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Cormac Douglas needed a wife. Tomorrow. Irritation and impatience thrummed through him in time with the drumming of his fingers on his desk. Outside, the crenellated turrets of Edinburgh Castle were shrouded in a thick and gloomy October fog.
He needed a wife. How? Who?
The women he knew were not wife material. Beauties to be seduced or aspiring socialites to be avoided. No one who would be suitable to act as his wife, weekend engagement only.
No one he could entice, bribe or blackmail. Bend to his will.
His narrowed hazel gaze scanned his officea large, spare room on the top floor of a restored building on Cowgate. He'd gutted the place when he'd bought it five years ago, turned the old, poky rooms into a wide-open space filled with light and exposed brick.
Normally the sight of the office he owned and the memories it banished gave him a satisfaction that replaced his usual restless discontent.
Now it just seemed to mock him. He had the perfect commission, ripe for the taking, meant to be his, and he wouldn't get it unless he had a wife.
The conversation a few days ago with an architect colleague replayed in his mind.
'The Hassells finally want to develop a resort in Sint Rimbert,' Eric had said. 'Something eco-friendly and luxurious, aimed particularly at families.'
'Families,' Cormac repeated without any intonation.
'Yes, they claim it's a needed niche in the marketluxury for the little ones.' He chuckled. 'It's a plum commission.'
'I'd go for it myself, but they want to start work in the new year and I'm already booked.'He paused, laughing ruefully. 'I'm also out of the running for another reasonI'm notmarried.'
'Married?' Cormac's voice turned sharp. 'What the hell does that have to do with anything?'
'Apparently the Hassells are a close-knit family. They want someone dependable to design this resort, with family values, seeing as it's a family resort. Preferably a married man. Of course, that's just the word on the streetthey'd never say as much officially.'
'Of course.' Cormac injected a dry note into his voice. 'Presumably that's why I haven't heard of it.'
'Exactly,' Eric agreed, laughing. 'You're not on the short-list, Cormac.'
'What are you thinking of? A trip to Gretna Green?'
Cormac knew Eric was joking so he chuckled along with him. 'Not a bad idea.'
'You know your own reputation,' Eric said with a careless laugh. 'But I didn't think you were quite that ruthless.'
After the telephone call Cormac had spent a long time staring out at the gloomy skies, the crawl of cars intent on avoiding the traffic of the Old Town.
He imagined the short-list Jan Hassell would have compiled: smug married architects with their happy home lives and uninspired designs.
It was absurd that the Hassells wanted a married man to design the resort. Family values had no effectat least no positive effecton one's work. He should know. His work was his life, his breath. And as for family
He stifled a curse, one hand balling into a frustrated fist. He wanted that commission. It was a fantastic opportunity, but it was more than that. It was a chance to prove who he was and who he wasn't.
He was the best man for the job, could be the best man if given the chance, if he grabbed it.
He wasn't married.
A few hours after the call from Eric, Cormac had made some calls of his own and finally connected with Jan Hassell. After faxing his CV and some designs to Jan, he'd been invited to a weekend house party on Sint Rimbert, along with two other architects. It was a stone's throw from complete success and now all he needed was a wife on his arm, an ornament to prove he had all those damn family values.
To get the commission.
To seize it.
He glanced at some letters on his desk which his secretary had left for him to sign and irritably pulled them towards him. He was just scrawling his name on the bottom of the first page when he stopped. Smiled.
He had the perfect idea. The perfect wife.
She just didn't know it yet.
'I'm glad you're doing so well, Dani,' Lizzie said into the phone. She swallowed past the lump which had risen suddenly stupidlyin her throat. It was ridiculous to feel sad. Dani was happy, enjoying life at university, doing all the things an eighteen-year-old should do.
This was what she'd always wanted for her sister. Always.
There was a low rumble of male laughter from the end of the line and Dani said, 'I ought to go, some friends are coming over '
'It's only five o'clock,'Lizzie found herself protesting, aware of the prissy censure in her voice.
'It's Thursday, Lizzie!' Dani laughed. 'Weekends at university always start early.'Another male laugh sounded in the background and she asked a bit guiltily, 'Do you have plans for the weekend? Your first weekend alone!'
