Read an Excerpt
'Marry me. Come on. You know you want to!'
Ella Jayne Bailey Martinez tapped her finger on her lower lip and nodded her head several times as though trying to make up her mind.
Unfortunately Henri took this as an encouraging sign.
'I have my own set of wheels. You'll be able to motor anywhere you like in this town. What do you say, cutie? We could make some sweet music together!'
It is tempting. Although
Mr Dubois has already promised me the use of his senior citizen travel card. And it's hard to turn down that sort of offer.'
'Dubois? All promises. No action. Not like me, baby,' Henri replied with a saucy wink.
'Um. That's what I'm worried about. I'm a one-guy-at-a-time kind of girl, and I saw you two-timing me last night with the hotel receptionist. You handsome heartbreaker! Catch you later!'
Henri slammed his hand down hard on the arm of his wheelchair and muttered a vague expletive in French before shrugging his shoulders at Ella and replying in English.
Ella smiled and ruffled up what was left of his hair, before sashaying slowly down the corridor back to the kitchen. Without looking back, as though she knew that Henri was still following her every movement, Ella broke step, gave two exaggerated tight bottom wiggles, then glanced back at the grey-haired Romeo just as he winked at her with a twist of the head. 'That's my girl!'
And with a nodding smile Henri swung his wheelchair around with a rim twirl, and sped off at a surprising turn of speed towards the conservatory dining room, where a peal of raucous laughter echoed around the walls as the automatic doors slid open, then closed behind him.
'I hope my guests are not making life too exhausting for you! '
Ella grinned back at her friend Sandrine, who managed the small hotel where she worked as cocktail pianist whenever she couldand occasionally helped out at lunchtimes.
'They're the best! I could talk to them all day about old-style jazz. I grew up with that sort of music. Did you know that Henri spent three years in New Orleans? And his pals have just wolfed down three of my apple tarts! Musicians are the same wherever you go in the world! Food comes a close second to the tune! Even in France.'
Sandrine wrapped one arm around Ella's shoulder and grinned. 'Are you kidding? Those charmers might claim that they don't have a sweet tooth in their heads, but once they take a look at the dessert trolley? No will power whatsoever! Thanks again for helping me out at short notice. I have my hands full!'
'No problem. I was glad to help. Are you still fully booked for next weekend?'
'Every room! I've never had forty guests staying for a complete weekend before.'
Sandrine gave Ella an extra hug before releasing her with a warm smile. 'And I know who I have to thank for that! Now don't look so coy. I know that you told Nicole that this was the only hotel you could possibly recommend for all of the guests who are flying in for her birthday party next week. This is true, of course! But thank you all the same.'
'Well, she did ask for my opinion! I'm just so pleased that Nicole decided to celebrate her birthday at the farmhouse instead of staying in Paris. She visits so rarely these days.'
'Isn't that one of the advantages of looking after a holiday home? You get to enjoy a lovely house all to yourself for most of the year while Nicole is in Paris or travelling?'
Ella closed her eyes and grinned contentedly. 'You're right. I love the house and couldn't imagine living anywhere else except the Mas Tournesol. We're so lucky.' Then her eyes flicked open. 'Nicole deserves the best birthday party the old house has ever seen and I'm going to do my best to make sure that she gets it! After all, you are only sixty years young once in your life.'
'Absolutely! And don't forget. You know where to come for anything you need.'
Ella air kissed Sandrine on both cheeks and gave her a swift smile.
'You're a star! But now I'm going to be late for Dan when he gets home from school. See you tomorrow!'
Time to make her escape before Henri finished his afternoon coffee and the caffeine rush inspired him to come up with an even better offer.
'PSN Media have come back with an even better offer but are still dragging their heels on the employee numbers. I'm not sure how far we can push them on the benefits package without impacting the overall deal,' Matt explained, his exasperation clear even down a cell phone.
Sebastien Castellano drummed the fingers of both hands on the leather-covered steering wheel of his low-slung Italian sports car and fought to keep his blood pressure down by focusing on the rows of grapevines that stretched out from his parking spot to the low green hills and shrubby garrigue beyond the isolated narrow country road in the middle of the Languedoc.
