Stephanie White picked up her glass of wine from off the bar and wriggled onto a nearby stool, sipping her drink and observing the man across the room with wary eyes. Everything about him was dark, from his pristine charcoal business suit, to his neatly cropped hair and cold ebony coloured eyes. Perhaps this evening was a mistake, but despite the warning bells in her head, Stephanie was determined to learn more about the man’s activities, write her unfinished article and get the recognition she deserved. She had to find a way to infiltrate the group without arousing suspicion though, and that meant she needed to attract the man’s attention. She had dressed purposely that evening with this in mind, however, now that she was sitting across the room from the man, she was acutely aware of her vulnerability.
Her Editor-in-Chief, Mr Michael Bricks, a somewhat intimidating but dedicated professional, had warned her against continuing with this story once they had discovered that the man standing opposite her was involved. Mr Henry Carlton was a known felon and suspected narcotics dealer, but what unnerved Stephanie more was his supposed lust for beautiful, young women. He certainly wasn’t short of them that evening, for he was surrounded by a dozen or so attractive ladies. She would have to walk a thin line between getting the information she needed and attracting too much attention from the infamous Mr Carlton.
Tom Phillips entered the bar and spotted her immediately. He had known without a shadow of a doubt that she would follow up on her story and go in search of Carlton. On the way there, he had tried to justify his actions in following her to the bar; afterall, he owed her no favours. In fact, since he had begun working for the newspaper, she had barely even acknowledged his presence in the team. This had puzzled him, as she seemed to have a good enough rapport with everyone else in the office. Nevertheless, she was putting herself in danger. She was trying to get information out of a class A drugs dealer and renowned womanizer for god sake! Who did she think she was, Sherlock Holmes? Besides, he had nothing else planned for that evening, and he hated staying in on a Saturday night; it went against his principles. She would obviously realize that she was in way over her head, and he would be there to help her out. He rather liked the idea of coming to her rescue; it would at least wipe that overly confident, prudish smile off her face and force her to acknowledge that she couldn’t do everything on her own.
Stephanie had always frustrated Tom immensely. He never failed to sweet talk the other women at work, but not her. There was not one person in the office that he didn’t have a good working relationship with, apart from her, and now he saw it as a challenge to get her on side. After all, she had to be the most alluring woman in the office, annoyingly, unattainably so, but incredibly alluring all the same. Perhaps it was her aloofness that intrigued him, and apparently most of the other male workers in the office too.
Pushing his way through the crowds of people, Tom finally reached the bar and ordered himself a whiskey. He purposely sat behind Stephanie, so that she was unaware of his presence, watching and waiting to see how she was going to approach Carlton. If she was going to put on the charm, he’d love to see it; he’d never seen it before. He’d also never seen her dressed anything like the way she was dressed that evening. She always covered herself up with prim and proper blouses and below the knee skirts, but this was a Stephanie he’d never seen. He had a fantastic view of the bare expanse of her back in that sleek, black, satin dress. Perhaps this wasn’t going to be a waste of time after all. He watched as she sipped her glass of wine and scrutinized Carlton from a distance. Boy, he was almost jealous of the guy if she was going to come on to him dressed like that! She crossed her legs and took another sip from her wine glass. The black satin fell away from her lap and revealed a sensational pair of stocking clad legs. God she was stunning! Even more than he’d realized. But she’d have to work on her seduction techniques if she was going to lure Carlton; he was moving away and he was surrounded by a harem of other women too.
Oh god, where was he going now? Damn it, she’d have to follow him and stop beating about the bush if she was going to get her story. She waited for a couple of minutes before pursuing the group through a corridor at the rear of the bar, towards a back room. She only paused for a second at the door however, before she felt a firm hand on her arm, pulling her back into the corridor.
“I hope you know what you’re doing because that guy means business… in more ways than one.”
Stephanie swung her head around and came face to face with a disturbing pair of brandy coloured eyes. She knew those eyes; she’d seen them before assessing her from across the office. Tom Phillips. Of all the people to appear out of nowhere, why him?
“I fail to see what business it is of yours,” she came back. “What are you doing here Tom?”
He gave her a charming smile. “The same thing as you, I assume, I’m after a good story.”
“Oh no you don’t,” she replied, pushing him away and fixing him with a fierce glare. “This is my story. You have no right to be here.”
He’d always wondered if those eyes of hers had the same effect up close as they had from a distance. He’d never been this close to her before, but now that he was, he realized their full effect. If he could find just one thing about this woman that was unattractive, it would put his mind at rest. But there she was, with those stunning eyes that seemed to look right into him. He’d never seen eyes like hers before. They were the palest blue, like the kind of water you would find in a tropical lagoon, almost translucent. And her hair shone in a similar way, framing her face with silvery gold. Her lips…he didn’t want to dwell on them. They were far too much of a temptation, exquisitely shaped and begging to be kissed. How on earth was any guy who knew her supposed to get any peace?
