Read an Excerpt
'Darling! You'll never believe who I've bagged for you!'
Imogen's voice came gushing down the line. Alexa, the receiver crooked under her ear, concentrated on catching the sheen on a petal that was proving tricky.
'Alexa? Are you there? Did you hear what I said? You'll never believe who'
Alexa, who knew that Imogen could no more be halted in full flight than she herself could be dragged to the phone when she was painting by anyone other than her friend and business manager, interrupted.
'Who?' She knew Imogen was dying to be asked, so she could give the dramatic answer she was clearly bursting to give.
'He's absolutely devastating!' gushed Imogen. 'A million, zillion miles from any of the usual boring old suits.'
An extravagant sigh wafted down the line. Alexa wondered what Imogen was on about, then went back to working on the petal. She was dimly aware that Imogen was still in full flow, but didn't pay attention. Imogen loved to gush, and Alexa let her get on with it while she focussed on what was important at the moment.
Finally there was silence on the line.
'So?' came Imogen's prompt a moment later. 'Are you over the moon or what?'
Alexa frowned absently. 'What?'
An exasperated sign came into her ear. 'Darling, do pay attention! Put the paintbrush down and listen for two minutes. Even you are going to be impressed, I promise. Guy de Rochement phoned. Well,' Imogen temporised, 'not him personally, of course, but his London PA.' She paused. 'So, tell me you're impressed. Tell me' her voice changed and adopted a husky timbre 'you're quivering all down your insides.'
Alexa, her paintbrush reduced to hovering over the canvas, intensified her slight frown.
'Quivering?' she echoed. 'What for?'
The exasperated sigh came again. 'Oh, really, Alexa, don't do that Little Miss Supercool with me! I'm not a bloke. And don't even think you'll be able to get away with it with Guy de Rochement. Not even you could do that. He'll have you swooning just like the rest of the female population.'
Alexa's brow furrowed. 'Am I supposed to know who this guy is?'
Imogen gave a trill of laughter. 'Darlinga pun! His name is Guy in English, but of course he's Frenchwell, mostlyso it's pronounced with a long "ee". Guy' She gave it a Gallic slant. 'Sounds so much sexier ' She gave another gusty sigh.
Alexa cut to the chase. She hadn't a clue what was going on, and didn't want any more of her time wasted.
'Imogenwho is he, why are you being so loopy about it, and what are you trying to tell me anyway?'
Imogen sounded more disbelieving than indignant. 'Don't tell me you've never heard of Guy de Rochement?
He's just all over the celeb mags! Only the posh ones, mind you! He's a triple-A-lister. Total class!'
'I don't read magazines like that,' replied Alexa. 'They're all rubbish.'
'Ooh, look at you. Hoity-toity!' shot back Imogen in mock admonition. 'Well, if you did sully your pure artistic soul with such guff you'd know who I was talking about and why. Listen, even at your elevated heights I take it you've heard of Rochement-Lorenz?'
Recognitionnot strong, but there all the samewas dredged into Alexa's forebrain. 'Mega-rich bankers all over the place and going way back into history?'
'That's them!' Imogen trilled. 'One of the uber-dynas-ties across the Channel. Utterly rolling in it. Made pots of money in every country in Europe for the last two hundred years,' she reeled off. 'Just about financed the Industrial Revolution and bankrolled merchant fleets to every far-flung colony. They're so seriously into money and survival they even made it pretty much intact through the last centuryboth the World Wars, not to mention the Cold Warprobably because they had family on every side going. And now they are riding higher than ever, despite the recession. And a lot of that is due to Guy de Rochement. He's the whiz-kid that's propelled the bank into the twenty-first century, and the whole vast clan just slobbers all over him because he's raking in the loot for them.
Her voice changed, adopting that husky tone again. 'Mind you, I'd take a punt it's the females in the family that do the most slobbering. Just like the females outside the family! I was practically salivating down the phone, and I was only speaking to his PA.'
Alexa cut to the chase again. Imogen was clearly bowled over by this Guy guy, whoever he was, and Alexa had certainly never heard of him.
'So what's the deal, Immie?' she asked.
'The deal, darling, is that he's interested in being painted by you!' cooed Imogen dramatically. 'And if he goes for it you'll be made, my sweet. No more dull old suits and cigars. You'll be able to take your pick of the A-listersthe really fab ones, up in the stratosphere. They're all as vain as peacocks, and they'll just snap you up. You'll be rolling in it!'
