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Unbound - Colors of Love

Contents

  1. Cover
  2. About the Book
  3. About the Author
  4. Title
  5. Copyright
  6. Dedication
  7. 1
  8. 2
  9. 3
  10. 4
  11. 5
  12. 6
  13. 7
  14. 8
  15. 9
  16. 10
  17. 11
  18. 12
  19. 13
  20. 14
  21. 15
  22. 16
  23. 17
  24. 18
  25. 19
  26. 20
  27. 21
  28. 22
  29. 23
  30. 24
  31. 25
  32. Preview

About the Book

Grace is young and has led a sheltered life. She hasn’t yet taken much of an interest in men. It’s only while doing an internship in London, where she meets the alluring Jonathan Huntington, that our sleeping beauty is awoken from her slumber. Jonathan is rich, incredibly attractive, and stems from British royalty—but he is a far cry from Prince Charming. He lures Grace ever deeper into his world of sinister passion, and she is sucked further and further into the maelstrom of her own growing desires. But when Jonathan demands she do the unthinkable to prove her love for him, she realizes just how dangerous her feelings for him are.

About the Author

Kathryn Taylor has been a writer since childhood—publishing her first story when she was eleven years old. From then on, she knew that she wanted to be a professional author one day. After a few career detours and a happy ending in her personal life, her dream has finally come true: UNBOUND — COLORS OF LOVE is her first novel.

1

I’m so nervous that my hands are shaking. To stop others from noticing, I’ve been keeping them buried in my lap or play absentmindedly with my seat belt buckle, snapping it open and closed. We’re almost there. It’s not long to go now. At last …

Miss, you need to keep your seat belt fastened. We’ve started our descent.” The flight attendant, who seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, is tall, blond, tanned, and incredibly thin. She points at the illuminated sign on the console above our heads. I nod quickly and reinsert the metal latch. She doesn’t notice my apology, but smiles briefly at the man sitting next to me in the window seat. He looks up from his newspaper and—as he does whenever she comes by—beams warmly at her. Then she goes on her way. The man watches her go. When he notices that I’m looking at him, he frowns reproachfully and gives me an angry look, as if it were a crime to annoy the flight attendant, before immersing himself in his newspaper again. I think it’s the first time since we took off from Chicago that he’s really noticed me at all.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, since I don’t really care whether he finds me attractive or not. It’s just frustrating somehow, because even if I did find him attractive, I wouldn’t stand a chance against the tall blond—as usual. I’m the exact opposite of her—short and pale. Well, actually, I’m blond too—but a strawberry blond, more of a redhead than a blond, with the emphasis on the red. That’s actually the only striking thing about me. But I have that kind of redhead coloration that makes me go as red as a lobster in the sun and never really tan. So frankly, it’s a distinguishing feature I wish I didn’t have after all.

My sister, Hope, always tries to see the bright side of things by saying I look like an English rose. But she’s probably just trying to make me feel better because she herself is one of those golden-haired, tanned beauties who make a much stronger impression than I do on men—just like the one in the seat next to me. I’m watching him surreptitiously out of the corner of my eye. Actually, he’s rather good-looking—dark hair, nicely groomed, with a well-tailored suit. He took his jacket off at the beginning of the flight and, when he lifts his arms up, I can smell the sweat beneath his aftershave. But, luckily, I won’t have to put up with it much longer because we’ll soon arrive. My hands begin to play with my seat belt buckle again. I’ve forgotten the man in the window seat and, instead, am staring at the blue fabric of the seat back in front of me. My heart starts beating faster again because I’m so nervous.

I’m finally on my way to England! I can’t quite believe it yet. It’s my first trip abroad—well, except for a week’s vacation in Canada with my family when I was thirteen—but that doesn’t count. And this time it’s not just for a few days but for three whole months.

I heave a deep sigh. I was sure that it was going to be a great experience, but the fact that I am now so far away from everything I’m used to is making me feel a bit scared. It’s going to be fine, Grace, I tell myself, soothingly. Of course it will be …

“Didn’t you hear what the flight attendant said, love? You need to keep your seat belt fastened.”

The nice old lady in the aisle seat has jolted me out of my reverie. She pats my hand affectionately as I hurriedly fasten my seat belt again. She looks at me questioningly.

“Are you really that nervous?”

I bite my bottom lip and nod. I’d love to tell her the whole story again, all about my journey and what’s in store for me at my destination. But I’ve already kept her awake listening to it for the past few hours, so I keep quiet. She told me that she could never sleep a wink on planes anyway. But perhaps that’s just her British politeness, and she’s actually really tired and thinks I’m out of my mind.

Her name is Elizabeth Armstrong and she’s from London. She’s just been to visit one of her three sons who lives in Chicago, but she’s very happy to be on her way back home now. I know even more about her than that—actually, I know everything about her. How many grandchildren she has—three, which is far too few, in her opinion—that she doesn’t like flying—who does—and that she still misses her husband, who died eight years ago. He died very suddenly, of a heart attack. His name was Edward.

