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Ona fine July morning Lily got out of the taxi at Heathrow and, after paying the driver, trundled her overnight case towards the entrance.
Her emotions were a strange mix of regret and relief that her contract with Bella and Rosie's family had ended. She'd only been nanny to the eight-year-old twins for a year, but it had been long enough for her to know that she'd made a mistake at trying her hand at this particular occupation. Child-minding was not for her— even though, towards the end, she'd begun to establish a much better relationship with the over-indulged children. Had begun to like them and feel sorry for them— their mother, a single parent, had very little time for them, which was hard on the children. But it was not what she wanted to do with her life. She was honest in admitting that her own background was probably responsible for her sense of inadequacy, and sometimes feeling out of her depth.
Fortunately she'd saved up enough money so that she could afford to be unemployed for a short time while she took stock of her situation. She would easily be able to afford the mortgage on her tiny one-bedroom flat in an unremarkable Berkshire town, and knew that with her cookery diploma she could walk into another job within the hour at any of the countless hotels and restaurants in London if she wanted to. But she was restless, feeling the need for a change but not knowing how to bring it about, so she'd decided to have a couple of days in Rome and visit her brother Sam, who part-owned a small hotel there.
She checked in and was delighted at being upgraded to business class as the flight was overbooked. In the queue waiting to board the aircraft, she glanced ather ticket. She'd booked a seat next to the window—not because she enjoyed watching take-off and landing, but because it seemed to offer a greater chance of not being disturbed on the journey by people who were intent on relaying their life story to anyone who would listen.
As they all waited to board, Lily noted that almost everyone—as usual—was casually dressed, mostly in jeans and holiday wear. For some reason she'd chosen her fine grey suit and a white shirt, together with sheer black tights and high heels, for the journey. Perhaps that was why she had been lucky enough to get bumped up to business class.
At last they all filed on board, and Lily edged her way along the aisle, glancing upwards until she located her seat number. The row was still unoccupied, so she didn't have to ask anyone to get up, and she took her place, glancing idly out of the window at all the activity outside.
After a moment she was suddenly aware of the arrival of the person who would be sitting next to her and, turning her head quickly, found herself gazing up— very far up—into the dark eyes of the most handsome man she'd ever come across in her twenty-six years. He pushed his hand luggage into the overhead compartment and slammed it shut, then sat down and glanced across at her. 'Morning,' he said, non-committally.
Lily coloured up to the roots of her hair, and was conscious of her usual feeling of anxiousness. Her heart was gathering pace rapidly, and the feeling of being trapped was threatening to overwhelm her.
'Oh—hi—' she said, trying to match his lazy attitude and failing miserably. Why should it matter that she was going to be sitting this close to someone like him for a couple of hours? He didn't look the sort who would want to make small talk all the way. His powerfully authoritative manner was obvious at once, and his strong profile and determined chin sent a shiver down her spine. He was formally dressed, in a dark well-cut suit, gleaming shirt and plain blue tie, his black hair was immaculately styled. Why couldn't he have been a portly, elderly, kindly type, instead of this undeniably sexy individual who, Lily was aware, was attracting covetous glances from adjacent females?
He shifted his long legs slightly, trying to make himself more comfortable in the restricted space, then turned to glance at her, noting her stylish appearance, the rather sweet heart-shaped face, the wavy fair hair piled elegantly on top, giving her a brisk, businesslike air. Then he stared past her out of the window, feeling momentarily disturbed inside. And after a second or two, he knew why. It was the first time he had noticed a woman since Elspeth had died.
It had been over a year now—quite long enough for anyone to adjust. But immediately the mental picture of his wife made him think of his three children—his two sons and Freya—who, at nine years old, was so like Elspeth, with her glossy brown hair and hazel eyes. He frowned slightly as he thought of his daughter. She was the difficult one—the one he didn't seem to have the same rapport with as he had with the boys, he realised. And because of that he'd reluctantly agreed to Freya's request that she should be a weekly boarder at her school, to be with her best friends. He'd been determined to try and keep them all together, a close family, and this move had seemed to dent that somewhat. But he'd finally agreed, and he had to admit that life had become a bit easier without his daughter's occasional difficult temperament to deal with. And the weekends, when the family was complete, were usually trouble-free.
