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Private Lives

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«Private Lives» - Кэрол Мортимер

Carole Mortimer is one of Mills & Boon’s best loved Modern Romance authors. With nearly 200 books published and a career spanning 35 years, Mills & Boon are thrilled to present her complete works available to download for the very first time! Rediscover old favourites – and find new ones! – in this fabulous collection…A dangerous temptation…Fin McKenzie deals expertly with any problems that arise in her domestic help agency—finding a naked man fast asleep in a bed is no exception! But this beautifully sculpted man has a rugged, gorgeous, and rather familiar face…Fin knows immediately that she must keep Jake Danvers away from her family. He is a reminder of a past nightmare of pain and tragedy. But that doesn't stop Fin from giving in to the dangerous temptation of her potent attraction to Jake!
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Private Lives Carole Mortimer

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‘THERE’S a man in the bed!’

It was too early in the morning to be listening to fairy-tales!

‘Fin, there’s a man in the bed!’ The voice on the other end of the telephone line was more urgent this time.

And it was far too early in the morning for obscene telephone calls!

‘Fin, I know you’re there, listening to this, because that stupid machine hasn’t come on, so for God’s sake answer me!’ The voice was no more than a hoarse whisper down the line, but nevertheless the panic in the tone seemed to be increasing. ‘Do you think I should call the police?’

Fin had been listening to the tape of received messages that ‘that stupid machine’ had made since she closed the office for business the evening before, but at the mention of the police she turned her full attention back to the telephone conversation in hand. ‘Ella, is that you?’ she frowned.

‘Of course it’s—–’ The other woman broke off abruptly, drawing in deep controlling breaths as she realised she had raised her voice in her agitation. ‘Of course it’s me!’ she confirmed almost desperately, her voice low again. ‘I’m at Gail’s cottage, doing my usual check, and there’s a man in the bed!’

Fin couldn’t help smiling at this repetition of those words. ‘Then lock the door behind you and leave them to it!’ she advised with indulgence. She had seen and done a lot of unusual things the last two years since she had set up in business, walked unwittingly into all sorts of embarrassing situations, and finding one of their clients in bed with her boyfriend was the least of them!

She hadn’t been sure her idea would work out when she had first bought a decrepit old van, painted it bright colours, daubed a catchy name on the side, and advertised herself as a sort of ‘Girl Friday’, no job too big or too small, too difficult or too trivial. She wasn’t so sure that that had ever been strictly true, but she had always done her best to find someone else who could do the job if it really was out of her sphere to do it properly.

During the first year she had done everything required herself, from walking a Siamese cat on a lead for its owner because he felt too ridiculous doing it himself, to collecting children from school for busy parents, to keeping watch over people’s homes for them while they were away, as they were doing at Rose Cottage now for Gail Moore.

The business had expanded in the last year, so that now she had two part-time assistants working for her too: a school-leaver who didn’t want to go into a routine office job—this work could never be called routine!—and Ella, a woman in her fifties, bored with being a housewife with her husband out at work all day and her children all having left home by now, either because they had married, or gone on to further education that required them to live near their university.

Ella’s first job of this morning had been to check on Rose Cottage while Gail was away in London, working, during the week. Obviously Gail had come back early—with a friend!—and forgotten to let them know not to call in this morning. Poor Ella sounded devastated!

‘You don’t understand, Fin,’ Ella came back exasperatedly now. ‘Gail isn’t here; he’s alone in the bed!’

That did put a slightly different light on things. ‘Have you checked—of course you have,’ she answered her own question as she realised she was only adding fuel to the fire. ‘Maybe Gail invited a friend down to use the cottage while she’s away and just forgot to mention it to us.’ She frowned, chewing on the end of the pencil she had picked up when the call first came through, having expected it to be someone requesting her home-help services rather than this! ‘Why don’t you ask him?’ she suggested gently, wondering why Ella hadn’t already done that. She soon got her answer!

