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South of France, 1975
'Pickings,' Denys Vernon said with immense satisfaction. 'And very rich pickings by the look of it.'
Stifling a sigh, Joanna put down the tartine she was buttering, and followed her father's gaze to the new yacht that had appeared overnight in the bay below the Hotel St Gregoire.
It was certainly large and extremely opulent, effortlessly diminishing the lesser craft anchored nearby. A floating palace, she thought, of gleaming white paint and chrome. Very swish. And suddenly there. Out of nowhere.
'A wealthy sheikh, perhaps.' Denys continued his musings aloud. 'Or even foreign royalty.'
'Or merely someone sheltering from last night's storm,' Joanna suggested more practically. She paused. 'And, speaking of storms, the manager stopped me last night and asked when our bill would be settled. And he wasn't smiling.'
'Infernal bloody cheek,' Denys snorted. 'Gaston Levaux is becoming obsessive about cash. If he's not careful, the whole place will become insufferably bourgeois.'
'Just because he wants to be paid?' Joanna asked mildly. 'I thought making money was our sole reason for being here, too.' She gave him a level look. 'And the fact that we haven't been doing so well lately must have been reported back to the office.'
'I'm still ahead of the game,' Denys said sharply. 'All I need is one good night.' His eyes strayed back to the yacht. 'And one wealthy idiot who thinks he can play poker.'
'And maybe Monsieur Levaux is concerned about his job,' Joanna continued reflectively. 'People are saying openly that the entire BelCote chain is being sold off. He won't want any bad debts on his books when the new owners take over.'
'Well, I'm sure he doesn't need your concern.' Denys looked her over. 'I think you should visit the hotel boutique, my pet. Buy a new dress as a demonstration of good faith.' He nodded. 'Something short and not too sweet to show off your tan.'
'Dad, I have plenty of clothes.' Joanna spoke with a touch of weariness. 'Besides, we have no money to waste on empty gestures.'
'Not waste, darling. Investment. And please keep your voice down when you call methat,' he added irritably. 'Someone might hear.'
'And draw the correct conclusion that I'm actually your daughter instead of your supposed niece?' She shook her head. 'How long can we keep this farce going?'
And, in particular, how long before you grow up? she wondered in unhappy silence as her father's mouth tightened petulantly. Before you acknowledge that you haven't been forty for some time. That your hair is only blond because it's tinted, and you're not wrinkled because you've had an expensive facelift.
'It's working very well. For one thing, it explains the same surname on our passports,' Denys retorted. 'And, as I told you at the outset, it doesn't suit my image to have a daughter who's nearly nineteen.'
And it doesn't suit me at all, Joanna thought bitterly. How long will it be before I can have a real lifethe life I once planned?
Teaching languages had been her aim. She'd been studying for her A levels prior to university when her mother had been taken suddenly ill, and diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Two months later she was dead, and Joanna's relatively stable existence up to that point ended, too.
Denys, summoned home from America as soon as his wife's condition became known, had been genuinely grief-stricken. It had been his inability to settle rather than any lack of caring that had kept them apart for so much of their married life. Gail Vernon wanted a permanent home for her only child. Denys needed to gamble much as he needed to draw breath.
However, he was a generous if erratic provider, and, to Joanna, he had seemed an almost god-like being, suntanned and handsome, whenever he returned to the UK. A dispenser of laughter and largesse, she thought, his cases stuffed with scent, jewellery and other exotic gifts as well as the elegant clothes he had made for him in the Far East.
'If he ever gets stopped at Customs, he'll end up in jail,' his older brother Martin had muttered.
Yet, somehow, it had never happened. And perhaps Uncle Martin had been right when he also said Denys had the devil's own luck. But lately that luck had not been much in evidence. He'd sustained some heavy losses, and his recoveries had not been as positive as they needed to be.
He was invariably cagey about the exact state of their finances, and Joanna's attempts to discover how they stood had never been successful.
'Everything's fine, my pet,' was his usual airy reply. 'Stop worrying your pretty head and smile.'
A response that had Joanna grinding her teeth. As so much did these days.
