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'Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard the 16.22 East Coast Mainline service from King's Cross to Edinburgh. This train will be calling at Peterborough, Stevenage '
Heart hammering against her ribs from the mad, last-minute dash down the platform carrying a bag that was about to burst at the seams, Sophie Greenham leaned against the wall of the train and let out a long exhalation of relief.
She had made it.
Of course, the relief was maybe a little misplaced given that she'd come straight from the casting session for a vampire film and was still wearing a black satin corset dress that barely covered her bottom and high-heeled black boots that were rather more vamp than vampire. But the main thing was she had caught the train and wouldn't let Jasper down. She'd just have to keep her coat on to avoid getting arrested for indecent exposure.
Not that she'd want to take it off anyway, she thought grimly, wrapping it more tightly around her as the train gave a little lurch and began to move. For weeks now the snow had kept falling from a pewter-grey sky and the news headlines had been dominated by The Big Freeze. Paris had been just as bad, although there the snow looked cleaner, but when Sophie had left her little rented apartment two days ago there had been a thick layer of ice on the inside of the windows.
She seemed to have been cold for an awfully long time.
It was getting dark already. The plate-glass windows of the office blocks backing onto the railway line spilled light out onto the grimy snow. The train swayed beneath her, changing tracks and catching her off guard so that she tottered on the stupid high-heeled boots and almost fell into an alarmed-looking student on his way back from the buffet car. She really should go and find a loo to change into something more respectable, but now she'd finally stopped rushing she was overwhelmed with tiredness. Picking up her bag, she hoisted it awkwardly into the nearest carriage.
Her heart sank. It was instantly obvious that every seat was taken, and the aisle was cluttered with shopping bags and briefcases and heavy winter coats stuffed under seats. Muttering apologies as she staggered along, trying not to knock cardboard cartons of coffee out of the hands of commuters with her bag, she made her way into the next carriage.
It was just as bad as the last one. The feeling of triumph she'd had when she'd made it onto the train in time ebbed slowly away as she moved from one carriage to the next, apologising as she went, until finally she came to one that was far less crowded.
Sophie's aching shoulders dropped in relief. And tensed again as she took in the strip of plush carpet, the tiny lights on the tables, the superior upholstery with the little covers over the headrests saying 'First Class'.
It was occupied almost entirely by businessmen who didn't bother to look up from their laptops and newspapers as she passed. Until her mobile rang. Her ringtone'Je Ne Regrette Rien'had seemed wittily ironic in Paris, but in the hushed carriage it lost some of its charm. Holding the handles of her bag together in one hand while she scrabbled in the pocket of her coat with the other and tried to stop it falling open to reveal the wardrobe horror beneath, she was aware of heads turning, eyes looking up at her over the tops of glasses and from behind broadsheets. In desperation she hitched her bag onto the nearest table and pulled the phone from her pocket just in time to see Jean-Claude's name on the screen. Pants again.
A couple of months ago she would have had a very different reaction, she thought, hastily pressing the button to reject the call. But then a couple of months ago her image of Jean-Claude as a free-spirited Parisian artist had been intact. He'd seemed so aloof when she'd first seen him, delivering paintings to the set of the film she was working on. Aloof and glamorous. Not someone you could ever imagine being suffocating or possessive or
Nope. She wasn't going to think about the disaster that had been her latest romantic adventure.
She sat down in the nearest seat, suddenly too tired to go any further. You couldn't keep moving for ever, she told herself with a stab of bleak humour. In the seat opposite there was yet another businessman, hidden behind a large newspaper that he'd thoughtfully folded so that the horoscopes were facing her.
Actually, he wasn't entirely hidden; she could see his hands, holding the newspapertanned, long-fingered, strong-looking. Not the hands of a businessman, she thought abstractly, tearing her gaze away and looking for Libra. 'Be prepared to work hard to make a good impression,' she read. 'The full moon on the 20th is a perfect opportunity to let others see you for who you really are.'
Hell. It was the twentieth today. And while she was prepared to put on an Oscar-worthy performance to impress Jasper's family, the last thing she wanted was for them to see her for who she really was.
At that moment Edith Piaf burst into song again. She groanedwhy couldn't Jean-Claude take a hint? Quickly she went to shut Edith up and turn her phone off but at that moment the train swayed again and her finger accidentally hit the 'answer' button instead. A second later Jean-Claude's Merlot-marinated voice was clearly audible, to her and about fifteen businessmen.
'Sophie? Sophie, where are you?'
She thought quickly, cutting him off before he had a chance to get any further. 'Hello, you haf reached the voicemail service for Madame Sofia, astrologist and reader of cards,' she purred, shaking her hair back and narrowing her eyes at her own reflection in the darkening glass of the window. 'Eef you leaf your name, number and zodiac sign, I get back to you with information on what the fates haf in store for you'
She stopped abruptly, losing her thread, a kick of electricity jolting through her as she realised she was staring straight into the reflected eyes of the man sitting opposite.
Or rather that, from behind the newspaper, he was staring straight into her eyes. His head was lowered, his face ghostly in the glass, but his dark eyes seemed to look straight into her.
For a second she was helpless to do anything but look back. Against the stark white of his shirt his skin was tanned, which seemed somehow at odds with his stern, ascetic face. It was the face of a medieval knight in a Pre-Raphaelite paintingbeautiful, bloodless, remote.
In other words, absolutely not her type.
'Sophieis zat you? I can 'ardly 'ear you. Are you on Eurostar? Tell me what time you get in and I meet you at Gare du Nord.'
Oops, she'd forgotten all about Jean-Claude. Gathering herself, she managed to drag her gaze away from the reflection in the window and her attention back to the problem quite literally in hand. She'd better just come clean, or he'd keep ringing for the whole weekend she was staying with Jasper's family and rather ruin her portrayal of the sweet, starry-eyed girlfriend.