Planes are cramped and transatlantic flights are long, which makes it impossible not to get to know each other well—if you are a talkative kind of person and not an antisocial type obsessed with blonds, like the sweaty guy in the window seat. So Elizabeth Armstrong knows everything about me, too—that my name is Grace Lawson, that I’m twenty-two, majoring in economics at the University of Chicago. And that I’m on my way to London because I got an unbelievably, monumental, totally inconceivable lucky break. Because I got the highly coveted internship at Huntington Ventures, which I had pinned all my hopes on.

I don’t even know how many times during the long flight I had recited the company’s profile, which I now know by heart, to my patient neighbor. That the company has been around for eight years and that, in that time, it had developed into one of the most successful investment firms in the world. And that their success is largely thanks to the company founder, Jonathan Huntington, and his innovative and very impressive idea—namely bringing together patents and fresh ideas in the fields of technology, industry, and commerce with the right financial backers to create profitable new products and projects. To be perfectly frank, I’m also very eager to meet the man behind it all: Jonathan Maxwell Henry Viscount Huntington, a member of the British aristocracy, always busy expanding his various business enterprises, and, according to the local tabloids, one of England’s most eligible bachelors.

I showed Hope a picture of him I’d found in a magazine, and she thought he looked handsome, but very arrogant. And she’s right about that. But that’s hardly surprising. If I were as successful as he, maybe I would be arrogant too.

I remember that photo well. He was with two beautiful, glamorous women, models with perfect, scantily-clad bodies draped all over him, worshipping him. But neither of them was his girlfriend, if what was said in the accompanying article is true, because he doesn’t have one. And he’s not married either, which comes as a surprise to me,because, with his dark hair and striking blue eyes, he really is incredibly good looking. Why is such an attractive man still unattached?

I heave another sigh. It’s not your problem, Grace, I remind myself. You probably won’t even meet him. After all, he’s the head of the company and will hardly have time to meet every intern personally, even if they have come from a long way away …

“Is someone going to pick you up from the airport, then?” Elizabeth Armstrong sounded quite concerned.

It takes me a moment to get back to reality.

“No. I’ll take the subway into town—or get a taxi.” If I have to take a taxi, it will make a big dent in my savings. It’s my plan B, just in case the subway thing goes totally wrong. I just hope that I can get my bearings quickly, get on the right subway, and get to my destination on time. Otherwise, I’ll have to take a taxi because time is short.

The plane I’m on was the cheapest possible flight from Chicago to London, but it’s scheduled to land at eight o’clock—in fifteen minutes—and at ten o’clock I have a meeting with Annie French, an employee of Huntington Ventures, who’ll be waiting for me at their reception to show me around and brief me on my job. And the company is based in the city of London, right in downtown. When you allow for the fact that I still have to wait for my suitcase at luggage claim, then I’m cutting it pretty darn close and I can only hope that the London rush hour isn’t really as crazy as everyone says it is.

***

We end up landing at Heathrow almost twenty minutes late and it takes an eternity for the plane to taxi to its final parking position. I drum my fingers impatiently on the arm of my seat and count the minutes slipping through my fingers. It’s a long way to luggage claim, too, and of course, we arrive to find that our suitcases haven’t made it out yet. The conveyor belt isn’t moving, and the screen showing our flight number is blinking.

I realize that I should use the time to freshen up and get changed, so I run to the nearest women’s restroom and examine myself critically in the mirror—something I have already done several times during the flight—while always coming to the same conclusion: everything’s still OK.

I slip quickly into one of the booths, take off the comfortable slacks I’ve been wearing, and change into the tight black skirt and silk stockings I’ve had in my carry-on all this time. I also change out of my green polo shirt into a black blouse. My only concession to flair is a brightly colored silk scarf, which goes with my red hair. I stuff the stale clothes back into my bag, which is so big I could probably fit half my wardrobe in there—which is exactly why it goes everywhere with me—and stand in front of the mirror. Perfect. My mother would find it too gloomy—she always wants me to wear something ‘cheerful’—but I like to look like this. I feel so grown up. And I’m colorful enough already, with my red hair. I really don’t need to draw any more attention to myself.

My hair no longer falls onto my shoulders in perfect waves as it did before take-off, but, with a bit of a touching up, I quickly get it to look nice again—thank God for styling mousse! And my makeup, which I applied pretty sparingly to begin with, can be easily touched up with a bit of powder, mascara and lip gloss—there, all done.

My green eyes look tired. It was a long flight and I’m beginning to feel it. But what the heck, I’m young and prepared to put up with a little lack of sleep for the two hundred dollars I saved by taking the red-eye flight.

Elizabeth Armstrong suddenly appears next to me in the mirror, replacing the woman who had just been standing there. I turn to look at her, surprised but pleased.

“Are you doing a little primping, my dear? Unlike me, you really don’t need it.” She winks at me, then yawns vigorously, and rinses her hands with cold water.

