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Shadowed Stranger

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«Shadowed Stranger» - 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…More than infatuation…?Sweet, naïve Robyn Castle knows that eminent doctor Rick Howarth is the wrong man for her! He’s older, more sophisticated, experienced…and so sinfully delicious that he should be illegal! But despite their differences, Rick seems just as infatuated with Robyn as she is with him…But when Robyn learns that Rick is married, there’s no way she can be the other woman! Could Rick really have hidden such an important truth from her? And what does it mean for their future?
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Shadowed Stranger Carole Mortimer

www.millsandboon.co.uk

Table of Contents

Title Page

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

Copyright

CHAPTER ONE

TREES overshadowed the narrow lane she was riding down, and several large holes in the road made her bicycle wobble precariously. Birds were singing in those trees, the sound of children laughing happily as they played in the brilliant sunshine.

Children laughing …? There shouldn’t be any children laughing here. The only house in this area, at the end of this small country lane, was Orchard House, and it had been unoccupied for quite some time now. She knew that some of the village children played there, but if Billy were one of them …

Yes, there he was, right in the middle of a crowd of other youngsters, the game of five-a-side football obviously well under way, jumpers being placed on the ground as goalposts.

Robyn came to a halt, straddling her bicycle. Her brother was enjoying the game; for some reason she couldn’t see, football was an obsession with him and his impish face was alive with glee as he scored a goal through the makeshift goalposts.

‘Billy?’ she called to him. ‘Billy!’ more firmly as he seemed not to hear her.

He looked up impatiently. The two of them were very much alike, both blond and fair-skinned, although Billy’s manner was the more aggressive. ‘What is it?’ he asked impatiently.

‘You know you shouldn’t be in here.’ She felt rather silly now, the other boys were looking at her as if she had no right to be here. And maybe she didn’t, but neither did they! Billy had already been in trouble with her father once about trespassing into the grounds at Orchard House, and if he were caught again he would be in real trouble.

‘Stop interfering!’ her brother snapped, obviously embarrassed at her bossy attitude in front of his friends.

‘This is private property,’ she told them all firmly. ‘The last time Constable Fuller caught you he gave you all a warning, the next time it might be rather more serious.’ Especially for Billy. Her parents had been so shocked and upset when the local policeman had called at the house to tell them of Billy’s trespassing.

‘Robyn—–’

‘I’m sorry, Billy,’ she said, and meant it. ‘But I think you should play football somewhere else.’

‘There isn’t anywhere else,’ he snapped.

‘Well, you can’t stay here—any of you,’ she added meaningly.

The other boys started to wander off, shooting her resentful glances as they went. She felt awful for spoiling their fun, but if she had heard them there was a fair chance Constable Fuller would too if he should go by, and she knew for a fact that most of these boys would be in as much trouble as Billy if they were caught here again.

‘I bet you’re great at a party,’ Billy muttered once there was just the two of them left.

Robyn sighed. ‘I did it for your own good.’

‘That’s what Dad always says before he keeps me in or stops my pocket-money.’ He kicked moodily at some of the stones on the driveway.

‘I’m sorry, Billy,’ she told him ruefully.

‘I didn’t mean to break up your game. Am I forgiven?’

He seemed to think about it for a while, but she knew he would soon get over his mood—he always did. ‘Okay,’ he finally accepted. ‘But help me look for my football first. It had just been kicked into that long grass among those trees when you interrupted us.’

‘All right,’ she agreed cheerfully, leaving her bicycle on the side of the gravel driveway of the house as they went to find the ball.

The grass was almost up to their knees, the ball nowhere in sight. But there were lots of wild daffodils growing in the grass, and Robyn couldn’t resist picking some of them.

‘That’s called stealing!’ Billy appeared at her side with his football.

‘I know, but—–’ Just at that moment a car turned into the driveway, the wheels going over Robyn’s bicycle with a telling crunch of metal. The car came to an immediate halt.

Robyn’s instant reaction was to duck behind a wide tree trunk, pulling the suddenly immobile Billy with her. ‘What’s a car doing driving in here?’ she whispered. ‘This house isn’t occupied.’

