Read an Excerpt
Maisie sat staring at the navel ring of the spiky-haired girl sitting opposite her on the tube train. It was a very nice piece of jewellery but definitely flamboyant, encrusted as it was with tiny, different coloured stones. Then again its owner was flamboyant; the purple and red striped hair below which sparkled a pair of blue eyes surrounded by panda make-up was meant to catch the attention. This is me, take it or leave it. No compromise.
Maisie shifted in her seat, her eyes still locked on the little ring and the tanned flat stomach surrounding it. The girl certainly hadn't pigged out on pizza and toffee doughnuts the night before; in fact Maisie doubted if she had ever pigged out in the whole of her life. The ultra-long legs encased in strategically torn jeans were as thin as any model's, and the cropped vest top showed slim arms heavily weighed down with bangles and beaded bracelets. She looked gorgeously slender and brimming with the joy of life. Technically the girl was very different from the tall willowy blonde whom Jeff had just waltzed off with, but the pair were definitely sisters under the skin.
The thought of Jeff and Camelliaapparently the name meant perfection, one of Maisie's not-so-good friends had taken covert pleasure in informing herbrought tears stinging at the backs of her eyes, and Maisie fumbled for a tissue. She couldn't cry here, not on the tube in the middle of a Saturday morning, she told herself fiercely, turning her head and staring at her reflection in the tube window. This wasn't a good idea. It reminded her that her wavy brown hair and brown eyes were fairly nondescript and that her face was definitely of the round variety.
Possibly because she was concentrating extremely hard on not glancing at the girl across the way again, Maisie realised in the next moment or two that she had missed her stop. Great. Now, on top of acknowledging that everyone probably thought they were sharing the carriage with a fat little munchkin, she was going to be late for her weekly coffee date with Sue and Jackie. And they would be bound to assume it was because she'd been howling over Jeff.
Poor Maisie. They might not say it out loud but that was what they would be thinking. She could read it in everyone's eyes. Well, it was up to her to show them that she wasn't poor Maisie, wasn't it? That she didn't give a damn, in fact? She bet the ringed beauty across the way wouldn't. Not that a girl like her would have her fiancé walk out on her a few weeks before the wedding in the first place.
Determinedly keeping her eyes from straying but employing her brain into the bargain, Maisie alighted at the next stop, eventually emerging into the bright sunlight of a busy Oxford Street. The June sun was hotter than she had expected it to be, and she found herself wishing she had worn something other than her calf-length denim skirt and long-sleeved top as she battled her way through Saturday shoppers.
Why was she breaking her neck to get to a meeting she had no wish to be at?
As the thought struck, Maisie's frantic pace slowed. She was going to arrive at the coffee bar looking like something the cat wouldn't deign to drag in at this rate, and ten to one Sue and Jackie would be sitting there all cool and relaxed, sipping iced water or something non-calorific.
Not that the pair of them weren't dear friends, Maisie assured herself as she continued at a more measured pace past John Lewis. They had all been inseparable from primary school, but Sue was a successful fashion buyer and Jackie a beautician with her own business, which had come on in leaps and bounds since she'd started it three years ago.
She, on the other hand, had followed her heart and not her heador, more to the point, her prospective bank balancein her choice of career. On leaving sixth-form at eighteen with three quite presentable A-levels in chemistry, maths and biology, she'd had to accept that the grades were not the straight As needed for the veterinary degree course she had aspired to. With only six universities in the UK having veterinary schools, and five applicants for every one of the three hundred or so places, she had been presented with the unpleasant truth that she could try for ever and not obtain the necessary qualifications.
Maisie was nearing the coffee bar now and guilt at being late speeded up her feet even as her mind meandered on.
And so, in spite of encouragement from her teachers and even stronger encouragement from her mother to apply for a degree course in biochemistry or animal physiology or even agriculture, she had opted for veterinary nursing. The money was poor, the hours long and, since there was no equivalent to the nursing service within human hospitals, there was no formal career structure and promotion prospects were limited.And she loved every minute. Or she had done until two weeks ago.
'Whew.' She breathed out a sigh as she dived off Oxford Street into the side street in which the coffee bar was situated, standing by some iron railings as she smoothed her hair back from her hot face, pulled down her top and wished she didn't feel so sticky. After energetically fanning herself with a leaflet for vitamin pills she'd found in her handbag, she conceded it just made her more over-heated. She glanced at her watch. It wasn't the expensive little silver beauty Jeff had given her for Christmas, because that was now the pride and joy of her local charity shop, along with every other gift which had come from him in the two years since she had known him; the ring she had flung back in his lying, cheating face. No, this watch was a sturdy plastic thing from a market stall. Which summed up her entire life at present really.
