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So it was bad news. The worst possible. Damien swivelled his leather chair so that it was facing the magnificent floor-to-ceiling panes of glass that afforded his office suite such spectacular views of London's skyline.
The truism that money couldn't buy everything had come home to roost. His mother had been given the swift and unforgiving diagnosis of cancer and there was nothing a single penny of his bottomless billions could do to alter that bald fact.
He wasn't a man who ever dealt in if onlys. Regret was a wasted emotion. It solved nothing and his motto had always been that for every problem there was a solution. Upwards and onwards was what got a person through life.
However, now, a series of what ifs slammed into him with the deadly precision of a heat-guided missile. His mother's health had not been good for over a year and he had taken her word for it when she had vaguely told him that yes, she had been to see her GP, that there was nothing to worry about. .that engines in old cars tended to be a little unreliable.
What if, instead of skimming the surface of those assurances, he had chosen to probe deeper? To insist on bringing her to London, where she could have had the best possible medical advice, instead of relying on the uncharted territory of the doctors in deepest Devon?
Would the cancer now attacking her have been halted in its tracks? Would he not have just got off the phone to the consultant having been told that the prognosis was hazy? That they would have to go in to see how far it had spread?
Yes, she was in London now, after complicated arrangements and a great deal of anxiety, but what if she had come to London sooner?
He stood up and paced restlessly through his office, barely glancing at the magnificent piece of art on the wall, which had cost a small fortune. For once in his life, guilt, which had been nibbling at the edges of his conscience for some time, blossomed into a full-scale attack. He strode through to his secretary, told her to hold all his calls and allowed himself the rare and unwelcome inconvenience of giving in to a bout of savage and frustrating introspection.
The only thing his mother had ever wanted for him had been marriage, stability, a good woman.
Yes, she had tolerated the women she had met over the years, on those occasions when she had come up to London to see him, and he had opted to ignore her growing disappointment with the lifestyle he had chosen for himself. His father had died eight years previously, leaving behind a company that had been teetering precariously on the brink of collapse.
Damien had been one hundred per cent committed to running the business he had inherited. Breaking it up, putting it back together in more creative ways. He had integrated his own vastly successful computer firm with his father's outdated transport company and the marriage had been an outstanding success but it had required considerable skill. When had he had the time to be concerned over lifestyle choices? At the age of twenty-three, a thousand years ago or so it seemed, he had attempted to make one serious lifestyle choice with a woman and that had spectacularly crashed and burned. What was the problem if, from then onwards, his choices had not been to his mother's liking? Wasn't time on his side when it came to dealing with that situation?
Now, faced with the possibility that his mother might not have long to live, he was forced to concede that the single-minded ambition and ferocious drive that had taken him to the top, that had safeguarded the essential financial cushion his mother deserved and required, had also placed him in the unpalatable situation of having disappointed her.
And what could he do about it? Nothing.
Damien looked up as his secretary poked her head around the door. With anyone else, he wouldn't have had to voice his displeasure at being interrupted, not when he had specifically issued orders that he was not to be disturbed. With Martha Hall, the usual ground rules didn't work. He had inherited her from his father and, at the age of sixty-odd, she was as good as a family member.
'I realise you told me not to bother you, son
Damien stifled a groan. He had long ago given up on telling her that the term of affection was inappropriate. In addition to working for his father, she had spent many a night babysitting him.
'But you promised that you'd let me know what that consultant chap said about your mother
' Her face was creased with concern. She radiated anxiety from every pore of her tall, angular body.
'Not good.' He tried to soften the tone of his voice but found that he couldn't. He raked restless fingers through his dark hair and paused to stand in front of her. She would have easily been five ten, but he towered over her, six foot four of pure muscular strength. The fine fabric of his handtailored charcoal trousers and the pristine white of his shirt lovingly sheathed the lean, powerful lines of a man who could turn heads from streets away.
'The cancer might be more widespread than they originally feared. She's going to have a battery of tests and then surgery to consolidate their findings. After that, they'll discuss the appropriate treatment.'