‘Because he’s drunk!’ her employee announced disgustedly. ‘The bedroom stinks of whisky! And there’s an empty bottle and glass lying beside the bed,’ she added triumphantly, as if to show she hadn’t drawn her conclusion as to the man’s condition without due cause.

Even so, calling in the police did seem a little extreme in the circumstances. If this man actually was a friend of Gail’s the other woman wasn’t going to be too pleased if they had him arrested!

‘Look, I—–’ Fin broke off with a dismayed groan as one of the messages she had been half-heartedly listening to hit her like a bombshell; this was all she needed! ‘I’ll be out to the cottage myself as soon as I can get there, Ella,’ she told the other woman distractedly.

‘I can’t just go away and leave him here,’ the older woman protested, scandalised at the very idea.

‘No, I—of course not,’ Fin accepted, hoping that she had misheard the message on the tape. ‘Go outside, Ella, and—and wait on your bicycle,’ she advised vaguely before ringing off, removing her hand from the receiver as if it were red-hot as she realised that she had just literally told the poor woman to ‘get on her bike’! What must poor Ella think of her?

It had been that particular message left on the answer-machine that had so unnerved her, of course, and she frowned as she rewound it, ready to play it back again, giving it her full attention now.

‘I tried your home number earlier and there was no reply,’ came the slightly reproving voice of the secretary of the amateur dramatics group Fin belonged to. ‘We have a catastrophe on our hands, darling,’ Delia continued heavily. ‘Gerald Dunn has thrown a wobbler and withdrawn from the production as our director! It’s just too bad of him at this stage of the proceedings,’ she complained waspishly. ‘But it means we shall have to call an emergency committee meeting Wednesday night—that’s tomorrow—to try and pull the thing back together. As a committee member, you have to be there, Fin.’ Again that autocratic edge entered the other woman’s voice. ‘Eight o’clock sharp, at my house.’ The message ended abruptly.

There had been no mistake; that was exactly what Fin had thought the message contained the first time she heard it!

There had been no one at home to take the call the previous evening because she had been out with Derek, and her mother and stepfather had been invited out to a dinner party.

And Derek wasn’t going to be at all pleased about the emergency committee meeting being called for tonight. Fin had been cast in the group’s latest play, and tonight had supposedly been one of the precious nights off from rehearsal for her, and Derek had intended taking her out for a meal. It would be no good suggesting they still go out for the meal after the meeting either, because if Gerald really had withdrawn from the play then they could be talking for hours about finding his replacement.

Just over three weeks before the play was due to go on at the local theatre and they had no director!

Fin had known Gerald wasn’t happy the last few weeks, having recently changed his job and feeling the strain of the uncertainty of that with a wife and baby at home to support; the added pressure of the responsibility for directing the play was obviously too much for him. And who could really blame him? Actually, they should all respect him for the fact that he wasn’t too proud to stand up and say he had made a mistake in taking on the job in the first place! It didn’t put the rest of the cast in a very good position, but at least it was honest.

Fin had begun to wish herself that she had never got involved with the production—Private Lives, one of Noël Coward’s highly entertaining dry-wit comedies; but, as Derek had complained repeatedly the last few weeks when she had been required to spend at least two, sometimes three evenings a week at the local village hall, rehearsing, a private life was something they didn’t have at the moment, and wouldn’t have until the play was over. She hardly dared tell him that as from next week those rehearsal nights increased to five nights a week and Sunday afternoons!

But at the moment Fin had something much more pressing to deal with than either Derek or the difficulties with the play; poor Ella was still ‘on her bike’ outside Rose Cottage, with a drunken stranger prostrate on the bed upstairs!

She switched on the answer-machine again and hurried out to the van parked outside, a new van now that business was so successful, much more reliable for getting around in, the old one having had a tendency to break down at the most inconvenient moments.

