say you are. For all I know, you could be stalking Felice.'
He sat back and folded his arms. And what if I am? What would you do?'
'I have a black belt in judo.' Which was the truth. 'And a spear gun in my desk drawer.' Which wasn't. 'I wouldn't try anything if I were you.'
Her desk drawer!
She clapped a hand to her head. Then she flung the drawer open. There it sat. Right on topthe file containing all the receipts her accountant had demanded from herreceipts that would save her from being fined by the Taxation Department. She didn't remember putting it there, but she pulled it out and kissed it all the same.
Simon had pulled back as if he expected her to draw a gun. Now his lips twitched at the corners, hinting at those cheek creases. 'My day just got a whole lot better,' she confided.
He actually sounded as if he meant it. He pulled a wallet from his inside jacket pocket and flicked through it. It gave her a chance to study him. If he lived here in Port Stephens she'd bet the sun would bleach the tips of his hair. Simon Morton-Blake might be a lord but he didn't look as if he spent the majority of his time indoors behind a desk. If he lived around here she had a feeling he'd spend more of his time in the sun than out of it. Not that he was tanned, of course. England was only just emerging from winter. But he had a rugged outdoor aura that she recognised because she had it too.
And he had mentioned something about sheep.
He held a card out to her. 'My international driver's licence.'
His nameSimon Morton-Blakestared back at her in official black and white type.
'And a photograph of me with my sister.'
Kate took it. Felice, Simon and another coupleolderall stared out from it with a formal reserve Kate found difficult to associate with Felice. She couldn't see anything of Felice in Simon's face, but she could see both Simon and Felice in the older coupletheir parents?
'Our mother and father,' he said, as if she'd asked the question out loud. 'And no, they are no longer living.'
At least Felice hadn't lied about that.
She handed him back the licence and the photograph, wondering at how easily he could read her face. 'I'm sorry.'
He didn't say anything. He didn't glance back down at the photograph. He didn't even shrug.
With both parents dead
'Do you have any other siblings?'
That made Felice his only close relative. It went some way to explaining his concern.
'May I call you Simon?'
He smiled again. The grey of his eyes lightened. 'Please.'
Even though she was sitting, her knees still wobbled. 'Simon, why were you worried about Felice?'
'I haven't heard from her in over two months.' He raked a hand back over his hair. 'And her mobile isn't working.'
'It took a dunk in the bay,' Kate said carefully. 'Occupational hazard, I'm afraid.' She shrugged, trying to appear casual, but her mind raced. Why hadn't Felice contacted him? Why hadn't Felice told him about her marriage to Danny?