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Fleur Stewart woke up and after a few minutes of lying there listening to bird song she forced her eyelids open. Yawning, she squinted at the clock on the bedside table. It was eight-thirty.
It was also her birthday. She was twenty-five, an entire quarter of a century. She resisted the temptation to ask herself what she had done with the first twenty-five years, because that would have inevitably led to her asking herself what she planned to do with the next twenty-five.
And Fleur didn't know.
She wasn't making any plans at all. She was going with the flow. Because life, she reflected, pulling the duvet over her head and burrowing down, never quite turned out the way you expected.
She had only ever wanted to act. The dream had been born the day her parents had taken her to see a matinee performance of a West End musical when she was eight. It had died midway through her second term at drama school. To be precise, on the day she had badly botched an audition everyone had thought was hers and realised that the only thing standing between her and a glittering career was a complete absence of talent.
The next day, and still in the same self-pitying, despondent frame of mind, she had met Adam Moore, a final-year law student. Good-looking Adam had been incredibly supportive and sympathetic when, over her second glass of wine, she had confided her doubts. A kindred spirit, he had seen her point immediately. What was the point staying on at drama school if you were only ever going to be mediocre?
This had been a lot easier to hear than, 'You've got to develop a thicker skin,'which was the attitude her friends, who hadn't taken her crisis of confidence seriously, hadadopted.
Adam had told her that a girl with her brains could do a lot better for herself than acting and Fleur had been flattered and believed him. Or at least she had convinced herself she believed him. Deep down even then Fleur had known that what she was really doing was choosing the easy option.
Three months later she and Adam had been engaged and she'd been happily waiting tables. And if she'd ever stopped to wonder what she was doing or ask herself if she was really happy, she'd reminded herself that this was a purely temporary measure. And the tips had been very good, which had been great because it had made sense for Adam to concentrate on his studies without worrying about little things like paying the rent.
Contemplating the painful naïveté of her younger self inevitably made Fleur despise herself, so she tried hard not to revisit the past. She tried to live in the present.
The present was actually surprisingly good.
Four years on there was no Adam. Admittedly there was no stage career either, but happily she was no longer waiting tables!
She loved her job teaching drama at the local college. Her colleagues were a decent bunch, the work was challenging and she loved the buzz of being around young, and, for the most part, enthusiastic people. If ever any of her students felt like throwing in the towel, Fleur told them that, sure, they might not have what it took, but they'd never know for sure if they didn't show a little backbone when the going got tough.
The biggest plus of the job was that nobody here knew about her recent history. That being so, there were none of the sympathetic looks she hated or 'I do admire you, you're so brave for getting on with your life'as if she had a choice remarks to deal with.
No matter how much you enjoyed your job it was still a nice feeling come Saturday to wake up and pull the covers over your head and have a nice lazy lie-in. This Saturday, birthday or no, the lie-in was not a long one. The late-August sun shining through the thin curtains of her bedroom was just too tempting. It made her think of blackberries, walking the rescue dog her friend Jane had foisted on her the previous month and the million and one things that needed doing in the garden.
For a town girl she had adapted to the rural existence really well.
Fleur was still in her pyjamas when the phone rang.
She set aside an unopened birthday card and took a slurp of her freshly brewed coffee before padding barefoot through to the hallway to answer it.
'Happy Birthday!' The sound of Jane's voice brought a smile to her face. Jane, a fashion photographer with copper hair and a sarcastic tongue, was the sort of person whose enthusiasm for life was infectious.
Sometimes Fleur wished she had half of Jane's energy. It was Jane who had encouraged her to move out of London after the miscarriage, and after Adam's infidelity had been exposed, and it had been Jane who had told her to go for it when the job in the drama department had been advertised.
'Did you get my card?'
'I was just about to open it.'
'I wish I could be there. Next week, though, we'll really let down our hair,'Jane promised. 'Get out your sexiest shoes, I have plans.'
Fleur winced. She had a horrible suspicion that her friend's plans would involve pushing her at a member of the opposite sex. The problem with Jane, she brooded, was she imagined she was subtle. She was anything but! 'There's not a lot of call for sexy shoes around here.'
'Now you just sound sad,' Jane informed her tartly. 'There is always room in a girl's life for sexy shoes. It makes me really mad when I think how you waste your legs.'She sighed enviously. 'Look at melegs like a Welsh Corgi, but do I sit at home nights moping? No, I'
'All right, I get the message,' Fleur protested. 'I'll make an effort.'
'Have you got anything planned for tonight?'
Fleur knew that admitting the only thing she had planned was a night in front of the TV would earn her a stern lecture on the need to get out there, so she got creative. 'A drink with some friends from work.'Nobody at work, where she had cultivated a reputation for being reserved, actually knew it was her birthday.
'Well, that's good. And how is our dog?'
