Copyright © Giulia Skye 2021
(Please note: The following chapters have not yet been professionally edited)
Helen Hobbs pushed through the doors of Bristol City’s law court offices and squinted into the gray, afternoon light. “Bloody great. Community service and a fine!”
“Be grateful that’s all you’ve ended up with,” her brother Tom shot back. “That’s three arrests this year alone. You’re lucky not to have had your arse hauled to a cell for a month! You get so much as a library fine now and you’ll be back in court quicker than you can say Jaxon Bates.”
Helen glared at the mention of her ex-employer. “Leave off, Tom. How was I supposed to know he was under surveillance? I didn’t think—”
“That’s just it, you never think. May be that’s why I get calls from you in the middle of the night asking to bail you out of trouble.”
They stared angrily at each other. Of course, her brother was right. In her attempt to get rich quick, Helen hadn’t thought too much about the software she’d been writing for Jaxon—only about the money she needed to earn to keep her cottage. If she didn’t come up with a large deposit soon, she’d lose the only real home she’d ever known.
Helen pressed her fingers against her eyes and dragged them down her face, Tom’s words and the judge’s voice still ringing in her ears. And just when her mood couldn’t get any gloomier, DC Almira Nazir stepped through the doors behind her.
“Helen. How are you?”
Helen stiffened. “I’m fine, thank you.”
Nazir gave her a curt little nod. “I assume the conditions of your probation were made clear?”
“Yes, crystal clear.”
“Good. We shouldn’t be seeing you here again then.” She breezed down the steps then stopped at the bottom. “I’ll be calling you when I have questions.”
As Nazir got into an awaiting silver car, Tom turned to Helen, scowling. Great. She was really in for it now. “Who was that?”
“Detective Constable Nazir. The woman in charge of Jaxon’s case.” The woman who’d questioned her for hours about Jaxon’s cyber fraud. Helen nudged her brother’s arm. “Let’s go and fight somewhere more private.”
They headed toward the throng of the city traffic, Helen’s stride not as long as it usually was thanks to the three-inch heeled sandals cutting into her feet.
“I don’t want to fight, Helen.”
“I know. Neither do I.” Pining for her running shoes, Helen went to tuck her hands into her pockets only to realize the vintage gray skirt she’d dug out of their late aunt Ada’s wardrobe had none, and neither did the prissy baby-blue blouse. She’d dressed like a frigid, turn-of-the-century school teacher today, not that it had helped in the slightest to get her off a community payback sentence.
Helen tugged at the strap of her girlie bag. Fifty hours. “ Shit.”
“Yeah,” Tom said, like he’d read her mind. He drew a long breath, a sure sign another lecture was heading her way. Tom was eleven months younger than her, but since he’d married Emma and become a dad, he acted eleven years older.
“It feels to me that when Ada passed away, you reverted back to how it used to be with us.” Tom’s crisp shirt had come ever so slightly untucked at the front, a tiny, tiny glimpse of the scruffy boy he’d once been. “First, it was shop lifting—”
“Oh, come on!” Helen looked to the dull summer sky. She’d hadn’t been thinking straight that day, not with Ada so close to the end. “You know that wasn’t my fault.”
“Then there was the night you were arrested for being drunk and disorderly.”
“But I was putting an end to that fight, not starting it! They—”
“And now this.” Tom waved his hands to indicate the court room behind them. “Break-in and Entering. What the hell were you thinking?”
A lot of things, actually. Namely about the money Jaxon had owed her for the code she’d written and how that cash was needed to pay the rent. Now, with a warrant out for Jaxon’s arrest, the large sums of money he’d promised her for future work—the massive pay out he’d often talked about over the past two years—had disappeared with him.
“Seriously, Helen, why don’t you go back to school, like I did? Get some qualifications. Stop pissing around on the internet and get a proper job.”
Pissing around? She was a highly skilled programmer! “I don’t need a certificate to tell me I know my way around a computer,” she snapped. “And working for Jaxon was a proper job.”
Despite him turning out to be a wanted cyber criminal.
They reached a crossing and waited for the lights to change. Cars, buses and bikes rolled past. Helen studied the cloud ladened sky, her shoulders sagging.
Tom shook his head at her then flicked her ear, like he always did when he wanted to cheer her up. “When you’re out scraping road kill off the curb, do you think they’ll make you wear one of those florescent jackets?”
“Ha-ha.” Trust her brother to come up with his own special brand of compassion. “You’re just too funny. People say they only have to look at you and they laugh.”
Tom snorted. “You know what else they say? ‘Can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.’”
“Thanks for the life advice, but you can get lost now.” They crossed the street, but instead of following Tom to the left, Helen headed to the right. “I’ll see you later.”
“Don’t you want to hang out at my office until I finish work?”
“It’s okay. I’m going to see my friend Liz. She’s got a new job at the Waterfront Hotel.”
“Liz?” Tom jerked his head back. “The girl you got into a drunken fight with?”
“No.” Helen sighed, tired of correcting him. “Liz, the girl I saved from a drunken fight. It was her dickhead boyfriend who started it.”
“Of course, silly me. How could I forget?” Tom’s lips puckered, no doubt recalling the night he’d had to fetch Helen from the police station and found her nursing a fat lip. “Okay, I’ll pick you up outside the hotel in a couple of hours.”
“Thank you.” Helen air kissed him and because he hated it, ruffled his hair. He went to swat her away, but she was already dashing off across Broad Quay to the floating harbor.
