Love is Purple
(Sophie and Marc)
Appleby Book 3
Can a sweet church mouse capture the heart of a proud lord?
Marc Lewis may be a wealthy barrister and lord of his own English manor, but he desperately needs a wife. His prestigious career hangs in the balance, and only a well-connected marriage will salvage it. A duchess or countess will do perfectly, but a mere village girl will not.
Life has taught Sophie Harrington that no man will ever choose her. But one day when fate throws the hottest man ever at her, this little village mouse can’t help but sit up and roar.
Irresistible attraction sparks, and Marc is more than willing to spend a few nights in Sophie’s arms. But the closer they get, the more Sophie’s heart becomes entangled. Can she convince him to choose her for a lifetime and not just a few nights?
STANDALONE Contemporary Romance | Appleby Book 3
Full-length novel: 382 print pages.
Steamy love scenes (readers: 18+)
Read chapters below.
“ This goes down as one of my favorite storylines. I absolutely loved every bit of this story, it captivated me from the start.” (Amazon US, May 09, 2017)
“Could not put the book down. The plot kept me on the edge with all the twists and turns and dealings with royalty. There ends up being a couple of HEA’s in this book. You will adore Sophie.” (Amazon US, April 30, 2017)
“This book definitely has everything I could ask for in a story.” (Amazon UK, May 05, 2017)
“An absolutely fantastic book. I was drawn by it from the beginning till the end and I couldn’t put it away. A great story with a lot of action. I will highly recommended it to everyone.” (Goodreads, May 01, 2017)
Not everyone makes it past the doors of London’s Bourbon Bar. Not unless the owners wanted you there. Marc Lewis placed his drink on the polished counter and glanced around. The place was notoriously exclusive, but people were still pouring in fast on a grey Thursday evening.
His own group stood chatting in clumps dotted around the bar. Senior barristers hanging out with junior admins, celebrating the win of yet another major case.
He sipped his whiskey. Giving his staff a coveted visit to the Bourbon as a thank you for their work was the least he could do.
“You’re quiet tonight.” Peters, one of the senior partners, came and sat on the empty bar seat next to Marc, his drink in hand. A thickset blond man in his early fifties, Peters floated through life with a happy-go-lucky smile permanently plastered on his face. “I heard today’s case was a bugger to close. Guess you need all the peace and quiet you can get to recover.”
Marc smirked. His black hair and black suit were perfect camouflage in dark corners when he needed it, but recovery wasn’t why he was lingering alone in the shadows tonight. He had things on his mind. Things he was chasing. Things he was close to getting, but still not close enough. “The day I need to recover from a case is the day you can burn my QC silk and bury me for good.” He took another sip from his tumbler.
“Don’t know how you manage these cases so casually,” Peters mused. Then he sat forward, his expression filling with curiosity. “The people who wanted you for this case… Orion Associates… They’re not who they claim to be, are they?”
“What do you mean?”
Peters cast a furtive glance around before answering. “It’s one of the Messiah’s holdings, isn’t it?”
“You’ve been digging.”
“Yes… Well… Who wouldn’t be just a teeny bit curious? It’s spice in a dull life, eh?”
Marc grinned. “Dig too deep and you might get more spice than you can handle.”
Peters paused over his drink, taking that in, but his eyes still popped with a burning question. “Did the big man himself call to congratulate you?” he blurted.
“You mean the Messiah?” Marc said wryly. “That’s not his style.”
“But you’ve seen him. What’s he like?”
“If I tell you, I might find bits of you under a bridge tomorrow.”
Peters pulled back with a gulp, and his light-blue eyes searched Marc’s sharper ones for the joke. Then perhaps finding it, he relaxed with an appreciative laugh. “Oh, you’re joking. You had me going there.”
Was he joking? Maybe. Marc sipped his drink and laughed along.
“Marc, I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” The woman’s cultured voice had him turning.
“Renee,” Peters greeted her jovially. Then he looked from her to Marc. “Well, I’ll… um… leave you two alone.” And scooping up his drink he quickly made himself scarce.
Marc watched his fast disappearing back as Renee folded her tall elegant body into the seat Peters had vacated.
She’d joined his law chambers a month ago and hadn’t taken long to make a name for herself as a tough cookie. Her long chestnut hair, blue eyes, and beautiful features hid a keen analytical mind. Renee distracted men, and Marc wasn’t ashamed to say he’d used it to his advantage during a few cases.
But did she distract him? Renee probably liked to think so. And judging from Peters’ bumbling attempt at tact, the rest of his chambers seemed to think so too.
“Marc, there’s trouble with the Phillipios mining case.” Renee leaned towards him. “The Lord Chancellor’s office just got involved.”
Marc frowned. Typical. A major case comes along and every barrister and QC worth his silk schemed for it. He took a drink. “Let’s see how it plays out.”
“But it should be yours. The company wanted you. You know someone’s pulling strings.”
Yeah, he knew a rotten fish pulling strings when he smelled one. And that rotten fish even had a name. But it wasn’t a name he wanted to waste time on tonight. He smiled and indicated Renee’s empty hands. “How about a drink? What are you having?”
She laughed and shook her head at the change in topic. “What do you think I should have?”
Marc pretended to study her. “Cosmopolitan.”
“Interesting choice. Why?”
“It’s you in a glass. Good looking… strong… sweet… but hiding a knock-out punch at the end.”
“So that’s what you think of me.” She crossed one long shapely leg over the other, and her slim skirt rode up her thigh. “I was beginning to think you hadn’t noticed.”
“I’d have to be blind not to.” He nodded at the bartender nearby and the man set to work preparing the drink.
Renee rested her fingers on his hand. “What are your plans for the evening?”
“I have a few loose ends to tie up.”
“Work?” She gave him an exasperated look.
Marc grinned. “As always.”
The bartender handed her the drink, and taking it she sipped the bright red cocktail.
Marc sat back and studied her: flawless skin, perfect lips caressing the glass, the press of her perky breasts against her cream silk top. Since his split from Clarissa Beauchamp two weeks ago, Renee had made herself more and more available. He was single and free, and she ticked every box for what he wanted in a woman. They could do this tonight. Dinner. Back to his London apartment. And then…
So why was he holding back?
