Home > Stranded for One Scandalous Week

Stranded for One Scandalous Week
Author: Natalie Anderson

CHAPTER ONE


   MERLE JORDAN WAS surrounded by bubbles. White frothy ones filled the deep, wide bath, petite ones fizzed from the oversized champagne bottle she’d just opened, while the fragile glass bubbles of a sleek modern light fixture gleamed above her head. The glimmering orbs delighted her starved senses, bringing absolute bliss.

   She opened the stunning glass doors which led to the balcony that stretched the length of the building and ended with a curling staircase that led down to the pool below. A massive moon hung in the sky like the biggest bubble of all, casting a rippling sweep of light across the private bay. Merle lit the candle beside the bath and switched off the pretty light overhead, indulging in the soft, muted glow of the large moon and small flame.

   With a disbelieving giggle she wriggled out of her underwear. She’d barely sampled the champagne but this decadence wasn’t something she’d experienced and it was heady. Merle didn’t excel at self-care at the best of times and this was beyond beginner level. She’d graduated to expert in one go. Never before had she been in a bath so big, never had she seen a view so stunning, never had she stood naked and sipped champagne from a slender crystal glass. Never had she stolen time for herself.

   The summer air was still warm but she couldn’t resist the bubbles of the bath a moment longer. The glistening suds slipped over her like soft strokes of indulgence. Sliding deeper, Merle sipped her drink and breathed in the magnificent surroundings. She couldn’t believe she was living in this ‘holiday home’. She could bathe like this every night for the next six weeks if she wished.

   It wasn’t really a holiday home, it was a mega-mansion on Waiheke—an island less than an hour from Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand. Known as a playground for the wealthy, this property was a perfect example of the luxury homes hidden here. Incredibly private, it overlooked a beach with boat-only access and was furnished with an overflowing wine cellar, stunning swimming pool and spa. There was also a home gym, a cinema room, and even a single-lane bowling alley. The entire property was beautifully decorated with simple yet luxurious style. Richly coloured timber floors provided warmth and white paintwork offered crisp freshness, while soft-cushioned sofas and artfully placed occasional chairs invited relaxation. The gorgeous glazing of the house meant the entire building could be opened up to invite the outside in, and baskets with verdant plants accentuated that coastal, nature-loving style.

   The place was ready for a magazine shoot at a moment’s notice, Merle mused. Unusually for her, she liked the dearth of personal items in the decor; it made her feel it was more of a holiday venue and less as if she was encroaching on someone’s private space. Besides, all those personal secrets were waiting to be discovered in the boxes currently filling the triple-car garage. She’d been contracted to sort and list their contents and prepare them either for storage or destruction.

   She couldn’t believe that such a property had sat unoccupied for over a year. It seemed wrong when so many people didn’t have a home—including her. But she could hardly resent the obscenely wealthy owner’s abandonment, given that the live-in requirement of the job gave her a roof over her head for a while. And, as it was Friday night, she’d decided it was okay to finally relax. Everyone deserved a treat after a hard week’s work, right?

   Sighing with pure, luxurious pleasure, she knelt up to replenish her champagne from the bottle she’d left on the ledge.

   ‘Oh, hey, darling.’

   The low, lazy murmur shocked her.

   ‘Why are you naked in my bath?’ he asked.

   Half kneeling out of the bubbles, her hand stretched towards that champagne bottle, Merle froze, gaping at the man leaning against the doorjamb. For a second she only saw his eyes. They gleamed in the candlelight with an amber, almost animal warmth that didn’t just dazzle, but actually stunned a woman into stillness.

   Ashton Castle.

   Merle breathed out, relieved because she’d instantly recognised him. He was in a photo downstairs, the one personal item on display in the place. He’d inherited this house when his father, Hugh, had died just over a year ago, but had ignored it since. Ash had been too busy to be bothered, right? He had his hands too full with every socialite or model or influencer who crossed his path. And they all said yes because not only was notorious playboy Ash Castle eye-wateringly rich, he was also appallingly good-looking.

   Confronted by the reality, not a decades-old photo, Merle was stupefied. Tall, dazzling, devastating. She stared slack-jawed and wide-eyed at his long, muscular lines and stunningly sculpted face. She knew he also had that other irresistible-to-many facet to his nature—he was reckless. That was catnip to lots of women, wasn’t it? They wanted to dance with danger, attempt to tame the untameable, bring the rich, ravishing, reckless playboy to heel...

   But not Merle. She couldn’t think of a worse combination.

   She was sure his money, privilege and good looks meant it was too easy for him to get everything and everyone he wanted. That led to lazy arrogance and entitlement that meant the usual boundaries were ignored. She knew those sorts of men well. She’d been burned by one in her youth and she’d successfully avoided all of them since. Until now, when she was confronted with the worst of them all.

   ‘Sweetheart?’ Ash’s gaze narrowed slightly.

   Belatedly Merle realised she was up on her knees and, while there were masses of bubbles in the enormous bath, there weren’t enough to cover her completely. Her breasts were exposed and quite possibly her...

   She splashed down into the water so quickly she almost slipped right under. Desperately she threw her arms out to clutch the sides while drawing her knees up defensively at the same time. Another deep breath later, she wiped away the blob of frothy bubbles she could feel sliding down the side of her face.

   Of all the people to have arrived unexpectedly. Of all the times. Of all the shocks.

   And she couldn’t stop staring. His dark grey tee hugged his broad shoulders and clung to the hard planes of his chest, while his black jeans emphasised the length and strength of his legs. They were faded in the thigh area, the paler patches drawing her eye to the core of his masculinity. She snapped her gaze from his slim hips back up past his broad shoulders, but his face only added to that impression of absolute masculinity. The shadow on his jaw highlighted its sharp, angular line. Beneath his straight nose, his sensually full lips curved into a weary but appreciative smile. And then there were those mesmerising eyes—a warm brown with an almost leonine hint in the amber. Everything about him screamed virile male. And the truly horrific thing was that her body—her weak, treacherous body—seemed to want nothing more than to melt in a purely sexual reaction. It was a primal, utterly basic response that was so new, so surprising, she couldn’t pull her scattered thoughts together enough to scream at him to get out of there.

   ‘Why are you here?’ he asked negligently, still leaning against the doorjamb, apparently unfazed by her nudity and her panicked slide back into the water.

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