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'No, no and no. I couldn't have that woman around me. Did you notice that she had a moustache?' James Greystone, seventy-two years old, and at present sedately ensconced in his wheelchair by the bay window which overlooked some of the sprawling acreage that encompassed his estate, did nothing to conceal his horror at the thought of it. At the mere suggestion of it. 'The woman would be better suited to boot camp. She had a voice like a foghorn and the body of a sumo wrestler. I'm shocked that you would even entertain the thought of having her anywhere near me!' Having dismissed this latest casualty, he settled his gaze on his godson, who was leaning against the wall, hands casually in his trouser pockets, feet lightly crossed at the ankle.
Andreas sighed and strolled to join his godfather at the bay window where he looked out in silence at lawns leading down to fields, culminating in a copse which was barely visible in the distance. The late-summer sunshine gave the gently rolling, peaceful landscape a picture-postcard beauty.
He never forgot that all thisthe grounds, the magnificent house, every single appendage of a lifestyle his father could never in a million years have affordedwas his thanks to the old man sitting in the wheelchair next to him. James Greystone had employed Andreas's father as his chauffeur and general odd-job man at a time when finding employment for an immigrant had not been easy. He had accommodated Andreas's mother when, two years later, she had appeared on the scene and had similarly found suitable work for her to do. In the absence of any of his own children, when Andreas had arrived he had treated him as his own. Had put him through the finest schools, schools that had helped to develop Andreas's precocious and prodigious talents. Even now Andreas could remember his father sitting in the same room as they were in now, playing the old man at a game of chess with his cup of coffee going cold on the table next to him.
Andreas owed James Greystone pretty much everything, but there was far more to their relationship than duty. Andreas loved his godfather even though he could be grumpy, eccentric andas he was nowvirtually impossible.
'She's the twenty-second person we've interviewed, James.'
His godfather grunted and maintained a steady silence as Maria, his faithful retainer of well over fifteen years now, brought him the small glass of port which he knew he was technically not really allowed to drink.
'I know. It's impossible to get good staff these days.'
Andreas did his best not to indulge his godfather's sense of humour. With very little encouragement James Greystone would derail the whole interviewing process, because he just didn't like the fact that he needed a carer, someone to help him with his exercises, handle some of his paperwork and take him out of the house now and again. He didn't like the wheelchair which he was temporarily obliged to use. He didn't like having to ask anyone to lend him a hand doing anything. He didn't want anyone to have the final say over what he could and couldn't eat and could and couldn't do. In short, he was finding it hard to come to terms with the fact that he had had a serious heart attack and was now practically on bed-rest, by order of the doctor. He had played merry hell with the nurses at the hospital and was now intent on torpedoing every single candidate for the job of personal assistant. He flatly refused to use the term 'nursemaid'.
In the meantime, Andreas's life was temporarily on hold. He commuted to his office by private helicopter when his presence was urgently required, but he had more or less taken up residence in the manor houseimporting his work to him, communicating via email and conference call, accessing the world from the confines of his godfather's mansion when he was accustomed to being in the heart of the city. Somerset was undeniably beautiful. It was also undeniably inconvenient.
'Getting a little sick of my company, Andreas?'
'Getting a little sick, James, of running into a brick wall every time we interview someone for the job. So far the complaints have ranged fromlet's see"looked too feeble to handle a wheelchair"; "not sufficiently switched on"; "too switched on so wouldn't last"; "seemed shifty"; "personal hygiene problems"; "too overweight"; "didn't click". Not forgetting this latest"had a moustache".'
'Excellent recall!' James shouted triumphantly. 'Now you're beginning to see the tricky situation I'm in!' He took a surreptitious swig of his port and eyed his godson to gauge his next move.
'The moustached lady seemed all right,' Andreas observed, ignoring his godfather's smug look at his minor victory in getting his godson to agree that the fifty-five-year-old Ms Pearson might have been a challenging candidate. 'Four more to see tomorrowbut she's on the short list, like it or not.' End of conversation.
