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His Personal Agenda

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His Personal Agenda Liz Fielding HarperCollins EUR At her sideday & nightTroubleshooter Matt Crosby has a hidden agenda: he's been hired to find out all he can about Nyssa Blake.But when Matt meets Nyssa, he falls for herand his private agenda suddenly gets a lot more personal! Nyssa is naturally wary of Matt, especially as he seems determined to keep her at his side twenty-four hours a day. Tension begins to build between them, and once Nyssa discovers Matt's mission, there's bound to be an explosion! Kiss me, Matt Crosby, she said. With a soft moan he reached out and slid his fingers through her hair. Matt knew he should back off and resist her. This was breaking all the rules. But it was too late. Hed been drawn by something almost desperate in Nyssas eyes, a vulnerability, a hunger that spoke directly to him. Besides, the rules no longer mattered. Tomorrow Matt would return the developers money, and tell him to find someone else to do his dirty work. Then he put thinking on hold and started acting. He pulled her close and teased her lips, swallowing her scent so that it became part of him forever. She shivered with pleasure. This is crazy! Madness he whispered. Born and raised in Berkshire, LIZ FIELDING started writing at the age of twelve when she won a hymn-writing competition at her convent school. After a gap of more years than she is prepared to admit to, during which she worked as a secretary in Africa and the Middle East, got married and had two children, she was finally able to realize her ambition and turn to full-time writing in 1992. She now lives with her husband, John, in west Wales, surrounded by mystical countryside and romantic, crumbling castles, content to leave the traveling to her grown-up children and keeping in touch with the rest of the world via the Internet. Readers can visit Liz Fieldings Web site at www.lizfielding.com. His Personal Agenda Liz Fielding www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) CONTENTS CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER TWO CHAPTER THREE CHAPTER FOUR CHAPTER FIVE CHAPTER SIX CHAPTER SEVEN CHAPTER EIGHT CHAPTER NINE CHAPTER TEN CHAPTER ONE MATT CROSBY considered the man sitting behind the vast mahogany desk with a certain detachment. Charles Parker was not an easy man to warm to, but he would pay well and Matt had a lot of expenses. I dont have to explain the problem to you, Crosby, he said, sliding a file across the polished acres of mahogany. This woman is a troublemaker. Shes holding up an important development, something badly needed, and shes got to be stopped. Matt wasnt taken in by protestations of concern for the public interest. Charles Parkers only concern was for profit. But he picked up the file and contemplated the photograph of a young woman clipped to the inside cover. Nyssa Blake. The face that launched a thousand town planning appeals. She headed the wish list of every property developer in Britain. And they all wished the same thing. That she would go away. According to the brief biography attached she was a few months shy of her twenty-third birthday, but she was already capable of making Charles Parker reach for the panic button. With good reason. Her track record for forcing developers to think again was impressive. She cant be allowed to get away with it, Parker insisted impatiently. No, I suppose not. After all, if she wasnt stopped soon she might get the crazy idea that she could do anything. Matt had been twenty-two himself once, and just about remembered having ideals and a burning desire to put the world to rights, remembered that youthful sense of invincibility that didnt know when it was beaten. Hed learned the hard way. Parker glanced at him sharply. Theres no suppose about it. Then, That file contains just about everything that anyone has ever written about her, and my secretary will give you video tapesnews coverage of her last campaign An out-of-town shopping park, wasnt it? Parker shuddered. She brought in a botanist who was supposed to have found some rare species no one had ever heard of and cared even less about. Out-of-town shopping has become very un-PC. The local authority was probably glad of any excuse to stop it. Parker glared at him and Matt shrugged. What do you want me to do? Dont tempt me. Parker laughed shortly. He was seriously rattled, seriously worried, Matt decided. Well, hed heard rumours that Parker was having cash-flow problems. Any delay would hurt him badly. What Id really like is for someone to shut her up in some deep, dark dungeon and throw away the key. When Matt was unresponsive to this suggestion Parker shrugged. No, well, maybe not. And he added a little laugh, just to show that he hadnt really meant it. Matt was not entirely convinced. I wont be involved in anything like that, he said. Who would? As well as being the darling the of media, a myth in her own lifetime, she also has some powerful family connections. He nodded towards the file. Its all there. See what you can do with it. The file was certainly a hefty one, but Matt Crosby put it back on the desk. Im sure shes a serious pain in the backside but I just dont see what you expect me to do about it. I know some of her hangers-on can get a bit out of hand, but shes a perfect Miss Goody Two-Shoes from all accounts. Never puts a foot wrong. Well, if shes looking for evidence that the Gaumont Cinema at Delvering is worth saving shell have to break in to find it. Maybe you should just give her a guided tour, show her that shes wasting her time? Maybe you should just bulldoze the place down? Parker didnt respond to any of those suggestions. Matt shrugged. Well, I suppose a court appearance would tarnish the halo If you think Im paying your kind of fees just to see her get a fifty-pound fine and a ticking off at the local magistrates court, you can think again. Faced with a brick wall, Matt pointed out, you have two choicesbang your head against it, or take it down brick by brick. Parker snorted. I havent got time for games. This is urgent. He leaned forward. You come highly recommended as a troubleshooter, Crosby. This girl is trouble and I want her He hesitated. Shot? Matt offered helpfully. Parker glared at him. Out of my hair. Youre supposed to be some kind of genius at digging up those nasty little secrets people would rather keep buried You make a lot of enemies that way. Matt looked at the solemn-faced young woman in the photograph. Hed rather make a friend The man behind the desk wasnt interested in his problems. If you dig deep enough theres got to be something, and once the fawning masses discover that their heroine has feet of clay shell find the world is a very lonely place. Matt did not find the prospect of digging around in Nyssa Blakes life looking for dirt in the least bit appealing. This girl is twenty-two years old, Parker, and ever since she dropped out of university shes spent her time stopping people like you riding roughshod over planning regulations. What the devil do you think Im going to find? What about drugs? All those hippie types smoke pot, dont they? Do they? He shrugged. Shes no hippie, Parker. Besides, I doubt that she smokes anything. He regarded Parker steadily, keeping his features expressionless. Im sure shed tell you that smoke is bad for the ozone layer. The man scowled back at him. Sex, then. Sex? Matt unclipped Nyssa Blakes photograph from the file and stared at it for a moment. She gazed back at him with frank speedwell-blue eyes that looked out from a small oval face framed