NATASHA OAKLEY.

Ordinary Girl, Society Groom






Dear Reader,

Have you ever experienced the shock of discovering someone close to you has done something youd have sworn blind theyd never do?

Jem and Eloise in my story have to deal with the fallout of just such a discovery. Its an emotional journey for both of them, but by the end of this book theyve a new compassion for human frailty and an understanding of how small decisions can have big consequences. Of course, theyve also fallen in love, which is always fun to write!

I dont 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 theres 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.

With love,

Natasha

Im sorry she began, but he interrupted swiftly.

Dont.

It held her silent. She knew exactly what he meant. Theyd come too far together for any apology to be necessary. He knew so much of her journeybecause hed walked it with her.

A deeply compassionate, empathetic man. From the very first hed made her feel safe. He did that now. She felt safe. Protected. Loved.

Loved. The truth imploded in her head. Laurences words echoed in her head, a thousand small decisions and then as important as breathing.

Ordinary Girl, Society Groom
Natasha Oakley


www.millsandboon.co.uk

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 intervalsa drink she didnt 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. Shes a passionate cook and all the recipes from this book are on www.natashaoakley.com.

Books by Natasha Oakley:

HARLEQUIN ROMANCE

3838FOR OUR CHILDRENS SAKE

3854THE BUSINESS ARRANGEMENT

3878A FAMILY TO BELONG TO

CONTENTS

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

EPILOGUE

CHAPTER ONE

IT WAS true what people saidyou 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; shed become more vitriolic of late. She couldnt 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 didnt 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 wasnt 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 mortgageand she didnt 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 shed 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 mothers belongings out of storage had changed everything.

It had seemed such a sensible thing to do. After six years it was certainly past time. Shed completed all the release paperwork without the slightest presentiment that she was opening a Pandoras box of emotions.

Shed 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.

Shed re-read the letter her mum had so carefully tucked inside her will and, six years on, shed 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 settingbut 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 shed 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 oclock.

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. Thats nine oclock. 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 wasnt kidding. It was a shame because the actress had been a strikingly beautiful woman before shed succumbed to the lure of the surgeons knife. It gave her face a perpetually surprised look. And that dressIt almost defied description. Certainly defied gravity.

Cassie took another sip of champagne. And Lady Amelia Monroe ought to rethink that haircut, dont you think? It makes her face look very jowly. Oh she broke off oh, my goodnessTheres Jeremy Norland. And with Sophia Westbrooke. Nowthats the first interesting thing thats happened this evening. I wonder

Jeremy Norland? Eloise asked quickly, even as her eyes effortlessly fixed themselves on his tall, dark figure.

Shed seen a couple of photographs of him, one taken when hed been playing polo and the other at a society wedding, but he was smoother-looking than shed expected. Chocolate box handsome.

By the door. Know him?

No. Eloises fingers closed convulsively round her glass. I dont know him. I heard his name mentioned, thats all, she managed, her voice a little flat.

Havent we all, darling? Cassie Sinclair lifted one manicured hand and waved it at a lady in grey chiffon whod been trying to attract her attention. Thats 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 didnt seem capable of processing any other thought.

Viscount Pulboroughs 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, isnt he? All that muscles been honed by hours on horseback. And that suit is fabulous. Look at his bum in those trousers. The mans sexyvery sexy.

And doesnt he just know it? Eloise returned dryly, watching the way he glinted down at Sophia Westbrooke.

Cant blame the man for knowing the effect he has on women, darling. Looks. Money. Connections. Pretty lethal combination, Id say.

Eloise forced a smile. I thought he didnt like London.

He doesnt. He stays down in Sussex on his stepfathers 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. Sophias 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 couldnt be older than nineteen. Could she? Whereas Jeremy was thirty-four. Thirty-five, perhapsshe couldnt quite remember from the Internet article shed 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.

Theres no luck about it. Its all part of the in-breeding programme. Like marries like, dont 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 shed first started work at Coldwaltham Abbey, not much older than Sophia Westbrookebut Eloise would lay money on their fates being completely different.

Eloise watched her boss network her way back through the crowded room. Cassie didnt fit in any more than she did, but youd 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 corebut things had changed in the past fourteen weeks. Fourteen weeks and three days, to be precise. The day shed 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. Hed the bone-deep confidence of a man whod 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 arrogantit shone from the top of his dark expensively cut hair right down to his handmade Italian leather shoes. He knew exactly what he was doingand the effect he was having on his youthful companion. Eloise just longed for her to rear up and tell him to get lost.

