Charlotte Priestley sighed as she pulled up outside the apartment block she’d called home for the past two years. It was a gray building with not enough windows and looked as bleak as she felt. At two in the morning, she knew she’d have to hurry to bed to have a chance of getting any sleep before her next shift started at six. That meant leaving at a quarter past five at the latest, giving her a full three-and-a-quarter hours of rest if she were lucky. The humidity in the air would usually hinder her efforts to sleep, but she had a feeling that wouldn’t be a problem after working a grueling sixteen-hour double-shift.
It was raining as she hauled her tired body out of the car, and she ran full-tilt across the parking lot to get into the dry. Unfortunately, the place wasn’t lit, and she tripped on a large stone and hurtled to the pavement with a loud scream. Pain throbbed from her hands and knees, where she’d tried to break her fall, and she quickly scrabbled back to her feet, double-checking that she’d zipped her purse shut so nothing could have fallen out.
As expected, no one came to her aid, despite her yell, but—she had to admit—at this hour no one would be about, and even if they’d heard her, they’d hardly venture out in the dark.
She was well-used to the feeling of dread that enveloped her as she unlocked the door to the apartment and was surprised to find the light still on in the living room. Hurriedly, she pulled off her coat and hung it, with her purse, in the hall, before venturing into the room to see what kind of mood Anthony was in tonight.
The glare on his face spoke volumes, and, as if needed, the whiskey glass in his hand added another few Chapters.
“What time do you call this?” he demanded, a supercilious expression on his face. She used to think that face was really handsome, but just lately, she’d seen past the smarmy façade and had begun to see him for who he really was.
“We’re still short-staffed in the kitchen, and I couldn’t leave it in a mess,” she replied, with a sigh. “And I fell in the car park.” She gestured to her knees.
“I think you mean parking lot,” he told her, an incredulous sneer now crossing his features.
“Car park was good enough for you in London,” she reminded him, crossing the room to reach the kitchen as blood dripped down her legs.
“We’re not in London anymore—or hadn’t you noticed?” he called after her as she switched on the light and reached for the first-aid kit.
“I’m well aware of that,” she assured him, slipping off her shoes and then pulling off her torn tights, which she put straight into the rubbish bin.
“What’s that supposed to mean? And what the hell are you doing?” He was craning his neck to see, his curiosity clearly getting the better of him.
“I’ve just removed my pantyhose and thrown them into the trash,” she replied, putting on a very exaggerated American accent.
“Very funny.” He sneered again.
She quickly wiped the blood and dirt from her wounds before covering them in a couple of clean dressings, then returned the box to the shelf, switched off the light and went back into the living room.
“I asked you a question,” he snapped, stopping her in her tracks as she walked across the room.
She was planning to head straight for bed, but shot back around to face him, shocked at his attitude. She wondered just how many glasses of whiskey he’d had tonight. “What question?” Her brain was almost too tired to think.
“What was that crack about being well aware we’re not in London?”
She frowned, annoyed that he wanted to continue talking. “Oh, just…you know. Things are so different here. You’re much different than how you were back there.”
“In what way?” His jaw tensed.
She put a hand to her mouth, covering a yawn. “It doesn’t matter. I need to get to bed. I’m on the breakfast shift again tomorrow. Stacey’s still off sick, remember?”
“I am aware of the staff situation in my own hotel, yes.” His upper lip curled in a snarl, his speech slightly slurred.
“Then I suggest you need to do something about it,” she replied, curtly. “I can’t keep working all these hours. I’m sure Health and Safety would have a fieldday if they knew I was working all these eighteen-hour shifts, especially as I’m in charge of machinery and all those cooking appliances. And it’s certainly not safe for me to be driving home afterward.”
“I think you’ll find the rules are a bit different over here, love,” he replied in a patronizing tone. “Besides, we’re advertising for new staff, but we just haven’t found the right people yet. And you know what you can do if you’re not happy working there.”
She raised her eyebrows, staring at him. “You’d want me to leave, would you?”
He shrugged before taking another long sip of his drink. “You didn’t have to follow me all the way over the Atlantic, begging for a job if you’re not happy. It was your choice.”
