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It was the one night of the year he dreaded more than any other.
In the beginning he'd tried everything in a bid to escape itwild parties, women, workbut he'd discovered that it didn't matter what he was doing or who he was doing it with, the pain remained the same. He chose to live his life in the present, but the past was part of him and he carried it everywhere. It was a memory that wouldn't fade. A scar that wouldn't heal. A pain that went bone-deep. There was no escape, which was why his favoured way of spending this particular night was to find somewhere he could be alone and get very, very drunk.
He'd driven the two hours from his office in London to the property he was restoring in rural Oxfordshire simply for the privilege of being alone. For once his phone was switched off, and it was staying that way.
Snow swirled in a crazy dance in front of the windscreen and visibility was down to almost zero. Huge white drifts were piled high at the side of the road, a trap for the nervous, inexperienced driver.
Lucas Jackson was neither nervous nor inexperienced and his mood was blacker than the weather.
The howl of the wind sounded like a child screaming and he clenched his jaw and tried to blot out the noise.
Never had the first glimpse of stone lions guarding the entrance to his estate been so welcome. Despite the conditions he barely slowed his pace, accelerating along the long drive that wound through acres of parkland towards the main house.
He drove past the lake, now frozen into a skating rink for the ducks, over the bridge that crossed the river and heralded the final approach to Chigworth Castle.
He waited to feel the rush of satisfaction that should have come from owning this, but as always there was nothing. It shouldn't have surprised him, he'd long since accepted that he wasn't able to feel in the way that other people did. He'd switched that part of himself off and he hadn't been able to switch it on again. What he did experience as he looked at the magnificent building was a detached appreciation for something that satisfied both the mathematician in him and the architect. The dimensions and structure were perfect. A gatehouse presided over the entrance, its carved stonework creating a first impression that was both imposing and aesthetically pleasing. And then there was the castle itself, with its buff stonework and battlements that attracted the interest of historians from around the world. The knowledge that he was preserving history gave him a degree of professional pride, but as for the rest of itthe personal, emotional sidehe felt nothing.
Whoever said that revenge was a dish best eaten cold had been wrong.
He'd sampled it and found it tasteless.
And tonight Lucas wasn't even interested in the historical significance of the house, just its isolation. It was miles from the nearest hint of civilisation and that suited him just fine. The last thing he wanted tonight was human contact.
Lights burned in a few of the upstairs windows and he frowned because he'd specifically instructed the staff to take the night off. He was in no mood for company of any description.
He drove over the bridge that spanned the moat, under the arch that guarded the entrance and skidded the last few metres into the courtyard, his tyres sending snow spinning into the air.
It occurred to him that if he hadn't left the office when he had, he might not have made it. He had staff capable of clearing the roads in the estate, but the approach to the house consisted of a network of winding country lanes that were a low priority for the authorities responsible for their upkeep. Briefly he thought of Emma, his loyal PA, who had stayed late at the office yet again in order to help him prepare for his coming trip to Zubran, an oil-rich state on the Persian Gulf. It was a good job she lived in London and wouldn't have far to travel home.
Abandoning the car to the weather, he strode across the snowy carpet and let himself in to the darkness of the entrance hall.
No housekeeper to greet him tonight. No staff. No one. Just him.
'Surprise!!' A chorus of voices erupted from around him and lights blazed.
Temporarily blinded, Lucas froze, shock holding him immobile on his own doorstep.
'Happy birthday to me!' Tara walked forward, a sway in her hips and a sly smile on her beautiful face as she hooked a finger inside his coat and lifted her scarlet painted mouth to his. 'I know you promised to give me my present next week, but I can't wait that long. I want it now.'
Lucas stared down into those famous blue eyes and still felt nothing.
Slowly, deliberately, he detached her hand from the front of his coat. 'What the hell,' he asked quietly, 'are you doing here?'
'Celebrating my birthday.' Clearly less than delighted with his chilly response, she produced her trademark pout. 'You refused to come to my party so I decided to bring the party to you. Your housekeeper let us in. Why haven't you ever invited me here before? I love this place. It's like a film set.'
