Liberty House: The Other Side

 

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Chapter 1

What the hell are you doing here, Ella?

It’s two in the morning. Pitch black. Bloody cold.

Breaking and entering, thats what.

Miles away from my nice warm bed, and completely out of my depth—literally and figuratively—I’m frantically trying to scale a crumbling eight-foot wall into the grounds of a mansion house in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea; and I’m falling headfirst into the unknown with no safety net.

This will end in blood, sweat and tears—all mine.

Usually, I’m very respectful of private property, especially private property that’s plastered with warning signs in the style of No Entry, Keep Out, Trespassers will be Prosecuted, Danger of Death, You Have Been Warned, Prepare to Meet Thy Doom, etc. But on this occasion, I’ve made an exception, for the love of art—Art Nouveau, to be precise.

Because hidden away and abandoned on the other side of this wall, lies Liberty House—a historical gem I simply have to see in the flesh before its destruction. It’s a work of art. It’s the embodiment of Art Nouveau. And it’s just been given the death sentence. In a matter of days, it’s a demolition site. Its golden guts ripped out. The bold masculine lines and the sinuous feminine curves of its stunning figure smashed to smithereens. The spirit of the artist bulldozed to kingdom come.

Architectural rape and pillage.

I’ve worked long and hard on the campaign to save this national treasure from some faceless and heartless American real estate magnate hiding behind the corporate name of Hunter International Property Enterprises. But now the battle’s over. Our heritage lost. The mercenary bastard won. Planning permission rubber-stamped to replace a magnificent mansion resplendent in three acres of grounds with a gazillion dollar plot of characterless skyscrapers and underground car parking for the seriously tasteless uber-rich. For a man like Hunter, Liberty House is simply a blip on the landscape of prime real estate. He can purchase and destroy at will. It makes my blood boil and my heart weep.

I figured the only thing left for me to do now is pay my last respects to Liberty House. So here I am, under the cover of darkness—camouflaged in a very unflattering black boiler suit and steel toe-cap boots, and with a headlamp strapped to my woolly hat—clambering over this perimeter wall that’s haphazardly strewn with barbed wire. I’m risking life and limb to keep up with the athletic prowess of Oliver, my partner in this escapade, who’s guiding me through the minefield of breaking and entering. Oliver is what’s known as an urban explorer. Institutions, factories, bunkers, tunnels, whatever—if it’s old and abandoned, he’s there like a fox prowling in the night. He’s been here a few times already this month, staking the place out for tonight’s Big Night Out, as we codenamed it in the office. There’s no hiding the fact that I’m a liability in these ill-fitting borrowed togs that trip me up and weigh me down, but from head to toe in his balaclava, night vision goggles, army surplus combats, and a rucksack of tools, it’s plain to see that Oliver has come well equipped for the job.

‘Going equipped—thats a criminal offence in itself, no actual breaking and entering necessary.

Oliver is a criminal and a gentleman, then, as he holds my hand protectively in his, and leads the way with confidence and agility enough for the two of us, which is an absolute necessity because I’m painfully out of condition and I’m scared of the dark. Outside of this isolated incident of criminality, I live an ordinary, law-abiding life. My credentials are woefully inadequate for crime. Nine to five, I’m an archive assistant at Heritage Trust. Evenings, weekends and holidays, I buy and sell vintage clothing and bric-a-brac in my fledgling business, Ms Parkers Emporium, which consists of a monthly stall at a vintage fair and my online stores on eBay and Etsy. My social life is limited to visiting my grandparents and attending church on Sunday. Oh, and I occasionally play the harp at weddings in that church where my grandfather is the vicar.

No dating. No partying. No trouble.

So, wild child I am absolutely not. The words wild and daring and reckless don’t apply to me. I much prefer safe and sound and responsible. And that’s why my stomach’s doing somersaults with nerves at present, like a fish out of water.

Surprisingly, but for a few scrapes, I make it over the perimeter wall in one piece, only to find there’s three acres of jungle laying in wait for us. Oliver brandishes a scary-looking knife—a British MOD Survival Knife, he tells me—to hack a way through the wildest parts. This is definitely no ramble in the woods; it’s an assault course. I’m scrambling over uneven ground, tripping up on roots the size of branches, fighting off creepers, falling down rabbit holes, and wading through bogs. It’s gruelling.

Half an hour later, when we finally reach the tiered rear terrace of Liberty House, I’m crippled by a sprained ankle and a stitch in my side. Oliver signals for me to stop exactly where I am—bent double and puffing and panting so much I’m hyperventilating. In stark contrast, he seems completely unaffected by the jungle ordeal as he stands stock-still and silent, intently watching and listening to the landscape. Though I’d be surprised if he could hear anything over the din of my laboured breathing and racing heartbeat.

After a minute or so of this surveillance, he indicates for me to stay put, concealed in the dense undergrowth, while he races up the moss-carpeted terrace steps at the back of the house to check a vantage point. From there, he heads for a basement window covered by a piece of plywood, which he’d pinpointed at one of his recces. With a crowbar from his rucksack of breaking and entering tools, he expertly prises off the wooden panel to reveal our secret entrance.

An owl screeches overhead—sounding uncannily like a woman’s scream—and I stumble back in shock, overbalance, and fall headfirst into a bed of brambles with a side order of thorns. I’m torn between laughing and crying as I try to extricate myself from its painfully prickly clutches that grips my clothing like industrial Velcro. When I’ve thoroughly exhausted myself trying but failing to get to my feet, my prayers are answered and Oliver returns for me. He hauls me out of my predicament in the manner of a farmer righting an upturned sheep

‘You okay?’ he asks, checking me over.

I’m red-faced and wheezing. ‘Just—pathetic—that’s—all,’ I manage to utter between gasping breaths.

‘Not pathetic—just dishevelled,’ he replies, with a smile, running his hand through my hair. I’m taken aback for a moment until I see he’s actually picking out twigs and leaves. Then he tucks what’s left of my honey-blonde bob back under the black beanie. ‘Let’s rock ‘n’ roll, then, Wonderella,’ he says, holding out his hand for me to take.

But I don’t take his hand. Now we’re on the threshold of breaking in to Liberty House, I’m not sure I can do this, after all. The anxiety and the excitement are competing for control of my faculties. It’s that age-old double act of the angel and the devil sitting on the shoulders thing.

Breaking and entering…Committing a criminal act…Think of the consequences…Leave now, while you still can!

What are you waiting for?... This is your one and only chance…Youll always regret it if you dont…Just do it!

Brushing the prickly debris off my boiler suit, I bide for more time for more procrastination. ‘And you’re certain there’s no security system? Burglar alarm? Movement monitor? CCTV?’

Tripwire? Booby trap? Sniper?