Not that she managed to get out on jobs herself as much as she used to, finding that she was spending more and more time at the tiny office she rented in town, doing tedious paperwork that Derek, as her accountant, assured her had to be done for the efficient running of the business. Although she still had the dubious honour of walking the Siamese cat daily, its owner refusing to trust anyone else with it!

And so the unexpected trip out this morning, when she had thought it would be yet another two or three hours stuck behind her desk, was something of a treat for her. As long as she didn’t have to deal with a violent drunk once she got to the cottage!

Ella sat on the grey stone wall outside the picturesque cottage in this little Bedfordshire hamlet, although her bicycle was propped up against the wall beside her, just in case of a quick getaway being necessary, Fin guessed wryly.

The cottage looked peaceful enough from the outside; in fact, it looked lovely in the early-June sunshine, with a lot of the flowers in the garden in bloom, a wild rose trailing above the arched doorway and pretty pink roses blooming there; Fin couldn’t really take seriously the possibility that at any minute some drunken homicidal maniac was going to come lurching out of that green-painted door and attack them.

Ella obviously found it a little hard to believe too with hindsight, looking shamefaced as she climbed down off the wall to join Fin as she got out of the van. ‘Maybe I should just have woken him and—–’

‘No, no, you did the right thing in calling me,’ Fin told her with a reassuring smile, her short red curls gleaming in the sunshine, a sprinkling of freckles across her nose and cheeks, as she squinted up at the cottage.

She stood barely five feet in height even in her white track-shoes, was as slender as a teenager, and certainly didn’t look the twenty-one years she was, with her face bare of make-up and dressed in close-fitting jeans and a white T-shirt with a disparaging remark about mornings printed on its front.

‘Don’t worry,’ she laughed softly as she saw Ella’s look of uncertainty at her ability to deal with the ‘intruder’ with the disadvantage of her diminutive size, ‘I’ve taken a course in self-defence.’ It had been necessary when she’d first set up in business; some men had been mistaken about the type of ‘services’ she provided then, and hadn’t been prepared to take no for an answer! That didn’t happen very often nowadays, thank goodness, most people in the area knowing exactly what she was prepared to do and what she wasn’t. And that was one of the things she wasn’t!

‘I’ll come with you anyway,’ the older woman offered with a frown.

‘It really isn’t necessary,’ Fin told her with a dismissive laugh, but making no further protests when she saw that Ella was determined to accompany her, trailing behind Fin as she entered the low-beamed kitchen.

Everything looked as neat and tidy as usual in here, no porridge that was ‘too hot, too cold, or just right’, no chair that was ‘too hard, too soft, or just right’ either, and so Fin knew she had been right about the fairy-tales. Although she didn’t think Ella would appreciate her humour over the matter just now!

And Ella had been right about one thing: there was a man in the bed, Fin discovered when she looked in the nearest of the two bedrooms at the top of the stairs. It was Gail’s own bedroom, but there was indeed only one person in the bed. He was spread-eagled across the middle of it, and looked as if he had been so for some time, by the disarray of the duvet.

The room was in shadow, with the curtains drawn across the window, shutting out the bright sunshine, the man in the bed no more than an untidy lump beneath the duvet. A fact, Fin acknowledged with a frown, that must have been very disturbing for Ella when she had first arrived.

The man was big and tall—Fin could tell that much from the amount of space he took up in the bed—and his hair was thick and dark as it lay against the cream-coloured pillow-case. And his breathing was low and even, not quite a snore, as he slept. An alcohol-induced sleep, from the smell of whisky in the room and that empty bottle and glass on the floor, Fin guessed too.

Their entrance to the cottage hadn’t disturbed him in the least. And he was equally unaffected by their presence in the bedroom!

If they had had any idea of who he was there might have been something amusing about the situation. Might …

Well, whoever he was, at the very least they were perfectly within their rights to demand an explanation from him for his presence here, Fin decided, crossing the room to pull back the curtains with a determined movement of her hands, sunlight instantly flooding the cheerfully furnished bedroom with its cream and red colour-scheme.

