“How dare you embarrass me like that?” Harriet Mortlake planted her hands on her hips and glowered at the man she’d cornered outside the cafe. Spitting mad, she wanted to slap the condescending smile off his face. Normally, she was iceberg cool, but as hard as she tried to keep her expression neutral, she could feel lightning bolts flashing from her eyes.
“It’s a temple, not a chapel,” he insisted.
Stubborn. Damn. Male
. She’d been showing the big guns from the Castles’ Management Trust round the building, but they clearly thought her too young for her role as Whitborough Castle’s archivist. She’d almost been too angry to think when this know-it-all first sounded off. Now he infuriated her all over again.
Harriet snorted. “As if! No way would medieval Christians build a pagan temple on their grounds. Superstitious locals would probably have accused them of devil worship and burned them at the stake. Any fool knows that.”
Her degree in library science made her suitable for the post. The castle manager had told her afterward that she’d been the only applicant. She’d almost stuck her tongue out at the head office guys and yelled Beggars can’t be choosers.
Despite Mr. Condescending’s interference, she’d managed to impress the big bosses—she thought. He flashed her a smile so electrifying it would have lit up the dingy, underground chapel where he’d embarrassed her earlier. The way he sat there dripping sex appeal, her anger might have evaporated. If only he hadn’t needed to have the last word.
He took another sip of coffee. “You really should get your facts right.”
Stupid, arrogant male
. She couldn’t decide whether to show him her diplomas and degrees or kick his shins. Professional to the core, she’d reined in her temper while the higher-ups carried out their inspection, but now that they’d left, she felt free to vent her rage.
Hands still on her hips, she tapped her foot at him. “Lost for words without an audience? Or maybe you can’t back up your cock-and-bull story? Put up or shut up, Mister. Tell me why you think it’s a temple.”
Mr. Condescending sat outside the tearoom as if he hadn’t a care in the world and enjoyed the early afternoon sunshine. He didn’t know it, but his interference when she’d shown the bigwigs into the chapel could have cost her a job she loved. Whitborough Castle’s extensive records needed cataloging, and she considered herself fortunate to work here. Only sometimes, she got a someone’s watching me
feeling that unsettled her.
The last two archivists had vanished, and the police were “looking into it”—whatever that meant. Now people viewed the post as a poisoned chalice. Harriet knew an opportunity when she saw it, and she’d grabbed it with both hands. Everything should have been perfect, but it wasn’t. From day one—just four weeks ago—she’d felt as if the castle’s ghosts studied her as eagerly as she studied the records. Paranoid or what?
After an early start, she met the bigwigs from Castles’ Management Trust for the first time. Things had been going well. Okay, they’d been surprised by her youth, and clearly considered her too inexperienced for the post of archivist. By the time they reached the chapel, she’d almost won them over. Then Mr. Condescending here stuck his oar in, and if she hadn’t handled him right, she’d probably have lost her job.
Teeth gritted, Harriet had thanked him for his interest and told him politely that he was mistaken. Intimidating and so tall she had to look up to see his face, he made her think of the Norman conquerors who’d built the castle. He was all muscle, sex, and sin—but his stubborn assertion that the chapel had been a temple sparked her temper.
Her mouth had watered when she’d first seen him, but his cavalier attitude infuriated her. If her employers hadn’t been watching, she’d have told him exactly what she thought. She’d have regretted it later—maybe—but her temper had helped her survive ever since as a young girl she’d dragged her mother to the women’s shelter.
There he went with that dazzling smile again. He had to be the most handsome man she’d seen in… Well, forever. His masculine essence—sandalwood and exotic spices—wrapped warm tendrils around her heart. Her breasts perked up beneath her blouse, and they ached for his touch.
Her favorite bra suddenly felt so tight it abraded her nipples like sandpaper, and an unfamiliar tingling started in her cunt. Why did her anger evaporate, just because he smiled? What sort of fool woman caved just because a man had the most kissable lips ever? Lips she wanted to taste…repeatedly. Not that having such a tempting mouth made him less condescending. She paused, seeking the right riposte to tear him to shreds.
He stood up and held out his hand. “Pleased to meet you. I’m Blaxton de Ferrers.”
His voice—a deep, masculine rumble that made her want to beg him to say her name—thrilled her more than his smile. This man just kept getting better, but she’d come here to confront him, not drag him over the table and kiss him until they ran out of breath.
