Jessica Hart

Her Ready-Made Family

Release Date: 2006

Finalist Romantic Novelists’ Association Romance Prize 2007

As a successful city hot-shot, she has millions in the bank, but Morgan Steele has decided her life is empty … So she’s giving up her career and moving to the country! When vet Alistair Brown meets his new neighbour he believes that she’s another spoilt city girl playing at country life – just like his ex-wife. But his twin daughters, Phoebe and Polly, seem captivated by Morgan’s warmth – and her huge swimming pool! Slowly, as Morgan gets closer to Alistair and his girls, she begins to realise that what she’s been looking for in life is right under her nose … a ready-made family!

A Little Bit Extra

This book has a special resonance for me because I spend a lot of my time nowadays torn between city life in York aMungo.jpgnd country life in Wiltshire. Like Morgan, I don’t think I’ll ever really be a country girl, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love it when I’m there. I like the fact that Morgan is the one with the money in this story, and there’s a lot of myself in her … although not the long legs or the expensive clothes! I got very fond of her dog, Tallulah, too. Tallulah is a Westie, like my own, but not as handsome (naturally) and needless to say Mungo is immaculately trained and perfectly behaved (whoever that is coughing in the background, stop it at once!) Here he is, looking nearly as tubby as Tallulah!


Morgan would have done anything right then to simply disappear but there was nowhere to go to but back down into that disgusting mud. She wiped a hand across her mouth but that was muddy too and just made things worst, so she twisted the upper part of her coat sleeve round, about the only piece of her that wasn’t covered in mud.

‘I’m glad I’ve provided you with so much amusement,’ she said bitterly.

Shaken and still breathless from her panicky run, Morgan was burningly conscious of how ridiculous she must look in her cashmere coat and her designer jeans, smeared in mud from her previously glossy hair to the tips of her ludicrously expensive trainers. She could feel the vet’s eyes on her, alight with amusement.

‘Are you all right?’ he asked belatedly.

‘No thanks to you,’ she snapped as she looked for Tallulah who was huddled against the gate, looking as woebegone as Morgan felt. ‘It’s lucky my dog and I weren’t trampled to death! Those beastly cows are completely wild.’

‘That’ll teach you to walk across the middle of a field,’ he said. ‘Don’t you know better than that?’

‘Funnily enough, we’re not taught to evade stampeding wildlife in London!’

‘You’re not in London now,’ he said. ‘Next time, check with the farmer first that he doesn’t mind you walking on his land, and stick to the edges in case you damage any crops.’

‘There won’t be a next time!’ Morgan assured him, realising that her legs were trembling with reaction. ‘From now on I’m sticking to tarmac!’

‘That won’t be much fun for the dog,’ Alistair commented.

‘What, as opposed to the fun time she’s having at the moment? Look at her!’ Morgan gestured furiously at Tallulah, miserable and barely recognizable in her mucky brown coating. ‘She’s absolutely terrified!’

‘I’d be terrified too if I’d been happily sniffing a cowpat when some human snatched me up, jolted me down a hillside and threw me in a load of mud!’ said Alistair, the corner of his mouth twitching in a way that made Morgan long to hit him. ‘You should have let her run on her own. She’d have soon got out of the way of the hooves, and it would have been good exercise for her.’

‘I think we’ve had enough exercise for today,’ said Morgan. Mustering what little shred of dignity she had, she turned to Derek. ‘I’m sorry for walking across your field,’ she said stiffly.

‘Oh, don’t worry about it,’ he said jovially. ‘You’ve given me my first laugh of the day! Now that we’ve met, you can walk here any time.’

‘Thank you,’ said Morgan, mentally vowing never to set foot in a field again. She fished Talullah’s lead out of her pocket, and waded awkwardly across the mud to where the dog was still waiting at the gate, tail down and ears drooping. ‘Come on, Tallulah, let’s go home.’

‘I’ll give you a lift,’ said Alistair, opening the gate for her. In his sturdy rubber boots and overalls, he had no problem negotiating the mud.

‘That’s really not necessary,’ said Morgan through her teeth.

‘Don’t be silly, you can’t walk like that. Look, the Land Rover’s just here. I’m on my way back to the surgery, so I can easily make a detour.’

Pre-empting any further arguments, he took her arm and steered her towards the battered vehicle which was pulled up on the grassy verge in front of a tractor.

‘Come on, in you get,’ he said. ‘And you, Tallulah. No use expecting you to jump, I suppose?’

Bending down, he lifted a startled Tallulah up and deposited her on the floor of the cab before turning to Morgan. ‘You know, you might as well give in,’ he said, not unkindly.

Suddenly Morgan was close to tears. She would have given anything to have told the heartless Alistair Brown where to stick his lift and been able to stalk off with her head held high, but her legs were trembling, and the mud was cold and revolting and she felt so disgusting, she didn’t think she could take another step. And poor Tallulah wasn’t in any better shape. Her shaggy paws were clogged with mud and she looked the picture of dejection sitting in the Land Rover. The two of them were a sorry pair.

‘All right. Thank you.’ she said stiffly, and squelched over to climb in with Tallulah.

Alistair exchanged goodbyes with Derek Iverson and then got in beside her. He glanced at Morgan’s set face and then leant across her to open the glove box and pull out a bottle of water.

‘Here,’ he said, presenting her with the bottle and an old-fashioned white handkerchief he had produced out of his pocket. ‘Why don’t you clean your face, at least? It’ll make you feel better. I’ve only blown my nose on it twice,’ he added as Morgan hesitated and then, seeing her expression change, ‘I’m just kidding! It’s fresh out of the washing machine this morning, and I promise I haven’t used it.’

