Ethan Caversham has always avoided Christmas. But when he hires Christmas-loving Ruby Hampton to transform an English castle into a luxurious festive resort, that's about to change!
Ruby longs for the perfect Christmas with the perfect family but it's always been slightly out of reach. Now, though, her new boss is sending tingles up her spine with every stolen kiss! If she can just convince Ethan to let go of his past, perhaps this will be the year all her Christmas wishes come true
|File size:||321 KB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Loiter. Skulk. Panic. Who knew it was possible to do all three at once? Ruby Hampton shoved her hands into the pockets of the overlong padded coat, worn for the purpose of disguise as well as to keep the bite of the December wind out.
This was nuts. All she had to do was cross the bustling London street and enter the impressive skyscraper that housed Caversham Holiday Adventures HQ. Easy, right? Clearly not, because her feet remained adhered to the pavement.
On the plus side, at least there didn't seem to be any reporters around. Unless they were camouflaged as one of the Christmas vendors touting anything from chestnuts to reindeer-daubed jumpers. Not that she'd studied them too closely as she'd walked through Knightsbridge, head down, in desperate hope that her furry hood and sunglasses would save her from recognition and the mortification of a public lynching.
But so far so good, and maybe the fact there were no paps in hot pursuit meant they had finally got the message and realised that not a single comment would fall from her zipped lips, effectively sewn shut by Hugh's threats.
His American drawl still echoed in her ears.
'One wrong word and my publicity machine will chew you up, spit you out and leave your remains for my lawyers to kick.'
So the paps were better off camping on Hugh's doorstep, where comments flowed in a stream of lies from his glamorous Hollywood lips. No change there. Mind you, she couldn't even blame his legions of fans for their implicit belief in him. After all, she had fallen hook, line and sinker for every honeyed word he'd conned her with. And now
Now the headlines screamed across her brain.
Ruby Hamptonexposed as two-timing gold-digger!
Hugh Farlane: Hollywood megastar. Heartbroken!
Christmas Engagement Extravaganza off! Ruby Hampton vilified by Farlane's adoring public!
'Vilified' was an understatementHugh's besotted fans were baying for her blood. No one believed in her innocenceinstead they believed she had broken Hugh's heart whilst in hot pursuit of filthy lucre. The idea made her toes curl in abhorrenceshe'd vowed in childhood never to exist on someone else's handouts and it was a promise she'd faithfully kept. Her parents had produced child after child to reap state benefits to fuel their addictionshad cadged and lied and cheated. No way could she do that.
For a moment shades of the past threatened. Tom Edie Philippa Siblings she'd never see again.
The past was over. Done with.
Right now she needed to haul ass and get herself to this job interviewit was time to do what she did best: pick up the pieces and move on. Put Hugh Ratbag Farlane and the past firmly behind her.
Therein lay a cracker of a probleman explanation for her skulk, loiter and panic manoeuvre in blustery December on a London kerbside.
A piece of her past awaited her inside Caversham HQa veritable blast from the past was about to interview her.
The syllables unleashed another onslaught of nerves. The last man she'd ever expected to lay eyes on ever again. The last man she'd wanted to lay eyes on ever again.
Get a grip, RubyEthan was so far in her past he was history. She was no longer that wide-eyed teenager with a ginormous crush. Ginormous and short-lived. She still cringed at the memory of that crush exploding into smithereens, bombed by Ethan's words.
'Stop following me around. I don't want your gratitude. I don't want your help. I don't want you. So please just leave me alone.'
Clearly times had changed, because fast-forward ten years and Ethan had contacted her to offer her an interview. His email, via a business media site, had been short and to the pointno hint of whether he remembered her, not much clue as to what the job even entailed. But that didn't matter. Right now she needed a jobany job.
She had been a fool to quit her previous job, but she had believed Hugh.
Frustration at her own idiocy clogged her throatshe'd free fallen for Hugh's persuasive wordshad let him mess with her head, believed he needed her by his side. As a result she had given up an incredible job. Idiot.
Work was her lifelineher salvation, her secu-rityand right now no one else would give her so much as an opportunity to ask the time of day. They didn't want to be tainted by all the negative publicity, and she didn't want to sit around and wait until the public furore died down. Not her style.
So Time to walk the walk, talk the talk and nail this role.
Ethan Caversham meant nothing to her any morehe had walked out on their friendship and as far as Ruby was concerned he was simply a prospective employer with the potential to offer her a job that would enhance her CV.
It would do more than thatcrystal-clear determination solidified in her gut. This job would provide her with money and security the wherewithal to start the adoption processto have a family. By herself.
Pulling her hands out of her pockets, she urged her feet into walk mode, crossed the street and entered the glass revolving door of the sleek glass-plated building. An elevator ride to the third floor allowed her just enough time to take off her coat and check that the severe professional chignon was still in place, the subtle make-up intact.
