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AS MUD landed on her windscreen the steering wheel jerked out of her hands and Caz Ryan slammed on the brakes. The new silver Mini lurched and slid sideways into a ditch. Everything went black and there was just sound, bad sound, brambles and stone sloughing off showroom-pristine paint and the catastrophic wrenching sound of metal giving way. The car was dead. And now everything had gone eerily quiet.
Careful not to move, Caz conducted a full physical inventory. Everything seemed to be present and correct: no broken bones, no blood dripping on the carpet, she was intact, and, apart from being wedged between her seat and the door with her overnight bag seemingly welded to her head, she was fine. It was a miracle, no thanks to the Neanderthal driving that mud-slinging tractor.
Where was he, by the way? By craning her neck she had a great view of a muddy bank and a road that belonged under her wheels, not over her head. Her own fault. She should have stayed in London where men knew to get out of her way.
In London things were different. She wasn't Caz Ryan, currently shivering so hard her teeth were threatening to chip, but Cassandra Bailey Brown, the über-confident alter ego Caz had created in order to get ahead.
Finding the name had been easy. Cassandra because her mother had had a romantic streakat least, she had before dumping Caz in a children's home prior to running away to 'find herself'. Bailey Brown came out of the phone book. There were only two listed, which confirmed the surname's exclusivity and made it the perfect choice.
The reason for the change of name? After leaving school she hadn't been able to get a job. Her accent had been a give-away; likewise her manner. She had known she had to do something and inspiration had come from the televisionnewscasters with their approved English pronunciation were the perfect people to copy. She had watched, learned and listened until she'd felt ready to re-launch herself as Cassandra. The tactic had worked. Doors that had slammed in Caz Ryan's face were held open by doormen for Cassandra Bailey Brown.
But Cassandra couldn't help her now. Wriggling furiously, Caz tried to achieve a better position, but only succeeded in proving that, whereas Cassandra walked tall in the city, she couldn't see over the hedge in the country.
However, this was no time for humour. She was shaking so hard she couldn't concentrate. The shock was getting through to her and with it the fact that she was trapped in a car at night and there was no one to help her other than the man she had so rashly overtaken, and who had now disappeared. She couldn't even reach her phone to call for help.
She tried shouting.
The silence was unrelenting and her bravado was being pushed out by fear. Silence in the country was very different from silence in the city; it was all-enveloping, and apart from the wind blowing a horror-movie soundtrack through the trees there was nothing to suggest another human being existed within miles of her.
What if the man drove away? This wasn't London with cars passing every second, this was Hawkshead, last bastion of civilisation before the harsh moorland conditions had deterred even the cavemen.
Caz tensed as a dark shadow loomed over her. 'Don't just stand there! Do something!'
The man didn't move. Maybe he was evaluating the situation, and maybe she was going to pieces. The only certainty was Cassandra's confidence hadn't survived the trip. The man's footsteps crunched away. Brisk and purposeful, they were growing fainter every second. 'Come back here! Don't leave me!'
For a moment she had felt warm beneath his shadow, but now she felt worse than before. She should be appealing to his better nature and not yelling at him. She had caused the accident, after all.
By almost dislocating her neck Caz managed to see out of the car window, but the angle was so acute the most she saw was that the man was some distance away. Although she did notice how tall and lean he was, with powerful shoulders that packed out his rugged jacket. Her body responded with a very different shiver, but had he any intention of helping her?
She had to stay calm. Cassandra never lost control. Cassandra was never lost for direction, let alone in London where everything was so well signed. But here in Hawkshead, miles from her comfort zone, Cassandra was no use at all.
So it was just Caz and the dark and an unknown man. Hugging herself Caz continued to shudder uncontrollably. This was bad news for Cassandra. Cassandra would never shudder. Cassandra was strong. She had recently been appointed a director of Brent Construction in Leeds, one of the top five hundred companies in the country. Cassandra would have to be back all guns blazing in the office on Monday morning when the new chairman was due to take inventory of his board.
Her new boss, Brent junior, had taken a cosy family business and turned it into a world class concern, and rumour said he moved fast to weed out weak links in his chain. Caz accepted business had no heart and didn't expect any favours, but having reached the top of the greasy pole, she had no intention of losing her grip on it.
