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Текст книги "Her Mistletoe Husband"


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Автор книги: Renee Roszel


Жанр: Современные любовные романы, Любовные романы


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“You’re a challenge, Miss Crosby.” Enchanted Brides – The Myth Title Page Dedication CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER TWO CHAPTER THREE CHAPTER FOUR CHAPTER FIVE CHAPTER SIX CHAPTER SEVEN CHAPTER EIGHT CHAPTER NINE CHAPTER TEN CHAPTER ELEVEN EPILOGUE Copyright

“You’re a challenge, Miss Crosby.”

She eyed him with skepticism. Something seemed to dawn on her, and her green eyes went appealingly wide. “What do you think you’re going to do? Seduce me?”

“Yes,” he whispered.

She flinched and he experienced a twinge of compassion. He didn’t like putting her out of her home. But she would be okay. Elissa Crosby had more backbone than any ten women he knew.

As they swayed intimately on the dance floor, he could feel her slim body move subtly against his. He found himself growing more and more aroused by her reluctant nearness. Lord, she was a temptress, even when temptation was the last thing on her mind.

Damn the woman! If she would only throw herself at him, he’d grow bored and lose interest. He gazed into those sexy, guarded eyes again, his lips quirking in self-mockery. Like hell he would. Bowing his head, he lowered his face toward hers.

Enchanted Brides

The Myth

The stately D’Amour mansion stands majestically in the countryside, its absentee owner rumored to be living in Europe. Glosed for years, this mansion has a charming myth surrounding it. Legend says that the mansion is enchanted and that “an unmarried woman who sleeps within its walls on her birthday, when the moon is full, will marry the first man she sees in the morning.”

Her Mistletoe Husband is the third in Renee Roszel’s spellbinding Enchanted Brides trilogy.

Also in the Enchanted Brides trilogy:

To Marry a Stranger (#3470)

Married By Mistake! (#3488)

Praise for the trilogy:

“Renee Roszel delivers a fast-paced, humorous tale as she blends commanding characters with a strong premise and lovable secondary characters in Her Mistletoe Husband.”

–Romantic Times

“Ms. Roszel adds sound characterization to a touching premise to win our hearts.”

–Romantic Times on To Marry a Stranger

Her Mistletoe Husband
Renee Roszel


www.millsandboon.co.uk

To my real-life sisters,

Norda and Ronda. Can you find yourselves among the three Crosby sisters?

CHAPTER ONE

ELISSA’S elbow hit the floor with a thump, waking her and making her wince. She groaned, but as soon as the sound was out of her mouth, she clamped her hand over her lips.

What if he heard?

A shiver raked her body, but the reaction had more to do with her terror than the cold. She blinked, clearing away the blur of sleep. It was dark, very dark, except for the slash of light at the bottom of the door to the closet where she was hiding. She couldn’t believe she’d fallen asleep, but even in her fright exhaustion had finally taken its toll.

The slash of light at the bottom of the door!

She realized it must be after dawn. Around midnight she’d scrambled into the deserted D’Amour mansion through a loose board nailed over a window. She’d been sure the man following her hadn’t seen where she’d entered, but just to be safe, she’d hidden in this upstairs closet, barely breathing. For hours. Then she’d fallen into a fitful sleep.

Her whole body ached and felt cramped. It was so cold. Of course, being December, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Still, Elissa wasn’t accustomed to sleeping in closets in abandoned, unheated mansions. Stiff from the cold and the cramped position she’d been curled in, she shifted her wristwatch into the light stream. Seven o’clock! She couldn’t believe it.

What a lousy way to begin a birthday. First the flat tire, then, when she’d realized the flat was her spare, and started to walk home, there had been movement in the brush. A man. A big man. Something had glinted in the light of the full moon as he’d skulked from bush to bush—a wristwatch? A belt buckle? The blade of an ax? Her survival instincts had gone into high gear, especially after the unsigned letter she received last week. Threatening and scary. The police had taken a report and said they’d look into it. Even so, the sergeant had tried to reassure her, explaining it was most likely a prank, nothing to be worried about.