The only reaction from the man in the bed was a disgruntled snort before he rolled over and buried his face in the pillow to shut out the intrusive light.

Fin ruefully raised her brows in Ella’s direction as the other woman still stood in the doorway. ‘That achieved a lot,’ she murmured self-disgustedly, moving to shake the man as he lay burrowed beneath the duvet now. “Wake up,’ she instructed briskly, hoping the tone of her voice would penetrate, at least. When it didn’t she shook him again. ‘We would like to talk to you.’ That ‘we’ was put in just in case he could hear her, the two women at least protection for one another. She hoped!

Another grunt was her only reply, the duvet pulled more firmly about his shoulders.

It was this defensive action that spurred Fin on to her next move. ‘Obviously more drastic measures are needed here!’ she told Ella wryly, reaching out for the bedclothes.

Ella’s eyes widened in protest as Fin’s meaning became clear to her. ‘Fin, I don’t think—– Oh, dear,’ she groaned weakly as Fin wrenched the duvet away to reveal that the man who lay beneath it was completely naked! ‘Oh, dear. Oh, dear, oh, dear,’ Ella gasped breathlessly.

Oh, dear, oh, dear, oh, dear, indeed!

The man was lying face-down on the bed, but nevertheless the naked width of his shoulders, tapered waist, perfectly moulded buttocks, and long muscular legs, all covered with fine dark hair, showed that he was a fine specimen of mature manhood.

And still he didn’t move!

‘Wow,’ Ella breathed softly into the complete silence that had fallen over the bedroom in the last few seconds.

Fin looked at Ella. Ella looked back at Fin. And suddenly they were grinning at each other like bemused adolescents.

But the grins suddenly turned to alarm as the man in the bed finally began to move, the sudden chill perhaps, the bright sunshine, obviously now having made an impression on his numbed senses. And Fin heard Ella catch her breath anew as the man rolled over on to his back.

He was beautifully, magnificently male, looked like Michelangelo’s ‘David’. And yet Fin’s own gasp was for quite another reason than his male beauty.

Not him! Any other man in the world but him!

It couldn’t be him, not here. This was sleepy Bedfordshire, miles away from London. Although, a mocking little voice inside her head reminded, the trains in this area now ran directly into London, which was the reason Gail had bought the cottage here in the first place!

But it wasn’t him. It couldn’t be. The longer Fin stared at that harshly hewn face, the more she convinced herself that she had to be mistaken, that there was merely a facial resemblance.

His hair was thick and dark but streaked with grey, over-long, almost down to his shoulders. Long eyelashes rested on cheekbones that looked as if they were carved out of granite, the nose long and straight, perfectly sculptured lips, slightly parted as the deepness of the breathing increased now that he was lying flat on his back, the angle of his chin thrusting and aggressive even in sleep.

He didn’t look quite the same, Fin decided, the hair more unkempt than she remembered, and this man looked older—of course he looked older, she rebuked herself impatiently; if this was the man she thought it could be then he was years older, must be in his late thirties now. But it couldn’t be him, she tried to convince herself again, at the same time continuing to look down at him with that same initial fascinated horror.

‘This doesn’t seem quite—fair,’ Ella announced firmly, moving to cover the man’s nakedness with the duvet, obviously misunderstanding Fin’s interest for one of voyeurism!

When it wasn’t this man’s nakedness—magnificent as that might be!—that held her enthralled, but the terrible sense of familiarity that just looking at this man gave her …!

But before she could make any attempt to defend her interest to the other woman the man in the bed finally began to stir, Ella stepping back from the bed almost guiltily now, leaving Fin in his direct line of vision as the man’s lids were raised above the most incredible pair of aquamarine-coloured eyes she had ever seen! Thick dark lashes added to the incredible depths of that colour, a dark ring of blue encircling the iris to add to their uniqueness, the gaze so piercing, even on waking, that Fin felt pinned to the spot. She was the one who had a perfect right to be here, and yet she felt like fleeing—at the same time knowing she couldn’t have moved if she had tried!

