“Is your uncle at home?” Ashley asked casually as they walked the grounds on a beautiful, sunny spring afternoon. She was wearing a denim jacket because it was still a bit cool. They were at Eastwell Manor where Bradley was staying with his uncle until he found his own flat. It was a magnificent place surrounded by acres of land, immaculate gardens and rolling hills. She had been here several times and loved it here. It was peaceful and the air was crisp and fresh.
Bradley glanced at her. “You’ve got a thing for him, haven’t you?” he teased. “Most women who meet him do. My uncle is cordial toward them but expresses no romantic interest whatsoever in any of them.”
“How long were he and your aunt married?”
“And they never had any children?”
“No. Aunt Carol couldn’t have any. What a great pity. She would have been an excellent mother.”
“How did she die?”
“It was a car accident. She was on her way home when an intoxicated teenager ran the red light and plowed into her as she was leaving the intersection. She died instantly. Uncle Anthony was a wreck.”
“What was she like?”
“She was a lovely woman, kind and very generous. She adored Uncle Anthony and he adored her. She was my favorite aunt. She was like a mother to me. I adored her.”
“How very sad. I don’t think your uncle approves of our friendship.”
“Why do you think so?”
“I see the way he looks whenever we are together. There’s disapproval written all over his face. I can’t imagine why he should have any objections. Perhaps he thinks you spend too much time with me and should be in the company of a girl closer to your age.”
“I haven’t met any girls my age that I am interested in as yet and besides, I enjoy your company. We have known each other for some time now and I can’t imagine not having you around. I can talk to you about anything. You’re like a sister to me. I don’t know why my uncle would disapprove of me having a friend such as you—unless, he thinks we are more than friends, though, I still can’t imagine why that should be any concern of his. He’s not my father and I’m not a child.”
“Your uncle just wants what’s best for you.”
They continued walking and talked about other things. Then it was time for her to leave. As they walked toward the mansion, Bradley suddenly grabbed and dipped her before he bent his head and kissed her squarely on the mouth. She clung to him to keep her balance. It lasted a few seconds and then he raised his head, straightening and then releasing her. She glared at him, her chest heaving in indignation. “What on earth did you do that for?” she demanded.
“It was for my uncle’s benefit,” he told her. “He was in the study watching us through the window.”
She swung round and looked up at the window where she knew the study to be. There was no one there. She turned back to Bradley. “What you did was childish and very insulting to me.”
He looked contrite. “I didn’t mean to upset you, Ash. I was miffed at him for thinking that he can control my life simply because I am living under his roof. When it comes to my friendship with you, I will not put up with his interference.”
“What will he think of me now?” she wondered.
“What does it matter? He already thinks that we are a couple.”
“But, we’re not. We’re just friends.”
“Why does it matter so much to you what he thinks?” Bradley pressed. “Is it because you’re in love with him?”
“Yes,” she admitted.
“All right. Would you like us to go and clear up this misunderstanding right now?”
Her heart lurched at the idea of seeing Anthony Eastwell after what just happened. She couldn’t imagine how he would look at her now. She shook her head. “I can’t face him right now,” she said. “I’m going home.” She turned and walked away.
Bradley followed her. “I’m sorry, Ash,” he said, his expression apologetic. “Please forgive me for acting like a fool. I will straighten things out with Uncle Anthony, I promise.”
She looked at him. “I’m very upset with you right now,” she said. “But, I’ll get over it. Call me later.” She was about to walk off when she froze. Anthony Eastwell was walking toward them.
Immediately, her heart began to pound wildly and her breath quickened. He always had that effect on her. In spite of her distress, she couldn’t prevent her gaze from traveling over his tall frame and thinking how disturbingly attractive he looked in the tan ribbed sweater and navy blue slacks.
He stopped abruptly in front of Bradley who watched him warily. “Please wait for me in the study,” he instructed in a tight voice.
Without saying a word, his nephew turned and walked toward the house. Anthony waited until he was gone before he turned his attention on Ashley. To say that he was angry would have been an understatement. His brown eyes were dark with fury and his face was flushed. “What do you mean by making a spectacle of yourself with my nephew out here in plain view for everyone to see?” he demanded.
She swallowed hard. “He kissed me and I—”
“Don’t tell me that you put up a fight. I saw you from the window and it was clear to me that you welcomed his advances which leads me to believe that your relationship is not platonic as you would have me believe.”
“Please, you don’t understand—”she protested.
“I understand perfectly,” he muttered thickly. “You would rather be with him than—” He broke off and turned away, dragging his fingers through his hair as he struggled to compose himself. Several minutes passed before he faced her again. “If you are going to throw yourself at my nephew, I would prefer if you did it somewhere else.”
That was when she got upset. “For your information, I’m not throwing myself at your nephew,” she retorted. “I don’t make it a habit of throwing myself at any man, no matter how attracted I am to him.”
“So, you admit that you’re attracted to Bradley?”
“I’m not admitting anything. Now, if you’ll excuse me, Mr. Eastwell, I have to go.” She turned and strode off.
He stood there watching her, his face now pale and his eyes filled with torment. How he longed to go after her and tell her how he really felt but pride kept him where he was. He remained there for a while before he went back to the manor.