Oliver lets out a sigh and shakes his head, I think in exasperation at having to cover old ground yet again. ‘I’ve done my homework, Ella. Believe me, there’s no security system. And no one’s home. No one’s been home for decades.’ He takes my reluctant hand and draws me towards the terrace. ‘Like I said, a security guard comes by with a dog to sniff about and cock its leg, at twelve and six, day and night, like clockwork, for a half hour at most. And that’s the extent of it.’

‘But Liberty House…it’s worth a fortune,’ I argue. ‘This is prime London real estate—’

He cuts me off. ‘It’s not about the house, anymore, Ella—it’s about a gazillion dollar building plot. Think about it! Why protect what’s about to be bulldozed? Liberty House is rubble in a few days’ time.’

And as instantaneous proof I’m way too emotionally attached to Liberty House, a wave of nausea rises in my guts. I whip my hand from his and turn my back on him in case this turns projectile ugly.

‘Look, it’s your choice,’ he says to my now crouching figure. ‘We can leave now, if you really want that.’ He bends down to embrace me, and then he gestures to Liberty House. ‘Or, we can do this. And you can see for yourself what you’ve been fighting to save all this time. Pay your last respects, like you said.’

I trust Oliver’s judgement, and I know he’ll look after me in there because he’s been looking after me since my very first day at Heritage Trust. But I’ve lived my life in fear of doing something wrong and throwing everything away like my mother did; and yet here I am now, dipping my toe in the murky water.

Like mother, like daughter...

‘So, Ella,’ he says, his hand on my shoulder, reassuringly. ‘In? Or out?’

I look up to the very top of Liberty House—the glass watchtower—and I feel its pull like a magnet.

Its now or never, Ella Parker.

I take a deep breath and then I nod in the affirmative. ‘In,’ I whisper.

Throwing caution to the wind, I release the mental handbrake and I accelerate into the unknown…Though groping and stumbling about in the dark would be a more accurate description of my traversing the terrace and reaching the house.

Oliver helps me climb through the window aperture and onto the ledge below. As I drop down into the basement confines of Liberty House, there’s the simultaneous sound of ripping fabric. I feel a sharp scratch at the thigh of the boiler suit, which has caught on a rusty old nail sticking out of the window frame. But I don’t feel any pain. What I do feel is a massive adrenaline rush at finally being inside Liberty House.

Standing on a stone step of a spiral staircase I know to be the service route leading from the basement level up to the ground floor of the house, I’m greeted by the sad and lonely stench of decay; its damp touch desperately reaching out for contact over the mottled bare walls. Our footsteps echo those long gone.

‘Tradesman’s entrance, I think,’ Oliver jokes.

I manage a nervous smile-cum-grimace. My mouth’s so dry I don’t think I could give voice to my fears now even if I tried.

Oliver bolts up the stairs and I chase after him, terrified of being left behind in the dark. When he comes to an abrupt halt, I smack face first into his rucksack. Its contents—the breaking and entering tools of the trade—make their presence felt like a right hook to my forehead that makes me see stars.

I am so not cut out for this.

The way is barred by a solid oak door, which I know leads to the Great Hall. Oliver looks over his shoulder at me and winks like a naughty schoolboy, and then he pushes against the tarnished brass fingerplate. Begrudgingly, the heavy swing door gives way and the creaking of its stiff hinges echoes up and down the staircase like an ancient agony.

He holds the door ajar and peers through the gap, listening and watching for any sign of life. After what feels like a lifetime, he finally utters the words: ‘All clear.’

His torch—a precision German engineered LED Lenser X21R.2 Rechargeable LED Torch, he tells me—sends a strobe of invasive light across the expanse before us, allowing me my first real glimpse of the magnificence of Liberty House.

Wow!

The Great Hall is the entryway to Liberty House. This room was designed to transport a person to a higher realm the moment he or she walked through the front door—to stimulate the senses and to transcend the mundane and harsh reality of life outside of this place.

I catch my breath and I gaze in wonderment at this architectural beauty. So haunting in its faded glory. The effect it has on me is spine-tingling. And I feel like it’s been longing for this meeting as much as I have.

The sheer scale of the Great Hall—divided into a nave and aisles by arches supported by marble pillars—reduces us to the size and significance of mice. I wince as my eyes adjust to the glare of the beam of the torch, and then my wide eyes are darting to and fro, charting the Art Nouveau treasures: mosaic vaulted ceiling, terrazzo floor, bronze and crystal chandeliers, burnished iron fireplaces, Tiffany glass flame torchieres . . .

Elegant. Opulent. Priceless.

‘All yours, Ella,’ Oliver whispers, his warm breath at my cold cheek.

In my dreams.

‘For a couple of hours, at least,’ he adds.

I let out a deep sigh—of pining and of resignation.

‘Remember,’ Oliver reminds me for the umpteenth time, ‘stay with me, do as I say, and don’t touch anything.’ He spotlights a lump of masonry at my feet. ‘The place is falling apart.’

‘Stay with you, do as you say, and don’t touch anything,’ I repeat, absently. ‘The place is falling apart.’

Falling apart—me too.

‘Now come on, Ella, let’s explore,’ he says, striding off with his mobile phone raised in readiness for photo opportunities. ‘No time to waste.’

I don’t answer. I can’t move. I’m transfixed by the heavenly glory of this mosaic vaulted ceiling.

Truly. Awesome.

***

In a daze, I wander through the Great Hall like a ghost of myself. I’m lost in another world within these walls. Oliver is pointing stuff out to me and taking goofy selfies, but like the drone of traffic, my brain filters him out of my consciousness. I don’t respond to anything other than Liberty House. It’s a magical place. Enchanting. Like a fairytale castle.

I don’t take any photos; that would be disrespectful, somehow. Instead, I rely on my senses to assimilate an indelible impression of Liberty House on my psyche. And I can literally feel its desperate desire for life—for love—and my heart aches for it. My vision blurs. I wipe away the tears.

Silly girl.

Liberty House was the supermodel of design in its day. Without a doubt, it would have made the front cover and centrefold of Architectural Digest. And though the furnishings are long gone, I know from the photographs in the Heritage Trust archive that once upon a time, it was seriously dressed to impress.

The Great Hall had been a sumptuous and sensuous gallery of art and design. A gallery of the heart and mind. Paintings by artists of the ilk of Gustav Klimt, Sydney long and John Duncan lined these four walls. Mounted atop a stone plinth in the centre of the room, there was the original bust of the sleeping woman, ‘Sommeil’, sculpted in bronze and set on marble, by the great Art Nouveau artist, Maurice Bouval. The Bechstein grand piano was situated at the far end of the room—inlaid with ebony and ivory, tortoiseshell and mother of pearl, it was a striking piece of fine furniture as well as a superlative musical instrument. The exotic skins of lion, tiger, leopard and zebra lay sprawled across chaise longues and splayed out across the terrazzo floor in a wild and playful display. And light rained down on all of these works of art and design from chandeliers cast in bronze branches and bearing a cascade of thousands of shimmering crystal leaves.

