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'I still can't believe you're really going, that this is your last day. All along I thought you'd change your mind. I mean, you've been here for ever, Gina.'
Gina Leighton couldn't help but smile at her office junior's plaintive voice. 'Perhaps that's why I'm leaving, Natalie,' she said quietly. 'Because I've been here for ever, as you put it.'
OK, so 'for ever' was actually the last eleven years, since she had left university at the age of twenty-one, but clearly as far as Natalie was concerned Gina was as much a part of Breedon&Son as the bricks and mortar. As far as everyone was concerned, most likely. Especially him.
'I know I shan't be able to get on with Susan.' Natalie stared at her mournfully. 'She's not like you.'
'You'll be fine,' Gina said bracingly. She didn't mean it. In the last four weeks since she had been showing Susan Richardsher replacementthe ropes, she had come to realise Susan didn't suffer fools gladly. Not that Natalie was a fool, not at allbut she was something of a feather-brain at times, who had to have everything explained at least twice for it to click. Susan had already expressed her impatience with the girl in no uncertain terms, ignoring the fact that Natalie was a hard worker and always willing to go the extra mile.
But this wasn't her problem. In a few hours from now, she would walk out of Breedon&Son for the last time. Not only that but she was leaving the Yorkshire market-town where she had been born and raised along with all her friends and family and moving to London at the weekend. New job, new flat, new lifestylenew everything.
Her stomach doing a fairly good imitation of a pancake on Shrove Tuesday, Gina waved her hand at the papers on her desk. 'I need to finish some things, Natalie, before the drinks and nibbles.' Her boss was putting on a little farewell party for her for the last couple of hours of the afternoon, and she wanted to tie up any loose ends before she left.
Once Natalie had returned to the outer office, however, Gina sat staring round the large and comfortable room that had been her working domain for the last four years, since she had worked her way up to personal secretary to the founder of the agricultural-machinery firm. She'd been thrilled at first, the prestige and extremely generous salary adding to her sense of self-worth. And Dave Breedon was a good boss, a nice family-man with a sense of humour which matched hers. But then Dave Breedon wasn't the reason she was leaving
'No eleventh-hour change of heart?'
The deep male voice brought Gina's gaze to the doorway. 'Of course not,' she said with a composure that belied her racing heartbeat. But then she had had plenty of practice in disguising how she felt about Harry Breedon, her boss's only son and right-hand man. She stared into the tanned and ruggedly handsome face, her deep blue eyes revealing nothing beyond cool amusement. 'You didn't seriously think there was any chance of that, surely?'
He shrugged. '"Hoped" is perhaps a better word.'
Ridiculous, because she had long since accepted Harry's flirting meant absolutely nothing, but her breathing quickened in spite of herself. 'Sorry,' she said evenly. 'But my bags are already packed.'
'Dad's devastated, you know.' Harry strolled into her office, perching on the edge of her desk and fixing her with smoky grey eyes. Gina tried very hard not to focus on the way his trousers had pulled tight over lean male thighs. And failed.
'Devastated?' she said briskly. 'Hardly. It's nice he'll be sorry to see me go, but I think that's about it, Harry. And Susan is proving to be very capable, as you know.'
Susan Richards. Blonde, attractive and possessed of the sort of figure any model would be grateful for. Just Harry's type, in fact. Over the last twelve monthssince Harry had returned to the United Kingdom following his father's heart attack, and taken on more and more of Dave Breedon's work loadGina had heard the company gossip about his succession of girlfriends, all allegedly blonde and slender. Whereas she was a redheadat school she'd been called 'carrot top', but she preferred to label her bright auburn locks Titian. And, although her generous hour-glass shape might have been in fashion in Marilyn Monroe's day, it wasn't now.
So why, knowing all that, had she fallen for him? Gina asked herself silently. Especially as he was the original 'love 'em and leave 'em' male. It was the same question she had mulled over umpteen times in the last year, but she was no nearer to a logical answer. But then love didn't pretend to work on logic. All she knew was that this feelingwhich had begun with an earthy lust that had knocked her sideways, and had rapidly grown into a love that was all consuming the more she'd got to know himwas here to stay. Whereas to Harry she was merely the secretary he shared with his fatheradmittedly someone he liked to chat and laugh and flirt with, but then he'd be the same with any female. End of story.
'I didn't think you liked London when you were at uni there. I remember you saying you couldn't wait to get home.'
Gina frowned. 'I said I was glad to come home.' She corrected quietly. 'That didn't mean I didn't like the city.'
He stared at her for a moment before hitching himself off her desk and standing to his feet. 'Well, it's your life,' he said so reasonably Gina wanted to hit him. 'I just hope you don't regret it, that's all. All big cities can be lonely places.'
'The old thing about being surrounded by people but knowing no one?' Gina nodded. 'I've lots of old university friends living in London, so that's not a problem. And I'm sharing a flat with another girl, anyway. I'm not living alone.'
