A short piece commissioned by SH, and something a little different to my usual high fantasy setting!
Champagne splashed across the chequered marble, foaming over the gleaming stone. The thin film of bubbles washed past the toes of his italian shoes and rippled back off the crystal fern sculpture. Half a hundred fractured reflections of his green eyes stared back at him from the fern fronds.
I wonder which cost more, the sculpture or the champagne. Henri set his glass down on the silver tray of a passing waiter. Honestly, they spend all this money, and the parties are just as boring every time.
Couples drifted back and forth between the small tables and candle-bearing crystal sculptures, mingling and laughing over clear champagne flutes.
Henri ran his eyes over the crowd. Elisabeth? Wearing her designer line’s new dress, just like the last three years. He glanced up at the balconied room overlooking the hall. And Sebastien, her husband, the host, still trying to collect famous drivers as if he could line them up in a cabinet somewhere and show them off.
‘Hey.’ A tall, grey-templed man shook a champagne flute at him. ‘I seem to have run dry.’
Henri looked him up and down. ‘Have you tried asking a waiter for a refill?’
The man blinked and coloured. ‘Ah, so sorry. Thought the dark jacket meant you were on Seb’s payroll!’ He stood his champagne flute down on the table and peered at Henri with sharp, blue eyes. ‘Although, I don’t recall ever seeing you at one of these parties before. Haven’t had the pleasure.’ He stuck out a hand. ‘Lorenzo.’
‘Henri.’ He took Lorenzo’s hand and gave it a firm shake. ‘I don’t usually stick around long. In fact, I was just about to leave.’
‘Ah, here to see the real thing, and not for Seb’s song and dance afterward.’ The man chortled. ‘Well, the drivers are all gone, a few might reappear to… er… make the most of the occasion, but not il Toro Rosso. Our mighty champion’s already vanished. Never lost a race, but clearly not a fan of parties.’
‘Don’t blame him,’ Henri said. ‘I heard someone say the host would trade his wife to sign him.’
‘Or his daughter.’ Lorenzo chuckled. ‘I don’t think it’ll work for him. Il Toro Rosso hasn’t turned up for more than the formalities and always wears an enchantment to blur his face. Not the sort to be tempted by Seb’s glitter.’ He plucked his champagne flute off the table. ‘I shall go in search of a top up before Seb gets to his speech, enjoy your evening.’
Henri drifted out the side entrance and wandered through the neat gardens, avoiding making eye contact with any of the couples as he strode through the moonlit rose garden and out the side door to where rows of expensive cars were parked.
‘Fuck you!’ A slim, blonde girl in a silver dress hurled a champagne flute into the windshield of a red Ferrari, sending bits of glass flying across the car park. ‘Fuck your stupid car! And fuck your stupid party!’
Oooookay. Henri glanced past her at where his white Audi sat. Bugger.
Several more champagne flutes smashed against the Ferrari and the girl slumped on the bonnet, pulling off her heels and dropping them on the floor.
‘Fuck this whole stupid illegal sport!’ she screamed at the sky.
Don’t notice me. Henri studied the stars as he wandered past the rows of cars. I just want to leave.
‘Hey!’ The girl stood up on the bonnet, tugging the hem of her silver dress back past her knees. ‘Hey! Are you leaving!?’
Henri sighed. ‘I was trying to.’
‘Take me to the train station,’ she demanded.
‘Did you run out of champagne flutes to throw?’ Henri asked.
Shit. He clamped his mouth shut.
She turned her nose up and flicked a stray lock of blonde hair off her face. ‘I did. And unless you’re going to either get me more things to throw or are entirely unchivalrous, I would like a lift to the station.’
Annoyance flickered through him. ‘Please?’
She stared at him with cool, sky-blue eyes.
Henri stared back.
‘Fine. Please.’ She took a step down the bonnet and winced, plucking her toes back from above countless gleaming shards of glass. ‘But hurry up. I want to leave this stupid party.’
‘Just…’ He flapped a hand at the broken glass. ‘Come here then.’
‘What?’ She huffed and poked her red-nailed toes at the glittering fragments of champagne flute. ‘No! I can do it myself.’
Henri picked her heels up with one hand, then swept her off the bonnet and over his shoulder. ‘You seem like a really difficult person. Why make your life harder when you don’t need to?’
‘Put me down!’ She squirmed from side to side, sending him staggering backward. ‘Put me down now!’
‘Stop wriggling and I will,’ he said. ‘I only wanted to get you over the glass, you have your own legs. You can use them.’ Henri set her down and dropped her heels into her arms. ‘Although apparently not to walk to the train station, which can’t be more than about half an hour away.’
She straightened her dress, smoothing out the shining sequins and jammed her feet into her red heels. ‘I am not walking.’
‘I’d gathered that.’ He rummaged through his pockets, turning out his car key. ‘Fortunately, it’s a short drive, so I won’t have to put up with you for long.’
‘Are you usually this rude?’
She balled her fists. ‘Just take me to the fucking station.’
Henri unlocked his Audi. ‘Get in, then.’
‘I hope you can actually drive.’ She tugged open the door and swung herself into the passenger seat. ‘At least I know you haven’t been drinking.’
‘You do?’ He twisted the key and listened to the roar of the engine. ‘How?’
‘You’re a waiter, my father would never let the staff drink anything expensive and there’s nothing here that isn’t.’
‘You’re Sebastien’s daughter?’ Henri squinted at her, hunting for a name. ‘Elisabeth?’
‘Isobel,’ she snapped. ‘My mother’s Elisabeth. And yes. Unfortunately I am.’
‘So…’ He pointed back at the shadow of the mansion and its estate. ‘Aren’t you already home?’
‘I have a flat of my own in Milan.’ Isobel glowered at him until he put the car into gear. ‘I only came to see my mother, and it just so happened the party was this evening.’
‘It’s supposed to be a big deal.’ Henri pulled out of the car park and headed down the long drive. ‘Everyone wants an invite.’
‘Not me.’ She tossed her blonde hair over her shoulder and huffed. ‘My father only cares about his stupid racing and showing off his money. I’ve danced at a national level and has he come to watch? Not once. But does he miss a single stupid illegal race? Of course not. He’ll influence judges so I win, but he won’t come and fucking watch me dance.’
‘I guess that sucks.’
‘You have no idea what it’s like, do you?’ Isobel crossed her arms and stared out at the grounds as they rolled up to the gate. ‘You see all the money and just assume everything is perfect and wonderful.’
‘I’m just a waiter, apparently.’
‘A bad one,’ she jibed. ‘You’re not meant to be leaving until later.’ Isobel frowned. ‘Why were you leaving? Did you steal something?’
‘I don’t steal.’ He eased his foot down and the audi crept forward onto the winding ribbon of tarmac leading down toward the rippling sea and the small town. ‘Haven’t stolen anything since I was about thirteen.’
‘I don’t care. My father won’t even notice.’ Isobel rested her bunched fists on the dashboard. ‘I wish he’d just let me win by myself, or actually turn up, but he wants it both ways. He’s so fucking selfish.’
‘Winning doesn’t mean much if it’s not a fair contest,’ Henri said, drifting round the hairpin bends through olive groves and small farms into the narrow streets.
‘Exactly.’ She let out a little growl. ‘I just want to know it was me. My dancing. My magic. My achievement. He doesn’t even understand, because my grandfather died when he was about six and he just inherited all the money. He’s never actually tried to achieve anything for himself.’
‘Seems fair enough on your part.’ He reached for the gearstick and found her heels. ‘Move those. They’re in the way.’
Isobel swiped them to the floor, but the strap snagged on his sleeve, ripping a button free. ‘Sorry,’ she muttered. ‘I’ll pay for that.’
Henri turned his wrist over and checked the slim leather tie and its copper clasp. ‘It’s fine. I don’t care. Just a button. Wasn’t going to wear it again after tonight anyway.’
‘That’s enchanted.’ Isobel cocked her head and grabbed his wrist. ‘And it’s expensive.’
‘It’s a fake.’ He pulled his arm out of her grip. ‘And I need that hand to drive.’
‘Oh.’ She rolled her eyes. ‘Right. Of course. Silly of me. For a moment I thought it was a genuine De Moiré, but they cost about a hundred thousand.’
‘Not really in the salary range of a waiter, that.’ He eased the brakes on, curving through the line of bollards and rolling to a stop beneath the screen of train times.
‘It’s a good fake,’ Isobel said. ‘I’ve seen plenty of the real deal and I was fooled.’
‘You’ve only got about ten minutes,’ Henri told her. ‘Do you know where you’re going once in Milan? Can you afford to get to your flat?’
‘I’m fine.’ She pulled her heels back on and stumbled out of the car, shivering in the breeze that rushed in. ‘Actually…’
‘Here.’ He pulled his jacket off and tossed it out at her. ‘It’s cheap. You can keep it.’
‘Thanks.’ Isobel slammed the door shut and swept off through the station door and out onto the platform, clutching his jacket around her shoulders.
‘Bye.’ Henri laughed, reversing back through the bollards with one hand on the wheel and spinning the car back around onto the road in its own length. ‘What an absolute nightmare she must be.’