And now? Now there’s nothing but the dust of decay and the echo of loneliness in here.

The sculptural stone staircase—suggestive of the spirals of a snail shell—cuts through the centre of the house in dramatic fashion and leads up to a variety of reception rooms on the first floor. From there, the staircase leads up to half a dozen bedroom suites on the second floor. On the third floor, at the apex of the building, there’s a glass watchtower with a panoramic view of the grounds. Unusually, the staff quarters are in the basement with the kitchen, accessed by the service staircase that runs to all floors but for the watchtower.

Room by room, floor by floor, I’m drawn deeper into the history and beauty of Liberty House, however faded.

Toward the end of our two-hour private tour, in the green onyx-clad en-suite of the Master Bedroom, I’m enamoured of a marble sculpture of Psyche and Eros—their naked bodies and their love entwined forever—but I’m distracted by Oliver who’s acting strangely at the door, tapping on the panels and pacing about like something’s bothering him. I check my watch and see we still have half an hour to play with.

‘What is it?’ I ask, irritated.

‘Um, I, um, I need to use the toilet,’ he admits, with a frown of apology and an indication of urgency.

I shake my head in disbelief at the predicament. ‘The onyx toilet?’ I respond, aghast.

‘That’s the plan. Unless, of course, you’d prefer me to do it right here on the floor? I’m not particularly fussed at this moment in time, to be honest.’

He looks as if he means it.

‘God, no!’

‘That’s what I thought. So, if you wouldn’t mind vacating...’

I tut, and shake my head in disapproval. ‘Can’t you at least hold on until we get back outside, in the grounds?’

‘Nope,’ he responds without a moment’s hesitation.

‘Desecration!’ I hiss.

‘This room we’re in—it’s a bathroom, Ella, not hallowed ground. And this onyx thing here—it’s a toilet, not a font.’

I put my arm around the marble sculpture. ‘And what about Psyche and Eros here—are you really going to go in front of them?’ I ask, teasing him. ‘Have you no shame, Oliver?’

‘None whatsoever at this point. Besides, I think they’re too wrapped up in each other to even notice I’m here,’ he quips.

He’s funny, even when he’s caught short. I stifle a giggle. ‘Well, if you really must go—’

‘Really, I must,’ he replies through gritted teeth, ‘believe me, Ella, I must, really.’ On cue, his stomach grumbles as if it’s about to erupt and he lets out a groan. ‘And you have precisely ten seconds to make your way to a safe zone,’ he warns. His fingers are already poised at the waistband of his combat trousers.

‘Was it something you ate?’ I ask, deliberately prolonging his agony as punishment for the impending act of desecration. ‘That greasy doner kebab on the way here, perhaps?’

He nods emphatically and his hands press against his stomach as if he’s trying to stop his guts from spilling out.

‘With the extra chilli sauce,’ I add.

And that pushes him over the edge… He barges past me, tossing the torch in my direction, and he makes for the toilet in double-quick time.

When I hear his zipper come down, I let out a squeal and scramble to exit the room. I slam the door behind me just in time to escape the comic horror of him sitting there on the onyx toilet with his head in his hands and his combat trousers around his ankles.

‘And don’t touch anything!’ he calls out from behind the door. ‘The place is falling apart.’

I take sanctuary in the golden confines of the Master Bedroom. Surprisingly, I’m unafraid of being here alone; instead, I’m relieved. And it doesn’t take long for me to immerse myself once again in the artistry of Liberty House. Flicking the torchlight over the decorative gold leaf suspended on the walls and ceiling, the precious lustre is raised from the dead and comes back to scintillating life once again.

Simultaneously, I hear the unmistakable ping of a brass switch and the room is illuminated by the light of the crystal pendant hanging high above my head like a star in the night sky. Like a deer caught in headlights, I’m rooted to the spot with my heart beating wildly in my chest and my eyes fixed with fear because I know Oliver is otherwise engaged in the en-suite behind me. That means there’s someone else in Liberty House. We’re not alone in here...

Oh God!

‘Hi there,’ a deep and husky American male voice echoes about the Master Bedroom.

Half-blinded by the sudden burst of light, I can just make out the outline of a tall, dark and imposing figure in a sharp suit and tie standing at the door. It doesn’t look like a policeman, at least. But he’s unmoving, staring down at me. And his gaze is mesmerising—like a snake targeting its prey.

I’ve been holding my breath too long and I suddenly gasp, which is of scream-like proportions in the immense silence of this vast, bare room.

He half-smiles.

‘Um, I, er, I’m sorry,’ I mumble incoherently. ‘I-I know I shouldn’t be here.’

He runs his hand through his sleek black hair, and then he folds his arms and leans against the door frame, seemingly making himself more comfortable to enjoy the show of the effect he’s having on me. ‘In that case, why are you here?’ he asks, his head cocked.

‘I-I just wanted to look, that’s all—at the beauty—before it’s destroyed,’ I answer, my voice coming in fits and starts.

‘The beauty…’ he repeats, nodding at me, as if he’s considering the concept.

‘I haven’t touched anything, honest.’ The words tumble out of my mouth, desperate for escape. ‘In fact, I’d really like to go now, if you don’t mind.’

He shakes his head slowly in the negative. ‘Oh, but I do mind,’ he replies. ‘I think you should at the very least introduce yourself to the owner of the property you’ve invaded. It’s only good manners, surely? And you Brits are renowned for your good manners, aren’t you?’

This is Hunter International Property Enterprises?

‘You’re the owner of Liberty House?’ I ask, gobsmacked. He’s not at all what I’d envisaged.

He gives an affirmative nod.

Youre supposed to be a rich old man with the life sucked out of him…But you!...You belong on the cover of GQ magazine.

I gulp.

The owner of this magnificent Art Nouveau mansion he plans to obliterate is suddenly striding over to me. I take defensive steps back away from him but succeed only in tripping up in these clumpy boots. The torch—my only weapon—slips from my trembling hand as I collapse to the floor in an uncoordinated physical and mental mess.

A second later and he’s upon me. His slate-grey eyes capture my baby-blues and his possessive gaze pins me down on the floor beneath him. I’ve never felt so vulnerable in all my life. I’m wide-eyed and open-mouthed, unable to say or do anything in the clutches of this formidable American powerhouse.

And from the expression on his face, hes loving it.

He seizes my hand. Strong fingers close around mine, and I feel the energy of the man like an electric current through my body, awakening parts of me I didn’t even know existed until this moment. I’m helplessly in his clutches and there’s no room for manoeuvre; I’ve no option but to submit. I’m caught here and at his mercy—a mouse in a trap. This man literally holds my fate in his hands. For what seems like an age, his intoxicating scent—an exotic, sweet and spicy musk—envelopes me. Finally, he puts me out of my misery and he speaks, or rather he growls, ‘I’m Sebastian Hunter, owner of Liberty House.’

