Authors: Sadie Matthews
That’s the way our family operates. Any of us could be anywhere in the world at any given time. Maybe if our mother were around, we’d have more of a sense of home, but as it is we’re constantly on the move, bags always waiting to be packed or unpacked, heading off to one of the many places Dad has acquired around the world, bumping into each other half by chance, unless we’re summoned to a particular place at a particular time. Then we all know better than to disobey orders.
‘Who’s taking you to the airport?’ Summer asks, as the elevator light flashes and a tiny bell pings to let us know that it’s arrived. The doors slide open.
I scowl, my good humour evaporating. ‘The new guy.’
‘Miles?’ Summer’s china-blue eyes open wide.
‘I guess so . . .’ I step into the plushly carpeted, mirrored interior of the elevator, and jab the basement button with my finger.
‘What’s wrong with him? Don’t you like him?’ she demands, but before I can reply, the doors slide closed and she disappears from sight, replaced by the brushed aluminium of the elevator door.
‘No, I don’t like him!’ I declare to my reflection in the mirror opposite. My brown eyes glare fiercely back at me and I can see how cross I look. There’s a creased furrow between my brows and my mouth looks set and tight-lipped. I’m not wearing much make-up beyond a little mascara and a slick of lip gloss, and I’m dressed for travel in jeans and long black boots with heels that are a little too high to be practical, a red woven tunic under a puffy black coat, and a glossy black leather handbag slung over one shoulder. My brown hair is cut in a sharp bob, with a fringe that skims my eyebrows and a pair of sunglasses nestles on the top of my head. They’re not for the sunshine – after all, there are steel grey skies outside – but in case I get photographed at the airport. The press and airport photographers are always about and if they spot me, you can bet that within minutes, I’ll pop up on some website. I’ll be praised for my chic outfit or admired for my figure, or else attacked for having a sulky expression (as if I’m going to grin happily at people taking my picture without asking) or slated for my expensive jet-set lifestyle. I never know what line they’ll take, and neither do they, I suspect. I can see the headline now:
Hammond heiress takes her eighth holiday of the year! Lucky little rich girl has no idea how the rest of us live
. . .
The truth is that they have no idea of what really goes on in my life. Lately they’ve all been wondering about my break-up with Jacob. They want to know all the gory details but so far it’s a secret that hasn’t been leaked. Maybe it’s too hot to handle, even for the tabloid press. They know that lawyers and injunctions would slam down on them and there would be big legal bills involved.
But if they knew what was on the tape locked in my father’s safe, they would probably pay any amount to get hold of it.
The image flashes into my mind. It was a terrible day when I was forced to watch that film, sitting there with my father and the lawyer on either side of me as it played on the computer screen. I was horrified at what I was seeing and deeply embarrassed.
‘Is it him?’ my father asked.
I’d nodded, half paralysed and unable to drag my eyes away from what Jacob was doing, even if I was revolted by it.
‘You’re sure?’ pressed the lawyer. ‘How can you be certain? His face isn’t visible.’
‘The tattoo,’ I whispered, my heart breaking as I watched the man I’d thought I would marry thrusting his erection into the mouth of a willing girl. ‘On his thigh.’
You’d never have noticed it if you didn’t already know it was there: a letter F in a curling script inside a tiny padlock.
‘You see?’ my father had said triumphantly. ‘I told you! All along, I told you but you wouldn’t listen. He’s a gold-digger. A gigolo. Now do you believe me?’
‘Yes,’ I’d whispered, and stood up on shaking legs. ‘But I loved him!’ and then I burst into tears.
I know my father was acting in my best interests but I can’t help hating him for interfering in my life, for exposing the truth to me and for causing me such pain. Perhaps it would have been better if I’d never known about Jacob’s predilections for call girls and all the things he liked them to do to him. But I suppose I would have found out one day: after all, we’d received the tape with a blackmail demand that the lawyers swiftly dealt with. It’s just a fact that the Hammond fortune attracts a lot of low-lifes hoping to get a piece of it for themselves. I learned that lesson once before, and now I’ve had to learn it again with Jacob.
