Annie needs a break from being the "nation's angel." Her high-profile charity work means the media spotlight follows her every step. So leaving her aristocratic title behind her, Annie goes undercover…and meets brooding businessman George Saxon. They form an unlikely relationship—until George discovers Annie's been hiding her true self from him all along!
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Annie smothered a yawn. The room was hot, the lingering scent of food nauseating and all she wanted to do was lay her head on the table in front of her, close her eyes and switch off.
There was a visit to a hospital, then three hours of Wagner at a charity gala to endure before she could even think about sleep. And even then, no matter how tired she was, thinking about it was as close as she would get.
She'd tried it all. Soothing baths, a lavender pillow, every kind of relaxation technique without success. But calming her mind wasn't the problem.
It wasn't the fact that it was swirling with all the things she needed to remember that was keeping her awake. She had an efficient personal assistant to take care of every single detail of her life and ensure that she was in the right place at the right time. A speech writer to put carefully chosen words into her mouth when she got there. A style consultant whose job it was to ensure that whenever she appeared in public she made the front page.
That was the problem.
There was absolutely nothing in her mind to swirl around. It was empty. Like her life.
In just under a minute she was going to have to stand up and talk to these amazing people who had put themselves on the line to alleviate suffering in the world.
They had come to see her, listen to her inspire them to even greater efforts. And her presence ensured that the press was here too, which meant that the work they did would be noticed, reported.
Her hat, a rich green velvet and feather folly perched at a saucy angle over her right eye would probably garner more column inches than the charity she was here to support.
She was doing more for magazine and newspaper circulation than she was for the medical teams, the search units, pilots, drivers, communications people who dropped everything at a moment's notice, risking their lives to help victims of war, famine, disaster—a point she'd made to her grandfather more than once.
A pragmatist, he had dismissed her concerns, reminding her that it was a symbiotic relationship and everyone would benefit from her appearance, including the British fashion industry.
It didn't help that he was right.
She wanted to do more, be more than a cover girl, a fashion icon. Her parents had been out there, on the front line, picking up the pieces of ruined lives and she had planned to follow in their footsteps.
She stopped the thought. Publicity was the only gift she had and she had better do it right but, as she took her place at the lectern and a wave of applause hit her, a long silent scream invaded the emptiness inside her head.
'Friends…' she began when the noise subsided. She paused, looked around her, found faces in the audience she recognised, people her parents had known. Took a breath, dug deep, smiled. 'I hope I've earned the right to call you that…'
She had been just eighteen years old when, at her grandfather's urging, she'd accepted an invitation to become patron of Susie's Friends. A small consolation for the loss of her dream of following her mother into medicine.
All that had ended when, at the age of sixteen, a photograph of her holding the hand of a dying child had turned her, overnight, from a sheltered, protected teen into an iconic image and her grandfather had laid out the bald facts for her.
How impossible it was. How her fellow students, patients even, would be harassed, bribed by the press for gossip about her because she was now public property. Then he'd consoled her with the fact that this way she could do so much more for the causes her mother had espoused.
Ten years on, more than fifty charities had claimed her as a patron. How many smiles, handshakes? Charity galas, first nights?
How many children's hands had she held, how many babies had she cradled?
None of them her own.
She had seen herself described as the 'most loved woman in Britain', but living in an isolation bubble, sheltered, protected from suffering the same fate as her parents, it was a love that never came close enough to touch.
But the media was a hungry beast that had to be fed and it was, apparently, time to move the story on. Time for a husband and children to round out the image. And, being her grandfather, he wasn't prepared to leave anything that important to chance.
Or to her.
Heaven forbid there should be anything as messy as her own father's passionate romance with a totally unsuitable woman, one whose ideals had ended up getting them both killed.
Instead, he'd found the perfect candidate in Rupert Devenish, Viscount Earley, easing him into her life so subtly that she'd barely noticed. Titled, rich and almost too good-looking to be true, he was so eligible that if she'd gone to the 'ideal husband' store and picked him off the shelf he couldn't be more perfect.