‘How should I know?’ her brother said impatiently. ‘But I bet your bike’s a mess.’

‘I know,’ she groaned, envisaging the twisted metal.

‘Maybe—–’

‘Ssh!’ she quietened him. ‘Someone is getting out of the car.’

She watched as the man came around the back of the car, bending down to inspect what was left of her bicycle. He straightened, looking about him with narrowed grey eyes. He was a handsome man, although rather unkempt-looking, his hair long and out of style, although it gleamed with a clean black sheen, his eyes grey and piercing, his nose long and straight, his mouth set in a rigid line. He was very leanly built, although firmly muscled, his denims old and faded, the shirt he wore clean but unironed. He would be in his late thirties, Robyn guessed, his expression harsh, deep lines grooved into his face beside his nose and mouth.

She had been so mesmerised with the aggressively male attractiveness of him that she had forgotten to hide, something she realised too late as he spotted her and strode angrily towards them.

‘Now you’ve done it,’ Billy glared at her.

‘Shut up!’ she snapped.

‘Come out of there!’ the man’s angry voice ordered. ‘Come on, I know you’re in there,’ he added at their delay.

‘Now we’re for it,’ Billy muttered, dragging Robyn behind him as he stepped out into view.

Robyn looked up at the stranger, all six foot one of him, feeling like a midget herself at only five feet two inches. On closer inspection the man looked gaunt, very pale beneath his tan, the harshness to his features more noticeable.

‘Well?’ he barked as they remained silent. ‘What have you to say for yourselves?’

‘Sorry?’ Billy said hopefully.

He received an impatient look for his trouble. ‘I gather that distorted hunk of metal on the driveway belongs to one of you?’

‘My sister,’ Billy muttered, obviously realising this man was a force to be reckoned with.

Robyn’s violet eyes flashed. ‘It was a bicycle before you drove over it,’ she snapped her indignation.

Glacial grey eyes were turned on her. ‘I’m well aware of what it was. What I want to know is what it was doing on my driveway.’

She gasped. ‘Your driveway?’

‘That’s right.’ He pushed the untidy dark hair back from his forehead as if it annoyed him.

‘You live here?’ Billy’s eyes were as wide as saucers.

The man’s mouth twisted. ‘I do. Your names?’ he rasped.

‘William,’ Billy supplied, obviously disconcerted by this man owning Orchard House, seeing his days of playing football here fast disappearing. ‘Er—Billy, actually—sir.

‘And you?’ Piercing grey eyes were now turned on Robyn.

‘Robyn,’ she supplied abruptly. After all, she had only come in here to help Billy. Although there were the condemning daffodils in her hand!

‘Robyn …?’ he prompted.

‘Castle,’ she muttered, feeling like a juvenile caught out in a misdemeanour, and not the eighteen-year-old she really was.

‘You too?’ he eyed Billy.

‘Yes,’ he muttered.

The man nodded. ‘You have two minutes to get off my land,’ he told them grimly. ‘And take the bicycle with you.’

Robyn grimaced. ‘I doubt it’s worth the trouble.’

The man took out his wallet, taking out some notes. ‘It’s only the back wheel,’ he held out the money towards her. ‘This should replace it.’

She looked at him suspiciously. ‘You’re offering to pay for the damage?’

‘As long as you’re both gone in the allotted two minutes. And make sure any of your hooligan friends know not to come trespassing here again.’

‘Hooligans …?’ Robyn gasped.

‘What else would you call yourselves?’ he mocked, looking down at their identical clothing of denims and tight tee-shirts, although Robyn’s were slightly more disreputable than Billy’s.

She always dressed casually on Sundays, her job in the library calling for smartness at all times. ‘You are in the eyes of the public,’ Mr Leaven had told her on the one occasion she had dared to wear trousers. She had never dared again.

But Sundays were her own, and if she wanted to wear her old denims and one of Billy’s tee-shirts then surely that was up to her. The fact that both items were now a little the worse for wear was still nothing to do with this arrogant man.

‘You only have a minute left to take the money and run,’ the man drawled. ‘I would advise you to do just that.’

