(Romantic suspense, category)
Waiting bugged Stefan Carter at the best of times. This April morning, it was killing him.
"Mr. Carter,” a secretary said, “Mr. Tanner will see you now."
Carter had a bad feeling about this. As he followed the middle-aged woman down a long corridor, he barely heard the click-clack of her heels. Exhaustion from last night was dragging him down, yet he couldn’t relax. Not until this was over. Last night had pulled his insides out, but this morning, the early dawn light had given him a kind of clarity – he knew what he had to do.
Storming into the boss’s office was not how Carter wanted his first day at Tanner Model Agency to go. He ran a hand through his hair at the prospect of not only losing his job, but getting his sister Lucy fired too. All within the next half-hour. But last night had left him with no choice but to take matters into his own hands. He had to find out what was going on.
As the secretary showed him through to Victor Tanner’s office, Carter silently vowed to use his head first, and then, if he had to, a fist.
There was no sign of Tanner. Carter took a seat in one of two leather armchairs, taking in the wealth that was flaunted around him. Half the room was occupied by a huge desk, its dark oak gleaming. Every inch of the walls was covered in striking images of beautiful models, advertising everything from off-road vehicles to tanning lotion. Evidence of Victor Tanner’s place as top model agent in the U.K.
One side of the room consisted entirely of thick glass, overlooking London’s business district. The view was clean and quiet from this twentieth floor, the city’s Thames River alive with boats and water taxis. A bright mid-morning sun had fought the cloud cover of earlier, filling the large room with warmth.
Whether it was this or his own growing sense of unease that sent a slick of sweat over Carter's palms, he didn't know. A hundred questions crowded his mind, and he prayed that Victor Tanner had answers to explain last night’s dramatic turn of events.
Lucy had called Carter from her flat sometime after midnight, begging for him to come over. Through her tears, he made out the name ‘Tanner’ and something about a photo, but the twenty year old beauty was in convulsions. By the time he’d sped over there, she had clammed right up. He watched helplessly, as she sat there red-eyed and tight-lipped, clearly terrified of something or someone. Against his wishes, she’d insisted on going into work this morning as if nothing had happened.
But something bad had happened to Lucy, something that had scared her usually confident self into a silence that even he couldn’t fix. If Victor Tanner knew something, Carter would find it out.
The clink of crystal interrupted Carter’s thoughts. His shoulders stiffened as he realized someone else had come into the room. A middle-aged man stood at a drinks cabinet, decanter in hand, a sharp pinstriped suit doing little to curb the fifty-something businessman’s generous belly.
"Mr. Carter, what a pleasure to finally meet you. Lucy’s told me so much about you.”
As Tanner splashed liquor into two tumblers, Carter felt his fists curl. He didn’t want to talk pleasantries. “Bit early for boozing."
“An unorthodox way of welcoming new employees, I’ll admit,” said Tanner, “but when your payroll is mostly female, I welcome with both arms the few brave men who join us. Tell me about yourself, you’re our new photographer, right?"
Tanner placed the two glasses on the desk's leather top, and settled down wordlessly into the chair behind the desk, a sly smile crawling from ear to ear.
“Maybe you’ll tell me something about yourself instead, Mr. Tanner. Like what the hell’s going on with my sister.”
Tanner swirled a glass and put it down again. “I was afraid of this, but you’ve left me no choice. Your sister – my rising star - is in a spot of bother, I believe. The kind of bother that would be detrimental to her if word got out.”
“Tell me,” he said, fear spinning through him.
Tanner tutted quietly. “That’s so Lucy, sweet girl. Trying to protect you, I suspect. She doesn’t know you’re here, does she?”
Carter straightened. “No.”
“Best keep it that way,” said Tanner.
From his desk drawer, the older man took out a manila envelope and threw it at Carter. "After she called you, Lucy sent that through to me last night.”
Carter slid an eight-by-ten inch photograph from the envelope. Glossy and in full colour, the picture was sharp, and professional despite the covert angles. Fine white powder lay in a thin line, Lucy’s tense expression far from the quiet intensity she usually exuded. Dread filled Carter’s chest, and his fingers tightened at the photo’s edge. He tried to keep the panic from his voice and failed.
“Lucy’s using? I don’t believe it.”