Nothing! Well, she’d like to know what they’d think now, after she’d been forced to huddle in a closet all night. She stood, swallowing to bolster her courage, assuring herself that not even a certified nutcase would hang around in subfreezing temperatures all night. Taking a deep breath she cracked open the door and peered into the bare room. Cobwebs, dust motes and the smell of must were her only companions. Sunlight streamed in the dingy arched windows, the brightness of the day strengthening her resolve. Stalkers belonged to the night, didn’t they?

As she emerged from the closet, the creak of the door sent a tingle of apprehension along her spine, but she controlled her reaction. “Elissa, are you a man or are you a mouse?” she muttered, then shook her head, her lips quirking. “Okay, so you’re neither. Just go.”

As soundlessly as she could, in a mansion that seemed to squawk and groan with every step, as if it were a cantankerous old grump, she made her way down the grand staircase and along the dark hall to the den. After peering out of the window through which she’d eatered, she determined that no large men with hatchets were lurking nearby. With a prayer on her lips, she slipped outside, not the easiest thing to do in her tweed suit’s slender skirt.

From her vantage point at the side of the house, she could see her old sedan, a hundred yards down the road, but she couldn’t see the front of the mansion. She hugged herself, watching her breath frost the air. What was she to do? Getting back to her inn and to a telephone was high on her list—just below staying alive. The trip would be cut in half if she took the shortcut through the woods. With a determined nod, she pivoted toward the back of the manor.

As she rounded the comer, a massive male figure loomed. “Oh, my Lord!” she cried. He was still here! Reacting on instinct, the self-defense course she’d taken flashed through her mind. She clawed at the stranger’s face and shot her knee up, finding her target. “Take that you pervert!” she yelled.

The intruder groaned then doubled over, and she knew she’d debilitated him enough to make her escape. She lurched away, scrambling into the woods. Stumbling and tripping along the rocky path, she cursed her unsuitable pumps. Her lungs burned with the cold, her brain whirring as she cast around in her memory. Who was that man? She only got a glimpse of him, but he seemed too well dressed to have been slinking around in the woods all night. And, unless he’d taken an advanced course in personal hygiene, he didn’t resemble any of her down-and-out law clients. She had a feeling she would have remembered those extraordinary eyes—the color of silver lightning—even squinting in pain and shock.

As she reached the back steps of her inn, she paused to get her breath. Sucking in gasps of stinging air, she decided it didn’t matter if she recalled him or not. He had to be someone from her time as a Kansas City lawyer. She’d only practiced for four years, and that seemed like an eternity ago. But apparently she wasn’t forgotten. Somebody with a very big grudge remembered her.

She hugged herself, stifling another shiver and exhaled a frosty cloud. The most important thing at the moment was, she’d gotten away. Sinking to the lowest step, she pushed a shaky hand through her fiery curls. She was baffled. Had this man blamed her for losing his case and for his being sent to prison? Or was he possibly the relative of some victim who felt that her defense had set a guilty man free? If that were the case, then why had he waited years after she’d given up the practice of law to come after her? Her move from Kansas City had been no secret. Whoever he was, she hoped a knee to the groin was enough to make him change his mind about coming after her.

Unfortunately she had her doubts. “Who are you, mister?” she mused in a winded exhale. “What do you want with me?”

Elissa felt better with the attention of the two young patrolmen who had answered her call. They’d checked around the D’Amour mansion and searched the woods between the estate and her inn. They’d even taken her tire into town and gotten it patched and returned her car to her. She loved small towns. You wouldn’t catch a Kansas City cop doing that.

The two officers promised to increase their patrols in the area and took down her sketchy description of the man she’d kneed that morning. One of the cops, built like a professional football player, startled her by asking her out to dinner. She was working on a nice way to decline and still get her extra night patrol when the front door of the inn opened.

