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Year:
2012
Publisher:
Harlequin Mills & Boon Ltd.
Language:
english
Series:
Mistresses 1-02
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	Mistresses: Blackmailed with Diamonds / Shackled with Rubies



	Mistresses Colection [1]



	Various



	Harlequin Mills  Boon Ltd. (2012)



	





	Tags:
	Romance










Blackmailed with Diamonds: 


1.The Monte Carlo Proposal - Lucy Gordon
2. Blackmailed by Diamonds, Bound by Marriage -     Sarah Morgan
3.The Devil's Bargain - Robyn Donaldson


Shackled With Rubies:


1. Pregnancy of Passion - Lucy Monroe
2. Substitute Fiance - Lee Wilkinson
3. Her Secret Bridegroom - Kate Walker









[image: cover]







Mistresses Blackmailed with Diamonds

Lucy Gordon
Sarah Morgan
Robyn Donald




[image: publisher logo]

www.millsandboon.co.uk







The Monte Carlo Proposal

Lucy Gordon






Lucy Gordon cut her writing teeth on magazine journalism, interviewing many of the world’s most interesting men, including Warren Beatty, Charlton Heston and Sir Roger Moore. She also camped out with lions in Africa, and had many other unusual experiences which have often provided the background for her books. Several years ago, while staying Venice, she met a Venetian who proposed in two days. They have been married ever since. Naturally this has affected her writing, where romantic Italian men tend to feature strongly.



Two of her books have won the Romance Writers of America RITA® award. You can visit her website at www.lucy-gordon.com.



Did you know Lucy Gordon writes for Romance and Modern™?



Accidentally Expecting! is available now from Romance



The Greek Tycoon’s Achilles Heel is coming soon from Modern™ romance!







Chapter One

Della’s Story

IT WAS a great dress. No argument. Silver and slinky, low-cut in the front and high-slit at the side. It had some magic quality that made my hips and bust look bigger and my waist look smaller, and it fitted so closely that you just knew I was wearing nothing underneath.

And I mean nothing. That dress was cool, sexy, provocative, sensational.

At any other time I’d have loved it. But not now. Not now I knew why that slimeball Hugh Vanner had been so eager;  to get it on me. It was because he wanted one, or more, of his equally slimy ‘business associates’ to get it off me.

And since it was a moot question whether they were more disgusting or he was—no way!

At this point a woman with her head screwed on would have got out—fast. But that’s not easy when you’re on a yacht. Even if it is moored in the harbour at Monte Carlo.

I’d been hired in London as a waitress, and I suppose it was naïve of me to think that ‘waitress’ meant waitress. But I was in a tight hole financially.

Usually I demonstrated goods in department stores, but one job had just finished and another had just fallen through. I couldn’t afford to go even a week without work, and the money being offered for this trip was good. So I crossed my fingers and hoped.

Fatal mistake.

Never cross your fingers. It makes it so hard to fight the creeps off.

I joined the yacht at Southampton. It was called The Silverado, and it wasn’t what most people would mean by yacht, with sails and things. This was a rich man’s version, over two hundred feet long, with thirteen staterooms, a bar, a swimming pool, a dining room that could seat twenty, and not a sail in sight. That kind of yacht.

My nose was twitching before I’d been on board for five minutes. The place shrieked too much of the wrong sort of money in the hands of the wrong sort of people who’d acquired it by the wrong sort of means.

Don’t get me wrong. I like money. But, for reasons I can’t go into now, I’m nervous about where it comes from. I’ve known life when anything I wanted could be served up on a plate, and life when I didn’t know where my next penny was coming from.

I was in one of those times now, so I stayed on board and got stuck into the job. No. Scratch that last phrase. I stayed on board and worked hard. Better.

I didn’t meet Vanner until several hours later, and the whole grubby, sweaty mess of him came as a nasty surprise.

 ‘You’ll do,’ he grunted, looking me up and down. ‘I told that agency I wanted lookers. I like my guests to have a good time. Puts them in the right mood, if you know what I mean.’

I was beginning to know exactly what he meant. I was also beginning to wish I’d never come on this trip, but we were already at sea and it was too late.

 ‘So you’re Della Martin?’ he demanded, breathing booze fumes over me. ‘How old are you?’

 ‘Twenty-four.’

 ‘You look younger.’

I knew it, and it was the bane of my life. I’ve got a face that would be right on an eighteen-year-old, all big eyes and high cheekbones. My hair’s red, and I cut it short in an attempt to make myself look more grown-up.

Fatal mistake. I end up with the look they call gamine. Some women would be glad to have it. I thought it made me seem like a kid.

But Vanner loved it.

 ‘You’d be great if only you’d smile,’ he said. ‘Look cheerful. Everyone on my yacht must be cheerful.’

He was always talking about ‘my yacht’, but it wasn’t his, whatever he liked to pretend. He’d chartered it.

The trip was supposed to be a business convention, but it turned out to be Vanner cruising the Mediterranean with a gaggle of men—some with girlfriends, some alone, but none with wives.

I shared a cabin with Maggie, who was definitely a woman of the world and knew what she was there for.

 ‘Plenty of rich pickings,’ she told me on the first evening. ‘Enough for both of us.’

That was true, and since rich pickings were what I needed I was probably being unreasonable in backing off. I knew Maggie thought so. But she shrugged and said, ‘More for me.’

It wasn’t too bad at first. There was a bit of groping, but nothing that I couldn’t defuse with a laugh. I ignored the suggestive remarks, and one way or another I survived until we reached Monte Carlo.

Vanner was in a bad mood as soon as we arrived, and I guessed it was because of the other yacht nearby. It was called The Hawk, and it was The Silverado with knobs on—at least a hundred feet longer, probably with more staterooms and a bigger swimming pool. Anyway, it made Vanner’s yacht look piddling, and he didn’t like it.

Mind you, he perked up when he found out who was aboard.

Jack Bullen.

Bullen was a predator, a financial genius, a bruiser who operated through the money markets instead of with his fists. But the damage was just as real to the victims.

He’d started small and become one of the richest men in the country. Even his name was useful to him. Sometimes they called him ‘Jack Bullion’ because of the way his money mounted up, but mostly they called him ‘Bully Jack’, because of his methods.

He was all over the financial pages for one master stroke or another. I can’t say I normally read those pages, but I come from a family that’s deeply interested in money, especially other people’s. So I knew of him.

Bully Jack could afford to buy what he liked, do what he liked, and ignore what he didn’t like. And few people could stand up to him. That alone was enough to win Vanner’s swooning admiration and get him grovelling.

I have to admit that the sight of Vanner grovelling was impressive. Nauseating, but impressive. He bought diamond-studded solid gold cufflinks and sent them over as a gift. They arrived back almost at once, with a brief note thanking Mr Vanner but saying Mr Bullen did not accept gifts from strange men.

I almost liked Bullen for that. But then I thought maybe I’d imagined the dead-pan humour in the note. No man so filthy rich could have made a joke so neat.

Besides, it conflicted with my image of him as a thickset thug. I’d never seen him, but there was something about his name that suggested a bone-crusher, not a wit.

Next Vanner tried a ship-to-ship phone call, with an invitation to dinner, but was informed that Mr Bullen and his guests had gone ashore and would not be returning until late.

After that Vanner’s temper hit the skids. I was the first one to feel it.

 ‘You’re not pulling your weight, Della,’ he snapped.

 ‘What?’ I said crossly. ‘I’m doing double shifts because Maggie’s never around when she’s supposed to be.’

 ‘She’s involved in…other duties. Very popular girl. But you’re leaving her to do it all.’

 ‘Now, look, Mr Vanner, I’m here as a waitress.’ He gave the silent laugh that made me feel queasy.

 ‘Of course you are, Della. Of course you are. But a very special kind of waitress. It’s not enough to serve food and drink to the guests. You’ve got to make them feel happy.’

 ‘I do. I smile and tell jokes, and I don’t back off when they breathe fumes over me.’

 His manner became ingratiating, which should have warned me.

 ‘Of course. I know you’re trying, but you’re not making the best of yourself. I’ve had a pretty dress put in your cabin and I want you to wear it.’

 I knew the worst as soon as I saw that ‘pretty dress’. I should never have put it on, but we’d soon be heading back to England. Having coped for most of the trip, I thought I could manage just a bit longer.

 There was one guest in particular whose piggy eyes lit up at the sight of me all silver, shimmering and half naked. His name was Rufus Telsor and he’d given me the most trouble from the start.

 He’d come aboard with another man, called Williams, whom he seemed to know well, which at first made me hope he might be gay. No such luck! They were just hunting in pairs.

 I discovered that when the two of them cornered me on deck. The ensuing conversation was of the ‘Come on, you know you want it really’ variety, and I won’t bore you with the details.

 I managed to fight them off and escape with a torn dress, but I knew there was nowhere to hide on the yacht. I had to get off before they caught me again.

 Going down the gangway was out of the question. Vanner was there and he would see me. Besides, go down to what? We were moored out in deep water. I’d need a boat to get to shore, and there was no way I’d be able to get one.

 From the stern of the ship I had a view of him, leaning on the rail, brandy balloon in hand. Even from this distance I could see that he was red-faced and slipping out of control. I could expect no help from him. He was more likely to be furious that I’d fought back.

 As I watched, Telsor and Williams appeared, heading for Vanner, presumably to complain about the lack of hospitality. I hadn’t much time. It would have to be the water.

 I hoisted the dress up, climbed over the rail, and jumped.

 Luckily I’m a good swimmer, and I can hold my breath for a long time. When I finally surfaced I’d put some distance between me and The Silverado. But I was getting too close to The Hawk for comfort, so I kicked out and headed for the shore.

 When I reached the quay I’d have had a problem if someone hadn’t been passing and given me a hand up.

 Briefly I toyed with the idea of asking him for help, but he wasn’t alone. His companion was female and suspicious. One look at me was enough to make her squeal, ‘Come on. We’re going to be late.’

 ‘Er—yes—er—’

 He was trying to ogle me and avert his eyes at the same time. Looking down at myself, I understood. The water had made the silver dress almost transparent.

 ‘Can you tell me how to find the British Consul?’ I begged.

 ‘No idea,’ he said hastily. ‘But you might find someone at the casino who’d know. Lots of Brits there. Head up that hill. Coming, Gina!’

 And he was gone.

 I began to climb up the slope that led to the town. It was hard because I’d lost my shoes in the water. Plus I had to keep to the shadows, in case I got arrested for going around half naked.

 I managed to make it to the casino, and slip into the gardens without attracting attention, but then I realised I had a problem.

 What should I do? Walk in like this?

 There was an open door, with light pouring from within. I could make out the shapes of people moving back and forth, the sound of music and laughter. It was a tempting scene, the kind where I would once have been at home.

 Gamblers, people who live on the edge, high rollers: I’d always felt comfortable with them. That buzz of anticipation is something I understand. Well, in my family you have to.

 But right now I was on the outside looking in, desperate, stranded, not a penny to my name, nothing but the clothes I was almost wearing.

 Then something happened.

 A man came out of the casino and stood breathing in the night air. He was dressed for a night out—dinner jacket, black bow tie, frilled shirt. All conventional stuff.

 It was the man himself who drew my eyes. He was tall, over six foot, broad shouldered, long-legged, with a head of thick hair that was just on the edge of curling. He looked like someone who was used to living well. Everything about him spoke of a healthy animal who took the good things of life for granted and enjoyed them to the full.

 He probably didn’t have a brain in his head, but who cared?

 Then I pulled myself together. It was men who’d got me into this mess, and now was no time to go misty-eyed over a handsome profile. I was getting a chill.

 He came towards the bush behind which I was hiding, and I wondered if he was the one I should waylay and ask for help. The question was, did he have a ‘Gina’ in tow, ready to shoo me off? A man who looked like that probably did.

