Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Shakespeare Masquerade- An excerpt

Read an Excerpt

Barrister-Wells Auction Rooms,

The auctioneer lifted his bespectacled gaze to the back of the red velvet flocked wallpapered hall and acknowledged the latest bid with a perfunctory nod of his head.

“One point two million pounds!” he said.

The room sighed a collective breath. Hushed whispers and low murmers filled the shocked silence once more as curiosity took the place of surprise. The gathered guests twisted and turned in antique gilded chairs, craning their necks for a glimpse of the man who had raised the bar by more than half a million pounds.

One point two million pounds?

“Ladies. Gentlemen,” the auctioneer pleaded.

He raised an imploring hand. “May I have your attention? One moment. Please—”

The sharp crack of his gavel on the sound block rang out with firm conviction through the vaulter Elizabethan hall and garnered an immediate reaction. Voices quieted and faces froze.

The auctioneer cast a steady gaze around the room and, certain he’d regained everyone’s full attention, focused on the young woman sitting five rows back from the front, near the aisle.

He pursed his lips. “Madam, the bid stands against you at one point two million pounds. Do I hear one point three million for Cadfan Abbey?”

Magdalena Perez sat with bated breath and curled her toes in her tall boots. She pinched the glossy property magazine tighter between shaking fingers and squared her shoulders against the weight of stares now singling her out.

How could this have happened?

She had been home free. She’d easily topped the highest bid with her offer of five hundred thousand pounds. The auctioneer had accepted it as a credible bid. He’d raised his gavel to close the deal—

Then came the curt, masculine voice from somewhere at the back of the hall, scuttling her chances and shattering her hopes of winning the bid for Cadfan Abbey.

Unlike everyone else, she’d refused to acknowledge this man or be impressed by his smart-assed tactics. And now all eyes had turned to her. Perhaps, he was watching her, too, waiting for her to lose her nerve.

She grimaced.

One point two million pounds. Absurd!

Every property developer worth his or her salt knew the twelfth-century abbey founded by French Savigniac monks wasn’t worth even half that much. It lay practically in ruins. Although, unlike a great many of its contemporaries, it’d fared far better throughout the centuries, having survived storms, wars and even Henry the Eighth’s determined efforts to dissolve it. And yet, despite its ruinous structure, there was enormous potential to rebuild.

She shifted uneasily in the Louis XVI giltwood chair. She crossed her legs at the knees and tried to mask the nervous tick of her booted heel against the highly polished wooden floor.

Perez Developments teetered on the brink of bankruptcy—a situation that wasn’t set to improve any time soon in the current economic environment—certainly not with clients readily reneging on their contracts left, right and center. But to sue for breach of contract cost time she didn’t have and money she couldn’t spare.

She squirmed a little more in her seat. Today’s auction had been about so much more than saving her mother’s company, but she harshly shoved those reasons to the back of her mind.

The Town Councilors had called on independent property developers to bid for the abbey on their behalf. However, there had been a proviso. The Grade II listed building would be renovated specifically as sheltered accommodation to house the increasing number of young women living on the town’s streets. Its main aim would be to prepare these young outcasts for work, college and life, without thought of profit.

That meant the small developers had little or no chance of ever recouping their investment on this vast and selfless project. Many had refused, but Magdalena had persuaded her mother, founder of Perez Developments, to accept the caveat.

The Council didn’t have the funds to buy the abbey, but the growing problem had to be addressed. So, she’d sold her mother the vision of a profitable future, convincing her of the financial benefits Perez Developments would ultimately reap if their bid proved successful. None of which meant anything anymore. How could she have been so careless?

The Council’s not-so-secret intent to block, delay or bury beneath a pile of red tape any and all planning permission submitted by richer, private investors with shareholders to appease placed her firmly in a position to successfully bid for the abbey. She’d been so sure of herself, her ability and her success.

And she’d done her homework.

She’d exhaustively researched the remaining competition. None of the smaller companies had assets substantial enough to greatly exceed the abbey’s asking price. And yet, the inconceivable had still happened. She’d not only lost the abbey, but she’d probably lost the Council its only chance to acquire it. The fallout from this didn’t bear thinking about.

She released a silent breath.

What was she going to tell her mother…or their employees for that matter? She’d practically guaranteed the personnel at Perez Developments their jobs. She’d let everyone down, herself included.

God, what a mess.