I knew it—she’s tired and it’s my fault because I wouldn’t let her sleep. She’s still smiling though, as we both wash our hands, and I find myself smiling back at her.

She reminds me a bit of my grandmother, Rose, back home in Lester, Illinois, the small town where I grew up. Grandma looks totally different from her—she’s worked outside all her life, and there’s no comparison between her and Elizabeth, who is so delicate. But they do have the same mischievous sense of humor.

“I need to look good, because they’re going to meet me,” I explain superfluously. My travel companion knew that perfectly well already, after I had explained to her what seemed like three hundred and seventy times over the past few hours just how important this internship is to me. She just nods.

“Perhaps someone will come and pick you up after all,” she says, and goes over to the hand dryers to let the jet of air blow the water off her hands. The dryer makes such a loud hum that I almost don’t hear my cell phone start to ring. I had switched it back on as soon as I got off the plane—just in case Huntington Ventures had left me any important messages. But I obviously overestimated my importance to the firm because the only person to have sent me a text message was my sister. And she’s also the one calling me now, as I see from the display. I hurriedly wipe my fingers dry on my skirt and take the call.

“Hi Gracie! Did you land safely?”

It’s so good to hear Hope’s familiar voice that I suddenly feel a lump in my throat.

“Yeah, I just landed. I’m just waiting for my suitcase. Just a sec.”

I press my cell phone against my chest and say goodbye to Elizabeth, who pats me on the arm and wishes me luck, before taking lipstick out of her purse and bending forward to reapply it. Elizabeth winks at me again in the mirror, and I wave to her before pushing the door open and exiting into the luggage claim area with my cell phone pressed to my ear. The suitcases are just arriving, and while I’m waiting for mine—of course one of the last to appear on the conveyor belt, as usual—I give Hope the lowdown on the flight. It’s fun to talk to her. She makes things seem reassuringly normal and, in my current nervous state, I really need that.

“Well, what now?” she asks as I lift the black brute off the conveyor belt. I’d borrowed it from my mom because I’d have to travel with three bags in order to take as much as I was able to fit in there. Once I have the suitcase in front of me, I push the handle up. Thank God it has wheels, even if it’s still so heavy it nearly dislocates my arm. I pull it doggedly toward customs.

“I’m going to have to hurry, if I still want to get there on time.”

“Are you wearing the black skirt and the black blouse?”

“Yes, why?”

Hope giggles. “Because I was afraid you would.”

“Doesn’t it look good?” I’m seized by panic. Couldn’t she have told me earlier?

“Of course it does, it’s just that it’s so like you to try to hide. You really don’t need to, Gracie. You’re so pretty. The English men are going to notice that, believe me. And, anyway, black doesn’t suit you at all—it’s not the right color for spring.”

I wish I could believe her. I really do. It’s easy for Hope to say, with her dream figure. If I were five-foot-seven, blond, and athletic, I probably wouldn’t wear anything at all—or, at least, I’d wear a lot less than I am now. You can certainly see that she has Scandinavian roots. As for me, I seem to have inherited our family’s few remaining Irish genes from some ancestor or other, since no one in my family is a redhead, not even my father—at least, as far as I can remember, since it’s been ages since I last saw him. And I’m also the only short and curvy one. I’m not fat, it’s true, but I’m rounded in places where enviable women like my sister and the flight attendant are athletic and toned.

“Black is slimming, okay?” I excavate my passport from my purse because I’ll have to show them soon. “I’ll call you right back.”

Hope’s voice suddenly sounds worried. “Look after yourself, won’t you, Gracie? And promise me that you’ll call me tonight and tell me everything—every last detail.”

I promise and hang up with a wry smile. She’s my little sister—but she acts like my mother. And perhaps she’s right. In many ways, Hope’s the more experienced of the two of us. I put my cell phone away with a sigh. At least she’s never been to England. That’s one advantage I have over her now.

The man behind the counter only glances briefly at my passport and the customs officers don’t frisk me either—as I said, apart from my hair, I’m completely unremarkable, nobody pays any attention to me—so it’s quickly over, and I arrive at the exit leading out of the airport building.

When I get through the door, there are so many more people than I was expecting that I stop, shocked, and the man behind me has to swerve around me. He gives me an annoyed look before hurrying on. Thank you. You’re welcome. Same to you.

People are streaming past me. Friends and relatives are waving and hurrying toward each other. People are holding up signs with names on them, reunions are happening, people hugging each other, welcoming each other back. Elizabeth walks past me, toward a young man who is clearly happy to see her again. He takes her in his arms. She pays no further attention to me.

I don’t want to feel lost, so I straighten my purse decisively. It’s time to get going. I jolt into motion again, ready to seek directions to the subway—only to stop again a second later, when I catch sight of a man who stands out among the crowd. He’s just standing there casually, with his eyes fixed on the exit. Watching me.

