“Eighteen, nineteen…twenty!” Victoria gasped, finally relaxing the tension in her arms and lowering her legs back down to the ground. She sank back on her heels on the spongy cushion of pine needles and assessed the distance she had covered. Ten feet this time. Not bad at all, considering it was a year since she’d walked on her hands. She had usually won the competitions on the school playing-field, and it was satisfying to know the intervening twelve months at university hadn’t dimmed her expertise.
With long, grubby fingers she thrust the unruly red curls back from her forehead and glanced round her. It had just occurred to her how infantile she might look to anyone watching, but she shrugged that thought away. This was Great Heath Copse, one of the least frequented corners of her family’s eight-hundred-acre farm, and the chances of anyone seeing her, even the farmhands operating the combine harvesters on the barley in Lower Cowdown, were slight.
Anyway, who cared? Walking on her hands was admittedly a rather silly, childish pastime, but it fitted her mood today. Just because she had completed a year of a degree course, she didn’t have to turn studious and sedate, did she? Stretching slender, expressive arms up towards the glorious September sun, she felt a surge of pure joy to be alive, and happy to be home.
This secluded copse was a childhood haunt. There was an old wooden seat she had made herself, years ago, from a plank and two wooden blocks, which caught the afternoon sun through the trees. She used to come here with Jessica and Megan, until her older sisters got bored with such simple pleasures, sometimes with a friend from school, but mainly alone, with her homework and a picnic hastily grabbed from the hubbub of the farmhouse kitchen.
Screwing up her eyes now at the sun, she tried to assess the time by its position. She’d forgotten to put on her watch this morning, in the breakfast-time scramble with Jessica and baby William, and she’d also forgotten her mobile phone, which was sitting on her bedside table, on charge. But it was probably getting on for six o’clock. She ought to get back. She had strolled over here almost two hours ago, bringing a steak pie for her father as a good excuse to spend a nostalgic afternoon, but Jessica would probably appreciate some help with William while she prepared dinner.
Still, she just had time for one more go on her hands. See if she could get up to twenty-five. Tucking her loose T-shirt into her shorts, she skilfully inverted herself again, and began counting, reaching fifteen before she heard the deep murmur of male voices approaching. Before she had time to lower herself gracefully down, a pair of elegant black leather shoes, now coated with the dark brown dusty soil peculiar to this part of central England, were planted squarely in her path. With commendable balance, she tipped her chin towards her chest and peered up through her arms. Above the black shoes stretched a long, muscular body, in an expensive-looking charcoal-grey suit, a blur of pale grey shirt and tie, a tanned face and short-cropped, ash-blond hair. Victoria wobbled precariously.
“Will you get out of my way, please?” she said with difficulty, “You’re right in my way. That’s the way I come down.”
The shoes stepped out of vision, but now to her horror she felt her T-shirt come out of the waistband of her denim cut-offs and fall over her face. Oh no, she was inverted, bra-less, flashing her breasts in front of a complete stranger in a suit and shiny black shoes. Oh God! Hot all over, by now she knew it was too late to make a controlled descent. She was falling over backwards. Intending to lower herself into a forward somersault, she completely lost control and instead crash-landed on her back in a clumsy sprawl on the peaty ground.
As she dragged her T-shirt back in place and began to struggle to her feet he surprised her by coming to squat on his haunches beside her, and taking her arm in a cool, firm grip helped her up, demonstrating impressively strong thigh muscles in the easy, athletic movement.
“You’re not hurt?”
She shook her head.
“No, no, I don’t think so. Only my pride. Thanks to these pine needles, they make a soft landing!” She laughed shortly, shrugging her arm away quickly from his grasp as soon as she was safely upright. His touch had sent a shivery sensation along her nerve ends.
The man’s pale eyes were amused as they flicked over her. She blushed and folded her arms over her breasts. She could feel her nipples tingling, and went even hotter. If there were ever an ideal moment to wish the ground could swallow her up, this was it.
Her father, sandy-grey hair untidy and grinning broadly in his usual ancient brown overalls and mud-plastered green wellingtons, had appeared a few paces behind the stranger.
“I thought I’d find you here. So this is what you call quiet studying?”
Her father winked at his companion, who was standing motionless at his side. “As you’ve probably gathered, Matt, this is my younger daughter, Victoria.” Her father touched her shoulder lightly as he spoke, adding, “And this is Matt Larson, Victoria. He’s been pricing some of your mother’s bits and pieces.”
“Oh, yes.” She focused large brown eyes on the tall blond man. So this was Matt Larson, the top London antiques and art expert Andrew had put Dad in touch with. Her brother-in-law had spoken of him with the slightly awed respect he reserved for people who rose from nowhere to self-made success. But maybe he was the kind of man who inspired respect in any case, for more personal reasons, thought Victoria, shivering again involuntarily under that laser-sharp stare.
Matt Larson made her feel vulnerable. And it wasn’t just because he’d just caught a glimpse of her half naked. She wasn’t used to feeling vulnerable with men.
“How do you do, Mr Larson?” she said, holding out a grimy hand at last with commendable poise, “Did you discover some priceless piece of Ming being used as the cat’s bowl or something?”
With a flicker of amusement in his mask-like face, he slowly shook his head. “No. Besides, everything has a price, Miss Francis.” His voice was deep and clipped. The accent slightly flat, not London exactly but not Oxford either.
His hand was lean and brown, and his grip firm. Victoria felt a ripple of apprehension as he clasped her hand.
“Matt thinks one or two pieces might fetch a decent price,” her father was saying blandly. “But you’ll have to come over again with Jessica, check there’s nothing your mother wanted you to keep. I don’t want to upset my three girls by flogging all the best Urquhart heirlooms.”
“Right, of course.” Victoria felt awkward. She wanted to say it was a pity her father had to ‘flog’ any of Mother’s treasures, that it was a shame he couldn’t just get on with running the farm and pay off his turf accountant once and for all. But even with her habit of blunt speaking, she quaked at going quite that far. Instead, she gave her father a quick, impulsive hug, and kissed him on the cheek, feeling him stiffen as he usually did when he was embarrassed by her fierce displays of affection.
“Sorry, Dad. Were you looking for me specially?” she said, feeling a stab of guilt.
“Well, I was – but I’ve been showing Matt over the farm as well” her father said gruffly, his rather bloodshot blue eyes amused in his craggy, weatherbeaten face. “Jessica rang to see where you’d got to. I dare say she wants to know what time to get dinner.”
“Oh God! I’d better get back. Listen, are you sure you don’t mind me staying with Jessica and Andrew?” She searched his face anxiously, for any sign that he needed her, just for some company, or a shoulder to cry on. But he was shaking his head, his eyes unreadable again.
“You’re more use to Jessica,” he told her, not unkindly, adding, “There’s a bit of life there as well, you don’t want to rattle around in that great draughty mausoleum with just me for company.”
“Oh, Dad! You know I’d love to come home more than…”
“No. I’m better on my own these days.” Her father seemed aware that he had snapped rather abruptly, and his face softened a fraction but not enough to show he’d changed his mind, “If I feel like getting maudlin, or just plain drunk, I don’t want you fussing around me like a little red hen,” he said, ruffling her red-gold curls with a rare glimpse of affection. “Get back to Jessica, and give some of those lovelorn young men a ring! There’s a young man called Sebastian been jamming the line since you got back from your jaunt around Europe, Jessica tells me.”
Not considering this worth a reply, she bent to retrieve her bag of books from the makeshift bench, hiding her hurt feelings with a bright smile as she straightened up.
“OK, I’ll wander back – and don’t forget to heat up that steak pie I brought from Jessica – she said to tell you if you leave it sitting round the kitchen for a week like the last one, she won’t cook you any more!”
“’Course she will, that girl loves cooking more than breathing, I reckon. But I’ll have it tonight,” her father promised solemnly, humouring her, “And you don’t need to walk back, Mr Larson here will give you a lift. He’s seen enough worthless bits of junk today, haven’t you?”
“I’d like to come back tomorrow morning and have a closer look at some of the pieces,” Matt said politely, as the three of them strolled back out of the pine copse, alongside waist-high golden corn three-quarters cut now, and then through a lumpy grass meadow where a herd of fat black and white Friesians eyed them placidly as they passed.
Victoria let the men walk ahead, and thoughtfully observed the lean width of Matt Larson’s shoulders, through the immaculate cut of his suit jacket, and the easy, rangy way he moved. Like a big cat, he had a loose-limbed, prowling sort of walk. Even four paces behind him, she could feel a fine, indistinct thread of tension unravelling in the air. She wondered if she was imagining things. There was a fairy-tale sort of stillness about the mellow autumn afternoon, and the open countryside around them. Maybe she was daydreaming this strange, unsettling vibration between herself and Matt Larson.
A sleek black Aston Martin stood amongst the battered, mud-coated machinery and Land Rover in the rear farmyard, looking almost as incongruous as Matt Larson’s smart shoes and Savile Row suit against her father’s ancient wellingtons and torn overalls.
In polite silence, Matt held open the passenger door for her, and then, amid a scattering of clucking hens, they purred out of the yard and bumped down the long, pot-holed lane.
The unnerving silence continued for several minutes until Victoria felt desperate to break it.
“This is kind of you,” she heard herself enthusing, “Although in fact it’s no distance to the village from the farm. It’s almost as quick to walk across through the churchyard to Jessica’s. This road winds backwards and forwards so much.”
Matt nodded but didn’t reply, and a quick nervous glance at his profile showed he was looking remote, as if his thoughts were elsewhere. Probably calculating the value of her family’s private possessions, she thought resentfully. Then she realised that was unfair. Matt Larson was doing his job, doing what Andrew and her father had invited him here for. If she didn’t like it, she supposed it was because she was an incurable romantic who believed everything should stay the same as it always had. Which wasn’t possible, she knew.
She glanced at him again. It was hardly Matt Larson’s fault if her father was intent on drinking himself to death at the same time as gambling away the farm’s profits, was it? She gnawed her lip, her resentment refusing to go away, and finally was sufficiently honest with herself to admit that her resentment stemmed from being completely ignored. This man had a patronising air of detachment, maybe not deliberate, but nevertheless extremely insulting. After all, she told herself fiercely, she hardly expected every man she met to fall to his knees in blind adoration, but she did appreciate a civil interest, some acknowledgement of her existence as a fellow member of the human race. He’d had a flash of her naked breasts, for God’s sake! Sitting here beside this man was like sitting next to a robot!
“So you deal in antiques? Where do you operate from?” she said, to break the uneasy silence.
“London, New York…”
“Oh, so you ship antiques out to New York from this country?”
“We have offices in those places. We ship all over the world.”
“And you live in London?”
“But you’re not driving back there tonight? She gave him her friendliest smile, thinking of his mention of returning to the farm in the morning.
“No. I’m staying with Jessica and Andrew for the weekend,” he said expressionlessly. They were driving into the village now, and pulling into the sweeping drive in front of Jessica’s long stone cottage. For some reason, Victoria’s heart seemed to plummet in dismay at the prospect of having Matt Larson for a fellow weekend guest. Maybe it was because his attitude conveyed a distinct lack of enthusiasm on the same subject!
“Oh, that’s nice”, she heard herself babbling, her usually light rapid speech accentuated through slight nervousness, “You’ve probably gathered I’m staying here too.”
Matt cut the ignition and turned strange, silver-grey eyes on her, studying her confusion with a detached amusement. Although he appeared far too polite, and presumably uninterested, to allow his gaze to roam down over the silhouette of her figure beneath her T-shirt and denim shorts, his inspection still made her painfully self-conscious, body-conscious. She was aware of her lack of make-up, her hastily tied ponytail and grimy knees and hands. She felt like a grubby schoolgirl under that cool scrutiny, or worse still like a specimen on a laboratory table, being mentally dissected.
“Yes, I did gather that,” he said, with a glint of mockery in his eyes.
It took quite a lot to make Victoria annoyed, and she rarely took a dislike to people, particularly on first acquaintance. But this man’s condescending attitude was really getting under her skin.
Turning away abruptly, she scrambled out of the car as quickly as she could and walked away from him, without looking round, aware that he was following her as she went round the side of the cottage to the back garden.
She was saved from further efforts at communication by the chaos which met them as they reached the terrace.
Jessica had brought William’s high chair out into the evening sun to give him tea, and as she rose to greet them William quickly took advantage of the diversion to up-end his bowl of mashed banana over his head, chuckling with glee.
“Here, give him to me” Victoria offered, glad of something practical to do, darting with him into the kitchen to sponge the food from William’s wispy red hair while Jessica produced wine and glasses. “Come on, poppet, Auntie Victoria will take charge of you now. We’re kindred spirits, aren’t we, Wills?”
“Well, careful, he’ll only twist your nose and pull your hair,” Jessica laughed as they emerged on to the terrace again and she proceeded to pour generous splashes of Andrew’s best white Bordeaux into three glasses. “There, I’m always nervous of serving wine to you, Matt. You hardly ever drink, do you, and when you do, you only drink the best, I seem to remember! Is it a good wine, do you think?”
“I’ll give you my verdict in a minute.’
Victoria risked studying him under her thick, gold-brown lashes, wondering caustically if he ever actually smiled properly, and how nice he might look if he did. She really ought to suggest it to him. Anything which dispelled that arctic chill from his features would be an improvement, if only a slight one.
She met his eyes then, that arrogant penetrating gaze, and looked away quickly. Her breath suddenly felt constricted in her throat. Her mouth had become uncomfortably dry.
She took a gulp of wine and concentrated on William’s antics on her lap.
“Ouch, that hurts, young man,” she said, carefully disentangling his sticky fingers from her long red ponytail, “Don’t pull hair!”
“Dopple hair!” William announced proudly, and repeated it several times as he tried to grab another handful. Laughingly holding her riotous curls on top of her head, out of reach, Victoria raised an eyebrow at her elder sister.
“Did you hear that? This baby is going to be a genius.”
“Hmm. Genius or master criminal,” Jessica said, eyeing her son with wry tolerance. “Look at him, ‘Just William’ sums him up. He’s even getting freckles.”
“Where from, I wonder?” Victoria said, extending a long creamy arm, tanned a smooth pale shade of tea from her summer spent roaming Europe with a group of student friends. She compared it with Jessica’s identical skin. “We might be redheads, but we don’t have redhead skin!”
“We’ve got Mother’s skin, that’s why. There was a hint of illicit Spanish somewhere back along the Urquhart line, I believe, wasn’t there? Didn’t Great-Great-Great-Grandfather do something shocking with a Spanish senorita?”
“No idea! I’m studying history, not genealogy. I think you just made that up.”
“No, honestly, I’ve always thought that’s where you get your Gallic arm movements, it’s your Spanish ancestry coming out!”
“What absolute rubbish,” Victoria said, laughing, “And anyway, that doesn’t explain where William gets his freckles.”
“From Andrew – don’t tell me you’ve never noticed that your brother in law has freckles!” Jessica laughed teasingly, then turned to Matt with eyebrows raised, “Well? What’s the verdict on the wine? I’m sure you wouldn’t be as rude to say it’s nasty anyway. It’s one of Andy’s prize vintages.”
“Works for me,” Matt said, with a brief smile.
Victoria was fascinated to watch Jessica’s efforts to thaw their guest, and the degree of success as Matt Larson appeared to melt a fraction under the dazzling smile, the slanted brown eyes dancing in Jessica’s beautiful, high-cheek-boned face as she tossed her long, red-gold hair in the sunlight. This, Victoria realised, was a new role her sister enjoyed playing since she stopped work to have William. The decorative, gracious, perfect wife and mother, cleverly hiding a sharp corporate accountant’s brain, with a membership of Mensa and her last earnings approaching the super-tax bracket.
She reflected on the family she’d been born into. There were three of them; she was the youngest, the baby of the family, then Megan the middle one, and then Jessica, the eldest at 27. Physically, she and Jessica were almost mirror-images, both taking after the Urquhart side, apart from her own red-gold hair curling in a long, unruly cloud down her back, whereas Jessica’s hung stick-straight and enviably glossy and smooth. Megan had blond hair and dark blue eyes, inherited from their father’s side. She’d suddenly become rebellious and moody in her early teens, picking fights with everyone, constantly quarrelling with Dad, driving Mum into tears of despair and she’d left home at sixteen, gone to live with Aunt Grace, Mum’s sister, in Northumberland. They’d last met, briefly, at Mum’s funeral last year. Megan kept in touch by phone, and with birthday cards and a flying visit each Christmas, but she was apparently quite happy now living and working in Alnwick, staying well out of the way of the rest of her family.
Victoria cuddled William thoughtfully, thinking about how abruptly Megan had left all those years ago. And how much she missed her. She was only half listening to the conversation between her sister and Matt Larson, until she realised that Jessica had just asked her something and was waiting patiently for an answer.
“Sorry – what did you say?”
“I said, how was Dad?”
“Oh, the same. He’s really missing Mum, I think, but he promised to eat that pie tonight.”
“I sent Matt straight over when he arrived, because having tried your mobile and getting no reply I knew you’d still be there, and really I don’t think Dad’s got a clue what there is in the house! Did you show Matt where everything was?”
Victoria looked guilty. “I must admit I’d disappeared down to my old spot in the woods, with some books” she explained awkwardly, “I ..er ..I was doing some important revision when Dad and er…Mr Larson found me!”
She blushed again but grinned involuntarily at Matt, trying to quell her earlier resentment. If he was staying here for the weekend, she could hardly maintain a sulky silence towards him all the time. Besides, sulking wasn’t in her nature.
Seeing Jessica’s raised eyebrows, Matt said, “Victoria appeared to be revising a very impressive circus act.”
Jessica laughed. “Oh, say no more. I expect she was walking on her hands, right?”
Victoria nodded, and Jessica laughed again. “You’d be surprised to learn that she’s actually a lot more grown up than she looks! More wine, Matt?”
“Not for me. If you don’t mind, I’d like to take a shower.”
“Of course, how rude of me, packing you straight off to the farm the moment you arrived,’ Jessica exclaimed, leaping up and waving to him to follow her into the house. ‘Come on, I’ll show you your room and at least I can tell you you’ve got your own private bathroom! Bring your suitcase up.”
By the time her sister had returned, Victoria had put William into his playpen in the big beamed kitchen and was stacking his tea things into the dishwasher.
Jessica closed the door behind her, looking preoccupied, and when she had poured them both more wine she washed her hands, donned an enormous red apron and busied herself boning two pheasants she had cooked the night before. Victoria tackled a pile of potatoes, scrubbing them vigorously under the cold tap, and casting curious glances at her sister. She had half expected Jessica to launch into an enjoyable gossip about their weekend visitor, and when she stayed silent she suddenly wondered if she was thinking the same rather forlorn thoughts she had been thinking, about Mum’s death from cancer last year, and how awful it seemed for Dad to be planning to sell any of her precious things from Roundwell. Most of the furniture and ornaments in the house had been hers. The Urquharts were an old county family, and seemed to be an endless source of silver, antiques, pictures and porcelain, hence Dad’s brain wave of raising money for the farm now that Mum had gone.
Finding it hard to put her own thoughts into words for fear of sounding petty-minded, or worse still covetous of the treasures for herself, she decided it was safer not to talk about that with Jessica. Instead, she grinned at her sister’s greasy fingers as she struggled with the pheasants, scattering fiddly small bones over the huge scrubbed table.
“That smells wonderful!”she sighed, sniffing the tantalising aroma, “Don’t tell me its good for us as well! Or have you abandoned the health kick?’
“No, no, game is low-fat, low-calorie, very healthy indeed,” laughed her sister, good-naturedly, ”We’re getting crankier by the day, of course! Less salt, less sugar, less fat, more fibre. Home grown vegetables. The model family.”
“Very commendable. If you weren’t a dairy farmer’s daughter! In the circumstances, I don’t know how you dare,” Victoria pointed out, eyeing the tub of margarine on the table.
“When you’ve a little infant of your own to bring up, you’ll be just as fanatical as me about the right diet, so stop sneering!”
“I wasn’t! But I’ve no plans to have any little infants of my own in the foreseeable future. Do you want these courgettes scrubbing too?”
“Please, love. But not too hard, you’ll damage the skins. I only picked them today. And stick those potatoes on skewers, will you? They’ll cook quicker. I pre-cooked this casserole yesterday, so when I’ve dug out all the bones I’ve only got to heat it up again for an hour or so and, voila! Pheasant forestiere a la Mackenzie household!”
They worked in silence again, while William sat quietly for once in his playpen, absorbed in balancing a third brick on top of his tower, almost cross-eyed in the process, showing every sign of inheriting Jessica’s sharp, mathematical brain, Victoria thought fondly. The only sound apart from William’s laboured breathing was the whirring of the wall-clock above the Aga, and finally Victoria could stand the suspense no longer.
“All right. If you won’t volunteer the information, I suppose I’ll have to be nosey about Matt Larson. You might have warned me you were inviting him this weekend!”
“Ah, I wondered when you’d admit how interested you are in him,” Jessica grinned, expertly sliding the boned pheasant into its rich red wine sauce, and scraping the skin and bones into the bin. She put the casserole into the Aga and began to peel some cooking apples.
“He is rather gorgeous, isn’t he? I always think men with those sort of half-hooded eyes look as if they’re inviting you to bed with them all the time, but Matt is so..sort of deliciously detached. All steely reserve and repressed passion.”
Victoria fisted her hands on her hips and glared at her.
“For God’s sake, I thought you were supposed to be a devoted wife and mother!”
Jessica’s brown eyes were hard to read suddenly, “I am! That doesn’t stop me appreciating another man’s..positive characteristics, does it? That unusual colouring has a bit of Danish somewhere, according to Andrew but Matt is non-committal. His full name is Mathias. It means ‘gift of the Lord’ in Danish! How about that? Do you think it should translate as ‘God’s gift to women?’” Jessica gave an enjoyably exaggerated shiver.
‘Did he tell you that himself?’
Jessica laughed at Victoria’s pained expression.
‘No. I think I checked it out on-line once.’
“Well, I’d hardly describe him as gorgeous.” Victoria hunched her shoulders slightly in a casual shrug.
“Decided that while you were gazing at him longingly on the terrace, did you?”
“I was not! If I was gazing at him at all, I was thinking what a granite faced automaton he is!” she said, incensed by the injustice.
“Really? Based on half an hour’s acquaintance?”
“Well, I..er..I inadvertently flashed my boobs at him while I was walking on my hands and he didn’t even blink! I prefer human beings to robots!”
“What? You shameless exhibitionist!” Jessica burst out laughing.
Victoria threw a lump of courgette at her in mock rage, then saw William’s interested face and clapped a hand to her mouth.
“Oops, sorry, bad example,” she said. Jessica nodded in reproval.
“It certainly is. If he throws wooden bricks at the other children at playgroup I’ll have to say his Auntie Victoria taught him all he knows!”
“Well I’m sorry, but come on Jessica. I’m just dying of curiosity. I have to admit it!”
“There’s not a lot to explain. I couldn’t tell you Matt was coming because I didn’t know for certain myself. He told Andrew he’d get down if he could. The pheasants last night were a hunch, that’s all.”
“And how long have you known him?”
“Oh, years. And also he’s an old friend of Andy’s through the antique and fine arts side of Andy’s estate agency. But it’s funny really, Matt is out of our class, these days. Financially, I mean.” Jessica stopped slicing apples, her face reflective, “Put it this way, if you think your brother-in-law does well out of his estate agency, you’ll be staggered by how well Matt’s outfit does out of the antique trade.”
“He sounds like a bit of a wide-boy to me,” Victoria said. Jessica hooted with laughter.
“Oh, most certainly not, he’s a director of a highly respected firm of antique and fine art auctioneers. But there was a time, not too many years ago, when Matt was extremely hard up. He had an odd upbringing, I believe, but he never talks about it.’
Victoria thought about his cold silence during the short drive from the farm, and nodded with a twist of a smile,
‘I can imagine.’
“Anyway, now he’s CEO of De Lember and Greysteils. Incredible really, as he’s only early thirties. They’ve got showrooms you could park a couple of Jumbo-jets in. Strings of companies all over the world, specialising in this and that. All to do with arts and antiques. Matt is actually their top art and porcelain expert, but really he’s incredibly knowledgeable about just about anything you care to name in the antique world. Andrew thought he’d be the person to call in. I mean, apart from knowing far more than Andy does, it would have been too embarrassing for Andy to do it.”
Victoria could see her point. It was far better for a complete outsider to come in and select some valuable items worth selling to bale Dad out of his financial difficulties. Andrew was too close to it all.
“How come you’ve invited him to stay the weekend?” she asked her sister, “I mean, he’s hardly a laugh a minute, is he!”
Jessica looked surprised, and to Victoria’s confusion even blushed slightly. “Matt? He may appear a bit formal, but he’s a very old friend. Both Andy and I are really fond of him. Besides, it’s nice to have a visit from someone who still lives in the Big City.”
“Ah, yes! I’m surprised you haven’t gone back to work by now.”
Jessica’s glanced was appalled. “What? I don’t need to zoom back to accountancy to prove I’m an intelligent human being, you know! Child-rearing is a very important job!”
Victoria hastily amended her words. “I didn’t say it wasn’t. All I meant was, I’m surprised you prefer being at home to…to your high-powered world of finance. Are you really as contented as you seem?”
Jessica sat down and took a sip of wine, her eyes level.
“Yes, I am. I’m surprised you should doubt it I mean, Mum and Dad made a pretty good job of home-making for us, didn’t they? Apart from with Megan. But…well, anyway, I want to re-create a happy home life here for William and all the rest of the children I intend to have!”
Victoria felt a hard lump in her throat, and gave her sister an impulsive hug. “And you already have,” she said, moved by the frank, somehow vulnerable admission. William was prompted into a chant of “Me cuddle, me cuddle” until she relented and picked him up, holding the warm, solid little boy tightly in her arms and dancing around the kitchen with him until he squealed with laughter.
“Don’t get him too excited, its bedtime. Is that Matt coming back downstairs? Go and talk to him, will you darling?”
Pulling a face, Victoria tiptoed theatrically to the door and peered round it, finger to her lips.
“It’s OK, Andrew’s just come in, and he’s taking him into the sitting room.”
“Well, listen, will you get me some of that clotted cream you brought up from Exeter with you out of the freezer? Then go and be sociable with the men while I get on with things.”
“Must I? It seems a shame to leave everything to you.”
“No, that’s all right. Mira’s coming in a few minutes. She’ll take over down here while I get Wills to bed.”
“Mira? What happened to Sheila?” Sheila had been Jessica’s daily help for as long as Victoria could remember.
“Sheila and her husband retired to Dorset this summer. You remember Mira. She used to cook at the Golden Lion. She comes and helps me with the house and William and so on.”
“Oh, Mira!” Victoria visualised the glamorous thirtyish blond from the village pub, “She helps with cooking and cleaning and babysits for you?”
“Yes, when she and Pete got divorced she got fed up with cooking meals at the pub, and offered to be our sort of nanny and housekeeper. God knows what we’d do without her, I’m terrified she might suddenly decide to go back to Bosnia and leave me in the lurch!” Jessica said with feeling, then briefly glancing at Victoria, she added, “And for goodness’ sake, get showered and changed! You look like one of Fagin’s urchins in that state.”
“Yes miss, no miss,” Victoria mock-saluted as she reached into the freezer for the cream, then making a dash across the hall and upstairs, hearing the low drone of male voices from the sitting room and anxious to get cleaned up before she bumped into Matt Larson again.
Thirty minutes later, she reassessed her appearance in the cheval mirror in her bedroom. All the grime was showered away, and gone was the waif in stained T-shirt and cut-offs, with dusty plimsolls on her feet and a dirt-streaked face. Instead a slender, foxy young woman stared back from the mirror. Her new blue jeans that showed off her long, slender legs, a sleeveless black silk top with a neckline that dipped just enough to show a hint of cleavage, silver hoops in her ears and a silver choker and bracelet at her neck and wrist, her hair brushed into a cascade of thick red-gold curls down her back. She admired her newly painted pink toenails before she slid her bare tanned feet into black leather ballet flats, and smoothed on some smoky-bronze eyeshadow, a stroke of dark mascara and a slick of pink lip-gloss. As a final inspiration, she sprayed on some of her favourite perfume, a musky one from Vera Wang. There, that should show him! She sauntered to the landing ready to stroll downstairs.
Halfway down, she stopped, suddenly unsure. She didn’t usually care what people thought of her appearance. They could take her or leave her. So what was making her deliberately dress up for Matt Larson?
Once she’d admitted to herself that she was dressing to impress Matt Larson, she was about to rush back upstairs and change into baggy jeans and a jumper when the sitting-room door opened and Andrew saw her.
“Ah, here’s Victoria, my favourite sister-in-law!” Andrew called jovially, “Come and talk to Matt, Vic.” He ushered her into the sitting-room, his blue eyes glinting with amusement as he studied her appearance.
“You’re looking very…sophisticated, Vic! I’m finally beginning to understand why this lovesick chap Sebastian keep ringing you up!”
With a slightly embarrassed smile, she reached up to kiss his cheek just above his sandy stubble. Andrew Mackenzie was a wryly humorous Scot, with a habit of poking fun at life in general and his wife’s younger sister in particular. Victoria was used to him, but even so there were times when she could happily strangle him.
“The way you and my father keep on, you’d think Sebastian was my boyfriend, or something!” she said, “He’s just a friend, Andrew. The way Karen and Caroline and Shelley are just friends. We all hitched round Europe together this summer, remember? I think I’d have noticed if there was any love sickness in the air.”
Her brother-in-law was about to comment, but he caught the warning glitter in her eyes and decided to stop goading her.
“OK, OK! I gather you and Matt met earlier, over at the farm?”
“Yes, we did.”
She finally risked glancing towards the other man, who had risen from a chair by the fireplace when she walked in and was now standing, leaning against the mantelpiece, tall and self-contained. Andrew handed her a glass of wine, and then he and Matt continued a conversation about the situation at the farm, her father’s money troubles and the possibility of selling one or two pieces to tide him over his difficult times, but their voices seemed to recede to a far-away murmur, meaningless background noises, and her gaze was locked in that aloof, ice-chip stare which threatened to rip her composure to shreds.
She took a large gulp of wine and blinked her attention elsewhere with a huge effort of will power. Jessica had lit a log fire, a precaution against the autumn chill in the evenings, and it was slowly smoldering into life in the inglenook fireplace, intermittent tongues of flame flickering up from the smoke. She went to sit in the window-seat, watching the beginnings of the fire.
When Andrew left the room in response to a call from Jessica, she sat stiffly in the silence, suddenly determined that Matt Larson should make the first attempt at conversation this time. That brief taste of his detached, patronising attitude in the car this afternoon still rankled.
“So,” he said at last, “If I raised my original estimate by about five years, would I be nearer the mark?”
She blinked up at him, confused.
“Well, I hate to admit it,” his wide mouth twisted wryly, “But I’d put you down as about fifteen this afternoon!”
She felt something thaw, just a little, inside her. There was enough self-mockery about his hard voice to make him seem, suddenly, slightly more human. She found herself warming to him. Perhaps he was just shy, she decided. Some men were, and they tended to hide it behind that kind of cold, macho unfriendliness. Her naturally friendly instincts began to surface again.
“Well, don’t worry! I’m not offended,” she laughed, “You were probably entitled to the mistake. I was feeling nostalgic down there in the woods this afternoon. Reverting to childhood. There’s something repressive about being grown up, isn’t there?”
“Is there? I’ve always thought it was the other way round,” he said, his tone becoming absent, flat and slightly bored again, she thought furiously, hardly inviting further conversation, let alone polite small talk.
“Oh?” She tailed off, as the silence between them grew again. She found herself remembering Jessica’s remarks about his childhood. Had he found his childhood repressive? She tried to imagine a childhood which wasn’t filled with rich, warm security, love and boundless optimism as hers had been. Or mostly had been. Maybe, once or twice, she’d sensed that everything wasn’t quite as cosily reassuring as it appeared on the surface. But the good times were the ones she recalled, not the bad. And they had been in the majority, hadn’t they?
She watched Matt’s long, brown fingers linked loosely round his glass of Perrier water, and took another large gulp of her wine. Jessica was right, she found herself acknowledging. He was attractive. Blindingly so. He had changed out of the formal grey suit into relaxed weekend gear of worn-looking Levis and a white T-shirt. The T-shirt revealed an impressive set of abdominal muscles. He looked sexy, brooding, the hard lines of his face like a cross between Daniel Craig and James Dean.
Clearing her throat, she fixed him with a calm, slightly surprised gaze, making it clear that she expected him to make some contribution, to break the socially unacceptable silence. Suddenly he seemed to break out of his brooding reverie, and with a slight easing back of his wide shoulders he shot her a rueful look.
‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘I was miles away, thinking about a business problem.’ He took a sip of Perrier and levelled his clear grey eyes on her with what she took to be a genuine attempt at interest. She wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or insulted at this obvious effort he was making.
‘So tell me,’ he went on, politely. ‘How old are you?’
‘Nineteen. Well, nearly. In a couple of months. I’m at university in Exeter, doing history and English.’
‘Ah, I see. It was the reference to studying that fooled me. I assumed you were on holiday from school.’
‘I’ve just passed my prelims.’
‘And you’re enjoying it?’
‘Very much!’ she nodded emphatically, ‘I’ve always loved English. And history. Maybe I should thank my history mistress at school, Miss Parkinson. She brought it all to life for me.’ She moved to the edge of the chair, her face unconsciously glowing with animation as she sought to explain herself. ‘I like thinking about all the generations who lived before me. All those roots and rhythms, the patterns of things.’ She laughed, suddenly aware of the intent expression on Matt’s face and becoming conscious of getting carried away, ‘Sorry, I bet you think I’m completely mad now!’
‘No, not at all,’ he said, ‘I don’t share your love of the past, at least not in the same sense. But I can see it might provide a sense of continuity.’
‘That’s it. Sometimes, if I sit alone in a really old building, and I wait and listen, I can imagine myself blending back into the past, I can feel a sense of life spanning generations…I don’t suppose you believe in ghosts, do you?’
He smiled faintly. ‘No.’
‘I quite like the idea, I think it’s helped me to come to terms with my mother’s death. The feeling that death isn’t necessarily the end of everything, a sense of continuity.’
She flashed a dazzling, slightly embarrassed smile at Matt, and drained her wine-glass, aware that she was drinking too much yet unable to take a hold on her heady emotions. ‘I must be boring you, Mr Larson.’
‘No, you’re not boring me at all. I’m sorry about your mother, Victoria. It must be hard to lose your mother when you’re so young. And please call me Matt. When young girls call me Mr Larson it makes me feel very old,’ he added, with a twist of a smile.
‘Matt, then,’ she agreed. Not Mathias, God’s gift to women, she thought, thinking about Jessica’s comment with an inner giggle. ‘But I’m not that young! I’m nearly nineteen. Nineteen’s well past the age of consent, you know!’ Oh God, where had that come from? She ploughed on desperately, ‘And I think I’ve grown up quicker in the last twelve months, going to university and living away from home. I share a house in Exeter with some other students. And then Mum dying . . . that somehow gives you the feeling you’ve got to grow up, cope all on your own.’ She tailed off, conscious of sounding morose, and then she smiled at him teasingly, ‘But I suppose, compared with me, you are very old!’ she said, and was mortified to see a faint, dark flush of colour in his already dark cheeks. She wished she could bite off her tongue.
‘I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean that to sound as rude as it did,’ she said, watching him in apprehension for signs that she had mortally offended him. ‘I’m afraid it’s a bad habit of mine, saying things without thinking!’
There was a short silence, after her rush of words, and then to the complete demolition of her composure Matt laughed.
It was an ice-splintering laugh, crinkling the corners of his eyes, and creasing the hard cynical lines of his cheeks into an almost boyish, wholly appealing grin. She was ensnared by the transformation.
‘Now we’re quits,’ he said, still laughing. ‘I thought you were fifteen, you think I’m ‘very old’?’
‘No, absolutely not!’ she blurted out, in confusion.
‘I’m thirty-three,’ he supplied calmly. ‘Nearly old enough to be another generation to you.’
‘Fifteen years older than me hardly makes you another generation!’ She wanted to add that, far from looking like a member of another generation, he looked the sort of man schoolgirls pinned in poster-form to their bedroom walls and drooled over at bedtime.
But she refrained from making any more outrageous remarks. She was feeling curiously drawn to him, as if he wasn’t a comparative stranger she had met only a couple of hours ago, but someone she had known intimately, someone achingly familiar, from some long ago, half-remembered meeting.
She stared into his eyes for what seemed aeons of time. Gradually she saw the amusement fade from his eyes.
Oh God, she was making a complete idiot of herself. Her pulses had speeded up to a frantic pounding, and a rush of nameless emotion was affecting her stomach muscles in a warm, cramping longing she had never felt before.
‘Victoria.’ Andrew was bending over her, proffering more wine, and heedlessly she nodded as he topped up her glass. With another nervous gulp she tore her eyes from Matt, and tried to erase the imprint of him in her mind. She lowered her lids briefly, squeezed her eyes tight shut for a second, but the image was still there, of laughing eyes growing cooler, retreating from her, dispassionate and coldly appraising again as if he had read her mind and strongly disapproved of her silly, romantic fantasies.
‘Are you all right, Vic?’ Andrew was looking at her in surprise, and she stood up, forcing a smile.
‘Yes, I feel a bit…dizzy, that’s all. Too much walking on my hands this afternoon, probably. I’m just going out on the terrace for a minute.’
She escaped through the French windows into the chill of the evening air. She tried to drag her shattered nerves together as a blackbird twittered melodiously from the apple tree on the lawn.
Something had happened to her just then, as she had stared into Matt’s eyes. It was a thing people didn’t do on casual acquaintance, stare into each other’s eyes. There was something too revealing about prolonged eye-contact. She shivered, gazing blindly across the yellow and russet chrysanthemums bordering the terrace. She knew now why his eyes were so startling. The pewter-grey irises were ringed with black, yet flecked with silver, just like ice-crystals on deep, still water.
And something had happened to her, and she suspected deep down she might never be quite the same again. Whether Matt has felt the same unnerving experience, she couldn’t tell.
Those magnetic eyes had held something, some disturbing emotion, for a brief few seconds, but then they had become shuttered again, too expressionless to read.
She drank far too much wine at dinner, and found herself falling into a familiar trap. If she was disturbed or nervous about something, she reacted by over-exuberance. Not even intercepting covert glances between Jessica and Andy quelled her extrovert behaviour. She kept them all entertained with anecdotes about her university friends, and some hair-raising adventures on their trek around France, Italy and Spain that summer.
After coffee and liqueurs, she found herself pushing back her chair, standing up a trifle unsteadily, and announcing,
‘Let’s all go to Options! We can have cocktails, and dance! Andy, Matt, you’ll take us to Options, won’t you?’
Options was, in fact, a rather over-priced cocktail bar and boutique hotel in the nearby town, with a retro-style 80’s disco at the back, at weekends, so this suggestion didn’t meet with total incomprehension. Jessica stifled a yawn, but Andy seemed happy to humour her, and an hour later she was returning, breathless, to their table in the velvet dimness, with her friend Sebastian following her a few seconds afterwards, if possible even more out of breath than she was.
She laughed up at him, taking a gulp of her drink.
‘Fantastic, bumping into you here, Vic!’ Sebastian was enthusing, collapsing into a spare chair at their table, his dark hair flopping over his forehead. ‘No one else I know dances quite like you!’
She laughed, then turned recklessly to catch Matt’s eye across the table. An ornate Victorian glass candle-lamp stood in the centre, casting a glow over everyone’s faces, making Matt’s eyes gleam like a cat’s. Even with a quantity of wine inside her, she was finding it uncharacteristically difficult to pluck up courage and ask Matt to dance with her. Her wavering spirits annoyed her. It seemed so ridiculous. This was the only man she had ever met who sent such a shimmer of nervous energy through her, made her shiver all over with wild anticipation. Why did he also have to be the only one who had ever reduced her to such pathetic indecisiveness?
‘Come on, Matt,’ she risked at last, ‘Dance with me.’ She hoped her light-hearted tone masked her desperate fear of rejection. But Matt leaned back in his chair, the cold silver eyes level on her face, a hint of mockery around his hard mouth.
‘I’m too old to keep up with the sort of moves you were doing,’ he said casually, almost off-hand, and he picked up his conversation with Jessica where she had interrupted him, ignoring her crimson face with consummate cruelty.
