Jenny O’Connor can hardly believe her luck when she’s hired to teach summer art classes in Italy. Whilst the prospect of sun, sightseeing, and Italian food is hard to resist, Jenny is far more interested in her soon-to-be boss, Max Castanien. She’s blamed him for a family tragedy for as long as she can remember and now she wants answers.
But as the summer draws on and she spends more time with Max, she starts to learn first hand that there’s a fine line between love and hate.
Praise for A Bargain Struck
“Another sure hit to add to the burgeoning canon of Choc Lit’s highly readable popular fiction.” —Daily Mail
“Engrossing. A thoroughly enjoyable read, full of romance and with enough treachery and intrigue to keep you rooting for Ellen until the last page.” —Historical Novels Review
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About the Author
Liz Harris was born in London and now lives in South Oxfordshire with her husband. After graduating from university with a Law degree, she moved to California where she led a varied life, trying her hand at everything from cocktail waitressing on Sunset Strip to working as secretary to the CEO of a large Japanese trading company, not to mention a stint as ‘resident starlet’ at MGM. On returning to England, Liz completed a degree in English and taught for a number of years before developing her writing career.
Liz’s debut novel, The Road Back, won a Book of the Year Award from Coffee Time Romance in the USA and her second novel A Bargain Struck was shortlisted for the Romantic Novel of the Year Award.
Read an Excerpt
In a matter of minutes Jenny was going to come face to face with one of the men who'd killed her father. Her mouth felt dry, and she ran her tongue around her lips.
The taxi stopped in front of the office block in Holborn. She paid the cab driver, stepped out on to the pavement and walked slowly towards the building, smoothing down the skirt of her suit as she went.
For the last two weeks this was the moment she'd been longing for, and also the moment she'd been dreading – it was almost impossible to believe that it was only fourteen days since her world had turned upside down ...
She'd been leafing through the weekly educational newspaper that she'd borrowed from the staff room. The final pieces of work done by her pupils at her teachers' training placement really did need marking, but getting a job for September was even more urgent than that.
Her heart sank. Once again, the only openings for newly qualified art teachers were miles away in the north of England. That was much too far from Cornwall. Her mother would be alone when she'd gone, and she wanted to be able to come home and see her often, and see her friends, too.
She took a sip of coffee, and turned to the last section of the paper, where vacancies for private tutors were advertised. A few hours a week as a tutor would be better than nothing until she could get a permanent job. Even though she'd worked for two years after leaving school to save enough money to study for her Art degree, her three years at college, plus her year afterwards as a PGCE student, had left her completely broke. She had to earn some money as soon as possible.
She sat up sharply, spilling her coffee. Max Castanien was advertising for someone to teach art classes throughout the summer in Italy. This was a name she knew well, a name that she and her mother would never forget. She spread the paper flat on the desk and stared hard at the advertisement. Her heart started to race, and she put her hand to her mouth to steady herself.
Then she took a deep breath – she was being silly, letting herself get into a state at the sight of a mere name. There was obviously more than one family in the country with that surname, and there was probably more than one Max Castanien, unusual though the name was. It was highly unlikely that the man advertising was one of the Castanien brothers, Max and Peter, whom she and her mother hated so much.
For several moments, she sat biting her thumbnail, staring at the advertisement. The only other information, apart from the name and brief job description, was an e-mail address.
Could this possibly be the same family, she wondered. She pushed the newspaper aside, pulled her computer towards her and switched it on. It couldn't be that difficult to find out, and she couldn't leave it – she had to know.
The Castanien family had a large textiles company so there were bound to be any number of references to the family and their business on the internet, and if it was the Max Castanien, one of the references might say something that linked him to Italy. If the man who was looking to hire an art teacher did turn out to be one of the brothers responsible for her father's death ...
She could hardly breathe at the thought.
If she could just meet him, she'd have a chance – albeit a slim chance – of finding out why the brothers had acted as they had done. She'd been twelve when her father died – too young for her mother to feel able to talk to her in depth about it, but not too young to know that the Castaniens had brought misery into their lives. As she'd got older, she'd increasingly wanted to know the reason why.
Her mother had answered any questions she'd asked over the years – but she'd never been able to tell her why they'd done it. But with an opportunity like this to meet the brothers, and a chance to find out what had happened for herself ...
Jenny felt a sudden surge of hope at the thought of learning why they had let her father down as badly as they had, and she felt a momentary shock at the strength of her feeling. She hadn't realised quite how desperately she wanted answers to her questions.
Several times over the years, she'd thought about writing to them and asking for an explanation, telling them that she needed to know, but she'd always instantly dismissed the idea. There'd be no point: they'd have time to compose something that sounded like a good answer, but which was unlikely to be the whole truth. And if she made an appointment to see them in person and asked them outright – they'd be immediately on the defensive and would probably lie. She'd never know if she could believe them or not.
