When a marriage goes wrong, where do you run to?
When Suzie catches her husband with another woman, she flees to Shalimar, the country house where she grew up and still feels most at home. Mark follows her there, desperate to fix their troubled marriage but finds his progress hampered by an eclectic mix of people from The Grange, the neighboring property, who have befriended his wife.
Annabel, a woman without conscience or morals, will do whatever it takes to help her boss, brash, overweight John Greenberg, to acquire The Grange. Motivated by the desire to amass as much money as she can, she even enters into a kinky sexual liaison with Greenberg.
Suzie, distraught at the disintegration of her marriage, is distracted when she uncovers ancient family secrets that place her in deadly danger, testing Mark's determination to keep her safe. Suzie and Annabel's lives entwine in the most unexpected way when they join forces to thwart Annabel's grasping boss...
“Listen to me!” Mark grabbed Suzie’s shoulders, stark emotion in his expression. “It isn’t what you think.”
“Oh please!” She shook his hands away. “I know what I saw.”
He ran a hand through his hair. “No, you just think you do.”
“Don’t try and turn this on me.”
“It was all one massive—”
Suzie cut off him off with a wave of her hand, inchoate anger fuelling her determination not to be swayed. “Don’t bother. I don’t want to hear any more of your pathetic excuses. Whatever I saw, or didn’t see, the fact remains that you lied to me. You were supposed to be on your way to the airport, not screwing Kate on her kitchen floor.”
Mark let out an elongated breath. “She called me and said she wanted to talk to me. She said she was worried about you.”
“Is that the best excuse you can come up with?” She turned away from him, afraid that the hurt now replacing her anger would be reflected in her eyes.
“Suzie, don’t do this to yourself. To us. I’m telling you the truth. Kate means nothing to me. We’ll get over this, sweetheart, and I’ll make it up to you, I promise.” He reached for her, but she moved swiftly out of range. Allowing him to touch her would be a seriously bad move. “I love you,” he added quietly.
“Perhaps you do but obviously not enough.” Suzie took a deep breath and looked him squarely in the eye “I’m leaving you, Mark,” she said.
The expression that flitted across his face was one of abject disbelief. It obviously hadn’t occurred to him that she wouldn’t forgive his transgression, and he was too stunned to make an immediate response. Struggling to disguise the full extent of her devastation, Suzie wondered why she’d chosen to inflict this torture on herself. She could have taken the easy way out and simply left home whilst Mark was abroad. Confronting him to extract what satisfaction she could from being the aggrieved party was already testing her strung out emotions.
“What! You don’t mean that. You’re upset, that’s all.”
She ruthlessly swallowed down her regret and met his gaze, refusing to permit his tortured expression to influence her. A debilitating pain ripped through her, the renewed agony of the double betrayal perpetrated by her husband and best friend supplying the impetuous she needed to stand firm. Mark’s meaningless string of assurances was exactly that—meaningless—and she wouldn’t be played for a trusting fool ever again.
She listened to his attempts at justification, still confident in his ability to talk her round. He didn’t believe she’d leave because he thought her incapable of living without him, but he was wrong. Dead wrong! She gathered up what was left of her dignity, ignored the abject misery that was already creeping into what was left of her heart, and prepared to walk out of his life forever.
Suzie had almost managed to convince even herself that she no longer cared for Mark. A special Oscar for a lifetime’s role as best supporting actress ought to have her name on it. Struggling to keep the tears at bay, she acknowledged that was precisely what she’d been doing for the past ten years. Supporting Mark in his career, running his home, and waiting patiently for him to return from his endless business trips. She had long ago abandoned any ambitions for a career of her own and had become a non-person—nothing more than an extension of Mark himself. As a couple, they were definitely Mark and Suzie, never the other way round.
As she turned away from Mark, her ankle gave out beneath her, and with a screech of pain, she crumpled to the floor. She landed flat on her face in an undignified mass of flailing limbs, both human and canine. Expensive shag pile carpet cushioned her fall but did little to restore her dignity. She cursed her stupidity in forgetting about the large amount of gin she’d fortified herself with before confronting Mark. About the three-inch, confidence-giving heels she’d donned in an effort to boost her flagging morale. They showcased her legs and were supposed to issue a reminder to Mark of what he’d so casually thrown away through his inability to keep his fly zipped. Most importantly though, she’d forgotten that Sparkle, her beloved gangly-limbed, shaggy-haired mongrel, was glued adoringly to her spiky heels. With the infallible intuition peculiar to his species, he’d seem to know that a crisis loomed and stuck to her even more closely than usual in a gesture of doggy solidarity.