A champagne cork popped behind him amidst low chatter and quiet laughter. A whiff of sharp alcohol reached his nose as Henri leant over the edge of the box and peered down at the eight cars and their drivers.
Interesting mix. He ran his eyes over the glowing runes on the cars. Some very different strategies here.
Heels clicked across the floor behind him. ‘You!’
Not another posh squabble in the private box. He sighed and glanced over his shoulder.
Isobel glared at him from beneath the lip of an ivory bonnet, her hands on the hips of her pastel blue summer dress. ‘Why are you here?’
Shit. This girl again.
‘Waiting,’ he replied.
‘Get me a drink, then.’ She held out an empty prosecco glass. ‘I’m out.’
‘Waiting for the race to start.’ Henri ignored her hand. ‘Go get your own drink.’
She blinked. ‘But it’s your job.’
Isobel sputtered. ‘What are you even doing instead?’
He turned back and leant over the rail. ‘I was looking at the cars, but then you interrupted me to rudely demand I get you a drink.’
‘Do you even know anything about this sport?’ She stepped up beside him and shoved her prosecco glass into his hand.
Henri dropped it off the balcony into the bin. The smash of glass echoed back up to them.
She stared at him.
‘What?’ Her shocked expression sent a strange warmth through him. ‘I said I wasn’t going to.’
Isobel shook her head. ‘You’re unbelievable.’
‘You’re rude,’ she cried, balling her fists on the railing. ‘You didn’t even tell me your name.’
‘Henri.’ He studied the soft white glow of runes on the outer tyres of the nearest car, a bright orange and dark blue Mercedes CLK. ‘Not that people like you care about the names of your staff.’
Isobel sucked in a sharp breath. ‘I—’
‘Can you name a single person who works for you, or your father, or whatever?’ Henri watched her cheeks turn pink in the corner of his eye and hid a smile.
‘No,’ she muttered. ‘But they don’t work for me.’
‘And they’re not real people, either.’ He jabbed a thumb back over his shoulder at the far side of the box. ‘Aren’t you going back over there?’
Isobel slapped his hand down and turned her nose up. ‘No.’ She pointed down at the cars. ‘Who do you think will win?’
‘Either the cocky kid in the orange and blue car with the white runes on his wheels or the experienced woman in the middle.’ Henri shrugged. ‘Depends on how the kid’s driving is. He’s used three of his five enchantments to coat his tyres in magic, so he’s going to glide over the track, but if he gets a corner wrong he’ll be wrapped around the wall before he has time to scream.’
Isobel stared down. ‘Will he get hurt?’
‘If he gets it wrong, he’ll die.’ He smiled as she paled. ‘Either he’s too young and cocky to have considered that, in which case, when he has a near miss, it’ll shred his confidence and he’ll lose time, or he knows what he’s doing with this gamble and he’ll win.’
‘And the other one?’
‘She’s been around a couple years and is a bit of an old hand. There’re two corners on this track which you can’t hit at anything less than the perfect line in a car enchanted to be lighter than usual or you lose the back. She’s got variable enchantments on her chassis, which uses up two enchantments instead of one, but means she can get round those at a higher speed because she’ll have more grip to play with when she wants it.’
‘Why the fuck does a waiter know all this?’
‘Why the fuck doesn’t a spoilt little rich girl know all this?’
She gaped. ‘You — you can’t—’
‘Why not?’ he demanded, failing to stop his smile reaching his face. ‘You don’t pay me.’
‘One word to my father and he’ll fire you.’
‘You won’t do that.’ Henri pointed down at the kid prancing up and down the side of his car. ‘You’re like him. You want to win fair. Maybe you’ll run back to daddy if you can’t, but you’ll try to win fair first.’
‘I will not run back to daddy.’
He snorted. ‘So you’re just going to talk to the staff for the whole race?’
Isobel opened and closed her mouth. ‘Yes.’ She clenched her jaw. ‘Just because you’re unreasonable and rude doesn’t mean I will be.’
The horn sounded and the drivers dashed to the cars, swinging themselves into the cockpits. Engines roared to life and the cars zipped away, the orange and blue one ghosting up the field to the front before they all vanished around the first corner.
‘So far so good for your prediction,’ Isobel muttered.
‘Are you upset I might be right?’ Henri laughed. ‘You really are Sebastien’s daughter, aren’t you?’
‘Shut up.’ She glared at him. ‘I am nothing like him.’
‘Of course not.’
Isobel balled her fists around the railing until her knuckles whitened. ‘That kid you think might win is who my father’s here to see. He reckons he might be the next big thing.’
‘I doubt it.’
‘And you’re an expert.’
Henri shrugged. ‘You can tell from how he set himself up. He’s a gambler. It might work a few times, but over the course of a year, he’ll drop back or fail to finish. You have to be consistent to get into the finals, if you don’t finish every race, you don’t make it, even if you’re top of the field.’ He glanced along the balcony past her pink cheeks as the cars roared up the straight toward them. ‘If your father thinks he’s going to be the next big thing, then he’s an idiot.’
‘You can’t say that!’
‘I definitely can,’ he said.
‘You are the rudest person I have ever met,’ Isobel snapped.
‘I’m not even that rude,’ Henri replied, through a broad grin. ‘I just don’t sugarcoat anything like your lot do. Everyone knows when your snide little compliments aren’t really compliments, so it seems like a lot of effort for nothing.’
The orange and blue Mercedes streaked past, followed by a trio of others.
‘I hope he doesn’t win.’ Henri watched them to the bend and frowned. ‘He seems arrogant.’
Isobel scoffed. ‘Because you’re a shining example of humility. At least he’s good at something.’
‘Not as good as he thinks he is,’ he said. ‘With those tyres he should’ve been twice as far ahead.’
‘He’s still winning.’
‘For now.’ Henri pointed down at the pit lane and mechanics below. ‘But because he’s put three of his five enchantments on those tyres, he can’t replace them like-for-like. He’ll have to use normal tyres.’
‘And?’ Isobel’s brow creased and she swiped a stray lock of blonde hair away from her face.
‘And the other drivers will still have their enchantments active, so he’ll lose time. If he’s not already far enough ahead…’
‘Oh.’ She chewed at her lip and stared out at the track as the rest of the field passed them. ‘Doesn’t he have two more enchantments, though?’
‘He does, but, usually, every driver has two enchantments that are the same.’
‘One stops the car catching fire, because nobody wants to be burnt alive, and the other cushions them from impact if they crash.’ Henri watched her frown deepen. ‘There was talk about making them a rule, but since it’s all illegal and people like it when drivers take the risk every now and again, nothing came of it.’
‘That’s stupid.’ Isobel stuck her chin in the air. ‘If they all do it anyway, why not make it a rule?’
‘There have been a few who haven’t,’ he said. ‘Usually very popular drivers.’
‘Like who?’ she demanded.
‘Il Toro Rosso doesn’t.’ Henri patted his left arm. ‘That’s why he caught fire back in his first race, and his car has done it a few times since. The others, well, it’s risky, so they’re all dead now, but that’s what it takes to win sometimes.’
‘So he wins because he doesn’t bother with safety.’ Isobel sniffed. ‘And I thought he was meant to be some untouchable talent.’
‘There’s no such thing.’ He laughed. ‘At the highest level, it’s all a balance of risk and reward, and all that depends on getting your strategy right to begin with.’
‘What does he do, then?’ Isobel asked.
‘I’ve never watched him race,’ Henri said.
‘What would you do, if it was you out there?’ she asked.
‘Something a little different,’ he said. ‘The trick to this track is endurance. As that kid in the Mercedes is going to learn in a few laps, all the tight corners mean a lot of braking, by the end of the race, you’ll have to replace both the tyres and brakes.’
Isobel pursed her lips. ‘So what? Enchant them to last longer?’
‘No, I don’t think so.’ Henri drummed his fingers on the railing. ‘You’d lose too much time on everyone who went conventional to catch it up later. I’d enhance the brakes, shave off a little time on every corner to stick with the leaders, then have a trump card for the end. That’s the smart way to do it, no gambling.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘For a waiter who’s safely up here and hasn’t ever competed, you’re very free with your opinions.’
He stifled a laugh. ‘And I’m sure you just hate it when the staff have opinions.’
Isobel sputtered. ‘That’s not at all what I meant.’
‘Sure it wasn’t.’ Henri snorted. ‘Your father collects those drivers like stamps and your mother spends more than most people make in a year on those parties. I bet you’re completely different, fancy dancer that you are.’
‘And they’re rubbish parties,’ she muttered. ‘Nobody has any fun.’
‘What?’ Isobel snapped.
‘I actually agree,’ he said. ‘Everyone who goes pretends to love it, nobody has any real fun.’
‘Some of the drivers do. The big names. They use it as a chance to go after any girl they can see.’
‘Girls like famous drivers. They’re shallow like that. I doubt the drivers have to do much chasing.’
‘Not all girls like famous drivers,’ Isobel retorted. ‘I’ve no interest in them.’
‘That’s a real shame.’ He laughed. ‘Because I heard a rumour your father would trade you in a heartbeat to get his hands on Il Toro Rosso.’
