So Now You're Back
HEIDI RICE’s first romance novel was published in 2007, followed by several international award nominated titles. So Now You’re Back is her commercial fiction debut.
To Rob, my hero.
Writing a book is supposed to be a solitary pursuit, until your publisher asks you to write the acknowledgements, and you suddenly realise how many other people got involved along the way. So here’s my chance to send big, shouty thank yous to just a few of those people … My husband Rob for his suggestion that I rip off Shakespeare when I couldn’t come up with a plot. My best mate Catri, who insisted we go to the Great Smokey Mountains for one of our US road trips. My best writing mate Abby Green, for telling me I so could write a longer book, over and over again until it stuck. My other great writing mates Fiona Harper, Iona Grey and Scarlet Wilson for consulting on everything from covers to sagging middles and dealing with my many, many anxiety attacks. To my editor Bryony Green for giving me revisions that made this story even better than I could make it on my own (the sulking was just for show, honest!). To the wonderful TonyB at Smokey Mountain Kayaking for his willingness to share his in-depth knowledge of kayaking and the Smokies. To culinary superstar Faenia Moore for her willingness to share her in-depth knowledge of baking and TV cookery shows. And finally to Anna Baggaley and everyone at Harlequin Mira for all your support on this, as it turns out, not at all lonely journey.
Table of Contents
Where ru Mum? Your late. AGAIN!!!
‘Bugger.’ Halle Best clicked furiously on the iPhone’s keypad as she shot out of the car park at St Pancras Station and crossed the loading bay.
There in 2 secs. Honest.
Magnifico-Multitask Mum strikes again, she thought triumphantly as she shoved the phone back in her bag. She kept her head down as the service tunnel at the back of the station led onto the strip of shops and cafés lining the route to the main concourse. Avoiding eye contact with members of the British public had become a habit in the past two years, because she’d discovered they only ever seemed to recognise her and want to waylay her for an autograph—or a chat about their latest baking disaster—when she was in a rush, chronically late or on a collision course with her daughter Lizzie’s prodigious temper. As all three defcon positions were currently in countdown mode, she absolutely could not risk it.
Darting past the YO! Sushi on her left and the ticket office on her right, she narrowly avoided a young mum with a pushchair while circumnavigating a group of backpack-toting foreign students going at a pace that would make a geriatric snail look like Usain Bolt.
She sucked in a couple of extra breaths, feeling winded as she hit the main thoroughfare.
Note to self: Get that bloody cross-trainer in the basement out of mothballs.
Raising her head to check her direction, she made eye contact with a sharply dressed office worker who sent her a don’t-I-know-you-from-somewhere smile. Halle returned it while shooting past on full steam before the woman figured out the answer.
She hated to be impolite or abrupt with people who recognised her. And up until two years ago, she had always been more than willing to stop and chat about collapsing soufflés or how to make the perfect choux pastry, because she’d gotten a major rush out of any kind of acknowledgement. She was still both humbled and chuffed to bits at any sign that people enjoyed and appreciated her Domestic Diva brand. But in the past twenty-four months, ever since The Best of Everything had moved from a morning slot on cable TV to an early evening slot on BBC Two and her third book—The Best on a Budget—had hit the bestseller charts, the attention had begun to interfere more and more with even Magnifico-Multitask Mum’s ability to keep all the plates in her life spinning.
Hence being a tiny bit tardy to collect her daughter from the Eurostar terminal after Lizzie’s four-day trip to Paris to visit her father. The production meeting had overrun, as it always did. But Halle thought she’d programmed in more than enough time to get from Soho to King’s Cross. And if it hadn’t been for that plonker trying to do a right turn in a no-right-turn zone outside the British Library, she so would have made it here in time. She mentally tucked her frustration away, pasting on what she hoped was her most competent and unflustered smile as she spotted her daughter, slumped glumly on one of the benches by the Eurostar exit, with her boots perched on her suitcase, her iPod earbuds in and her smartphone out as she texted furiously—probably about what an arsewipe her mum was to all her friends on Facebook.
Halle slowed, as love and relief barrelled into her chest and combined with her breathlessness to make her light-headed. Given she was already several crucial nanoseconds late, she might as well take a moment to admire her eighteen-year-old daughter before facing the full force of Lizzie’s disgust.
Long-limbed and slim—but not too slim any more, thank goodness—Lizzie had what Halle had always craved, a coltish elegance that was natural and unaffected and didn’t require the help of a personal trainer and/or industrial-strength Spanx. The soft tangle of strawberry blonde hair hanging down her back, which had fizzed around her head as a baby and made her look like a cherubic dandelion, was equally arresting. Sometime in the past two years, after what Halle had panicked might be an eating disorder, Lizzie had lost that pudgy tomboyish quality that Halle had always adored and grown into this beautiful if sullen and secretive swan.
Halle shook off the thought to stop the guilt from constricting around her stomach like a freakishly large anaconda. No need to go there, again. Somewhere along the line, Lizzie had stopped being that happy-go-lucky tomboy who had been open and eager about everything and an absolute marvel with her little brother, Aldo, and become a volatile teenager with a quick-fire temper who resented her mother’s success and thought the now ten-year-old Aldo was the spawn of Satan.
To be fair, given Aldo’s genius for making everyone’s life hell, including his own, Halle did secretly sympathise with her daughter on that score. And really the only thing for Halle to remember in the face of her daughter’s derision was what the family counsellor had told her.
That teenage rebellion was normal, that it was much better for Halle to have to deal with Lizzie’s temper than having her daughter internalise everything and that while Halle’s family set-up wasn’t completely the norm, very few people’s were these days. In fact, the norm these days was pretty much the anti-norm. And, if nothing else, Halle’s family—which included a ten-year-old son who didn’t have a father, and an eighteen-year-old daughter who saw her father, whose name Halle couldn’t say without flinching, only six weeks a year—fitted perfectly into the anti-norm mould.
The truth was, there was nothing Halle could do about Aldo’s lack of a father—except hire a wonderful au pair like Trey Carson to take some of the slack. And nothing she needed to do about Lizzie’s dickhead of a dad, Luke Best, except remember every time she got the urge to flinch that she only had to deal with Luke’s bullshit by proxy these days.
No, all Halle needed to focus on now was one simple truth.
That Lizzie wasn’t colourful, durable Tupperware any more, who would bounce if Halle dropped her—as she had so often when her children were small and she’d been juggling two menial jobs, ad hoc childcare and her fledgling party-cake baking business in a Stoke Newington council flat all on her own. Somehow or other, while Halle hadn’t been paying the proper attention, because she’d been focused on making her career happen, her daughter had become china. Fragile, delicate, brittle china that had the potential to shatter if Halle let it fall off its perch. But as long as Halle knew that and remained vigilant, ready to handle any potential wobbles, everything would be absolutely fine.
Which meant finding the time to collect Lizzie in person from the Eurostar terminal, especially as she’d just celebrated a milestone birthday in Paris, instead of arranging for a car and driver to do it instead. But the occasional hiccup—like some tosser thinking he could turn right when the sign clearly said he could not—was not Halle’s fault, and she must not beat herself up about it. Especially as Lizzie was now perfectly capable of doing that for her.
Pushing the anaconda the rest of the way back down her throat, Halle waved her hand in front of Lizzie’s face and smiled as her daughter’s head bobbed up and she tugged out her earbuds.
‘About time. Where have you been? I’ve been waiting here forever.’
‘Sorry, sweetheart,’ Halle said, knowing ‘forever’ had been a maximum of ten minutes. ‘Did the train arrive early?’
‘No, you were late. As always.’ Lizzie scowled. ‘Dad’s never late picking me up at the other end, you know.’
Yes, Halle did know, because Lizzie had never missed an opportunity to point out all the things her dad did right and Halle did wrong.
‘Well, at least I’m here now,’ Halle replied, keeping her beatific smile firmly in place and nobly resisting the urge to list all the things Lizzie’s father had done wrong once upon a time. Apart from the fact that would take months, Halle had made a decision sixteen years ago, when she had negotiated Luke’s request for visitation rights through the duty solicitor at the Citizens Advice Bureau in Hackney, that never having to talk to Luke again was worth the price of not slagging him off to his daughter.
Her silence on the subject of Luke’s betrayal, his selfishness and his numerous character flaws had been agony to maintain when Lizzie was little, and the pain of what he’d done was still fresh, still raw, still all-consuming. But she’d managed it, by keeping three things front and centre in her mind: Lizzie idolised her dad; the less Lizzie knew about her parents’ broken relationship, the less likely it was to become a point of conflict between them; and, for all his many faults, which were legion, Luke did love his daughter—unlike Aldo’s father, Claudio, who had refused to even acknowledge his son.
Plus, there was a limit to how much Luke could screw up Halle’s karma when Lizzie spent only a few weeks of the year with him.
So moments like this, when Lizzie insisted on poking at that old wound, were really only a mild irritation, which Halle could dismiss easily … enough.
‘Did you get the bouquet and the gift I sent to your father’s place on your birthday?’ Halle asked, subtly changing the direction of the conversation away from the minefield of Luke’s shortcomings.
‘Yeah, thanks. The iPad was cool.’
Halle’s smile became strained at Lizzie’s surly shrug—and the evidence that she obviously hadn’t rated any extra parental brownie points with the lavish gesture. She dismissed the treacherous thought. Easily enough (ish).
You’re not in a competition with him. Because if you were, you’d wipe the floor with him.
‘Good, I’m glad you liked it. Actually, I booked us a table at the champagne bar here to celebrate your coming of age before we head home.’ Halle’s smile became genuine at the shock in her daughter’s pale blue eyes. ‘If you fancy it?’
‘You’re kidding. You’ll let me have a glass of champagne?’
Nice call, Mel. She silently thanked her super-efficient PA, Melanie Blissett, for the suggestion.
‘Of course. You’re legal now,’ Halle said airily, gripping the handle of Lizzie’s suitcase and dismissing the pang of something sharp and bittersweet that stabbed into her left ventricle.
No need to go the full wuss.
This would not be the first time her daughter had consumed an alcoholic beverage. It would simply be the first time she’d consumed one with her mother’s permission—so really it wasn’t a milestone worth getting too emotional about.
‘Awesome,’ Lizzie replied, finally losing the last remnants of her scowl.
Halle led the way onto the escalator that took them up to the station’s impressive upper level and the Grand Terrace, where the champagne bar, which stretched towards a giant sculpture of a couple kissing, was already packed on a Tuesday evening. Halle was grateful that Mel had called ahead and somehow managed to secure them a corner banquette, especially when several of the other patrons gave her penetrating I-know-who-you-are looks as she and Lizzie were led to their seats.
She was careful not to acknowledge them, giving off what she hoped were please-don’t-approach-me vibes. Just this once, it would be great not to be recognised. Getting the chance to have a companionable chat with her daughter, without the usual friction, was rare enough, but having quality time with Lizzie without having to ride herd on Aldo, or, worse, settle the arguments between her two children—which was usually more traumatic than trying to negotiate world peace—was virtually unheard of.
She ordered them two glasses of rosé champagne and slid into the bench seat with her back to the rest of the bar—glad when the usual Londoners reserve held true and no one approached them.
‘Where’s the Antichrist tonight?’ Lizzie took the seat opposite. ‘With Mr Perfecto, as usual?’
‘So you’ve been missing your brother, have you?’ Halle teased, ignoring the jab at Aldo’s au pair.
She suspected—even if Lizzie would rather have all her precious Urban Outfitters clothes ceremonially burned than admit it to herself—that her daughter might well have a secret crush on Trey Carson. Which would not surprise Halle in the slightest—she certainly couldn’t fault her daughter’s taste this time.
Twenty-one going on thirty-five, Trey was kind, gallant, responsible, a lifesaver with Aldo and much better looking than the feckless hipster losers Lizzie had favoured in the past.
When Trey had first started to work for her three months ago, Halle had noticed Lizzie watching him and had panicked. She had instantly recognised the interest in Lizzie’s eyes, because it was similar to the puppy-dog eyes Halle herself had once cast at Lizzie’s father—when she was a clueless fifteen-year-old desperate to lose her virginity and Luke had been a surly, sexy sixteen-year-old class warrior and sixth-form reject.
Thankfully, for everyone concerned, Trey—unlike Luke—had been far too mature to take advantage of Lizzie’s interest. He’d handled the situation perfectly—treating her daughter with the same calm confidence he used to handle her son, while at the same time establishing a professional distance.
And while Lizzie might still have the hots for him, Trey’s behaviour had rendered any crush not just harmless but also a surprisingly effective distraction technique. Because as long as Lizzie was busy needling Trey so he would notice her, she’d been steering clear of horrid misogynists like her first boyfriend, Liam—the little bastard who had dumped her a year ago and whose callous treatment Halle was sure had contributed to her daughter’s increasingly prickly behaviour.
‘I’ve missed Aldo about as much as I’d miss a septic rash,’ Lizzie scoffed as the waiter placed two flutes of sparkling pink champagne in front of them.
‘Here’s to a long weekend without a septic rash, then.’ Halle picked up her glass, ready to humour her daughter for once in the interests of world peace. ‘Happy eighteenth birthday, Dizzy Lizzie,’ she said, vindicated when her daughter lifted her own glass and didn’t make some caustic comment about the childhood nickname.
Lizzie took a cautious sip. ‘Wow, that’s delicious. Who knew?’
‘Do you like it?’ Halle tapped her flute to her daughter’s, biting off the question she wanted to ask but never would. Surely you must have tasted the real thing with your father before now? Seeing as he lived in Paris and had always had the maturity of a housefly, she would have expected Luke to have introduced Lizzie to the joys of champagne years ago.
Lizzie did a discreet burp behind her hand and then giggled. A bright girlish sound that Halle heard so rarely now it always made her grin. ‘It’s certainly better than the supermarket cider I got pissed on at my seventeenth birthday party.’
Halle stroked the stem of her glass. ‘I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.’
‘Don’t you start.’ Lizzie rolled her eyes, but her tone was more playful than surly. ‘Would you believe, Dad wouldn’t let me have a glass when we were out celebrating on Saturday night? Some bollocks about me always being his little girl and him needing more time to adjust.’
The flutter of contentment made Halle’s chest swell.
So, Super Dad doesn’t do every single thing right.
‘I told him I had my first drink when I was fifteen at Guide camp and that him still thinking of me as his little girl was a bit pervy, but he would not give in—even after he told me his news and we had tons more to celebrate.’
‘What news?’ The contraband enquiry slipped out—probably as a result of the fruity frothy wine and the golden glow of contentment bestowed by her daughter’s easy smile.
‘Dad’s writing his memoirs,’ Lizzie replied, the enthusiasm in her voice as effervescent as the champagne. ‘He’s already been offered a big advance from some publisher in New York.’
‘What?’ Halle’s flute hit the hardwood surface of the banquette table, her bubble of contentment collapsing like a profiterole tower left out in the sun.
‘They might even make a film of it. And I’ll finally get to go to some decent parties, instead of those boring book launches your publisher arranges.’ Lizzie’s tone took on a jokey whine. ‘Seriously, Mum, why have a party in the kitchen section of John Lewis for fuck sake when you could have it in a West End nightclub?’
‘Don’t swear,’ Halle replied automatically as the taste of pink champagne soured on her tongue. ‘What do you mean he’s writing his memoirs? What memoirs?’
Luke Best didn’t have any memoirs worth publishing. OK, he was an award-winning journalist. She’d give him that. But he wrote about other people’s lives, not his own. Nobody gave a toss about the messenger. They only gave a toss about celebrities. Celebrities like her. Or they would have, if she hadn’t worked overtime with the help of her management team and her publicist to keep her private life strictly private and airbrush any mention of Luke Best from her past.
