Hired for Secrets

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Indecent proposal

Sofie sat opposite Philip in Elanda’s elegant restaurant. It was a lunch meeting and instead of Philip’s bedroom suite, he had been leading her to the large veranda overlooking the rolling English countryside. Sofie breathed a sigh of relief. In this public setting she wouldn’t get distracted and could focus on getting the information she needed.

“Before I left last time, you had a strange look on your face,” she opened, hoping to get straight to the point by confirming his hunch about her. Then they could discuss how to exchange information, negotiate payments, and she could get on with her story. When it came down to it, all informants were basically the same: give them carrots or sticks and they will talk.

“What look?”

“Like I can give you something you need.”

“Hmm.” A curt nod acknowledged her observational skills; he had not expected her to interpret his expression so clearly. “Maybe you can, maybe you can’t. This isn’t about me. It’s about you. What do you want?”

Why was he sandbagging? He knew that she wanted information. That didn’t need to be spelled out. He instead wanted to know about her motives. Why? They never mattered to anyone in the past. All people cared about was what’s in it for them. So maybe he wasn’t looking to sell the dirt he had on MP Kerry? Maybe he was hired to sound out her opponents instead? In that case, he wanted to find out what Sofie knew about MP Kerry already and report the details back. She needed to be careful, needed to find out where his allegiances lied.

“No. You cannot answer a question with a question, Philip.”

A sly smile crept into his face, bringing back the confident gigolo.

“Well, Miss Carter, it would seem that I can.” The midday sun sparked in his drink and reflected mischievously in his eyes. “And I would argue that my question is more interesting than yours. Because what I want is quite obvious. I told you so last time: I’ve never been in love.”

What? Was he baiting her? How insufferably cocky. He seemed to think that saying to a woman that he’d never been in love was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Maybe that worked on women with the psychological profile of his other clients: used to winning every challenge. But Sofie knew Philip had already decided that this was a challenge no one would win and it merely amused him to see them try.

That was fine by her. Her goal wasn’t to get into his heart. She wanted to get into his head. Fortifying his defences at the wrong spot would only make her job easier.

“Ok. You want to know why I’m here?” She smiled sweetly. “When Mrs. Gartner told you she wants to quit the Club, she mentioned her charity work. That’s how we met. I helped her understand that the pleasures here are meaningless distractions to what really matters in life. But she has a hard time letting go and I tease her about it. So we made a bet: If I give into the delights here, I don’t get to ridicule her anymore.”

“You’re a charity worker? Really?”

“Yes. I help the homeless.”

It wasn’t too far from the truth. In fact, stopping MP Kerry probably did more for the homeless than the soup kitchen and shelters combined. It would stop a further deterioration of the already meager social support net and stop more people slipping into poverty. It also was the perfect alibi for why she met with unsavoury characters, or ducked through dangerous alleyways at night.

“And Mrs. Gartner is helping the homeless? I didn’t think she was cut out for that.” He almost laughed at the absurdity of it. “It’s tough work. Good that she has you for moral support. Though I assume it’s not mutual. Who do you get your support from instead?”

“Are you asking me if I have a partner?”

Oh he is good! He was planting the idea, once more, that he was actually interested in her. That this could turn into love.

“Do you?”

“No. My work fulfils me.”

She too had rehearsed lines.

“Well then,” he smiled, “that brings me back to my original question: What do you want? Why did you really agree to come here, Miss Carter?”

Did he just outmanoeuvre her? Well played. But there were millions of ways to parry a strike, even a good one.

“Curiosity, I suppose,” she offered, gearing up for a strike of her own. “I didn’t really want to take Mrs. Gartner up on her offer. I thought the club would never transfer the visits. Not to someone like me. So, coming here and playing along seemed the easiest way to get Mrs. Gartner off my back.” She exhaled slowly. “But when I saw you… And you asked me if I wanted this… “, she paused to look at him, “all I could think was ‘Yes’.”

She shook her head, pretending to be embarrassed.

“Oh my god. I’m never spontaneous like this. But I’m sure you see this all the time.” Looking at him from under her lashes. “I know you said you don’t want to talk about the others, but it would make me feel... less silly.” She made her voice tremble slightly. “I need to know that I’m not the only one who wants to trust you.”

All she needed was a small opening. Once he started talking about his other clients it would be easy to steer the conversation to MP Kerry.

“Oh, you are good,” he smiled, savouring her shock of being called out. ”I even want to believe you. And when you looked at me like that...” He bit his lower lip, and tapped two fingers against his heart. “I almost had butterflies.”

Darn! It had been a while since anyone saw through her ruses. He was clearly too observant to be played. This was going nowhere! She should just get up and leave. Yet there was something that kept her in place. Some magnetic force that locked her inside his presence.

“But,” he disrupted her brooding, “the part about you wanting to trust me? That was the first true thing you’ve said to me.”

He took a sip from his tonic, evaluating her.

“You wanted to achieve something here today, Miss Carter. But it isn’t going as planned. I can tell that you don’t think you’ll get there anymore. Yet you are staying. What keeps you here, Miss Carter?”

