To a casual onlooker, the two young women, elegantly dressed and in animated conversation, could only be glamorous wives of up-and-coming young executives. The women appeared to be trifling their day away with, yet another money-spending spree in London's more up-market establishments. How far from the truth that picture presented.
Lauren, dark hair cropped in gamin style, outgoing and flamboyant, had worked every inch of the way to become the successful and highly acclaimed interior decorator that she was today. As friend and confidante of the beautiful girl seated opposite her, Lauren knew the heartache and misery that lay behind the public face of Kris Castell, the twenty-six year-old widow of the late Tony Castell.
Tony Castell had been a ruthless, outwardly charming man with many dubious roles. High on the guest lists of society, he was internationally known and indeed famous for being a daredevil with a racing career that had finally killed him. He had given no credit to his wife for the impeccable organization of the extravagant entertainment he demanded. In time, he had pushed her more and more into the background, preferring to have adoring, busty beauties surrounding him.
Kris too had been captivated. He'd been her first love, and in his own way, he had loved her in the beginning. The uniqueness of her fresh and innocent demeanor had excited him, and the challenge of her Victorian chastity had driven him to pursue her passionately until he had managed to break it. Then desire had overwhelmed him, and he had taken her virginity under the moonlight one hot night. However, the novelty of a "virgin" bride soon wore thin, and he returned to the excitement of more experienced conquests.
At first, to assuage his feelings of guilt, he'd showered her with expensive gifts. Soon that complex passed though, and he started flaunting his women brazenly in front of her. As her marriage crumbled, Kris hid her humiliation and breaking heart from eager news-hounds, confiding only in Lauren who did her best to provide comfort and support.
Tony had died in a bloody blaze of headline glory eighteen months ago, only nine months after their marriage. Slowly, Kris had tried to rebuild her life, and only recently had regained some of her former zest for living. She'd sold the villa on the Riviera as well as the ostentatious Paris flat, and all its trappings, and settled in a modest flat not far from Lauren's Mews apartment.
Although money was not a problem, she had no desire to live the life her husband had once lived. She wanted to work for her money and was determined to do so. Lauren friend had invited her to share a flat, but Kris needed her independence. Besides, she knew Lauren had numerous male friends and felt that she had a right to her privacy.
Kris had enjoyed re-decorating her new home, doing most of the painting and papering herself. She had rooted happily through antique shops, attended sales and joined Lauren in hunting through huge warehouses filled with wonderful fabrics. The result had transformed a modest flat into a home filled with colour, light, and a warm welcoming atmosphere. By herself, she would go for drives in the countryside, taking home wild flowers and ferns. She enjoyed the therapy of sun on her face, wind in her hair and the anonymity of her life. Once her life returned to normal, she had felt the need to take a job and establish her own independence.
Recently she'd started accepting some of Lauren's invitations to join her and her friends. Her easy charm and infectious laugh had many men enamoured, but she carefully fobbed them off, the pain of past hurts still too near to the surface.
A few weeks back Kris had told Lauren that she had become restless again. Her job was dull and held no prospects. She wanted something she could sink her teeth into; that was the topic they'd discussed over the lunch table.
"Darling, I've found just the thing and it is absolutely tailor made for you. Remember when I talked to you about the job I did for Metcon Enterprises, you know, the huge organization controlled by Raoul Metier and his cousin Luke Coney? I had lunch with one of their associates after an art exhibition the other day." Lauren gave her friend an impish grin. "Don't worry, he's fat, balding, sixty, and happily married, okay? Anyway, he was talking about Raoul Metier's wonderful personal collection, and all the time I was trying to draw everything out about the man. Boy has he got it all; and on top of everything else he is soooo good looking."
"Oh, Lauren...you and your man-catching! So, if you have been checking his credentials for yourself, where do I fit in? You know I'm not looking for an eligible bachelor."
"After everything I heard, I spoke to Luke Coney about you and he wants you to go and see him."
