Thank you for visiting. This website is where I share news about my published writing and work in progress, any useful tips I might pick up along the way on my writing journey, reviews of books I've loved and anything else I think you might be interested in if you love fiction.
...and secret-story-scribbler since I was 6 years old, at the beginning of this year I joined the Romantic Novelists’ Association on their New Writers’ Scheme, determined to focus on my writing. I’ve been overwhelmed by the encouragement given by the published authors and fellow NWS members who are part of the RNA and highly recommend joining to any romance writers looking for support and friendly guidance (there are some bursaries available).
...but I love to write across a variety of sub-genres, from contemporary to historical to fantasy. My debut novel released in November 2019, was the bestselling A MISTLETOE MIRACLE, a festive romantic comedy published under 'Emma Jackson' with Orion Dash. My second novel was THE DEVIL'S BRIDE released Feb 2020, a historical-fantasy romance published by DarkStroke under 'Emma S Jackson'.
...after my two daughters and trying to complete my current work-in-progress, I love to read, bake, catch up on binge-watching TV programmes with my partner, plan lots of craft projects that will inevitably end up unfinished and visit old buildings for inspiration.
...Book news and latest short stories.
I'm delighted to announce that Orion Dash will be publishing my second romantic, Summer in the City, on 8th June 2020.
I'm delighted to announce my historical-fantasy romance novel published by DarkStroke, the new imprint of Crooked Cat Books, February 2020.
Available to purchase today from various outlets.
Runner up in the Mills & Boon "Hotel scandal" short story competition.
Winner of the Early Works Press "Gender vs Genre" competition.
Winner of the #ukromchat #rominaflash competition
Below are all my blog entries, news and events
So delighted to welcome the incredible Emma to the Orion Dash family with her snowy and utterly romantic novel #AMistletoeMiracle! Out 24th ...
Welcome to my brand new website. I hope you like it, if you would like to get in contact you can follow me on twitter :)
Stephen is on a very personal mission to find his father as per the wishes in their mother's will. But he has no idea where to start, not that he's going to tell anyone that... When Noelle, native New Yorker, daughter of a detective and desperate for a distraction from the novel she's been struggling to write, offers to help, it feels like the perfect solution.
Except the last time she spoke to Stephen he thought they'd be seeing the New Year in together and instead she stood him up and sold him out! Stephen's big enough and been around the block enough times to understand that all is fair in love and war, isn't he? But when Stephen accepts her offer and they begin their search across the city, it soon becomes clear that the weather isn't the only thing that's heating up.
A heartwarming summer romance perfect for fans of Heidi Swain, Sarah Morgan and Holly Martin.
DashDigitalBooks A Brand new digital-first publisher from @OrionBooks
COVER REVEAL & NEW AUTHOR ALERT!! So delighted to welcome the incredible @ESJackson1 to the Orion Dash family with her snowy and utterly romantic novel #AMistletoeMiracle! Out 24th November - order today! #ChristmasIsComing #amreading http://bit.ly/MistletoeMiracle …
The perfect feel-good Christmas romcom
At the Everdene Hotel, snowflakes, romance and mayhem are in the air...
A cosy hotel in a sleepy, snow-covered village should be the perfect setting for a Christmas to remember... But for Beth, returning to her childhood home after a disastrous break-up looks more like a festive fiasco.
With her mum stranded in a blizzard and most of the hotel staff off sick, Beth is forced to take the reins, impress a mystery hotel reviewer, and somehow find a way to work with Nick, the very grumpy - and very gorgeous - pilot who is staying for the holidays.
Between mince pie emergencies, deadly decorations, and two dozen disgruntled guests, Beth might just find a miracle under the mistletoe this Christmas...
Heartwarming and hilarious, this is the perfect festive romance to curl up with this winter. Perfect for fans of Heidi Swain and Sue Moorcroft.
Small business owner, Rubie Monroe, 24, is taking a stand against a local authority enforcement warrant to demolish her café on Gratton Head. Cathy and Clive’s Shack is situated six metres from the edge of the cliff, which has been deemed too close for customers safety.
Ms Monroe is camping out in her café to prevent enforcement officers taking possession of the property in her absence. Regulars to the café have shown support by circulating a petition and providing Ms. Monroe with essential supplies. One local resident told us why he believes people have rallied behind the cause:
‘It’s Health and Safety baby-sitting gone mad. People can walk wherever they like along Gratton Head – there are no restrictions. If the council get their way and demolish the Shack, they’ll be wanting to put fencing all the way along the cliff edge. It’s ridiculous.’
Council employee, Mark Jarvis, who issued the warrant, spoke to us in his official capacity to state that: ‘Enforcement does not hold the power to have fencing erected along Gratton Head. But it is our responsibility to ensure consumers are safe when frequenting any business. There have been several incidents of sudden cliff erosion along this coast line in recent years. It’s a risk the local authority is unwilling to take – particularly when official planning consent was never sought.’
Ms. Monroe has so far declined to speak to us.
Rubie sighed and put the newspaper down on the counter, staring out at the sea. She could picture Mark’s face as he’d spoken to the journalist; stern yet earnest, those heavenly eyes imploring them to understand.
Rubie had hardly believed her luck when she met him a week ago. She’d tripped over her own feet, trying to carry too many boxes from her car to the Shack, and there he’d been: six foot plus of gorgeous man out on an early morning jog, offering her a helping hand. They’d talked. They’d clicked, she thought…and then he’d seen the café and beat a hasty retreat to get a cease and desist notice typed up.
She couldn’t just let them tear down her parents’ retirement dream – a place where they’d been able to see the sun rise over the sea every day. When she was there, she could almost feel close to them again.
Or she had done, until she took up residency. Sleeping on the floor and existing off cup-a-soups and pot-noodles, washing in the tiny sink…she wasn’t sure her parents would have been happy with her living like this.
‘Is it true?’ she asked when Mark arrived in the late afternoon as usual, intent on persuading her to leave.
‘Is what true?’ His short blond hair was darkened at the temples by tiny beads of sweat. The sky was grey, the sea steely in reflection, but the air was warm and unmoving. A storm was coming.
She turned the newspaper, folded to the page of the story, around so it faced him on the counter. As he pulled it closer, his thumb brushed the side of her hand, both of them quickly looking up to catch each other’s eyes as a tingle of electricity darted along her arm. She found herself trapped in his gaze, that impression of honesty she always got from his beautiful blue-green eyes now clouded by desire. Suddenly she could feel all the places her clothes were sticking to her skin. She needed a cold shower, for more than one reason.
He took a deep breath and glanced down at the newspaper.
‘What bit in particular are you referring to?’ His deep voice had grown husky.
‘The bit about official planning consent.’
‘Yes.’ He slipped his hands into his pockets, pushing back his jacket and she could see his shirt clinging to his broad chest. ‘Do you know how your parents came to own this building?’
‘No. It was last year…my last year of Uni. I -’ she broke off and looked down at her hands on the wooden counter. ‘I was always in a hurry to get off the phone to them. Either to study or to go out drinking with my friends.’
The rush of the waves below and a lone seagull crying out into the wind, filled the silence between them. Mark stepped closer to the counter and rested his hand over the top of hers. The same tingle sparked at the contact, but it was also joined by a warmth that made her ache.
‘You weren’t to know.’
She swallowed hard. No, there was no way she could’ve known they would die in a car crash, both taken from her in a split second. She forced herself to tug her hand away.
‘So, how did they get this place then?’
‘The people who built the lighthouse, who owned the land, used a loophole to do it, they classed it as a temporary wooden structure. Then they sold it to your parents privately before they demolished the lighthouse.’
‘Right.’ Dad had probably handled it all. Told Mum there was nothing to worry about and they had muddled their way through.
‘Rubie – ‘
‘I know.’ She held up her hand to cut him off. ‘I know. Just leave me alone okay. I need to think.’
She watched him walk away, scrubbing her hands over her face as he disappeared down the hillside. The air suddenly cooled, and the rain began. She left the shutters on the window open for as long as possible before she started to shiver. By the time she closed up properly, the rain was falling heavily. Within half an hour the wind was picking up too.