Not you, you self-centred prick. It’s because I don’t give up! What I fight for is worth it. And I might still come up with a solution. Just you see.

She took a deep breath. As her anger subsided she had to admit that calling her charade was a neat trick. This man was skilled at reading people; at observing and making the right deductions. It probably made him the incredible lover he was famed for.

But they had come to a crossroad. Neither of them was going to crack accidentally and spill the true reason for their interest. Whoever wanted this more had to show their hand now, forge an inroad for the other to follow. ‘Be honest’ or ‘Give up’, neither looked very appealing to Sofie.

“I tell you what,” Philip said, playing with the condensation on his glass. “I’ll describe to you how these visits usually go.”

Fine. She needed to regroup and come up with a new strategy. Him gloating about his skills gave her the time to think. She only hoped that this would not be too explicit. She found the thought of listening to how he seduced other women strangely hard to stomach.

“The physical act of intimacy,” he started in a voice as smooth as honey, “is the smallest part of the visit. It’s not unusual for me to have a conversation with the women for two of the three hours we are together. A subtle dance, if you will, to learn how to read her. Helping our minds connect before our bodies do. Rather similar to what we’re doing now”.

Heat was rising in Sofie’s cheeks. The next hour could be very different, if she gave into her desires.

”Sometimes these conversations bring up memories,” he continued, focusing her thoughts away from the lust spreading in her body. “You see, I’m a collector. I collect these memories like others might collect butterflies. And just like the wings of butterflies, the specimens in my collection are very sensitive; easily disturbed by the harsh light of day. So I guard them carefully. I don’t show them to people. But…” He lightly tapped his finger on the table. Was he nervous? “I’m willing to show some of my butterflies to a fellow collector who appreciates their value.” He paused to gather her full attention. “Would you be such a collector?”

Oh my god! He was playing his hand first. He wanted to share the secrets about his clients with Sofie. Wanted to make her his new contact.

“Yes,” she breathed.

“I thought so,” he exhaled, undermining the confidence in his statement. “As a fellow collector, Miss Carter, you’ll appreciate how fragile my specimens are. And that one wrong move, one malicious touch, one selfish action could cause real damage.”

That’s why he wanted to know about her motives. He wasn’t trying to sell her out or maximize his gain. He simply wanted to make sure that neither was she.

“My reason for accessing your collection is neither malicious nor selfish. But Philip...” She didn’t want to disclose too much but she also didn’t want to mislead him. “If I do my job right, the specimen you show me will get damaged.”

It was Sofie’s way of rewarding his trust. Giving him something in return. It wasn’t much but it was all she could offer about her motives at this stage. But it was a risk. Either damaging Kerry was what he wanted and the conversation would continue or he was shutting this down right now.

“I see,” he replied with a nod that acknowledged her honesty. “If you have such good use for my collection you understand that there will be a price for accessing it.”

“Of course. What do you have in mind?”

Sofie was back on familiar ground. Working out deals, negotiating terms, that’s what she was good at. Every story she worked on had winners and losers. Typically the ones who talked early came out with the best deal: money, immunity, protection. It was her job to broker between opposing sides, each protecting something; be that their interest or the law.

“The price, Miss Carter, is something equally well guarded.”

An enigmatic smile crossed his face as he let his gaze glide up her long legs, over the curve of her hips, before burning the weight of his meaning into her mind.

The breath went out of Sofie’s lungs. She had indecent proposals before. Every single one of them was laughable or downright demeaning. With this one, though, she wasn’t laughing or disgusted. This one actually felt dangerous. Dangerous because she wanted to pay the price; wanted to pay upfront without even checking the goods. But before she could betray her emotions, her journalistic training kicked in and the questions tumbled from her lips automatically.

“Why? You have a new woman every night. Why me?”

“You are…” He paused. His eyes dropped to her mouth, lingering, before he inhaled sharply as if to drag his mind away from something. “It is a test, Miss Carter. A test to see how much my butterflies are worth to you. How wisely you’ll use them.”

Holding the secrets of powerful women wasn’t a commodity to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. There would be consequences, to him and the women involved. He wanted her to consider these consequences by weighing them against a personal price she had to pay herself. Was this his conscience speaking? Or was he just playing with her?

“But Philip, with this arrangement, I’m not the only one paying a price. You would be paying too.”

He chuckled.

“In case you don’t remember: I sleep with women for a living,” he said before a dark expression took over his face. ”One more does not make a difference to me. For me it would be utterly forgettable.”

The ice in his voice made her shudder. He was implying that while it meant nothing to him it wouldn’t be forgettable for her. That she had to give up the sovereignty of her body to get a deal. That her auctions would weigh on her conscience long after the physical act was over. But there also was a fire in his eyes that suggested a different interpretation. It would be unforgettable because she’d gain an experience; an experience Club Elandra could pride itself on.

Was her story worth such a high price? Was she really willing to play against this master-manipulator? Was she confident enough to come up on top in such a dangerous game?

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