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'When will your divorce from Volakis be final?' Robert Miller asked casually.
Suspecting that his question was anything but casual, Tally stiffened. Her bright green eyes wary, she averted her head, light glancing over the smooth coil of hair at the nape of her neck and picking out its natural streaks of brighter orange as she leafed through a fabric sample book. 'In a couple of months '
'It feels like it's been going on for ever,' Robert complained, his impatience with the situation unconcealed. 'I'm getting tired of the fact that everyone assumes we're only friends'
'We are friends and you're my business partner,' Tally responded lightly, knowing that he wanted more but not at all sure, even yet, that she would ever be able to give it to him.
It was only a year since Sander, the loss of their child and the sad debris of their failed marriage had broken Tally's heart into tiny shattered pieces. The last thing she wanted in her life was the stress of a man with expectations she couldn't fulfil. It was fun to meet Robert for casual dinner dates and occasionally accompany him to more formal events but she wasn't ready for a fullon relationship at present. She valued his friendship and his business guidance and support, but she had yet to feel any desire to take matters to a more intimate level. Sander, she reflected painfully, seemed to have killed those feelings stone dead.
Yet at six feet tall with dark hair and bright blue eyes, Robert was a very attractive man and a successful software designer with his own company. Nine months earlier, Robert had given Tally her first major project when he'd engaged her to make over the interior of his London Docklands apartment. Thanks to the publicity garnered by that job, Tally's brand new interiors firm had expanded rapidly to cope with a steady influx of keen clients. Although business was good, Tally had still found it impossible in the depressed economic climate to get a bank to invest in the future of Tallulah Design. Times were hard for newly selfemployed people and when Robert offered her the finance she'd needed to set up her office in upmarket premises and hire extra staff, she had been very grateful. For the past six months Robert had acted as a supportive silent partner.
Sadly, an unpleasant surprise was in store for Tally that afternoon when her assistant, Belle, told her she had a confidential call on hold for her. 'I've been advised that the house you shared with Mr Volakis in France is about to be sold,' her solicitor told her. 'I've also been informed that if you want anything from the house you will need to go there and collect it.'
Thoroughly taken aback by that news, Tally grimaced and thanked the older man for passing on the information. She tried not to think about the house she had loved being sold, but it was no use; she had stamped her personality and style on the rambling property and she had once been very happy there. Knowing that it would soon belong to someone else filled her with a tide of regret. She had not been prepared for Sander to sell the house, though she could not have explained why. Would it have been a comfort to picture him there with some other woman? Absolutely not. Indeed she shivered at that offensive image and hurriedly suppressed it. When so many more important things had been lost, it would be ridiculous to bemoan the loss of bricks and mortar and memories of more contented times.
Even so, divorcing Sander was proving to be an ongoing challenge, Tally conceded ruefully as she checked her diary to work out if she could make a trip to France that very weekend and get the matter over and done with. Their divorce could certainly not be labelled a civilised breakup. Had Sander so desired, he could easily have had her belongings shipped back to the UK for her to sort out; but he had made not one single helpful gesture since their separation. He had not seen her; in fact he had, at one point, flatly refused to speak to her and had cut her out as though she had never been a part of his life.
Was that because she had walked out on him? Get over it, Sander, Tally thought angrily. If anything, she was proud of the fact that she'd had the courage to break free of a marriage that was making both of them unhappy. Since then she had read that, statistically speaking, marriages very rarely survived the death of a child.
Driving home to her apartment, Tally had to blink back a hot surge of tears and suppress the distressing recollections threatening to tear her apart. She had got over the worst of the anger, the selfpity and the bitterness; but, without warning, grief could still roll in over her like a suffocating blanket and it would be hours until she could function normally again.
Sander, however, had not suffered from that problem. Grief had not immobilised Sander in any way. During the wretched months when Tally's life had fallen apart and she had sunk into depression, Sander had contrived to rebuild Volakis Shipping into a lean, mean, fighting machine of a booming business and had won lucrative new transportation contracts with Asian factories. At a conservative estimate Sander had quadrupled his financial worth during that contentious period of their lives. Yet Tally, determined to stand on her own financial feet as her mother had never contrived to do, had refused to accept a penny from her husband once they had parted.
Tally had not felt entitled to benefit from her estranged husband's wealth. After all, Sander had only married her at her father's instigation because she'd been pregnant. That brutal truth had come back to haunt her once their marriage was in crisis. In a relationship that lacked a sound foundation she had decided that it was unrealistic to hope that time would cure the tensions between them. Indeed she had had to stop and ask herself why she was still struggling to hold onto a man who had never returned her feelings. And that, in a nutshell, was why she believed their marriage had broken down: he had never loved her. She was also utterly convinced that Sander must have been relieved to get his freedom back.
'Are you getting a share of the house in France?' her mother, Crystal, demanded that evening on the phone when Tally mentioned her plans for the weekend. For more than a year Tally had seen little of her mother because Crystal was engaged to Roger, a retired British businessman, and had made her home in Monaco with him.
'You know I don't need Sander's money'
'I think you're being very shortsighted. I always needed your father's money and don't know how I'd have managed without it!' Crystal asserted, referring to the Greek businessman, Anatole Karydas, who had supported Crystal and Tally, his illegitimate daughter, right up until Tally completed her education. 'I'm managing fine just now,' Tally retorted. 'But be sensible and think of the future. Take a van over with you and empty the place!' Crystal advised without hesitation. 'By all accounts, Sander Volakis is as rich as sin and he's not going to miss a few sticks of furniture. You walked out on a very wealthy man!'