 He came closer still, and stopped right by the bush.

 Then he pounced.

 I didn’t see him coming, just felt his hands grasping me. One of them gripped hold of my ear, which hurt, so I lashed out at him as hard as I could.

 I did pretty well. The high slit in the silver dress meant I could kick with some real force, so I did. I landed a few thumps on the shins, and from the yell he gave I might have caught him in a sensitive place as well.

 ‘Come on out of there, you!’ he said, gasping slightly. ‘Oi!’

 That last one came from a punch in the midriff, and it seemed to decide him that the fight had gone on long enough because he tossed me onto my back and landed on top of me.

 I’d been right about one thing. He was a healthy animal. I could feel it in every line of the big body pressed against mine as I lay looking up at him.

 I couldn’t see him so well now. There was a bright moon in the sky but his head came in between and his face was dark. I could only make out the glitter of his eyes and hear the sound of his breathing.

 He was panting after his exertions, and I understood that, because so was I. Every part of me was suddenly warm and tingling, as though the struggle had got me really worked up. I could hear my heart thumping.

 ‘Get off me,’ I snapped.

 ‘Good grief!’ he said, peering at me more closely. ‘What the devil-?’

‘I said, get off me!’

 He drew back and rose to his feet, pulling me up with him and keeping hold of my wrists.

 ‘Who the hell do you think you are to jump on me?’ I demanded, trying to kick him again but not managing it this time.

 ‘I’m a man who doesn’t like being stolen from, even if it is just petty cash.’

 ‘I haven’t stolen from you,’ I raged.

 ‘But you were trying to. Why else were you hiding in the bushes? I’ve been crept up on before. I know the signs.’

 ‘Oh, really?’ I seethed. ‘You’re so clever, aren’t you? But you’ve got it wrong this time.’

 ‘Why are you soaking wet?’ he asked suddenly.

 ‘I’ve been swimming,’ I flashed. ‘I thought it would be good for my health. Ow!’

 I’d actually managed to free one hand by then, but in the same moment I trod on something sharp.

 I yelled and hopped about, and then found myself actually clutching him again to steady myself. That really annoyed me.

 He was looking down at me with interest.

 ‘You’re not wearing very much,’ he remarked.

 ‘Ten out of ten for observation.’

 ‘Well, I’m funny like that. When a girl’s wet and half naked I tend to notice, especially up close.’

 I abandoned politeness. ‘Bully for you! And I am not a thief.’

 ‘Well, you sure looked like one, skulking in the bushes until a victim came past. You think anyone who walks out of the casino must be a millionaire—’

 It was madness to get into an argument with him, but I couldn’t stop myself.

 ‘Well, that’s all you know,’ I snapped. ‘I’ve been in enough casinos to know that people walk out poorer than they go in. If they didn’t, all the casinos would close down.’

 ‘You really know the subject, don’t you? I’ll bet you have been in casinos! I expect your accomplice is still in there—’

 ‘What accomplice?’

 ‘The one who signalled you that I’d had a big win—’

 ‘So you say! Every loser says he’s a winner.’

 ‘What do you think all that is on the ground?’ he

 demanded, pointing down.

 For the first time I realised that the ground was covered with notes.

 ‘Those are my winnings, which just happened to fall out of my pocket while we were struggling,’ he said.

 ‘Don’t try to make that sound like my fault,’ I said. ‘You pounced on me, not the other way around. I was not lurking to steal from you.’

 ‘OK, we’ve exchanged pleasantries long enough. Why don’t you tell me what you’re doing and why?’

 ‘I am looking for the British Consul,’ I asserted, with what I hoped was dignity.

 ‘Dressed like that?’

 ‘It’s because I’m dressed like this that I need the Consul,’ I said through gritted teeth.

 ‘You need help, don’t you?’

 ‘You guessed!’

 ‘I’m clever that way,’ he said, not letting himself be offended by the edge in my voice, which I suppose was lucky for me.

 ‘I’m running away,’ I told him, ‘but I’ve got nowhere to run to.’

 ‘Where are you running from?’

 ‘A yacht. It’s called The Silverado and it’s moored down there. Look.’

 From here we could just about make out Vanner’s yacht, far below us in the harbour.

 ‘That one,’ I said, ‘right next to the big vulgar one.’

 ‘You mean The Hawk?’ he said.

 ‘You know it?’

 For a moment I thought he seemed uneasy.

 ‘Why do you say it like that?’ he asked.

 ‘Like what?’

 ‘As though knowing The Hawk is a crime. Are you acquainted with the owner?’

 ‘I know of him. He’s a creep called Jack Bullen, and Hugh Vanner has been trying to crawl to him ever since he berthed.’

 ‘That makes this Vanner character a creep, but why Bullen?’

 ‘Because Vanner would only crawl to an even bigger creep than himself.’

 ‘I suppose that’s logical,’ he admitted.

 ‘He even sent him gold and diamond cufflinks. I ask you!’

 ‘That’s really disgusting. And who needs gold and diamonds? Look at these—’

 He flashed his own cufflinks at me and I was startled. They were really rubbish, and I mean really. My family is expert in appraising jewellery and I absorbed it with my mother’s milk.

 Not that I needed expertise with these. They looked as if they’d come off a market stall, and the mother-of-pearl was peeling.

 ‘You do know The Hawk, don’t you?’ I challenged him.

 ‘In a sort of way,’ he said vaguely.

 I wondered if he was one of the ship’s stewards, enjoying a night out. Despite his fancy shirt and bow tie this man was short of cash. His winnings probably represented a fortune to him.

 ‘You’d better pick up your money,’ I said.

 ‘Can I risk letting you go?’

 ‘I’ve got nowhere to run.’

 He released my wrist and bent to grasp some of the notes.

 ‘How about helping me?’ he asked, looking up.

 ‘I’d rather not touch your cash.’

 ‘OK, OK, you’re not a thief and I’m sorry I said it. Now, will you help me before a wind gets up and it blows away?’

 I picked some up, deciding that my first thoughts had been right. Clearly this man needed every penny.

 ‘So now tell me what you’re doing here? Or can I guess? You’re running from Vanner the creep?’

 ‘Right! And from the other creeps that he wanted me to “be nice” to. This is his dress.’

 His lips twitched.

 ‘I’ll bet he doesn’t look as good in it as you.’

 ‘Very funny. I jumped overboard to escape him, and now I don’t know what to do or where to go. I need the Consul, but Monaco is so tiny it probably doesn’t have one.’

 ‘Yes, it does—well, a Vice-Consul anyway. If you like I’ll take you to find him.’

 I nearly collapsed with relief.

 ‘Would you really? Thank you, thank you—could we go now, please?’

‘All right. Just let me—’

‘That’s her!’

 The voice came from the darkness, but it was followed at once by Vanner scurrying across the lawn like a black beetle.

 ‘Get her!’ he shrieked. ‘Arrest her.’

 He was followed by two gendarmes who headed for me.

 ‘Hold on a minute, there!’

 The man from the casino spoke in a lazy voice, but there was something about him that stopped everyone in their tracks.

 Vanner recovered first.

 ‘This woman is a thief,’ he shrieked. ‘She stole money from me before leaving my boat. Look, she’s holding it. That’s mine. I demand that you arrest her.’

 The gendarmes started to move again, but the man placed himself between them and me, and I realised again just how big he was. He could have dealt with two of them easily.

 ‘The money’s mine,’ he said. ‘This lady was helping me to pick it up. We hadn’t finished, as you can see.’ He indicated the grass, where some stray notes still lingered.

 ‘You’re lying!’ Vanner shrieked. ‘The money’s mine. She’s a thief.’

 ‘I suppose you’re Hugh Vanner,’ the man said, eyeing him with open contempt.

 A new look, part caution, part suspicion, came over Vanner’s face.

 ‘How do you know who I am?’

 ‘I recognise you from the description.’

 This was kind of a private joke, since only he and I knew what that description had been.

 Vanner shot a look at me.

 ‘What have you been saying about me?’

 ‘That you’re a low-life who tried to force me to sleep with your business buddies,’ I said. ‘That’s why I had to jump overboard—’

‘With my money!’

 ‘Don’t say that,’ the man said quietly. ‘I’m warning you, don’t say it.’

‘You’re warning me? Who are you to tell me what to do?’

 The man looked surprised. ‘I’m Jack Bullen.’

 It was worth anything to see Vanner’s face at that moment. Even in the garden lights I could see him go green. This was the man he’d been trying to reach, to impress, and he’d met him like this.

 Of course I knew there wasn’t a word of truth in it. I’d given him the clue to dealing with Vanner and he’d taken it up brilliantly. And who was to know he wasn’t really Jack Bullen, just as long so nobody saw his cufflinks?

 ‘You’re Jack Bullen?’ Vanner said in a strangled voice that did me the world of good to hear.

 ‘The one you sent the gold cufflinks to. Remember?’

 Vanner gulped and began frantically back-pedalling with the gendarmes, assuring them that it was all a misunderstanding. They scowled at him, but finally departed.

 ‘That’s better,’ Vanner said, trying to sound in command of the situation. ‘Mr Bullen, you and me need to do some serious talking—’

 ‘When you’ve returned this lady’s property,’ he said coolly.

 ‘When I—?’

 ‘Her clothes, her passport, and whatever you owe her in wages.’

 ‘I suppose I’m well rid of her at that.’

 ‘Deliver everything to The Hawk. That’s where I’m going now.’

 ‘Fine, fine. We can share a cab to the harbour—’

 ‘No, we can’t. Send those things over and don’t keep me waiting.’

 I couldn’t see him well as he said this, but I had a good view of Vanner, and I saw the startling change that came over his face—a kind of withering. He’d seen something in this man’s face that made him fall silent and take a step back.

 The man took my arm and began to walk away.

 ‘Wait a minute,’ I whispered. ‘You were going to take me to the Vice-Consul.’

 ‘I’ve changed my mind. We’re going to The Hawk.’

 ‘Oh, no! Not another yacht. I’ve had enough of them to last a lifetime.’

 I tried to pull away, but he wouldn’t release my arm. He wasn’t holding me all that tightly but there was no way I could escape.

 He hailed a passing cab and almost tossed me into it.

 ‘Now, look here—’ I began.

 ‘No, you look here. You can go with Vanner, with the gendarmes, or with me.’

 ‘Or I can go to the Vice-Consul.’

 ‘If you know where to find him. And just how long do you want to wander around dressed—or rather undressed—like that?’

 ‘Are you daring to take advantage of my condition?’

 ‘That’s exactly what I’m doing.’

 ‘That’s blackmail.’

 ‘It’s what I’m good at. Now, shut up or I’ll toss you back into the water.’

 I opened my mouth to tell him what he could do, but then shut it again. Not because I was afraid of his threats, or of him. I wasn’t.

 But I’d seen a gleam in his eyes that undermined his words. He was laughing, challenging me not to laugh with him, and despite everything I found myself doing so.

 That was the moment when it all began.









Chapter Two

Jack’s Story

MOONLIGHT and roses. Trees waving gently in the Mediterranean breeze. Romantic music playing in the distance.

It was twenty-three-hundred hours and I was standing outside Monte Carlo Casino, ten grand richer than when I’d gone in.

Yes, that was the state I’d reached. Moonlight. Twenty-three-hundred hours. Ten grand.

But what else did you expect? I’m Jack Bullen. King Midas. Whatever I touch turns to ten grand. Or, if we’re talking real money, ten million.

But tonight was only gambling, so I made do with pocket money.

I blame my grandfather, Nick, and his cufflinks. When he gave them to me he said they were lucky and they would help me win. And, dammit, he was right.

I don’t win every single time. It’s not quite as bad as that. But I win often enough to come out richer. And it’s all his fault.

