Extract - A Night of No Return
It was the one night of the year he dreaded more than any other.
In the beginning he’d tried everything in a bid to escape it - wild parties, women, work – but he’d discovered
that it didn’t matter what he was doing or who he was doing it with, the pain remained the same. He chose to
live his life in the present, but the past was part of him and he carried it everywhere. It was a memory that
wouldn’t fade. A scar that wouldn’t heal. A pain that went bone deep. There was no escape, which was why
his favoured way of spending this particular night was to find somewhere he could be alone and get very,
He’d driven the two hours from his office in London to the property he was restoring in rural Oxfordshire,
simply for the privilege of being alone. For once his phone was switched off, and it was staying that way.
Snow swirled in a crazy dance in front of the windscreen and visibility was down to almost zero. Huge white
drifts were piled high at the side of the road, a trap for the nervous, inexperienced driver.
Lucas Jackson was neither nervous nor inexperienced and his mood was blacker than the weather.
The howl of the wind sounded like a child screaming and he clenched his jaw and tried to blot out the noise.
Never had the first glimpse of stone lions guarding the entrance to his estate been so welcome. Despite the
conditions he barely slowed his pace, accelerating along the long drive that wound through acres of
parkland towards the main house.
He drove past the lake, now frozen into a skating rink for the ducks, over the bridge that crossed the river
and heralded the final approach to Chigworth Castle.
He waited to feel the rush of satisfaction that should have come from owning this, but as always there was
nothing. Emotionally, he felt nothing. It shouldn’t have surprised him. He’d long since accepted that he wasn’t able to feel in the way that other people did. He’d switched that part of himself off and he hadn’t been able to switch it on again.
What he did experience as he looked at the magnificent building was a detached appreciation for something that satisfied both the mathematician in him and the architect. The dimensions and structure were perfect. A gatehouse presided over the entrance, its carved stonework creating a first impression that was both imposing and aesthetically pleasing. And then there was the castle itself, with its buff stonework and battlements that attracted the interest of historians from around the world. The knowledge that he was preserving history gave him a degree of professional pride, but as for the rest of it – the personal side - he felt nothing.
Whoever said that revenge was a dish best eaten cold had been wrong.
He’d sampled it and found it to be tasteless.
And tonight Lucas wasn’t even interested in the historical significance of the house, just its isolation. It was miles from the nearest hint of civilisation and that suited him just fine. The last thing he wanted was human contact.
Lights burned in a few of the upstairs windows and he frowned because he’d specifically instructed the staff to take the night off. He was in no mood for company of any description.
He drove over the bridge that spanned the moat, under the arch that guarded the entrance and skidded the last few metres into the courtyard, his tyres sending snow spinning into the air.
It occurred to him that if he hadn’t left the office when he had, he might not have made it. He had staff capable of clearing the roads in the estate, but the approach to the house consisted of a network of winding country lanes that were a low priority for the authorities responsible for their upkeep. Briefly he thought of Emma, his loyal PA who had stayed late at the office yet again in order to help him prepare for his coming trip to Zubran, an oil rich state on the Persian Gulf. It was a good job she lived in London and wouldn’t have far to travel home.
Abandoning the car to the weather, he strode across the snowy carpet and let himself in to the darkness of the entrance hall.
No housekeeper to greet him tonight. No staff. No one. Just him.
‘Surprise!!’ A chorus of voices erupted from around him and lights blazed.
Temporarily blinded, Lucas froze, shock holding him immobile on his own doorstep.
‘Happy Birthday to me!’ Tara walked forward, a sway in her hips and a sly smile on her beautiful face as she hooked a finger inside his coat and lifted her scarlet, painted mouth to his. ‘I know you promised to give me my present next week, but I can’t wait that long. I want it now.’
Lucas stared down into those famous blue eyes and felt nothing.
Slowly, deliberately, he detached her hand from the front of his coat. ‘What the hell,’ he asked quietly, ‘are you doing here?’
