A TENNIS racquet was the first thing her hand settled on. Anything would have done, to be honest. The fact she had even heard the noise to begin with when it was so stormy outside was miracle enough. But, more than likely, her first night in the huge house alone with her daughter, combined with the thick walls holding the worst of the storm at bay, meant Rhiannon MacNally had more sensitive ears than normal.
And there was definitely someone there. She knew for sure as she stepped off the last stair and heard movement, a tremor of fear running up her spine. Going to see who it was probably wasn't the best idea she'd ever had, and she'd always detested heroines in horror movies who went where they were bound to bewelleaten, but this was her house now, damn it! And she wasn't going to lie cowering in her bed.
So she crept along the hall, ignoring the goose-bumps on her skin and the chill of her bare feet on the slate floor, while her body hugged the wall and she held the tennis racquet in front of her, clasped firmly in both hands.
She froze, her pulse skipping. There it was again. This time a much more distinct rattle, followed by a muffled curse as someone bumped against furniture in the kitchen. So she swallowed hard, ran her tongue over her dry lips and crept closer to the door, fully prepared to scream her lungs out and frighten whoever it was more than they were currently frightening her
It swung open as she reached out for the handle. And, with a stifled scream in the base of her throat, she raised the racquet to hit whatever might come through.
The shadow moved out towards her, but she sidestepped and swung hard at where she guessed the shadow's waist might be, fully prepared to swing lower than that if the need called, but making enough of a contact to double him up briefly. And she immediately knew it was a him from his deep grunt of pain.
He swore in response, moving remarkably fast, catching the end of the racquet, using the fact she didn't let go of it to twist her arm and pushing her much smaller body in tight against the wall so that she was trapped against the cold stone.
'What the hell'
This had been a big mistake!
'Get off me!'She struggled for all she was worth, desperate to find a way to swing the racquet again.
'I phoned the police; they'll be here any minute! So you better just leave while you can!'
That was a fib, actually; she hadn't been able to find her mobile in the dark but he didn't need to know that!
The sound of her name in such a gruff, rumbling tone stilled her. And then his scent hit her, tingling against her nostrils and attaching to the back of her throat, with low tones of sweet cinnamon and a familiar something else that her memory immediately recognized.
Rhiannon knew that scent, even after ten years. She'd never forgotten it, no matter how hard she tried, and now he wasinher house! He had her trapped against a wall! This was a nightmare!
'Kane!' There was no need to question; she already knew exactly who it was. What she didn't get was, 'What the hell are you doing here?'
His warm breath teased the strands of hair touching her forehead, his huge body still pressed along the length of hers. And Rhiannon hated that she was so aware of everywhere he touched, every breath he took, of how his scent opened the door to so many memories.
So she struggled again.
'Get off me!'
His large frame remained tight against hers, tension radiating from every pore.
'I'll only consider it if you promise not to hit me with whatever that is again.'
'You were lucky I didn't find anything larger or aim any lower, you frightened the life out of me! What in hell are you doing creeping around in the middle of the night? How did you even get in? You shouldn't be here! You have no right to just walk in here andand'
His voice held an amused edge to it.
'Let's cover the frightened part first, shall we? A lone female taking on what I assume she thought was a burglar was a stroke of genius, don't you think? And why shouldn't I be here? I've been a guest in this place just as many times as you have over the years. What makes you think I don't still have things here that might belong to me?'
The question flummoxed her for a second, a wave of panic forming in the pit of her stomach, so she took a moment to force it away with several deep breaths. Because he couldn't possibly have meant
She stopped struggling, sighing a little in resignation when she realized that at least by staying still she didn't feel quite so sensually aware of him. That was a start. Then she took another deep breath and tried to form a coherent line of thought.
'Brookfield is my house now. You can't just pop in here when you fancy it now that Mattie is gone! If you have things here that belong to you then you could have got them in daylight, or better still they could have been couriered to you!'
And that way she wouldn't have had to see him or have him within twenty feet of her.
'How did you get in? Did you break in? Because if you did'
'I have a key.'
He had a keysince when? 'I'll have that backnow.' She scowled up at the dark circle where his face was.
'And could you kindly get the hell off me?'
There was a long pause before he stepped back from her, cold air rushing in to replace the heat of his body. And Rhiannon shivered in response, lifting her empty hand to rub up and down against her arm.
'Now, why are you here, really? Because I sure as hell didn't invite you.'
There was a brief pause.
'We need to talk.'
Rhiannon gaped up at him as she stepped towards the door again. Talking to him in the dark was too disconcerting.
'We have nothing to talk about. And even if we did, which we don't, here's a newsflash for you: there's a new invention called the telephone. You could have tried using one instead of frightening the holy hell out of me in the middle of the night. This is breaking and entering, Mister.'