‘I—–’

‘Yes, sir,’ Billy interrupted her, taking the offered money. ‘Thank you, sir. Come on, Robyn. Robyn!’ he said pointedly when she looked like continuing the argument.

She shook off his hand, reluctantly following him to the driveway, unaware of the fact that the man had followed them until he opened his car door in preparation of continuing on his way to the house.

‘And make sure you remember what I said,’ his voice was harsh. ‘I don’t want you or any of your friends here again.’ He swung into the car, slamming the door after him before driving off.

‘He needn’t worry, we won’t be back,’ Robyn exploded. ‘Rude man!’ she added with disgust.

Billy burst out laughing at her indignant expression. ‘He had a right to be annoyed.’

She looked down disgustedly at her bike. ‘Just look at this! It means I’ll have to get the bus to work tomorrow now,’ she groaned; the bus service to this sleepy little village was not very reliable at the best of times. The bus company seemed to take buses out of service without informing the people waiting for them. Before she had taken to riding her bicycle the three miles each way to Ampthull she had been late for work many times simply because they had decided not to run the bus she usually caught on that particular day.

Billy helped her pull the bicycle up on its one straight wheel and one bent one. ‘Maybe he’ll give you a lift in his Jag,’ he teased.

She grimaced, putting the daffodils in the front basket. After all, he hadn’t asked for them back! ‘Is that what it is?’ The type of car the man had been driving hadn’t been of particular interest to her, what he had done with it had been.

‘Mm,’ her brother smiled appreciatively. ‘Fantastic, wasn’t it?’

Robyn looked down pointedly at her bicycle. ‘I didn’t notice. I’d better get this home and see if Dad thinks it can be salvaged.’

‘I’ll help you,’ Billy offered instantly, lifting the damaged wheel off the ground while Robyn took control of the handlebars. ‘Here’s your money,’ he handed it to her.

She took it and put it in her back pocket, not even bothering to count it. ‘Why are you being so nice?’ she asked suspiciously.

He gave her a look of feigned innocence, looking quite cherubic with his baby blond curls and fresh-scrubbed look. ‘I’m always nice to you,’ he grinned.

‘Like hell you are—–’

‘I’ll tell Mum you’ve been swearing,’ he announced triumphantly, a look of satisfaction to his face.

‘Oh, I see!’ She had to smile, humour got the better of her. ‘You don’t want me to tell Mum and Dad about the game of football, right?’

‘Right,’ he admitted reluctantly. ‘You won’t, will you? Dad said he would stop my pocket-money for a month if I did it again.’

She raised her eyebrows questioningly. ‘Then why did you?’

Billy sighed his impatience with her. ‘Are you going to tell them or aren’t you?’

She sighed. ‘Of course I’m not.’

He immediately dropped the damaged end of her bicycle. ‘See you later,’ he grinned before running off.

‘I didn’t promise,’ she called after him.

He turned round and poked his tongue out at her. ‘I know you,’ he scorned. ‘You won’t let me down.’

Little devil! The trouble was he knew she wouldn’t let him down. She seemed to have spent the majority of her eighteen years getting Billy out of one scrape or another—and covering up for him. The five years’ difference in their ages had made her protective towards him, over-protective on occasion, forging a bond between them that meant she would always stand by him, no matter what he did.

It took her twice as long as it should have done to get home, mainly because of Billy’s defection, and it was with some relief that she leant her bicycle up against the garden shed before going into the house.

‘I’ll have a look at it later,’ her father assured her when she explained that it was damaged. ‘Did you happen to see Billy while you were out?’

She hastily looked away. ‘I think I might have done, I’m not too sure.’

Her father gave her a reproving look, not fooled by her evasion for one moment. ‘He’ll be home for lunch, I presume,’ he said dryly, one eyebrow arched enquiringly.

‘Oh yes—Yes, I suppose so. He usually is, isn’t he?’ She bit her lip at her slip-up, seeing her father’s amused smile and smiling back at him.