Victoria sat down at the table, and kept very still, trying to hide her feelings. It was an annoying peculiarity of hers that whenever she was angry, her hands shook. And being angry at this moment was such an irrational emotion she was determined to repress it. Linking her hands together in her lap, she pressed them together, willing herself not to care. Her palms felt slightly moist, though her throat was dry and tight. She had been put down, she acknowledged, as deftly as if she were a precocious schoolgirl and he the headmaster. Sebastian was chatting away to her, relating his sense of anti-climax since coming back from their carefree holiday, trying to fix up a date when they could go out for a pizza together, but she was unable to listen properly. She couldn’t concentrate at all.
After a while, the music slowed, and Matt glanced across the table, and half rose from his chair. Involuntarily, heart thudding, she found herself rising a little off her own chair, in readiness for his invitation, but belatedly she realised he had raised that eloquent eyebrow at Jessica, and was holding out his hand.
‘Would you like to dance?’ he smiled, and Jessica stood up, smiling back at him, moving into his arms with the ease of an old friend amid the mass of rhythmically swaying bodies on the dance floor.
Victoria was stunned. The force of her misery and jealousy was so great she could hardly believe she could feel like this. She felt as if she had plunged into an icy pool of total dejection and was floundering around it, unable to swim. Matt Larson was a complete stranger, reminded a frantic inner voice of reason. She knew nothing about him, she didn’t even think she liked him very much. How could it matter if he preferred to dance with Jessica, rather than dance with her? How could she care so much?
Somehow she managed to shake off the shroud of misery and dance again with Sebastian, sparkling and laughing opposite his lively performance.
But her eyes were drawn frequently to Matt and Jessica, still dancing together, her cheek against his muscular shoulder, her bright red hair a magnificent foil to his sleek ash blond.
She refused Sebastian’s friendly invitation to carry on dancing, and subsided by Andrew. She was too choked to laugh at his bluff teasing, and embarrassed that she couldn’t hide her misery from him.
‘Getting tired, Vic? Say the word and we could all go home to bed.’
She shook her head determinedly, staring at her tightly laced hands on the table, not trusting herself to speak. She wanted to rush on to the dance floor, push herself between Jessica and Matt, and claim Jessica’s place in his arms.
She wanted to discover how it felt to be that close to him, to move slowly against him like that. The urge was so strong she was shocked at herself.
After an eternity, Matt and Jessica returned to their table, and Andrew took his wife off to dance.
Victoria faced Matt across the table, willing herself to be aloof and sophisticated.
‘Tired?’ he asked quietly.
‘No, not at all. I’m quite happy to stay until everyone else is ready to go home. I can hardly drag everyone here then drag them back home again just to suit myself!’
She looked at him sharply. His face was deadpan, his eyes hidden in shadow.
‘What do you mean?’
He shrugged. ‘You strike me as very used to getting your own way,’ he commented. ‘Do you always sulk when you don’t?’
She was dumbfounded. What possible reason could he have for insulting her so deliberately?
‘Sulk?’ she repeated, in a gasp of indignation. Her heart was thudding so loudly she was sure people near by must hear it, and her hands were shaking so much she had to grip them tightly round herself. ‘I never sulk! And if you’re implying I’m spoilt, or over-privileged or something, you can’t have any idea what I’m really like—you don’t know the first thing about me! I won’t deny I was feeling sad. But I was not sulking! Do you always gloat when you catch someone making a fool of themselves?’
There was a taut, charged silence, and she felt almost like crying, her emotions were so overheated. Then Matt’s teeth flashed very white in the darkness, and he smiled his devastating smile.
‘Invariably,’ he agreed blandly, and her sense of the ridiculous saved her, and she burst out laughing.
‘Would you care to dance, Victoria?’
She was about to frame a snappy retort, taunt him about his geriatric inability to keep up with her, but there was a sudden stillness inside her, and she said nothing, turning instead to watch Andrew and Jessica on the dance floor. Her sister’s tawny head was on her husband’s shoulder, cradled close in his arms as they moved slowly to an old Roberta Flack song, ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’.
‘Well? Shall we dance?’
‘No, thanks.’ Impossible to gauge what it cost to say it, but immediately her ego felt better, a little self-esteem restored. But when Matt moved his head slightly, and the light revealed his expression, for a moment she couldn’t breathe. What she thought she saw in his eyes made her heart leap erratically in her chest, and goose-pimples shiver her arms.
Squeezing her eyes briefly shut, she opened them and stared at him disbelievingly. So this was it, she concluded hazily. In spite of some inexplicable need to score points off each other, this was the amazing, earth-shattering ‘thing’ they spoke of, which interfered with sleep and careers and turned sane people into gibbering idiots. She was suddenly gripped by terror, overwhelmed with panic at the unknown situation she was tumbling headlong into, and which she felt she had little or no control over.
‘Oh bugger,’ she breathed, unlacing her tightly clenched hands abruptly and standing up. ‘Excuse me, I need to find my jacket. I suddenly feel cold.’
She shivered all the way home, desperately tired but sitting rigidly upright beside Matt in the back of the car. She was terrified of falling asleep on him, although the idea of letting her cheek rest on the soft black leather of his jacket was overwhelmingly appealing. After a few miles her eyelids drooped uncontrollably, and she pressed herself against her own side of the car. Her last thought was that if she had to fall asleep, the arm-rest on her door would be an infinitely safer place to do so than Matt Larson’s shoulder.
She woke in pitch darkness, and a silence which indicated the middle of the night. Her throat was dry, and she had an excruciating ache in her temples. When she sat up, the pain stabbed through her like someone digging a knife into her skull, and she groaned, holding her head gingerly in her hands, trying to remember how she had got into her Victorian pin-tucked cotton nightshirt and into bed. She could remember leaving the nightclub; after that it was a total blank. The only part she remembered with gruesome clarity was drinking far too much wine and making a complete fool of herself.
She flicked on the bedside light, wincing in its glare, then steeled herself to bend down and rummage fruitlessly through her handbag for some aspirin. There was nothing; she rarely carried pain-killers, as she wasn’t prone to headaches or any sort of aches, really.
A search of the bathroom cabinet drew another blank, and, pressing her hand to her forehead she tried to recall where Jessica kept her medicines. Of course, the kitchen. In a high cupboard well out of reach for the day William began exploring on his own.
Half-way down the hall, she got quite a shock when she caught a glimpse of herself in the long mirror by the front door. The short white cotton nightshirt, a genuine antique she had bought in a market in Naples, looked rumpled and quite definitely slept in, lacking the modern blend of polyester, and above it her face was only a shade less white, her brown eyes enormous and bruised-looking. Her wildly tangled hair looked as if she had flung herself from side to side in bed rather more than usual. She looked like a very limp, bedraggled rag doll, she decided wearily, eyeing the expanse of elongated athletic thigh exposed beneath the hem of the nightshirt. Well, it served her right. She couldn’t imagine what had come over her last night, but she certainly deserved this mammoth hangover, and she definitely wouldn’t be repeating the mistake.
Quenching her raging thirst, and downing two paracetamol, she recalled with irritation Matt Larson’s abstemiousness last night. That somehow made her feel worse than ever. Far from admiring his almost ascetic abstinence, she felt furious with him. In fact she could quite easily lay the entire blame for her present state on his shoulders, she concluded vengefully. Anyone forced to spend an evening in the monk-like presence of that man, watching him sip that wretched Perrier all night with such steely control, would have been driven to excesses simply to deflect the tension he radiated!
Her progress back towards the stairs was impeded by an alarming wave of dizziness, and eventually she was forced to stop and lean against the wall. Maybe the water had somehow reactivated the alcohol, she thought miserably, levering herself upright again and tackling the first stair again. But before she had dragged herself any further the light was abruptly switched on, and Matt Larson’s tall frame was blocking her way.
Victoria stared up at him owlishly, trying to get her brain to work. Rational thought seemed far more difficult than usual, not just because of her hangover, but because the sight of Matt there on the stairs in front of her, powerfully masculine in black boxer shorts and nothing else, was bringing all her confused reactions of last night flooding back.
‘You’re the last person I expected to meet on the stairs,’ he said, with a hint of amusement. “You looked as though you’d be out for the count until lunchtime.’
‘Did I really? Well, I woke up with a slight headache,’ she supplied stiffly, finding speech unusually difficult. ‘I came down for some tablets and a drink of water. What are you doing?’
‘Similar errand. Would you happen to know where Jessica keeps indigestion tablets?’ His tone was polite, cool, and she gazed up at him, torn between friendly sympathy and a temptation to gloat. So he had indigestion, did he? Well, it just served him right. Anyone who radiated the sort of coiled-up repression Matt Larson radiated just had to accept the laws of cause and effect.
‘Follow me, I’ll show you,’ she said graciously, grinning suddenly as she ushered him through to the kitchen. She started to reach up to the high cupboard for the medicine box, then stopped in mid-reach, remembering the shortness of her nightshirt just a fraction too late.
‘They’re up there, in that box,’ she told him, crimson-faced, clumsily backing away as Matt came round the table very close to her and reached into the cupboard.
She reversed into the table and almost fell over, then propped herself against it for support, unable to avert her eyes from the sprinkle of blond hairs and ripple of muscle under Matt’s lightly tanned skin.
At such close quarters, and being so scantily dressed, she was physically aware of him in a way that was completely new to her. There was spellbinding strength and symmetry about him. She had never thought of a man in those terms before. She had seen male friends stripped down to swim-wear countless times. But somehow this was different. Looking at Matt seemed to be making her knees weak and her heart thud faster,and yet he appeared to be totally unmoved by her mesmerised observation, chewing two of the indigestion tablets in a prosaic, almost preoccupied manner, then finding a glass and drinking some water, seemingly oblivious to her.
She tried to break the spell that seemed to be weaving itself around her, forcing herself deliberately to look for imperfections, anything which she found unattractive, to try to balance her obsession, but in this trance-like grip of admiration she couldn’t find anything. All his imperfections looked attractive. The way his blond hair stood slightly on end at the front, the way his large, slightly bent nose looked as if it might have been broken at some stage in the past, the deepish lines round his eyes and mouth which suggested that once upon a time he had laughed or smiled a lot, although he didn’t seem to any more, the blond stubble outlining the wide hard mouth and roughening his rather broad jawline—they all seemed infinitely desirable features. The admission filled her with even more alarm.
She felt an irrational urge to touch him, trace her fingers over that strong, aloof, self-contained face and down over the muscular shoulders and torso, to draw some warm response from him. The urge was so great that she hurriedly thrust her trembling hands behind her, and sat on them as she leaned against the edge of the table.
Matt replaced the medicine box and turned his curiously light eyes on her, and she wondered with frantic embarrassment if she had conveyed any of her feverish thoughts to him through the silence. She found herself repeating something she hardly ever did, and blushed a fiery, painful red again.
‘How is your headache?’ he queried, dispassionately.
‘Bad. Really bad,’ she admitted, with a slight laugh. ‘But self-inflicted, so I can’t complain!’
‘Do you usually drink so much wine?’
‘No.’ She shook her head and wished she hadn’t. ‘No, I don’t believe I’ve ever drunk quite that much all in one go,’ she confessed simply. ‘But I do like wine. I suppose I’ve been drinking more of it since this summer in Europe. I find it relaxing. And at least it doesn’t give me indigestion!’
‘That surprises me. White wine in particular is extremely acidic,’ he said dismissively.
She experienced a stab of childish annoyance, and retorted rashly, ‘But Perrier is even more acidic? Or was Jessica’s health food responsible for waking you up in the middle of the night?’
‘I don’t think the cause of my indigestion is any concern of yours,’ he replied, his voice ominously quiet. ‘And I suggest you get yourself back to bed. You look terrible.’
‘Why, thank you!’ she exclaimed, in mock flirtation. ‘How frightfully chivalrous of you!’ She struggled to stand upright, discovering that as her anger rose so, too, did a threatening wave of nausea. She gripped the table again, shutting her eyes in panic as the floor seemed to be executing rocking motions beneath her feet.
‘Are you all right, Victoria? You’re very pale.’
‘Yes, well,’ she gasped, trying to make a joke of her dilemma, ‘Just don’t pay me any more compliments tonight, I don’t think I can cope with them.’
She was desperately aware that she had to get to the bathroom quickly, and took a step towards the door, cursing the way the floor seemed to slope away from her like the deck of a ship in a storm. Matt hastily slammed down his glass of water, and was beside her in two strides.
‘Come on, I’ll help you to the bathroom,’ he said flatly, taking such instant charge she hardly had time to wallow in acute embarrassment. Within five seconds, she was gasping miserably over the basin in the downstairs cloakroom, supported by the hardness of Matt’s arm round her shoulders, his fingers holding her head.
She retched until she feared the lining of her stomach would come away, then collapsed weakly against the basin while he ran the tap and rinsed her face efficiently with cold water.
‘Oh, God! I’m so sorry’ she moaned, her face suddenly muffled against his chest as he swung her up into his arms and carried her towards the stairs. In spite of her fragile state, her senses were still powerfully aware of him as he held her close to his body. Shutting her eyes tightly to blot out his visual image didn’t help at all, because she could feel shivers of sensation on the back of her thighs where his arm encircled her legs, the roughness of his chest hair against her cheek, almost unbearably intimate in the circumstances.
She found herself marvelling in the warmth of his skin. Somehow she had imagined him cold, like his personality, but he wasn’t, he was warm and smelled faintly of lemon, a clean, fresh, masculine aroma which soothed her and excited her at the same time.
Fingers of greyish light were stealing along the landing as they reached her room, and she was dimly aware that the birds were beginning their early morning chorus. Faint bumping, cooing and rattling sounds from William’s room indicated that he was already wide awake and playing with the activity centre strapped to his cot.
‘Oh, no, that’s all I need. Jessica will be up making wholemeal pancakes or something in an hour or so!’ she groaned. Matt said nothing as he bent to deposit her on the bed. No doubt he had no words to express his feelings of contempt and disgust, she thought despairingly. If it wasn’t so tragic, the situation might be funny. How not to impress the man you most wanted to impress!
Her nightshirt rode disastrously high on her thighs as he pulled the duvet out to cover her, and she was relieved when privacy was restored by the warmth of the quilt. She gazed up at his dark shape, his expression unfathomable in the shadowy dawn light, and sleepy gratitude cheered her a little. He might despise her, but at least he had helped.
‘Thank you,’ she murmured indistinctly, finding even more difficulty getting her tongue round her words. ‘That really was very chivalrous of you!’
‘Go to sleep, Victoria,’ he said quietly, tonelessly, as if speaking to a tiresome child, then just before turning away he reached down and felt her forehead, with a cool, impersonal touch, as if he was checking for a fever.
When he had gone, she closed her eyes, and examined the physical and mental imprint of his fingers on her skin, and a delicious warmth began to lap over her, lulling her into the deepest sleep she had ever had.
Jessica’s voice woke her; she stirred and yawned in her warm nest of bedclothes and opened her eyes to see her sister perched on the end of her bed, with a steaming mug of coffee.
‘Come on, drink this. You’ll feel better. I wouldn’t have woken you, only I’ve got to pop William round to Dr Clements. He’s got gunge coming out of that ear he had the antibiotics for, so I think it’s infected again.’
‘Oh, the poor little thing.’ Victoria pulled herself cautiously up against the pillows and shielded her eyes from the brilliant sunlight as the curtains were whisked open.
‘Another gorgeous September day,’ Jessica commented, her expression only marginally sympathetic as Victoria blinked dazedly. ‘Dad can get on and finish harvesting, and I’ve told him you and Matt will go over this morning and finish looking round.’
‘Me? Why me?’ she asked with a stab of panic. ‘Why can’t Andrew go with him?’
She sipped her coffee absently and grimaced. It tasted peculiar, bitter and nauseating, and she put it on the bedside table. Her taste buds felt decimated.
‘Why not you? You know all the ins and outs and hidey-holes of the farm better than anyone, and Andy’s had to go into the office. Even though it’s his weekend off. Apparently half the staff have gone down with the flu,’ Jessica said, sounding less than pleased. It was a bone of contention with Jessica that Andrew’s firm of estate agents now opened all weekend, and occasionally disrupted her precious family weekends because of it. ‘So, it’s all up to you,’ Jessica said briskly, laughing at Victoria’s pale countenance.
‘All right, only I had this awful dream. I dreamt I was violently ill in the night and Matt Larson witnessed the whole thing!’ she confided, with a sheepish grin.
‘You were. He did.’
‘What? Oh, no! So I was! So he did! Oh, and he told you?’ she howled on a rising note of despair. ‘I suppose he told you both over breakfast. What a good joke!’
She could just imagine the sadistic amusement he must have derived from the incident, she reflected bitterly.
‘No, he just told me. He said you’d been unwell in the night and might appreciate a long lie-in,’ Jessica told her, thoughtfully. ‘You did rather overdo the wine last night. What came over you?’
‘I don’t know! I’m not sure,’ she said ruefully, avoiding Jessica’s eyes. ‘Was I really dreadful?’
Jessica laughed. ‘Of course you weren’t. You were incredibly funny. Especially when you wafted us all off to Options, and went into that aerobic routine on the dance floor!’
Victoria groaned, and turned her head into the pillow. ‘And that friend of yours, Sebastian. He seems nice. He rang this morning, offering you a lift back to Exeter next term.’
Victoria didn’t comment, and Jessica persisted.
‘Only it’s not Sebastian who matters, is it? It’s Matt. Am I right? It’s none of my business, I know. You’re old enough to know what you want.’
Jessica sounded cool, pensive, as if she were holding back her own approval or disapproval.
Victoria sat up straight, her face bleak.
‘It makes no difference. After what happened last night, Matt Larson isn’t ever going to want to come within ten yards of me again. I doubt if it’s the peak of romantic fantasies, watching someone vomit into a washbasin.’
Her sister stared at her forlorn face, and burst out laughing.
‘Oh, Vic! You’re so funny when you’re looking penitent!’
Victoria chewed her lip, then felt a giggle well up uncontrollably. They clutched each other weakly, and the more she laughed the funnier everything seemed until the laughter tipped over the brink into sobs of frustration, and Jessica gently extricated herself. She fetched a box of tissues from the dressing-table.
‘Come on. Cheer up. Get up and have a lovely hot bath. You’ll feel much better. And I’ve got to go, I’m due at the surgery in fifteen minutes. See you later.’
Jessica was right, Victoria decided, drying herself vigorously, and smoothing scented body lotion everywhere. She pulled on jeans and a pale grey wide-necked T-shirt. She had washed her hair, towelled it well, and decided to let it dry naturally, and went downstairs in search of breakfast.
Matt was in the kitchen, talking on his mobile and reading the morning papers at the same time, a pair of steel-framed reading-glasses on his nose. He looked cool and relaxed in the same worn Levis, and a black cotton shirt, the top buttons open to show a hint of the blond hair on his chest. Looking at it reminded her so forcibly of last night’s fiasco that she almost groaned out loud.
Matt ended his conversation, which had been business based as far as she could tell, and checked his watch, his expression unreadable, before he said, ‘Good morning, Victoria. I hope you slept well eventually.’
Eyeing the clock on the wall over the Aga, she caught the irony in his ‘Good morning’. It was two minutes to twelve.
The coffee-pot felt cold, and she went to re-boil the kettle and fill the toaster, not quite sure what to say.
‘About last night,’ she began, awkwardly.
‘Forget it,’ said Matt abruptly.
‘Believe me, I’d love to!’ she said shakily, laughing. ‘In fact, I even woke up this morning convincing myself it was all a nasty dream! But it’s not the sort of incident that fades from the mind all that quickly!’
‘I said forget it. It was nothing,’ he repeated flatly, removing the reading-glasses and slipping them into a black case.
‘Well, I feel so incredibly embarrassed about it.’
‘There’s no need.’
The kettle was boiling and switched itself off in the silence, and then her attention was dragged from his level gaze by two pieces of very black toast leaping from the toaster, one of them ending up on the floor.
‘Oh, sod it!’ she exploded, flinging the offending offerings into the bin, then meeting Matt’s eyes with an involuntary laugh.
‘Come and sit down. I’ll make you some breakfast.’ He folded the paper, and pulled out his chair for her. She came slowly across the kitchen towards him and sat down carefully in the chair. It was still warm from his body. She leaned her elbows on the table, and cupped her chin in her hands, watching thoughtfully as he moved around the room with a spare, curiously economic use of energy. She was reminded of the cat-like lope she had watched on their way back from the copse yesterday. He was good to watch. Everything about him, his actions, his mannerisms, gave her pleasure. Except for his detached, steel-grey eyes, reflecting only chilling lack of interest.
‘Jessica said you’d like to go back over to the farm this morning,’ she said at last, trying to make her voice sound cool and impersonal, to match his eyes. ‘I hope you’re not going to try to talk Dad into selling you all the family heirlooms.’
Matt placed coffee, and toast in the pine rack, in front of her, and dug his hands into the pockets of his jeans.
‘I’ve no plans to talk your father into anything. I’m hardly down here touting for business. I’m doing Andrew a favour. And passing up a lot of lucrative deals elsewhere in the process.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry!’ Victoria paused in buttering her toast thickly, and ran weary fingers through the damp curls on her forehead. ‘This business of selling some of Mum’s things. I realise Dad needs the cash. He, well, he’s not quite so careful with the accounts as Mum used to be. He reckons no self-respecting farmer ever keeps accounts!’ She hesitated, anxious to be loyal to her father. ‘But I just don’t like the thought of selling any of Mum’s things. I know it’s silly. But the farm and its contents have been in our family for generations. The place is full of history, full of precious personal bits of history. Oh, God, never mind, I’m wittering on again!’
‘No, you’re right to feel sad about things changing. But which is more important, the farm itself continuing as a viable concern, or the ornaments and furniture inside it? I gather from Andrew the situation could be that serious.’
‘You’re right, of course. I know you are.’
‘But family heirlooms must be very emotive things,’ Matt said in a strangely hard voice. She glanced at him, and saw that his eyes too looked shuttered and hard. Families didn’t seem to be a favourite subject of his, she decided thoughtfully.
‘Well, just as long as Dad doesn’t get a succession of spivvy door-to-door dealers pestering him when you’ve gone, offering tempting prices for half the contents of the house!’ she said.
Matt’s jaw tightened slightly, but he didn’t rise to the bait, and she only recognised belatedly that it had been bait. For some reason this morning she felt the need to goad some personal reaction from him, needle him into a show of real feeling. What was the matter with her? Even if he was being his familiar aloof and remote self, he was being pleasant. He had waved away last night’s sorry episode, and he had got her breakfast ready for her. Why was she feeling driven to behave so badly?
She spread a generous helping of honey on her toast, then pulled the newspaper nearer and scanned the headlines while she ate. Matt left the room, and she heard his footsteps on the stairs. She found the print was dancing in front of her eyes, and she gave up trying to concentrate.
‘Shall we walk over to the farm?’ she said, when he joined her in the kitchen a short time later.
‘If you’d like to.’
‘I think the fresh air will do me good,’ she admitted with a grin.
Strolling through the fields at Matt’s side, Victoria couldn’t help a ridiculous impression of ‘rightness’, walking next to him. He was tall, over six feet, but her slender five foot eight measured well against him. Her absurd spurt of elation was so strong she had to restrain herself sharply from linking her arm through his, or slipping her fingers into the lean brown hand so close to her own. This urge to hold, touch, get closer, confused and frightened her, but at the same time she felt gloriously lucky just to be in his company.
She wasn’t making any sense this morning, even to herself. Maybe it was the effects of last night, she told herself prosaically. Hangovers were supposed to deprive people of rational thought, weren’t they? How could she possibly feel this powerful surge of pleasure in the company of a man who so obviously found her tedious and unattractive?
She kept her gaze deliberately fixed on the misty September sunshine on the lush farmland stretching ahead. She had never really thought of herself as a tactile person before, but this compulsion to touch Matt was beginning to worry her.
They walked past the church and the graveyard, with its uneven headstones leaning drunkenly at all angles in the lumpy grass. There were several generations of Urquharts buried there. Including her mother. She’d gone there last week, when she first came home from her summer travels, with a bunch of her mother’s favourite white freesias, and seen gratefully that someone, more likely to be Jessica than her father, had already put a fresh bunch on the grave.
The silence was shattered by a coarse, croaking bird-call from some trees on their left. Matt involuntarily put out his hand, catching her arm. In some surprise she stopped, as he had done. There was the stark, brilliant plumage of a magpie flashing black, white and deep blue through the leaves, and such a flurry of wings and commotion she thought at first the magpie must be attacking a smaller bird. Then she realised the bird under constant harassment from the foolhardy magpie was none other than a huge, majestic sparrow hawk. The magpie seemed intent on driving it from its chosen perch.
‘That magpie’s crazy,’ Matt murmured, in amused fascination. ‘The sparrow hawk could eat it for breakfast if it wanted to.’
The larger, brown-winged bird seemed to be treating the magpie’s frenzied attempts to dislodge it with surprising tolerance, flapping languidly away, but always returning to the same branch.
‘She knows her natural superiority,’ Matt said, ‘This must be her territory. If she holds her own she knows the magpie will eventually give up.’
Victoria glanced at Matt curiously. ‘Well, you’re quite right, this is her territory. There was a whole family of them last year. We hope they’ll nest again near by. Oh, if you’d seen the chicks—and have you ever seen them swoop on their prey? They’re amazing to watch.”
She tailed off as the magpie suddenly took flight with a frustrated cackle, and flashed off into the topmost branches of another tree, and Matt seemed to become aware of his hand gripping her arm, and dropped his hold abruptly.
‘So you’re a naturalist as well as an antiques expert,’ she said, as they began walking again. ‘Funny, I’d have thought you were a city dweller, and wouldn’t know a sparrow hawk from a sparrow!’
‘Do you always jump to conclusions about people you hardly know?’ enquired Matt, his tone evasive.
Victoria pushed her hand through her rapidly drying hair and shot him a look of frustration.
‘Well, some people aren’t very easy to get to know,’ she pointed out fairly. ‘So tell me all about yourself. Did you grow up in the country? Or in a town?’
‘I grew up in cities. Several of them. My environment was concrete and steel,’ he told her, mockingly.
‘Oh. And did you have brothers and sisters?’
‘No. Not in the sense you mean.’
There was growing coldness in his voice, and she knew he disliked the questioning, but she decided to be deliberately thick-skinned.
‘So you’re a city dweller, an only child, of some sort or other. How do you explain your impressive knowledge of sparrow hawks? Or is your past some dark, holy secret never to be divulged?’ She had suddenly remembered Jessica’s lack of information about Matt’s family.
‘I doubt if you’d find our backgrounds worth comparing,’ he said coolly, the silver eyes flicking over her with such cutting indifference she flinched. ‘You have roots, and close links with past generations of your family.’
‘But you must have family, surely.’
Matt stopped walking, turning to fix her with a chilling, intense stare which made her shrink inside.
‘My background can’t possibly be of any interest to you,’ he told her bluntly, ‘And frankly, I don’t consider it necessary to dish out a full account of it to every customer I do business with.’
Victoria tried not to show how much he had hurt her, aware that for some reason known only to himself Matt was deliberately trying to smash any fragile beginnings of rapport between them. The pettiness of his attitude infuriated her suddenly.
‘What’s wrong with you?’ she burst out angrily. ‘What are you so frightened of? Do you think I’ve got some ulterior motive for asking about your family, about yourself? Hasn’t it even occurred to you I might be just trying to make polite conversation?’
Matt dragged his eyes from her furious glare, and stared across the fields, a muscle twitching slightly in his jaw. She watched him helplessly, somehow aware that he was repressing his emotions tightly inside him, and full of conflicting responses, wanting to hit him or to wrap her arms round him and hug him. She balled her trembling hands into fists instead, and tried to slow her breathing down.
Two combine harvesters were methodically carving deep furrows through the golden corn, and Matt nodded to one of them.
‘Would that be your father up there?’
‘One of them, yes, I think so. Jessica said he was anxious to finish the harvest this weekend. I expect he’s giving Tom a hand.’
‘Did you bring a key?’
‘A key?’ Victoria laughed. ‘The farmhouse won’t be locked. What a city dweller you are, aren’t you! I suppose the idea of leaving doors wide open all day shocks you!’
‘I’m absolutely appalled,’Matt agreed mildly, ‘Particularly if the place is packed with valuable objets d’art, as I’ve been led to expect!’
The tension between them seemed to be relaxing again.
‘Don’t worry, the farmhands wouldn’t know a valuable antique from a disc-harrow!’
‘Then we’d be quits,’ said Matt, with a rare grin. ‘I wouldn’t know a disc-harrow if I tripped over one.’
‘A disc-harrow,’ Victoria informed him knowledgeably, trying not to let her delight at making him smile show too much in her face, ‘Is a thing that breaks the soil down. Ready for seeds, a bit like a garden rake does. It’s attached to the tractor after ploughing.’
‘Thank you.’ Matt nodded solemnly, and Victoria stepped ahead of him to lead the way up to the house.
Roundwell Farm was an impressive mixture. It had started out as the rectory, in the sixteenth century, but had then become a manor house, randomly added on to over the next couple of hundred years until its Grade II listing put a stop to further changes. The back of the house, where most people came in through the kitchen, was chaotic, rambling and far more farmhouse-like than the front. The bits of extension that had been added on over the centuries had resulted in a big rear farmyard, enclosed by brick-built east and west wings, a row of farmworkers’ cottages, plus several barns alongside the cowsheds beyond. There were rows of stables, too, now unused. As were the forlorn and empty greenhouses and neglected polytunnels, where Mum’s once thriving herb and flower nursery business had been run.
The front, behind its sweeping driveway, had a much grander, almost monastic appearance, with its neat rows of sash windows and double entrance door set into mellow grey limestone, and all embellished with arched, intricate stone carvings, similar to the carvings on the church nearby.
Backed by woods of ancient oak and ash trees, and ringed by rolling fields, it was a fairytale place to Victoria.
‘Lovely, isn’t it?’ She looked at Matt, then back at the house, ‘Jessica, Megan and I had such a brilliant time growing up here.’
‘Megan, my middle sister. She lives in Northumberland.’ She didn’t feel like explaining the whole story of Megan to Matt. She had enough difficulty explaining it to herself.
In the mellow autumn sunshine the soft stone glowed invitingly, and the sash windows glittered in a deceptively shiny way. Before Mum had died, the house really had gleamed with polish, but Victoria knew the interior now told a different story.
Victoria ushered Matt round the side of the house to the back door, and into the cool, stone-flagged kitchen, looking round the shambles with a sigh of despair.
‘I don’t know about valuable antiques,’ she said, with a short laugh, eyeing the row of empty whisky bottles lined up behind the flip-top bin in the corner, and the fly-covered stack of dirty dishes on the table. An ancient club armchair by the old stone sink was covered in polythene and newspapers, and Rough, the old Border Collie, jumped stiffly down with a rumble of warning deep in his throat. ‘I doubt if you’ll find anything worth more than a fiver,’ she said, squatting down to pat the dog. ‘It’s OK, Rough, Matt is a friend?’ She glanced up at him with a slightly taunting grin, and then, straightening, looked round with enquiring efficiency.
‘Right, where do you want to start? What did you see yesterday when Dad showed you round?’
‘He took me on a tour of the house, but so quickly it was difficult to take it all in,’Matt admitted, surveying the scene with a hint of amused distaste. ‘I think I’d interrupted his milking routine. I saw plenty of old oak, some of it Charles I, but presumably none of you wants the actual furniture hauled off to auction. I gathered your father was hoping some small, easily removable item might prove worth a fortune. Which is always possible, of course.’
He walked over to the door, leading into the passage up to the front of the house, and hesitated. The doorway was narrow, the passage sloping with age.
‘Maybe if I start by checking the paintings and china cabinets.’
‘Follow me.’ Victoria led the way along the uneven passageway, dark with its seventeenth-century oak panelling, and ushered him into the seldom used drawing-room with a dramatic flourish.
‘The silver’s in that sideboard. China over there, at least the bits Mother obviously prized are. The rest of it, a few jugs, dishes, and so on, are either in the sideboard there or in the cupboards in the kitchen, I should think.’
She paused, watching Matt swiftly assessing the contents of the room with obvious expertise.
‘Of course, there are hundreds of pictures.’ She gestured to the walls, plastered and whitewashed and dimming with age, and the yellowing evidence of pipe smoke. There were pictures everywhere, every shape and size, in sets of four or six, in carved gold frames and plain wooden ones.
‘It’s the same in every room,’ she added, grinning. Matt nodded, his expression businesslike, and she left him to it while she went back to the kitchen to tackle the mess. Mrs Bunting, Father’s housekeeper, was no doubt suffering with ‘her leg’ again, thought Victoria, making a mental note to persuade Dad to replace her with someone more reliable. Maybe Jessica’s Mira might like some extra work. Since Mum’s death, the farmhouse was more and more resembling a pigsty. Unless in his morose determination to be left alone he preferred living in this squalor to having some efficient person fussing around him. That was probably the explanation.
She was lost in thought, sleeves rolled up, with a navy-blue and white spotted apron of her mother’s enveloping her, thinking sadly how spotless the farmhouse had always looked when Mum was alive, when Matt came back into the kitchen. He held a patterned jug.
He shrugged, his dark face unreadable. ‘There’s an interesting Mildred Butler watercolour, which should fetch several thousand.’
Her jaw dropped, and she pulled off the apron impatiently.
‘Several thousand? For a watercolour? Which one do you mean?’
‘The garden, with the cat on the path. It’s in good condition, for 1898; the colours are still unfaded. It hasn’t been hung in direct sunlight. And the Irish school is very popular at the moment, with the Americans particularly,’ he said concisely, then, seeing her disbelieving expression, added, ‘Art is my speciality. I do know what I’m talking about.’
‘Oh, yes. Jessica told me you draw or paint yourself. What kind of thing do you do?’
‘Not very much, these days,’ he said dismissively, holding up the small jug in his hand, shaped like an eighteenth-century coffee-pot but made of china. ‘I’m also interested in this. Is there any more of it around?’
Victoria went to examine the jug. ‘I’m not sure. I seem to remember seeing some more like this, but I can’t remember where. It doesn’t look terribly special, does it!’ She pulled a face at the chipped spout, and another chunk missing from the lid. ‘There could be an old vase like this in the chest on the landing. I’ll show you.’
She led Matt up the creaking oak stairs to the first-floor landing. The floorboards on the landing were uncarpeted, and usually highly polished, but Mrs Bunting’s recent absence was in evidence everywhere, however, and a layer of dust dulled the shine.
Kneeling down by the intricately carved wooden chest, her long red curls tumbled over her face, Victoria lifted the lid. The interior revealed a motley assortment of ornaments, vases, some with crumbling bits of green oasis spilling out, and pieces of heavily tarnished brass and copper someone had tired of cleaning. But she had obviously been mistaken about the bird-patterned china.
‘Is there anywhere else worth looking?’
Victoria frowned, shaking her head slowly. ‘I can’t think of anywhere. We could ask Dad, of course. Don’t tell me that tatty thing is worth anything?’
‘On its own, probably a four-figure sum, I should think,’ Matt said casually, ignoring her shocked gasp, turning the jug over in his lean, brown hands. ‘It’s cream ware, made in the Derby area at a place called Cockpit Hill.’ He pointed to the flowers and birds on it. ‘Hand-painted, about mid 1700s. If your mother had a set, and we could find any more, you could be talking about a considerable sum at auction.’
‘I can’t believe it. The strangest things seem to be valuable. That nondescript watercolour, now this chipped little jug.’ She dimpled up at Matt. ‘You know you said yesterday you had no love of the past. But you do love antiques, otherwise you wouldn’t do what you do.’ She frowned at him, consideringly, then said, ‘But antiques aren’t the same as people, I suppose, are they? Objects, not people.’ She watched how he held the jug, with care and respect, and laughed suddenly. ‘Put it down quickly, before you drop it!’
Matt stood it carefully back on a chest of drawers opposite, and met her eyes with a rare glimmer of laughter. Victoria felt the same breathless suspension of motion again, as if Matt’s smile somehow drew her into another dimension, where present activities and present time were meaningless, there was only his smile, and her own chaotic jumble of emotions in response to it.
He broke away from her eyes, and looked past into a room beyond. Glancing over her shoulder, she laughed shakily.
‘My old bedroom,’ she confessed, straightening up, and pushing the door wider open. ‘Come and meet Grunt, since you’re the expert on antiques.’
An enormous, stern-looking teddy with a very long nose sat in splendour on her pillow, the felt pads coming loose at feet and paws, revealing stuffing, his luxuriant fur now patchy. He wore a red and white spotted tie and nothing else.
Victoria picked him up, and Matt raised an eyebrow in sardonic amusement.
‘This has to be Grunt.’
‘Yes, it is. Listen.’ She tipped him backwards, then forwards again. The bear uttered a gruff, comical sound, a cross between a groan and a growl. Victoria beamed at Matt. ‘See? Isn’t he adorable?’
‘Very impressive,’ said Matt absently, taking Grunt from her and turning him over thoughtfully, fingering a large hump at the nape of his neck, and then parting the fur on one ear to reveal a small black stud. ‘And also very valuable.’
‘Grunt, valuable? He’s falling to pieces!’
Matt shook his head. ‘He must be over eighty years old. Turn of the century. Bears like this are collectors’ items. Did he belong to your grandparents?’
She nodded. ‘My mother’s mother,’ she agreed. ‘But if Grunt is valuable, I don’t want to know how much he’s worth! And for God’s sake, don’t tell my father either. I couldn’t part with him!’
She smiled at Matt as she took the teddy from him, and sat him back on her pillow. ‘I’ve always thought that one day I’ll pass him on to my own children.’
She trailed off, and Matt didn’t say anything. The silence unfolded between them again. A shaft of sun was aiming its light at them through the open window, and dust motes shimmered in the air. It was suddenly very quiet in and around the old house, a rare lull in the endless clatter of activity on the farm. Apart from the distant, far-off whirring of the combine harvesters, audible across the fields in the clear air, only the slight, settling sounds of the ancient timbers of the house broke the silence. Victoria was aware of Matt, aware of the warmth of his body as he stood close to her by the bed, the slight fan of his breath on her cheek, and aware that the fragile tension of yesterday was returning with a new urgent expectancy. The world around her faded into a void, a world apart from this fierce, fluttering compulsion inside her, and the strong emotion she felt sure was mirrored in Matt’s grey eyes.
‘I think we should be…’
They had both begun speaking at once, and stopped again, Victoria laughing slightly, Matt remote and still. With a slight sigh, almost a sob of frustration, she threw her hair back from her forehead and took a determined step closer.
‘Will you think I’m crazy if I tell you that you have the strangest effect on me?’ she whispered huskily. She could hardly believe she had spoken the words. She stared up at his face, catching the merest flicker of emotion in the steel-grey eyes before he seemed to freeze, motionless, in front of her.
‘Matt, will you do something for me?’ she breathed, almost involuntarily, her voice feather-soft, a mere whisper on an out-breath. ‘Will you kiss me?’
She stood her ground, her body rigid with tension, every nerve straining towards him yet almost unaware of it, not even fully aware of the taut frailty of her feelings or her unthinkable vulnerability.
The charged silence seemed to go on for ever. With a slight shrug, a mocking half-smile as if he had decided to humour a child, he bent his head and kissed her, very lightly, on the lips.
She closed her eyes. Matt’s mouth felt cool and hard, and the kiss was casual, but somehow she was drowning in sensation. Ripples of reaction from the chaste touch of their lips spread through every inch of her body, weakening and melting her and bringing a rush of response so intense it made her feel dizzy.
Matt began to draw away, but she involuntarily reached her hands up and buried her fingers in the clean, silky feel of his hair, moaning softly as she pressed herself instinctively closer to him. Matt’s whole body seemed to become tense, and with a muffled exclamation he thrust her away from him slightly, and through dazed, half-closed eyes she saw an expression of such cynical contempt it brought her to her senses with a sharp shock. But before she could retreat, he slid his fingers into her hair, just above her ears, and ran his thumbs down her cheeks to tilt her chin ruthlessly upwards, and still with that sardonic, icy distaste in his eyes he brought her hard against him, raking a hand down her spine to mould her hips to his powerful thighs.
Heat flooded through her, and she gave a frantic wriggle to escape, but then his mouth crushed hers, forcing her lips apart, his tongue invading the inner recesses of her mouth with powerful urgency.
