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"Well, I'm glad I don't have to tell him that!' Sofie exclaimed with a laugh as she turned to gather a fresh glass of champagne from the tray of a passing waiter.
Everything was running smoothly, just as she had planned. When her boss had put forward the idea of a photographic competition, she had agreed enthusiastically, never expecting to have the job of arranging and running it. However, it had been a challenge, and she was always prepared to stretch herself. That she would also have to host the award ceremony and help give out the prizes was not what she'd wanted. Drawing attention to herself was still something she preferred not to do. Staying out of the limelight was vital. However, as this was only a local competition, with no chance of a report getting into anything other than local newspapers, she had felt safe in agreeing to do it.
Life had been far from easy these past few years. She had scrimped and saved, trying to keep her head above water by doing any job that turned up. In the end, though, circumstances had forced her to apply for assistance under a new name, and life had improved gradually. Now she had a steady job and a small rented cottage to live in. Even though she had never seen anyone from her past life, it was hard to make herself stop looking over her shoulder all the time. She had come almost as far north as it was possible to go and still be in the same country. Paying cash for everything, she had left no paper trail behind her. Sofie Antonetti had vanished off the face of the earth that day six years ago, and in her place was Sofie Talbot, photographer's assistant, who kept herself very much to herself. If she was lonely, she never let on. If she wassad, only her pillow knew.
With a satisfied sigh she ran her eye around the room, checking that nothing had gone awry. The action took her away from the group she was chatting to and brought the doorway of the room into her line of sightjust in time to see the tall figure of a man walk in and pause to survey his surroundings. Shock tore through her with all the destructive force of an earthquake, because this was not just any man. She recognised him instantly. Would know him if a hundred years had passed, for he was locked in her heart and would always remain there.
It was Lucas. He had found her.
She couldn't move in those first few seconds, not even a muscle. This was the day she had dreaded for so long, and yet had longed for in the very depths of her soul. To see him again filled her with unbridled joy, as she had come to think she never would look upon his beloved face again. Oh, she had daydreamed about walking into him in a crowd, or sheltering from a summer storm under a tree and finding him doing the same, but without any real hope of it happening. Yet now it had.
The first shock was passing and pent-up emotion rose to choke her throat and bring the smart of tears to her eyes. He hadn't seen her yet and she took advantage of it.
Through a crystal blur, she ate him up like a woman who had wandered hungrily in a wasteland and had suddenly found food. She had loved this man beyond reason and doubt from the first moment they had met. There had always been a certain something about him which had made her senses leap in a way quite out of the ordinary for her. No other man had been able to hold a candle to what she had experienced with Lucas. This awareness had hit her like the proverbial ton of bricks. All her senses had come to attention, and she had been so attuned to him it had been uncanny. So much so that, whenever he had entered the same room as herself, she had felt it immediately. Like electricity charging up the air.
She could feel it now, as she stared at him. He hadn't changed. His hair was the same blue-black she remembered, though he must be thirty-six now. In one of the Italian designer suits he had always preferred, a glass of champagne in one hand and the other casually slipped into his trouser pocket, he was the epitome of a man in control of himself and the world he lived in. It was an air of savoir-faire which she had always found immensely attractive.
Was there any surprise then that she had fallen headlong in love with him and married him, all in a whirlwind matter of months? She would do it again in an instantexcept for one huge problem. Whilst she still loved him, and always would, she knew in her heart that he could no longer love her.
That thought brought her back to the reality of the present, and the fact that she was standing staring at a man who would never be as pleased to see her as she was to see him. It galvanised her into action and she turned away hastily, hoping he hadn't seen her. What had she been thinking of, staring at him so longingly? This wasn't a happy ending, rather the start of what could turn out to be another nightmare.
Of course, that thought turned her stomach over and she sipped at her champagne as a much needed bolster to her nerve. Think, she ordered herself. Be logical. Because she was hiding from him, that didn't mean he had found her. This could all be pure coincidence. Why would he look for her here, of all places? She wasn't even using the name he knew her by. Wasn't it more likely that he had business in the area? He could even be staying in this very hotel and had looked in at the function out of pure curiosity.
That had to be it, she decided on a wobbly sigh. Not that it helped her very much if he didn't leave in the next half hour. If he were still here at nine, then there was no way he could be prevented from seeing her. Nine o'clock was the designated time for the presentation of awards to the winners of the photography competition, a task she had been looking forward to.
Photography was her joy and getting back into it, even in such a small way, had gone a long way to giving her a sense of purpose. Life had started to have meaning again, not just days to be got through without the love and support of the man she loved. She had been happy. However, that happiness could be in danger if Lucas didn't leave soon. If he saw her, there would be the inevitable confrontation, and Sofie feared that the most, because even though she had left Lucas with good reason she knew he would have been furious that she had just disappeared, and there were things she had never told him, the biggest of which would condemn her in his eyes for ever.
