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Мортимер Кэрол

Shadowed Stranger

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CHAPTER TWO

THE jar of marmalade she had been toying with slipped out of her hand and smashed on the tiled floor with a resounding crash, and she groaned as the sticky contents began to spread all over the floor. ‘Do you have a cloth?’ she asked desperately, going down on her hands and knees to begin picking up the bigger pieces of glass.

‘What the hell—–!’ Strong sinewy fingers came out and Rick Howarth grasped her arm roughly, pulling her effortlessly to her feet. ‘Are you stupid, girl?’ he rasped, looking down at her contemptuously as she struggled to be free.

Her head went back, her eyes flashing deeply violet in her anger. ‘Of course I’m not stupid, Mr Howarth,’ she snapped. ‘You just startled me, and I—I dropped the marmalade.’

‘I can see that.’ His mouth twisted.

‘Then you can also see that the floor is in a mess,’ she scorned.

He gave an impatient sigh before moving to the cupboard under the sink unit, taking out some ragged pieces of material and throwing them down on the table in front of her. ‘Here,’ he said abruptly, ‘help yourself.’

‘Thanks,’ she muttered, getting down on to the floor once again to wipe up the broken glass. It really was a mess—glass among the sticky concoction that was all that was left of her mother’s beautiful home-made marmalade.

‘I’m still waiting to find out what you’re doing in my home,’ he said tersely, his face a harsh mask, deep lines grooved beside his mouth.

He was no better dressed than he had been yesterday, the denims and shirt were still as disreputable, although the over-long dark hair looked newly washed, slightly waving as it grew low down over his collar.

‘I did knock,’ she told him resentfully. ‘And when there was no answer—–’

‘You just walked in,’ he finished coldly.

‘No!’ Robyn defended indignantly. ‘Well—yes. But it wasn’t quite like that!’

‘It never is.’ Rick Howarth’s mouth twisted contemptuously.

Colour flooded her cheeks at his rude manner. ‘I didn’t come here to be insulted—–’

‘If you didn’t violate people’s privacy perhaps you wouldn’t be,’ he snapped angrily, his eyes cold. ‘This is the second time in as many days that I’ve caught you on my property uninvited. Well?’ he quirked an eyebrow mockingly. ‘No comeback?’

Robyn bit her lip. ‘No,’ she admitted reluctantly, knowing she couldn’t deny the truth. ‘But—–’

‘Don’t go into lengthy explanations,’ he said dismissively, obviously bored by the subject—as he was probably bored with her! ‘Sufficient to say you were trespassing, the reasons don’t really matter. And today you’re doing it again, although you have some nerve actually entering the house.’

‘I told you, I—–’

‘You knocked and there was no answer,’ he scorned. ‘When that happens it’s the usual practice to go away and come back some other time.’

Robyn stood up at last, dropping the glass and sticky rags into the bin in the corner of the room. It was still sticky on the floor, but if Rick Howarth wanted it any cleaner he could damn well do it himself.

‘I was going away,’ she snapped. ‘I am going away, and I don’t intend coming back again—ever!’ She moved to the table, taking the lid off the tin. ‘I’ll just leave these with you,’ she slammed the dishes down on the table. ‘If you could return the crockery when you’ve finished with it I’m sure my mother would be grateful.’ She made a great clatter, deliberately so, as she put the lid back on the tin, just wanting to get away from this rude, ungrateful pig of a man.

He came over to look at the casserole and the pie. ‘What’s this?’ he rasped, his eyes narrowed.

Heavens, anyone would think they were trying to poison him! ‘What does it look like?’ she derided, sighing at his blank expression. ‘It’s food, Mr Howarth. Chicken,’ she indicated the deepest dish. ‘Apple,’ she pointed to the other one.

‘What’s it doing here?’

‘My mother thought you were in need of sustenance.’ She gave the impression that she personally couldn’t give a damn if he expired of starvation in front of her eyes.

