From Prim to Improper(3)

By: Cathy Williams


Indeed, there were so many stomach-clenching ‘what if?’s banking up inside her that she had to apply her oft-used technique of breathing in and out very slowly to steady her nerves.

She was in the middle of a deep inhalation, eyes firmly shut, when the door opened and she was confronted by a tiny woman in her sixties with dark hair firmly pulled back into a bun and shrewd, darting eyes.

‘Yes?’

Elizabeth swallowed back her trepidation. She had taken ages deciding what to wear. A light flowered dress, her favourite peach cardigan, flat sandals. There wasn’t a great deal she could do with her hair, which was long, auburn and always managed to defy any attempts made to control it, but she had tried, tying it back into a long braid that hung down almost to her waist. She looked presentable but it still wasn’t enough to instil any self-confidence. She was as nervous now as she had been two months ago when she had first decided on her plan of action.

‘Um…I’m here to see Mr Greystone.’

‘Appointment?’

‘No, I’m afraid not. If it’s inconvenient, I could always come back…’ She had noticed a bus stop a couple of miles back. It would be a bit of a hike, but she wasn’t going to throw away any more money on calling a taxi. Her fingers played nervously with the leather strap of the handbag over her shoulder.

‘Did the agency send you?’

Elizabeth looked blankly at the small woman in front of her. Agency? What agency? Send her for what?

The gaps in her knowledge were beginning to suffocate her. The full extent of everything she knew about James Greystone had been gleaned from the Internet, and she had devoured the information with fascinated interest. She knew what he looked like, how old he was and was aware that he was wealthy—although she had been staggered, on approaching his country mansion, to realise just how wealthy he appeared to be. She knew that he had no wife and that he had never had children. She knew that he had retired from the highly profitable construction-business which his grandfather had founded many years previously and was something of a recluse. For someone presumably of some substance, there had been remarkably little about him, and she could only deduce that that was because he had made it his business from early on to keep a low profile.

She knew nothing about any agency. ‘Um…’ she ventured hesitantly, but it must have been the right response, because the door was drawn back and she stepped into a hallway that took her breath away.

For a few minutes she stood in silence and just stared. Imposing flagstones were interrupted only by an expanse of rug that spoke of generations of use, and directly ahead was a regal staircase that marched upwards before branching out in opposite directions. The paintings on the walls, in their heavy, gilded frames, were of traditional country-scenes and looked as old as the house itself. This house didn’t have rooms, it had wings.

Why on earth had she imagined that the best plan of action was direct confrontation? Why hadn’t she just done the sensible thing and written a letter, like any normal person would have done in her position?

She snapped back to the present when she realised that the housekeeper had paused at one of the doors and was looking at her enquiringly.

‘Mr Greystone is just having coffee in the dining room. If you want to wait here, I’ll announce you. Name?’

Elizabeth cleared her throat. ‘Miss Jones. Elizabeth Jones. My friends call me Lizzy.’

She waited precisely three minutes and forty-five seconds. Elizabeth knew that because she consulted her watch every few seconds just to try and stop her nerves from spiralling out of control. Then the housekeeper reappeared to show her towards the dining room.

Elizabeth had no idea what to expect. She lost track of the various rooms they passed. When she was finally shown into the dining room, and the housekeeper tactfully did a disappearing act, she realised that she was facing not just James Greystone but someone else, a man with his back to her who was staring out of one of the enormous sash-windows that overlooked the back garden.

She felt her breath catch in her throat as he turned slowly away from the captivating view to look at her.

For a few mesmerising seconds she completely forgot the purpose of her visit. She forgot that James Greystone was sitting right there, metres away from her. She even managed to forget her nerves.

The rich, mellow light from the sun as it began its descent streamed behind him, silhouetting a body that was long, lean and even, clothed in casual trousers and a short-sleeved, open-necked shirt, and highly toned. The man didn’t look English, and if he was then there was some other exotic gene in the mix, because his skin was bronzed, his eyes were dark and his hair was raven-black. The chiselled bone-structure was at once beautiful, cold and utterly, bewilderingly magnetic. It took her a few seconds to realise that he was watching her as assessingly as she was watching him, and that James Greystone was watching both of them with interest.