"I knew I'd have to do the spadework for you or you wouldn't go, and this is too good an opportunity to pass over. The long and the short of it is this: Raoul Metier needs someone to manage his home in the country, smile at his visitors, that sort of thing. But most of all he needs someone to care for his five-year-old daughter."
Kris grimaced. "Sounds charming. Who's doing the job at present? If it's that cushy, why is she leaving?"
"I have all the answers, my friend. She is an old family retainer that Metier brought out of retirement. Her position was supposed to be temporary, but he never got around to doing anything about it. Now that the little girl is five and a bit of a handful, it's getting too much for the old lady. Besides, the entertaining can be quite hectic, and I'm sure he'd rather have a more glamorous hostess!"
"Sounds like a calculated business to me. Where's the child's mother?"
"It's very sad, really. About four years ago she had a skiing accident in the Alps. She is still in a deep coma; Luke says the doctors told Raoul that she might not come out of it. Raoul was devastated and immersed himself in his work. He adores the child, but he's so high powered now he can't spend that much time with her. The place in the country is supposed to be wonderful; it's in the Lake District, I think. You'd be mistress of the manor, and with your experience of the glitterati, the weekend entertainment should be a piece of cake."
Kris thought long and hard; it sounded tempting. She was appalled at the tragic story and her heart went out to the child at its centre, but she was apprehensive about the implications to the other side of the job.
Lauren cut into her thoughts. "You know, it won't be like it was before, Kris. He is a sophisticated man who's already achieved his success. He's not trying to prove anything like Tony. I expect his guests will be close friends or business associates. Oh, yes, I forgot. He does have a girlfriend. Does that make it better? She's a foreign socialite, or something like that, and Luke says she hasn't the slightest interest in the child, so she's certainly not going to interfere. I'm sure you have nothing to worry about; it's purely a business arrangement."
"I...I don't know. My scars are still new, and I couldn't face the debauchery and drunkenness that happened at Tony's parties and...."
Lauren interrupted, "Do me a favour, go and talk to Luke Coney, and then make up your mind, okay?" Lauren looked into her friend's anxious green eyes and smiled as Kris nodded her assent.
"Come through, Mrs. Castell." A smiling secretary led the way into a large sunny office. Luke Coney was rummaging papers about on an untidy desk. He reached out to take her hand, his rugged face creased into a wide grin.
"Kris...may call you Kris?" He didn't wait for a reply. "Lauren told me all about you, and I feel I know you already. I also feel you are precisely the person we need. She says it's up to me to put on my best sales approach and convince you.
"Do sit down." He led her over to two comfortable chairs by the window. "Coffee's coming," he said, plainly. "I'm a coffee freak and I'm trying a new blend, so do tell me what you think of it, okay?"
Luke had a casual charm and boyish enthusiasm that seemed unaffected by the power of business and the obvious wealth to which he was accustomed. He was infectious, and she heard herself agreeing to everything he said. More importantly, if Raoul Metier asked her, she would be available to visit over the weekend. And yes, she could start within a week.
"Good, that's settled then. Now I'll introduce you to my esteemed cousin."
She jolted back to earth at his words. She'd almost forgotten he would want to meet the woman who was to be an important part of his little girl's life. She shivered slightly as Luke casually took her arm, and guided her down the plush carpeted passage into an enormous office.
She felt flustered as she looked at a man of about thirty-five standing at the window. What had made her think that he would be so much older? Raoul Metier stood six-foot-two with broad shoulders and slim hips. On him, anything would look good, but today the severe cut of his Cardin suit accentuated his sexuality. In a couple of years, his thick hair would be the steel grey of his eyes. Cold eyes, veiled of emotion. His strong face was handsome rather than good looking, and a scar that ran across one cheek, together with a tightness of his lips, gave him a rather forbidding look.
"Raoul, I'd like you to meet Kris. In my opinion she's the person you've been looking for."
