THE BILLIONAIRE'S CONVENIENT BRIDE          M&B True Love April 2019

 

 

 

 

READ ON FOR A SNEAK PEEK OF LIZ'S UPCOMING ROMANCE NOVEL, THE BILLIONAIRE'S CONVENIENT BRIDE...

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CHAPTER ONE

Two cancellations for weekend craft class. Main boiler playing up. Rained all night. Need more buckets.

Agnés Prideaux’s Journal 

KAM Faulkner leaned forward against the steering wheel, peering through the rain blanketing the Creek to catch his first glimpse of Priddy Castle.

Fourteen years ago he’d been an angry teenager looking back out of the window of the van containing all their possessions. Angry, afraid and desperately hoping for some signal, a last-minute reprieve until the very last moment when the island had cut off the view of the only home he’d ever known.

Cutting off the last view of the girl who had caused all the trouble.

He’d sworn then, as the ferry had docked on the far bank and his mother had forced a reassuring smile, a brave  “don’t worry, we’ll manage” that he’d be back and he’d make her pay. He’d make them all pay.

It has been raining then. Not this soft stuff, little more than mist that clung to the windscreen, blurring the view. It had been drenching rain that had soaked their clothes as they’d stowed their home into a rented van.

It had run off Agnés Prideaux’s long dark hair, down her face, her soaked t-shirt clinging to her as she stood on the quayside, watching the ferry leave. Saying nothing, not even a shouted sorry even though the loss of his mother’s job, the loss of his home was all her fault.

The ferry cleared the island and his throat dried as he caught his first glimpse of his destination.

Castle was too grand a name for it.

Priddy wasn’t one of those great grey fortresses built by the Normans. It had started life as little more than a stone watch tower thrown up to guard the entrance to the river and the once important trading port upstream from raiders, would be invaders, its fortunes ebbing and waning like the tidal river it guarded.

It had been regularly abandoned, only remembered when new dangers threatened until an enterprising man left in possession after some forgotten crisis, had decided to stay. He’d built himself a gentlemen’s residence alongside the tower, which became a decorative irrelevance until the eighteenth century when the risk of invasion from France gave it a renewed purpose.

The only invasion had been from smugglers carrying brandy and silk.

They slipped into the Creek without challenge because Sir Arthur Draycott, baronet and magistrate, whose duty it was to guard the coast and hang smugglers, was in cahoots with Henri Prideaux, the most infamous smuggler in that part of the coast.

 Not that Sir Arthur had lived to enjoy his ill-gotten gains. But his daughter had married the smuggler and Henri Prideaux had become king of the castle, his own title bought from equally corrupt politicians he’d done business with.

There was nothing to guard now and, with the last baronet gambling away what remained of the fortune, Priddy Castle had become little more than an upmarket B&B.

He had wondered if it would look smaller than his imagination remembered but, looming out of the mist, the rain-darkened grey tower retained every bit of its threatening presence.

Chains clanked as the old pontoon ferry reached the slipway and the ramp was lowered. He forced himself to relax and joined the vehicles heading along the quay, past the row of old fishermen’s cottages tucked in beneath the protection of the castle.

The fishermen had shaken off the shackles of the Priddy estate when the railway had arrived on the far side of the Creek, opening up the lucrative London market for their catch.

Artists, drawn by the light, and the cheap cost of living, had flocked to the area until, around the turn of the century, it had become a well-known colony.

It had all been a bit ramshackle and scruffy when he left but today there were tubs of spring flowers, vivid against the freshly white-washed walls and an upmarket deli was doing brisk business serving the yachting fraternity that had grown up in the safety of the Creek.

Even the old chandler’s store, where he’d once conducted a lively back-door trade in the sea trout he’d poached from the Creek, had been given a make-over.

The number of fishing boats heading out to sea may have dwindled to a handful, but tourism, the marina, had filled the gap. The town of Castle Creek, with its pastel-painted cottages rising on the opposite bank in theatrical stages, had become a desirable place to have a holiday cottage. A place to bring your children for the summer. A place to build sandcastles on the beach, mess about in boats, build happy memories if you were among the privileged few.

Kam took the lane leading up to the castle, slowing as he rounded a bend and then pulled over in front of the cottage that had once been his home.

Tied to his mother’s job at the Castle, the cottage had been neglected by a careless owner, but the windows had shone, the garden had been neat and cared for.

He’d seen photographs, but the reality shocked him. Roof tiles had slipped, there was a cracked pane stuffed with cardboard to keep out the weather. It was in the shelter of the hill, but paintwork needed constant attention this close to the sea. As for the garden. He would have to fight he way through the rank weeds to reach the front door.

If it was no use to the estate, why hadn’t they sold it? Or done it up to let as a holiday rental. Things were bad now, but they hadn’t always been.

After a moment to compose himself, he carried on up the hill.

On the sheltered, landward-side of the tower, the original house had been extended by successive generations until it had become a rambling muddle of styles but as he swept through the gates, it was the rose bricks of the Tudor frontage that appeared though the soft filter of the mist.

It looked better than he’d expected after seeing the cottage.

The gravel drive was weed-free and raked and while the drifts of naturalised daffodils that would have lit up the long curve of the drive early in spring had died back, there were early tulips glowing pink through a haze of forget-me-nots in huge tubs by the heavy oak front door.

They did a good job of distracting the eye but, this close, the stains on the brickwork where the sagging gutter had overflowed during the heavy overnight rain, were obvious.