And then the thunder and lightning began.
Rubie had never been scared of storms, but she’d never been sitting in a wooden box on the edge of an eroding cliff during one before either. She knew she should leave. All Mark’s warnings – her own common sense – told her she wasn’t safe, and she had to go but…that would be it. She knew once she left, there was really no going back.
She wrapped herself up in her sleeping bag and squeezed her eyes shut, willing the storm to end just as quickly as it had arrived.
Then she heard three loud bangs on the door of the shack.
It couldn’t be a person out there. Probably some flying debris. Even more reason not to open it and attempt to get to her car. Maybe she was safer inside.
The banging came again and, this time, a catch of sound, like a voice being whipped away in the gale. She untangled herself from the sleeping bag and put her ear to the door.
‘Rubie. Rubie, it’s Mark. I know you’re in there, please open the door.’
The numbness of Rubie’s heart was instantly thawed into a chaos of anger and longing and fear. She tugged the bolts across and the moment she turned the handle the door was flung inwards, catching her in the eye and forcing her to stumble back from the waterfall of rain driving into the cabin.
Mark wrestled the door shut. As soon as it was closed and the din had receded a few decibels, he spun around to her, cupping her face and lifting it towards his. ‘Are you okay?’
She stared up at him, her eyebrow throbbing and her skin tingling beneath his wet, cold fingertips, cradling her jaw so carefully. Water dripped from his hair and ran in rivulets along his eyebrows, along his sharp cheekbones, into the collar of his shirt.
‘Why aren’t you wearing a coat?’
He gave a half startled, half exasperated laugh and rubbed his thumb along her cheek.
‘I was in a hurry to get here when I realised how bad the storm was.’ He frowned and his jaw set. ‘We need to get out of here. It isn’t safe.’
She pushed back, detaching herself from his hands.
‘You thought you’d take the opportunity to get me out, did you? Well, I’m not scared of a bit of wind and rain. I’ll be fine. You can just go back to your office and wait both me and the storm out.’
‘For goodness sake, Rubie. You might not be scared but I am,’ his voice cracked. ‘The edge of this cliff is going to crumble into the sea -’
‘Then go -’
‘Not without you.’ He stepped closer, his wet shirt, plastered to his chest dampened the front of her t-shirt and something in her stomach coiled tight, poised. ‘Please.’
His simple plea cut through her arguments and defiance. They stared at each other, their breathing loud and she could see in his face, in the tight lines around his mouth, that he cared.
‘What if I’m not ready to leave?’ she whispered.
‘I don’t think you’ll ever know until you try.’
‘If you take away this place, that’s it, they’ll be gone forever.’
‘They’re already gone, Rubie,’ he spoke so softly, so gently, that a tear slipped down her cheek. He swooped in and kissed it away. At the feel of his lips against her skin she trembled and slid her fingers into his wet hair, gripping tightly and pulling his head down further so she could fit her mouth against his.
He broke away, shaking his head. ‘Please, don’t. Not if you’re still going to hate me afterwards.’
‘I don’t hate you, Mark. I hate what you’re forcing me to do but I -’ she exhaled, ‘I know you’re doing it for the right reasons. I do. I’m just…’
A sob caught at her chest. ‘Take me away. It’s the only way I can do it. Take me to your place and make me feel more of thisinstead.’ She pressed her mouth against his again, tasting his lips with nibbling, teasing kisses until he responded, succumbing like the tide had pulled him under and they tipped over into something deeper and hungrier.
A massive cloud burst overhead and they both jumped, gasping.
Mark took her hand. ‘Time to go.’
The next time they returned to the cliff, Mark’s hand was tight around Rubie’s again. She’d grown used to the feel of it, the comfort and strength it offered. She needed it now as she looked out towards the sea and saw nothing. Literally nothing. The Shackwas gone. She drew in a breath that cut through her chest. ‘That was quick work.’
‘The storm did most of the damage.’ He cleared his throat and turned his body towards her, as though he could shield her from the vision of the empty cliff edge. ‘But there’s something else I want to show you, just a little further along. Please.’
And just like the night of the storm, she couldn’t really refuse him.
They stopped at a bend in the path as it dropped between the valleys of the headland, in the near distance people were all over the hillside; carrying things, hammering, calling to each other as they worked on constructing something...
‘Well, the problem was how close it was to the edge of the cliff, so I figured if I could change that, well, then there would be no problem.’
‘I can’t believe it,’ Rubie watched with tears brimming in her eyes and her free hand pressed to her heart. ‘It’s wonderful,’ she threw her arms around his waist. ‘You are wonderful.’
‘There is a catch….’
She pulled back and looked up at him.
‘Technically, it is on local authority ground and the only way I was able to get sign off was for the council to take ownership. You can run it, but it doesn’t really belong to you anymore…’
‘So…you’ve stolen it?’
‘Yeesss…I suppose so.’
‘Well it figures.’ She smiled and squeezed him.
‘It does?’ He raised an eyebrow at her, but she just nodded.
It made sense that he’d stolen her business, since he’d already stolen her
Syeira slipped through the balcony door into the master bedroom of the Penthouse Suite at the Chatsfield International.
All the lights were off but the Las Vegas Strip provided ghostly shades of yellow, pink and neon blue through the floor to ceiling windows behind her. It was more than enough for her to tell that her own accommodation, more than twenty floors below, was significantly different. Still gorgeous and spacious and way out of her price-range, yet nothing compared to this.
Directly ahead of her was one of two plush seating areas complete with television, bar and coffee table. There was a walk-in wardrobe, an en-suite bathroom and then there was the bed. A huge, four poster affair with a solid base, two engraved posts at the foot and a massive panelled wooden headboard that rose up all the way to the canopy of dark silk.
She took a deep breath to calm herself. It wasn’t just the unconventional means with which she’d gained access to the room that had her adrenalin soaring, it was the fact she’d actually made it inside at all. She was in Prince Theo of Angelous’ bedroom, at one of the most sumptuous, prestigious hotels in the world and undetected as far as she knew. That was the way she wanted it to stay.
The wardrobe was the most likely place she would find the safe so she decided to start there. Tonight, she just needed to find out where the necklace was being kept, liberating it would wait for another night, once she’d figured out how. Perhaps the gift-shop in the casino had a copy of Safe-cracking for Dummies.
Syeira carefully felt her way through the wardrobe in darkness, pushing aside designer suits and crisp cotton shirts to check the wall hidden behind the clothes rail. A waft of spicy aftershave and shaving soap was released when she stirred a soft, woollen fleece and her stomach fluttered with a weird notion, like deja-vous but that was impossible. She’d met the prince only once before, ten years ago, and she certainly hadn’t committed his scent to memory. His face and body possibly…but not his smell.
Though Syeira was raised in Florida, each summer she would go to stay with her Grandma in Angelou, the small island principality north of the Bahamas. A storm had blown up one day that summer and they’d watched from her Grandma’s small beach house as a young man struggled to keep control of his skiff. The coast guard had been called but the storm increased in ferocity so quickly the boat capsized and they were convinced that - even with his life preserver - the man aboard wouldn’t make it.
But he had, dragging himself onto the shore. Syeira had run down to help him and found it was not a grown man as his height, even from a distance had suggested, but a teenager like her. The most beautiful boy she’d ever seen, even half-drowned, shivering and caked in sand and seaweed.
She still remembered the weight of his freezing cold arm around her shoulders as she led him up to her Grandma’s hut. They’d wrapped him in blankets and given him a hot-drink and he’d not so much as thanked them. He just sat on the porch, staring through the pouring rain, his expression stony as he watched his skiff sink.
Angry at his rudeness and – if she was honest – because he was almost painfully handsome and he was ignoring her, Syeira had said scornfully that he shouldn’t be so sad about losing his boat when he was still alive. That was when her Grandma had quietly pointed out that he was the Hereditary Prince of Angelou.
‘Then he should care even less. He can just buy another one like that,’ Syeira had snapped her fingers.
‘The things that matter to the royal family of Angelou are very different to the things that matter to normal people.’ It was the bitterest she had ever heard her grandma sound and once his people had whisked the prince back off to the palace, Syeira found out exactly why she felt that way.