Her struggles had little effect, in fact they seemed to inflame things even more, and then the pressure subtly altered, from punishment to caress, from rough assault to an intoxicating, mindless pleasure, alluring, consuming her in its heat, promising a world of sensuous exploration just waiting for her to enter.
Matt released her brusquely, almost pushing her away from him so that she stumbled, and sat back on the bed, staring up at him furiously. She was panting as if she had run a race.
She drew a ragged breath, and summoned every ounce of self-control to give a shaky but commendably flippant laugh.
‘Well! I suppose that’s known as getting what you ask for.’
With a hand that was not quite steady, she touched her mouth, and when she looked at her fingers she saw blood.
Matt swore fiercely under his breath, and dug into his pocket. He produced a clean, dazzlingly white, pressed handkerchief, shaking it open and handing it to her sombrely.
‘Victoria. I’m sorry.’
‘Please don’t apologise,’ she said politely, eyeing the tiny crimson spots on the fresh white linen with a kind of interested horror. ‘I should apologise. Imagine being so silly as to imagine I’ve fallen in love with a man who finds me physically repulsive!’ The moment she had said it, she wished the floor would open and swallow her up. Matt’s broad shoulders visibly stiffened.
There was an insistent, irritating stinging in her eyes, and she angrily brushed the back of her hand across her eyes.
‘Victoria, please don’t cry.’
Matt sounded distant, his voice remote as though he wished himself elsewhere, preferably miles away, she thought miserably.
‘I’m not crying,’ she retorted fiercely, beginning also to wish herself a hundred miles away.
To her consternation, Matt suddenly seemed to break free of the frozen, rigid stance he had adopted, and he moved to sit beside her on the bed. The hard lines of his face were still unreadable, his expression mask-like, but at least his voice was slightly more gentle when he spoke.
‘Victoria, listen to me. You’re not in love with me. And I don’t find you physically repulsive. Quite the opposite.’
She stared down at her hands, gripped together in her lap, thinking that this intensely emotional scene she had caused seemed to be taking on unreal, dreamlike overtones. She could scarcely believe she and Matt were sitting in her old bedroom, with Grunt for company, discussing whether or not she was in love with him, and whether he found her desirable or not. Especially since the tone of voice Matt was using was more suited to a boardroom discussion on a business problem.
She decided his determined self-control gave her a perfect escape route, and she took a deep breath.
‘Yes, I’m sorry. You’re right. This must be so embarrassing for you. Shall we go?’
She stood up, and Matt frowned, standing up too and taking hold of her arm as she would have moved away. Victoria gritted her teeth and met his eyes, finding that he was frowning down at her thoughtfully.
‘I don’t find this so much embarrassing as puzzling,’ he said, ‘Your attitude towards me seems…’ He stopped, appearing lost for a description. Victoria’s cheeks were burning. There was the sensation again of being a specimen being prepared for dissection beneath a magnifying glass.
‘Seems what?’ she challenged, scornfully. ‘Quite grown-up? I am past the age of puberty, you know!’
His eyes flicked down over her high, full breasts under her thin grey T-shirt, and he gave a twist of a smile.
‘Yes, I do know. But you’re only eighteen. Your life is just beginning. You’ve got another two years at university, and then an opportunity to use your degree.’
‘Yes, I see. And I should try to avoid infatuations with completely unsuitable men. Correct?’
‘More or less.’ There was a gleam of amusement in his eyes now. ‘You’re very direct, Victoria. Are you always like this?’
She was shivering, perhaps an after-effect of the strong emotions she had experienced in Matt’s arms, and pointedly she lifted her arm out of his grip and took a step away from him.
‘Like what? Honest? I find it hard to be devious, if that’s what you mean,’ she said lightly. ‘Life’s too short to pretend.’
‘That’s very philosophical. But you talk as if you’ve hardly any life left to live.’
‘Well, I’m not wasting away from consumption or anything, like La Dame aux Camellias,’ she countered coolly.
‘Then stop wearing your heart on your sleeve,’ Matt advised with a cold smile. ‘It makes you vulnerable, Victoria. Sometimes it’s not a bad thing to be devious.’
‘Spoken by an expert, I suppose,’ she snapped, finding she had taken enough ego-battering, and started towards the door. ‘Now that I’ve been lectured, do you mind if we go?’
He followed her silently down the stairs and out into the dazzling sunshine.
Bill, her father’s foreman, was hosing down the milking-shed floor, and waved to her as she stood uncertainly in the yard. She waved back, realising that she was still clutching Matt’s immaculate white handkerchief, now spotted with her blood. She pressed it to her lip again, and checked the white linen. At least her lip had stopped bleeding, she registered, stuffing the handkerchief into her pocket, and walking down towards the gate into the field, her head held high.
Their walk back through the fields was strained and silent. Matt took two brief calls on his mobile, then eventually flicked a sideways glance at her, and said,
‘I thought you said you never sulk.’
Somewhere deep inside, a small part of her thawed just a little. She managed to smile back at him warily.
‘True, I don’t. At least, I try not to. The ‘offended silence’ was one of my mother’s front-line weapons. I’ve always vowed I’d never inherit it.’
‘Then will you accept my apology?’
‘What for? Cutting my lip with all that repressed animal passion?’ she asked, raising her eyes to him in wide, mock innocence. Seeing the darkening of his expression, she looked quickly away, remembering the effect of his kiss, her pulses beginning to drum. It had been like slow drowning, sucked into a lazily spinning whirlpool. ‘No, I won’t,’ she said at last. ‘I mean, I don’t want an apology. The kiss was my idea, and if that’s the way you usually kiss women, who am I to complain?’
With a stifled sound, Matt’s hard fingers gripped her arm again, stopping her in her stride, and twisting her round to face him.
‘Victoria, of course that’s not the way I usually…’
He halted, raking his hand through his hair, and glaring at her in obvious frustration.
She swallowed hard, quaking under the laser-intensity of his eyes,.
‘Don’t you have any idea at all how fucking seductive you are?’ he snapped icily.
He made it sound like a shameful fault she ought to rectify at once, she thought, amused in spite of her inner turmoil.
She pretended to consider, then shook her head.
‘No. I don’t think I have, really.’ She dropped her eyes to his hand on her arm. ‘Are you trying to stop my circulation?’
He dropped his hand away hastily, and they both looked at the red marks growing more defined on her smooth skin. She rubbed the spot slowly, as he stared at it in fresh remorse, and then she turned and walked on.
‘Victoria…’ He hesitated, and she didn’t look round, keeping her eyes fixed on the path ahead, silently counting the minutes until she could be back at Jessica’s house, and escape to hide her humiliation in the sanctuary of her own room.
When she finally achieved that goal, she sank on to the window-seat, feeling strangely numb, and dazedly seeking explanations for her own behaviour and for Matt’s.
He had been angry with her for showing him how much she’d wanted him. That much she understood. She felt a rush of heat all over as she realised he probably viewed her as some kind of teenage nymphomaniac. The contempt in his eyes still haunted her, the distaste she had seen in his face when he’d crushed her against him and proceeded to kiss her so brutally, presumably to teach her a lesson. But then, for a brief few moments he had seemed to relent, and there had been a warmth, a tenderness in their physical contact before he’d pushed her away from him. She shuddered inwardly at the memory of her reactions to that short, blissful union, the tingle of heat inside her, in places she preferred not to analyse too carefully.
Did he see her as a sex-mad Lolita trying to seduce him? Of course he did. Fucking seductive, that’s what he’d said.
She stood up restlessly, and went into the en-suite bathroom. Running the cold tap, she splashed her face, rinsing her sore mouth carefully. Matt probably had the impression that she made a habit of throwing herself at any available male, she decided ruefully, seeing the comic side of the situation. The numerous boyfriends who had been hard pressed to obtain more than the occasional maidenly peck on the cheek would be astonished if they had witnessed her behaviour at the farm this afternoon. She wished she could account for it, herself. But she was bewildered by her instant reaction to Matt’s touch. Nothing in her previous uncomplicated life seemed to have prepared her for this cauldron of emotions Matt Larson had stirred up inside her.
She plucked a tissue from the box thoughtfully provided by Jessica, and blew her nose, eyeing her reflection in the mirror without enthusiasm. She had always thought of herself as a sensible, well-balanced sort of person. Admittedly her course tutor last term had criticised her occasional lapse into romantic fantasy in her historical essays. And Jessica sometimes teased her for being reckless, impetuous, unpredictable. But she was generally considered to have a good analytical brain, and was treated by her friends as someone who dished out sound advice and down-to-earth opinions.
Leaning forward, she examined her mouth more closely. It had split slightly on the inside, presumably where the soft flesh of her full lower lip had been ground against her teeth. She touched the swollen spot with her tongue, then, remembering the bloodstained handkerchief, she fished it out of her pocket, rinsed it under the cold tap to loosen the stains, then rubbed white toilet soap over it and swished it around in warm water. Who normally laundered his handkerchiefs so beautifully? she wondered. Maybe he washed them himself. She smiled involuntarily at the thought. It wouldn’t surprise her. She had a sudden, clear mental picture of Matt, living in some austere, functional flat in the centre of London, meticulously tidy, like an officer’s room in an army barracks, washing and ironing his own shirts and handkerchiefs because no one else could be trusted to achieve the requisite high standard.
She mocked her fantasising. Her guesswork was probably wildly off the mark. He probably had a live-in lover devoted to his every need. Or maybe he sent everything to the laundry!
In a sudden wave of depression she realised it was unlikely she would ever find out. Matt Larson was obviously an intensely private man, who swiftly erected barricades against any kind of intrusion into his personal life. After all, Jessica had known him for years, yet even she admitted she knew little about his past, his family, or his life-style.
Fresh mortification swept over her as she recalled her behaviour at the farm, her naive confession of her feelings for him. She clenched her fists in frustration. Why had she done it? Weren’t you supposed to play it cool at such times? Feign sophisticated indifference? Even resort to a spot of teasing flirtatiousness? She groaned aloud as she relived the humiliation of Matt’s disapproving lecture. She should have laughed it off. Anything, in short, apart from blurting out that she’d fallen in love at first sight.
People just didn’t fall in love in the space of a single weekend. Or at least, if they did they certainly didn’t admit it, when the object of their affections was so patently lukewarm about the whole thing.
She glared censoriously at her reflection in the mirror, despairing of the open, childish features. How did you succeed in hiding your feelings with a face that mirrored every thought?
Wide-apart brown eyes, flecked with specks the colour of toffee, gazed back at her unrepentantly, and she compressed the wide, too wide mouth, full-lipped and with its aggravating gap at the centre, where her lips formed a permanent tiny ‘O’ of surprise. She did look ridiculously young. She had an unlined, unlived-in sort of face, no imprint of experience or character on it. A blank page.
In the absence of a mask to hide behind, it was going to be extremely difficult to get through the rest of this weekend in the sardonic presence of Matt Larson, she decided miserably.
Her worst fears were confirmed as soon as she went back downstairs. Andrew had rung to say he would be delayed at the office until around five, although by way of a peace offering he had apparently booked four seats for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre that evening, and Jessica insisted that Matt take Victoria for lunch at the Golden Lion, claiming far too much to do in the house to be able to join them.
Victoria was appalled at the prospect of lunching alone with Matt, but she could hardly refuse, and with a sinking heart she prepared for the worst.
The Golden Lion was the most popular pub in the village. Stone-built in the sixteenth century, like most of Harbridge, with lots of uneven floors, open fires and black oak beams, it had recently been transformed from a very ordinary, tobacco-stained public house popular with all the local farmworkers for a quick pie and a pint, into a gastro pub, with lots of stripped wood and trailing foliage, and a coveted mention in this year’s Egon Ronay’s pub-food guide.
The September sun was still shining, so they chose a table in the newly tacked-on conservatory, filled with old pine and jungle greenery. There was a view of undulating farmland, most of it her father’s, bathed in hazy autumn mist.
She eyed Matt across the table, tense and apprehensive, expecting an uncomfortable meal from his aloof expression. But Matt could clearly rise to the occasion when absolutely necessary. He surprised her by being polite and attentive, skilfully steering the conversation over a wide variety of neutral topics which she found herself discussing with growing relaxation.
It wasn’t until they had almost finished eating that she realised the trap she’d fallen into. Her tension had been translated into nervous chattering. She gone on and on about her likes and dislikes, with much emphatic gesticulation, among them Beethoven’s piano concertos, folk festivals, Italian food, gymnastics, swimming and dancing, and Matt had paid her the flattering compliment of listening without actually giving away any of his own preferences.
As the waiter removed their plates she stopped abruptly, and stared at Matt with guilty annoyance.
‘Sorry, I’ve been talking too much. One of my worst faults!’
‘I wouldn’t say that,’ murmured Matt, his eyes amused. ‘I find your vivacity quite entertaining!’
This remark struck her as so patronising that she could think of nothing to say. She kept quiet, twiddling with the stem of her wine-glass, aware of the growing anger inside, positively clamouring for revenge.
She eyed his glass of mineral water, and recalled his choice of something from the vegetarian menu called ‘Black-eyed beans au gratin’ in preference to her own meaty lasagna dish. Sipping her red wine, she cupped her chin in her hands and fixed him with a slow, puzzled smile.
‘You don’t give much away, do you? Are you a worrier, Matt?’
He sat very still, his eyes half closed as he returned her stare of wide-eyed sympathy. With a twist of discomfort she remembered Jessica’s comment about men with heavy-lidded eyes, and thought crossly that in Matt’s case, at least, that lazy stare had nothing to do with sexual invitation. He had made it clear earlier on that he wouldn’t dream of inviting her to bed with him, not even if she was clad in black lace and clenching a red rose between her teeth.
‘Maybe you’d like to be more specific.’ There was a warning note in his voice, but she waved her hand airily at his mineral water, undaunted.
‘I mean, you worry about what you eat and drink. Is that because of how it might affect your health?’
‘To a certain extent, maybe that’s true.’
She giggled. ‘Oh, dear! You do sound a bit uptight, you know!’
‘Really?’ His tone was like ice cracking underfoot.
‘I’ll bet you swallow handfuls of vitamins every morning, as well, don’t you? And go jogging? Or no, wait a minute, let me think, you work out five times a week with weights.’
‘I go speed-skiing in the Italian Alps as well,’ Matt put in smoothly, with a sudden, tight-lipped smile. ‘And your mockery of thirtyish keep-fit fanatics betrays your lack of maturity, Victoria.’
She lowered her lids under the scorching sarcasm in his eyes, and spread her fingers in mock surrender.
‘Oh, I’m sorry, I’ve offended you,’ she apologised, smiling at him insincerely. ‘Only I find your rigid self-control fascinating. Do you have an ulcer or something?’
‘No, I don’t have an ulcer.’
The urge to torment some raw response out of him wouldn’t go away. She poured herself another glass of wine from the half-carafe on the table, and a demon of mischief goaded her into asking for the rich-sounding chocolate truffle gateau rolled in marzipan and with lashings of double cream, as Matt asked for Stilton and a glass of port.
‘Port?’ she queried, affecting genuine surprise.
‘I do occasionally drink alcohol,’Matt replied blandly, clearly refusing to be drawn any further. ‘I merely don’t abuse it.’
‘Implying that I do?’ she couldn’t help asking. Matt smiled infuriatingly.
‘Implying that the more criticism you dish out, the more others are entitled to retaliate.’
‘I can see you don’t like criticism. Am I right?’ she said sorrowfully, shaking her head at him. ‘You really have a monstrous ego. None of us is perfect, you know. We should all be able to discuss our faults without getting angry, or feeling a need to retaliate.’
She had gone too far. She saw the steely flash in his eyes and began to quake at the anger she was sure she must have provoked, but then he startled her by bursting out laughing.
She stared at him helplessly, all thoughts of teasing and goading gone. His laughter created havoc with her senses. Her pleasure felt so great it was almost like a pain.
‘I would hope to take criticism constructively,’ he countered, his voice cool despite his laughter, ‘Provided I thought the person giving it was qualified to do so.’
‘Now you’re being pompous,’ she flashed back glibly.
‘You’re incredible,’ said Matt shortly. ‘Didn’t your father ever put you over his knee and give you a good spanking?’
She sat up straight, colour tingeing her cheeks as the waiter placed her gateau before her with a flourish.
‘No, he didn’t,’ she said tautly, taking a mouthful of the rich concoction and wishing she hadn’t ordered it. After a few moments, she admitted defeat, and pushed the dish away, flicking a glance of cautious apology at Matt. ‘We must be quits by now, surely?’
‘Maybe.’ There was a touch more warmth in the silver eyes, and she swallowed, staring out of the window at the misty sunshine for a while, with the feeling that some invisible barrier might have been crossed, albeit temporarily. She fiddled with the spoon in her dish, twirling it around in the cream until she remembered her mother’s instructions never to play around with your food, and quickly pushed the dish away again. She looked up at Matt to find his eyes on her with an unnerving intensity.
‘Seriously, I really am interested in…in, well, what makes people choose the life-styles they choose.’ She shrugged, trying out a tentative smile which warmed as it met an answering smile in his eyes. ‘It’s nothing personal,’ she added. ‘Just a hobby, really.’
‘Really?’ Matt’s tone was dry, and she had the feeling he was unconvinced.
‘Yes, did you mean it, about the speed-skiing?’
‘Yes, I meant it. I also jog, and I work out with weights,’ he said, with a fleeting smile. ‘Mainly to keep my leg muscles in decent shape. Downhill racing puts a heavy load on knee joints and thigh muscles.’
Victoria nodded, remembering Andrew talking about the subject not so long ago. ‘Four times the body’s weight, isn’t that it?’ she said, anxious to impress him with her knowledge. Matt looked faintly surprised.
‘Yes, something like that. Do you ski?’
‘No. But I’d like to. Although the only sport I’m really any good at is gymnastics.’
‘Hence the hand-walking skills?’
‘Yes! Oh, and swimming, my front crawl’s not bad! But I’m rubbish at anything to do with a racquet.’
‘I don’t race seriously any longer,’ Matt said, ‘I’m considered over the hill at thirty-three.’
She eyed him curiously, remembering that effortless movement as he had helped her up off the pine needles yesterday down by the river. His muscles must still be in superb condition.
‘So what are you replacing downhill racing with?’
‘Rambling,’ said Matt, grinning as her eyes flew open in disbelief. ‘With the odd spot of rock-climbing. I get up to Scotland whenever I can, or down to Cornwall. I’ve got a cottage there.’
She remembered the sparrow-hawk, nodding slowly. It fitted, somehow. Skiing, climbing, jogging, walking, solitary pastimes, for a strangely solitary man.
She couldn’t see him as a team player. Couldn’t imagine him as the life and soul of the local squash or tennis club.
‘Yes, I see. I like walking too. It’s a good feeling, being pitted against the elements, dependent on your own resources.’
‘Hopefully including map, compass and survival bag.’ Matt cut through her rather romantic description with a sardonic gleam in his eyes.
‘Well, yes!’ She inspected him frankly across the table, anxious to take advantage of this rare, expansive mood. She somehow doubted it would last very long. ‘Tell me about your vegetarianism. I mean, you seem to have this…this in-built gauge of moderation in all things. You select your food carefully, you avoid too much strong liquor. You’d have made a wonderful Wesleyan Methodist or New England Puritan!’
‘Would I?’ The heavy lids had half closed again, and Matt was leaning back, sipping his port, watchful and wary once more. ‘I’ll admit I have an occasional aversion to red meat,’ he said at last. ‘I spent an impressionable age living next to an abattoir. Maybe that would account for it.’ There was self-mockery in his expression.
Victoria gazed at him, her obvious disbelief finally prompting him to continue.
‘My abstinence, if you can call it that, is just a habit. It suits my own interests.’ The silver eyes were briefly frank. ‘I’ve always had to be a self-starter. If I’d relaxed into excess I’d have failed.’
He stopped abruptly, and the silence hung between them again. Victoria had the impression he was looking back down the years, remembering whatever struggles and fights had led him to his present success. Whatever he was thinking, she sensed he wasn’t going to share any of it with her.
‘So moderation in all things?’ she suggested softly.
He looked up, grey eyes unreadable. ‘Yes, I think you could say that’s been the key to my success.’
‘By success, presumably you mean financial success,’ she hazarded. Matt gave a hard smile.
‘Well, I can think of lots of other ways of being successful. What about your artistic talents? Jessica told me you…’
Matt cut in on her, the sardonic edge to his voice not completely hiding the underlying bleakness of spirit. ‘When you’ve been passed from one foster-parent to another and end up the most undesirable rebel in a children’s home full of undesirable rebels, you soon learn that financial success is the only one to aim for.’ The clipped flatness of his voice was somehow accentuated by the cynicism of the words.
Victoria stared at him in surprise. The compassion she felt welling up inside was so great, it took all her reserves of self-control to hide it. But she sensed that pity, even sympathy, was the last reaction Matt Larson would approve of.
Belatedly she realised she had just been made the recipient of normally highly classified information, and the knowledge gave her a small glow of pride. She looked away quickly, feeling sure that this, too, would probably not be welcome.
‘Well, you’re obviously a born cynic,’ she commented lightly.
‘It’s safer than being an incurable romantic,’ Matt retorted, waving for the bill.
As they left, he held open the door for her with impeccable courtesy. He seemed to retreat rapidly into aloof formality on the way back to the cottage. Victoria glanced a few times at his remote profile as they walked back through the village, then relapsed into silence herself. Even if he had succeeded in nothing else in his life, she mused, Matt would always have been highly skilled in the subtle technique of putting people down.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s current production was The Taming of the Shrew, and as it was one of Victoria’s favourites she sat entranced through the first half, even to the point of forgetting that Matt sat next to her, his long muscular thigh only inches from hers in the darkened theatre. Victoria had prepared for tonight’s outing with an obstinate little glow of pleasure, brought about by Matt’s reluctant confidences over lunch. Jessica had been right, he was a strange, closed and private person, but the fact that he had seen fit to give her a sketchy insight into his personal life made her feel ridiculously happy.
She had taken trouble with her appearance again tonight, borrowing an outfit from Jessica, and in silky black evening trousers and a silver-grey silk top, she felt cool and elegant, and happy out of all proportion to the circumstances.
But after the interval, the party in front of them changed places, and a man with an infuriatingly bushy hairstyle completely obscured her view. Matt became aware of her predicament, and indicated that she could change seats with him, and the unavoidable physical contact as she gratefully shuffled across in the restricted space ruined her concentration on the last few acts.
Her mind had been wandering away from the intricate beauty of the Elizabethan language and the enduring comedy of the plot in any case, and instead she had been thinking about Matt’s surprising admission during the interval that he had never read a single Shakespeare play in his life.
She’d been confused by such a confession. Admittedly English and history were her own favourite subjects, but even so, surely everyone studied one or two Shakespearian plays at school, at the very least?
Pinned close together in the usual mammoth crush in the stalls bar, and unaware of the surprised glances from Jessica and Andrew, they had talked almost exclusively to each other throughout the interval, while they sipped their pre-ordered drinks. Matt had patiently explained how her sheltered, middle class upbringing bore no relation to his own early years, how he had spent very little time at school, preferring to play truant and helping on an antiques stall in an East End market. Her obvious shock seemed to afford him considerable amusement.
When Katharina made her final, ringing speech in praise of the loyal and devoted wife, Victoria was mortified to find she had daydreamed her way through most of the last half, her mind full of images of a young, rebellious Matt, in conflict with authority, rejecting his formal education to pursue his own single-minded ambitions.
They drove back to a delicious stir-fry supper, which Jessica had prepared in advance and left all ready to throw into her much-used wok when they got home. Afterwards, the evening was still so warm they sat out on the terrace in the dark, the scent of honeysuckle heavy in the air.
In a desultory fashion they discussed the play. Discussion strayed to Matt’s reason for coming down from London, and he described his finds to Andrew, who promised to take a look at the watercolour and the bird-painted jug the next day.
By now Victoria was very sleepy, a result of her previous disturbed night. She was yawning every two minutes, but she felt reluctant to go to bed and risk missing out on Matt’s company.
His secretary, who it appeared was also a friend of Jessica’s, had already rung from London just before they left for the theatre, and he had announced his intention to leave very early in the morning. The prospect left her so dejected she was alarmed by the intensity of her feelings.
Eventually, when Andrew and Matt appeared locked in a conversation about the antique trade which seemed set to go on indefinitely, she gave Jessica a hand in clearing up the kitchen, conscious of her sister’s speculative gaze but not in the mood for one of their usual frank discussions.
‘William’s ear is obviously better,’ Victoria said, casting around for a subject which would take Jessica’s mind off her obvious preoccupation with herself and Matt. ‘Mira said he went straight off to sleep and didn’t stir all evening.’
‘That probably means he’ll wake me up at half-past three wanting a drink,’ said Jessica drily, then fixed her with a gaze which made her heart sink. ‘You and Matt seem to be getting on very well.’ There was a sharper, enquiring note in her voice.
‘Do we?’ Victoria countered brightly, shrugging with what she hoped was convincing nonchalance.
‘I’ve never heard Matt talk about his past before, to anyone,’ went on Jessica musingly. ‘What’s been going on between you two today?’
Victoria was too tired, and her feelings for Matt were too confusing, too raw, to discuss, even with Jessica. She shook her head, with an apologetic smile, and stifled another yawn.
‘I won’t deny he has a strange effect on me,’ she admitted sleepily. ‘But if you don’t mind, I’d rather not talk about it tonight.’
‘Vic…’ Jessica hesitated, seeming uncertain, her brown eyes wary, ‘I know you’re old enough to look after yourself, but maybe I ought to warn you…’
‘No, don’t bother,’ said Victoria quickly, feeling colour sweeping up her neck and suffusing her face, infuriated with this new tell-tale habit of blushing. ‘I already know. Matt Larson is as cold as steel, ascetic as a monk, and the only god he worships is the almighty dollar. Forget the come-to-bed eyes, totally misleading, I can assure you!’
There was a slight sound from behind her, and she spun round to see Matt, standing in the doorway to the kitchen, his expression mask-like.
‘I’m glad to hear you’ve got my measure at last,’ he said, with a humourless smile. ‘I came to say goodnight, Jessica.’
Scarlet-faced, Victoria excused herself, pushing past him and running upstairs to the safety of her bedroom. She leaned against the closed door, trembling all over with embarrassment at her own crass stupidity.
Stripping off her clothes, she ran a deep, scented bath. This had certainly been her weekend for saying and doing all the wrong things, she reflected bitterly. Self-defence had prompted those childish, acidic remarks about Matt, and she fiercely cursed her pride. Why couldn’t she have been honest, for God’s sake? Admit she had somehow managed to flounder into the ridiculous, painful throes of calf-love? That at the moment anything Matt said, or did, and every movement he made seemed to have taken on the major importance of a world crisis?
She chewed her lip miserably, trying to decide whether she would have preferred Matt to overhear a confession like that. No, definitely not. She had already been less than discreet on the subject earlier on today. She would rather Matt had overheard nothing at all. She cringed inwardly at the memory of his face, framed in the doorway.
She lay in the bath a long time, swishing the bubbles around with her toes, staring broodingly at the pinky-red varnish she had painted on her toenails in honour of tonight’s outing.
Voices on the landing told her the others were going to bed, and she heard Matt’s door close, then muffled sounds of the shower running in the bathroom en suite with his bedroom. Jessica had masterminded this guest-wing, anxious to provide elegant accommodation for her friends from London whenever they came. Both rooms had king sized beds, and chic creamy French furniture. The room she was in was decorated in green and white, and Matt’s next door in pale blue and cream.
Climbing out of the bath, she dried herself and smoothed on body lotion. She pulled on sleep shorts and a lacy-necked camisole top in soft black jersey, pausing only briefly to check on her appearance in the mirror. She didn’t want to look too closely at herself, or she might change her mind, falter from the course of action she had quietly decided on.
Picking up her hairbrush, she vigorously brushed her hair until it framed her face and shoulders in a thick, shiny cloud of curls. Then, collecting the white handkerchief she’d carefully ironed earlier on in the day, she crept cautiously out on to the landing and tapped lightly on Matt’s door.
Her heart was thudding so fast she almost didn’t hear Matt’s low instruction to enter. She slipped inside and closed the door, leaning against it weakly as she stared into the room.
Matt was propped up on his elbow, in bed, and he had obviously been reading in the concentrated pool of light from his bedside lamp. An open book lay on the cream and blue striped duvet, face down. A biography of Guy de Rothschild, she saw, The Whims of Fortune.
She opened her mouth to speak, but her throat was so dry, nothing came out. Nervously she watched his cynical expression as he flipped off the steel-rimmed glasses he was wearing and placed them on the bedside table. She was mesmerised by the ripple of muscles in the movement. The width of his powerful shoulders and the deeply carved muscles of his chest and abdomen were thrown into exaggerated relief by the light at his side. He obviously didn’t go in for pyjamas, she found herself noting, in a detached way.
‘Victoria, what do you think you’re doing?’
He sounded wearily sarcastic, as if he knew quite well what she was doing but preferred to make her spell it out.
‘I…it’s not what you think,’ she said hurriedly, seeing his eyes moving over her skimpy sleep outfit, lingering on the length of lightly tanned leg below the tiny shorts. Something in his eyes disturbed her. There was an expression she couldn’t quite decipher. ‘I’ve brought your handkerchief back.’ She held it out, like a white flag in a cease-fire. ‘And I also wanted to apologise. Those remarks I made weren’t very polite!’
‘Go to bed, Victoria.’ He sounded tense, wary, as if he was anticipating some emotional trauma and was determined to fend it off. ‘There’s no need to make any apology.’
‘Listen, I promise I’m not going to throw myself at you again!’ she protested with a shaky laugh. ‘But…but if you’re leaving very early in the morning, I wanted to…to talk to you before you went…’
She trailed off as she watched his stony expression, and went forward on legs suddenly made of rubber, to sit primly on the edge of his bed. She placed the handkerchief on the duvet.
‘There. Is it pressed neatly enough?’ she asked, with a faint grin. He didn’t reply, taking it and putting it on the bedside table. Victoria gazed unseeingly at her knees, locked together in nervous propriety, like a Victorian maiden, she thought derisively.
‘You know, it’s the strangest thing—despite your being so foul-tempered, and…’
‘…cold as steel, and ascetic as a monk?’ he supplied flintily, and she flushed slightly.
‘Well, yes, if you like. Despite all that, I feel, I feel so drawn to you. I feel as if I want to tell you all my secrets, share all my deepest thoughts. Crazy, isn’t it?’
‘Insane,’ Matt agreed mockingly. ‘Victoria, when you’ve finished your little ego trip, has it occurred to you that I might not actually want to share your deepest thoughts?’
‘Well, yes! But…’
‘And has it occurred to you that trotting into a man’s bedroom at this time of night, begging to share your thoughts and secrets, dressed like that, might just be misunderstood by any red-blooded male who doesn’t happen to be a monk?’
The biting sarcasm drew more colour to her cheeks. She began to stand up, feeling it was high time she made a dignified exit, but Matt sat forward abruptly, bemusing her by revealing a breadth of darkly tanned body, with its whorls of blond hair between flat, dark nipples. Catching hold of her shoulders in a punishing grasp, he drew her back on to the bed, a pale fire flickering suddenly in the silver-grey eyes.
‘Where the fuck do you think you’re going?’ he grated softly, the hooded eyes containing a new, disturbingly feral gleam. ‘We haven’t discussed the come-to-bed eyes, yet.’
Slowly shaking her head, she felt a hard lump grow in size at the back of her throat, and the enormity of her stupidity finally hit her like a ton of cold water bursting through a dam. She felt alternately sad, panic-stricken, despairing. She wanted to cry, but she couldn’t even do that. She felt as if all her emotions were suspended, frozen, in the laser-cruel gaze pinning her to the bed.
She heard herself whispering, ‘No…no! I don’t,I didn’t mean to…’ but at the same time her body was betraying her, acting completely independently of her brain. Reading her as easily as an open book, Matt pulled her hard against him, crushing her to his chest and holding her there tightly with a steely forearm, as she listened to the pounding of his heart. After a few numb seconds, with sensations whirling in a jumble through her mind and her body, there was heat, gradually smoldering and growing into a small fire somewhere deep in her stomach. A honeyed warmth she had never felt before was invading her, melting her thighs, and tingling through her breasts. She raised her face wonderingly to Matt’s, as the pressure of his arm changed subtly, imperceptibly, and when he bent his head and kissed her gently, lightly, the small fire began to glow brighter, threatening to flicker completely out of control.
‘You’re incredible, did you know that?’
She stared at him, and tilting his head back from her he raised a slightly unsteady finger to her mouth.
‘Does this hurt?’ he asked huskily, touching the slight swelling on her lip. Mutely she shook her head, her lips parting a little under the pressure from his finger, and with a shudder Matt kissed her again, this time in an increasingly devouring, intoxicating, mindless way, his hands moving skilfully over her body, expertly pushing down the thin straps of her top, to expose her breasts to the exploratory touch of his fingers and lips. After the initial gasp of surprise, she was sinking, slipping into a sun-warmed, silky swirl of sensation, with an underlying urgency which grew, expanding and blossoming, until it somehow seemed imperative that her top and shorts were dispensed with, and that she was stretched defencelessly beneath Matt’s long, hard body in bed, aware only dimly that for some reason he appeared to be trembling almost as violently as she was.
Her hair tumbled wildly around her shoulders as he gently stroked his fingers over the slender length of her thighs, back up over her hardening nipples, and then down again to the hot, wet core of her sex, cupping her and exploring her with his fingers and she arched herself uninhibitedly closer, twisting and turning as a clamour of nameless need rose inside her.
‘Victoria… oh Christ…’ It was a deep, strangled moan, as if Matt was making a final, supreme effort at self-control, but she was so lost in sensation that she gave a choked sob of frustration, tightening her hands around his muscular back, luxuriating in this chance to touch, caress, explore, terrified suddenly that he was going to reject her again.
His skin was smooth and firm, and smelt of lemon and musk, an intoxicating fresh, clean, male smell, and the muscles beneath the surface were a sensual delight, the coarse hairs on his chest, arms and legs an alien, infinitely exciting texture against her own softness.
She was conscious of tightly leashed power, of strength held back, and she looked up at him through half-closed eyelids.
‘Matt, please! Please don’t stop,’ she breathed, scarcely audible against his mouth, moving against him sensuously, fingers splaying across his chest, following their caressing movements with her lips, her mouth open, her mind blank to anything but her stupendous longing.
‘God help me, Victoria, I don’t think I could stop now if I tried,’ he ground out hoarsely against her ear, and moving with a convulsive jerk he pinned her to the bed, levering powerful thighs between her knees.
Victoria felt a split second’s fear, a cold terror of the unknown experience she was willingly plunging into, but it was too late for a change of heart, and besides, fear was nothing compared with this growing, frantic, unbearable excitement transforming her into a soft, compliant, trembling body moving enticingly beneath Matt, arching up to him and giving herself up completely to his thrust of possession.
Her hoarse cry of pain was muffled against his mouth. Her slight, shocked wriggle to be free of the huge invasion of her body was quickly replaced by a tightening of her arms and legs around him, locking him to her and in her, lost in the maelstrom of shuddering, passionate unstoppable movement which followed the fusing and mating of their bodies.
Then, a silence, and a stillness.
Matt finally levered himself up from her. His grey eyes were dark, stunned and accusing.
‘Victoria, for Christ’s sake,’ he said, ‘If I’d known this was your first time…’ He collapsed back against the pillow, his face rapidly resuming its unreadable mask. ‘Why the hell didn’t you say something?’
‘I assumed you knew,’ she whispered, ‘I thought because I knew, you must know, I thought that was why you were so reluctant.’ She was talking nonsense, but her brain felt incapable of coherent thought. She was stunned by the enormity of what had just happened to her.
Rolling on to his side, Matt propped himself on an elbow, eyeing her with perplexed anger.
‘I assumed from the way you’ve been acting all weekend that you were reasonably experienced!’
Victoria gnawed her lip, gazing at him in bitter, growing comprehension.
‘Oh, I see. Well, I’m sorry you’re so disappointed. I know men are supposed to find virgins deadly boring, but we have to start somewhere, don’t we?’
Matt’s eyes were scathing. ‘Victoria, the point is that girls with some…experience, shall we say, have usually taken sensible precautions. Girls who are virgins very rarely have!’
She closed her eyes miserably. She began to realise that Matt’s experience hadn’t even begun to match her own. That while for her this had been a unique, deeply tender act of giving, of commitment, for him it had been simply a physical act, probably as mundane as cleaning his teeth.
She considered what he was saying, trying to compute the likelihood of conceiving after just one night with a man. Surely the chances were remote? But having said that, she had to confess the possibility hadn’t even occurred to her. Mundane matters like that hadn’t entered her head at all, an admission which filled her with self-derision and clearly baffled a cool, calculating man like Matt Larson.
That predilection for romantic fantasy her university professor had mentioned seemed to have had the upper hand this weekend. But nothing, no matter how logical or sensible, could have detracted from that urgent need to give herself to Matt, nor the bliss of being here close to him now, still naked beside him.
But she struggled to sit up, to shake off the magic spell her own fantasies seemed to have weaved around her. Her breasts brushed against him as she moved, and her nipples tautened instantly, bringing all the sensations of the last few minutes flooding back, making her hot with confusion.
‘Well, if you’re so appalled at me, you could have used protection yourself! But please don’t worry,’ she heard herself saying primly, ‘I’m not trying to trap you or anything! If such old-fashioned behaviour still exists these days!
‘I doubt if any kind of sexual behaviour goes completely out of fashion,’ Matt said quietly, “And I apologise. I would normally take precautions. Obviously. In this case, you took me by surprise. I wasn’t thinking straight.”
She looked at him quickly, filled with a sudden foreboding.
‘Are you already married? Is that it?’
Matt’s eyes flickered with disbelief. ‘No, I’m not already married. And for the foreseeable future I’ve no plans to get married.’
‘Oh, I didn’t mean that you and I would…should…’ She was mortified by his misunderstanding.
‘What’s more, that’s a very strange question to ask a man after you’ve had sex with him!’
He sounded as if he was trying to be as callous and insensitive as he could in his choice of words, and Victoria swallowed painfully.
‘Had sex with? Is that how you describe it?’ she said, ‘You make it sound cheap, unimportant, like having a Chinese takeaway, or something!’
‘Which euphemism would you rather we used?’ he said, ‘Made love? Had intimate relations?’
‘Is ‘making love’ a euphemism? I think it describes what I just did quite well,’ she said, wanting to cry but fighting against the feebleness of tears.
‘Victoria…’ Matt’s voice, his eyes, had subtly altered, the anger and mockery fading. He seemed uncharacteristically lost for words, and when he spoke she had the feeling it wasn’t that he had originally planned to say. ‘Did I hurt you?’ He was stroking the back of her arm, gently and rhythmically.
‘It doesn’t matter.’ Her voice was tight, struggling with the lump in her throat.
‘I’m sorry. You made it very difficult for me to be gentle with you.’ He stopped abruptly, then with a deep shuddering breath he pulled his arm away from her, as if becoming aware of the sensuous stroking rhythm of his fingers.
‘It must be your come-to-bed eyes,’ she said flippantly, trying to hide her pain. ‘You obviously have no idea of your devastating effect on innocent females!’
‘I think you’d better go.’ he said.
She swung herself out of bed, stiffly groping for her shorts and top, which were in a heap on the floor.
‘What happened just now was in the heat of the moment, Victoria,’ he went on, his voice terse. ‘And under provocation, that’s my only excuse. There’s a certain limit to any man’s self-control.’
‘Even an ascetic monk’s?’ she retorted, quickly getting dressed, forcing herself to shape her trembling mouth into a parody of a smile. ‘Don’t worry. I get the message.’
She was almost at the door, when he said quietly,
‘If anything should go wrong with you…you can get in touch with me through my offices in London. De Lember and Greysteils. Or through Andrew.’
His tone was curt, businesslike, the underlying message implicit. Failing the inconvenience of an unwanted pregnancy, he had absolutely no intention of pursuing their brief acquaintance of this weekend any further.
Summoning every last ounce of dignity, she turned and flicked him her most disdainful look.
‘Please don’t worry. If anything ‘goes wrong’ with me, you’d be the last person I’d want to get in touch with. Goodnight.’
She walked out, closing the door quietly behind her, and managed to regain the haven of her bedroom before the tears began streaming unchecked down her face. She lay in bed, curled up despairingly, as the bitter tears soaked the pillow, stiff and sore in mind and body until sleep came to rescue her.
