It was late December and we had been invited to dinner at Andy's house for his traditional Christmas Party.
It's hard to convey just how exciting this invitation was. Only Partners or prospective Partners were ever invited into his home, so it could only mean one thing; I was finally going to be offered the promotion I had craved for so long.
This would be the greatest achievement of my career to date and would move me into the big league as far as my future was concerned. If I was right, it would make me the youngest Partner in the history of the Company.
I deserved it, had worked hard for it both in the office and outside, and Amanda had supported me like a rock on the important social side. The fact that it would also help repay the less-than-ethical loans that I had awarded myself, was an added bonus.
I had concealed my illegal activities well, and having succeeded for so long, was arrogant enough to believe no-one was clever enough to uncover me. Even so, I could never really feel relaxed.
The timing was perfect. Sandersons was coming out of a rather rocky patch following the global financial crisis and was moving into an important new field, that of advising, auditing and reporting on the efficiency of Governments. Every developed country was desperately trying to cut its deficit and do things cheaper and better. That's where we came in.
After a few smaller contracts with Local Government had gone well, Sandersons had undertaken more ambitious ones for a National Government. Those had gone well too, and we were now on a small list of organisations the EU would recognise as external advisers.
The main project we were bidding for at that moment was with the Turkish Government, assessing their progress on the road towards EU membership. Things are very different now of course, but at that time, this was foremost in both Governments' plans.
If we were successful, the reward would be a major project in which teams from Sandersons would work in the UK, Ankara and Istanbul, monitoring the progress that the country had made towards countering high level corruption, and reporting our findings to Brussels.
What was most exciting for me was that a new Junior Partner would be needed to manage this project. Andy had more than once hinted that, if I played my cards right, the role would be mine.
The project was right up my street; if anyone knew their way around financial systems and the illicit extraction of large sums of money, then it was me. I had worked harder on this than on anything in my career, and now it looked like the contract would indeed be awarded to us and the Junior Partnership might well be mine that very evening.
Needless to say, Amanda was equally excited, and for several weeks had planned and re-planned what she should wear for the evening.
To my relief, the prospect of my Partnership seemed to have completely over-ridden her reluctance to be anywhere near Andy. Perhaps the knowledge that most other Partners would also be there had helped reassure her too. In any event, she seemed pleased rather than wary, more concerned not to be outclassed by the wives of the other guests in terms of appearance.
She could outclass us all in terms of intellect any day of the week.
A huge amount of money had been spent on the designer dress she finally selected on her third shopping trip to London's West End, but it was worth it. A background of deep blue silk that matched her eyes, half concealed behind a screen of black lace. It hugged her slender figure from her shoulders to her upper thigh where it stopped short, framing her long slim legs to perfection.
I had never seen anything like it - or paid anything like the amount it cost.
When the party finally arrived, we parked our kids with Amanda's parents at lunchtime to give us plenty of time to prepare. She spent a couple of hours at the beautician - a pointless exercise, as her skin was already flawless - then bathed and began to dress.
I always enjoyed watching my wife getting ready, but that night was a special treat. Amanda had always preferred stockings to tights, and that evening had selected sheer black hold-ups and an ultra-thin black thong because she 'couldn't risk a VPL'. Add to this a tiny matching black bra and slip and you get the whole sexy effect.
Doing her make-up took a lot longer than usual so, having donned my dinner suit and tie, I was sent downstairs several times to top up her champagne glass 'to help with her nerves'. By the time she had finally donned her dress and heels, and sorted her hair, she was just a little tipsy.
I carefully ran the long zipper up her slender spine and stood back in admiration.
"Well? Will I do?" she asked, posing in front of the full-length mirror.
"Unbelievable! You look absolutely amazing!"
It was no more than the truth; my lovely wife looked simply out of this world. The blue dress matched the penetrating blue of her eyes to perfection, and followed the lines of her slim, fit body like a second skin. Its shortness, along with her highest heels made her appear even taller, and showcased the long, slender legs below. Her make-up, though light, highlighted her strong, attractive features superbly, and toned well with her newly straightened blonde hair.
