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Perdita guessed who was here as soon as she heard the frenzied knock on her door. Sure enough, it was Jim, a nice young man who considered himself her boyfriend, standing there, agitated.
'Perdita, you can't do this to me. It's not fair.'
'Hush, don't shout. Come inside.'
He came rushing in and threw himself onto the sofa, growling, 'How do you expect me to feel when I've been looking forward to our time together and you dump me?' He held up his cellphone. 'By text, for Pete's sake!'
'I didn't dump you, I just said I can't get away for our little trip next week. Something's come up. I'm sorry, Jim. I'll make it up to you another time.'
She spoke sweetly but Jim wasn't placated. Perdita Davis was a little too good at this, winning a man's heart, backing off then soothing him with a beguiling smile.
She could get away with it because she was gorgeous, with long blonde hair, devastating blue eyes, a figure slender enough for the most demanding clothes and a lot of impish charm. That was the trouble, he thought crossly. She knew exactly how far she could go.
'I have to dash off soon,' she said. 'There's a story coming up that I just can't miss.'
Perdita was a freelance journalist with a talent for discovering scoops and exploiting them to the full.
'So where is this earth-shattering story?' Jim seethed.
'Paris. I've just booked my room at La Cou-ronne.'
'That's the most expensive hotel in Paris.'
'I know. I managed to get the very last room. It's been filling up fast since the rumours started.'
'The wedding. Marcel Falcon is getting married in a few days.'
'And who the blazes is Marcel Falcon?'
'He's the owner of La Couronne, but that's not the point. His half-brother is Travis Falcon. You must have heard of him, surely?'
'Sure. Big TV star.'
'He's been in the news a lot recently because of this new woman in his life. Apparently she's not like the slinky, sexy "bits of fun" he's usually seen with. She's actually respectable, and everyone's dying to see how it will turn out. My contact in Paris says Travis will be at the wedding, and she'll be with him. I've simply got to be there and get close enough to see them together. Plus, of course, all the others.' 'What others?'
'The rest of the Falcon family. The father is Amos Falcon, a big noise in financial circles. He'll almost certainly be in Paris. And so will his other sons.'
'How many has he got?'
'Five. By four different mothers. There's Darius, who's English and also a big noise financially. His brother Jackson, who does those television documentaries. Marcel, who's French, Travis, who's American, and Leonid, Russian.'
'All those nationalities? Amos Falcon gets around, doesn't he?'
'He did once. He's in his seventies now and he lives in Monaco with his most recent wife. He seems respectable but I'll bet he isn't really. The leopard doesn't change its spots.'
'But the place will be bulging with press. Why bother when you'll just be one of a crowd?'
She gave him an ironic glance which told him exactly what he could do with that idea. Perdita was never simply one of a crowd.
'They're not marrying in a public church,' she said. 'La Couronne has its own chapel, so they can control who gets in. The press will be kept at a distance. That's why I need to be in the hotel as a guest. If I play my cards right I might even get invited to the wedding.'
Jim gave a hoot of laughter. 'In your dreams! You might contrive to sneak in, but even you couldn't manage to get invited.'
'No, I guess you could do it if anyone could. You know, one day you'll meet a guy who'll play you at your own game.'
'Nobody knows what my game is,' she pointed out, all wide-eyed innocence.
'He will. Then you'll be sorry.'
'Maybe. Or maybe I'll end up enjoying it. The more of a battle there is, the more fun it is to win.'
She'd said everything, Jim realised. Whoever could beat her at her own game, it wouldn't be himself. She'd told him that, kindly but finally.
'What time's your flight?' he asked.
'Three hours. I was just about to call a taxi.'
'No need. I'll take you to the airport.'
'Oh Jim, that's so nice of you. How can any man be so sweet and forgiving?'
Good question, he thought wryly. Despite being aggrieved at how little he mattered to her, he still found himself eager to serve her.
But that was Perdita, he sighed. She could have that effect on a man.
He carried her bags down to the car, made sure she was comfortable, and headed for the airport.
'If this wedding's being kept under wraps, how come you found out?' he asked when they were halfway there.
