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'Jamie, it's great to have you here. We were so pleased that you could come. I hardly ever get to see you these days.You're looking tired though, Uncle Mark says you work very hard.'
A brief smile curled Jamie's lip-glossed mouth as her cousin mentioned her stepfather. She had been lucky there, she acknowledged mentally; more than lucky when she listened to other people's stories of their parents' second marriages.
Of course the fact that her own father had died before she was two probably had something to do with the fact that she had accepted Mark so readily; that and the fact that he had been as ready to love her as his daughter as she had him as her father.
'He exaggerates, Beth,'Jamie told her cousin, lifting her eyes from the second coat of lacquer she was applying to her nails.
Her cousin's invitation to spend the weekend with her and her husband in their Bristol home had coincided with a gap in her work schedules. But now that she was here She stifled the sense of unease that had been growing in her ever since her arrival just after lunch.
'Tell me about my goddaughter,'she instructed her cousin. 'It's been almost six months since I last saw her.'
'And whose fault is that?'Beth challenged indignantly 'We went to Queensmeade for Christmas. Why weren't you there, Jamie? Your mother was bitterly disappointed.'
Guilt momentarily chased the warning coolness from her eyes as Jamie raised her head to look at her cousin.
'Business, I'm afraid. I had hoped to be there, but I was offered a contract in New York I just couldn't pass up.'
Listening to the sound of her own voice, distant and faintly aloof, Jamie had a momentary desire to break into hystericallaughter at the falsity of the image she was deliberately projecting, but she had hidden behind it for so long now that it was almost part of her.
There wasn't one member of the family now who didn't look at her and see the successful polished businesswoman she had made herself become. Glancing down at her long lacquered nails, she checked a faint sigh as she looked back to the tomboy she had once been, running wild in the large grounds of Queensmeade. But it was over ten years now since she had been that girl, and between her and the woman she now was there was a chasm that nothing could bridgeand that was the way she wanted it.
'You can become re-acquainted with my daughter tomorrow,' Beth told her firmly, refusing to be sidetracked. 'I want to hear about you. Uncle Mark is terribly proud of you, Jamie; more proud than he is of Jake, I sometimes think. I read that article about you in Homes and Gardens the other week, the photographs of the rooms you'd done were fantastic.'
The feature in question had been a good one and had resulted in a small avalanche of extra business for her small decorating business, Jamie reflected.
The old paint finishes and manner of decorating were becoming more and more popular, and she had never been sorry that she had decided to switch from the more traditional interior-designer career she had planned for herself to what she considered the exciting challenge of learning and improving on the traditional techniques of marbling, graining, dragging and all the other styles of paint decor which were now so fashionable.
'Whilst you're here I think I shall have to pick your brains about this place,' Beth continued wryly. 'We were full of plans when we moved in, but Richard's been so busy that we haven't been able to do so much as buy a roll of wallpaper.'
Richard, Beth's solidly placid husband, had recently decided to break from his company and set up in business on his own, and knowing the problems that could be involved Jamie could well understand that decorating would be the last item on his list of priorities.
'We'll go through the house together tomorrow,'she promised her cousin, smiling when she saw her pleased expression.
'I envy you,' the younger girl said with a faint sigh. 'You always look so glamorous.'
Shrugging fine-boned shoulders Jamie told her carelessly, 'It's just a façade, Beth, that's all; a necessary part of my business to project a glossy, expensive image, but I haven't changed, you know.'
Lifting blue eyes to her cousin's darker, almost violet ones, Beth said seriously,
'No, I know you haven't, Jamie. It's a long time since you've been to Queensmeade, isn't it?'
Catching the faint note of censure in her cousin's voice, Jamie carefully blanked out every emotion from her voice. 'TheYorkshire Dales are a long way from London.'She saw the faint flicker of something in Beth's eyes, and suddenly alarm clutched her heart-muscles. 'What is it, Beth?' she demanded huskily. 'Is something wrong at home? My mother, Mark?'
When had she started calling her stepfather Mark? To strangers it might seem that she used his Christian name to hold him at a distance, to differentiate between her stepfather and her natural father, but that wasn't the case. She had picked the habit up from Jake of course, probably almost before she realised what she was doing.
Jake had been her god in those days; a magnificent and awe-inspiring creature whom she was privileged to call 'brother' her mouth twisted a little bitterly. It seemed incredible that she had ever been that naïve.