by a tiny pageboy bob of bright red hair. Her skin was clear and fresh, her mouth full but without a hint of a smile. She had the earnest look of a crusader about her. There was nothing conventionally beautiful about Miss Nyssa Blake, but he didnt doubt that when she entered a room every eye in the place would swivel in her direction. I wouldnt rely on sex to put people off, he said. On the contrary, he was sure that any suggestion that the lady was free with her favours would have every red-blooded male in the country clamouring to join her action group. I should think money is your best bet. Whos putting up the money for her campaigns? Quality PR doesnt come cheap. And the kind of coverage she attracts suggests theres someone behind it who knows what theyre doing. Donations from well-wishers, according to the lady. Thats a lot of good wishes. We seem to be working on the same wavelength at last, Crosby. Parker sat back, a small, satisfied smile momentarily straightening his thin lips. And if you draw a blank on the money side of things maybe you should take a look at her family. Her father was a soldier, killed in the Gulf War and posthumously decorated for bravery. Im sure his daughter would do anything to protect his good name. And the dead cant sue for libel. You can make up your own lies, Parker, you dont need me for that. Lies wont do. Even rumours need a little fuel to feed on if theyre going to do any damage; I need something with at least a grain of truth to glue it together. If you come across any suggestion of other women or money problems in her fathers life, I want to know. Do you understand? Parker didnt wait for a reply, taking his understanding for granted. And Matt Crosby understood. He didnt much like it, but he understood. Her mother remarried three or four years ago, Parker continued, then paused. Her new husband is James Lambert. Hes a property developer, too, he added, thoughtfully tapping the file. Nyssa Blake dropped out of university at about the same time. That might be an angle worth pursuing. Youve got plenty of material to work with Its quality that counts, not quantity. Everyone has something to hide, Crosby. Something that wouldnt look too good on the front page of the tabloids. If you cant find anything on the girl, maybe you can dig up some dirt on her family. There are a couple of stepsisters; one is an actress I just need a lever. I can apply the pressure myself. If she doesnt like the man her mother married shes hardly likely to back off to protect him or his daughters. Why dont you just ask her what she wants from you, Parker? It would save time and money in the long term. Wants? Well, she knows that shes not going to win in the end. Youre going to tear down a past-its-sell-by-date cinema and replace it with a supermarket. Maybe a few locals have gone all dewy-eyed with nostalgia, remembering their lost youth spent in the back seats of the stalls, but most of the town would probably rather have the supermarket. All she can do is delay you. All? Every day that passes is costing me He stopped abruptly but Matt didnt need to be drawn a picture. The rumours were true; if Parker didnt get the redevelopment of the site through the local planning committee quickly, he was going to be in serious trouble. So why not ask her what she wants? You never know, keeping the original fa?ade might do it. Try reason, be accommodating. And if you can smile while youre doing it you might discover that youve become the hero and Miss Nyssa Blake will be the one who has to convince her supporters that she hasnt sold out. Thats an excellent idea, Crosby. Unfortunately the supermarket has a corporate image; art deco Gaumont style doesnt even come close. Besides, Nyssa Blake wants the whole thing restored to its former glory. She believes the town needs an entertainment centre more than it needs a new supermarket. Is it? Needed? Parker gave him a sharp look, but since Matt hadnt expected a straight answer he carried on. Look, this isnt a six-lane highway being bulldozed through a site of scientific interest. Its just a local battle with the planners. Small stuff. The media will soon lose interest. You think so? Parker, for the first time since Matt had entered the room, smiled with genuine amusement. I wish I shared your confidence. It might be small stuff, Crosby, but Miss Blake is small in the manner of a mosquitoannoying as hell and quite capable of administering a lethal bite. Maybe you should call the local pest exterminator. I have. You. Youve been misinformed. Im considered something of pest myself Even pests have to eat, and since Im reliably informed no one in the City is going to employ you within the foreseeable future He shrugged. Im not so fussy, and if you find something on the girl that I can use therell be a bonus on top of your fee. The fee he mentioned was substantial, but nowhere near enough. Your informants are out of date, Parker. Youll have to double that, Matt countered, then smiled briefly. Inflation, he offered. Parker said nothing, and Matt had the uncomfortable feeling that he could have asked for more and still have got it. Ill want ten days payment in advance before I start, nonrefundable, and my expenses will be what I need to do the job. No more, no less, no quibble. He might not particularly relish this job, but right now he couldnt afford to be picky; he had research of his own to finance. And no dirty business, Matt added, just to reinforce what hed said earlier about Nyssa Blake being locked in a dungeon with the key thrown away. You think a lot of yourself, Crosby. Not true. He thought the chance of finding dirt that would stick to Miss Nyssa Blake rated alongside winning the National Lottery, or the discovery of a hoard of Celtic gold jewellery beneath the concrete yard at the rear of his flat, or even a credit balance in his bank account. All things were possiblebut the odds were against it. Cash isnt a problem, is it? Id prefer to keep this unofficial. Parker took a pack of banknotes from a small concealed safe. So long as the inks dry, Matt replied wryly, taking one of the notes and flicking it through his fingers as if testing its veracity. It all goes through my books his enemies would enjoy seeing him on the wrong side of an Inland Revenue audit but what you do this end is no concern of mine. He stowed the money about the pockets of his suit, picked up the file and nodded. Youll be hearing from me. Image is everything. Nyssa had learned that at her first press conference. Eighteen years old, her hair had been cropped punk-short then, henna-bright against the hastily applied ivory-pale make-up, the black dress borrowed for the occasion from one of her stepsisters. It had been pure drama and the press had loved her for it. Shed learned a lot that day about image and what it could do for a cause, and shed abandoned charity store cast-offs and taken on the establishment on its own terms. These days there were developers who backed away from anything she showed an interest in. People took her seriously. Presumably Charles Parker had thought a neglected cinema would be beneath her notice. Image. Nyssa stared at her reflection in the mirror. Shed grown out the cropped hair to the briefest of sleek pageboy bobs, but it was still bright red. These days, though, the effect was the result of regular visits to a Knightsbridge crimpers rather than the enthusiastic use of her mothers dressmaking shears and a packet of henna. Her naturally pale complexion was accentuated by bright red lips that rarely smiled. And now that solemnity too was part of her image. She sprayed herself with her