Samantha Smith hummed a little to herself as she stepped through the glass doors of the Regal Arms Hotel. The chandelier, a carefully preserved antique, winked at her as she walked briskly across the lobby.
The newsstand was at the far side, near the elevators--correction--the lifts. Her low humming died mid-note. She frowned at the slip. This time it had been only in her mind, but it showed she was getting complacent, careless. At first it had been hard to think in British terminology, but she'd practiced meticulously and learned the distinctive phrasing.
She shrugged lightly, her shoulders flexing under the thin sweater she wore. Perhaps complacency was no longer dangerous. Maybe it was time she stopped looking over her shoulder, fearing pursuit.
She'd been in London for nearly six months, with no sign that anyone either knew or cared about her whereabouts. She was increasingly inclined to rationalize the incident that had precipitated her flight from Montreal. The highly emotional state she'd been in at the time had no doubt colored her interpretation of what she'd seen, exaggerated the danger.
In any case, she'd covered her tracks well. No one asked for names on bus or train tickets bought with cash at the station. She had ridden on a lumbering Greyhound to Toronto, and had taken a train to New York, before flying by Airbus to Paris. Another train had carried her to Nice where she'd made arrangements with an eccentric artist friend, Amelia Fontaine, to send postcards at regular intervals to friends at home.
The long, often tedious journey had given Samantha plenty of time to prepare the cards in advance. Amelia, who had little use for marriage, had been only too ready to accept and applaud Samantha's broken engagement, and fall in with her request.
Besides Amelia, only her solicitor, Mr. Collins, knew she was in London. She'd just had lunch with him in a dark, smoky pub, their usual meeting ground.
Mr. Collins was a stuffy little man who occupied a stuffy little office near Piccadilly Circus, and the only other person Samantha had taken partially into her confidence. He'd handled her financial affairs, so far without a glitch. He'd transferred funds from Montreal to London to pay for her tiny flat and to provide her with a safe cushion in case of emergency. She saw him once a month to discuss her investments. They always met away from his office, in pubs or in large, anonymous department store restaurants.
Mr. Collins would maintain lawyer-client confidentiality even under torture. Samantha would have staked her life on it. If anyone asked him, she was in the south of France and he had correspondence to prove it.
A mirror on one of the columns supporting the lofty ceiling briefly reflected back her image as she walked by. After all these months she still felt a momentary start when she caught an unexpected glimpse of her new self.
Her best friends were unlikely to recognize her. She was a blonde again, going back to her natural color after years as a dramatic redhead. The glasses she wore gave her a studious look.
Almost six months had passed. Her life had settled into a comfortable routine, not exciting perhaps, but one she could live with.
She smiled at the man behind the newsstand counter. "The Times, please."
As he turned to take a copy from the stack behind him, she glanced at her watch. If she hurried she could still put in a few hours of work.
"'Ere you are, miss."
"Thank you." She dropped change on the counter.
She turned away, feeling lighthearted, as she hadn't for months. The day was fine, a welcome respite from the rainy weather Londoners had been enduring. Her present translating job was interesting. All was right with her world.
Until she glanced at the closing elevator door and met the eyes of a dead man.
Anthony Theopoulos had it all. Even his names, both of them, had such positive connotations that he couldn't have avoided success even if he'd been born in a gutter. A woman he'd dated last year, a linguist, had looked up his names and informed him he was favored indeed. Anthony meant "of inestimable worth", and he'd always known that Theopoulos meant "child of God".
So why wasn't he happy? Why did he feel this vague discontent, the feeling that his life had settled into a rut?
He swiveled his chair so that he faced the view outside his office window. Serenely blue skies accented by a couple of cotton-puff clouds bathed the city of London in benign warmth, making up for the chilly rain that had spoiled the summer.
In the distance Hyde Park lay like a green oasis amid tall city buildings. If he looked carefully, he could just glimpse the Serpentine, a curving crescent of blue. The trees lining its shores displayed the lush green foliage of early September.
Why wasn't he happy? He was exactly where he wanted to be in his professional life. A year ago he'd been promoted to his present position as the manager of Worldwide Hotel Corporation's Northern European Division. At thirty-four he was the youngest executive ever to hold the position, a career dream come true.
