British equestrian, Zara Michaels, heads south to convince TJ Greggson to sell his property to her developer father. Any way she can.
TJ co-owns the stables, catering to disabled children—his life’s purpose. His brother wants to sell. TJ doesn’t.
Can TJ help untangle Zara from her past follies, or will their secrets destroy them both?
ZARA MICHAELS RAN DOWN THE STAIRS to the platform, praying the train wouldn’t leave before she boarded it. The guard was closing the doors as she reached the train. “Wait,” she called.
He turned and held the last door open long enough for her to plunk her case inside and climb in after it. “Have a good trip, miss.”
Somehow she stowed her case and rucksack in the one remaining space on the luggage rack. The automatic doors to the main carriage hissed open. Zara made her way down the already swaying carriage in search of her seat. She’d almost missed the train, thanks to her sister Kim’s incessant meddling, not to mention yet another lecture from her father.
One blessing in disguise. At least her forward facing seat was empty. These days not even a reserved sign guaranteed that. And the way the day was going she’d expected to find someone already sitting there.
She regarded the old lady in the aisle seat and managed a faint smile. “Excuse me. May I get past you, please?”
“Of course, dear.” The old lady stood to allow Zara access to her seat.
“Thank you.” Zara suddenly teetered into her seat as the train jolted over the junction points to the main line. She put her handbag on her lap, squashing it between the table and her middle. She turned to the window, pushing her glasses up her nose as the train sped up. The houses and factories of York slid by, becoming sparser before turning into fields and trees as the city was left behind.
Zara focused on the window, the trees and forests, fields and streams zipping by. Faster and faster, clickety-clack, the train sped through the English countryside—relentlessly taking her into pastures unknown, but at the same time along a path she knew all too well.
“Tickets, please, ladies and gents.”
Zara pulled her ticket from her bag, along with the reservation card and held them out to the conductor. He glanced at them and nodded as he handed them back. Zara returned them to her purse. Her phone beeped and she sighed. The photo of Jordan was obscured by a message that read Kim Mob.
Can’t you leave me alone for an hour, sis? What do you want now?
The message made her heart sink lower. Are you really going to do this? Aunt Agatha loves that place. Tell Dad no more. So what if he disinherits you b/c you want a life of your own and don’t want to do his dirty work anymore? Is the money really more important?
Another text quickly followed.
Are you there? You made a commitment to Christ, Za. You can’t go back on that and compromise your soul.
Then a third message.
Call me. Or at least promise me you know what you’re doing. And make sure you call Jordan every night.
Zara scowled. “Course I will,” she muttered. “I’d hardly go away and not call, now would I?” She shoved the offensive phone to the bottom of her bag. “Now try bothering me.”
The old lady cocked her head and stared at her. “Are you all right, dear?”
“Yeah. Tired of my phone beeping.”
“My son is always on his phone. He wants me to have one, but I don’t see the need. I’m too old for this face thing or the non-stop chirping. And you miss out on so much with your head constantly peering down at a tiny screen.”
“I know what you mean.” Zara settled back in her seat, and crossed her ankles. “Kim, my sister, is permanently attached to hers. I really wish I’d left mine at home. I only use it for calls and texts, nothing else. It’s what she calls a thick phone.”
The bloke opposite chuckled over his book.
“Not smart like hers. Oh, I can access the internet, email, take photos and so on, but I have a computer at home for that. I don’t need it on my phone as well.”
As the old lady rattled on about her son, grandchildren and the weather, Zara studied the man seated opposite her while replying. He was kind of cute with short, slightly wavy dark hair. His dark eyes flitted across the pages, his full lips pursed, his long tanned fingers holding the book almost reverently. Oh, there was something sexy about a man who read. Her gaze slid across his broad shoulders, and down the tanned muscular arms his shirt sleeves didn’t hide. The tan indicated he either lived abroad or worked outside. Going on appearance alone, he was definitely her type.
Finally the old lady beside her stopped chatting and fell asleep.
Zara sighed with relief. Then whispered a prayer of apology. She should be grateful anyone took the time to speak with her without recognizing her and asking for an autograph.
The bloke opposite stood. “Could you watch my things for me for five minutes or so, please?”
“Sure.” Zara tried to ignore the goose bumps the sound of his chocolaty-smooth voice raised. She watched him stride down the swaying carriage. Once he was out of sight, she grabbed his book. Taking care not to lose his place, she read the back cover. It sounded interesting and she made a mental note of the title. A historical thriller set during the last war. Exactly the sort of thing she loved to dive into and get lost inside. She laid the book back down, making sure to place it exactly how she’d found it.
Tucking her hair behind her ears, she wished she’d thought to have packed something to read, but she’d left in such a rush, she was amazed she’d packed a suitcase for herself. Jordan’s things took up so much more room than her own. All she had in her handbag was a notebook, pen and coin purse. And the phone she hated with a passion. Her Bible and puzzle book were in the case. No way was she unpacking that on a crowded train. Knowing her luck, a pair of her knickers would tumble to the floor. Or worse, that black lace bra she loved so much.