favourite scent, with its luscious green topnote of gardenia, and turned to the elegant designer dress hanging over the wardrobe door. Black. Of course. Fine jersey, smooth and flowing as silk. Taking the dress down from its hanger, she lifted it over her head, sliding her arms into long, narrow sleeves, easing the bodice against her skin and letting the skirt fall in a gentle swirl about her legs. She fastened tiny buttons over breasts lifted and emphasised by a black lace bra, the kind of bra that had caused traffic accidents when the advertising hoardings went up. She was well aware that the effect was sexy as well as dramatic. It had been planned that way. Short of World War Three breaking out, that glimpse of cleavage would guarantee her a place on the front page of every tabloid tomorrow morning. Shed learned a lot in three years of campaigning. More than how to walk past a security guard and have him hold open the door for her even as she breached his defences. More than how to convince cynical reporters that she was right. More than how to stick it out when she appeared to be the only person in the whole world who cared As she fastened a pair of antique jet drops to her earlobes, there was a tap at the door. Nyssa? Her hands trembled as she was seized by nerves and she nearly dropped one of the precious earrings, fielding it with fingers that were suddenly all thumbs. Damn! She hung onto the edge of her dressing table for a moment, taking slow, careful breaths until she recovered. Then she carefully fastened the second drop, painted a smile on her face and opened the door. Gil! She tried to keep the heartleap out of her voice. Since her group had grown so loud and annoyed so many important people, her brother-in-law had been trying to get her to use one of the specially trained drivers from his security company. So far she had managed to resist him, but on occasion Gil would turn up before a big event to offer her a lift. And his home was not more than twenty or so miles away from the bustling market town of Delvering. How unexpected, she said, managing just a touch of irony. Just passing, were you? Not exactly. But I thought you might welcome a little moral support. Moral support was the last thing she wanted from her brother-in-law. I have the uncomfortable feeling that, roughly translated, that means you still think Im a little girl who has bitten off a chunk more than she can chew. Right? She longed for him to deny it, but he just laughed. I might think it, but I wouldnt dare say it. Not the way youre looking tonight. Really? She hated his laughter, but shed learned not to let her feelings show around Gil; it wasnt his fault that she was in love with him, so she kept her voice light. Was that a compliment? I couldnt be quite sure. Dont fish, brat. Youll have every man in the country leering over your picture in the papers tomorrow. Isnt that enough? No. Of course it wasnt. There was only one man she had ever wanted to leer at her. Unfortunately he was married to her stepsister. Only if it encourages them to write to the Department of the Environment and demand a planning enquiry, she said briskly. Is Kitty with you? No, Harrys got the sniffles and you know how she fusses about him, but she sends her love. He paused. Actually, shes a bit tired Nyssa, not exactly panting to hear about his domestic life, smiled politely and made a move towards the door. Gil put his hand on her arm, stopping her. I wanted you to be the first to know, Nyssa. Shes expecting another baby. He had wanted to tell her himself. Before someone else did. That was why hed come tonight. Hed never said a word, yet it was obvious that he knew all about the schoolgirl crush shed had on him. A friend of her fathers, albeit a younger one, he had tried to be kind, walking on tiptoe around her feelings, taking care not to hurt her. It was why he still treated her like a schoolgirl, because he suspected, as Kitty did, that it wasnt just a schoolgirl crush. Well, it couldnt be, could it? She wasnt a schoolgirl any more; she was twenty-two. And kindness was the last thing she wanted from him. Im very happy for you both, Nyssa said, brightly enough. Have you told James and Sophia? She hadnt been able to bear calling her mother anything but Sophia since she had married Kittys widowed fatherthe memory of her own father was still too precious. Youre going down for Jamess birthday, I imagine? Nyssa asked. We thought wed tell everyone then. Youll be there, wont you? If I can, she hedged. The feeling is that Parker will attempt to demolish the cinema quickly, before we can get it listed. She frowned. Hes been very slow off the mark. Sophia will be terribly disappointed if you dont come, Gil said, distracting her. We could give you a lift down if you dont want to drive yourself. No. Ill try. Really. And then shed discover something desperately important to do. The alternative was to go and smile and hide her feelings, as she had been doing ever since Gil and Kittys wedding. Except that if she stayed away Kitty would know why and feel sorry for her. And her mother would know why and worry about her. And Gil would know why and feel guilty. She couldnt win. But at least she had an excuse to send him away now. You shouldnt be here, Gil. You should be at home with Kitty. She wanted me to come. She worries about you, too, Nyssa. Did he really think that knowing his wife had sent him would help? The entire Lambert clan appear to have cornered the worry market on my behalf, but it really isnt necessary. Im among friends here, Gil. The worst thing thats going to happen is the slide projector jamming in the middle of my presentation. As if to confirm the truth of her words, someone beat a lively tattoo on the door. Nyssa? Are you ready? Were all down in the bar waiting for you. Ill be right with you, Pete. Get me an orange juice, will you? Whos that? Gil asked. Your boyfriend? He sounded hopeful. Boyfriend? She laid her hand against her breast and managed a laugh. What a quaint, old-fashioned word. You might still think of me as a schoolgirl wearing pigtails, Gil, but in case you hadnt noticed Im all grown up. Actually I had noticed. In that dress its impossible not to, he added, dryly. Then, So why dont you give your mother a treat and bring him home for the weekend? Pete, stick-thin and with a stud through his nose, would hardly be her mothers idea of a treat, she thought. But if she had a man with her it would help to defuse the tension that seemed to be in the air whenever she and Gil were in the same room. Ill make a deal with you, Gil. Ill come to the party, and maybe Ill invite a friend for the weekend, but only if you stop fussing and go home. Right now. Please. Before I do something stupid like cry. Matt was impressed. Hed watched the videos of Nyssa Blakes previous press conferences, given to him by Charles Parkers secretary, but they had just been snippets, put together to be distributed to the media and to likely supporters groups: the edited highlights. He was impressed by the professionalism, but sceptical too. The camera could lie and frequently did; a competent editor could make anyone capable of stringing together a coherent sentence look like Churchill on a good day. He wanted to see the woman in action, see how she looked before all the fluffs and fumbles had been edited out. So he had used his contacts and got himself a press pass and an invitation to the campaign launch at the Assembly Rooms in Delvering. And he was still impressed. The Assembly Rooms were straight out of a Jane Austen novel. Georgian and decaying grandly in the manner of some great old actress, with