Never Too Late
(Molly and Jake)
Appleby Book 1
Life in a pretty English village isn’t always a bed of roses.
Molly King learns this the hard way when her boyfriend returns newly engaged, and her childhood home is sold out from beneath her. Now she’s heartbroken, homeless, and desperate to keep herself and her grandmother off the streets. But her troubles have only just begun.
Billionaire Jake Hennessy has vowed to never love again. His fiancée’s mysterious death left him shattered, and now the media fallout has forced him into hiding. Little Appleby village was meant to be his escape, somewhere to heal and cement the final walls around his heart, but instead he finds dangerous temptation there in the shape of a golden beauty with sweet innocence in her smile.
But once bitten, now twice shy, Jake is determined to win this battle of feelings between him and Molly. He already owns her home, and now he’s determined to have her… on his terms.
Molly though is determined to resist him. Because she knows, when Jake’s done with her, he’ll have demolished not just her home, but her tender heart too. Trouble is, he’s just too damn irresistible.
STANDALONE Contemporary Romance | Appleby Book 1
Full-length novel: 358 print pages.
Steamy love scenes (readers: 18+)
Read chapters below.
“Never Too Late was a sweet, addicting read that I definitely didn’t want to put down. I loved the town setting in this novel! The characters were delightful too. I absolutely loved it. I look forward to reading more from this author.” (Amazon US, August 05, 2016)
“This book was so addictive I just couldn’t put it down the style of writing is fabulous very detailed and captivating that takes you right into the heart of the story. I had to stop and reflect a few times and think wow this author really has a great imagination. It was just such a comfortable and pleasant read.” (Amazon UK, August 06, 2016)
“It was well written and edited. The author did a great job with the details and imagery. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book with vivid details like this. It made me want to go and visit the town.” (Goodreads, July 31, 2016)
One fine summer evening, Molly King’s life crashed to the floor and shattered into a million pieces.
Around her, the vicarage’s reception room sharpened with the buzz of whispers. Fine teacups clinked back onto matching saucers. And sensing scandal, people stared first at Molly and then at the handsome couple in the doorway.
Disbelief numbed Molly, and she stared too, unable to rip her gaze from the two newcomers.
Then the man she loved with all her heart slipped an arm around his stunning companion’s waist, dipped his head, and kissed her red lips.
Molly screamed inside.
“Brian. Abby. We’d almost given up on you.” Kathleen Harrington, their hostess, hurried to the couple. Her high voice was a piercing trill that scraped Molly’s jagged nerves.
Kathleen knew this woman?
“So sorry, Aunt Kath.” Brian kissed Kathleen’s angular cheek. “The traffic down from London was awful. But it’s great to be back in the old place and see everyone again.”
He said it loud enough for the room to hear, backing it up with that charm-infused grin of his. People relaxed, murmured their approval, and like happy little bewitched sheep, gathered around him and his new squeeze at the door.
Molly’s only way out was blocked.
Trapped by the tall arching windows behind her, she huddled at the opposite end of the reception room, dreading the moment Brian saw her.
God, what a fool she was. He’d been gone three months, and she’d wanted to wow him when he returned. She glanced down at her figure-hugging turquoise dress. She’d bought it for him. Its delicate lace sleeves graced her slim arms, and its sweetheart neckline presented her small cleavage like a gift. The soft silk tightened into a jewel-studded gathering at her hips before flowing mermaid style to her knees. What had she been thinking? It wasn’t the type of dress villagers in Appleby wore, and she’d garnered plenty of looks when she’d entered the vicarage earlier. The type of looks a call girl collects in church. But she’d wanted to show Brian she wasn’t frumpy, that she could be everything he wanted her to be.
The dress had looked perfect in the boutique mirror yesterday. The turquoise colour had made her light-blonde curls and pale-blue eyes shine. And the matching high heels had raised her diminutive five-foot-four to something decent.
It wasn’t so perfect now.
Molly glanced at the couple. Was it on purpose the beauty with Brian was the exact opposite of everything she was? The woman stood almost as tall as Brian’s six foot in her baby-pink heels. Her matching pink dress moulded her slender curves as if cut for her, and her curtain of chestnut-brown hair swished around her face, framing the luminance of her skin.
With a trembling hand, Molly smoothed back her wild nest of blonde curls. How did she even compete? Compared to the woman with Brian, she looked like a tacky turquoise cake topper. Her only saving grace was that she wasn’t making a complete laughing stock of herself by wearing the come-to-bed turquoise heels as well. She’d stepped out in a comfortable pair of flat shoes instead. But that wasn’t much consolation.
She looked up again, and her gaze collided with Brian’s. Satisfaction swept across his features, very much like a spider who’d spotted a fly, and she gasped. He was only a year older than her, but this wasn’t the laid-back lad who’d left Appleby three months ago. This Brian was polished, more in control. His usually tousled dark hair was combed back in rigid perfection. His tall lean body was encased in a fine navy-blue suit. And the boyish charm of his lazy smile no longer reached his coal-black eyes. The city had swallowed the country boy she’d known and spat out a sophisticated cold man.
He whispered something in his companion’s ear. The woman shot Molly a cool glance that gauged her from head to toe and then dismissed her as irrelevant in the space of a second.
