She saw her father smiling expansively, not even bothering to conceal his triumph that the first hurdle, at least, had been cleared with consummate ease.
But she found her own heart sinking.
It was ludicrous to hope that her desperate prayer would be answered, and that Joel Castille could simply be—dismissed from her life, as if he’d never existed. He was only too real. And letting her know it, too.
She heard some sally from her father and the quieter response, followed by an appreciative roar of laughter, and winced. Langton and Castille, she thought, grabbing another glass of champagne from a passing tray. The new double act.
I’ll be lucky if my father doesn’t offer to adopt him.
Oh, God, if I could just get out of here. If I didn’t have to stay until the bitter end.
Instinct told her that she hadn’t heard the last of him. That he would seek her out again before the night was over. But at least this time she would be slightly more prepared.
She’d just said goodnight to the personnel director and his wife when Joel Castille eventually came up to her. She took an instinctive step backwards, which was a mistake because it took her into a corner, and she found herself blocked there, her only escape route to push right past him.
She stood her ground and waited.
He said softly, ‘You have no idea how much I’ve been looking forward to this evening.’
‘Of course.’ She didn’t even pretend to smile. Her expression was stone, and to hell with what people thought. ‘You’ve just landed one of the top jobs in the industry. Congratulations. Now leave me alone.’
‘I really didn’t know you were Gavin’s daughter,’ he went on as if she hadn’t spoken. ‘Until I saw that photograph of you adorning the grand piano in the drawing room at Kings Whitnall. You looked younger, of course, and more innocent, but quite unmistakable.’
His gaze roamed over her, slowly and comprehensively. ‘And tonight you’re wearing black again. But then it’s your colour. Gives that lovely skin of yours the sheen of ivory. I recollect thinking that at our last encounter. Besides, white would hardly be appropriate, would it?’
‘If you say so.’
Black, she thought, was a non-colour. It was darkness—it was mourning. It was a vast hole in the middle of the universe, filled with nothing.
He’d paused, deliberately building up the tension that already vibrated between them. ‘Of course, Harry said you were a neighbour’s daughter, and I knew whereabouts he lived, so I should have put two and two together.’
‘And made five, no doubt,’ she said. ‘Like last time.’
‘Listen, darling,’ he said. ‘Pretty blondes who turn up at stag nights are asking to be misunderstood. Anyway, I wasn’t so far off the mark,’ he added sardonically. ‘You might not have been a stripper, but you were still trouble. One look at Harry’s face told me that.’
Harry’s face. Oh, God, Harry’s face …
She rallied. ‘And what gave you the right to interfere?’
‘His wife is my cousin, Emma.’ His tone hardened. ‘I’ve known her since she was a tot, and I care very deeply about her happiness. Harry Metcalfe wouldn’t have been my choice for her, but she—loves him. So, I wasn’t going to have her wedding ruined by a spoiled, man-hungry little bitch like you.’
She was white to the lips. ‘How dare you? You know nothing—nothing about me.’
He said grimly, ‘The bridegroom told me all I needed to know—after some persuasion. He said that you’d had a crush on him for years, and you’d always been hanging around him, trying to attract his attention. Do you deny it?’
‘No.’ Her voice was almost inaudible.
I was a child. And he was like a god to me—gorgeous, glamorous Harry. I’d had hopes—dreams. Who wouldn’t? And, of course, I wanted to be noticed by him—but not like that. Not ever like that …
‘Eventually, against his better judgement, you had a brief fling together,’ the hard voice went on. ‘He admitted that. Also that he knew he’d made a terrible mistake, and just wanted to forget the whole thing, only you wouldn’t allow that—would you, beautiful? You refused to let go.
‘He said that you’d been making a nuisance of yourself ever since, phoning and sending text messages. In effect—stalking him. That you had this pathetic obsession with him and were begging him to break it off with Emma, and marry you instead.’
Darcy drew a deep, unsteady breath. ‘And, of course, you believed him?’
‘Why not? I’d seen for myself how persistent you could be.’ The cold eyes were contemptuous. ‘Are you now saying you didn’t have sex with Harry—that he invented it?’
‘No.’ She looked down at the floor. ‘I—can’t say that. And I knew he had a girlfriend, because he always did. But I didn’t know he was going to be married. Not until the wedding invitations arrived,’ she added, almost inaudibly.
‘But it was true that you’d been trying to contact him before you came to the club that night? That you wouldn’t take no for an answer?’
I wanted to know how he could have done what he did—with me—when he was in love with someone else. Engaged to her. I needed to ask why—that’s all.
Then I realised our so-called ‘fling’ was going to have consequences, and I was scared—so scared. I didn’t know what to do—who else to turn to. Was that so wrong?
‘And you were trying to stop the wedding?’ His voice probed at her again.
‘Yes—I—I suppose so.’
Was I? I can barely remember any more. I think I just needed Harry to listen—to take some responsibility for what he’d done. But what I do recall is those men’s faces—sweating, gloating. And you—your hands on me … That I remember most of all.
‘Then I’m glad you didn’t get away with it,’ he said curtly, ‘because it would have broken Em’s heart, and that’s not allowed, whatever my private take on Harry.’
‘Fine,’ Darcy said quietly and savagely. ‘It’s all over, and no harm done, so can we leave it there? Because you’ve had your say, Mr Castille. You’ve raked up a lot of things I’d rather forget about, and I’d really like it to stop. Besides, people are leaving, and I need to say goodnight to them.’
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘Daddy’s only daughter. The perfect hostess.’ His mouth twisted. ‘My God, if he only knew.’
‘Let’s leave him in his innocence, shall we?’ She stared back in challenge. ‘Like your cousin Emma?’
She made to get past him, but he halted her, his hand on her arm. ‘One moment. I hope you don’t still harbour any obsessive little fantasies about Harry? Because that could make your life awkward.’
She shook him off almost violently. ‘You—do—not touch me.’ She choked out the words. ‘Not now. Not ever. And my sole fantasy, Mr Castille, is never to see you again as long as I live.’
‘Unfortunate,’ he said. ‘Because something tells me that we shall be meeting again, and quite soon. So, let’s simply bow to the inevitable, shall we? And smile while we’re doing it,’ he added softly. ‘Or people might notice.’
He looked down at her again, in slow assessment, and she saw the hard mouth soften, curve into deliberate amusement—and something more.
Because his smile did several strange things to her, none of which she wanted to happen. To her utter horror and dismay, it seemed to smooth an errant strand of hair back from her face, kiss her mouth gently and delicately caress the tips of her