“That’s one hundred and twenty minutes!” Tom called out. “See if you can stay out of trouble for that long!”
The Waterside was Bristol’s best and most well-known hotel. Situated in the heart of the city, boasting magnificent views of the harborside and historic dockyard, it wasn’t in Helen’s price range for a coffee, let alone the type of place she’d hang out in on the rare days she’d leave her village in the Mendip Hills. When she’d had to venture into the city to meet with Jaxon, they’d done so at his flat in Brislington, which he used as his office—the same office Helen had broken in to.
Damn. If only she’d known the police were watching his flat! But she’d been focused only on retrieving the cash he owed her, which he kept hidden in his desk drawer. She’d seen him reach in there plenty of times to pay her in the past.
The whole break-in had been meticulously planned. Helen had even timed her run from Jaxon’s place to the bus stop where she’d catch the last bus home—but as it was, she’d barely crept through his kitchen before the police had her surrounded, ready to haul her to the station.
Needless to say, she’d missed her bus, had to call Tom to come fetch her—again—and worst of all, she hadn’t got her money.
Pushing thoughts of that particular debacle out of her mind, Helen strode into the hotel. Her dad always used to say confidence was key to faking anything, so she flung her shoulders back, stuck her chin up, then sailed past the receptionist and straight through to the bar area.
Liz was wiping glasses with a starched white cloth and her eyebrows shot up when she saw Helen approach. “Wow, I barely recognized you!”
Ah. The outfit.
Helen tugged at her blouse, undoing the top three most suffocating buttons. “It’s hideous, isn’t it?”
“No, the opposite. You look amazing.” Liz’s gaze shifted up and down several times. “And your hair! It suits you like that.”
Stroking the side of her head, Helen felt the sleek, smooth hair that her sister-in-law, Emma, had ruthlessly straightened last night, banishing any hint of the fuzzy curls Helen usually kept contained in a short, stubby pony tail. She sneered. “I don’t look like me.”
“No, but you do look like you can use a drink.” Liz pulled out a bottle of wine from the fridge beneath the counter and scooped up ice in a glass. “This should do the trick.”
“Thanks, Liz, but you know I can’t afford these bar prices.”
“It’s on the house.” Pouring the wine, Liz scoped the area around them, no doubt looking for the power-tripping manager she often complained about. “I kept it aside for you when I was taking stock.”
“You stole it?”
“Shhhh!” Liz came forward to whisper. “I didn’t include it in my numbers so no one knows it even exists, and besides, I came in extra early to help Pencil Neck set up for this conference thing today so he owes me.”
Helen hadn’t met Liz’s boss, the hotel’s hospitality manager, but she could picture him perfectly thanks to the names Liz called him. Dick Weed, Weasel Face, Pencil Neck… Helen scanned the bar for anyone matching those descriptions, but other than a stocky man and a red-haired woman, who’d just arrived and were being served coffees by Liz’s fellow bartender, it was almost empty.
“I still owe you for helping me out with Raz,” Liz said.
“It was nothing.” Neither Helen or Liz had been charged with drunk and disorderly behavior that night, but the incident must have gone against her in court today. Still, it had been worth it. Kicking Raz’s abusive arse to the curb had given Liz an epiphany moment that had put her on a mission to turn her life around. She’d dumped Raz, moved back in with her mum and got the job at the hotel. A job she loved, despite Pencil Neck and his power-trips. Helen eyed the wine. “Are you sure you won’t get you into trouble?”
“I’m sure. No one will even know you’re here.” Liz pushed the cool glass toward her. “So how did it go today?”
“Shit.” Though Helen suspected Liz already knew that, hence the wine. Helen took a sip, and then another one, and when the alcohol had warmed a path down to her toes, she told Liz the outcome of her court hearing.
“Fifty hours will fly by,” Liz said, topping up Helen’s glass. “Why don’t we take your mind off it and plan another night out? The last one wasn’t exactly the fun I had in mind.”
“I don’t know about that.” Helen sipped more wine. The night in question had been Helen’s only night out in three years, an attempt by Liz to cheer her up after Ada’s funeral. “It was pretty amusing watching Raz hit the ground like a stone.”
Liz giggled. “If you hadn’t been there, it would have been me hitting the ground like a stone. You got skills, lady.”
“Ha! What I’ve got is a sentence and a caution to stay out of trouble.”
“In that case, dancing would be harmless. We should go to the Lizard Lounge.” Liz grinned. “We could meet some men. That would cheer you up.”
“I don’t think so,” Helen snorted.
“Did anything ever happen with that guy you told me about?”
Heat flushed Helen’s cheeks. “No, it was just a stupid crush.”
Helen knocked back more wine. Oh, bloody hell. She’d forgotten she’d told Liz that night that she was in lust with Jaxon! Drunk, disorderly and out of her mind—but thank god, she hadn’t mentioned his name. She felt foolish enough about the daydreams of her and Jaxon living a bright, rosy future together at her cottage. He’d been just her type; lean, wiry and dishevelled—and when their late night emails had turned borderline flirty, she’d been convinced there’d been a mutual attraction.
Until he did a runner and left her in the shit, proving just how wrong she could be about men.
“So how about it?” Liz was saying, re-filling her wine. “It’ll do you good to let your hair down.”
