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By the time Emily Quest realised what sort of party it was, it was too late to storm out in a fit of moral outrage.
After all, she had lied and cheated her way into this exclusive den of iniquity for her own less-than-honest purposes, so it would be hypocritical to condemn her fellow guests for their immoral behaviour.
And, dressed as she was in the height of trash-fashion, it was hard to blame anyone but herself for the obnoxious kind of attention she was having to endure. Playing the brainless bimbo had been an essential part of her hastily conceived plan, but unfortunately it had pitched her headlong into situations she was ill-equipped to handle.
At least she was wearing underwear, she consoled herself, which was more than she could say about some of the other girls who had been invited along to liven up the party for the unattached males! A number of them were from a well-known local escort service but others were merely "gifted amateurs", as Emily's hairdresserfrom whom she had conned her invitationhad cheerfully put it. Chasing trophy males on the private-party circuit was apparently a hotly-contested competitive sport in some social circles.
Emily collected her drinks from the self-serve bar, averting her gaze from the crystal bowl of pills being touted with brazen effrontery by a baby-faced young man with a fake American accent and a large diamond stud winking in his ear. Given the nature of her invitation she had been braced for a certain degree of sophisticated decadence, but she was shocked at the squalor of some of the goings-on. If this was the way the rich and notso-famous carried on behind closed doors, no wonder society was in trouble!
She doubted that the absent owners of the luxurious water-front mansion in the middle of Auckland's "Millionaires' Row" had given their house-sitting adult son permission to run drug-riddled orgies while they cruised the Mediterranean but, given what she knew of their snobbery, she had a depressing feeling that they would be more disgusted by the questionable social status of many of the guests than the rampant abuse of drugs and alcohol and sexual promiscuity. Junior and his friends obviously liked to spice up their lives of gross overprivilege by walking on the wild side, if the number of patched gang members hanging around in raucous thickets of denim and leather were anything to go by. More unsettling still, some of the tattooed hulks were employed as de facto security guards and bouncers, and the casual vandalism that was being carried out in the name of having a good time gave Emily a renewed sense of urgency about her mission. She just needed to hold onto her nerve for a little while longer
Pinning on a brilliant smile to mask her growing unease, Emily wove her way through the overcrowded pool room which was serving as a bar, holding the two brimming glasses and square bottle above her head as she squeezed between well-fuelled party-goers screaming at each other over the driving dance music that pulsated through the walls.
Her hopes of a quick exit had long since faded and her head was starting to ache with the noise and the tension of pretending to enjoy herself, the spiky brown curls that normally formed a jaunty halo above her heart-shaped face wilting in the claustrophobic heat. A haze of smoke had made her tear-ducts sting and robbed her sky-blue eyes of their eager sparkle. The only thing she was eager to do right now was get back to her semi-incoherent host, do what she had to do, and leave.
Unfortunately, the intoxicated state that made him so suggestible was off-set by an infuriating inability to concentrate. After offering her a tour around the opulent splendour of the private wing locked away from the rest of the party, he kept getting sidetracked by his baser impulsesand just when Emily had finally laid eyes on her goal she had been sent off to act as barmaid!
The monotonous throb of the music poured out through the network of ceiling-mounted speakers, pursuing her with relentless insistence as she pressed her way back through the heaving mob of people jamming the marble hallway. Even the polished floor beneath her slender high heels seemed to vibrate, and it didn't help her progress to discover that the polished surface was already dangerously slick with spilled drinks and a scattering of broken glass.
Emily skirted the door to the ground-floor bathroom where she had earlier blundered in on two glamorous, model-thin waifs bent over streaks of white powder on the onyx vanity. Their giggling invitation to join them had been punctuated by the hoarse cries of an anonymous man and his stridently vocal sex partner making boisterous use of the adjoining toilet cubical. Mentally scrubbing away at the sordid memory, Emily concentrated on pushing past the jiggling throng at the entrance to the formal lounge where a DJ was pumping up the volume. A stray elbow jabbed her in the kidney and she stumbled, shunting up against a sweaty, over-excited male who took the accidental thrust of her breasts as an open invitation to paw at her plunging cleavage.
