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A male hand beckoned through the swirling silvery wisps generated by a smoke machine.
Tiffany Smith squinted and located Renate leaning against the white marble bar flanked by two men. Relief kicked in. The Hong Kong club was crowded—and a lot busier than Tiffany had expected. The harsh, beating music and flashing strobe lights had disoriented her. And the spike of vulnerability she had experienced in the aftermath of having her bag snatched yesterday with her passport, credit card, traveler's checks and cash returned full blast.
Picking up two cocktail menus, Tiffany headed through the mist for the trio. The older man was vaguely familiar. But it was the younger of the two men who watched her approach, his dark eyes cool, assessing—even critical. Tiffany switched her attention to him. He wore a dark formal suit and had a distant manner. Taking in the high cheekbones and bladed nose that gave his face an arrogant cast, she lifted her chin to stare boldly back at him.
"I'm not sure what Rafiq wants but Sir Julian would like a gin and tonic," Renate said, smiling at the older man who must have been at least three inches shorter than she. "And I'll have a champagne cocktail—the Hot Sex version."
Sir Julian. Of course! That would make him Sir Julian Carling, owner of Carling Hotels. If this was the kind of clientele Le Club attracted, tips would be good.
"Sure I can't get you something a little more adventurous?" Expensive, Tiffany appended silently as she passed the men the cocktail menus with her sweetest smile.
Not for the first time she thanked her lucky stars for the chance meeting with Renate when she'd checked into the hostel yesterday after her return from the police station and the embassy. Last night's accommodation had used up her last twenty Hong Kong dollars.
This morning Renate had generously shared her breakfast cereal with Tiffany and offered to bring her along to Le Club tonight to make some quick cash as a hostess serving drinks.
It had been Renate who had showed her where the trays of "champagne cocktails" were kept. Lemonade. Cheap lemonade. For the hostesses. Geared at getting the well-heeled patrons to order and imbibe more of the elaborate, expensive cocktails with outrageously sexy names for which Le Club was apparently famed—as well as billing them for the hostesses' over-priced lemonade cocktails. Tiffany had silenced her scruples. Renate had done her a favor. Anyway, Sir Julian seemed untroubled at the prospect of footing the bill for Renate's bogus champagne cocktails.
It was none of her business, Tiffany told herself. She would keep her mouth shut and do as ordered. She was only here for the tips. For that she would smile until her face hurt. She glanced at the younger man, about to give him a glittering grin but his expression deterred her. His eyes were hooded, revealing none of his thoughts. Even in the crush of the club he seemed to create a ring of space around him. A no-go area.
She dismissed the thought as fanciful and forced a smile. "What can I get you to drink?"
"I'll stick with the gin and tonic." Sir Julian gave her a smile and passed back the cocktail menu.
"A Coca-Cola. Cold, please. With ice—if there's any that hasn't melted yet." The man Renate had called Rafiq curved his lips upward, lighting up the harsh features and giving him a devastating charm that had Tiffany catching her breath in surprise.
He was gorgeous.
"Sh-sure, I'll be right back," she stuttered.
"We'll be in one of the back booths," said Renate.
Tiffany found them easily enough a few minutes later. She handed Renate and Sir Julian their drinks before turning to the man seated on the other side of the booth.
Rafiq, Renate had called him. It suited him. Foreign. Exotic. Quintessentially male. Wordlessly Tiffany passed him the soda, and the ice he'd requested rattled against the glass.
"Thank you." He inclined his head.
For one wild moment Tiffany got the impression that she was expected to genuflect.
Renate leaned forward, breaking her train of thought. "Here."
Tiffany took the cell phone Renate offered, and gazed at the other woman in puzzlement. With two hands Renate mimicked taking a photo, and realization dawned. Tiffany studied the phone's settings. Easy enough. By the time Tiffany glanced up, Renate had draped herself over Sir Julian, so Tiffany raised the phone and clicked off a couple of shots.
At the flash, Sir Julian came to life, waving his hands in front of his face. "No photos."
"Sorry." Tiffany colored and fumbled with the phone.
"Are they deleted?" Rafiq's voice was sharp.
"Yes, yes." Tiffany shoved the phone behind the wide leather belt that cinched in her waist, vowing to check that the dratted images were gone the next time she went to get a round of drinks.
"Good girl." Sir Julian gave her an approving smile, and Tiffany breathed a little easier. She wasn't about to get fired before she'd even been paid.
