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Most women would have given at least one kidney to be in Louise's shoesboth literally and figuratively. The shoes in question were hot off the Paris catwalk, impossibly high heels held to her foot by delicately interwoven silver straps. The main attraction, however, was the man sitting across the dinner table from her. The very same hunk of gorgeousness who had topped a magazine poll of 'Hollywood's Hottest' only last Thursday.
Louise stared at her cutlery, intent on tracing a figure of eight pattern on her dessert spoon and eavesdropped on conversations in the busy restaurant. Other people's conversations. Other people's lives.
Her dinner companion shifted in his seat and the heel of his boot made jarring contact with the little toe of her right foot. She jerked away and leaned over to rub it.
'Thanks a bunch, Toby!' she said, glaring at him from half under the table.
Toby stopped grinning at a pair of bleached blonde socialites who were in the process of wafting past their table and turned to face her, eyebrows raised. 'What?'
'Never mind,' she muttered and sat up straight again, carefully crossing her ankles and tucking them under her chair. Her little toe was still warm and pulsing.
The waiter appeared with their exquisite-looking entrées and Toby's eyebrows relaxed back into their normal 'sexily brooding' position as he started tearing into his guinea-fowl. Louise's knife and fork stayed on the tablecloth.
He hadn't even bothered with his normal comments about the carbs on her plate. She was supposed to be getting rid of that baby weight, remember? Never mind that Jack had just turned eight. His father was still living in a dream world if he thought shewas going to be able to squeeze back into those size zero designer frocks hanging in the back of her wardrobe.
But then Toby had emotionally checked out of their marriage some time ago. She kept up the pretence for Jack's sake, posed and smiled for the press and celebrity magazines and fiercely denied any rumours of a rift. He hadn't ever said he'd stopped loving her, but it was evident in the things he didn't do, the things he didn't say. And then there was the latest rumour
She picked up her cutlery and attacked her pasta.
'Slow down, Lulu! No one's timing you,' Toby said, eyes still on his plate.
Lulu. When they'd first met, she'd thought it had been cute that he'd picked up on, and used, her baby brother's attempts at her name. Lulu was exotic, exciting and a heck of a lot more interesting than plain old Louise. She'd liked being Lulu back then.
Now she just wanted him to see Louise again. She stopped eating and looked at him, waiting for him to raise his head, give her a smile, his trademark cheeky winkanything.
He waved for the waiter and asked for another bottle of wine. Then she saw him glance across and nod at the two blondes, now seated a few tables away, but not once in the next ten minutes did he look at her. Her seat might as well have been empty.
'What?' Finally he glanced in her direction. But once, where she had been able to see her dreams coming to life, there was only a vacancy.
He rubbed his front tooth with his forefinger and it made a horrible squeaking noise. 'Do I have spinach on my teeth, or something?'
She shook her head. What spinach would dare sully the picture of masculine perfection sitting opposite her? The thought was almost sacrilegious. She was tempted to laugh.
The words wouldn't come. How did you ask what she wanted to ask? And how did you stand the answer?
She tried to say it with her eyes instead. When she'd been modelling, photographers had always raved about the 'intensity' in her eyes. She tried to show it allthe emptiness inside her, the magnetic force that kept the pair of them revolving around each other, the small spark of hope that hadn't quite been extinguished yet. If he'd just do it once really connect with her
'Jeez, Lulu. Cheer up, will'
A chime from the phone in his pocket interrupted him. He slid it out and held it shielded in his hand and slightly under the table. The only change in his features was a slight curve of his bottom lip. Now he looked at her properly. He searched her face for a reaction, and then returned the mobile to his jacket pocket and returned his gaze to his plate.
He shrugged. 'Work stuff. You know '
Unfortunately she had the feeling that she did know. And she kept knowing all the way through dinner as she shoved one forkful after another into her mouth, tasting nothing.
The rumour was true.