‘You know, his life story, that sort of thing,’ Lizzie said, the eager excitement making it obvious she was completely oblivious to Halle’s collapsing croquembouche. ‘And I’m a big part of his life as his only child, so it totally stands to reason I’ll be a big part of—’
‘But he can’t do that …’ Halle interrupted, panic and horror combining into a perfect storm in the pit of her stomach—and threatening to rip open the ulcer she’d gotten under control years ago. ‘That’s a breach of our privacy.’
Did he plan to porn out the most painful part of her life—a life he’d once ripped to shreds with careless abandon—to a bloody New York publisher? Was he mad? Surely this couldn’t just be Luke’s trademark don’t-give-a-shit attitude. What he was planning to do wasn’t just thoughtless, or reckless, it was unconscionable, bordering on vindictive. And it would have repercussions, not just for her but for Lizzie and even Aldo—whom Luke had never met but whose childhood he was going to happily destroy for a bloody publishing deal?
All the hurt and anger she’d kept so carefully leashed for so many years, that she had been sure until about ten seconds ago she’d totally let go of, rushed up her torso like a tsunami and threatened to gag her.
‘Mum, chill.’ Lizzie lowered her glass and stared at her mum, whose face had gone pinker than the rosé tint of the bubbles in her glass. ‘What are you getting so upset about? This isn’t about you.’
She and her mum had had some major slanging matches in the past few years. But she’d never seen her mum this shaken. Ever.
‘It is about me. Of course it’s about me! What else has he got to sell except intimate details of our life together?’ The protest surprised Lizzie with its vehemence.
Lizzie had grown to hate her mum’s yummy-mummy image, the one she cultivated on her TV show—the TV show that had come to mean so much more in her mum’s life than Lizzie or Aldo—because she knew how fake that image was. But she would happily have the serene, relaxed and witty woman who had become a national treasure to millions back right now than the woman visibly trembling in front of her.
‘Mum, are you OK? You look weird.’
‘Shit.’ The expletive burst out of her mum’s mouth, disturbing Lizzie even more.
Mum had always been uptight about swearing. Not like her dad, who swore a lot. But her dad always swore in an offhand, colourful way that made Lizzie laugh—especially when he added, ‘Pretend you didn’t hear that. Don’t repeat it, and for fuck sake don’t tell your mother.’
‘What’s the problem with Dad writing a memoir?’ she forced herself to ask, even though she wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer.
Because she had a hideous feeling it would involve her mum finally saying something about her dad. Something she wasn’t as sure as she’d once been that she wanted to hear.
As a child she’d tried to force her mum to talk about him. And vice versa when she was visiting her dad in Paris. But both of them had always maintained this freaky conspiracy of silence all through her childhood, refusing to be drawn on the subject of their past, how they’d met, married, why they’d ended up apart.
She had friends at school whose parents had divorced and spent their whole time bitching about each other to their kids, so she had eventually stopped asking her own parents to talk about each other—because she’d rather hear nothing than a load of bad stuff. But that hadn’t stopped her being ecstatic when her dad had mentioned the book he was writing. Not because they might make a film of it. She wasn’t a total loser, she knew that was never going to happen, and if by some miracle it did, they’d get someone else to play her part—someone cool and beautiful and talented, like Scarlett Johansson. Not someone who was stupid and too skinny and had no tits, like her.
No, she’d been excited because she’d wanted desperately to read her dad’s book. Not only was he a great writer—she’d read pretty much every article he’d ever written, so she knew that for a fact—but because he’d finally be writing about the one thing she’d always wanted to read. What had happened between him and her mum. In that fluid, focused way that could ‘unveil the beating heart of the human condition’. Well, that’s what Time magazine had said on his profile, when he’d done a story for them about the murder of a socialite in Palm Beach.
Instead of answering the question, her mum locked the whisky-coloured gaze that Lizzie’s brother, Aldo, had inherited onto her face, and a concerned frown formed on her brow. The concerned frown that Lizzie knew meant she was about to be lied to. Again.
‘It’s OK, don’t worry, everything will be fine. I just need to call Jamie and get the legal team on this.’
Her mum placed a trembling hand on the table, then lifted her champagne glass and drained the lot, another sure sign she was freaking out, big time.
‘Listen, Lizzie, you don’t have to worry about any of this.’ Her fingers still shook on the glass. ‘It’s between me and your dad, but it’s really not that big a deal.’
Yeah, right. Not a big deal, even though you’re swearing and sweating and knocking back champagne like an escapee from Alcoholics Anonymous.
‘You’re going to stop Dad writing his book. That’s it, isn’t it?’ she said, leading with her frustration so as not to give away how deflated she felt.
Why was her mum such a neurotic control freak? And why did she always have to ruin every single good thing that ever happened in Lizzie’s life? Like when she’d first hooked up with Liam, and her mum had worried he was going to turn her into a drug addict because she could smell weed on him the one time she’d met him. Or when Lizzie had finally lost her puppy fat at sixteen—because she’d grown four inches in a year—and her mum had forced them all to go to family therapy because she’d panicked that Lizzie was becoming an anorexic and was on the verge of starving herself to death.
Perhaps if her mum spent more time actually being the Domestic Diva, instead of pretending to be her on TV, she wouldn’t freak out all the time about nothing.
‘Excuse me, you’re Halle Best, aren’t you?’ An ancient guy of at least fifty hovered next to their table, interrupting Lizzie’s thoughts.
No shit, Sherlock.
Lizzie glared at the old git, but, as was always the case with her mum’s fans, he didn’t even see her sitting there.
‘My wife and I love your show.’
‘Thank you, that’s very generous of you,’ her mum replied, all the signs of her previous distress disappearing fast, until all that was left was the serene, polished and totally fake expression she always pasted on when she was doing her Domestic Diva act.
‘Do you mind? I hate to be a nuisance, but …’ He presented a napkin to her mum, then pulled a pen out of his pocket—obviously not hating being a nuisance enough to not be a total bloody nuisance. ‘Could I get your autograph?’
‘Yes, yes, of course.’ Her mum sent Lizzie a tentative smile—as if to say sorry for the interruption—before taking the pen and signing the napkin. But Lizzie already knew that apologetic smile was as fake as the rest of her mum’s act. Her mum was probably rejoicing at being rescued by this jerk.
No way would she get a straight answer out of her now.
‘You are a bastard. Salaud. Imbécile.’
Luke Best ducked the jar of cornichon pickles that came flying towards his head and flinched as it shattered against the apartment wall. ‘Bloody hell, Chantelle. Calm the fuck down. Why are you so angry?’
‘I love you and you lie to me,’ she cried.
‘No, you don’t, and no, I didn’t. I told you this wasn’t serious from the start. It’s not my fault you didn’t listen.’
‘I hate you now.’
‘I get that,’ he said as he edged towards the hallway. ‘Which is all the more reason for us not to see each other again. We haven’t got together in months. You must have seen this coming?’
‘You see this coming, connard?’ Chantelle grabbed an onyx ashtray with an Asterix figurine on it and let it fly.
He ducked again, but the heavy object spun in mid-air, hurtling towards him like an Exocet missile, and smacked into his brow.
‘Shit!’ He touched the developing knot on his forehead and his own temper ignited. ‘Right, that’s enough.’ He marched forward, grabbed hold of one hundred pounds of fuming French womanhood and wedged her against the wall, trapping her throwing arm. ‘Quit acting like the Madwoman of Chaillot and get a clue. We’ve been over since March and you know it.’
He’d tried to do this gently, tried to explain to her that their ‘relationship’ had never been more than a couple of dirty weekends. But she’d refused to let it go. Refused to get the message. And finally refused to leave him alone while his daughter had been over for her eighteenth birthday.
And that had been the last straw. The nuisance texts and the hung-up phone calls whenever Lizzie answered his phone had been stalkerish enough, but Chantelle’s sudden appearance at his place yesterday morning, wearing nothing but a coat, a thong and skyscraper heels, had made him see he had to sort this situation out.
He’d bundled the half-naked woman out of the building before Lizzie woke up, promising to trek over to Chantelle’s apartment in the thirteenth arrondissement and ‘discuss their relationship’ this morning, once Lizzie was safely back in the UK. So here he was, giving it to Chantelle straight, with no sugar-coating and no more avoidance tactics. And what did he get for his straight talking? A bloody head injury, that was what.
‘This is over, OK? C’est fini.’ He gave her a slight shake to get the message across. ‘I don’t want to see you around my place any more. No calls, no emails, no texts. If I don’t answer them, it’s because I don’t have anything to say to you.’ He’d hoped that might be a clue, but apparently Chantelle wasn’t good at processing subtle.
‘You tell me this now, when we had sex like dogs all weekend?’ She meant rabbits, he thought, but he didn’t correct her, suddenly weary at the memory of how he’d originally thought the way she mangled all his British expressions was so cute and sexy.
‘That was months ago,’ he said, his temper dissipating as quickly as it had come.
‘Be reasonable, cherie,’ he said as gently as he could manage while his brow was throbbing from her unprovoked assault. Chantelle was only twenty-five and hopelessly immature from the few actual conversations he could remember them having. ‘I told you right from the start I wasn’t interested in anything big. This is going nowhere. You need to grow up and figure that out.’
And it was way past time his dick grew up, too, and stopped making stupid decisions that got him into these sorts of fixes.
Ever since Halle, he’d stuck to casual flings, because his life was complicated enough without inviting any more drama into it. But even with casual hook-ups you had to watch your step.
And with Chantelle he’d obviously missed a step.
He’d picked her up in a bar near his apartment in the Marais the night he’d put Lizzie on the plane home to London after their week-long pre-Christmas holiday in St Moritz. And an hour after Chantelle had served him his first drink, they’d been going for it in the bar’s stockroom.
Why not admit it? He’d been feeling down, maybe even a little lonely. So he’d jumped on Chantelle and her come-hither looks. And used her for sex.
But he’d already known in that stockroom that Chantelle was needier than the women he usually dated. And while he couldn’t have known then she was this unhinged, he still shouldn’t have allowed himself to drift into a two-month affair with her.
He soon realised he hadn’t picked the best moment to consider where he’d gone wrong with Chantelle, though, when she sucked in a breath and spat in his face. ‘Salaud. Imbécile.’
He flinched, the spittle dripping off his nose and making the cut above his eye sting. ‘Yeah, I know, that’s where I came in.’
He wiped his face with his shirtsleeve, ignoring the insults being hurled at him as he headed for the door. Better than getting sticks and stones and Asterix ashtrays lobbed at him.
‘You’re not the only man in Paris,’ Chantelle cried, her voice breaking, her sobbing breaths making a headache bloom under his injured brow. ‘I will find another.’
Standing in the doorway, he looked back at her. She was stunning in her fury, her thick dark hair rioting around her head, her eyes a rich caramel, glaring daggers at him like the Angel of Death, and her negligee falling off one shoulder and threatening to expose one full breast.
Thank Christ, she’d finally got the message.
‘Bonne chance avec ça.’ He sent her a mocking salute, before he slammed the door.
The sound of something crashing against the wood echoed in the stairwell, making him flinch as he jogged down the steps.
The chilly afternoon air in the apartment building’s courtyard made the dent in his forehead sting some more. He hunched his shoulders against the pain, writing off the injury as collateral damage.
No more hook-ups with crazy ladies, especially if they have a better throwing arm than Shane Warne.
He headed for the metro station at Les Gobelins, resolving to stay celibate for a while. He had a perfectly good hand that had seen him through his horniest teenage years. And, if nothing else, he needed to conserve his energy to navigate the perfect storm he had headed his way with Halle. Which he’d set into motion on Saturday night at La Coupole, when he’d told Lizzie about his book deal while they’d been celebrating her eighteenth at the legendary brasserie on Montparnasse.
She’d been excited and enthusiastic about the project, as he’d known she would be—enough to go home and blab all about it to her mother.
He sidestepped a kamikaze scooter as he crossed the busy boulevard and headed into the metro. The train barrelled into the station, its rubber tyres squealing on the rails. He scored a seat for the six-stop journey back to Châtelet before the metro car jostled into motion, the blank stares of the commuters endearing in their indifference.
He’d felt bad for manipulating Lizzie, but how else was he supposed to get Halle’s attention? Despite countless overtures in recent years, she was still insisting on communicating every damn thing through their respective legal representatives, which, apart from costing him an arm and a leg, had really begun to piss him off.
No way could she still be mad at him. She’d had a hugely successful career not to mention other relationships. She’d even had another child. So the only motivation for the silent treatment now, that he could see, was stubborn pride and a desire to see him suffer.
Well, sod that, he’d suffered enough.
Halle had limited his access to his child to six weeks a year right up until she’d turned sixteen. And that lack of quality time was still screwing up his relationship with Lizzie now.
Once upon a time it had been a nice little ego boost to have Lizzie dub him Super Dad, because he was the one she did all the fun stuff with. But ever since Lizzie had hit her teens, he’d begun to realise Super Dad was really just a euphemism for Superficial Dad. Then his daughter had let slip she’d been in therapy a year ago—and scared the shit out of him.
Emerging from the underground chaos of concrete and commuters at Châtelet–Les Halles, he crossed through the park situated above the huge interchange towards Rue Ram-buteau. Resentment simmered in his gut as he considered all the times he’d got his solicitor to contact Halle’s solicitor to set up a meeting with her to talk about their daughter. And all the times he’d been refused, or stonewalled, or rebuffed, or simply ignored.
The mild miasma of sewage, traffic fumes and rotting vegetables from the nearby market blended with tree sap and brick dust from the gravel that surrounded the trees in lieu of grass. Like most Parisian parks, the one at Châtelet was utilitarian, functional and elegant in an entirely prosaic way.
He took a deep breath of the comfortingly familiar scent.
This city had saved him when he’d been stranded here sixteen years ago, broken and bleeding from wounds he’d thought would never heal. The hectic pace of life, the brusqueness and pragmatism of its inhabitants and, best of all, the anonymity had given him space and time to put the shattered pieces back together. He’d built a life here, and a career that, while not as phenomenally successful as Halle’s, had given him everything he needed.
Or almost everything.
He touched his thumb to the bruise on his brow, the nagging headache starting to fade. Confrontations were not part of his DNA, he had never been a fan of unnecessary drama—occasional battery by Asterix ashtrays notwithstanding—but he was stronger, wiser and a lot more sorted than he’d been at twenty-one. He had a career he enjoyed, and he had worked hard to be a good dad, but he wanted to be a better one. A more involved one. And he wasn’t going to let Halle stand in the way of that any longer.
So he was getting off her naughty step, once and for all.
And the book deal was just his opening salvo.
He was through being treated as if his place in Lizzie’s life was as important as a cat flap in an elephant house. Which meant forcing Halle to talk to him about his daughter, at length and at his convenience, where there was no chance of any five-hundred-pound-an-hour dickwads running interference.
‘What do you mean he’s refusing to respond through his solicitor? How can he do that?’ The knot under Halle’s breastbone cinched tighter as she gaped at Jamie Harding, top City solicitor and the head of her legal team. ‘Surely if we threaten a court order to stop publication of his book, he has to respond?’
Jamie propped his forearms on his cherrywood desk, brushing the smooth wave of chestnut-brown hair back when it flopped over his brow. ‘I didn’t say he hasn’t responded. I said he’s refusing to respond through his solicitor.’
‘What’s the difference?’
Jamie let out a long-suffering sigh. ‘Look, Halle, I know you’ve always preferred to communicate with Best through us. And that makes sense when it’s a legal matter to do with Lizzie’s custody. But she’s been of age now for two years, and I’m not even sure this book’s been written yet. Or if he’s actually signed a contract. So if we start throwing our legal weight around, it could be counterproductive.’
‘How could it be counterproductive? I want this thing stopped. As quickly and cleanly as possible, before anyone finds out about it.’ The hideous thought that people would be able to read about her starry-eyed teenage self, that needy vulnerable girl who’d fallen for Luke Best’s dubious charms, made her feel nauseous. She hadn’t been able to think about anything else ever since Lizzie had broken the news about Luke’s book deal yesterday evening. She’d spent a long night going over all the things Luke could reveal in his memoirs that would humiliate her beyond bearing, and, worse, allow the tabloid press to feast on all the stupid mistakes she’d made where that man was concerned.