Two men approaching the bar caught his eye. The short swarthy one in front looked like a transplant from the fifties in his fancy pinstripe suit. And the grim black-suited hulk walking behind was without a doubt packing guns. On instinct, Marc protectively edged closer to Renee.
“Marc.” The short one came up and held out his hand.
Marc gripped the man’s hand in a firm handshake. “Carl.”
“Good job today,” Carl said, beaming. “The boss chose you for it. He knew you would deliver.”
“Thank him for me,” Marc said.
“We have more work if you are looking for it.”
“My schedule’s tight, but if it’s something that interests, I’ll look it over.”
Carl’s white teeth flashed against his darker skin. “It is always interesting, but not something the courts would smile on, yes?”
“Thanks, but I don’t work on the other side, Carl.”
“That is a shame. This side is where the fun is.” He turned to Renee, who’d been listening avidly. “Renee, always a pleasure to see you,” he said brightly. “Stay and enjoy everything the Bourbon has to offer, yes?”
Renee’s eyes rounded. “Do I know you?”
“You should. Until next time, Marc.” Carl gave a parting grin and left with his over-muscled protector in tow.
“Who was he?” Renee whispered as soon as Carl was out of earshot. “And how did he know me?”
“He knows everyone who comes to the Bourbon. That’s Carl Anderson, or ‘Goblin’ if you prefer. He’s the Messiah’s right-hand man. They own this bar.”
“Carl Anderson…” Renee frowned in the direction Carl had gone. “He looks and sounds too Greek for that name.”
“I doubt the real Carl Anderson needs the name anymore.” Marc took his phone from his jacket pocket. “Though I’d bet he didn’t give it up willingly.” He checked the screen, but no message showed.
“What about tomorrow?” Renee’s quick question brought his attention back to her.
“Do you like opera?”
“Depressed singers in pantomime gear bellowing like constipated whales. What’s not to like?”
“Seriously? But you like classical music. You have it playing in your office all the time.”
So she’d been keeping tabs on him. “It helps me work.”
“Well, I thought you’d like opera too.”
“They butcher perfectly good music. The tone wobbles all over the place.” He regarded her. “Why are you asking?”
“I have tickets for tomorrow evening’s Rigoletto. I thought you might like to see it.”
“And I might have come just to keep you company…”
Renee smiled at that.
“…but I’m kissing civilization goodbye tomorrow to chauffeur my father to a backwater called Appleby.”
“Appleby?” Renee wrinkled her nose. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“No one has. It’s a blip on England’s butt. But my father’s keen to go, so I have to humour him.”
Renee laughed. “Wow, I didn’t realize you were such a caring son.”
“Caring…” Marc mused with a grin. “That’s not the label my father would use for me.”
His phone on the bar counter buzzed, and a message flashed on screen.
“Got to go.” Marc dropped the phone into his jacket pocket and standing, grabbed his black coat from the back of his seat.
Renee’s eyes narrowed in disappointment, and Marc shrugged on his coat with a frown.
He’d move this thing between them on to something more meaningful next time.
* * *
Bright street lights pierced the dusky darkness outside, and a light autumn drizzle covered everything in misty grey. Marc drew his coat collar up against the damp and strode past the London roads jam-packed with traffic and evening crowd.
Anson was waiting for him outside the old wood door of Marc’s law chambers. His trench coat was belted against the misty drizzle, and his over-long brown hair was pushed back from his broad face.
“Found her?” Marc asked.
“Tracked her as far as Switzerland. But she’s zipping around Europe faster than a hornet on ‘roids.” Anson shifted his big bulk away from the door. “I’ll have to put my boots on the ground there to corner her.”
Marc’s eyes narrowed. “Is she alone?”
“Hard to say right now.”
Clarissa wouldn’t be alone. She always needed a man’s attention, and there were plenty of men to give it. But one particular man was always with her…
Marc clenched his jaw.
One man whom Marc had set his sights on ever since Clarissa ran to Europe two weeks ago. “Track her down,” he said. “But stay hands off for now.”
Anson nodded. “I’ll leave tonight.”
“Text me as soon as you have something.”
With another nod, Anson started to walk away but then looked back. “When I find her, then what?”
“Then the bastard with her had better start praying.”
Sophie Harrington closed her eyes and prayed for patience. This was going to be a long afternoon.
She’d desperately hoped for a pleasant time decorating the church for Appleby’s October Apple Week. Instead here she was, babysitting her two younger sisters who’d rather be anywhere else, and facing down a crabby nuisance who looked on the verge of staging a sit-in at the altar.
The joys of being the vicar’s eldest daughter.
She opened her eyes and the crabby old prune was still there.
“No! Not there, you silly girl.” Mrs Buchard fixed Anna with a squinty glare and jabbed her walking stick towards the church altar. “Put them in the middle. Otherwise how will anyone see them?”
Anna glowered at the spindly old woman and stuffed the forlorn-looking flower arrangement into Sophie’s hands. “It’d be a mercy if no one sees them,” she muttered, swiping her blue-streaked dark hair back from her eyes.
But her voice drowned beneath the rousing strains of Joy To The World being thumped out on the wheezy church organ in one corner of the altar.
“Eh? What? What did you say, girl?” Mrs Buchard cupped a hand to her ear and wobbled closer.
Sophie tucked back a strand of her long dark hair that had escaped her practical ponytail and dredged up the best placating smile she could. “I’m sorry, but there’s no space for them on the altar, Mrs Buchard,” she shouted, and indicated the already overflowing altar where pink and white roses cascaded down the sides and front.
Good thing their father, the Reverend Ian Harrington, wasn’t allergic to flowers. Otherwise all his sermons over Apple Week would have been a string of sneezes punctuated by wild curses.
“Make space then!” The squinty glare now pinned Sophie. “Don’t tell me two fit young girls can’t sweep aside a few roses for my flowers.”
If they could be called flowers.
Sophie studied the arrangement in her hands. A bunch of bobbly purple eyesores—looking like a cross between someone’s privates and a queasy wasp—was surrounded by a collar of hairy green ferns. And it all sprouted willy-nilly from a fat green bucket. If she were to place the lot on one of the graves in the graveyard the dead would leap up in anger.
