Hundreds of lights twinkled in the greenery above the main door to the imposing Dorchester Hotel, and off to the right, an elegantly decorated Christmas tree towered over the entrance. Tally’s cab stopped behind a couple of sleek black limousines. She reached into her purse, thrust a twenty into the driver’s outstretched hand, and stepped onto the pavement without waiting for her change. She took a steadying breath and patted her hair, which—thanks to Em—was still in place. She scrunched up her toes inside her stilettos and unsteadily walked inside.
The lobby teemed with people and, not for the first time since she’d received the go-ahead to cover the event, a spike of anxiety shot her heart rate into overdrive. She glanced at her watch. Almost seven thirty. She had plenty of time. The event wasn’t starting until eight.
Spotting the ladies’ bathroom directly ahead, Tally breathed a sigh of relief. A moment to gather herself would be welcome. She dashed over—although, in high heels, she couldn’t go as fast as she would have liked. She edged past a couple of classy ladies who were touching up their make-up. They were slim and lovely, unlike Tally. The dress Em had strong-armed her into wearing was the best of a bad bunch, but it still clung to her ample curves far too tightly, despite her best friend’s insistence to the contrary. And she’d need to be conscious of bending over too far. Otherwise, her boobs would be in danger of falling out. Instead of getting a story, she’d be the story.
She sighed and then brushed off her irritation at her appearance. How she looked had no bearing on this evening. What mattered was how she was going to persuade Cash Gallagher to open up and give her the scoop she’d promised Pete. Her editor—and uncle—had shown huge belief in sending her to the ball, even bumping one of his best reporters, Victoria Kaminsky, from the gig to give Tally a shot. Failure to secure the story didn’t bear thinking about. Kaminsky would love Tally to fail.
She applied a touch more lipstick and, with a final pat of her hair, laid her coat over her arm and set off for the event room. While she waited in the queue to get inside, she lifted her press pass and invitation out of her bag. At the front of the line, she handed them over and passed her handbag to a security guard for inspection.
He poked around with a long wooden stick as though he was afraid her handbag would bite him. Tally stifled a nervous giggle, but when the guard removed her phone and placed it into a plastic bag, she frowned.
“Tally McKenzie. What are you doing with my phone?”
He scrawled her name on the front of the plastic bag. “No phones allowed.”
He smiled apologetically. “Sorry, love. We’ve been given strict instructions not to allow phones at the event. You can collect it at the end of the evening.” He attached her press pass to a lanyard and gave it back to her along with her invitation. “Keep the pass visible, please. Sign here for the phone.”
Damn. Her crib notes were in that phone. She scrawled her signature on the form he pushed in front of her and hung the lanyard around her neck. The security guard waved her on, already calling the next guest forward. As Tally stepped through a set of double doors, she rubbed at the bunched muscles in her neck and forced her shoulders to relax.
“Wow,” she murmured under her breath as she looked around.
There must have been at least forty tables, and each sat ten people. As she passed the nearest table, the scent from an oversized vase full of deep red roses and white baby’s breath tickled her nostrils. She loved the smell of roses, her favourite flower. Craning her neck, she looked up. The ceiling shimmered with hundreds of spotlights, the effect almost like gazing into the night sky. As she moved farther inside, her eyes fell on the far end of the room, where a large stage had been set up, its canvas backdrop displaying the foundation’s logo. Cash had gone all out.
A table full of champagne sat near the entrance, and Tally helped herself to a glass. She couldn’t see Cash, but the room was filling up quickly, and she guessed he wouldn’t be too far away. Her pulse cranked up a notch. After years of angst and yearning, she was finally going to be in the same room as her childhood idol—although, to be honest, the speed of her pulse had more to do with the fact that she still didn’t have a strategy for getting something other than the few curtly delivered sentences Cash usually gave to any reporter. She dug a tissue out of her bag and dabbed at the beads of sweat on her forehead to avoid ruining her make-up.
How the hell am I going to handle this?
She fingered the press pass hanging around her neck, hating what it signified to Cash. He didn’t exactly hide his loathing of the press. When researching his tennis career, she’d scoured the Internet, reading every article she could find and watching televised interviews on YouTube. Apart from contractual post-match discussions, Cash rarely spoke voluntarily to the press, and when he did, he talked only about tennis or his foundation—nothing even remotely personal. If the reporter did try to move on to other subjects, such as his latest girlfriend, Cash shut the discussion down with a scathing remark that would have even the most seasoned journalist squirming uncomfortably. Yet getting something different was exactly what Tally needed to do.