The same reason she was there now, rifling through his closet in the first place.
She’d finally located the cool metal door of the safe when the sound of voices approaching from the penthouse suite’s sitting room reached her.
He couldn’t be back already. She’d seen him sit down to dinner not thirty minutes ago with Margot de Clairemonte, the woman he was supposedly here in Vegas to woo and propose to, if the tabloid newspapers knew anything about it. She’d figured she had at least two hours to investigate safely while he was busy elsewhere.
The voices grew louder. She had to get out of there now.
She wasn’t even halfway across the ridiculously huge room when the handle on one of the double doors started to move. She was forced to turn to the obscenely huge bed and, using one foot to spring off the edge of the mattress, grab onto the end of the canopy to swing herself up to the side. She rolled over the high lip of the carved moulding and continued until she was flat in the centre of the canopy with the cross bar directly beneath her, supporting her weight.
The door opened and ambient lighting turned on all around the room. She tried to flatten herself further as footsteps moved around the bed.
‘Should I call the palace, your Highness?’ a man spoke quietly. ‘Your father wished to speak with you as soon as you finished your dinner.’
‘I am capable of dialling a telephone number, Cecil.’ Prince Theo’s tone was harsh with sarcasm. He was still as rude as he had been ten years ago but that shouldn’t really have been a surprise. What cause did a prince have to change? ‘That will be all,’ he dismissed his servant from the hotel room and even through the arrogance, the mixed cadences of his French-American accent made the fine hairs on the back of her neck lift.
The door shut again and Syeira glared up at the ceiling. She supposed she should be grateful for small mercies. He could have been cutting short his dinner to bring that Margot woman up to his room. Staying hidden on top of the bed throughout that really would have been unbearable. She would’ve taken jail time over that.
What was she supposed to do now though? Wait until he was asleep and try to sneak out? Going back the way she came wasn’t going to be easy without waking him and the conventional route was impossible with his security staff out there.
He didn’t appear to be getting ready for bed anyway. He was pacing. She couldn’t stand not knowing what was going on, so she snuck slightly closer to the edge of the bed just as he stopped in the centre of a richly embroidered rug. He was staring down at a heart-shaped ruby nestled in his large palm, the string of pearls it was attached to dripping between his long fingers.
That was it. The necklace she was here for: The Heart of Angelou.
Had he just been carrying it around with him? Typical. She would have figured out how to crack his safe open and found it empty because he liked to keep it in his pocket.
Oh, who was she kidding? She was never going to figure out how to crack a safe. So what on earth was she doing here?
She’d told herself that the coincidences had meant something. That the Prince of Angelous turning up in Las Vegas the last week she was working there before she moved back to Florida and rumoured to be carrying that necklace, was a sign. It was her grandmother who told her too, almost like she’d wanted her to try and steal it. All that seemed a bit flimsy now.
She dared to examine the Prince’s face and her heart stalled. He was so still and his brow was furrowed in a way that sharpened his features to the point where he barely looked human, more like a statue of a fallen angel.
His fingers tightened around the ruby in a grip that made her wince and his arm twitched as though he wanted to hurl it across the room but slowly he relaxed and instead moved towards the bed.
Syeira found herself unable to move. Surely he would see her. She couldn’t scrabble back without making a noise. He moved swiftly, focussed on the nightstand where he placed the necklace and his cufflinks.
Then he was shrugging off his suit jacket, loosening his tie and unbuttoning his shirt.
Creeper, creeper, creeper, went the siren in her head but she couldn’t look away. His shoulders had broadened considerably since that day on the beach, a decade ago and lean muscle bunched and flexed fluidly across his torso as he stripped off his shirt and threw it on the bed. He went into the en-suite, unbuckling his belt and Syeira wasn’t sure if she wanted to cheer in relief or cry with disappointment.
The door closed over behind him and despite her haze of lust she recognised that this would be her best opportunity to get out. Plus the necklace was right beneath her. She could just grab it and run. He must have been getting ready to get in the shower and with any luck the noise of the water would cover up the sound of the balcony door opening and closing.
She pinched herself to remove the image of him, completely naked and getting lathered up in the shower from her dirty mind.
Lowering herself quietly down from the canopy, she let go once her arms were fully extended and landed silently on steady feet. It didn’t matter how quiet she was though, she’d barely straightened up when the bathroom door opened again and there was Prince Theo, half naked and looking straight at her.
Theo had decided to get the call to his father out of the way. The longer he left it, the later it would be for his father and since he’d gone through another session of chemo earlier that day Theo knew that he would need to rest.
He also knew he shouldn’t have snapped at Cecil earlier, who’d only been doing his job, but the last thing he wanted was to have a conversation about Margot de Clairemonte with his father. Her behaviour had been subtly changing as the months went by and it became widely accepted that they would wed; she was more presumptuous, even haughtier - which he hadn’t believed possible - and frankly, she left him colder than a dip in the North Atlantic. None of that would matter to his father and though Theo tried to be resigned to that fact, it didn’t stop the arguments from ensuing.
So he’d gone back into his room to make the dreaded call and found a woman the complete opposite of Margot simply standing beside his bed, almost as though Santa Claus had left her there as a reward for his being a good boy. Highly unlikely. As was the likelihood she was here for any innocent reason.
He strode over swiftly before she could move.
‘Who are you and what are you doing in my room?’
She tilted her head back to look up at him, clearly shocked but brave enough not to be intimidated by his aggressive approach. The thick waves of her hair fell back to fully reveal a heart-shaped face; slumberous eyes, tipping up slightly over Slavic cheekbones and a wide mouth with full lips that parted slightly as she struggled to think up an answer to his question.
‘I’m a…I’m a chambermaid.’
‘Is that so?’ He let his eyes rove purposefully down her body, dressed in clothes that were blatantly not the uniform of a Chatsfield chambermaid. She was entirely in black from her skin-tight stretchy pants to her long-sleeved top. Not a bit of skin on show until the very base of her throat but every one of the gorgeous curves in her petite frame obvious in a way that made his libido react as though she were naked.
When his gaze returned to her face he saw a blush touching her cheeks.
‘I’m off duty,’ she said.
‘So, we are back to my original question; what are you doing here?’
She looked familiar and he had the unwelcome idea that it was because she was a friend of Margot’s, sent here to test him. That seemed Margot’s style; clinical, no stone left unturned to find out precisely the type of man he was. His gilded cage became smaller still.
He stepped forward, crowding her towards the sofa, until she came up against the back of it. Then he bracketed her with his arms, leaning on the sofa either side of her body, trapping her without touching her. She drew in a shaky breath and he nearly retreated until he realised she was letting her own gaze rove in the same way his just had over her, dipping down his bare chest and lower still to the open buckle of his belt. His blood rushed in the same direction.
‘Well?’ His voice came out rougher than he intended.
She dragged her eyes up to meet his. They were hazel, made up of green and golden flecks and her pupils were dilated wide. The niggling memory again tried to surface. How could he possibly have forgotten a woman so beautiful?
The silence lengthened, heat growing in the negligible space between them.
‘Why does any woman come to a man’s bedroom late at night?’ she said finally, her voice low.
It was a honey-trap then.
‘I don’t sleep with prostitutes.’ He could practically taste the sourness of his own words.
‘I am not a prostitute,’ she snapped back, indignantly. ‘But I’d like to go now, since you’re clearly not interested.’
The defiant expression on her face finally jogged the memory free. It was her: the girl who practically pulled him out of the water the day he sank his skiff, years ago. She and her grandmother had both thought him a spoiled brat but at eighteen, newly named the Hereditary Prince of Angelou, sailing that skiff had been his only opportunity for freedom and he’d known the accident would put a stop to them letting him out like that on his own anymore.
He’d been right as well. As soon as he returned to the palace and his parents had heard the full story, they’d packed him off on a tour of Europe. He’d not even had the chance to go back and explain his behaviour, to thank them. That wasn’t the only reason he’d wanted to go back – he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about her.
And now here she was, in his room. All he had to do was lift his thumb and he would be able to stroke her little finger as it rested beside his on the back of the sofa. The idea of that simple caress, the prospect of touching her skin, held more anticipation for him than an entire honeymoon with Margot.