She grimaced. ‘He probably would if he could. He’s managed to get all the other big names, but none of them have managed to beat the champion and he wants a winner.’
‘Well, I wouldn’t spend much time with the drivers, not if you’re looking for anything long term. They don’t tend to live long.’ Henri counted on his fingers. ‘I can only think of a handful who made it to their mid-twenties and retired.’
‘Better than a waiter,’ Isobel jibed. ‘At least the drivers are good at something.’
‘I bet I’m a better driver than they are at waiting,’ he said.
A faint smile crossed her face. ‘That’s not exactly a claim to fame, Henri.’
‘Well, Isobel, I’m not really all that keen on being famous. I’d just end up stuck in this box talking to snooty little rich girls all the time. And I prefer to watch the races from the first corner anyway.’
‘I’m the best person you’ve talked to in your entire life.’ She turned her nose up at him and straightened her bonnet. ‘There are boys who would give their souls to talk to me for as long as you have.’
‘I bet they wouldn’t do it twice.’
She gaped. ‘What? Why are you so rude?’
‘I just can’t help myself. When I see an ego too big for itself, I just have to drag it back to reality,’ Henri said.
‘I don’t have an ego.’
‘I’m the best person you’ve talked to in your entire life.’ He held Isobel’s eye and gave her his flattest stare.
She sniffed and straightened her bonnet. ‘I am the best dancer my age on the planet. I’m very pretty. I’m rich—’
‘It’s just such a shame about your personality.’ He laughed as she gaped. ‘I’m sure if you weren’t such a prickly, defensive, spoilt little girl you’d be absolutely perfect.’
‘You really are.’
Isobel crossed her arms. ‘If I’m being defensive it’s because you keep attacking me.’
‘You started it.’ Henri grinned. ‘You can’t just pout and expect to get away with acting like that.’
‘I did not.’
‘You demanded I drive you to the station.’
‘I didn’t demand, I… asked.’
Henri held her gaze until she huffed and twisted away to watch the first three cars zip into the pit lane. ‘You know I’m right.’
‘I don’t like you,’ Isobel said.
‘You don’t have to talk to me,’ he said, watching the young kid pose in his car as his tyres were swapped. ‘God that kid is annoying. I hope he has a minor mechanical and fails to finish, that’ll teach him.’
‘I’m not going back over there,’ she muttered. ‘Mother is trying to use me as a party decoration and my father just wants to brag about how much I’ve won, like I’m one of his stupid drivers.’
‘Well, I’m not going to brag about you,’ Henri replied. ‘Don’t see what there is to brag about beneath that pretty face.’
‘So you do think I’m pretty.’ A touch of red coloured her cheeks, setting his stomach fluttering.
‘You are pretty. Very pretty.’ He shrugged. ‘You’re just a complete bitch, too.’
Isobel tutted. ‘Was that really the best you could do? I get better compliments from fifteen year old boys on the street.’
‘It’s just how it is.’
‘I’m not a bitch.’
‘You don’t even notice people like me,’ Henri replied. ‘And when you did, you treated me more or less like a slave. That’s the epitome of bitchy.’
‘I’ve been talking to you all morning,’ she cried. ‘And I notice plenty, like how your cheap jacket was actually worth about three thousand. You basically stole it from whomever it was on my father’s staff that leant it to you.’
‘You’re talking to me to avoid things you don’t like, not because you want to.’
‘You didn’t even try and deny the jacket thing,’ she accused.
‘I gave it to you, if I borrowed it from your father’s staff, then that’d be giving it back,’ he said. ‘It’s not my fault you tore the button off and threw it away.’
‘Threw it away?!’ She gasped. ‘It’s top-end designer.’
‘And?’ he teased. ‘It’s just a jacket.’
‘You have absolutely no taste,’ Isobel declared. ‘It’s so annoying.’ She clenched her jaw. ‘I still have the jacket, obviously, I’m getting it repaired, since, yes, I did tear the button off by mistake.’
‘Thanks for your apology,’ Henri said. ‘It was really touching.’
‘It’s not even your fucking jacket.’
The blue and orange Mercedes roared out of the pit lane and off onto the track, leaving a stack of worn, white-runed tyres behind.
‘Now we’ll see,’ Henri said as the other two cars set off after him. ‘He’s got no advantages now and he’ll have to drive very well to keep the others behind him.’
Rubber screeched and the two cars collided in a screech of metal skidding up the side of the track and slamming into the wall.
‘Oh my god,’ Isobel gasped. ‘Are they going to be okay?’
‘They’ll be fine.’ He scowled. ‘Small crash like that won’t hurt them with the enchanted suits they’re both wearing. Probably wouldn’t hurt them much even if they’d risked going without.’
‘And what, you’re angry they’re not hurt?’ She sniffed. ‘And I’m the fucking bitch. Right.’
‘I’m annoyed because that arrogant kid is going to stroll to victory and think he’s even more amazing, when really, he was about to be caught in the fight of his life and we’d have seen what he’s actually made of.’
‘What he’s actually made of,’ Isobel echoed. ‘You’re a fucking waiter, you can’t talk like that.’
Henri laughed and pushed himself off the railing. ‘I can talk how I want, princess.’ He glanced over his shoulder and caught a disapproving frown on the face of Isobel’s parents. ‘I’m leaving, by the way, so have fun with your little tea party of snakes.’
A snort of laughter burst through her lips and a smile flashed across her face. ‘That’s a very apt description of their parties.’ Isobel froze. ‘Wait, you’re leaving?’
‘Yeah, that’s what I said.’
‘But you have to do your job.’
‘The race is over.’ He grinned. ‘Nobody is going to stop me leaving.’
She crossed her arms and chewed at her lip. ‘Stay for my sake? Please?’ A soft, sad gleam welled up in her eyes. ‘I don’t really want to go back over there.’
A twist of pity panged in his breast. ‘Nope. I’m not falling for that.’ Henri hardened his heart. ‘You’ll have to put on a better act than that.’
Isobel balled her fists. ‘It’s not an act,’ she hissed. ‘I don’t know why I even asked, you’re obviously too rude to want to help anyone.’
‘Far too rude.’ He gave her a cheerful wave, blew her a kiss, and strode out of the box, pausing just outside the entrance.
‘Really, Isobel,’ Sebastien said. ‘Talking to some random man instead of socialising with us? That’s hardly courteous behaviour.’
‘I quite like him.’ Isobel’s tart reply was sharp as a razor. ‘If you keep hiring him, I’m going to keep talking to him. Maybe I’ll take him to watch my dances, we could visit a nice restaurant afterward, then I can take him back to my flat and spend some time together.’
Henri stifled his laughter into his hand. ‘I wish I could see Sebastien’s face right now.’
‘He doesn’t work for me,’ Sebastien snapped. ‘So you won’t see him again.’
‘He doesn’t?’ Isobel’s heels clicked toward the exit. ‘That obnoxious, rude, lying…’
‘Time to go.’ He dashed around the corner, and strode for the exit.
The blue and orange Mercedes streaked toward Henri, the white runes on its tyres glowing as it clawed itself a few extra car lengths ahead of its pursuers.
Henri caught a glance of an ostentatious gold fleur-de-lis on the side and spoiler as it braked with a screech of rubber into the first corner. ‘Unbelievable. He’s trying the same thing again.’ He swung his legs off the floodlight and shook his head. ‘If it works again, then that kid has the best luck I’ve ever seen.’
The crowd seated below cheered as the rest of the field roared past. A slim figure in a grey hoodie swept down the steps and paused beneath him, gesturing up at where Henri sat.
‘Not a chance.’ He grinned down at them. ‘Luigi only lets me up here because I’ve known him for five years.’
Luigi backed away from the figure’s balled fists and held up his hands. ‘Okay, okay, but if you fall, it weren’t anything to do with me.’
‘There’s no space,’ Henri called down. ‘Find your own floodlight.’
The figure swept their hood away. Isobel’s ice-blue eyes glowered up at him through a veil of scattered blonde hair as she clambered up the metal rungs.
‘Shit.’ He contemplated the drop down. ‘Probably not quite worth it.’
‘How the fuck did you get him to let you up here?’ Isobel demanded, edging off the rungs and onto the floodlight beside him.
‘How the fuck did you?’
She turned away. ‘I told him who I was.’
‘Coward,’ Henri called down. ‘She’s half your size.’
Luigi held up his hands and shrugged. ‘Mama raised me to be nice to girls.’
‘Which is more than can be said for you,’ Isobel said. ‘Your mother must be disappointed.’
‘Well, she ditched me aged 16 and died of a heroin overdose three months later,’ he said. ‘So really, she has absolutely no ground to stand on.’
She winced. ‘Sorry.’
‘That almost sounded genuine. Well done.’
‘It was genuine, you absolute arsehole,’ Isobel cried. ‘What is wrong with you?’
Henri laughed. ‘My mother didn’t raise me well, apparently.’
She flushed. ‘I said I was sorry. I did mean it.’
‘I know.’ He waved her guilt away with his hand. ‘So why are you here and not up in the box?’
‘Because I knew you would be here.’ Isobel tugged her hoodie closer around her shoulders as the breeze picked up. ‘You said you watch from the first bend, and I knew, as soon as I saw some idiot up on this floodlight, that it would be you.’