'Not with a key it's not. And I had a flat tyre or I'd have been here sooner,' his deep voice grumbled behind her as she set the tennis racquet against the wall and felt for the light-switch inside the kitchen door.
'I was reliably informed you wouldn't be here for another week.'
What business was it of his where she was at any given time? She frowned at the switch as she flicked it up and down and nothing happened. She'd assumed she'd blown a light bulb upstairsapparently not.
'There didn't seem any point in waiting till next week.'
'I tried the lights; your power must be out.'
Great. She sidestepped, bumped her hip off the edge of the dresser and gasped at the pain, automatically flinching back, which brought her up against Kane again, his large hands lifting to grasp her arms.
She really needed some light in order to avoid all this accidental physical contact! So that she could look him in the eye and tell him to go properly.
His fingers brushed, almost absentmindedly, against the light silky material of her dressing gown, making her all too aware of how she was dressed even before a slight dampness seeped through to the skin on her back from his heavy jacket.
Wind rattled the rain against the kitchen windows as Kane's baritone voice rumbled closer to her ear, an edge of irritation to it.
'Aren't there candles anywhere?'
'Yes.' She shrugged her shoulders hard, freeing herself. There had damn well better be candles. Stepping away from him she felt her way along the dresser, hauling open a drawer to blindly search its contents in anger. Of all the things she had managed to unpack during what suddenly felt like the longest day ever, she couldn't recall there being candles or matches, but there had to be some somewhere. Had to be!
With Brookfield situated in the middle of nowhere for centuries, it was hardly likely that this was the first power cut it had ever experienced on a stormy New Year's night, right?
She heard Kane moving away, the sound of drawers being rattled open, and for a few minutes they worked in heavy silence, while Rhiannon's fingertips searched frantically until she eventually found what she was looking for. Yes!
'I found some.'
There was a rattle from across the large room.
'I've got matches. Stay where you are; I'll come to you.'
With her back against the counter, she waited with bated breath, her skin tingling, eyes wide, while she strained to see him in the darkness. But she didn't have to see; his scent preceded him, so she turned towards him, holding out the candle like a miniature shield.
She'd fully intended him to take it from her, but there was another rattle and the strike of a match that made her blink to adjust her eyes to the bright light as he touched the flame to the candle wick.
Rhiannon's lashes then rose as his face came into focus in the warm glow. He was older, yes, as was she, but he was no less ruggedly handsome than he'd been when she'd known him before. Avoiding him for as long as she had hadn't been an easy thing to do, but somehow she'd managed it, right up until Mattie's funeral.
And she'd had bigger things to deal with then, she hadn't had the time to see what he looked like. Not that she cared any more. But up close and personal, as she was now, she really had no choice but to look
In the dim light his eyes were so dark they looked black, instead of the deep sapphire blue she remembered. And the fact that he towered over her, his chin dipped a little to study her face while she studied his, meant that she couldn't read any thoughts in those shadowed eyes. Not that she'd probably read much more on a bright summer's day these days. She didn't know him any better now than it had eventually proven she'd known him then.
'Are there more of those?'
The question gave her a reason to turn away, but it was too late to erase the picture of him now seared into her mind. She knew if the candle went out she would still be able to see himthe sheen of short, dark chocolate hair that hugged his head, shorter spikes of it brushing against the top of his forehead from his centre partingthe downward tilt of thick dark brows while he had studied her facethe dense lashes that framed his eyesthe straight line of his nosethe mocking quirk on the corners of his sensual mouth.
Yep, suffice to say, she had a fairly thorough mental image of him. More of one than she would have asked for; thanks, anyway.
Holding the candle above the drawer, she searched for more of the same, clearing her throat before she asked in a cool voice, 'Well, what is it you want, Kane? Because the sooner I know, the sooner you can leave.'
'I told you, we need to talk. Mattie's death has changed things.'
'We have nothing to talk about.' But, even as she said the words, she felt an old familiar sliver of fear run up her spine. He'd better not think they had anything to talk about! He was ten years too late for that!
'We need to talk about Brookfield.'
'Why?'Her hand halted halfway out of the drawer with another candle, her face turning to look up at Kane's in the shadows.
'Brookfield is nothing to do with youMattie left it to me.'
'He left the house to you.' His deep voice didn't hold as much as a hint of emotion as he laid the facts on the line for her.
'But I own the estate. And that means we need to talk.'
What did he meanhe owned the estate? The house and the estate went hand in hand, had done for generations! And, as daunting as the task of taking it on single-handed had been for Rhiannon, she had also been more excited by it than she had by anything else in years. She'd seen it as a challenge she could put her heart and soul intobuilding not just a home, but a future for herself and Lizzie.
