[About the novel]
2 pm, late January 2005
The desk in the tiny third-floor office was buried under innumerable piles of loose papers, folders, catalogues, manuals and –he raised his eyebrows ever so slightly in disbelief– yes, several baby nappies. Clean ones, by the look of them. A bulging black binder with a dozen or so yellow post-it notes and a rose-coloured memo sporting three fat exclamation marks rested on top of a high paper pyramid. He eyed the stack suspiciously. It leaned ominously over the half-empty cup of coffee that he had just put down in front of him.
"I don't want her to find out," he emphasized again.
"Of course not. I'll put my best man on it. Don't you worry about a thing, Mr Winter," drawled the man behind the desk. Which did nothing to reassure him.
Sensing his doubt, the guy let out a complacent little chuckle. Good grief.
He looked back down at his coffee. Tiny bubbles of air floated on the surface of the black liquid, hugging the edge of the ceramic cup. For no discernible reason, one of the bubbles suddenly popped. It didn't even leave a ripple in its wake. The other bubbles stubbornly continued to cling to the rim.
If she finds out, I'm in for a hell of a row, he thought, and pictured her beautiful blue eyes, like a ray of sunshine piercing the muddy waters on a pitch-black ocean floor. Eyes like organic tasers, each glance an electric spark of hatred and passion and pure, naked lust for life. Wonderfully, overwhelmingly wild. He felt himself getting hard.
"That's settled then," declared his interlocutor with a confident grin, and gave the binder a cheerful slap. The pile wobbled dangerously.
He pushed his chair back and stood up. "I'm expecting your first report on Monday."
"You won't be disappointed." The happy nappy collector leaned across the mess and proffered his hand. "Private Eye is watching out for you."
I sure hope it isn't, he thought, ignoring the hand. Someone has seen too many detective flicks. He checked his watch, carefully smoothed down the lapels of his dark suit and walked to the door.
"Good day, Mr Winter," the unwaveringly cheerful voice called after him.
Gerald turned back around and gave him a curt nod. "Keep me informed," he said, and closed the door.

Chapter One

9 February 2005
The clouds were dark and foreboding, heavy raindrops battered down on the high grass, and in the distance lightning bolts tore through the sky. Charlie wrapped her arms around herself and held her breath. Even the tiger, that mighty predator and king of the jungle, looked surprised and frightened by the storm and cowered beneath the battered tree.
Charlie stepped closer and screwed up her eyes. Henri Rousseau, she deciphered in the left-hand corner, 1891. The little white card next to the painting said the same, but it was a lot more satisfying to identify the artist yourself.
Her eyes wandered up over the tiger and lost themselves in the damp multishade of the green foliage. The texture looked almost woven in its intricate density. Now this was something else than Blake's abstract sculptures and innuendos carved in stone. This was Art, with a capital A.
Suddenly, she felt a warm body on her back, and strong arms hugging her from behind.
Startled, she almost cringed at the embrace. She had been so lost in the picture that she had forgotten all about her surroundings. How rude of her.
"I think this is the best painting in the room," she declared, and leaned her head back into his chest.
"Better than the Van Goghs and Cézannes?" he asked, amused.
"Well, that explains why you haven't been listening to me for the last five minutes."
She turned around. "I'm sorry. Here you are, travelling around half the globe to see me, and I'm just staring at the doodles of an old Frenchman."
He laughed. "I'll get over it. And what with the storm outside, it was a good idea to meet at the National Gallery instead of in the park or a noisy pub."
"Let's go to the next room," she said, and pulled him along.
She steered them towards a bench and motioned for him to sit down next to her. "Here we can talk while pretending to study the paintings. Ophelia among the flowers," she read from the info card of the nearest artwork. "Damian would like this. I bet he could tell us exactly what kind of flowers these are."
"They look rather abstract to me," opinioned her companion.
"Damian knows every single flower species. Even the abstract ones."
"You really do love him, huh?"
She considered the question a moment. "Yes, I think I do," she finally admitted.
"Does he know about me?"
She laughed. "You make it sound like we're having a secret rendezvous at a sleazy hotel! But yes, I told him that you're in London and that we're meeting up for a chat. I half feared that he would want to see you too, but he didn't say so."
"Just tell him that we're old friends."
She shrugged. "We are old friends. Besides, he knows that I had it off with you and he doesn't mind."
"What an excessively tolerant young man." His hand glided over and his fingers wriggled their way under her butt.
She sat down forcefully on his knuckles, before shoving him aside. "More tolerant than me. Keep your paws off, Paul."
He laughed softly. "You used to love my paws on your body."
"You used to pay me a hundred quid for the pleasure."
He looked her in the eye. "That what you want? I'll pay you three times as much if we go to that sleazy hotel, now."
She laughed. "Boy, you must be making good money in Seattle. I'm flattered, but I promised myself to try the faithful thing."
He looked thoughtfully at her. "As you wish." And after a while, "So you don't miss it?"
She shrugged. "The kick you mean? Mostly not."
"Recidivism rates are high."
She snorted with suppressed laughter. The guard, an elderly lady who had been watching them for a while, shot her a stern look. Oops.
Charlie bowed over to Paul. "I'm not addicted to prostitution, thank you very much," she whispered.
"If you say so," he whispered back.
She stood up. "Let's go."
"The picture isn't all that great," she declared loudly, when they walked past the guard. "I like the strawberries, but that Ophelia looks rather washed out to me."
Paul gave the woman an apologizing shrug and let Charlie drag him out into the corridor.
She pulled him all the way to the main entrance. "Don't be so sluggish," she complained, laughing.
"I'm not. I just don't see why you're in such a hurry." He increased his resistance and they came to a halt.
Cocking her head to one side, she looked at him. Like a predator assessing its prey. "I need to go clothes shopping," she reminded him. "I'm meeting my friend at three, and I promised Damian to be back around six."
He looked crestfallen. "You really have the guys lining up, don't you? Well, there's no two ways about it then: we'll have to make it a quickie."
Charlie slapped him on the shoulder. "Be serious." She took his hand. It was warm and dry and strong. She squeezed it. "So, I won't be seeing you till September?"
"Probably not. Unless you decide to come to Seattle. You and Damian are always welcome. I'll give you guys the tour of the Jet City. Space Needle, Pike Place Market, Lake Washington, the lot."
"Maybe in summer. Depends on the student job I get. I won't turn down a great internship for a holiday in the States."
"Sure." He pulled her closer and kissed her softly on the side of the mouth. Not exactly a buddy kiss, but not quite a lover's smooch either. Something indefinable in between. Just like Paul.
"Have fun at your parents' tomorrow," she said.
"I will. I'd never have thought that I'd be looking forward to seeing Brighton again, but I actually am."
They stepped back out into the street. The storm had calmed down and it was gently snowing.
Paul pulled her into a bear hug. "Good luck then for your practical training. And give my regards to Damian. Tell him he has one hell of a girlfriend."
She laughed. "Have a safe trip back to the States, Paul. And don't forget to write."
"Never." A quick kiss, and he disappeared among the pedestrians on the sidewalk.
Charlie checked her watch. Almost three o'clock. She would have to hurry if she didn't want Jenna to wait.