‘You came to see me, the rude waiter, I’m flattered.’ He smothered a fluttering somewhere beneath his ribs. ‘But that means there are now two idiots up here.’
A peal of soft laughter burst from her lips and she flashed a bright, clear smile. Henri’s heart squirmed in his breast and a grin crept onto his lips.
‘My father sponsored that driver, by the way,’ Isobel said. ‘Thinks he’s going to be the one that finally beats Il Toro Rosso.’
‘I know,’ he replied. ‘I saw that tacky gold fleur-de-lis on the car.’
‘It’s really tacky, isn’t it.’ She sighed. ‘I tried to tell them, but they don’t seem to understand that making something gold and big doesn’t really mean it’s good.’
‘If it makes it any better, it’ll take a lot of luck for him to get to the finals,’ Henri replied. ‘And I don’t think there’s enough luck in the world for him to win. Il Toro Rosso might have a bad day, some kind of car fault, or a crash, but he’s never going to beat all of the finalists. They’re legends in their own right.’
‘He’s getting desperate for someone he sponsors to win.’ Isobel laughed. ‘You know he hired a whole team of private investigators to work out who Il Toro Rosso is beneath the De Moiré disguise? I think he was hoping he could blackmail him into being sponsored.’
‘Did he?’ He chuckled. ‘Any luck?’
‘None.’ She shifted her balance and crossed her legs. ‘I think the real reason Il Toro Rosso wins is because he has this aura of mystery that even the other drivers get caught up in.’
‘Reputation can help.’ Henri watched the orange and blue car flash beneath them. ‘It puts pressure on other drivers, makes them take risks or intimidates them into giving up.’
‘It’s the same when I dance,’ Isobel said. ‘Not in the nationals, but when it’s against girls my own age. They think they’ve lost before we start, you can kind of see it.’
‘You’re that good?’
‘Yes.’ She shivered. ‘I am.’
‘The only thing I know about dancing is that there’s this one bitchy princess of a dancer who thinks she’s really good,’ he jibed.
She glowered at him. ‘I’ve won more dance championships than Il Toro Rosso has driving championships.’
‘Fair enough.’ Henri raised his hands. ‘This lowly, servile, creature accepts you’re a good dancer. Happy?’
Isobel’s lips twitched, then her glower redoubled. ‘You’re not a waiter! You lied to me the entire time.’
‘No I didn’t.’
‘My father says he hasn’t hired you.’
‘He hasn’t, but I didn’t lie.’ Henri grinned at her. ‘You assumed I was a waiter, so it’s your own fault.’
‘Unbelievable.’ She drew a sharp breath. ‘No. No. I’m not going to let you get under my skin. That’s what you want.’
‘It is quite a lot of fun,’ he admitted. ‘Puts a smile on my face.’
Isobel blinked. ‘Oh. Oh. Now I get it. You’re that sort of boy.’
She flashed a wide smile. ‘I know what to do with you now. Usually, boys like you aren’t as rude, they’re blunt and complimentary. They desperately want my attention.’ A bright glimmer of glee welled up in her blue eyes and she scooted closer until their legs brushed. ‘But they’re not very good with people and don’t know how to go about getting it.’
Henri glanced down at where her skin-tight jean-clad knee rested on his thigh, stomach fluttering. ‘I don’t want your attention. I don’t want anybody’s attention.’
‘Sure,’ she cooed, a broad smirk spreading across her face. ‘Who’s getting under whose skin now, Henri?’
He stared down at the pit lane. ‘Not you. I’m immune to bitchiness.’
‘You are.’ She laughed. ‘It’s niceness that gets to you.’
‘Why would I not like niceness?’ Henri asked. ‘Did you fall on your head while dancing?’
‘Several times, actually.’ Isobel sighed as the blue and orange Mercedes streaked into the pit lane. ‘He’s winning again. My father’s getting people to call him the Rooster.’
‘Stupid name. Not that any of them aren’t stupid,’ he said. ‘The Rooster’s about to tyre change, at which point he has to stay ahead for the rest of the race without any enchantments to help him. I’m quite looking forward to seeing it.’
‘It’s a good thing this is a shorter race, it’s cold up here.’ She dragged her hoodie tighter about her figure, then beamed. ‘Want to keep me warm, Henri? Can I borrow an arm?’
His heart flopped. ‘No.’
Henri sighed and held his arm out. ‘Fine.’
She laughed and wrapped it about her shoulders. ‘I like you much more acting like this.’
‘You just like being able to make people like me do what you want,’ he retorted, a small grin creeping onto his lips. ‘Because you’re spoilt rich girl.’
‘I am a spoilt rich girl,’ she said. ‘I like getting my way, but you’re smiling, Henri.’
He wiped the smile off his face. ‘No, I’m not.’
Isobel’s laughter rang out beside him as the Rooster tore out of the pit lane and rejoined the field. ‘Who’s going to catch him?’
‘Not sure, actually,’ Henri admitted. ‘Most of the drivers have gone for trump cards, because the race is so short. His wheel strategy isn’t actually the worst for this track.’
‘You mean… the driver actually knows what he’s doing?’ She gasped. ‘And the waiter doesn’t know better.’ Isobel scowled. ‘What do you do, then?’
‘Me?’ He grinned. ‘Private investigator.’
She froze. ‘Seriously?’
‘Arsehole,’ Isobel muttered. ‘Fine. Don’t tell me. As long as you’re not a journalist trying to get sleazy pictures of me?’
‘I’m not a journalist.’
‘But you would like a picture?’ She threw him a coy look. ‘What would you like? Me in expensive lingerie?’
‘No thanks.’ He squished the butterflies in his stomach and frowned. ‘I don’t even know how old you are, you could be sixteen.’
‘I’m nineteen.’ Isobel leant her head back on his arm with a smirk. ‘And you avoided answering that question.’
‘Fine. I don’t particularly care for expensive lingerie.’
‘You do have terrible taste.’ A mischievous glint hovered in her eyes. ‘So, not lingerie, something more natural? Just a tee-shirt?’
‘Can you stop?’ he demanded. ‘I appreciate it’s kind of fair play for you to needle me, but I’m not an idiot. For all your bitchiness and spoiltness, you’d much rather spend your time with male models or athletes or guys like that.’
‘You don’t know that.’
Henri caught her eye and pulled his arm back to roll up his sleeve. ‘Yes, I do.’ He flicked open the clasp of the De Moiré bracelet.
Isobel’s breath caught. ‘Jesus…’
He glanced down at the pink, twisted scars stretching from his wrist to his shoulder, running his fingertips over the ones upon his left cheek and jaw. ‘Exactly. And I wasn’t all that pretty beforehand.’
‘It’s not important,’ she said.
‘A lot of girls say that from a safe distance.’ Henri’s chuckle turned bitter. ‘You’ll find someone who won’t care, they say, just, you know, not me. People are shallow.’
‘You have nice green eyes,’ Isobel whispered. ‘It’s just a scar. You will find a girl who doesn’t care.’
‘It covers almost a third of my body,’ he said. ‘I doubt I look as good as your male models, or even the majority of my gender.’
‘You’re capable of intelligent thought, though.’ She rolled her eyes. ‘So that places you several steps higher than the models. That party you gave me a lift to the station from, I endured twenty minutes of one of them explaining his diet plan to me like I’d be impressed because he knows what kale is.’
‘I don’t know, you seem like the sort of girl who’d be impressed if it was designer kale.’
‘Says the man wearing a very expensive de Moiré.’ She blinked. ‘Which isn’t fake, you liar! And if you can afford that to cover burns, you’re just as rich and spoilt as I am!’
‘I have some money these days,’ he admitted. ‘But I’m not spoilt.’
‘Anyone who grows up with money is spoilt.’
‘I grew up on the streets,’ Henri replied. ‘I stole car parts, then, when I could reach the pedals, I taught myself to drive and stole cars.’
‘You’re a criminal.’
‘I was until I was about thirteen.’
‘You were so good you made all your money as a kid?’ She cocked her head. ‘Wait, how old are you?’
‘Twenty two, just, I think.’
‘No idea when my birthday is, I just picked a day, but it’s probably close enough.’ Henri watched the cars approaching the bend, the blue and orange Mercedes flagging before the two pursuing drivers. ‘And no, I stole one of these cars, actually, outran everyone who tried to catch me. After that, I didn’t need to steal anymore.’
‘They are worth a small fortune,’ she said, peering down the track. ‘Is the Rooster about to lose? I can’t tell.’
‘He’s bleeding ground on the straight and they’ll probably take him before the corner,’ he replied. ‘Guess it’ll be another year of defeat for your father.’
Isobel snickered. ‘Good.’
The Mercedes shifted left and the Ferrrari behind leapt forward, then the Rooster swerved right as he pulled into the corner. The Ferrari twisted away in a screech of rubber and smoke, the Ford behind caught its rear tyre and spun out across the track.
A flash of fury filled Henri. ‘That was deliberate.’
‘What?’ Isobel stared at the smoke rising from the Ferrari.
The driver clambered out, half-aflame, rolling across the verge until the fire on his suit died. His Ferrari burst into flames behind him, sending a column of thick, black smoke rising up into the sky.
