Authors: Lisse Smith
The Darkest of Shadows
Copyright © 2012 Nicole Smith
All rights reserved.
eBook ISBN: 978-1-62347-845-2
My darling husband
I could never be as strong as Lilly. Without you, I would run toward the darkness and allow it to consume me.
I was going to be late. Normally I made sure I was on time for everything, but this was far from a normal situation for me, and I was so far from being a normal person that I allowed myself, just this once, to be OK with it.
|TEXT:||I am so late.|
|REPLY:||u must really not want to go?|
I’d only been in the UK for a matter of weeks, and if you asked me—not that anyone would dare, but if you did get up the nerve to ask—I would most likely tell you that I hadn’t existed before the moment that I landed in Heathrow.
Lillianna Louise Owen, born December 9, 2012. That’s me, that’s the day I was born, the day my story began. Granted, I was born at the advanced age of thirty-one, but like I said, I’m far from normal.
And right now, I was going to be late.
I zipped up the side of my dress and then struggled with the strap on my new Manolo Blahnik shoes. I loved shoes. I was five feet, ten inches tall— which for a woman is fairly impressive; I’m sure most women that tall wouldn’t want to increase their height much more, but to me, the taller, the better. The only time I didn’t wear heels was when I was running.
A quick glance in the mirror saw a stranger staring back at me. Long, straight, golden blond hair; slim, firm, toned body, encased in a mid-length, black strapless dress. Add a pair of legs that seemed to go forever, and I was what most people called relatively attractive. Not beautiful, not in the classical sense, but attractive enough to draw attention.
Not for the first time, I wondered why I had agreed to go. Events like this would bring attention I didn’t want. Just the thought of what was waiting for me tonight sent a wave of nausea rushing through my body, strong enough that I had to take a step back and breathe.
Why was I going? I guess because it was expected in my job, which was one of the few things that I did care about in my life. I gave it everything I had, and part of my role was to network with the other employees and our clients. Being the Personal Assistant to the Business Operations Managing Director meant I had to actually stick my neck out into the social sphere of the company — something I would not normally do.
My boss, Patrick Sloane, had been most insistent on my attendance tonight. My understanding of it was that it was kind of compulsory to attend, at least for upper-level management; a united show of support for the coalface employees who would be there tonight. Apparently it boosted their morale if they saw the bosses slumming it with the rest of them.
Cartright & Nagel Industrial Engineering, my assiduous employer (although on more than one occasion I’ve had to catch myself from saying Cartilage and Bagel), was a big-name player in England and Western Europe, specializing in large-scale industrial parks, along with pretty much anything else they thought they could make money from.
I’d only worked for the company for a week and a half; I guessed that was part of the reason Patrick was so keen on me attending the party tonight. It was Christmas Eve, and for the life of me I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to go to a work function on that night. Surely they had something better to do. I didn’t, of course, but the normal people out there would have had family to be with. Sometimes it surprised me how much people invested in their work, especially when they had lives outside of their jobs. But then, it might have just been the draw of free alcohol.
Patrick seemed OK so far. Granted, I’d only known him a little over a week—but when you spend nearly every waking minute of the day in close contact as someone’s PA, you tend to pick up a lot about the person. I was pretty sure we would get along fairly well together. He wasn’t too formal for a boss and had reasonable communication and interpersonal skills, enough so that his team seemed to genuinely respect him. It would certainly make my life much easier if I had a competent boss. Once before I had worked with a man who wasn’t suited for his role, and that was an experience I’d rather not have again.
I didn’t know a whole lot about the company, but I knew that Patrick shared his level of authority in the organization with three other people. He was in charge of Business Operations; basically, he made sure the industrial parks and other business interests made us money. The other Managing Directors were Marie Whitney, who was in charge of Human Resources; Peter First, Finance Manager; and Ashlan Moroney, who was our Design and Engineering Manager.
Marie, Peter, Ashlan, and Patrick all reported to the General Manager and owner of the company, a man by the name of Samuel Parsons. I had only met him very briefly on my first day and was not entirely sure what to make of him. He genuinely looked like an eccentric old oddball, and had to be pushing eighty. I had also quickly come to realize that he wasn’t seen much in public; in fact, he wasn’t even in the office very much.
The face of the business was probably more Patrick than anyone else. He had an exceptionally quick mind and loved the attention of his role; so if there was an engagement requiring a representative of our organization, it was usually Patrick who attended. I’d spent the last week familiarizing myself with his routines and, according to his schedule over the next month, there were a fair number of those social-type engagements coming up.
I kind of hoped Samuel wouldn’t be there that night. There was something about him that made me nervous. It was like he looked straight through the nicely manicured facade that I’d created and saw the real me beneath it. That was not something I wanted anyone to be able to see.
I used my phone to take a picture of myself in the reflection of the mirror and sent it off, adding at the bottom:
|TEXT:|| ||Here goes nothing…|
|REPLY:|| ||Beautiful. U be fine. Ring me if you need to.|
My confidence appropriately boosted, I dropped my phone back into my clutch, grabbed my jacket on the way out the door, and slipped quietly from my building. I’d managed to find a small apartment in Notting Hill, just a little one-bedroom on the first floor of a small building, but I’d come to love the place and the location in the short time I’d been in the city. Our offices were near Victoria Station in Central London, so the underground trip was quick and easy. That’s another thing I had come to realize I loved—the underground.