Her father owned the local shop and post office, her mother actually running the shop part of it, her father running the post office and delivering groceries to the people in the village who found it difficult getting down to the shop, mainly the older members of the community. It was a good arrangement, the shop was very profitable, and even Robyn occasionally helped out on her days off from the library when they were particularly busy.

‘What’s actually wrong with your bike?’ her father frowned now, sitting back comfortably in his chair, puffing away contentedly on his pipe, the newspaper open in his hand, enjoying the luxury of his one day off.

Robyn looked uncomfortable. ‘The back wheel’s a bit bent,’ she told him lamely.

‘How bent?’

‘Very,’ she admitted with a grimace.

He put the newspaper down. ‘How did that happen?’

‘A slight accident,’ she revealed reluctantly.

‘Accident?’ her mother repeated sharply as she bustled into the room with the vase of daffodils. ‘You haven’t had an accident, have you, Robyn?’ She looked anxiously at her daughter’s slender body.

Robyn and Billy both took after their father with their fair colouring and lean frames; their mother was short and dark, her figure on the portly side. She loved village life, enjoyed running the shop, although she enjoyed looking after her family most of all; her cooking was out of this world. Robyn often teased her mother about the fact that she only had to look at one of her own delicious cakes to put on pounds, whereas the rest of them could eat any number of them and not put on an ounce.

‘Not me, Mum,’ she grinned at her. ‘My bike. It—er—It sort of got driven over,’ she told them ruefully.

‘Were you on it?’ her father asked concernedly.

‘No,’ she laughed. ‘I was—I was picking those flowers for Mum,’ she explained, omitting the fact that they had been growing in the garden of Orchard House when she picked them. ‘My bike was on the side of the road and the car drove straight over it.’

‘Did it stop?’

‘Oh yes,’ she answered her mother. ‘Did you know that someone was living in Orchard House?’

Her mother nodded. ‘Mr Howarth. He’s been there two or three weeks now. Was he the one who drove over your bicycle?’

‘Yes, but it was my fault. I shouldn’t have left it outside his home. I was in the woods on the other side of the road picking those wild daffodils for you when it happened,’ she invented. ‘Mr Howarth?’ she questioned curiously, wondering why her mother hadn’t mentioned him before.

‘Richard Howarth—Rick, I think he said.’ Her mother rearranged the flowers in the vase. ‘He’s had the odd piece of grocery from the shop. I think he must do his main food shopping in Ampthull, because he’s only ever had the occasional loaf of bread and a few jars of coffee.’

‘Actually I don’t think he does shop in Ampthull,’ Robyn said slowly. ‘I don’t think he shops anywhere.’

‘You mean he doesn’t eat?’ Her mother was scandalised, believing that food was the panacea for all ills.

She shook her head. ‘Not so that you would notice.’ She frowned. ‘It was really strange—by his clothes he looked down and out, really unkempt, and yet he was driving a Jaguar, this year’s model too. You don’t suppose he stole it, do you?’ she asked eagerly, sensing a mystery.

‘Don’t be silly, Robyn,’ her mother said sternly. ‘Mr Howarth seems to be a highly educated man. Maybe he’s just an eccentric.’

‘Maybe.’ But she didn’t think so. Rick Howarth hadn’t liked them on his land, had wanted to protect his privacy at all costs. He looked and dressed like a tramp, and yet he drove a very expensive car, and as her mother had said, he spoke in a highly educated voice. Perhaps her mother was right after all, maybe he was an eccentric.

Her mother frowned now. ‘I don’t like to think of him not eating.’

Her husband put down his newspaper. ‘How about the fact that I’m not eating?’ he grinned at her. ‘Isn’t lunch ready yet?’

‘You’re always thinking of your stomach!’

Robyn chuckled as her mother flounced out of the room to serve the lunch. ‘It would serve you right if Mum didn’t give you any,’ she told her father.

He laughed. ‘She wouldn’t be that cruel!’

No, she wouldn’t. Her parents had a very happy marriage; they were ideally suited in every way, and their business partnership was as successful as their personal one.

The bus service was erratic as usual the next day, and Robyn arrived ten minutes later at the library, earning a disapproving look from Mr Leaven.

