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'Four forty-five.' Saskia grimaced as she hurried across the foyer of the office block where she worked, heading for the exit. She was already running late and didn't have time to pause when the receptionist called out. 'Sneaking off early Lucky you!'
Andreas frowned as he heard the receptionist's comment. He was standing waiting for the executive lift and the woman who was leaving hadn't seen him, but he had seen her: a stunningly leggy brunette with just that gleam of red-gold in her dark locks that hinted at fieriness. He immediately checked the direction of his thoughts. The complication of a man to woman entanglement was the last thing he needed right now, and besides.
His frown deepened. Since he had managed to persuade his grandfather to semi-retire from the hotel chain which Andreas now ran, the older man had begun a relentless campaign to persuade and even coerce Andreas into marrying a second cousin. Such a marriage, in his grandfather's eyes, would unite not just the two branches of the family but the wealth of the family shipping lineinherited by his cousinwith that of the hotel chain.
Fortunately Andreas knew that at heart his grandfather was far more swayed by emotion than he liked to admit.
After all, he had allowed his daughter, Andreas's mother, to marry an Englishman.
The somewhat clumsy attempts to promote a match between Andreas and his cousin Athena would merely aff ord Andreas some moments of wry amusement if it were not for one all-important factwhich was that Athena herself was even keener on the match than his grandfather. She had made her intentions, her desires, quite plain. Athena was a widow seven years his senior, with two children from her first marriage to another wealthy Greek, and Andreas suspected that it might have been Athena herself who had put the ridiculous idea of a marriage between them in his grandfather's head in the first place.
The lift had reached the penthouse floor and Andreas got out. This wasn't the time for him to be thinking about his personal affairs. They could wait. He was due to fly out to the Aegean island his grandfather owned, and where the family holidayed together, in less than a fortnight's time, but first his grandfather wanted a detailed report from him on his proposals to turn the flagging British hotel chain they had recently bought into as successful an enterprise as the rest of the hotels they owned.
Even though Andreas had become the company's chief executive, his grandfather still felt the need to challenge his business decisions. Still, the acquisition would ultimately be a good onethe chain-owned hotels were very rundown and old-fashioned, but had excellent locations.
Although officially he was not due to arrive at the chain's head office until tomorrow, Andreas had opted to do so this afternoon instead, and it looked as though he had just discovered one way at least in which profitability could be improved, he decided grimly, if all the staff were in the habit of 'sneaking off early', like the young woman he had just seen.
Sneaking off early! Saskia grimaced as she managed to hail a cruising taxi. If only! She had been at her desk for seven-thirty this morning, as she had been every morning for the last month, and neither had she had a lunch hour, but they had all been warned that Demetrios Hotels, who had taken over their own small chain, were relentless when it came to pruning costs. Tomorrow morning they were all due to meet their new boss for the first time, and Saskia wasn't exactly looking forward to the occasion. There had been a lot of talk about cutbacks and there had also been grapevine rumours about how very formidable Andreas Latimer was.
'The old man, his grandfather, had a reputation for running a tight ship, and if anything the grandson is even worse.'
'They both favour a "the guest is always right even when wrong" policy, and woe betide any employee who forgets it. Which is, of course, why their hotels are so popular and so profitable.'
That had been the general gist of the gossip Saskia had heard.
Her taxi was drawing up outside the restaurant she had asked to be taken to. Hastily she delved into her handbag for her purse, paying the driver and then hurrying quickly inside.
'Oh, Saskiathere you are. We thought you weren't going to make it.'
'I'm sorry,' Saskia apologised to her best friend as she slipped into the spare seat at the table for three in the Italian restaurant where they had arranged to meet.
'There's been a panic on at work,' she explained. 'The new boss arrives tomorrow.' She pulled a face, wrinkling the elegant length of her dainty nose and screwing up her thick-lashed aquamarine eyes. She paused as she saw that her friend wasn't really listening, and that her normally happy, gentle face looked strained and unhappy.
'What's wrong?' she asked immediately.
'I was just telling Lorraine how upset I am,' Megan answered, indicating the third member of their trio, Megan's cousin Lorraine, an older woman with a brisk, businesslike expression and a slightly jaded air.
'Upset?' Saskia queried, a small frown marring the elegant oval of her face as she pushed her long hair back and reached hungrily for a bread roll. She was starving!
'It's Mark,' Megan said, her voice shaking a little and her brown eyes full of quiet despair.
'Mark?' Saskia repeated, putting down her roll so that she could concentrate on her friend. 'But I thought the two of you were about to announce your engagement.'
