Why hadn’t she known about her grandmother’s existence?
Willow didn’t notice the heat of the bright sunshine on her head and bare shoulders, unaware of how the sun sparkled off her bright, red hair or the slight blush of her pale skin. The crickets in the knee high grass chirped, but they couldn’t break through the odd, confused buzzing in her head. Nothing seemed to make sense.
A grandmother, she thought for about the thousandth time. A relative that she hadn’t even known existed. A human being that her father had never mentioned. Although, that shouldn’t be surprising. Her father, Jimmy Mills, the darling of the country music world, was entirely focused on himself one hundred percent of the time. Anything that didn’t have to do with his personal pleasures, selling his music, or making him look good, Jimmy Mills pretty much disregarded. Not even Willow, his only child, could break through his obsessive need to promote and indulge himself.
A grandmother! And now, Willow owned the house in which her grandmother had lived for most of her life.
The house was in disrepair, but it wasn’t falling down. At some point, the gardens had been filled with beautiful flowers and lush bushes, but now the yard and trees were overgrown, weeds choking out what was planted underneath.
Was this house and yard a sad commentary on her life? Were the weeds of bitterness in her life choking out the happy rays of sunshine as well?
No! Willow refused to wallow in that kind of negativity. Her father hadn’t mentioned his mother, ever, so that meant that Willow needed to do what she always did when it came to dealing with her father and his obliviousness to parenting norms. She’d figure things out. She’d survive and thrive! Wife number five had shipped Willow off to boarding school all those years ago. At first, Willow had been devastated at being kicked out of her home by a shallow, vain woman and a narcissist father. But being sent to The Burling School, a boarding school on the outskirts of London, had turned out to be the best thing to happen to her. It was there that Willow had met Lana and Tamara. Those two had become the sisters that she’d never had. They were more like family than her father ever had been.
Still, why hadn’t her father ever mentioned that Willow had a grandmother? Why had she learned about the woman through her death?
It seemed unfair, but Willow knew that life was rarely fair. Being sad about it only made life sad, and she loved her life. She loved her business and she loved the people who worked with her to make that business a success.
So…here she was. Her grandmother had passed away, but had left this house to her. Looking up at the second and third floors, she noticed intricate details, the scrollwork in the corners of the house and the torn curtains inside.
“I’ll get more information by diving right in,” she whispered aloud.
She carefully put her weight on the first step of the wooden stairs. It was more solid than it looked. The wood was good, although the peeling, crumbling paint needed to be sanded off and the whole structure repainted. That would cost a pretty penny, but the end result would be lovely.
The next few steps gave her a bit more confidence, but she still walked carefully. With each step, her heart pounded louder and harder. This was where her grandmother had lived. This was her history. This was a connection to her life that she’d never known existed.
Willow stood at the front door, key in hand, but she paused, taking a deep breath. When she exhaled, she pushed the key into the lock and…twisted.
The squeaking noise was loud and, for some reason, terrifying! Was this house…haunted?
“That’s ridiculous!” Willow admonished herself, but instead of stepping through the door, she remained on the porch, peering through the doorway. Late afternoon sunshine filtered in through the yellowed, sheer curtains, highlighting the dust motes that filled the air. The dust sparkled and danced in the rays of the sun before settling down on the surfaces of the old furniture.
“Wow!” Willow whispered as she took in the dark wood floors and old furniture. She could see the quality of the antiques even from here. “Oh my!”
Stepping inside, lured by the promise of new and wonderful projects, she looked around, awestruck. “Oh, Jake is going to love this place!”
“Who the hell are you?” a deep voice snapped.
Willow screamed, twisting around as her imagination took off at the sound of the deep, male voice behind her. But even as her eyes adjusted, she screamed again, stepping backwards, her shoulder hitting something as she stared at the huge figure in the doorway. Willow couldn’t see his face since the sun was behind him, but she could see that he was a giant! Broad shoulders, long legs and…well, that was all she could see.
