Excerpt for Warwick's Mermaid by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Having escaped an abusive relationship, Chloe MacGregor is determined to put the past behind her. The little cottage high up on the cliffs overlooking the beautiful North Yorkshire town of Whitby is her safe haven, somewhere she is free to be herself.


When the arrival of her new neighbour and boss, Luke Warwick, threatens her peaceful, sheltered life, Chloe is forced to confront her past and to re-evaluate who she really is. Falling in love with Luke is not part of her plan but, to her surprise, Luke is falling for her too. The only thing preventing their happy ever after is Chloe herself. Will she ever truly learn to leave the past where it belongs?



WARWICK'S MERMAID

Ellie Gray


Tirgearr Publishing


Author Copyright 2017 Ellie Gray

Cover Art: EJR Graphic Arts (www.ejrdigitalart.com)

Editor: Christine McPherson

Proofreader: Barbara Whary


This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be resold or given away. If you would like to share this book, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not given to you for the purpose of review, then please log into the publisher’s website and purchase your own copy.


Thank you for respecting our author’s hard work.


This story is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, incidents are products of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.


ALL RIGHTS RESERVED



DEDICATION


For David…not that you’ll ever know, as you don’t read my books…;)



ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS


This is my third published book and I still can’t quite believe it! To have achieved something I’ve wanted for so long still amazes and surprises me; it makes all the long hours and hard work worth it. I adore writing, it’s a compulsion and I would continue to write even if I wasn’t published. There are so many characters and stories flying around my head, the only way to keep them quiet is to write them down, but then others take their place…


And so, I must thank Kemberlee Shortland and my wonderful publisher, Tirgearr Publishing, for their continued belief in me and support for my writing. Huge thanks also to my brilliant editor, Christine McPherson, for her spot on critique and advice which helps to make my work the best it can be.


My family and friends continue to offer me such wonderful support and encouragement on this exciting and scary journey—thank you so much, I couldn’t do it without you. As I write this, it is coming up to the sixth year without my dad; he would have been so very proud of me and I miss him every day. I just hope he is up there somewhere, nudging people around him and saying, ‘That’s my girl’.


And finally, as always, thank you to my readers. I love to hear from you and I can’t put into words what it means to read your feedback and to hear that you enjoy my books and love the characters as much as I do. Thank you for your continued support, and I hope you enjoy reading about Chloe and Luke.



PROLOGUE


Chloe stared at the bright blue front door, not quite sure if she was willing it to open or remain shut. Cerulean Bliss. She had been drawn to the name, conjuring up images of crystal clear Mediterranean Sea, sandy beaches, and cloudless skies. Chris had appeared amused by her decision to choose the paint based on the name rather than the colour.

‘‘Babe, if you want Cerulean Bliss for the front door, Cerulean Bliss is what we’ll go for.’’

But when he’d returned from a boys’ weekend away to find Chloe had painted the door, it had been a different story. He had flown into a rage, claiming she hadn’t consulted with him on the colour and had gone behind his back, waiting until he was away to make changes to his house. That was the first time she had been on the receiving end of his anger; the first time she had been frightened and confused by his apparent about-turn on something he had previously agreed to. It hadn’t been the last time.

Chloe glanced at her watch, frowning when it showed only a minute had passed since she had last looked. The frown deepened when she lifted a hand to rub her eyebrow and saw how much her fingers were trembling. A gentle hand touched her forearm and she looked up to meet her friend’s calm gaze.

‘Don’t worry. It’s going to be fine.’

Chloe shook her head, unable to prevent her gaze from returning to the front door only twenty or so metres from where they were sitting in her car. What if he glanced around and saw her? What if he didn’t?

‘What am I doing, Bekah?’ She dropped her head in her hands, squeezing her eyes shut and immediately wincing as that small movement resulted in more pain than it should.

‘The right thing, that’s what.’ Rebekah rubbed her friend’s forearm. ‘Come on, Chloe. We talked about this.’

‘I know, I know we did.’ Chloe lifted her chin, but didn’t remove her gaze from the door. ‘I just…I keep thinking about it, over and over. He’s not always that bad, not really, and I think…I think maybe it was my fault.’

Chloe didn’t have to see her friend’s face to know she was angry; she could feel it radiating from her in waves. Rebekah remained silent and reached across to pull down the sun visor in front of Chloe, lifting up the small flap covering the vanity mirror.

‘There is nothing you could have done that would ever justify what he did to you. Nothing.’

Chloe stared at her reflection, taking in the dark purple bruise circling her left eye—now bloodshot and half-closed—the ugly graze reaching across her cheekbone and further down to the swollen and split bottom lip. Without thinking, she licked her lip. The tip of her tongue slipped over the injury, and she drew in a sharp breath at the sting it produced.

She met her gaze in the mirror once more, noting the confusion and uncertainty dulling their green hue. ‘I know. But it’s not usually this bad. He pushes me around a bit sometimes, nothing major, and he says things…you know, usually when he’s had a drink.’

‘That doesn’t make it right. You know that.’ Rebekah blew out a long breath. ‘I can’t believe you never told me.’

Chloe avoided her friend’s accusing gaze. What could she have told her? That Chris was proving her mother right? That she wasn’t woman enough for any man?

‘It doesn’t matter now anyway. I—’ She drew in a strangled breath as the front door opened and, shrinking down a little in her seat, Chloe prayed he wouldn’t glance down the street and recognise her car among all the others parked along the kerb.

As she watched, Chris locked the door before turning and sauntering along the path, tossing his keys in the air and catching them, his lips pursed as he whistled. Chloe couldn’t hear from this distance, but she knew he would be whistling the tune to whichever song had been on the radio before he left the house. She glanced at her watch once more; 8.15am on the dot. Chris was a creature of habit.

‘Bastard.’ Rebekah thumped the dashboard in obvious frustration as he got into his car without glancing left or right before driving off. ‘Look at him, acting as if he hasn’t a care in the world. You should have let Sean come round last night and hammer ten bells out of him, see how he liked it.’

