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Chapter 21

As WE STRIDE ALONG the corridors to the set, neither Luke nor I says a word. I dart a glance at him as we turn a corner—and his face is even steelier than it was before.

Well, that’s fine. I can do hard and businesslike, too. Firmly I lift my chin and begin to take longer strides, pretending to be Alexis Carrington inDynasty.

“So, do you two already know each other?” says Zelda, who’s walking along between us.

“We do, as it happens,” says Luke shortly.

“In a business context,” I say, equally shortly. “Luke’s always trying to promote some financial product or other. And I’m always trying to avoid his calls.”

Zelda gives an appreciative laugh and I see Luke’s eyes flash angrily. But I really don’t care. I don’t care how angry he gets. In fact, the angrier he gets, the better I feel.

“So—Luke, you must have been quite pissed off at Rebecca’s article inThe Daily World,” says Zelda.

“I wasn’t pleased,” says Luke. “By any of it,” he adds in a lower voice.

What does that mean? I turn my head, and to my aston-ishment, he’s looking at me with a sober expression. Almost apologetic. Hmm. This must be an old PR trick. Soften up your opponent and then go in for the kill. ButI’m not going to fall for it.

“He phoned me up to complain,” I say airily to Zelda. “Can’t cope with the truth, eh, Luke? Can’t cope with seeing what’s under the PR gloss?”

There’s silence and I dart another look at him. Now he looks so furious, I think for a terrifying moment that he’s going to hit me. Then his face changes and, in an icily calm voice, he says, “Let’s just get on the fucking set and get this over with, shall we?”

Zelda raises her eyebrows at me and I grin back. This is more like it.

“OK,” says Zelda as we approach a set of double swing doors. “Here we are. Keep your voices down when we go in.”

She pushes open the doors and ushers us in, and for a moment my cool act falters. I feel all shaky and awed, like Laura Dern inJurassic Park when she sees the dinosaurs for the first time. Because there it is, in real life. The real liveMorning Coffee set. With the sofa and all the plants and everything, all lit up by the brightest, most dazzling lights I’ve ever seen in my life.

This is just unreal. How many zillion times have I sat at home, watching this on the telly? And now I’m actually going to be part of it.

“We’ve got a couple of minutes till the commercial break,” says Zelda, leading us across the floor, across a load of trailing cables. “Rory and Emma are still with Elisabeth in the library set.”

She gestures to us to sit down on opposite sides of the coffee table, and, gingerly, I do so. The sofa’s harder than I was expect-ing, and kind of . . . different. Everything’s different. The plants seem bigger than they do on the screen, and the coffee table is smaller. God, this is weird. The lights are so bright on my face, I can hardly see anything, and I’m not quite sure how to sit. A girlcomes and threads a microphone cable under my shirt and clips it to my lapel. Awkwardly, I lift my hand to push my hair back, and immediately Zelda comes hurrying over.

“Try not to move too much, OK, Rebecca?” she says. “We don’t want to hear a load of rustling.”

“Right,” I say. “Sorry.”

Suddenly my voice doesn’t seem to be working properly. I feel as though a wad of cotton’s been stuffed into my throat. I glance up at a nearby camera and, to my horror, see it zooming toward me.

“OK, Rebecca,” says Zelda, hurrying over again, “one more golden rule—don’t look at the camera, all right? Just behave naturally!”

“Fine,” I say huskily.

Behave naturally. Easy-peasy.

“Thirty seconds till the news bulletin,” she says, looking at her watch. “Everything OK, Luke?”

“Fine,” says Luke calmly. He’s sitting on his sofa as though he’s been there all his life. Typical.

I shift on my seat, tug nervously at my skirt, and smooth my jacket down. They always say that television puts ten pounds on you, which means my legs will look really fat. Maybe I should cross them the other way. Or not cross them at all? But then maybe they’ll look even fatter.

“Hello!” comes a high-pitched voice from across the set before I can make up my mind. My head jerks up, and I feel an excited twinge in my stomach. It’s Emma March in the flesh! She’s wearing a pink suit and hurrying toward the sofa, closely followed by Rory, who looks even more square-jawed than usual. God, it’s weird seeing celebrities up close. They don’t look quite real, somehow.

“Hello!” Emma says cheerfully, and sits down on the sofa. “So you’re the finance people, are you? Gosh, I’m dying for a wee.” She frowns into the lights. “How long is this slot, Zelda?”

“Hi there!” says Rory, and shakes my hand. “Roberta.”

“It’s Rebecca!” says Emma, and rolls her eyes at me sympa-thetically. “Honestly he’s hopeless.” She wriggles on the sofa. “Gosh, I really need to go.”

“Too late now,” says Rory

“But isn’t it really unhealthy not to go when you need to?” Emma wrinkles her brow anxiously. “Didn’t we have a phone-in on it once? That weird girl phoned up who only went once a day. And Dr. James said . . . what did he say?”

