WARM HEARTS IN WINTER
by Helen Pollard
Forced by circumstance into the world of temping, when Abby Davis accepts an assignment in the wilds of Yorkshire as personal assistant to a widowed novelist, she assumes he is an ageing recluse.
Thirty-something Jack Blane is anything but. Still struggling to get his life and writing career back on track three years after his wife’s death, Jack isn’t ready for a breath of fresh air like Abby.
Snowed in at his winter retreat on the moors, as the weeks go by and their working relationship becomes friendship and maybe more, Abby must rethink her policy of never getting involved with someone at work … and Jack must decide whether he is willing to risk the pain of love a second time.
Helen Pollard is a Yorkshire lass at heart. She’s glad to say she outgrew her rebellious teenage vow never to be stuck in the suburbs with the obligatory two children, and is happily married to the love of her life with two teenagers. They share space with a Jekyll and Hyde cat that alternates between being obsessively affectionate and viciously psychotic. Antiseptic cream is always close at hand.
When she finds the time to write, her characters magically take over and she’s caught up in their world - until she realizes her son has no clean socks, the casserole is burning and the cat is jumping on her keyboard because she’s neglected to feed her for … oh, at least forty minutes.
When Helen’s not working or writing, it goes without saying that she loves to read. She also enjoys a good coffee in a quiet bookshop, and appreciates the company of family and close friends.
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Abby chewed her lip in anxious concentration as she peered through the windscreen, her fingers gripping the steering wheel so hard her knuckles were white. The narrow country road would be hard to negotiate at the best of times, but in the dark and the snow it was almost impossible. Despite her slow speed, the full beam from her headlights barely showed a bend until she was almost upon it — but since there was nowhere to turn around, all she could do was grit her teeth, stay calm and fervently hope her satnav didn't lead her down a sheep track or into a swollen river.
She allowed herself a soft curse at the weather and directed another at Casey while she was at it. It was all her fault this was happening. No, that wasn't true. Her friend was only trying to help, and it was because of their friendship that Abby had been foolish enough to accept this assignment. That and the fact she'd had little choice in the matter. Her recent bad luck — if that was what you could call it — hadn't allowed her the luxury of choice. She needed a job. Her best friend managed a temping agency. A job came up. Abby had exactly ten minutes to decide whether to accept the post of personal assistant to some thriller writer she'd never heard of. Casey had heard of him and recommended she did. Actually, she reminded her she was in no position to refuse. It would be a challenge, Casey said. Unusual, Casey said. Abby trusted her and accepted.
And now look. Desperate to set off before the weather deteriorated, she'd packed in such a hurry she'd probably forgotten half of what she needed, and she'd been driving for two hours through conditions that only got worse by the minute. She wasn't sure her ageing car could take much more. The wipers were clogged with the thick snowflakes that swirled across the windscreen, reducing visibility to virtually nothing. She had no idea what she would do if something came in the opposite direction — although she was so far out in the middle of nowhere she doubted there was another soul around. That is, apart from Jack Blane — her new boss for the next few weeks — who in his wisdom had chosen to write his latest novel miles from civilisation on the bleak Yorkshire moors in the worst winter weather for years. Abby had heard writers liked solitude, but this was ridiculous!
Just as she was beginning to think this whole thing must be a bad dream, her satnav archly informed her she was nearly there. Abby slowed her car to a crawl, peering over the steering wheel like an old lady who'd forgotten her glasses.
"Nearly where?" she asked the machine's know-it-all voice.
A dark shape loomed at the side of the road, and she screeched to a halt. Not a bright move. The car skidded nearly full circle, and Abby had to fight both the wheel and her own panic to regain control. Her heart thudding, she opened the driver's window and stuck her head out. A house of forbidding dark stone, dusted liberally with snow, stood silhouetted against the grey sky. Abby glared at her satnav and back at the house. Well, this must be it. There was certainly nowhere else in sight.