The Domestic Diva wasn’t just a bakery brand, it was a statement of purpose, a symbol of empowerment, that said to women everywhere, you can come from nothing and still make something of yourself. She didn’t want people to know that her whole empire had been built on the pain, the loss, of being ceremonially dumped by an arsehole like Luke Best.
Wasn’t it bad enough that the man had screwed her over once, without him wanting to do it again?
‘Halle, you need to think with your head here, not your heart,’ Jamie said in that patronising tone that reminded her once again why she should never have slept with the guy.
It had been only one night, six years ago, after a party to celebrate her first book deal, and Jamie hadn’t even been her solicitor at the time. She’d been horny and tipsy, Jamie had lingered to help clear up, or so he’d said, and they’d ended up in a lip lock over a dishwasher full of dirty champagne flutes.
The sex had been hot—because Jamie had surprising physical stamina for a desk jockey and was as goal-orientated in the bedroom as he later proved to be in the courtroom. But not hot enough to atone for the cripplingly awkward moment the morning after, when a four-year-old Aldo had run into the room to wake her up and accidentally bounced on Jamie’s balls. Or all the times since she’d hired Jamie to head her legal team—on the understanding that they would never mention their former indiscretion—when Halle had detected that trace of condescension in Jamie’s tone.
Note to self: If you screw a man who later becomes your solicitor, expect him to assume he’s your moral and emotional superior.
‘I am thinking with my head, Jamie,’ Halle replied with exactly the same level of condescension. ‘Believe me, my heart hasn’t been anywhere near Luke Best for a number of years.’ Sixteen to be precise.
‘OK, well, let me spell it out, then,’ Jamie said sharply, obviously miffed that he couldn’t out-patronise her. ‘We haven’t got grounds for an injunction until the book’s actually under contract. All that flexing our legal muscles now would achieve—apart from costing you five hundred pounds an hour for my services—is to alert the press to the impending deal and make the advance publishers are willing to offer Best go through the roof. That’s what I meant by counterproductive.’
‘Ah, I see.’
Bugger, maybe he does have one small, infinitesimal point.
‘So what’s your advice, then? There must be something I can do?’ The knot tangled with the pitch and roll of raw panic. After a sleepless night debating all her options—including sneaking over to Paris and garrotting Luke in his sleep—Halle had convinced herself that Jamie would provide an answer to her predicament this morning. Something quick and relatively painless and fiendishly clever that wouldn’t involve the first-degree murder of her child’s father.
Jamie leaned forward. His hair flopped over his brow again, but he didn’t sweep it back this time. ‘My advice would be …’ He hesitated, then sighed, as if he were preparing to say something particularly difficult. ‘Go over to Paris and talk to the guy.’
What? ‘No.’ The jolt of horror didn’t do much to settle her roiling stomach. I’d rather garrotte myself, thanks. ‘I’ve told you before …’ she began, because this wasn’t the first time Jamie had suggested the unthinkable. ‘That’s not an option.’ She’d made a decision sixteen years ago that she would never see or speak to Luke Best again, directly or indirectly. Even though they shared a child, she didn’t want him to have even the smallest toehold in her life. She’d been so determined about that that she’d never even spent a penny of the money Luke had sent each month towards their daughter’s upkeep. Even when she’d really, really needed it. Even when she’d had to work two jobs to survive. She’d set up a trust fund for Lizzie with the money instead, to testify to the fact she would never ever need anything Luke Best had to offer again.
She hadn’t been through all that to let Luke back in now. Especially over something this crass.
‘Why not?’ Jamie continued, being more persistent than usual. ‘Why not appeal to his better nature?’
‘Luke doesn’t have a better nature, it’s part of his charm.’ The rat.
‘Yes, but he does care about Lizzie,’ Jamie pressed, going the full patronising. ‘Surely if you tell him how this will impact on her, he’ll back down. The guy’s not a complete arsehole.’
‘Really, Jamie? And how would you know that?’ She struggled to lower her voice. ‘Have you ever waited for two weeks for him to come home from a weekend assignment? Texting and emailing, and ringing his mobile and getting no response? Trudging round most of East London with his two-year-old daughter to speak to all his known friends and associates, begging for news, only to see the pity in their faces or hear the smug sympathy in their tone? And eventually getting a text message saying simply “It’s over, I can’t come back”? And then spending months more not sleeping, not eating, not knowing how to comfort your child, while racking your brains trying to decipher those six measly words after a four-year relationship—and figure out what you’d done wrong? Because, of course, it had to be your fault he’d left.’
Jamie lifted his hands in a quelling motion. ‘OK, Halle, I get it. I know what he did was tough for you and Lizzie.’
‘No, you don’t know.’ She looped her bag over her shoulder. She had to get out of this office. Her voice was getting a bit shrill, a bit shaky, and she didn’t plan to make a scene. Not in front of Jamie, and certainly not on Luke’s account. What he’d done was a million years ago now and it didn’t matter to her any more. ‘Offer to pay him off if you have to. But I won’t talk to him. And I certainly won’t go to Paris to beg him to do the right thing, the decent thing for his daughter.’ Or me.
Because that would make her feel like that lovelorn teenager again—begging for scraps from a man who had never deserved her.
‘Find a way, Jamie, that’s what I pay you for. And give me a call when you figure it out.’
Jamie stood as she headed for the door. ‘I’m sorry, Halle.’
‘Sorry for what?’ Being a patronising twat perhaps?
‘That what he did still hurts so much.’
Halle frowned at the note of sympathy. ‘Don’t be ridiculous. It doesn’t hurt any more. I got over it years ago.’ She opened the door, glad to feel in control again. And to have made her feelings clear without losing her cool. Much.
Jamie would do what had to be done. Even if he was a bit of a pain sometimes, he had one of the sharpest legal brains in the country. He’d find a way to make this catastrophe go away without her having to be involved.
‘But it’s great that you’re sorry,’ she added. ‘Because he never was.’
It took less than a fortnight for Halle to discover she had chronically overestimated the sharpness of Jamie Harding’s legal brain—and chronically underestimated the full extent of Luke Best’s rat tendencies.
Halle stepped from the first-class Eurostar carriage into the teeming chaos of the Gare du Nord at nine a.m. on a Monday in early June. She popped another antacid into her mouth, then pursed her lips to ensure the lipstick she’d just applied, again, didn’t smudge. After dodging wheel-along suitcases being used as lethal weapons, she paused at the end of the platform to consider the daunting prospect of reaching the station’s main exit alive.
Streams of Parisians flowed along the crowded, dimly lit concourse as they rushed towards the RER, TGV and metro interchange at the other end of the station, or stood gathered round the ticket kiosks, a pizza booth and the tables of an ice-cream café—which had been strategically stuffed into the narrow thoroughfare between the Eurostar platform and the exit, to thwart any passengers attempting to get out of the station in one piece.
She’d been to Paris once on a school trip in her teens and had avoided the place ever since. Because she’d felt then, as she did now, that the city’s squalid reality didn’t live up to the romantic hype.
Her belly did a couple of backflips—the biggest fright being the one waiting for her at the rendezvous they had arranged in the Marais. Assuming of course Luke bothered to show. Given his abysmal track record, her expectations were fairly low on that score.
She clutched her briefcase and tried not to dwell on what horrors might await her in the café he’d suggested in the Place des Vosges. Or the anger bubbling away like a volcanic pool under her solar plexus and threatening to erupt at any moment despite her copious use of antacids.
How had he managed to engineer things so easily to his own advantage?
Once she’d finally been forced to accept the necessity of meeting him, in person, to ‘discuss’ his book deal, she’d been absolutely adamant that she would not be discussing anything in Paris. Quite apart from the symbolism of her having to come to him, she hadn’t wanted to meet him on his home turf, in an alien city, where she didn’t speak the language. But after the limited communications he’d been prepared to make with Jamie, she’d been faced with the stark choice of either getting into a protracted email negotiation with the man himself or caving in quickly so she could get this farce over with before she developed a new ulcer.
In other words, she’d had no choice at all.
That the success of this visit was by no means assured, despite her being forced to give far too much ground already, made the wad of anger and anxiety wedged in her throat only that much harder to swallow.
Nudging and jostling her way through the sea of arrogantly self-possessed Parisians and foolhardy tourists blocking her exit, she finally found what she assumed was the taxi rank. Although it was hard to tell. Unlike the orderly queue you would find at any main-line London station, here there just seemed to be an extension of the melee inside, with people pushing and shoving as the sound of horns and car engines filled the air in a seething mass of harassed, pissed-off humanity.
Ignoring the rank, she picked her way across the cobblestoned street in the kitten heels her stylist, Rene, had suggested pairing with a caramel-coloured power suit, after a panicked consultation the night before. As she’d worn the two-thousand-pound designer suit while negotiating her last TV contract, it supplied the dual karma of making her feel both in control and lucky. But Rene had bolstered her confidence still further by pointing out the combo of pencil skirt, loosely tailored jacket and silk blouse made a fashion statement of kick-ass insouciance.
You are a lean, mean kick-ass machine. Not the girl he abandoned.
Repeating the mantra went some way to quelling the rioting lava as she reached the main boulevard. She squeezed her eyes shut and thrust out her hand, hoping none of the vehicles barrelling past lopped off her arm. A squeal of skidding rubber had her prising open an eyelid, to find a cab stopped inches from her toes.
‘Bonjour, monsieur,’ she addressed the wiry man in the driver’s seat.
The cabbie gave a curt nod. ‘Bon matin,’ he corrected.
Pulling her iPhone out of her coat pocket, she tapped the calendar app, even though she’d memorised the location during the two-hour train journey from London, and read aloud. ‘Le Café Hugo, á la Place des Vosges, s’il vous plait?’
The driver grunted, nodded, then flicked his head in a surly gesture, which she took to be the Gallic cabbie’s equivalent of ‘Hop in, luv.’
As they bounced down the street, then swerved into the snarl of rush-hour traffic, she rehearsed the speech she’d been working on since yesterday.
She might be famous for her warm, witty, friendly ad-libs to camera on The Best of Everything, but she had decided that adhering strictly to the script on this occasion was absolutely imperative.
There was going to be nothing warm, or witty, or friendly about this meeting. She would be businesslike and direct and completely devoid of emotion. She would present Luke with exactly how much she was prepared to offer to make this problem go away, and that would be the end of it. Because she’d come to the conclusion that’s exactly what this so-called book deal was really all about.
A barefaced attempt to hold her to ransom.
She’d asked her literary agent to make some discreet enquiries with his contacts in New York and it transpired there had been no deal signed as yet—just as Jamie had suspected.
Halle had forced herself not to overreact about this final betrayal. She was a wealthy woman. Why on earth should she be surprised that an opportunist like Luke would eventually seize the chance to hose her for some cash? As long as Lizzie never found out about her father’s mercenary scheme, and the book deal went away, it hardly mattered how she achieved that.
If she had to pay to get Luke Best out of her life forever, she’d do it. She’d already built in a ten per cent increase in the sum she’d discussed with her financial adviser if Luke insisted on negotiating, and Jamie had drawn up the relevant contracts, which she had in her briefcase ready for Luke’s signature. As soon as the rat signed on the dotted line, she would be free to make a dignified exit, after making it absolutely clear this meeting marked the end of any and all business between them.
She was a smidgen outside her comfort zone on this. But Luke didn’t need to know that. As long as she kept her head and didn’t let her anxiety at seeing him again show. And if she could manage to keep her nerves in check while instructing an audience of over a thousand people how to make choux pastry during a live cookery show at London’s Olympia, she could bloody well manage it in front of the man who had lobbed her heart into a blender a lifetime ago.
‘Vingt-cinq euros, madame.’
Halle passed a fistful of notes through the grille, pleased when her fingers barely trembled, and waved off the change before stepping out of the cab. She shielded her eyes against the watery sunlight and absorbed the majesty of the palatial garden square that had emerged like an oasis from the rabbit warren of narrow cobblestoned streets they’d bulleted through to get here from the Gare du Nord. As the cab drove away, her gaze landed on the Café Hugo across the road, and the line of tables nestled under the arches of the grand sixteenth-century facade.
She scanned the bunches of customers huddled at the tables away from the spitting rain but saw no sign of the man she had come to meet. She let out a sharp sigh as it occurred to her she might not even recognise him after sixteen years. After all, she never would have expected him to choose somewhere so highbrow and sophisticated for this meeting. The Luke she’d known had been much more at home at the greasy spoon round the corner from their flat—or the local pub—than an elegant pavement café in Paris.
She dismissed the observation. Obviously, she had never known that Luke, either, or he wouldn’t have managed to sneak the fact past her that he didn’t give a shit about her, and she certainly had no intention of getting to know the new Luke now. Once this short, sharp shock was over with, she would never have to set eyes on him again. So what did it matter if Luke had become a sophisticated man of the world who could tell the difference between a pint of Stella and a glass of Pouilly-Fuissé?
She crossed the street, skirted the outdoor tables and headed towards the glass doors at the café’s entrance, employing the breathing technique she used while they were taping the show, seconds before the green camera light clicked on. The only thing she hoped about the new Luke was that he’d improved his timekeeping—because if he was as fashionably late as he’d once been, the volcano in her stomach was liable to blow.
She entered the darkened café interior, to be greeted by the comforting scent of roasting coffee, sautéed garlic and fresh baking. High-backed leather booths and stained-glass panels coupled with the low lighting from the handblown chandeliers made the bustling inside of the restaurant seem more intimate but no less elegant than the outside.
Her stomach did another uncomfortable flip-flop.
Terrific, intimacy, just the ambience I want for this meeting.
The maître d’ stood by a lectern talking to a tall man wearing a long dark blue mac with his back to her.
The spike of recognition at the man’s hipshot pose sprinted up her spine just before he looked round and a pair of painfully familiar sky-blue eyes located her standing behind him like a muppet.
‘Luke!’ The name popped out on a shocked whisper.
How can he have gotten better looking? The sneaky bastard.
She studied the high angles of his cheekbones, the heavy-lidded eyes, which always looked as if he’d just climbed out of bed, the flat place on the bridge of his nose where he’d broken it in a fight and the deadly dimple in his chin, which had made her the envy of every girl in class 10C when they’d started dating. Then did a quick survey of long legs encased in black jeans, and the navy blue cotton polo neck hugging a chest that looked much broader than she remembered it, too.
Why didn’t you give in to your curiosity yesterday and Google him?
If only she had, she would have been much better prepared for her first eyeful of this new, annoyingly even more buff Luke.
‘Haley,’ he said, murmuring the name she’d had as a girl. The name that had always felt boring and unoriginal until she’d heard him say it. The name she’d changed a year after he’d left.
‘It’s Halle. I don’t answer to that name any more.’
Any more than I intend to answer to you, she thought defiantly, even if hearing that name again on his lips had given her an uncomfortable jolt.
‘You mind if I call you Hal?’ he replied, the once familiar nickname giving her another unpleasant jolt. ‘Halle sounds kind of intimidating,’ he said as his gaze drifted up to her hair with a leisurely sense of entitlement.
If that’s your intimidated look, I’m not buying it.
She bit down on her frustration.
‘Call me whatever you like,’ she countered with deliberate nonchalance, knowing when she was being played. If he thought he could get a rise out of her that easily, he’d miscalculated.
Unpleasant jolts be damned.
‘Hal it is, then. I’m glad we got that settled.’ He swept his hair off his brow. She stared resentfully at the thick, casually styled waves of tawny sun-streaked bronze, long enough now to touch the collar of his mac.
Couldn’t he have lost some of that hair? Surely male-pattern baldness is the least he deserves after the shoddy way he treated me?
He planted one hand in his back pocket, as she frowned at his non-receding hairline, and cocked his head to one side. The infuriatingly leisurely gaze dropped down to her kitten heels.