‘Oh,’ I murmur, totally pathetically.

‘And you are?’ he prompts.

‘Me?’

He nods. ‘Yeah, you.’

‘My name?’

He nods again.

‘I’m, um, I’m Ella.’

I can barely remember my own name! He must think Im a dimwit as well as a burglar.

‘Ella? Ella who?’

I could give a false name but his all-pervading eye contact doesn’t allow for any thought other than the here and now, him and me, his right and my wrong. ‘Parker,’ I reply, my voice breaking with nerves. ‘I'm Ella Parker.’ And then I anxiously bite my lip.

Am I in trouble now. He knows who I am. Ella Parker: criminal. Ill go to jail for this.

‘How do you do, Ella Parker.’ He shakes my hand, gently yet firmly.

‘How do you do, Sebastian Hunter,’ I respond, uncertainly.

‘Never better,’ he says. Then, in a swift and effortless action, he pulls me to my feet so I’m upright and in his arms and staring into a face that belongs to a matinee idol.

This is more than a girl like me can cope with in a lifetime: breaking and entering, Liberty House, Sebastian Hunter and his hands on me.

He pulls at my headlamp and the black woolly hat comes off with it, revealing the tousled layers of my honey-blonde bob.

He breaks into a broad smile, with his lips and his eyes.

Hes laughing at me now. The big shots mocking me.

‘Are you in the habit of home invasion, Miss Parker?’ he whispers in my ear, his lips brushing against the tender lobe.

I gasp. Exposing my innermost feelings, a flush of nervous excitement spreads across my face, neck and chest.

This is so humiliating. I am so pathetic.

‘It’s my first time,’ I mumble, trembling in his arms.

‘I can tell.’

And suddenly, like a knight of olde in shining armour—well, combats, actually—come to rescue me from the Yankee dragon, Oliver bursts into the room. ‘Ella!’ he yells in alarm at the sight of me being held against the wall.

Sebastian Hunter doesn’t move a muscle; his slate-grey eyes fire the double-barrel warning shot at Oliver, and it stops him in his tracks.

Hands up and shaking his head in surrender, Oliver tries to talk his way out of the situation. And he talks fast, as if his life depends on it. ‘Look, I’m an urban explorer. We like to explore old buildings, unusual sites—a bit of an adventure, you know, that sort of thing. No malicious intent whatsoever.’ He stops to take a much-needed breath. ‘The girl—she’s just tagging along for the ride, so if you could just let her go… I promise we’ll never set foot in here again.’ He finishes with his best sincere facial expression.

Ten out of ten for effort, Oliver.

‘Is the urban explorer your boyfriend, Miss Parker?’ Sebastian Hunter asks calmly, his gaze returning to me.

I shake my head in the negative. ‘We work together.’

‘Work together where?’

The look on Oliver’s face screams: Dont say a word!

I bite my lip. I close my eyes. But there’s no hiding place. ‘Heritage Trust,’ I mutter through clenched teeth, thoroughly ashamed of myself for the betrayal of such a respectable organisation.

Career over.

An image of me busking with the harp in the rain comes to mind.

Sebastian Hunter gives me a few more seconds of intense, unnerving eye contact, and then gradually he releases his grip on me. My knees buckle.

Whoa!

I feel lightheaded and unbalanced. I’m not sure if it’s the shock, or the shame, or something else entirely.

‘You okay?’ Sebastian Hunter cradles me by the waist with one hand and by the back of the head with the other to steady me.

‘Fine,’ I mumble, dazed.

‘No, you’re not, Miss Parker. You’re bleeding, for a start.’ He points to the rip at the thigh of my mud-splattered boiler suit.

I wipe at it and I’m surprised to find my fingertips emerge sticky with blood.

‘It’s nothing, really. It got caught on a nail on a window frame.’

‘On your way in?’ He raises an eyebrow.

‘On my way in,’ I admit, then guiltily bite my lip again.

Two men suddenly fill the bedroom doorway. I flinch but Sebastian Hunter is unperturbed by their arrival. His henchmen, I presume. They have a military bearing, albeit an impeccably tailored one. ‘Location secure, Sir,’ one states in a deep south drawl.

‘Miss Parker here is injured,’ Sebastian Hunter says, his gaze shifting reluctantly from me to the henchmen. ‘Escort her to the Harley Street Clinic, Jackson. Dr Bachmann will be expecting her.’

‘Yes, Sir,’ Jackson replies.

‘No,’ I protest, trying to pull out of his hold on me. ‘I don’t need medical attention. I just need to go home. Please, let me go.’

‘I’m afraid that’s not possible, Miss Parker.’ Sebastian Hunter shakes his head in the negative and tightens his grip on me. ‘You’re my responsibility now.’ He smiles, as if he likes that idea. ‘You’ve been injured on my property, and we need to get you checked out. I won’t leave myself open to a lawsuit.’

The cheek of it! He thinks Im after his money now.

‘I’m not—’ I start, but he presses his finger to my lips to silence me.

‘Schmitt,’ he signals to the second henchman, ‘take down the boy’s details, and then escort him off the premises.’

‘Yes, Sir,’ Schmitt replies, revealing that he too is American.

Oliver reacts to the news of our impending separation by taking a step toward me. ‘I’m not leaving without Ella,’ he says.

In an emphatic movement, without even breaking eye contact with me, Sebastian Hunter thrusts his hand in Oliver’s trajectory, like some type of martial arts move—a warning that Oliver heeds and he quickly takes a step back to where he started from.

But like a loyal terrier, Oliver hasn’t given up the fight yet. ‘You heard her, she said she doesn’t want to see a doctor. You can’t force her. You can’t keep her against her will. It’s false imprisonment,’ Oliver bravely argues. ‘You can’t do that. It’s against the law.’

‘Really? Is that so?’ Sebastian Hunter says, his steel-grey eyes fixed on my baby-blues. ‘In that case... Miss Parker, I’m advising you that I’m making a citizen’s arrest. You’ve committed the crime of home invasion. And you’re now in the custody of Hunter International Property Enterprises,’ he states, matter-of-factly. ‘So, I think you’ll find that it’s my way, or the cops and a cell for the night.’

Oliver’s jaw drops, and he stands there catching invisible flies and shaking his head, at a complete loss for any words or action to get us out of this mess.

‘That’s just how it’s going to be. There is no debate. Subject closed.’ Sebastian Hunter strokes my lips with his finger. ‘Nod if you understand, Miss Parker.’

I give in. I nod. I accept that I can’t break his grip and I can’t argue with his logic. I’m in the wrong here and he’s in control. Besides, I don’t think Hunter International Property Enterprises would accept no for an answer on anything, not ever.

