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The only sound in the room was the clatter of motor drives as tycoon, Rupertjust-call-me-Prince-Charming Henshawe's press conference was hijacked by his fiancée, LucyI-feel-like-CinderellaBright as she tugged off her engagement ring and flung it at him.
Every lens in the room zoomed in on the bright splash of blood where the huge diamond found its mark on Henshawe's cheek.
The gathered press packcity newsmen, financial pundits, television news teamsheld their collective breath.
They'd been summoned to a full dress press conference by the Henshawe Corporation. Whatever Henshawe did was news. Good news if you were one of his shareholders. Bad news if you happened to be on the receiving end of one of his corporate raids. At least until recently.
The news now was all about how he'd changed. How, having met his 'Cinderella', he had been redeemed by love and was no longer Mr Nasty, but had been transformed into Prince Charming.
This was much more like it.
'Why?' Lucy demanded, ignoring the cameras, the mikes, dangled overhead, pushed towards her face. The larger than life-sized images of herself, wearing her own custom-made originals of the Lucy B fashions, being flashed across a screen. All she could see was the man on the podium. 'Why did you do it?'
Stupid question. It was all there in the file she'd found. The one she was never meant to see. All laid out in black and white.
'Lucy! Darling ' Rupert's voice was deceptively soft as, using the power of the microphone in front of him, he drowned out her demand to know why her? 'These are busy people and they've got deadlines to meet. They've come to listen to the plans I've been making, we've been making, for the future of the company,' he stressed. 'Not a domestic tiff.'
His smile was tender, all concern for her. It was familiar, reassuring and even now it would be so easy to be sucked in
'I don't know what's upset you but it's obvious that you're tired. Let Gordon take you home and we'll talk about it later, hmm?'
She had to fight the almost hypnotic softness of his voice. Her own weakness. Her longing for the fairy tale that had overtaken her life, transformed her into a celebrity, to be true.
She had a Lucy B fan page on Facebook, half a million people following her every word on Twitter. She was a modern day Cinderella, whisked from the hearth to a palace, her rags replaced with silken gowns. But Prince Charming's 'bride ball' had been a palace-generated crowd-pleaser, too. There was nothing like a royal wedding to keep the masses happy.
It was exactly the kind of stunt to appeal to some super-smart PR woman with a name to make for herself.
'Talk!' she hurled back as someone obligingly stuck a microphone in front of her, giving her equal voice power. 'I don't want to talk to you, Rupert Henshawe! I never even want to see you again.' She held up the file for him to see. So that he would know that there was no point in denying it. 'I know what you've done. I know everything!'
Even as the words left her mouth, Lucy sensed the mood in the room change. No one was looking at the podium now. Or Rupert. She'd stolen his limelight. She'd stormed into this plush hotel, her head exploding with the discovery that her new and exciting life, their engagement, the whole shooting match, was nothing more than a brilliantly executed marketing plan. The focus was now on her as she put an end to a sham smoke-and-mirrors engagement that was as false as his 'new man' change of heart.
Rupert Henshawe had no heart.
But, as the attention of the room shifted to her, it belatedly occurred to Lucy that this might not have been her best move.
In the months following her whirlwind romance with her billionaire boss she had become used to the press, but this was different. Until now she'd been supported every step of the way, whether the interviews had been personal or about her new role as the face, and name, on his re-branded chain of fashion stores.
When she'd gate-crashed this press conference, she hadn't had a thought in her but to confront the man who had so shamelessly used her.
Now the focus point of every lens, every eye in the room, she suddenly felt alone, vulnerable and all she wanted to do was escape. Escape from the lies, the cameras, the microphones. Disappear. But, as she stepped back, attempting to distance herself from Rupert, from everyone, she stumbled over someone's foot.
She put out a hand to stop herself from falling, grabbing at someone's lapel. There was the ominous sound of cloth ripping and, as she turned, instinctively, to apologise, she discovered that her retreat was blocked by a wall of bodies.
