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Authors: Charlotte Stein

Run To You

BOOK: Run To You
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Run to You
Charlotte Stein

Table of Contents

Title Page

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

More from Mischief

About Mischief

Copyright

About the Publisher

Chapter One

Sometimes I’m sure Lucy hasn’t really gone on holiday. Something else has happened to her, something terrible, like the little scene at the start of a gritty crime drama. The police are going to find her tomorrow, floating in the Thames. In fact, I can almost see it when I close my eyes: that pretty under-slip of hers drifting around her pale, still body, like transparent water weeds. Her red hair so bright against those murky depths.

She isn’t somewhere exotic, living the life of Riley. She wouldn’t leave with only a note for a goodbye. And yet, when I search for some other answer, there’s nothing to be found. Her apartment is as clean and featureless as ever: an open book. There’s no clue stuck on her refrigerator, in the form of a shopping list she suspiciously never went out for. I can’t find clothes she didn’t take, or arrangements she didn’t make.

‘I’m moving to my Mediterranean heaven – rent’s paid for the next three months,’ she said, which should be explanation enough, really. It’s only because I’m left with an absence, and a sense that I meant far less to her than I thought I did. I was just a blip to her, in a life filled with jagged edges and full Technicolor. I am a speck, a stripe of grey.

But that’s OK, because I like it that way. It’s not nearly as bad as it sounds. I have a sensible job at a sensible company, and every night I eat sensible meals in my sensible flat, before retiring at a sensible hour. My pleasures are few and simple, but they
are
pleasures.

And even better: they can never hurt me. I don’t have to flee to some far-off place because I did something very wicked – though I don’t know if this wickedness of Lucy’s is just my imagination. It certainly seems like it might be when I flick through the little date diary she’s left in the upper right-hand drawer of her desk.

‘Dentist at three,’ it says, in that looping, dangerous-looking scrawl of hers. ‘Floor waxing at nine.’ Dull appointments like that almost look disingenuous, dressed in those slashing black ‘T’s and her big, all-consuming ‘S’s. The latter letter seems to devour entire pages, and puts my own handwriting to shame. My words creep across the bottom of pages, narrow and cramped and completely unobtrusive. I can’t bring myself to turn my ‘C’s into great, gaping mouths. And I certainly don’t know how to write in red.

But she does. She has. Every third Friday, there it is – the one appointment that doesn’t seem quite as dull as the rest. ‘Assignation’, it says, in bold, bloody crimson. And then as though to emphasise how incongruous that one word looks and sounds, she’s circled it three times. She’s circled all of them three times – these sibilant, secretive marks of the thing she must have been doing.

She was meeting someone. Someone she didn’t tell me about, someone dark and deadly. Or maybe it’s worse than that: an affair, an embroilment in the underworld … anything. It could be anything, which probably explains why I then pick up the telephone, and call the place she’s listed under every instance of that word.

‘The Harrington’, her diary says, and I immediately picture a great, grand dinosaur of a place. It will be one of those hotels that’s been caught between the wealth it once commanded and the seediness it’s disappearing into, and when a woman answers the phone she does nothing to dispel this impression.

‘How can we be of service?’ she says, in a tone designed to put the casual patron off. It’s both haughty and bored, like a person who’s just stepped out of the nineteenth century. She could kill with a voice like that, but my answer spills out of me anyway. I stretch my neck out, and put it on the chopping block.

‘My name is Lucy Talbert,’ I say. ‘I believe I have a reservation with you for Friday.’

And the woman says, ‘Yes. Yes, Lucy, you do.’

* * *

The place is even more intimidating than I had initially imagined – mainly because that seediness simply isn’t present. There are no holes in the velvet curtains, or cracks in the yellowing plaster. Everything gleams like the inside of a wine glass, and for a moment I stand transfixed in the doorway. I’m afraid to walk on the glossy marble floor, in case my cheap heels crack it.

Or maybe I’ll slip. Yes, slipping seems likely. It’s practically an ice rink in front of me, and I’ve never been known for my poise. Whereas the woman descending the elegantly curved stairs in front of me … well. She has poise in abundance. She’s wearing a skirt so slim and tight I’m surprised she can walk, and her heels are daggers.

But she doesn’t falter on that smooth floor. She doesn’t even seem aware of it. She glides to reception with all the grace of a swan, murmurs something to the equally elegant lady behind the mahogany desk and waltzes on.

It doesn’t surprise me that I hold my breath when she swings past me. If I inhale her perfume I might die of wealth. Her sheer classiness is on the verge of swamping me – or at the very least it’s about to mark me out as the impostor I am.

Suddenly, the difference between me and Lucy is immense. It’s a chasm. She came here, and she came here
often
. There are a lot of assignations in her little book, and if she attended them all she must have known how to operate in this environment. You couldn’t come here as a misfit, in ill-fitting clothes.

Though somehow that’s what I have done. I shamble up to the reception desk like an old washerwoman, skirt riding up my thighs, jacket gaping open. These heels are crippling me, and they aren’t half the height of that other woman’s. It’s really no wonder the receptionist looks at me with clear disdain, though I suspect that’s her default expression. Her eyes are the cool, clear blue of an arctic ocean, each framed with the kind of artistic sweep of eyeliner that I can never hope to achieve. And her hair …

I’ve never seen such neat, complicated coils. She’s wearing a snake on her head, only the snake is beautiful and blonde and so much better than me. I’m embarrassed to be in my own body, right at this moment.

