‘A lakeside pavilion, perhaps. Something…’
‘Something what?’ Max prompted.
‘Um…Something simple, uncluttered, informal,’ she said, suddenly realising that she was using her hands to describe her thoughts. She’d always done that. Her mother used to say it was her Italian ancestry coming out. Nonsense, of course. There was no Italian connection; John Valentine had been born before his father had ever met Lucia. But then her entire history had been founded on lies…
‘How soon can you wind up your business and join us, Louise?’ he asked, cutting into the black thoughts that threatened to engulf her.
Bringing her back to earth.
‘Excuse me?’ Her tone was deceptively mild. Her assistant would have winced. But for a few minutes there she’d let herself imagine a different future, forget reality, but Max never let her down. Already he was assuming he’d won, but then he was a man programmed never to lose.
‘Why on earth would I give up a business I’ve built from scratch to come and work for you?’
Max smiled. ‘It’s a bit late to start pretending you’re not interested, Lou.’
‘I…’In her enthusiasm she’d leaned into the table and suddenly realised just how close they were. Close enough for her to drown in dangerously deep blue eyes that had been mesmerising her for as long as she could remember. Close enough to catch the warm, male scent of his skin. To feel the tug of something she’d been resisting since she was old enough to understand that it was wrong.
She sat back, putting enough distance between them to feel, if not safe, then in control. ‘My interest is purely professional, Max.’
There had been a time she would have died of happiness to have Max wanting her, needing her, but there was no way she’d give up her independence and crawl back under the shelter of the Valentine umbrella. Not now. She didn’t need them. Didn’t need him.
‘Apart from anything else, I’m considering branching out myself,’ she said, ‘opening an office in Melbourne, using that as my base in Australia.’
He looked as if she’d hit him with a club.
She might have enjoyed that more if she hadn’t been swept away, just for a moment, thinking what might have been. If anyone but Max were involved.
‘You have a life, a family here,’ he protested.
‘You think so? Now Dad’s skeletons have climbed out of the closet I find myself excess to requirements.’
Max looked as if he was going to deny it, but they’d both seen just how far John Valentine would go for sons he’d only just discovered existed. Even when one of them had nearly ruined the company, he’d still been sheltered, cared for. Loved.
‘Have you told your parents? That you’re considering moving to Australia?’
Louise swallowed. ‘Not yet.’
‘You’re hurting, I understand that, but don’t cut yourself off from your family, Louise.’
Family, family…He was always going on about the precious family; as a boy he’d spent more time with hers than with his own…
‘I take it the toy boy is part of the plan,’ he said, an edge to his voice that could have cut glass.
Relieved to be out of the quicksand of family relationships, she managed an arch, ‘Are you, by any chance, referring to Cal Jameson?’
‘If he’s the one who was all over you at the Christmas party, then yes, that’s who I mean.’
‘He wasn’t all over me,’ she declared.
So much for her vow to keep her cool. With Max, that was only ever going to be a temporary measure.
‘Oh, please. You arrived at the Christmas party dressed like some centrefold Santa-’
‘I always come as Santa!’
With the long-running friction between her father and Uncle Robert-Max’s father-the family Christmas party was a minefield of tension at the best of times and she’d taken to turning up in a Santa suit bearing a sack filled with clever little presents matched to each member of the family. Her contribution to peace on earth in the Valentine family; bath oil on troubled waters.
This year, though, there had been two new family members; the sons that John Valentine hadn’t known existed until a few months ago. Her only reason for pouring oil would have been to set fire to it so she’d abandoned the traditional ‘ho, ho, ho’ Santa outfit in favour of a red suede miniskirt with matching boots, a white angora crop top and a mistletoe navel ring-one that lit up and flashed in the dark.
Her cheeks heated at the memory. With the twenty-twenty vision of hindsight it was obvious that inviting Cal to kiss her under the mistletoe-purely to wind up a scowling Max-had been a mistake.
She should have anticipated that he’d ask, ‘How far under…’
‘I have family in Australia,’ she said, quickly, before Max made the kind of remark guaranteed to provoke her beyond reason. ‘A married sister.’
‘You barely know her,’ he pointed out, infuriatingly reasonable.
‘And already I like her a lot better than I like you. Nothing has changed, Max!’ She stood up, desperate to escape, desperate for air. ‘I don’t need this.’