"Great. Out of the frying pan and straight onto the set of Wuthering Heights," she muttered.
Squinting through the dark, she could see that Mr Blane had tried to clear a parking spot for her — considerate of him, since Casey had given her the impression he was getting on in years.
Abby manoeuvred her car into the space next to an old SUV, then allowed her head to fall back against the headrest. Bone-tired from the drive and the stress, she closed her eyes for a minute, and when she opened them again to glance at the clock, she could hardly believe it was only eight-thirty. She was so tired, it felt more like midnight.
Pushing away the doubts which had been gnawing at her ever since she'd accepted Casey's hare-brained offer, Abby grabbed the car door handle and took a deep breath. It was no use regretting it now — she had accepted the job offer and she would have to make the best of it.
"Anyway, I had good reasons!" she reminded herself as she shoved the car door. "Like a living wage and food."
The snow banked so high at the sides of the small clearing beside the house she could only get her door halfway open. How she was going to reverse back out again and drive to the accommodation her new employer had arranged for her, she had no idea. Frowning, she realised she hadn't passed anywhere obvious on the way — then again, she hadn't been able to see much through the blizzard. She would have to introduce herself as briefly as possible, find out where she needed to go, and be on her way.
Abby pulled her hat down lower and her scarf tighter. As she hurried for the door, she hit a smooth patch and her feet went flying, landing her flat on her back with a resounding thump. She would have stayed where she was for a while to get her breath back, but the icy cold was seeping rapidly through her coat, so she got clumsily to her feet.
The steps to the door were steep but appeared to have been gritted, thank goodness. Wondering how an old man had negotiated them to clear her a parking space without killing himself, she clutched tightly to the iron railing as she made her way up and rapped sharply on the door. No answer. Fighting an insane desire to turn on her heel and give up on the whole thing, she huddled under the tiny porch roof, waited a moment and knocked again. Perhaps he was a little deaf. If he didn't hear her soon, she might be able to add pneumonia to her bruises!
Footsteps sounded from inside, a jiggling of keys, and finally the door wrenched open. A shaft of light lit the doorway, outlining a tall frame there.
Blinking against the sudden light, Abby held out her gloved hand.
"Mr Blane, I presume?" She tried for the most professional manner she could manage. It wasn't as successful as she would have liked due to the snowflakes catching in her mouth and her teeth chattering.
When she gave an involuntary shiver, a hand shot out to quickly shake hers in response.
"Yes. You must be Miss Davis. For goodness' sake, come on in out of the cold. This is no time to be standing on ceremony." He stood aside for her to clump over the doorstep, showering snow as she came. "I've been caught up in my work. I had no idea the weather had got so bad," he said apologetically as he closed the door on the icy wind. "Let's get you out of those wet things and into the warmth."
As her eyes adjusted to the bright hallway light, Abby froze - but not from the cold. Oh, no. This was not what she had expected, not at all. In a desperate attempt to reassure herself she would be perfectly safe working alone with a strange man out here in the wilds, she'd spent the car journey creating an image in her mind's eye of what her new boss would be like. That image was of someone much older, much stuffier. Casey had led her to believe he was a loner, some sort of unsociable hermit hunched over his writing all day. A widower, she'd said, implying someone middle-aged or even elderly. Someone harmless.
Jack Blane was anything but. He couldn't be more than mid-thirties. Stubble shadowed his face — too immersed in his writing to care about shaving, she supposed. Light brown hair, a hint of steel-grey streaks here and there. Ice-blue eyes.
The thought of ice brought Abby sharply back to the fact she could no longer feel her feet. She shivered again.
"Quick, let me take your coat." Reaching for it, he helped peel the sopping garment from her while Abby unwound her scarf and plucked off her hat, shaking out a riot of shoulder-length auburn curls. When she swung around to face him, he was staring at her.
Abby frowned. "Is anything wrong?"
