All wanting to know where Phoebe was and why she wasn’t answering her phone.
As realisation dawned her heart began to thud and panic clawed at her stomach. Her palms went damp and a ball of dread lodged in her throat. A bolt of sheer terror gripped her insides and squeezed. Her vision went fuzzy as a wave of nausea reared up from her stomach to her throat. Blindly Phoebe stumbled to the window, threw it open and sucked in great gulps of air.
Everything she’d ever worked for, everything Jo had ever worked for, hung in the balance. She knew the field she worked in well. If she was there, on the scene, she’d be able to reassure people that she was in full control and handling the crisis. If she was there she’d be able to divert disaster.
Instead where was she? Miles away. And what had she been doing while Jo was falling to pieces and her whole life was threatening to implode? Laughing and talking and exploring the new-found delights of sexual ecstasy with Alex.
Phoebe felt like banging her head against the desk as a tidal wave of guilt flooded through her. She’d allowed herself to get distracted and taken her eye off the ball. How could she have been so stupid?
And the principle thought running round and round her head on the tense and fraught journey back to London was that it had happened again.
Phoebe read the story for the third time, then closed the newspaper and tried to rally her spirits, but it was as bad as she’d imagined.
According to the report, Jo had once had a boyfriend who’d bullied her, nagged her about her weight and introduced her to diet pills, which had led to addiction, extreme anorexia and the subsequent hospitalisation.
She could scarcely believe that the girl described in the article and the girl sitting next to her on the sofa were one and the same.
‘Is all of this true?’ Phoebe said, more to break the taut silence than out of any necessity to know the answer. Whether it was true or not, the damage had already been done, as the messages on her mobile and in her inbox testified.
‘Pretty much.’ Jo sniffed. Her eyes were red and puffy, but she was holding up remarkably well given the circumstances.
‘Is there any more?’
Thank goodness for that. ‘Why didn’t I know about this?’
‘No one does,’ said Alex flatly.
Phoebe glanced over at him and steeled herself against the effect Alex had on her brain. She really needed a clear head at the moment. ‘Well, someone clearly does… A source close to Ms Douglas…’ She turned to Jo. ‘Can you think of anyone that might be? Someone who worked at the hospital perhaps?’
Jo sighed. ‘I suspect it might have been Mark.’
A stunned hush fell over the room.
‘Mark?’ Alex’s voice sliced through the silence like a whip.
Jo slumped back against her worktable. ‘I might have mentioned that I once had problems with my weight and I haven’t been able to get hold of him since the party.’
Phoebe’s brain raced. ‘If he was broke, then he may well have sold what he knew to the papers. Once a journalist gets the sniff of a story it usually doesn’t take much digging to uncover the rest.’
The memory of Mark’s drunken threats flashed into her head and she cast a quick glance at Alex. The haggard look on his face told her that he’d come to a similar conclusion.
‘I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you called.’
Jo gave her a wan smile. ‘It doesn’t matter. You’re here now. But where were you? I’ve never not been able to get hold of you before.’
Jo sounded more curious than accusatory, but that didn’t stop guilt washing over her. ‘I was away,’ said Phoebe. ‘On business. Last minute. It won’t happen again.’
She shot a quick look at Alex, whose face had turned even stonier. ‘I’ll organise a press conference as soon as possible and we’ll sort this out. Jo,’ she said with more confidence than she felt, ‘you’ve come a long way since then. It’ll be OK.’
Alex had barely been able to resist the urge to hurl the paper against the wall when he’d read the article. The only part they’d left out was that Jo’s ex-boyfriend had been his business partner. A man he thought he’d known inside out. His best friend. Who’d nearly destroyed Jo and had nearly ruined him.
He kept his gaze fixed on his sister and battled the shock that she’d so casually let slip to Mark something he’d taken such pains to keep buried. Hadn’t she learned from him? Hadn’t he warned her about the dangers of trusting people? About what happened if you let someone get near you?
Alex’s hands clenched into fists and he had to stamp down on the urge to hunt Mark down and beat him to a pulp. The night of the pre-launch party slammed into his head. The threats and the warnings as he’d dragged Mark out of the pond that he’d dismissed as drunken ramblings. The debts. All tiny little clues that Mark might be a danger. And he’d ignored them.
The moment he’d seen the headlines, guilt had started attacking him on all sides. Firstly for failing to protect Jo. Again. A second blast had struck him when he’d realised that Jo had needed him and he hadn’t been there. As if that hadn’t been enough for one man in one lifetime, guilt also prickled that he’d lured Phoebe away for the weekend when she ought to have been here for his sister.