“I dunno know, Liz. I can’t afford the bus fare into the city let alone entry into a night club.” Helen chewed her thumbnail. Even if she did feel like it, night clubs were way down on her list of priorities. “I need to find a job first.”
Jaxon had been her only source of income these past couple of years and in the three months since he’d disappeared, Helen had reverted to her old bread and butter job of designing websites—or rather website, singular. She only had one client, Alexa, and although the small amount Helen earned from her each week helped to cover the rent, maintaining Licks and Laces—Alexa’s online lingerie and sex toy business—wasn’t going to produce the large deposit required to actually buy the cottage.
“They might have some jobs going here. I can put a good word in for you.” Liz refilled Helen’s glass, checking over her shoulder as the door to an adjacent room opened. Liz jumped to attention, busying herself with wiping down the counter. “Pencil Neck will be back soon.”
Light headed from the wine, Helen pointed a teasing finger at her friend. “I think you secretly fancy this Pencil Neck. You talk about him all the time.”
“Shut up.” Liz waggled the almost empty wine bottle. “Now I know you’re pissed.”
As the room was indeed spinning, Helen had to agree. She propped her head on her elbows, slouching across the counter until Liz shoved her out of the way to wipe the area and make it shine. Helen had never seen her friend so eager to please. “You really like working here, don’t you?”
Liz shrugged nervously, as if she were afraid to tempt fate. “It’s been six weeks and I’m already up for a promotion to Assistant Manager. Maybe that’s why Pencil Neck has it in for me? He’s scared I might take his job.” Liz shifted a box with what looked like name badges inside and cleaned underneath. “Can you imagine me as a manager of anything?”
Helen gazed at her friend. “Yeah, I can.” Liz was moving on. Going forward. “You’re not as useless as you think you are.”
“Thanks,” Liz snorted.
“Anytime.” Helen glanced in the box on the counter and read the blue and red logo printed on each of the white badges. “Get Living? As in the Michael Adams fitness campaign?” There’d been mentions of it on the news this week, something about the athlete who was supposed to lead this summer’s campaign being involved in a freak horse-riding accident. “Is it still going ahead?”
“Yeah, they’ve just announced who’ll be replacing Daniel Jones.” Liz pulled a face. “That’s why Pencil Neck had his knickers in a twist this morning and called me in early. We’ve had the press here all day. They’ve just finished their lunch which means he’ll be back out here soon, pestering me.” Liz nodded toward the function room next to the bar area. Through the open door, hotel staff cleared away dirty plates. “The new Sports Ambassador is a Canadian Olympic swimmer. Sebastian Clarke.”
“Never heard of him.” Helen’s stomach growled and her mouth watered as she eyed the silver platters of left over food. “Has everyone gone now?”
“As far as I know.”
“If that food is going to waste, can I have some? I’m starving!” She’d been too nervous about her court appearance to eat breakfast this morning and all she’d eaten the night before were the strawberries she’d picked from the garden. No wonder the wine had gone straight to her head. “I really need to sober up before my brother comes.”
Liz looked unsure, but as Helen opened her mouth to tell her to forget it, she rummaged in the box and handed her a badge. “Take this in case you bump into Pencil Neck. You can be Cassie Phillips. She didn’t turn up. If anyone asks, say you were running late and bring the food back here. No one will see you eat in that corner booth over there.”
“I won’t get you into trouble, will I?”
“Not if you’re quick.”
“Amazing!” Helen thanked her and pinned the badge to her chest. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
She swung her legs off the barstool, tottered off on her heels as fast as her wine-fueled legs could carry her, and a few seconds later, began piling her plate with breaded chicken, potato salad and prawn toast. If only she had a box with her, she could take the rest away and live off this food for a week! She stuffed a mini quiche into her mouth, answering any odd looks from the staff with a thrust of her chest to show off her badge. They turned away, leaving her in peace to victoriously scoff a stuffed olive.
Free booze and a free meal, what an unexpected silver lining to a crappy day! Stress eased away from her shoulders and she popped another olive in to her mouth, debating whether or not she could carry the whole plate of hors d’oeuvres back to the bar area.
“I’m so glad you made it.”
The masculine voice behind her made her choke. Helen gulped and turned, and came face to chest with a man—a very tall, very broad man. Her gaze shifted up, past wide shoulders and a clean shaven jaw to rest on a pair of dreamy blue eyes, zoned in solely on her.
“I was getting worried when you didn’t answer your phone,” the beefcake was saying in a soft, rounded accent. He shook her hand, seemingly ignoring the large plate of food she held in the other. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Cassie.”
Helen glanced down at the name badge pinned to her left breast, but as she opened her mouth to explain, a lean, narrow-faced lanky man in hotel uniform entered the room.
Lanky Man smiled, his wide making his features look even narrower. “I see your guest has arrived at last.”
“She sure has.” Mr Beefcake rocked satisfactorily on his heels as Helen recalled what Liz had said about a Canadian swimmer.
Her stomach dropped. “You must be Sebastian Clarke.”
He smiled, showing even white teeth and dimples. “What gave it away?”
My shitty luck, of course.
Sebastian grabbed a plate and loaded it with food. Too busy meeting financiers, reporters and event organizers, he hadn’t gotten a chance to eat much during the conference. In fact, since touching down on British soil very late last night, Seb had barely slept, let alone eaten, and had spent the past hour—while waiting for Cassie to show up—pacing the hotel’s courtyard, figuring out how to explain that his girlfriend had stood him up on day frickin’ one.
