Lady Luck by Caro French by Caro French - Read Online

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Lady Luck - Caro French

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Chapter One

The blinds were drawn, bathing the room in the soft golden glow of dawn. The atmosphere, redolent with heady, musky oriental fragrances, was warm, sensual, and strangely at variance with the green and gilt French Empire decor that could have graced a room in Versailles.

‘Do that again. Just there … mmm … more …’

‘Sometimes I think you’re insatiable.’ Rick Morris slid back the shoulders of the silk robe Mandy Manners was wearing and tossed it aside. It hissed softly into a pastel puddle at their feet. She turned to face him, blue eyes mischievous, improbably gold hair delectably tousled, pink lips sensually parted, and her luscious body encased in a black satin and lace basque that ended a few inches below her waist. Beneath the final frill, suspenders snaked down her thighs, holding up open-weave fishnet stockings.

Wearing nothing more than her underwear and a liberal lacing of Jasmine perfume, Mandy looked pert and provocative, and she knew it.

‘You’ll find out just how insatiable when we’re together – for always,’ she purred, tweaking at the buttons on his shirt with the points of fingernails varnished the same shade of scarlet as her lips.

He gripped her hands and kissed her, his mouth travelling over her throat to the swell of her breasts frothing over the top of the basque. Fingering a strap, he snapped it. She shrieked as the elastic sprang back and stung her shoulder.

‘Quiet! You’re going to wake Philip,’ he growled.

‘He’s going to have to find out about us soon,’ she pouted, annoyed with Rick for reminding her that she had a husband.

‘Soon is not today.’

‘Why not? Esme …’

‘Esme is in a position to take me to the cleaners. And I’m not prepared to hand over everything I own to a wife who’s never worked, in order to live in poverty with a …’

‘With a what, Rick?’ she interrupted coldly.

‘We don’t have to talk about this now.’ He reached out, but she slid from his grasp.

‘Yes, we do.’ She perched on the gold inlaid frame of the bed and crossed her arms. ‘What am I, Rick? Your bit on the side?’

‘If you were, I’d hardly have put you up for the steward’s job in the yacht club so you could stay on in Farcreek.’

‘Throwing crumbs to the poor?’

‘The yacht club’s hardly a crumb.’ Sulky and aloof, she still had the power to dissolve his exasperation into lust. ‘Mandy,’ he crooned soothingly, moving towards her and caressing her breasts with his fingertips. ‘Please, darling, don’t let’s quarrel. You’re uptight. It’s understandable with the interview in a few hours. But, don’t you see, that’s all the more reason not to antagonise Philip right now.’

‘Nothing would antagonise Philip,’ she countered scathingly. ‘He hasn’t looked up from a bottle since we received the eviction notice.’

‘You’re going to have to keep him under control when you take over the stewardship.’ He caressed her ear with his tongue. It was the one touch he knew she couldn’t resist.

‘Don’t worry,’ she drew closer. ‘I can handle Philip and anything you bring up.’

‘Ow! That hurt,’ he complained as she tugged at his flies.

‘A touch of sadism to stop you from flagging.’

‘I never flag.’

‘Let’s put that to the Mandy test, shall we?’ she pushed him on to the bed. He lay back and allowed her to pull down his trousers and mauve silk boxer shorts.

Before the morning chill had time to bite, she was astride his thighs, bouncing him into the bed. Rick closed his eyes to the eighteenth-century stencilled decor of the best, and only, hotel Farcreek had to offer – which, courtesy of the recession that had bankrupted Philip Manners among other, more illustrious, names – was soon to be under new management. For a few glorious, passion-filled minutes, he forgot Philip sleeping down the passage, but try as he may, he couldn’t entirely forget his business, or rather the current lack of it. That was one problem that persisted in hanging over him like a personal, doom-laden cloud.

Management consultancy had cruel overheads. To attract the most lucrative contracts, it was necessary to work out of palatial offices, employ attractive as well as efficient staff, and run limitless expense and entertainment accounts. The combination didn’t come cheap. The Blair years had been the halcyon age. The Morris Psychological Company Audit, which could be tailored to any company’s needs, had resulted in firms queuing up to use Morris Management Services, or MMS, as he preferred to call his brainchild. At the three thousand pounds a day he invoiced for his own services, and the fifteen hundred he billed for the consultant psychologists who worked for him, (and who were never entirely happy with the seventy he paid them), it had been a licence to print money. But the recession had affected every aspect of enterprise. Even efficiency audits. As one of his ex-clients had bluntly told him when he’d canvassed for work last week, ‘Got no more bloody staff for you to fire, Rick.’

