include_once("common_lab_header.php");
Excerpt for His Best Mistake by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

His Best Mistake

A Maclean Family Legacy Romance

Lucy King

 

 

His Best Mistake

Copyright © 2018 Lucy King

Smashwords Edition

The Tule Publishing Group, LLC

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

ISBN: 978-1-948342-09-4

Keep Up with your Favorite Authors and their New Releases

For the latest news from Tule Publishing authors, sign up for our newsletter here or check out our website at TulePublishing.com

Stay social! For new release updates, behind-the-scenes sneak peeks, and reader giveaways:

Like us on

Follow us on

Follow us on

See you online!

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Epilogue

The Maclean Family Legacy Series

Excerpt from Her Forbidden Warrior

About the Author

Chapter One

There. She was done.

Sticking her brush into the jar of murky water that stood on a table beside the easel Stella Grant took a step back from the painting she’d been working on. She cast a critical eye over the blur of bright colour that was supposed to depict the bowl of fruit sitting on the windowsill, and frowned.

Still life. Still crap.

How she was able to wield a pencil with a deftness and skill that had given her both a career and a sideline she loved yet was all fingers and thumbs when it came to a paintbrush was an eternally perplexing mystery. But ultimately it was irrelevant. This picture, along with the other twenty-four that stood rolled up against the wall of the guest room slash studio, was merely a means of catharsis and therefore destined for the fire.

Unlike the other twenty-four, though, today’s effort was unique. There were no shattered hearts bleeding across the paper. No mangled, dismembered male body parts lying next to bodies in various states of decay. No anguished slashes of black and grey and crimson. Just some plums and some bananas, and lots of yellows and oranges, purples and greens.

Which meant that she was finally over what had happened.

Thank God.

Not that she deserved a quick and easy fix. She’d slept with someone else’s fiancé. She’d broken up an engagement. Inadvertently, sure, because Ben – or Brad, or whatever his name really was – had made no mention of a fiancée when she went out with him that first time. In fact, he’d been very specific about being entirely young, free and single, the despicable, lying shit. But still. The guilt and shame had been unbearable. And the hurt. God, the hurt… She’d really, really liked him. She’d even thought he might be The One, stupid, deluded idiot that she was.

But this morning she’d woken up and for the first time in three and a half weeks she hadn’t wanted to cry. Or be sick. Her heart hadn’t felt like it was being pushed through a mangle. She’d actually managed to muster up a smile when a shaft of weak winter sunshine had broken through the dense cloud and turned the bleak, barren Scottish landscape momentarily spectacular.

And it was then that she’d begun to entertain the notion that she’d recovered. Yes, she’d been a fool, but what had happened was his fault, not hers, she knew now, and she was done beating herself up about that at least.

Feeling marginally better than she had at any point since New Year’s Eve when she’d learned that she was the Other Woman and her life had imploded, Stella cast one last glance at the painting then turned to head out of the room.

And stilled as she caught a flash of something out of the corner of her eye.

Frowning, she turned back, walked towards the window and peered out into the rapidly deteriorating weather. A four-by-four was making slow, awkward progress down her track.

Which was very odd. Apart from Mrs Murray, who ran the local shop she frequented once a week to stock up on supplies and who had thankfully picked up on her reluctance to chat, no one knew she was here. The cottage was way too isolated for anyone to simply be passing by and, anyway, it stood at the end of the track; it was a destination, not a midway stop.

So what was the vehicle doing here? Was the driver lost? Had someone come looking for her? Or was there some other altogether more nefarious reason for the visit?

At the thought of what that might be Stella felt her pulse pick up, and adrenaline surged because she was here all on her own. Anything could happen to her and no one would know for days, weeks, possibly even months.

Or not.

Heavens, she had to calm down. She really did. She was overreacting. Being ridiculous. She’d been on her own too long, with nothing but sheep and her conscience for company, and her imagination was taking advantage. Any minute now the four-by-four would stop, turn round and –

It didn’t.

Instead, to her horror, it suddenly swerved. Slewed off the track. Tilted one way, the other, then landed at a horrible angle in the ditch.

And then there was nothing.

For one heart-stopping moment, Stella stood frozen to the spot, watching, waiting, her blood pounding in her ears. Where was the driver? Why weren’t they getting out?

Oh, please let them not be hurt. Her house was miles from the nearest neighbour, let alone a hospital, and her car was useless in this weather. Plasters and aspirin were about all there was in the cottage’s first aid kit and she was no nurse.

The seconds ticked by like hours and there was still no movement coming from the vehicle, which meant concern for her own personal safety be damned. What were the chances of the driver being a danger anyway? Virtually non-existent, that was what, and, quite honestly, she’d had enough on her conscience recently to last her a lifetime.

Galvanised into action, Stella sprinted out of the room and down the stairs. At the front door she shoved on her boots and gloves and grabbed a coat and a hat, and then she was racing down the drive, through the gate and along the track, oblivious to the bitter cold and swirling snow.

By the time she reached the vehicle her lungs were burning and her cheeks were stinging but that wasn’t important. Hissing was coming from beneath the hood of the vehicle and something deep inside the beast was creaking. The airbags had exploded on every conceivable side and partially obscured the clearly male driver, but there was movement and there was swearing, which meant that at least he was alive, thank God.

