‘No,’ she said, and hesitated. ‘Why are you doing this, Dad? You’re still years off retirement age. You could have introduced this man at a lower level. At least let him prove himself, before you give him the top job.’
‘I’ve given my whole life to Werner Langton.’ His voice was suddenly harsh. ‘Travelled the world building bridges, digging tunnels, putting up shopping malls. I was in Venezuela when your mother died. I’ve thought a thousand times that if I’d been here, I might have been able to do something. That she could still be with us now.
‘I plan to enjoy the time that’s left to me.’ He gave a grim smile. ‘Let the company swallow up another willing sacrifice. I’ve paid my dues. And Joel Castille will follow me, whatever the rest of them think.’
She said slowly, ‘It didn’t occur to you to speak to me first—talk things over.’
‘And you’d have advised me, would you—out of your vast experience?’ He shook his head. ‘I make my own decisions. Just be pleasant to my choice of managing director, Darcy, and see the evening goes smoothly. That’s your forte.’
He looked her over, his lips pursing irritably at the jeans and sweatshirt she was wearing. ‘And buy yourself a new dress—something glamorous that’ll make you look like a woman. Don’t forget you have a bad impression to wipe away.’
She felt her hands tighten into fists, but made herself unclench them. Even smile. ‘Yes, Father,’ she said quietly. ‘Of course.’
‘The guest of honour is late,’ Aunt Freddie murmured. ‘And your father is getting agitated.’
‘Not my problem,’ Darcy returned softly, smiling radiantly over her untouched glass of champagne. ‘He can’t expect me to go out and scour the highways and byways for the guy.’ She paused. ‘Perhaps he knows there’s dissension in the ranks over his appointment, and has changed his mind.’
Her aunt shuddered faintly. ‘Don’t even think it. Can you imagine the fallout?’
‘Yes, but at least you’re here to help me cope. I’m truly grateful, Freddie. I know how you hate London.’
‘But occasionally, a visit is inevitable.’ Her aunt looked around her, and sighed. ‘What a disagreeable evening. All these resentful faces.’
‘Plus a drunken waiter, and a waitress spilling a tray of canapés all over the finance director’s wife,’ Darcy reminded her softly.
‘They may turn out to be the high spots of the party.’ Aunt Freddie turned to survey her niece. ‘You look very lovely, darling, but does it always have to be black?’
Darcy glanced down at her figure-skimming voile dress, with its narrow straps and the bias-cut skirt that swirled as she moved.
‘This is a compromise,’ she said. ‘I was looking for sackcloth and ashes.’
‘Well, start celebrating instead,’ her aunt said with open relief. ‘Because the errant guest has finally made it.’ She sighed deeply. ‘Oh, for a sketch pad.’
Amused, Darcy turned towards the doorway. A group of Werner Langton executives was already clustering round the latecomer, and, for a moment, her view was blocked by her father’s commanding figure.
She ought to join them, she thought. Play her part in the meeting and greeting.
She took a step, then the group shifted, and she saw him. And, sick with shock, recognised him. Confronted the harrowing, unforgettable image she’d carried for two years—the tall figure with black hair, and eyes as cold as a northern sea in his tanned face.
Not a bad dream or a hallucination. But here—now—in this room—breathing the same air. And looking round him.
Almost, she thought, dry-mouthed, as if he was searching for someone …
DARCY COULDN’T move. Could barely think straight.
She gulped air. Any other social event, and she could have contrived to vanish discreetly. But not this one. Not tonight. There was no way.
She tried desperately to compose herself. To be rational.
He won’t remember, she tried to tell herself frantically. Why should he? It was two years ago, for heaven’s sake, in a dimly lit room. She’d changed since then, she was slimmer, had different hair. She was older.
And he wouldn’t be expecting to see her either.
But, as their eyes met at last across the room, Darcy found herself reeling under a look that froze her flesh to her backbone.
For a heartbeat she was stunned, then she lifted her chin and returned the look with as much additional venom as she could muster.
Only to realise, with horror, that he was actually crossing the room towards her. Standing straight in front of her, when he must know, if he possessed a grain of sense or tact, that she would never want to see or speak to him again.
That the looks they’d exchanged had said it all.
She was aware of Aunt Freddie’s surprised glance at her as the taut silence lengthened, then her quiet voice saying, ‘Mr Castille, how nice to see you again. I don’t think you’ve met my niece. Darcy, this is Werner Langton’s new managing director, Joel Castille.’
She was prepared to bluff it out. To take the only option—shake hands and turn away.
But he was not.
He said softly, ‘Actually, Miss Langton and I have met before, but only briefly. It was two years ago, around the time of Harry Metcalfe’s wedding. I’m sure she remembers.’
‘No,’ Darcy returned with total and chilling clarity. ‘I do not.’
‘Are you sure it was the Metcalfe wedding?’ Aunt Freddie was wrinkling her brow. ‘Because none of us actually attended it. We were invited as neighbours, of course, but only out of politeness, I’m sure. And Darcy was in London, staying with friends.’ She turned to the unsmiling statue beside her. ‘You were ill there, weren’t you, darling? A severe migraine, if I recall. Such a shame.’
‘A shame, indeed,’ Joel Castille said gravely. There were twin devils dancing in the cold blue eyes. ‘Do you suffer much from migraines, Miss Langton?’
‘As a matter of fact,’ she said, ‘I feel as if I might be developing one right now.’
‘And we didn’t meet at the wedding itself,’ he added, turning to her aunt. ‘But at one of the parties beforehand. Isn’t that right, Miss Langton?’
‘Your memory is clearly better than mine,’ she said icily. ‘I have no recollection of you at all, Mr Castille.’
‘What a pity,’ he said lightly. ‘Now, I found our encounter electrifying—quite unforgettable.’ His eyes went over her with that same sensual male appraisal that she’d never quite been able to erase from her mind. The look that suggested she was standing in front of him, unclothed. His loaded smile seemed to leave a bruise. ‘And I look forward to renewing our acquaintance.’
As he moved away, Aunt Freddie said in quiet reproach, ‘Darcy, what were you thinking of? You were almost rude to Mr Castille.’
Rude? thought Darcy, shock now battling with fury inside her. I’m only sorry I didn’t kick him where it hurts, and throw up all over his shoes.
She said shortly, ‘I didn’t find him quite as irresistible as he clearly does himself.’ She shrugged. ‘But, what the hell? Hopefully, we won’t have to meet again.’ Please God. Please God.
The evening became like some weird game of hide-and-seek, she thought afterwards. She tried to be totally unobtrusive. He let her know, without coming near her, that he knew exactly where she was at any given moment. And she flinched under that knowledge.
At the same time, he could work a room, she acknowledged without pleasure. She could actually