‘Yes?’ she asks, and for a long second I can’t think what to say. I’ve forgotten how to speak, in a presence as imperious as hers. She isn’t even trying to be imperious, either. It just comes naturally to her, in the middle of casual conversation.

‘I’m Lucy Talbert,’ I say, but this time the lie stings. She’s quite clearly going to know that I’m not telling the truth, because she’s not just some receptionist. A person like her won’t mistake one guest for another, or fail to pay any attention at all.

I bet she knows everyone who’s ever walked through those doors. I bet she knows the random visitor who only stayed once last June, all the way up to the pretty red-headed girl who used to come once a month. And she knows … she absolutely knows that I am not that girl. My hair isn’t red, for a start.

It’s a dull, dense black.

And I’m biting my lip, where I imagine Lucy didn’t. In this, she was definitely different from me. She must have used that flicker of iron I saw in her sometimes – that confidence that I lacked. She was the one who said to some guy in a bar, ‘Buy us a drink.’ I was simply the one who reaped the benefits.

I can’t pass for her.

And the pressure of trying to is too much for me. Before the woman has said another word I turn to leave, defeat like ashes in my mouth. My head is down; my eyes are on the floor. That flame of sudden jolting curiosity will never be extinguished.

Instead, I make an even greater fool of myself.

There’s a man behind me, and of course I stumble into him as I go to leave. Of course I do. He’s a suited wall, grey and heavy and ominous, and the moment I glance at him I rush to back away. It’s bad enough that I’m surrounded by all of this opulence. I don’t want to smear my poverty and inelegance all over it.

But that’s what I do. I skid on the ice rink, and rather than avoiding him I blunder in closer. My heels shove forward; my body arches back. It’s only his quick reflexes that stop me landing on my ass. He shoots out a hand, so quick I hardly see it coming – and I certainly don’t have time to graciously pass it up.

‘No, I’m fine,’ I imagine myself saying, in this imaginary world where I didn’t actually need his help. In the real one, he grabs my elbow and jerks me back up – but that isn’t the humiliating part. No, no. The humiliating part is how indifferently he does it, as though saving girls from embarrassment is on a level with swatting away a fly. There’s no concern to the gesture, or acknowledgement of me as a person.

He sets me right and then simply keeps on moving towards the desk, oblivious.

Whereas I’m left with the opposite feeling. I’m on the other end of the spectrum from oblivious, whatever that’s called. Extreme noticing, perhaps? Severe and chronic attention-paying? At the very least, my eyes are refusing to move away from this man – this guy who’s barely registering my existence.

I can’t blame my eyes, however. He looks as though he’s just stepped out of a Hugo Boss advert, if Hugo Boss adverts usually featured much burlier, intense-looking men. Instead of the flat, moody look of a model trying too hard, he has an aura of focus, of effortless masculinity. His suit has settled on his body like a second skin, and beneath it you can clearly see all the things you usually wouldn’t.

How broad his chest is, how immense his shoulders are. I’m sure I can make out the heavy slab of one shoulder blade, in a way that should mark him out as a wrestler, or a boxer. It should make his suit seem ill-fitting.

But of course it doesn’t. He’s so at ease he could probably wear a coat of armour and seem comfortable and proper. He just looks at the receptionist, and she goes to retrieve whatever it is he came here for – while I remain, gawping.

I can’t help it. His face, oh, Lord, his
face
. I haven’t even gotten to that part yet. I’m still stuck on his grey woollen suit and his massive hands – the ones he’s currently easing into leather gloves. I’m almost afraid to analyse anything else, in case it proves too much for me.

And I was right on that score. His face is far, far too much.

Of course he’s handsome, in that Hugo Boss way, but he’s also handsome in a way that’s not. As though he maybe models for some obscure Eastern European equivalent of that scent – Hurgo Bsosch, maybe. It’s there in the heavy-lidded look in his eyes, and the softness of his mouth. He doesn’t have a grim slash, of the kind that seems so popular these days.

He has a sensuous mouth, a decadent mouth, a mouth you want to plunge into and swim around in. If his mouth was sculpted out of chocolate, I’d cram it down my throat like a starving person – hell, it’s possible I’d do that anyway, chocolate or not. He’s just so rich-seeming, and not just in the monetary way.

In the solid, fleshy,
real
-seeming way. In the big, masculine way.

And yet when he speaks, his voice is so gentle. So unassuming. He has a slight accent, just as I suspected, but I’m not close enough to make out what it is. He doesn’t speak loudly enough for me to make out what it is. He just murmurs a few words as the receptionist hands him his long overcoat, and all I’m left with is a hint of musicality.

It seems quite incongruous to hear such an imposing man speaking in such an unimposing manner. Shouldn’t he be more commanding? How on earth does he pay for suits like that, and go to work at the Hungarian branch of Hugo Boss, if he barely speaks above a whisper?

And then I realise what I’m doing, in a rush of humiliation. I’m actually leaning forward, to hear him better. In fact, I’m practically on tiptoe. And I’ve held my breath again, as though breathing is just some irritating habit, getting in the way of my ability to listen.

BOOK: Run To You
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