“I spent all of yesterday making it,” Mrs Buchard huffed. “I wanted flowers that were just the right colour for the altar.”
Sophie looked back at the altar. The autumn sun glinted jewel colours through the towering stained-glass window and dappled the roses in reds, blues and golds, but not a smidgen of purple anywhere. Red tulips or golden sunflowers made sense, but purple bobbly things? Still, the old woman had lavished time creating her beloved masterpiece, and Sophie hadn’t the heart to send her away disappointed.
Perhaps they could hide the purple horrors away at the back, behind a pile of roses, never to be seen on this earth again.
She gave Mrs Buchard a hopeful smile. “Let me see if I can—”
The organ clamoured to a stop, cutting her off. Joy To The World ended and the haunting notes of Liszt’s Dreams of Love soared into the air. One of her favourite tunes. Sophie glanced at the ancient organ where Kitty, her youngest sister, was sitting prisoner and thumping her belligerent way through tune after tune. Two notes dropped to be replaced by a bloop and a whistle from the organ pipes, and Sophie winced, her musical fingers itching to get over there and play that music right. But Kitty looked up and catching Sophie’s stare, smirked, then with a toss of her long blonde locks returned to attacking the keys with a vengeance.
Sophie wearily shook her head. They would have done better without the background music at this rate. Kitty wasn’t the most patient of musicians, but today she was outplaying even her worst, most likely to make their father regret ever trapping her there.
Their father had decided music would lend an air of relaxation as the flowers went up. Sophie would have gladly played since the organ was her special place in the church. But he’d stuck her with the organizing like the good little secretary he saw her as, and then he’d cajoled and threatened Kitty in equal parts into playing.
“Will you put them on the altar or not?” Mrs Buchard’s annoyed voice snapped Sophie’s attention back to her.
Sophie sighed and glanced at the altar again. “We could find space…”
But Anna quickly plonked herself in front of it, arms crossed, and with a glare in her bright green eyes that said over my dead body.
Well, fantastic. And shooting Anna an evil look, Sophie cleared her throat and tried bargaining. “They’re… um… unique flowers, Mrs Buchard…”
“Orchids. They’re orchids.”
“Oh, I see.”
Mrs Buchard tottered forward until she was eye level with Sophie’s shoulder. “I made this especially for you, my dear.” She gave Sophie a gummy smile. “Your mother’s been telling everyone how she despairs you’ll ever find yourself a nice young man. Twenty-five and still not chosen, and now with your younger sisters coming to attention too. It’s a sad state of affairs.”
Sophie’s cheeks flamed, but the old woman wasn’t done. “These will solve your troubles. It’s said that keeping a purple orchid in a maiden’s sight will quickly bring her true love to her. And in my ninety-two years, I haven’t seen it fail.” The beady eyes squidged up slyly. “It’s how I found mine.”
Sophie stared at her. Old Mr Buchard had died two years ago. Sure, that had been one long and successful marriage, and who didn’t want that? But for heaven’s sake, the ‘not chosen one’? Really? The entire village and her mother were labelling her as so desperate, they were even resorting to magical orchids now.
The music changed again. Dreams of Love died a violent death and The Pink Panther bonged onstage.
And as if that triggered an idea in her, Mrs Buchard gave Sophie another winning smile. “Why don’t you keep these orchids by that organ of yours? Then you and everyone can see them, and you’ll be swept off your feet in no time. There’s no reason why a pretty thing like you shouldn’t be attracting attention.”
“I’m not sure I’m looking for attention, Mrs Buchard,” Sophie said faintly, as Kitty’s Pink Panther made Anna glower in the direction of the organ and mouth ‘Are you crazy?’
Keep the dratted flowers on the organ, her own little corner of the church? No thank you. Not in a million Sundays.
“Of course you want attention!” Mrs Buchard snapped. “Now that your best friend has married, you don’t want to wither on the vine, do you?”
“I don’t want to wither anywhere.”
But even though she was overjoyed for Molly, who’d found her true love in Jake and jetted off on her Paris honeymoon a week ago, Sophie couldn’t help the twinge of envy that reminded her she was stuck here in Appleby, alone, while her childhood friend had an exciting new life and love ahead of her.
“Then do something about it,” Mrs Buchard said, poking her stick meaningfully at the orchids in Sophie’s hands. “You won’t be pretty forever, you know.”
Sophie grappled with her patience. ‘Pretty’ belonged to her sisters who had every young man in Appleby swooning over them.
Life wasn’t fair sometimes.
She glanced down at her neat button-up white shirt and mud-brown tweed skirt. Her ‘church mouse’ uniform as her mother called it. She wasn’t pretty. She was practical. But practical was good. Practical meant you never had to worry about being sidelined.
Anyway maybe the problem wasn’t her. Maybe it was Appleby…
She pulled herself together. A little place like Appleby wouldn’t suddenly land her with Mr Right, magical purple orchids or not. It was village talk like this that had her feeling sorry for herself, and it didn’t help that her mother was the loudest of the bunch.
So to hell with everything. She didn’t need ‘Mr Right’. She needed life and excitement and a sunny spot outside her sisters’ shadows. And for that she’d ramp up her efforts to ‘persuade’ her father to let her find a job outside Appleby. He couldn’t expect her to live out her entire life as his church assistant.
But first she had to get rid of Mrs Buchard.
“It’s very kind of you to think of me, Mrs Buchard,” she said crisply. “I’ll find the perfect place for these orchids.” Mrs Buchard eyed her suspiciously and then eyed the church organ again, but Sophie stalled her. “I think flowers as special as these should go on the reverend’s desk, don’t you? In fact, I’ll go put them there right now.”
No man-snaring flowers were going up near her precious organ. And besides, best test them on their absent-minded father first. If he suddenly picked up an admirer or two, they’d know for sure the orchids worked.
Mrs Buchard nodded, apparently appeased. “Don’t overwater them. And make sure they’re kept nice and warm. And tell your father he’s not to sit right in front of them and block out their light. They like plenty of light.”