I blame him for a lot more than that. Starting with my father. Nick was a happy-go-lucky fellow, who loved his family, earned enough from his little grocery business to get by, and enjoyed a laugh. So, according to Sod’s Law, he was bound to have a son who thought he was feckless and worked night and day to ‘better himself’.

I don’t know if my father got better, but he certainly got richer. He started work in Grandpa’s grocery and gradually took over, shunting his father aside. When he finally inherited the shop he built it into a chain, and raised me in the belief that my mission in life was to climb ever onward and upward to the glorious heights of tycoonery.

I’d rather have been a vet, and if Dad had lived longer I might have fought it out with him, but he died when I was fifteen and you can’t argue with a dead man. Especially if he’s left you everything.

Every last penny.

Which was unfair on my older sister, Grace, who was left to look after me, our mother being already dead. She didn’t complain, because she’d picked up Dad’s ideas about my dynamic future.

So I ended up doing business courses, computing, economics, just as if Dad were alive, because Grace said so.

As soon as I could touch my inheritance I transferred a fair share to her, but by that time it was too late. I was trapped in business and success.

Oh, yes, I was a success. I made money. The firm prospered. I bought another firm. Before I knew it I was a conglomerate.

I tried to lose money, I swear it. Don’t even ask me how I ended up owning a cable television channel. It was a kind of accident. The channel showed light porn. The screen was always full of nubile girls wriggling around half dressed.

I changed all that. Out went the girls. In came animal programmes, stuff about vets, nature expeditions, deep-sea diving. I bought up the rights to old animal series that hadn’t been seen for years, and the public loved it. Advertisers fought to give me their business.

Suddenly I was the wonder man whose finger on the public’s pulse was never wrong, the visionary who could see past cheap smut to an audience starved of beauty, the marketing genius who could make wildlife profitable.

Actually, I just enjoyed animal programmes.

It was like having a pact with the devil, only this devil was called Grandpa Nick. Wherever he was, he knew the terrible things money and success had done to me. I was out of my mind with boredom, and I swear sometimes I could hear the old man cackling.

There was nothing for me to do. Any fool can make money if they start out with a pile that someone else worked for.

Where were the great challenges in life?

At the moment my biggest challenge was fending off Grace’s attempts to match me with Selina Janson. I usually ended up doing what Grace wanted because I felt so guilty at the way my life had been lived at the expense of hers.

It shouldn’t have happened that way. She’s only ten years older than me, and she could easily have married, especially after I struck out for myself.

When you fly the nest that’s supposed to be it, right? You don’t reckon on the nest flying after you.

But Grace nobly declared that nothing would make her abandon me, and I couldn’t hurt her by saying how much I longed to be abandoned.

So here I was, mid-thirties and still officially sharing a home with my sister. I have my bachelor pad in town, and I’m there most nights, but Grace pretends it’s just the odd occasion.

Maybe that was why she’d redoubled her efforts to marry me off to Selina.

 ‘I don’t know what you’ve got against that lovely girl,’ she complained to me a few weeks earlier.

 ‘I’ve got nothing against her,’ I protested. ‘I’ve never had anything against any of the girls you’ve tried to handcuff me to. But if I married every girl I’ve got nothing against, my wives would fill a city and there’d be some sort of scandal.’

 ‘I do wish you’d be serious,’ she fumed. ‘It’s no way to approach life.’

 ‘It’s a great way to approach not being married off against my will.’

 ‘You’ve got to marry some time.’

 ‘Why? For all you know I might be gay.’

 ‘Don’t give me that nonsense,’ she snorted. ‘Not after that girl who—’

 ‘Yes, never mind,’ I said hastily.

 ‘You need a suitable partner in life, and you should be looking carefully.’

 ‘Why? I’ve got you looking carefully for me,’ I said, as lightly as I could.

As I knew she would, she missed the irony.

 ‘Yes, I am, and it takes a lot of trouble to weed out the unsuitable ones.’

 ‘Perhaps you shouldn’t weed them out,’ I said meekly. ‘It would probably do me a lot of good to meet someone unsuitable, as an awful warning. It might really teach me a lesson.’

 ‘Oh, stop playing the fool. I know all about the sort of semi-clad females who float through your apartment—’

How did she know? She never saw them. I’d made sure of that. But Grace had her spies and they could teach MI5 a thing or two.

I couldn’t resist teasing her.

 ‘They’re not all semi-clad. Some of them wear nothing at—’

 ‘That’s enough. We’re talking about your future wife.’

 ‘I was trying not to talk about her. Why Selina?’

 ‘Because she has the very best connections. Her mother’s related to a title, her father’s one of the richest merchant bankers in town—’

 ‘And you think I’m so hard up that I need to marry money. Thanks!’

 ‘Money should marry money. It doesn’t pay to spread it around too thin.’

 ‘Gracie, darling—’

 ‘And don’t call me, Gracie. It’s vulgar.’

 ‘We are vulgar. You talk as though we were heirs to an ancestral fortune, but Grandpa Nick made just enough to get by. Dad worked himself into the grave to make more than he needed, and, heaven help me, I’m going the same way. I’ll swear I’m getting grey hairs.’

 ‘Where?’

 ‘Here at the side. Can you see?’

 ‘No, I can’t,’ she said, giving me the fond smile that reminded me that I did actually like her a lot. ‘You’re too handsome for your own good, and you know it.’

 ‘I’m still going grey from the treadmill I’m on. If I knew a way to jump off it I would, but I won’t manage that by marrying Selina Janson.’

 ‘I didn’t mean to make too much of her money,’ Grace said in a relenting tone. ‘It’s simply that she has all the right qualities.’

With difficulty I refrained from tearing my hair.

 ‘No, Grace, she has only one of the right qualities, and that’s the fact that I have nothing against her. It needs a lot more than that.’

She eyed me suspiciously.

 ‘You haven’t become entangled with some floozie, have you?’

 ‘Why floozie?’ I growled. ‘I might have met a nice girl.’

 ‘Then I’d know about her. Who is she?’

I was about to say that she didn’t exist when some instinct for self-preservation stopped me.

 ‘I don’t think I ought to tell you any more just now,’ I said, choosing my words carefully. ‘I don’t want you investigating her to find out if she’s “suitable”.’

 ‘Meaning that she isn’t?’

 ‘She’s suitable for me,’ I said.

I accompanied the words with a smile which was meant to be knowing, but I had a horrible feeling I just looked foolish. I don’t think Grace noticed. She was seething at my mad dash for independence.

 ‘Surely you can tell me something about her?’ she demanded. ‘What does she look like?’

 ‘She’s beautiful.’

 ‘What else?’

 ‘She has a perfect figure and she’s very sexy,’ I improvised wildly.

 ‘Where did you meet her?’

 ‘Around.’

 ‘Really, this is very unsatisfactory.’

 ‘Not to me,’ I said.

 ‘Well, I’ve made arrangements for the summer now, and it’s too late to change them.’

The hairs began to stand up on the back of my neck. ‘What arrangements?’

 ‘Oh, don’t pretend not to know. We talked about chartering a yacht and you agreed.’

 ‘You vaguely mentioned a yacht,’ I said, frantically searching my memory, ‘but I don’t think we actually agreed—’

 ‘I said we should charter a yacht to cruise the Mediterranean and you said, ‘Sure.’ Which is what you always say. Raymond Keller is eager to join us. You said yourself he’s bound to be the next president of Consolidated, and you can get him tied up while we’re out at sea.’

 ‘You’ve actually invited—?’

 ‘Only in a vague sort of way. And there are one or two other contacts I’m working on—’

She rattled off a list of names and I had to admit they were well-chosen. All of them useful, all people I’d feel easy with and could make money out of. Grace knew her stuff, which was how she got away with being a bossy-boots.

I was beginning to feel almost relaxed about it when she said, ‘And of course Selena will be there.’

 ‘What do you mean, of course?’

 ‘Well, the others will be couples, so naturally—’

I’ll spare you the rest. Enough to say that I made a ritual protest, but gave in when I realised how I’d been backed into a corner. There wasn’t a damned thing I could do about it without offending someone that it would be inconvenient to offend.

I just wish that some of the financial journalists could have been there to see. According to them I am Master of the Game, he whose will is law. Minions go in fear and trembling of my lightest word.

Hah!

They should have seen ‘Bully Jack’ cave in to Grace, that’s all I can say.

Before I knew it everyone had accepted the invitations I’d never given, including Selina and her parents.

To protect myself, I issued a few invitations of my own. First there was Harry Oxton, who’d been trying to make an impression on Grace for a couple of years. He was a widower, a kindly man who put up with the way my sister used him when she needed an escort and forgot him at other times.

Then there were the newlyweds, Charles and Jenny Stover. I’d been their best man six months ago. When I explained to them that I needed their help, and exactly what kind of help I needed, they laughed and said fine!

Grace looked askance, though whether because Jenny was an old flame of mine or Charles was an old flame of Selina’s I wouldn’t like to say.

But I told her I’d invited them now and it was too late to go back on it. She’s not the only one who can do bland innocence.

But the one that really made her mad was Derek Lamming. His heart was set on Selina, and I think they’d have been married by now if Grace hadn’t stuck her oar in, trying to secure Selina for me.

 ‘You needn’t think I don’t know what you’re up to,’ Grace fumed to me.

 ‘I’m sure you do,’ I told her, grinning. ‘But I learned deviousness from you, so naturally I’m good at it.’

 ‘You do realise we don’t have room for all the extra people you’ve invited, don’t you?’

 ‘Then we’ll need a bigger yacht.’

That was how we exchanged the modestly luxurious vessel that Grace had chartered for the much larger Hawk.

What can I say about The Hawk? Think Onassis with knobs on. Other yachts had one swimming pool, The Hawk had two. It slept forty in over-the-top decadence.

Every cabin was done in a different style—French Second Empire, Roman villa, Egyptian splendour, Renaissance—all of them with solid gold accessories.

Since I was supposedly the big cheese of the outfit, I had a suite with a sunken bathroom, and a bed that could have slept ten.

Grandpa Nick would have laughed himself to stitches.

At the last minute Grace said worriedly, ‘You won’t do anything to offend Selina, will you?’

 ‘Grace, I will be the perfect gentleman with Selina,’ I vowed. ‘I won’t try to entice her into the moonlight, I won’t ogle her in a swimsuit, in fact I won’t even look at her in a swimsuit. I won’t try to kiss her, or hold hands with her. I won’t do one single thing that could compromise me into marriage with her. You can count on that.’

 ‘All right, be difficult if you have to be. You know what I mean. I don’t want to hear any more about this other woman—Cindy, or whatever her name is.’

 ‘I never told you her name, and I’m not telling you now.’

 ‘But you won’t invite her to come along with us, will you?’

 ‘No, I promise I’ll confine my meetings with her to fleeting assignations wherever we drop anchor.’

Grace gave a scream, chiefly because she couldn’t decide if I was serious or not. I decided to leave it that way. ‘Cindy’ might be useful.

I had no idea, then, just how useful.

We set off from Southampton and went across to Cherbourg on the first day, then across the Bay of Biscay and down the coast of Portugal to the Mediterranean.

We had a good time, with plenty of dinner and dancing, card-playing, wheeling and dealing—and flirting. I solved that problem by flirting madly with almost every woman aboard. Especially Jenny.

She was safe. I could romance her without fear of being hog-tied. But then Charles got a bit tense—actually said I was overdoing it. He responded by dancing smoochily with Selina for a whole evening. Then it was Jenny’s turn to get tense.

They mended matters by vanishing into their cabin for three days, and emerging wreathed in smiles.

That was how I wanted to look when I found ‘her’. It wasn’t going to happen with Selina. I was beginning to wonder if it would happen with anyone.

In Gibraltar Charles and I managed to jump ship for a few hours, returning with the dawn. He spread tipsy hints about a lady I was supposed to have met ashore, then clapped his hand over his mouth as if realising that he’d said too much.