His personal life? He frowned. Empty. It was the only term that came to mind, in spite of his busy social life and a stack of invitations to concerts and art openings lying his desk.
Perhaps he needed a holiday. He glanced at the folder in his hand, a Top Security stamp standing out in scarlet on the cover. After the trade conference...
He scanned the first of several lists detailing caterers, security staff, and protocol. Usually he didn't get involved in the day-to-day routine of the hotel, but this trade conference was vital to the continued economic cooperation between several countries. Nothing could go wrong with the arrangements this time.
He had personally guaranteed it.
Tony swung the chair back toward his desk as his secretary's beautifully modulated voice came over the intercom. After a year she still addressed him formally. He smiled. Quite a change from the easygoing camaraderie in the Montreal and Vancouver offices of Worldwide Hotels.
He depressed the talk button. "Yes, Marcia?"
He could have sworn her voice shook. His smile fading, he sat up straighter. He'd never known anything to ruffle Marcia Johnson's reserve. "There is a problem downstairs. In the lobby. Mr. Parker has asked that you come and see to it personally. I'm sorry, sir, but he was very insistent."
She sounded flustered, an unprecedented state of affairs for a woman who organized meetings and calmed the occasional unhappy guest with placid aplomb. Curiosity kindled inside him. "All right, Marcia. Tell him I'll be right there."
He rode down in the elevator, emerging into the hotel lobby, a chamber whose magnificence still had the power to awe him. The spacious area with its moldings and Wedgwood-blue accents could have graced the most elegant stately home. Visitors hushed their voices as they came in from the street, as if they'd entered a cathedral.
Today the scene was different. For the first time no clerk held court behind the solid oak registration counter. No blue uniformed bellman stood next to the elevator as he stepped out of it. Even the doorman had abandoned his post, the braid on his shoulder distinctly askew as he leaned over Mr. Parker's pin-striped back.
Tony hurried across the red-and-gold Wilton carpet to the lobby newsstand. At least a dozen of his staff crowded around someone sprawled on the floor.
"Excuse me, please."
He pushed past Parker, who was crouching over the body of a young woman. Parker looked up, his face creased with worry and disapproval. "This young woman, sir," he said, moving aside. "She seems to have fainted."
Kneeling, Tony grasped her wrist. The pale skin was cool under his fingers, the bones delicate. A deceptive fragility, no doubt, Tony realized at once. She wasn't in danger of dying. Her pulse beat strongly under his fingers, rather more quickly than normal, but an indication that she was very much alive.
Above him Parker wrung his hands, agitated by the unprecedented desecration of the hotel's usual calm. "She just walked in and fell down," he said plaintively. "No reason at all. Her things were all over the floor. I put them together by her handbag. I hope that's all right, sir. She looks--"
"Parker, bring me a wet cloth." Tony's voice cut decisively through the man's rambling. "And get hold of yourself." He swung his head around. "The rest of you can go back to your stations."
He was only peripherally aware of their departure, the avid curiosity in their backward glances. Turning back to the woman on the floor, he noted her neat appearance. She wore a cotton skirt and a light sweater over a pink shirt. The clothes were of good quality, but undistinguished, as if she cared little about fashion.
One of her shoes had fallen off her foot and lay next to her calf. The nails on the shoeless foot were painted, a vibrant fuchsia.
She moaned, and stirred under his hand. His surprise at the nail polish, seemingly out of character with the rest of her appearance, died a quick death as he turned his attention to her face.
Thick hair the color of ripe barley lay in glossy waves around an oval face. Her skin was smooth, lightly tanned. A straight nose and generous mouth gave her features a quiet beauty. Color was beginning to steal back into her pale cheeks.
Interest sharpened inside him. Who was she?
Parker thrust a cold wet cloth into his hand. Curbing his curiosity, Tony took it and gently wiped her face. "Thanks, Parker. You can go back to the desk."
Parker hesitated. "Sir, you're in the middle of the lobby. Could I help you move her to a--uh--less prominent place?"
Tony glanced around. They were near the newsstand, hardly the middle of the lobby. Parker was a fussbudget. "It's my lobby, so to speak," he said crisply. "I'd like to know what caused her faint before I move her."
Parker drew himself up to his full height, his aquiline nose twitching. "Very well, sir. Shall I call a doctor?"
"No, don't bother for the moment. She's getting some color back. It's probably nothing serious."