Sophie flashed a smile and nodded along, until finally, muttering to herself, Mrs Buchard tottered away to the church door.
Relieved, Sophie turned back to the altar. Anna was still gesturing wildly to Kitty, who stuck out her tongue and immediately swapped The Pink Panther for Yakety Sax.
“For God’s sake, Sophie, do something!” Anna shot her a frustrated look. “She’ll bury us in the Sabre Dance next.” Then her gaze fell on the orchids. “Nawp! Not here. Nuh-uh.” And spreading her arms wide she plastered herself like a prickly starfish in front of the altar.
“I wasn’t about to,” Sophie stated with heavy dignity. “I’m taking them to Dad’s office.”
Anna pulled a face. “Poor him. And you know the old hag was playing to your gullible heart with her tale of magical stud-catching orchids, right?”
Sophie bristled. Did she have idiot written on her face? Why did everyone insist on treating her like an imbecile? “Okay. That does it. You deal with Kitty… and any other flower-bearing busybodies who come along,” she snapped. “After all this palaver I need peace and quiet.”
And holding the orchid bucket out before her like it was contaminated, she hurried into the dark narrow corridor that led to the blessed solitude of her father’s office, while Yakety Sax merrily blared behind her.
Marc took two steps around the corner and walked slap bang into yet another red brick wall.
This was the third alcove he’d ended up in all in a space of five minutes. The whole damn place was like a devious maze. And why did they need so many damn alcoves in such a narrow dingy corridor?
Maybe they bricked people up alive in them, another one of their quaint ancient customs they liked to keep going for unwary passers-by. Just like the rain of rotten apples that had pelted his beloved Audi S8 when he’d driven into this miserable village half an hour ago. He’d screeched to a halt beside the church orchard and despite his father’s protests, slammed out of the car ready to lay into the terrible terrors hiding in the branches of the apple trees. But the four young boys had leaped down, and with the nerve to laughingly yell “Welcome to Appleby”, raced off down a side lane.
Just as well they’d run, because if he’d caught them, none of them would be sitting comfortably for a week.
Why the hell had he come on this trip with his father in the first place? He breathed out in frustration. Quality time or talk between them was a joke, but his father seemed to be going through a midlife crisis and he’d hoped this trip would ease that. But even a midlife crisis wasn’t worth losing precious moments of his life stuck in this dead-end hole.
And with another glower at the brick alcove, he stalked down the dim corridor, his footsteps thudding a heavy beat on the ancient grey stone.
There must be a way out of this accursed place. Maybe he should have stayed with his father when the vicar had offered to show them both around the church. But Reverend Harrington was an old friend of his father’s, and Marc had left so they could catch up on the good ol’ days. Old man talk. Snoozefest. But at least it had put a grin on his father’s face. Though if he’d known this stupid church would go labyrinth on him, he’d have braved the snoozefest.
The corridor branched, and on a hunch he took the narrow path to his right. Music sounded up ahead that within a few strides cleared into The Pink Panther tune being played by an overzealous elephant somewhere. Frowning, he followed the thumping tune and came to a stop in front of an old wooden door that was ajar. Eager voices babbled beyond, and pushing the door open he stepped into what looked like a bright but ancient office room.
The three middle-aged women standing around a blue flower-stuffed vase that was on an old wood desk, stopped their flower stuffing and stared at him, the yellow and orange blooms in their hands suddenly forgotten. Then their motherly faces broke into admiring unmotherly smiles.
Marc took a hasty step back. “Sorry. I thought this was the way out.”
“Ooh, you’re not from Appleby,” the one with the crazy blonde perm noted gleefully. “Are you lost?”
The smiles broadened to grins, and interest lit their eyes.
Marc’s sense of self-preservation kicked in hard. Suddenly it didn’t seem wise to admit he was indeed lost. “I was… um… looking for the vicar.”
A tall dark-haired woman looked him up and down thoughtfully. “You must be one of those visitors he said was coming today.”
“But you can’t be the chief justice,” blonde perm piped up. “You don’t look near wrinkled enough.”
“That would be my father,” Marc said.
Dark hair nodded. “Well, if you’re looking for the vicar, he’ll likely be in the church hall. Go straight down the corridor and turn left.”
“And if you get lost, come back here, and we’ll help,” blonde perm offered, her ample bosom heaving.
With a strained smile and a quick thank you, Marc hightailed it from there. Straight down the corridor was also the direction Pink Panther was coming from. Best just follow that. Not that it sounded like whoever was banging out the tune was sane. Hell, no one in this place was sane.
The music changed to Yakety Sax, and he glanced up with a frown. Just what sort of crazy church was this?
And still looking up and frowning, he turned left at the end of the corridor and walked straight into one of heaven’s angels.
Sophie recoiled with a yelp, blindly clutching at anything to stop herself from falling back. Strong hands immediately clamped around her arms, steadying her. And stunned she stared up into eyes as vivid blue as azure chips.
He had to be the most beautiful man she’d ever seen in her life. Piercing eyes. Hair as black as jet, trimmed short, but a little longer on top. And a face to make saints weep. He was tall and broad-shouldered, and fit, with tight-packed muscle that flexed beneath her fingers with his every movement.
The striking eyes crinkled at the corners, and the sculpted lips parted in a lopsided grin. “Like what you see?”
Oh hell. He’d caught her staring. Sophie snatched her hands back from where she’d been gripping his taut forearms, and with an effort, tore her gaze from his keen blue one, only for her heart to plummet on seeing the dark soil streaking the front of his light-blue shirt.
“Oh God! I’m so sorry.” And without thinking, she reached forward to brush the soil away. But her fingers touched hard muscle through the cotton of his shirt, and she yanked her hand away as if burned.
“Don’t worry about it,” Marc said distantly, and gaze trapped on her sweetly flushed face, he released her and swiped the dry soil from his shirt, not caring if it went or not.
His temper had disappeared like smoke in the wind, and all he could do was stare entranced into eyes as green as soft moss.
Her prim clothes and messy ponytail couldn’t hide her gentle beauty. And she was gawping up at him, stunned, lost for words. He was six-foot-three, and she came to his shoulder in her low-heeled shoes. A perfect height. And from what he could tell from the tease of slim curves pushing against the white fabric of her shirt, a perfect figure.