Her laden hands trapped aloft by the crush, Emily was momentarily helpless against his clumsy lechery. She jerked her head aside from the wet-lipped lunge of the stranger's mouth, uttering a furious cry of protest as she squirmed away from a bruising hand groping up under the short skirt of her black lace dress. No one seemed to notice or care what was happening to her and for an awful moment she thought she was going to be violated right there amongst the bobbing dancers.
Fear and anger kicked her self-protective instincts into action and she threw up a driving knee, gratified to feel it strike home with crushing force. Her violent recoil tilted her wrists and squeals and curses erupted when a cascade of ice-cubes jounced out of the glasses to hail down on the surrounding heads, including that of her erstwhile assailant.
'Sorry!' Emily yelled insincerely, relieved to feel herself yanked backwards out of the dangerous mêlée by a big hand hooking into the belt of her wraparound dress and swinging her around the corner into a relatively less-crowded arm of the branching hall.
She lowered her aching arms and smiled gratefully up at her saviour, clutching the dripping glasses and slippery bottle close to her over-exposed chest, well away from his superbly cut black suit and crisp white shirt front. At five feet six Emily didn't consider herself to be short, but even in high heels she had to crank her neck back to see higher than the sharp jut of his smooth-shaven jaw above the immaculate collar. Unfortunately, the fresh spatters of moisture on her thickly applied mascara were causing it to clump, making it increasingly difficult to pry her eyelashes apart and interfering with her vision.
'Thanks' she said breathlessly, still shaken by her struggle, rapidly blinking to try to untangle her sticky black lashes and focus properly on his face.
She succeeded just in time to see him turn his back and walk away, and with a shock she registered the look of cold contempt on his hard features. It was like a sharp slap in the face, cutting off the nervous laugh that had bubbled to her lips and leaving her stranded in embarrassment.
For a few moments after he disappeared she stood rooted to the spot, trying to convince herself that she had misread her fleeting glimpse of his expression, but the vivid impression of a pair of steel-blue eyes iced with disdain remained graphically clear in her memory.
Her cheeks burned as if the slap had been physical. He hadn't even lingered long enough to acknowledge her thanks. Perhaps he had been regretting coming to her rescueor having second thoughts about whether she had required rescuing at all! Perhaps he had judged her a sexual tease who had bitten off more than she could chew the type of woman who got off on flaunting herself at a man until he lost control. He had probably thought that her wildly batting eyes and breathless voice had been her crass attempt at a sexy come-on.
But this isn't really me! she wanted to rush after him and explain.
Then she berated herself for caring. What did it matter what anyone at this wretched party thought of her current guise? It wasn't as if she was likely to run into any of them again, and even if she did they wouldn't recognise her as her normal, everyday self.
Emily gripped the slippery drinks with renewed determination and doggedly pushed on towards the rear of the house. Okay, so perhaps she had overcompensated a trifle with the blatantly sexual combination of black fishnet tights, shiny stilettos and ultra-short, take-me-off dress, but she had known that she couldn't rely on her rather ordinary face and old-fashioned good manners to get her where she had needed to be tonight. She had already tried the ladylike approach and been rebuffed. She couldn't wait any longer.
Tonight was literally her last chance to repay the enormous debt of gratitude she owed her grandfather. If she succeeded, it would have been well worth the temporary humiliation, and if notwell, at least she would know she had tried her best
With that thought in mind she found the courage to face down the huge, muscle-bound Neanderthal who tried to stop her entering the short hall that led to the family wing.
'Party's back that way,' he growled, planting a grimy black boot on the wall in front of her, barring her way with his beefy leg, and pointing his bottle of beer over her shoulder.
