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Authors: Emma Carr

London Falling

BOOK: London Falling
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Chapter One

With a mittened hand, the woman pressed a coin into Aimee Kennedy’s frozen fingers. Aimee stared at the dull gold for several seconds until she made out the denomination of the unfamiliar money.

A pound.

The only thing saving her from complete and utter destitution was a pound. Not even enough for one ride on the Underground.

“Hey, I can’t take this,” Aimee called, but the woman had disappeared in the crowd of holiday shoppers. She clutched the cool metal in an icy grip.

Aimee met the eyes of an older woman walking with a young boy, but the woman looked away and pulled the arm of the boy to steer him away from Aimee.

Yesterday, she’d given the leftover change from her Starbuck’s to a homeless man outside the Leicester Square Tube station and then rushed off to The National Gallery. How could her life have crashed so hard in only twenty-four hours? She closed her eyes and wished she were home in Seattle, buried under her old comforter and studying a finance textbook. But when she opened her eyes, she stood on the London sidewalk, her breath forming white clouds in front of her face.

Ignoring the red blister that had stopped her journey in the first place, she slipped her left boot over her sock and zipped up the black patent leather She had bigger problems than figuring out how to get home to Seattle. Like where she was going to sleep tonight.

She clasped the coin in her left hand and hobbled the remaining two blocks toward the Kensington address she’d memorized earlier that day.

Some guy napped in his car, although she sensed that he was fully aware of her passing. A drop of water splattered on her forehead. “Of course,” she muttered. Of course it would rain on her today. The rain hit the sidewalk in a quickening patter, echoing across the quiet square of residential homes. Or should she say mansions? She surveyed the house numbers until she spotted her destination.

Number 27 Knight’s Terrace appeared similar to the other houses in the neighborhood, except no holiday wreath decorated its heavy black door.

When she looked closer, the windows didn’t sparkle quite as much as others on the block, and autumn leaves had piled up in the servants’ stairwell next to and below the main entrance.

She approached the front door and pushed the doorbell. The wind caused the bare tree branches in the park to creak and sent a spray of icy droplets down her back. Her curls whipped into her eyes. As she turned her head into the wind to tuck the hair behind her ears, she noticed that the napping man had disappeared from his car.

Locks clicked, and she shifted her attention back to the house as the door opened. Her eyes lifted up, way up, as she took in the tall man standing in the doorway. He had to be at least six feet tall and wore a pinstriped blue suit that must have been custom-made to fit his lean, strong body. Determination stamped his jaw. His five o’clock shadow and the scar over his left eyebrow only added to the sense of power. His sandy blonde hair tossed and turned in the chill wind–no gels, mousses or spray for this guy–and it was longer than she’d expected, although she had no reason to expect anything. Yet it wasn’t too long, as if he wanted to tell the world that he knew what the rules were, but he refused to play by them. His eyes reflected intelligence and almost matched his silvery-blue tie, although more warmth emanated from the tie than his eyes.

“I’m not interested,” he said in a deep voice that brooked no dissention.

He pushed the door closed.

“No! I’m here for the job.”

The door reopened. “You ‘re here for the position?” He looked her up and down, focusing on the cloud-print pajamas tucked into her black stiletto boots.

She crossed her arms over the “shut your clam” logo on her T-shirt before he could look down his perfect nose at that too. Like she’d wear this if she had any other options. Another blast of wind, and rain soaked the back of her pajamas.

She lifted her shoulders, forcing confidence into her tone. “Yes. I believe I have everything you’re looking for. Um … in a housekeeper that is.”

He narrowed his eyes at her. “And who sent you over?”

“I got your address from Mrs. Simpson at London Quality Housekeepers.” It wasn’t a lie, although Mrs. Simpson had refused to hire her and had no idea she was here. She’d never resorted to lying, and she wasn’t going to start now. “I’m looking for Simon Ruleford. Am I in the right place?”

“I’m Ruleford. And the reason she didn’t ring me?”