"Er — no." He shook his head in emphasis. "No, not at all. I'll put the kettle on and get you a hot drink to warm you up. Come on through." And he strode off down the hall in an easy lope.
Numb from the cold and dazed by his strange welcome, Abby damped down the resentment she felt. Of course he was at ease, she told herself. He was, after all, warm and dry in his own home and he was the one who had initiated this whole situation. She, on the other hand, had had it thrust upon her so abruptly she'd hardly had time to reconcile herself to her fate: driven in appalling conditions, fallen flat on her back, made to wait out on the steps for far too long, and exposed to wet and cold. It was hardly surprising if she felt a little out of sorts.
Crossly, she pulled off her boots and trotted down the hall after him. He shoved open a door and ushered her through, then strode to the sink to fill the kettle. Abby glanced around her. Judging from the outside and the age of the building, the house must have originally been poky and dark and very much at home in a gothic novel, but it had obviously been renovated. The downstairs had been knocked through, and the large wood and granite kitchen she was standing in was bright and spacious, big enough to hold a large scrubbed pine table, a smaller work table and a slouchy couch. An archway led through to what appeared to be a lounge.
"Wow!" she declared. "This is gorgeous!"
"I'm glad you like it," he said. "Tea? Coffee?"
"Tea, please." Abby plopped herself on a chair at the table, watching as he moved around the kitchen. Wow came into her head again, only this time not in reference to the renovations. Jack Blane was something else. At least six feet tall, broad shoulders in a chunky, grey cable knit sweater tapering to faded jeans and leather work boots. Completely unaware, she suspected, of his own magnetism. He placed a steaming mug in front of her, and she wrapped her fingers around it until they burned with rediscovered feeling.
"Better?" he asked.
"Yes, much, thanks." She wiggled her fingers to prove the point.
"I'm sorry I didn't hear you right away. You must have been out there for ages to get so covered in snow."
Abby rolled her eyes in embarrassment. "It wasn't all your fault," she admitted. "I fell on the way from the car."
His brows immediately knitted together in concern. "Are you hurt?"
She rubbed tentatively at her bruised back. "Nothing a warm bath won't fix."
And now the thought was in her brain, Abby couldn't dislodge it. Something to eat. A warm bath. She didn't want to be rude — they'd only just met, after all — but as she glanced at the window where the snow continued to fall outside, she knew she couldn't leave it too long before she insisted on setting out for her accommodation.
He was staring at her in that odd manner again, and Abby felt concerned at his lack of concentration, but then she gave a mental shrug. Maybe it was a 'writer thing.' He probably did it all the time.
"Is everything alright, Mr Blane?" she asked him.
He jolted. "Fine, thanks. And please, call me Jack." He shook his head. "I'm sorry, I'm being terribly rude. You must be exhausted, and hungry to boot."
Abby smiled, relieved he understood her need to get going, and drained her mug. She stood, ready to leave.
"I am, actually," she said, then nodded at the window. "I think I need to get a move on before it gets any worse, if that's alright with you."
Jack gave her a puzzled frown as he stood too. "Get a move on?"
Abby pointed at the snow again for emphasis. "My accommodation," she explained. "I hope it's not too far away?"
Jack's eyes widened, and he slowly shook his head. "Not too far at all. Follow me." He led the way into the hall, leaving her to trot after him, but as she started to pull on her boots, he said, "There won't be any need for those," and started up the stairs.
Abby stared after him, confused and bordering on dismayed. He'd already vanished, and she had no choice but to go on up after him. He waited at the top of the stairs. As she appeared, he opened the nearest door and gestured into the room.
"I don't understand," Abby said hesitantly, even though the sinking feeling in her stomach told her she already did understand, all too well.
"Your room," he announced.
Jack nodded. "I'm sure you'll be pleased to hear you don't have to head out into that awful weather again. It's spacious and en suite, so you'll have plenty of privacy." When she remained rooted to the spot, he added, "I'm right down at the other end," wafting his hand as though to indicate he would be miles away.