She glanced around at all the other women without ugly lanyards marring their expensive dresses, and then the solution came to her: the cursed press pass might have been the golden ticket needed to get inside, but who was going to check it now?
With a surreptitious glance over her right shoulder, she whipped the lanyard from around her neck and tucked it away in her handbag. That’d do it. She wasn’t at all comfortable with the misrepresentation, but after years of following every aspect of his career, she knew Cash. If he spotted her press pass, he’d be guarded, if not completely closed to her, and she’d have nothing fresh to take back to Pete. This was her big break, a chance to get her teeth into meatier stories than covering the local fete and reporting on how Mrs Clarke had managed to win the cupcake competition for the fifth year running. She would succeed.
A sudden commotion at the entrance caught her attention, and she held her breath. As though the guest of honour had willed it, a gap in the crowd appeared, and Tally clapped eyes on Cash for the first time outside a tennis court. Thirty feet separated them—no distance at all. Her stomach clenched. Forget her childhood posters of him. Forget her beloved mug from Wimbledon, which she refused to throw away even though it had a dodgy handle that had been glued back on several times. Forget all the images on Google. None of them did the man justice.
The phrase “owned the room” could have been written with Cash in mind. He oozed a confidence bordering on arrogance. He swept a hand over his beard, which was longer than the usual scruff he favoured, but even that didn’t dampen his beauty. He moved as gracefully off the court as on it, and his vibrant slate-grey eyes seemed able to see right through people even as his own shutters were firmly in place.
As Cash moved farther inside the room, Tally noticed he was flanked by a tall, well-built guy on his left—definitely security, given the way his eyes constantly scanned the room, focusing on everyone except Cash. On Cash’s right was his agent, Kinga Harrington. Kinga had been at Cash’s side for years, ever since he’d broken into the big time. A dart of jealousy pierced Tally’s chest when Kinga slipped her arm through Cash’s. What I wouldn’t give… It wasn’t going to happen, though. Tally, with her ample curves and mousy brown hair, couldn’t be further removed from Cash’s type.
Cash skimmed the room, his sharp gaze absorbing every detail. Tally shrank back and ducked her head. She didn’t want to make eye contact yet. Seeing him in the flesh had tipped her off-kilter. She needed a moment, a minute, maybe an hour to slow her heartbeat.
Fortunately, before he homed in on where she was standing, someone touched his arm and deflected his attention. Cash listened as a man whispered in his ear, then he nodded and followed the man, waving his security away with a flick of his wrist. The security guy grimaced, and his posture became even more rigid as his eyes followed Cash’s every step.
To Tally’s right, a crowd had gathered, and she gravitated towards them, hanging back slightly. She didn’t want it to be too obvious she was alone, especially as, at first glance, she appeared to be the only singleton. Sipping her champagne, she tuned in to their banter. A couple of the guys were having a bit of fun at the expense of one of the group, an extremely pretty, willowy blond lady who was bragging about how much money she’d donated to Cash’s foundation.
“Stretching the truth again, my dear Ms Innes-Kerr. Surely, that’s Daddy’s money you’re talking about.”
“Fuck you, Piers,” she replied.
“Tara,” a sharp voice called out. The woman glanced over her shoulder and held up her finger at the man calling her name.
“Run along, Tara. Daddy’s calling,” Piers said with a snigger.
Deciding she didn’t like Piers one bit, Tally backed away. Her gaze fell on Cash once more. He’d finished with whatever issue had taken his attention, and he moved farther inside the room, shaking hands and greeting guests with a brief nod. His agent and his security guy, whose shoulders had settled into their normal position now that Cash was back within touching distance, stood beside him like a pair of bookends.
Tally handed her empty champagne flute to a waiter. After accepting another glass, she wandered over to the seating plan. Cash was at table one. She’d been placed at table eight. She glanced over the rest of the names at her table, and then her heart jolted. Victoria Kaminsky was still listed on the seating plan, with a P next to her name. Glancing over the rest of the tables, Tally found three other names with P next to them. Press.
Apparently, her name had been added, but Victoria’s hadn’t been removed. Figuring there must have been an administrative error, she automatically reached for her phone to call Pete. He’d know whether the correct protocol was to point out the mix-up. She scrabbled around inside her handbag, and then she remembered: security had taken her bloody phone. She was about to head down to reception to call him when an announcement over the loudspeaker informed the guests to begin taking their seats for dinner. Too late now. She’d have to figure out the answer to this problem on her own.
She wandered over to her table and sat in her allocated seat. The place card on her right read “Victoria Kaminsky (P).” Shit. That empty seat was going to stick out, and people might ask questions. She glanced around to see if anyone had noticed it.