But if she could get to know them without them realising who she was, then she might have an opportunity to ask them in person. If they became friends, they'd be more likely to want to tell her the truth, whatever that truth was. And even if they lied, she'd know them well enough to be able see it in their body language.
She mentally shook herself. She was letting herself get carried away. The first step was to find out if this was the Max Castanien. Her heart thudding with sudden nervousness, she typed his name into Google. As she'd expected, there were several pages of entries. Skimming down the first page, she found an interview that Max Castanien, textiles tycoon, had given recently; she read every word.
When she came to the end of it, she was shaking.
Max answered questions about his role in his local business community, and then, when he'd been asked what he did in his free time, he told the interviewer that he'd just bought a place in Umbria and was planning to offer art classes.
It was the same man.
For several moments, she stared at the screen, motionless.
And what about Peter? He was the older brother, if she remembered rightly, so he was probably the guiltier of the two. Was Peter also involved in the art project? She typed in his name.
Seeing the obituaries felt like a blow to the face.
She drew her breath in sharply. Peter had died after a short illness five years ago. She'd been hating him for those five years, and he hadn't even been alive.
Feeling sick to her stomach, she clicked on the first of the obituaries and read it. He'd left a wife and a son of fourteen, Stephen – not a lot older than she'd been when she lost her father. The obituary quoted Max's eulogy, word for word. He had spoken movingly about his brother, praising him as an excellent businessman and as a loving brother, husband and father, and he'd ended up by promising that he would always be a strong presence in the life of his nephew, Stephen.
Peter may well have been all those things, she thought in a sudden wave of bitterness, but he certainly wasn't a good friend. And nor was Max.
She glanced at the small photograph of Peter in the corner of the obituary, clicked on it to make it larger, and stared at it long and hard. He'd been nothing out of the ordinary, she thought – quite attractive, but he had a weak chin.
She closed the obituary and returned to the pages about Max. Further down there was an article about the family business, and as she'd suspected there'd be, there was a photograph of him. She enlarged the photo and studied his face. He was definitely better-looking than Peter, and he had a stronger chin. In fact, she hated to admit it but he was good-looking.
Neither man looked unpleasant, but that just showed how deceptive appearances could be. A person's actions told the truth, and what the Castaniens had done spoke volumes about them.
But one thing was clear from the photos of the brothers, and that was that she'd been wrong in thinking that Peter would have been the power behind every action that they'd taken. Despite being several years younger, it would have been Max. There was a strength and determination in his face, in the set of his chin and in his eyes, that was lacking in Peter's.
She sank back in her chair, her eyes still on the screen. It felt very strange, seeing their faces after all this time. She could have looked at their photos at any time over the years, but she'd never wanted to. It had been difficult enough to know that they'd destroyed her family; seeing them would have made everything horribly real. But now ... now that there was a chance that she might be able to meet Max in person ... She sat up. There was no time to waste. She must apply for the job at once, and her letter must be good enough to get her an interview. She glanced at the words of the advertisement again, and wondered how best to begin. She knew that she had enough experience to run his art classes: two years' working before university, her Art degree, and her teaching qualification, and that must come across in her application.
And so must her ability to speak Italian.
Alongside her main subject, she'd also studied Italian. The photos of her work, which all of the teaching trainees had been advised to send in with any job application, would show both her painting ability and her genuine interest in Italy. She'd spent two summer vacations in Florence, looking after children, and she'd be certain to send photos of the best of the paintings she'd done in her free time there. And if she wrote a few lines in Italian at the end of the letter, and included a translation, that would make her application really stand out.
She bent over the computer, her fingers hovering above the keyboard, but her mind was blank and she couldn't move. For several minutes, she stared helplessly at the empty screen, but then she straightened up. It was no good: she felt completely drained and she hadn't a clue how to begin.
Her shoulders ached as if she was carrying a huge weight on them, and she rubbed the back of her neck with her hands. She'd leave the letter until the following day, she decided. By then, she'd feel fresher and less emotionally exhausted by having discovered Max Castanien and by what she was planning to do.
She shut down the laptop, closed the lid and stood up.
The Holborn traffic was loud behind her. She glanced up at the tall office block, and her steps faltered. Everything had happened so quickly. Was she really ready to go through with this?
The day after she'd seen the advertisement, she'd written her letter of application, attached the photos of her work, and had e-mailed everything. She was confident that he'd never recognise her mother's maiden name, the surname they'd used since the newspapers went overboard after the inquest into her father's death. Jenny had felt a stab of guilt about acting in such an underhand way. But there wasn't any alternative. And she was doing this for her mother as well as for herself. She wouldn't tell her mother what she was doing, though. There'd be time enough for that if she was successful. And if she wasn't, she wouldn't have raised her hopes in vain.
Two days later, her teaching mentor at the school pulled her aside and told her that her references had been taken up. Her momentary numbness had been followed by a mixture of excitement and fear.
