“I can’t believe this is happening,” I whispered, barely able to keep my hands from shaking.
I watched as people from the party gravitated towards him, as he grinned, shook hands and made courteous small talk, subtly flirting with all the beautiful women.
“No one informed me he’d be coming tonight,” I hissed, grabbing my colleague’s arm.
“Ouch,” Hanna cried, and I abruptly let go. “You were on holiday. I guess we forgot to email you the itinerary for upcoming events. How was Scotland anyway?”
The green valleys, jagged cliffs, sparkling rivers – it was the kind of holiday to be taken with your family or a partner, a romantic partner. But I had neither and so I’d gone alone, and in the end spent most of my time wandering aimlessly, feeling empty and lost. I had been eager to get back to London, to lose myself in my job as Personal Assistant once again. But now, I would do anything to be away from this place, from him.
“Hello?” Hanna said impatiently. “Earth to Samia. How was the holiday?”
The terrible liar that I was, I didn’t want to answer that. I decided to ignore her question altogether.
“Why was he invited?”
Hanna guffawed. “Erm, well, only because he’s the youngest billionaire in England, maybe even the world. You do know that right?”
“Of course I know that,” I snapped, feeling my dinner shift uncomfortably in my stomach. It was important for me to eat before such evening work events, otherwise I usually found myself on my feet for hours, utterly famished. But today I regretted it; I’d be lucky if I didn’t puke everywhere.
Hanna grimaced at my tone. “Why the hell are you acting so strange? It’s an honour to have him with us. This is huge for our magazine.”
Again, I ignored her. Opting instead to look at Aryan Parker, just as every other woman in the hall seemed to be doing, some more coy and subtle than others. It was easy to tell exactly why he attracted such attention. He was tall, maybe an inch or two over six feet. His muscular frame was visible even through the sleek black suit he wore; it was all too easy to imagine him putting in work at the gym… and plenty of other places. His jet-black hair was cropped short, just as his beard. And his hazel eyes danced with charm and the promise of pleasure.
“You know he’s never seen with the same woman twice? I stalk the crap out of him on Daily Mail.”
Of course I knew that too. I would never admit it to anyone, but I stalked the crap out of him too. I knew everything there was to know about the man. And it wasn’t only because he’d launched Newsdom, the giant social media app that allowed people from all over the world to report local news events, giving those a voice who hadn’t previously been heard. It was because of everything that had happened before he’d become impossibly rich and famous, when he was a nobody and I was the daughter of a wealthy man. It was because of our dark, twisted history. For years he’d always been there, lingering in the back of my mind.
“I can’t be here,” I muttered, already backing towards the door. He couldn’t see me. It would ruin the evening if he did. And Hanna was right, this event was important for our magazine: Opulence had become big in recent years, but it still struggled to get interviews and photoshoots with the biggest players in the entertainment industry. But then again, who didn’t? It was difficult to get one’s hands on celebrities. I couldn’t ruin this for us. “I’m leaving. Just tell the boss something came up.”
“Stop being so dramatic, Samia,” Hanna chided, stretching a hand to pull me back towards her. “Mr Parker certainly has a way of making the ladies feel jittery.” She paused to giggle. “But I mean no offense when I say that he won’t be fixating on you tonight, not with all the hot journalists and supermodels around him.”
And then it all happened at once.
I backed straight into a waiter. His tray of champagne glasses crashed to the floor. A hush spread throughout the hall. Everyone’s eyes turned to me. I looked at no one but him. Hoping, praying, he wouldn’t look in my direction too.
No such luck…
Recognition instantly dawned in his eyes. My heart skipped two beats. And I suddenly knew for certain, I’d also been lingering somewhere in his mind, but in an infinitely darker way.
I wanted to rip my eyes away from his but simply couldn’t do it; his dark gaze had gripped me. As I picked myself off the floor, brushed my cocktail dress down, fingers wet with champagne, he stalked – no prowled – towards me. The prowl of a predator. And everyone watched. No one could save me from him. If Aryan Parker had proved one thing from his career, it was that he always got what he wanted and never took no for an answer. Neither poverty nor racism nor lack of opportunities had been able to hold the man back.
My blood thundered in my ears, my throat grew dry. And then there he was, standing before me. His hazel eyes were filled with fire, his lips pinched as though he was barely keeping in all the curses he wanted to hurl at me. And somehow, despite all his rage, I couldn’t help but imagine those lips doing something entirely different to me…
My stomach somersaulted, and I blinked rapidly to shut away those thoughts.
“What are you doing here?”
His voice was deep, husky… masculine.
“I-I erm… I-”
“She works for the magazine,” Hanna chipped in for me, her voice uncharacteristically excited. She clearly had no idea how bad this was, that this was far from a dashing billionaire showing interest in me, it was in fact the complete opposite of that.
“I never would have come here if I knew,” he murmured.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Hanna’s face fall. And knew mine would be looking ten times worse. A tense silence followed, and I wished I could vanish.
“I apologise for the mishap. My workers are usually more apt,” my boss, Keith, laughed. He placed a hand on Aryan’s shoulder but he stepped away and Keith flinched, retracting his hand.
Keith shot me an enraged look before turning to Aryan with an apologetic smile. “I hope you’re not too disappointed by this small incident. It will be rectified straight away. And the rest of the evening with be perfectly smooth.”
“I don’t give a damn about spilled champagne,” he said, letting his own glass fall to the floor as well. “I care about having to breathe the same air as Samia Khan.”
And with that, he stormed for the exit.
“What the hell did you do?” Keith barked, getting up closer to my face than ever before. He didn’t want the partying onlookers to hear our conversation, but oh was he mad. This would’ve been a shout-down if we weren’t at a public event. “Mr Parker is one of the most influential men in the world. What if he badmouths Opulence now? How dare you ruin this event for me? For the magazine?”
“I-I’m so sorry. I-I didn’t mean-”
“You heard me. Get out of here. This scene is over.”
I wanted to respond, to plead to keep this job: it was tiring and demanding but I was good at it. And honestly, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life. But a lump had formed in my throat. Everyone still stared at me. The humiliation. The injustice. The unfairness of everything in my life.
I wanted to cry and beg and explain myself. To everyone.
But I had grown up watching my father shout endlessly at my mother, and her being reduced to a broken, sobbing mess each time. I hated that: her patheticness and weakness. I promised I’d never be like that. And so I didn’t cry. I never cried.
I also didn’t plead or explain or curse. I simply left.
And the entire tube journey home, all the way to my studio flat in East London, I thought of Aryan’s dark, hate-filled gaze.
The roles were reserved now.
He was handsome. Well-dressed. Rich. Beyond secure.
And I was a Personal Assistant, stuck in a dead-end job. And I didn’t even have that anymore. In only one moment, nothing in my life was secure.
Now, it wasn’t only that I had no one. I had nothing.