Read an Excerpt
“Exactly why are you looking so pleased with yourself?”
“Me?” Lainey responded innocently. “I’m just enjoying listening to you.”
Stacy regarded her best friend dubiously.
“I am,” Lainey insisted. “Keep going. I’m all ears.” Her own news could wait, since she really was keen to know more about the new man in Stacy’s life. In fact, it was making her heart sing to see how happy Stacy was now, after all she’d been through. Divorce could be a ferociously sadistic beast with a terrier-like grip that didn’t let go until it had stripped its victims of every last vestige of morale, self-esteem, sometimes even looks, before it was done. Then there were the assets, money and kids, but better not get Stacy started on that, mainly because Derek, the offending spouse, had sliced off half her small inheritance (very sore subject), forced the sale of her gran’s cherished country cottage (just as sore), and always claimed he didn’t want kids (way beyond sore given that the new girlfriend was now pregnant). Best to keep her on the subject of Martin, who’d surfed in from the Net a few weeks ago and was doing far more to restore the shine to Stacy’s pale blue eyes and freckly complexion than the endless chats over restorative vino and fresh Kleenex that Lainey had provided.
In spite of her loyalty to Stacy, Lainey’s concentration wasn’t as focused as she’d have liked it to be, since her own news was making her feel quite heady one minute and downright apprehensive the next. Actually, it wasn’t such a big deal . . . Well, it could be, depending on how it turned out, but since she wasn’t good with crystal balls or astral projection into next month for a quick look round, she’d better stop trying to second-guess the future and return to the present.
Stacy was still in full flow, and not in the least put off by Lainey busying herself about the kitchen making tea, folding the washing, answering the phone, and generally trying to keep on top of her hectic life. Because of her large family—three children, a demented father, and a demanding husband—her energies were invariably channeled in several directions, most of which ended up going off on various tangents throughout the day, so by bedtime she often looked back in wonder at what had happened to her original plans. Or she’d feel deflated by how much time had gone into achieving almost nothing, at least for herself, though she had to admit she’d never had much of a knack, or even desire, for putting herself first. She blamed her mother for that, since Alessandra—or Sandra, as she’d preferred to be known, since it sounded more English—had rarely put her first either; had indeed seemed to go out of her way at times to make her eldest daughter feel as unwelcome in her own home as she had felt uncomfortable in her skin. And those rages of Alessandra’s, almost always directed at Lainey . . . It could make Lainey shrink to think of them even now, and her mother had been dead for almost a year. Gone, but definitely not forgotten, if only because every time Lainey looked in the mirror the voluptuous Alessandra was looking back at her, with, perhaps, less of the fire, though her family wasn’t wholly convinced about that.
Lainey had little fondness for the resemblance to her mother, not because she hadn’t loved Alessandra; actually, sadly, she had, which was why Alessandra’s cruelty had hurt so much. It was simply that she’d always felt there was far too much of her mother, and now there was too much of her too. Her silky raven hair was too thick and unruly, her black eyes too large, her mouth far too full and kind of sloppy, and as for her overflowing bust, hips, and thighs, as far as she was concerned they were just plain fat.
Scrumptious was how her husband, Tom, often described her. Or luscious, or succulent—there had even been occasions when he’d forgotten himself and called her juicy. Still, at least he found her sexy, albeit in a vaguely carnivorous sort of way, and provided she didn’t allow herself to get too hung up about her overabundance in certain areas, she could concede that on a good day she wasn’t all that bad.
She just wasn’t very good at putting herself first. However, that was about to change, at least for a while.
She’d actually, she realized, felt lighter since clicking on to pay for her new adventure, as though she’d shed a few pounds (if only). And a good long stare at herself in the mirror after making the commitment had shown her a thirty-six-year-old woman twinkling with a girlish kind of mischief that could lead her into all sorts of trouble.
Leave the past alone, she could hear her mother shouting, eyes flashing and nostrils flaring. It is gone, finito, you are English not Italian.