Clambering into the ditch and reaching up, Stella yanked on the door handle and pulled the heavy door back as hard as she could until it clicked into place.

“Are you all right?” she said, panic and exertion making her sound breathless and shaky.

“I will be,” he growled, his deep voice – or, more probably, the cold – sending shivers down her spine. “Once I get disentangled from this.” He was shoving at the deflated yet still billowing fabric, but the airbags didn’t appear to be going anywhere.

“What happened?” she asked.

“Sheep. One minute the track was clear, the next a bloody sheep was bolting across it.”

A sheep? She hadn’t seen a sheep. But then it was snowing – lightly, sure, but wildly – and she’d been looking at the vehicle rather than the road. “They’re not used to cars around here.”

“They should all be rounded up and shot.”

“Thank goodness you weren’t going fast.”

“Too many bloody potholes to go above twenty. It’s taken me three hours to do fifty miles. The roads are atrocious and the suspension in this thing is lousy… Jesus… There should be a penknife in the glove compartment. Can you get it? I can’t reach past these sodding things.”

“Of course.”

Desperately relieved that he seemed to be OK, if understandably irate, Stella opened the passenger door behind him and climbed up onto the tan leather back seat. Then she wiggled her way through the gap in the front seats, vaguely and totally irrelevantly noticing that he smelled fantastic, and leaned forward and down to open the glove compartment. She found the knife amongst his keys, wallet and phone, handed it to him and then sat back and watched from behind as he began hacking away at the fabric.

Goodness, he was broad, she thought with a frown. And big. And he was now wielding a knife.

Hmm.

Maybe she ought to have grabbed the fire poker on her way out. Better still, she probably ought to just get out now and leave him to it. He sounded normal enough, but who knew? And smelling great was no indication of character. Ben – no, Brad – had smelled heavenly and look what a tosser he’d turned out to be.

Her imagination took off again, her head filling with images not unlike those that were splattered across her canvases only with her as the subject matter. She was just about to leg it when the airbags were free and he was shoving them onto the passenger seat and – thankfully – stowing the knife.

While she let out a quick sigh of relief, he turned the key in the ignition. The engine spluttered. Died. He swore. Tried again. And again. But nothing happened, and it began to dawn on her that he – and consequently they, since she could hardly leave him out here to succumb to hypothermia – could be in quite a pickle.

“Do you have a mobile that works?” he muttered, fiddling with something beneath the steering wheel.

She shook her head and not for the first time it struck her just how isolated the cottage was. It hadn’t bothered her before, in fact she’d actively welcomed it, but now when she needed to be practical she had to admit it wasn’t ideal. “Nope. Sorry,” she said. “No signal anyway. Too remote.”

“Remote is an understatement.”

“What are you looking for?”

“The fuel cut-off switch. It would have flipped when the airbags deployed.”

As she watched him rummage around in the depths of the footwell she decided there really was something very attractive about a man who knew his way round a car. Once, when she and Ben/Brad had been out on what in hindsight had been a rather furtive visit to a local restaurant, they’d had a puncture and had had to call for roadside assistance.

She had no idea what she was basing it on but she got the impression that this man would simply haul out the jack and the spare wheel and get on with it. He wouldn’t care about dirt on his jeans or oil on his hands. And she’d bet her favourite charcoal set that he’d never been near a manicurist in his life.

Evidently having found what he was looking for, he straightened back up and tensed, inhaling sharply as if in pain. Although she could only see his profile he looked as though he was wincing, which made her wonder if, despite both his claims to the contrary and his apparent lucidity, he wasn’t all that OK.

“Are you hurt?” she asked, filling with concern and alarm because what if he had cracked some ribs or had a collapsed lung or something? What would she do then?

“I’ll live.”

He tried the ignition again, twice, but still to no avail. “Damn.”

He rubbed his hands over his face and pressed his fingers to his temples and Stella wondered: what were the signs of concussion? “Did you pass out when you crashed?” she asked.

“No.”

“What day is it?”

“Friday.”

“Month?”

“January.”

“Date?”

“The twenty-seventh.”

“How many fingers am I holding up?”

He glanced up into the rear-view mirror then, and their eyes met and held, and for one brief bizarre moment Stella couldn’t move. She couldn’t look away. She could barely even breathe. The bottom seemed to be falling out of her stomach and her heart seemed to be pounding in her ears and, oh heavens, now she was getting dizzy.

“Four,” he muttered with a dark sort of scowl, and all she could think was four what? Four what?

And then he looked away, shattering the connection, and she snapped back only to realise that like a fool she was still holding up her hand.

“Right,” she muttered, lowering it.

“I’m fine.”

He might be, but she wasn’t. What had that been? Had she taken a bang to the head? It couldn’t be attraction, surely? Not from just one look into a pair of albeit lovely deep dark brown eyes. That would be all kinds of absurd.

Swallowing hard, she forced herself to focus. “So what are you doing up here?” she asked. “Are you lost?”

“No.”

“Sightseeing?”

“No.”

“Then…?”

He turned his head and fixed her with those eyes of his, and once again her stomach swooped alarmingly because he was absolutely gorgeous in a tough, rugged, unsmiling kind of a way. His face was all perfect planes and angles, and suddenly – horrifyingly – she could see herself leaning forwards, threading her fingers through his thick dark hair and pressing her mouth to his, all of which seemed to suggest that yes, crazy as it seemed, this was attraction.

