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Cryssie tore up the final flight of stairs which led to the toy department on the top floor of the large store. She'd spotted a queue of people waiting for the lift, so, with her slight frame and the flat, sensible shoes she always wore, she thought she'd beat them all to it, use her feet, and get there first!
Christmas Eve the usual frantic nightmare, she thought ruefully. This was her final chance to do the rest of her shopping and, at last, to get what she'd come for. She'd rung earlier to make sure they had some of the much sought-after Runaway Rascalsdolls based on children's TV characters that Milo, her four-year-old nephew, adored. He never missed the programme, which featured the Rascals, and he desperately wanted one of them for himself. And Cryssie would do her utmost to get it for him. It had been out of stock everywhere for some timesurprise, surprisebut she knew that Latimer's had received a delivery yesterday, and she prayed that they hadn't all been snapped up.
Weaving her way frantically among the dozens of last-minute shoppers, she arrived at the appropriate counter and ran her eye quickly along the shelves. Yes! There were four there, on the top, grinning out from their cellophane-fronted boxes, and she heaved a sigh of relief. At last she'd made it!
Deftly, she was able to sneak in past the two or three customers there who were casually examining some other merchandise, and was already framing her request when out of nowhere a masculine voice spoke imperiously.
'Yes thanks I'll take the four.' And, after a pause, 'Put them on the account.'
'Certainly, Mr Hunter,' the assistant murmured, lowering her eyes coquettishly.
Cryssie stopped, open-mouthed in utter amazement, and a genuine feeling of desperation swept over her as the girl began to remove the boxes from the shelf and place them, one by one, on the counter in front of her. In her haste and anxiety Cryssie had not even noticed the man, who must have been standing there all the time, right beside herand who had staked his claim in no uncertain terms! She stared up at the owner of that commanding voice, having to tilt her head back to take in this tall and pushy individual who'd got in before her.
He was an obvious business type, dressed in a sharp suit and immaculate shirt and tie, and from his lofty height had the distinct advantage over her five foot three. His richly dark hair fell carelessly around his ears, enhancing the line of his firm jaw and his eyes! Black and glittering in their pools of startling white. They were calculating, even dangerous eyes, Cryssie thought instinctively.
Clearing her throat, she spoke to the assistant, her voice ringing out with all the authority she could manage. 'I hope those aren't the only onesthe only Runaway Rascals you've got there,' she said hotly. 'I only want one,' she added, as if to imply that anyone wanting four was greedy and thoughtless!
The girl glanced briefly at Cryssie. 'I'm sorry,' she said, as she wedged the boxes into two large carrier bags. 'These actually are the last. We've never known such a manic demand for anything, and'
'But I rang this morning and you promised you assured me you had plenty,' Cryssie protested.
'We didand they've all gone like hot cakes! And the management decided that we weren't to reserve any over the phoneas I told you when we spoke. First come, first served seemed fairest.' She finished packing, and pushed the bags across the counter. 'We will be getting a delivery at the end of January.' she added helpfully. 'Not that that's much good now, of course. You can leave your address and phone number with us for when the dolls are next in, but you'll have to explain that the Runaway Rascals have all run away from Santa's sleigh!'
Oh, very funny, Cryssie thought angrily. She glared up at the man, who glanced back down at her casually and without apparent interest. As if she didn't existas if he couldn't care less about what anyone else wanted! He could at least have made some sort of apology, she thought.
Then, with one lean and sunburnt hand, he took hold of the bags and turned to go. Not apparently even having to sign anything, or produce any cash, Cryssie noticed. That somehow made it worse, because the dolls were terribly expensive for what they were. She was the only consistent earner in their household, and had learned to be thrifty and save for things like Christmas and birthdays. She wouldn't have dared have an account at Latimer's, or anywhere else for that matter. Pay as you go was the safest, she'd always been taught.
As they both moved away from the counter he hesitated and looked down at her properly at last. 'That was unfortunate,' he drawled. 'The ordering department obviously got it wrong this time, didn't they Or perhaps we should all shop earlier?' he added pointedly. And, with a barely perceptible tilt of his arrogant mouth, he turned abruptly and walked away, leaving Cryssie standing there feeling utterly defeated.
So she shouldn't have left it until the last minute, should she? But thenso had he! Except that he'd arrived at the store just a few seconds before her!