You see, I’m a people watcher. When I’m traveling, I like to watch the diversity of the people around me, and the underground is such a great place for that. I probably come across as a sort of stalker sometimes. I mean, I do try to make sure the people I’m watching don’t notice my attention, but sometimes I’m caught out in the act; then there is that moment of awkwardness, but it eventually fades, as does everything in life.
I hailed a taxi and gave the driver directions to the party. It was across town, but it was past 9:00 p.m., and there was no way that I was going to catch the underground at that time of night, dressed as I was. And no way was I jeopardizing my shoes with the walk.
I hadn’t been in the city long enough to familiarize myself with much of it. I did know where I lived in relation to most of the major points of interest, where our offices were, and where the closest supermarket was. Other than that, I had a lot to learn about this amazing place.
The hotel overlooking Hyde Park was, from first impressions, pretty grand indeed; and the valet who opened the taxi door when I arrived only increased the impression of snobbish high couture.
I quickly skirted my way around the mass of people at the entrance to the hotel and slipped inside the foyer. Luckily, Sally, Ashlan’s PA, had already told me how to get to our private function room, so after depositing my jacket in the cloakroom, I made my way easily to the party.
It wasn’t until I actually got to the doors of the function room that I realized I probably shouldn’t have been late. My theory had been that the shorter period of time that I was there, the better it would be for everyone. But now that I was here, I understood that instead of blending in with the crowd from the start, I was about to make a grand entrance.
Everyone else had been there for a few hours, and they were probably all pretty plastered by now and more than a little bit bored. I was going to suddenly be very delicious entertainment for them all.
“Shit,” I whispered quietly to myself as a horde of interested eyes zoomed in on my entrance. I did contemplate turning and running, but what spirit I had surged through, and I knew I couldn’t—that, and the fact that Patrick had just spotted me through the crowd and was making his way toward the doors where I hovered.
Patrick was about thirty-eight, my nearest guess; he could have been a little older, but he carried himself well and he looked after what he had. He was fit and manicured, so it was little wonder he liked the attention of his job.
“Lilly.” He greeted me enthusiastically, leaning forward to kiss my cheek. I leant back fractionally so that his kiss hit nothing. It was bad enough that he had decided to shorten my name, but we definitely weren’t about to be touchy-feely.
I don’t touch, it’s not who I am. Maybe once it might have been, a long time ago, another lifetime ago, but not now.
“Hi, Patrick,” I replied, hoping he wasn’t offended by my withdrawal.
“Merry Christmas.” His smile wasn’t quite as warm as it had been a moment ago, but I was thankful that he allowed the awkwardness of the moment to pass. “Come and get a drink.”
He was careful not to touch me again as we wound our way through the crowd of people. It was a big company, and with clients added to the invite list, the event was something of a mammoth gathering. We had to stop a few times through the crowd, so that Patrick could introduce me to people who hailed him as we passed, but I was pleased to see that they were all genuinely interested in meeting me as a business contact.
“You won’t be able to remember half the people you meet tonight,” Patrick said, as we waited in line at the bar. “But at least it will be easier for you next time you have to deal with them, if you have some memory of tonight.”
After his initial appraisal of me when I entered the room, Patrick hadn’t given my appearance any more attention. I was keenly aware of the difference between people’s perception of coworkers in their work uniforms, as compared to their general clothes; and considering this was the first time any of these people had seen me in my normal clothes, I was cautious about their reaction. Patrick, at least, was doing well to ignore the difference.
My work clothes were protection for me; tailored skirts, pants, dresses, and jackets all made me feel stronger—but this dress, personal choice, made me feel exposed, more visible; and I didn’t like it. I felt like I was on exhibition.
I was tall, I was passably attractive, and I had legs to die for; and as far as any of the people in this room were aware, I was single. That was far too alluring a package for men to pass by without appreciating and hoping to get a piece of. Something that would never, ever happen.
Thankfully, Patrick was married, something I had been quick to learn, and if it had been otherwise, I might not have accepted the position. I wasn’t looking for a relationship, not now, not in the future; so working for a powerful, single, attractive man was definitely out of the question.
“Is your wife here?” I asked him as we waited. I wondered if she came to things like this, if they moved in the same circles.
He gave me a sharp look; then his gaze turned away, and I barely heard his answer over the noise of the room. “No. She’s in Spain, visiting family.” We squeezed up to the bar. The space was very crowded and we were pushed together, along with everyone else there, so he didn’t have to talk loud for me to hear. “What do you drink?”
“Soda and lime.”
He raised a brow in query.
“I don’t drink.” I couldn’t drink. I was honest enough to admit that I wasn’t strong enough to be able to stop drinking if I started to make a habit of it. Alcohol was a crutch I could lean on far too easily, and that wasn’t the life that I wanted.