Rose O’Malley’s heart was racing, her skin felt clammy, her palms were sweaty and she was light – headed. She was basically exhibiting all the signs of heading into a full blown panic attack or some kind of emotional and physical meltdown, right here, on a closed toilet seat in one of Manhattan’s most exclusive hotel bathrooms.
Her surroundings, as opulent as they were, were only making things worse. Highlighting the fact that she shouldn’t be here. Highlighting the fact that this was not her world. She was one generation removed from Ireland, by way of Queens. And to say she felt like fish out of water was an understatement.
Her reflection in the mirror on the back of the cubicle door showed her a stranger. A sleek, soignée stranger. Her normally wavy shoulder length strawberry blonde hair was all straight and glossy and coiled up into a sophisticated chignon at the back of her head.
Rose acknowledged faintly that she had a neck. She’d never noticed it before now.
Only the bottom half of her face was visible because the rest of it was obscured by a delicately ornate black and gold mask. Her eyes glinted out, looking very frightened, and green and almost feverish. Her mouth was painted a garish red. Her cheeks were flushed too – she put the back of her hand to one burning cheek.
Relief flooded her for a moment, that was it: she was coming down with the flu – she ignored the little voice pointing out that they were in the middle of an abnormally warm New York spring and rationalised that she couldn’t possibly go out there now, she’d infect all of the most important people in Manhattan with her germs.
But just as she was about to stand up, her sheer black dress shimmering in the mirror, the main door of the powder room opened and women came in, chattering excitedly, and Rose sat back down again, futility sinking into her bones.
Of course she didn’t have the flu.
But she also wasn’t ready to come into actual human contact with anyone. Thankfully she was in the end stall, furthest away from the door. She’d wait till they left.
One of the women who entered – Rose figured there were two – spoke in a loud indiscreet whisper. ‘Oh my god. Did you see him? I mean, I know he’s totally hot, but seriously? I think my ovaries just exploded.’
The other woman’s tone was dry and sardonic. ‘Well, that’s just a waste of good eggs. It’s common knowledge he doesn’t want anything to do with the inheritance his family have bequeathed to any child he might have – he even changed his name to distance himself!’
The friend was incredulous, ‘Who on earth would turn their back on billions of dollars and a family name that dates back to the Mayflower?’
Rose’s insides cramped painfully. She knew exactly who; the most infamous man at the party. Zac Valenti. He was here. She’d been hoping he might not be. But he was. And now the palpitations were back.
The women were still gossiping amidst the sounds of rummaging in a bag.
‘…everyone thought he was having, like, a breakdown or something after he left Addison Carmichael waiting at the altar, but the man literally rose from the ashes.’
The voices got lower and Rose found herself straining forward to the door to hear.
‘They say that he’s now the richest eligible male in the United States.’
‘But did you get the vibe he sends off? Seriously cold, and moody. Like, you can look, but you can’t touch.’
The other voice turned dreamy, ‘I know…those silent brooding types are so damned attractive.’
There was a spurt of something that sounded like perfume and a derisive snort. ‘I think it has a little more to do with the fact that he’s a walking gold – mine for the woman who can succeed in getting him to be her baby – daddy. He might not want his family’s fortune, but I for one, would not say no, and whoever has his baby has access to the famous Lyndon – Holt fortune.’
As those words reverberated, Rose chose that precise moment to overbalance and fall against the door of the cubicle with a clatter. She stiffened in horror as an awful silence descended over the powder room, and then she heard frantic hushed whispering and the rapid clickety – clack of heels as the women left again.
She sat back on the seat and rubbed her shoulder where it had connected with the door. Hysteria rose. As those women had just pointed out – Zac Valenti was probably the man least likely to father a child, thanks to his well documented estrangements with his family; the cause of which no – one knew but it hadn’t stopped the endless speculation as to why. He hadn’t even gone to his own father’s funeral when he’d died almost a year previously.
