Read an Excerpt
Hester's excitement escalated as she neared her goal. She checked the address again, then mounted the steps of one of the tall houses which lined three sides of leafy Albany Square. She rang the bell, gave her name over an intercom and, after a pause, the door was opened by a man who was obviously an employee of some kind, but nothing like her idea of a butler.
He smiled at her pleasantly. 'Good morning, Miss Ward. Come this way.'
Hester followed him along a high-ceilinged hall and up a flight of Bath stone stairs to a large, book-lined study. He held out the chair in front of the desk, told her his employer would be with her shortly and left her alone. Her anticipation at fever pitch, Hester sat, tense, on the edge of the chair. Her preliminary interview had been over coffee in a hotel lounge with John Austin, personal assistant of the owner of this house, but now she was about to meet the man himself.
On the desk a solitary framed photograph faced the window. She hesitated a moment, then turned it towards her and felt a rush of pure adrenaline. Her hunch had been right! The man she'd come to see really was her mysterious Mr Jones. And one look at that striking face, with its knife-edge cheekbones and intense dark eyes, sent her straight back to her first encounter with the man smiling down at a child in the photograph.
She had been packing that cold January night when her mother rushed in, radiating urgency.
'Give me a hand, darling. We've got guests.'
Hester stared at her in disbelief. 'What? At this time of night?'
'I just couldn't say no. It's snowing, and they look exhausted.'
'Honestly, Mother! We're supposed to be closed for the entire month. You should haveput the No Vacancies sign out.'
Moira Ward gave her a stern look. 'I want help, please, not a lecture.'
'Right away!' Hester hurried after her mother, down the back stairs to the kitchen. 'Where are they?'
Moira began taking food from the refrigerator. 'Settling into their rooms while I whip up a snack. Mr Jones accepted my offer of sandwiches with such enthusiasm I think it's a long time since either of them had a meal.'
Hester shook her head in disapproval as she buttered bread. 'You're too soft-hearted by half.'
'But not soft-headed,'returned Moira tartly. 'I don't turn away paying guests who offer cash in advance.' She sighed. 'Besides, the poor girl looked ready to drop. I couldn't turn them away.'
'Of course you couldn't!' Hester blew her a kiss. 'What shall I put in these?'
'Slice some of the roast ham from supper, and I'll heat up the rest of my vegetable soup. The girl looked frozen.'
'You want me to take the tray up?'
'Yes, please, darling. I'd rather they knew I'm not alone in the house.'
Hester laughed. 'I doubt that my presence will make much difference if Mr Jones has anything sinister in mind.' Her eyes narrowed. 'Wait a minute. Did you say rooms plural?'
Moira nodded. 'The connecting rooms at the front.'
'So we not only feed these people supper as well as breakfast, we clean the two largest rooms in the house after they've gone!'
'For which I've been paid a handsome sum in advance,' her mother reminded her, and, with a triumphant smile, played her trump card. 'You can have half of it to take back to college.'
Hester laughed as she gave her mother a hug. 'Brilliant! Thanks, Ma. Why aren't they sleeping together, do you think?'
'Ours is not to reason why.' Moira added a tureen of steaming soup to the tray and sent her daughter on her way.
Hester bore her burden with care up the wide staircase, eager to take a look at the couple who'd appealed to her mother's hospitable heart.
The man who opened the first of the garden view rooms smiled as he took the tray and one look at the handsome, haggard face took Hester's breath away.
'Thank you.'His voice was deep, with a timbre that sent shivers down her spine. 'Would you tell Mrs Ward we're deeply grateful?'
'I will,' she said with effort, and pulled herself together. 'You'll find biscuits, coffee, tea and kettle on the desk, and I've brought fresh milk. Can I get you anything else?'
He shook his head as he inspected the tray's contents. 'This is wonderfuland much appreciated.'
'No trouble at all,' she assured him fervently. 'What time would you like breakfast?'
He glanced at the closed connecting door. 'We need to be on our way first thing. Would toast and coffee be possible about seven-thirty?'
'Of course. I'll bring it up.'And bring it willingly if it meant another encounter with the knee-trembling Mr Jones. Plus no dining room to clean afterwards.
Hester went back downstairs in a pink haze. That, she thought reverently, was one mouth-watering male specimen if you liked your men tall, dark and masterful. Which she did. Or would if she knew any. She sighed enviously. The lady with him was very lucky. Her man had charisma in spades.
Moira was drinking tea at the table when Hester went back to the kitchen. 'Everything all right?'
'With the über-gorgeous Mr Jones, yes. The connecting door was half closed so I didn't see his lady.'
'If you had, you'd have seen for yourself why I couldn't turn them away. She looks like a ghost, poor thing.'
Hester poured milk into a mug, stirred in squares of chocolate and put it in the microwave to heat. 'He wants breakfast at seven thirty, so I said I'd take it up. But what on earth were they doing out here in January at this time of night? We don't normally do much with passing trade.'
This was true. Most of their customers came via tourist agencies and the Internet.