He was on his feet, blocking her exit before she could take a step. ‘You need it,’ he said. ‘You need it like breathing. Admit it. You’re lit up with excitement at the thought of coming back.’ She shook her head, but he repeated the words. ‘Lit up like the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square.’
‘You’re a Valentine, Lou. Bella Lucia is in your blood.’
She almost gasped at his lack of understanding. Where had he been the last few months? Had he any idea…?
No. Of course not. Max didn’t do ‘feeling’. He was so utterly focussed on Bella Lucia, so absorbed by it, that he didn’t need normal human emotion.
Well, she would just have to explain it to him. In words of one syllable…
‘Is that what you really think?’ she demanded.
‘It’s what I know. It’s what I see-’
‘Shall I tell you what I’ll be doing tomorrow?’ she demanded, not interested in what he could see. The question was purely rhetorical; she was going to tell him whether he wanted to know or not. ‘I’m going to be taking afternoon tea in the restaurant on the top floor of the National Portrait Gallery. Minimalist elegance, smoked salmon sandwiches and great views should conversation prove difficult.’
‘Why should it prove difficult?’ Then, barely able to conceal his satisfaction, ‘You’re kissing off the Australian?’
‘What? No…’ She swiped at the air in front of her face, pushing his interruption away, pushing him away, the pervasive power of his presence. ‘Cal isn’t…’
‘Cal isn’t any of your business,’ she snapped. ‘I’m meeting my mother, tomorrow.’ Then, just to be sure he understood, ‘Not your aunt, Max. Not Ivy Valentine.’ Not the woman who, all her life, she’d been told was her mother. ‘I’m meeting Patricia Simpson Harcourt, the total stranger who, it seems, actually gave birth to me. The woman who’ll be able to tell me who my father was, what he looked like, because the only thing I do know about him is that he wasn’t John Valentine.’
‘You do see, don’t you?’ she asked, cutting short his attempt to interrupt, to tell her that it didn’t matter. Because it did. ‘You do see how wrong you are? Valentine blood does not flow through my veins. Not one drop of it. The only liquid connecting me to the Valentine family is the ink on the adoption certificate.’
‘Please, Lou.’ He caught her hand, refusing to let her pass him. Escape. ‘Don’t do anything hasty. Bella Lucia needs you.’ Then, almost as if it hurt him to say the words, he finally said what she’d always wanted to hear. ‘I need you.’
His words brought her up short. She might mock his dedication, but Max had always been the one everyone else depended on. The one that everyone else turned to in a crisis. For him to admit that he needed anyone had to be a first. For him to admit that he needed her…
‘Y-you sacked me,’ she said, more to remind herself what he’d done than jog his memory. It had been a scene neither of them was likely to forget. ‘In front of the entire restaurant. You didn’t care that I was family then-’
‘That was the problem, Lou,’ he cut in. Then, more gently, ‘That was always the problem.’
‘I-I don’t understand.’
Of course she did. As a girl she’d worshipped him. She should have grown up, got over it. It hadn’t worked out like that. Quite the contrary. Even now he had the power to reduce her to a gibbering idiot, a mass of exposed hormones. All it took was the touch of his hand to turn her to jelly. If she didn’t get out of here now…
‘Don’t you?’ he insisted. ‘Are you really that stupid?’
‘Thanks for that, Max,’ she said, snatching away her hand. For a moment she’d thought that maybe, just maybe, they could make a fresh start but she’d been fooling herself. ‘You’ve just reminded me why I’d rather starve than work for you.’
As Louise strode towards the door a waiter held out her coat. She didn’t pause to let him help her into it, but grabbed it and as he leapt to open the door walked out into the cold rain.
She glanced up and down the street, hoping to spot a cruising cab, but there wasn’t a sign of one and, without stopping to put on her coat, she began to walk.
‘Not one drop…’
Max was rooted to the spot for long seconds as her words echoed in his head, as the reality of what that meant sank in.
‘Shall I bring the bill, sir?’
The waiter’s voice jerked him out of the moment of revelation and he realised that he was letting Louise walk away, that if he didn’t do something to stop her right now he’d have lost her, or, worse, that she wouldn’t stop walking until she was out of all their lives. Not just lost to him, but to the family who loved her.
Not bothering to reply, he tossed a credit card on the table and headed for the door.
The same waiter, apparently anticipating his reaction, was holding his coat out and the door open so that nothing should impede him.