At her side in seconds, Mark loomed over her. The look in his gorgeous chocolate-brown eyes was so seriously concerned that just for a moment her resolve weakened. Then images of her friend’s naked body entwined with his sprang to mind. It filled her with renewed abhorrence and reminded her just why she could no longer live with the man whom she loved more than life itself.
“God, Suzie, are you all right? Here, let me help you up. Can you move?”
She wriggled her arms and legs experimentally and winced. Her ankle hurt like hell.
“I’m fine,” she snapped. “It’s Sparkle I’m worried about.”
“Of course you are.” There was a note of inevitability in Mark’s voice. “But he appears to be none the worse for wear, either.”
Sparkle peered down at the still prostrate Suzie, devoted eyes regarding her quizzically from beneath his shaggy fringe. Not the type of dog to bear grudges, he demonstrated his forgiving nature by giving her face a thorough wash. She reached out to scratch his ears by way of apology, playing for time as she contemplated the awkwardness of her situation. A rumbling sound caused Suzie to gently push Sparkle aside as she attempted to identify its source. Mark was doubled-over, almost helpless with laughter. She pulled herself into a sitting position and glowered up at him.
“What’s so funny?”
“Oh, Suzie, if you could have seen your face.” He fell about laughing some more, and it took a while for him to regain control of himself. “Christ, baby, you don’t really think you’re gonna walk out on me, do you?” He appeared lazily amused at the prospect. “You can’t even manage a dramatic exit, so how would you ever cope on your own.? ” He smiled into her eyes and then winked at her. “Come on, sweetheart, let me help you up.”
He held out a long slender hand, and just for a moment, Suzie was mesmerised by the sight of it. She remembered all the occasions over the past ten years when those hands had caressed and tantalised her body so expertly. All the occasions when those long, skilled fingers had stroked and probed, sending her so wild with desire that she’d been reduced to literally begging him for release. And she was intent upon walking out on all that. Was she mad?
Fortunately, images of those same fingers doing the exact same things to her ex-best friend came to her aid. No, she wasn’t mad. She was simply fed up with being played for a gullible fool. This was the first time she’d caught him out, but how many other occasions had there been that she didn’t know about? All those nights away on business. All those weekend seminars from which she was firmly excluded. She could see it all now and wasn’t enjoying the view one little bit.
“I don’t need your help, Mark.” She paused for a beat before delivering her coup de grâce with as much dignity as she could muster. “In fact I don’t need anything from you ever again.”
Swinging her knees sideways, Suzie attempted to stand up, only to howl with pain and fall straight back down again. Mark knelt beside her again in the blink of an eye.
“What is it?”
“Let me see.”
Mark ignored her protests and, as usual, took control. He supported her already swelling ankle with one hand and probed gently with the fingers of the other. Suzie used every vestige of self-control to ignore the aching wash of desire that simply the feel of his fingers on her ankle sent spiralling through her. God, but she was pathetic! Mark was history, she told herself firmly. She wanted nothing more to do with him and simply would not allow the sensuality of his touch to affect her. She deliberately looked away from him and forced herself to ignore his ministrations.
“Can you move it at all?”
Suzie had no idea. “Ouch!” She winced. “Yes, just a bit.”
“Good girl. That means it’s probably just a sprain. We need to cool it down first to reduce the swelling and then strap it up. Then I’ll take you to the hospital to have it checked out.”
“No hospital!” She had no intention of spending hours in the local emergency room. Mark would use the opportunity to erode her resolve and talk her into giving him another chance.
“Okay, we’ll see about that. But you can’t stay there on the floor.”