Something wild, almost primal, stirred inside her, but she wasn’t the sort of predatory female who encouraged strange men into her bed. Apart from one disastrous night with Martin, she was practically a virgin. Afterward, he’d told his friends she was frigid, and they’d christened her “the ice queen.” She’d squared her shoulders and stood tall—half an inch short of six feet—and ignored them. But her dating confidence had sunk to zero. After that she’d channeled her anger into her studies rather than sex.
Today her body went into sensual overdrive and demanded— Hell, she wasn’t sure what she wanted, but it was all bound up in Blaxton de Ferrers, aka Mr. Condescending.
He told her quietly, “It’s polite to shake someone’s hand when they offer it.”
She kept her hands firmly on her hips. Where did this jerk get off, reprimanding her about her manners? He took condescending to a whole new level, but he’d picked on the wrong girl when he’d heckled her. “Not when they damn near cost me my job. I needed to make a good impression, and you took over like you knew everything there is to know about this place. And heads-up, Mister. It’s rude to stare at my breasts.”
He grinned again. His smile melted her heart and warmed her soul. “Actually, I was staring at your name tag. Harriet’s a pretty name. It suits you.”
Talk about open mouth and insert foot
. Harriet blushed and wished she’d said nothing. And hang on… De Ferrers? The family who once owned this castle? Someone once told Harriet she was part cat—always curious, always asking questions—and she supposed they’d been right.
She silently ran through the property’s history. Henry II had gifted the lands to Peter de Ferrers, and he’d turned the wooden stronghold into a magnificent castle. Maybe Mr. Condescending was a distant descendant of the original family.
Blaxton flashed that smile again, the one that made her heart beat double-time. He had to be the tallest man she’d ever seen. Not a beanpole, just a wide-shouldered, broad-chested piece of perfection.
He rested on hand on her arm. “Harriet, I’m sorry if I was out of line this morning. Let me make amends with coffee and cake; then I’ll explain why it’s a temple.”
His touch made her blood sizzle through her veins. She didn’t care that he invaded her personal space. Sitting here at one of the tearoom’s outdoor picnic benches and staring out to sea or watching him smile sounded amazing. Drinking coffee while his bass voice washed over her would make her lunch break perfect. Or maybe she’d enjoy it more if he kept his mouth shut. He made great eye candy, but she still raged about the arrogant way he’d interrupted her presentation. Even now, he wouldn’t see sense about the chapel.
She wanted to storm back to her office, find the original documents, and prove him wrong, but she hated when her temper got the better of her. She deliberately rolled her shoulders and relaxed. “I should apologize too. I try not to be so quick-tempered, but what can I say? Today was an epic fail, and I’m sorry.”
A wayward, feminine part of her still obsessed over his lips. Her common sense shouted for her to get out of there, but sometimes being sensible sucked. “Maybe just a coffee, but no cake. A lifetime on the hips and all that.”
He smiled, clearly taking her words as an invitation to study her curves. His scrutiny made her cheeks burn, and she knew she blushed again. Maybe I should give the low-fat diet another go.
Then, as if he’d read her mind, he told her, “I think your hips are perfect.”
Okay, he was silver-tongued and gorgeous, but it didn’t change facts. She’d gotten through university on a diet of pasta, rice, and chips—anything inexpensive so she didn’t get too deep in debt—but all those carbohydrates had settled on her hips and breasts. Men like Blaxton de Ferrers wanted slender fashion plates on their arms—and in their beds. Still, if he was interested, she’d starve herself for someone as downright sexy as him. The South Sea diet’s supposed to be good. Yeah, like I’ve ever managed more than a few days on a diet.
She sat opposite him. “Just a black coffee, please.”
His predatory walk made her mouth water, and she wondered what he’d be like in bed. He’d look amazing naked and… Her own thoughts made her blush. She knew nothing would ever happen between them, but a girl could dream.
Once he’d proved his point, he’d be on his way. It was probably for the best. Harriet wasn’t letting anyone into her bed easily, no matter how much they made her drool. Not after that disastrous one-and-only night when Martin had stopped over and things ended…badly. His insults had gotten under her skin, and she’d flung his clothes out the window. When he objected, she shoved his naked ass out the door and slammed it behind him.
