16 January 2019

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The Cinderella Substitute

Date Published: 26 April 2010

ISBN Number:

Publisher: Audiolark

Link to purchase book: http://www.audiolark.com/books/the-cinderella-substitute/

Full Excerpt:



CHAPTER ONE


Nate jabbed the buzzer on his desk for the third time. Where on earth was Jenni? He paced up and down the room, glaring at the closed office door.

What could be keeping her? Today of all days he needed to get going, finish up the job in hand and escape. Away from the sympathetic glances of his employees and the murmured conversations which stopped abruptly whenever he came within earshot.

He opened the door to her office and saw her in her usual seat behind the curved ash desk. So why hadn't she answered the buzzer? He crossed the pale green carpet in a couple of paces. As he got closer to her, he knew something was wrong. Her back was towards him and her shoulders quivered.

"Jenni?"

He moved round the desk to take a better look. A pile of post lay unopened in front of her, one envelope still secured in her slim fingers.

"What's the matter? Are you ill?"

Nate couldn't imagine why his super-efficient personal secretary appeared to be having some kind of breakdown. Jenni never broke down. She had insisted on returning to work after only a few days' leave after her adoptive mother died.

She shook her head and he caught a glimpse of tears on her pale face. For a split second he wondered if Jenni had developed some kind of sympathy scenario for him based on the office rumour mill. He dismissed that idea as quickly as it had arisen. One of his main reasons for employing Jenni had been her complete lack of interest in gossip and speculation.

"I'm all right." She wiped the tears away from under her glasses with shaking fingers.

Nate sighed. "Well you don't look it," he remarked. In fact, now he came to think of it, Jenni looked positively unwell.

"You're not doing one of those faddy diets?" He hoped he'd hit on the right answer. It had to be something like that.

She blinked with astonishment and glared at him. "No!"

Nate settled back onto the edge of her desk and folded his arms. He'd have to think again now his first theory had been shot out of the water.

"Good. You're skinny enough. In fact, he ran a critical eye over her appearance, "- too skinny." He thought she'd lost a lot of weight, diet or no diet. Her black office suit looked baggy and her small face had a pinched expression.

He felt a momentary pang of guilt. How come he hadn't noticed? He spent more time with Jenni than with any other living creature, except Rufus, his chocolate Labrador. Inspiration hit as he considered the many late nights and weekends Jenni had put in at the company over the last few weeks.

"Boyfriend trouble?" he suggested, confident that he'd managed to solve the puzzle.

"Nate!" The colour returned to her pale face and her expression assumed the cool blank look she reserved for the most irritating of their clients.

"So do I get an explanation?" He tapped his foot against the side of the desk as he waited for a response.

"I'm not sure that you do, to be honest," she said, sounding icy. At least she appeared to be returning to her normal, sensible, practical self.

He made a mental note to be more considerate of her social life in future when he asked her to do overtime. Just because work saved him from being alone with his thoughts didn't mean Jenni deserved the same.

"Maybe I'd better deal with the rest of the post and then we can get some work done today." He reached over to take the pile of letters from her lap.

"No!" Her quick snatch took him by surprise. "Erm, that is, I mean..." She extracted the letter that had been uppermost in the pile. "Here you are." She passed the remainder over to him.

"Jenni, what's going on?" Her strange behaviour bothered him.

She hesitated. "I got a letter from my mother."

For a moment he questioned her sanity. Dead people didn't write letters. Then it clicked. "Your birth mother?"

"Remember I asked if it would be all right to use the office address because you said not to use my own?"

It came back to him then, a late night conversation after work when Jenni had asked his advice about contacting her real mother.

"She wrote back to you?"

"I sent a letter with a self-addressed envelope. I thought it would make her more likely to respond." Her hands trembled as she smoothed the envelope. "I recognised it when I fetched the mail."

"You haven't opened it."

She licked her lips and with a desultory shrug of her shoulders said, "I was scared. What if she doesn't want to know me?"

An overwhelming rush of pity surged through Nate. He knew from little things she had mentioned that she'd had a tough life, and she had been on her own since her adoptive parents had died .

"Do you want me to open it?" He made the offer before he had time to think.

"I..." She hovered for a moment, and then pushed the envelope towards him. "Okay."

He ripped it open and thought at first the woman had merely mailed back Jenni's original letter. Then, as he flipped it over, he saw the short note scribbled on the back in unformed child-like scrawl.