The rich smell of coffee was overpowering as she stepped through the open doors of the coffee bar, her glance moving swiftly over the assembled clientele. She saw Sue and Jackie in the same moment that both women raised their hands to her, but what made her pause for a second was the fact that they were not alone. A man was sitting lazily beside Jackie, one knee crossed over the other and with both arms stretched out along the back of the booth in which the three were situated. And what a man. Raven-black hair, tanned skin, chiselled featureseven from six or seven metres away he was drop dead gorgeous. Not that she was really noticing such things at the present time, of course, not with her life in tatters, she assured herself as she made her way over to them.
'You're twenty minutes late.'
This was from Sue, who was such a stickler for punctuality she had made sure none of them ever got a detention for being late at school.
'Sorry.' Maisie smiled brightly. 'Missed my tube stop.'
'That's fine, no problem.'
As Jackie spoke Maisie saw her flash Sue a glance which said all too clearly, Don't have a go at her; remember what's happened. Poor Maisie.
Maisie kept the smile in place with gritted teeth. 'I'll just go and grab a coffee, won't be a tick.'
'Please, let me. What will you have?'
Drop dead gorgeous had risen to his feet at her approach, and now Jackie said, 'Oh, I'm sorry. I should have introduced you. Maisie, this is my uncle, Blaine Morosini. Blaine, my other best friend, Maisie.'
Uncle? But he was nowhere near old enough to be Jackie's uncle, was he? And then, as Maisie stared into a pair of greeny-blue eyes heavily fringed by black lashes, she found her thoughts moving in a different direction. She didn't consider herself particularly small at five-foot-six, but she was having to look up a considerable way. Blaine Morosini must be at least six-foot-three or -four, and big with it. Well, not big exactly, she amended, answering his formal, 'How do you do?'with a smile and a nod. There didn't seem to be the tiniest bit of fat on the lean broad frame from what she could see. But certainly he was more muscled and honed than most men. Or perhaps it was just that he gave an overall impression which was a bit overwhelming.
She blinked, finding it surprisingly hard to break the hold the beautiful eyes had on her.
'I know what you're thinking, Maisie.'
Jackie was smiling as Maisie's gaze swung to her friend's face. Maisie almost blurted out, If you do, don't say it out loud, before she stopped herself.
'You're thinking, how can Blaine possibly be my uncle when he's only a couple of years older than us, aren't you?'
Maisie breathed a silent sigh of relief. 'Something like that.'
'I'm Jackie's half-uncle, to be strictly accurate.'
Again she was forced to look at him and now the overall width of strong male shoulders registered deep in her body with a definite jolt. That and the smoky rich voice with its curl of an Italian accent.
'And the relationship is quite simple. My brother, Jackie's father, was conceived by our father's first marriage. My father married again many years later and I am the result of this union.'
'I see.' She nodded in what she hoped was a brisk, it's-none-of-my-business fashion. She knew Jackie's father had come over from Italy as a young man because he had quarrelled bitterly with his father. Jackie and her siblings had never met the Italian side of their family; in fact her friend had told her their mother had warned them never to ask questions or speak of their father's homeland. Obviously something had happened recently to change this.
Jackie probably guessed what she was thinking again because now she said quietly, 'My grandfather is very ill but I'll explain later. Come and sit down while Blaine gets you a coffee. What would you like? Your usual?'
Her usual was a large latte, often accompanied by the outof-this-world coffee cheesecake the coffee bar was famous for. Maisie swallowed. After the pizza and toffee doughnuts she had lain in bed feeling like a beached whale, and had gone to sleep promising herself tomorrow would be the start of a stringent diet. No more comforting herself with the fact she had always been rounded and that some men preferred curvy women; that was what Jeff had said and he had disappeared into the blue with a beanpole. 'A black coffee, please.'
'A black coffee?' Sue, never the most tactful of creatures, fairly screeched in amazement. 'You hate black coffee.'
'I've developed a taste for it recently.'A few hours ago, as it happened. And then, before Sue could say anything else, Maisie added firmly, 'And nothing to eat, thank you. I've just had breakfast. I got up late.'
'Black coffee it is then.'
Blaine's voice was matter-of-fact, but Maisie had the nasty notion that he knew her mouth was watering for the cheese-cake. And that told her Jackie had informed him of her recent broken engagement and he had put two and two together and made four. But of course she could be being paranoid here. It was something which was happening fairly frequently recently.
She sat down as Blaine walked away and immediately Sue whispered, 'What do you think of Jackie's uncle, then? A real Italian dreamboat, or what?'
Maisie smiled. She hadn't been looking forward to seeing Sue and Jackie; she hadn't been looking forward to anything, and it felt like she never would again, but now she was glad she had made the effort to come. Sitting here like this, she almost felt normal again instead of the fattest, ugliest, most unfanciable female in the whole of London. 'He's very good-looking,' she agreed quietly.
