More Than A Millionaire
“I need a woman.”
“Really?” Abby said with a snap.
“You’ve seen the apartment.” Emilio spread his hands. “I need someone to furnish it.”
“So employ an interior decorator.”
“I did. That was him on the phone this evening. I fired him.”
“I heard. Maybe you ought to call him back and unfire him.”
He looked at her pleadingly. “You can stay as long as you like. You solve my problem, I solve yours.” He held out his hand across the table.
Abby took it reluctantly. She had a nasty feeling that a whole portfolio of new problems was about to open up in front of her….
Born in London, Sophie Weston is a traveler by nature who started writing when she was five. She wrote her first romance recovering from illness, thinking her traveling was over. She was wrong, but she enjoyed it so much that she has carried on. These days she lives in the heart of the city with two demanding cats and a cherry tree—and travels the world looking for settings for her stories.
Look out for
The Millionaire’s Daughter and The Bridesmaid’s Secret by Sophie Weston
Don’t miss these thrilling stories about two very different sisters and the men they marry—on sale in January and February 2002!
Books by Sophie Weston
3630—THE SHEIKH’S BRIDE
More Than a Millionaire
IT WAS a perfect Saturday afternoon at the Hacienda Montijo. Glamorous guests had enjoyed a long lazy lunch. Now they strolled through the famous gardens or drowsed over English tea on the lawn. Children romped in the swimming pool. The sun shone. Bees hummed.
The shy English visitor refused to be shifted from the terrace out into the sunshine, though.
‘Wouldn’t you like to go and mingle, Abby?’ said her hostess, without much hope.
‘No, I’ll just stay here and watch. If that’s all right,’ said the English girl politely.
Her hostess sighed and gave up. She was watching, too.
For below them, on the velvet-smooth tennis court, a battle to the death was in progress. A tall blond giant was sweating profusely as his opponent slammed him all around the court.
The dark tennis player was like quicksilver. He moved all the time, fast as a jaguar, graceful as a dancer. It seemed that wherever his opponent sent the ball, he was there first, totally in control.
‘Who is that?’ said the Montijo matriarch in displeasure. The blond giant was her favourite grandson.
She shifted in her cane chair and her daughter-in-law sighed inwardly. She signalled to her husband across the lawn. Why wasn’t he here when she needed him? He knew this was going to be difficult. He had no business leaving her to deal with it. Especially not as she was struggling to entertain the monosyllabic English girl at the same time.
She said brightly, ‘That’s Emilio Diz, Mama.’
The matriarch stiffened. ‘Diz?’
The English girl turned her head. She was a teenager; she should have been with the other teenagers, thought Annaluisa Montijo despairingly. But she was too tall and gangly to interest the boys and too suffocatingly shy to talk to the girls. So she ended up here in the middle of what was about to become a nasty family row.
‘Which one is Emilio Diz?’ she asked politely.
Both older women stared at her. Blond Bruno Montijo was the son and heir. The house was full of photographs of him, posed and unposed, muddy and magnificent on a polo pony, sleek and glamorous in black evening clothes at balls and receptions and premieres. His cups for fencing filled a cabinet in the library. He was rich, he was gorgeous and, inevitably, he was a national celebrity. Even if she did not recognise the world-class tennis player, the English girl should have recognised blond and gorgeous Bruno on his own home territory. It was almost an insult to the family not to. The matriarch drew an outraged breath.
Her daughter-in-law rushed into speech. ‘Of course, you haven’t met Bruno yet, Abby.’ She sent her mother-in-law a pleading look. ‘He’s my oldest son. The fair one.’
‘And the other really is Emilio Diz?’ said Abby, unaware of digging herself into a deeper hole.
The matriarch glared.
Her daughter-in-law intervened quickly. ‘Are you a fan, Abby?’ She tried hard to sound amused.
Where was Felipe? She caught sight of her husband and sent him another, more urgent, signal.
‘Of course she isn’t a fan,’ snapped the matriarch. ‘She didn’t know what the wretched man even looked like.’
‘No,’ admitted Abby, blushing.
Caught out again, she thought. This last week had been a nightmare. She seemed to have lurched from one social mistake to the next. She had never imagined people could make so many rules just to live day to day—or that she could find so many ways to break them.
She tried to explain that she wasn’t showing off about something she didn’t really understand. ‘I’ve heard my brothers talk about him. They thought he would be Wimbledon champion this year if he hadn’t retired from the circuit.’
But even that was wrong.
‘The circuit,’ sniffed the matriarch. ‘In my day lawn tennis was played by gentlemen. Not circus animals.’
Her daughter-in-law winced. Abby blushed harder and hung her head.
‘Oh, be fair, Mama,’ said the daughter-in-law, with compassion for this ugly duckling who always seemed to say the wrong thing, ‘Emilio Diz is a great tennis player and a national hero.’
‘Humph. Then why isn’t he still playing tennis? He’s only, what is it? Twenty-five? Twenty-six? Plenty of time to win something worthwhile. Why has he given up and gone into business?’ She spat the last words out as if they were obscene.
‘They say he’s very intelligent…’ protested the daughter-in-law faintly.
‘That’s why Felipe sold him the Palacio Azul, is it?’ said the matriarch with rancour.
The daughter-in-law knew when she was out of her depth. She looked round for help. It came puffing up the terrace steps.
‘For a very fair price, Mama,’ said Felipe Montijo, arriving slightly out of breath. ‘Unlike us, he has the resources to develop the place into a full sports complex…’
The matriarch swung her dark glasses round on him for an unnerving moment. ‘Develop? The house your grandfather built?’
‘It’s falling down, Mama. We can’t afford…’
‘And this man can?’
‘Oh, he can, all right,’ said Felipe with feeling. ‘He wasn’t just a tennis player, even when he was a professional. He made a killing on entertainment event software. Now he’s going into property in a big way.’
‘New money!’ Rosa Montijo was shocked and did not attempt to disguise it. ‘And you ask him to your home? Let him meet Rosanna?’
Felipe laughed. ‘He’s not interested in Rosanna, Mama. He’s twenty-five and he’s been on the international tennis circuit since he was eighteen, for heaven’s sake. He dates movie stars, not high school girls.’
‘In my day we would never have introduced the daughter of the house to a man like that.’
Her daughter-in-law intervened. ‘Felipe is doing business with him, Mama. Of course we ask him.’
The matriarch was disdainful. ‘His mother used to work for my hairdresser.’
Montijo husband and wife exchanged despairing looks.
Watching silently, Abby saw it with interest. It was the first time this pleasant husband and wife had shown any signs of communicating. They had been very hospitable but there was a coldness at the heart of this house. It worried her. She did not know how to deal with it. Probably that was what made her even more clumsy and tactless than all those rules she kept falling over.
Abby looked across the perfect lawn to the distant tennis court. A cluster of beautifully dressed people were grouped outside the netting, watching the match with palpable excitement. But it was not the fashionable crowd that brought Abby’s heavy brows together in a worried frown. It was not even the duel on court. It was that coldness.
Maybe that is what Daddy meant, when he said they were sophisticated, thought Abby. She sighed.
She knew she was not sophisticated. If she hadn’t already known it, the friends of her host’s daughter would have made her realise it. Their sexy clothes made her blink. And their knowing conversation silenced her. It was like watching one of the international soap operas that they all loved.
Abby never managed to see the glamorous soap operas, though most of them were aired in England. They were for-bidden at her boarding school. And at home she was too busy, mucking out the stables, tearing into the overgrown garden or doing what she could to patch up the worst decayed bits of the Palladian pile that was her home.
