Read an Excerpt
SEATED at her desk in her first–floor office, Valentina Dunbar was gazing absently through the rain–spattered window which overlooked Cartel Wines's long, narrow car park and, beyond the high wall, the River Thames.
Dusk had begun to creep stealthily out of hiding and lights were coming on, gleaming on the dark water and glowing orange against the cloudy purple sky.
Most of the day staff tried to get away early on a Friday night and a steady stream of vehicles were already leaving the car park to join the London evening rush hour.
Responsible for organising the social gatherings and the informative literature that invariably accompanied Cartel Wines's latest sales push, Tina was endeavouring to put the finishing touches to the pre–Christmas campaign. But for once she wasn't giving the job her full attention.
It was Friday the thirteenth. A day that, for her at least, had lived up to its unlucky reputation.
First thing that morning she had slipped and hurt her ankle getting out of the shower. Gritting her teeth, she had been forced to stand on one leg while she had dried and dressed and taken her thick, silky hair, naturally blonde on top but with darker undertones, into a neat chignon.
By the time she'd finished, the pain had eased quite a bit and she was able to hobble into the living–room to get her toast and coffee.
Ruth, her friend and temporary flatmate, who was breakfasting in her dressing gown, looked up to ask, 'Why are you limping?"
As Tina finished telling her, the phone rang. 'I hope this is Jules," Ruth exclaimed eagerly, grabbing the receiver.
Her fiancé's firm hadtransferred him to Paris for six months and she was missing him badly.
"He's coming to London for the weekend," she said after a minute or so, her elfin face full of excitement, her black hair standing up in spikes. 'He'll be arriving this afternoon and going back Monday morning."
Then, apologetically, 'By the way, he's expecting to stay at the flat with me…"
The 'flat' was nothing more than a large bedsitter, which meant that Tina would have to make other arrangements for the three nights.
Her own flat was in a run–down Victorian house that the new owner had decided to have refurbished and modernized, and Ruth had offered her a put–you–up for the ten weeks or so that would elapse before she could move back in again.
"Perhaps you could ask Lexi or Jo to give you a bed for the weekend?" Ruth suggested.
"I'll think about it,"Tina said non–committally. Then, seeing Ruth's concerned expression and knowing she owed it to her friend, she added cheerfully, 'Don't worry, I'll get something fixed up. You just make sure you have a great time."
"I will," Ruth assured her as she went to shower and dress. Both Lexi and Jo had resident boyfriends and, with no intention of playing gooseberry, Tina had already made up her mind to book into a hotel.
As soon as she had pushed a handful of underwear, a few changes of clothing and some necessities into a small case, she collected her shoulder bag and mac and, calling, 'Have a good weekend…see you Monday," let herself out.
When she had descended the stairs with care, she crossed the foyer to check for mail. In Ruth's pigeon–hole was a single redirected letter addressed to her, which she thrust unopened into her bag.
Until now the autumn weather had proved to be glorious, an Indian Summer of warm golden days and balmy nights. But today it was grey and chilly, a thin curtain of drizzle being blown along by a strong blustery wind.
She turned up the collar of her mac and, her ankle still a little painful, made her way to where her car was parked in the residents only space that belonged to the building.
Her offside front tyre was flat.
By the time the local garage had checked the tyre, repaired the damage and re–inflated it, she was late for work.
The morning had passed in something of a whirl and it had been practically twelve o'clock before she'd realised that, owing to the earlier upheaval, she had forgotten to pack her usual sandwiches or her small flask of coffee.
But there was a delicatessen just around the corner that made up rolls and sandwiches to order. If she could get there before the rush…
As she reached in her bag for her purse she came across the forgotten letter. Glancing at it, she noticed that in red, on the left–hand side of the envelope, was stamped what appeared to be the name of some firm.
Dropping it on her desk to read when she got back, she pulled on her mac and made her way out of the rear entrance.
In a few minutes she returned, carrying a ham and salad roll and a fruit yogurt in a paper bag. She was crossing the deserted car park, her head down against the now driving rain when, glancing up, she saw a man watching her.
Tall, dark–haired and arresting, he was standing quite still beneath the roofed loading bay, his eyes fixed on her.
Since Kevin's defection, shattered and wholly disillusioned, she had steered well clear of all men. Especially handsome ones.
Though this man couldn't be called handsome in the film star sense. He was very good–looking but in a tough, wholly masculine way.
Her pulse rate quickening, she found herself wondering who he could be.
As she drew nearer, their eyes met.
Some glances were like collisions. The impact of those dark eyes stopped her in her tracks and made her heart start to throw itself against her ribs.
She was still standing rooted to the spot, staring at him as though mesmerized, when the bottom of the wet paper bag gave way, allowing her lunch to fall through.
The roll, though soggy, was fairly easy to pick up, but the plastic yogurt carton had split and its contents were oozing out.
Making use of one of the paper napkins that had been included, she managed to scoop up the mess and deposit the remains of her lunch in the nearest litter bin.
As she wiped her hands on the remaining napkin, her gaze was drawn once more to where the dark–haired stranger had been standing.
With a strange sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, as though she had dropped too fast in an express lift, she found herself staring at the now empty space.
He had vanished.
She was certain he hadn't passed her and she had neither seen nor heard a car start, which meant he must have gone inside.
So who was he?
She knew all the admin and general office staff by sight and this man didn't belong to either. Nor, she was quite sure, was he one of the warehouse staff. Apart from an unmistakable air of assurance and authority, he had been far too well–dressed to be doing manual work.
However, to have been here at all, he must have some connection with Cartel Wines.
Perhaps he was a visitor.
But visitors always used the visitors' car park and the main entrance. They didn't come in the back way and go through the warehouse, as he must have done…
A trickle of icy–cold water ran down the back of her neck, making her shiver. Belatedly aware that she was standing like a fool getting saturated, she hurried into the building.