Abby wasn't reassured. "You mean I'm expected to stay here?" she managed when she finally found her voice, although it came out a little squeaky.
The colour flashed in Abby's cheeks as she fought for some control over the combination of panic and anger rising within her. "But the agency told me you would be arranging some accommodation for me!"
"And that's exactly what this is," Jack said, gesturing again. "Come and take a peek. I'm sure you'll like it."
Abby still made no move. Her heart was in her mouth, and she struggled to breathe. She shook her head.
"No, I don't think so. No."
She turned and shot down the stairs. By the time Jack caught up with her, she'd already pulled on soggy boots and was busy rewrapping herself in her equally soggy outer garments.
"What on earth are you doing?" he asked.
"To find somewhere to stay," she clarified. She didn't want him to think she was giving up on the job itself — she needed it too badly — but she had no intention of spending the night here. That was not the deal at all.
"And where would that be, exactly?" Jack asked, leaning against the wall with his hands jammed deep into his pockets.
"I was hoping you could tell me." Abby's voice was somewhat muffled by the copious scarf. She rummaged in her bag for her car keys. "I presume there's a local pub that has a room, or a bed and breakfast place, maybe …"
Her voice trailed off as she wondered briefly who would be paying, but she shrugged it off as quickly as it entered her head. She could afford one night somewhere, if push came to shove, and if Jack Blane wouldn't agree to foot the bill for her accommodation as she'd been led to believe, then the whole deal was off anyway as far as she was concerned. Surely he wasn't suggesting she stay here just to penny-pinch? And if that wasn't the reason, then what was, exactly? Because if he thought …
She realised Jack was making no move to help her. "Well?"
Jack shook his head. "If you hadn't noticed, we're quite a way from anywhere out here," he declared.
All the more reason not to be sleeping over! Abby wanted to shout at him, but she held her tongue.
"You must have seen that as you drove here," he added.
"I couldn't see anything for the snow!"
"Precisely!" There was triumph in his voice. "So even if there was somewhere available at this time of night — and I'll point out to you it's now past nine o'clock — and even if I gave you directions — which I have no intention of doing — how on earth do you imagine you would find it?"
"Fine." Abby stomped to the door. "If you won't cooperate, I'll just have to manage." Her hand on the door, she said, "I'll be back in the morning to discuss the work part of my contract, if that's okay with you, but I'm afraid staying here was not in the job description I was given." She flung open the door, immediately taking a step back as the wind slapped ice-cold into the small part of her face available to it.
Recovering herself, she tried again, shutting the door behind her and negotiating the lethal steps to her car — but what she saw when she got there filled her with dismay. Its roof had a deep white topping of snow and the space cleared for it was already beginning to fill in. If she wanted to leave, she would have to dig her way out, and that would mean asking for a shovel. Cursing, she started to head back to the house and crashed headlong into the solid wall that was Jack Blane. Her heart jumped in panic, and she let out a squeak. She hadn't heard his footsteps in the snow.
"What are you doing?" she asked indignantly, her heart still thudding dangerously.
"I could ask you the same question." There was an unmistakeable edge of anger in his voice.
Abby ignored it. "I need a shovel," she pointed out.
"You need more than a shovel, you need a snow plough," he told her, his words almost snatched away by the snow and wind. "And then a tractor to pull you out of whatever snow drift you end up in. Followed by an ambulance … or possibly a hearse. For goodness' sake!"
When her expression remained mutinous, he took hold of her arm and dragged her, tumbling and skidding, past her car to the road.
"Use your eyes. And your brain!"
He took hold of her head with his hands and twisted it to the right and then left. All Abby could see was a complete white-out. The road she had driven along less than an hour before, already treacherous, was lethal now. A tear of defeat ran down her cheek, and she brushed crossly at it.
