Copyright © Giulia Skye 2021
The following extract has not yet been line/copy edited or professionally proof read and some details may be different on the final, completed novel, but I hope it gives you an idea of what’s to come.
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 have had your arse hauled to a cell for a month. You get so much as a speeding ticket 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,” she hissed. “How was I supposed to know he was under surveillance? I didn’t think—”
“That’s just it, you never do,” Tom hissed back. “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 ahead—but how else was she to earn the money she needed to keep the 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, a smartly dressed middle-aged woman with sleek dark hair stepped through the doors behind her.
“Helen.” The woman gave her a curt little nod. “I assume the conditions of your probation were made clear?”
“Good. We shouldn’t be seeing you here again then.” The woman breezed down the steps. “I’ll be calling you when I have questions.”
She got into an awaiting dark blue car and Tom turned to Helen, frowning. “Who was that?”
“Detective Constable Almira Nazir. The woman in charge of Jaxon’s case.” Helen nudged her brother’s arm. “Let’s 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’s wardrobe had none, and neither did the prissy baby-blue blouse. She’d dressed like a frigid, turn-of-the-century school teacher, not that it had helped in the slightest to get her off a community payback sentence. She tugged the strap of her girlie bag and sighed. Fifty hours. “ Shit.”
“Yeah,” Tom said, like he’d read her mind. He drew a long breath, a sure sign that a lecture was heading her way. Eleven months younger than her, he acted eleven years older ever since he’d got married and become a dad. “It feels to me that ever since Edith passed away, you’ve reverted back to how it used to be with us.” Glancing over at him, Helen noticed his 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 Edith 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. She’d been thinking about the money Jaxon owed her for the code she’d written him. How that cash was needed to pay the rent the new Pendlebury estate manager had imposed since Edith’s death. And she’d been thinking how, with Jaxon gone—a warrant out for his arrest—she wasn’t likely to earn any money until he re-surfaced.
“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 the work I was doing with Jaxon was a proper job.” Even if he was a wanted cyber-criminal.
Jaxon had told her he needed her to write virus software so he could create the antidote, but she had no idea he’d been holding companies to ransom for it. Not until she’d been arrested for breaking into his flat then questioned for the best part of ten hours by DC Nazir. Helen should have known something was up when Jaxon hadn’t been in touch for a while with new assignments but it wasn’t until she’d seen his empty flat, that she’d realized he’d done a runner.
Helen and Tom reached a crossing and waited for the lights to change. Cars, buses and bikes rolled past as Helen studied the cloud ladened sky.
Noting her low mood, her brother nudged her sagging shoulders. “When you’re out scraping road kill off the curb, do you think they’ll make you wear one of those florescent jackets?”
“Har-har.” Trust her brother to come up with his own special brand of compassion. “You’re just sooo funny.”
Tom snorted. “You know what they say, ‘Can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.’”
“Thanks for the life advice. 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 shook his head, no doubt recalling the night he’d had to fetch her from the police station and found her nursing a fat lip and bruised cheek. He glanced at his wrist watch. “I’ll pick you up outside the hotel in a couple of hours.”
“Thank you.” Helen kissed him on the cheek and, because she knew 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!” he called after her. “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 would never be in Helen’s price range even for a coffee, and certainly not the type of place she’d ever 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 Clifton, which he used as his office—the same office Helen had been caught breaking in to.
Damn. If only she’d known the police were watching his flat! All she’d been focused on was 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. She’d planned the whole break-in meticulously, even timing her run from Jaxon’s place to the bus stop where she’d catch the bus home, but as it was, she’d barely crept through his kitchen before the police had surrounded her, 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. Knowing confidence was key to faking anything, she flung her shoulders back, stuck her chin up then sailed past the receptionist and straight through to the bar area where Liz wiped glasses with a starched white cloth.
“Wow.” Liz’s eyebrows shot up when Helen approached. “I barely recognized you!”
Ah. The outfit. Helen tugged at her blouse, undoing the top three most suffocating buttons. “Hideous, isn’t it?”
