‘Really?’ She heard the sarcasm fuelled by frustration, disappointment, dripping from her voice. Why hadn’t he kissed her? What else could he have meant when he’d said they ‘didn’t have a problem’? ‘Well, if you find it hard, why don’t you try putting yourself in my shoes?’

‘Don’t be so defensive, Lou.’

‘Defensive?’ He thought she was being defensive? ‘You think I should be sweet, biddable, good little Louise and not make a fuss, hmm?’

‘Sweet? Biddable?’ He shook his head, might have been fighting a smile; his face was shadowed and it was hard to tell. ‘Sorry, sweetheart, I know that you’ve managed to fool the older generation with that myth since you were old enough to work out that a smile would bring you more than a scowl, but you’ve always managed to keep that side of yourself well hidden around me,’ he said. Seeing her sarcasm and raising it to scorn.

About to respond in kind, tell him that if she did, it was his fault, she clamped her mouth shut. The truth was that he brought out the very worst in her, that even now, angry as she was, all she wanted was to drag him into the cab with her and be very, very bad indeed.

She took a slow breath. She was losing control. Again. She’d got away with it once this evening; she wasn’t going to risk it twice.

She’d always known she would do what he wanted, that despite everything she owed the family who’d raised her that kind of loyalty, but she hated the fact that it was Max who was doing the arm-twisting. She’d do it, but on her own terms.

Set her own price.

Not money…

And an idea slipped into her mind and lodged there.

She shook her head, forced herself to look at him. ‘I don’t need anyone to hold my hand, Max.’

‘You have no idea how you’ll feel. I won’t intrude, but if you knew that there was a friend nearby. Someone you could talk to…’

‘You?’ she enquired, coolly, rescuing him as he ran out of platitudes. ‘Can you really spare the time? With all those restaurants to run,’ she reminded him.

‘I’ll make time.’

Her only response was to raise one eyebrow. It was not original, but he got the point.

‘I promise.’

‘Oh, right. So tell me, Max, would that be like the time you promised to escort me to my school prom?’ She didn’t wait for Max to come up with some plausible excuse for leaving her all dressed up, without a date, for the biggest night of her young life. Her father wouldn’t let her out that late with anyone else. Not that she’d wanted anyone else. ‘At the very moment when all the phones in the world apparently stopped working,’ she added.

‘You know what happened,’ he protested. ‘Dad was shorthanded in the restaurant.’ And he was the one thrown back on the defensive, dragging fingers through his thick, cropped hair in a gesture that was achingly familiar. ‘Before I knew it, it was gone ten and there was no way I could get there in time. You know what it’s like-’

‘Yes, Max, I know.’ She knew only too well what his promises were worth. ‘It was like the time you promised to pick me up and take me to the airport.’

He frowned.

‘No? Well, you didn’t remember then, either, but don’t worry, it’s not one of those once-in-a-lifetime, never-to-be-repeated experiences; there’s always another plane.’ She suspected she was hurting herself more than him by dredging up all the times when, caught up in work, he’d let her down. But for once he was forced to listen and she persisted. ‘And as for the time you left me stranded-’

‘I’ll be there, Louise,’ he said, cutting her off. ‘I’ll be there,’ he repeated, but gently.

Gently, she thought, he might just destroy her. She couldn’t allow him to be gentle.

‘If nothing more important comes up.’

But she was safe. Something always did. She knew that once he was working Max forgot everything, everyone else. That he always put the success of the restaurants, his responsibility towards the staff, before his personal life. Maybe that was the reason for the constant stream of girlfriends. It didn’t, as she could testify, do much for a girl’s self-esteem to be stood up for a restaurant.

‘I won’t hold my breath.’

Not waiting for more protestations of sincerity, she reached forward and pulled the door shut, gave the driver her address and huddled down beneath her coat, her teeth chattering as reaction set in.

Max watched as the taxi pulled away, disappeared into the murk of a wet January night, hard pressed to decide whether he was angrier with Louise for being so unreasonable, so prickly, or himself for not doing better. Not that there was anything he could do about it now.

What he could do, must do, was return to the restaurant and make his excuses for their abrupt departure. And give his card to the waiter who’d impressed him with his quick thinking, tell him to call if he ever needed a job.

