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February the fourteenth.
The headlines in the morning paper read:
A Well-deserved Valentine for Well-known Author.
For the second year running, Michael Denver, who, according to some of the top literary critics, is unsurpassed in the field of psychological thrillers, has won the prestigious Quentin Penman Literary Award, this time for his new book, Withershins. This makes him one of the most celebrated authors of his day, with five award-winning novels to his credit.
In spite of this, Michael Denver, after hitting the headlines with a high-profile divorce from top model Claire Falconer, and subsequent rumours of a reconciliation, guards his privacy fiercely and refuses to be either interviewed or photographed.
His four previous books have been snapped up by Hollywood and three of them have already become major box-office successes. Having been widely acclaimed, and quoted as being 'his best so far,' Withershins seems likely to follow suit.
Michael replaced the receiver and ran his fingers through his thick dark hair. The phone call from his long-time friend, Paul Levens, had finally served to make up his mind.
He could do with a PA, and if Paul was right and this girl was the treasure he claimed she was, she might be just what he wanted.
No, not wanted. Needed.
For quite a while, hating the idea of working with another person rather than on his own, as he was used to, Michael had put off the evil moment. But now, of necessity, he was having to think again.
When Paul, who had just reached the position of Associate Director at Global Enterprises, had casually mentioned that he knew of the ideal woman to fill the position, Michael had raised various objections, all of which—unusually for him— were anything but logical.
'Look,' Paul said, his blue eyes serious, 'I'm well aware that after the way women threw themselves at you following your divorce the entire female sex are anathema to you, but it isn't like you to let emotions, especially such destructive ones, overrule your common sense.
'You need a good PA. And I'm offering you the chance of a really first-class one. Believe me, Jennifer Mansell is as good as you're going to get.'
With devastating logic, Michael demanded, 'If she's that good, why are you letting her go?'
'Because I have little option. The powers that be have decided that in the present economic climate we have to trim staff wherever possible.
'Arthur Jenkins, the departmental boss she's worked for for more than three years, recently suffered a heart attack and is retiring on doctors' orders.'
As Michael was about to interrupt he hurried on, 'If it had been simply a matter of replacing Jenkins, that would have more or less kept the status quo. But it isn't.
'Home Sales are being amalgamated with Export, and Cutcliff, who's run Export for over ten years, already has a good PA.'
A gleam of amusement in his forest-green eyes, Michael suggested dryly, 'So you're trying to palm this Jennifer Mansell off on me?'
Paul, a fair-haired, beefy rugby forward, sighed. 'I'm trying to help you. Though God alone knows why.'
Michael grunted. 'Well, I'll think about it.'
Raising his eyes to heaven, Paul said with some exasperation, 'Don't overdo the gratitude, whatever you do.'
Grinning, Michael clapped his friend on the shoulder. 'Thanks.'
But, for him, agreeing to have a woman in his office, under his feet, was a drastic step.
Perhaps if Paul's protégée had been a man… But even then, he wasn't sure if he could tolerate the presence of anyone else.
After almost a week, though he really needed to be at his rural retreat, Slinterwood, and starting on his latest book, he had still been undecided.
Then he had received a phone call from his ex-wife, Claire, telling him how badly she missed him and how much she wanted him back in her life, which had done nothing to improve his mood.
Her apparent conviction that she just had to snap her fingers to get him back had made him bitterly angry, and only served to reinforce his present dislike of women. Especially the ones who used sex as a weapon, as she had.
That same morning, Paul had rung and informed him flatly, 'Well, this is your last chance. On Friday evening Miss Mansell will be hostess at Jenkins's retirement party. After that, she'll be leaving.'
Getting no immediate response, he suggested, 'Tell you what, why don't you take a quick look at her, see what you think? She's easy on the eye without being too distracting. And I'm quite sure that she's not the kind to throw herself at you.
'If you want to actually meet her, I can introduce you simply as a friend of mine. If not, you can stay in the background, do the whole thing discreetly.'
In no mood for a party, Michael chose the latter course.
'In the meantime,' Paul promised, 'I'll find out as much as I can about her.'