'Mr Jones said he'd meant to drive overnight,'said her mother, 'but his companion began feeling ill about the time it started to snow. At which point he spotted our sign on the main road and turned up here on the off chance that we had room.'
Hester fluttered her eyelashes. 'I thought Smith was the alias of choice for secret getaways. Do you think Jones is his real name?'
'That's how he signed the register.'
'Pretty anonymous. He could have murdered the woman's husband to run off with her for all we know.'
Moira shook her head. 'I somehow doubt that! But they'll both be gone in the morning, so we'll never know.'
Never say never, thought Hester, her excitement back in full force as she heard footsteps on the stairs. The clock struck the hour in a nearby church steeple to mark the occasion as she rose to face the man who'd made such an impression on her ten years ago that she'd never forgotten him.
Tall and impressive in a formal suit, he looked older and more remote, but the thick black Celtic hair and ink dark eyes were unmistakableand had exactly the same effect as the first time they'd met. He came towards her, hand outstretched, a slight smile softening the hard, imperious features. 'Connah Carey Jones. I apologise for keeping you waiting.'
Hester took the hand and felt a jolt of heat rush through her like an electric shock. Heart thumping in startled response to the contact, she returned the smile with determined composure. 'Not at all, I was early.'
He waved her back to her chair, then seated himself behind the desk, looking at her in narrow-eyed silence for a long moment before turning to her application.
She tensed. Could he have remembered her? But if he did he made no mention of it as he read through her CV.
'You look young to have so much experience in childcare,' he said at last.
'But, as you see, I'm twenty-seven.' She hesitated. 'Mr Carey Jones, to avoid any possible waste of your time, could you confirm that the post is purely temporary?'
'Certainly. It's for the summer vacation only.' The dark eyes looked up to connect with hers. 'However, there is a complication. Lowri went away to school when she was eight, and would hotly resent the idea of having a nanny again. To get round this, I've told her I'm hiring a temporary housekeeper. Sam Cooper, the man who let you in, actually runs our all male household, but during the school holiday I need a woman on hand to provide Lowri's meals, see to her personal laundry and take her out during the day. Her evenings would be spent with me.'
'I see.' Not that Hester did, entirely. Once she'd discovered the name of her prospective employer, and began wondering if he was the same Mr Jones, she'd put out some feelers through a journalist contact on the Financial Times to find out if her hunch was right. But Angus had drawn a blank on personal details. Known as the Welsh Wizard due to his phenomenal success in the world of finance, Connah Carey Jones kept his private life so strictly private there'd been no mention of a wife and child.
He returned to her application. 'Would a Norland-trained nanny with such glowing references object to posing as a housekeeper, Miss Ward?'
'Not in the slightest,' she assured him. 'I have experience in that field too, Mr Carey Jones. After my father died, my mother turned the family home into a successful bed and breakfast operation. I was involved at every level right from the start. I enjoy cooking and did a certain amount of it in my previous post, as I explained to Mr Austin.'
'It would certainly help in this instance,' he agreed, 'but my priority is finding someone trustworthy and competent, who is also young enough to be company for my daughter. It would be necessary to live in for the period of employment, also to furnish the requisite references and agree to a security check.'
He mentioned the very generous salary offer and looked at her in enquiry. 'Now that you're clear about my requirements, Miss Ward, would you accept the post if it were offered?'
Like a shot.
'Yes, Mr Carey Jones, I would,' she said firmly.
'Thank you for being so straightforward. I'll be in touch as soon as possible.' And, instead of ringing for his butler, he surprised her by accompanying her downstairs to see her out.
Buzzing from her encounter with Mr Jones, Hester set off at a brisk pace to walk back to the house on the hilly outskirts of town. She waved, smiling, when her stepfather threw open the front door before she was halfway up the steep path to the house. 'Hi, Robert.'
He hurried her inside, his kind face expectant. 'How did it go?'
'Quite well, I think, but I'll have to wait to see if I beat the opposition.'
'Of course you will! Moira's popped out for something missing from the lunch menu, but we'll eat in the garden as soon as she gets back.'
Hester kissed his cheek affectionately, then went out to climb the fire escape stairs to the garage flat Robert Marshall had re-decorated to her taste. Hester's chosen career required her to live in with whatever family she worked for, and now the family home had been sold she was deeply grateful to Robert for providing her with the security of a private, self-contained apartment as a base. She gazed out over his steep, beautifully tended garden as she changed into shorts and a halter-neck top, wondering if a second interview was likely. Having met Connor Carey Jones again, she fervently hoped so.
When Moira came back with her shopping, her jaw dropped when Hester, not without drama, announced that her interview had been with the man who'd made such an impression on them both all those years ago.
'I had an idea it might be him, Ma,' she said, smiling triumphantly, 'but I didn't say anything because it sounded so farfetched. But I was right. The man in need of a temporary nanny for his daughter really is our mysterious Mr Jones.'
'Amazing! How did you react when you saw him?'
'Luckily there was a photograph of him with a little girl on his desk, to give me advance warning.'