Martha whipped out a handkerchief which she had stored in the sleeve of her blouse and dabbed her eyes. 'Poor Eleanor. She must be scared stiff.'
'And what about Dominic?'
The name hung in the air between them, an accusatory reminder of why his mother was so frantic with worry, so upset that she was ill and he, Damien, was still free, single and unattached, still playing the field with a series of beautiful but spectacularly unsuitable airheads, still, in her eyes, ill equipped to handle the responsibility that would one day be his.
'I shall go down and see him.'
Most people would have taken the hint at the abrupt tone of his voice. Most people would have backed away from pursuing a conversation he patently did not want to pursue. Most people were not Martha Hall.
'So have you considered what will happen to him should your mother's condition be worse than expected? I can see from your face that you don't want to talk about this, honey, but you can't hide from it either.'
'I'm not hiding from anything,' Damien enunciated with great forbearance.
'Well, I'll leave you to ponder that, shall I? I'll pop in and see your mother when I leave work.'
Damien attempted a smile.
'Oh, and there's something else.'
'I can't think what,' Damien muttered under his breath as he inclined his head to one side and prayed that there wouldn't be a further attack on his already overwrought conscience.
'There's a Miss Drew downstairs insisting on seeing you. Would you like me to show her up?'
Damien stilled. The little matter of Phillipa Drew was just something else on his plate, but at least this was something he would be able to sort out. Had it not been for the emergency with his mother, it would have been sorted out by now, but.
'Show her up.'
Martha knew nothing of Phillipa Drew. Why would she? Phillipa Drew worked in the bowels of IT, the place where creativity was at its height and the skills of his highly talented programmers were tested to the limit. As a lowly secretary to the head of the department, he had not been aware of her existence until, a week previously, a series of company infringements had come to light and the trails had all led back to her.
The department head had had the sternest possible warning, meetings had been called, everyone had had to stand up and be counted. Sensitive material could not be stolen, forwarded to competitors
The process of questioning had been rigorous and, eventually, Damien had concluded that the woman had acted without assistance from any other member of staff.
But he hadn't followed up on the case. The patent on the software had limited the damage but punishment would have to be duly meted out. He had had a preliminary interview with the woman but it had been rushed, just long enough for her to be escorted out of the building with a price on her head. He had more time now.
After a stressful ten days, culminating in the phone call with his mother's consultant, Damien could think of a no more satisfying way of venting than by doling out just deserts to someone who had stolen from his company and could have cost millions in lost profits.
He returned to his chair and gave his mind over completely to the matter in hand.
Jail, of course. An example would have to be set.
He thought back to his brief interview with the woman, the way she had sobbed, begged and then, when neither appeared to have been working, offered herself to him as a last resort.
His mouth curled in distaste at the recollection. She might have been a five foot ten blonde but he had found the cheap, ugly working of the situation repulsive.
He was in the perfect mood to inform her, in a leisurely and thorough fashion, that the rigours of the British justice system would be waiting for her. He was in the perfect mood to unleash the full force of his frustration and stress on the truly deserving head of a petty criminal who had had the temerity to think that she could steal from him.
He pulled up all the evidence of her ill-conceived attempts at company fraud on his computer and then relaxed back in his chair to wait for her.
Downstairs, in the posh lobby of the most scarily impressive building she had ever entered, Violet waited for Damien Carver's secretary to come and fetch her. She was a little surprised that getting in to see the man in the hallowed halls of his own office had been so easy. For a few misguided seconds she nurtured the improbable fantasy that perhaps Damien Carver wasn't quite the monster Phil-lipa had made him out to be.
The fantasy didn't last long. No one ever got to the stratospheric heights of success that this man obviously had by being kind, forgiving and compassionate.
What was she doing here? What was she hoping to achieve? Her sister had stolen information, had been well and truly suckered by a man who had used her to access files he wanted, had been caught and would have to face the long arm of the law.