Not that Michael Adams—his friend, mentor and now his boss—knew this was the first time Seb had met Cassandra Phillips, the British woman his best friend Jimmy had lined up to pose as his girlfriend for the summer.
Seb hated lying to Michael, but, man, he needed this job after that crazy incident in Vegas last month! Now, Seb had six weeks to prove to his sponsors, Strive Sportwear, that he wasn’t the womanizing douche bag the media had made him out to be, and the best way to do that? Work with Michael Adams, Olympic legend and founder of the Get Living campaign—a campaign co-funded by Strive which would provide Seb with many opportunities to show the sports giant he was still their wholesome hero.
But as Mikey needed a family orientated man to represent his family orientated campaign, Seb had told him he had a steady girlfriend. A steady, British girlfriend and that as he’d be spending the summer in England to be with her, he’d be more than happy to step in as a replacement Sports Ambassador following Daniel Jones’s unfortunate accident.
All Seb had needed to implement his plan was a charming and sophisticated woman. Someone who looked good on his arm, was capable of polite dinner conversation and who would then fade into the background when it was time for him to return home and continue with his training.
So enter Cassie Phillips, an Oxford University librarian who Jimmy had worked with last year while on another of his summer study programs. With less than twenty-four hours’ notice, Jimmy had made the introductions via email, but hadn’t been able to send any photos of Cassie. Seb hadn’t felt right about asking her to send a selfie, that would have sounded too shallow—especially after what the media had written about him—so today was the first time Seb had what Cassie looked like.
Cassie was exactly as Jimmy had described; a smooth, chic blond. A demure mixture of Grace Kelly and the Duchess of Cambridge. A real English Rose.
Though for some reason, Seb hadn’t expected her to be so tall.
Or so hungry.
Glancing at the pile of food on Cassie’s plate, Seb scooped up more on to his and grabbed some cutlery.
“There’s a lot we need to discuss,” he told her. Her punctuality, for one. He’d nearly had heart failure at the thought of her not showing up today, not to mention for tomorrow’s inaugural dinner when his position as Sports Ambassador would be officially announced in front of campaign sponsors and the press. “We need to get a few things straight between us.”
“Well, um…” Cassie lowered her voice as her eyes flicked toward the annoying hotel manager who’d been buzzing around all day like a keen servant. “You see, I’m…”
“Look, Jimmy said you might be nervous, and I really hope that’s not why you were late, but seriously, don’t worry.” He gave her his most reassuring smile, totally understanding her anxiety. After all, pretending to be a virtual stranger’s girlfriend wasn’t an everyday occurrence and he was more than a little nervous about this arrangement himself. “From what he’s told me about you, I think you’ll be great and I promise you, I don’t bite.”
“That’s what they all say, but really, I… Where are we going?”
“Outside.” He’d taken her elbow and guided her to the hotel’s small courtyard. “I need to keep out in the fresh air as much as possible before my jet lag kicks in.” Seb kept his smile firmly in place. He also needed the privacy. If this arrangement was going to work, Cassie needed to understand the importance of discretion and he didn’t trust the hotel staff not to listen in.
“Please, take a seat.” Seb placed his plate on a small bistro style table and pulled a chair out for her, eager to set out his terms. He didn’t have long before Michael and the campaign manager, the formidable Brenda Ellis, finished their meeting and he wanted to fully brief Cassie before she met them. “First and foremost, this deal between us is a job.”
Cassie’s head shot up. “A job?” Then her eyes narrowed as her gaze shot to his groin. “What kind of job exactly?”
“Not that kind. That’s the first thing to get absolutely clear.” Seb sat opposite and locked eyes with her, deadly serious. “Despite what’s been written about me recently, I have never, ever paid for a woman’s company and what’s more, I have never needed to. Until now.”
Cassie’s brow creased again, looking like she didn’t believe him one bit.
Seb rolled his eyes. “Those reports were full of lies, blown out of all proportion by my mother’s opposers, so let’s step away from the bullshit politics for now and focus instead on what I’m doing here in England.” He paused while a man and a woman carrying coffees sat at the table next to theirs. Awesome. If Cassie had answered her phone earlier when he’d tried—numerous times—to speak to her, he could have gone through all this in privacy. He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Forget all the crap you may have read about me. I’m here to help Michael out, okay?” And win back a place in Strive’s good books. “Mikey needs me to make this summer’s campaign a success and that’s where our arrangement comes in. All I need you to do is be my date to the events Daniel Jones was due to attend with his fiancée.”
Cassie leaned back in her chair. “So this isn’t some dodgy sex thing? It’s a real job?”
“It sure is a real job and let neither of us forget it.”
“And it has real payment? With money as opposed to”—her gaze shot to his groin again—“other benefits?”
“Absolutely. You got my email, didn’t you?”
“Oh, yeah, of course. I got it.” She waved her fork casually in the air. “I’m just checking.”
Taking a forkful of his potato salad, Seb studied her as he ate. There was something odd about this woman, but Jimmy had assured him Cassie was “sweet, reliable, and honest”.
“Your contractual title is Personal Assistant and you’ll be paid weekly.” Seb reached into his inside pocket for the salary form he’d printed off before leaving home and pushed it toward her. “You’ll need to fill out your personal details as well as your banking information. My accountant will process the payment. Did you print off and sign the contract and non-disclosure agreement I emailed you?”
