The Couple in the Dream Suite (2 page)

‘So,’ Dexter said, nodding to himself, ‘I decided. What you need is a girl, and what I need is to get rid of a girl, so you’d be doing me a favour taking her off my hands, because this girl isn’t just any girl.’

‘Forget it.’ Justin pushed back his chair. Everyone was back at the tables, crowded up at the stage. He and Dex were in the front row. It wasn’t going to be easy to get out, but he was going to try.

But Dex had other ideas, grabbing his arm in an extremely firm grip. ‘Sit down.’ The lights dimmed, and the band which had appeared on stage struck up a chord. ‘I
said,
sit down, Justin.’

Seeing that he had no option but to do so, Justin sat.

‘Thank you,’ Dex said with a thin smile. ‘Now, indulge me. Finish your drink and watch the floor show.’

Justin drank. On the stage there was a cake. A huge white and gold cake, decorated uncannily like the Chatsfield’s dining room, and possibly the biggest cake Justin had ever seen. It had been pushed on there by a posse of very scantily clad girls. Every one of them was platinum blonde, every one of them dressed in a tiny white dress trimmed with long fringes that were no doubt meant to pay lip service to decency, and in fact did the exact opposite. The girls were strewing gold confetti and doing some sort of dance that showed off their only-just-covered little behinds. The men in the audience were roaring their appreciation. It was utterly over the top, and yet at the same time it was amusing and curiously sweet rather than vulgar.

‘What, are you expecting me to pick one? Let me remind you, this is 1921 Dex, things have changed. Women not much older than these ones will be able to vote in the next election, I doubt very much…’

‘Can you not drop the politics for one night?’ Dex rolled his eyes. ‘I told you, it’s not just any girl, it’s my girl. Not that she ever has been my girl in that sense, as you must be perfectly well aware. Vera Milton-Kerr. She’s beautiful, she’s clever, she’s witty and I’m sure she’s also very sexy, if you like that sort of thing, though as you know it’s not my cup of tea. I am pretty certain she will be yours though.’

‘Dex, I…’

‘And here she is.’

And there she was. Coming out of the cake. Glossy black hair cut into a sharp, short cap. Smokey eyes rimmed with black. Full lips painted crimson. Gold dress. At least Justin thought it was a dress, though it clung to her curves like a gold mist, and the long fringes that passed for a skirt did nothing to hide the most curvaceous behind, and the most glorious pair of pins he’d ever seen.

Vera Milton-Kerr stepped out of the cake like Venus rising from the waves, and the waves weren’t the only thing rising at the sight of her, all but naked, the expression on her face sultry, her smile mocking. She knew exactly how she looked, she knew exactly what effect she was having, and she didn’t give a damn. It was that which piqued his interest. That which kept him watching, when he should have been walking.

She stood centre-stage, directly in front of him. David Chatsfield had appeared by her side. She was singing. It took Justin’s scrambled brain a moment to work out what she was singing. Happy Birthday. Her voice was smoky, like her eyes. Slightly off-key. Gold petals were raining down on the stage and on the audience now. David Chatsfield was declaring the hotel open. The band struck up, and the dancers began to shake their fringes. The audience were on their feet clapping. There were cheers and the popping of many more champagne bottles to fill another tiered fountain of glasses which had materialised at the back of the room.

And there she was. This time, standing in front of him.

‘Vera, I’d like you to meet one of my oldest friends, Justin Yorke. Justin, Miss Vera Milton-Kerr,’ Dex was saying. ‘She lives like a vampire, up all night and sleeping all day, and underneath that delightful exterior she’s every bit as miserable as you. I think you will be absolutely perfect for each other.’

Dex took the woman’s hands in his. ‘Darling, the time has come for us to end our little charade. I’m afraid I told you a tiny little lie about my leaving date. I’m off tomorrow, not next month, but I promise I’ll write just as soon as I get there. Consider Justin my parting gift to you. Enjoy, you sweet thing, for my sake if not for yours.’

‘And this is my parting gift to you,’ Dex murmured, for Justin’s ears only, slipping something into the pocket of his dinner suit jacket. ‘Make sure you use it, because I had to use every little bit of my influence with David Chatsfield to get hold of it.’ With a flutter of his fingers, and without a backward glance, he disappeared into the crowd.

Vera stared at Dexter’s back in consternation. ‘What the hell is he playing at?’

‘You really don’t know?’

She whirled round. Justin Yorke was eyeing her sceptically.

