Authors: Sara Craven
"You said you'd leave me alone."
Rohan's eyebrows rose. "I said I'd transfer my attentions where they'd be appreciated." He paused meaningfully. "I think your daughter appreciates them, don't you? Words are your metier, Cass. Didn't your trained ear tell you I was being slightly ambiguous in what I said?"
"No! Obviously I underestimated you-yet again, well, I don't want Jodie to think these outings are going to be a regular occurrence." Cass rounded on him. "And we don't need your amateur psychology either. If you feel Jodie is lacking men's company, then I'll do something about it. I don't need your interference."
"Don't tempt me to tell you what you do need." Rohan's voice was soft, but the glance which raked her was insinuating.
She'd been out-maneuvered, she realized angrily. And now it was two against one!
SARA CRAVEN writes consistently strong stories, which makes her one of our most popular writers in the Harlequin Presents line. With her fresh approach and polished style, she is a constant delight to romance readers everywhere.
Harlequin Presents first edition April 1986
Copyright © 1985 by Sara Craven
It had begun to rain. Cassie felt the first icy drops, as she waited on the edge of the pavement, and grimaced inwardly with irritation. She'd left the flat so hurriedly that morning that she'd failed to bring either an umbrella or even a scarf, and a heavy shower oh her newly washed, carefully blow-dried and disciplined hair was likely to restore it to its usual riot of tumbling waves.
Clearly, it was going to be one of those days. Her radio alarm had gone off early, tempting her to the luxury of 'just a few more minutes', with the result that she'd fallen deeply asleep again.
And Jodie, usually the most amenable of children, had suddenly exhibited disturbing signs of a reversion to the panicky, hysterical tempers of a few years previously.
'You haven't forgotten it's open afternoon at school, Mummy,' she said, as Cassie dashed between toaster and kettle. 'Miss Willard asked specially if you were going to be there.'
Cassie concealed her dismay at the reminder. Yes, it had slipped her mind, like so many other things did these days, she thought glumly, resentment rising within her at Jodie's reference to her headmistress. Her school was well-run, and briskly geared to learning, but Miss Willard whose old-fashioned values oiled the wheels, had what amounted to an obsession with working mothers, holding them, Cassie often thought, responsible for most of the ills plaguing modern society.
And the fact that Cassie was a widow and needed to support herself and her child apparently made no difference to her views. She had never made the slightest allowance for women who worked, scheduling most school functions during normal job hours, and taking careful note, Cassie thought ruefully, of those who coped with awkwardness and inconvenience to be there. It was moral blackmail, and although Cassie, and others in the same boat as herself might grumble at it, none of them would have dreamed of removing their children from the school itself.
Now, with Jodie, Cassie sought to temporise. 'I'll try, darling,' she promised. 'But it's a very big day at the office. But Mrs Barrett will be there,' she added reassuringly.
Besides the stability of school, Mrs Barrett was the other blessing in their lives. A comfortable, motherly soul whose family had grown up, and who was happy to fill in the years before one of her own brood made her a grandmother by looking after Jodie on a more or less full-time basis.
It couldn't have been more convenient. She lived in the flat below, and took Jodie to school each morning, as well as bringing her home in the afternoons, giving her tea, and playing with her until Cassie arrived home. She was well-paid, of course, but she never treated Jodie as if she was a source of income.
Now, to Cassie's horror, she saw her daughter's lip bulge ominously. 'I don't want Mrs Barrett,' she said tremulously. 'I want
to be there like the other mummies. You didn't come to the carol concert, and I was the only one in our class,' she added, her voice rising perilously.
She was beginning to stiffen. Cassie, biting her lip, knelt beside her, putting her arms round the rigid little body. 'Sweetheart,' she said gently. 'It isn't that easy. We've discussed all this before. I have to work to earn money for us to live on, you know that.'
'We could have a Daddy to do that,' Jodie said sullenly. 'Proper families have daddies.' And her eyes met Cassie's, suddenly, shockingly Brett's eyes.
Cassie bit her lip hard. Thank you, Miss Willard, she thought grimly. The school had a lot to its credit, but on the debit side was this constant reinforcement of the traditional stereotyped roles for the sexes, the insistence of the nuclear family as the norm, isolating those children whose lives did not conform to the cosy pattern. Making them aware that they were somehow different.
