Ordinary Girl, Society Groomñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
Have you ever experienced the shock of discovering someone close to you has done something you’d have sworn blind they’d never do?
Jem and Eloise in my story have to deal with the fallout of just such a discovery. It’s an emotional journey for both of them, but by the end of this book they’ve a new compassion for human frailty and an understanding of how small decisions can have big consequences. Of course, they’ve also fallen in love, which is always fun to write!
I don’t know about you, but the idea of marrying into the landed gentry is a very beguiling idea. The United Kingdom is peppered with the kind of historic stately homes that would make any sensible girl drool.
Coldwaltham Abbey is entirely fictional, but the village of Coldwaltham is tucked away in the Sussex countryside. Nearby there’s the medieval town of Petworth and its late seventeenth-century mansion of the same name. It was while I was walking in the 700 acres of deer park landscaped by “Capability” Brown that this story was born.
Now, if only Jem Norland had been walking the other way….
“I’m sorry—” she began, but he interrupted swiftly.
It held her silent. She knew exactly what he meant. They’d come too far together for any apology to be necessary. He knew so much of her journey…because he’d walked it with her.
A deeply compassionate, empathetic man. From the very first he’d made her feel safe. He did that now. She felt safe. Protected. Loved.
Loved. The truth imploded in her head. Laurence’s words echoed in her head, “a thousand small decisions” and then “as important as breathing.”
Ordinary Girl, Society Groom
NATASHA OAKLEY told everyone at her primary school she wanted to be an author when she grew up. Her plan was to stay at home and have her mom bring her coffee at regular intervals—a drink she didn’t like then. The coffee addiction became reality and the love of storytelling stayed with her. A professional actress, Natasha began writing when her fifth child started to sleep through the night. Born in London, she now lives in Bedfordshire, England, with her husband and young family. When not writing, or needed for “crowd control,” she loves to escape to antique fairs and auctions.
Like Jem Norland in this book, Natasha owns a much-loved pewter-colored Aga stove. She’s a passionate cook and all the recipes from this book are on www.natashaoakley.com.
Books by Natasha Oakley:
3838—FOR OUR CHILDREN’S SAKE
3854—THE BUSINESS ARRANGEMENT
3878—A FAMILY TO BELONG TO
IT WAS true what people said—you were more alone in a crowd than any other place on earth.
Eloise Lawton felt as lonely tonight as she ever had.
All she wanted to do was go home, run a bath and soak away her troubles. Instead she was here, making social small talk and avoiding the barbs of people who were fearful of what she might say about their dress sense. As well they might; she’d become more vitriolic of late. She couldn’t seem to help it.
Eloise shifted her weight from one leg to the other, acutely aware of the way her Eduardo Munno sandals cut into the sides of her feet. Stunning to look at, but desperately uncomfortable when they were a size too small. Borrowed plumes for a woman who didn’t fit in. Not with these people.
Everyone was vying for position, all judging the others on what they owned and who they were connected to. It was pitiful. Except it wasn’t pity she felt. It was a deep, sickening sort of loathing. The kind that made her feel she needed to stand under the shower for half an hour to rid herself of the contamination.
But it was work. It paid the mortgage—and she didn’t have the luxury of a handsome trust fund or an inherited ancestral pile. Unlike every second person here.
Eloise gave her wrist-watch a surreptitious glance and calculated how long she’d have to stick it out before she could make her excuses to Cassie. Not so long ago this kind of event would have filled her with excitement, but now…
Well, now things were different. A spontaneous decision to take her mother’s belongings out of storage had changed everything.
It had seemed such a sensible thing to do. After six years it was certainly past time. She’d completed all the release paperwork without the slightest presentiment that she was opening a Pandora’s box of emotions.
She’d known it was a mistake almost instantly. So many memories had rushed to crowd around her. Barely healed wounds had been ripped open and they felt as fresh and raw as when a lorry driver falling asleep at the wheel had altered everything.
She’d re-read the letter her mum had so carefully tucked inside her will and, six years on, she’d read it with a slightly different perspective.
Eloise let her eyes wander around the galleried grand hall. Enormous chandeliers hung down from the cavernous ceiling and huge displays of arum lilies, white orchids and tiny rosebuds had been tortured into works of art. No expense had been spared. Everything was perfectly beautiful.
A magical setting—but it felt like purgatory. How could it not? An ostentatious display of wealth for no apparent purpose. And her role in all this?
She no longer cared what colour anyone should be wearing or whether silk was the fabric of the season. When she sat at her keyboard tomorrow she’d summon up enough enthusiasm to get the article done but tonight it left her cold.
There was too much on her mind. Too much anger. Too much resentment.