Not that she would ever act on it, of course. Not only would it be hideously inappropriate, if there was one thing she’d learned from what had happened with Ben/Brad it was that it would be a cold day in hell before she went anywhere near a man again. Which did kind of put a kibosh on the whole marriage-and-family thing she’d always dreamed of, but who needed the heartache? She certainly didn’t. She didn’t need anything. Or anyone. And that was a good thing too since she was obviously still totally ill-equipped for a relationship, or any kind of actual, long-term commitment for that matter. She was on her own. Again. And she’d be fine. In fact, she was fine.

Nevertheless, whoever this man might be he was rather, well, magnetically compelling.

“I’m looking for you, Miss Grant,” he said, brutally cutting into her thoughts and making her pulse skip a beat.

“Me?” she said, blinking in astonishment as apprehension began to filter through her. “How do you know who I am? How did you find me?”

“I had someone track you down.”

What the hell? “Why?”

“I want answers.”

“To what sort of questions?”

“What sort of questions do you bloody well think?”

“I genuinely have no idea,” she said, baffled by more than just the conversation. Like why was he having this effect on her? She’d never been so immediately, so strongly attracted to anyone, let alone a stranger. It was bizarre. And highly inconvenient if she was going to have to put him up for the night. “Who on earth are you?”

“Jack Maclean,” he said, and she momentarily ignored the weird goings-on inside her to rack her brains and scour her memory, but try as she might, she came up with nothing. She didn’t know a Jack Maclean. She didn’t know any Macleans. Except –

Oh.

Shit.

As realisation dawned Stella felt the blood drain from her face and the pulsing heat inside her dissipate, and then it was as if the sides of the car were closing in on her, squeezing out the air and making it difficult to breathe.

She did know who he was. She’d stumbled across him in the aftermath of New Year’s Eve while obsessively, compulsively googling Cora, the woman whose fiancé she’d misguidedly dated. Jack Maclean was Cora’s older brother, a hotshot currency trader with his own company and billions in the bank. From what she remembered from the article she’d skimmed through he was a force to be reckoned with. In the pursuit of his goals he was single-minded and relentless. And now he was here. On a mission. For what was clearly going to be quite a while.

Bollocks.

Taking a deep breath, Stella braced herself for the battle that was undoubtedly coming her way since he was hardly here for a chat about the weather, and said, “We’d better go inside.”

Smothering a curse as pain stabbed him in the chest, Jack eased himself out of the driver’s seat, locked the car and set off in Stella’s wake, frustrated and aching and even more unsettled than was usual for this time of year.

Up until that sodding sheep had forced him off the road everything had been going exactly according to plan. When his sister had confessed a week ago that she was going insane not knowing anything about the ‘scheming, brazen, engagement-wrecking bitch harlot’ who’d seduced her fiancé he’d offered to remedy the situation. He’d had to do something. He was climbing the walls and Cora was in pieces.

So he’d hired an old school friend who now ran a company that had an investigations arm to, among other things, locate the ‘she-devil’ – his sister’s words. This morning, with the information fresh in his in-box, he had taken the jet to Inverness. On arrival he’d climbed into the Land Rover that had been waiting for him at the bottom of the aircraft’s steps and embarked on the uncomfortable drive to the remote cottage in the Highlands where Stella was said to be hiding out.

He’d envisaged a relatively quick trip. When he’d left at dawn he’d imagined being back at his apartment in Mayfair in time for a late dinner. But thanks to a sheep with a death wish that plan had gone to hell, and now he was stuck, in this godforsaken place, with a woman he despised and who ought not to be as strikingly, heart-stoppingly attractive as she was.

When he’d first heard her voice, he’d instantly thought of honey and warmth, and long-frozen parts of him had actually started melting. When she’d wriggled her way between the seats to locate the penknife and the trace of her scent had wound into his head, he’d momentarily forgotten why he was here. Then their eyes had met in that damn rear-view mirror and he’d felt as though he’d been punched in the gut. It was attraction of the fiercest kind, the kind he didn’t think he’d experienced before, and it was all intensely infuriating since Stella Grant was the absolutely last person he should find appealing.

Turning up the collar of his coat and lengthening his strides because it was bloody freezing Jack ignored the faint ache of his ribs and grimly surveyed his surroundings. In the summer the landscape was no doubt stunning. In late January it was cold and bleak. The flat terrain either side of the track he’d spent the last hour navigating was rocky and barren. The sun was nowhere to be seen and the dense cloud, thickening and darkening with every mile he’d driven, turned everything into a cold, unforgiving shade of whitish-grey. Even the snow that was now falling was not landing gently and prettily but was being whipped up into harsh icy flurries by the wind.

Desolate. That was the word for it. And he should know. Desolation had been his constant companion for the last three years, eleven months, three weeks and four days.

It was pretty damn merciless too, which was actually rather fitting because when it came to the woman marching towards the house ahead of him Jack wasn’t feeling in a particularly merciful frame of mind. She’d destroyed his sister’s self-esteem. She’d broken her heart and pulverised her happiness. She’d also, very possibly, stolen a valuable family heirloom. She didn’t deserve forgiveness. Or mercy. She deserved to rot in hell. The protective anger that had been simmering inside him ever since Cora had called him, distraught, on New Year’s Eve to say that she’d just discovered Brad had been having an affair surged through him all over again. Jack felt his hands curl into fists and his jaw set. If he ever got his hands on that low-life bastard, he’d beat the living shit out of him. Unfortunately Brad had gone AWOL, so that course of action had had to be put on hold.

