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Sophie paused at the top of the steps and consulted her notebook. She turned to the pencilled map drawn in her own neat hand before glancing up to double-check the number on the door of the modest Georgian terrace. It was in a street filled with rows of similar houses, but then, as they always said, when it came to property it was all about location.
She shaded her eyes from the July sun as she directed her gaze towards the luxury cars parked along the tree-lined street. They seemed to suggest that, in estate-agent speak, this location could be classed as highly desirable.
She turned her attention back to the building. This was, she decided, definitely the place, though a further search revealed there was nothing as vulgar as a sign to identify it on the door.
Small but exclusive, her father had said, with a growing reputation for excellence. Exactly the sort of place, he had assured Sophie, for her to spread her artistic wings.
'A springboard for future success!' he had enthused. 'You could go places with your talent, Sophie, you just need to get out there and show the world what you can do!'
So, no pressure, then.
Sophie had resisted the temptation to point out that a home-study course in interior decorating didn't necessarily qualify her to achieve world domination in the field of interior design, not overnight anyway.
There would be no interview, it seemed, and when she had asked when she started the new job, her father's reply had tipped her over into outright panic.
do you think I can?'
Her father had looked stern and Oscar Balfour could look very stern, but not normally with her.
She had never given him cause; she had always towed the line, and there had never been any major dramas in her life. She'd never needed rescuing, or been the subject of embarrassing headlines; there were no unsuitable men in her past
she was an open and fairly boring book.
Depressing when you thought about it.
'I know you can.'
'I know, Sophie, that you and your sisters will not disappoint me. I have faith in you. Your sisters have all accepted a challenge.'
And if she didn't what did that make her?
'I know they have.' And she missed them.
'This is my fault,' Oscar Balfour had insisted.
Sophie's kind heart had ached to see the father she loved hold himself personally responsible and she'd said warmly, though not entirely truthfully, 'You've been a wonderful father.'
As she hugged him she'd seen the tabloid open on his desk. Knowing it contained a particularly vicious editorial, she'd heard herself say, 'I'll do it.'
Sophie had left the room with an emotional lump the size of a golf ball in her throat, in a state of shock but determined not to let down her father and sisters; for once in her life she would act like a Balfour.
A week later and the lump was still there, but as she lifted a hand to knock tentatively on the half-open door it had been joined by a tight knot of anxiety lying like a leaden weight in her stomach.
She still felt in shock.
She knew none of this should have come as a surprise. Since the drama of the scandalous events surrounding the annual Balfour Charity Ball, she had watched as one by one her sisters had been sent away to prove themselves in the world without the cushion of the Balfour wealth and influence.
But time had passed and Sophie had waited nervously for her invitation to her father's study, and when it hadn't materialised she had relaxed a little, assuming she was safethen
The sympathetic look she received from her father's butler as she let herself in by a side door to the manor had made her wonder, but the tearful hug from the cook had confirmed it she had not been overlooked.
Her father had, he said, taken his time to find the perfect position for her. Sophie, who knew that her perfect position was at home at the Balfour gatehouse with her mother, had tried to sound suitably appreciative of his efforts.
Sophie glanced at her watch; she was fifteen minutes early for her first day. Wondering if that made her appear eager or desperate she toyed with the idea of taking a walk and coming back later.
No, it was now or neverdon't be a wimp, Sophie, you can do this! Taking a deep breath she was looking around for the bell when she caught the door with her elbow and it swung inwards.
There was no reply.
Taking her courage by the scruff of its neck she stepped through the open door. The room she stepped into was laid out like a country house drawing room, the decor aimed at people who had as much money as taste.
The aroma of coffee was her first impression; the second was the lovely and clever use of texture and colour in the soft furnishing. It was clearly a showroom of sorts, though there were no price tags on either the beautifully displayed individual pieces of modern art or the equally fine antique items.
Sophie was both impressed and daunted, as this was a far cry from her little work room at the Balfour gatehouse with her drawing board, colour charts and wallpaper samples.
She brushed her fingertips along a beautiful vibrant-coloured kilim that had been draped over a leather chesterfield and struggled to see herself working here.
'Hello?' she called out again.
She was standing there feeling like a spare part and wondering what to do next when she heard the sound of voices; the noise was coming from the far end of the room, but she couldn't see anyone. With a puzzled frown drawing her feathery brows into a straight line, she moved towards the sound of the voices when she realised that what she had assumed was a wall was actually a portable screen.
The voices were the other side and as she aproached they got louder.
She peered through a gap in the screen and saw another area laid out beyond, lit by a pair of stunning chandeliers. This time the style was strongly Gustavian; pale and deceptively simple, the light airy feel was further enhanced by a stunning antique mirror in an ornate carved white-painted frame that took centre stage.
The building was clearly a great deal larger than it looked from the outside.
She opened her mouth to speak, caught the word Balfour, and closed it again, revealing herself now might cause embarrassment to the people on the other side of the screen. Two women, by the sound of their voices, though all Sophie could see were the tops of their heads above the high back of a wooden bench.
She was about to move to the opposite side of the room when she heard the person who hadn't yet spoken exclaim, 'One of the Balfour girlsyou've got to be kidding! Work here! Do they work? And risk breaking a nail, surely not.'
if you were a society heiress to a fortune, would you work, darling?'
'Let me see
Sophie heard both girls laugh.
'But you'd have to share the fortune with
how many sisters are there?'
'Are we including the one they've just discovered?'
Normally a pretty placid person Sophie felt her face flush with anger at this mocking referenceanger she felt on behalf of her half-sister Mia, who was the result of an affair their father had many years ago.
Oscar had welcomed the daughter he hadn't known about into the family and despite the fact she hadn't known her for long Sophie felt a special closeness to her beautiful half-Italian sister.