“The contract?” Cassie paused eating, eyeing the salary form between them. “Gosh, I’m sorry. I forgot to bring it with me.”
“That’s okay, I have a spare copy in my room.”
But there was something in her tone that made him think it wasn’t. “Any problems with the contract?”
Cassie pushed food around her plate. “Only that it’s very… conventional.”
“Exactly how I like it. It’s good to have everything in order, don’t you think?”
She wrinkled her nose. “I’m just surprised there’s a conventional contract for such an unconventional job.”
Seb watched her carefully. Conventional. Formal. Official. Huh. That’s how all his past girlfriends had described him in their It’s-Not-You-It’s-Me break-up monologue, which somehow always included a list of his flaws rather than theirs. Janna, his latest ex, had called him a tough nut to crack, which had made him laugh long after she’d shut the door behind her.
A nut? Seriously?
Usually he was a closed book or was surrounded by stone walls. Jeez.
Women were always trying to get him to “open up”, like the reason he wasn’t falling at their feet was because he had some deep, dark secret. Fact was, he liked keeping himself to himself. It was cleaner that way. Controlled. Safer. Open up? And have everything he’d ever said thrown back in his face the next time they argued? No thanks.
But Seb fully accepted that the rate he’d gone through women over the years had earned him that ladies-man rep which hadn’t helped him one bit when the shit hit the fan in Vegas. He’d been easy pickings for scandal and in the aftermath, all he had to do was look at a woman for the gossip mill to work overtime, conjuring up relationships that didn’t exist.
Well, fine. Seb was inventing a relationship all of his own now, one that he could be in complete control of all of the time. One that didn’t require him to open up. One that wasn’t weighed down with emotions and feelings—just nice conventional, formal, official paperwork.
“Even unconventional jobs have contracts,” he said firmly. “So let’s go through those dates I emailed you.”
Seb pulled out his palm-sized leather bound notebook from his inside pocket and opened the page of events he was due to compete in over the summer. They ranged from running races, bike rides and swim-a-thons, each event a day long affair beginning with a meet-the-crowd session and finishing with a prize presentation. A private, formal dinner engagement with event organizers, participants and local officials was scheduled in the evenings.
“Okay. The first event is next Saturday. We’ll need to be in… Weston-Super-Mare. Do you know it?”
“Everyone knows it.”
“Good. I’d like you to be there by 11am. Google Maps tells me that’s an hour south-west of here which means you’ll need to be in Bristol by 9.30am to give you some leeway.”
Seb tapped his pen against the notebook. That was the only problem with Cassie. She lived an hour and a half away in Oxford, and although Seb had spent time yesterday researching the logistics of her travel, he still hadn’t come up with a plan that would be convenient for them both. There would be times when she’d be required to overnight in Bristol due to an early start or late finish, but he hadn’t yet figured out where she’d be staying. His hotel room only had one bed and it wouldn’t look right if his girlfriend slept elsewhere.
“Of course, I’ll pay your fuel expenses,” he continued, promising to work on sleeping arrangements later. “I don’t expect you to fund your own travel even if I am paying you two hundred bucks a date.”
“Two hundred bucks?!” Cassie choked.
“Yeah, yeah. Sorry.” Seb held up a hand. “My head is still in Canada. I meant to say pounds. So, tomorrow night is the inaugural dinner. Big sponsors, celebrities and influencers will attend. And so will Michael.”
Cassie’s eyes widened. “Michael Adams?”
“Yes.” Who else? How much of his email had she actually absorbed? “Michael’s wife, Evie, will be there too. We’re on the same table and as Evie is so heavily pregnant, it’ll be good if you could sit with her and bond or something.” Seb leaned in. “Michael and Evie know our relationship is in the early stages—they of course don’t know how early—but rest assured, this arrangement between us isn’t the kissy-kissy, sweet-pumpkin kind, got it?” When she nodded, he continued. “We’ll be having dinner later with them this evening so you’ll get to meet them. Now, let’s go over the rules.”
“There are rules?”
“Of course.” Seb caught the quirk of her lips. Was she making fun of him? He tapped his pen again, giving her the benefit of the doubt as Jimmy’s words repeated in his head; sweet, honest, reliable.
I hope you’re right about her, buddy.
“Firstly. If you’re on time, you’re late. I know today was a casual get-to-know-each-other session, but in future, I’d appreciate it if you were punctual. Secondly, your wardrobe. What you’re wearing now is perfect, but don’t be afraid to go a little more dressy for the formal dinners. You’ll also need to go sporty-casual for some of the day time events but I’m sure Strive can provide you with some gear. And thirdly,” he looked down at his notes, unsure how to best approach the next subject. He tapped the pen against the words he’d written. “PDA.”
“PDA? I don’t know what that is but it sounds painful.”
“It’s got the potential to be just that which is why we need to discuss it.” Seb looked up from his notebook, held her gaze. “Public Displays of Affection.” Surprise flickered in her eyes. He didn’t want this to be any more awkward than it had to be so he ploughed on through. “Occasionally, we’ll need to hold hands and dance and… and… kiss.” He tugged at his collar. “But you’ll notice that Clause 3.2 states we each respect personal boundaries at all times so we should have a code word or something that we use every time some PDA needs to be deployed.”
Cassie sucked in a cheek. “How about ‘Fire in the hole?’”
“That’s cute.” Yep, definitely making fun of him. He shut the notebook. “Any questions?”
“Yeah.” She cocked her head. “Why is a guy like you paying for a woman?”