His mouth tightened, his eyes glacial. ‘Your mother?’

‘Mrs Castle. She runs the village shop,’ Robyn explained with sarcastic patience.

‘Ah yes, I remember her,’ he nodded, his gaze sharpening.

‘And who gave her the impression that I looked in need of being fed?’

Once again colour stained her cheeks. ‘Well—I—–’

‘You did,’ he accused. ‘Well, I don’t need any hand-outs, Miss Castle,’ he told her furiously, his eyes glittering dangerously. ‘So you can tell your mother—–’

‘No, Mr Howarth, you can tell her, when you return the dishes.’ She walked to the door, two bright spots of angry colour in her cheeks. ‘I’m certainly got going to tell her what an ungrateful swine you are!’ and she flung open the door.

‘Just a minute,’ he ground out, grasping her arm in exactly the same place as before, adding further bruises she was sure. ‘Don’t be in such a hurry to leave.’

‘But you said—–’

‘I didn’t ask you to leave.’

‘You were rude about my mother,’ she flared. ‘She was only trying to be friendly, and you threw her gesture back in her face.’

‘Okay, okay.’ He let go of her arm, running a hand round the back of his neck in a weary gesture, looking down helplessly at the casserole. ‘Maybe I was a little ungrateful.’

‘A little?’ she scoffed.

‘Okay, I was rude,’ he accepted with a sigh.

‘You were, very.’

His mouth twisted into the semblance of a smile, the first lessening of his harshness that she had seen. ‘Don’t go over the top, Miss Castle,’ he drawled. ‘Just tell me what I have to do with this,’ he indicated the casserole, ‘to be able to eat it.’

Robyn frowned. ‘You heat it up.’

‘How?’ he asked helplessly.

She searched his hard face for any sign of mockery, but could see none. ‘You really don’t know how?’

‘I would hardly be asking if I did,’ he derided.

‘But I—You—Surely you must have been eating something in the time you’ve been here?’ She was incredulous at the thought of him not eating at all, although the whipcord leanness of him didn’t seem to indicate that he had been over-indulging.

He shrugged his broad shoulders. ‘The odd sandwich. And apples.’ He held up the apples he had brought in with him. ‘My dinner—I ran out of bread this morning.’

Robyn shook her head. ‘That’s ridiculous! What are you trying to do, kill yourself?’

Rick Howarth’s face darkened. ‘Mind your own damned business, Miss Castle,’ he rasped angrily, his features once again hard. ‘My eating habits are none of your concern.’

‘My comment wasn’t meant literally,’ she told him coldly, her head held high in challenge. ‘Although you don’t look well,’ she added daringly, waiting for the explosion.

It didn’t come; his face was suddenly pale. ‘I don’t feel well,’ he admitted shakily, swaying slightly on his feet.

Robyn rushed to his side, her arm going supportively about his waist. Although if he did pass out she would never be able to hold him up! ‘Sit down,’ she instructed firmly, envisaging an argument and not getting one as he pulled out one of the kitchen chairs and sat down. ‘When did you last eat?’ she asked concernedly.

‘I told you, I had the last of the bread this morning.’

She really didn’t like the look of him, he was very pale. ‘How much?’ she probed.

He shrugged. ‘One slice, I think.’

‘And before that?’

‘I had some apples yesterday,’ he said after a moment’s thought.

Robyn sighed. ‘No wonder you’re feeling weak! I’ll heat up the casserole for you if you’ll just sit there.

His mouth twisted. ‘I wasn’t thinking of going anywhere.’

She was conscious of him watching her as she moved about the kitchen, miraculously finding a saucepan, a plate and some cutlery. The cooker was a very old model, probably left here by old Mrs Bird who had last lived here. But at least the cooker worked, that was something.

