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Sara sat back in the chair she had rescued from a skip two weeks earlier and twirled her pen between two fingers like a cheerleader. Her best friend, Helen, waltzed into the cramped office on crazily high heels, whisked dirt from an old dining room chair with a perfectly manicured hand and perched elegantly on the edge of the hard seat.
'Oh?' Sara replied, wide-eyed in pretend amazement, and pressed the fingertips of her left hand to her chest. 'Could that be little old me?' And then she fluttered her eyelashes dramatically towards a framed newspaper cutting which dominated the plain wall of the log cabin which had been a potting shed but was now her garden office. A photographer from the local free newspaper had caught her grinning like a loon and looking as stunned as a rabbit caught in car headlights as the organiser congratulated her for being on the shortlist. 'Why, yes, I believe it is. Fancy that. Maybe this year I will win it? That would be nice. Not to say useful. Cottage Orchids needs as much publicity as it can get, thank you.'
Helen snorted derisively and brushed away a trail of cobweb from the skirt of her otherwise immaculate burgundy boucle suit. 'Of course you'll win and your orchids will be positively flying out of the door. Although ' and Helen raised her eyebrows and tilted her head to one side as she looked at Sara from head to toe before tutting loudly '.you are going to need a serious makeover, young lady, if you want to impress those judges. We can start by getting rid of that hideous pen.'
Helen tried to snatch Sara's favourite pen from between her friend's fingers, but Sara was too quick for her and lifted it out of reach behind her head.
'There is nothing wrong with my pen,' Sara replied indignantly. 'Leave it alone.'
'It's green and sparkly with a bendy plastic flower stuck on the top. Not very professional, is it?'
'It came free with a bag of orchid compost and I like it and it writes,' Sara replied. 'Professional pens are for girls who have money to spend on luxuries. Not girls who need to save every penny to invest in their orchid houses.'
Helen sighed out loud and shook her head. 'A green flowery pen. What would the Dragon have said?' Then she grinned across at Sara, pressed the back of her hand to her forehead and went on in a thin, high, whiny voice of horror, 'How inelegant, my dears. The shame.'
Sara laughed out loud, pushed the pointy end of her green pen behind her ear so that the yellow flower bobbed up and down at Helen, and leant her elbows on top of the pile of papers stacked several inches thick on the pine kitchen table which served as her office desk. The headmistress at the private boarding school where Sara had first met Helen had been a former actress and was famous for seizing on every opportunity for an over the top dramatic performance. Helen had always been able to mimic her perfectly.
'Maybe you are right, but at least one of us didn't let her down on the elegance front.' Then Sara brightened and looked at Helen through narrowed eyes. 'You look far too chirpy for a girl who is celebrating being a year older. In fact, if I didn't know you better I would have said you were scheming about something. Let me guess. You've changed your mind about celebrating your birthday here in the quaint little English village I call home and are planning to fly off to some exotic paradise with your beloved Caspar instead?'
'Are you kidding? I've loved this place since the very first time your lovely nana took pity on me during the school holidays.' Then Helen smiled and gave Sara that certain innocent look that made Sara's eyebrows lift. 'Actually, this time it's more along the lines of what I can do for you!'
Helen leant forward and flashed her expensive dentistry for a second in a wide grin. 'It took some doing, but Caspar finally managed to persuade his friend Leo to leave London early so that he can come along to my birthday party at the hotel tonight! Isn't that wonderful news?'
Sara shook her head very slowly from side to side. 'Oh, no. You are not doing this to me. Not again. Just because I'm single does not mean that you have to try and set me up with every single, divorced or otherwise unattached man within a hundred mile radius.'
Helen sighed in exasperation. 'But he is perfect for you. Just think of it as a small thank you for offering to do the wedding flowers! Besides, Caspar doesn't have many close friends and at this rate Leo Grainger is going to be the only single usher at my wedding! Come on, I hate the idea that I'm the first of us to be getting married and you don't even have a boyfriend who I can torment. Who knows? You might actually like him and enjoy yourself?'
Sara picked up a bulging document folder from her desk and let it fall back with a thud, causing the withered elastic band that was holding it together to give up and twang into shreds. 'It's a good thing that your wedding isn't for another four weeks! Seriously, Helen, I'm swamped with paperwork and there is so much still to do I'm dizzy. And I have to be up on time tomorrow to meet the Events Manager at the Manor. There is no room in my life for dating. And you might recall that my last boyfriend was not a huge success.'
Helen waved her fingers in the air and coughed. 'That was three years ago and I thought we promised to never talk about that loser again. Don't waste one second even thinking about how he let you down.'
Sara pushed her lips together. 'Let me down? Is that what you call breaking up with me and running off to Australia with his office junior? No, Gorgeous. I love you and you have been my best friend since the first time we shared homesick stories aged eight, but no boyfriends. Thank you all the same but I am sure that Caspar's friend will have a great time at the party without me boring him to tears with talk of orchid fertiliser.'
