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Authors: Helen Brooks

Christmas at His Command

BOOK: Christmas at His Command
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“It was just a kiss.”

Flynn raked a hand through his dark hair as he continued, “Between two consenting adults, I might add. Now, if we'd ended up in bed I might be able to understand you feeling slightly…maneuvered.”

“I barely know you,” Marigold snapped.

Dark eyebrows rose mockingly. “Flynn Moreau, single and of sound mind,” he offered lazily. “Anything else you'd deem important?”

“Plenty.”

“Then we'll have to see to that,” he said very softly.

He was
interested
in her? A man like him—successful, wealthy, charismatic and powerful? She couldn't quite believe it….

HELEN BROOKS
lives in Nothamptonshire, England, and is married with three children. As she is a committed Christian, busy housewife and mother, her spare time is at a premium, but her interests include reading, swimming, gardening and walking her two energetic, inquisitive and very endearing young dogs. Her long-cherished aspiration to write became a reality when she put pen to paper on reaching the age of forty, and sent the result off to Mills and Boon.

Look out for Helen Brooks's next book, written especially for the Harlequin Presents
®
9 to 5 miniseries.
Sleeping Partners
is on sale early next year.

Books by Helen Brooks

HARLEQUIN PRESENTS
®

2213—A SPANISH AFFAIR

2255—THE GREEK TYCOON'S BRIDE

Helen Brooks
CHRISTMAS AT HIS COMMAND

CHAPTER ONE

‘O
H, NO
,
please,
please
don't do this to me.' Marigold shut her eyes, thick dark lashes falling briefly on honey-smooth skin before she raised them again to glare at the dashboard in front of her. ‘What are you doing to me, Myrtle? We're miles from anywhere and the weather's foul. You can't have a tantrum now. I didn't mean it a mile or two back when I called you crabby.'

The ancient little car didn't reply by so much as a cough or a splutter, but Marigold suspected there was a distinctly smug air of ‘You should think before you speak' to Myrtle's demeanour as the car's four wheels settled themselves more comfortably into the two inches of snow coating the road in front of them. The old engine had been hiccuping for the last half an hour or so before dying completely.

Great. Just great. Marigold peered out into the driving snow that was already coating the windscreen now the wipers had ceased their labouring. In another hour it would be dark, and here she was, stuck in the middle of nowhere and with what looked like a very cold walk in front of her. She couldn't stay in the car—she'd freeze to death out here if no one came along—and for the last little while there hadn't been sight of a house or any dwelling place on the road.

She reached out and unhooked the piece of paper with the directions to Sugar Cottage off the dashboard, wondering if she had taken a wrong turning somewhere. But she hadn't, she assured herself in the next moment. She
knew she hadn't. And Emma had warned her the cottage was remote, but that had been exactly what she wanted. It still was, if only she could get to the flipping place!

She studied the directions again, frowning slightly as she concentrated on working out how far she still had to go along the country track, her fine curved brows drawing together over eyes which were of a vivid violet-blue. The last building had been that ‘olde-worlde' thatched pub she'd passed about ten miles back, and then she'd driven on for—she consulted the directions again—probably another mile or two before turning off the main road into a country lane. And then it had been just a rough track for the last few miles. Perhaps it wasn't so far now to Sugar Cottage? Whatever, she had no choice but to start walking.

She allowed herself one last heartfelt sigh before turning and surveying the laden back seat. Right. Her wellington boots were in her old university knapsack along with an all-enveloping cagoule that nearly came down to her toes! She had packed her torch in there too after Emma had emphasised umpteen times how isolated and off the beaten track the cottage was. Mind you, Emma had been more concerned about the electricity failing—a common occurrence in winter apparently—or Marigold having to dig her way to the car from the front door. They'd both assumed she'd actually
reach
the cottage before any dramas reared their heads.

There was a large manor house across the other side of the valley, Emma had said, but basically the small cottage in Shropshire she had inherited from her grandmother in the spring was secluded enough for one to feel insulated from the outside world.

And right now, Marigold told herself firmly as she struggled into her thick, warm fleece before pulling on
the cagoule, that was worth braving a snowstorm for. No telephone and no TV, Emma had continued when she'd offered Marigold the use of the cottage over Christmas—her grandmother had refused to allow any such suspect modern inventions over the threshold! And the old lady had baked all her own bread, kept chickens and a cow in the paddock next to the house, and after her husband died had remained by herself in her home until passing away peacefully in her sleep aged ninety-two. Marigold thought she'd have liked to meet Emma's grandmother.

