Whilst on holiday on Corfu a chance encounter with Georgiou Spirakos, a Greek business acquaintance, triggers far more than a simple career change for the high-flying Jennifer Anderson. Two days later, thanks to her extensive experience in the international property market, the multi-lingual Jennifer finds herself involved in a meeting between Georgiou Spirakos, a Saudi merchant banker Prince and Hans Müller, the reclusive head of the German FKW Group
The meeting sweeps the young English girl into a world of multi-million dollar developments spanning Europe, Saudi Arabia, Florida and Japan. And, thanks to her imaginatively simple solution to a problem called Leipzig, into a parallel world centred on establishing a Swiss-based Charity Foundation to provide focused and long-term support for a range of youth projects across Europe.
Jennifer's evolving relationship with the German magnate, plus her determination to succeed in her career - and a feisty attitude towards relationships - effortlessly adds a further dimension to the story.
Longer excerpt - from chapter two
Néa Limáni, Corfu Town - Wednesday, 25th June
Müller's discrete and white-coated steward appeared immediately they stepped onto the deck. The German magnate shook his head. 'No Johann, it's late and beginning to get cold, we'll pour ourselves a drink in the saloon.'
The wine, the luxury of her surroundings, the soft background music and the apparent success of the evening made Jennifer realise just how tired she was. From the depths of his enormous armchair Müller watched as her eyes began to close. His voice was soft, perhaps a trifle amused. 'It was most unfair of Spirakos to involve you like that - after all, you had come to Corfu on holiday with your friends. But, nevertheless, I'm most appreciative of your help.' Crossing the room to top up her wine glass he smiled. 'On top of which you've spent the entire evening sipping at mineral water; just playing with a couple of glasses of wine'.
Sitting back in his armchair he looked questioningly at her. 'Jennifer, you continue to intrigue me and, before I let you disappear into the night like some modern-day Cinderella, I'd like to know a little more about you and your background.'
From the soft depths of her luxurious armchair Jennifer, not sure exactly what her contribution to the evening had been, smiled back. I read the report and made lots of notes; none of which we got round to discussing.
Under her feet, as she instinctively kicked off her shoes, the carpet was soft, thick and warm. It seemed incredible that she was sitting in the saloon of this impossibly luxurious yacht well after midnight sipping wine and chatting quietly to one of the most influential - and probably one of the wealthiest - property magnates in the world.
But, for some unfathomable reason, she was sure she'd known Hans Müller for years.
Tucking her feet under her Jennifer smiled at him. 'What is there that you don't already know about me? I'm almost 28, born in Paris and an only child. Father is English and a doctor and worked in Paris with the World Health Organisation for a long time. That's where he met my mother; she's French and, as a result, I've been bi-lingual from the moment I started to talk. We moved to the UK when I was 14. Father is now a consultant with one of the big London hospitals and does a lot of advisory work with the government and the World Health Organisation on communicable diseases.'
She smiled at the next memory. 'After a strict Parisian convent upbringing an English comprehensive school was more than just a slight cultural shock. Somehow I coped - I even managed to hang on to my virginity until an almost ancient seventeen.'
What on earth made me tell him that...?
'After that came Cambridge - I took a First in Modern Languages at Queens - followed by an MBA from Harvard. When I got back to England I joined Forbes Ellis who felt I was a suitable candidate for their fast-track graduate scheme. I ended up working on international property matters with one of the partners - and even managed my ARICS last year.'
Hans Müller nodded thoughtfully. If I remember the folklore, Harvard is supposed to develop individual brilliance whilst Yale concentrates on producing first class team players. So Carl was right: our Miss Anderson is a top-class professional and something of a loner. An intriguing combination.
'Thanks to a bit of help from over-indulgent parents I bought my own flat and car a couple of years ago. Languages have always been easy for me, I'm fluent in English, French, German and Spanish, more than passable in Italian and,' it was a slightly self-conscious expression 'as the Prince most definitely noticed, I can even manage a few words in Arabic.'
She didn't even think about her next comment. 'I've never married, even though, just once, a couple of years ago, it came close. But since it would have meant going to the States - and probably giving up my career - I said no. Colin went to California and I stayed in London; he got married soon after and, a few months ago, I heard she was expecting their second baby.
'Somehow that particular bit of news hurt far more than when we decided to go our separate ways.'
Abruptly, with an obvious effort and an apologetic smile, she broke the brief silence. 'Sorry... At the time, like most career girls, I suppose I was looking for the proverbial Mr Right. But now...?' To Hans Müller the shrug of her shoulders was as brittle as it was eloquent.
For some reason there was something more she just had to explain. 'Peter and I came on holiday to Corfu with Sally and her boyfriend. We've known each other for about six months; he's a junior partner with a big firm of architects in London but, almost from the beginning, I think we both knew it wasn't going develop into anything serious.'
Jennifer, snuggling into the deep safe comfort of her armchair, paused and smiled at the German.
'That's all there is about me. Now it's your turn.'
He looked slightly surprised. Probably because it's not the sort of thing multi-millionaires expect to be asked. Suddenly he returned her smile. 'All right, if you insist - but on one condition: that you stop me immediately it gets boring.
'I think you know my grandfather started an engineering business sometime between the two World wars. It ended up with six plants specialising in precision engineering; the Nazis commandeered them in 1937 and used the factories for aircraft production. My parents managed to get out of Germany in the autumn of 1938; I was born in Switzerland the following year and spent the war in the French Canton of Neuchatel.'