“Nor should you,” said Tanner, “I don’t believe it for a second.” His new boss sounded almost nonchalant as he lifted a glass and sipped the amber liquor.
“She’s not using, Carter. Think about it, you would know. And I, as her boss, sure as hell would know. No no, this was a once-off, and I have more than one reason to suspect little sister’s been set up.”
What? Carter fought to hide his shock. "Who the hell would do that? And why?"
Tanner gestured to the envelope. Carter tipped it over and a smaller photo fell to the ground. He did a double-take as he recognized the face. Kathryn King. He’d met her at Lucy’s birthday bash a few months back. Even the black and white photo couldn’t fade his memory of her. Thick dark locks of hair, and the deepest blue eyes he had ever seen.
“King called me late last night. Right after she sent the photo to Lucy, poor love. King’s a renegade, Carter, she got too big for her boots here in my agency, wanted out to set up her own place and tried to poach my staff while she was at it. When Lucy refused to leave my employment for hers, King turned nasty. And yesterday she threatened to leak photos of Lucy to the press yesterday unless I agreed to release Lucy from her contract.”
Tanner retreated further into his seat, gulped back his drink before continuing. “I’ve staved her off as long as I can. I had to make it up that as soon as Lucy finishes her current job, I’ll arrange for her to leave Tanner and Co. and go work for King.” His face twisted in pain. “I can hardly bear the thought of Lucy working for a turncoat blackmailer like King, but this will buy us some time at least. ‘Til we get all the photos from her, and stop her from destroying Lucy’s career.”
Carter ran a hand through his hair. Exhaustion made this so much harder to comprehend. “There are other photos?”
“Several, she says. I told you she was brilliant. But know this, she is also ruthless and will stop at nothing to bring me down, and my models with me. So I pulled some strings this morning to let Lucy do a lengthy modeling job in the Caribbean. She’ll be gone for two weeks at least."
Carter swallowed the lump in his throat. “I’ll need to speak to her as soon as she lands.”
“What for, Mr. Carter?”
He straightened and looked his new boss straight in the eye. “I need to hear it from her that you’ve got nothing to do with this, Mr. Tanner. You have her letter of resignation, after all.”
Tanner leaned forward, eyebrows knitted together. “I have nothing of the sort. Why, she just told me this morning how much she’s enjoying working here. She’s certainly happy with the Caribbean job I’ve just sent her on. If she’s out of the country for a few weeks, she can lay low for a few weeks while we clean things up."
“With your help. I didn’t get you hired last week for your photographer’s skills alone. I need you to get those photos back. It may well be that all my girls are at risk, and if King smells a rat, she could pull out of our agreement. But a man like you could get close to her – by whatever method you choose.”
I’m just a photographer. It’s the police you should be talking to. Blackmail is risky business.”
Tanner leaned back in his chair, eyes flicking from his visitor to the glass, and back. “Under no circumstances can we involve the police. The press are in cahoots with the cops on all the big stories in London. Nothing is sacred anymore when the editors pay for the biggest scoop. Those mongrels barely need a sniff of scandal to bring down someone like me. And believe me, they’ll remember Lucy’s little misdemeanour. They’ll drag up the photo every time she hits the runway. It’ll haunt your poor mum for the rest of her miserable life too.”
Carter gritted his teeth. Obviously Lucy had told people at work about their mother’s failing health.
Tanner went on, his tone sympathetic. “Lucy is like a daughter to me, and we both want to see her go far. But remember, there are a lot of people would like to see my empire cut down to size too, and Kathryn King wants to take first aim. So no police, no press. For her sake and mine."
“Because you fit, Carter. She doesn’t know you well enough to suspect anything, and a good looking guy like you would catch her eye without even trying.” “And remember, now that you work for me, you’ve got as much to lose as Lucy.” Carter stood up. "No way, Tanner. All I wanted was a job, a decent wage...” In a flash, he imagined his mother, lying pathetically in the hospital bed as yet another doctor told him she needed twenty-four hour care that he and Lucy just couldn’t afford. And here he was, about to walk out of the first paying job he’d had in months. “Our family doesn’t need any more trouble. Find someone else to do your lying and stealing.”