She looked around vaguely for a minute or two, wondering what to do next. She knew Milo would be so disappointed to wake up and not find the precious toy in his stocking. It was true there would be plenty of other gifts to unwrapbut this was the one he really wanted, and had been keeping on about for months.
Her face still flushed with annoyance, she picked up a pair of football boots, examining them for size and wondering whether she should buy them. Milo was football mad, and hadn't yet had a proper pair, always kicking around in his trainerswhich were expensive enough, heaven only knew. Maybe these, together with a new ball, would ease his disappointment.
Cryssie leaned against a counter for a minute, feeling stressed and irritated. At the age of twenty-five, she sometimes felt the responsibilities that life had placed on her were almost too much to put up with. Since the death of their parents ten years earlier in a car accident, she and her sister Polly younger by two yearshad lived with Great-Aunt Josie, until she, too, had died. Luckily that had been before they'd known that Polly was expecting Milo, or that the man in question had done a convenient runner. So now the two women and the little boy lived in a small rented terraced house in the town, with Cryssie the only one bringing in any real money.
After a few minutes she began to calm down, accepting ruefully that the self-satisfied owner of the four dolls obviously had four kids, and it would be no good giving to three and the fourth going without. A soft voice by her side made her turn around to see the assistant standing there, obviously concerned.
'Are you okay?'the woman enquired. 'You look shattered '
'Oh, I'm fine,' Cryssie said forlornly. 'Just tired '
'Tell me about it.' The assistant paused. 'I'm really sorry about just nowbut there wasn't anything I could do. I'd have loved to keep a doll back for you, because I know how many times you've been in asking for one. Look, do leave your address and phone number with us.'
'All right,' Cryssie replied, and gave the girl her details. 'Not your fault. I just hope that man's little darlings are made to appreciate their good luck.'
'He hasn't got any little darlings he's not married.' The assistant lowered her voice. 'Didn't you realise who that was?'
Cryssie shrugged. 'No should I?'
'Oh, I thought everyone knew him That was Jeremy or JedHunter. The boss of this place,' she emphasised, as if announcing royalty.
Cryssie knew that Latimer's was owned by the Hunter family, but wasn't acquainted with any of them, or with what they looked like. She certainly hadn't ever seen him before. If she had, she would have remembered!
'Up until a year or so ago we never saw him,' the girl went on, 'but he seems to have taken over from his parentswho are getting on, obviously.'She stifled a yawn. 'Some of the staff are a bit afraid of himhe can be stroppy if things don't go right. Not that I'm afraid,'she added defensively. 'I mean, he's always courteous but rather demanding, with a bit of a short fuse at times. Still, I suppose anyone that drop-dead gorgeous and rich can afford to be moody when he feels like it.'
'I suppose so,'Cryssie agreed dismissively, not particularly wanting to join in a chorus of admiration for this Mr Jed Hunternot the way she was feeling at the moment! But he certainly seemed to be the man who had everything including the one and only thing sheor Milowanted. And there was no way they'd be getting it now. The eleventh hour had come and gone.
'Anyway, I've got your name and details,' the assistant said. 'And as soon as we get more stock I'll contact you.'
'Oh, fine,' Cryssie said dully, beginning to wish that the Runaway Rascals had never been thought of! 'Anyway, if he hasn't got any children, what did he want them for?' she blurted out, picking up the football boots.
'Couldn't tell you,' the assistant said, turning to go back to her counter. She hesitated. 'Do you have other children to buy for as well?'
'Noand I don't have any of my own,' Cryssie replied. 'We're just the three of us my sister and her little boymy nephew, Miloand me. But I'm the one who has to do all the chasing about, I'm afraid.' Cryssie's shoulders drooped for a second. 'My sister isn't well,' she added quietly, wondering why she was bothering to air her problems in public.
'Oh, dear and does shecan shework?' the woman asked gently.
'Occasionallyon a part-time basis,'Cryssie replied. 'She trained as a beauty consultant.'
'Oh that's nice ' The assistant glanced at Cryssie curiouslyand Cryssie knew instinctively what she was thinking! Why doesn't your sister give you a makeover? Because Cryssie's small-framed, insignificant appearance was not the sort to turn heads. Polly was the beauty of the family, with her willowy figure, rich auburn hair and large grey eyes.
'And do you work full time?' the assistant enquired, obviously glad of a few moments' opportunity to chat. 'YesI'm employed at Hydebound. Been there three years now.'
