‘You were quite prepared to throw a fully loaded vase at my head,’ he reminded her.
‘That was a long time ago, Max. And I didn’t actually hit you.’
‘Only because your aim was so lousy. As it was you wrecked the table behind me. Dinner and dry-cleaning bills on the house, for eight.’
‘I’m surprised you didn’t deduct the cost from my wages when you fired me.’
‘My mistake. Dad took the damage out of mine.’
She shook her head, biting on her lower lip to stop herself from laughing. He couldn’t take his eyes off it. He wanted to tell her to stop, pull her lip free, kiss it, bite it…
‘Believe me, it was worth every penny to get you out of my hair.’
‘You were a terrible maître d’, Louise. Be honest. I did you a favour.’
She smiled. ‘Yes, I suppose you did.’ Then, ‘I can’t even remember what you said that made me so mad.’
‘Everything I said made you mad.’
‘True.’ Suddenly sobered, she said, ‘So why are you so anxious to have me come and work for you?’
Because he was crazy, he thought.
They didn’t have a problem? Who did he think he was kidding? Working with Louise was going to try his self-control to the limits.
He took a slow breath.
‘I want you to work with me, Lou, not for me. I respect your skill, your judgement, but we both know that I could buy that out in the marketplace. What makes you special, unique, is that you’ve spent a lifetime breathing in the very essence of Bella Lucia. You’re a Valentine to your fingertips, Louise; the fact that you’re adopted doesn’t alter any of that.’
‘It alters how I feel.’
‘I understand that and, for what it’s worth, I think Ivy and John were wrong not to tell you the truth, but it doesn’t change who or what you are. Jack wants you on board, Louise, and he’s right.’
‘He’s been chasing you? Wants to know why you haven’t signed me up yet? Well, that would explain your sudden enthusiasm.’
‘He wanted to know the situation before he took off last week.’
‘Took off? Where’s he gone?’
‘He was planning to meet up with Maddie in Florence at the weekend. To propose to her.’
‘You’re kidding!’ Then, when he shook his head, ‘Oh, but that’s so romantic!’ Then, apparently recalling the way he’d flirted with Maddie at the Christmas party, she said, ‘Are you okay with that?’
He found her concern unexpectedly touching. ‘More than okay,’ he assured her. ‘I was only winding Jack up at Christmas. It’s what brothers do.’ His first reaction when Jack had tossed Louise in his lap had been to assume that it was tit for tat.
‘You must have really put the wind up him if he was driven to marriage,’ she said.
‘Bearing in mind our father’s poor example, I think you can be sure that he wouldn’t have married her unless he loved her, Lou.’
Or was he speaking for himself?
‘No. Of course not. I’m sorry.’
Sorry? Louise apologising to him? That had to be a first. Things were looking up.
She shook her head. ‘Weddings to the left of us, weddings to the right of us and not one of them held at a family restaurant.’ She tutted. ‘You know what you need, Max? Some heavyweight marketing muscle.’
‘I’m only interested in the best, Louise so why don’t we stop pussyfooting around, wasting time when we could be planning for the future?’ The thought of an entire evening with her teasing him, drawing out concessions one by one, exacting repayment for every time he’d let her down, every humiliation, was enough to bring him out in a cold sweat. ‘Why don’t you tell me what it’s going to cost me? Your bottom line.’
‘You don’t want to haggle?’
‘You want to see me suffer, is that it? If I call it total surrender, will that satisfy your injured pride?’
Her smile was as enigmatic as anything the Mona Lisa could offer. ‘Total surrender might be acceptable,’ she told him.
‘You’ve got it. So, what’s your price?’
He stared at her, shocked out of teasing. That was it? A cold refusal?
‘Nothing?’ Then, when she didn’t deny it, ‘You mean that this has all been some kind of elaborate wind-up? That you’re not even going to consider my proposal?’
‘As a proposal it lacked certain elements.’
‘Money? You know what you’re worth, Louise. We’re not going to quibble over a consultancy fee.’
She shook her head. ‘No fee.’
Outside the taxi the world moved on, busy, noisy. Commuters crossing en masse at the lights, the heavy diesel engine of a bus in the next lane, a distant siren. Inside it was still, silent, as if the world were holding its breath.
‘No fee?’ he repeated.
‘I’ll do what you want, Max. I’ll give you-give the family-my time. It won’t cost you a penny.’