Chloe gave a weak smile. ‘I don’t suppose that would have solved anything.’

They sat in silence for a few minutes before Rebekah finally opened her door.

‘So, come on then. Let’s do it.’

Chloe bit her lip and immediately winced in pain, wishing she hadn’t. Gingerly exploring her lip with her fingers, she saw they were stained with blood, and stifling a sigh, searched in her bag for a tissue.

‘What if he comes back? What if he’s forgotten something?’

‘He’s not coming back. He’s gone to work,’ said Rebekah, nodding her encouragement. ‘Come on, the sooner we get in, the sooner we get out. We’ll only be a few minutes.’

Two minutes later, Chloe unlocked the door with trembling fingers, her heart thumping painfully in her chest as she pushed it open. Cerulean Bliss. It conjured up no happy thoughts for her now. It hadn’t done from the moment Chris had returned from his weekend away. When she hesitated on the step, Rebekah gave her a gentle shove, propelling her into the hallway.

‘Hey!’

‘Well, we can’t stand in the doorway all day.’ Rebekah glanced around. ‘Okay, so where first? In here?’

Rebekah gestured to the living room, but Chloe shook her head immediately. She wasn’t ready to face that room, not yet. Instead, she walked over to the bottom of the stairs and, after a moment’s hesitation, shouldered her overnight bag and ran lightly up to the first floor. Ten minutes later she reappeared and joined Rebekah, where she was waiting patiently in the hall.

‘Got everything?’

‘Almost.’ Chloe licked her lip, the sharp sting and coppery taste of blood reminding her why she was doing this. Taking a deep breath, she walked into the living room where her gaze was immediately drawn to the coffee table. It looked as tidy as ever, with the magazines and books neatly stacked in one corner. In her mind’s eye, she replayed the moment Chris had finally tipped over the edge.

It was football this time; football and beer. His team had lost and, downing his fifth can of beer, he had turned to her, obviously looking to pick a fight so he could vent his frustration. Chloe couldn’t remember what it was he had said, but she had responded non-committally before asking him if he wanted a coffee—a somewhat obvious effort to change the subject. But he hadn’t let it drop, blocking her path as she tried to walk into the kitchen. Her stomach rolled as she recalled Chris pushing his contorted face into hers as he yelled at her through gritted teeth, backing her up against the wall and knocking over the plant stand by the fireplace as he did so.

She closed her eyes. It had been her fault. If she had just let him carry on, he would have calmed down eventually. But she hadn’t. She had pushed him away, pushed at his chest as he crowded in on her. And that was all it had taken. Any ounce of self-control Chris might have had went flying through the window, just as she went flying through the air when he grabbed her hair and threw her across the room.

She could remember lying on the floor in a daze, wondering what had happened, and Chris dragging her to her feet before punching her in the face. That was when she had fallen across the coffee table, her cheek grazing the corner as it tipped over and spilled the magazines to the floor. A kick to the ribs for good measure had followed, with Chris standing over her, his breath coming in harsh rasps, before he turned away and went upstairs, hissing, ‘You’re not worth the effort.’

‘Chloe? You okay?’

Rebekah’s gentle voice broke into her thoughts and Chloe blinked, unable to speak for a moment. ‘Um…yes. I just need a couple of things from here.’

She hurried over to a bookshelf and took a handful of books before casting a final glance around the room, sick with fear that Chris might return at any moment. There was very little here that she could call hers; Chris’s minimalist taste left little room for any of her personal items. Anything she had bought herself had either mysteriously gone missing or been accidentally broken.

Sorry, babe, don’t know what happened there. Never mind, it wasn’t expensive, we’ll get you something else.

‘I think that’s it. There’s nothing else here I want.’ Following Rebekah out of the house, Chloe locked the door and posted the keys through the letterbox. With a final look along the street, she walked back to her car. She was worth more than that.



CHAPTER ONE


One Year Later


‘Why did I let you talk me into this?’ Chloe gazed reluctantly through the window as the taxi swept through the elegant wrought iron gates and along the gravelled drive towards the Grade 1 listed building. The pale stone walls appeared to glow as the setting sun cast dying rays over the towering mansion, its many windows reflecting the burnished orange, as if the house were ablaze from within; an image that did nothing to lift Chloe’s spirits.

‘You know why.’ Lucie opened the door as the taxi drew to a halt by the stone steps leading up to the impressive entrance. ‘I didn’t want to come on my own, and you don’t get out enough.’

‘Says who?’ Chloe leaned into the front of the taxi to pay the fare. ‘Thanks very much. You can keep the change.’ Stepping out onto the gravel, she resisted the urge to ask the driver to turn around and take her home. Instead, she gazed after him as he drove back down the drive. Stifling a sigh, she turned and followed Lucie into the hall.

Despite the high ceilings, the dark wood panelling gave the room an oppressive atmosphere, which wasn’t helped by the endless rows of solemn-faced portraits scowling down at them as if in disapproval.

‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, Chloe. I didn’t force you to come, you know.’ Lucie gave an irritated sigh. ‘Stop being such a misery.’

Chloe blinked in surprise. No, technically Lucie hadn’t forced her to come, but she had subjected her to a constant barrage of texts and phone calls. Nevertheless, she had agreed, and so forced a smile to her lips ‘Okay, you’re right, I’m sorry. Look, let’s find out where we’re supposed to be going.’

A rather stout woman materialised, seemingly out of nowhere, the lace ruffle of her blouse accentuating a heavy bosom.

‘Good evening, ladies.’ She cast a brief, practised eye over their proffered gold-embossed invitations. ‘If you follow the hallway down to the left, you will find the Rose Ballroom directly in front of you.’

The two women obediently followed her instructions, their footsteps making little sound on the carpet.

‘You look gorgeous in that dress, you know. It matches your eyes.’

Lucie was once more all sweetness and light, and Chloe automatically glanced down, brushing her hands over the simple emerald green velvet shift dress that skimmed her knees. She cast her friend a swift, knowing glance. Lucie was only ever happy when things were going her way, and it was something Chloe tended to forget. Why did she never learn?

