Neither of them said a word, they just reached for each other, clung to each other for what seemed like an age, until gradually the sounds of the restaurant, other people talking, the clink of a spoon, began to impinge on the small bubble of silence and they parted, Patricia holding her at arm’s length.
‘Well, look at you!’ she finally said. ‘You’re so beautiful.’ Then, with a grin, ‘And you have such great taste in shoes!’
Louise shook her head. Shoes? ‘It’s obvious where I got it from…’ she began, hesitated, her tongue tripping over the word she’d been rehearsing, but there was no way she could call this glamorous woman “Mother”, or “Mum”. ‘I don’t know what to call you,’ she said.
There was only the briefest hesitation before she replied, ‘Patsy, darling. Call me Patsy.’ She turned away quickly, smiled and nodded at a hovering waiter. ‘I’ve already ordered,’ she said, sitting down. Then, head slightly to one side, ‘Louise? It suits you. I was going to call you…’
‘Nothing. Pure indulgence.’ Then, ‘Zoë. I was going to call you Zoë.’
‘I’d have liked that.’
‘Yes, well, it wasn’t meant to be.’
Louise waited. She wanted to ask the big question. Why? Instead she said, ‘I only found out that I was adopted a few months ago. If I’d known, I’d have looked for you before.’
‘Things happen for a reason. Ten years ago I was not the person I am now; I might have been bad for you.’ She smiled. ‘The earth turns, things change. Now is the right time for us to get to know one another.’
‘Maybe…’ But it wasn’t her mother she was thinking about. What had happened had been out of her control. With Max things were different. It was her decision.
Everything would be so different this time…
Without warning her body seemed to tingle with anticipation, excitement.
She gave a little shiver. ‘Sorry?’
‘I said that there’s no point in dwelling on what might have been.’ Then, looking at her more closely, ‘Are you all right? This must all have come as something of a shock to you.’
‘No. I’m fine.’…we don’t have a problem…‘Can I ask you about my father?’
‘Oh, well…There’s not a lot to tell.’
‘His name?’ she prompted.
‘Jimmy. Jimmy Masters.’ She gave a little sigh. ‘He rode a motorbike, wore a leather jacket, smouldered like a cut-price James Dean. He was totally irresistible. Not that I tried very hard,’ she confessed, with a rueful smile. ‘To resist him. He took off, never to be seen again, the minute I told him he was going to be a daddy.’ She shook her head. ‘I didn’t want to give you up, Louise. It was hard, I had no idea how hard it would be, but everyone said you’d have a better life with a good family.’ She leaned forward and took her hand. ‘I’ve only got to look at you to know that I made the right decision.’
She did? That wasn’t quite what Louise had wanted to hear. She wanted regret, remorse. Instead, beneath that bright, confident smile, Louise realised, Patsy needed to be reassured, to be told that she’d done the right thing.
Just like everyone else, her birth mother wanted her to understand, absolve her from her guilt…
‘I’ve had a lovely life,’ Louise said.
It was true, she had.
She’d been cherished, loved, given everything she’d ever wanted. Everything except the truth. The companionship of a sister she hadn’t known existed…
They’d all known. Her grandparents, Max’s parents. And they’d all lied. The bitterness was as strong, as tangible as the aloes her nanny had painted on her fingernails to stop her from biting them.
But she couldn’t get past the fact that she’d had a blessed life. That she owed them for that. She’d always intended to help with Bella Lucia-once Max could bring himself to ask nicely. She would repay them with her time, her skill and then she would be free to do whatever she wanted. Be whoever she wanted to be. The only thing she wasn’t prepared to do was give up the business she’d worked so hard to build, give up her independence.
It more important than ever now.
And, in a heartbeat, she understood a little of what Bella Lucia meant to Max. It had been the one fixed point in his life. When his parents had packed him off to boarding school to get him out of their hair, when Aunt Georgina had disappeared for months on end on some painting expedition with her latest lover, when his father had been drooling over his latest wife, Bella Lucia had been his rock…
While she had two mothers who cared about her, who had ever been there for him? They’d been so close once…Because of what her family had done, their lies, he’d lost that, too.
Without warning tears stung against her lids, not for herself this time, but for Max and to distract her she picked up her bag, opened it, said, ‘I’ve brought you some photographs. If you’d like them?’