“No right,” he said incredulously, “you don’t own the newspaper sweetheart, and you sure as hell don’t own me. I’ll do what I like, when I like.” With that, he stepped around her and strode into the room.
The utter arrogance of the man! Stephanie had heard rumours about Tom before, about his attitude towards women. Oh, women were good for charming and bedding, but when it came to producing front-page stories, he was top dog. Or so he thought. Well, she wasn’t going to let him steal this one away from her. With rising anger, she stormed into the room after him.
Her anger very quickly dissipated however, when her sudden appearance in the room drew the attention of most of Carlton’s group. They seemed to fill the small room completely, having taken over all of the leather-seated booths. She halted like a rabbit caught in headlights. Okay, so now she had Carlton’s attention at last, as his eyes made a slow assessment of her body in the black satin dress which clung and outlined her every curve. But now that she had it, did she want it? His gaze homed in on her in a predatory way, as he lifted one arm and rested it casually over the back of the booth in which he was sitting. She had to find somewhere to sit; she couldn’t bear this man’s scrutiny any longer.
In desperation, she scanned the room for Tom. He had seated himself in another booth with a group of young women, where he was happily chatting away to them. Typical! Now she could either continue to stand there in front of Carlton, looking as if she didn’t have a friend in the world, or she could join Tom at his table and face the patronizing comments that were bound to follow. She’d bide her time with Carlton. Moving decisively into the room, she headed for Tom.
“Mind if I join you?” Stephanie asked, hovering next to his table.
Although Tom was well aware of Stephanie’s every move, he glanced up at her then, feigning surprise.
“We’d be delighted,” he replied, smiling and moving across the seat a little to make some more room. Her eyes moved to the tiny space he’d created for her between himself and the side of the booth. She hesitated. Tom appeared to be amused at her discomfort, but he didn’t wait long before shooting out a hand to grab her wrist, pulling her forward and forcing her to occupy the small gap next to him. She sat stiffly in her seat and turned to speak to him under her breath.
“I know what you’re up to Tom.” She fixed her eyes on him.
He smiled politely. “Really? And what’s that?”
“You want in on this story and another woman into the bargain. Well it won’t work with me.”
Amusement flickered across his face, not for the first time that evening. “Well, if it doesn’t work with you, at least I’ll not be short of other female company tonight,” he replied, glancing back towards the group of women they were sharing the booth with.
“That’s right. Why not diversify Tom? Now that you’ve slept with every other female journalist at the newspaper, life must be a little boring for you.”
He swung his head back to her. “My god Stephanie, you obviously have rather more faith in my powers of seduction than I do. Much to my dismay,” he said, placing a hand across his heart and looking forlorn, “I can’t admit to winning over every other female at work. You haven’t been talking to them have you? Putting them off? It’s just that there are one or two women who just won’t play ball.”
She gritted her teeth with annoyance and he laughed loudly, slipping an arm around her waist and leaning towards her to whisper in her ear.
“Don’t believe everything you hear at work Stephie. Would it surprise you to know that I’m extremely selective when it comes to the women I take to my bed?”
His warm breath teased her ear whilst his fingers on her waist stroked shivery sensations down her side. She didn’t like being this close to him; it unnerved her. She had always avoided him in the office; she didn’t trust him as far as she could throw him. His character and appearance reflected contradictory qualities in him which she found impossible to fathom out. He could be charming and smooth one minute, yet determined and hard the next. His eyes were soft and beguiling, his mouth sensual as he smiled and teased. But the angles of his face were hard and tough, his nose jutting out sharply, his jaw square. The thick hair on his head was as untamed as the man himself, but he needed to do no more then run a quick hand through it to give him that ruffled, rugged look that all the women seemed to fall for, hook line and sinker. But not her. She wriggled herself away from him as much as she could and fixed her eyes in front of her.
“It might surprise you to know that I’m not at all interested in the women you choose, or don’t choose, to take to your bed Tom. I’m here to get information out of Carlton, and you’re cramping my style.”
He laughed. She’d not last five minutes with Carlton, but he’d let her have her space…for now.
“Well I wouldn’t want to do that Stephie. I’ll leave you to approach Carlton,” he said, standing up and moving to another seat with a dozen or so female eyes following him.
She watched as he moved away. She was glad. So why did she now feel as if she’d been well and truly left to the wolves? She had to pull herself together. After all, this was what she had gone there for, to talk to Carlton. She had his attention now, so what was stopping her?
