She stared up at him, dazed, bewildered. She said thickly, ‘What the hell are you talking about? I came here to see Harry, and I’m not leaving until I do.’
‘Yes, you are,’ he said. ‘With a police escort, if necessary. Here.’ He walked over to her, briskly peeling off some of the notes, and before she could read his intentions he pushed them down the front of her dress between her breasts, the long fingers casually brushing her rounded flesh.
She gave a small cry of outrage and stepped back, dragging out the money and throwing it at him.
She said hoarsely, ‘How dare you—how dare you touch me—you bastard?’
‘You mean touching’s not part of the act?’ He was unfazed, even mocking. ‘Now, there’s a novelty.’ He paused for a moment, glancing towards the door. ‘Oh, God,’ he said wearily. ‘The bloody cavalry. Just what I didn’t want.’
The door was flung open and a younger man came in, sandy-haired and faintly flushed. ‘I’m the search party, old boy,’ he announced, faintly slurring his words. ‘Your uncle Giles is asking for you.’
Then as his gaze discovered the room’s other occupant he halted, and let out a long, slow whistle. ‘You sly devil, you,’ he said, grinning. ‘Where did she come from?’
‘How odd you should ask.’ The drawl was even more pronounced. ‘That, my dear Jack, was going to be my question—to you.’
Jack’s brows lifted, and he began to laugh. ‘You mean some live entertainment’s arrived after all?’ He raised his hands in mock surrender. ‘Nothing to do with me, my friend. I seriously didn’t dare, not when I heard your uncle Giles was planning to honour us with his presence. Couldn’t see old Harry wanting to get his kit off and frolic with his bride’s father looking on.’
He gave another appreciative whistle. ‘But she’s a bit adorable, eh? Not the usual type at all. Fancy giving a private show down here, darling? Just for the two of us?’
‘No, she doesn’t.’ The retort from her adversary was clipped and immediate. ‘You may be drunk enough, but I’m not. And anyway, we have a party to go back to, so she’s leaving.’
He took her arm, but she wrenched herself free. ‘Let go of me,’ she said stormily, a hectic flush spreading along her cheekbones. ‘You don’t understand. This isn’t—I’m not what you obviously think. I know Harry. I’m a friend of his, and I have to see him tonight—talk to him. It’s terribly important.’
‘Harry’s friends are upstairs at his stag party,’ he said. ‘And you definitely weren’t on the guest list. Now go.’ He took her by the shoulders and turned her, pushing her inexorably towards the doorway.
She struggled against his grasp, aware of the raincoat slipping from her shoulders as they reached the hall. Her bag sliding away too, with the coat. Hitting the floor.
She reached down, trying to grab for it, and stumbled, almost sinking to her knees, but his fingers were like iron, pulling her up again.
The porter was on his feet, and there were other people there too—men—some of them on the stairs, but others right there in the hall, surrounding her, groping at her, trying to reach her zip, laughing and shouting, ‘Off. Off.’
She felt the back of her dress tear, and cried out in fear. Knew the shock of her tormentors’ hands on her bare skin.
And she suddenly saw Harry in the turmoil of grinning, hooting faces, standing towards the back. He was as white as a ghost, his mouth open in shock, staring at her as if she was his worst nightmare.
She called out to him, her voice high and desperate with panic. ‘Harry—help me—please. You must …’
But he didn’t move or speak. Only his expression changed, going from surprise to guilt. And from guilt, she realised, to cold fury.
It was then that she stopped fighting. That she let the hard male hands still on her shoulders propel her towards the club’s open front door.
Where they halted. She found herself swung, not gently, to face him. She saw the blue eyes skim her with contempt, and, gasping, wrenched herself free of him at last, her naked skin feeling flayed where he’d touched her.
He took her coat and bag from the sandy-haired man, who’d appeared beside him, and tossed them to her.
He said softly and unsmilingly, ‘I’d consider a change of career, darling, if you want to make a living. I don’t think you’re cut out for this.’
Then the door closed, leaving her outside in the rain-washed darkness, and more alone than she had ever been in her life.
Two years later
‘MY FATHER retiring?’ Darcy Langton gave a derisive snort. ‘Only with the help of six pallbearers and a memorial service.’
‘Darcy, dear,’ her aunt said reproachfully. ‘That’s not nice. Not nice at all.’
Neither, thought Darcy, is my father, a lot of the time. But out of respect for her aunt Winifred, she didn’t voice it aloud.
‘Is this why I’ve been summoned home in such haste?’ she demanded instead. ‘To hear about his latest whim?’
Her aunt sighed. ‘I think it’s gone much further than that. He is actually standing down as managing director of Werner Langton, and plans to hand over as chairman too, just as soon as his successor finds his feet.’
‘But there was no mention of this before I went away.’ Darcy, who’d been standing by the window, staring at the sunlit autumn gardens, came back and seated herself on the sofa beside her aunt, stretching out slim, denim-clad legs. ‘Yet, if it’s this far advanced, he must have been planning it for ages.’
But then, she thought suddenly, we all have our secrets. Don’t we?
Restlessly she flicked back a tendril of pale blonde hair that had escaped from the loose knot on top of her head.
She said abruptly, ‘This successor you mentioned—has he already been appointed? Is he a member of the board?’
‘No, he’s not.’ Aunt Freddie frowned slightly. ‘In fact, he seems rather an odd choice. Much younger than I’d have expected.’
Darcy stared at her. ‘You’ve met him, then?’
‘Your father brought him down here a few weekends ago. They spent most of the time shut up in the study, so that must be when the deal was done.’
She shrugged. ‘Your father seems very pleased with his choice. He says Werner Langton has become too complacent, and needs the injection of dynamism and drive that this young man will provide.’
‘How on earth did they meet?’
‘Your father went to the USA specially, because he’d heard of this whizkid who’d been there for the past year, troubleshooting various projects that had got into difficulties and turning them around.’ She paused. ‘His name is Joel Castille. Does that mean anything to you?’
Darcy shrugged. ‘Absolutely not. It’s quite an odd name, so I think I’d have remembered it.’
‘It seems he had an English mother, but a French father.’ Aunt Freddie devoted a moment to silent consideration. ‘Quite striking looks, too. I don’t do many portraits, as a rule, but he has a face I’d like to paint.’
Darcy’s lips twitched faintly. ‘Something to hang in the boardroom, maybe. You should suggest it to him.’
‘No, darling,’ Aunt Freddie said wryly. ‘I really wouldn’t dare—as you’ll understand when you meet him. Your father’s throwing a reception for him next week at the Templar Hotel. Introducing him to the company, and trade Press. And, naturally, he wishes you to act as his hostess for the occasion. You’re so much better at these London things than I am.’