Her father would hug her and say she was a good girl but she knew that he was worried about her. Abby did not see why. She was perfectly happy. Well, maybe not perfectly. But as long as the west wing roof did not leak this winter, she had not got much to wish for, she thought.
Her noisy siblings treated her as if she was a fifth brother. The village generally behaved as if she was an apprentice workman, teaching her various tricks of carpentry and plumbing whenever the latest disaster struck the Hall. As for the county, now that she was sixteen, they either asked her to dinner as her widowed father’s partner for the evening or froze her out, as an impediment to his—in their view—long overdue remarriage.
It was the dinner parties that Abby hated. That was why her father had brought her on this business trip with him to Argentina.
She protested. Of course she protested. There was too much to do before Christmas. The pipes might freeze if she was not there to make sure that proper steps were taken when the temperature dropped. She would only be in the way.
‘But I really want you to meet the Montijos.’
Then they could come to Yorkshire in the summer when there was no possibility of freeze or flood.
‘Yes, and they will. But first I’d like you to stay with them. Señora Montijo is a very sophisticated woman. As well as very kind. See what you can learn from her, Smudge.’
‘Learn from her?’ said Abby, wary but disarmed by the nursery nickname.
‘Clothes and things,’ said her father vaguely.
There was nothing wrong with Abby’s clothes that a healthy increase in her allowance wouldn’t put right. But she was too fond of her father to say so. Four sons of super intelligence and expensive hobbies had depleted his resources almost as much as the roof. He worked hard and travelled the world. He made a good income. But the house and the family between them kept pace. There was never much left over for Abby.
Fortunately, so far she had been happy to live in jeans, topped off by shirts and sweaters that she found in the boys’ catalogues of sports and adventure wear. This was the first time she had realised that her father was not as happy with this wardrobe as she was.
‘You want me to be more feminine,’ she said, depressed. ‘Curls and stuff.’
Her father smiled affectionately and ruffled her soft dark hair, currently caught of her eyes in a raggedy pony-tail. ‘Please God, no.’
‘You need a woman to show you how to deal with people, darling.’
‘Oh, come, Pops. We’ve done sex at school,’ said Abby dryly. ‘If we hadn’t, it would be a bit late now, don’t you think?’
He looked uncomfortable. ‘Not just sex.’
‘All right, what then?’
‘I suppose—social know-how.’
‘Social know-how?’ Abby was incredulous. She primmed up her mouth and minced across the room in a very fair imitation of a catwalk model. ‘How to get out of a sports car without showing too much leg? Come into the real world, Pops. Anyway, you don’t think there’s any such thing as too much leg,’ she added practically.
Abby thought he would laugh. He didn’t. He smiled, but absently. It was obvious that he was really worried.
‘Oh, Smudge. If only it was as simple as that.’
Abby began to feel alarmed. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘I know you don’t. That’s part of the problem.’ He sighed. ‘You’re such an open person, Smudge. You’re honest and it never occurs to you that other people may not be.’
She shook her head, even more bewildered.
‘I’m no good at this,’ he said, angry with himself. ‘If your mother were alive she would explain. It’s about learning how to talk to people. How to listen. How to hear what they really mean. Not just what they say. That sort of social know-how.’
‘You make it sound like learning another language,’ she scoffed.
But inside she was alarmed. She had not seen her father so serious since Will had disappeared in the Himalayas for three weeks before he was found safe and well in totally the wrong valley. Surely her social inadequacies were not in the same class? She very nearly said so.
But her father was struggling to put his worries into words. ‘It is a bit. And like a language, you just have to practice. Only you don’t. You’re a sweetheart and you look after the boys and me like someone twice your age. But—you haven’t the slightest idea how to walk into a room and mingle.’ He gave a sharp sigh. ‘You’re so shy. I don’t know what to do about it. Annaluisa Montijo is the best solution I can think of.’
‘Your mother always said there were going to be too many men in your life. I’m beginning to realise what she meant,’ he said ruefully.
He smiled in that way he always did when he talked about his dead wife to his daughter. It was as if she was standing just behind Abby’s shoulder and he was laughing into her eyes. The intimacy was breathtaking. So was the sense of loss.
When he looked like that, Abby would do anything for him. Even go to a country where she knew no one, did not speak the language and had no idea what she would do all day while her father was at his meetings. Abby was not good with strangers.
And, though she did her best to disguise it whenever her father came out to the hacienda, this lot were way out of her ken. She had been more miserable—her first week at school, for example—but she had never felt so utterly surplus to requirements. She knew that her hostess wanted her to make friends with her daughter. But Rosanna Montijo and her smart friends, although they were only a year older than Abby, felt like another generation. She went to their dances and barbecues and counted the hours until she could persuade one of the chauffeurs to give her a lift home. She never managed to mingle.
The only place she felt really happy at Hacienda Montijo was the stables. That was odd because, of all her family, she was the one who was secretly nervous of horses. But here the gauchos had patience with her slow Spanish and the horses, perverse creatures as always, were pleased to see her.
This Saturday’s lunch party was an ordeal. She bore it by reminding herself that she was returning home for Christmas in three days’ time. All she had to do was avoid Rosanna and Rosanna’s friends today and she would be on the homeward stretch.
Accordingly, she pleaded aversion to the powerful sun and stayed firmly on the terrace. This threw her in to company with the older Montijos. It was not easy, with the women speaking courteous English for her benefit and clearly wishing she was anywhere else.
But it couldn’t be helped. In three days’ time she would be gone and could forget the whole beastly business: sophisticated seventeen-year-olds; international tennis stars that weren’t good enough for the Montijos; chilly family dinners; the lot. And she could go back to being grubby Abby Templeton Burke. After all, you didn’t need to be sophisticated to do basic repairs to the ancestral home.
‘Do you not play tennis, Abby?’ asked her hostess with a touch of desperation.
‘But you said your brothers like it?’
‘They’re good at it,’ said Abby with simple truth.
‘Oh. And you’re not?’ asked kind Felipe. ‘Well, it doesn’t really matter. I’m sure you’re good at lots of other things.’
‘Not games. My brother Will says I can’t catch a ball to save my life.’
The matriarch did not like being ignored.
‘That man is showing off,’ she announced, pointing her gold-topped stick at the tennis court.
‘It’s not showing off if you’re world-class and not pretending to be anything else,’ said Felipe, harassed.
‘Just look at him.’
On the court the tall rangy figure was now waiting for the blond boy to serve. Dancing from foot to foot, he exuded energy and effortless coordination.
‘Upstart,’ finished the older Señora Montijo with venom.
‘Mama, he’s a great guy,’ protested Felipe. ‘Came up from nothing. He’s educated himself. Now he’s putting half a dozen brothers and sisters through college as well, I’m told. And I’ve seen for myself that he’s got a great business brain.’
Rosa Montijo shuddered. ‘And how did he get the money to start this business? Can you tell me that?’
Her daughter-in-law took a hand. ‘You know perfectly well, Mama,’ she said indignantly. ‘He won it. All right, he hasn’t won any of the big titles. But he’s won plenty of prize money during his career.’ She cast a harassed glance at their visitor. ‘You mustn’t give Abby the impression that Emilio is some sort of criminal.’
Felipe said soothingly, ‘You didn’t mean that, did you, Mama? Seriously, Abby, you needn’t worry about meeting undesirable types here. One of the business magazines did an article on him a couple of months ago. He must be a millionaire by now. He never had to—’
‘Look,’ interrupted the matriarch. ‘Now! Tell me that isn’t showing off. Go on, look!’
They all looked.