Alexa made a wry little face to herself. The whole portraiture kick had been Imogen's idea. When they'd both emerged from art college several years ago, her fellow student and friend had announced straight away that she was never going to be good enough to make anything out of art, and she was going to go into commercial management.
'And you'll be first on my books!' she'd informed Alexa gaily. 'I'll make you pots of money, see if I don't. No starving in garrets eating the acrylics for you, I promise!'
'I'm not really very interested in making money out of art,' Alexa had temporised.
'Yes, well,' Imogen had retorted, and Alexa knew there had been a touch of condemnation in her voice, 'not all of us can afford to be so high-minded.'
Then, immediately seeing the flash of pain in Alexa's eyes, she'd backtracked, hugging her friend.
'I'm sorry. My mouth sometimes Forgive me?'
She'd been contrite, honestly so, and Alexa had nodded, hugging her back.
Imogen's familylarge and rambling and open-heartedhad taken Alexa in, literally, during that first terrible term at art school, when Alexa's parents had been killed in a plane crash while coming back from holiday. Imogen and her family had got her through that nightmare time, giving her a refuge in her stricken grief, as well as helping her with all the practical fall-out from their deaths, which had included sorting out the best thing to do with what she had inherited. It was not vast riches by any means, but prudently invested it had provided Alexa with enough to buy a flat, pay her student fees and living expenses, and yield a small but sufficient income that meant she would have the luxury of not having to rely exclusively on her artistic career to live.
Even so, Imogen was dead set on turning her friend into a high-flyer in the art world.
'With your fantastic looks it's a dead cert!' she'd enthused.
'I thought it was whether I was any good or not,' Alexa had replied dryly.
'Yeah, right. That as well, OK. But come onwe know what makes the world go round, and good-looks definitely make it spin in your direction. You're a PR dream!'
But Alexa had been adamant. Something flash and showy and insubstantial in artistic terms was not what she was after. What it was exactly that she wanted, though, she was less sure. She enjoyed most media, most styles, was eclectic in her approach, and got completely absorbed in whatever she was doing. But then she got equally absorbed even if her next project was quite different. There was no clear artistic way forward for her.
Which was why, she knew, she had let Imogen have her head when she'd told her that she had a clear flair for portraitureAlexa had painted Imogen's family to say thank-you for their kindness to herand it would be a criminal shame to waste it. So when, out of her myriad contacts, Imogen had wangled a couple of commissions, Alexa had gone along with her friend's ambitions for her. And now, four years later, it had paid off handsomelyat least in financial terms.
It seemed she did indeed have a flair for portraiture, for she had a generosity of spirit that enabled her to depict her sitters in ways that, whilst truthful, tended to show them in their best light. Considering that as Imogen moved her remorselessly up the fee scale her sitters became increasingly corpulent and middle-aged, that was no mean achievement. Yet, whatever her clients' unprepossessing exterior, Alexa found she enjoyed depicting the incisive intelligence, shrewdness, or sheer force of character that had got them where they were: to the upper reaches of the corporate ladder.
Which was why she was less than impressed at the prospect of having Guy de Rochement as a sitter. From what Imogen said he sounded no better than some kind of flash celebrity playboy, inheriting bucketloads and now merely swanning around the world making yet more. He would, she darkly surmised, be spoilt, conceited and full of himselfjust because he was the scion of such a famous banking house.
Her thoughts darkened even more, recalling Imogen's drooling. And just because he happened to have a reputation for being sexy.
Alexa's mouth tightened. Rich, conceited and sexy. Great. He sounded like a royal pain in the proverbial.
Her opinion to that effect was only strengthened some days later when, Imogen having beavered away like crazy to set it up, Alexa's initial appointment with the fabled Guy de Rochemont was cancelled by phone at the last moment. The glacially indifferent PA's dismissive tone clearly told Alexa she was considered something little better than a miniondoubtless one of hundreds who waited on Guy de Rochemont's plutocratic convenience.
Automatically Alexa felt her hackles rise. So, when Imogen phoned her two hours later to ask breathlessly, 'Well, how did it go? Is he even more gorgeous in the flesh than in photos?' Alexa was icy.
'I have no idea. I was cancelled,' she said simply.