He blinked up at her for several seconds, frowning darkly, obviously aware, somewhere at the back of his mind, that she shouldn’t be here, that she definitely hadn’t been when he’d fallen asleep. He didn’t seem to have seen poor Ella at all as she stood at the back of the room near the door, concentrating on Fin with effort. ‘Who are you?’ he asked gruffly, as if just the effort of talking hurt the dryness of his throat.

Now they were back to the original fairy-tale, only this one didn’t seem to be running true to form at all; wasn’t she supposed to be the one asking the questions? And there was such a lot she would have liked to ask …! ‘I’m one of the Little People—–’

‘Oh, my God …!’ He gave a pained groan, his pallor increasing, his cheeks looking grey now. ‘Oh, God!’ he groaned again, his eyes wide now as he stared at her disbelievingly. ‘I don’t believe this is happening to me!’ He shook his head, looking up towards the ceiling, his gaze returning reluctantly to Fin, heaving a shuddering sigh as he saw she was still there. ‘Most people imagine they see pink elephants; I have to see “little people”!’ His gaze turned sharply towards the door as Ella gave a snort of laughter she tried to control but couldn’t quite manage to. ‘Another one!’ he gasped his dismay, his skin seeming to take on a green sheen now.

Fin had realised the mistaken assumption he had made almost as soon as Ella had, and had trouble restraining her own laughter; this man really thought she was a hallucination brought on as the result of too much alcohol. One of the ‘little people’, indeed. She might not have explained herself very well, but really …! ‘You don’t understand—–’

‘Of course I do,’ he nodded firmly. ‘You’re one of the “little people”. Are you an elf, or a pixie, or—–?’

‘I run a business called Little People!’ she snapped tautly, bright spots of colour in her cheeks, her freckles standing out against the livid colour. She might be small and delicately made, but she wasn’t in the least fairy-like, and her very delicacy hid a strong-willed determination.

‘Hm?’ The man still looked totally befuddled by the conversation, running a hand through the length of his hair.

‘Little People,’ Fin repeated through gritted teeth. ‘It’s the name of the business I run. It’s on my van outside if you would care to look,’ she added exasperatedly as he still didn’t look convinced by this explanation.

‘It is?’ He began to look hopeful that he wasn’t going insane after all, although the suspicion still remained in his expression. ‘Perhaps I had better—– Ah.’ He halted in the act of getting out of the bed as he looked down and obviously realised that he didn’t have any clothes on.

Fin spied a pair of denims on the bedroom floor that had obviously been discarded there some time the night before, studiously avoiding looking for any other clothing he might have thrown down so carelessly as she hurried over to pick the denims up for him. ‘Here.’ She held them out towards him.

He took them slowly, frowning as his suspicion deepened. ‘How did you know …?’

She kept her gaze determinedly turned away from Ella as she heard the other woman give a choked cough to hide her squeak of guilt. ‘Logic,’ Fin dismissed with a briskness that defied questioning, turning away discreetly as he pulled the denims up his long legs, standing up to fasten them before padding over to the tiny window across the room that looked out over the driveway.

God, he was tall, well over six feet, powerfully built, moving with all the feline grace of a caged tiger.

Strange she should liken him to that particular animal, Fin realised with a startled jolt; the tiger had always been the animal she considered the most beautiful!

His hair was so thick and dark now that she could see it properly, the grey among the darkness more noticeable now that it curled down on to his shoulders. His face seemed harsher in profile as he looked out of the window, those incredible-coloured eyes narrowed, his mouth a thin slash of displeasure between clenched jaws.

Some of that displeasure was due, Fin would hazard a guess, to the fact that he was now fully aware of the fool he had made of himself minutes ago, concerning her identity, some of it was due to the colossal hangover he probably now realised he had—and the rest was due to a hard cynicism that certainly hadn’t materialised overnight!