‘Come on, let’s get this over with.’

Despite her reluctance about the evening, Chloe had to admit the ballroom looked amazing. Floor-length windows ran the length of the room, allowing for breathtaking views across gardens originally designed by Capability Brown. As it was open to the public during the day, Chloe had visited on several occasions over the years and knew the rooms boasted a fabulous collection of Chippendale, Sheraton, and French furnishings. This evening, however, all the antique furniture had been removed and replaced with modern, but nonetheless elegant, chairs and tables running along both sides of the room, and creating a natural dance floor in the middle.

A string quartet played discreetly on a small raised dais in one corner, the musicians confidently holding their own against the conversation and laughter steadily filling the room. There was an air of the past about the room, as if she had stepped through a portal into another, more genteel age. The timeless formal dress worn by the men and the full-length ball gowns of the women swishing the floor as they waltzed in the arms of their partners, simply added to the illusion.

Recognising no-one, Chloe bit her lip, once again wishing she hadn’t allowed herself to be cajoled into attending the charity ball. Lucie knew she was a soft touch, especially when it came to charities for children with special educational needs, and that was the only reason she had allowed herself to be persuaded to attend a party where, with the exception of her friend, she would know no-one. She was only slightly reassured to find that, despite the flowing ball gowns whirling around the dance floor, there were a significant number of women who, like Chloe, had chosen not to wear full-on formal dress.

‘Lucie, darling, you’re late.’

Chloe turned in surprise to see Lucie embracing a stocky, sandy-haired man whom she recognised instantly.

‘Chloe, you look stunning.’ Lucie’s husband leaned forward to kiss her cheek.

‘Clive.’ She gave an uncertain smile. ‘I thought you couldn’t make it.’

Before he could respond, Lucie gave a tinkling laugh and an unrepentant wave of her hand. ‘Just a little white lie on my part.’ She tapped her husband’s arm. ‘Don’t be rude, darling. Aren’t you going to introduce us? It’s Luke, isn’t it?’

She leaned forward to shake hands with the tall man standing politely by Clive’s side.

‘Lucie.’ Chloe stared at her friend. ‘You told me Clive couldn’t make it. It’s the only reason I agreed to come.’ She hated lies, white or otherwise, and Lucie knew that.

‘Oh, for God’s sake, stop making such a fuss.’ Things not going her way, Lucie began to twitch.

Chloe stared at her friend, biting back an angry retort and reluctant to cause a scene. She turned to Clive as he briefly touched her elbow.

‘Chloe, um…can I introduce Luke Warwick? He’s recently moved to the area on business.’ Clive was clearly uncomfortable with his wife’s duplicity but nodded encouragingly. ‘Luke, this is Chloe MacGregor.’

Trying desperately to disguise her annoyance in front of this stranger, Chloe forced a smile to her lips and automatically reached out to shake his hand. As his fingers closed around hers, she lifted her gaze to meet his and felt an unexpected thrill of awareness as their eyes met. He made no attempt to end the handshake, and seemed content to let her fingers remain lightly clasped in his until Chloe pulled her hand free to tuck an imaginary strand of hair behind her ear, striving to mask her discomfort.

‘Pleased to meet you, Miss MacGregor.’ His voice held a gravelly edge.

The immaculately-cut dinner jacket accentuated his broad shoulders, hinting at a taut muscular body and, despite her three-inch heels, Chloe had to tip her head back to meet his gaze. He smiled down at her, and again she experienced the unusual sensation of finding her heart beating a little faster than normal. Completely unnerved by such an unexpected and physical reaction to this stranger, she managed to nod politely and return his smile before turning to the others.

Following Lucie as she threaded her way through the row of tables, Chloe was acutely aware of Luke’s presence close behind her. On reaching their table, she smiled her thanks when he pulled out her chair, waiting until she was settled before seating himself beside her. To her dismay, Lucie immediately struck up an animated conversation with a couple sitting at the next table, and Chloe glanced around, closing her eyes briefly, hoping she didn’t look as desperately awkward as she felt. This was why it had been a mistake to allow herself to be persuaded to come tonight; she would stand out like a sore thumb—a singleton in a room full of couples or groups of single friends. Instead, she was tagging along playing gooseberry or, worse still, participating in what was beginning to look very much like a blind date.

She stifled a sigh. So, why had she allowed herself to be persuaded? Perhaps it was because she had smarted at Lucie’s slightly barbed comment about behaving as if she were a sixty-year-old spinster instead of a twenty-eight-year-old woman, tucked up on the sofa with her dog and a mug of hot chocolate. More likely, it was a result of the conversation she had had with her mother earlier in the week; the one that had ended with Chloe shivering in horror as her mother told her they were two of a kind and that they needed to stick together. Her determination to prove her mother wrong looked like simply proving, once again, that Chloe’s worst fears would be realised and that she was indeed her mother’s daughter.


Luke relaxed back in his chair, his body angled towards Chloe, one arm resting casually on the table, the other along the back of his chair. In stark contrast, Chloe was sitting bolt upright, her hands clasped tightly in her lap, and his gaze narrowed thoughtfully as he watched her battling with some emotion. He had been taken by surprise when he saw her walk into the room with Lucie, recognising her instantly as the girl he had been captivated by on the beach below his cliff-top cottage. He remembered how her auburn curls, tumbling down to the base of her spine, had shone brightly in the sunlight as she collected shells along the shore, oblivious to his gaze. And now here she was again; except tonight she was tense and uneasy, whereas on the beach she had seemed relaxed, carefree, and somehow ethereal.

‘Red or white?’

She looked up in surprise and Luke smiled faintly, gesturing to the wine bottles sitting on the table. ‘Do you drink red or white?’

‘Oh, er…white, please.’ She briefly met his gaze before adding, ‘Can’t stand red.’

As he reached forward to pour her a glass, she snapped around to face him. ‘This isn’t a blind date, is it?’