Moira shook her head in wonder. 'Did he recognise you?'
'Of course not. I've changed a lot since then. Besides, you saw far more of him than I did. They didn't end up leaving early in the morning as they'd planned and I had to get back to college before they leftso I never did meet his lady.'
'He was worried in case she had something infectious. She didn't, as it happened, but she was far too ill to travel, so I let them stay on for a few days until she was better.' Moira smiled reminiscently. 'Mr Jones was very appreciative. He sent me the most wonderful flowers afterwards.'
'Now you've solved your mystery, would you like the job, Hester?' asked Robert.
She nodded fervently. 'I certainly would. But apparently the daughter would object to having a nanny again, so if I did get it I'd have to pose as the temporary housekeeper.'
'No problem for you, darling,' said Moira promptly. 'You've had far more experience of housekeeping than most girls your age.'
'I think the age bit might be the problem. I got the impression he wanted someone a bit older.'
Hester found out sooner than expected. During the evening John Austin rang, asking if it was convenient for her to call back at the house in Albany Square to meet his employer at noon the next day. She raced into the garden to break the news.
'First hurdle over, folks. I've got a second interview tomorrow.'
Hester felt nervous as she mounted the steps to the elegant house in Albany Square the following morning. Which was silly. It wouldn't be the end of the world if she didn't get the job. But, having met Mr Jones again, she was very keen to work for the man she'd had such a crush on when she was a teenager. And the bonus of six weeks generous salary while she was filling in time wouldn't hurt, either. The original plan for the gap between jobs had been a holiday in the South of France, but she'd kept that secret in case it fell through at the last minute. Which it had.
The butler gave her a friendly smile as he opened the door. 'Good morning, Miss Ward. I'll show you straight upstairs.'
This time Connah Carey Jones was waiting at the open study door to greet her.
'Thank you for coming again at short notice.' He led her to the chair in front of the desk. 'To get straight to the point, your credentials tick all the boxes, Miss Ward. I notice you even live here in town.'
'Yes. Though it's actually my stepfather's house.'
His eyes sharpened. 'You don't feel welcome there?' She shook her head. 'On the contrary, Robert couldn't be kinder.' When his phone rang he glanced at it, then, with a word of apology, left the room. Hester's tension mounted as she waited for him to come back. It looked as though the job was hers. But first she had to tell him that they'd met before. He obviously didn't remember her. No surprise there. He'd been so worried about his lady at the time he'd had no attention to spare for a chubby teenager with heavy eye make-up and yards of blonde corkscrew curls. She was ten years older now, twenty pounds lighter, and her smooth coiled hair and discreet cosmetics were more in keeping with her job.
Connah Carey Jones came back into the room shortly afterwards and sat behind the desk. 'John has checked your references, Miss Ward, and has also run a security check on your background'
'Before you go on,' she said, bracing herself, 'I must tell you that we've already met.'
He sat back in his chair, nodding slowly as he trained his eyes on her face. 'I thought you looked familiar, but I couldn't pinpoint why.'
'Until I saw you yesterday,' she said quickly, 'I didn't know we'd met before. I'd read about you in the press, but I'd never seen a photograph'
'Because I make very sure I keep out of the limelight,' he assured her. 'I'm not a social animal, so where exactly did we meet, Miss Ward?'
'You came knocking on the door of our B & B one night, looking for accommodation.'
He stared at her, arrested. 'That was your home?'
'Yes. We were supposed to be closed, but it was snowing, so my mother hadn't the heart to turn you away.'
'And I thanked God for it. I've never forgotten her kindness.' He frowned. 'But I'm afraid I don't remember you.'
'I was the one who brought your trays up.'
'The teenager with yards of hair?' He smiled, surprised. 'You look very different now.'
'Ten years is a long time,' she said wryly. 'It is indeed.'He looked at her in silence for a moment. 'Right. Let's get down to brass tacks, Miss Ward. You and your mother were so kind I'm only too glad to return the favour in some small way. If you want this job, it's yours.'
She smiled warmly. 'Thank you. I promise to take good care of your daughter.'
'Good. Talking of Lowri, you need some details about her.' He looked at his watch. 'Let me give you some lunch while I put you in the picture.'
The meal was served under a vine-covered pergola overlooking a suntrap patio garden at the back of the house.
'May I give you some wine?' asked Connah. 'Thank you. I'm walking today; my car's in for service.'
'You won't need your own car while you're here,' he informed her as he filled glasses. 'Sam Cooper will drive you wherever you need to go. His official job description is butler, but he's a great deal more than that.While Lowri is here with me, his priority is security.'
Hester eyed him, startled. 'You're afraid of kidnap?'
'Afraid isn't the exact term. Let's say I keep a constant guard against the possibility.'
'Does Lowri know this?'
'No.' The handsome face set in grim lines. 'Nor, if humanly possible, do I intend her to find out.'
'But how do you manage when she's at school?'
'I chose one with security as one of its top priorities.'
'But she had a nanny up to that point?'