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Seven years later
A frown formed on Sarah's forehead as she watched Derek turn from the crowded bar and slowly make his way back to their table, a full champagne glass in each hand.
In the time it had taken him to be served, she'd begun to worry about having accepted his invitation for a Christmas drink.
Sarah comforted herself with the thought that in the six months Derek had been her personal trainer, he'd never made a pass, or crossed the line in any way, shape or form.
But there was a definite twinkle in his eye as he handed her a glass, then sat down with his.
'This is very nice of you,' she said carefully.
Sarah's heart sank when he beamed back at her.
'I am nice,'he said.
'And no, I'm not coming on to you.'
'I didn't think you were,' she lied before taking a relieved sip of the bubbly.
'Yes, you did.'
'This is just a little celebratory drink. One you deserve after all your hard work. But do be careful over the Christmas break. I don't want you coming back to me at the end of January in the same shape you were in six months ago.'
Sarah pulled a face at the memory.
'Trust me. I won't ever let that happen again.'
'Never say never.'
Sarah shook her head as she put down her glass.
'I've done a lot of thinking while you've been working my blubbery butt off these past few months, and I've finally come to terms with the reason behind my comfort-eating.'
'So what's his name?' Derek asked.
'The reason behind your comfort-eating.'
'You're a very intuitive man.'
'Only to be expected. Gay men are very simpatico to matters of the heart.'
Sarah almost spilledher wine.
'You didn't suspect at all, did you?'
Sarah stared across the table at him.
'I dislike guys who advertise their sexual preference by being obvious, or overly camp. Other gays sometimes guess, and the odd girl or two.'
'Really?' Even now that she knew the truth, Sarah couldn't detect anything obviously gay in Derek. Neither could any of the women who worked out at the gym, if the talk in the female locker room was anything to go by. Most of the girls thought him a hunk.
Whilst Sarah conceded Derek was attractivehe had nice blue eyes, a great body and a marvellous tanshe'd never been attracted to fair-haired men.
'So now that you know I'm not making a beeline for you,' Derek went on, 'how about answering my earlier question? Or do you want to keep your love life a secret?'
Sarah had to laugh.
'I don't have a love life.'
'What, none at all?'
'Not this last year.' She'd had boyfriends in the past. Both at university and beyond. But things always ended badly, once she took them home to meet Nick.
Next to Nick, her current boyfriend always came across as lacklustre by comparison. Time after time, Sarah would become brutally aware that she wanted Nick more than she ever did other men. Nick also had the knack of making comments that forced her to question whether her boyfriend was interested in her or her future inheritance.
Yet Sarah didn't imagine for one moment that Nick undermined her relationships for any personal reasons. That would mean he cared who she went out with. Which he obviously didn't. Nick had made it brutally obvious since becoming her guardian that he found the job a tiresome one, only to be tolerated because of his affection for and gratitude to her father.
Oh, he went through the motions of looking after her welfare, but right from the beginning he'd used every opportunity to shuffle her off onto other people.
The first Christmas after she'd left school, he'd sent her on an extended overseas holiday with a girlfriend and her family. Then he'd organised for her to live on campus during her years at university, where she'd specialised in early-childhood teaching. When she'd graduated and gained a position at a primary school out in the western suburbs of Sydney, he'd encouraged her to rent a small unit near the school, saying it would take her far too long to drive to Parramatta from Point Piper every day.
Admittedly this was true, and so she had done as he suggested. But Sarah had always believed Nick's motive had been to get her out of the house as much as possible, so that he was free to do whatever he liked whenever he liked. Having her in a bedroom two doors down the hallway from his was no doubt rather restricting.
A well-known man-about-town, Nick ate women for breakfast and spat them out with a speed which was breathtaking. Every time Sarah went home he had a different girlfriend installed on his arm, and in his bed, each one more beautiful and slimmer than the next.
Sarah hated seeing him with them.
Last year Sarah had restricted her home visits to Easter and Christmas, plus the winter school break, during which Nick had been away, skiing. This year she hadn't been home since Easter, and Nick hadn't complained, readily accepting her many and varied excuses. When she finally went home on Christmas Eve tomorrow, it would be nearly nine months since she'd seen Nick in the flesh.
And since he'd seen her.
The thought made her heart flutter wildly in her chest. What a fool you are, Sarah, she castigated herself. Nothing will change. Nothing will ever change. Don't you know that by now?
Time to face the bitter truth. Time to stop hoping for a miracle.
'His name his Nick Coleman,' she said matter-offactly.
'He's been my legal guardian since I was sixteen, and I've had a mad crush on him since I was eight.' She refused to call it love. How could she be in love with a man like Nick? He might have made a financial success of his life in the years since they'd first met, but he'd also become cold-blooded and a callous womaniser.
Sometimes Sarah wondered if she'd imagined the kindnesses he'd shown her when she was a child.
'Did you say eight?' Derek asked.
'Yes. He came to work for my father as his chauffeur on my eighth birthday.'
'It's a long story. But it wasn't Nick who started my eating binge,' she confessed.
'It was his girlfriend.' The one who was there draped all over him last Christmas, a drop-dead gorgeous, super-slender supermodel who'd make any female feel inadequate.
A depressed Sarah had eaten seconds at Christmas lunch, then had gone back for thirds. Food, she'd swiftly found, made her feel temporarily better.
By Easterher next visit homeshe'd gained ten kilos. Nick had simply stared at her. Probably in shock. But his new girlfrienda stunning-looking but equally skinny actress this timehadn't remained silent, making a sarcastic crack about the growing obesity problem in Australia, which had resulted in Sarah gaining another five kilos by the end of May.