Grace gave me a look that would have shrivelled a lesser man.

We pulled the same stunt in Naples and Venice. Then it was time to start back down the Adriatic coast, with Grace snapping at me and demanding to know just how stupid I thought she was.

 ‘If I thought you were stupid I’d be less scared,’ I told her truthfully.

 ‘Does this young woman really exist?’ she demanded.

 ‘My lips are sealed,’ I replied solemnly.

 ‘Then I think it’s time we met her.’

 ‘Is that the royal “we”?’

 ‘No, it includes Selina, since you’re playing fast and loose with the poor girl’s feelings.’

 ‘Grace, for the last time, I will not marry Selina. Is that understood?’

 ‘We were talking about your lady-friend. Do tell me when you mean to produce her. Perhaps she’ll be at the next port. You can bring her on board and we’ll all have such a jolly time together.’

A master stroke. Game, set and match to Grace.

I had to produce a girl soon.

And Grace knew that I had nobody to produce.

Palermo, Naples, Genoa: all the way up the coast I ducked and dived, with Grace asking, with unbearable sweetness, when she would have the pleasure of meeting my ‘friend’.

When we anchored at Monte Carlo there were still several days left to go, which filled me with gloom. I was wondering how I could arrange an urgent call home and high-tail it out of there.

The day after we arrived I received an unexpected gift. It was a set of solid gold diamond-studded cufflinks, and they came from a man called Hugh Vanner, on The Silverado, anchored just next door.

I couldn’t wait to get rid of them. I’d vaguely heard of Vanner. He was the kind of shifty character who hung around on the fringe of the legitimate business world, picking up what he could get. His methods were those of a slimeball. I sent the cufflinks back with a note saying that I didn’t accept gifts from strange men. It was a safe bet that he wouldn’t get the joke.

We all went to the casino. It was a sedate visit, during which we all behaved sedately and lost sedate amounts of money, then returned to the ship consoling each other for losses that we would barely notice.

Once back on board we all went to our cabins, prior to congregating for a nightcap. I was feeling a bit tense, because Selina had been making significant remarks all evening and I could feel the noose tightening.

The last straw came when a steward informed me that Vanner had called the ship while I was away.

Now I was really paranoid. Looking out, I saw lights on The Silverado, and I had sudden visions of him coming over. I’d been hunted as much as I could stand, and suddenly I went mad.

 ‘Tell the Captain to have the boat ready to take me ashore again,’ I said. ‘And keep quiet about it.’

Before leaving I changed my cufflinks. It was a chance to test a theory. I’d worn platinum cufflinks for the first visit to the casino, and lost. Now I was wearing Grandpa’s old tatty ones.

My luck turned the moment I went in. I won until I got bored with winning, then strolled out into the gardens. At once I knew I was being stalked.

My boredom with money doesn’t extend to giving it to people who are trying to pilfer it, so I made my move first, pouncing on whoever was crouching in the bushes.

Suddenly I was grappling with a whirling dervish who thumped and kicked with alarming force and precision. The last one caught me straight in the midriff and almost winded me. It was sheer desperation that made me toss the other party to the ground and dive on top.

And there was approximately ninety pounds of slender female writhing beneath me. If I hadn’t been gasping already I had plenty to gasp about now. In self-defence I got to my feet.

The next few minutes were par for the course. I accused her of trying to steal from me; she denied it. But I was talking off the top of my head. My real consciousness was elsewhere, in the urgent warmth that had seized me as I lay on top of her and wouldn’t let go of me now.

It got worse when I realised something else about her.

 ‘Why are you soaking wet?’ I asked.

 ‘I’ve been swimming,’ she said scathingly. ‘I thought it would be good for my health. Ow!’

She’d trodden on something sharp, which must have hurt because her feet were bare. So was the rest of her, almost.

She was wearing a silver lacy dress, tight at the waist and slit high at the thigh. The water not only made it cling to her, it also made it virtually transparent. So now I could see what had been writhing against me.

She was beautiful—slender, perfectly proportioned, rounded, dainty, sexy, provocative. This was getting very difficult.

Make me strong, I prayed silently to the guy who helps me on these occasions. Let me at least act like a gentleman, even if I don’t feel like one right now.

But he must have been off-duty tonight, because there was the warmth, growing stronger every moment.

I returned to normal consciousness to discover that we were having an infuriated discussion about casinos. I think I accused her of having an accomplice inside, but don’t ask me how we reached that point. I know we ended up scrabbling around on the ground for the cash that had fallen out of my pocket in the struggle.

I suppose it was when she mentioned the British Consul that I realised I’d got it wrong, and she really wasn’t a thief.

 ‘Where are you running from?’ I asked.

 ‘A yacht. It’s called The Silverado and it’s moored down there. Look.’ She pointed down into the harbour. ‘That one. Right next to the big vulgar one.’

 ‘You mean The Hawk?’ I asked cautiously.

 ‘You know it?’ Now she definitely sounded hostile.

 ‘Why do you make that sound like a crime?’

So she told me all about The Hawk, how its boss was a creep called Jack Bullen, better known as Bully Jack.

I was glad she couldn’t see me too well at that moment.

 ‘Hugh Vanner has been trying to crawl to him,’ she seethed.

 ‘That makes this Vanner character a creep,’ I said, ‘but why Bullen?’

 ‘Because Vanner would only crawl to an even bigger creep than himself. He even sent him gold and diamond cufflinks. I ask you!’

 ‘That’s really disgusting,’ I agreed fervently.

She told me how Vanner had tried to make her be ‘nice’ to his guests, and she’d jumped overboard to escape him.

She was small and defenceless, with not a single possession—not on her, anyway. But she was defying the world and I’d never seen anything like her.

Maybe the idea came to me then. Or maybe it had been nudging the edges of my thoughts for a few minutes past. But it was forming rapidly, and I had the outline pretty much shaped when I heard, ‘That’s her!’

And there was a man who could only have been Vanner, rushing at us with two gendarmes, shrieking that the silver girl had stolen from him.

I pointed out that the money lying all around us was mine, which stymied him, although he still frothed at the mouth until, to shut him up, I had to give him my name.

 ‘You’re Jack Bullen?’ he said in a choked voice.

After that he couldn’t get rid of the gendarmes fast enough. He wanted to get me alone to do some business schmoozing.

 ‘When you’ve returned this lady’s property,’ I told him. ‘Deliver everything to The Hawk.’

Fending off his attempts to join us, I took her arm and made for the road where there would be a taxi.

 ‘You were going to take me to the Vice-Consul,’ she said.

 ‘I’ve changed my mind. We’re going to The Hawk.’

She was still arguing as we got into the taxi. I laid out her options.

 ‘You can go with Vanner, with the gendarmes or with me.’

 ‘That’s blackmail.’

 ‘It’s what I’m good at. Now, shut up or I’ll toss you back into the water.’

I don’t normally talk to women like that, but something had happened to me that night. I was like a drowning man who sees his last hope and knows he has to grasp it. So my finesse went out of the window.

Then I saw her looking at me. An incredulous, half-quizzical smile had taken over her face, and I found myself smiling back. We knew nothing about each other, except that we were on the same wavelength.

 ‘All right,’ she said.









Chapter Three

Della’s Story

 ‘WE DON’T have much time,’ the man told me in a low, hurried voice.

I could see that we didn’t. The taxi was on its way down the slope to the harbour, and we were going to be there at any moment.

 ‘All I can say now,’ he said, ‘is that I need help badly, and you’re the only person who can give it to me.’

 ‘How?’

 ‘I’m being nudged—well, frog-marched—into a marriage I don’t want to make. Selina’s a banker’s daughter, and money must marry money. That sort of thing.’

 ‘Sure, like you’re a millionaire,’ I said sceptically.

 ‘I told you who I am. Jack Bullen.’

 ‘Yes, after I’d given you all the clues. That story will do well enough for Vanner, but not me. I suppose you work on his yacht?’

 ‘I beg your pardon?’

 ‘Honestly, I’m grateful to you for saving me, but I wasn’t born yesterday. The silver plate’s wearing off those cufflinks, and I’ll bet you borrowed the flash clothes from your boss.’

He tore his hair, and I had to admit that the tousled look suited him.

 ‘I haven’t got time to argue,’ he said. ‘Look, this is the harbour, and there’s a boat ready to take us to The Hawk. Just act like you’re wildly in love with me, and you might save me from a fate worse than death.’

He was mad, but I owed him a lot, so I reckoned I’d play along. I was feeling light-headed by then, and willing to let the night end any way it would.

He paid off the cab and we headed towards a small boat that was waiting. The pilot greeted us with a wave.

 ‘Evening, Pete.’

 ‘Evening, Mr Bullen.’

I was too astounded to speak until I was settled into the boat.

 ‘He called you—’

 ‘Well, I told you,’ he said, sounding aggrieved.

I tried to see his face as we sped out to the deep water where The Hawk was moored. But the light changed so fast that I couldn’t make out much except that he was grinning like a man with a handful of aces. I knew that look. I even had a weakness for it. And already I was getting warning signals that I was determined to ignore.

One thing was clear. This man was trouble and fun in equal measures.

So let the good times begin!

 ‘Just say that you’ll help me,’ he said urgently.

 ‘How?’

 ‘By being my girlfriend. Here’s the story. We’ve known each other for a few months, we meet constantly at my London flat, and these last few weeks we’ve had secret assignations all over Europe. My sister keeps demanding to meet you because she doesn’t think you exist, but you do.’

He was gabbling, and I only took half of it in.

 ‘Assignations all over Europe—’ I said. ‘Weren’t we travelling together?’

 ‘No, I was on the yacht.’

 ‘Why didn’t you invite me on the yacht, you cheapskate?’

 ‘Because Grace wouldn’t have you.’

 ‘Grace?’

‘My sister. My keeper. She’s organised this trip to get me married, but you are going to thwart her.’

 ‘So—I’m your girlfriend—?’

 ‘That’s right. I’m mad about you because you’re beautiful, sweet-natured, witty, and the sexiest thing in creation. Do you think you can remember that?’

 ‘Can you?’ I asked.

 ‘Yes, all of it. Especially the last bit. OK, we’re nearly there. Act the part.’

 ‘You want me to gaze into your eyes?’

 ‘I think it’ll take a bit more than that,’ he said hoarsely, and wrapped his arms tightly around me.

I ought to have seen it coming, but he moved so fast that I was taken by surprise. Suddenly I was being pressed back against the curve of his arm while his mouth covered mine in a perfect simulation of hungry passion.

He was clever. I’ll give him that. Nothing offensive. Considering that I was half naked and we’d only just met, it was a virtuous kiss: everything for show on the outside and nothing really happening—except deep inside me, where there was a whole lot happening.

I put my arms around him and helped out with the performance. At least I told myself it was just a performance. There was something about being pressed against him that made me tend to forget that.

I was dimly aware that the boat had stopped and the pilot was turning around from the front to regard us.

 ‘Er—sir—?’ he said, grinning.

Jack Bullen waved him away and redoubled his efforts. It seemed only polite to co-operate, so I did, writhing my fingers in his hair and pressing against him. There were lights on us now, so I gave it all I’d got.

Looking up over his shoulder, I could see men and women leaning over the rails to gape down at us. They were all wide-eyed. Two women especially—one young, one middle-aged—glared at us with undisguised fury.

He drew back his head a little and whispered, ‘Are they watching us?’

 ‘With their eyes on stalks,’ I murmured back.

 ‘Good. Let’s make it worth their while.’

He returned to the fray, but this time in a way that was even more self-consciously theatrical. He kissed my face, my neck, all the way down, then below my ears.

 ‘Enough?’ he asked.

 ‘I think you’ve made your point,’ I said with difficulty.

 ‘Then let’s go,’ he muttered.