And the man whose lapel she was clinging to was now hanging onto her, pulling her towards him, shouting something into her ear as she was jostled, pushed by other newsmen trying to get closer, photographers shouting to attract her attention.
She forgot all about apologising, instead yanking her arm free. Someone tried to grab the file she was carrying. She used it to beat him off, swinging the tote bag she was carrying to clear a space, provoking a blinding series of flashes as the photographers caught the action.
Another hand made a grab for her in the scrum, catching the back of her coat. One of the buttons flew off and she nearly went down again, but the sight of two of Rupert's bodyguards elbowing aside journalists and cameramen alike as they made their way towards her sent a shot of adrenalin surging through her veins.
Until now she'd only seen the gentle side of Rupert Henshawe, had believed that he was truly her Prince Charming. But she was carrying proof of just how ruthless the man could be in pursuit of his ends and he wasn't going to let her leave with that.
Of course they would make it look as if they were rescuing her from the press scrum, but denouncing him in public, on camera, had put her on the other side.
She'd seen his eyes, the truth behind the soft words, the smile, and she knew that he'd do whatever it took to keep her quiet.
Swinging her tote again in an attempt to batter her way through the enclosing wall of bodies, she managed to make a little headway but then someone grabbed her wrist, a camera lens caught her a sharp blow on the temple and, head spinning, she staggered back.
There was a yelp loud enough to be heard over the bedlam as her stiletto heel encountered something soft and yielding.
As the man behind her backed off, swearing creatively, an apology was the furthest thing from her mind. A gap opened up and she didn't hesitate. She dived through it.
'Twas the season to make money.
Nathaniel Hart paused at the brushed stainless steel rail of the department store founded two hundred years earlier by another Nathaniel Hart, looking back down into the swirling mayhem of spend, spend, spend.
It was a scene being replicated in Hastings & Hart stores in major cities throughout the country as money was poured out on those small luxury items that made such easy and portable gifts. Scent, jewellery, silk scarves, all perfectly placed on the ground floor to be within easy reach for the desperate shop-and-run male.
Women, fortunately, were prepared to put real effort into shopping. They thronged the glass escalators that rose into the atrium as if ascending to the sky. An architectural illusion created by light, glass, mirrors.
He knew it was an illusion because he'd created it, just as he knew it to be a cage. One he was trapped inside.
Lucy's shoulder hurt where she'd charged the emergency exit, setting off a barrage of alarms that lent wind to her heels as she raced down the narrow, darkening streets behind the hotel.
She had no idea where she was heading, only that there
were men on her heels, all of them wanting her, all of them with their own agendas. But she was done with be ing used.
'Aaargh!' She let out a wail of fury as her heel caught and snapped in a grating, bringing her up with a painful jerk. Someone yelled behind her, closing fast, and she paused only long enough to kick her foot free of the grating, leaving the shoe behind, and race on, casting around desperately for a cruising cab. But there was never one when you were desperate!
Idiot, idiot, idiot
The words hammered in her head in time to the jarring of her feet on the freezing wet pavement as she ran, dot-and-carry-one lopsidedly on one heel.
She'd just made the biggest mistake of her life. Make that the second biggest. She'd made the first when she'd fallen into the fairy tale trap.
In retrospect, she could see that calling her erstwhile Prince Charming a liar and cheat in front of the nation's assembled press pack had not been her brightest move. But what was a girl to do when her magic castle-in-the-air had just turned into one of those blow-up bouncy things they had at kids' parties?
Stop and think?
Stand back, line up her allies before firing her ammunition from a safe distance? Hardly the action of the girl Rupert had proclaimed to love for her spontaneity, her passion.
That was the difference between them.
The woman who'd appeared on the cover of Celebrity wasn't some figment of a PR man's imagination. She was real. Capable of feeling not just joy but pain. Which was why she'd leapt in with both feet, puncturing the fake castle with the four-inch heels of her Louboutins, letting out the hot air and bringing it down around her.
