An Heir for the MillionaireBy: Julia James
CLARE took a deep breath and walked forward into the dimly lit cocktail bar. Soft music issued from the white piano in the corner, and she vaguely recognised an old number from the fifties. But she paid it no attention, heading instead for the nearest table, set low and surrounded by deep leather easy chairs designed to soothe the bodies of besuited businessmen, weary from a hard day’s work in the corridors of power.
Her mouth twisted slightly. Those corridors—and the boardrooms and suites that opened off them—might demand long hours, but they also awarded a deluxe lifestyle to those who stalked them. Bespoke suits, handmade shoes, perfect grooming, and the ability to pay exorbitant prices with a flick of a platinum credit card.
As Clare approached the table, around which a cluster of suits eased back in the armchairs, a soft, throaty laugh made her turn her head slightly. A little way away, at another table, a couple sat on a sofa, drinks in hand. It was not the man who had laughed so seductively, but his female companion. For a brief moment Clare allowed herself to look. Even in the soft lighting she could see that the woman was very beautiful, with chic hair, expertly styled, and immaculate make-up. Her dress was a designer number, and clung to her lissom form. As she gave her soft laugh, she crossed her long, sheer-stockinged legs, and one elegantly manicured hand hovered over her companion’s thigh.
A little stab went through Clare. She looked away.
I shouldn’t have taken this job. I knew it was a mistake!
For four long years she had kept away from places like this. The world she lived in now was in a different universe. Stepping back into this lush, expensive environment was not something she had wanted to do.
It brought back too many memories.
And the brief glimpse of that designer-clothed female had intensified them.
Was I ever really like that?
It seemed impossible—and yet with her brain she knew it was true. She too, once, a lifetime ago, had been like that woman. Beautifully clothed, immaculately made up, elegant and chic.
She inhaled sharply. What did it matter that this place brought back the past? Memories she didn’t want and didn’t welcome. She was here simply because it was the best way she had of making the extra money she needed if her determination to take Joey and her friend Vi on holiday that summer was to succeed. Evening work was the only kind that was possible, and waiting cocktail tables in this swish new hotel, recently opened on an arterial road en route to Heathrow in West London, a bus ride away from where she lived with Vi, had to be a lot better than working in a pub, or in her local pizza parlour.
As for the memories its luxury triggered—well, tough. Her chin lifted. She’d have to get over it.
The uncompromising injunction resonated in her head. Get over it. One of the toughest self-help commandments around—and yet it had helped her, she knew, during those four long years. Years when she’d had to completely change her life—not just her lifestyle, but something far more profound. Far more difficult.
No. Don’t go there!
That was another maxim she’d had to rigidly cling to. Don’t go there—where in her dreams, her yearnings, she longed to go. Back into the past. A past that ached like an old, deep, unhealable wound.
Or, worse, don’t go into a present that did not exist—a parallel universe of longing and desire that was conjured up out of her deepest places, where the choice she had made had been quite, quite different.
Well, I didn’t make that choice! I chose a different way. And it was the right way to choose—the only way.
However hard the choice had been, it would have been far worse if she hadn’t made it. She’d paid the price for her decision, and even to think of it was agonising…just agonising.
Her own voice interrupted her painful thoughts.
‘Good evening, gentlemen—what may I get you to drink?’
Painting a bright, attentive smile on her face, she listened and nodded and scribbled as fast as she could, hoping she was getting it down right. She headed back to the bar to relay the order.
‘Doing OK?’ asked Tony, one of the barmen, congenially.
‘I hope so,’ Clare replied cautiously.
He wasn’t to know that it was not just her being new to the job that was making her cautious. That the whole expensive ambience of the place was disturbing her. Threatening her with memories of a life she had once led, and which was gone for ever. At least she’d never been at this place before; she was more familiar with the classic deluxe hotels, like the Savoy in London and the Plaza in New York. This hotel was too new, too impersonal, not at all the kind that—
She spotted a customer beckoning her and hurried across, glad of the distraction. Glad, too, that she was kept on her feet without respite as the evening wore on. Her feet in the unaccustomed high heels were starting to ache, but apart from a couple of confusing moments regarding complicated cocktails she was basically coping, she thought. She was careful always to keep her physical distance from the guests, but by and large she wasn’t getting any hassle.
