Read an Excerpt
The Unexpected Mistress
By Sara Wood
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Chapter OneCassian lounged contentedly on the roof of the large rented house which he shared in typically cosmopolitan style with two English strippers, a Buddhist from Florida, and a Moroccan herbalist. It was late, the sky a dense black scattered with stars, the air warm and still.
He and his literary agent were watching the snake charmers and acrobats performing in the Djemaa el Fna, Marrakesh's extraordinary market square. His agent's mouth had been almost permanently open since they'd emerged onto the roof ten minutes ago and Cassian's dark eyes hadn't stopped twinkling in gentle amusement.
'A tad different from central London,' his agent marvelled with great understatement, goggling at a group of Saharan nomads who were sweeping majestically through the square.
Men in rags, walking like kings, Cassian thought, reflecting on his belief that outer trappings often concealed the real person beneath.
'Same world. Different values and desire. Life stripped to its bare necessities. The need to eat, to find shelter, and love,' he observed lazily.
Stirred but not staggered by the scene below, Cassian poured coffee from the silver beaked pot and offered his agent a sweet pastry. After living here for a year, it had all become gloriously familiar to him; the huge lanterns illuminating the storytellers, the contortionists, the clowns and boy dancers, and the crowd of Berbers mingling with anincongruous sprinkling of awestruck tourists.
By now his ears were attuned to the din. Drums, cymbals, and western music drowned the hubbub of voices - and also, mercifully, the groans coming from the stall of the dentist who was enthusiastically wielding his pliers.
A willing slave to intense feelings and sensuality, Cassian delightedly inhaled the powerful aroma of humanity mingling with spices and the smell of cooking from the blazing braziers dotted around the square. And he wondered curiously where his passion for living life to the hilt would take him next.
'So,' said his agent in bright cocktail-speak, clearly uncomfortable with the culture shock he was experiencing. 'Now you've finished the book, I suppose you and your son are both going home for a while?'
Cassian sipped his Turkish coffee, appreciating its richness. 'Jai and I have no home,' he said gravely.
And yet ... As if to contradict that statement, an image had come unexpectedly into his mind. Instead of the black night and the ochre buildings, the blazing torches and the patchwork of bright colours below, he saw emerald-green hills laced with grey stone walls, ancient woodlands and small stone villages by a cool, rushing river. The Yorkshire Dales. And, specifically, Thrushton.
Astonished, he inhaled deeply as if he could feel the freshness of the champagne air in his lungs. For the first time in his life he felt a pang of longing for a place he'd once known and loved.
That startled him: he who'd spent his adult life passionately embracing a setting, teasing out its darker side to create one of his popular thrillers ... and then leaving without regret for new sensations, new horizons.
'Still, you must have a great sense of relief,' his agent persisted. 'You've got your freedom back, for a start. No more sitting hunched over a PC for hour after hour,' he added jovially, attempting to penetrate the mysterious psyche of the man he knew only as Alan Black.
'I never lose my freedom. If I ever felt it was threatened,' Cassian replied quietly, 'I'd stop writing at once.'
'Hell, don't do that! We've got another film producer offering us an option on your next book!' panicked his agent, seeing twelve per cent of a fortune vanishing overnight.
But Cassian had stopped listening. His sharp ears had heard an unusual noise in the narrow alley beside the house. Moving to the low parapet, he could see a man there, curled up in a foetal position and moaning with pain. Someone was running into the darkness of the souk beyond. Without making a fuss, he politely excused himself and went to investigate.
It was a few minutes before he realised that the bruised and battered man he'd hauled into the house was Tony Morris, his old enemy from that very part of England which had sprung to mind so surprisingly at the mention of the word 'home'.
As Tony blubbered and whimpered, and he silently washed the blood from the flabby face, Cassian found his longing for Yorkshire increasing quite alarmingly, the memories coming hot and fast and extraordinarily insistent.