At the beginning, of course, it had all seemed like a great adventure. The last thing she'd expected was to be taken out of school and whisked off abroad to share her father's peripatetic lifestyle, travelling from one gambling centre to another as the mood took him.
Uncle Martin and Aunt Sylvie had protested vociferously, saying that she could make a home with them while she finished her education, but Denys had been adamant.
'She's all I have left,' he'd repeated over and over again. 'All that remains of her mother. Can't you understand that I need her with me?' he'd added. 'Besides, a change of scene will be good for her. Get her away from all these painful memories of my lovely Gail.'
With hindsight, Joanna wondered rather sadly if he'd have been so set on her company if she'd still been the quiet, shy child with braces on her teeth. Instead, she'd soared into slender, long-legged womanhood, her chestnut hair falling in a silken swathe to her waist, and green eyes that seemed to ask what the world had to offer.
Which, at first, seemed to be a great deal. The travelling, the hotel suites, the super-charged atmosphere of the casinos had been immensely exciting for an almost eighteen-year-old.
Even the shock when she learned that Denys wasn't prepared to acknowledge their real relationship hadn't detracted too much from the appeal of their nomadic existence. Or not immediately.
She'd realised quite soon that women of all ages found her father attractive, and tried, without much success, not to let it bother her. But while Denys was charming, flattering and grateful, he was determined to make it clear that it would go no further than that.
'I need you to be my shieldkeeping my admirers at a distance,' he'd told her seriously. His tone had become wheedling. 'Treat it as part of the game, darling. Mummy always told me how good you were in your school plays. Now's your chance to show me how well you can really act.'
But why were you never there to see for yourself? Joanna wanted to ask, but didn't, because her father was continuing.
'All you have to do, my pet, is stick close to me, smile and say as little as possible.'
On the whole, Joanna thought she'd managed pretty well, even when the leering looks and muttered remarks from many of the men she encountered made her want to run away and hide.
The mother of Jackie, her best friend at school, had become involved in the women's movement, and held consciousness-raising sessions at her house. The iniquity of women being regarded as sex objects by men, had been among the favourite themes at those meetings, and while she and Jackie had giggled about it afterwards, Joanna now thought ruefully that Mrs Henderson might have had a point.
Eventually, it had all ceased to be a game, and she'd begun to see her new life for the tawdry sham it really was, and be troubled by it. Realising at the same time that there was no feasible way out. That, for the time being, she was trapped.
Denys was speaking again, his voice excited. 'I'm going to start making enquiries. Find out who the new arrival is, and if he's likely to visit the Casino.' He gave her a minatory nod. 'I'll see you back here after lunch.'
Here we go again, Joanna thought with a sigh as she heard the suite door close behind him. Looking for a non-existent pot of gold at the end of a dodgy rainbow.
'All I need is one big win.' She had lost count of how many times her father had said this over the past months.
And she sent up a silent prayer to the god of gamblers that the unknown owner would stay safely aboard his yacht for the duration. Although that, of course, would not help with the looming threat of the hotel bill.
She stayed on the balcony for a while, drinking another cup of coffee and enjoying the sunlit freshness of the morning after the unexpected heavy rain with thunder, lightning and squally winds of the previous night. But she was still unable to fully relax, not while the question of how long they could go on living like this continued to haunt her.
'You're my little mascot,' Denys had told her jubilantly in the early days, but she hadn't brought him much luck recently.
I shall have to start avoiding the front desk and use the staff entrance in the daytime, too, instead of just the evenings, she thought wryly as she pushed back her chair and went through the sliding glass doors into the sitting room.
The chambermaids were due soon, and she had to make sure that all signs of her nightly occupation of the sofa were removed from their eagle-eyed scrutiny.
It seemed a long time since their budget had been able to run to a suite with two bedrooms, and while she didn't begrudge her father his comfortable night's sleep, quite understanding that he needed to wake completely refreshed in order to keep his wits sharp, nevertheless she missed the peace and privacy which the sitting room could not provide.
