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Wildest Dreams

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«Wildest Dreams» - Кэрол Мортимер

Holding out for a hero… Arabella adored the bestselling tales about Palfrey.No man she'd met in real life could quite match up to the gallant fictional hero! But she knew nothing about the author of the Palfrey stories: the man guarded his real identity fiercely. Until Hollywood made a bid to film his books and it was up to Arabella to track him down.One surprise was that Robert Lawrence turned out to be just as devilishly handsome as his character, and Arabella could have fallen for him at once! Another was that she realized Robert was someone about whom she already knew quite a lot. At best, this man of her dreams could only ever want an affair… .
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About the Author Books by Carole Mortimer Title Page CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER TWO CHAPTER THREE CHAPTER FOUR CHAPTER FIVE CHAPTER SIX CHAPTER SEVEN CHAPTER EIGHT CHAPTER NINE CHAPTER TEN Teaser chapter Copyright

“I need to go to bed.”

“If that’s an invitation, it lacks finesse,” he drawled derisively. He was close. Much too close! “But what it lacks in finesse is more than made up for by honesty,” he added softly.

“I—you—I didn’t mean I needed to go to bed with you!” Surely she hadn’t given herself away so completely?

CAROLE MORTIMER says: “I was born in England, the youngest of three children—I have two elder brothers. I started writing in 1978, and have now written more than ninety books for Harlequin Mills & Boon.

“I have four sons: Matthew, Joshua, Timothy and Peter, and a bearded collie dog called Merlyn. I’m in a very happy relationship with Peter Sr.; we’re best friends as well as lovers, which is probably the best recipe for a successful relationship. We live on the Isle of Man.”

Books by Carole Mortimer

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Wildest Dreams

Carole Mortimer



www.millsandboon.co.uk

CHAPTER ONE

ARABELLA stared at the huge double gates that led up to the house beyond. Forty-eight hours ago she had thought this visit impossible. But as she continued to look down the long driveway she knew that not only was it possible, it was imperative, if she was to salvage any relationship with Merlin at all. Despite what her father and Stephen had done to damage that relationship, she knew she had to do what she could. She still cringed when she recalled the conversation she had overheard between the two men two days ago.

‘What do you mean, the man wouldn’t even listen to you? You must have—’

‘I’ve told you, Father,’ Stephen had cut in exasperatedly. ‘I didn’t even get in the front gates of the damned house. There were two huge dogs—’

‘Stephen! Father!’ Arabella had admonished breathlessly as she’d reached the open doorway, entering the room before closing the door behind her. T could hear the two of you arguing all the way down the corridor in my own office.

’ She looked at both of them with questioning blue eyes. ‘What on earth is going on?’

Her father’s face was flushed, and she guessed that wasn’t only due to his undoubted anger; it was three-thirty in the afternoon, and he enjoyed nothing more than a leisurely lunch accompanied by a liberal imbibing of his favourite wine. In fact, it was surprising he was back in his office at all just yet...

As for her brother, Stephen, he certainly wasn’t supposed to be here, her father having sent him away on business yesterday, expecting him to be away for several days. Although, from the little she had heard of their heated conversation, it was Stephen’s lack of success on his trip that had triggered the argument between father and son.

Her father sat down behind his imposing oak desk, sitting forward to rest his elbows on the green leather top. He was still a handsome man in his mid-fifties, with only a distinguished sprinkling of grey at his temples amongst his dark hair.

His eyes were icy grey now as he looked across the room at his only son. ‘Your brother has the answer to that,’ he dismissed contemptuously.

Stephen’s youthful face flushed resentfully. ‘I told you it wasn’t my fault, that—’

‘“Give him more responsibility,” you said,’ her father accused impatiently. ‘“Let him show you what he can do,”’ he added scathingly. ‘And what happens the first time I try to put that advice into practice?’ He slapped his hand down flat on the leather desktop with resounding finality. ‘He’s sent away with a flea in his ear, that’s what happens, just as if he were some door-to-door salesman!’ He gave a disgusted shake of his head. ‘It’s not good enough, Arabella. You and I both know—’

‘Let’s all just calm down and discuss the problem sensibly,’ she cut in soothingly, her suggestion of calming down aimed at the two men; she was her usual unruffled self. She wasn’t absolutely sure that the problem under discussion was necessarily her brother’s fault; their father had a way of presenting him with impossibilities.