“No, the opposite. You look amazing.” Liz looked her up and down. “Your hair suits you like that.”
Stroking the side of her head, Helen felt the sleek, smooth hair that Tom’s wife, Emma, had ruthlessly straightened last night, banishing any hint of the fuzzy curls Helen usually contained in a short, stubby pony tail. She pulled a face. “I don’t look like me.”
“No, I suppose not, 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 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 had given Liz an epiphany moment which had put her on a mission to turn her life around. She dumped Raz, moved back in with her mum and got the job at the hotel. A job which 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 Helen. “So how did it go today?”
“Shit.” Though Helen suspected Liz already knew as much, 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 sentencing.
“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 last night out had been Helen’s only night out in about three years, an attempt by Liz to cheer her up after Edith’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 they’d been arrested, that she fancied Jaxon Bates! Drunk, disorderly and out of her mind—but thank god, she hadn’t mentioned his name. Helen felt foolish enough about the daydreams she’d had of her and Jaxon living a bright, rosy future together. He’d been just her type; lean, wiry and dishevelled, and a genius, too. She’d loved learning from him and when their late night emails 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.”
As well as fuelling her fantasies, Jaxon had also fuelled her finances. He’d been her only source of income this past year and in the two 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, maintaining Licks and Laces—Alexa’s online lingerie and sex toy business—wasn’t where she’d aspired to be at this point in her life, or at any point, really.
“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, 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 and slouched 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. She was so different now to the can’t-be-bothered girl Helen had met three years ago when Liz worked at the garden center café Edith had liked to frequent with her friends. “You really like it here, don’t you?”
Liz shrugged nervously, as if she were afraid to tempt fate. “I’ve been here 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. Filled with a weird sense of pride, the backs of Helen’s eyes prickled with tears. Distracting herself before she looked as foolish and drunk as she felt, 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?” She’d heard mention of it on the news lately, something about the athlete who was supposed to lead this summer’s challenges getting trampled by a horse in a freak 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. The door was open and hotel staff cleared away dirty plates. “The new Sports Ambassador is that Canadian swimmer, Sebastian Clarke.”
“Never heard of him.” Helen clutched at her growling stomach, her mouth watering 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. “And I really need to sober up before my brother comes.”
Liz looked unsure. Helen was just about to tell her to forget it when 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, just 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, wishing she had a box with her so she could take the rest away. She could live off this food for a week! She stuffed a mini quiche into her mouth, answering the 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, debating whether she could carry the whole plate of hors d’oeuvres back to the bar area, she popped another olive in to her mouth.
“I’m so glad you made it.”
The masculine voice behind her made her choke. Helen gulped and turned, coming 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 gorgeous pair of 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. As she opened her mouth to explain, a lean, gangly-looking man in hotel uniform entered the room.
Gangly-man smiled, his wide lips making his long 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. He hadn’t gotten a chance to eat much during the conference as Michael and the campaign manager, Gladys, had kept him busy, introducing him to financiers, reporters and event organizers. In fact, since touching down on British soil 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 to his new boss that his girlfriend had stood him up on day frickin’ one.
Not that Michael Adams knew this was the first time Seb had met Cassandra Phillips, the British woman his best friend, Jimmy, had lined up to pose as the love of his life. Thanks to the unfortunate incident in Vegas last month, Seb knew Michael wouldn’t have given him the job without the reassurance that Seb wasn’t the womanizing douche bag the media were making him out to be, and the best way to do that? Tell Mikey he had a steady girlfriend… Yeah, in England, no less, and, guess what? He’d be spending the summer to be with her, anyway, so if the Get Living campaign needed a new sports ambassador, Seb would be in the area and would be glad to help out.
Seb hated lying to Michael, but, man, he needed this job. After Vegas, Strive Sportswear were close to terminating his contract and had given him six weeks to repair the damage to his reputation and prove he was still the wholesome hero they were looking for, and without their funding, Seb could kiss his Olympic dreams goodbye.