Sebastian Hunter smiles at me. ‘Excellent decision, Miss Parker.’ Then he’s distracted by a beep and a vibration from his state-of-the-art wristwatch, and the smile disappears from his face. ‘You’ll have to excuse me; I’ve a jet to board.’ His hand travels down my arm to my fingers, which he intimately weaves with his. ‘Miss Parker—rookie home invader—it’s been a pleasure.’

His thumb caresses the sensitive palm of my hand. A tingling sensation travels from my palm to my core, causing me to gasp. The intimacy between us is palpable. And his eyes convey the threat or the promise of more, much more.

Oliver shuffles his feet uneasily. He clears his throat loudly. He clenches his fists. He throws mental daggers into the back of Sebastian Hunter.

‘And don’t worry; you’ll be very well taken care of. I give you my personal guarantee of that,’ Sebastian Hunter promises me, squeezing my hand.

And then, in the blink of an eye, he releases his grip on me. A second later, he exits the room. Yet somehow I still feel his touch in the palm of my hand.

My eyes are trained on the doorway until the echo of his urgent footsteps fades to nothing. I exhale heavily then gasp for air as if I’ve been holding my breath for an age. I can breathe freely again, though I still can’t think straight.

Despite the three men standing in the Master Bedroom with me, it feels lifeless without the presence of Sebastian Hunter, and I feel a strange sense of loss and a longing for his return.

What is this? Shock? Stockholm Syndrome?

Schmitt takes a notebook from his pocket. He gestures to Oliver. ‘Sir, I need to take down some details, and then you’re free to go.’

‘Can I go with her then?’ Oliver asks.

‘That’s a negative,’ Schmitt replies, his face impassive.

On cue, Jackson says, ‘Miss Parker, Ma’am, please, this way.’

I look back to Oliver. He signs a phone and mouths call me. His expression is pained. I nod and try to force a smile to reassure him but my lips are numb.

As I’m being escorted from the Master Bedroom, in the hallway I detect the lingering scent of the owner of Liberty House. It’s a potent sweet and spicy musk.

Sebastian Hunter marks his property.

And then I realise, his scent’s not only in Liberty House, it’s on me too.

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Chapter 2

Sebastian Hunter is as good as his word; I am very well taken care of.

Jackson, the chauffeur-cum-guard, is the consummate professional—the strong, silent type—as is the motorcar, a Bentley Continental Flying Spur. At the hi-tech Harley Street Clinic, the cut on my leg is examined and treated by the ultra-efficient Swiss doctor who doesn’t ask any questions; he simply does what Hunter International Property Enterprises pays him to do to a minor wound on the thigh of a dazed and dishevelled dumb blonde in a dirty boiler suit at an ungodly hour. A tetanus shot completes the treatment, and I’m finally home in my cosy and safe studio flat just in time for the dawn of a new day.

I call Oliver as soon as I get through the door. I’ve already a multitude of missed calls, voicemails and text messages from him on my mobile and landline. He must be worried sick.

‘I shouldn’t have taken you there,’ he says for the umpteenth time.

‘It was my idea, remember? I would’ve done anything to see Liberty House. And I don’t regret it, not for a minute. So don’t you beat yourself up over it.’

‘If Hunter's hurt you—’

‘But he didn’t, he hasn’t,’ I interject. ‘I hurt myself—breaking into his property. You can hardly blame him for that.’

‘Still, I don’t trust the man. He’s a predator.’

‘Come on, Ollie. Leave it. It’s over and done with.’

‘Easier said than done.’

‘He let us off!’ I exclaim

‘He toyed with us!’ he retorts.

‘Look, would you rather be in a police cell?’

He leapfrogs the question. ‘Don’t think we’ve heard the last of him. Hunter by name, hunter by nature. He’s got you in his sights, Ella.’

‘Forget Hunter! Remember Liberty House! I know I’ll never forget it.’

‘Yeah, it’s a cool house,’ he says without much enthusiasm.

‘Cool?’ I cringe at the slang term he uses to refer to my beloved Liberty House. ‘It’s sublime! Magnificent! A masterpiece!’ I sigh, in awe at the memory. ‘The most beautiful thing I’ve ever set eyes on. It’s the house of my dreams.’

‘You’re a hopeless romantic, Ella.’

I laugh. ‘I’m in love, Oliver!’

He pauses. The silence is loaded. Finally, he utters the words: ‘You’re in love?’

‘Yes! I’m in love with Liberty House, of course.’

‘Of course,’ he replies, with little enthusiasm, quickly followed by, ‘And what about Hunter? How do you feel about him?’

I groan. ‘What about him?’

‘I saw the look in his eyes.’ Oliver lowers his voice and I just make out the words, ‘And yours.’

‘What do you mean by that?’

‘You know what I mean, Ella.’

He’s right, I do.

‘Stop it, Ollie!’ I tut. ‘Don’t be silly.’

‘All I’m saying is be careful, Ella. A man like Hunter is used to getting what he wants. And he wants you. No doubt about it.’

I’m getting irritated now. The freshly stitched cut on my thigh tingles maddeningly, but I have to resist the desire to scratch at it. I need another one of those painkillers the posh doctor gave me. ‘I’m not for the taking!’ I snap. ‘Not by Hunter.’

His mood lifts immediately. ‘That’s my girl.’ I can sense he’s smiling again. ‘You deserve better than a man like Hunter.

‘Not by any man,’ I add, my voice trembling with emotion. ‘I-I’m an independent woman, not a…whatever.’ A tear spills down my cheek.

Im crying! Why am I crying? Because Im scared that Hunter wants me? Or because deep down I want him to? Whatever—it cant happen.

‘Sorry, Ella,’ he says, contritely. ‘I didn’t mean to upset you, really, I didn’t.’

‘I know you didn’t. I don’t even know why I’m crying.’ I wipe away the tears. ‘It’s been a long night. I’m tired, that’s all.’

‘Yeah, you get some sleep, Ella. You’ll feel better in the morning.’

‘It is the morning.’

‘Well, do you feel any better?’

I laugh, and suddenly I do feel a bit better. ‘You’re a magician, Oliver.’

‘Sleep tight,’ he says. ‘And don’t let those bugs on the bed.’

‘I won’t. They bite,’ I reply.

And we’re giggling again like children. For a moment, Liberty House and Sebastian Hunter never happened.

***

Unfortunately, I don’t sleep tight. I toss and turn. I can’t settle with so much going on in my head. Instead, I curl up on the sofa-bed in my zebra-print fleecy onesie in the company of the cast of Downton Abbey for the day. I’m in no fit state for church or lunch with my grandparents. I call them with my apologies and I use the excuse that I’ve cut my leg doing DIY. After all, it’s a half-truth. Nan and Gramps offer prayers for my speedy recovery. And Charlie—the fat old yellow Labrador—barks his best wishes. I tell him he can have my share of the roast beef. Usually I’m salivating at the prospect of one of Nan’s roast dinners followed by a sponge pudding and custard, but today I don’t think I could keep it down. In fact, I feel really out of sorts. Perhaps I’m coming down with an infection, after all. I dose up on the painkillers.

