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'This year has seen record sales of Valentine's Day cards, while florists report that red roses are still the most popular choice for'
Mallory reached quickly for the remote control and pointed it at the television to switch off the tail-end of the news. She didn't want to be reminded about Valentine's Day. This time last year Steve had surprised her with a trip to Paris. He had given her a diamond pendant and talked about when they would be married. It had been the happiest day of her life.
Instinctively, she lifted a hand to finger the tiny diamond that nestled at the base of her throat. She wore it still, in spite of everything.
At her feet, Charlie lifted his head from his paws, suddenly alert, and the next moment she heard the sound of a key in the front door.
Her husband was home.
Mallory dropped her hand abruptly.
Charlie was already on his feet, tail wagging.
He trotted over to the door of the sitting room, whining and sniffing with anticipation, and would have started scratching at it if Mallory hadn't gone to open it for him. She knew he wouldn't settle until he had welcomed Torr home. He was a dog with a mind of his own.
Mallory had to acknowledge that Charlie wasn't the most beautiful dog in the worldhe had a Labrador's soft ears, a collie's intelligent eyes and the bristly coat of a lurcher, but was otherwise a standard, scruffy mongrelbut from the moment she had taken him home from the animal rescue shelter, seven years ago, he had followed her with a slavish adoration.
Perhaps it wasn't surprising that Charlie had been jealous of Steve. He'd been used to being the centre of Mallory's life before Steve came along, andthe surly relationship between man and dog had been the only tiny cloud on her horizon in that otherwise golden time.
It was harder to understand the instant attachment he had formed for Torridon McIver, who spent little time with him or his mistress. Charlie was always delighted to see him, though, and didn't seem to mind that he rarely got more than a brusque acknowledgement of his presence in return.
When Mallory opened the door, Torr was standing in the hall, looking through the post she had left on the table for him. He was a tall, forbidding-looking man, with dark hair, stern features and an expression that rarely gave anything away. Raindrops spangled his hair and the shoulders of his overcoat, winking in the overhead light.
When not building a reputation as one of the sharpest and most successful businessmen in the city, Torr went climbing, and it always seemed to Mallory that he carried something of the mountains with him. There was a force about him, something hard and unyielding, that put her in mind of bracing air and desolate peaks. It sat oddly with the expensive suits he wore to the office and with this immaculate Georgian townhouse that he had bought as a sign of his success. They didn't go with the kind of man she sensed him to be.
Any more than she did.
'Down!' Torr ordered Charlie, and when the dog dropped obediently to his belly, tail still wagging ingratiatingly, he bent and gave his head a cursory stroke.
Satisfied, Charlie bounded back to Mallory, and Torr noticed her for the first time as he turned. She was standing in the doorway, and her dark, silky hair fell forward to hide her face as she bent to pat her dog, who pressed his head against her leg, panting gently with excitement. They made an unlikely pair, the dog all bright eyes, scruff and gangly legs, the woman dark and elegantly groomed. In loose silk trousers and a fine-knit top in mushroom colour, she looked stylish and slender to the point of thinness.
'Good dog,' she said affectionately, but when she straightened and her eyes met Torr's, the warmth faded from her face.
'Hello,' she said.
They faced each other as the familiar constraint crept into the atmosphere. No one looking at them would ever guess that they had been married for five months and that this was Valentine's Day. Torr was hiding no roses behind his back; there was nojewellery secreted in his jacket pocket. He wasn't sweeping her into his arms or telling her he loved her. He wasn't even smiling.
Mallory hugged her arms together and forced her mind away from last year, from Steve, laughing, enveloping her in his golden charm.
'I was just watching the news,' she said after a moment.
Torr shrugged off his overcoat, shaking raindrops on the tiled floor, and hung it up. 'Have you got a minute?'
'Of course,' said Mallory, echoing his stiff, formal tone. They didn't talk very often, but when they did they were always polite.
Charlie bustled into the sitting room behind Torr and flopped down on the rug in front of the fire, satisfied that his two favourite people were where he could keep an eye on them. There was something almost embarrassing in his evident pleasure at getting the two of them together.
It happened rarely enough. By unspoken agreement they had divided up the house into their private domains. This was Mallory's room, in so much as any room felt like hers. The sitting room was beautifully decorated in soft, buttery yellows, the curtains at the large Georgian windows were spectacularly swagged and draped, and the furniture was covered in wonderful fabrics that she had chosen with an unerring eye for patterns that would complement each other without looking as if they had been carefully co-ordinated.
It was a lovely room, and she had been pleased with it when it was done, but it didn't feel like home. Torr had just been a client when she had designed the scheme. Mallory had never dreamt at the time that she would end up living there herself, and in lots of ways she was as much an intruder here as in Torr's large, comfortable study.
Since their disastrous wedding night they had had separate bedrooms, too. Mallory didn't lock her door, but Torr had never set foot inside it. She wondered what he got out of their marriage. She had somewhere to live, and her debts paid in full, but Torr had just ended up sharing his home with a woman he didn't even seem to like very much.
'Sit down,' she suggested, just as she would to a stranger, but Torr stayed looming by the fireplace.