Louise was walking swiftly along the street, the high heels of her boots ringing against the wet pavement, her coat trailing from her hand. The fact that she was oblivious to the rain now coming down in torrents, soaking her hair, soaking her through to the skin, gave him hope.
She was upset, angry. If she didn’t care, she would be neither.
‘Louise!’ His voice echoed along the empty street, but she neither slowed nor quickened her pace, made no sign that she’d heard him. ‘Wait!’
A cab turned the corner and, ignoring him, she raised a hand to hail it, forcing him to sprint along the pavement to head her off.
‘Here’s a point for you,’ he said breathlessly as he leaned against the door, blocking her escape.
She didn’t protest, just turned away as another cab appeared, but he reached out, caught her hand before she could summon it.
‘Here’s a point for you,’ he repeated more gently as with his free hand he picked a strand of wet hair from her cheek and tucked it behind her ear. Held it there. ‘You were adopted.’
‘Hallelujah,’ she said, but she didn’t move, didn’t toss her head to dislodge his hand. ‘For once in your life you were listening.’
Her words were spiky but her voice was ragged, hurting.
She was looking up at him, her eyes leaden in the street lighting, her lashes clumped together by the rain pouring down her cheeks. Or maybe it was tears and for a moment the impulse to kiss her almost overwhelmed him.
He’d paid heed to the warning voice in his head all his adult life. Kept his distance even when the only thing in his head had been to stop her anger with his mouth, knowing that she wanted it, too; was goading him, tormenting him, tempting him to do something about the primal response that arc’d between them whenever they were in the same room; urging him to self-destruct. Now there was no impediment, no barrier, only hard-won self-restraint, some instinct warning him that this was not the moment.
‘I was listening,’ he told her, his voice cool, even though every other part of him was burning hot.
So kissing her suddenly seemed the most important thing in the entire world.
This is about the restaurant, not you!
He ignored the voice of common sense. This was important…
‘So you’re not my cousin, Louise.’
‘Give the man a coconut-’
Her skin felt like wet silk beneath his fingers. Her mouth was full and dark and suddenly all the wasted ‘touch not’ years crowded in on him, urging him to taste it, taste her.
‘And if we’re not cousins,’ he continued, a little shakily, ‘we don’t have a problem, do we?’
Not now, idiot! Bella Lucia is more important than scratching a ten year itch.
You’ll blow the whole deal if you kiss her, because it wouldn’t stop at a kiss. She’d come along for the ride, she wouldn’t be able to help herself, but what then? She’d never forgive you…
But she’d come…
‘We don’t?’ she asked, a tiny frown creasing the centre of her forehead. She drew in a breath as if to pursue it further, then shook her head, clearly thinking better of it. ‘You’re taking me for granted, Max,’ she said.
He denied it, but without sufficient conviction to stop her.
‘Yes! You believe that all you have to do is turn up, snap your fingers and I’ll fall in line. I have a career, a successful business, a life of my own-’
‘I know,’ he said. ‘I know. You owe me nothing. But think of Bella Lucia. Think of your father…’
She jerked free of his touch then and he knew that in clumsily mentioning her father, he’d made things worse rather than better. She could have no idea how he’d felt as he’d watched her with her parents. Proper parents who always put her first. Doted on her…
She was hurting too much to listen to him tell her how lucky she was. How lucky she’d been all her life. Right now, he suspected, there was nothing he could say that would help. Maybe he would, after all, have been better served by less thought, more action but he’d missed the moment, allowed her to climb back on her high horse.
‘Enough,’ he said, letting it go. ‘You’re wet through.’ He took her coat, wrapped it around her shoulders. ‘You need to go home, get warm.’ He opened the cab door, saw her safely in and this time resisted the temptation to join her, but instead, on an impulse, said, ‘Would you like some company tomorrow?’
Louise couldn’t think straight. They weren’t cousins. Well, she’d understood that. In theory. She just hadn’t thought through what that meant. Hadn’t anticipated exactly how she’d feel in that dangerous moment when, for a heartbeat, she’d been sure Max had been about to kiss her. Finally. At last…
‘When you meet this woman who says she’s your mother,’ he prompted, bringing her back to earth.
‘She is my mother.’
‘Is she? Really? More so than Ivy? I’m sorry, but it’s hard for me to get my head around that.’