charm and elegance. They would look wonderful on television. A picture was worth a thousand words, and this, Nyssa Blake was saying, was the England they were going to save from the Philistines. Not quite true, of course, but the cinema, a masterpiece of art deco design that should have been cherished, had instead fallen into the kind of decrepitude that was unlikely to induce the aaaah factor in the average viewer. It seemed to Matt that there were some very sharp brains handling this organisation. Brains sharp enough to recognise that an idealistic young woman would make a great spokesperson. Maybe, he thought, as his credentials were checked at the entrance, Parker had a point. Thank you, Mr Crosby. He clipped the identification label to his ancient denim jacket and took the press pack he was offered by a well-preserved woman wearing a flowing dress, her long hair loose about her shoulders and with a New Age name pinned to her embroidered bodice. Thank you, he said, and smiled. Sky Just go through. Well be starting in a minute or two. Therell be drinks and a buffet afterwards. Thats very generous, he said, inclined to linger. He wasnt interested in propaganda; he wanted gossip. Whos paying for all this? Our supporters are very generous. She gave him a warm, earth-mother smile. Of course we hope youll make a donation towards your supper. Hed walked right into that one, but he found himself smiling back, even as he stuffed twenty pounds of Charles Parkers money into the tin she offered. Is there any chance of an interview with Miss Blake? After the press conference? She consulted her list. Youre a freelance, arent you? I am, but I have a commission to write a piece on Miss Blake. Well, he did. Of course whether the results ever saw print rather depended on what he unearthed in his investigations. Its always difficult to arrange private meetings at this kind of occasion, Mr Crosby Matt, he said. Matt. Her smile took on a new depth and he realised he had her undivided attention. Which could be useful. Nyssa will be mingling afterwards; maybe you could catch her then? Im afraid thats the best I can do today. Shall I ask her to call you and arrange a time when youll be able to talk undisturbed? Ill leave my number. He produced a card that simply bore his name, and on the back he wrote the number of a new mobile phone acquired for the investigation. She stapled it to a folder, along with half a dozen similar offerings, then turned to a new arrival. Can I catch you later? he suggested. For a drink? Maybe you could fill me in on the background? Ten oclock in the Delvering Arms? she offered, rather too eagerly. He really needed to look for a new career, Matt thought as he moved on into the foyer, glancing at the press pack he was holding, complete with glossy colour photographs and sound-bite notes. The whole thing was well organised and very well attended, he realised as he looked about him. Nyssa Blake was news. It took more than a free glass of wine and a sausage roll to tempt the press pack out of London on a summers evening. Even if they had no intention of joining her, their readers were eager to know how this young woman intended to set about stopping the developers in their tracks. Youth and innocence against entrenched power always made a good story. But apart from the local radio and television crews, who were too busy checking equipment and recording their lead-ins to socialise, the newsmen had gathered in small groups, more interested in the latest media gossip than the blown-up photographs of the cinema in its heyday. Only three or four latecomers were, like him, looking at the photographs and apparently totally absorbed by the notes pinned alongside them. Except the latecomers werent totally absorbed. They were giving the appearance of deep interest in the exhibition, but their eyes were everywhere as they checked out the gathering crowd. He recognised the type. Minders. Nothing, it seemed, had been overlooked. Matt watched them for a few moments and then turned as the inner doors were opened. There were chairs put out in rows, a slide projector in the centre with a screen at the front, and a small lectern with a lamp on a slightly raised dais to the side. Nyssa Blake clearly wasnt relying on the photographs to get her message across. She had a captive audience and they were going to listen and learn before they got to the free food. Sky began to usher people towards the seats. Two of the men with the restless eyes took seats on either side of the projector. Another sat in front of the lectern. A fourth leaned against the wall, near the entrance. They were covering all the vantage points. Matt settled himself in the end seat of the back row and, out of habit, looked about him to check for an alternative exit. If trouble was expected he had no intention of being caught up in it. Nyssa waited in the corridor behind the main hall, her throat dry, her pulse beating too fast. She was always nervous before a presentation, afraid she wouldnt be good enough Ready? Sky asked, joining her. Its showtime. How many? Its a good turnout. Youre big news these days. Right. She took a deep breath, opened the door, walked up to the lectern, set to the side of a projection screen, and spread out her notes. For a moment the burble of noise continued and then, as she waited, looking around, acknowledging people she recognised, the room gradually grew quiet. That was when she saw him. He was sitting right at the back, almost as if he didnt want to be there. She knew most of the journalists who covered this kind of story but, wearing antique 501s, and with a mop of thick dark hair that looked as if it had been combed with his fingers, he didnt look like any kind of small-town newspaper man shed ever met. He looked like a man made for a much bigger stage. Casual he might be, but he made the elegant main hall of the Assembly Rooms look small. She was smaller than he had imagined from her photographs, and reed-slim, but the neat burnished cap of bright hair, the pale delicate skin, the elegant black dress were pure drama, and every eye in the room was fixed on her, waiting for her to speak. Matt was not easily impressed, nor, he suspected, were the journalists who had gathered there, and yet he felt a quickening in the air, a stir of anticipation as she looked around the room, acknowledging acquaintances with the briefest of smiles. Then her gaze came to rest on him, lingering in a look that seemed to single him out, to hold his attention, and just for a second he had the disconcerting sensation that she could see right through him, recognise him for what he was. He had wondered, looking at her photograph in Parkers office, if her eyes could really be that impossible shade of blue, or whether, like her hair, the colour had been enhanced for effect. But there was no need to enhance anything. The effect came from something that lit her from within and he knew what it was. Passion. And her look, he discovered, as for just a moment their gazes locked and held, had a kick like a mule. Matt hadnt been affected in that way by a woman since Lucy Braithwaite had kissed him in the vestry after choir practice, cutting short a promising career as a solo treble. He was still struggling to recover his breath when Nyssa Blake took a sip of water before finally beginning to speak. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you all for coming to Delvering today, she began. Her voice, unexpectedly low and slightly husky, rippled through him, stirring the small hairs at the nape of his neck. Was that how she did it? How she drew supporters to her, twisted cynical newspaper hacks around her dainty fingers, walked past security guards without let or hindrance? Did she just turn on the lamps behind her eyes, murmur in that low voice and turn them into her willing slaves? He rubbed his hand over his face in an attempt to pull himself together. He hadnt come to the press conference to join the Nyssa Blake fan club. He simply wanted to get the measure of the girlwoman Well, he was doing that all right. But it sure as hell wasnt what he had expected. I do hope you have all taken advantage of this opportunity to look around Delvering, to talk to local people, to discover for yourselves what exactly is at stake here, she continued. Then quite unexpectedly she grinned, and for a moment he saw the girl, still there behind the sophisticated veneer. But dont worry if you havent, she said, indicating the projector with a wave of her hand. It was a gesture that would have done justice to a geisha, controlled, exquisitely graceful, and for just a moment his body seemed to do a loop-the-loop as he imagined what that hand could do to him. Im about to enlighten you, so save your questions until after the show. There was a murmur of laughter as the light dimmed until there was just a small shaded lamp over the notes on the lectern, the powerful beam from the projector directing all eyes to the screen with its aerial view of the small market town of Delvering. As if this was a prearranged signal, several people leapt to their feet in the darkness. There was an angry yell that turned into a cry of pain from the man standing by the projector as it was overturned, hitting the floor was a crash that blew the lamp, plunging the room into darkness. The heavies. He didnt have to see them to know. Hed recognised them for what they were, despite their suits and their careful interest in Nyssa Blakes work, and hed assumed they were minders. Hed been wrong. And there was one right in front of the lectern. Without pausing to consider the wisdom of his actions, Matt Crosby hurled himself towards the shaded light that illuminated nothing but Nyssa Blakes small hands, frozen in the act of turning over the first page of her notes. CHAPTER TWO STARTLED by the crash, Nyssa looked up. The room was dark beyond the small circle of light illuminating her notes and for a moment she froze. Then, as her confused wits began to make some sense of the sounds coming out of the darkness, she began to move. Too late. She stepped straight back into the waiting arms of a man who, as he seized her from behind, clamped his hand over her mouth, cutting off her instinctive shout for help. Matt was still feet away when she let out a startled protest, instantly muffled, and it didnt take much imagination to supply a picture of a large hand covering her face, a burly arm pinning her arms as she was lifted from her feet. Surging forward, Matt carried them both down onto the floor and, just to make sure hed got the message, crashed his fist into the mans nose. It was something hed regret later, when he had time to feel the pain. But not now. Now he simply had to get Nyssa Blake out of there. He leapt to his feet and, without stopping to waste time or breath in explanations, caught hold of her as she scrambled up, determined on escape. Assuming he was her attacker, renewing his assault, she struck out at him and her bunched fist connected with the side of his face as he lifted her to her feet. Ignoring the dizzying blow, not stopping to explain, he shouldered her and carried her through a small door that led into a corridor, blinking in the sudden light. Ignoring the main entrance, he headed for the rear of the building and burst out into the fading light of the late August evening, crossing to the narrow side street where hed left his car. Nyssa Blake was yelling and kicking all the way, but all hell appeared to have broken out on the pavement in front of the Assembly Rooms and no one was taking any notice. Anyone whose business it was to notice undoubtedly assumed he was the guy now trying to put his nose back together. Neatly done, Parker, he thought grimly as he opened the drivers door of his car, pushed her in and, still hanging onto her, followed. She immediately stopped struggling, and as his grip was hampered by the awkward angle gave a deft wriggle and escaped his grasp. Matt slammed the door behind him and pressed the central locking switch before she reached the door handle. Small she might be, but when she turned and lunged furiously at him, nails outstretched, it was all he could do to hold her off. And the mule kick effect wasnt confined to her eyes. For crying out loud, will you stop that? Im not trying to hurt you, he said sharply, then swore as the toe of her fashionable shoe connected with his shin for a second time. She wasnt listening. As she came at him again he was forced to abandon passive defence and instead grabbed both her arms, pinning them behind her as he dragged her hard against him so that she could no longer strike out. His leg thrown over her, pinning her to the seat, dealt with her feet. For a moment she continued to struggle furiously. He simply hung on until she realised she was wasting her time. Then she went quite still and opened her eyes to look up at him. Okay, you win, she said huskily, her chest heaving as she gasped for air. Matt deeply distrusted her sudden surrender. He might have subdued her temporarily, but the minute he let go she would undoubtedly let fly at him. And, having tested him to the point where she knew he wouldnt hurt her, she could let rip without fear of the consequences. But holding on had its dangers too. Her body was pressed beneath him and he was practically drowning in the deep, dangerous currents of her eyes, in the scent that came from her hair, her skin. And her full red mouth was lifted towards him, unconsciously seductive, but seductive nonetheless. This isnt a contest, lady, he said, more harshly than he had intended, and released her so suddenly that she fell back, her dress halfway to her waist where the buttons had parted. He wanted to look away. He really needed to look away. But he knew the minute he did she would fly at him again. So he swallowed hard and tried not to think about the glimpse of black lace and thighs that would give a monk disturbing dreams. For your information I just saved you from being kidnapped. Kidnapped? Impossibly, her eyes widened further. You dont think that the projector fell over all by itself, do you? Or that the guy who grabbed you just wanted to dance? He didnt elaborate; he was sure she was quite capable of working it all out for herself. Kidnapped? Everything had happened so quickly. Disruption she could understand. The threat of it was always there. But what would be the point of kidnapping her? After a long pause, when all that could be heard inside the car was the sound of ragged breathing being brought under controlhis as well as hersshe said, You were at the back of the hall. He was the man shed known on sight wasnt just some small-town news hound. You must have moved very fast She eased up in the seat, aware that he was watching her carefully, as if expecting her to bolt at any moment, and began to rub absently at her wrists. Unless, of course, you knew what was about to happen. Which begged the questionif he wasnt a journalist, what was he? Exactly? Who are you? What do you want? Her eyes narrowed. They did that pretty spectacularly too, Matt thought. She should be shouting, yelling, screaming for the police. It was what any normal girl would do under the circumstances. Her control was slightly unnerving. He sensed she knew that, was