'Yes, we were we are At least, Mark wants to ' Megan began, and then stopped when Lorraine took over.
'Megan thinks he's involved with someone else ' she told Saskia grimly. 'Two-timing her.' older than Megan and Saskia by almost a decade, and with a broken marriage behind her, Lorraine was inclined to be angrily contemptuous of the male sex.
'Oh, surely not, Megan,' Saskia protested. 'You told me yourself how much Mark loves you.'
'Well, yes, that's what I thought,' Megan agreed, 'Especially when he said that he wanted us to become engaged. But ..he keeps getting these phone calls. But when I answer the phone whoever's ringing just hangs up. There've been three this week and when I ask him who it is he says it's just a wrong number.'
'Well, perhaps it is,' Saskia tried to reassure her, but Megan shook her head.
'No, it isn't. Mark keeps on hanging around by the phone, and last night he was talking on his mobile when I walked in and the moment he saw me he ended the call.'
'Have you asked him what's going on?' Saskia questioned her in concern.
'Yes. He says I'm just imagining it,' Megan told her unhappily.
'A classic male ploy,' Lorraine announced vigorously with grim satisfaction. 'My ex did everything to convince me that I was becoming paranoid and then what does he do? He moves in with his secretary, if you please!'
'I just wish that Mark would be honest with me,' Megan told Saskia, her eyes starting to fill with tears. 'If there is someone else I I just can't believe he's doing this I thought he loved me '
'I'm sure he does,' Saskia tried to comfort her. She had not as yet met her friend's new partner, but from what Megan had told her about him Saskia felt he sounded perfect for her.
'Well, there's one sure way to find out,' Lorraine announced. 'I read an article about it. There's this agency, and if you've got suspicions about your partner's fidelity you go to them and they send a girl to try to seduce him. That's what you should do,' she told Megan crisply.
'Oh, no, I couldn't,' Megan protested.
'You must,' Lorraine insisted forcefully. 'It's the only way you'll ever know whether or not you can trust him. I wish I'd been able to do something like that before I got married. You must do it,' she repeated. 'It's the only way you'll ever be sure. Mark is struggling to make ends meet since he started up his own business, Megan, and you've got that money you inherited from your great-aunt.'
Saskia's heart sank a little as she listened. Much as she loved her friend, she knew that Megan was inclined to allow herself to be dominated by her older and more worldly cousin. Saskia had nothing against Lorraine, indeed she liked her, but she knew from past experience that once Lorraine got the bit between her teeth there was no stopping her. She was fiercely determined to do things her own way, which Saskia suspected was at least part of the reason for the breakdown of her marriage. But right now, sympathetic though Saskia was to Megan's unhappiness, she was hungry very hungry She eyed the menu longingly.
'Well, it does sound a sensible idea,' Megan was agreeing. 'But I doubt there's an agency like that in Hilford.'
'Who needs an agency?' Lorraine responded. 'What you need is a stunningly gorgeous friend who Mark hasn't met and who can attempt to seduce him. If he responds '
'A stunningly gorgeous friend?' Megan was musing. 'You mean like Saskia?'
Two pairs of female eyes studied Saskia whilst she gave in to her hunger and bit into her roll.
'Exactly,' Lorraine breathed fervently. 'Saskia would be perfect.'
'What?' Saskia almost choked on her bread. 'You can't be serious,' she protested. 'Oh, no, no way ' She objected when she saw the determination in Lorraine's eyes and the pleading in Megan's. 'No way at all.'
'Meg, this is crazy, you must see that,' she coaxed, trying to appeal to her friend's common sense and her conscience as she added winningly, 'How could you do something like that to Mark? You love him.'
'How can she risk committing herself to him unless she knows she can trust him?' Lorraine interjected sharply, adding emphatically, 'Good, that's settled. What we need to do now is to decide just where Saskia can accidentally run into Mark and put our plan into action.'
'Well, tonight is his boys' night out,' Megan ventured. 'And last night he said that they were planning to go to that new wine bar that's just opened. A friend of his knows the owner.'
'I can't do it,' Saskia protested. 'It it's it's immoral,' she added. She looked apologetically at Megan as she shook her head and told her, 'Meg, I'm sorry, but '
'I should have thought you would want to help Megan, Saskia, to protect her happiness. Especially after all she's done for you ' Lorraine pointed out sharply.
Saskia worried guiltily at her bottom lip with her pretty white teeth. Lorraine was right. She did owe Megan a massive favour.