At eight o'clock that Friday evening, partly concealed by the luxurious foliage of one of the decorative plants, Michael was standing on the balcony that encircled the Mayfair Hotel's sumptuous ballroom, where Arthur Jenkins's retirement party was taking place.
Already he was half regretting coming. Admittedly he needed a good PA, but a good PA didn't have to be a woman. Still, to pacify Paul, he would stay long enough to hear what he had to say, and take a look at this Miss Mansell.
From the vantage point he had chosen almost opposite the raised dais, where later a presentation was to be made, he was able to get a commanding view over the assembled company.
An orchestra at present occupying the dais was playing dance music, and quite a lot of couples were circling the floor, while the remainder of the guests were standing in groups laughing and talking as the waiters dispensed champagne.
It was a truly glittering occasion. Arthur Jenkins had been with Global Enterprises for over thirty years, so in spite of the threatened economical slow-down no expense had been spared.
The woman Michael had come specifically to see wasn't in evidence. So far he'd only glimpsed her from a distance. Tall and slim with dark hair taken up in an elegant swirl, she was wearing an ankle-length chiffon dress in muted, south-sea-colour shades of aquamarine, lapis lazuli and gold.
Paul, the only other person who knew he was there, had pointed her and Arthur Jenkins out to him.
'What did you manage to find out about her?' Michael asked quietly.
'Not a great deal,' Paul answered. 'The only information Personnel could give me was that she's twenty-four years old, quiet, efficient, and came to Global straight from a London business college.
'The people she worked with say she did her job well, and described her as having a friendly manner, but tending to keep herself to herself.'
'Very little's known about her private life but I did manage to pick up, from the grapevine, that for some time she wore an engagement ring.
'After she stopped wearing it, a few months ago, it appears that several of the men in the office tried their luck, but all of them were given a very cool reception, not to say the cold shoulder. It seems she's gone off men.'
Michael frowned thoughtfully. From that brief report, Jennifer Mansell sounded ideal.
However, reluctant to admit as much, he merely said, 'Thanks for the information.'
Paul shrugged heavy shoulders. 'Such as it is. Well, I'd better go and circulate. I take it you don't want to meet her now?'
Shaking his head, Michael answered, 'No.'
'Well, when you've managed to get a good look at her, if you do change your mind, just let me know.' Paul sketched a brief salute before heading for the stairs.
Michael was waiting only a minute or so when Arthur Jenkins and Jennifer Mansell came into view once again.
With no unseemly display of thigh or bosom, the simply cut dress she was wearing showed off her slender, graceful figure to perfection.
As she got closer he noticed that on her right wrist she was wearing a small watch on a plain black strap, and, on her right hand, a gold ring.
Her dark head was turned away from him as she conversed with her portly companion.
For some strange reason—a kind of premonition, perhaps— Michael found himself oddly impatient to see her face.
When she did turn towards him she was smiling, and he caught his breath. He knew that face, and not just because something about her reminded him of a young Julia Roberts.
Though they had never actually met, he had seen her before. But where and when?
And then he remembered, and he found his heart beating faster as he relived the little scene that had taken place at the castle, was it five years ago or six?
It had been late afternoon and, the only visitor still remaining, she had been standing in the cobbled courtyard, bright with its tubs of flowers.
Head tilted back, a coolish breeze ruffling her long dark hair, she had been watching some early swallows wheeling overhead, smiling then, as she was smiling now. He had been standing on the battlements, looking down. Still smiling, she had glanced in his direction. For a long moment their eyes had met and held, until, as though shy, she had looked away.
Though he hadn't had the faintest idea why, even then she had seemed familiar to him, as if he had always known her.
Seeing her start to head towards the main gate, he had turned to hurry after her. But by the time he had descended the spiral stone stairway of the north tower she had vanished from sight.
Impelled by a sudden urgency, he had moved swiftly across the courtyard and beneath the portcullis. At the bottom of the steep, cobbled path that led up to the castle gate, a car had been just pulling away.
He had tried to attract her attention, to no avail. As he had stood there the car had bumped down the uneven dirt road, turned right, and disappeared round the curve of the rocky hill.