She looked up to see at a towering man backlit by afternoon brightness. Dressed in an impeccable suit he seemed to completely block her door. He was handsome, his chiseled features marred only by three scratches along his jaw. When he met her gaze, she saw a flash of silver lighting in his eyes, and she screamed.

Plucking up the letter opener from the reception desk, she brandished it in his direction. “That’s the pervert who attacked me this morning! Get him!”

At that moment a second man slipped inside the door. Elissa recognized him as a detective in the Branson police department. A wiry man with ginger freckles on his balding skull, his name had something to do with food, but she couldn’t remember what. She stilled with her weapon thrust forward, making her look like Teddy Roosevelt pointing out the whites of his enemy’s eyes.

The tall pervert seemed to register having met her before, too, and those amazing eyes narrowed. “You,” he growled.

“Don’t just stand there,” she shouted, scanning the frozen cops and the detective who stood beside her stalker. “Grab him. Throw him to the ground and cuff him. He attacked me!”

The tall stranger scowled at her. “I attacked you?”

He took an ominous step toward her, and her ability to move returned. She waved the letter opener menacingly, adding some ad-libbed footwork, as if she were one of the Three Musketeers. “You certainly did attack me!” She eyed the cops with a pleading expression. “He’s dangerous, I tell you?”

“Me?” The stranger’s lips curled in a mocking smile. “Who was the one who ended up in a heap on the ground?”

The cop who had asked her to dinner took a step toward the tall man, but the detective waved him off.

“Why isn’t anybody arresting that psychopath? Don’t let him come near me!”

The scowling stranger touched his damaged cheek. “Miss, I wouldn’t come near you unless you were declawed and your feet were glued to the floor.”

“Elissa,” the detective broke in, moving forward and extending his hand. “I’m Sergeant Jerry Hamm.”

“I remember you, Sergeant.” She tried to smile but her emotions were too wrought up for pleasantries. “And your wife. Minny, I think?”

“Right.” The sergeant had a quiet, oval face, his features almost delicate. He smiled encouragingly, showing off small, straight teeth. When she didn’t relinquish her letter opener to take his hand, he dropped his arm to his side. “Anyway, this is Alex D’Amour. He owns the mansion, er, next to your property.”

Elissa had a protest on the tip of her tongue, but the sergeant’s words stopped her. Her mouth worked for several seconds before she could speak. “This—this man owns the D’Amour mansion?”

Sergeant Hamm nodded. “I’m afraid we’re here with bad news.”

She frowned, her gaze shifting from the sergeant to the tall, immaculately dressed interloper with her fingernail marks on his face. “Then you didn’t follow me last night when my car broke down, and stalk me outside the mansion all night, and when I came out you didn’t try to...” Her question died away as she watched a dark brow lift in incredulity.

Looking at him now, dressed as if he spent more time in boardrooms than insane asylums, the idea that he was her stalker was starting to seem a little crazy. Okay, maybe a lot crazy. Perhaps she hadn’t been stalked after all. Certainly not by this man. Her mind spun with anxiety and confusion. Was she merely overwrought because of the ominous letter, seeing things that weren’t really there?

Doubt settled in her stomach as if it were a hot rock. She could see in the cops’ expressions that, with her wild accusations that Mr. D’Amour was her stalker, they’d concluded she was nothing but a flighty female, crying wolf. She had to face the possibility that they might be right.

Trying to regain some of her pride, she straightened her spine. “Well,” she said warily, refusing to totally relinquish her suspicions, “just—just because you dress well doesn’t mean you wouldn’t stalk me.”

He inhaled, nostrils flaring in obvious exasperation. “That’s generous of you, Miss Crosby. But no thanks.”

When he moved toward her, she backed away wielding the letter opener again. “What are you doing?”

He lifted a leather briefcase and laid it on the oak reception desk that separated them. Flicking the latches, he opened it. “As Sergeant Hamm said, I’m bringing bad news.”

She eyed him with mistrust, recalling the sergeant had said something like that. Unfortunately she’d been too preoccupied with making an idiot of herself for his words to register. “Bad news?”