'Yes.' Lizzie tried to inject some enthusiasm into her voice and failed. 'Yes, I'm going to ' Her mind went blank. Read a book. Take a bath. Go to bed.
'Paint the town red?' If there was any mockery in Dani's voice, it was gentle, but it still stung. 'You should go for it, Lizzie. You've spent too much of your life looking after me as it is. Seize life! Or at least a man.' She giggled. 'Anyway, someone's calling me, so I'd better go ' Giggling again, at someone other than Lizzie, she hung up the phone.
Seize life. Dani's reckless advice rang in Lizzie's ears as she replaced the receiver. It was easy for her sister to seize things; she was carefree, young, thoughtless. She didn't have responsibilities, concerns, bills weighing her down.
Lizzie sighed. She didn't want to think badly of Dani. Hadn't she worked so hardsacrificed her own dreamsso Dani could have hers?
And now she had them. Lizzie knew she should be thrilled.
And she was. She was.
Determinedly, she rose from her desk. Perhaps she would paint the town, if not red, then a light pink. She could go to a wine bar on Rose Street, see if anyone from work was going There was an associate architect she vaguely fanciedJohn something. Of course, he didn't even know her name.
No one did.
And even as these plans half-formed in her mind, Lizzie knew she would never carry them out. Didn't know how. Didn't dare.
Sighing, she reached for her handbag. She'd make sure her boss didn't need anything else from her tonight and then she'd go home. Alone. Lonely.
She knocked lightly on Cormac Douglas's door.
The barked-out command made Lizzie stiffen slightly. Cormac Douglas was in the Edinburgh office for only one week out of four, and she found she preferred the other three. His terse commands were taken better by e-mail or a short note left on her desk than face to face.
Lizzie pushed the door open. 'Mr Douglas? I was just going to head out unless you need me ?'
Cormac stood by the window, hands shoved deep into his trouser pockets, his gaze studying the grey cityscape stretched out before him. 'Need you?' he repeated as if considering the question. He turned to face her, his eyes sweeping her form in a strangely assessing way. 'As a matter of fact, I do.'
'All right.' Lizzie waited for instructions. She was used to staying late when Cormac was in town, although she'd finished all the work he'd given her. Something must have come up.
'Do you have a current passport?' he asked, and Lizzie blinked, nonplussed.
'Good.' He paused and Lizzie had the feeling he was considering what to say. An odd thought, since Cormac Douglas was the kind of man who always knew what to say. 'I have a business engagement,'he finally explained tersely, 'and I need a secretary to accompany me.'
'Very well.' Lizzie nodded, as if this was something she'd done before. In the two years she'd worked for Douglas Architectural Designs, she'd never accompanied Cormac anywhere, not even to a local work site. He preferred to do things on his own. Besides, he was more likely to take one of his assistants from the London office with him than Lizzie, a plain, parochial Edinburgh girl. 'Where are we going?'
'We leave for the Dutch Antilles tomorrow evening and return on Monday. It's a very important commission.' He paused, eyes narrowed, brow furrowed in concentration. 'Do you understand?'
'Yes.'Lizzie's mind was spinning, although she strove to look unruffled. The Dutch Antilles If her geography wasn't too far off, that was in the Caribbean and at least eight hours by plane. If Cormac was travelling that far simply to court a commission, it had to be serious. And so did she.
She swallowed, heard the audible gulp, and forced herself to meet Cormac's harsh gaze.
'Is there anything I can do to arrange the travel?'
'Yes, book the tickets.' He pushed a piece of paper across the desk. 'The information's there. I'll be out of the office tomorrow, so I'll meet you at the airport, first-class lounge. Just text me the relevant information.'
Lizzie nodded, used to such terse commands. She picked up the paper and scanned the few scrawled details.
She could hardly pump Cormac for information, or ask him what kind of clothes she should bring. Or why he had chosen to bring her.
She swallowed down her curiosity and smiled stiffly. 'Is that all?'
His gaze swept over her once more and a strange sardonic smile curved his mouth. Lizzie had the eerie feeling she'd somehow done something that Cormac had expected and it was a disappointment.