All afternoon, since she'd spoken to her friend on the phone, she'd hoped it was all silly speculation, someone putting two and two together and coming up with five. Six years ago, when the tabloids had been jumping with the stories of Toby's 'secret love trysts' with his leading lady, she'd refused to believe it, had given interview after interview denying there had been any truth in it. During the second 'incident' she'd done the same but, while her outward performance had been just as impassioned, inside she'd been counting all the things that hadn't added up: the hushed phone calls, the extra meetings with his agent. Never enough to pin him down, but just enough to make her die a little more each time she shook her head for the reporters and dismissed it as nonsense.
She blocked out the busy restaurant with her eyelids. No way could she go through that again. And no way could she put Jack through it. He'd been too young to understand before, but he was reading so well now. What if he saw something on the front of a newspaper? She squeezed her jaw together. What kind of message was she giving to her son by lying to the world and letting Toby use her as a doormat? What kind of man would he become if this was his example?
'Oh, my God! It's Tobias Thornton! Can I have your autograph?'
Louise's eyes snapped open and she stared at two women hoveringno, make that droolingnext to Toby's chair. Toby smiled and did the gracious but smouldering thing his fans loved him for as he put his ostentatious squiggle on the woman's napkin. Louise just tapped her foot.
Only when they'd finished gushing and jiggling on the spot did they glance at her. And a split second scowl was obviously all she was worth. They didn't even bother keeping their voices down as they walked away. Huddled over her new treasure, she clearly heard one say, 'He is so hot!'
Toby opened his mouth to speak but, once again, his phone got the first word in. He glanced at the display, stifled a smile, then gestured to Louise that he was going to have to take this one. 'My agent,' he mouthed as he walked off to stand near the bar.
My foot, thought Louise, as the waiter cleared her half-eaten pasta.
She watched him out of the corner of her eye as he talked. Her husband smiled and laughed and absent-mindedly preened himself in the mirror behind the bar. His agent was male, over fifty and as wide as he was tall. No, Louise could do the maths. And the number she kept coming up with was four.
Even as something withered inside her, she sat up straighter in her chair. She demanded eye contact from Toby as he finished his call and sauntered back towards her. Now she got her smile warm, bright, his eyes telling her she was the most wonderful thing in the world.
As he sat down at the table, he reached for her hand and brushed her knuckle with the tip of his thumb. Louise leaned forward and smiled back at him, turning on the wattage as only a former model knew how to do. And when Toby leaned in, clearly hoping he was going to be able to have his cake and eat it too this evening, she let the grin slide from her face and spoke in a low, scratchy whisper.
'Toby ' She paused, mentally adding all the names she wasn't about to call him out loud. 'I want a divorce.'
A hefty gust of wind blew up the river and ruffled the tips of the waves. The small dinghy rocked as Ben tied it to an ancient blackened mooring ring on a stone jetty. He stared at the knot and did an extra half-hitch, just to be sure, then climbed out, walked up along the jetty and headed up a narrow, stony path that traversed the steep and wooded hill.
He whistled as he walked, stopping every now and then just to smell the clean, slightly salty air and listen to the nagging seagulls that swooped over the river. At first glance it seemed as if he was walking through traditional English countryside, but every now and then he would pass a reminder that this wasn't a wilderness, but a once-loved, slightly exotic garden. Bamboo hid among the oaks and palms stood shoulder to shoulder with willows and birches.
After only ten minutes the woods thinned and faded away until he was standing in a grassy clearing that was dominated by a majestic, if slightly crumbling, white Georgian mansion.
Each time he saw this beautiful building now, he felt a little sadder. Even if he hadn't known its history, hadn't known that the last owner had been dead for more than two years, he would have been able to tell that Whitehaven was empty. There was something eerily vacant about those tall windows that stared, unblinking, out over the treetops to the river below and the rolling countryside of the far bank.