All the muscles in her face and jaw had clenched—in direct counterpoint to his relaxed body language—by the time his eyes finally met hers again.
‘You haven’t changed.’ The rusty tone, rich with appreciation, shimmered over the skin of her nape and made tension scream across her collarbone.
Back off, buster, that’s one familiarity too far.
She adjusted the strap of her briefcase to loosen her shoulder blades before she dislocated something.
‘If that’s supposed to be flattering, it’s not.’ She laid on as much snark as she could manage while struggling to draw an even breath. ‘This happens to be new season Carolina Herrera, not a supermarket own brand.’
His wide lips curved on one side, the half-smile equal parts confidence and rueful amusement—suggesting her attempt at a slap-down had missed its target by a few thousand miles. But then again, she hadn’t expected a direct hit so soon. Luke’s ego had always been robust. Given how good he looked, she’d hazard a guess it was virtually indestructible now.
‘I don’t have a fucking clue who Carolina Herrera is,’ he said, the casual use of the F-word a prosaic reminder of how she’d once found his genial swearing so sexy.
God, what a clueless muppet I once was.
‘But whoever she is,’ he added, ‘she looks great on you.’
He took a step forward, coming perilously close to her personal space and forcing her to tilt her head back to meet his gaze.
I do not believe it. Has he actually gotten taller, too?
While he was definitely more muscular than he’d been at twenty-one, how could he have also gained an extra inch in height? At five foot four, she had always felt petite standing next to him, but she certainly didn’t remember having to look this far up to see his face.
Sod the kitten heels. I should have worn stilts. It’s going to be next to impossible to kick ass as a midget.
He rattled something off in fluent French to the maître d’, who laughed and then grabbed a couple of menus, before directing them into the restaurant.
‘Jean-François has saved us the best booth,’ Luke said.
‘Fine.’ She refused to worry about what he’d said to put that knowing smile on Jean-François’s lips. She had enough crap to process already. ‘Let’s get this over with,’ she added pointedly as she followed the maître d’.
But as she stepped in front of Luke, his palm touched her lower back and sensation rippled across the upper slope of her bum. She stiffened and jerked round.
He held up the offending hand, then tucked it back into his pocket, but the crinkle of humour around his eyes made his easy surrender a decidedly pyrrhic victory.
Swallowing the renewed spike of temper, and the latest unpleasant jolt, she picked up the pace, her kitten heels clicking decisively on the marble tiles. Directed to a booth at the back of the restaurant, she shrugged off her coat and slid onto the well-worn leather seat.
Luke took the seat opposite, nudging her knee as he folded his long legs under the table. She shifted back. Not because she was scared of touching him, but because she did not want him to crowd her.
Lifting her briefcase onto the table, she opened the locks as Luke addressed the maître d’ in fluid French.
‘Un espresso, un café crème et une sélection de patisseries. Et puis, dire au garçon qu’il devrait nous laisser seul.’
Leaving their menus on the table, Jean-François nodded to Luke, said ‘Bon appetite, madame,’ to her, then flashed that knowing smile again and left.
‘What did you say to him?’ she asked, fervently wishing she hadn’t managed to daydream through five whole years of French in school.
‘I ordered an espresso for me, a coffee with cream for you and a selection of pastries for the both of us,’ he replied drily. ‘I assume you still like your coffee milky—and you’ll love the pastries here, they’re a speciality of the place, they have an amazing pastry chef.’
‘I ate on the train,’ she lied, just as drily, aggravated that he remembered how she liked her coffee—and suspicious of the pastry order. Was that why he’d suggested this place? Did he think he could charm her into offering him more money? ‘And even with my rudimentary French, I know what café crème is,’ she continued. ‘I meant what you said to him after that.’
He rested his forearms on the table, the smug almost-smile finally flatlining.
‘I told him to tell the waiter to leave us alone so we could have some privacy for this conversation.’ He stretched out his legs, bumping her knee again. She shifted back further, then wished she hadn’t when the half-smile returned.
‘Relax, Hal, I’m not planning to kidnap you. Yet.’
She pushed out a scoffing laugh. Determined to appear as cool and confident as he did, even if her ulcer burst. ‘We won’t need too much privacy. This is going to be a very short conversation.’
One dark brow arched. ‘I doubt that.’
‘Think again.’ She plucked the contract out of her briefcase and slapped it on the table, the way she’d rehearsed several times the night before. He didn’t even flinch, let alone jump the way she’d hoped. She crushed the prickle of disappointment.
‘I’m prepared to offer a generous sum to make this book go away,’ she launched into her spiel. ‘Even though we both know you haven’t actually signed a deal yet.’ Her spirits lifted at the crease on his forehead as he studied the wad of papers. ‘Lizzie says you’re a successful journalist, though.’ She put the emphasis on ‘says’ so he would think she doubted Lizzie’s conviction, then paused to let the implication also sink in that she had in no way followed his career trajectory. ‘She also seems to think you’re a competent enough writer to write a book of this nature. And my literary agent concurs that you ought to be able to command an advance given the subject matter. But as I’m not well-known in the US—’ yet ‘—because my show’s only been syndicated to public service broadcasters over there, she doubts a New York publisher will offer more than a low four-figure advance. Accounting for that, and the dollar exchange rate at the moment, I’m prepared to offer you twenty thousand in pounds sterling, in a lump sum payment, once you sign this contract.’ She tapped her nail on the contract for added effect. ‘A contract that, once signed, will rescind all your rights now and in the future to write a book that features, alludes to or in any way references me, our past association or either one of my two children in it. Whether in name or via the use of recognisable characterisation and/or pseudonyms.’
She had to rush the last bit of the speech because she was running out of breath. But, otherwise, the swell of pride was almost as huge as the rush of relief. She’d done it. She’d stuck to the script without wavering or prevaricating and without stumbling, once.
She couldn’t assess his reaction because his expression had gone completely blank as he stared at the paperwork, but she congratulated herself again when he brought his hand down to rest on top.
The silence stretched uncomfortably as he thumped his thumb on the pile of papers but didn’t pick up the contract to examine it more closely.
The waiter arrived to place their coffees and the pastries in front of them. The buttery scent of freshly baked filou accompanied the artistry of feather-light croissants and eclairs, delicate tarts decorated with exotic fruits and some miniature chocolate and cherry entremets.
‘Feel free to read it,’ she prompted, to cover the sound of her empty stomach rumbling.
For a split second she thought she saw something brittle flash across his face, but she dismissed the thought when he said lazily, ‘What makes you think the book’s about you?’
She opened her mouth to tell him she wasn’t an imbecile. But shut it again when she realised how neatly he had almost outmanoeuvred her. She would sound vain and self-important if she reiterated the point, even though they both knew she had to be the subject of the book. Because what else did he have to sell but intimate details of their life together? But she didn’t plan to get caught out that easily.
Luke as a boy had always had a scathing and vocal dislike of what he called ‘pop culture crap’ and a huge chip on his shoulder about people with money whom he decreed didn’t deserve it—which made her suspect he was likely to be less than impressed by her success as a celebrity chef. With hindsight, she also now realised that Luke’s prickly superiority as a teenager had probably come from the indignity of growing up on a run-down council estate in a ‘problem family’ while having to rely on benefit cheques, the local food bank and charity-shop clothing to survive. But she didn’t plan to give him another opportunity to lecture her on the subject of her ‘privileged upbringing’ just because her dad had once gone to grammar school.
‘I don’t care what your book’s about as long as myself and Lizzie and Aldo aren’t in it,’ she said, directing the conversation back where it needed to be. ‘In any shape or form. My private life is not for public consumption and neither is theirs.’
He plopped two sugars into his espresso. ‘So what you’re saying is, you want to be able to decide what I put into my book.’
He stirred the espresso with maddening patience.
‘And I’m prepared to pay a very generous sum for the privilege,’ she added.
He took a leisurely sip of his coffee, the dainty cup impossibly tiny cradled in his hand. ‘Then I guess my next question’s gotta be, what makes you think I want you to pay me for that privilege?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean, I don’t want your money,’ he said.
She blinked, the tiny spurt of hope comprehensively drowned out by total astonishment as what he seemed to be implying simply failed to compute. ‘So you’d be willing to keep us out of it without being paid?’
No way, that couldn’t be right. The man was a rat. He’d shown his true colours sixteen years ago. She had not misread this situation that much.
‘Not exactly,’ he replied.
Bingo. ‘I thought not,’ she said, pleased she hadn’t been wrong. Twenty grand was a small price to pay for the heady satisfaction of finally being right where he was concerned.
‘But money’s not what I’m after from you.’
‘Well, I’m afraid that’s all I’m offering.’ She had no idea where he was going with this, and she didn’t want to know. Luke’s cunning plans, his ridiculous schemes, his hidden agendas were not her problem any more. She’d gotten over caring what the heck was going on inside his head years ago.
‘All I want is a favour from you,’ he continued. ‘Then I’ll do you one in return and drop the book deal. Autobiography’s not really my thing anyway.’
‘What favour?’ The question spilled out, one split second before she remembered she didn’t give a toss about Luke’s stupid hidden agenda.
She realised her mistake when his eyes took on the intent gleam that had once excited her to the point of madness, but now looked decidedly feral. ‘I’m doing a piece on Jackson Monroe, ever heard of him?’
‘Of course I have, he’s that American guy who calls himself the Love Doctor and runs some fancy rehab clinic for divorcing celebrities. He was on The Graham Norton Show a few weeks ago, pushing his bestselling book.’ She searched her memory. ‘And talking loads of bollocks about his new method of relationship rehab for the rich and incredibly gullible.’
And what the bloody hell did some jumped-up, smooth-talking twerp who had made a killing pretending to be the answer to the rising divorce rate have to do with the privacy of her and her children?
‘He calls himself the Love Surgeon, actually,’ Luke said. ‘But bollocks is right and I plan to prove it, by going on one of the relationship retreats at his place in Tennessee. But to do that, I need a plus-one with a profile. Because it’s a course for high-profile couples.’ He lifted his fingers to do air quotes. ‘Who are experiencing a breakdown in their love relationship. And that’s where you come in.’
It took a moment for her to process what he was asking. But then realisation hit her square in the face. And the unpleasant jolt hit eight point five on the Richter scale.
‘Are you completely fucking insane?’ She never used the F-word—not since she’d got over her infatuation with Luke and discovered it wasn’t that pleasant coming from your three-year-old daughter. But it shot out without warning as her head started to implode.
He could not be serious. He’d blackmailed her into coming to Paris to give her some bullshit ultimatum for an article he was writing? As if she had nothing better to do? As if her career wasn’t far more important and full on than his? As if she were still the wide-eyed, besotted acolyte who had been prepared to do anything for him?
‘We don’t have a love relationship,’ she said, just in case he’d missed that salient point. ‘We never had a love relationship.’
‘Gee, that hurts.’ He clapped his hand to his chest in a pantomime of wounded feelings. ‘I distinctly recall you telling me how madly in love with me you were when we first went all the way.’
‘That’s funny, because I don’t recall any such thing.’ Of course she recalled it. And how incredibly crass of him to rub her face in it now.
‘Really?’ he said, the mocking smile lancing through the last of her composure. ‘It was right after I—’
‘If I did say something like that …’ she interrupted, to stop him going into any more detail. The last thing she needed was to have the humiliating picture stuck in her head of him lying on top of her with that I’ve-finally-popped-my-cherry smile on his face while she clung on to him and told him how wonderful he was, because she was desperately trying to romanticise the moment and take her mind off the extreme chafing caused by his enormous cock. ‘It was probably because I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.’
‘Ouch, another direct hit.’
The teasing comment made her sense-of-humour failure complete.
‘OK, I’m off.’ She picked up the contract to shove it back in her briefcase and slammed the lid with a satisfying crash. ‘I don’t have time for this crap.’
‘Hey.’ He took her wrist. ‘I was kidding. No need to get your knickers in a knot.’
‘Don’t touch me.’ She yanked her hand away. Forced herself to breathe, before she smashed her fist into his face and broke his bloody nose a second time.
She wanted to shout at him that their past—and the cruel way he’d treated her—wasn’t a joke, could never be a joke, not to her. But that would give him much more importance than he deserved.
‘No touching, I promise.’ He held his hands up. ‘Just hear me out. All I’m asking is two weeks of your time. I know we don’t have a relationship any more, but we do have shit we haven’t been able to deal with because you have consistently refused to communicate with me directly.’
‘I refused to speak to you because I didn’t want to speak to you. And it doesn’t matter if there’s shit we haven’t dealt with, because I never plan to speak to you again.’
‘What about if the shit has to do with Lizzie?’
The level question stopped her in her tracks. But only for a second. This had nothing to do with Lizzie’s shit, and she had proof. ‘Don’t try to bring our daughter into this, when you’re the one who wants to expose her to the glare of publicity in some grubby tell-all biography just to pocket a few extra quid.’
His jaw tensed, as if he were surprised by the hit. But after a pregnant pause, he spoke again. ‘There’ll be no book if you give me these two weeks. And once I get the goods on this guy, the piece is going to be huge. Vanity Fair is already gagging to publish it …’
‘You’re not listening to me, Luke.’ Some things never changed, it seemed. ‘Read my lips. I don’t care about your article.’ And she certainly didn’t want to have to spend two weeks with him—the past twenty minutes had been trying enough. ‘Or bloody Vanity Fair.’
‘That’s because you’re not looking at the bigger picture here. If this article gets the traction I’m hoping for in the US, it could be great publicity for you. You’re trying to break that market, right?’
‘How did you know that?’ Good God, had he been checking up on her?
‘Because it’s your obvious next step,’ he said, without even breaking stride.
‘How could rehashing our disastrous relationship for the purposes of exposing some charlatan possibly be good publicity for me?’
‘We won’t have to rehash it—what Monroe offers are basically glorified holidays, there’s no real counselling involved. But I’ll go into the background of our relationship in the piece, that’s the angle I’m planning on.’
Her jaw literally dropped at that. She was astonished she couldn’t hear it thudding against the floor. ‘You are actually insane.’
‘It’s a great angle. I’m telling you, it might even get you a spot on Oprah.’
‘Oprah went off air years ago.’ Which showed how much attention he paid to daytime TV.
He hesitated for a moment. ‘Yes, but she still does specials. Like the interview with Lance Armstrong. Your story could qualify.’
‘Why the hell would Oprah bother with a story like mine?’ she asked, not even sure why she was humouring him. Maybe it was sick fascination. It was almost as if he were dangling over the precipice of an alternative reality.
‘Oprah’s all about the feel-good feminist angle,’ he said, convincing her that he wasn’t dangling any longer, he’d dropped right off the cliff. ‘That’s what her viewers lap up. You fit the bill perfectly. The woman who worked her way back from adversity and stuck it to the guy who did her wrong. That’d be me, by the way,’ he added, without even a hint of irony. ‘Don’t sell yourself short, you’re the superhero in this scenario.’
‘Uh-huh? And what superhero am I, exactly? The Incredible Dumped Woman?’
Sod humouring him. His mental health issues weren’t her concern. ‘What the hell makes you think my success has anything at all to do with you?’ She stood, determined not to let him see how mad he could still make her.
Bugger the bloody book. She’d just have to get Jamie to issue an injunction or something once it was written. Knowing Luke’s inability to finish anything he started, she had probably blown the threat entirely out of proportion anyway. ‘And don’t worry, I have never sold myself short. You’re the one who did that.’ She swept out of the booth, ready to make a dramatic exit, when strong fingers clamped on to her wrist, halting her in mid-sweep.
She twisted her wrist, but his grip remained firm this time.
‘Let go of me right this instant.’
‘I’ll let go when you sit down. We’re not finished talking here. You want to cause a scene that’ll end up in Paris Match, be my guest. This happens to be a popular hangout for the paps.’
