Authors: Freda Vasilopoulos
Tags: #Romantic Suspense
Samantha Smith hummed a little to herself as she stepped through the glass doors of the Regal Arms Hotel. The chandelier, a carefully preserved antique, winked at her as she walked briskly across the lobby.
The newsstand was at the far side, near the elevators—correction—the lifts. Her low humming died mid-note. She frowned at the slip. This time it had been only in her mind, but it showed she was getting complacent, careless. At first it had been hard to think in British terminology, but she’d practiced meticulously and learned the distinctive phrasing.
She shrugged lightly, her shoulders flexing under the thin sweater she wore. Perhaps complacency was no longer dangerous. Maybe it was time she stopped looking over her shoulder, fearing pursuit.
She’d been in London for nearly six months, with no sign that anyone either knew or cared about her whereabouts. She was increasingly inclined to rationalize the incident that had precipitated her flight from Montréal. The highly emotional state she’d been in at the time had no doubt colored her interpretation of what she’d seen, exaggerated the danger.
In any case, she’d covered her tracks well. No one asked for names on bus or train tickets bought with cash at the station. She had ridden on a lumbering Greyhound to Toronto, and had taken a train to New York, before flying by Airbus to Paris. Another train had carried her to Nice where she’d made arrangements with an eccentric artist friend, Amelia Fontaine, to send postcards at regular intervals to friends at home.
The long, often tedious journey had given Samantha plenty of time to prepare the cards in advance. Amelia, who had little use for marriage, had been only too ready to accept and applaud Samantha’s broken engagement, and fall in with her request.
Besides Amelia, only her solicitor, Mr. Collins, knew she was in London. She’d just had lunch with him in a dark, smoky pub, their usual meeting ground.
Mr. Collins was a stuffy little man who occupied a stuffy little office near Piccadilly Circus, and the only other person Samantha had taken partially into her confidence. He’d handled her financial affairs, so far without a glitch. He’d transferred funds from Montréal to London to pay for her tiny flat and to provide her with a safe cushion in case of emergency. She saw him once a month to discuss her investments. They always met away from his office, in pubs or in large, anonymous department store restaurants.
Mr. Collins would maintain lawyer-client confidentiality even under torture. Samantha would have staked her life on it. If anyone asked him, she was in the south of France and he had correspondence to prove it.
A mirror on one of the columns supporting the lofty ceiling briefly reflected back her image as she walked by. After all these months she still felt a momentary start when she caught an unexpected glimpse of her new self.
Her best friends were unlikely to recognize her. She was a blonde again, going back to her natural color after years as a dramatic redhead. The glasses she wore gave her a studious look.
Almost six months had passed. Her life had settled into a comfortable routine, not exciting perhaps, but one she could live with.
She smiled at the man behind the newsstand counter. “
As he turned to take a copy from the stack behind him, she glanced at her watch. If she hurried she could still put in a few hours of work.
“‘Ere you are, miss.”
“Thank you.” She dropped change on the counter.
She turned away, feeling lighthearted, as she hadn’t for months. The day was fine, a welcome respite from the rainy weather Londoners had been enduring. Her present translating job was interesting. All was right with her world.
Until she glanced at the closing elevator door and met the eyes of a dead man.
* * * *
Anthony Theopoulos had it all. Even his names, both of them, had such positive connotations that he couldn’t have avoided success even if he’d been born in a gutter. A woman he’d dated last year, a linguist, had looked up his names and informed him he was favored indeed. Anthony meant “of inestimable worth”, and he’d always known that Theopoulos meant ”child of God”.
So why wasn’t he happy? Why did he feel this vague discontent, the feeling that his life had settled into a rut?
He swiveled his chair so that he faced the view outside his office window. Serenely blue skies accented by a couple of cotton-puff clouds bathed the city of London in benign warmth, making up for the chilly rain that had spoiled the summer.
In the distance Hyde Park lay like a green oasis amid tall city buildings. If he looked carefully, he could just glimpse the Serpentine, a curving crescent of blue. The trees lining its shores displayed the lush green foliage of early September.
Why wasn’t he happy? He was exactly where he wanted to be in his professional life. A year ago he’d been promoted to his present position as the manager of Worldwide Hotel Corporation’s Northern European Division. At thirty-four he was the youngest executive ever to hold the position, a career dream come true.
His personal life? He frowned. Empty. It was the only term that came to mind, in spite of his busy social life and a stack of invitations to concerts and art openings lying his desk.
Perhaps he needed a holiday. He glanced at the folder in his hand, a Top Security stamp standing out in scarlet on the cover. After the trade conference…
He scanned the first of several lists detailing caterers, security staff, and protocol. Usually he didn’t get involved in the day-to-day routine of the hotel, but this trade conference was vital to the continued economic cooperation between several countries. Nothing could go wrong with the arrangements this time.
He had personally guaranteed it.
Tony swung the chair back toward his desk as his secretary’s beautifully modulated voice came over the intercom. After a year she still addressed him formally. He smiled. Quite a change from the easygoing camaraderie in the Montréal and Vancouver offices of Worldwide Hotels.
He depressed the talk button. “Yes, Marcia?”
He could have sworn her voice shook. His smile fading, he sat up straighter. He’d never known anything to ruffle Marcia Johnson’s reserve. “There is a problem downstairs. In the lobby. Mr. Parker has asked that you come and see to it personally. I’m sorry, sir, but he was very insistent.”
She sounded flustered, an unprecedented state of affairs for a woman who organized meetings and calmed the occasional unhappy guest with placid aplomb. Curiosity kindled inside him. “All right, Marcia. Tell him I’ll be right there.”