‘The Rooster wobbled to make it look like he was taking a bad line to let them pass, then shifted back across,’ Henri growled. ‘He was trying to get them to attempt an overtake then mess up and crash or spin out. Now he’s going to win easily again.’
‘Isn’t that cheating?’ she asked.
‘No.’ He grit his teeth. ‘There’re no real rules, but there is such a thing as sportsmanship. That kid needs to learn to respect other drivers, it’s dangerous enough as it is without pulling shit like that.’
‘Why don’t you try and race?’ Isobel asked. ‘You know loads about this.’
‘Miss Decolmar!’ A deep voice called up from beneath them.
A pair of suited security staff stood at the base of the floodlight in front of a wilting Luigi.
‘Oh for fuck’s sake.’ Isobel hissed. ‘I don’t want to go their stupid little after party.’
‘Your father has asked us to help you back to the box, Miss Decolmar,’ one of them called. ‘Please come down.’
‘Bye,’ Henri said, shooting her a grin. ‘Have fun.’
Isobel glowered at him, then a small smirk spread across her face. ‘Bye, Henri.’ She bent forward and pressed her lips to his scarred left cheek. ‘Think about me.’
His heart lurched. ‘I won’t.’ He watched her climb down, tracking her feet and hands on the metal rungs until she was down on safe ground. ‘Fuck,’ he muttered, feeling a soft twist of pain beneath his ribs as she walked away. ‘That’s a problem.’
Crimson runes glimmered on the smooth dark tyres, four circle sets on each one. Henri tugged a glove off his left hand and held it out under the rain. A few cool drops burst on his skin.
Not too wet, but best not to go for all five on the tyres.
He stepped back and reached for magic, tugging a thread of it out and weaving it into the spoiler, etching another string of red runes across the white Lamborghini Murciélago. They glowed, then the magic sank deep into the metal and Henri tugged his glove back on shoving the De Moiré bracelet under the hem of the leather.
A buzz ran through the crowd as the big screens focused on the new addition he’d made.
‘Is that the fifth enchantment on the car?’ A race marshall in a yellow jacket stepped across. ‘Henri Decolmar?’ He paused. ‘Decolmar? I apologise, Mr Decolmar, I’m sure it’s fine.’
He grinned beneath his helmet. ‘Don’t worry about it, it is just a fifth. Other four are on the tyres.’
‘Er…’ The race marshall swallowed. ‘It’s generally a good idea to have at least one for protection. In case something goes wrong. I can’t stop you, of course, but…’
Henri laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. ‘I’m sure it’ll be fine. I don’t intend to crash.’
A loud klaxon sounded and the red numbers above the start line began to flick down from a hundred.
‘Shit.’ The marshall glanced at the tyres and spoilers, then back to him. ‘Well, it’s your neck, sir.’
‘That it is.’ He swung himself in, clipping the harness into place and fired up the engine with a roar. ‘Right, time to answer the age-old question of why did the Rooster cross the road.’
Might as well get him at the start. Henri held his breath as the numbers turned orange, then flashed green, easing his foot down.
The white nose of his lamborghini leapt forward and he slipped himself into fourth in the field, one place behind the orange and blue Mercedes and its golden fleur-de-lis. He edged forward, pushing his nose into the slipstream a fraction and waved at the Rooster in the mirror.
‘Go on,’ he muttered, nibbling at the Mercedes’s rear as they streaked toward the first corner, readying the balls of his feet on the pedals. ‘Try it. I know you want to.’
The Rooster drifted out a fraction.
‘Got you.’ Henri slammed his foot, down shifting through the gears on the wheel.
The white nose of his car thrust up alongside the Mercedes’ rear wheels. The Rooster shifted back across to block him. Henri held his breath as the white glowing tyres spun toward the nose of his Lamborghini.
The world wrenched sideways, spinning end over end until it slammed to a halt with a flash of pain. A trickle of blood ran down from his lip past his eyes into his hair and his head spun. The sand of the verge stretched away below him to where pieces of his car lay strewn along the edge of the wall.
‘Just had to be upside down,’ he slurred, slumping in the harness. ‘Fucking fantastic.’
Heat burst up to the left of him.
‘Shit.’ He ripped the harness open, ignoring the flames crawling on his left arm, and crawled out from beneath his ruined car.
‘You cunt!’ The Rooster stormed across from his car, ripping his helmet off. ‘You fucking cost me the race.’
Henri patted out the flames and slid up his visor. ‘Good. I meant to.’
The Rooster reeled back. ‘What?!’
‘Do you think nobody noticed your little stunt in the last race?’ He checked the bracelet, then tugged his own helmet off. ‘If you can’t respect the race and other drivers, you shouldn’t be racing at all.’
‘You’re a — a — a fucking amateur!’ The Rooster hurled his helmet into the ground, then flinched as it bounced back at his legs. ‘I was going to win!’
‘Don’t care.’ Henri tossed his helmet into the smouldering wreck of his car, peeling off his gloves revealing his scarred left hand. ‘And It’s not really winning if you don’t play fair.’
The Rooster sneered. ‘I’m going to tell Sebastien and he’ll get you banned from racing forever.’
‘Still don’t care,’ Henri said, letting the heat of the flames bathe his face and dropping his gloves into the fire. ‘I’ve accomplished what I wanted to and, between the two of us, Sebastien doesn’t care about you, now you’re out, he’ll swap to the next driver he thinks can beat Il Toro Rosso.’
‘Fuck you.’ The Rooster stormed off toward the race marshalls.
‘Time to go,’ Henri muttered, swinging himself over the barrier and hurrying through the crowd.
They parted from him, shrinking back, so he ducked behind a mobile generator for one of the big screens and pulled off his racing leathers, balling them up, wiping the blood off his face, and shoving them under the generator.
Henri stepped back out, spotted a gaggle of race marshalls, and slipped into the crowd, tugging his de Moiré bracelet off his right wrist and twisting it inside out before replacing it on his left. The burn scars vanished with a shimmer, disappearing under smooth, pink skin.
‘A job well done.’
He drifted back through the crowd toward the first bend and strolled up to the back row of seats. A familiar figure in a grey hoodie and aviators waved at him from the middle of it.
‘And Isobel will make an excellent alibi.’ Henri waved back and stepped up to join her.
She wrinkled her nose. ‘You smell like smoke and sweat.’
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I didn’t have time to find a designer cologne, had to go with what was on hand.’
‘It’s not that bad,’ Isobel said. ‘No worse than me after dancing.’
‘What did I miss?’ he asked. ‘Anything exciting?’
She beamed. ‘The Rooster’s gone.’
‘Oh?’ Henri grinned. ‘What happened?’
‘Some amateur driver in a white car tried to go past him when he tried his cheating trick, but the Rooster came back across and they crashed.’
‘The other driver didn’t pull away?’ he asked.
‘I don’t think they had time. Their car was so fast,’ Isobel gushed. ‘The race announcer nearly exploded from excitement when it accelerated for the overtake. Apparently, he’d gambled and put all his enchantments on his tyres and spoiler for speed and downforce.’
She’s been reading up on the sport.
‘Was he okay?’ Henri asked.
‘Yeah.’ Isobel snickered. ‘I think he’s busy running away from the marshals, and I know my father will be furious. You need to finish in all the races to get into the finals and race against the legends and now the Rooster won’t be able to.’
‘What a shame,’ Henri murmured. ‘Oh well.’
‘Yeah…’ Isobel glanced past him. ‘Oh. Fuck.’
‘My father’s security are coming.’
‘Back to the party you go.’ He laughed. ‘I bet it’s going to be loads of fun.’
‘No.’ She stood and tugged his arm. ‘You’re driving me to Milan, for the last race before the finals. I’ll get you a ticket if you do.’
Isobel laughed. ‘Please will you drive me there, before my father’s security catches me up.’
‘We’ll have to take your car.’ He glanced out at the smouldering wreck on the verge and hid a smile. ‘Mine’s not going to get us there.’
‘That’s fine, my car’s probably much nicer.’
Isobel muttered a string of swear words and grabbed his hand, dragging him down the steps and through the crowd. ‘This is why I try and avoid coming back to visit my family. My father gets so petty when he loses and tries to make everyone else miserable, too.’
Henri stared down at where her slim fingers threaded through his. ‘How far is it?’
Isobel’s eyes flicked from his face to their joined hands and a small smirk curved her lips. ‘Not far, I thought I might need to make a quick escape.’ She squeezed his fingers, sending fluttering jolts of electricity searing through him, leading him down a couple of side streets to where a blue Ferrari hung halfway over the pavement. ‘Here we go.’
‘Your parking is awful.’ He shook his head. ‘And who buys a blue Ferrari 360?’
‘Shut up.’ Isobel unlocked the car and pressed the key into his spare hand. ‘Drive me back to Milan. You can stay at my flat.’
His breath caught. ‘Er…’
‘It’s okay.’ She shot him a broad smirk. ‘I’ve only got one bed, though…’
‘I can just find a hotel.’
Isobel laughed. ‘I’m joking, there’s a guest room. We’re not even sharing a bathroom, because they both have really nice en-suites.’