He pressed the cloth to her forehead, brushing back her hair. It flowed through his fingers, as sleek and cool as satin ribbons, and gave off a scent of orange blossoms.
"He was dead. I know he was," she muttered.
Startled, Tony turned his attention back to her face.
"He was dead!" She lifted her head, her voice rising, but still only a whisper. Tony glanced around. Those of the staff who were visible went about their business with their usual efficiency. A mid-afternoon quiet enveloped the hotel.
"Who was dead?" he asked, turning back to the woman.
Her eyelids fluttered, then lifted. Tony found himself gazing into gray eyes so pale and clear they reminded him of rain. They widened fractionally, as if in surprise, before she blinked several times.
"Who was dead?" he repeated.
For a moment she looked puzzled, then an emotion flickered through her eyes that he could have sworn was fear. But instantly it was gone, replaced by bewilderment.
"Dead? No one was dead."
The back of his neck prickled. Something wasn't right here, and he didn't know what. Her voice. Somehow it had changed from when she had uttered the first low but vehement statement. He had no doubt that she was completely conscious, even when she lay back, breathing a little too quickly.
Her eyes fell closed. After a second, they snapped open again. "My glasses?"
Tony looked around. A compact, two lipsticks, a pen and a diary calendar lay in a small heap next to an open handbag. Beside it, he saw a pair of wire-framed glasses. He handed them to her and she put them on, blinking as she focused through the lenses.
"Can you stand?" he asked.
The clear gray of her eyes was muted by the glasses, giving her an ethereal look. "What? Oh, yes, I think so." She moved her head, as if testing its condition and balance. Then, pulling her feet under her, she sat up.
With a deft movement of her hands, she gathered her hair into a coil and fastened it at the back of her neck with the pins she picked up from the floor. Little tendrils dangled free, charmingly, Tony thought.
She was striving for dignity, he realized. Making a scene was not a normal occurrence in this woman's life. But the pulled-back hair only emphasized the pale vulnerability of her face.
"Yes, I'm all right." Taking a firm grip on his hand, she stood up, letting go as soon as she gained her feet. She groped with her foot. "I seem to have lost my shoe." A little tinkling laugh tumbled from her lips.
Kneeling, Tony retrieved it, holding it as she slid her foot inside. The cool fragility of her hand telegraphed itself through the fabric of his shirt. He realized all at once that he'd forgotten his jacket in his office, and hid a smile as he cast a sidelong look at the main desk. No wonder Parker had almost frozen him with his disapproval. Shirtsleeves and an open collar with a loosened tie were not appropriate dress for the lobby of the Regal Arms.
Shoe in place, the woman let go of his shoulder, extending her hand in a courteous gesture. Tony got up slowly, noting that she was only two or three inches shorter than his height of six feet. He saw now that she was older than he'd first guessed, probably around thirty.
"Wouldn't you like to sit down and rest for a moment?" he asked, reluctant to let her go. "Perhaps a cup of tea? Although personally, I think coffee would be more effective."
Her brief smile made a dimple come and go in her right cheek. "So would I, but I really must be on my way."
He had the feeling that if he hadn't been holding her hand she would have slipped away like a minnow under water. "But you fainted. You can't go out just like that. It might happen again."
She pulled at her hand, a faint desperation coming into her eyes. Her mouth compressed. "Could I have my hand back, please?"
"Only if you'll tell me your name and let me make sure you get home all right. And I'll give you mine in case you want to sue the hotel."
"I wouldn't do that." With a strength that surprised him she pulled back and stooped to cram her things back into her bag. Slinging the strap over her shoulder, she stood and faced him. "You've been too kind. And it wasn't the fault of the hotel that I fainted."
His eyes narrowed. "Then what was it?"
She swallowed, floundering for words. Tony felt it again, the tickling at his nape that told him everything wasn't as it appeared, as she wanted him to see it. Her smile flashed, forced past lips that trembled despite her obvious efforts to appear unruffled. "Would you believe a female weakness?"
"No, I wouldn't," he said bluntly. "That went out with Queen Victoria." He couldn't keep the frustration out of his voice. Sensing her distress and wanting to help, he reached into his back pocket for his wallet and withdrew one of his business cards. "Look, I'm Tony Theopoulos. Take this. In case you change your mind."