She turned round to find Rick Howarth still watching her, obviously completely recovered from the weakness that had suddenly washed over him. ‘Will you stop staring at me?’ she said irritably, muttering to herself as she burnt her finger on the rim of the saucepan. ‘Now look what you’ve made me do,’ she accused crossly, backing away as he stood up to come towards her, very dark and overwhelming in the close confines of this small room.

‘Let me see.’ He held out his hand for hers.

She shook her head. ‘It’s nothing.’

‘I want to see,’ he repeated firmly.

Robyn thrust her hand at him, gritting her teeth as he took his time inspecting it. She surreptitiously watched him beneath lowered lashes. He really was a very handsome individual, so much so that it gave her the butterflies just to be near him. But there was a mystery about him, one that made her feel nervous of being alone with him like this. After all, she didn’t know the first thing about him.

His mouth twisted derisively. ‘Just a superficial burn.’ He dropped her hand, his touch having been gentle but firm.

‘I could have told you that!’ She turned back to the cooker, her emotions disturbed as she served the casserole on to a plate before putting it down on the table.

‘Thanks.’ He sat down and began eating, slowly at first, and then with increasing appetite. ‘This is very good,’ he looked up long enough to say appreciatively.

‘I’m sure my mother will be glad to hear that,’ Robyn snapped sarcastically.

He sighed. ‘Look, I’ve apologised—–’

‘No, you haven’t,’ she instantly contradicted, placing black unsugared coffee in front of him, having found an old tin kettle that she had boiled the water up in on the top of the cooker, but unable to find milk or sugar. The store-cupboard contained only coffee, the refrigerator was completely empty.

‘Maybe I haven’t,’ he accepted grudgingly. ‘But precocious kids—–’

‘Kid!’ she cut in indignantly, her eyes blazing.

Rick Howarth smiled at her reaction, looking a lot less grim now that he had eaten something. ‘All right, schoolchildren of an indiscriminate age—–’

She drew an angry breath. ‘I’m not a schoolgirl, Mr Howarth. I’m eighteen.’

His gaze ran insolently over her slender body. ‘You aren’t very filled out for an eighteen-year-old.’

‘And you’re the scruffiest individual I’ve ever seen,’ she told him furiously, angered by his outspoken insults. She might not be voluptuous, but she had all the right curves in the right places—even if he was blind to them.

‘I am, aren’t I?’ he agreed with casual acceptance.

‘Yes!’ she snapped. ‘And your hair needs cutting too.’

He sat back, his plate empty. ‘What are you like as a barber?’

Her eyes widened to large violet orbs. ‘I’m not offering to cut your hair for you!’

‘I’m asking.’

‘But I—I don’t even know you!’

His smile was mocking. ‘Do you have to know someone before you can cut their hair?’

She was near exploding point at his audacity. ‘I came over here to return your money—Oh goodness,’ she groaned, ‘I haven’t given it to you.’ She took it out of her pocket and put it on the table. ‘I didn’t need it after all,’ she explained. ‘Besides, this was much too much.’

He made no effort to pick up the money, almost as if it meant nothing to him. ‘How come you didn’t use it?’

‘Dad took one off another bike we had. Anyway, as I was saying, I only came here to return that money and deliver the food—–’

‘Talking of food—–’ he eyed the apple pie she had just taken from the oven.

‘Help yourself,’ she slammed the dish down on the table. ‘I didn’t come here to act as your cook or to cut your hair!’

‘Your mother really is a very good cook.’ He quirked one dark eyebrow. ‘I don’t suppose you can cook as well?’

Robyn flushed. ‘Not as well, no. Why, were you thinking of offering me a job as your housekeeper?’ she scorned.

‘That’s not a bad idea.’

‘It’s a lousy idea. Look, I have to go now. I’ve been here far too long already.’ Her parents would wonder what on earth she was doing over here all this time.

‘What about my hair?’ he drawled.

‘Go to a professional barber,’ Robyn advised impatiently. ‘I have to get home now, it’s starting to get dark.’

