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PRIDE'S MASTER

 

Jessica Steele

 

 

Gerry's pride was almost her downfall

Gerry Barton, determined to earn a living for herself, her widowed sister and her twin baby nieces, had taken on an impossible task. Stubbornly, she refused to admit it.

When she finally collapsed, her wealthy young boss, Crawford Arrowsmith, insisted on helping her. Gerry's pride wouldn't let her accept his kindness—especially since she knew that she'd fallen in love with him.

Crawford was the answer to all her dreams, but she didn't want his charity—she wanted his love!

 

"You little fool — you absolute idiot!"

Crawford's voice rose in anger as he continued. "Why the hell couldn't you tell me what things were like at home? Are you so pigheaded, so full of pride, that you'd rather kill yourself than let anyone give you a helping hand?"

"Teddy and I can manage quite well without your interference," Gerry flashed back, her temper getting out of hand. "Anyway, you're always snapping at me. You can't blame me if I decided you'd be the last person I'd come to!"

She knew she sounded ungrateful for his kindness and couldn't understand why she felt like crying.

"Someone has to help you, Geraldine," he said softly Her heart set up a rapid tumbling motion when Crawford leaned forward and placed his warm mouth against her own....

 

CHAPTER ONE

Gerry Barton
breathed a sigh of relief that her usual parking spot was still free. They had a car park at Arrowsmiths where she worked, but come five o’clock with everyone trying to get out at the same time, she saved precious minutes by leaving her car the few hundred yards’ walk away from the office. Checking her appearance in the rear view mirror, she noted with satisfaction that her dark brown hair was neatly in place in the tidy bun she wore it in for her place of business, and stepped out of her vehicle prepared to show anyone who might be interested the cool unruffled front she had adopted since she had come to work at Arrowsmith Electronics.

For once she was dead on time. She hated being late for work, but regretfully, it was often ten or fifteen minutes past the hour before she pushed her way through the swing doors of the company. Fortunately the twins had behaved themselves this morning and her sister Teddy had been all smiles when she’d left. Even so, she’d felt bound to ask, ‘Are you sure you’ll be all right?’ Teddy had told her she was an old fusspot, for all, like the babies, they were twins themselves and Teddy was the same twenty-four years old as herself.

Basil Dyer fell into step with her as she turned the corner with Arrowsmith Electronics in sight. ‘Good morning, Geraldine,’ he greeted her. He was a middle-aged man, much married with a clutch of children he was said to adore, and was one of the few people at Arrowsmiths who hadn’t been put off by the cool exterior she chose to show.

‘Good morning, Basil. Family all right?’

‘In rude health, you might say.’ Gerry allowed herself a smile as his infectious grin beamed her way. Then he was serious. ‘Wonder what today will hold Can do without any more drama like we had yesterday! ’

‘Drama?’ Gerry wasn’t with him, but showed only polite surprise. She had gone home early yesterday. Teddy had a dental appointment and there had been no one to look after the twelve-month-old Emma and Sarah. If anything dramatic had happened at the office yesterday it must have happened after she had left, because everything had been drearily mundane when she’d left.

‘Don’t tell me you don’t know about Cyril Gillett?—I thought he was your boss.’

Basil had her full attention now. She had been working for Mr Gillett for fifteen months now and any drama concerning him concerned her too.

‘I had part of the afternoon off yesterday—Mr Gillett wasn’t taken ill, was he?’ He’d been all right when she’d left, but now she came to think of it, he had been locking rather strained just lately.

‘I expect he’s feeling a bit sick this morning,' Basil said, looking not at all put out at the thought. ‘He got the push yesterday.’

‘Push?’ Gerry’s footsteps faltered and Basil slowed down to her pace. ‘You mean he got the sack?’ and at Basil’s confirming nod, Gerry schooled her features to hide the disquiet of her feelings. Though it took a tremendous effort, because you couldn’t see a person for some part of most working days without some sort of feeling coming through. ‘W-what happened?’