The November sky was a fresh pale blue, the sun brilliant, but an icy wind kept the temperatures well down, and the two red-haired girls waving frantically for a taxi in the cosmopolitan bustle of Oxford Circus caused a lot of heads to turn with their hair streaming out in the wind, their olive complexions glowing in the cold.
They bundled their numerous packages and posh carrier-bags into the back seat of the old-fashioned black Hackney carriage, and sank, breathless and laughing, on to the shiny leather seat, while the driver waited patiently for instructions.
‘Well? Where to now? I’ve gone along with the mystery tour so far,’ Victoria said with a humouring smile. Jessica frowned in feigned concentration for a few moments then nodded with a decisive smile and told the driver to take them to the Inn on the Park.
‘It’s a shame Megan couldn’t come with us, then I could have treated you both to a long overdue taste of civilisation. Still, at least we’ve bought gorgeous stuff for her as well!’
Victoria groaned, flexing her tired feet.
‘Civilisation? Is that what you call it? So far, you’ve dragged me the length of Oxford Street, via Belgravia, Knightsbridge and Mayfair, not to mention the little detour out to that pricey nursery shop we simply had to visit in Pimlico. Why, Jessica? Why me?’
‘Because, Vic darling, ever since we all started running Roundwell Farm shop and Plant Nursery, we’re in danger of turning into very drab country bumpkins!’ Jessica told her, dimpling at her irrepressibly.
Victoria gazed at the crazy whirl of traffic around them, predominantly bright red buses and black taxis.
‘Hopefully reasonably profitable bumpkins, once we can rectify the mess Dad left behind! Occasionally I do wonder if we’ve taken on more than we can manage.’
‘Well, I’m in charge of the accounts, and we’re going to be fine!’ said Jessica, in a reasonable tone which defied argument. Victoria leaned back wearily, staring out of the taxi window but not seeing the buses and taxis any more, instead looking back down the traumatic and turbulent events of the past two years.
She had already made the decision to abandon her university course, before her father’s sudden death, but naturally the idea of taking over the farm had not entered her head. But then after the will was read, leaving the farm between Jessica, Megan and herself, they had all three of them been faced with a huge decision. They could sell Roundwell and divide the proceeds between them, or hang on to it, keep that emotive link with their childhood.
Their problem had been, how to make the house and farm pay for itself, when their father had left it virtually bankrupt.
Dad had, quite literally, drunk himself to death, and during the preceding months had sold off his two-hundred-strong herd of Friesians, mainly, they suspected, because he couldn’t be bothered to milk them twice daily. There was some profit to be made from the grain crops, but in the meantime the monthly cheque from EU farming subsidies no longer arrived, and, cursed with bad weather and out-of-date machinery, the situation had looked impossible.
Then Megan had the inspired idea of reviving Mum’s herb and flower nursery, and from that had come the farm shop, and then the on-line herb business, and so far things were looking hopeful.
‘China tea and cucumber sandwiches!’ Jessica announced encouragingly, tipping the taxi driver generously and shepherding her into the calm oasis of the hotel.
‘Relax,’ Jessica teased, watching the uneasy way Victoria perched on the edge of her chair in the elegant lounge, ‘you definitely don’t look like a country bumpkin now, so there’s no need to behave like one!’
Victoria made a rude, very unladylike face at her sister, and sat back, forcing herself to relax, but she definitely didn’t feel at home in luxurious surroundings like these. She would much rather be in jeans and sweatshirt, doing one of her allocated jobs of writing the herb nursery blog in the peace and privacy of the farmhouse kitchen.
Catching sight of herself in a mirror on the way in, she had thought at first that she was looking at someone else, and she had to confess she felt quite different in her new city clothes. This London shopping spree was Jessica’s pre-birthday treat, as it was Victoria’s 21st birthday in mid-December. They were combining the shopping trip with a medical appointment of Jessica’s. Although she had no intention of letting her sister actually foot the bill for the numerous purchases in the carrier-bags, including her current outfit of new silky lace underwear, chic grey wool skirt suit and killer heels, her newly trimmed and smooth straightened hairstyle and the professional make-up, she had allowed Jessica to flash her credit card, unwilling to spoil her fun for the time being.
‘What time is your appointment this afternoon?’
Jessica glanced at her watch, then scanned the lounge with a faintly expectant air.
‘In forty-five minutes. It’s only a quick hop over to Harley Street from here. You can either come with me, or wait for me and have some more tea, or something.’
Victoria considered the options. Her feet were so sore from traipsing around in the unfamiliar high heels, she was inclined to opt for the latter suggestion. Jessica looked more than satisfied with her decision, and resumed her slightly nervous scanning of the room until Victoria frowned at her.
‘Are you sure you’re not overdoing things, Jessica love?’ Victoria studied her older sister’s face with a touch of concern, sure she could see signs of strain, ‘This has been a hectic day, and you did only have a baby a couple of months ago!’
‘I’m fine, you know me, endless stamina!’
‘Well, even so, make sure you get lots of rest tomorrow. Megan and I can cope with the shop and cafe…’
‘Vic, for God’s sake, stop fussing!’ But Jessica glanced around them again, as she spoke.
‘Is there anything the matter? Were you expecting to meet someone else here?’
‘What? No, no, of course not.’ Jessica shook her head vehemently and poured more tea, and they chatted about the children’s’ furniture and soft-furnishings they had seen.
‘They have such exquisite things for babies now,’ Jessica declared. ‘When William was tiny you were lucky to find a cot bumper to match a cot quilt. Now you can co-ordinate an entire room—and weren’t the designs absolutely fantastic?’
Victoria agreed. If you were able to afford it, you could certainly surround your baby with anything from clouds and rainbows, to woodland hollows full of pixies and elves, mice and rabbits. They had both had a wonderful time in the nursery shop.
Jessica was talking about William’s latest trick of dangling his new baby brother by the heels whenever he found himself unsupervised, but Victoria’s attention was suddenly caught and held, strongly, by the distant figure of a man, visible through the doors of the lounge, striding through the entrance foyer to pause for a few moments and confer with one of the staff.
At this distance, it wasn’t possible to see his face properly. Running her fingers through the unfamiliar silkiness of her hair, Victoria allowed small butterflies of alarm and dread to flap, unchecked, in her stomach, and she put her cup back on its saucer with a rather inaccurate clatter.
Jessica followed her eyes, and suddenly sat forward on her chair, her lovely face transformed into a picture of delighted surprise.
‘Oh, look…isn’t that…? I’m sure that’s Matt!’
Without risking a glance at Victoria’s frozen face, doubtless because she knew exactly how she would be reacting, Victoria thought numbly, Jessica stood up and waved madly.
‘Jessica!’ Victoria managed to exclaim, her voice low and outraged, but the tall man she had seen in the foyer was already heading their way, and she schooled her features into a blank, polite mask as he approached their table.
Victoria decided later that she now knew why people in severe shock could actually cope with all manner of traumatic experiences with no outward sign of distress. It was rather like switching into emotional overdrive. All you had to do was make the right, polite noises, say the things that were expected, and you could probably confront most crises with a degree of equanimity.
Faintly surprised at her own controlled poise, she found herself gazing up at Matt Larson’s lean, achingly familiar frame, and while speech was temporarily impossible she felt her face arranging itself into a acceptable, if cool, smile of acknowledgement.
‘Come and sit down,’ Jessica encouraged, obviously determined to keep the social etiquette buoyant to ease the tension already pervading the meeting. ‘Tell us all about New York!’
Victoria watched calmly as Matt sat down in a chair opposite her, and, summoning her wits, she waved to a waiter and requested more Earl Grey tea.
‘I assume you’d like a cup of tea,’ she said, afterwards, with a polite raise of her eyebrows. Matt’s eyes revealed nothing of his feelings as he nodded, smiling briefly.
‘Yes. Tea is fine. Hello, Victoria.’
Startled by the quiet challenge in the last two words, she put her cup back on its saucer with another tell-tale clatter, and kept her eyes level on his face.
‘Have you finished over in the States now?’ Jessica said, helping herself to one of the dainty little cakes with a slightly guilty expression.
‘Yes. In fact I’ve finished with De Lember and Greysteils, mostly.’
Jessica gave a knowledgeable nod. ‘I heard a rumour. So it’s really true then? You’ve resigned from the board?’
‘Oh, Matt, I am sorry!’
‘Don’t be.’ He accepted a cup of tea, and leaned back in his chair, outwardly relaxed. Only the fine lines around his eyes revealed tension, and these softened as he smiled at Jessica. ‘I’ve no regrets. And I’m not actually on the dole. I’m still a major shareholder. I’m just not hands-on any more.’
‘So now you’re free to indulge your artistic creativity, or whatever!’ Jessica enthused.
‘Or whatever,’ agreed Matt, drily.
He looked as if he’d relaxed into his weekend style of dress, Victoria was thinking, listening to the conversation with a feeling of exclusion, along with a strong suspicion that this conversation was false, that Jessica’s pretence of surprise and her questions about Matt’s current situation were being staged for her benefit.
Matt looked expensively casual in chinos, polo shirt and a soft black leather jacket. She noted with detached interest that his hair was slightly longer, and fell across his forehead a little more. His skin, if possible, looked even darker, the pale, heavy-lidded eyes just as coldly hypnotic. Except when he turned on that charming, devastating smile, as he was doing now for Jessica’s benefit.
The butterflies had subsided, leaving a tight, cold knot inside her, a frozen centre deep within her. Gradually the anger, the panic, the urge to hurl the elegant china teapot and cups and saucers to the floor and stalk out of the hotel faded away, and instead she poured herself a fresh cup with a commendably steady hand, and listened to Jessica and Matt talking together with numb detachment.
Jessica was explaining to Matt how she had come up for a thorough private check-up with her Harley Street gynaecologist, following the recent birth of her second baby, and was combining it with a most enjoyable shopping-trip. Smiling blandly at Victoria, she nodded at her elegant outfit.
‘We’ve been buying new clothes at the same time,’ she laughed, ignoring the mute anger in her younger sister’s eyes. ‘You heard how we took over the farm when Father died? I honestly don’t think I’ve seen Vic in a skirt since!’
Matt turned to look at her. ‘I’m sorry about your father, Victoria.’
‘Thank you.’ She felt like saying ‘you hardly knew him’, but recognised this would be ungracious. Jessica cleared her throat, making a great show of checking the time on her watch.
‘Oh, lord, I’ve got precisely five minutes to hail a taxi over to Harley Street.’ She glanced from Matt to Victoria, apparently impervious to the tension, and smiled pleadingly, ‘You two don’t mind if I dash off, do you? It’s ages since you saw each other, you’ll probably have loads to discuss.’
‘Oh, I don’t think so,’ said Victoria quickly, feeling the blood rushing up to pound in her ears as Matt’s heavy-lidded gaze turned thoughtfully in her direction. ‘I might as well come with you, Jessica.’
‘There was something I wanted to discuss with you, Victoria,’ Matt interrupted smoothly, standing up with Jessica. ‘Perhaps if you’ve had enough tea, we could drive to my house in Knightsbridge. It’s not far away. Jessica could meet us there.’
‘No, really, I…’ Victoria’s strangled protest was smothered in Jessica’s enthusiastic approval of the suggestion, and with as much civility as she could muster she let the arrangements be agreed on, watching her sister retreating towards the hotel’s doors with the growing conviction that this was all part of an unforgivable conspiracy. Jessica must have planned this ‘accidental’ meeting all along. And the insistence on the elegant clothes and hairstyle were presumably Jessica’s rather unsubtle way of ensuring that her younger sister was presented in the best possible light for the occasion. Jessica had left for her Harley Street appointment clutching all the designer shopping bags, possibly because she feared Victoria might hurl them under a passing bus in her fury.
She was so angry, she could feel her hands starting to tremble. She clenched them round the shoulder strap of her outrageously expensive new leather bag as she followed Matt out to a sleek grey top of the range Mercedes in the car park. She wondered what had happened to the black Aston. Presumably sold to make way for another flamboyant sign of material success, she decided with a stab of cynicism. But the Mercedes was very beautiful. She leaned back on the fragrant leather seat, and allowed just a brief whiff of the seductive world of power and wealth to surround her before cold reality forced her down to earth with a jolt.
She had to keep reminding herself that she was hardly a penniless waif herself. She and her sisters might be up to their eyes in overdrafts and loan repayments at the moment, but the Urquhart trust money meant they would probably never go hungry. She was the privileged one, Matt had what he had through his own relentless ambition.
The silence in the car as they drove through the London traffic was so reminiscent of that first afternoon when Matt had driven her the short distance from the farm to Jessica’s cottage in the village that she suppressed a small shudder of emotion. She was trembling inside. What a lot of water had passed under the proverbial bridge since that fantasy-filled afternoon. And how differently she felt about this man at her side, with that long, two year silence between them.
Matt flicked an enigmatic glance at her, and reaching forward he switched on some music.
‘Bach, harpsichord music, do you like that? I seem to recall you had an aversion to silences,’ he said.
‘I also have an aversion to conspiracies!’ she said, ignoring his facetious question about the music. She did indeed quite like Bach’s harpsichord music, but in the present situation she felt that was irrelevant.
‘Conspiracies?’ Matt’s lidded gaze was thoughtful as he negotiated the busy Knightsbridge roads.
‘Yes, conspiracies! Or are you really expecting me to believe this meeting was accidental?’
Matt raised an eyebrow.
‘Jessica didn’t tell you? I wonder why not.’
Victoria finally managed to steady her breathing and turn to stare at him levelly.
‘You thought I was expecting to meet you this afternoon?’
He shrugged, swinging the Mercedes down a series of side roads, then into a peaceful square, with trees still clinging to the last of their autumn leaves, halting in front of a tall, white-stucco Regency house with black wrought-iron balconies. Two large half-barrels, each containing a glossy bay tree, stood either side of the dark blue front door. In one of them, an enormous grey cat was busily digging in the soil, scattering half its contents onto the pavement. The cat jumped clear as they climbed out of the car and sat with his back to them, tail swishing disdainfully, on the sunny doorstep.
‘That’s Sansom,’ Matt explained, on a grim note tinged with amusement. ‘He hasn’t forgiven me for abandoning him for so long, he’s having nothing to do with me, and vandalising my planters for vengeance!’
Victoria suppressed a smile. Maybe she and Sansom had a lot in common, she thought fleetingly, eyeing the sleepy square with its highly desirable properties with some surprise. Was this Matt’s house? She somehow hadn’t imagined him living anywhere quite so established, traditional. A coldly functional modern flat had seemed a far more accurate mental dwelling place.
‘It’s handy for the museums on wet afternoons,’ Matt said with a sardonic twist of a smile, as if reading her mind. ‘Shall we go in?’
She followed him past a small brass plate inscribed ‘Campion House, Mathias J Larson’. She wanted to ask what the ‘J’ stood for, but pride kept her silent. The room Matt ushered her into was square, high-ceilinged, ornately corniced, and with a tall, classical Minster fireplace. She assimilated the muted creams, greys and greens, the combination of antique furniture and latest high-tech equipment. There was a worn-looking leather chesterfield at right angles to the fireplace, and a number of other padded leather wing chairs arranged in a semi-circle, around a low, glossy antique coffee-table. There were tall polished bureaus, free-standing glass-fronted bookcases full of books. The heavy floor-length curtains were a subdued stripe of olive and stone. One huge oil-painting hung between the two long sash windows. It looked like an original Cezanne, a cold, hard impressionist landscape.
Realising Matt was watching her, she turned to him, the surprise in her eyes obviously readable, because he raised sardonic eyebrows.
‘Don’t look so amazed. What did you expect, a slum?’
She blinked, feeling her cheeks redden slightly.
‘No, of course not.’ How could she tell him she had had in mind something much more impersonal, futuristic, the kind of setting where someone who acted like a robot could live in harmony with his surroundings!
Matt’s mobile phone buzzed in his pocket, and he took it out, checked the screen, then gestured towards the chesterfield.
‘Sit down, Victoria. I’ll only be a moment.’
He went out and presumably into another room, because although she could hear his deep, clipped tones, his voice was muffled, not clear enough to make out what he was saying.
The relief at being alone, even only temporarily, was enormous. She found she had almost been holding her breath, and expelled it in a long sigh. But the underlying turmoil wouldn’t go away. How could Jessica have tricked her into meeting Matt like this, knowing how she felt?
She didn’t sit down, she was much too tense. She peered through the crack of the open door. Most of the doors off the hall were closed, but she could just see into a kitchen which looked like some coldly functional hotel kitchen, tiled in shiny white, with stainless steel everywhere. She could just glimpse an enormous supermarket-style refrigerator with clear glass doors, with salads and fruit visible inside, with the miniature palm-tree top of a fresh pineapple.
On edge, she turned to inspect the sitting room more closely. Unable to resist it, she went to browse along the book titles in the cabinets. They were an obscure mixture. A large section was allocated to maps and guides. She pulled a few out, curiously. Bartholomew’s Guide to Bird Watching in the Lake District, Rock Climbing in Scotland. Ordnance Survey maps of Northumberland, Dartmoor and Bodmin moor. She put them back quickly, and moved along. Lots of books about skiing, lots of biographies, weighty tomes on the history of art, surprisingly little fiction. A few psychological thrillers. A set of John le Carre.
There was a small sound behind her, and she turned guiltily, but it was only Sansom pushing the door open wider, entering the room inquisitively and warily approaching her. She smiled, bending down to stroke him. He was lovely, big and solid, with sleepy yellow eyes and an air of rakish independence. He seemed to approve of her, because after a moment or two he lay flat on the floor, and submitted to some under-chin stroking, setting up a fierce-sounding purr. His smoke-coloured fur was velvety soft and dense.
‘You’re a beautiful cat, you really are,’ she was murmuring softly, then looked up to find Matt standing just inside the doorway, watching her. He’d taken off his jacket. The chinos and black polo shirt managed to look expensively tailored and casually laid back at the same time.
She straightened up quickly as he came over to her, dragging her eyes away from the hard lines of his body, and the memories that came with it.
‘Sorry to be so long. Come and sit down, Victoria. Those shoes don’t look comfortable, even if they do look very sophisticated.’ He smiled suddenly, the smile not quite reaching his eyes. She managed to keep a cool smile on her face and walked over to sit down on one of the padded leather chairs. To make his taunt even more irritating, the shoes, even though they’d claimed ultra-comfort technology, were pinching her toe joints agonisingly; she longed to kick them off, and only pride, plus a reluctance to relax, prevented her from doing so.
‘You said there was something you wanted to discuss with me,’ she said, keeping her voice light. ‘Or did you go to such lengths to arrange this meeting just to amuse yourself at my expense again?’
Matt frowned slightly. ‘Again? I don’t recall ever amusing myself at your expense.’
‘Really? Well, it has been a long time, hasn’t it. I could hardly expect you to remember such trivial matters after all this time.’
He sat down on the chesterfield, leaning back with one arm along the sofa back, his heavy-lidded gaze expressionless.
Victoria felt a pulse racing away in her throat, and wished she could bite off her tongue. She had absolutely no desire to recap for Matt’s benefit that last, humiliating episode between them, his mocking taunts about her virginity, about her ingenuous confusion over the possible difference between ‘making love’ and ‘having sex’.
She looked away, and sought to change the subject, waving her hand to encompass the room. ‘This is a nice room,’ she said, politely. ‘Though I’m surprised you haven’t collected more ornaments, objets d’art. In your profession you must see the pick of the selection.’
‘Normally there are more ornaments,’ Matt explained, sounding as if he was humouring her, ‘But this house has been let to some acquaintances while I’ve been away. Anything of value is still in a trunk down in the cellars.’
‘Oh. When did you get back from New York?’
‘Two weeks ago.’
‘Did you have a good time over there?’
‘That depends what you mean by a good time,’ Matt said, sounding as if he was searching for an honest answer. ‘Initially, America is very seductive, very fast and exciting, but my reason for being there was not pleasant. I was investigating fraud, in our New York branch.’
‘So why did you resign?’ she couldn’t help asking, even though she was determined not to show any real interest.
Matt stood up abruptly, and walked over to stare out of the window.
‘Complicated reasons,’ he said, after a long pause. ‘There just comes a time, when you realise enough is enough.’
Victoria waited, but he didn’t expand any further.
‘So,’ she said, forcing herself to sound cool and disinterested, deciding that sometimes the best form of defence was attack, ‘You got back from the States two weeks ago. And you plotted with my sister to accidentally meet me in London this afternoon. Why?’
He looked suddenly coldly angry. ‘Why do you think I wanted to meet you, Victoria?’
There was a silence. But now she could feel the tension mounting, she could see it in his face.
She was sure now. There was a prickling sensation in her scalp, spreading down the length of her spine. She felt trapped, threatened, poised for flight. Before, his attitude had seemed so mocking, but so neutral, she had been almost convinced Jessica hadn’t given her away.
Yet, logically, she felt that she had absolutely no cause to feel guilt. This timely reminder fortified her failing nerves slightly. She sat up straighter, prepared for battle.
Matt was gazing at her intently, the silver-grey of his eyes unnervingly penetrating, his anger evident in every line of his body.
‘I realise I was on the other side of the Atlantic,’ he began, his voice harsher, ‘But Jessica and Andrew had my telephone number. And my office here could have contacted me.’
She kept her eyes fixed on the carpet in front of the fireplace, and Sansom suddenly padded into view, lying down at her feet like a dog waiting to be patted. She didn’t move. She couldn’t.
‘Why didn’t you tell me about the baby, Victoria?’
She closed her eyes, and her breath left her in a shuddering sigh.
Matt said coldly, ‘Have you any idea how I felt coming back to London and finding out I was the father of a seventeen-month-old baby? ‘
She shivered suddenly, then couldn’t stop herself from shaking.
‘Are you all right?’ Matt’s voice had an edge of concern.
‘I’m just… a bit cold. That’s all…’
After staring at her for a few seconds Matt turned abruptly, lit the gas log fire so that cheerful flames leaped up in the hearth. He then went to a cabinet, came back to her with a small shot glass in his hand. He gave it to her without smiling.
‘Drink it. You’ve gone white.’
Still trembling all over, she took the glass and sipped, then coughed. ‘Brandy? In your house?’ she managed to taunt faintly. ‘For medicinal purposes, of course.’
‘Not necessarily,’ he said, taking the glass as she handed it back and putting it on the mantelpiece. There was a loaded pause, then Matt said again,
‘Why didn’t you tell me about the baby, Victoria?’
‘Because you didn’t need to know.’ She stood up to reduce the towering gap between them and found herself uncomfortably close to Matt’s broad, hard chest.
‘Didn’t need to know? What kind of warped, twisted logic is that, Victoria? Forty-eight hours, two years ago, didn’t provide a lot of scope for getting to know you very well, I’ll admit,’ Matt’s ice-grey eyes glittered coldly. ‘But I must confess, from the brief insight you gave me, I’d at least have expected you to contact me when you found out you were pregnant.’
Heat flooded her face.
‘Well, that just sums it up, doesn’t it!’ she snapped, finding words with great difficulty through her red haze of fury. ‘That’s just the sort of cynical arrogance I’d expect from a man like you! Don’t even try to imagine you know anything about me, because you don’t! You never will!’
‘I told you how you could get in touch with me,’ His harsh face looked a shade paler under his dusky tan, the tightening of his mouth revealing his anger. ‘And you knew quite well I’d want to be told. If this was all some adolescent revenge because I didn’t declare undying love for you, then you’re even more irresponsible than I originally thought.’
Victoria felt her breath leave her in a gasp of shock. She would hardly believe she was hearing Matt speak to her like this. All these months, since that fateful weekend, waiting, hoping, aching for some word from him, then finally realising she had meant so little to him she wasn’t even worth a short note of explanation about his disappearance. The man was a sadist, she decided. A sadist of consummate skill. And he now had the arrogance to accuse her of seeking irresponsible revenge. This was worse, far worse than she had imagined it could be.
Conscious of a need to put more space between them, she moved away cautiously until the sofa formed a safety barrier. Then, with a monumental effort to calm herself, she forced a slightly mocking smile.
‘You know, Matt, you surprise me. You seem to assume because you took my virginity, gave me my first experience of ‘having sex’ as you so thoughtfully described it, that you must be the father of my baby! I don’t know what Jessica’s said, but it needn’t necessarily follow, you know.’
‘Don’t play games, Victoria,’ Matt interrupted, looking unimpressed by her attempts at a smokescreen, ‘A baby boy weighing seven pounds, six ounces was born to Miss Victoria Francis on June the eighteenth last year, at the Warneford Hospital, Leamington Spa. You don’t need a degree in pure maths to reach the correct conclusion.’
She shrugged, holding herself stiffly erect.
‘All right. So Archie is your child. But it makes no difference. You didn’t want me when we went to bed together that weekend. You made that brutally clear. You made it clear at the time, and you’ve made it even clearer since by not bothering to find out if I was alive or dead for two years. I declined your generous invitation to let you know if something ‘went wrong’ as you put it! Nothing went wrong, I just found I was having a baby, my baby, and I decided that my pregnancy was my business.’
‘Is that why you lied to Jessica?’
‘What?’ Dry-throated, she stared at him. She sensed the cold fury he was suppressing, and shivered a little.
‘Jessica gave me a whole load of abuse about my failure to do my duty and face up to my responsibilities. She thought I knew. Apparently you told her that I knew you were pregnant and that I didn’t want anything to do with the baby.’
Pushing a shaky hand through her hair, she swallowed hard.
‘She kept on at me to tell you. If I hadn’t lied to her, she would have contacted you herself, and I dreaded that. I didn’t want you to know! You weren’t interested in me, so why should you be interested in my baby! Archie and I are doing fine on our own, thank you very much. Just go back to New York, Matt.’
‘I’ve no desire to return to New York,’ Matt said. There was a muscle working in his jaw. He raked his fingers through his hair again, pulled at the open collar of his polo shirt. ‘I intend to stay in the UK for the foreseeable future, to make the acquaintance of my infant son.’ The words were calm, but ominously determined.
‘No! If you think you can just turn up after all this time and interfere in my life, because you’ve discovered you’ve accidentally fathered a baby, forget it! You must think I’ve got no feelings at all!’
‘I could say the same about you,’ he said, ‘How the hell could you imagine I wouldn’t want to know that I have a child? I wish to make my existence known to our son. I think in the circumstances we should put the child’s feelings before our own, don’t you? We both knew the possible outcome of what happened between us two years ago.’
She was aware on some buried level that she was being irrational. That it was just as much her fault as Matt’s that they’d accidentally made a baby. That her anger and resentment and urge to lash out was all jumbled up with guilt that her baby son had no father in his life. But that knowledge didn’t translate itself into the words that tumbled out.
‘For your information, I am putting the child’s feelings first! What happened between us was a brief, meaningless episode, just one night, Matt! And no child of mine is getting caught in the cross-fire between two people who never cared for each other, and who actually dislike each other!’
‘You’re talking nonsense,’ Matt cut in softly, menacingly. ‘And who says we never cared for each other? I seem to recall some quite passionate declarations of your feelings for me. Are you telling me that was all lies too?’
She could feel the colour draining from her face. His cruelty was almost too much to take.
‘I was infatuated with you,’ she whispered, ‘That means ‘temporarily deprived of common sense’—I looked it up in the dictionary. I was only eighteen. My common sense was restored a long time ago.’
‘Really? Because you’re now the very mature age of nearly twenty-one?’
‘I’ve had a crash course in reality over the last two years. I’ve come to see that romantic love doesn’t exist. I don’t even know what I was thinking, telling you I’d fallen in love with you! Because I can honestly say now that you leave me cold!’
A cynical challenge seemed to flare in his eyes, and before she could react he had moved towards her without warning, with the familiar, cat-like speed, catching hold of her upper arm and pulling her hard against him. The pent-up emotions in his fierce embrace made her catch her breath, and she had to exert all her self-control to wipe out the flood of heat through her body as his sliding fingers warmed her through the soft fabric of her jacket, moulding the outlines of the lacy underwear Jessica had cajoled her into buying and wearing. She froze, hardly breathing, furious with her own physical weakness. She hated him. How could she feel her senses begin to respond to his touch?
With a rough jerk he brought her hips against his, moulding her to his body, sending stabs of pure panic shooting through her. She had to dredge up all her heartbreak, all the lonely anxiety of the last months, to contract her rising desire into a core of lifeless, bloodless numbness inside her.
Matt’s stroked the exposed nape of her neck, then tilted her chin up so that he could kiss her lips, his mouth light, restrained, even though she sensed his urgent need to crush her and force her lips apart. Still she didn’t move. Could hardly breathe.
He released her abruptly, his breathing not quite steady, his eyes narrowed.
‘Well, well,’ he murmured. ‘You certainly appear to have changed.’
‘Yes. I have.’ To her fury her voice cracked, and she turned away to hide her face from his penetrating, all-seeing eyes. The pain of his rejection was still raw, as if it had been yesterday. ‘That should meet with your approval, surely. I always had the feeling you disapproved of my adolescent eagerness for sex.’ She laughed lightly, masking her turmoil as she turned back to face him. ‘You’ll be pleased to know that the novelty was extremely short-lived. I’ve absolutely no wish to repeat the process.’
Matt was frowning at her as if he was trying to understand what she was telling him but couldn’t.
‘Victoria, I know you’re still very young. But what are you trying to say?’ he ground out incredulously. ‘Are you seriously trying to tell me that at the grand old age of nearly twenty-one, I’ve put you off sex for life?’ His cynical mockery was tinged with something else she didn’t care to analyse.
‘Don’t flatter yourself it was all down to you,’ she countered lightly, already regretting the outburst. ‘But just don’t waste your time if you were hoping for a quick fuck for old time’s sake.’
‘Christ, I can’t believe you’re a mother, you still overreact like a child! Victoria…’ He broke off as the noisy rumble of a taxi’s diesel engine shattered the peace of the square as it stopped outside.
She took advantage of the diversion to retrieve her bag from the sofa, and marched into the hall. Jessica stood at the door, as she opened it. She stood wordlessly aside to let her sister in.
Jessica struggled in with the shiny designer carriers, dropping them on the hall floor. She glanced from Victoria’s tense face to Matt’s beyond, and her expression was wary.
‘Have you talked things over?’ she said.
‘We’ve talked. There’s nothing more to talk about,’ said Victoria, her fury and indignation battling for supremacy. Tears were threatening. Horrified, she pushed past Jessica into the dazzling sunlight, and half ran towards the waiting taxi.
‘Wait!’ Matt’s voice was peremptory, and he moved with lightning speed to block her way. When she veered to pass him he grasped her arms, holding her still with a casual, effortless strength.
‘I’ve still got plenty of talking to do,’ he said flatly, the silver eyes enigmatic as he stared at her, ‘And you’re not going anywhere until I’ve finished, Victoria.’
Trapped in Matt’s iron grip, Victoria gave a brief, furious struggle, then gave up. She was very conscious of the humiliating position she was in, with Jessica watching from the doorway, and the taxi driver observing the scene with undisguised enjoyment. She found the strength to tear her arm out of Matt’s hand, and she glared at him mutinously, her chest heaving as her breathing gradually slowed.
She considered her options. Either she made an undignified dash for the taxi, and risked further manhandling from Matt, or she strove for the composure to stay and talk and do all the sophisticated, civilised things people were supposed to do in situations like these. Already she was regretting her earlier emotional outbursts. She looked around her with a slight shrug, fighting down her temper. She had to see the funny side. It was hard to believe Matt Larson was actually trying to prevent her from leaving his house. That wasn’t very sophisticated, was it? That thought comforted her. If she was wildly over-reacting, so was he.
She made a decision, and delving in her bag she coolly paid off the taxi driver.
She heard Jessica murmuring, ‘Matt, about tonight. Do you think some other time would be…’
‘What about tonight?’ Victoria cut in, turning back to face them as the taxi drove off, ‘Is this another surprise for me? I’m rather tired of being treated like a half-witted child.’
‘Then stop behaving like one.’ Jessica said, unexpectedly sharply.
Victoria felt heat rush to her face at the rebuke.
‘Come back inside,’ said Matt quietly.
‘I’ll go and make some tea,’ Jessica announced determinedly, flinching only slightly at the steely hostility she met in her younger sister’s fixed brown gaze.
The silence hung heavily in the drawing-room. Matt sat opposite her, watching her speculatively as if he was trying to weigh her up, fingering his chin ruefully as if she had just delivered a hefty punch. Victoria eyed him warily.
‘Well? What about tonight? As far as I’m concerned I’m catching the next train back to Warwickshire. I’ve got work that needs doing and a baby to look after.’
She was secretly relieved at her composure. The priority in her mind seemed to be to preserve her dignity. With Jessica clearly siding with Matt, and Matt in this relentless, determined mood, there didn’t seem much point in throwing an hysterical scene.
Besides, she might still be prone to rash impulses and hot temper, but she had come a long way since their first meeting. She was no longer that naive, vulnerable adolescent who had flung herself at him.
She had grown up. Hadn’t she? Her sister’s blunt words just now had stung like a physical slap.
‘You have a reliable nanny, Jessica tells me.’
‘True. But I also have a lot of urgent work to catch up with.’
‘I’m sure you have.’ Matt sounded unaccountably gentle, taking her by surprise. ‘But I’m hoping you’ll be my guest for dinner tonight. Afterwards I’ll drive you back to Warwickshire.’
She steadied her breathing. Every instinct was to say no. But she was beginning to see that the more she protested, the more emotion she showed, the more she would let Matt see her vulnerability. He would see just how deeply he had hurt her by his rejection of her feelings, and his lack of communication all these long months.
Drawing a deep breath, she asked coolly,
‘Where are you proposing to have dinner?’
He relaxed slightly. ‘The chairman and directors of De Lember and Greysteils are holding a reception followed by dinner at the showrooms. You and Jessica are invited as my personal guests.’
‘It’s a preview of a sale starting tomorrow,’ he went on, apparently deliberately misunderstanding her. ‘The theme is mainly grand bourgeois—eighteenth-century French furniture and sculpture. But there’s also something which might be of particular interest to you.’
‘Well, possibly. Will you come, Victoria?’ For a second, she was looking at a Matt she had never seen before, sincere, verging on eager. She blinked. Imagination played odd tricks.
She shrugged, and nodded.
‘All right. It appears to be all arranged. I should hate to spoil Jessica’s evening, in any case.’ She spoke coolly, without smiling, and as if on cue Jessica entered with a tray of tea, and they sat and drank and chatted with forced politeness until it was time to get ready to go out for dinner.
The reception at De Lembers was impressive. One of the rooms had been transformed into a replica of an eighteenth-century French drawing-room, providing a superb setting for a sumptuous array of mantel clocks, marquetry tables, bureaux and other selected exhibits. There were so many people there, it was difficult to inspect all the pieces. Everyone who came to speak to Matt appeared to be either an earl, a Vicomtesse or an ambassador. Victoria’s head began to reel with names and introductions.
Dinner was laid in another room, leading off the main sale-rooms. The decorations were lavish. A deep red and green tented ceiling had been designed, and there were red candles, red flowers on all the tables, even red glazed fruits arranged around the flowers.
As the crowd began to filter into the dining-room, Victoria was separated from Matt and Jessica. She looked around, and saw Matt in deep conversation with a dark haired woman in a red velvet dress. She had an uncomfortable feeling they might be discussing her, as she saw the woman turn in her direction and flick a cool glance over her. Victoria gazed back levelly, taking in the girl’s pale skin and glossy black bob, the crimson lipstick making a sensational statement against the porcelain face. For the first time she felt glad of the slim black dress and sleek hairstyle Jessica had helped her acquire today. The amount of underhand conniving involved in their acquisition still made her boil deep down inside, however. But staying cool was her aim this evening. Losing her temper, showing Matt her feelings, were both to be avoided if she could possibly manage it.
Victoria turned deliberately away and searched the crowd for Jessica, who appeared to know enough people to be chatting animatedly. Victoria felt very alone in the crowd, and fervently wished she were back at the farm.
When she felt Matt’s hand on her arm, she had to hide her small stab of relief.
‘Sorry to neglect you,’ he murmured, ‘Can I get you another drink?’
‘No, I’m fine.’ She glanced at the glass of champagne in her hand, which she’d been sipping cautiously.
‘What do you think of this?’
Matt was running his hand appreciatively over the piece of furniture behind her.
‘What is it?’
‘It’s an eighteenth century commode. Tulip-wood and parquetry. It should fetch around half a million tomorrow.’
She stared at it. ‘Imagine paying that much for something eighteenth-century French aristocrats peed in.’
Matt laughed. Her heart did a brief involuntary lurch. It was a long time since she had seen Matt laugh. She glanced away from him, afraid of what he might see.
‘Who was that woman you were talking to just now?’ She couldn’t stop herself from asking, even though she wished she could stay cool and disinterested.
‘Emma. My secretary.’ Matt’s eyes still held a gleam of amusement. ‘Would you like me to introduce you?’
Victoria was conscious that Emma was still watching them, and there was something unsettling in the woman’s gaze.
‘No thanks.’ Victoria felt herself beginning to go red, and gritted her teeth, ‘But don’t feel you’ve got to waste your evening with me. She looks as if she’d prefer you to stay with her.’
‘Jealous?’ Matt’s sudden grin was dazzling.
‘Jealousy would imply that I have the faintest of residual feelings for you,’ she said with dignity, ‘So obviously, no I am not jealous.’
‘Of course not.’ But there was still a smug smile on his lips that made her fume inwardly. She was tempted to throw her champagne in his face.
‘Well, did you notice it?’ he asked, as they sat down for dinner.
‘Notice what? What was I supposed to be interested in?’
‘The cream ware, like the bird-jug at the farm. There’s a complete set displayed on one of the Louis XV tables. It’ll probably fetch more than the table.’
‘Oh.’ She gazed straight in front of her, and sensed Matt’s curiosity at her reaction.
‘Did you ever find any more pieces at the farmhouse?’
‘No.’ She stared at her plate, wrestling with her feelings. That chipped cream ware bird-jug, and her subsequent search for more of the set, had mixed connotations for her now, all of them unpleasant. She shook her head, seeking a quick change of subject.
‘I thought you said to Jessica that you’d resigned from De Lembers. How come you’re here tonight, and in such demand?’
Matt was eyeing her speculatively. She could see he was puzzled by her lack of interest in the cream ware. She made her expression as bland and unforthcoming as she could.
‘I’m retained as a consultant,’ he explained. ‘I’ve still got a suite of offices, up at the top of the building. How long I’ll keep up the connection, I’m not sure. It’s hard to cut loose from everything you’ve worked to build up.’
‘So why did you?’
‘It’s a long story. I’ll tell you about it another time.
‘Why did you bring me here tonight, Matt?’
‘I thought you’d be interested to see a complete set of the cream ware,’ he said slowly. ‘Obviously I was wrong. But I admit I also wanted to introduce you to, well, to my world, for want of a better description. Or what has been my world up until now.’
Her throat tightened, and she struggled to retain her composure.
‘Why on earth should I need to be introduced to ‘your world’ as you call it?’
‘Don’t you think you should know a little more about the father of your son?’
She could feel the fire in her cheeks, and the conversations nearest them seemed to die away into the distance. She sensed their intense awareness of each other was attracting curious looks, and she turned her attention back to her meal, hardly tasting what she ate.
‘All you’ve succeeded in doing is providing your colleagues and customers with some amusing gossip,’ she said in a low voice.
‘Eat your asparagus,’ he advised casually. ‘It’s steamed to perfection. You’ve changed your hair,” he added, ‘You and Jessica could be twins now.’
‘It’s not permanent.’ She smoothed a hand down the unusual feel of it, and shrugged, ‘The first shower of rain will have it curling uncontrollably again.’
There was a small silence.
‘Tell me about Roundwell Farm,’ Matt invited, the silver eyes impossible to read. ‘What are you doing, exactly?’
‘Totally reorganising it,’ she said, welcoming the chance to discuss something she was familiar with. ‘I don’t know if you remember how it was when Dad was alive. Mainly dairy, with some arable. Well, he sold off the cows before he died. When we took over, the farm was losing money rapidly. We sold off over half the acreage to our neighbour, a sheep farmer, in the end, and the three of us decided to reopen the herb and flower nursery. We’ve got a farm shop, we sell our own herbs and plants, obviously, and we also stock organic meat and vegetables from local suppliers.’
‘So you, Jessica and Megan are running the business together.’
