CHAPTER ONE: A BAD START
She stood nervously at the door, her hand pausing over the knocker. She was late she knew, not a great way to start a new job, but the traffic that morning had been horrendous; not to mention she had found herself lost several times on the long winding roads that led to the mansion house before her. The telephone interview had been short and abrupt. Had she worked as a personal assistant before? Yes. Was she prepared to work longer hours when the occasion called for it? Yes. Did she have any other commitments? No. Fine, she was hired. The man's voice on the end of the phone had been somewhat detached, as if he were focussed on something else while speaking to her. He had explained that he was somewhat reclusive, only leaving the house to go to work and returning every night alone. There was only him in the house, he lived alone. There was no wife or children or elderly relatives. He had no family and was only prepared to employ somebody who was in the same position.
She sighed bitterly. She was certainly in that position herself, after Rico had left her for another woman just a year ago. Her parents had died when she was an infant in a bombing in London. She had been brought up by an elderly aunt who had died five years ago. There was nobody in her life and that was the way she liked it. That way there was nobody to let her down or to rely on her.
Taking a deep breath, she lifted the knocker and listened as it echoed around the hallway within. The door opened with an ominous creak and she saw an elderly man in a black suit standing before her. He bowed slightly and gestured for her to come inside.
"You are late, miss," he said. "He will not be happy, especially as it is your first day. The master is in his study and asked that you be shown there as soon as you arrived in order that he can go through your duties with you. Please, come this way."
Bemused, she followed him, feeling a distinct change in the atmosphere as the heavy front door closed with a dull thud. She flinched at the sound and gazed around at her surroundings. They were in a large entrance hall, tiled in black and white. A large staircase stood at the back of the hallway, branching off to the right and left to a long corridor of rooms above them. There were closed doors around her and there was a feel of neglect in the air. It could have been a beautiful house, but instead it seemed empty and dusty, as if it were not really lived in. she shivered, involuntarily and hurried to catch up with the elderly butler who walked much faster than she had expected him to. He stopped abruptly outside a large, oak panelled door and rapped sharply on the door.
"Come," came a voice from within. Her palms felt suddenly sweaty and she brushed them against her trouser legs.
"What am I to call him?" she asked, suddenly, before the butler could open the door.
"Call him sir. That is what the rest of us call him. I am Jacob and I am his butler. Rose is the cook. And you?"
"Eloise," she replied, softly. "Eloise Hart."
Jacob nodded and smiled for the first time, before opening the door revealing a large room to her. It was dominated by a huge mahogany desk. The leather chair was swivelled towards the window, making it seem as though the room was empty. She sighed deeply and walked in to stand before the desk, having the sudden feeling of being a naughty schoolgirl in the head teacher's office.
"You are late," said a voice from the chair. It was a gruff voice, deep and harsh. She shuffled her feet a little, nervously.
"I'm sorry, sir," she replied. "The traffic this morning was terrible and I must confess I got a bit lost on the country roads. None of them seemed to be sign posted."
"I see," he replied, coldly. "If your time keeping is to be so deplorable I see little point in hiring you. If you are to personally assist me I will need you here on time everyday or there is little point in employing you."
"Again I can only apologise, sir," replied Eloise, biting back an angry retort. He was so rude. He had not even turned his chair around yet to face her and she felt foolish speaking to the back of a leather chair.
"Just see that it does not happen again. Now onto business. I expect you here at eight every morning from now on and your hours will be from eight until six every day. You will see to it that the rest of the staff fulfil their roles although ultimately Jacob is responsible for the house staff as the butler. There are vast grounds here and staff there need overseeing. You will be responsible for organising for the house to be cleaned. I am sure you have noticed that it desperately needs seeing to. The only rooms that are to be left are the rooms in the North Wing. No one, including yourself is to go near them. You may take a tour of the house and see what needs organising first. I want my house to be restored to its former glory. There was a fire many years ago and it caused a lot of damage. I want everything made perfect. That is your first task. Any questions?"
She stared at the back of the chair wordlessly. This was an unusual assignment for a PA. She had never been asked to take responsibility for a house before. That was the job of a caretaker! Anger and resentment coursed through her and she was tempted to turn on her heel and walk, but then curiosity overcame her.
"Can I ask sir why you have employed me to do this?"
"I haven't time myself and I decided that if you were up to this task I could then extend your duties," he replied. "If you have no more questions I have a lot to do. You can take yourself around the house, but stay away from the North Wing. If you go there I am afraid there will be severe consequences."
She felt a wave of heat rush through her at these words and took a deep breath.
"Yes, sir," she said and headed back for the door. During the whole conversation he had not once turned to speak to her.
The façade of the house was as Eloise had suspected when she arrived. It was dirty and neglected, some rooms still smelling of the fire that had ripped through it so many years before. Many of the rooms were so badly damaged by the smoke that she was unsure exactly what anyone could do about them. She made some notes on the clipboard she was carrying round with her. She was going to need builders, architects, interior designers, plumbers, plasterers; the works! She hoped that her new boss could afford it.
He watched her as she moved easily around the house, carrying her clipboard, jotting things down as she went. He had been furious that morning when she was late. He liked everything to run smoothly and it infuriated him when everything did not follow the precise pattern he had set. She had not asked any difficult questions though to his relief and seemed content now to wander round. He had sensed her anger when he gave her the assignment. She felt it to be beneath her. That much had been blatantly obvious. Saying that though the whole task of rebuilding this house was an awesome assignment and he had had no idea who to employ to do it. He had therefore advertised for a personal assistant to take over the task for him. The fire had ruined his home and his life, killing both his parents and leaving his face scarred. He brought a hand to his cheek, feeling only the reassuring soft leather of his mask.
Eloise suddenly stopped in front of the window of the room she was in. Once it had been a music room, with a grand piano and a harp. His mother had loved to play both and he would sit and watch her. The view out of the window overlooked the park below, a beautiful lake in the distance. It was easily the best view in the house which was why his mother had loved to play music here. Eloise leaned across the window ledge towards the view and sighed deeply. It was fantastic. It seemed a shame that such a beautiful room needed so much doing to it. At a loss as to what she should do about it, she jotted down on her pad to bring a designer here as soon as possible.
The hours slipped by and when it got to six o'clock, Eloise sighed deeply. She had been through the entire ground floor of the house, making notes, taking photographs and had barely had time to eat the cheese sandwich she had brought with her or drink the tea that Jacob brought her.
"Leaving so soon, Miss Hart?" The voice caught her off guard and she looked up, startled to see a large figure standing in the shadows. She could only make out a bulky and very tall frame; she could not see the face at all.
"It's six o'clock, sir," she replied, hesitantly.
"You were an hour late this morning," he replied, shortly.
Eloise sighed. He was right, but her whole body ached and she knew she had to find her way back down all those country lanes to the main road to get home.
"I know that and I did apologise for it this morning, but there isn't really anything else I can do here tonight. Perhaps I could make the time up later in the week when I am a bit more familiar with the route?"
"You are in no position to make bargains," he growled at her. Eloise took a step back, nervously, suddenly worried. He was huge; if he really wanted to prevent her from leaving there was little she could do.
"Look, Mr… I'm sorry but you can't force me to stay here tonight. My working hours are finished. ."
"I will decide when your working hours are finished, Miss Hart," he replied, coldly. Eloise sighed deeply.
"Fine. What else do you want me to do? When can I go?"
"You can go now," he replied, to her surprise. "But I want you back here at seven tomorrow morning. You can make up the time then. If you are late though there will be consequences. Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir," she replied, just relieved that she was allowed to leave now before it got too dark.