The Cinderella Factor

By: Sophie Weston




Jo shook her head a little, trying to break that mesmeric eye contact.

Her ragged hair was plastered to her head, darkened to coal-black, all its red lights doused in the soaking it had received. The movement sent trickles of water from the rats’ tails down her shoulders.

“I didn’t realize anyone was there,” she said blankly.

At once she was furious with herself. Stupid, stupid, she thought. Of course you knew he was there, the moment he spoke. And of course you didn’t know before that, or you would not have been jumping about in the water with no clothes on.

Realization hit her then. She gave a little gasp and plunged her shoulders rapidly under the water. But she couldn’t quite break the locking of their gaze.





PROLOGUE


THREE continents watched foreign correspondent Patrick Burns torpedo his brilliant career on live television.

The first person to notice was the assistant editor in the London office.

‘Oh, no,’ she said. ‘He’s going to take sides.’

Nonsense, they said. Patrick Burns had just been voted International Reporter of the Year. When he was on a roll like that, why on earth would he risk his job?

‘For the second time,’ muttered Ed Lassells, the head honcho, though nobody noticed.

Besides, Patrick always said it himself, when he lectured at conferences or made one of his modest, witty speeches accepting yet another award. ‘We can’t get involved,’ he would say. ‘We’re journalists. We’re impartial or we’re nothing.’

But that had been before Patrick had lain on his face in the dust for twenty minutes while snipers held their fire for the sake of the eleven-year-old village boy squatting beside him. Patrick was involved now, come hell or high water.

His cameraman had suspected something was up the night he finally broke loose. A great moon gave them a wavering train of dark shadow across the stony mountainside. It picked out anything shiny: the face of Patrick’s watch, the screen of a cellular phone, a metal button. They didn’t need a torch to guide their scramble up the bleak slope.

‘Blasted moon. We might as well be in a spotlight,’ muttered Tim, stopping for a moment, a hand to his side. The air was thin at that height, and he was not as used to it as Patrick. Or as fit.

‘Then let’s hope the enemy is looking the other way,’ said Patrick, still climbing.

‘The girls in the office should see you now,’ Tim said dryly.

Patrick did not falter, but he gave a bark of laughter. ‘You mean the pin-up portrait in the velvet jacket?’

Tim was surprised. ‘You know about it?’

Patrick looked over his shoulder. ‘The poster of me in the girls’ restroom looking like a Las Vegas gambler? Sure, I know about it. Last Christmas party they asked me in there to sign it.’

Tim was even more surprised. The girls shivered in mock trepidation whenever Patrick’s name was mentioned. But, then again, they laid elaborate plans to get him on a date.

It was an office game. Only one girl had ever gone out with him seriously. It had taken her three weeks to come to her senses. Then, when Patrick had gone off abroad on his next assignment, she’d confided to her best friend, the Balkan specialist—and thence to the whole company—that Patrick was tricky.

‘Very tricky,’ nice Corinna had said, shaken out of her light-hearted sophistication. ‘If you let him take you to bed, it’s like he doesn’t forgive you.’

‘Doesn’t like loose women?’ the Balkan specialist had asked, fascinated by this anachronism.

But Corinna had shaken her head, sobered by her brush with blazing Patrick Burns. ‘It’s like it makes him hate himself.’

Which, of course, had been much too intriguing to keep to themselves.

There was much speculation on Patrick Burns’s inner demons in the ladies’ cloakroom. A more sober picture of him from an awards ceremony, frowning and intense in an impeccable dinner jacket, appeared on the wall of the newsroom beneath the international time clocks. Lisa, the receptionist, dubbed him Count Dracula, and most of the women in the place agreed—and sighed. Much to the annoyance of their male colleagues.

‘The man’s a sex god,’ the Balkan specialist had said in a matter-of-fact voice when her boss had wondered aloud, irritably, what Patrick Burns had got that other men didn’t have. ‘Get over it.’

‘But you say yourselves that he isn’t kind to his women,’ roly-poly Donald had said, bewildered. ‘I mean, that’s not the modern woman’s dream man, is it?’

The Balkan specialist had grinned. ‘Who needs dreams? Patrick can give you one hell of a sexy nightmare.’

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