‘Mutton dressed as lamb,’ Cassie hissed above the top of her champagne flute. ‘Over there. At three o’clock.’
Eloise jerked to attention and swivelled round to look at the woman her boss was referring to in such disparaging terms.
‘No, darling.’ The editor of Image magazine tapped her arm. ‘That’s nine o’clock. I said three. Bernadette Ryland. By the alabaster pillar. Under that portrait of the hideously obese general.’
Obligingly, Eloise twisted the other way.
‘In the yellow. Well, almost in the yellow. What was her stylist thinking of? The woman looks like some kind of strangulated chicken.’
Cassie wasn’t kidding. It was a shame because the actress had been a strikingly beautiful woman before she’d succumbed to the lure of the surgeon’s knife. It gave her face a perpetually surprised look. And that dress…It almost defied description. Certainly defied gravity.
Cassie took another sip of champagne. ‘And Lady Amelia Monroe ought to rethink that haircut, don’t you think? It makes her face look very jowly. Oh—’ she broke off ‘—oh, my goodness…There’s Jeremy Norland. And with Sophia Westbrooke. Now…that’s the first interesting thing that’s happened this evening. I wonder…’
‘Jeremy Norland?’ Eloise asked quickly, even as her eyes effortlessly fixed themselves on his tall, dark figure.
She’d seen a couple of photographs of him, one taken when he’d been playing polo and the other at a society wedding, but he was smoother-looking than she’d expected. Chocolate box handsome.
‘By the door. Know him?’
‘No.’ Eloise’s fingers closed convulsively round her glass. ‘I don’t know him. I heard his name mentioned, that’s all,’ she managed, her voice a little flat.
‘Haven’t we all, darling?’ Cassie Sinclair lifted one manicured hand and waved it at a lady in grey chiffon who’d been trying to attract her attention. ‘That’s the sister of the Duke of Odell,’ she explained in a quiet undertone Eloise scarcely heard. ‘Married a mere mister. Kept the title of Lady, of course, and makes sure everyone knows it.’ She swung round to exchange her empty glass for a full one.
Eloise stood transfixed. Jeremy Norland. Here. Her mind didn’t seem capable of processing any other thought.
Viscount Pulborough’s stepson was here. In London. He was standing by the heavy oak door, his face alight with laughter. Not a care in the world.
But then why should he have? He was living a charmed life.
Cassie followed the line of her gaze. ‘Gorgeous, isn’t he? All that muscle’s been honed by hours on horseback. And that suit is fabulous. Look at his bum in those trousers. The man’s sexy…very sexy.’
‘And doesn’t he just know it?’ Eloise returned dryly, watching the way he glinted down at Sophia Westbrooke.
‘Can’t blame the man for knowing the effect he has on women, darling. Looks. Money. Connections. Pretty lethal combination, I’d say.’
Eloise forced a smile. ‘I thought he didn’t like London.’
‘He doesn’t. He stays down in Sussex on his stepfather’s estate. Makes tables, chairs, that kind of thing.’
‘Fine cabinetry. Yes, I know.’ Eloise sipped her own champagne. ‘I read something about that.’
‘You need a second mortgage to buy the leg of a footstool,’ Cassie agreed. ‘Sophia’s dress too, I imagine. Do you know who made it?’
‘Yusef Atta. Up-and-coming designer. Specialising in embroidery on chiffon,’ Eloise answered automatically. ‘Very romantic silhouettes. That kind of thing.’
‘Worth a feature?’
‘Perhaps,’ Eloise agreed, watching the way the teenager gazed up adoringly. Sophia Westbrooke couldn’t be older than nineteen. Could she? Whereas Jeremy was thirty-four. Thirty-five, perhaps—she couldn’t quite remember from the Internet article she’d read two nights ago.
Cassie seemed in tune with her thoughts. ‘Just back from Switzerland. Not a day over nineteen. And with a man like Jem Norland. Lucky cow.’
‘There’s no luck about it. It’s all part of the in-breeding programme. Like marries like, don’t you know?’ she said in her best parody of an up-market accent.
Cassie gave a delighted chuckle, her acrylic-tipped nails clinking against her champagne flute. ‘Wicked child. Now circulate, darling. Get me the gossip and no more ogling the natives. They bite.’
How true. It was a pity no one had mentioned that to her mother twenty-eight years ago when she’d first started work at Coldwaltham Abbey, not much older than Sophia Westbrooke—but Eloise would lay money on their fates being completely different.
Eloise watched her boss network her way back through the crowded room. Cassie didn’t fit in any more than she did, but you’d never know it from her demeanour. She just owned the space, dared anyone to reject her.