“Aha! I’m not, remember?” Seb tapped the paperwork between them. “It’s a job and like any other job, I’m paying for a service that gives me exactly what I want, with no complications and zero mess.” He leaned back. “Think of it like a take out. Sure, I can cook, and I’ll have you know I’m pretty good in that department, but afterward? I’m left with a pile of dirty dishes and a whole bunch of pots and pans to scrub.”
“And the clear up takes longer than the eating so you wonder if it’s worth it?”
Seb smiled. “I’m glad we’re on the same page, Cassie.”
“Hmmm…” She slid the salary form off the table and looked it over, though he got the impression she wasn’t reading anything. “So what do you know about me?”
“Only what Jimmy has told me.”
“That Jimmy. He’s so… nice. I’d just love to know what he’s been saying.” Cassie smiled and propped her head on her elbows, leaning across the table close enough that he noticed the pale blue flecks of her eyes.
“Jimmy said you were very discreet so I don’t need to remind you that discretion is the number one, most fundamental, rule here. And I certainly don’t need to tell you what the media would make of our arrangement. Above all, any backlash wouldn’t be fair to the Get Living campaign.” And Seb might as well light a match to the Strive contract himself if news that he’d hired a girlfriend ever got out. Though he wasn’t going to reveal this worry to Cassie. “Michael has worked hard for years raising money for worthy causes and I think you’ll agree that his foundation does amazing work. We can’t jeopardize that. At all. Is that understood?”
“Yes, of course.” Cassie placed the salary form back on the table. “So I’m discreet. What else did Jimmy tell you?”
“That you’ve got an English Lit degree, you’ve recently ran your third marathon and now you’re taking the summer off to write and compile a poetry anthology.”
Cassie coughed. “Well, that pretty much sums me up then.”
“But I’ll need to know other details about you. Something personal that a boyfriend might know, like a favorite color or book. Your favorite poet.”
“Wow, that personal?” She blew hair out of her eyes. “So… favorite color is yellow. Favorite book is… well, that’s really hard because there are so many good ones, and as for my favorite poet. Gosh.” She scratched her nose. “That’s really difficult. It sort of depends on what mood I’m in. What about you? Do you have a favorite color or…poet?”
“Blue. And sorry to disappoint, but I haven’t read a poem since high school.”
“Shame.” She flashed him a bright smile. “I’ve got a personal question for you now. Why can’t you attend these events by yourself?”
Seb pushed his plate to the side. “Bottom line? After I’ve taken part in the events, my job is essentially to network at dinner parties and as they’re always full of couples, it’s a lot easier for me to actually do some networking if I’m part of one myself. While the women talk about shoes and clothes, the men can discuss important issues, like business and politics.”
Cassie’s jaw dropped.
“What?” He shrugged, but the disgust and outrage on her face was just too much. He grinned. “Do you honestly think the son of Dr Celeste Clarke would have survived childhood if he were a sexist prick? Come on, let’s take a walk and get to know each other. Just don’t go all bookish on me, my Shakespeare’s a little rusty.”
“I’ll try to contain myself. First, I need to powder my nose.” Cassie pushed back her chair. “I’ll be back in a sec.”
Helen stood at the wash basin in the hotel’s plush bathrooms, scrolling through Sebastian Clarke articles on her phone. Holy crap, his mother was some high profile politician, his recently deceased father some corporate lawyer for an energy company, and Sebastian himself? Exactly what she’d just seen; a ridiculously fit Olympic athlete who was way too handsome for his own good, especially in the many images of him by a pool wearing nothing but tight swim wear. She skim read a few articles about him being caught drunk in Las Vegas with some showgirls, then scrolled through dozens of pictures of him with a variety of stunning women. Helen really didn’t understand why someone like him needed to pay for a date, but she had other, more immediate things to think about right now.
Like how she was going to get past him and out of this hotel without him seeing her.
Back in a sec?
More like never. The moment he’d mentioned contracts, Helen knew she wouldn’t be impersonating Cassie Phillips—or anyone else. That was a crime, and she couldn’t commit any more of those, especially when she was only three hours in to her probation period. If not for Pencil Neck, she would have told the Beefcake the truth straight away, but Helen had been too scared of Liz getting into trouble and when she’d heard that tiny little word job, her drunken brain had immediately been lured into finding out more.
And—wowzers—what a job!
Two hundred pounds per date for essentially doing fuck all?! Was this seriously how that discreet poet woman would be earning her money this summer?
Well, Helen wasn’t going to find out. For all she knew, Cassie Phillips could be speaking to the hotel receptionist right this second, asking for Sebastian Clarke. And, worst still, Sebastian might have already met her, scratching his head over who the hell he’d just been speaking to for the past twenty minutes about his rules, contracts and flipping PDA.
Helen had to leave—now! But glancing around her, she’d already noted the lack of windows. Shitballs. Unless she could get to Liz to ask about a back exit, the only way out was to sneak through the main entrance and past Sebastian Clarke, who may or may not be with the real Cassie Phillips.
Well done, Helen, another fine mess.
Feeling sick and far from sober, Helen drank water straight from the tap. The food she’d in effect stolen had lodged in her chest in a serve-you-right kind of way and the honey-smooth alcohol buzz she’d briefly enjoyed earlier threatened to turn into a grinding headache. She stared at herself in the mirror. Droplets of water glistened around her mouth and dripped off her chin in the most attractive way as she pictured hotel security throwing her out on to the street, her girlie bag smacked the back of her head as she landed splat on her knees.