She had never felt less humorous in her life, but she tried to make a joke of it. 'Well, daddies don't grow on trees, I'm afraid, and neither does money.' She got up. 'I'll do my very best to be there this afternoon. What time does it start— three o'clock, as usual?'
Jodie nodded slowly, her eyes wide and anxious fixed on her mother's face, but that alarming stiffness was beginning to subside. And in a way, Cass thought, it might even be a hopeful sign, after all that had happened, that she could talk about fathers, although in general terms. It was one of those moments she ought to pursue, to build on, and she knew it both for Jodie's sake and her own, and for a moment she was tempted to 'phone in to the office and tell them she wouldn't be in.
But she couldn't do it, she told herself reluctantly. Today was too important for the agency. They hadn't exactly been in the doldrums recently, but the
cosmetics account would be a magnificent boost—a real feather in their caps if its board liked the advertising campaign they had designed, and which would get its initial presentation that morning.
There shouldn't be any snags. The ideas were there, and they were good. Even Barney, their boss, thought so. Now, all they had to do was sell it to the clients. That, thankfully, wasn't her job. Roger was always the front man on these occasions, enthusiastic, persuasive, a born salesman. They made a good team.
And if they secured the
cosmetics account, there'd been broad hints that other goodies from Grant International might be coming their way. The sky, in fact, was the limit.
If things went well, it could all be over by lunchtime, she told herself optimistically. And Roger would let her leave early. In the general euphoria, Barney might not even notice her absence. In his way, he was a male Miss Willard, also prepared to make no concessions, as he'd warned Cass when he hired her.
'Women with small children are generally bad news,' he'd told her brusquely. 'Here,—er Ms Linton—the job comes first.' He gave her a faint glare. 'Not measles, or half term, or whatever. I don't want there to be any misunderstanding. There'll be no special favours.'
Well, there hadn't been, nor had she ever asked for any. But in spite of Mrs Barrett's unfailing willingness to be her substitute, Cass had not always found it easy.
And being late, as she was bound to be today of all days, wouldn't do her cause any particular good.
But her lateness wasn't actually noticed. The agency was buzzing, nobody in their offices and studios. Sylvie, with whom Cass shared an office, was on the 'phone talking agitatedly as Cass came in, and she waved a hand at her, rolling her eyes to heaven as she did so.
'Phew.' She almost slung the receiver back on its rest, and leaned back in her chair. 'Which do you want first—the bad news or the bad news?'
'Oh, God.' Cass sat down at her desk. 'Don't tell me—they're not coming.'
'They're coming all right, but they'll be delayed.'
Cass's heart sank. 'But why?'
'They're waiting for the new chairman to fly in from Paris. It seems he likes to be in on every act, and they don't know what's hit them.' Sylvie paused. 'And Roger's wife's been on the 'phone. He's in bed with 'flu—temperature up in the hundreds, and the doctor's forbidden him to move.'
'Oh, I don't believe it,' Cass said limply. 'He was complaining of a headache last night, but I thought—well, you know what I thought…'
Sylvie nodded. Apart from his job and his family, Roger's other prevailing interest was his health. He enjoyed a mild but persistent hypochondria which his colleagues either tolerated or fumed over, according to temperament.
'One of his little Wednesday moans,' she agreed. 'But this time it's for real. And Barney's bellowing like a wounded bull,' she added grimly. 'And that's nothing to the way he'll react when he sees what you're wearing. Hell, Cassie, you know how he feels about women wearing trousers to work.'
Cass flushed. 'And you know how I feel about his stupid chauvinist prejudices about clothes!' she retorted with energy. 'Besides what does it matter. I'm the backroom girl.'
'Not today, sweetie,' Sylvie reminded her acidly. 'Roger's demolishing the nation's stock of soluble aspirin—remember? So you'll have to do the presentation.'
'What?' Cass's face was appalled. 'Sylvie—I can't.'
'You're going to have to,' Sylvie said unsympathetically. 'For heaven's sake, ninety per cent of the ideas in the campaign are yours, anyway. And you've heard Roger do presentations dozens of times. Just sock it to them, like he does.'
Cass said flatly, 'It's impossible. I'm not Roger, and you know it.'