He retrieved a file folder and tossed it onto the desktop in front of her. “I recently discovered I’m the heir to the D’Amour mansion, Miss Crosby.” He lifted his gaze to meet hers again, dark lashes framing those stunning eyes. His expression was no longer angry, but hardly pleasant. “I also own this inn.”

She heard the words but they didn’t make sense. She stared at him, bewildered. “What?”

He tapped the folder with one long, tanned finger. “I’ve brought evidence.”

She shook her head, running both hands through her hair as she tried to clear her brain. “But—no. I don’t understand. I bought this inn from the caretaker. He’d been left the property in the D’Amour’s will.”

“I’m sorry, Miss Crosby,” Sergeant Hamm said. “I know this is a blow to you, but the man who sold you the inn is a con artist. Extremely good. Fortunately he’s in jail now, in Texas, for a similar crime.” He indicated the folder before her. “Mr. D’Amour brought you a copy of his arrest record. The jerk fooled a lot of people over the years with scams like this. He found a likely property. Had all the right papers. At least they look right enough to convince the probate court and the title company.” He shrugged sloping shoulders. “I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you.”

She stared at the sergeant, her mind numb.

“I understand you’re a lawyer so I suggest you read these documents,” Mr. D’Amour said. “Once you do, everything will be clear.”

When he withdrew his hand from the desk her gaze traveled sluggishly to the yellow folder then rocketed to those silver eyes. “No,” she whispered. “There’s been some mistake.”

He pursed his lips, his brows knitting. Without response, he shook his head.

“I’m so sorry, Elissa,” Jerry Hamm said, again, looking contrite. She’d met him and his wife several times at Branson functions, and liked him. She supposed he had to be there, to make it official, and she could tell he was far from pleased with the assignment. The sadness in his brown eyes frightened her more than anything this arrogant stranger had said.

“I know I seem abrupt, Miss Crosby,” Mr. D’Amour said, breaking through the tense silence, “But I’ve given up my legal practice in L.A. and I’ve decided to live in the Midwest, to turn my grandparents’ home into a golf club and lodge. Branson is growing by leaps and bounds, and a resort near the city would be a good investment.” He closed his briefcase, snapping it shut with precise movements. All business. “I’m afraid the inn will have to be torn down to make room for the golf course. But you may continue operations through December while you make other living arrangements.” He took the briefcase in his hand. “Don’t take reservations for after the new year, however. I’ll need to take possession then.” Scanning the place in a cursory examination, he added more to himself than to her, “It looks quite livable.”

She stiffened at the surprise in his tone. “What did you expect?”

His glance returned to her and he shrugged wide shoulders—the image of cold-blooded elegance. “I admit, I didn’t expect this. But since it’s in such good condition, I’ll use it as my operating headquarters while the renovations to my mansion are going on. Now, if you’ll show me to a room?”

Elissa stared blankly at the brazen man before her—the man who had, with only a few words, ruined her life.

“We’ll be going now,” the husky police officers mumbled, shuffling around to go. Before Elissa registered what was happening, both patrolmen and Sergeant Hamm had gone—no doubt along with her extra patrols or any credibility she might have had before she’d accused this well-heeled lawyer of stalking her. She supposed he had every right to be walking on his own property.

“Well?” That one word stirred her from her stupor and she glanced up in question. “My room?”

His room? The man had unbelievable gall! She glared at him. He might own the D’Amour mansion, but he did not own her inn! “You can’t come in here and take over! Get out!” She thrust a stiff arm toward the door.

His jaw worked and her gaze was drawn again to the damage she had done to him. It’s a good thing she didn’t know then what she knew now, or she might have clawed him to shreds. “I’m afraid you don’t have a legal leg to stand on, Miss Crosby,” he cautioned. “Don’t make things worse.” He inclined his head toward the stairs, a clear command to be shown to a room.

