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As her new boots crunched against the thick snow that covered the sweeping yew-lined walk leading to the house Liadan was struck by the beauty and grandeur of the dramatic, imposing edifice that rose up before her. She stopped for a moment to take it in. Draped in a glistening white mantle of snow, its forbidding stone exterior with four rows of perfectly symmetrical eighteenth-century windows gazed down imperiously at her approach, as if questioning her right to be there. For the first time since she'd decided to answer the ad she'd circled so hopefully in the local paper, Liadan experienced a small but impossible-to-ignore shiver of doubt.
Was she doing the right thing? Was she even capable of undertaking the role of housekeeper in such a large and awe-inspiring dwelling? This was vastly different from her parents' mid-size but manageable little hotel in Dorset.
Sighing a breath that immediately turned to steam in the cold, Liadan tried hard to banish her doubts and instead concentrated on putting her best foot forward and continuing her journey towards the house with a much more optimistic gait.
When she lifted the huge iron knocker, letting it fall twice against the grand double-doored entrance, the sound intruded on the chill frozen air like a drunken visitor blundering in on a wake. A flock of birds calmly nesting in a nearby denuded oak flew into the air in an indignant flurry of surprise, their combined chirruping echoing eerily in the dense winter landscape. Wrapping her orange wool scarf more securely around the collar of her long tweed coat, Liadan couldn't help biting down on her lip as her imagination briefly ran wild, and she wondered if some haughty grey-haired butler would open the door and arrogantly instruct her to go round to the tradesman's entrance. Her sense of humour surfacing, she allowed herself a tentative smile at the thought.
In fact the person who answered was a slim brunette, probably in her early forties, dressed attractively in jeans and a red polo-necked sweater. The woman extended her hand in welcome without hesitation.
'You must be Liadan? Hello there, I'm Kate Broomfield. We spoke on the phone.'
The friendly voice she recalled from her telephone inquiry just two days ago didn't disappoint now that Liadan came face to face with its owner, and her relief was palpable.
'Pleased to meet you. Gosh, it's cold out there!' She grasped Kate's outstretched hand firmly with equal warmth. Relaxing, Liadan let her blue-eyed gaze wander round the large, imposing entrance hall she was invited into, her heartbeat quickening at the sight of the huge lofty ceilings with their grand antique brass chandeliers and candle sconces on the walls.
'I didn't see a car. Where did you park?' Kate enquired, watching as the younger woman removed her orange woollen gloves and slipped open the top button of her coat. The hall was surprisingly warm for such a vast area.
'I didn't come by car. I walked up from the village.'
'You're brave in this weather! That's a long walk.' Kate smiled, her brown eyes approving. 'But of course you're a local girl, aren't you? Though you do realise this is a living-in position? Mr Jacobs insists on that.'
'I know. It's not a problem.' For a moment Liadan tried to absorb the full implications of living in such a grand if somewhat remote house, her heart sinking a little at the idea of leaving her cosy little cottage behind. But then that was the beauty of being local. On her afternoons off she could go back home and see to anything that needed doing in her absence. Maybe after a while, when she got to know her employer better, he might even let her have the odd night off so that she could sleep in her own perfectly comfortable bed and play her piano? Not to mention make a fuss of her cat, Izzy. As it was, she would miss not being able to do all those things whenever she felt like it. But as long as her neighbour Jack fed the cat and gave her a little attention now and again to make up for Liadan not being there, she would manage just fine.
Right now, all that was supposition. She hadn't secured the job yet and might not if she didn't look sharp. The ad had specified someone between the ages of thirty-five and fifty, and Liadan was twenty-seven. Kate had told her not to worry too much about that. If she proved to be the right person for the job, Mr Jacobs would waive the age restriction, in Kate's opinion.
'Want a cup of coffee before I take you in to meet Adrian?'
'Mr Jacobs. Initially he'll probably insist you address him more formally, but after a while no doubt you'll be calling him Adrian too.'
As much as she loved the idea of a warming drink to thaw her out, Liadan felt she'd much rather get the interview over and done with first. He might take one look at her and decide she was far too young for the job of housekeeper of such a grand old house, she thought anxiously. But she had grown up helping her parents run a very successful small hotel and she was no stranger to hard work and long back-breaking hoursespecially after her father had died and it had been just her and her mother.
'If you don't mind, I'd rather meet Mr Jacobs first. Have you had many other applicants for the job?'
'We've seen two before you but they were both completely wrong. Follow me. He's doing paperwork this morning so he won't be in the best of moods, I warn you. But don't let that put you off. He's a fair employer and the pay is good, as no doubt you've noticed.'