The man stepped into the hallway, pulling at the shadows. “What the hell is wrong with you?” he demanded.
Willow gasped as the man scowled down at her. “You…” she pointed weakly at the door behind him. Now that she could see his face, Willow saw that he didn’t have horns or red, glowing eyes. Relief surged through her and she took a breath, unaware of her hand pressed to her chest.
“I’m sorry!” she said, laughing self-consciously. “I just…you startled me and with the sun at your back, it was…” she gave up as his eyes narrowed even more. Dark eyes, she thought. They might be very nice eyes if they’d stop scowling at her like that.
Well, maybe not “nice”, but she suspected they wouldn’t be as intimidating!
“Who are you and what are you doing in this house? This is private property.”
She smiled up at the man, extending her hand. “I’m Willow Mills. Apparently, I’m the new owner. Camilla Mills was my grandmother.”
The giant ignored her hand, continuing to glare at her. “Prove it,” he snapped.
Willow pulled her hand back, feeling awkward and…well, irritated. Who was this guy and what right did he have to question her?
But she reined her temper in and increased the brightness of her smile. “I can’t really prove it, other than the fact that I have the keys,” she showcased the key chain with the fancy charms up in the air. The charms shimmered and danced in the late afternoon sunlight.
He barely glanced at the keys in the air, returning to her face. “How do I know that you didn’t steal the keys?”
Willow’s smile dimmed. “Well, um…” she thought frantically, because he had a point. Besides, this was an exclusive neighborhood filled with beautiful old houses. Not all were Victorian in style. Some were craftsman and others were brick colonials. But they were all large and perfectly maintained. Although none were as lovely as the one right next door. That house had a massive garden and the house was painted a dark purple with lime green trim. It was amazing!
The man’s eyes narrowed further and Willow knew that she’d have to come up with a legitimate reason for claiming ownership. Then something occurred to her. “How about a letter from my grandmother’s lawyer informing me of her passing and my new ownership of the house?” she offered.
He looked at her suspiciously. “Show me.”
Willow wanted to tell the man to take a hike, but if he lived in the neighborhood, she didn’t want to make enemies when she’d barely taken two steps into her grandmother’s house. Besides, if this man knew her grandmother, maybe he could tell her stories. After years of being abandoned by her father, Willow was quite desperate to learn more about the woman who had gifted this amazing house to her.
“It’s out in the car,” she explained pointing to the doorway. She wanted to lead him out, but he was just too big. Even though he’d stepped into the house, his shoulders were so broad that they were still blocking her exit.
Thankfully, he stepped to the side and she was able to pull her eyes away from his face. Raw and masculine were the two words that sprang to mind. Hard and powerful were what she thought when she noticed the immaculate, charcoal suit with the red, silk tie and startlingly white shirt. The man even had cufflinks. Who wore cufflinks these days?
Rich people, she thought dismissively and moved out the door. Back out in the sunshine, she slipped her sunglasses back on, feeling safer somehow outside rather than trapped in the strange house.
“It’s nice that you watch out for the neighbors,” she started off, needing to say something. His silence was a bit unnerving.
Or maybe it was his size. She didn’t like him. Not one little bit. In fact, if he lived nearby, Willow wondered how long it would take for her to plant some tall shrubs so that she never had to see the man again.
But he didn’t offer any additional information. The man simply followed behind her silently. Ominously.
She opened the passenger door of her car and grabbed the file of documents from the lawyer’s office. Sifting through the papers, she came up with the letter that explained her grandmother’s death and the transfer of the house to Willow.
The giant man took the paper, skimming over the words quickly before returning it to her. “Fine. Just…” he paused, looking down at her. “Do you need sunscreen?” he demanded in a harsh, irritated voice.
Willow blinked at the unexpected question as well as the harsh tone. Yes, she had red hair and, along with that came extremely pale skin. But for him to ask that seemed…odd. Almost intimate, she thought. “Um…well, I hadn’t planned on staying out in the sunshine for long,” she replied.