He favoured her with a curious glance, taking his time with pouring himself a glass of water before settling back into his seat. ‘I’ve just moved to the area. A friend suggested the ball and put me in touch with Clive, and I couldn’t think of a good reason why not. He mentioned Lucie would be bringing a friend, but in answer to your question, no, I didn’t understand it to be a blind date.’

Chloe nodded and sipped at her wine, clearly unconvinced.

‘I gather Lucie has persuaded you here under false pretences?’ Aware that this was somehow a big deal for her, Luke frowned and leant forward. ‘Look, forget Lucie’s intentions, blind date or otherwise. Even if I hadn’t been invited as part of the group, you would still be sitting next to a stranger. Why don’t we start again as two people who happen to meet up at a ball, safe in the knowledge that, after this evening, we don’t have to see each other ever again if we don’t want to?’

‘Luke Warwick.’ He reached out his hand, holding her gaze.

After a brief hesitation, she took it, the tension visibly leaving her body as she smiled at him in relief. ‘Chloe MacGregor.’

‘That’s better, Chloe MacGregor.’ He smiled back, relieved to see her begin to relax. ‘That’s the first genuine smile I’ve seen from you all evening. You’ve got a lovely smile.’

His heart sank when she immediately dropped her gaze with a frown, turning away from him to sip at her wine. What had he said?

He watched her curiously as she avoided his gaze, lifting her head to look around the room and rolling her shoulders as if to ease tension. About to speak, he paused when she froze, her glass halfway to her mouth as she drew in a ragged breath. Luke glanced across to the far side of the room where her gaze was fixed, but he could see nothing amiss. Turning back to her, he saw a frown creasing her forehead and she shook her head slightly, obviously having some sort of internal conversation with herself. The next minute, her eyes widened and she shot to her feet, making him jump as her chair fell backwards.

‘Chloe?’ Luke got to his feet beside her, his hand brushing her elbow to draw her attention from the far side of the room. ‘What is it?’

‘Lucie, did you know Chris was going to be here?’ She ignored him and turned to Lucie, her voice oddly tight. The colour creeping along Lucie’s neck and into her face was answer enough.

‘Of course, I did. He suggested it actually.’ Lucie gave a shrug. ‘I don’t see what the big deal is. You split up over a year ago. Get over it.’

There was a long, tense moment and then, without a word, Chloe turned and walked away from them.


Weaving her way through the maze of tables, Chloe willed her shaking legs not to give way, and tried to keep one eye on Chris. What had she been thinking? She knew what Lucie was like—only interested in number one. She wouldn’t put it past her to have invited Chloe simply to provide a bit of entertainment; to see what would happen when she saw Chris again and learned—by the look of his companion—that he was soon to be a father. Lucie had always been a bitchy troublemaker at school, but at other times she could be a good laugh, and had continued to make sporadic efforts to stay in touch with Chloe over the years. Efforts that Chloe had always accommodated, just as she had tonight. Well, not any more. She had had enough. Lucie could go and take a running jump. With friends like her, who needed enemies?

Fingering her temple lightly as she recognised the beginnings of a headache, Chloe absently took a sip from the glass of wine still clutched in her hand while she lingered in the corner of the room with her back to the couple she was trying to avoid, waiting for them to move so she could make her escape. A quick glance over her shoulder left her struggling to draw breath as her eyes met those of her ex-boyfriend, and a satisfied smile played around his mouth as he began slowly and deliberately making his away across the room. Chloe turned away, desperately trying to control the panic threatening to overwhelm her. Why now? Why was he here now? But she knew the answer. The court injunction she had served on him had expired just a couple of weeks earlier, and she had not applied for a renewal. She hadn’t seen or heard from Chris for almost a year, and had been keen to draw a line under that part of her life, anxious to move on. Renewing the injunction would have meant acknowledging that he still had power over her.

‘Chloe, it’s good to see you; it’s been a long time.’

The once familiar voice made her feel sick, but she turned around to face him, forcing a smile to her lips, and stiffening when he leaned forward to kiss her on each cheek. ‘This is Lisa, by the way.’ He gestured towards the girl at his side, but his gaze remained firmly fixed on Chloe. ‘You look fantastic.’

Ignoring his somewhat inappropriate comment, she turned to the girl standing uncomfortably at his side. ‘Lisa, it’s nice to meet you. Gosh, it looks like congratulations are in order.’

‘I’m glad we’ve met up tonight.’ Chris carried on as if she hadn’t spoken. ‘Always felt there was a little bit of unfinished business between us. You never did say goodbye, did you? Just dropped your keys through the door and served me with an injunction. Bit harsh, actually.’

Chloe swallowed against the bile stinging the back of her throat. ‘Oh, I think you said goodbye enough for both of us, don’t you?’

‘Yes, well, no hard feelings, eh?’ His eyes narrowed as if surprised at her defiant words.

‘No, none at all.’ Chloe gave a cool smile, acutely aware of Chris’s girlfriend and how awkward she must feel. That made two of them. ‘We clearly weren’t right for each other. But it looks as if you two are doing well.’

Lisa shot her a grateful smile and pulled at Chris’s arm. ‘I think we should get to our table, don’t you?’

Chris ignored her and simply shrugged off her arm until, with a faint blush stealing across her cheeks, Lisa turned and walked away.

‘Weren’t right for each other? After everything I put up with from you? Overlooking your little problem and standing by you, despite your uselessness?’

Chloe’s carefully constructed confidence and feelings of self-worth wavered under Chris’s contemptuous gaze and the memories of the hurtful things he had thrown at her time after time.

‘I think maybe I’m not the one with the problem.’ It took some effort to keep her voice even, but she was determined to fight her corner.

His eyes widened slightly and he took a slow step towards her, speaking so that only she could hear him. ‘Since when did you get to be so brave, Chloe? I think you’d better watch your mouth. No injunction to hide behind now.’

It took everything Chloe had not to shrink away from him as he stared her down, and after a few moments he gave a disbelieving laugh, glancing purposefully across at Lisa, now sitting alone at their table. ‘I think the proof that I wasn’t the one with a problem is sitting right over there, don’t you?’

