Read an Excerpt
"MY FATHER retiring?" Darcy Langton gave a derisive snort. "Only with the help of six pallbearers and a memorial service."
"Darcy, dear," her aunt said reproachfully. "That's not nice. Not nice at all."
Neither, thought Darcy, is my father, a lot of the time. But out of respect for her aunt Winifred, she didn't voice it aloud.
"Is this why I've been summoned home in such haste?" she demanded instead. "To hear about his latest whim?"
Her aunt sighed. "I think it's gone much further than that. He is actually standing down as managing director of Werner Langton, and plans to hand over as chairman too, just as soon as his successor finds his feet."
"But there was no mention of this before I went away." Darcy, who'd been standing by the window, staring at the sunlit autumn gardens, came back and seated herself on the sofa beside her aunt, stretching out slim, denim-clad legs. "Yet, if it's this far advanced, he must have been planning it for ages."
But then, she thought suddenly, we all have our secrets. Don't we?
Restlessly she flicked back a tendril of pale blonde hair that had escaped from the loose knot on top of her head.
She said abruptly, "This successor you mentioned — has he already been appointed? Is he a member of the board?"
"No, he's not.'Aunt Freddie frowned slightly. "In fact, he seems rather an odd choice. Much younger than I'd have expected."
Darcy stared at her. "You've met him, then?" 'Your father brought him down here a few weekends ago. They spent most of the time shut up in the study, so that must be when the deal was done."
She shrugged. "Your father seems very pleased with his choice. He says Werner Langton has become too complacent, and needs the injection of dynamism and drive that this young man will provide."
"How on earth did they meet?" 'Your father went to the USA specially, because he'd heard of this whizkid who'd been there for the past year, troubleshooting various projects that had got into difficulties and turning them around." She paused. "His name is Joel Castille. Does that mean anything to you?"
Darcy shrugged. "Absolutely not. It's quite an odd name, so I think I'd have remembered it."
"It seems he had an English mother, but a French father." Aunt Freddie devoted a moment to silent consideration. "Quite striking looks, too. I don't do many portraits, as a rule, but he has a face I'd like to paint."
Darcy's lips twitched faintly. "Something to hang in the boardroom, maybe. You should suggest it to him."
"No, darling," Aunt Freddie said wryly. "I really wouldn't dare — as you'll understand when you meet him. Your father's throwing a reception for him next week at the Templar Hotel. Introducing him to the company, and trade Press. And, naturally, he wishes you to act as his hostess for the occasion. You're so much better at these London things than I am."
"Not true," Darcy said instantly. "You'd rather stay down here in your studio and paint than work the room at a party, or make polite conversation at formal dinners, that's all.
"But I see now why I've had the regal summons to return," she added, her mouth tightening.
"Not altogether.'Her aunt spoke with a certain constraint. "I'm afraid pictures of the police raid on the yacht appeared in some of the papers here — and you were clearly visible in them, and mentioned in the stories as one of Drew Maidstone's companions on board. Gavin is — not pleased. And that's putting it mildly." 'Then it's a pity the Press — and Gavin — can't get their facts straight," Darcy said hotly. "Firstly, yes — there was a raid, and we all spent a few hours in custody while they searched the boat. No, it wasn't pleasant, but the search found nothing — no drugs or anything else untoward. It was a mistake.
"Secondly, I've been working on Sorceress and damned hard too. Drew doesn't bother with the charming playboy image when he's paying the wages, believe me," she added bitterly. "Nor was I sharing his stateroom — ever. I was squashed into something the size of a half-pint broom cupboard."
She spread her hands. "He just likes posh totty waiting on his guests, that's all. And he reckons I qualify.
"Thirdly, he was furious when I left, so Daddy will be pleased to hear I won't be going back, because I no longer have a job. I hope he's satisfied."
"No, I don't think he will be," Aunt Freddie said calmly. "He wants to see you in some settled occupation, dearest, not skivvying round Europe and the Caribbean for frankly chancy characters like Mr Maidstone."