The doors slid open, and with a deep in-haul of breath Ruby entered the lobby of Caversham Holiday Adventures.
She braced herself as the receptionist looked up, and on cue there was the expected glare of condemnation. Clearly the svelte blonde woman was yet another of Hugh's legion of fans.
No way would she cowerinstead she smiled, and took courage from her carefully chosen outfit: a grey woollen jacket that nipped in at her waist over a tailored black jersey dress. Severe, smooth, professional.
'I have an interview with Ethan Caversham.'
The receptionist nodded, tight-lipped. 'I'll let him know you're here.'
Adrenalin started to spike and Ruby focused on her surroundings. It was an old childhood trick that had always grounded her in tricky timeshelped her concentrate on reality and the importance of the tasks aheadhow to convince social workers that all was well, how to angle a bottle of milk so that the baby didn't cough it up, how to keep her siblings safe.
This backdrop was way different from the squalid environment of her youthhere there was marble flooring, lush green exotic plants, and a lustrous glass reception desk. Imposing photographs graced the walls. Glorious rugged mountains. The turquoise-blue of the sea. A surfer cresting the swell of a wave. The pictures exuded energy and exhilaration.
After a brief telephone conversation the receptionist rose to her considerable height. 'I'll take you to him,' she said.
Ruby followed her down a corridor and curiosity, panic and anticipation mingled in her tummy. Ethan Caversham. Ethan Caversham. Ethan Caver- sham. The syllables beat a tattoo in her brain that matched the click-clack of her heels on the parquet floor. Even as she tried to remind herself that he meant zilch to her now.
The receptionist pushed the door open. 'Ethan. Your ten o'clock appointment is here.'
'Thank you, Linda.'
One more censorious look and Linda withdrew, the door snapping shut behind her.
Heart pounding so hard it was a miracle her rib-cage remained intact, Ruby stepped forward as a man rose from behind the curved cherrywood desk.
Sure, she'd researched him. Sure, the internet had revealed that present-day Ethan Caversham was hot, rugged and handsome. Come to that, teenage Ethan had been no slouch in the looks department.
But now Now she was adhered to the plush carpet, mouth agape, as she took in his chiselled features, thick brown hair, cool blue-grey eyes. Six foot plus, with a body that had been honed over the years into muscular perfection. The angry vibe of a decade ago had been muted into an edgy aura of toughness; this wasn't a man you'd mess with.
Nerves that had already been writhing serpentlike in her tummy renewed their snaking.
Come on, Ruby. Don't blow this.
Uprooting her feet, she moved towards the cherry-wood desk and held her hand out. 'Ruby Hampton.'
The feel of his fingers round hers brought back a blast of memory and an undefinable, ridiculous sense of safety, and for an insane second she wanted to hold on to his broad, capable hand. For a lingering second his eyes met hers and something glinted in their blue-grey depths.
'Good to see you again,' he said.
His eyebrows rose. 'You don't sound convinced.'
Oh, for heaven's sake. This was ridiculous. She'd known the past would come up and she'd planned to deal with it with brightness and breeze. Unfortunately the plan hadn't allowed for the poleaxed effect on her of this version of Ethan. What was the matter with her? Instant attraction wasn't something she believed in. Any more than she believed in instant coffee.
'I wasn't sure you knew who I was, given we didn't exactly part on the best of terms.' The words escaped her lips with a lot more tartness than she'd intendedmore ice-cold than bright and breezy.
There was a pause, but it soon became clear that Ethan wasn't planning to vouchsafe any more. For a moment the urge to berate himto force an apology for a decade-old insult, a hurt she hadn't deservedtempted her vocal cords.
Bad idea, Ruby.
The past needed to remain firmly anchored in the past. Plus, no way did she want Ethan to know he could still incite such a seething of emotional turmoil. Truth be told, she wasn't that happy about it herself.
Forcing a cool smile to her lips, she nodded. 'I guess the important thing is that we've both come a long way this past decade.'
He gestured to the chair opposite his desk. 'That we have. Pleasehave a seat and let's get started.'
Easier said than done.
Annoyance flicked in Ethan at his inexplicable reaction to Ruby Hampton.
Inexplicable? Get real.
Ruby was dynamite. Somewhere in the past decade she had morphed from street urchin to professional beautydark hair swept up in a chignon, flawless skin glowing translucent and cheekbones you could climb. The problem was his response was more than physical.
Physical attraction he could deal withattractive women were ten a penny. But Ruby had awoken something else. Because he'd glimpsed a flash of quickly masked vulnerability in her sapphire eyes. The very same vulnerability that had been there all those years ago. An indefinable yet familiar emotion had banded his chest, and for an instant he could taste those youthful emotionsanger, confusion, panic.