Sudden anger roiled through Molly, breaking through her numb shock and propelling her forward. How dare he… She didn’t have to take any of this. But she’d moved only a step when Brian and his new girlfriend pushed through the crowd and made their way towards her. Curious gazes followed them.
Damn him! He couldn’t let her keep a little dignity. He had to make her the centre of attention. And reining in her turbulent emotions, almost choking on them, she schooled her features into polite indifference and waited.
“Molly, wonderful to see you.”
“Brian.” She didn’t return his smile.
“I’d like to introduce Abby.” He wrapped an arm around the brunette’s waist again. “My fiancée.”
Was she still standing?
Brian was watching her, sifting for her reaction to the ton of bricks he’d just dropped on her head. Hurt, shame, loss, all rioted in Molly, but she refused to give him the satisfaction. With a strength of will she was proud of, she forced a smile to her lips. “Fiancée? Congratulations.”
Her nonchalance hit the mark. Brian’s eyes narrowed, and the rest of the room lost interest. Abby’s eyes had shone with veiled hostility, but now she relaxed. With a smile, she ever-so-casually raised her manicured left hand. The pebble-sized diamond on her ring finger glittered fiercely in the sunlight.
“And such a beautiful ring,” Molly muttered on cue, the words like gravel in her mouth. She didn’t need to be a diamond expert to see that Brian had bought something worth far more than what the average villager earned in a year. Her heart constricted as if a merciless hand had squeezed it dry.
Abby simpered. “It was all so fast, but we couldn’t be happier.” Her cultured voice had a breathless girlish quality that sat at odds with the razor-sharp light in her blue eyes.
Suddenly, the desperate need to put miles of distance between herself and this couple overwhelmed Molly. “I’m glad. If you’ll excuse me…?” And she moved to step past them.
But Brian’s quick hand on her arm stalled her. “Don’t run off yet, Molly. I told Abby you’d help with the wedding plans. You and Sophie and the other girls.”
What? No way! She snatched her arm back and glared a warning at him. A warning he smirked away.
“Daddy insists we have a church wedding,” Abby said, seemingly oblivious to the tension. “Nothing else will do. But we don’t want to wait too long, do we darling?” She smiled up at Brian.
A flicker of annoyance shot through Brian’s eyes, and Molly stared, but it was gone as quick as it had come, and he returned Abby’s smile. “Of course not. Uncle Ian can arrange it in a matter of weeks.” He raised Abby’s hand to his lips. “You’ll make a beautiful summer bride.”
Giggling, Abby turned to Molly. “It’s so exciting! Daddy wanted somewhere bigger, but I can’t wait to get married in an old church with bells ringing and apple trees outside.” Her expression shifted to winsome pleading. “Oh, say you’ll help with the planning. It would be just fabulous if you did.”
Molly gritted her teeth. Either the woman was a total airhead, or she was gleefully rubbing Molly’s face in the ruins of a failed love. A love that, in Molly’s dreams, had got as far as Appleby’s church altar to promise her life like her mother and grandmother before her. In despair, she looked at Brian, letting the pleading reminder of all he’d ever promised her fill that look. But his expression was unyielding, impassive. Her shoulders slumped in defeat. It was as if he was gone from her forever.
Then on a steadying breath, she straightened. So be it. But she wouldn’t let them add insult to injury. She turned to Abby with all her dignity. “You’ll find plenty of other people to help you. Appleby’s a close-knit kind of place.”
“I’m sure. Such a quaint little village.” Abby’s cut-glass accent was dismissive.
Brian’s expression twisted. He hadn’t missed the emphasis on the word ‘little’. “You’ll love Appleby, darling. I’ll take you on a tour tomorrow.”
Molly smiled inwardly at his defensive tone, and the imp of mischief rose in her. “Just be careful,” she said to Abby. “Those cowpats get everywhere. And those runaway goats? My God, but they’re a menace! They’ll gobble you whole, diamond ring and all.”
Abby’s expression cooled.
“It’s not like we’ll be living here once we’re married, darling,” Brian soothed, shooting Molly a quelling look.
Molly hid another smile. She’d exaggerated, but little Miss Precious more than deserved it. But then the lightness evaporated. She shoved past them. “Excuse me. It’s getting late.”
“How’s your Nan, Molly?” Brian asked as she passed.
She stopped and turned back with a frown. “Fine. She’s fine.”
“I heard she had an operation a month ago. Her leg, was it?”
“I didn’t know you still took an interest in things here, Brian.”
He shrugged. “I’ve missed the place.” His dark gaze captured and held hers. “And it is good to see you again, Molly.”
Hope beat in her chest like a crazed butterfly, and her yearning heart grabbed at the possible hidden meaning in his words before she could stop it. In desperation, she searched his eyes for something more.
“Darling.” Abby placed a hand on his chest, and his attention was at once hers. “It was such a long drive, and I’m tired. Couldn’t we find somewhere quiet for a while?” Her tone held a hint of promise.
Smiling, Brian bent to place a lingering kiss on her pouting lips. “Aunt Kath has our room prepared. Come on.”
Abby beamed like the cat that just got the cream. And clinging to the crook of Brian’s arm, she swept past Molly.
