His Final Bargain

By: Melanie Milburne
CHAPTER ONE


IT WAS THE meeting Eliza had been anticipating with agonising dread for weeks. She took her place with the four other teachers in the staffroom and prepared herself for the announcement from the headmistress.

‘We’re closing.’

The words fell into the room like the drop of a guillotine. The silence that followed echoed with a collective sense of disappointment, despair and panic. Eliza thought of her little primary school pupils with their sad and neglected backgrounds so similar to her own. She had worked so hard to get them to where they were now. What would happen to them if their small community-based school was shut down? They already had so much going against them, coming from such underprivileged backgrounds. They would never survive in the overcrowded mainstream school system. They would slip between the cracks, just like their parents and grandparents had done.

Like she had almost done.

The heartbreaking cycle of poverty and neglect would continue. Their lives—those little lives that had so much potential—would be stymied, ruined, and possibly even destroyed by delinquency and crime.

‘Is there nothing we can do to keep things going for a little while at least?’ Georgie Brant, the Year Three teacher asked. ‘What about another bake sale or a fair?’

The headmistress, Marcia Gordon, shook her head sadly. ‘I’m afraid no amount of cakes and cookies are going to keep us afloat at this stage. We need a large injection of funds and we need it before the end of term.’

‘But that’s only a week away!’ Eliza said.

Marcia sighed. ‘I know. I’m sorry but that’s just the way it is. We’ve always tried to keep our overheads low, but with the economy the way it is just now it’s made it so much harder. We have no other choice but to close before we amass any more debt.’

‘What if some of us take a pay cut or even work without pay?’ Eliza suggested. ‘I could go without pay for a month or two.’ Any longer than that and things would get pretty dire. But she couldn’t bear to stand back and do nothing. Surely there was something they could do? Surely there was someone they could appeal to for help…a charity or a government grant.

Something—anything.

Before Eliza could form the words Georgie had leaned forward in her chair and spoke them for her. ‘What if we appeal for public support? Remember all the attention we got when Lizzie was given that teaching award last year? Maybe we could do another press article showing what we offer here for disadvantaged kids. Maybe some filthy-rich philanthropist will step out of the woodwork and offer to keep us going.’ She rolled her eyes and slumped back in her seat dejectedly. ‘Of course, it would help if one of us actually knew someone filthy-rich.’

Eliza sat very still in her seat. The hairs on the back of her neck each stood up one by one and began tingling at the roots. A fine shiver moved over her skin like the rush of a cool breeze. Every time she thought of Leo Valente her body reacted as if he was in the room with her. Her heart picked up its pace as she brought those darkly handsome features to mind…

‘Do you know anyone, Lizzie?’ Georgie asked, turning towards her.

‘Um…no,’ Eliza said. ‘I don’t mix in those sorts of circles.’ Any more.

Marcia clicked her pen on and off a couple of times, her expression thoughtful. ‘I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to try. I’ll make a brief statement to the press. Even if we could stay open until Christmas it would be something.’ She stood up and gathered her papers off the table. ‘I’m sending the letter to the parents in tomorrow’s post.’ She sighed again. ‘For those of you who believe in miracles, now is a good time to pray for one.’

Eliza saw the car as soon as she turned the corner into her street. It was prowling slowly like a black panther on the hunt, its halogen headlights beaming like searching eyes. It was too dark inside the car to see the driver in any detail, but she immediately sensed it was a man and that it was her he was looking for. A telltale shiver passed over her like the hand of a ghost as the driver expertly guided the showroom-perfect Mercedes into the only available car space outside her flat.

Her breath stalled in her throat as a tall, dark-haired, well dressed figure got out from behind the wheel. Her heart jolted against her ribcage and her pulse quickened. Seeing Leo Valente face to face for the first time in four years created a shockwave through her body that left her feeling disoriented and dizzy. Even her legs felt shaky as if the ground beneath her had suddenly turned to jelly.

Why was he here? What did he want? How had he found her?

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