Eloise had used to be like that, ambitious to the core—but things had changed in the past fourteen weeks. Fourteen weeks and three days, to be precise. The day she’d brought home those two crates. Who would ever have thought such a short space of time could make such an incalculable difference? Her eyes flicked back to Jeremy Norland, universally known as Jem.
He was the epitome of upper class living. His suit was fabulous. Hand-stitched, no doubt. Criminally expensive.
Money and opportunity had been poured on him from the hour of his birth. He’d the bone-deep confidence of a man who’d been to the best schools and who knew the old boy network would support him in comfort till the day he died.
And she resented him with a vehemence that surprised even her.
He reached across to kiss the cheek of the effervescent Sophia, who giggled appreciatively. He was so arrogant—it shone from the top of his dark expensively cut hair right down to his handmade Italian leather shoes. He knew exactly what he was doing—and the effect he was having on his youthful companion. Eloise just longed for her to rear up and tell him to get lost.
It didn’t happen, though. Sophia smiled coquettishly and rested a hand on his shoulder. Eloise couldn’t honestly blame her. She wasn’t to know. It was years of sitting in a ringside seat seeing someone else’s unhappiness that meant she would never be so stupid as to fall for a man like Jem Norland.
Anger and hatred had been building up inside her ever since she’d re-read her mother’s letter and now she couldn’t bear to be near these self-absorbed people who’d destroyed her mother’s life so completely.
With their grand houses, their horses and their public school accents. She hated them all.
A few short weeks ago she’d been fascinated by them. A detached and slightly amused observer. But now…
Now she had nothing but contempt for them.
For Jem Norland. The privileged stepson of the man she really loathed—Laurence Alexander Milton, Viscount Pulborough.
That was a joke. He’d been no more than the sperm donor.
Six years ago, when she’d first read that letter, she’d been too numbed by shock to really take it all in. The sudden loss of her mum had been trauma enough and she almost hadn’t had the emotional space to register what she now knew to be the identity of the man whose gene pool she shared.
Viscount Pulborough wasn’t part of her life. He’d meant less than nothing to her. It was her mum missing her graduation ceremony that had filled her mind and twisted the screw of pain a little tighter.
So she’d packed all her mum’s things away and scarcely thought about it…for six years.
Six years. Time had passed so fast. Life had been busy. There’d been so much to do—building her career, saving for her deposit, trying to pretend she didn’t feel so incredibly alone in a big, frightening world.
There’d always been plenty of excuses as to why her mum’s belongings should stay safely locked away. She’d had a small bedsit…She’d be moving on soon, so what was the point…?
The excuses stopped when she’d bought her flat. Her own home. It was time to finally sort out the last of her mum’s possessions. All those things she’d put in box files and refused to think about.
It had always been there. A time bomb ticking away—only she hadn’t realised it.
Re-reading her mum’s words six years later, she had found her emotions were different. She had a new, fresh perspective and, as she read, her antipathy had turned to anger.
It had been so easy to imagine what had happened that summer. Young, na?ve, desperately in love, her mother had been swept up into a beautiful fairy tale—except for the fact that her prince had turned out to be married. More frog than prince. There’d even been a castle…of a kind. A brief spell of happiness and…what?
The rest of her short life alone. Struggling to bring up her daughter by herself. Crying over bills and juggling two badly paid jobs to make ends meet. A few hours’ pleasure in exchange for a lifetime of pain and responsibility.
And did the esteemed Viscount ever think of that when he strolled about his great estate in Sussex? Did he?
All of a sudden she’d had to know. It had still taken weeks of soul-searching before she’d finally built up the courage to confront the man who had so bitterly betrayed her mum. And her.
And for what?
Eloise turned swiftly on her borrowed designer heels and walked over to stand by the open window. The buzz of traffic in the distance competed with the elegant strains of Beethoven.
A faint pulsing had started in her right temple and was shooting arrows of pain around her eye socket. She wanted to cry out at the injustice of it all. The total unfairness.
Jem Norland watched her, his eyes distracted by the flash of purple silk.
‘Jem, are you listening to me?’ Sophia asked, pulling on his arm. ‘I’m going with Andrew to find somewhere to sit down.’
‘Who’s the blonde?’ Jem cut straight to the question that interested him most.
Lord Andrew Harlington squinted across the room. ‘In the purple? With the legs?’
He concentrated. ‘No idea,’ he said, wrapping an arm around Sophia’s waist. ‘How about you, Sophy? Recognise her?’
‘That’s Eloise…’ his girlfriend searched the deepest recesses of her mind ‘…you know, that woman off the television. Eloise…Leyton. No, Lawton. That’s it. Eloise Lawton. The woman who does the clothes thing.’
Jem stilled. ‘What?’
‘She does that programme about style,’ Sophia volunteered. ‘Colours and so forth. Blue tones and red tones. It makes a difference to how great you look. She’s really good at it. Writes for Image as well.’