Without giving her time to object, Mark swung her into his arms and deposited her gently on a sofa. Then, whilst she impotently seethed, he disappeared into the kitchen and returned clutching a packet of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel. Well, let him take his best shot. She was immune to him now. She’d meant what she said. She had no intention of going to the hospital, or anywhere else, with Mark but wouldn’t be able to get out of here unaided unless her ankle was strapped up. And so she feigned disinterest as he continued to attend to her injury, ignoring the way his fingers—intentionally, she was sure—kept creeping up her calf, caressing it with a sensuous, featherlike touch that stole her breath away. She blocked her ears to his persuasively mesmerising charm, determined not to heed the exotic cadence of his voice or observe the molten tenderness in his expression.
He thought she’d change her mind, just like that, after everything she’d found out about him. That knowledge rekindled her dwindling fury and strengthened her determination never to be cuckolded by him again. Her car was loaded up, ready to go. The two cats were already in it, secure in their baskets. So was Honey, her rather dopey, lop-eared rabbit who thought she was another cat and behaved as such. It just remained for her and Sparkle to climb aboard and drive away from her life with Mark Alexander forever.
Whilst Mark was supposed to be playing golf that morning, Suzie had thrown all the things that mattered to her in the car . She wondered what he’d really been doing. A gut-wrenching bout of jealousy twisted Suzie’s insides as she tortured herself with such conjectures. The pain was excruciating. Far worse than the ache in her ankle, a circumstance that angered her. Even after all he’d done to her, all the hurt he’d caused, just the thought of him with another woman still tore her comprehensively apart.
Mark was more than capable of bringing her round with a few heartfelt endearments and the application of his magical hands to certain parts of her anatomy. She was well aware of that and so thought it best to have everything ready. She would tell him precisely what she thought of him and make a speedy, dignified exit. She couldn’t quite suppress a wry grin at how that dignified exit had turned out. It was just typical of her. She had right on her side, to say nothing of the element of surprise. Mark’s jaw had literally dropped when he realized she knew about him and Kate. Never before had she seen her handsome, lethally intelligent husband lost for words. Against all the odds, and in spite of her broken heart, Suzie had rather enjoyed his discomfiture. For the first time in ten years of marriage she’d well and truly wrong-footed him. But under the circumstances, perhaps “wrong-footed” was a rather unfortunate analogy?
Be that as it may, she should still be able to drive her Jeep since it was automatic. The question was how to get to her car, what with Mark hovering around her, determined not to let her get away from him. Unexpectedly, he provided the answer by asking if she needed any painkillers. She knew that she couldn’t take any in view of the amount of gin she’d ingested. But Mark didn’t know that, and conveniently, there were no suitable pills in the house. She’d already loaded them, in her infuriatingly organized manner, into the car.
Who else would think to pack headache pills when they planned to walk out on the husband they loved? She’d had plenty of time to think about her final interview with Mark and discovered that focusing her mind on how she would feel when she was free of him was fractionally less masochistic than confronting the unpalatable truth about his extramarital activities. Anticipating that she’d be consuming copious amounts of alcohol until the torture of separation from Mark eased, she’d taken the precaution of stripping the bathroom cabinets of every headache pill the Alexander household contained. Being organized over the past couple of days, whilst she waited for Mark to return from Barcelona, was the only thing that saved her sanity.
“Yeah, I guess I could do with something,” she said, careful to keep her tone bordering on the hostile. “But you’ll have to go out and get some. We’ve run out, but the cut-price shop in the village is open all day and they sell them.”
Mark raised a brow. Suzie was an ace organizer, always making lists, and they never ran out of anything. Clearly appreciating that this was hardly the moment to comment about her rare omission, he made do with grinning at her instead.
“Don’t go away, beautiful,” he said, sounding disgustingly sure of himself as he kissed the top of her head and reached for his car keys. “As soon as I get back, I’m gonna carry you up to bed, and then we’ll have to see if I can think of some way to entertain you that doesn’t involve moving your ankle.”
Winking at her, a gesture that sent a bolt of desire ripping through her entire body, Mark left the house. A couple of minutes later she heard the engine of his powerful Mercedes roar into life. Typical! His answer to everything was still a roll in the hay. And, blast him, just the very thought of it turned her insides to mulch. In spite of everything he’d done, she still wanted him. It was obscene. After all these years of marriage, her husband could still make her yearn for him with just a few well-chosen, implicitly suggestive words. And she could tell from his smug expression that he knew it, too. He actually thought he’d done all that was necessary to win her over.