And there it was. Proof indeed that she was the problem. Just like she’d always known. Why had she even tried to deny it? Chloe could feel her legs begin to tremble as she fought to keep her face impassive, desperate not to let him know how much his words still hurt.

‘There you are, darling. I thought I’d lost you.’

Luke’s hand at her waist gently pulled her into his side and she automatically leaned against him, drawing comfort from his solidity, while at the same time wondering at his choice of words. She looked up at him quizzically and he responded by kissing her softly on the lips. When he lifted his head, his gaze held hers and Chloe simply blinked up at him in something of a daze. This evening was taking an increasingly weird turn, and she was at a loss to explain what was happening. As Luke casually turned to the man observing this intimate scene in silence, Chloe realised she was grasping Luke’s lapel and she uncurled her aching fingers, carefully smoothing the creased material in an effort to soothe her own confused thoughts.

‘Luke Warwick.’ He held out his hand.

‘Er…Chris. Chris Wilkinson.’ He winced slightly at the firmness of Luke’s grip.

Luke nodded crisply, his gaze like ice. ‘Yes, I rather thought so. If you’ll excuse us.’

Without a backward glance, Luke took Chloe’s elbow and she found herself being guided across the ballroom and back towards the entrance hall.

They walked in silence until, suddenly nauseous, Chloe shrugged off Luke’s hand and ran down the corridor. Bursting through the cloakroom door, she was relieved to find it empty and bent over the hand basin, retching painfully for a few long moments. Shivering over the porcelain, she fought to control the nausea by drawing in long, deep breaths until the awful churning in her stomach gradually subsided. Feeling a little more under control, she turned on the cold tap, allowing the icy water to pour over her wrists as she rested her pounding forehead against the cool glass mirror.

A sob escaped her throat, catching her by surprise, and she pressed the back of her hand against her mouth, squeezing her eyes shut against hot tears. Damn him! Damn, damn, damn him! She risked a glance at her reflection, and saw the same, defeated expression she thought she had banished a year ago. She turned away quickly, her chin dropping onto her chest. Don’t allow him to do this. Only you can give him permission to make you feel worthless. Chloe straightened her shoulders. She had walked away from him and built a new life for herself. She would not let him ruin it now.


Luke waited in the corridor outside the cloakroom, feigning interest in the rather boring landscape hanging on the dark green wall. He wouldn’t normally allow himself to get caught up in someone else’s relationship problems, much less do so willingly. But he had watched the colour drain from Chloe’s face as she recognised her ex, had seen her brazen it out when she had found herself confronted by him, and had been impressed by her spirit.

What surprised him had been the wave of anger he had felt at Lucie’s complete lack of concern for her friend, and he had removed himself from the table, biting back a sharp retort in response to Lucie’s comment about it all working out perfectly. He had intervened because he felt Chloe had been played a rotten hand tonight, and it did not sit well with his sense of fair play.

Still gazing unseeingly at the painting, he shook his head in wonder. Why was he still waiting here? He had intervened, had extricated Chloe from a difficult situation and, by anybody’s standards, had done his bit. Why then did he feel this need to ensure she was all right, to continue to come to her aid? Why did he even think she needed his help? He was acting out of character and he knew it. Luke never got involved; not emotionally anyway. Oh, he had fun, and never had any problems finding female company, but the emphasis was on fun and he was adept at finding women who equally had no interest in an emotional commitment.

Having made up his mind, Luke was about to leave when Chloe emerged from the cloakroom, turning to walk down the corridor without seeing him. Despite his better judgement, he strode after her and caught up with her as she walked out onto the front terrace.

Head down and smoothing her hands over her dress, Chloe’s steps were slightly unsteady, and she started in surprise when he touched her arm lightly.

‘Would you like me to take you home?’

Eyes glistening with sudden tears, Chloe shook her head. ‘No, no. I’m fine, thank you. You don’t need to stay with me.’

That was his cue, his get-out-of-jail-free card. It was clear Chloe neither wanted nor needed his help, and he could justifiably take his leave of her. But those emerald green, tear-filled eyes unconsciously sent a different message, and he felt an overwhelming surge of protectiveness towards her.

‘It’s Friday, and you’re going to have one hell of a wait for a taxi at this time of night. My car is over there. I can drop you home, no problem.’

Shaking her head, she pulled her phone from her bag and scrolled through various screens, obviously searching through her contacts. As she waited for the call to connect, a sharp breeze lifted her hair and she shivered, wrapping her free arm around herself. Without a word, Luke shrugged out of his dinner jacket and draped it across her shoulders, offering her a half smile when she looked up at him in surprise.

‘No luck?’ he asked a few seconds later, when she snapped her phone case shut.

‘They can’t send anyone for at least an hour.’ She closed her eyes in frustration, opening them again when he spoke.

‘Then it’s settled. Come on, I’ll take you home.’ Without waiting for a response, he took her arm and led her towards his car, opening the door and gently pushing her in before walking around and getting in himself.


Your boyfriend is seeing other women. I thought you should know.

Chloe closed her eyes and leaned back against the cool leather seat of the BMW, trying without success to push away the memories of the night she had confronted Chris.

Someone had sent the short, typed note to her work address. When she had shown it to Chris, he’d made no attempt to deny the accusation. Initially, he seemed to find it amusing, but Chloe’s hurt and confusion, her need to know why, had incensed him.

‘You really need to ask me why? Babe, you drove me to this, don’t think you didn’t,’ he spat the words in her face, his fingers gripping her shoulders painfully. ‘You want to know why? Fine, I’ll spell it out for you. Because you’re crap in bed. No, worse than that. You’re…you’re…I can’t even put into words how bad you are. I’d get more pleasure from sleeping with a bloody mannequin than with you.’

He’d looked at her incredulously, while she could only stare at him in speechless horror. ‘How can you not know, Chloe? I’ve told you often enough. I’ve only done what any man would do. You know, you really should get some help. Maybe a few lessons would teach you something. God knows, you need it.’