As I climbed up the gangway ahead of him I was acutely conscious of my semi-naked behind waving about just in front of his eyes. I ought to have been modestly shocked, and with Vanner I would have been. But with Jack Bullen I could only remember the feel of his body pressing mine into the warm earth behind the casino. I wondered if he was enjoying the view. I had to take a deep breath against the wave of self-consciousness that washed over me, and then I found myself stumbling.

He was there at once, his hands grasping my hips, steadying me.

 ‘Are you all right?’ he asked.

 ‘Yes—yes, I’m fine,’ I gabbled, wondering if I would ever make sense again. My insides were reacting in a way that was all their own.

We reached the deck and I got a better look at our audience. The men were in dinner jackets and the women glittered with costly jewels. There was no doubt about it now. I’d fallen into a den of millionaires.

They were taking a good look at me, too. Jack put his arm about my shoulders, turned to the middle-aged woman who looked as if she’d swallowed a lemon, and said firmly, ‘Grace, this is…Cindy.’

If looks could kill she would have slaughtered us both on the spot. But mostly me.

 ‘Well, this is a pleasure,’ she said. ‘At last. Even if a somewhat unexpected, not to mention delayed, pleasure.’

 ‘You’ll have to forgive the delay,’ he said. ‘We’ve been rather wrapped up in each other.’

Grace was looking me up and down in a way that made me very conscious that my neck was cut low and my skirt was slit high, and that was all there was.

 ‘I trust you’ve had a pleasant evening?’ she said, with a little smirk.

 ‘She’s had a misfortune,’ he said quickly, saving me from having to answer. ‘She had to leave her ship suddenly. Her things will be arriving at any moment, but in the meantime I’m taking her below before she gets pneumonia.’

He whisked me away, giving nobody the chance to say anything.

If I’d had any lingering doubts about who he was they were quelled as soon as I saw his cabin—although suite would be a better word. The decor was vaguely ancient Roman, and the last word in luxury. There was a bathroom with a sunken bath, and taps that looked like solid gold.

A quick inspection proved that they really were. I told you, I’m an expert on these things.

 ‘Mr Bullen—?’

 ‘After what went on in the boat, don’t you think you should call me Jack?’

 ‘Jack—and, by the way, you should have warned me that my name is Cindy.’

 ‘It isn’t. That’s just what Grace calls you. I’m afraid she means it as a put-down. What’s your real name?’

 ‘Della Martin.’

 ‘Fine.’ He pointed at my dress. ‘Take that off—quickly. ’

‘I beg your pardon?’

 ‘Before you catch your death of cold.’ He took a large white towelling robe from the closet. ‘Then have a hot bath and put this on.’

 ‘Lovely,’ I said, shivering. ‘I can’t get over this place. I thought you were poor.’

 ‘Does that matter? You think I need help less than a poor man? I need it more. If I didn’t have any money I wouldn’t have a problem. Selina’s father is a banker, and they all want me to make an “alliance” with the family. I’m trapped. What can I do? I don’t want to be outright rude.’

 ‘Why not?’

He sighed.

 ‘I’m not very good at it,’ he admitted, sounding slightly ashamed. ‘Not with Grace, anyway. She keeps reminding me that she’s been my second mother. It’s easier to play dumb and let her realise gradually that she’s wasting her time. So now you’re my best hope—my only hope.’

 ‘She isn’t going to be easily fooled.’

 ‘She never was,’ he said with a reminiscent sigh.

As if to prove it there was a step outside and the sound of someone trying to open the locked door. Then his sister’s voice.

 ‘Jack, open this door at once. We have to talk.’

 ‘Not just now, Grace,’ he called back. ‘We’ll talk later.’

 ‘I said now.’ The lock rattled again. ‘Open this door at once.’

 ‘Goodnight, Grace.’

This time there was iron in his voice, and anyone else would have been deterred by it. But not her.

 ‘I’m not going away until we’ve had this out,’ she called. ‘You may think you’ve got me fooled, but I don’t believe a word about this woman who’s appeared so conveniently. She’s probably some cheap little waitress you picked up somewhere. Open this door!’

He ground his teeth. My temper was rising. I’d never disliked anyone so much after such a short time as I did this woman.

 ‘Goodnight, Grace,’ he called again.

‘Open this door!’

 ‘That’s it,’ I muttered. ‘Now I’m mad. It’s time for action.’

He looked nervous. ‘Are you going to be violent?’

 ‘If necessary. Come here!’

I reached for him, hooking my arm about his neck, drawing him very close, very fiercely. He barely had time to draw breath, but after that I think I managed to make him forget about breathing. When we parted he was gasping.

 ‘I hope I’m never the one you’re mad at,’ he managed to say.

 ‘Shut up!’

I returned to the action, but this time I freed one hand and unlocked the door, so that Grace came marching in to find us wrapped in each other’s arms.

I did it purely out of expediency. He’d been good to me, and I was going to be good to him. It had nothing whatever to do with the way he’d kissed me in the boat. I was not looking for an excuse to do it again.

And you can believe that or not—as you like.

With the audience being closer this time, we had to make it look realistic, and he really worked at that. I could feel his hands roving all over me, and I wondered how much more my nervous system could stand in one evening.

Grace, I’m happy to say, nearly went ballistic. She stood there yelling, ‘Will you stop this and listen to me?’

I don’t know how long she kept it up. Everything was fuzzy, and I was only vaguely aware when she stopped abruptly and a man’s voice said, ‘Jack!’

We managed to disengage ourselves, and I saw a young man and woman whom I’d vaguely noticed on deck. Now, as then, they were holding hands. They seemed to come as a pair.

 ‘There’s someone to see you, Jack,’ the young man said, standing aside so that we could all see Vanner.

 ‘Thanks, Charles,’ Jack said.

Vanner was managing a rough version of a smile, as if he still hoped to get some sort of profit out of this. He kept the smile riveted in place as he held out a brown envelope to me.

 ‘Here’s your passport and your wages, plus a bonus that I think you’ll find generous.’

I checked the passport and was relieved to see that it was actually mine.

 ‘I brought your bags too,’ Vanner said. ‘I left them on deck.’

He turned his frayed smile on Jack. ‘Mr Bullen—’

 ‘Get out,’ Jack said.

 ‘I just hoped that—now things are sorted out—you and I could—’

Jack spoke in a voice of steel. ‘I said, get out. Are you deaf?’

Vanner drew a sharp breath, and again there was that withered look on his face, as though he were suddenly filled with fear. But then fear was driven out by the spoilt petulance of a thwarted child.

 ‘I see,’ he snapped, glaring at me. ‘In that case, now I’ve returned your property, I’ll have mine!’

He pointed at the silver dress. I backed away from him and put out my hand.

 ‘It’s mine,’ he bellowed. ‘I paid for it.’

 ‘Oh, give it to him,’ Jack said in disgust. ‘Don’t let him have any excuse to make more trouble.’

He picked up the towelling robe again, and shooed me into the bathroom. Once in there I stripped off and put on the robe, which almost swallowed me up. When I returned Vanner had resumed arguing in a way that he probably thought was persuasive. Phrases reached me’

 ‘Understand these things—men of the world—lot in common—’

 ‘Not that much in common,’ I heard Jack say in a bored tone. ‘No young lady has ever felt she needed to risk her life to escape me.’

I tossed the dress at Vanner. I couldn’t bear to get any closer to him.

 ‘The steward will see you off the boat,’ Jack said.

 ‘No, I’ll do it,’ said the young man he’d addressed as Charles. ‘It’ll be a pleasure.’

He and the girl followed Vanner up to the deck, leaving me below with Jack and Grace, and someone else who had appeared. She was about my age, and beautiful in a chilly way. She was one of the women I’d seen looking down at me a few minutes earlier, and I didn’t need a crystal ball to tell me this was Selina.

She looked me up and down, then down and up, and I could tell what she thought about the robe, which was too big everywhere, so that I had to clutch it around me. I hoped someone would bring my clothes down soon.

 ‘I think I’ll have a bath,’ I said, with as much dignity as I could muster.

I turned back to the bathroom, but before I could go in there was a commotion from above—shouting, then the sound of something landing in the water. A moment later Charles came running back.

 ‘The lousy so-and-so!’ he said. ‘He just grabbed your bags from the deck and tossed them overboard. They sank at once.’

‘Oooooh!’ It was meant as an exclamation of annoyance, but it came out as a despairing wail. ‘Why does this keep happening to me? Why can’t everything go right for once? What have I done to deserve this? What am I going to wear?’

 ‘Oh, please don’t worry about that,’ said the cool beauty at once. ‘I have plenty of things you can borrow.’

 ‘Thanks, Selina,’ Jack said.

He sounded surprised at what seemed like good nature, but I’d noticed the look she gave Grace, which said they needed to talk urgently. They sailed out together.

I shot into the bathroom. My teeth were chattering and I’d had enough for one night.

There was a whole collection of potions to tip into the bath, some of them definitely feminine, so I guessed they came with the yacht. I found one with a lovely smell and poured it into the running water until the place was all over suds. Lovely!

Oh, the bliss of sinking down into them! They were warm, they were everywhere, they were making me human again.

The door opened slowly and Jack’s head appeared.

 ‘Permission to come in?’ he asked.

 ‘Sure,’ I said sleepily.

With the suds right up to my neck I was decent, although by now I was past caring. The world was turning into a pleasant fuzz, in which I actually felt safe for the first time since for ever.

So I just gazed sleepily as he came and sat down on the floor by the sunken bath, carefully depositing a bottle of champagne and two glasses.

 ‘I’ve ordered some food for you as well,’ he said, ‘but I thought we should celebrate together first.’

I gave him a sleepy smile. ‘What are we celebrating? Not that it matters.’

 ‘Your escape,’ he said. ‘My escape. But you’re right. Who cares? Celebrate because you feel like it. It’s the only good reason.’

He handed me a full glass and I savoured every drop. It was the very finest, and when I’d drained the glass I held it out for a refill.

When he’d finished pouring, he stopped, looked me straight in the eyes. I knew why. We’d met in a whirlwind and hadn’t stopped spinning since. This was our first chance to consider each other at leisure.

So, while he considered me I considered him, and I liked what I saw. He’d removed his jacket and his bow tie, leaving a snowy white dress shirt, open at the throat, showing just the hint of a hairy chest.

I have a weakness for hairy chests.

He was tall, and constructed in a way that shouted ‘virile’. I’d already discovered that, in one sense, but it was interesting seeing it as well. I supposed he spent most of his time behind a desk, but he must work out every day.

There wasn’t an ounce of fat on him, but he looked as if he lived well. He had that glow that money brings. I’ve had it myself from time to time. His hair was dark brown, slightly curly, with a faint touch of red that you had to look very close to see.

His mouth was like his body, in that I knew it well while seeing it properly for the first time. Now I saw it, I understood its effect on me. It was generous and curved, yet firm.

His eyes were the dark brown of bitter chocolate, very deep and intense. Their gleam came and went without warning. It was there now. When he smiled I smiled back, which made him smile even more. There was no need for words.

 ‘Are you all right?’ he asked.

 ‘Yes, thank you.’ I sighed. ‘For the first time in weeks, I’m all right. Thanks to you.’

I stretched a leg luxuriously, raising it out of the water, all sleek and sudsy. Then I put it down again quickly, remembering.

 ‘Please don’t do that,’ he begged. ‘I’m trying to be a gentleman, although after the evening we’ve had—But don’t worry, I’m on my best behaviour. Do you realise that I know nothing about you?’ he hurried on. ‘Except that you came out of the water, all silver and shining like a mermaid. Are you married?’

 ‘No.’

 ‘Engaged? Promised?’

 ‘Nothing. Nobody,’ I said briefly.

 ‘There’s nobody who’s going to appear suddenly, yelling, “She’s mine!”?’

