‘That was a long time ago, Lou.’

‘Yes, it was, but what’s changed, hmm? You’re still treating me like some stupid girl who doesn’t know her left from her right. Insulting me in front of an important client. Ignoring my wishes. Well, I’ve got news for you: I’m not a girl, I’m a fully grown woman and I’ve built up a successful business from nothing, just the way William Valentine did. You should try it some time, then you might have a little more respect.’

She swallowed. Wished she hadn’t said that. Bella Lucia was Max’s life. He worked harder than anyone to make it a success. If it had gone down in the recent financial crisis, no one would have been hit harder, or deserved it less.

It was always the same. The minute she was with him, she lost her head, stopped behaving like a rational woman.

She leaned forward, rapped sharply on the driver’s window. ‘Pull over, please.’

The cabbie pulled into the kerb, but Max didn’t move. ‘This won’t go away, Lou.’

Probably not, but she was tired, she had another long day ahead of her tomorrow, and while a row with Max was always exhilarating she discovered that she wasn’t enjoying this one.

‘You want me to get down on my knees and beg, is that it?’ he pressed.

That was almost too tempting, but Max, on his knees, would not be a supplicant. He would simply be demonstrating-at least in his own eyes-that he was bigger than she was. That he could forgive and forget. That in clinging to her grudge, she hadn’t been able to move on. As he knelt at her feet his eyes would still be telling her that he was the winner.

‘All I want,’ she said, carefully, slowly, ‘is for you to listen to what I’m saying. I’m saying goodnight, Max.’

For a moment she thought he was going to protest, force the issue, but then without another word he opened the door and stepped out of the cab, handing the driver a note to cover her fare home-still trying to keep control-and, shrugging his collar up against the rain, he began to walk back to his car.

Louise, left in the cab, was shaking, hating Max for putting her through that, hating herself for caring.

‘Is that it?’ The driver, having clearly heard everything, turned around. ‘Do you want me to drive on? You’re not going to change your mind and want me to go after him? Once I turn the corner I’ll be locked in the one-way system and there’ll be no way back.’

Max could do nothing but walk away. Acknowledge that, having behaved like a moron, he’d got no more than he deserved. What made it worse was that he wasn’t like that; at least not with anyone else. He made an exception for Louise.

She never failed to bring out the worst in him.

He only had to look at her and he reverted from civilised man into some kind of Neanderthal.

Maybe she was right, he thought, hunching his shoulders against the icy rain that matched his mood. Nothing had changed. They hadn’t been able to work together all those years ago and time had done nothing to mellow either of them.

He’d made the offer but she wasn’t interested.

He stopped, blew out a long breath that smoked in the cold air. If someone had made him an offer like that, he wouldn’t have been impressed either.

He’d wasted a perfectly good opportunity. He’d planned to ask her to join him for a drink, a meal maybe, and when he’d turned up just after six he’d thought he’d timed it just right. It had begun to unravel from the minute he’d arrived when her assistant, who had already had her coat on, had told him that Lou was in a meeting that was likely to go on for a while, but he could wait if he wanted to.

Sitting around in the outer office waiting for her attention wasn’t what he’d had in mind and he should have left then, but, having wound himself up to see her, he’d chosen to wait in his car.

How long could she be?

Too long.

He’d had time to dwell on the memory of the Christmas party. Another failure. He’d known how bruised she must be feeling. Discovering that you were adopted at her age must be like having the solid ground beneath your feet turn to quicksand.

He’d planned to talk to her, let her know that he was there for her, but then she’d turned up in that outrageous outfit with some underage muscle-bound jerk on her arm.

On one level he’d known that it was just her way of showing the older generation, her parents, his father, just how angry she was with all of them for lying to her and he didn’t blame her for that.

On a more primitive level…

He shook his head. He should have made more of an effort, he knew. Called her, found time for her, given her a chance to sound off and get it out of her system. He’d been busy, they’d both been busy, but how long did a phone call take?

Not that she’d needed him; the Australian might have been on the young side, but he’d had shoulders wide enough for half a dozen women to weep onto at once.

He’d just got to the stage of telling himself if he’d been there for her she wouldn’t have needed to reach for a stranger when she’d walked out of the building with Oliver Nash, at which point he’d offered a classic demonstration of how to make a fool of yourself without really trying.

Only Louise could do that to him.

