CHAPTER ONE

 

DOMINIC HARTINGTON-GEORGE poured four sachets of sugar into the indistinguishable hot liquid they served in these premier London-address offices and sighed to himself. Sitting on his own in the luxuriously carpeted foyer, he wondered if he could work the Tardis-clone vending machine enough to get a chocolate bar as well.

On the pretext of needing a piss, he’d escaped from the meeting currently going on between his agent, Tanya Richards, and his PR company representatives. Well, he hadn’t said that exactly, as Tanya had already briefed him about his language needing to be more socially acceptable. Apparently he wasn’t on the top of a snowcapped mountain at the moment, where no one cared how he expressed his bodily needs except for the odd passing llama.

Dominic wondered idly why a llama’s company felt infinitely more attractive compared to the meeting. And as an experienced mountaineer, he’d met a few llamas in his time. But he couldn’t do anything about today, could he? He couldn’t run away like he usually did—or as Tanya and his mother accused him of doing—to some mountain range to hide himself in another wild adventure.

Because he was broke.

Not only that, but he was hawking his begging bowl around London in the hope of a sponsorship deal. He had to endure long meetings, cheesy smiles that set off a cramp in his jaw, and daily spreadsheet reminders of just how much money was involved in climbing the Eiger. It all just emphasized the size of the shit pile he was in. What was more, he struggled to cope with negotiation at the best of times. In fact, he was beginning to think he’d be better suited to standing outside on the street and offering copies of the Big Issue. He was no bloody good at bowing and scraping. Wasn’t that what he employed Tanya for, anyway?

“It’s a necessary evil,” she’d told him firmly. He’d just announced his next expedition, and she’d announced a resounding, financial no-can-do. “You may have an aristocratic name and impeccable pedigree, but—”

“Bugger-all money?” he’d interrupted almost gleefully. For centuries his family had been famous for being adventurers—and infamous for gambling away every treasure they had ever owned. Great-Grandad had wasted the final thousands of the family fortune on a rangy horse in the Epsom Derby that, rather than romping home at 200-1, had fallen over its own feet in the first fifteen yards and had to be put out to grass. After that, the surviving Hartington-Georges moved to their more modest London properties and lived on the erratic income from opening their ancestral home to the public. Dom suspected his elegant sophisticate of a mother had never got over the shock of a stranger approaching her one afternoon and asking to be escorted to the baby-changing facilities.

Tanya had continued, “So if you want to continue your mountaineering projects—”

“No question!” he’d snapped.

Tanya had just inclined her head, unfazed. She hadn’t worked for Dom for two years without learning “his ways.” “So we must look at ways to raise the funds. And one of those is through sponsorship deals. Take that disgusted look off your face, Dom. A lot of sportsmen and explorers do that nowadays.”

“Climb mountains with a big yellow M emblazoned on my forehead?”

Tanya let a smile tease the corners of her mouth. “I think it’d be more suitable if the sponsor was in the outdoor clothing and survival equipment market. I have contacts I can approach.”

Tanya always had contacts. Dom had to admire that in her. Also her ability to manage her insolent runt of an assistant, Eric—oh, and her ability to cope with Dom in full grumpy mode. There weren’t many people who managed to do that. His own mother only dropped into his Ladbroke Grove house a few times a year. Otherwise, they were both happy to keep contact to the occasional phone call or bumping into each other at family friends’ events.

“You need to come out of your shell,” Tanya had said to him. That was an hour before she employed the PR company. “And that doesn’t include dancing on a pub table to karaoke.”

Bloody hell. If having a night out with his climbing mates wasn’t coming out of his shell, Dom didn’t know what was. At the end of a training week in North Wales, he’d needed to unwind. A visit to a familiar and discreet London pub around the back of Kentish Town, where the licensing hours were applied loosely, if at all, had been just the thing. The food was plain, plentiful, and delicious, though the karaoke machine was a new addition. Dom had tolerated it only because it promised a set of old rock classics. He’d been halfway through a roaring-drunk rendition of “We Are the Champions” when he’d been snapped by one of those damned paparazzi, passing by on the off chance of a story. And yes, he had been standing on the table at the time, but the landlord didn’t care, so why should anyone else?

But apparently that wasn’t the right kind of shell-emerging. “Other options?”

Tanya had looked him in the eye and said wryly, “Get a job. You know, like the rest of us mortals.”

Dom had felt physically sick. Not at the thought of hard graft; he was used to that and was no coward when it came to rolling up his sleeves. But the thought of sitting in an office in a suit and tie, shackled to a computer for eight hours a day, and answering to someone else….

He’d shuddered.

So here he was now, in the plush offices paid for by poor saps like himself and the companies who branded them, trying to rebrand Dominic Hartington-George.

It was time to face the music again.

 

 

DOM HAD hoped to sneak back into the conference room with his coffee (tea? rat’s pee?), but everyone turned to face him as he took his seat again. Tanya frowned at him, and Eric had that habitual smirk on his face, as if Dom were the greatest entertainment since schoolboys painted glue on the teacher’s chalk. Of course, Dom thought rather glumly, that might be true, even if chalk had given way to an iPad stylus.

Two virtually interchangeable, slick-looking blondes in brightly colored, tightly fitted skirt suits and matching pearl earrings represented the PR company. One of them blushed every time she looked at him.

She was the first to speak. “Tanya says you’re looking for a makeover. You know, like they do on the TV? 10 Years Younger, Look Good Naked, that kind of thing?”

