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'But, Chloe, I need you with us. I'm counting on you.' Mrs Armstrong opened limpid blue eyes to their widest extent. 'I thought you knew that.'
She paused. 'Besides, just think of itan entire summer in the South of France. And we'll be away quite a lot, so you'd have the villa all to yourself. Now, isn't that tempting?'
'Yes, it is,' Chloe Benson returned equably. 'But, as I said when I handed in my notice, madam, I have my own plans.'
And staying in domestic service, no matter how gold-plated and lucrative, is not among them, she added silently. Nice try, Dilys baby, but no thanks.
'Well, I'm very disappointed.' Mrs Armstrong's tone took on the faint peevishness which was her nearest approach to animation. 'And I don't know what my husband will say.'
He'll say, 'Bad luck, old thing,' then go back to the Financial Times, just as he always does, Chloe thought, biting back a smile.
'If it's a question of money.' Mrs Armstrong allowed her perfect brow to wrinkle. 'If you've had a better offer, I'm sure we could come to some arrangement.'
On the contrary, Chloe wanted to tell her, it's love rather than money that's luring me away.
She allowed herself a happy moment to think about Ian. To summon up the image of his tall, broad-shouldered frame, his curling brown hair and smiling blue eyes. To imagine the moment when she'd go into his arms and say, 'I've come home, darling, and this time it's for good. Just name the day and I'll be there.'
She shook her head. 'It's nothing like that, madam. I've simply decided to take a different career direction.'
'But what a waste, when you're so good at what you do.'
What talent did you really require for saying, 'Yes, madam, very good madam?' Chloe wondered with faint exasperation. For organising the smooth running of a house with every modern convenience known to the mind of man and then some. For making sure the other members of staff did their jobs efficiently.
Whatever might be happening in the City, billionaire Hugo Armstrong wanted an untroubled existence at his country home, Colestone Manor. He was bored by day-to-day domestic detail, requiring any problems to be dealt with quickly and unobtrusively, the bills paid, and his guests offered the luxurious environment of a top hotel.
Quite simply, he asked for perfection, with the minimum effort on his part, and, during her tenure as housekeeper, Chloe had ensured that he got it.
She knew she was young for the job and she would have a lot to prove, but she was bright, energetic and a good organiser used to hard work, as her previous references attested.
Her responsibilities were manifold, her hours long, but her astonishing salary more than compensated for these and other inconveniences.
She was not, of course, expected to have any life of her own. Christmas and Easter were busy times at the Manor. She had not even been able to attend Uncle Hal and Aunt Libby's thirtieth wedding anniversary, because the Armstrongs had arranged a large house-party that weekend, and couldn't spare her. Her salary that month had been augmented by a large bonus, but it hardly made up for missing out on such a special occasion with people she loved, the only real family she'd ever had, and she still had feelings of guilt about it.
But she'd always known that the job was twenty-four-seven while it lasted. And now her notice was nearly up, and it was only going to last another week.
Losing her might cause her employers some temporary annoyance, she reflected as she went back to her quarters, but no-one was indispensable, and the Belgravia agency would supply a replacement for her with the minimum of fuss, so she was hardly leaving them in the lurch.
The computer in the housekeeper's office was regularly updated with details of the shops that delivered the Manor's supplies, and the tradesmen who provided any services required, plus the family's food preferences, fads and fancies, as well as a complete rundown on all meals served to guests over the past six months, and the bedrooms they'd occupied where appropriate.
Her successor, she thought with satisfaction, should enjoy a seamless takeover.
She would miss her flat, she admitted as she closed its door behind her and looked around. Though small, it was self-contained, and luxuriously equipped with its own wet room, an expensive fitted galley kitchen, and a queen-sized bed dominating the bedroom.
It would seem odd sleeping in the modest room at Axford Grange again, with Aunt Libby filling a hot-water bottle for her whether she needed it or not, and popping in to say goodnight, but it would not be for long.
