The Billionaire's Marriage Mission

By: Helen Brooks

CHAPTER ONE



As the door clicked gently shut behind her the quiet sound registered with all the force of a thunderclap on Beth Marton's ears. For a second she froze, unbelieving; then she turned, gingerly pushing against the unyielding wood. Of course it didn't budge—but then it wouldn't with the latch having sprung shut.

'Oh, no, no.' Beth pushed again, harder this time, even as she told herself it was pointless. She was locked out. If she had been standing outside her flat in London that wouldn't have mattered. There were at least a couple of neighbours always around that she could have called on in the block in which the flat was situated, and one of them could have tele¬phoned her sister who had a spare key for emergencies. But this was not London...

She glanced somewhat wildly about her, vitally aware she was clad in nothing but bubblegum-pink silk pyjamas with spaghetti shoulder straps. The dark windy night was not en¬couraging. And rain was forecast.

When a cold nose nudged one hand she glanced down at the big dog who was surveying her with impatient eyes. 'I know, I know,' she muttered. 'We're out here and your dinner's in there, but it was you who insisted you needed the loo a minute ago.'

And it was her who had followed Harvey outside with the torch so she could make sure he didn't disappear into the black¬ness. Which was doubly daft in hindsight, considering he knew it was dinner time—Harvey's favourite moment of the day—and also that there was nowhere he could really go. The garden sur¬rounding the little cottage she was renting was all neatly fenced.

A gust of wind brought the smell of smoke on the air, re¬minding Beth she had lit the fire in the sitting room a few minutes before. And the guard wasn't in front of it but standing to one side of the slate hearth.

Panicking now, she scurried round the outside of the cottage to see if any of the windows just might be on the latch, although she doubted it. When she had arrived at the place half an hour ago, travel weary after a journey she wouldn't have wished on her worst enemy but hugely relieved to have found the isolated building in the dark, everything had appeared shuttered and closed. After retrieving the front door key which had been hidden under a plant pot as the agent had told her, she had lugged all her stuff inside, only stopping to bung per¬ishable food into the little fridge before she had stripped off for a wonderfully welcome shower.

Once the stickiness of the tortuous journey—which had consisted of traffic jam after traffic jam-—had been removed she hadn't been able to face the thought of dressing again, and so had pulled on her pyjamas before opening a bottle of wine and lighting the fire. Harvey's enormous basket established in a handy corner, and a tin of his favourite food open in the tiny cottage kitchen, she'd been about to feed him when he'd made it plain he needed to be let outside for a moment.





'Ow!' As she slipped on something squelchy and ended up on her bottom in something which smelt utterly disgusting, her eyeballs rattled with the jolt to her system. The urge to cry was suddenly and very childishly paramount, but instead she recovered the torch which had fallen out of her hand and struggled to her feet. Harvey seemed to have quite forgotten about his dinner and was entering into this new game with gusto, jumping about her and barking delightedly. He'd found the long journey from London to Shropshire boring but this was altogether more like it.

Thankfully the torch still worked, but Beth didn't need its light to tell her a fox or badger obviously skulked about the cottage garden at night. The smell on her pyjamas and fluffy mules did the job more than adequately.

Walking round the building to the front door again, she stood for a moment, shivering in the cold May night. The day itself had been quite warm, too warm in view of the hours spent stuck unmoving in traffic, but the night air had a bite to it which said summer wasn't quite round the corner yet.

She would have to smash a window and climb in somehow; there was nothing else for it. Beth gazed at the beautiful old leaded lights in the sitting room windows. All the glass was the same, and when she had drawn up earlier and admired the mullioned effect she had thought then they must be quite valuable. The cottage was tiny and chocolate boxy, complete with thatched roof, wooden beams throughout and all the charm one would expect considering it was a couple of cen¬turies old. But charm didn't help her right at this minute.

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