So perfect, in fact, that unless she was extremely careful, six months from now she'd find herself with a ring on her finger and in a year she'd be on every front page, every magazine cover, wearing the 'fairy-tale' dress. The very thought of it weighed like a lump of lead somewhere in the region of her heart. Trapped, with nowhere to turn, she felt as if the glittering chandeliers were slowly descending to crush her.
She dug her nails into her palm to concentrate her mind, took a sip of water, looked around at all the familiar faces and, ignoring the carefully worded speech that had been written for her, she talked to them about her parents, about ideals, about sacrifice, her words coming straight from the heart.
An hour later it was over and she turned to the hotel manager as he escorted her to the door. 'Another wonderful lunch, Mr Gordon. How is your little girl?'
'Much improved, thank you, Lady Rose. She was so thrilled with the books you sent her.'
'She wrote me the sweetest note.' She glanced at the single blush-pink rose she was holding.
She yearned to be offered, just once, something outrageous in purple or orange, but this variety of rose had been named for her and part of the proceeds of every sale went to Susanne House. To have offered her anything else would have been unthinkable.
'Will you give her this from me?' she said, offering him the rose.
'Madam,' he said, pink with pleasure as he took it and Annie felt a sudden urge to hug the man. Instead, she let her hand rest briefly on his arm before she turned to join Rupert, who was already at the door, impatient to be away.
Turned and came face to face with herself.
Or at least a very close facsimile.
A look in one of the mirrors that lined the walls would have shown two tall, slender young women, each with pale gold hair worn up in the same elegant twist, each with harebell-blue eyes.
Annie had been aware of her double's existence for years. Had seen photographs in magazines and newspapers, courtesy of the cuttings agency that supplied clippings of any print article that contained her name. She'd assumed that the amazing likeness had been aided by photographic manipulation but it wasn't so. It was almost like looking in the mirror.
For a moment they both froze. Annie, more experienced in dealing with the awkward moment, putting people at their ease, was the first to move.
'I know the face,' she said, feeling for the woman—it wasn't often a professional 'lookalike' came face to face with the real thing. With a smile, she added, 'But I'm afraid the name escapes me.'
Her double, doing a remarkable job of holding her poise under the circumstances, said, 'Lydia, madam. Lydia Young.' But, as she took her hand, Annie felt it shaking. 'I'm s-so sorry. I promise this wasn't planned. I had no idea you'd be here.'
'Please, it's not a problem.' Then, intrigued, 'Do you—or do I mean I?—have an engagement here?'
'Had. A product launch.' Lydia gave an awkward little shrug as she coloured up. A new variety of tea.'
'I do hope it's good,'Annie replied, 'if I'm endorsing it.'
'Well, it's expensive,' Lydia said, relaxing sufficiently to smile back. Then, 'I'll just go and sit down behind that pillar for ten minutes, shall I? While I'm sure the photographers out there would enjoy it if we left together, my clients didn't pay me anywhere near enough to give them that kind of publicity.'
'It would rather spoil the illusion if we were seen together,' Annie agreed. About to walk on, something stopped her. As a matter of interest, Lydia, how much do you charge for being me?' she asked. 'Just in case I ever decide to take a day off.'
'No charge for you, Lady Rose,' she replied, handing her the rose that she was, inevitably, carrying as she sank into a very brief curtsey. 'Just give me a call. Any time.'
For a moment they looked at one another, then Annie sniffed the rose and said, 'They don't have much character, do they? No scent, no thorns…'
'Well, it's November. I imagine they've been forced under glass.'
Something they had in common, Annie thought.
She didn't have much character either, just a carefully manufactured image as the nation's 'angel', 'sweetheart'.
Rupert, already through the door, looked back to see what was keeping her and, apparently confident enough to display a little impatience, said, 'Rose, we're running late…'
They both glanced in his direction, then Lydia looked at her and lifted a brow in a 'dump the jerk' look that exactly mirrored her own thoughts.
'I don't suppose you fancy three hours of Wagner this evening?' she asked but, even before Lydia could reply, she shook her head. 'Just kidding. I wouldn't wish that on you.'
'I meant what I said.'And Lydia, taking a card from the small clutch bag she was carrying, offered it to her. 'Call me. Any time.'
