I stretched as I woke and shook the shoulder of the man asleep beside me when I glanced at the digital display of the bedside clock.
“Mark, wake up. It’s time you went home before anyone else is up and sees you leave my hotel room.”
I pressed the bedhead switch and turned on the wall-mounted lights. Mark grunted and burrowed his face into the pillow, so all I could see of him was his dark-blond, sleep-tussled hair. I pushed the duvet off us and smacked his up-turned arse cheek. “Awake, you. Now.”
He turned his head to the side and opened one eye. “You wouldn’t like to do that again, would you? I think I rather liked it…”
I slapped his butt once more. “Maybe next time, but for now, get yourself out of here.”
He rolled onto his back, his cock stiffening. “You’re quite sure you wouldn’t like a little more?”
My pussy dampened at the sight, but I ignored my arousal and pointed toward my bedroom door. “Out, you greedy bugger.”
He swung his legs off the bed with a still-sleepy smile. “But that’s what you like about me.”
I straightened the duvet over my legs as he took his clothes out of the wardrobe and watched his cock disappear inside the snug fit of his boxer shorts.
“So I do, but not the prospect of a whisper of undue influence leaking out into the ether because one of my work colleagues has happened to spot you leaving my room.”
Mark pulled on his trousers, tucked in his shirt and fastened his zipper then leaned over the bed and kissed me, his lips soft on my cheek. “Okay, my little she-dragon. I’m out of here. Are you going to be kind to me later?”
“Nope.” I yawned. “I’ll be fair and impartial as always, but the best interests of the regulatory authority I represent will always guide my final decision.”
He sighed and picked up his suit jacket. “I should know better than to expect any other answer from you, but you can’t blame a man for living in hope.”
I turned my face to my pillow. “As I live in hope you’ll shut the door behind you quietly on your way out. See you at ten.”
He walked to my hotel room door and looked over his shoulder as he opened it. “Ellie McAllister, you’re going to kill me at the meeting, aren’t you?”
I lifted my head. “No, Mr. Walker. It won’t quite be a knife to the jugular unless I re-read your proposal over breakfast and change my mind because I haven’t managed to catch a couple of extra hours of looked-for sleep. Easy on that door now, when you shut it.”
Mark smiled and eased the door into its latch as he left. I darkened the room again, closed my eyes and slept until my phone alarm sounded at seven-thirty, then showered, made up my face with a pale, minimal look and dressed in a dark, knee-length business skirt-suit, a white, buttoned-to-the-neck shirt and three-inch heels to bring my five-foot-eight height up nearer average man-level. I finished by scraping my hair back from my face and twisting the length of it into a bun secured by an old-fashioned hair net on the nape of my neck, then added ‘geek’ spectacles of zero magnification.
My attaché case and overnight bag in hand, I exited my hotel room and rode the lift down to the restaurant to see my two colleagues already seated—Joanne, a legal exec, and Leza, an admin assistant. I sat and asked, “Did you sleep well? Is everything good to go?”
Joanne nodded. “I did, thanks, then had the pool to myself when I took an early swim around six. I re-read the brief before I came down for breakfast and your response is appropriate to the proposal. If they’re expecting our immediate approval, they’re living in la-la land, but I don’t get that expectation from the wording of it.”
Leza smiled. “I’ll take the minutes on my tablet. I’ve typed up and printed the formalities, short as they are.”
The waiter hovered and we gave him our order for the lighter breakfast option—thinly sliced smoked salmon with brown bread and butter, black tea and a sharing platter of fresh fruit.
Leza looked at her plate when he brought our order to the table and set the food in front of us. “It’s good to get out of the office sometimes, isn’t it? I wouldn’t normally bother with breakfast on a work day other than perhaps a chocolate bar to eat on the train.”
Joanne smiled and cut into her smoked salmon. “It’s just a shame the glass of champagne that should accompany this is off limits.”
Leza sighed. “Mm-m… I could go for that. Smoked salmon and champagne.”
I popped the latches on my attaché case, took three copies of my official reply to Mark’s proposal out of it and passed two of them over. Leza looked at the cover page of her copy, traced her fingertip under his name and added, “Preferably after a night rolling around in bed with Mark Walker with the hope of a second helping of him to come after breakfast.”
Joanne laughed. “In your dreams. I happen to know Julie Summers dropped a couple of more-than-obvious hints his way and he didn’t go for them, so I don’t think any of us sitting around this table stand a chance of getting our hands on him.”
“He didn’t fancy Julie Summers? Wow,” Leza said. “But would it break the rules to date him, Jo?”
“Technically, no,” Joanne told her, “so long as you declared your involvement with him on the personal interests register, but you’d have to stop working on anything to do with his company and that wouldn’t go down well with those higher up the career chain. You’d probably find yourself relegated to the sidelines with any hope trashed that you held for future promotion.”