I try very hard not to dwell on the fate of Liberty House, or my encounter with its owner, but I fail miserably on both counts. The two are inextricably linked: the man and his property. Each one is striking and unforgettable. Sebastian Hunter said I’d committed the crime of home invasion, yet he’s guilty of committing the same act of trespass because he’s in my head and under my skin as I lie here.

Breaking and entering me.

Even the wit of the Dowager Duchess, the indomitable Lady Violet Crawley, can’t cut through my brooding. I’m staring at the television, but the drama that’s playing out on the screen isn’t Downton Abbey, it’s the one imprinted on my psyche: Liberty House.

As night falls, I finally give in to sleep, but it’s fractured and feverish. I’m either burning up with desire for something I can’t fathom or I’m shivering with fear at the prospect of it.

***

The clock’s shrill alarm brings me back to earth with a bump and a groan on Monday morning at seven-thirty.

Like death warmed up…

I do my best to repair my sleep-addled face and bed-head hair in super quick time. A touch of mascara and lipstick on the former and a beret on the latter works wonders. The vintage look I’m going for today is less jaunty, more austere—a drab grey, keep your head down and blend into the crowd type of look. I’m in no mood for any more attention, thank you very much; in just one night I’ve had quite enough to last me a lifetime.

I still have no appetite, so I skip breakfast and grab a grande cup of rocket fuel instead—a Caramel Macchiato with an extra shot to go—from Starbucks on the walk to work. London is tired and dreary. It’s raining cats and dogs, and the streets are a battleground of bad-tempered commuters armed with unruly umbrellas. Trying to juggle my bag, the brolly, and the coffee cup, the lid pops off and the hot, sticky lava spills all down the front of my mackintosh. And to top it all off, I step off the kerb without looking where I’m walking and my shoes sink into a deceptively deep and dirty puddle in the gutter. It’s definitely one of those days. An almighty headache is brewing.

Actions have consequences...

Oliver is sheltering from the rain in the vestibule of Heritage HQ. He’s obviously looking out for me.

When I reach the steps below him, his eyes travel furtively up and down the street, and then he grabs me by the arm and ushers me inside and into a far corner of the vestibule. In urgent, hushed tones, he lets loose as if he’s in a race against time. ‘Just because he didn’t call the police that night, don’t think we’re off the hook. He knows our names, where we live, where we work... That’s a shitload of information and power he has over us. And a man with his money can buy a whole lot more. We need to—’

‘Whoa!’ I say. I’m shell-shocked by the verbal assault, especially so early in the morning. I put out my hand to bring him to a halt. ‘What’s with all the paranoia, Oliver?’

‘Forewarned, forearmed,’ he replies, a deadly serious expression on his face. ‘We need to be prepared, Ella.’

‘Prepared for what exactly, Oliver? This isn’t international espionage. We didn’t break into Buckingham Palace, for goodness sake! We committed a petty offence, that’s all. You said yourself, Liberty House is nothing but a building plot now,’ I reason, trying to talk the two of us into actually believing that.

‘You just don’t understand, do you?’ he says, shaking his head at me as if I’m to be pitied for my ignorance. ‘It’s not about the house anymore; it’s about you.’ He speaks slowly, spelling it out for me in the simple terms a slow learner like me would understand. ‘He wants you, Ella.’ And then he slaps the palm of his hand against his forehead so hard even I wince. ‘And if I hadn’t taken you there, he never would have found you. So yeah, I feel bad about this shit, and I need to do something about it.’ He puts his hands on my shoulders, protectively. ‘I want you to come and stay with me for a while, Ella. So I can keep an eye on you; keep you safe—from Hunter.’

What on earth? Am I dreaming this?

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the madness of it all. I go for the former but it gets caught in my throat and sounds more like the latter. Taking a sidestep away to put some breathing space between us, I desperately try to think of something to say that might break the tension here. Something to bring him back to reality.

I err on the side of humour. ‘What’s happened to you, Oliver?’ You were a fearless urban explorer the other night. Today you’re a crazy conspiracy theorist.’ I ruffle his unruly ginger hair affectionately. ‘Come on, Ollie, snap out of it! Bring back the office clown—the one with the cute smile and the dimples—he’s my absolute favourite.’

The banter works, thank God. He snaps out of The Twilight Zone. The sombre mask cracks. His lips curve into a smile. The dimples reappear. ‘Yeah, well...’ he mumbles, shuffling his feet and shrugging his shoulders.

‘You know, we’ve no room in the office for these multiple personalities of yours. So you’d better leave them by the door here with the wet umbrellas.’

‘Shame, I was thinking of asking for a pay rise to cover all their expenses.’

‘And Oliver returns from the dark side.’ I sigh with relief. ‘Normal service resumes.’

We laugh again. Tension is released. We relax again, just a tad.

Keep calm and carry on.

The rest of the morning is perfectly uneventful. My desk becomes unusually clean and tidy, and I suddenly love the monotony of ticking boxes on endless forms. At twelve o’clock, I stretch out my aching bad leg, politely cover my mouth with my hand for an almighty yawn, and then breathe a huge sigh of relief.

No news is good news.

Time for a toilet break. I get to my feet just as the office manager, Mrs Lloyd, appears at the door. ‘Ella, I’d like a word—in reception, now, if you please.’

I’m suspended, half in half out of my chair.

Spoke too soon.

Mrs Lloyd stands there authoritatively—a raised eyebrow, an expectant stare, arms crossed, and horn-rimmed spectacles dangling on a string of pearls like a chain of office.

No escape.

I can just make out Oliver trying to catch my attention in the corridor behind her, but I daren’t make eye contact for fear of incriminating him, too. I collect my handbag and meekly follow Mrs Lloyd to reception, my head hanging in shame, while Oliver loiters behind us making manic hand gestures like in a game of charades, which I fail to decode. He's trying to warn me of something, I can work that much out, and I fully expect to turn the corner to find a couple of police officers waiting for me with handcuffs at the ready.

You have the right to remain silent…

‘We've no idea how it got in here...I'd have called security only it's your name on the card...and believe me, it weighs a ton...I should know, I tried to move it...nearly sprained my wrist!’ Mrs Lloyd goes on and on as we head to reception. Then she stops and sets her hands firmly on her hips at the sight of the obstacle in her path. ‘It simply can’t stay here, Ella; it’s a health and safety issue,’ she complains, shaking her head at the infringement.

What is this all about?

‘But how on earth are you going to get it home?’ she demands.

