USA TODAY bestselling author Emma Darcy is back with a new Harlequin Presents novel this month! His Most Exquisite Conquest is part of The Legendary Finn Brothers series. Look for it on sale now at your favorite book store, and keep reading for an excerpt!
In the boardroom men quake at Michael Finn’s business prowess and in the bedroom women beg for his touch. Nothing eludes the Australian tycoon’s grasp, except for free spirit Lucy Flippence, his employee’s sister who tests his practiced charm.
Vivacious Lucy is a fish out of water in Michael’s corporate world, but once she gives in to the attraction between them, she seems made for his bed. It won’t be long before Michael’s ticked her off his to-do list, so she’ll pretend it’s the luxury lifestyle she enjoys and not the feelings he’s awakened in her, feelings her crippling secret has forced her to deny….
A dearly beloved daughter buried in the wrong plot.
A man digging up a grave.
A dog running amok in the memorial garden, knocking off angels’ heads.
What a Monday morning, Lucy Flippence thought as she drove to Greenlands Cemetery, having been given the job of dealing with these situations. Just when some slack time would have been very handy, too, it being her sister’s birthday. It would be really nice to take Ellie out to lunch, especially since Lucy was dying to see her in the wildly colourful new clothes with the new hairdo.
It would be like a complete makeover and highly due, given it was Ellie’s thirtieth birthday. For the past two years her sister had been drowning in blacks and greys and taupes, and so caught up in being Michael Finn’s personal assistant, she didn’t have any other life—not one man sparking her interest.
Right now Lucy had quite a fresh understanding of this disinterest in men. The nasty incident in the Irish pub at Port Douglas had spoiled her weekend away with friends. The guy had started out a promising prince and turned into a horrid frog. It seemed to her they all did, sooner or later. At twenty-eight she had yet to meet one whose shining armour remained shiny, regardless of circumstances.
Even so, she wasn’t about to give up on men. She enjoyed the exciting high of a new attraction, loved the sense of being loved, if only for a little while. It was worth the hurt of being disillusioned. As long as she lived, she was going to be out there, experiencing everything that looked and felt good. It was what her mother had told her to do—her mother who’d married her horrible frog father because she was pregnant with Ellie.
‘Don’t ever make that mistake, Lucy. Be careful.’
She was. Always careful.
Especially since she didn’t want to have children, didn’t want to pass on her dyslexia, blighting another life with it. Putting a child through what she’d been through at school was not an act of love, and the problems didn’t stop there, either. The incurable disability blocked a heap of avenues that normal people simply took in their stride.
The thought of an innocent baby being born with a wrongly wired brain like hers triggered a strongly negative recoil inside Lucy. She would not risk that happening. Which meant, of course, she would probably never marry—no real point to it if having a family was out of the question.
There was, however, always the hope of meeting a prince who didn’t care about having children, or perhaps one who had a genetic fault of his own and would be happy to simply settle with having each other to love. She hadn’t ruled out these possibilities. They bolstered her resolve to keep moving on, making the most of her journey through life.
The cemetery on the outskirts of Cairns came into view. It was aptly named Greenlands—everything being so very green as it usually was up here in far north tropical Queensland, especially after the big wet and before the oppressive heat of summer. August was always a pleasant month and Lucy was glad she wasn’t stuck in the office, closed off from the lovely sunshine.
As she drove the van into the parking lot, she spotted a man wielding a shovel beside one of the graves. He looked elderly and Lucy instantly decided he wouldn’t be dangerous to approach, not that she was frightened of doing so anyway. Her appearance invariably disarmed people.
She loved putting herself together in a fun outfit. The Sunday Markets at Port Douglas were always great for crafty stuff. The wooden bead necklaces and bangles she’d bought yesterday, along with the tan leather belt, and sandals that strapped in criss-crosses up her lower legs, looked fabulous with the white broderie anglaise miniskirt and peasant blouse she was wearing today. Her long blond hair was piled up on top of her head to show off the cute dangly wooden earrings, as well. She didn’t look like officialdom and that was half the battle in getting people to confide in her.