She’d have been fine if he hadn’t compared her to an iceberg—stationary and freezing. One look at Blaxton de Ferrers and her panties grew damp with desire. How embarrassing was that? Especially after he interrupted her debut presentation to her bosses.
Moments later he returned, a mug steaming in each hand. “Your coffee, milady.”
He’d gone from condescending to charming in the space of a few heartbeats, but she still needed answers. She blinked hard, stunned by the pull this man had on her. Normally reserved, she hated how her nipples pebbled in his presence.
In his crisp jeans and button-down shirt, he looked expensive and…edible. He’d rolled up his shirtsleeves. His arms were rock-hard, muscular, and suntanned. When she looked closer, she thought his watch was the same brand all the Hollywood stars wore—a solid gold one at that. His sun-bleached hair fell in casual disarray over his collar. She knew an expensive haircut when she saw it.
Harriet studied him as though he were a bug beneath a microscope. “De Ferrers? Are you a descendant of the original family that ruled here in medieval times? Do you really know things about this castle that no one else does? What makes you think the chapel was really a temple? And if it was, who worshiped there? And if it was a pagan stronghold, then why do the oldest documents mark it with a cross?”
He raised his hands in surrender. “Slow down. You’re firing questions the way a machine gun fires bullets. Yes, my ancestors once ruled here, but it was a long time ago. How about you tell me why you believe that black hole’s a chapel? It looks more like a dungeon to me.”
She threw back her head and laughed. “Clever, turning my own question back on me. Okay, I’ll play. I’m the new archivist here, but back in Victorian times, they unearthed an original map of the castle. Your dungeon, temple, or whatever you want to call it was marked with a cross. See? Temples are pagan strongholds, not places for Christian worship.”
He grinned that devastating smile that melted her bones, and tossed her a tidbit of information. “The cross on the plans. Were all the arms the same length? Was it bright blue on a silver-gray background, and did the arms have cut off triangle bases inverted and stuck on their ends?”
Harriet’s breath came faster, and as she stared down at her hand, it shook so hard she almost spilled her coffee. “You mean like a Knights Templar cross but in different colors? Azure and argent? Sorry, you’d call them sky blue and silver. Those were the Knights Defender’s colors, weren’t they? Do you really think it was one of their temples where they carried out their most secret and sacred rituals? Really? It’d make my career if you’re right, but we don’t have any Knights Defender connections here.”
Hot coffee scalded Harriet’s throat, but the quicker she drank it the sooner she could return to her office and check out the original map. Proving a Knights Defender connection could make her reputation and impress the higher-ups who’d doubted her. “I’ll dig out those original plans and check, but I can’t believe anyone could make such a foolish mistake. Can I have your phone number or something, and if you’re right, I’d love to talk.”
Mortified, she realized she’d just asked this stranger for his phone number. He wound her up like a clockwork toy, and when she chased after him, he talked with such authority she almost believed him. Besides, even if he’d made his wild story up, she really wanted to see him again. Who was she kidding? She needed to know if he tasted as great as he smelled—all sandalwood and exotic spices. If he did, she’d surely find him addictive.
Blaxton grinned, pulled out a business card, and scribbled a cell phone number underneath his business contacts. “Here. That’s my personal number.”
She studied the card and laughed. “It says here you’re a property developer. I can’t see you being able to do much with a twelfth-century castle, even if it wasn’t grade one listed.”
He stared out to sea, and for a moment he looked lost. His smile returned so quickly Harriet wondered if she’d imagined his brief withdrawal.
He finished his coffee and stood up. “Maybe I could demolish the damned temple and replace it with a real chapel. I’m not staying in Yorkshire long, but would you have dinner with me tonight? We can discuss the Knights Defender if you like. How about we meet up in the Italian restaurant by the harbor? I’ll book a table for eight o’clock tonight if you’re free.”
Harriet blushed, but she smiled back. Tonight she’d be dining with the best-looking guy in the town—if he turned up. She’d been stood up so many times by her ex before she’d stupidly let him share her body and her bed. After the way he’d treated her, dating came hard.
Blaxton de Ferrers seemed genuine. Part of her wanted to run out and get her nails done right along with her hair. What the hell am I going to wear?
She wasn’t some sophisticated London beauty, but she cleaned up okay despite her extra ten pounds. Besides, no way would she miss a chance to pump him for information. And if he wants to kiss me goodnight… Well, I might just let him.