He had just worked through the night and most of Thursday with Matt and a negotiation team from PSN Media in a stuffy conference room in Montpellier to pull together a deal that could save the jobs of the hundreds of employees who made up Castellano Tech in Australia.
And PSN Media still refused to take him seriously!
Yes, they were the premier telecoms company in the field worldwide, but this was his private company. The company he had created from nothing.
He was not going to stand back while PSN Media tried to buy him out with no regard for the welfare of his workforce and their families.
Until recently he had interviewed every single employee himself, and many had been loyal to him from the early days when he risked everything on a crazy idea for a digital media company. His team had built Castellano Tech into the top media company across Australia. And he was not going to let them down for the sake of a few dollars. Loyalty went both ways.
Shame that PSN Media could not see it that way. And unless they were prepared to change their stance, he would not be signing the deal on Monday. The chief executive of PSN Media would have to sail his private yacht out of Montpellier empty-handed.
Seb took a long breath before replying.
'I know you're working hard on this, Matt, but we made our position perfectly clear. PSN Media either guarantees the workforce keep their jobs and the same benefits package for at least the next two years.
Or I walk away. No compromise.'
His chief financial officer sighed on the other end of the telephone. 'It could cost you a lot of money, mate.'
Seb sighed out loud. PSN Media thought that every man had a price and that they could buy him off with money. Well, they were badly wrong if they thought that Sebastien Castellano's principles of looking after his staff could be bought, and he was the man who was going to prove it to them.
Seb paused before going on. Matt was only doing his job as Seb's second in command and doing it very well. He had lost just as many hours of sleep as Seb had over the past couple of weeks. They both needed a break.
'A few hours ago we told PSN Media that they had the weekend to come up with their final offer. Sorry, Matt, but nothing has changed during the time it has taken me to drive to the Languedoc. End of story.'
'As stubborn as ever!' Matt replied with a snort. 'Let me make the call. Then I suggest we both take time to do something different. Sleep might be nice, for example.'
'Best idea I've heard all day!' Seb added, trying to bring a lighter tone to his voice. 'Take the rest of the day off and I'll catch up tomorrow.'
'It's a deal! Maybe I'll go and see some of those wild flamingos you were telling me about. And say hello to Nicole for me. She must be thrilled you're in France in time for her birthday. Call you tomorrow!'
The cell phone clicked off, leaving Sebastien sitting silently cocooned in air-conditioned luxury and bristling with anticipation and frustration. This merger with PSN Media was the deal of a lifetime. Within six months the communication systems he had designed with his team in a converted garage in Sydney could be in use around the world!
He was so close to achieving his dream he felt like punching his fist into the air!
Yes. He could have gone global with his own design in time, but merging with PSN Media was the best and fastest way to roll out his award-winning technology.
After ten years of long days and longer nights he was so close to the biggest deal of his life, he could feel it!
Of course, there had been a heavy price to pay for the punishing workload he had given himself. He had left a series of failed relationships and missed family events behind in Sydney.
But it had been worth it.
A few days from now Castellano Tech could be part of a global company and he would have a seat on the board of directors with new responsibilities and a brilliant business future ahead of him. He would be working from his existing company offices in Sydneythe vibrant and exciting city that had provided him with means and opportunities to put his plans into action.
And he would have the time and money to work on a very special project.
Income from the sale of Castellano Tech would provide him with the finance and the technical resources to fully fund the Helene Castellano Foundation. His pilot schemes all over Australasia had already shown that access to modern technology and communication systems could make a difference in the remotest parts of the world. And he would commit the time and resources to make those projects work.
His mother, Helene, would have loved the idea.
He could hardly wait to get back to Sydney and start work. The team was already in place, the plans scoped outall that was needed was the final green light and a substantial part of the nine-figure sum that PSN Media were paying him for the merger.
But that would have to be fitted into next week's diary.
Today he had a much nicer assignment.
Today he was going to meet up with Nicole Lambert, the lovely woman who had been his stepmother for twelve tumultuous years before she divorced his father and moved back to Paris from Sydney. He had given her plenty of trouble as a teenager but she had stuck by him and supported his career choice every step of the waywith not much in the way of thanks at the time. Their relationship had only really taken off in the last few years they spent together in Sydneybut he still had a lot of making up to do.