Three weeks later, as speculation in the press that she was about to announce her engagement reached fever-pitch, Annie took out Lydia's card and dialled the number.
'Did you mean it?' she asked.
George Saxon, bare feet propped on the deck rail of his California beach house, laptop on his knees, gave up on the problem that had been eluding him for weeks and surfed idly through the headlines of the London newspapers.
His eye was caught by the picture of a couple leaving some gala. She was one of those tall patrician women, pale blonde hair swept up off her neck, her fabulously expensive gown cut low to reveal hollows in her shoulders even deeper than those in her cheeks.
But it wasn't her dress or the fact that she'd so obviously starved herself to get into it that had caught and held his attention. It was her eyes.
Her mouth was smiling for the camera, but her eyes, large, blue, seemed to be looking straight at him, sending him a silent appeal for help.
He clicked swiftly back to the program he'd been working on. Sometimes switching in and out of a problem cleared the blockage but this one was stubborn, which was why he'd left his Chicago office, lakeside apartment. Escaping the frantic pre-Christmas party atmosphere for the peace—and warmth—of the beach.
Behind him, inside the house, the phone began to ring. It would be his accountant, or his lawyer, or his office but success had insulated him from the need to jump when the phone rang and he left it for the machine to pick up. There was nothing, no one—
'George? It's your dad…'
But, then again, there were exceptions to every rule.
Tossing a holdall onto the back seat of the little red car that was Lydia's proudest possession, Annie settled herself behind the wheel and ran her hands over the steering wheel as if to reassure herself that it was real.
That she'd escaped…
Three hours ago, Lady Rose Napier had walked into a London hotel without her unshakeable escort—the annual Pink Ribbon Lunch was a ladies-only occasion. Two hours later, Lydia had walked out in her place. And ten minutes ago she'd left the same hotel completely unnoticed.
By now Lydia would be on board a private jet, heading for a week of total luxury at Bab el Sama, the holiday home of her friend Lucy al-Khatib.
Once there, all she had to do was put in an occasional appearance on the terrace or the beach for the paparazzi who, after the sudden rash of 'Wedding Bells?' headlines, would no doubt be sitting offshore in small boats, long-range cameras at the ready, hoping to catch her in flagrante in this private 'love-nest' with Rupert.
She hoped they'd packed seasick pills along with their sunscreen since they were going to have a very long wait.
And she grinned. She'd told her grandfather that she needed time on her own to consider her future. Not true. She wasn't going to waste one precious second of the time that Lydia— bless her heart—had given her thinking about Rupert Devenish.
She had just a week in which to be anonymous, to step outside the hothouse environment in which she'd lived since her parents had been killed. To touch reality as they had done. Be herself. Nothing planned, nothing organised. Just take life as it came.
She adjusted the rear-view mirror to check her appearance. She'd debated whether to go with a wig or colour her hair but, having tried a wig—it was amazing what you could buy on the Internet—and realising that living in it 24/7 was not for her, she'd decided to go for a temporary change of hair colour, darkening it a little with the temporary rinse Lydia had provided.
But that would have taken time and, instead, in an act of pure rebellion, of liberation, she'd hacked it short with a pair of nail scissors. When she'd stopped, the short, spiky result was so shocking that she'd been grateful for the woolly hat Lydia had provided to cover it.
She pulled it down over her ears, hoping that Lydia, forced to follow her style, would forgive her. Pushed the heavy-framed 'prop' spectacles up her nose. And grinned. The sense of freedom was giddying and, if she was honest, a little frightening. She'd never been completely on her own before and, shivering a little, she turned on the heater.
'Not frightening,' she said out loud as she eased out of the parking bay and headed for the exit. 'Challenging.' And, reaching the barrier, she encountered her first challenge.
Lydia had left the ticket on the dashboard for her and she stuck it in the machine, expecting the barrier to lift. The machine spat it back out.
As she tried it the other way, with the same result, there was a series of impatient toots from the tailback building up behind her.
So much for invisibility.
She'd been on her own for not much more than an hour and already she was the centre of attention…
'What's your problem, lady?'