"Sit down, Tiff, next to Rafiq."
The younger man sat opposite—alone—that ring of space clearly demarcated. Pity about the grim reserve, otherwise he would certainly have fitted the tall, dark and handsome label.
"Um I think I'll go see if anyone else wants a cocktail."
"Sit down, Tiffany." This time Renate's tone brooked no argument.
Tiffany threw a desperate look at the surrounding booths. Several of the hostesses Renate had introduced her to earlier sat talking to patrons, sipping sham champagne cocktails. No one looked like they needed assistance.
Giving in, Tiffany perched herself on the edge of the padded velvet beside Rafiq, and tried to convince herself that it was only the gloom back here in the booths that made him look so disapproving. He had no reason to be looking down his nose at her.
"They should put brighter lights back here," Tiffany blurted out.
Rafiq raised a dark eyebrow. "Brighter lights? That would defeat the purpose."
Puzzled, Tiffany frowned at him. "What purpose?"
"To talk, of course." Renate's laugh was light and frothy. "No one talks when the lights are bright. It's too much like an interrogation room."
"I would've thought the music was too loud to talk." Tiffany fell silent. Now that she thought about it, it wasn't quite so loud back here.
Rafiq was studying her, and Tiffany moved restlessly under that intense scrutiny. "I'm going to get myself something to drink."
"Have a champagne cocktail—they're great." Renate raised her glass and downed it. "You can bring me another—and Sir Julian needs his gin and tonic topped up."
Rafiq's mouth kicked up at the side, giving him a sardonic, world-weary look.
He knew. Tiffany wasn't sure precisely what he knew. That the hostesses' drinks were fake? Or that the patrons would be billed full price for them? But something in his dark visage warned her to tread warily around him.
She edged out of the booth, away from those all-seeing eyes.
It was ten minutes before Tiffany could steel herself to return with a tray of drinks.
"What took so long?" Renate glanced up from where she was snuggled up against Sir Julian. "Jules is parched."
Tiffany did a double take. In the time that she'd been gone Sir Julian Carling had become Jules? And Renate had become positively kittenish, curled up against the hotelier, all but purring. Tiffany slid back into the booth beside Rafiq and thanked the heavens for that wall of ice that surrounded him. No one would get close enough to cuddle this man.
"That surely can't be a champagne cocktail?" Rafiq commented.
She slid him a startled glance. Was he calling her on Le Club's shady ploy to overcharge patrons?
That expressive eyebrow lifted again. "So where's the Perrier bottle?"
"Water out of the tap." Although on second thought, perhaps it might've been more sensible to drink bottled water. "I'm thirsty."
"So you chose tap water?"
Was that disbelief in his voice? Tiffany swallowed, suddenly certain that this man was acutely aware of everything that happened around him.
"Why not champagne?"
She could hardly confess that she was reluctant to engage in the establishment's scam, so she replied evasively, "I don't drink champagne."
"You don't?" Rafiq sounded incredulous.
"I've never acquired the taste."
More accurately she'd lost the taste for the drink that her mother and father offered by the gallon in their society home. The headache it left her with came from the tension that invariably followed her parents' parties rather than the beverage itself.
An inexplicable wave of loneliness swamped her.
Those parties were a thing of the past.
Yesterday she'd tamped down the fury that had engulfed her after speaking to her mother, and called her father. To have him wire her some money—even though the thought of asking him for anything stuck in her throat—and to give him a roasting for what she'd learned from her mother.
This time he'd broken her mother's heart. He'd been tearing strips off that mutilated organ for years, but taking off with Imogen was different from the brief affairs. Imogen was no starlet with her eye on a bit part in a Taylor Smith film; Imogen had been her father's business manager for years.
Tiffany liked Imogen. She trusted Imogen. By running off with Imogen, her father had sunk to a new low in her estimation.
But Taylor Smith could not be found. No one knew where he—and Imogen—had gone. Holed up in a resort someplace, enjoying a faux honeymoon, no doubt. Tiffany had given up trying to reach her father.
"What else don't you like?" Rafiq's voice broke into her unpleasant thoughts. For the first time he was starting to look approachable—even amused.
What would he say if she responded that she didn't like arrogant men who thought they were God's gift to womankind?
The diamond-cutter gaze warned her against the reckless urge to put him down. Instead she gave him a fake smile and said in dulcet tones, "There's not much I don't like."
