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'What do you mean? Explain again. I'm not getting it.' Lucy Robins looked between her parents, buying time while her brain tried to catch up with what she had just been told. Running round and round at her feet, Freddy, the pug she had adopted three years ago, now made a stab at grabbing her attention by flipping over on his back and playing dead.
'Not now, Freddy!' she said, patting her lap. With that small show of encouragement, the brown and black dog scrambled onto her lap and proceeded to gaze adoringly up at her.
The second Lucy had got her mother's phone call she had known something was wrong. Celia Robins never called her daughter at work, even though Lucy had repeatedly told her that it really didn't matterthat it wasn't as though she worked in an office where there was a big, bad boss keeping a watchful eye over employees and punishing anyone caught using their mobile.
The huge garden centre, set within the grounds of botanical gardens, which drew visitors from the across the country, was the most relaxed of environments. There, Lucy was part-gardener, helping with the landscaping team, and part-artist, using her newly gained degree in graphic art to draw exquisite detailed illustrations of flowers for a comprehensive book of the flora and fauna at the centre.
Her mother's call had come just as she had been about to start replanting a batch of delicate orchids that had been meticulously cared for since their arrival at the centre six months previously. She had heard the words, 'Honey, could you possibly come home? There's something of an emergency ' and had flown to her car, pausing only to tell Victor where she was going and to scoop up Freddy, who was allowed free rein in the outdoor space.
Now she stared in dismay at her father's drooping figure. 'What do you mean you're in trouble with the company finances?'
Nicholas Robins, as small and round as his wife was tall and slender, raised apologetic eyes to his daughter. 'I borrowed some money a few years ago, Luce. Not much. When your mother had her stroke things just got a little crazy I thought we were going to lose her I wanted to give her her dream of a cruise I wasn't thinking rationally '
On her lap, Freddy had nodded off and was snoring. Lucy stroked his fat tummy. Her skin was clammy. When her father had announced that he and her mother were going on a cruisea lifetime dream, a wonderful opportunity that might be their lasthe had told her he had received an unexpected bonus at work. The company had just been taken over by an electronics giant and Lucy had believed himhad been over the moon at his unexpected good luck.
'When she recovered' her father's voice was laboured, heavy 'I wanted to take her somewhere special. I thought if I borrowed a little bit more I could repay it before it was missed. I can't believe I was that stupid.'
Lucy glanced worriedly towards her mother. Celia Robins was a frail woman who would be unable to cope with the distressing catastrophe unfolding in front of her. The stroke she had suffered had sapped her of her energy, and both Lucy and her father lived in constant fear that she would suffer another.
'I didn't think that anything would change after GGD took us over,' her father continued in a shaking voice. 'Before the takeover, I was the only bookkeeper there. They brought in a team of financial whiz kids. I managed to keep things under wraps for as long as I could, and I'd started repaying the money, but this morning I was called in and told they had found some discrepancies and that it might be an idea if I took a little leave until it gets sorted out..
Appalled, Lucy didn't know what to say. Her father was by no means a crook, and yet she knew with a sinking heart that no lawyer in the land would see it that way. He had helped himself to company funds and that was where the story would end. There would be no room for sob stories or excuses. That wasn't how big organisations operated. Especially that would not be how GGD would operate.
Gabriel Garcia Diaz was the guy who had founded GGD. Ruthless, cold and brilliant, he had risen to dominate the field of electronics in the space of a mere eight years, consuming smaller companies and growing more and more powerful in the process. Gabriel Garcia Diaz was the shark in the pond, and a shark wouldn't look at small minnows like her father and weep tears of sympathy for his plight.
A wash of nervous perspiration broke out over her.
For the past two years she had contrived to put Gabriel Diaz out of her mind, but now the past galloped towards her, stampeding into the present and crashing through the flimsy defences she had erected to keep the unsettling memory of him at bay.
She had met him quite by accident. For weeks the talk of the town had been the takeover of Sims Electronics by GGD. The big guns were rolling into town and would be rescuing the ailing company where her father worked, transforming it into a mega-sized giant and in the process creating hundreds of jobs.
