'ACROSS THE QUADRANGLE AND through the first arch.'
The conference clerk looked up at Sophie Ballister and, visibly impressed, all the while appearing not to have noticed her specially chosen suit--Jil Sander, fine pale gold wool--and even more certainly her Italian shoes, heels not too high, went on, 'You'll come to some potted plants then it's up the second stairs.'
Sophie accepted a key and smiled her thanks. The conference -- for European accountants, auditors, actuaries, lawyers, and bankers who were also lawyers -- was being housed on a university campus in accommodation of the shared apartment sort quite familiar to Sophie from her own days in college. The plants proved to be pale petalled, lemon scented, and she found her room without difficulty in an apartment of three, each with its own bath and with a communal kitchen. On the landing side of the main door a card was already in the uppermost name slot: Christabel Armstrong.
Sophie put down her bag, went out again and added her name to the second slot. Her cell phone was ringing. She flicked it open, glanced at the brilliant screen, said, 'Cassie?'
Her cousin Cassie Ballister, who had a share in a floristry business and arranged large scale events in conjunction with a catering company, sounded untypically hesitant. 'When am I likely to see you, Sophie? Next week, perhaps?'
This request was unusual and Sophie hid her surprise. Cassie sounded as if she were blowing bubbles. No, sniffing into a handkerchief, perhaps. 'Not before,' Sophie told her.
'I have to go to Venice. I commissioned a small sculpture for an award ceremony here in London and I think there are likely to be problems. Come round when you can. Please.' She paused. 'Where are you?'
'At a conference,' Sophie told her. 'There's a meeting at six, a reception, and I suppose I should --'
'Get ready?' Cassie's voice faded, then revived. 'Come round, please. Don't forget.' And she was gone, leaving Sophie frowning at her phone in puzzled contemplation until she realized with a start that she hadn't much time.
She was still brushing her hair when she heard the outer door open. Christabel, no doubt. Without hesitation she went into the narrow hall to say hello. She bent forward, intending to give her hair a final swirl, and suddenly froze. Somewhere near the door there was a document case and a travelling bag with broad leather straps. Sophie was looking through the curtain of her brushed out hair at a man's very expensive shoes. And, rather long from ankle to knee, some very impressively tailored legs.
She knew she had to stand up straight, and right now. She made herself unbend very slowly. She could see that he hadn't moved from the moment he'd spoken, and she realised with a start that she was wearing a rather skimpy slip. Her sweater and skirt were on the bed where she had left them and she had the impression that none of her embarrassment was lost on the lean yet disquietingly strong looking man who was now supporting the open door; her senior by perhaps ten years, his mouth was slightly down turned, his expression grave. His eyes Sophie found exceptionally striking. Dark grey, hard. She collected her wits, blinked, and made herself look away.
'Mine is the second room.' He had the slightest possible accent, a correctness. He released his hold on the door and removed Christabel Armstrong's card from its slot, tore it into two pieces and held them out towards her.
Sophie shook her head, her mouth curving in a smile, her eyes wide. 'Both rooms are taken. The third is closed. Really, I'm afraid you've made a mistake.'
'There's no mistake. If you'll excuse me I'll go through.'
Sophie felt uncomfortable, and not just because of her revealing slip. As she backed a little away she caught a gleam, a flicker of something like calculation in his cold eyes. He knew he'd intimidated her and he was now watching with piercing interest as she blushed. Her face. Her shoulders. Everywhere.
And she felt both very foolish and totally furious. To find more clothes would have meant retreating into her own room in some sort of ludicrous avoidance routine, and she didn't want him to think that he'd managed to embarrass her. Except that he so plainly had. She was blushing harder than ever.
'You'll excuse me,' the stranger said. 'I'm afraid I have great deal to catch up.' He smiled no more than politely and disappeared into his room, and locked the door.
* * * * *
SOPHIE WAS READY AND out of the set of rooms in under ten minutes. Her first stop was the registration desk.
'How,' she asked the clerk, 'are the rooms allocated?'
'In term time?'
'No. Sorry. Now, for the conference.'
'Alphabetical order within the assigned buildings.'
Sophie hesitated. 'And there's no appeal?'
'Appeal?' The clerk, his eyebrows raised from his computer screen, looked patient. There was a distinct pause. 'We can't mess about.'
'No,' Sophie said reflectively. That seemed to be that. 'No, I suppose not. I was wondering about Ms Christabel Armstrong.'
The clerk tapped in a query. 'I see what you mean. She's a faculty member and she moved to a ground floor set. Would you like to see the printed list? I know that some were sent out but . . .' He held out a set of stapled sheets.
'Thank you.' Sophie's face was blank. There was Christabel. And there he was, Gianluca Massimo Bauer. Following her, Sophie Ballister. Gianluca Massimo Bauer. She repeated his name silently.