It was thanks to her alter ego Cassandra that she was here in Hawkshead at all. Cassandra never turned down an opportunity to advance her career, and so Caz had thrown aside the familiar bustle of London for the promise of a better job and a large country house in Yorkshire.
The house in Hawkshead, twenty minutes outside Leeds, was a bonus, a complete surprise, an inheritance from an aunt she'd never met. She'd never been given a thing in her life before, and now a house. Just the thought of it propelled another yell out of her. She couldn't wait to see it; that was why she had come straight from work in Leeds to Hawkshead
She couldn't hear a thing, other than owls hooting. The feeling of helplessness was new to her, and she hated it, plus she didn't need this aggravation with Monday morning looming large on the horizon.
Twisting her neck again to try and see out of the car, she gasped to see the man was back. He was standing over her holding a giant-sized pair of cutters. For some reason her shivers stopped at the sight of him and a warm throbbing replaced them.
'I've called the emergency services.' His voice was deep and husky and vibrated through her. 'Thank you.' Was that her voice shaking?
'And now I'm going to get you out of there '
She was confident he would, and excitement at the thought flooded through her. She was going to be free. She was going to be freed. By him.
As he continued to murmur reassurances there was something in his voice that made her feel younger than Cassandra had felt in a decade.
Caz was only twenty-eight, but she felt eighteen and reckless again, and was glad she'd come straight from the office where Cassandra always dressed to kill. She was still wearing her ridiculously high heels and a too-tight short skirt. Sadly her make-up had endured a long working day followed by a car ride, but she was tearful and vulnerable and ready to be rescued.
She listened intently as he told her how brave she was. She was anything but. She'd spent her whole working life in Human Resources soothing others, bolstering them up, persuading them to take the next step on the ladder, but quite suddenly the tables were turned, and it was she who was floundering. Thanks to her driving the man had assumed she was generally incompetent and was explaining everything he was doing in that low, sexy drawl as if he knew she was on the brink
Not that she minded listening to him. No that was like a vocal caress touching every part of her. She was so at ease he made her start when he moved to adjust his position. There was something elemental about him something he threw off in warm, musky waves. She couldn't even see him properly, but whatever special powers he had, they were curling round her like a seductive cloak.
After a while she relaxed again; the tone of his voice helped. It made him sound like a hero in a film and what was wrong with being the grateful heroine for once, rather than the hard-nosed businesswoman with an attitude towards men?
It took Cassandra to remind Caz that she hadn't battered her way through the glass ceiling to go soft now.
'We're nearly there '
Caz refocused fast, and as the man dipped his head to speak her body quivered. Her cheeks were tingling too, and she was sure she could feel his warmth brush her face. Every part of her was on full alert, trying to pick up anything she could about himhis accent, his tone, his intentions towards her
'Are you all right? Not lost your voice, have you?' There was something warm and humorous in his tone. Caz made a sound to signal her acknowledgement that the man had spoken, but she was soon soothed into silence again by the easy rhythm of his movement. There was an air of purpose and confidence about him, which reassured her. He was probably a builder or a farmer, she guessed.A man used to working with his hands a man who knew what to do with his hands a man who would be good with his hands
She gulped her guilty thoughts back as moonlight streamed in. He had peeled back the roof of the Mini like the lid off a tin of sardines.
'Did you have to do that?' She exploded without thinking. Money was tight, what with the move to Leeds and now her inheritance to lavish luxuries on. She thought back frantically, trying to remember the level of insurance she had taken out on the car.
'Have you got any better suggestions for getting you out?' The man's tone put her back up. 'You don't know it's safe to move me.'
'You sound well enough to me.'
That sexy drawl could turn hard in a moment, which was quite a turn-on but was he mocking her?
She had to remind herself that up here on the moors the man would come from a traditional community where women knew their place. And that was almost certainly in the kitchen, or his bed She needed a big gulp of air to consider this.
'There's petrol leaking from your car. I can get you out, or I can leave you here to fry. Your choice'
What? 'Get me out!' She could smell the petrol now. 'Please!'