‘It’s only rumour so far,’ Basil seemed to be trying to look as though he hated to be the one to impart the news, but it was common knowledge that he and Cyril Gillett had never hit it off. ‘But as far as I can make out, the boss man himself came down from London and without waiting to go to the office that’s usually reserved for him, he went straight into Gillett’s office and within an hour Gillett was leaving the building with his briefcase bulging with the personal impedimenta he’d collected over the years.’

They reached the swing doors and Basil stood back and Gerry waited inside the roomy foyer for him to join her inside. There were other workers making their way to their offices and by unspoken mutual consent, she and Basil took the stairs, neither wanting their conversation to be overheard in the crowded compartment of the lift.

‘You mean Crawford Arrowsmith himself came down?' She had never seen him herself, but knew of his visits because she had often typed out the notes Mr Gillett took with him into the Board meetings Crawford Arrowsmith chaired.

‘He did. Now if that doesn’t signify that something big has gone wrong I’ll eat my Sunday hat!'

Gerry had to agree with him. It was well known by those nearest to the top executives that while keeping a finger on the pulse of the running of the Layton branch, Crawford Arrowsmith preferred the heads of departments to make their own decisions. They came to the door of her office, Basil’s office being some yards further down the corridor.

‘Don’t know what you’ll be doing today, but word has it the big man intends to stay around for a few days, so you’ll soon know something, I expect.''

With his words ringing ominously in her ears, Gerry went into the office that was hers and closed the door behind her, and sure she wasn’t being observed, leaned weakly against it, taking her mind back over her conversation with Basil Dyer. She still couldn’t believe it—couldn’t—and not wanting to believe it she stared at the open door between her office and Mr Gillett’s, and felt the compulsion to check his office for herself. Surely Basil had got it all wrong.

Mr Gillett’s office was larger than her own. She had been in it many times, but whereas before his desk had always been liberally strewn with papers, when she walked slowly through the open door, it was to observe that the top of the desk was completely clear, and no sign of Mr Gillett. Her heart set up a rapid beat as the truth of what Basil had said sank in. Even so she just had to pull open a couple of drawers in the desk for further confirmation.

‘Looking for something?'

The cool, icy tones struck her ears, causing her to give a guilty start. Never before had she looked into Mr Gillett’s private drawers, and she felt like a criminal caught red-handed as she looked up in the direction of the voice.

She had to look up a long way to the speaker, who she saw was an athletic-looking, dark-haired man somewhere in his thirties. Even while she was instructing herself to stay cool—closing the drawers with as casual an air as she could muster, unhurriedly straightening up to her five feet seven inches—the dark-haired man left his position by the door and came to look down his straight nose through the hardest slate grey eyes she had ever seen.

She didn't want this cold-looking individual to be Crawford Arrowsmith, but felt in her bones he could be no ether as he pinned her with a calculating look that told her he was nobody’s fool. She felt the hairs on the back of her neck prickle and wanted badly to flee for cover, for all she had done nothing wrong. But the image she had managed to put over and maintain during the last fifteen months, though wobbly at that moment, was not going to desert her now, she decided.

‘I haven’t lost anything,’ she was proud of the way she managed to hold his chilling look. ‘This is Mr Gillett's office.’ It still was until she was told differently. ‘I think perhaps you may be the one who has lost something— your way, perhaps?’

She could find no reason for the antagonism she felt for this man. But it was instant, and for the life of her she couldn’t back down. Though if she had thought to disconcert him by her cool manner—as had happened with a good few before him—then she was very much mistaken, for apart from a slight narrowing of his eyes, not in any degree a shade warmer, she could see no reaction at all.

‘So good of you to come to the office on time—I take it I am speaking with Miss Geraldine Barton?’

Obviously word had got to him about her tardy time keeping—equally obvious was the fact that he hadn’t heard she always made up the lost time in her lunch hour.

