I will not fail.
Rupert, having met whomever he had gone to meet, is weaving his way back to me and when our eyes touch I flash him a brilliant smile. I will not fail. He smiles back triumphantly, and coming around to my side drops me a quick kiss, before slumping heavily into his seat. I have to stop myself from reaching up to wipe my mouth.
I stare at him. He seems transformed. Expansive, almost jolly.
‘That’s one deal that came in the nick of time. As if the heavens have decided that I deserve you.’ The way he says it almost makes me flinch with horror.
‘Lucky me,’ I say softly, flirtatiously, surprising myself. I tell myself I am playing a part. One that I can vanish into and emerge from unscathed, but I know it is not true. There will be repercussions and consequences.
He smiles nastily. He knows I do not fancy him, but that is part of the thrill. Taking what does not want to be taken.
‘Well then,’ he says. ‘Don’t be coy, let’s hear it. How much are you going to cost me?’
I take a deep breath. A bull this large can only be taken by the horns. ‘Fifty thousand pounds.’
His dirty blond eyebrows shoot upwards, but his voice is mild. ‘Not exactly cheap.’ His lips thin. ‘What do I get for my money?’
We are both startled out of our conversation by a deep, curt voice.
‘Mr. Barrington,’ Rupert gasps, and literally flies to his feet. ‘What an unexpected pleasure,’ he croons obsequiously. I drop my head with searing shame. It is the stranger. He has heard me sell myself.
‘I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure of your companion’s acquaintance,’ he says. His voice is an intriguing combination of velvet and husk.
‘Blake Law Barrington, Lana Bloom, Lana Bloom, Blake Law Barrington.’
I look up then, a long way up—he is definitely over six feet, maybe six two or three—to meet his stormy-gray stare. I search them for disgust, but they are carefully veiled, impenetrable pits of mystery. Perhaps, he has not heard me sell myself, after all. I begin to tremble. My body knows something I do not. He is dangerous to me in a way I cannot yet conceive.
‘Hi,’ I reply. My voice sounds tiny. Like a child that has been told to greet an adult.
He puts his hand out, and after a perceptible hesitation, I put mine into it. His hand is large and warm, and his clasp firm and safe, but I snatch mine away as if burnt. He breaks his gaze briefly to glance at Rupert.
‘There is a party tonight at Lord Jakie’s,’ he says before those darkly fringed eyes return to me again. Inscrutable as ever. ‘Would you like to come as my guests?’ It is as if he is addressing only me. It sends delicious shivers up and down my spine. Confused, by the unfamiliar sensations I tear my eyes away from him and look at Rupert.
Rupert’s eyebrows are almost in his hairline. ‘Lord Jakie?’ he repeats. There is unconcealed delight in his face. He seems a man who has found a bottle of rare wine in his own humble cellar. ‘That’s terribly kind of you, Mr. Barrington. Terribly kind. Of course, we’d love to,’ he accepts for both of us.
‘Good. I’ll leave your names at the door. See you there.’ He nods at me and I register the impression that he is obsessively clean and controlled. There is no mess in this man’s life. A place for everything and everything in its place. Then he is gone.
Rupert and I watch him walk away. He has the stride of a supremely confident man. Rupert turns to face me again; his face is mean and at odds to his words. ‘Well, well,’ he drawls, ‘You must be my lucky charm.’
‘First, I get the deal I’ve been after for the last year and a half, then the great man not only deigns to speak to me, but invites me to a party thrown by the crème de la crème of high society.’
‘Who is he?’
‘He, my dear, is the next generation of arguably the richest family in the world.’
‘The Barringtons?’ I whisper, shocked.
‘He even smells of old money and establishment, doesn’t he?’ Rupert says, and neighs loudly at his own joke. Rupert himself smells like grated lemon peel. The citrusy scent reminds me of Fairy washing up liquid.
A waiter appears to ask what we would like to drink.
‘We’ll have your finest house champagne,’ Rupert booms. He winks at me. ‘We’re celebrating.’
A bottle and ice bucket arrive with flourish. The only time I have drunk champagne is when Billie and I dressed up to the nines and presented ourselves as bride and bridesmaid to be, at the Ritz. We pretended I was about to drop forty thousand pounds into their coffers by cutting my wedding cake there. We quaffed half a bottle of champagne and a whole tray of canapés while being shown around the different function rooms. Afterwards, Billie thanked them nicely and said we would be in touch. How we had laughed on the bus journey back.
I watch as the waiter expertly extracts the cork with a quiet hiss. Another waiter in a black jacket reels off the specials for the night and asks us if we are ready to order.
Rupert looks at me. ‘The beef on the bone here is very good.’
I smile weakly. ‘I guess I’ll just have whatever you’re having.’
‘I’m actually having steak tartare.’
‘Then I’ll have the same.’
He looks at the waiter. ‘A dozen oysters to start then steak tartare and side orders of vegetables and mashed potatoes.’
‘I’m not really hungry. No starter for me,’ I say quickly.
When the waiter is gone, he raises his glass. ‘To us.’
‘To us,’ I repeat softly. The words stick in my throat.
I take a small sip and taste nothing, so I put the glass on the table and look at my hands blankly. I have to find something interesting to say.
‘You have very beautiful skin,’ he says softly. ‘It was the first thing I noticed about you. Does it…mark very easily?’
‘Yes,’ I admit warily.
‘I knew it,’ he boasts with a sniff. ‘I am a connoisseur of skin. I love the taste and the touch of skin. I can already imagine the taste of yours. A skin of wine.’ He eyes me greedily over the rim of his glass.
I have been trying my best not to look at the dandruff flakes that liberally dust the shoulders of his pin-striped suit, but with that last remark he has tossed his head and a flurry of motes have floated off his head and fallen onto the pristine tablecloth. My eyes have helplessly followed their progress. I look up to find him looking at me speculatively.