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'What do you mean, I can't have Vivienne?' Jack said. 'I always have Vivienne.'
Nigel suppressed a sigh. He didn't like disappointing his best client but there was nothing he could do about it.
'Sorry, Jack, but as of yesterday Miss Swan doesn't work for Classic Design any longer.'
Jack's head jerked back with shock. 'You fired her?'
Now it was Nigel's turn to look startled. 'Hardly. Vivienne was one of my best designers. No,' he added, with true regret in his voice. 'She quit.'
Jack could not contain his surprise at this second piece of news. Admittedly, he didn't know Vivienne all that well, despite her having worked for him on his last three building projects. She was an extremely self-contained young woman who didn't engage in idle chitchat. When on a job, her focus was always on her work, which was simply brilliant. He had asked her not long ago why she didn't open her own interior design firm, and she'd replied that she didn't want that kind of stress, especially now that she was engaged to be married. She'd said she didn't want to live just for work any longer, a sentiment which Jack had not appreciatedtill yesterday.
He'd been driving around the Port Stephens area, looking for suitable land for another retirement village, when he'd come across a small acreage for sale which had totally blown him away. It wasn't what he was looking for, not even remotely. Not the right kind of land, for starters; not flat enough. There'd also been a huge house smack dab in the middle of the lot, perched on top of a hill. A house unlike anything Jack had ever seen, with a name that was as unique as the building.
Despite knowing he was wasting his time, Jack had still felt compelled to inspect Francesco's Folly. From the moment he'd walked inside and out onto the first of the many balconies which all faced the bay, he'd known he wanted the place. Not only wanted it but wanted to live in it. Crazy, really, since Port Stephens was a good three-hour drive north of Sydney. Jack's normal place of residence was a conveniently located and relatively modest three-bedroomed apartment in the same CBD building which housed his construction company's head office. Aside from its inconvenient location, Francesco's Folly was as far removed from modest as a residence could get, with eight bedrooms, six bathrooms and an indoor/outdoor swimming pool which would have put a Hollywood mansion to shame.
As a confirmed bachelor who never entertained at home, Jack had no need for a house this size, but it was no use. He simply had to have it, telling himself that maybe it was time for him to relax and live a little. After all, he'd been flogging himself for two decades, working six and sometimes seven days a week, making millions in the process. Why shouldn't he indulge himself for once? He didn't actually have to live in the place twenty-four-seven. He could use it as a weekender, or a holiday home. So could the rest of his family. Thinking of their pleasure at having such a dream place at their disposal had sealed the deal for Jack, so he'd bought Francesco's Folly that very afternoon, getting it for a bargain, partly because it was a deceased estate, but mostly because the interior was hideously datedhence his need for an excellent interior designer, one whose taste and work ethics matched his. It annoyed Jack considerably that the one person whom he could trust to do the job, and do it well, was unavailable to him.
But then it suddenly occurred to Jack that maybe that wasn't the case.
'So who was the sneaky devil who head-hunted her?' he demanded to know, excited by the possibility that he could still hire the decorator he wanted for the job.
'Vivienne hasn't gone to work for anyone else,' Nigel informed him.
'How do you know?'
'She told me so. Look, Jack, if you must know, Vivienne's not feeling well at the moment. She's decided to have some time off work.'
Jack was taken back. 'What do you mean, not feeling well? What's the matter with her?'
'I guess it doesn't matter if I tell you. It's not as though it isn't public knowledge.'
Jack frowned. It certainly wasn't public knowledge to him.
Nigel frowned also. 'I'm guessing by the look on your face that you didn't read the gossip columns in Sunday's papers, or see the photos.'
'I never read gossip columns,' Jack replied. He did sometimes skim through the Sunday papermostly the property sectionbut he'd been busy yesterday. 'So what did I miss? Though, truly, I can't imagine a girl like Vivienne making it into any gossip column. She isn't the type.'
'It wasn't Vivienne. It was her ex-fiancé.'
'.Ex-fiancé Good Lord, when did that happen? She was solidly engaged last time I saw her a few weeks back.'
'Yes, well, Daryl broke off their engagement about a month ago. Told her he'd fallen in love with someone else. The poor girl was shattered, but she was very brave and soldiered on. Of course, the rat claimed he hadn't cheated on her whilst they were still engaged, but yesterday's paper proved that was just rubbish.'
'For pity's sake, Nigel, just tell me what was in the darned paper!'
