Jed Hunter's Reluctant Bride

By: Susanne James

CHAPTER ONE




CRYSSIE TORE UP THE final flight of stairs which led to the toy department on the top floor of the large store. She’d spotted a queue of people waiting for the lift, so, with her slight frame and the flat, sensible shoes she always wore, she thought she’d beat them all to it, use her feet, and get there first!

Christmas Eve…the usual frantic nightmare, she thought ruefully. This was her final chance to do the rest of her shopping and, at last, to get what she’d come for. She’d rung earlier to make sure they had some of the much sought-after Runaway Rascals—dolls based on children’s TV characters that Milo, her four-year-old nephew, adored. He never missed the programme, which featured the Rascals, and he desperately wanted one of them for himself. And Cryssie would do her utmost to get it for him. It had been out of stock everywhere for some time—surprise, surprise—but she knew that Latimer’s had received a delivery yesterday, and she prayed that they hadn’t all been snapped up.

Weaving her way frantically among the dozens of last-minute shoppers, she arrived at the appropriate counter and ran her eye quickly along the shelves. Yes! There were four there, on the top, grinning out from their cellophane-fronted boxes, and she heaved a sigh of relief. At last she’d made it!

Deftly, she was able to sneak in past the two or three customers there who were casually examining some other merchandise, and was already framing her request when out of nowhere a masculine voice spoke imperiously.

‘Yes…thanks…I’ll take the four.’ And, after a pause, ‘Put them on the account.’

‘Certainly, Mr Hunter,’ the assistant murmured, lowering her eyes coquettishly.

Cryssie stopped, open-mouthed in utter amazement, and a genuine feeling of desperation swept over her as the girl began to remove the boxes from the shelf and place them, one by one, on the counter in front of her. In her haste and anxiety Cryssie had not even noticed the man, who must have been standing there all the time, right beside her—and who had staked his claim in no uncertain terms! She stared up at the owner of that commanding voice, having to tilt her head back to take in this tall and pushy individual who’d got in before her.

He was an obvious business type, dressed in a sharp suit and immaculate shirt and tie, and from his lofty height had the distinct advantage over her five foot three. His richly dark hair fell carelessly around his ears, enhancing the line of his firm jaw…and his eyes! Black and glittering in their pools of startling white. They were calculating, even dangerous eyes, Cryssie thought instinctively.

Clearing her throat, she spoke to the assistant, her voice ringing out with all the authority she could manage. ‘I hope those aren’t the only ones—the only Runaway Rascals you’ve got there,’ she said hotly. ‘I only want one,’ she added, as if to imply that anyone wanting four was greedy and thoughtless!

The girl glanced briefly at Cryssie. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, as she wedged the boxes into two large carrier bags. ‘These actually are the last. We’ve never known such a manic demand for anything, and—’

‘But I rang this morning and you promised…you assured me you had plenty,’ Cryssie protested.

‘We did—and they’ve all gone…like hot cakes! And the management decided that we weren’t to reserve any over the phone—as I told you when we spoke. First come, first served seemed fairest.’ She finished packing, and pushed the bags across the counter. ‘We will be getting a delivery at the end of January.’ she added helpfully. ‘Not that that’s much good now, of course. You can leave your address and phone number with us for when the dolls are next in, but you’ll have to explain that the Runaway Rascals have all run away from Santa’s sleigh!’

Oh, very funny, Cryssie thought angrily. She glared up at the man, who glanced back down at her casually and without apparent interest. As if she didn’t exist—as if he couldn’t care less about what anyone else wanted! He could at least have made some sort of apology, she thought.

Then, with one lean and sunburnt hand, he took hold of the bags and turned to go. Not apparently even having to sign anything, or produce any cash, Cryssie noticed. That somehow made it worse, because the dolls were terribly expensive for what they were. She was the only consistent earner in their household, and had learned to be thrifty and save for things like Christmas and birthdays. She wouldn’t have dared have an account at Latimer’s, or anywhere else for that matter. Pay as you go was the safest, she’d always been taught.

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