‘Celebrating my birthday.’ Clearly less than delighted with his chilly response, she produced her trademark pout. ‘You refused to come to my party so I decided to bring the party to you. Your housekeeper let us in. Why haven’t you ever invited me here before? I love this place. It’s like a film set.’
Lucas lifted his gaze. He saw now that the grand hall with its magnificent paintings and tapestries had been decorated with streamers and balloons. Gaudily wrapped presents were stacked next to a large iced birthday cake. Open bottles of champagne stood on an antique table, mocking his black mood.
Never in his life had he felt less like celebrating.
His first thought was that he was going to fire his housekeeper but then he remembered just how persuasive Tara could be when she wanted something. She was a master at manipulating emotions and it always frustrated her that she’d never succeeded in manipulating his.
‘Tonight is not a good night for me. I told you that.’ His voice sounded robotic but Tara simply shrugged dismissively.
‘And I didn’t listen. Whatever it is that is making you so moody, you need to snap out of it, Lucas. You’ll forget about it once you’ve had a drink. We’ll dance for a bit and then go upstairs and -’
‘Get out.’ His thickened command was greeted with appalled silence. Her friends, people he didn’t know and had no desire to know, murmured their shock.
The only person who seemed unaffected by his response was Tara herself whose ego was the least fragile thing about her. ‘Don’t be ridiculous Lucas. You don’t mean that. It’s a surprise party.’
But the surprise, apparently, was his. Only Tara could hold a surprise party for her own birthday. ‘Get out and take your friends with you.’
Her eyes hardened. ‘We all came by coach and it isn’t coming back until one o’clock.’
‘When did you last look outside? Nothing is going to be moving on these roads by one o’clock. That coach had better be here in the next ten minutes or you’ll be snowed in. And trust me you do not want that.’ Perhaps it was his tone, perhaps it was the fact that he looked dangerous – and he knew that he must look dangerous because he felt dangerous – but his words finally sank home.
Her beautiful face, that same face that graced so many magazine covers, turned scarlet with humiliation and anger. Those cat-like eyes flashed into his, but what she saw there must have scared her because the colour fled from her cheeks and left her flawless skin as pale as the winter snow blanketing the ground outside.
‘Fine.’ Her lips barely moved. ‘We’ll take our party elsewhere and leave you alone with your horrid temper for company. Now I know why your relationships don’t last. Money, brains and skill in bed can’t make up for the fact that you don’t have a heart, Lucas Jackson.’
He could have told her the truth. He could have told her that his heart, once intact and fully functioning, had been damaged beyond repair. He could have told her that the phrase ‘time heals’ was false and that he was living proof that damage could be permanent. He could have described the relief that came from knowing he couldn’t be healed because a heart already damaged couldn’t be damaged again.
There was something beating in his chest, that was true, but it did nothing more than pump blood around his body, enabling him to get out of bed in the morning and go to work every day.
He could have told Tara all of that but she would have gained as little satisfaction in the listening as he would in the telling, so he simply strode past her towards the famous oak staircase that rose majestically from the centre of the hall.
Tonight the proportions and design gave him no satisfaction. The staircase was merely a means to escape from the people who had invaded his sanctuary.
Without waiting for them to leave, he took the stairs two at a time and strode towards his bedroom in the tower that overlooked the moat.
He didn’t care that he’d shocked them.
He didn’t care that he’d ended yet another relationship.
All he cared about was getting through this one night.
He was a cold-hearted, driven, workaholic.
Her normal patience nowhere to be found, Emma struggled to keep the car on the road. It was Friday night and she should have been at home relaxing with Jamie. Instead, she was chasing her boss round the English countryside. After the week she’d had it was the last thing she needed. She had a life, for goodness sake. Or rather, she would have liked to have a life. Unfortunately for her, she worked for a man for whom the concept of a life outside work didn’t exist.
Lucas Jackson didn’t have any emotional attachments and clearly didn’t think his staff should have them either. He wasn’t interested in her as a person, just in her contribution to his company. And there would have been no point in explaining her feelings because, as far as she could tell, he didn’t have feelings. His life was so far removed from hers that sometimes when she drove into her space in the car park beneath the iconic glass building that housed the world-renowned architectural firm of Jackson and Partners, she felt as if she’d arrived on another planet. Even the building itself was futuristic - a tribute to cutting edge design and energy efficiency, designed to maximise daylight and natural ventilation, a bold statement that represented the creative vision and genius of just one man. Lucas Jackson.