Thrusting her away from him, he had stormed towards the door before turning back with one final insult. ‘You have nothing to offer a man, Chloe. You’re all pretty packaging, but open you up and you’ve nothing inside that a man needs or wants. You don’t know how lucky you are to have me; anyone else would throw you out. You should be thanking me, not bloody snivelling on about me seeing other women. Especially when it’s your fault.’

Stifling a moan with the back of her hand, Chloe turned her face away, cheeks burning with humiliation.

‘You okay?’ Luke’s soft voice broke into her thoughts.

Chloe simply nodded, reluctant to enter into conversation, her gaze searching for the familiar landmarks that would tell her she was nearly home.

It was another twenty minutes before they finally reached the tall hedge bordering Chloe’s cottage, and Luke turned off the narrow lane onto the gravel driveway. It was easy to miss the turn-off to the cottage, but Luke showed no hesitation, bringing the car to a halt outside the front door.

The cottage stood in an isolated and secluded setting, several miles outside the gothic, North Yorkshire town of Whitby. With high hedges running along one edge of the garden, affording privacy from the road, and lower hedges bordering the three other sides, the cottage enjoyed breathtaking views over the cliff tops and out across the sea. Almost five miles from the local village, her nearest neighbour was a cottage similar to her own, a couple of miles further down the lane.

A sudden feeling of claustrophobia threatened to overwhelm her, and she fumbled for the door handle, scrambling out onto the gravel and leaving Luke’s jacket on the seat.

‘Chloe, wait—’

‘Thanks for driving me home.’

She closed the car door, only just managing not to slam it in her haste, and turned to run across the lawn, away from the cottage. She quickly reached the bottom of the garden and let herself out through the gate and onto another path that led out towards the edge of the cliffs.

‘Chloe!’

She paused and turned to see Luke standing by the car, his blond hair gleaming in the moonlight. Why wouldn’t he go? Chloe hesitated, knowing she was being rude and ungrateful, but she was in no mood to make small talk with a stranger, even one who had gone out of his way to help her.

‘I’m okay. I just need some air. You don’t need to stay.’ She shouted over the breeze, impatiently brushing away the hair that whipped across her face.

‘Wait!’

She shook her head and turned away, stepping down onto the path that zigzagged its way down to the beach below. It was a clear night, and the moon shone brightly enough to light her way as she reached the bottom, pausing to take off her sandals and dropping them on a large rock, along with her clutch bag. Unencumbered, she walked along the shore, drawing in deep breaths of the sharp, salty air in a vain attempt to calm herself.

‘Chloe.’

The soft voice behind her made her jump and she whirled around, her hand on her chest, stumbling slightly in the wet sand as Luke appeared next to her.

‘For heaven’s sake! What are you doing? Are you some kind of stalker or something? You don’t need to follow me, I’m perfectly all right.’

She turned and walked away, biting her lip when Luke matched her pace, seeming to have no problems walking in the deep sand.

‘I’m not stalking you. I want to make sure you’re okay. The tide’s coming in fast; you shouldn’t be down here, it’s not safe.’

‘Don’t you tell me when it is and isn’t safe. I live here, I know this beach better than anyone.’ She couldn’t believe the gall of the man, but a quick glance towards the ocean resulted in her heart thumping a little faster in her chest as she realised the tide was further in than she had anticipated. But she was damned if she was going to turn back on his say-so.

They carried on in silence for a few minutes until she couldn’t contain herself any longer.

‘Why did you do that?’ Her lips were stiff with anger as she turned to face him.

‘Do what?’ His face seemed deliberately bland.

‘You know what.’ She shook her head in irritation. ‘Kiss me like that in front of Chris and pretend that we were…that we were…’

‘Lovers?’ He finished off for her. ‘I did it, firstly, because I thought Lucie had manoeuvred you into an intolerable position. And secondly, because I thought it probably best for you if your ex didn’t realise you’re still in love with him.’

That stopped Chloe in her tracks, her jaw dropping at his bald response.

‘I am not in love with him,’ she managed, eventually. ‘And I didn’t need your help.’

‘Didn’t you?’

‘No, I didn’t. You know nothing about me. I’m not some damsel in distress waiting for a knight in shining armour to rescue me.’ Her breath was coming in short, sharp gasps as she boldly faced the man standing in front of her. His penetrating gaze once again searched her face, a gaze that spoke of wanting to understand her. A gaze that had never once crossed Chris’s face. Chris.

Chloe took a deep breath and turned her face away from Luke’s scrutiny, unaware that she was speaking until she heard her words whispered into the cool, night air. ‘I’m worth more than that.’

‘Worth more than what?’ Luke’s voice was gentle, and Chloe closed her eyes against the tears that once again threatened to spill at his unexpected kindness. She reached down to pick up a shell, brushing the sand off, only to throw it away seconds later. She was acutely aware of Luke standing patiently beside her.

‘You were wrong before, what you said. I’m not still in love with him. I’m not sure I ever was.’ She swallowed. ‘But he wanted me…I thought he wanted me. It was my one chance, you know? My one chance to prove her wrong…to show her I was…’ Chloe broke off with a sigh.

‘Worth more than that?’

Chloe gasped, staring at him in surprise. How did he know?

Luke gave a half smile and shrugged. ‘You said you were worth more.’

‘But I wasn’t, was I?’ Tears poured down her face as she covered her mouth with both hands to prevent the words from escaping, eyes wide at the admission she had made. Huge wracking sobs shook her shoulders as she stumbled along the beach. ‘I should have listened to my mother, but I was too stubborn, too desperate to prove her wrong. Turns out she was right after all. Oh, and how she revelled in that.’

‘Right about what? About Chris?’

Chloe shook her head, unwilling to admit such a shameful secret. She broke into a run, although whether it was to escape Luke or the past, she didn’t know. He caught up with her in a few easy strides, catching her upper arm and turning her to face him gently when she refused to look at him. He said nothing, just stood holding her at arm’s length, his thumbs caressing her skin in a soothing gesture.

