by Penny Jordan
‘Oh, I wasn’t apologising for looking,’ she was told softly. ‘What I was apologising for was embarrassing you.’
‘Embarrassing me!’ Kelly stared at him in fury. Did he actually think she had been embarrassed by his insulting scrutiny? ‘You didn’t embarrass me in the slightest,’ she told him coldly, ‘you merely annoyed me. How would men like it if women stared at them as though…’
‘As though they were pieces of merchandise they were considering buying?’ he quoted mockingly. ‘I don’t know what brings you here, Miss…’
‘Mrs Langdon,’ Kelly supplied for him coldly, watching his eyes narrow as he glanced at her left hand as though seeking confirmation of her statement. ‘I’m here for the very simple reason that I wish to avail myself of the services of this agency,’ she went on tautly. Now that she was here, confronting this arrogant specimen of manhood, she was beginning to have grave doubts about her intentions.
‘The agency?’ He glanced at the door, frowned, tapping thoughtfully on the desk, while he subjected her to a provokingly intense study. ‘You mean the escort agency, I take it?’
‘Is there any other?’ Kelly snapped, her patience worn thin by his manner and his scrutiny. He was completely unlike the species of male she had grown accustomed to over the years; they, well primed as to her reputation and her wealth, were normally either obsequious or respectful; sometimes flirtatious, but never, never did they regard her with the cool disdain of this man, whose grey eyes seemed to take her apart muscle by muscle, assessing each and every part of her as he did so. His hair was dark and brushed the collar of his jacket—too long, she thought scornfully, but doubtless there were some women who found him attractive. As far as she was concerned, he was far too chocolate-boxy to appeal; he looked like one of the actors one saw on television, driving lorries and eating bars of chocolate, or performing death-defying acts on skis to deliver them. Some of her contempt showed in the withering glance she gave him, determined not to let his manner overset her.
‘Umm…you’re attractive enough, I suppose,’ he ventured calmly, ‘but I scarcely think your manner is likely to win you friends or influence people. If you really want a job I would suggest that…’
‘I want a job?’ Kelly broke in furiously, two hectic spots of colour burning in her preciously pale face. ‘I haven’t come here for a job, I’ve come here for an escort!’
‘An escort?’ If he was as stunned as he had sounded, he covered it up very quickly. ‘I see, and just what sort of escort do you require, Mrs Langdon?’ he asked smoothly, sitting down in the leather chair behind the desk, and pulling open a drawer. ‘You must understand that this is a highly reputable agency, we don’t…’
Kelly’s furious gasp reached him as he straightened up, staring coldly at her. ‘You’re a married woman,’ he pointed out.
‘I’m a widow,’ Kelly contradicted him, ‘and I want to see the manager.’ She threw the last comment at him through gritted teeth.
‘By all means,’ he agreed suavely, ‘but you’ll have to come back next week. He’s on holiday at the moment.’
Next week! That would be far too late!
‘Look, suppose you tell me your requirements… Do you need an escort for some official function?’
‘Not exactly,’ Kelly replied hesitantly, strangely reluctant to admit to this infuriating man exactly what she did want.
‘I see. Well, perhaps if you were to tell me exactly what you do want…’ He removed what looked like an application form from the desk and bent his head over it. His hair was thick and dark and possessed a glossy, healthy sheen, Kelly noticed absently. Why on earth had she come here? She longed to turn tail and run out, but simply didn’t dare. His face was perfectly composed and polite, and yet Kelly had the suspicion that inwardly he was laughing at her. Well, let him laugh, she thought angrily, she didn’t care what he thought.
Quickly she told him an edited version of her story.
‘I see,’ he said slowly, when she had finished. ‘You wish to hire an escort to accompany you to a friend’s home for the weekend. Your friend is married and you feel that a threesome might be awkward?’
That was what Kelly had told him, and she had no intention of saying any more.
‘And you don’t have any male friends who could accompany you?’