“Search me,” says Rory cheerfully. “These phone-ins always go over my head. Now I’m warning you, Rebecca,” he adds, turn-ing to me, “I can never follow any of this finance stuff. Far too brainy for me.” He gives me a wide grin and I smile weakly back.

“Ten seconds,” calls Zelda from the side of the set, and my stomach gives a tweak of fear. Over the loudspeakers I can hear theMorning Coffee theme music, signaling the end of a commer-cial break.

“Who starts?” says Emma, squinting at the TelePrompTer. “Oh, me.”

So this is it. I feel almost light-headed with fear. I don’t know where I’m supposed to be looking; I don’t know when I’m supposed to speak. My legs are trembling and my hands are clenched tightly in my lap. The lights are dazzling my eyes; a camera’s zooming in on my left, but I’ve got to try to ignore it.

“Welcome back!” says Emma suddenly to the camera. “Now, which would you rather have? A carriage clock or £20,000?”

What? I think in shock. But that’smy line. That’s what I was going to say.

“The answer’s obvious, isn’t it?” continues Emma blithely. “We’d all prefer the £20,000.”

“Absolutely!” interjects Rory with a cheerful smile.

“But when some Flagstaff Life investors received a letter invit-ing them to move their savings recently,” says Emma, suddenly putting on a sober face, “they didn’t realize that if they did so, they would lose out on a £20,000 windfall. Rebecca Bloomwoodis the journalist who uncovered this story—Rebecca, do you think this kind of deception is commonplace?”

And suddenly everyone’s looking at me, waiting for me to reply. The camera’s trained on my face; the studio’s silent.

Two point five million people, all watching at home.

I can’t breathe.

“Do you think investors need to be cautious?” prompts Emma.

“Yes,” I manage in a strange, woolly voice. “Yes, I think they should.”

“Luke Brandon, you represent Flagstaff Life,” says Emma, turning away. “Do you think—”

Shit, I think miserably. That was pathetic. Pathetic! What’s happened to my voice, for God’s sake? What’s happened to all my prepared answers?

And now I’m not even listening to Luke’s reply. Come on, Rebecca. Concentrate.

“What you must remember,” Luke’s saying smoothly, “is that nobody’sentitled to a windfall. This isn’t a case of deception!” He smiles at Emma. “This is simply a case of a few investors being a little too greedy for their own good. They believe they’ve missed out—so they’re deliberately stirring up bad publicity for the company. Meanwhile, there are thousands of people who have benefited from Flagstaff Life.”

What? What’s he saying?

“I see,” says Emma, nodding her head. “So, Luke, would you agree that—”

“Wait a minute!” I hear myself interrupting. “Just. . . just wait a minute. Mr. Brandon, did you just call theinvestors greedy?”

“Not all,” says Luke. “But some, yes.”

I stare at him in disbelief, my skin prickling with outrage. An image of Janice and Martin comes into my mind—the sweetest, least greedy people in the world—and for a few moments I’m so angry, I can’t speak.

“The truth is, the majority of investors with Flagstaff Lifehave seen record returns over the last five years,” Luke’s continu-ing to Emma, who’s nodding intelligently. “And that’s what they should be concerned with. Good-quality investment. Not flash-in-the-pan windfalls. After all, Flagstaff Life was originally set up to provide—”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, Luke,” I cut in, forcing myself to speak calmly. “Correct me if I’m wrong—but I believe Flagstaff Life was originally set up as a mutual company? For themutual benefit of all its members. Not to benefit some at the expense of others.”

“Absolutely,” replies Luke without flickering. “But that doesn’t entitle every investor to a £20,000 windfall, does it?”

“Maybe not,” I say, my voice rising slightly. “But surely it enti-tles them to believe they won’t be misled by a company they’ve put their money with for fifteen years? Janice and Martin Webster trusted Flagstaff Life. They trusted the advice they were given. And look where that trust got them!”

“Investment is a game of luck,” says Luke blandly. “Some-times you win—”

“It wasn’t luck!” I hear myself crying furiously. “Of course it wasn’t luck! Are you telling me it was compete coincidence that they were advised to switch their funds two weeks before the windfall announcements?”

“My clients were simply making available an offer that they believed would add value to their customers’ portfolios,” says Luke, giving me a tight smile. “They have assured me that they were simply wishing to benefit their customers. They have assured me that—”

“So you’re saying your clients are incompetent, then?” I retort. “You’re saying they had all the best intentions—but cocked it up?”

Luke’s eyes flash in anger and I feel a thrill of exhilaration.

“I fail to see—”

“Well, we could go on debating all day!” says Emma, shifting slightly on her seat. “But moving onto a slightly more—”

“Come on, Luke,” I say, cutting her off. “Comeon. You can’t have it both ways.” I lean forward, t............

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