But then, of course, she acknowledged, with part relief and partly a little pang, the closest she got to a beauty treatment these days was filing a hang nail…
But what did she care? she thought fiercely. Joey didn’t give a hoot if her hair was just tied back in a utilitarian plait, or if her face was bare of make-up. All he wanted was her attention—and her love.
And he got both in infinite amounts.
Even as she thought of Joey her hand automatically went to her apron pocket. Her mobile was on, but there had been no peep from it. Vi still found it tricky to use a mobile, but she’d made a gallant effort to learn, and had faithfully promised to call Clare if Joey surfaced and was distressed at her absence in any way. But, with luck, Joey was a good sleeper now, and once he went off he was usually fine until morning.
She handed round the drinks she’d just collected from the bar, spotted another of her tables starting to disperse, and kept an eye on them to see if she was going to get a tip. The wages, like all in this line of work, were hardly brilliant, and tips were important, like it or not. Every penny counted, and every penny was going into the Holiday Jar that would, she fervently hoped, take her and Joey and Vi to the seaside in the summer.
A shadow formed in her eyes.
If fate had dealt her a different card there’d be no such thing as the Holiday Jar…
But it was no use thinking that way. She had made the right choice, the only choice.
This way, though Joey might only be the fatherless child of yet another impoverished single mother, wearing clothes out of charity shops and eking a living, that was still infinitely better than being the alternative—the unwanted bastard of a Greek tycoon and his discarded, despairing mistress…
XANDER ANAKETOS stifled his impatience with a civil, if brief smile at the man beside him. Richard Gardner was of the school of businessmen who considered that every deal should be sealed with a drink and an expensive meal. Xander had no time for such niceties. The investment he’d just agreed in principle to make in Gardner’s company would be mutually profitable, and the details would be hammered out by their respective subordinates. Now Xander was eager to be gone. He had plans for the evening which did not include making small talk with Richard Gardner. However, he had no wish to snub the older man, and besides, his ‘other business’ would wait for him.
They always waited for him.
Sonja de Lisle was no exception.
Oh, she might pout for a few minutes, but it wouldn’t last. Soon she would be purring all over him. He pulled his mind away. Best not to let his thoughts go to Sonja when he had dinner to get through first.
And before that a drink in the cocktail lounge while they perused the menu.
As the guest, Xander let Gardner choose where to sit, and took his place accordingly. He glanced round, concealing the disparagement in his eyes. This was not a hotel he would have chosen to patronise, but he could appreciate that it was convenient for the business park where Gardner’s company was sited near Heathrow. But, for himself, he preferred hotels to have more class, more prestige—usually more antiquity. He liked classic, world-famous hotels, like the Ritz, Claridges, the St John.
Memory flickered. He rarely went to the St John now.
Like a stiletto sliding in between his synapses, an image came into his mind. Blonde hair, curving in a smooth swathe over one shoulder, diamond studs set into tender lobes, long dark lashes and cool grey-green eyes.
Eyes that were looking at him without emotion. A face held very still.
A face he had not seen again.
He thrust the image aside. There was no point remembering it.
Abruptly he reached for the menu that had been placed on the low table in front of them and flicked it open, making his selection without great enthusiasm. Snapping it shut, he tossed it down on the table again and looked around impatiently. He could do with a drink. Did this place not run to waitresses?
There was one a table or so away from them with her back to him. He kept his eye on her, ready to beckon. He could see her nodding, sliding her notepad into her pocket.
She turned towards the bar. Xander held up an imperious hand. She caught the gesture and altered direction.
Then she stopped dead.
Clare could feel the blood and all sensation slowly draining out of her body. It emptied from her brain, her limbs, every part of her, draining down through every vein, every nerve.