Octavia and Jake battle over more than just the future of her ancestral home.
The only way for Lady Octavia Radleigh’s grandfather to pay off crippling debts is to sell their ancestral home. Octavia vows that Jake Bentley, a self-made financial guru, will never get his hands on Radleigh, and she sets about turning it into an upmarket hotel. All she has to do is persuade Jake to finance the venture.
Jake dislikes everything Octavia stands for, but he's backed into a corner and has no choice but to finance her crazy scheme. When someone sabotages Octavia’s efforts and she turns to Jake for advice, they finally discover release for their pent-up passion in one another’s arms.
Embroiled in a bitter tangle of resentment and paranoia, Jake must race against time to save Octavia from her own folly before Radleigh is lost to them both…
“Pink brocade with embossed orange swirls?” Blond hair flopped across Justin’s brow as he contemplated the ghastly swatch of fabric. his client had just handed him. “Well, it’s certainly an interesting concept.”
“Oh, it’s just a suggestion.” Mrs. Malcolm laced her fingers together, looking anxious as she awaited Justin’s verdict. “I saw something like it in a magazine and thought it rather striking.”
“You have unique taste, Mrs. M.”
Octavia bit the inside of her lip to prevent a persistent giggle from escaping.
“Oh, I don’t know about that.” Their elderly client fluttered her sparse lashes almost coquettishly as her interior designer. “I’m in such a state that I can’t think straight. My husband really shouldn’t have invited the Farquharsons to dinner without consulting me first. I’ve seen your work on Marcia Farquharson’s dining room. With its new elegance, I’d be mortified if she saw this old neglected room the way it is now. ” Mrs. Malcolm really appeared to think it mattered, and, to her, it probably did, but Octavia thought the room looked fine just the way it was.
“I don’t know what I’d have done if you hadn’t responded to my cry for help.”
“Nothing’s too much trouble for you, Mrs. M.” Justin took her liver-spotted hand in his and turned on the charm. “After all, you’re one of our most valued clients.”
“Oh well, I was glad to recommend you to my friends after you worked such wonders with my bedroom.” She flapped the hand he’d just released, looking a little flustered. “But about the curtains? My husband thought they might be too bold, and he’s rather made me doubt my own judgement.”
“Your husband lacks vision.” This time a hint of a giggle did manage to slip past Octavia’s guard, but she stifled it quickly and focused her attention on the picture over the fireplace. If she caught Justin’s eye, it would be her undoing. “I shouldn’t tell you this,” Justin said, dropping his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “but I happen to know that Mrs. Davidson is thinking along similar lines.”
To suggest Mrs. Malcolm’s deadly rival was aping her style was a sure way to make her forget all about pink brocade and orange swirls. Now that the crisis to their reputation had been averted, Octavia allowed her mind to wander, idly wondering why Justin had dragged her along with him today. His method of handling their wealthy clients with a combination of tact and gentle coercion required no input from her, and she would have been much better employed chasing up the thousands of little details on her to-do list. Their growing reputation as the fashionable interior designers of the moment assured a steady stream of commissions. But the grunt work, seeking out the right bits and pieces to make their projects come together, was down to her. And seeing to those details was what she ought to be doing now.
“Lady Octavia’s grandfather, the Marquis of Frampton, do you know him?” Justin waited for the sycophantic exclamations to die on the old lady’s lips before continuing. “Well, perhaps I shouldn’t tell you this either, but I know I can rely upon your discretion.”
“Of course you can, Justin dear.” The old lady’s eyes were agog with anticipation. “You know I’m not one to gossip.”
Justin touched a swatch of burnished gold satin. “Well, his lordship has this exact same fabric at the windows of his morning room at Radleigh Manor.”
Octavia was jolted away from thoughts of the Chinese vase she’d seen in the window of a small antique shop the previous day. It would be perfect for Mrs. Granger’s dining room, but she still hadn’t found the time to check it out. She narrowed her eyes at Justin, furious that he’d tell such an outright lie, aware now why she’d been trotted out. They argued endlessly about his tendency to trade upon her title, and only last week she’d threatened to resign if he tried it again. He was good at what he did and already had Mrs. Malcolm eating out of his hand. He didn’t need to go that extra mile.
A half-hour later they were back in Sloane Street with Mrs. Malcolm’s signature at the bottom of a lucrative contract. Justin had added fifty percent to their already outrageous fee due to the urgency of her requirements.
“God, it gets harder every day,” Justin said, striding toward the tube with a scowl on his face. “Bloody orange swirls indeed. I ask you.”
Octavia had to run to keep up with him. “You did it again,” she said angrily.
“Relax! The old bird needed a bit of persuasion, and you happened to be it.” He turned his hundred-watt smile on her. “We needed that one, babe, and you helped seal it.”
“I don’t like being used, you know that. Besides, you promised.”