A long-dead heat thrust to the surface of his skin, making him ache, and trying to calm it he breathed in her delicate floral scent. Well, that didn’t work. Now all he saw where those lush pink lips that blatantly invited a man to sin. If he were to kiss those full lips now…
But she broke the spell by looking down at their feet and throwing her hand to her mouth. “Oh, the orchids!”
The purple orchids spilled out from the squashed green bucket in a mass of flowers, soil, and frothy green ferns. Desperate to escape his irresistible presence, Sophie fell to her knees and grabbing the bucket, frantically started scooping everything back into it. But he dropped to his haunches, level with her.
“These your favourite flowers or something?” he asked, helping her scoop up crushed orchids.
Her eyes met his. “Or something… They’re not mine, they’re—” she sucked in a breath as his fingers accidentally brushed over hers.
He stilled his hand, his gaze falling on her lips. “Sorry for ruining them,” he murmured.
He was so close and his delicious male scent tantalized her. What would it be like to get even closer? To kiss those sexy lips? Her cheeks blazed at the road her thoughts were taking, and she licked her own lips. His blue eyes lit on the small movement, making her breath catch.
“They… they’re Mrs Buchard’s,” she said, striving for control. “She’ll be so upset.”
“Don’t tell her then.”
Marc swayed an inch closer to her. Something wild beat in his chest. Something… urging him to let go the tight reins of control. He’d dropped down to stay at her level partly because the damn ugly flowers seemed important to her, but more because she’d taken the light in the dull corridor with her.
Now he wanted more. Now he wanted to taste those luscious lips.
What the hell? And desperate to banish the sudden crazy urge, he haphazardly squashed a fistful of flowers into the bucket and then buried them beneath a bunch of ferns.
“Your Mrs Buchard missed the style boat,” he said, doing everything to lighten the mood between them. “But the drop seems to have done them good. They look like flowers now and not someone’s privates.”
Sophie gasped, both laughter and shock fighting in her. But then his handsome grin eased back in place, and with a gulp she again busied herself in the mercifully distracting task of rescuing orchids.
But every time she raised her gaze from the floor and peeked up at him while scrabbling for broken flowers, his fingertips brushed over hers, sending electric sparks shooting through her.
“Sorry!” She snatched her hand back yet again and closed her fists tight over the orchids.
He leaned closer. “Your name?”
“Sophie,” she whispered, gripping the orchids like a lifeline. “And I’m so sorry for dirtying your shirt.”
His gaze fell to her lips again, and she stared at him wide-eyed.
“Seal that apology with a kiss, and we’ll call it even,” he murmured.
Eep! Was he serious? Had he just read her mind?
He raised a gentle hand to her cheek, and the feather-light touch sent her heart racing.
Oh God. Oh God. Oh God… Her breath stopped, and eyes locked on his beautiful lips, she waited in trembling fascination.
Oh God, her first kiss. The brush of his firm lips on hers was barely there. Sophie tensed. The sublime caress, flavoured with his wood and musk scent, snared her senses. And all of a sudden, fascination gave way to heat, and a deep craving flooded her. With a small shudder she closed her eyes and pressed against him.
On a grunt of satisfaction, Marc teased the seam of her lips with the tip of his tongue. She softened beneath him and opened to his demand. Thought became a distant memory, and he deepened the kiss, letting himself be swept away by her eager response. This was perfect. She was perfect…
Yakety Sax stopped with a clang in the distance, snapping Sophie from her trance. She yanked away from him, breaking the kiss.
They stared at each other, their breathing ragged. Then dropping the orchids from one hand, she raised unsteady fingers to her tingling lips.
“Hell. Sophie, I’ve never…” He scrubbed a hand through his dark hair, her confusion mirrored in his blue eyes.
Oh dear heaven, what was she doing? And with a numb shake of her head, Sophie scrambled to her feet.
“Wait!” He jumped up and reached for her.
“No!” She dodged his grasp and with a last astonished look at him, turned and fled down the corridor she’d come through. Her only thought being the drumming need to put an immediate world of distance between them.
“Fuck!” What just happened, Marc didn’t know.
Since when did he bid all reason goodbye within minutes of seeing a woman? And worse, it had been on the tip of his tongue to apologize, a result of thirty years of good breeding, but for some reason he’d bitten it back.
He wasn’t sorry, and he’d kiss her again as crazy as that was.
Hell, that was crazy.
He had to find her. Apologize to her.
Or at least see her again.
And with determination pulsing in his veins, he set off after her.
Sophie raced blindly down the red brick corridor, her lips burning and her mind aflame.
She’d just been kissed! God! She’d been kissed! Her first kiss!
And running away isn’t what grown women do… The little voice of reason in the back of her mind tried to break through the wall of shock. But her legs had a life of their own, and she powered on, not even looking back to see if he was following her.
The heavy door to the registry room, where the parish registers were kept under lock and key, came up on her right, and she pushed through it. It swung back ajar behind her, and she stumbled on now jellied legs to the red-clothed signing table in the middle of the room.
Feelings rushed back one after another, and she slumped onto a wooden chair by the table, letting the orchids in her hand drop onto the red cloth. Then with a groan she buried her face in her hands, her heart still hammering a frantic beat in her chest.
A stranger had crashed into her in the corridors and then kissed her.
And what a stranger.
The memory of him, the taste of his lips on hers, had her squeezing her eyes shut on another appalled groan. She licked her lips. Yup, still there, that faint musky woody scent she’d never forget.
She shook her head. It was too crazy to be true.
The church had stood since medieval times, and many tales surrounded it. One was that the devil often stalked these hallowed corridors hunting for idiots to tempt. Well, if the devil ever took form to tempt someone, he’d look exactly like Mr Tall Dark and Hot out there. And she certainly was idiot enough to fall for it. Idiot enough to kiss him back.
Idiot enough to run too. The little voice chimed in.
With a start, Sophie looked at the orchids on the table. They lay before her, crushed and purple, in the golden circle of light cast by the stained-glass sun behind her.