And Seb wasn’t really lying to Michael. Not that much anyway. Jimmy’s introduction to Cassie was like a friend arranging a blind date. Or paying for a match-making service. Only romance—or anything else of that ilk—would never be on the agenda. All Seb needed was a charming and sophisticated woman. Someone capable of making polite dinner conversation, who looked good on his arm and then fade into the background when it was time for him to go home and continue 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 and hadn’t been able to send any photos of Cassie. Seb hadn’t felt comfortable about asking her to send a selfie and her sparse social media profile only revealed pictures of cats so today was the first time Seb had seen her.
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. And her punctuality would definitely be one of them. 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, which included Brenda Ellis, the head of Strive UK. “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.” Sebastian 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 that hotel manager 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 formidable Gladys 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, her gaze shooting 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, came to sit 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 from the privacy of his hotel room. 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, sure. I got it.” She waved her fork casually in the air. “I’m just checking.”
Taking a forkful of his own 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” and that was good enough for him.
“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 in Ottawa will process the payment. Did you print off and sign the contract and non-disclosure agreement I emailed you?”
“The contract?” Cassie paused eating, eying 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 on 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, women were slippery creatures he’d never been able to figure out. He knew from experience that they could be manipulative, sentimental, emotional tangles of illogic and irrationality. 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 play-boy rep which hadn’t helped him one bit when the shit hit the fan in Vegas. He was 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 and local media was scheduled in the evening.
“Okay. The first event is next Saturday. We’ll need to be in… Weston-Super-Mare. Do you know it?”
“Everyone knows it.”
“Good. We’ll need to be there by 10am. Google Maps tells me that’s an hour south-west of here which means you’ll need to be in Bristol by 9am.”
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. Okay, I’m sorry.” Seb held up a hand. “My head is still in Vancouver. I meant to say pounds. So, tomorrow night is the inaugural dinner. Big sponsors 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. Now,” 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? See it more of a companionship thing. We’ll be having dinner later with them this evening so you’ll get to meet them. They’re nice, cool and casual people.” He looked at his watch. “We have a couple hours before then so let’s go over the rules.”
“There are rules?”
“Of course.” He 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 ran like a mantra 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’ll see if Strive can get you some gear. And thirdly,” he looked down at his notes, unsure how to best approach the subject. He tapped the pen against the words he’d written. Other men. “Jimmy said you’re currently single, but if you happen to meet someone you’re interested in over the summer, please let me know. I don’t expect you to put your personal life on hold for this job, but I do need you to be discreet if you happen to meet someone you’re interested in. Which brings me finally to the 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 that it had to be so he plowed on through. “Occasionally, we’ll need to hold hands and dance and… and… kiss.” He tugged at his collar. “And I guess, we’d have to whisper into each other’s ears like couples do, and… and… touch. But you’ll notice that Clause 3.2 states we each respect personal boundaries at all times so we should have a code or something that we use every time some PDA needs to be deployed.”
Cassie sucked in a cheek. “How about Fire in the hole?”
Yep, definitely making fun of him.
He shut the notebook with a flourish. “Any questions?”
“Yeah.” She cocked her head, curious. “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 flicked her eyes over it, though he got the impression she wasn’t reading anything. “So what do you know about me?”
“Only what Jimmy has told me.”
“Oh, 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.
“He 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.” Or him. He might as well light a match to the Strive contract himself if news that he’d hired a girlfriend ever got out. Not that he’d reveal this worry to Cassie—or anyone else. “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 tenth marathon and now you’re taking the summer off to write and compile a poetry anthology.”
“Well.” She scratched her chin. “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 poet?”
“Sorry to disappoint. I can’t say I’ve read a poem since school—other than what might be in a greetings card.”
“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?”
“Bottom line?” Seb pushed his plate to the side. “After I’ve taken part in the races, 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 the important issues, like business and politics.”
“Are you serious?” Cassie’s jaw dropped.