A few days after that, Max Castanien's assistant, Louisa, had telephoned to ask if she could come up to London for an interview. Apparently, he'd been greatly impressed by her work, Louisa had told her, and by the fact that she spoke Italian. Both things had made her a strong contender for the position.
The gap between the phone call and the interview had passed in a daze.
But she was now in London, and she was about to face him for the first time. She took a step forward, and her heart thumped loudly.CHAPTER 2
Louisa gave her an encouraging smile, knocked on Max Castanien's door, opened it and stood aside. Jenny took a deep breath, went through the doorway, and hesitated.
'You'll be fine, I'm sure,' Louisa said. 'Good luck.' And the door closed behind her.
She took a step forward.
Vaguely, she was aware of a tall, dark-haired man getting up and coming round his desk, his hand held out to her.
'Good morning, Miss O'Connor. It's a pleasure to meet you. I'm most grateful to you for making the effort to come to London.'
Her hand was lost in a strong grip, and she found herself staring up into dark brown fathomless eyes.
'N-not at all,' she stammered, her voice seeming to come from somewhere miles away. 'I really want the job, and you obviously wouldn't hire anyone you hadn't met. And you're busier than I am so you couldn't come to me. Not that you'd do so anyway – you're the employer, not me.' She broke off, and went red with embarrassment. 'I'm talking too much, aren't I? It's because I'm nervous.'
He laughed, his eyes crinkling in amusement.
He really is attractive, she thought. The photo she'd seen hadn't come close to doing him justice.
'I suggest we sit down,' he said, and he led the way towards a seating area at the side of the room. 'Louisa's going to bring us in some refreshments, and we can talk. I take it coffee's all right with you? If you'd prefer something else, just say.'
'Coffee would be lovely, thank you. It's very kind of you.' She went and sat on the dark brown leather sofa on the far side of the glass coffee table. Max Castanien took one of the chairs opposite her. The door opened and Louisa came in, carrying a tray. When she'd finished pouring, she left the milk and sugar, a plate of biscuits and the half-empty cafetière on the table, and went out.
'Help yourself to milk and sugar, if you take it,' Max said, picking up his cup. 'I take mine black. Given the amount of coffee I get through in a day, drinking it black isn't a particularly good idea, I know, but that's the way I like it.' He settled back in his seat and smiled encouragingly across the table. 'So, Miss O'Connor, I'm curious to know what first got you interested in art.'
She cleared her throat, and her mind went blank.
Oh, no, she thought in sudden panic. From the moment that she'd seen his name and confirmed that he was one of the hated family, she'd been waiting for this opportunity – she couldn't fluff it now.
She cleared her throat again and tried to keep her shaking voice light. 'It's the classic story, I'm afraid – I had a brilliant art teacher in my first year at secondary school, and she started me off. I wouldn't have used the word inspiring when I was eleven, but that's exactly what she was. She helped me discover a talent for painting, and I haven't looked back since then. And now I'd like to inspire other people in the same way. That's about it, I suppose.'
'That's something we have in common, then: we were both lucky with our teachers. It was a teacher who opened the door to art for me, too. Unfortunately, though, it was the door to art appreciation only – I was beyond help when it came to the drawing side of things. You should have seen some of my efforts.'
She laughed, and she felt her nervousness start to disappear. She pulled herself up sharply. Whilst he was coming across as a very friendly man, from what she'd been told, there was another side to him, and she mustn't let herself be so blinded by his superficial charm, that she forgot about that other side. If she relaxed too much, she might not get a chance to uncover what lay below the surface.
He gave her a broad smile, picked up the plate of biscuits and offered it to her.
'No, thank you.'
He put it back on the table. 'Well, if you change your mind, help yourself.'
'I will, thank you.'
'I'm curious to know why you chose to learn Italian,' he said, sitting back against his chair. 'I'm presuming your family's not Italian.'
She gave an awkward laugh. 'No, and there are no Italians that I know of among my ancestors. It was just that we had to pick two options at college, alongside art. I took the History of Art as one of them, and Italian as the other. I love the work of the Italian Renaissance artists so it seemed a good idea to learn their language, and I'm really glad I did. Thanks to my college, I got a summer job just outside Florence. It was brilliant, and the family asked me to go back again the following year, so I really got to practise my Italian. I've made a point of keeping it up since then.'
'Well done, you. You've obviously got real tenacity. I admire that in a person.'
'What about you? Do you speak any Italian? You've obviously got a place there.'
He gave her a rueful smile. 'I've been trying to learn it, but I don't seem to be making much headway. I could blame it on lack of time, but I think it's more about a lack of flair for languages. I'm a businessman, not a linguist, and I'm afraid that my attempts to speak Italian are rather on a par with my attempts at painting.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Art of Deception"
Copyright © 2013 Liz Harris.
Excerpted by permission of Choc Lit Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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