'I shouldn't have said anything,' Beth told her guiltily. 'It's Mark, Jamie. He's been suffering from chest pains for some time and the doctor's diagnosed a heart conditionat the moment it's not too serious, but he's been told he has to take things more easilynot to worry so much.Your mother's persuading him to retire, to hand control of the company over completely to Jake.'
It was no use pretending that it did not hurt to receive this information second-hand from her cousin, but she had no one to blame for that pain other than herself. She was, after all, the one who had deliberately distanced herself from her home, who had intentionally set out to carve herself a career that would take her as far away as possible. But she rang home regularly to speak to her mother.
'Your mother didn't want to worry you,'Beth told her sympathetically, seeing the pain in her eyes. 'She knows how close you are to Uncle Mark.'
'Umm. I don't know how on earth she's going to get him to slow down.'
Beth's expression lightened. 'Jake said exactly the same thing. Funny how the two of you invariably come up with the same reactions at the same time, and yet put you together and you can't agree on a single thing. I remember at our wedding, I thought you were about to come to blows.'
Jamie looked away from her, studying her nails thoughtfully before reaching for the lacquer bottle to apply a final coat.
'Yes,' she said carefully, her attention all for her nails, 'It's always been like that.'
'No, it hasn't.'
Her heart lurched at the quiet challenge in Beth's voice. 'Why don't the two of you get on any more, Jamie?' Beth pressed. 'It hurts your mother and Uncle Mark dreadfully. They both love both of you so much. Whenever there's a family gathering it's noticeable that either you or Jake will be there but never both of you. It's almost as though it's pre-planned.'
'Well, it isn't,' Jamie told her harshly, apologising with a wry smile when she saw her cousin's faintly hurt expression. 'I'm sorry. I'm a bit on edge. I hate flying, especially across the Atlantic. I think I'm still suffering from jet-lag.'
Jet-lag? Anguish and humiliation was closer to the mark but those emotions belonged to a Jamie long dead and buried, whom she was not going to disinter for anyone.
Observing the silken gleam of her cousin's straight fall of dark red hair as she bent over her nails, Beth tactfully changed the subject, asking enviously, 'How on earth do you get your nail-polish like that?'
'It isn't hard. It just takes a good eye and a practised hand,'
Jamie told her, grinning as she deftly applied the last stroke and studied the finished effect. 'Besides, who's going to employ me as a decorator if they see I can't even paint my nails?'
'But I can't even get mine that long, never mind anything else.'
'Ah well, you know what a sybaritic life I lead,' Jamie mocked, lifting one eyebrow slightly.
It wasn't fair that one person should be given so much, Beth thought, sighing for the waste of all her cousin's feminine attributes on someone who declared openly and coolly that she had no intention of marrying and that she did not believe in love.
Maybe Jamie wasn't beautiful in the accepted sense of the word, but she had something more than mere beauty. Looking at her was like looking into a pool of deep, very still water; so still that you found yourself holding your breath and waiting for the faintest ripple across its smooth surface. Jamie carried with her an aura of calm and quietude, but she hadn't always been like that. Beth could remember the tomboy teenager she had been, climbing trees, running races, always covered in bruises and cuts. In those days the violet eyes had laughed, the full mouth had been mobile, her movements quicksilver.
At ten she had been desperately envious of her fourteen-year-old cousin and the closeness she shared with her step-brother. Even though he was at university Jake had still spent a large part of his free time with his young stepsister. They had been close in a way that she as an only child had longed to imitate, but somewhere along the way something had happened to that closeness, and now what? Now, whenever she mentioned Jake in Jamie's presence, she could almost feel her cousin closing up on her, and when she mentioned Jamie to Jake his mouth would curl in that cynical way of his, his eyes as hard as chips of ice.
'Sybaritic?' Beth questioned, trying not to let Jamie see what she was thinking. 'Since when? Oh, I know you like to give that impression, Jamie, but you work hard. Too hard, Uncle Mark thinks.'
'Mark's a darling, but he's a bit old-fashioned when it comes to women. He thinks we should all be like my mother and crave only a husband, home and family.'
As she looked away from her cousin, Jamie hid her expression with long lashes that fanned her high cheekbones, giving her, although she did not know it, a look of vulnerability. Once she too had craved those things, had wanted nothing more from life than to love and be loved in return.
'Try calcium tablets.' She turned to face Beth, smiling lightly, as she firmly dismissed the past from her mind.
'Calcium tablets?' Beth looked thoroughly confused.