But creative vision and genius required focus and single-minded determination and that combination rolled together created a driven, difficult human being. More machine than human being, she thought moodily as she peered through the thick, falling snow in an attempt to not end her days in a ditch.
When she’d started working for him two years previously she hadn’t minded that their conversation was never personal. She didn’t want or expect ‘personal’ when she was at work, so that suited her well. The one thing she would never, ever do was fall in love with her boss. But she’d fallen in love with her job. The work was interesting, stimulating and in every way that mattered Lucas was an excellent boss. Despite the fact that his reputation had unnerved her to the point where she almost hadn’t applies for the role, she’d found him to be professional, bright and a generous payer. It excited her to be involved with a company responsible for the design of some of the most famous buildings of recent times. He was undoubtedly a genius. Those were his positive points.
The negatives were that he was focused on work to the exclusion of everything.
Take this week. Preparations for the official opening of the Zubran Ferrara Resort, an innovative eco hotel nestling on the edge of the warm waters of the Persian Gulf, had driven her workload from crazy to manic. Fuelled by caffeine, she’d stayed until the early hours every night in an attempt to complete essential work. Not once had she complained or commented on the fact that, generally, she expected to be fast asleep by 2am and preferably not at her desk.
The one thing that had kept her going had been the thought of Friday. The start of her holiday. Two whole weeks that she took off every year over the festive season. She’d visualised that moment in the way a marathon runner might imagine the finish line. It had been the shining light at the end of a tunnel of exhaustion.
And then the snow had started falling. And falling. All week it had been snowing steadily until by Friday London was half empty.
All day Emma had been eyeing the weather out of the window. She’d seen staff from other office buildings leaving early, slithering and sliding their way through the snow to be sure of making it home. As Lucas’s PA she had the authority to extend that privilege to other more junior staff and she had, until the only two people remaining in the building had been herself and her ruthlessly focused boss.
Lucas hadn’t appeared to notice the snow storm transforming the world into a death zone. When she’d mentioned it, he hadn’t responded. That would have been bad enough and sufficient to have her cursing him for her entire journey home but just as she’d been about to turn out the lights, the last to leave as usual, she’d noticed the file sitting on his desk. It was the file she’d put together for his trip to Zubran and it included papers that needed his signature. A helicopter would be picking him up on Sunday from his country house. He wouldn’t be coming back to the office.
At first she didn’t believe he could have forgotten it. Lucas never forgot anything. He was most efficient person she’d ever worked for. And once she’d come to terms with the fact that for some reason his usual efficiency had chosen a frozen Friday night to desert him, she’d faced a dilemma.
She’d tried calling him, hoping to catch him while he was still in London but his phone continually switched to voicemail, presumably because he was already talking to someone else. Lucas spent his life talking on the phone.
She could have arranged a courier, but the file contained confidential and sensitive information and she didn’t trust it with anyone but herself. Did that make her obsessive? Possibly. But if it were to be mislaid she would be out of a job and she wasn’t about to take that risk.
Which was why she was now, late on a miserable Friday night when no one else with any sense would be on the roads, heading west out of London towards his country house in a rural part of Oxfordshire.
Emma squinted through the white haze. She didn’t mind hard work. Her only rule was that she didn’t work at weekends. And for some reason – maybe her references, maybe her calm demeanour, or just the fact that he’d lost six PAs in as many months - Lucas Jackson had accepted that one caveat although he had once made a caustic comment about her ‘wild social life’.
If he’d taken the trouble to find out about her, he would have known that there wasn’t room for ‘wild’ in her life. He would know that the nearest she’d got to a party was through the pages of the celebrity magazines her sister occasionally bought. He would have known that after working a punishing week at Jackson and Partners her idea of a perfect weekend was just sleeping late and spending time with Jamie. Lucas would have known all that, but he didn’t because he’d never asked.
