Authors: Rebecca Stratton
This book made available by the Internet Archive.
Charlotte had read and re-read the newspaper article, but no matter how many times she read it she remained firmly convinced that the man whose name she saw there could very well be her father. Not the father she had known all her life, but the man who had been actually responsible for her existence. It was an exciting possibility and the more she thought about it the more excited she became.
Mary and Charles Kennedy had never concealed from her the fact that she was an adopted child, but they had loved her deeply and she them. They had been already elderly when they adopted her, and three years ago Mary Kennedy had died, followed only two years later by her husband, and for the first time in her life Charlotte found herself with the need to find her own natural family.
On her twenty-first birthday, not long before he died, her adoptive father had given her a bracelet which he said they had received the day after her adoption became official. It came with no explanation or note and, unwilling to make waves on the tranquil surface of their existence, they had said nothing, only waiting for Charlotte to become twenty-one before they gave it to her.
It was a baby's bracelet made of gold and with her name, Charlotte, engraved on one side with the date of her birth, and on the reverse the names Elizabeth and Raoul Menais. Ever since, Charlotte had been convinced that they were the names of her true parents.
Now this newspaper item had aroused exciting hopes; if only it was possible to distinguish just one face dearly in the group of men photographed as they entered a hotel in
London where they were gathered for a conference. They were described collectively as a consortium of international businessmen and the names were Hsted in the caption, but none of them individually identified. There was no way she could decide which one of them was likely to be the man named as Raoul Menais, and described as a French industrialist.
To Qiarlotte the name seemed to be printed in much blacker type than any of the others and she was fast becoming obsessed with the idea of trying to contact him. But it was unlikely, she guessed, that he would welcome the sudden appearance of a young woman claiming to be his daughter, even supposing she could gain access to such an important man.
She had shrugged off the idea as hopeless at least a dozen times in half an hour, and yet the temptation refused to be resisted. Charlotte was impulsive, her mother had always said so, and never more so than when her heart was set on something as firmly as it was on seeing the man she was all but convinced was her real father.
Taking the initial step had been the hardest part, but from then on events seemed to follow naturally and it was less than three hours after her first sight of the article that she arrived by taxi, almost sick with excitement and slightly dazed by her own temerity. A taxi was a luxury she could not very often afford, but it was the only way to arrive in this instance, she felt, and gave the driver a large tip out of sheer bravado before turning to face the impressive glass doors of one of the biggest and plushiest hotels in London.
She hesitated for a moment on the wide marble steps, conscious of being eyed by a doorman who she was convinced saw through her fa
The foyer was enormous and struck her as chillingly
aloof even though it was teeming with people. Three lifts flicked their lighted numbers busily as guests came and went, and a curved staircase offered the alternative luxury of deep red carpet and gilded balustrades. The reception desk boasted not one but three clerks who dealt with what was seemingly an endless flow of enquiries and callers, and as she walked across the impressive vastness of the foyer Charlotte felt her courage fading.
How could she simply walk up and ask to see Monsieur Menais when her reason for seeing him was one she could impart only to the man himself? Her legs quaked im-steadily and she knew as she looked around her that she could not go through with it, she simply did not have the nerve. Disappointed and impatient with her own timidity, she was already turning to leave the hotel when one of the desk clerks called out to someone apparendy in the act of walking away.
'Monsieur Menais! Excuse me, sir, there's a call for you!*
Charlotte swung back quickly, the breath caught in her throat, and as she did so she almost collided with a nuin coming from the other direction. Desperate to see who it was being paged, she tried unsuccessfully to peer past him, and gasped indignandy when her arms were grasped by hard fingers that dug deep and hurt. Looking up to protest, she saw a strong dark face that frowned impatiendy at her, but she was more interested at the moment in who it was came to answer the desk-clerk's call.
In attempting to side step round him, she managed to block his attempt to do the^same and he clicked his tongue in disgust, his frown deepening. The hands on her arms gripped her firmly and she was thrust aside out of his path without more ado while he went hurrying off towards the reception desk, raising his voice as he went when the clerk once more put out his call.
* Yes, yes, I am here!'
Charlotte swung round and stared after him, too stunned for the moment to do more than follow the tall figure that went striding across the crowded foyer to the desk. Then she swallowed hard on the realisation that she had actually been in contact with Monsieur Raoul Menais without knowing it. It was a dizzying moment but a disappointing one, for the brief encounter had been long enough to make her certain that this Raoul Menais was not her father—he was far too young.
X The realisation was more bitter than she anticipated and Charlotte stared across the busy foyer at his unheeding back while he stood at the desk, unable to take her eyes off him. He was tall, and from the glimpse she had had of his face he was not good-looking as she had always hoped her father would be.
She had not noticed the colour of his eyes, but the frowning brows, she recalled, were as black as his hair, and he was as lean and predatory-looking as a panther. He was possibly about thirty-two or three years old and he could not be her father, so in the circumstances there was no reason for her to stay around any longer, and yet she turned away very reluctandy.
The doorman looked at her curiously when she emerged into the street once more, and she did not take a taxi this time but made for the nearest tube station. A cool spring wind caught her tawny hair as she ducked down into the underground, and she shivered slightly without actually feeling cold. Disappointment brought its own chill, and yet there was still a flutter of hope somewhere in her heart that refused to be stilled. She would, she promised herself as she boarded the train, make an effort to discover her true family, no matter what setbacks she encountered.