Molly stood paralyzed, watching them walk away. He’d been toying with her. He’d wanted to force a reaction from her, and naive clod that she was, she’d delivered it to him on a platter.
How could she have been so weak?
How could she still want him back?
God! She would never be so gullible again. And raging at herself, she rushed from the room.
Kathleen’s gatherings were informal enough that people came and went as long as the tea and cakes lasted. Molly pushed the vicarage’s kitchen door open. No one would care if she slipped away early through the back.
But as she walked into the kitchen, Appleby’s vicar pulled his head out of the low cupboard he’d been rummaging in. “Molly, do me a favour.” Ian Harrington’s owlish glasses were wonky. His dark pointy beard was ruffled. And his permanent expression of frowning surprise was fiercer than usual. “Kathleen wants to toast her nephew’s latest achievement, and she’s dispatched me on champagne duty.” Unfolding his tall body from the floor, he stood up and plonked two champagne flutes on the kitchen counter beside a large bottle. “Take these through for me, my dear. I can’t bear the fuss.”
Molly groaned inwardly. Of all the people he should ask…
But Reverend Harrington made being oblivious into an art form. He’d probably forgotten she used to be in a relationship with Brian and that it hurt like hell to be here right now.
But his fierce glare pleaded with her from behind his round glasses, and she gave in. “Of course, Ian.”
He beamed. “Thank you.” And checking his watch, he strode towards the back door. “I need to show Colonel Edwards my prize marrows before he leaves. Wouldn’t want him to suffer the impression he’ll win at the fair this year.” He paused with his hand on the door handle. “And if my wife asks, I’m in my office, horrendously busy and not to be disturbed.” He pulled the door open and disappeared into the large back garden beyond.
Just great! Molly bent to gather champagne flutes. Maybe if she was quick enough, she could finish this and be out of here before Brian showed up again. Though, judging from the look on Brian’s and Abby’s faces as they’d left her, she probably had plenty of time. Bile rose at the thought of what they must be doing upstairs right now. She shoved the image aside. She didn’t care what Brian did, or who he did it with.
Scowling, she reached into the cupboard for the last two glass flutes.
“Molly, I’m so sorry. None of us had any idea about Brian and Abby,” A voice said behind her.
Clinging to her composure, Molly straightened. She placed the two flutes on the counter and turned to face her best friend. “It’s all right, Sophie.”
But Sophie Harrington’s moss-green eyes brimmed with anxiety, and she nervously tucked a strand of dark hair back from her pretty face. “I don’t know how mum kept this so quiet. We—”
“He’s engaged, Sophie!” Sudden tears stung, and Molly blinked them back. “I feel like such a fool.”
“Oh, Molly.” Sophie rushed forward and clasped her in a tight hug.
Molly slumped against her taller friend. “How could he say he still loves me and then get engaged to her? That’s not love! I thought I knew what love was, but I don’t… I never did.”
“This isn’t your fault.” Sophie’s tone was fierce, then she sighed. “This relationship… it’s all so sudden.”
Agitated, Molly pulled away. “What if he was seeing her all this time in London?” She shook her head at her naivety.
“You visited him that first month he was in London, didn’t you? You’d have noticed something.”
Molly grimaced. She hadn’t told Sophie, had put a brave face on it, but that weekend trip to London had been about as comfortable as jumping into a pit of vipers. She’d barely stayed on her feet at the nightclub Brian had taken her to, and then she’d been too ill to go out with him the next day. He’d labelled her old-fashioned and shrugged it off. But she’d returned to Appleby, burning with embarrassment at her uselessness.
“I didn’t see Abby in London,” she said. “But then I wasn’t there long enough. And whenever I called Brian afterwards he’d say work was hectic and he wouldn’t be back in Appleby for some time. The last time we spoke, he… he wanted us to take it slow, and I said I’d wait for his call.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “That’s when he said he still loved me. And I believed him. But he never called again.”
Sophie gasped. “That stupid Brian, always so selfish. Forget him, Molly.”
Molly buried her face in her hands. “Oh God, Sophie, how can I? I never wanted to lose him. He’s the only man…” She raised desperate eyes to her friend. “I still love him.”
The kitchen door swung open.
“For goodness’ sake, Ian. How long does it take—” Kathleen Harrington stopped on seeing them.
She was a tall stringy woman, and her fussing always put Molly in mind of a finicky hen.
Kathleen’s hypercritical gaze swept over the bottle and glasses on the counter. “Sophie, Molly, don’t just stand there. Bring those to the reception room.”
Sophie frowned. “Mum, why didn’t you tell anyone about Brian’s engagement?”
“I wanted it to be a surprise,” Kathleen said, looking affronted.
“But you must have realized Molly would want to know.”
“Don’t fuss, Sophie!” Kathleen shot her eldest daughter a stern glance, before smiling placatingly at Molly. “Now, Molly, I know you and Brian were close this past year, but you weren’t in touch for a few months, and these things die out.”
Molly glared. The nerve of the woman to make assumptions. “Did Brian tell you that? That things had died out for us?”
“Of course not. But to tell the truth, I never could see what the two of you had in common. You were both like apples and oranges.” Kathleen gave a dismissive shrug. “Anyway, that’s all water under the bridge now. A good-looking girl like you won’t be lacking in eligible suitors for long, and it would be churlish of us not to be happy for Brian and Abby.”