Rick Howarth stood up, looking infinitely more relaxed than when she had first arrived. ‘I’ll drive you,’ he offered.

‘There’s no need. It isn’t far,’ she babbled. ‘I can quite easily walk.’

‘I said I’ll drive you. I wouldn’t like you to get attacked on the way.’

‘In Sanford?’ she derided.

‘Anywhere,’ he said seriously. ‘There are woods on the way back to your home, you could be dragged in there and no one would be any the wiser.’

‘Thanks!’ her mouth twisted derisively. ‘If I felt all right about it before I certainly don’t now!’

He opened the door for her. ‘Okay, let’s go.’ He moved to unlock the car door.

‘Shouldn’t you lock up the house?’ she asked once they were seated in the car.

He eyes her with some amusement. ‘There’s nothing in there for anyone to take.’ He manoeuvred the car out of the driveway into the road.

Robyn frowned. ‘Why don’t you have any furniture?’

His mouth tightened. ‘How do you know I don’t?’ he asked suspiciously.

She swallowed hard, realising her mistake too late. ‘I—er—I—–’

‘So you went prying around my home,’ he said harshly, his face rigid with anger. ‘I should have known, I suppose. All women are the same, aren’t they, you just can’t leave a man’s privacy alone.’

Robyn gasped at his accusations. ‘I only looked—–’

‘Because you were damned nosey,’ he rasped.

‘No—–’

‘Yes!’ His teeth snapped together angrily.

‘Please, Mr Howarth—–’

He drew the car to a halt. ‘This is your home, isn’t it?’ he said coldly, staring straight ahead of him.

She looked about them in a daze the short drive to her home seemed to have taken no time at all. ‘I—Yes. But—–’

‘Goodnight, Miss Castle. Thank your mother for me.’

‘I—Yes, yes I will.’ She scrambled out of the car. ‘I just wish you would let me explain.’

‘There’s nothing to explain.’ He accelerated the Jaguar forward with a screech of the tyres, the passenger door slamming closed with the force of the speed.

Whew! What a volatile man—one minute almost human, the next back to the cold hard stranger she had first encountered. Admittedly she had no right to be walking around his home, but if she hadn’t been worried as to his whereabouts she wouldn’t have done such a thing.

‘You’ve been gone a long time, dear.’ Her mother looked up from her knitting as Robyn entered the lounge. ‘Have you been round to Kay’s?’

How she would have liked to have used her friend as an excuse, to have avoided all the curious questions that were bound to be asked once her family learnt she had been with Rick Howarth for the last hour and a half. But she couldn’t deliberately lie.

She sat down in one of the armchairs. ‘Mr Howarth wasn’t feeling too well—–’

‘Oh dear,’ her mother frowned. ‘He isn’t ill, is he?’

‘No, it was just lack of food.’

‘Did he eat what I sent him?’

‘Yes, that’s why I was so long. I—I wanted to make sure he ate it.’

‘Very wise,’ her mother nodded thoughtfully. ‘I don’t like to see a man starve himself for any. reason.’

Somehow Robyn didn’t think Rick Howarth was in the habit of going without his food. But she didn’t think he was in the habit of getting it himself either! He had been totally lost in the kitchen, and she would swear that he hadn’t used the cooker once in the three weeks he had been in residence. He was obviously used to someone getting his food for him, which pointed to him having a woman somewhere in the background of his life. Or he had would be more appropriate, because he was very much alone now. Maybe his marriage had broken up—a man of his age was sure to be married, which would account for his bitterness towards women.

‘Well, at least he has a hot meal inside him now,’ she told her mother. ‘He said to thank you, and that you’re a very good cook.’

Her mother flushed her pleasure. It wasn’t often she received compliments on her cooking; her family all took such a luxury for granted, although they soon complained if there was anything wrong with it.

‘I think he should get himself a housekeeper,’ her mother said absently.