Turning her head, she sought Carlton through the crowd. He was holding a whiskey glass in his hand, peering into it thoughtfully. She willed her eyes not to move away from him and it seemed to work, as he looked up and across at her with interest. She smiled at him and crossed her legs, allowing him a glimpse of her calf and knee. His eyes were now glued to her. He motioned to a woman in the group, who was standing near to him, and she bent so that he could talk into her ear. Then the woman looked across at Stephanie and began to approach her table.
“Mr Carlton over there would like to know if you would care to join his table, since you seem to be on your own.” The woman had a soft, sing song voice, and she seemed to have had her fair share of alcohol.
“Thank you, I would,” Stephanie replied, rising to follow the woman back to the table and throwing Tom a look over her shoulder as she passed him.
Sitting next to Carlton in the booth, however, she began to feel that this whole idea was a huge mistake. If it weren’t for Tom, she probably would have given up on the idea earlier and gone home. Now she was faced with the daunting task of appearing interested in Carlton in order to find out more about his business. Where would she start?
Carlton introduced himself and the other people around the table to Stephanie, and luckily, the women joined in with the conversation, putting her a little more at ease. He was quick to supply her with more drink, as he made vague comments about the drinking establishments in the area and the vintage of the wine, although he was more interested in leering at her legs than listening to anything she had to say.
Tom watched Carlton’s eyes on Stephanie and he itched to run over there and pull her away from him. The man was vile. Not only did he make a business out of other people’s addictions, but he collected women like objects. Well, Stephanie wasn’t an object. Okay, so she was snooty and cold at times, but she didn’t deserve to be manhandled by a man like him. He felt a small tug on his arm and looked down to see that the woman he’d been talking to had linked her arm with his and was gazing up at him dreamily. Just what he needed! True, she’d had quite a lot to drink that evening, but she looked completely spaced out. Then it occurred to him that she could well have been spaced out. What the hell were they doing there with people like that?
Stephanie glanced across at Tom to see he that was looking directly at her. The woman at his side had apparently fallen asleep, with her head rested on his shoulder. On seeing Stephanie’s distraction, Carlton reached towards her lap and put his hand on her leg, trying to draw her attention back towards him. At that moment Tom abruptly stood up, and the woman’s head fell back onto the headrest of the booth. He strolled towards Carlton’s table and bent to shake hands with him.
“Evening, Tom Phillips here. I can see that you have met my partner, Stephanie White.”
“Take a seat,” Carlton said, holding Tom’s glare.
Tom sat down opposite Carlton and Stephanie, and Carlton removed his hand from her leg. She had to admit that she was relieved that Tom had intervened, and what’s more, Carlton didn’t seem to mind his presence. Perhaps Tom and she could infiltrate the group as a couple. It would be safer for Stephanie to have Tom around, although it would also mean that she’d have to involve Tom in her story. She didn’t like that idea at all, but on the other hand, for the time being, she really had no other option.
Hours passed with a lot of flirting between the men and women in the group. Stephanie had a few more glasses of wine but managed to avoid accepting another drink from Carlton; the last thing she wanted was to get drunk in that type of situation. She tried on several occasions to push Carlton for information, but he seemed reluctant to talk about anything other than trivia, and to push him further would arouse suspicion. Still, they had time, and they were making steady progress.
Whilst she was talking to Carlton, Tom turned to make conversation with the other women. It must have been Tom’s idea of heaven having dozens of women literally draping themselves all over him. She was lucky that he wasn’t really her partner, considering the way he was behaving. Then Tom got up to return to the bar and the atmosphere of the table seemed to change. Firstly, Carlton turned to Stephanie saying,
“I am having a small get together tomorrow if you and your partner would like to join us.”
This indicated acceptance into the group, and he’d invited Tom too.
“I think we would like that, thank you,” she smiled.
“Come around 6 o clock to the old theatre, Pickering Street. Do you know of it?”
It seemed like a fantastic opportunity and Stephanie’s hopes were high. Furthermore, if they were on his own premises, who knows, they may even be able to take a quick look around and see if they could find out more about his business that way.
“No, but I am sure we will find it.”
“I own the building; I think you will enjoy the experience.”
Stephanie was suddenly thrilled to have succeeded in getting an invitation out of him. Now they were considerably closer to their goal. Her feelings must have been apparent in her face, but Carlton mistook her reaction when she said,
“Thank you, I will look forward to it.”
He looked at her intently then and she felt slightly anxious again. She glanced around for Tom but he still hadn’t returned to the group.
When she turned back she saw that Carlton seemed to have the unwavering attention of the majority of the people at their table. He turned then and slipped something into Stephanie's palm.
“Something for you to enjoy before then,” he smiled. She looked down to see that he had put a pill into her hand. “I hear that you enjoy this kind of stuff.” He was waiting and watching her intently. She was torn, this is what they were researching and it could be the beginning of uncovering his entire operation, but suddenly the whole group were looking at her and she felt pressured. She looked around again for Tom but he was still nowhere to be seen. Damn, where on earth was he? “Did I hear wrong?” Carlton said with a frown.