‘It’s me. I’m not good…you know, in bed…with a man.’ She raised defiant eyes to meet his gaze, suddenly calm as she gave voice to her dirty little secret with a short, bitter laugh. ‘That’s a bit of an understatement, actually. There’s something not right with me. It was the same with my mother. I don’t know, maybe it’s hereditary or something. Anyway, she tried to warn me, but I wouldn’t listen.’

‘Chloe—’

She shook her head quickly, wishing she was alone, that she had never started this conversation because now she couldn’t stop. She had never spoken about this to anyone, not even Rebekah. So why was she suddenly confessing her deepest, darkest secrets to a stranger? Maybe it was the thought of being able to unburden herself to someone who, to use his own words, she would never have to see again after tonight. Shaking off his touch, she turned towards the ocean, for once unmoved by the sight of the moonlight dancing across the restless waves.

‘There’s nothing physically wrong me, that’s not the problem. But I hated him to touch me. I don’t seem to have…what men need or want.’ Her voice dropped until it was barely a whisper. ‘Just pretty packaging, that’s me. Chris said I was lucky to have him, no-one else would ever want me.’ She dipped her head, allowing the mass of coppery hair to fall forwards and hide her shame.

‘Chloe, you can’t believe that.’ Luke’s fingers were gentle on her arm as he turned her to face him. ‘They’re excuses for his own inadequacies, you know that, don’t you?’

‘No, you don’t understand.’ She wrenched herself free from his grasp. ‘It’s true, it was the same for Mum and she tried to warn me. It was my own fault, I didn’t listen. She was right; I’m worthless as a woman.’

Through her tears, Chloe saw Luke reach out to her as his hands cupped her face and he stooped a little to meet her gaze.

‘You are not worthless. And that is not something a mother should ever, ever say to her daughter.’ He frowned and shook his head, his gaze holding hers. ‘I think it’s more likely that your mother has the problem, not you.’

He dropped his hands from her face, gently running them along her arms to lightly catch hold of her fingers. Her skin tingled from his touch, and she found herself unable to look away from the intensity of his gaze.

‘You’re not worthless,’ he repeated softly.

In a moment of madness, and without knowing what possessed her—only that she suddenly wanted him—Chloe reached up to bring his head down to hers, and kissed him. For a moment Luke didn’t move, but then his hands slipped around her waist to pull her into him and he kissed her back. Chloe was completed unprepared for the way her body reacted to his. Deliciously alien sensations flooded her body, threatening to overwhelm her as she wrapped her arms around his neck, desperately wanting him closer.

Lost in his embrace, Chloe blinked in confusion when he pulled away from her, carefully disentangling her arms from his neck as he took a step back.

‘Chloe, don’t—’

She flinched and stumbled backwards, pushing his hands away when he reached out to her. What was she thinking?

‘Wait…’

‘No…no, you…’ She gave a hiccup; a half laugh, half cry. ‘You just confirmed everything. I’m sorry. God, what an idiot.’

‘No, look, that’s not what I meant.’

‘I don’t care what you meant. I don’t care what you say,’ she shouted, suddenly rushing forwards to push at his chest. ‘Leave me alone. I told you not to follow me, but you wouldn’t listen. Why wouldn’t you listen? Go away and leave me alone.’


Luke made no attempt to stop her as she turned and ran back along the narrow stretch of sand, feet splashing in the water as the tide drew in. He passed a hand wearily over his face, wondering what on earth had just happened. The girl he had seen on the beach, the one who wandered along the shore collecting shells and who danced and whirled and chased her dog, had seemed so carefree and happy. He’d been drawn to her, drawn to her ethereal beauty and other-worldliness. With her long, flowing skirts and wild curls, she couldn’t have been further from the women he usually dated, but he’d been determined to catch her one morning and introduce himself. She’d been dressed more conservatively tonight, although he had been fascinated by the wide silver bands adorning her fingers, hinting at the girl from the beach beneath the conservative dress.

But this girl had issues. My God, did she have issues. Who on earth told their daughter she was worthless? He shook his head as a shudder of unexpected anger rippled through him. Chloe was beautiful and gentle, with a fragility that brought out his protectiveness. And yet he’d seen the inner core of steel, a quiet strength he admired. She was a strong young woman; a woman who had no idea of her own sexuality. When she’d kissed him, she had set his body aflame, and it had taken every ounce of self-control to push her away.

He blew out a long breath. It would have been easy to take advantage of her when she was so upset and angry, but he couldn’t do it; it wouldn’t have been right. Despite the feelings she aroused in him, he didn’t want to be the reason she continued to doubt herself. And yet, in trying to do the right thing, he had hurt her.

While tonight had provided him with the perfect opportunity to meet her, it had also convinced him that he needed to stay well away from Chloe MacGregor. This was not a girl to mess around with; she’d obviously had more than enough of that to last a lifetime, and he was definitely not what she needed.

The tide was well in now, the waves rolling in quickly and soaking his feet. With a grim smile, he jogged across the beach to the path and slowly made his way up to the top of the cliff. When he reached the gate to her garden, he walked across the lawn towards the BMW, glancing at the cottage as he moved. It was in complete darkness.

Pulling open the car door, he sank onto the soft, leather seat. Don’t go playing with fire, Luke. Leave well alone.



CHAPTER TWO


‘Oh, Jasper, what was I doing? I made such a fool of myself last night.’

The German Shepherd looked up expectantly on hearing her name, thumping her tail on the carpet as Chloe sank onto the sofa and dropped her head in her hands.

‘I can’t believe I kissed him. A complete stranger, and I kissed him!’ She squeezed her eyes shut, her cheeks burning as she remembered vividly what it had felt like to be held in his arms, and her own completely unexpected response to his passionate kiss.

She looked up as Jasper whined and pushed a wet nose against her fingers.

‘Okay, you’re right; think positive.’ Chloe took a deep breath and straightened up to address her dog. ‘So, lessons learned from last night. Number one, Lucie is a total bitch…excuse my language.’ She grimaced apologetically at Jasper. ‘But she is. She is definitely not a friend, and you’d better remind me of that the next time she rings or texts me.’