He didn’t fall for it. Nothing came without some cost.
‘You can’t work without being paid, Louise.’
‘It’s not going to be for ever. I’ll give you my time until…until the fourteenth. Valentine’s Day. The diamond anniversary of the founding of Bella Lucia.’
‘Three weeks. Is that all?’
‘It’s all I can spare. My reward is my freedom, Max. I owe the family and I’ll do this for them. Then the slate will be wiped clean.’
He didn’t like the sound of that. He didn’t want her for just a few weeks. Didn’t want to be treated like a client, even if he was getting her time for free. Having fought the idea for so long, he discovered that he wanted more, a lot more from her than that.
‘You’re wrong. You can’t just walk away, replace one family with another. You can’t wipe away a lifetime of memories, of care-’
‘It’s the best deal you’re ever likely to get,’ she said, cutting him short before he could add, ‘…of love…’
‘Even so. I can’t accept it.’
‘You don’t have a choice,’ she said. ‘You asked for my bottom line; that’s it.’
‘There’s always a choice,’ he said, determined that she shouldn’t back him into a corner, use Bella Lucia as a salve to her conscience, so that she could walk away without a backward glance. Something that he knew she’d come to regret.
Forget Bella Lucia.
This was more important and, if he did nothing else, he had to stop her from throwing away something so precious.
‘That’s my offer, Max. Take it or leave it.’
‘There must be something that you want, that I can offer you,’ he said, assailed by a gut-deep certainty that he must get her to accept something from them-from him. Make it more than a one-way transaction. For her sake as much as his. ‘Not money,’ he said, quickly, ‘if that’s the way you want it, but a token.’
‘A token? Anything?’
Her eyes were leaden in the subdued light of the cab, impossible to read what she was thinking. That had changed. There had been a time when every thought had been written across her face, as easy to read as a book.
He was going into this blind.
‘Anything,’ he said.
He nodded once.
‘Then my fee for working with you on the expansion of the Bella Lucia restaurant group, Max, is a kiss.’
MAX heard the words, struggled to make sense of them.
‘A kiss?’ What the hell…? What kind of a kiss? ‘Just one?’
‘Just one,’ Louise replied.
Even in his head words failed him.
He was being choked by a collar and tie that were suddenly too tight. He fought the urge to loosen them. This was a game. He might not have been able to read her mind, but she’d clearly been reading his.
And now she was asking for the very thing he’d been resisting with every fibre of his being. Teasing him. Raising the stakes…
She was so hot in that sexy little suit, those high heels. Her hair curled in soft wisps around her face that seemed to direct his gaze directly to a mouth that was pure temptation and, given the fact that he’d been fighting the urge to kiss her, and more, for as long as he could remember, his sudden reluctance to comply with her simple request was hard to explain. Except that a kiss fallen into in the heat of desire, or passion or even simple lust, was one thing. But this cool, dispassionate proposition was something else.
It couldn’t be that easy…
‘Now?’ he asked, doing his best to match her composure.
‘You’re in a hurry to seal the contract?’
Not just teasing but taunting him…
Or was that disappointment at his obvious lack of enthusiasm?
‘It’s your call,’ he said, a touch hoarsely.
Was that ‘okay’ now? Or ‘okay’ she’d leave it up to him?
She waited, offering no help, not coming an inch to meet him halfway.
Feeling very much like a teenager faced with his first real kiss, unsure quite what was expected of him, what ‘a kiss’ in this context entailed, heartily wishing he hadn’t leapt in, said the first word that came into his head. “Now…?”
But she was waiting, eyes wide open, while he hovered on the brink of insanity, torn between an urgent need to go for the straight-to-hell moment he’d been fighting all his life and the suspicion that she was somehow testing him, making certain that they could work together, that he could control himself. That she could control herself.
As he hesitated between heaven and hell the taxi swung around the corner, throwing her off balance, so that instead of kissing her he had an armful of her when they came to a halt in front of the restaurant.
An armful of the softest, sexiest woman a man could imagine only in his wildest dreams. Delivering on those dreams-or were they nightmares?-that had haunted him, souring every other relationship, until he’d finally stopped trying to find someone who could drive her from his thoughts and done what he’d always done, thrown himself heart and soul into work, turning to the one thing in his life that had always been there, never let him down.