Robyn didn’t tell her that Rick Howarth had half-heartedly offered her such a position. ‘There isn’t anything to “keep” in that house.’ She bit her lip, realising she was being indiscreet. Rick Howarth certainly wouldn’t thank her for discussing him in this way.

Her father peered over the top of his newspaper. ‘What do you mean by that?’ he asked in a puzzled voice.

She shrugged. ‘He doesn’t have a lot of furniture, that’s all. But as he’s alone I don’t suppose he needs it.’ She stood up. ‘I think I’ll go and wash my hair.’ She hurriedly left the room, reluctant to talk about Rick Howarth any more.

Unfortunately everyone else seemed to want to know about him. ‘Did you see your boy-friend last night?’ Selma wanted to know the next day.

Robyn gave an inward groan, wishing she had never mentioned Rick Howarth to the other girl. ‘He isn’t my boy-friend,’ she told Selma irritably.

‘But you said he was.’

‘Well, he—he’s just a friend. And he happens to be male. That’s really all there is to it.’

Selma shrugged. ‘It’s okay by me if you don’t want to talk about him.’

‘I didn’t say that,’ Robyn sighed. ‘There’s just nothing to tell.’

‘Like I said, if you don’t want to talk about him—–’

‘There’s really nothing to tell,’ Robyn repeated sharply.

Selma gave her a knowing glance. ‘Had an argument, did you?’

‘No!’ she flashed, then realised that here was a way out of this. ‘Yes,’ she deliberately contradicted herself. ‘We did, actually.’

‘I shouldn’t worry about it,’ Selma shrugged. ‘If he’s really interested he’ll be back.’

Considering the fact that Selma and the boy she had met over the weekend had already finished Robyn was surprised that the other girl felt qualified to offer this advice.

And Rick Howarth wouldn’t be ‘back’ in her life at all, in fact she wouldn’t be too upset if she never saw him again.

Her bicycle was back in use, so she wasn’t late back home that evening, although the house was deserted when she went in. It was half day closing at the shop, so her parents should have been here. She found them out in the yard, her father covered in oil from where he was working under the van, her mother looking on anxiously.

‘What’s happened?’ Robyn whispered to her mother, knowing that her father wouldn’t welcome such a question. Having to do any sort of mechanical work on the van was guaranteed to put her father in a bad mood.

Her mother grimaced. ‘It broke down on the delivery this afternoon. Your father had to get Mr Jeffs to help him push it back here.’

‘Oh dear!’ She could imagine her father’s fury. ‘Has he been working on it long?’

‘About two hours,’ her mother told her softly. ‘Your dinner is in the oven. Your father and I will eat later.’

‘Where’s Billy?’

‘Out delivering the groceries for us on his bike.’

Her eyes widened. ‘The van broke down on the way to deliver the groceries?’

‘Mm,’ her mother nodded. ‘Billy’s been out delivering since he got home from school.’

Robyn’s father appeared from under the van, his face smeared with oil. ‘Hello, love,’ he muttered. ‘Pass me that spanner, Barbara. The one at your feet,’ he added tersely as she hesitated.

‘I think I’ll go in and have my dinner,’ Robyn whispered to her mother.

She smiled understandingly. ‘I should.’

‘Barbara, the spanner!’

‘All right, Peter,’ she said patiently, handing it to him.

‘I’ll be in in a moment,’ she told Robyn.

Her mother’s steak and kidney pie melted in the mouth; it was a favourite with Robyn. Her mother came in as she was washing up her used crockery.

‘Everything all right?’ Robyn asked.

She smiled. ‘I think your father is just about finished. Billy’s just got home too, so I think we might be able to have our meal now.’

Robyn frowned. ‘There’s still one box of groceries here.’

‘Oh yes, that’s Mr Howarth’s.’

‘Mr Howarth’s …?’ she echoed in dismay.

‘Mm.’ Her mother heated up the gravy. ‘Billy didn’t think you would mind taking that one over.’