'Oh, I know them,'the woman said at once. 'I was given one of their fantastic handbags for my birthday. Beautifully made, isn't it, all their stuff? A bit expensive, but well worth the cost!'
Cryssie smiled, genuinely pleased to hear that. 'Of course we're only a very small, independent firm,' she said. 'Not like this place!'
She waited her turn to purchase the football boots and the ball, and started making for the stairs when the delicious smell of coffee drifted out from the nearby restaurant area. She hesitated, realising that she hadn't eaten a thing since her cheese sandwich at lunchtime. No one at work had even had time to make a cup of tea that day. She glanced at her watch, her sudden desire for a long, hot injection of caffeine becoming irresistible. Anyway, perhaps if she sat there for a while most of the home-going traffic would have subsided.
There were still plenty of people taking advantage of a sit-down and a drink, and Cryssie plonked her bags down by a table for two in the corner. Then, going over to pick up a tray, she slid it along the counter, unable to stop herself choosing a sugary doughnut as well. She knew it would be ages before she got around to making supper, and Polly wouldn't have done anything towards it.
She poured herself a large mug of coffee, and placed it on the tray, then moved towards the till. And from out of nowhere a deep voicethat deep voice interrupted her thoughts. 'Allow me,' he said smoothly.
'Pardon?' Cryssie twisted around in confusion, and stared once more into the face of the man she now knew to be the owner of the store. 'I'm sorry, I '
'Allow me to pay for your drink,' he repeated slowly, as if making himself clear to a backward child. 'It's the least I can do,' he added.
To her intense annoyance Cryssie felt the colour rising unstoppably in her child-like face. 'Pleasedon't feel obligedto do anything,' she said, her voice cool despite her sudden rise in body temperature.
'Oh, I don't feel obliged, exactly,'he replied, equally coolly, 'but it would give me pleasure to settle your bill.'
'Well, I can't think why' Cryssie began, but he interrupted her.
'Because of what happened earlier,' he said, transfixing her with his impenetrable gaze. 'I'm sorry that you weren't able to purchase what you wanted just now.'
'Oh, well, I It doesn't matter ' she beganthough it did matter. It mattered a lot. But at this precise moment it didn't matter which one of them paid for her coffee, just so long as she could get it down herand soon!
She indicated the table where her things were and, placing his own drink beside hers on the tray, he followed her across the room. They sat down, and he passed her the plate with the doughnut and set their coffees down. She noticed that the carrier bags with his shopping were nowhere to be seen He'd probably off-loaded them on to one of his underlings to take care of!
She began to feel strangely self-conscious, sitting so close to this undeniably handsome manso close that it was difficult for their knees not to touch beneath the small table! Not that his obvious heart-throb appeal was of the least interest to her, she told herself. That part of her life was in a state of permanent shut-down!
Now, she picked up her coffee and forced herself to meet Jed Hunter's gaze over the rim of the mug. Of course, she reassured herself, these panicky feelings running through her were due to the fact that she was sitting in closevery close proximity to the vastly wealthy owner of the store. He would naturally be a powerful member of the communitybut what the hell? So what? She was one of his valued customers, and without people like her coming regularly through the doors he wouldn't be able to afford his undoubtedly lavish lifestyle! So she should calm down, she told herself sternly.
He looked at her steadily while she put a piece of doughnut into her mouth. 'What do you think of those are they good?' he enquired casually.
Cryssie swallowed before answering, dabbing some sugar from her lips. 'This one's not bad,' she said coolly, 'but the quality of the cakes and pastries here can be patchy. I've had some pretty dire ones in the pastmost of them frozen, I suppose. You'd think a reputable store like this would cook them on the premises and serve them fresh, wouldn't you? A trained monkey could dunk a doughnut.' She took another bite and looked across at him again. 'Would you like to try a bit?' she asked, knowing full well what his answer would be! He was not likely to lower his prestige by sinking his teeth into a sticky bun! Certainly not sitting with someone like her!
Tilting his mouth slightly at one corner, he said, 'No thank you. I wouldn't dream of depriving you.' He paused. 'There's so little of you, you look as if you really need a square meal rather than a quick fix.'
Cryssie shot him one of the cold looks she knew she was capable of. What a colossal nerve! She knew she must look pale and tiredand who wouldn't with the weeks they'd had recently?but she didn't like it pointed out! And certainly not by this complete stranger. Because that was what he was, after all.