Bradley was standing by the window when he joined him in the study. “Uncle, I hope you weren’t too hard on Ashley,” he said. “The kiss was my idea not hers. She was very upset with me.”
Anthony looked unconvinced. “What are you talking about?” he demanded. “From where I was standing the kiss looked mutual. I saw her clinging to you. That was not the action of a woman who didn’t want to be kissed.”
Something about the way he spoke and the expression on his face made Bradley stare at him closely. “It upset you to see us together, didn’t it?” The look in his uncle’s eyes was all the confirmation he needed. “Uncle Anthony, this has all been a terrible misunderstanding. You see, Ashley and I are just friends. I kissed her because I was angry with you. I didn’t like you interfering in my friendship with her. Ashley is not interested in me. I’m like a little brother to her. She’s in love with you.”
Anthony looked stunned now. “In love with me?” he exclaimed. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I am. I can tell from the way she talks about you and when she’s around you. I’m surprised you haven’t noticed. Besides she admitted it to me.”
“I thought it was you she cared for,” he said. “I had hoped but never imagined that she would have feelings for me.”
“Do you love her?”
“Yes. I have loved her since the day we met. I didn’t think it was possible to fall in love again after losing your Aunt Carol but it has happened.”
“Why don’t you invite Ashley over for dinner tonight and tell her how you feel?”
“After what I said to her earlier, I’m not sure she would want to see me. I’m afraid I wasn’t very pleasant. I was acting out of jealousy.”
“Then, you can go over to her flat and see her. She won’t refuse to see you once you turn up. I’ll give you her address.”
“All right. I’ll go and see her this evening and hopefully straighten things out with her.”
“I’m sorry, Uncle Anthony, this was entirely my fault.”
Anthony patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “All is forgotten. I have been interfering in your life and I’m sorry. You’re free to do as you wish as long as it doesn’t get you into any trouble. No hard feelings?” He held out his hand.
Bradley smiled and shook it. “No hard feelings,” he said. “I’m happy that you’ve found love again. Ashley is a remarkable woman.”
It was after seven when Anthony showed up at Ashley’s flat. In his arms he carried a box of red roses which he handed to her when she opened the door. “These are for you,” he said simply as she stood there gaping at him. “May I come in?”
She blinked. “Yes, yes. Come in.” She moved aside so that he could step inside and she closed the door behind him, hardly able to believe that he was here. She opened the box and gasped when she saw the big, beautiful red roses. There were a dozen of them. “They’re beautiful,” she exclaimed. “Please make yourself comfortable while I go and put them in some water.” As she hurried to the kitchen, she couldn’t deny that she was thrilled to see him, in spite of their earlier exchange. She hadn’t expected to see him again.
She filled a vase with water, cut the ends of the roses and then placed them in the vase. She went back into the living-room and put the vase on top of the faux fireplace mantle, stepping back to admire them. They added more color and a pleasant aroma to the room. She turned to find Anthony standing by the sofa watching her. She allowed her gaze to travel over him. He was wearing a navy blue suit, blue tie and white shirt. His hands were in his pockets and his expression was both serious and sheepish as he looked at her.
“I owe you an apology,” he said quietly. “I acted like an unreasonable fool this afternoon. My only excuse is that I was jealous.”
Her eyes widened in surprise. “Jealous?” she cried.
“Yes. When I looked out of the window and saw Bradley and you kissing, I was consumed with jealousy. I couldn’t bear to watch so I moved away from the window. I didn’t know what to do. For a few minutes, I just paced up and down in the study and then I decided that I would confront the two of you.”
She watched him, her heart pounding. This seemed so surreal. “I always thought you disapproved me because of my friendship with Bradley,” she said. “I thought it was my age which made me unsuitable for him.”
“You’re right. I disapproved of your relationship with him but not for the reason you thought. I didn’t know that you were just friends. I thought you were romantically involved. In the garden this afternoon, I said the things I did out of jealousy and when you walked away, I wanted to come after you and tell you how I felt but pride prevented me. I didn’t want to throw myself at the woman whom I thought cared for my nephew.”
“I do care for Bradley but I don’t love him. What I feel for him is affection and what I want from him is friendship, nothing more.”
Anthony’s countenance changed. Hope flickered in his eyes. “I didn’t come over here just to apologize,” he said, moving closer. “I came to tell you that I love you. I’ve loved you since the first time we met.”
She moved closer. “I love you too. I have since the first time I saw you. I didn’t think I stood a chance, though, because of your wife. I feared that I would end up like those other women whose feelings for you were not reciprocated.”
“I didn’t think I could love again until I met you. You stirred feelings in me that I thought had died with Carol. What I feel for you is a deep and consuming love.” By now he had closed the distance between them and was standing in front of her. He reached out and caught her by the waist, pulling her against him. His smoldering eyes met hers before he lowered his head and kissed her. She clung to his shoulders, her fingers gripping the material of his jacket as she responded to his hot, searing kisses.
After a while he raised his head to gaze down into her face, his eyes dark and stormy and his face flushed with desire. “Do you think you could get used to being Bradley’s aunt?” he asked.
She nodded, smiling. “It would feel weird at first but I can get used to it,” she said breathlessly.
“Good,” he murmured before he kissed her again.