She glanced briefly at the offending file on the passenger seat next to her, as if by simply glaring at it she might somehow manage to teleport the contents to its owner.
Unfortunately there was no chance of that. Her only choice was to take it to him. Never let it be said that she didn’t do her job properly.
The launch was the most talked about event for a decade and the party itself would be a glittering gathering of everyone important. Emma had felt a wistful pang as she’d liaised with Avery Scott, the dynamic owner of Dance and Dine, the company in charge of organising the launch event. From her conversations with Avery, she knew that the international celebrity guest list would be indulging in vintage champagne in the glamour of a marquee designed as a Bedouin tent. Then they would enjoy a traditional Zubrani banquet under the stars and have the opportunity to explore the specially constructed ‘souk’, tempting the guests with various local delicacies and entertainment. To showcase the best of Zubran as a holiday destination there would be belly dancers, fortune tellers, falconry and the evening would conclude with what promised to be the most spectacular firework display ever witnessed.
This was probably how Cinderella had felt, Emma thought gloomily.
Shivering in the freezing air that her inadequate heater didn’t manage to warm, she sank deeper inside her coat and allowed herself a brief fantasy involving sunshine and palm trees. Just for a moment she felt envious. Right now this minute, the women on the guest list were probably deciding what to wear and packing for a break in the sun where all they were expected to do was look glamorous.
Emma pushed her hair away from her face with her gloved hand. She didn’t need to look in the mirror to know she didn’t look glamorous. She looked wrecked.
Forget celebrity parties. She’d be thrilled just to be able to get to bed before midnight. And if the weather carried on like this, she and Jamie would be spending their precious week of holiday trapped indoors.
She was struggling to keep the car on the icy road when her phone rang.
She thought it might be Lucas finally returning one of her many frantic messages, but it wasn’t. It was Jamie.
Of course it was Jamie. He’d expected her over an hour ago.
‘Where are you Emma?’ His concern was audible in his voice and she suddenly felt horribly disloyal for wishing she could have gone to Zubran and partied under the stars.
Not daring to drive and talk with the road conditions so bad, she pulled over, squashing down the guilt. ‘I had to work late. I’m so sorry. I left you a message.‘
‘When will you be home?’
‘Soon. I hope.‘ She stared doubtfully at the falling snow, ‘but it might take me a while because the roads are terrible. Don’t wait up.’
He didn’t say anything and she knew he was upset with her.
His silence made her guilt worse. While he’d been worrying, she’d been imagining the perfect dress to wear to the party of the decade. ‘We have the whole weekend to be together and next week,’ she reasoned. When there was still no answer, she gave a sigh. ‘Jamie, don’t be upset. I have to work tonight. It’s never happened before. You know I normally keep the weekends free but this is an emergency. Lucas left some really important papers and I have to take them to him.’
It was a difficult conversation and by the time she hung up, she was cursing Lucas Jackson with words she never normally allowed herself to use. Why couldn’t he have remembered the stupid file? Or why couldn’t he at least get off the phone and pick up her calls? At least then she could have met him half way or something.
Knowing that the only thing that was going to make her feel better was getting the job done and going home, she eased the car back onto the road. Her eyes felt gritty from lack of sleep and the throb in her head was worse. She couldn’t wait to just crawl into bed and sleep and sleep.
She’d make it up to Jamie. They had two weeks together. The whole of the Christmas holidays. Two whole weeks while her high flying boss was in Zubran, locked in business meetings with the Sultan and partying the night away under the stars. And she wasn’t jealous. Absolutely not.
Visibility was down to virtually zero. She lost her way twice in the maze of country lanes that all looked the same and defeated her sat nav. The only car on the road, she crawled her way along a snowy lane and finally found herself at the entrance to Chigworth Castle.
Two huge stone lions snarled down at her from either side of the open gates and she glared back at them, thinking that the house was about as friendly and welcoming as the man.
By the time she’d slithered and skidded her way down a drive that seemed as long as the road to London, her head was throbbing and she’d convinced herself she’d take a wrong turning. This couldn’t possibly be right. It was leading nowhere.