'And then Zoe Balfour isn't really a Balfour at all
maybe she's the one that's coming here?' one of the voices speculated.
There was a certain malicious amusement in the voice that responded. 'Yeah, maybe Daddy's cut her off now he knows she's not his. I do wish I could have been a fly on the wall at the 100th Balfour Charity Ball!'
Sophie's hands clenched into fists at her side as she bit her tongue, longing to set the record straight, but she was hampered by the fact that she couldn't, without revealing that she'd been eavesdropping.
Sure Zoe had been outed as illegitimate at the Balfour Ball and the ensuing scandal had caused their father's serious overhaul of his parental style but as far as he and all of them were concerned Zoe was a Balfour no matter what her genetic parentage was.
'So how many are there?'
'Six, seven, who knows
but what wouldn't I give to have their looks and money!' came the wistful response.
Eight, thought Sophie, silently amending their total, and she seconded their wish, at least for the looks part anyway. The money part had never been a problem for her in that she didn't have expensive tastes, but what the Balfour name gave her was the luxury of following her instincts.
And Sophie's instincts drew her like a homing pigeon back to Balfour, where her mother lived in the gatehouse since the tragic death of her second husband. Sophie's eyes misted as her thoughts touched on the man who had been a second father to his wife's three daughters.
For a short time Sri Lanka had been home for Sophie but now the Balfour estate in Buckinghamshire was the one place she really felt she belonged, it was the place where there was no pressure to be something she wasn't.
Unlike her sisters, she wasn't an instantly recognisable face except to the people who worked on the Balfour estate and the locals in the village.
'I have never provided you girls with challenges,' Oscar Balfour had lamented. 'Children need to be pushed, but it is never too late. I have been a negligent father, but I mean to make amends. Independence, Sophie,' he'd said, indicating the rule that she would find most valuable, though he warned it would not be easy for her to learn. 'A member of the Balfour family must strive to develop themselves and not rely on the family name to get them through life.'
'Which ever one it is you can be sure that we'll end up stuck with her work and ours.'
Listening to the grunt of assent from the second girl Sophie gritted her teeth and thought she'd show them that this Balfour was not just a pretty faceactually, not a pretty face at all, but that she couldn't do anything about.
However, she did have a work ethic and she would show them that she wasn't afraid of hard work.
'What was Amber thinking, taking her on?'
Sophie, unashamedly eavesdropping now, strained to hear as the other girl lowered her voice to a confidential undertone.
'You know that diamond bracelet that Amber wears
There was a pause when presumably the other girl had nodded. 'Well, that was a little parting gift from Oscar Balfour.'
'Amber and Oscar Balfour
wow! Why didn't I know that?'
'It was years ago, and it didn't last long.'
he's quite attractive for an older man, isn't he? Actually, quite sexy and he looks like he knows
Grimacing, Sophie had no desire to hear the women discussing her father in that sort of detail and covered her ears. When she uncovered them again one girl was saying, 'And let's face ita Balfour girl working here
God, you couldn't pay for that sort of advertising.'
Bella, the skinny one
'The impossibly gorgeous one?'
'All right, the gorgeous one. Do you remember that time she was pictured wearing a dress from that charity shop and the shelves emptied overnight.'
Sophie did remember. She remembered when the subject had been raised during a family dinner.
Zoe had joked that she didn't know what all the fuss was about. Sophie, she said, had been wearing charity-shop clothes for years.
Sophie had joined in the laughter, even inviting further hilarity by comparing the practicality and comfort of the sports bras she favoured with push ups that consisted of a few scraps of lace. But later in her own room she had looked at her wardrobe, filled with the sorts of clothesor tents in boring colours, as Annie had once described her stylethat made her glamorous sisters despair, and she hadn't smiled.
The tent situation was not accidental, but her taller, slimmer sisters who did not have breasts that made men snigger and stare would not have understand her decision to hide her ample bosom under voluminous tops.
In a family famed for beauty, grace and witthe very things that Sophie had missed out onshe had, presumably by way of compensation, been given instead the clumsy gene. A nuisance
yes, but to Sophie's way of thinking not as much of a blight as having heads turn when you walked into a room the way they did automatically for her sisters.
A Balfour girl who disliked the limelighta Balfour girl
how she hated that phrasewho was not witty or beautiful, made her something of a freak.
So much so that Sophie sometimes wondered if the real Balfour baby had been left at the hospital the day they brought her homebut she had the Balfour blue eyes, the same piercing Balfour blue of her father's eyes.
For the average Balfour, being the centre of attention was as commonplace as breathing and something that they took as much for granted.
It was Sophie's idea of hell.
But she had a solution. It had taken her time but at twenty-three she had just about perfected the art of fading into the background. Being short and on the dumpy side gave her a head start, so now the only time strangers noticed her was when she managed to trip over her own feet, or spill something.
She did both in graceful unison when a voice behind her said, 'Can I help you?'
Sophie yelped, spun around and dropped her bag on the waxed floorboards. A tall blonde woman dressed in a snug-fitting red sheath that showed off her slim figure watched, one brow raised, as Sophie dropped to her knees and began to pick up the coins that had tipped out of her purse.
' Pushing her hair back from her flushed face Sophie held out her hand.
The woman looked at it with a lack of enthusiasm.
Sophie dropped her arm. 'I'm Sophie
Sophie Balfour I'm meant to be here
'You are Sophie Balfour?' The blonde woman looked openly sceptical.
Sophie who had encountered this response before nodded and repressed the impulse to say, No, I'm an impostor! I kidnapped the real Sophie Balfour! 'Yes. I think you were expecting me.'
'I was expecting
The woman didn't finish the sentence; she didn't need to. It was no struggle to fill in the blanksshe'd been expecting someone with glamour and style.
And she got me.