Aware that Crystal genuinely believed that a woman should hang on for grim death to any rich man for the sake of her longterm security, Tally, who was far more independent, had the tact to swallow back an acerbic retort. She might not see eye to eye with her parent on many subjects but she was very attached to the older woman. Nonetheless, it was BinkieMrs Binkiewicz, a Polish widowwho had virtually brought Tally up.
It was then Binkie whom Tally missed the most when life was tough. Binkie had acted as Tally and Sander's housekeeper in the South of France; and when their marriage had ended the older woman had returned to the UK and had taken a job with a family in Devon.
That Friday afternoon, Tally flew into Perpignan airport. Soon after she arrived she received a surprising phone call from her mother. Crystal, who had been living in Monaco with Roger for the past eighteen months, announced without the smallest preamble that she would be returning to London the next day.
'My goodness, that's very sudden. Has something happened between you and Roger?' Tally enquired gingerly, conscious that her mother's love life tended to be rather unsettled.
'Roger and I have decided to call it a day.' Crystal's tone was defensive and Tally wisely made no comment. 'I assume I can stay with you until I've got somewhere of my own sorted out.'
'Of course you can!' Tally exclaimed. 'Are you all right?'
'Nothing lasts for ever,' her mother said flatly and that was the end of the call; Crystal evidently being in no mood to talk.
A slim figure in a purple print sundress, Tally collected a hire car to drive into the foothills of the Pyrenees. The old farmhouse, reached by a narrow private road that snaked through tortuous bends up a steep hill, rejoiced in glorious views. With extensive wooded grounds that were in turn surrounded by a working vineyard and orchards, it also enjoyed great privacy. Tally was very tense as she parked outside the stone house with its vinecovered, wroughtiron loggia. Her solicitor had assured her that he would inform Sander's representative so that she could gain access to the property. But still not knowing what form that access would take, she first knocked on the door. Only when there was no response did she dig out the key she had never returned and made use of it.
The evocative scent of lavender and beeswax flared her nostrils in the terracottatiled hall and she was surprised to see a beautiful arrangement of flowers adorning a side table. There were no fallen petals either. Presumably the house was being as well maintained as though it were still occupied to make it appear more appealing to buyers. Even so it was distinctly eerie to walk back into the marital home she had abandoned over a year earlier and pick up on a familiar ambience that hinted that she might only have walked away the day before.
There were more flowers in the airy main reception room and a pile of the most recent interior design publications lying on the coffee table. Pale drapes were ruffling in the fresh air filtering through an open window. She spotted a small sculpture she and Sander had bought together in Perpignan and her heart lurched, for she remembered that day so clearly. Then, happily pregnant, ignorant of the tragedy to come, she had nagged Sander into taking some rare time off and spending the day with her. They had laughed and talked at length over a leisurely lunch before wandering into the art gallery and spotting the sensually curved stone figure of a couple.
Emerging from her reverie with hot cheeks, Tally realised that she was almost mesmerised by the atmosphere that so strongly evoked the past. She shook her head as though to clear it. Would she really want to take that sculpture and its attendant memories back to London with her? She thought not and mounted the oak stairs to the upper floor. Her heart started beating very fast when she entered the main bedroom. She could remember what a state she had left things in there, with clothes scattered around as she hastily packed only what she could conveniently carry in one case. Now she peered into a wardrobe in the dressing room and saw the same items all neatly hung up, the drawers full of immaculately folded garments.
Emerging from the room in a dazed state, she fell still outside a door at the end of the landing and lost colour. She had to breathe in deep, perspiration breaking out on her brow, before she could make herself depress the handle to push the door wide open. She froze on the threshold in surprisethe enchanting nursery that she had furnished with such love and hope for the future no longer existed. Her shaken eyes scanned the freshly painted walls and fullsized bedroom furniture. There was nothing now to remind her of what had once been; but the memories inside her own head, she acknowledged. She was surprised but relieved that the baby equipment, colourful wallpaper and toys were gone. In the months after the stillbirth of her little boy, Tally had haunted that room, pointlessly, painfully dreaming of what might have been.
The dulled repetitive clack of rotor blades in the distance sent Tally to the landing window where she focused on a black helicopter moving in the cloudless blue sky over the valley. Sander had taken to flying in and out during the last months they had spent in France, citing the advantage of his being able to work while someone else transported him. By then it had sunk in on her that she was married to an unashamed workaholic to whom time meant money and the eternal pursuit of profit. A pregnant wife and a marriage needing attention had been at the very foot of Sander's todo list. Of course it would not be Sander coming to visit today, Tally reflected wryly, moving away to pull open a storage cupboard where cases were mercifully still stored.
She would make a start by packing her clothes and then check out the rest of the house for anything she felt she could not live without. Sheets that smelled of Sander, she thought straight away before she could suppress that inappropriate notion. In fact where on earth had that ridiculous thought come from? It was the crazy spell cast by this stupid house getting into her brain and confusing her, she decided angrily. It had been a very long time since such an idea had come naturally to her.
Tally was piling clothing into a case and paying scant attention to the rules of good packing when the noise of the helicopter apparently landing nearby drew her back to the window with a frown of curiosity. By then, the craft had landed on the pad at the edge of the orchard and through the screening mass of summer shrubbery in the grounds she recognised the colourful red 'V' logo on its side: V for Volakis. Her heart started beating very fast. It couldn't be Sander, it couldn't possibly be Sander!