Lucy hadn't been able to get worked up over it. She'd been pleased that the rampant unemployment that afflicted their little slice of Somerset would be brought to an end, but big business didn't interest her. She had just got her job at the garden centre and all her excitement had been saved for that. She loved plants, she loved working outdoors, and she'd also had something else to celebrate. She had been called in and offered the task of illustrating the centre's first documented book of all the rare and exotic species of flowers being cultivated in the massive greenhouses.
Indeed, she had forgotten that the big boss of GGD would be rolling into town. Excited to tell her father about her new area of responsibility, for both her parents knew how keen she was to utilise her art degree, she had hopped on her bike in her lunch hour and cycled like the wind to where he worked.
It had only been when she had spotted the sleek black limo and the convoy of similarly grand cars in the parking lot that she'd belatedly remembered that it was the big day.
In the glittering summer sun, all the employees of Sims had gathered outside the building while, dominating the space in the centre, and surrounded by an alarming circle of threatening men in dark suits, one man had stood literally head and shoulders above the rest.
Lucy's eyes had been drawn to him, and even from a safe distance she'd been able to feel the power of his personality radiating out with shocking force. Everyone's attention had been glued to his face. Some of them had had their mouths half open, in thrall to whatever he was saying. She hadn't been able to hear. She'd been too far away. However, she'd understood what it was about the man that commanded their attention. Beyond the aura of power he was just the most incredible human being she had ever clapped eyes on. Tall, with raven-black hair, harsh, beautifully chiselled features and a bronzed colouring that lent him the air of someone breathtakingly exotic, he was as spectacularly beautiful as a lovingly carved statue of a Greek god.
Her father had been in the inner circle, dressed in his best suit, but as the tall man had headed to the open doors of the company, surrounded by his entourage, her father had fallen back and she'd taken the chance to race towards him on her bike so that she could tell him her good news.
Mr VIP had been heading off to inspect the building and the components centre. Later, Lucy hadn't understood how it was that he had managed to notice her amidst the excited commotion surrounding him. Had he spotted her cycling away? Had he radioed one of his lackeys who had remained outside with the fleet of cars, primed for a hasty departure? Nor, at the time, had she thought anything of the beefy guy in the suit who'd asked her who she was and what she was doing on the premises.
Anxious not to mention any connection with her father, for she didn't know if it was against rules for employees to speak when their attention should be one hundred percent focused on their leader, Lucy had instead vaguely told him that she worked at the garden centre and had been checking to make sure all the plants they'd installed for the visit were okay.
Later, packing up for the day, she had had her first real contact with Gabriel Garcia Diaz. About to cycle home, she had been bending down to the wheel lock on the bike. When she'd stood up, there he'd been. At a distance, two bodyguards had lounged by a shiny black car.
He had literally taken her breath away. Never had she felt such a strange compulsion to stare and stare and stareas though her eyes couldn't get their fill of his bronzed, exotic beauty. Up close he'd been so much more breathtaking, and when he'd spoken, his voice had been a low, dark, lazy drawl asking her to tell him her name telling her that he had noticed her informing her that he hadn't planned on staying over but he would now make an exception to take her out
Lucy had been speechless, flustered and vaguely terrified. What sort of man approached a woman he didn't know and informed her that she would be taken out to dinner? In a tone of voice that denied any negative response?
His urbane sophistication, his staggering good looks, and the lazy, sexual appreciation in those dark, dark eyes had made her head swim. Backing away, she had turned him down. She hadn't been able to imagine what a man like him would want with someone like her, but as soon as she'd asked herself the question she'd come up with the answer. Sex.
She had virtually run for cover and had continued to turn him down for the remainder of that week, which had seen deliveries of flowersterrifically expensive flowers, the centre of attention at the garden centreand one express delivery of a gold bracelet that she had refused to accept. He hadn't approached her again in person, but the sustained bombardment, designed to erode her defences, had confused her and sent her further into hiding. In the end she had left a text message on the cell number he had given her. She had told him to go away, that she had a boyfriend. And he had.