He rode down in the elevator, emerging into the hotel lobby, a chamber whose magnificence still had the power to awe him. The spacious area with its moldings and Wedgwood-blue accents could have graced the most elegant stately home. Visitors hushed their voices as they came in from the street, as if they’d entered a cathedral.
Today the scene was different. For the first time no clerk held court behind the solid oak registration counter. No blue uniformed bellman stood next to the elevator as he stepped out of it. Even the doorman had abandoned his post, the braid on his shoulder distinctly askew as he leaned over Mr. Parker’s pin-striped back.
Tony hurried across the red-and-gold Wilton carpet to the lobby newsstand. At least a dozen of his staff crowded around someone sprawled on the floor.
“Excuse me, please.”
He pushed past Parker, who was crouching over the body of a young woman. Parker looked up, his face creased with worry and disapproval. “This young woman, sir,” he said, moving aside. “She seems to have fainted.”
Kneeling, Tony grasped her wrist. The pale skin was cool under his fingers, the bones delicate. A deceptive fragility, no doubt, Tony realized at once. She wasn’t in danger of dying. Her pulse beat strongly under his fingers, rather more quickly than normal, but an indication that she was very much alive.
Above him Parker wrung his hands, agitated by the unprecedented desecration of the hotel’s usual calm. “She just walked in and fell down,” he said plaintively. “No reason at all. Her things were all over the floor. I put them together by her handbag. I hope that’s all right, sir. She looks—”
“Parker, bring me a wet cloth.” Tony’s voice cut decisively through the man’s rambling. “And get hold of yourself.” He swung his head around. “The rest of you can go back to your stations.”
He was only peripherally aware of their departure, the avid curiosity in their backward glances. Turning back to the woman on the floor, he noted her neat appearance. She wore a cotton skirt and a light sweater over a pink shirt. The clothes were of good quality, but undistinguished, as if she cared little about fashion.
One of her shoes had fallen off her foot and lay next to her calf. The nails on the shoeless foot were painted, a vibrant fuchsia.
She moaned, and stirred under his hand. His surprise at the nail polish, seemingly out of character with the rest of her appearance, died a quick death as he turned his attention to her face.
Thick hair the color of ripe barley lay in glossy waves around an oval face. Her skin was smooth, lightly tanned. A straight nose and generous mouth gave her features a quiet beauty. Color was beginning to steal back into her pale cheeks.
Interest sharpened inside him. Who was she?
Parker thrust a cold wet cloth into his hand. Curbing his curiosity, Tony took it and gently wiped her face. “Thanks, Parker. You can go back to the desk.”
Parker hesitated. “Sir, you’re in the middle of the lobby. Could I help you move her to a—uh—less prominent place?”
Tony glanced around. They were near the newsstand, hardly the middle of the lobby. Parker was a fussbudget. “It’s my lobby, so to speak,” he said crisply. “I’d like to know what caused her faint before I move her.”
Parker drew himself up to his full height, his aquiline nose twitching. “Very well, sir. Shall I call a doctor?”
“No, don’t bother for the moment. She’s getting some color back. It’s probably nothing serious.”
He pressed the cloth to her forehead, brushing back her hair. It flowed through his fingers, as sleek and cool as satin ribbons, and gave off a scent of orange blossoms.
“He was dead. I know he was,” she muttered.
Startled, Tony turned his attention back to her face.
“He was dead!” She lifted her head, her voice rising, but still only a whisper. Tony glanced around. Those of the staff who were visible went about their business with their usual efficiency. A mid-afternoon quiet enveloped the hotel.
“Who was dead?” he asked, turning back to the woman.
Her eyelids fluttered, then lifted. Tony found himself gazing into gray eyes so pale and clear they reminded him of rain. They widened fractionally, as if in surprise, before she blinked several times.
“Who was dead?” he repeated.
For a moment she looked puzzled, then an emotion flickered through her eyes that he could have sworn was fear. But instantly it was gone, replaced by bewilderment.
“Dead? No one was dead.”
The back of his neck prickled. Something wasn’t right here, and he didn’t know what. Her voice. Somehow it had changed from when she had uttered the first low but vehement statement. He had no doubt that she was completely conscious, even when she lay back, breathing a little too quickly.
Her eyes fell closed. After a second, they snapped open again. “My glasses?”
Tony looked around. A compact, two lipsticks, a pen and a diary calendar lay in a small heap next to an open handbag. Beside it, he saw a pair of wire-framed glasses. He handed them to her and she put them on, blinking as she focused through the lenses.
“Can you stand?” he asked.
The clear gray of her eyes was muted by the glasses, giving her an ethereal look. “What? Oh, yes, I think so.” She moved her head, as if testing its condition and balance. Then, pulling her feet under her, she sat up.
With a deft movement of her hands, she gathered her hair into a coil and fastened it at the back of her neck with the pins she picked up from the floor. Little tendrils dangled free, charmingly, Tony thought.
She was striving for dignity, he realized. Making a scene was not a normal occurrence in this woman’s life. But the pulled-back hair only emphasized the pale vulnerability of her face.
“Yes, I’m all right.” Taking a firm grip on his hand, she stood up, letting go as soon as she gained her feet. She groped with her foot. “I seem to have lost my shoe.” A little tinkling laugh tumbled from her lips.
Kneeling, Tony retrieved it, holding it as she slid her foot inside. The cool fragility of her hand telegraphed itself through the fabric of his shirt. He realized all at once that he’d forgotten his jacket in his office, and hid a smile as he cast a sidelong look at the main desk. No wonder Parker had almost frozen him with his disapproval. Shirtsleeves and an open collar with a loosened tie were not appropriate dress for the lobby of the Regal Arms.