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Nicolas moved with uncharacteristic slowness as he alighted the cab outside his apartment building. He felt dog-tired and strangely lacking in the buzz that finding and promoting an exciting new talent usually brought him.
Admittedly, standing in the wings of a stage and watching someone else perform had never given him the same adrenalin rush as being out there himself. But being the man behind a successful star or show had come a close second this past decade.
Tonight, however, his pulse rate hadn't risen when his latest musical protégée had brought the highly discerning New York audience to its feet more than once. He was happy for her. Of course he was. She was a nice girl and a brilliant violinist. But he just hadn't felt anything like what he normally did. In truth, he hadn't given a damn.
Maybe he was entering a midlife crisis: next year he'd turn forty. Or perhaps he was reaching burnout. Showbiz was a wearing career, both on the performers and the promoters. Lots of highs and lows. And lots of travelling.
Nicolas had grown to hate hotel rooms very quickly. That was why he'd eventually bought apartments in New York and London. His friends called him extravagant. But Nicolas knew he'd chosen well and would never lose money on his purchases. His New York apartment had already tripled in value in the six years he'd owned it. His London town house wasn't quite as spectacular an investment, but he certainly hadn't lost money.
'Everything go well tonight, Mr Dupre?' the night doorman asked as he opened the door for Nicolas. There was a note of concern in his voice. Obviously he'd seen the weariness in Nicolas's body language.
Nicolas flashed the doorman a warm smile. 'Very well, Mike. Thank you.'
The doorman nodded. 'That's good.'
Nicolas might have given him a tip if Mike would have accepted it. But Mike refused to take money from the residents, only guests and visitors. Nicolas always slipped him a card and a nice fat cheque at Christmas, claiming he would be offended if Mike refused to take his Christmas present. Nicolas suspected Mike probably gave most of the money away to someone he considered more needy than himself; he was that kind of man.
The young man on the front desk glanced up as Nicolas entered the foyer. Chad was a third-year law student who worked nights to pay his way through college. Nicolas admired anyone who worked hard and had given Chad more than a little something last Christmas as well.
'There's a letter here for you, sir,' Chad said.
Nicolas frowned as he walked up to the desk. He never received mail these days. All his bills and bank statements were redirected to his accountant. If anyone wanted to contact him personally they did so by phone, text message or email.
The young man smiled. 'The mailman brought it in this afternoon after you'd left for the theatre. Have to confess we had a bit of a chuckle over it. You'll know what I mean when you see the way it's addressed.' And he handed over a bright pink envelope. On it was written:
Mr Nicolas Dupre c/o Broadway New York America
'Good Lord,' Nicolas said with a wry smile.
'Nice to be famous,' Chad said.
'I'm not all that famous.' Not nowadays. It was mainly the entertainers who were interviewed on the talk shows, not the entrepreneurs. Nicolas had had one television interview a couple of years back, after one of the musicals he'd produced had won heaps of Tony awards, but nothing since.
'It's come all the way from Australia,' Chad said, and Nicolas's heart missed a beat.
Something—some inner instinct—warned him not to turn the envelope over and look at the sender's name…. Not till he was safely alone.
'Looks like it's from a lady,' Chad went on, obviously dying to know who.
Nicolas, however, had no intention of satisfying the younger man's curiosity.
An old fan, I imagine,' Nicolas said, and slipped the envelope inside his breast pocket. 'Someone who doesn't know I stopped performing years ago. Thank you, Chad. Good night.'
'Oh… er… Good night, sir.'
Nicolas made it into the privacy of his tenth-floor apartment before he extracted the envelope and looked at the back flap.
His stomach churned as he stared at the name of the sender. It wasn't from her. Had he honestly expected that it would be?
Had he been hoping against hope that Serina had finally come to her senses and realised that she couldn't live without him?
Once he got over his dismay, the letter did, however, evoke considerable surprise and curiosity. Because it was from Serina's daughter, the child whom Nicolas had once briefly thought could be his, but wasn't. Felicity Harmon had been born ten months to the day after the last time he'd slept with Serina, and exactly nine months after her marriage to Greg Harmon.
Nicolas still had trouble accepting what Serina had done that night. It had been cruel of her to come back into his life and raise his hopes where she was concerned.
It had taken him years to get over her initial refusal to go to England with him when he'd been just twenty-one. But he'd finally come to understand and accept—or he thought he had—that her love for her family back in Rocky Creek was much stronger than her love for him. He'd stayed away from home after that, not even returning to visit his mother. Instead, a couple of times a year, he'd send his mother money to travel to whatever part of the world he was in. Why torture himself?
Serina was the one who'd eventually sought him out, several years later.
He'd imagined he was over her by then. There'd been other women, lots of them. The fact he'd never lived with one, let alone married any of them, should have told him that his heart still belonged to Serina, that heart taking off into the stratosphere when he'd spotted her in the audience as he'd been taking his curtain call that fateful night, thirteen years ago. He recalled the date very well because it was the first time he'd performed in Sydney, having stayed right away from Australia as well as Rocky Creek.
When she'd appeared at his dressing-room door afterwards, he'd been incapable of speech. He'd taken one look into her lovely, tear-filled eyes, pulled her inside the room and locked the door behind her. They'd made love on the sofa with a hunger that had been insatiable, before sheer exhaustion had had them both falling asleep in each other's arms.
When he'd woken she'd gone, leaving him a note saying that she was sorry, but she simply hadn't been able to resist the temptation to be with him one last time. She'd begged him not to follow her home. She was marrying Greg Harmon in a few weeks and nothing he could do or say was going to change her mind. He could still recall her final argument, word for word.