“Baby, in this cutthroat business you can’t afford to be picky.” His voice hardened. “Trade on what you’ve got and make it work for you.”
“No! Justin, that isn’t how I operate. You have a persuasive manner and bucket loads of charm. You don’t need to name drop to get what you want. Besides, if Gramps could have heard you just now, he’d have been horrified. It’s bad enough when you bandy my name about. Don’t start on him too.”
Justin stopped dead in his tracks, causing the Japanese tourist walking behind him to cannon into his back. He mumbled an apology and turned toward Octavia. “You worry too much. Your grandfather will never know that his name sealed the deal.”
“But I don’t understand why you felt you had to do it, Justin. She would have signed without that.”
“Yeah, but would she have coughed up the extra money?”
“Probably, but even if she didn’t, we’d still have made a healthy profit. Besides, we’ve got more clients than we can cope with at the moment. You were only saying the other day we might need to employ another assistant.”
“Yeah.” He walked again but slower this time so that she didn’t have to run to keep up with him. “Yeah, everything’s cool, it’s just that we’ve got a temporary cash flow problem at the moment. Some of our customers are slow payers, and we have a lot of up-front expenses.”
Octavia frowned. It was the first she’d heard about cash flow difficulties. “But our contracts stipulate a third must be paid up front and the rest upon completion. So we ought to be all right.”
“Yes, my darling,” Justin said with exaggerated patience, “but the third up-front doesn’t even cover the cost of our materials, and you’ve no idea how long some of our clients keep us waiting for the rest.”
“You should have said.”
“It’s nothing you need to concern yourself with.” His morose mood lightened. “And don’t forget tomorrow night there’s that bash at The Dorchester. It’ll be a good opportunity to do some networking.”
“I can’t make it. It’s Friday, and I’m going to Radleigh for the weekend. I did tell you, and it’s in the diary.”
“You can’t. Wade and I need you with us.”
“And Gramps needs me at Radleigh. I haven’t been home for over six weeks.” Guilt crept up on her at the thought.
“You can go to Radleigh next weekend. This is more important.”
Octavia bridled. How long had he been talking to her like that? Why hadn’t she noticed, and, more to the point, why had she put up with it? “No, Justin, Gramps needs me this weekend. He specifically asked me to go, and I’ve already told him I’ll be there.”
“The business comes first, Octavia.”
“I don’t think you can accuse me of neglecting the business, Justin,” Octavia said angrily, thinking of all the occasions upon which he and Wade went missing for no apparent reason. “And the thing at The Dorchester has nothing to do with business.”
“Everything’s to do with business. If we’re not seen at the right places, we’ll soon go out of fashion.”
“Maybe so, but you’ll have to go to this one without me.”
His brow furled, and although he didn’t push the issue, something told Octavia she’d pay for her rebellion. Justin hated not getting his own way. “Come on, I could do with a drink.”
Octavia sighed. What he meant was he could do with was a line of coke. He’d been using more and more recently, but nothing Justin said about the beneficial effects of recreational drugs had persuaded her to experiment.
“No, you go ahead.” She knew he’d only try to talk her out of going to Radleigh if she stayed with him. “I’ve got some stuff to finish up in the office.”
“Okay, if you’re sure, I’ll catch you later.”
And he was gone, swallowed up in the crowd milling around the entrance to the tube. Octavia walked briskly in the opposite direction, heading for their prodigious offices in the King’s Road. Justin and Wade shared the large flat above, and she often crashed there at night. They worked long hours and partied just as hard afterward, being seen by the right people and keeping their name to the forefront. But tonight she’d clear her desk and go home to her minuscule flat in Battersea.
For once she’d put herself first and grab an early night.
* * * *
Early that same morning Jake Bentley’s office in Brighton was alive with activity.
“Graham on four, Jake.”
“Thanks, Mel.” Jake took the call, jotting figures on a pad.
“Peter on two,” Sarah , Jake’s junior assistant, shouted as soon as he hung up.
As a White Knight Jake was used to living on the edge, everything about his business depending upon secrecy, timing, his own instincts, and a hefty portion of luck. But this was his most ambitious company-rescue yet, and if he’d got it wrong, or if word of his interest in Phillipson Printing somehow got out prematurely, he stood to lose a fortune. He was over-reaching himself this time, his nerves accounting for the palpable tension in the atmosphere, and the blood pulsating through his adrenalin-charged veins. He was on a high that even the best sex had never managed to better, as one by one, his brokers reported in to him.
They had almost gained the stock they required when one of the brokers reported frenzied buying from a source other than their own. The predators were on to them! But too late to do anything about it. Five minutes later Graham reported in again. They had a controling interest in Phillipson Printing.
Adam whooped and shared a high-five with Jake.
“Is it too early for champagne?” Sarah asked.