Jack's tone softened a little. "You're lucky you got here in one piece in the first place. Please, Abby. Come inside. It's a misunderstanding. We'll sort it out somehow, but there's nothing we can do about it tonight."
Abby knew he was right. She trudged after him, allowing him to help her up the steps. His touch was sure and strong, which was just fine, because she was beginning to realise how exhausted she was.
Once more unwrapped from her snowy things, she was led through the archway from the kitchen into a cosy lounge where a log fire burned low, casting a warm light across the thickly carpeted floor. Scattered rugs added ethnic colour — warm reds, golds, browns — to the muted décor, while soft lamplight cast shadows against the walls.
Jack, bending to bank up the fire, indicated she should sit on the sofa. When he'd finished, he said, "I'll warm up some soup." Then he left her alone to stare at the welcome flames.
As she began to thaw, Abby gave in to her overwhelming tiredness and sank into the soft brown leather with a sigh. When Jack came back in with a tray of soup and toast, she was curled up with her legs tucked under her, half asleep. Sensing his presence, she opened her eyes.
"Sorry," she mumbled, struggling to sit up. "Thanks."
"You're welcome." He put the tray down on the coffee table in front of her. "I need to sort out a few e-mails, if that's okay."
Abby nodded and reached for the tray. She thought she was too tired to eat, but once she'd tasted the soup and discovered it was homemade, she made more of an effort. Jack strode to the huge picture window at the far end of the room, where his laptop sat on a large table surrounded by teetering piles of letters and papers and books and old mugs. Abby raised an eyebrow at the mess. No wonder the man needed help, if that was the way he worked! She ate while he worked in silence, hypnotised by the flames and the tapping of his keyboard.
When she'd finished her supper and her head was beginning to droop again, Jack rose from his desk and strolled back over.
"Come on, sleepyhead. Bed for you."
Abby's eyes would hardly stay open. She was aware he towered over her; that his jumper was thick and warm as she brushed against it when she stood; that he led her up to the room where her bags waited for her. When had he brought those in? Maybe while the soup was heating. She had no idea and didn't care. When he closed the door behind her, all she unpacked was her toothbrush and nightwear. Once her teeth were done, she simply stepped out of her clothes, leaving them on the floor where they landed, pulled on her pyjamas, climbed into the comfortable bed and immediately fell asleep.
Jack was up early the next morning. He hadn't slept well, and felt even worse when he opened his bedroom curtains to see the thick blanket of snow muffling the world outside. He shook his head. Typical British weather. It had been mild and rainy over the entire Christmas period when a little snow would have complemented the festive season. Now it was nearly March and spring was just around the corner, here they were in a winter wonderland, knee-deep in snow. It seemed last night's unsolvable problems would have to remain so for a while yet.
When a long, hot shower failed to revive him, he headed downstairs to make coffee and sat nursing it at the kitchen table while he gathered his thoughts together.
What he'd expected was an old dear to replace his previous old dear, Mrs Macintosh. What he'd got was Abby, and he was still getting over the shock that she was at least thirty years younger than he'd expected.
When Mrs Macintosh had reluctantly let him down at such short notice, he was already caught up in planning his new novel and couldn't face a delay. In a panic, he'd phoned his editor in London and explained the problem. Ted was sympathetic but had nobody to spare — certainly no-one he could send up north for several weeks. He suggested a temping agency, but Jack had baulked at the idea. It wasn't as though he could have just anybody coming to stay in his house and work on his manuscript with him. But Ted had persuaded him that the agency he used in London from time to time was excellent and only dealt with elite positions.
"Leave it to me," he'd said. And since Jack had a deadline, he'd done just that.
When Ted phoned back, it was to tell him his trusted London agency had apologetically explained that with the weather so bad in the north, they weren't willing to send anyone such a long way. Instead, they had contacted their northern branch — equally fastidious in their selection process — and their manager, Casey Summers, would be in touch with Jack shortly.
