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It was the meeting Eliza had been anticipating with agonising dread for weeks. She took her place with the four other teachers in the staffroom and prepared herself for the announcement from the headmistress. 'We're closing.'
The words fell into the room like the drop of a guillotine. The silence that followed echoed with a collective sense of disappointment, despair and panic. Eliza thought of her little primary school pupils with their sad and neglected backgrounds so similar to her own. She had worked so hard to get them to where they were now. What would happen to them if their small community-based school was shut down? They already had so much going against them, coming from such underprivileged backgrounds. They would never survive in the overcrowded mainstream school system. They would slip between the cracks, just like their parents and grandparents had done.
Like she had almost done.
The heartbreaking cycle of poverty and neglect would continue. Their livesthose little lives that had so much potentialwould be stymied, ruined, and possibly even destroyed by delinquency and crime.
'Is there nothing we can do to keep things going for a little while at least?' Georgie Brant, the Year Three teacher asked. 'What about another bake sale or a fair?'
The headmistress, Marcia Gordon, shook her head sadly. 'I'm afraid no amount of cakes and cookies are going to keep us afloat at this stage. We need a large injection of funds and we need it before the end of term.'
'But that's only a week away!' Eliza said.
Marcia sighed. 'I know. I'm sorry but that's just the way it is. We've always tried to keep our overheads low, but with the economy the way it is just now it's made it so much harder. We have no other choice but to close before we amass any more debt.'
'What if some of us take a pay cut or even work without pay?' Eliza suggested. 'I could go without pay for a month or two.' Any longer than that and things would get pretty dire. But she couldn't bear to stand back and do nothing. Surely there was something they could do? Surely there was someone they could appeal to for help a charity or a government grant.
Before Eliza could form the words Georgie had leaned forward in her chair and spoke them for her. 'What if we appeal for public support? Remember all the attention we got when Lizzie was given that teaching award last year? Maybe we could do another press article showing what we offer here for disadvantaged kids. Maybe some filthy-rich philanthropist will step out of the woodwork and offer to keep us going.' She rolled her eyes and slumped back in her seat dejectedly. 'Of course, it would help if one of us actually knew someone filthy-rich.'
Eliza sat very still in her seat. The hairs on the back of her neck each stood up one by one and began tingling at the roots. A fine shiver moved over her skin like the rush of a cool breeze. Every time she thought of Leo Valente her body reacted as if he was in the room with her. Her heart picked up its pace as she brought those darkly handsome features to mind.
'Doyou know anyone, Lizzie?' Georgie asked, turning towards her.
'Um no,' Eliza said. 'I don't mix in those sorts of circles.' Any more.
Marcia clicked her pen on and off a couple of times, her expression thoughtful. 'I suppose it wouldn't hurt to try. I'll make a brief statement to the press. Even if we could stay open until Christmas it would be something.' She stood up and gathered her papers off the table. 'I'm sending the letter to the parents in tomorrow's post.' She sighed again. 'For those of you who believe in miracles, now is a good time to pray for one.'
Eliza saw the car as soon as she turned the corner into her street. It was prowling slowly like a black panther on the hunt, its halogen headlights beaming like searching eyes. It was too dark inside the car to see the driver in any detail, but she immediately sensed it was a man and that it was her he was looking for. A telltale shiver passed over her like the hand of a ghost as the driver expertly guided the showroom-perfect Mercedes into the only available car space outside her flat.
Her breath stalled in her throat as a tall, dark-haired, well dressed figure got out from behind the wheel. Her heart jolted against her ribcage and her pulse quickened. Seeing Leo Valente face to face for the first time in four years created a shockwave through her body that left her feeling disoriented and dizzy. Even her legs felt shaky as if the ground beneath her had suddenly turned to jelly.
Why was he here? What did he want? How had he found her?
She strove for a steady composure as he came to stand in front of her on the pavement, but inside her stomach was fluttering like a moth trapped in a jam jar. 'Leo,' she said, surprised her voice came out at all with her throat so tightly constricted with emotion.
He inclined his darkly handsome head in a formal greeting. 'Eliza.'
She quickly disguised a swallow. His voice, with its sexy Italian accent, had always made her go weak at the knees. His looks were just as lethally attractivetall and lean and arrestingly handsome, with eyes so dark a brown they looked almost black. The landscape of his face hinted at a man who was used to getting his own way. It was there in the chiselled line of his jaw and the uncompromising set to his mouth. He looked a little older than when she had last seen him. His jet-black hair had a trace of silver at the temples, and there were fine lines grooved either side of his mouth and around his eyes, which somehow she didn't think smiling or laughter had caused.
'Hi ' she said and then wished she had gone for something a little more formal. It wasn't as if they had parted as friendsfar from it.
'I would like to speak to you in private.' He nodded towards her ground-floor flat, the look in his eyes determined, intractable and diamond-hard. 'Shall we go inside?'
She took an uneven breath that rattled against her throat. 'Um I'm kind of busy right now '
His eyes hardened even further as if he knew it for the lie it was. 'I won't take any more than five or ten minutes of your time.'
Eliza endured the silent tug-of-war between his gaze and hers for as long as she could, but in the end she was the first to look away. 'All right.' She blew out a little gust of a breath. 'Five minutes.'
She was aware of him walking behind her up the cracked and uneven pathway to her front door. She tried not to fumble with her keys but the way they rattled and jingled in her fingers betrayed her nervousness lamentably. Finally she got the door open and stepped through, inwardly cringing when she thought of how humble her little flat was compared to his villa in Positano. She could only imagine what he was thinking: How could she have settled for this instead of what I offered her?