Helen glanced around the wooden walls, shivered and sniffed dramatically and dropped her voice down to a pleading whisper. 'Fair point. Except, you know this could be the last time we go out partying together as single girls, don't you? In only a few weeks' time, I am going to be Mrs Caspar Kaplinski. I shall try to understand that you are so busy in your own life that you can't spare a few hours to help your old friend celebrate her last birthday as a single girl. Although it is going to be quite a struggle. I I don't know if I can go through with it knowing that my one and only bridesmaid is going to be sitting in her tiny hovel all evening. Lonely and rejected while we are all enjoying ourselves.'
Her voice tailed off with a dramatic over the top fake sob, and she pressed a real silk handkerchief to the inner corner of each eye.
'That. Is emotional blackmail. And my cottage is not a hovel. Yesterday you called it a bijou gem!'
'Absolutely!' Helen replied with a wide grin, already on her feet and heading for the door. 'So, it's decided then. Cinders, you shall not stay home with only your elderly cat for company. Not this Saturday night. I shall slip through the back gate to collect you at eight with the props and stuff. Leo will take one look at you and be totally smitten, you wait and see. This is one party you're going to remember. Ciao.'
'Props? Helen! Wait!'
Sara stared at the space where her best friend had been sitting. How did Helen do it? A costume party and a blind date? Sara pressed her eyes tight shut and slumped back in her chair. Oh, no. She had a horrible feeling that she was going to regret this.
'Leo, my old mate,' Caspar bellowed down Leo's car telephone system, 'where are you? Helen is starting to panic that you've run away in terror at the thought of meeting your blind date this evening. You have to help me out here.'
'Me? Run away from a gorgeous lady? Perish the thought.' Then there was a pause before Leo asked, 'She isn't another of Helen's old school friends, is she?'
The less than reassuring silence on the other end of the telephone confirmed his worst fears. 'Ah, well,' Caspar answered. 'This one is different! Sara might be a country girl but she is very sweet.'
'A country girl?' Leo laughed. 'You do remember you are talking to a city boy? London born and bred. I don't do country. I have no idea why Helen thinks I'm in desperate need of female company. Perhaps she has a secret yearning to change direction and set up shop as a match maker?'
'That's my girl!' Caspar snorted. 'Always looking out for her friends. Anyway. Any idea what time you might be arriving? I need to get your costume ready.'
Leo checked his car navigation display. 'Apparently I should be with you in about ten minutes. In fact I've just turned into Kingsmede and seen the sign for the hotel. Kingsmede Manor, here I come.' And then he paused, distracted for a moment by another car. 'Did you just use the word costume? Caspar?'
'Brilliant! Ring me when you're settled. I owe you a drink.'
And, with that, Caspar's voice closed off, leaving Leo to the luxury of the hum of the powerful engine as the car made its way down the country lanes of the sleepy English countryside on a warm Saturday evening.
A blind date! And of course Caspar had only informed him about that small detail when he was already halfway to the middle of nowhere! Helen had a heart of gold but the last thing he wanted at this precise moment in his life was a blind date, or any date at all for that matter. He already had more than enough on his plate at the moment.
Of course he would be polite, and he was grateful for the rare chance to enjoy himself with Caspar and celebrate Helen's birthday but the rest of this weekend was going to be work!
He felt guilty about not telling Caspar the truth but his aunt Arabella had made it clear that she did not want anyone to know that she had hired Grainger Consulting to work on a very special project. Her company had bought Kingsmede Manor three years ago and invested heavily to restore it.
Now she was determined to leverage the asset and maximise the returns to justify that investment.
The latest idea from the management team was to buy the land next to the hotel and build a luxury spa extension. But Arabella wanted a second opinion—his opinion— before they gave the spa idea the final go-ahead.
Normally he would have sent one of his team along to do the work, but not this time. He owed his aunt more than he could ever repay. And for that he was willing to take time away from the London office and do the work himself as a personal favour, when he could least afford to. His workload over the past few months had been hectic.
Worse. He had a deadline. And it was tight. He had to come up with something very, very special in five days. The entire board of directors of Rizzi Hotels would be meeting at Kingsmede Manor over lunch on Friday for their annual general meeting.
Nothing so unusual about that.
Companies paid Grainger Consulting to make the hard decisions about what they needed to do to survive in hard times, and he had built his reputation on doing precisely that. But this time it was personal.
Leo's fingers wrapped tight around the steering wheel.
The Rizzi Hotel chain owned some of the most prestigious boutique hotels around the world, but it was still a family business, with one domineering and driven man at the top—his own grandfather. Paolo Leonardo Rizzi. The man he despised for his uncaring ruthlessness. The man who expected his orders to be obeyed by everyone, and especially by his own family.
There was no room for sentiment or consideration of the human costs to the hotels they bought out in Paolo Rizzi's world.
Of course Arabella knew that he would create something outstanding to present to the family on Friday. Clever, shrewd and powerful, his aunt was giving him the chance to settle the score with the grandfather who had so fundamentally rejected his own daughter and her family.
And Leo was determined to prove just how big a mistake that had been.
All he had to do was to create a stunning proposal on how to make Kingsmede Manor Hotel more profitable, and keep the project secret for the next few days. Nothing to it.
Posted December 1, 2011
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