He flipped open his cell phone, called Louise’s number. This is not personal, he told himself. This is not for me, it’s for Bella Lucia. If he could just stop thinking of her as a difficult, disturbing nuisance, start treating her as the talented professional she undoubtedly was, start listening instead of jumping in with both feet…

This time when the voicemail prompted him to leave a message, he said, ‘Louise, I know you’re busy.’ He paused. Whatever it took…‘When you have a moment I’d be grateful if you could spare me an hour to talk about the future, about Bella Lucia-’

‘Max…’ Lou’s voice cut in. He stared at the phone, frowned. Could you override voicemail and take the call?


He spun around.

Louise was caught in the light from the store windows, raindrops glistening in her hair, on the shoulders of her long black coat.

She’d ditched the cab, come after him, and for a moment he couldn’t find the breath to speak.

‘Louise…I was just leaving a message.’

‘I heard you.’ She was almost smiling, he thought. ‘You were so polite. You must be really desperate.’ Then, when he didn’t move, she spread her hands and glanced up at the sky, said, ‘So? Are we going to stand out here in the rain, or did you have a plan?’

‘A drink? Dinner?’ he said, scarcely able to believe his luck. She’d come back. ‘I know this really good Italian restaurant in the King’s Road.’

‘Dinner,’ she said, ‘but somewhere neutral. Not Bella Lucia.’

He clamped his jaw shut, suspecting that she was trying to provoke him. Hoping he’d give her another excuse to turn her back on him.

‘Anywhere,’ he said. ‘You decide.’

The restaurant she chose was close to her office and she was greeted with warmth by the staff. This, rather than Bella Lucia, was clearly the restaurant she used to meet with her clients, with the media people she was wooing.

His failure.

They were shown to their table, served quickly and efficiently, left to themselves and, much as it pained him to admit it, on this occasion she’d made the right choice. If they’d gone to one of his restaurants, his attention would have been constantly distracted by what was happening around them. His ears tuned to the reactions of fellow diners, listening out for problems instead of to her.

He’d seen his father act that way. The business had always been more important to him than anything. Anyone.

He’d tried to emulate him in business, if not in his personal life.

Tonight he needed to focus his full attention on Louise, put his whole heart into getting her on board.

It wasn’t difficult. At seventeen, when she’d returned from Italy a newly minted woman, she’d been stunning. The years since had only added layers of character, style, polish and it was easy to see why a man of any age would want to worship at her feet. He couldn’t afford to join them.

‘How was your trip to Australia?’ he asked. ‘Melbourne, wasn’t it? Did you enjoy it? What’s it like?’

‘Is that code for would it make a suitable venue for a Bella Lucia restaurant?’

She was warning him to back off, he realised, telling him that her other, newly discovered, family was nothing to do with him. He wanted to dispute that. She was a Valentine and all her family were important. This was not the time, however.

‘Are you suggesting that I have a one-track mind?’ he asked.

She took a sip of water. Said nothing.

Obviously she was.

‘So?’ he pressed, turning her question to his own advantage. Getting her to open up about Bella Lucia. ‘Melbourne? What do you think?’

‘I think you’re leaping to the conclusion that I give a damn about Bella Lucia.’

‘It’s fed, sheltered and kept the designer clothes on your back for two-thirds of your life,’ he reminded her. ‘Paid for the apartment that Uncle John gave you when you decided it was time to leave home. I think you might give the tiniest damn, don’t you?’

It was cruel. She blushed, swallowed, but he’d got her. She might be angry, bitter, but she knew what she owed to John and Ivy Valentine. She might not want to play happy families at the moment, but she wasn’t a fool, she must know she couldn’t walk away from them that easily and if she needed reminding, he’d be happy to oblige.

But while he’d hooked her, she wasn’t happy about it.

‘How do you plan a marketing campaign?’ he asked, bowing to her expertise, using flattery to reel her in. ‘Where do you start?’

For a moment she resisted, toyed with the linguine she’d ordered. He didn’t leap in, try to push her.

‘The first thing is to establish the brand,’ she said, at last.

‘Brand?’ He frowned. ‘We’re not one of Nash’s fast-food outlets.’

She dismissed his remark with an impatient gesture. ‘Don’t be so narrow in your thinking, Max.’ Then, ‘What do you think brings someone through the door of a Bella Lucia restaurant?’

‘It depends which someone. Which restaurant. They’re each unique. Individual in style, atmosphere. A man who met his colleagues for a business lunch at Berkeley Square would probably choose to take his wife for dinner in Knightsbridge, might have a coming-of-age celebration for one of his children in Chelsea.’