She darted a glance round the restaurant, the blood rushing up her neck. The place was busy but no longer packed. But as she scanned the booths to see if there were any obvious candidates about to draw a telephoto lens on her, she caught sight of the self-satisfied smirk on Luke’s lips and realised how ridiculous she was being. She was a celebrity in the UK, not France. She narrowed her eyes at Luke, hoping to eviscerate him with a single glance. ‘Paps, my bum.’
‘Sit down,’ he repeated.
She lifted her wrist, but he still wouldn’t let go. She didn’t much like the tingles shooting up her arm from the strength in those calloused fingers.
‘I’ll sit down when you let go,’ she said.
His fingers released, and she toyed with the idea of striding out despite their bargain. She owed him nothing, certainly not honesty or integrity.
‘This isn’t a negotiation, Hal. It’s a choice. I’ll sign your contract and lose the book deal with no money changing hands, but you’ll have to come with me for two weeks to Tennessee first and pose as my plus-one.’
‘That’s Sophie’s choice and you know it,’ she cried, not caring if every paparazzi in Paris overheard them now. ‘What difference is there in having my past idiocy exposed in Vanity Fair and probably syndicated round the globe to getting it rehashed for public consumption in your book? I’ll take my chances, thank you, with an injunction once you’ve actually written the thing. Knowing your bullshit to productivity ratio, you probably won’t even finish it.’
‘There’s no reason why I have to name you in the article. If that’s what you’re scared of, I can keep your identity secret.’
‘Really?’ She sat down—which helpfully disguised the renewed tremor in her legs.
‘Yes, really,’ he said without hesitation, more serious than a heart attack. It was a new look for him. One she was fairly sure she didn’t like any more than all his others.
‘But what if someone guesses my identity?’ Not that she was actually considering his preposterous ultimatum. But theoretically speaking. ‘We’ve got the same last name.’
‘Yeah, I know, funny that, seeing as how I don’t remember us ever getting married.’ Before she could come up with some cutting remark about how eternally grateful she was to have dodged that bullet at least, he continued in the same patient tone. ‘Don’t worry, no one will guess it’s you. Not if I don’t want them to.’ He watched her, in the focused, intent, all-consuming way that had excited her so much as a teenager, when she’d been desperate for his attention. ‘That said, the piece won’t be nearly as strong, and you’ll lose out on all the great publicity you could get from it. So you can make the final decision about whether you want to remain anonymous once you’ve read it,’ he said. ‘Just in case you change your mind.’
She so would not. Did he seriously think the power of his prose would be enough to eradicate the fact that he’d blackmailed her into this?
‘I’m willing to bet you do.’ His lips curved in an assured smile. Good God, the man’s vanity was as phenomenal as his ego.
‘Would you be prepared to put all that in writing?’ she clarified. Even though she still wasn’t seriously considering his devil’s bargain. But where was the harm in exploring all her options?
‘You won’t accept my word?’
‘I wouldn’t accept your word if it was tattooed across your arse.’
He chuckled, the sound deep and rich and not remotely insulted. ‘I’d rather see it tattooed across your arse.’ The buzz of something rich and hot in her belly, and the answering hum deep in her abdomen, felt suspiciously familiar. But it wasn’t excitement, she decided. Or certainly not sexual excitement. More like the buzz you got from besting a worthy opponent in battle. Not that Luke had ever been remotely worthy of her. But apparently the thought of besting him could still give her a cheap thrill.
‘But if you insist,’ he added, ‘get your solicitor to draw something up and I’ll sign it.’ He reached across the table, offering his hand. ‘Shall we shake on it for now?’
She looked at his outstretched palm, her usual common sense returning. Could she bear two whole weeks stuck in his company? Even if it meant the end of the threat against her and her children?
But as his hand hung there, suspended over the table, the buzz peaked, and a strange calm came over her. And she knew, against all the odds, she actually wanted to take his devil’s bargain.
Because she owed it to the girl she’d been.
And because, despite all her protestations to herself, and Jamie, this thirty-minute meeting had proved one galling fact: she hadn’t gotten over Luke’s desertion the way she’d wanted to believe.
She’d shut down all those years ago, once all the tears and heartache had drained her dry. And she’d forced herself to rise above the pain and the grief and eventually the anger, because she’d had to, not just to survive and to heal, but so she could handle letting her daughter have the daddy she adored back in her life.
But by never talking to Luke, never seeing him or communicating with him, he’d got off scot-free. He’d never had to explain what he’d done, or why he’d done it. He’d never even had to apologise. And maybe she needed that, to finally get the closure that had alluded her.
She clocked the confident gleam in his gaze, daring her to take him on. The way he’d done so many years ago.
She’d taken the challenge then and lost, catastrophically. But she was older, smarter and a lot richer now. And, best of all, she was totally over him.
Hell yeah, she could survive being stuck with him for two whole weeks. She might even enjoy it. Rubbing his nose in all his shortcomings. In fact, two weeks wouldn’t be nearly long enough for that.
‘OK, Luke, you’ve got a deal.’
His fingers trapped hers, the calluses on the ridge of his palm rough to the touch. The memory flash blindsided her: those same calluses caressing the sensitive skin of her inner thigh on the lazy Sunday morning before he’d left for his first proper assignment—the last time they’d made love. When he’d used all the skills they’d learned together to make her come until she screamed, and woke the baby up. The frisson of heat, the shock of memory settled in her breasts, making her nipples tighten against the smooth silk of her bra.
Then his thumb brushed under the red mark on her wrist and, to her horror, the hum in her abdomen pulsed hot.
‘What happened here?’ he asked. ‘It looks nasty.’
Small burns were a hazard of her job; she’d incurred this one a few days ago during a guest spot on BBC One’s Breakfast Kitchen while whipping a tray of florentines out of the oven. The sore spot tingled as his thumb slid close to the inflamed skin.
She yanked her hand free and rubbed her wrist discreetly on her skirt.
‘It’ll heal,’ she said. And so, finally, will the wounds you inflicted on me.
She walked out of the restaurant without another word. But as she hailed a cab to take her back to the station for her noon train, her breasts continued to throb in time with the timpani drum of her pulse.
And it occurred to her there was one key element of their relationship she hadn’t factored into her decision to accept his proposal.
And perhaps she should have.
‘Elle est très belle,’ Jean-François commented wistfully as the café’s door swung shut in Halle’s wake.
‘Oui, très belle,’ Luke replied, not at all wistfully.
And très pissed off with me, still, even after more than a decade and a half.
Enough to piss him right off in return.
She’d offered him money. As if he were some cap-doffing toady whose silence she could buy with a few bob. As if his life story had no import whatsoever compared to hers.
Not that he was actually writing his life story. But that was hardly the point.
Who did she think she was? Did she actually believe just because she could rustle up the perfect soufflé in ten minutes and mould a working carousel cake topper out of marzipan she was better than him?
‘Ça c’est bien?’ Jean-François indicated the untouched plate of pastries. ‘Votre reunion importante?’
Not exactly. His important meeting had come close to being a complete bust.
‘Yeah, très bien.’ He stuffed a miniature chasson aux pommes into his mouth to sweeten the sarcasm.
So much for his cunning plan. Because what had seemed perfect twenty minutes ago wasn’t looking quite so perfect any more.
Perhaps he should have figured out the extent of Halle’s hatred. Given that her temper tantrum had lasted sixteen years.
Then again, what he had really underestimated was his own reaction.
He thought he’d come to terms with all the choices he’d made, good and bad, all those years ago. But seeing her again, in the flesh, instead of on TV or in some papped snapshot in a magazine, had proved what a whopper that was. Because despite the gloss and the glamour and the Carolina Whatever-her-name-was designer suit, all he’d been able to see for a moment was the girl he had once fallen arse-over-tit in lust with.
The lush curve of her hips in the fitted skirt, the peaks of her full so-sensitive breasts beneath the silk blouse, the rich honey-blonde hair, which looked soft and tactile despite the ruthless updo, and even the sparkling intelligence behind the brittle contempt in her golden brown eyes.
He’d been reeling from that shock when she’d delivered another sucker punch to the gut. That not only wasn’t his infatuation with her as dead as it should be, but he wasn’t as sorted about the rest of it, either. All the stuff he’d had years of therapy to overcome.
Because if he was, how could the misplaced pride and the defensive anger that had screwed him up so royally as a kid have popped out of hiding like a demented jack-in-the-box as soon as she’d slapped him with that insulting offer?
Jean-François left him to finish his lukewarm espresso and full plate of pastries on his own—and reconsider his plan.
Getting Halle to come to Tennessee with him had seemed like a no-brainer when he’d thought of the idea a month ago.
Having Halle in tow at Monroe’s resort would not only mean he could finally force her to talk to him about Lizzie, but the resulting article—which he planned to be a clever exposé of exactly why Monroe’s eccentric methods didn’t work—had the potential to be huge.
The guy had come from nowhere to end up with endorsements from a host of Hollywood A-listers within a year. And was causing a storm with his bestseller, The Extreme Path to Love and Reconciliation. Getting the goods on the celebrity charlatan could even win him an award, if he pitched it right.
He stirred another sugar into his coffee, topped up the cup from the fresh pot the waiter had deposited on the table and took a fortifying sip. But the sugar-loaded caffeine hit did nothing to disguise the unpleasant taste of apprehension beginning to clog his throat.
Unfortunately, after his first merry meeting with the new, improved ball-busting Halle, he couldn’t help wondering about the advisability of getting stuck for two whole weeks in the Tennessee wilderness with a woman who had looked at him—when she actually bothered to meet his gaze—as if she wanted to stuff his reproductive organs through an industrial-grade mincer.
‘I can’t believe it. You got Mr Perfecto to babysit us both? That is so humiliating.’
Trey Carson sawed the tuna sandwiches he was making for Aldo’s packed lunch in half while attempting to tune out the argument raging in the hall. He wasn’t having much success, given that he had become the subject of Lizzie Best’s latest spat with her mother—and her shrill angry tone could slice through lead.
He heard the muffled conciliatory tones of her mother’s reply, and even though he couldn’t make out the words, he had to give his employer points for patience. Halle Best never raised her voice to her children. Especially Lizzie. He often wondered if she had a secret stash of weed in the house to keep her so calm in the face of so much provocation. His own mother would have given him a backhander if he’d dared to speak to her the way Lizzie spoke to her mum. Before she got sick that was …
He cut the sandwiches into quarters.
‘Like I care that you’re going on some stupid book tour.’ Lizzie’s lead-slicing tone echoed round the large open-plan basement kitchen again. ‘So what else is new?’
Trey reached for the cling film and hastily wrapped the sandwiches, keen to get Aldo out of the line of fire before Lizzie stomped into the kitchen ready to take her frustration out on her little brother. He wasn’t in the mood to play referee this morning. Especially now he’d become Public Enemy Number One because his employer had asked him to move in for two weeks while she was away on a book tour in the US.
Keeping his cool around Lizzie for the past three months had been hard enough. Living in the same house with her for a fortnight threatened to up the stakes a lot more. Forget losing his cool, if he wasn’t careful he could end up throttling her. And he couldn’t do that. Killing his employer’s daughter would not look good on his CV. Plus, he’d probably lose his job.
And he needed this job. It paid well, came with good benefits, took his mind off his mum, and he got a kick out of looking after Aldo. The kid was smart and funny and affectionate—and they understood each other. Because Trey knew what it was like to grow up without a dad around and to get labelled a ‘problem’ by grown-ups who didn’t know shit about your life.
The poor kid had been in therapy for his anger management issues when Trey had gotten the job—the eighth au pair Halle had hired in as many months. But all Trey had seen was a confused and scared ten-year-old boy who needed a mate—and a chance to run off all his nervous energy instead of sitting around talking himself into a coma. They’d had a few scary moments when he’d started. Aldo could throw the mother of all tantrums when he set his mind to it. The sort of thing that required an exorcist rather than a time out. But once Trey had discovered the handy trick of simply ignoring them, Aldo’s Damien routine had become less and less frequent.
But while he liked hanging out with Aldo, Aldo’s older sister was a whole other matter. She’d been on his case from day one. And this wasn’t the first time he’d heard her bad-mouthing him to her mum. And calling him Mr Perfecto.
He’d been unfailingly civil and polite back, or as polite as it was possible to be when someone took great pleasure in needling you, but after three months of watching Lizzie fly off the handle over nothing, not to mention witnessing her never-ending strops and mood swings, the urge to kick back was becoming harder and harder to resist.
‘Aren’t you going to cut the crusts off?’ Aldo said, reminding Trey he didn’t have time to consider Lizzie Best’s personality disorder. If they didn’t get a move on, they were liable to become the target of it.
‘You know I hate them,’ Aldo added, apparently more concerned about an excess of fibre in his diet than the oestrogen apocalypse going on outside the kitchen door.
‘You’ll just have to deal.’ Trey shoved the cling-filmed sandwiches into Aldo’s backpack on top of the crisps and juice box he’d raided from the larder.
‘But I’ll puke if I have to eat them.’ Aldo was nothing if not persistent.
‘Don’t be so moist. You think John Terry gets his crusts cut off?’ The Chelsea deity was Trey’s go-to guy whenever Aldo went into serious pester mode. He used the hallowed Terry trump only in cases of emergency. But when Lizzie stomped into the room and climbed onto the stool next to her brother’s at the breakfast bar, sporting a face like a thundercloud, that wild puff of sunshine hair falling out of its haphazard ponytail, Trey decided this situation definitely qualified.
‘I hate her. This whole set-up is so full of shit.’ Lizzie thumped her toe against the counter.
Trey zipped the backpack, knowing better than to pick up the conversational gauntlet.
‘What’s Mum done?’ Aldo piped up, apparently unaware of the feral glint in Lizzie’s eyes that said she was likely to gut the next poor bastard who opened their mouth.
‘Shut up, you little turd. Like you care.’
‘I’m not a turd. You are.’
‘Come on, guys, give it a rest.’ Trey steeled himself to pull them apart, but instead of thumping Aldo, or having a go at him, Lizzie stared at the countertop.
‘I can’t believe she still doesn’t trust me. At all.’
She didn’t sound sulky. She sounded genuinely hurt—as only an eighteen-year-old drama queen could, but her distress arrowed under Trey’s usually reliable sense of self-preservation.
‘You OK?’ he asked.
Her gaze met his and he noticed the sheen of moisture turning the bold blue of her irises a shade darker. The colour matched the Tottenham away strip from last season now, instead of the bluebells he remembered from a rainy camping holiday in Wiltshire with his mum.
Lizzie stared blankly at him, as if she were surprised to see him there. She had amazing eyes. He’d always thought so, even though he pretended not to notice stuff like that. But there was no avoiding noticing this time. Her gaze captivated him, the stormy blue changing shade with her emotions, the lashes long and elegant even with all the gunk she put on them.
She blinked and the spell broke, the sulky irritation returning. ‘Excuse me, are you confusing me with someone you actually give a toss about?’
Trey mentally kicked himself. Seemed he was as clueless as Aldo when it came to keeping his mouth shut.
He slung the backpack to Aldo. ‘Why don’t you give your mum a break?’ And stop acting like a two-year-old. ‘She’s a busy woman and she’s on her own.’
The intriguing tilt at the corners of Lizzie’s round eyes went all squinty.
‘I know how busy she is. Or she wouldn’t be pissing off on a US book tour. And she’s hardly on her own. She has a whole army of minions.’ Her gaze raked over him, making it crystal his rank in Halle Best’s minion army was no higher than foot soldier.
‘Yeah, well …’ He shrugged, swallowing the urge to snap back. ‘This minion’s got work to do.’ He rubbed Aldo’s crown. The boy giggled, reminding him why he was never going to let the Drama Queen’s snooty barbs hit home. Or notice how amazing her eyes were, ever again. ‘Let’s get you to school, Beast Boy.’
Aldo clambered off his stool and bid Lizzie a wary goodbye. But as they headed for the back door together, Trey could feel her arresting gaze boring two eye-sized holes into the base of his skull.
