Paul was pacing up and down the terrace. Rachel was giving him the third degree. "All I know is that it's a Ms Stella de Veer. As to age, size or colour I haven't a clue." Twelve days had passed since the gala, and he'd not been able to extract any real information about his mysterious date from anyone.
Rachel shrugged. "So, where are you taking this Ms de Veer? Not Verticelli's, I trust?”
Paul had the feeling that Rachel knew more than she cared to admit. "Why do I get the impression that you know more than I do?" he asked. "No doubt you've been told she's fat and frumpy, otherwise I can't see you being quite so blase about all this. And, no, it isn't Verticelli's. She has suggested the Hilltops, on one of their theme nights." He sat down.
"So, you've spoken with her? What did she sound like?”
"No, I haven't. It's been done through an intermediary.”
"Oh. Oh well, lucky old her." As far as Paul knew, Rachel had never been to the Hilltops. Was that annoying her? However, she grinned. "I'm sure she'll enjoy it. But why should I possibly know who this woman is?”
"You're in league with Sylvia. I expect you've coaxed it from her.”
"Oh, Paul. I doubt that even Sylvia knows who she is. As long as the charities receive their money, I don't believe she'll be that concerned. Have you arranged the actual date yet?”
"This weekend. Saturday.”
"Saturday? Oh." Rachel looked crestfallen. Not good. "I'd hoped...”
"You'd hoped what?"
"It's all right. It doesn't matter." The irritation in Rachel's voice was all too apparent. She stood and walked to the edge of the patio.
"Yes it does. What is it?" Paul also rose and followed her, mainly so that he could see her face and judge her mood. "I can probably make other arrangements.”
Rachel shook her head vigorously. "Saturday is only two days away, Paul. The woman has no doubt made plans. You can't change them now.”
"No buts. It really doesn't matter." She turned away quickly.
"Are you having second thoughts now?" asked Paul with some concern. There was a pause before she answered.
"I promise you I'll not stay with her any longer that I have to.
"So what is the theme on Saturday?”
Rachel gave a snort of contempt. "Ah, that's very convenient. She'll be able to hide behind some ridiculous facade.”
"Oh, Rachel." He took her in his arms.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I suppose I am a little bit jealous." Her body relaxed against his.
"There is nothing to be jealous about. No one could possibly hold a candle to you.”
She looked up at him. "If you say so.”
Paul arrived at the Hilltops fifteen minutes before the allotted hour. To his considerable relief Rachel had kept out of the way all day. He really wasn't looking forward to the dinner, especially knowing that she was definitely unhappy about it, even though it was she who had pushed him into agreeing in the first place. She'd phoned briefly earlier in the afternoon to say she hoped it all went well, but even then she'd been somewhat distant.
The restaurant was already busy, with most of the guests, himself included, wearing suitable masks for the occasion, and a small dance band was playing on the far side of the building. He checked in with the restaurant reception.
"Mr Lander? Ah, yes, sir. Ms de Veer has already arrived." Goddamn it. He'd assumed he'd be there first, and had wanted to become familiar with the atmosphere prior to meeting his guest. "If you would follow me, Mr Lander?”
Paul was led through to the side of the room furthest from the dance band. Was that good or bad? Had they been nearer, he might have found an excuse for limiting the conversation.
There was only one occupied table in the immediate vicinity, where a woman, her face hidden behind a large golden-coloured mask, was sitting. The mask covered everything above the mouth, and even hid her hair. All he could see at that moment was the mouth, and the top of the strapless red dress she was wearing, but as they approached she stood up and to one side. Fat and frumpy she certainly wasn't. She had a slim, lithe figure, and the dress was delightful; exactly the kind of dress Rachel would have worn well. God, he wished it was her and not this woman. But he managed a smile.
"Ms de Veer?" She held out her arm, but said nothing. Hell, she expected him to kiss her hand. Reluctantly he did so. "It's a pleasure to meet you in person.”
"Why, thank you, Mr Lander." Her voice carried the unmistakable drawl of the Southern states, though mixed with a guttural accent reminiscent of Dutch or German. Well, he supposed that did go with the 'de Veer', though the overall effect was peculiar. "I must say, I've been really looking forward to this evening." She sat back down. "I've been an ardent admirer of yours for some time, you know.”
"You have?" This did not sound encouraging.
"Oh, yes. Though from a distance of course." The woman reached over and pressed his arm; an intimacy he could well do without. "Until now, that is." God, was she fluttering her eye-lashes at him? Her mask made it difficult to be sure. But she carried on speaking without seeming to pause for breath. "All my friends were insanely jealous to hear that I had managed to win the auction. 'Paul Lander?' they all said. 'Oh, my. And he's so eligible'." Paul didn't relish the emphasis the woman put on the word 'so'. "And good-looking, charming. But," she flipped a hand disdainfully in his direction, "I mustn't go on. It will embarrass you, and that won't do. You might not want to dance with me, and I should positively hate that. You will dance with me later, won't you, Mr Lander? May I call you Paul?" She didn't wait for a reply, but rushed on headlong. "Especially to some of those slow, smoochy, romantic numbers. Oh --" the damned woman was fluttering her eye-lashes, "please say you will, Paul, darling.”
Darling? For a moment Paul couldn't think of a suitable response, but in the end, he didn't have to. The woman started to giggle; an infectious and very recognisable giggle. "Oh, if you could only see your face," she chuckled. The bizarre accent had completely disappeared.
"You little horror," exclaimed Paul when he'd recovered from the initial surprise. He'd kill her. "And after the show you put up on Thursday?”
Rachel was still chuckling. "Well, I am an actress. Am I forgiven?”
He took her hands in his. "Of course you are. I have never felt so relieved. But I can see I'm going to have to watch you in future, brown eyes.”
"How did you manage all this?" asked Paul once he'd completely regained his composure. "And what's with this Stella de Veer? I was sitting right next to you at the gala, and you certainly placed no bids.”
Rachel grinned. "Oh yes I did. I had an arrangement with one of the girls who handled the anonymous bidding. Every time I fiddled with my earring, she upped the bid.”
"I thought you might have guessed. Stella? Star? And de Veer is my mom's maiden name. Mind you, you were right all along. I didn't want you dating another woman, even if it was for charity, but I didn't want to let Sylvia down either, so there was only one way out.”
Paul reached across the table and took her hand. "And am I glad you took it."