And suddenly they were both blinking and laughing as she produced a little wallet filled with her firsts: first steps, first birthday, first day at school in a blazer a size too big with her hat set just so, so that the badge showed…
‘Oh, please, put them away and look at them later, or we’ll both end up with panda-eyes,’ Louise said, torn between laughter and tears. ‘I want to hear about you, Patsy. Jodie told me you’ve just got married again. Tell me about Derek.’
She lit up. ‘Every woman should have a man like Derek Harcourt in her life.’ As she poured the tea the blaze of diamonds on her left hand caught the lights. ‘He really cares about me. Keeps me on the straight and narrow with my diet-I’m a diabetic, did you know?’ she said, pulling a face.
‘Jodie told me.’
‘You’ll need to keep an eye on your own health. It’s hereditary.’
‘I’ll take care.’ Then, ‘Tell me about your honeymoon trip. You went on a cruise?’
‘It was heaven…’ Once she was off, the conversation never lagged.
They talked about Jodie, Australia, Louise’s business. About everything but the Valentine family. It was like talking to someone she’d known all her life. But eventually the conversation came back around to her.
‘I have my Derek and Jodie has her Heath. What about you, sweetie?’ Patsy asked. ‘They say everything happens in threes. Is there anyone special in your life?’
In that split second before she spoke, Louise remembered the way that Max had looked at her. The way she’d felt…
‘No,’ she said, quickly, but even as the word left her mouth a little voice was saying, No problem. No impediment. Nothing to stop you…
Her mother raised one perfectly groomed brow and Louise distracted her with tales about old boyfriends. The ones she might have married if they’d asked.
‘Just as well they didn’t ask,’ she said, laughing. ‘It would have been a total disaster.’
She didn’t tell her about the one she’d convinced herself was everything she was looking for in a husband: the one who’d told her to stop fooling herself before he’d walked away.
‘I hate to say goodbye,’ Patsy said as, finally, they walked towards the lift. Then, when she didn’t immediately respond, ‘You do want to see me again?’
Louise, momentarily distracted by the back view of Max, apparently absorbed in a painting, said, ‘Yes, yes, of course I do.’
He’d actually turned up, had waited in case she needed him.
‘I, um, want to meet Derek, too.’
The lift arrived and Patsy stepped in, holding the door. Louise forced herself not to glance back and stepped in beside her, arranged dinner for the next week, then hugged her mother goodbye on the pavement before seeing her into a taxi.
‘You’re sure I can’t give you a lift?’ she asked, from the back of the cab.
‘No. I’m fine. I’ll give you a call about next week.’
She waited, waved as she drove off. Then turned and walked back into the gallery, took the lift back up to the top floor.
When the doors opened, she saw that Max had not moved and she didn’t know whether she was irritated by his certainty that she’d come back, or warmed by the fact that he’d waited for her. There were no clear cut lines with him.
‘I thought it was best to stay put,’ he said, as she held the door and he stopped pretending, joined her in the lift, ‘or we might have been chasing one another around the houses for the next ten minutes.’
‘Only if I came back,’ she pointed out, trying not to smile, but without much success.
‘True.’ He seemed to be finding it easy enough to keep a straight face. Then, ‘You’re very like her.’
‘Yes. It’s strange. All my life people have been telling me I’m like my…Like Ivy Valentine…’
‘She’s still your mother, Lou. She was the one who raised you. And you are like her. Okay, some of it’s superficial, chance. Your colouring, height. But it’s not just that. You hold your head the way she does, you use the same gestures. You have her class.’
‘You don’t think Patsy has class?’
‘It’s a bit late in the day to start calling her Mum, don’t you think?’ She shrugged, as if it didn’t matter. ‘She asked me to call her that.’
‘It suits her,’ he said, taking her arm as they headed for the door.
She stiffened momentarily, then forced herself to relax. If she pulled away, he’d think that what he said, did, mattered to her.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ she asked, once they were outside, but keeping her voice light.
He held up his hands in mock surrender. ‘She’s classy.’
‘Not quite the same thing.’
‘What can I say? She’s a real head-turner, Lou.’ Then, with a wry grin, ‘Don’t let her near my father. He has a fatal weakness for that chorus-girl-fallen-on-good-times look.’
‘Your father has a fatal weakness for women full-stop.’
‘Life has never been dull,’ he agreed, and it was Louise who found herself reaching out to him, tucking her arm through his as they walked away from the square. ‘I don’t think you understand how lucky you’ve been. How much I envied you the sheer ordinariness of your family.’
‘It’s what boys yearn for. Parents who don’t attract attention.’