Emilio Diz dealt briskly with a workmanlike serve. The blond put the full force of his arm into his return. Even from the terrace they could see the way the dark man’s expression changed. Suddenly he was glittering with triumph. Then he was running backwards, lithe and sure-footed. The ball soared over the net, high and hard. Emilio Diz jumped, reaching. His body arced like a dolphin. In flight it was clear that the tanned limbs were pure muscle.
‘Look at that,’ said Annaluisa, forgetting her hostess manners in simple awe.
Rosa Montijo sniffed. ‘Gypsy. He’s just trying to pretend he’s more than a millionaire. At Bruno’s expense.’
There was a crack like the report of a gun. A shout of triumph rose from the throats of two dozen watchers.
‘He doesn’t have to pretend, Mama,’ said Felipe dryly, joining in the applause.
The game was over. The two men were shaking hands over the net.
‘He could have given Bruno a chance,’ said the resentful grandmother. ‘He is your guest, after all.’
‘You don’t understand Emilio, Mama,’ said Felipe.
The dark tennis player strode off the court. He was swinging his racquet as if impatient to get at the next challenge.
The spectators gathered round Bruno, punching him on the back, shaking hands. But Abby, watching, saw that they were more careful of Emilio Diz. Or maybe they were just more respectful. They gave him a drink. They talked. But they didn’t touch him, those tactile, relaxed people who touched everyone.
A confident redhead approached and batted her eyelashes at him. He looked amused and didn’t walk away. But Abby had the impression that he would walk away the moment he wanted to, gorgeous redhead or no.
Felipe confirmed the feeling. He had taken off his sunglasses and was watching the dark star intently. ‘He doesn’t give anyone special treatment. Emilio plays to win,’ he said. He sounded just a little afraid.
The afternoon party turned into a barbecue, as they so often did.
‘Do you want to borrow a dress, Abby?’ said Rosanna Montijo, trying hard. ‘We’ll be dancing afterward.’
‘Do you think I need to?’ asked Abby, trying in her turn.
‘You’d probably feel more comfortable. Well, I would in your place. The run up to Christmas is not exactly formal but the parties are, you know, sort of special. And anyway, people expect to dress up for Montijo parties.’
Which Abby interpreted as, ‘For heaven’s sake, don’t turn up looking like a schoolgirl again and let us all down.’ She suppressed a sigh.
‘Then, thanks. Yes, please.’
Rosanna took her off to her room and Abby tried hard to enjoy the dressing-up session with Rosanna and her two best friends. They tried to include her in the conversation. But she did not know any of the boys they were talking about. And the tactics they discussed made her go hot with sympathetic imaginary embarrassment.
Then she heard a name she knew.
‘Is Emilio staying for the dance, Rosanita?’ said one of the friends, playing with her hair in front of Rosanna’s crowded dressing table.
Rosanna was inside her walk-in closet. She poked her head out of the door. ‘Yes.’ She added in naughty Spanish, ‘He struggled but Papa told him he had to stay and meet the right people.’
Abby translated the words in her head and nearly laughed aloud. She knew exactly how the tennis player felt. Maybe he was bad at mingling, too.
‘That means he’s the guest of honour, Abby,’ said the friend, translating kindly.
She did not need to translate. Abby had prepared for this trip by applying herself hard to Spanish. If she had to learn a new language, she thought, it might just as well be one where there were audio tapes available. But ever since she arrived, all the Montijos and their friends had brushed aside her halting attempts to speak their language. Abby did not know whether that was because they were too courteous or too impatient to let her fumble. But it had depleted her small store of confidence even further.
Rosanna emerged with a long burgundy dress. It was a sophisticated colour, too sophisticated for a sixteen-year-old, Abby thought at once. But they insisted that she try it on. So she did.
It swirled nicely round her legs when she moved. Only then they insisted on her borrowing some high, strappy shoes and she did not dare to move any more.
‘I’ll fall off,’ she said, hanging on to bedpost.
‘Not if you practise. You can’t wear kitten heels with a dress like that,’ said Rosanna fairly.
Abby tried to say that she did not want to wear the dress, either. There was a lot more wrong with it than the too subtle colour. It was more low cut than anything she had ever worn in her life. It made her feel uncomfortable. She said so. Rosanna gave her a shimmery scarf to wear with it but could barely hide her impatience.
‘Honestly, Abby, I don’t see the problem. It’s summer here, for heaven’s sake. Everyone wears low necklines in the summer. No one will even notice.’
‘I’ll notice,’ said Abby, dragging the designer fabric higher over her small breasts.
A bootlace strap slid off her shoulder. She hauled it back. The front of the dress slid back to its former anchorage. She grabbed it with both hands. In the long mirror she looked flushed and stubborn and acutely uncomfortable.
‘Well, you can’t wear a T-shirt and shorts to a party,’ snapped Rosanna, losing patience. ‘Not in Argentina. Your father,’ she added, clinching it, ‘would really mind.’
The others agreed. They turned a deaf ear to Abby’s reservations about the shoes, the straps, the sheer backlessness of the dress. They had done their best for her and now there were more interesting things to discuss.
‘My father says he’s going to go a long way,’ said the friend at the dressing table.
The one painting her nails shrugged. ‘Who cares? He’s gorgeous now.’
Abby was in no doubt who they were talking about.
‘My grandmother’s terrified he’ll seduce me.’ That was Rosanna in her underwear, inspecting her smooth legs.
The others hooted. ‘Fat chance.’
‘Wish he’d seduce me.’
‘He’s got his own fan club, you know. My sister told me that in Paris last year, the girls followed him everywhere. Once even got into his bedroom at the hotel.’
They all paused to consider the prospect, sighing enviously.
‘Well, tonight,’ said Rosanna with decision, ‘he’s going to seduce me or no one.’
They teased her.
‘In your dreams.’
‘How are you going to manage that?’
‘I shall tell Papa,’ announced Rosanna superbly. ‘He wants Emilio to meet the right people? Fine. I’ve known the right people since I was born. I shall take him round and introduce him to everyone here. And then,’ her eyes went brooding, ‘he can thank me properly.’
They all giggled.
Abby eased out of the door.
So later, as twilight began to fall and more guests arrived, Abby went out into the famous gardens and tried hard to lose herself behind a tree. It was not difficult. Rosanna had too many friends to greet to spend time making sure that Abby circulated. The young people went to the paddock where the great barbecue was alight, while the older, glamorous crowd went up to the house.
The columned veranda glittered with diamonds and champagne and the tinkle of sophisticated laughter. No refuge with the older Montijos tonight then. Abby sighed and clutched the glamorous scarf round her as if it was a granny shawl. Oh, well, there had to be somewhere in the extensive grounds where she could take refuge. She slid away.
From his place on the terrace, Emilio Diz watched the girl with detached interest. She was not much more than a child. Not a Montijo, he thought. Not with clothes that fitted that badly. Her long arms and legs seemed out of her control, like a newly hatched crane fly. But she certainly knew what she wanted. She kept smiling and nodding to groups as she passed, but he could see that she did not let anyone delay her progress.
Where was she heading with such determination? He speculated idly. Maybe she was going skinny-dipping in the creek Felipe Montijo had told him about. But no, he shook his head at the thought. You didn’t go skinny-dipping on a warm summer night alone, not even if you were still at the crane fly stage.
Oh, God, he was so bored, he was making up stories about a teenager he did not even know. With an effort, he brought his attention back to the group of businessmen he had been invited to meet. They wanted to meet him and they wouldn’t for long. His celebrity was already on the wane. He had to capitalise on it before it died. He had a family to provide for, a growing family after Isabel’s bombshell.
At the thought of his sister’s news, his mouth tightened. Isabel was not much older that that little crane fly girl. Maybe if he had been home more when she was as young as that girl out there, she would not be in the terrible mess she was now.