He desperately needed to broaden his field of operation, but original ideas were scarcer than contracts these days, and both his bank balances, business and private, could be healthier.

‘You’re not concentrating,’ Mandy complained; steaming in frustration as the bed lapped to a halt.

‘My batteries need recharging.’

‘How many others are being interviewed?’ she demanded as he stretched his arms above his head and took a deep breath.

‘Two besides you, but as one is a girl, not a steward with a wife to assist, she doesn’t count.’ He checked the time on his Rolex. It was an hour before the interior designer was due to arrive at his home. Rolling over, he nuzzled the back of Mandy’s neck. She had a beautiful swan neck; it never failed to turn him on.

‘Who’s the other one?’ she whispered as his hands plundered her body.

‘Stop worrying about the damned interview. You have better things to do.’ He pushed himself up on his elbow and fiddled with the hooks and eyes on the basque. All he succeeded in doing was releasing a small button of pink flesh.

‘Will we really be able to move into the yacht club this afternoon?’

Rick moved away, peeved because he hadn’t driven all thoughts other than carnal from her mind. ‘I’ve told you a hundred times,’ he barked brusquely. ‘I’m chairman of the selection committee. It’s my choice. And I’ve chosen you.’

‘Oh Rick, you’ve no idea how much being able to stay in Farcreek means to me.’ Her tears were genuine. The eviction notice Philip had received had been the second blow in a year. The first had fallen when her father had died, leaving a trail of debts that had swallowed up both his insurance policies and their home. Broke, homeless, and shell-shocked, her saviour had arrived in the form of Philip Manners, her father’s best and oldest friend. He’d shown concern and offered practical advice along with a job in his hotel.

Sympathy and daily proximity had led to the blossoming of love in Philip’s heart – but if she’d been able to see into his future she wouldn’t have lavished such loving care on that particular blossom. For Philip had proved to be a disaster of Titanic proportions – everything Rick wasn’t. Rick was rich, successful, and owned the most modern and luxurious house in Farcreek. She’d done well to hook him and would continue to do well as long as she kept him coming back for more. But that meant keeping him happy.

Forcing back her tears, she knelt on the bed, yanked up the cups on the basque and unfastened the hooks and eye beneath them.

‘Here, let me.’ Rick, reached across and pulled at the next fastening. A ghost of a smile played around his lips as he prepared to allow himself to be mollified.

‘Rick, you know I’d do anything for you.’

Still slightly peeved, he flicked the roll of flesh below her breasts. ‘If you worked out now and again you’d lose this.’

 ‘You wouldn’t like me if I was all muscle,’ she whispered as the basque joined the robe on the floor. ‘I wouldn’t be able to do this. Or this … or this …’

He drowned in warm, naked, perfumed, female flesh. ‘Remind me to give you a key to the cabin of the Earned Enough I,’ he croaked. It had been the Earned Enough until he’d bought a motor boat, which he’d christened, Earned Enough II. At the time he’d dreamed of owning a fleet. A dream he’d had to temporarily shelve, along with buying his own restaurant.

‘I won’t need it for long.’

‘Why?’ He shuddered pleasurably as her blonde head burrowed between his thighs.

‘Because we’ll have to move into our own place when you leave Esme. Where will we live, Rick?’

‘The creek,’ he replied vaguely. ‘And in the meantime, you running the yacht club will make it so much easier. For both of us.’

Lisa Michaels clutched her dressing gown to her throat and tentatively opened the door of her bedsit. She left the lock on the chain, and glanced nervously through the gap to check if anyone was around. The day she’d moved into the house she’d discovered that no time was a good time to use the shared bathroom. Even now, at six o’clock in the morning, she ran the risk of running into one of her fellow lodgers needing to throw up after oozing in from a late-night party. But she hadn’t heard any movement on the stairs for over an hour, and she was hoping that for once, just this once, she could have a bath without an irate hammering on the door.

She held her breath. The student who had fallen over the rotting mats outside her room an hour ago was snoring down the hall. Stepping gingerly forward, she dived into the bathroom and thrust home the large bolt she’d bought and screwed on to the mouldering woodwork herself.