“But who is she?” Sophie asked. “And don’t you think this engagement is a little quick?”
Kathleen frowned. “Abby’s a sweet girl, Sophie, and I want you and your sisters to take good care of her. Her father owns the investment company Brian works for, so we want to show her we’re not all living in the sticks up here.” She paused, looking smug. “And I must admit, it is quite a match for our Brian.”
“I knew I heard someone say my name.”
He’d changed his clothes. Gone was the cool city man, and there in the kitchen doorway stood the Brian she knew so well, casual in jeans and a fitted grey t-shirt. His dark hair was tousled, and there was a carefree smile on his face.
Molly simmered in silent anger, not letting her thoughts travel to how Abby might have put that smile there.
Kathleen smiled at her nephew. “Brian, how’s Abby?”
“Worn out.” He said with a smirk. He strolled to the kitchen counter and picking up the champagne bottle, examined it.
Kathleen tutted. “Yes, of course. Quite understandable, the poor dear. The two-hour drive from the city can be so exhausting. Do you think she might join us once she’s rested?”
“Sure.” He put the bottle down and turned his attention on Molly.
Molly stared back, silently daring him to say anything to her.
“Yes… Well…” Kathleen fluttered over and picked up the champagne bottle. “Sophie, help me with these glasses.”
With a last worried glance in Molly’s direction, Sophie gathered up several champagne flutes and hurried out of the kitchen after her mother.
Brian’s gaze roamed over Molly’s silk dress. “You look beautiful, Molly. I’m glad you’re here. Coming home wouldn’t be the same without seeing you.”
Molly sucked in a sharp breath. “Believe me, Brian, if it hadn’t been for your aunt’s conniving today, I wouldn’t be within a mile shot of you.”
“Aunt Kath must have thought it would be easier for Abby to meet you here at the vicarage.” A small smile touched his lips. “Saves on gossip.”
“Easier for Abby? What about me, Brian? Or did I never matter?”
“You’ll always matter.” He took a step towards her.
The hungry look in his dark eyes threw her. “H–how can you still say that?”
He frowned then, looking knocked off balance for a moment. “Look, what we had… there was nothing here for me.”
“I’m here, Brian. I’ve always been here for you.”
“That’s just it. You’re here for your Nan, and she hates my guts. You’re here for Barrowdene, and that damn house isn’t even yours.” His lips curled in disdain. “It was never about me, was it? You’ve got your life in Appleby laid out, and my role was to play happy families here with you, no matter what I wanted.”
Molly stared at him. “But you were happy here. Appleby is your home. Everyone here dotes on you.”
“What use is that to me? I’m bigger than this place. I’m not ready to shut myself off from what the world can give. Look at you. You’re twenty-five, and you’re stuck here acting like you’re fifty. It’s boring, Molly.”
Hurt stung deep. “I wasn’t boring for you when we were together here. But now Abby is the excitement you want?”
“You wouldn’t understand. It’s not about washed-out summer fairs out there in the rest of the world. Out there, it’s throbbing with life, and it belongs to those who seize opportunity with both hands.”
“Do you love her, Brian?”
“Sure I do.” A ghost of a smirk hovered over his lips.
Molly glared. “Oh, I see. Like you loved me? Sounds like you’re just seizing a new opportunity.”
“Abby’s perfect for me,” he bit out. “I’m going places, and I need someone who can keep up.”
“You disgust me. Love isn’t a business deal, Brian. I may be boring, but I loved you once, and—”
“Love! And did you love me enough to stay with me? Enough to leave your precious Barrowdene, your Nan?”
She stared at him, lost for words. Was he right? He’d left Appleby, and she’d wanted him to come back, but she hadn’t tried harder to be with him.
His laughter was mocking. “I thought not.”
“You never asked,” she whispered.
“I already knew your answer.” He reached out and cupped her cheek, his dark eyes intent. “I loved you, Molly. But I wonder if you ever loved me?”
Always, she wanted to say, but the word stuck in her throat. Had it been her fault? Could she have tried harder for them? If only she hadn’t stayed back in their village…
The accusation in his eyes burned into her. And in a silent plea for understanding, she covered his hand with hers, and pressing her cheek against his warm palm, breathed in his clean citrus scent.
A light sparked in Brian’s eyes, and his gaze dropped to her lips.
Molly’s breath faltered, and she stared up at him. Reality mingled with memory and transported her back to a time before Abby, a time when there had only been her and Brian.
He dipped his head and brushed his lips over hers. A gentle touch. And her eyelids fluttered close on a small sigh of relief.
But all of a sudden his seeking lips demanded more, and his hands spanned her waist to pull her into the hard heat of his groin.
Molly’s slumbering mind jerked awake, and she wrenched her mouth from his. “No! Oh God. Don’t!” Hands, arms and elbows shoving against his chest, she yanked free from his hold.
“What the hell?” Brian stared at her in disbelief, his face flushed.
Cold shame drained the blood from her cheeks, leaving her trembling. Molly raised a hand to her lips. “I’m sorry. I can’t…” With a shake of her head, she spun away, and yanking the back door open, ran out into the sharp evening sunlight.
The peace was startling.