‘Oh.’ He smothered a pang of disappointment and swung himself into the seat. ‘Good. For a moment I was worried I’d be the latest guy to end up splashed across the front pages of a magazine.’
‘You really don’t know anything about dancing, do you?’
‘I said I didn’t.’ He fired up the engine and eased the Ferrari off the curb, pulling out onto the road back out of town.
‘I’m a student of Marie Leclerc,’ Isobel said. ‘She used to be famous for being really good, but somewhat… wild. Spent a lot of time in the tabloids, got pregnant, had a huge scandal over who the child’s father was, and dropped out of dancing. She disappeared for twenty years, then she came back and opened a school. She takes on the very best, the very rich, and anyone she thinks she can stop repeating her mistakes.’
‘Nice of her.’
‘Yeah, in a way.’ She shrugged. ‘It was annoying when I was a couple of years younger and wanted the attention of boys. She basically kept me on competition tours and training the whole time until I grew out of it.’ A slow flushed climbed onto her cheeks and Isobel stared out of the window at the passing houses as they left town. ‘I wouldn’t be able to dance at 100% if I’d, well, you know, for the first time, so that never happened. And no drinking or drugs or anything either, of course.’
‘As fascinating as this insight into dancing is, I’m not sure I really want to be thinking about this,’ Henri said.
‘Oh.’ Isobel grinned. ‘Is it distracting you from driving?’
‘No. Just seems kind of personal.’
‘Well, you’re as close as any friend I have.’ She winced. ‘Which, yeah, sounds bad, I suppose, since I barely know you.’
‘Competition life can be too busy, and it’s hard to be real friends with all the people you’re trying to beat.’ he replied, changing up gears and drifting them in a gentle arc around the hairpins as they rose into the hills.
‘Exactly.’ She smiled and rested her hand on his. ‘Thank you for not being an arsehole about that. I’m sure it was hard for you.’
‘It didn’t seem like the moment for it.’ Henri replied. ‘Maybe next time.’
Isobel craned her neck. ‘Thirty five? You’re not really making the most of this chance, you know.’
‘To drive a car as nice as mine.’
‘No point taking unnecessary risks, the road’s wet from the rain and we’re not in a hurry,’ he said. ‘We’re going a perfectly reasonable speed to get to Milan.’
‘All that talk about racing and you drive like an old lady.’ Isobel laughed. ‘I drive faster than you do.’
‘Then I’m glad I’m driving.’
‘You can’t handle a little bit faster?’ she teased. ‘Not even all the way to forty?’
Temptation gnawed at him. ‘You want faster?’ He switched the car into manual, flicking off the traction control.
‘I do. And I usually get what I want.’ Isobel drew her hand back from his. ‘But I don’t think you should turn those off.’
‘You should be more careful what you wish for.’ Henri laughed and slammed his foot down, flashing through the gears.
Isobel jolted back into her seat with a little gasp, clinging to the door. ‘Henri! There’s a corner!’
‘I know.’ He put the nose of the car into it, switching down the gears and easing on the brakes, slinging the car around the hairpin and back out. ‘But not a very scary one.’
Isobel stared at him as she accelerated back along the straight. ‘You’re one of them, aren’t you?’
‘One of who?’
‘The drivers.’ She clapped a hand to her mouth. ‘Oh I’m so stupid. Of course you are. You watch all the races, you knew all that stuff, you were at the party and in the private box, and you drive—’ she squeezed her eyes shut and clung to the door as he drifted them around the next hairpin ‘—like this.’
‘After I stole that car, I outraced everyone, but they caught me when I stopped for fuel.’ He grinned, ignoring a flutter of butterflies at her flushed cheeks and bright blue eyes. ‘They didn’t press charges, though. They offered me a job. I was the best kid they’d ever seen, but—’
‘Your scars,’ she whispered.
‘The car was destroyed and the team couldn’t really afford a second one, especially not when there was a good chance I’d break it with how I race.’ Henri sighed. ‘The team broke up and everyone went to different places.’
‘But you won, right,’ Isobel said. ‘That’s how you made your money. Even winning the small races can set you up for life if you’re smart with the cash.’
He smiled and eased his foot off the accelerator. ‘Technically, I’ve never lost a race.’
Sunlight filtered in beneath the bottom of the black out blind and a soft breeze tickled across his bare shoulders. Henri watched the light creep across the floor, straining his ears and spinning his De Moiré ‘round his finger.
Soft footsteps padded along the corridor and paused outside his room. ‘Henri? Are you awake?’
Isobel slid the door open and flicked on the lights. ‘Awesome, I—’
‘Wait!’ He scrambled for his shirt and the De Moiré flew off his finger, bouncing off the corner of the bed and rolling to where the hem of Isobel’s charcoal dress hung over her silver-painted toes. ‘Fuck.’
Her blue eyes slid over the red scars running up his side. ‘Oh my god,’ she murmured, picking his De Moiré up from the floor and stepping across. ‘How old were you?’
‘When I got these?’ Henri tried to ignore the way his skin burnt beneath her gaze and stuck his right arm through the sleeve of his shirt. ‘Sixteen.’
‘Wait,’ Isobel whispered. ‘Can I…?’
‘Can you what?’
A little colour rose onto her cheeks. ‘Can I touch them.’
‘They’re just scars,’ Henri said. ‘Why do you want to touch them?’
‘Please?’ She stared at him with big blue eyes and chewed at her lip. ‘I asked nicely.’
His stomach fluttered and he sighed, holding out his left arm. ‘Go on, then, princess. Have fun.’
Isobel turned his arm over, tracing her fingertips up the inside of his forearm over his bicep to where the scars stretched up to his jaw and cheek. A little shiver swept through him and the butterflies in his chest swirled and tingled.
‘Did it hurt?’ Her fingers lingered on his cheek. ‘The fire?’
‘Like nothing you can imagine.’ He leant back and pulled his shirt on, buttoning the front. ‘Can I have my De Moiré, Isobel?’
She slipped it onto his wrist and snapped the clasp shut. A faint shimmer rippled over his hand and the scars vanished.
‘There, much better.’ He stood up. ‘Do we need to leave soon to get there in time?’
‘You know they’re not that bad,’ Isobel blurted. ‘The scars. They’re really not that bad.’
‘Sure.’ Henri shrugged and looped his tie around his neck. ‘I’m not a monster. There are an awful lot of guys out there that have all their skin, though, princess.’
She stared. ‘Hurry up. And you need to buy some nicer ties, that blue and silver spotted one is boring.’
‘Don’t care.’ He tugged the knot tight and straightened it up, folding his collar down. ‘Just a tie.’
‘Don’t you want to look nice?’ Isobel asked.
‘Lost cause, remember.’ Henri shook his bracelet at her. ‘I’m ready.’
‘Good.’ She drifted out and into the hall, pressing the elevator button and slipping on a pair of stiletto heels. ‘We’ll have to drive.’
‘In your blue Ferrari.’ He tutted. ‘Clearly someone inherited their taste from their parents.’
Isobel laughed. ‘I like my blue Ferrari, my parents would have bought a gold one, or something truly awful.’
‘True.’ Henri stepped into the elevator. ‘Are you about to demand I drive you places?’
She smiled at him and batted her eyelashes. ‘Please drive me, Henri, I like being driven places by you.’
That’s just unfair. He tugged his eyes away from hers and ignored the pounding of his heart.
‘Fine,’ Henri replied.
‘I know you like it, too. It’s also the only way we’re getting there, these heels are not made to be driven in.’
The elevator pinged open and they stepped out into the marble and glass lobby. A bright billboard shone on the wall opposite, eight masked drivers stood in a row before a breaking storm.
Isobel glanced up at it as they strolled toward her Ferrari. ‘Ridiculous, isn’t it. The whole sport is illegal, but there’s so much money in it the legal case is just mired in endless bureaucracy, so it carries on in broad daylight without a hint of shame.’
‘It’ll all come down eventually.’
‘Might be the only way to stop Il Toro Rosso winning,’ she quipped, throwing another look up at the sign. ‘Twelve in a row now.’
Henri stared up at the red bull upon the chest of the white-suited central driver. ‘I’ve never actually watched him drive live.’
‘Final tickets are very expensive.’ Isobel tossed him the key. ‘Drive nicely, please.’
He laughed. ‘I’ll be good.’
She settled into the passenger seat and tugged the door closed. ‘Have you considered finding a sponsor and a team?’
‘To drive again,’ Isobel said. ‘Or don’t you want to?’
‘They’re not easy to find,’ Henri replied.
She chewed her lip. ‘You know, my father has always tried to get me involved, make me attend parties, show me off at his events, I could do a bit of that and get you sponsored by him.’
A hot fist clenched beneath his ribs. ‘Really?’
Isobel nodded. ‘I’d hate every second of it, but if it’s important to you…’
‘It’s okay,’ he said, swallowing down the lump in his throat. ‘I appreciate the offer, though.’
She held his gaze, then glanced away out the window. ‘You know, we could go get brunch together somewhere instead of driving across town to the race.’
‘We could…’ Henri held his breath.
‘I would like to do that,’ Isobel murmured. ‘I only really enjoy the races because of you anyway.’