“What do you mean?” He blinked, her eyes flashing disgust and outrage. He grinned. “Do you honestly think the son of Dr Celeste Clarke would have survived childhood if he were a sexist prick? Come on,” he stood, “let’s take a walk and get to know each other. But don’t go all bookish on me, my Shakespeare’s a little rusty.”
“I’ll try to contain myself, but first, I need to powder my nose.” Cassie pushed her chair back. “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 oil company, and Sebastian himself? Exactly what she’d just seen; a wealthy, ridiculously fit Olympic athlete who was way too good-looking 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 some trouble he’d been caught up in Las Vegas featuring showgirls, a Swedish rock group and a trashed a hotel room, then scrolled through dozens of pictures of him with a variety of stunning women. Helen really didn’t understand why someone like him need to pay for a date, but she had other things—more immediate things—to work out 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 in a bloody century. The moment he’d mentioned contracts, Helen knew she wasn’t going to impersonate Cassie Phillips. Or anyone else. That was a crime, and she couldn’t commit any more than she had done already—especially when she was only three hours in to her probation period. If it hadn’t been for Pencil Neck, she would have told the Beefcake the truth straight away, but Helen had been too scared of getting Liz 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 and damn 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 flipping Clarke, who may, or may not be, with the real Cassie Phillips. Well done, Hobbs, another fine mess.
Staring at her phone, Helen rubbed her temples with her free hand. She had an hour before Tom picked her up. Could she ask him to come early and cause a distraction at the main entrance? But even to her own ears, that plan sounded daft. Tom had already taken time out of his work day to attend the hearing with her, and didn’t this just prove what he’d said earlier about always having to bail her out of trouble? She’d never hear the end of it.
And rightly so.
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 pavement, her girlie bag smacking 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. All because of her. And what if Pencil Neck called the police? She really would be back in court quicker than she could say Jaxon Bates.
Fuck. She was a bloody liability.
“Are you okay?”
Helen shifted her gaze away from her own reflection to a red-haired woman standing at the basin next to her, recognizing her as one half of the loved-up, 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 Dan Jones.”
Helen winced. This Get Living thing seemed to be a big deal. Another reason why she should get the hell out. She straightened her clothes, making herself look normal and inconspicuous, ready for a speedy exit.
“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 to her, the woman held the door open and Helen had no choice but to step back through it.
“That’s good stuff, where did you get it?” Helen asked her new found friend. May be is she kept her talking long enough, she could use her as a human shield. But after telling her the name of an online store that Helen had never heard of, the woman stopped and blocked Helen’s path. “He’s so good-looking.”
The woman nodded toward the foyer. “Sebastian Clarke.”
Laser-beaming her with a surprisingly sweet and charming smile, Sebastian ambled toward Helen. “And here she is!”
He hooked his long arm around her shoulders. Her breath caught in her throat.
“What kept you?” he whispered out of the corner of his mouth. “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 she’d already gone back to her boyfriend in the courtyard.
“I wasn’t expecting any reporters to still be about,” Sebastian continued, his breath tickling her 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 had turned her toward.
“Hi, I’m Gary Grice.” The guy held a notepad and phone, his lips twisting to one side when he smiled, like he was about to tell a dirty joke. “What’s your name, sweetheart?”
“Hey, Gary, what publication did you say you worked for?” Sebastian smoothly cut in, ignoring not only the question but also the keen curiosity on the journalist’s face. “Do you have a card?”
“Not to hand, 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. He kept his arm hooked around her and she snuggled against his body, engulfed in his woodsy scent which was far from unpleasant.
“Mind if I take a photo?”
Helen’s head shot up. To her horror, Sebastian nodded with that all-too-polite smile. Her eyes darted over to the bar and she locked eyes with Liz who was staring, open mouthed. Quick, 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 her side, Helen had no choice but to cut all ties with her friend. She couldn’t risk Liz losing her job.
“Where do you want us?” Sebastian gently squeezed her ribs and Helen stood tall, taking her cue to stop gawping and act like a girlfriend.
She positioned her lips into an upward curve, 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 frustratingly impeccable manners. “As I said, get in touch with the campaign’s PR Manager, Gladys Burke, and we’ll look forward to seeing you again soon.”