When she'd seen the class photo of herself, she'd taken stock and sought out Derek's help.
Now here she was, with her hour-glass shape possessing not one skerrick of flab and her self-esteem firmly back in place.
'Amend that to two girlfriends,' Sarah added, then went on to fill in some more details of her relationship with her guardian, plus the circumstances which had led up to her coming to the gym.
'Amazing,' Derek said when she stopped at last.
'What's amazing? That I got so fat?'
'You were never fat, Sarah. Just a few kilos over-weight. And lacking in tone. No, I meant about your being an heiress. You don't act like a rich bitch at all.'
'That's because I'm not. Not till I turn twenty-five, anyway. My father made sure in his will that I won't get a dime till I reach what he called a mature age. For years I had my educational and basic living expenses paid for, but once I could earn my own living I had to support myself, or starve. I was a bit put out at first, but I finally saw the sense of his stand. Handouts don't do anyone any good.'
'That depends. So this Nick fellow lives in your family home, rent-free?'
'Well, yes My father's will said he could.'
'Till you turn twenty-five.'
'When, exactly, does that happen?'
'What? Oh, next February. The second.'
'At which point you're going to turf that blood-sucking leech out of your home and tell him you don't want to see his sorry behind ever again!'
Sarah blinked, then laughed.
'You've got it all wrong, Derek. Nick doesn't need free rent. He has plenty of money of his own. He could easily buy his own mansion, if he wanted to.' In actual fact, he'd offered to buy hers. But she'd refused.
Sarah knew the house was way too big for a single girl, but it was the only connection she still had to her parents, and she simply could not bear to part with it.
'How come this Nick guy is so flush?' Derek asked.
'You said he was your father's chauffeur.'
'Was being the operative word. My dad took him under his wing and showed him how to make money, both on the stock market and in the business world. Nick was very lucky to have a man like my father as his mentor.' Sarah considered telling Derek about Nick's good fortune with Outback Bride but decided not to. Perhaps because it made Nick look as though he hadn't become successful in his own right. Which he had.
'Have you ever been to Happy Island on a holiday?' she said instead.
'No. But I know about it.'
'Nick borrowed money and bought Happy Island when it was going for a song. He personally supervised the remodelling of its largely derelict resort, built an airport on it, then sold the whole shebang to an international equity company for a fortune.'
'Dad always said luck begins and ends with hard work. He also advised Nick that he'd never become rich working for someone else.' Which was why Nick had set up his own movie production company a couple of years back. He'd already had some success but nothing yet to rival Outback Bride.
'Your dad's right there,' Derek said.
'I hated it when I had a boss. That's why I started up my own gym.'
'You own The New You?'
Derek gave her a startled look.
'Don't tell me you didn't know that either.'
He smiled, showing flashing white teeth.
'Talk about tunnel vision.'
'Sorry,' Sarah apologised.
'I can be like that. I'm a bit of a loner, if you haven't noticed,' she added with a wry smile.
'I don't make friends easily. Guess it comes from being an only child.'
'I'm an only child too,' he confessed.
'Which makes my being gay especially hard on my parents. No grand-kids to look forward to. I only told them a couple of years ago when Mum's pressuring me to get married got a bit much. Dad hasn't talked to me since,'Derek added, the muscles in his neck stiffening.
'That's sad,' Sarah said.
'What about your mum?'
'She rings me. But won't let me come home, not even for Christmas.'
'Oh, dear. Maybe they'll come round in time.'
'Maybe. But I'm not holding my breath. Dad is a very proud and stubborn man. Once he says something, he won't back down on it. But back to you, sweetie. You're simply crazy about this Nick fellow, aren't you?'
Sarah's heart lurched.
'Crazy describes my feelings for Nick very well. When I'm around him, I just can't stop wanting him. But he doesn't want me back. And he never will. It's time I accepted that.'
'But surely not till you've had one last crack at him.'
'You haven't been working your butt off because some anorexic model said you were fat, sweetie. It's Nick you're out to impress, and attract.'
Sarah didn't want to openly admit it. But of course Derek was right. She'd do anything to have Nick look at her with desire. Just once.
No, not once. Again. Because she was pretty sure she'd spotted desire in his eyes one Christmas, when she'd been sixteen and she'd come down to the pool wearing an itsy-bitsy bikini that she'd bought with Nick in mind.
But maybe she'd imagined it. Maybe she was just desperate to believe he'd fancied her a little that day, despite his actions to the contrary. Teenage girls were prone to flights of fantasy, as were twenty-four-year-olds, she thought ruefully. Which was why she'd spent all week buying the kind of summer wardrobe that would stir an octogenarian's hormones.
The trouble was Nick wasn't an octogenarian. He was only thirty-six, and he kept his male hormones well and truly catered to. Sarah already knew that the actress girlfriend had gone by the board, replaced by an advertising executive with a penchant for power-dressing.
Sarah might not have been home personally for several months, but she rang home every week to talk to Flora, who always gave her a full update on Nick's comings and goings before passing the call over to Nick. If he was home, that was. Often he was out, being a social animal with a wide range of friends. Or contacts, as he preferred to call them.
'I presume you spend the Christmas holidays back at home?' Derek asked, cutting into her thoughts.
'Yes,'she said with a sigh.
'I usually go home as soon as school breaks up. But I haven't this year. Still, I'll have to make an appearance tomorrow. I always decorate the Christmas tree. If I don't do it, it doesn't get done. Then I help Flora prepare things for the following day. The lunch is partially catered for, but Flora likes to cook some hot food as well. Flora is the housekeeper,' she added when she saw Derek frown at the name.
'She's been with the family for forever.'