"No," Darcy said flatly, and with candour. "He really wants to see me a boy — the son he never had, but always thought Mummy would give him eventually. The son who would have taken over from him at Werner Langton. Kept the dynasty going.'She shook her head. "He never wanted a daughter — hadn't a clue what to do with me. And still hasn't."
"You're very hard on him." Her aunt spoke gently.
Darcy hunched a shoulder. "It's mutual." 'But things will not improve while you go out of your way to antagonise him." Aunt Freddie spoke with unaccustomed severity. "Werner Langton has been his life. Giving it up cannot have been an easy decision for him. So when he arrives, can we make a concerted effort to have a pleasant weekend?"
Darcy reached across and kissed her aunt on the cheek. "For you — anything," she said gently, and smiled.
But when she was alone, the smile faded. Much as she loved her aunt, it was galling to hear about the startling change in her father's future plans at second hand like this.
And if he hadn't suddenly needed her to be his hostess at the reception next week, because Aunt Freddie had jibbed, he wouldn't have sent for her, she thought bitterly. She'd simply have arrived home at some time in the future to discover a fait accompli.
He's not that different from Drew Maidstone, she told herself drily. He also needs some posh totty to wait on his guests. That's why I went on that course in France two years ago, to learn how to cook, and arrange flowers, and organise a household. Because I'm a girl, and to Dad, that's what girls are for. Or partly.
And if I hadn't been feeling so totally hellish, I might have fought back. Demanded some training where I could have used my brain. Had a proper career. But I simply didn't have the strength. Not then. Besides, I just wanted to get away — to escape.
She squared her shoulders. But that was all in the past, where it belonged. Dead and buried, with no looking back.
It was much more important to consider what the future might hold, she thought with slight unease. There was no doubt that her father's unexpected decision would bring about a big shake-up in all their lives.
Perhaps when he retired altogether, and would no longer need her services even marginally, she could get some proper qualifications at last. Up to now, her father's frequent calls on her had precluded her working on anything but a temporary basis, or performing much more than menial tasks that could be swiftly abandoned.
She might, she thought longingly, eventually find employment that would be more fulfilling and absorbing than acting as au pair for spoiled children, or cooking on board yachts which were basically extensions of the latest fashionable night clubs.
Maybe achieve something that would include real travel too. The world could be opening up for her at last.
Hey there, Darcy, she whispered inwardly, abruptly halting her train of thought. You're running too far ahead of yourself here. Dad might change his mind about retirement — especially if this whizkid turns out to be a little too whizzy after all. You could be back at square one.
But maybe she could hope — just a little. After all, she told herself, you never know in life what might be just around the corner — do you?
* * * It was a difficult weekend. Her father arrived looking dour, and insisted on seeing Darcy alone in his study soon afterwards.
"I hope you realise the Werner Langton Press office received calls from gutter journalists about the company you keep," was his opening salvo. "At every lunch I go to, other men are showing me pictures of their grandchildren. And what can I offer in return? My daughter being arrested in a drugs raid."
Darcy bit her lip. "The police searched the boat and found nothing," she repeated wearily. "No one was charged with anything."
"More by luck than judgement," her father returned angrily. "Understand this, Darcy: I will not have you consorting with the likes of Drew Maidstone."
She looked back at him stonily. "I was his employee, Dad. Part of the crew, and nothing more."
"And that's hardly to your credit either — being at the beck and call of that kind of riff-raff." Under the thick thatch of silver hair, his face was unbecomingly flushed.
"But it's OK for me to put on a designer dress and smile at the people you do business with," she said. "Isn't that why I'm here now?"
He grunted. "That's hardly the same thing. They know you're my daughter, and they treat you with respect. And that's how it should be, if you're ever to find a husband."
She hadn't been expecting that. Her head went back. "I'm hardly on the shelf at twenty."
"Many more Drew Maidstone episodes and you'll be looked on as damaged goods. Is that what you want?"
She was very still suddenly, remembering contemptuous blue eyes judging her — stripping her...