'Our dog is eating his way through my furniture. I don't possess a chair without teeth marks. You've no idea how happy I am you decided I needed the company.'
An overlong pause followed her teasing comment.
'You know I'm only kidding ?'Fleur frowned. It wasn't like Jane not to come back with a sarcastic retort. 'I love the mutt.'
'It's not like you're not totally over him. You are, aren't you? Over him, that is.'
'I assume you're talking about Adam?' This much Fleur had managed to extract from her friend's disjointed monologue. 'I'm insulted you can ask, but, yes, I am very much over him.'
'Paula's pregnant,' Jane blurted. 'She and Adam are having a baby.'
It was a guilty-sounding Jane who eventually broke the lengthening silence.
'I'm sorry, Fleur, I didn't know whether to tell you ' Fleur took a deep breath and pressed a hand to her churning stomach. A baby !
She inhaled deeply, recognising her reaction to the news her ex-fiancé and his new wife were having a baby as irrational. Recognition didn't make the feeling go away; crazily it felt more of a betrayal than learning about his affair had.
'No, I'm glad you did, Jane,' she said, trying hard to sound as though she meant it.
'I thought Adam might have mentioned it ?'
'I haven't spoken to him for months.' Not since her exfiancé had married the woman she now knew he had started sleeping with while she'd been pregnant.
A perfectly natural reaction, he had belligerently claimed for a man who had found himself forced against his will into fatherhood. The implication, false though it was, that she had deliberately trapped him with the pregnancy had hurt and angered Fleur incredibly deeply at the time. But then she had still harboured some daft idea that her ex wasn't a total loser!
God, how was I ever that stupid?
'The slimy rat!' Jane, never one to hold back, observed viciously. 'That pair deserve one another.'
'I suppose Adam's allowed a life.'
With a sigh she brushed her hair from her face anchoring it at the nape of her neck, and wondered, Am I jealous? Not of Adam and Paula. She had long ago recognised that her feelings for Adam had never amounted to love, not the lasting variety. But maybe of what they had ?
What she would never have. It wasn't men she didn't trust, just her own judgement.
'After what he did to you! The only life slimy rat is allowed is one filled with misery and suffering!' Jane, not a big believer in turning the other cheek, bellowed down the other end of the line.
Holding the receiver away from her ear, Fleur heard Jane add bitterly, 'The man was in bed, your bed, with that woman when you were in hospital sorry, Fleur,' she added immediately, sounding contrite. 'Me and my big mouth I didn't mean to open old wounds.'
Fleur eased her bottom onto the edge of the small console table and fiddled with the top button of her pyjama jacket. 'Don't worry about it, Jane. I was going to find out some time,'she said, thinking some wounds never did heal. And the wound in question wasn't actually such an old one.
Sometimes it felt like a lifetime ago and other times it felt like yesterday, but in reality it had been eighteen months since Fleur had been rushed into Casualty midway through what had been a difficult pregnancy.
Jane, who had been there with her, had desperately tried to contact Adam for her while the grave-faced doctor had told Fleur that he was very sorry but there was no heartbeat.
'I do worry. It's my fault you split up '
'Because you caught them in bed?'When she had not been able to locate Adam Jane had offered to go to the flat to fetch Fleur's night things. She had found more than she had expected! 'Don't be stupid, Jane. How could it possibly be your fault?' Fleur protested angrily.
'They say personal tragedy can make people closer than ever ?'From her voice Fleur could imagine the look of guilt on Jane's face. 'If I'd just'
Fleur cut her off. 'If we'd been that close I doubt if you'd have found him in bed with someone else.'
In retrospect it didn't seem possible that she had missed the signs that Adam was having an affair. Nothing had clicked with hernot his unexplained absences, or the caller who had always rung off when Fleur had picked up the phone. Fleur had been concerned, but only about Adam's increasing resentment of the restrictions the doctors had placed on her after the threatened miscarriage earlier on in her pregnancy.
'He started an affair with Paula weeks after we moved into the flat.'And it is not my fault, she told herself firmly. 'You and I both know that the split-up was inevitable. If I hadn't fallen pregnant I think it would have happened sooner,'she admitted.
Once she had discovered she was having a baby, Fleur had pushed her growing doubts about their relationship to one side. She'd had to make it work, for the baby's sake. A child needed two parents.
'I didn't mean to, I really didn't, not after what you'd just been through. I was going to wait until you were better, and then he turned up at the hospital with those stupid flowers, all concerned. Ugh! He looked so smug and smarmy and had the nerve to act as though nothing had happened, I just flipped. I couldn't help myself. It was a red-mist moment.'
'I'm glad you did flip.' Of course, gratitude hadn't been Fleur's response at the time, but later she had come to appreciate she had actually had a lucky escape.
She would never again let a man do to her what Adam had. Let one try, Fleur thought, her eyes narrowing as she contemplated what she would do to any man unwise enough to attempt to locate her heart. She was no longer the hopeless romantic; her defences were totally impregnable.