"What's the matter? What does it say?" Jenni's slender frame trembled and her face paled even further.

He spoke quickly to reassure her. "It's all right. She wants to meet you." He passed the letter over.

Jenni read it through, then glanced up at him with a worried expression. "Tomorrow. She wants to meet me tomorrow."

"Do you know the café she's talking about?" Nate was deeply concerned. The hasty scrawl didn't smack of a mother desperate to make a good impression on a daughter she hadn't seen in years.

"I think so. It's on the other side of town. Near where the new ring road is being built." She still looked shell-shocked as she studied her mother's handwriting as if it would yield some hidden message.

He knew the area she meant. The buildings appeared run-down and gangs of youths hung around on the street corners. Many of the shops had been boarded over as once thriving businesses had closed down.

"I'm coming with you tomorrow." He noted Jenni looked stunned rather than grateful.

"That's very kind of you, Nate, but I'll be fine," she stammered. "It's nice of you to offer though."

"It wasn't a suggestion, Jen. I'm coming with you. It's a bad area. There have been a lot of muggings around that part of town." He couldn't let her go on her own.

"It's Saturday tomorrow, Nate. You can't give up your day off just for me." A pretty pink flush tinted her cheekbones and her eyes shone. Jenni had nice eyes. Very nice eyes. What was the matter with him today? He'd seen Jenni's eyes a thousand times before, hadn't he?

"Really, it's no big deal. I haven't anything planned and you've done me loads of favours. Think of it as me paying you back a little." He shuffled uneasily on the hard edge of the desk while Jenni continued to study his face.

She smiled at him, taking him by surprise.

"Well thanks anyway, Nate. It's really nice of you and I do appreciate it.

* * * *

After Nate had departed to his own office, Jenni stashed her precious letter away inside her handbag, and made sure the fastener of the inner pocket was locked shut.

Why had she become so emotional over that letter? Nate must think she was such an idiot. Still, it was hard not to feel rattled when he had sat himself in front of her like a big brooding colossus! Interrogating her on her diet and her love life! What love life? asked the little voice in her brain. The only guy who's interested in you is the Fed Ex man and he must be fifty!

Jenni sighed as she crossed the room to switch the coffee machine on. She twitched her skirt back into position. She had lost weight. The stupid thing had twisted around on her again. Maybe she should do as her friend Lorna suggested and break into her precious savings for a new outfit.

The phone on her desk rang, making her switch her mind back on to work as she walked over to answer it. Jenni felt sure Nate wasn't in the mood today for his twin sister's well-intentioned concern as she transferred the call to his phone. Nathalie often called the office as she appeared to be close to her brother, but today wasn't any ordinary day.

Sure enough, a few minutes later the door of his office flew open. He stalked out, pulling on his jacket as he walked.

"Jenni, get your coat! We're going on a site visit."

She grabbed her handbag ready to shove her notebook and Dictaphone into the side pocket. "Where are we going?"

"River Park. Anywhere, as long as I'm away from interfering..." he broke off, still muttering.

She pulled her coat on hurriedly and followed as he strode down the cream walled corridor to the lift.

Only when they were several miles away from the office did Nate appear to relax. Jenni ventured a cautious peek. His shoulders had slumped and although his mouth was still set, the lines of his face appeared less harsh.

A pang of sadness pierced her heart. He must have loved Cerys very much. Two years had passed since the accident and he still grieved. Wistfully she allowed herself the luxury of wondering what it must be like to be loved so much.

The car slowed and stopped at traffic lights. Jenni noticed the name on the street opposite.

"That's the Café!" The words jolted out of her mouth before she had time to think.

It wasn't a cosy tearoom with chintz-covered tables. Layers of road dirt partly obscured the glass window at the front and a cracked, gaudy neon sign hung above the door. Inside the gloomy interior, Jenni could just see the fat red and yellow plastic condiment containers on the brown table tops.

"That's where your mother wants to meet you?" Nate's voice was curiously gentle. Jenni blinked back tears for the second time in one day.

"Afraid so." To her dismay, her voice sounded brittle. She was relieved when the lights changed and the car moved forward.

She tried to picture herself and Nate entering the grubby little café, but failed miserably. If she were on her own maybe no one would notice her, but with Nate? She fiddled with the leather strap of her wristwatch. She had never seen Nate in anything other than the smart designer suits he wore for work. Nate and that miserable café were like chalk and cheese. Her brain began to race around, and she started to panic.