Not, she thought, shivering inwardly, not twice in a lifetime. "It's time you pulled yourself together, Darcy,'Gavin Langton went on. "Began to take your life seriously. God knows what your mother would say to you if she was here now,'he added sombrely.
His previous remark had made her vulnerable. The cruelty of this left her gasping, but she rallied. "She'd be saying nothing, because I wouldn't actually be present. I'd be away, starting my final year at university with her blessing and encouragement." 'Of course," he said with heavy sarcasm. "Some ludicrous degree in engineering, wasn't it? To be followed by a job with the company, no doubt."
He snorted. "You think I'd allow my daughter to strut round on site in a hard hat, giving orders while the men laughed at you behind your back?"
"No,'she said, quietly. "I — never thought that. But I hoped you might let me make — some contribution."
"Then you can, at the reception next week. I want to make sure the evening goes smoothly. Not everyone approves of the man I've chosen to step into my shoes. Some of them feel...passed over, others are afraid the axe is going to fall, so I'll need you to...defuse any troublesome situations that might arise. After all, the shareholders won't like open warfare."
"No," she said, and hesitated. "Why are you doing this, Dad? You're still years off retirement age. You could have introduced this man at a lower level. At least let him prove himself, before you give him the top job."
"I've given my whole life to Werner Langton." His voice was suddenly harsh. "Travelled the world building bridges, digging tunnels, putting up shopping malls. I was in Venezuela when your mother died. I've thought a thousand times that if I'd been here, I might have been able to do something. That she could still be with us now.
"I plan to enjoy the time that's left to me." He gave a grim smile. "Let the company swallow up another willing sacrifice. I've paid my dues. And Joel Castille will follow me, whatever the rest of them think."
She said slowly, "It didn't occur to you to speak to me first — talk things over."
"And you'd have advised me, would you — out of your vast experience?" He shook his head. "I make my own decisions. Just be pleasant to my choice of managing director, Darcy, and see the evening goes smoothly. That's your forte."
He looked her over, his lips pursing irritably at the jeans and sweatshirt she was wearing. "And buy yourself a new dress — something glamorous that'll make you look like a woman. Don't forget you have a bad impression to wipe away."
She felt her hands tighten into fists, but made herself unclench them. Even smile. "Yes, Father," she said quietly. "Of course."
"The guest of honour is late," Aunt Freddie murmured. "And your father is getting agitated."
"Not my problem," Darcy returned softly, smiling radiantly over her untouched glass of champagne. "He can't expect me to go out and scour the highways and byways for the guy." She paused. "Perhaps he knows there's dissension in the ranks over his appointment, and has changed his mind."
Her aunt shuddered faintly. "Don't even think it. Can you imagine the fallout?"
"Yes, but at least you're here to help me cope. I'm truly grateful, Freddie. I know how you hate London."
"But occasionally, a visit is inevitable." Her aunt looked around her, and sighed. "What a disagreeable evening. All these resentful faces."
"Plus a drunken waiter, and a waitress spilling a tray of canapés all over the finance director's wife,'Darcy reminded her softly.
"They may turn out to be the high spots of the party." Aunt Freddie turned to survey her niece. "You look very lovely, darling, but does it always have to be black?"
Darcy glanced down at her figure-skimming voile dress, with its narrow straps and the bias-cut skirt that swirled as she moved.
"This is a compromise," she said. "I was looking for sackcloth and ashes."
"Well, start celebrating instead," her aunt said with open relief. "Because the errant guest has finally made it." She sighed deeply. "Oh, for a sketch pad."
Amused, Darcy turned towards the doorway. A group of Werner Langton executives was already clustering round the latecomer, and, for a moment, her view was blocked by her father's commanding figure.
She ought to join them, she thought. Play her part in the meeting and greeting.
She took a step, then the group shifted, and she saw him. And, sick with shock, recognised him. Confronted the harrowing, un-forgettable image she'd carried for two years — the tall figure with black hair, and eyes as cold as a northern sea in his tanned face.
Not a bad dream or a hallucination. But here — now — in this room — breathing the same air. And looking round him.
Almost, she thought, dry-mouthed, as if he was searching for someone...