The road behind them was empty. Only their motorbikes parked by the grassy verge showed that vehicles touched this country highway at all. London with its city noise and constant rumble of heavy wheels was a world away. Here in this green paradise, the sun shone, birds sang in the trees, and the evening breeze whipped over swaying grass to cool travel-weary skin.
Jake leaned his elbows on the wooden fence and breathed in the fresh scent of grass and soil. The breeze stirred strands of golden hair into his eyes. Pushing his hair back with an impatient hand, he gazed at the village in the distance.
“Don’t need the bikes,” Damon said beside him with a teasing glint in his copper-coloured eyes. “Hop over this fence, take a five-minute tumble down the hillside, and you’re there.” He uncapped his bottle of water and raised it to his dark lips.
Jake took a swig from his own bottle. “As enticing as that sounds, I’d rather enjoy the journey.”
“What’s to enjoy? Look around you, bro. It’s no man’s land. Other than the four of us, there’s no one else for miles.”
Jake glanced to his left where the other two were standing further along the fence, chatting and pointing to the village below. “The quiet…” he murmured. “That’s what’s to enjoy.”
He filled his lungs with the clear air again. The village nestled like a fairytale in its peaceful valley. Green trees spread between thatched cottage roofs, and a church’s red bell tower stood in the middle overlooking everything like a proud watchman.
It hadn’t been his first choice of escape, but now that he was here, it somehow felt right.
“I don’t know…” Damon muttered. “Quiet means too much time to think. At least the city keeps you busy… keeps your head clear.”
Jake cast a quick look at the other two who were still chatting. “Things catching up with you?” he asked Damon.
Damon silently took another drink from his bottle.
“Running’s hard, isn’t it?” Jake asked quietly. “I should know. I’ve been doing enough of it this past month.”
“I’m not running.”
“Right, you’re not… Then talk to her. She wants you back.”
With a wry shake of his head, Damon turned away.
Jake let out a frustrated breath. A month ago he’d screwed up his life and the lives of the two people he loved most in this world. Now he was forced to stand by and watch them break apart. “She still loves you…”
Damon’s hand tightened on his bottle. “She doesn’t know the meaning. Just like Sienna didn’t know the meaning.”
“Leave Sienna out of this. It’s not the same.”
“Why? She’s the reason you’re here, isn’t she? I’m not the one who just bought a broken-down manor in the middle of nowhere to escape his ex’s memory.”
“To hell with memory! And the bloody parasites who want a piece of it.” Jake gripped the fence and scowled down at the village. “Maybe you can shrug the past off, but if this is my only escape, then fine.”
“Hell, bro. I didn’t mean it like that,” Damon said with a grimace. “Yeah, you need to hunker down till things blow over. I get that. But you also need to talk about it. You lost Sienna, and you can’t keep that stuffed inside you. It’s gonna explode.”
“It already did.”
Damon smirked. “Yeah, that paparazzo you socked won’t be asking questions like that again anytime soon.”
Jake took another sip of water.
‘Had it been suicide?’
‘Did you drive her to it?’
‘Were you responsible for her death?’
The media hounds had seemed to pop out from behind every door and city corner.
He looked over the calm countryside. At least here, no one was jumping out from behind the trees with questions he couldn’t answer.
“I’m not sorry about it,” he said. “And if another guy sticks his face in mine looking for a story, he’ll get the same.”
Damon grinned. “Then it’s best you lie low for a while, or things will get mighty expensive for the company. And…” He shrugged.
“And this isn’t the time for it,” Jake filled in.
Their architectural and construction firm was on the verge of winning a multi-million dollar contract to construct a Manhattan megatower. But the media storm over his love life was demolishing all the hard work Damon and he’d put into securing the deal.
“I can’t deny it’s been a problem,” Damon said. “But it’s more than business, bro. You’re not you anymore. You’ve let what people say about Sienna get to you. I’m just hoping this place can somehow bring you back to life again.”
Jake glanced away. Everything had ended the moment Sienna died. He’d clammed up, unable to tell anyone the truth, not even Damon, his best friend and business partner of fourteen years. His brother in all but blood. But Damon hadn’t pushed the issue either. He’d picked up the slack on all their big-name projects, giving Jake the time and space he needed. But the sensationalist tabloids hadn’t let go, and Jake had whirled down a private hell he wouldn’t wish on any living creature. And he couldn’t stand it anymore.
“I’m not expecting miracles,” he said quietly. “Just a few weeks to disappear until the world forgets and I can pick up my life again.”
“It wasn’t you. You didn’t kill her.”
Jake shrugged. He may not have given Sienna the drugs, but he’d introduced her to the lifestyle that in the end killed her. What had begun as a crazy attraction had thrust an innocent girl into a world she wasn’t ready for. She’d crashed and burned, and it would forever be his fault. “If she’d never met me, she’d still be alive.”
“You don’t know that.”
“It’s my fault.”
“Man…” Damon shook his head. “You’ve let it destroy you.”
Living death. That’s what this was. Jake closed his eyes on the emptiness inside.
Damon placed a hand on his shoulder. “Maybe you need this place more than I thought. You need the quiet.”
Jake looked at the village. Its tranquillity was breathable. And its simplicity seemed to radiate a willingness to accept him for what he was.