Her gaze shot upwards. Lizzie! Rhiannon couldn't have Kane one second more under the same roof as Lizzie!
He read her upward gaze.
'Is she asleep?'
Damn him! She really didn't want to have a discussion about her child with him. She wouldn't even deign to answer the simple question when it was him asking it.
'What do you mean, you own the estate?'
He shrugged, raindrops on the dark material covering his broad shoulders glistening in the soft candlelight.
'It doesn't take much explaining; I own the estate. Mattie sold it to me a year ago.'
'Why?' She couldn't hold the incredulity from her voice.
'Mattie loved this place; he would never have parted with any of it while he was alive.'
'Under normal circumstances he wouldn't have.' Kane reached out a large hand to turn hers so that he could light the other candle, his dark gaze focused completely on the task, while he continued in a low, almost seductively male tone, 'But he'd overstretched himself on the estate and with all the treatments he tried to get well and he wouldn't accept a loan, so I bought back his shares in Micro-Tech and the estate, on the proviso that I would never sell it separately from the house.'
Oh, this really was a nightmare! Any second now she would wake upshe had tobecause this just wasn't happening!And surely he didn't think she could afford to buy it back off him?
'I'm prepared to make you an offer on the house.'
Rhiannon gaped up at him, suddenly aware that his fingers were still curled around hers over the candle. She thrust the other candle at him and the movement dropped hot melted wax on to the back of her hand.
Kane scowled when she gasped.
'We need something to put these candles on.'
'While we have a business meeting in the middle of the night?' She shook her burnt hand to ease the sharp pain on her skin. It focused her mind, gave her a second to calm her thoughts into something resembling sense when all she could really concentrate on was one thing; she had been at Brookfield less than one full day, and already she was in trouble.
And, like all of the main troubles she'd been through in her life, it once again involved Kane damn Healey!
'I hadn't planned on talking to you in the middle of the night. You weren't supposed to be here yet. I've arranged for an estate agent to come value the place tomorrow morning so I had some figures.'
'Behind my back?'
'If I had figures to show you, then you could make a more informed decision on a price.'
'I've just moved house; I have no intention of moving again.' And she'd given up her job, lifted Lizzie out of schoolaway from her friends and the only home she'd ever really known. She couldn't do that all over again. The only reason she'd been able to make the decision to uproot them both had been the fact that they would have a home of their own.
'You can't support a house this size.'
'You can't tell me what I can and can't do!'
Reaching over her shoulder for a saucer to balance the candle on, his darkened eyes noted how she snatched her shoulder back from him, one hand rising to draw the lapels of her silk dressing gown closer together. And he frowned in annoyance again.
This wasn't going the way he'd planned. Did it ever where Rhiannon MacNally was concerned?
Despite what she may think, he wasn't doing this just to make her life difficult. Because he knew that he was probably the last person she'd want to have dealings with, let alone be forced into any kind of a business partnership with. She'd made it more than plain over the years that she wanted nothing more to do with him.
But he was also pretty sure she couldn't afford to buy the estate off him, so that meant his buying the house made more sense. Then she could do what she wanted with the money. It wouldn't be anything to do with him any more. Simple.
Except that already it was more complicated than he'd thought it would be. Being hit in the stomach with what he now knew was a tennis racquet had led to her soft body being pressed against his. And that had brought back memories he'd had no intention of ever remembering again.
In the soft candlelight, she was simply stunning.
The intimate arc of light picked up the fine strands of red in her auburn hair, made her doe-brown eyes sparkle when she glanced up at him from beneath long lashes, surrounded her in a halo that made her seem even softer and more feminine than she already looked with her curves barely hidden beneath long, flowing rose-pink silk.
If they'd been two other people, in a different place and different time, then the temptation to be doing something other than talking in the candlelight would almost have been too much to resist.
She'd always been dangerous that way.
Leaning back from her, he dragged his gaze from her face and focused on dropping wax onto the saucer until there was a large enough pool to stand the candle upright while it cooled. Then, as the wind hailed rain against the windows again, he took a breath and glanced at her from beneath hooded eyes.
'It's late. We'll talk about this in the morning.'
Rhiannon's eyes widened.
'You're not staying here.'
Oh, for goodness'sake! 'It's a very large house, Rhiannon; you won't even know I'm here till you see me at breakfast.' He smirked.
'I promise not to come looking for you in the dark again.'
The innuendo didn't help.
'I don't want to see you at breakfast. If there's anything else to talk about, then you can come back when Lizzie has gone to school.' She looked away from his face, her gaze flickering upwards again while she frowned.
'Things are already unsettled enough without her asking a dozen questions about you.'