His inner radar must have detected her doubts.

"It'll be all right Jen." He sounded so sure that she couldn't help betraying her surprise.

"It just doesn't seem like the kind of venue that would entice someone to give up a hard-earned Saturday afternoon off," she said apologetically.

"It also doesn't seem like the kind of place you would be safe to go to and meet a stranger on your own." Nate's tone suggested he wasn't prepared to argue the matter any further.

They pulled up in one of the newly completed car parks outside the River Park shopping centre. The gleaming new building was almost finished. Retailers had already moved in, no doubt hoping to catch some of the Christmas trade. Minor glitches had delayed the final finish. Jenni knew Nate was determined to prevent any extension on the contract, which might cost the company money in time penalties.

Nate called the site foreman on his mobile to let him know they were there as they entered through the automatic doors. The transformation that had taken place since their last visit amazed her. Mr Doughty, the foreman, came to meet them and took them to the problem area near the lifts. A bluff man in his fifties, he always managed to irritate Jenni whenever they met by referring to her as "the little lassie."

A short tour of inspection and a flurry of phone calls later, Mr Doughty escorted them back to the entrance.

"I dare say you'll be glad to get back to your office today. The little lassie looks a bit peaky," he said jovially.

Jenni shivered as they headed back to the car. Nate frowned at her, his face concerned.

"I think Mr Doughty has a point. You look awful, Jen."

"Well, thank you! You sure know how to make a girl feel good. I've told you I'm fine. It's just chilly out here after being inside."

Nate raised one dark eyebrow at her uncharacteristic outburst.

She pushed her glasses back onto the bridge of her nose and looked at him, daring him to contradict her. Nate was a nice guy but there were times when a few lessons in tact wouldn't go amiss.

"Okay, I'm not going to argue with you." He unlocked the car.

"It's almost lunchtime. Do you want me to get sandwiches?" She fastened her seatbelt, ready for the trip back to the office.

"And when did you last fetch yourself a sandwich?" he accused. "Now I come to think of it, I only ever see you drinking those disgusting packet soups."

Her cheeks heated with a guilty flush. The truth was she couldn't afford to buy lunch very often. Not because Nate didn't pay her well, he did. But it was cheaper to bring food from home while she struggled to pay off the debts incurred by her adoptive mother's illness.

She noticed they weren't heading back towards the city. "Where are we going?"

"To get lunch," he said shortly.

She did a rapid mental calculation of how much money she had in her purse. "I haven't enough money with me to buy out today!"

He threw her a look of amazement. "I'm buying. Consider it part of the payback. I think we both could use a break."

The road they ended up on narrowed into a single lane track. Bare twigs from the hedgerow brushed against the sides of the Range Rover as they made their way towards a white building up ahead. A thin plume of smoke wisped from the chimney into an ominous grey sky.

Jenni felt unusually nervous as Nate helped her down the high step of the Range Rover. She had been out for working lunches before with him, but there had been clients or other staff with them on those occasions.

The light pressure of his fingers on her gloved hand disturbed her senses making her tingle all over.

"Are you sure you're well, Jen?" He gave her a puzzled look.

"Fine." She found the lie tripped off her tongue, well aware he hadn't shared the sensation with her.

He led the way into the pub. The landlord called to him in recognition and Jenni guessed he'd visited many times before.

As she sat down and slipped off her coat and gloves, Nate ordered her a steaming mug of hot chocolate, which appeared with remarkable speed, along with his order for coffee.

"I thought it would warm you up," he said, when she gave him a questioning glance. "It's much colder outside now and you look so pale today."

Jenni suppressed a sigh. That would teach her to skimp on make-up.

The menu arrived and she studied it with care. A hot meal would be wonderful. She'd eaten too many economy dinners over the last few months.

"Choose what you want, Jen." Blushing, she realised he'd misinterpreted her hesitation over ordering.

"I'd like the steak and kidney pudding, please."

He smiled at her in approval and asked for the same dish for himself.

She sipped her drink while she relished the warmth from the fire. The interior of the bar fascinated her and she gazed around with curiosity. She'd never been in many pubs. Her father had always condemned them as places of iniquity filled with loose women. A little frisson of guilty pleasure nibbled at her conscience.

"I come here with Rufus after I've walked him down by the river at weekends," Nate said.

