Read an Excerpt
Valentine's Day 2012
Close. Please just close.
A dozen curious eyes followed Georgia Stone into Radio EROS' stylish elevator, craning over computer monitors or sliding on plastic floor mats back into the corridor just slightly, not even trying to disguise their curiosity. She couldn't stand staring at the back of the elevator for ever, so she turned, lifted her chin
and silently begged the doors to close. To put her out of her misery for just a few blessed moments.
Do. Not. Cry.
The numbness of shock was rapidly wearing off and leaving the deep, awful ache of pain behind it. With a humiliation chaser. She'd managed to thank the dumbfounded drive-time announcersGod, she was so Britishbefore stumbling out of their studio, knowing that the radio station's output was broadcast in every office on every floor via a system of loudspeakers.
Hence all the badly disguised glances.
The whole place knew what had just happened to her. Because of her. That their much-lauded Leap Year Valentine's proposal had just gone spectacularly, horribly, excruciatingly, publicly wrong.
She'd asked. Daniel had declined.
As nicely as he could, under the circumstances, but his urgently whispered, "Is this a joke, George?" was still a no whichever way you looked at it and, in case she hadn't got the message, he'd spelled it out.
We weren't heading for marriage. I thought you knew that
Actually no, or she wouldn't have asked.
That's what made our thing so perfect
Oh. Right. That was what made it perfect? She'd known they were drifting in a slow, connected eddy like the leaves in Wakehurst's Black Pond but she'd thought that even drifting eventually got you somewhere. Obviously not.
'For God's sake, will you close?'
She wasn't usually one to talk to inanimate objectseven under her breathbut somehow, on some level, the elevator must have heard her because its shiny chrome doors started to slide together obligingly.
'Hold the lift!' a voice shouted.
She didn't move. Her stomach plunged. Just as they'd nearly closed.
A hand slid into the sliver of space between the doors and curled around one of them, arresting and then reversing its slide. They reopened, long-suffering and apologetic.
'You mustn't have heard me,' the dark-haired man said, throwing her only the briefest and tersest of glances, his lips tight. He turned, faced the front, and permitted them to close this time, giving her a fabulous view of the square cut of the back of his expensive suit.
No, you mustn't have heard me. Making a total idiot of myself in front of all of London. If he had, he'd have given her a much longer look. Something told her everyone would be looking at her for much longer now. Starting with all her and Daniel's workmates.
He looked back over his shoulder. 'Sorry?'
She forced burning eyes to his. If she blinked just once she was going to unleash the tears she could feel jockeying for expression just behind her lids. But she didn't have the heart for speech. She shook her head.
He returned his focus to the front of the elevator. She stared at the lights slowly descending toward 'G' for ground floor. Then at the one marked 'B', below thatthe one he'd pressed.
'Excuse me ' She cleared her throat to reduce the tight choke. He turned again, looked down great cheekbones at her. 'Can you get to the street from B?'
He studied her. Didn't ask what she meant. 'The basement has electronic gate control.'
Her heart sank. So much for hoping to make a subtle getaway. Looked as if the universe really wanted her to pay for today's disaster.
Crowded reception it was, then.
She nodded just once. 'Thank you.'
He didn't turn back around, but his grey eyes narrowed. 'I'll be driving out through the gates. You're welcome to slip out behind me.'
Slip out. Was that just a figure of speech or did he know? 'Thank you. Yes, please.'
He turned back to the front, then, a heartbeat later, he turned back again. 'Step behind me.'
She dragged stinging eyes back up to him. 'What?'
'The door's going to open at Reception first. It will be full of people. I can screen you.'
Suddenly the front-line of the small army of tears waiting for a chance to get out surged forward. She fought them back furiously, totally futile.
Kindness. That was worse than blinking. And it meant that he definitely knew.