The effect was mesmerising; when she looked directly at me, her pupils huge and black, my knees literally trembled with admiration.
"My God, Amanda. I've never seen you looking this good," I whispered.
"Good enough to be a Junior Partner's wife?" she teased.
"Good enough to be a President's wife," I smiled, stunned once again by the extraordinary woman I had married.
I truly was a lucky man.
Less than an hour later, we pulled into the driveway of Andy's large country home, parked our nice but relatively nondescript car alongside the large BMW and Mercedes limousines already there, and rang the bell nervously.
The door was opened by a uniformed housekeeper who quickly ushered us into a large living room where the other guests were gathered for cocktails. We were greeted warmly by all the Partners, reinforcing my belief that this would indeed be the evening I joined them on the Board.
Of course, this made both Amanda and me even more nervous.
Andy himself seemed to pay us extra attention too, making sure that our glasses remained full at all times, that the canapés passed us by often enough and that we were formally introduced to all the Main Board members and the firm's most prestigious clients.
He even remembered to introduce my wife as 'Amanda' rather than the Mandy she hated so much. She, of course, revelled in the event, her bright intellectual conversation and striking looks catching all the men and many of the women by surprise.
I felt immensely proud to have her at my side as we circulated through the crowd.
After the introductions, dinner was announced, and we filed through to the dining room. The table was large and there were name cards to show where everyone should sit. I was amused to see that Amanda had been seated between me and Andy, and that he paid her a great deal of attention throughout the meal.
His hands strayed to her arms and thighs on many occasions. True to form, Amanda took this in her stride, knowing better than to create friction on what could well be my Big Night. I was amused to see that, though she gritted her teeth, she did tolerate a lot more physical contact than usual, even when stroking fingers reached as high as her hem line.
The food was excellent as were the wines and afterwards, we adjourned to the terrace where coffee and post dinner drinks were being served. Andy was again solicitous, making sure we were never without a full glass, though I noticed he had slipped back into using the name Mandy again.
Amanda had apparently given up correcting him. She was even beginning to show signs of tipsiness, but in ways only I would notice.
For the next hour, Andy continued to steer us from guest to guest, his hand increasingly on my wife's back, with occasional forays to her buttocks. I silently prayed she wouldn't make a scene in front of the Partners, but she read the situation well and kept her temper, even when he caught her in a secluded corner and playfully lifted the back of her dress.
"I can't take much more of this," Amanda hissed when we managed to get a moment to ourselves. "I'm not a bimbo or a sex toy, and if he calls me THAT name again...!"
"You're doing brilliantly," I assured her. "Just keep playing the trophy wife for a little while more. There can't be much more to go before he makes the announcement."
IF he makes it, I added to myself anxiously.
"What?" Amanda jumped slightly, turning round suddenly.
"Why don't you two come into my study for a chat?"
The voice suddenly at my elbow was Andy's, as was the hand on my wife's bottom that had surprised her. She flashed her blue eyes at me in anger, but I remained calm.
"Of course," I replied.
My heart leaping with excitement. Had the moment we had been waiting for, actually arrived?
"Come this way!"
Andy led us through the crowd, back into the house and into a large, old-fashioned room which looked more like a library than an office. It was full of books and had a large mahogany desk at one side, facing the curtained window. A smart computer and a large flat screen TV were almost the only concessions to modernity.
"Relax," he began, closing the heavy hardwood door behind us.
Amanda and I stood nervously on the large carpet, exchanging anxious glances.
"You've been with us for a long time now," he smiled at me. "You know I have always been impressed by your work and your dedication, as well as by your lovely wife."
He laughed as if it was a joke, but his hand fell onto Amanda's bottom again as he spoke. I saw her flinch at his touch, but she gritted her teeth and said nothing while I basked in his praise.