‘Stephen?’ She prompted him to sit down in the chair facing their father’s desk.

An action he chose to rebel against, deciding to sit in the leather armchair at the back of the room, a mutinous expression on his boyishly handsome face; his hair was as dark as their father’s, and his eyes were normally a warm blue, like Arabella’s own. Normally because, at this moment, Stephen’s were stormy with rebellion.

Arabella sighed as she contemplated the two stubborn, arrogant faces, sitting down in the chair opposite her father herself. She loved these two men enormously, but she had to concede that, despite the thirtyyear difference in their ages, they very often behaved as childishly as each other. She was often called in as arbitrator between the two, her father impatient with Stephen’s impetuous youthfulness, Stephen considering their father old and set in his ways, with a code for business that smacked of the Victorian.

Stephen might have been right in that last accusation, but as owner of a prestigious publishing company that had been in the family for almost a hundred years her father’s old-fashioned values made Atherton Publishing what it was. Up here, on the third floor of the building that housed the company, far removed from the rush and bustle of the editorial department of the two lower floors, time seemed to stand still; the furnishings in this office, as in all the executive offices on this floor, looked as if they had come straight out of Victoria’s reign.

Which was just the way her father liked it. Arabella too, if she were honest. It was only twenty-five-year-old Stephen who found it all claustrophobic, having left university three years before with a degree under his belt and a lot of new ideas to pull Atherton Publishing into the twentieth century, kicking and screaming if necessary.

Their father’s answer to that had been to put Stephen where he could do the least harm: the poor boy had been bogged down for the last three years with the acquisition and distribution of textbooks for schools. It was because Arabella couldn’t bear to watch her young brother going quietly insane that she had encouraged her father to give him something more interesting to do. It had taken months of gentle persuasion on her part to get her father to agree, and, from what she had gathered so far from the conversation between the two men, it had not been a successful endeavour.

‘Now, exactly what happened?’ she prompted her brother soothingly, having great affection for her sibling, although she often felt that her two years’ seniority in age was more like twenty! That was probably due to the fact that their mother had died fifteen years ago, leaving Arabella, at only twelve, to become the mother of the family, a role she had taken over all too successfully, if her father and brother’s dependence on her were anything to go by.

Stephen’s expression lost some of its sulkiness as he looked at her. ‘Well, I did as Father asked, and went to see this Merlin chap—’

‘Father, no!’ She couldn’t hide her shocked outrage. The author they all knew only as Merlin was well-known for being one of their most uncooperative, and appeared to be a recluse into the bargain. To have sent Stephen to see him was not only unfair, it was ridiculous. Besides, Merlin was one of her authors... ‘Did you send Stephen to talk to him about the film rights to one of his books?’ she challenged tensely.

Her father looked a little uncomfortable now, knowing by the glitter in Arabella’s deep blue eyes, behind the glasses she habitually wore, that her own temper was beginning to manifest itself. ‘You were the one who said Stephen needed to prove himself—’

‘But not with Merlin!’ She stood up, too agitated to remain seated any longer.

Stephen had been to see Merlin, a man she had been wanting to meet for years, a man who steadfastly refused to agree to such a meeting...!

‘Why didn’t you tell me where Stephen had gone?’ she demanded of her father—although she already knew the answer to that; her father hadn’t told her where he had sent Stephen because he had known that if he had, she would have vehemently objected to Stephen going anywhere near ‘her’ author. All the editors had assigned authors, and Arabella was no exception, although her number was kept to a dozen or so. But Merlin was one of them.

.. ‘If anyone was to go and see Merlin, then it should have been me,’ she told her father indignantly.

His handsome face creased into a pained expression. ‘I’m beginning to agree with you,’ he said harshly, shooting another scathing glance at his son.