‘Sue, my friend, is inclined to matchmake,’ Kelly told him quickly, not without some truth. ‘I thought it best if I took a complete stranger—to avoid complications later.’
‘I see.’ His expression told her quite plainly that he did not, but Kelly had no intention of enlightening him. However, several minutes later she realised that she had underestimated him when he said softly, ‘This escort wouldn’t be more of a bodyguard by any chance, would he?’
‘Bodyguard?’ Kelly looked at him sharply. ‘Look, if you don’t want my business, just say so.’ She was beginning to lose her temper. Something about this man unleashed a powerful wave of antagonism she hadn’t experienced in years. It must be something to do with the sexual magnetism that almost oozed from him—part of his stock and trade, she reminded herself scathingly, wondering what part he played in the agency.
‘Not at all,’ he responded smoothly, ‘I was merely trying to discover exactly what you had in mind. You must appreciate that a legitimate agency such as ours sometimes receives enquiries it isn’t equipped to handle.’
Kelly went brick red as the meaning of his carefully chosen words sank in.
‘All I want is a male escort for the weekend,’ she ground out with loathing. ‘Nothing else!’
‘Well, in that case, Mrs Langdon,’ he continued with a briskness that belied his earlier words, ‘if you will simply give me the details I’m sure we’ll be able to sort out something.’
Coolly and concisely, Kelly told him. She thought she saw him hesitate when she gave him her address, and wondered cynically if he was mentally adding another nought to the bill she would be presented with. If so, he was in for a rude awakening.
‘Will you require a car?’ he said formally.
‘I have my own,’ Kelly told him shortly. ‘Can you provide someone?’
She was filled with distaste for what she was doing, but she had come too far to back down now, and she faced him with dogged determination, trying to ignore the embarrassment and anger she was experiencing.
He studied her for a moment, then said slowly, ‘How important is it to you that we do?’
It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him that it wasn’t important at all, but somehow she found herself saying huskily instead, ‘Very important.’
‘Yes.’ The grey eyes held hers intently. ‘Yes, I thought it must be. Now, what time do you want our man to be at your apartment?’
Quickly Kelly told him, only too glad to escape from the office ten minutes later, filling her lungs with steadily deep breaths as she stepped outside on to the pavement, only too glad to have the ordeal behind her. What was the matter with her? She had faced formidable Boards of Directors without flinching, and yet in front of that one man she had been reduced to a shivering, trembling wreck. Why?
For the rest of the day she found it difficult to concentrate. She had told Maisie that she intended to be away for the weekend.
‘Take a couple of extra days off,’ Maisie urged. ‘You could do with the break. Go out and buy yourself a new dress.’
‘I don’t need one,’ Kelly told her briefly, only somehow she found herself leaving the office earlier than usual, and as it just happened to be a late shopping night, she found herself wandering through the Knightsbridge stores; something that she hadn’t done in ages.
She saw a dress that caught her eye on one of the racks. In crêpe satin by Calvin Klein, it was a deceptively simple wrap-round dress in a brilliant shade of pink.
Somehow she found herself in the changing room with it over her arm, discarding her velvet suit in order to try it on. The neckline plunged almost to the waist, the long tight sleeves hugging her arms
in much the same way as the satin hugged her body, the fabric caught up in a knot just above the waist. It was hideously expensive and not the sort of thing she wore at all, and yet somehow she found herself buying it, even though she told herself that she was mad and it was simply not the sort of thing to wear for a quiet dinner in the country.
Sue rang her while she was still recovering from the shock of her spending spree.
‘You are still coming, aren’t you, Kelly?’ she pleaded. ‘I’m so looking forward to seeing you. I’ve been so miserable!’
Kelly could tell that tears weren’t far away, and hastened to assure her friend that she would indeed be there.
‘Jeremy will be glad too. I sometimes think lately that he finds my company very boring,’ she heard Sue saying wistfully. ‘Since the baby I’ve felt so down, and Jeremy always enjoyed the company of lovely women. I feel such a failure, Kelly… Here I am and I can’t even produce a baby, and you…you have a fantastic career, the whole world at your feet…
‘Sue, you’re not to think like that,’ Kelly told her.
