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Amber DuBois closed her eyes and tried to stay calm. 'Yes, Heath,' she replied. 'Of course I am taking care of myself. No, I am not staying out too long this evening. That's right, a couple of hours at most.'
The limo slowed and she squinted out at the impressive stone pillars of the swish London private members club. 'Ah. I think we have arrived. Time for you to get back to your office. Don't you have a company to sort out? Bye, Heath. Love you. Bye.'
She sighed out loud then quickly stowed her phone in a tiny designer shoulder bag. Heath meant well but in his eyes she was still the teenage unwanted stepsister who he had been told to look after and had never quite learnt to let go. But he cared and she knew that she could rely on him for anything. And that meant a lot when you were at a low point in your life.
Amber looked up through the drizzle and was just about to tell the limo driver that she had changed her mind when a plump blonde in a purple bandage dress two sizes too small for her burst out of the club and almost dragged Amber out of the rain and into the foyer.
She looked a little like the mousey-haired girl who had lorded over everyone from the posh girls' table at high school.
Right now Amber watched Miss Snooty 'my dad's a banker' rear back in horror when she realised that the star of the ten-year school reunion alumni had a plaster cast over her right wrist, but recovered enough to bend forward and air kiss her on both cheeks with a loud mmwwahh.
'Amber. Darling. How lovely to see you again. We are so pleased that you could make our little get-together—especially when you lead such an exciting life these days. Do come inside. We want to know everything!'
Amber was practically propelled across the lovely marble floor, which was tricky to do in platform designer slingbacks. She had barely caught her breath when a hand at her back pushed her forwards into a huge room. The walls were covered with cream brocade, broken up by floor to ceiling mirrors, and huge gilded chandeliers hung from the ceiling.
It was a ballroom designed to cope with hundreds of people.
Only at that moment several clusters of extremely bored-looking women in their late twenties were standing with their hands clasped around buffet plates and wine glasses.
Every single one of them stopped talking and turned around.
And stared at her. In total silence.
Amber had faced concert audiences of all shapes and sizes—but the frosty atmosphere in this cold elegant room was frigid enough to send a shiver down her spine.
'Look everyone. Amber DuBois made it in the end. Isn't that marvellous! Now carry on enjoying yourself. Fabulous!'
Two minutes later Amber was standing at the buffet and drinks table with a glass of fizzy water in her hand. She smiled down at her guide, who had started to chew the corner of her lower lip. 'Is everything all right?' Amber asked.
The other woman gulped and whimpered slightly. 'Yes—yes, of course. Everything is just divine. I just need to check something—but feel free to mingle, darling mingle.'
And then she practically jogged over to a girl who might have been one of the prefects, grabbed her arm and in no uncertain terms jabbed her head towards Amber and glared towards the other side of the room.
Amber peered over the elaborate hairstyles of a cluster of chattering women who were giving her sideways glances as though scared to come and talk to her.
This was so ridiculous. So what if she had made a name for herself as a concert pianist over the years? She was still the quiet, lanky, awkward girl they used to pick on.
And then she saw it. A stunning glossy black grand piano had been brought out in front of the tall picture windows. Just waiting for someone to play it.
So that was the reason her old high school had gone to such lengths to track her down with an email invitation to the ten-year school reunion.
Amber sighed out loud and her shoulders slumped down.
It seemed that some things never changed.
They had never shown the slightest interest in her when she was their schoolmate—far from it in fact. Amber DuBois might have had the connections but she was not one of the posh clique of girls or the seriously academic group. She was usually on the last table and the back of the bus with the rest of the eccentrics.
Well. If there was a time to channel her inner diva, then this was it. One final performance—and the only one they would be getting from her that evening.
Cameras flashed as Amber strode, head high, canapes wobbling, across the polished wooden floor towards the ladies room.
Behind her back, Amber heard someone tap twice on the microphone but the squeaky posh voice was cut off as she stepped inside the powder room, pushed the door firmly closed with her bottom and collapsed back against it for a moment, eyes closed.