If Pencil Neck found out it was Liz who had given her the access badge, Liz could lose her job. And what if Pencil Neck called the police? Helen really would be back in court quicker than she could say Jaxon Bates.
“Are you okay?”
Helen shifted her gaze away from her own reflection to the red-haired woman standing at the basin next to her, recognizing her as one half of the coffee-drinking couple from the courtyard.
“You look like you’re about to throw up.”
“Perfect. Just the look I was going for.” Helen wiped her mouth with a paper towel. “Day time drinking is never a good idea, is it?”
“Depends on the occasion.” The woman shrugged. “Is that Sebastian Clarke you’re with?”
“Yes. No. I mean, I’m with him but I’m not, like, with him. Exactly.” Helen dabbed her forehead dry, feeling uncomfortably hot. “We’re just… friends.”
“Cool. I heard he’s replacing Daniel Jones.”
Helen winced. This Get Living thing seemed to be a big deal. Another reason why she should get the hell out.
“Want some lip gloss?” The woman offered up a small, pinkish pot. “It doubles up as blusher if you want to rub some on your cheeks. You’re looking very pale.”
Helen saw that she was right, thanked her and dabbed color back on to her face. When she handed the pot back, the woman held the door open and Helen had no choice but to step back through it.
“He’s so good-looking,” the woman said, halting in front of Helen just as Helen had been about to dip behind her.
“Who?” Helen edged closer to the wall furthest away from the courtyard, but the woman kept getting in her way.
She nodded toward the foyer. “Sebastian Clarke.”
He laser-beamed Helen with a surprisingly sweet and charming smile.
“And here she is!” he announced, walking toward her. He hooked his long arm around her shoulders, and whispered. “What kept you? Never mind, just smile and look pretty.”
Sebastian pressed her against his warm, hard chest. Helen glanced helplessly over her shoulder at her new friend, but the woman with the red hair had already gone back to her boyfriend in the courtyard.
“I wasn’t expecting any reporters to still be about,” Sebastian continued, his breath tickling Helen’s neck, “but this guy must have been tailing me. Just follow my lead and I’ll get us out of here a-sap.”
Helen scanned the hotel foyer for any women who looked like they wrote poetry, but only noticed the slick, short guy in a denim jacket that Sebastian was heading toward.
“Hi, I’m Gary Grice.” The guy held a notepad and phone, and his lips twisted to one side as he looked Helen up and down. “What’s your name, sweetheart?”
But Sebastian cut in and smoothly ignored the question by asking one of his own. “Who did you say you worked for?”
“I’m freelance. A trainee, actually. But I can get you all the affiliation details you want. How about I bring them to your press call tomorrow?”
“That’ll be great.” Sebastian’s smile was affable enough, but far from natural. As he kept his arm hooked around her, Helen snuggled against his body, engulfed in his fresh woodsy scent.
“Mind if I take a photo?” the journalist asked.
Helen’s head shot up. To her horror, Sebastian nodded with that all-too-polite smile. Her gaze darted to the bar where Liz was staring open-mouthed right back at her.
Quick, Liz, sound the fire alarm so I can escape amid the confusion!
But Liz was too frozen in shock to tune into Helen’s telepathic messages and when Pencil Neck appeared at Liz’s side, Helen had no choice but to cut all ties with her friend. She couldn’t risk getting Liz mixed up in this.
“Where do you want us?” Sebastian gently nudged Helen, which she took as her cue to stand tall, stop gawping and act like a girlfriend.
Positioning her lips into an upward curve, Helen showed some teeth and hoped she didn’t look as distressed as she felt. When the journalist lowered his phone, Sebastian stepped forward, leaving her arm cold where his warm skin had been pressed against it.
“It was a pleasure meeting you, Gary,” he said with frustrating, impeccable manners. “As I said, get in touch with the campaign manager, Brenda Ellis, and we’ll look forward to seeing you at tomorrow’s press call.”
Sebastian then took Helen’s hand and ushered her briskly through a door and up a flight of carpeted stairs.
“Man, what a dick.”
“Who was he?” Helen asked, struggling to keep up in her heels and tight skirt with Sebastian as he took the stairs two at a time.
“Just some pap hoping to get a cheap story out of me. He was asking me all these questions about you and how we met. Jeez.”
“You should have told him to get lost.”
“And risk causing a scene on my first day? No way. I’ve gotta keep these people sweet, especially after what happened in Vegas, and there’s no way I’m embarrassing Michael or Get Living.” Sebastian pushed through a heavy fire door at the top of the stairs. Helen followed him in to the corridor. “I’m sorry this has all happened so fast.”
“Our relationship.” He flashed her an apologetic smile. “That was our first photo shoot as a couple.”
No, no, no, no, no. “Look, Sebastian, I—”
“What now?” Helen was too afraid to look at what had caught Sebastian’s attention behind her.
“It’s Brenda.” And in the blink of an eye, his face broke out into another wide, plastic smile.
Helen turned, bracing at the sight of a formidable, crisply dressed middle-aged woman walking down the corridor toward them.
“I thought you’d still be in your meeting with Michael,” Sebastian said, pressing his hand in the small of Helen’s back. “This is Cassie. Cassie meet Brenda, the campaign manager.”
Helen shook the intimidating lady’s hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“We were just heading out for a walk before dinner,” Sebastian added.
