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"I JUST can't believe you had that gorgeous man eating out of your hand and then you send him packing. If there was any justice in this world he'd at least have come to me for a shoulder to cry on, poor lamb."
"Can we have a reality check here?" Liberty Fox surveyed her mother through half-closed eyes, her voice mocking as she lounged back against the cream leather sofa in the ultra-modern room. She knew the tone and lack of heated response would annoy the older woman, which was exactly why she was curbing her inner resentment. "Gerard Bousquet is no poor lamb, Mother. I caught him cheating on me and I finished our relationship. End of story."
"But you said he arrived on your doorstep with flowers and chocolate, suitably penitent and promising he'd never stray again. You might at least have given him one more chance. He was so handsome."
Liberty kept the nonchalant pose a moment longer before she straightened, reaching for the cup of coffee in front of her as she said coolly, "Handsome is as handsome does."
"There you see; that's exactly what I mean about you." Miranda Walker wriggled delicate shoulders gracefully. "I've never understood what you say any more than I understand you. Handsome is as handsome does! What does that mean, for goodness' sake?"
"It means that Gerard is history," Liberty said dryly, taking a sip of coffee before she added, "fidelity is an absolute with me, Mother. Not an option."
The shoulders moved again. "You're so pedantic, Liberty. Just like your father."
Don't bite; that's what she wants you to do, Liberty warned herself, taking another sip of the excellent coffee—her mother only had the best—to quell the hot words hovering on her tongue. If all else failed, her mother knew she could catch her on the raw when she talked about her first husband—Liberty's father—in that scathing tone. She breathed deeply before she said, keeping her voice even, "Being compared to Dad is all right with me, Mother."
"I don't doubt it." There was more than a touch of petulance in Miranda's voice when she said, "It would be a different story if it was me, of course."
She really didn't want to do this today, not with her feelings still so raw after Gerard's betrayal. It was one thing to present the situation to her mother in a slightly offhand, almost amused manner—quite another to face the fact that Gerard had been seeing someone else whilst declaring undying love to her. Liberty uncrossed and crossed her legs, finishing her coffee and unwrapping the slender foil-covered chocolate cream in the saucer. If ever she needed the comfort of chocolate it was now. The diet could wait.
She relished the luxurious silky feel of the confectionery on her tongue before she said, "We're not alike, Mother. We never have been."
There was a charged silence before Liberty raised her eyes and took in the ethereal, amazingly youthful-looking figure staring at her with unconcealed annoyance. Miranda didn't look a day over thirty—in spite of approaching her half-century milestone in a few months. Cosmetic surgery and a positively paranoid desire to be a female Peter Pan had ensured her mother had the face and figure many an ageing film star would have killed for. Three hours at the gym every day, no red meat, no puddings, no alcohol—Liberty had grown up with her mother's bible on life, and there was no doubt the small blonde woman looking at her now with open hostility could turn any man's head.
Finely boned, with porcelain skin, natural blonde hair and deep blue eyes set in a face which was truly heart-shaped—Miranda had it all. She had also had five husbands to date and was in the middle of a particularly acrimonious divorce from the last one, who objected to his wife's demand for half his fortune. Liberty found it surprising that he hadn't expected something like this, considering her mother had got richer and richer with each succeeding marriage. She had left her first husband—Liberty's father—for a wealthy financier and hadn't looked back since.
"I have to be going." Liberty rose to her feet, her shoes sinking in the ankle-deep carpet which always made her feel as though she was wading through mud. Her mother had been thrilled with the fabulously expensive chrome and glass apartment overlooking the Thames when she had married her fifth husband six years before, but Liberty felt it resembled a goldfish bowl. A lavish, extravagant and inordinately high-priced goldfish bowl admittedly, but a goldfish bowl nevertheless. "I have an appointment at two o'clock."
Miranda wrinkled her small nose. "One of your awful cases, I suppose?"
"It's business, yes." Her mother had never understood why she had determined to be a solicitor rather than catching herself a wealthy husband and living a life of ease.
"And what shall I say to Gerard if I happen to run into him?" Miranda asked peevishly. "You do remember it was at one of my dinner parties you first met him?"
That should have told her something. It was the first time she had ever dated one of the people from her mother's circle, and it would certainly be the last. "Ask him how—" Liberty frowned as though she couldn't remember the name, the frown clearing as she said '—how Alexia Lemaire is. Okay? And if he has any difficulty remembering the name, remind him it's the female who was in bed with him when I called round his apartment unexpectedly."
Miranda sniffed eloquently. "These things happen with hot-blooded men like Gerard; they don't mean anything."
Not to her mother maybe, but then Miranda had been the 'other woman' so often that unfaithfulness was a word which just didn't register in her vocabulary. "Goodbye, Mother." Liberty walked to the door after bending forward and touching each scented cheek with her lips, the only embrace her mother allowed. "I'll talk to you soon."
Once out in the crisp October afternoon Liberty paused for a moment, taking great deep breaths of the city-laden air. It carried myriad traffic fumes in its depths but it was still preferable to her mother's overheated, scented surroundings.
