From Prim to Improper

By: Cathy Williams

CHAPTER ONE

                ‘NO, NO and no. I couldn’t have that woman around me. Did you notice that she had a moustache?’ James Greystone, seventy-two years old, and at present sedately ensconced in his wheelchair by the bay window which overlooked some of the sprawling acreage that encompassed his estate, did nothing to conceal his horror at the thought of it. At the mere suggestion of it. ‘The woman would be better suited to boot camp. She had a voice like a foghorn and the body of a sumo wrestler. I’m shocked that you would even entertain the thought of having her anywhere near me!’ Having dismissed this latest casualty, he settled his gaze on his godson, who was leaning against the wall, hands casually in his trouser pockets, feet lightly crossed at the ankle.

  Andreas sighed and strolled to join his godfather at the bay window where he looked out in silence at lawns leading down to fields, culminating in a copse which was barely visible in the distance. The late-summer sunshine gave the gently rolling, peaceful landscape a picture-postcard beauty.

  He never forgot that all this—the grounds, the magnificent house, every single appendage of a lifestyle his father could never in a million years have afforded—was his thanks to the old man sitting in the wheelchair next to him. James Greystone had employed Andreas’s father as his chauffeur and general odd-job man at a time when finding employment for an immigrant had not been easy. He had accommodated Andreas’s mother when, two years later, she had appeared on the scene and had similarly found suitable work for her to do. In the absence of any of his own children, when Andreas had arrived he had treated him as his own. Had put him through the finest schools, schools that had helped to develop Andreas’s precocious and prodigious talents. Even now Andreas could remember his father sitting in the same room as they were in now, playing the old man at a game of chess with his cup of coffee going cold on the table next to him.

  Andreas owed James Greystone pretty much everything, but there was far more to their relationship than duty. Andreas loved his godfather even though he could be grumpy, eccentric and—as he was now—virtually impossible.

  ‘She’s the twenty-second person we’ve interviewed, James.’

  His godfather grunted and maintained a steady silence as Maria, his faithful retainer of well over fifteen years now, brought him the small glass of port which he knew he was technically not really allowed to drink.

  ‘I know. It’s impossible to get good staff these days.’

  Andreas did his best not to indulge his godfather’s sense of humour. With very little encouragement James Greystone would derail the whole interviewing process, because he just didn’t like the fact that he needed a carer, someone to help him with his exercises, handle some of his paperwork and take him out of the house now and again. He didn’t like the wheelchair which he was temporarily obliged to use. He didn’t like having to ask anyone to lend him a hand doing anything. He didn’t want anyone to have the final say over what he could and couldn’t eat and could and couldn’t do. In short, he was finding it hard to come to terms with the fact that he had had a serious heart attack and was now practically on bed-rest, by order of the doctor. He had played merry hell with the nurses at the hospital and was now intent on torpedoing every single candidate for the job of personal assistant. He flatly refused to use the term ‘nursemaid’.

  In the meantime, Andreas’s life was temporarily on hold. He commuted to his office by private helicopter when his presence was urgently required, but he had more or less taken up residence in the manor house—importing his work to him, communicating via email and conference call, accessing the world from the confines of his godfather’s mansion when he was accustomed to being in the heart of the city. Somerset was undeniably beautiful. It was also undeniably inconvenient.

  ‘Getting a little sick of my company, Andreas?’

  ‘Getting a little sick, James, of running into a brick wall every time we interview someone for the job. So far the complaints have ranged from—let’s see—“looked too feeble to handle a wheelchair”; “not sufficiently switched on”; “too switched on so wouldn’t last”; “seemed shifty”; “personal hygiene problems”; “too overweight”; “didn’t click”. Not forgetting this latest—“had a moustache”.’

  ‘Excellent recall!’ James shouted triumphantly. ‘Now you’re beginning to see the tricky situation I’m in!’ He took a surreptitious swig of his port and eyed his godson to gauge his next move.

  ‘The moustached lady seemed all right,’ Andreas observed, ignoring his godfather’s smug look at his minor victory in getting his godson to agree that the fifty-five-year-old Ms Pearson might have been a challenging candidate. ‘Four more to see tomorrow—but she’s on the short list, like it or not.’ End of conversation.

  Andreas had no doubt that the extremely efficient agency which was currently supplying them with possibilities would lose patience sooner or later, and when that happened he had no idea what he would do.

  As it was, the past two weeks had comprised the longest stint he had ever had out of his office, holidays included. Empires didn’t run themselves, as he had once told his godfather, and his empire had so many tentacles that controlling them all was an art form that required an ability to juggle work above and beyond the average.

  Not that Andreas objected. Brains and talent had seen him cruise through his academic career. Rejecting all offers of help from his godfather, he had left university to embark on his fledgling career in the City. He had moved quickly and effortlessly from the risky trade markets with sufficient capital to set up his own company. Within ten short years he had become a force to be reckoned with in the field of mergers and acquisitions, but when Andreas bought he bought shrewdly and he bought for keeps. Now, in addition to a niche and highly profitable publishing-outfit, he owned a string of first-class boutique hotels in far-flung places, three media companies and a computer company that was right up there in pushing the boundaries of the World Wide Web. He had managed thus far to weave a clever path through the recession, which was revealing gaping inadequacies in companies all over the world; he knew that he was regarded as virtually untouchable. It was a reputation he liked.

  Importantly, however, he had never forgotten that the privileged lifestyle which had been donated to him courtesy of his godfather had not been his. From a young age he had been determined to create his own privileged lifestyle, and he had succeeded. Everything took second place. Including women—including, in fact, the current one in his life who had recently begun thinking otherwise.

  He’d joined his godfather for dinner with his thoughts half on a deal which would net him a very desirable little company in the north which was busy doing some interesting research in the pharmaceutical market. It was one of the few areas in which Andreas had not dabbled, and therefore all the more seductive. But generally his thoughts were on his godfather’s stubborn refusal to bow to the inevitable, and the niggling problem of the woman he was currently seeing, Amanda Fellows, who was beginning to outstay her welcome.

  ‘You need to lower your expectations,’ Andreas said as dishes were cleared away, and he pushed himself away from the table to look steadily at his godfather, who was beginning to flag. ‘You’re not going to find perfection.’

  ‘You need to get yourself a good woman,’ James retorted briskly. ‘Now that we’re getting into the arena of giving advice.’

  Andreas grinned, because he was used to his godfather’s casual disregard for personal boundaries. ‘I happen to have a very good woman in tow at the moment, as it happens,’ he said, choosing to set aside the debate about the more pressing issue of his godfather’s obstinacy because stress was to be avoided above all else, he had been told.

  ‘Bimbo?’

  Andreas gave all the appearance of taking time out to consider that. He swirled the wine in his glass around, tilted his head to one side then said, still grinning, ‘Who likes brains in a woman? After a hard day’s work, the only word I want to hear from any woman is “yes”…’

  His godfather bristled predictably, and was in the middle of one of his versions of a ‘you need to settle down, boy’ rant when the doorbell went.

  The doorbell, unlike doorbells on most houses, was the sort of clanging affair that reverberated like church bells inside the house, bouncing off the solid walls and echoing through the multitude of rooms.

                * * *

                Standing outside, Elizabeth decided that it was the sort of doorbell that perfectly suited the house, which didn’t mean that she wasn’t jumping with nerves as it announced her arrival. Her finger, in fact, had hovered above it for several minutes before she had finally summoned the courage to press.

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