Holly sits on the closed toilet in a bathroom cubicle, her legs splayed, her hand slipping into her panties.
She is soaked.
Her breath splutters from her clenched lips; she grinds her teeth to stop the whine escaping her throat. She should find Marcus now. That would be the best option. Maybe he could smuggle her into the Men’s. Or perhaps they could go into the side alley outside. Or even grab a private room – well, if they exist. Anywhere. It would be a first. Something daring in a sex life that has become tempered.
But thinking of Marcus is reflex, the way a partner must – by rights of the relationship – think of their significant other in such a situation of arousal. The obligation lacks conviction. It’s the dingy motel room that occupies her thoughts, of being bent over the foot of the bed, her execs alternating in quick, ferocious sessions, the collision of their hips on her buttocks like savage applause.
Holly hisses as her body tenses, then trembles. Her chest heaves and she goes limp. Her heels squeal against the floor as her legs convulse. Her breath comes in ragged gasps. She doesn’t know how long it is before she regains her senses. Seconds, she’d like to think, but likelier a minute. She sits there, unbelieving not only of what she’s done, but how she’s responded.
Her panties are too wet and uncomfortable to continue wearing. She pulls them from her legs, uses them – then some toilet paper – to pat herself dry, and puts her panties in her bag. For the rest of the night, she’ll have to be careful to be going panty-less in such a small skirt. But there’s also a thrill about it that makes her shiver. She does not know from where this sudden dare has emerged. Or why. Perhaps it speaks of some unease – the typical glimmer of doubt everybody in a serious relationship must encounter repeatedly but dismisses in the name of love.
She presses her palms to each side of the cubicle and pushes herself up to her feet. Her legs are shaky. She pulls down her skirt and flattens out the creases, takes a deep breath, and reaches for the cubicle door. She stops, flushes the toilet, then leaves the cubicle.
There are other women in the bathroom, fixing their make-up in the mirror and chatting gaily, as if they were talking over an afternoon coffee. Their faces are bright, a fine sheen of sweat covering their temples. Not one of them regard her with any curiosity.
‘Hot in here,’ a lithe redhead notes to Holly as she takes a position at the mirror.
Holly nods, not trusting herself to speak, and washes up. She wants to be out of the bathroom. It’s a crime scene now. Best she flees. But first she adjusts her make-up. The last thing she needs is to look flustered for the others – particularly Amber. It might’ve been a mistake to disclose to her. Amber’s perception of her may have been irrevocably damaged.
Holly leaves the bathroom and slides into the juncture. The air is cool and refreshing here. She could stay here all night. People hurry past her. Everybody wants to be somewhere. They are all drawn to something, even when they don’t understand it.
Holly leans against the wall, and tilts her head up.
It’s Quinn, emerging from the restaurant. His face is pale.
Holly’s self-conscious of her appearance, although she knows it was fine when she checked it in the bathroom. She is also self-conscious of her skirt. She presses her hands flat against it, like a gust of wind might blow it up, even if it clings to her like a wrap. But Quinn’s eyes flit back and forth. He is too distracted to notice anything.
‘Can I talk to you?’ Quinn asks.
Quinn leads her to the Blue Lounge, where they grab a table and order Kronenbourg beers. Holly prods Quinn, but he says nothing until the drinks are delivered. Then he takes a gulp, finishing half the beer. Holly watches him, wide-eyed. Quinn is Amber’s counterpart: meek. But there is something desperate about him now – desperate but simple. This is all he is now.
‘About two weeks ago,’ he says finally, ‘Marcus, Dante and I went to a gambling house.’
‘A casino?’ Holly frowns.
Quinn shakes his head.
‘Was this an illegal place?’
Quinn nods. ‘It was …’ He trails away.
Holly can guess what he was about to say. ‘It was Marcus’s idea, right?’ she says.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Quinn says. ‘We came off okay and it was just a stupid night out. You know Marcus? He likes to try everything once—’
‘Cut to the short of it, Quinn,’ Holly says.
Quinn takes another swig of beer. ‘I won, so I went back. I won again, so I went back again. Then I lost. So I went back to try and recoup—’
Quinn stares into his beer, his hands clamped around the bottle.
‘Quinn, how much?’
‘I lost everything, Holly. The down-payment on my house, the lease on my car, the ring I bought Amber—’
‘You bought Amber a ring?’
‘I had! It’s gone now. All of it! It’s gone. Gone …’
‘I convinced them to let me run a tab. Holly, I’m into them for nearly half a million dollars.’
‘What?’ Holly is louder than she intends. People turn to her. She pulls her chair into the table, then leans across the table-top towards Quinn. ‘How do you lose so much money so quickly?’
Quinn snorts ruefully. ‘Trust me: there are ways.’
‘Quinn, Amber’s about to explode waiting for you to pop the question.’
‘I know. I know. That’s when … that’s when I heard about the guy.’
Holly frowns as she takes her first sip of beer.
‘This old guy …’
Quinn’s eyes dart to the corner of the Lounge. Holly casts a look over her shoulder, and sees Mr Hermes seated there, drinking from what looks to be like a glass of water. He is nothing unusual to look at – he could be cast as the stereotypical grandfather in some feelgood family movie. Yet Holly shudders. He is a blot, a man who carries a shadow that masks his true form. She has never experienced prescience before. But she knows that this man feels wrong.
‘He sets people … temptations, he calls them,’ Quinn says, his voice dropping. He finishes his beer, then stares down at the foam in the bottom of the bottle. ‘If they carry them out, he pays them a full million.’
‘That’s just an urban legend, isn’t it?’
‘It’s for real. He’s a billionaire.’
‘Quinn, who would seriously do something like—?’
Holly frowns. The name is familiar.
‘He’s one of the co-founders of Hermes-LeBeau Inc.’
It clicks now. Of course. It’s the company Flavia mentioned earlier.
‘Not that he’s really in business any more – well, as far as I know,’ Quinn says. ‘His nephew runs everything now. He’s become like a silent partner or consultant or something. Except for this. He does this. I don’t know why.’
Holly takes Quinn’s hands.
‘I thought he was going to set me something to do,’ Quinn says. ‘I didn’t care what it was. I was gonna do it.’ He casts his face down into his hand. ‘Holly, I’ve got guys gunning for me. If I don’t pay them back …’
‘What was this temptation, Quinn?’
‘It involves Amber.’
Holly’s eyes widen. ‘Why’ve you come to me?’
‘Who else is there? Marcus will tell me to go for it. I’m sorry, but he will!’
Holly doesn’t dispute that.
‘Dante will panic. Flavia’s off in her own little world. You’re always … always … so in control.’
Holly almost snorts with laughter.
‘You’re the only person I can talk to.’
‘Quinn, I don’t know what I can do. Where’s Amber?’
‘I can’t face her. I thought this guy was gonna be my solution. But now that it’s turned out like this, I can’t look her in the eye. I can’t. I can’t!’ Quinn picks up his beer, but it’s empty. He plants it on the table and clamps his hands around it.
Holly puts a hand on Quinn’s wrist. ‘All right, Quinn. Let’s try work this out. Tell me what this guy wants you to make Amber do.’