In fact the opportunity of contacting another member of the Menais family came her way much sooner than she
could have anticipated, and she could scarcely believe it when she saw an advertisement only a couple of days later asking for an English-speaking secretary-companion. Suitable applicants were to apply to Madame Menais, and the address given was the same hotel where Charlotte had made her abortive mission only two nights before.
A couple of years at secretarial school had equipped her with the first of the required skills, and for the second, she had helped care for her adoptive mother during her last painful years, so that she had all the requisite qualities, and the only question was whether or not someone applied who was even better qualified.
If she did get it, Charlotte recognised, she would have to tread very carefully, especially in the beginning, for no family was likely to take kindly to having an unexpected relation sprung on them without warning. She even mused on the fact that the names on the bracelet might not be those of her parents, but it was something she was too firmly convinced of to be doubted now, and when a telephone call settled an appointment for her to see Madame Menais, she went with high hopes and only a small quiver of uncertainty.
Passing once more through the impressive glass doors she crossed her fingers, but in this instance she did not hesitate to enquire where she could find Madame Menais. She felt rather conspicuous in her plain navy dress and shoes among the hotePs very chic clientele, but rather more confident than she expected as she hurried across to one of the lifts. Although it would not help if she was late for her appointment.
The lift doors were already beginning to close after her when someone came striding across the foyer towards it and placed a large hand to prevent them closing completely. A tight smile briefly acknowledged her presence and it was only when the newcomer turned aside to operate the button
that Charlotte realised she was sharing the lift with Raoul Menais.
'Your floor, mademoiselleV A long forefinger hovered before the row of gold buttons, but Charlotte was too startled for a moment to answer. Aware suddenly that he was frowning as blackly as he had on their first encounter, she brought herself swifdy back to earth. *I asked which floor you require, mademoiselle,^ he informed her, and took a long searching look at her over his shoulder. 'The fifth, perhaps?'
Charlotte nodded, colour flooding into her face. *Yes, please, the fifth floor.'
He inclined his head in acknowledgement, then once more turned to start the lift working. It moved upwards much more quickly than she espected, and Charlotte was one of those people who used stairs from choice. The only reason she had used the alternative today was because a traffic hold-up had made her a httle late and she did not want to waste further time by climbing up five flights of stairs.
The movement of the lift, however, had its usual effect and she felt the inevitable queasiness in her stomach, knowing it showed on her face as it always did. Doing her best to conceal how she felt, she swallowed hard, but apparently her companion had noticed something amiss and he was, almost invitably she feared, frowning.
*Are you unwell, mademoiselleV he asked, although Charlotte suspected his concern was more for the incon-vience it would cause him than from pity for her. 'You look pale, I hope you are not going to be ill.'
'I won't be,' Charlotte assured him, shakily reproachful as she pressed an unsteady hand to the quivering wooden wall beside her. 'It's the lift; I'll be all right once it stops.'
'You would have been wiser to have taken the stairway, surely,' he suggested, and Charlotte gave him a sickly smile.
*rm sure I would,' she agreed faindy, *but Fm just a litde late for an appointment and I thought the lift would save time.'
He made no reply, but he was obviously not impressed, and in view of the coming interview Charlotte wondered if she would have been wiser to have taken the stairs rather" than suffer the inevitable queasiness. She attempted to take her mind off her discomfort by noting that his eyes were deep, dark grey and set between thick black lashes, an intriguing combination. It was not a sympathetic face, though, and she admitted to herself that she was relieved, on that point at kast, that he was not her father.
The Uft slid to a halt, causing her another moment of nausea, then the doors moved apart smoothly and silendy revealing a vast expanse of red carpet and a tall mirror placed direcdy opposite to the lift. It was startling for a moment to see her own small figure reflected side by side with the man beside her, and for just a second their eyes met via the mirror.
Then a large hand invited her with rather more impatience than gallantry to precede him out of the lift and she stepped forward hastily, only to hesitate while she determined which way she should turn. It had not struck her until this moment that possibly she was there to see this man's wife,, and the prospect was hardly reassuring.
*You are looking for Room 524, mademoiselle^
The question brought her swifdy back to earth and Charlotte glanced up at him. *rm looking for. Madame Menais,' she said. *She's in Room 524, isn't she?'
Once more that imperious hand directed her and she followed obediendy, aware as she did so that he was coa-templating her slim figure in the plain navy dress. *You are here to be interviewed for the post of secretary?' he enquired, and somehow managed to inject a certain derision into the question that jarred.
*Does it show?' Charlotte laughed shortly, and looked at him from the comers of her eyes. Tm nervous, I suppose it's pretty obvious!'
'I am aware that Madame Menais is interviewing yoimg women for such a post this morning,' he told her, *and your appearance would suggest that you are an applicant, mademoiselle. Businesslike and rather severe.'
Her appearance! Charlotte cringed inwardly, feeling herself put firmly in her place as they came to a halt outside one of the rooms. She stood by while he unlocked the door, but having let himself in he turned and regarded her curiously, then flicked his gaze upwards to the gilt figures fastened to the white-painted door panel.
*Room number 524 is the next one along, mademoiselle,* the cool voice informed her. *I think you will find your way easily enough now.'
Her face flushed, Charlotte looked up at the number of his room. Large and plainly visible were the figures 522,
and she sighed inwardly in resignation. *I thought '
she began, but stopped when he shook his head as he took the key out of the lock and stood twisting it round in one hand.
'Incorrectly, it is evident, mademoisslley he observed coolly.
'I'm sorry,' Charlotte said, turning swiftly away, *I didn't realise. I just assumed '
She heard the soft click of the door closing as she turned and thought it was doubtful if he even heard her apology. From her experience of the Menais family so far, she could