His Reluctant Cinderella Jessica Gilmore Ëèòàãåíò HarperCollins EUR It's like a fairy tale…Castor Rafferty, London's notorious vice-CEO of glamorous Rafferty's Stores, might have a reputation to uphold, but he's determined to protect his independence. He needs a convenient girlfriend, but his reluctant Cinderella–gorgeous single mom Clara Castleton–doesn't seem to be falling for his charms!Clara isn't looking for Prince Charming–only for a life where she's in control. But there's something about Raff that makes her want to open her heart…and to believe in a happy ending after all! She was paralysed by the heat in his eyes, warming her through from head to toe, settling in the pit of her stomach, awakening a sweet, insistent ache she hadn’t felt for so long. The naked desire in his face provoked pride, need, want. And she wanted him too. She’d wanted him since the moment he had sauntered into her office, arrogant and demanding, making her think and making her do and making her feel. Not just because he looked so good, was so tall and so broad and so solid, and not just because he had eyes that caressed and a mouth that made her knees tremble, but because he was a man who cared, hide it as he might. But he was a man who was leaving. A man with itchy feet, who lived his life on the edge of civilisation, risking his life every day. Right now it was hard to remember why that was a problem. His Reluctant Cinderella Jessica Gilmore www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) After learning to read aged just two, JESSICA GILMORE spent every childhood party hiding in bedrooms in case the birthday girl had a book or two she hadn’t read yet. Discovering a Mills & Boon® novel on a family holiday, Jessica realised that romance-writing was her true vocation and proceeded to spend her maths lessons practising her art, creating Dynasty-inspired series starring herself and Morten Harket’s cheekbones. Writing for Mills & Boon really is a dream come true! A former au pair, bookseller, marketing manager and Scarborough seafront trader—selling rock from under a sign that said ‘Cheapest on the Front’—Jessica now works as a membership manager for a regional environmental charity. Sadly, she spends most of her time chained to her desk, wrestling with databases, but likes to sneak out to one of their beautiful reserves whenever she gets a chance. Married to an extremely patient man, Jessica lives in the beautiful and historic city of York, with one daughter, one very fluffy dog, two dog-loathing cats and a goldfish named Bob. On the rare occasions when she is not writing, working, taking her daughter to activities or tweeting, Jessica likes to plan holidays—and uses her favourite locations in her books. She writes deeply emotional romance with a hint of humour, a splash of sunshine and usually a great deal of delicious food—and equally delicious heroes. For my parents To Mum, thank you for weekly trips to the library, for never telling me to “put that book down”, for the gift of words and stories and dreams. And to Dad for proving that families are more than genes, that blood isn’t thicker than water, that nurture totally trumps nature—and for being the best grandpa in the world. I love you both x Contents Cover (#ud1db6656-763e-5a86-ac2f-214e2c6152fa) Excerpt (#u4296478c-fca6-50cb-beeb-b62df031899c) Title Page (#u0a58be97-aa0c-552b-821a-cf664ce7d208) About the Author (#u618ba33c-64a2-5531-83d9-8bea11fbf017) Dedication (#ud123f105-d24e-5295-8d12-5571d9e2857d) CHAPTER ONE (#ulink_40efbb43-eda0-5617-92d9-6ab738ed8a8f) CHAPTER TWO (#ulink_823f02e6-1879-5cce-b1b8-c7f8a5fa6709) CHAPTER THREE (#ulink_1b189040-43b3-5b54-a1e0-5ba7488402e4) CHAPTER FOUR (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER FIVE (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER SIX (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER SEVEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER EIGHT (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER NINE (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER TEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER ELEVEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER TWELVE (#litres_trial_promo) EXTRACT (#litres_trial_promo) Copyright (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER ONE (#ulink_df6998fa-d22e-52d8-8517-ef943aec3724) ‘IF YOU TELL ME where my sister is, I’ll give you ten thousand pounds.’ The down-turned head in front of him lifted slowly and Raff found himself coolly assessed by a pair of the greenest eyes he had ever seen, their slight upward tilt irresistibly feline, the effect heightened by high, slanting cheekbones and a pointed chin. If this lady had a tail, it would definitely be swishing slowly. A warning sign. He’d never been that good at heeding warnings. He liked to see them more as a challenge. ‘I beg your pardon?’ Her voice was as cold as her stare. Maybe he should have tried charm before hard cash, but somehow Raff doubted that even his patented charm would work on this cool cat. Her dismissal should have annoyed him, he was used to people snapping to attention when he needed them, but he had to admit he was intrigued. He smiled, slow and warm. ‘Clara Castleton?’ There was no answering upturn of her full mouth as she nodded at the name tag, displayed neatly on the modern oak desk. ‘As you can see. But I don’t believe you introduced yourself?’ ‘I don’t believe I did.’ Raff hooked the wooden chair out from opposite her desk and slid into it. He knew his six-foot-two frame could be intimidating, used it to his advantage sometimes, but for some reason, standing before her incredibly neat desk, he was irresistibly reminded of being summoned to the headmaster’s office. Although that was where any resemblance to his long-suffering former headmaster ended despite her severely cut suit—her strawberry-blonde hair might be ruthlessly scraped back but it looked as if it was all there and she lacked the terrifying bushy eyebrows. Hers were rather neat lines, adding a flourish to what really was a remarkably pretty face, although the hair, the discreet make-up and the suit were all designed to hide the fact. Interesting. Raff filed that fact away for future use. He sensed he was going to need all the weapons he could get. He leant back in his chair, keeping his eyes fixed on her face. ‘Castor Rafferty, but you can call me Raff. I believe you know my sister.’ ‘Oh.’ Her eyes flickered away from his searching expression. ‘I was expecting you a couple of days ago.’ ‘I’ve been busy dropping everything and rushing back to England. So, are you going to tell me where Polly is?’ Clara Castleton shook her head. ‘I wouldn’t tell you if I knew,’ she said. ‘But I don’t.’ Raff narrowed his eyes. He didn’t believe her, didn’t want to believe her. Because if she was telling the truth he was at an utter dead end. ‘Come now, Clara. I can call you Clara, can’t I? This short and simple email...’ he held up his phone with the email displayed. Not that he needed to be reminded what it said; he knew it off by heart ‘...tells me quite clearly that in an emergency my sister can be contacted via Clara of Castleton’s Concierge Consultancy. Nice alliteration by the way.’ She took the phone and read the message, those intriguing eyebrows raised in surprise. ‘Sorry, I have an email address, nothing more.’ ‘I’ve tried emailing a couple of times.’ Try ten. Or twenty. ‘Maybe she’ll read it if it comes from you,’ he suggested hopefully. ‘My original offer still stands.’ ‘Keep your money, Mr Rafferty.’ Her voice was positively icy now. Raff was already finding the anaemic English spring chilly; her tone brought the temperature down another few degrees. ‘Your sister has taken care of my fees. She asked me to help settle you in, to continue to make sure the house is cared for. This I can do, it’s what I do. But unless there is a real emergency I won’t be sending any emails.’ It was a clear dismissal—and it rankled, far more than it should do. Time for a change of tactic; he needed to get this right so Polly would be back where she belonged, managing Rafferty’s, the iconic department store founded by their great-grandfather. And he would be back in the field where he belonged. He’d barely had a chance to unpack, to assess what was needed, how to play his own small yet vital part in stopping the humanitarian crisis unfolding before him from becoming a full-blown disaster, when he’d received Polly’s email ordering him home. Typical of his family, to think their petty affairs were worth more than thousands of lives. And yet here he was. Raff looked around the neat, organised room for inspiration. Such a contrast from his last office: a tent on the outskirts of the camp. Even the office before that, situated in an actual building, had been a small room, almost a cupboard, piled high with crates, paperwork and supplies. He couldn’t imagine having all this space to himself. Occupying the corner at the end of the quaint high street, Clara’s office took up the entire ground floor of a former terraced shop, the original lead-paned bow windows now veiled with blinds, the iron sign holder above the front door empty, replaced by a neat plaque set in the wall. Outside looked like a still from a film set in Ye Olde England but the inside was a sharp modern contrast. The large room was painted white with only bright-framed photographs to alleviate the starkness, although through the French doors at the back Raff could see a paved courtyard filled with flowering tubs and a small iron table and chairs, a lone hint of homeliness. Clara’s very large and very tidy desk was near the back by the far wall, facing out across the room. Two inviting sofas clustered by the front window surrounding a coffee table heaped with glossy lifestyle magazines. The whole room was discreet, tasteful and gave him no clue whatsoever to its owner’s personality. Maybe it was time to try the charm after all. Raff leaned forward confidingly. ‘I’m worried about Polly,’ he said. ‘It’s so out of character for her to disappear like this. What if she’s ill? I just want to know that she’s all right.’ He allowed a hint of a rueful smile to appear. The look on Clara’s face oozed disapproval. Yep, she was still giving out the whole ‘disappointed headmaster’ vibe. ‘Mr Rafferty, you and I both know that your sister hasn’t just disappeared. She’s gone on holiday after making sure that both her job and home are taken care of. There really is no mystery. ‘It may be a little out of character.’ Was that doubt creeping into her voice? ‘I haven’t known her to take even a long weekend before—but that’s probably exactly why she needs this break. Besides, isn’t it your company too?’ Unfortunately. ‘Just what has my sister said to you?’ A faint flush crept over the high cheekbones. ‘I don’t understand.’ Oh, she understood all right. ‘She didn’t use the words irresponsible or lazy?’ Polly’s email might have been short but it had been to the point. Her point of view. As always, they differed on that. The flush deepened. Not so cool after all. The colour gave her warmth, emphasising the curve of her cheek, the lushly dark lashes veiling those incredible eyes. An unexpected jolt of pure attraction shot through him. Before she had been like a marble statue, nice to look at but offputtingly chilly. This hint of vulnerability gave her dimensions. Unwanted, unneeded dimensions. He wasn’t here to flirt. With any luck he’d hardly be here at all. ‘Our communication was purely business,’ but she couldn’t meet his eye. ‘Now, I do happen to have a half-hour free right now. Is this a convenient time for me to show you the house?’ No, Raff wanted to snap. No, actually it wasn’t convenient. None of this was. Not Polly’s most uncharacteristic disappearance, nor her SOS ordering him home right now. She couldn’t expect him to drop everything and step in so she could go on some extended holiday. Even though he hadn’t been home in over four years. He pushed the thought away. He wasn’t needed here, not as he was out in the field. Besides, his absence had given Polly the opportunity she had wanted; the two circumstances were entirely different. Which made this whole disappearing act even odder. If he allowed himself to stop feeling irritated he might start getting worried. ‘Mr Rafferty?’ ‘Raff,’ he corrected her. ‘Mr Rafferty makes me think I’m back at school.’ Or even worse back in the boardroom, sitting round a ridiculously large table listening to never-ending presentations and impenetrable jargon, itching to get up, stop talking and do. ‘Raff,’ she said after a reluctant pause. He liked the sound of his name on her tongue. Crisp and cool like a smooth lager on a hot summer’s day. ‘Is now a convenient time?’ Not really but Polly had backed him into a hole and until he had a chance to work out what had happened he didn’t have much choice. He was still joint Vice CEO of Rafferty’s, after all. Someone had to take over the reins, stop Grandfather working himself into an early grave; in Polly’s absence that person had to be him. She had planned it well. The contrary streak in Raff wanted to ensure she didn’t get her way. To walk away from her home, her company. Show her he couldn’t be manipulated. But of course he couldn’t. Despite everything Polly was his twin—and pulling a stunt like this was completely out of character. Polly didn’t just quit; she was the hardest worker he knew. The sooner he found out what had happened and fixed it, the sooner they could both return to their lives. And he was sure that the woman in front of him could help him, if he could just find a way to make her crack, like a ripe and rather inviting nut. ‘Okay, then, Clara Castleton,’ he said. ‘Lead the way.’ * * * ‘Is there something wrong?’ Clara knew she sounded cold. Raff Rafferty might have turned on the charm but she preferred to keep a professional distance, especially when her new client owned an easy smile and a devilish glint in blue, blue eyes. And a disconcerting way of looking at her as if he could see straight through her barriers, as if the suit didn’t fool him at all. Her skin fizzed with awareness of his intense gaze—or with irritation at his high-handed ways. Either way he was dangerous. The sooner she settled him in and got out, the better. The tall blond man wasn’t actually her client but his sister had made sure Clara was fully briefed. The Golden Boy, apple of his grandfather’s eye. Clara knew men like Raff Rafferty all too well. It wasn’t a type she admired at all. Not any more. Look at him now, leaning against her van, a smirk playing on those finely sculpted lips. ‘This yours?’ Clara held up the keys. ‘Why?’ His eyes swept assessingly over the large, practical van, her logo and contact details tastefully picked out on the side. ‘I imagined you driving something a little more elegant.’ Clara took a breath, an unexpected flutter in her stomach at the idea of something elegant, that she was featuring in his imagination at all. She pushed the thought resolutely away. ‘Save your imaginings,’ she said. ‘The van is practical.’ ‘It’s practical all right.’ His lips were pressed together; Clara had the distinct impression that he was laughing at her. ‘I’m sure it’s not your usual style,’ she said as evenly as she could. ‘If you’d rather walk I can meet you there.’ ‘Don’t worry about me. I’m not fussy.’ ‘Great.’ She was sure that her attempted smile looked more like a grimace. She should make him sit in the back amongst the cleaning supplies and tools. See how fussy he was then. At least, Clara reflected as she pulled the van out into the narrow main road that ran through the town, he hadn’t offered to drive. Some men found it hard to be driven by a woman, especially in a large van like this. Raff was the very definition of relaxed, leaning back in his seat, lean jean-clad legs outstretched. Practical it might be, but the large van always felt out of place on Hopeford’s narrow windy streets. It took all Clara’s skills and concentration to negotiate the small roads. The overhanging houses and cobbled pavements might be picturesque enough to pull in tourists and Londoners looking for a lengthy if direct commute, but they were completely ill suited for work vans. And it was easier to concentrate on the driving than it was trying to make conversation with someone who seemed to suck all the air out of the van. It had always felt so spacious before. Unfortunately Raff didn’t seem to feel the same way. ‘How long has Polly lived here?’ Clara negotiated a particularly tight turn before answering as briefly as was polite. ‘About three years, I believe.’ He looked about him. ‘It seems quiet, not her kind of place at all.’ Clara glanced over at him. She knew that he and Polly were twins and the relationship was obvious. They both had straight, dark blond hair, although his was far more dishevelled than his sister’s usual sleek chignon, straight, almost Roman noses and well-cut mouths. But the similarity seemed only skin deep. Polly Rafferty was quiet, always working, whether at home or on her long train journey into the capital. She was reserved and polite; Clara was the closest thing she had in Hopeford to a friend. On balance she much preferred the sister’s reservation to the brother’s easy charm and devilish grin. They were dangerous attributes, especially if you had once been susceptible to a laid-back rich boy’s style. Clara knew all too well where that led. Nowhere she ever wanted to go again. ‘The town is increasingly popular,’ she said, carefully keeping her voice neutral. ‘It’s pretty, we have good schools and we’re on a direct train line into London.’ ‘Ye—es...’ He sounded doubtful. ‘But Polly doesn’t have kids and last I saw she wasn’t that bothered about quiet either. If she wanted pretty there are plenty of places in London that fit the bill. It’s not like she’s short of money.’ His tone was disparaging and the look on his face as he stared out at the picturesque street no better. Clara gripped the steering wheel tightly. She might moan about incomers flooding the place, driving prices up and her friends out, but at least they appreciated the town. ‘You don’t have to stay here,’ she said after a moment. ‘There are plenty of hotels in London.’ His lips tightened. ‘The key to Polly’s whereabouts is here. I can feel it. Until I know where she is—and how I can get her to come home—I’m staying.’ * * * Polly Rafferty’s house was just a short drive away from Clara’s office, a pretty cottage situated on a meandering lane leading out to the countryside. It was one of Clara’s favourite houses; many of her clients had bought the huge new builds that had sprung up on gated estates around the town, large and luxurious certainly but lacking in Hopeford charm. ‘Picturesque.’ It wasn’t a compliment, not with that twist of the mouth. ‘Isn’t it?’ she said, deliberately taking his statement at face value. ‘This is the most sought-after area in town, close to the countryside and the train station. There’s a good pub within walking distance too.’ ‘All amenities,’ Raff said, looking about him, his expression one step removed from disdainful. The condescension prickled away at her. It was odd. She had so many clients who talked down to her and her staff and it never got to her; twenty minutes in this man’s sardonic company and she was ready to scream. Ignoring him, Clara unlocked the front door and stood back to let the tall man enter. He stood there for a second, clearly conflicted about preceding her into the house. She waited patiently, a thrill of satisfaction running through her when he finally gave in, ducking to fit his tall frame through the small door. He was as out of place in the low-ceilinged, beamed cottage as a cat at Crufts. The house was sparingly and tastefully decorated but the designer had worked with the history rather than against it. Rich fabrics, colour and flowers predominated throughout, a sharp contrast with the casually dressed man in jeans and desert boots, an old kitbag hoisted over his shoulder. He didn’t look much like a playboy. He looked like a weary soldier who wanted nothing more than a hot shower and a bed. ‘The bedrooms are upstairs,’ Clara said, gesturing towards the small creaky staircase that wound up to the next floor. ‘I had the main guest room made up for you. It’s the second door on the right. There’s an en-suite shower room.’ She should offer to show him up there but every nerve was screeching at her to stay downstairs, to keep her distance. Noticing the weary slant to his shoulders led to seeing the lines around his eyes, the dark hollows under them emphasising the dark navy blue, leading in turn to a disturbing awareness of the lines of his body under the rumpled T-shirt, the way his battered jeans clung to lean, muscled legs. She squeezed her eyes shut. What was she doing ogling clients? Pull yourself together. Maybe her mother was right: it might be time to consider dating again. Her hormones were clearly so tired of being kept under rigid control they were running amok for the most unsuitable of men. Clara took a deep breath, feeling her nails bite into her palms as she tried to summon her habitual poise. ‘The kitchen’s through here,’ she said, marching back into the hallway and leading the way into the light spacious room that took up the entire back of the cottage. She had always envied Polly this room. It was made for a family, not for one lone workaholic who ate standing up at the counter. She didn’t look back as she continued to briskly outline the preparations she had made. ‘I stocked up with the usual order but if there is anything else you’d like write it here.’ She gestured towards the memo pad on the front of the fridge. She turned to check if he was following and skidded to a halt, backing up a few steps as she nearly collided with his broad chest. ‘Erm, there’s a lovely courgette and feta quiche in the freezer, which will make a nice, simple dinner tonight.’ Clara could feel the telltale burn spreading across her cheeks and knew she was turning red. She backed away another step, turning her back on him once again, finding safety in the sleek chrome fridge door. ‘If you want your dinner provided then Sue, the regular cleaner, will pop a stew or a curry into the slow cooker for you but you must leave a note on the morning you require it or email the office before ten a.m.’ She was babbling. She never babbled but everything felt out of kilter. Her whole body was prickled with awareness of his nearness. She turned, smiled brightly. ‘Any questions?’ Raff’s mouth quirked. ‘Is there anything you don’t do around here?’ ‘Your sister employs me to keep the house clean, the cupboards stocked, to take care of any problems. She’s a busy woman,’ she said, unnaturally defensive as she saw the disbelief in his face. ‘I offer a full housekeeping service without the inconvenience of live-in staff.’ ‘She pays you to stock the fridge with quiche?’ But the smirk was playing around his mouth again. Annoyingly. ‘My father’s quiche,’ she corrected him. ‘Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. There’s also plenty of salad, fruit and hummus.’ ‘Beer, crisps, meat?’ ‘Put it on the list,’ she said, wanting to remain professional, aloof, but she could feel her mouth responding to his smile, wanting to bend upwards. She needed to get out. Get some air and give herself a stern talking-to. ‘The pub does food if you want something different,’ she said. ‘Or there are some takeaway menus on the memo board. You’ll be fine.’ ‘I usually am.’ ‘Okay, then.’ She paused, made awkward by the intensity of his gaze. With an effort Clara pulled on her professional persona like a comfort blanket. ‘If you have any problems at all just get in touch.’ She held out her card. He reached out slowly and plucked it out of her hand, his fingers slightly brushing against hers as he did so. She jerked her hand away as if burnt, the heat shocking her. She swallowed back a gasp with an effort, hoping she hadn’t given away her discomfort. ‘I’ll do that.’ He was looking right into her eyes as he said it. ‘Good.’ Damn, she sounded breathless. ‘That’s everything. Have a nice evening.’ Clara began to back out of the kitchen, not wanting to be the one to break the eye contact. It was as if he had a hypnotic effect on her, breaking through her usual calm, ruffling the feathers she kept so carefully smoothed down. ‘Ouch.’ Something underfoot tripped her up and she put a hand out to steady herself, her eyes wrenched from his. ‘Are you all right?’ ‘Yes, thanks.’ Steadier in more ways than one, relieved to be free of his gaze. She looked down at the trip hazard, confused by the large hessian mouse. ‘Oh, how could I forget? Mr Simpkins’ usual routine is biscuits first thing in the morning and more biscuits and some fish in the evening. He has his own cupboard under the sink.’ ‘Mr Simpkins?’ He sounded apprehensive. ‘The man of the house.’ She smiled sweetly. ‘I do hope you like cats.’ And surprisingly cheered up by the horrified look on his face, Clara swivelled and walked away. CHAPTER TWO (#ulink_efb95c95-7795-5dfb-b68a-59dcc3e1c759) CLARA ALWAYS MULTITASKED. She had to—she couldn’t manage the homes and lives of the over-privileged if she wasn’t capable of sorting out babysitters, dog walkers and hedge trimmers whilst ordering a cordon bleu meal and cleaning a loo. Usually all at the same time. Driving was the perfect opportunity to gather her thoughts and make mental lists. But not tonight. Her to do lists were slithering out of her mind, replaced by unwanted images of smiling eyes, a mobile mouth and a firmly confident manner. Her own personal kryptonite. Luckily this was probably the last she’d see of him. He would be on the early train to London each morning, return to Hopeford long after she had finished for the night and it wasn’t as if she personally cleaned the house anyway. Besides, Polly would be home soon and he would return to whichever beach he had reluctantly pulled himself away from faster than Clara could change the sheets and vacuum the rug. Things would be safe and steady. So she had felt a little awareness. A tingle. Possibly even a jolt. It was allowed—she was twenty-nine, for goodness’ sake, and single, not a nun. It wasn’t as if she had taken vows of chastity. It just felt that way sometimes. Often. She should enjoy the moment—and make sure it didn’t happen again. Pulling into her parents’ driveway, Clara took a moment and sat still in the fading light. This was usually one of her favourite times, the calm after a full and busy day, the moment’s peace before other ties, welcome, needed, unbreakable ties, tugged at her, anchoring her firmly. The house lights were on, casting a welcoming glow, beckoning her in. She knew she would step into warmth, love, gorgeous aromas drifting out of the kitchen, gentle chatter—and yet she sat a minute longer, slewing off the day, the last hour, until she could sit no more and slid down out of the van onto the carefully weeded gravel. Clara’s parents lived in a traditional nineteen-thirties semi-detached house in what used to be the new part of town. Now the trees had matured, the houses weathered and the new town had become almost as desirable as the old with families adding attic conversions, shiny glass extensions and imposing garages. The Castleton house was small by comparison, still with the original leaded bay windows and a wooden oval front door. It was ten years since Clara had occupied the small bedroom at the back but the house itself was reassuringly gloriously unchanged. ‘Evening,’ she called out, opening the front door and stepping into the hallway. ‘In here,’ her father called from the kitchen and, lured by the tantalising smell, she followed his voice—and her nose. ‘Something smells good.’ Clara dropped a fond kiss on her father’s cheek before bending down to sneak a look inside the oven. ‘Spiced chickpea and spinach pastries in filo pastry.’ ‘I’d have thought you’d had enough kneading during the day,’ she teased. ‘It relaxes me. Have you got the list?’ ‘Of course.’ Clara produced a neatly printed out list from a file in the cavernous bag she rarely ventured anywhere without. She used her father’s deli for her customers’ food requests whenever possible. He wasn’t the cheapest, although, she thought loyally, he was definitely the best, but not one person ever balked at the hefty bill topped up with Clara’s own cut. The prestige of knowing it was all locally made and sourced was enough for most people although she knew many of them also shopped at the local discount supermarket whilst making sure her father’s distinctive purple labels were at the front of their pantries and fridges. Clara put the list down onto the one clear part of the counter and mock glared at her father. ‘It would save us both a lot of time if you let me email it to you.’ ‘Email me,’ he scoffed as he pulled a selection of dressed salads out of the cavernous fridge. ‘I’ll be up making bread at six. When do I have time to read emails? Hungry?’ ‘For your pastry? Always. I’ll be back in a moment.’ She shook her head at him. Clara was always nagging her father to get more high tech, to get a website, engage on social media. The delicatessen was doing well, more than well, but with just a little marketing spur she didn’t see why it couldn’t do better, expand into neighbouring towns. The problem was her father liked to do everything himself. Pot, kettle, she thought with a grin as she tore herself away from the kitchen and walked into the main room of the house where the sitting and dining room had been knocked through to create one big family space. A large oak table dominated the back and Clara felt the usual lift in her heart when she spotted a small dark head bowed over a half-completed gothic Lego castle. This was what made it all worthwhile: the long hours, the repetitive work, the nights in alone. ‘Impressive,’ she said. ‘Good day, sweetie?’ The head lifted, revealing a large pair of dark brown eyes. ‘Mummy! You’re late again.’ And just like that the happiness became swirled with guilt even though the comment hadn’t been accusatory. The matter-of-factness was worse. Summer didn’t expect her to be on time: she hardly ever was. ‘Sorry, Sunshine. How was school?’ ‘Fine.’ Of course it was; everything was fine. Unless it was awesome, the ultimate accolade. ‘I’m just going to eat and then we’ll head home. Have you finished your homework?’ ‘Of course,’ her daughter replied with quiet dignity before breaking into a most undignified grin as Clara walked around the table and gathered her in close for a long moment. Summer was getting taller, her head close to Clara’s shoulders, the baby plumpness replaced by sharp bones and long limbs, but she still gave the most satisfying cuddles. Clara breathed her daughter in, steadying herself with the familiar scent of shampoo, fresh air and sweetness before releasing her reluctantly. ‘I’ll be no more than ten minutes,’ she promised. ‘We might have time for a quick half-hour’s TV. Your turn to choose. Okay?’ It was like being a child herself, sitting at the kitchen table with a plate full of her father’s trial runs whilst he quietly measured, stirred and tasted and her mother bustled from one room to the other whilst relating a long and very involved story about a dimly remembered school friend of Clara’s who was, evidently, getting married. According to her mother the entire single population of Hopeford was currently entering wedlock, leaving Clara as the sole spinster of the parish. Clara knew her mother was proud of her—but she also knew she would give a great deal to see her married. Or dating. Heck, her mother would probably be more relieved than shocked if she spent every Saturday night cruising the local nightspots for casual sex. Not that there were any real local nightspots other than a couple of pubs and even if she wanted to indulge the pickings were slim. A grin curved her lips at the thought of strutting into her local and coming onto any of the regulars. They’d probably call her parents in concern that she’d been taken ill! ‘Clara.’ The insistence in her mother’s voice was a definite sign that she had moved on from a discussion of Lucy Taylor’s appalling taste in bridesmaids’ dresses and wanted her attention. ‘Sorry, Mum. Miles away.’ ‘I was just thinking, why not leave Summer here with us tonight so you can go out?’ Clara repressed a sigh. It was as she had feared. All this talk of weddings had addled her mother’s brain. ‘Go out?’ ‘Your cousin is back home for a couple of weeks. I know she’s planning to go to The Swan tonight. It would be lovely if you joined her.’ For just one moment Clara experienced a rare shock of envy. That had once been her plan, a job and a life away from the well-meaning but prying eyes of her hometown. ‘I’ve got a lot of work to do—I’ve promised Summer some time before bed but then I must spend a fun couple of hours with the timetables.’ She attempted a smile. It wasn’t that she minded working all hours but it didn’t sound very glamorous. ‘Come on, love,’ her mother urged. ‘You never get to go out. Just one drink.’ It would be so easy to give in. Put the computer away for the evening, go out and get all the gossip about her cousin Maddie’s impossibly exciting life as a stylist on a popular reality show. But duty called. She had to remain firm. She couldn’t just drop everything for an unscheduled night out. No, it was absolutely impossible. * * * ‘I’ve been thinking.’ Clara wound her hand around the half-pint glass, pointedly avoiding her cousin’s eyes. ‘Maybe it’s time I should consider internet dating.’ Clara knew she was fairly stubborn. Unfortunately it was a trait she had inherited from her mother and passed down to her daughter. United they were a formidable team and when her dad had added his gentle voice to theirs she had been quite outgunned. Clara had been sent out for fun whether she liked it or not. And now she was out, she was beginning to wonder again whether her mother might be right about more than Clara’s need for a night off. ‘Internet dating?’ Maddie squealed at a pitch that could cause serious discomfort to dogs. ‘Any dating would be a good start. Isn’t there anyone closer to home though? I have stories about internet disasters that would make your hair curl. I know you, one disaster and you’ll give the whole thing up. And there will be a disaster.’ She nodded sagely. ‘There always is.’ ‘Nope. I went to school with, babysat for, employed or have been employed by every single man I know in a ten-mile radius without a single spark. And this way I can profile them first, make sure they’re suitable.’ ‘If they tell you the truth,’ Maddie said darkly. ‘Don’t contact anyone without clearing them with me first. I know the language they use.’ Clara laughed, trying to quell the unease Maddie’s words conjured up. How would she know who to trust? It had been such a long time ago—and she’d got it horribly wrong then. It wasn’t just her pride at stake now; there was Summer too. She’d messed up so badly with Summer’s own father, any new man in their lives had to be perfect. Her daughter deserved the best. ‘I promise, you get first approval.’ ‘Ooh, we could have a look now.’ Maddie had pulled out her phone and was jabbing away at the screen. ‘What are you looking for?’ ‘Sensible, hardworking with good values.’ It didn’t take Clara long to think. These things counted for far more than the tilt of a mouth or a warm glint in a pair of navy-blue eyes. ‘Very exciting. Any speciality? I have accounts with Uniformly Single, Farmers for You, Country Ladies and Gents and Parents Need Love Too. We could see who is available locally! So, hot fireman, beefy farmer or a fabulous father?’ ‘They are not all real accounts.’ Clara stared at Maddie’s phone in disbelief. ‘I thought you were happy with Olly.’ ‘I am, but he’s an actor. First whiff of success and he’ll be off. There’s no harm in keeping my accounts open and having the occasional peep.’ ‘Isn’t there anyone, you know, normal?’ This was a bad idea. What had she been thinking, mentioning it to Maddie? She’d meant to do some research first. Approach the whole thing in a sensible businesslike way. ‘I still think you’re better off warming up on someone you know.’ Maddie was scanning around the pub hopefully like a hound on the scent. ‘Get back in the saddle before you start galloping. There must be someone in here you can practise on.’ It was only Tuesday but that hadn’t stopped a constant stream of people popping in for a quick drink or settling in for a longer session. The cousins had bagged a prime position at the corner of the L-shaped room and from her comfortable armchair Clara could see all the comings and goings in the friendly local. She was out so rarely she felt vaguely guilty, as if she were seventeen again, illicitly consuming half a lager shandy and hoping that the barman didn’t ask for ID, jumping every time the door opened in case her parents came in to march her home. Although these days they would buy her another and beg her to stay. ‘Hang on.’ Maddie froze as she zoomed in on some unsuspecting prey like the expert hunter she was. ‘He looks promising. How about him?’ Clara’s chest tightened, an unsettling feeling quivering in her stomach as she saw just who Maddie was staring at. This wasn’t who she had been looking for all evening, was it? Wasn’t the reason her heart had jumped in painful anticipation each time the door opened? Stop it, she told herself fiercely. Raff Rafferty was standing at the entrance looking around the pub. As his eyes swept over Clara they stopped and he smiled slightly, raising one tanned hand in greeting. How embarrassing; he’d seen her staring. Hoping she wasn’t blushing too much, Clara snapped her eyes away, regarding her empty glass with every appearance of absorbed interest. ‘You know him?’ Maddie was still staring in undisguised admiration at Raff. ‘Things have changed around here, and for the better. You’ve kept him quiet.’ ‘I don’t actually know him.’ Clara was aware how unnaturally defensive she sounded and tried to rein it back in. ‘He’s new—to town, I mean, but he’s not staying for long. He’s completely unsuitable.’ ‘Hot and temporary, sounds perfect for a trial run to me. Sure you’re not tempted?’ Clara couldn’t quite meet Maddie’s enquiring gaze. ‘Quite sure. His sister is a client of mine.’ ‘Oh,’ Maddie sighed. ‘What a shame he’s not a new permanent resident. We could do with some eye candy in this town. Hang on.’ Maddie perked up. ‘He’s coming this way!’ Clara’s stomach gave that peculiar twist again. It was a shame that stomachs couldn’t qualify for the Olympics because by the feel of the double somersault hers was doing right now she was pretty sure she would score highly on rhythmic gymnastics. ‘Clara Castleton.’ It was said politely but there was a gleam in Raff Rafferty’s eye that unnerved her. As if he was laughing at her. She looked up as coolly as she could. ‘The quiche didn’t suit after all?’ ‘It was delicious,’ he assured her. ‘But I fancied a drink. Can I get you two ladies a top up?’ Raff turned the full beam of his blue eyes onto Maddie and Clara felt her jaw clench as her cousin beamed back. ‘That would be lovely,’ Maddie said as Clara blurted out, ‘Thank you but we are fine.’ ‘Come and join us,’ Maddie invited, shooting a conspiratorial look at Clara. ‘I’m sure Mr Rafferty has somewhere he would rather be.’ It was Clara’s turn to be signalling her cousin with a meaningful look but Maddie wasn’t being very receptive. ‘That’s a shame.’ Maddie smiled up at Raff. ‘Do you?’ ‘I don’t think so.’ Raff was looking amused. ‘I don’t have any friends here so I’d love to join you, thanks. I’m Raff.’ ‘Maddie.’ She was positively purring. ‘Raff Rafferty, that’s an unusual combination. Your parents liked it so much they used it twice?’ He grinned, annoyingly at his ease. ‘I wish. No, my mother was into Greek mythology so when she knew she was having twins she decided to name us after the heavenly twins, Castor and Pollux. My sister escaped with Polly. I wasn’t so lucky.’ ‘I like it,’ Maddie said. ‘It’s unusual.’ Clara caught Raff’s eye in a moment of shared amusement, an intoxicating warmth spreading through her at the laughter in his eyes. ‘You wouldn’t like being called Sugar all the time,’ Raff assured her cousin. ‘After one week at prep school and five fights I changed it to Raff. Now only my grandparents use my real name.’ ‘It could have been worse.’ Clara had been thinking. ‘If she’d known you were a boy and a girl you might have been Apollo and Artemis.’ ‘Good God, literally!’ Raff looked horrified. ‘I will never despise my name again. What a lucky escape I had. For that I absolutely must get you a drink. What are you drinking?’ Clara opened her mouth fully intending to say no again and more firmly this time, but something extraordinary happened and the words in her head changed as soon as they left her mouth. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘I’m drinking the local pale ale.’ * * * Raff hadn’t intended to leave the house tonight. It had taken him over two days to get back to England and once the plane had touched down at Gatwick he had headed straight to Hopeford like a homing pigeon aiming for a new world record. He’d hoped that the key to finding Polly would be right here in the surprisingly shapely form of Clara Castleton or hidden somewhere in Polly’s house—and he was going to find it whatever it took. Only it turned out that being mad with his twin wasn’t enough; he simply couldn’t invade her privacy. One step into her study and he had frozen. He might not like it but Polly was entitled to her secrets. For a long time they had only really had each other. Now they didn’t even have that. The moment she’d started blaming Raff for their grandfather’s blatant favouritism it had all fallen apart and everything Raff did made it worse. Even when he’d finally left, finally had the courage to follow his own path, he couldn’t make it right. He didn’t know how to repair the damage—if it was even repairable. But whatever she thought, she could rely on him. He’d find out where she was, what was wrong and he’d fix it. Fix them. So here he was. She’d asked him—told him—to come home and he had. But now what? His mood had turned dark, exhaustion and frustration making rest impossible, introspection unbearable. Five minutes of television channel hopping later and Raff had had enough. It was time to go and check out the ridiculously quaint town his sister had bequeathed him. Otherwise he was going to end up having a conversation with the cat. Mr Simpkins knew more than he was letting on; he was sure of it. It didn’t take Raff long to explore. Hopeford defined sleepy small town, was the epitome of privileged. The narrow streets closed in around him, making it hard to breathe. This rarefied atmosphere was exactly what he had been running from the last four years. He’d breathed a sigh of relief at the familiar sign hanging outside a half-timbered building. A pub, a chance to get his head together, regroup. Four years of changing places, of new jobs, new challenges all had one thing in common. A local watering hole. A place to find out the lie of the land, find some compatible companionship and quench his thirst. The Swan was a little older, a lot cleaner and a great deal safer than his last local but he didn’t hold that against the place. Especially when he walked in and clapped eyes on Clara Castleton. It had taken a moment or two to recognise her. Sure there was the same feline tilt to her long-lashed eyes, the same high cheekbones but that was where the similarity ended. This version had let her hair down, metaphorically as well as physically, the strawberry-blonde length allowed to fall in a soft half-ponytail rather than ruthlessly pulled back. Even more disturbingly the lush full mouth was curved in a generous smile. But none of that mattered. Clara was a means to an end, that was all. Mr Simpkins might not be ready to talk but a friendly night in the pub and he might have Clara telling him anything he needed to know. She must know more than she was letting on—she ran every aspect of Polly’s life. ‘Thank you for the drink...’ oh, no, prim was back ‘...but I really need to be going.’ Raff glanced at his battered old watch. His grandfather had given him a Breitling for his twenty-first but he preferred the cheap leather-strapped watch he had bought first trip out. Bought with money earned by his own sweat, not by family connections. ‘It’s still early. Are you sure you don’t want to stay a bit longer?’ ‘It’s a work night,’ she reminded him. Raff had been doing his best to forget. Tomorrow he was going to have to try and dig up something smart, get up ridiculously early and join all the other pack rats on an overpriced, overcrowded train. No matter he hadn’t made this exact journey before. He knew the drill. The only surprise was whether his particular carriage would be overheated or freezing cold. Unlike Goldilocks, Raff was under no illusions that it would be just right. ‘Yes, it is,’ he agreed. ‘Unless you tell me where Polly is and save me from a day in the office tomorrow?’ She sighed as she got to her feet, gathering her bag and coat in her arms. ‘I already told you...’ He’d blown it. He was too tired to play the game properly. He made one last-ditch attempt. ‘I’m sorry. Let me walk you home.’ ‘Why? So you can interrogate me some more?’ She shook her head, the red-gold tendrils trembling against her neck. ‘No.’ Well, only partly. ‘It’s good manners.’ In some of the places Raff had lived you always saw the girl home. Even if it was the tent next to yours. She shot him an amused glance. ‘I think I’ll be okay.’ ‘I won’t,’ he assured her. ‘I’ll lie awake all night worrying I failed in my chivalric duty. And I’ll have to go to work tomorrow all red-eyed and pale from worry and they will all think I’ve been out carousing all night. Which will be most unfair as it’s barely nine p.m.’ ‘I don’t live far.’ But it wasn’t a no and she didn’t complain as he drained his drink and followed her out, noting the blush that crept over her cheeks as she said goodbye to her cousin, who pulled her close for a hug and to whisper something in her ear. ‘Where to?’ he asked as he fell into step beside her. She walked just as he’d thought she would, purposeful, long strides in her sensible low-heeled boots. ‘I live above the office.’ That wasn’t a surprise. ‘All work and no play...’ he teased. It wasn’t meant with any malice but to his surprise she stopped and turned, the light from the lamp post highlighting the colour in her cheeks. ‘Why do people think it’s a bad thing to concentrate on work?’ she asked. Raff didn’t reply; he could tell the question wasn’t really aimed at him. ‘So I work hard. I want to provide stability for my daughter. Is that such a bad thing?’ Daughter? ‘I didn’t know you were married,’ he said and wanted to recall the words as soon as he said them. This wasn’t the nineteen fifties and she wasn’t wearing a ring. ‘I’m not,’ she said coldly and resumed walking even faster than before. Way to go, Raff, nice building of rapport, he thought wryly. You’ll get Polly’s address out of her in no time. He cast about for a safer topic. ‘How old is she? Your daughter?’ ‘Ten,’ she said shortly but he could feel her soften, see her shoulders relax slightly. ‘Her name’s Summer.’ ‘Pretty.’ ‘I was in a bit of a hippy stage at the time,’ she confessed. ‘Summer says she’s glad she was born then because I’d probably call her something sensible and boring now. But it suits her.’ ‘Does she live with you?’ ‘I know the flat’s not ideal for a child,’ she said. Why did she assume every question was a criticism? ‘But there’s a garden at my parents’ and she spends a lot of time there.’ ‘I spent a lot of time with my grandparents too.’ During the school holidays it had been the only home he’d known. ‘Polly said they brought you up.’ It was a simple statement; there was no curiosity or prying behind it but it shocked him all the same. Polly was confiding in Clara, then. No wonder she hadn’t put the welcome mat out for him. What else had his twin said? ‘Do you see a lot of Polly?’ The question was abrupt and he tried to soften it. ‘We’re not really in touch any more. I’m glad she has a friend here.’ ‘We’re both busy but we catch up when we can.’ It wasn’t enough but he didn’t know how to push the issue without frightening her off. And at least Polly had someone looking out for her. He tried again. ‘If you care for all your clients the way you look after Polly, no wonder you’re so busy.’ ‘Not all of them. Some just want cleaners and gardeners, others like to outsource all their home maintenance. Or I can provide babysitters, a shopping service, interior designers. Often it’s just putting people in touch with the right services.’ ‘And taking a cut?’ Clara smiled. ‘Of course. But some people need me on call twenty-four seven, to pick up dry-cleaning, pick the kids up from school, buy last-minute gifts. Whatever they need I supply.’ She sounded so calm, so utterly in control and yet she was what? Late-twenties? A couple of years younger than Raff. ‘Impressive.’ He meant it. ‘Not really.’ She sounded a little less sure. ‘None of it was really planned.’ She had slowed down, her step less decisive, nervously twisting the delicate silver bangle on her wrist round and round. ‘I had Summer and I needed to work. Oh, I know my parents would have let us live there. They wanted me to go to university but I couldn’t just offload my responsibilities onto them. There’s a lot of incomers in Hopeford, busy commuters with no time and a lot of money. I started cleaning for them and things kind of snowballed.’ She made it sound so easy but Raff was in no doubt that building her business up from cleaning services to the slick operation she ran today had taken a lot of grit and determination. ‘I’d love Summer to have a proper home.’ She sounded a little wistful. ‘A kitchen like Polly’s and a huge garden. But living above the office is practical—and it’s ours. It was a better investment than a house at this stage in our lives.’ Investment, plans. It was like an alternative universe to a man who lived out of a kitbag and changed countries more frequently than he had his hair cut. ‘This is me.’ Clara had come to a stop outside the leaded bow window. She stood at the door calm, composed. ‘Do you think you can find your way back or do I need to walk you home now?’ Her face was unreadable and there was no hint of flirtatiousness in her manner. Was she trying to be funny or was she completely serious? Raff couldn’t figure her out at all. ‘I have an excellent sense of direction,’ he assured her. ‘So...’ ‘Goodnight, then.’ She offered him her hand, a quaintly old-fashioned gesture. Their eyes met, held; Raff could see uncertainty in her gaze as she stood there for one long second before she abruptly stepped back and turned, hands fumbling with her keys. And she was gone without even one last backward glance. Raff let out a long breath, an unexpected stab of disappointment shocking him. Fool, he told himself. You’re not here to flirt and, even if you had the time or inclination, since when were ice maidens your style? He was tired, that was all, the jet lag clouding his judgement. He had a job to do: find Polly, get her home, return to his real life. Nothing and no one, especially not the possessor of a pair of upwardly tilted green eyes, was going to get in his way. CHAPTER THREE (#ulink_e549902a-12c7-5792-849a-de09145aaced) WHAT WAS THAT? Clara looked up as the front door creaked, but it was only someone walking by. Old buildings and narrow pavements equalled many creaks and bangs. It was a good thing she wasn’t a nervous type. Nor was she usually the door-watching type. But it was getting to be a habit. First at the pub, now today. And yesterday. She was pathetic. Especially as she knew only too well that Raff Rafferty hadn’t even set foot in Hopeford in the last three days. He had, she guessed, boarded the train to London on Wednesday morning along with all the rest of the commuters but, according to Sue, the woman who usually cleaned the Rafferty house, he hadn’t been back since. His bed was unrumpled, no dishes had been used, no laundry left. Either he was extraordinarily tidy, so tidy even Sue’s legendary forensic skills couldn’t find any trace of him, or he was staying in London. This was all Maddie’s fault. If she hadn’t pulled her aside, told her to invite him in for coffee. ‘It’s not always a euphemism,’ she’d said, mischief glinting in those green eyes so like Clara’s own. Only brighter, livelier, flirtier. ‘Not unless you want it to be...’ Of course she didn’t. And coffee at that time of night was irresponsible anyway—inviting someone in for a cup of peppermint tea was probably never misconstrued. She could have done that. But did she want to? Want that tall, confident man in her flat? Even for one innocent cup of hot herbal beverage? Because there was one moment when he had looked down at her and her breath had caught in her throat, every nerve end pulsing with an anticipation she hadn’t felt in years. If she had stepped forward rather than backwards, if he had put his hands on her shoulders, angled his mouth down to hers, what would she have done? Clara slumped forward. This all proved that she had taken the whole not-dating, stability-for-Summer thing just a tiny bit too far. If she had allowed her mother to set her up, just occasionally, for dinner and drinks with one of the many eligible men she had suggested over the years, then one measly hour in the pub, one small drink, wouldn’t have thrown her so decidedly off kilter. Raff Rafferty had been a tiny drop of water after a long drought. It didn’t mean he was the right kind of water but just one taste had reminded her of what she was missing. What it felt like to have an attractive man’s attention focused solely on her. Even if he did have an ulterior motive that had nothing to do with Clara herself. ‘That’s a fearsome frown. Planning to murder someone?’ After all that waiting she hadn’t even heard the door open. She hoped he hadn’t seen her jump, that the heat in her cheeks wasn’t visible. ‘I exact a high penalty for unpaid bills.’ Clara had been hoping that three days’ absence had exaggerated Raff’s attractiveness. They hadn’t. He was just as tall, as broad as she remembered but the weary air she had glimpsed last time was unequivocal. He looked as if he hadn’t slept for a week. Dark circles shadowed his eyes, unfairly emphasising the navy blue, his face was pale under the deep tan, the well-cut shirt was wrinkled. ‘I need a favour.’ He didn’t even crack a smile. ‘Just how full a service do you offer?’ Clara gaped at him. ‘I beg your pardon?’ ‘I asked...’ he spoke slowly, clearly, enunciating every word ‘...how full a service you offer. I need a girlfriend and I need one now. Can you supply me with one, or not?’ * * * If he hadn’t been so tired... If he hadn’t been quite so desperate, then Raff might have phrased his request slightly differently. As it was it took a while for the outrage on Clara’s face to penetrate the dense fog suffocating what was left of his brain. ‘You’re not the first person to ask me for extra services,’ she said finally, contempt dripping through her words. ‘I admit, though, you have surprised me. I would have thought you were quite capable of hiring your own special help.’ Something was wrong, Raff could dimly tell, but he fixed on the positive. ‘So you can help me?’ ‘Normally it’s the bored wives that ask for something extra. Someone to help clean out the guttering, trim the borders.’ She put a peculiar emphasis on the last few words. ‘I do like to help them when I can. I usually send Dave round. He might be seventy-three but he’s steady up a ladder. They don’t ask again.’ Raff tried to sort out her meaning from her words. He was quite clearly missing something. ‘Do the gutters need doing?’ he asked. ‘Surely that’s your preserve, not mine. Do what you think best. Look, it’s been a long day, a long week. Can you help me or not?’ She looked at him levelly but to his astonishment there was a cold anger in her eyes. ‘Not. This is a concierge service not an escort service. Now please leave. Now.’ ‘What?’ Raff shook his head in disbelief as her words sank in. ‘I don’t want... I didn’t mean. For crying out loud, Clara, what kind of man do you think I am?’ ‘I don’t know,’ she retorted, eyes hot with fury now. ‘The kind of man who walks away from his family, the kind of man who doesn’t have to work for anything worth having! The kind of man who wants to rent a girlfriend—’ ‘Yes! A girlfriend. Not an escort or a call girl or whatever your dirty little brain has conjured up.’ Now his anger was matching hers, the righteous fury waking him up. ‘If I was looking for someone to sleep with I could find them, don’t worry your pretty little head about that, but that’s not what I’m looking for. I need someone to come to a few functions with me, to gaze lovingly into my eyes and to convince an autocratic old man that I might just settle down with her. Now, is that something you can help me with?’ If he thought his words might make her feel guilty, get her to back down, then he rapidly realised he was wrong. She uncoiled herself from her seat, rising to her feet to look up into his face, her eyes fixed on his, full of righteous anger. ‘This is about fooling your grandfather? Why? So he doesn’t cut you off? I have had it up to here with poor little rich boys who live their lives according to who holds the purse strings. I wouldn’t help you if I had a hundred suitable girls working for me. Now please leave.’ Raff choked back a bitter laugh. ‘I don’t have to justify myself to you, Miss Castleton, but for your information my grandfather is ill. He’s in the hospital and I am under strict orders not to upset him. So I either start dating one of the unfortunate women on the shortlist he drew up for me, fake a relationship or be responsible for yet another dangerous rise in blood pressure.’ He smiled over at her, sweet and dangerous. ‘Tell me, Miss Know-it-all, which do you recommend?’ ‘A shortlist?’ That had stopped Miss Judgemental in her tracks. Raff didn’t want to let go of the anger and frustration, didn’t want to try and tease a responsive grin from that pursed-up mouth, coax a glint out of those hard emerald eyes. Especially as her words had cut a little deeper than they should. No virtual stranger should have the power to penetrate beneath the shield he so carefully erected yet her words had been like well-aimed arrows piercing straight into his Achilles heel. Whether it was the lack of sleep, the taut tension in the room or the craziness of the situation, he didn’t know but, despite his best intentions, a slow smile crept over his face. ‘Do you want to see it?’ Clara’s eyes widened. ‘You have it with you?’ ‘I needed something to read on the train. Here.’ He pulled the sheaf of papers out of his coat pocket and held them out. ‘Names, pedigrees, biographies and photographs.’ She made no attempt to take them. ‘Thorough.’ ‘He means business,’ Raff agreed, letting the papers fall down onto the desk with an audible thump. It felt as if he had put down a heavy burden. ‘Now do you understand?’ She still wasn’t giving an inch. ‘Couldn’t you just talk to him?’ Raff laughed. ‘No one just talks to Charles Rafferty. We all tug our forelock and scuttle away to do his bidding. Or run away. Both Polly and I took that route.’ He sighed and picked the papers up again, shuffling them. ‘I owe you an apology. It doesn’t matter even if you do know where Polly is...’ she opened her mouth to interject and he held up his hand ‘...but I’m sure you don’t. She’s covered her traces well and I don’t blame her.’ The only person he could blame right now was himself. They were so estranged she couldn’t, wouldn’t confide in him. Concern was etched onto Clara’s face. ‘Is she okay?’ Raff shook his head. ‘I doubt it. It turns out that great profits and great PR aren’t enough. My grandfather showed his gratitude for an another excellent year’s trading by telling Polly he was never going to make her CEO, and he is going to sign the company over to me.’ ‘Ouch.’ Clara sank back into her seat, a sign the battle was over. Thank goodness. Raff had been through enough emotional wars in the last few days. He leant against her desk, grateful for the support. ‘That was just the start of it.’ Raff ran a hand through his hair. Damn, he was tired. What a ridiculous mess. ‘We owe him a lot, Polly and me. It’s hard to stand up to him. But this was so wrong I had to say something.’ His mouth twisted as he pictured the scene. ‘I managed to stay calm but he got completely worked up and ended up collapsing in the most dramatic fashion.’ Raff was aware that he was making light of the situation, but the moment his grandfather had clutched his chest and collapsed was branded in his mind. ‘I thought we’d lost him.’ Clara reached a tentative hand across the desk, then pulled it back, seemingly unsure how to react. ‘Is he okay?’ ‘Angina. Apparently he’s kept that a secret along with his plans. He’s to be kept quiet and not allowed to get worked up, which is a little like telling a baby not to cry. And he is taking full advantage of the situation.’ Despite himself Raff grinned. He had to admire his grandfather’s sheer bloody-mindedness. ‘As soon as I walked through the hospital-room door today he handed me this list.’ He held up his hands. ‘I know I should have told him the truth right then but seeing as the last time I upset him he collapsed, I didn’t. I admit I panicked—next thing I knew I was telling him I had a girlfriend already, it was pretty serious and I was agreeing to bring her along to meet him on Sunday. Two days isn’t a long time to find a convincing fake girlfriend, you know.’ Clara leant back in her chair and regarded him solemnly but Raff could swear those cat’s eyes of hers were sparkling. ‘You seem to be in somewhat of a predicament.’ ‘I am.’ He nodded, trying his best to look downcast as hope shot through him. He needed someone cool, someone professional, someone who understood the rules. She would be perfect, if he could just make her see it. ‘I don’t understand why you lied in the first place. A few dates isn’t going to kill you, is it?’ She was looking stern again. Raff sighed. It was so hard to explain without sounding like an arrogant idiot. ‘I have no intention of sticking around and raising expectations would be unfair.’ ‘Presumptuous.’ ‘Hardly.’ He laughed but there was little humour in it. ‘These women aren’t the sort to get carried away, at least not where their futures are concerned. The Rafferty name and fortune is old enough and big enough to put me on several “most eligible bachelor” lists. Why do you think I stay out of the country?’ ‘Is marriage and a family really so terrible?’ For a moment Raff thought he saw sadness shimmering in her face but one blink and it was gone, replaced by her usual cool professionalism. ‘No,’ he admitted. ‘But not for me, not yet. There’s a lot I need to do before I’m ready for that kind of commitment.’ If he ever was. He’d seen firsthand just what marriage could do. He still didn’t know what was worse: his grandmother staying put out of martyred duty or his mother fleeing as soon as things got tough. Either way it had been hard for Polly and him. Not that any of his school friends had fared much better. Outside gravy adverts, he still wasn’t entirely sure that happy families existed. ‘Look, I appreciate that I approached this all wrong but I could really use your help.’ She shook her head. ‘It doesn’t feel right.’ ‘Clara, please.’ He wasn’t too proud to beg. ‘You would be perfect: you own your own business, know Polly. My grandfather will adore you.’ ‘Me!’ Was that panic on her face? But there was something else too. She was trying to hide it but she was intrigued. Raff pressed the point home. ‘Look, I’ll pay you by the day, even if I only need you for a couple of hours, and I’ll owe you. There must be something I can do for you. Don’t you need an eligible date at all? Wedding, christening, bar mitzvah?’ ‘My diary’s empty.’ But her lush mouth was tilted up into a smile. ‘Socially at least.’ ‘Even better,’ he said promptly. ‘I’m promising you fine dining, glamorous parties and a clothes allowance. Think of me as a particularly masculine fairy godfather whisking you away to the ball.’ ‘I can’t just drop everything.’ But, oh, she looked tempted. ‘I have a business, a daughter. What’s she supposed to do whilst I’m out gallivanting with you?’ ‘Gallivanting and drumming up business,’ Raff said slyly. Bullseye. Temptation was giving way to interest. ‘Think of the contacts you’ll make.’ ‘Contacts in London,’ she demurred. ‘With your talents it wouldn’t matter if they lived in Antarctica,’ he assured her. ‘You’ll be soothing out the wrinkles in half of London’s lives in no time. And it won’t be for long. I’m hoping to get everything sorted out within a month, six weeks tops. I’m sure your parents won’t mind babysitting.’ ‘No.’ She looked down at her computer screen, shielding her expression from him. ‘I don’t know, Raff. I’d have to call in a lot of favours, for work and Summer. I need to think about it.’ ‘I’ll pay you double your daily rate and cover all costs. And if we’re successful a bonus. Ten thousand pounds.’ ‘That’s the second time this week you’ve offered me ten thousand pounds.’ Clara smiled sweetly at him. ‘Burning a hole in your pocket?’ * * * Ten thousand pounds. Small change to someone like Raff Rafferty but not to her. Add the daily double rate and this job looked as if it could be pretty lucrative. A much-needed cash injection. Sure, things were ticking along nicely, turnover was healthy. But so were her outgoings. She chose her staff carefully and paid them well, used the best products, made sure she had people on call at all hours. She had a brilliant reputation but maintaining it cost money. It made it hard to save enough to expand and she was wary of borrowing. If this extra job lasted six weeks she could make fifteen thousand pounds more than she had budgeted for. Enough for recruitment and advertising in a wider area, another small van. Maybe she could even engage a part-time PA for the office? She handled so many of the emails and calls whilst she was out and about. Keeping the office open and staffed in business hours would be fantastic. It would be added security. For her and for her daughter. But it would mean spending those next six weeks with Raff Rafferty. A man who unnerved her, flustered her. Could she handle it? He was still perched on her desk, affecting nonchalance, but the tense set of his shoulders was a giveaway. He wasn’t as relaxed as he liked to make out. He needed her. Automatically she tapped at her keyboard, lighting up the dormant screen and clicking onto her emails, the very act beginning to calm her taut nerves. The long list of unread emails in bold might daunt some people but she found them soothing, purposeful and she scanned through the subject lines looking for an answer, a reason to turn him down. Or an excuse to say yes. Her inbox was the usual mixture of confirmations, enquiries, queries, staff correspondence and sales, nothing meaty, nothing distracting at all. She was about to close it down when a name caught her eye. Pressure filled her chest, making it hard to breathe, and for one long moment everything, the room, Raff Rafferty, her work disappeared. An email from Byron. Clara blinked, unsure whether she was seeing things or if the email was actually there. Her hand hovered over her mouse, unable to click as dizzying possibilities filled her mind. He was coming over, he wanted to see Summer, to be involved. Her daughter wanted for nothing, except for an interested, loving father. Could that be about to change? This was the first time he had contacted her in ten years—that had to be a good sign, right? ‘Clara, are you okay? If you don’t want to do it that’s fine. I’ll call in a favour or two. I’d have preferred to keep things professional, that’s all.’ ‘What?’ With difficulty Clara fought her way past all the possibilities and emotions swirling dizzily around her brain. ‘Sorry, I just need to read this. I’ll be with you in a second.’ She noticed detachedly that her hand was shaking as she clicked on the email, the words were dancing in front of her eyes, making no sense at all. She blinked again, forcing herself to concentrate. Dear Miss Castleton... The opening line made her reel back, shocked by its formality, but, grimly determined, she read on. Both Mr Byron Drewe and Mr Archibald Drewe will be visiting London the first week in May and would like to know if it is convenient for you to meet with them to discuss your daughter’s future. Her presence is not required at the meeting. Please send me any dates and times that week that would be convenient for you to meet and I will let you know the final arrangements and venue nearer the time. Any expenses you incur will of course be covered. Please provide the relevant receipts. On behalf Mr Drewe Jr Her first communication in years—and it was from Byron’s secretary. Her head was suddenly clear, the dizziness and anticipation replaced with hotly righteous anger. How dared they? How dared they dismiss Summer, summon Clara as if she were a servant? How dared they offer to pay her expenses—as long as she provided receipts like an untrustworthy employee? Although Byron’s father had always thought she was a gold-digging good-time girl, she had just naively hoped Byron believed in her, believed in their daughter. Despite everything. Byron had spent so much time stringing her along, promising her they would be a family, but he hadn’t even had the guts to tell his father about the baby. And once his father found out that was the end. It was a straight choice: Clara and Summer or his family fortune. Turned out it was no choice at all. Even then he had lied, promised he’d find a way, that he loved her, loved Summer. Her heart twisted painfully. He had just wanted her to leave quietly, to not make a scene. Clara’s eyes locked onto the photo that sat on her otherwise clutter-free desk and the anger left just as suddenly as it had arrived. Dark hair, dark eyes, just like her father. Clara’s feelings didn’t matter here; Byron’s behaviour didn’t either. Summer was the one who counted and this was the first communication she had had from her daughter’s father in years. He wanted to meet. Maybe he wanted to be involved. Or maybe not. But she had to try. If only she didn’t have to do it all alone. Of course her parents would come with her if she asked, but she didn’t trust them not to threaten to castrate Byron with the butter knife—or actually do it. Not that he didn’t deserve it but it wasn’t quite the reconciliation she was hoping for. Êîíåö îçíàêîìèòåëüíîãî ôðàãìåíòà. Òåêñò ïðåäîñòàâëåí ÎÎÎ «ËèòÐåñ». Ïðî÷èòàéòå ýòó êíèãó öåëèêîì, êóïèâ ïîëíóþ ëåãàëüíóþ âåðñèþ (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39926218&lfrom=390579938) íà ËèòÐåñ. Áåçîïàñíî îïëàòèòü êíèãó ìîæíî áàíêîâñêîé êàðòîé Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, ñî ñ÷åòà ìîáèëüíîãî òåëåôîíà, ñ ïëàòåæíîãî òåðìèíàëà, â ñàëîíå ÌÒÑ èëè Ñâÿçíîé, ÷åðåç PayPal, WebMoney, ßíäåêñ.Äåíüãè, QIWI Êîøåëåê, áîíóñíûìè êàðòàìè èëè äðóãèì óäîáíûì Âàì ñïîñîáîì.