In the meantime, though, he was going to get vengeance by letting Stella Grant know in no uncertain terms exactly what he thought of her. He saw absolutely no reason why he should tread softly. She certainly hadn’t. By the time he was done with the perfidious witch she’d be on her knees, grovelling for forgiveness. She’d be willing to do anything to atone for what she’d done. He was going to crush her rotten, unprincipled soul to dust, and frankly, he couldn’t wait.

Chapter Two

Realising she needed the space and time to come up with a strategy to deal with the inevitable and imminent confrontation, Stella had capitalised on her head start by marching back to the house with such speed she’d practically broken into a run. Since she hadn’t looked back she didn’t know how far behind Jack was lagging. Nor did she particularly care. All that mattered was that she develop a plan as swiftly and efficiently as possible.

And that was exactly what she’d done, she thought with relief, resting one hand on the pale blue wall of the hall as she tugged her boots off with the other. Whatever was coming her way, she’d remain cool and collected, and handle it in a mature, focused manner. Jack was bound to have certain grievances – which she could totally understand – and naturally he’d want to air them. He’d said he wanted answers, and as far as she could she’d provide them.

However, she’d done nothing wrong and she had nothing to be ashamed of. She was as much a victim in all this as Cora, and she had right on her side. She’d therefore present her case, clarifying any misunderstandings and correcting any misconceptions he may have, and ask him to pass on her explanations and her apologies to his sister. From what she could recall, that article she’d skimmed had also stated that while somewhat ruthless, Jack was scrupulously fair, so he’d give her a chance and listen, and it would all be very civilised.

And then, having achieved closure, she’d send him on his way. In her car. It wasn’t snowing that hard, and she might be a bit of a wimp by not wanting to drive in the cold and the dark but from what she’d seen she doubted he would have any such qualms. Once he got back to town he could make his own arrangements and have someone return her car to her in the morning and they’d be done. She could draw a line under the whole sorry story and move on.

It was a good plan.

An excellent plan.

And one that had come in the nick of time because the displacement of the air around her and the weird prickling of her skin told her that Jack had caught up and was now right behind her.

Gathering her wits and taking a deep, steadying breath, Stella straightened and turned. Jack slammed the heavy oak door shut and as she warily watched him stomp his feet to dislodge the snow, it began to dawn on her how very claustrophobic the hall was. Such a thing had never occurred to her before. Oh, it had always been small, low-ceilinged and cluttered, but now it seemed devoid of oxygen as well because he was shrugging out of his beautiful navy cashmere coat and oddly enough she appeared to be having very slight trouble breathing.

He was so tall and broad-shouldered, there was just too much of him – that was the trouble. He was too, well, male. And then there was that something she could sense simmering away beneath his surface. What was it? She couldn’t tell, but it seemed dark and edgy and sent a shiver racing down her spine nonetheless.

Swallowing hard and giving herself a mental shake, Stella pulled off her hat and unwound her scarf. Cool, calm and collected. That was what she was aiming for. Although it was kind of hard to channel her inner Zen when he was looking at her with an ice-cold intensity that perversely seemed to make her uncomfortably warm. But still. Life had toughened her up recently. Even more than it had done when she’d realised at the age of ten that despite having two parents she was basically on her own. Jack should present no problem. He might have been surly earlier but then he had just totalled his car.

“You can hang your coat here,” she said briskly, stowing her hat and her scarf on the hooks that hung just inside the door.

Having done so, Jack thrust his hands into the pockets of his jeans and looked round the immediate vicinity as if in search of something. Stella watched as the sweep of his dark gaze encompassed the small space and she thought she couldn’t imagine what he was looking for. He’d hardly be interested in the red umbrella that stood in the wrought-iron stand, or the half a dozen pairs of footwear lined up on the stone floor. Or the padded, fur-lined outdoor jackets that were hanging on the hooks for that matter.

“Is he here?” he said abruptly and she started, her gaze snapping to his.

“Is who here?” She hadn’t had any visitors and that was exactly the way she’d wanted it.

“Who the hell do you think?”

“I have absolutely no idea.”

“Brad Turner.”

What? “Why on earth would he be here?” she said, blinking in astonishment as a shudder rippled through her at the thought of her despicable, shitty ex.

“You’re having an affair.”

Stella inwardly cringed. “Were having an affair,” she corrected. “Note the past tense. I haven’t spoken to him since Christmas Eve, let alone seen him, and that’s absolutely fine with me.” The cowardly jerk hadn’t answered any of her phone calls or responded to the many voice mails she’d left and messages she’d sent either. Looking back on it she couldn’t believe she’d wasted so much time on him.

“Then where is he?”

“I have no idea,” she said. “Nor do I care. Why? Have you lost him?”

“He’s vanished into thin air.”

“Excellent.”

Jack’s eyes narrowed, the hostility beginning to radiate off him in great waves and Stella automatically took a step back, her stomach churning. Hmm. Perhaps her hopes of a civilised exchange might have been a bit misplaced. Perhaps the surliness wasn’t just because of his car.