My heart stops for a moment and then immediately starts thumping again when I see the smile on his lips. He nods at me almost imperceptibly.

Jonathan Huntington.

No, it can’t be. I blink, but he’s still there. It’s him, it’s definitely him, even though he looks much more attractive in real life than in the magazine photo.

He uncrosses his arms, which he had folded across his chest, and his posture shifts. He’s not waiting anymore; he’s ready. Even though he’s not moving, he’s poised to go. He’s looking at me. He’s …been expecting me.

Oh. My. God.

My feet seem to move of their own accord. I walk toward him in a kind of trance.

2

Hello, Mr. Huntington.” I’m standing right in front of him and holding out my hand. “I’m Grace Lawson.”

As I walk toward him, he doesn’t take his eyes off me for a second. Those eyes of his were mesmerizingly blue in the photo. But in real life they look …different somehow. Deep. Shimmering. I stare at him, soaking in every last detail.

He’s tall, much taller than I thought, and is dressed in black from head to toe: black pants, black shirt, black jacket. Just like me. Only he isn’t wearing a colorful scarf, of course. Ha ha. His hair is black, too, and rakishly long, covering his forehead and reaching to just below his collar. Unlike mine, his skin is tanned, which makes the contrast with his blue eyes even more striking. And he clearly didn’t shave today; there’s a five o’clock shadow on his cheeks.

I notice all this in the seconds during which my hand is hovering in the air between us—but he doesn’t take it. My gaze shifts to his mouth. There is no longer a smile on his lips and his blank expression suddenly makes me feel uneasy.

He’s looking at me as if he has no idea what I want from him. I clear my throat and leave my hand outstretched.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you—sir.” He’s an aristocrat, isn’t he? How do you address someone like that? Darnit. I don’t know what to say. “I mean, I really wasn’t expecting you to come and pick me up. But I …I’m looking forward to it. To the internship. Very much, actually. It’s really a …huge …”

The last words come out in a disjointed stammer. Something isn’t right about this.

“Jonathan?” I hear a deep voice with a strange accent that I can’t place, coming from right behind me and, when I look up, startled, there’s a man standing there. A Japanese man. He’s not quite as tall as Jonathan Huntington, but he’s tall enough to make me feel like a dwarf next to the two of them. There are two more men behind him, also Japanese, but shorter. They must belong to the same party as the first man. And it’s only now that I notice a blond giant and a somewhat shorter dark-haired man, both in suits, have come up behind Jonathan Huntington, as if rushing to his aid. And they’re all looking at me with the same puzzled expressions. Oh my God. My cheeks are burning as I realize what an incredibly embarrassing mistake I’ve just made. Jonathan Huntington isn’t here to pick up his new intern from Chicago from the airport. He’s been waiting for the Japanese businessman behind me, who, by some unlikely coincidence, arrived at exactly the same time as I did. I’ve just made a complete fool of myself. More than a fool, a total idiot. A complete and utter imbecile.

For a few excruciating seconds no one says a word while I stand there squirming. I shut my eyes in despair and, almost immediately, I feel a warm hand enclosing mine, which I’m still holding out.

When I open my eyes again, Jonathan Huntington is looking at me. It’s his hand that’s holding mine. Gripping it firmly. Pleasantly. Reassuringly. He’s smiling and I notice that one of his canine teeth has an entire tip missing. It gives his smile a youthful quality, which I wasn’t expecting and makes me go weak at the knees. Or perhaps it’s just that I feel so incredibly embarrassed that my legs simply don’t want to hold me up anymore.

“Miss Lawson, what a pleasure.” He still has no idea who I am. But he’s rescuing me. The warmth from his hand is spreading through my body.

You should excuse yourself and leave, a voice inside me is saying loud and clear, but, as if frozen to the spot, I keep on staring at Jonathan Huntington’s face as if hypnotized. I just can’t get over how attractive he is.

Then he lets go of my hand and I return to my senses. He indicates the tall Japanese man, whose age I find hard to guess.

“May I introduce Yuuto Nagako, a business associate of mine, who has just arrived from Tokyo?” I turn around and nod at the man who is observing me with an odd, penetrating gaze. Jonathan Huntington says the names of the other four and they silently bow their heads, but I can only remember that the tall blonde is called Steven—I forget the other names right away. My brain doesn’t seem to be working properly.

“And this is our new …intern, Miss Lawson?” Jonathan Huntington continues. He says it in a joking sort of way; it sounds condescending. Something in his tone makes me feel defensive. He really is very arrogant. That’s what my sister called him, when we looked at his photo together. She was obviously right about that.

On the other hand, it gradually dawns on me that he didn’t expose me for my idiotic mistake and my gratitude soon outweighs all other feelings. If that’s what they mean by proper English manners, I’m willing to put up with a little bit of arrogance.