I raised an eyebrow at him. ‘You left it a bit late to worry about that, didn’t you?’

He grinned. ‘So I did. But you wouldn’t like to think of me shaking in my shoes for fear of the man in your life, would you?’

 ‘I don’t think I could ever imagine you shaking in your shoes,’ I said. ‘More likely to make other people shake.’

He grinned again. It had an unsettling quality.

 ‘I’m harmless, I promise. To you, anyway. But seriously, is there anyone you want to call to say where you are?’

Various members of my family flitted through my mind: my aunts and uncles, cousins. No need to bother them. They had their own problems. Finally I thought of Grandad, and decided that where he was he didn’t need any more trouble.

 ‘Nobody,’ I said.

 ‘So, come on, tell me something about yourself.’

I thought about all I could have told him, which was a lot. He wouldn’t like it. There was much about my life, my past, that even I didn’t like.

 ‘Perhaps the less you know about me the better,’ I mused. ‘I’m just here to fit into the part you want me to play.’

 ‘But you’re still a person in your own right,’ he said. ‘You don’t just exist for my convenience.’

Oh, hell’s bells! Do you know how hard it is to get a man to think like that? And when I finally met one he had to be a ship that was going to pass in the night. Life just wasn’t fair!

 ‘I think, for a while, you need me to exist for your convenience,’ I said cautiously. ‘I am Cindy, and my past is whatever you tell me it is.’

 ‘Is that your way of telling me to mind my own business?’ he asked, with his head on one side.

 ‘If I tell you that I’m a hundred per cent with you, and I won’t let you down, what else do you need to know?’

 ‘Nothing.’

 ‘In that case—’ I laid my finger over my mouth.

 ‘Good. OK, here’s the deal. I’m employing you—for a length of time to be decided later. Your job is to convince Grace that she’s wasting her time. I shall provide a complete wardrobe, a generous salary, and anything else necessary for you to be convincing. Now, I’ll leave you before your suds start to fade. When you’ve finished there’ll be a meal waiting for you next door.’

He closed the door, leaving me to my thoughts.

I refused to think of the problems that might lie ahead. For the moment things were looking good, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my colourful and sometimes bizarre, existence, it’s to take life as it comes.

I leaned back, sipping champagne.









Chapter Four

Della’s Story

I WAS drowning. Perfumed suds were going up my nose and I was floundering about, submerged in water, not knowing where I was, getting scared.

Just in time a pair of hands grasped me and hauled me out of the water.

 ‘What happened?’ I choked, sending suds everywhere.

 ‘You must have fallen asleep and slid underwater,’ Jack gasped.

I had a violent coughing fit, clinging to him for dear life, too frightened by what had nearly happened to care that I was naked. Jack had climbed into the bath with me, and now he was sodden, his shirt transparent. Without letting go of me, he reached out and pulled the plug so that the water drained away.

 ‘Thank goodness you came in,’ I spluttered.

 ‘I nearly didn’t. I called something through the door. When you didn’t reply I got worried, but I didn’t know what to do. I felt kind of shy about bursting in on you.’

If I hadn’t been recovering I might have said something like, In a pig’s eye, you were shy! The one thing this man could never be was shy with a naked woman. But I held my tongue. After all, he’d just saved me for the second time that evening.

 ‘I must have fallen asleep,’ I said. ‘Another moment and—’ I shuddered.

 ‘Let’s get you out of here.’ He hauled me out of the bath so that I could sit on the carpet, then tossed the robe over me and headed for the door

 ‘Selina’s sent you some of her clothes,’ he said over his shoulder. ‘I’ll hand them through.’

A moment later the door opened. His hand appeared, dropped a bag on the floor, and retreated.

If they were Selina’s clothes, I was a monkey’s uncle. She must have had a maid with her, and this was one of her uniforms—grey, shapeless and too big.

It was a declaration of war.

Fine! If that was what she wanted, I was up for it.

I opened the bathroom door and called out, ‘Are you ready for this?’

 ‘Yes,’ he called back.

Without a word I walked out and presented myself to him, turning very slowly so that he could view the dress in all its ghastliness, while his eyes popped and his jaw dropped.

 ‘I don’t know what to say,’ he said at last. ‘Except that I’m sorry.’

I’d recovered my sense of humour by this time. ‘I suppose you could see this as a positive sign,’ I pointed out. ‘It means she’s taking me seriously, which is what you want.’

 ‘That’s the spirit. And I’ll buy you a new wardrobe tomorrow.’

Jack had also changed, since his clothes had got wet. Now he was in casuals, but he still managed to look as though he owned the world.

I don’t know what I ate, I was too tired and hungry to care. Jack served me himself, as tenderly as a mother, eating little and always watching out for my needs.

 ‘More champagne?’ he asked me once.

 ‘I could murder a cup of tea,’ I said.

He was on the phone to the kitchens at once. Just as he finished there was a knock at the door. He was scowling as he went to open it, but he smiled when he saw who it was.

 ‘Jenny, Charles—come in.’

It was the man and girl I’d seen holding hands on deck, and then later when they showed Vanner below.

 ‘We’re not disturbing anything, are we?’ the girl asked, coming in and smiling at me.

 ‘Not a thing,’ I said, liking her at once. She was in her twenties, very pretty, with real warmth in her smile.

I liked her even more when I learned why she’d come.

 ‘We’re the same size,’ she said, opening a bag and showing me the contents. ‘So I brought you some of my clothes. I thought Selina would try something, and I can see she has.’

 ‘Bless you, Jenny,’ Jack said.

I blessed her too when I saw the clothes. They were beautiful, and they fitted.

Jenny was a darling. She could see that I was almost asleep, and she took Charles away quickly.

 ‘You need some sleep,’ Jack said. ‘Get to bed.’

 ‘What about you?’

 ‘I’ll sleep on the floor.’

I looked at the bed. It was vast.

 ‘That seems a bit unfair,’ I mused.

 ‘There are some spare pillows I could put down the centre,’ he offered.

 ‘Sounds a good idea.’

It didn’t seem such a good idea when I looked at the nightdress Jenny had brought me. It was nightwear for a bride, low at the front and transparent everywhere. It forced me to reconsider the situation.

Jack undressed in the bathroom. When he returned and saw me dressed for the night, his eyebrows went up. I looked awful—shapeless and sexless. But that was probably a good thing.

 ‘Don’t tell me Jenny brought you that old sack?’

 ‘No, this comes from Selina’s maid. Jenny’s nightdress wouldn’t fit me.’

 ‘But you must be the same—’

He stopped quickly and I saw his face change as he realised that there was more to this than being the same size.

 ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes—right—’

He was actually turning pink, which I reckoned didn’t happen very often.

He had some trouble finding his pyjamas, which puzzled me until I realised that he probably didn’t wear them much. They were white silk, and he looked just as good in them as he had in everything else. They were also semi-transparent, which might have been why he got into bed quickly, looking even pinker.

I climbed in the other side, wishing I could have worn Jenny’s sexy nightie. In these surroundings, and getting into bed with a man whose body I already knew so incongruously well, it would have been the right thing to wear. And if it did leave me half naked—well, he was getting used to that too.

I reasoned it wouldn’t have been fair to give him the wrong impression. Hell! What wrong impression? We’d got past that stage in the first five minutes.

So here I was, lying in bed with the sexiest man I’d ever met, with a pillow between us, trying desperately to think pure thoughts.

It was very, very difficult.

I wondered if he was having the same trouble.

Perhaps not, since he’d just seen me dressed in sackcloth and looking like King Kong’s mother.

Pity!

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a prude, no matter what previous events might suggest. I’ve lived around some very charming people. Too charming, some of them, and they could leave you wishing you hadn’t listened to a word they’d said. But it had been fun while it lasted.

I’m not what Vanner thought, but I like do fellers. I flirt and fool around, dress to catch their eye, and when I’ve done that—well, things happen. Nice things.

Unfortunately my romances have tended to be very short-lived, for reasons I can’t go into here. But I knew a fantastic guy when I found myself in bed with him, even with a pillow between us.

 ‘All right to turn out the light?’ he asked, in a voice that I thought sounded tense.

 ‘Yes, fine,’ I said.

He turned it out and for a while we both lay in the darkness, listening to each other’s breathing.

I had a problem. I usually slept naked, and the sackcloth I was wearing made me as hot as fire. Well, something did, anyway. And I began to sense that it was the same for him, if his movements were anything to go by. He tossed and turned and finally pulled off his pyjama jacket.

So then I had to start thinking pure thoughts all over again.

But I had my moment. Half an hour later, after a lot more fretful tossing around, he suddenly leapt out of bed and shot into the bathroom as though all the devils in hell were after him. A moment later I heard the unmistakable sound of a shower.

I slept happily after that.

I awoke first, in the early light, and propped myself up to look at him.

He looked fantastic asleep, even with a night’s growth of beard. It was thick, dark, and gave him the air of a pirate.

He was bare-chested, not having replaced the pyjama jacket. I wondered what else he hadn’t replaced, but from here I couldn’t see. What I could see was that he really did have a hairy chest. Rich and curly. Just as I like it.

He opened his eyes.

 ‘Hi,’ he said. Then he became aware of his chest. ‘Sorry about this. I just—’

He was interrupted by a knock on the door, followed by a cheery voice calculated to freeze the blood.

 ‘Coo-ee! Is anyone awake?’

 ‘Oh, Lord, it’s Grace,’ he said desperately.

 ‘I’ve brought your coffee,’ came the voice through the door. ‘Can I come in?’

 ‘Just a minute, Grace,’ he yelled. ‘I’m not decent.’ Under his breath he muttered, ‘Where is it? Where is it?’

 ‘What?’

 ‘My jacket. Oh, there it is on the floor.’

He leaned down to scoop it up, accidentally revealing the answer to the question that had been troubling me. He’d probably left them in the bathroom.

Inspiration seized me and I grabbed the pyjama jacket from his hands, tossing it back onto the floor.

 ‘Are you crazy?’ he hissed.

 ‘No, but you are,’ I told him. ‘You’re supposed to be nuts about me, and you’re sleeping in that? Come on—make it look real.’

As I spoke I was pulling the pillow out of the bed, tossing it away, then stripping off the sack and pushing it down the bed where nobody could see it.

 ‘Push the sheet down to your waist,’ I said, and when he did so I put my arm around his neck, trying not to be too aware of the length of his naked body against mine. ‘Now we look real.’

His eyes gleamed. ‘That’s the spirit.’ He raised his voice. ‘OK, Grace.’

I don’t know exactly what Grace had expected to see, but it must have been a lot less than what she did see—because she looked as if she’d swallowed a hedgehog, prickles and all. I nestled against Jack, smiling at her as she stood there with a small tray bearing two coffees.

I’ll say this for her: she got her act together fast, fixed her smile on with steel rivets, and approached the bed.

 ‘I hope you two slept well,’ she said, like any hostess greeting any guest in the morning.

 ‘Well,’ I mused, ‘I wouldn’t exactly say slept. But it was a wonderful night.’

As I finished I gave an inane little giggle, and, if I say so myself, I do ‘inane’ very well. I have a large repertoire of giggles, to be produced on demand, but the jewel in the crown is definitely ‘inane’.

It got to Grace, anyway. The smile slipped, but she forced it back into place.

 ‘I’m so glad you find everything satisfactory,’ she said, straight out of the hostess’s etiquette book.

 ‘It was very satisfactory,’ I breathed.

Beside me I felt Jack grow tense and turn his head so that his face was hidden against my shoulder. He was fighting not to laugh.

 ‘Thanks for the coffee, Grace,’ he said, looking up at last. ‘Perhaps we’ll have breakfast in here, too.’

 ‘Impossible,’ she declared. ‘You can’t insult your guests like that.’

 ‘I think they’ll understand—’ Jack started to say.