She looked at the oak beams and the tasteful decorations surrounding the bar. A large Christmas tree twinkled in the corner and the scent of pine needles mingled with the wood smoke of the fire.

"It's nice," she said and meant it. It was nice, nice to escape for a little while and to sit somewhere warm and cosy. It was nice to eat a lovely filling meal which had been cooked for her and to have pleasant, congenial company while she did so.

"It's been a strange day today." She spoke without thinking. His expression altered and she added, "I mean, hearing from my birth mother. I wonder what she's like." Jenni noticed him relax again and cursed herself for forgetting about the day's significance for Nate.

"Well, I guess we'll find out tomorrow." His dark blue eyes seared into her. "Just don't get your hopes up too high, Jen. Remember, you don't know anything about her."

The meal arrived and saved her from answering. She did know about her, if her adoptive father was to be believed. He had certainly voiced his low opinion of her birth mother often enough - usually when pointing out Jenni's faults and comparing them to her unknown parent.

She shoved the memory away and began to eat. The pie was good, crisp light pastry with a tasty steak filling. She had forgotten how good it felt to go out. It had been such a long time since she'd had a date. Not that this is a date, she thought.

"I guess you were hungry after all then?" Intent on her food, she hadn't noticed how quickly she'd been eating until Nate's comment. Embarrassed, she realised her plate appeared almost empty whilst he had yet to eat over half of his food.

Flustered, she didn't know what to say. Social situations always had the effect of making her feel inadequate.

"Relax, Jen, I was teasing you." He smiled at her, obviously amused by her uncertainty.

Hesitantly, she smiled back. "I suppose I was hungrier than I thought."

He looked so different when he smiled - younger, and the shadows under his eyes lifted a little. What was she doing? Nate was her boss, her friend. When had she ever noticed that he was good looking? With dark blue eyes framed by long black lashes, high cheekbones and a very nicely shaped, kissable...

Shocked by her thoughts, she called a halt right there. Nate still loved Cerys and even if he were heart-free, she knew he wouldn't be interested in her.

Later on, feeling warmer and fuller, they emerged into the dull wintry afternoon.

"It's not worth going back to the office. We've put in enough extra hours there lately. I'll take you home."

She guessed it wasn't his real reason for not wanting to return to work. He had been late arriving this morning, and she had surmised from his strained expression that he had probably visited Cerys' grave first.

"Well, if you're sure. You're the boss!" If she were honest with herself, she didn't feel like returning to work any more than he did. She'd worked herself up with worries about meeting her mother.

"What time do you want me to pick you up tomorrow?" He took the turn towards the rundown residential area where Jenni lived.

"Um, I thought maybe one o'clock. I'd like to be there a bit early."

He nodded a reply while negotiating the car through a narrow side street.

"Where along here do you live?" He'd never been to her area before. Whenever she worked late he always called a cab for her.

"Over there." She indicated the small parade of shop fronts with her gloved hand and he drew to a halt.

She could see him looking for her home. As she viewed the street through his eyes, the unwelcome heat of a defensive flush built in her cheeks. A bigger contrast to the beautiful regency building where Nate lived would be hard to find.

"So where is your flat?"

The shop fronts looked scruffy and neglected in the gloomy wintry light. A chip shop, an off license, a post office, a hairdresser's and the bait and tackle shop which catered for the local fishermen sat sulking before them.

"I live above the hairdresser's. There's my door, by the post box." She indicated a blue painted front door. 'I have a doorbell but I'll look out for your car," she added. It would be too embarrassing to have Nate come up to her tiny flat.

Nate gave her a curious look and she knew he had to be wondering why she lived in such a horrible place when he paid her a more than generous wage. Still, she didn't plan to stay there forever, it was just until her debts were cleared. Then she could look for somewhere better and move on.

"Well, thanks again for lunch. It was really nice." She released the seatbelt and hoped he wasn't expecting to be asked in for a drink.

"My pleasure. I'll see you tomorrow, Jen."

She knew he must be thinking her rude, but she simply couldn't bear to invite him into her shabby flat with its second-hand furniture. The permanent smell of old chips lingered from the takeaway despite her best efforts with potpourri and scented candles.

The cold wind hit her face as she climbed out of the car. Nate leaned across to pull the door shut and she smelt the faint musky scent of his cologne.

"Get an early night and don't worry about tomorrow. Everything will be fine, you'll see."

Jenni left the security of his presence behind and crossed the road. Alone once more, she could only hope he was right.

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