‘Yes. Well, we employ a small team of staff, obviously. We couldn’t do it all completely by ourselves. Its working well so far. Even though the summer season is over, we’re doing well with herbs in the polytunnels, and with Christmas themed stuff. Jessica runs the farm shop and does all the accounts, Megan’s the hands-on gardener, because that’s what she was doing before, she had her own gardening business. And I’m in charge of writing the nursery blog, and I’ve been setting up an on-line herb business. Bill, Dad’s old farm foreman, runs the packaging warehouse in one of the barns. It’s all going to be great, once it really gets going, and…’
‘Are you short of money?’ Matt interrupted abruptly. She gave him a militant stare.
‘That’s none of your business!’
She doubted if he’d even been listening to her. As if he would be interested in discussing a small rural business in Warwickshire, when he was surrounded by directors from famous art galleries and professors from the Royal College of Art, and numerous other cognoscenti of the world of antiques and fine art.
‘You’re not eating anything,’ Matt pointed out quietly.
‘I’m not very hungry,’ she ground back, suddenly longing to escape. She told herself that she hated the atmosphere here. If this was Matt Larson’s world, he was welcome to it. What a lot of fuss, after all, over a few pieces of varnished wood.
With a tense movement she drained her wine glass, and set it down on the damask cloth with an abrupt thud.
‘Would you like a refill?’
‘No, thanks. I’ve learnt my lesson. I drink only in moderation these days,’ she said in a brittle voice. Matt made no comment, but she could feel his eyes on her, thoughtful, speculative, and something seemed to snap inside.
‘So you see, I’m a perfectly fit mother. I’m not an alcoholic, I don’t take drugs, I’m providing my son with a healthy country upbringing. Are you satisfied?’
‘I’m not vetting you, if that’s what you’re implying,’ said Matt with a short laugh. ‘Nor was I watching how much you were drinking. You’re very touchy, Victoria.’
‘Well, I’m sorry!’ she burst out. ‘It’s just that I’m having trouble adjusting to this weird situation, that’s all. Two years ago, you wanted nothing to do with me. Now suddenly you reappear, and require my company at some professional dinner at De Lembers. If you didn’t have an ulterior motive, I’d be completely bewildered! But of course you have. And frankly, I find all this, this mock show of interest, this pretence of caring about what I’m doing with the farm, utterly unconvincing. You’ve discovered you’ve got a son. Very exciting for you! Why don’t you just be honest about it? I’ll arrange for you to see him occasionally, I’ll even send you photographs of his various ‘stages of development’—just spare me this insincere attempt to get to know each other better. It’s too late, Matt! Two years too late.’
There was a charged silence. Victoria realised she had probably spoken quite loudly in her anger, and there was a touch more colour in Matt’s dark cheeks as he leaned back in his chair, staring grimly into the distance.
‘Is it time we were going?’ said Jessica, leaning over and glancing astutely from one to the other. Matt nodded wordlessly, standing up and ushering both women out of the crowded room. Pausing only to make their apologies to the chairman and his wife, Matt led the way out of the building to the private car park at the back, every angle of his body reflecting his steely displeasure.
They were half-way back to Warwickshire before anything else was said. Jessica had quickly climbed into the back of the car and Victoria realised that she’d have to sit in the front with Matt. Even in her fraught emotional state, she perceived it would look too immature and childish if she climbed in the back with her sister. In any case she had no desire to talk to Jessica now, after today’s events.
‘Sorry if I embarrassed you in front of your colleagues,’ she said at last, in a low, taut voice. She wasn’t particularly sorry. She was still too angry to feel remorse. But she was very aware that she had overstepped the mark. Goodness knew what the society columnists would make of it. There had been two or three there, as Matt and Jessica had pointed out earlier.
‘Think nothing of it. I just hope it made you feel better,’ came the dry retort. Victoria said nothing. It hadn’t made her feel better. She couldn’t remember ever feeling so wretched in her life, not even when she was waiting and waiting to hear from Matt, not even when she found she was pregnant, and finally gave up hoping that Matt was ever going to contact her.
She wasn’t sure who she was most angry with, Matt, Jessica or herself. She should have controlled all that raw emotion. She should have stayed cool, and avoided that emotional outburst. But she had let her heart rule her head yet again.
Hunched miserably in her seat, hating herself, she stared stiffly out of her window as the Mercedes silently gobbled up the miles back to the farm.
Victoria had her mobile under her chin and was simultaneously tapping away on her laptop when Jessica pushed open the kitchen door and peered in, her expression wary, ‘Can you spare a few minutes?’
Waving her in, Victoria quickly ended the call, ‘Look, don’t worry, I’ll chase up the suppliers and call you back, OK?’ She dropped her mobile onto the table, ‘More crises in our packaging barn! Bill’s panicking because the latest mailing boxes haven’t been delivered and he can’t pack up all the internet orders.’
She pushed away her laptop, and the pile of paperwork she’d been working through and attempted a smile. She was horribly conscious of strain persisting between them.
‘Are you on your own?’ Jessica said, ‘Where’s my gorgeous baby nephew?’
‘Elspeth has taken him with her and gone into town to the supermarket. They’ll be back any minute.’ Elspeth was one of Andrew’s relatives, who lived in and helped with Archie.
It was a week since the fiasco of meeting Matt in London and since then she and Jessica had only spoken on business matters, briefly and stiffly.
‘Well, I’m here to make peace, hopefully. But I wasn’t quite sure of my welcome. Am I forgiven for last weekend?’
‘I’m not sure,’ Victoria said, eyeing her older sister with mixed emotions. As usual, Jessica looked as if she’d just stepped out of a glossy magazine; perfectly groomed in ankle boots, tailored black trousers and a cream cashmere sweater, her face subtly made-up and glowing, her hair smooth and shiny. Admittedly, Jessica’s main role was in face to face customer liaison, she managed the farm shop and the cafe, so she had a reason to look well-groomed. But Victoria became conscious for the first time that day of her own neglected appearance. Her hair was a mess, back to being wildly long and curly, she was devoid of makeup with shadows under her eyes, and her jeans and Arran sweater were old and baggy. A week of relatively sleepless nights had taken their toll in more ways than one.
‘I still haven’t the faintest idea why you did it,’ she said, ‘I’ve been thinking it over all week, and for the life of me I can’t work out why my own sister should deliberately drop me in it like that!’
‘I’d love a cup of tea, if you’ve got time,’ said Jessica levelly, walking in and flopping into a chair in the kitchen where an enormous dark oak refectory table dominated the centre of the room.
‘Jessica, I really am very busy with orders…’
‘Vic, darling, can we talk, please? You’re working too hard anyway, you look terrible!’
‘Thanks a lot!’
Spinning abruptly on her heel, Victoria plugged the kettle in with unnecessary force, then subsided into a chair on the opposite side of the table. Rough, still going strong despite his age, climbed out of his basket and came to lie hopefully on his back with his legs in the air, a beseeching look on his mournful black and white face. She bent to stroke him, glad of the excuse to hide her stormy feelings.
‘Okay, let’s talk.’ She sat back, glaring at Jessica, ‘Tell me why you threw me into that situation with Matt! Without any warning?’
‘Victoria, if you must know, I did it because I know how much you love baby Archie!’
Victoria stared at her, raking a weary hand through her hair.
‘I think you’d better explain that statement.’
‘I know you want the best for Archie. You want him to be happy. And therefore you wouldn’t want to deprive him of the chance to know his father.’
‘But why all the subterfuge? You made me look a complete fool.’
‘Could that be because you’re behaving like a complete fool?’
‘Thanks a lot for your vote of confidence!’
‘Anyway, you can talk about subterfuge!’ Jessica forged on, ignoring her, ‘What on earth were you thinking, pretending to me that you’d spoken to Matt about the baby, when you hadn’t?
‘I was trying to get you off my back!’ Victoria said, ‘You kept on and on at me to tell him, but it was the very last thing I wanted to do! You wouldn’t listen to me. Jessica, you’re my sister, I would have thought your loyalties would have been with me! You could at least have given me some warning of what you were setting up last weekend!’
‘If I’d asked you to meet Matt, would you have agreed?’ Jessica countered forcefully. ‘Of course not! You’ve spent the last couple of years resenting the fact that Matt never contacted you after that first weekend with him. Maybe he felt he had no reason to. I don’t know. But it doesn’t seem to have occurred to you that you had every reason to contact him! You knew you were having his baby, and you didn’t tell him! My God, Vic, when I talked about this with Megan, even she was incensed!’ Victoria presumed this was a nod to Megan’s more laid back, liberal values, but raised her eyebrows nevertheless, ‘She agrees with me that you need to stop playing the abandoned martyr and bloody well grow up!’
‘I am grown up! I may only be 20 but I’m a single mother, helping to run our own business, coping as best I can with my life!’ Victoria burst out passionately. ‘And thanks for gossiping with Megan behind my back! It’s alright for you two! There’s Megan with her own gardening business and her gardening therapy stuff to make herself feel good, and there’s you in your perfect world with your perfect dress sense, and your perfect doting husband and your two perfect little children and your perfect high-flying proper accountancy career waiting for you whenever you choose to go back to it!’
In the total silence which followed the kettle suddenly boiled and turned itself off with a loud click.
Jessica abruptly got up to make the tea, laying the tray with much muted clicking of crockery. When she put it on the table between them, Victoria watched as Jessica poured her a cup of tea with a commendably steady hand.
‘Okay,’ Jessica said slowly, ‘Wow, if the gloves are off, you’d better let me have the rest of it! I had no idea you resented Megan and me in that way!’
The tea set was new, white china with a fresh yellow daisy pattern. Victoria had bought it to brighten up the old black dresser, and made curtains in matching material.
She took a scalding gulp of tea. The daisies on the cup began to blur in front of her eyes. She dashed an impatient hand over her eyes, and stared fixedly at the table.
‘Sorry, I didn’t mean any of that! Of course I don’t resent you two! I love you and Megan. And I suppose you’re entitled to discuss my messed up life with Megan if you want to. I’m just… I just feel under siege. Ganged up on.’
‘Look, I don’t know exactly what happened between you and Matt two years ago, apart from the obvious, of course,’ Jessica said drily. ‘But I tried to warn you at the time. Matt had a reputation. He’d broken more hearts in the City than I’d eaten take-away pizzas. I could see how you felt about him, but I didn’t know how to deal with it. If Mum had been alive, she’d have known.’ Jessica smiled briefly. ‘She always knew what to do, didn’t she? But I was reluctant to behave like a bossy older sister. I was afraid that would drive you straight into his arms, anyway.’
‘Whereas I managed to do that all by myself,’ Victoria said miserably. ‘Biggest mistake of my life, obviously!’
‘Your biggest mistake was not telling Matt you were having his baby! Vic, that was unforgivable of you! Of all the self-centred things to do, that really was off the scale!’
Defensive anger flared in Victoria. ‘Look, you weren’t there when he put me down, made me feel like a silly child! He was cold, rude, sarcastic, completely lacking in any kind of normal emotion! He’s cold-blooded and always will be!’
‘No, he has changed, Vic.’ Jessica said it quietly, watching her for any reaction. Victoria clenched her jaw, thinking of Matt’s cold, cynical attitude when he confronted her with his knowledge last weekend. Who did Jessica think she was fooling?
‘It’s true. It’s not just my opinion, it’s common gossip among my old London set. Matt went to New York his old, hard, ambitious self, and something happened over there to change his outlook. The rumour is that the man he exposed for fraud was an old friend of his.’ Jessica paused, then said, ‘Apparently the man committed suicide when Matt uncovered the extent of the fraud.’
Shaken, Victoria stared at Jessica. ‘Oh God.’
‘Yes. It hit Matt very hard. He had to deal with the family, apparently the man had a teenage son, a daughter of ten, an estranged wife. It was a nightmare situation. Emma Goodman, Matt’s secretary, told me all this. She seems to think Matt and this man grew up together.’
‘Matt grew up in a children’s home,’ Victoria said uncertainly, ‘He told me that much himself.’
‘Well he had a few foster placements along the way. I don’t know much detail. You know Matt, he’s not very forthcoming about his past. But anyway, he went off-radar for a long time after the suicide episode. He rang me out of the blue, when he got back from the States, and he asked after you,’ said Jessica, emphasising each word clearly as if she were talking to a child. ‘That was a couple of weeks ago. He rang to renew contact with me, and Andrew, and he asked how you were. I was more than a bit unfriendly towards him, initially, and naturally he wanted to know why.’
‘So naturally you told him.’
‘Of course I did! I laid into him, told him he was a complete arsehole to ignore the fact that he’d fathered a baby son, and left my little sister to go through pregnancy and childbirth and parenthood all by herself! I saw no reason to hide the truth from him, since I believed you when you said you’d told him! His reaction was complete shock, and disbelief. And quite frankly, Vic, so was mine! I couldn’t believe you’d lied to me about telling him! He has all my sympathy!’
‘As I said before, your loyalty is touching!’
‘You lied to me! I’d have thought you might have had a bit more faith in me! I can’t tell you how insulted, how hurt I felt when I realised Matt had no idea what I was talking about! You say I’ve made you look a fool, Vic, that I’m being disloyal to you, but you didn’t trust me enough to be honest with me about something as huge as that! And I’m bloody furious, if you want to know! And as for not telling Matt about Archie, well, I think I’ve said all I need to on that subject!’
Victoria stood up and walked away, her knees shaking with the force of her anger. She went to stare out of the back window. It was a familiar view, one she’d known all her life. She could see the square bell tower and ancient stone bulk of the church, which stood between Roundwell and the village. The churchyard was just visible, where both her mother and her father were now buried. Lights were coming on in the village beyond, smoke drifting up from chimneys. The earlier sunshine had vanished above a low, grey sky and it had started to rain.
She said stiffly, ’If you must know, I couldn’t face the humiliation, Jessica. I couldn’t face his reaction.’ She’d dreaded hearing the annoyance, pity, a sense of obligation, anything but the words she’d longed and longed to hear but knew she never would, not from Matt. ‘I didn’t want him to feel he had to do his duty.’
‘I’m sure Matt doesn’t feel anything of the sort, Vic,’ Jessica’s voice was cool, ‘He’s completely blown away at being a father, I know that.’
There was a long silence. It had suddenly gone much darker outside. When Victoria turned back to look at her sister, the big old kitchen seemed full of shadows.
‘Maybe Matt cares about his son,’ Victoria drew a shaky breath, ‘But where does that leave me? Am I supposed to swallow my pride, accept that he never wanted me but now wants what I happen to have produced, by chance, after just one night together?’
‘Oh for God’s sake, there’s no reason why it should be like that!’
‘Yes, Jessica, there is! He despises me. And even if Matt did suddenly decide I was the flavour of the month, what I once felt for him is over. I don’t want him now. I don’t want him, or any other man for that matter! And I don’t need you, or Megan, or anyone else trying to push me into doing something I don’t want to do!’
‘But you’ve got a child by one man, Vic, and it’s about time you thought about that! Take your own feelings for Matt, whatever they may be, out of the equation. Just think about what is best for Archie. And what’s fair on Matt. And you know what that is! A little boy needs regular contact with his father, and Matt needs regular contact with his son!’ Jessica didn’t bother to hide her sharp impatience.
‘Well, that’s my business, isn’t it! As and when I make that decision, I’ll be sure to let you know!’ Victoria snapped back. They were glaring at each other in fresh combat when there was a brief knock on the kitchen door, and it was pushed open.
Matt stood there. His expression was mask-like. He wore faded denims, thick-ribbed navy fisherman’s jersey and a battered green Barbour, and Victoria’s insides contracted sharply. The rough, casual attire managed to make him look bigger, burlier, more threatening. Had he heard their conversation? How long had he been standing there?
‘Am I interrupting something? Can I come in?’ His deep voice was impeccably polite, but with an undertone which sent shivers of apprehension down her spine.
She stared at him. Part of her wanted to scream at him to go away, leave her alone, to push him backwards and slam the door. Another part, maybe the part that was still flinching from the row with Jessica, made her shrug and smile politely.
‘No, I think we’d just about finished,’ she said coldly, ‘Please do come in.’ She watched as he strolled into the room, arrogantly confident despite the hostile vibrations he must surely be receiving.
‘Hello Matt, how lovely to see you,’ Jessica gave him an affectionate hug and a kiss on the cheek. She glanced from one to the other, then out of the window, ‘Oh, I can see Elspeth’s car coming up the drive. Excuse me, I’ll just go and help her in with the shopping.’
Alone with Matt, there was another stretched out silence.
‘You and Jessica don’t appear to be seeing eye to eye?’ he said finally.
‘I’m not discussing my relationship with my sister with you,’ she said, ‘And in future kindly don’t stand outside my door eavesdropping!’
‘I wasn’t eavesdropping,’ he said mildly, ‘The atmosphere in here spoke for itself.’
‘Well, what do you want?’
‘Charming greeting, Victoria.’ Shrugging off the Barbour, he hung it on a peg and then shook the raindrops from his hair. Turning back to look at her, he said ‘You know what I want.’
At that moment, Elspeth and Jessica walked into the room, hand in hand with a toddling baby Archie.
It seemed to Victoria as though they were all staring from Matt to Archie, stunned by the extraordinary likeness between the tall blond man and the tiny child.
But Victoria found herself mesmerised by the expression on Matt’s face. She no longer saw Elspeth’s dawning fascination, Jessica’s apprehension, or Archie’s innocent curiosity. All she registered, her heart thudding so hard it felt as if it would burst out of her chest, was the blaze of pride and possessiveness in Matt’s eyes as he looked down at his small son.
Victoria gathered her wits and cleared her throat.
‘Elspeth, this is Matt Larson. He’s an old…’ She hesitated a moment. ‘An old friend of Jessica’s,’ she finished up, aware of how lame this sounded and trying to avoid Matt’s sardonic glance.
Elspeth, brown-haired and freckle-faced, was just a year younger than Victoria, and she was gazing at Matt with open admiration, her bright blue eyes assimilating his features and unusual colouring with obvious fascination. She appeared to be on the verge of remarking on the extraordinary likeness to Archie, then picked up the tension in the air and refrained. With a wave of relief, Victoria stumbled on with the introduction.
‘Matt, this is Elspeth Mackenzie, one of Andrew’s cousins from Scotland. She helps me with Archie and with lots of other things as well.’ She smiled at the other girl as she spoke and Matt held out a lean strong brown hand and shook Elspeth’s, bringing a pink hue to her cheeks.
‘Are you a qualified nanny?’ he asked lightly, and Victoria stiffened. She suspected the deeper reason for the casual question and felt resentful at the subtle interference.
‘Yes, I did two years at college when I left school, and got my NNEB certificate,’ Elspeth was telling him, pleased at his interest. ‘But I’m getting a bit of experience working for Victoria. That’s what all employers want nowadays, isn’t it? Catch Twenty-two, no experience, no job, but no job, no experience!’
‘Don’t say things like that,’ put in Victoria quickly, turning to close the back door where rain was blowing in. ‘You sound as if you’re planning to leave me, and you know I couldn’t possibly manage without you.’
‘No, no! I’m here for a while yet.’ Elspeth laughed.
Jessica announced she had to leave, to relieve the long-suffering Mira of William’s antics and give baby Jonathan his evening feed, and before she left she gave Victoria a long, meaningful look.
Elspeth seemed aware of the tension, and mumbled something about doing some ironing. In the space of a few minutes Victoria found herself alone in the kitchen with Matt and Archie. She found she had to restrain the urge to snatch Archie into her arms and run out of the room.
‘Shall we go into the breakfast room? Archie has his toys in there.’
Matt followed her into the comfortable, slightly shabby room, where building-bricks, stacking-toys and teddies were piled into William’s old playpen. They watched as Archie toddled over to the playpen, climbed on to a handy chair and levered himself into the wooden enclosure. Matt shook his head, looking dazed.
‘I don’t know what I thought I’d find, but he seems much… more advanced than I expected.’
‘He crawled at five months, walked round the furniture at eight months, and this playpen was never any use. He hates being penned in. It’s a useful toy container, that’s all.’
‘He’s really only seventeen months old?’
Victoria nodded, slightly amused in spite of herself at Matt’s surprise. ‘You’re the one who checked on his birth records, remember? Elspeth complains she needs closed-circuit television cameras to keep track of him now.’
Archie was climbing out of the playpen now, having hurled a teddy and some bricks out first. Victoria stared at her son, at the lint-white fluff of baby hair, the large grey eyes, the olive skin and the stubborn chin, seeing him as if for the first time. He was so like Matt, and yet she had deliberately blocked that out that until now. Seeing them together was a huge shock, emotionally.
‘I’ll just get something from the car,’ Matt said at last. He returned moments later with a square parcel, covered in blue and white teddy bear paper and tied with an enormous blue ribbon. He put it in the middle of the floor, and settled down in a large, chintz-covered armchair to wait.
Victoria was reluctantly impressed. Most people overwhelmed small children with jovial attention, succeeding only in terrifying them. Maybe growing up in a children’s’ home had taught Matt this cool, laid-back approach.
The parcel revealed a large box with a picture of a sturdy wooden playhouse complete with wooden people who lived in it, but Archie was far more interested in the paper he had just ripped off, and crawled around delightedly crumpling and crunching it.
Victoria smiled in faint apology.
‘I’m afraid he’s obsessed with paper. You needn’t have bothered with the present!’
Matt said nothing, watching the child’s antics as if dazed. There was an unfamiliar light shining in his eyes, and she found herself longing for him to look at her, just once, in the way he was looking at his baby son. Then she pulled herself up sharply, aghast. What was the matter with her? Memories of her silly infatuation all that time ago flooded back, and she cringed with embarrassment.
‘Would you like some coffee or anything?’ she said, to break the charged silence.
‘Thank you. Black, no sugar, please,’ Matt said absently. She left them together, relieved to get away, deliberately taking far longer than she needed to over the coffee making. When she returned Matt was squatting on his haunches, and Archie was crawling over him, chuckling with pleasure. The wooden playhouse and people had been unpacked, and Archie clutched one chunky doll in his hand.
The sight of them together, so strikingly alike, laughing, was almost more than she could stand. Her throat felt choked when she spoke.
‘It’s time for Archie’s tea, and bath,’ she said huskily, watching Matt’s grey eyes harden as he looked up at her. He rose to his feet in that same effortless movement she remembered so well, swinging little Archie high above him until he laughed gleefully. Victoria suddenly found herself fighting images of those powerfully muscled thighs, deeply tanned, and with their coarse covering of blond hairs. She wrenched her eyes away, appalled at herself, and stared down at the floor.
‘Can I stay and help?’
‘Better not,’ she said coolly, ‘You’ve already got him wound up. If he gets too excited he won’t go to sleep.’
‘I have the feeling I’m being dismissed, ‘Matt said, accepting his coffee from the tray and drinking it down almost in one gulp. ‘Will you join me for a meal tonight? I’m staying at the Golden Lion.’
She shook her head. ‘Sorry, it’s Elspeth’s night off.’ It wasn’t, but she could easily arrange for it to be. ‘I’m surprised you’re not staying at Jessica and Andrew’s?’
Matt shrugged. ‘Jessica did invite me. I wasn’t in the mood for socialising. Maybe I could call back here later. We have things to discuss, Victoria.’
She suppressed a slight feeling of panic. There was something relentless about Matt. Half of her wanted to dig in her heels, refuse point-blank. The other half was recalling Jessica’s lecture. Her sister was right, Matt did have some claims on his son. She had to try to be reasonable and civilised about all this.
‘All right,’ she shrugged. ‘I’ll make supper if you like.’
‘How could I refuse such a gracious invitation?’ Matt said, a glimmer of amusement in his eyes. ‘I’ll shower and change at the hotel, and be back by eight o’clock.’
‘No hurry,’ she said.
She watched him leave, thinking about the evening ahead with an unsettled combination of fear, panic and some other buried, disturbing emotion that she was reluctant to identify.
Victoria was flinging open cupboards in the kitchen an hour or so later, feverishly seeking inspiration for supper, when there was a knock at the front door. She checked her watch. It was only just after half-past seven. Surely Matt wasn’t back already?
He stood on the doorstep, clutching a bottle of red and a bottle of white wine. He’d changed into chinos, white T-shirt and black leather jacket. She glared at him in dismay. In her rush to get Archie to bed, having shooed a surprised and grateful Elspeth off to spend the evening at her boyfriend’s flat, she hadn’t even had time to change.
‘You’re early!’ she said accusingly.
‘Only by thirty minutes or so,’ he countered reasonably. ‘I found it didn’t take as long as I expected to shower and change.’
‘Oh, well, you’d better come in,’ she said, moistening her lips nervously. Catching a glimpse of herself in the hall mirror, she groaned inwardly. She looked pale, tense and dishevelled. Matt was gazing at her with his usual unfathomable expression, but as usual she had the sensation that he could read her mind and was solemnly mocking her.
‘I was just wondering what to cook for you,’ she said, as he followed her into the kitchen. ‘My mind seems to have gone rather blank this evening.’
‘Why don’t I cook for you?’
She glanced at him sharply, but his face was composed, not mocking.
‘Are you serious?’
‘Of course.’ He took off his jacket and hung it on a hook at the back of the door. The white T-shirt clung to his hard torso, just as the chinos clung to his hips and the muscular length of his thighs. He glanced round the kitchen with a businesslike expression. ‘Where’s your store-cupboard?’
She turned, pointing to the larder door. ‘Beans on toast?’ she suggested wryly.
Matt raised an eyebrow, scanning the rows of cans and packets and selecting an armful including tuna, rice, chicken soup, curry powder, mayonnaise. Victoria subsided into a chair by the Aga, and watched his spare, economic movements. There was no denying Matt was good to look at, and good to watch in action, she admitted, watching him opening cans with absorbed concentration.
‘I need a saucepan and a gratin dish,’ he said, glancing up and finding her eyes on him.
‘Fine. If you’re trying to impress me with your efficiency, you’re succeeding,’ she said coolly, supplying the required equipment. ‘Do you cook for yourself all the time?’
‘No. I have a housekeeper who comes in and prepares things. Cooking is something I do for pleasure. I find it relaxing.’
‘I quite like cooking, but it’s a lot more relaxing watching someone else doing it!’ She frowned, watching him stirring soup, mayonnaise, cream and curry powder in the saucepan, and jumped up to find a large plastic apron, butcher-striped in navy and white, in the table drawer. ‘Wear this. If you’re anything like me you’ll be covered in splashes when you’ve finished.’
Matt slipped the loop over his head, ruffling his blond hair slightly at the front, then fiddled with the ties behind him, with a crooked grin as the tapes stubbornly refused to tie.
‘Here, let me do it,’ Victoria suggested, tying it firmly round his waist as he carried on with his sauce-making. Standing so close to him brought a strange feeling to her legs, and she backed away hurriedly and regained the sanctuary of her chair by the Aga. She felt confused by her jumbled feelings. Two years ago this would have been the very zenith of her longings, a whole evening in Matt Larson’s company. The fact that he was willingly cooking supper for her added a new dimension of intimacy she would never have dared dream of. She had to keep reminding herself that Matt was here tonight, being charming and helpful, not because he found her irresistible, but because he needed her friendship to gain access to his son. A perfectly logical strategy on his part. She supposed she couldn’t blame him for it. It was just so painful to the ego, so bitterly ironic.
Matt was putting cooked rice in the dish, then a layer of tuna, and pouring the creamy-looking sauce over the top having squeezed some lemon juice into it beforehand. He sprinkled grated cheese on it, and sliced a tomato with the skill of an expert chef to arrange down the centre. It looked beautiful.
‘Brilliant,’ Victoria told him, reluctantly impressed by his cool expertise. ‘Now what do you do with it?’
‘It goes in the hottest part of your Aga for forty minutes or so, and we have a drink while we wait,’ Matt explained gravely. The both eyed the scene of chaos on the table, and Victoria found herself smiling involuntarily, in spite of her tension.
‘Amendment. The sous-chef cleans up all this lot first!’
Matt shook his head, grinning at her so disarmingly she felt her stomach melting. ‘Certainly not. I’m a meticulously tidy cook. You go and have a shower or hot bath or something, you look as if you haven’t stopped all day.’
‘Thanks.’ She grimaced, glancing down at herself, ‘But I know what you mean.’
‘I’ll pour you a drink for when you come back down.’
With a shrug and a smile, she took up the offer, retreating upstairs and taking a blissful half hour to shower, tidy her damp freshly washed hair into a scrunchie and change into clean jeans and a favourite pale green V-neck cashmere jumper.
The clean-up operation was complete when she got back down to the kitchen. The supper was smelling delicious. Matt handed her a glass of chilled white wine. She was dazzled by his efficiency. And secretly touched that he remembered her favourite drink.
‘Your housekeeper can’t find a lot to do!’ she said.
‘Oh, she does. I’m paranoid about tidiness.’
‘It’s a good job you don’t live here, then,’ said Victoria, speaking without thinking. Then she blushed scarlet as Matt’s cool silver eyes turned thoughtfully on her.
‘Is it? I admit I’m also paranoid about children growing up with two parents.’
The blush grew hotter, and Victoria put an iron clamp on her wayward emotions. ‘In an ideal world, I agree,’ she said flatly. ‘But acting was never my strong point.’
‘I’m sorry?’ Matt’s voice sounded scrupulously polite, but cooler.
‘I mean some people might be able to play-act a relationship for the sake of a child. But not me.’
‘I see.’ Matt appeared to have withdrawn again, his tone reminiscent of the ice-cool manner she remembered only too well. ‘Sit down a moment, Victoria.’
She sat down obediently at the table, eyeing him warily, and Matt sat in the chair opposite, the pale eyes intent on her face.
‘This isn’t easy for me, either,’ he said, in a low voice. ‘If acting is not your strong point, grovelling isn’t mine.’
‘Nobody’s asking you to grovel!’ she burst out heatedly, but he shook his head, his eyes lidded and unreadable.
‘No. Wrong word. I’m no good at this, Victoria. I’m very bad at apologising.’
‘No apology needed either,’ she cut in stiffly, gripping her hands into tense fists in her lap. ‘Never apologise, never explain, isn’t that the motto? I never used to approve of it, but now it strikes me as a good saying.’
‘Nevertheless, I do have some explaining to do, and you’re not making it easy for me.’
‘Why? Why do you need to explain anything? You never pretended any feelings for me, Matt. Why pretend any now?’
Matt stood up abruptly, thrusting his hands into his pockets, and glaring down at the chair he had just vacated.
‘Are you saying you feel nothing at all now?’
‘Feel nothing at all? Oh, no, I feel great love for my baby son, and great pride in my farm.’
‘For me,’ Matt interrupted stiffly. ‘What are your feelings towards me?’
She took an unsteady breath. ‘To be honest…I don’t know. Indifference might be the most accurate description.’ Her heart was thudding so loudly she was terrified he would hear it. Could Matt guess just how dishonest she was being?
Matt made a sudden, wry face.
‘Indifference is very negative. Could you work towards casual friendship? That might be a slightly more promising starting-point.’
‘For what purpose?’
‘If we’re going to have any kind of partnership, we’re going to need more than indifference to make it work.’
‘But we’re not going to have any kind of partnership,’ she snapped, pushed beyond her limits. ‘What on earth makes you think that?’
‘We have a son, Victoria,’ said Matt, his tone ominously patient. ‘We are his parents. We need to work out some sort of arrangement. Even someone as apparently immature as you must be able to grasp that fact.’
‘My God! Doesn’t adolescent infatuation blind people to the realities! Two years ago, I thought you were cold, withdrawn, repressed, but calf-love definitely blinded me to your smug arrogance!’
Matt said nothing, and her outburst hung in the air, echoing around the silent kitchen. There was a muscle twitching in Matt’s cheek, but his face was deadpan, and she had no way of knowing if her words had amused or infuriated him. She had the unsettling awareness that Matt brought out the very worst in her, and that she couldn’t seem to do anything about it.
He turned away and opened the Aga, and extracted the gratin dish. An even stronger delicious savoury smell wafted out at her.
‘This is ready. Where shall we eat it?’
She hesitated. ‘There’s a fire lit in the sitting-room, we could eat it there if you don’t mind eating off a tray.’
Matt shook his head. ‘We’ll eat off trays,’ he agreed firmly, gathering wine, cutlery and plates as she handed them out, and following her down to the sitting-room at the front of the farmhouse.
Flames from the logs were throwing shadows over the beamed walls, reflecting in the rows of pictures and on the glossy dark oak furniture. Victoria switched on some lights, and the eerie, other-worldly atmosphere disappeared at once.
It was a large, square sitting-room, with pale green carpet and comfortable worn leather upholstery, with French doors which led out on to the walled garden. It was south-facing, light and sunny in the summer, and warm in the winter. One of her favourite rooms.
A three-seater sofa stood parallel with the fire, and self-consciously Victoria avoided it, sitting instead in the small Queen Anne chair by the fire.
She plugged in Archie’s baby monitor, while Matt sat down in the deeper club armchair on the other side.
She was briefly reminded of the way her parents used to sit in the same positions, and fought off the familiar wave of sadness, tinged with bitterness. She had made a discovery about her parents’ relationship while her father had been ill in hospital, and she had been searching for the missing pieces of bird china, and she had never been able to think of them in quite the same way again.
Matt was looking at the small electronic monitor with interest.
‘Is that in case he wakes up and needs you?’
She nodded, shrugging slightly defensively. ‘Only very occasionally, he wakes up crying in the evenings. I’ve never been one of the ‘just leave them to cry’ brigade. You’d be surprised how many parents are, but I just think small children need reassuring that a grown-up is there if they feel scared in the night.’
Matt’s gaze darkened slightly, but picked the monitor up and inspected it more closely, ‘I’m glad to hear it. It’s good to think my son is growing up feeling secure and loved.’
‘It’s how I felt when I was small. I was always conscious of feeling that my parents loved me.’
‘It even shows the temperature in his nursery?’ Matt’s eyes were suddenly warmer, ‘I don’t need to ask if my son is in good hands, do I?’
‘No. No, you don’t.’ Victoria took a sip of wine, her throat suddenly tight with emotion. She successfully suppressed the urge to say ‘my son’. Jessica’s lecturing was having a subliminal effect.
‘I know I’ve said this before, but I was very sorry to hear about your father’s death,’ said Matt. He reached over, topped up her wine and poured a glass for himself, ‘Was it sudden?’
‘He…he was ill for about six weeks. In hospital for three. It was heart and liver failure. But you must have seen how he was when you came to value stuff that weekend. The piles of whisky bottles said it all…’ She stopped, meeting Matt’s questioning gaze then lowering her eyes, anxious to change the subject, ‘The Mildred Butler fetched a good price, didn’t it?’
‘A crazy price, ‘Matt agreed cautiously, ‘I was in New York when it was auctioned, and of course an American bought it.’
‘I remember you said they were very keen on that kind of thing in America.’
‘Yes. You say you couldn’t find any more of the cream ware?’
‘No. Well, yes,’ she blurted out, unintentionally, ‘But the one piece I did find got broken.’
‘That was bad luck.’
‘Well, no, not really.’ She felt her colour rising, but she couldn’t help herself, maybe it was because he was being so unexpectedly nice, so disturbingly different from the man she remembered from the past, she suddenly wanted to talk to Matt about it. ‘I smashed it.’
He lifted an eyebrow in surprise. ‘I had the feeling something was wrong when we were talking about the cream ware at the De Lembers dinner. Do you feel like telling me why?’
She took a deep breath.
‘Oh, on my hunt for more cream ware I just found out my father had been having an affair. There were loads of letters hidden inside a soup tureen, at the back of an old sideboard. I suppose in these days of one-in-three divorces, it’s quite unrealistic to imagine any married couple could remain faithful to each other for long.’
Matt said nothing, but watched her face thoughtfully. When the silence stretched out, she felt compelled to continue, ‘The letters were from a woman called Joanie. They dated back to when I was about thirteen. The funny thing was when I read them I understood all sorts of things. Times when Dad had missed my school play, or my birthday party. Things like that. It’s amazing how naive you can be, isn’t it?’
‘So you smashed the cream ware tureen? Deliberately?’ There was a note in Matt’s voice which sounded almost in awe of such wilful destruction.
‘Yup. Hurled it against the wall.’
‘Did that make you feel better?’
‘Only for a couple of minutes.’ She pulled a rueful face, and Matt leaned forward, his eyes dark.
‘You’ve had a rough time, Victoria,’ he said at last. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Oh, don’t be! I’ll survive. At least one good thing to come out of it was getting to know my other sister, Megan, again. She went to live with an aunt in Northumberland when I was only thirteen.’
‘Did you talk to your father about the letters?’
‘Hardly. He was lying in a hospital bed. He was dying.’ She stopped, aware of a shake creeping back into her voice and anxious to disguise it.
Unwanted tears were blurring her eyes, stinging and hot. She turned her face away, and dashed a hand across her face.
‘Victoria…’ Matt was in front of her, taking her into his arms and holding her there, tight against him, even though she stayed stiff and unyielding.
‘I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m crying, it was ages ago, I’m over all that now,’ she choked, muffled against his shirt.
‘It’s all right. Crying is supposed to do you good,’ Matt said, on a wry note. ‘Although the sound of a woman crying always makes me want to run a mile.’
She extricated herself, and glared at him through her tears.
‘No one’s stopping you,’ she said shakily.
‘I’m not running anywhere. Don’t take offence again. I’m just trying to be honest,’ he amended, ruefully. ‘Here.’ He took a clean white handkerchief from his pocket and she accepted it silently, scrubbing her face with it and blowing her nose.
Matt sat back and took a drink of wine.
‘So far your experience of life hasn’t been too good, then,’ he murmured thoughtfully. ‘You were brave enough to attempt a relationship with me, and I let you down badly, didn’t I? And then you found out that relationships are hardly worth the pain of bothering because even your own father was cheating. Is that it?’
She shrugged, eyeing him coldly. ‘Don’t try and patronise me, Matt,’ she snapped, back in control again. She screwed the white handkerchief into a ball between her fists, and drew a deep breath. ‘Whatever my philosophy is these days, it’s really no business of yours.’
‘Whatever you say,’ he said, at last. ‘I’m glad you’ve been reunited with your sister Megan. Does she live back at home now?’
‘Sort of. She has part of this house to live in, it divided up quite easily so that she has the east wing at the back. But she keeps going back to her shared house up in Northumberland. And she’s away lots of weekends, doing voluntary work.’
Matt looked at her enquiringly.
‘She runs gardening therapy workshops for drug addicts!’ Victoria smiled slightly, adding, ‘Recovering addicts, that is.’
‘She sounds interesting. I’m looking forward to meeting her. How does she feel about being based back at Roundwell after so long?’
‘Very mixed up, I think. It turns out she’d found out about Dad and this… this other woman and couldn’t stand to be around him! That’s why she left.’
‘Do you think your mother knew? About the affair?’
‘Oh yes. Megan said she told her…’
Victoria stopped. She had a sudden unwelcome flashback to the stress and tensions of that time in her life. The awful time when Megan went to stay with Aunt Grace ‘for a couple of weeks’, but never came back. Victoria had felt so confused and angry herself for a while. She’d forgotten how bad that had all felt. She and Megan had been close, Jessica had been the eldest sister, bossy and overpowering at times, and she and Megan had taken refuge together, enjoyed ganging up on their big sister. When Megan disappeared from her life it was a painful wrench. A horrible time in her otherwise idyllic recollections of family life. She must have subconsciously blocked all that out until just recently.
How could she have done that?
Matt was watching her, his eyes narrowed thoughtfully.
‘So what happened when Megan told your mother?’
‘Apparently, Mother wouldn’t do anything about it, and that enraged Megan even more. At least Jessica and I understand now why Megan turned into such a disruptive monster at home, before she went to live with Aunt Grace. But anyway, I think maybe Mum just wanted a quiet life, maybe she was quite happy for Dad to go off bonking another woman, maybe she didn’t rate sex too highly either! God knows, I’ve no trouble relating to that!’ she said flatly.
‘Really? I somehow can’t see you turning a blind eye to a husband’s infidelities. You’re much too hot-blooded and idealistic to settle for that kind of cop-out. I also seem to recall that you quite enjoyed sex, Victoria.’
Her throat suddenly dry, heat flashing through her, she dropped her eyes and gazed into the fire. Just now, when he’d held her in his arms to comfort her, his touch had been ecstasy. The knowledge that he still had the power to arouse her was like a knife through her chest. For a few moments she hated him and desired him so intensely all pretence at indifference evaporated.
‘Shall we eat some of this before it gets cold?’ Matt suggested levelly.
Speechlessly, she nodded, bending to spoon some out and handing a plate to Matt without meeting his eyes.
‘It’s very good,’ she managed to keep her voice light, when she had eaten a few mouthfuls. ‘Is this your party piece, or do you have a wide repertoire of clever supper dishes?’
‘My repertoire is fairly limited. I do a few vegetarian versions of this. Apart from that I cook mainly in a wok. I can concoct quite interesting things with shellfish and vegetables and garlic and ginger.’
‘That sounds good, anyway.’ She smiled involuntarily. ‘Personally I prefer Italian food to Chinese. My ideal menu would be something like lasagna, followed by chocolate tiramisu.’
‘Rather rich for my taste,’ Matt countered gravely.
‘I remember. You suffer from indigestion,’ Victoria said, with an innocent smile. ‘How is your digestion these days?’
‘My digestion is perfect,’ said Matt drily. ‘Ever since I resigned from De Lembers’ Board.’
‘Oh yes, so you said. What are you planning to do now?’
He grimaced slightly, ‘I’m intending to paint again. If I can pluck up the courage.’
She stared at him, suddenly curious. His words made him sound vulnerable, but she knew better. Matt was as hard as iron.
‘Painting? I presume you mean pictures, not painting and decorating? As in houses and walls?’
‘Pictures.’ He smiled slightly.
‘What sort of thing do you paint?’
‘Landscapes, so far. Some still life.’ He shrugged, running a hand around the back of his neck, as if he was feeling too warm. ‘I thought I’d try portraits. They’re not something I’ve enjoyed much in the past, but lately I’ve felt I might be able to tackle them.’ He shrugged again, uncharacteristically uncertain for a moment.
‘Good luck with it, then. Presumably you’ll fit this in between freelancing, valuing rich Arabs’ art collections, that sort of thing?’
‘Something like that.’ He smiled again. ‘Not too much of that sort of thing, though.’
‘So…this might sound a bit rude, but can you make enough money to live on painting pictures?’
‘No, the painting is just a hobby,’ He met her gaze with a crooked grin, ‘Are you worried that I’ve come back here to sponge off you?’
She blushed. ‘Hardly. You’d have to be prepared to take on a very large overdraft if you were.’
‘Don’t worry, I’m more than financially viable.’ He said lightly, ‘If you and Archie need anything, you only have to ask.’
‘That’s very generous of you. But we don’t. And I wasn’t digging to find out how wealthy you are.’
‘I’m sure you weren’t. However, please bear in mind that you don’t have to shoulder the expense of bringing up a child on your own.’
‘I don’t intend to ask you for anything, Matt!’
‘So you keep saying.’ He shrugged, his tone light, ‘I have several income sources. My paintings sell for enough money to keep things afloat. And I’ve recently made the decision to live a more relaxed and creative style of life.’
‘Oh.’ There was so much she didn’t know about Matt, she reflected in surprise, ‘Is that why you resigned from De Lembers? Was the job too stressful?’
Matt poured some more wine. He gazed into his glass, and the firelight reflected in his eyes.
‘Maybe. It’s hard to know where to start to explain it to you.’
Victoria put her empty plate carefully down on the hearth, and threw another log on the fire. The flames began to lick and flicker around it. When Matt lifted his eyes and looked intently at her, there were twin flames in the silver.
‘You don’t have to explain it to me,’ she said quietly, ‘It’s really none of my business, Matt.’
‘Yes, it is. Meeting you, going to New York, and what happened over there, they’re linked. I want to explain why I went in the first place.’
‘You had to investigate a fraud, you said.’
‘Yes. But if there hadn’t been a fraud to investigate, I would have gone anyway. I was ambitious. New York office was the logical next step. I was in line for the chairmanship if things went right. New York was the final attempt to prove to myself that my life was going the way I wanted it to go.’
Victoria kept her eyes on the fire. Her throat tightened but she managed to keep her voice detached.
‘But it didn’t?’
‘It proved the opposite,’ said Matt, with a note of self-mockery. ‘There was a man called Samuel Kent working in our New York office. He was a very old…acquaintance of mine. We grew up together for a few years, he was the son of one of my foster-families. We kept in touch, sporadically, after I went back to the children’s home. Sam had devoted his whole life to creating a powerful, materialistic empire round himself. Money and power. They’d taken the place of personal relationships. His marriage was in terminal decline, he hardly saw his children. All he cared about was making money.’
‘And he was the one involved in the fraud?’
‘And you had to expose him.’
‘Yes. The whole edifice crumbled round him. His wife kicked him out when she found out what was going on. Then he’d got nothing. Or that’s what he must have felt. No job, no power, no friends, and no family. He hung himself in his garage.’
‘Oh God, Matt, I’m so sorry. You must have felt terrible.’
‘I felt like a Judas,’ he said, ‘But the worst thing was seeing myself in him.’
He looked at her frankly, and the pain in his eyes made her want to put her arms round him and comfort him.
‘You mean, “There but for the grace of God went you”?’
‘Slightly ungrammatical, but yes. I think that is what I felt.’ Matt paused for a moment, then went on, ‘I saw that none of us operate in a vacuum. It made me think about actions and consequences. Sam’s whole family were left devastated by the consequences of his behaviour. I knew then that I didn’t want to turn into another Sam.’
‘Surely resigning from the board was a drastic step,’ she reasoned. ‘You don’t mean you were involved in fraud as well?’
‘No. Of course not.’
‘Then why resign? A minor adjustment in priorities would have sufficed.’
‘Possibly. Except that I’d already been struggling with a major adjustment in priorities. Ever since a weekend in Warwickshire when a stunning red-haired eighteen-year-old flung herself into my bed.’
Heat rushed to her face. ‘I did not fling myself into your bed!’ she protested hotly. ‘I came to your room to apologise and…you grabbed me!’
Matt gazed at her levelly, and a glimmer of amusement showed in the silver stare. ‘A view of the world through the eyes of an eighteen-year-old. I don’t recall you putting up much of a fight.’
Victoria stood up abruptly. She was hot and tingling all over suddenly. ‘Do you want anything else to eat? I’ve got some chocolate cakes I bought this afternoon, or some fruit.’
‘Fruit would be good, thank you.’ Matt’s voice was drily amused.
‘Fine. I’ll make some coffee as well.’ She took the dishes with her, and closed the door on him, storming down the passage to the kitchen, uncaring whether she dropped anything or not. How could he be so callous? Taunting her about that weekend? Patronising her with his withering verdict on her character?
She collected a basket of fruit, a chocolate cake for herself, and made a pot of strong filter coffee with barely restrained violence. He was an insufferable egotist. He couldn’t resist gloating over that past conquest. She strode back with the tray, still seething with fury.
‘There are some pears and oranges,’ she said tersely, putting the basket in front of Matt with scant grace. She poured coffee and retreated to her chair in stiff silence.
‘I’m sorry, Victoria,’ said Matt, peeling a pear with precision. ‘I didn’t intend to upset you again. I was an eighteen-year-old once. There’s a lot about you that reminds me of my younger self.’
‘Really?’ She stared at him furiously, ‘I don’t recall ever being a buttoned up, cynical, cold-hearted brute of a human being!’
‘Is that really how you see me?’
‘Pretty much, yes.’
‘We’re all flawed. And in your own blinkered way you’ve risked disrupting several lives by acting first and thinking afterwards.’
‘Getting pregnant was an unfortunate accident! And obviously even though I adore Archie and would never want to be without him now, I regret what happened between us…’
‘But the fact is, it did happen. And now, for the rest of our lives, we are parents to our son.’
‘Matt, it took nine long months for our son to develop. In my body. After just one night, not even that, a few moments only, you ceased to be involved in the process. Please don’t feel that you have any obligations towards me or towards our son!’
Her voice was shaking, and she stopped abruptly. Matt had stopped eating the pear, and had grown very still. The level penetrating stare he returned gradually began to unnerve her.
‘I didn’t exactly rape you that night, Victoria,’ he said, ‘You were touchingly eager to let me take your virginity. Knowing you had taken no precautions against pregnancy. It seems to me that I have every right to declare an interest in our son. And I personally choose to feel an obligation to both you and our son.’
Victoria stood up. She was dimly aware that this conversation was getting them nowhere, that they had somehow strayed from logic to blind emotion, but she was past caring.
‘Will you please go?’ she said, ‘If it will keep you away from me, I’ll arrange for you to see Archie quite regularly. But I don’t want you to come here again.’
Matt rose to his feet in a fluid, powerful movement, and the pale, lidded gaze was so scathing she longed to drop her eyes under the onslaught. Only pride and fury kept them level.
‘Don’t be so fucking ridiculous, Victoria.’ he said tautly, ‘I’ll go, but not before I’ve proved that you’re lying to me and to yourself.’
Before she could duck him, he had pulled her into his arms. He controlled her furious struggles with easy strength. His fingers were hard as he twisted her chin up until her mouth was beneath his, and then he kissed her.
In the midst of her anger, Victoria felt a wave of despair. She knew that her body was going to betray her. She wanted to fight and struggle and scream, but instead she circled his neck with her arms and ran her fingers into his hair, pulling his mouth down harder on her own and returning the kiss with a shudder of passion she had forgotten she was capable of feeling.
When their lips parted for a moment she drew in a breath that sounded like a sob, but her whole body was on fire, as if all her anger and resentment were transformed into heightened sexual desire.
In response he swung her into his arms and took her to the sofa in front of the fire, trapping her on his lap as he kissed her more deeply. Victoria couldn’t think any more. All she wanted was to be closer, closer, to surrender to this glorious melting feeling in her bones, and this fiery ache in her stomach. Her struggles to escape had changed to struggles to be as close to Matt as possible, and with a groan he pushed her full length on the sofa and responded to her urgent movements by flicking open the buttons on her jeans and pushing up the soft fabric of her jumper.
Then at last she felt his lips on her skin, her throat, and his hand could flick open the clasp of her silky lace bra and expose her breasts to receive the caresses they ached for.
She gave a choked cry of pleasure as she felt his tongue on her hardened nipples, and he drew back for a moment, his face shadowy and almost unrecognisable above her, the pupils dilated with desire.
‘Victoria,’ he breathed unevenly, stroking the softness of her with an almost reverent gentleness, his eyes narrowed as he gazed down at her, ‘Did I ever tell you that you have the most perfect breasts I’ve ever seen?’
‘No,’ her voice was muffled with emotion, everything melting into surrender, ‘You didn’t…’ Not even when she’d flashed them at him on their first meeting, she thought dazedly, almost finding the strength to giggle but dissolving instead into quivering desire.
‘And you’ve gained some curves,’ he said, ‘In all the right places. God, Victoria…’
He was peeling down her tight jeans and sending another convulsion of desire through her. Lost in sensation, she hungrily moved one hand up inside his T-shirt, felt the warm hardness of his abdomen and chest, trembled over the flat hard nipples and the coarseness of his chest hair, all her long years of needing and wanting pooling into one hot, liquid tug of desire low down in her stomach.
‘Matt, oh God…,’ she heard herself whispering against his mouth, as her body strained towards him. He slid the jeans down further, tugged them so that he could pull them right off her. He slipped his hand inside her lacy briefs and cupped her already damp sex with his hand. He groaned, sliding two fingers inside her until she whimpered with need.
‘You smell and taste gorgeous, I’ve never forgotten the scent and flavour of you,’ he said, running that same hand up the length of her body, putting his fingers into his own mouth and then into hers.
That was all it took. Something raw and elemental in Matt’s sexuality ignited a desire in her so powerful, so overwhelming she couldn’t stop herself, couldn’t fight it. She needed him, hungered and thirsted for him, in a mindless, blind way that had her fingers ripping at his white T-shirt, wrenching it over his head, allowing her hands the luxury of stroking and exploring the irresistible lines of his body.
In front of the fire, on the warmth of the sofa, he lifted her to straddle him, stroked the soft fullness of her breasts, moulded her small waist and the flare of her hips, his eyes dark as smoke as they hungrily scanned her body,
‘You’re stunning, but completely crazy,’ he murmured huskily, ‘I don’t have a clue what goes on in your head!’
‘Right now, nor do I,’ she whispered breathlessly, ‘I don’t have a clue how you do this to me, if I did I’d know how to stop you.’
‘Don’t. Don’t stop me.’ His voice was thick with desire and laughter. ‘If you knew how much I’ve been wanting to do this to you again, you wouldn’t be so cruel.’
She slid a trembling hand to the fastening of his Levis, moved her fingers over the long hard bulge under the button-fly with a rush of heat all over her. Slowly, she flicked open the top two buttons, her eyes caught and held in his narrowed gaze.
The only sound was dull tick of the grandfather clock in the shadows, the hissing of the logs in the hearth, and their combined ragged breathing.
Then the sudden sound of Archie’s distressed little voice on the monitor.
Instantly the wild desire shattered. The breath left her lungs on a long shuddering gasp. Matt went very still, his hands still holding her waist, his eyes half closed and unreadable.
Shaking her head to dispel the dark dregs of passion, she pushed herself off him so violently she caught his cheekbone sharply with her elbow.
‘Sorry… sorry…’ She grabbed her jumper from the floor and pulled it quickly back on. Archie had begun to cry loudly now. Matt got to his feet, rubbing a hand ruefully over his cheek, and began slowly to re-button his jeans.
‘We should go and check that he’s okay,’ he suggested hoarsely.
Her head was spinning. ‘Yes, yes, I do realise that! He’s cutting a couple of new teeth. But I need to go and check on him. Not both of us!’
‘Don’t worry, I won’t wind him up again.’
‘He’ll never settle back to sleep if we both appear!’
‘Yes he will. Victoria, I never knew my father, never even knew who he was, his name or anything about him. My child is not going to have that deprivation. Do you understand?’
Speechless, she dragged on her jeans and marched up the hall and stairs, aware that Matt was following her and totally unable to do anything about it.
Archie was standing up in his cot, his face flushed and tear-stained. When he saw Matt behind her, his expression changed from distress to surprise, then happiness in a matter of seconds.
Disbelievingly, Victoria watched Archie hold out his arms to Matt to be picked up. Matt obliged calmly, holding his little son against him with an easy, soothing motion.
Moving stiffly, Victoria touched Archie’s forehead. ‘He’s a bit hot. I’ll give him a spoonful of Calpol,’ she said, ‘Then he just needs lying back down in his cot, and…’
‘It’s okay, I’ll settle him back to sleep.’
She stared at Matt.
‘Okay, you’re welcome to give it a go,’ she said, calmly, even though her heart felt as if it was being squeezed in a tight fist. For Archie’s sake, she summoned up a smile and dropped a kiss on the soft little cheek of her son. Then she whispered goodnight and quickly left the nursery, not trusting herself enough to stay any longer.
Back downstairs, she gathered up the remains of their supper things from the hearth, and stacked the dishwasher. Then she went back to the fire in the sitting room, and sat waiting, tense and incredulous, as Matt’s deep voice murmured soft words to Archie over the monitor.
He seemed to be more than ‘giving it a go’. You’d have thought he’d been a parent for years. Uncertain how she should feel about that, but fairly sure she shouldn’t be feeling remotely angry or resentful, she poured herself another glass of wine, and stared into the fire and thought about what had just so nearly happened again between herself and Matt. That train of thought had heat flaring through her, a mixture of shame and humiliation gripping her. What had she been thinking of earlier? If Archie hadn’t woken up, would she really have just given everything to Matt, all over again, just like the first time?
Surely, the impact of Matt’s last words should have shocked her back to a semblance of reality, even if her crying baby hadn’t interrupted them. ‘If you knew how much I’ve been wanting to do this to you again,’ he’d said.
She was shivering now, in delayed reaction. She didn’t want to be someone Matt ‘did things to’. She didn’t want to be treated as a quick, easy lay by a man who didn’t love her, even if he did have the power to reduce her to a mindless, boneless pool of raging hormones. She didn’t trust him, she couldn’t trust him. She would never trust another man again. She couldn’t, she just couldn’t face the pain of trusting Matt and being abandoned by him all over again.
Matt had come back into the room. He came across to sit down opposite her, watching her intently, his eyes level and unwavering, rather as a cat watches a mouse.
‘I recognised your old teddy bear in the nursery.’ Matt smiled slightly, ‘Grunt, that was his name? I recall you saying you’d always hoped to pass him on to your children.’
Her heart lurched, then she got a tight grip on her emotions. Matt had a good memory. That didn’t make him a good bet as a partner or a lover.
‘Yes. I’ve tended to keep him on a high shelf, until Archie is less prone to mass destruction.’ She gripped the stem of her wine glass tightly, ‘Is he okay?’
‘How did you do that?’ She met his eyes with a huge effort. But in spite of her tension, she was genuinely curious. Archie usually took quite a long time to settle after waking in the evening.
‘I lay him on his stomach and patted him on the back. It’s a technique I remembered from the children’s home. It’s how they used to get a whole nursery full of babies off to sleep.’
‘I’m impressed.’ She took another small sip of wine, steeling herself, ‘Matt, about…earlier. You’ve proved your point. You said that you’d go, when you’d proved your point. And I would like you to go.’
‘Now I suppose you’re trying to imply that you weren’t enjoying what we were doing?’ he said.
‘No, obviously I can’t pretend that I wasn’t enjoying it,’ she told him, in a choked voice. ‘But it’s not what I want! I can’t do that again, with you. There’s no point even trying to explain. Just go. Please.’
He stood up, staring at her in silence for a few moments. Then he walked over to her, bent to put one hand on her shoulder, and kiss her lightly on the top of her head.
‘I’ll call you in the morning.’
Before she could form any words of response he went out of the room and quietly closed the door behind him. She heard his footsteps down the hall, heard the front door open and close.
After a few minutes she heard the low roar of the Mercedes pulling out of the courtyard and receding into the distance as it disappeared down the lane from the farm.
When she heard Elspeth come in at nearly midnight, and head upstairs to her room, Victoria was still sitting motionless, and the fire had burned down to ashes.
She was deeply asleep when the telephone rang, and for a few moments she struggled to shake free from a vivid, muddled dream. But Matt’s harsh voice brought her abruptly back to reality.
‘Victoria? I’m sorry, I’ve just realised how early it is.’ He sounded weary, with a trace of self-mockery. ‘I couldn’t sleep,’ he added, by way of explanation.
Propping herself up on her elbow, she glanced at the bedside clock in angry disbelief.
‘It’s half past five in the morning, Matt!’ she said coldly, stiffening as last night came flooding back. ‘Where are you? Back in London?’
‘No, I’m still at the Golden Lion. Look Victoria, after last night…’
‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ she cut in awkwardly. Heat coursed through her again as she remembered her passionate response to him. How could she have let things get so out of hand?
‘I’m sorry I woke you,’ he said, ‘I’m not thinking too straight at the moment. But I’ve got to see you again, Victoria. Today.’
‘Today? Matt, I’ve got a lot of work to do. I’m sure you must have as well.’ Panic was rising at the prospect of seeing him again so soon. Her voice rose slightly. ‘Can’t you give me a breathing space?’
‘I want to see Archie again,’ he said bleakly. ‘He’s my son, Victoria. He’s seventeen months old and I’ve only just met him.’
Victoria hesitated, gripping the receiver so tightly her knuckles were white. Then she expelled her breath in defeat. Defensiveness and resentment towards Matt couldn’t change a simple truth. He was Archie’s father, and he had a right to get to know his son. And last night, Archie had clearly demonstrated that he wanted to get to know his Daddy more than anything in his small world, hadn’t he? That was an irrefutable fact among a seething mass of doubts and fears which she was suddenly too weary to analyse.
‘All right. If that’s what you want,’ she told him slowly, her voice cool. ‘I’ll see you later, then.’
‘Maybe we could go to the park, feed the ducks, or something.’
‘If you like.’ She replaced the receiver carefully, and lowered herself back on to the bed, feeling emotionally exhausted, but after a few moments, she sat up again. She might as well get up, there was no chance of getting back to sleep now. And if she made an early start to the day’s chores, Matt’s visit wouldn’t throw her quite so far behind. She slowly showered, and brushed her red curls until they shone in a heavy cloud around her shoulders, then dragged on faded denims and a cream cashmere sweater. A brief glance in the mirror showed the ravages of a restless night. She looked pale and heavy-eyed. She brushed some blusher lightly over her cheekbones, then frowned at the effect. The colour stood out too starkly on the pallor of her face. She didn’t want to look like a sad clown. She rubbed it off again quickly.
Then, hearing Archie rattling the various toys in his cot, she went to greet him, feeling the dark cloud lifting slightly in anticipation of seeing his dimpled smile of welcome.
‘Hello there, my poppet,’ she smiled, lifting him out and hugging the soft, warm body against her. It was impossible to remain tense and miserable when she held her baby son in her arms. Holding him a few inches away from her, she examined him with a critical grin.
‘You’re beautiful, but we’d better tidy you up. You’ve got your Daddy coming to see you again this morning! Can you say Daddy, say Dada?’ She finished up, with a generosity of spirit which took her by surprise.
‘Dada..Dada…’ Archie parroted enthusiastically.
Once she had introduced ‘Daddy’ as a subject of conversation, it seemed easier to accept. The day ahead no longer seemed quite so intolerable. She even hummed under her breath while she changed Archie’s nappy and washed his face and hands, and dressed him in his smartest red towelling top with a picture of an apple on the front, and wriggled him into denim dungarees.
‘There, you look very handsome,’ she told him solemnly, as they went in search of breakfast. With Archie safely strapped in his high-chair she made toast for herself and boiled an egg for Archie to squash toast soldiers into. He had just managed to coat his face with yolk and flick half the soldiers on to the floor for Rough to eat when Matt appeared at the kitchen door.
She felt furious at the flutter of apprehension and excitement which cramped her stomach at the sight of him standing there in the doorway. He looked paler than usual beneath his tan and the white-blond hair was slicked back damply, as if he had just had a shower. His pallor seemed to exaggerate the gaunt hollowness of his cheeks and the shadowed sockets of his eyes. With a stab of shock she noticed a bruise on his cheekbone. Her elbow, last night. Oh God. Oh God. She wanted to rush over and throw her arms around him, but pride kept her rooted to the spot.
‘Good morning,’ he said quietly, his eyes flicking over the domestic scene. ‘Am I in time for breakfast?’
‘I should think so. What do you want?’
‘Do you have any muesli?’ His face was unsmiling, but as he glanced at Archie she saw a warmth in his eyes she was certain he would never use towards her.
‘And how are you this morning?’ he asked Archie solemnly. Archie responded with the impressive stream of babble he used to communicate with. Matt gave Archie a brilliant smile, and Archie gave a delighted giggle and beamed back.
She produced the bag of muesli and a dish and spoon, and plonked them down on the table rather abruptly.
‘Thank you. I’d love some black coffee, if you’re making some.’
Shrugging off his Barbour, he sat down at the oak table and began tipping muesli into the bowl.
‘There’s coffee in the pot over there. Help yourself.’
He glanced up at her, suddenly appearing aware of her irritation, and raking a hand through his damp hair he flashed one of his devastating rueful grins. She felt the usual maddening struggle. Matt’s smile was so rare, so potent, it was almost impossible to resist. Staring back at him silently, she tried to remain detached, but it was difficult not to think how beautiful he looked.
‘I’m sorry. I wasn’t intending to demand waitress service,’ he said softly. ‘I’m feeling crap this morning, that’s all. I drank too much malt whisky last night, kept the barman up late, and then I couldn’t even sleep it off.’
She swallowed hard. How charming he could be when he bothered to try, she thought cynically, slapping butter on her toast with more force than necessary. ‘More fool you,’ she remarked tartly, ‘I thought you always drank in moderation!’
‘So did I.’ There was a dry note in his voice, and catching his eye she reddened involuntarily. The implication was fairly clear. The frustration of last night had driven him to hit the bottle.
Deciding silence was the wisest response, she watched him devour a huge dish of muesli and drink two cups of coffee, thinking how odd it felt, sitting here eating breakfast with Matt and Archie. Such a false impression of domesticity. As if they were a happy family.
‘Feeling any better?’ she asked casually, as Matt leaned back and stretched wearily.
‘Yes, thank you.’ His eyes lingered on her face for a few moments as if he was about to say more, but then he turned to smile at Archie, laughing at the eggy face which looked back at him.
‘I can see you’re enjoying that egg, although you’re having some difficulty locating your mouth, by the look of things. And I’ll bet you hate being cleaned up. Correct?’
Matt picked up the discarded spoon and offered more egg, which was impatiently thrust to the floor.
‘No more egg. Right, I understand,’ Matt agreed gravely, and Victoria shook her head reprovingly.
‘It’s very rude to throw your breakfast on the floor,’ she lectured Archie, handing a damp sponge to Matt to use on the baby’s face while she wiped the floor. She braced herself for the usual screaming session which accompanied face-wiping, and straightened in astonishment when it didn’t materialise, to see Archie gurgling with apparent delight as Matt carefully sponged off the food around his mouth. She gazed at them both helplessly. It was unbelievable. The attraction between father and son was so potent, it was almost blinding. She watched as Matt lifted Archie out of the chair and swung him up into the air, laughing while the child giggled appreciatively.
‘How did you do that?’ she demanded finally, half laughing. ‘He always screams when I wipe his face.’
‘My lethal charm?’Matt suggested blandly, tucking the child on his hip with such practised confidence she frowned at him curiously.
‘Last night you got him off to sleep with no problems. Now you can wipe his mouth and he doesn’t yell the place down! You seem very relaxed with babies.’
Matt looked vaguely flattered. ‘It’s because a couple of my sets of foster parents had babies. I was a useful extra pair of hands when they got too busy to cope. The babies seemed to like me, even when the adults decided they didn’t.’ He grinned at her astonished expression. ‘Maybe that accounts for it. Women don’t have a monopoly on baby psychology, do they?’
‘No. And I’m impressed,’ she admitted, laughing slightly. ‘I don’t think Andrew knows one end of either William or Jonathan from the other!’
Matt was about to say something when Elspeth appeared in the doorway, yawning widely, in sleep tank and shorts with a cotton robe slung over, which she grabbed round herself in confusion when she saw Matt.
‘Oh! Good morning!’ she exclaimed, blushing beetroot as she looked from one to the other. ‘I didn’t realise … I mean, I thought you’d gone.’
Victoria came to her rescue.
‘It’s all right, Elspeth. Matt did go last night, but he came back early this morning,’ she said blandly, determined to put the record straight. She didn’t want Elspeth under the impression they had had a passionate reconciliation.
‘Oh, don’t worry about me, don’t feel you have to explain,’ the Scottish girl beamed, clearly not believing a word. ‘I’ll just pop back upstairs and get dressed, since we’ve company for breakfast.’
Victoria watched her go in exasperation, seeing from Matt’s expression that he was enjoying the irony of the situation.
‘I find myself wishing Elspeth’s fantasies were reality,’ he said in a low voice, and before she could sidestep he had slid his free hand around the back of her neck, under the weight of her hair, and taken possession of her softly parted lips, his tongue exploring the shape of her mouth, and then probing inside and hungrily deepening the kiss until she was trembling and helpless. With a slight, violent twist of her head she freed herself, glaring at him furiously as she fought for control.
‘They’re not reality, and never will be,’ she whispered scorchingly.
The silver gaze flicked down over the twin points of her nipples beneath the soft jumper. She caught her breath, then she looked ruefully at his bruised cheek.
‘Sorry if I injured you last night,’ she said, lifting shaking fingers to lightly touch the damage she’d done.
‘Don’t worry about it. Any pain from that was overshadowed by the pleasure that preceded it,’ he said, with a faint smile, ‘I’m reassured to know that you still lust after me.’
‘Oh go to hell, Matt!’ In spite of herself, she couldn’t help laughing.
‘I’ve been there.’ he said, ‘I’ve no desire to return.’
She stared at him in silence. The ticking of the kitchen clock seemed oppressively loud.
‘You must tell me about it some day,’ she said at last, keeping her voice light, tickling Archie under his chin and laughing back as he responded, her heart threatening to betray her all over again.
For the rest of the day they enjoyed Archie together, strapping the car seat into the back of the Mercedes and taking him to the park where Matt pushed him high on the baby swings and carried him to the top of the big slide while she held her breath apprehensively. They fed the ducks, demonstrating the technique to Archie and then laughing at his comical expression when the crumbs he threw were caught in the wind and blown back in his face. The sun was shining, the last few leaves on the horse chestnut trees were glowing pumpkin orange, and Victoria began to relax more with Matt than she had ever managed before. He seemed genuinely interested in her life-style, her routines with Archie, and she even found herself telling him about her pregnancy, hiding a slight embarrassment behind a flippant facade.
‘It needn’t follow you’d have the same problems again,’ he told her quietly, concern in his eyes when she admitted Archie had been delivered by forceps and considered lucky to escape brain damage.
‘Really? How would you know?’ she countered coolly.
‘I read a couple of books on the subject, when I found out about the baby,’ he said, with a twist of a smile. She was dumbfounded, and then found herself laughing. The idea of Matt reading baby books seemed highly improbable, and somehow very funny. When she had sobered, she said seriously, ‘I doubt if there’ll be a next time.’
Matt took hold of her shoulders, forcing her to look at him.
‘Why? You’re young, and you’re wonderful with Archie. Surely you’d like more children?’
‘What has that got to do with you?’ she enquired calmly, raising her eyebrows. His face tautened under her mocking gaze, and he gave her a slight shake, the grey eyes hardening.
‘Victoria, tell me how I can get through to you,’ he demanded, harsh urgency in his voice. His touch, and the appeal in his eyes, sent shivers of longing down her back, but she had a steely grip on her emotions.
‘You could try opening up a bit,’ she suggested lightly, twisting out of his hands. ‘Giving away a little information about yourself. I recall you had an aversion to talking about yourself. Like trying to prise open a clam!’
They were walking along the river bank, Archie safely on his reins toddling between them. She had a feeling Matt was conducting the old internal battle with himself. Finally, he glanced sideways at her.
‘Go ahead, then. Ask me questions.’ He sounded like a criminal up for interrogation, she thought with a stab of amusement. ‘What do you want to know?’
‘Hmmm, let’s see. Your mysterious childhood, for a start.’
‘You want to know about my childhood.’ She sensed Matt tensing up, but he continued evenly, ‘My mother was Danish. I never met my father. I believe he was English. Other than that I know nothing about him. When I was five I went to live with foster-parents.’
‘Why? What happened to your mother?’
Glancing at his profile, she felt her heart go out to him suddenly. The harsh face of the man seemed only just to disguise the anguish of the child he had once been.
‘She met someone else, married him,’ he said finally. ‘Some man who didn’t want another man’s child messing things up.’
She drew in her breath, pity welling up inside her. ‘Go on,’ she said quietly.
He shot a swift, mocking glance at her.
‘It doesn’t get any better. After two or three sets of foster-parents, I spent the rest of the time in a children’s home. Left school at fifteen, and helped on a junk stall in a market in Bermondsey. He smiled slightly, adding, ‘That was the start of my career. I had entrepreneurial skills I never realised before, I learnt to recognise valuable pieces among the piles of rubbish. I never looked back, as they say.’
‘Did you never see your mother again?’ she interrupted, finding it impossible to believe any mother could simply hand her child over to foster-parents to please a prospective husband.
‘Yes. I saw her again when I was seven. She wanted me back.’ His voice was expressionless, but there was a glitter in his eyes, hard as stones in the sunlight.
‘But you didn’t go back?’
‘No. I didn’t go back.’
‘Why? Oh, Matt, why?’ The picture was so tragic and bereft, she could hardly bear to imagine it.
He shrugged, his smile harder. ‘I just wasn’t a very co-operative child, I suppose.’ He stopped for a moment, as if he was trying to get the past into perspective. ‘I don’t like talking about this. I think that’s because, looking back, I can see that I must have wanted to go back to my mother more than anything else in the world. I have memories of my first five years with her, strange as it may seem. Some happy memories. Blurred sort of images of someone…warm. But I suppose she must have been a very mixed-up woman.’ He shook his head, with a short laugh. ‘At the time, though, I took exception to being shunted around.’
‘But surely, at seven … I mean, how come you had any choice?’
‘The social services of the day had never heard a child scream and yell for quite so long, as I dimly recall. They eventually advised my mother to leave me where I was. She went back to Denmark with her new husband.’
‘And that was it? You never saw her again?’
‘She had another go at reclaiming me when I was ten. She got the same treatment. I suppose I was an even tougher little thug by then. With a nasty vengeful streak. I blamed her for abandoning me. I’ve got a feeling I actually told her to fuck off. Not my finest hour, I see that now. But she made the final decision to leave me in Care. Or so I was told.’ The silver gaze was bleak and mocking. Victoria shivered.
‘Could… could you find her again? Try to re-establish some kind of relationship with her?’
‘I did try to trace her. Just recently. After Sam’s suicide. She’s dead.’
It was the bleakest story Victoria had ever heard.
Sympathy welled up but she sensed Matt would reject it.
‘Why didn’t you stay with your foster-parents? Why go back to the children’s home?’
‘If your face doesn’t fit, if you behave badly enough for long enough, you’re out. My behaviour got a whole lot worse after the episodes with my mother.’ Matt shrugged. ‘Foster-parents are under no obligation to keep you. It’s not like adoption.’
She stared down at the top of Archie’s head, struggling with her feelings.
How did you survive a childhood like that? It was almost impossible for her to imagine the pain, the anger and despair Matt must have felt as a child.
She swallowed a lump in her throat, fighting back tears.
‘Well, what about romantic involvements?’ she prompted, to hide her shattered emotions, ‘Have you ever been in love with anyone?’ She had a masochistic urge suddenly, driving her to add, ‘Jessica told me once you’d broken more hearts than she’d eaten take-away pizzas.’
The grey eyes were quizzical. ‘I’ve known several women, obviously. I’m thirty-five. I doubt if I’ve broken their hearts, however.’
She looked at him witheringly. If he only knew the effect of those eyes. Jessica was right. Matt was dangerously attractive to women, even more so because he seemed unaware of the devastation he left behind, once he detached himself and moved on.
‘So never get seriously involved. Is that your motto?’
‘Possibly. But up until two years ago, I’d never met anyone I wanted to get seriously involved with.’
She stiffened, trying to assimilate this.
What was he saying? For a wild, crazy moment, she thought he was talking about her.
Then common sense saved her. Matt wouldn’t insult her intelligence now by trying to pretend he had wanted to be in a serious relationship with her, all this time! Particularly since he hadn’t even bothered to contact her until just over a week ago.
A sick feeling came over her as his real meaning sank in. That weekend, when she’d met him at Jessica’s, had he just met someone who meant something to him, someone he could trust, and then had to endure a weekend of earth-shattering boredom with a love-struck adolescent?
No wonder he had been so reluctant to respond to her clumsy infatuation.
The thought was so painful, it felt like a bullet through her solar plexus. Oh God, what a nightmare. What a complete fool she had made of herself.
‘Serious involvements are a bad idea. That’s why I’m happy to be independent. Shall we go back?’ she asked, evading Matt’s curious gaze. ‘It’s turning colder.’
‘Victoria? Don’t shut me out.’ His voice was low and compelling, and she swung away from him angrily.
‘Why not? It’s a trick I learnt from you,’ she said calmly, walking back towards the park.
He caught up in a few swift strides, lifting Archie to sit on his shoulders and instantly producing gurgles of happiness.
‘Look, maybe we’ve both had changes of heart over the last couple of years,’ he said tautly. ‘But Archie is our joint responsibility now. At least give me a chance, Victoria!’
She was hardly listening. She sat stiffly in the car on the way back to the farm, her heart leaden with misery.
When they pulled up outside the farm, Matt turned to her,
‘I have to fly to Florence tomorrow. There’s an art collection I’ve been invited to value. Will you come with me?’
She felt her jaw drop, then gathered her wits quickly.
‘I couldn’t possibly. Thanks anyway. I’ve got the farm to run and Archie to look after.’
‘There’s Elspeth. Or you could bring him with you. I’d like that.’
She shook her head decisively. ‘Sorry. It’s out of the question. It’s been a lovely day out,’ she added politely, ‘But do you mind if I don’t ask you in now? Archie is sleepy, and I’ve got a lot of work to catch up with.’
Matt was scanning her face, uncharacteristically confused.
‘Then I’ll see you at the weekend,’ he said quietly, his expression darkening as she continued to shake her head.
‘I’ve got some old university friends coming to stay with me on Friday, and Elspeth’s away, so Jessica, Megan and I are having dinner and staying over at Jessica’s on Saturday night,’ she told him calmly. She freed Archie from his baby seat, and waited as Matt came round to unstrap the seat and carry it to the porch. ‘So I’ll be busy. Uncle Sebastian’s coming to see you, Archie!’ she added, bouncing the baby in her arms, keeping her eyes anywhere but on Matt’s tense face.
‘Sebastian? The lanky dark haired boy at the cocktail bar?’ His tone was grim enough to make her back away from him, but she nodded blithely.
‘You’ve got a good memory! He’s doing his Masters in Manchester. We keep in touch.’ With a sudden pride-saving flash of inspiration, she added, ‘We started being a bit more than friends just after you and I had our ‘mini-fling’. He’s been very supportive.’
There was a stony silence, and then Matt said,
‘That’s a pity. I was going to ask you and Archie to drive back to London with me on Friday afternoon. There’s a charity auction dinner at the Hurlingham Club. I was hoping you’d come with me.’
‘Oh, that’s a shame. Still, no doubt you’ll find someone else to take. Maybe whoever it was who changed your mind about serious relationships?’
She feared for a moment that Matt was going to explode in a rare show of anger, but controlling his feelings with visible effort he turned away to the car.
‘Have a good trip to Florence,’ she called after him casually. ‘Ring me next week some time.’
‘You can depend on it,’ he said caustically, climbing into the Mercedes and accelerating away with an angry crunch of gravel.
She stood on the doorstep, watching the car disappearing down the lane, and realising that tears were running down her cheeks.
She dashed a hand impatiently over her face, and went inside. It was pointless crying over Matt. Crying solved nothing, and it certainly wouldn’t wash away the past.
The rest of that week passed in a nightmare of pretending everything was all right. Setting herself a punishing schedule, Victoria worked from dawn till night and collapsed into bed in exhaustion every evening.
By Friday she was almost on her knees, but the prospect of her visitors seemed like a light at the end of a dark tunnel. The company of her old friends was just what she needed. Her tangled problems with Matt could be forgotten. She could recall her happy student days, and relax.
But her friends were fascinated by Archie. He had grown so rapidly he was almost unrecognisable as the baby they had last seen at the christening. Inevitably the conversation centred around Archie’s engaging character, and the mystery of his absent father.
‘He’s so beautiful, Vic! He takes after his father, presumably? In colouring, I mean.’ Caroline, plump and blond as ever, and in her final year of a drama degree, was the first one to pluck up courage to mention Matt. Watching Victoria building Lego towers for Archie to scatter gleefully across the carpet, she was shaking her head in admiration.
‘It’s a silly question really, since he’s hardly a brown-eyed redhead like Victoria,’ Shelley snapped, tossing back her dark hair scornfully.
‘Well, I never met the infamous Mr Larson,’ said Caroline, undaunted, ‘but if his son’s anything to go by he must be decidedly gorgeous, darling!’
Shelley was frowning. She had always been the serious one, although after getting a First in biology she had surprised them all by taking a job in a clothes boutique until the right job came along.
‘It doesn’t look to me as if Victoria wants to discuss him,’ she advised solemnly. ‘And if some guy got me pregnant and disappeared without a word I expect I’d feel the same.’
‘Did he never come back?’ Caroline pursued relentlessly, leaning back from the fire, her round cheeks scorched red from toasting another tea-cake. Tea-cakes round the fire had been a ritual delight since they had shared their rented house in Exeter, although they’d had to use a gas fire in Exeter. Roundwell Farm’s real fire gave the ritual extra luxury.
‘Oh, give it a rest, Caro!’ Shelley said irritably.
‘As a matter of fact,’ stated Victoria carefully, spreading half an inch of butter on her tea-cake and avoiding everyone’s eyes, ‘He did come back. A couple of weeks ago.’
Caroline’s eyes grew rounder. ‘He did? Darling, how romantic!’ she breathed theatrically. ‘And did he know about baby Archie?’
‘Oh, yes, that’s the only reason he showed up again. I think he feels a sense of responsibility for his baby son.’
She found it almost impossible to keep the bitterness from oozing through between every word.
‘So what’s his story?’ Shelley demanded bluntly, her mouth full of tea-cake, black brows drawn together in a fierce frown. Victoria poured more tea, outwardly unperturbed, aware that Sebastian was gazing moodily into the fire, deliberately not taking part in this conversation. ‘Where the hell has he been all this time?’
