The Party Starts at Midnight
This was not the itinerary that events planner Abby had intended:
8:00 p.m.: Leave the spectacular party you’ve organized in search of Leo Cartwright—international playboy, notorious tycoon and your most prestigious new client.
8:10 p.m.: Find Leo asleep, half-naked, in a penthouse suite that just screams decadence—and battle a wildly-out-of-character impulse to kiss him awake.
8:30–11:30 p.m.: Return to the party. Spend all evening avoiding Mr. Cartwright—and trying to forget his tempting demands…
11:59 p.m.: Assure Leo that you will not be mixing business with pleasure.
Midnight: Break your own vow… All. Night. Long.
As the lift doors opened with an expensively soft swoosh, Abby gave her head a quick shake to dispel the ear-popping dizziness caused by the thirty-floors-in-three-seconds ascension, and stepped into the hall of the penthouse suite of London’s newest south bank hotel.
‘Hello?’ she called, her voice ringing out weirdly loudly in the silence of the apartment. And then, after a moment during which there was no answer, she tried again. ‘Mr Cartwright?... Leo?... Anyone?’
But there was still no reply.
Frowning slightly, she headed down the hall, barely noticing the thick cream carpet her heels were sinking into or the cool sophistication of the dove-grey walls that stretched out either side of her, and came upon the sitting room. A quick scan showed it to be huge and beautifully furnished but disappointingly empty, as, she subsequently discovered, were the kitchen, laundry room, library, cinema, gym and study.
If she hadn’t been on a mission to locate the man allegedly holed up within and remind him about the party in full swing downstairs – the party he was supposed to be attending but wasn’t – Abby might have been blown away by the sheer scale and luxury of the place.
She might have ditched her precious clipboard and marvelled at the spectacular view of London at night, all lit up like the enormous Christmas tree that sat in the lobby downstairs and showcased by the acres of window. She might have oohed and ahhed over the gorgeous chrome and crystal chandeliers that hung from the ceiling and cast subtle light over the antiques, and then thrown herself onto one of the three plush, charcoal-velvet-covered sofas with a sigh of pleasure.
She might have lingeringly run her fingers along the gleaming granite work surfaces in the kitchen, had a quick go on one of the many machines in the state-of-the-art gym or wondered about the nearly empty bottle of whisky that sat on the desk in the study and the glass that lay on its side on a messy pile of faintly stained papers beside it.
As it was, she didn’t have either the time or the inclination to gawp, cop a feel or wonder about the possible evidence of a drinking session because the sumptuousness of his home wasn’t important right now. What was important was that Leo Cartwright was meant to be downstairs and she was here to fetch him.
If only she could find him.
Still in the study Abby put down her clipboard, and out of habit, picked up the glass and put it on a coaster she saw peeping out from beneath a book. Then shuffled the papers into a neat pile.
She had to admit that despite Jake’s assurance that his brother was definitely up here, the silence and general air of absence didn’t bode particularly well.
And OK, so there was still the bedroom/bathroom half of the flat that she hadn’t searched, but there was no way she was heading in that direction. It was bad enough that she was in Leo’s flat uninvited in the first place, and even though Jake had said he’d take full responsibility for any outcome, she absolutely drew the line at scouring the bedrooms without some kind of authorisation at least.
Perching on the edge of the desk she took her phone out of the discreet little pouch sewn into the inside of her belt and scrolled down until she came to Jake’s number. She hit the dial button, waited for a second and then, when he picked up, said, ‘Jake, I’m afraid there’s no sign of him.’
‘What, nowhere?’ came the deep voice at the other end of the line.
‘Not that I can see. Are you sure he’s up here?’
‘About ninety-nine percent. He was when I last spoke to him. Where have you looked?’
‘Everywhere,’ she said, then added, ‘Well, everywhere apart from the bedrooms.’
There was a pause while he wished someone a happy Christmas and told them to grab a glass of champagne, and then he was back. ‘Why haven’t you checked the bedrooms?’
‘It seemed like an invasion of privacy,’ she said, thinking that actually, talking of privacy, if Leo was in there, he could well be doing something that meant he either hadn’t been able to hear her calling or didn’t want to. Possibly something wholly absorbing and very private indeed.
‘You needn’t worry about interrupting anything,’ said Jake, now sounding a bit impatient and, apparently, able to read her mind. ‘It’s seven in the evening and besides, Leo hasn’t had a woman in his bed for years.’
Which was way more than she needed to know about anyone, let alone a client. ‘Nevertheless, I-’
‘Look, Abby,’ said Jake, cutting across her protest in an I’m-the-client-here tone that told her he’d had enough and would brook no further argument. ‘I have to make this speech, and people are wondering where he is – as am I – so will you please just go and see if you can find him?’
Realising this wasn’t a battle she was going to win and consoling herself with the thought that so far they’d actually been remarkably – and surprisingly, given their exacting standards – easy clients Abby gave in. After all, it was hardly the worst thing she’d been asked to do in her ten years of events’ planning, was it? The Cartwright brothers were paying her a lot of money to ensure that this evening went smoothly and if that meant that Leo Cartwright had to be located, then locate him she would. Wherever he was and whatever he was doing.