As she walked through the warehouse she glanced about her. But there was no sign of him amongst the men at work and she knew she couldn't mistake him.
When she reached the top of the stairs she found that her office door was a little ajar and realised that in her haste to beat the rush she couldn't have latched it properly.
While she fetched a towel from the small adjoining cloakroom to pat dry her hair and face, her thoughts winged their way back to the dark–haired stranger like homing pigeons.
In spite of the fact that she had seen him only briefly, his height and the width of his shoulders, the image of his lean, attractive face was clear in her mind. And, though she had tried her hardest to dismiss it, it had haunted her for the rest of the afternoon, displacing any thoughts of hunger.
Now, gazing through the window, her blue–violet eyes abstracted, she was still wondering about him… Who was he? Why had he been here? If he had been a visitor, would she see him again…?
But she must stop this fruitless speculation, she told herself sternly, and concentrate on practicalities. At almost five o'clock on a wet Friday afternoon, with darkness hovering in the wings, she still hadn't decided where to stay.
But after urging Didi, her stepsister, to accept the place at the prestigious Ramon Bonaventure School of Drama that she had been offered, and promising to pay her fees, it would have to be somewhere not too expensive.
Still, she would manage somehow. It might mean stringent economies for a couple of years, but to have Didi—who had been christened Valerie, but had always been Val to her friends and acquaintances and Didi to her family—on course again it would be well worth it…
The bleep of the internal phone cut through her thoughts. Pushing aside the lists of dates and tasting notes that littered her desk, Tina picked up the receiver.
"Miss Dunbar,"sandra Langton's somewhat nasal voice said, 'Mr De Vere would like to see you before you leave."
"I'll be straight down."
Wondering at the unexpected summons, she left her office, a slim figure in a smart grey suit, and, still limping slightly, descended the flight of bare stone steps that led down to a wide corridor.
On the right, the heavy double doors into the warehouse–where the wines for the domestic customers were stored before being put into stout cartons to be despatched nationwide–were closed.
To the left were the main offices. In the outer office, Sandra Langton, the boss's middle–aged PA, gave her an odd look before saying, 'If you'd like to go straight through?"
Frowning a little, Tina tapped at the door of the inner sanctum and waited for the curt, 'Come in."
She thought, not for the first time, that if Frenchmen were noted for their charm, Maurice De Vere had to be the exception to the rule.
A short, dry man with grey hair, thin features and an irascible manner, he was due to retire at the end of the month.
He hadn't really been a bad boss, she reflected, but, a diehard who disliked modern technology, he had refused to install computers or any equipment that would have made office life easier.
Added to that, he had always believed in the stick rather than the carrot, so whoever took his place would almost certainly be an improvement.
Ensconced behind a large, imposing desk, with a motion of one claw–like hand he waved her to a chair.
She was barely seated when, looking down at a sheaf of papers, he began, 'I'm afraid I have some bad news for you, Miss Dunbar…"
He hesitated, then, looking at her over his rimless glasses, went on abruptly, 'When I decided to retire and I sold out to the Matterhorn group, they promised very few changes. On the whole they've kept their word. But this afternoon I learnt that John Marsden, the man who'll be coming in on Monday to start running Cartel Wines, has his own very definite ideas about how the sales campaigns should be staged."
"I don't see that as a problem," Tina said quietly. 'The suggestions I've already made can easily be changed or adapted to suit—"
The words died on her lips as De Vere began to shake his head. 'I'm afraid Marsden's insisting on bringing in his own team of organisers, which means you're redundant."
As she stared at him in stunned silence, he added, 'I'm more sorry than I can say. Your work has always been excellent…"
Coming from a man who had never been known to compliment his staff, that was praise indeed. But what use was it when she was now out of a job?
"Bearing that in mind, I'll make sure you have very good references." 'When…?" Her voice wobbled dangerously and she stopped speaking.
Looking uncomfortable, he said, 'As Marsden will need your office for his own team, it would be best if you left immediately. I've authorized six months' salary in lieu of notice, which will be paid directly into your bank…"
That was very generous. Her contract had only specified one month.
"A reference and any other appropriate papers will be sent to your temporary address in due course."
Rising to his feet, he held out his hand. 'May I wish you well." Her voice under control now, she said, 'Thank you," then shook the cold, papery hand and walked out of the room with her head held high.
In the outer office, Sandra Langton, who was just putting on her coat, said with obvious sympathy, 'Tough luck."
Then, dropping her voice, 'I must admit I was surprised by how hard old Sourpuss took it… When will you be leaving?"
"Now… As soon as I've cleared my desk." 'Well, all the best." 'Thank you."
Shock setting in, Tina climbed the stairs on legs that felt as wadded and useless as a rag doll's and, sinking down at her desk, gazed blindly into space.
She had been with Cartel Wines since she left college two years ago. It was a job she had loved and been good at. Even old Sourpuss—as the staff called De Vere behind his back–had admitted it.
But that made no difference whatsoever. Due to circumstances, she was now unemployed.
A kind of futile panic gripped her. Six months' salary was a buffer, but when the alterations to the house had been completed and she moved back into her flat, her rent would be considerably higher. That, added to Didi's expenses, meant losing her job couldn't have come at a worse time.
Over the past year, life had been a series of downs with scarcely any ups. Now, with this final blow, she seemed to have hit rock–bottom.
Well, if that was the case, the only way was up.
Allowing herself no more time for regrets, she rose, squared her shoulders and started to tidy her desk top.
Only when it was clear, did she suddenly recall the letter she had been going to read. Seeing the handsome dark–haired stranger had put it right out of her mind.
But where was the letter?