One of his hands still rested on the window-sill when he turned back into the room, challenge in every line of his hard body, cold assessment in his eyes as his gaze raked over her without mercy. ‘Just who are you?’ he repeated his initial question, this time with impatience.

Fin, still squirming from the impact of that harsh scrutiny, felt as if he had looked at her, from the top of her bright red curls, her heart-shaped face with its liberal smattering of freckles, down over the slenderness of her body in the T-shirt and denims—and found her wanting. God, she didn’t just feel as if he had, she knew damn well that he had!

She straightened, drawing herself up to her full five feet in height, moving forward slightly to hold out her hand in formal greeting. ‘Fin McKenzie,’ she introduced herself. ‘And this is Ella Morgan, one of my assistants.’

He made no effort to take the proffered hand, his gaze moving sharply to Ella as she stepped reluctantly away from the doorway. ‘And what does she assist you at?’ he drawled disparagingly, making no effort to give her his own name either.

He thought they were the intruders! No, he didn’t; Fin immediately rejected that idea: intruders would hardly have gone to the trouble of waking him up in the way they had. He was deliberately trying to make them feel uncomfortable because of his own earlier embarrassment.

Well, Fin, for one, didn’t feel in the least at a disadvantage. She knew she had a perfect right to be here, and she wanted an explanation as to why he was here. ‘I believe we are the ones who should be asking the questions, Mr …?’ She paused pointedly, but once again he chose to ignore her prompting to give his own name, meeting her gaze coolly, one brow raised in calm challenge. ‘We’re contracted to keep watch on the cottage whenever Gail is—– She didn’t tell us you were going to be here,’ Fin added stubbornly, refusing to be the one put in a position of explaining herself.

He shrugged unconcernedly, crossing his arms in front of his bared chest, a plain gold watch on the wrist of his left arm. ‘That’s OK; she didn’t tell me about you either!’

Impasse, Fin realised frustratedly. What should she do now? As far as she was aware, the man had done nothing but get drunk, very drunk, and fall asleep in Gail’s bed—without Gail. Naked. Fin mustn’t forget that, couldn’t forget it. Even now, with the denims resting low down on his hips to cover most of his nakedness, the tanned hardness of his chest caused her pulse to give a leap!

And there was still that disturbing feeling she had that she knew this man. While he was standing up like this, his very size dominating the small confines of the room, that feeling was all the stronger. But she had been so young that she couldn’t remember exactly …

‘I’ll get in touch with Gail and have her call you,’ he added with arrogant dismissal.

You may go now, Miss Whatever-your-name-is, Fin realised resentfully. He certainly had the damned arrogance of—– ‘I shall be telephoning her myself, Mr …?’ Once again she paused, and this time the determination in her face brooked no argument; she would at least know his name before she agreed to leave.

‘Danvers,’ he came back smoothly. Too smoothly? Had he taken those few minutes’ respite to give himself time to think of another identity for himself that would protect his anonymity …? ‘Jac—Jake Danvers,’ he added more confidently.

But Fin had noted the slip, couldn’t help wondering if it really was significant or if she was just imagining things where there was nothing. But there had been that ‘Jac’, and, although the name was different, the initials were the same, J.D. …

She nodded abruptly, frowning, deeply disturbed. ‘We’ll leave you in peace now, Mr Danvers.’ She gave a strained smile. ‘If you should need to contact us, we’re in the book,’ she offered with a politeness she was far from feeling. But if he really was a friend of Gail’s …

‘Under Little People,’ he acknowledged drily, the humour evident in his voice not reaching the coldness of his eyes.

‘Under Little People,’ she confirmed tersely, deciding then and there that she would try to contact Gail herself as soon as she got back to the office. The sooner the puzzle over this man’s identity was cleared up, the better it would be for everyone.

Not least Fin’s mother …


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