She loved working in the library, had a passion for books that bordered on obsession. Just to touch a book to anticipate devouring its pages, filled her with a warm pleasure. Which was the reason Mr Leaven hardly ever gave her the job of tidying the fiction shelves. She would become lost to her surroundings, engrossed in a newly discovered book, and the other books on the shelves would remain in disarray.

Consequently she was quite surprised when Mr Leaven told her to tidy the books back into order, although she quickly made her escape before he changed his mind.

She wasn’t quite as happy when she saw who she was to be working with. Selma! No wonder she had been sent to work with her; everyone else had probably opted out. Not that Selma wasn’t friendly—she was, too friendly upon occasion. She thought nothing of recounting all the intimate details of her life to anyone who happened to be around at the time. The trouble was that she demanded equally intimate revelations in return.

There was no opportunity today to linger over a newly discovered book, listening half-heartedly as Selma chattered on about the fantastic new boy she had met over the weekend, becoming more friendly with him in those two days than Robyn intended becoming with any man before she married him!

‘What about you?’ Selma stopped in the H section, well out of Mr Leaven’s view.

Robyn blinked her puzzlement. ‘What about me?’

‘Do you have a boy-friend, silly?’ Selma giggled.

Robyn blushed. When around Selma, a girl very popular with the opposite sex, she felt more than a little embarrassed about her own boy-friendless state.

‘You mean you don’t?’ Selma saw that blush and interpreted it correctly.

Irritation flashed in her violet-blue eyes. ‘I didn’t say that,’ she snapped.

Selma looked interested. ‘So you do have a boy-friend?’

‘I—Yes. Yes, I have a boy-friend.’ Now why had she said that, why lie about something that wasn’t after all important?

‘What’s his name?’

‘His name?’ Robyn repeated slowly, licking her lips to delay answering. ‘It’s—er—it’s Richard,’ she said in a rush. ‘Rick, actually—Rick Howarth.’ God, this was getting worse, the lie was becoming deeper and deeper. It was just that she couldn’t stand Selma’s derision.

The other girl always had at least one man in tow, whereas Robyn had only ever had the odd date, and very rarely with the same boy twice. She wasn’t interested in football or cars, and as that seemed to be all her dates ever wanted to talk about she usually ended up by not saying a word all evening. It had earned her the reputation of being ‘stuck-up’, an erroneous impression, but one that seemed to have lasted. Consequently she very rarely dated, something Selma had probably heard about.

She certainly had all of the other girl’s attention now. ‘Where did you meet him?’ Selma wanted to know.

‘He—He’s just moved into Sanford,’ at least this part was true! ‘I met him at the weekend.’

‘Is he nice?’ Selma asked eagerly.

‘Very.’

‘Good-looking?’

Robyn nodded. ‘Yes.’

The other girl frowned. ‘Don’t you want to talk about him?’

She concentrated on her work with an intensity she was far from feeling. ‘Not particularly,’ she replied in a bored voice.

‘Keeping him to yourself, are you?’ Selma teased, not at all offended by Robyn’s attitude.

‘Something like that,’ she nodded, wishing this conversation over.

‘When are you seeing him again?’

‘I—er—Tonight, probably,’ she invented, wishing she had never started this.

‘Going anywhere nice?’ Selma wanted to know.

‘I’m not sure. Probably just to his house.’ Robyn wished she could move away, put an end to these lies, and yet she knew that this job usually took most of the morning to complete. If Selma was going to ask her questions about Richard Howarth all that time …! She was going to run out of conversation about him any moment now!

Selma’s eyes widened. ‘You’ve met his parents?’

She shook her head. ‘He has his own house.’

‘He does?’ That took the other girl aback.

‘Yes.’ She moved on to the I section, getting nearer and nearer Mr Leaven’s desk, and she hoped nearer to ending this discussion.

Selma looked wistful. ‘I’ve never been out with a boy who had his own house. I usually have to wait until his parents go out.’

Wait for what? Robyn almost asked. Selma was a pretty girl, black hair kept long past her shoulders, deep brown eyes, a clear complexion, a nice slim figure, and yet she had earnt herself rather a bad reputation with the boys in the area. Most of them were willing to go out with her for a while, but they all ended up marrying someone else. It was a shame really, because she was a very nice girl given the chance to be.