“You asked me to come to the States with you, Anthony, and you know it. You said the hotel was in need of a decent chef, and you set up my interview with Chris Sempleworth. You said you wanted us to live together over here—and to work together.” The words almost got caught in her throat as she fought back the tears. She knew things were a little rocky between them right now, but she’d hoped that would change once he’d settled into his promotion and she’d stopped having to work such long hours.
“Yeah, and you’ve done nothing but moan since you got here. And lately it’s been worse than ever. The apartment’s too small, it’s too far to travel to and from work, your hours are too long and now—”
“I’m working much longer hours than you and for a lot less money,” she reminded him. “And you agreed this place is too small and said yourself it’s a lot farther from work than you thought when we moved in here.”
“I’ve never complained about the commute.”
“You get to stay at the hotel if you have to work a long shift. I don’t, and I work a lot more back-to-back shifts than you do.”
“You’re not management.”
“I was when I was head chef at The Royal Windsor.”
“The Royal Windsor Hotel’s in London. Things are different here.”
“So you keep saying.” She sighed, taking another step toward the door. She desperately needed some sleep.
“And you don’t have to drive all this way. You could walk. It’d do you good.”
She glared at him. “It’s miles, and you know it. It takes nearly an hour to drive it, for goodness’ sake. By the time I walked home, it’d be time to start my next shift.”
“Then run. It’s about time you took up some decent exercise. It would help you shift a few pounds. And…you really need to, don’t you, love?”
Charlotte’s whole body began to shake as she fought back more tears and tried to tamp down her anger. He only ever used the term ‘love’ ironically, to belittle her. “You can be really mean sometimes, d’you know that?”
“The truth always hurts.” He shrugged. “You’ve got to admit you’ve really piled on the weight since leaving England. You used to be so slim and pretty.” He took another swig of his whiskey, clearly oblivious to the tears that flooded her face.
She opened her mouth to defend herself but closed it again when she realized she couldn’t speak. The lump in her throat was too big. Instead, she turned and left the room, saving her sobs for her pillow.
* * * *
It seemed like only five minutes later when her alarm invaded her dreams. Although still shattered, she was relieved to be awake. Her thoughts must have been in such turmoil that she’d given herself nightmares—not the sort that you remember when you wake, but the kind that leave you feeling immensely sad and on edge. There were no prizes for guessing what had been on her mind as she’d drifted off. She hadn’t even taken the time to undress before flopping onto the bed, and now she felt uncomfortable and irritable.
A hot shower helped wake her a little, and she felt better as she pulled on a clean dress. When she glanced in the mirror, her hand immediately fell to her stomach. It was much bigger than when she’d arrived in the States, but then, she hardly had any time to exercise. Working long shifts meant grabbing food on the go, and that was usually not the healthiest of choices, especially as it was summer and far too hot for a cooked meal. She’d describe herself as plump, nicely rounded—curvaceous even, but not fat. There were many really large people who came to eat at the hotel, and she certainly wasn’t as big as they were. She stood tall. Anthony was just being horrid again, and she was determined not to let him upset her anymore.
Noticing the time, she rushed to the kitchen, passing a snoring lump on the couch on her way. She hadn’t expected Anthony to join her in the bed last night—he rarely did these days—and he’d clearly drunk himself into a stupor. He was due into work this morning, but not for another couple of hours. If she woke him now, he’d only be nasty to her again, so she left him where he was.
After filling her travel mug with hot coffee, she whizzed out of the apartment and carefully walked over to her car. The sun was rising, and it was already quite warm. Her knees still stung from the previous night’s fall, and her hands ached as she clutched the steering wheel. Blue bruises had begun to appear on her fingers where she’d tried to steady herself last night, and she winced, knowing that the pain was bound to plague her all day.
She was right. As she went about her work, her hands throbbed, getting worse every time she lifted a heavy pot or pan. There was no point in moaning about it, though. It had been her own stupid fault for not looking where she was going. With hindsight, she realized she should have used the torch on her phone, but she’d been too tired to think of that at the time.
“Have you and Anthony had another fight?” Kayleigh burst into the kitchen, wide-eyed. She was the head waitress and really good at her job. She wasn’t so great in the tact department though, unfortunately.
“I haven’t spoken to him all day,” Charlotte replied, hoping to deflect the question, which, she noticed, her own staff as well as a couple of waitresses seemed interested to hear the answer to. Thanks, Kayleigh!
“Well, something’s crawled up his bony ass.” Kayleigh rolled her eyes. “He’s been in a foul mood all morning!”