‘Well, I do! I don’t want to go over there, Mum,’ she said pleadingly. ‘I—I didn’t like him very much.’

‘Don’t be silly, dear, he’s very nice. He came over with these today,’ she indicated the carnations in the vase in the window. ‘Besides, Billy has to get his homework done now. And it won’t take you five minutes.’

‘Oh, all right,’ Robyn agreed grudgingly. ‘Just give me a few minutes to change.’

She checked the contents of the box on the way over to Orchard House, finding quite a few easily prepared meals. Well, at least he was going to start eating now. Her mother had also put in an individual steak and kidney pie. Robyn shook her head; her mother was never happy unless she was trying to fatten someone up.

Rick Howarth answered her knock today. ‘Well, well, well,’ he drawled mockingly. ‘If it isn’t Little Miss Castle!’

She gave him an impatient glare. ‘I brought your groceries.’

‘I’d given up on them,’ he held up the apple he had been eating.

‘Here you are,’ she held out the box towards him.

‘My father had a little trouble with his delivery van.’

He made no effort to take the box from her, opening the kitchen door wider for her to enter, which she did, reluctantly, shooting him a suspicious glance as he closed the door behind her.

‘I’m not staying,’ she told him stiffly, once again unnerved by him.

His eyes were narrowed to grey slits. ‘Why aren’t you?’

‘I wouldn’t want to be accused of snooping again.’

His mouth twisted. ‘So you hold grudges, do you?’

‘Certainly not!’ Her eyes flashed her indignation. ‘I just didn’t think you liked company.’

‘I don’t,’ he acknowledged abruptly. ‘Or at least, I didn’t.’

Her eyes widened, some of her resentment leaving her. ‘Are you saying you don’t mind my being here?’

‘Exactly.’ He threw the half eaten apple in the bin, holding up the steak and kidney pie. ‘What do I do with this?’

Robyn took it out of his hand, flicking the switch on the cooker and putting the pie inside. ‘I know what I’d like to do with it,’ she said vehemently. ‘And it isn’t anything pleasant.’

‘I didn’t think it would be,’ Rick Howarth said dryly.

‘Well, I can’t believe you’re so helpless.’ She peeled a couple of potatoes from the box and put them on to cook. ‘You look so—so—well, capable,’ she finished lamely.

‘Oh, I am,’ he leant back against the sink unit, ‘at some things. Cooking isn’t one of them.’

‘Neither is ironing, by the look of you,’ she grimaced at his clean but creased shirt.

He looked down at it too. ‘They turn out this way from the launderette.’

‘That’s because they should be ironed afterwards,’ she sighed. ‘They look expensive shirts too.’

‘Do they?’ his tone was distant. ‘It never occurred to me.’

Once again he had clammed up when she had got too personal. ‘Well, they do,’ she persisted stubbornly, wondering at her own nerve. This man had shown her more than once that he didn’t like any sort of interference from her, any reference of a personal nature. ‘You should iron them before wearing them,’ she added.

‘Are these ready yet?’ He lifted up the lid of the saucepan to look at the potatoes.

‘No!’ She angrily replaced the lid. ‘What on earth do you do here all day on your own?’ she asked with exasperation.

His expression became remote, his eyes cold. ‘This and that,’ he evaded tautly.

Robyn sighed. ‘Why are you so secretive?’

‘Why are you so nosey?’ he rasped.

She drew in a ragged breath, looking very young and vulnerable in a fitted light blue tee-shirt—one that definitely showed her curves!—and a navy blue and white cotton-print skirt, her short blonde hair newly washed, her face bare of make-up.

Rick Howarth was obviously aware of her youth too, his eyes narrowing ominously. ‘I must be insane,’ he muttered. ‘Or desperate,’ he added disgustedly.

‘Why?’ she asked in a puzzled voice, realising his mood had changed yet again. He certainly was a moody person!

‘Wasting my time talking to an eighteen-year-old,’ he answered bluntly.