An innocent simplicity he’d once thought he’d found in a woman.
“Yeah…” he murmured, “I need this.”
* * *
Molly slowed her pace only after putting several yards between herself and the vicarage. Appleby’s shop-lined Main Street lay before her, but it was riddled with small talk and well-wishers on this sunny evening. And she was in no mood to talk to anyone.
Without breaking stride, she stepped into a narrow overhung lane. Her sweat-glazed skin went from hot to cool in a blink in the sudden welcome shade.
St Mary’s Lane, named after the tall parish church that stood at the other end, was empty and quiet. Only the tweets of birds preparing for their evening nests sounded in the tree branches overhead. And occasionally, the smoky smell of a back-garden barbecue rose from beyond the Lane’s ancient stone wall as she passed.
In that calm, Molly slowly unwound, and the stew of emotion swirling inside her settled into anger.
That kiss. What on earth had possessed her?
Brian was with Abby now, and she had to accept that.
But… did he even love Abby?
Damn it. She shook her head. None of her business. And it didn’t matter why Brian had kissed her; she needed to keep away from him, needed to keep her heart safe.
The narrow lane widened as the red-brick bell tower of St Mary’s Church loomed into view. The church orchard was to her right, and beyond it stood the headstones in the graveyard. Most were worn-grey, patched and aged with green moss, but some were newer, gleaming white. Her grandfather’s was one of those. They’d buried him in the same spot as her parent’s ashes. What she wouldn’t give to hear his soothing voice once more. He’d always had answers. Always protected her. But she’d lost him eighteen months ago. And head bowed against the familiar loss, she quickened her pace past the church and crossed the curving main road.
The only hint of Barrowdene from the outside were the towering white gate pillars marking the entrance to the driveway. But these were set a short distance back from the road and half-hidden behind two tall silver birches. The seven-foot wrought-iron gates stood wide open in welcome invitation for all and sundry to enter. Molly had never seen these gates closed. They must be at least a hundred years old. Did they even close anymore?
Just past the gates stood their groundsman’s gatehouse looking like a squat gnome abode with its rounded white walls and grey slate roof. No lights shone from its square windows, and no smoke curled from its lumpy chimney. The house was empty today.
Molly hurried along Barrowdene’s long driveway. Rows of spreading oak and beech trees lined the wide road and formed a deep green canopy above her. And straight ahead, outlined against lush greenery and clear blue sky, stood the imposing Georgian house with its white front and rows of panelled windows.
Relief warmed her. Barrowdene might not belong to her, but it was home.
She made her way around the main house to the housekeeper’s cottage, grateful that she hadn’t seen a soul so far. At close to seven o’clock in the evening the large estate seemed deserted.
Rose Cottage, named after the plum-sized pink and red roses that climbed its white walls and almost reached the thatched roof, was a welcome sight. A thin plume of smoke rose from its red brick chimney into the blue August sky. It looked like Nan was cooking something.
Molly pushed the heavy front door open. And sure enough, the boxy hallway with its buttercream walls and striped yellow carpet was filled with the rich scent of herb-cooked meat.
The kitchen was straight ahead, but avoiding it, she bounded up the wooden staircase and sped to her bedroom. It was one of two in the tiny cottage, and just large enough for her single bed, wardrobe, a dressing table and a chair.
Closing the bedroom door, she leaned back against it and let her racing heart calm down.
This was home, and here she wasn’t lost. She belonged.
She kicked off her shoes, and sinking down onto the pale oak floor, stretched her legs over the thick-pile wool rug that covered most of the square room. Muted lavender walls and misty-blue wooden furniture surrounded her. She’d chosen these colours as a child and helped her grandfather paint her room. It was plain, simple, exactly who she was. But that wasn’t what Brian wanted.
Anger blazed, sending her surging to her feet. She wrenched off the turquoise dress, not caring if it ripped or not, and threw it to the back of the wardrobe. It could stay there and rot. She never wanted to see it again.
She pulled on a white cotton sundress patterned with tiny red roses and stared at her rather ordinary self in the long mirror. Too short. Too slim. Too pale. She was no match for Abby, and she never would be. Tears threatened, but a small part of her refused to cave, and she raised her chin in defiance.
So what? So what if she was boring? This was who she was, and she was happy with it. She’d had it with relationships. She would never put her heart out there to be trampled on, ever again.
The cottage’s little kitchen with its bright yellow walls, white wood cabinets, and worn oak flooring, glowed with a herb-scented warmth that hugged Molly when she entered.
Nan glanced up from the soup pot she was stirring. Her curly white hair was piled high in its usual messy bun, and despite the warmth, she wore her favourite pink wool shawl over a simple beige dress. Pink suited her, giving her soft plumpness a comforting look.
She dropped the ladle into the pot and came and caught Molly in a fierce hug. “I heard. He’s back, and he’s not alone.”
The fact that Nan already knew wasn’t surprising. News in Appleby travelled faster than the speed of light.
Molly rested her head on her grandmother’s shoulders. “I’m leaving well alone, Nan. I want nothing more to do with him.”
“Of course you don’t,” Nan said, stroking back Molly’s unruly curls. “Brian was never right for you. I told you many a time over the past year you needed to move on. Still, it’s better late than never. At least I’ll be spared the spectacle of seeing you as Mrs Wilkins and married into Kathleen’s side of the family.”
