Not even a fleeting micro-expression betrayed Bella’s irritation at Mark’s clumsy attempts to strengthen his sales pitch by his body language. As she responded to him, she was by turns animated, thoughtful, diffident, all without thinking as she observed and assessed his performance.
“My goodness you’re bad, Mark,” was all she said when he finished.
He blushed, the carmine flush an ugly contrast to his ginger hair. Bella read anger as well as humiliation in his eyes. The professional appraisal conveyed by her expression was a perfect mask for the secret pleasure of seeing him squirm, powerless despite his fury.
Bella looked down at the sheet in front of her and made a note.
“Hand your badge in at reception as you leave, please.”
She continued to write. There was a pause, and then she heard his chair scrape over the carpet as he pushed it back and stood up. She heard him hesitate, clear his throat, felt him change his mind, turn and trudge out of the room.
“Another loser, eh?” Ben stuck his head round the door.
Bella looked up, a little smile on her lips.
“Better for them to know sooner rather than later,” she observed. Ben was one of her successes. She’d spotted him three years earlier, nurtured him, showed him how to exploit his talent. It hadn’t been long before he was the company’s best salesman, topping the rankings for nine consecutive months.
Automatically she mirrored his gestures, not copying but echoing, so subtly that he was conscious only of her interest, concern and admiration. He preened himself.
“I’ve a report to finish, then how about a drink?”
“The Hopbinders in half an hour?”
Bella arrived at the pub a few minutes late. There was no sign of Ben, and the bar was almost empty. Was Ben becoming complacent, perhaps? That thought was so unpleasant that she immediately substituted the more palatable explanation that Ben had received an urgent phone call from their transatlantic partners. Still, she would punish him anyway, just to make sure that he knew that he mustn’t take her for granted. She swung her feet irritably while sipping a tonic water. Under the circumstances there was no risk in revealing her true feelings.
Bella never watched the entrance when she was waiting for someone. Let them seek me out, she reasoned, and they will value me more. As a consequence, the first she knew of the new arrival was the sound of a handbag being placed on the bar.
“Assertive. Proprietorial almost,” Bella summarised to herself.
The voice ordering a drink was musical, clear and pleasant to hear. Bella admired the control. There were subtle undercurrents of persuasion and dominance, so discreet that the unwary listener would hear only a candid warmth. The voice sounded somehow familiar; but all great voices have similarities, reasoned Bella.
Where on earth was Ben? Could he have had an accident? The thought prompted a spasm of aggravation. It would be bloody irritating if he’d laid himself up at this crucial moment. The company needed his skills for the North American deal.
The door swung open cheerily. Bella knew without needing to look that Ben had entered.
Bella stayed still and silent, waiting for him to join her. He didn’t. What was he playing at?
“Great dress! Who are we meeting?”
“What the hell’s going on?” thought Bella. “I’m in my suit, just as I was when he last saw me. And why is he standing at the bar, rather than joining me?”
She rose, and without glancing towards the bar walked towards the ladies’ toilet. She was damned if she would do more than that to attract his attention. Anyway, he was probably already past his peak as a salesman – and as a sexual partner.
As she pushed at the door, she heard a woman’s laugh. It was warm, indulgent, calculated to engulf the male ego with a numbing sweetness. Despite herself, Bella turned.
Ben stood at the bar, grinning broadly at a blonde woman in her early thirties. Her hair was shingled, accentuating the fine bone structure of her face. Her lips were exquisite, seeming to shimmer between bee-sting fullness and the merriness of a schoolgirl. Her dress was indeed great, simple but masterful. For all her money, Bella had rarely indulged herself with such an extravagant piece of couture.
Bella’s hand stole to her mouth. It was uncanny. The woman looked exactly like her.
But Bella’s complexion, though still excellent, lacked the freshness of the stranger’s. Her fine bone structure was becoming full of character. Not all the hairdresser’s art could quite capture the vibrant sheen of the stranger’s blonde hair. And how long was it since Bella had laughed with anything other than contempt?
Ben looked across at her.
“My God,” he said.