I pushed my glasses higher up my nose as Joanne’s words sent a shiver down my back, although my groin, alive with the kind of tremor that wanted more of what Mark had done to my body in the night, ignored her warning. I cleared my throat and sat a little straighter.
“Stow the daydreams, ladies. We’re about to head to a business meeting with him. Eyes down and enjoy your breakfast. We have a job to do.”
I turned the cover page of my copy and read as I ate. Joanne flicked to the last page on hers and looked at me over the top of her fork. “What will you do if the independent audit firm he selects is the ‘rather too close to home’ bunch that rent offices in the same building as his?”
I put my cutlery on my plate and placed my paperwork back in my case. “There’s nothing I can do. The choice is his. I’ll try to emphasize the word independent, to hint that the audit firm you eat lunch with every day is okay to sign off your year-end accounts but probably not the best choice if what you’re after is regulatory approval for a business model that’s never been trialed before.”
“Given the loophole you’ve picked up, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to him that we’re going to be a little fussy over this,” Joanne said.
I shrugged, pushed my plate away and stood. “I’ve no suspicion of intent to exploit from my monitoring of the company’s previous financial transactions, but the potential’s there to asset-strip the profitable policies and dump the rest. Go on ahead of me after the meeting. I’ll stay behind and drop a hint in his ear about the precedence. Let’s get to it, ladies.”
Joanne and Leza followed me out of the restaurant. We deposited our overnight bags with reception and I settled our bill then pocketed the receipt for the allowable portion to add to my month’s expenses claim. The hotel was only a brisk walk away from Mark’s offices and Joanne swung open the door to the reception area of Walker and Timpson Asset Management Limited ten minutes later. I gave our names at the welcome desk and twenty minutes after that, courtesies of hand-shaking completed and offers of coffee and water turned down, I sat at the conference table with Joanne and Leza, one to each side of me, and faced Mark, along with the two of his work colleagues who accompanied him. I opened my attaché case, took my written conclusion out of it and looked at him. “Are you happy for Leza to take the minutes or would you prefer one of your staff to do so?”
“Leza’s fine.” Mark smiled.
I did not reciprocate, a smile being something never seen on my face during a business meeting, with Mark or anyone else. I turned to Leza, who was tapping on her tablet screen. “You have the names of those present?”
She nodded. “Sure. Ready to go when you are.”
I picked up my script. “I’ll give you my decision straight through. There are no points of discussion in it.” I dropped my gaze and began.
“I have reviewed the business proposal received from you, Walker and Timpson, along with your financial statements, and I have two areas of concern that need to be addressed before this scheme can be further considered for regulatory approval. The first is the safeguarding of vulnerable policyholders, namely those whose ‘premium paid’ falls short of the expected ‘settlement due’ in the event of their making a valid claim. The second is the limited liability status of Walker and Timpson. With these concerns in mind, I would require a full all-area audit to be completed by an external firm of accountants of your choice”—I paused and looked up from my script into the faces in front of me—“with the proviso that the accounting firm selected should be fully independent of this company. On my review of the audit data, your proposal will be re-examined. A hard copy of this decision will be left with you and also published on our online information portal at such time as I deem it appropriate to do so. The minutes of this meeting will be emailed to you.”
I put my script onto the table and withdrew my attention against any attempt to involve me in a discussion that might lead to the sin of sins—a regulator defending or justifying their decision. Joanne sat straighter, ready to deal with any objection or counter-argument on my behalf, but none came.
“That concludes our business,” she said.
“We’ll give your decision our attention over the next few days,” Mark replied, with a noticeable absence of a smile.
The men on the other side of the table pushed their chairs back and stood. I picked up my case, opened it and flicked through the contents, looking for nothing really at all. Leza flipped the cover of her tablet shut and followed Joanne and Mark’s colleagues out of the room. I closed my case, looked at Mark’s still unsmiling face and actually committed the sin of sins as I asked, “So, what were you expecting?”
Mark retook his seat and faced me with a stiffness to his shoulders that told me he’d taken the wording of my decision personally. “Whatever else I expected, it was not that as a matter of public record it would be implied that I may be intending to front-load the profitable policies and sink the remainder.”
I gazed at the crease of a frown between his eyes then committed the most cardinal sin of all and explained.
“Mark, the search for exploitable loopholes is my brief. Making a judgement call on whether the company concerned would use them is not. I find them. I deal with them. I fully expect your audit results to be squeaky clean. You’ll get your approval if so, and if your new business model works as you predict, your company will make its oodles of cash. Your business model will then be copied by other companies eager for a slice of the pie and they won’t all be as scrupulous as you.”
“You’ve used us to set precedent?”