She wisely forbore to point out that he was scuffing the paint-work. 'I'm with the private party,' she reminded him with a reproachful pout. 'I went out for more drinks?' Her plaintive upward lilt encouraged his tiny brain to make the connection. 'Oh, yeah, that was you,' he grunted, lowering his leg with a heavy thud. 'So what took you so long?'
She imagined pouring the bottle over his dreadlocked head and gave him a dazzling smile. 'There was big a queue for the toilet.'
'Huh?'His eyebrows crawled like hairy caterpillars across his jutting forehead. 'OhI get it,' he said, his beady eyes lightening with an evil grin. 'Did you bring enough for me?'
Oh, God, he thought she was talking about drugs! she realised, her smile dimming. 'Sorrymaybe next trip,' she blurted recklessly, sashaying towards the solid, wood-sheathed metal door at the far end of the hall.
'Have fun! I know Mikey is big into girl-on-girl when he's hammered!' His meaty chuckle made her skin shrink as she levered open the door-handle with her elbow and slipped inside.
There were no speakers installed here, and the sounds of the party barely penetrated the thick walls and heavy door of the opulently furnished 'safe' room.
Her eyes flew immediately to the polished side table against the wall opposite the white leather couch. The blue and white porcelain 'pilgrim' flask was still there, small and unobtrusive, its delicate beauty quite beneath the notice of the other four occupants of the lamp-lit room.
Thank goodness it hadn't been placed in one of the glass-fronted cabinets that lined the room, she thought as she crossed to the man lolling on the couch.
Emily knew he was thirty but Michael Webber'Mikey' to his less salubrious friendslooked at least a decade younger, his thin face almost formless in its lack of character. He accepted the drink she handed him with a foolish grin and an unsteady hand.
'Sorry you had to wait but it's a madhouse out there,' she murmured.
'No worries, babe ' he drawled, snagging the bottle as well, and Emily saw that there were indeed none as far as he was concerned; beneath his floppy fringe his eyes were at half-mast, revealing the tell-tale pinpoint narrowness of his pupils. He had merely been on a drunken high when she'd left, but now he was skimming the edge of the stratosphere. Emily glanced at the chief suspect, the shrink-wrapped, bleached blonde sitting on his lap, who glared her defiance and beckoned for the remaining glass with long red talons.
'I'll take that,' she said, gloating over Emily's demotion to mere waitress.
Mickey made a slightly incoherent toast to the girl in his lap, and the redhead and brunette snuggled up on either side of himthe little entourage he had collected along his meandering tour, and whom he had been cruelly playing off against each other all evening. Typically, he appeared not to remember any of their names, but addressed them all as 'babe'. Emily's opinion of him sank even lower as he topped up all their glasses and urged: 'Bottoms up, girlsliterally I hope!'
They all giggled madly at that, except Emily, who realised that the drug-taking session in her absence had rendered her the outsider of the group. At the moment they were all ignoring her, giving her the message that she was superfluous to their fun and games, but she didn't know how long she could trust that to last. At least she could be confident that none of them was in any condition to be reliable witnesses if anything went wrong.
Conscious that she still had to stay in character, Emily put on a sulky expression and flounced over to the handbag she had left tucked safely out of sight behind a boxy white armchair. She made a big production of her annoyance as she carefully delved, muttering, into the stygian depths of the stiff-sided, black leather bag. By the time she had produced a cheap lipstick and mirrored compact, Mickey had embarked on one of his long, rambling, pointless stories and the three women were twining around him like snakes. Emily moved closer to the table with the flask, ostensibly to take advantage of the better lighting focused on the monochromatic modern canvas on the wall.
Blocking the view from the couch with her back, she lowered her open handbag to the level of the polished surface. Her heart skipping, she reached in and removed the lid of the rigid brown box wedged into the centre of her bag with a thick padding of bubble wrap. Her nerves were jumping but she was proud to see that her hand was as steady as a rock. Used to handling very fine and fragile objects, her slender fingers skilfully peeled back the layers of acid-free tissue paper and lifted the small blue and white flask out of its soft nest of expanded polystyrene.