‘He must be quite rich to own his own house,’ she remarked now.

‘I have no idea.’ Robyn moved up to the J section, luckily almost in view of Mr Leaven.

‘Or does he just rent it?’ He had obviously stepped down in Selma’s estimation if he did.

‘I—–’

‘Would you two girls kindly get on with your work—quietly.’ Mr Leaven suddenly appeared behind them. ‘It may have escaped your notice,’ he continued in an angry whisper, ‘but this is supposed to be a library, a place where people can come to quietly read and study. Your voices—–’

‘Ssh!’ A woman at a nearby table looked up to glare at him. ‘Can’t you read?’ she hissed, pointing to the sigh that read ‘QUIET, PLEASE, PEOPLE WORKING’.

‘Get on with your work!’ Mr Leaven snapped at Robyn and Selma before returning to his desk.

‘Oh dear,’ Selma giggled. ‘That’s put him in a bad mood for the rest of the day!’

Indeed it had, and Robyn kept out of his way as much as possible. She kept out of Selma’s way too, not being anxious to reopen the subject of Rick Howarth. She felt slightly ashamed of herself for using him in that way, even if he didn’t know about it. She had thought it would get Selma off the subject of her having a boy-friend, and instead she seemed to have made matters worse. She hoped she would have forgotten all about it by tomorrow.

The bus service was dreadful again that night, and the shop was already closed and her mother in the kitchen when she entered the house. ‘The bus,’ came her moody explanation for her lateness.

Her mother nodded. ‘I thought you might be late, so I made a casserole for dinner.’

‘Lovely!’ Robyn ran upstairs to change into her denims and tee-shirt, the rumblings of her stomach making it a hurried change. She was always ravenously hungry in the evenings, and so was Billy. Her brother didn’t utter a word as he ate his portion of the chicken casserole.

‘I mended your bike today, Robyn,’ her father told her, eating his meal at a more leisurely pace.

‘You did?’ Her eyes lit up with gratitude, as she thought of not having to catch the bus again tomorrow.

‘Mm. I took one of the wheels off your mother’s old bike. She never rides it anyway.’

‘So you didn’t need to buy a new wheel?’ she frowned.

‘No,’ he shook his head.

‘That means you’ll have to give the money back,’ Billy emerged from eating his dessert long enough to utter.

‘Money?’ their mother repeated sharply. ‘What money is this, Robyn?’

She refused dessert, although she knew the apple pie would be delicious—her mother’s cooking always was. ‘Mr Howarth gave me some money yesterday when he drove over my bicycle. I’d forgotten all about it.’ She reached into the back pocket of her denims, taking out the notes she had stuffed there yesterday.

‘Wow!’ Billy breathed slowly, looking at the two crumpled ten-pound notes Robyn held in her hand.

‘Wow, indeed.’ Their father looked disapprovingly over the top of his glasses. ‘You had no right accepting money from Mr Howarth, not when you openly admitted it was your fault for leaving your bike on the road.’

Robyn was still dazed herself by the amount of money Rick Howarth had given her. Her bike was only an old one, more or less ready for the scrap-merchant who came round every couple of months—the whole thing wasn’t worth twenty pounds! ‘I’ll give it back,’ she said hurriedly.

‘You most certainly will,’ her father said firmly. ‘And as for you, young man,’ he turned towards Billy, ‘how did you know Mr Howarth gave Robyn some money?’

‘I—er—I—–’

‘I told him,’ Robyn instantly defended. ‘Last night.’

‘Yes, that’s right,’ Billy agreed eagerly. ‘Last night when we were playing Monopoly.’

‘Mm,’ their father looked sceptical. ‘Well, you can return that money as soon as possible,’ he told Robyn.

‘Tonight,’ her mother put in firmly, standing up. ‘I have an extra casserole and an apple pie to go over to Mr Howarth. I was going to get Billy to take it over, but you might as well take it, Robyn, as you’re going anyway.’