* * *
He was gifted, rich, handsome and then some. If pressed to explain the secret of his success, Antonio Rochas explained there was no magic formulahe just didn't accept less than excellence from himself.
Only the previous week his face had graced the cover of no fewer than three internationally acclaimed financial journals. His reputation alone swung deals.
His reputation cut no ice with one particular female.
Antonio had been a father for a week.
He wasn't excelling at parenthood!
If his colleagues wondered about the source of uncharacteristic moodiness displayed by their charismatic and normally even-tempered boss during the last week, they had not done so outloud.
Huw Grant, a top-notch criminal lawyer and one of Antonio's closest friends, was less restrained.
'You don't look like a man who has just won now they have reason to look less than happy,'Huw observed, watching from the privacy of the penthouse executive office suite as a trio of dark-suited figures far below left the London Rochas building. 'The poor guys came here thinking they could steal a march on you, Antonio '
Always a fatal mistake, thought the shorter man, studying the hard lines of his friend's classically featured lean face. It occurred to him, and not for the first time, that it was infinitely preferable to be this man's friend than his enemy.
Antonio, who was sitting staring broodingly into the distance, shrugged and brushed away an invisible fleck from his impeccable jacket. 'They did not do their homework,' he observed dismissively.
'But you did ?'
The network of fine lines fanning Antonio's electric-blue eyes deepened as his long dark lashes lifted from the slashing angle of his high cheekbones. 'I always do my homework, Huw.'
Just as he had more recently done his homework on Charles Finch.
But then when a man walked into your office and calmly announced you were the biological father of his thirteen-year-old daughter you had a lot of questions that needed answering.
He now had the answers to some of those questions, including the results of a DNA test.
According to the information that had landed on his desk, the only thing Charles Finch and his late wife had had in common was a mutual loathing and the fact they had spent more time in other people's beds than their own.
Miranda's reason for staying in the sham marriage had been obvious. As Antonio was only too well aware, she had had expensive tastes and social aspirations to match.
Charles Finch's reasons had been less immediately obvious. But then why, he mused, did people stay in bad marriages? Marriages that looked perfect on the surface, but underneath had more in common with open warfare than mutual support or love?
Presumably the other man had got something he'd needed from the twisted relationship, though what it was Antonio could not even begin to imagine.
Huw moved from the window and observed, 'And this time your homework just made you a conservative twenty million. Of course, being as ruthless as hell with no scruples to speak of helps.'
Amusement flickered in Antonio's blue eyes, eyes made more arresting by the contrasting Mediterranean colouring of his skin. 'You think I represent the ugly face of capitalism?'
'Not ugly,' the other man objected wryly.
Though if Huw's own wife was to be believed, it wasn't just his perfect features and lean, athletic body that made women unable to take their eyesand handsoff Antonio. It was the aura of earthy sensuality that he apparently exuded from every pore.
Not, his wife had hastily assured him, that she was affected by it.
'But you really should carry a government health warning. I mean, when was the last time someone got the better of you financially speaking? Oh, I know you're not interested in money for the sake of it,' he admitted. 'But you can't deny that you enjoy winning.'
Antonio's brows lifted. 'Doesn't everyone?'
'Well, you don't look like you do,'his friend observed frankly.
'Let's just say I have other things on my mind 'Abruptly Antonio stopped sorting files and sought the other man's eyes, then shook his head and said, 'It doesn't matter.'
'Clearly it does,' Huw said, his curiosity whetted by this uncharacteristic behaviour. 'You've been odd all week.'
Antonio leaned back in his seat and stretched his long, long legs in front of him. He rested his chin on his steepled fingers. 'You know Finch ?'
'The law firm Finch? Finch, Abbott and Ingham Finch?'
'Cold guy. Got a really classy-looking wife, as I recall.'
'The classy-looking wife is dead,' Antonio said. Cancer, her husband had said.
Miranda was dead. Antonio still struggled with the impossible concept.
In his head she was so alive, her image frozen in his memory as she had been the summer he had met and fallen in love with her. He could see her laughing, her head thrown back to reveal her lovely throat. She had laughed a lot, especially when he had announced he loved her and wanted to take care of her. 'What a sweet boy you are,' she had said when she had finally realised he was deadly serious. 'Look, what we had was fun, that's all. Don't spoil it by being silly about this.'
When he persisted she was more brutal. 'Be seriouswhat would a woman like me want with a penniless waiter? When I get married it won't be because he's good in bed, and, darling, you really are. I can get sex anywhere. When I get married it will be to a man who can give me the life I deserve.'
Unable to interpret the edge in his friend's voice, Huw frowned. 'Bad luck. I only met him around, as you do. What's he got to do with anything?'
'He came to see me last month. It appears that his daughter isn't '
'Isn't what?' asked Huw, looking confused. 'His. She's mine.'