Kersty loves running her graphic design firm in Cornwall - except for the financial pressure of clients not paying their bills. Salvation arrives in the form of Viscount Haldane who hires her to publicise Ravenswood House as a luxury hotel. But Kersty knew the viscount as Neil Drummond and discovering the truth changes everything. He asks her to trust him. But can she?
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‘Damn!’ Kersty muttered, hollowing her back to ease free of the barbed wire. It had pierced her sweater and shirt. She could feel the rusty metal point digging into the skin below her shoulder blade. She twisted and squirmed, but the barb only gouged deeper into her flesh. And it hurt.
Flicking her long hair back in an attempt to see which way the barbs were pointing, she winced as a wind-blown curl caught on the wire and was held fast.
This was too stupid. She had got through the first fence on the edge of the wood easily enough despite the strong new posts and shiny wire with vicious, claw-like hooks.
She had been just as careful here where the wood met rolling parkland dotted with magnificent copper beeches and huge oaks. So how on earth had she managed to get caught up on these older, looser strands?
Bent forward from the waist, her blue-jeaned legs astride the lower twist of wire and both hands occupied in trying to keep the wires apart, she was well and truly impaled.
The rustle of approaching footsteps brought Kersty’s head up with a jerk. She gasped in pain. She’d forgotten her hair was caught and her reflexive movement had forced the barb deeper into her flesh.
The leisurely stride came nearer and her heartbeat quickened. Should she call for help? Or keep quiet and hope that he, for she sensed it was a man, would pass by without seeing her?
She was screened by thick bushes from both the woods and the overgrown path bordering the park.
But if she didn’t ask for help how was she going to get free? The more she struggled the deeper the barb would work its way in.
She looked down at the wire between her knees. As well as flaking rust, it was adorned with mouldy leaves, fluff – perhaps from a rabbit – and birdlime. A dose of blood poisoning on top of everything else really would be the last straw.
Kersty swallowed hard. What if he was a poacher? It was May, she reminded herself quickly. There was nothing to poach other than rabbits or pigeons, and they were considered vermin. Even so, he might not be pleased at someone seeing him where he had no business to be. But she had no right to be here either, so that made them equal.
‘I say,’ she shouted. The footsteps stopped. ‘Can you help me, please? I’m caught on the wire.’
There was a moment’s silence. Kersty wondered if she should shout again. Then a twig snapped and the footsteps drew nearer. To the right of Kersty’s head, the bushes rustled and parted.
The man who stood there was at least six feet tall, and from her angle seemed twice that. Faded blue jeans hugging muscular thighs were tucked into mud-spattered green Hunter boots. The rolled-up sleeves and open neck of a pale blue denim shirt revealed bronzed skin. Broad shoulders and a strong neck supported a hard-planed face shadowed by faint beard stubble. Narrowed eyes observed her from beneath straight brows, and sun-streaked hair, tousled by the breeze, fell across his forehead.
He took another step forward and Kersty saw, balanced on his shoulder, his finger hooked round the trigger guard, a double-barrelled shotgun.
‘Look, I promise I won’t tell anyone,’ she blurted, her mouth drying. ‘If you’ll just unhook me no one need know either of us was here.’
As puzzlement crossed the man’s face Kersty’s heart sank. ‘You’re not a poacher.’
His wide mouth tightened in a fleeting expression that could have been anger or amusement. He shook his head slowly.
Kersty sighed. ‘I suppose you work on the estate.’ She was so concerned with the implications of being caught in such damning circumstances she did not notice the momentary hesitation before he nodded.
‘Yes,’ he said briefly. ‘Are you local?’ His voice was deep and made Kersty think of molasses: dark, smooth, and slightly bitter.
Her cheeks burned with embarrassment at the fanciful thought. She looked at the ground, glad her hair hid her face. ‘I live in the village, yes.’
‘May I ask what brings you to Ravenswood?’ His courtesy only emphasised the undertone of wry amusement.
‘Do you think you might unhook me first?’ Kersty demanded with acid sweetness. ‘Polite conversation isn’t easy when you’re strung up on barbed wire.’
‘Really?’ the stranger mused. ‘I’d have thought it quite … persuasive.’ He remained exactly where he was, weight on his left foot, left hand in the front pocket of his jeans, the shotgun resting casually on his right shoulder.
Panic fluttered in Kersty. ‘I’ll explain, I promise,’ she said quickly. ‘Only please help me get free. One of the barbs is sticking in my back and –’
In one swift movement, he had set the gun down and come to her side. Sunlight glinted on the barrel, and Kersty was startled to see the name James Purdey engraved in flowing script on the metal. She had designed a catalogue for an antique dealer about a year ago, and he had been offering a pair of Purdeys for sale. She could not remember the exact valuation but it had been several thousand pounds. Why would an estate worker be carrying such a valuable firearm?
Kersty’s brief curiosity dissolved as her gaze shifted and she caught sight of the two cartridges in the breech. An icy shiver rippled down her spine. Don’t be stupid, she told herself. People don’t get shot for trespassing. Not in this country. Yes, they did. She had seen it on the news.
He freed her hair first, and she groaned with relief, dropping her head forward and turning it from side to side to ease the stiffness in her neck and shoulders. His booted foot on the lower wire enabled her to release her grip and she flexed her fingers.
‘Stand quite still,’ he commanded softly. Kersty’s indrawn breath hissed as he carefully removed the barb. From the sting and sudden warmth, she knew the wound was more than a mere graze.
Grabbing his hand so she wouldn’t overbalance, she stepped through the parted wires towards him.
Finally free, she began to straighten up. But before she could utter a word, he spun her round so her back was towards him, and placed her palms against the nearest tree. Then, pushing up her sweater, he pulled her shirt free from the waistband of her jeans.
Leaping like a scalded cat, Kersty whirled round. ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ she blazed, backing away from him.
Irony twitched the corners of his mouth. ‘Trying to minimise the risk of infection,’ he said calmly. ‘What on earth did you imagine? If the wound is bleeding freely, it will take only a few seconds. When did you have your last tetanus shot?’
Before she realised what was happening, he had firmly replaced her hands against the tree trunk. She recalled her earlier fears of blood poisoning. It wasn’t only the sudden awareness of the cool air against her bare back that made her shiver. ‘I – I’m not sure. Last year, I think.
‘Wait,’ she cried desperately, craning her head over her shoulder, ‘I don’t even know your name.’
‘I doubt that will affect the treatment,’ he said drily. ‘But it’s Neil, Neil Drummond. Now turn your head around and try to keep still.’