He watched as Morgan used the water to wet the handkerchief and scrub the worst of the muck off her face. Her lips were pressed together in a mixture of disgust and humiliation, but her chin was still lifted at the proud angle he remembered from her visit to the surgery.

‘I’m sorry we laughed,’ he said, so abruptly that her gaze lifted to his in surprise and he noticed for the first time that she had beautiful eyes the colour of rich, dark, chocolate.

She stared at him for a moment, and then some of the tension left her shoulders and she seemed to slump slightly. ‘Oh, it’s all right,’ she sighed. ‘I expect we did look pretty stupid. I seem to spend my whole time at the moment looking or feeling or doing something stupid,’ she said fatalistically. ‘I should be getting used to it by now.’

‘Really?’ it was Alistair’s turn to be surprised. ‘You don’t seem like a very stupid person to me,’ he said as he started the engine.

‘You’d be surprised,’ said Morgan, remembering the fibs she had told at the school reunion last year. It had been stupid to let the ghastly Bethany provoke her into inventing a fiancé, that was for sure. Thank God Bethany hadn’t had time to ask her any awkward questions about her supposed engagement or it could have ended in a far worse humiliation than falling flat on your face in the mud in front of a laughing vet.

‘Appearances can be deceptive,’ she told Alistair in a dry voice, and was startled when he glanced at her with a quick smile.

‘Quite,’ he said, and something about the way his strange, light eyes rested on her sent heat flushing inexplicably through Morgan.

She jerked her gaze from his and turned to look out of the window.

There was a short pause, so short that it hardly counted as a pause at all, but still, Morgan sensed an odd tightening in the air, and she was suddenly acutely conscious of the man sitting beside her.

He wasn’t spectacular-looking by any means. He had none of Paul’s easy glamour, and his features were unremarkable except for those piercingly keen eyes that seemed to look right through her.

He was no hunk either, she decided. He was probably a bit taller than her, but not much, and although it was a bit hard to tell under his overalls or the white coat he wore in the surgery, he certainly didn’t give the impression of bulging biceps or rippling muscles. Instead, there was a spareness about him, a lean toughness that had nothing to do with flaunted muscles but was more about a contained self-assurance that Morgan couldn’t help envying.

She might look confident – not now, of course, but in the boardroom she was famously cool and competent – but as soon as she left work behind, she reverted to her true existence as a walking, talking mass of seething insecurities. It always amazed Morgan to hear that people found her intimidating. Couldn’t they see that she was just as muddled as everyone else?

Alistair’s voice jerked her out of her thoughts. ‘Where to?’

‘To?’ echoed Morgan, momentarily disorientated.

‘I’ll take you home, but I need to know where home is,’ he pointed out.

‘Oh. Ingleton Hall.’

His brows lifted. ‘Ingleton Hall? Really?’

‘Do you know it?’

He glanced at her. ‘We all know Ingleton Hall. It’s famous round here,’ and something about his tone riled Morgan.

‘You’re not going to tell me you believe in ghosts, are you?’

‘No.’ Alistair paused at the end of the lane before turning right towards Ingleton. ‘I was thinking more about the stories about how much has been spent on restoring it. Rumour has it some City whiz kid has been throwing silly money at it.’

‘It costs a lot of money to restore an old building like the Hall,’ said Morgan defensively.

He turned to stare at her as he finally made the connection. ‘You’re the whiz kid?’

‘Well, I don’t feel very much of a whiz at the moment,’ she said, ‘but I certainly bought Ingleton Hall. Why?’ she demanded tartly as he still looked surprised. ‘Aren’t women allowed to make lots of money and spend it how they like? Is that not how things are done in the country either?’

To her irritation, Alistair seemed more amused than chastened by her sarcasm. ‘I guess that explains the pointed boots,’ he said, and the corner of his mouth twitched. ‘I’m glad to see you’re not wearing them today.’

Morgan wanted to snap that she wasn’t stupid, but right then she didn’t think that she could carry it off. The truth was that she felt more than stupid, sitting here covered in mud.

‘Of course not,’ she muttered instead with what was intended to be a withering glance that went all wrong as it snagged on the edge of his mouth.

She could see where it curved up at the corner, not quite a smile, but deepening the crease in his cheek and crinkling his eyes intriguingly. It made her remember how he had looked as he picked her out of the mud, almost unrecognisable with that broad grin, and for some reason heat fluttered in the pit of her stomach again.

Morgan wrenched eyes away, only to find them caught by the sight of his hands on the steering wheel instead. They weren’t that clean, she couldn’t help noticing. She dreaded to think where they had been. If he had been called out to Derek Iverson’s farm, chances were that he had been shoulder deep in some cow all morning. Yuk.

Still, if you wanted a pair of hands delivering your calf, Alistair Brown’s were probably good ones to have. They were big and square and capable. Morgan watched them resting, sure and steady, on the wheel, and thought about how firm yet gentle they had been as he examined Tallulah, in spite of his dismissive attitude.

The memory sent an unexpected shiver down he, and she turned her head to look out of the passenger window. The view of grey stone walls and green fields was less unsettling.

‘So, you’re the new owner of Ingleton Hall,’ Alistair said after a moment. ‘How are you enjoying country life?’

‘Honestly?’ said Morgan, a distinct edge to her voice. ‘Not that much right now.’

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