But this Liam—this stranger in the suit—he merely reached out and pushed a cassette into the tape deck, and music filled the car.
Scarlett could have screamed as the violently passionate strains of the love-scene from Carmen pierced the air with frighteningly sweet sensuality. But short of actually putting her fingers in her ears, there wasn’t a lot she could do to blot the sound out. Instead, she stared fixedly ahead at the empty road. When had he learnt to like opera? she wondered with a sudden bitterness.
She realised with a sudden shock that she had never seen him drive before either. During their lamentably brief and ill-fated marriage they had been desperately short of money—and Liam had stubbornly refused to accept any hand-outs from her stepfather. Which was why they’d lived in the small, dingy flat over the café, where the smell of cabbage had drifted upwards and seemed to permeate even their clothes and their skin. And where Scarlett would play at being a housewife while Liam went out to his labouring job each morning.
She had to think clearly. Liam was back, but there was a limit to how far even he would go. What was he planning? And why, for goodness’ sake, was she just accepting this dramatic seizure, as though it was inevitable? As though, with him around, she had no conscious will of her own?
Drawing her shoulders back, she sat up straight in her seat and forced herself to take note of landmarks as the snow-clothed countryside flashed by. Her heart started hammering as she recognised the village as they drove quietly through it and circumnavigated the iced-over village pond.
The road out of it was narrow, winding. She closed her eyes quickly, not daring to open them again, although she knew exactly what she would see if she did. To her left she would see a dramatic line of horse-chestnuts, like scarecrows of the gods, waving their bare black arms against the heavy, snow-laden sky.
How could he have done? she wondered with helpless bitterness. To have brought her here...
‘Afraid to look, Scarlett?’ mocked the deep voice beside her, and she fluttered open her eyelids in defiance, still not believing it to be true. Her heart was sinking, yet at the same time it started to hammer with some shameful excitement as the car drew up in front of the small cottage.
As he turned the engine off she released her seatbelt and turned on him, her long nails instinctively forming cat-like talons which attempted to scrabble at his face. But he fended them off as a tiger would swat a butterfly, his big, strong hands closing decisively over hers.
There was a cold, cruel smile on his face as he watched her lips part automatically as their skin made contact. ‘Fight me all you like, Scarlett—but why don’t we get horizontal first?’ he said insultingly. But before she could retaliate he had unbuckled his seatbelt, stepped out of the car, had walked around to her side and was doing the same for her.
‘Take me home at once!’ she said flatly. ‘If you do that, and leave me alone, I’ll let the whole matter drop.’
‘Not even a little bit curious, Scarlett, to know what your dear husband has been doing for all these years?’
‘Not in the least.’ Her eyes deliberately swept down every inch of the superbly cut and outrageously expensive suit. ‘Something underhand, I shouldn’t doubt—judging from the money you’re obviously throwing around.’
‘You think so?’ he asked softly.
Hurt him, urged an inner voice. Hurt him badly, as he hurt you. She gave him a supercilious little smile. ‘How did you make your money, then, Liam?’ she said patronisingly. ‘Labouring?’
‘But I thought you liked all that kind of thing, sweetheart?’ he drawled. ‘Your bit of rough,’ he added with insulting emphasis.
She felt all the blood drain from her face. ‘Why, you arrogant blackguard!’ she gasped out. Her eyes hardened to match the coldness in his. ‘Take me home, Liam!’
Soft snowflakes were fluttering onto the jet hair which the light breeze ruffled as he shook his head. ‘Not yet. I want to talk to you,’ he said, with the kind of steely emphasis used by a man not used to taking no for an answer.
‘See my solicitor.’
‘What’s the matter, Scarlett?’ he mocked. ‘Afraid to go inside? Does the past repulse you so much?’
As he drew her attention to the cottage she gave him her haughtiest look, narrowing her eyes so that he would be unable to read any of the nostalgic pain in her eyes. Not here, anywhere but here, where her love for him had been born. It had been in there—in that cottage—that she’d given herself to him one summer afternoon.
On a dusty floor he had slowly bared her flesh, had kissed her and possessed her with such exquisite sweetness. She had cried afterwards, salty tears of grateful joy sliding into his shoulders and down his chest. But even as the shudders had died away in his own body she had felt his anger. As though he had already sensed the repercussions of that sweet, wild mating...
‘Quite frankly, I can hardly remember the place,’ she lied frostily. ‘But, as you know, my stepfather owns it. So, as well as abduction we can add trespassing to your charge-sheet.’
He gave a short, abrasive laugh. ‘I think not,’ he said arrogantly. ‘Come inside, Scarlett. I told you—we need to talk, and it’s too cold to stay out here.’
He pulled her out of the car, not roughly, but with that gentle strength which had always been at the heart of his lovemaking. And for one bizarre moment of insanity Scarlett had to steel herself not to sink into those powerful arms.
‘I’ll never forgive you for this!’ she said fervently as he guided her towards the door and unlocked it.
‘That is purely academic.’ The handsome face was impassive, as if he didn’t care one way or the other.
Scarlett walked in, and her mouth fell open in surprise. In her mind’s eye she had imagined that the cottage would look exactly the same—neglected and run-down, bare and dilapidated—but to her astonishment someone had done the place up. And had done it up beautifully too.
The floorboards had been properly waxed to a deep shine, and Persian rugs in vibrant hues of sapphire and turquoise silk were scattered around. The walls had been recently covered in a pale wash and hung with several superb watercolours. Soft and pale modern furniture provided the seating. Someone had put central heating in too. Whoever had decorated had exquisite taste, and it had nothing of her parents’ rather predictable penchant for old-fashioned polished mahogany.
‘Who owns this?’ asked Scarlett suddenly.
‘I don’t believe you!’ But her denial was merely automatic; his words had held the unmistakable ring of truth.
‘That is, of course, your prerogative,’ he said coolly.
Scarlett was growing more confused by the moment. ‘But my stepfather would never sell it—certainly not to you!’
‘So sure?’ A kind of smile curved the corners of his lips upwards, though his blue eyes stayed as cold as the temperature outside, and something in the oddly confident look on his face filled her with a strange kind of dread. Of course her stepfather wouldn’t have sold him the cottage! Why on earth would he have had any dealings with a man he detested almost as much as she did?
‘Sit down, Scarlett, while I light the fire. Coffee? Or perhaps you’d prefer something stronger?’
This was crazy! Any minute now and they’d be discussing politics—and here, of all places! She needed to get out—before the past, with its shockingly poignant memories, started that aching in her heart all over again. ‘I want out, that’s what I want—back to my party! You said you wanted to talk, Liam—then start talking. I’ll give you five minutes.’
‘We need some heat first.’ And he crouched down to start the fire. Flames leapt up and licked realistically at logs, and suddenly the room looked deceptively and cloyingly homely. Scarlett sat down on one of the squashy leather sofas, feeling as though her whole world had tipped upside-down, her reality totally distorted as