Where on earth was the actual house? Did one person really need this much land?
Her headlights picked out a wood and a lake and she drove over a bridge, tyres skidding, turned a corner and saw it. Floodlit with warm beams of light that illuminated honey coloured stone and tall, beautiful windows, a small castle stood as it had no doubt stood for centuries, surrounded by a moat.
‘Battlements,’ Emma breathed, enchanted. ‘It even has battlements.’
Snow clung to those battlements and smoke twirled from a chimney into the cold air. Lights shone from a tower in one corner of the building and her mouth literally fell open because she’d had no idea that he owned something like this. He was all about modern, cutting edge design and yet this – this imposing, beautiful building was part of history.
It really was a castle. A small, but perfectly formed castle.
Small? She gave a choked laugh. Small was her rented room in one of the less salubrious areas of London. She had a single window that overlooked a train line and was woken every morning at 5am by the airplanes landing at Heathrow airport. Idyllic living it was not. This, however, was idyllic living. So much space, she thought enviously. Acres of gardens, now cloaked in white but easy enough to imagine them in the summer. Easy enough to imagine carpets of bluebells stretching into the wood where currently there was nothing but layers of soft, unmarked snow.
It was truly beautiful.
For a moment her eyes stung and she wondered how a house could possibly make her want to cry.
It wasn’t that perfect, was it?
For a start it was isolated. Realising just how isolated, Emma gave a shiver as she coaxed her little car forward over the bridge that spanned the moat. She might have been the only person on the planet.
And then through the archway she saw the sleek, familiar lines of Lucas’s Aston Martin, already almost obscured by the falling snow. So she wasn’t the only person here. He’d made it, but he still wasn’t answering his phone.
Resolving to buy him a phone that only she used, relieved to still be in one piece, Emma sat for a moment, waiting for her heart rate to slow down. When she was sufficiently recovered, she reached for the offending file.
It was nine o’clock on a Friday night. Her holiday had officially started. Right now she should have been enjoying her own version of a weekend retreat with Jamie, only instead of curling up with someone she loved she was chasing her boss round the countryside in the worst weather anyone had seen in years.
Two minutes, Emma promised herself as she switched off the engine and stepped carefully out of the car. This was going to take her two minutes. As soon as she’d handed over the file, she’d get back on the road.
The moment her feet touched the ground, she slipped. Crashing down awkwardly in her attempt to protect the file, she bumped her elbow and her head. For a moment she lay there, winded, and then she rolled onto her knees and struggled back to her feet. Bruised, damp and angry, she picked her way gingerly towards the door, the snow seeping through her shoes.
She stabbed the bell with her finger and held it there, taking small comfort from that minor rebellion. There was no answer.
Snow trickled down from her hair to her neck and from there inside her shirt.
Emma shivered and rang the bell again, surprised that someone hadn’t immediately opened the door. She’d assumed the place would be crawling with staff and Lucas was notoriously intolerant of inefficiency of any kind.
Someone, she thought, was going to be in trouble.
Having rung the bell for a third time and still received no response, she tried the door with no expectation that it would open.
When it did, she hesitated on the threshold. Walking into someone else’s home uninvited wasn’t a habit of hers, but she had a file he needed and she wasn’t about to drive it all the way back to the office.
‘Hello?’ Cautiously, she peeped her head in through the door, bracing herself to set off an alarm. But there was no sound and she opened the door further. She saw dark wood panelling, tapestries, huge oil paintings and a sweeping staircase so romantic that it made a girl long for Rhett Butler to stride into the house and sweep her off her feet. When there was still no sign of life, she stepped inside.
‘Hello?’ She closed the door to keep the heat in – how much must it cost to heat somewhere like this? – and then noticed the open champagne bottles, the balloons and the streamers. And a cake. Something about the cake didn’t quite seem right, but she couldn’t work out what it was. Clearly a party was going on somewhere, only there was no sign on any guests. Just an overpowering silence that was almost creepy. She half expected someone to jump out from behind the heavy velvet curtains and shout ‘boo’.