'Your life is playing the piano, Nicolas. It's what you want and what you need—to perform. I could see that tonight. What we have when we're together, it's not love, Nicolas, it's something else. Something dangerous. If I give in to it, it will destroy me. You will survive without me, I know you will.'
Well, he had. Survived, that is. Though it had been touch-and-go a couple of times.
Yet it had only taken the arrival of a pink envelope from Australia to make his heart race in that crazy way it always raced when he was with Serina. He'd thought she'd felt the same way about him once. And maybe she had. Looking back, he could see she'd been as powerless to resist him physically, as he'd been her. As lovers, they'd been perfect together, right from the start. Amazing, considering they'd both been virgins.
Nicolas shook his head at the memory of that night. If he'd known what was going to happen he would never have agreed to Mrs Johnson's suggestion that Serina partner him to his graduation ball.
At that time in his life, Nicolas had had no time for girls. His only passion had been the piano.
Not that the girls weren't after him; they were. At eighteen, Nicolas had been tall and handsome, with wavy blond hair and Nordic-blue eyes, which he'd been told were sexy. There'd been any number of girls in his class and in other classes at his high school who would have gladly agreed to go with him to his grad. But Nicolas just hadn't wanted the complications that came with having a girlfriend. His focus had been all on his career back then. All he could think about was becoming the world's greatest concert pianist. He'd already won a scholarship to go to the Conservatorium of Music in Sydney and would be leaving to study there in a couple of months' time. His life in Rocky Creek—which he'd always hated—would soon be over.
But his mother had really wanted him to go to his graduation ball, so he'd given in to his music teacher's suggestion and asked Serina, who was another of Mrs Johnson's piano pupils. Nicolas had reasoned—incorrectly as it turned out— that because she was rather shy Serina was unlikely to become a problem. Conversation wouldn't be difficult, either. They could always talk about music.
Imagine his surprise—and shock—when he went to pick her up in his mother's car and a vision of loveliness came walking through her front door. She was wearing blue, a deep electric blue. Her dress was strapless, its material shiny, with a bell-shaped skirt, and her shoes were high. Her very shapely legs seemed to go on forever.
Up till then Nicolas had only ever seen Serina in her school uniform, with no makeup and her hair either in a plait or up in a pony tail.
Suddenly, with her hair down, her face made up and her amazingly grown-up figure very much on display, she looked much older and extremely sexy. Nicolas took one look at her and was struck by a desire he'd never felt before. He could not take his eyes off her all night. Dancing with her became both a delight and a torment.
He was in quite a frazzled state by the time they left the ball and he drove Serina home shortly after midnight. Her parents had made a condition of her going with him that he wouldn't take her on to any of the after-grad parties, which were well known for being drunken booze-ups and sex-fests. Nicolas didn't mind, since he didn't drink and wasn't into sex. Not as yet, anyway.
Suddenly, however, he wanted Serina even more than he wanted to dazzle the world with his piano playing. But he knew it was out of the question. For one thing, his date was obviously a virgin, like himself.
But just as they were approaching Rocky Creek, Serina's hand slid over and came to rest on his thigh. His eyes flew to hers and what he saw there echoed his own quite desperate need.
'Don't take me home yet,' she whispered huskily.
Nicolas needed no more encouragement, swiftly turning his mother's car off the main road onto a narrow bush track, which he knew would bring him to a very private spot down by the creek.
And it was there that it all began. Just kisses at first, then touching and more touching. Clothes came off and before he knew it he was trying to get inside her. Her gasp of pain didn't stop him, either. By then he was beyond thought, beyond control. Only afterwards did he panic, because he hadn't used a condom.
'Your father's going to kill me if you get pregnant,' he'd groaned.
'I can't,' came her surprisingly calm reply. 'Not tonight, anyway. I've just finished my period. According to a book I read that means I'm safe.'
Nicolas breathed a huge sigh of relief.
'I'll go in to Port and buy some condoms tomorrow,' he replied, and she just stared up at him, her eyes large and dark.
'It'll be better next time,' he heard himself promise.
'I liked it this time,' she stunned him by saying. 'It was lovely. Do it to me again, Nicolas.'
And he did. More slowly the second time, watching with wonder as she came. By the time he took her home around two, Nicolas was totally obsessed with her.
Somehow, they managed to keep their teenage love affair a secret during that entire summer holiday, Nicolas sneaking out of his bedroom every night and running all the way to meet Serina down behind her house. Fortunately, her parents lived on a small farm that had lots of outbuildings where they could make love. Nicolas made Serina promise not to tell anyone about their relationship, especially not any of her girlfriends. He knew that Serina's rather old-fashioned parents would do everything to separate them if they found out what was going on. Publicly, they pretended to their small community that they were just friends, brought together by the fact that they were both pupils of the same music teacher.
It wasn't till later that they began to date openly. By then Nicolas had gone to Sydney to study and the star-crossed lovers didn't see each other all that much. When they did, however, they made the most of their time together. They would tell their respective parents that they were practising the piano together, or going to the movies, or to the beach.
But an unwanted pregnancy and a teenage marriage were not in Nicolas's plans for his immediate future, not if he was going to become the world's greatest concert pianist.
However, he'd always known that Serina was the only girl for him, that one day they would marry, and he would be the father of her children. It had seemed inconceivable to him back then that she would ever be with another man, let alone bear a child.
Yet she'd had another man's child—and that child had just written to him.
Why, for pity's sake?
Nicolas ripped open the pink envelope and out came a white sheet of paper on which was a computer-generated letter.