Andreas had no doubt that the extremely efficient agency which was currently supplying them with possibilities would lose patience sooner or later, and when that happened he had no idea what he would do.
As it was, the past two weeks had comprised the longest stint he had ever had out of his office, holidays included. Empires didn't run themselves, as he had once told his godfather, and his empire had so many tentacles that controlling them all was an art form that required an ability to juggle work above and beyond the average.
Not that Andreas objected. Brains and talent had seen him cruise through his academic career. Rejecting all offers of help from his godfather, he had left university to embark on his fledgling career in the City. He had moved quickly and effortlessly from the risky trade markets with sufficient capital to set up his own company. Within ten short years he had become a force to be reckoned with in the field of mergers and acquisitions, but when Andreas bought he bought shrewdly and he bought for keeps. Now, in addition to a niche and highly profitable publishing-outfit, he owned a string of first-class boutique hotels in far-flung places, three media companies and a computer company that was right up there in pushing the boundaries of the World Wide Web. He had managed thus far to weave a clever path through the recession, which was revealing gaping inadequacies in companies all over the world; he knew that he was regarded as virtually untouchable. It was a reputation he liked.
Importantly, however, he had never forgotten that the privileged lifestyle which had been donated to him courtesy of his godfather had not been his. From a young age he had been determined to create his own privileged lifestyle, and he had succeeded. Everything took second place. Including womenincluding, in fact, the current one in his life who had recently begun thinking otherwise.
He'd joined his godfather for dinner with his thoughts half on a deal which would net him a very desirable little company in the north which was busy doing some interesting research in the pharmaceutical market. It was one of the few areas in which Andreas had not dabbled, and therefore all the more seductive. But generally his thoughts were on his godfather's stubborn refusal to bow to the inevitable, and the niggling problem of the woman he was currently seeing, Amanda Fellows, who was beginning to outstay her welcome.
'You need to lower your expectations,' Andreas said as dishes were cleared away, and he pushed himself away from the table to look steadily at his godfather, who was beginning to flag. 'You're not going to find perfection.'
'You need to get yourself a good woman,' James retorted briskly. 'Now that we're getting into the arena of giving advice.'
Andreas grinned, because he was used to his godfather's casual disregard for personal boundaries. 'I happen to have a very good woman in tow at the moment, as it happens,' he said, choosing to set aside the debate about the more pressing issue of his godfather's obstinacy because stress was to be avoided above all else, he had been told.
Andreas gave all the appearance of taking time out to consider that. He swirled the wine in his glass around, tilted his head to one side then said, still grinning, 'Who likes brains in a woman? After a hard day's work, the only word I want to hear from any woman is "yes" ..'
His godfather bristled predictably, and was in the middle of one of his versions of a 'you need to settle down, boy' rant when the doorbell went.
The doorbell, unlike doorbells on most houses, was the sort of clanging affair that reverberated like church bells inside the house, bouncing off the solid walls and echoing through the multitude of rooms.
Standing outside, Elizabeth decided that it was the sort of doorbell that perfectly suited the house, which didn't mean that she wasn't jumping with nerves as it announced her arrival. Her finger, in fact, had hovered above it for several minutes before she had finally summoned the courage to press.
The taxi which she could ill afford had dropped her off, circling the vast courtyard, then unhelpfully disappearing back towards civilizationleaving her completely stranded and without much of a clue as to what she was going to do if no one was in.
That was just one of the many things, she now realised, that she had failed to consider.
Indeed, there were so many stomach-clenching 'what if?'s banking up inside her that she had to apply her oft-used technique of breathing in and out very slowly to steady her nerves.
She was in the middle of a deep inhalation, eyes firmly shut, when the door opened and she was confronted by a tiny woman in her sixties with dark hair firmly pulled back into a bun and shrewd, darting eyes.