This was true, she was English, but only because she’d grown up in England. By birth she was Elenora Cristina, daughter of Alessandra Maria and padre ignito, father unknown. Intriguing, kind of romantic if any of the stories she’d concocted for him over the years were true, but even if they were she couldn’t imagine ever being as close to him as she was to her adoptive father, Peter. Everyone adored Peter, even his competitors, and there had been plenty of those during his long and turbulent career.
It was while Lainey, age nineteen, was whirling her way through a period of work experience at the publishing house her father had founded that she’d first run into Tom Hollingsworth. Back then Tom had published only one book, and that hadn’t done particularly well, so his agent had brought him to Winlock’s hoping for greater things.
They had certainly happened, to a degree that no one had even begun to imagine at the time: huge international sales, wide critical acclaim, and a highly rated TV series, The Kingsley Way, featuring secret agents Sebastian Kingsley and his exotic and troublesome wife, Alexis. (There had long been speculation that Alexis was based on Lainey, and while Tom would only smile enigmatically when this was put to him, Lainey would always hotly deny it.)
It was also said by some that Tom wouldn’t be where he was today were it not for Lainey, but she knew that wasn’t true. His talent was all his own, and she was as much in thrall to it as his legions of fans, whose need to know everything about him, his books, his life, his very raison d’être, often seemed to push the boundaries of sanity. They should try living with him, she occasionally thought while whizzing out chirpy, informative responses to the volumes of adulation that poured in through every channel known to online connection; they’d love him even more. Not that she was biased or couldn’t see his faults—it was quite simply that, in spite of being fourteen years her senior, Tom was everything she could ever want in a man, and she liked to think she was everything he wanted too. He always said she was, and as far as she knew he never did anything to contradict it, but what he wasn’t quite so good at were wonderfully romantic declarations of love. In fact, for a man whose very existence was all about words, he used depressingly few when it came to expressing his feelings. He did love her, though, she was sure about that . . . Well, he was still with her after sixteen years, and not many of their friends could make such a heady claim to marital endurance.
It was amazing, really, that he had stayed, given how attractive he was to the opposite sex, and she knew he wasn’t immune to their charms either, or their brazen offers, because she’d been in that position once. Not that she’d offered herself exactly, but neither had she made even a whimpered attempt to fight down the chemistry that had exploded between them virtually on sight.
She never liked to think of how much hurt she’d caused his first wife, Emma, except she did think about it, quite a lot, because her conscience seemed to enjoy chanting jolly little aphorisms like What goes around comes around or You reap what you sow. The fact that she hadn’t actually known he was married until she was already head over heels and pregnant was no excuse, at least not according to her conscience, anyway. She should have walked away the minute she’d found out, told him she wasn’t prepared to break someone’s heart in order to satisfy her own. Instead she’d let him leave Emma and his five-year-old son in order to start a new life with her.
“Don’t be so sure you’re the only one,” Emma had warned the day he’d moved out on her. “And if he can do it to us, he can do it to you.”
During her most insecure moments—and, largely thanks to her mother, they occurred rather too often—those words would ring clearly in Lainey’s mind, though she had to admit that her thoughts at the time had been along the lines of He obviously loves me more, or he wouldn’t be doing this, and I’m really, really sorry, I don’t want to hurt you, but Tom has to make his own decisions.
Such were the arrogance and ignorance of youth. She’d never think that way now.
Sixteen years later she and Tom had two children, Tierney, fifteen, and Xavier, or Zav, as they mostly called him, eleven. Max, Tom’s eldest, was twenty-one and living in the apartment that had been built onto their house, though hopefully not for much longer. Lainey adored him, she really did, or at least she had when he was young. These days he was about as much fun to be with as an angry wasp. He still couldn’t seem to work out who to be maddest at, his father for leaving when he was young, Lainey for taking Tom away, or his mother who’d abandoned him (as he liked to put it) by going off to pursue a new career in the States. The fact that he’d been nineteen and at uni when Emma had left didn’t seem to earn her much in the way of forgiveness. If anything, it had provided him with the excuse he was looking for to drop out of his degree and take off traveling with just a backpack and a guitar for company, and a credit card already close to its limit. In the end, after more than a year of bailing him out of one scrape after another, Tom, out of fear that his son would return in a body bag, had flown to Bangkok and ordered him home.