The elderly man caught sight of her walking towards him, and stopped digging, leaning on the long handle of his shovel as he watched her approach, looking her up and down as most men did, regardless of age. She could now see two large plastic bags of potting soil lying on the ground beside him, and behind them was the top of a rose bush.
‘Well, you’re a pretty sight for sore eyes, girlie,’ he greeted her, his mouth slowly curving into a wistful little smile. ‘Visiting a loved one?’
‘Yes, I always visit my mother when I come out here,’ Lucy said with her own wistful smile. The man’s face was so lined and dotted with age spots she guessed he was about eighty, but his body had a spry wiriness that undoubtedly came from keeping himself active.
‘Your mother, eh? Must have died young,’ he remarked.
Lucy nodded. ‘She was only thirty-eight.’ Ten years older than Lucy was now—a fact that lay constantly in the back of her mind, urging her to pack as much into her life as she could.
‘What took her?’ the man asked sympathetically.
‘Ah, that’s a hard death.’ He shook his head sadly. ‘Guess I should be grateful my wife went quickly. Heart gave out. Coming up seventy-five she was. Almost made it to our diamond wedding anniversary.’
‘You must have had a happy marriage,’ Lucy commented, wondering if it was really true. She had observed that some couples stayed together because they didn’t want to face the turmoil of breaking up.
‘My Gracie was a wonderful woman.’ There was love and longing in his voice. ‘Wouldn’t have swapped her for anyone. She was the best, the only one for me. I miss her so much….’ Tears welled into his eyes.
‘I’m sorry,’ Lucy said softly, waiting until he’d recovered his composure before asking, ‘Are you planting that rose for her?’
‘Yes,’ he answered huskily. ‘Gracie loved roses. Especially this one—Pal Joey—because it has such a beautiful scent. Not like those hothouse roses they sell in shops. Here…’ he bent down and picked up the bagged rose bush, pointing out the one yellow rose in full bloom ‘.come and smell it.’
She did. The scent was stunningly strong and beautiful. ‘Oh, that’s lovely!’
‘I brought it from our garden. I couldn’t let my Gracie lie here without some part of our garden, and this was her favourite rose.’
‘Well, Mr…?’ Lucy raised her eyebrows quizzically, needing his name.
‘Robson. Ian Robson.’
‘Lucy Flippence,’ she responded. ‘I have to tell you I’m from cemetery administration, Mr Robson. Someone reported you digging at a grave and I was sent out to investigate, but I can see there’s no harm being done.’
He frowned over any possible interference to his plan. ‘Only want to plant the rose.’
‘I know,’ Lucy soothed. ‘What you’re doing is fine with me. You’ll tidy up afterwards, won’t you? Leave your wife’s grave looking much nicer than it was before, take the empty bags away?’
‘Don’t you worry, Miss Flippence. I’ll not only do that, but you can count on me tending to this rose bush, feeding it and pruning it so it will bloom beautifully for my Gracie.’
Lucy gave him a warm smile. ‘I’m sure you will, Mr Robson. It’s been a pleasure meeting you. I’ll go visit my mother now.’
‘God bless,’ he said in parting.
As she walked on Lucy had no doubt that Ian Robson had been a prince to his Gracie. That kind of devotion could only come out of a true love which lasted a lifetime. However rare that was, it was comforting to know it did happen—could happen for her if she was super, super lucky.
She stopped at her mother’s grave, sighing heavily at what Ellie had insisted be printed on the headstone:
Veronica Anne Flippence
Beloved Mother of Elizabeth and Lucy
No ‘Beloved Wife of George,’ because that would have been a huge lie. As soon as their mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer their father had deserted them. Not that he would have been any help during those long months of suffering. Every time he’d come home on leave from his mining job in Mount Isa he’d ended up getting drunk and abusive. Better that he had left his daughters to look after their mother, but the desertion certainly demonstrated there was not even common decency in his character—a frog of the worst order.