Sanctuary! If the speeches had just started she might have the place to hide out for a few precious minutes—it could even be a chance to escape.
She was just about to peek outside to check for options when the sound of something falling onto the tiled floor echoed from the adjoining powder room, quickly followed by a colourful expletive.
Amber's heels clattered on the tiles as she strolled over and peered around the corner to see where the noise was coming from.
A short brunette was standing on tiptoe, straddling two washbasins, with her arms outstretched, trying to reach the handle of the double-glazed window which was high on the wall above her. A red plastic mop bucket was lying on its side next to the washbasin.
'What's this? Kate Lovat running out on a party? I must be seeing things.' A short chuckle escaped from Amber's lips before she could stop it, and instantly the brunette whirled around to see who it was—and screamed and waved her arms about the instant she saw who had asked the question.
Which made her wobble so much that Amber rushed forwards, slid her buffet plate onto the marble counter, flipped up the bucket to create a step and then wrapped her left arm around the waist of a compact bundle of fun in a stunning cerise vintage cocktail dress.
Kate Lovat was one of the few real pals that she had made at high school.
Irrepressible, petite and fierce, Kate used to have a self-confidence which was as large as the heels she wore to push her height up to medium and a spirit to match. Today her short tousled dark hair was slicked into an asymmetric style which managed to make her look both elegant and quirky at the same time.
'Kate!' Amber laughed. 'I was praying that you were going to turn up at the reunion. You look fabulous!'
'Why thank you, pretty lady. Right back at you. You are even more gorgeous than ever.' Then Kate's mouth fell open, her eyes locked onto the floor and she gave a high pitched squeak as she grabbed Amber's arm. 'Oh my those shoes. I want those shoes. In fact if you were not several sizes bigger than me, I would knock you down and run off with them.'
Then Kate took one step back and peered into Amber's face, her eyes narrow and her brow creased. 'Wait a minute. You look peaky. And a lot skinnier than the last time I saw you Did I tell you that I have suddenly become clairvoyant? Because I foresee chocolate and plenty of it in your very near future.'
Then she pointed at the plaster cast on Amber's wrist. 'I have to know. Wait.' She held up one hand and pressed the fingertips of the other hand to her forehead as though she was doing her own mind-reading act. 'Let me guess. You slipped on an ice cube at some fashionista party, or was it a yacht cruising the Caribbean? It must make playing the piano a tad tricky.'
'Kate. Slow down. If you must know, I tripped over my own suitcase a couple of weeks ago. And yes, I have cancelled everything for the next six months so my wrist has a chance to heal.' Then she paused. 'And why do you need to sneak out of the window at our school reunion when you could be catching up on the gossip with the rest of our class?'
Kate took a breath, her lower lip quivered and she seemed about to say something, then changed her mind, broke into a smile and waved one hand towards the door. 'Been there. Done that. This has been one hell of a rotten day and the kidnappers have blockaded the doors to stop us from getting out.'
Then Kate lifted her chin. 'But here is an idea,' she said, her dark green eyes twinkling with delight. She gestured with her head towards the red velvet chaise at the other end of the powder room. Two buffet plates piled high with pastries and cocktail skewers were stashed on the floor.
'Who cares about them? We have a sofa. We have snacks. And the really good news is that I crashed into Saskia five minutes ago and she is now on a mission to find liquid refreshment and cake. The three of us could have our own party right here. What do you say?'
Amber's shoulders dropped several inches and she hugged her old friend one-handed. 'That. Is the best idea I have heard in a long time. Oh, I had forgotten how much I missed you both. But I thought Saskia was still in France.'
Kate winked. 'Oh, things have certainly changed around here. Just wait until you hear what we have been up to.' Then she waved both hands towards Amber and grabbed her around the waist. 'It is so good to see you. But come on, sit. What drove you out from the chosen few? Or should that be who drove you out?'
Suddenly Kate froze and her fingers flew to her mouth. 'Don't tell me that snake in the grass Petra dared to show her face.'