'The thing is, the girl Daryl dumped Vivienne for wasn't just any old girl. He left her for Courtney Ellison. You know ? Frank Ellison's spoiled daughter. Vivienne did the decorating job on the harbourside mansion you built for Ellison, so I guess that's how the two lovebirds met. Anyway, the bit in the gossip column was announcing their engagement. In the photosthere were severalthe Ellison girl is sporting a diamond engagement ring the size of an eggas well as a much bigger baby-bump, meaning their affair's been going on for quite some time.
'Naturally, there was no mention of Courtney's handsome husband-to-be having been recently engaged to another woman. Darling Daddy would have quashed that. You don't get to be a billionaire mining magnate in this country without having lots of connections in the media. As you can imagine, Vivienne is very cut up about it. She was in tears on the phone yesterday, which is not like her at all.'
Jack could not have agreed more. Tears were not Vivienne's style. He'd never met any female as cool and collected as Vivienne. But he supposed everyone had their breaking point. He shook his head, regretting now that he'd recommended her to Frank Ellison. Jack hated to think that he was in some way responsible for Vivienne's unhappiness. But how could he possibly have known that Ellison's man-eating maniac of a daughter would get her claws into Vivienne's fiancé?
Still if ever there was a man willing and ready to be eaten by the likes of Courtney Ellison, it was Vivienne's now ex-fiancé.
Jack had only met Daryl oncewhen he'd briefly dropped in on Classic Design's Christmas party last yearbut once had been enough to form an opinion. Okay, so darling Daryl was movie-star good-looking. And charming, he supposed, if you liked silver-tongued talkers who smiled a lot, touched a lot and called their fiancée 'babe'. Clearly, Vivienne did, since she'd been planning on marrying him.
It saddened Jack that Vivienne had been unlucky enough to lose her heart to one of that ilk, but he had no doubt that she would, in time, see that she'd had a narrow escape from long-term misery as a result of Daryl's defection. Meanwhile, the last thing that girl needed was to be allowed to wallow in her present misery. Jack understood that Vivienne was probably feeling wretched, but nothing would be achieved by cutting herself off from the one thing she was good at and would make her feel good about herself: her work.
'I see,' he said, quickly deciding on a course of action. 'You wouldn't have Vivienne's address, would you, Nigel? I'd like to send her some flowers,' he added before Nigel gave him some bulldust about privacy issues.
Nigel stared at Jack for a long moment before looking up the company files on his computer and writing down the address.
'I don't like your chances,' he said as he handed the address over.
'My chances of what?' Jack replied, poker-faced.
Nigel smiled a dry smile. 'Come now, Jack, you and I both know you don't want Vivienne's address just to send her flowers. You're going to hotfoot it over to her place and try to get her to do whatever it is you want her to do. Which is what, by the way? Another retirement-home project?'
'No,' Jack said, despite thinking that Francesco's Folly would make a perfect retirement home, when and if he ever actually retired. 'It's a personal project, a holiday house I've bought which badly needs redecorating. Look, it'll do Vivienne good to keep busy.'
'She's very fragile at the moment,' Nigel warned. 'Not everyone is as tough as you, Jack.'
'I've often found that the gentler sex are a lot tougher than we men think they are,' Jack said as he stood up and extended his hand in parting.
Nigel tried not to wince when Jack's large hand closed around his much smaller one. But truly, the man didn't know his own strength sometimes. Didn't know women as well as he thought he did, either. No way was Vivienne going to let herself be bulldozed into working for him. Aside from the fact that she was in a dreadful emotional state at the moment, she'd never overly liked the owner of Stone Constructionssomething which Jack obviously didn't know.
But privately she'd expressed the opinion to Nigel that Jack was a pain in the neck to work for, a driven workaholic with impossibly high standards which, whilst admirable in one way, could be very trying. Of course, he did pay very well, but that wasn't going to help him where Vivienne was concerned. Money had never interested her all that much, possibly because she'd inherited plenty of her own when her mother had died a couple of years ago.
'If you want some advice,' Nigel called after Jack as he headed for the door, 'Actually taking Vivienne some flowersnot red roses, mind youmight improve your chances of success.'
Though Nigel seriously doubted it.
Vivienne's address was easy to find. It was located in Neutral Bay, only a short drive from Classic Design's office in North Sydney. Finding a florist first was not quite so easy. Neither was deciding what flowers to buy. By the time Jack parked outside the two-storey redbrick building which housed Vivienne's apartment, an hour had passed since he'd left Nigel.