Müller, Jennifer suddenly realised, had switched from German into near-faultless English. 'I can easily explain... It sounds ridiculous but, as the company grew, protocol suddenly decreed that everyone must use German when talking to the chairman. The fact that, after university in the States, I spent four years working in South America was somehow overlooked. I can get by quite happily in the South American dialects of Spanish and Portuguese - but I'd feel a little more comfortable if, just between the two of us, we could settle for German, English or French.'
As Jennifer smiled he went on with his story.
'The factories were bombed out of existence during 1944. After the war the Allied authorities returned two of them to us. The other plants and investments in East Germany disappeared until, with the break-up of the East German regime a couple of years ago, they resurfaced.
'Our mutual Greek friend has yet to discover that the holding company owns, in addition to Leipzig, two other derelict sites in what used to be East Germany. One just outside Dresden and the other to the north, on the Baltic coast.'
All sitting on the balance sheet at some a ridiculous pre-war valuation or an equally stupid post-war, bomb-damaged, write-off figure... Christ.
Hans Müller, as he looked carefully at Jennifer, was absolutely certain he'd known her for years. Carl and Simon Hayton are convinced she's one of the best up-and-coming professionals in the international property market.
Jennifer shook her head as the German reached towards the wine cooler then, having topped up his own almost full glass, resumed his story. 'After the war my father took over control of the company and, with the post-war opportunities for rebuilding in Germany, France and Italy, switched it from precision engineering into construction.'
He smiled. 'Unlike you I even found time - in 1962 - to get married; a year later we had a son.
'I took over the group after my father died and did a lot of work in expanding our activities in Europe and then, much later, in the Caribbean and Central American areas. As it grew I quickly discovered I had to leave much of the day-to-day running of the companies to their executive directors. My involvement soon became the overall management in terms of both financial control and long-term strategy.
'Which, of course, is the reason behind this evening's meeting and,' the sweep of his hand took in the elegance of the entire yacht, 'neatly brings us back to the Princess.
'I bought her in 1987, in a moment of indulgence a couple of years after my wife died from cancer. The yacht had been used for charter work in the Caribbean area, the company owning her had failed and she was being offered for sale at an absurd price. My initial thoughts were to mix business with pleasure, probably spending a couple of months each year on the yacht and chartering her for the rest of the season.
'I was so pleased with the idea that, in late 1988, I suggested that my son, daughter-in-law and Analise, my young granddaughter, should fly to the States for a holiday. The idea was for them to spend a few days in New York followed by couple of weeks in Florida visiting Disney World and then, after Christmas, join the yacht for a cruise in the Caribbean.'
For the first time Jennifer noticed the silver framed photographs on the occasional table alongside the wine cooler. The first was of a young man perhaps a couple of years her junior; in the background was an elegant country house. In the second the same young man had an arm round the waist of a smiling and extremely attractive blonde; in front of them was a laughing girl of about four.
On the verge of saying something complimentary about his family Jennifer stopped, abruptly and painfully aware of the black rims to each photograph. Müller paused as he caught her look, his voice suddenly flat, his face expressionless.
'They flew out of Frankfurt. On a flight that ended high over Scotland.'
In that moment the power and wealth of the man sitting across the room vanished. In front of her sat an ordinary human being, the enormity of his loss far beyond Jennifer's ability to comprehend.
Müller held up a restraining hand as Jennifer got to her feet, the pained look in her eyes unmistakable. 'No, please; it was a long time ago and there were other people who suffered far more from that particular atrocity.'
To her relief, as she dropped back into the armchair, he smiled. 'Although the yacht came with a very competent crew she helped me enormously. In the months after that particular evil I learnt a lot of new skills.
'These days I use her for a month during the summer and again at Christmas, my brokers generally manage to charter her for the rest of the year in both the Mediterranean and Caribbean.' He chuckled. 'So you see that, despite what the media sometimes claim, I haven't become a complete recluse. Modern communications make it easy to keep in touch and, these days, we're never very far from an airport. I also have a small but very efficient personal office in Frankfurt.
'I like to spend Christmas in the sun, if possible with a business acquaintance and his family. During the rest of the year I try to spend a certain amount of time at the house at Rüdesheim; it's at the south of the Rhine Valley, only a short drive from our offices on Neue Mainzerstrasse. The estate was my grandfather's and, as you've already discovered, sometimes produces some excellent wines.'
As Müller re-filled her wineglass Jennifer knew that Spirakos had totally misjudged the situation. Müller had absolutely no interest in the financial value of Leipzig - yet there had to be something, something that would persuade him to see the site developed.
The glimmering of an idea formed at the back of her mind as the background music changed, as Liszt's soft and haunting Lebensraum gave way to Chopin's even more evocative Third Étude in E Major. Thoughts about Leipzig faded as she found herself trying to recall the words Richard Tauber had, a lifetime ago, set to that poignantly beautiful piano study.
Müller, not understanding her far away look, smiled. 'Jennifer, I think there's been more than enough talk about business and the vicissitudes of life for one evening. I've detained you far too long, it's very late and I'm sure you're very tired. It would also be unthinkable if I were to let you drive back to the villa or to an hotel. There are six unoccupied staterooms on the Princess; any one of which would be delighted to have you as a guest for the night.
'We will talk further in the morning - and please do not worry about our Greek friend, he has been told it would probably be too late for you to drive back. Johann will show you the way and, of course, find anything you may need.'
In that moment there was, for both of them, only the beauty of the music and the half-remembered, emotive lyrics of How Deep is the Night. As their eyes met and held, something unfathomable flashed between them; in that instant they both knew exactly what was about to happen; how, with absolute inevitability, their evening was to end.