Miss Summers had duly spoken to him, reassuring him with her sympathy and professional efficiency. He explained all about Mrs Macintosh — how he needed someone with just the same qualities — and she thoroughly recommended Abby. She'd known her for years, she told him. Jack assumed that meant Abby would be middle-aged or beyond, but now he realised all it meant was that they must have known each other since pre-school or something.
Maybe he hadn't been concentrating; he had a habit of drifting when he was starting on a new book. Now, he was regretting not finding out more, or at least thinking it through more carefully. It simply hadn't occurred to him that another person would be much different from Mrs Macintosh — only a change of name and face.
Then Abby had shown up on his doorstep. She'd been quite a sight with her hat jammed low on her head, her face muffled in a woollen scarf and her coat covered in snow — like a miniature abominable snowman. But then she'd taken off that coat, revealing a shapely body clad in figure-hugging jeans and a soft jumper not quite baggy enough to hide the curves it clung to. The hat had come off next, allowing tousled, flame-like hair to fall around her face. And finally the scarf was unwound from a full mouth and sea-green eyes.
No grey hair. No frumpy tweeds. No hint of middle-aged-to-elderly. Far, far from it. He was aware he'd stared at her and could only hope it hadn't come across as a bewildered leer.
It wasn't that he minded Abby being young and curvy and pretty — he wasn't in the market to take advantage anyway. The problem was he had a deadline, and he could do without distractions.
Jack frowned. He hadn't been distracted by a woman since Beth died — not that a few hadn't tried — and if anyone had asked him twelve hours ago, he would have said he wasn't likely to be. But that was before Abby had literally blown in, and for the first time since his wife died, he'd had no choice but to take notice. It was impossible not to.
Putting Abby's looks aside for the moment — not an easy task — she seemed to have quite a temper on her. That was something he could definitely do without and something the oh-so-efficient Miss Summers hadn't bothered to warn him about. He needed someone calm and collected, someone who would do what he needed without … kerfuffle. And there was a word he never thought he'd use in this lifetime.
Jack sipped at his coffee, brooding. The thing was, her temper had only come out to play when he'd tried to show her to her room. He recalled the way the colour had drained from her face, swiftly followed by pink spots of anger on her cheeks. It was obvious she hadn't known she was to stay at the house. He could understand her dismay if she hadn't been expecting it, but his gut instinct told him there was something more than that behind her reaction, something beyond the understandable reluctance she might have about sharing space with an eligible bachelor.
Whatever her reasons, this misunderstanding over the accommodation he'd offered was going to be a problem. Had he not told Casey that Abby would be staying at the house? Had the woman misunderstood? Or had she told Abby correctly, but Abby had misunderstood?
He raked a hand through his hair. It didn't matter. What mattered was that it was convenient for him to have his assistant on hand. The house was big enough for them to have their own space. It would be ridiculous for her to be to-ing and fro-ing all the time — and with the weather, that wasn't possible right now anyway.
Mrs Macintosh hadn't minded last year. She'd loved her room, been available whenever he asked (as long as it wasn't after ten, when she retired for the night), supplied him with endless hot drinks and often tasty stews, kept herself to herself when she sensed that was what he wanted, and kept him company for the occasional murder mystery on television. And it had all been set up again this year, until her sister had gone and broken her hip.
Worse than Abby losing her temper, Jack had lost his own. He might not know what had made her so foolhardy as to try and drive off like that, but he did know he'd been absolutely right not to let her. He wasn't sorry for that, but he was sorry he might have frightened her, even if his anger was justified, fuelled as it was by such appalling memories. If she'd already been spooked at finding out she had to stay in an old house in the middle of nowhere in impassable weather with a man she'd never met before—and, judging by her reaction, knew little about – he'd hardly helped by yelling at her and manhandling her.
Jack sighed. Maybe an apology was due.