Still, there was nothing he could do about that. All he could do was use his talents to provide for them the best way he could. Talents and contacts, he reminded himself, turning to look at his host’s hundred best friends. Designer dresses and diamonds, even at a barbecue. And they had all known each other all their lives.
Make the most of it, he told himself dryly. If you don’t bring this deal off, you won’t be asked again. These people wouldn’t have had you past the gate three years ago. And they won’t again if you don’t make it. Listen and learn!
ABBY had found the rose grotto at the Hacienda Montijo almost by accident. It had been planted by a Montijo groom for a romantic bride who was missing Europe badly. The design owed more to illustrated fairy books than any classical garden. The bride, taken aback, had not had the heart to tell him that the rose beds at Versailles were neither so crowded nor so cobwebby. Soon enough, she had a baby and stopped missing her old home altogether. But the rose grotto was established and Montijos held on to what they owned. Gardeners pruned and weeded and replanted, even though the family never came there.
To Abby it was heaven. Not as tangly and scented as the overgrown roses at home, of course. This garden was still properly cared for by professionals. But it was still recognisably natural. She sometimes thought that it was the only thing in this place that was, apart from the horses.
Now she tucked herself onto a mossy stone seat and leaned back, inhaling the evening scents. Content at last, she felt her tense shoulders relax. Immediately both borrowed shoulder straps fell down her arms.
‘Blast, bother and blow,’ said Abby peacefully and left them there. There was, thank God, no one to see.
She tipped her head back, dreaming…
Emilio did not like champagne. It was the first thing he discovered after he won his first big tournament. The second thing was that it was impossible to sign all the autographs they wanted and hold a glass at the same time. The third was that, like it or not, able to write or not, you took a glass and you pretended to drink because that was what made the sponsors feel comfortable. And if they felt comfortable with you, they forgot you weren’t one of them.
Not that he wanted to be one of them. But he wanted to do business with them. And this year was crucial if his ten year game plan was to work. In fact, this evening was probably crucial.
So why was he so restless that he could hardly bear to listen to Felipe Montijo’s important guests? Why did he want to vault over the balustrade and follow the crane fly girl in her escape? Opportunity did not knock twice. He had to seize it with both hands. Concentrate, he told himself.
He sipped the nasty stuff in his glass and bent his powerful attention on what his companion was saying about international wheat prices. The man was too polished to ask him for his autograph but Emilio recognised the look in his eyes, the curiosity about a celebrity. Well, he was a celebrity, for the moment. He had better be grateful and damn well make it work for him. He knew, none better, that it wouldn’t last.
So he circulated, doing oil, bank software, and the prospects for the Argentine wine industry in the process. He gave out business cards and got rather more back. He stored the information for sifting tomorrow, giving thanks for his clear head and computer-accurate memory.
Then his hostess summoned them all to sit at tables set out around the lawn. Tall flambeaux had been driven into the ground and, now that the sun was gone, they were lit. A band set up its music in front of the tennis court. There was laughter from the paddock where the barbecue meats were being cooked. Some of the younger crowd appeared on the lawn and began to dance. Not the crane fly girl, though, Emilio saw.
He wondered where she was. Not chasing one of these callous young studs, he thought, conveniently forgetting that he was only a year older than Bruno Montijo. Emilio had been head of the household since long before his international tennis career started. He had never had anyone to mop up his mistakes for him, like golden Bruno.
Now he thought: someone should make sure that the little crane fly was not deceived by Bruno or one of his cronies. These romantic summer nights, it was all too easy.
He glanced round the tables casually. Bruno was not among the dancers, he saw. Nor was Miguel Santana, another high-octane, low-conscience charmer that Isabel had been out on the town with. Or several others.
Emilio hesitated. But no one was paying any attention to him for the moment. And he had more than done his duty by his ten year plan. He stopped hesitating and escaped.
He found the creek easily enough. There was a pretty circle of trees by a small dock. He could imagine people diving off it. But this evening it was deserted. The younger Montijos were either still eating or had started to dance.
Where was she?
He could not have said why he was searching for her. He told himself that it was because she looked uncertain, another stranger in the Montijos’ magnificent midst. Being a stranger had its dangers. Maybe she didn’t know the creek. Maybe she could have fallen in and needed rescuing.
But it was not that and he knew it. Maybe it was that she looked as out of place as he was. Only in his case it did not show on the outside.
Or maybe it was because Isabel had been an uncertain stranger and nobody had rescued her.
Abby was utterly peaceful for the first time in days. She could hear the soft lap-lap of the creek, beyond the hedge of honey-tinged albas. The darkening sky was splashed with lemon and apricot at the horizon but the impatient stars were out already. In this wonderful clear air, they seemed so close, you could stretch up and touch them if you could bother to bestir yourself. And all around her was the scent of the roses.
They were not roses she knew. There was a peppery pink and a deep, deep crimson that smelled like hot wine. As for the palomino coloured climbing rose that surged around her stone seat—she reached up and buried her nose in it. What did it smell of? Abby shut her eyes. Concentrating.
Emilio found the grotto by accident. At first he thought it was just a gardener’s corner, hedged around to hide tools and a compost heap. But a perverse desire to see the decaying cabbage leaves of elegant Hacienda Montijo pushed him through the break in the hedge.
To find what he had not admitted he was looking for! He stopped dead.
She did not notice him at first, his crane fly girl. She had her nose buried in a big tatty rose. Its petals were the colour of French toast and its leaves were almost black. As he looked she raised her head and, eyes closed, inhaled luxuriously. Her oversophisticated dress was nearly falling off. But she was oblivious to everything but her rose.
‘Paper,’ she said aloud. ‘No—parchment. And something else. Cloves?’
She opened her eyes and bent to take another connoisseur’s sniff. She never got there. She saw him. Her eyes widened in dismay.
Well, at least she wasn’t going to ask him for his autograph, thought Emilio, trying to be amused. But he was not. That look piqued him. His time had not yet passed. People were still eager to welcome this celebrity. He did not like being toadied to, of course he didn’t, but he wasn’t used to people glaring at him as if he was an evil destroyer from another planet, either.
He nearly said so. But at the last moment he changed tack and decided to use the legendary charm instead. If it worked on journalists and crowned heads, who saw a lot of world-class charm, it ought to work on this odd creature in her ill-fitting dress.
‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you,’ he said with the crooked, rueful smile that the photographers loved.
It did not appear to work. Emilio was taken aback.
The girl frowned mightily. It looked fierce. But of course she must be having to translate in her head, he thought, suddenly understanding the significance of the words he had overheard. Now was she American? Canadian? Australian? English?
He said forgivingly, ‘I’ll go,’ and waited for her to tell him to stay.
She stood up and said with great care, ‘I thought I am—sorry, I thought I was alone.’
All right, she wasn’t going to tell him to stay. But she probably did not have the vocabulary for it. He recognised the wooden accent.
‘English?’ said Emilio in that language, strolling in to the centre of the bower.
She looked annoyed. ‘Yes. But I try to speak Spanish. I did a course before I came out here specially. Only no one will let me.’
He selected another rose from the torrent and lifted it on one long finger.
‘That’s probably because your ideas are too interesting to get lost in first-grade vocabulary.’ He tried another smile. ‘What was it you said this thing smelled of? Parchment?’
She nodded seriously.
‘And what does parchment smell like?’
To his amusement she closed her eyes to answer him with total attention. ‘Linen. Dust. Afternoon sunshine through tall windows onto a stone floor. Maybe a touch of beeswax.’
He blinked, startled.
She opened her eyes and saw it. It was her turn to be amused.
‘I know my smells. And I know my roses.’