 ‘Nonsense. Of course you must come to breakfast,’ she declared. ‘I shall tell them to expect you in half an hour.’

She sailed out, closing the door very firmly behind her.

 ‘Wow!’ I said.

 ‘You see my problem?’

Actually, I was being distracted by another problem just then. He was pressing closer to me, his hip against my leg, and there was no doubting what I could feel.

 ‘Yes.’ He groaned, meeting my eyes. ‘Look, I apologise. I meant to—I mean, I didn’t mean to—Oh hell!’

 ‘I understand,’ I assured him solemnly. ‘But we’re expected for breakfast.’

 ‘Hell again!’

 ‘Well, it’s your fault,’ I complained. ‘Why do you let her order you about? You’re the Big Man—’

 ‘Do you mind not putting it like that?’ he asked faintly.

 ‘You know what I mean. You’re supposed to be master of all you survey. Just tell her that you’ll do things your way. Are you a man or a mouse?’

 ‘Of all the stupid questions,’ he said explosively. ‘I’m a mouse, of course. How else do you think I got into this mess?’

 ‘Well, Grace has spoken, so we’ll have to postpone this—er—interesting discussion until another day.’

 ‘Yes,’ he said delicately. ‘Look, I’m going to have to make a dash for the bathroom.’

 ‘Cold shower?’

 ‘Freezing.’

 ‘Don’t use all the icy water.’

He grinned and began to slide out of the bed. Then he stopped.

 ‘I’ve lost my pyjama bottoms. So do you mind closing your eyes until I reach the bathroom?’

 ‘Sure thing.’

 ‘And no peeking. Promise me that.’

 ‘Of course I promise,’ I said, shocked to the core by his doubts. ‘What do you take me for? I give you my solemn word—not one tiny peek.’

But I lied, my friends, I lied. Oh, how gloriously I lied!

Breakfast was on the sundeck, under a blue awning. I’ll swear the whole boat was there to watch us arrive. Word had gone around, and any of the sailors and staff who could possibly find an excuse to be there were hovering, trying to look indifferent.

The guests didn’t even try. Their eyes bored into us as we appeared on deck and made our way to the table. I was wearing a pair of elegant dark green trousers and a fawn silk blouse that Jenny had loaned me, and I was really grateful to her.

Every woman there wore couture, even at this hour of the morning. It was casual, of course, but the kind of casual that costs a bomb, and Jenny’s clothes made me look as though I belonged there. Selina and Grace had noticed that too, and they were hopping mad.

Jack introduced me to everyone, but I only took in a very few details. I already knew Jenny and Charles. She looked at my outfit, smiled and winked, then glanced at Selina, who was controlling her annoyance using the same methods as Grace earlier. Grace’s mouth was shut like a trap, and she glared.

So I knew I was doing exactly what Jack wanted.

He introduced me to a young man called Derek Lamming, who sat with Selina, his arm on the back of her chair, continually casting her nervous glances. I think he was really glad to see me. Then there was Harry Oxton, who looked about sixty, and hovered over Grace as Derek did Selina.

Among the others the one who stood out was Raymond Keller, nice-looking, early forties, who seemed genuinely friendly with Jack. The rest were just names and faces in a blur.

Jack’s explanation of my presence was a masterpiece. He had hoped to invite me for the cruise, but I had already been committed to visit various friends in Europe. However, several crises had erupted, forcing me to flee with little more than what I was wearing. Luckily he had been around to scoop me up and bring me on board for the rest of the trip.

I was awed. I tell a good tale myself, when it’s necessary, but this man had the right touch to make it convincing. It made me wonder just what did go on in the boardroom when he was in charge. Not bullying. I was sure of that. He’d get his own way by talking the hind legs off a donkey.

Grace asked me some pretty barbed questions, but I was getting comfortably into the part now, and managed to parry them. I have to admit, too, that Jack helped me.

 ‘Don’t worry the poor girl, now, Grace. She’s starving. All she wants is to feed her face, then go out on a huge shopping spree to replace her wardrobe. Hurry up, Della. My credit cards are itching for some exercise. ’

Those were words I loved to hear.

He then got a bit high and mighty, urging me away from the table before I was ready. I complained about it when we got into the motor boat.

 ‘Strategy,’ he assured me. ‘I had the boat ready and I got you into it before Grace could think up an excuse to come with us.’

There was a taxi waiting for us on the quay. More strategy. Before I knew it we were being whisked up the hill to the streets of Monte Carlo, where the luxury shops congregated.

Ever been let loose in Aladdin’s cave and told to do your worst? I made the most of it because I wanted to buy as much as possible before I woke up. Even if it wasn’t a dream, I knew it would never happen again.

The first shop was smart casuals, and I was dizzy after the first glance. Jack murmured in my ear, ‘Are you ready?’

 ‘Yes.’

 ‘Steady?’

 ‘Yes.’

 ‘OK. Spend money.’

So I did. After all, he was my employer, and I had to take his orders. And if there’s one thing I know how to do, it’s spend money.

 ‘Just what kind of personality am I supposed to have?’ I asked him at one point. ‘Am I sporty, slinky, a creature of the sun or of the night?’

 ‘All those,’ he said. ‘Shirts and trousers, clinging gowns—short and long—bikinis—whatever. We’ve got to cover this from every angle.’

Choosing clothes with him was fun, because he found it fun. He watched for ages while I paraded for him, with never a sign of boredom.

After the casual shop we went to another one for dresses. Then another shop for lingerie, another for shoes, and far, far more of everything than I could possibly need for this trip.

 ‘How long are we going to be on the boat?’ I asked as he signed things.

 ‘As long as I can make it last,’ he said, finishing with a flourish.

 ‘But it can’t be more than a few days, can it?’

 ‘Trying to escape me already?’ he asked, with a grin that made him gorgeous.

 ‘No way! It’s just that you’re buying me more than I’ll need.’

 ‘Of course,’ he said, slightly shocked. ‘We can’t be economical. Think of my reputation. When parcels start arriving on The Hawk everyone must be able to see that you have ten times what you actually need. And another thing,’ he added, trying to look stern, ‘I expect you to do a lot of sunbathing by the pool. If I see you in the same bikini twice, you’re in dead trouble, lady.’

I liked this man.

He told the shops to deliver everything to The Hawk at once.

 ‘All except this,’ he said, indicating the very smart blue dress I was wearing. ‘It’s just right for lunching at the Hotel de Paris.’

 ‘You can’t get into that restaurant without a reservation, ’ I warned him.

It was a slip, but he didn’t seem to notice.

 ‘I have a reservation,’ he said. ‘I called them before we left the boat.’

Of course. I should have known that he would have done.

So we went there and had lunch high up, looking down at Monte Carlo. I could just make out The Hawk and something else that didn’t please me at all.

‘The Silverado is still there,’ I said in disgust.

 ‘Forget Vanner. I won’t let him get to you.’

Who cared about Vanner anyway? Who cared about anything except the grilled turbot they were serving and the perfect wine? And the man sitting opposite me. Who cared about anything but him?

He was looking at me with one raised eyebrow.

 ‘Tell me something,’ he said. ‘Why were you working for Vanner? I don’t suppose he paid more than peanuts, and he didn’t treat you well. You must have been desperate.’

 ‘I do freelance work in department stores, demonstrating goods,’ I said, sticking to the truth as far as possible. ‘A job fell through and I took the first thing that was offered—being a waitress on The Silverado. There wasn’t time to check it out. When I realised how much more than a waitress I was supposed to be, we were already out at sea.’

 ‘And that’s the whole story?’

 ‘What else could there be?’

 ‘I suppose you could tell me how come a young woman who knows so much about good living needs to work as a demonstrator or a waitress.’

 ‘You don’t know how much I know,’ I said uneasily.

 ‘I’ve watched you choosing good clothes like an expert. You’re used to money, and you’re familiar with Monte Carlo—otherwise you’d never have known that you need a reservation for this place.’

So he had noticed my slip after all!

 ‘All right, all right,’ I said. ‘Daddy was a millionaire, and I was brought up in the lap of luxury. But we fell on hard times.’

He surveyed my wryly. ‘So you’re not going to reveal anything?’

 ‘Nope. I told you, the less you know about me the better. I have no past, no life outside this moment.’

 ‘Well, you can’t blame me for trying to guess.’

 ‘Don’t waste the effort. Whatever you’re thinking about me is wrong.’

 ‘You don’t know what I’m thinking about you.’

 ‘Maybe not. But whatever it is, it’s wrong. I’m not like—what you think.’

 ‘I think you’re one crazy lady.’

 ‘OK, you’ve got that bit right,’ I conceded.

 ‘And I’ll get the rest right too,’ he said in a teasing voice. ‘Because I want to know all about you. And I’m going to.’

I shrugged. ‘If you think you can.’

Inside, I was vowing that there were things about my life that he would never know—not if I could prevent it.

 ‘Woman of mystery, eh?’

 ‘The less you can find out, the less others can find out,’ I said. ‘And that’s how you need it. Now, why don’t you tell me about myself? My official self, that is. What’s our story?’

His eyes gleamed. ‘It’s no use changing the subject.’

 ‘Yes, it is,’ I said at once. ‘Changing the subject is the best diversionary tactic ever created, and, considering how often you’ve used it yourself, you must know that.’

 ‘How do you know I use it myself?’

 ‘Because you’re up to every trick.’

 ‘How do you know I’m up to every trick?’

 ‘Are you saying that Bully Jack isn’t?’

 ‘Will you leave Bully Jack out of this? He doesn’t exist. He’s a fantasy figure that the PR boys have invented. He’s good for the company image, but that’s all.’

 ‘Do you mean,’ I asked indignantly, ‘that you don’t crush everyone beneath your feet? That you don’t smash rivals with a ruthless mailed fist?’

He made a wry, apologetic face. ‘Sorry.’

 ‘Well, I was never so disappointed!’

He smiled and I caught my breath.

 ‘Are you really?’ he said.

And suddenly I didn’t know what to say.









Chapter Five

Della’s story

SUDDENLY one corner of Jack’s mouth quirked in a crooked smile.

 ‘What?’ I challenged.

 ‘Do you realise we’ve known each other less than twenty-four hours?’

 ‘I don’t believe it. But, yes, it’s true. It was only last night that we met, outside the casino. What were you doing there all alone?’

 ‘Escaping. We’d all been out together, but I wanted some time to myself. So I changed my cufflinks and got away while they weren’t looking.’

 ‘You changed your cufflinks?’ I echoed, wondering if I’d heard right.

 ‘Sure. You noticed them, remember? You said the silver plate was wearing off.’

 ‘Well, they looked really odd—so cheap and tacky.’

 ‘That’s why I wore them. They belonged to Grandpa Nick, and he always swore that they brought him luck. I suppose they did, in a kind of way. He started the family firm.’

 ‘He founded the great Bullen empire?’

 ‘Lord, no! He wasn’t into founding empires. He enjoyed laughing too much. He was a wicked old so-and-so. ’

He gave a reminiscent grin that said everything about his love for his grandfather. It made me like him enormously. And when I say like I mean like. This was nothing to do with the sensations that had been giving me such a hard time almost since the very moment I’d met Jack. It was a warm, friendly feeling, as if I really knew him and we were part of the same family.

And in a sense we were—the family of people who adored their grandfathers—because I felt the same about mine.

 ‘All he had was a small grocery shop,’ Jack resumed. ‘My father went to work for him and then shunted him aside. Grandpa went into early retirement and, since my mother was dead, I got to spend a lot of time with him. He became my favourite person, and I think I was his, even more than his son. He admired my father’s abilities, but he was scared of him. I was a bit nervous myself.’

He fell silent while the waiter brought the next course and the next wine. When we were alone again I said, ‘Go on. Don’t stop there.’

 ‘Grandpa Nick and I were like a couple of kids, fooling around together. He never really grew up. I wish I could describe him properly.’

