As she neared the house music filtered out through the gardens, heard over the roar of the ocean. Voices rose and fell, high and feverish with wine and the knowledge that they’d all put in a good day’s work and deserved whatever the night would bring.
She was going to make twenty new contacts. That was her aim. And that meant working the room as if her life depended on it.
She put her game face on and stepped inside.
It was busy. Everyone was dressed up and well on their way to a good night. Some people were dancing, but most were chatting in twos and threes. She searched the room, looking for Raffaele. But only to show him how she looked in the dress. To thank him.
She took a glass of wine and wound her way through the crowd. A few of the guys looked at her in a hungry way, but no one chatted her up. A few girls checked out her outfit, their stares dropping from her face to her shoes and then all the way back up. They smiled, but not with their eyes.
On she went, through the room where the shoot had taken place—now transformed again, with white linen-covered tables heaving with glasses and bottles and buckets of ice. And there, beside Mariella on one of the stone seats at the far end of the loggia, was Raffaele. His head was bent in conversation, and he was listening intently to what she was saying.
‘Ah, Coral. You made it,’ he said as she walked over. ‘And you look very well. The dress suits you. The fit is perfect.’
He nodded, as if satisfied with his work, while Mariella raised her eyebrows over her glass.
‘I wanted to say thanks for helping me out. I really appreciate it. I don’t want to disturb you. I thought I’d try to have a chat with Kyla and Salvatore now. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the chance of another shoot, Mariella,’ she said, turning to the editor. ‘It means the world to me.’
‘Not at all. Raffaele was just saying that you’ve delivered exactly what he wanted. Well done.’
She smiled sweetly and dismissed her, turning back to whisper intensely to Raffa. Coral’s heart sank. Mariella wasn’t complimenting her work.
She’d done nothing wrong. It was so unfair. She looked around. People were staring at her and then looking away. And it wasn’t because she had overdone the eyeliner or had lipstick on her teeth.
Suddenly she felt someone brush past her. She turned. It took her a few seconds to figure out who she was looking at, but then she realised.
He stood rigidly to let her air-kiss each cheek. She smelled a rather sickly cologne and too much alcohol.
‘Enjoying the party?’
‘Why, yes,’ she replied, glad of somebody to speak to finally, even if he was a bit frosty. ‘The villa is just lovely. And the views are amazing.’
He nodded. Said nothing.
‘I saw you on your boat earlier—’
Salvatore’s narrow eyes narrowed further. ‘You saw me on my boat?’
‘Yes. You must love boats—all sorts, I suppose. Do you travel on the Argento cruise liners? Ha-ha—it must be like hopping on a number nineteen bus for you.’
He didn’t laugh. He didn’t even smile. Coral played with the stem of her glass. She felt distinctly uncomfortable. She tried again.
‘So this is where you grew up? What a beautiful house. And the grounds! You must have had such a fun childhood.’
‘What’s with all the questions? Why do you need to know? Are you a reporter?’
‘Salvatore, Kyla is a little tired. She’s asking for you.’
Coral felt his hand on her back and her nervous system instantly reacted. The wide, warm splay of his fingers calmed and alarmed her in a single move.
‘Your new friend seems very interested to learn about the family.’
‘Thanks, Salvatore, I hear what you’re saying,’ he replied. ‘Coral is getting to know the family as well as she can before the shoot tomorrow.’
‘No way! Seriously?’ Coral’s heart burst all over again. ‘The couple shots? You want me to do them?’
Raffaele nodded, but he was absolutely poker-faced. ‘Yes. I’ve just agreed it with Mariella.’
‘I don’t know anything about this,’ said Salvatore.
‘Your fiancée does. She has all the details and is sharing them with everyone down at the pool as we speak. She was very impressed with Coral’s professionalism. Mariella and I both feel it would work well. It’s all in hand.’
Salvatore looked from Raffaele to Coral and she was suddenly struck by how handsome he was, despite the frown that permanently cast such an unpleasant look over his features.
‘It seems it’s all arranged, then. I’ll see you tomorrow, Miss…?’