The Marriage Deal
Former journalist SARA CRAVEN published her first novel ‘Garden of Dreams’ for Mills & Boon in 1975. Apart from her writing (naturally!) her passions include reading, bridge, Italian cities, Greek islands, the French language and countryside, and her rescue Jack Russell/cross Button. She has appeared on several TV quiz shows and in 1997 became UK TV Mastermind champion. She lives near her family in Warwickshire – Shakespeare country.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A CAR door slammed, and high heels clicked across the paving stones with brisk impatience. As the glass doors of the towering office block swung open, the security guard got to his feet, his usually impassive face registering faint surprise.
‘Miss Landon—we weren’t expecting you back for another ten days …’
He was left gaping after Ashley Landon’s retreating back as it pursued an openly stormy passage to the lift, and with a shrug he returned to his cubicle.
‘Someone’s for it,’ he remarked to no one in particular.
The lift stopped at the sixth floor, and the doors glided open to release the sole passenger. She was a slim girl, slightly above medium height, the sculptured lines of her elegantly bobbed black hair giving emphasis to her pointed chin and high cheekbones. Her clothes were expensive, but sat awkwardly on her body, as if she’d had other things on her mind when she put them on. And the muted beige of her skirt and jacket did nothing for her clear, pale skin, or her green eyes, glinting now like an angry cat’s.
When she reached the door marked ‘Company Secretary’ she flung it open and walked in without knocking with the air of one who has the right, past the startled typist, and straight into the inner office.
Henry Brett was on the telephone, and he looked up frowning at the unceremonious opening of his door, his face clearing instantly when he saw his visitor.
He made a swift excuse to his caller, and replaced his receiver, coming round his desk, hand outstretched.
‘Ashley, my dear, you’re back already. That’s wonderful!’
‘Hardly the way I’d describe the disruption of my first vacation in three years,’ Ashley rejoined crisply. ‘But the signals seemed too urgent to ignore. What the hell’s going on?’
Henry Brett sighed, steering her to a chair. ‘A takeover,’ he said succinctly. ‘Marshalls are making yet another bid for our shares.’
‘They must be mad,’ Ashley said, dropping her bag to the floor beside her. ‘They got a very conclusive answer the last time they tried it, and nothing’s changed.’
‘I’m afraid it has,’ Henry said levelly. He pressed a buzzer on his desk, and spoke into the intercom. ‘Jean, could you rustle up some coffee?’
‘Not for me,’ Ashley cut in.
‘I think when you’ve heard me out, you’re going to need some stimulant,’ said Henry, his genial face sober. ‘I can’t hide it from you, Ashley. This time they mean business, and they could succeed. According to the recent soundings I’ve been taking, they could have a majority of our board on their side.’
There was a brief appalled silence, then Ashley said, ‘Henry, you can’t be serious! Why, last time, every member of the board was solidly one hundred per cent behind Landons.’
‘They were solidly one hundred per cent behind your father,’ Henry said grimly. ‘But Silas has been dead for two years, my dear. And you must remember that quite apart from the fact that his personality could carry anything through, most of the board owed him a great deal. After all, he’d put the majority of them where they were, and that counted—then.’
‘But not any more.’ There was a painful constriction in Ashley’s throat. ‘My God, Henry, I know I’m not my father, and never can be, but I’ve done my best to run the company exactly as he would have done …’
‘No one would deny that.’ Seated on the edge of his desk, Henry sent her a compassionate look. ‘You’ve done everything and more that anyone could expect, but the fact remains …’
‘The fact remains I’m not a man,’ Ashley said with a mirthless smile. ‘And the board—hidebound traditionalists every one of them—have never believed a woman of my age is capable of running a property development company the size of Landons.’
Henry looked embarrassed. ‘Hang it all, Ashley, it was Silas’ own view, and you know it.’
‘Yes,’ she said in a low voice. ‘But Henry, I’ve tried so hard to be the son he wanted—I really have …’
‘No one could have done more,’ he assured her warmly. ‘But it was a responsibility Silas never wanted you to have. It was that damnfool rule of your grandfather’s that only a member of the family could become company chairman that had him hidebound. That was why …’ He stopped in sudden embarrassment. ‘Oh, damnation!’
‘It’s all right, Henry,’ Ashley said in a level voice. ‘I won’t fall apart at the seams if you talk about it. My God, it was over three years ago!’
‘All right then,’ Henry said quietly. ‘That was why he wanted you to marry Jago Marrick. As his son-in-law, Jago would have become chairman after Silas—the strong man at the top the board wanted.’
‘Oh, Jago was that all right.’ Ashley bit her lip. ‘It was as husband material that he failed