Arabella knew this wasn’t strictly true, that her father was merely hitting out at Stephen again. Because, much as her father valued her, it was as his hostess, the woman who ran his house and social life with such efficiency, rather than as a professional colleague. Oh, she worked at the family company, had an office of her own on this very same floor that was almost as plush as her father’s. Nevertheless she had always known her place here was viewed with a certain amount of paternal indulgence, that her father didn’t really believe the world of business, especially the cut-throat one that publishing had become in recent years, was the place for a woman—especially a woman as delicate as he preferred to think of Arabella as being.

His view was old-fashioned to say the least, but then, up here in this office, a room that didn’t seem to have changed much since her great-grandfather’s time, it was easy to see why her father felt that the world of business was strictly for men. Wasn’t the fact that her father had sent Stephen to see Merlin proof of that?

She was well aware, no matter what her father was now saying to the contrary, that he didn’t believe she should have gone to see Merlin; it had merely been another test for Stephen, one that her brother seemed to have failed. The fact that it had been completely against protocol for Stephen to go to see one of her authors had nothing to do with her father’s regret. And she knew it didn’t have anything to do with Stephen’s either. Her brother, unfortunately, had been brought up in his father’s image, and that was primarily to believe a woman’s place was in the home, keeping a man’s life running smoothly and with as little discomfort as possible.

Arabella had been the one deemed indispensable at home when the time had come for her to go to university nine years ago. The carrot of an office of her own at Atherton Publishing had been merely a sop to keep her living at home. She remembered how pleased she had felt at the time that her father thought her responsible enough for such a position in the company. She should have known better! Within a matter of days it had become obvious to her that the office, and position as assistant editor, was merely an indulgent pat on the head from her father, and that he rarely expected her to be there, usually only during the times when it didn’t inconvenience the smooth running of his own life.

No wonder her father had never remarried, she realised now; she had made life altogether too comfortable for him since her mother died for him to need to bother with the permanence of marrying one of the women he had been discreetly involved with over the last fifteen years!

But for the main part she had been aware of what her father was doing and hadn’t particularly let it bother her, because in her own quietly stubborn way she had made her mark on Atherton Publishing, and now had several successful authors to her personal credit.

Merlin was one of them, a chance discovery from an unsolicited manuscript submitted five years ago. Merlin—he had refused from the beginning to be known under any other name!—had written a swashbuckling tale of a secret agent working for the English during the Napoleonic wars. Not only was this one of Arabella’s favourite periods of history—hence the reason she had been given the manuscript in the first place—but it was also, she’d realised from the very first page, a tale well written: its hero, a Major Palfrey, was a devilishly handsome man who struck a man through with his sword and swept women off their feet into his more than accomplished arms with the same ease, while at the same time allowing neither incident to deter him from his real cause—to aid England.

It was all a Boys’ Own adventure, Arabella had freely admitted to her father, but, at the same time, the book was so well written it was a pleasure to read; the historical facts, so easily intertwined with the main story, were unquestionably correct.

In fact, Merlin’s books were a joy to edit. He had submitted a manuscript a year since that very first one five years ago, all with the same hero, Palfrey. A hero, if Arabella was completely honest, with whom she was half in love...

Robert Palfrey, the gentleman hero of an age long gone, was tall, with over-long blond hair, wicked blue eyes, and a lithe body that he seemed to use to full advantage, whether he was killing the enemy or caressing a beautiful woman. Arabella hadn’t been in the least surprised when a Hollywood film company had approached Atherton’s several months ago with the idea of putting Robert Palfrey on the big screen. There had been a most successful television series only last year with a similar main character, and the film company had obviously looked around for their own hero to try and cash in on this wave of nostalgia. The Palfrey books were an excellent choice.

Unfortunately, so far, Arabella hadn’t been able to convince the author of that. In fact, the two letters she had written to him on the subject had remained unanswered.

Although that was probably an answer in itself. From the acceptance of his first manuscript five years ago, Merlin himself had proved elusive, refusing to come up to London from his home in the south of England to talk with them in person, while at the same time refusing all advances from them to go to his home and speak with him there.