using it to her advantage, waiting for an opportunity to flee the moment his guard was down. That was something he could not allow. Not until he was sure she was out of danger. Her reputation was one thingbut that she might be hurtor worsehe could not allow. Im a freelance journalist it depressed him how easily he said the lie and I was hoping for an interview. She continued to regard him steadily, as if deciding whether to believe him. Couldnt it have waited until after the presentation? she asked finally, then managed a slightly shaky laugh. You didnt have to hijack me, you know. If youd left your number, Id have called you. He managed a grin. This was one cool lady. Maybe I have a tight deadline, he offered. Perhaps now, over a brandy, might be a good time. He needed one even if she didnt. The feeling was beginning to come back to his knuckles with a vengeance. She regarded him coolly. You think that saving me from being kidnapped entitles you to jump the queue? It seems only fair, he countered. After all, I was in the front of the queue when that thug grabbed you. Maybe you do have a point, she admitted. Shall we retire to the bar of the Delvering Arms? He hadnt anticipated such instant agreement; it made him suspicious. And shouldnt she be demanding he take her back to the television cameras so that she could tell the world what had happened? Needing time to think, he turned his head away, looking back to where a noisy crowd had gathered in front of the Assembly Rooms, with people carrying placards demanding the jobs a supermarket would bring to the town and indicating rather graphically that the protesters should get lost. They werent there ten minutes ago, he said. Where have they come from? Mobs-R-Us? she suggested, with disdain. Does it matter? Theyve done what they were paid for. Clearly it was the payment that had earned her disdain, not their methods of protesting. At least youre certain of making the evening news, Matt agreed, and even as he spoke the television cameras were being trained on the angry crowd. Thatll be good for business. Her expression suggested otherwise. Id hoped to put our case in a reasoned and thoughtful manner. Do you want to go back and try again? Theres no point. Ive lost control of the situation. If I go back theyll just shout me down, drown me out. Besides, Im not dressed for a scuffle. She smiled a little. At close quarters the blue eyes were lethal. Isnt that why you grabbed me? To keep me out of the way? Give them a free run at this? Hed thought hed convinced her. Clearly he had been kidding himself. Werent you listening? he demanded, just a little angry that his good deed was not being fully appreciated for the altruistic gesture it was. Considering he was supposed to be on the other side. Was on the other side. Except that when hed said no dirty business hed meant it. Im not the one who did the grabbing. He said it slowly and carefully, just to be certain that she understood. Someone else had that dubious pleasure. I simply got you out of there, and precious little thanks Ive had for my pains. Thanks he wants, she murmured sarcastically. Its a nice story, Mr she glanced at the lapel badge clipped to his collar Mr Crosby, but really Its no story, lady, he said, flexing his stinging hand and holding it up for her to see. Ive got the wounds to prove it. For a moment she stared at his battered and bloody knuckles. Then frowned. Youre hurt. Thats what happens when you hit someone with your fist, or hadnt you noticed? He took her hand and looked at it. There was a little bruising on one of the knuckles, nothing worse, but even so when he rubbed the pad of his thumb across them she winced and pulled away. You see? Maybe next time I should take a leaf out of your book and use my feet, he said sardonically. Then he realised that she was shaking. Oh, look. Its not that bad, really. It was worth a little pain. I hate violence, she said, with a long shudder. She could have fooled him, but as the trembling reached her voice he put his arm about her and held her close, absorbing the shudders into his own body. To tell you the truth, Miss Blake, Im not all that keen on it myself, he said, but with her cheek soft against his neck, her slender body fragile as a bird in his arms, he knew just how easy it would be to seriously damage anyone who would hurt her. As if sensing some change in him, she looked up. Who are you really? she asked. Then she groaned. Oh, wait, I get it. Youre one of Gils tame bodyguards, right? And she pulled back a little. I should have known when he left this evening without making a fuss that hed covered all possibilities Matt didnt say anything. Hed read the files; he knew well enough that the Gil in question had to be her brother-in-law, or more accurately her stepbrother-in-law, Gil Paton. Invalided out of the army after he had taken a snipers bullet in the Balkans, he now led a consortium of ex-soldiers in a business covering all kinds of security and protection. It was reasonable enough that he would organise some protection for her, which perhaps was why Matt hadnt thought twice about the minders. She had obviously been resisting the idea, though, which was interesting. Okay, Mr Crosby She squinted at the label attached to his jacket. Matt? Is that really your name? She made one of those graceful little gestures. No, dont answer that, since you wont tell me the truth anyway She glanced up at him. Okay, Mr Crosby, youve done your job. You can take me back to the hotel now. For the brandy and the interview? I dont drink. Never? Not since I turned eighteen. Before that, of course, it was almost mandatory. A bit like losing your virginity before you go into the sixth form Her voice trailed away, and for just a moment he thought she was going to blush, which was interesting. It was clearly a well-used ploy to shock maiden auntsif such things still existedbut why would she think it would shock him? Why would she even bother to try? His silence seemed to unnerve her a little. Actually, you might be right about that drink. I know I am. He leaned forward to start his car. And its definitely time we got out of here, he added, as he glanced in the mirror. Unless, of course, youve changed your mind about giving an interview? With a jerk of his head he indicated the approaching television crew, who were looking for anyone who might have seen something interesting or some local with a point of view to air. She half turned, hesitated, then shook her head. No Youre sure? You could win the sympathy vote right now. A few tears on the pavement will melt hearts of stone. And the glimpse of underwear will ensure you have at least half the countrys undivided attention. She stiffened, grabbed the front of her dress and began to work on the buttons. Thats not my style, Mr Crosby. She caught his questioning look. They might have wrecked my press conference but Ill think of some way to turn this to my advantage. I mean, it hardly puts Mr Parker on the side of the angels, does it? Its odd, because I would have thought he was cleverer than that Maybe hes more desperate than you thought. And youve missed the point. And a button, but he thought it wiser not to mention that. If whoever set this up had been successful, you wouldnt have been around to organise anything. She stared at him and he could see the reality of what had happened was beginning to sink in. Yes. I see. She glanced back again. Maybe I should No, you shouldnt. As you said, its not your style. Besides which, her lipstick was smudged, her sleek cap of hair uncharacteristically mussed. For a moment she didnt look anything like the controlled, determined