Tonight’s agenda is simple: meet Christopher Richmond at the Savoy Grill, listen to his pitch, then escort to the English National Opera using discretion as to your actions. Ronni knows what Tanner meant, that if this was Bond with a woman that might end up as an interesting diversion… except 004 had never taken advantage of such a situation. There had been occasions in the time since being given status that she could have indulged, but both men undoubtedly would have considered her easy, and it would have counted to the detriment of the final objective. Despite what 007 might think? Sex with a total stranger was, for many, a step too far.
Walking into the Hotel’s expansive, opulent lobby it occurs that the future isn’t about getting what you want, it is making sure people understand what you are. Social media and instant messaging may create the impression that the world thrives on immediacy: the true reality of emotional union undoubtedly took more time to catch up. If this were a real date, far more homework would have been conducted on this man, because otherwise she wouldn’t trust him at all. For now, Ronni anticipates a reasonably easy ride based on the details of the briefing. What is presented when the maitre’d escorts her to the pre-booked table therefore ends up as a pleasant surprise, evening suddenly far more attractive in many ways.
The man who stands and stares is both fascinating and desirable beyond initial explanation. Pale blonde, Scandinavian strength and height are all bonuses, but it is the smile that sends brain unexpectedly into defence mode. He’s also clearly confused: if expecting Bond that’s probably not as big a surprise as it should be. However, recovery is fast, maintaining eye contact the entire time.
‘You are definitely not what Whitehall had promised.’
‘Government is very good at dressing up the truth. I should now probably ask what you were expecting.’
‘Male, late forties, tuxedo.’
‘Yes, I can see why you’d feel left wanting. As it happens there is a tailor-made dinner suit, but superiors like to hold me to type.’
‘I’m imagining you’d look particularly alluring in that, probably better than me.’
‘It depends on your idea of appealing, I suppose.’
Attraction however is unmistakable, Ronni reining in desire to flirt with someone she’s not expecting to be as likeable or charismatic. The Scandinavian accent’s a bonus, making stomach flutter as he talks. Extending hand, she anticipates he’ll put it to mouth; instead it is grasped, shaken with confidence more endearing.
‘Christopher Richmond, it’s an utter pleasure.’
‘Ronni Flemmings, and I’ve been asked to extend my apologies that James -‘
‘Oh screw Bond, we’d have sat all night in silence. I think you and I will have an awful lot more to talk about. I’m also glad we’re having dinner before the performance, because it gives me a chance to impress you with what my company is hoping to provide for agents on the ground as well as your superiors.’
Richmond’s enthusiasm is infectious, Ronni at the table with more optimism than she’d ever considered could be conjured for this meeting, for that’s what this is. The man’s funny, open and honest, but something doesn’t feel right as she watches him peruse the Savoy Grill’s menu. Suddenly and without warning it is the handshake that rings alarms, adrenaline hitting like a punch; enough to make her shudder where she sits.
‘Is everything alright, Ms Flemmings?’
‘Sorry, yes, just unwinding after a particularly long day. I wonder, would you mind ordering for me whilst I quickly pop to the ladies room?’
‘Of course, you don’t have any allergies I should know about?’
‘No, I’ll eat anything, having run 15 miles today I have more than enough calories to spare.’
She stands in the bathroom moments later, staring with concern into the mirror. Aware that body’s reacting to too much alcohol and not enough sleep, there remains something unsettling about this guy that immediately has mind on the defensive. Could it be that Bond had actually poisoned outlook with the nature of their relationship that meeting anyone else would cause inevitable comparison to him? No, that was stupid and narrow minded, because nobody was going to deflect from the task in hand, that was the point. Ronni didn’t need distraction.
Yet here it was, looking almost exactly as it ought to in order to do just that.
Richmond was too perfect: not intimidated, comfortable in her presence… in fact, almost inviting the connection, challenging her. This never happened with anybody, even 007 had kept a discreet distance, with her destroying comfort zones first. This man was either the most perfect fit she’d ever met or else this was a trap. Now there is a wish to have more details, or access to the Company Intranet via phone. Ronni’s second guessing, wondering whether residual hangover’s making her self-inflate worth too much –
Bond’s close enough to taste, and hopes she will. However much the temptation might appeal, on the other side of this pillar are many people who need to respect Flemmings, long after 007 leaves the building. She slipped out to the restaurant’s balcony, unable to stand watching any longer, desire unavoidable. Looking down to the Thames, Bond had appeared from behind; familiar pressure, before arms wrapped around her. In her ear, whisper suggested the unthinkable: back to her place, briefest of indulgences then Bond would go home. It was a Stag Night, after all. Lesser things had happened before people got married, but not on her watch.
NEVER if she was in charge.
‘You really expect me to be happy, James?’
‘I think you could at least try to maintain the illusion while I’m in the same space.’
‘This is not about having your cake and eating it, it’s not fair on Maddy. Forget for a moment that you don’t see anything wrong with what you just asked, and consider her, because I thought you possessed more respect than you obviously do.’
‘She’s not my job.’
‘No, she’s going to be your wife, and right now I’m not even your lover, and I’m not prepared to demean her by doing that. I’ve never been property to direct as you see fit, and you’d do well to watch yourself.’
Bond steps back, still assessing, smallest of smiles suddenly concerning. His request had been completely serious: never joking about desire, because he never did. The default was to push luck, and mostly she’d indulge. Tonight however, James was being a prick. An arrogant, drunken wanker. Ronni would not bend, registering that this was where their relationship had to end.
‘Your moral compass is unshakeable, isn’t it?’
‘I will indulge for as long as you wish if there’s nobody else in the frame. Now that’s changed -‘
‘I’m officially off limits. I’m impressed at your restraint, I genuinely am.’
‘That’s how it stays for as long as this professional relationship is viable. When you’re on the job, I have your back. The moment you’re off it?’
‘I’m no longer your problem.’
Ronni blinks, back in a moment now known to be inherently false. Her gut is sound, direction pointing not only correct, but fortified. Something about Richmond isn’t right, and until she can work out what it is? Proceed with caution. Bond protects, even in her subconscious, but a truth that comes as a surprise shakes her more. She’ll miss 007, not just because of the fringe benefits. It will be his counsel and advice that will be the biggest loss of all; nobody holds a mirror up to Ronni as well as James.
007 is still a problem, and part of the equation. This was supposed to be his detail: Richmond was expecting him and got her instead. This isn’t about a business proposition. If her mission is a fraud? Somebody is trying to get to Bond because of who he is.
Ronni’s new objective is the task of working out why.