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Kate Vincent digested her co-worker's excited comments in silence. Dropping enviably thick, dark lashes reflectively over topaz eyes, she considered what she had been told. She had only been with the company for six months, as before that she'd only been able to manage a part-time job whilst she was completing her Master's. With the qualification nicely enhancing her CV she had felt confident enough to apply for this post, which previously she would have considered out of her range.
"So who's taking us over?" Kate questioned Laura, absently flipping the smooth length of her chestnut-brown hair over her shoulder as she did so. It had been hot outside in the street, and the coolness of the office's air-conditioning was very welcome.
"Well, John wouldn't say," Laura responded, suppressing a small envious sigh as she studied Kate's elegantly slender body, clad in a neat white T-shirt teamed with a chocolate-brown linen skirt.
Laura had been with her when Kate had bought the skirt, an end-of-line sale buy which she herself would have deemed dull. But on Kate it lookednot just good, but also somehow discreetly expensive.
"Apparently everything has to be kept hush-hush until tomorrow." She gave Kate a rueful look.
"I suppose we should have seen it coming. After all, John has been hinting for ages that he'd like to take early retirement - but I never thought he was contemplating selling out. Mind you, he and Sheila don't have any children, do they? So I don't suppose there's much point in hanging on when they could be spending their time in that condo of theirs in Miami."
Kate listened intently to Laura as she booted up her computer. The business John Loames had set up to supply specialist facilities and equipment to the building trade had been very successful, but Kate had seen for herself since she had started to work for the small private company as its accounts executive that John was growing less and less inclined to seek out new contracts. Which was a pity, because she knew that the business had a great deal of potential, and she was not entirely surprised that someone had bought John out.
"Everyone's worried about what might happen," Laura confided to her. "None of us want to lose our jobs."
"Someone new taking over might not necessarily be a bad thing," Kate pointed out to her calmly. "There's ample room for the business to be expanded, and then there would be more than enough work for all of us - provided, of course, the new owner doesn't already own a similar business and just wants to amalgamate John's with his own."
"Oh, don't say that!" Laura begged worriedly, giving a small shudder. "Roy and I have only just increased our mortgage so that we can extend the house." Her face became slightly pink. "We're trying for a family, and a baby will mean that we definitely need extra space. The last thing I need right now is to lose my job! Which reminds me - John told us that he wants us all here especially early tomorrow. Apparently the new owner has said specifically that he will be here at eight."
"Eight?" Kate switched her attention from her e-mails to Laura, her forehead crinkling in a worried frown. "Are you telling me John wants us here at eight?"
Kate's porcelain-clear skin paled slightly. It was impossible for her to make it to the office for eight o'clock in the morning. Pre-school didn't start until eight, and she would have to leave Ollie at seven-thirty at the very latest if she was to make it here for eight. She could feel the tension cramping her stomach.
It was hard enough for any mother to work full time - a constant finely-judged balancing act - but when one added into that delicate balance the fact that the mother in question was a single parent, fighting desperately hard to give as much emotional security as two loving parents would, plus the fact that she had not told her employers that she had child, then that balancing act became dangerously unstable.
Just thinking about Ollie was enough to have her stomach twisting in knots of maternal protective anxiety.
"What's wrong?" Laura asked curiously, sensing her tension.
"Er ... nothing."
Kate hadn't told anyone at work about Ollie. All too sensitive to the attitude of colleagues and employers to the difficulties that came hand in hand with a worker who was a mother - especially a single mother - Kate had made no mention of her son during her interview with John. It had only been after she had started to work for the company that she had learned that John had a somewhat old-fashioned attitude about employing women with very young children. By then she had realised how well suited she was to her job, and it to her, and although it had caused her some sleepless nights and many qualms, she had decided to keep Ollie's existence a secret. Since she was fiercely honest by nature, this decision had pricked her conscience on more than one occasion, but she had told herself that it was a necessary omission if she was to succeed with her career plans.
She was well qualified now, and she was determined to provide her son with at least some of the material benefits he would have enjoyed had his father not abandoned her.
His father! Kate could feel the cold sickness and despair laced with anger spewing up inside her - it was a mixture as dangerous and toxic as arsenic, but she was the one it threatened to poison and destroy, not the man who had broken her heart and deserted her.
Now she considered that she and Oliver were better off without him - even though what she was earning only just covered the mortgage she was paying on the tiny cottage she had bought in a pretty village several miles away from the town and Oliver's out-of-school childcare, leaving just enough for food and other essentials.
Childcare! Her lips, normally soft and sweetly curved, hardened and thinned. She was the best person to be providing her son with childcare, but she was not in a financial position to be able to do so.
Her current job was the first rung on the career ladder she was going to have to climb in order to support them both properly. The head of her department was due to retire in two years' time, and Kate had secretly been hoping that if she did her job well enough John might promote her into the vacancy.
Her twenty-fifth birthday wasn't that far away, and neither was Ollie's fifth. His fifth birthday and her fifth year of being alone, of being without - Swiftly Kate buried the potentially damaging thoughts. She didn't need them, she didn't want them, and she damn well wasn't going to let them disturb her hard-won peace of mind.
It was her future she needed to focus on, and not her past! This takeover could destroy any chance she might have had of such a promotion, but it might also give her increased opportunities, she reflected, as she studied some comparison charts she had set up on her own initiative, to see which customers could be approached to increase their orders.
Excerpted from Mistress to Her Husband by Penny Jordan Copyright © 2005 by Penny Jordan. Excerpted by permission.
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