“I …yes. From …Chicago,” I stammer, as if I were trying to explain why I behaved so incredibly stupidly. I can tell the Japanese man is getting impatient. I have the feeling that I wouldn’t have gotten away with it so lightly if I’d made a scene like that in front of him—at least, that’s how I interpret the way he’s still staring at me.

At last my brain seems to have started working again. I feel lucky. I was so naïve; it hurt. Now at least I won’t have to spend the rest of my life praying the ground will swallow me. But if I stand around for much longer, that might change.

“I must get going—to catch the subway. Because I’ve got an appointment to get to.” I look at Jonathan Huntington and the whole thing seems so absurd that I shrug my shoulders and can’t suppress a smile. “With you.”

He raises his eyebrows in astonishment. “With me?”

“Um, yes, no, I mean—with your company. You know. The internship.” Now I’m squirming again. For God’s sake, Grace, don’t try to be funny. After this performance, he’ll probably cancel their partnership with the University of Chicago because he’s had quite enough of the dim-witted American girls they’ve been bringing into the country. I should go before I make things even worse. “Well. Goodbye.”

I grip the handle of my suitcase and pull it after me. The men step in closer to each other and start talking right away, closing the gap in their circle, as if they had just been waiting for me to finally leave. I turn around briefly once more, but when my eyes meet those of the Japanese man, who’s talking to Jonathan Huntington, I turn my head away at once. I sincerely hope they are talking business and not about me.

I close my eyes for a moment, feeling the weight of the suitcase tugging at my arm, as I roll it along after me. Well, that was it—I met Jonathan Huntington. You did a great job, Grace, a really great job. When I meet him again at the office I can only hope he’s forgotten what I look like—or else I’d better hide behind a filing cabinet for the next three months. I feel a hand around my arm, stopping me from moving. I turn round, startled—and find myself looking straight into Jonathan Huntington’s blue eyes.

“You’re coming with us, Miss Lawson,” he explains, in that same condescending tone which leaves no room for argument.

If I could get my breath back, I’d be able to respond. But Steven, the blond giant, is standing behind him and, before I realize what’s happening, he’s grabbed my suitcase and is pulling it away, back toward the Japanese businessmen. Jonathan Huntington is still holding onto my arm. And at last, my brain starts functioning again.

“Hey!” I free myself from his grasp. “No! Wait!” I shout at the blonde’s retreating back and he stops right away. But Jonathan Huntington gestures for him to carry on. Then I feel his hand on my back, pushing me forward with determination.

“My assistant just wants to help you with your luggage,” he explains and looks at me again as if I might be nuts. But then again, maybe I am.

“I can’t go with you,” I tell him, and stop dead. It’s only logical; he must realize that. He has something unbelievably important to talk to that Japanese man about, at least I assume so, because otherwise he wouldn’t have met this man who came all the way from Japan at the airport, and I’m just in the way. Besides—I don’t like the way he makes it sound like an order. And I also don’t want anyone to take my suitcase away. “Please, can you tell that man—can you tell your assistant to give me my suitcase back? I really have to get to the subway, or I’m going to be late.”

His lips curl upward, in obvious amusement, and I spot the little missing tip of tooth again. If it were anyone else it would be a blemish but on him, I found it incredibly attractive. I’m suddenly breathless again.

“Late for an appointment with me?” he asks and he sounds unmistakeably mocking. Now I can breathe again. I stick out my chin.

“No. Late for an appointment with your company.” His laughter is suddenly making me angry. Now I’m really not having any trouble breathing at all. “I don’t think it makes any sense for me to take up any more of your time. You have an important appointment and I would feel very uncomfortable being a further burden to you, after our misunderstanding.” It occurs to me once again that it was actually pretty nice of him not to have let me become a laughing stock. “Thank you, by the way.”

“What for?”

Oh no. Grace, for heaven’s sake, think things through before you open your mouth, for once. “You know what for. You could have—been less kind just now.”

“And why are you turning me down now, when I’m kindly offering to take you with me?”

Is …is he trying to confuse me? If he is, then it’s a resounding success. “I just don’t want to be late,” I say, almost in despair now.

“Then come with me. You’ll get there quicker by car than by tube.”

I’m still reluctant, even though I’m not really putting up much resistance to his big, warm hand on my back. I keep on walking. “But your friend, I mean, your business associate. Surely you have things to discuss.”

“He won’t mind if you come with us, believe me.” The way he says this irritates me. He sounds sarcastic and there is a tone in his voice that sends a shiver down my spine. But I’m too flustered to give it much more thought because, at that moment, we’ve gotten back to where the other men are standing.

“Miss Lawson will accompany us,” Jonathan Huntington explains, as if this isn’t obvious from the way he dragged me back, with his giant assistant pulling my suitcase. He sounds satisfied. No wonder. He probably always gets what he wants.

The Japanese men nod in that typically Asian way, a little brusquely, while Steven and the dark-haired man watch with an impersonal kind of interest, the way you might look at a traffic accident as you drive past. Well, I suppose that’s what I am—an unexpected accident.

We all set off in silence.