Liadan had. It was the main reason she had applied for the job in the first place. That and the fact it was actually local to where she lived. But she couldn't help wondering what had been so wrong about her two predecessors...
Smiling reassuringly, Kate rapped smartly on the set of dark oak double doors at the end of a cavernous hallway carpeted in faded red and gold, then swept in ahead of Liadan as a deep voice answered, 'Come!'
Her heart tripping as Kate announced her, Liadan followed more slowly behind the brunette. Her gaze settled with a little shiver of shock on the man seated behind an old-fashioned writing bureau, his long jeans-clad legs stuck out in front of him as he perused what looked to be a letter. When he glanced up to examine her as she stood beside Kate, the dark, almost black eyes were about as cold and as frozen as Liadan's toes inside her boots. Somehow, meeting those eyes, Liadan no longer felt so confident about applying for this job.
Adrian Jacobs had a gaze that would freeze out the sun, and that had to be worrying.
'So you are Miss Willow?' There was a slight, amused tug of his well-shaped but stern mouth that made Liadan's stomach roll over. 'What kind of a name is that?'
Her shoulders stiffened. 'What do you mean?'
'Did you make it up? Is it some kind of pseudonym or something?'
'No, I didn't make it up and it's not a pseudonym. My name is my name and that's all I can tell you.' Just who did he think he was, making fun of her name? Liadan was experiencing some very strong doubts about the interview progressing much further after such a prickly and unpromising start. But she forced herself to stay calm and decided the best approach was not to take his comment personally. 'At school they used to call me ''willow tree''. There were some children who had to suffer far worse nicknames than that, so I guess I got off lightly.'
'Hmm.' Glancing back at his letter, he put it down on the desk with a sigh, rubbing at his temples as he did so. Then, as if coming to a decision, he turned to face her more squarely. Once again Liadan's heart missed a beat. His nose was too big, his eyes hooded and his mouth far too severe to suggest that it ever smiled much. And yet with his thick black hair streaked with fine grey strands here and there and the undoubted hint of muscle beneath his dark sweater, his sheer God-given maleness suggested an impression of great strength and indomitability that was quite awesome.
'You seem a little young to be seeking employment as a housekeeper. How old are you exactly, Miss Willow?'
Was her age going to be a strike against her...as well as her name, apparently? Flicking open a second and third button on her coat, Liadan told herself to remain calm. With a big fire blazing in the huge stone fire-place, the heat was definitely beginning to permeate her several layers of winter clothing. 'I'm twenty-seven but please don't let that put you off, Mr Jacobs. I've had several years of experience in housekeeping, helping my parents run a busy hotel in Dorset. Hard work doesn't faze me and I've done most things, from cooking three-course meals to mending a fuse and plumbing in a washing machine. Most of all, I'm cheerful to be around and I'm very willing.'
'Willing?' Mr Jacobs' darkly forbidding brows came together in a sardonic little frown.
Colouring, Liadan smiled. 'Helpful. I meant helpful.'
'Of course you did. What about a boyfriend, Miss Willow? Do you have one and won't he miss you if you come to work here?'
Guessing that he would probably laugh out loud if she told him that her year-long engagement to Michael Marston had broken off because he'd decided to join the priesthood, Liadan shook her head slowly, garnering every ounce of courage she possessed to ride this particular storm.
'No, Mr Jacobs. I don't have a boyfriend.'
'So there's no problem with you living in?'
'Liadan lives in the village, Adrian,' Kate piped up. 'She's a local girl.'
'She's too young and probably won't last the week.' His assessment was swiftly damning, and Liadan's hackles rose with indignation at such a scathing dismissal. Biting her lip, she was nonetheless determined to hold her ground.
'Mr Jacobs, if you'll just hear me out, I'
'I don't employ any other staff in the house, Miss Willow. Could you handle the isolation?'
Isolation didn't faze Liadan. Nor did loneliness. A person could survive both of those states and still have a reasonably fulfilling life. Besides, she liked her own company. She'd never found being on her own a punishment as some of her friends did.
'I live alone anyway. I'm used to my own company,' she answered him.
'Good. After the two disappointing alternatives I interviewed earlier, perhaps you're more suitable than you look. So how soon can you start? Kate is leaving for London tomorrow and I need to have someone in place before she goes.'
Was he offering her the job? Blinking at him, Liadan stared in disbelief. After his previous comment about her being too young she'd more or less convinced herself that he would show her the door. 'Um, as soon as you need me to, I should think,' she replied a little breathlessly.
'What about referencesdo you have any?'