Ellie had found out he’d had another woman in Mount Isa and was leading a double life—a cheat on top of everything else. Lucy was glad he had dropped out of their lives. She still hated him for not giving her mother the love she had deserved. There’d been no roses in their marriage—none that Lucy could remember.
‘It’s Ellie’s birthday today, Mum,’ she said out loud. ‘I’m sure you know that. I bought her a gorgeous butterfly blouse and a lovely green skirt to go with it. She’s fallen into a dowdy rut and I want to break her out of it. You said for us to always look out for each other, and Ellie does more than her fair share of that, helping me over hurdles I can’t leap like everyone else because of my dyslexia. I’m trying to help her to meet a prince. Guys notice colourful people. She has to give herself a chance, don’t you think?’
Lucy smiled at what Ellie had told her over the phone this morning—that her long brown hair was cut and dyed auburn. That was a step in the right direction. If her sister would just lighten up a bit, have some fun, show she was enjoying herself. Guys liked that. In fact, they gravitated towards women who emitted a joy in life.
‘If you can perform a miracle, Mum, it would be fantastic if two princes showed up for Ellie and me today. Okay? That would be a birthday to remember.’ Lucy heaved another big sigh at the improbability of this happening. ‘In the meantime, I’ve got to go and collect some angels’ heads so they don’t get damaged any more than they are already. Bye now.’
When she reached the memorial garden, she stood aghast at the number of headless angels. The dog must have been a huge German shepherd or Great Dane. It sure had run amok here. She picked up one head, realised how heavy it was, lay it back down and went to bring the van closer to the garden. It took her an hour to load them all up for transport to the stonemason.
Checking the time, she decided that job could wait until after lunch. If she didn’t get to Ellie’s office before twelve o’clock, her sister might go off somewhere by herself. Lucy could call her, but surprising her was better. What was a birthday without a nice surprise?
Finding a parking space close to the Finn Franchises building was impossible. Lucy ended up two blocks away from the Esplanade, where it was located. She half ran the distance and managed to arrive at Ellie’s office just a few minutes after noon. Having paused long enough to catch her breath, she knocked on the door and opened it enough to poke her head around it to check if the room was occupied. Ellie—a brand-new Ellie—sat at a desk.
It put a wide grin on Lucy’s face as she asked, ‘Okay to come in?’
Given the affirmative, she literally bounced in, twirling to shut the door behind her, then dancing over to the desk in an ecstasy of delight over the dramatic change in her sister’s appearance. ‘Ooh…I love the hair, Ellie,’ she happily enthused, hitching herself onto the edge of the desk for a close look at the new style. ‘It’s very sexy. Gives you that just-out-of-bed tumbled look and the colour really, really suits you. It complements the clothes I picked out for you brilliantly. I have to say you look absolutely marvellous. Now tell me you feel marvellous, too.’
The slightly uncertain expression on her sister’s face cracked into a smile. ‘I’m glad I made the change.’ Then, typically Ellie, she turned attention away from herself. ‘How was your weekend?’
‘Oh, so-so.’ Lucy waved her hand airily, then pulled a woeful grimace. ‘But I’ve had the most terrible morning.’
She didn’t want to relate the frog in the Irish pub episode. No negatives about men today, with Ellie looking so beautiful. Lucy rattled on about the rose planting at the grave and the dog damage in the memorial garden, describing the scene and what she had to do about it, how heavy the angels’ heads were….
It was a really good story, yet Ellie was clearly distracted from it, her gaze sliding away, fixing on some point at the other end of the room.
‘Angels’ heads…’ a male voice said in a rich tone of incredulous wonder.
It sent a weird quiver down Lucy’s spine. She didn’t know if sound vibrations could squeeze her heart, but something did. She whipped her head around, feeling an instant urge to check out the owner of that voice.
And there he was—tall, dark and handsome, the perfect image of a storybook prince!