When he'd agreed to start secret negotiations with PSN Media he had not known that the company had made their European headquarters in the south of France and the city of Montpellierand within driving distance from the old Castellano family house in the Languedoc where Nicole had arranged to hold her sixtieth birthday party.
For the first time in years, they would be in the same country within travelling distance at the same time.
Thinking back, he had to agree it was going to be a first.
He had barely managed to make it to her fiftieth birthday in Sydney after a major satellite disaster during a telecoms launch in Japan. Christmas and other family celebrations were out of the question, even before she divorced his father. So the fact that he was actually willing and able to attend her birthday party was something new.
Perhaps that was why he felt totally guilty about the fact that he was going to miss the party after all.
Nicole had been so delighted when he accepted her party invitation that she had insisted that he stay at the Castellano farmhouse rather than a grand hotel.
Of course, Nicole had not accused him directly of having his own agenda, but she must have suspected that something else was going on and he regretted not being able to tell her the truth about the business negotiations, especially when the meeting was brought forward a full week by PSN Media to coincide with the arrival of their CEO.
Which meant that if the deal went through as he hoped, a week from now he would be back in Sydney with a new job and a full workload. And not in the Languedoc helping Nicole to celebrate her birthday. But at least he could spend the weekend with her. That was something, even if he had to keep his cell phone turned on and be prepared to drive back to Matt at a moment's notice.
It was time to go and tell Nicole the bad news and apologise for missing her birthday. If he was lucky, she might forgive him. Yet again.
Free at last!
Ella pedalled a little faster for a few minutes to build up extra speed on the straight section of empty country road, then leant back on her bicycle saddle, stretched out both legs either side of the front wheel and lifted up her head to face the brilliant sunshine of an early July afternoon in the Languedoc.
The soft breeze cooled her bare arms and lower legs, and she could almost taste the salt from the Mediterranean only a few miles away to the south. The combination of sunshine and breeze was heavenly and she breathed a blissful sigh of sensual delight.
The familiar stillness and calm of the surrounding countryside acted like a stimulant to her tired head. Sandrine had called just after eight that morning to ask if she could come in to help serve lunch to a party of American jazz enthusiasts who were spending the weekend at the jazz festival in a nearby town.
How she wished she could go with them to the festival! It would be wonderful to spend time revelling in the thrill and excitement of the music she had grown up withthe music she had loved to sing and play professionally since she was sixteen. The music her parents still played for a living. Sometimes she missed her old life so much it hurt to think
about it. It was easier to block it out of her mind and focus on the joy of living in this lovely place. Dan had to come first. He was all that mattered now.
The downside of being a housekeeper was that occasionally the owner of the house she loved actually wanted to live in it! Nicole was lovely, kind and generous and had given her a home and a job when she needed it most. For that alone she was prepared to work harder than ever to make sure that Nicole's sixtieth birthday party was a brilliant success. For the first time since they moved here, the house was going to be alive and bursting with fun and laughter! Wonderful.
And then Nicole would be gone for a week or two before returning for the traditional August holiday break. Leaving Ella to spend precious school holidays having fun with Dan.
A warm grin cracked her face and she took a moment to take in the orderly rows of trained grapevines that fanned out from the road towards the low pine-clad hills on one side and the sea on the other. Birdsong and the rustle of the plane trees on the side of the road filled her ears. With the extra flapping of a tiny flag that Dan had fastened with half a roll of tape to the side of his cycle seat.
The simple pleasures of a six-year-old. That simple pennant fluttering in the breeze as they whipped along gave him such pure joy it would have been churlish to point out that it was a Spanish flag from his grandparents and not perhaps the most politically correct item for the south of France. No matter.
This part of the Languedoc was not like Nice or Marseilles. There were no bright city lights, busy city streets or trendy bars or four-star restaurants. This was the working rural farmland that made France so very special. Even the tourist season was short here, and local small hotels like Sandrine's were only truly busy between May and October when visitors flocked into the area to enjoy the wonderful beaches and small villages in the Carmargue or east to Provence.