Her eyes, transparent as spring rain, held his. The flippancy had faded, leaving her face open and defenseless.
"I'm sorry." Her voice broke. "I'm sorry to have bothered you." With a long stride that barely swayed her hips under her skirt, she walked across the lobby toward the door.
For a moment Tony stared after her. Then he shrugged. That was that--an intriguing woman, but not for him.
He turned back toward the elevators, stopping abruptly as his gaze snagged a white object on the carpet, half under a shelf of paperbacks. Bending, he picked it up, and renewed excitement danced in his stomach.
"Wait!" He spun around. Too late. The revolving door swung gently. She was gone.
He brought his attention back to the envelope in his hand. It had been neatly slit, the utility bill inside paid well in advance of the due date.
Her name? More than likely.
Back in his office he sat down behind his desk, his work momentarily forgotten. Samantha Clark. Who was she? And what had caused her to faint, and fear to flicker through her eyes?
He hadn't imagined it. She was afraid. Of what or whom, he couldn't begin to guess.
Samantha huddled in the corner of her seat as the bus rumbled through the narrow streets. Rush hour hadn't begun and she was almost alone on the upper deck. The pronounced sway made her stomach feel queasy, but she needed a moment of privacy to regain her equilibrium.
A shudder ran through her body. It had been Dubray in the lift. She was sure of it. Yet she couldn't believe it. If by any remote chance he hadn't been dead, as she'd assumed in her panic six months ago, he should have been in prison.
The last time she'd seen him, he'd been lying motionless on the white marble floor in the entrance hall of her father's house. She hadn't fainted then, only stared in horror as the other men around him had casually taken a tablecloth from the dining room cabinet and wrapped him up in it. Two of them had carried him out to a car, while the third, her erstwhile fiance, Bennett Price, had mopped up the bloodstains on the floor.
They hadn't known she was there.
Or had they? The question still haunted her.
She had gone to the house to sort through some of her father's personal things the day after his funeral. Although they'd never been emotionally close, there were certain details that only she could handle. A number of people knew she'd planned to go there that afternoon--James Michaels, several of her friends, and her aunt Olivia whom she'd met on the doorstep when she arrived at the house. After a brief greeting Olivia had left in her chauffeur-driven car, leaving Sam alone at the house.
Obviously Bennett hadn't known she was there at the time of the incident. He had glanced up the stairs before heading back to the kitchen with the bucket and mop, but she was sure she'd been out of sight. However, if he'd investigated, he could have easily discovered that she'd been in the house at the crucial time. And he would have realized there was a good chance she would have recognized one of the men with him.
A man who was known to be dangerous if crossed.
The incident had shown her that Bennett was hardly less dangerous. She had been ready to break off their engagement a number of times in the weeks before. But Bennett had been difficult and elusive, giving her no opportunity for a private discussion. Then her father's sudden death had clouded the issue further. In her grief, she'd realized she needed time and space to rethink her future.
A future in which she was no longer willing to include Bennett Price.
She had left Montreal, canceling the wedding without consulting Bennett, only telling him that she was going away for a while. She used her father's death as an excuse. She had told James Michaels, the acting head of Smith Industries, the same thing, apologizing for the inconvenience. Not that it affected the business since she was no more than a rubber-stamping board member.
She'd informed the caterer that the wedding was off, but the reception should go on since there was no time to notify the wedding guests of the cancellation. She hoped that they'd had a lovely party. She didn't doubt that she had been the principal subject of conversation--not that she cared. "Poor Samantha. She's done it again. Picked the wrong man."
The story of her life, but one she didn't intend to repeat.
Stupid to have fainted. She'd never fainted before in her life, never even come close, not even when the sordid truth about Bennett had hit her in such a brutal fashion.
As the bus continued its journey through the streets, she forced herself to relax, closing her eyes for a moment.
Anthony Theopoulos. His image swam into her consciousness. His dark brown eyes, warm and compassionate, had been full of questions he was dying to ask. He was a Canadian, his accent unique among the clipped tones of the British.
She'd almost given herself away. She couldn't be positive, but she feared she'd spoken at first in her normal voice, not the finishing school British accent she'd carefully cultivated in the past six months.
She'd thought she was safe, living under a false name, out of reach of Bennett or any of his reprehensible friends. Obviously an illusion, if Dubray was in London, and in apparent good health.