‘New York. And don’t sound so indignant on my behalf, Shelley,’ Victoria laughed, sipping her tea with a slightly unsteady hand. ‘Just one night doesn’t entitle a woman to the remainder of a man’s life, you know. And as I never told him he had a son, it’s hard to make out that he’s completely to blame.’
‘So what does he want? He’s not trying to take Archie away from you?’ Caroline exclaimed, turning pink with indignation.
‘No, no. Of course not!’ Victoria’s heart turned cold at this suggestion. She was fairly certain Matt had no such intention. This was just Caroline, being typically melodramatic. But there again, she wasn’t quite sure exactly what he did want, in the long term. Did he still have a relationship with this woman he had fallen in love with? And if so, could he possibly have some idea of taking Archie to live with them? The thoughts whirled endlessly, torturing her.
Sebastian appeared to be watching her with gathering tension, like a man with something important to say who doesn’t know quite how to begin. Later on the Saturday, he confided his thoughts to her while they were all out for a walk. Caroline and Shelley were up ahead of them, hand in hand with Archie in his duffel-coat, bright red bobble hat and scarf, swinging him between them and making him giggle with delight.
‘I finish my course at the end of this year,’ Sebastian began, hesitantly, ‘One of my papers was very well received at a conference in Mexico. They might even publish it. When I get my doctorate, I can either look for a job in industry, or I may be offered a research post in California.’ He stopped, his blue eyes searching her face for response. ‘It’s a secure position. The money’s not as good as in industry, but it would be a good life out there. If you could stand the suffocating academic life…’ Victoria was staring at him in surprise. ‘I’d love it if you and Archie came with me,’ he finished in a rush, flushing slightly.
She felt deeply touched. Sebastian had kept in constant contact, admittedly, but in all the time they had known each other he’d kissed her once or twice, but seemed to accept her insistence on a platonic relationship. He had been one of several men at university who’d tried to talk her into bed but been rebuffed. Most of the others had been too annoyed by her prudishness to pursue a friendship, but Sebastian had stayed impressively loyal. He had asked her to marry him once before, when she had first discovered she was pregnant. But she had put that down to his chivalry. She’d never dreamt he might still feel that way towards her.
‘You’re a good friend, Seb,’ she told him lightly, ‘And I am very, very fond of you. But apart from anything else, I couldn’t leave Roundwell. Megan and Jessica and I are building up the business, and Roundwell is my home…’
‘Don’t say no finally. Think about it, Vic,’ he urged persuasively. ‘I’ve always thought maybe you and I could get together, make it work. And you’re a fool if you wait around any longer for that cold-eyed antiques guy to make up his mind what he wants!’
She stiffened and turned away. They’d walked round to the entrance to the farm shop, which was dealing with a steady trickle of customers buying organic joints and locally grown vegetables for their Sunday lunch. Soon they’d be getting in deliveries of Christmas trees for the December rush. And stocking up on Christmas decorations, and seasonal cards, hopefully all from local craftspeople.
‘It’s not what he wants,’ she said at last, her voice suddenly determined. ‘It’s what I want that matters. And what I want is to be left alone to get on with my life. Without the complication of men!’
Sebastian gazed at her gloomily. ‘A boy needs a father,’ he pointed out solemnly.
‘Oh, don’t you start! You’re as bad as Jessica!’
‘All right, but you shouldn’t let one bad experience sour you towards all the other men you meet. You never used to generalise about the male sex quite so sweepingly.’ He tried to smile, but made a bleak job of it.
She didn’t answer, but in that moment she felt Sebastian had summed up her philosophy rather too accurately. Men, in her opinion, were a poor risk when it came to matters of the heart. Look at her own parents. Apart from Matt, it had been a shattering experience finding out about Dad’s betrayal. Dad had deliberately jeopardised his marriage, and therefore his family life. He had virtually driven Megan away, breaking up their relationship at a crucial stage in their lives. She and Jessica and Megan had presumably been insufficient incentive to stay faithful to their mother. But then men were like that, she had long ago decided. They functioned differently, they weren’t made to conceive babies, to seek security and fidelity with a life-partner.
The odd thing was that Jessica hadn’t seen it like that. She wasn’t sure yet whether her sister was a gullible idiot, or a wiser woman of the world. But of course Jessica had her marriage to Andrew to sustain her rosy view of men. She could afford to be generous. And Jessica was a Matt fan, too. She would hear nothing against him.
When her friends had gone their separate ways on Saturday afternoon, she tidied up, packed an overnight bag for herself and the usual paraphernalia that had to accompany Archie everywhere, ready to spend the night at Jessica’s house.
Megan had been away again, up at her rented house in Alnwick, but was due back tonight in time for dinner. Elspeth had gone back to Scotland for a few days to see her parents, so Jessica had invited Megan, Victoria and Archie to stay the night with her, so they could have a long sisterly gossip, as she put it. Victoria had a sinking feeling that could be translated into a concerted bout of interrogation, with her two older sisters ganging up over her plans to include Matt in Archie’s life.
But even with that in mind, she felt in need of Jessica’s cheerful good humour and Megan’s dry wit to snap her out of the bleak mood descending on her. She piled the bags and Archie into her car, and set off to meet her sisters with very mixed feelings.
‘Come in, Megan’s not here yet but we’ve got a lovely girlie evening because Andrew’s gone off on a golf weekend! God, you look ghastly!’ Jessica announced, eyeing her up and down with concern.
‘I always know where to come when I want my ego boosted.’
‘You should have come up to London with Matt. Andrew and I had a marvellous time last night.’
Victoria stared at her sister blankly.
‘You went up to London last night? You’ve been with Matt?’
‘Mmm.’ Jessica seemed to hesitate a moment, then smiled secretively, and tugged her arm. ‘Come and see my new painting,’ she urged.
Bewildered, Victoria left Archie to play with William and Jonathan under Mira’s watchful care, and followed Jessica into the sitting-room. An oil painting hung over the mantelpiece, and she stared at it hard for a few minutes, before the truth dawned on her. It was Jessica, so clever and subtle that the likeness gradually materialised before her eyes like a scene through mist.
‘Very good,’ she nodded approvingly. ‘When did you find time to sit for it?’
‘I didn’t,’ Jessica told her triumphantly. ‘It’s not me. Now would you say my hair was straight, or curly?’
Victoria stared at her sister uncomprehendingly, then turned back to the picture. A funny feeling tightened her throat. Jessica was right, the picture was of a woman with long, curly red hair, tumbling down over smooth, olive-skinned shoulders. The unique style and technique at first hid the true subject matter, giving an impression of random patterns in a subtle swirl of colour.
‘Well? Surely you’ve realised? It’s you, Vic!’
‘Yes, I think I can see that now.’ Victoria’s voice sounded strange, muffled, quite unlike her own.
‘Matt painted it,’ Jessica said. ‘He finished it ages ago. I had the impression he was going to give it to you, but then changed his mind. So I persuaded him to sell it to me. Well, lend it to me, anyway! I can’t afford his paintings! I hope you don’t mind. But it is good, don’t you think?’
‘Yes. It’s good.’ She carefully avoided her sister’s eyes. ‘Vaguely impressionist. Very professional.’
‘He’s been painting on and off for years,’ Jessica explained. ‘His stuff sells for megabucks. What it is to have the right contacts!’
‘True.’ She supposed if his contacts were the types who frequented the receptions at De Lembers, and auction dinners at the Hurlingham Club it was no wonder he could charge so much for his pictures. She stared at the painting. She was even more confused than usual.
‘So you went to this dinner at the Hurlingham Club?’ she asked, annoyed with herself for her curiosity. ‘Was this something to do with De Lembers?’
‘Yes, Matt is a Vice-President of the Ski Club UK, and they’d taken over the club for this auction dinner to raise money for Dr Barnardo’s Homes,’ said Jessica, her brown gaze bright and alert on her sister’s face. ‘It was a joint production between the Ski Club and De Lembers—through their shared connection with Matt, I suppose.’
‘Oh.’ Victoria sought for something non-committal to say, but she was finding it hard to remain calm and uninterested. ‘It sounds very glamorous! What did you wear?’
‘That strapless copper taffeta creation we chose together that day in London, remember? And I had my hair all piled up like this.’ Jessica’s demonstration with her stick-straight mane made them both giggle.
‘The men wore black tie. Matt looks positively lethal in evening dress, darling!’
‘I can imagine.’ Victoria hesitated, feeling slightly sick but compelled to ask the question. ‘I suppose he was with some fabulous blond?’ There was a give-away tremble in her voice, and Jessica glanced at her sharply.
‘No, brunette actually. Emma Goodman, his secretary. She looked stunning in a short sapphire lace dress.’
Victoria felt herself go hot and cold.
‘I saw her at that dinner reception at De Lembers recently,’ she fought to keep her voice level, ‘But if he’s resigned from the board, how come he still keeps Emma as his secretary?’
‘I think Emma felt a conflict of loyalties when Matt resigned,’ Jessica laughed. ‘She decided to work part-time for him, at a slight drop in salary, I should think! What devotion!’
‘Lucky Matt.’ Victoria recalled Emma’s watchful gaze on her that night, when she and Matt had been talking together. Was Emma the one? Her stomach twisted painfully.
Jessica was describing the fit young downhill skiers she had met, who were in hard training for the winter Olympics, but Victoria wasn’t listening. She was discovering a vivid, pictorial imagination, and taking central place at the moment was an image of Matt, looking dangerously attractive in evening dress, dancing with Emma.
‘Matt seems to be in great demand for private auctions,’ Jessica was saying. ‘He’d just flown back from Florence, where he valued some rich Englishman’s hoard of paintings. I’d guess his desire to drop out and be less materialistic will be short-lived.’
The welcome sound of Jessica’s doorbell announced Megan’s arrival, and while Jessica went to the door, Victoria lingered in front of the portrait, uncomprehendingly. Matt had been sufficiently indifferent to her to lose touch completely after that weekend together, two years ago. And yet, he had thought enough about her to paint her portrait. Quite vividly, from memory. She shook her head. She really could not think of a good explanation as to why Matt had painted a portrait of her, and then lent it to Jessica.
Giving up, she went into the hall to greet Megan.
‘Sicilian Lemoncello trifle or raspberry panacotta, both homemade,’ Jessica placed two dishes of dessert on the table with a flourish, and waved her serving spoon over them, ‘Which would you like to start with?’
‘Oh Christ, I’m totally stuffed, but I can’t resist either of them. I’ll have the panacotta first.’ Megan said, with only a trace of guilt in her grin, ‘Although it’s really not fair, you two can eat anything you want and never gain an ounce. I only have to look at a pudding to put on three pounds!’
‘You’re thinner than ever,’ Victoria pointed out, eyeing Megan’s slender figure in narrow black jeans and a sleeveless fitted black top which showed off a small upper arm tattoo of roses and thorns.
‘That,’ Megan waved a ring-bejewelled hand to emphasise her point, ‘Is because I hardly ever eat anything. Except when Jess cooks for me.’
‘But I always cook with healthy low fat ingredients, don’t I?’ Jessica grinned, ‘So we’re all okay. I think I’ll have the trifle, first. What about you, Vic? You’re picking at your food tonight. You’re not going down with something, are you? She looks very pale, don’t you think Megs?’
They’d just lingered over prawns pil pil, lamb with garlic and aubergines, and rosemary roast potatoes, accompanied by several glasses of pinot grigio. Victoria had made a deliberate effort to eat a good portion of everything, knowing that if she didn’t she risked inviting comments about her mood and state of health. It seemed that her efforts had been wasted. Jessica and Megan were clearly on the warpath.
Megan was eating her pudding thoughtfully. Her short hair was naturally blond, but had been embellished on this occasion with several purple highlights. She also sported a defiant tattoo, and a couple of eyebrow rings. She’d deliberately moved quite a long way from the family pattern, Victoria thought wryly.
‘You do look a bit peaky,’ Megan said, narrowing her eyes as she looked at her more closely, ‘Is the on-line side going OK?’
‘It’s early days,’ Victoria began carefully, ‘Sales could be better, but they are improving. I’m working with our IT people on our SEO at the moment.’
‘Well, if it the internet side doesn’t take off, I’ve had another little brain wave. How about creating a country weekend retreat for teenagers trying to quit drugs?’
‘Oh for God’s sake Megan!’ Jessica burst out laughing, ‘Trust you to come up with something off the wall!’
‘Why not?’ Megan shrugged, her huge dark blue eyes switching from Jessica to Victoria with a familiar militant gleam, ‘You should meet some of the kids at my therapy workshops. A break away in the country, helping out in the nursery or the farm shop, it may sound off the wall to you, but why not if it would help them?’
‘There might be security issues,’ Victoria began cautiously, ‘We wouldn’t want to put Archie, or Wills or Jonathan in any kind of danger…’
‘Scared the evil druggies might be carrying the plague virus?’ Megan said, flicking back her feathery fringe, ‘That they might pollute your sanitised middle-class middle-England bubble?’
‘That’s hardly fair, Megan,’ Victoria felt herself reddening slightly.
‘Stop preaching at us, Megs,’ Jessica said, ‘You’re wasting your time and you know it.’
‘If I understand the situation correctly,’ Megan forged on, clearly enjoying winding them both up, ‘Archie’s father came from just the kind of disadvantaged background I’m talking about. Didn’t you say Matt grew up in State care? Making part of Archie’s home into a haven for kids with screwed up lives, what could be more fitting?’
Jessica groaned and took a gulp of wine.
‘In principle, your idea has some merit,’ she said, ‘In delivery, as usual, it’s full of barbed implications! Don’t forget you come from exactly the same ‘middle class middle England bubble’ as Vic and me. And I can’t see how accepting coach loads of teenage rebels on smack cocaine could boost our business income, anyway. Quite the reverse, I’d have thought. More likely to scare all our customers away! So give it a rest, and have some trifle!’
‘Okay.’ Megan held out her dish, her expression bland. ‘But you could see what Matt thinks about the idea, Vic. He’d know what its like to be down there, on the fringe of society, on the edge of oblivion.’
Victoria stared at Megan, feeling all her defensive hackles rising again, ‘Yes. I imagine he would. But what we do with Roundwell has nothing to do with Matt. I’ll have the lemoncello trifle as well, please Jessica.’
‘I see what you mean, Jessica,’ Megan said, rolling her eyes meaningfully, ‘She’s in total denial.’
‘Oh, don’t you start on me as well!’ Victoria flared, all her suppressed anger and emotion bubbling up to the surface, ‘Don’t you two understand? I fell in love with Matt, at first sight if you care to believe anyone could be that stupid and gullible, and he had no feelings for me at all! He completely forgot my existence for two years. Maybe he’s now developed a social conscience, after all his years of ruthless ambition and pursuit of power. Maybe, just because he’s discovered he’s a father, he thinks he can now qualify as a compassionate member of the human race. Well, he’s welcome to his bloody charity dinners, he can raise all the money he likes for children’s homes, he can shower all the adoration he possesses on his baby son, but he’s making no pretence of offering to love me! At least he’s sparing me that hypocrisy. As far as I’m concerned, he can spare me the rest as well!’
Megan and Jessica looked at each other in silence.
Then Megan slowly began to clap, her eyes glittering with mockery.
‘Great speech, darling. Did you rehearse it?’
‘Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, I’m told,’ Victoria said tightly.
‘Vic, did Matt ask you to fall in love with him at first sight?’ Jessica demanded suddenly.
Victoria gazed angrily at the swirl of lemon and crème fraiche in the bowl in front of her. Finally, she let out a long breath.
‘Right. Next question, what the hell are all these bitter twisted feelings about his charity dinners, raising money for children’s’ homes? Did I miss something? Since when did charity fund raising for children make someone a despicable person?’
‘No, that’s not what…’
‘And showering adoration on his baby son, that’s just horrible, I can see why you’re so upset.’
‘And Matt’s ruthless ambition was what dragged him away from that edge, Vic. Don’t ever forget that. And having a social conscience when you’re also rich and powerful is much more effective than if you’re poor and downtrodden. God, Vic, you seem determined to cast yourself as the only victim in all of this mess! Get over yourself!’
‘Jess, I think…’ Megan began, but Victoria shook her head, ashamed of tears blurring her eyes but determined not to show how upset she was.
‘It’s OK. Jessica’s entitled to her opinions.’ Her voice sounded brittle and shaky, even to her own ears. For some reason, hearing Jessica’s scathing remarks in front of Megan felt much more painful. She and Megan had once been so close, before Megan left home. They’d been the ones to gang up on Jessica, the bossy big sister. Now it felt as if she was very much the odd one out, the one no-one else in the family could understand. And that hurt.
‘Hey, sorry if I stirred everyone up,’ Megan glanced quizzically from Jessica to Victoria, and leaned back in her chair, ‘Why don’t we change the subject and get on with planning your 21st birthday party, Vic?’ she said, ‘After all, that was the main reason for getting together for dinner tonight?’
Jessica nodded, looking relieved.
‘I’ve taken the liberty of sending invites to all our suppliers. And obviously all of your friends know about it, Vic. I think it’s a great idea, having a bonfire at Roundwell, in the walled garden, fireworks, hot dogs and mulled wine. As it’s so near Christmas, I think we should string fairy lights in all the trees up the drive and in the courtyard. How does that sound?’
Victoria took a deep breath, and shrugged, swallowing hard. Inside she was simmering with resentment. The last thing she felt like was planning her 21st birthday party.
‘Thanks. That sounds lovely.’ She managed to say, through gritted teeth.
‘I’ll go on-line and buy loads more outdoor lights,’ Megan said, reaching over to squeeze Victoria’s hand, ‘The bonfire’s growing every day. It’s going to be huge. Cheer up, darling, Jessica can be a bit rude but it had to be said. Think of it like the Mars Venus theory you loved reading, Vic. Matt has finally prowled out of his cave. Now you’ve got to haul yourself up out of your well.’
‘Aren’t you just full of the words of wisdom tonight!’ Jessica teased, standing up to begin clearing the table, ‘Coffee anyone?’
Victoria stood up, pushing her chair back abruptly. She threw her napkin down on the table.
‘Not for me. Thanks for the meal, Jessica. If you two will excuse me, I think I’ll have an early night.’
She spent the whole of Monday working on the nursery website, with the help of their IT company. At the same time, she was watching her phone and emails for any messages from Matt, but there was no communication of any sort.
Typical, she told herself. Typical. Obviously his weekend with the devoted Emma had driven all his good, paternal intentions clean out of his mind for a while. It didn’t surprise her. It just proved how right she was not to be taken in by his lethal charm. Even if both her sisters seemed to be fully paid up members of the Matt Larson fan club.
Tuesday brought a welcome distraction from waiting for his next move. It was the start of a two-day country house sale at Mount Cotmayton, in the Cotswolds. The back of the catalogue listed polytunnels, shelving and racking, and other useful bits of equipment that they needed for both the plant nursery and the packaging warehouse. Victoria had agreed to go down to see what she could get cheaply at auction.
The day dawned icy cold but sunny again. She’d arranged for Archie and Elspeth to go to Jessica’s for the night, as Megan couldn’t promise to be around and Elspeth was nervous of spending nights alone at Roundwell. She threw her overnight case into the battered Range Rover, along with the Sothebys’ catalogue, and drove off feeling guiltily relieved to be getting away. It was good to be running a family business, but there were definitely times when she felt so hemmed in by well-meaning interference she could hardly breathe.
She cruised through the Warwickshire countryside with a lighter heart. It was impossible not to feel good on a morning like this. The Roundwell she left behind looked magical this morning. The tall deciduous woods surrounding the old stone farmhouse still held on to a tatter of stubborn, glowing autumn leaves, all laced with a hoar frost which sparkled in the sunlight. The gardens still displayed a few late Michaelmas daisies and chrysanthemums. The bonfire that Megan was overseeing was as high as the walls. In spite of everything she was looking forward to her party. Twenty-one sounded so much more grown up and capable than twenty.
She stopped for lunch at a favourite pub on the brow of a hill, and ate a ploughman’s and a chocolate gateau at a window table overlooking the glorious misty sweep of the Cotswold valley below. Then she drove on until she saw the signs marked ‘Sale This Day’ and finally saw Mount Cotmayton shimmering in distant sunshine, pure symmetry in ancient Cotswold stone. An enormous marquee had been erected on one of its sweeping lawns, and cars were parked everywhere, with a preponderance of Rolls Royces, Porsches and BMWs.
Groups of elegantly clad people strolled around between the marquee and the big house, and Victoria felt glad she had made an effort to dress smartly. She had bought her black coat during that London shopping spree with Jessica. With new soft leather boots, her short clingy grey skirt suit, her hair loosely caught up in a clip, and some carefully applied make-up, she felt almost a match for the glamorous women eyeing catalogues with unlimited credit at their disposal.
She browsed around the Lots out of curiosity. Even though she had come only for the commercial gardening equipment, the treasures of the old house were alluring. Priceless paintings, glossy antique furniture, rooms full of books. She felt a touch of sadness as she strolled round. It was so sad to see big old houses carved up, their owners’ possessions auctioned off. That could have been the fate of Roundwell farm, she thought, with a stab of gratitude to her sisters and the Urquhart inheritance. At least her family home had been spared this ignominious fate.
Lost in thought, she was gazing unseeingly at a Gainsborough portrait when she heard a voice behind her.
‘This is the one!’ It was a woman’s voice, warm and confident.
Victoria was about to turn round curiously, to glimpse its owner when another voice answered, a deep, clipped voice which made the prickles rise up on the back of her neck. She slowly turned round to see Matt standing there.
Her heart thudded into reaction. He was wearing chinos, grey T-shirt and black leather jacket, with a silvery woollen scarf knotted at his neck. The dark, hard lines of his face were unsmiling, as he studied the picture in front of him. At his side was Emma Goodman, intimidatingly smart in a black suit, and warm red polo neck, with crimson lips and nails. They were looking at a painting of what appeared to be Captain Hook, from Peter Pan. It was too late to sneak out, Matt had seen her. He looked grim, she thought nervously, as he came towards her, politely introduced the dark-haired woman as his secretary, Emma.
‘Hello Victoria,’ Emma shook hands coolly, ‘How lovely to meet you at last. I saw you at the De Lembers reception, but Matt didn’t introduce us. I’m only Matt’s part-time secretary now, aren’t I?’ she added, smiling rather coyly up at him. ‘After years of secretarial mollycoddling I don’t think he’s quite grasped the fact that I’m not at his beck and call from first thing in the morning until late in the evening…’
‘Emma, would you go across to the marquee and check what number they’re on?’ Matt cut in smoothly.
He watched the shapely figure disappear from the room without any particular expression on his face, then he turned back to Victoria, his lidded gaze unnervingly tense.
‘This is a surprise,’ she said lightly. ‘What are the chances of bumping into each other today?’
‘Jessica said I’d find you here,’ he said without preamble.
‘Really? What would we do without Jessica!
‘I thought this might be a good place to meet on neutral ground.’
‘And how lucky that you could combine the occasion with business, wasn’t it!’ she said coldly.
He kept his eyes evenly on hers. ‘I have a client who collects Hodge paintings. This one has been valued at a fraction of its true price.’ He shrugged, his eyes narrowing slightly. ‘Did you enjoy your weekend with Sebastian?’.
‘Very much, thanks. Did you enjoy your weekend with Emma?’ she countered calmly. Her heart was pounding in her chest but she was determined to hide her agitation.
Matt frowned slightly. ‘Emma came to the charity auction with me. That’s all.’
She shrugged. ‘I don’t much care whether you took her to the charity auction or took her to bed,’ she said, watching the colour drain from Matt’s face with a slight twist of pain inside her.
‘Don’t you?’ he asked bleakly. She didn’t answer, and Matt let out his breath on a sharp sigh. ‘What were you looking for here? Were you just browsing?’
‘I’m looking for some garden nursery equipment,’ she answered politely, ‘Polytunnels, greenhouse shelving.’
‘Yes, of course. You’ll probably have to wait until tomorrow for the auction of the farm and gardening stuff. Did you realise that?’
‘I wasn’t sure. I imagined that might be the case. I’m staying overnight in Broadway.’ She stopped, furious with herself for telling him this, but Matt appeared to know already.
‘At the Southleache. Right?’
‘I’ll see you there at eight,’ he said quietly. ‘And no running away, Victoria. We’ve got to talk.’
She was about to protest when Emma reappeared, gliding efficiently up to join them, with a slightly patronising smile at Victoria.
‘Ten to go,’ she announced in a low voice, ‘and I think I saw Douglas Mindell from Christie’s in the crowd, so there might be more competition than you think.’
The slender white hand with the crimson tips lingered for a few seconds longer than necessary on Matt’s brown wrist, and Victoria looked away. Images of Matt in evening clothes dancing with the lady in blue returned to twist a knife in her heart.
‘Well, I think I’ll stroll round and see what I can find,’ she said lightly.
‘I’ll see you tonight,’ said Matt, in a voice which brooked no contradiction.
She spent the next hour or so wandering around the estate, incapable of coherent thought. No running away, he had said. She was tempted to check out of the hotel and go back to the farm, just to defy him. If he wanted to communicate with her, why didn’t he use a phone? But if she disappeared back to the farm, he would only follow her there. There was really nowhere she could run to. She would just have to face up to what he had to say, and deal with the humiliation later.
She left the house sale early, and gained the privacy of her hotel room, where she soaked in a bath and then dressed in the simple fitted black wool dress she’d packed for dinner at the hotel. With her hair re-done, she was pacing her room by a quarter to eight, trying to steel herself against the coming confrontation.
When she could stand the tension of waiting no longer, she snatched her clutch bag and opened her door ready to go down to the dining room, and then she gasped in surprise as she found herself face to face with Matt. He looked formidably groomed, in smart black trousers, and a soft grey cashmere sweater and jacket.
‘I was just about to knock,’ he said briefly. He flicked his gaze down over her black dress and high heels, and then back up to rest intently on her face. She waited for him to say something else, then cleared her throat nervously when he stayed silent.
‘Well, as you see, I’m ready. And I haven’t run away. Are we going to eat, or stand here in the doorway all night?’
‘We’ll eat later,’ Matt said, walking coolly past her into the bedroom, and closing the door carefully behind them. ‘First, I need to give you some explanations, Victoria. And whether you like it or not, you’re going to listen!’
She backed away from him, alarmed by his air of determination. Her brain searched furiously for some kind of escape from whatever explanations Matt clearly felt obliged to give her. She so did not want to hear whatever dutiful future he had mapped out for them, when she suspected that all he really wanted was to be with Emma.
Pride had her blurting out,
‘Before this gets any heavier, Matt, did I mention that Sebastian has asked Archie and me to go to America with him?’
‘Really? And what did you say?’ His voice was soft but there was splintered ice in his tone.
‘I…I said I’d think about it. It would be a wrench leaving Roundwell, of course,’ she plunged on, ‘But I’m seriously thinking about it. It all really comes down to what’s best for Archie…’
She stopped abruptly, because Matt caught hold of her and pulled her hard against him, the iron rigidity of his muscles telling her how precariously he was controlling his temper.
She stayed quite still, stiff and resisting, but she was aware of his desire, transmitting itself like shock waves between them. The lidded gaze was achingly familiar. She had seen it before, and she knew what it meant. Her throat dried up in fear. Fear of her own weakness.
‘What’s best for Archie is being with his mother and his father. There’s no way you’re going anywhere with Sebastian or with anyone else,’ he said harshly, raking his fingers into her hair and discarding the clip which held it up so that it tumbled round her face in wild confusion. ‘You belong with me, you and Archie.’
The last words were groaned against her cheek, and then he found her mouth, and his tongue prised her lips apart and drove deeply inside in reckless possession, until it was suddenly no use trying to resist the onslaught.
Hating herself, she still succumbed to the heat flaring inside her and she began to kiss him back, mindlessly, in hungry despair, clutching frantically at his hair and stupidly trying to get closer although they were already moulded tightly together.
‘Victoria…’ He breathed her name, and with shuddering urgency he lifted her and laid her on the bed, undoing the zipper of her dress and pulling the soft black wool down to her waist, the silver eyes burning with a need which melted her completely, emptying her brain of thought, fanning the flames in her stomach which were threatening to consume her.
‘Matt, please…’ she whispered shakily. ‘Oh God, Matt, don’t make me hate you.’
His hard body was heavy against her, his hands and his lips arousing her to feverish impatience. This time there was no child-monitor shattering the fog of desire. And there was anger, stirred into the potent mix of sexual attraction and torn emotions. She was trembling all over, helpless with need. She knew she should stop him, but when his fingers pushed away the skimpy black lace of her bra she could only shiver in excitement and close her eyes. When he took her breasts in his hands and did whatever magical thing he did to them she was sinking into the dark hot place where only he could take her. She couldn’t stop herself from touching him, finding the warm muscles of his stomach and chest under his sweater, fighting to get rid of the barrier of his jacket and trousers. With the last of their clothes hurled anyhow on the floor, Matt pinned her to the bed with an abruptness that took her breath away.
‘You don’t hate me,’ he said hoarsely, ‘And I don’t hate you. Stop playing your bloody childish games, Victoria’ and he kissed her again, with a deep consuming possessiveness, and then he thrust inside her, hard and urgent, and they clung together in a shuddering explosion of passion.
When it was over, reality came crashing back. She shivered.
‘You just made me hate myself,’ she whispered.
There was a long shattered silence. Then Matt levered himself away and rolled on to his back, still breathing rapidly, his eyes closed as if he were in agony.
Forcing herself to move, she swung her legs down and began to fumble around on the floor for her bra and thong, pulling them on with trembling fingers, dragging her dress back on, hating the tears which threatened to overflow and holding them back furiously.
When she had dressed, she turned back to him.
‘You can go back to Emma now,’ she said. ‘Now you’ve proved what a great lover you still are!’
Matt slowly levered himself up. He stood up and dragged on boxer shorts and then his trousers.
‘I’m sorry. That wasn’t premeditated. But when you talk about marrying another man, how do you expect me to react?’
‘Congratulate me and wish me luck?’ she mocked, ‘And who said anything about marriage?’
He stared at her bleakly, raising his hands and then dropping them by his sides. The action sent a ripple of movement through the hard muscles of his arms, chest and abdomen, and she shut her eyes to block out the irresistible appeal of his body.
‘I’m sorry. I wish this hadn’t happened.’
‘Let’s just hope I’m not quite as fertile as I was last time.’ She loathed herself instantly she had said it, but it was too late to withdraw the words. He flinched, but his eyes didn’t waver from her face.
‘I’m sorry, because I came here to talk to you, try to explain.’
‘I don’t want to hear,’ she retorted, her voice rising slightly. ‘I don’t want to know how responsible you feel, how sorry you feel for me, how . . . ‘
‘Stop it! You’re talking rubbish!’ he said sharply, coming swiftly round the bed and pulling her down to sit beside him. ‘Victoria… I came to try to convince you how much I care for you! Christ knows, I didn’t mean to rush things like that, make you angry again, screw things up again!’
‘I don’t feel angry. I feel…confused. Humiliated,’ she said unevenly.
‘Then how can I make you understand? I’m not even sure where to begin.’
‘Begin where you like,’ she suggested tonelessly, ‘But you’ll be wasting your breath. I understand you better than you think.’
He shook his head slowly. ‘No, Victoria. You don’t understand me at all. I’m no good at explaining my feelings. But I’ve never stopped wanting you, ever since that first weekend at the farm.’
‘You expect me to believe that?’ she exploded incredulously. ‘I may be fifteen years younger than you, I may only be a spoilt brat of 20, but I’m not totally brainless.’
‘Who thinks you’re a spoilt brat?’ His mouth twitched slightly.
‘My sisters! Who both seem to think you’re God’s gift to creation, incidentally.’
‘I don’t think you’re a spoilt brat,’ he said, ‘However misguided you’ve been, in not telling me about Archie, you’ve coped as a single mother, running a growing business, and you’ve built a safe secure world for Archie. That makes you strong and courageous. I’m proud of you.’
Slightly wrong-footed by this unexpected declaration of support, she blinked at him.
‘Well, thank you. But don’t tell me you’ve never stopped wanting me. If you want someone you don’t forget their existence for nearly two years!’
‘But it’s true,’ he said quietly, a muscle working in his cheek. ‘You’ve got to believe me.’
‘I don’t understand!’
‘No, I’m not sure I do. There’s no rational explanation for the effect you have on me.’
‘You’re talking in riddles!’ she raked tendrils of hair back from her face furiously. ‘You say you actually cared for me, when we slept together that night, and yet you were so deliberately cruel to me! And for two whole years you never contacted me!’
With an anguished groan Matt hunched forward, his elbows on his thighs, head in hands. She stared at his rigid shoulders, but fear, pride, bitterness kept her silent and motionless.
‘OK, here goes,’ he said finally, dropping his hands from his face, and easing back his broad shoulders slightly. ‘I’ve told you, I’m not good at explaining my feelings. But I’ll try. I looked at you, that day we first met, and you made a strong impact on me. I don’t know what it was. What is it about someone else that draws you to them? Maybe it was the way you looked at me, with those tawny-almond eyes…’
‘Maybe it was the way I flashed my boobs at you?’ she suggested coolly.
He half smiled, spread his hands in a flat, despairing gesture.
‘That could never have been a bad thing,’ he grinned briefly, ‘But I’m being serious, Victoria. All I know is, I wanted you. And that frightened me. It still does. When I see someone I want that much I have this violent gut-reaction to block them out. I just want to fight the feeling any way I can.’
She sat rigid, listening but not understanding. Her hands were clenched tightly in her lap.
‘So I put up some fairly heavy-duty barricades,’ he went on with a trace of self-mockery in his eyes. ‘But somehow you managed to get through. I told myself you were much too young. Virtually a child . . .’
‘I was nearly nineteen.’
‘Yes, and you were Jessica’s little sister, how could I seduce you under her roof? But you were looking at me as if I were blind, or half-witted or something! That was the hardest part of all. You wanted me, and you didn’t even try to hide it. You were so vulnerable, innocent, sweet and generous, all the things I least wanted and least deserved. I just wanted to hit out, belittle you, devalue the whole thing.’
He shook his head wearily, his face drawn. ‘When you came into my room that night, trying to explain how you felt, I finally snapped. I’ll admit I took what you were offering for the wrong reasons. I thought if did, I’d somehow defuse the tension. Sex can be a very mechanical thing. I thought it might break the spell.’ His mouth twisted in pain. ‘Instead, I felt as if I’d jumped over a cliff into the dark.’
She closed her eyes tightly, then, and images of that night with Matt came swirling into her mind, mingling with the bitter ecstasy she had just experienced once more. The tenderness, the sheer, indescribable beauty of giving herself to Matt that first time, and the cruel slap in the face of his reaction afterwards. Her head was spinning. She was numbed by what Matt was trying to tell her. If his words were true, then he, too, had felt some of the magic of that weekend, he had sensed a deeper meaning to it all, shared something, just a fraction perhaps, of what she had experienced. It was a heady, potent possibility.
But if he had felt even a fraction of her consuming passion, he couldn’t have left that night, and stayed away all that time, made no effort to contact her at all. It just wasn’t possible.
‘New York seemed the perfect escape route,’ he went on in a hunted voice, as if he was driving himself to continue. ‘But I couldn’t get you out of my mind. I painted a picture of you.’ He gave a mirthless laugh, and she nodded slowly.
‘Yes, I saw it at Jessica’s.’
‘I thought it might exorcise the ghosts. I’d transfer you to oil-paint and canvas and then get rid of you. Sell you, stick you in a cupboard, anything to get you out of my mind and give me some uninterrupted sleep at night!’
She met his eyes then, for the first time, staring at him curiously.
‘And did you put me in a cupboard?’
‘Yes. It didn’t work.’ There was wry self-mockery in his voice again.
‘Maybe you should have persevered with the therapy.’
‘Maybe.’ Matt raked back his hair, and drew a deep breath. ‘I tried quite a few others. Immersing myself in work, climbing and skiing at weekends.’
‘Lots of other women?’
The lidded eyes glittered. ‘No, no other women,’ he said quietly. ‘I made the acquaintance of several. But I didn’t take any of them to bed.’
‘Ascetic as a monk,’ she mocked faintly. ‘I’d have thought the mechanical act of sex would have been just the thing to take your mind off things.’
‘Yes, I thought so too. But after what I experienced with you, I found I felt differently about sex, ‘Matt said in a low, taut voice.
‘How romantic!’ she taunted, and he swung round to grip her shoulders, making her heart thump unevenly again.
‘Don’t do that!’ he grated urgently. ‘Knowing how much I’ve hurt you is bad enough. Seeing how much you’ve changed is even harder to bear. When we first met you were romantic, impulsive, you had that fresh innocence that was like a breath of pure oxygen.’
‘And now I’m defensive and cynical? Quite true. But what do you expect, Matt?’
‘I realise that I should have emailed, or phoned, or come back and told you how I felt. I didn’t. I could have handled the whole thing better. I accept that. But so could you! And by the time I knew what I really wanted I was so deeply embroiled in that mess over Sam Kent I didn’t even have time to think straight. And then I chose to resign, change the whole structure of my career. By that time messages, texts, emails, letters, phone calls—they would all have been worthless in trying to renew contact with you. I waited until I was back in England. I rang Jessica, and sounded her out. For all I knew you might have met someone else, got married even. Then Jessica laid into me about abandoning the mother of my baby son.’
There was a silence, then he said softly, ‘You cannot imagine how I felt then.’
Avoiding his eyes, she stared at the tapestry pattern on the hotel bedspread. ‘So you’re saying Archie wasn’t the only reason you looked me up again?’ she asked finally, aware of an irritating tremble in her voice.
‘I’ve just told you the truth, Victoria,’ said Matt. ‘I knew nothing about Archie until after I came back to find you. But finding out about him made me very angry. I realise you were under no legal obligation to tell me about the baby, but morally… Jesus, Vic, you should have told me! I had to take off on a long, hard hike up the steepest mountain I could find, and kick the hell out of several rocks for an entire weekend, before I even trusted myself to meet you. I was so angry with you, and with myself, and with the wasted months when I could have been with you, and with my baby son.’
She stared intently into space. She realised she was counting the pink and green flowers in the wallpaper border, interwoven in a twisted, heraldic design. Her sense of numbness grew, a sense of unreality, as if they were talking about two people completely unrelated to themselves.
‘When we met again, you were so cool and distant, and different…all the things I’d been planning to say and do seemed impossible,’ Matt was saying. ‘I admit I’m useless at emotional scenes. They make me want to run as fast as I can in the opposite direction!’
‘So what exactly do you want of me now?’ she asked at last, turning a detached gaze on him.
‘I want us to be together. I want you and Archie and me to be a family. I want my son to know his father and his mother.’
‘But what makes you think we could give Archie a secure family?’ she persisted. ‘I mean, from what you’ve just told me about your feelings, it’s not exactly a glowing character reference for a stable family man, is it?’
The harsh face twisted into a wry smile.
‘I can’t answer that. All I know is, I want to be with you. And with my son.’
‘Yes, but barring sex, which I’ve just decided is a very poor basis for making decisions, what else do we have in common?’
He expelled his breath in a long, weary sigh, and stood up, pulling her slowly up to face him.
‘Victoria….sex might not be up to much as far as other people are concerned, but between you and me… ‘ The look in his eyes made her shiver with fresh panic and she steeled herself against him with every ounce of willpower she had left. ‘Don’t pretend there isn’t magic, Victoria. And all we’ve had is one experience, nearly two years ago. We won’t count that hasty, rushed episode just now—that hardly did justice to the way I feel about you. You’ve no idea how much better it could be…’ He had moved a fraction closer, his lips brushed against her cheek, and his hands slid up into her hair. ‘I want to make love to you very, very slowly…’ he breathed against her ear, and with a slight strangled sob she found the impetus to push him violently away from her.
‘Don’t do that!’ she said glacially. ‘I can’t think straight when you do that.’
‘Don’t think, then. Just feel,’ he murmured, a glitter of wry humour in his eyes.
‘I want you to tell me what you think we have in common!’ she demanded fiercely, clutching her arms around herself protectively. ‘How do you see a relationship between us working? A father who gains his son’s love, then walks away whenever responsibilities prove too demanding, or a father who just can’t handle love and emotion because he’s never known it himself? A father who puts up barriers instead of reaching out and loving, because that’s the way he’s been programmed to behave? Don’t you think that could be far worse than no father at all?’
There was a lengthy silence.
