The Flaw In His Red-Hot Revenge by Abby Green
ASHLING DOYLEWASso nervous that she was taking short panting breaths and it was making her light-headed. She had to force herself to take deeper breaths. She just hadn’t expected this place to be so...intimidating.
She was tucked behind a large plant, hidden from view, in one of London’s most iconic and historic hotels, which was hosting one of the city’s most exclusive events in its annual social calendar.
Even the air smelled expensive. She’d only realised a short while before that it was scented, which added to the very rarefied atmosphere and the gobsmacking luxury of the place.
She touched her hair again nervously, even though the wig felt secure. She wasn’t used to long hair tumbling over her shoulders in sleek waves. Or the vibrant red colour that gave her a jolt of shock whenever she caught a glimpse of her reflection.
She shivered slightly when someone opened a door nearby and the frigid winter air touched her exposed skin. Of which there was a lot. She looked down at the tight black strapless dress and tried to tug it ineffectually higher over her breasts. It sat an uncomfortable few inches above her knees and it sparkled when she moved, from the crystal embellishment in the material. Discreet, it was not.
She spoke to the man in the suit beside her, Carter. She’d only met him this evening and he had given the spec for the job. He would supervise her. ‘Every other woman is wearing a long evening dress...won’t I stick out?’
Carter flicked her a glance. ‘It’s perfect. Remember you’re playing a part. You’re not a guest here.’
As if she needed reminding that she didn’t belong in a place like this, and would never, in normal circumstances, be mixing with this rarefied crowd. But then, this was not a normal circumstance. She was only here as a massive favour for a friend from her amateur dramatics group, who couldn’t make it.
She looked back out to the crowd through a gap in the foliage. ‘That’s him? The man in the middle? With the dark brown hair?’
In a classic black tuxedo, he shouldn’t be standing out from hundreds of other men similarly dressed but he did. And not just because he was taller and broader than everyone else. It was something the eye couldn’t see, but which Ashling could sense even from this distance. Power. Charisma. Sexual magnetism.
‘Yes, that’s him. He’s talking to a blonde woman.’
A prickle of foreboding went up Ashling’s spine. There had been no mention of a woman.
Carter took her arm and thrust her out from behind the plant and towards the crowd. ‘This is the moment. Do it now.’
He spoke from behind her. ‘If you don’t go now the moment will be gone and you won’t get paid.’
Ashling’s belly lurched. She needed the money to finish her yoga teacher training course or she’d never establish herself. She took a deep breath to quell her nerves and threaded her way through the crowd until she was right behind the man.
He seemed even taller up close, almost a foot over her very average five foot five. And she was wearing heels. His back looked impossibly broad and imposing. His suit was lovingly moulded to his powerful body as only a bespoke suit could be.
Ashling had no idea who this man was—only that he was the one she had to target with the script she’d been given. An elaborate practical joke, she’d been told. She’d put it down to the crazy whims of rich people, who did strange things because they could...because they were bored.
She wasn’t going to get anywhere looking at his back, so she stepped around him and stood right in front of him.
And promptly lost the ability to breathe and form a coherent thought.
He was...breathtakingly gorgeous. Short dark hair, dark eyes, and an unashamedly masculine bone structure. Hard jaw and high cheekbones softened only by a surprisingly sensual mouth, a lush lower lip.
He’d been smiling at the tall blonde woman by his side, but now the smile faded as he looked at Ashling. His eyes dropped, taking in the dress which Ashling realised had been picked for exactly this effect.
Even though it had a designer label, she stuck out like a tacky bauble amongst clear bright gems. The woman beside him was wearing a white dress, cut with the kind of elegance that could only be manufactured by hand in an atelier in Paris. Ashling registered all this without even looking at the woman.
‘Just stick to the script and then leave.’
The words of instruction came back to her. She came out of her trance and nerves started to bubble upwards.
Emptying her mind of everything but the role she was playing, Ashling launched herself at the man, wrapping her arms around his neck. ‘There you are, darling, I’ve been looking everywhere for you.’
She pressed a kiss to his jaw—the only part of his face she could reach. Her lips came into contact with granite-hard bone and stubble. Her body was pressed against a wall of steel and flesh. His scent filled her nostrils—deep and woodsy, with a hint of something more exotic, causing a quiver of sensation in her belly. More than a quiver. A wave. It was such a shock to find herself reacting with this much intensity that she froze.
The man put his hands on her arms and pulled them down, unpeeling her from his body, pushing her back but not letting her go. His face was thunderous. ‘Who the hell are you? I’ve never seen you before in my life.’
Ashling didn’t have to call on any acting skills to portray her dismay. His touch wasn’t harsh, but his expression and tone were horrified. She’d known to expect exactly this reaction—after all she was a complete stranger to him—but she hadn’t counted on his response affecting her so viscerally. It made no sense.
She blinked and felt moisture gather under her lashes. His gaze narrowed. She said, in a tremulous voice that she didn’t really have to manufacture, ‘But, darling, last night was the most amazing night of my life. You told me I was special. How can you say you don’t know me?’