But since he was playing pretend-I-don't, she could, too. She stepped to her left just as the doors obediently opened onto the station's reception. Light and noise filled the elevator but she stood, private and protected behind the stranger, his big body as good as a locked door. She sighed. Privacy and someone to protect hertwo things she'd just blown out of her life for good, she suspected.
'Mr Rush ' someone said, out in the foyer. The big man just nodded. 'Alice. Going down?' 'No, up.'
He shrugged. 'I won't be long.'
And the doors closed, leaving just the two of them, again. Georgia sagged and swiped at the single, determined tear that had slipped down her cheek. He didn't turn back around. It took only a moment longer for the elevator to reach the basement. He walked out the moment the doors opened and reached back to hold them wide for her. The frigid outdoor air hit her instantly.
'Thank you,' she repeated and stepped out into the darkened parking floor. She'd left her coat upstairs, hanging on the back of a chair in the studio, but she would gladly freeze rather than set foot in that building ever again.
He didn't make eye contact again. Or smile. 'Wait by the gate,' he simply said and then turned to stride towards a charcoal Jaguar.
She walked a dead straight line towards the exit gate. The fastest, most direct route she could. She only reached it a moment or two before the luxury car. She stood, rubbing her prickling flesh.
He must have activated the gate from inside his vehicle, and the large, steel lattice began to rattle along rollers towards her. He nudged his car forward, lowered his window, and peered out across his empty passenger seat.
She ducked to look at him. For moments. One of them really needed to say something. Might as well be her.
'Thanks again.' For sanctuary in the elevator. For spiriting her away, now.
His eyes darkened and he slid designer sunglasses up onto the bridge of his nose. 'Good luck' was all he said. Then he shifted his Jag into gear and drove forward out of the still-widening gate.
She stared after him.
It seemed an odd thing to say in lieu of goodbye but maybe he knew something she didn't.
Maybe he knew how much she was going to need that luck.
That was the longest elevator ride of Zander's life. Trapped in two square metres of double-thickness steel with a sobbing woman. Except she hadn't been sobbingnot outwardlybut she was hurting inwardly; pain was coming off her in waves. Totally tangible.
The waves had hit him the moment he nudged his way into her elevator, but it was too late, then, to step back and let her go down without him. Not without making her feel worse.
He knew who she was. He just hadn't known it was her standing in the elevator he ran for or he wouldn't have launched himself at the closing doors.
She must have bolted straight from the studio to the exit the moment they threw to the first track out of the Valentine's segment. Lord knew he did; he wanted to get across town to the network head offices before they screamed for him to come in.
Proactive instead of reactive. He never wanted someone higher up his food chain to call him and find him just sitting there waiting for their call. He wouldn't give them the satisfaction. Or the power.
By the time he got across London's peak-hour gridlock he'd have the right spin for the on-air balls-up. Turning a negative into a positive. Oiling the waters. The kind of problem-solving he was famousand em-ployedfor.
The kind of problem-solving he loathed.
He blew out a steady breath and took an orange light just as it was turning red in order to keep moving. None of them had expected the guy to say no. Who said no to a proposal, live on air? You said yes live and then you backed out of it later if it wasn't what you wanted. That was what ninety-five per cent of Londoners would do.
Apparently this guy was Mr Five Per Cent.
Then again, who asked a man to marry her live on radio if she wasn't already confident of the answer? Or maybe she thought she was? She wouldn't be the first to find out she was wrong the hard way.
Empathy curled his fingers tight on the expensive leather of his steering wheel. Who was he to cast stones?
He'd recognised that expression immediately. The one where you'd happily agree for the elevator to plunge eight storeys rather than have to step out and face the world. At least his own humiliation had been limited to just his family and friends.
Just two hundred of his and Lara's nearest and dearest.
Georgia Stone's would be all over the city today and all over the world by tomorrow.
He was counting on it. Though he'd have preferred it not to be on the back of someone's pain and humiliation. He hadn't got that bad yet.
He eased his foot onto the brake as the traffic ground to a halt around him and resisted the urge to lean on his horn.
