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'But I never work with male clients,' Lily said to her boss at the south London physical therapies rehabilitation clinic. 'You know that.'
'I know but this is such an amazing opportunity,' Valerie said. 'Raoul Caffarelli is from serious money. This four-week live-in post in Normandy will be worth a year's work to you. I can't send anyone else. Anyway, his brother absolutely insisted on you.'
Lily frowned. 'His brother?'
Valerie gave her eyes a little roll. 'Yes, well, apparently Raoul isn't too keen on working with anyone just now. He's become a bit reclusive since coming out of hospital. His older brother Rafe read about your work with Sheikh Kaseem Al-Balawi's daughter. He wants you to help his brother. He's willing to pay you very handsomely. I got the impression from him when he called that you could just about name your price.'
Lily chewed at her lower lip. The money was certainly attractive, especially given her mother's desperate circumstances right now, after yet another failed relationship had drained her bank account dry. But a live-in post with a maneven one currently confined to a wheelchairwas the stuff of her nightmares.
She hadn't been anywhere near a man in five years.
'I'm not doing it,' Lily said, turning to put another patient's file away. 'It's out of the question. You'll have to find someone else.'
'I don't think saying no is a going to be an option,' Valerie said. 'The Caffarelli brothers are known for their ruthless determination. Rafe wants Raoul to be his best man at his wedding in September. He believes you're the best person to get his brother back on his feet.'
Lily closed the drawer, turned and looked at her boss. 'What does he think I am, a miracle worker? His brother might never get back on his feet, let alone in a matter of weeks.'
'I know, but the least you could do is agree to work with him to see if it's possible,' Valerie said. 'It's a dream joball expenses paid while you get to stay in a centuries-old chateau in rural Normandy. Do it, Lily. You'll be doing me a huge favour. It will really lift the profile of the clinic. This is exactly what we need right now to build on the work you did with the Sheikh's daughter. We'll be known as the holistic clinic for the rich and famous. Everyone will want to come here.'
Lily swallowed a tight knot of panic in her throat. Her heart was thumping such a rapid and jerky tattoo it felt as if she had just run up a skyscraper's flight of stairs. Her skin was clammy and her head felt as tight as if a vice were pressing against her temples. She tried to think of an escape route but each time she thought of one it was immediately roadblocked by her need to help her mother and her loyalty to her employer.
Could she do it?
'I'll need to see Mr Caffarelli's scans and reports from his doctors. I might not be able to do much at all for him. It would be wrong to give him or his brother false hope.'
Valerie clicked the mouse at her computer. 'I have the scans and reports here. Rafe emailed them to me. I'll forward them to you.'
Lily looked at the reports a short time later in her office. Raoul Caffarelli had a spinal injury from a water-skiing accident. He had also sustained a badly broken right arm, although that was apparently healing. He had some feeling in his legs, but he was unable to stand upright without aid, and at this point in time he could not walk. The neurosurgical opinion was that he would be unlikely to regain full use of his legs, although they expected some minor improvement in his current mobility. But Lily had read similar reports before and tried not to let them influence her when dealing with a client.
Some spinal injuries could be devastatingly permanent, others relatively minor, and then there was everything in between. So much depended on the type of injury as well as a client's attitude and general state of health.
Lily liked to use a mix of therapiesthe traditional things such as structured exercise, strength-training and massage, and some which were considered a little more on the alternative side, such as aromatherapy, dietary supplements and visualisation techniques.
The Sheikh's daughter, Halimah Al-Balawi, was one of her star clients. The young woman had been told by three neurosurgeons that she would never walk again. Lily had worked with her for three months; the improvement had been painstakingly slow at first, but finally Halimah had taken her first steps with the aid of parallel bars and she had continued to improve until she was able to walk unaided.
Lily sat back in her chair and chewed at a ragged end on her pinkie nail. For anyone else it would be a dream job to take on a man as rich and famous as Raoul Caf-farelli. To spend a month in the lap of luxury working closely with a man every single woman on the planet would give ten years of her life to have one day or night with, let alone thirty-one of them. They would grab the opportunity with both hands and relish every minute of it.
But for her it would be a form of torture.
Her stomach recoiled at the thought of putting her hands on a hard male body. Working with a client as a physical therapist meant physical contactclose physical contact. Hands on flesh. Hands on muscles and tendons, stroking and massaging
Her mobile rang from where it was sitting on her desk. She saw her mother's face come up on the screen and pressed the answer button. 'Hi, Mum. Are you OK?'
'Darling, I hate to bother you when you're at work, but the bank's been on the phone to me again. They're going to foreclose on the house if I don't come up with the last three months' mortgage payments. I tried to explain that it was Martin who siphoned off my account but they wouldn't listen.'
Lily felt her blood boil at how her mother had been scammed by a man she had met through an online dating service. Never a great judge of character at the best of timesalthough she was hardly one to talk, given what had happened to her on the night of her twenty-first birthdayher mother had foolishly trusted her new partner and was now paying heavily for it. That lowlife pond-scum had hacked into her mother's accounts and stolen her life savings.
Was fate twisting Lily's arm? How could she knock back this job when her mother was in such desperate need of financial support? Her mother had stalwartly stood by her during her lowest point. Those terrible dark days after her twenty-first birthday had almost sent her to the edge of sanity. But her mother had stood by her, putting her own life on hold to help Lily come out of that black hole of despair and self-loathing. Didn't she owe this to her mother?
It was only for a month.
It would feel like a lifetime.
'It's all right, Mum.' She took a scratchy little breath. 'I'm taking on a new client. It'll mean I'll be away in France for the whole of August but I'll ask them to pay me up-front. That will sort out the bank. You're not going to lose the house. Not if I can help it.'
Raoul scowled at his brother. 'I thought I told you I want to be left alone.'