Carter’s fists tightened. Despite his best efforts, his mother’s illness was something he couldn’t handle on his own. He would take any job to pay for her nursing home.
Carter had reached the door when he heard three words.
“Name your price.”
Carter let the door fall closed, lowered his eyes, and took the biggest chance of his life.
“A hundred grand.”
The breath caught in his throat at Tanner’s lack of hesitation.
Carter straightened. He understood now. A man like Tanner didn’t get to where he was by following rules. If you had enough money, you could solve every problem.
Carter hung his head. If winding his way into some ballbreaking chick’s life was the only way to provide the right care for their mother while at the same time sealing Lucy’s career, then so be it.
When he turned back towards the desk, Tanner was looking expectantly at him.
"When can I expect the photos?"
"When can I expect the money?” Two could play that game.
Tanner drained his glass. “You’ve got balls, Carter. I admire that. You’ll get ten grand in your bank account by the end of today, the rest when you deliver the evidence. Mind you get every photo, and all the copies. I want this done right. Now, your hefty price merits a demand of my own. You never breathe a word of this. Not to Lucy or the cops. No one must know about this or all our girls lose their jobs.”
Carter didn’t need to be told. He’d spent seven months out of work, but was about to embark on a whole new career.
Tanner proved true to his word. As Carter stood at the ATM machine outside of Charing Cross tube station at ten that night, his knees nearly buckled when he saw the five figures that made up his bank balance. He stuffed some notes into his wallet when he heard a beep on his mobile phone. The text message to Lucy still hadn’t gone through. Ignoring a stab of anxiety and the April chill, he pulled his coat around him and headed quickly into the neon lights of Soho. It was time to get to work.
The press pass he showed at the door to the nightclub was scrutinized a little longer than was comfortable. An exclusive place like Mystique didn’t allow riff raff. The barman was quick with the scotch, and Carter had it downed it before his better judgement could take hold. The place was all mirrors and brightly coloured cocktails, vast leather couches holding a mix of minor celebrities, footballers, and models galore. Even the staff were beautiful.
If Kathryn King turned up tonight like Tanner suggested, he would see her. Under the flashing coloured lights, Carter hardly noticed the few paparazzi who hung about in the shadows.
From the bar, Carter eyed up the guys with their huge cameras. Like vultures circling their prey, they stayed close enough to grab an opportunistic snap, but far enough not to be noticed. Was it in this club that Lucy had been set up? He flexed his fingers while the barman filled the shot glass again. He was Lucy’s only brother, and eight years older. Hadn’t he taught her better than to let something like this happen? He downed the second shot and prayed for courage.
By eleven o’clock, the only thing keeping him in Mystique was the sickly warmth of the scotch, as well as the obscurity offered by this quiet corner of the bar. Another influx of people crowded the dance floor made him scan the faces with no luck. Dammit. If she didn’t turn up by twelve, he was out of here.
So when he thought he saw her at the other end of the bar, Carter reached for the photo inside his jacket pocket. Yep, that was her. Only better looking in real life. With a killer body that her ‘suited and professional’ photo couldn’t possibly reveal.
Even in this crowd, she stood out. A little leather skirt that hugged her curves, making his gut slam with desire. As a group of people moved away from the bar, he caught sight of her legs for the first time. Long, slender limbs ending in heels that were high, and fatally sharp.
A black strapless bustier hugged shapely breasts. Her bare arms weren’t tanned like some women’s. They were pale and alabaster smooth. Her face seemed serious, like she was here to do business. Even from this distance, she had a look that warned ‘don’t mess with me.’
Tanner was right. If this woman was as ruthless as she looked, they were in big trouble. But what clouded his mind right now was that Kathryn King--the woman who held his sister’s future to ransom--looked incredible.
As Carter stood up from the bar stool, he felt the last shot swathe through him. He silently cursed the scotch, then King. Something told him that as soon as he started talking to her, that was it. No going back. Unsure if he could control the anger that belted through him for the tenth time that day, he took a sharp intake of breath. It would kill him not to confront her right here and now, but he had other problems, like trying to convince Kathryn King that he was genuine.
Kathryn King froze to the spot. The man at the bar was tall, gorgeous, and brazen enough to stare straight at her. She wanted to shrink into obscurity, not feel like she was the only woman there. Why had she let her stylist dress her like this? And speaking of Jon, where was he when she needed him?