'Very good-looking? That's like saying the Taj Mahal is a little bit famous. If anyone's got the X-factor, he has. I couldn't believe it when I walked in here and saw him sitting with Jackie. For a minute I thought it was a new boyfriend and I was going to scratch her eyes out. Why you didn't tell me he was coming so I could have made more of an effort, I don't know,' she added in an aside to Jackie. 'I'd have worn something new.'
'Sue, you always look immaculate, besides which this isn't about you,' Jackie said shortly. 'You know the history and all the trouble in the family and the whole thing's very awkward. Blaine arrived from Italy yesterday and, although he's staying with us and Dad's flying out with him tomorrow to see my grandad, they're not getting on that well. I've got the impression Blaine blames my dad for everything that happened although he hasn't said so, not in so many words. Anyway, I persuaded him to come with me today to give Dad breathing space at home, that's all.'
'Blaine isn't Italian, is it?' Maisie asked hastily into the very tense pause which followed. Sue didn't appreciate criticism. 'The name, I mean.'
'His mother's American.'Jackie's dark eyes went to the tall figure now paying for the coffee. 'Which is pretty ironic because, from what I can make out from Mum on the quiet, the main cause of the quarrel between my dad and my grandfather was her. Dad met her when she was on holiday in Italy and they started writing to each other, and then he came to England to see her a couple of times. When my grandfather realised things were serious he hit the roof apparently. Said my dad had to marry a nice Italian girl or he would be disowned, something like that. My dad said fine, disown me, and came over here and married my mum. And that was that.'
Three pairs of eyes watched the pretty redhead at the till, who was fluttering her mascaraed eyelashes at Blaine. As she dimpled up at him he bent closer to hear what she was saying. Maisie's lips curled. Typical man. He was soaking up the attention; they all did. Jeff had. Although, with him, she had been foolish enough to think he was different. Big mistake, but she wouldn't be making it again.
When Blaine turned and glanced their way in the next moment Maisie didn't have time to straighten her face. She saw his eyes narrow as they took in her expression and for an instant she froze, then she turned her head and asked Sue how things were going at work. It was a fail-safe ploy because if there was one thing that Sue loved besides men and chocolate it was her job. She made sure the two of them were deep in conversation when Blaine reached the table, accepting the coffee with a smile and a 'Thank you', before pretending an interest in the latest in-colour and current top designers.
'You are welcome.' It was cool and faintly derisive.
Maisie's stomach did a fairly good imitation of a pancake on Shrove Tuesday and flipped right over. He had seen. But of course he'd seen; she knew that, didn't she? But somehow she had expected him to at least pretend he hadn't noticed she had been looking at him as though he was something just emerging from the slime.
Sue seemed to have lost interest in ribbon belts and bow bags and other accessories one just had to have for that perfect outfit this season now Blaine was back. Maisie watched as her friend went into femme fatale mode. The last time she had seen this was two years ago at a summer barbecue just after she and Jeff had started dating, and the man Sue had been after then had succumbed even before the kebabs had cooked. Not so with Blaine Morosini. He remained charming and lazily amused but infinitely cool as Sue put the girl at the till to shame in the seduction stakes.
Eventually it seemed Jackie couldn't stand it any more. 'We'd better be going; Mum's expecting us back for lunch,' she said, standing up so abruptly that everyone stared at her for a second.
'OK.' Maisie stood up too, followed by Blaine and thengrudginglySue.
'Heavens, is that the time?' Sue suddenly reverted from Mata Hari mode to career woman. 'I was supposed to be on the other side of Regent's Park by now. We think we've found a wonderful new designer, but if he's as good as one of my staff thinks he is, the other houses will be after him when word gets out. I've managed to persuade him we're doing him a favour by my going along to see his work today. Must fly. Blaine' she smiled sweetly 'it was such a pleasure to meet you. Bye everyone.'
The next moment she was gone in a whirl of flirty chiffon skirt, spaghetti-strap top and expensive perfume.
Blaine spoke into the brief pause. 'And you?'he said softly to Maisie. 'Have you got to rush off to some business appointment or other?'
Perhaps Jackie hadn't told him about her situation then, or not the full story at least. She didn't think he was being nasty and that was what it would have been to point out that she didn't have a job as from last night. Jeff hadn't just been her fiancé; he'd been her boss as well and owner of the veterinary practice she had worked at for the last three years. On the same evening she had flung his ring at him and he had told her he was taking a couple of weeks off to 'let everything cool down', she had written her resignation letter and had given it to his secretary the next morning. It had been added confirmation that she had done the right thing when word had filtered through that the two weeks cooling off period for him had involved a holiday somewhere hot with the beanpole.
She had worked her two weeks' notice with an aching heart and a doggedly cheery mannerat work at leastand had left the practice last night without looking back.