The cagoule and wellington boots on, Marigold quickly repacked the knapsack with a few necessary provisions from the bags of groceries piled high on the front passenger seat. She would have to leave her suitcase and everything else for now, she decided regretfully. If she could just reach the cottage tonight she'd sort everything out tomorrow somehow. Of course, it would have helped if she hadn't left her mobile phone in the flat back in London, but she'd been three-quarters of the way here when she'd remembered it was still sitting by her bed at home and it had been far too late then to go back for it.

The last thing she did before leaving the warm sanctuary of Myrtle's metal bosom was to stuff the directions to Sugar Cottage in her cagoule pocket. Then she climbed out of the car, locked the door and squared her shoulders.

Finding the cottage in a snowstorm was nothing, not after what she'd been through in the last few months, she told herself stoutly. And if nothing else it would be a different sort of Christmas, certainly different to the one she'd had planned with Dean. No doubt right now he and Tamara were sunning themselves on the Caribbean beach
she'd
chosen out of the glossy travel brochures they'd pored over for hours when they'd still
been together. She couldn't believe he was actually taking Tamara on the holiday which was to have been their honeymoon. On top of all the lies and deceit, that had been the ultimate betrayal, and when one of their mutual friends—awkward and embarrassed—had tipped her the wink about it she'd felt like going straight round to Dean's flat and socking him on the jaw.

She hadn't, of course. No, she had maintained the aloof, dignified silence she'd adopted since that first white-hot outburst when she'd found out about the other woman and told Dean what a low-down, slimy, no-good creep he was as she'd thrown her engagement ring in his blustering face.

The familiar welling of tears made itself felt deep in her chest and she gritted her teeth resolutely. No more crying. No more wailing after what was dead and finished. She had made herself that promise a couple of weeks ago and she'd die before she went back on it. She wanted nothing to do with the opposite sex for the foreseeable future, and if this cottage was really as far away in the backwoods as Emma had suggested she might just make her an offer for it now. Emma had confided she was thinking of putting it on the market in the new year.

Marigold began walking, hardly aware of the snowflakes swimming about her as her thoughts sped on. She'd been thinking for some time, ever since the split with Dean at the end of the summer, in fact, that she needed a complete change of direction and lifestyle.

She had been born and bred in London, gone to university there, where she'd started dating Dean in the last year of her art and design degree, and after her course ended had found a well-paid job in a small firm specialising in graphic design. She had worked mainly on posters and similar projects to start with, but when the
firm had decided to diversify into all manner of greetings cards her extensive portfolio of work—accumulated throughout her training years—had come into its own, and she had found herself in the happy position of working solely on the new venture. Dean had proposed about the same time—twelve months ago now—and she had thought her future was all set. Until Tamara Jaimeson came on the scene.

‘Ow!' As though the thought of the other girl had conjured up an evil genie, Marigold suddenly found herself falling full length as her foot caught in what was obviously a pothole in the rough road. The snow cushioned her landing to a certain extent but when she tried to stand again she found she'd wrenched her ankle enough to make her grimace with pain, and now all thoughts of a remote little studio, somewhere where she could freelance both to her present firm—who had already expressed interest in such a proposition—and others, couldn't have been further from Marigold's mind.

She could only have been limping along for ten minutes before she heard the magical sound of a car's engine behind her, but it had seemed like ten hours, such was the pain in her foot.

It was still quite light but she dug into her knapsack and brought out the torch nevertheless, moving to the edge of the road by the snow-covered hedgerow. She couldn't risk the driver of the approaching vehicle missing her in the atrocious weather conditions.

The massive 4x4 was cutting through the snow with an imperious regality which highlighted its noble birth and also underlined poor Myrtle's less exalted beginnings, but the driver had already seen her and was slowing down, even before she switched on the torch and waved it frantically.

‘Oh, thank you, thank you.' She almost went headlong again as she stumbled over to the open window on the driver's side. ‘My car's broken down and I don't know how far I've got to go, and I fell over and I've twisted my ankle—'

‘OK, slow down, slow down.'

It wasn't so much the cold, impatient tone of his voice which stopped Marigold in full flow, but her first sight of the big dark man sitting behind the steering wheel. He was handsome in a rather tough, rugged way, but it was the cool grey eyes which could have been formed in a block of hard granite that caused her to be momentarily lost for words.