'You're certainly healthier,' Sylvie agreed cheerfully. 'But there's no reason why you shouldn't speak up for yourself for once. Old Roger may have the gift of the gab, but you do most of the work, and everyone knows it. You carry him, Cass.'
Cass's lips parted in further protest, but before she could utter another word, the door of the office burst open and Barney erupted into the room, calling something to someone over his shoulder as he came.
His glance flashed to Cass. 'So you finally got here,' he said.
'Yes,' Cass said non-committally, reflecting bitterly that there wasn't a lot that ever got past Barney.
'Damn Roger,' he went on forcefully. 'Three hundred and sixty four other days he could have had 'flu, but he has to pick this one. The presentation—you can cope.' It was a statement rather than a question. 'Well, you'll have to. I'll back you up, of course, but the thing's your pigeon.' He gave her a long assessing look, and sighed. 'And for God's sake do something to yourself before they get here.'
Cass straightened, and her eyes flashed fire. 'What's the matter with the way I look?'
'Nothing—if sludge and leaf-mould are your favourite colours,' Barney said disagreeably. 'And you're trying to sell a cosmetics campaign, not promote the well-scrubbed look. Don't you think it might have been tactful to have worn some of their stuff?'
Sylvie said, 'If you'll excuse me,' and slid out of the room. Neither of them saw her go.
Cass almost bounced out of her chair. 'I thought you'd hired me for my brains. If you wanted a glamour girl, you should have gone elsewhere,' she flared.
'I would have—no danger,' Barney threw back at her. He discovered a new bone of contention. 'Trousers,' he howled. 'Christ, today of all days couldn't you have sacrificed your bloody feminist principles and worn a skirt?'
It had nothing to do with feminist principles, but was the result of laddering her last pair of tights during that maddening early rush, but she wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of telling him so.
'I'll wear what I want, and if you don't like it you can fire me,' she hurled at him recklessly. 'You took me on for what was inside my head, not for any half inch of muck plastered on my face.' She banged a fist on the table. 'This is how I am, and you can take it or leave it.'
There was a silence, then slowly she saw his face crinkle into a reluctant smile, like the sun emerging from behind a thunder-cloud. 'I'll take you, Cass,' he said. 'Warts and all. You're the best ideas girl this agency's had in years. If we get this account, it will be down to you basically, and I won't forget it. It's just…' He paused. 'Hell, the clients expect an image from you, as well as the campaign. Usually, you have Roger to hide behind, but you won't today and—well, it is important.'
Cass looked back at him with the beginnings of ruefulness. 'I know it,' she acknowledged quietly. 'And—I promise I'll do my best, but I can't change the kind of person I am.'
'No-one's asking you to,' Barney assured her. 'But—look, Cass, they're going to be late as it is, waiting for their latest big shot to join them You've got time to pop out—get yourself something else to wear. The agency will pay, naturally.'
Cass sighed. 'What do you suggest?' she asked bitterly. 'Something short and see-through? I'm sorry, Barney, but I just can't. It would be false to everything I've come to believe in.' She bit her lip. 'After all, if I was Roger, you wouldn't be in here criticising the tie I'd chosen, or my aftershave. Why should it be different, just because I happen to be a woman?'
Barney gave her one of his deliberately disarming looks, usually saved for clients with grievances. 'That's the million dollar question, Cass, but there is a difference, and it will take a few more generations of women's liberation to remove it. Well, have it your own way,' he added briskly. 'And at least your hair looks better for once,' he added as he headed for the door again. 'What have you done to it.'
Cass said without rancour, 'I got it caught in the rain.'
When she was alone, she sat down slowly, resting her elbows on the desk, and cupping her chin reflectively in her hands. What Barney and everyone else at the agency didn't know was that there'd once been a Cass Linton who'd been as fashion conscious as anyone else, who'd enjoyed enhancing her natural attractions with make-up and scent. But that girl was long since dead, and the new personality which had risen painfully from the ashes of the old preferred to camouflage herself in drab clothes, and severe hairstyles. She didn't want people to look at her as they once had. She didn't want, in particular, men to look at her. She was a widow. She wanted no other relationship in her life, and although she no longer wore Brett's ring, she carried it with her always to remind her.