What was this modern habit of talking in questions all the time? Dom stared at her steadily until she blushed again. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said bluntly.

“I mean… obviously you don’t need help with your looks,” she stammered.

Ah. That explained some of the blushing. He often got that with younger women. If he turned his head, he would catch sight of Tanya’s frown moving to a whole new level of disapproval. It was almost enough to cheer him up.

“Just the presentation,” the other girl said, more sharply. The young one looked at her with naked gratitude. “We’ll get someone on his wardrobe. Ellie, look into a suitable hairstylist too.”

“Hairstylist?” Dom switched his glare to her. Polly, he thought her name was. He reassessed her as more assertive than just slick. Was that why his death glare didn’t work as well on her as on other people?

Polly raised an eyebrow at him as if she could hear exactly what he was thinking right then, and she was far from intimidated. “And let’s now address the, shall we say, thorny issue of social image.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

Polly didn’t even flinch. She was obviously used to stroppy clients.

Tanya touched his arm. “Dom. Please. You want your funding, don’t you?”

“But why does it matter what I look like?” He could hear the plaintive note in his voice; he sounded like a petulant child. But he didn’t want to be bothered with this. “I climb rocks and mountains, ladies. I wear bulky, padded clothes and thick-soled boots. My face is usually covered with goggles or a mask against the sun and dust. I grunt and curse and fart. I see no reason for social chitchat, I eat like a hungry horse, and I don’t—repeat, don’t—moisturize.”

To his surprise Polly laughed. “I hear you, Mr. Hartington-George.”

“Call me Dom,” he said grudgingly.

“You’re a fine man, Dom. Handsome and assertive and brave. We know all that.”

They do?

“We’re just looking for a way to brand you so that other brands want to match up with you. They’ll pay for that privilege, you see. And that means making you look even more attractive.”

“And more amenable,” Tanya said half under her breath.

Dom couldn’t say he hated Polly’s style of flattery, but he was still wary. And he supposed he hadn’t spent much time or money on his looks for a few years now.

“What about a girlfriend?” Ellie asked timidly.

Dom started.

“If the client were seen with a suitable partner… someone already media-friendly….”

“The intrepid adventurer captured and tamed by homespun beauty? Great idea. It’d certainly build a marketable strapline.” Polly nodded and started scribbling on her notepad. “We have Alisha W already on the books. And I believe Suzie de Luca is in London for a shoot.”

“No thanks.” Dom’s deep voice sounded very clear in the room.

Beside him, Tanya closed her eyes.

“Well, if not them, there are plenty of other ladies who’d love to be seen with you,” Polly continued, unconcerned. “It’d be just another assignment, of course…”

“Of course,” Tanya echoed, her voice rather faint and her eyes still closed tight.

“…although we would expect you, Dom, to look happy with the arrangement on photoshoots and at public events. Meanwhile, it’ll be excellent publicity for both of you, and you may even build a little romance, while persuading the media that the Daredevil Man in the wild can also be the Doting Man at home.”

“No thanks,” Dom repeated slowly. “Maybe that would be fine if you hadn’t missed the whole point. The point that, even if I had time for dating, I don’t date women.”

Tanya leaned forward over the conference table and sank her head into her hands.

Eric snorted. Dom hoped it was because of nerves and not ridicule, else he’d thrash the kid when they got out of here. Eric was in his early twenties, overkeen, too bold, and completely unfazed by Dom’s gravitas. And he had the most disrespectful sense of humor Dom had ever known, even though it made him laugh.

Ellie’s eyes had opened very wide. “You mean you’re gay?”

“You’re choosing now to come out?” Tanya muttered.

“It’s not a matter of coming out!” Dom snapped back. What bloody century did these people live in? These city types were meant to be alert to the whole modern-world thing. “I’ve never been in. I just don’t choose to expose my love life to every bloody person on the planet.”

“If you had one to expose,” Eric mumbled.

Dom glared at the kid, but Eric returned the stare without fear. Bugger. Dom should never have invited Eric on that mates’ night out, or confessed in his cups just how bloody long it’d been since he, Dom, had dated anyone—man, woman, or llama. Meanwhile, the rest of the room was deathly silent.

Then Polly laughed again.

Laughed? “Something amusing you?” Dom asked icily. He pushed his chair back, ready to leave.

Tanya made a small sound of distress, but Dom was just thankful this would be the end of the whole stupid, misguided campaign—

“That’s perfect!” Polly smiled broadly. “I’ve already had interest in your expedition from We Will Survive, who supply climbing gear to most of the London exhibitions and stores. They have a contract for next year’s ascent on Everest too. And we all know how they embrace equality on all levels, don’t we? This really will launch you as a man of the moment.”

“Do we? Will it?”

Tanya surreptitiously pinched Dom in his side.

Polly rushed on regardless. “They have a major presence in the LGBT community and are linked to many gay climbing clubs and events. They’ll be thrilled to have representation from another openly gay celebrity.” She was already directing Ellie to look up a contact number.

“Another?”

“They used the famous gay model Zeb Z for that swimwear campaign last year.”

“Famous for what? Being gay?” Dom was still irritated, especially as things didn’t seem to be going the way he expected. “There’s no way you’re promoting me for my sexuality rather than my work.”

“No, no!” Polly’s smile never wavered. “That’s not what I meant. Just that I know now where to start pitching the campaign. You and Zeb Z. This is a great idea!”