She battled an urge to kick him in the shins, but she was afraid she’d just end up seeing Sergeant Hamm again, under less-than-sociable circumstances. Hating the idea that she might have to humor this overbearing man for even a few days, she let her arm fall to her side. She told herself that it would only be until this thing got straightened out, then she could kick him out on his expensively suited backside. “I’m going to fight you on this,” she warned.

“Feel free to sue me, Miss Crosby. But, you’ll lose.” The way he said it, with such cool assurance and total absence of bluster, made her shiver. “My room, Miss Crosby?”

She eyed him contemptuously. She’d be hanged if she was going to give him one of her guest rooms. “We’re full,” she lied. It wasn’t totally untrue. She’d reserved her two best rooms for her sisters and their husbands, who would be arriving in a few days to spend Christmas and New Years.

“This is my inn, remember?” he said. “I could send everybody away if I chose. Think real hard.”

Those silver eyes held a determined glint and alarm skittered up her spine. With a mutinous lift of her chin, she said, “You can stay in the basement parlor. The couch folds out.”

His expression told her he knew exactly what she was doing, and his brows furrowed at her ploy. “Is there office space down there?”

“My office is down there.”

He didn’t looked thoroughly pleased, but finally nodded. “All right. Until a room becomes available.”

She grabbed the folder and pivoted away. “When hell freezes over, buster,” she growled under her breath.

“I heard that.”

She spun to glower at him. “I’m thrilled.”

A mocking brow rose, and Elissa was disappointed to see that her most intimidating glare didn’t have him shaking in his expensive wing tips. “Where’s the basement, Miss Crosby?”

She marched away from him into the staircase hall, heading toward the kitchen. “It’s on the way to hell,” she snapped back. “I feel sure you’ll find it.”

She was startled by the derisive chuckle at her back. How dare he find entertainment in the annihilation of her life!

Alex D’Amour didn’t know who he was trying to push around. Elissa Crosby was not a woman to easily give up her dreams. The instant she hit the kitchen, she slammed the folder onto the table, startling Bella, the plump cook. Stubby hands fluttered to a ruffly bodice. Elissa looked up and tried to smile. “Sorry. Could you get me a cup of coffee?”

The middle-aged woman nodded and hurried to the pot. The coffee in Elissa’s mug had gone cold before she looked up from the documents to take a sip. Making a face, she rubbed her eyes. It looked bad. Mr. D’Amour seemed to have every legal right to the property. But then, the documentation she had looked just as good—and it had passed muster with the probate court and the title company. Even so, the face staring up at her from the police rap sheet looked a little like the man she’d known as the caretaker who’d sold her the old Victorian house. Not exactly like him, but...

And he had been in a hurry to sell, offering her a fantastic deal for cash. At least she’d thought it had been fantastic at the time. Unsettled by the thought, she bolted from the table and ran down the stairs toward her office, barely missing her unwanted guest as he was coming up. “Pardon me,” he said, sidestepping out of her way. She took no notice of him and barreled on, slamming into her tiny office.

The windowless room was hardly bigger than a closet, bare cement walls and floor, without windows or adornment. When the three sisters first moved into the inn, a small cot had been crammed between the desk and the entry wall, giving Elissa a makeshift bedroom. Now she slept in the room that Helen had first used, then Lucy. The cot was thankfully long gone. In its place stood two gray metal filing cabinets.

Her secretary’s chair was secondhand and worn, as was her metal desk and fax. But by heaven they were hers—just like her inn—and she loved every scratched, dented inch of each piece.

With fingers that would hardly function, she dialed her old professor and mentor at the University of Missouri law school. Though she prided herself on her independence, not leaning on anyone, she was no fool. She knew she needed professional guidance in this. And there was no one who knew the law like Dr. Grayson. When he came on the line, she worked to keep her voice even, placid, explaining what had happened.

By the time she sat down in her creaky chair, she was no longer trembling. Dr. Grayson had always been a calming influence and she felt a flood of relief, knowing that a man of such serene wisdom was on her side.