She shifted uncomfortably from one high heel to another. She could hardly breathe in this bustier, and where the heck was the air conditioning? The last time she’d worn imitation leather was at a protest against cruelty to animals years ago. Its sickly smell had made her retch as she struggled through what was meant to be a rallying speech. Tonight, the same odor turned her stomach inside out, but somehow the stranger’s stare seemed to curb the nausea.
But it did nothing to help her feel she belonged in a place like this. She just didn't need gawping from a gorgeous guy to drive it home. True, he was probably the finest specimen of male she’d seen in a long time, but did he have to mentally undress her like this? She could almost feel his hands unbuttoning her top, sliding around her waist…
“Told you this club was the best.” Jon was back with drinks and giddy as a geisha. Kathryn turned to her stylist friend and watched as he ogled the behind of a male waiter.
“Sure Jon, but on a Monday night?”
Jon stopped salivating for a second to turn to her. “Monday, Friday - who cares? All I know is I’m single!” He wailed out the word. “I need to snag a new man. Stat. And Mystique is just the place.”
“I’m only here to interview that Roy guy, remember? And here we are, surrounded by socialites and wannabe celebrities,” she said flatly.
“I know, isn’t it fab? And who knows, there might be the odd undiscovered model for you to sign.”
Jon’s enthusiasm irked her sometimes, and tonight was one of those nights. But he was spot on about the models, she thought, as she tried to ignore the good-looking stranger who was still staring her out of it. But a man like him would have been snapped up – professionally and personally – already.
Resignedly, she walked over to the bar with Jon to sip her vodka and lime. The music had eased a bit, and she grabbed Jon’s arm to wrench his attention from the waiter’s body. This was the most unorthodox interview he’d ever organised.
“When did your photographer mate say he’d be here?"
“Roy’s not my mate Kathryn, he’s my ex. Big difference. He only said he might be able to help you out on a few freelancing jobs, that’s all. To be honest, I’m not even sure if he’s coming.”
She threw up her hands. This was just great.
“How can I hire photographers if they don’t even turn up to the ‘interview’? The agency is already going down the tubes, and we’ve hardly started. I thought you said this Roy guy was professional.”
“Sorry to be the bearer of bad news love, Roy may be a whiz with a lens and some dodgy floodlights, but he’s about as reliable as a two-wheeler bus,” said Jon. “One of the many reasons we’re not together anymore, but do not get me started on that.”
There was no chance of that happening. Kathryn gave a shrug.
“He could at least have let us know.” Would’ve saved her the hassle of dressing up like this, never mind dashing her hopes of ever getting this model agency off the ground. She had too much pride to go groveling back to Tanner for a job she’d outgrown anyway.
Jon threw back his drink. “If Roy got another job--or another date for that matter--he just wouldn’t bother to tell us. It’s just his way. Nothing personal.”
If Jon could see that her blood had started to boil, he said nothing. Instead, he gently took her head in his hands.
“Here, let your Auntie Jon make it all better.” She managed a smile as he went on, talking to her hair. “You need to relax a bit Kath, I know it’s tough when you’re working so hard to get your agency off the ground, but you’ll get there. No harm in letting your hair down now and then, eh’? And when you're friends with a gay man, that means dancing and cocktails."
Kathryn winced as he tried smoothing her hair as much as unruly curls would allow. Partying was the last thing on her mind.
Jon leaned into her ear. "I don't care that you’ve a ton of paperwork to do. Or that it’s a weeknight. I bet the last time you had a good night was back in the nineties.”
Kathryn slapped him lightly. It wasn’t quite as bad as that.
"Look, forget about Roy. I have,” said John. “I'll get us one more drink and we’ll call it a night, yeah? Unless Roy turns up by some miracle, in which case, hire him on the spot."
Kathryn let an ice-cube melt in her mouth as she looked around. Apparently, Roy was tanned, tall, and terrible to date. When she caught the eye of the hunky stranger again, his dark looks ticked that first box for her. And when he stood up from his bar stool, she realized he ticked the second one too. But when he started in their direction, it took only seconds to realize - this guy was no stranger. Kathryn King always remembered a good-looking face, and this one was unforgettable.