"What you don't know, is that I've taken a special interest in your work over the past couple of years," he continued. "The hours you and Mandy here have put in outside the office and without recognition, have been considerable. Dedication like this deserves a reward and tonight I hope we can put things straight between us."
"Thank you, Andy," I began but he cut me short.
"Have a look at the desk. I think you'll see something there to interest you."
With a tummy full of butterflies, I crossed to the desk and looked closely at the display of papers assembled there.
"What... What is this?" I asked, suddenly puzzled.
"Perhaps I should ask you that," Andy replied, his voice suddenly hard and devoid of its former friendliness. "Those are details of the fictitious staff, contractors and suppliers you have set up over the last few years in order to defraud the Company."
Amanda gasped. My blood ran cold, and my heart seemed to freeze.
"There might be earlier ones," Andy continued. "And I might have missed one or two, but those I am sure about suggest you've helped yourself to a good seven figures of my money."
The blood drained from my face and I felt faint, painfully aware of my wife's deep blue eyes boring into my soul as she learned brutally, the kind of man she had married.
But there was more to come.
"You covered your tracks well, but your arrogance eventually let you down. For the last six months you have been over-confident. Unlike your lovely wife here, your intellect isn't as top-notch as you think."
He stood closer.
"It never crossed your mind that I might be just as clever as you, did it? That I might be able to unravel your little network without you knowing? Did you honestly think I could have built a business this strong by being as simple as you seem to believe?"
I was gobsmacked! I had been so careful; taken such pains to hide my deception. Clearly, I had been wrong, and Andy was right. It hadn't crossed my mind that he would suspect me, let alone see through the financial smokescreen I had carefully constructed.
"Is this true?" Amanda asked sharply, her face an expression of mistrust, her body language a mix of anger and disillusion. "You didn't negotiate a raise? You're been stealing? You lied to me?"
"Indeed he has, Mandy," Andy addressed my astounded wife. "He's lied to us all."
"Amanda!" she corrected him automatically without thinking, but he barely noticed.
"Your last few years have been an illusion. The two of you have been living the high life on the firm's stolen money. You married a crook, Mandy."
She looked at me in disbelief, waiting for me to deny the allegations and defend myself.
"Say something!" she demanded, but I had no defence. There was nothing I could say.
Amanda looked at me thunderstruck. I looked pleadingly into those amazing blue eyes but could see nothing but disillusion and contempt.
"So," Andy continued. "You are going to jail. There are three security operatives waiting outside to detain you until the Police arrive." He turned to my wife. "I'm sorry to do this to you Mandy. You know how much I respect and admire you."
"Andy! Please," I begged. "Isn't there something we can do about this? I was going to pay the money back as soon as I got my Partnership. If you've found out this much, you know it's still possible!"
"How can I let you get away with it?" he demanded. "How can I work with someone I can't trust?"
"Please Andy! Let me prove it to you! Please don't do this to my wife and kids. I'll do anything..."
"Anything?" he demanded.
"Anything!" I felt desperate.
There was a long pause as if he was thinking carefully.
"Well, perhaps there might be a way..." he spoke quietly and slowly.
Amanda and I stood motionless, listening to his every syllable.
"Maybe there is a way to reach an... accommodation with the pair of you."
He stressed the word 'pair' ominously, but I missed its significance.
"What do you mean?"
I was really shaking now. The thought of a trial and then jail had me terrified. Any deal had to be better than that, and I clung to the idea desperately. Andy began to walk slowly around the room, his hands active as if explaining a fine point of financial law.
"The deal is this. The two of you have a simple choice. On the one hand I walk through that door and return with Security. You leave with the Police who will see nothing but embezzlement and fraud. They will prosecute you; we will provide the evidence and you will go to prison."
I felt my chest tightening but there was worse to come.
"Then when the Police have finished, our own Lawyers will get to work on you too. As you know, they are ruthless. They will take your house, your cars, your furniture. Your kids will have to leave school." He turned towards Amanda. "They will bankrupt the pair of you, while your husband languishes in prison."
He turned back towards me, his open hand pointing at Amanda.