“Ms. Mills,” he started, but stopped, shook his head slightly, then handed the legal document back to her. “Good evening.” A moment later, he turned on his thousand dollar shoes and walked away.
Irritated by his rude questions, she turned to watch him walk for a few paces. Unfortunately, that annoying impetuousness that had been both a benefit and a bane to her existence, roared up and she couldn’t stop the question. “Who are you and should I be concerned about you?” she called out, wanting to rile him a bit.
He paused and looked back at her, his gaze moving up and down her figure. With that quick but strangely disturbing sweep of his eyes, every particle in her body sparked to life, tingling with an odd awareness. Unfortunately, that was nothing compared to what his one word reply did to her. “Yes.”
And then he walked across the street. He stepped into a dark SUV and drove away, not even glancing in her direction.
“I think I hate him,” Willow whispered, glaring ineffectively at the expensive car as it disappeared down the street. “Yes, I really do hate that man!”
Cooper’s fingers tapped on the steering wheel impatiently, his thoughts lingering on the redheaded woman he’d just left. Damn, she was beautiful!
Cooper wasn’t attracted to redheads. He preferred blondes. Tall, leggy blondes. Not short, voluptuous, soft-looking, full-lipped, blue eyed redheads. Yeah, her legs were good, but she was too short. He was six feet, four inches tall. He doubted the woman was much over five feet, five inches. Probably shorter. And she was too soft. Everywhere! He flashed back to the moment she’d bent to retrieve the folder from her car, those full, amazing breasts shifting under the V-neck of her wrap dress. His mind might be trying to remind him that he preferred blondes, but his body told him that there was a definite allure to a cute, siren-like redhead.
Had she gone back inside? That pale skin of hers would burn quickly in this afternoon heat. He didn’t like thinking of that beautiful skin…yes, he preferred blondes, but he could still admire her pale, delicate skin…burning in the heat.
Then he thought about the house. It wasn’t in good repair. The steps up to the front door were solid, but were there other issues inside the house? It was the one house on the street that had been going downhill for the past few years. He’d thought about contacting the owner, but his grandmother had been close friends with Camilla Mills. As neighbors, the two had bonded over gardening.
But Camilla had passed away several months ago, leaving the house and yard in disrepair. Most likely, there were other issues inside the house that could be dangerous, he thought as he headed back to his office. Glancing at his watch, he noted that he just had time to get to the office, but he had an important meeting soon. And his general council needed to discuss the factory in Wales with him. There was the issue with the factory in China and the Malaysian office had called earlier this morning needing guidance. In other words, he didn’t have time to worry about a certain sexy redhead with pale skin.
He got onto the highway, forcing himself to concentrate on his next meeting, drumming his thumbs impatiently against the steering wheel as he drove around a slow moving vehicle.
He’d call someone and get that landscaping fixed, he decided. Not that he was worried about the red-head’s pale skin burning while trying to tackle all of those weeds and overgrown bushes. No, he was more concerned about the look of the house, not wanting that particular house to bring down the property values for the other homes. Calling a landscaping company to fix the yard was a good investment and had nothing to do with any ridiculous protective instinct that might or might not be acting up.
Other than for his grandmother, Cooper didn’t have protective instincts. He let people do whatever they wanted to do. He was extremely good at anticipating those actions and using them to his benefit financially. His company, Andover Investments, monitored markets all over the world, anticipating shifts and investing whenever there was the possibility of profit. And he was damn good at anticipating those shifts. He’d made billions over the years anticipating shifts in the market.
He merged onto the highway and Cooper wondered what the woman would look like in an evening gown with all of that red hair pulled up on top of her head so her neck was exposed. Black, he thought. With diamonds around her throat. Or maybe blue? Blue to match her eyes, he nodded. And a sapphire necklace. Diamonds would be nice, but sapphires would match her eyes.