Not a man who liked wasting time, it was a somewhat exasperated Jack who climbed out from behind the wheel of his black Porsche, carrying the basket of pink and white carnations the florist had finally convinced him to buy.
A sudden autumn shower had Jack bolting up the narrow front path and into the small lobby of the apartment block. Thankfully, he didn't get too wet, just a few drops on his shoulders and hair; nothing that couldn't be easily remedied.
There wasn't any security panel anywhere, he noted as he smoothed back his hair. The building was quite old, possibly federation, though in reasonably good condition. He pressed the brass door-bell, hearing only a faint ring coming from inside. No one came to answer straight away, giving rise to the annoying possibility that Vivienne wasn't at home. Jack now regretted not ringing first. He had her mobile number in his phone. He'd just presumed she'd be at home after what Nigel had said.
'I'm a bloody idiot,' he muttered under his breath as he pulled his phone out of his pocket and brought Vivienne's number up on the menu. He was about to call when he heard the dead lock being turned. It wasn't Vivienne who opened the door, however, but a plump, middle-aged woman with short blonde hair and a kind face.
'Yes?' she said. 'Can I help you?'
'I hope so,' Jack replied, switching off his phone and slipping it back into his jeans pocket. 'Is Vivienne at home?'
'Well, yes, but. .urn she's taking a bath at the moment. I presume those flowers are for her? If you give them to me, I'll make sure she gets them.'
'I'd prefer to give them to her personally, if you don't mind.'
The woman frowned at him. 'And who might you be?'
'The name's Jack. Jack Stone. Vivienne's worked for me on a number of occasions.'
'Ah yes. Mr Stone. Vivienne has mentioned you once or twice.'
Jack was taken aback by the dry tone in the woman's voice when she said that. He wondered momentarily what Vivienne had said about him, but then dismissed the thought as irrelevant.
'And you are?' he shot back.
'Marion Havers. I live in number two,' she said, nodding towards the adjoining door. 'Vivienne and I are good friends as well as neighbours. Look, I presume since you've brought her flowers that you know what's happened.'
'Actually, I didn't know a thing till I went to Classic Design's office this morning to hire Vivienne for a job. Nigel explained the situation, saying how upset Vivienne was, so I thought I'd come round and see how she was.'
'How very kind of you,' the woman said with a soft sigh. 'As you can imagine, the poor girl's devastated. Can't eat. Can't sleep. She did get some sleeping tablets from the doctor, but they don't seem to be working too well. Anyway, after this latest catastrophe, I think she'll be needing some serious anti-depressants.'
Jack had never agreed with the way people turned to medication to solve life's problems.
'What Vivienne needs, Marion,' he said sternly, 'is to keep busy. Which is the main reason I'm here: I was hoping to persuade her to come and work for me.'
Marion looked at him as though he were delusional, but then she shrugged. 'You can try, I suppose. But I don't like your chances.'
Frankly, he thought he stood a darned good chance. Okay, so Vivienne was very upset at the moment, but beneath her distress she was still the same sensible young woman he'd come to respect enormously. She'd soon see the logic in his proposal.
'Could I come inside,' Jack asked, 'and wait till Vivienne's finished in the bathroom? I really would appreciate a personal word with her today.'
Marion looked doubtful for a moment, until she glanced at her wristwatch. 'I suppose it will be all right. I don't have to leave for work for another half hour. Vivienne should be out of the bath by then.' She looked up at him and smiled. 'Meanwhile, I could do with a quick cuppa. Would you like to join me? Or would you prefer coffee?'
Jack smiled back at her. 'Tea will be fine.'
'Good. Here, give me those flowers and follow me. And close the door after you,' she threw over her shoulder.
Marion led him down a narrow hallway which had a very high ceiling, white walls and polished floorboards the colour of walnut. Jack passed three shut doors on his left before the hallway opened into a living room which surprised him by being so starkly furnished. It didn't look anything like the stylish but comfy living rooms Vivienne decorated for him in his show homes.
Jack glanced around with disbelieving eyes. Where were the warm feminine touches which were her trademark? There were no colourful cushions or elegant lamps; no display cabinets or shelves; no ornaments of any kind, not even a photo on display. Just one long black leather sofa with a neutral-shaded shag rug in front of it and a chunky wooden coffee-table varnished the same colour as the floors.
Only one picture graced the white walls, a black-framed painting showing a girl dressed in a red coat, walking alone along a rain-spattered city street. Obviously a quality painting, but not one Jack found pleasure in looking at. Despite wearing red, the girl looked sad and cold. Like this whole room.