Blocking the double doors to the entrance to the department, there’s a ginormous arrangement of white lilies cascading from green bottles in what looks to be a solid silver antique champagne bucket. It’s the type of dramatic floral display you might see in some plush hotel foyer so people know it’s a posh place—not for scruffs, so to speak.

Instantly I know who it’s from.

Sebastian Hunter.

There’s a little silver foil envelope tucked inside the scarlet velvet bow. I tentatively approach, and with an unsure hand, I pluck it out. My name is embossed on the envelope: Ms Ella Parker. Inside, there’s his calling card—but it’s more than that, it’s edible. Compressed white chocolate, with the initials S.H. and a mobile phone number stamped into the centre in dark chocolate. My mouth curves into a smile. Butterflies flutter in my tummy. I bring the chocolate square to my lips and stick out my tongue. Delicately, I lick a corner—essences of vanilla, cardamom and chilli, if I’m not mistaken.

Délice.

‘Ella, what are you doing?’ Mrs Lloyd calls out, puzzled.

‘Playing with fire,’ I murmur.

I slip the seductive confection back into the envelope and tuck it away in my handbag for later.

My heart is racing.

Sebastian Hunter wants me to call him.

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Chapter 3

I don’t call him. Not on Monday. Not on Tuesday. Not on Wednesday. Not on Thursday.

On Friday, he calls me.

The phone rings just as I’m preparing to down tools and go for lunch. I tut and sigh at the poor timing, but I answer it anyway.

‘Heritage Trust, Archive Department—Ella Parker speaking. How may I help you?’

‘Hi there,’ he says in a voice deep, rich, exotic, hypnotic.

Two words, that’s all it takes. My core temperature rises.

‘Oh,’ I mouth.

I furtively look about the room, fortunately rapidly emptying.

‘Miss Parker?’

‘Yes?’ I reply, unsure of myself again.

‘Did you eat my number?’

A nervous giggle escapes me. ‘No, Mr Hunter, I did not eat your number,’ I reply. And then, as is my weakness of telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God, I add, ‘I licked it.’

Oh no! Did I just say that? Please ground, swallow me up...

My cheeks are burning with embarrassment. ‘I-I mean, I had a taste of it.’

‘And did you like it?’

‘Your number is white chocolate with a ripple of dark chocolate, a splash of vanilla, a pinch of cardamom and a dash of chilli. And I like it very much.’

I can sense he’s smiling. ‘That’s good to hear. But if you like the taste of my number so very much, then why don’t you use it?’

I sidestep that difficult question. ‘I must thank you for the bouquet of lilies and the silver bucket—they’re really lovely, and very heavy. I had to drag them home in the mail cart.’

He manoeuvres me back to the question. ‘You didn’t call.’

‘I-I didn’t know what to say. I don’t have much experience of this type of thing. I’m sorry.’

‘Is this experience of home invasion? Or being put under citizen’s arrest? Or receiving a gift from an admirer?’

This is information overload. ‘All of the above,’ I reply.

‘Okay,’ he says, ‘I’ll teach you. We’ll start with the basics.’

I nod, dumbly.

‘You dial my number. I take your call. You say: Hi, Sebastian. I say: Hi, Ella.’

There’s a silence. Is he pausing for breath? Or is it my turn? See, I’m struggling already. And we haven’t even got past hello.

‘Say it, Ella,’ he prompts.

‘Hi, Sebastian,’ I repeat, nervously, breathlessly.

‘Hi, Ella.’ The way he says my name—it’s like a verbal caress. ‘And then I say: Have dinner with me tonight. And then you say: Yes.’

Sunshine, big sky, golden beach, azure sea—his words lapping over me...

‘Yes,’ I repeat, automatically.

‘Jackson will pick you up at seven-thirty. He has your address.’

He knows where I live...

The line goes dead.

I sit there looking blankly at the telephone handset as if it’s an alien object that’s landed in the palm of my hand.

What have I done?

‘Ella?’ Oliver calls out. He’s in the corridor, peering into the office, and shrugging on a black leather jacket. His brow furrows when he sees the stunned expression on my face. ‘What is it?’

‘Nothing,’ I say quickly, dropping the handset back into place.

Everything.

I can see Oliver isn’t convinced at my answer. I force a smile, but I can’t look him in the eye. I grab my handbag and then steer him back out into the corridor. ‘Snout twitching to get to the trough, is it, Ollie?’ I tease as I slip my arm through his.

***

In the refectory at Heritage HQ, Oliver talks animatedly about the scuba diving trip he’s planning back home in Cornwall this weekend. I nod and smile, but my mind’s elsewhere—it’s in Liberty House where I’m staring into slate-grey eyes.

A slideshow of images of Sebastian Hunter holding me in the Master Bedroom plays on loop. I hear his husky voice. I feel his fingers entwine with mine. I smell his masculine scent. And all of this I experience as keenly if he were here with me now. A shiver runs down my spine.

As if someone just walked over my grave…

Oblivious to my predicament, Oliver wolfs down a cheeseburger and chips, a packet of salt & vinegar crisps, a chunky Kit Kat and a Red Bull. And then he helps himself to the chicken from my abandoned Caesar salad, which I’ve barely touched. I don’t have an appetite. In fact, I feel a little nauseous. Perhaps I’m subconsciously pining for Liberty House; it’s only a week to the demolition.

‘Are you sure you can’t come?’ he asks, and not for the first time either. ‘Oliver calling Ella, come in, Ella.’ He waves a piece of limp lettuce at me. ‘Ella?’

I come back to the present with a start. ‘What? What did you say?’

‘Come with me? To Cornwall for the weekend? Scuba diving?’

I shake my head in the negative.

‘Why not? Is it me? Is it Cornwall? Is it scuba diving?’

‘I don’t know. There’s just something about a man in a wetsuit...’

‘Really?’ He leans forward, an eyebrow suggestively raised. ‘Tell me more, Wonderella.’

I indicate for him to come closer still. With my hand shielding my mouth, I whisper to him across the table. ‘Thick, black, rubbery skin…’ I enunciate, as if each word were something sexually illicit, ‘...kind of reminds me of a giant frog.’

‘A giant frog?’ He angles his head, mulling the word over. ‘And is that a good thing, or a bad thing, would you say?’

‘Not good. Definitely bad.’

‘I take it I’ll be going alone, then.’

I nod. ‘It’s not for me, but thanks for the invite, Frogman,’ I say, and then I ruffle his hair affectionately.

He pulls a grotesque frog-like face that has me grimacing and giggling simultaneously.

Oliver is twenty-three and cute, but with his unruly ginger hair, freckles, dimples and a quirky sense of humour, he seems so much younger. He has an Eddie Redmayne vibe going on, I’ve decided, which is attractive. But he’s like the brother I never had—looking out for me and teasing me in equal measure. He’s one of my best friends too.