Back then her eyes had held incipient hero-worship too. A look he'd loathed. He had known then, as he knew now, that he was no hero, and the idea of adoration had flayed his soul. Sudden guilt thumped his chest. Pointless guilt. Ten years ago he'd done what had been right for Rubyripped her fledgling crush out at the roots before it developed into more. Because then, as now, he had known he couldn't offer more.
That had been thenthis was now. And right now all Ruby's eyes held was a cool wariness as she waited for him to start the interview.
So. 'How did you end up in the catering industry?'
'After you and I ' a small hesitation ' went our separate ways I started a waitressing job and enrolled on an adult education course. I worked every shift I could and studied the rest of the time.' Sheer determination etched her features. 'I wanted out of the hostel and out of the care system. I wanted to make my own way in the world and I wanted to do it as fast as possible.'
'I get that.'
He totally understood the need to spend every second busy, busy, busy, until you fell into bed so exhausted that the past didn't dig its talons into your dreams. He fully grasped the necessity of achieving success for your own salvation.
'Once I got some qualifications the owner of the café I worked in offered me promotion to manager and I took it. From there I moved into hotel work, and '
As she continued to outline her impressive career trail admiration touched him.
'And your last job was front-of-house manager at Forsythe's?'
Forsythe's being one of London's most prestigious restaurants. Graced by the rich and famous, it adjoined Forsythe's Theatre, run by the Forsythe family for centuries.
'Tell me about your experience there.'
'I worked closely with the manager to give the restaurant a new touch. I introduced a Regency themespent hours trawling the internet, art shops and markets, finding some incredible items.'
All wariness clearly forgotten, she leant forward; her hands flying the air as she made a point, her classical features illuminated by enthusiasm as she described finding a genuine two-hundred-year-old sketch of the theatre.
'I researched new menus liaised with customers' She broke off and a shadow crossed her face as she sat back in her chair.
'Like Hugh Farlane,' Ethan stated.
'Yes. And many others.' Her tone was noncommittal, her dark blue eyes once again guarded. 'I hope that my experience at Forsythe's ties in with whatever role you have in mind for me?'
'Yes, it does. Let me tell you more about the position.'
And then, if she was interested, he would return to the subject of Hugh Farlane.
'So, how much do you know about Caversham Holiday Adventures?'
'A holiday company with a twist, Caversham offers very highend packages that incorporate extreme sports and hotels with a difference around the world. Your clients include billionaires, jetsetters and celebrities. Your latest project is a castle in Cornwall.'
For a second Ethan lingered on his vision for the castle and adrenalin buzzed through him. The brooding Cornish castle had captured his imagination, fired him with a desire to do something differentto mix his business life with his charity work.
'Renovation there is nearly complete, and I'm ready to get the restaurant up and flying. I need a restaurant manager to work with me on the design, the menus and the staff, and to plan a grand New Year's Eve opening. The hotel opens for normal business January fifteenth. I know that's a tight deadline. Especially with Christmas. Can you do it?'
'Yes.' There was not a sliver of doubt in her tone.
'But I'm not sure I understand why you don't already have someone in place.'
'I did. We didn't see eye to eye and he quit.' It had turned out that the guy hadn't bought into Ethan's vision for the castle. 'I've been interviewing for a week or so and no dice. This is an important project and I need the right person. You could be it.'
Her eyes lit up and for the first time since she'd entered the room a small, genuine smile tugged her lips up and sucker-punched him straight in the chest.
'That's great.' Then a small frown creased her brow. 'I can do the job,' she said with utter certainty, 'but as I am sure you are aware I am currently not the public's most favourite person. Social media and the tabloids are awash with vitriol aimed at meif you hire me there may be a backlash.'
Although her voice was even there was a quickly veiled shadow in her eyes that jolted him. Her words were an understatementthe comments being aimed at Ruby were vicious, awash with menace, and in some cases downright obscene.
Ethan's lips tightened in distaste even as his brain clouded with a black shadow. The knowledge of the tragic consequences that could ensue after such unconscionable bullying twisted his very soul.
Pushing the dark memories away, he focused on Ruby. 'I realise that. It's not a problem. I stand by my employees because I trust them. Which brings me to my next question.'
Her credentials were excellent. Now all he had to do was confirm his gut instinct and make sure he could believe in her.
'Go ahead.' Her body tensed in palpable anticipation.
'Obviously I read the papers, and I've seen the accusations that you are a gold-digger who used your position at Forsythe's to attract Hugh Farlane. At Caversham you would be on the front line, liaising with my clients, so I need to trust that you will be delivering customer service without an eye on their wallets. You haven't denied any of the allegations in the press. Could you clarify the situation for me?'
He leant back and waited for her to do just that.
Instead the smile plummeted from her lips with maximum velocity. Her hands twisted together so tightly that her knuckles clicked in protest, the sound breaking the depth of silence.
Then, 'No comment.'