‘Well, who am I to stop you getting what you want, princess.’ He twisted the key and the engine roared to life. ‘Where am I driving you?’
‘Just a few blocks that way.’ She pointed back over her shoulder. ‘There’s a small place there. I go a lot, so we’ll get a table.’
Henri turned the Ferrari around and zipped toward the red lights. ‘Is it really expensive?’
‘I can pay.’ She laughed. ‘Or are you one of those guys that can’t handle the girl paying?’
‘I’ve never really thought about it,’ he admitted. ‘I just end up paying.’
‘What do you want to do?’ Isobel asked.
Henri watched her stare at him from the corner of his eye, a faint flush rising on her cheeks. ‘I would probably want to split it if I went on a date. That’s fair.’
‘I’m not particularly pretty,’ he said. ‘And I tend to be a bit blunt.’
‘You are kind of rude.’ She beamed. ‘But I guess that just means you’re all mine.’
Henri’s heart squirmed in his breast. No. He poked at his ribs with a finger. Enough of that. It’s not happening.
‘Here.’ Isobel waved a hand at the side of the street. ‘The restaurant is just around the corner.’
He pulled into a gap between two Fiats and switched the engine off. ‘What kind of restaurant is it?’
‘Italian.’ She rolled her eyes. ‘We’re in Milan.’
‘I don’t know what you like,’ he replied. ‘It could have been anything.’
‘I like Italian food and French food, really anything creamy, but I prefer fish to something heavier.’ Isobel pushed the door open and jumped out. ‘But for breakfast, I like sweet things. Those’re important things you’ll need to know, Henri.’
‘I don’t usually bother with breakfast.’ He offered her the car key. ‘But I’ll bear it in mind.’
‘Keep it.’ She laughed and led him round the corner to the glass door of a small restaurant filled with small orange trees and hanging baskets. ‘You’re driving us back.’
They were ushered to a small table tucked away behind a wall of orange trees and offered a short, leather bound menu.
‘Kind of hidden here,’ Henri said, skimming the menu.
‘One reason why I like it.’ Isobel put her menu down. ‘Nobody bothers me.’
‘What should I get?’ He waved the menu. ‘What’s good?’
‘Whatever you like.’ She leant forward across the table. ‘No limits. My treat, in return for you driving me places.’
‘You mean… you’re treating your staff like they’re people?’ Henri feigned shock. ‘Surely not? What would your parents think?’
Isobel flashed him a bright smile. ‘You’re definitely not my staff.’ She cocked her head. ‘What about you? You know all about my family and that’s all there is. Do you have any friends or anything you’ve decided not to mention? A girlfriend? A wife?’
He chuckled. ‘Not since I was sixteen.’
‘You got married at sixteen?’ A glimmer of mischief hovered in her blue eyes. ‘Really?’
‘Not married, princess.’ Henri gave her a wistful smile. ‘I left my old life behind to race and I never really replaced anyone. I tried. I tried a few times. It never worked. They wanted money or fame or things I couldn’t give. I’d trade almost anything for someone who wants genuine intimacy and not shiny things, but I don’t think anyone like that really exists these days. Or, maybe I’m just really bad at meeting people.’
‘They exist.’ Something in Isobel’s eyes sharpened. ‘Forget about the other ones. The girls that feign friendship until they stab you in the back for the money of an exclusive or the men are just interested in what’s under your dress.’
‘I’ve yet to meet a guy interested in what’s under my dress,’ Henri said. ‘So I bow to your expertise of spoilt rich girl life.’
She snorted. ‘You’re going to get plenty of insight into it, don’t worry.’
‘I am?’ Fluttering flooded his stomach. ‘If you’re going to ask me to drive you all over the world, I’m going to start charging you.’
A small smirk curved Isobel’s lips. ‘I’m sure we can come to some arrangement.’
‘You know, I won’t be at the finals,’ she said. ‘I’ve a week of training coming and I’ll miss pretty much the whole race.’
Disappointment crushed the butterflies, twisting in his gut like a knife. ‘And?’
‘You can stay at my flat, if you like, since I’ve no doubt you’ll be watching the race here.’
‘Are you sure?’ Henri asked. ‘You barely know me.’
‘Oh I have you all figured out now,’ Isobel said. ‘You can’t surprise me anymore. All rude and blunt on the outside, but fluffy and kind on the inside.’
‘That sounds so terribly cliché,’ he muttered.
‘It is.’ She grinned. ‘But I like it. It means I get to keep the best bits of you for myself.’
‘Well, I’m glad I entertain you, princess,’ Henri replied. ‘I’m sure a new toy was just what the spoilt rich girl wanted.’
Isobel’s grin widened. ‘You get more prickly when someone gets close enough to see how warm you are on the inside, don’t you?’
‘Shut up,’ he said. ‘You’ve made your point. I’m not an entirely terrible person. Congratulations to me.’
‘Congratulations are in order.’ Isobel stood up and smoothed the front of her dress down. ‘Because after I come back from Marie’s academy, I’m going to come find you at the race and take you to my parent’s silly party with me.’
‘Not completely.’ She bent and pressed her lips to his cheek in a wash of sweet-scented perfume. ‘You’re going to be my date, too.’
Henri’s breath caught and he struggled to smother his smile. ‘Trying to wind up your father?’
‘No.’ Isobel shook her head, then brushed her lipstick off his cheek with the side of her thumb. ‘I’m taking you because I want to.’ She tapped the menu. ‘I’m going to pop to the bathroom, make sure you choose something, we’ll order when I get back.’
People streamed past as Henri fought his way through the crowd toward the street, wrestling with the silk bow-tie and the collar of his dress shirt.
‘Why do the medal ceremonies always overrun,’ he muttered. ‘Stupid things. Who needs a huge bottle of champagne and a massive piece of gold, they already know they’ve won.’
The weight of his jacket pockets thumped against his ribs as he straightened his tie and fixed his collar.
Henri pulled his phone out of the inside of his jacket and squeezed out to the street. ‘Only a few minutes late. Not as bad as I thought.’
A blue Ferrari perched on the curb. Isobel leant against it, bouncing her key on her palm and scanning the crowd with an anxious gaze. Her silver dress shone in the lights of the advertising boards and street lamps, her blonde hair gleaming like spun gold.
Henri’s heart leapt into his mouth. This is a mistake. His feet ground to a halt in the middle of the crowd. I should go now, before it all goes wrong. A small smile crept onto his lips. But that’s just not really how I tick. All or nothing once the cape is waved.
‘Sorry, princess.’ He stepped out of the crowd and gave her a smile. ‘I stayed for the medal ceremony and it took ages.’
‘Il Toro Rosso?’ she asked.
‘Number thirteen in a row.’ Henri grinned and slipped his phone away, taking the key off her. ‘Where am I driving you?’
Isobel tutted. ‘Aren’t you going to tell me how pretty I look?’
‘You clearly already know you’re very pretty,’ he replied. ‘But yes, you look stunning.’
‘Better.’ She swept ‘round to the passenger side and reclined into the seat. ‘You look quite good yourself. I see you actually bought yourself a suit that doesn’t make you look like a waiter.’
Henri laughed and pulled out into the traffic. ‘And yet, something tells me I’m going to spend more time getting you drinks than I have before.’
‘You dropped my glass off a balcony.’
‘You were being bitchy.’
‘I was,’ she admitted. ‘You’re lucky you left, I was pissed when I learnt you actually weren’t working for my father and were letting me make myself look like an idiot.’
‘But a very pretty idiot,’ Henri said. ‘Although, I did lurk long enough to hear what you said to your father.’
Isobel’s cheeks reddened, then she smirked. ‘Is that why you clammed up when I invited you to my apartment?’
‘No, that was just surprise,’ he said. ‘I’d actually forgotten all about your little jibe.’
‘Go toward the city centre,’ she said as the lights changed to green. ‘It’s a rooftop one.’
‘Not again.’ Henri rolled his eyes. ‘Is there anyone I should watch out for?’
‘My parents,’ Isobel replied. ‘But they’re hopefully going to be too busy peacocking around the party to bother us much. Sometimes the final drivers have to turn up.’
‘Maybe I’ll get to meet them all.’
‘You can get Il Toro Rosso’s autograph,’ she teased.
Henri chuckled. ‘I don’t think he does those.’
‘Keep going for a couple of blocks.’ Isobel pointed at a skyscraper at the far end. ‘Party’s at the top of that one.’
He switched through the lanes and pulled up on the side of the street. ‘Not sure it’s legal to park here.’
‘We’ll get fined,’ she said. ‘But I don’t care. I’ll pay. This way I can make a quick escape.’
‘Fair enough.’ Henri glanced in the wing mirror, then jumped out, wincing as the weight in his jacket pocket thudded into his ribs. ‘I’m going to hate every second of this, by the way.’
‘So will I,’ Isobel murmured. ‘But you’ll make it bearable.’
‘Up we go?’ He craned his neck up at the faint light and noise above.
She held out her arm. ‘You’re forgetting something.’
‘Right.’ Henri took her arm. ‘Sorry.’
‘An apology.’ Isobel flashed him a grin and leant into his side. ‘From you?’