Petra. Amber took a sharp intake of breath. 'Well, if Petra was in there, I didn't notice, and somehow I think I would have recognised her.'
'Damn right.' Kate scowled. 'Ten years is not nearly long enough to forget that face. A friend does not jump on her best pal's boyfriend. Especially at that pal's eighteenth birthday party.' Her flat right hand sliced through the air. 'For some things there is no forgiveness. None. Zero. Don't even ask. Oh—is that a mushroom tartlet?'
'Help yourself,' Amber replied and passed Kate her plate. Strange how she had suddenly lost her appetite the moment Petra's name was mentioned. The memory of the last time she had seen the girl she used to call her friend flittered across her brain, bringing a bitter taste of regret into her mouth. 'It takes two to tango, Kate,' she murmured. 'And, from what I recall, Sam Richards wasn't exactly complaining that Petra had made a move on him. Far from it, in fact.'
'Of course not,' Kate replied between bites. 'He was a boy and she bedazzled him. He didn't have a chance.'
'Bedazzled. Once that girl decided that Sam was the target he was toast.' Then Kate coughed and flicked a glance at Amber before brushing pastry crumbs from her fingers. 'He's back in London now, you know. Sam. Working as a journalist for that swanky newspaper he was always talking about.'
Amber brought her head up very slowly. 'How fascinating. Perhaps I should ring the editor and warn him that his new reporter is susceptible to bedazzlement?'
'Careful.' Kate chuckled. 'They'll be saying that I am having a bad influence on you.'
'Well, that would never do! Hi Amber,' a sweet clipped voice came from the bathroom.
'Saskia!' Kate instantly leaped up from the sofa and grabbed the plate of mini chocolate cakes that was threatening to topple over at any second. 'Look who's here.' Then she caught her breath. 'What happened to your dress?'
Saskia slid onto the sofa and lowered a screw cap bottle of Chardonnay and two glasses onto the floor in front of them so that she could give Amber a hug.
It was only then Amber noticed the red wine stain which was still dripping down the sleeve of Saskia's cream lace dress. It was almost as if someone had thrown a glass of wine at her.
Maybe things had changed? Because if Kate was the petite quirky one of their little band and Amber the lanky American, then Saskia was the classic English beauty. Medium brown hair, medium height and size. And the one girl who would never cause a scene or make a fuss.
'Excuse me for a moment.' Saskia nodded. And, without waiting for an answer, she clenched her teeth and picked up one of the paper hand towels and tore it violently into strips lengthways. Then into smaller strips, then more slowly into squares. Only when the whole towel was completely shredded into postage stamps did Saskia exhale slowly, gather up all of the pieces and toss them into the waste basket.
'Well, I feel a lot better now.' She smiled and brushed her hands off.
Kate was still choking so Amber was the one who had to ask, 'Do you want to talk about it?'
Saskia sat bolt upright on the sofa, too proud to slouch back against the cushion, and casually mopped the stain with a paper napkin. 'Apparently I am all that is bad in the world because I refused to let the school alumni committee use Elwood House for free for the weekly soiree—you know, the one I have never been invited to? You should have seen their faces the moment I mentioned the going hourly rate. That's when the abuse started.'
She sniffed once. 'It was most unladylike. Frankly, I am appalled.'
Kate pushed back her shoulders and her chin forward. 'Right. Where are they? No one disses my pal and gets away with it. There are three of us against the whole room—no contest.'
'I have just finished ten years of training as a full-on concert diva,' Amber added. 'Want to see me in action? It can be scary.'
Saskia shook her head. 'That would be playing right into their hands. They would just love it if we made a scene. It gives them something to talk about in their shallow little lives. Let it go. Seriously. I have decided to rise above it.' Then her face broke into a smile. 'I am already having far too good a time right here. Kate. Would you be so kind as to twist open that bottle? I want to hear everything. Let's start with the obvious. My love life is on hold until Elwood House is up and running, but what about you, Kate?'
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