‘I know—pathetic, aren’t I? But I just can’t help it. I feel so alone, Kelly, so frightened somehow. When do you plan to arrive?’
‘Well, actually, it isn’t just me,’ Kelly told her hesitantly. ‘Is it okay if I bring a friend?’
For a moment there was silence and then Sue asked excitedly, ‘A man? Kelly darling, tell me all about him!’
Kelly laughed. ‘Wait and see.’ Well, she could hardly describe a man she hadn’t yet met, could she?
Her information seemed to have had a dramatic effect on Sue’s mood, she bubbled and chattered in a way that reminded Kelly of a much younger Sue, and by the time she had rung off, Kelly was convinced that she had made the right decision, no matter what the cost to her own pride. She only hoped that the agency managed to produce someone presentable. She was a fool really, she ought to have asked to see a photograph and some background details, but she had been too flustered and angrily aware of her companion to do so.
Saturday morning came round all too quickly. The arrangement was that her ‘escort’ would present himself at her apartment on Saturday morning at nine o’clock. Kelly was dressed and packed by eight-thirty, her stomach fizzing with a nervous dread she hadn’t experienced since…since Colin, really.
She inspected her reflection in the mirror once again. She was wearing her velvet suit, but this time her hair was caught back in a pretty gold-threaded velvet snood she had found in Liberty’s and which added to the mediaeval effect of her outfit. It also had a softening effect on the severity of her hairstyle, and Kelly was frowning slightly over this when she heard her doorbell.
Picking up her case and bag and checking that she had her keys, she headed for the hall, opening the door and coming to a full stop, her mouth opening in a round ‘Oh’ of surprise as she recognized the man leaning indolently against the wall.
He smiled as he took her case from her slackened grip and locked the door for her with the keys she had dropped in her agitation.
‘What are you doing here?’ Kelly demanded acidly, furious with herself for letting him take the initiative and treat her like a demented child.
‘You wanted an “escort” for the weekend—here I am.’ He shrugged casually and glanced at his watch, completely impervious to her anger. ‘Shall we go? We’ll make better time if we miss the morning traffic. The roads are practically empty at the moment. Are these your car keys?’ He extracted them from the ring, handing her back her door keys with another smile, deftly pocketing the keys for her car as he motioned her towards the lift.
This couldn’t be happening, Kelly thought dazedly. She wasn’t used to men taking control of her life in this way, especially men like this one—men who cashed in on their physical attractions in order to make a living. The sheer discrimination of her own thoughts shocked her, but they couldn’t be denied; somehow it was different for women to exploit their looks in order to make a living than it was for a man. Telling herself she was being ridiculous, she headed for the lift, wishing the agency had sent anyone but this man. She had disliked him almost at first sight that day in the agency’s offices, and now she felt a resurgence of her dislike, hating the calm way he was taking over, robbing her of the control she always had of her own life.
When the lift stopped he stepped forward first, and Kelly seethed impotently, longing to push past him, but lacking the sheer brute strength, and sudden colour flooded her angry face as she realised he was simply ensuring that she wouldn’t be caught in the lift doors. The expression in his eyes as she swept past him told her that he had guessed the direction of her thoughts, and she flushed again. The weekend had promised to be difficult enough as it was, now it threatened to be intolerable.
‘Why didn’t you send someone else?’ she muttered through clenched teeth to him as she entered the underground car park. ‘Or was the money too much of a temptation?’ she asked nastily.
She couldn’t see his face, but the fingers cupping her elbow tensed suddenly and his smooth, ‘You find man’s very natural desire to provide himself with a living contemptible? How odd. Or is it simply the means by which I earn mine?’ silenced her. She had been betrayed by her own emotions into making a judgment that was completely biased, and he had underlined that fact.