‘Yes, I’m Geraldine Barton,’ she confirmed, ignoring his sarcasm. ‘I’m afraid you have the advantage over me ... Might I be permitted to know who you are?’ She marvelled at her own temerity—he had boss written all over him, apart from the fact that his well-cut expensive grey suit hadn’t been made within thirty miles of Layton.

‘Crawford Arrowsmith,’ he said, by way of putting the record straight, even though she had a feeling he knew all the time she was aware who he was. ‘You appear to be redundant, Miss Barton.’

If he wanted to shock her into dropping her pose he very nearly succeeded. She half turned away from him so he shouldn’t see her face. She badly needed this job—it was the best paid job to be had in Layton with her qualifications. And even with the high salary that went with being P.A. to the Company Secretary, she and Teddy were hard pushed to find the rent for the cottage. To find herself out of a job, even if she managed to get another job that didn’t pay as well straight away, would cripple their finances. With difficulty, she managed to school her features into the calm she dared not let go, but could do nothing about the pallor of her skin as she faced him.

‘Do sit down before you fall down, Miss Barton.' His voice came through the rigid control she was exerting on herself. ‘You’re a big girl to have to scrape up off the carpet.’

That brought her to her senses quicker than any sal volatile could have done. She was tall, agreed, if five feet seven could be called tall, but was without any fat whatsoever on her bones. Indeed the constant worries over the last fifteen months—worry over Teddy’s inability to cope now that Mark was dead, and the constant trying to make ends meet—had whittled her already slender frame down to a fragile slimness.

She felt herself being pushed down into the chair that only yesterday Mr Gillett had occupied, and followed Crawford Arrowsmith with her eyes as he walked over to the window. He had his back to her, and if she didn’t know better she would have thought he was giving her these few minutes to get herself under control. But she doubted a man of his sort would have the sensitivity to care sufficiently how one of his underlings was feeling.

He turned suddenly, and she was made sharply aware of his eyes on her. She forced herself to sit up straight, masking the disquiet of her feelings as he came to stand over her.

‘How much do you know of Gillett’s handling of the company’s affairs?’ His question was short and to the point, his eyes refusing to let her look away.

‘Quite a lot, I should think,’ she came back, wondering if she was digging her own grave with that statement. Though if she was being made redundant as he had said, she had nothing to lose. She tried to shut out thoughts of Teddy, of beautiful Emma and Sarah, and concentrated on answering any questions Crawford Arrowsmith intended to fire at her as honestly as she could.

‘You handled all his correspondence?’

‘Yes.'

‘All of it?’

He was being persistent, she thought. ‘Yes—as far as I know.’

‘As far as you know?' His tone was hard; he should have been a barrister—he’d make any witness in the box quake at the knees, she thought, as he barked the question at her.

‘Well...' she hesitated.

‘Well?’

She had no intention of being disloyal to Mr Gillett. It was just that when she was late in, very often Mr Gillett had opened the post himself. But since Crawford Arrowsmith already knew about her bad time-keeping—though nothing would drag from her the reason for it—and since she was being made redundant anyway, she might just as well own up now, she thought with a fatalistic ‘I’ve got nothing to lose’.

‘Occasionally I arrive ten or fifteen minutes late.' A couple of times it had been as much as half an hour, but she wasn’t about to sink herself without trace—he would never understand anyway. ‘On the mornings I’m late Mr Gillett was good enough to start on the post for me.’

‘Was?’ he picked up. ‘You said ‘'was”. Have you been in touch with Gillett since you left here yesterday?’

They didn’t come any sharper than Crawford Arrowsmith, she thought, biting hard on a hasty retort that would have blown her cool image. ‘I met one of the other office staff as I came in,’ she told him. Basil wouldn’t thank her for mentioning his name. ‘He said there’d been a spot of bother after I had left yesterday.’

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