“Hello, my dear. I’m Ralph.”
She turned to her left and shook the extended hand of her table companion.
“Tally,” she murmured.
“I’m an architect,” he said proudly. “I refurbished Cash’s home, you know. Great place it is too. Out in the sticks, mind. Too far from Belfast for my liking. Still, he seems to like it.”
“Sounds lovely,” she replied, praying that he didn’t ask any questions about her.
Fortunately, Ralph was much more interested in talking about himself and began to regale her with his life story. Tally smiled and nodded in all the right places. The more he spoke about himself, the less likely he would be to ask anything about her. Best to keep her head down until she found the right moment to strike.
Cash’s table was almost full, but he still wasn’t seated. With one ear tuned in to architect extraordinaire Ralph, in case he paused long enough to actually need a second participant in the one-sided conversation, she scoured the room. She spotted Cash leaning casually against the bar, deep in conversation with a young man about nineteen or twenty years old. Cash nodded a couple of times and then smiled as he shook hands with the youngster, who then wandered off.
Alone, Cash directed his gaze around the room. His eyes met Tally’s—and stayed there. She shivered and turned away. She plucked her napkin off the table and fussed about, placing it in her lap. When she raised her head, Cash was still staring directly at her. His lips were pressed into a firm line, his brows pulled low over his eyes. This time, when she tried to turn away, she found herself unable to break from the intensity of his unwavering stare. Her heart skipped a beat. What if he’d figured out she’d replaced Victoria and was wondering why she wasn’t wearing her lanyard? She tensed, half expecting him to summon security and have her thrown out.
His hypnotic gaze eventually moved past her, and her shoulders slumped. Wiping her palms on her napkin, she wistfully eyed the exit, but if she left while everyone was seated, all eyes would be on her, and she was trying to blend in, not stand out.
She took a sip of water to soothe her parched throat, shaking her head at the sommelier’s offer of wine. She needed to keep a clear head while she worked out what her next move should be. She had to find a way to get close to Cash, even if it wasn’t one-on-one. Maybe his lips loosened after a glass or two of alcohol, and she could hover in the background and pick up a story that way, or even better, Ralph might let something slip. She fiddled with her napkin, relaying it in her lap several times, acknowledging but hating the signs of anxiety: the terrible churning in her abdomen, the dry mouth, the clammy hands.
“Cash, good to see you.”
Tally’s head snapped up as Ralph got to his feet to shake hands with Cash. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up, almost as if Cash were creating his own magnetic field or, more likely, due to her own terror at being found out.
Cash nodded and murmured greetings at the other guests. He picked up Victoria’s place card. “Where’s Kaminsky?”
At first, Tally thought Cash was asking her, and her heart almost leapt out of her chest, but then she noticed he was looking at Ralph.
“You haven’t scared her off already have you, Ralphie?”
Ralph’s booming laugh caused several guests at nearby tables to glance over their shoulders.
“If anyone’s going to scare off the press, it’s you, my boy.”
Cash’s low chuckle rumbled in his chest. “That’s true. A no-show, then?”
Cash swept a hand over his beard as his gaze fell on Tally. “And who do we have here?”
His soft Northern Irish burr had a smoky undertone more inviting than her favourite brand of coffee, and Tally squirmed in her seat.
“Tally McKenzie,” she replied, trying desperately to keep the slight waver out of her voice.
“Is that so?” Cash tilted his head to one side as his gaze almost lazily swept over her. Tally had an urge to wipe her hands on her napkin again, but that would have given away her reaction to his slow appraisal. Eventually, his eyes lifted upwards. “And who are you here with?”
Before Tally could answer with a lie, Cash’s agent appeared. Kinga possessively touched Cash’s arm, and she gave Tally the once-over in that special way only women can do. She mustn’t have felt remotely challenged, though, because her gaze barely lingered before she turned away and smiled warmly at Ralph.
“I know you can talk for England, my darling Ralphie, but dinner is about to be served. I’m afraid I need to steal our host away. I’m sure you and Cash can catch up later.”
“Aw, Kinga,” Ralph said, pulling her into a warm hug. “Only you can deliver an insult with a smile that has me coming back for more.”
Tally heaved a sigh of relief as the attention moved away from her, and her pulse had almost returned to normal when a warm hand curved around the back of her neck. She glanced over her shoulder—and her stomach jolted. Cash bent down and softly whispered in her ear, “Don’t think you’ve got away with it, sweetness. I know everyone here except you. Believe me, I’ll be rectifying that situation.”