Robyn gasped, paling at his intended insult, her hands shaking as she clenched them at her side. ‘You’re not only rude,’ she quavered, ‘you’re deliberately hurtful too!’ She ran to the door, intending to make her escape before she made a fool of herself.

‘Robyn—–’

She swung round, her bottom lip trembling precariously. ‘It’s all right, Mr Howarth,’ she choked, her look defiant. ‘I’ll leave and save you the trouble of wasting any more time.’

‘Robyn …’ He shook his head. ‘I didn’t mean it the way it sounded. I’m thirty-six. Do you know what that means?’

‘That you’re old!’ she retorted childishly.

His mouth quirked with humour. ‘I think I deserved that. Being thirty-six doesn’t necessarily mean I’m too old, it just means you’re too young.’

She frowned. ‘For what?’

He sighed his exasperation. ‘For—for this!’ His head lowered and he caught up her lips with his, moving them slowly against her in a slow, drugging kiss.

It was so unexpected that Robyn just froze, accepting the kiss although not exactly responding to it. She had been kissed in the past, although never by an expert as this man obviously was. His hands rested possessively on her hips, holding her to him, the pressure of his mouth increasing now, becoming more demanding. And she wasn’t able to meet that demand; her inexperience held her back.

Rick sensed her lack of response, raising his head to move savagely away from her. ‘I told you I was insane,’ he ground out. ‘Now I’ve just proved it.’

She blinked hard to clear her head. ‘How did you do that?’ she asked huskily.

‘Use your head, Robyn,’ he snapped, running his hand through his already untidy hair. ‘What I just did was totally out of character—–’

‘Kissing me?’

‘Kissing the child you still are,’ he corrected harshly. ‘God, I have to get back to civilisation!’

She swallowed hard. ‘But—–’

‘Would you leave?’ He turned his back on her, his shoulders rigid.

‘Rick—–’

Now, Robyn!’

‘But your supper—–’ she said dazedly.

‘I can see to that myself. Will you just go!’ He raised his voice enough to make his point forcefully.

She went. What had happened in there? One minute they had been arguing as usual, the next Rick had been kissing her with a hunger that had made escape impossible. Not that she had really wanted to. That kiss had been devastating to her peace of mind, in fact she was still trembling from the contact of his hard body, his muscular thighs bruising against hers.

But he was hiding something, or from someone. Whichever it was he wasn’t the ideal man to be attracted to. And she was attracted, had been since the moment she first saw him, blazing anger and all. The harshness, the bitterness, shielded the natural sensuality of his nature—that much had been obvious from the way he had kissed her just now. That he rarely gave in to that sensuality was also obvious.

She would be curious to know what work he had done before coming here, what sort of life he had led. Whatever it was it had been vastly different from the way he was living now.

‘You’re looking a little flushed, love,’ her mother said worriedly when she arrived home a few minutes later.

Robyn blushed even more. ‘It’s just from the walk, Mum.’

Billy looked up from doing his homework on the dining-room table. ‘Sure it isn’t a case of loveitis?’

She frowned. ‘A touch of—–? No, it isn’t!’, she snapped angrily, blushing bright red after the intensity of the kiss Rick Howarth had just given her.

‘I bet it is,’ her brother taunted, sitting back in his chair to eye her mockingly. ‘What have you been doing over at Mr Howarth’s place all this time?’

‘Mind your own business!’ Robyn said tautly.

Billy’s interest quickened. ‘Why are you so defensive if he didn’t—–’

‘Shut up!’ she ordered shrilly, still in a state of confusion, remembering firm lips on hers, the warmth of Rick Howarth’s tongue as it ran tantalisingly over the sensitivity of her lower lip. The memory of that was too private to share with anyone, especially her tormenting little brother.

‘Robyn!’ her mother reprimanded.

She bit her lip. ‘I’m sorry, Mum. But he goaded me,’ she glared at Billy.