 ‘You don’t need to,’ I said. ‘He sounds exactly like mine.’

 ‘Really? Tell me about him?’

 ‘He’s never grown up either. Just like you said. Grandad has a child’s ability to see the world as he wants it to be, and he’s a great spinner of tales. When I was a little girl I thought it was wonderful, having someone who could dress the whole world up in glitter. I was furious when I discovered that other people call it lying, because it isn’t. It’s just fantasising, and when you’re used to it, it’s easy to sort out the truth.’

 ‘What did your parents say about his fantasies?’

 ‘I barely remember them. They died when I was two, and Grandad raised me.’

 ‘All alone? I mean, you didn’t have a grandmother?’

 ‘No, she was dead too. It was just him and me.’

I laughed suddenly, because things were coming back to me. Nice things that made me happy to remember.

 ‘This is what I mean about his stories. According to Grandad, a posse of social workers descended on him, trying to wrench me from his arms, and he beat them off at the door. Actually, his sister told me that he was visited by one friendly, understanding social worker, who had far too much on her plate and was relieved to mark this case “Solved”. When Grandad told her he could manage perfectly well she couldn’t get out of there fast enough.’

 ‘Did you have many other relatives?’

 ‘Loads. I was too young to realise why my parents had vanished, and I remember the family getting together a lot, and people crying. Grandad cried more than anyone, but he also cuddled me. Sometimes he cuddled and cried at the same time. We had a wonderful life together. We loved each other and we laughed a lot, and we were happy.’

I stopped because I was suddenly flooded with emotion as I thought of Grandad, how much I loved him and how wretched he was right now. It seemed terrible to be sitting here enjoying the high life while he—

 ‘What is it?’ Jack asked me.

 ‘Nothing,’ I said hastily.

 ‘You’re crying.’

 ‘I’m not.’

I knew he wasn’t fooled, but mercifully he didn’t press it. His manner simply became more gentle.

 ‘You love him very much, don’t you?’ he asked.

 ‘Yes,’ I said, blowing my nose. ‘You said you and Grandpa Nick were like a couple of kids, and that’s how it is with Grandad and me. He looks after me, I look after him.’

 ‘And it’s been that way for a long time, hasn’t it?’ he asked. ‘Since you were—what? Ten?’

 ‘More like six,’ I said.

 ‘Me too. I can’t claim as young as six, but I can remember helping Nick out with the books at the store, because he’d promised Dad he’d have them done by next day and he hadn’t even started them. He kept putting them off because he was hopeless at figures. I could manage figures OK. I don’t mean I was brilliant, but my mind worked that way. His didn’t. He thought it was rocket science. So I did the books, which didn’t leave me any time for my homework. So he came up to the school next day and gave them a sob story to get me off. I didn’t know where to look. I was so sure they’d see through him. But they didn’t. He did it so well.’

 ‘Oh, yes,’ I said, remembering my childhood. ‘He did it well.’

Now I really liked Jack. Having daft grandfathers, so alike that they might have been twins, was a true bond.

 ‘Nick was full of silly jokes and superstitions,’ Jack resumed. ‘He believed in lucky charms, and he had a dozen of them, all supposed to work for something different. The most important were the cufflinks. He was wearing them when he proposed to the most wonderful woman in the world, even though he reckoned he had no chance. But he was wrong. She said yes. So he decided they must be lucky, and he treasured them always. It meant a lot that he gave them to me. We both knew Dad wouldn’t have understood.’

 ‘Do they work?’ I asked.

 ‘Often enough to be hair-raising. Last night I went to the casino twice, the first time wearing a pair of my own.’

 ‘Solid gold?’

 ‘Please!’ he said in a scandalised voice. ‘Bully Jack doesn’t waste his time on gold. Solid platinum.’

I nodded sagely. ‘Twice the price.’

 ‘Right. Anyway I lost, which is what you expect in a casino. Then later I went back a second time, I was wearing Nick’s “lucky” links, and won ten grand.’

 ‘Aha! That’s how come you can afford me!’

He surveyed me wryly. ‘We passed ten grand about eleven-thirty this morning. And we haven’t even started on jewellery yet.’

 ‘Your grandpa sounds great. I can understand why you liked him so much.’

 ‘I loved him. Mind you, I blame him for everything. If he hadn’t started that store my Dad couldn’t have built it up into a chain and then left the lot to me. It was made very clear that I had to become a tycoon—whether I wanted it or not.’

 ‘And you expect me to believe that you didn’t?’

 ‘I wanted to be a vet. But the trouble with money is that if you have it you find that more keeps sticking to you, like mud. And people depend on you—the workforce, shareholders, your sister. You dream about getting out from under, but how can you when it’s going to affect them?’

 ‘I suppose we all dream of getting out from under,’ I mused. ‘What would your version be? Becoming a vet at last?’

 ‘No, it’s too late for that. I’d just like to get away and be a hobo of the waterways. I’d have a barge, and a great, stupid dog. Or maybe I’d be really extravagant and have two.’

 ‘Just you and the dogs?’

 ‘Probably. There aren’t too many people you could ask to spend their lives like that.’

 ‘Oh, this is to be a lifetime thing?’

 ‘You bet. The whole point is to be completely free of all the heavy stuff—obligations, responsibilities, and above all people’s expectations.’

I’m not sure if he knew it, but he gave a little sigh as he said the last words, and it told me a great deal.

 ‘That’s where the shoe really pinches?’

 ‘And how!’ he said with feeling.

 ‘Hence the dog?’

 ‘Dogs. At least three. I’ve just decided. Dogs have the right idea. They don’t expect anything from you except love and care. They aren’t trying to talk you into a bad investment, or get you drunk, hoping to muddle you into something you’ll regret. They don’t pay you daft compliments in an attempt to seduce you, because you’re rich and they want to get their hands on the goodies. And above all they aren’t trying to badger you into a marriage that would suit them.’

His voice got a little ragged on the last words.

 ‘Are you really that modest?’ I asked. ‘Or is it false modesty?’

 ‘What is?’

 ‘Your assumption that the women who seduce you are only after your money.’

Personally, I could think of a million other good reasons. Well, one anyway.

 ‘I only said they try to seduce me,’ he pointed out.

 ‘Of course. And you say, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” ’

 ‘Never mind that,’ he said hastily. ‘We’ve got distracted. And I’d like to make it clear that when I mentioned money I wasn’t accusing you. If there’s one lady in the world who isn’t trying to fleece me, it’s you.’

 ‘Well, I don’t have to fleece you, do I?’ I pointed out. ‘You’re spending a fortune on me without giving me the trouble of seducing you—always assuming that I could.’

 ‘I’m not answering that. You don’t need me to answer that.’

I just smiled.

 ‘And,’ he pointed out, ‘always assuming that you’d want to.’

 ‘And I’m not answering that,’ I told him. ‘You think I came down in the last shower?’

 ‘I guess neither of us did,’ he replied, with meaning.

After that we fell silent for a while, both of us thinking over what we’d just said, what we’d left unsaid, and what we both understood.

 ‘I’m only saying,’ I resumed at last, ‘that I could be all kinds of gold-digger, just biding my time, waiting to ask for more.’

 ‘And last night? Covering me with bruises?’

 ‘I didn’t know who you were.’

 ‘A true gold-digger would have known who I was. You have no idea about these women, Della. They have filing systems, filled with photographs of men, plus full details of every penny they possess. They know more about my assets than I do. And you’re not like that. I know you.’

 ‘You don’t know me.’

 ‘I do.’

 ‘Don’t.’

 ‘Do.’

The waiter appeared again and we fell silent, trying not to laugh.

When the soufflé had been served, with a different wine, he returned to the subject.

 ‘If I assume most women are fortune hunters it’s because those are the kind I tend to meet. Maybe some of them aren’t, but it gets hard to tell the difference. Women have come to feel almost unreal to me. In fact, so do most things.’

I sipped from my glass, and the wine felt like heaven. Seeing the look on my face, he refilled the glass.

 ‘Of course,’ he added, a tad too casually, ‘there is one thing that could give me cause for suspicion about you, and that’s the fact that you’re so secretive about yourself. Now if you could just come up with a few personal details I could stop worrying…’

 ‘Too late!’ I told him, laughing. ‘You should have played that card about five minutes ago. You’ve missed the trick now.’

 ‘I was afraid of that,’ he said. ‘If this were a boardroom I’d have known exactly when to play it. But sitting here with you, like this—I’m confused.’

 ‘Good,’ I told him. ‘I prefer that.’

 ‘I’m not going to win a single round with you, am I?’

I shook my head.

 ‘I know it’s hard to believe—’ he sighed ‘—but when I’m out of the boardroom all my confidence deserts me, and then I need help.’

He gave me a pathetic smile that would have knocked me out if I hadn’t been getting thoroughly suspicious.

I’ll be honest. It knocked me out anyway. This man could get to you even when you knew he was up to every trick.

 ‘Don’t—you—dare,’ I breathed slowly. ‘Don’t you dare sit there and play for sympathy. Do I look stupid?’

 ‘You look good enough to eat,’ he said shamelessly.

 ‘I’m warning you, Jack. Do not ask me to feel sorry for you. And take that penitent look off your face, because that doesn’t fool me either.’

He gave his brilliant grin.

 ‘It was worth a try,’ he said. ‘But perhaps I should have known better. You see through me. That’s the nicest thing about you.’ He added in a considering tone, ‘Well—almost the nicest.’

He waited for me to pick up on his last words. Our eyes met—his querying, mine telling him he could wait for ever. He backed down first.

 ‘Touché,’ he said, raising his glass to me.

We understood each other perfectly.

 ‘Tell me about Bully Jack,’ I said.

He groaned. ‘Not you too. I told you, he’s an invention. He gives my PR department something to do, and that’s about all. OK, a reputation for ruthlessness can sometimes be useful. And Grace fosters it. She has actually given newspaper interviews, painting Bully Jack in lurid colours.’

 ‘Why does Grace have such a hold over you?’

 ‘Because she looked after me when our father died. I was fifteen. He did a very unfair thing, leaving me everything and her nothing. I put it right as soon as I could, so justice has been done if we’re only talking about money. But I’ve swallowed up her life, and it’s a bit late for her to reclaim it now.’

 ‘But you must be in your thirties,’ I protested. ‘So she could have reclaimed her life at least ten years ago.’

 ‘Well,’ he said vaguely, ‘she felt she should go on looking after me. And of course I’m grateful.’

In my opinion Grace had become domineering and power-hungry, playing on his feelings of guilt. I didn’t think he’d swallowed up her life, but I could see her swallowing his.

I didn’t say so, because I could see that this was something he was unwilling to confront. He had a kind heart, and it undermined his attempts to break free.

Over coffee he became businesslike, outlining the salary he intended to pay me. When I protested that it was too much he said briskly, ‘That’s enough out of you. Drink up. We still have jewellery to buy.’

He considered me like a film director planning a shot.

 ‘You’re going to be a challenge. The gamine look isn’t easy to adorn. Trying to put a tiara on hair as short as yours can be the very devil. Luckily you have a nice long neck, so we can hang some long earrings on you.’

 ‘I don’t like long earrings,’ I said defiantly.

 ‘You’ll do as you’re told,’ he told me, with his nicest grin—i.e. his wickedest. There was no difference.

 ‘Oh, will I?’

 ‘Yes, you will. You see, I’m going to be a tyrant—no, don’t giggle. It’s time you found out what a tyrant I am. So if I want you in long diamond earrings, you’ll wear them. The same applies to pearls, emeralds, sapphires, rubies—’

 ‘Rubies don’t suit me.’

 ‘Don’t interrupt. Really top class rubies suit everyone. If you think otherwise you’ve been accepting them from the wrong men—cheapskates who didn’t get you the best.’

He left the question hanging in the air.