One thing was certain though: however things were going to proceed, the hall was way too small for this kind of conversation. Not that the rest of her cottage was much bigger, but at least there was alcohol in the kitchen. She hoped. And air.

Turning on her heel and feeling the tension inside her ease a fraction now that she wasn’t being subjected to that dark glare, Stella strode through the sitting room, into the cosy kitchen diner that extended across the entire back of the house. She headed for the dresser that stood at the dining end of the room. She was pretty sure she’d seen a bottle of whisky in there only yesterday, so she bent down to open a cupboard, rummaged around and yup, there it was. A little dusty perhaps, but did forty per cent proof alcohol ever go off? She didn’t think so.

Straightening, she turned to see that Jack had taken up position against the ancient cream Aga that was sandwiched in the middle of a bank of units at the other end of the room. Would its heat thaw his icy demeanour? It didn’t seem likely. Perhaps whisky would.

“Drink?” she asked, holding the bottle aloft and waving it in his direction.

He folded his arms across his broad chest, and arched one dark eyebrow at her. “It’s two o’clock in the afternoon.”

“So? Neither of us is going anywhere at the moment and I, for one, need the fortification.”

“I’ll pass.”

“There’s no need to sound all superior about it.” She reached up for a glass and poured an inch of alcohol into it.

“Why wouldn’t I?” he said, his voice discouragingly flat. “You’re shameless and unscrupulous, and quite possibly not just a thief but a drinker to boot. What’s not to be superior about?”

Oooh, ouch, thought Stella, his assessment of her character piercing her like an arrow to the chest. Even though it was wholly inaccurate, and even though she knew that, somehow it still stung.

“I see,” she said, taking a sip and trying not to wince as it burned its way down her throat. “So that’s the way this is going to go.”

His dark eyes glittered and his jaw tightened for a moment. “You had an affair with my sister’s fiancé,” he said. “You broke her heart and destroyed her happiness and I couldn’t despise you more. What other way would it go?”

Right. Well. There was that, she thought, battling back the sudden surge of shame because it hadn’t been her fault. It really hadn’t. “When you put it like that,” she began, “I can see why you might think you have a point.”

“I do have a point,” he said. “There’s no might about it. But at least you’re not denying it.”

“Why would I deny it?” she said. “It happened, although –”

“So how many times?” he cut in brutally. “How many times have you gone after someone who’s already taken? Is it a habit? Is it a thrill? Does it turn you on to destroy the lives of others?”

Reeling, Stella stared at him, her jaw dropping for a moment because what the hell? Was that what he thought of her? God, he really must hate her. Pushing aside the stab of hurt she felt at that because what Jack thought of her was entirely irrelevant, she knocked back the rest of her drink and slammed both the glass and the bottle down on the scrubbed pine dining table. Moving around it she stalked towards him and took up a position against the breakfast bar, right opposite him, right in his line of sight.

Keeping her gaze fixed to his, she thrust her hands into the pockets of her jeans. “Not that it’s any of your business,” she said, her chin lifting as her temper began to spike, all hope of remaining cool, calm and collected vaporising, “but I’ve never done it before and I have no intention of doing it ever again. It’s not a habit, it’s not a thrill and nothing about what I did remotely turns me on. I hate, hate, hate the thought of being the other woman. But as I was saying before you rudely interrupted me, unfortunately it did happen. Although I’m willing to bet everything I have not in the way I imagine you think.”

“You have no idea what I think.”

“Oh, I have a pretty good idea,” she said, taking in the rigidity of his jaw, the condemnation in his eyes and the animosity emanating from his every pore. Judging by the vitriol she’d received on social media from Cora’s very loyal friends as well as Jack’s evident opinion of her, Brad had clearly done an excellent job of spinning things in his favour. “I’m very aware I’m the villain of the piece.”

“My sister is a wreck.”

“That’s not my fault.”

For a moment he just stared at her, and who knew deep dark brown eyes could be so, well, steely?

“You are unbelievable,” he said so brutally she felt it like a blow to the solar plexus. “You seduced a man you knew had a fiancée and then carried on an affair with him without a thought for anyone other than yourself. How the fuck is that not your fault?”

“You make it sound like he didn’t have a choice,” she fired back.

“I know he had a choice,” Jack said tightly, as if it pained him to admit it. “But I also know you made it hard for him to resist.”

“You know nothing.”

“I know more than enough,” he snapped. “I know you came on to him at a wedding back in September and refused to take no for an answer. I know he tried to end it again and again and you wouldn’t leave him alone.”

“Like I said,” said Stella, feeling the heat bubbling up inside her hit her cheeks, “you know absolutely nothing. You are so far removed from the truth it would be laughable if there was anything even remotely funny about this.”

“The truth?” said Jack with an incredulous scoff. “I doubt you even know the meaning of the word.”

“Try me.”

“I wouldn’t trust you as far as I could throw you so why the hell would I believe a word that comes out of your pretty, lying mouth?”

“Whether you do or you don’t, I’m entitled to a defence,” she said hotly, now more than a little exasperated and, yes, upset, by his continued disdain. “You’ve judged me before I’ve even gone on trial and that’s not fair. Whatever happened to the concept of innocent until proven guilty?”

“Innocent?” said Jack with a lift of his eyebrows. “Hah.”