young woman who had fearlessly taken on big business and had it on the run. She looked like a girl who, for a moment, was just a little bit lost, and Matt wanted to hold her, reassure her. He managed to stop himself, but it was a close-run thing. And if youre at all keen to hang onto your reputation for unruffled perfection in the face of adversity, Miss Blake, I think I should tell you that you could use a comb. She lifted her hand to her hair in a self-conscious gesture. Oh, right. In that, case, Mr Crosby, I suggest we retire to the bar of the hotel with all speed. Just Crosby will do, he said as he let slip the handbrake, checked the mirror and moved away from the kerb. Or Matt, if you promise to keep your feet to yourself. I dont usually allow people who kick me to get that personal. What do your family call you? he asked, while she was making up her mind. A nuisance? she offered. And I hate to think what the construction industry call me. Much the same, he said, with a grin. But the less printable versions. And, since he didnt intend listing them, he put his foot down hard and his old Mercedes surged forward, leaving the approaching news hounds standing. Once out of sight of the Assembly Rooms he slowed, and a few moments later pulled into the staff car park at the rear of the Delvering Arms. Well stick to the back way, I think, he said, taking her arm and steering her in via the kitchen. He nodded to the chef and headed for the stairs. Nyssa stopped abruptly. I thought we were going to have a drink? she said. We are. But not in the bar. Itll be a bit crowded? he suggested as her eyebrows hit her hairline. In that case Ill still need my key, she said. Id wait until things have quietened down a bit, he advised, taking his own key from his pocket. But People will be looking for you. Your room is the first place theyll go. She still hesitated. They may not all have your best interests at heart, he pointed out. I still have my doubts about you, she said crossly. She might suspect that he was connected with Paton, but it was obvious that she wasnt totally convinced. It was smart of her to be suspicious, but Matt didnt want her having second thoughts about him now. You can call Gil Paton from my room, if you like, he said, hoping to reassure her. Why would I want to do that? Your little skirmish will be on the news later. He might worry. If youre that concerned you can call him yourself. She turned and headed up the stairs without further argument, giving him a great view of the way her dress clung to her figure, the way the skirt swayed seductively about her hips and legs. She stopped abruptly as she reached the top and he narrowly avoided bumping into her. It wasnt that he didnt want to bump into her. Just that his body had taken enough punishment for one day, both physical and sensual. Well? she demanded, when they reached the top of the stairs. Will you call him? Report in? Tell him that he was right? As usual. Matt wasnt sure what was irritating her the mostthe fact that her brother-in-law thought she needed a bodyguard, or the fact that he had been proved right. Why would he listen to me? Ive never met the man. My rooms this way, he said, indicating the corridor to the left. She made a dismissive noise. You expect me to believe that? He offered a smile by way of reply. This is it. And he slid the key into the lock and held the door open for her. And theres the phone. Help yourself. See what he says when you thank him for saving you from He stopped. From Parkers deep, dark dungeon? Was the man desperate enough to take a short cut if he thought he might get away with it? Hed assumed she was just a pretty face to front the group, but now hed seen her in action, met her, Matt had no doubt that Nyssa Blake was the driving force behind the campaign to save the cinema. While there would certainly be a fuss of monumental proportions if she disappeared for any length of time, media attention would shift from the cinema to the hunt for Nyssa, distracting her supporters, leaving them without a leader. And if it could be made to look as if she had been frightened off, had run away It shouldnt be beyond the wit or imagination of Charles Parker to arrange sightings of look-alikes in a variety of glamorous places, fostering resentment and anger among those people who had given their time, their energy, their money to her cause. By the time she reappeared, lost and wandering somewhere, dazed from drugs, or worse, it would all be over. And if he went to the police with his suspicions what could he tell them? That Parker had given him a wad of money to find out something bad about the girl? Parker would deny it and Matt had no proof. And Nyssa would be the first to admit that the police were not her number one fans. Theyd probably be as relieved to see the back of her as the developers. It occurred to him that the sooner he found something to use against her, something that might at least pressure her into moderating her demands, the better. It wasnt pleasant, but it could save her from a lot worse. Saving me? She glanced back at him, prompting him to go on. He stared at her for a moment, half believing she could read his mind. Then he realised she was referring to his last half-finished sentence, and he managed a shrug. From whatever those goons had in store. Ill leave it to your imagination. And while youre making your call, Ill get us a drink. You should clean up your hand first. My hand will wait. The bathroom is through there if you want to freshen up, he said, heading for the minibar and hunkering down to examine its contents. This is a lovely room. Much bigger than mine. Im on expenses. Besides, it was all they had left. Expenses? Youve got a big mouth, Crosby. Or maybe shed hit him harder than he realised. Ive got a commission, he said. If you want your picture in full glossy colour on a magazine cover, Im your man. There were a couple of brandy miniatures in the fridge. Right at that moment he could have used both of them himself, but he poured them into two glasses, then picked one up and took a mouthful, letting its heat wash slowly over his tongue before he swallowed it. He turned and realised that Nyssa hadnt moved, but was standing watching him. He picked up the other glass and carried it over to her. She didnt take it. You really should clean up your hand, she insisted. He tightened his fist to assess the damage. Ill live. I dont doubt it. Nevertheless When he didnt move, she made an impatient little noise with her tongue, took both glasses from him and set them down on a small table. Come on. Ill do it for you. Theres no need, Miss Blake Nyssa, she said abruptly. Then, I do hope youre not going to make a fuss. I cant stand men who make a fuss. Before he could deny even thinking of such a thing, she had taken him by the wrist and was leading him firmly towards the bathroom. Youre incredibly bossy for such a little thing, he said. Of course Im bossy. And quite suddenly she smiled. Really smiled. How far do you think Id get if I went around saying please and may I? and do you mind?, all the time? Not far, he muttered, still trying to come down from the effect of her smile, desperately hoping she wouldnt notice the way his body was responding. It had been touch and go since hed first set eyes on her. Now, pushed up as tight against the door as he could get, he was still far too close to Nyssa Blake as she filled the sink with warm water, and the long, pale curve of her neck was an invitation to a soft caress Take your jacket off. Bossy, he said, but his voice caught a little in his throat and he turned away to peel off his