‘I’d heard that,’ Jem said dryly, looking more closely at the woman who’d just pitched a missile into the midst of his family.
A blonde? Somehow he hadn’t expected a blonde. Eloise Lawton—astringent, witty commentator on the fashion foibles of her contemporaries. This he knew. His mother and stepsister had told him.
But he hadn’t expected the kind of cool, classy-looking blonde who might have stepped straight out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
Jem pulled his gaze away. ‘Thank you,’ he said, reaching out and accepting a flute. He knew his mother would have counselled caution, but the opportunity was irresistible.
What he really wanted to know was why. Why now? Why Laurence? His stepfather was the gentlest of men. A deeply religious man, honourable and good. It was unthinkable…
‘She is pretty, isn’t she?’ Sophia said at his elbow. ‘Not your type, though.’
Jem looked down at her impish face. ‘What?’
‘Eloise Lawton. Very pretty.’
‘Yes,’ he stated baldly.
In fact, Eloise Lawton was beautiful. Beautiful, manipulative and dangerous. It was difficult to believe that anyone wrapped up inside such an appealing package could be guilty of such cold-blooded cruelty.
How could anyone dream up such a scam? And at such a painful, difficult time. Did she need the publicity so badly that she couldn’t see the hurt she’d cause?
Oblivious of their amused glances, Jem made his excuses and threaded his way across to where she stood. He wasn’t sure what he was going to say—not until the moment she looked up at him.
He saw the recognition in the depths of her dark brown eyes. He should have expected that. Someone like Eloise Lawton would have done her homework very thoroughly.
She’d certainly timed her letter perfectly. She’d selected the exact moment when the elderly Viscount was at his most vulnerable and the family would do practically anything to protect him.
He would do anything to protect the man who’d turned his life around. His anger crystallised into a steely coldness.
‘Jem Norland,’ he said, holding out his hand.
He watched the way her hands fluttered against her evening bag, the way she tried to smile before it faltered pitifully.
Eloise Lawton wasn’t what he’d expected at all. It suddenly occurred to him how tired she looked. There were dark smudges beneath her eyes and they held the kind of expression he’d hoped never to see again. Such hurt. Almost hopelessness.
Slowly she placed her champagne flute on a side table. ‘Eloise Lawton,’ she said, placing her own hand inside his. It felt cold. Small.
He let his fingers close about it, suppressing every desire to comfort her. Whatever the appearances to the contrary, Eloise Lawton was one tough cookie. She had an agenda which would hurt the people he loved.
He knew, because he’d seen it, that the space for the father’s name on her birth certificate had been left blank. Whoever her father had been, it certainly wasn’t Viscount Pulborough.
His jaw hardened. It meant she was chancing her arm. Looking for publicity. He knew the kind of woman she must be. An ‘it’ girl. Looking for fame, for fame’s sake. Famous for doing nothing.
And, God help him, he knew enough about that type of woman. They’d been the blight on his early childhood. The siren call his father had never been able to resist.
It was only…She didn’t seem like that. She had more class than he’d expected. A gentle dignity…
She tried to smile again. He watched it start and then falter. ‘I write for Image.’
‘So I gather,’ he said, releasing her hand. Her eyes flicked nervously towards the door. ‘My friend, Sophy, tells me you’re an expert on how other women should dress.’
‘N-no. Well, I write about fashion, if that’s what she means. It’s all about opinion, after all.’
It was a diplomatic answer. She was clever. He had to give her that. And beautiful. Undeniably. A cool, serene beauty.
And beneath that…there would be…what? Passion? Fire?
And avarice. This had to be all about money, didn’t it? About building a career. Using. Stepping on anyone to reach your goal.
Her goal, he reminded himself. She’d selected a vulnerable, ill, elderly man and claimed to be his daughter. With what proof?
But she’d reckoned without him.
Jem forced himself to appear relaxed. ‘And television? Sophy mentioned you’d been on television.’
‘A little. I was asked to make a programme about the BAFTAs and I’ve done the occasional slot on morning television.’
Her hands moved endlessly over her evening bag. It didn’t take a genius to recognise how nervous she was. She had good reason.
Laurence had stalwartly believed in Jem when he’d done everything he could to prove him wrong. He’d maintained a faithful belief in his stepson’s innate goodness—despite all appearances to the contrary. And Jem had every intention of returning the compliment.
Laurence was not the kind of man to walk away from his responsibilities, whatever the personal cost. His sense of right and wrong was ingrained in the fibre of his personality. He could no more have rejected a daughter than he could have walked away from Coldwaltham Abbey. Both were sacred trusts, never to be abandoned.ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî