Authors: Marguerite Kaye
He led her through to the Mirror Ballroom. He ought to mingle with the crowd. He ought to be asking questions. Observing, not judging, that’s what he’d come here for. He told himself he had another duty to perform now, to Dex. He knew he was kidding himself, and decided, for once, not to care but simply to do what
wanted to do.
The ballroom was long, the windows at the far end draped with thick velvet curtains. The walls were panelled, all the way from the white and gold ceiling to the polished floor, in pale oak. It would have been dark without the mirrors. There were six of them, three on each wall, huge things reflecting each other and the room to eternity. Light from another massive crystal chandelier bounced off them, giving the effect of sunlight through clouds.
The band played on a dais at the opposite end from the windows. The floor was crowded. Dex had probably already left, and Justin couldn’t remember the last time he’d danced, but he took Vera into his arms and onto the floor. It was a crush, so he pulled her closer. The scent she wore was exotic, like Vera herself. Not flowers or citrus, but spice. She had renewed the crimson on her lips. Her eyes were huge, dark, the lashes thick. Her hair, so sharply-cut, was unbelievably soft. Like her body beneath the silk of her gown. She was artifice and nature combined, and if he was not careful, there would be no hiding how very arousing he found that combination.
‘Did you know,’ he said, ‘that this place has sixty-seven bathrooms, and every one of them is heated. Most houses in Britain don’t even have running water, never mind heating in any room but the kitchen.’
‘If the miners’ strike continues, none of us shall have any heating,’ Vera said.
‘So you think it’s wrong, the strike?’
‘I think it’s wrong that they have to strike,’ she replied, with a wry twist to her smile. ‘Do you think it’s wrong to have a heated bathroom? My aunt does. She thinks that it encourages loose morals. But then, Aunt Cicely thinks woollen underwear is character-building, and silk next to the skin is the first step on the road to perdition, which makes me pretty much there, before you ask.’
‘I wasn’t about to,’ Jason replied. ‘Though I can’t imagine that you’re wearing any underwear under that stage outfit, woollen or otherwise.’
Vera laughed. ‘I’m not.’
He closed his eyes briefly. ‘I wish you hadn’t told me that.’
‘I did.’ He adjusted his hold on her to put a few vital inches between them. ‘Would you mind very much if we turned the subject?’
‘Too much the gentleman to discuss a lady’s underwear, Mr Yorke?’
‘Too much a gentleman to let a lady know the effect the discussion of a lady’s underwear is having on me, Miss Milton-Kerr.’
‘I bet you say that to all the girls.’
His smile faded. ‘Not lately.’
‘Oh.’ She shifted imperceptibly. ‘Are you married, is that it?’
‘No. Good grief no. You can’t think – I would never – no, I’m not married. I’m not engaged. I’m not anything. I’m not – not for a long time.’
She raised her brows. ‘Why? I know you’re not frigid.’
‘Any more than you are.’
She acknowledged this by inclining her head, but she was frowning now. ‘Miserable, that’s what Dexter called you.’
Miserable as sin, and lonely as hell,
is what Dex had said originally, though he remembered just in time that Vera had been on stage then. ‘Actually, he said that you were every bit as miserable as me,’ Justin corrected her. ‘
‘Since I don’t know the extent of your misery, I can’t say.’
She spoke flippantly, but he was not fooled. Her form of bravado was different to his, but something in her eyes struck a chord. ‘He’s a mite too perceptive for a playboy, is Dex,’ Justin said wryly.
‘Dexter is no more a playboy than I am a floozy. I shall miss him.’
‘Will you replace him?’
She pursed her lips. ‘No, I think I shall cultivate a new persona. They will call me the Ice Queen.’
She rested her head on his shoulder. She was tall enough for that. He liked that she was so tall. They were on a crowded dance floor, surrounded by noise and bodies and light, yet it felt like they were alone, and though he had barely drunk anything, he felt curiously light-headed. Justin tightened his arm around her waist and pulled her closer. ‘I can’t think of a more inaccurate epithet.’
Vera reached up to push his hair back from his forehead. ‘That’s because you don’t know the real me.’
He wondered who the real Vera was. He wondered who the real Justin was. It was a strange thing for him to wonder. He tried very hard not to think about such things. Was he lonely? He had not held a woman in a very long time, and this woman was a spectacularly lovely one. Was it that? He splayed his fingers across the voluptuous curve of her hips. ‘No,’ he said, ‘but I’d like to.’
The music drifted from one tune to another. Around them, couples made extravagant moves, showing off the tango and the foxtrot. Vera and Justin remained on the edge of the floor. His fingers on her hip were not holding, but caressing. Hers on his shoulder, straying to his neck, to his hair, to his back, fluttering up and then down. Her cheek rested on his chest. His chin rested on her hair. And then there was the looking. Just looking at each other. His eyes were flecked with a colour that wasn’t quite gold, wasn’t quite brown. There was a tiny scar right at the edge of his left eyebrow. He smelt of shaving soap and fresh linen. He didn’t wear hair oil. There was the faintest trace of a smile on his lips, as if he couldn’t quite believe what was happening. Just what she was thinking. If that really was what he was thinking. She could see them, reflected in one of the huge mirrors, and reflected back in the other. She saw him notice it too, and smiled at him. She saw the effect of the smile in his eyes. And in the mirror. And in the mirror.
‘Why are you here?’ Vera asked, striving to break whatever spell they had wound around themselves, because she wasn’t used to spells. ‘You’re not one of the party crowd, I’ve never seen you before.’
‘Dex told me he had something important to say. Which, as you know, he did.’
‘Yes, but…’ She pursed her lips, trying to frame what it was that jarred. ‘But what you said, about the bathrooms. About the Chatsfield. Do you agree with my Aunt Cicely?’
‘That everyone here is on the road to perdition?’
‘That it’s wrong to – to enjoy life, while others can’t – the miners, for instance. That – oh, I don’t know, here are all these beautiful creatures spurning the caviar and smoked salmon because they’re watching their figures, while some people can barely scrape together enough to buy some bread and dripping. Is that what you’re thinking?’ He looked uncomfortable. Part of her wished she had not brought the subject back up, though now she had, she couldn’t help pursuing it. ‘Well?’
Justin shrugged. ‘No. Well, yes, but it’s not so simple, is it? I wish it was. I’m not looking down my nose and despising you, if that’s what you think.’
He sounded very defensive. ‘I don’t know what to think of you,’ Vera said. ‘You’re an enigma.’
‘Says the floozy who doesn’t flooze,’ Justin retorted. ‘Yes, I did come here expecting to look down my nose a little bit, but I was also hoping to be proved wrong.’
‘And have you?’
‘I’ve decided not to think about it tonight. I’m sick of thinking.’ Justin sighed. ‘I’m not so stupid as to think that everyone will ever be equal, but I do wish the gap was not so huge, and I do wish that people wouldn’t pretend it wasn’t there.’
‘People have learnt how to pretend lots of things aren’t there,’ Vera said. ‘They’ve become so good at it, it’s a habit.’
‘It’s not right. Half of these men, they were too young even to fight in the War. They don’t know…’
‘God Justin, don’t you think that’s a
thing! I don’t know what it was like for you, where you were, on the front line, wherever you were, but…’
‘On the front line.’
‘Well then. Would you wish that on anyone?’
He looked as if she had slapped him. She was suddenly on the verge of tears. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t – I shouldn’t have – because I never do, usually. Talk about it. Because I’d rather like to forget. Because I’m one of them.’ She stared over his shoulder, seeing herself wide-eyed and pale in the mirror. But not crying. Her reflection reassured her. ‘Some of them feel guilty, you know. The ones that were too young. Another reason for forgetting. We all do it, Justin, and who can blame us?’
She said it defiantly, but he showed no signs of remonstrating, and instead looked quite grim. ‘No need to be sorry. Dex was right,’ he said, ‘I should get out more.’
Vera made a face. ‘I’m truly sorry. I don’t know what came over me. You are having the strangest effect on me. I’m not usually such a shrew.’
‘No, you’re usually a vampire, according to Dex. Is it true?’
He was smiling again, though it wasn’t quite reaching his eyes. ‘Partly,’ Vera said. ‘I do go to bed with the dawn most nights.’
‘But you don’t feast on blood.’
‘There’s been enough of that, don’t you think?’
Justin’s expression turned bleak. ‘More than.’
She wondered what horrors lay behind those two little words, but she knew better than to ask.
‘You are having the strangest effect on me too,’ Justin finally said, breaking the tense silence.
‘I know, but you’re being quite a gentleman about it,’ Vera said ironically. ‘No, don’t take that the wrong way, I actually meant it as a complement. I like that you’re not
Most men make such a point of
As if I ought to be as thrilled about the thing as they are.’
‘I will bear that in mind and try not to
She laughed, her mood switching abruptly. ‘Will you think me quite contrary if I tell you that because you don’t, I don’t mind if you do.’
‘As I think I’ve said, I don’t know what to think of you, but I’ll take that as a compliment.’
‘Oh, do.’ The music stopped. They waited, but it did not pick up again, and the floor was clearing. ‘Saved by the bell,’ Vera said, when a break was announced. There would be more food, and a brand new cocktail called the Chatsfield for those who wished, or more champagne for those who did not. They stood together on the edge of the floor, their arms still entwined around each other, unwilling to move, uncertain about what to do next lest either make the wrong move. Or so Vera thought.
‘I forgot,’ Justin said, disengaging himself.
‘I’m sure you did.’ She prepared herself for an excuse. Another engagement tonight or first thing tomorrow. A telephone call. A telegram he had to send. She crossed her arms.
Justin pulled something from his jacket pocket. ‘Dex gave me this.’
It was a key with a large brass tag on it. ‘
The Dream Suite
,’ Vera said, reading from the tag. ‘Dexter seems to be pulling out all the stops. What else did he give you?’
‘You don’t want to know.’
‘Now I most definitely do. Let me see. Oh!’ Vera stared at the discreet but unmistakable package, and to her dismay felt herself blushing. ‘Well, he really does think of everything,’ she said, quite at a loss.
‘He’s made some damnably outrageous assumptions. I should find him…’
‘And give him a bloody nose!’ Vera laughed. ‘Don’t be so melodramatic. I’m a big girl, I know how to say no. Rather too well, in fact. I haven’t said anything else in a very long time. I know I look like a bad girl, but the truth is, inside this sultry shell there’s a very good little girl indeed.’
‘You sound rather resentful of that fact.’
‘Do I? You know, I think all Dexter wants is for us to have some fun. It’s just a shame I don’t know how to. I don’t suppose you do?’
She meant it as a joke. Sort of. Justin flushed. ‘You don’t mean that, and I’ve probably forgotten. It’s been a long time.’
‘How terribly tragic we are, the pair of us.’ She said it lightly, but it was true. Now was the time to say goodnight. She looked at him, and her heart began to beat faster as she allowed herself to imagine a different scenario. She didn’t want to say goodnight. ‘What if I did mean it? What if I wanted to know what it was like to be a bad girl, just for tonight?
you teach me?’
He looked wary, but he also looked. At her. At the face she used so coldly in front of the camera, and the voluptuous body that she inhabited as if it belonged to someone else. She liked him looking, and that was unusual enough. She liked that she had something worth looking at. For the first time in as long as she could remember, she thought it might just be something that would bring her pleasure too, this body.
‘Are you serious?’ he asked.
‘That depends on how serious you are, Justin Yorke.’
‘Not at all.’ The way he looked at her changed. ‘I don’t, Vera. I never do now, and I don’t plan to again. I’m not the serious type, so if that’s what you’re asking…’
‘It’s not. Or it is. I’m no more interested in
than you are. I’m not interested in anything beyond tonight. But I am, strangely, serious about tonight.’
‘You are a most remarkable woman, do you know that?’
‘Does that mean you’ll take me up on my offer?
Justin smiled. The devilish smile. It had the same effect on her insides as before. ‘What if it turns out I’m not a good teacher?’
‘It’s a risk I’m willing to take. What if it turns out I’m not an apt pupil?’
‘It’s a risk I’m willing to take,’ he said softly into her ear. ‘But I don’t think it’s much of a risk. I think inside this delightful bad-girl exterior, there’s a very, very bad girl desperate to get out.’
Vera shivered. She caught sight of herself in the mirror. Big eyes. Bright cheeks. Crimson mouth. Gold-sheathed curves. She liked. She liked even more the tall man in the dinner suit looking at her in the same way as she was looking at him. ‘I hope so,’ she said.
He was smiling back at her, and frowning at the same time. Beguiled, but unsure. She felt a flare of heat low down inside. He wanted to. She could see that. She had felt that. Yet he hesitated.
‘Vera, you don’t know me at all.’