He ambled up to the front porch and tugged at a trail of ivy that had wound itself up the base of one of the thick white pillars. It had been nearly a month since his last visit and the grounds were so huge there was no way he could single-handedly keep the advancing weeds at bay. Too many vines and brambles were sneaking up to the house, reclaiming the land as their own.
Laura would have hated to see her beloved garden's gradual surrender. He could imagine her reaction if she could have seen it nowthe sharp shake of her snowy-white head, the determined glint in those cloudy eyes. Laura would have flexed her knobbly knuckles and reached for the secateurs in a shot. Not that her arthritic hands could have done much good.
At ninety-two, she'd been a feisty old bird, one worthy of such a demanding and magical place as Whitehaven. Perhaps that was why he came up here on the Sundays when it was his ex-wife's turn to have Jasmine for the weekend. Perhaps that was why he tended to the lilies and carnivorous plants in the greenhouses and mowed the top and bottom lawns. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and shook his head as he crunched across the gravel driveway and made his way round the house and past the old stable block. He was keeping it all in trust on Laura's behalf until the new owner came. Then he'd be able to spend his Sunday afternoons dozing in front of the rugby on TV and trying not to notice how still the house was without his whirlwind of a daughter.
He ducked through an arch and entered the walled garden. The whole grassy area was enclosed by a moss-covered red brick wall, and sloping greenhouses filled one side. It was the time of year that the insect-eating plants liked to hibernate and he needed to check on them, make sure the temperature in the old glasshouses was warm enough.
And so he pottered away for a good ten minutes, checking pots and inspecting leaves, until he heard a crash behind him. Instantly, he swung round, knocking a couple of tall pitcher plants off the bench.
The first thing he saw was the eyeslarge, dark and stormy.
'Get out! Get off my property at once!'
She was standing, hands on hips and her legs apart, but he noticed that she kept her distance and worried the ends of her coat sleeves with her fingers. His hands shot up in surrender and he backed away slightly, just to show he wasn't a threat.
'Sorry! I didn't realise I didn't know anybody had'
He nodded. Technically, he was. Only up until a few seconds ago he hadn't known anybody caredsave a dead film star who'd loved this place as unconditionally as the children she'd never had.
'I made a promise to the previous owner, when she was ill, that I would look after the garden until the house was sold.'
She just stared at him. Now his heart rate was starting to return to normal, he had time to look a little more closely at her. She was dressed entirely in black: black boots, black trousers and a long black coat. She even had long, almost-black hair. And, beneath her heavy fringe, her face held a stark and defiant beauty.
'Well, the house has been sold. To me. So you can clear off now,' she said.
He pressed his lips together. There wasn't much he could say to that. But the thought of leaving Whitehaven and never coming back shadowed him like a black rain cloud. This new woman striking as she wasdidn't look like the sort to potter around a greenhouse or dead-head flower borders.
He picked up his coat from where it lay on the bench and turned to go. 'Sorry to disturb you. I won't come again.'
He had almost reached the door at the end of the long, narrow greenhouse before she called out. He stopped, but didn't turn round straight away. Slowly, and with a spark of matching defiance in his eyes, he circled round to face her.
She took a few steps forward, then stopped, her hands clasped in front of her. 'The estate agent told me the place has been empty for years. Why do you still come?'
He shrugged. 'A promise is a promise.'
Her brows crinkled and she nodded. A long silence stretched between them, yet he didn't move because he had the oddest feeling she was on the verge of saying something. Finally, when she knotted her hands further and looked away, he took his signal to leave.
This time, he had his hand on the door knob before she spoke.
'Did you really know her? Laura Hastings?'
He let his hand drop to his side and looked over his shoulder. 'Yes.' A flash of irritation shot through him. For some unfathomable reason, he'd not expected this of her. He'd thought her better than one of those busybodies who craved gossip about celebrities.
'What was she like?' Her voice was quiet, not gushing and over-inquisitive, but her question still annoyed him.
He stared at her blankly. 'I really must be going. I meant what I said. I won't trespass here again.'