Twenty

BY ELEVEN TWENTY-FIVE, I’M sitting on a brown upholstered chair in the green room. I’m dressed in a midnight-blue Jasper Conran suit, sheer tights, and a pair of suede high heels. What with my makeup and blown-dry hair, I’ve never looked smarter in my life. But I can’t enjoy any of it. All I can think of is the fact that in fifteen minutes, I’ve got to sit on a sofa and discuss high-powered finance with Luke Brandon on live television.

The very thought of it makes me feel like whimpering. Or laughing wildly. I mean, it’s like some kind of sick joke. Luke Brandon against me. Luke Brandon, with his genius IQ and bloody photographic memory — against me. He’ll walk all over me. He’ll massacre me.

“Darling, have a croissant,” says Elisabeth Plover, who’s sitting opposite me, munching a pain au chocolat. “They’re simply sublime. Every bite like a ray of golden Provençal sun.”

“No thanks,” I say. “I. . I’m not really hungry.”

I don’t understand how she can eat. I honestly feel as though I’m about to throw up at any moment. How on earth do people appear on television every day? How does Fiona Phillips do it? No wonder they’re all so thin.

“Coming up!” comes Rory’s voice from the television monitor in the corner of the room, and both our heads automatically swivel round to see the screen filled with a picture of the beach at sunset. “What is it like, to live with a gangster and then, risking everything, betray him? Our next guest has written an explosive novel based on her dark and dangerous background. .”

“. . And we introduce a new series of in-depth discussions,” chimes in Emma. The picture changes to one of pound coins raining onto the floor, and my stomach gives a nasty flip. “Morning Coffee turns the spotlight on the issue of financial scandal, with two leading industry experts coming head-to-head in debate.”

Is that me? Oh God, I don’t want to be a leading industry expert. I want to go home and watch reruns of The Simpsons.

“But first!” says Rory cheerily. “Scott Robertson’s getting all fired up in the kitchen.”

The picture switches abruptly to a man in a chef’s hat grinning and brandishing a blowtorch. I stare at him for a few moments, then look down again, clenching my hands tightly in my lap. I can’t quite believe that in fifteen minutes it’ll be me up on that screen. Sitting on the sofa. Trying to think of something to say.

To distract myself, I unscrew my crappy piece of paper for the thousandth time and read through my paltry notes. Maybe it won’t be so bad, I find myself thinking hopefully, as my eyes circle the same few sentences again and again. Maybe I’m worrying about nothing. We’ll probably keep the whole thing at the level of a casual chat. Keep it simple and friendly. After all. .

“Good morning, Rebecca,” comes a voice from the door. Slowly I look up — and as I do so, my heart sinks. Luke Brandon is standing in the doorway. He’s wearing an immaculate dark suit, his hair is shining, and his face is bronze with makeup. There isn’t an ounce of friendliness in his face. His jaw is tight; his eyes are hard and businesslike. As they meet mine, they don’t even flicker.

For a few moments we gaze at each other without speaking. I can hear my pulse beating loudly in my ears; my face feels hot beneath all the makeup. Then, summoning all my inner resources, I force myself to say calmly, “Hello, Luke.”

There’s an interested silence as he walks into the room. Even Elisabeth Plover seems intrigued by him.

“I know that face,” she says, leaning forward. “I know it. You’re an actor, aren’t you? Shakespearean, of course. I believe I saw you in Lear three years ago.”

“I don’t think so,” says Luke curtly.

“You’re right!” says Elisabeth, slapping the table. “It was Hamlet. I remember it well. The desperate pain, the guilt, the final tragedy. .” She shakes her head solemnly. “I’ll never forget that voice of yours. Every word was like a stab wound.”

“I’m sorry to hear it,” says Luke, and looks at me. “Rebecca—”

“Luke, here are the final figures,” interrupts Alicia, hurrying into the room and handing him a piece of paper. “Hello, Rebecca,” she adds, giving me a snide look. “All prepared?”

“Yes, I am, actually,” I say, crumpling my paper into a ball in my lap. “Very well prepared.”

“Glad to hear it,” says Alicia, raising her eyebrows. “It should be an interesting debate.”

“Yes,” I say defiantly. “Very.”

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