When she was sure all was as it should be, she packed sun oil, her coin purse and a paperback book into her raffia bag, together with two leftover rolls from breakfast wrapped in tissues to provide her with a makeshift lunch.
She pinned her hair up into a loose knot, covering it with a wide-brimmed straw hat, then pulled a white cheesecloth tunic over her turquoise bikini, donned her sunglasses and picked up her towel. Thus camouflaged, she set off down to the swimming pool.
Few people, if any, recognised her in the daytime. Wearing espadrilles instead of the platform-soled high heels that Denys insisted on took at least a couple of inches from her height, and with her hair hidden, her face scrubbed clean of its evening make-up, and wearing a modestly cut bikini, she attracted little attention even from men who'd been sending her openly amorous looks the night before.
The St Gregoire charged a hefty number of francs for the hire of its loungers on the paved sun terraces, so Joanna invariably chose instead to spread her towel on one of the lawns encircling the pool, a practice not forbidden, but muttered at by the man who came to collect the money from the paying guests.
Ignore him, Joanna told herself, rubbing oil into her exposed skin already tanned a judicious golden brown. And try to pretend the grass isn't damp while you're about it.
She turned on to her stomach, and retrieved the book she'd found in a second-hand store just before they'd left for France, a former prize-winning detective story by a British author called P. D. James, which had attracted Joanna because its title, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, seemed to sum up her current situation.
Maybe I could become a private investigator, she mused, finding her place in the story. Except I don't have someone likely to die and leave me a detective agency.
A more likely scenario, if things went badly wrong this time, was a swift return to the UK and a job for Denys in Uncle Martin's light engineering works. It had been offered before, prompted, Joanna suspected, by her uncle's very real concern for her future. Although he'd had plenty of troubles of his own in the past few years with the imposition of the three-day week, strikes and constant power cuts to contend with.
But her father had replied, as always, that it would kill him to be tied to a desk, and he had to be a free spirit, although Joanna could see no freedom in having bills you were unable to pay. One day, she thought, he might have to bite on the bullet and accept Uncle Martin's offer.
And for me, a secretarial course, I suppose, she mused resignedly. But I'd settle for that, if it meant a normal life. And not being lonely any more. I'm just not the adventurous type, and I only wish I'd realised that much sooner.
It wasn't really possible to make friends when they were so often on the move, but other girls tended to steer clear anyway. And apart from one occasion in Australia, which she'd tried hard to forget, she'd been left severely alone by young men, too.
She stopped herself on the point of another sigh. Forget the self-pity, she adjured herself, and find out how private investigator Cordelia Gray is going to solve her first solo case.
At that moment, she heard her name called, and turned to see Julie Phillips approaching across the grass.
Joanna sat up smiling. 'Hi, there.' She looked around. 'What have you done with Matthew?'
'Chris has taken him down to the village.' Julie sat down beside her, shading her eyes from the sun. 'He wanted to buy something for his mother from that little pottery shop.' She sighed. 'I can hardly believe our week is up. And, would you believe, we're almost sorry to be going home. For which we have you to thank, of course.'
'That's nonsense,' Joanna said roundly. 'It was just lucky I happened to be at the desk that day, and was able to help.'
She'd been waiting to buy some stamps when she'd overheard the clearly distressed young couple protesting to an unsympathetic desk clerk about the hotel's policy of barring babies and young children from the restaurant after seven p.m.
As their French was clearly minimal, she'd helped translate for them, even though their objections were ultimately met with a shrug of complete indifference.
They'd adjourned to the terrace bar for coffee, where Joanna had learned they'd won their South of France holiday in a magazine competition, but their intended destination had been a three-star hotel in the BelCote chain.
A fire had resulted in a grudging upgrade to the St Gregoire.
'But we felt from the moment we got here yesterday that they didn't really want us.' Julie had said. 'They made a fuss about putting a cot in the bungalow, told us there was no babysitting service, then dropped the bombshell about the restaurant. If we wanted to eat there, we had to have the special children's supper at six.'
She'd sighed. 'We're just so disappointed with it all. It isn't a bit as we'd hoped. Now we feel we simply want to go home.'