With a smooth action she had practised over and over in her studio at home, she placed the arched flask onto the table top with delicate precision and almost simultaneously scooped up the one that had been standing there. It was small enough to fit in the palm of her hand, but conscious of the stickiness on her skin she held it only with the tips of her fingers. With a frisson, her sharp, professional eye found and traced the barely detectable line that indicated a poorly repaired break. It was already starting to discolour and in time would become obvious even to the uninitiated. Anger momentarily blotted out her sense of self-preservation as she stared down at the evidence of her betrayal.
Jolted back to awareness by a brief hush behind her, she quickly lowered the flask into the lined box in her bag, glancing sideways to encounter a familiar pair of coldly condemning blue eyes watching her from the open doorway, directly in line with her position.
Dismay froze her face while her fingers continued to work blindly, refolding the protective layer of tissue over the porcelain and guiding the lid back onto the box. She saw the elegant stranger's grim gaze shift from the flask on the table to her hand as it withdrew from the depths of her bag, innocently clutching the plastic compact and shiny lipstick case.
How long had he been standing there, and how much had he actually seen? Had those arctic eyes watched the whole, sly exchange, or had he just arrived to catch the tail-end of her furtive movements?
Unfortunately he looked as sober as a judge and twice as censorious, but then, as Emily well knewappearances could be deceptive. She put him at about thirty, nearly a decade older than herself, but his pale, angular features were stamped with more than an extra decade's worth of arrogance.
Was he really as stern and stuffy as his flinty face and austere formality would suggest? If so, what was he doing at a party like this in the first place?
The panicked questions tumbled through Emily's mind as she forced herself to click the incriminating bag closed, open her compact and start applying the garish, blood-red lipstick with feigned self-absorption.
Bracing herself for his ringing denunciation, she held her breath as he stepped into the room, and glanced over to see the grinning Neanderthal in the hall behind him, tucking a red banknote into his jeans pocket as he backed away from the self-closing door.
A hundred-dollar bribe?
Oh, God, thought Emily, this cannot be good!
She hurriedly finished glossing her mouth, rolling her lips together to disguise the slightly ragged outline where her hand had begun a betraying tremble.
Nerves shredding, she checked the intruder out through her heavy lashes as she dropped the make-up into the side-pocket of her bag and settled the strap securely over her shoulder. Sure enough, her humming instincts were righthe was still watching her with a chiselled frown, suspicion and disapproval oozing from every arrogant pore. But at least he wasn't pointing an accusing finger.
Perhaps he hadn't seen anything after all. Perhaps he didn't realise she was as guilty as sin, and his reaction was purely a hangover from their previous encounter. He had dismissed her as beneath his notice then perhaps he could be goaded into doing it again.
Recklessly she lifted her head and took the offensive, staring openly back at him and forming her ultra-shiny red mouth into a slow, extravagant mockery of an air-kiss.
Then, swinging her hips, she sashayed over to him and flipped a derisive finger at his fastidious black tie.
'A little overdressed for our private orgy, aren't you?' she taunted huskily.
He caught her finger in a controlled grip, and slowly forced it back down to her side. A wicked thrill ripped through her body at his commmanding touch and she felt him stiffen, a tiny blue flame flickering in the iceberg eyes.
She leaned closer, until the tips of her breasts brushed his jacket, and added the final insult: 'Or did you just pay to watch?'
Later she would shudder at the foolish risk she had taken, but her bold tactics worked. The ice-floes moved back in and smothered the spark of fire.
'I don't consider sex a spectator sport,' he said bluntly, in a voice like sharpened flint. 'Nor is it something I pay for. So, if you'll excuse me, I have a few questions for your gracious host, and then I'll leave you to it.'
And with that sarcastic little jab he walked around her to start a low-pitched conversation with a befuddled and increasingly defensive-looking Mikey.
Emily was free!
Free to walk out of the room, out of the house, and out of a world of trouble.