Raoul Metier drew himself up and bowed slightly. With a trace of a French accent, he spoke in a slightly husky voice. "Mrs. Castell." There was deliberation in the way he said her name, no familiarity. "Please take a seat." He indicated a chair for her, and then moved with the grace of a panther across the room, and leaned against the edge of his desk. Forcing her to look up at him from the low chair gave her the distinct feeling he had deliberately put her at a disadvantage.
She blushed as she met his lazy gaze. The gold of the thin Piaget glinted on his strong brown wrist as he waved at Luke to leave the room. "I wish to talk to Mrs. Castell alone; she'll be back in your office in about ten minutes."
His manner irritated her, and she was upset with herself for being aware of his physical magnetism.
"You obviously know of my concern for my daughter's well-being or you wouldn't be here. It is not good that elderly people who, by rights, should be enjoying their retirement are caring for her. She needs someone who'll create a normal family atmosphere, let her have birthday parties, friends to play with, that sort of thing."
His hardness softened and Kris sensed his deep affection for his little girl. "I see her as often as possible, but it's not enough. I need someone who really loves children, and who's prepared to be sincerely committed to my daughter for more than a few months. I take friends and business associates to the house whenever convenient, and that brings me to the other side of the job. It would be more than good fortune to find someone who is capable of both, but when Luke told me about you, I could hardly believe my luck.
"I'm aware how you managed the extravagant excesses your late husband demanded," he said stiffly, "but my needs are far more sober and sophisticated. You would be required to manage my house in Windermere and organize the entertaining as though it were your own home. This is mainly because of my daughter, Penny-Jayne. Although I entertain at home, I wish for PJ to have a normal life. That is where you step in."
He paused and his eyes roved lazily over her. "Being a glamorous hostess is an added bonus for me. You will have a generous allowance and I will take care of all running expenses. You will be paid a substantial salary for your efforts. There will also be an account for you to draw on for my daughter's day to day needs."
Kris felt relieved when Raoul moved away and sat behind his desk. "You will join me and my guests this weekend." It was a command, not an invitation. "We'll be going on Thursday, but Luke can't get off until Friday, so he can bring you along then. I would expect you to move in permanently by the end of next week."
Kris stared at him in amazement, "Mr. Metier, aren't you being a little presumptuous? This is simply an interview. I haven't agreed to accept your proposition, yet. Besides, I do have affairs of my own. I can't just drop everything at a moment's notice."
He held his arms up as if in surrender. "I'm sorry. You haven't said a word and here I am assuming you'll take the position. You will take it, won't you?" A wide smile transformed his handsome features, and his sudden charm took her by surprise. "You must forgive me. I am so concerned about my daughter, and from all I've gathered from Luke, I know you are perfect for the job. I am sure you and PJ will get along fine."
For an instant she'd glimpsed the man behind the mask, and her annoyance subsided. "Before we make any hasty decisions, I think your daughter should have some say in the matter. I will accept your invitation for the weekend. In the meantime, I will get my affairs sorted out, and if all goes well, I should be able to start at the end of next week."
He stood up. "I appreciate it, Mrs. Castell. Please make your arrangements with Luke." He pressed a button and spoke to his secretary. "Mrs. Carr, please take Mrs. Castell back to Luke's office." His guard was back in place as he bowed slightly and said crisply, "Until we meet again...Friday."
Luke waited for her in his office and laughed when she walked in with a dumbfounded look on her face. "Don't worry about him. He's a difficult beggar at times, but his bark is worse than his bite. As far as PJ is concerned, nothing is too good for her."
"Thanks a lot," Kris sighed. "He makes me feel as though I'm all arms and legs, like a clumsy schoolgirl. Certainly not the cool poised robot he seems to require. I'm not sure I can handle it." Her green eyes were shadowed with doubt.