‘It seems to me,’ he remarked pleasantly, as she headed for the silver-grey Mercedes convertible she had bought the previous year, ‘that you have a chip on your shoulder where the male sex is concerned. I wonder why?’
‘Then don’t!’ Kelly snapped. ‘That’s not what I’m paying you for.’
‘You like reminding me of that fact, don’t you?’ he continued evenly. ‘Does it help to cancel out the old wounds, Kelly, knowing that now you can make the male dance to your tune?’
His words shivered across her skin, too close to the truth for comfort, but she refused to acknowledge their accuracy, or the danger emanating from the man standing at her side. How could a man like this possibly be dangerous? He was simply someone whom she was using to prevent herself from being trapped in a potentially difficult situation. But he had used her name with an easy familiarity that had shocked her; and not just shocked. Hearing it on his lips had started a curious yearning ache deep inside her she could neither define nor analyse.
‘I was the only suitable candidate the agency had available,’ he told her coolly, as they came to a full stop by the car. ‘If you wish to change your mind and cancel the contract—then go ahead.’
Damn him, Kelly thought bitterly, he knew quite well she couldn’t.
‘Very well,’ he continued, taking her silence for consent. ‘In that case perhaps I’d better introduce myself properly. I’m…’ he hesitated momentarily, ‘Jake Fielding.’
Somehow she found herself taking the hand he offered, her fingers curling instinctively at the first touch of the vibrantly male flesh against them.
He must have noticed her recoil, and she saw the speculation in his eyes as he bent to unlock the car door—the passenger door, Kelly noticed, as he swung it open and waited.
She looked up at him.
‘You don’t expect me to let you drive?’
‘Why not? I have a current driving license, if that’s what’s worrying you. You look tense and overtired,’ he added unkindly. ‘I thought you might enjoy an opportunity to relax before meeting your friends. Obviously you aren’t looking forward to the weekend…’
‘How did you know that?’
He looked surprised by her vehemence and shrugged. ‘It’s obvious, if you didn’t need to feel on the defensive in some way you wouldn’t have felt it necessary to hire me.’
There was no way Kelly could argue against such logic, and somehow she found herself slipping into the passenger seat while Jake put their cases in the boot and then came round to join her.
Whatever else she could say about him, she had to admit he was immaculately dre
ssed, she thought, watching him discard the Burberry he had been wearing and toss it casually into the back of her car.
The fine beige wool trousers and toning checked shirt were exactly what one would expect to find a top executive type wearing in the country, as was the cashmere sweater he was wearing over the shirt, and Kelly had to repress a strange pang of pain as he started the car. It seemed so wrong somehow that with all her success and wealth she had to pay someone to accompany her to Sue’s. What had gone wrong with her life?
Nothing, she told herself stoutly as the engine fired. She had everything she wanted; everything. Love was a chimera, she knew that; it didn’t exist. God, she only had to look around her at her friends!
The automatic seat belt device proffered the belt and Kelly reached for it automatically, shocked by the tingling sensation of hard male fingers brushing her own as Jake performed the small service for her.
She looked unwillingly at his hands. Dark hairs curled disturbingly against the wafer-thin gold wristwatch he wore. A present from a grateful customer? she wondered nastily, hating herself for the thought, and hating even more the strange pain that accompanied it.
She nodded briefly, reminding herself that Jake was simply a means of protecting herself against Jeremy—nothing more.
AS JAKE HAD PREDICTED, they were early enough to miss the morning traffic and once they were free of London the roads were clear enough for Kelly to be able to appreciate the beauty of a countryside slowly awakening to spring. She had driven down to Sue’s before, but never along this route, which seemed to meander through small villages and open countryside and when she commented on this fact, Jake merely said that since they were driving to the New Forest the drive might just as well be as pleasant as possible. He praised the car and asked her how long she had had it, and yet there was no envy in the question; if anything, his tone was slightly amused and, nettled, Kelly responded coolly that she had bought it six months previously—as a birthday present.