She felt better once she was seated in her little Ford Ka, but only slightly. A visit to her mother's always resulted in a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach and a host of emotions and memories tumbling about her head. She sat for a moment with her hands resting on the leather-clad steering wheel, willing herself to calm down. Even this car—a thirtieth birthday present to herself six months before—had caused an argument with her mother. Miranda hadn't been able to understand why she hadn't gone for a sporty little number or a racy coupé, and Liberty's explanation that she wanted a sweet-driving small car which looked good and was talented enough to take her anywhere had been lost on her mother.
Liberty patted the pale grey fascia. "I love you anyway," she said out loud, her thoughts still on the expensively dressed and coiffured woman in the fabulous apartment she had just left as she pulled out into the lunchtime traffic.
A squeal of brakes culminating in an impact which rattled her teeth informed her of her mistake even before her brain registered she hadn't checked her mirrors.
She sat quite still, shock causing her to freeze for long seconds before she forced her numb mind and body into action. As she opened her door she saw the driver of the other car—who had slewed across the road in an effort to avoid her—exiting his vehicle, a prestige, state-of-the-art Mercedes in gleaming slate-blue. He reached her just as she stood shakily to her feet.
"Are you all right?" he asked very evenly. A pair of granite-grey eyes held hers, and in the time it took for her to realise the man wasn't as old as she had thought at first, and that the streaks of grey in the jet-black hair had misled her, she felt her knees start to buckle.
She heard him swear softly as he grabbed her, holding her against him as he said, "Breathe deeply a few times," whilst he opened her car door again, positioning her sideways in the seat with her feet on the road. She felt her head being pushed down to her knees but couldn't resist, the all-consuming faintness rendering her helpless.
How long she remained like that she was never very sure, but it could only have been a matter of some sixty seconds or so before the dizzy weakness began to clear. "I'm sorry."
She was aware of him standing next to her and the sound of car horns in the background, but all he said was, "Take your time," as though they weren't blocking a major road at the height of the midday rush hour.
"I...I'll back in again, shall I?" As she recovered her voice along with her senses she tried to get a grasp on the situation. "Maybe you could park somewhere close and we'll exchange numbers and so on?" she suggested more briskly.
"Do you feel able to drive?" She raised her head and looked him fully in the face for the first time. He had a lovely voice, very deep and almost gravelly but with a dark smokiness which took away any roughness. The sort of voice which would have made him a wow on the silver screen. He was attractive, too, in a somewhat unorthodox kind of way, his face too strong and tough for straightforward handsomeness but carrying a quality which was more powerful than pretty-boy good looks. She pulled herself together fast as she realised he was waiting for an answer to his question. "Yes, yes of course," she said hastily. "I'm only going to back into the parking space I've just left."
He said nothing more, but the raising of black eyebrows a fraction and the expression on the hard-planed face made it very clear exactly what he thought of her driving prowess.
The colour was hot in her cheeks as she watched him walk over to his car, but then she shrugged mentally as she concentrated on backing into the neat little space she had vacated so arbitrarily just minutes before. She couldn't blame him if he was less than enamoured with her performance to date; the accident had been totally her fault. Why hadn't she checked her mirrors? She groaned inwardly. Basic procedure, something you did without thinking. Only she hadn't.
Once she had parked she nerved herself to get out of the car and inspect the damage. Although he had obviously swerved violently and avoided going headlong into the side of her, the glancing blow to the rear had all but taken off the bumper, smashed the back light and dented the side bodywork. It was a mess.
A horrifying urge to burst into tears brought Liberty's back straightening and her chin lifting. He already thought she was a menace to all road users; she wasn't about to compound the image by giving way to waterworks.
She reached for her handbag on the passenger seat and hunted through for her insurance details, only to give another inward groan as she realised they were in the bag she had used the day before. She always made sure she was fully coordinated down to the smallest detail when visiting her mother, and the black bag of the day before hadn't lent itself to the french-navy suit she was wearing today. Great. She swallowed hard. This was turning into one swell day.
She raised her head, glancing along the pavement as a tall commanding figure, who looked to be at least three or four inches taller than anyone else in the vicinity, caught her attention. It was him. Of course, it had to be—it went with the afternoon.
She watched him striding easily towards her with the sort of nonchalant arrogance which said his handle on life was very secure. He wasn't hurrying but his long legs seemed to cover the distance between them before she could blink. He had a fantastic body.
The thought, coming from nowhere as it did, shocked her into lowering her eyes, and she rummaged in her bag as he drew alongside, pretending to still look for her papers.
"Problem?" 'I'm afraid so." She was ready this time when she looked at him and didn't allow the flinty gaze to make an impact. "It seems I've left my insurance details in my other bag."
It wasn't a very nice nod, she thought irritably. It was a nod which said he might have expected something like this, or was she just being paranoid? "I can give you my name and address and registration number and so on," she said quickly, aware she was babbling but unable to help herself. "And I'm fully aware everything was my fault. Is...is your car badly damaged?"
"No." He didn't elaborate, looking down at her with a narrowed, assessing stare before he said, "Don't you know it's foolish to accept liability?"
She couldn't hide the annoyance now, her voice something of a snap when she said, "I don't play games, Mr—?"
"Blake. Carter Blake." 'I don't play games, Mr Blake. The accident was my fault and I'm just glad no one was injured. I'm fully prepared to take responsibility for my mistake."
A brief smile touched his lips and then disappeared. "Unusual attribute in this day and age," he drawled smoothly, quite unmoved by her antagonism.