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 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, and if you’d ever been to Vegas. Jeez.”
“You should have told him to get lost.”
“And risk causing a scene on my first day? No way. I’ve got to keep these people sweet, especially after what happened in Vegas, and there’s no way I’m embarrassing Michael or his campaign.” He pushed through a heavy fire door at the top of the stairs and she 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 squeaked, too afraid to look at what had caught Sebastian’s attention behind her.
“It’s Gladys.” And in the blink of an eye, his face broke out into another wide, plastic smile. “Hey!”
Turning round, Helen saw a 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 Gladys, the campaign manager.” Helen shook the lady’s slender but firm hand as Sebastian added, “We were just heading out for a walk before dinner.”
“In that case, I’m glad I caught you. Michael said they’d meet you both in the restaurant at six.” The woman smiled, then turned to Helen.
“Sebastian tells me you write poetry.”
“Yes.” Oh, god. “Yes, I do.” Helen’s head thumped 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.”
“The name doesn’t ring a bell but I’ll look him up.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed but before she could say anything else, Sebastian said 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 as he closed the door. It took a moment for Helen to realize she was standing in his hotel room.
“Let me change out of this shirt and we’ll head out.” Sebastian took his jacket off, revealing a short-sleeved shirt that showed off impressive, rounded biceps, long, corded forearms, and pecs like two iron slabs.
Helen swallowed, focusing on the shoe box at the foot of his bed. New running shoes? Nice. Then she noticed the big black suitcase next to it. Scrabbling for something to say, she asked, “How long will you be in England for?”
“And you’ll be living here, in this hotel, all that time?” Just so she knew 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, and Helen followed his gaze to the view of Bristol’s waterfront below, to the Pavilion and Millennium Square beyond, her head pounding as he chatted about all the places he was keen to see while he’d be working in the area; the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the Christmas Steps and the Saint Nicholas Market.
It had been years since Helen had spent time in the city. It sounded so exciting and vibrant through a foreigner’s eyes, and in her far from sober state, she imagined taking Sebastian on a tour of the countryside where she lived. The open fields of apple trees, the meadows full of 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, a desperate craving to be home.
What the fuck was she doing here?
She’d left her cottage only this morning, but still, she was filled with a sudden pang of homesickness. Ready to tell Sebastian the truth so she could leave, Helen turned back 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, nearly smashing her face against the glass in her new found fascination with seagulls. When they bobbed in the water like that, how long before their feathers got soaked?
She nodded like a moron against the window pane, then got a grip by thinking about something that was far removed from his bare body and 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!” Not enough air in here. “I’m good. Let’s go.” It would be better to tell him the truth outside anyway, so she could slip in to the city crowds without a trace.
But as she wondered what his reaction would be when she told him, a smattering of caution pushed its way through her foggy brain. If Grice published images of Sebastian Clarke and his “girlfriend”, what would the media then make of that girlfriend completely disappearing? The ghastly visions of being splashed across every front page made Helen want to spew—she’d be the talk of the village!—but those thoughts aside, 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? She didn’t want the responsibility of fucking 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 the media says 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, though his eyes didn’t look as certain. “We do our best 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 made her study those seagulls again. “Only three people on this entire planet know about our arrangement. I won’t tell anyone, and I know Jimmy wouldn’t either.”
He was smiling quite pleasantly—very pleasantly, in fact. His blue eyes twinkled with charm and self-assurance, but Helen caught the warning nonetheless.
“I won’t tell anyone about it either. I promise.” She locked eyes with him, but her words clearly weren’t enough. She looked down to see what 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, and she instinctively looked for somewhere to run as if hotel security, DC Nazir and the entire police force were about to burst through. Her heart thudded in her ears as it had done the night she’d been busted breaking in to Jaxon’s place.
“Seb? It’s me, Mikey.”
Oblivious to her anxiety, Sebastian left her side and flung the door open. “Hey, come on in,” he said and 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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