And the skin on his neck heated accordingly.
‘Thanks for nada, Mr Perfecto,’ Lizzie whispered.
How come he was always right there, watching, and judging, and making her feel like even more of a loser?
Aldo yelled with boyish excitement as Trey Carson challenged him to a race up the outdoor stairs. Trey let her brother have a head start, then sprinted up the stairs after him, his body a blur of graceful, athletic motion as he disappeared from view.
Her knee twitched, her heart beating in heavy thuds.
He made her nervous, that was all it was. She certainly didn’t fancy him. He might be fit but he seemed so old and boring. He certainly wasn’t cool. He wore straight-legs like her dad, instead of skinny jeans, and battered Nike high-tops, which would have been OK, except they looked as if he actually used them for sports. He was way too serious. He thought her mum was Wonder Woman. And he hadn’t updated his Facebook status since last year. Plus, he wasn’t even on Instagram, or Snapchat, or WhatsApp, or Twitter, because she’d checked.
But there was something about the width of his shoulders beneath his un-hip polo shirts. Something about the way his short hair curled over the top of his ears that should have looked goofy but didn’t. Something about the scent of lemon soap and spearmint gum that clung to him, so unlike Liam’s scent of eau de stale cigarette butts.
What would it be like to spend time with Trey? To talk to him without resorting to her habitual snark?
Lizzie took her iPhone out of her back pocket and texted Carly. She needed a distraction. The latest argument with her mum must have messed with her sanity if she was actually feeling disappointed she hadn’t been able to walk the devil child to school with the moist au pair.
Wozzup? she texted.
Nada. Watching Friends reruns … Carly’s reply popped up two seconds later, because her best friend was surgically attached to her phone and her texting skills were autistic. U know, The One Where Rach Sucks Joey’s dick!!!
Lizzie choked out a laugh, glad her friend couldn’t see the insta-blush firing up her neck. You wish.
FYI Friends would have been amaze-balls as a porno. Bet Joey’s beef is at least 10 inches, Carly replied.
Fancy a trip to Primani 2morrow? Lizzie texted back, before Carly mortified her even more by teasing her about the size of Trey’s beef again.
Thought you were doing something with Superstar-Mum?
She’s going on a book tour in the US. No biggie. Means more quality time with my BFF. Lizzie typed the fake reply not wanting to let on to Carly how disappointed she was her mum had bailed on her again.
Carly was not a good ear. Not only did Lizzie have the sneaking suspicion her BFF was more interested in her mum’s celebrity than she was in her—ever since Heat magazine had published a blurred photo of Lizzie and her mum shopping in Knightsbridge at Christmas, Carly had convinced herself Lizzie’s life out-glammed that of the Brangelina clan—Carly had accused her of being a baby if she moaned about her mum’s work schedule. So now Lizzie kept her resentment a secret, because she didn’t want Carly to know her life was actually about as glamorous as Lisa Simpson’s or that Super Nanny, as Carly had nicknamed Trey, thought she was a bigger brat than Bart.
Bullcrap, I’m off to that thing in Clapham 2morrow w/ Kip & the guys. Want 2 cum?
Lizzie stared at Carly’s answering text and wanted to hurl her iPhone against the kitchen wall. She stifled the burst of temper, and the hurt beneath, mainly because she knew her mum would refuse to pay for yet another cracked phone screen. But seriously? How could Carly ask that, when she knew Kip and the ‘guys’ would include Liam? But then, of course she would, because her so-called BFF had told her she was being a baby about Liam, too.
‘Why are you getting so worked up. It was only a BJ, it was only once and it was Amber’s eighteenth. And she’s fancied Liam for ages.’
When Lizzie had argued that perhaps Liam should have stumped up some cash for a present for Amber rather than gift-wrapping his cock, she’d got Carly’s trademark eye-roll and the one word Lizzie had begun to hate with a passion. Because Liam had used it all the time, too. When he said she was getting too pushy, or too clingy, or doing what he called her ‘stalker vibe’.
A word that basically said, Don’t bug me, don’t bother me, don’t make such a fuss about bugger all. Your opinion, your feelings, your pride don’t matter in the big fat scheme of things that do matter.
You’ve got a boyfriend who gets caught getting a BJ from one of your friends at her birthday party?
You’ve got a mum who takes time out from her busy HELLO!-style life only because she’s having some weird freak-out about you being anorexic?
You’ve got a dad who still thinks you’re his smart, witty, wonderful baby girl. When you know you’re not?
You’ve got a little brother who used to look at you as if you were Hermione Granger and a Powerpuff Girl all rolled into one, but now looks at you as if you’re an unexploded bomb?
You’re going to be stuck for two weeks with a guy who’s weirdly hot but thinks you’re a bitch?
Somehow or other that one word had become a curse. And she hated it. But she knew, deep down, there was one thing she hated more than that bastard, buggering, like-I-give-a-shit word …
And that one thing was herself.
She’d dated Liam and given him BJs until her jaw ached because everyone else thought he was cool. She never confided in Carly, even though they were supposed to be BFFs, because she was scared Carly might drop her. She almost wished she did have anorexia because at least then she would feel as if she deserved her mum’s attention. Her dad didn’t know what she was really like because she didn’t have the guts to tell him. Aldo was scared of her because she’d gone postal on him once too often. And Trey thought she was a bitch because most of the time she was. Especially with him. Because …
Because she might be developing a small, inconvenient crush on him. A crush she could never ever let him know about. Because if he found out, he’d be horrified and she’d be mortified.
Her mum and her mum’s celebrity had come to symbolise all the things that were wrong with Lizzie’s life. But she knew the Domestic Diva was only really responsible for—at most—half of them. The rest of Lizzie’s failings were entirely down to Lizzie.
She texted Carly back. Thnx, but I’ve got to help out with Aldo while my mum’s away.
Just pretending her mum would trust her with that responsibility felt good for a moment. But it was another lie, of course. Trey didn’t need help with her brother. He was far too efficient for that. And her brother didn’t want to spend time with her any more, because Trey was the Aldo Whisperer now.
No wonder her mum had wanted Trey to move in for two weeks. Humiliation sat like a lump of uncooked dough in her stomach. Raw and stodgy and indigestible.
WotevZ. I’ll txt u next wk. Enjoy the mini-terminator. And c if you can size up Super Nanny’s meat while your at it. Carly’s text finished with a grinning devil emoji. And then another one with red cheeks.
The heat flushed all the way to Lizzie’s hairline as she texted back a grinning devil as if she was up for the idea, like the fraud she was.
Halle slotted her new Audi A8 into her dedicated parking space, under the neon sign emblazoned across the brick wall of her cake design studio in Hammersmith.
Best’s Bespoke Bakery—Designer Confectionery from the Domestic Diva.
The quiet purr of the car’s powerful engine died as she turned off the ignition. The A8 had been a present to herself last Christmas, when her sixth book had topped the Sunday Times non-fiction bestseller list. Driving it was usually a great way to lift her mood.
But not today.
She let her gaze linger on the studio’s sign while she dialled her assistant, Mel, but the retro swirl of lipstick-red neon wasn’t giving her the usual ego boost today, either.
She was still feeling guilty about having to lie to Lizzie this morning—inventing a fictitious US book tour to stave off any unanswerable questions about the two weeks she was about to spend in Tennessee with Lizzie’s dad. And Lizzie’s predictably pissed-off reaction to the news.
‘Hi, Mel,’ she said when her PA picked up. ‘Just checking in to find out if the final paperwork came through from Jamie yet.’
Maybe all was not lost.
She didn’t have to go anywhere if Luke hadn’t signed on the dotted line. Which as of yesterday included her stipulation that he agree not to tell Lizzie about their trip. She didn’t want her daughter involved in this fiasco. She was emotionally fragile enough. Why stress her out about something when it meant nothing? If Lizzie figured things out once Luke’s article was published, Future Halle could handle it.
‘Yup, Jamie emailed it this morning. Apparently, Luke wasn’t too happy about the confidentiality clause. But he’s signed it.’
‘OK, I guess I really am going to Tennessee tomorrow, then.’ Halle let out the breath she’d been holding and ticked off the item on the to-do list in her head. The to-do list that would never end. ‘I assume everything’s booked?’
‘Yes, the flight leaves at ten from Heathrow.’
‘How long is it?’ Where was Tennessee anyway? Hopefully not too far from New York. She’d never been a big fan of hanging suspended in a metal box thirty thousand feet above sea level.
‘Nine hours and forty minutes.’
‘Nine …’ So nowhere near New York, then. Bollocks. ‘There isn’t a shorter flight?’
‘I checked. You could get a shorter flight to New York and then transfer for a flight to Atlanta, but there’s a four-hour stopover in Newark.’
‘Oh …’ Shit. The take-offs were always the worst part. Two flights would not be better than one. ‘Fine.’
She jotted down ‘pack Xanax’ on the never-say-die to-do list to keep her calm during take-off.
‘Are Luke and I travelling together?’
‘Yes, he’s hiring a car in Atlanta to do the three-hour drive to the resort. It’s all in the itinerary I sent through from him a week ago.’
‘Right, of course.’ That would be the itinerary sitting on her laptop that she had been avoiding. She added ‘read itinerary and weep’ to the list. Followed by ‘pack extra-strength Xanax’. After sixteen years of avoidance, she was going to be spending close to thirteen hours in a confined space with the man. She might need to get comatose.
‘The car’s booked for six tomorrow to take us to the airport. I spoke to Dave at Crystal PR and he said the publicity junket for the next season of Best of Everything won’t kick into high gear till you get back, so you’re all clear there. Plus, Becky at Random House said there’s nothing more to do on the next book till they get the flats from the printers. Is there anything else you need me to do before tomorrow?’
‘No, I’m good, thanks, Mel.’ Or as good as it was possible to be in her current circumstances. Rearranging her schedule had been easier than expected. And she could certainly do with a break. It would have been nice, though, if this particular break didn’t include a travelling companion she had no desire to see again in this lifetime. ‘I’m going to spend the next couple of hours getting everything up to speed at the studio. Then I thought I’d do the kids a home-cooked meal tonight.’
She popped ‘hit Waitrose’ onto the list.
‘What a nice idea,’ Mel said dutifully. ‘What are you cooking?’
‘Vegetable lasagne and key lime pie.’
Not exactly a menu worthy of Britain’s best-loved baking guru, but Aldo had fixated on key lime pie during their trip to Disney World last summer while Lizzie was with Luke, and vegetable lasagne had once been Lizzie’s favourite dish of hers. Back when Lizzie had been proud of her mum’s career as a master chef.
‘They’ll love that,’ Mel said with a lot more enthusiasm than Halle felt.
‘I hope so,’ Halle replied, not holding out much hope. Her daughter’s sulks weren’t known for their brevity. So she was already braced for the silent treatment over the dinner table after this morning’s bust-up.
After saying goodbye to Mel, Halle unplugged her iPhone from the car’s charger and headed into the studio. Once part of a Victorian wharf used for storing marble imported into the city—back when the Thames was the main thoroughfare for bringing goods in and out of London—the rehabbed brick building was now the bedrock of the Domestic Diva brand.
Halle walked through the tinted glass double doors, waved to Jonno, their receptionist, then strolled past the luxury meeting rooms used for client consultations and tastings and into the cavernous open-plan kitchen at the back. Glass panelling had been used to replace the old warehouse’s loading doors during the refurbishment, flooding the space with natural light and gifting her dedicated kitchen staff of two food stylists, one master baker and a couple of assistants with a spectacular view of the Thames and the grandiose Harrods Depository on the opposite bank.
Halle loved the way the space made a statement. Of modernity and ambition.
She breathed in the scent of freshly baked sponge and rose water. This was where her career had finally taken flight. Where all those nights spent baking, icing and moulding decorations in the tiny kitchen of her council flat in Hackney while the kids were asleep had been validated. But today, the clean, striking lines of the stainless steel catering ovens and the industrious chatter of her workforce weren’t giving her any more of a lift than the sign outside.
Yet more proof—not that she needed it—that she was not looking forward to tomorrow’s trip.
The two assistants sent her awed looks from their workbenches. She waved back, in too much of a rush today to stop and have a team-building pep talk about the commission they were working on. From the delicate white and pink sugar flowers they were both moulding out of flower paste, she guessed they were busy on the wedding cake she’d designed for a D-list celebrity a couple of weeks ago.
She raced up the steps to the mezzanine level, which looked down over the baking hub, her sensible heels clicking on the steel risers. Arriving at the glass cubicle she used a couple of days a week as her office, she booted up her computer and collapsed into her chair.
She would also need to fit in a quick, confidential chat with Trey Carson at some point. She added the new item to the to-do list from hell as she opened the document marked ‘Consultation Schedule’ on her desktop.
Given her daughter’s not exactly ecstatic reaction to the news that Trey was going to be sleeping over for the next fourteen days, she ought to give the guy a heads-up on some of her daughter’s issues. Figuring out how to do that subtly enough so as not to tread on Lizzie’s already fragile ego, or have it lead to World War Three if she found out Halle had spoken to Trey, would have to be another problem for Future Halle, though.
Because Present Halle was too busy mentally kicking Past Halle’s arse for agreeing to Luke’s stupid stunt in the first place.
Why hadn’t she walked away in the Café Hugo three weeks ago, when Luke had begun talking in tongues about love doctors and Vanity Fair articles? Would stopping Luke’s memoirs—correction, phantom memoirs—be worth getting stranded for two weeks with him in the Tennessee wilderness however luxurious the resort?
As soon as she’d been back on the Eurostar, in the soulless comfort of first class, without Luke’s don’t-be-a-chicken smile daring her to lose her grip on reality, the rational, sensible answer to that question had seemed fairly obvious.
Two weeks against phantom-memoir stoppage? Good deal? Um, no.
What she should have done in Paris was tell Luke to take his love-surgeon-article bollocks and shove it right up his superbly toned backside.
But in Café Hugo, the reckless, impulsive, insane streak, which Luke had mined so easily when she was sixteen, had come out of hiding for one last hurrah. And she’d taken him up on the dare.
Once she was back in the UK, and Jamie had fired her an email with the subject line ‘Is Your Ex Delusional?’ she still could have denied all knowledge of the devil’s bargain she’d made with Luke and got Jamie to handle the fallout. But she hadn’t. She’d had him draw up a contract for Luke to sign.
Et voilà. She was now having to abide by her side of that contract.
So really the only person to blame for this monumental error of judgement was herself.
Or rather that part of herself—the part she thought had died sixteen years ago while trudging round East London trying to find the father of her child—that refused to back down from a challenge.
Back then, that part of herself had been valiant and stupidly optimistic and determined to prove Luke still loved her. Now that part of herself was valiant and fatalistic and determined to prove she was totally over him.
But that still gave Present Halle an excellent reason to give Past Halle a really good kicking.
A tap on the door frame helped halt Halle’s growing multiple personality disorder from getting any worse. She spotted Carrie, the design studio’s general manager and all-round admin superstar, standing on the threshold. Halle winced at the fluorescent pink-and-orange tie-dye minidress, which clashed spectacularly with the electric-blue highlights in Carrie’s hair.
‘Halle, were we expecting you? I didn’t have anything in my schedule,’ Carrie said, reminding Halle her general manager had a much saner approach to office admin than she did to wardrobe choices.
‘Slight change of plans. I’m going to be out of the country for two weeks as of tomorrow.’ In Nowheresville, Tennessee, no doubt whopping Past Halle’s arse for the duration. ‘So I thought I’d come in to do a quick run-through of the schedule while I’m away. You’ll have to take any client consultations that can’t be rearranged.’
‘Hold on.’ Carrie’s brows shot up. ‘You’re taking a holiday? For two whole weeks?’
The shock on Carrie’s face suggested it had been longer than she’d thought since her last two-week break.
‘It’s not a holiday, exactly. It’s more of a personal thing,’ she said, sticking to the minimalist story she’d worked out in lieu of the book tour one, which Carrie would see through straight away as she had access to Halle’s schedule.