She’d left the laptop at home, having closed all her social media accounts that morning. She needed a complete break from everyone and everything—Jordan being the exception, but that was different. Yes, she was still reluctantly working for her father—one last job. She was tired of the way he ran his business and what he expected her to do. She really was tired of helping her father get richer than he already was by scamming their property out of the poor fools.
She’d become more and more uncomfortable with that aspect of the job and becoming a Christian made it impossible. She found herself having to compromise more and more, until she reached breaking point.
The only way out was to break free. The hold her father had over her, made that impossible. Losing her inheritance didn’t bother her. But Jordan…
Kim called it folly. Zara would rather call it… Honestly? She didn’t know what she called it. It wasn’t running away. Reality check maybe? A new beginning? The Lord knew how much she needed one. How much she longed to run away and start over. Somewhere. Anywhere. She wanted someone to accept her, along with her past and the baggage she came with.
She heaved a sigh. That wasn’t going to happen any time soon. At least not one that was good enough for her father to approve of the relationship.
No, she had to leave. If turning her back on everything in York made her broke so be it. Once this was over, that was it.
Done. Dusted. Finito.
Perhaps Aunt Agatha would help—or at least have an idea of what to do.
Snoring resounded in her left ear, and then the old lady snorted, shifted in her seat and settled down again. The scent of coffee floated through the carriage. At that moment there was nothing in the world Zara wanted more than an infusion of hot coffee. Preferably a large strong one. But there was no chance of that for a while—at least not until her seat mate woke. Did this train even have a buffet car? For all she knew, the aroma could be coming from someone who might have thought ahead and included a thermos flask with their packed lunch.
The cute bloke reappeared with a cup in each hand. “I thought you might like a coffee.” A bright smile lit his face. He plonked down the take away cups and slid one across the table. “I could see you weren’t able to get out and it seemed mean to drink in front of you.”
She returned his smile. “Thank you. I’m dying of thirst.”
“Good job they have plastic lids. I nearly came a cropper on that last set of points.”
“That could have been messy.”
“You’re telling me.” He reached into his pockets, pulled out several sachets of sugar and creamer and a couple of stirrers. “Almost as messy as dying in your seat from thirst.”
She tilted her head and held out a hand. “Well, not literally dying. I’m Zara.”
“TJ.” His firm warm grip encompassed her hand for far too short a moment as he slid back into his seat.
“How much do I owe you?”
“Nothing. Call it a thank you for diverting our sleeping friend from talking my ear off.”
Zara gently removed the lid from her cup and inhaled deep of the enticing scent. She ripped open the sugar, tipping one sachet after the next into the hot liquid. “Honestly, I wasn’t really listening. Just nodded and responded in the appropriate places.” She added creamer, stirred, and replaced the lid. She sipped, burning liquid scalding its way down her throat.
The train began to slow as it approached Sheffield. The old lady woke, gathered her things and headed to the end of the carriage.
Zara glanced after her. “Bye, then,” she said quietly.
TJ snorted. “My brother does that. Along with shouting ‘thank you’ when motorists don’t give way at crossings. Or ‘you’re welcome’ when he does something for someone and doesn’t get a thank you in return. One of these days he’s gonna get thumped for doing it.” He set his coffee on the table. “It was a good idea of yours to reserve a seat. I thought I was going to have to stand all the way home before I found this one.”
“It was the only train going direct,” she explained. “Well kind of. I have to change once if my aunt can’t collect me. Some of the trains meant changing three or four times, plus a tube trip. I hate the underground with its closed in spaces.”
“Me too. You going far?”
“Reading, to stay with my aunt.”
She shifted and hid behind her paper cup for a few seconds. “Kind of. What about you?”
“Back to work. I’ve been staying with my brother in Scotland for a few days. Trying to persuade him not to sell his half of the business we co-own.” He swigged the coffee. “It didn’t work.”
“Can you buy him out?”
TJ gave a short, bitter laugh. “I wish. But there’s no way. Someone is coming to value the place on Monday, but even without that valuation I know I can’t afford a mortgage. Sides, we inherited the place together when Dad died.” He wrinkled his nose. “But you don’t want to hear all that.”
Zara’s phone beeped. “Excuse me.” She picked it up as TJ went back to his book. The screen read Aunt Agatha.
Of course I will pick you up at Reading. Saves changing trains and getting the one to Earley. I’ll meet you on the main concourse. They’ve done away with platform tickets. Something to do with cracking down on people riding trains without paying. Theory being without a ticket you can’t get on the train or platform. Stupid idea if you ask me. If you really want to jump a train you’d find a way, platform ticket or no.
Zara grinned. Yup. Looking forward to seeing you. Train gets in around half past four. She tucked the phone away and glanced across at TJ. He was engrossed in his book. Zara leaned against the back of the seat and drained her coffee. Then she closed her eyes. Time for forty winks instead of worrying about the task ahead.