Even as he did it, he knew that if she could see him Louise would curl her lip, give him the look that said, ‘See? Business first, last and always…’

Maybe she had a point, but tomorrow she was guaranteed his undivided attention. Even if the roof fell in at all three London restaurants at the same time he would be there for her and not only because he would do anything to get her on board.

He’d be there because she was in grave danger of cutting all family ties, walking away. Her anger, her sense of betrayal, was clouding her judgement. But then she’d never been without two loving parents. Never, in her whole life, known what it was like to feel alone. Never would, if he had anything to do with it.

At least with him she’d never been afraid to show her feelings. Quite the opposite. And he smiled. For once, that might be a good thing.

Taking his own advice, he thawed out under a hot shower, running through the ideas Louise had tossed out over dinner. He’d just seen expansion as more of the same, but she’d seen the danger of turning Bella Lucia into an upmarket chain, with the expectation that each one would offer the same menu, the same experience, no matter where in the world you happened to be.

That wasn’t what they did. Each of their London restaurants was different in atmosphere, style, clientele. They had to carry that across the globe. Use that individuality as their ‘brand’.

Already questions were piling up, ideas he wanted to bounce off her; he wanted to be able to pick up the phone now and carry on where they’d left off before he’d blown it all with one careless phrase. What was it she’d said? That she’d rather starve than work for him?

Despite the frustration, he grinned.

Starve? He didn’t think so. Bella Lucia had been part of her life since she was old enough to lift a spoon; she’d have come back like a shot if Jack had stayed to run the company.

She didn’t have a problem with the business. She had a problem with him.

So what would it take to get her to swallow that bitter pill? What would tempt her to work for him? Keep her from leaving the country and starting up again on the other side of the world?

There had to be a way. There was always a way. For anyone else it would simply be a question of money; how much would it take? But this was more than a job for Louise, just as it was more than a job for him.

For him it had become his life.

What could he offer her that she wouldn’t be able to turn down?

And the same internal voice that had warned him so violently against kissing her was now taunting him, saying, If you’d kissed her she’d be all yours…

What did you wear to meet your birth mother for the first time? Something sweet and girly? The kind of clothes that a mother would want to see her daughter wearing? The kind of clothes that Ivy had bought for her. Pretty clothes. Good girl clothes. Hair bands, pie-crust frill blouses, modest skirts, an embarrassingly modest sugar-pink prom dress that had made her look exactly her age, rather than all grown up. A dress she’d modified so that the minute she reached the safety of the hotel she was going to replace the ghastly sweetheart bodice with a black strapless top that would knock Max for six.

She’d never been quite the Little-Miss-Perfect that her mother had believed her to be. Even at sixteen, she’d wanted Max to look at her, to hold her, to desire her. Her deepest longings, darkest thoughts, had always involved him.

How bad was that?

She’d been exhausted when she’d finally fallen into bed, but her sleep had been disturbed by a continuous flow of ideas for Bella Lucia. She should be totally focussed on the final run-up to the HOTfood launch at the end of week, but her sleeping mind had moved on; it was only when she’d tried to interest Max-always too busy to listen-that she’d been jerked awake, shivering.

She had to forget him, forget Bella Lucia, she told herself as she flipped through the classics that were the mainstay of her wardrobe these days. Elegant dresses for the evening, designer suits.

She’d temporarily abandoned them when she was in Australia; staying with Jodie she’d gone beach-girl casual, not just in her clothes, but in her attitude to life. Well, that hadn’t lasted long before she’d been summoned home when her father had found a great big hole in the tax fund account. Already it seemed like a lifetime away.

Then her hand brushed against her shock-the-family red suede miniskirt.

It had worked, too.

Her mother had definitely not approved but she hadn’t said a word. Just tightened her lips and forced a smile. Even welcomed Cal to the family party.

Max, of course, as always, had curled his lip and kept his distance.

She could never decide whether that was better or worse than his insults. On this occasion he’d quickly turned to flirting with Maddie, ignoring both her and her outrageous Christmas outfit.

From the way he’d reacted last night, however, it was obvious that he’d taken in every detail. And despite everything she smiled as her fingers lingered against the softness of the leather; no question, he’d noticed.

‘Pitiful,’ she muttered, pushing the skirt away, trying to push away the memory. Disgusted with herself for behaving so badly.