“I don’t have a bloody home,” Max had argued at the time. “She’s gone, isn’t she?”
“You’ve always had a home with us,” Tom had reminded him, which was true, because he had. “You can even have the apartment to yourself now that Lainey’s father has moved back into the main house.”
What a treat it was turning into, having Max, his music, his attitude, and his parties as a full-time neighbor. If it weren’t for the fact that he got on so well with Tierney and Zav and was actually quite good with Peter—and, indeed, had moments when he could still make her laugh—Lainey knew she’d be buying him a ticket back to Bangkok.
“Lainey, Lainey, where are you? I can’t find her.”
“It’s all right, Dad,” Lainey soothed, going to assist her father in from the garden. “She’s only gone to the shops.” Peter Winlock’s watery blue eyes hunted the kitchen before coming to rest on Stacy first, then his daughter.
“Who?” he asked worriedly.
Lainey smiled gently. “Stacy’s here,” she told him. “You remember Stacy, don’t you? She’s the one who drove into the back of your car the day she passed her driving test.” Stacy’s eyes closed in mock dismay. “Hi, Peter,” she said, getting up to give him a hug. “You’re looking a bit dapper today in your old panama.”
Peter chuckled delightedly. “The ladies always like this one,” he said, tapping his hat. He peered more closely into Stacy’s eyes. “I remember you,” he said, seeming thrilled. “You drove into the back of my car.”
Stacy couldn’t help but laugh. “And I’m never going to live it down, am I?” she responded, without adding, Even though it happened over fifteen years ago.
“Cup of tea, Dad?” Lainey offered, going to reheat the kettle.
“Oh yes, I like tea,” he assured her, as though he rarely received such a generous offer. “Do you like tea?” he asked Stacy.
Stacy would have answered had Peter’s attention not already begun drifting to whatever else he was seeing in his tragically muddled mind.
“Where is she, Lainey?” he asked anxiously. “I can’t find her.”
“It’s OK, Dad, she’s just gone to the shops,” Lainey assured him. “She’ll be back soon.” This was the best—the only—way, she’d discovered, to handle her father’s never-ending search for her mother. Let him think she’d be home soon, and within a few minutes he’d have forgotten he was even looking for her. Of course it would come back to him at some point, but that was OK, they’d go through the charade again, and they would probably keep going through it day after day, week after week, until he was too addled even to think it anymore.
Alzheimer’s was so cruel, so random in its choice of victims, and showed no mercy for them either. It wasn’t only memory it destroyed, it was dignity too, and her father had always been such a dignified man, and powerful in his field. By the time he’d sold his publishing house to one of the multinationals some twelve years ago, the company had been one of the most highly regarded in London. Peter Winlock’s name was still spoken of with respect and affection, and because Lainey adored him and always had, it was no hardship for her to take care of him. She even cleaned him up after incontinent moments, bathed him, and soothed away his tears as he cried with shame.
It had been Tom’s idea to buy this house—Bannerleigh Cross—from her parents. It was where she and her sisters had grown up, and there was barely a square inch of it that didn’t feel special to Lainey. The stories her father had told her of its history had brought it to life in a way that had made her young heart long to know more about the colorful and romantic characters who’d once filled the rooms with laughter, tears, music, and strife. Aristocrats and actors, politicians, doctors, adventurers—the tales had turned out to be as tall as the manor’s elegant chimneys, but as a child she had never been able to get enough of them. Even now a part of her still believed in them, and on dark nights, if Tom was away and she was missing him, or her mother, she could almost feel the house and its ghostly occupants breathing their quiet energy back into her.