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They said the only sure things in life were death and taxes, Marin Wade thought as she lifted the sponge and squeezed wonderfully warm, scented water over her shoulders and down her breasts. But there was an additional certaintythat as soon as you got into a hot and longed-for bath the phone would ring.
Just as it was doing at this very moment.
yet for once she would not be scrambling out, cursing and reaching for a towel in order to obey its summons becauseoh joy, oh blissit was not her phone.
Whoever it was at the other end could speak to the answering machine.
Of course, it might be Lynne calling to check that she was settling in and that all was well, but if so she'd leave a message too. And later, when Marin was bathed and fed, she'd ring back and thank her stepsister yet again for offering her this temporary bolt hole with so few questions asked. Up to now, at least, she thought wryly.
Lynne was three years her senior, and since their parents had retired to a villa beside a golf course in Portugal she'd taken her elder-sister role very seriously indeed. So when she returned on Sunday night she'd want to know why Marin's dream job had come to a premature end.
And by then it might be good to have someone to confide in over the entire nasty mess.
Because she would be starting to feel better about it all. Once she'd got over her tiredness and the chaos of the last twenty-four hours and could think straight, she'd have this whole weekend to herself to start making plans and being positive about her life, rather than wanting to howl.
Of course, she'd have to wait until Monday to find out if she still had a job with the agency, or if her erstwhile employer's threat to have her fired had born fruit, she thought unhappily. But at least she could start looking for somewhere to live until her own flat became available again.
Not that it wasn't gorgeous here. Lynne had told her she was welcome to stay as long as she wanted, but she needed to stand on her own two feet and get herself together again as soon as possible.
She looked around her almost in awe. This bathroom alone was to-die-for, she thought; its soft, aqua tiles made you imagine that you were floating in some warm, foreign sea. Add to that the spacious living room with its raised dining-alcove, the state-of-the-art kitchen and the two elegantly fitted bedrooms, and Marin was as near to living in the lap of luxury as she was ever likely to get.
What she couldn't quite figure was how Lynne could possibly afford such a sumptuous environment.
Her stepsister was, of course, the personal assistant of Jake Radley-Smith, principal of one of the most successful financial public-relations firms in the UKbut surely she'd have to be earning mega-bucks in order to rent even a cupboard in a place like this?
Although Marin was wallowing in it all, she felt vaguely uneasy just the same, knowing how extremely ordinary Lynne's previous flat had been.
And, if she hadn't known that Lynne was deeply in love with Mike and on her way to Kent with him this very minute to meet his parents, she might even be wondering what kind of 'personal assistance' her stepsister had actually provided for her high-flying boss, and whether this flat was payment for services rendered.
As if, she thought, pulling a face at herself. Dirt must be catching.
She leaned back against the quilted head-rest, closing her eyes, as she contemplated the disastrous turn her life had taken. The worst of it was, she hadn't seen it coming. Which must make her the biggest, most naive idiot still walking free.
It had also been stupid to agree to a short-term let of her own flat during her absence, but hindsight was a wonderful thing, and the position she'd been offered with best-selling romantic novelist Adela Mason had been guaranteed for a minimum of six months, so it had seemed safe enough at the time.
'Her usual secretary has to have time off. Her elderly mother is about to have a serious operation and will need a lot of aftercare,' her boss Wendy ingram had told her. 'Ms Mason does her research in London, then goes down to her house in southwestern France to do the actual writing, so she wants someone to fill the gap.' She had pursed her lips. 'Apparently, we were recommended to her, but she's not easy to please.'
'Adela Mason,' Marin had echoed, her hazel eyes shining. 'I can't believe it. She's a terrific writer. I'm her number one fan.'
'Which is why I suggested you, although I suspect you're rather too young. But she's already turned down Naomi and Lorna, and says she wants someone simpatico,' Wendy had snorted. 'But don't allow your enthusiasm for her as an author to run away with you,' she'd added dourly. 'You may be sick of the sight of the new book before it's finished. I looked her up on the Internet and saw this magazine interview with her. She writes in longhand, it seems, on special paper with a special pen. You'll be typing the drafts on to a computer for her to correct, and there could be as many as ten of them.'