“Yeah, bring back Chris,” Lucy, another waitress, chimed in. “At least we knew where we stood with him in charge. Anthony’s emotions are all over the place. You just don’t know what you’re going to get whenever he opens his mouth.”
“You try living with him.” Charlotte hoped a little humor might help the situation. After all, everyone had known from the start that she and Anthony were a couple. It didn’t seem to matter when he was the deputy manager, but since his promotion to general manager, it was starting to become more than a little embarrassing. Whenever he made a decision that was unpopular with the staff, they came to her to moan about it—as if she had a say in anything! As Anthony had taken such delight in telling her earlier, she wasn’t management there.
She noticed that he hadn’t come into the restaurant for a meal today, which was a little unusual. It was common practice for the manager to dine with at least one of his heads of department, using the time to heighten their profile with the guests, as well as discussing any matters that needed their attention. It was deemed a good time-saver, too. After all, everyone had to eat, didn’t they? This was supposed to kill two birds with one stone. However, she had noticed that it seemed to just enable Anthony to prolong his lunch break, while enjoying a few too many glasses of wine.
As soon as service was over, she went to find him, just to make sure he was okay. He was often found in the reception area, flaunting his new position in front of the guests, but today he was nowhere to be seen. She went down the corridor to his office and was surprised that Hannah, his PA, called over to her.
“I’m afraid Mr. Mortimer can’t be disturbed right now,” she informed her, in a tone way too formal for Charlotte’s liking.
Why Anthony had suddenly decided the manager needed a PA was a mystery, as it certainly wasn’t the norm in any hotel she’d ever worked in. If anything, the reception manager would take on that sort of role, along with their own, but it was hardly considered necessary. And the slim, beautiful blonde he’d chosen for the role was definitely out to make her presence felt.
“He’ll see me,” Charlotte assured her, stalking past her desk and up to the door.
“He won’t see anyone,” Hannah insisted, jumping to her feet and heading for the office door herself.
Charlotte shot her a suspicious frown before quickly pouncing on the handle and opening the door. Her jaw dropped, and she felt suddenly very hot as her skin prickled at the sight before her. She’d seen Anthony’s arse many times, of course, but not from this angle. His trousers were down around his ankles as he pounded a woman, who was lying—naked, it seemed—across his desk.
“No, you can’t—” Hannah wailed, but she was too late.
Anthony must have heard her as he spun his head around and he gave Charlotte a look she’d never seen before. He had clearly been in the throes of passion, as his face was still slightly contorted and red, but his expression was unreadable. Part guilt, part supercilious, she decided. It was almost as if he’d wanted to be caught, though he still looked a little shocked.
Charlotte dropped her gaze to the girl on the desk, who was now craning her neck to see why her lover had stopped moving. At least Melanie, the pretty brunette from finance, had the decency to look embarrassed.
Charlotte’s instinct was to walk away, but her legs felt like lead, her eyes compelled to keep staring at the couple at the desk. Despite her mouth still being wide open, she couldn’t think of a thing to say. It was like a scene from a movie, when suddenly everything seemed to start happening in slow motion.
Anthony’s expression turned into a familiar sneer, and she felt him laughing at her. Melanie began pulling her clothes over herself, while Hannah quickly became quite animated in her attempts to remove Charlotte from the doorway.
“Come on.” Hannah tugged at her arm, but Charlotte was still unable to move. “You need to leave,” the PA insisted.
“Unless you want to join us?” Anthony jeered, raising one eyebrow in question.
That was the point when Charlotte came to her senses. “How could you?” she murmured, before turning on her heel and walking away.
She marched back to the kitchen, dazed, which was just as well, as she knew the tears she was fighting back would fall all too soon, and she wasn’t prepared to show her feelings in front of the staff. She hurried into the staff changing room and pulled off her chef’s whites before hauling on her dress, emptying all her belongings from her locker into a bag and heading out to her car.
Even then, the floodgates didn’t open, as she stared at the road ahead and put her foot down, hardly noticing the journey as she zoomed back to the apartment. It wasn’t until she was packing up all her things into her suitcase that she felt the familiar thud in her stomach, and she collapsed on the bed in a fit of hot tears. It was over. She was alone in a foreign country with no home and no job.
What the hell am I supposed to do now?