‘I take it back,’ he said. ‘No apology.’
She laughed and led him into the lobby. The security guard stepped forward, took one look at them, then backed away and pressed the elevator button.
Henri studied his face in the mirror as the elevator whirred, the floor numbers flicking up. He touched his fingertips to his left cheek, grimacing at the rough scar he felt beneath the veil of magic.
‘You look fine,’ Isobel whispered. ‘And I do mean that, I’m not just saying it, Henri.’
‘I may take some convincing of that,’ he admitted. ‘I guess I should apologise for that.’
‘It’s fine.’ She reached up and caught his fingers in hers, tugging his hand away. ‘After all, I’m more than pretty enough for the pair of us.’
Henri laughed. ‘Such a stuck up rich girl.’
The elevator ground to a halt. Faux-marble statues and gold-painted plants shone beneath the swirling lights of spinning crystal chandeliers.
‘Time to mingle.’ Isobel slipped her arms through his. ‘Do not disappear on me, or I’ll be fucking pissed with you.’
‘Likewise,’ Henri replied, glancing at the huddles of people about the tables and decorations.
‘Henri!’ A slim, tall, grey-templed man extricated himself from a group on the nearest table and strode across. ‘Great to see you again!’
‘You know Henri, Lorenzo?’ Isobel asked.
Lorenzo. Right, the guy I met.
‘We met briefly at the last one of these your father hosted at his country place,’ Lorenzo said, clasping Henri’s free hand. ‘He was heading out and I made the mortifying mistake of thinking he was a waiter.’
Isobel laughed. ‘Henri isn’t fond of dressing up, I’m surprised he made such an effort tonight.’ A little colour touched her cheeks. ‘Perhaps I should be flattered.’
‘You should,’ Henri said. ‘I did it for you.’
Lorenzo’s eyebrows rose a fraction and his gaze drifted to their linked arms. ‘Ah, I did wonder how you found yourself at the last party.’ He smiled. ‘The mystery is resolved!
‘Enjoy the party, Lorenzo,’ Isobel said. ‘We need to find some drinks.’
She eased Henri away with a firm grip upon his arm, letting up only when they reached a tower of coppa glasses filled with champagne. ‘You’re not meant to drink champagne from coppa glasses.’
‘I know.’ Henri shook his head. ‘But in this case, I’ll cut your parents some slack, I saw some girl breaking all the champagne flutes in the car park at the last party.’
Isobel snorted into her glass. ‘Thanks for that.’ She dabbed drops of champagne off her face. ‘Perfect timing.’
‘I try my best, princess.’
‘Isobel!’ A delighted cry echoed across the room.
‘Fuck,’ Isobel muttered. She spun around and smiled. ‘Mother.’
‘Oh look at how beautiful my baby girl is!’ Elisabeth swept across the room in a dress of white silk and gold sequins. ‘And who’s this friend of yours?’
‘This is Henri, mother.’ Isobel’s lips curved into a smirk. ‘He’s my date for this evening and the foreseeable future.’
‘Nice to meet you,’ Henri said.
Elisabeth ran her eyes over him. ‘Charmed.’ She turned back to Isobel. ‘Come and say hi to Tomas, my darling. He’s been asking after you. I’m sure Henri won’t mind if you leave his side for a few minutes.’
Isobel sipped her champagne and stared her mother dead in the eye until Elisabeth wilted. ‘Well, maybe later, sweetheart. Enjoy the party, I need to tell your father we’re running out of horderves.’
‘I think she likes me,’ Henri said.
Isobel snickered. ‘She likes Tomas. He’s rich as you can get, thinks you can buy girls with expensive gifts, and meek enough he does whatever he’s told.’
‘You can buy girls with expensive gifts,’ he muttered.
‘Not this one.’ She turned her nose up. ‘Only, I think that’s made him worse, because he keeps offering to buy me more and more stupid things each time I bump into him.’
Henri’s gut knotted, flashing hot and cold. ‘So when I asked about people I should be watching out for…?’
‘I forgot about him.’ Isobel drained her champagne and picked up another glass. ‘It’s not like I spend much time thinking about him.’
‘I’m going to hate this one even more than I normally hate Sebastien’s parties,’ he said.
‘Normally?’ She frowned. ‘How many have—’
‘Isobel.’ Sebastien strode toward them, a slim youth in his wake. ‘I was just looking for you with Tomas when we bumped into your mother.’
Henri took a sip of champagne and smothered a frown.
‘I’m sure.’ Isobel leant her head to one side. ‘Hi Tomas, are you coming out from behind my father, or would you like a few moments to prepare yourself?’
Tomas scuttled around Sebastien’s shoulder and drew himself up. ‘Sorry, Isobel, I was admiring the decorations.’
‘That makes one of us,’ she said. ‘There’s so much gold. Honestly, father, a little bit less would make a big difference.’
‘Your mother likes gold,’ Sebastien said, studying Henri. ‘I vaguely recognise you.’
‘Henri.’ He extended his hand.
Sebastien grasped it and squeezed tight. ‘Your voice sounds a little familiar, too. What do you do for a living?’ He spread his arms. ‘Tomas here is a very famous fashion designer and I’m fortunate enough not to have to do anything for a living.’
‘Henri was a driver for your silly sport,’ Isobel said. ‘It doesn’t require quite as much bravery as sunglass design, but I’m sure Tomas will be gracious.’
Tomas shrank back behind Sebastien’s shoulder. ‘Would you like to see some of my new designs?’ His voice trembled. ‘I can take you across to Marseille on my yacht and give you a tour of my studio if you like? You can pick any of my new ones, even the ones nobody knows about.’
‘I’m afraid I have competitions to prepare for,’ Isobel replied. ‘And Henri promised he’d take me driving.’
Sebastien’s gaze dropped to where Isobel’s hip brushed Henri’s side. ‘I see. Were you any good as a driver? I’m still hunting for someone who might get me gold.’
‘I started when I was quite young,’ Henri said. ‘But nobody here recognises me for a reason, I‘m afraid.’
‘Didn’t go well?’ Sebastien nodded. ‘Well, we can’t all be legends like Il Toro Rosso. I thought the Rooster was a decent prospect, but he got taken out by some amateur. First time I’ve not had a driver in the finals in eight years, you know.’
‘There’s always next year,’ Henri said. ‘Someone else will get their hands on gold eventually.’
‘I would love for it to be my driver,’ Sebastien said. ‘Imagine being behind the man who finally beats Il Toro Rosso.’
‘All that money for a small lump of gold.’ Isobel turned her nose up.
‘You don’t like gold?’ Tomas asked. ‘But I thought you liked that necklace I bought you?’
‘Of course she did.’ Sebastien clapped Tomas on the shoulder. ‘The only other person in the room that could afford to buy something like that is me.’
Tomas straightened up and shot Isobel a smile. ‘I would love to see you wear it.’
‘Not tonight,’ she replied, a strained smile spreading across her face. ‘I would have to love the gold necklace a lot to wear it with an outfit like this.’
‘It wouldn’t match very well,’ Tomas muttered. ‘I should buy you a silver one, too.’
‘An excellent idea! It’ll make a wonderful birthday present for Isobel in a few months,’ Sebastien said. ‘Any idea what you’ll get my daughter for her birthday, Henri?’
‘I don’t tend to plan ahead so far as that,’ he replied. ‘I’m sure I’ll see something that makes me think of her. Maybe some champagne flutes.’
Isobel’s smile softened a fraction and she took his hand. ‘Come on, Henri, I need to grab some fresh air on the balcony for a moment.’ She tugged him away.
‘See you later,’ Tomas called after her.
‘I fucking hate both of them,’ she hissed, hurling her glass into the bin. ‘Especially my father, he’s going to poison this whole thing.’
‘Do you want to go?’ Henri asked
‘I’m sorry, Henri,’ she whispered, stepping close and tugging his De Moiré off. ‘I really wanted this to work. I promise.’
His heart sank even as she caught his lips in a gentle kiss cupping his scarred cheek with her cool hand.
‘I really did.’ Tears glistened in Isobel’s eyes as she drew back. ‘But it’s not fair to you, I can’t make you endure my family. You deserve better—’
‘Don’t care.’ Henri cupped the weight in his jacket pocket. ‘I think it’s too late to give up for me, princess. I never could give up on anything.’
He put a finger to her lips. ‘It’s fine, princess. You have to let your staff make their own choices every now and again, you know. It stops them from realising you don’t think they’re real people.’
‘Really?’ she whispered. ‘Even though my father, my mother, and Tomas are going to throw their money in your face and try to get between us.’
‘I hope you don’t regret it. I don’t want you to buy me gold necklaces or anything like that.’ She crushed her lips into his, the sweet taste of champagne on her tongue. ‘I just want you to be honest and to be mine.’
‘I can promise you that. And besides, I don’t have to buy you gold.’ He drew out the fistul of red ribbon and the dangling gold disc. ‘I keep winning it.’
Isobel stared at the three words etched beneath the golden bull as it hung between them. ‘You— you’re—’
‘You’re even prettier struck speechless.’ Henri laughed and hung the medal around her neck. ‘There, shall we go back in, princess?’