An uneasy feeling crept down her spine. For goodness sake, it was just a house! A big house, admittedly, but there was nothing threatening about a house. And she wasn’t alone. She couldn’t possibly be alone. Lucas had to be here somewhere and a whole load of other people judging from the number of champagne bottles.
Hoping that an enormous guard dog wasn’t about to bound out from nowhere and close its jaws on a sensitive part of her anatomy, Emma walked over to a large oak door and pushed it open. It was a library, the walls lined with tall bookshelves stacked with books bound in various faded shades of old leather.
‘Lucas?’ She tentatively explored all the obvious rooms on the ground floor and then walked up the staircase. This was ridiculous. She couldn’t search the whole house. Remembering the light she’d seen shining from the tower, she decided to just try there.
Hazarding a guess as to the correct direction, she turned right and walked along a carpeted corridor until she reached a heavy oak door.
She tapped once and opened it. ‘Lucas?’ A spiral staircase rose in front of her and she walked up it and found herself in a large circular room with windows on all sides. Logs blazed in a huge fireplace and out of the corner of her eye she caught sight of a huge four poster bed draped in moss green velvet but her attention was on the low leather sofa because there, sprawled with his feet up on the arm and a bottle of champagne in his hand, was her boss.
‘I thought I told you to get out.’ His savage tone made her gasp and she took a step backwards and almost tumbled down the stairs. Not once in the years she’d worked for him, had he spoken to her like that.
One glance told her that he was rip roaring drunk and she so rarely saw him drunk that her initial reaction was one of surprise. The fact that he didn’t make a habit of it did nothing to soothe her bruised feelings.
While her Friday night had been well and truly ruined, he’d been enjoying himself. He’d switched his phone off not because he was busy with an important business call, but because he was busy getting drunk. She’d risked her neck driving around the English countryside in a snow storm when she could have been with Jamie, while all the time Lucas was warm and snug in front of a roaring log fire drinking champagne. Not only that, he had the gall to tell her to get out.
Emma’s temper, usually slow to burn, began to glow hot.
She was about to slap the file down on the table and leave him to his solitary party when she suddenly realised that what he’d actually said wasn’t
‘get out’ but ‘I thought I told you to get out.’
He certainly hadn’t already told her to get out. Which could only mean that he thought she was someone else.
She remembered the balloons and the streamers. The abandoned champagne bottles. The cake.
‘Lucas!’ She spoke more clearly this time. ‘It’s me. Emma.’
For a moment she thought he hadn’t heard her, and then his eyes opened.
Across the shadowy room she saw the lethal glitter that told her everything she needed to know about his mood. She was nowhere near him and yet it was as if he’d reached out and touched her. Her body warmed. She shifted uncomfortably. She’d never seen him like this before. The man she knew was always sleek and groomed. His suits were handmade in Italy. His shirts custom made. He was a man who expected the best in everything. A sophisticated connoisseur of all things beautiful.
But this wasn’t the man she knew. Usually Lucas was sleek and groomed. Tonight he was neither. He looked dangerous in every way. In mood. In looks. His shirt was open at the neck, exposing a cluster of dark hair and a hint of powerful chest, shadowy stubble darkened his strong jaw. And, most disturbingly of all, she had the feeling that he was balancing on the very edge of control.
Sensing it, Emma reacted the way she would have reacted had she suddenly been confronted by a snarling Rottweiler intent on ripping her throat out. She froze and tried to project calm. ‘It’s just me,‘ she said soothingly, ‘only you seemed to think I was someone else, so I thought I ought to just clarify that – er – it’s me.’
The silence stretched for such an agonizing length of time that she’d started to think that he wasn’t going to answer when suddenly he stirred.
‘Emma?’ His voice was soft and deadly and did nothing to reassure her.
She discovered that her hands were shaking and that irritated her. This was Lucas, for goodness sake. She’d worked with him almost every day for two years. He was tough, but he wasn’t threatening. Not exactly kind, but not cruel either. ‘I’ve been calling you for hours. Why didn’t you pick up the phone?’
‘Who the hell let you in?