‘So I see.’ He let the rose fall back among its brothers and looked at her curiously. ‘Isn’t that an odd hobby for someone your age? How old are you, as a matter of interest?’
Abby sighed. ‘Sixteen. And age has nothing to do with it. It’s not a hobby, it’s necessity.’
He sank onto the grass at her feet and looped his arms round his knees.
‘Explain,’ he commanded.
Abby looked down at him, taken aback. No man had ever sat at her feet before. Oh, her brothers sprawled all over the place. But they never actually sat and studied her, dark eyes intent, as if they had nothing in the world that interested them except her and what she had to say.
In spite of the evening breeze that stirred the roses, she suddenly felt uncomfortably hot.
He laughed softly. Abby pulled herself together.
‘Our garden,’ she said practically, ignoring the heat she could feel behind her ears. ‘It’s planted with all the old roses. But there’s no one but me to look after it. I learned which was which because people wrote letters about them and someone had to answer.’
His eyes were very dark brown, like the mahogany table in the big dining room at home, only when it was buffed so that it shone like glass. That had only happened a couple of times in Abby’s memory but she remembered it vividly. It turned the table halfway to a mirror, so that everything looked different. It was the same effect of this man’s strange eyes. Even in the twilight she could see the way they glittered. It was not comfortable.
The long, curling eyelashes did nothing to soften their expression, either. He looked as if he knew exactly what effect that melting expression had. As their eyes met, his mouth lifted in a half smile.
That made it worse. Abby raised her chin.
‘So tell me—’ His voice was like a lion’s purr, deep and languorous. Deceptively languorous. This was not, thought Abby, a creature you would want to lull you to sleep. ‘If I wrote to you about your roses, what would you tell me?’
Abby met his eyes and found they were like a caress. The warmth was palpable. Instinctively she turned towards it, like a flower to the sun. She could almost feel her skin being stroked.
She brought herself up short. Caress? Stroked? What was it her father had said? She thought that people always meant what they said and she had to learn that they didn’t?
Learn, she told herself feverishly. Learn. Whatever it feels like, it’s not real. No glamorous man wastes caressing glances on a scrubby teenager unless he has some ulterior and probably unkind motive.
No, she definitely didn’t want him lulling her into anything. She took refuge in briskness.
‘That we don’t sell plants. You can have a leaflet about the old roses. You can go on the waiting list to come to one of the summer open days. That’s it.’
‘Where does the leaflet come from?’
Abby grinned. The grin lit up her face, making her briefly beautiful. She did not know that, of course. ‘Me mainly.’
He stared at her for an unnerving moment. But in the end all he said was, ‘What’s it about?’
Abby laughed aloud. ‘Rose of Castile, introduced by the Crusaders in the twelfth century, red, pink or white with occasional stripes. Very strong fragrance. I think it smells like Turkish Delight but some people think that’s unkind. The White Rose of York, of course. White with golden stamens. Another strong pong, less headachy than the Rose of Castile. Sweetbriar. Pink. True rose scent. The leaves smell like apples.’ She ran out of breath and sent him a naughty challenging look. ‘Shall I go on?’
‘You’re clearly an expert.’ He sounded slightly put out.
Well, at least he had stopped looking languorous. Though that was a two-edged sword, because he stood up and she saw how the muscles bunched and relaxed in the graceful movement. Abby could not remember ever noticing the way a man’s muscles rippled before and she lived in a house in which it was virtually impossible to avoid them. She flushed again, hating her transparent skin.
He said abruptly, ‘Who did you come with? I didn’t see you earlier, did I?’
‘I’m staying here. This afternoon I was with Señora Montijo watching the tennis…’ She made a discovery. ‘You’re that tennis player,’ she said, without thinking. ‘The one who beat Bruno.’
Briefly his eyes flashed. ‘Oh, you’re a friend of Bruno’s, are you?’
‘No. I’ve only seen him from a distance. In fact his grandmother was annoyed with me for not recognizing him when you were playing him, I think. The house is full of photographs of him and I should have known which was which. Especially as—’ Realisation hit her. ‘You’re Emilio Diz. You’re famous.’
How right she had been to resist that caressing look. Not just a glamorous man but the guest of honour! An international tennis star who according to Felipe Montijo had been dating movie stars for years! And she had nearly let him lull her into—well, into—she was not quite sure what. She knew she was blushing furiously.
Emilio saw the fierce colour rise and said goodbye to any more untainted conversation.
So this was where the little crane fly asked for his autograph, after all. He sighed inwardly. Well, as long as it was only his autograph. Too many teenage groupies wanted a kiss. Or more. The incident in Paris had left a scar. He braced himself to be kind but firm.
He misjudged her.
‘You shouldn’t be here talking to me,’ said Abby, so agitated that she leaped to her feet, to the imminent danger of decency, as the straps of her dress fell further. ‘You should be mingling. They wanted you to meet—I mean, you’re important.’
Emilio laughed aloud. ‘Not that important.’
He reached out and twitched her straps back into place, one after the other. It was a passionless gesture, almost absent. He might have been tidying a younger sister. But Abby was suddenly breathless.
His hand fell. His eyes grew intent.
She said hurriedly, at random, before he said anything she couldn’t deal with, ‘I know that Señor Montijo wants you to meet some people.’
He took a step forward. ‘Met them.’ He did not sound as if he could be bothered to think about it further.
‘But you’re the guest of honour, aren’t you?’
He flung back his head and gave a great laugh at that. It revealed a long tanned throat. He was as strong and beautiful as the horses in the Montijo stables. And about as tame, thought Abby, shivering with a nervousness she only half understood.
‘Guest of honour?’ said Emilio Diz scornfully. ‘Is that what you think I am?’
‘Th-that’s what they said,’ said Abby faintly. She did not want to remember what else Rosanna and her friend had said about him, in case she started blushing again.
‘Then let me put you straight. As far as the Montijos and their kind are concerned, I’m a commodity.’
She didn’t understand.
His eyes glittered. ‘I’m a guy from the wrong side of town and I always will be. I have no advantages except an ability to hit a ball over a net at a hundred miles an hour plus. That gets my photograph in the papers. That’s what they like. When the papers find someone else, the Montijos won’t even remember my name.’
It was what the Montijo matriarch had said, too, so it must be right.
Abby knew she ought to feel sympathy for him. Maybe even indignation. But she was shaken by these new little tremors and she could not think about anything except that golden skin under his crisp white shirt. About how his muscles moved like some great cat’s, lithe and powerful and potentially deadly. About how easy it would be to slip her hands inside—
Fortunately he was not a mind reader.
‘I shall do business with Felipe Montijo. Maybe even with some of the other men here tonight. Eventually. I’m on my way up and they can be useful. I have a family to educate.’
A family? A family? This golden puma of a man was married?
Quite suddenly Abby’s trembling stopped as if she had been unplugged from a power source.
‘But I am not a performing monkey,’ said Emilio Diz, not noticing. ‘I’ll talk to who I want.’
‘Well, don’t waste your time with me.’ It came out much more rudely than she meant. She didn’t mean to be rude at all. But quite suddenly she was desperate to get away from this scented nightmare. ‘I haven’t had anything to eat. I ought to go to the barbecue.’
His eyes narrowed.
‘You circulate,’ said Abby. She was fighting a desire to cry, which was ludicrous. She hadn’t cried once in all this horrible week. ‘I’ll get some dinner.’
But he wasn’t letting her go so easily.
‘We’ll both get some.’
He took her back to the party, skirting the band and the dancers on the lawn. She could feel people watching them. Some with interest. Some with envy. Some—heaven help her—with amusement. She stumbled on the grass and he put an arm round her.
‘Sit here. I’ll get you a plate.’