Telling her staff the truth had been quickly discarded. Having to explain to them about Luke and his article would only complicate things. Plus, she didn’t want to risk any leaks. This trip was about getting closure for the shockingly bad life choices she’d made as a teenager. And not about giving the gossip mags a chance to editorialise said shockingly bad life choices for the benefit of their judgemental readers.
‘A personal thing?’ Carrie looked intrigued, then clapped her hands with glee. ‘You found a Mr Best? That’s terrific. My work is done.’
Carrie knew about Luke? How the …?
‘No wonder you nixed all my blind date suggestions,’ Carrie continued with a mock pout. ‘You were busy trolling on your own. You could have told me.’
Trolling? Blind date suggestions? Wait a minute. Carrie had said a Mr Best.
Oh, thank fuck.
This conversation had nothing to do with Luke and everything to do with her GM’s Cupid delusion. Carrie had met Alan the folk guitarist, aka Mr Right On, eighteen months ago and been on a mission to spread the love ever since. Halle was one of the few people at the studio who’d avoided getting stabbed in the arse by Carrie’s love dart.
‘There is no Mr Best,’ Halle said emphatically. Or not one anyone need know about. ‘And I’m not looking for one. I have a perfectly good vibrator I can date if I need to.’
Not that she’d had many dates with her vibrator lately. In fact, when was the last time she’d gotten Bugs, her Rampant Rabbit, out of the bedside drawer? She did a quick calculation.
Good Lord, had it actually been Christmas Eve? Six whole months?
No wonder Luke’s tactile thumb had given her a hot flush. Well, at least it was good to know the anxiety of seeing him again hadn’t induced a stress menopause.
She slotted ‘get Bugs out of mothballs’ onto her to-do list.
‘Vibrators can’t hug you like a man can,’ Carrie stated with a sanguine look. ‘Unless your vibrator’s a new model I haven’t heard of.’
‘Hugs are overrated, as is all the bullshit that goes with them when men supply them.’
‘Halle!’ Carrie looked scandalised. ‘Don’t be so cynical. Not all men are bastards.’
‘And not all men are like Mr Right On,’ Halle countered, cutting the edge out of her voice. Just because she’d learned there was no such thing as a free hug, Carrie didn’t need to know that. Yet. ‘Now, could we please stop talking about my love life?’
‘Dating a vibrator does not count as a love life,’ Carrie said emphatically, but she stepped into the cubicle and sat in the spare chair.
Halle shot her a severe look.
Carrie threw back her you’re-still-on-my-dating-hit-list look, before saying, ‘So where do you want to start? With the client consultation schedule or the fact that the Kane Corporation CEO has come up with yet another brilliant suggestion for the decoration on their sixtieth-anniversary cake?’
‘You’re joking? But we signed off on that design weeks ago. And isn’t the event this Saturday evening?’ In two days’ time.
The studio took on only about eight hundred cakes a year now. All bespoke designs mostly for celebrity parties or huge corporate events and all handmade by the fabulous team she’d assembled. But even so, each cake had to have the unique Halle Best stamp on it. That’s what her clients were paying thousands of pounds per cake for. With her TV and publishing commitments, she no longer had the time to spend hours painstakingly moulding Mexican modelling paste or baking sponges or mixing crumb coating, so her job mostly involved fronting the studio’s PR initiatives, creating the basic designs, instructing the team and schmoozing the clients.
Right from the start, the Kane Corporation’s cake had been a hard sell, and an even harder schmooze. Carlton Foster, the CEO, who had insisted on consulting with Halle personally, had been adamant about showcasing the company’s product range on the cake because the party would be getting lots of exposure on their social media platforms. Unfortunately, it was next to impossible to make a cake topped with syringes, surgical gloves, catheters and bedpans look edible, let alone appetising. After much negotiation, and some extracurricular schmoozing, Halle had managed to satisfy Foster’s marketing zeal while also hopefully preventing his guests’ gag reflexes from engaging by suggesting a five-tiered dark chocolate sponge iced with a raspberry and tangerine white chocolate ganache—black, red and orange being the colours of the Kane Corporation logo—decorated with a tasteful montage of 3D illustrations from the company’s iconic advertising campaigns of the past sixty years. Foster had signed off on the design two weeks ago. And the party was happening on Saturday at the Kensington Roof Gardens. The sponges would have been baked. The decorations would already be in production. They simply didn’t have time for any major rethinks. Or redesigns. But even so …
‘What’s the suggestion?’ Please don’t let it involve the return of the bedpans.
Halle wanted to be as flexible as possible. When it came to big-occasion cakes, last-minute suggestions or panic attacks were the customers’ prerogative. Especially if they were paying ten thousand pounds for the privilege.
‘Foster is really keen for us to incorporate something to illustrate Kane’s latest charitable initiative in the Third World.’
‘OK.’ That didn’t sound too disastrous. One new tableau should be doable. If they could persuade one of the stylists to work overtime to get a head start on the new decoration and she could work out a design for it before she left tomorrow morning. ‘What’s the initiative?’
Carrie smiled, sheepishly. ‘A programme to distribute free condoms in sub-Saharan Africa.’
Halle’s smile faded as she slapped ‘kill Carlton Foster’ onto the top of her to-do list.
What exactly is the point of online check-in?
Luke stood in the queue for the bag-drop desk in Heathrow’s Terminal Two, which snaked halfway to Manchester, his boot tapping against the industrial flooring. As a person who’d been born with a serious case of wanderlust, he knew pointless queues were a necessary evil of air travel. But he’d had a six a.m. wake-up call, despite being up till two at his hotel to meet a deadline on a piece for Time magazine, to allow for the queue at security—which still loomed large, and no doubt even longer, in his future. So this sodding queue was above and beyond the call of duty.
Halle strode through one of the terminal’s revolving doors, followed by a mini entourage that consisted of a woman talking on her smartphone and an older man pushing a trolley with far too many suitcases on it. Luke’s boot stopped in mid-tap, as did the dictation in his head of his letter of complaint to the moron who thought two measly bag-drop staff was enough.
From the parade of double takes that followed Halle and her mini entourage through the terminal, it was clear several people recognised her. No one approached her, though. Not surprising, given those bugger-off vibes she was radiating with every crisp, purposeful stride.
She looked immaculate, and invincible, her hair swept up in a style that left her face bare, but for the few teasing tendrils dangling down her neck. The intimidating light blue power suit and heels were probably some pricey designer brand, a matching set to the outfit she’d worn in Paris. The hum of attraction kicked off in his crotch, annoying him the same way it had when he’d swung round at her gasp in Café Hugo.
Ruthlessly coiffured and expertly styled dominatrix types were not his thing. He preferred a woman who didn’t look as if she were about to conquer Poland. But that hadn’t stopped him having to stifle all sorts of inappropriate urges while sitting opposite her in Hugo’s, mostly involving plucking the pins out of her hairdo and watching the honey-blonde curls bounce off her shoulders.
Funny to think how sunny and unassuming she’d been when they were kids. Young and open and ridiculously naive. Of course, she’d been sixteen going on twenty then, and an exceptionally bad judge of character. Or she wouldn’t have attempted to hand him her heart on a platter.
Halle’s brows rose as she spotted him, but her gaze remained cool and impersonal.
The composed assessment should have been a welcome relief from the radioactive glare she’d lasered at him three weeks ago over croissants and millefeuille. But it felt more like an anticlimax.
He’d been expecting fireworks. Had prepared for them, ready to offer her a quick apology for what had happened sixteen years ago, thus knocking the hefty chip she still appeared to be carrying around off her shoulder.
The blank look wrong-footed him.
‘Hi, Hal.’ The tension in his shoulders relaxed despite his disappointment. At least she’d shown up. ‘You made it.’
‘I made you a promise. And I keep my promises.’
Right. ‘Good thing I saved you a place in the queue, then,’ he said, deflecting the deliberate dig with a certain amount of gratification.
Maybe not fireworks, then, but definitely a sparkler or two. Sparklers he could work with.
‘Aren’t we in business class?’
Her proprietary question lit a few sparklers of his own. ‘This is the business queue. The economy one stretches all the way to Madagascar. I guess they didn’t get the memo that business people don’t queue.’ Or celebrities, apparently.
‘Mel, could you go over to the first-class check-in and see if we can arrange an upgrade?’ she instructed the woman beside her.
The perky assistant nodded and headed for the empty first-class desk. The old guy followed suit with Halle’s bags, leaving them alone—if you didn’t count the ten thousand people in the queue.
‘You sure you want to waste an extra five grand just to avoid a queue?’ he asked, even though he guessed she probably never travelled anything but first now.
The thought lit another sparkler.
‘I was up last night until one trying to design a cake decoration inspired by free condoms that didn’t actually involve making little foil packets out of modelling paste. So yes, the five grand is well worth it. I need to sleep on this flight.’
They did beds in business. The business class flights he’d paid for out of his own pocket so he could get his apology over and done with. But he refused to let her snotty attitude or the juvenile reaction in his groin triggered by the word ‘condoms’ get to him. ‘Sounds tasteful, what’s the cake for, a stag do?’
‘You’d think, but no,’ she said cryptically.
The assistant returned looking pleased with herself. ‘I’ve got you an upgrade to first. Derek’s loading the bags.’
‘Wonderful, thanks, Mel.’ Halle turned back to him, her relief palpable for a second, before she covered it with a polite smile. ‘I guess I’ll see you in Atlanta.’
He frowned after her as she marched off to the first-class check-in.
OK, what was that about? Because the hairs on the back of his neck were going haywire, a sure sign he’d been played.
He did what he always did when his journalistic radar was telling him a source wasn’t being entirely truthful. He examined the evidence.
Halle had always been super frugal when they had been together. Pinching every penny—especially the ones they didn’t have. And while she had money now, probably more money than she knew what to do with, Lizzie frequently moaned about her mum’s penny-pinching ways. So splashing the cash still wasn’t her style. Why, then, had she bumped herself up to first, when she could sleep just as easily in business without paying five grand for the privilege?
He watched Halle say goodbye to her crew and head towards the departure gates. She didn’t look back at him. His journalistic radar went into meltdown.
Son of a bitch. In business she’d be next to him.
Was that it? She was still trying to stonewall him?
Bugger that. He swung his leather holdall over his shoulder and crossed to the first-class desk. He wasn’t into unnecessary expenditure, either, but she’d spent sixteen years not talking to him. Five grand didn’t seem like too much to pay to stop her buying him off for another ten hours.
Here endeth the silent treatment.
Ushered through the boarding gate, Halle clutched her carry-on luggage, stocked with anti-nausea medication, antacids and the Xanax—which she’d dosed up on in the car on her way to the airport.
She was over Luke. She just wasn’t over him enough to spend nine hours and forty minutes in a plane freaking out while he sat beside her being composed and competent and annoyingly buff.
The quest for closure could wait until she was good and ready to deal with it.
And after the hours she’d put in last night finishing off the Kane redesign, the five grand it had cost her for ten extra hours of karma was a totally justifiable expense.
Especially as the Xanax didn’t appear to be working yet. Which had to explain why spotting Luke standing in the bag-drop queue in battered jeans and a leather jacket, with his hair dishevelled and his jaw covered in stubble, had made her body hum as if she’d been plugged into an electric socket.
‘May I take your bag, Ms Best?’ A flight attendant with immaculate make-up and a chignon that could withstand a nuclear holocaust beamed at her as she stepped aboard the plane.
Halle tightened her grip on the bag. ‘No, thank you.’
The attendant led her past the galley and the functional luxury of business class and up a spiral staircase into a section way too reminiscent of a vintage Star Trek set. Eerie blue-toned lighting illuminated a series of pods, each furnished with a reclining seat, a mirrored wall, a control panel of knobs that would confuse Lieutenant Uhura and enough leather to fit out an S&M boutique.
Halle tucked her bag into her assigned pod and tried not to think of all the other much more useful and tangible things she could have done with the five grand her flight aboard the Starship Enterprise was costing. She was a celebrity. She worked superhard. She had a very healthy bank balance these days. She was entitled to splurge on herself occasionally.
This was not because she’d panicked when she’d seen Luke. She could easily control any and all inappropriate reactions where he was concerned. Simply by remembering how much she despised him. This was because she deserved to pamper herself. And because the take-off alone could cause her acid reflux to go into overdrive—so why add to her stress with an audience?
There were only two other people travelling in first class: a balding, middle-aged executive seated four pods up, who was tapping industriously on his laptop, and an elderly woman three pods across, who was lying back with an eye mask on and was doing a great impression of being already dead.
I should be so lucky.
She quashed the spurt of panic. Once the take-off was over, she could let the pampering begin.
‘Would you like a beverage, Ms Best?’
She briefly entertained the idea of deadening her anxiety with champagne. ‘Some iced water would be great,’ she replied. Getting legless could be her fallback position if the sedative didn’t kick in soon.
Settling into her seat, she stared in dismay at the panel of buttons. Sweat collected on her upper lip and the muscles in her neck began to twitch. If only one of those buttons could whisk her across the Atlantic at warp speed.
‘How many knobs does one person need, right?’
Her head swung round so fast at the suggestive comment it was a miracle she didn’t get whiplash.
‘Luke, what the …?’ She searched for the flight attendant. ‘You’re not supposed to be in here. They’ll throw you out.’
‘I’ll risk it.’ The sheepish expression on his too-handsome face instantly threw her back to their schooldays and all those times he’d done something diabolical—like spray-painting an image of Mrs Wendell going down on Mr Truer all over the sixth-form toilets—and she’d been his final line of defence against instant expulsion. Annoyance bunched in her neck muscles, but beneath it was the furtive spike of excitement. A mortifying reminder of how her sixteen-year-old self had once relished his bad behaviour.
‘Relax.’ He settled into the pod next to her. ‘I got an upgrade, too.’
He slung his laptop bag under his console while she gaped as if he’d just spoken in Swahili. Either that or she’d gone momentarily deaf and misheard him.
What had happened to Luke Best, class warrior? The guy who thought first-class train carriages were there to be invaded? Even business class had seemed like a stretch.
‘I’m a frequent flyer. It only cost a couple of grand extra. And it’s tax deductible.’ He began to fiddle with the dials on his personal control panel. ‘This is actually pretty cool.’ Propping his feet on the footrest, he rolled his shoulders and relaxed into the seat. Then sent her a grin that plugged her right back into the electric socket.
‘You can’t stay here.’ The in-flight trauma of taking off was bad enough, she did not need the one man capable of giving her a nervous breakdown when she had both feet on terra firma as a witness to her humiliation.
‘But doesn’t travelling in first go against everything you ever stood for? I distinctly remember you telling me once that the premium seats in Holloway Odeon were an exploitation of the working classes.’
‘You mean you’ve sold out for a lie-flat bed and some complimentary champagne?’ Why did it even surprise her? Luke had never had the courage of his convictions.
‘There’s complimentary champagne?’ He rubbed his hands together. ‘Damn, if I’d known that, I would have sold out sooner.’
The flight attendant returned with Halle’s iced water.
‘Hi there, Debbie,’ he said, reading the woman’s name badge. ‘Is it true you get complimentary champagne in first?’
‘Certainly, sir, would you like a glass?’
‘You might as well bring the bottle. It’s a ten-hour flight and I plan to get my money’s worth.’
The attendant hesitated. ‘We’re only allowed to serve it by the glass I’m afraid, sir.’
‘And it’s ten o’clock in the morning,’ Halle butted in. ‘Drinking at altitude will get you pissed. You’re supposed to be driving us to the resort when we get off this flying death trap. I refuse to get in a car with you if you’re over the limit.’ Hadn’t the man grown up at all in sixteen years?
‘I guess that’s me told.’ He flashed a sheepish smile at the attendant, whose cheeks shone pink beneath the ten layers of foundation. ‘I guess I’ll have to pass. I’ll have what she’s having,’ he finished, indicating Halle’s glass.