‘No one. I rang the bell and no one answered so I –‘ she broke off and he raised an eyebrow.
‘So you thought you’d just walk into my house? Tell me, little Red Riding Hood, do you make a habit of walking through the forest when the wolf is loose?’ Fierce blue eyes met hers and Emma felt as if she were being suffocated.
She lifted her hand and loosened the scarf around her neck. Maybe it was his tone. Maybe it was the look in his eyes, but suddenly her heart was pounding. ‘I rang the bell. You didn’t answer.’
‘But you walked in anyway.’ Those softly spoken words were a million times more disturbing than the hard tone he’d used to order her out.
She tried to rally herself. ‘If you had answered your phone I wouldn’t have had to walk in.’
‘My phone is switched off. And I didn’t answer the door because I wasn’t looking for company.’
Something snapped inside her. ‘You think I drove for over two hours in lethal conditions for the pleasure of your company? After the week we’ve had, when I’ve had your ‘company’ for an average of fifteen hours a day? I don’t think so.’ The injustice of it stoked her temper. ‘I drove here, at much personal inconvenience I might add, to give you a file. The file that you forgot to pick up. The file you need tomorrow.’
‘Tomorrow?’ The way he said it made it sound as if that day were a lifetime away. A point somewhere in the future that might never come.
‘Yes, tomorrow.’ She looked at him in exasperation. Was he really that drunk? ‘Zubran? The launch party? Your papers for the Ferrara meeting? Is any of this ringing any bells with you?’ She’d been clutching the file to her chest like a shield but now she thrust it towards him and then decided that on second thoughts she didn’t want him to move from the sofa, so instead she dropped it on the nearest table. ‘There. My job is done. You can thank me when you’re sober.’
Slowly, he put the champagne down on the floor. ‘You drove out here to give me the file?’
‘Yes I did.’ And suddenly she felt like a crazy person for doing that. ‘You need it. I didn’t want to trust it to a courier.’
‘You could have given it to Jim.’
Jim was his driver. ‘Jim has flown to Dublin for a long weekend.’ Why hadn’t he remembered that? What was the matter with him?
‘So you chose to bring it in person.’ His eyes glinted in the firelight and his gaze slowly travelled from her head to her toes as if he was seeing her properly for the first time.
‘Yes, I brought it to you in person,’ she snapped, hating herself for caring that she wasn’t looking her best. It wasn’t that she had any expectations of coming close to meeting his standards of visual perfection, but it would have boosted her confidence and made her feel businesslike. As it was it was hard to feel businesslike with mud and snow streaked down her coat. ‘Frankly I’m starting to wish I hadn’t bothered, since the gesture clearly isn’t appreciated.’
‘Your head is bleeding. And your hair is wet. What happened to you?’
There was blood? Emma touched her head with her fingers and felt the bruise. Oh God, there was blood. How embarrassing. She rummaged in her bag for a tissue and pressed it against her head. ‘I slipped walking from the car. It’s fine.’ Suddenly she was horribly aware that it was just the two of them in this enormous house. It didn’t matter that she was often alone with him in the office. This felt different. ‘I’m going now and I’ll leave you to your party.’ She thought again about the balloons and the cake and wondered where everyone else was. In a different part of the house?
‘Ah yes, my party.’ He gave a humourless laugh and his head dropped back against the sofa. ‘Go, Emma. Someone like you shouldn’t be here.’
She’d been about to retreat but his words stopped her. Offended, she tapped her foot on the floor. ‘By ‘someone like me’ I assume you mean someone who doesn’t move in your lofty social circle.’
‘I didn’t mean that, but it doesn’t matter.’
Stung, she stood still for a moment. ‘Actually it does matter. I’ve risked my neck and upset someone I love to bring you a file you don’t even remember needing. A ‘thank you’ would be nice. Manners are a good thing to have.’
‘But I’m not nice. And I’m certainly not good.’ His bitter tone shocked her. Her anger fizzled out.
‘Get out Emma.’ This time he used her name so that there could be no mistake about whom he was addressing. ‘Get out and close the damn door behind you.