After the rift and the death of his father, a new version of the Lyndon – Holts’ will had been leaked to the press and it had revealed that if Zac had a child, boy or girl, that child would inherit the entire Lyndon – Holt fortune, in lieu of Zac. Many suspected that the details of the will had been leaked on purpose.
So now, if Zac Valenti fathered a child, there would be immense pressure on him not to deny it its rightful inheritance, and the child’s mother would have a say in this…something Valenti was undoubtedly aware of, and which was probably behind the conveniently leaked will.
Which brought Rose O’Malley neatly back to the reason she was here in the first place. She was here to cold – bloodedly seduce Zac Valenti – one of the most coveted bachelors in the world – with the aim being, however impossible it might seem, to try and become pregnant with his child.
Rose’s mind boggled anew at what she’d agreed to. It was only now, a day later, that the panic and fear that had led her to that agreement had faded a little, restoring cold stark reality. And the realization that she’d made a pact with the devil.
Rose’s conversation with her employer, Mrs Lyndon – Holt, was still vivid; as vivid as the beautifully preserved woman’s ice – cold blue eyes. Zac Valenti’s mother had held up the signed contract and said, ‘You are now bound by the terms of this agreement, Rose. If you become pregnant with my son’s child, and ensure that they take the Lyndon – Holt name, they will inherit what is rightfully theirs. And your father will go to a clinic and receive the best medical care for his condition.’
Mrs Lyndon – Holt had continued, ‘But, if you break the terms of the non – disclosure agreement and reveal these details to anyone, you will be prosecuted with the full force of my legal team. In the event that you do have a baby and you don’t comply with these terms, I will crush you. Needless to say a legal contretemps between me – ’ she’d looked Rose up and down pointedly here, ‘and a maid isn’t a fight you’ll want to engage in.’
‘Not to mention the fact that your father will not benefit from my help.’
The magnitude of what Rose had just agreed to and what was at stake had hit her. She’d blurted out, ‘What on earth makes you think a man like your son would look twice at someone like me?’
The older woman had stood back and narrowed those calculating eyes. ‘A man as cynical and jaded as Zachary? He’ll look. He can’t fail to notice a fresh – faced beauty like you. You just have to ensure that it goes beyond that.’
Rose came back to the present and looked at herself in the mirror. She didn’t feel fresh – faced, or beautiful. She felt ridiculous, tainted. Garish. With her hot cheeks and the slash of red lipstick. In a fit of self – disgust she grabbed some tissue and wiped the lipstick off her lips.
She couldn’t do this. She should never have agreed to such an outlandish plan.
She stood up, galvanised to leave this place and inform Mrs Lyndon – Holt that she could find someone else to be her sick baby – bait, but the reason she’d agreed to it in the first place came back like a slap in the face, and she sat back down again heavily. Her father. His face in pain. Pale. Losing hope. Far too young at fifty – two to be facing certain death if he didn’t receive the operation he needed.
The kind of operation that was far beyond the reach of an ex – chauffeur and humble maid, with only the most basic of health insurance.
A fact that Mrs Lyndon – Holt had seized upon to use to her advantage, capitalising on Rose’s fear and panic. Her father had worked as the Lyndon – Holts’ driver until Mr Lyndon – Holt had passed away almost a year ago, after which Mrs Lyndon – Holt had taken on new staff, without so much as a thank you for years of service. Rose had kept her job however, and it had been a relief at the time. But shortly afterwards her father had started to feel unwell, culminating in the diagnosis of a rare and fatal heart condition, if not treated.
Rose battled with her conscience now. The thought of her father succumbing to his inevitable decline was too much to bear. She’d lost her mother already, far too young. Her father was all she had left. They had no other family in America. And he could be saved, easily. If he had the operation. The operation that Mrs Lyndon – Holt had agreed to pay for, if Rose did this.
She looked at her glittering eyes and hectically flushed cheeks. She told herself that she would make an attempt to find Zac Valenti, but if she couldn’t find him, or if she did, and he didn’t look at her twice – which she fully expected – then she would go. And at least she would know that she’d tried her best.
And then, she would worry about what to do with her father. But at least, she would have given it a shot.