‘Okay, so what are you doing this weekend, Wonderella?’

I conveniently skip my plans for tonight. ‘Um, well, I’ve got a stall at a vintage fair in Whitechapel on Saturday. And I’ve definitely got to visit my grandparents in Kent on Sunday; they worry about me all alone in this big, bad city of heathens and hedonists.’

‘But you’re not all alone. You’ve got Ollie,’ he says with a wink.

I shake my head in the negative. ‘Sorry, Ollie, but you’re just not good enough.’

The grin melts from his face. ‘What? Not good enough? Why? What’s wrong with me?’ he playfully demands.

‘You’re an atheist. Borderline anarchist too. You protest march as a sport.’

‘Ouch.’ He winces. ‘Brutal. But true.’

I wag my finger at him. ‘Gramps warned me about people like you.’

‘What did he say about people like me, exactly?’

I sit back, arms folded, straight-faced. ‘He said atheists are egomaniacs.’ I give him my best penetrating stare. ‘As mad, bad and dangerous as anarchists.’ I clear my throat, struggling to stifle a giggle. ‘Shifty-eyed creatures that ask too many questions.’

‘Anything else?’

‘That you’re trying to put him out of a job.’

‘Are my eyes really shifty?’

I nod.

Do I ask a lot of questions?’

I nod.

‘I’m not a complete atheist, you know.’

I shake my head.

‘I go to church now and again.’

‘Weddings and funerals?’

‘And I watch the Vicar of Dibley at Christmas.’

‘That’s comedy not religion.’

‘I know the Lord’s Prayer off by heart.’

‘Most atheists do; it’s hardly War and Peace.’

‘I was a boy scout. We did good turns. That’s Christian charity.

‘No, Oliver, that’s bob-a-job.’

‘What about all the money I’ve donated to Christian Aid?’

‘A handful of loose change?’

‘Kumbayah?’

‘Enough!’ I cover my ears to his tirade. ‘Gramps will wipe the floor with you, honestly.’

‘Who’d have thought it? Reverend Parker: The Godfather!’

I’m trying to suppress my laughter while I take a drink of water. Of course, I should know better, because it ends up going down the wrong way. Coughing and spluttering, I'm struggling to breathe, and beginning to panic. Oliver leaps into action, hurdling the table. He grabs me by the shoulders and propels my head forward between my knees. It's an embarrassing but effective a technique. It clears my airway and I’m able to catch my breath again.

‘See, I’m a Good Samaritan,’ he says, crouched down at my feet. ‘Christian credentials, at last.’

‘In the name of God, Oliver!’ I croak, half laughing, half choking again. ‘You're killing me!’

***

For the rest of the day I’m a chronic clock-watcher. I count the hours, then the minutes, and finally the seconds to five o’clock. I actually disconnect the phone at one second past the hour, just in case.

It takes only fifteen minutes for me to quick-walk across the City of Westminster from Heritage HQ to my studio flat on the Commissioners Estate in Pimlico—a rare breed of socially affordable housing in central London, though the property speculators are encroaching here too. The cost of the rent, rates and utility bills leaves little left over from my combined income from the Heritage Trust and Ms Parker’s Emporium, but I’m in a lovely area of central London and with no travel costs to work, so all in all, it’s a pretty good deal—and that’s how I argued my case to my grandparents, and won.

Freedom!

My bijou des res is more aptly summed up as a bedsit. The room has a sofa-bed, an armchair, a folding table and two folding chairs. There’s a kitchenette with a sink, a hotplate and a cupboard. The bathroom has a toilet, a hand basin the size of a soap dish, and a shower cubicle so minuscule that you have to step out of the shower to pick up the aforementioned soap if you drop it. There’s not enough room to swing a cat in here, but I’ve somehow managed to squeeze in a harp. And I’ve furnished and decorated the place with all my vintage bric-a-brac—an eclectic collection of Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau and Art Deco pieces. It’s akin to living in the smallest vintage store in the world, and it saves on having to rent storage space for my stock, too.

Home sweet home.

I race up six flights of stairs like never before.

Operation Dinner Date.

It’s five-fifteen. I’ve two hours and fifteen minutes to do this.

I unlock the front door while simultaneously shrugging off my coat and bag. I fly past the silver bucket of white lilies on the buckling table, and I head straight to the curtained corner that acts as my built-in wardrobe. I fling open the curtain and delve in.

What the hells a girl to wear for a dinner date with a billionaire?

A dozen dresses are considered, tried on, accessorised, and then dismissed as just not good enough. The sofa-bed’s a bombsite, and I’m seriously starting to panic. The clock’s ticking...

I cant do it.

I tug at my hair.

Its not meant to be.

His calling card is in the refrigerator. I’ll cancel.

And then I catch sight of the battered leather trunk on the floor at the back that acts as a shelf for my hats. I can visualise exactly what’s in there without having to open it. I’ve been holding onto it my whole life. The contents of this trunk are all I have left of my mother. Her name was Christina, and she died giving birth to me in Paris, France, when she was just my age. My father—an unknown entity. My grandparents—shocked to the core.

My mother was a dancer. The fancy type of dancing that can take a tall, pretty girl around the world with her feathered headdress, sequinned costumes, theatrical make-up, and high kicks and splits. What started with ballet and ballroom classes on a Saturday morning in the church hall led to the chorus line on the stage in the West End and culminated in feature showgirl at the Moulin Rouge in Paris.

I have her porcelain complexion, baby-blue eyes and honey-blonde hair. I can dance a bit, too, but I don't so as not to upset my grandparents.

This trunk contains all that’s left of her worldly possessions. And the dress is in there.

It’s lying on top of some bits of glitzy costume jewellery, a pair of broken dancing shoes, a Leichner box of dried-up stage make-up, and the dregs of a bottle of Chanel No. 5.

I spray the dress liberally with what’s left of the Chanel No. 5 as it hasn’t seen the light of day or breathed fresh air in a long, long time. And then I hang it from the top of the shower screen so the steam of the hot water will iron-out the creases and bring it back to life.

It’s a black crêpe silk wrap-over dress—very simple, very classy, very French. It clings to the body in all the right places. It lifts the bust, nips the waist, and offers the briefest glimpse of thigh when you cross your legs. It’s hot, but respectably so.

There’s no label, and I’ve often wondered where it came from. I like to think it was a gift to my mother from my father. I like to think she was wearing it the moment she fell in love with him. At least, I hope they were in love. I hope it meant something. I hope I meant something.

Anyway, it’s a little black dress that makes a girl look like a woman.

And I’m wearing it on my first ever date.

My first ever date...Sebastian Hunter.

I have to look my very best, because tonight I’ll be representing Liberty House. This is my one and only opportunity to try to make him realise its true value. Somehow, I’ve got to make him want to save it as much as I do.

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