Idiot was right but who, having just discovered that she was the victim of the most cynical, manipulative, emotional fraud imaginable, would be thinking rationally?
As for allies, there was no one she could turn to. The press had already bought everyone who'd known her since she was a babyanyone who had a photograph or a story to tell. Every moment of her life was now public property and what they didn't know they'd made up.
And Rupert owned the rest.
All those people who had fawned over her, pretended to be her friend, there wasn't one she could trust or be sure was genuine rather than someone on his PR company's payroll.
As for her mother
She had no one and, run as hard as she might, nowhere to go. Her legs were buckling beneath her, lungs straining as she headed instinctively for the sparkle of Christmas lights and crowds of shoppers in which to lose herself, but she couldn't stop.
In moments her pursuers would be on her and she didn't need the dropping temperature, the huge white flakes that had begun to swirl from a leaden sky, to send a shiver up her spine. Then, as she rounded a corner seeking the safety of the crowds of Christmas shoppers, she saw the soaring asymmetrical glass pyramid of Hastings & Hart lighting up the winter gloom like a beacon.
She'd been in the store just the day before on a mission from Rupert to choose luscious Christmas gifts for his staff. Giving the gossip mag photographers who followed her everywhere their photo opportunities. It was all there in the files.
The plan to keep her fully occupied. Too busy to think.
The store seemed to mock her now and yet inside were nine warm and welcoming floors, each offering a hundred places to hide. Within its walls she would be off the street, safe for a while, and she flew across the street, dodging through the snarled-up traffic, heading towards the main entrance, slithering to a halt as she saw the doorman guarding the entrance.
Only yesterday he'd tipped his top hat to her in deference to her chauffeur-driven status.
He wouldn't be so impressed by her arrival today but, dishevelled and limping, he would certainly remember her and, pulling her coat tidily around her and shouldering her bag, she teetered precariously on her bare toe as she slowed down to saunter past him, doing her best to look as if she was out for a little shopping.
'You'll find footwear on the ground floor, ma'am,' he said, face absolutely straight, as he opened the door. And tipped his hat.
Scanning the ground floor from his bird's-eye view, Nat's attention was caught by two burly men in dark suits who'd paused in the entrance. They were looking about them, but not in the baffled, slightly desperate way of men trying to decide what gift would make their Christmas a memorable one.
Men didn't shop in pairs and he could tell at a glance that these two weren't here to pick out scents for the women in their life.
He'd seen the type often enough to recognise them as either close protection officers or bodyguards.
The doorman, well used to welcoming anyone from a royal to a pop star, would have alerted the store's security staff to the arrival of a celebrity, but curiosity held him for the moment, interested to see who would follow them through the doors.
At least no one requiring a bodyguard, just the usual stream of visitors to the store, excited or harassed, who broke around the pair and joined the throng in the main hall.
Frowning now, he remained where he was, watching as the two men exchanged a word, then split up and began to work their way around the glittering counters, eyes everywhere, clearly looking for someone.
Make that a charge who had given her bodyguards the slip.
In the main hall, mobbed in the run-up to Christmas as shoppers desperately tried to tick names off their gift lists and stocked up on exotic, once-a-year luxuries, Lucy had hoped that no one would notice her. That once she was inside the store she'd be safe.
She'd been fooling herself.
She did her best to style it out, but she hadn't fooled the doorman and several people turned to look as she triedand failedto keep herself on an even keel. And then looked again, trying to think where they'd seen her before.
The answer was everywhere.
Rupert was Celebrity magazine's new best friend and his and hermostly herfaces had been plastered over it for weeks. Their romance was news and cameras had followed her every move.
Everything she'd done, everywhere she'd been was a story and, as she tried to ease through the crowd, eyes down, she knew she was being stared at.
Then, from somewhere at the bottom of her bag, her phone began to belt out her I'm In Love With a Wonderful Guy ringtone.
Could anything be any less appropriate?