Had Margot really sent her? Had she sought out a girl from Angelou because she thought it would tempt him more – or was this woman really just a chambermaid out to seduce a prince.
‘I am veryinterested,’ he told her, shifting closer and the colour on her cheeks deepened, her eyelids becoming heavy. He could feel her breasts, rising and falling rapidly, just centimetres from his bare chest. He hadn’t felt this alive in ages. ‘But you couldn’t have imagined I would have no questions.’
‘I did imagine it that way actually,’ she lifted her hands and placed them on his forearms, her fingers trembling slightly. Attraction buzzed between them, but she didn’t really want to be there and he needed to figure out her motives. Goosebumps shivered over his skin in response to her touch, the light squeeze she gave his muscles translating straight down to his groin, before she slid her hands slowly upwards to his shoulders and linked her fingers behind his neck. ‘But you came back early, so I didn’t have time to fully prepare. I’d hoped to be pretty irresistible.’
How much more irresistible could a woman be?
‘And what was your plan?’
She exerted a soft pressure on the back of his neck, bending his head closer to hers as she simultaneously rose onto her tiptoes. Her cheek slid against his and her lips brushed his ear as she spoke in a husky whisper:
‘I planned to be waiting for you, on your four-poster bed, completely naked. And then I was going to ask you to give me the Heart of Angelou to wear as you made love to me over and over again.’
Of course that was why she was here. It was always about the riches and the title. He just wasn’t sure if this time, presented with the girl who had haunted his dreams for years, he could bring himself to care.
Prince Theo’s neck stiffened beneath her hands, the muscles cording even more firmly and she knew she’d pushed her luck too far.
She hadn’t intended to proposition him but what other reasons could she have said for being there. She was not dressed as a chambermaid and rooms were not cleaned at night. A young prince, this handsome, probably had women throwing themselves at him constantly. It had seemed logical. Okay – it had seemed tempting too.
And of course, in some ways, it would be poetic justice too. She wasn’t sure why she hadn’t thought of it before as a way to get to the necklace, except that she’d never imagined she would be able to interest him. But he was interested.
Although now it looked like she’d ruined it by bringing up the necklace and raising his suspicions again.
He removed his arms from either side of her, disengaging her grip from his neck and moving away. Over at the bed he picked up the necklace, then lifted the handset of the phone on the nightstand and punched in a number. So, he hadn’t been exaggerating, she thought wryly, he was capable of dialling a phone all by himself.
The adrenalin was back in her system, blasting through her veins, making her ears ring. Was he calling his security team? As soon as she knew for certain it was security, she should make a run for it.
‘Cecil, could you please contact my father and inform him I’ll speak to him in the morning about my meeting with Mademoiselle de Clairemonte? Let me know once you’ve spoken to him…No, just call through, I don’t want to see anyone until tomorrow,’ his eyes burned into Sierra as he spoke and her legs grew disconcertingly weak.
He didn’t want to be disturbed until the morning. Unless he was planning on throwing her off the balcony, she was going to have to go through with sleeping with him. Could she actually do this?
He hung up the phone and walked over to the bar, his trousers hanging low on his narrow hips, the soft light touching the dips of defined muscle on his chest and stomach shyly.
Of course she could.
‘Would you like a drink?’ he offered.
‘I don’t suppose you have any rum?’
He gave a soft laugh and she realised it was the first time she had seen him smile. It made him look younger, lighter – more impossibly gorgeous as his eyes crinkled at the edges.
‘Yes,’ he reached underneath the bar and pulled up a bottle of dark liquid. ‘Rum, I definitely have. They stocked the bar full of it. Anyone would think they mistook me for Jack Sparrow.’
He was relaxing and she liked it. She needed to relax too.
‘You’ve watched Pirates of the Caribbean?’
‘Of course. I’m a prince not a cloistered monk.’
‘I figured that much out myself,’ she came over to perch on the padded, leather bar stool opposite him.
A smile pulled at his mouth again but didn’t touch his eyes this time. He poured a measure of rum out and passed the glass to her.
‘So why do you want this? This fantasy, you’ve come here to fulfil?’
She sipped her rum, allowing it to burn sweetly through her chest to her stomach.
‘Is it really so strange?’
‘It’s not strange at all.’ His face had become statue-like again as he concentrated on pouring his own drink. ‘Would any prince do?’
It was easy for her to answer fervently because it was true:
‘No. It has to be you.’
He seemed only mildly interested but the intensity of his eyes betrayed him; they were aquamarine and deep as the ocean. He nodded a little and knocked his rum back, his throat working as he swallowed it in one gulp. She wanted to press her mouth there, feel the pulse beating beneath his skin, the hint of his golden stubble prickling against her lips.
After placing his glass back on the bar, he reached into his pocket and removed the necklace. It wasn’t just a piece of jewellery to him, it meant something, though Syeira wasn’t sure what, thinking about how he’d handled it earlier, close to throwing it against a wall but stopping at the last minute, as though he respected it too much. She’d never considered that it would hold a value to him too, which was shortsighted of her. It was an heirloom after all.
‘And it has to be this?’ He lifted it, allowing the pearls to make a triangle between his thumb and index finger so the ruby heart swung down like a trapeze.
‘Yes,’ she admitted, though she wasn’t even sure she wanted to touch it. Up close it was enormous, intimidating even, the small pearls seeming too delicate to bear such a weight.
‘Come here then,’ his voice was dark velvet; filled with a quiet authority that was different to the arrogance she’d heard him speak with before. She put her glass down too, almost unable to do anything but what he commanded, and joined him on the other side of the bar. He undid the delicate clasp and held the two ends of the chain out. ‘Lift your hair.’
She obeyed and he leaned in, fastening the chain at the nape of her neck and trailing his fingers along the line of pearls until they met in the soft, vulnerable spot between her collarbones where the ruby sat. It’s edges were hard but it was surprisingly warm and she could feel her own heart fluttering beneath it as he tilted his head, bringing his mouth so close his breath feathered against her chin.
‘Tell me your name?’
‘Syeira,’ she answered without thinking.
‘Syeira,’ he said it like it was the answer to a question he’d been puzzling over for a long time and it sounded good on his lips. So good, she almost didn’t care that she’d just given it to him. She was the worst criminal in the world. He had a description of her, her name and even though she was leaving The Chatsfield, leaving Las Vegas, forever as soon as she got out of here, he would easily be able to track her down now.
His mouth came down on hers and any thoughts she’d been having fled from her brain. He tasted her slowly, drugging her with rum flavoured kisses that layered one on top of the other, until there was a restless ache low down in her abdomen for more. His thumb pressed against her chin just enough to coax her mouth open and when she did, their tongues met and –
The phone on his nightstand rang.
He pulled away with a groan, pausing for a couple of seconds, his breathing coming as gratifyingly heavy as hers, before he strode over to the still-ringing phone and grabbed it.
Syeira rested her arms against the bar, her whole body raw and cold from his sudden departure, yearning in a way that made her unsteady and…scared. If one kiss could do that, how would she feel if she spent the night with him? She was considering pouring herself another rum but some change had stolen over the prince and she tuned into his one-sided telephone conversation, on alert once more.
‘Why? What’s wrong?...Has Dr. Hinden been called?...I’ll pack right away – what do you mean “no”?’ His tone turned glacial – clearly he didn’t hear that word a lot – and his grip on the telephone looked set to snap it in half. ‘Oh, he did, did he?...Fine…Don’t for a minute think you’ll be able to stop me if I find out things are any worse than you have just told me.’ On that threat he slammed down the phone and resumed his frenzied pacing from earlier in the evening, dragging his hand roughly back through his thick hair.
Moving without thinking, Syeira went to his side and placed her hand on his arm. He stopped abruptly, swinging around on her and the rawness of his expression made her gasp.
‘What is it? What’s wrong?’
He hesitated, the line of his mouth turning bitter:
‘I suppose I may as well tell you. He can’t continue to keep it quiet from the media now he’s been admitted to hospital,’ he stared blindly down at her hand. ‘My father has cancer. It’s terminal.’