With mock severity Luke said, "Mrs. Castell, to look at you, how much more poise could a man want? PJ doesn't need a robot. She needs a warm and loving human being who can give her an ordinary healthy life, someone who won't get hysterical if she gets her hands dirty. Of course you can do it, and Lauren told me you wouldn't melt in the country. Don't worry about Raoul and his funny ways. He's a shrewd judge of character, you know. This organization has given him plenty of experience." He laughed. "Let's make the plans for Friday, and then I'll get one of the drivers to take you home."
After they made the necessary arrangements, she thanked her lucky stars she had a friend who would be there to help her over the first hurdle of her new venture.
Kris could hardly wait to get Lauren on the phone and tell her about the interview.
Lauren was delighted with the news. "I told you it would work out well. I'll drop everything tomorrow; we have to go shopping," Lauren said.
"Don't be silly, Lauren. I have plenty of clothes," Kris protested.
"I know, but some new ones will be a good morale booster. Besides, you're on show and need to look your best. Who better than your old friend to help you spend your money? I can do with a day off anyway."
"We've done very well, it's only eleven o'clock. Let's have coffee and we can work out what else you need."
"Don't you think we've done enough damage to my bank account?" Kris laughed. "By the look of it I'm kitted out for every season of the year, and I'm only going for a weekend."
"Oh, come on, you can always use tailored slacks and sweaters. Even though the green dress can go anywhere, and it's gorgeous with your red hair, I think we must find you something special for Saturday night; I'm sure they will dress up a bit."
As Lauren spoke, they both stopped dead in their tracks beside an exclusive Chelsea Boutique that had a simple white garment in the window, stunningly set against black velvet. Naturally it had no price tag.
"No, Lauren, I'm not going in there." Kris anticipated her friend's next move.
"Be a devil, you've nothing to lose, and that dress is crying out for you to try it on. Just walk in as though you own the place, and if you don't like it, we'll leave," she said, opening the door to the elegant little shop.
With superb salesmanship, and without divulging the price, the Manageress had Kris out of her own clothes and into the designer model. The effect was stunning and Lauren said, "Here, let me do something." She pulled the pins out of the heavy knot of hair at the base of Kris' neck and let the auburn mane fall free. "Wow, that should rock them in the aisles! Don't even hesitate...hold your breath, tell the lady you will take it and then ask for the price."
They all laughed as Kris slowly turned in front of the mirror. A heavy silk fringe swung from the low scoop neck, held on by diamond shoulder straps. Only an expert could design such a soft unstructured bodice that shaped her breasts into such enticing fullness. The crystalline white material draped softly over her hips. The skirt, slashed to the thigh and covered in heavy fringe, shimmered sensuously as she moved. Surely she would gather provocative glimpses from nearby men.
"You have to take it." Lauren tilted her head to one side. "It will be your piece-de-resistance, but you will have to keep it until the time is right." She turned to the sales clerk. "Take no arguments from her, she's taking it, but I think you had better show us something a little less startling. It's my friend's first date," she added mischievously.
"I have just the thing." The woman beamed conspiratorially as she disappeared behind some screens to return with a black velvet jumpsuit. "You can dress this up or down."
Kris emerged from the change-booth and Lauren exclaimed, "You are one hell of a clothes horse. It looks stunning. It's ideal because it's understated, yet classy." She smiled at the sales clerk. "She'll take that one, too."
Kris opened her mouth to speak, but Lauren cut her off.
"Don't argue, my dear. You can pay yourself back out of your first cheque. After that you can go to town on Raoul's account."
With the bill paid, the girls left the shop. The heavy parcels were almost worth their weight in gold.
Kris breathed a happy, though weary sigh. "I'm exhausted. I just want to kick off my shoes and have a cup of tea. Let's head home rather than go to a coffee shop."
Lauren nodded and they headed on their way. "What a successful day we've had; it's not often I can spend all day and not find a thing I want. It must be your bad influence."
Lauren laughed, "My pleasure."
"I've certainly spent more than I would if I were on my own. But I'd have dithered about and gotten nowhere. I'm delighted with everything. Thank you for coming, Lauren."