For a split second Ashling wondered what it would be like to have a man like this tell her that she was special. Then she lambasted herself, disgusted at getting caught up in dangerous fantasy even for a moment. This kind of man, this kind of place, was not her world and she never wanted it to be. It had rejected her a long time ago.
Out of the corner of her eye Ashling could see the woman in white go rigid. Dimly she wondered about their relationship, but she’d gone too far now.
‘What the hell...?’ he said now, sounding genuinely mystified. ‘You are a complete stranger to me.’ He looked her up and down again, cold disdain etched all over his face. ‘I would never touch a woman like you.’
Ashling went cold all over. Suddenly she forgot why she was there. All she knew was that she was standing in front of a man who fascinated her and who had a powerful effect on her. And who was rejecting her.
Echoes of another, too similar situation came back to haunt her... Approaching a man in the crowd. Tapping him on the shoulder. Him turning around. Him not recognising her. She’d had to tell her own father that it was her—his firstborn daughter. His illegitimate daughter.
At first there had been no recognition and then, slowly, comprehension had dawned. And with it not surprised delight, as Ashling had hoped, but horror. He’d grabbed her arm, pulling her away. Aside. Out of sight...
Ashling pushed the memory down where it belonged, hating it that this situation was precipitating its resurgence. But the tendrils lingered, and irrational hurt at this stranger’s response made her pull free of his hold. She could never have suspected that this incident would be a trigger for her. But she was triggered. And caught between two worlds.
She tried desperately to focus on the job at hand, but the recent past and present were meshing painfully as she said, ‘So now, here with your friends, I’m not worthy of you?’
His lip curled. ‘You’re talking nonsense—you don’t belong here.’
The inexplicable hurt inside Ashling solidified, making her want to protect herself. Words that she wasn’t even aware of formulating fell from her mouth. ‘From what I recall, there wasn’t much talking last night. How many times did we not talk? Two? Three? You told me I was the best you’d ever had.’
There was an audible intake of breath from someone. The blonde woman? Ashling couldn’t break free of that dark gaze. A breeze skated over her exposed skin, making her shiver. Sanity trickled back slowly.
She realised that she’d gone way beyond the original spec and that she had about a second before the man reacted and her very flimsy disguise was exposed for the sham it was.
She lifted her chin. ‘I know when I’m not welcome. I’m good enough to take to bed, but not to stand by your side in your world.’ Tears gathered, because she felt that sentiment down to her very bones. She wasn’t acting any more. Her vision turned blurry. ‘You just used me because you were bored, or jaded, or...something. Well, I’m worth more than that.’
She turned and pushed her way through the silent crowd, trembling with the overload of adrenalin and emotion. Emotion that had no place here.
She went straight up to the suite where she’d changed beforehand. Carter was waiting. She ripped the small microphone from under the bodice of the dress and handed it back to him. She felt nauseous as the full impact of what she’d just done sank in.
Carter was grinning. ‘You did a great job—the ad-libbing was a brilliant touch. We have a Murder Mystery Weekend coming up in a castle in Scotland...you’d be perfect for it.’
Ashling recoiled at the thought. ‘I only did this because Sarah wasn’t feeling well. It’s not really my scene.’ In fact, she wasn’t sure she’d want to keep up the amateur dramatics after this.
The man looked her up and down, and Ashling didn’t like the assessing gleam in his gaze.
‘Shame, you’re a natural.’
He handed her an envelope full of cash. ‘This might help change your mind.’
Ashling looked at the envelope, suddenly reluctant to take it. It felt tainted. Dirty. She said, ‘This was meant to be a practical joke...it didn’t feel like a joke.’
Carter’s eyes narrowed. ‘You’re the one who turned it into something else. You only had two lines to deliver and then you were meant to get out of there.’
Shame rose up. He was right. She’d overreacted and over-acted because she hadn’t expected the man to affect her like that. She hadn’t expected his rejection to feel so personal.
She asked, ‘Who is he anyway?’
Carter shrugged, bored. ‘Just some billionaire. Believe me, he’ll have already forgotten about you.’
That stung more than she liked to admit. ‘Then why hire someone like me in the first place?’
Carter’s expression hardened. ‘I don’t ask questions when someone wants to hire one of my actors for a private event, once I know there’s no funny stuff involved. This was one of the easiest jobs. Who knows why people do the things they do?’ He thrust the envelope at her again. ‘It’s money for old rope—now, take it and go. If you want more gigs like this, you know where I am.’
Ashling took the envelope, but when she was walking away from the hotel a short while later, minus the wig and dress, back in her own clothes again, she felt sick. She was passing a homeless shelter, and on an impulse she couldn’t ignore she went in and handed the money over to the manager.
He looked at it and her with shock. ‘Thank you, miss, are you sure?’
She nodded and fled, putting the whole evening down to an unsavoury experience not to be repeated. She thanked her lucky stars that she would never meet that man again.