Syeira’s heart gave two painful beats of empathy before she reached up to touch his cheek softly.
He sucked in a deep breath and snatched her hand away from his face, lifting her arm high so she was pulled up on her tiptoes and she stumbled against his chest.
‘Don’t pretend to care,’ he said, tightly. ‘You don’t know me, you don’t know him – why would you care?’
‘Because I know how it feels. I lost my mother to lung cancer three years ago. A cough that wouldn’t go away, a visit to the doctors and suddenly she was in surgery and undergoing treatment. They did all they could but it had already spread,’ her breath caught in her throat and she swallowed over the thickness of her tears, forcing them back down. ‘And now my grandma is ill. She’s all I have left - ’ She broke off as he let go of her wrist and swiped the pad of his thumb across her cheek at the tear that had snuck out.
‘I’m sorry,’ he murmured. ‘I’m…’
‘Angry? And frustrated and scared and sad.’
The look he gave her said he was all that but was unlikely to admit it quite so candidly.
‘I’m sorry I lashed out. It would be best if you went now.’ He removed his hand from her face and went back over to the bar to pour himself another drink.
She was now free to walk out now. She was off the hook. If she went now, she would definitely be leaving without the necklace but suddenly that didn’t seem to matter quite so much. She knew deep down that her grandma would not be pleased to hear she had stolen, that she had risked imprisonment to bring her a material possession, even if it did mean a lot to her.
She reached behind her neck and unclasped the Heart of Angelou, placing it carefully on the nightstand beside his bed. He watched her with slumped shoulders and knocked back another neat rum.
‘It was nice to have met you, Syeira,’ he lifted his rum glass to her in a salute and dispatched the contents quickly.
Syeira had acted rashly. She knew she was prone to fixate on some outside scheme to make herself feel like she wasn’t completely powerless when she was in danger of losing something or someone she loved.
The doctors at the nursing home where her grandmother now resided had told her that she didn’t have long left. They’d been saying it for a long time, though she’d kept holding on. The last visit Syeira made though, she’d really looked frail and Syeira had decided it was time to move back, to be with her, so she could visit everyday. She couldn’t bear the thought of being thousands of miles away if her grandmother had been taken to hospital, which was what Prince Theo was facing.
Maybe the real reason all these coincidence had lined up to bring her to this room at this moment was because there was another human being in pain and she might be of comfort to him.
‘I’m not going anywhere yet. Pour me another rum, please – it’s not healthy to drink alone.’
Theo couldn’t look at her for fear of what she would see in his expression. Relief, no doubt.
‘Fine.’ He span the rim of his empty glass between his fingers, studying the grain of the wood through the thick crystal. ‘But I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘Okay. We’ll talk about other things, or we’ll just drink.’
She intended to stay and if he was reading correctly into her removal of the necklace, she was doing it solely to keep him company – not because she was still trying to bring some princess-fantasy to life. He’d certainly believed her more when she spoke about her family than when she’d “confessed” to wanting to sleep with a prince.
Oh, he knew that she was attracted to him, her response to his kisses had been no act and yet he had no sense of her caring that he was a prince. She hadn’t cared when she was a teenager, she’d spoken her mind in exactly the same way before and after her grandmother had told her he was royalty. In fact, he suspected she desired him in spite of it.
That was a dangerous notion for him right now. His head was all over the place and the thought that this gorgeous woman saw him as a man, wanted him, had compassion for him and not his title, was a temptation he couldn’t allow himself. He was not a free man to do with his life as he wished.
At least, not until he became the Sovereign Prince of Angelou, something he could never look forward to since it would mean that his father had died. No matter what restrictions and expectations his father had placed on Theo’s life, he couldn’t wish for that. Not even for forbidding Theo to return home to be at his bedside until he knew that the betrothal to Margot de Clairemonte was finalised. It was all done for the good of Angelou, even if Theo did question the importance of certain traditions. What did his marriage really mean to the people, to the economy and the welfare state? It was not medieval times.
God, he was already starting to take over and it sickened him.
He had another rum to take the bad taste away from his mouth.
‘I thought that drink was for me? You might be a prince but you’re not exactly a gentleman are you?’ Syeira teased him gently from the position she had taken up on the sofa opposite him. She had one leg crossed over the other; her dark hair gathered over one shoulder, revealing the side of her neck. It would be so easy to go over there and bury his face in the sweet curve of her skin, take her in his arms and lose himself in her but she was a complication and he wasn’t in the right frame of mind to trust his own judgement where she was concerned. He still hadn’t figured out her real motive for being in his room in the first place.
‘No, I am definitely not a gentleman,’ he agreed, snagging their two glasses and the bottle of rum before he went over to join her. This time he poured one and handed it straight to her. ‘And you are not a chambermaid.’
Her beautiful eyes flashed up at him.
‘What makes you say that?’
He shrugged and poured himself another rum. The alcohol was starting to numb him now, the heat that was in his limbs not just because of his proximity to her in her confusing outfit that was both provocative and conservative all at once.
‘I’ve always been good at reading people - ’
‘Modest too,’ she added sotto voice and impossibly, he felt a smile tug at the corner of his mouth. She noticed and smiled too, like it pleased her to see that she had lightened his mood.
‘Quite. My great uncle Bertrand always said I should have been a police officer or a lawyer, not a prince.’
Her lips pressed together, erasing her smile and she rested back on the plump cushions of the sofa. She stretched her arm out to balance the glass of rum lightly on her knee. The movement was precise and delicate, flattering the outline of her shapely arm. Theo had never found himself particularly interested with the shape of any woman’s arm, but this woman…every line of her body looked as though it had flowed from a painters brush. He wanted to put his hands on her again, trace all her contours with his palms, his mouth -
‘I was told a story once, about your great uncle Bertrand. Would you like to hear it?’
That ominous sounding question interrupted his heated thoughts. He considered his fourth rum and decided to wait until she had at least finished her second. He was much more lubricated than her and that wasn’t a great idea.
‘My grandmother told me that when Prince Bertrand came home after the Second World War he brought a young woman with him. She was little more than a peasant but he promised her marriage and sealed that promised by giving her the Heart of Angelou, just as every prince of Angelou is meant to. It was like a fairy tale, a handsome prince had rescued her from the horror of war and taken her to a peaceful paradise of an island. Or so she thought. When he’d had his fill of her, he broke it off, taking the necklace and his promise back together. She was of Romany blood and in her distress, she cursed the ruby so that any prince who gave it to a woman he did not love would be doomed to die miserable.’
He watched her take a small sip of her rum when she finished her story, her eyes downcast, thick, dark lashes curling over her cheeks. What was it about the story that made her so sad? Was it because her grandmother, who was now ill, had told it to her or was it because she’d had her own heartbroken by some unworthy man in the same way she imagined the woman in her story had. The idea of that made him both tender and angry.
‘Ah, the ingenious curse,’ he said finally, attempting to sound more offhand than he felt. ‘Of course if you marry a woman you don’t love, you are going to die miserable.’ He gave a humourless laugh. On that note, it was time for rum number four.
‘It doesn’t worry you then?’
‘No,’ he put his empty glass down on the coffee table rather forcefully and it slid a few inches.
‘Because you don’t believe in the curse or because you love Margot de Clairemonte?’
He rested his elbows on his knees and turned his head towards her. He hated hearing that name on her lips. He’d love to pretend that Margot de Clairemonte did not exist. He couldn’t even bring himself to answer her question.
‘I heard that story too – from Bertrand himself – though it sounds a little different. Do you want to hear his version?’
‘Go ahead,’ she echoed his earlier acquiescence.
‘He thought he was a brave man to go off to war when no one expected him to, when Angelou was not even a part of the conflict. While there he met the woman you speak of, Mirela.’ He placed his hand over hers to still the nervous tapping of her glass and idly stroked his thumb over the backs of her fingers until she relaxed. ‘They fell in love and he brought her back to Angelou as you say. When his sister, my grandmother - my God what a harridan that woman was – found out he’d pledged himself to a commoner, she told their father. They planned to have her exiled from the island but Bertrand knew the state of Europe following the war and made a promise to them that he would end the relationship, retrieve the necklace and never speak to her again if they allowed her to stay.