Damn. Why did he have to be smart, too? “She didn’t call you? Hmm. She must have forgotten. She looked like she was heading out for the Christmas holiday. I think it was somewhere in Scotland. She wanted to let you know that Thea”–she fumbled for the name she’d overheard when Mrs. Simpson was talking about this job to her assistant–“Thea no Theodora was on the mend and should be back by the end of January.” Please, please, please let him believe her.

He focused on her eyes, as if trying to discern her motivation, so she focused on positive thoughts. No worries here. Only a total-truth telling job applicant. Sort-of.

She thought she might have earned his trust, until his eyes flicked again to her pajama bottoms. She knew she should have grabbed more appropriate clothes from the homeless shelter today, but the woman who had the key to the storeroom hadn’t been due to arrive for several hours. And, with all the beds full and the temperature close to freezing, Aimee had needed money fast. She’d rushed out of there with the name of several employment agencies –none of which had hired her–and kept going until now. Her last chance before everything closed for the Christmas holiday.

“I know I’m dressed–” like a crazy woman about to murder him in his bed “–inappropriately. But everything I own was stolen last night.” For the first time, she saw empathy reflected in his eyes. She pressed her point. “This is all I have left. It’s why I need a job.”

Still, he hesitated.

That’s when she remembered the business card she’d taken from the woman’s desk at London Quality Housekeepers. She handed him Mrs.

Simpson’s card. “I forgot to give you this.”

He scraped his finger along the edge of the card as he read it. When he looked at her again, she gave him her most professional-looking smile. After a few moments, he stepped aside and held the door open for her. “Do come in.”

She wanted to crumple in relief, but her ordeal wasn’t over. She still had to convince him to hire her.

He shut the door, but it reopened with a blast of wind. After he pushed again, the door finally clicked shut. “I have got to fix this latch.” He held out his hand. “I’m Simon Ruleford.” His fingers, warm and strong over hers, completely engulfed her hand. “Must be cold outside.”

Aimee yanked her fingers out of his and took a step back. His brows lifted, and she could swear he suppressed a grin.

“Would you care for anything? I never eat at home, so I don’t have much.

A glass of water perhaps?” he asked with an easy smile that looked perfectly at home on his features. His eyes lit with friendliness.

The contrast was so startling from his earlier demeanor that she almost ran into him. “No,” she said. “I’m fine.”

“We can talk in my study,” he said before he led her down the hall.

The late December sun was fading, but he didn’t turn on any lights. An overnight bag sat to the left of the front door, but she couldn’t tell whether he was coming or going. In the entryway, the few tables were stacked with boxes and papers. Overflow heaped on the floor. Two doors emptied off the hall to the right, and she could make out a sink in the closest room. From the far door, dim light illuminated the ancient oriental runner on the hardwood floors and the staircase at the far end of the hall.

Aimee followed him upstairs. The study continued this haphazard style, papers and folders piled on every available surface, mixed in with empty plates and half-filled glasses. The smell of day-old pizza permeated the air, and she located the offending box on top of a filing cabinet.

After moving a mountain of papers from one of the chairs, he motioned for her to sit down. She curtailed her impulse to wipe the dust off the leather seat first.

He veered sharply left, then right, avoiding the awkward stacks of boxes and files surrounding his desk. A pile of magazines teetered precariously before he reached a hand to steady it. Once he’d lowered himself into the leather chair behind the desk, he shrugged his shoulders, as if to apologize for the chaotic mess.

“Well, I guess I’ll just get right into it.” She crossed her legs, hoping to hurry the process along, because she needed to use the bathroom. Which was strange since the only thing she’d had to drink today was a Dixie cup of water at London Quality Cleaners. “I have over ten years of experience cooking and cleaning house and also caring for an ailing senior citizen.” Although Gram never appreciated it, that’s for sure. “I’m one semester from my finance degree, so if you need someone to organize your uh papers–” she motioned to the stacks lying around the room “–I’m your candidate. I’m a self-starter, so I don’t need to be told what to do. I have a strong work ethic, and I can start immediately. Today, as a matter of fact.”