Violet wasn't entirely sure what exactly the long arm of the law in this instance would be. She was an art teacher. Espionage, theft and nicking information couldn't have been further removed from her world. Surely her sister couldn't have been right when she had wailed that there was the threat of prison?
Violet didn't know what she would do if her sister wasn't around. There were just the two of them. At twenty-six, she was four years older than her sister and, whilst she would have been the first to admit that Phillipa hadn't always been an easy ride, ever since their parents had died in a car crash seven years previously, she loved her to bits and would do anything for her.
She looked around her and tried to stem the mounting tide of panic she felt at all the acres of marble and chrome surrounding her. She felt it was unfair that a simple glass building could fail to announce such terrifyingly opulent surroundings. Why hadn't Phillipa mentioned a word of this when she had first joined the company ten months ago? She pushed aside the insidious temptation to wish herself back at the tiny house she had eventually bought for them to share with the proceeds left to them after their parents' death. She valiantly fought a gut-wrenching instinct to run away and bury herself in all the school preparations she had to do before the new term began.
What on earth was she going to say to Mr Carver?
Could she offer to pay back whatever had been stolen? To make some kind of financial restitution?
Absorbed in scenarios which ranged from awkward to downright terrifying, she was startled when a tall grey-haired woman announced that she had come to usher her to Damien Carver's office.
Violet clutched her bag in front of her like a talisman and dutifully followed.
Everywhere she turned, she was glaringly reminded that this was no ordinary building, despite what it had cruelly promised from the outside.
The paintings on the walls were dramatic abstract splashes that looked mega-expensive
the plants dotting the foyer were all bigger and more lush than normal, as though they had been routinely fed on growth hormones
the frowning, determined people scurrying from lift to door and door to lift were younger and more snappily dressed than they had a right to be
and even the lift, as she stepped into it, was abnormally large. She dodged the repeated reflection of her nervous face and tried to concentrate on the polite conversation being made.
If this was his personal secretary, then it was clear that she had no idea of Phillipa's misdeeds. On the bright side, at least her sister's face hadn't been reprinted on posters for target practice.
She only surfaced when they were standing in front of an imposing oak door, alongside which two vertical sheets of smoked glass protected Damien Carver from the casual stares of anyone who might be waiting in his secretary's outside office.
Idly tabulating the string of idiotic mistakes Phillipa Drew had made in her half-baked attempt to defraud his company, Damien didn't bother to look up when his door was pushed open and Martha announced his unexpected visitor.
'Sit!' He kept his eyes glued to his computer screen. Every detail of his body language suggested the contempt of a man whose mind had already been made up.
With her nerves unravelling at a pace, Violet slunk into the leather chair directly in front of him. She wished she could direct her eyes to some other, less forbidding part of the gigantic room, but she was driven to stare at the man in front of her.
'He's a pig,' Phillipa had said, when Violet had offhandedly asked her what Damien Carver was like. Violet had immediately pictured someone short, fat, aggressive and unpleasant. Someone, literally, porcine in appearance.
Nothing had prepared her for the sight of one of the most beautiful men she had ever seen in her life.
Raven-black hair was swept away from a face, the lines and contours of which were finely chiselled. His unsmiling mouth filled her with cold fear but, in a strangely detached way, she was more than aware of its sensual curve. She couldn't see the details of his physique, but she saw enough to realise that he was muscular and lean. He must have some foreign blood in him, she thought, because his skin was burnished gold. He made her mouth go dry and she attempted to gather her scattered wits before he raised his eyes to look at her.
When he finally did turn his attention to her, she was pinned to the chair by navy-blue eyes that could have frozen water.
Damien looked at her for a long time in perfect silence before saying, in a voice that matched his glacial eyes, 'And who the hell are you?'
Certainly not the woman he had been expecting. Phil-lipa Drew was tall, slim, blonde and wore the air of some of the women he had dated in the pastan expression of smug awareness that she had been gifted with an abundance of pulling power.