Charlotte Hunter’s hands tightened on the steering wheel as she caught her first glimpse of the Connemara hills. When she’d left Ireland nearly two years ago, still numb after Steve’s death, she’d sworn she would never return. Only the last-minute change of filming location had brought her back here. With all the studio scenes completed, there was no way she could pull out of the new drama series.
As she continued westward along the almost deserted road, even she had to concede that the early October sun gave this wild and unspoilt corner of Ireland a crisp beauty. On her right, the grey rock faces and peaks of the Twelve Bens stood sharp against the blue sky; on her left, the varied shades of open heathland hinted at the approaching autumn, from the faded green of the rough moor grass to the rich russet of the dying bracken. Clear fast-flowing mountain streams emptied into dozens of breeze-whipped, grey-blue lakes. Loughs, she reminded herself. In Ireland they were called loughs, not lakes.
She reached Clifden shortly before five o’clock and pulled into the parking area of the supermarket on the outskirts of the small town. Still familiar with the layout of the store, she didn’t take long to collect some basic supplies.
A tall man in a sheepskin jacket stood near the chilled cabinet of yogurts and desserts, speaking on his phone. ‘Kate, which yogurts do the kids like? Melissa said something about pink pots.’
She reached past him to pick up some mixed fruit yogurts at the same moment as he turned and bumped against her.
‘Oops! Sorry,’ he said.
‘No problem.’ She put her yogurts in her shopping trolley, but couldn’t resist pointing further along the cabinet. ‘The pink pots are those strawberry ones.’
‘Thanks.’ He gave her a quick smile before speaking into his phone again. ‘It’s okay, Kate, I see them.’
She started to push her trolley toward the cash desk, but stopped when the man said, ‘Thanks again, but don’t I know you from somewhere?’
With a small grimace of resignation, she half-turned back to him. She didn’t recall meeting him when she lived here, but perhaps he’d seen her on television. Or else it was a clichéd chat-up line.
‘I don’t think so.’ She gave him a perfunctory smile as her glance took in rugged good looks in a square face and dark wavy hair. Not exactly tousled, but certainly untamed.
The man frowned for a moment before his face cleared. ‘You remind me of my mother-in-law.’
‘Really?’ She suppressed a grin. Being compared to a mother-in-law was a novel kind of comment.
‘Not really, no. Her hair’s short and straight, not long like yours, and her face is rounder.’
She couldn’t help but laugh. ‘So I’m nothing like her?’
‘You’re much younger, of course, but your eyes are the same colour. Unusual.’
‘Brown eyes are unusual?’
‘Kind of coppery. I’m useless with colours, but that’s what she said hers were.’
‘Oh, I see.’
It seemed an odd conversation to be having with a stranger in a supermarket, but her heartbeat quickened at the attractive twinkle in his dark eyes as he smiled.
He held out his hand. ‘Luke Sullivan. Pleased to meet you.’
‘Oh – erm – yes.’ As she put her hand in his, something low in her stomach jerked in response to his strong handshake. ‘Charley Hunter.’ Deliberately she didn’t use her professional surname, which he might recognise if the local press had reported anything about Waterside Hall being used as a film location during the next few weeks.
‘Short for Charlotte, but only my grandmother calls me that.’
‘Hunter was my mother-in-law’s maiden name. Maybe you share the same ancestry.’
‘Maybe.’ She’d no intention of telling him it was her married surname. ‘I’ve never done any family history research.’
‘Me neither. Can’t run the risk of finding ancestors who were sheep stealers, or cattle rustlers, or horse thieves. Could ruin my reputation.’
Intrigued, she raised her eyebrows. ‘Why?’
‘I’m a vet. My clients might think I’m out to steal their animals.’
She laughed. ‘I don’t think thieving is in one’s genes.’
‘Ach, I’m not so sure. I once stole six daffodils from the churchyard for my mam on Mother’s Day. I ’fessed up at the end of the day, though. Guilty conscience, it was.’
‘How old were you?’
‘Seven, and I’d spent all my money on a card for her, so I couldn’t afford any flowers.’
‘I’m sure she understood.’
‘She was relieved, ’cause she thought I might have nicked them from the shop in the village. But she made me buy and plant six daffodil bulbs in the churchyard later that year.’
Charley smiled. ‘Wise lady.’
‘Aye, taught me a lesson I never forgot.’
‘So your clients probably aren’t in any danger of you becoming a horse thief.’
He laughed, a deep rich laugh that sent a ripple through her. ‘I hope so. Anyhow, what brings you to this neck of the woods? We don’t see many visitors here once summer’s over.’
She hesitated before deciding vagueness was the best response. ‘I have a temporary contract at a hotel near Lough Doona.’
‘And you’re English, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, I’ve just flown over from London.’
‘London? Sure, and you’ll find things somewhat quieter here.’
‘Of course. Do you live locally?’
He glanced down at his brown cords and mud-spattered black boots. ‘Aye, I suppose I do fit a Londoner’s image of an Irish culchie – country bumpkin to you – but I clean up quite well when I’m not working.’