It didnt happen, though. Sophia smiled coquettishly and rested a hand on his shoulder. Eloise couldnt honestly blame her. She wasnt to know. It was years of sitting in a ringside seat seeing someone elses 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 shed re-read her mothers letter and now she couldnt bear to be near these self-absorbed people whod destroyed her mothers life so completely.

Her life.

With their grand houses, their horses and their public school accents. She hated them all.

A few short weeks ago shed 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 loathedLaurence Alexander Milton, Viscount Pulborough.

Her father.

Father!

That was a joke. Hed been no more than the sperm donor.

Six years ago, when shed first read that letter, shed been too numbed by shock to really take it all in. The sudden loss of her mum had been trauma enough and she almost hadnt had the emotional space to register what she now knew to be the identity of the man whose gene pool she shared.

Viscount Pulborough wasnt part of her life. Hed 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 shed packed all her mums things away and scarcely thought about itfor six years.

Six years. Time had passed so fast. Life had been busy. Thered been so much to dobuilding her career, saving for her deposit, trying to pretend she didnt feel so incredibly alone in a big, frightening world.

Thered always been plenty of excuses as to why her mums belongings should stay safely locked away. Shed had a small bedsitShed be moving on soon, so what was the point?

The excuses stopped when shed bought her flat. Her own home. It was time to finally sort out the last of her mums possessions. All those things shed put in box files and refused to think about.

The letter.

It had always been there. A time bomb ticking awayonly she hadnt realised it.

Re-reading her mums 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 taleexcept for the fact that her prince had turned out to be married. More frog than prince. Thered even been a castleof a kind. A brief spell of happiness andwhat?

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 shed had to know. It had still taken weeks of soul-searching before shed finally built up the courage to confront the man who had so bitterly betrayed her mum. And her.

And for what?

Nothing.

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. Im going with Andrew to find somewhere to sit down.

Whos 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?

Thats it.

He concentrated. No idea, he said, wrapping an arm around Sophias waist. How about you, Sophy? Recognise her?

Thats Eloise his girlfriend searched the deepest recesses of her mind you know, that woman off the television. EloiseLeyton. No, Lawton. Thats 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. Shes really good at it. Writes for Image as well.

Id heard that, Jem said dryly, looking more closely at the woman whod just pitched a missile into the midst of his family.

A blonde? Somehow he hadnt expected a blonde. Eloise Lawtonastringent, witty commentator on the fashion foibles of her contemporaries. This he knew. His mother and stepsister had told him.

But he hadnt expected the kind of cool, classy-looking blonde who might have stepped straight out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

Champagne, sir.

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, isnt 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 couldnt see the hurt shed cause?

Oblivious of their amused glances, Jem made his excuses and threaded his way across to where she stood. He wasnt sure what he was going to saynot 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.

Shed certainly timed her letter perfectly. Shed 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 whod 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 wasnt what hed 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 hed 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 hed seen it, that the space for the fathers name on her birth certificate had been left blank. Whoever her father had been, it certainly wasnt Viscount Pulborough.

Which meant?

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 fames sake. Famous for doing nothing.

And, God help him, he knew enough about that type of woman. Theyd been the blight on his early childhood. The siren call his father had never been able to resist.

It was onlyShe didnt seem like that. She had more class than hed 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 youre an expert on how other women should dress.

N-no. Well, I write about fashion, if thats what she means. Its 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 thatthere would bewhat? Passion? Fire?

And avarice. This had to be all about money, didnt it? About building a career. Using. Stepping on anyone to reach your goal.

Her goal, he reminded himself. Shed selected a vulnerable, ill, elderly man and claimed to be his daughter. With what proof?

None.

But shed reckoned without him.

Jem forced himself to appear relaxed. And television? Sophy mentioned youd been on television.

A little. I was asked to make a programme about the BAFTAs and Ive done the occasional slot on morning television.

Her hands moved endlessly over her evening bag. It didnt take a genius to recognise how nervous she was. She had good reason.

Laurence had stalwartly believed in Jem when hed done everything he could to prove him wrong. Hed maintained a faithful belief in his stepsons innate goodnessdespite 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.





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