She paused. 'You'll also be doing a lot of fetching and carrying as well; being her secretary will only be part of it. She's looking for a one-woman service industry, and you'll be earning every cent she pays you. But as she's just remarried you may at least be spared from bringing her the cup of designer hot-chocolate she likes last thing at night.'
'For a chance to work with Adela Mason, I'd even pick the cocoa beans,' Marin assured her jubilantly. 'It's not a problem.'
'But getting through the interview might be,' Wendy warned.
Adela Mason had been taking part in a TV panel game that evening, dark hair cut in a severe bob, and a crimson dress making the most of an enviable figure. She was bright and sparky, and had emerged as an easy winner, accepting the plaudits of her fellow-panellists with apparent modesty.
Yet there had been something about her smile and the turn of her head that had plainly been intended to remind them all that she was also the biggest earner on the show.
Why should that worry me? Marin had asked herself. I'm not going to be any kind of rival, just a toiler in her vineyardif I get through the interview, that is.
However, somewhat to her own surprise, she'd done so.
'You seem to have rather more about you than the other candidates,' Ms Mason had told her, playing with the large solitaire-diamond on her wedding finger. 'One of them gave the impression she'd never read a book in her life, and the other was justunsuitable.' She looked Marin over, taking in the slender body, the light brown hair swept back from her face and fastened at her nape with a ribbon, the pale, creamy skin and quiet, unremarkable features, and nodded. 'Yes, if your keyboard skills are up to scratch, I think you'll do very well.'
She'd paused. 'I'm planning to go down to Evrier sur Tarn next week. I expect you to be available to travel with me. Betsy made all the stopover arrangements before she went off to play Florence Nightingale, but if there are any difficulties I expect you to sort them out.'
Marin could have done without that fairly callous remark about her predecessor, but she'd smiled and agreed that sorting of most kinds was well within her remit.
Not realising that, less than a month later, it would be her own immediate future that would need her attention.
And there, she thought with faint annoyance, went that damned phone again.
'People know I'm away,' Lynne had told her as she'd left, adding drily, 'And I've left Rad a written memo too, so you shouldn't be disturbed.'
Except it wasn't working out like that. Someone or more had clearly slipped through the net.
'Please leave your message after the tone,' she advised the unknown caller in a sing-song voice, before adding more hot water and some extra drops of perfumed oil to the bath and sliding further down into its comforting depths.
It must be lovely, she reflected wistfully, to be so much in demand, to have friends constantly ringing to suggest a cinema, a meal or even a drink.
And to have someone like Mike
That probably most of all, she admitted. Because, at twenty, she still hadn't had anything approaching a serious relationship with a man.
On the other hand, she was by no means Marin No-Mates. She'd gone on dates since she'd been in London, of course she had, generally making up foursomes with the other girls at the agency. Occasionally, the guy she'd been partnered with for the evening had asked to see her again. Occasionally.
But in all honesty it had never really mattered to her when there had been no further contact.
She was the first to recognise that she was shy and found it difficult to sparkle in company, that she didn't know how to flirt, or take part in the jokey conversations that said one thing but meant something completely different. That she couldn't in a thousand years imagine herself being drawn into the kind of casual intimacy that seemed the norm these days.
Not that she disapproved, exactly. What other people did on the briefest acquaintance was none of her business. She only knew that it wasn't for her, that her own inhibitions weren't so easily discarded. Probably the men she encountered knew it too, and decided to go after girls with fewer hang-ups.
'Do you think I'm a freak?' she'd once asked Lynne, troubled, but the other had only laughed.
'No, honey pie, I think you've got principles and you're going to need to fall very seriously in love before you're tempted to abandon them. And there's nothing remotely freakish about that, so stop beating yourself up.'