“Send me everything you have, Elissa. I’ll see what I can find out.”

She swallowed, her gratefulness making her teary. “Thanks, Dr. Grayson. I’d feel better with somebody who’s up on things to go over this.” Her voice breaking, she winced, then admitted as evenly as she could, “I’m afraid I can’t be objective. This man is trying to take away my life.”

There was silence for a moment, before Dr. Grayson spoke. “I hope we can find a loophole, dear.”

There was another bothersome pause and Elissa’s anxiety level soared. “What? What is it you’re not telling me?”

“Nothing, dear. Nothing to worry about.”

“Dr. Grayson,” she insisted. “Tell me!”

He cleared his throat. “You shouldn’t have left the law, Elissa. You have good instincts.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I do know something that might upset you. And I wish you weren’t so intuitive to sense it.”

“What is it?” She felt pain and realized she was digging into her knee with her nails.

“Well...” Her professor cleared his throat again. Not a good sign. “I’ve heard of Alex D’Amour. He’s one hell-on-wheels litigator. You remember that Hildabrant Industries toxic waste suit out in California?”

She felt a surge of nausea. “He won that?”

“Got a hundred million dollar settlement for the families in the affected area. I’m afraid he may be hard to beat.”

Elissa closed her eyes and sagged in her chair. “Oh—Dr. Grayson. You have to find something to prove I’m the rightful owner. I’ve put every cent I’ve made back into this place. If I lose it, I’ll have nothing.” Her lips quivered and she pulled them between her teeth.

“Try not to worry. If there’s a way to keep your inn, I’ll find it.”

She nodded, but couldn’t speak. Her voice was too quivery to trust.

“This is Sunday, so tomorrow, overnight-mail your documents to me. Okay?”

She cleared her throat, but her “okay” was fragile, almost undetectable. “First thing.”

“And, Elissa...”

“Yes, Dr. Grayson?” She toyed with the handle of a mug, half full of day-old coffee.

“Try to have a Merry Christmas.”

She inhaled unsteadily. “I won’t be merry until I know the inn is mine.”

“I’ll do this as quickly as I can, but you know how things go. Especially around the holidays.”

“I know.” She cringed, disconcerted that her turmoil was spilling over into her voice. She hardly ever cried, but she was right on the verge. “Thanks...” She whispered, swiping at a tear.

“Goodbye, dear.”

When he broke the connection, Elissa couldn’t move. She didn’t know how long she sat there with the receiver clutched in her hand.

A knock at her office door made her jump, and she dropped the receiver. The clatter it made hitting the cement floor, then bouncing up into her metal desk, then dropping back to tap-dance across floor, was nerveracking.

“Are you okay?” came a deep male voice.

She lurched to her feet, grabbing the receiver by the cord and drawing it up. “What do you want?” After a couple of fumbled tries, she managed to get the stubborn thing into the phone’s cradle. “I’m busy.”

“I need to use the fax.”

“Don’t you have some fancy laptop computer you could use?”

“Not on me.”

She slumped to perch a hip on her desk, crossing her arms before her. “What if I told you you can’t use mine?”

There was silence for a long minute, a silence that was far from reassuring. “What if I told you to get out of my inn, today?” he challenged.

She gasped. “I—I you wouldn’t!”

“I need to use the fax.”

He opened the door. Some small comer of her mind caught on the fact that he’d changed out of his dark three-piece suit and was now wearing soft beige trousers and a matching polo shirt. She was startled to note that he was more muscular than she might have expected of a man who spent his days drinking three-martini lunches and filing wordy briefs.

Formidable and grim, he stood there watching her with those breath-stealing eyes, his resolve electrifying the air around her. “Are you going to move, Miss Crosby?”

Never overly thrilled at being ordered around, she gritted her teeth and dug in her heels. “Have you heard of the phrase, ‘When pigs fly,’ Mr. D’Amour?”

He took a step toward her; the scratches along his jaw jumped as muscles flexed beneath the skin—a silent testament to his anger.

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