'I'm not on the Eurostar, no,' she said carefully. 'I'm not coming back tonight.'
Alors, when?' he demanded. 'The paintingI need you here. I need to see your skinto feel it, to capture contrast with lily petals.'
'Nude with Lilies' was the vision Jean-Claude claimed had come to him the moment he'd first noticed her in a bar in the Marais, near where they'd been filming. Jasper had been over that weekend and thought it was hilarious. Sophie, hugely flattered to be singled out and by Jean-Claude's extravagant compliments about her 'skin like lily petals' and 'hair like flames', had thought being painted would be a highly erotic experience.
The reality had turned out to be both extremely cold and mind-numbingly boring. Although, if Jean-Claude's gaze had aroused a similar reaction to that provoked by the eyes of the man in the glass, it would have been a very different story
'Oh, dear. Maybe you could just paint in a few more lilies to cover up the skin?' She bit back a breathless giggle and went on kindly, 'Look, I don't know when I'll be back, but what we had wasn't meant to be for ever, was it? Really, it was just sex'
Rather fittingly, at that point the train whooshed into a tunnel and the signal was lost. Against the blackness beyond the window the reflected interior of the carriage was bright, and for the briefest moment Sophie caught the eye of the man opposite and knew he'd been looking at her again. The grey remains of the daylight made the reflection fade before she had time to read the expression on his face, but she was left in no doubt that it had been disapproving.
And in that second she was eight years old again, holding her mother's hand and aware that people were staring at them, judging them. The old humiliation flared inside her as she heard her mother's voice inside her head, strident with indignation. Just ignore them, Summer. We have as much right to be here as anyone else. 'Sophie?'
'Yes,' she said, suddenly subdued. 'Sorry, Jean-Claude. I can't talk about this now. I'm on the train and the signal isn't very good.'
'D 'accord. I call you later.'
'No! You can't call me at all this weekend. I-I'm working, and you know I can't take my phone on set. Look, I'll call you when I get back to London on Monday. We can talk properly then.'
That was a stupid thing to say, she thought wearily as she turned her phone off. There was nothing to talk about. What she and Jean-Claude had shared had been fun, that was all. Fun. A romantic adventure in wintry Paris. Now it had reached its natural conclusion and it was time to move on.
Shoving her phone back into her pocket, she turned towards the window. Outside it was snowing again and, passing through some anonymous town, Sophie could see the flakes swirling fatly in the streetlamps and obliterating the footprints on the pavements, and rows of neat houses, their curtains shut against the winter evening. She imagined the people behind them; families slumped together in front of the TV, arguing cosily over the remote control, couples cuddled up on the sofa sharing a Friday evening bottle of wine, united against the cold world outside.
A blanket of depression settled on her at these mental images of comfortable domesticity. It was a bit of a sore point at the moment. Returning from Paris she'd discovered that, in her absence, her flatmate's boyfriend had moved in and the flat had been turned into the headquarters of the Blissful Couples Society. The atmosphere of companionable sluttishness in which she and Jess had existed, cluttering up the place with make-up and laundry and trashy magazines, had vanished. The flat was immaculate, and there were new cushions on the sofa and candles on the kitchen table.
Jasper's SOS phone call, summoning her up to his family home in Northumberland to play the part of his girlfriend for the weekend, had come as a huge relief. But this was the way it was going to be, she thought sadly as the town was left behind and the train plunged onwards into darkness again. Everyone pairing up, until she was the only single person left, the only one who actively didn't want a relationship or commitment. Even Jasper was showing worrying signs of swapping late nights and dancing for cosy evenings in as things got serious with Sergio.
But why have serious when you could have fun?
Getting abruptly to her feet, she picked up her bag and hoisted it onto the luggage rack above her head. It wasn't easy, and she was aware as she pushed and shoved that not only was the hateful dress riding up, but her coat had also fallen open, no doubt giving the man in the seat opposite an eyeful of straining black corset and an indecent amount of thigh. Prickling all over with embarrassment, she glanced at his reflection in the window.
He wasn't looking at her at all. His head was tipped back against the seat, his face completely blank and remote as he focused on the newspaper. Somehow his indifference felt even more hurtful than his disapproving scrutiny earlier. Pulling her coat closed, she sat down again, but as she did so her knee grazed his thigh beneath the table.
She froze, and a shower of glowing sparks shimmered through her.
'Sorry,' she muttered, yanking her legs away from his and tucking them underneath her on the seat.
Slowly the newspaper was lowered, and she found herself looking at him directly for the first time. The impact of meeting his eyes in glassy reflection had been powerful enough, but looking directly into them was like touching a live wire. They weren't brown, as she'd thought, but the grey of cold Northern seas, heavy-lidded, fringed with thick, dark lashes, compelling enough to distract her for a moment from the rest of his face.
Until he smiled.
A faint ghost of a smile that utterly failed to melt the ice in his eyes, but did draw her attention down to his mouth.
'No problem. As this is First Class you'd think there'd be enough legroom, wouldn't you?'
His voice was low and husky, and so sexy that her spirits should have leapt at the prospect of spending the next four hours in close confinement with him. However, the slightly scornful emphasis he placed on the words 'first' and 'class' and the way he was looking at her as if she were a caterpillar on the chef's salad in some swanky restaurant cancelled out his physical attractiveness.
She had issues with people who looked at her like that.
'Absolutely,' she agreed, with that upper-class self-assurance that gave the people who genuinely possessed it automatic admittance to anywhere. 'Shocking, really.' And then with what she hoped was utter insouciance she turned up the big collar of her shabby military-style coat, settled herself more comfortably in her seat and closed her eyes.