She didn’t move and it was all he could do not to deliver with the kind of kiss that she would regret calling down on her head. Not some polite token that would torment his soul, surely her intention, but a kiss that would mark her as his with the kind of pledge that would seal their alliance for eternity.
The driver leaned back and opened the door when they didn’t move and he realised with relief that there was someone waiting to grab the cab. That time had run out.
‘Bad…’ His voice caught in his throat. ‘Bad timing…’he said.
‘Maybe,’ she said, so softly that she was almost inaudible. Then, before he could do or say anything, she extricated herself from his arms, climbed out onto the pavement, walked towards the restaurant without looking back.
‘You all right, guv?’ the driver asked as, hands shaking, he handed over the fare.
‘Fine,’ he said, abruptly. There was nothing wrong with him that a long, cold shower wouldn’t fix. ‘We should have been wearing seat belts. Keep the change.’
The discreet façade of the Berkeley Square Bella Lucia fronted one of London’s most exclusive, most luxurious restaurants, a place where financiers, politicians, the world’s deal brokers came to meet, eat and talk, confident of their privacy in the gentlemen’s club atmosphere.
Louise regarded it with every appearance of composure, even though she was trembling, holding herself together through sheer will power despite the sudden urge to bolt.
Performance nerves, that was all.
She knew how to use the adrenalin rush to see her through big presentations, major launches. When it came to business she had no trouble keeping her feelings under wraps and she could do it now. Except that hadn’t been about business.
She didn’t know what it had been about except that Max had been pushing her and as always she’d responded with a reckless disregard for the consequences.
She turned as he joined her, smiled distantly, still performing as he wordlessly held the door. She walked ahead of him through the panelled, ground floor entrance, across the small bar with its comfortable leather chairs where the staff were already preparing for the evening, into the restaurant, aware all the time of the heat of his arm, not quite touching, at her back. Still feeling the pressure where he’d caught her, held her.
‘I’ve always loved this moment,’ she said, calling on every reserve of control to act as if nothing had happened. Using the excuse to stop, rest her hands lightly on the back of a chair as her legs began to wobble dangerously. Looking around. Anywhere but at him.
‘Pure theatre,’ Max agreed, without having to ask what she meant. He knew.
Behind the scenes, in the kitchen, the food was being prepared, the front of house staff were assembling. Out here the tables were laid with snowy white cloths, polished silver, glasses, fresh flowers. Not just theatre, she thought, but the grandest of opera, everything was ready, waiting for the audience to appear, for the conductor to raise his baton and the evening to begin.
Until a few months ago that had been her father. This restaurant, the smaller private dining rooms on the floor above, the offices on the top floor, had been the heart from which he’d run the Bella Lucia empire.
‘He nearly lost it,’ she said, more to herself than Max, using anger to drive off the intensity of that moment in the taxi. She was angry, she realised, because of all of them Max would have been the one who lost most. Perhaps everything…‘All for the sake of a son he hadn’t known existed until a few months ago.’
‘He’d have done the same for you, Louise.’
When Daniel and Dominic had turned up, twin images of John Valentine, saying ‘Hi, Dad…’ they’d been received like prodigal sons by John, while her reward for thirty-something years of dutiful daughterhood had been the shocking revelation that she was not actually Ivy and John’s daughter at all, but had been adopted at birth.
She’d suddenly felt invisible, excluded.
Blood was thicker…
‘He wouldn’t have had to,’ she said, keeping her voice even, matter-of-fact.
Easy for you to say, the still small voice of her conscience reminded her. John Valentine would have given you anything. Has given you everything…
Which was why she was here now. Paying her dues.
‘Forget the past, Louise,’ Max said, catching her hand, holding it, forcing her to look at him. ‘Bella Lucia is still here. We’re still here. It’s the future that matters.’ His hand tightened around hers as if he could somehow transmit his excitement to her by direct contact. ‘Expanding. The new restaurant in Qu’Arim is just the beginning. I’m going to launch the third generation of Bella Lucia onto a world stage. Close your eyes, stick a pin in a map and ten years from now we’ll be there. Don’t you want to be a part of that?’
All her life, ever since she was a little girl, she’d longed to be here, centre stage. Back then her dream had been to be at her father’s side, but Max-older, male, the first-born Valentine grandson-had always been ahead of her.
Now he needed her he was using family ties to draw her back into the business, but it would always be his empire. She would always come second. Second to her father was the way of the world, she could have lived with that; second to Max was never going to be enough.