Eliza turned to face him as he came in. He had to stoop to enter, his broad shoulders almost spanning the narrow hallway. He glanced around with a critical eye. Was he wondering if the ceiling was going to come tumbling down on him? She watched as his top lip developed a slight curl as he turned back to face her. 'How long have you lived here?'
Pride brought her chin up half an inch. 'Four years.'
Eliza silently ground her teeth. Was he doing it deliberately? Reminding her of all she had thrown away by rejecting his proposal of marriage? He must know she could never afford to buy in this part of London. She couldn't afford to buy in any part of London. And now with her job hanging in the balance she might not even be able to afford to pay her rent. 'I'm saving up for a place of my own,' she said as she placed her bag on the little hall table.
'I might be able to help you with that.'
She searched his expression but it was hard to know what was going on behind the dark screen of his eyes.
She quickly moistened her lips, trying to act nonchalant in spite of that little butterfly in her stomach, which had suddenly developed razor blades for wings. 'I'm not sure what you're suggesting,' she said. 'But just for the recordthanks but no thanks.'
His eyes tussled with hers again. 'Is there somewhere we can talk other than out here in the hall?'
Eliza hesitated as she did a quick mental survey of her tiny sitting room. She had been sorting through a stack of magazines one of the local newsagents had given her for craftwork with her primary school class yesterday. Had she closed that gossip magazine she had been reading? Leo had been photographed at some charity function in Rome. The magazine was a couple of weeks old but it was the only time she had seen anything of him in the press. He had always fiercely guarded his private life. Seeing his photo so soon after the staff meeting had unsettled her deeply. She had stared and stared at his image, wondering if it was just a coincidence that he had appeared like that, seemingly from out of nowhere. 'Um sure,' she said. 'Come this way.'
If Leo had made the hallway seem small, he made the sitting room look like something out of a Lilliputian house. She grimaced as his head bumped the cheap lantern light fitting. 'You'd better sit down,' she said, surreptitiously closing the magazine and putting it beneath the others in the stack. 'You have the sofa.'
'Where are you going to sit?' he asked with a crook of one dark brow.
'Um I'll get a chair from the kitchen '
'I'll get it,' he said. 'You take the sofa.'
Eliza would have argued over it except for the fact that her legs weren't feeling too stable right at that moment. She sat on the sofa and placed her hands flat on her thighs to stop them from trembling. He placed the chair in what little space was left in front of the sofa and sat down in a classically dominant pose with his hands resting casually on his widely set apart strongly muscled thighs.
She waited for him to speak. The silence seemed endless as he sat there quietly surveying her with that dark inscrutable gaze.
'You're not wearing a wedding ring,' he said.
'No ' She clasped her hands together in her lap, her cheeks feeling as if she had been sitting too close to a fire.
'But you're still engaged.'
Eliza sought the awkward bump of the solitaire diamond with her fingers. 'Yes yes, I am '
His eyes burned as they held hers, with resentment, with hatred. 'Rather a long betrothal, is it not?' he said. 'I'm surprised your fiance is so patient.'
She thought of poor broken Ewan, strapped in that chair with his vacant stare, day after day, year after year, dependent on others for everything. Yes, patient was exactly what Ewan was now. 'He seems content with the arrangement as it stands,' she said.
A tiny muscle flickered beneath his skin in the lower quadrant of his jaw. 'And what about you?' he asked with a pointed look that seemed to burn right through to her backbone. 'Are you content?'
Eliza forced herself to hold his penetrating gaze. Would he be able to see how lonely and miserable she was? How trapped she was? 'I'm perfectly happy,' she said, keeping her expression under rigidly tight control.
'Does he live here with you?'
'No, he has his own place.'
'Then why don't you share it with him?'
Eliza shifted her gaze to look down at her clasped hands. She noticed she had blue poster paint under one of her fingernails and a smear of yellow on the back of one knuckle. She absently rubbed at the smear with the pad of her thumb. 'It's a bit far for me to travel each day to school,' she said. 'We spend the weekends together whenever we can.'
The silence was long and broodingangry.
She looked up when she heard the rustle of his clothes as he got to his feet. He prowled about the room like a tiger shark in a goldfish bowl. His hands were tightly clenched, but every now and again he would open them and loosen his fingers before fisting them again.
He suddenly stopped pacing and nailed her with his hard, embittered gaze. 'Why?'
Eliza affected a coolly composed stance. 'Why what?'
His eyes blazed with hatred. 'Why did you choose him over me?'
'I met him first and he loves me.' She had often wondered how different her life would have been if she hadn't met Ewan. Would it have been better or worse? It was hard to say. There had been so many good times before the accident.
His brows slammed together. 'You think I didn't?'
Eliza let out a little breath of scorn. 'You didn't love me, Leo. You were in love with the idea of settling down because you'd just lost your father. I was the first one who came along who fitted your checklistyoung, biddable and beddable.'
'I could've given you anything money can buy,' he said through tight lips. 'And yet you choose to live like a pauper while tied to a man who doesn't even have the desire to live with you full-time. How do you know he's not cheating on you while you're here?'
'I can assure you he's not cheating on me,' Eliza said with sad irony. She knew exactly where Ewan was and who he was with twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
'Do you cheat on him?' he asked with a cynical look.
She pressed her lips together without answering.
His expression was dark with anger. 'Why didn't you tell me right from the start? You should have told me you were engaged the first time we met. Why wait until I proposed to you to tell me you were promised to another man?'