"What will your lovely wife and family do for the five years you're in jail? That's the very least you'll get for a fraud on this scale."
I felt light-headed, my heart thumping in my ears. There was a stillness in the room as Andy paused for a long time.
"The alternative," he continued. "Is to come to some kind of special arrangement between us; something that benefits us both. I could still walk out of that door and announce that we have a new Junior Partner, as they are all expecting. You could still stay out of jail - that can't be bad for a start - and I could cover your misdemeanours here."
His words brought a shaft of daylight into my emotional darkness, but what would he want in return?
"In exchange, you would become 'my man' in Accounts. You would turn over all your unofficial income to me; and would start repaying the loans you took until they're all returned - with interest."
I hung on his every word, thankful for any sign of relief.
"It will take years," he went on. "But I could continue to cover for you during all that time, and when it's over things will be as if it never happened. You would keep your house, your place in the community, and your kids and neighbours would never know anything."
I stood with my mouth open, feeling Amanda's tense body alongside mine and her deep blue eyes burning angrily into me.
"You're thinking, why would I bother to do this for you? What incentive do I have to let a thief go free?" he continued.
I nodded, ashamed.
"Well, it's not the money of course, I already have plenty of that. No, what I get is a Junior Partner who will be completely and utterly loyal to me during the next few year, come what may. The way ahead is going to be very difficult, and the Board is not as uniformly loyal as they should be. I need your one hundred percent commitment to whatever plans I need to put in place, however questionable or unorthodox you might believe them to be."
This made sense; he would need unswerving support throughout the period of change Sanderson's was going to go through over the next few years. I could happily live being Andy's placeman in the Accounts division and compared to all I had already done and the potential ruination of my family, a few underhand tricks at work seemed well within my moral grasp.
I began to feel relieved. But he hadn't finished; the greatest and by far the worst demand was yet to come.
"And finally, of course," Andy said calmly but firmly. "The real incentive for me is that I get to sleep with your lovely wife every week until the debt is fully paid."
It took a few moments for the reality and magnitude of his words to sink in.
"What?!" I heard Amanda exclaim. "No way!"
Andy turned to speak directly to her.
"You might want to think about this for a moment, Mandy. The consequences of a refusal are significant. This is your best - your only chance to save your husband and your family. Besides, what's it to you? I'm very discreet and as they say, 'a slice off a cut loaf is never missed'".
"Don't include me in your dirty little deals. I'm not a prostitute; you can't buy me like a whore!!"
"Mandy! You wrong me! I wouldn't want you if you were simply a whore. Beautiful, fortune seeking women are ten-a-penny when you're as rich as I am. No, it's because you are so sweet, innocent and faithful that I'm even contemplating this deal at all."
Amanda's body language showed clearly how outraged and angry she was. Much of it was directed at Andy, but enough was coming my way for me to be unable even to look her in the eye.
"You're horrified now, I understand this," Andy continued. "The idea repels you, but please understand, if you agree to this little arrangement, there must be no more rejections, Mandy. I have been patient, but if this is to work, there must be no more contemptuous looks for me; just sweet, smiling whole-hearted enthusiasm - in and out of bed."
I stared at the two of them, open-mouthed.
"And you never know," he smiled. "You might even enjoy it. I'm told being in bed with me isn't an entirely unpleasurable experience."
Amanda stared at him, then at me, her piercing blue eyes full of fear, horror and accusation. But Andy still hadn't finished.
"I understand it's a difficult decision; jail or freedom; prosperity or destitution; fidelity or fornication. It's up to you two, but I'm not going to wait very long for your decision." He looked at his watch. "No longer than half an hour, in fact. Any longer than that and my guests will think something has gone seriously wrong"
Amanda looked at me again, her eyes pleading and accusing at the same time though she said nothing.
"I can't go to jail!" My voice sounded half-crazed with desperation. "We can't lose everything! Please Andy, there must be another way!"
"Sorry, this is the only deal on offer. It's the best I can do and it's better than you deserve."