She wrinkled her nose as she turned around. The smell was overpowering, nauseating. The bath was cracked and stained with revolting conglomerations that had lifted the enamel in places, exposing the rusted metal beneath. A toilet-roll lay limp and sodden in the centre of a pool of foul-smelling liquid that flooded the broken vinyl.

Tears started in her eyes at the thought of the apartment she’d left behind in the restaurant her parents had run successfully for twenty-five years before leaving it to her.

She remembered the designer en suite bathroom Ciaran had insisted on building on to the master bedroom; the clean fresh lines of the marble floor and wall tiles, the Jacuzzi, the shower cubicle – with its eighteen heads strategically placed to cover the whole body; the sunken corner bath, the gold-plated Edwardian taps on the shell-shaped twin washbasins … 

Clenching her fists, she pushed the memory determinedly from mind. There was no point in remembering unless it was to recall how easy it had been for Ciaran to manipulate her into handing over the deeds to raise finance for his own business venture.

‘Just a little loan until I get us on our feet, darling. Once the money starts coming in you won’t have to work unless you want to. We’ll be able to employ people. Take some time out. Be alone. Just the two of us. Have a holiday – a world cruise. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?’

She could even feel the warmth of his lips as they’d closed over her own.

She needed to remember everything – because whenever she pictured his face, suntanned and smiling; his figure long, lean, and finely muscled beneath the smooth lines of the Armani suit he’d pined for until she’d capitulated and bought it for him, she was in danger of falling in love with him all over again.

What a bloody fool she’d been.

To be taken in by a handsome face, a pair of gorgeous blue eyes, and a mouthful of empty promises. And what a bloody fool she was being now, mooning over a man who’d cold-bloodedly fleeced her of every penny her parents had left her, while standing in a filthy shared bathroom in a filthy old house, a place she wouldn’t have even been able to rent a room in if it hadn’t been for the kindly concern of a sympathetic man in the Job Centre, who’d often eaten in her restaurant when it had still been hers.

Tucking her towel and toilet bag beneath her arm, she tipped a generous mixture of cream cleanser and neat disinfectant into the sink. After a thorough scrubbing, she laid her towel and bag next to the tap, then set about the bath, the toilet, and the floor, heaping the toilet-roll and filthy rags that lay in the corners of the room into a black plastic bag she’d pushed into her pocket for the purpose.

Twenty minutes later the room stank of disinfectant instead of musty, indeterminate filth, and she was, if not content, at least resigned.

She finally ran her bath, trying to ignore the scabs in the enamel that no amount of bleach, cleanser, or scrubbing would lift. She bathed and washed her hair, then glanced in the brown-spotted mirror. Trying to ignore her pale, thin face, she swept her dark mass of soft curls with her fingers, first one way then another. Putting it up was definitely the best option.

She hadn’t been able to afford a visit to her hairdresser since the repossession ten weeks ago. But, to look on the bright side, she still had one good outfit that she hadn’t sold on to the discreet upstairs rooms of Betsy Crawford’s boutique. Conran, charcoal cashmere; bought as part of her trousseau. The waist on the skirt was four inches too large, but she could remedy that with a belt. All her good jewellery had gone, pawned for a ‘few weeks’ by Ciaran before the world had finally caved in on both of them, but she’d hung on to a bottle of Chanel and her make-up. It would last her if she was careful, six months if she didn’t go out much. She only hoped it wouldn’t take that long to find a job. She had to get out of this place. She simply had to. If she didn’t get this job, then … then what? What next?

The hard, unpalatable truth was she didn’t have anything else lined up. It had taken two months of application forms, emails, and letters just to get this single interview. She screwed her sponge into a ball and clenched her fists.

‘Please, please, let it be this one,’ she prayed fervently. After ten weeks of living in squalor she simply couldn’t bear the thought of another day. Not one more single day.

Adam Cullen fumbled warily towards wakefulness. Even before he opened his eyes he was aware of a disgusting taste in his mouth and a booming pulse in his head that spoke of hangover. He was also aware of a body lying next to his own, warm, with smooth skin covering soft, rounded contours. He turned on his side and moved his hand upwards, encountering long strands of hair. Opening one eye he squinted at the colour. Blonde! Had to be one of the Morris twins, the question was, which? He’d never been able to tell Davina and Lucinda apart.