My reflection in the elevator mirror shows the pain in my face. My eyes are no longer cross but full of wretchedness as I think of the painful break-up. It’s only been a few months and I’m not over it. Not at all.
‘That’s why I’m going to LA,’ I say to myself firmly. ‘A few days with Jimmy and I’ll be fine again. Anything to get away from here.’
I look up at the elevator ceiling, wondering if it’s wired for sound. I know there’s a camera in here. They’re everywhere, their little red lights flashing as they record people coming and going inside the house. Security, Dad says. We can never be too careful, we all know that. There are, apparently, none in the bedrooms or bathrooms, but I wouldn’t put it past him to secret those beady little glass eyes behind mirrors and into the fittings so that he can be absolutely sure what’s going on. Big Brother has nothing on my dad. As a result, I have to behave like everyone is watching, and it makes for a stiff, furtive kind of a life.
The elevator has glided swiftly down the six floors to the basement level. I’ve never even been out on to the first and second floors. They’re the engine rooms of the house, where the boilers, electrics, heating and air-conditioning systems are to be found. There are also storage rooms, the security centre, and a control hub that monitors the use of the elevators, garages, and even the doors and lights. I know one floor houses the laundry because sometimes I catch a sniff of freshly cleaned hot cotton as the elevator passes it. And there are staff bedrooms and an industrial kitchen. But like I say, I’ve never been there.
The doors open onto the dimly lit foyer that leads to the basement and garages. A man is sitting on the black leather sofa, checking his phone. He’s frowning, a crease between his dark eyebrows, and I can see the fine line of his very straight nose. As I stride out into the foyer, he stands up, sliding his phone into his jacket pocket. Then he fixes me with a stare, that half-challenging look he has. It’s irritated me since the moment I met him two weeks ago, and that irritation is getting more intense, not less. He says nothing but waits for me to speak.
‘Is my luggage on its way?’ I demand.
He raises his eyebrows quizzically and then shakes his head. ‘I’ve no idea. Have you asked for it to be sent down?’ He has an accent that I haven’t quite identified yet.
I draw in a breath huffily. ‘I would have thought it was obvious! Has it not occurred to anyone that I’m going to need my things?’
He goes over to a small table where one of the internal phones sits, sleek and black, and picks up the handset. ‘It’s always more effective to tell people what you want rather than expect them to read your mind.’ Before I can frame a retort, he presses a number and a second later says, ‘Yes, can you bring Miss Freya’s luggage to the garage immediately, please? It’s in her room, I assume. Thanks.’ Glancing back at me as he replaces the phone, he says, ‘Would you like to wait in the car?’
I stare at him, irritation crackling over my skin. Why does everything he says annoy me so much? It has to be his attitude. It stinks. Everyone else treats me with respect. They can’t do enough for me. But this man . . . something about him gives the impression that, deep down, he thinks I’m ridiculous. I hate that. How dare he? My father pays his wages and he ought to remember it. It’s why I hardly ever call him by his name. What is it? Summer said it just a few minutes ago. Oh, that’s right. It’s Miles. Well, until he learns his place, I won’t be calling him anything.
I decide to remain in the foyer as it’s the opposite of what he’s just suggested I do, but there’s no reading anything into his impassive expression. He simply stares back at me and waits for me to speak.
‘I’ll wait here,’ I say airily, and go over to the black sofa.
‘Very well,’ he says. His accent is Scottish, I think.
I sit down. He can come from Cloud Cuckoo Land, it makes no difference to me. He might be a little more good-looking than most – it’s impossible not to notice that he’s got those remarkable blue eyes, chiselled cheekbones and a strong square jaw, and that his dark jacket sits well across his broad shoulders – but he’s just another in the long line of bodyguards who’ve been a part of my life for almost as long as I can remember. He’ll be around for a while, and then he’ll leave, like all the rest. Only Pierre, the grizzled head of my father’s security, has stayed.