And so what if he had the faintly intimidating reputation of being formidable, ruthless and utterly devoid of emotion? He couldn’t be any trickier to handle than the last client she’d had, could he? She’d take cold, formidable and ruthless over a bad-tempered paranoid who’d accused her at virtually every meeting of, at best, wasting his money, at worst, siphoning some of it off, any day.
‘Sure,’ she said briskly, mentally pulling on her big-girl pants and injecting steel into her spine. ‘No problem.’
‘Thanks,’ said Jake, and cut the call.
Swiping at her phone to lock the screen Abby put it away and pushed herself off the desk. Then she smoothed her dress and adjusted her belt so that the bright silver bow bit of it once again sat exactly above her left hip bone.
Really, there was no need to feel awkward or uncomfortable or nervous about searching the rest of the flat, was there? She was just doing her job. She’d call ahead – loudly – and if Leo was in there he’d be alerted to her presence. He’d call back, she’d retreat and wait, and everything would absolutely fine. There’d be no unwelcome surprises. No embarrassing moments. No inappropriate or foolish behaviour.
Satisfied with the plan, she checked her chignon for hair that might have escaped the pins, and then, pleased to find nothing amiss, picked up her clipboard and set off to investigate.
And while stomping to announce her arrival was never going to work what with the deadening effect of the thick deep pile carpet, perhaps a loud cheery hello would.
‘Hello, hello,’ she called brightly, and stuck her head round the door to a huge, immaculate but empty bedroom before moving to the next. ‘Anyone home?’ she trilled, but her quarry wasn’t there either.
Nor – perhaps thankfully – did she find him in the gorgeous bathroom that was practically the size of the ground floor of her house or, unsurprisingly enough, in the laundry cupboard.
Which left only one room to try.
Standing at the entrance to what she presumed was the master bedroom suite and her last hope, she listened for a moment for sounds that suggested he might be engaged in an activity she’d rather not disturb.
Blessedly hearing none, she rapped on the door that was ajar, and then, after taking a deep breath, went in.
And there he was.
Alone, thank goodness. But lying flat out on his back, sprawled diagonally across the bed, naked apart from a perilously small section of white bunched-up sheet that loosely covered him from waist to mid-thigh, and illuminated by a pool of soft light cast by the bedside lamp.
For one frozen heart-stopping moment Abby couldn’t work out what to do next. Which was odd because she always had a plan. Always. More than one, in fact; when it came to the events she organised she had plans to cover every imaginable eventuality. Her job, her success, depended on it, and so she never didn’t know what to do.
But now, as she looked at him, strangely unable to drag her gaze away, her mouth going dry and her heart thumping unnaturally fast, she couldn’t even think, let alone act because for some unfathomable reason her brain appeared to be having a bit of a wiring problem. Alarmingly, rational thought was heading for the hills. Her common sense was evaporating. And her unfailing capability to do her job was, well, for the first time in years, apparently failing.
The fast-disappearing professional side of her was dimly aware she should go and shake him awake and point out that he was late for his own party. But the sometime insomniac in her wanted to leave him to sleep, and woman in her – who hadn’t been up close and personal to a man in six months and was now very much making herself known – was quite happy to just stand there and ogle for as long as it took him to wake up, because what with the broad muscled shoulders, the tanned hair-sprinkled chest and the long powerful legs that suggested the gym wasn’t just for show Leo Cartwright was quite a sight.
Yet as she looked and dithered, the part of her that devoured TV hospital dramas began to wonder at the utter stillness of him, at the strong smell of stale alcohol that was wafting towards her and the absence of any rise and fall to his chest
And it was this that made her brain finally engage, because, oh heavens, what if, by some horrible twist of fate, he weren’t simply asleep?
Propelled by a sudden surge of alarm and now no longer ogling, Abby sprang into action. Not bothering to weave her way through the clothes that were lying scattered all over the floor but instead ploughing straight through them and hardly even noticing, she reached the bed, dropped to her knees and leaned in close.
With the focus that had had her business making a profit in its first six months of operation she blanked out the horrible smell, the spark of sexual attraction and the nauseating panic. Everything, in fact, but the need to find out if he was OK.
As her pulse galloped, she fixed her gaze on his mouth. Strained her ears. Waited. Listened...
And, after a couple of long heart thumping seconds, was able to make out the very faint hiss of breath. Then, as she looked down, the beat of the pulse at the base of his neck, barely perceptible, but there.
Oh, thank God for that, she thought, sitting back on her heels and letting out a long slow breath of her own as the panic subsided and her heart rate returned to normal.
He wasn’t dead. Of course he wasn’t. He’d merely passed out, that was all. Which was such a relief, not least because while she might be a fan of TV hospital dramas she didn’t have the first clue about resuscitation apart from the fact that mouth-to-mouth was no longer thought to be necessary.
And wasn’t that a shame, because now she wasn’t watching it for signs of life, she could see he had a great mouth. Well-defined. Sexy.
Much like the rest of his face, she thought, her gaze drifting over his features. His nose was straight and his jaw firm. His cheekbones were sharp and his brows were as thick and dark as the tousled hair on his head. She could only guess at the colour of his eyes but his eyelashes were the kind that a woman who was sometimes strawberry-blonde, sometimes ginger, but had virtually invisible eyelashes however she was feeling could only dream about.