“In that case, I’m glad I caught you. Michael said he and Evie will meet you both in the restaurant at six.” The woman smiled, then turned to Helen with an assessing gaze. “Sebastian tells me you write poetry.”
“Yes.” Oh, god. “Yes, I do.” Helen’s head hurt but to her relief, Sebastian expertly diverted the topic away from the poetry she didn’t write.
“There’s a reporter downstairs,” he said. “Gary Grice. He took a photo of us just now, but I told him to hold off posting it anywhere until he spoke to you.”
“Who does he work for?”
“Says he’s freelance.”
“I’ll look him up.” Again, the woman turned her attention to Helen, but before she could speak, Sebastian bid her a cheerful goodbye and nudged Helen through the door he’d just swiped open.
“We’ll wait here a couple minutes to make sure she’s gone, then we’ll head out.”
The room filled with a muffled silence and it took a moment for Helen to realize she was standing in his hotel room.
“I’ll change out of this shirt, then we’ll go.” Sebastian took his jacket off, revealing a short-sleeved shirt that showed off his swimmer’s shoulders, impressive, rounded biceps, long, corded forearms, and pecs like two iron slabs.
Scrabbling for something to say, Helen focused on the big black suitcase next to his bed. “So, how long will you be in England for?”
“And you’ll be living here, in this hotel, all that time?” Just so I know never to meet Liz here again.
“Actually, I’m kinda hoping to hire a house some place else. I think I’ll go crazy otherwise.”
“Yeah, living in luxury has that effect on me too.”
The corners of his mouth kicked up, a genuine smile this time and it pleased her to see it.
“I’ve been staring at the water for hours just itching to dive in.” Sebastian nodded toward the window. Helen followed his gaze to the view of Bristol’s waterfront below, the Pavilion and Millennium Square beyond. He chatted about all the places he was keen to see while he worked in the city—the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the Christmas Steps and Saint Nicholas Market—and slightly further afield to Glastonbury, Stone Henge and the Devonshire coast.
All these sights sounded so exciting and vibrant through a foreigner’s eyes, and in her far from sober state, Helen imagined taking Sebastian on a tour of the countryside where she lived. The fields full of apple trees, the meadows rich with wild flowers, the lake, and the river that meandered close by. Thinking about it all now gave her a deep sense of belonging and longing—and a desperate craving to be home.
What was she doing here?
Ready to tell Sebastian the truth so she could leave, Helen turned to face him but froze at the sight of his bare back, his muscles rippling as he pulled a T-shirt over his head. She whirled back to the window and nearly smashed her face against the glass in her new found fascination with the seagulls that bobbed on the water below.
She nodded like a moron, then got a grip on her thirsty libido. “What if our friend Grice is still downstairs? Will he want another photo?”
Sebastian shrugged. “We can hang out here if you prefer?”
“No!” There wasn’t enough air in here. “Let’s go.” It would be better to tell him the truth outside anyway, so could slip in to the city crowds afterward without a trace.
But how would he react when she told him?
A smattering of caution pushed its way through her foggy brain. If that journalist downstairs published images of Sebastian Clarke and his “girlfriend”, what would the media then make of that girlfriend completely disappearing? What would happen if someone recognized her and told the world she wasn’t called Cassie?
And what would the backlash be on the Get Living campaign? Would it be discredited? Oh, Lord, Helen didn’t want the responsibility of messing it up for all those people who took it seriously and relied on the money the events raised.
“Hey.” Sebastian waved his hand in front of her face. “Where did you go?”
Helen snapped back to reality. “I was just wondering… I don’t suppose you have any control over what that guy downstairs writes about you, do you?”
“Nope.” Sebastian stood next to her by the window, and she caught a whiff of his woodsy scent again. “But hopefully he’ll write something decent.”
“And if he doesn’t?”
Sebastian shrugged, a trace of uncertainty in his eyes. “The best practice is to ignore it and move on.”
“He looked slimy.”
“Yeah, I got that impression too, but what could he possible say about us? That we’re dating? That’s the whole point of you being here.”
The weight of his gaze on the side of her face had Helen studying those seagulls again.
“Only three people on this entire planet know about our arrangement,” he continued. “I won’t tell anyone, and I know Jimmy wouldn’t either.” Sebastian was smiling quite pleasantly—very pleasantly, in fact. His blue eyes twinkling with charm and self-assurance, but the warning was clear.
“I won’t tell anyone either. I promise.” She locked eyes with him, but her words clearly weren’t enough. She lowered her gaze to the contract he held in his hands.
“Would you mind signing this before we go?”
Helen took it from him, inhaling sharply. “Sebastian, a funny thing happened today when we met. I—”
The knock on the door startled her. Her heart thudded in her ears, just as it had done the night she’d been busted breaking in to Jaxon’s place, and she instinctively looked for somewhere to run as if hotel security, DC Nazir and the entire police force were about to burst through.
“Seb? It’s me, Mikey.”
Oblivious to her anxiety, Sebastian left Helen’s side and flung the door open. “Hey, come on in.”
Helen’s jaw dropped at the sight of the well-known and impressively built man standing in the door way.
Michael Adams—the Michael Adams.
She’d seen him on TV dozens of times and here he was now, so big he filled the entire doorway. Olympic legend. Humanitarian. Charity campaigner. All round saint.
And now the blockage to her only exit.
END OF EXTRACT
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