Thankfully, soon they were loaded and ready for take-off, and as the aircraft began bumping rapidly along the runway, Lily caught her breath, her knuckles white as she gripped the arms of her seat.
Feeling her tense, he looked across at her. 'Does this bit bother you?' he asked mildly, and she was surprised at the question, because it indicated a concern for her. Why should a complete stranger care how she felt? About anything? But those few words sent an unexpected rush of warmth through her, and she smiled up at him quickly.
'No, of course not,' she lied. 'I'm fine.'
He raised one eyebrow briefly, clearly not believing her, but said no more, and in a few minutes they were airborne. People began undoing their seat belts, and Lily's companion immediately got up to retrieve his briefcase from the locker above them. Good. He was obviously going to be deep in paperwork. There'd be no need for pointless conversation. He took out a folder, then shut the case firmly—giving Lily a brief glimpse of the name on the identity panel.
'Theodore Montague', she read. That was all, but it fitted the man exactly. He couldn't have been called anything else! But what a handle! Would anyone ever dare shorten it? Did his nearest and dearest call him 'Theo' or 'Ted'? Somehow she doubted it.
Leaning forward, she pulled out a magazine from her holdall, flicking the pages idly She was seldom able to read anything worthwhile on journeys. She couldn't believe how some people could get stuck into a novel, much less concentrate on important matters—as the man next to her was obviously doing…
Presently the chink of cups and spoons announced the arrival of the refreshment trolley, and Lily thought that a cup of coffee would be more than welcome— she'd not eaten any breakfast before she'd left home. A flight attendant came alongside them and gazed down at Theodore Montague, clearly captivated, flickering her false eyelashes at him coquettishly before asking him what he wanted. He turned to Lily.
'What would you like?' he asked, his deeply intense eyes looking straight into her smoky-blue ones, and once again she was touched by his consideration. No one had ever bothered to put her first in these circumstances, she thought.
'Oh—just a black coffee, please,' she replied quickly. 'No sugar… thank you.'
'Snap,' he said easily, and for the first time she saw the uncompromising lips part in a brief smile, giving a glimpse of strong white teeth. He looked up at the attendant. 'Then that's two black coffees, please,' he said casually.
As they sipped the scalding liquid, he looked across at her. 'You don't like in-flight food, either?' he asked.
'Oh, I expect it's quite nice,' Lily replied, 'but in these cramped conditions, and with everything shrink-wrapped in plastic, I find my appetite disappears straight away.'
'My own thinking exactly,' he said. 'Anyway, on short flights food is hardly an imperative, is it?'
So…they were beginning to make conversation— and for once Lily felt totally at ease. With no trouble at all he seemed to have completely disarmed her, and she relaxed in her seat.
'I can't think that either of us are on holiday,' he murmured. His eyes ran the length of her body and back again to meet her gaze. 'We seem to be the only passengers not wearing jeans and T-shirts.'
'Actually, I'm going to visit my brother in Rome for a few days. He part-owns a hotel there,' Lily said. 'And I've got some thinking to do,' she added. Now, why had she said that? she asked herself crossly. It was the sort of thing that would invite him to question her. But he didn't. He gave her a long, slow look, and she had the awful suspicion that he could read her mind and knew all about her already! Which was silly.
And you—you're not on holiday?' she asked tentatively.
'Grief, no—I've a seminar to attend. I managed to avoid it last year, but I'm due to give a paper this time, so there's no getting out of it I'm afraid. Still…' He smiled that devastating half-smile again. 'I'm sure I'll survive. Rome is a good place to spend a few days—for whatever reason.'
There was a companionable silence between them for a while as the aircraft droned on.