denim jacket. She took it from him and hung it behind the door. Then he swallowed hard and stared at the ceiling as she took his hand between hers and submerged it in the warm water. Does it hurt? she asked. Like hell, he said, because that was what she expected. He wished it did, at least it might distract his rampaging libido long enough for him to get it back under control. But the stinging was easily counteracted by the gentle touch of her fingers. Matt had the feeling that he could undergo major surgery without anaesthetic if Nyssa Blake held his hand. There, that should do it. She pulled the plug and the water ran away. She pulled a small towel from the rack and gently dried his hand and fingers, dabbing away a tiny ooze of blood that seeped from a graze. He could have stayed there all night while she did it. Not a good idea. The bathroom was too small and she was too close. Thanks, Matt said, somewhat abruptly. Thatll do it. He pulled the door open and headed swiftly in the direction of his brandy, draining it in one swallow. Does it hurt that much? What? He turned to find Nyssa watching him with a slightly perplexed frown creasing her smooth forehead. God, he was handling this badly. Oh. No. Its fine now. Youve got the gentle touch. Yes, well, you get used to dealing with cuts and abrasions when youre in this business. Security guards arent too bothered about where they put their bolt-cutters when youve chained yourself to a bulldozer. I didnt think you got involved in anything like that. When needs must, she said, with a careless shrug. He barely stopped himself from saying something stupid, something patronising along the lines of How did a delicate little creature like you get involved in something like this? She might look fragile, but he was still feeling the kicks she had given him. Patronising might just get him another one. And this time he would deserve it. Are you planning on chaining yourself to the front door of the cinema? She gave him a thoughtful look. That depends on Mr Parker. Then, as if to demonstrate that was all she was prepared to say on the subject, she turned and picked up the brandy he had poured for her. She sipped it, then pulled a face and handed it to him. I knew there was a reason I didnt drink. Here, I think you need this more than I do. Can I make myself a cup of tea? Help yourself, he invited, and she moved across the room to the kettle, busying herself with a cup and a teabag while she waited for it to boil. There are some biscuits in my bag if youre hungry. Biscuits? Chocolate ones. You never know when youre going to have to miss out on the canaps Feel free to go back and help yourself, Crosby, she said irritably. Id hate you to miss out on a free beanfeast. He remembered the twenty pounds hed donated. Hardly free, but he let it pass. You think therell be anything left? I imagine the rent-a-mob crowd will have taken the booze and trashed the food. Nyssa Blake swore, briefly but comprehensively. Is that the kind of language that they taught you at the school for young ladies you went to? he asked. The Sacred Heart, wasnt it? She stared at him. You see, Nyssa, Ive done my homework on you. You mean you really are a journalist? One with a scoop, he replied, avoiding the direct lie this time. It was a bit late, but he was doing his best. Oh, sure, she said as the kettle boiled. Big story. She dropped a teabag into a cup and filled it with water. Nyssa Blake had a cup of tea in my bedroom after a scuffle at the Assembly Rooms. I offered her a biscuitno, wait she held up a small hand for attention a chocolate biscuit, but she declined. She drank her tea and left shortly afterwards. Matt laughed. Youd better stick to bulldozer-bashing, Nyssa, if thats the best you can do with this story. Youll certainly never make a journalist. I have no wish to be a journalist. You planned to read English at university, he pointed out. Yes, well, theres not much future in that. She discarded the teabag and after a tussle with a tub of milk finally managed to open it and pour it into her tea. Then, looking at him out of the corner of her eye, she said, Okay, so tell me, how would a big freelance journalist like you handle the story? She said that as if she still didnt buy the journalist bit, but Matt, leaving the armchair for Nyssa, ignored the disbelief in her voice and stretched out on the bed. Broadsheet or tabloid? Oh, lets go for broke. Give me tabloid. He grinned and sipped thoughtfully at the brandy for a moment. How about this. Tonight, before a room packed with journalists, a daring attempt was made to kidnap Nyssa Blake. The dazzling redhead Nyssa snorted the dazzling redhead, twenty-two-year-old stepdaughter of millionaire businessman James Lambert, was grabbed on the point of launching her campaign to stop the destruction of the art deco Gaumont Cinema. Opened in Delvering in 1931 by home-grown silent screen star Doris Catchpole Nyssa reprised the snort, except that this time it came closer to a giggle the Gaumont is due to be demolished by developers and replaced by a supermarket. He took another sip of the brandy. The meeting had only just started when, as the lights dimmed for a slide presentation, the projector was overturned and smashed and Miss Blake was grabbed by an unknown assailant. Matt Crosby, thirty-four, freelance journalist, fought off her attacker and in the confusion carried Miss Blake to safety. Later, comforted by her rescuer in the safety of his hotel bedroom Oh, right, I get it his hotel bedroom, Matt continued firmly, Miss Blake bathed Mr Crosbys injuries and wept, devastated by what had happened Stop it, Matt Crosby, journalist, aged thirty-four. Thats quite enough. You didnt like it? Id have to give you an E for effort, I suppose Only an E? Thats all you deserve. You used far too many long sentences for the tabloids. But youre clearly quite twisted enough to be a journalist. It would definitely be a U for accuracy. A U? he queried. Ungraded. Its nothing but the unvarnished truth, he protested. Really? What about the fictitious Doris Catchpole? she demanded. And when did I weep or say I was devastated by what happened this evening? Oh, that. Just a little poetic licence. He grinned. You wouldnt want me printing what you actually did say, would you? Not that a family newspaper would actually print the words, just the first letter and then some asterisks, but the great reading public would get the general idea Ill bet they would. She gave him a thoughtful look. I dont think I like you very much, Matt Crosby. Its just a job, Nyssa. Its nothing personal. He offered her the brandy glass. Changed your mind about that drink? Yes. And the interview. She abandoned her tea and headed for the door. I cant say that its been nice knowing youit hasnt. She swept into the tiny vestibule and out of sight. He heard her flip the latch. Then, Oh, hell! Whats up? he asked as she retreated back into his room. Theres a crowd of journalists camped outside my bedroom door. In a hotel of this quality? Im shocked. Nyssa glared at him. He was having considerable difficulty in keeping a straight face, she realised. No, youre not, she said. You think its funny. He didnt deny it. But not entirely unexpected. In fact I seem to remember warning you that it was likely. Of course, he said, more soberly, theres always the possibility that not all of them are journalists. Did they see you? . . , (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39926194&lfrom=390579938) . Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, , , , PayPal, WebMoney, ., QIWI , .
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