‘Boys will be boys,’ her mother sighed.

And men would be men! And at the moment Rick Howarth was a man seriously in need of a woman. His impatience with her inexperience had been evidence enough that it wasn’t really her he had been kissing, just a presentable female with a passable body. If he was married, as she suspected he was, then he would be used to—to a certain physical relationship, and that he was missing that relationship was obvious.

Billy grinned mischievously. ‘I only wanted to know if you and Mr Howarth—–’

‘Billy!’ his mother cut in. ‘Take your books and do your homework upstairs.’

‘Oh, but, Mum—–’

‘Go on,’ she ordered. ‘And you aren’t going anywhere until it’s finished.’

He collected up his books and moved to the door, poking his tongue out at Robyn as he moved out of sight of their mother. Robyn couldn’t really blame him, though. Normally she could take any amount of his teasing without complaint, usually gave back as good as she got. But not tonight, and not about Rick Howarth, not when she was feeling so raw about him.

‘Anything wrong?’ her mother asked gently.

‘Er—no. No, nothing is wrong,’ she managed a casual shrug. ‘I was a bit delayed getting back from Mr Howarth’s because I—I offered to get him his supper. He’s a bit helpless around a cooker.’

‘So I noticed, by the food he ordered. Everything out of a tin or packet.’ Her mother shook her head. ‘It wouldn’t do for your father.’

Robyn felt sure it didn’t really ‘do’ for Rick either. There was an air about him, a feeling that he usually demanded and received perfection in everything. Oh, she Wished she knew what the mystery was surrounding him!

They were particularly busy at the library the next day, this being the day for the local market, something guaranteed to bring more people into town, and consequently into the library. Robyn was on the check-out desk, stamping the books and taking in the cards, finding herself with a constant stream of people, so she was quite relieved when morning coffee-break came round, less pleased when she saw it was Selma and another girl in the staff-room.

‘Did he come round last night?’ Selma asked instantly.

Robyn wished, and not for the first time, that the other girl wouldn’t take quite such an interest in her love-life. By all accounts Selma had enough trouble keeping up with her own stormy relationships, apparently having found herself yet another boy-friend. Besides, Robyn was conscious of Joan’s interest in this conversation.

‘No, he didn’t,’ she replied stiffly, pouring herself a cup of coffee.

Selma shrugged dismissively. ‘Find yourself another one.’

She wished it were as simple as that. She just couldn’t get Rick Howarth out of her mind. He said he had to get back to civilisation—did that mean he would be leaving today, have disappeared from Sanford as suddenly as he had appeared? She knew she didn’t want him to do that, knew that for all her antagonism towards him she found him fascinating.

Things were still hectic after her break, and Mr Leaven took her off the front desk and put her on to tidying the non-fiction shelves. After Monday he seemed reluctant to allow her anywhere near the fiction section. He knew very well the medical section wouldn’t interest her at all, especially when she dropped one of the huge volumes on her toe.

She swore loudly, receiving a reproving look from Mr Leaven as she picked up the book, muttering to herself as she replaced it on the top shelf.

‘What did you say?’ Selma stood behind her, eyeing her flushed face curiously.

‘I said damn Oliver Pendleton. He wrote this book,’ she explained. ‘And I just crushed my toe with it.’

Selma tutted. ‘Never mind that now. He’s here,’ she announced triumphantly.

Robyn frowned. ‘Oliver Pendleton?’ she asked in a puzzled voice.

‘No, silly,’ the other girl sighed her impatience. ‘Your boy-friend, he’s here.’

‘Boy-friend?’ She gulped. ‘You mean—–’

‘Yes!’ Selma pulled her along beside her. ‘He just came to the enquiries desk,’ she appeared not to notice Robyn’s reluctance to follow her. ‘As soon as he said his name I knew who he was.’

Yes, it really was him. Standing authoritatively by the main desk, an air of detachment about him, was Rick Howarth.

.

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