Bennett wasn't an accomplice to murder, if Dubray had survived. Not much comfort. If Bennett had close associations with a man like Claude Germain, murder might be the least of his crimes.
One thing was certain--she wouldn't be buying a newspaper at the Regal Arms again. Not that Dubray knew her, but if he was in London it was possible that some of Bennett's associates weren't far away.
The bus lurched to a stop. Samantha started, realizing she'd passed her transfer stop. Damn, she was going to be very late reaching Professor Eldridge's house.
Making a sudden decision, she jumped up and clattered down the stairs, rushing through the doors just as the warning beep sounded.
The street teemed with people, shoppers with their bright bags, and tourists lifting their faces disbelievingly to the sun after days of rain. A pair of Goths in unrelieved black sauntered by. In the past few years London had certainly shed its conservative, staid image.
She liked the sprawling city. She liked her work and the people she met through it. Only late at night, during a rare spell of sleeplessness, did she allow herself to regret the job offer she'd given up when she fled Montreal, a prestigious position as chief translator in the French ambassador's office.
Only rarely did she let herself give in to fear.
Slipping into a phone booth, Samantha slammed the door against the cacophony of traffic. She dialed a number, listening for the blips before inserting the coins she had ready.
"I'm terribly sorry, professor, but something's come up," she said when her client answered. She knew Professor Eldridge as well as she knew anyone in London, having worked with him on several projects. He'd known she would be late today. He wouldn't mind if she took the rest of the day off.
"Eh?" The professor was almost ninety, and his hearing hadn't kept pace with his keen interest in life. "You're not coming, dear?"
"I can't, after all." Sam had to shout into the phone as a city sanitation truck stopped next to the booth, its engine throbbing like a tank panting for battle. "What about tomorrow?"
"Yes, that will be fine." Sam hung up the phone, automatically checking the return coin slot, something she wouldn't have dreamed of doing in her former life.
Dusk had fallen by the time she returned to her little flat in a building not far from the Regal Arms. The glow from the street lamps was mellowed by halos of mist, a sure portent of approaching autumn. She liked autumn and was looking forward to experiencing it in London. Despite her extensive travels, she'd never been here during that season.
Her centrally located flat had been a find. The sellers, heirs of the old man who'd lived there, had priced it for a quick sale. Sam had recognized the bargain and snapped it up, complete with furniture, which the heirs didn't want and were relieved not to have to move. The decor might not have been the style Sam was used to but it was good enough for now.
Idly she switched on the television news, debating whether to cook or to fetch an order of fish and chips from the shop on the corner.
A faint scraping sound drew her to the door at the back of her tiny kitchen. She opened it, smiling as Bagheera wound his sinuous body around her legs.
"Hi, cat." She wrinkled her nose. "Been in the garbage cans again, have you?"
Damn. She'd done it again. Slipped. In England garbage cans were bins. What she'd thought had become second nature had only needed the presence of one familiar accent to transport her memory and speech patterns back home. Tony Theopoulos, unmistakably Canadian.
Fish and chips, she decided. Her eyes rested on Bagheera as he sat on the floor and began grooming his sleek black fur. She would bring him back a piece of fish for a treat. Which made her realize how quickly she'd become attached to the lean independent cat who had shown up on her back door three months ago.
It hadn't been a question of her adopting him as much as he moving in with her. He still came and went as he pleased, but he was always there to greet her when she came home, a benign guardian who'd made her his project.
The doorbell buzzed its two-note summons, making her jump. For an instant the fright she'd had today and the hunted feeling she'd carried around for six months flashed to life.
Her mouth went dry. No, it would be too much of a coincidence to believe that Bennett had tracked her down the very day she'd seen Dubray. No, they couldn't have found her.
Bagheera didn't seem alarmed. After a glance at the door, he'd gone back to licking his paw and wiping it complacently over his pointed face.
The buzzer sounded again. Sam laughed in relief. It was the door to her flat, not the outside one. Probably just her elderly neighbor.
She threw open the door, bracing herself for the usual complaints about the increase in council tax and the austerity measures instituted by the present government. Her mouth fell open in a silent gasp. The man who stood in the hall with a bunch of gerberas clutched in his hand was the last person she expected to see.