Melanie, Jake’s loyal PA, cast a censorious glance in Sarah’s direction but otherwise remained a picture of unruffled calm.
“Thanks, guys!” Jake grinned inanely.
The phone rang again, and Melanie answered it.
“It’s Candice for you, Jake.”
“Thanks.” He took the call standing at her desk. “Hey,” he said to his latest squeeze, a supermodel, who was never out of the headlines. “You still in Milan?” He listened, letting out a deep, throaty chuckle at something she said. “No, that’s great, I’m up for that. Put your glad rags on. I’ll pick you up at seven and take you to Belgiunie’s.”
He cut the connection, asked Mel to get him a reservation at the exclusive restaurant and headed for his office. Adam joined him a moment later. Jake already had his feet up on his desk and his head thrown back as he savored the feeling of victory.
“We’ve done it, Adam,” he said, a tiny part of him still wondering if it was all some big mistake. “We’ve pulled off the big one, right from under the nose of the competition, too. Not bad for a boy from a sink housing estate in the East End, eh?”
“Yeah, but it was never in doubt, mate. I know what you’re like when you set your sights on something you want.” Adam grinned. “So what’s next on the agenda?”
“I’m gonna buy myself a new house, that’s what.”
“Got anywhere in mind?” Adam glanced around Jake’s elegant office, once the main reception room in his Georgian town-house. The ground floor now housed Jake’s business empire, and the upper two were devoted to his living space. “I thought you liked this place.”
“I do, but this is different, and I’ve just got to have it. I saw it by accident a couple of years ago when I was returning from a weekend at your parents’ place.” Jake recalled the ridiculous folly—the intricate building that appeared to serve no specific purpose—that fronted the narrow country lane he’d been driving along, having decided to take the scenic route for once and see where it led. And where it led caused him to slam his foot on the brakes and get out of his car to have a closer look. “It’s called Radleigh Manor.”
Jake pulled a well-thumbed file out of his desk drawer and recited from the information contained in it. “It was built in 1815, shortly after the family were ennobled in recognition of large monetary loans to the cash-strapped monarchy. The house is on three floors and is considered small by Georgian standards.” Jake could visualise the spacious rooms with their ornate ceilings, coveting them with a lust that even the most attractive of his dates was unable to inspire. “The grounds originally extended to over two hundred acres but have been gradually sold off over the years, and there are now only fifty left. There’s a large lake, stables, a gate house, and, of course, that folly.”
“What do you want with such a barn of a place then?”
“Don’t you mean, what am I thinking of, daring to aspire to anything better than Bethnal Green?”
“Cool it, Jake, you know that’s not what I meant at all. But I assume this Radleigh place is on the market?”
“Well, no, not exactly but…” Jake looked up and flashed a grin, his good humor restored. “I’ve found out a few interesting things about the family.”
Adam rolled his eyes. “Why am I not surprised?”
“The place is owned by the Marquis of Frampton, who’s in his mid-sixties. He’s an ex-military man. His wife died of cancer not long after bearing Radleigh a son. The boy also went into the military and married a beautiful socialite, with disastrous consequences. According to all the reports available, they argued constantly and were casually unfaithful to one another. Their only child, a girl called Octavia, was packed off to boarding school at the tender age of seven.” Jake always winced when he thought about that. The aristocracy’s idea of happy families left a lot to be desired.
“Anyway, when Octavia was twelve, it seems her parents called a halt to their hostilities and went to her end of year prize giving. What happened next is a matter for conjecture, but it’s generally accepted that they’d been drinking heavily and were possibly high as well. They spent all their time at the school bickering, and when they left, they wrapped their car around a tree and were killed outright.”
“Christ, that’s tough.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Jake shrugged. “Anyway, Octavia continued with her education at Cheltenham Ladies College. After A-levels she did a year at a Swiss Finishing School and then spent a couple of years in Paris working for a fashion house and dating a banker. Her name appears in the gossip columns every so often.”
“I think I’ve heard of her.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me, knowing the sort of down market rags you read.”
“Those rags, as you call them, supply a lot of useful information for this establishment, I’ll have you know.”
“Page three being vital for the running of this organization.” Adam merely grinned, irrepressible as always. “Anyway, this Octavia’s a right little exhibitionist, by all accounts. She’s been photographed at all the best places over the years and appears to court publicity. She’s now back in London playing at being an interior designer, but I don’t suppose it’ll take her long to get bored with that.”
“So, what makes you think Radleigh would consider selling if the house has been in his family for centuries?”
“Well, I’ve heard rumours that he’s got financial problems. I’ve got an appointment with him tomorrow morning, but I want to make sure of my facts before then. Who do you suppose he might bank with, Adam?”
“Coutts, I would imagine.”
Reaching forward, Jake picked up his phone. It was time to call in a few favours. Anyone who thought it wasn’t possible to gain access to other people’s financial records obviously didn’t have the right contacts.