He seemed to find her résumé amusing. “You haven’t yet told me your name.”

“Oh. Aimee Kennedy.”

“And I can tell you’re American by your accent. Any relation to the John F’s?”

Was he joking? “Yeah. All of us Kennedy kids clean houses whenever we’re not sailing in Hyannis Port or having lunch on Capitol Hill.”

“I thought not.” Something flashed in his eyes, but he didn’t smile.

Damn! When was she going to learn to keep her sarcastic mouth shut? If she pissed him off, she’d be sleeping in some rat-infested alley tonight.

She forced her lips into a tight smile.

He crossed his fingers on the desk in front of him and leaned forward, throwing his face into the strong light of the desk lamp. The yellow glow highlighted the dark circles under his eyes, and she was reminded of a wolf, determined to protect his pack at all costs, yet there didn’t seem to be anyone else around.

“I’m sure Mrs. Simpson has already gone over this with you, but given your nationality, I need to ask. Do you have a work permit?”

“I’m a hard worker. You can call any of my former employers in Seattle and ask them. And you definitely need help.”

He shook his head. “I can’t hire you without a work permit.”

“I’m sure half the workers in this neighborhood don’t have work permits.

It happens all the time.”

“Not for me.” He let out his breath in an irritated rush. “I can’t believe Mrs. Simpson sent you over without a permit. I specifically requested a candidate with a permit, and she assured me all of her workers were legal. So why don’t you tell me how this happened?”

Aimee dusted off the left arm of her chair. Uncrossed and re-crossed her legs. He sounded really annoyed.

“Unless they didn’t send you over?”

She dusted off the right arm of her chair. Hopefully, she didn’t get Mrs.

Simpson in trouble.

“Care to elaborate?”

Aimee swallowed her response. Someone like him wouldn’t care about someone like her. But, dear God, she needed this job.

He leaned closer, one ear turned, as if he couldn’t hear her answer. When Aimee still didn’t respond, he stood and towered over her from behind his desk. “I’ll show you to the door.”

“Wait!” The word slipped out before she could stop it. She didn’t even know what she was going to say, or how she was going to convince him to hire her, but she couldn’t leave without trying.

Halfway around the desk, he stopped moving and crossed his arms over his chest, which forced the jacket to gape above the button.

She stared at the navy button rather than his face. “I have nowhere else to go.”

He sat down. “What do you mean you have nowhere else to go?”

Skepticism shadowed his eyes.

A lump formed in her throat. She’d sworn never to give anyone that kind of power over her again, but he was the only thing standing between her and sleeping on the street that night. In the rain. With no food. She swallowed. “I won an award from a local radio station. A free trip to London, all expenses paid, to see Madonna in concert.”

He shook his head, as if Madonna were the root cause of all the evil in the world.

“Madonna is one of the most talented singers and she’s inspired so many of today’s musicians. Without her Anyway, I mentioned all of my money and clothes were stolen last night?”

“Leaving you with this stunning outfit.”

“It’s the latest rage in Seattle. Everyone’s wearing it.”

He quirked an eyebrow.

“It’s what I wore to bed last night.”

He looked toward her feet, although he couldn’t see her boots from behind his desk.

“The boots were on the floor on the other side of the bed where I kicked them off last night. Everything else is gone. Including my voucher for the plane ticket home.” And if she ever saw that asshole Rodney again, he’d never survive to tell the tale. At least her passport had been tucked away in the hotel safe and now rested between her stomach and the elastic on her pajama bottoms. “The contest only paid for three nights at the hotel. Last night was day three. I was going to travel around and stay at youth hostels for the rest of my trip, and then head home when I ran out of money. When the police were nice enough to inform the hotel that I didn’t have any money, the manager kicked me out.” Based on her limited interaction with the police, she didn’t think she’d be seeing any of her stuff again.

BOOK: London Falling
11.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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