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Her eyes, he decided, were the most amazing shade of lavender. The colour of a bruise.
'Larenz, did you hear a word I was saying?'
Reluctantly, Larenz de Luca pulled his fascinated gaze from the face of the waitress and turned back to his dining partner. Despite his growing interest in the lovely young woman who had served him his soup, he couldn't fathom why his head of PR had brought him to this manor house. The place was a wreck.
Amelie Weyton drummed her glossy French-manicured nails on the polished surface of the antique dining table, which looked as if it could serve at least twenty, although there were only the two of them seated there now. 'Really, I think this place is perfect.'
Amused, Larenz let his gaze slide back to the waitress. 'Yes,' he murmured, 'I quite agree.' He glanced down at the bowl of soup she had placed in front of him. It was the colour of fresh cream with just a hint of gold and a faint scent of rosemary. He dipped in his spoon. Cream of parsnip. Delicious.
Amelie drummed her fingernails again; Larenz saw a tiny crescent-shaped divot appear on the glossy surface of the table. From the corner of his eye, he saw the waitress flinch but when he looked up her face was carefully expressionless, just as it had been since he'd arrived at Maddock Manor an hour ago. Larenz could tell she didn't like him.
He'd seen it the moment he had crossed the threshold. Lady Maddock's eyes had narrowed and her nostrils had flared even as she'd smiled in welcome. Now her violet gaze swept over him in one quick and quelling glance, and Larenz could tell she was not impressed. The thought amused him.
He was used to assessing people, sizing them up and deciding whether they were useful or not. It was how he'd fought his way up to run his own highly successful business; it was how he stayed on top. And while Lady Maddock may have decided he was an untitled, moneyed nobody, he was beginning to think she was very interesting indeed. And possibly very useful as well.
'You haven't even seen the grounds yet,' Amelie continued. She took a tiny sip of soup; Larenz knew she wouldn't eat more than a bite or two of the three-course meal Lady Maddock had prepared for them. Ellery Dunant was cook, waitress and chatelaine of Maddock Manor. It must gall her terribly to wait on them, Larenz thought with cynical amusement. Or, perhaps, on anyone. Both he and Amelie had acquired plenty of polish but they were still untitled, the dreaded nouveau riche, and, no matter how much money you had, nothing could quite clean the stink of the slum from you. He knew it well.
'The grounds?' he repeated, arching an eyebrow. 'Are they really so spectacular?' He heard the mocking incredulity in his own voice and, from the way he saw Ellery flinch out of the corner of his eye, he knew she had heard it, too.
Amelie gave a sharp little laugh. 'I don't know if spectacular is really the word. But it will be perfect' Her soup forgotten, she'd propped her elbows on the tableAmelie had never quite learned her mannersand now gestured wildly with her hands, knocking her wine glass onto the ancient and rather threadbare Oriental carpet.
Larenz gazed down impassively at the fallen glassat least it hadn't brokenand the spreading, scarlet stain. He heard Ellery's sharply sucked-in breath and she dropped to her knees in front of him, reaching for the tea towel she'd kept tucked into her waist to blot rather hopelessly at the stain.
He gazed at her bent head, her white-blonde hair scraped up into a sorry little bun. It was an unflattering hairstyle, although at this angle it revealed the pale tender skin at the back of her neck; Larenz had a sudden impulse to press his fingers there and see if her fresh and creamy skin was as soft as it looked. 'I believe a little diluted vinegar gets red wine out of fabric,' he commented politely.
Ellery glanced up swiftly, her eyes narrowing. They were no longer lavender, Larenz observed, but dark violet. The colour of storm clouds, which was rather appropriate as she was obviously furious.
'Thank you,' she said in a voice of arctic politeness. She had the cut-glass tones of the English upper crust; you couldn't fake that accent. God knew, Larenz had once tried, briefly, when he'd been sent to Eton for one hellish year. He'd been scorned and laughed at, easily labelled as a pretender, a poser. He'd walked out before he'd sat his exams before they could expel him. He'd never gone back to another school of any kind. Life had provided the best education.
Ellery rose from the floor and, as she did so, Larenz caught a faint whiff of her perfumeexcept it wasn't perfume, he decided, but rather the scent of the kitchen. A kitchen garden, perhaps, for she smelled like wild herbs: rosemary and a faint hint of something else, maybe thyme.