‘He told me that he knew then that he was a coward because what he should have done was abdicate his hereditary title and married her anyway. But when you are raised to understand that Angelou comes first, your family, your position, the stability of your people, it is not such an easy thing to do.’
‘No, I suppose it isn’t,’ she all but whispered, her eyes wide and bright with some emotion he couldn’t place.
‘He was a wonderful man, Bertrand, and a good Prince for Angelou. It was the right thing for the people. If he’d abdicated my grandparents would have taken the throne and they were complete imbeciles. He never married another. He loved Mirela to the day he died and he was miserable without ever having given that necklace to another woman.’
He could feel his own heart sinking as he said the words, that resignation about his life so heavy he wondered if, even for just one night, Syeira could save him from drowning under the weight of it.
The weight of all Prince Theo’s words hung between them, full of truth’s Syeira or her grandma hadn’t known or hadn’t wanted to consider. Bertrand had not simply been an arrogant, pampered prince; he’d been a man who’d been forced to sacrifice the woman he loved, in order to do the best by his people.
‘Thank you for telling me that,’ she rose to her knees on the sofa and kissed him softly on the cheek. That scent she’d come across in his wardrobe was there, even stronger, filling her lungs and making her heart pound. She lingered, when she knew she shouldn’t and he put his hands around her waist.
‘Do you think he was right, Syeira?’ he looked up at her, his blue eyes blazig with heat. ‘To sacrifice what he wanted, so that he could live up to his responsibilities?’
‘I don’t know,’ she licked her lips and his grip tightened, pulling her forward until she was straddling his lap. Theo was clearly as devoted as Bertrand had been; he’d been raised with the same responsibility guiding his whole life; one day a principality full of people would look to him as their monarch. But he was still a man, one who loved and cared for his family, who listened and who felt deeply. He deserved to have happiness with a woman who could see that –
But that couldn’t be her. It wasn’t possible, for so many reasons and she couldn’t allow herself to even dream it; so why on earth was she letting herself melt against his firm, warm chest? Why was she sliding her fingers into his hair and letting him press his lips to her throat, in a trail of kisses leading up to her mouth that made her tremble? It was stupid, pointless…and utter bliss.
‘I’m going to ask you again in the morning,’ he promised against her skin.
‘Okay.’ It was easy to agree to it because she knew she wasn’t going to be there in the morning.
Theo knew she was gone as soon as he rolled over in the bed, before his eyes had opened. The bed was so enormous it was possible she had just moved in the night to the other side, out of arms-reach but he knew that wasn’t the case. She had fallen asleep curled against his side and now he was awake he could sense an emptiness in the room, an emptiness in his chest, that had not been there all the while she was with him.
It had been unlike any night he’d ever spent with a woman before. They’d made love and talked and made love, over and over, and it had been thrilling and impossibly familiar all at the same time. He’d never imagined she would run. What a fool he’d been because, for all their talking, he still didn’t know why she had been there in the first place. It wasn’t to put on a necklace and pretend to be a princess for the night. The Heart of Angelou was exactly where she had left it the previous night, the bright Nevada sun was slicing through the window and glinting off it, as it sat on his nightstand.
He jumped out of bed and pulled on some clothes, barely paying attention to what he was doing, calling out for Cecil as he dressed. When his assistant came in, he was rummaging around, searching everywhere for something, some note or business card or anything she might have left behind.
‘Cecil, did you get her contact details as she left?’
‘Good morning, your Highness. I’m sorry but I don’t know who you mean?’
‘The woman I spent the night with. She must have left sometime earlier, the security team must have seen her go.’
‘No one has come out of your bedroom, your Highness.’
‘Sir, there was a bodyguard positioned in full view of your suite door all night. He reported, not ten minutes ago, that nobody went in and nobody came out after myself last night.’
Cecil was looking at him as though he was insane. Perhaps he was. But he hadn’t dreamt it. There were the tumblers, two of them, sticky with the residue of rum, on the coffee table.
‘What about before we came back from dinner with Mademoiselle de Clairemonte? Did anyone go into my room then? What was the report?’
‘Again sir, we were the last to leave at just before 8pm and no one went in or out until we returned.’
Where the hell had she gone? Where had she even come from? Was there some secret passageway only staff knew about? He hadn’t believed her to be a chambermaid but what else could explain it? People did not just simply disappear.
He picked up the necklace from the nightstand and found himself wondering at the weight of it, much as he had last night before she arrived. He was not sure he would have wanted to carry such a valuable burden around his neck but perhaps that was the point of each Prince of Angelou giving it to their chosen partner in life. He could not picture it around the neck of Margot de Clairemonte, not now he had seen it lying against Syeira’s skin.
‘Are you feeling well, your Highness?’
‘How is my father this morning?’
‘Much improved. He received fluids via intravenous drip throughout the night and has been assured he can return to the palace later tonight.’
‘Good,’ the news simultaneously released some of his tension and increased it. Now he knew his father was well, he knew that he needed to talk to him.
‘Shall I get him on the phone for you after you’ve had breakfast?’
‘No, I’ll call him later. And I don’t want breakfast, I want you to get the manager of The Chatsfield here immediately.’
But it was not the manager of The Chatsfield whom Cecil brought to him less than thirty minutes later; it was Christos Giatrakos, the recently appointed CEO of the entire Chatsfield empire. Theo was glad he’d at least taken a moment to freshen himself up in the bathroom. In the face of what he had to talk to the cool, collected businessman about, he knew he would sound crazy and the least he could do was not look it too.
‘I assure you, your Highness, there are no secret passageways that lead to the bedroom of the Penthouse Suite in The Chatsfield International.’ Giatrakos stood, his hands folded respectfully behind his back as Theo sat down in the armchair, in an effort to prevent himself from pacing. He couldn’t sit on the sofa, not after what had started there last night between himself and Syeira and ended with them in the bed.
‘She said she was a chambermaid here.’
‘Of course, we will check all our staffing rosters for any female employees going by the name of Syeira and their photographs on file to match the description you have given, in case she gave you a false name. I do not take it lightly that the privacy of your rooms was violated. She will have to be dealt with accordingly.’
Despite the statement Giatrakos made, Theo heard the slight warning in his words and met the other man’s unflinching stare. Theo doubted those eyes missed much and he had picked up that Theo’s insistence on her being found went further than his seeking discipline for a breach in security.
‘Of course,’ Theo said smoothly, rising from his chair. ‘I trust you will handle this with the utmost of diplomacy and discretion.’
‘With your permission, we can also check the security cameras on the staff and private elevators to this floor.’ Giatrakos was basically offering to check up on Theo’s own security team, in case they had missed something or were complicit in smuggling Syeira in and out – and yet he did not just say that. Theo didn’t believe his staff had slipped up but was not prepared to dismiss the possibility and he appreciated the subtly in front of Cecil.
‘Do whatever you need to, just find her please.’
‘I will ensure the search is successful myself, Your Highness, and contact you immediately to assure you the matter has been dealt with.’
Syeira handed her grandmother a glass of grapefruit juice and sat back down in the wicker lounge chair. The older lady thanked her and took a dainty sip, smiling absently as she watched the waves crashing at a distance on the shore, even while her lungs rattled and wheezed with each breath. She refused all the medicines now and was simply happy to spend her days in the nursing home, reading or watching the sea.
‘Grandma, I – I have something to tell you…’
Her grandmother turned her gaze to Syeira, her eyes filmy with cataracts but still visibly golden brown.
‘Go on then, child,’ she coughed a weak laugh, ‘no one’s getting any younger around here. Especially me.’
‘It’s about Bertrand.’
And even though Syeira didn’t know where to start, somehow she managed to tell her grandmother the story that Theo had told her – Bertrand’s side – and how Syeira had come to meet Theo at all and that she’d failed to bring her grandmother the necklace that rightfully belonged to her.
‘He always loved you. He missed you to the day that he died,’ Syeira held her grandmother’s thin hand, kneeling beside her wheelchair. Tears made slow tracks down her grandmother’s lined cheeks and her free hand clutched at her shawl, making a fist over her heart. ‘Was I wrong to tell you? I thought you should know.’