‘I really don’t. Do you think I was in on this?’

He shrugged. Vera studied him, making no attempt to disguise the fact that was what she was doing. Tall, well-built, he filled his dinner suit nicely. Not handsome, his face was too craggy for that. Dark-brown hair with a rebellious wave that he didn’t bother trying to tame. Dark-brown eyes, deep-set under heavy brows. If it were not for that mouth, he would be quite intimidating. It was curling up into the faintest of smiles now, and it was a nice smile. Or it looked like it could be, if he ever let it finish.

‘I knew he was leaving,’ she conceded, ‘but I had no idea it was so soon. I’m sort of glad he didn’t tell me, mind you. I hate goodbyes as much as he does.’

‘What will you do without him, find another stool pigeon?’

Vera made a show of adjusting the gold sash of the gold dress she had pulled on over her skimpy stage outfit. It was one of Fortuny’s famous Delphos gowns, a sleeveless shift of silk made of hundreds of tiny pleats which clung to the body thanks to the beads which weighted it. It shimmered when she moved, a sensual, smoothly-rippling feeling that made her think of water flowing over a cold stone. She could sense him watching her. She was used to men watching her. She had the kind of body that men liked. A fluke of nature that she exploited, but which, like pretty much everything else, left her cold. Usually.

‘What do you mean?’ she asked warily.

‘Precisely what you think I mean,’ Justin replied. ‘I’ve known Dexter Maxwell for a long time, Miss Milton-Kerr, he’s one of my best friends.’

Which meant – which could not possibly mean – unless she’d got it horribly wrong, which shouldn’t matter, absolutely should not. ‘It’s Vera,’ she said, because she had to say something while she tried to decide what it was she really wanted to say. ‘Verity, actually, though no-one calls me that.’

‘Because it isn’t true? Or have you heard that before?’

‘How close are you and Dexter?’

‘About as close as you and he are, and not as close as you’re imagining.’

‘I wasn’t imagining anything.’

‘Yes, I see why you dropped Verity.’

Despite herself, she smiled. ‘You tell me then, Mr Yorke, what was it I was imagining?’

‘It’s Justin.’ The room was all but empty now, for the dancing had started. He brushed a gold petal from the top of her arm. His touch made her shiver. He bent down towards her, tucking her hair back behind her ear. ‘You were wondering if Dexter and I were similarly inclined,’ he said. His voice was low, his breath a whisper on her ear.

Her heart was thumping unevenly. ‘And are you?’ she asked, though she didn’t need to.

She felt the rumble of his laughter. ‘No. Are you?’

‘I?’

‘Do you like girls, Vera?’

‘No more than Dexter does. Would you like it if I did, Mr Yorke?’

‘Justin. And no, I would not like it if you did. In fact I’m very pleased to hear that you don’t.’

His smile was wicked. That thing he was doing to her neck, touching, stroking, fluttering, whatever it was, that was wicked too. It was making her feel wicked, and she hadn’t felt wicked in a very long time. Vera smiled back. She reached up to touch him, finger tips straying over his temple, behind his ear, to rest lightly on the back of his neck. She felt him tense. She heard the faint intake of his breath, and that made her feel even more wicked. ‘How pleased?’ she asked, choosing to ignore his implied question.

‘About this much,’ he said.

He kissed her. It wasn’t really a kiss. His lips merely grazed hers. Not even enough to make her worry about her lip rouge, though it was enough to make her heart jump into her throat, and to make her inhale just a little too sharply. Not much of a kiss, but enough to make her want more, which was something she hadn’t wanted in a long time. All this she thought, as his lips touched hers, as his fingers ruffled the sleek cap of her razor-cut hair, and then it was over, and she was left wondering if she’d imagined it. Not the kiss, but the effect.

‘I wouldn’t count that as so very pleased,’ Vera said with something like her usual coolness.

‘Really? But what else could I have done, within the bounds of decency?’

His fingers were doing that thing again, on her shoulder this time. ‘Oh, if you’re going to worry about decency,’ Vera said, ‘you should have confined yourself to kissing my hand.’

He took her hand. He lifted it to his mouth. His lips on her palm. His eyes, watching her as he kissed her, his tongue flicking over her skin. She wished her gown didn’t cling quite so much, for it gave her breathing away.

‘Decent enough for you?’ Justin asked her.