Biting her lip, she perched on the fallen tree stump he indicated.
A waiter—these people had a waiter at a barbecue?—gave her a glass of something. Abby took it but didn’t drink. She was shivering. She did not want to drink. She wanted to run.
But Emilio Diz was coming back with plates and forks, followed by a couple of men bearing the most enormous tray of meat Abby had ever seen in her life.
And quite suddenly she was the envy of every woman in the place. She could feel the air change around her. He gave her that caressing smile again, the one that started in his eyes and slid straight down her spine. And everyone looked. That slid down her spine, too.
So Abby had to smile and say thank-you and pray her dress would stay up.
‘Choose what you want,’ he said, handing her the plate and beckoning the man bearing the tray to her side. ‘I know the English like their meat rare.’
He picked up an instrument that looked like a toy devil’s pitchfork and turned a couple of substantial steaks over. He speared a particularly red one and held it up for her inspection.
Abby shuddered. She drained the rest of the champagne and put her glass down.
‘N-no thank you. I’m not that hungry. Perhaps some chicken?’
He put back the steak and gave her what looked like half a chicken.
‘What else? Filet steak? Sirloin? Lamb?’
‘No, th-that’s fine,’ said Abby, recoiling.
A group of dancers had broken off and came over. One of them was Rosanna. She looked at Abby’s plate with concern.
‘Are you feeling all right, Abby?’
‘Abby,’ said Emilio Diz softly.
Abby felt he had speared her with that pitchfork. She looked up at him quickly, shocked. Their eyes locked.
How could a man who was married look at her like that? Look at anyone like that?
The group did not notice.
‘You need some meat,’ said the voluptuous beauty who had been painting her nails in Rosanna’s bedroom.
‘I’ve got some.’
‘No, no. Meat.’
‘On an Argentine estancia, chicken and pork do not count as meat,’ explained Emilio, amused.
‘Of course not. Beef is what you need. Wonderful Argentine steak and wonderful Argentine red wine. Strength,’ breathed Rosanna’s friend sexily, ‘and passion.’ She was looking at Emilio as if she would like to eat him, too, thought Abby.
He looked even more amused. Amused, maybe just a little wary—and appreciative.
I don’t understand these people, thought Abby in despair. How can that woman pant over him like that, quite openly, when he has a family? His poor wife must be at home waiting for him right now.
‘Do you tango, Emilio?’ murmured Rosanna’s friend.
It did not, thought Abby, sound as if she was talking about a dance. Is this what Pops means about learning to hear what people mean, not what they say? She’s not asking him anything. She’s telling him she’s available.
The realisation stabbed like a stiletto. Abby could feel herself getting stiffer by the minute. She was turning back into the English schoolgirl they all dreaded, in spite of the sexy dress. She nibbled a piece of chicken, trying to pretend she was at ease. She felt it would choke her. So she chewed hard, smiling.
‘Of course,’ Emilio said calmly.
Rosanna’s friend licked her lips. Definitely wanting to eat him, thought Abby, repelled and fascinated in equal measure.
‘But not,’ he went on softly, ‘in the open air, to a Paraguayan band, at a family barbecue.’
So he wasn’t talking about a dance, either. Abby thought her heart would break. Which was crazy.
And then he did something which really did break her heart.
He took the plate away from her. Put it down on the grass with her discarded wine and took her hand.
Smiling straight down into her eyes he said, ‘No tango. But come and hop about the Paraguayan way.’
Abby went. She could feel all the eyes burning into her exposed back. She clutched the glittery scarf round her like a security blanket.
He took her among the dancers and put his arms round her. His hands were powerful, experienced and utterly indifferent. It made no difference. Abby was as tense as a board.
‘Relax,’ he said, smiling down at her.
‘I don’t know how to do this dance,’ she muttered. She knew she sounded sulky. She couldn’t help it. Oh, would this evening never end?
‘Listen to the music and trust me. All you have to do is march in time. Just put a bit of a hop into it as you land.’
She did. It worked. She forgot her wretchedness for a moment, looking up at him with a grin of pure triumph.
His hands tightened. Suddenly she thought he was not so indifferent after all.
One of the other dancers, an older woman with kind eyes, spoke as she jigged sedately past.
‘You’ve got the bachelor of the evening there, Abby. Don’t hang on to him too long. You might get lynched. You’re too young to die.’
It was a warning. Veiled. Kindly meant. But a warning none the less. Emilio knew it. His mouth tightened as he looked down at her.
But the warning went straight past Abby. All she could think was: bachelor? And then she remembered the conversation between the Montijo women. Emilio was putting his brothers and sisters through college? Something like that?
So the family he had spoken of did not include the wife she had imagined sitting at home waiting for him.
‘Thank you,’ she said. To the woman, who had danced away. To Emilio, guiding her through the dance, with a hold that even unsophisticated Abby knew was a little too tight.
She tipped her head back and looked straight into his eyes. And smiled, dazzlingly.
It was quite dark now. The flambeaux illuminated the party but there were plenty of shadows if you wanted them. Emilio, it seemed, wanted them. He danced her out of the light.
‘Careful,’ he murmured. ‘There are a lot of people out there watching.’
He was trying to sound cool but his breathing was uneven. Abby could have hugged herself.
‘So?’ she said naughtily.
What she did then was utterly out of character. Maybe it was the unaccustomed champagne she had drunk too fast, suddenly catching up with her. Maybe it was the night, the stars, the music. Maybe it was because she had danced for a good ten minutes with a man who actually wanted to dance with her. She hadn’t actually felled anyone or fallen off her high heels, either. Both were firsts.
Or maybe it was, quite simply, the man himself.
But in the darkness Abby leaned into him.
He went very still.
Oh, Lord, he had brought this on himself, thought Emilio. Why had he not seen what he was doing? She was so young, his little crane fly. So innocent. He had not thought—
It was going to be like Paris, all over again. Only with the daughter of one of Felipe Montijo’s influential business contacts.
Great stuff, Emilio! He congratulated himself silently. Just what you need to start the new career off with a bang.
More important, it was just what little Abby did not need, with the Montijo girl and her cronies circling like vultures. His sister had taught him just how cruel teenage girls could be.
He had thought he was doing her a favour by dancing her out of the spotlight. But it seemed he was leading her into something worse. Now, how was he going to stop her making a fool of herself? She would never forgive herself.
Abby stood on tiptoe, and brought his head down to meet her kiss.
Hell, thought Emilio.
Her mouth tasted of the wine but her skin smelled of flowers; those roses she had talked about, perhaps. She did not know how to kiss and she was quivering like a newborn colt. His heart turned over. This was dangerous!
He caught hold of her hands and held them away from him, not gently.
‘I think not.’
Abby could not believe it. He sounded so casual, so indifferent. Yet for a moment—surely?—his mouth had moved under hers. Or had she imagined it?
It was as if he had driven that little silver pitchfork right in under the third rib. For a moment Abby literally could not breathe.
Wanted to dance with her? Who was she fooling? Men did not want to dance with plain, awkward schoolgirls who broke things and fell over their own high heels, not for pleasure. He was being kind. Kind like Rosanna and Señora Montijo. Kind like her father.
They all knew she was a disaster. They all tried to help. They all failed.
She wrenched her hands out of his hold. And then, of course, the inevitable happened. The thing that had been threatening all evening. The danger she had skirted so closely ever since Emilio found her among the roses.
The borrowed dress fell off.
Well, it fell to her waist. For a moment she was so busy flapping her hands free that she did not notice.
He muttered something which her Spanish was not advanced enough to interpret.
And then she realised that the cool breeze was cooler than it should have been. She looked down.