'What's the seminar about?' Lily asked curiously, suddenly wanting to know more about the man, what he did. Would it be marketing? Public relations? Something important in the City? She was surprised at his reply.
'I spend my life thinking about children,' he said casually. 'I lecture in paediatrics, which is all very well, but it means that I don't get to spend much time on the shop floor, so to speak.' He shrugged. 'Still, you can't do everything, and I'm apparently deemed more use on the lecture circuit at the moment.' He paused. 'I expect that will change in due course. Life never stays the same for long, I find.' He pressed his lips together tightly.
Who could ever have imagined the nightmarish situation that had taken his beautiful wife from him so tragically? That an unidentifiable virus would end her life so dramatically, so unexpectedly? It had taught him not to look too far ahead, or to take life for granted.
Lily sensed his change of mood at once, and it made her want to tell him about herself, about things… 'Well, I'm hoping to change my life in some way,' she said, 'but I don't really know how to.' She paused. 'I did a cookery course after I left school, which was OK—but I got sick of cooking for other people all the time, even though it was good experience in London hotels and clubs… Last year I thought I'd have a go at nannying…' She shuddered. 'It was not a good move. I think I was unlucky with the family who employed me—very spoiled eight-year-old twin girls. They were awful. But so was I,' she added truthfully. 'They ran rings round me, and I just didn't know how to handle the difficult situations that seemed to crop up on a daily basis. I was beginning to get more switched on by the end of the contract, but not enough for me to contemplate pursuing that particular career any further.' She sighed. 'You have to live in order to learn, don't you?' she said wistfully. 'I'd have loved to love Bella and Rosie, and I did try. But I don't think they wanted to love me.'
He had not taken his eyes from her face as she'd been speaking, and he nodded slowly. 'Everyone hits the buffers at some time in their lives,' he said. 'And all experience—even hurtful experience—teaches us something, I suppose.' He opened the folder on his knees again. 'I do hope you find what you're looking for,' he added quietly.
'It's brilliant to see you again, Lily!'
Lily smiled across the table at her brother, feeling a glow of sisterly affection sweep over her. They were sitting in Agata & Romeo, a bottle-lined restaurant near the main station in Rome, and had just dined on delicious broccoli and pasta in skate soup—one of the many delicacies on the menu. As she spooned up the last mouthful, Lily knew that it certainly wouldn't be the last time she tasted it.
'That—was—divine—' she said, sitting back. 'I was really hungry.'
'Talking of things divine,' Sam said, as he topped up Lily's glass with the rest of the wine. 'Who was the bloke you came off the plane with? Drop-dead gorgeous, or what? He seemed very… attentive as he helped you with your stuff,' he added.
Lily looked away, forcing herself to keep the ever-ready blush from her cheeks.
'Just the man who happened to be sitting in the adjoining seat on the plane,' she said casually.
'Really? There was something… something that suggested a certain familiarity, I thought,' Sam said, looking at Lily curiously. 'I really thought there was something going on there.'
'Don't be silly,' Lily said, picking up the menu to see what else she'd like. 'I've never met him before. He was just someone… interesting to talk to, that's all.'
Sam said no more—he knew from his short acquaintance with his sister that when she decided a subject was closed, it was closed.
Thinking about it, Lily admitted to being surprised at how short the flight had seemed. She and her neighbor had managed to make light, undemanding conversation for much of the way—during which he'd mentioned that he had three children. He'd also spent some time absorbed in his papers, and she'd been careful not to interrupt him. She'd been genuinely surprised when their approaching landing had been announced.
After a minute, Sam said, 'Is there anything else you'd like, Lily? A cappuccino will do me, but choose away. I want to spoil you.' He paused, thinking how beautiful Lily was. 'I don't get the chance to do that very often, do I?' he went on. 'We really must make an effort to get together more—twice a year is nothing, and now that we've found each other we mustn't waste it.' He leaned across and covered her hand with his briefly. 'Promise that we will manage it somehow, Lily.'