The Cinderella Factor

The Cinderella Factor - UK cover

An Excerpt

Jo came up, shaking the water out of her hair and eyes, laughing. And it was then that she saw the bird in flash of emerald blue, skimming the surface of the stream and away into the trees.

Jo went quite still. She stood where she was, the water up to her waist, tilting her head to watch the little creature. It had found a branch and was sitting there with whatever it had caught. She could make out the flash of a beady eye; and the amazing jewel colours of the feathers.

She had heard of kingfishers. Seen pictures. But nothing had prepared her for this - this living iridescence, so small and yet so brilliant that it hurt the eyes. She held her breath.

Behind her a voice said harshly, 'Have you hurt yourself?'

Jo was so absorbed she was hardly startled, much less embarrassed by her nakedness. She was hardly aware of it, she was concentrating so hard.

'Hush,' she said, the softness of her voice failing to disguise the clear note of command. 'That has to be a kingfisher.'

She was aware of movement behind her, as if whoever it was had been on the very edge of the bank and was now retreating a few paces.

'Where?' The voice was scarcely less harsh, though this time it was scarcely above a whisper.

Jo raised a bare arm and pointed. Water fell from her fingers and elbow in a sparkle of silver.

'You look like a statue in a fountain,' the harsh voice said abruptly.

But Jo did not notice. The kingfisher was on the wing again. It streaked past them, a flash of sapphire and jade fire, and was lost in the foliage at the bend of the river.

Jo expelled a long breath.

'Oh wasn't that wonderful?' she said, turning to face the voice.

It was a shock.

He was tall and slender with an alarming air of compact, confident strength. He had thin, proud face which most women would probably call handsome. And his eyes were masked by the ubiquitous dark glasses. Jo registered all this in the blink of an eyelid and it left her unmoved.

And then he took his glasses off. And she froze to the spot as if he had cast a spell on her.

His eyes! They were deep set under heavy brows. At first she thought they were black, then brown, then a queer golden yellow like old brandy. And they were staring at her as if she was an apparition from another world.

He was the first to speak.

'Well,' he said softly. All the harshness was gone as if it had never been.

Jo shook her head a little, trying to break that mesmeric eye contact. Her ragged hair was plastered to her head, darkened to coal black, all its red lights doused in the soaking it had received. The movement sent trickles of water from the rats' tails down her shoulders and between her breasts.

'I didn't realise anyone was there,' she said blankly.

At once she was furious with herself. Stupid, stupid, she thought. Of course you knew he was there the moment he spoke. And of course you didn't know before that or you would not have been jumping about in the water with no clothes on.

Realisation hit her then. She gave a little gasp and plunged her shoulders rapidly under the water. But she couldn't, quite, break the locking of their gaze.

He smiled a little. 'I didn't intend that you should.'

Jo digested that. 'You were spying on me?' she said, incredulous.

It did not seem likely somehow; out of character with that haughty profile, she thought. Years of living on her wits had taught Jo to sum up people fast. She was not usually wrong.

His face reflected distaste. 'Quite by accident.'

He sounded so weary, that Jo flushed as if it were she, not he, who was at fault. She was indignant.

'How do you spy on someone by accident?' she demanded hotly.

He smiled again, startling her. It was a sudden slanting of that too controlled, too uncompromising mouth and it changed his face completely. Suddenly it was not just other women who would have called him handsome. And more than handsome.

Disconcerted, Jo swallowed. And huddled deeper under the water.

He said, 'I was here first. I saw you come down from the bridge. By the time I realised you were intending to strip off and leap into the water, it was too late to warn you that you were not alone. '


He relented. 'But I admit I watched you playing in the water. I suppose a gentleman would have gone away. But you looked so - happy.'

The mouth was a thin line again. Not so much harsh, Jo thought in sharp recognition, as holding down a pain of the soul that was scarcely endurable. She knew something about that.

She said gently, 'It's the place. Anyone would be happy here.'