Lucas lifted his gaze. He saw now that the grand hall with its magnificent paintings and tapestries had been decorated with streamers and balloons. Gaudily wrapped presents were stacked next to a large iced birthday cake. Open bottles of champagne stood on an antique table, mocking his black mood.
Never in his life had he felt less like celebrating.
His first thought was that he was going to fire his housekeeper, but then he remembered just how persuasive Tara could be when she wanted something. She was a master at manipulating emotions and he knew it frustrated her that she'd never succeeded in manipulating his.
'Tonight is not a good night for me. I told you that.' His voice sounded robotic but Tara simply shrugged dis-missively.
'Well, whatever it is that is making you so moody, you need to snap out of it, Lucas. You'll forget about it once you've had a drink. We'll dance for a bit and then go upstairs and'
'Get out.' His thickened command was greeted with appalled silence. Her friendspeople he didn't know and had no desire to knowmurmured their shock.
The only person who seemed unaffected by his response was Tara herself whose ego was the least fragile thing about her. 'Don't be ridiculous, Lucas. You don't mean that. It's a surprise party.'
But the surprise, apparently, was his. Only Tara could hold a surprise party for her own birthday. 'Get out and take your friends with you.'
Her eyes hardened. 'We all came by coach and it isn't coming back until one o'clock.'
'When did you last look outside? Nothing is going to be moving on these roads by one o'clock. That coach had better be here in the next ten minutes or you'll be snowed in. And trust me, you do not want that.' Perhaps it was his tone, perhaps it was the fact that he looked dangerousand he knew that he must look dangerous because he felt dangerousbut his words finally sank home.
Tara's beautiful face, that same face that had graced so many magazine covers, turned scarlet with humiliation and anger. Those cat-like eyes flashed into his, but what she saw there must have scared her because the colour fled from her cheeks and left her flawless skin as pale as the winter snow blanketing the ground outside.
'Fine.' Her lips barely moved. 'We'll take our party elsewhere and leave you alone with your horrid temper for company. Now I know why your relationships don't last. Money, brains and skill in bed can't make up for the fact that you don't have a heart, Lucas Jackson.'
He could have told her the truth. He could have told her that his heart, once intact and fully functioning, had been damaged beyond repair. He could have told her that the phrase 'time heals' was false and that he was living proof that damage could be permanent. He could have described the relief that came from knowing he might never be healed because a heart already damaged could never be damaged again.
There was something beating in his chest, that was true, but it did nothing more than pump blood around his body, enabling him to get out of bed in the morning and go to work every day.
He could have told Tara all of that but she would have gained as little satisfaction in the listening as he would in the telling, so he simply strode past her towards the famous oak staircase that rose majestically from the centre of the hall.
Tonight the proportions and design gave him no satisfaction. The staircase was merely a means to escape from the people who had invaded his sanctuary.
Without waiting for them to leave, he took the stairs two at a time and strode towards his bedroom in the tower that overlooked the moat.
He didn't care that he'd shocked them.
He didn't care that he'd ended yet another relationship.
All he cared about was getting through this one night.
He was a cold-hearted, driven workaholic.
Her normal patience nowhere to be found, Emma struggled to keep the car on the road. It was Friday night and she should have been at home relaxing with Jamie. Instead, she was chasing her boss round the English countryside. After the week she'd had it was the last thing she needed. She had a life, for goodness' sake. Or rather, she would have liked to have a life. Unfortunately for her, she worked for a man for whom the concept of a life outside work didn't exist.
Lucas Jackson didn't have any emotional attachments and clearly didn't think his staff should have them either. He wasn't interested in her as a person, just in her contribution to his company. And there would have been no point in explaining her feelings because, as far as she could tell, he didn't have feelings. His life was so far removed from hers that sometimes when she drove into her space in the car park beneath the iconic glass building that housed the world-renowned architectural firm of Jackson and Partners, she felt as if she'd arrived on another planet. Even the building itself was futuristica tribute to cutting-edge design and energy efficiency, designed to maximise daylight and natural ventilation, a bold statement that represented the creative vision and genius of just one man. Lucas Jackson.