I check my phone for messages. Another dozen or so have hit my inbox in the last twenty minutes, organising the complex social life that binds me and my friends together. Our playgrounds are all over the world and when we pop out for a girly night, it might be that we’ll need a plane to take us to our venue, and a yacht to stay on when we get there. We sisters used to have an assistant – Estella – to help us with our complicated lives. But since Estella became my father’s girlfriend, we’ve roped in Dad’s PA, Jane-Elizabeth, to help. We love Jane-Elizabeth, with her jokes and her adoration of very expensive shoes, and even though she complains about us like crazy, she loves us too.
If only Dad could have fallen in love with Jane-Elizabeth,
I think wistfully. It was secretly what we all hoped for, and it’s plain that she adores him. But once Estella arrived on the scene and made her play for Dad, Jane-Elizabeth didn’t stand a chance. He was entranced by the wide green Bambi eyes, scarlet pout and the pneumatic figure she showed off in tight dresses and high heels.
I hate her. We all do.
The elevator doors open and a man comes out carrying my luggage. I stand up, one eye still on my messages. We all move in silence towards the garage doors, then we are in the vast dark room, full of powerful gleaming machines and smelling of rubber and oil. Our footsteps echo on the concrete floor as the bodyguard leads me to the black Mercedes, the model that we are usually driven in. Dad has explained the security benefits: it’s bomb- and fireproof, apparently, and heavily reinforced. Super safe.
The door is opened for me and I slide onto the back seat, tapping out a message as I go. The interior smells of polish and new leather. My luggage is placed in the boot and then the bodyguard climbs into the driver’s seat and starts up the engine. I’m vaguely aware we’re moving, the powerful car purring its way out of the garage, then we’re outside.
I think, blinking in the grey light. In just a few hours I’ll be in sunny California.
Free at last.
Or as free as I ever am.
I hear a noise. The bodyguard is talking to me. I look up from my phone.
His blue eyes fix on me in the rear-view mirror. ‘I said, the weather is terrible.’
‘Is it?’ I look out of the window. He’s right, the world is completely white outside, the snow piled up in huge drifts. Something has been through to clear the mountain road but it’s still thick with ice and studded with grit. I gaze out with a kind of detached curiosity. Things like the weather rarely affect me. If I want sun or snow or whatever, I just go wherever it can be found. I’m well insulated from events like floods or tornados, the things that happen to other people. My world is so protected that the weather is just the occasional mild irritant when it interferes with my plans. Like today.
‘Why are we going so slowly?’ I demand, looking at my watch. I don’t bother arriving for the usual check-in time. I fly so frequently and have so many VIP memberships, that I’m usually ushered straight from the car to the plane. If I’m late, it’s been known for planes to wait for me.
Those blue eyes land on me again, as cold as the weather outside, before they return to the road. ‘We’re going slowly because it’s bloody dangerous out there. The road’s like an ice rink.’
‘It’s what you’re trained for, isn’t it?’ I retort. ‘Put your foot down. I’ll be seriously annoyed if I miss this plane.’
‘Your plane might not be going anywhere. There’s obviously more snow to come any minute now. The sky’s heavy with it.’
I feel a surge of panic at the idea that I might not be basking in Californian sun later today. The thought of returning to the mountain house makes my hands clammy. ‘No. You’ve got to get me there. Go faster. I can’t be late, just in case they don’t hold the flight for me.’
I hadn’t realised until now how much I want to see Jimmy. He’s one of the few friends I really trust, and I can confide in him about Jacob and all that awful stuff, and he’ll understand. I need that right now. I really need a friend.
‘Listen,’ the bodyguard says gruffly. His accent is definitely Scottish and it seems to be getting stronger. ‘Maybe you haven’t heard me correctly. The weather is bad and the conditions are treacherous. I can’t magic up a way for you to get to the airport or guarantee your plane will take off when you get there. Sorry and all that, but that’s how it is. Not even
can buy good weather.’
He hasn’t bothered to meet my eye in the rear-view mirror this time. Fury surges over my neck and shoulders and I can feel my hands trembling a little.
How the hell dare he?