In an instant the exasperation exploded into full-blown irritation, and Stella curled her hands into fists. God, he was infuriating. And quite frankly she’d had enough. He’d had his say. Now it was her turn. “Has it ever occurred to you that you’ve only heard one side of the story, and that your source may be less than reliable?” she said, injecting as much steel into her voice as she could. “Not to mention second-hand? I read that for all your legendary ruthlessness, Jack, you’re also principled and objective and upright. Well, you know what? Right now, I’m not seeing any evidence of that whatsoever.”

Silence fell after that, and for several long moments Jack just glared at her. She could feel her heart hammering against her ribs and the air between them pulsing with electricity, and it was a dizzying combination. But then, after what seemed like an eternity, he gave a short nod, as if her words had struck a nerve, and she pulled herself together.

“OK, fine,” he said abruptly. “Take the stand. Have your say. If you think it’ll make the slightest bit of difference.”

Stella thought she didn’t care much whether it did or didn’t. She knew the truth, that was the main thing, and the moral high ground she was standing on was so lofty she needed oxygen. But at least if she told him, he could tell Cora and she’d have closure. She’d be done.

Taking a deep breath, she stiffened her spine and resolved to ignore the scepticism she could see flashing in his eyes. “I met Brad – or Ben, as he was calling himself at the time – back in September at a wedding,” she said, somehow managing to dredge up the cool, calm collectedness she’d temporarily mislaid. “I was working. I’m a court artist, but at weekends I do quick sketches at events. It’s a bit more personal and original than photos. Sort of quirky. People seem to like it… Anyway, Brad was a guest. We got chatting. He flirted with me. It was nice. He asked me for a card. I gave it to him. He rang me a couple of days later and asked me out. I didn’t pursue him. He pursued me.”

“And naturally you went,” said Jack scathingly.

“Of course I went,” she countered. “I wasn’t seeing anyone at the time and we’d got on well. I didn’t know he had a fiancée. In fact, when I asked – and I did ask – he told me quite categorically that he was single too and I took his word for it.”

“Right.”

“Why wouldn’t I have believed him?” she asked, determined to rise above his sarcasm. “I’m not naturally a suspicious person.” She paused, then added darkly, “Well, at least, I wasn’t. Now, of course, I’m going to see lies and deceit wherever I look.”

“Join the club,” he said, staring straight at her.

“What a nice, open mind you have.”

“Are you really saying you suspected nothing?”

Stella gritted her teeth and clung on to calm. “Brad gave me no reason to question our relationship,” she said. “I wasn’t looking for evidence of his lies. When he cancelled on me his excuses seemed perfectly plausible. I liked him, I thought I was in love with him, and I trusted him, more fool me. I didn’t know he used a separate phone to contact just me. I didn’t know he’d given me a false name. When I asked if he was on Facebook, he told me he didn’t do social media. He was a pro and I was an easy target.”

“Very easy, by the sounds of things.”

Easy? Easy? Oh, how little did he know. She wasn’t easy. In any context. Far from it. When it came to intimate personal relationships she was impossible, and it hadn’t taken Brad thoughtfully pointing it out to alert her to the fact. For years she’d struggled with desperately wanting a relationship while not having the first clue how to keep one going. Six months of therapy at the age of eighteen had given her an understanding of the root causes and the likely cure, but theory and practice were unfortunately very different beasts.

“You have no idea,” she said, really not wanting to revisit her emotionally deprived childhood in the middle of all this. “And neither did I. The first I knew of Cora was when I answered her call on New Year’s Eve. That wasn’t pleasant, I can tell you.” Which had to be the understatement of the century. “I ended things with Brad immediately. My calls went straight to his voice mail so I sent him a text. He didn’t respond. Some would say I was just as much Brad’s victim as Cora was. I was just as hurt. I am not a callous, fiancé-thieving bitch. I’ve been something far, far worse – a stupid, naïve, blind idiot.”

Something flickered for a second in the depths of Jack’s eyes but it was gone before she could identify it. “His version of events is somewhat different,” he said coldly.

“Well, of course it is.”

“He blamed the whole thing on you.”

“I am extremely aware of that,” she said grimly. “Not only is he a liar, he’s a wimp and a coward too, and God, if I ever get my hands on him he’ll wish he was in hell. He’ll wish Hades was relentlessly flicking spoons at his forehead and Cerberus was barking at him incessantly because what I have in mind for him is ten times worse.”

“You’d have to wait,” said Jack darkly. “There’s quite a queue.”

“I can imagine.”

He didn’t seem to have anything to add to that. He just looked at her steadily as if assessing what she’d said, and she had to fight the urge to squirm beneath his scrutiny since the last thing she wanted to reveal was how on edge he made her feel.

“So what do you know about the ring?” he said so sharply it made Stella jump.

“What ring?” she said, a bit thrown by the change in topic yet oddly thankful for it.

“The signet ring.”

“I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.”

“It’s a family heirloom. Russian. Early twentieth century. Gold. Enamel. Diamonds. Very valuable.”

“I see,” she said dryly. “And has that gone missing too?”

“Yes.”

“Now there’s a coincidence.”

“Not necessarily.”

She glared at him. “Well, I don’t have it.”

Up went his eyebrows. “No?”

“No! Anyway, why would you think I do?” She stopped, and then it hit her. “Oh, wait,” she said. “Let me guess. Brad again. Well, he was lying about that as well because I’ve neither seen nor heard of any ring, Russian or otherwise. He gave me nothing but a temporarily broken heart, but rest assured if I had it I’d return it to you, because I never want to have anything to do with him ever again. Search the house if you want. Search me too, if you really don’t believe me.”