The memory of that made Marin smile. Lynne was so good for her, she thought gratefully, so warm and outgoing like her father, Derek Fanshawe, who'd met and fallen in love with Marin's mother six years earlier.
And very different from her own father, who'd been a quiet man, Marin thought, but fond. Her childhood had been safe and comfortable in the shelter of her parents' happy marriage.
Clive Wade had been a successful solicitor, who specialised rather ruefully in divorce, declaring that every case that crossed his desk made him count his own blessings all over again.
And he'd gone on counting them until the day he'd collapsed outside a courtroom and died with terrible suddenness from a heart weakness no one had ever suspected, leaving Marin's smiling, bright-eyed mother as a grey-faced ghost unable to comprehend so devastating a loss.
Looking blankly back at people who told her that at least she had no money worries. That Clive had been a high earner, and had invested shrewdly. And that she should sell their mortgage-free home with its memories and move on.
But it had been three years before a friend, who worked with her in the charity shop where Barbara Wade spent most of her mornings, had persuaded her to join her on a luxury trip round the Norwegian fjords. Derek Fanshawe, a big man with a ready smile, had been assigned to their table on the first evening, and by the time the cruise had ended Barbara, to her own surprise, no longer felt guilty about warming to his charm and ebullient kindness. Realised in fact that she was going to miss him more than she'd believed possible.
Only to discover he was not prepared to become a reminiscence to be smiled over and put aside. That, as a widower with an only daughter, he wanted to see Barbara again and eventually ask her to make a new life with him.
There could, Marin realised, have been so many problems. Second families so often didn't work, and at first she hadn't wanted to like Derek, seeing this as disloyalty to her father's memory.
But he'd accepted her dilemma with such understanding and sensitivity that it had been impossible not to meet him at least halfway. And, watching her mother bloom in his affection, she'd soon grown to love him and know that she could welcome their marriage.
While in Lynne she'd found not only a sister but a friend. So, in spite of recent events, she could count her blessings too.
Although the telephone issuing yet another imperative summons was definitely not among them.
Groaning, she leaned forward to let the water drain away, then lifted herself lithely out of the bath, reaching for one of the fluffy, white bath sheets waiting in a neat pile on the tiled surround and wrapping it round her like a sarong, tucking the ends in above her breasts.
She shook her hair loose, combing the damp ends with her fingers, before wandering barefoot down the passage into the living room.
She went to the telephone table and pressed the 'play' button. A man's voicenot Mike'ssaid abruptly, 'Lynne, pick up. It's urgent.' The second message was simply a sigh, expressing impatience and exasperation in equal measure, and the third had been cut off as soon as the machine had kicked in.
Perhaps the caller had decided it was time to take no for an answer after all, Marin thought as she turned awaythen froze as she heard the rattle of a key in a lock, the sound of the front door opening then slamming shut, followed by a swift and undoubtedly masculine tread approaching down the hallway.
Sick with fright, she looked round for something, anything that she could use to defend herself against the intruder.
Except that he was already in the doorway, his voice harsh with irritation as he demanded, 'For God's sake, Lynne, have you suddenly gone deaf?' He paused with a swift intake of breath as realisation dawned.
Marin found herself being comprehensively surveyed by eyes as glacially blue as a polar sea. When he spoke again, his voice was ominously quiet. 'Who the hell are you, and what are you doing here?'
Obeying an instinct she barely understood, she made sure the folds of the towel were secure.
'I could ask you the same thing,' she retorted, her voice quivering a little, because she already knew the answerthat the unexpected and unwanted visitor looking her over as she stood there, next door to naked and embarrassed out of her life, was Lynne's boss, Jake Radley-Smith.
'Don't play games, sweetheart,' he advised, his tone as cold as his gaze. 'Just answer my questions before I call the police. How did you get in here?'
'I'm staying with my sister.'
'Sister?' he repeated, as if the word was in a foreign language. 'But Lynne's an only child.'
'Stepsister, then,' she said. 'Her father married my mother several years ago.'