Certain that Max’s perfect recall would be missing when it came to his promise to turn up this afternoon.

He’d have a million more important things to do than hang around an art gallery in the unlikely event that she might need one of his broad shoulders to cry on.

As if.

Not that she cared. It mattered not one jot to her whether he turned up or not. Any more than it mattered which suit, which shoes, she wore today.

She didn’t need anyone. Not the mother who’d given her away, not the mother who’d lied to her and definitely not the man whose promises were about as reliable as the forecast of sun on a public holiday.

She blinked back the tears and, catching sight of herself in the mirror, pulled a face.

Oh, for goodness’ sake! Who did she think she was kidding? Today of all days she had to look fabulous and twenty minutes later she was on her way to the office wearing a head-turning dark plum suit with a nipped-in waist, a silk camisole a shade or two lighter and ultra high-heeled suede peep-toe shoes that had cost a mint, but exactly matched her suit.

The luscious matching silk underwear she wore purely for her own pleasure.

‘You’re cutting it fine, Lou.’ Gemma, her PA, held out her coat, pointedly. ‘There’s a taxi waiting for you.’

‘Thanks. If Oliver calls back about-’

‘I’ll handle it. Go.’

‘But you’ll need…’


‘Okay! I’m gone…’

She’d thought the day would drag, but in truth it had flown by with barely a moment in which to draw breath. Cramming in a last minute meeting had left her with no time to clock-watch, ponder the coming meeting, how it would be to come face to face with the woman who’d given birth to her before surrendering her to a stranger. Suddenly that didn’t seem such a great thing. Excitement, anticipation churned with fear in her stomach and she wanted time to slow down. Wanted to put this off…

Wanted someone to hold her hand.

Would he be there? Max…

The clock on the tower of St Martin’s-in-the-Fields had already nudged past four as she paid off the taxi and walked through the door of the National Portrait Gallery.

She didn’t linger, didn’t look around to see if Max had, for once, kept his word. She wanted it too much. Better not to know, to be able to pretend he was there in the shadows watching over her. And if, by some miracle he was there, she wouldn’t want him to know how much it mattered. How scared she was. So, looking neither to left nor right, she headed straight for the lift, punched the button for the top floor where the restaurant provided a rooftop view of Trafalgar Square, distant Westminster, the Eye…

She’d heard all about her mother from Jodie, of course, although she suspected that her half-sister had glossed over the bad bits-and there were always difficulties in the mother/ daughter relationship-wanting her to be able to make up her own mind. Knew what to expect. In theory.

She’d seen photographs.

She’d always thought she looked like Ivy Valentine; everyone, even the few members of the family who’d known the truth, had always said how much like Ivy she was-perpetuating the lie.

Once she’d seen a photograph of Patricia Simpson, however, she’d seen the lie for what it was. Here, in the shape of the eyes, the way her hair curved across her forehead, something about the chin, was a genetic imprint that unmistakably linked them and she’d never doubted for a moment that she was looking at her birth mother.

She stepped from the lift, hesitated. Took a moment to steady her breathing, slow her heart-rate, just as she did before a big presentation. Putting on a show…

Then she walked into the restaurant.

She’d imagined looking around, hunting her mother out, but there was no missing her. She might be in her early fifties, but she was still a head-turner.

Her red hair, no doubt kept that way with chemical assistance these days, slid sensuously across her cheek. Her long, finely muscled dancer’s legs were crossed to advantage, showing off high insteps, exquisite shoes.

She was sitting by the window, but she wasn’t looking at the view. Instead she was chatting to a man sitting at a nearby table, chin propped on her hand, her throaty laugh reaching across the room. He couldn’t take his eyes off her and neither could Louise.

Seeing the reality was like the difference between an old black and white movie and Technicolor.

For a moment she couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t move.

A waiter hovered to seat her, but she ignored him. The rest of the room disappeared. There was only her mother and, as if somehow sensing her presence, Patricia Simpson Harcourt looked up and their eyes connected.


LOUISE had tried to imagine this moment. Picture it in her mind. What would she say? Would they shake hands? Hug?

Her mother stood up in what appeared to be slow motion and Louise began to walk towards her, barely conscious of a floor that felt like marshmallow beneath her feet.