Reclusive hardly began to describe the man, and in five years none of them had ever found out anything about him other than that his name was Merlin; the negotiations over his contract were all done by mail, and always directly with the author himself, the man refusing to employ an agent to act on his behalf. Not that there was ever too much negotiation involved with Merlin; the monies paid were agreeable to both parties.

It was only the use of the single name, Merlin, that had caused some dispute. But the author was adamant, and in the end Arabella had managed to convince her father that this only added to the man’s mystique, and therefore to sales of his books. And that could only be good for all of them.

But over the years Arabella had built up a picture in her own mind as to what their author looked like: an irascible old man, with over-long grey hair, a ruggedly tanned face and a wiry body-with a temperament to match the stubbornness he had shown in abundance over the years.

But despite his bad-temperedness Arabella had always thought of him affectionately, a bit like a long-distance grandfather-figure. Having dealt with him personally over the last five years, albeit by mail only—his telephone number was always omitted from his own correspondence—she now deeply resented her father’s decision to send Stephen instead of herself to see the man.

‘You misunderstood me, Father,’ she told him stiltedly as she stood up stiffly. ‘By my remark, I meant you had no right sending Stephen to see one of my authors without my permission.’ She looked at him challengingly with steady blue eyes behind tortoiseshell glasses; she was a tall woman with a delicate stature, her fiery red hair which she had inherited from her mother secured back in its usual restrictive bun at her nape, her features striking rather than beautiful. At the moment, her small, pointed chin was set at a determined angle.

‘Don’t go getting on your high horse, Arabella.’ Her father sighed impatiently as he saw the angry glitter in her eyes. ‘It sounds as if we have enough problems with Stephen being forcibly ejected from this fellow’s place, without—’

‘Merlin was perfectly within his rights to throw Stephen out,’ she said in defence of the author, noting the way her brother winced as he was once again reminded of his humiliating experience. ‘Merlin doesn’t even know Stephen—’

‘He’s my son, damn it!’ Her father bridled indignantly.

‘And who are you to Merlin, either?’ she prompted impatiently.

Her father drew himself up to his full height in the high-backed leather chair. ‘I own this publishing company!’

She shook her head. ‘That wasn’t what I meant, and you know it. For the last five years Merlin has been dealing exclusively with A. Atherton—’

‘For the last five years the man has been a damned nuisance,’ her father interrupted irritably. ‘He is without doubt the most difficult author we have ever had to-deal with, a hermit to the point of being invisible. In fact, I’ve a good mind to—’

‘For the last five years Merlin’s books have probably been the mainstay of this company.’ Arabella quietly cut in on her father’s bluster, sure he was going to come out with a totally nonsensical statement about dropping Merlin from their list.

It was nonsensical even to think along those lines; without Merlin they probably wouldn’t have a list at all. Oh, they had other, less successful authors, lots of them, but the Palfrey books had been worldwide bestsellers from the very beginning, and they had remained so.

Even to consider telling an author of that magnitude to find a new publisher simply because he didn’t fit in with her father’s old-fashioned belief that it was the publisher who mattered and not its writers would be financial suicide at this particular time in the publishing business. Especially with a film contract in the offing. Her father’s idea of publishing was about twenty years out of date, and she somehow doubted he would ever catch up.

‘There are other authors—’

‘Not as good, and you know it,’ she said wearily. ‘I wish you had told me what the two of you were doing,’ she added with a heartfelt sigh. ‘I could have predicted the outcome!’

One thing about which Merlin had been consistent in the last five years was his desire for absolute privacy. Stephen’s just arriving at his home like that, from Atherton Publishing or otherwise, would not have gone down well at all. In fact, they would be lucky if Merlin didn’t tell them he was changing publisher! And that would be disastrous.

She sighed again. ‘Someone will have to go down and soothe the poor man’s indignant feelings—’

‘I’m not going!’ Stephen instantly protested, a look of horror on his face, and appearing so much like their father at that moment. ‘The man isn’t sane.’