Maybe Ian would want her to move in with him before they were married, she thought pleasurably. And if he did, she would agree without the slightest hesitation. It was more than time his patient wooing was rewarded. In fact, she couldn't understand why she'd held back for so long. At twenty-five and still a virgin, she was beginning to feel as if she was part of an endangered species.
And yet she'd remained celibate entirely through her own choice. Her creamy skin, tip-tilted hazel eyes with their long lashes and warmly curving mouth had attracted plenty of male attention since her teens.
She'd been sixteen when Ian arrived at the Grange on placement from his veterinary college and, almost from the first, she'd been sure that they were meant for each other.
As soon as he was qualified, he'd come back to work in her uncle's busy practice, and he was now a full partner.
Soon he'll be my partner too, she thought and smiled to herself.
He'd proposed for the first time just after she'd left university, but she'd demurred, knowing she wanted to test her newly fledged wings. She'd planned to work as a magazine journalist but jobs in the industry proved elusive, and as a temporary measure she'd joined an agency offering domestic help. Most of her friends at college had worked in bars or waited on restaurant tables to supplement their money, but Chloe, with Aunt Libby's training behind her, opted for cleaning jobs instead, working in the early mornings and earning a reputation for being reliable, fast and thorough.
She'd just laughed when she was nicknamed Chloe the Char, retorting 'honest work for honest pay'. Her view on that had never changed.
Ian had not been at all happy when she told him she'd been offered the job at Colestone Manor.
'It's one hell of a distance from here,' he'd protested. 'I thought you were going to find something locally. That we were going to have some real time together at last.'
'And so we shall,' she said. 'But it's also a chance to make some real money.'
'I'm not exactly earning peanuts,' he returned, his mouth tightening. 'You won't be living in penury.'
'I know.' She kissed him. 'But have you any idea what even the smallest wedding costs these days? And uncle Hal and Aunt Libby have done so much for me all my life. This is one expense I can spare them. Besides, the time will soon pass. You'll see.'
Only it hadn't, and Chloe wondered sometimes whether she'd have taken the job if she'd realised how all-consuming it was, with the Armstrongs quite reasonably expecting her to be at their beck and call all day and every day.
Communication with Ian and the family over the past year had been largely through hurried notes and phone calls. Not a satisfactory state of affairs by any means.
But all that was behind her now, she thought, and she could concentrate on the future and turning herself into the ideal niece and the perfect fiancée.
Because of her savings, of course, she didn't even need to find another jobnot immediately. So, she could take her time. Look around. Find the right thing, and stick to it for a couple of years until they decided to start a family.
It was all going to work out perfectly, she told herself and sighed with contentment.
She was waiting for the coffee percolator to finish brewing, when she heard a knock, and Tanya, the nanny to the Armstrong twins put her head round the door.
'The rumour mill is working overtime,' she announced. 'Tell me it's wrong for once, and you're not leaving after all.'
'Oh, but I am.' Chloe smiled at her and took down a second beaker.
'Tragedy.' Tanya slumped into a chair, stretching out long legs, her pretty freckled face disconsolate. 'Where can I go for sanity when the brats are driving me mad?'
'What have you done with them at the moment? Tied them to chairs in the nursery?'
'Dilys is taking them to a tea partymummies only,' Tanya said grimly. 'I wish her luck.'
'My sympathies are with the hostess,' Chloe returned, pouring the coffee.
'Well, spare a thought for me. I'll be the one left holding the babyliterallyin the South of France while Dilys and Hugo do the Grand Tour from villa to villa and yacht to yacht,' Tanya said moodily. 'The only thing holding me together was the prospect of you being there too. I was sure she'd persuade you. Get you to withdraw your notice.'
'She certainly tried,' Chloe said cheerfully, handing her a beaker. 'But no dice. I'm off to get a life.'
'You have a new job lined up?'
'Not as such.' Chloe hesitated. 'Actually, I'm going to be married.'