Elizabeth swallowed back her trepidation. She had taken ages deciding what to wear. A light flowered dress, her favourite peach cardigan, flat sandals. There wasn't a great deal she could do with her hair, which was long, auburn and always managed to defy any attempts made to control it, but she had tried, tying it back into a long braid that hung down almost to her waist. She looked presentable but it still wasn't enough to instil any self-confidence. She was as nervous now as she had been two months ago when she had first decided on her plan of action.
'Urn I'm here to see Mr Greystone.'
'No, I'm afraid not. If it's inconvenient, I could always come back ' She had noticed a bus stop a couple of miles back. It would be a bit of a hike, but she wasn't going to throw away any more money on calling a taxi. Her fingers played nervously with the leather strap of the handbag over her shoulder.
'Did the agency send you?'
Elizabeth looked blankly at the small woman in front of her. Agency? What agency? Send her for what?
The gaps in her knowledge were beginning to suffocate her. The full extent of everything she knew about James Greystone had been gleaned from the Internet, and she had devoured the information with fascinated interest. She knew what he looked like, how old he was and was aware that he was wealthyalthough she had been staggered, on approaching his country mansion, to realise just how wealthy he appeared to be. She knew that he had no wife and that he had never had children. She knew that he had retired from the highly profitable construction-business which his grandfather had founded many years previously and was something of a recluse. For someone presumably of some substance, there had been remarkably little about him, and she could only deduce that that was because he had made it his business from early on to keep a low profile.
She knew nothing about any agency. 'Um ' she ventured hesitantly, but it must have been the right response, because the door was drawn back and she stepped into a hallway that took her breath away.
For a few minutes she stood in silence and just stared. Imposing flagstones were interrupted only by an expanse of rug that spoke of generations of use, and directly ahead was a regal staircase that marched upwards before branching out in opposite directions. The paintings on the walls, in their heavy, gilded frames, were of traditional country-scenes and looked as old as the house itself. This house didn't have rooms, it had wings.
Why on earth had she imagined that the best plan of action was direct confrontation? Why hadn't she just done the sensible thing and written a letter, like any normal person would have done in her position?
She snapped back to the present when she realised that the housekeeper had paused at one of the doors and was looking at her enquiringly.
'Mr Greystone is just having coffee in the dining room. If you want to wait here, I'll announce you. Name?'
Elizabeth cleared her throat. 'Miss Jones. Elizabeth Jones. My friends call me Lizzy.'
She waited precisely three minutes and forty-five seconds. Elizabeth knew that because she consulted her watch every few seconds just to try and stop her nerves from spiralling out of control. Then the housekeeper reappeared to show her towards the dining room.
Elizabeth had no idea what to expect. She lost track of the various rooms they passed. When she was finally shown into the dining room, and the housekeeper tactfully did a disappearing act, she realised that she was facing not just James Greystone but someone else, a man with his back to her who was staring out of one of the enormous sash-windows that overlooked the back garden.
She felt her breath catch in her throat as he turned slowly away from the captivating view to look at her.
For a few mesmerising seconds she completely forgot the purpose of her visit. She forgot that James Greystone was sitting right there, metres away from her. She even managed to forget her nerves.
The rich, mellow light from the sun as it began its descent streamed behind him, silhouetting a body that was long, lean and even, clothed in casual trousers and a short-sleeved, open-necked shirt, and highly toned. The man didn't look English, and if he was then there was some other exotic gene in the mix, because his skin was bronzed, his eyes were dark and his hair was raven-black. The chiselled bone-structure was at once beautiful, cold and utterly, bewilderingly magnetic. It took her a few seconds to realise that he was watching her as assessingly as she was watching him, and that James Greystone was watching both of them with interest.
Elizabeth dragged her eyes away, feeling like someone who has been whisked up, around and over on a sudden, thirty-second rollercoaster ride and then dumped back down to earth at supersonic speed.