The moment the heated words left her mouth Stella wished she could reach out and stuff them back in because as they hung there, hovering in the space between her and Jack, there was an abrupt shift in atmosphere. The room seemed to close in on them. The silence suddenly throbbed, the air around them thickened, and she was instantly, alarmingly aware of every inch of her body in a way that had never happened before. She went all hot and prickly and, very oddly, her skin felt too tight.

For one frozen second Jack didn’t move a muscle either, but then his darkening gaze slowly dropped from hers to her mouth, where to her consternation it stayed, and in response she could feel her lips tingle.

And then, an all too vivid vision of him striding over to her and pulling her into an embrace slammed into her head, and, oh God, now she could practically feel his hands on her, the warmth of his breath on her skin, the heat of his mouth tormenting parts of her body that were suddenly burning up.

What the hell was this? she thought, a confused sort of panic surging up inside her at the lack of control she appeared to have over herself. He loathed her. She wasn’t all that keen on him. Yet she wanted to touch him. Kiss him. Do a whole lot more than just that, and she got the oddest feeling that he wanted the exact same thing, which was insane.

“This is all your word against his,” Jack said, his voice sounding strangely rough, and for a moment Stella didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. Word? What words? They seemed to be communicating on a different level entirely. But no. They weren’t. Of course they weren’t. They couldn’t be.

“I know,” she said, perversely relieved that he’d resumed the conversation since it was marginally easier to understand than the undercurrents that swirled between them.

“Do you have any proof of what you claim?”

“On my phone.”

“And where’s that?”

“At home in Somerset.” Where she’d deliberately left it to avoid the horrors of social media. Unfortunately.

“What bad luck,” he said, and for the briefest of moments she thought she caught the flicker of triumphant satisfaction on his face but she had to be mistaken because that made no sense either.

“You could just take my word for it.”

“Not a chance,” he said with contempt, and quite suddenly she’d had enough. Of Jack and his infuriatingly bull-headed arrogance. Of Brad and his pathetic spinelessness. Of the entire lousy, sodding male sex.

“You know, this attitude of yours is really pissing me off,” she said darkly, pushing herself off the counter and taking a step towards him as everything inside her, all the heat, the frustration and the lingering hurt, sort of coalesced into one white-hot ball of anger.

I’m pissing you off?” he said, coolly lifting his eyebrows.

“Yes,” she said. “You, Jack. You said you wanted answers, but you don’t, do you? I mean, not really. You’re resisting the truth of what I’m saying with every breath you take, and it’s almost like you want to. Why would you choose to accept Brad’s word over mine when it’s so clear what sort of a man he is? Why is it so hard for you to believe me? And why come all this way if you never had any intention of doing so? Your sister deserves to know the truth and any idiot could see that I’m telling it, so what’s going on? Why the determination to think the very worst of me? What are you actually doing here?”

He didn’t say anything, just looked down at her, his dark eyes deep and unreadable, and it suddenly occurred to her that as she’d been firing all those accusations at him she’d carried on moving, taking a step with every breath, and now, having come to an abrupt halt, she was standing very close to him indeed.

So close, in fact, that she could feel the magnetic heat of his body. So close she could smell the deliciously intoxicating scent of him. So close that with one quick, sharp movement she could be kissing him. She could be rising up onto her tiptoes, wrapping her arms around his neck and pulling herself against him and finding out if his mouth tasted as good at it looked.

As her gaze instinctively dropped to his lips, her mouth went dry and her pulse leapt. She could hear her heart thundering in her ears, a buzzing in her head, and she could feel the tension radiating from his entire body, his tightly leashed strength, and now he was uncrossing his arms and leaning forwards and putting his hands on her upper arms and, God, he wasn’t going to kiss her, was he?

What would she do if he did?

What would she do if he didn’t?

She burned where he touched her. Heat pooled between her legs and desire flooded every cell of her being. He bent his head closer and as her eyes fluttered closed, her lips parted and her tongue darted out to wet them, which she knew was a bad idea even as she was doing it although she just couldn’t help it.

But he didn’t kiss her. Of course he didn’t. Why would he?

Instead, he moved his head at the last minute, his lips skin-tinglingly close to her ear and said, in a low voice that turned the heat swirling around inside her to ice, “Get…the hell…out of my way.”

Chapter Three

Grabbing his coat, Jack stormed out of Stella’s house into the fading light of the afternoon, his gut churning and his head swimming.

He needed air.

Badly.

Because what the hell was the matter with him? Stella had asked what he was doing here, and right now, he didn’t have a clue. All he did know was that he was wound so tightly he was on the verge of snapping. So hard he hurt. She’d started walking towards him, making all those disturbingly uncomfortable points, her colour high, her eyes blazing and he’d just watched and listened, trapped against the bloody Aga and so transfixed that he couldn’t have retreated even if he’d wanted to.

The closer she’d come, the higher the lust had surged inside him, and then she’d looked at his mouth and licked her lips, the fury and indignation on her beautiful face morphing into something quite, quite different, and he’d been a nanosecond away from losing control and taking her up on her very obvious, very tempting invitation.