'And, while you're at it,' Amelie drawled in a bored voice, 'perhaps you could bring me another glass of wine?' She arched one perfectly plucked eyebrow, her generous collagen-inflated lips curving in a smile that did not bother to disguise her malice. Larenz suppressed a sigh. Sometimes Amelie could be rather obvious. He'd known her since his first days starting out in London, sixteen years old and an errand boy at a department store. She'd been working in the shop where Larenz bought sandwiches for the businessmen to eat at their board meetings. She'd cleaned up quite nicely, but she hadn't really changed. Larenz doubted if anyone ever did.
'You don't,' he commented after Ellery had walked swiftly out of the dining room, the green baize-covered door swinging shut behind her, 'have to be quite so rude.'
Amelie shrugged. 'She's been arsey with me since I arrived. Looking down that prim little nose at me. Lady Muck thinks she's better than anyone, but look at this hovel.' She glanced contemptuously around the dining room with its tattered curtains and discoloured patches on the wall where there had surely once been original paintings. 'Her father may have been a baron, but this place is a wreck.'
'And yet you said it was spectacular,' Larenz commented dryly. He took a sip of wine; despite the wreck of a house this manor appeared to be, the wine was a decidedly good vintage. 'Why did you bring me here, Amelie?'
'Spectacular was your word, not mine,' Amelie returned swiftly. 'It's a mouldering wreck, there's no denying it.' She leaned forward. 'That's the point, Larenz. The contrast. It will be perfect for the launch of Marina.'
Larenz merely arched an eyebrow. He couldn't quite see how a decrepit manor house was the appropriate place to launch the new line of haute couture that De Luca's, his upmarket department store, had commissioned. But then perhaps this was why Amelie was his head of PR; she had vision.
He simply had determination.
'Imagine it, Larenz, gorgeous gowns in jewel tones they'll stand out amazingly against all the musty glooma perfect backdrop, the juxtaposition of old and new, past and future, where fashion has been and where it's going'
'It all sounds rather artistic,' Larenz murmured. He had no real interest in the artistry of a photo shoot; he simply wanted the line to succeed. And, since he was backing it, it would.
'It'll be amazing,' Amelie promised, her Botoxed face actually showing signs of animation. 'Trust me.'
'I suppose I'll have to,' Larenz replied lightly. 'But did we have to sleep here?'
Amelie laughed lightly. 'Poor Larenz, having to rough it for a night.' She clucked. 'How will you manage?' Her smile turned coy. 'Of course, I know a way we could both be more comfortable'
'Not a chance, Amelie,' he replied dryly. Every once in a while, Amelie attempted to get him into bed. Larenz knew better than to ever mix business and pleasure, and he could tell Amelie's attempt was half-hearted at best. Amelie was one of the few people who had known him when he was a young nobody; it was one of the reasons he allowed her so much licence. Yet even she knew not to get too close, not to push too hard. No oneand in particular no womanwas allowed those kinds of privileges. Ever. A night, a week, sometimes a little more, was all he allowed his lovers.
Yet, Larenz acknowledged with some amusement, here was Amelie thinking they might get up to something amidst all this mould and rot. The thought was appalling, although.
Larenz's glance slid back to Lady Maddock. She'd returned to the dining room, her lovely face devoid of any make-up or expression, a glass of wine in one hand and a litre of vinegar in the other. She carefully placed the glass in front of Amelie and then, with a murmur of apology, knelt on the floor again and began to dab at the stain. The stinging smell of vinegar wafted up towards Larenz, destroying any possible enjoyment of the remainder of his soup.
Amelie hissed in annoyance. 'Can't you do that a bit later?' she asked, making a big show of having to move her legs out of the way while Ellery scrubbed at the stain. 'We're trying to eat.'
Ellery looked up; the vigorous scrubbing had pinkened her cheeks and her eyes now had a definite steely glint.
'I'm sorry, Miss Weyton,' she said evenly, not sounding apologetic at all, 'but if the stain sets in I'll never get it out.'
Amelie made a show of inspecting the worn carpet. 'I hardly think this old thing is worth saving,' she commented dryly. 'It's practically rags already.'