Her grandmother squeezed her hand.
‘I was so angry at him, Syeira, for so long. My heart was never the same when he left me. Your grandfather was a good man and I loved him but Bertrand… I should have known he only left me to protect me.’
‘You were very young and you were heartbroken. It was understandable.’
‘Perhaps. But promise me Syeira, never let someone go because you are too proud to ask the difficult questions, to talk to them and find out the truth. Even if his answers are not what you’d like to hear, at least then you will know and when you say goodbye to him, it will be a true goodbye. One you can be at peace with.’
Syeira nodded, unable to say anything over the lump in her throat. She had not even said goodbye to Theo, she had just walked out and left him, too scared of his inevitable rejection. But it was too late now.
‘Good girl. I think I’ll sleep now,’ her grandmother said.
‘Would you like me to take you back inside?’
‘No, I like to hear the waves in the background,’ she smiled and took a handkerchief from her pocket to wipe her cheeks.
‘Me too. I’ll stay until I need to leave for work.’ Syeira dropped a kiss on her grandmother’s head, then took her seat so she could watch the sun sinking lower over the sea and try not to think about her own prince, with his eyes like the clear caribbean ocean.
When the sky was shot through with pink and orange, she heard her grandmother’s even breathing hitch and her low murmur of ‘Goodbye, Bertrand, my love,’ before she grew still.
It was two weeks before Theo tracked Syeira down. Christos Giatrakos had been better than his word and provided Theo not just with Syeira’s contact details but with a full dossier on her and he’d felt only slightly guilty about it reading it.
She had brought this on herself, breaking into his suite, lying to him and then running without so much as a goodbye. All the mysterious pieces of their two encounters fell into place, leaving him reeling, incredulous, angry and in awe. Theo hadn’t known whether to thank Giatrakos for his thoroughness or curse him.
He did know that he needed to see her again, which was why he’d flown from Angelous to Orlando, Florida and was now at the matinee performance of the Cirque du Soleill.
He sat in a balcony, closeted in darkness and watched the third act begin. A lone acrobat, clad entirely in black, was lowered from the ceiling on a trapeze. The music began and a single spotlight shone on her, picking up with neon swirls on her outfit that had not been visible before. They blurred in dizzying patterns as she swung back and forth, gaining momentum, rising to her feet on the swing and then suddenly dropping to grab it with her hands. She continued to swing, higher and higher, in time with the music and then she was somersaulting into mid-air. The audience gasped in unison but she’d already caught hold of the hands of another acrobat who hadn’t even been visible before.
Theo’s fingers dug into the upholstery of his chair. He wasn’t sure he could watch this. She was beautiful, strong and graceful, absolutely captivating but his heart faltered every time she let go and it was only made worse by the thought that she had done this two weeks ago without a safety net, one hundred floors up at the penthouse of the Chatsfield International.
It was the only conclusion he and Giatrakos could come to. Once they realised Syeira had been a part of the Cirque du Soleill performing in Las Vegas at the same time as his stay. She had used her unique talents to scale the building from balcony to balcony from her own room, twenty floors below.
As soon as her performance ended and she span away, upside down, clinging to the bar of the trapeze with just her legs, Theo was on his feet.
Syeira had removed most of the stage makeup and was struggling to unzip her sweaty costume, when she heard the door open behind her. She shared the dressing room with six other women, but they were all on stage at that moment. The only other person it could be was one of the hair and makeup assistants.
‘You couldn’t help me unzip this thing could you?’
‘I thought you’d never ask.’
Syeira’s head snapped up at the sound of the unique French inflections of his deep voice and saw Theo in the dressing room mirror standing behind her. He had a dark coat folded over his arm and he was wearing a charcoal suit with a waist-coat.
‘What are you doing here?’ she turned swiftly, her limbs warm and heavy from her strenuous routine on stage but also from his nearness. Somehow, even the vividness of her memories had not done him justice. She couldn’t help but drink him in with her eyes.
‘I asked you that question and never received an honest answer,’ he said tightly. ‘You forgot something when you left in such a hurry.’ He reached into coat pocket and pulled out a velvet box. She blinked at it, confused. ‘For your grandmother, Mirela, I believe.’
Syeira held her hand out, desperate to stop this from happening. All she had wanted since leaving him and even more so in the last few days was to have that same special blend of excitement and comfort, that rightness, she’d experienced with his arms around her. But now he knew why she’d been in his hotel room in the first place and he was angry.
‘Do you think it will make her happy to see it again?’ He continued, almost conversationally and her heart cracked a little.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ her voice was a whisper. ‘It’s too late. She died on Sunday.’
She watched the anger melt from his face, softening the hardness of his handsome features and replacing it with remorse, and then he was holding her; his coat and the box with the priceless necklace discarded on the dressing table behind her.
‘I’m so sorry, Syeira,’ he murmured into her hair and she linked her arms around his waist.
‘You have nothing to be sorry for,’ she choked out. ‘I told her about Bertrand and I think it helped. She died peacefully.’ That was all she could manage before the sobs took over and she was soaking his crisp white shirt, her heart aching but also growing warm with the tender strength of his embrace.
When the tears finally stopped, she stilled. His hands ceased their soothing caresses of her back and slid up to push her hair away from her face, framing it gently. This was unbelievable. She was sweat-soaked from the show, puffy-faced from crying and yet he was looking down at her like she was something precious to him. She couldn’t let herself believe that. She ached with loss too much at the moment to allow herself to risk that all over again. And it was inevitable that she would lose him.
His eyes devoured her, cutting straight down into her soul it seemed and he lowered his head towards her but she shook her head.
‘Wait. I can’t. Not when I know this is impossible between us.’
He straightened but didn’t release her, frowning as he studied her expression.
‘Is that why you ran, Syeira?’
‘I didn’t really run-’
‘No. I beg your pardon. You jumped from a balcony,’ he interrupted wryly.
God, he really did know everything. He looked like he had something to say about her acrobatics on the side of The Chatsfield too but it was just a distraction from the point of this conversation.
‘I was saving us an awkward goodbye,’ she ignored his comment. ‘The outcome is the same. We could only ever have had that one night.’
‘But you would like more than one night?’
‘It doesn’t matter because it’s impossible.’ Frustrated, she pulled his hands away from her face but instead of letting her go, he entwined his fingers with hers and pressed them to his chest.
‘You keep saying it’s impossible but what if I told you it isn’t?’
‘I won’t be your mistress when you’re married to Margot de Clairemonte?’ she said desperately.
‘I’m not going to marry Margot de Clairemonte,’ he tightened his grip on her hands until it almost hurt and his blue eyes flashed. ‘I’ve spoken to my father at length over the last two weeks. I don’t want to make the same mistakes Bertrand made. I will conduct my personal relationships as exactly that, not business arrangements. He understands that now. And that I intend to court you.’
If he hadn’t been holding onto her, she might well have fallen to the floor. The music from the show was a distant, throbbing pulse, filling her shocked silence.
‘Say something please,’ he said eventually.
‘You spoke to your father about me?’ her mouth was dry and there was a thrumming through her body like perhaps she would pass out. She looked around her at the messy, dim, dressing room. Costumes spread over chairs and screens and hanging from rails on wheels, make up compacts and wipes and cotton wool and creams strewn over the surfaces. It was her world. It was an entirely different world from Theo’s. ‘He must’ve been horrified. I’m an acrobat.’
‘I wouldn’t be the first prince to marry a performance artist.’
He laughed outright at the look on her face and it made her heart flip over.
‘I’m not proposing right now, but I imagine I will someday. Is that not the point of starting a relationship.’
‘I can’t believe you can throw yourself through the air with no more guarantee that you won’t hit the ground than your trust in yourself or your partner, and yet the thought of dating me terrifies you. I’ve been infatuated with you from the first moment we met.’
‘That was only a fortnight ago.’
‘No, I’m talking about when I nearly drowned and a beautiful, outspoken girl pulled me from the waves.’ He lifted her hands from his chest and kissed the backs of them.
‘You remember that?’