'Can you reach your seat belt?'
Before she had chance to reply he had sliced it through with the cutters. His hand brushed hers, an incendiary device carrying with it a thousand messages strong, warm, dry, smooth, capable being just a few of them.
Her heart was behaving oddly, the rest of her too. She wasn't used to raw masculinity, that had to be it. She was accustomed to boardroom pallor and sandwich bellies.
This man's mid-section would be hard and tanned, and banded with muscle
Caz flinched as a powerful leg clad in well-worn denim brushed her face. He was planting his feet, she realised, straddling the bank above the car, readying himself to lift her out. He manoeuvred with care for such a big man. She caught a glimpse of boots, scuffed and workmanlike, as he lifted her out. And now her face was millimetres from the mud. She recoiled, desperate not to land in it. But then a hand reached around her waist, and she was safe.
'Don't be frightened '
She was too grateful to be frightened, but her heart was thundering a tattoo. 'Thank you.' He had taken an incredible risk.
'Save it,' he said brusquely, tightening his grip on her. She could have been cosy in his arms without the tension, but she could feel the sense of danger in him, feel his awareness of it. The car might explode if there was petrol leaking and his desire to put distance between them meant he had no time to waste on superficial courtesies.
She liked that. She liked him. It was an instinctive reaction. She liked being weightless in his arms, and letting him take control. But this feeling of release, of letting go, of allowing someone else to take control, was very new to her. Her job demanded that she was the one who took charge, and as for her life, well, that was the most tightly controlled of all.
Maybe that controlling part of her had got a little out of hand recently, but it stood no chance with this man. She'd never felt like this before, never felt the need to writhe and tangle in a man's arms.
She was allowing her imagination to run away with her, Caz realised and to counteract temptation she immediately went as stiff as a board, which the man answered with some disturbingly intimate pressure in her belly.
'I can't carry you if you're going to turn into a plank of wood.'
Such charm! Such grace! She was right about him being a Neanderthal. But lying in his arms wasn't all bad. She could feel the power in each purposeful stride he took, and, gazing back, she could see the lethal spikes of metal through which he'd threaded her.
They reached a clearing where the moonlight was a little brighter and she could make out the shape of his jaw now. It was strong, firm and black with stubble, which insanely made her long to rub her face against it.
Shock, Caz reasoned, relaxing again. But her gaze crept upwards to study surprisingly sensual lips, set, however, in a grim line that didn't invite fantasy. He was an iron man, she concluded, too primitive for steel, but he was clean. Fresh from the shower, she guessed, he smelled warm and spicy like a hot cinnamon muffin, which reminded her how hungry she was. It was a long time since she had last eaten.
He set off again, carrying her, walking with the poise and natural grace of a man who worked close to the land. She was an expert in people, so she knew. Her new Human Resource director's position meant it was her job to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Cassandra Bailey Brown had made her name sniffing out a candidate's career path before their CV had even landed on her desk. Well, she'd struck lucky this time, Caz thought, because in Cassandra's world it was unusual to find a man who could lift anything heavier than a ring binder, and then only when it was empty.
She was just drifting off into shock-induced torpor again when he suddenly changed his grip.
'Did I hurt you?' he demanded as she exclaimed.
No, but his hand had just connected with her naked butt. Commando was the only option in this skin-tight designer suit. She managed to dredge up enough of Cassandra's sang-froid to assure him coolly that she was fine as he set her down.
'Hardly dressed for the country though, are you?' he observed disapprovingly.
Was there a prescribed outfit for landing in a ditch? With difficulty she held back on the invective that sprang to her lips, making allowances because he had saved her. And she was prepared to admit on this occasion that he was right. Her suit was out of place. But to a workaholic a weekend away meant staying at her desk till the last flicker on her screen. Nevertheless, knickers would have been an advantage tonight. She could still feel his touch branded on her bottom like a quality control stamp.
Caz's heart juddered, and then began to race, as a shaft of moonlight hit her rescuer full in the face. The fading light had robbed the scene of colour, but his eyes seemed to possess a generator all their own. Ocean-green, they were extraordinary against his tan, and his stare was wolf-keen as it rested on her face.