Securely cloaked in her rekindled anger, Suzie struggled gingerly to her feet. Hopping on one leg into the hall, she pressed a sturdy golf umbrella into service as a stick, picked up her handbag, and whistled to Sparkle. When she reached the kitchen, she paused to remove her engagement and wedding rings for the first time ever. She struggled to get them over her knuckle and laid them squarely in the centre of the kitchen table in a more eloquent declaration of intent than words could ever convey. Gulping down her burning anguish, she hobbled to her car and drove away from her marital home forever, tears of regret already pouring down her face.
* * * *
Annabel Burton studied the Situations Vacant column in the trade press, ruling out most of the jobs on offer with a dismissive swipe of her pen. She was about to give up when a box ad on the second page caught her attention. She paused to read it twice. Greenberg’s in Basingstoke required a junior partner. There was a generous salary on offer and good benefits to the right applicant.
“Hum.” She tapped her pen against her teeth, thinking about it. “Now that’s a definite possible.”
Annabel drew a large ring round the ad and scanned the rest of the page, but there was nothing else worthy of her talents. Greenberg’s it just might have to be then. She knew of the construction firm by reputation but hadn’t had any personal dealings with them. She spent the next hour scouring the internet for all the information she could find. John Greenberg, owner and president of the company, featured large in a photo gallery dedicated to his greatest moments. Wearing a hard hat that looked like a boil on his large head, he was captured laying foundation stones, in wellington boots traipsing round building sites, and featured at endless gala dinners wearing a tuxedo stretched to the limit across his broad girth, surrounded by the wealthy and glamorous. He was also preserved in celluloid shaking hands with Basingstoke’s mayor, presenting cheques to local charities and acting as spokesman for a crime prevention committee. Greenberg the philanthropist. She could see exactly what he was doing and why. Greasing the palms that mattered and making a name for himself in the local community. If she doubted that, then the dozens of interviews she found in which he talked about himself and his path to success soon dispelled them.
“This guy’s ego is bigger than his waistline,” Annabel mused. “And that’s saying something.” She flashed a mirthless smile. “Could be just what I’m looking for.”
But Annabel never did anything without first having all the information she could garner at her fingertips. Knowledge was power. There would be fierce competition for this vacancy and if she wanted to stand out, then she needed an edge. She’d found out all there was to know about John Greenberg’s public image. That was the side of him he wanted the world to know about, but there had to be more.
There was always more.
Annabel picked up her phone and called an investigator who’d done work for her on several previous occasions.
“Jim,” she said as soon as he answered. “It’s Annabel Burton.”
She didn’t bother with social niceties. Why would she? The guy was about to work for her, and his time was her money. Besides, she didn’t give a toss about his health. Wasn’t interested how his family was, didn’t even know if he had one and cared even less. Instead, she told him what she needed from him.
“It might take some time,” Jim said.
“I don’t have time.” Applications for the vacancy closed in three days. “Get the information to me within two days and I’ll double your fee.”
Just as she’d known it would, the promise of monetary reward did the trick.
“I’m on it, lady,” Jim said, cutting the connection.
Just as Annabel hung up, her assistant stuck her head round her office door.
“Sorry to disturb you. Barry in marketing is leaving, and I wondered if you’d—”
Annabel scrabbled in her top drawer. She threw a few coins into the envelope that was being waved beneath her nose and scribbled something illegible in the gaudy card placed before her. She had no idea who Barry was and didn’t much care. Her assistant left without closing the door and Annabel could hear her on the phone in the outer office, discussing Barry’s leaving do with someone. Annabel wouldn’t be invited. She’d made it clear from the get-go that she wasn’t into socialising, and it was a long time since anyone had tried to change her mind. It was also one of the reasons why she’d never make the grade in this large conglomerate. They didn’t tell you that when they talked about fantastic career opportunities. She did her job ten times better than her male counterparts, but because she wasn’t prepared to match them pint for pint, or share her innermost secrets with the women, she was labelled a loner. A non-team player.
If wanting to make as much money as she could as quickly as possible and set up on her own made her odd, then she welcomed the label. And perhaps Greenberg’s—a smaller organisation—would be the place to pursue her ambitions.