Six months ago, when they had been trying to fight off the Demetrios takeover bid, she had been working late every evening and at weekends as well. Her grandmother, who had brought her up following the breakdown of her young parents' marriage, had become seriously ill with a viral infection and Megan, who was a nurse, had given up her spare time and some of her holiday entitlement to care for the old lady.
Saskia shuddered to think even now of the potentially dangerous outcome of her grandmother's illness if Megan hadn't been there to nurse her. It had been on Saskia's conscience ever since that she owed her friend a debt she could never repay. Saskia adored her grandmother, who had provided her with a loving and stable home background when she had needed it the most. Her mother, who had given birth to Saskia at seventeen was a distant figure in her life, and her father, her grandmother's son, had become a remote stranger to both of them, living as he now did in China, with his second wife and young family.
'I know you don't approve, Saskia,' Megan was saying quietly to her, 'but I have to know that I can trust Mark.' Her soft eyes filled with tears. 'He means so much to me. He's everything I've ever wanted in a man. But. .he dated so many girls before he met me, before he moved here, when he lived in London.' She paused. 'He swears that none of them ever meant anything serious to him and that he loves me.'
Privately Saskia wasn't sure that she could even begin to think about committing herself to a relationship with a man without being able to trust himand trust him to such an extent that there would be no need for her to use any underhand methods to test his fidelity. But then she acknowledged that she was perhaps a trifle more wary of love than her friend. After all, her parents had believed themselves to be in love when they had run away to get married and conceived her, but within two years of doing so they had parted, leaving her grandmother with the responsibility of bringing her up.
Her grandmother! Now, as she looked at Meg's tear-stained face, she knew she had no option but to go along with Lorraine's scheme.
'All right,' she agreed fatalistically. 'I'll do it.'
After Megan had finished thanking her she told her wryly, 'You'll have to describe your Mark to me, Megan, otherwise I shan't be able to recognise him.'
'Oh, yes, you will,' Megan said fervently with a small ecstatic sigh. 'He'll be the best-looking man there. He's gorgeous, Saskia.. fantastically good-looking, with thick dark hair and the most sexy mouth you've ever seen. Oh, and he'll be wearing a blue shirtto match his eyes. He always does. I bought them for him.'
'What time is he likely to get there?' Saskia asked Megan practically, instead of voicing her feelings. 'My car's in the garage at the moment, and since Gran's house is quite a way out of town '
'Don't worry about that. I'll drive you there,' Lorraine volunteered, much to Saskia's surprise. Lorraine wasn't known to be over-generouswith anything!
'Yes, and Lorraine will pick you up later and take you home. Won't you, Lorraine?' Megan insisted with unexpected firmness. 'There's no taxi rank close to the wine bar and you don't want to be waiting for a mini-cab.'
A waiter was hovering, waiting to take their order, but bossily Lorraine shook her head, telling Megan and Saskia firmly, 'There won't be time for us to eat now. Saskia will have to get home and get ready. What time is Mark likely to go to the wine bar Megan?' she asked her cousin.
'About eight-thirty, I should think,' Megan answered.
'Right, then you need to get there for nine, Saskia,' Lorraine informed her, 'So I'll pick you up at half-eight.'
Two hours later Saskia was just coming downstairs when she heard the front doorbell. Her grandmother was away, spending several weeks with her sister in Bath. A little nervously Saskia smoothed down the skirt of her black suit and went to open the door.
Only Lorraine was standing outside. They had agreed that it would be silly to take the risk of Megan being seen and recognised. Now, as Lorraine studied her, Saskia could see the older woman beginning to frown.
'You'll have to wear something else,' she told Saskia sharply. 'You look far too businesslike and unapproachable in that suit. Mark's got to think you're approachableremember. And I really think you ought to wear a different lipstick red, perhaps, and more eye make-up. Look, if you don't believe me then read this.' Lorraine thrust an open magazine beneath Saskia's nose.
Reluctantly Saskia skimmed through the article, a small frown pleating her forehead as she read of the lengths the agency was prepared to have its girls go to in order to test the faithfulness of its clients' men.
'I can't do any of this,' she told Lorraine firmly. 'And as for my suit '
Stepping into the hall and closing the front door behind her, Lorraine stood squarely in front of Saskia and told her vehemently, 'You have tofor Megan's sake. Can't you see what's happening to her, the danger she's in? She's totally besotted with this man; she's barely known him four months and already she's talking about handing over the whole of her inheritance to him marrying him having children with him. Do you know how much her great-aunt left her?' she added grimly.