“Sorry, but not sorry, yes. The temptation to assign the unprofitable polices to a shell subsidiary company of limited liability then fold that company at a loss of only fifty quid will be too much to resist for some of the businesses that will jump on your bandwagon. If I approve your scheme, I’ll retrospectively publish this decision, because it has to be known that we’re aware of the possibility of it happening. And with my apologies to the audit company you use, you share office facilities with them—the loos, lunch venues—and you probably all mingle in the wine bar on the ground floor on Friday evenings. My message on that front is directed at any company that may think they can sneak a ‘friend of a friend’ audit past us.”
His shoulders relaxed. “Okay. Point taken. Although I can assure you we don’t mingle in a work-related way with our auditors any more than I’m about to rip off little old ladies with their five-pounds-a-month policies that pay out fifty times that every time they so much as break a fingernail.”
I stood and picked up my case. “As I’m rather banking on, being as it will be my name on the dotted line that signs off on the final approval. If this goes tits-up, it takes me down with it. I’ll wait to hear from you.”
I shut the door behind me to the sound of his voice. “It won’t—”
I rode the lift down and handed back my visitor badge at the welcome desk. Joanne and Leza waited for me beside it. I looked at the time on my phone. “There’s a train departing for London just after the hour. If we quick-walk, we can just about make it.”
Joanne nodded and stepped up the pace. We retrieved our overnight bags from the hotel, hot-footed it through town to the station and jumped onto the train with two minutes to spare. Leza, red-faced, spluttered as we found seats for four, two on each side of a central table. “Jesus, I’m puffed.”
Joanne, gym-honed and barely winded like me, laughed. “Look at the state of you! And you thought you could go several rounds in the sack with the super-fit Mark Walker? No chance!”
“I’d give it a damn good shot.” Leza wheezed to Joanne’s snort. I looked at Joanne sitting beside me then at Leza sat opposite her, and cleared my throat to call them to order.
“Enough, ladies. Thank you.”
“Sorry, Ellie,” Joanne said. “That was inappropriate. How did your hint about the precedence go down?”
I squeezed my knees together against my own inappropriate thoughts of the feel of Mark’s mouth sucking between my legs and shortened the extent of our conversation. “Initially not happy, but with a couple of pointed remarks, it was message received.”
“Good.” Joanne smiled.
Leza leaned back and took her e-reader out of her bag as my phone vibrated. Joanne glanced at the screen as it lit up with the name calling—Jaydon Scott, the dark-haired elder brother of Lucy, the captain of the football team I played for. I accepted the call but kept my answers minimal to match the straight-laced reputation I cultivated at work. “Jay. Hi.”
“Are you still up for drinks at Lucy’s tonight?”
“I’ll be there.”
“Shall I swing by your place so we can walk over together?”
Having a pretty good idea of what Jay would really like to swing by mine for but unsure it was a road I wished to go down with my skin still tingling from my night in bed with Mark, I sidestepped his offer. “I’m out of the office on business today. Best if I make my own way, I think.”
“Oh, okay. But you’re definitely coming?”
“Sure. See you later.”
I cut the call to Joanne’s look of enquiry. “Your boyfriend?”
“Not as such.” I shrugged. “He’s a nice guy, but I’m not much into the dating thing.”
“That’s a shame…if he’s nice.”
I shrugged again, retrieved my laptop from my attaché case then loaded up a spreadsheet and further sealed my reputation as the office’s least interesting female by getting on with some work without any other comment on the subject. The train pulled into London Bridge station in time for us to take a late lunch break. Leza headed to McDonald’s, Joanne to Pret’s, while I walked on to the office, bought a sandwich from the local snack bar then worked through until six and let myself into my hard-saved-for studio flat a few minutes after seven. My front door opened directly onto an all-purpose living area with a kitchenette and, above it, a half-mezzanine bedroom accompanied by a walk-in en suite wet room—all of it my prized little-bit-of-London space that had taken three years of scrimping to accumulate a down payment that elsewhere in the country would have allowed me to purchase the flat outright.
I put my attaché case beside the sofa, took my overnight bag to my bedroom then showered, put on my wrap and walked downstairs to inspect the interior of my fridge. The sparse contents that greeted me forewarned of a supermarket trip in the morning, but with Lucy providing hot snacks later, I only wanted the bottle of cold beer on the shelf. I flicked the television on, chose a music channel then sat on the sofa and contemplated the evening that could end with Jay in my bed. As I sipped, the track changed to Queen’s Play the Game and the opening lyrics scrolling across the bottom of the screen brought to mind my time in bed with Mark.
I smiled as I remembered how our occasional nights together had begun—at an afternoon seminar for which the conference room of a London hotel had been booked for a PR undertaking on behalf of Her Majesty’s government. Speakers, including me, were attending to try to convince an audience of invited guests that our various tax-raising or regulatory departments weren’t really mad, bad and only in existence to piss them off.