There was an arrow pointing to the designated parking space where half a dozen cars were neatly lined up. He ignored it and parked near the front door. He grabbed his bag and, ignoring the damp mist that clung to his face, stood back to get a better look at the roof.

It wasn’t only the guttering that needed urgent attention.

 . . . . .

‘Please, Jimmy…’ Agnés Prideaux was beyond pride. She was begging. ‘I did the jiggly thing that you showed me to get it going but just juddered a bit. It needs your magic touch.’

‘What that boiler needs is a one-way ticket to the scrap yard.’

‘It’s top of my list,’ she assured him.

Along with patching up the roof, fixing the gutters and half a dozen other problems that her grandfather had ignored for years and then, having invested all the estate’s disposable assets in a bank offering a high interest rate that anyone could see was a disaster waiting to happen, had drunk one bottle of brandy too many and died, leaving her to deal with the mess.

 ‘If you could just pop over in your lunch hour and do your thing, I’ll treat you to the chef’s special in the Conservatory.’

This was happening so regularly that she didn’t need to mention the cash-in-hand payment that would come out of her own purse.

Jimmy sighed. ‘I’m sorry, Agnés, but the boss has laid down the law. The Castle is off limits until your account is paid.’

‘But—’

This morning had been a disaster. Without the boiler there would be no hot water for the guests after a long hard day creating their masterpieces.

‘Even in my own time,’ he added, before she could plead.

What!

‘Can he do that?’ she demanded as her struggle to maintain a swan-like calm while paddling frantically to keep ahead of her creditors, already stretched to breaking point, finally snapped. ‘The miserable old goat knows he’ll be paid as soon as the lawyers stop faffing around and settle the probate.’

She’d not only snapped but far worse, she was lying. She was that desperate.

Probate had been granted a week ago but between her grandfather’s lack of judgement and a looming inheritance tax bill, she was about to descend into negative equity in a big way. Her only chance of keeping the castle was to convince the bank that it was a viable business, but if the boiler wasn’t fixed the comments on the digital review sites would ensure that there would be no more guests to feed the maintenance bills and the bank that liked to say yes would be saying not a chance…

‘Can I speak to him?’ she asked.

Another voice said, ‘The miserable old goat has you on speaker phone, Miss Prideaux and to answer your question, yes, if Jimmy wants to keep his job, he can.’

She swallowed. ‘Mr Bridges—’

‘Priddy Castle business is always welcome,’ he said, cutting off her apology before she could even think how to recover the situation, ‘but our terms are one month. We’ll be happy to oblige just as soon as the outstanding account is settled.’

She held the phone to her ear for a long moment, but the connection had been cut. She’d been left hanging in space with nowhere to go.

‘Problem?’

Agnés jumped at the unexpected sound and swung round on her chair.

The guests were all supposed to be safely out of earshot in the barn creating collages. The man leaning against the doorframe didn’t look as if he spent his weekends messing about with scraps from the attic. At all. What was clear, was that he’d been here long enough to have heard every word of her embarrassing conversation with the heating engineer.

She took a breath and did her best to arrange her face into a welcoming smile. ‘Can I help you?’

‘I have a reservation, he said, ‘but there’s no one at the reception desk.’

‘I’m so sorry. Suzanna must have been called away.’

‘A complaint about the lack of hot water, perhaps?’

She felt the hot flush rush to her cheeks but rose to her feet, indicating with a gesture that he should lead the way. ‘Are you here for the class?’ she asked, reminding herself not to judge by appearances. He might want to tap into his creativity. ‘It’s already started but—’

‘I haven’t come here to upcycle rubbish into art.’

He hadn’t used his fingers to make quote marks but the way he said “art” he might as well have done. He had however, paraphrased the poster pinned up on the wall behind her that listed the craft weekends she’d organised to bring in guests during the winter months.

His tone did suggest that he had something on his mind and her heart sank. Was this another of her grandfather’s debts come to haunt them?

She cleared her throat to ask, since there was no use putting off bad news, but he beat her to the question.

‘You don’t recognise me, Agnés?’

Distracted by the crisis with the boiler, eyes gritty from scouring the accounts in a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul attempt to find money for the outstanding plumbing bill — not to mention the eye-avoiding embarrassment —she hadn’t given him much more than a glance. Total good hostess fail.

But then he said her name and a flicker of butterflies stirred beneath her waist.

He waited for her brain to catch up with what she had heard, what she was seeing.

A fuzz of the misty rain that had blanketed the creek since dawn clung to a familiar mop of unruly dark hair, a close-cut beard, olive skin…

As she met the steady gaze of dark eyes, the years fell away, she was a teenager again and in the desperate, painful throes of first love…

‘Kam?’ Agnés breathed the name, reached out to touch his jacket, as if to reassure herself that he was real. Curled back her fingers before they came into contact with the damp leather.

His beautiful boyish face had been battered into manhood, his shoulders had widened and the growth spurt that came later to boys had taken him past six feet. He seemed twice the size of the fifteen-year-old boy who’d been banished from the castle by her grandfather. Larger, tougher.

‘Kam Faulkner,’ she said.

‘There,’ he said, the corner of his mouth pulling up in the nearly-smile that had stolen her heart the first time she’d seen him and, she discovered, still had the power to make it leap. ‘That wasn’t so difficult.’

 

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From the book THE BILLIONAIRE'S CONVENIENT BRIDE by Liz Fielding

Copyright © 2018 by Liz Fielding