Imogen's reaction was immediately to temporise. 'Oh, darling, he's terribly, terribly busyalways flying off at the drop of a hat. And his PA's a cow anyway. So when have you rearranged for?'
'I neither know nor care,' was Alexa's terse reply.
Imogen wailed. 'Honestly, if you just knew how hard I'd worked to get you set up there! Hey-hoI'll just have to suck up to the bovine PA and get another meeting sorted.'
She was back ten minutes later, cock-a-hoop. 'Jackpot! He's dining at Le Mireille tomorrow evening, and has agreed to meet you in the bar at seven forty-five beforehand.' She gave a trill of glee. 'Ooh, it's almost like a date!' she gushed. 'I wonder if he'll fall for your gorgeous English rose looks and be smitten in a coup de foudre? You must make sure you're looking absolutely stunning!'
Fortunately for her friend's blood pressure, Alexa made sure Imogen did not see her before she set off, with deep reluctance, to the ultra-fashionable watering hole the next evening. The moment she walked in she was extremely glad she had chosen to wear what she had. Every female there was in a number that screamed Look at me! By contrast, Alexa knew that her grey blouse and grey pencil skirt, with grey low-heeled shoes and matching bag, together with no make-up and hair repressed into a tight, businesslike bun, was designed to minimise her looks.
She gave her nameand that of the man she was due to meetto the snooty-looking greeter inside the entrance. The woman's eyebrows lifted palpably as Alexa said Guy de Rochemont's name, and cast a sceptical glance over her unassuming appearance. Nevertheless she despatched a minion into the hallowed interior of the premises, where only the select few were permitted. The look of scepticism increased when the minion returned with a nod to indicate that, unlikely as it was, someone as dull looking as Alexa was of the slightest interest to such a man as Guy de Rochemont.
'It's a business appointment,' she said crisply, and then wished she hadn'tbecause why on earth did she care what a snooty greeter in a place like this thought one way or the other?
As she was led into the bar areaalready crowded and filled with people noisily sounding off about themselves her mouth tightened. This was not a place she'd have spent a single penny, even if she'd had the hundreds it required to dine here. It was showy, flash and superficial.
Was that what her prospective sitter was going to be like? Briefly she flicked her eyes around, looking for someone who might look like the way Imogen had so gushingly described him. There were certainly plenty of candidates. If egos had mass, the collective weight of self-regard in the room could have sunk the Titanic, Alexa thought waspishly. And doubtless Guy de Rochemont's ego would be a prime contributor. So which one was he? It could be any of them, Alexa acknowledged, for all the men looked sleek, rich, and unswervingly pleased with their own existence.
'M'sieu de Rochemont?'
The minion had halted, and the rest of what he said disappeared into French too fast for Alexa to follow. It was addressed to someone sitting at a low table. She could only see his back, shadowed by the minion's body. As the minion spoke to him he nodded briefly, and the minion beckoned her forward. She walked stiffly up to the unoccupied chair on the far side of the table, and sat down without waiting for either invitation or instruction.
'Good evening,' she said, her voice workmanlike, busying herself setting down her handbag. Then she lifted her eyes to the man seated opposite.
Could you hear the sound of a jaw dropping? she wondered, with some fragment of her brain that still functioned outside the complete fuzz that was suddenly her sole consciousness. Then another thought gelled. Oh, hell, Imogen was right
Because, like it or not, whatever her scepticism had been, one thing was completely and irrefutably incontrovertible about Guy de Rochemont. He really waswell She flailed about in her brain, trying to find words. Failing. Visual impressions raced through her mindand more. Guy de Rochemont hit places that were far more than visual.
Howshe scrambled for sensehow could a mere arrangement of features common to every human being vary so much in their impact? How was it that a combination of things that everyone else hadeyes, nose, mouthcould be so so
Her eyes skittered over him, taking in everything and anythingthe sculpted face, the slant of his eyebrows, the thin blade of his nose, the finely shaped mouth, the edged line of his jaw, the sable hair that was perfectly framed around his head. She drank him in, unable to do anything else but succumb to the impact.
Dimly she was aware that he had half-risen at her appearance, but had sat back again as she had already sat down, and was now sitting with a kind of lean grace that againshe could viscerally register without conscious assessment, one long leg crossed over the other and arms resting on the curving contour of the tub chair, relaxed and completely at ease with himself.