“No, no.” she replied, not wanting to ruin their chances. Then she hesitated for a moment but could not delay anymore without jeopardising all they had achieved that evening, so she popped the pill into her mouth and swallowed it with a swig of her drink. She sat for a while anticipating a reaction to the drug, but she felt nothing.
Moments later she heard, “Excuse me, can I have a word with Stephanie here for a few seconds?” Tom grabbed Stephanie’s arm, pulling her out of the group and across the room. He led her down the corridor again and they sat on a sofa at the back of the bar. It was in a small area, half blocked from sight by a partition, and he turned to talk frankly to her.
“What the hell did you just take?”
She looked at him sheepishly but tried to shrug it off.
“I’m fine Tom. And better than that, I’ve got us an invitation to his place tomorrow,” she said with enthusiasm.
“You’ve also got the attention of a real sleazy bastard in there. You’d better watch yourself Stephanie.”
“Oh Tom, I’ve been fighting off men for years. I can deal with him.”
Tom’s eyes became intent and he looked at her thoughtfully then for a few moments.
“Well, if we have an invite then let’s make our excuses and go,” he said, rising off the sofa. He looked around then but Stephanie hadn’t moved.
“You go and tell them we are leaving Tom; I’ll wait here for a bit.” she said, looking down and grasping the table in front of her.
Tom frowned. “Are you okay?”
“Yes I’m fine, go and tell them,” she urged.
He left her then and she sat, taking in deep breaths. In the back of her head she knew what was happening to her but, at that moment, she avoided thinking of anything that would dull her sudden bright mood.
She leant forward to look past the partition and over at the bar. All the people were chatting, laughing and enjoying themselves, and she suddenly wanted to be among people again, but her legs had unexpectedly decided not to work. Looking down at her feet, they seemed to be a long way away. She laughed to herself.
“How did that happen?” she said out loud. Sitting back on the sofa, she brought her feet up under her, by her reasoning, to bring them back closer to her body. As she looked down at the table in front of her, she seemed to be seeing every minute detail on it: the grooves in the wood, the paper in the beer mats and some small grains of salt that had been spilt. She leaned forward and trailed her finger through the grains, smiling to herself.
“There are more grains of salt in the world than…” she paused for thought. “No that’s not right at all, silly me. There are more grains of…sand, yes that’s it. I knew I’d get it. More grains than…”
“What you doing?” Tom stood over her with an amused expression on his face.
“Hello you,” she said. “Come sit down here.”
“I think we should go now Stephie,” he grinned.
She looked up then suddenly. “No, no I can’t.” she said seriously. “My feet are too far away you see; I’m just waiting for them to come back to me.”
“Oh Lord!” he said sitting down, folding his arms and watching her with a beaming smile. She continued to speak, and much to Tom’s amusement and delight, Miss Prim and Proper Stephanie White was completely out of control!
“Have you ever stopped to think that there are about a million or so grains of…” she paused, “…sand in the world and what that means?”
“No, what does that mean Stephie?” He was finding it difficult not to laugh out loud.
“I don’t actually know, but it’s an interesting thought though, don’t you think?”
“Okay, it’s time to go,” he said standing suddenly.
“Party pooper,” she sulked, grabbing him by the sleeve and dragging him back onto the sofa. “Anyway we can’t go yet, I’m too thirsty. I think I could drink the whole ocean right now.” She looked at him with pleading eyes. “Tom Tom, will you be a darling and go get a bottle of water from the bar for me?” She looked down and started to fiddle with his shirtsleeve. “I’d be really, really grateful.”
Hell, he’d have given anything to hear Stephanie say something like that to him before, but now he was disturbed to find himself more concerned for her welfare. That pill must have been seriously strong to make Stephanie act like that.
“Listen to me Miss Mischief, don’t go anywhere before I come back. Okay?”
She blew him a kiss and he headed for the bar with a grin.
When he came back to the table, to his shock and amusement, she was lying down across the sofa, looking up at the ceiling.
“Oh, you got it for me; you’re my hero,” she said, reaching up and tugging on his jacket. “I’m a bit tired now though darling; I think I’ll take a quick nap.”
“Oh no you won’t darling; we have to get out of here.” He reached out to pull her up.
“Oh but baby, you can’t make me go, I’m way too, too tired. I’m going to sleep here.” She leant back and pulled him to sit on the sofa again, “Come sleep here with me Tommy.”
Great, now she asks! He stood up yet again, and in one swift movement, picked her up around the waist and threw her over his shoulder. “If we don’t go now, you’re going to give us away darling,” he said, carrying her out to the car park through a side door, depositing her in his car, and securing a seat belt around her.