Robyn stood up to help clear the table. ‘Do I have to, Mum? I don’t mind taking the money back, but do I have to take the food too? Besides, it’s my night to do the washing-up.’

‘Billy can do it. Oh yes, you can,’ his mother insisted as he went to protest. ‘Your father has had a hard day.’

‘But I was going to football practice,’ Billy moaned.

‘This will only take you five minutes, you can go to your football practice afterwards.’

‘But—–’

‘Billy!’

‘Yes, Dad.’ He dutifully went into the kitchen, knowing when their father used that tone that he would brook no argument.

Robyn knew that there was no point in her arguing either. She was going to have to take that casserole and pie over to Orchard House whether she wanted to or not. And she didn’t want to. Spending a couple of minutes giving Rick Howarth back his money was one thing, delivering a food parcel was another. If only she hadn’t told her mother that she didn’t think he was eating! She had put herself in this predicament by a few thoughtless words. And what Rick Howarth would make of her bringing him food she wouldn’t like to guess!

‘I don’t know why you’re so miserable,’ Billy muttered as he wiped up. ‘At least you got out of this!’ He pulled a face.

‘Shame!’ she said unsympathetically, packing the food into a tin so that she could carry it more easily. ‘Just think yourself lucky you don’t have to go and face the ogre. After yesterday I don’t fancy seeing him again.’

‘What was that?’ her mother asked as she bustled out of the larder with a jar of her homemade marmalade.

‘Nothing, Mum,’ Robyn answered hastily. ‘Has that got to go too?’ she indicated the jar.

‘Yes. I thought of sending jam, but not everyone likes jam, But I know he likes marmalade, he bought a jar when he first moved in. Now can you manage all that?’

Robyn balanced the jar on top of the tin. ‘I think so. If you could just open the door for me?’

The tin weighed heavy in her arms, and despite her reluctance to reach Orchard House she found herself hurrying down the road, anxious to get rid of her heavy burden.

Orchard House looked unlived-in and neglected, and if it weren’t for the Jaguar parked outside and the thin spiral of smoke coming from the chimney she would have said the place was empty. There were no curtains at the windows, no sign of movement within.

Her knock on the front door received no reply, so she went around the back and tried there. Still no answer. But he had to be there, he would hardly go out and leave a lit fire. Besides, there was the Jaguar, his transport.

She knocked again, and still receiving no answer she tentatively turned the doorhandle and walked in. There were a couple of used mugs in the sink, but other than that the kitchen was bare, the cooker looked unused, the cupboards apparently empty. Surely no one could actually live in such discomfort?

Which brought her back to the whereabouts of Rick Howarth. He obviously spent little time in the kitchen, so leaving the tin and the jar of marmalade on the kitchen table she decided to search the rest of the house. Each room proved to be empty of furniture and habitation, having a musty smell to it. The last bedroom she came to seemed to be the one with the fire in, although the room still struck chill. There was a single bed, a table containing a typewriter, one hard-looking chair, and no other furniture.

Robyn repressed a shiver as she went back downstairs. How could anyone live in such starkness of human comfort? That brought back the question of why Rick Howarth was living in such conditions. Could her first assumption be correct, could he be a thief on the run?

And yet a village certainly wasn’t the best place to use as a hideout, a town was much better for obscurity, and Rick Howarth appeared to her to be intelligent enough to realise that. In a village the size of Sanford you couldn’t even sneeze without the neighbours knowing about it, and a newcomer aroused much attention; her own mother’s interest in Rick Howarth was evidence of that. Her mother wasn’t a nosey person, and yet even she seemed to have learnt a little about the new occupier of Orchard House.

But where was he? The house was empty, and yet he didn’t appear to be the type who enjoyed gardening. Did he look any type?

She returned to the kitchen, in a quandary about what to do. She couldn’t just leave the food here, he would wonder where it came from, and if she took the food back home her mother would want to know why. But she could have to wait ages for him to come back, she had no way of knowing—–

‘What the hell are you doing in here?’

Robyn swung round, paling as she saw Rick Howarth standing dark and dangerous in the doorway.

.

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