He had vague memories of dancing with one or the other in the Blue Parrot, of getting into their car, of driving to Farcreek yacht club – he opened his other eye and registered the wooden bulkheads and Spartan decor – he was on board his yacht, Lady Luck. The only wonder was that they hadn’t fallen into the creek when they’d boarded it.

‘Why is Davina getting preferential treatment, Adam?’

He rolled over. Identical blonde hair spilled over the pillow on the other side.

‘Both of you,’ he groaned. ‘No wonder I feel so foul.’

‘That’s not what you said last night.’ Davina sat up. The duvet fell back, exposing more of her than he could cope with at that time in the morning.

‘I don’t remember much about last night.’

‘Pity, you missed quite an experience.’ Davina looked over Adam’s head to her sister. ‘He performed quite well, all things considered, didn’t he?’

‘On a scale of one to ten … five.’

‘Five!’ Adam exclaimed.

‘That’s not bad, considering what you downed in the yacht club.’

‘We drank in the club?’

‘Bloody Marys.’

‘I remember being in the Blue Parrot …’

‘And when they threw us out, you said, Let’s go back to the club.

An ear-splitting burst of heavy metal blasted into the cabin. Both girls ducked beneath the covers. Climbing over the twin on his right, Adam stepped out of bed and reached for the remote control. Obviously he hadn’t been too drunk to set the alarm on his mobile. Silencing it, he padded naked into the stainless steel bathroom. Switching on the shower, he stepped inside the cramped cubicle and stood under water jets he’d adjusted to his exact body temperature. An angry little man was playing bongo drums inside his head, and if ten minutes of this didn’t work he’d have to resort to aspirin.

‘Playtime.’ Davina opened the door and slid her fingers between his thighs; tickling his testicles.

‘Not this morning, sunshine.’

‘Come on, Adam, hair of the dog and all that,’ Lucinda sidestepped past her sister and joined him under the jets.

‘I don’t like playing this kind of squash. Please …’

‘When you said that last night, that’s just what we did.’

‘Not this morning. I have things to do.’

‘They can wait.’ The girls closed in on him, one in the front, one in the back, their hands busy.

‘Damn you,’ he snarled, losing control.

‘My turn.’ Davina pushed past her sister. ‘You had the last ounce of fun from him last night.’

Adam opened the door, and pushed the girl nearest to it out.

‘Adam!’

‘I prefer my private moments to be just that.’ He slammed the door in her face and turned to her sister.

‘Davina and I always share everything.’

‘Not me.’ He ran his hands over Lucinda’s slim, wet flanks.

‘You didn’t mind last night.’

‘If I’d been conscious, I might have.’ He took a sponge from the shelf, squirted shower gel, on it and rubbed it over her breasts, rousing her nipples to hard, crinkled peaks.

‘You’re conscious now, and there’s just me. What are you waiting for?’ Lifting her arms, she gripped the shower-head with both hands and levered herself upwards, clamping her legs around his waist.

‘I didn’t know you were this good at gymnastics,’ he wheezed as she squeezed the breath from his body.

‘For this sport you need to keep in shape.’ She wriggled downwards, teasing his erection with delicate touches of the soft skin on the inside of her thighs. Unable to hold back a moment longer, he thrust forward and upwards.

She moaned as he entered her, wrapping her arms around his neck as he crushed her fiercely against the wall.

Outside the cubicle Davina listened to the thuds and banging and stared at the cubicle wall, wishing it was made of glass.

Frustrated, she pressed the lever that sealed the bath plug, surveying the sink-sized tub critically as she poured half a bottle of Adam’s bath oil into the water. Consoling herself with the optimistic thought that Adam was bound to have some energy left, she decided it might be as well he was squeamish when it came to troilism. It was going to be a tight squeeze to get two into a space that size as it was.

Lisa Michaels climbed into the battered old Volkswagen she’d bought from her ex-barman with the one hundred pounds the receivers had allowed her to keep. It had four bald tyres and no seats in the back, but it represented transport and, more importantly, independence. The worse thing she’d found about being declared bankrupt was being on the receiving end of people’s kindness.

She took the road that led out of Traceport to Farcreek.

She could have driven along it blindfolded. Her grandparents had been tenant farmers on the Farcreek estate and some of her happiest childhood memories were centred around the Home Farm her grandfather had managed for Farcreek Manor.

She stopped the car on the brow of the hill above the creek. The site afforded the best view of the gently sloping, wooded hills