Emilio was fighting his baser self with every weapon he knew. In the starlight her skin looked silvery. The small breasts were exquisite, so gently rounded, so softly firm. She looked like a cool water nymph. But she was warm and her flesh smelled of roses. His head swam.
‘This is not fair,’ he said under his breath, half laughing, half in despair.
He wanted her so badly it hurt.
Abby did not see it. In fact Abby was not seeing anything very clearly through her fog of shame and rejection.
She grabbed at the dress. At the same time, she took an unwary step. There was nothing she could do. She was already off balance. Those killer shoes only completed her downfall.
She tried to recover, to step back from him. But it was too late. Her ankle went over. She lurched, arms flailing.
And fell into his arms.
For an electrifying moment, she was crushed against him. She felt the heat of his body against her shivering; the smooth slide of the shirt against her aroused skin.
Somehow he found the strength.
‘Careful,’ Emilio said.
He steadied her with easy competence. His hands were utterly kind. Utterly impersonal. He did not know how he managed. His heart felt as if it was in a vice and his whole body was on a knife edge. But he did it.
For Abby, it was the final humiliation.
She kicked the hateful sandals viciously. The impetus sent the second one spiralling up high, high, so high that for a crazy moment it was outlined against the starry sky.
And he laughed. He laughed.
‘Great shot,’ Emilio said, with amused admiration. Sophisticated admiration.
It was more than she could bear.
THERE were three girls in the trendy ladies’ room of Culp and Christopher Public Relations. The tall brunette was painting on eyeliner carefully, pulling a horrible face as she did so. The tall blonde was observing the operation critically.
‘Don’t squint, Abby. You’ll lose the line.’
And the tall bottled redhead was sitting with her booted feet on a marble tabletop, reading aloud from a pile of newspapers.
‘Listen to this,’ she said. “‘The Fab Ab turned me down. Boy band heartthrob Deor Spiro, 22, said, ‘I just wasn’t good enough for her. I will never love again’. See pages 4, 5, 9, 10 and 11. Our Tracy says, ‘The girl has everything. Why should she tie herself down?’ What do you think? Ring the number below and tell us.”” She lowered the paper. ‘Wow, Abby. Your own poll, no less. How did you do it?’
‘I didn’t,’ said Abby. The words were muffled because her tongue was stuck firmly between her teeth as she concentrated. She was still not very good at eyeliner. She finished the job, lifted the tiny brush carefully and stopped grimacing. Recapping the gold tube, she said over her shoulder. ‘It was all done by heartthrob Deor Spiro, 22. And his publicist.’ She added dispassionately, ‘Little toad.’
‘He may be a little toad,’ said Molly di Perretti, pushing aside that newspaper and reaching for the next, ‘but what did you do to him?’
‘Squashed him flat, I bet,’ said Sam Smith. She flicked back her blond hair and met Abby’s eyes in the mirror. ‘Am I right or am I right?’
Abby shuffled her fashionable shoes uncomfortably. ‘Well, he wouldn’t take no for an answer. It was like talking to someone who didn’t speak my language.’
‘He’s a man,’ said Molly, cynical to her black-and-silver fingernails. ‘They don’t engage brain when they’re in coming-on-to-you mode.’
‘Careful,’ warned Sam. ‘Abby’s got all those lovely brothers. She thinks men are great.’
Molly did not blink. ‘I think men are great. I just don’t expect to talk to them.’
‘Well, I do,’ said Abby with spirit.
‘That must have shaken heartthrob Deor Spiro, 22,’ Molly murmured irrepressibly.
Abby gave her sudden wide grin. ‘It did. I don’t think he’d been turned down before.’
‘Oh, he’d been turned down, all right’ said Sam. ‘Many times over the last fifteen years.’ She was ten years older than the other two and spoke with authority of a successful career in the public relations.
Abby did the arithmetic. ‘You mean he’s not twenty-two.’
‘Nearer thirty-five if you ask me. But it’s wonderful what tan stick and a puppyish manner will do for a man.’
‘To say nothing of blond highlights and a photographer who’s an airbrush artist,’ said Molly, surveying a portrait in the next paper critically. ‘Hey, this is a good one, Abby. “The It Girl With Taste.” Love that.’
Abby put her head on one side, surveying her image in the mirror.
‘Taste?’ she said doubtfully.
The other two exchanged looks of fond exasperation.
‘You look amazing, Ab,’ Sam assured her.
Abigail Templeton Burke did a little jig in front of the full-length mirror. It was an experimental jig. When Abby turned into Abigail Templeton Burke, socialite and PR person, she sometimes did not feel quite like herself. It took a mirror and waving her long legs around to remind her.
Mind you, at least these days she could stand upright on high heels, she thought. It had taken her time to get used to it. At home she strode around in trainers or boots most of the time. Wearing heels was second nature to her now but it was a skill she had largely learned in this very cloakroom.
Now she turned to the side to inspect herself.
‘Yup,’ she said without vanity. ‘But would you call it tasteful?’
Tall and broad-shouldered as a model, she wore her clothes well. Today it was silky black pants that flopped around her four-inch heels as she walked. The square of black silk she wore over her breasts to complement the trousers was only turned into a garment by the shoelaces criss-crossing her tanned back.
Molly lounged to her feet and joined Sam in circling round her. They considered the outfit with critical professionalism. Dressing the part was a requirement of the job at Culp and Christopher Public Relations. Finding the right gear to hit the catwalk shows of the London Fashion Week had not been easy.
‘Tasteful, schmasteful,’ pronounced Molly. ‘It will do the business. That’s a real lust bucket of a top.’
Sam took longer to make up her mind.
‘Brilliant,’ said she at last, on a long breath. Her sigh was at least three-quarters relief. Left to herself, Abby had a tendency to dress as if she was just about to go out to the stables. She said so.
‘Give me a break.’ Abby was not offended. ‘Up to six months ago that was exactly what I would have been doing.’
They knew it. The other girls in the agency were even sympathetic, against all the odds. They decided to take Abby in hand almost as soon as she arrived in the PR consultancy. As a result, today’s look was the result of group consultation. It had involved half the office and at least one up-and-coming designer.
‘Maybe not brilliant,’ Abby demurred now. Her golden-brown eyes twinkled. ‘Ravi said I needed to make more of a statement.’ She wafted her hands through the air in a very good imitation of the languid designer.
The others laughed. But Sam said soberly, ‘You stay just as you are now. Any more of a statement and you’ll be putting the client in the shade.’
‘In your dreams.’ said Abby cheerfully. Glancing back at the mirror, she pushed a hand through her soft dark hair and thrust out a hip, posing. After a moment, she shook her head regretfully and straightened.
‘Nah. Diane Ladrot’s safe. Nice enough but dull. No competition there.’
She said it without regret. She had had boyfriends. They did not last and when they went their way, Abby was almost relieved. Perhaps it was spending so long in the comparative isolation of the country. Perhaps it was because she instinctively responded to men the way she did to her brothers. But one way and another she had never seemed to get the hang of dating. Looking at the disasters that the other girls at C&C went through, she was secretly not too anxious to try.
No doubt it would happen at some point. When it did, she would do her best. But she was certainly not looking to set up in competition to Diane Ladrot or any other man magnet. Abby did not regret her lack of pulling power.
The other two exchanged glances. They knew she believed it. Abby had absolutely no idea of her own appeal. Or that, if she put her mind to it, she could have been quite as stunning as their most glamorous client.
Originally the staff at Culp and Christopher had greeted the appointment of the Earl of Nunnington’s only daughter with dismay. ‘Another deb mucking about so she can get her name in the papers,’ was the general consensus. But Lady Abigail, though inexperienced and appallingly unstylish, had neither mucked about nor shown any desire at all to feature in the gossip columns of the national daily papers. It had taken a great deal of concerted work by her new friends to get the sort of coverage that she was picking up today.