But creative vision and genius required focus and single-minded determination and that combination together created a driven, difficult human being. More machine than human, she thought moodily as she peered through the thick falling snow in an attempt to not end her days in a ditch.
When she'd started working for him two years previously she hadn't minded that their conversation was never personal. She didn't want or expect it when she was at work, so that suited her well. The one thing she would never, ever do was fall in love with her boss. But she'd fallen in love with her job. The work was interesting, stimulating and in every way that mattered Lucas was an excellent employer, despite the fact that his reputation had unnerved her to the point where she almost hadn't applied for the role. She'd found him to be professional, bright and a generous payer and it excited her to be involved with a company responsible for the design of some of the most famous buildings of recent times. He was undoubtedly a genius. Those were his positive points.
The negatives were that he was focused on work to the exclusion of everything else.
Take this week. Preparations for the official opening of the Zubran Ferrara Resort, an innovative eco hotel nestling on the edge of the warm waters of the Persian Gulf, had driven her workload from crazy to manic. Fuelled by caffeine, she'd stayed until the early hours every night in an attempt to complete essential work. Not once had she complained or commented on the fact that, generally, she expected to be fast asleep by two a.m. and preferably not at her desk.
The one thing that had kept her going had been the thought of Friday. The start of her holiday. Two whole weeks that she took off every year over the festive season. She'd visualised that time in the way a marathon runner might imagine the finish line. It had been the shining light at the end of a tunnel of exhaustion.
And then the snow had started falling. And falling. All week it had been snowing steadily until by Friday London was half empty.
All day Emma had been eyeing the weather out of the window. She'd seen staff from other office buildings leaving early, slithering and sliding their way through the snow to be sure of making it home. As Lucas's PA she had the authority to extend that privilege to other more junior staff and she had, until the only two people remaining in the building had been herself and her ruthlessly focused boss.
Lucas hadn't appeared to notice the snowstorm transforming the world into a death zone. When she'd mentioned it, he hadn't responded. That would have been bad enough and sufficient to have her cursing him for her entire journey home but just as she'd been about to turn out the lights, the last to leave as usual, she'd noticed the file sitting on his desk. It was the file she'd put together for his trip to Zubran and it included papers that needed his signature. A helicopter would be picking him up from his country house. He wouldn't be coming back to the office.
At first she didn't believe he could have forgotten it. Lucas never forgot anything. He was the most efficient person she'd ever worked for. And once she'd come to terms with the fact that for some reason his usual efficiency had chosen a frozen Friday night to desert him, she'd faced a dilemma.
She'd tried calling him, hoping to catch him while he was still in London, but his phone continually switched to voicemail, presumably because he was already talking to someone else. Lucas spent his life talking on the phone.
She could have arranged a courier, but the file contained confidential and sensitive information and she didn't trust it with anyone but herself. Did that make her obsessive? Possibly. But if it were to be mislaid she would be out of a job and she wasn't about to take that risk.
Which was why she was now, late on a miserable Friday night when no one else with any sense would be on the roads, heading west out of London towards his rural country house.
Emma squinted through the white haze. She didn't mind hard work. Her only rule was that she didn't work at weekends. And for some reasonmaybe her references, maybe her calm demeanour, or just the fact that he'd lost six PAs in as many monthsLucas Jackson had accepted that one caveat, although he had once made a caustic comment about her 'wild social life'.
If he'd taken the trouble to find out about her, he would have known that there wasn't room for 'wild' in her life. He would know that the nearest she'd got to a party was through the pages of the celebrity magazines her sister occasionally bought. He would have known that after working a punishing week at Jackson and Partners her idea of a perfect weekend was just sleeping late and spending time with Jamie. Lucas would have known all that, but he didn't because he'd never asked.