Emerald Mistress. Lynne Graham
tall hedges on either side so overgrown that any view was obscured. The verges were lush and green, the floating tumbrels of Queen Anne’s lace moving softly in the slight breeze. She wasn’t expecting too much, Harriet reminded herself. It was so important not to have unrealistic expectations. The lane fanned out into a concrete yard surrounded by a collection of old sheds and stables fashioned of a variety of materials and not at all scenic. Obviously repairs were on the agenda. Well, she had a little money to spend, and two hands to work with.
She drove on round the next corner and lost her heart within thirty seconds flat. In a grove of glorious trees a little whitewashed cottage sat below a thatched roof so endearingly steep it resembled a witch’s hat. Worn red paint picked out old-fashioned mullioned windows and a battered wooden door. Utterly astonished by the sheer eccentricity and apparent age of the building, Harriet blinked and stared. Then she slammed on the brakes, thrust aside her seat belt and climbed out to explore.
The key turned in the door’s lock with ease. A good sign, she thought, buzzing with anticipation. She stepped into a dim interior and was struck by the evocative smell of beeswax and flowers filling her nostrils. A tiny fire glowed in a massive smoke-blackened fireplace, which still rejoiced in all the black metal fittings that had once functioned as a cooking range. The light of the flames gleamed and danced over the dark wood patina of a centrally positioned table, on which was placed a bunch of misty purple lavender spikes and soft pink roses in a chipped crystal vase.
There were two doors, the first of which led into a small room dominated by a high brass bed and a massive Victorian wardrobe. The other led into a much more recent extension to the cottage. Here, the kitchen housed an Aga and had an office corner that accommodated a very cluttered desk set against walls papered with tatty rosettes and faded photos of racing events and horses. Another bedroom led off a small rear corridor. Praying that the final door next to it led into a bathroom that enjoyed full washing facilities, Harriet depressed the knob.
‘Go away…I’m in the bath, Una!’ a startled male voice yelled in protest.
Almost simultaneously Harriet heard a door open off the kitchen and a girl shouting, ‘Fergal…there’s a strange car out front. Forget having a soak. If that’s the Carmichael woman arriving, she’ll not want to find a strange fella in her bath!’
A tall whip-thin teenager in dirty jodhpurs focused on Harriet with sparkling brown eyes and thumped a dismayed hand to her full mouth. Her spiky black hair was threaded with purplish streaks in true gothic style, but she was without a doubt an extraordinarily pretty girl.
There was the sound of a body hastily vacating sloshing bathwater. ‘How do you know? I have a way with women,’ Fergal quipped cheekily. ‘She might be glad enough to find me here—’
‘I can’t give you an honest opinion on that score until I see you,’ Harriet murmured truthfully.
A silence that screamed fell, and then the upper half of a young giant with a tousled blond head twisted round the door to peer out at her. He had navy blue eyes and an unshaven chin. Even though Harriet was thoroughly irritated to find her magical cottage invaded by strangers, she was not at all surprised at Fergal’s belief that he had a way with her sex. In his early to mid-twenties, and with a smile that could strip paint, he was very handsome.
‘Bloody hell…I’m sorry!’ Fergal groaned, and slammed the door fast.
‘I’m Una Donnelly…your part-time groom,’ the teenager announced, tilting her chin pugnaciously.
‘I didn’t realise that anybody else had keys for this place,’ Harriet remarked carefully.
Una reddened. ‘Fergal’s not anybody,’ she proclaimed defensively. ‘He’s like Kathleen’s unofficial partner and he’s always made himself at home here.’
‘Only not now that there’s a new owner!’ Fergal called hurriedly from behind the door he had opened a crack.
‘I assume I have you to thank for dusting and lighting the fire in the hall.’ Harriet walked back into the kitchen to fill the kettle and put it on to boil. She was very tired and extremely hungry, and she needed to get Samson out of the car. After a crack-of-dawn start yesterday, she had driven her packed car from London to board a ferry in Wales. After spending the night on Irish soil in a bed and breakfast, her subsequent journey across the midlands to the Atlantic west coast had been long and draining.
‘No. Why would I do that?’ Una asked in a startled tone that suggested such homely domestic tasks were alien to her.
‘Well, someone did.’
‘But I didn’t know for sure when you were coming—’
‘Good heavens!’ Harriet lost interest in that minor mystery when she looked out of the window for the first time. A simply huge mansion sat on the hill above her new home. Silhouetted against the dulling blue sky, the house was as pure and classic an example of Georgian architecture as she had ever seen, and the setting was spectacular. ‘What’s that?’
Harriet tensed. ‘Any connection with a business called Flynn Enterprises?’
‘Big connection,’ Una emphasised at her elbow. ‘With Rafael Flynn on your case you don’t need to worry about us. We don’t want you out. We’re on your side. We think it’s great that you want to make a go of the yard.’
‘I’m delighted to hear it.’ Smothering a yawn, Harriet trekked outside to release Samson from the captivity of his cosy carrier and bring in the groceries she had bought on the road. Did this Rafael Flynn want her out? She winced. Obviously he had tried to buy her out already. But he couldn’t achieve that without her agreement, so why should the teenager’s words leave her feeling threatened?
Samson danced round her feet, tossing a half-hearted bark of greeting at Una, but reserved his main enthusiasm for the food and water that Harriet was placing outside for him.
‘I’ve never seen anything that tiny,’ Una gasped. ‘Is it a dog or a rat? You’d better watch out for it in the yard. Horses spook easily.’
‘Samson will learn. He may be small but he has the heart of a lion.’ Harriet made a determined attempt to build up the chihuahua’s profile.
Unimpressed, Una frowned in wonderment at the lion-hearted miniature dog. ‘Don’t let him wander. The wolfhounds up at the Court would eat him up in one big bite.’
Fergal reappeared, fully dressed in the shabby gear of a horseman. With his damp blond head hovering within inches of the low ceiling, his blue eyes anxious, he held out a huge hand. ‘I’m Fergal Gibson, Miss Carmichael—’
‘Harriet,’ she said automatically
He put a set of keys down on the table with a definitive snap. ‘I wouldn’t have been using the facilities if I’d known you were arriving today. There’s the spare keys back.’
‘But you can’t just surrender to her like that!’ Una launched at him fierily. ‘Like this place is nothing to you and you don’t care that you’re losing a fortune. Kathleen never meant for this to happen—’
‘Stay out of this, Una,’ Fergal cut in with frank male embarrassment. ‘Harriet’s only just got here, and I’m sure she’d prefer to be taking stock of her new home without uninvited visitors. I’ll lock up the horses for the night, shall I?’
Uncertain as to what to do and say at that moment, Harriet walked out in to the yard with Una in the young blond man’s wake. As her mother’s cousin had died nearly four months earlier, it had not occurred to Harriet that there might still be livestock on the property. Certainly none had appeared on the inventory of assets. What exactly was the role of an ‘unofficial partner’? Encountering a truculent look of suspicion from the hot-headed teenager, Harriet suppressed a groan, for she was beginning to suspect that nothing about her Irish inheritance was likely to be as straightforward as she had fondly imagined it would be.
At the back of the cottage a new