'I got a tip-off from someone who owed me a favour.'
He should have known. That too was Perdi-ta's way. There was always someone who owed her a favour.
At the airport he saw her to Check-In and was rewarded by a peck on the cheek.
'Thank you, Jim dear. I'll be in touch.'
But she didn't say when, he noticed. She would have forgotten him by the time she was in her seat.
Here he did Perdita an injustice. She was sorry to have hurt Jim, however unintentionally, and thought about him until the plane was in the air. Only then did she turn her mind to the job she was about to do.
It was nearly midnight when they reached Charles de Gaulle Airport, and she emerged from Customs to find a middle-aged woman waiting for her. This was Hortense, a French businesswoman with extensive contacts. She and Perdita liked each other, and also had a flourishing business relationship based on the exchange of favours. After enthusiastic greetings they headed for the car.
'I don't know how to thank you,' Perdita said as they made their way towards Paris.
'No need. I owed you. It was just a lucky chance. The company I work for is organising the wedding.'
'Why is it all being done so hurriedly?'
'Rumour says Marcel is afraid of losing Cassie. When she agreed to marry him he moved fast before she could change her mind.'
'What about the family?'
'They should be here tomorrow. Travis from Los Angeles, Darius and Jackson from England. Perhaps even Leonid from Russia. He's got a room booked but nobody's sure if he'll actually come. People who know him say he's hard as nails. You cross him at your peril.'
'Hmm. He sounds interesting.'
'Dangerous. If you meet him, be careful.'
'But why? Where's the fun in being careful?'
'Must everything in life be fun?'
'Of course. Fun is good. Fun is creative. Fun puts you in control and catches him on the wrong foot.'
'Him? Who him?'
'And that's important?'
'Oh yes,' Perdita said with a little smile. 'That's very important.'
Hortense made no reply. It could be hard to know just how much of Perdita's lively speech she actually meant.
They had reached the most expensive part of Paris, and soon a magnificent building reared up before them.
'There's La Couronne,' Hortense said.
'Wow! It looks a fabulous place.'
'It was once the home of aristocrats, but the family was wiped out in the French Revolution, and the building went into decline until Marcel bought it. He specialises in grandiose hotels in big cities all over the world, and La Couronne is the best.'
When she'd checked in Hortense accompanied her upstairs to her room, whose luxury made Perdita nod appreciatively.
'It may strain your budget,' Hortense said, 'but it was the last one available, and it's on the same corridor as the Falcons.'
'That's the bit that matters,' Perdita agreed.
They ordered a meal from Room Service and sat munching contentedly.
'Was it difficult to dash off at a moment's notice?' Hortense asked.
'Well, one person wasn't too happy,' Perdita admitted, and told her about Jim.
'But in another way it was handy,' she added. 'I was due to go to my parents tomorrow, for a party to celebrate my cousin Sally's engagement, and it's probably better that I won't be there.'
'Your parents are academics, aren't they? Big names in the world of learning, so I've heard.'
It was true that Professor Angus Hanson was an imposing man whose learning and reputation struck awe into the hearts of those who knew him. His family were equally erudite, occupying high positions in research and education. All except Perdita, his youngest child.
'They've always seen me as the black sheep,' she told Hortense. 'Frivolous, foolish, not caring about serious matters.'
'Why is it better that you're not there?'
'Sally's fiance is a man I used to know, about three years ago. It seemed to be going well for us, but then I got the chance of a big scoop. Someone let slip something. I followed it up and well, it did me a lot of good professionally.'
'Ah yes, I remember hearing about that. It made your reputation as a journalist.'
'But Thomas was horrified. He thought it was all terribly vulgar, and wanted me to abandon my career. When I wouldn't.. well ' She shrugged.
'If he'd loved you he wouldn't have broken your heart for a reason like that,' Hortense said, shocked.
'Who said my heart was broken?' Perdita demanded indignantly. 'With all the chances that were opening up for me, I had other things to think of. Besides, I realised that he didn't love me. He's an academic, and he wanted to join my family for the sake of their standing.'
'So he courted your cousin instead. Yes, it's better you're not at their engagement party.'