She started to delve into her bag for the two letters of recommendation she'd brought. One from her mother, bless her, in her former capacity as hotel proprietor; the other from Moonbeams, the little esoteric shop where she had worked for the past three years until it had gone bust six weeks ago.
Adrian put up his hand as if to stop her. 'Leave them with Kate. She'll show you to your room, then give you a tour of the house and a list of daily duties. I desire trust and discretion at all times, Miss Willow. I don't like being disturbed unduly, but I do expect you to be on call whenever I need you. You'll have one afternoon off a week as well as every other weekend off. The remuneration I'm sure you already know. That's all. I'll leave her in your capable hands, Kate. And how about some coffee when you're ready?'
'I'll bring you some when I've shown Liadan her room.' Kate smiled at her.
'Good.' Head down, he was already preoccupied with the contents of his letter before the two women reached the door.
Kate told her he was a writer. A very successful author of crime thrillers, writing under the pen name of Alexander Jacobsen. Once a highly successful journalist reporting on international conflicts all around the globe, he'd had the respect of his peers and the public alike during his career in news. Liadan experienced a shock wave of recognition at the news. Somewhere in the misty annals of her mind, she'd vaguely heard of Adrian Jacobs, but Alexander Jacobsen was the name that resonated. His hard-hitting crime novels always got to number one on the bestseller lists. Although that particular genre definitely did not appeal to her taste, her brother Callum had lent her a couple one Christmas and she had been unable to put them down, they were so gripping. If rather dark. Was that a legacy from some of the terrible atrocities he must have witnessed in his previous career? The thought made her shudder.
'Occasionally we get the odd reporter or two trying to infiltrate their way into the house,' Kate continued, 'but one thing you should be aware of is that Adrian absolutely never, under no circumstances, gives interviews. I would ask that you respect his privacy and don't divulge any personal information to anyone, and certainly nobody from the village. He's been gossiped about enough in the past and he doesn't need the heart-ache. Do a good job and obey those rules and you two will get on like a house on fire.'
That was the point where Liadan parted company with Kate's views. One only had to spend a couple of minutes in the same room with the man to realise he was not exactly brimming over with the warmth of human kindness. Instinctively Liadan knew their relationship would be a challenging one. Still, that didn't bother her too much. She was here to do a job, a job that would pay her more than enough money to live on and maintain her beloved little cottage in the village. More than that, she dared not hope for.
Once upon a time she had longed to meet a wonderful man and have children, but now that longing had been undeniably tarnished. Having spent an intense eighteen months in a relationship with a man whose spiritual conflicts had precluded him from having an intimate relationship with his fiancée, and who'd viewed her work in an esoteric bookshop as close to 'communing with the devil', she was in no hurry to repeat the exercise. Being with Michael had all but sucked Liadan dry emotionally. She had mistaken initially strong feelings of friendship for love, and no sacrifice she'd made had been enough as far as Michael had been concerned.
But that was then. Right now all she wanted to do was put the past firmly behind her and carve out a new destiny for herself.
The following morning as she unpacked and hung her clothes in the big oak wardrobe in her room, she paused to glance out of the window at the picturesque winter scene before her. The snow had completely passed Christmas by but now, in early January, the heavens had suddenly opened and covered everything in a perfect coating of white frosting. Briefly wondering how her new employer had spent the holiday seasonhad he celebrated at home with friends and family?Liadan reflected on her own solitary Christmas, just herself and Izzy. Granted, it had been by choice. She hadn't felt like flying out to Spain to join her mother and her new man, and after the traumatic break-up with Michael had not wanted to inflict her less-than-cheerful mood on her brother or her friends. No. She had definitely done the right thing spending the season on her own.
'Liadan, can you come down to the kitchen as soon as you've finished unpacking?'
Opening the door, she found Kate Broomfield on the other side of it, her cheeks pink as if she'd been rushing. 'Of course.'
'I want to go over everything with you. I've made lists but you might want to make some notes of your own as back-up. We'll have a cup of tea and a chat and I'll fill you in on anything you want to know. Ten minutes' time okay with you?' Peering over Liadan's shoulder, she noted the neatly folded clothing on the big brass bed and the opened doors of the large oak wardrobe.
Liadan nodded. 'I've nearly finished.'
'Good. Sorry everything's such a mad rush but I'm due to catch a train in just under two hours. I've been telling Adrian he needed to interview people for the past three months but would he listen? That's Adrian for you! Once he's in work mode he's on another planet. Anyway, you're here now, and, if you ask me, he's definitely made the right choice. Somebody young like you will be a breath of fresh air for him. See you in a tick, then.' And with that, she turned and hurried down the corridor.