With nowhere to hide, all Sofie could do for the moment was leave the room and lose herself in the crowds swelling the other reception rooms. Soon she was caught up in the laughing, chatting groups and was able to breathe a little more easily. Leastways she did until she felt a subtle change in the air and knew that Lucas had entered the room. She tensed immediately and prayed he would move onbut then the back of her neck started to prickle and she knew those endlessly fascinating blue eyes were upon her.
She turned slowly, compelled by a force too strong to deny, her heart thumping sickeningly in her chest. She felt as if she were moving in slow motion, and indeed the noise around her faded into a drone as she saw Lucas standing at the back of the room, eyes fixed on her intently. A sense of inevitability sank over her and her eyelashes slowly fluttered down then up again.
Sofie must have stopped breathing, though she was unaware of it, for now she drew in a long ragged breath. After so long, to finally meet his eyes again was stunning and the connection shot across the room between them like a shaft of lightning. She couldn't see his expression; she only knew the experience was as powerful as it had ever been.
She waited for him to come towards her, but he didn't, and confusion set in. As if he sensed it, a faint smile curved his lips and Sofie hurriedly turned away, brain desperately searching for a reason for his actions. Why hadn't he come and spoken to her? It was what she had expected. Then, of course, she understood. He was biding his time. If and when they talked, it would be on his terms. It was a subtle reminder of the circumstances of her leaving him. That had been under her control, this was to be under his.
A fact she soon confirmed by slowly making her way through one room and then another. Even though her sensitive radar could sense when he followed, she glanced over her shoulder to check. It was clear. When she moved, he moved, but always maintained the same distance between them. He was playing cat and mouse with her, and she was no cartoon character who could turn the tables on him. All she knew was that she couldn't allow him to see just how anxious he was making her.
"There you are! I lost you for a moment.'
Sofie spun round, a slightly guilty smile springing to her lips at the sight of David Lacey, her boss and the instigator of the evening. She had forgotten all about him the instant she'd laid eyes on Lucas. "I er just came in here to get a fresh drink,' she lied uncomfortably, waggling her glass at him.
"That's funny, I thought I was doing that,' David remarked, holding up two glasses, but Sofie wasn't listening to him, her eyes had automatically started to search for Lucas again. She found him not too far away, watching the pair of them intently. "And the dog ran away with the ham bone,' David ended dryly, which was where she tuned in again.
Her nerves jumping like fleas, she half-turned away from Lucas and beamed up at her boss. "Hmm? I'm sorry, what did you say?'
Not surprisingly, David frowned. "Forget it, it wasn't important. Are you all right, Sofie?' he asked in concern, then glanced at her glass. "How many of those have you had?' He set the spare glass he had brought with him on a passing tray.
Sofie took a steadying breath, telling herself to get a grip. The last thing she needed was for David to ask awkward questions. "Sorry. It's speech time soon and I'm a tad distracted.' Hell's bells, what an understatement that was, and so far from the truth! Knowing that Lucas was watching her every move was hardly conducive to calm. "Don't worry, this is only my second glass.' She never drank much and had abandoned the first glass because it had become warm and lost its fizz.
"I see everybody who is anybody has turned out for this shindig,' David remarked, glancing round the room. "Everywhere I look there's a familiar face. Although having said that, there is one person I don't know. Have you any idea who the man in the suit by the door is?'
Sofie's heart gave a wild kick, for she could guess who he meant. "What man?' she asked gruffly, wondering what to do, because if she pleaded ignorance and then Lucas decided to come over, she would be caught out in a lie.
"It doesn't matter. He's gone,' David replied, not realising how that would affect her.
Sofie turned, her eyes flying to the spot where she had last seen Lucas, and her spirits sank like a stone when she discovered he had moved away. As much as she had dreaded having a confrontation with him, her worst fear was that he would go and she would never see him again!
With something approaching anxiety her eyes scanned the room, searching for him and failed. Completely distraught, she couldn't believe he had gone without making contact, when he had spent the whole evening watching her. Disappointment weighed heavily on her and she couldn't explain why. She knew the best thing was for him to go. They couldn't go back, and had no future. Let him be gone, the logical part of her brain told her. Let this be the end of it. Sadly, her shattered heart would always crave more.
Which was why, uncharacteristically, she took a large gulp of champagne and almost emptied the glass. Seeing it, David's brows rose and he plucked the glass from her fingers.
"Steady on! You'll get tipsy doing that on an empty stomach. Wait here. I'll go get us something to eat,' he decided, setting their glasses aside, and would have gone off in search of the buffet had she not placed a staying hand on his arm.
"No, don't. I'm fine, really,' she lied bravely, as her nerves were a mess and she was as far from fine as it was possible to get. "It's almost time for my speech anyway.'
It was a relief when she had to go up and help present the awards. Making small talk with David as if nothing was the matter had been excruciatingly difficult. The last thing she felt like doing was smiling for the cameras, but it was all part of the job and she formed her lips into as near normal a smile as possible.
Casually glancing around the sea of faces below them, her heart leapt when her eyes found Lucas once more. So he hadn't gone! As if he knew exactly what she had been thinking, he raised his glass in silent salute and her thoughts scattered to the four winds as she realised nothing was over yet.