In fact, if it hadn’t been for a last-minute ice-cold flash of reason he’d have done just that. He’d have pulled her into his arms and kissed her, for God’s sake. Stella Grant. The one woman on the planet he absolutely could not – should not – kiss, the one line he should not – would not – cross.

And the appalling thing was, it hadn’t even come as a surprise.

He’d been battling the insanely intense and highly inappropriate attraction from the minute he’d crossed her threshold and slammed shut the door. Bizarrely, it had felt then as if the entire outside world had just sort of disappeared. Stella had started pulling off her hat and unwinding her scarf and it had been like watching a present being unwrapped. The layers had come off one by one until she was down to tight-fitting jeans and one of those Scandinavian sweater things and she was fluffing out her hair, and then – ludicrously, horrifyingly – he’d found himself wondering how far she was going to go, hoping she wasn’t going to stop there – and quite suddenly the hall had been stifling. A bolt of desire had shot through him, its odd intensity making him momentarily dizzy, and his body had instantly responded in the most inconvenient way possible.

But somehow he’d managed to hold it together, positioning himself at the far end of the kitchen, out of her mind-scrambling orbit, and had forced himself to focus on the reason he was here. With a much-loved sister to avenge he’d gone on the attack, looking for a shred of remorse or regret and becoming increasingly irked when neither seemed to be forthcoming, until Stella had flippantly suggested he search her, and just like that his concentration had evaporated.

Automatically his gaze had roamed over her, and before he had time to stop it a vision had slammed into his head. Of him striding over and lifting her so that she sat on the counter, and then moving in close, his hands at her waist, pushing her sweater up and over her head. Of her, shaking out her hair, leaning back and giving him access and permission to do whatever he wanted.

And he’d wanted, he’d definitely wanted, because if he was being honest she was gorgeous. It had been so long and the image had been so vivid and it still was, and –

God.

What the hell was he thinking?

And why was he thinking it again?

A blast of wind slapped him in the face, cutting straight through the heat swirling around inside him, smacking him back to reality, and he went cold. Shuddered. He hadn’t got up close and personal with anyone in four long, lonely years. He wasn’t going to start with Stella Grant, public enemy number one.

But why, of all women, was he so badly attracted to her? And why now?

She was unexpected, Jack told himself grimly, digging his hands into his pockets and setting off up the hill for what hopefully would turn out to be a punishing walk. That was what it was. For some reason, he’d had the woman who’d stolen his sister’s fiancé down as the femme fatale type, all big hair and slumberous eyes and a come-hither expression, wearing precious little clothing and a sultry smile. God knew why. Clearly in the absence of measured consideration, he’d resorted to cliché.

In reality though, she had shoulder-length wavy fair hair, eyes the colour of cornflowers and a peaches-and-cream complexion. Her mouth was the only sinful thing about her, but the rest of her looked sort of wholesome, innocent even, and it had thrown him for a loop.

And then there was the time of year. Late January. Bleak, sad, and preferably spent in a blessedly numbing drunken stupor. The anniversary of his wife’s death four years ago this week always made him edgy and unpredictable. What few emotions he hadn’t shut down could be volatile, and he was self-aware enough to know he harboured a whole load of undealt-with rage and grief, guilt and regret over what had happened. Fifty-one weeks of the year he had it all under control. One week? This week? Not so much.

Was that why he’d charged up here to Scotland, then, no questions asked, instead of hitting the bottle? Because if he was being brutally honest it hadn’t crossed his mind that Stella might be as innocent in all this as his sister. He’d just witnessed Cora’s distress and leapt to conclusions without considering the alternatives.

Had he, then, welcomed what had happened to his sister? No. He’d never, ever have done that, but undeniably it had given him a focus and presented a distraction that he’d relished. And it had meant that Cora had been too preoccupied to issue her customary annual suggestion that he talk to someone, which was a relief because since he didn’t deserve absolution he didn’t see the point. It even – possibly – gave him a stab at atonement because here was a woman he loved in distress, in trouble, and this time he could do something about it.

Scowling into the distance, Jack turned up his collar and ploughed on as other equally uncomfortable truths began to slap him round the head. Such as what Stella had said about fairness. That grated because, annoyingly, she was right. He did value fairness. In his world, where the amounts of money made and lost in a day could be staggering, it seemed important. That was why he donated fifty per cent of his company’s net profit to charity every year. And a defendant did generally have an opportunity to put forward their case before being judged and found guilty, something he’d initially denied her.

As snippets of their confrontation flashed though this mind, Jack recalled the attack and fire with which Stella countered every one of his possibly not-so-valid accusations, and now he found himself thinking that perhaps the attack was justified and perhaps the fire was understandable because as much as he might wish otherwise he had the niggling feeling he might, in fact, believe her.

His instinct – the same instinct that had made him a millionaire by the age of twenty-four and a billionaire by the age of thirty – was certainly pushing him in that direction. There’d been no averting of her gaze. No fudging of answers. Stella had been frank and open, even when what she’d had to say showed her in a poor light, and in his opinion none of these were the traits of a scheming arch manipulator. On the contrary, he valued and admired every trait she’d exhibited so far. And she certainly sounded genuine enough in her loathing of her and Cora’s ex. Besides, he’d always thought there was something a bit off about the man. Brad had been too smooth, too charming, and the glint in his eye hadn’t seemed entirely trustworthy.


Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-26 show above.)