With a mental shrug, Mallory chose an armchair and sat down herself, and then wished that she hadn't. Torr seemed to tower over her, filling the room with his dark, austere presence. His eyes were the colour of a summer night, a deep, dark blue that should have seemed warm, but they were cool and watchful as they rested on Mallory, and without thinking, she felt for the little diamond at her throat once more. It was impossible to know what he was thinking behind that impenetrable mask.
Not that she was one to talk about masks. What did Torr see when he looked at her? Mallory wondered. He would see the dark, stark eyes, the wide mouth and the fine cheekbones, no doubt, but did he see beyond the mask she wore, to the emptiness behind the careful grooming and the careful manners, to the icy numbness that had gripped her ever since Steve had left, to the chill that she couldn't seem to shake, no matter how hard she tried to warm herself?
Torr was blocking most of the heat from the fire, and in spite of the central heating she hugged herself, rubbing her upper arms as the silence stretched uncomfortably.
'How was your day?' she asked at last.
'Successful,' said Torr.
Of course. Torr was always successful. He had built up a multi-million pound construction firm from scratch, acquiring a reputation for tough-nesssome would say ruthlessnesson the way. As his company expanded, so did Torr's interests. He had a flair for picking up failing companies and turning them into flourishing concerns. There were a lot of people in Ellsborough who owed their jobs to him, even if they had never met him in person. In the city, Torridon McIver was a byword for success.
'How about you?' he asked. 'What have you done today?'
'I've been redoing my CV,' she told him. 'I'm thinking about applying for a job. I was hoping I could find something to do with interior design again.'
It would mean swallowing her pride and going to some of the consultancies who would once have lobbied to work with her, but Mallory was prepared to do that. She wouldn't let herself think about her own business, destroyed in the fall-out from Steve's scam. She wouldn't remember the reputation she had had, the small but talented team she had built up, how much she had loved her work. When the famous Torr McIver had given her carte blanche to design the interior of his new house in the best part of Ellsborough, Mallory Hunter had arrived. Steve had bought a bottle of champagne to celebrate.
No, she didn't want to remember that either. One day she had had everything she'd wished for, the next it had gone. Charlie was all she had left.
Betrayed, bankrupt, Mallory had retreated into a state where Torr's brusque and businesslike approach had been easier to bear than the kindness of friends. He had offered marriage in exchange for the settlement of the crushing debts Steve had left her with, and by then Mallory hadn't cared enough about anything to even hesitate. She had said yes straight away, ignoring the horrified protests of her closest friends.
They had made a deal, and she couldn't go back on it now.
But now, very gradually, Mallory was taking her life back. After months of hiding away, she was starting to see friends again. The effort of talking and laughing and pretending that she was OK sometimes felt like trudging waist-deep through mud, but at least she was trying.
The next step, Mallory had decided, was a job.
Torr was unimpressed. 'You don't need a job,' he said, frowning. 'You're my wife.'
She wasn't much of one. They both knew that. Sticking to their agreement, Mallory turned up to corporate events and was charming to his business associates. She was a perfect hostess when Torr wanted to entertain. She kept the kitchen stocked and the house cleaned. But that was all she did for him.
'I can't sit around all day,' she said. 'I need to do something.'
'There'll be plenty for you to do where we're going,' said Torr, and she looked at him blankly.
'Going? Where are we going?'
'What?' said Mallory, taken aback.
'The Highlands,' Torr amended helpfully. 'The west coast, to be exact. It's a beautiful area. You'll like it.'
Mallory doubted it very much. She was a city girl through and through. She liked colour and texture, shops and restaurants, art galleries and cinemas. The pictures she had seen of the Highlands showed a wild, inhospitable place that held absolutely no appeal for her.
She was fairly sure Torr knew that too, and when she looked into the navy blue eyes they held a derisive expression that made her certain that he was amusing himself at her expense.
She forced a smile. 'I hadn't realised you were planning a holiday,' she said.
'Oh, this isn't a holiday,' said Torr. 'We're moving. That's what I came in to tell you.'
The polite smile froze on Mallory's lips, and she regarded him uncertainly. 'Moving?'
'I've inherited a property in the Highlands,' he told her, pulling a photograph out of the inside pocket of his jacket and tossing it down onto the glass-topped table next to Mallory. 'That's Kincaillie.'
She picked it up almost gingerly. It showed a crumbling castle squatting on a promontory, almost surrounded by grey, uninviting sea, while in the background a mountain scarred by scree and corries loomed intimidatingly.
Mallory raised her eyes to Torr's. 'Is this a joke?'
'Do I look like I'm joking?'
No, Mallory couldn't say that he did. There was not so much as a suspicion of a smile in his eyes.
Now she came to think of it, she couldn't remember ever seeing Torr smile. He must have smiled sometimes, when he had commissioned her to design this house, or when they had met socially, but if he had she couldn't remember it. Surely he had smiled at their wedding?
But that day was a blank. Only five months ago, but all she remembered about it was the terrible scene on their wedding night.
She looked back at photograph. 'But this looks like a castle,' she said, still puzzled.