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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

29 Seconds

A Novel

T. M. Logan

St. Martin's Press



The Rules were simple enough. Don’t be alone with him if you could possibly avoid it. Don’t do or say anything that he might take as encouragement. Don’t get in a taxi or an elevator with him. Be extra careful with him when you were away from the office, particularly at hotels and conferences. And most of all, the number one rule that must never, ever, be broken: don’t do any of the above when he had been drinking. He was bad when he was sober, but he was worse—much worse—when he was drunk.

Tonight, he was drunk.

And Sarah realized, too late, that she was about to break all of the Rules at once.

One minute they were standing on the pavement outside the restaurant, the six of them, breath steaming in the cold night air, hands thrust deep in pockets against the November chill, contemplating their journey back to the hotel after an evening of good food and lively conversation. Just colleagues relaxing at the end of a long day away from home. The next minute he was striding out into the road to flag down a taxi, taking her firmly by the arm, guiding her into the back seat and following her in, his breath a hot fug of red wine and brandy and peppered steak.

It happened so fast, Sarah didn’t even have time to react—she just assumed the others were following right behind them. It was only as the car door slammed shut that she realized he had separated her from the rest as deliberately and efficiently as a jungle predator.

“Regal Hotel, please,” he said to the driver in his deep baritone.

The taxi pulled away from the curb and for a moment Sarah sat frozen in the seat, still in shock at this sudden turn of events. She twisted to stare out of the taxi’s rear window at the rest of their little group stranded on the pavement and receding as the taxi picked up speed. Her friend and colleague Marie’s mouth was open slightly as if she was speaking, a look of surprise on her face.

Always stick together. That was another one of the Rules. But now it was just the two of them.

The interior of the taxi was dark and smelt of old leather and cigarettes. She turned back and hurriedly put her seat belt on, edging as far over to the right side of the taxi as she could. The pleasant warm buzz from a couple of glasses of wine had fled, and she suddenly felt stone-cold sober.

If I play this right, I’ll be OK. Just don’t make eye contact. Don’t smile. Don’t encourage him.

He didn’t put his seat belt on, but instead lounged, open-legged, across his side of the back seat, facing toward her. His right arm stretched along the shelf behind the passenger seats, right hand draped casually behind her head. His left hand rested on his thigh.

“Sarah, Sarah,” he said, his voice slow and deep with alcohol. “My clever girl. I thought your presentation this afternoon was fantastic. You should be very pleased. Are you pleased?”

“Yes.” She clutched her handbag in her lap, staring straight ahead. “Thanks.”

“You’re very talented. I’ve always seen it, always known you had the right stuff.”

The taxi took a sharp left turn and he slid another inch nearer to her along the back seat, his knee touching hers. Sarah had to stop herself from flinching. He didn’t move his knee away, but let it rest there.

“Thanks,” she said again, thinking of the moment—please let it be only minutes away—when she would be able to put a locked door between them.

“I’m not sure I mentioned it, but did you know BBC2 have commissioned another series of Undiscovered History? And the production company have talked about me having a copresenter on the next series.”

“That’s a good idea.”

“A female copresenter,” he emphasized. “And you know, seeing you present up there today, I really thought you might have the potential for television. What do you think?”

“Me? No. I’m not keen on having cameras pointing at me, to be honest.”

“I think you’ve got the talent for it.” He moved his right hand nearer to the back of her head. She could feel him touching her hair. “And the looks.”

She had seen the old pictures of him as a Cambridge undergraduate arrayed across the walls of his office. Clear eyes and a chiseled jaw, cashmere sweater draped over his shoulders, an aristocratic bearing even at that age. Now in his mid-fifties, he resembled nothing so much as an aging movie star—some said he looked a bit like Sam Neill in Jurassic Park—he just had one of those faces that made you think you knew him, which of course was just because he had been on TV so much. Tall and lean with dark blond hair, carefully colored to keep the gray at bay, he had the effortless confidence that came with wealth and status and a measure of fame.

Sarah had seen the effect he had on people who didn’t know him, on strangers. On women who didn’t know what he was really like.

On women who’d never found themselves alone with him.

She tried to edge further away, but she was already hard up against the door, the door handle digging into her thigh. The inside of the taxi was intensely claustrophobic, a temporary prison she couldn’t escape.

She felt a pulse of relief when her mobile rang in her handbag.

“Sarah? You OK?” It was Marie, her friend—and another woman with direct, first-hand experience of Hawthorne’s behavior. It was Marie who had first proposed the Rules for dealing with him the previous year.

“Fine.” Sarah spoke quietly, turned toward the window.

“Sorry,” Marie said, “I didn’t see him flagging the taxi down. I just turned around to get a light from Helen and when I looked back he was virtually pushing you into the back of that cab.”

“It’s fine. Really.” She could see him staring at her, his image reflected in the dark glass of the window. “Did you find a taxi yet?”

“No, we’re still waiting.”

Shit, she thought. I really am on my own.

“OK, no problem.”

“Text me when you get back to your room, all right?”

“Will do.”

In a quieter voice, Marie said: “And don’t put up with any of his crap.”

“Yup. See you in a bit.” Sarah ended the call and tucked the phone back in her handbag.

He shifted a little closer on the seat.

“Checking up on you?” he said. “Thick as thieves, you and young Marie.”

“They’re on their way. In a taxi just behind us.”

“But we shall be there first—just the two of us. And I’ve got a surprise for you.” He tapped her leg just above the knee, letting his hand rest there. His fingers felt heavy on her thigh. “I do like these stockings. You should wear skirts more often. Your legs are fabulous.”

“Please don’t do that,” she said in a small voice, twisting her wedding ring around her finger.

“Do what?”

“Touch my leg.”

“Oh? I thought you liked it.”

“No. I’d prefer it if you didn’t.”

“I love you playing hard to get. You’re such a tease, Sarah.”

He pressed himself closer again. She could smell his aftershave, musky and strong, and the postdessert brandy he’d swirled in his glass as he stared at her across the restaurant table. He moved his fingers a few inches higher, stroking her thigh.

Carefully and deliberately she lifted his hand up with hers and moved it away, aware of her heart thudding painfully in her chest.

Then he was stroking the back of her head, caressing her long dark hair. She flinched away, sitting forward against the seat belt and shooting him a look. He ignored her, cupping his right hand around his nose, eyelids fluttering closed for a second.

“I love your smell, Sarah. You’re intoxicating. Do you wear that perfume just for me?”

Her skin crawling, she tried desperately to think of a way to stop this happening again.

Option one: she could just get out of the taxi right now. Rap on the glass divide and tell the driver to stop, then find another taxi back to the hotel, or walk the rest of the way. Perhaps not a great idea alone in a strange city—and besides, he’d probably follow her. Option two: she could politely ask him—again—to respect her personal space and respect her as a colleague. As likely to be effective as every other time a woman had said that to him. Option three: do nothing, stay quiet, make a note of what he said afterward and report him to HR as soon as she was back in the office on Monday. About as likely to be effective as … well, see option two.

Then of course there was option four. The option her seventeen-year-old self would have taken: she could tell him to get his damn hands off her and just piss off, and then keep on pissing off until he couldn’t piss off any further. She could feel the shape of the words on her tongue, picture the look on his face. But of course she wasn’t going to blow everything by actually saying them out loud. She wasn’t seventeen anymore and there was too much at stake now, too many people depending on her. Fifteen years on, she’d learned that just wasn’t the way things worked. It wasn’t the way to get on in life.

And the worst thing was, he knew it too.

Copyright © 2018 by Logan Communications Ltd