With a giggle, Molly kissed Nan’s cheek. “When you put it that way…”
She stepped back and scrutinized Nan’s slightly swollen left leg. It was encased in compression stockings, and had been for a few weeks following an operation to remove a varicose vein.
Molly pulled out one of the oak chairs by the round kitchen table. “Why don’t you sit down and take it easy on the leg? I’ll finish the soup.”
“Fiddlesticks. I’ve been taking it easy all day.” And ignoring the chair, Nan returned to the soup pot on the stove.
But one glance at the table told Molly there had been no taking it easy. Two large shopping baskets squatted on it, overflowing with a rainbow of fresh fruit and vegetables. “All day, huh? Then who bought all this stuff?”
“Clara. She sent it along with Nate.”
Molly raised her eyebrows. Clara Ainsley, Appleby’s nosy-parker postmistress, having anything to do with Nate, Barrowdene’s cranky groundsman, was newsworthy indeed. “And she didn’t skin him alive in the process?”
Chuckling, Nan came and rummaged through a basket. “He was sober in the afternoon. Here, she sent your magazine.” She handed Molly the latest edition of Period House. “It came early.”
And instantly absorbed, Molly flipped through page after page of eye-catching photos of old and stately homes.
“It was Clara who phoned me about Brian.” Nan’s voice from the stove brought Molly back to the kitchen. “According to her, the new girl’s quite a catch, and Kathleen is over the moon.”
Trust Clara Ainsley to know everything everywhere immediately. Molly dropped the magazine onto the table. “Her name’s Abby. I didn’t hang around to find out her history, but no doubt Clara will be an Abby expert by tomorrow, and everyone will know more.”
Nan regarded her. She never wore glasses. She didn’t need them. Her glacial blue eyes, darker than Molly’s own, always saw more than what was there on the surface. “I don’t need her history. I need to know this isn’t a passing fancy of Brian’s and you won’t be reeled back in.”
“It isn’t, and I won’t. They’re hellbent on getting married at St Mary’s sooner than soon, and Brian and I are more than finished.”
“With that lad, I’ll believe it when I see it. And I hope you told him exactly where you stand.” Nan turned back to her soup pot with a frown. “You’re too giving for your own good, Molly. Always at his beck and call, and he couldn’t even decide whether he wanted to stay with you or not. I knew when you took up with him so soon after your grandad died that you were looking for comfort. But Brian was never the right man for that.” She looked at Molly then, her frown deepening. “He’s gone around with the impression he owns you long enough, but that stops now. You are off-limits to him.”
The memory of that kiss seared through Molly’s mind, and unable to meet Nan’s steady gaze, she glanced at the baskets on the table instead. “It’s over, Nan. You needn’t worry.” Then she quickly changed the subject. “Why do you have enough food here to feed the whole village?”
Nan sighed. “Francine’s coming home tomorrow, and she may have guests with her.”
Molly looked up at that. Francine Lamont owned Barrowdene House and the several acres of land surrounding it. But she rarely stayed here, preferring her townhouse in South London instead. The infrequent visits suited Molly. It made Nan’s job as housekeeper that much lighter.
“Guests? How many?” Molly asked.
“No idea. But knowing Francine, I’d say only one or two. Still, I thought it best to be prepared.”
Molly sped through a mental checklist. “The house will need airing, new linen… I’ll ask Martin to give me the morning off tomorrow.”
“You’ll do no such thing! You get on with your job. I’m perfectly capable.” Molly opened her mouth to protest, but Nan held up a silencing hand. “I’ve asked a couple of girls from the village to drop by in the morning and help.”
“That’s a relief. You shouldn’t be tiring yourself. Especially with your leg needing rest.”
“And what would I do sitting around on my backside all day? What my leg needs is exercise.” Nan’s expression became wistful. “It’s a shame Francine never stays longer than a day or two. Barrowdene is a family house. It needs people in it. When I was first here, you could feel the heart of the place whenever the little ones came to visit. It was the same when you used to toddle after me wherever I went in the house. You always cheered up Eugenie.”
Molly smiled. Eugenie Thomas, Francine’s strict maiden aunt, had been the last in a long line of Thomases to own Barrowdene. Eugenie had employed a sixteen-year-old inexperienced Nan, hand-selected her from a host of hopefuls. The sour old lady had suffered no fools and demanded perfection in all things, but Molly had grown up seeing her as family. She’d spent many a childhood evening listening to stories of Barrowdene and the past at the foot of Eugenie’s rocking chair in front of a cosy fire. A faint sadness crossed Molly. Everything had changed two years ago. She’d watched the fortunes of the big house shift after Eugenie died, and then again six months later when her own beloved grandad took his last breath.
Nan tasted the soup and gave a satisfied nod. “That’s ready. Did you see Nate on your way here?”
“No, the gatehouse looked empty.”
Nan tutted. “That man. He’ll be down the pub soaking up more than the sunshine, I bet. Go find him, child. I need him at least half-sober to see to the gardens before Francine arrives tomorrow. Promise him a hefty serving of the best beef soup he’s ever tasted.”
“That should get him.” With a grin, Molly turned to go.