‘Well, I’m certainly not getting personally involved in this,’ their father dismissed arrogantly. ‘I’ve always thought the man was odd, tolerable only because he’s so successful.’

They both turned expectantly to Arabella. Something else- she could have predicted. They were so much alike, these two men, with no foresight to speak of; over the years the two of them had come to expect Arabella to be capable of bailing them out of any difficulties they might have dug themselves into. The problem was, she had always managed to do it, too. Although they might just have gone too far this time!

‘I’ll write him a letter—’

‘Do you think that will be enough?’ Stephen frowned. ‘I—er—I’m afraid I was slightly—vocal, before I left his premises.’ He looked uncomfortable now, ‘In fact, I may have implied something to the effect of what Father said just now.’ He grimaced self-consciously at Arabella’s censorious look. ‘He was just so damned rude, Arabella,’ he said defensively. ‘I couldn’t let him talk to me that way.’

No, of course he couldn’t; he was Stephen Atherton, son of Martin Atherton. God, when would these two learn that the days of champagne parties had passed, that it was the authors that mattered nowadays, for without them there wouldn’t be the money to pay for the way her father and Stephen liked to live? It was as well there was one practical member of this family. Although salvaging something out of this mess was going to strain even her efforts at tact and diplomacy!

She shook her head. ‘I’ll send a letter, but I intend following it up with a visit of my own,’ she decided firmly. ‘I’ll do the first today,’ she added decisively, ‘before Merlin can come at us with all guns blazing after your cavalier attitude.’ With an impatient look at the pair of them, she left the room to return to her own office, intent on writing that letter right away, determined to get it in the post this evening.

Although what she was supposed to say by way of an excuse for her brother’s behaviour she wasn’t exactly sure. In the end she decided that whatever she said in the letter was sure to be wrong, so she kept it simple, merely informing Merlin that she would be calling on him herself two days hence, unless otherwise notified by him. She knew that the only way Merlin could be sure of reaching her in time to put off the appointment would be to telephone her office, and as the two of them had never so much as spoken on the phone in the last five years she somehow didn’t think there was much likelihood of him making that call.

And he didn’t. Probably he just intended waiting until she arrived at his home so that he could throw her out too!

But, after the mess her brother and father had made of things, she didn’t have too many options left. Besides...she had to admit she was secretly rather curious about Merlin herself. And maybe, just maybe, he would be gentleman enough, like his character Palfrey, not to use brute force on a woman...

She had been intrigued by the character of Palfrey from the first, probably too much so, because over the years he had become the yardstick by which she judged the men who occasionally tried to enter her life. They were invariably found wanting. Oh, she wasn’t silly enough to believe the interest of those men was solely in her, anyway; the Atherton publishing company, and the wealth that went along with it, was a natural draw for any ambitious young man, the spinster daughter of the family an obvious catch.

But Arabella had her own ideas about the man she wanted to spend her life with—unfortunately he had lived almost two hundred years ago, and was entirely fictitious, as he existed only between the pages of a book and in the imagination of the man she was hopefully about to meet.

The thought of never again receiving a Merlin manuscript, or losing herself in the life of Robert Palfrey, was enough to harden her resolve to talk to Merlin herself. As far as she was concerned, he could dismiss the idea of a film about his character, as long as he continued to submit those manuscripts about the man with whom she was half in love...

And now here she was, sitting at the bottom of Merlin’s driveway, Stephen having given her instructions on how to find the house once she reached the village near which it was situated. In fact, Stephen had been falling over himself to be helpful for the last forty-eight hours, obviously aware he had made a complete hash of his own visit, and anxious to try and make amends.

As she had expected, there had been no telephone call from Merlin in response to her letter, and so she had made her own arrangements to drive down to see him, at the same time hoping she wouldn’t have to book into a local hotel for the night; what she really hoped was that she wouldn’t be physically ejected from his home, as Stephen had been two days ago.

‘Watch out for the two large German shepherd dogs when you get to the gates,’ had been Stephen’s final warning when she had left the house this morning.

She could see now exactly what he meant by ‘large’!