"I should have guessed." His mouth flattened, and without moving away, he managed to give the impression that he'd retreated onto another planet.
Had there been a subtle jibe in there somewhere that she'd missed? Tiffany took a sip of water and thought about what he might've construed from her careless words. Not much that I don't like. Perhaps she'd imagined the edge in his voice.
Across the booth Renate whispered something to Sir Julian, who laughed and pulled her onto his lap.
Conscious of the flush of embarrassment creeping over her cheeks, Tiffany slid a glance at Rafiq. He, too, was watching the antics of the other couple, his face tight.
What in heaven's name was Renate up to?
The rising heat resulting from the crush of bodies in Le Club and the sight of Renate wriggling all over Sir Julian compounded to make Tiffany feel uncomfortable unclean.
She downed the rest of the water. "I need the bathroom," she said in desperation.
In the relative safety of the bathroom, Tiffany opened the cold water tap. Cupping her hands, she allowed the cool water to pool between her palms. She bent her head and splashed her face. The door hissed open behind her.
"Don't." Renate's hand caught at hers. "You'll ruin your makeup."
"I'm hot." And starting to fear that she was way out of her depth.
"Now we'll have to do your face again." Renate sounded exasperated.
Tiffany held her hands up to ward Renate off. She didn't want another thick layer of foundation caked onto her skin. "It was too hot. My face doesn't matter. I'm not here to find a date," she said pointedly.
"But you need cash," Renate responded, her makeup bag already open on the vanity counter. "Jules says that Rafiq is a business acquaintance—he must have a fat wallet if he's associated with Jules."
"Fat wallet? You mean I should steal from him?"
Disbelief spiked in Tiffany. She turned to look at her newfound friend. Was Renate crazy? Tiffany was certain that Rafiq's retribution would be swift and relentless. She was feeling less and less comfortable about Renate's idea of easy money. "I could never do that."
Renate rolled her eyes. "Don't be dumb. I don't rip them off. You don't want to get arrested for theft. Especially not here."
"Certainly not here—or anywhere," Tiffany said with heartfelt fervor. As desperate as she was, the idea of a Hong Kong jail terrified her witless. "Yesterday's visit to the police station was more than enough."
She'd had her fill of bureaucracy after spending the entire day yesterday and most of today reporting the loss of her purse to the police, followed by hours queuing at the embassy, trying to secure a temporary passport and a living allowance for the weekend. All hope of cash assistance from the embassy had been quashed once the official had realized who her father was. A father who was nowhere to be found.
On Monday a shiny new credit card would be couriered to her by her bank back home. And her temporary travel documents would be ready, too. For the first time since leaving home, Tiffany almost wished she had access to the allowance her father had cut off when she had chosen to do this trip with a friend against his wishes. What had started out as an exciting adventure was turning into a nightmare, costing much more than she'd ever dreamed.
But buying an air ticket home was Monday's worry. For now she only had to make it through the next two days.
Thank goodness for Renate.
Despite her sexual acrobatics in the booth, the other woman had saved Tiffany's skin by offering her this chance to earn some cash tonight. She owed her. "Renate, are you sure flirting with Sir Julian is a good idea? He's old enough to be your father."
"But he's rich."
Renate was fiddling in her purse, and Tiffany couldn't read her expression.
"That's what you want? A rich man? You think he'll marry you?" Concern made her say, "Oh, Renate, he's probably already married."
Renate drew out a lipstick tube and applied the glossy dark plum color then stood back to admire the dramatic effect against her pale skin and bleached-blond hair. "Of course he is."
"He is?" Shocked by Renate's nonchalance, Tiffany stared. "So why are you wasting your time on him?"
"He's a multimillionaire. Maybe even a billionaire. I recognized him the instant he arrived—he's been here before, but I've never gotten to—" Renate broke off and shot Tiffany a sidelong glance "—I never got to meet him. He's already promised to take me with him to the races later in the week."
Tiffany thought of the aching hurt she'd detected in her mother's voice yesterday when her mom had blurted out that Dad had taken off with Imogen.
"But what about his wife, Renate? How do you think she'll feel?"
Renate shrugged a careless shoulder. "She's probably too busy socializing with her country-club friends to notice. Tennis. Champagne breakfasts. Fancy fundraisers. Why should she care?"
Tiffany was prepared to stake her life on it that Sir Julian's wife did care. Speechlessly, she stared at Renate.
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