Climbing up to the battlements again, with a strange sense of loss he had watched the silver dot take the picturesque coastal road that skirted the island, and head in the direction of the causeway.
To all intents and purposes the little incident was over, finished, but he had thought about her, wondered about her, and her face had stayed etched indelibly in his memory.
He had tried to play his disappointment down, to tell himself that he couldn't possibly feel so strongly about a woman he had only glimpsed, and never actually met. But wherever he went he had found himself scanning the faces of people passing by, unconsciously looking for her.
Over time, the impact she had had on him had gradually faded into the recesses of his mind, but he had never totally forgotten.
Now here she was again, as though fate had decreed it, and he was strangely shaken to see her once more.
In spite of his present aversion to women, he was tempted to go down, to see her at close quarters, to speak to her and hear her voice.
But common sense held him back.
Everything had changed. Instead of being a twenty-two year old with romantic ideals, he was older and wiser, not to say battle-scarred and bitter, with a newly acquired mistrust of women. And though her face was poignantly familiar, he didn't know what kind of woman she really was.
As he stood watching a tall, balding man detached her from Arthur Jenkins's side and led her onto the dance floor, where they were immediately swallowed up in the crowd.
Michael ran thoughtful fingers over his smooth chin. His inclination was to get to know her better, but, with all his previous reservations still intact, he didn't feel inclined to rush things…
He was standing staring blindly over the throng of dancers when Paul reappeared and remarked, 'So you're still here? I wasn't sure how long you intended to stay.'
'I was planning to leave shortly,' Michael told him, 'but I wanted another word with you first.'
'You've had a look at her, I take it? So what do you think?'
'From what I've seen so far, your recommendation appears to have been a good one, but—'
An expression of resignation on his face, Paul broke in, 'But you're not going to do anything about it! Oh, well, it's up to you, of course. But I personally believe it would be a mistake to let her slip through your fingers without at least taking things a step further.'
'I have every intention of taking things a step further,' Michael said quietly. 'But as this is neither the time nor the place, I'd like you to have a quick word with her and tell her…'
A group of chattering, laughing people paused nearby, and he lowered his voice even more to finish what he was saying.
'Will do,' Paul promised crisply as Michael clapped him on the shoulder before striding away.
Hearing a car turn into the quiet square lined with skeletal trees, Laura went to the window and peeped through a chink in the curtains.
She was just in time to see a taxi draw up in front of the block of flats, and Jenny climb out and cross the frosty pavement.
'Hi,' Laura greeted her flatmate laconically as she came into the living-room.
'Hi.' Tossing aside her evening wrap, and glancing at Laura's pink fluffy dressing gown and feathery mules, Jenny observed, 'I thought you'd be tucked up in bed by now.'
Her round, baby-face shiny with night cream, and the long blonde hair that earlier in the evening she had spent ages straightening once again starting to curl rebelliously, Laura agreed. 'I would have been, but Tom and I went out to Whistlers, and we had to wait ages for a taxi back.
'How did the party go?'
'Very well,' Jenny answered sedately.
Noting her flatmate's sparkling eyes and her barely concealed air of excitement, Laura asked, 'What is it? Did Prince Charming turn up and sweep you off your feet?'
'No, nothing like that.'
'So what's happened to make you look like the fifth of November? Come on, do tell.'
'I could do with a cup of tea first,' Jenny suggested hopefully.
'You drive a hard bargain,' Laura complained as she disappeared kitchenwards. 'But as I could do with a cup myself…'
Slipping off her evening sandals, Jenny settled herself on the settee in front of the glowing gasfire, stretched her feet towards the warmth, and hugged the bubbling excitement to her.
After starting the evening in low spirits, knowing that she no longer had a job, Jenny was now on top of the world, with the hope of new things opening up.
She hadn't felt so happy since Andy's perfidy had torn her world apart, making her feel betrayed and unwanted, worthless even.
Laura returned quite quickly carrying two steaming mugs. Handing one to Jenny, she plonked herself down and urged, 'Right. Spill it.'
'You know Michael Denver?'