Ellery's flush deepened. 'This carpet,' she returned with icy politeness, 'is a nearly three-hundred-year-old original Aubusson. I have to disagree with you. It's most certainly worth saving.'
'Not like some of the other things in this place, I suppose?' Amelie returned, her gaze moving rather pointedly to the empty patches on the wall, the wallpaper several shades darker there than anywhere else.
If it was possible, Ellery's flush deepened even more. She looked, Larenz thought, magnificent. He'd first thought her a timid little mouse but now he saw she had courage and pride. His lips curved. Not that she had much to be proud about, but she certainly was beautiful.
She rose from her place at their feet in one graceful movement, retrieving the bottle of vinegar and tucking the dirty cloth back into the pocket of her apron.
'Excuse me,' she said stiffly and walked quickly from the room.
'Bitch,' Amelie said, almost idly, and Larenz felt a little flash of disappointment that she had gone.
* * *Ellery's hands shook as she rinsed out the rag and returned the vinegar to the larder. Rage coursed through her, and she clenched her hands into fists at her sides, pacing the huge kitchen several times as she took in great cleansing breaths in an attempt to calm her fury.
She'd handled that badly; those two were her guests. It was so hard to remember that, to accept their snide jibes and careless remarks. They thought paying a few hundred pounds gave them the right, yet Ellery knew it did not. They gave mere money while she gave her life, her very blood, to this place. And she couldn't bear to have it talked about the way that callous crane of a woman had, wrinkling her nose at the carpets and curtains; Ellery knew they were threadbare but that didn't make them any less precious to her.
She'd disliked Amelie Weyton from the moment she'd driven up the Manor's long sweeping drive that afternoon. She'd been at the wheel of a tiny toy of a convertible and had gone too fast so the gravel had sprayed all over the grass and deep ruts had been left in the soft rain-dampened ground. Ellery had said nothing, knowing she couldn't risk losing Amelie as her customer; she'd rented out the manor house for the weekend and the five hundred pounds was desperately needed.
Only that morning the repair man had told her the kitchen boiler was on its very last legs and a new one would cost three thousand pounds.
Ellery had swayed in horror. Three thousand pounds? She hadn't earned that kind of money, even with several months at her part-time teaching job in the nearby village. Yet the news should hardly surprise her for, from the moment she'd taken over the running of her ancestral home six months ago, there had been one calamity after another. Maddock Manor was no more than a wreck on its way to near certain ruin.
The best Ellery could do was slow its inevitable decline. Yet she didn't like thinking like this, couldn't think like this, not when holding on to the Manor sometimes felt akin to holding on to herself, the only way she could, even if only for a little while.
Most of the time she was able to push such fears away. She focused on the pressing practical concerns, which were certainly enough to keep both her mind and body occupied.
And so Ellery had kept her focus on that much-needed boiler as Amelie had strolled through the house as if she owned the place.
'This place really is a disaster,' she'd said, dropping her expensive faux-fur coat on one chair; it slithered to the floor and she glanced pointedly at Ellery to pick it up. Biting down hard on the inside of her cheek, Ellery had done so. 'Larenz is going to have a fit,' Amelie added, half to herself. Ellery didn't miss the way the woman's mouth caressed the single word: Larenz. An Italian toy boy, she surmised with disgust. 'This is a stepor tendown for him.' Her eyes glinted with malicious humour as she glanced at Ellery. 'However, I suppose we can rough it for a night or two. It's not like there's anything else around here, is it?'
Ellery forced a polite smile. 'Is your companion arriving soon?' she asked, still holding the wretched woman's coat. When Amelie had emailed the reservation, she'd simply said 'and guest'. Ellery presumed this guest was the aforementioned Larenz.
'Yes, he'll be here for dinner,' Amelie informed her idly. She turned around in a slow circle, taking in the drawing room in all of its shabbiness. 'Good heavens, it's even worse than the photos on the website, isn't it?' she drawled, and Ellery forced herself not to say anything.
She'd chosen photographs of the best rooms for her website, Maddock Holiday Lettings. The conservatory, with throw pillows carefully covering the threadbare patches on the sofa and the sunlight pouring in, bathing the room in mellow gold; the best bedroom, which she'd had redecorated with new linens and curtains.
It had set her back a thousand pounds but she'd been realistic. You couldn't charge people to sleep on tattered sheets.