Holy cow, the stupid flowers worked. The most good-looking guy ever had just kissed her, and she’d run away. What if he disappeared? She didn’t even know his name. She had to find him.
But then she paused. What if he kissed every woman he met? The value of her first kiss plunged down the drain, and she scowled. In that case she’d just have to give him a piece of her mind. Let him know she didn’t appreciate being grabbed by the Don Juan’s of this world. She leapt to her feet, sending the wooden chair skidding back.
“Sophie! There you are.”
Sophie spun around, all thought of hard insistent lips and intoxicating maleness dropping from her mind in guilty panic. “Mum!”
Marc increased his pace down the corridor. Sophie had turned a corner up ahead and vanished from sight. And now that he was away from her, sharp reason was making itself known.
What the hell had he been thinking? That kiss had come out of the blue.
But damn, when was the last time he’d ached that much to kiss a woman? The two hellish months he’d spent dating Clarissa Beauchamp had come nowhere close to it. And once that relationship broke, he hadn’t touched a woman since.
Yes. That was it. He was sex starved, passion hungry, whatever, and Sophie had jumped in his way. But then if he was so desperate why hadn’t he taken up Renee’s offer yesterday, or even fallen on one of the three crones he’d bumped into earlier? They’d looked eager enough, especially blonde perm. With a shudder, he rounded the corner. No, he wasn’t that desperate.
A small smile curved his lips. No denying it. There was something about Sophie. She’d tasted like the sweetest honey, smelled of sunshine and wildflowers, and just the memory of her softness pressed against him was enough to have his body reacting again.
Sure, he still had to apologize. But maybe he could seal that apology with another kiss.
He came to a slightly open door and stopped as voices drifted out into the corridor from behind it.
One of them was Sophie’s.
“Mum, not now.” Sophie stepped out from behind the table, intending to leave through the stone archway her mother had come through. It led out to the chancel and organ, which judging by the merciful quiet no longer had Kitty stuck behind it. Though anywhere was bound to be more peaceful than staying near her fretful mother right now.
But her mother blocked her way, her thin face harried, and her short brown hair a little disarrayed. “Why are you hiding in here? You should be out there helping your sisters.”
“I was helping. But I… needed a moment to myself.”
“Heavens, Sophie! This isn’t the time for you to be vanishing off by yourself. Don’t you know your father has guests? You should be out and about where you’ll be seen.”
“Mum, please! Not this again.”
“Yes, this.” Her mother stared at her in wide-eyed indignation. “And this time you’ll listen. It’s not every day an eligible man comes to the village. I want you out there where he can see you.”
“Mum, I don’t think he—”
“And that’s your problem, Sophie. You don’t think. If you tried to be a little more pleasant and charming, instead of finding nooks to hide in, you might finally catch yourself a good husband.”
“People aren’t coming to Appleby looking to get married! And besides I’m not the type to be attracting men’s attention like that.” But she quickly clammed up. She’d more than attracted a man’s attention a few minutes ago.
“That’s because you don’t try hard enough. Honestly you’re such a mouse when it comes to men.” Mum straightened Sophie’s skewed skirt and swept a few loose tendrils of hair back from Sophie’s hot face. “Now listen. Lord Lewis may be a chief justice, but his son, Marc, is a high-flying barrister in his own right. A queen’s counsel already, your father said. He deals with businesses, politicians, even royalty, and he makes millions every year, Sophie. Millions. Opportunities like this don’t come to Appleby every day.”
Sophie cringed. “Oh, Mum!”
“Don’t argue. The men are coming to the vicarage for dinner, and I want you at your best.” She swept a critical eye over Sophie’s shirt and tweed skirt. “And for goodness’ sake, wear something eye catching, one of your summer dresses, perhaps. You won’t attract any man if you’re dressed like his grandmother.”
“Do you want to be left alone with your parents when you’re old and grey? At least your sisters make an effort, worrying as it is. And even Molly had the good sense to catch herself a rich man to take care of her.” Mum stepped back with a frown and eyed Sophie again. “No, this won’t do, Sophie. Get back to the vicarage right now and get changed. And tidy your hair while you’re at it. Heaven forbid the Justice’s son saw you like this already.” She turned towards the stone archway, then paused and turned back. “Go out back so you won’t be seen. I’ll help Anna with the rest of the flowers.” And she left.
Sophie gritted her teeth as anger and frustration churned inside her. What was the use? She couldn’t even rebel. She’d have locked herself in her bedroom if she could, but her mother was determined enough to make a huge fuss even in front of guests until Sophie came out dressed exactly as ordered. Dammit! Forget gentle persuasion. She’d insist her father let her work somewhere far from Appleby. Her music degree had to be good enough to find a decent job, even if it meant working in another church. As long as they had a piano there she’d be happy.
Glowering, she headed for the door she’d come through. She yanked it open and walked straight into an unmovable force leaning nonchalantly against the doorframe.
With a gasp she stepped back and looked up into sharp blue eyes. And the devil who’d kissed her regarded her grimly.
He uncrossed his arms, and the blue cotton of his button-down shirt rippled over the muscles of his biceps, giving him a forbidding air. And when he straightened to his full height she had to tip her head back to keep eye contact.
“I’m Marc…” he drawled, cocking his head to the side and contemplating her. “And word of advice… if you’re out to catch a rich man to take care of you, make sure he doesn’t know it.”
The vicarage’s dining table groaned beneath the weight of one of the most lavish dinners seen there in a while.
A huge beef and ale pie sat proud in the centre surrounded by golden roast chicken, honey roast ham, and plates of colourful vegetables. At least three types of salads dotted the table, each in a watermelon-sized bowl; and cheese platters, fruit bowls, and bottles of wine snared whatever little space was left.
Seven sat at the table, but it packed enough to feed twenty.
Sophie cast a quick glance at her smug mother seated to her left. Mum had pulled out all the stops this evening. She meant to impress, and so far she’d started with a terrific bang.
Any other time and Sophie might have enjoyed it, the food at least, but right now anything she placed in her mouth tasted like sand. And that had everything to do with Marc Lewis sitting to her right and radiating disapproval like a dark force.
She should have known Mum would seat her next to him. In fact from the keen glances her mother kept shooting their way, Sophie would have ended up on his lap if Mum had thought she could get away with it.