“Madam, will you give me one point three million pounds?”

She would probably have to sell the entire bulk of her own assets to pay for the abbey, not to mention the exorbitant commission on top of that! But she couldn’t leave without hazarding one final bid. And maybe, just maybe it would be enough.

She inhaled slowly and deeply and mentally crossed her fingers. She caught the auctioneer’s eye and nodded.

The stout, bespectacled man exhaled with visible relief and returned the gesture. He straightened and squared his shoulders and looked sternly about the room.

“Thank you, madam. One point three million pounds from the young lady seated to my right. Do I hear one point four?”

Magdalena kept her gaze firmly fixed on the auctioneer’s face.

Let the hammer fall. Please.

An unexpected hum of excited voices at the back of the hall interrupted the proceedings and drew everyone's attention. Heads turned as one. The auctioneer opened his mouth to protest the renewed disturbance but then abruptly closed it. His eyebrows shot into his hairline, prompting Magdalena to glance over her shoulder to see what or who had hijacked the room.

“Miss Smythe, Lord McFarlane,” the auctioneer said. “Welcome.”

Her fingers tightened about the brochure. She hadn’t been prepared for the sharp slam of jealousy in her gut. She sucked in a shuddering breath and tensed her spine at the name exploding through her mind.

Niall McFarlane?

She clamped her lips together, surprised at the idiotic tears stinging the back of her eyes. Whatever Niall and she had shared had ended twelve years ago, yet the mere thought of him being in the same room was enough to send the cold shadow of their past slithering down her spine.

She swept her eyes closed and suppressed the onslaught of unbidden memories, of being eighteen, chaste and in love.

He drew level to her seat and strode obliviously past. She must have stopped breathing, although she was unaware of it, for now she drew in a long, ragged breath. She slumped back against the chair and clutched the catalog even tighter to her chest, but couldn’t bring herself to look at his face. Not yet.

Niall McFarlane was a celebrity, a king in the business world. Which was rather apt considering he could reputedly trace his ancestry back to arguably the last king of Wales, Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon. And from all she’d read about McFarlane Industries and Real Estate. Niall wasn’t only revered but respected by his peers.

She covertly eyed the elegant beauty standing at his side. It was hardly a surprise to see Polly Smythe on his arm. Polly had been Lady McFarlane’s choice of a bride for her son twelve years ago, and now it looked as if a public engagement was finally on the cards. Their on-again, off-again relationship had been the cause of much speculation in the years they’d been together, but neither party had officially confirmed nor denied the persistent rumor.

For one foolish moment in time, she’d thought Niall wanted her, had loved her and hadn’t cared she was the housekeeper’s daughter. Or didn’t come from old money, have the right clothes or moved in higher social circles. How wrong she was.

Niall brought his mouth closer to Polly’s ear. She ignored the unaccustomed skip of her heartbeat. He tightened his arm about the redhead’s slender waist. He spoke, and Polly’s pink-glossed lips curved into a broad smile. Polly pressed her hand against his chest and playfully tossed her head, stirring the hair spilling down her back.

She forced her gaze back to the auctioneer.

“Madam,” he said, “the bid is back to you. I have one point five million pounds from Lord McFarlane. Will you give me one point six?”

Breathe, Magda.

She could scarce feel her fingers. She couldn’t have clasped the brochure any tighter if she tried. Twelve years was a long time, perhaps Niall wouldn’t recognize her. She wore contacts now, instead of the thick-rimmed glasses she used to wear, and her loose curls hung past her shoulders.

She reached a hand to her throat and swallowed her disappointment. Then shook her head once in defeat.

“One point five million pounds, going once,” the auctioneer bellowed. “One point five million pounds, going twice. Make no mistake, I’m going to sell Cadfan Abbey—”

She rose calmly to her feet and coaxed her legs down the center aisle toward the back of the hall. She didn’t need to stay and hear the auctioneer confirm her failure or witness Niall’s pleased look and Polly’s satisfied smile.

Her heels tapped conspicuously against the polished floor, and she fought the urge to run. She reached the exit door, yet stilled her hand at the sharp, definitive crack of the gavel against the sound block.

“Sold to Lord McFarlane for one point five million pounds!”

Enthusiastic applause and congratulatory noises rippled around the room, yet her name whispered above the din on a murmur only her heart could hear. She spun abruptly on her heel and instinctively met Niall’s gaze across the crowded hall.

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