The purser’s amplified voice filled the cabin giving them a rundown of the in-flight services as the stewardess headed off to do Luke’s bidding.
Halle gulped down the chilled water, but it did nothing to ease the rawness in her throat.
Shit, shit, shit.
She rolled the icy glass across her forehead, then bent to retrieve her bag.
‘Why did you call it a “flying death trap”?’
She ignored Luke’s question as she waged war with the child-safety lid on the Xanax bottle. Only to have the bottle whipped out of her hands.
‘What are these for?’
‘Give me those.’ She made a grab for the bottle as he read the label, only to have him hike it out of reach.
‘Heavy-duty happy pills. When did you start popping these?’
‘It’s not Ecstasy. It’s a mild drug to help with anxiety. And it’s none of your business what pills I pop.’
‘Mild, my arse. This stuff can kill you if you take too much of it.’
‘You are joking?’ She skewered him with her best give-me-a-bloody-break look. ‘This from the guy who once had so much E he ran down Green Lanes naked declaring to the whole of Hackney he was Sonic the Hedgehog.’
‘I was seventeen,’ he protested. ‘It was Super Mario and I was only half naked, don’t exaggerate.’
‘Nope, it was definitely Sonic. I remember because I was sober.’ Or soberish. ‘And all you had on was a baseball cap!’
‘Well, then I had all the essential stuff covered, didn’t I?’ He threw her the challenging grin again, daring her to deny it.
‘Essential stuff? What, like your brain, you mean? That certainly didn’t qualify as essential at the time, given it wasn’t the organ you did your thinking with.’
His eyes sharpened and she relished the hit. But then the captain’s monotone tenor came over the public address system with a rundown of their flying time and their altitude over the Atlantic, and the brief surge of triumph was smothered in panic.
‘Give me the bottle.’ She stretched out a shaky palm. ‘I need another before we take off.’
He lowered the bottle but didn’t hand it over. ‘How many have you had already?’
She pressed the tip of her tongue to her upper lip and tasted the salty sweat. ‘Only one.’ Or had it been two? Her mind seemed foggy on the details. But then the flight attendant strolled past to check their bays, and the plane rumbled into motion—and the panic became razor sharp. ‘Luke, for Chrissake, hand them over.’
‘Look at me.’
She squinted, trying to focus as he held two fingers in front of her face.
‘Do you know your pupils are the size of pinpricks?’
‘“Prick” being the operative word.’ She made a grab for the bottle again and missed by about twenty nautical miles, her coordination skills—along with her dignity—now completely shot.
‘Why do you need this stuff anyway?’
Why was he looking at her like that—all stern and concerned? And why couldn’t she remember how to speak?
The plane made a lumbering turn onto the runway, then gathered speed. Her stomach lurched up to slam into her larynx. She gripped the armrest hard enough to fracture granite, her nails gouging the leather.
Flying is safe. Remember Rain Man. You are not going to die.
‘Dammit, Hal, since when have you been scared of flying?’
She would have shot him another give-me-a-bloody-break look but she was far too busy clinging on for dear life.
‘Why didn’t you say something sooner?’ he added.
Because it’s stupid and irrational and humiliating and I’d rather lose a limb than admit a weakness to you.
‘I’m not scared of flying,’ she said, her fingers now fused with the leather. ‘I just have issues with the whole concept.’
‘What issues, exactly?’
He wanted to have a conversation about this now? When they were both about to die?
Extreme exasperation got the better of her terror for a second. ‘Gravitational issues,’ she snapped. ‘Such as, how does a huge metal box that weighs several tons stay airborne?’
The plane tore away from the runway and her stomach—and the last of her courage—went into free fall.
Please don’t let me start whimpering. Or puking.
‘Hal, it’s called aerodynamics,’ he said, all knowledge and reason when she was embarking on a major panic attack.
His pure blue eyes blurred round the edges as she struggled to make sense of the statement. Her stomach rocked against her ribs as the plane banked. She caught a glimpse of chequerboard fields and ribbon roads dotted with toy cars through the window and slammed her eyes shut.
Do. Not. Look. Down. The first rule of upchuck avoidance.
‘Excuse me if I’m not convinced by your knowledge of aerodynamics,’ she hissed through clenched teeth. ‘I happen to know you bunked off every physics lesson you ever had.’
‘I did an article on the aerospace industry for a tech website last year.’
A weak scoffing sound was all she could manage, the rumbling thud of the plane’s undercarriage lifting into the fuselage echoing in her stomach.
‘And, by the way, this plane is mostly made out of carbon fibre, not metal, if that helps.’
It didn’t. She couldn’t compute his words any more. Her head tipped back, anchored to the seat, as she ground her teeth hard enough to crack a molar.
‘Oh, God.’ She panted, hyperventilation the only way to keep breathing as the plane lifted into the cloud bank. Her stomach levitated into her throat. She swallowed convulsively to stop it vomiting out of her mouth. ‘I’m not ready to die.’
That would be whimpering.
A warm palm covered the hand she had superglued to the armrest.
‘You’re not going to die. You’re indestructible.’ His palm curled over her whitening knuckles and his thumb stroked the small scar on her wrist left by the burn he’d noticed in Paris. ‘If we crash, you’ll bounce.’
She wanted to tell him he was right, she was indestructible, because she’d had to be. But she didn’t feel indestructible. And she had lost the ability to talk, every single muscle and sinew in her jaw and neck having atrophied.
‘I need a pill,’ she finally managed to squeak. ‘Please.’ The begging would have embarrassed her, but in the grand apocalyptic scheme of things, having Luke smirk at her while she died didn’t seem like such a big deal any more.
‘Is everything OK, Ms Best?’
Halle prised open an eyelid to find the stewardess looking down at their joined hands with a benevolent smile.
‘I’m fine.’ Her whole body shuddered like an alcoholic recovering from an all-night bender. The stewardess didn’t look convinced. ‘If I could just …’
‘For Chrissake, Hal.’ Luke’s grip on her hand tightened. ‘You’re freaking out. There’s no shame in admitting it. Loads of people don’t like flying.’
‘I a-a-am not freaking out.’ She never freaked out. She happened to be a champion coper—even if her chattering teeth weren’t helping to emphasise the point.
‘Let go of the chair,’ he ordered. ‘You’re about to break your fingernails.’
‘If I let go, I’ll fall.’ The plaintive plea sounded childish, even to her.
‘You’re strapped in, Hal. You’re not going anywhere.’
‘You won’t fall, Ms Best. This is an Airbus 380, the newest and best-designed plane in our fleet.’ The stewardess’s soothing tone managed to be even more annoying than Luke’s condescension.
‘You don’t know that,’ she whimpered.
Luke’s thumb caressed the web of flesh between her thumb and forefinger. ‘I do. Now let go, I’ve got you.’ He massaged into the pressure point. And her fingers released instinctively.
He threaded his fingers through hers and held on to her, just as he’d promised. ‘See, you didn’t fall.’
She rolled her head towards him, which wasn’t easy given that the sinews in her neck had about as much give in them as steel suspension cables. And managed a small nod.
‘Now breathe,’ he commanded.
Air swelled into her lungs and gushed out as the plane’s nose dipped to level off to their cruising altitude.
‘That’s it, keep doing what you’re doing,’ he prompted.
She concentrated on taking deep, even breaths, willing her lungs to cooperate. But continued to cling to his hand. The seat-belt sign pinged off and the purser’s reassuring voice droned on about their cruising altitude and flight path. Her gaze drifted to the fluffed cloudscape floating beneath them outside the window. The panic settled to purr under her breastbone, like a sleeping tiger ready to snarl at the first sign of danger, but subdued enough not to bite off her head at the slightest bump.
Luke squeezed her hand. ‘You OK?’
‘Yes,’ she croaked, her throat sore as her neck muscles relaxed.
‘You sure? You still look pretty spooked.’ He searched her face.
She took another careful breath, sighed when it didn’t hurt. ‘The take-off’s always the worse bit. I’ll be OK now.’ The Xanax must have finally kicked in, because she was starting to feel pleasantly numb.
Way to go, Xanax, only twenty minutes late to the party.
Luckily, Luke didn’t call her on her euphoric state, because she wasn’t quite ready to give him back his hand.
‘You look terrible,’ he said.
Way to go, Luke. You sure know how to make a girl feel good about herself.
‘I’ll look a lot better once I’m sure we aren’t going to get struck by lightning, hit a freak snowstorm, get hijacked or generally encounter anything that might cause us to go down in flames en route.’ The burst of verbal diarrhoea came naturally as the extreme panic downgraded to a bogstandard bout of nervous tension.
Nervous tension was doable. She knew how to handle that. She even knew how to use it to her advantage, because she’d had a lot of practice. Her nerves were an old and trusted friend.
The show’s first executive producer had once told her that her reaction to stress was the secret of her success, because the sharp, perky motormouthed quips she used to cope entertained while also making her totally relatable. Embracing the horrendous stage fright before every taping had become a key part of her ‘Everywoman appeal’.
‘Just so you know, if any of that stuff happens,’ she added, on a roll as her body sank into the seat, ‘I intend to arm-wrestle you for the Xanax. You have been warned.’
‘If any of that stuff happens,’ Luke replied drily, ‘you’re gonna need to be Dwayne Johnson to get to them, because I plan to bolt the lot.’
She laughed, the sound only slightly manic. And released his hand.
He flexed his fingers, probably checking for fractures, and she noticed the dark indents where her nails had dug into his skin.
‘I’ll keep these just in case.’ He flipped the bottle and caught it one-handed. ‘No more legal highs for you. Unless the slaphead executive over there turns out to be a hijacker.’ He nodded at the bald businessman, who had already resumed typing on his laptop. ‘In which case, let the arm-wrestling begin.’
He lifted his bum to shove the bottle of Xanax into the front pocket of his jeans, drawing her fuzzy gaze to his lap. The worn, comfortable denim cupped him, the metal studs of his button fly visible where the placket stretched over his groin. And a question from over twenty years ago popped into her head.
I wonder if he remembered to wear his underwear today?
Her pulse spiked and warmth settled into her lower body as she allowed her mind to drift into the safe, comforting fog of memory.
She could smell dust and varnish and the faint whiff of boiled cabbage as she stood in the wings of the school hall’s stage, waiting to do her piano solo for the Year Ten end-of-term recital.
Her school shoes scraped from side to side on the scuffed floorboards, her lungs sawing in and out. Clammy sweat trickled between her shoulder blades as she undulated the fingers of her right hand, miming the opening movement of the piece she’d practised for hours the previous afternoon. It had to be perfect, or her mum and dad might start questioning the cost of her weekly piano lessons. Then they would surely ring her piano teacher, Ms Havilland, to ask what was going on. And Ms Havilland would tell them their daughter had stopped coming to lessons months ago, and then her mum and dad would know she’d been pocketing the five-pound lesson fee to sneak off and hang out with Luke at the precinct.
And if that happened, her life would be over, because they would ground her forever and she’d never be able to see Luke again.
So, basically, her whole entire life was balancing on the edge of a precipice, ready to plunge into the abyss at the sound of a single bum note in five minutes’ time.
Wiry forearms banded round her waist and a calloused palm captured her gasp as her captor hefted her back into the secretive darkness backstage.
The scent of Lifebuoy soap and the sweet whiff of marijuana had the blast of recognition careering through her and all thoughts of Beethoven, bum notes and imminent disaster shot out of her head on a wild rush of adrenaline and adoration.
It’s Luke. Luke’s here. Luke will make everything all right.
‘Luke, you shouldn’t be here. Miss Giddings will have a fit,’ she whispered frantically, the thrill pumping through her as she absorbed the determination on his face.
‘Let her,’ he said, and his lips covered hers.
Molly Tanner’s halting rendition of ‘Give Peace a Chance’ on the pan pipes dimmed, obliterated by the buzz of excitement as Luke’s tongue thrust deep, claiming her mouth in hungry furtive strokes. Rough fumbling fingers delved under the skirt her mum had ironed for her less than an hour ago and found the plump, yearning flesh already dampening the gusset of her knickers.
She cupped him in return—the illicit thrill of doing something forbidden streaking from the tips of her breasts to throb against his probing fingers. He hardened and lengthened against her palm, creating a big top in the coarse gaberdine of his uniform trousers.
‘That feels ace.’ He panted, cooling the sweaty hair stuck to her neck. The thrill turned to white-hot need, tempered by panic, when he ripped open his zipper and wrapped her fingers around the stiff column of naked flesh. Her hand jerked in shock.
‘Where are your pants?’
‘Forgot them this morning.’ His breathing became hoarse and rapid. ‘After this, I may never remember them again.’
She’d felt his erection before, prodding against her belly through their clothing when they kissed. She’d even seen it tenting his trousers when they’d done some heavy petting last Thursday, and it had fascinated her. But she’d never realised it would feel this wonderful. Soft and silky, and yet so large and rock hard. It leaped in her hand as she brushed her thumb over the head and made his breathing catch.
This was more than ace. It was totally amazing. To have this power over him, to know he wanted her this much.
His hand folded over hers, directing the speed and strength of her strokes, urging her on with soft grunts of approval.
‘That’s right, keep going, make me come.’ His other hand yanked down her panties. ‘I’m going to do you, too,’ he hissed, thrilling her even more.
She bucked against his invading fingers as he parted her folds and discovered the burning spot at the top. Excruciating pleasure coiled between her legs.
‘Oh!’ She sobbed, biting into her lip to muffle the sound.
‘Did I hurt you?’ He stopped. ‘Show me how to do it the way you like it.’ His demand sounded feral, intense in the darkness.
‘Don’t stop, it didn’t hurt,’ she managed. She grabbed his wrist, directing him the way he had directed her, until he began to press and circle the right spot. ‘That’s it.’
‘You’re so wet down there,’ he whispered, sounding surprised but pleased. ‘It feels wonderful, all soft and slick.’
She grasped his erection again to stroke him, too.
‘I know,’ she said, as if she did know, but she didn’t really.
She’d touched herself before, explored, but it had never made her feel like this. Terrified and desperate and cherished and bad all at once. The tight coil of need twisted and yanked, ready to shove her off a cliff and make her pee herself at one and the same time.
He groaned as if he were dying, his face pressed into her hair. ‘Oh, fuck, yes, yes, I’m coming.’
His thick cock grew even bigger, then jerked in her hand, splattering something warm against her belly where he’d wrenched up her skirt.
His body softened, but those magic fingers never faltered, still rubbing, circling, caressing. She widened her legs, rocked her hips to increase the pressure, and the coil yanked tighter, tighter …
‘Hurry up, Hal, go for it.’
‘Oh, yes … That’s …’
His hand slapped over her mouth, just in time to silence her sobbing cry, as blue ribbons of fire blasted through her torso. White light shot in a glittering arc right out the top of her head, sensation cascading through her body like a Roman candle.
The thunder of applause sounded over the hammering of her pulse, her body’s own standing ovation. But as she floated back to earth and saw Luke scrambling to stuff himself and his shirt tails back into his trousers, the enthusiastic clapping became real.
‘Oh, bloody buggering hell, Molly’s finished,’ she whispered, shocked into full consciousness. Of where they were, and what they’d just done. Together.
Luke winked at her and grinned, the slash of white teeth making the slowing pulse in her clitoris spike. ‘She’s not the only one.’
She wiggled her knickers on, suppressing a snigger, horrified and excited by the funky smell of fresh semen.
Miss Giddings’s voice rang out from the stage announcing Haley Dunlop in Form 10C and the piece she was playing.
She scrambled faster. ‘I can’t go out there.’ The chances of her remembering let alone being able to play Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ now was so outside the realm of possibility she might as well have been orbiting Mars. And if she messed this up, everything would be ruined. Her parents would find out about Luke. And stop her from seeing him again. Ever.
‘’Course you can.’ Luke pressed a quick kiss to her nose. ‘You can do anything. You’re indestructible.’
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