“Your father mentioned you’re a fan of classical music, Marc.” Mum’s eager voice broke into the relaxed atmosphere at the table. “Sophie’s a fine musician. I’m sure you’ll find much in common.”
Sophie groaned inwardly.
Marc’s lips twitched, and he gave Sophie a mocking glance. “Is she now?”
“Oh, yes.” Mum nodded enthusiastically. “She’s an excellent pianist. She could easily play concerts.”
He regarded Sophie for a moment, his blue eyes assessing, and Sophie’s cheeks blazed, the memory of that kiss seared in her mind for an eternity.
“And you’ve never considered a professional career?” he asked.
She glanced down at her still heaped plate of food. “I… well, going on stage never appealed.”
“Too much ambition needed, I suppose,” he mused. “Don’t feel bad. Not everyone has what it takes.”
Sophie held back a gasp. “And you’re just brimming with ambition, aren’t you?” she bit out. “Some of us find a quiet life just as satisfying. It’s not all about climbing career mountains and being heaped with accolades.” She glowered at him. The sheer nerve of the man, acting like he was above everyone else. And he was the one who went around kissing unsuspecting women in dark corridors. The fact that she’d kissed him back with equal gusto raised its tentative head, but she squashed that thought down.
“Those that can, do. Those that can’t, hide away.” Marc’s smile was taunting. “But I guess there’s also plenty of ambition in spending your days chasing after the right husband.”
“That’s so true,” Mum said, dripping eagerness. “A good marriage is so important. You have to put time and effort into finding the right one.”
Marc smirked. “Sophie shouldn’t have much trouble there. She seems to have plenty to offer.” And picking up his wine glass, he took a sip and let his laughing gaze roam over her suggestively.
Sophie squirmed in her seat, her bare shoulders burning hot beneath the thin straps of her yellow dress. Blast her mother for forcing her to get all dolled up, and blast Marc for putting her through this. He was doing it just to see her suffer.
“Sophie will make an excellent wife for some lucky man,” Mum enthused. “She’s not like the flighty young things you find these days. She’s very down to earth is Sophie.”
Oh, for God’s sake! Hello! I’m right here. If only the ground would open up and swallow her right about now. “Mum,” she hissed. “There’s no need to—”
“Is she?” Marc asked with mock eagerness. “And does she cook? Clean?” He cast Sophie a twinkling look. “Make a mean bed? Everything a husband would need from a perfect wife?”
Mum nodded along happily, but Sophie glared into his mocking eyes.
The fierce intensity of her reaction to him took her breath away. Normally she’d have run and hidden from a fight, but with Marc she either wanted to tear at his clothes or tear into him. Or scarily, both.
“And all a wife needs from a perfect husband…” she stated icily, “…is that he doesn’t go around pouncing on and kissing random women in lonely corridors.”
“Hardly pouncing when the woman’s gagging for it,” he murmured, pinning her with his blue gaze.
A nervous silence settled over the table, and Sophie caught Anna’s questioning look from across. Biting her lip, she glanced to Anna’s right to find the Chief Justice’s curiosity-filled gaze on her.
He smiled at her, just as Mum broke the silence again by launching into the virtues of a good marriage.
Sophie tentatively smiled back.
Marc’s father, Gerald—he’d insisted on them calling him that, rather than the stuffy ‘Lord Lewis’—was an older version of Marc. Just as handsome, but shorter by a few inches and less imposing. Grey streaked his thick, once dark hair, and his eyes were a soft grey compared to his son’s razor-sharp blue. He’d spent most of the dinner chatting to all of them, even getting Kitty to talk about horses after she’d spent much of the time eating in sullen petrified silence because she’d been seated opposite a glowering Marc.
At the head of the table, Sophie’s father adjusted his round-framed glasses and noisily cleared his throat, cutting into Mum’s monologue. “Kathleen, do we have any of the Cabernet Sauvignon left?” He held up an empty wine bottle, probably hoping to derail Mum’s marriage train before it chugged too far.
“Of course we do,” Mum replied. “You know where it is as well as I do, Ian.”
“I’ll get it.” Sophie jumped to her feet, grateful for any excuse to escape from Marc.
“I’ll help you.” And leaping up, Anna dashed around the table to her side.
Marc picked up his wine glass as Sophie made a rapid exit, all his enthusiasm for this dinner slipping out with her.
The dreadful mother was clacking on again at a mile a minute, still stuck on perfect marriages. Though from the bored look on her husband’s face, she couldn’t be talking from experience. His father was happily nodding along, and the little blonde sister was definitely tapping away on her phone beneath the table from the busy hunched up way she was sitting.
“I’m sure, now you’re thirty, you’ll be looking to settle down, Marc?” Sophie’s mother smiled at him.
His grip tightened on the stem of his wine glass. “I hadn’t considered it.” If she even mentioned Sophie, he’d throttle the woman.
“Marc lets his work keep him too busy,” his father said. “Now, I’ve often thought…”
Marc let the conversation wash over him and buried himself in his wine glass again. Let his father handle it. If anyone knew how to screw up a relationship, it was his father.
Sophie was the only thing on his mind right now. Sophie in her skin-baring yellow dress, sitting beside him looking like the summer sun and smelling like a golden rose. She was as conniving as her yammering mother, yet when she’d stood up to him, his blood had run wild and all he could think about was kissing her soft lips again.
Heat engulfed him at the image, and he gave himself a swift mental kick.
Damn enough of that!
Usually, he’d recognize women like Sophie coming from miles away, but this time he’d been caught out, beguiled. He’d have to be the biggest dolt on the planet to let her sham sweetness hook him once more. Irked, he took another sip of wine. This was the end of the line for tantalizing Sophie. After today he’d be glad to never set eyes on her again.
Sophie made it as far as the wine cupboard in the kitchen before Anna cornered her.
“All right, what’s going on?”
“What do you mean?” Sophie asked, casually pulling bottles out of the wine rack as she searched.
“Marc Lewis. That’s what I mean. All this talk of marriage and corridors. And he’s got you of all people sniping away at him like you want a piece of him. What’s going on between you two?”