Jonathan Huntington and the tall Japanese man are walking behind me, and I can feel their eyes on my back. The two of them are talking quietly—in Japanese. Perhaps that’s why bringing me with them wasn’t a problem—I can’t understand anything anyway.

For a moment, I feel uneasy. Am I completely insane for having even considered turning down this offer? I mean, Jonathan Huntington is going to be my boss for the next three months—and I’ve got nothing better to do than to first force myself on him and then to make a big deal about nothing, as if he wanted something from me? Get real, Grace, I admonish myself. You had more luck than sense just now. It’s time to make the best of it.

But, in the car—a rather long limousine with two rows of upholstered leather seats facing each other in the back—my doubts return and I’m certain that it was a mistake not to take the subway after all.

I’m sitting facing forward, on a seat next to Jonathan Huntington and the dark-haired man, with the head Japanese man sharing the opposite seat with one of his assistants. The other Japanese man is sitting next to Steven the giant, who is driving the car. The Japanese assistant, who’s sitting in the back with us, is balancing his briefcase on his lap, and the dark-haired man is making calls and sending text messages on his cell, while clearly keeping one ear open to listen in to the two bosses’ conversation. Jonathan Huntington and Yuuto Nagako—I’ve just remembered his name—are both leaning back, relaxed and chatting, still in Japanese. I have no idea how old the Japanese man might be, because his face looks so smooth and Asian, but since his temples are already gray, I estimate that he must be at least ten years older than Jonathan.

While he’s talking, Yuuto Nagako keeps looking at me in that unsettling way which I don’t like and I even almost get the impression that they are talking about me. But that’s just as ridiculous as this entire situation.

I don’t know when I last felt so uncomfortable. So completely out of place. I’ve never in my life been in such a swanky car, and that alone would have been enough—that and the completely unfamiliar sensation of driving on the left—to overwhelm me. But I’m so busy feeling small and unimportant among these strange, tall men that I don’t even get around to giving my surroundings the attention they deserve. Jonathan Huntington is the only one who seems familiar to me. That doesn’t make me feel much more relaxed, though, since it’s only because Hope and I spent so much time sitting gazing at his photo. I’m simply completely out of my league.

The worst thing is that I’m sitting so close to him, I can smell him. And, unlike the man on the plane, he doesn’t repel me. No, he smells good, of very pleasant aftershave. So pleasant that I catch myself inhaling deeply—in order to fill my nostrils with more of it. Perhaps that isn’t aftershave at all. Maybe that’s just how he smells. Whatever it is, it’s definitely going to my head. And that really isn’t good because that means that I am becoming even more focused on him, and having even more trouble getting my nerves under control.

Feeling uncomfortable, I clamp myself into my seat and pray that we get there soon. Because every time the big car goes around a curve, I’m pressed up against Jonathan Huntington. At least I would be, if I didn’t resist it with all my strength. The bucket seats are upholstered in a very soft material and would actually provide plenty of room for two people. But there are three of us sitting on the seat and the hollow in the seat, together with the laws of gravity, keeps making me slide dangerously close to him. There’s nothing I can do about it. I sit there completely rigid, staring out of the window, hoping no one will notice I’m there.

Until Jonathan Huntington suddenly puts his arm on the seat back behind me. It means that his broad shoulder is now no longer in the way, and I have more room. But his shoulder was a kind of buffer zone. It was the place where our bodies had the most contact, when I couldn’t hold on tightly enough. Now there’s nothing there and when the car takes the next right-hand bend a second later, I slide up against him. For real. With full body contact. Suddenly, we’re sitting there side by side and, since I instinctively tried to break my fall, I still have my hand on his chest and I feel him put an arm around me and hold my upper arm. Perhaps it was a reflex. He wanted to catch me.

For a second, the world stops. I can feel the warmth of his body but also, the way he is stiffening under my hand. His gaze slips from my face to my breasts, and back. I look down and find that my blouse has shifted and is now displaying a considerable view of my cleavage. When I look back up at him, he’s not smiling and his eyes have gone dark. I can’t breathe; I can only stare at him. My skin suddenly feels prickly at every point we’re touching, and I can feel the blood rushing into my cheeks.

I hurriedly push myself away—pushing off his chest, there’s no other option—and scoot along, back into the corner. His arm releases me.

“Sorry,” I mumble and I can hardly conceal my dismay. I’ve really got to get out of here—urgently.

He takes his arm off the backrest and we’re back to sitting as we were before. Luckily, the Japanese assistant is talking to the dark-haired man about some appointments. Yuuto Nagako is the only one not taking part in the conversation, but staring at me just as he’s been doing the whole time. He says something to Jonathan Huntington in Japanese, something, which makes him turn to me.

“How long will you be with us, Miss Lawson?”

The fact that he is suddenly speaking to me directly makes me even more nervous than I already was. And he doesn’t ask as though he were just making harmless small talk, but in a kind of formal, detached way. As if it’s important information that he needs to know for some reason.