Tanya's eyes went to her bare left hand. 'To that vet you mentioned back home? I didn't know you were even engaged.'
'Well, it's strictly unofficial as yet. I wasn't ready before when he asked me, but, now, settling down seems like a really great thing to do, so,' she added, smiling, 'I'm going to do it.'
'Won't village life seem tame after all this glitz and glamour?'
Chloe shook her head. 'I've never bought into it, any more than you have. I know my priorities and this job was always just a means to an end.
'Apart from getting my hair cut once a month,' she went on, running a hand through her mop of dark curls. 'And having the odd cinema and pizza jaunt with you when we could get time off together, I've hardly spent a thing. So I have a lot of money sitting in the bank right now.'
Her smile widened. 'Enough to pay for a wedding, certainly, and also contribute to the updating of Ian's cottage, which it sorely needs. Together, we can make it wonderful.'
Tanya's brows lifted. 'Does Ian share this view?'
Chloe sighed humorously. 'He seems to think all a kitchen requires is a stove, a sink and a second-hand fridge. Also that a rusting bath is a valuable antique. I intend to educate him.'
'Well, good luck to that.' Tanya raised her beaker in a faintly ironic toast. 'But maybe he's already put in a new kitchen in honour of your return. Did you think of that?'
'He doesn't yet know I'm coming back. I want to surprise him.'
'Christmas!' Tanya eyed her quizzically. 'You must be very sure of him.'
'I'm sure of us both,' Chloe told her serenely. 'And I can't wait to get back to Willowford.' She sighed again. 'I've missed it so much.'
'It must be a hell of a place to coax you away from the Riviera,' Tanya commented. 'What's so special about it?'
'Well, it's not exactly picture-postcard stuff,' Chloe said, frowning. 'There are no thatched roofs, and the church is Victorian. Although the Hall is considered rather splendid Jacobean with later additions.'
'And does it have a squire who twirls his moustaches and chases the village maidens?'
Chloe's smile held faint constraint. 'I don't think that's Sir Gregory's style,' she said, after a pause. 'Even if his arthritis allowed it.'
'Is he married?'
Chloe shook her head. 'A widower.'
'The heir and the spare,' said Tanya. 'Very conventional.' Chloe bit her lip. 'Not really, because the spare doesn't feature much any more. There was a gigantic rift a few years ago, and he became persona non grata.'
'Aha.' Tanya's eyes gleamed. 'This is more like it. What happened?'
Chloe looked away. 'He had an affair with his older brother's wife,' she said at last. 'Broke up the marriage. All very sordid and nasty. So his father threw him out.'
'What happened to the wife?'
'She left too.'
'So are they together? She andwhat do they call him? I can't go on saying "the spare".'
'Darius,' Chloe said. 'Darius Maynard. And I don't think anyone knows where he is or what happened to him. Or even cares, for that matter.'
Tanya drew a deep breath. 'Well the place is clearly a seething mass of steaming passion and illicit desire. I can see why you want to get in on the action. And the heir needs another wife, presumably.' She gave a wicked wink. 'Maybe you could do better than a country vet.'
'No way.' Chloe drained her beaker. 'To be honest, I think quite a few people found Andrew Maynard a bit of a stuffed shirt and didn't altogether blame Penny, who was incredibly beautiful, for looking around. But Darius already had a bad name locally, so no-one ever thought he'd be the one to get a second glance.'
Tanya's eyes gleamed. 'What sort of bad name?'
'Expelled from school. Drinking, gambling, mixing with the local wild bunch. Parties that people only whispered about behind their hands.' Chloe shrugged. 'Plus rumours that he was involved in other even worse thingsillegal dog fighting, for instance.' She added bleakly, 'No-one was sorry to see him go, believe me.'
'Well, for all that, he sounds more interesting than his brother.' Tanya finished her coffee and stood up. 'I'd better get back. I thought while the monsters were missing, I could fumigate the toy cupboards.'