‘I take it that's your car back there, which means you could only be making for Sugar Cottage.'

‘Does it?' Marigold stared at him stupidly. ‘Why?'

‘Because it's the only other house in the valley apart from mine,' he replied—obviously, Marigold's mind emphasised a second too late.

‘So you must be Emma Jones; Maggie's granddaughter,' the chilly voice continued flatly. ‘I—'

‘I understand you came once before to look over the cottage when I was abroad. I was sorry to have missed you then.'

The words themselves could have been friendly, however, the tone in which they were spoken made them anything but, and Marigold blinked at the quiet enmity coming her way.

‘I promised myself after that occasion that if I ever had the chance to give you a piece of my mind, I would,' he said with soft venom.

‘Look, Mr…?'

‘Moreau,' he provided icily.

‘Look, Mr Moreau, I think I ought to explain—'

‘Explain?'

Marigold had heard of incidents where one person could freeze another into silence and she hadn't actually experienced it until now, but in the last moment or two he had shifted slightly in his seat and now the grey eyes had taken on a silver hue which turned them into two flares of cold white light.

‘Explain what?' he continued curtly. ‘The reason why not one of your family, you included, saw fit to visit an old lady in the last twelve months before her death? The odd letter or two, the occasional phone call to the village shop that delivered her groceries every week was supposed to suffice, was it? Messages delivered secondhand can't compare to flesh and blood reality, Miss Jones. Oh, I know she could be difficult, recalcitrant and obstinate to a point where you could cheerfully have strangled her, but didn't any of you understand the fierce plea for independence and the pride behind it? She was an old lady, for crying out loud. Ninety-two years old! Didn't
any
of you have the imagination and the sensitivity to realise that behind her awkwardness and perversity she was crying out to be told she was still loved and wanted for the woman she was?'

‘Mr Moreau—'

‘But it was simpler and easier to write her off as bigoted and impossible,' he bit out savagely. ‘That way you could all get on with your nice, orderly lives with your consciences clean and unsmirched.'

Anger was beginning to surface inside Marigold, not least because of this man's arrogant refusal to allow her to get a word in edgeways. He had clearly been seething about what he saw as the neglect of Emma's family towards the old lady for a long time, but he wasn't giving
her a chance to explain who she was or what she was doing here!

‘You don't understand. I'm not—'

‘Responsible?' Again he cut her off, his eyes like polished crystal. ‘That's too easy a get-out clause, Miss Jones. It might suit you to give out the air of helpless femininity in the present situation in which you find yourself, but it doesn't fool me. Not for a second! And while you are considering how much you can make on selling your grandmother's home—a home she fought tooth and nail to keep going, I might add—you could consider the blood, sweat and tears that went into her remaining here all her life. And there were tears, don't fool yourself about that. And caused by you and the rest of your miserable family.'

‘You have absolutely no right to talk to me like this.' Marigold was at the point of hitting him.

‘No?' His voice was softer now but curiously more deep and disturbing than its previous harsh tone. ‘So you aren't looking to sell the old lady's pride and joy, then? The home she fought so hard to keep?'

Marigold opened her mouth to fire back a rejoinder but then, in the next instant, it dawned on her that that was exactly what Emma was planning to do and for a moment the realisation floored her.

‘I thought so.' She was at the receiving end of that deadly stare again. ‘How someone like you can have the same blood as that courageous old lady flowing through their veins beats me, I tell you straight. You and the rest of your family aren't worthy to lick her boots.'

Marigold stared at him through the snowflakes that had settled on her eyelashes. She was about to tell him she
didn't
have the same blood, that she was in fact no relation at all to Emma's grandmother, when the hot rage
which was bubbling checked her words. Let him think what he liked, the arrogant swine! She would rather struggle on all night than ask him for help or explain he'd got it all wrong. The man was a bully, whatever the facts behind all he had said. He knew she'd had to abandon her car and that she had hurt herself, yet he'd still been determined to browbeat her and have his say. Well, he could take a running jump! She wasn't going to explain a thing and he could drive off in his nice warm car, knowing that he had had his pound of flesh. The rotten, stinking—

‘Lost for words, Miss Jones?' he enquired softly, the tone of his voice making the icy air around Marigold strike warm.

BOOK: Christmas at His Command
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