“And, Molly,” Nan said, making her look back. “Keep well away from Brian. You deserve better. Let him lie in the bed he chose.”
* * *
Molly reached the King’s Head Pub ten minutes later. People stood drinking and chatting in small clumps out front. It looked like nobody wanted to sit inside the old building while the sun still beckoned. Some people were villagers and known to her. Others were summer tourists who’d managed to find their way to the pub.
Compared to the rest of the village, The King’s Head was easy to find. It sat outside the cluster of small shops that lined Main Street, right on the corner where the road curved past St. Mary’s church and Barrowdene. The village though was a rabbit warren of nooks and lanes that spiked off from the wide central Main Street. It had no structure. Appleby had stood since medieval times, having been knocked down by conquering armies, built again, then later expanded higgledy-piggledy as the armies disappeared and families thrived. It was a beautiful snare for tourists. They usually wandered off Main Street and ended up going in circles as they ooh’d and aah’d at the orchards and golden-thatched cottages. And it was only after they’d passed the same limestone cottage three times that they thought of knocking on a door and begging for help.
Molly neared the pub entrance where a group of men with pints in hand stood clustered around three motorbikes.
Motorbikes were a common sight in summer. Appleby’s quiet main road was much adored by bikers looking to race their inner speed demons through the lush green English countryside. And the King’s Head was a favourite pit stop.
One bike caught her eye. Its leather seats were coal black, and its sleek dark body glinted with futuristic malevolence in the evening sunlight. It stood out a mile against the two silver bikes either side of it.
“Triumph’s the best,” one of the men pronounced to his companions as they scrutinized the dark bike. “It’s a beast, it is.”
Beastly expensive too, no doubt. Molly slowed as she neared the bike. It wasn’t entirely shiny and brand new. The wheels and base were spattered with mud and dust as if it had been well-ridden that day. The owner had to be from the city, a young financier or banker she’d bet. Someone who wore smart suits to the office and poured himself into tough-looking bike leathers on his days off. She’d seen plenty of them, charming and insincere from the ends of their perfectly coiffed hair to the tips of their polished boots. They seemed to think any woman in the village below the age of thirty would jump on the back of their bikes at the merest flash of their cash.
The men saw her and smiled or nodded their hellos before returning to their once-over of the bikes. Molly breathed a small sigh of relief as she passed them. There had been no knowing or pity in their eyes. News about Brian and his new fiancée hadn’t reached the pub yet. It was only a matter of time though, but at least she’d be left alone today.
“Molly! I was about to call you.” Anna, Sophie’s younger sister, rushed out of the pub.
Anna had Sophie’s colouring, but the similarities ended there. Electric-blue streaked the front of Anna’s pixie-cut dark hair, and her bottle-green eyes sparkled with a fierce independence not seen in Sophie’s softer ones. The fact that she worked as a bartender in the pub exasperated her mother, Kathleen. Molly often suspected that was exactly why Anna had taken the job.
Molly quickened her steps. “What’s wrong? Is it Nate?”
“Yeah, it’s Nate.” Anna swiped her hands on the black bar apron wrapped around her gamine hips, and grabbing Molly’s arm, pulled her into the half-empty pub. “He’s going mental out there with some customers. You’d better get him off their backs, or the lads here will get involved.”
She didn’t release Molly until they reached the pub’s crowded back garden.
The smoky smell of barbecued meat mingled with the dull sweet notes of beer and cider. Every round wooden table with its four chairs was occupied, and all the colourful parasols were open.
Nate stood beside a nearby table where three men and a woman were seated. They were all staring at him like he was a giant slug that had just crawled out of the greenery and threatened to dive into their drinks.
“Yer all talk, yer type,” he slurred to a broad-shouldered man who sat with his back to Molly. “If you got the guts, let’s show the li’l lady who’s the real man she’ll be wanting to spend the night with.”
The man shot to his feet and towered over Nate. And catching sight of the man’s face, Molly could only stand and gape.
He was beautiful, like a golden Michelangelo statue come to life. His chiselled features, sharp cheekbones, and straight nose, even his lips looked like they’d been lovingly carved from living marble. Honey-gold hair swept overlong across his brow and nearly touched the base of his neck. The same gold reflected in the hint of beard covering his strong jaw.
Ensnared, Molly’s gaze continued down wide shoulders beneath a fitted white t-shirt, tight hips in rugged leather trousers, and ended at heavy, dusty biker boots. She had no doubt she’d just found the owner of the mean machine out front.
With a glare for Nate, the man took a small step forward. He clenched his hands into fists at his side, and the corded muscles in his arms flexed and bunched.
Nate teetered into a fighting stance and waggled his scrawny fists in the air. “Come on then, pretty boy. I’ll rearrange yer face for you.”
And Molly snapped out of her trance.
“No, Nate!” She cried and flung herself between them, only to land in the firing line of an amber-green stare that threatened to strip the flesh from her bones.
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?
(Sophie and Marc)
Appleby Book 3
No man has ever chosen Sophie Harrington. Then one day fate throws the hottest man ever at her. But wealthy Marc Lewis needs a wife. A duchess or countess will do, but village girl Sophie will not. Can Sophie win him for a lifetime rather than just a few nights?