'That's it,' he said and, sitting down at his desk, turned back to his work, dismissing her from both his presence and his mind.
Lizzie slipped silently from the room.
Back at her desk she sank into her chair, her knees weak.
She was going to the Caribbean. She pictured white sandy beaches, tropical forests, tropical drinks. People, laughter, sultry breezes. For a moment she allowed a thrill to trickle through her like quicksilver, awakening nerves, dreams, even desires she hadn't known she still had.
Who knew what could happen? Who she might meet?
She had plans for this weekend. Big ones.
After making the necessary travel arrangements, Lizzie got up and shrugged on her coat.
She was going to the Caribbean with Cormac Douglas.
For a moment she paused, her coat halfway on, as she considered what a trip with her boss would be like. Together on a plane, in a hotel, on the beach.
Would Cormac soften in a new, more relaxed environment? Or would he be just as tense and short with her as always?
She pictured him for a moment, tried to imagine his face in a smile rather than a scowl, eyes crinkled with laughter rather than narrowed in scorn. It was virtually impossible. She wasn't sure she'd ever seen Cormac Douglas smilea kind smile rather than something born of contempt or cold-blooded business acumen.
She gave herself a mental shake; she had no place imagining what Cormac would be like. It didn't matter. All he wanted her for was to take notes, carry papers. And do it well.
And yet the Caribbean. With Cormac. Another thrill racked her like a shiverillicit, dangerous. Real.
A fine misting drizzle was falling when Lizzie left work, heading into the busy nightlife of the Old Town.
A few of the other secretaries from the office had invited her out when she'd first started working there, but she'd never been able to go because of Dani.
Now they no longer asked.
Lizzie shrugged this off; caring for Dani was enough, had always been enough.
Except now she was gone.
The last three days had been strange, still, silent. Lizzie accepted it with pragmatic determination, told herself she needed time to develop her own friends and pastimes, things she'd never had time to have before. Time to find a life.
And it would start by jet-setting off to the Caribbean.
A giggle escaped her, a breathless sound of pure feminine fun.
Three days in Sint Rimbert Anything seemed possible. She was doing what Dani had told her to do. Seizing life.
Even if she had to go with Cormac Douglas, at least she would be getting out, meeting people, having a bit of an adventure.
It was a start of something.
She left the lights, misty through the rain, of Princes Street and headed towards her house in Stockbridge, a short walk from Edinburgh's Old Town.
The Georgian town house was in an area that had become affluent and cosmopolitan, and as always Lizzie was aware how shabby and run-down her house looked among the othersa weed among roses. It needed new windows, a coat of paint and a dozen other things, as well. None of them were within her budget, but it was home, a house full of memories she wanted to keep.
She unlocked the door and pushed it open, entering the dim hallway. As she had been since Dani's departure, Lizzie was conscious of the silence, the emptiness, the blank spaces.
'Empty nest syndrome at twenty-eight,' she murmured, annoyed with herself. Defiantly she turned on the radio in the kitchen, glanced in the cupboards to see what she could make for a meal and then headed upstairs to change.
He had a wife. Cormac knew he would have to tread carefully. It was a delicate business, maintaining a deceit.
Still, he thought he knew how to play his secretary. Intimidation was the key to someone like her. He shook his head in contemptuous dismissal.
Miss Chandler was one of those unfortunate people in life whose only purpose was to be used.
Use or be used.
Cormac chose the former. Always.
Despite the satisfaction he felt at obtaining his so-called wife, he also felt a restless surging, an uneasy energy pulsing through him. There were too many variables, possibilities. Not everything was under his control. Yet.
Would his secretary be convincing as his wife? He hadn't told her just what was required of her; he'd do it on the plane when there was no exit. No escape.
His mouth curved in a knowing smile. He didn't think she'd balk, but if necessary he could offer her money. No one turned down cold, hard cash.
God knew she could probably use a little extra, even though he considered the salaries he offered to his staff to be generous enough. She wore the same black suit to work every day, clearly something inexpensive off the high street. With her lack of makeup and pale, neat hair, she could certainly use a makeover, or at least some good advice.