She didn't add she was feeling more than a little trepidation about that. For the last six years she'd had her own place, a small but beautifully positioned top-floor flat in a big house on the edge of town, with views of the river. After living with her parents, she had revelled in having a home of her own, where she was answerable to no one and could please herself at weekends, getting up when she wanted and eating when she felt like it. But renting in London was vastly different from renting in Yorkshire, and although her new job paid very well she couldn't run to her own place.
'Don't forget to leave your new address.' He was already walking to the door. 'I might look you up next time I spend a few days in the capital. Doss down on your sofa for a night.'
Over her dead body. She took a deep breath and let it out evenly. 'Fine,' she said nonchalantly, wishing she could hate him. It would make everything so much easiershe wouldn't be uprooting herself for one thing. Although, no, that wasn't quite fair. Even before she'd fallen for Harry she'd acknowledged she was in a rut and needed to do something with her life. Both her sisters and most of her friends were married with children; going out with them wasn't what it had once been. In the twelve months before Harry had come on the scene, she'd only had the odd date or two, as the only men around had either been boring or convinced they were God's gift to women, or, worse, married and looking for a bit of fun on the side. She'd begun to see herself as a spinster: devoted to her job, her home, and godmother to other people's children.
Her friends thought she was too choosy. She stared at the door Harry had just closed behind him. And maybe she was. Certainly she'd had offers, but she balked at the idea of trying to like someone. Either the spark was there or it wasn't. Besides which, she wasn't desperate to settle down. What she was desperate for was a life outside work that was interesting and exciting and carried a buzznightclubs, the theatre, good restaurants and good company. She was only thirty two, for goodness' sake! So London had beckoned, and she'd embraced the notion.
It was the right decision. She nodded at the thought. Definitely. Without a doubt. Of course, if Harry had shown any interest
But he hadn't. And so roses round the door, cosy log-fires and breakfast in bed for two with the Sunday papers wasn't an option.
Gina swallowed the lump in her throat, telling herself she'd cried enough tears over him. However hard it was going to be to say goodbye, it would have been emotional suicide to stay. That one brief kiss at Christmas had told her that.
Merely a friendly peck on her cheek as far as he was concerned, when he'd wished her merry Christmas. But the feel of his lips, the closeness of him, the delicious smell of his aftershave, had sent her into a spin for hours.
Christmas had been a bitter-sweet affair, and it was then she'd decided enough was enough. Self-torture wasn't her style. And it had been added confirmation when on the afternoon of Boxing Day, whilst she'd been walking her parents' dogs in the snowy fields surrounding the town, she'd seen him in the distance with the blonde of the moment. She had hidden behind a tree and prayed they wouldn't see her, but once the danger was over and she'd continued her walk she'd realised merely leaving Breedon&Son wasn't enough. She had to get right away, where there was no chance of running into him.
And now it was the beginning of April. D-Day. Outside spring had come with a vengeance the last few days, croci and daffodils bursting forth, and birds busy nestingnew life sprouting seemingly everywhere. And that was the way she had to look at this, as an opportunity for new life. No point feeling her world had come to an end, no point at all.
Nevertheless, it was with gritted teeth that she joined everyone in the work canteen later that afternoon. She was touched to see most of Breedon&Son's employeesover a hundred in all, counting the folk on the factory floorhad gathered to say goodbye, and even more overcome when she was given a satellite-navigation system for her car to which everyone had contributed.
'So you can find your way back to us now and again,' Bill Dent, the chief accountant, joked as he presented her with the gift. She had a reputa-tionrichly deservedof having no sense of direction or navigation skills, and over the last weeks had endured a host of teasing about negotiating city streets.
'Thank you all so much.'As she gave a tearful little speech she kept her gaze from focusing on one tall, dark figure standing a little apart from the rest of the throng, but she was still vitally aware of every movement Harry made. She knew exactly when Susan Richards made her way over to him, for instance, and the way the other woman reached up on tiptoe to whisper something in his ear.
All in all, Gina was glad when after an hour or so people began to drift home. Loving someone who didn't love you was bad enough at the best of times, but when you were trying to be bright and cheerful, and keep a lid on a mounting volcano of tears, it didn't help to see the object of your desire receiving the full batting-eyelash treatment from an undeniably attractive blonde.
When there was just a handful of people left, Gina made her way back to her office to pick up the last of her things. She felt like a wet rag. Dropping into her chair, she glanced round the room, feeling unbearably sentimental.
Dave entered a moment later, Harry on his heels. Shaking his head, Dave said, 'Don't look like that. I told you, you shouldn't leave us. Everyone thinks the world of you.'
Not everyone. Forcing a smile, Gina managed to keep her voice light and even as she said, 'The big wide world beckons, and it's now or never. It was always going to be hard to say goodbye.'
'While we're on that subject
' Dave reached into his pocket and brought out a small, oblong giftwrapped box. 'This is a personal thank-you, lass. I'm not buttering you up when I say you've been the best secretary I've ever had. It's the truth. If London isn't all it's cracked up to be, there'll always be a job somewhere in Breedon&Son for you.'