‘Who would he take to Qu’Arim?’

He thought about it. Thought who he’d take there, then shook his head to clear the image he had of Louise there. With him.

‘A woman he was in love with,’ he said. Then, ‘The oasis is the very essence of romance.’

‘A very over-used word.’ She regarded him for a moment, then said, ‘If it was a fabric, what would it be?’

‘A fabric?’

‘Cotton?’ she offered. ‘No? Cashmere? Tweed? Velvet? Linen? Silk?’ She ticked them off on her fingers.

‘Silk,’ he said. ‘With a touch of cashmere.’

‘And if it was a time of day?’

‘Night,’ he said, before she could list the options. ‘Black with a sliver of moon, stars close enough to touch.’

‘Every man a desert sheikh, every woman his captive slave? That’s not romance, Max, that’s a sexual fantasy.’

‘Is that bad?’

‘Probably not,’ she admitted, a touch ruefully. ‘It’s not very PC to say this but sex sells.’ Then, more to herself than him, ‘I wonder what a woman’s response would be.’

His smile was slow, thoughtful. ‘I’ll take you there. Then you can tell me.’

‘I’m the one conducting a market survey,’ she said, swiftly evading the elephant trap she’d so carelessly dug for herself. ‘Tell me more.’

He needed no prompting to describe the setting of the resort, the undiluted luxury. ‘We’re very fortunate, Lou. Surim could have had his pick of international restaurateurs.’

‘The old school tie is still worth something, then.’

‘If you’re going to save someone from a beating, it might as well be a future head of state,’ he agreed.

Louise shook her head. ‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to be quite that cynical. I know you’re good friends. Do you still play polo in his team?’

‘Not recently. It’s tough finding time to keep match fit.’

‘You need to get out from behind the desk, Max. All work and no play-’

‘Says the lady who’s just worked a ten-hour day.’

‘Twelve, actually.’ She pulled a face, shrugged. ‘I was at the office at eight. But it’s only while I’m working on the HOTfood relaunch.’ Then, quickly, moving on before he could say anything about pots and kettles, ‘Okay, tell me about the food at the new restaurant. Mediterranean? Arabic? What is there beyond tabbouleh, hummus, the mezza?’

He smiled at her ignorance. ‘Arab cuisine was once the most sophisticated in the entire world, Louise, embraced by the mediaeval courts of Europe.’

‘Really? I like that. Tell me more.’

As she pushed him for details, forcing him to reach beyond the basics, Max actually began to relax, feel that this was, after all, going to be possible.

‘I meant it when I said I’d take you there. I’d like you to see it for yourself.’

‘And after Qu’Arim, what then?’ she asked, not picking up on his invitation, but not refusing it, either. ‘How far and how fast are you planning to take this?’

‘How big is the world? The Americas, Asia, Europe.’

‘Europe? Have you considered Meridia?’

‘Obviously it’s on the list.’

‘I suggest you put it at the top. Bella Lucia catered for the coronation, and now that your sister is Queen I’d have a bidding war from the gossip mags to cover the opening of a new restaurant there.’

‘We don’t display our clientele for the media, Lou. We give them privacy.’

‘Okay, I could use that as an angle. Pictures of the interior preopening offering a glimpse of something most people will never see. Mystery, privacy, the unattainable. A glimpse of lace is always more intriguing than total nudity.’

Max found himself staring at the cashmere sweater Louise was wearing. It was some complicated wrap-around thing that crossed over her breasts, offering no more than a suggestion of cleavage, a promise of hidden delights. She didn’t have to explain the allure of the unattainable to him. He’d lived with it for as long as he could remember.


‘THAT rather depends on who’s wearing the lace,’ Max said abruptly. ‘And what she looks like when she’s shed it.’

Louise raised an eyebrow. What was eating him?

‘You’ve spent more time in Meridia than I have,’ he went on, before she could ask. ‘What are the options for us there?’

She shrugged, let it go. ‘What are the limits of your imagination? Somewhere really sumptuous high up in the old part of the capital, near the castle. Or maybe something completely different. A place where families could sit outside and eat in the summer. Maybe somewhere with a dock, since everybody seems to have a boat.’

Seeing it in her mind’s eye, she was suddenly seized with enthusiasm, her thoughts running faster than she could say them.