‘Of course I remember.’
The teenage girl in her rejoiced right alongside the woman, as it suddenly became clear to her that this was real. She knew that life was no fairy tale but this man was willing to take a risk on her and she was ready to take a risk on him.
‘That’s good. Perhaps we can use that to explain how we got together when people ask – rather than you catching me in your hotel room trying to rob you.’
‘Oh, I don’t know.’ He smiled and bent his head down to kiss her. This time she didn’t move away. ‘I think it would be good to tell everyone that you came to steal a necklace from me and instead you stole my heart.’
I sit in a hot plastic seat watching the couple dancing. Their sandaled feet glide softly over faded pink and yellow flagstones. Folk music fills the Piazza and the surrounding buildings smile sadly as strings play a mournful melody.
The café where I sit faces a paint-flecked old railing that shields pedestrians from a drop down the cliff-side to the Ionian Sea. Tourists wander aimlessly, peering into shop windows beneath the shade of envy green trees.
I let the cold spoon I hold deposit slippery, tepid ice-cream on my dry tongue. The sweet, chocolate flavour melts towards the back of my throat to smother the leftover taste of strong coffee. It can’t disguise it for long though.
I squint under the blaze of afternoon sun and slide a pair of smeared black sunglasses onto my nose. The banner of blue sky the couple dance before shifts to a grey haze.
As the vivid colours dim, the reality of my surrounding world steps back. I find myself imagining the rumble of an avalanche. I picture huge fragments of rock tumbling down the side of Mount Tauro to barricade us in this small town and I wonder; if we were to be trapped in this one moment forever, would it really be so bad? I could sit here, hidden beneath this yellow parasol watching the couple dance on for eternity. I would never have to open my mouth to speak to another soul. Or move from this chair, which seems to be moulding into the shape of my posterior anyway.
But the landslide doesn’t arrive. The song, the four black suited musicians play, alters. The couple decide they no longer want to dance and move away, holding hands.
Ice-cream and condensation trickles slowly down my blue-tinted glass dish and a faded brown ring soaks into the rough surface of the napkin beneath it. There is only a small puddle of ice-cream left when the clock above the archway to my right strikes one.
I stand up and rummage around for a tip. A tourist knocks my elbow and apologises. I smile my forgiveness but wrinkle my nose, at the strong waft of coconut sun-tan lotion and sweat, as they walk away.
As I straighten, the cold metal of my concealed pistol brushes my skin. It revives me from my nostalgic mood. I am here for a reason and it will not wait any longer. The Hotel San Marco is just two minutes walk from here. I will get there just in time for my lunch meeting with Don Phillipo; though I have already had my fill of Sicilian delicacies.
I exit the Piazza and follow the downward sloping road towards the hotel. It is the largest and most expensive hotel in Taormina, a haven of luxury and leisure. Most guests do not realise that in a former life it was the fortress of the town and that, in the elegantly furnished suites, there were once prisoners starving or being tortured. Don Phillipo does know this; it is why he likes it.
‘A building of grace and charm,’ he said to me just a few months ago, during our last meeting, ‘yet with power built into its walls, contained ferocity that you would barely notice.’
My footsteps make a sharp snapping sound on the over-polished floor of the hotel foyer. I head directly for the lift and travel to the third floor. My relationship with Don Phillipo has been carefully cultivated, to him I am just one of the many plants in his garden but he has overlooked my species. I am a Venus flytrap and today I will bite.
My pulse is pounding mercilessly in my head now. I reach the white panelled door of Room 21 but do not allow myself to pause – I cannot afford to hesitate. I knock twice, firmly.
I hear muted shuffling on the other side of the wood but no one answers the door. I knock again, harder. The lock clicks round but the door still remains shut.
I push it open and enter. The room is in dusky shadow – the curtains are drawn. In front of the window there is a figure sitting in a curved backed armchair. From the shape of the silhouette it appears to be a young woman. I hide my surprise as I shut the door slowly behind me.
‘Hello.’ She speaks quietly, her head is bowed and still, she seems to be staring at my shoes.
‘Hello. I’m a friend of Alessandro’s.’ I announce as I glance around the lounge area. Now that my eyes have adjusted to the gloom I can see that we are alone. ‘We are meant to be meeting for lunch.’
‘Oh?’ I question her calmly whilst trying to work out what is going on. ‘He’s dead.’
‘Dead?’ I walk quickly towards her chair. I want to see her face clearly now. I want to know what game it is that she’s playing.
‘Yes, dead.’ She looks up now; there is a gleam in her wide, childlike eyes. The silence between us extends like a tennis ball thrown up in the air. We stare at each other as we wait for the ball to come down. She hits it first. ‘You don’t seem very upset to hear that - for a “friend”.’ She over-pronounces the last word as though it is foreign to her tongue.
‘I’m in shock.’ As I bat it back to her I fail to keep the hostility from my voice. The girl is unnerving me. Her hands are clenched tightly on the arms of her seat and yet she is not scared. ‘How did he die?’
‘I murdered him.’ She says this for effect. Fifteen - Love. A smile pulls at the corner of her mouth. It is a humourless smile and it draws the life from her plump, red lips. ‘I put poison in his coffee. It induced a heart attack. He’s on the bathroom floor.’ She nods at the door to the connecting en-suite.
‘Why did you do that?’ I do not need to see his body; I have met enough killers in my life to known that she speaks the truth.
‘He was an evil man.’
I cannot dispute this though the motive for my potential homicide was nowhere near as noble. I was just going to carry out an order. Don Phillipo’s life had been deemed expendable. I know many people you could call evil.
‘Why are you telling me this?’ I ask.
She stands up so quickly that I almost jump. She is much taller than she looked sitting in the chair, but as thin as a piece of dried spaghetti.
‘You are going to help me.’
‘You don’t sound like you need my help.’ I object.
‘You need to call for an ambulance. You need to be the person who tells the police.’
‘Why should I? You’ve managed up to now. Tell them yourself.’ This sounds juvenile to my own ears and I am almost embarrassed before this girl, who cannot be more than twenty.
‘No one knows that I’m here and that’s the way it is going to stay. The body guards in the next room know that you are due to arrive here for your lunch. Won’t it be suspicious if you don’t turn up?’
She makes a good point. However, she is not aware that I have a plane ticket to Rome already booked. Today is not panning out how it should have done.
‘And if that doesn’t bother me?’ I ask.
She grabs my hand, squeezes it tightly between her palms as though praying.
‘Then you’ll do it so that my mother will know he had a mistress and she won’t grieve for him. He doesn’t deserve her tears.’
I realise who she is and recoil but she will not relinquish her grip on my hand.
‘You’re Angela.’ I whisper. ‘Alessandro’s daughter.’
‘And you’re Maria.’ Her fingernails are digging into my skin but strangely I see no ill-will towards me in her expression. This shames me more than anything else. More than the murder I was going to commit.
‘Is that why you killed him? Because you knew about me?’
‘If that was why, you would be dead too.’ She shakes her head, simply. ‘What’s infidelity compared to a life-time of murder and greed? He deserved to die.’
I nod. Without waiting to know whether I was agreeing with her last statement or agreeing to help her, she lets go of my hand and hurries from the room.
Her plan will not work. Don Phillipo’s bodyguards will never tell his wife that his mistress found him dead. They will obey him even in death. I wait for five minutes, my mind running like a child with a stick against the railings. Then I go into the bathroom.
My former lover is lying on the cold ceramic tiles, the extractor fan whirling above his head. He was a fat man; in his bathrobe, his hairy belly presses up against the toilet bowl. I am overwhelmed by disgust at our lives. His years of power and fear, my employer’s cunning plans, my own pathetic part in the charade, it is all insignificant now. I touch his white hair. It is so soft. He was always so proud of its abundance despite his advancing age.
I hitch up my skirt and remove the small gun from the strap holding it against my thigh. I turn him over and take a deep breath. Then I shoot him in the head. I stand up and put the cold muzzle of the weapon against my temple. I can see the couple dancing in Piazza again, captured in the wobbling tears that do not fall from my eyes. Through the wall I can hear the heavy footsteps of running feet. I pull the trigger.