Perdita gave a wry smile. 'The only thing academic about me is my name. Apparently when my father discovered that my mother was pregnant yet again he groaned, "Well, I'll go to perdition!"'
'And perdition means hell, doesn't it?' Hortense chuckled.
'That's right. He really wasn't keen on another child. After that, Perdita became the family nickname for me.'
'But it's not really your name, is it?' Hortense said. 'You write your features as Perdita Davis, but I noticed you checked in as Erica Hanson.'
'Yes, that's my real name, but I only use it for official stuff. Erica Hanson keeps her bank account in order, pays her taxes on time and generally behaves properly. Perdita Davis is as foolish and frivolous as a scholarly family ever produced.'
She said this with an air of pleasure, even pride.
'Where does the Davis name come from?'
'The family more or less ordered me not to use Hanson in case people connected me with them and they died of shame,' Perdita said ironically. 'I just plucked Davis out of the air.'
'So they can deny all knowledge of you,' Hortense said, outraged. 'That's pretty nasty of them.'
'They have a serious reputation to keep up,' Perdita said, shrugging. 'You can't really blame them.'
'I can. Reputation nothing! You're a big success but they treat you like an outcast.'
'Oh, I'm not melodramatic about it,' Perdita said. 'It's not really important.'
She spoke lightly to hide the fact that Hortense had hit a nerve. In truth she cared more for her family's attitude than she would admit, and her friend's indignation on her behalf warmed her heart.
'They're probably jealous that you're making your fortune out of it,' Hortense observed. 'Your scoops are fast taking you to the top. Though, let's face it, you do sometimes sail a bit close to the edge.'
'I did at one time,' Perdita agreed. 'But recently I've been a bit less "adventurous". I don't break quite so many rules now. I'm even getting a bit respectable.'
Perdita shrugged. 'Maybe it's my academic background coming out at last. Serious, respectable, upright. How about that?'
'What brought this about?'
'There was a big commotion recently. Have you ever heard of—?' She named a journalist so notorious that his name was known over many countries.
'Yes, wasn't he the one who tricked that woman into talking to him, and it all ended in tragedy?'
'But surely it had nothing to do with you?'
'No, I wasn't involved in any way. But I met him once a few years back, and vaguely admired his tricksy methods. Not now, though. Let's say I've grown up a bit, and it made me think about the road I was travelling.'
'Does that mean strait-laced Erica has taken over completely, and cheeky Perdita no longer exists?'
'Not at all. Perdita's still there, still maddening, still taking chances. But these days she's a bit more careful about how she might affect other people.'
Hortense chuckled. 'Serve you right if you met the man of your dreams and had to choose between your two selves. That would teach you a lesson.'
'I don't have any dreams,' Perdita said cheekily. 'My heart's never been broken and it's never going to be. I've got too many other things to do.'
'Have you no sense of romance?' Hortense demanded indignantly. 'Here you are in Paris, the most romantic city in the world, and you're not entranced the way any other woman would be.'
'When I get my scoop I'll be entranced.'
'I know better than to argue with that. I'll be off to my own room, we have a busy day tomorrow. Goodnight. See you at breakfast.'
When she was alone Perdita went to the window, looking out to where the Eiffel Tower glowed in the distance. Everything in her surroundings was glamorous, and that was just how she liked it. It emphasised the life she wanted and the way she liked to see herself.
She'd told Hortense that her heart had never been broken and it was almost true.
After the riotous success that had made Thomas run from her she'd gone from strength to strength. The life of a freelancer suited her perfectly because it made her the one in charge, choosing her own targets.
Then she'd met Frank, a photographer. They'd worked as a team and she'd fallen in love with him, although these days she denied, it even to herself. But he'd betrayed her, using her talents to get close to a notorious story, then selling his pictures to another journalist who could do more for his career.
After that she'd decided to work alone, taking her own pictures. She'd learned a lot of technique from Frank, so who needed photographers? If it came to that, who needed men?
'Maybe there's something wrong with me, always putting the job first,' she mused. 'But that's the way I am. It's not my fault if I like fun. And fun likes me. Ah well! Time for bed.'