'For your nails,' Jamie told her, gently mockingly.
'I haven't made any plans for the weekend,' Beth told her, changing the subject. 'I thought you might fancy an early night tonight, and then tomorrow some friends of ours are coming round to dinnerI'm longing to show off my clever cousin and Jake, of course,' Beth added absently. 'I didn't tell you, did I, that his latest girlfriend's family live only a short distance away.
'She's a nice girlbut young for Jake, though, I would have thought. Very pretty and quite ambitious.'
Thank God she had been looking the other way, Jamie thought, as she tried to still the frantic thudding of her heart. Jake coming here her first impulse was to leave, immediately, but she was trapped, she knew that. If she left now Beth would guess. It was one thing for the family to know that she and Jake disliked each other, but
'Jamie, are you all right? You've gone dreadfully pale.'
'Redheads are supposed to be,' Jamie told her wryly, slipping defensively behind her sophisticated mask. 'If Mark's ill, I'm surprised that Jake can spare the time to spend a weekend away.'
'Oh, well, I suppose it's partly business, Amanda's father's company is merging with Brierton Plastics, apparently. That's how Jake and Amanda met. It's no secret that her parents are hoping they'll get married, but personally I think Amanda's too youngshe's only nineteen, and a nice child, but somehow not what I thought Jake would choose, if you know what I mean.' She wrinkled her nose slightly and added, 'Of course, Uncle Mark would love to see him married. He and your mother complain every time I see them that you don't seem to be going to provide them with grandchildren.'
'It does seem unlikely,' Jamie agreed levelly, praying that Beth wouldn't see past her defences to what lay behind. Jake married Pain exploded inside her, tearing her apart, making a mockery of the barriers it had taken her six years to perfect. What was the matter with her? She had known this day must come. Six years ago she had known that Jake intended to marry. He wanted a son to follow him into the business his own father had so successfully built up. Jake was both ambitious and determined. She knew that. And cruel, very, very cruel, but she was over the pain of that now. The Jake she had known and loved had never existed. That had simply been a façade which he had hidden behind.
As she had told herself too many times over the intervening years, she told herself again that at least she had discovered the truth before it was too late, before she had been the one trapped in a marriage of ambition and greed.
She was not naïve now as she had been at eighteen, and she knew enough of the world to realise that Jake was not alone in wanting to marry for reasons advantageous to himself, but his deliberate cruelty in deceiving her into believing
'Oh, heavens, there's the phone. Stay here and rest for a little while, I'll bring you a cup of tea.'
Alone in the guest-room Beth had given her Jamie walked over to the window and stared out across the countryside, without seeing any of its beauty. Did this girl, this Amanda, know what Jake was really like, or like her had she been deceived? That lazily mocking smile, those cool green eyes that suddenly could turn to fire, that mouth that could
Closing her eyes to blank out her thoughts, she clung dizzily to the window ledge. Dear God, she was over this, over it. She was a different person now from the innocent trusting fool Jake had so cruelly deceived. He no longer had the power to affect her in any way at all.
So why was her heart pounding so heavily? Why was she remembering with such devastating clarity the feel of his mouth against her own?
Her only salvation when she realised the truth had been the knowledge that at least no one else knew what a fool she had been. No one else knew that they had been lovers; that Jake had whispered words of love to her and then promised to marry her, only for her to discover from his mistress that he was actually marrying her because he knew that his father was splitting his estate between the two of them; that she would have as many shares in the company as Jake himself. At first she hadn't wanted to believe Wanda's allegations, had indeed thought that the other woman was simply jealously maligning Jake; but when she had come round to his flat to tell him what had happened, the first thing she had seen as she walked in through the unlocked door had been Jake and Wanda in each other's arms.
Of course Jake had seen her, had called out to her, but she hadn't stopped, running frantically back to her car, and driving from York to Queensmeade as though the devil himself were at her heels.
Mark and her mother had been on holiday at the timea month's holiday in Bermudawhich was why she and Jake had not said anything to anyone about their plans, wanting to save the surprise until their parents returned. She had been working on a part-time basis for a York-based firm of interior designers, but too humiliated and hurt to face Jake she had changed her mind on reaching home, knowing that he would come after her, and instead had turned her car in the direction of the southbound motorway.
Her job didn't pay well, but she had an allowance from Mark, and enough money in her bank account to pay for a room in an inexpensive hotel for long enough for her to sort out her life.