Rafe blew out a breath of frustration. 'You can't spend the rest of your life holed up here like a recluse. What is wrong with you? Can't you see this is your best chancemaybe your only chanceof a recovery?'
Raoul wheeled his chair with his one good arm so he didn't have to face his brother. He knew Rafe meant well but the thought of having some young Englishwoman fussing over him with her snake-oil remedies was anathema to him right now. 'The best doctors in Italy said this is as good as it's going to get. I don't need to have this Archer woman wasting my time and your money pretending it's going to be otherwise.'
'Look, I know you're still smarting about Clarissa breaking off your engagement, but you can't hold it against all women just because she'
'This has nothing to do with Clarissa,' Raoul snapped as he wheeled back round.
Rafe gave him a look that spoke volumes. 'You weren't even in love with her. You just thought she ticked all the boxes. The accident showed you her true colours. The way I see itand Poppy says the sameyou had a very lucky escape.'
Raoul's left hand gripped the chair so tightly he thought his knuckles were going to explode through his skin. 'You think I've been lucky? Look at me, Rafe. I'm stuck in this chair! I can't even dress myself. Don't insult me by saying I'm lucky.'
Rafe rubbed a hand over the top of his head. 'Sorry. Bad choice of words.' He dropped his hand back by his side. 'Will you at least meet her? Give her a trial run for a week or even a couple of days? If it doesn't work out then you can call it quits. You'll be the one in control of whether she stays or goes.'
Raoul wheeled back over to the window to look at the view over the fields where some of his most prized thoroughbreds were grazing. He couldn't even go out to them and stroke their velvet noses. He couldn't walk over the soft springy grass. He was trapped in this chair, trapped in his own body, in the body that for the last thirty-four years had defined him as a personas a man. The doctors had told him he was luckier than most; he still had feeling in his legs and full bladder and bowel function. He supposedly still had sexual function, but what woman would want him now?
Hadn't Clarissa made that starkly clear?
He wanted his body back. He wanted his life back.
Who was to say this Archer woman was the miracle worker Rafe suggested? She could be the biggest charlatan out there. He didn't want to be taken for a ride, to be given false hopes only to have them dashed in the end. He was slowly coming to terms with his situation. He needed this time at the chateau to get his head around how life was going to be from now on. He wasn't ready to face the world just yet. The thought of the paparazzi tailing him to get the best pity shot made him sick to his stomach.
He just wanted to be left alone.
'One month, Raoul,' Rafe said into the silence. 'Please. Just give it a try.'
Raoul knew both of his brothers were worried about him. Remy, his younger brother, had been there the day before, doing his best to jolly him along like a male version of Pollyanna. His grandfather, Vittorio, had been less supportive, but Raoul had come to expect that from him. Vittorio was not the sort of man to offer sympathy or support. His speciality was to blame and to castigate.
'I'd like a week or two to think about it.'
There was a loaded silence.
Raoul turned his chair around again, suspicion crawling up his damaged spine like sticky spider's legs as he met his brother's sheepish dark brown gaze. 'You haven't.'
'She's waiting in the morning room,' Rafe said. Raoul let out a string of colourful obscenities in French, Italian and English. Rage raced through his body like a fast-acting poison. He had never felt so powerless, so damned impotent, in his life. What did his brother think he was, a little child who couldn't make a sensible decision?
This was his sanctuary.
No one came here unless he invited them.
'Cool it,' Rafe said in an undertone. 'She'll hear you.'
'I don't care if she hears me! What the hell are you playing at?'
'I'm trying to help you, since you don't seem to want to help yourself,' Rafe said. 'I can't stand seeing you like this. Sitting around brooding, snapping everyone's head off if they so much as glance at you. You won't even go outside, for pity's sake. It's as if you've given up. You can't give up. You have to work through this.'
Raoul glared at his brother. 'I'll go outside when I can get out there under my own power. You had no right to bring that woman here without my permission. This is my house. Get her out of it.'
'She's staying,' Rafe said. 'I paid her up-front and I can't get a refund. It was part of her stipulation in accepting the post.'
Raoul flicked his eyes upwards in derision. 'Doesn't that tell you what sort of woman she is? For God's sake, Rafe, I thought you of all people would've had more sense. This is just a money grab. You wait and seeshe'll walk out after a couple of days over something I said or did and do a happy dance all the way to the bank.'
'Miss Archer comes on very good recommendation,' Rafe said. 'She's highly trained and very experienced.'
Raoul gave a scoffing grunt. 'I just bet she is.'
'I'm going to leave you to get acquainted with her. I need to get back to Poppy; we have a wedding to organise. I want you there, Raoul, chair or no chair. Do you understand?'
Raoul let out a hiss. 'I'm not going to sit up there in front of everybody like some sort of freak show. Get Remy to be your best man.'
'You know what Remy is like. He'll fail to show up because something far more interesting has come across his radar. I want you to do it, and so does Poppy, and I don't want her disappointed.' Rafe moved to the door, holding it open as he added, 'I'll call you in a couple of weeks to see how you're doing. Ciao.'
Lily gripped her handbag on her lap with fingers that were ice cold in spite of the summer temperature. She'd heard shouting, and although she wasn't fluent in French or Italian she understood enough to know Raoul Caf-farelli was not happy about her being here. Which was ironic, since she wasn't all that happy about being here, either. But with the money safely in her mother's mortgage account at least one worry had been shelved.
But her biggest worry lay ahead.
Being left alone in this huge old chateau with a man she had never met before was like something out of a horror movie. Her pulse was racing and her heart was hammering. She could feel the stickiness of perspiration between her shoulder blades and on her palms. The floor of her stomach was crawling with prickly feet of panic and she had to press her knees together to stop them from knocking against each other.