Ruled by his instincts, he acknowledged that perhaps it was time to go back. Time to immerse himself in the landscape which had reached like loving arms into his unhappy soul and given him solace and peace of mind. Time also to face the devils that haunted his dreams.
And then Tony offered him the opportunity on a plate to do just that.
* * *
Laura slammed two mugs on the table and doled out the last of the coffee granules with a preoccupied expression. Coffee wasn't the only thing she'd have to eliminate from her shopping list. Poverty was staring her in the face.
'Sue,' she said urgently to her life-long friend, 'I've got to get a new job sharpish.'
Sue looked sympathetic. 'Nothing yet, then?'
'No. And I've been searching in Harrogate all this week!'
'Wow!' Sue exclaimed, suitably impressed. Her friend was the only person who knew what a huge step that had been. It was a month now since she'd lost her job. Night after night, Laura had lain awake worrying about her child's future, his poor health, his fragile state of mind. For Adam's sake she must find work! She must! she'd thought with increasing panic.
No work was available in Thrushton where she lived, nor in the small community of Grassington nearby. None, either in nearby Skipton.
Up to now her entire existence had been confined to the rolling dales and picturesque stone villages surrounding the River Wharfe. Of the rest of Yorkshire, she knew nothing - let alone England - and the thought of travelling further to work had made her blanch with apprehension.
It was a stupid reaction, she knew, but not one of her making. If she had ever been born with self-assurance and confidence, then it had been crushed by her restrictive upbringing. If she'd ever had ambition then that too had withered and died, thanks to the critical tongue of her adoptive father's sister, Aunt Enid, and the scorn and cruelty of her father's son Tony.
She knew she was submissive and reticent to a fault. But the needs of her own child meant a radical rethink of her life. It didn't matter to her that she wore jumble sale clothes, but she had to earn good money and buy some decent gear for Adam - or he'd continue to be bullied unmercifully.
'I'd do anything,' she said fervently, 'to ensure we can stay here. This house is my ... my ...'
'Comfort blanket,' supplied Sue with a grin. 'Be honest. It is.'
Laura glared at her horribly perceptive friend and then let her tense mouth soften in recognition.
'You're right. But I need stability and familiarity in my life. Adam too. We'd both go to pieces anywhere else.'
'I know, duck. I think you've got real grit to pluck up the courage to hunt for work in Harrogate.' Raising a plump arm, Sue patted Laura's long and elegant hand in admiration. 'But ... it'd be a bit of a nightmare journey without a car, wouldn't it?'
Laura grimaced. 'Two buses and a train and a long walk. What choice do I have, though? Nine-year-old boys can eat for England. Mind you, employers weren't exactly falling over themselves to take me on. I'm fed up! I've exhausted every avenue,' she complained crossly.
'Must be something out there,' Sue encouraged.
Laura rolled her eyes. 'You bet there is. Lap dancing.' Tension made her join in with Sue's giggles but it was frustrated resentment that made her jump up and perform a few poses around an imaginary pole. She adopted an 'I am available' face and moved her body with sinuous grace. It seemed an easy way to earn money.
'Crikey. I'd give you five quid!' Sue said admiringly. 'Madly erotic. But then you've got the most fab legs and body. That monumentally baggy shirt would have to go, though,' she advised. 'Wrong colour!'
Hastily smoothing her tousled hair, Laura subsided breathily into the chair and wriggled down her slim skirt - which she'd acquired like most of her clothes from the local jumble sale and which was almost a size too small.
She felt quite shaken by her erotic performance. She was a natural. Perhaps these things could be passed on genetically, she thought gloomily. After all, she was a bastard. That had been rammed into her enough times.
If only she knew what her real mother had been like! Then she wouldn't have to wonder if her mother had been a tart, as Aunt Enid had claimed.
'She was a slut!' Enid - her father's sister - had claimed. 'Your mother slept with anyone and everyone. And married to your father, a respectable solicitor! Diana brought the name of Morris into disrepute.'
Excerpted from The Unexpected Mistress by Sara Wood
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.