‘Lesson number two.’ She counted off on her fingers. ‘Chris…Chris is…’

Her chin wobbled and she paused, taking a moment to bite back sudden tears. Jasper shuffled closer as if sensing her distress, resting her head on Chloe’s knees.

‘Thank you, Jasper. I love you, too.’ She scratched Jasper’s ears before nodding her head. ‘Lesson two. Chris is a complete and utter bastard, and obviously still has the power to hurt me, if I let him. But I won’t, I can’t. Otherwise, this last year has just been a complete waste.’

‘Lesson number three. Not everyone is like Chris; there are still some good guys out there. Guys like Luke Warwick, for instance.’ Chloe paused, head on one side as she considered. ‘At least, I think he’s a good guy. Not that I’ll ever see him again, thank goodness.’

She blew out a long breath. ‘Ohhhh, and lesson number four. Do not go around kissing said good guys. Just because I found out that I do actually like kissing some people, it does not change the fact that I am no good at the whole kissing and sex thing.’

Chloe smiled and lifted Jasper’s furry face, looking into the dog’s beautiful, brown eyes. ‘And finally, lesson number five. The same lesson as every other day. I am a good person, and just because I’m rubbish in bed, it does not give someone the right to treat me like dirt.’

‘There.’ She let Jasper go and walked over to the window, looking out over the cliffs. ‘I think that’s more than enough lessons for one day, don’t you? How about going down to the beach?’


Jasper loped across the lawn and, barely pausing to give her mistress’s hand a brief lick, galloped down the path towards the beach. Following at a more leisurely pace, Chloe couldn’t suppress a smile at her dog’s enthusiasm for life. Jasper still had the long-legged, floppy-eared look of a puppy. But already one ear had almost straightened and, at last, she was beginning to respond to Chloe’s gentle discipline.

Shoving her hands deeper into her jeans pockets, Chloe sighed, kicking barefoot at the sand. She had slept little last night, mortified that she had blurted out her shameful secret to a complete stranger and, even more confusing, unable to believe that she had launched herself on him. That kiss had awakened feelings she had never experienced before, but it was humiliating to realise that it had taken Luke only a few seconds to grow bored of her kisses, proving beyond doubt her lack of ability in that department. It shouldn’t matter, but for some reason, it did. And no amount of telling herself otherwise would change that.

Resolutely pushing such negative thoughts away, Chloe wandered slowly along the shore, throwing sticks for Jasper. She stopped occasionally to pick up one of the hundreds of shells washed up every day on the beach, examining it carefully before either discarding it or placing it in the little cloth bag she had brought along for this purpose. She loved shells, and most days she managed to add one or two to her collection, hanging them on lengths of translucent fishing line at the windows to create the illusion they were floating, or placing them in clusters in the bathroom and on shelves and side tables. In the garden, she tied small shells to long lengths of string, hanging them on every available branch or fence pole to catch the perpetual breeze that blew in off the sea, and creating a permanent sound of the beach.

Deciding this particular shell was not quite right for her collection, Chloe dropped it back on the sand, shaking her head as the wind whipped her hair across her face. She stood for a while watching the clouds scurry across the morning sky, lost in thought and breathing in the crisp salty air. It wasn’t working. The sea usually calmed her, but this morning she was aware of the disquiet squirming in the pit of her stomach, something she hadn’t felt for many months.

Lifting her hand to her mouth, she chewed on a fingernail. Was it coincidence that, having not seen him for almost a year, Chris had turned up just two weeks after the injunction had expired? She blinked back tears. No. He’d even mentioned it last night. Had it been a threat?

‘Looks like we could be in for a storm.’

Chloe started in alarm and turned quickly, expecting to see Chris. She gasped in surprise and relief when she saw Luke walking towards her, rugged and handsome in faded blue jeans and a navy fisherman’s sweater. His chin was dark with stubble and his blond hair ruffled by the wind. She looked away, acutely aware of the sudden frantic racing of her heart.

‘This is a private beach.’ Chloe’s voice was cold, and her lips tightened as her disloyal dog bounded around Luke, jumping up at him playfully. ‘Jasper, come here.’

‘Hello, boy. Have you brought a stick for me?’ Luke bent and made a fuss of the dog, looking up at Chloe with a grin. ‘At least someone’s pleased to see me.’

‘She’s a girl, not a boy,’ she said, reluctant to enter into a conversation with him, but out of respect for her beloved dog, unable to allow him to continue thinking of Jasper as a male.

‘Oh, is she?’ He gave her a quizzical grin. ‘I just assumed…you know…Jasper’s a boy’s name.’

When Chloe continued to glower at him in silence, he took the stick from the dog and threw it for her to chase before turning back to look at Chloe, his head angled slightly to one side.

‘Get out of bed on the wrong side this morning, did you?’ Although he smiled, his pale green eyes were watchful and wary.

‘This is a private beach.’ Chloe repeated, her voice sounding wooden even to her own ears. ‘And like I said last night, I don’t appreciate being stalked.’

Luke continued to stare at her in silence before turning and gesturing to her cottage, the roof of which was visible high up on the cliffs.

‘You live in Smuggler’s Keep, which allows you access to this beach, I presume?’ When she nodded, he pointed to the cottage on the cliffs at the opposite end of the beach. ‘Am I right in thinking, then, that whoever lives there is also allowed to use the beach?’

Chloe frowned. ‘Fulmar Cottage? Yes, that’s right, but no-one has lived there for months.’

‘Eleven months, to be exact,’ agreed Luke, his lips twitching as Chloe’s eyes widened in surprise. ‘I believe that’s what the estate agent told me when I bought the place three weeks ago.’

Chloe’s jaw dropped and she took an unconscious step backwards. ‘What? You can’t. No-one lives there, it’s empty.’

Her cottage and this beach were her own private sanctuary; a place of blissful solitude that gave her somewhere to escape to. She didn’t want to share that with anyone, especially not Luke Warwick.


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