(or How To Find Love Without Leaving the Building)
It’s Christmas at Edinburgh’s magnificent Barlinney Hotel, and chief housekeeper Cosmo Grant is in charge of the festivities. He’s already got his hands full when handsome Ren Vaudrey checks in. Ren is an accountant, or so he says, and he’s asking questions about his missing colleague, Sam.
It soon turns out that Ren is an undercover cop. Cosmo wants to help him – Ren is kind as well as handsome as hell – but unless he can do it within the Barlinney’s walls, Cosmo is stuck. A victim of crippling agoraphobia, he’s been a prisoner in this gilded cage for over a year.
There’s another problem too. Ren clearly adores his partner Sam. In the face of his rising attraction for this man, Cosmo has to bear in mind that Ren is already taken. Cosmo gathers all his courage to do the right thing by Ren and Sam – and as a glittering Christmas Eve descends on the city, finds himself confronting his very darkest fears.
“Och, God. It’s like the bloody Titanic. Without the potential relief of being drowned.”
I halted in my route across the foyer. Duffy Maguire, head receptionist and supposedly my second-in-command, was behind the oak-carved desk, hands planted on its magnificent surface. He was surveying the day-before-Christmas Eve spectacle of the Barlinney’s main hall, and I had to agree with his assessment. Through one gilded arch I could see the dining room, stretching away to mirrored distance, every tabletop graced with spotless white linen. A string quartet was tuning up for lunchtime entertainment. The tree was glimmering subtly, if anything could be subtle about a verdant monster whose top branches skimmed the panes of our cupola. The tang of pine blended deliciously with the fragrance of the gold and bronze chrysanthemums and the candles I’d ordered to be tucked discreetly amongst them in their central marble display. Guests would regularly ask me what the hotel foyer smelled of, to make it so memorable and enticing, and I would describe whatever seasonal candle-and-floral combo I’d chosen, and Duff would brush past me and hiss into my ear, if he could get away with it, “Money!”
He was right, of course. Since I’d chosen the linen, the lights, the flowers and the musicians myself, I knew exactly how much it all cost. It was part of our Barlinney charm. Cheek was part of Duffy’s. He was sweet and efficient, and so got away with a lot, but he went too far when Brace wasn’t around to intimidate him, like a fizzy drink with its stopper taken out. The foyer was quiet for the moment. Still, I knew I had to cork him up. “All right, Duff,” I said, slipping behind the reception desk, automatically checking that our trademark bronze keys – no plastic room-cards here – were hanging nice and neatly from their velvet cords. “Pipe it down a notch. We’ve got serious incoming at two o’clock.”
He gave a mischievous glance off to his front-right, but then settled down. I could usually rely on him, kid though he was, the print still wet on his hospitality-and-tourism degree. “Aye, that wedding party from Dunfermline, isn’t it? And before then... Oh, St Andrew defend me!” He laid a hand to the breast of his waistcoat. Alarmed, I came to look over his shoulder. We backed up our bronze keys with some serious technology behind the desk, and he’d pulled up a computer list of arrivals for that afternoon. “Renton Charles Vaudrey,” he read out longingly. “With a name like that... What do you reckon? Six and a half feet tall? Raven-haired, gorgeous, and maybe just a little bit French?”
“Duffy, hush.” Andrew, our majestic doorman, was striding to admit a slew of guests. Made a fortune in tips, Andy did, the only one out of all of us not just encouraged but ordered to wear full regalia. Our newcomers adored him. Just now he was deftly taking bags, gesturing to his porterage team, smiling from ear to ear and posing for a delighted Japanese girl’s quick selfie. He would hold back the mob while I double-checked my numbers on the wedding-party guests. I nudged Duff away from the screen. “Budge up for a second. I want to have a quick look at – ”
I glanced at Duffy in surprise. He’d gone pale. Brace made him nervy, but he and I were friends. “Just these Dunfermline arrivals. If that’s them now, there’s quite a crowd. I don’t want any ten-man pile-ups in my double beds.”
He cackled in what sounded like relief. “Doesn’t sound so bad to me. Although I’ll settle for Renton Vaudrey. Come on, Renton – be the man. Six-five, dark hair, blue eyes – ”
We both jumped. A guest had made it across the expanse of marble unseen. He’d slipped beneath our radar almost literally, his chin barely reaching the marble top of the desk. He was bald, almost as broad as he was tall, and quite irate at being ignored.
If I caught Duffy’s eye, I would laugh. “Mr Vaudrey,” I said, calling on all my long-practised reserves of civility. “I’m terribly sorry, sir. Welcome to the Barlinney.”
My new guest bristled. “I am no’ called Mr Vaudrey! My name’s John Forbes. You’d best have my room ready for me, young man.”
Oh dear. We weren’t often prone to such cockups, here among the chrysanthemums. Still, we were human, and I’d soon have Mr Forbes smoothed down. Already he was responding to my smile, and when he found a silver-service cream tea waiting on his dressing table, I was sure he’d forgive us our lapse. “Ready right now, sir. I’ll have your bags taken up straight away, and – ”
I swung round. Already poor Duffy was staring behind him, transfixed. George Brace was leaning in the doorway to the office, and from his settled stance, he’d been there for some time. My heart sank. I drew a breath. “Mr Brace…”
“Quiet, Cosmo. I’m not concerned with you. Maguire, what do you mean by insulting our guests?”
“It wasn’t Duffy. It was me.” I wasn’t sure how I figured that out, except that Duff was my junior and I’d allowed his chatter, which amounted to the same thing. A decent boss would understand.
But Brace was just a git. He inflated his chest, ready to huff and puff and blast me and Duff down to the JobCentre. Then a civilised Glaswegian voice cut through our stand-off. “Good afternoon. Do you think I could possibly check in?”
Poor John Forbes must be a nonentity. Brace had been prepared to blow up in front of him. Mercifully he was now being led off by one of Andy’s well trained team, a second member of which would be racing upstairs to get the scones and fine bone china in place. This new arrival was an unknown quantity. Brace deflated. He bustled forward, more or less elbowing me and Duffy aside. “Yes, sir. May I take a name?”
“Vaudrey. Renton Vaudrey.”
He didn’t answer Duffy’s ideal of the perfect man, but he came pretty close to mine. He was a sturdy six foot with close-cropped fair hair. From his accent, he didn’t hail from anywhere more exotic than Kelvinside, but his gaze was kind and perceptive, grey eyes taking in the scene behind the desk as if he’d picked up effortlessly on its dynamics. In his early thirties, probably, though something was making him look older. He seemed tired.
I interested myself in the change of shift. Two more of my immaculately uniformed reception crew had arrived to take over the desk. That was good, would give Duffy a chance to get away and let Brace cool off. I signalled to him that he should go, and he scuttled off towards the staff stairs, looking miserable. The wave of wedding-party guests was beginning to break, and I stepped up to help Marisa and Jorge check them in. I tried not to glance at our new guest, now being insidiously schmoozed by Brace to find out his find out his career and origins, his place on the scale of people who mattered and didn’t. I didn’t want to look at Brace at all. I’d managed to box up my memories of last night’s events quite well, but now the lid was coming off. My spine was tingling with shame.
“Very good, sir. Very good. Will you be wanting any refreshments sent to your room?”
Mr Vaudrey must have scored quite high. Lower-ranking souls were left to call room service. “No, thank you,” he said, nodding pleasantly at the porter who’d swooped in to take his holdall. An ordinary leather one, I noted, nice but not flash. I quickly averted my gaze. I’d be getting as bad as Brace soon, judging people by their accessories. “In fact I have to go straight out again. If that could just be taken to my room...”