Sophie’s hand stilled on the right bottle. No way was she telling anyone what had happened in the corridor today. Not even Anna. And yes, she wanted a piece of Marc, only she wasn’t sure which piece. Frowning, she yanked out the Cabernet Sauvignon and rounded on Anna. “Why must it be anything to do with me? Maybe he overheard Mum say how much she’d love for me to lasso him and his millions into a trip down the wedding aisle.”
“Oh, crap, Soph! Really?” Anna shook her head in disbelief. “And she’s got you dressed up for it too.” She waved a hand over Sophie’s knee-length yellow dress and dark-brown hair that was braided in a thick side plait over one shoulder.
“And you.” Sophie looked pointedly at Anna’s sky-blue dress.
“Yeah, but we’re both dull blue compared to you, sunflower,” Anna said with a wink. “We could be part of the furniture as far as your Marc’s concerned.”
“He’s not my Marc.” But it was true he’d barely thrown a glance in either Anna’s or Kitty’s direction all evening. She’d waited through dinner for him to crack and start ogling at least one of her sisters, but the only person he’d shown any interest in talking to was her. No, not talking to. Driving crazy.
Anna let out a sharp breath. “Look, Soph, just bear with it, okay? They’re from Ashgrove, right? It’s an hour’s drive from here, and they’ll be looking to reach home before it gets too dark. He’ll leave soon. You won’t ever see him again.”
Sophie nodded glumly. She should be overjoyed, but strangely the thought of not seeing Marc ever again only made her heart plummet.
“Ah, Sophie,” Dad said thoughtfully when she and Anna returned to the table with the wine. “Gerald here has a rather interesting offer for you.”
All eyes turned to her as she sat down, all except Marc’s. He was frowning into his glass of wine with a restlessness that made the butterflies flutter manically in her stomach as she met Gerald’s kind gaze.
“Your father was telling me you’re looking to step out of Appleby,” Gerald said with a smile.
Sophie nodded. “I’d like a change of place.”
“Then how about working for me at Ashgrove? I’m taking a few weeks’ leave from the courts, and I’ve a notion to dig into the past and collate things, sort my memoirs if you like. An assistant would come in handy.”
“Sophie would be perfect,” Mum trilled. “She’s the one who helps Ian with the church administration.”
Get away from Appleby?
And Sophie opened her mouth to say ‘yes’.
But Marc’s wine glass landed on the table with a muted thump, making her jump. She glanced at him, and he met her gaze with a stony one of his own and a wry twist to his lips.
Her stomach dropped.
This would never work.
Kitty threw Dad a worried look. “But if Sophie goes, one of us will have to help you in the church.”
He shrugged and lounged back in his chair. “It’s high time you both pitched in more.”
“Oh, no, no, no.” Anna shook her head. “I’m working full days in the pub. Kitty can do it.”
“What? But I need to be at the stables,” Kitty said, her blue eyes widening in alarm. “Sophie will just have to stay.”
“That looks like a ‘no’ then,” Marc drawled to his father. “Sophie has her duties here, and if you need someone to help you for a few weeks, I’ll send over a secretary from the chambers.”
The satisfaction in his voice had Sophie gritting her teeth in frustration.
“It wouldn’t be fair for me to take one of your secretaries,” Gerald said mildly. “You have enough cases going on that you won’t be able to spare anyone for a day let alone weeks.”
Marc frowned. “Then what about Antonia? She’s flitting around Ashgrove. Why don’t you ask her?”
But Gerald laughed. “You know Antonia would rather slit her wrists than help me rummage through old case files.” He turned to Dad.
“Antonia is my niece. She’s staying at Ashgrove for a while along with her boyfriend, Prince Frederick.”
“A prince?” Mum asked, her voice quivering with excitement.
Gerald nodded. “Frederick von Albers of Montria. But we call him Fritz. He’s the youngest son of Queen Marie and the late King Albrecht of Montria. His elder brother, Christof, is king now. Their father passed away a month ago.”
“Kings and princes!” Mum threw Sophie a glance that plainly said she’d better get herself over to Ashgrove pronto. And Marc didn’t miss it. With a low irritated grunt, he picked up his half-full wine glass again. Sophie shrank into her seat as Mum continued. “How exciting to be friends with royalty. I couldn’t imagine it.”
“Friends?” Gerald mused. “I’d say our relationship with the Montrian royal family goes deeper than that. I was King Albrecht’s legal advisor long before his sons were born, and Marc took over the position a few years ago.” A fond smile played on his lips. “Now Fritz and Christof use Ashgrove as their getaway when royal duties become too heavy, Fritz especially. And with all the hullabaloo surrounding his brother’s recent coronation, he’s lying low for a while. Having him around is more like having family around, and of course Antonia is delighted.”
“Well, what a chance for Sophie to meet people like Prince Frederick. She’s just too content to stay in her own shell otherwise. I think being in Ashgrove would do her the world of good.”
“Mum!” Sophie muttered in horrified protest.
“Fritz is swimming in more than his fair share of female attention,” Marc said dryly. “We don’t need to add to that.”
Sophie bit back a gasp. How dare he? He was implying she’d get to Ashgrove and hit on the prince. She shot Marc an icy glare. He’d kissed her first, not the other way around. “I’m perfectly capable of not jumping into bed with every man I see,” she said. “Besides, if anyone needs to control themselves, it’s you.” And straightening in her chair, she smiled sweetly at Gerald. “I’d like to accept your offer, Gerald.”
“Wonderful!” Gerald beamed. “Let’s not make it late. I’ll send a car for you on Sunday.”
Sophie nodded. The day after tomorrow. Suddenly everything was moving at speed. She should be excited. Here was her chance to escape Appleby. But the butterflies had returned to her stomach with a vengeance, and all she knew was a scowling Marc seated much too close for comfort.
OTHER APPLEBY BOOKS
(Lilayni and Damon)
Appleby Book 2
Lilayni Perrot is determined to win back the man she loves. But steely billionaire Damon Solarin never forgives and won’t be won back. A vicious nemesis and a beautiful rival threaten from the shadows. Can Lilayni convince Damon of her love before her time with him runs out forever?