Not that he imagined a girl like that would suffer for long. Tall and pale and pretty with that tangle of dark, short curls. She'd dressed for her proposalthat was a sweet and unexpected touch in the casual world of radio. Half his on-air staff would come to work in their pyjamas if they had the option. But Georgia Stone had worn a simple, pale pink, thin-strapped dress for the big momentalmost a wedding dress itself. If one got married on a beach in Barbados. Way too light for February so maybe public proposals weren't the only thing the pretty Miss Stone didn't think through?
Or maybe he was just looking for ways that this wasn't his fault.
He'd approved the Valentine's promotion in the first place. And the cheesy 'does your man just need a shove?' angle. But EROS' listeners wereon the wholea fairly cheesy bunch so it had been one of their most successful promotions.
Which had made the lift ride all the more painful.
Something about her pale, wide-eyed courtesy. Even as her heart ruptured quietly in its cavity.
She'd said it four times in half the minutes. As though he were a guy just helping her out instead of the guy that put her in that position in the first place. It was his contract she'd signed. It was his station's promotion she'd put her hand up for.
Her life was now in shreds around her feet but still she thanked him.
That was one well-brought-up young woman. Youngish; he had to have at least fifteen years on her, though it was hard to know. He reached for his dash and activated the voice automation.
'Call the office,' he told his car.
It listened. 'EROS, Home of Great Music, Mr Rush's office. This is Casey, can I help you?'
Christ, he really had to have their company-wide phone greeting shortened.
'It's me,' he announced to his empty vehicle. 'I need you to pull up the contract with the Valentine's girl.'
'Just a tick,' his assistant murmured, not taking offence at his lack of acknowledgement. She knew life was too short for pleasantries. 'OK, got it. What do you need, Zander?'
Her silence said she was scanning the document. 'Twenty-eight.'
OK, so he had nine years on her. And her skin was amazing, then. He would have said twenty-two or -three, max. 'Duration of contract?'
Again a brief pause. 'Twelve months. To conclude with a follow-up next February fourteenth.'
Twelve months of their lives. That was supposed to include engagement party, fully paid wedding, honeymoon. All on EROS. That was the fifty-thousand-pound carrot. Why else would anyone want to make the most private, special moment of their lives so incredibly public?
The carrot was cheap in international broadcast terms, for the kind of global exposure he suspected this promo would get. Even more so now, given it had probably already gone viral. Exposure brought listeners, listeners brought advertisers, and advertisers brought revenue.
Except that follow-up twelve months from now wasn't going to make great radio. At all. His mind went straight to the weakest link.
'Casey, can you send that contract to my phone and then call Rod's assistant and let her know I'm about half an hour away?'
He rang off without a farewell. Life was too short for that as well.
A year was a long time to manufacture content, but if they played their cards right they could salvage something that would last longer than just the next few days. Really make that fifty thousand pounds work for them. He still expected EROS to directly benefit from the viral exposuremaybe even more nowbut that contract locked them in for the next year as much as her.
A black cab cut in close to his bonnet and he gave voice to his frustrationhis guiltfinally leaning on the horn the way he'd been wanting to for twenty minutes.
He spent the second half of his drive across town formulating a plan. So much so that when he walked into his network's headquarters he had it all figured out. A way forward. A way to salvage something of today's mess.
'Zander ' Rod's assistant caught his ear as he breezed past into her boss's office. He paused, turned. 'He has Nigel in there.'
Nigel Westerly. Network owner. That wasn't a good sign. 'Thanks, Claire.'
Suddenly even his salvage plan looked shaky. Nigel Westerly hadn't amassed one of the country's biggest fortunes by being easily led. He was tough. And ruthless.
Zander straightened his back.
Oh, well, if he had to be fired, he'd rather it be by one of the men he admired most in England. He certainly wasn't going to quail and wonder when the axe was going to fall. He pushed open the double doors to his director's office with flair and announced himself.