Curiously, the abrupt cessation of all that attention had left her feeling deflated for weeks afterwards. Then, gradually, she had gathered herself and put the memory of him behind her as just one of those weird things.
Working at the garden centre left her no time to question the disturbing impact he had had on her. Nor had he returned to visit the offices where her father continued to work. Huge though the modernisations and expansions had been to Sims, it remained, or so she had been told, just a very small tentacle of one mammoth conglomerate.
Now, as Lucy looked at her parents, who seemed frightened and diminished by the rapidity with which everything they knew seemed to be unravelling, the image of Gabriel Diaz rose up in her head like a dark, avenging angel.
'Perhaps I could help,' she offered, her heart beating nervously. 'I mean, I get a good salary at the garden centre, and I could always ask whether they would advance me some of the money for the illustrations I've already done for their second volume. I'm nearly through with them. I'm sure they wouldn't mind . Plus Kew Gardens are interested in commissioning me to do some work for them .'
'It's no good, honey.' Nicholas Robins shook his head with something approaching despair. 'I tried to talk to them to explain the circumstances. I offered to have my salary cut by as much as it took to pay the debt off but they weren't interested. They said that's not how they run their organisation. One strike and you're out.'
'And you spoke to to Mr Diaz himself?' His name passing her lips sent a shiver through her, and again she recalled those glittering, mesmerising dark eyes and the way they had looked at her.
'Oh, no.' Her father sighed. 'I asked if I could see him but this matter isn't important enough for him to get involved. The man's hardly in the country as it is.'
'So what's going to happen?' Lucy could barely phrase the question because she was so scared of the answer, but ducking reality was never a good idea. Her voice was thick with tears but she wouldn't let herself cry. Her parents were both distressed enough as it was. She was an only child, and they had had her late in life and always protected her. Her unhappiness would be as wounding to them as their own.
'At best,' her father confessed, 'we'll lose the roof over our heads. At worst.'
That dreadful worst-case scenario remained unspoken, but it hovered in the air like a malignant cloud. At worst he could go to jail. Embezzlement was an offence that the courts took very seriously.
Lucy opened her mouth to suggest that they could both always come and live with her, sell their house and beg to pay off the debt with the proceeds, but practically how on earth would that work? She rented a small one-bedroomed cottage on the edge of the village. It suited her needs ideally, with its big, rambling garden and a tiny studio off the kitchen, where she often worked at her illustrations at night, but at best it was only good to house one girl and her dog. Stick two more human beings in and there wouldn't be room to move.
The options were running out fast. Her mother rose to make them all another pot of tea, and in her absence Lucy leaned forward and hurriedly asked how her mother was doing. Really.
'I'm worried,' her father said unhappily. 'She's being supportive but she has to be scared stiff. And we both know her health isn't good. If I get put away you'll have to look after her, Luce. She can't look after herself .'
'You won't get put away!' But the sound of options running out was the sound of jail doors being clanged shut. 'I could have a word .' she said finally.
'With who, my darling? Believe me, I've tried my damnedest and they're not interested. I even offered to show them receipts for how the money was spent. The holiday Mum and I took after she had the stroke . They don't care. They're there to do a job and there's no appealing to them .'
'I could see Mr Diaz.'
'My love, he'll be a hundred times worse. He's a money-making machine without an emotional bone in his body. Sims went from being a small, friendly family firm to being part of a giant company where profits get made but there's a price to be paid. There's no such thing as compassionate leave. He has his minions there to make sure no one leaves early or even makes personal calls .'
Lucy thought back to that broodingly arrogant face and could well believe that anyone daring to disobey Gabriel Diaz would be hung, drawn and quartered without trial.
And yet he had sought her out two years ago, had made his intentions perfectly clear. He had wanted her. She hadn't understood why at the time, and she was no nearer to understanding now, but couldn't that brief flare of attraction help her out now? Perhaps encourage him to be more sympathetic to her parents' plight than he might normally have been under the circumstances?