‘Oh, dear. Bad luck,’ she said, laughing. ‘How is Aunt Georgina? Where is she?’
‘In Mexico, painting up a storm. Apparently the light is magical. She’s living with someone called Jose who’s half her age.’ He looked at her. ‘Ring Ivy, Louise. Don’t abandon something precious to chase rainbows.’
She shook her head. Unwilling to admit that he was right. But Max had been no more than a toddler when his parents had split up. Since then there had been a succession of stepmothers, half-siblings, step-siblings from his father. Drama and lovers from his mother. No one, she thought, had ever put Max first. It was scarcely any wonder that he had given all his heart, his loyalty to the business. Bella Lucia had never hurt him.
She looked up, but not far; in her high heels her eyes were nearly on a level with his.
‘I will call her,’ she promised.
‘Soon.’ Then, because all that hurt too much to think about, ‘Chorus girl fallen on good times?’
‘The glamour, the clothes, the diamonds in those rings…’
‘So what you’re saying is that she’s a classy “broad” rather than a product of the finishing school, debutante system? Now I’m afraid to ask what I owe to nature as opposed to nurture.’
It was the height of the rush-hour and Max, sensing approaching quicksand, used the excuse of looking around for a cruising cab to avoid her direct gaze.
‘Well?’ she demanded.
‘I thought you didn’t want to know.’
‘It’s not something I could put into words,’ he said.
How could you possibly quantify the smoke and mirrors of sex appeal? Pin it down, list the components. Item: hair, the colour of ripe wheat rippling in the wind. Item: two eyes, blue-grey, unless she was angry, when they were like storm clouds threaded with lightning. Item: one mouth…
He found himself staring at her mouth. Parted slightly, as if she were on the point of saying something outrageous. On the point of laughing. Dark, rich, enticing. The colour of the small sweet plums he picked in his Italian grandmother’s family home on rare and treasured holidays, when he’d been taken along to keep his half-brother Jack from getting into mischief. To give his father time to spend with wife number three…
‘Do you think there’s any chance we’ll find a taxi at this time of day?’ he asked, abruptly.
She lifted a hand and, as if by magic, a black cab materialised alongside them.
‘Where are we going?’ she asked as he opened the door.
We? That was promising.
‘Mayfair. My office,’ he said, taking advantage of the opportunity she’d given him. ‘I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse.’
‘Oh, this should be good,’ she said, climbing in without argument.
Something of a first, that, but he was too busy enjoying the view to comment on it. Item: one pair of finely boned ankles that drew the eye upwards in an appreciation of her long legs…
Pulling himself together, he told the driver to take them to Berkeley Square, the home of the Mayfair Bella Lucia and the company offices, and then climbed in beside her.
She was glowing, he thought. Happy. A transformation from her arrival at the gallery. She hadn’t seen him, but he’d arrived before her, seen how tense she’d looked. The meeting with her mother had gone well. Maybe that was a good thing. Patsy lived in London…
‘What do you think it will take?’ she asked, breaking into his thoughts.
‘I’m interested in what you believe you’ll have to offer, before I can’t refuse?’
‘If I told you that, you’d know more than I do.’
‘No, Max. I already know what it’ll take. You’re the one who has to find the perfect combination.’ She was smiling, but her face offered no clues. ‘I hope you’ve got nothing else planned for the rest of the evening.’
He tried to forget the mountain of paperwork on his desk as he said, ‘I cleared my diary. I’ve got as long as it takes.’
To say that her expression changed would have been an exaggeration, but for a split second he thought he’d found the key. Then, she glanced out of the window, as if the passing traffic was of more interest than anything he had to offer. Then, ‘Try, Max.’
‘Try?’ he repeated, confused. She wanted him to open negotiations here, in the back of a taxi?
‘To put it into words. What I owe to Patsy.’ She turned to face him. ‘What I owe to nature.’
He had the uncomfortable feeling that she was playing with him. That she knew exactly what she wanted and that when she was ready she would tell him; in the meantime she was enjoying making him sweat a little.
‘Sorry, Lou,’ he said. ‘I have an aversion to having my face slapped.’
‘I would never slap your face, Max.’ Her lashes swept down as she did her best to hide a satisfied little smile, demonstrating beyond any doubt that sex appeal was so much more than the sum of its parts. Describing it was like trying to catch mist. Or trying to explain a smile when the difference between the mechanics-some magic movement of muscles that lifted the mouth and went all the way up to the eyes-and the combined effect were so utterly indescribable…