It was the way he was looking at her that made her do it. Teasing. Taunting. Daring. It had nothing to do with the way his mouth and his tongue on her skin were making her feel, and everything to do with a simple need to get even. ‘I don’t know,’ she said, dragging her hand from his mouth, pulling his hand to her mouth. ‘You tell me.’

She saw the surprise in his eyes. It was gratifying. Then she saw them change as she kissed his hand, exactly as he had kissed hers. Her mouth on his skin. Her tongue, on the pad of his thumb. Her eyes, watching his widen, darken, surprise giving way to desire. There was a callus at the base of his index finger. She softened her lips over it, then ran the tip of her tongue up his finger, taking the tip of it into her mouth. Sucking. Tasting. And all the time, watching, aware of the almost-forgotten twist of desire inside her, knowing she should stop, not wanting to, until he pulled his finger free, and pulled her towards him, and his lips closed on hers, and she opened to him with a sigh, because it turned out that was what she had wanted all along.

A kiss. Lips and tongues and teeth. Not a gentle kiss, harsh, yet not harsh enough. She wanted to dig her nails into his shoulders. She wanted to hurt him for making her feel like this. She yanked herself away, making no attempt to disguise her breathing, looking over her shoulder, relieved to find that they were still, astonishingly, alone.

‘It’s a bit late to worry about the proprieties,’ Justin said, his own breathing satisfyingly ragged.

‘Dexter. The press. I would not want…’

‘A picture that compromised your little fairy story.’

He was wiping his mouth, which was streaked with her lip rouge. Vera grabbed the handkerchief from him, and finished the task with unnecessary vigour. ‘It’s not like that.’

He grabbed his handkerchief back and rammed it into his jacket pocket. ‘How is it then?’

She was suddenly quite cold. ‘Oh, obviously it’s exactly what you’re thinking. I use Dexter to cover up the fact that I’m a complete femme fatale. So don’t flatter yourself, Mr Yorke, I’m not particularly discriminating. Any man will do.’

She turned to go, but he caught her arm, just under the Egyptian-style gold bangle which she wore. ‘Where the hell did that come from?’

‘Don’t tell me I was wrong, I could see it written on your face.’

‘Then you misread me, I assure you.’

‘You’re hurting me.’

Swearing, Justin let her go. There were finger-marks on her skin. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t realise – God, I’m sorry.’

She could have walked way then, but she didn’t. He looked genuinely horrified. Vera told herself it would be cruel to leave him then. ‘I bruise very easily,’ she said.

‘So do I, it seems,’ Justin said.

He ran his hand through his hair. It fell over his forehead. It looked endearing. She refused to be endeared, and said nothing.

He was frowning. ‘I really wasn’t thinking what you thought.’

Vera shrugged. ‘What most men think, when they look at me.’

‘Ah.’

‘Ah, what?’

He smiled. ‘Ah, hence Dex. Because it’s not that you do far too much, it’s that you don’t at all. Is that it?’

‘It might be.’ He was making her uneasy. She was having to work quite hard not to return his smile. She was having to work very hard not to want to kiss him again. She wasn’t used to having either problem. ‘You shouldn’t have kissed me,’ Vera said.

‘No.’

‘Did you do it because it’s what Dexter wanted?’

‘No!’ He looked aghast. ‘No, I bloody well did not.’

Vera allowed herself just a fraction of a smile. ‘Did you do it because I provoked you?’

‘So you admit you did?’’

Vera managed a shrug. ‘I might have.’

‘I’m glad you did, but even if you hadn’t, I think I’d have found an excuse. I kissed you because I wanted to kiss you.’

She surrendered, laughing. ‘Then I am glad to have given you a reason, Mr Yorke. It’s as well Dexter isn’t around, or he’d be congratulating himself on his little ploy working, and much as I love him, he is quite insufferable when he is right. Not that I think he was,’ she added hastily, ‘and even if he was, I’m not in the least bit interested.’

‘No,’ Justin said. ‘Obviously not. Nor am I.’

‘Good,’ Vera said, telling herself that it was.

‘Though I suppose it wouldn’t do any harm for us to indulge him, just to ease his mind. It’s not as if either of us are under any illusions.’

She considered this. She pretended to consider it a great deal more than she actually did. ‘But we
are
both under an – an obligation,’ she said. ‘I certainly owe Dexter something.’

‘A dance?’

Justin smiled at her. He really did have a very tempting smile. Vera took his arm. ‘A dance to make Dexter happy,’ she said, ‘why not.’

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