They must be two of the biggest of their breed Arabella had ever seen, with almost identical black and brown coats which seemed to imply some sort of relationship between them. But it wasn’t their size, or their loud barks, that kept her firmly enclosed inside her car. It was the fact that they weren’t behind the tall gates at all, but leaping up and down outside her car window, the two gates at the entrance of the house having been left open, and so allowing the two dogs their freedom.

Obviously Merlin had been expecting her, she decided ruefully as she watched the two huge beasts slavering on the other side of her car door.

They didn’t give any indication of stopping their cacophony of noise. Or of going away. She had a feeling that if she tried to back out onto the road the dogs would follow her, possibly go under the wheels of her car. And, much as she found their behaviour irritating, she didn’t want to injure either of them. To drive down the driveway would probably produce the same reaction. Or worse! Which left her with a dilemma: what should she do now?

She had seen a film once in which the leading character had confronted some dogs on their own territory and thereby succeeded in totally disarming them, throwing them into confusion. After all, dogs of this size would be more used to people running away from them than going towards them. It had worked in the film, anyway...!

But this was real life, and both dogs looked to have large teeth and wide jaws, the former, she would imagine, able to do great damage to soft human skin in a matter of seconds. But, by the same token, she couldn’t sit here all day just looking at the beasts, and they certainly didn’t look as if they were tiring of the game!

Taking a deep breath, she took the bull by the horns—or rather, she challenged the two dogs. She didn’t get out of the car slowly or apprehensively but simply thrust open the door, and two seconds later she was standing on the gravelled driveway confronting the animals.

If the situation hadn’t been so fraught with tension, the look on their faces might have been laughable; the two huge beasts dropped back several feet in surprise, although their barking continued intermittently. But, as Arabella continued to stare at them, even that died down, and after several minutes they viewed her with what she could only describe as puzzlement. If dogs could look surprised! These two certainly did.

‘Where’s all the noise gone now, then?’ She spoke to them derisively, although inwardly she was mightily relieved still to be in one piece. ‘Now, are you going to take me to your master, or do I have to find him myself?’

The dogs continued to look at her quizzically, obviously wondering what she was saying, but seeming to accept, for the moment, that she spoke with a certain amount of authority. Although quite what she should do next she wasn’t sure. Would the dogs continue to keep their distance if she made an attempt to walk down the driveway? After all, at the moment she wasn’t quite inside the property; maybe the two of them would decide to become protective again if she took a step in the direction of the house?

Well, she could hardly stand here all day hoping someone would come along and rescue her, or that the dogs wouldn’t attack. In the circumstances she decided to risk it. The worst they could do was tear her limb from limb.

What a cheery little thought!

She began to walk, the dogs trotting along behind her down the driveway, seeming confused after her audacity in daring to challenge their authority. Which was what she had hoped for.

It was a longer walk than she had thought, though, and as she finally approached the house the two dogs were walking one at either side of her, like escorts, although, to give them their due, they hadn’t made any threatening moves.

Arabella could hear the sound of male voices as she neared the house, which became even louder as she turned the last corner.

She came to a gasping halt as she rounded that last bend and saw the house, not impressed by the building itself, but by the two men in the garden outside. Merlin was exactly as she had always imagined him, seated on a low veranda overlooking the garden: a wizened old man well into his sixties, his hair long and grey, skin weathered brown by the many seasons he had seen in his lifetime. Although she had omitted his raggedy beard in her imaginings, a beard as grey and unkempt as his hair.

But it wasn’t Merlin who made her gasp, it was the younger man working in the garden below hint—a tall man with over-long blond hair, the muscles of his shirtless golden-brown torso rippling as he struggled with the roots of a tree stump that seemed to be proving stubborn. His only clothing, as far as she could see, was a pair of faded denims that rested low down on his hips.

As he became aware of her presence in the driveway he slowly straightened, looking at her with a pair of the deepest blue eyes Arabella had ever seen in her life, and she found herself face to face with the man she was already half in love with. A man straight out of the pages of Merlin’s books. Obviously not a complete figment of his imagination, either.

Robert Palfrey was Merlin’s gardener!

.

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