Not that Abby was aware of it, as both Sam and Molly knew. She thought it was chance, and did not take much notice of it. She did not realise that the agency found it very useful to have a girl on the strength that the press were already interested in. Abby, though, thought her job was exactly the same as anyone else’s at the agency. She worked hard and did her fair share of the dull stuff.
Indeed, Molly, her closest friend at the agency, sometimes thought that the dull stuff was what Abby preferred.
Take today, for instance. For anyone else, accompanying a Hollywood film star to fashion shows would have been a rare and welcome perk. Sure, there was a job to do. You had to make sure that the client got maximum coverage from whichever media turned up. But the shows were buzzy and exciting.
As Molly herself said, it beat sitting on the phone for hours trying to persuade world-weary radio editors in Scunthorpe to run your story. But Abby didn’t see it like that. In fact, Molly had the distinct impression that to Abby it was a chore—and not a very welcome one.
Which was odd, given the way she looked now that Ravi Kamasarian had done his bit.
‘You could give Diane all the competition she could handle if you wanted to,’ Sam said flatly. ‘Thank God, you don’t.’
‘It’s a shame, really,’ Molly said now. ‘Bit of sparkle and that outfit could be really glamorous. But Sam’s right. Best not.’
Abby turned away from the mirror without sparing her reflection another glance. ‘Just as long as I fit in.’ She flexed her shoulders under the criss-crossing.
‘You’ll be cold though,’ said Sam, ever practical.
Abby shrugged. ‘Oh, these shows are always overheated.’
Sam and Molly exchanged looks.
‘You’ve been before?’
It seemed unlikely, given her attitude to clothes. But they were constantly disconcerted to discover the things unsophisticated Abby turned out to have done without them having any noticeable affect on her life skills.
Abby had a wide, mobile mouth. When she wanted she could make a clown’s face. She did so now.
‘You’d be amazed at what I’ll do for charity,’ she said with a grin. ‘At least, what I used to do.’ The grin faded a bit.
There was an uncomfortable silence. Abigail had never been disloyal. She never mentioned her family in any way. But it did not take a mathematical genius to calculate that the time between her father’s spur of the moment wedding and Abigail’s departure from the Palladian mansion in which she had been her father’s hostess since she was twelve, was a matter of days. Just about enough time for the newlyweds to get back from their luxury safari and the new Lady Nunnington to turn her stepdaughter out of doors, in fact.
So, Abigail Templeton Burke, aged twenty-five and untrained except in the running of thirty-room houses and organising the social life of a jet-setting aristocrat businessman, had suddenly come on the market. Culp and Christopher reckoned themselves lucky to be the first in the race to get her title, her contacts and her cheerful common sense. Abby reckoned herself lucky to get a job.
Now Sam said, ‘Do you think there’s any chance of you getting back for the meeting with Traynors this afternoon?’
That balanced common sense would come in really useful on this one, Sam reflected. To say nothing of the soothing effect of the title on a bunch of a nouveau riche property developers.
Molly looked wise. ‘Think it’s going to be sticky, Sam?’
‘I’d put money on it. Traynors have been getting terrible publicity for weeks. It wasn’t great to begin with. But then they got into this take-over battle and there’s been real mud-slinging. Not our fault, but heck, who’s counting? Now they’ve been bought up, the old management will be doing everything they can to hang on to their jobs.’
‘So?’ said Abby, frowning.
Molly and Sam exchanged glances
‘Management is a macho game,’ explained Molly kindly. ‘You lose, you’re out. So the guys who ran it before it was bought up will be trying to demonstrate to the guys who are their new bosses what hard men they are.’
‘That means they’ll need to do two things,’ said Sam from the depths of her experience. ‘Sack someone. Preferably with maximum publicity. And shift the blame for anything that went wrong onto someone else. I see the buck whizzing rapidly in this direction.’
‘They’ll blame us?’ said Abby. ‘But that’s not fair.’
‘You’re learning,’ agreed Molly. ‘Corporate life isn’t fair. It’s a game without rules and all that matters is winning.’
Abby shivered. ‘Nasty.’
‘Yup. Short of a miracle, Culp and Christopher are going to take the blame for this one. And lose the account,’ said Molly philosophically. ‘That why you want Abby, Sam?’
Sam gave a rueful laugh. ‘You are so right. I foresee a real shouting match before the clients sack us. If you’re there, it might take some of the steam out of the meeting. They don’t know you, so they can’t shout at you.’
‘Besides, people never do shout at Abby,’ said Molly, grinning.
‘I know. It’s like having a security blanket. If you can make it, I could really do with you, Abby,’ Sam said, with feeling.
Abby was touched.
‘I’ll try,’ she said obligingly. ‘Depends on the latest version of Diane’s schedule. Still, perhaps she’ll want a rest, with the premiere this evening.’
‘More likely the film company will be running journalists in and out of her suite at ten minute intervals,’ said Sam, depressed.
The new film was her project and she was not getting on very well with the film’s publicist. There had been a number of clashes on the stars’ timetables but Diane Ladrot’s was the worst because she wanted to take in the London Fashion Week shows as well.
‘She’ll have to have her hair done at some point,’ Abby said consolingly. ‘I’ll see if I can make a run for it then. What time’s your meeting?’
‘Three. But it will go on for ages,’ said Sam with gloomy certainty.
‘Well I’ll get back as soon as I can. I’ll slide in quietly,’ promised Abby. ‘No one will notice I haven’t been there all the time.’
It was fortunate she could not see how wide of the mark that airy forecast would turn out to be.
Emilio Diz said, ‘I will attend this meeting.’
He put the cap on his pen as if there was no more to be said. The Gypsy-dark face was quite expressionless.
The dignified squabble that had broken out between the finance director and the head of marketing immediately ceased. The board of Traynor Property Development looked at each other, unified at last in their dismay.
‘Come to the PR company?’ echoed the head of marketing hollowly.
The managing director thought on his feet. That was why he was still managing director, ten days after the Diz Corporation had acquired Traynor in a ruthlessly effective take-over.
‘But you said your first priority was to see what we had in development, Señor Diz,’ he reminded Emilio smoothly. ‘I’ve organised a tour of our current sites.’
Emilio looked at him for an unnerving moment. The managing director felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise though he could not have said why. There was nothing to be read in the soot-black eyes.
‘I toured the sites before I made a bid for this company,’ Emilio said coolly.
The managing director was shocked. No one should have been able to gain access to work sites without authorisation and everyone at the table knew it.
‘I don’t understand,’ he said stiffly.
‘It’s quite simple.’ Emilio allowed himself a grim smile. ‘I always do my research. Your security is garbage. Put the two together and—’ He shrugged.
The managing director had nothing to say.
Emilio nodded, as if he expected to silence his subordinates and this small victory was no surprise. As indeed it was not.
‘So I will attend this meeting,’ he concluded.
No one had told the marketing director that you did not argue with Emilio Diz. ‘But why?’ he said, genuinely puzzled.
‘Because this company’s public relations stink,’ Emilio said brutally. ‘Before I can put it right, I need to find out whose fault it is. Yours or the agency’s.’
That was too much for the young finance director. ‘What about a hostile bidder’s mud-slinging?’ he burst out.
The black eyes rested on him with even less expression than before, if that was possible. There was a sharp silence. Everyone round the table held their breath.
Then—‘Quite,’ said Emilio coolly. ‘I was seriously unimpressed by your defence. Almost made me withdraw the bid.’
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