“Three months,” I answer, wetting my lips. My whole mouth is terribly dry.

“And where are you from again …?”

“Chicago.”

“Right. Yes, you told me.”

He’s turned his head to one side and he’s giving me a look that I can’t evade. We are definitely sitting too close to each other, even if now if our shoulders are the only parts of our bodies touching. I can feel how hard his arm is under his jacket, and I pull away a little. I can still feel his warmth, which is radiating through to me, too.

“So, you are studying with Professor White?”

I nod. I’m gradually recovering from the shock. It looks like he just wants to make a little small talk after all. A harmless conversation is exactly what I need right now. “Do you know him?”

“Not personally, no. But my partner, Alexander Norton, is a good friend of his. As far as I know, he’s the one who put us in touch.”

Professor White never mentioned anything about this, but it explains why a British company would offer a paid internship for American economics students. The salary is not enough to make me rich, but still, it’s enough to enable me to afford to rent an apartment in London during my stay.

“What attracted you to economics, Miss Lawson?”

The other men have finished talking and it’s silent in the car when Jonathan Huntington asks me that. Everyone looks at me and suddenly; I really would like to disappear into thin air. But then I frown, because my brain has just registered the undertone in his voice when he asked the question. He sounds mildly amused again. As if it were a subject that isn’t suitable for someone like me, as if economics and I were two incompatible opposites. OK, perhaps up to now I haven’t exactly proven myself to be the most intelligent representative of my gender, but there’s no reason to treat me so patronizingly. I’m good at what I do. Otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten the internship. I had to apply for it—and they chose me.

“I like working with numbers,” I say in an emphatically casual way and smile slightly, as confidently as I can, as if the real reason were far too complicated to explain right now. If you can do it, so can I, I think, and I’m pretty satisfied with my performance. Until he asks his next question.

“And what attracted you to Huntington Ventures?”

I swallow. I gave the university’s selection committee more than ten reasons. I spoke eloquently and persuasively on this topic. But now I am gazing into the company founder’s blue eyes and I can’t seem to get a single word out.

But luckily I don’t have to say anything else because we’ve arrived at our destination. The car stops at the entrance of a modern, glass office building. It has at least ten stories and a facade that curves gently outward. One side is straight but the other slopes slightly inward, giving it a very interesting, almost conical form.

I’m sitting on the driver’s side and cars are rushing by one after the other, so I wait for the men on the other side to get out and then follow them. As I’m climbing out of the car, Jonathan Huntington reaches out a hand to help me and, although I’m hesitant at first, I take it. It would have been childish to ignore his gesture, and I’ve already embarrassed myself enough for one day. But touching him definitely does my heart rate no good. As soon as I reach the sidewalk, I let go.

The blond giant gets my black case out of the trunk and wheels it through the glass door into the building.

“After you.” Jonathan Huntington indicates that I should go first, and the Japanese men also let me go into the lobby before them. It’s very big and elegant. The chauffeur has left my suitcase in front of the reception desk, which is made of beautifully crafted wood and glass. There are two young women standing there, one in front of the counter and one behind it, and they are both watching us with interest.

Jonathan Huntington greets them and speaks to them briefly. I snatch a glance at my watch. Half past ten. Damn.

The young woman in front of the counter comes up to me. She’s around my age and has short brown hair, which she’s wearing in a way that’s somehow both incredibly casual and yet very stylish. She’s wearing a light green, corduroy suit with a matching batik top and a simple but striking silver necklace. It’s an unusual outfit for the office, but not exaggeratedly so—and somehow it suits her.

“Hello,” she says. “I’m Annie French. I’ve been waiting for you, Grace.”

Her informal tone surprises me a bit. But it’s also welcome after the horrible journey. At last, I’m dealing with someone who doesn’t make me feel completely inadequate.

“I’m late,” I say unhappily as I shake her hand.

“Not if you’ve come with the boss,” she answers, grinning at me. I like her.

Before we can keep on talking, Jonathan Huntington is suddenly standing beside me again. The other men are waiting by the elevator and looking over at us.

“Good luck with your internship, Miss Lawson,” he says. “I hope you like it here.”

I swallow. “Thank you.”

“Black suits you, by the way. It’s a beautiful color.” He looks down at himself for a moment. When he looks up again, there is a glint in his blue eyes and a slight smile on his lips, which makes my knees go weak again.

Before I can answer, he turns around and heads off in the direction of the elevator. I gaze after him, uneasy, wondering if I really ought to be wishing to see him again.

3

Once all six men are inside the elevator and the door has closed behind them, Annie French looks at me.

“How did you manage that?,” she asks, raising an eyebrow.

“Manage what?” I’m still so busy thinking about the perplexing Jonathan Huntington that I’m not really listening.

Annie gives me a nudge, bringing my attention abruptly back to reality and to what she’s saying. “Well, come on—you’ve just arrived with the boss. How did you manage that? Tell me!”

“It was …a coincidence. We met at the airport and he offered to give me a ride with him and his associates.” It actually sounds quite credible. But Annie isn’t fooled. She cocks her head to one side.

“And how did he know who you are? Do you know each other?”

She’s got me. I can feel my cheeks getting hot and I take her aside because I don’t want the receptionist to overhear, and she’s keeping an eye on us and is clearly very interested. “No. I …I went up and spoke to him,” I confess quietly. “It was a mistake. I thought—he had come to pick me up.”

Annie looks at me, completely dumbfounded. And then she laughs, as if it were the best joke she’s heard in ages. “You thought the boss had come to pick you up, in person?”

“Yes, I know,” I groan and roll my eyes. “Don’t rub it in. I’m already embarrassed enough. Can we change the subject, please?”

“Of course.” Annie is still grinning broadly. “For the time being, at least.” She indicates my suitcase. “You can leave that here with Caroline and pick it up later. First, I’m going to show you your new area of operations.” Her smile is so contagious and friendly, and she’s so disarmingly open that I can’t help feeling comfortable around her.

We leave the suitcase with Caroline, who shoves the thing behind the counter and assures me that she’ll take good care of it, scrutinizing me with obvious interest all the while. Then it’s our turn to get into one of the two elevators, which are adjacent to each other. It has a mirrored interior and, like everything else here, looks very grand and luxurious. One glance at my reflection reveals that I look unnaturally pale—probably the after-effect of meeting one of England’s most eligible bachelors.

While we’re going up, Annie explains that she is twenty-three and has been working as a junior assistant in the investment department at Huntington Ventures for a year.

“It’s my means of entry into the industry,” she says. “And it could have been much, much worse.”

I am a bit envious that, although we are almost the same age, she’s so much further along than I am. It’s true that it won’t be much longer until I’ve finished school, but would I be able to get a job at such a great company?

I’m not only envious of her position at Huntington Ventures but also of her self-confident, cheerful manner, and her relaxed approach to things.

“This is the department where you’ll be working,” she explains, as we get out on the fourth floor and walk down a long hallway. Everything looks light and spacious. Glass doors lead to a variety of large offices with floor-to-ceiling windows and very busy-looking people sitting in them. This is where they plan the new projects Huntington Ventures is going to be involved in. We do all the research, check the market odds, and carry out all the preliminary discussions—and then management deals with the rest.

She accompanies me into each office and introduces her colleagues to me—but there are too many of them for me to remember right away. Only a few names stick in my mind: the secretary, a very friendly older woman, is named Veronica; the head of department, a man of about forty with thinning hair, introduces himself as Clive; and then there’s Shadrach, a younger colleague, possibly of Pakistani origin, whom I guess to be in his late twenties and shares an office with Annie. There are more of them, at least a dozen in total, whom I’m bound to get to know better over the coming days. They’re all very friendly, but I still think Annie is the nicest.

“I’ll show you the other departments here in the building some time, if you’re interested.” Out in the hallway, Annie hands me a folder. “You’ll find everything you need to know about our company in there.” And she gives me yet another photocopy with a complicated drawing on it. “And that’s our organogram—so you can get an overview.” I cast an eye over the intricately branching network and am amazed by the number of jigsaw pieces that make up the company. I’m familiar with many of them from my own research, but some of the points here are completely new. And, as I leaf through the folder in which the company’s further activities are printed on high-gloss paper, I realize that Huntington Ventures is much more than just an investment company. It’s an empire, with international connections and wide-ranging areas of influence. They have holdings not just in high finance and construction but also in almost every industrial and commercial sector, and they also fund cultural projects. My respect for Jonathan Huntington’s achievements has just gone up a lot.

When I look up again, Annie is grinning. “Impressive, isn’t it?”

I know that she’s talking about the company but I can’t stop thinking about the man who runs it. I nod silently.

Annie walks on and pushes open the door of an office at the end of the hallway. It also has an outer wall made of glass but it’s very small. There’s a desk in front of the window and one wall is completely covered in filing cabinets, leaving not much room to move.

“The intern’s office,” Annie announces, and grins at me again in her unabashed, candid way.

I sigh. What had I been expecting—a red carpet? And, after all, it’s not so bad. It may be almost at the far end of the hallway, but it’s not far from Annie’s office, which I find a little reassuring. After all, she’s the only one I know here—so far. Apart from Jonathan Huntington, but I need to stop thinking about him so much.

“And what do I do in here?” I ask, moving behind the desk, to take a closer look at my workplace.

“What all interns do—make tea and coffee.” Annie indicates the door opposite. “That’s the kitchen, you see—it’s very convenient for you.”

For a moment I’m speechless. “You’re not serious, are you?” Did I say I liked her? I was wrong, I find all English people strange.

For a moment she just stands there, leaning against the doorframe with a neutral expression, but then she can’t keep a straight face anymore and bursts out laughing. “No, of course not.

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