In her heart, Victoria was wincing in anguish. Her stomach was knotted with pent up anger and emotion. That had been cruel, she told herself, appalled. What she had just said was cruel and hurtful. But pride kept her from taking it back. Pride and a defensive desire to punish him for all the pain he’d caused her.
Matt’s voice sounded cooler, more distant when he at last spoke again.
‘You’re quite right. We should be practical and level-headed about this.’ The grey eyes narrowed thoughtfully, ‘We need a marriage contract, like the Elizabethans.’
‘Marriage? I’m not sure marriage could ever work for me. I’m not sure you and I could ever be happy together.’
Matt looked bleaker.
‘At least hear me out, Victoria! Apart from providing the missing parent for Archie, I could inject capital into Roundwell, take some of the work-load off you, hire more staff to help run things. We could divide our time between Warwickshire and London. We could split our time between the farm and city. I’ve got a place in Lombardy, near Lake Garda. We could go there when I teach you and Archie to ski…’
‘You have got it all worked out!’ she mocked coolly.
Matt shrugged. ‘I’ve had nearly two years to think about it,’ he pointed out with justice. ‘As far as common interests go, I’ve been working on an outline for a book recently, on the art treasures of the world. It would be for charity. We could choose together where the royalties went. I thought maybe you’d like to help me with it—with your love of history and my knowledge of antiques we might prove a good team.’ He hesitated a moment, and then smiled slightly, some of his icy control disappearing. ‘And then, let’s see, you could maybe sign an undertaking to accompany me moor-walking in Cornwall, I’ve got a cottage down at Port Gaverne, and promise to eat the vegetarian meals I cook for you, and I could undertake to come swimming and dancing with you, and take you to see Shakespeare, and buy you Italian meals, and boxes of chocolates…’
‘Please, stop it!’ she broke in, covering her ears with her hands, feeling a mixture of hysteria and despair. ‘I can’t take all this in. I can’t think. I can’t even tell you what I feel right now.’
‘Victoria.’ His deep voice was suddenly a caress, with a vibration which touched a dangerous chord deep inside her. ‘Please, sweetheart, if I can forgive you for keeping Archie a secret, say you forgive me for being hopelessly uptight and repressed. Say you forgive me. Let’s try to put things right between us.’
She pressed her hands to her eyes, overwhelmed by conflicting feelings. She was shivering with tension, as if every nerve in her body was suddenly under attack.
‘That’s just it,’ she whispered painfully. ‘That’s the worst thing. That’s the terrifying thing. I honestly don’t know if we ever can.’
‘Don’t say that.’ Matt’s voice was low. There was a slight break in it which made her jerk up her head and stare at him in anguish. A muscle was working spasmodically in his lean cheek, and the silver eyes were suspiciously brilliant beneath the lowered lids. She felt as if she were splintering into a thousand fragments.
‘Sweetheart, let me take you back to bed again, now,’ he said huskily, the words barely audible in the hush of the room. ‘Let me make love to you again, and show you what I really feel for you.’
‘No!’ However much it hurt now, she couldn’t face all the heartache again, of letting herself love him and losing him all over again, ‘Matt, I loved you so much. You’ll never know how much. It was so instant, so overwhelming, there was nothing I could do about it. I felt as if we were supposed to be together, as if I’d known you before, somehow. For six months after you went to New York I hoped you’d ring me, I waited and waited. I was so sure you’d realise you’d been wrong, and find you couldn’t live without me after all…’
‘I did,’ he said gently, his face tense and bleak as he stared at her.
‘But it’s too late!’ She dragged in a ragged breath, ‘When you didn’t come back, I knew I had to stop thinking about you, stop loving you. I had to make myself stop caring! If I hadn’t, I could never have carried on with my life.’ Her throat was dry, and she swallowed jerkily, feeling a rush of resolve, ‘And that was how I gradually came to realise that what I felt for you before wasn’t love at all. It was just a…a girlish crush. Puppy love. How could I have fallen in love with you, in the space of a weekend? Ridiculous. No-one believes in love at first sight!’
‘I had to make myself stop loving you. And now, I don’t love you any more, Matt.’
She turned away from him abruptly. She couldn’t keep going while she was looking at him.
‘I don’t love you, and I don’t want us to be together. So please, just go.’ Hearing herself saying the words made her stomach contract in agony, made her go cold inside. She felt as if she could never be warm again.
After what seemed an eternity she heard the door open and close with a muted slam, and she realised he had really gone.
She swung round and stared around the empty bedroom, then sank back down on to the bed, completely enervated. She couldn’t think. Her brain felt deadened. She had no idea how much time elapsed before she stiffly began to pack her case, and checked out of the hotel. All she knew was this awful cold, sinking emptiness inside, and a pain in her heart worse than she had ever felt in her life, and the pressing need to get home, back to Archie and the timeless security of Roundwell.
Jessica opened the door in a cherry-red dressing-gown when Victoria arrived on her doorstep early next morning.
With one glance at her white face and stricken expression, Jessica caught Victoria’s hands and pulled her quickly into the warmth of the hall.
‘What are you doing here so early! What’s wrong?’
‘Everything’s wrong,’ said Victoria wearily, meeting Jessica’s eyes, ‘I’ve really messed things up this time.’
Tears threatened to choke her. She’d started to shiver uncontrollably.
‘How did you get so cold? What have you been doing?’
‘Sitting in the car.’ she confessed, with a short laugh. I wanted time to think. I parked up on the Burton Hills.’
She nodded, vaguely registering her sister’s despairing expression.
Jessica was extracting her from the black coat, propelling her into an armchair, lighting the gas-log fire, and calling to Mira to bring tea. ‘Thank goodness it didn’t freeze last night, that’s all. You could have died of hypothermia, you total idiot!’
‘You’re right. I am a total idiot. And everything is a mess,’ she said at last, still shivering, ‘I told Matt to go away … I told him I didn’t love him.’
She stopped abruptly, pressing her fingers to her mouth, grappling for control, and then in a garbled rush the whole disastrous confrontation came pouring out, in bitter, jerky sentences. There was a silence when she’d finished.
‘Do you really want Matt to stay away from you and Archie?’ Jessica said finally.
She raised hunted eyes to her sister’s narrowed gaze, and then shook her head jerkily.
‘No! Oh God, no!’ she groaned, rubbing her forehead, ‘I just felt… I felt that I couldn’t face it all over again. How can I explain? I’m not even sure how to explain it to myself!’
‘You’re frightened of letting yourself trust him.’
Victoria sighed. ‘Yes. And I’ve been having a bit of a struggle with my pride.’
Jessica smiled slightly. ‘I wonder why?’ she taunted, ‘Surely you’re not about to admit you’re as proud and stubborn as a mule?’
‘Are mules proud? I thought that was peacocks,’ she countered, smiling reluctantly.
‘No, peacocks are vain, and at least that’s one fault you don’t have, little sister.’ Jessica sat back with a thoughtful gleam in her eyes which was all too familiar. Even in the slightly tatty red dressing gown she managed to look glamorous, groomed and elegantly in control.
‘Don’t tell me you’ve got another brilliant plan,’ Victoria sighed, ‘You’ve meddled enough already. God, Jess, you set us up again, yesterday. You should open your own dating agency!’
‘And all I’ve been doing is try and push together two of the nicest and stupidest people I know!’
Victoria managed a smile, but her heart felt leaden. Her cold vigil, huddled in the Range Rover last night, had finally opened a window on a dazzling, painfully bright truth. Matt had summoned every ounce of courage to beg her forgiveness. He had said he was no good at grovelling, but he had made a pretty good job of it. And she had sent him away. He hadn’t actually said he loved her, but he’d offered her everything else, offered to share his life with her and Archie, support them, create a family together, and she had been too strangled with fear and pride to accept his offer.
Worse still, she’d lied to him. She’d told him she didn’t love him any more. And now she’d completely blown it. He’d gone.
‘I’d been thinking that he was in love with Emma Goodman,’ she told Jessica suddenly, her voice distracted. ‘But maybe he’s not…’
Jessica agreed, an edge to her voice, ‘She’s quite possibly been in love with him for years, but you know how good Matt is at keeping people at arm’s length.’
‘Yes.’ Victoria lowered her eyes, remembering their frantic, explosive lovemaking last night. She had somehow got through his barricades, he had said. All that intense, repressed passion appeared to be for her alone. Last night’s sensations flooded back through her, and she blushed involuntarily, warmth gradually displacing the chill inside her.
‘I love him, Jessica,’ she said, ‘I realised what an idiot I’ve been, while I was watching the sun come up this morning. I’ve been so busy protecting myself from getting hurt again. But Archie deserves better than me feuding constantly with his father. And anyway, I finally faced my biggest fear. A future without Matt would be so much more horrible than the risk of loving him, and losing him again.’ She tugged shaky fingers through her dishevelled hair, and rubbed her eyes wearily, ‘Oh God, is it always like this?’
‘Falling in love, trying to have a normal relationship?’
‘What’s a normal relationship?’ Jessica pulled a wry face.
‘You know what I’ve always thought?’ Victoria rubbed her fingers over her eyes, ‘You meet someone, you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, you have romantic dates, an engagement party, a fairytale wedding, a dreamlike honeymoon, enjoy several years as an inseparable couple before producing two gorgeous little children to complete your wedded bliss. And before you say anything, I do accept that my girlie vision isn’t going to happen to me!’
‘I doubt if it really happens to anyone, Vic.’
‘But surely, you and Andrew?’
‘Andy and I have had our problems, like anyone else. We’re okay now, I think, but we’ve had a few moments when we nearly gave up on it. In fact, I’ve even wondered recently if he’s …’ Jessica ran a hand through her hair, then stopped. There was a slight sound at the door, and they both turned to see Mira’s striking, high-cheek boned face peering in. ‘Oh, thank you Mira.’
‘You’re welcome.’ The blonde girl’s husky Bosnian accent gave the platitude a sing-song sexiness that hung in the air as she glided in with the tray.
‘Just leave it here, would you?’ Jessica pointed to the low table by the fire.
Mira smiled and carefully deposited the tray containing two steaming mugs of tea. They both waited until she’d gone out of the room again.
Victoria sipped the hot drink gratefully.
‘But we’re not talking about Andy and me,’ Jessica picked up where she’d left off, ‘We’re talking about you and Matt. You two really are your own worst enemies. Matt has all his past experiences to blame for the way he’s mishandled this thing with you. And you, well, basically you’re so young and inexperienced, Vic, and so impetuous, sometimes I just despair of ever getting through to you!’
Jessica’s expression was so frustrated that Victoria gave a short laugh.
‘It’s alright. I am beginning to get the message. What were you going to say about Andrew, just now?’
‘Nothing that won’t wait for another time.’ Jessica stood up suddenly, ‘I think I can hear breakfast mayhem starting up in the kitchen!’
Victoria stared at her sister closely. ‘Jess, you’d tell me if there was something wrong, wouldn’t you?’
‘Of course. Let’s go and see what mayhem our little darlings are creating, shall we?’
They took their tea mugs through to the kitchen, where mayhem was indeed in full swing. Archie was currently plastering Weetabix all over Elspeth and the kitchen floor, and William was giggling as Mira tried to feed him fingers of buttered toast. Jonathan was in his baby-bounce chair, watching the proceedings with solemn appreciation.
Uncaring of his sticky state, Victoria lifted Archie out of his high chair and cuddled him close against her, then held him a little away to look into the familiar silver eyes.
‘Your Daddy wanted us to try to be a family,’ she said to her wide-eyed son, trying to hold back tears, ‘We’d have liked that, wouldn’t we!’
‘Then what are you waiting for?’ Jessica gave her a small shake, ‘For God’s sake, Vic, ring him, just tell him the truth, tell him how you feel!’
‘I think it might be too late. So far, I’ve sent him three texts, left three voice messages for him, and sent him an email…’
‘How long ago?’
Victoria turned to meet Jessica’s impatient eyes, and shrugged miserably.
‘I sent the last message about an hour ago.’
‘And what… nothing?’
Victoria shook her head.
Jessica pulled a face. ‘Nice one, Matt,’ she murmured, ‘What did you say in your messages?’
‘Just…just that I’d been thinking all night, and I need to talk to him.’
Jessica took Archie from Victoria’s arms, and plopped him back in his highchair.
‘I’ve got to get to the farm shop within an hour, so I have to go and shower. And in the meantime, Vic, please go home and get some sleep! You look like the living dead. When it’s a less anti-social hour, I’ll ring Emma, see if she knows where Matt has gone.’
‘Don’t bother,’ Victoria felt her voice crack as she imparted the final bit of information she’d been trying to block out, ‘When I said I’d heard nothing, I did get a response to my email.’ She went back to the sitting room, retrieved her mobile phone from her bag. Jessica followed her, then frowned at the screen Victoria showed her. ‘I got this automated message. He’s only gone back to bloody New York! And, naturally, he gives Emma Goodman’s email address to contact with anything urgent!’
Nearly a hundred guests were clustered in groups, wrapped up warm in coats, hats and scarves, chattering and laughing, their breath clouding in the icy December air. There was the spicy scent of warm mulled wine, and a rich savoury smell of barbecued burgers, sausages and fried onions. The fairy lights in the trees turned the courtyard and walled garden into a kind of magical grotto. Assorted small children weaved in and out of the adults, waving sparklers and shouting excitedly as the bonfire leaped and crackled and the fireworks whooshed, fizzed and popped.
Victoria, with Caroline and Shelley helping, was busy behind the barbecue, putting sausages into bread rolls, garnishing them with onions, and distributing them to hungry guests. Sebastian was there somewhere, with a sweet-faced girl who he’d introduced meaningfully as ‘just a friend’. Victoria hoped otherwise, feeling pleased for him.
She gazed around her, smiling but distracted, her eyes constantly scanning the crowds. There were two reasons for this. One was that she was checking that Archie was alright. The other was that Matt hadn’t arrived yet, and she was on tenterhooks, wondering if he would really come as he’d said he would.
She located her small son, who was on safety reins for the evening, with Elspeth firmly grasping them. William was delightedly prancing around to demonstrate his freedom, provoking wails of complaint. She watched Elspeth put a sparkler into Archie’s gloved hand, helped him to draw golden circles in the night air with it, hovering to make sure he held it away from his face, saw the look of wonder replace the tantrum.
She was doing her best to enjoy the evening, but she was in a state of heightened nervous tension. She and Matt had been exchanging a few brief texts and emails over the last few days, hers stressing that she really had to talk to him, his responses emotionless and factual, stating that he’d gone to New York to see Sam Kent’s family before Christmas, to make sure they were OK. But nevertheless, they’d been communicating. He’d emailed two days ago, to say that he would be back from his trip in time to come to her birthday party. Just the thought of seeing him again tonight, after ten days of absence, was making her palms damp and her stomach twist into knots.
So far, he hadn’t arrived. She fiddled with her scarf, and served another hot dog, exchanged some jokey banter with one of their suppliers. If he didn’t come soon, she was going to explode like one of the fireworks.
Megan was coming over to her. Her sister was with Daniel Rockston, one of their best customers. Daniel was a chef and restaurateur, who had taken over the Golden Lion, transforming the already successful gastro-pub into a really top-end restaurant, and he bought all of his organic meat from the farm shop.
‘Great party, kind of a cross between Guy Fawkes and Christmas.’ Daniel grinned. He had a tall, Rugby-playing build, and his dark blue eyes were friendly under spiky-cut black hair.
‘Sorry we can’t match your haute cuisine,’ she smiled back, ‘But have a hot dog anyway!’
‘I just came to tell you that I saw Matt arriving a minute ago,’ Megan said, her face pink from standing by the bonfire, ‘And you shouldn’t be lurking here serving the food, it’s your party!’
‘I needed something to do… where is he?’ Victoria’s throat was dry with fear.
‘I don’t know, somewhere in the crowd over there…’
‘Shall I go and see if I can round him up for you?’ Shelley suggested, exchanging glances with Caroline.
‘Happy Birthday, Victoria.’ Matt’s deep voice spoke just behind her. She spun round, her heart thudding so loudly she was sure he must hear it.
He looked so bone-meltingly gorgeous, tall, broad-shouldered, unsmiling, his hair flopping over his eyes, in Levis, thick sweater, black leather jacket, his silver-grey scarf wound round his neck. She couldn’t catch her breath for a moment. God, she’d have to breathe into a paper bag in a minute, like an asthma sufferer.
Megan had calmly taken over the food serving, Caroline and Shelley were unashamedly gawping at Matt, and Daniel was spinning a good line to nearby guests about cordon bleu sausages and organic fried onions.
‘How does it feel to be all grown up at last?’ Matt mocked lightly.
‘OK. Good.’ She felt awkward, self-conscious, heat colouring her face and neck, impossibly shy and nervous suddenly, ‘Umm… can we go somewhere private, Matt?’
‘Right now? I only just got here. What about my cordon bleu hot dog?’ He was deadpan and teasing, no flicker of emotion.
‘It has to be right now. I can’t wait any longer.’
‘Sounds too good to turn down. How private do we need to be?’
He clearly wasn’t going to make this easy for her.
‘Private enough so I can talk to you. It’s my turn to give you some explanations. And I really hope you’re going to listen to me better than I did to you.’
She summoned the courage to grab his arm, her fingers impatiently closing round the hard muscle beneath the leather. She purposefully steered him away from the various clusters of guests, some of whom were observing their encounter with amused interest. She practically frog-marched him round the side of the house, past groups of people who were gathered to watch the next round of fireworks being lit by a friend of Andy’s. She could see that the kitchen was a bustling centre of preparation, Jessica pink-faced in a large striped apron, overseeing fresh supplies of food to be ferried outside.
Victoria tugged Matt past the kitchen door, towards the French doors that led into the sitting room. Finally alone, she shut the doors behind them, flicked on a table lamp, and turned to face him.
Suddenly her nerve failed. All the words that wanted to pour out, the apologies, the truths about her feelings, seemed to jam up inside her.
‘How…how was New York?’ she said awkwardly.
Matt looked faintly surprised, but said, ‘OK. The family are still traumatised.’
‘Could you do anything for them?’
‘I left some money with Sam’s widow, enough to pay for as much family counselling as it takes.’ Matt let out a shaky breath, and shrugged, ‘I didn’t feel I helped them much. There’s not much you can do to speed up the grieving process. The little girl is doing alright, but Leo is struggling. I suggested he might take the classic gap year and go travelling, and he was seriously thinking about it when I left.’
‘Are you OK?’ She wanted to reach out and take his hand, but she felt paralysed with nerves. ‘It must have been harrowing for you.’
‘I’m OK. Thank you. Did you drag me in here to make small talk, Victoria? Because I thought we had it all sorted out last time we talked. I’d still like to go and say hello to Archie, if that’s alright with you?’
She took a breath, determined not to lose her impetus now.
‘Yes. No. Matt…’ she began, huskily, ‘The things I said, the way I acted at the hotel, I was being stupid, and defensive, and hurtful, and cruel. I’m so sorry I hurt you. I think I might have hurt myself even more than I hurt you…’
‘Matt… I’m sorry, so, so sorry.’
‘Sorry for what? For being honest, telling me that you could never see a relationship between us working? What exactly are you trying to say, Victoria?’ He was looking down at her with that unnerving gaze.
‘That I wasn’t being honest!’ she said, her voice choking, ‘I’m trying to say that… that… that if you still want us to try to be a family, see if we can make it all work, you, me and Archie, and do all the stuff you talked about that night at the hotel, I’d like to try too.’
He stared at her in silence for a long, heart-stopping time.
‘Even though, last time we talked face to face,’ he repeated with careful deliberation, ‘You told me you didn’t love me any more. And that I could never be a family man, never be a good father.’
‘I’m sorry. I was lashing out. Protecting myself. Defence the best form of attack, you know? I thought you were just trying to be honourable, do your duty to me and Archie. I… I thought you loved Emma.’
‘When did you dream that up?’
‘The day we took Archie to the park? You said that up till two years ago, you’d never met anyone you wanted to get involved with. I thought you couldn’t possibly be talking about me. So you meant you’d fallen in love with someone else. Just before that weekend at Jessica’s. That you’d had to put up with my infatuation with you, while you were in love with someone else.’
Matt shook his head slightly, as if trying to compute illogical information.
‘So that was it. Why you suddenly froze me out all over again. I don’t love Emma. I was trying to tell you how much I cared about you.’
Her breath hitched, and she felt a shudder of emotion sweep through her.
‘So, I guess it’s a shame that you don’t love me anymore.’ he added quietly.
She felt hot tears prickling her eyes, and rubbed her hands over her face to banish them.
‘I might have exaggerated a little, about not loving you any more,’ she whispered, her heart thudding erratically, ‘No, more than a little. Basically I lied.’
‘So what’s new there?’
Heat flooded her face. She unwound her scarf, and flung it onto the sofa.
‘I suppose I deserved that.’
His slightly raised eyebrows were his only response.
She felt physically sick now, the sense of helplessness growing. ‘Why did you bother coming tonight, if you’re just going to sneer and mock?’
‘I’m not.’ Matt unwound his own scarf, and it followed hers onto the sofa. ‘I’m just not sure of my ground at the moment.’
She stared at him, trembling with nerves.
‘That makes two of us! Why did you ask me to marry you?’
‘I already told you. Archie deserves a secure upbringing, with both his parents, if possible, to be there for him.’
She bit her lip. This was not going the way she’d hoped.
‘Is that the only reason?’
‘No.’ Matt narrowed his eyes to silver slits, and his voice had an angry edge when he added softly, ‘It’s not the only reason, Victoria, and you know it. There’s the fact that I am hopelessly in love with you. Christ knows why, when you are such a fucking nightmare.’
She caught her breath, held it to prolong the cautious little zing of joy inside.
‘Right.’ Had she really just heard Matt say he was in love with her? She had to fight to keep her voice level, ‘So, if you love me, and I love you back, could we maybe… start again? Could you maybe… ask me to marry you again?’
He had gone very still, and she stepped forward, finding her courage, reached out her hands to touch his shoulders, then his face.
‘It wasn’t all lies,’ she whispered, reaching on her toes to kiss him lightly on the mouth, ‘I did try really hard to stop myself from loving you. I just didn’t succeed, that’s all.’
She felt him shudder against her, and she moved in closer, wrapped her arms round him and held him as tightly as her muscles would let her.
‘Of course I still love you. I always have and always will.’ She breathed it against his chest, and finally felt him relax, felt his arms tighten around her until she was almost breathless. ‘And if you ask me to marry you again, I promise to say yes.’
He pushed her a little away, his eyes narrowed on her face.
‘Will you marry me, Victoria?’
‘Um mm… oh, Gosh, let me think… yes?’ She laughed up at him.
‘See what I mean? You’re a nightmare.’ He caught her head in his hands and kissed her, and the kiss seemed to release all the suppressed emotion of the last couple of years. Lost in it, all her senses swimming ecstatically in the dark sea of love and desire, she felt him stroke the whole length of her until she was moulded to his body, hot, breathless, and deliriously happy. She could stay like this for ever, she thought dizzily, although maybe without quite so many layers of clothing in the way, kissing Matt, crushed in the solid strength of his arms, knowing that he loved her. God, he loved her! Matt loved her! That made everything perfect, nothing could ever go wrong again, if Matt just loved her and she loved him back. There was a manic little sparkler-waving princess leaping up and down doing the Highland Fling in her heart.
‘Right,’ he eased them apart at last, his voice hoarse, ‘We need to go and find your sisters, and Archie, and all your friends, and tell them our news. But first, I want to give this.’
The box he drew out of his jacket pocket was small, square, from an expensive jewellers.
‘My birthday present?’ Her throat was suddenly tighter.
‘No. But it matches your birthday present.’
Eyes wide, she flipped the lid to see tucked into soft black satin a big, square cut diamond on a rose-gold band. She looked up at him blankly, dizzy with emotion, happiness and confusion.
‘An engagement ring?’ she managed, dazzled, ‘But how…I mean we didn’t… how did you know…oh, Matt! It’s beautiful!’
‘Did you really think I’d give up on you as easily as that?’ he said.
She blinked at him, his words sinking in, momentarily uncertain how to react to this admission that he’d manipulated her this evening. But the brief twinge of doubt vanished as quickly as it came. She lifted the ring out of its satiny nest, and looked at it in awed happiness.
‘Matt… thank you. I promise to be the best wife in the world, I’ll do everything I can to make you happy!’
‘Whoa! Too many wild promises,’ he teased, ‘I’m not expecting a complete change of character, sweetheart.’
He took the ring from her and slid it onto her finger, where it flashed fire and ice in the lamp light.
‘It fits perfectly. How did you get my size?’
‘You have two conspiratorial sisters.’ His slanted eyebrow made her burst out laughing.
‘Come on,’ she said suddenly, grabbing their scarves, and clutching his arm again and propelling him back outside, ‘I can’t wait to tell everyone! I’m engaged, I’m getting married! Woohoo!’
They found Archie first, and Victoria swung him up into her arms.
‘Say hello to your Daddy! And Mummy’s fiancé!’ she ordered, smiling, and melting inside at the expression on Matt’s face as he smiled at his baby son.
They hunted down Jessica and Megan, who didn’t need much explanation when they saw Victoria’s excited glow, and Matt’s look of quiet satisfaction.
‘I’ve got to tell everyone!’ She was bubbling with happiness, eager to share her joy with all her birthday guests. Passing Archie to Matt, she found a nearby stack of hay bales and climbed up so she could wave to the crowd.
‘Everybody! I’ve got an announcement to make!’ she shouted across the hubbub, ‘Hush, listen to me! It’s my birthday, so you have to shut up and listen to me!’ She finally had her audience, ’I’ve had the best 21st birthday present ever. Matt and I just got engaged!’
There was a spontaneous round of applause, followed by much laughter and cheering. Someone started to sing a slightly tipsy version of ‘Congratulations’ and several others joined in. There were calls for a toast. Someone, she thought it was Daniel, offered to drive to his village restaurant and bring back a crate or two of champagne.
Victoria jumped down from the bales. She was grinning from ear to ear as friends surged forward to hug and congratulate her. Blinded by happiness, she held out her arms for a hug and kiss on the cheek from the first well-wisher.
Then she saw a face in front of her which was white and gaunt, with no hint of congratulations or laughter. In the split second it took for her to register that he was clutching a broken wine bottle like a weapon, he’d roughly grabbed her by putting his arm around her throat, dragging her back against him, and she could feel the point of jagged glass against her face.
It happened so fast. All she could think about, all she could concentrate on was that Archie was safe with Matt, and how not to end up with that jagged glass cutting her. Frozen with shock, fear, outrage, she stayed limp and still, her heart hammering like a piston. The man began shouting obscenities in a slurred, tearful voice,
‘Matt Larson! You’re a fucking murderer! You fucking killed my father, you wrecked my whole goddamn family, you asshole, how’d ya like me to wreck your pretty fiancée’s face, huh?’
Like a film in slow motion, she heard Matt shout ‘Leo, you bloody idiot!’ then watched him hurtle forward, rugby-tackle them to the ground, felt him wrench her forcibly out of Leo’s grip by thrusting himself between them. Freed, she rolled away, and just lay there for a few seconds, winded and shaken.
There was a violent scuffle, Leo sobbing like a child now, Matt cursing bitterly under his breath.
Megan came rushing to her, knelt down by her, ‘Are you OK? Are you hurt, Vic?’
‘No, I don’t think so..’ She tried to get up, but her limbs felt like rubber. She lay there, shaking, listening to the chaos erupting around her. Someone screaming, children crying, Archie shouting, ‘Mumma, Mumma’! Elspeth’s voice, shaky but calm, calling Archie to her. And then Jessica’s voice, frightened, urgent, using her mobile to ring not just for the police, but for an ambulance as well.
When she finally managed to stagger to her to her feet, with Megan’s arm tightly round her shoulders, she saw that Leo was being pinned to the ground by a group of men including Daniel.
Then she saw Matt. He was lying on the ground, still as death, ashen-faced. Jessica was kneeling beside him, crying, frantically pressing an ominously blood-soaked scarf to a wound on his neck.
‘What do you mean, he’s checked himself out?’ Victoria, out of breath from speed-walking all the way to the ward, clutched the bunch of orchids and lilies she’d brought, and stared at the nurse in horror.
Ten minutes earlier, she’d parked, in a flurry of impatience, in the hospital car park, then had to force herself to walk, not run, down the endless corridors to see Matt again. He’d been rushed in to A&E, with the paramedics letting her sit strapped in beside him in the ambulance, clutching his hand. He’d had five stitches in the jagged gash on his neck, which had narrowly missed the artery, and had been kept in for two nights now, for observation and intravenous antibiotics. The doctors had been worried about the possibility of infection from the dirty bottle, and the amount of blood he’d lost.
Having pleaded to be allowed to stay with him each night, she’d been dismissed by the doctors and by Matt himself, told to go home, not to worry, and get a good night’s sleep.
Some hope! She’d now spent two completely sleepless nights, doing a lot of worrying of her own. It was as if a continuous video clip was unwinding in her head, replaying over and over again the frightening attack at the party, the moment Matt had dived headlong to save her, the terrifying moment when she saw Matt lying there white faced and bleeding on the ground.
She’d also been worrying about his mood. The police had been coming and going at the hospital, taking statements. Matt had been undecided about pressing charges, and had been using up far too much energy ringing Leo’s family in New York, when he should have been resting and recovering.
When she saw his empty room this morning, she thought he’d been moved to another bed and gone in search of someone to find out where. The nurse she’d found rinsing something in a small room off the corridor, was telling her otherwise.
‘Mr Matt Larson,’ The solemn faced Asian nurse nodded emphatically, ‘He discharged himself. He left early this morning.’
Victoria checked her watch. ‘But it’s only ten o’clock now! How… why? Where did he go?’
The nurse shrugged, her expression blank, ‘He was collected by a friend.’
‘A friend? But I’m his fiancée!’ Victoria wanted to shout, to wave her gorgeous engagement ring at the uninterested nurse, restraining herself just in time. Instead, she fished out her mobile, and tried ringing him. It switched straight to answer-machine. Four more attempts met the same result.
‘Did the doctors discharge him? Did they say he was OK to go?’
The nurse shook her head. ‘The doctors don’t do their rounds until later.’
‘Then… then how did he get to leave?’ She felt as if she were bashing her head against a brick wall in an effort to glean the facts.
‘He just undid the antibiotic drip, got dressed, and left,’ her tormentor said impassively.
‘Were you here? Didn’t you try to stop him?’
‘He is a very determined man. His friend helped him out of the hospital.’
‘What did his friend look like?’
‘A woman. Dark hair. Red coat.’
‘Oh.’ Victoria breathed shakily, ‘Well, there’s a surprise.’
‘He left something behind,’ the nurse said, as if suddenly remembering, and darted into the room to return with what looked like a small white pedal-bin bag. ‘You might want to take this.’
In the bag was Matt’s silver and grey striped wool scarf, still matted with dried blood. Tears welled, and she quickly blinked them away.
Wordlessly, she took the bag and walked back out of the hospital.
In the car, she collapsed into the driving seat, clutched the scarf to her stomach while she gave in to a cathartic crying fit.
Then she found tissues, mopped her face, and picked up her mobile again. She didn’t care how many phone calls, texts, emails, answer-phone messages it took this time, she had to speak to him, she had to find him.
Her fingers were shaking, her heart was thudding. She was really frightened, for his physical health, but also for his state of mind. Because this time, she thought she did understand him. She felt that she knew exactly what he was thinking and feeling, and why he’d vanished from her life again.
And she could turn it around, reassure him, if only he would let her.
‘Victoria?’ The female voice on the phone was familiar, although it lacked its previous warm confidence. She dashed into the relative quiet of the kitchen to take the call. The Christmas tree was being decorated in the sitting room, Megan and Jessica were hovering, helping with the tree but also to keep a discreet eye on her, she knew. An excitable William was draping small pieces of red tinsel around the fir branches, executing a little dance as he did so, and Archie was doing his best to copy his older cousin. An agonising few days had gone by, with no word at all from Matt, and her attempts to contact either him or Emma had all met with ‘this mobile is switched off’. She was nearly at breaking point.
‘Yes… oh, thank God, I’ve been going out of my mind. Where is he? Please tell me he’s alright?’
There was a moment’s hesitation. ‘He’s at his cottage in Cornwall. He’ll probably kill me for telling you. But I’m worried about him. He tried to send me away the minute I’d driven him down there. But I was so worried about the stitches, the wound. You know what he’s like, there’s no reasoning with him once he makes a decision.’
‘Was he OK when you left him?’
‘Yes, at least there was less inflammation. I insisted he went to the local GP and got antibiotic tablets to take, just in case. I stayed the first two nights. I just drove back this morning.’
Victoria caught her breath involuntarily, had to stamp quickly on the surge of sick jealousy at the thought of Emma being with him for two nights. There had better be a spare room, she told herself fiercely. She was too proud to ask.
Then she thought her heart might simply break at the vision of Matt alone in his Cornish cottage, and she could only feel gratitude that Emma had been there.
‘Thank you for looking after him,’ she said, ‘Can you give me the address and directions?’
Jessica had come through to the kitchen, and was listening in, impatient to know what was being said. Victoria clicked the phone off.
‘Can you let Elspeth bring Archie to you again for the night? Matt is at his cottage in Cornwall. I need to go to him.’
‘Oh Vicki, of course you do.’ Jessica looked close to tears of relief, ‘Come on, I’ll help you pack a bag.’
The cottage in Port Gaverne was perched on a jut of headland, a long, low, two-storey building of whitewashed Cornish stone. On a sunny day the sea-blue shutters would no doubt match the colour of the water in the small fishing inlet. But as Victoria battled her way to the door, against the wind and rain, the sea was a stormy grey with huge rollers crashing white foam against the rocks below.
Hammering on the door brought no response, so, briefed by Emma, she found the key under a pot of battered red geraniums, and let herself in, her heart thumping nervously.
The door led straight into a huge square living room, with stunning views along the curving green cliffs and out to sea. She quickly took in simple white walls, an exposed stone wall with a deep smoke blackened inglenook fireplace, polished slate floors and sofas and rugs with a calm colour scheme of cream, sand, and muted shades of turquoise and blue. Leading off to one side, was a glass conservatory which was clearly used by Matt as a painting studio. She could see canvases stacked against the back wall, paints, palettes, brushes on a long table. Leading off to the other side was a kitchen, with cream units, a big solid pine table and chairs, and a shiny black range cooker. Beyond that there was a lobby, with several pairs of walking boots, wellington boots, and jackets on pegs.
‘Matt?’ Her voice sounded shaky as she called. When there was no answer, she opened a latched door onto a small staircase, and ventured upstairs. A rapid search found Matt’s en-suite bedroom, almost as big as the sitting room below and with the same to-die-for views. His king-size bed was rumpled and unmade, although the white bed-linen looked clean.
There were some ominously blood stained white towels on the floor of the en suite bathroom. Feeling like a snooper, and terrified now of what she might find, she kept calling his name as she checked all the rooms. There were another three bedrooms and two more bathrooms. Matt wasn’t here.
She tried his mobile, and to her dismay heard it ringing out downstairs.
She ran back down, and almost cried with frustration. He’d left his phone in the kitchen. And gone out. Alone. In the wind and rain. Just four days after a vicious bottle-wound, and five stitches in his face. God, had he needed to go to hospital again? Rung for a taxi, or worse still ambulance? Fear and helpless anger surged through her. She couldn’t even hold out any hope of contacting him, if he’d left his bloody phone in the house!
Frozen with indecision, her heart hammering wildly, she examined her options. She could rush about like a headless chicken, ring all the hospitals in the area, dash out into the storm in the hope that he was somewhere up on the cliff path, or she could stay calm, busy herself, light a fire, tidy up the messy kitchen, the two ominous empty whisky bottles, four empty wine bottles, and unwashed mugs, plates and glasses, put some dinner on and sit down to wait for him to come home.
An hour later, dusk was rapidly falling. After sending a quick text to Jessica to say she was here safely, and waiting for Matt to reappear, she’d fetched in logs and kindling, got a cheerful blaze going in the hearth. She’d put the dirty dishes and glasses she’d found in the sink into the dishwasher, piled up the empties into a box by the bins at the back. She’d switched on table lamps but left the curtains open, so that the cottage glowed like a welcoming beacon in the dark. She found cutlery, candles, plates, napkins and glasses and laid the pine table for two. Jessica had grabbed dinner from her freezer and put it in a box on the backseat of the car to thaw out on the four hour drive, along with jacket potatoes, green beans and a nice bottle of Medoc. So one of her sister’s famous pheasant casseroles was now simmering gently in a low oven, and one of Jessica’s luscious home-made toasted-hazelnut cheesecakes was sitting in the fridge for pudding.
Finally, with still no sign of Matt, she rummaged in the cupboards and found a torch, which she put on the side in case of emergency. Then she took her overnight bag up to his room, made his bed, found fresh towels in an airing cupboard, and took a quick shower. She considered swapping her warm jumper and jeans for the silk shirt and leggings she’d brought, but decided not to. If she had to go out on the cliff path with the torch, and look for Matt, a prospect so agonising she was trying to ignore it, she’d be much better to stay in suitable clothing. She was operating on auto-pilot, she realised, as she sprayed a cloud of perfume over herself, pulled her black jumper back on and pushed her feet into black ballerina-flats.
She peered anxiously out of the window. The sky was completely dark. If there was a moon, it was hidden behind the rain clouds. The rhythmic crashing of the waves below sounded much more dramatic and unnerving in the dark. She reflected that if he wasn’t back in five minutes, she would allow her suppressed inner panic-attack full rein. She would call all the hospitals, even the coastguard if necessary, then go out and look for him. Until then, she had to make herself believe he’d just, for whatever utterly stupid and misguided purpose, gone out for a walk.
‘Victoria.’ Matt’s voice made her jump, over the whirring of the hairdryer. She spun round, her throat dry. He was rain-soaked, his open waxed jacket dripping water onto the floor, his hair plastered to his forehead. The white, tense look to his face, and the livid red scar from his chin down the side of his neck, made her heart miss several beats. The rush of relief at seeing him, relatively safe and well, was overwhelming.
‘Matt!’ She dropped the hairdryer, and ran to him. Putting her arms round him, she found him soaked to the skin. Even his thick grey sweater beneath the jacket was wet. When he didn’t move, she tugged the jacket off, and pulled him towards the bathroom, ‘For God’s sake, Matt! You’re soaked to the skin! What were you doing, out in this storm?
‘What are you doing here, Victoria?’
‘I’ve come to look after you, and it’s a good job I have. You clearly can’t be trusted to look after yourself! Get these wet things off, as fast as you can!’
‘When I want a mother-substitute, I’ll let you know.’
She clenched her teeth in frustration, and pulled at the hem of his jumper. ‘Just do as you’re bloody well told and get out of your wet clothes, then I’ll run you a bath.’
Wordlessly, he shrugged the sodden jumper over his head, and dropped it on the floor, followed by an equally wet T-shirt. When her fingers moved to unbuckle the belt on his jeans, his eyes held hers for a long moment before he pushed her hand away, walked into the bathroom and finished undressing. She followed, turning on the taps, averting her eyes to the hard-muscled naked body next to her. He was shivering violently, she realised with a fresh stab of anger. The idiot, the total idiot. She found a bottle of Radox muscle-soak in the cabinet and glugged it generously into the hot water.
‘In!’ she hissed, taking his arm to steady him, watched with relief as he submerged himself beneath the bubbles. ‘Were you deliberately trying to get hypothermia?’
He closed his eyes, and didn’t answer. She sat on a cushioned wicker chair beside the bath and let the silence spin out, watching the colour gradually come back into his face, replacing the frightening pallor. Eventually she said, ‘If I go and deal with your wet clothes, and fetch you a glass of whisky, will you promise not to fall asleep and drown?’
His lips twitched slightly. ‘Yes.’
She was as quick as she could be, thinking as she rushed back upstairs that their roles were neatly reversed, at least for the time being. She was being sensible and responsible, and he was behaving like a sulky adolescent. When she came back to the bathroom, he watched her beneath lidded eyes. Determined not to be intimidated by him, she handed him the whisky, avoiding his gaze. She’d found some brandy in the kitchen, and poured herself a restorative shot of that. She sipped it now. Dutch courage.
‘I’m not even going to ask you why you felt the need to escape again,’ she said, ‘Because I think I know. You asked me to marry you a few days ago! You gave me this ring!’ She waggled the diamond at him, ‘Now you’re panicking about committing yourself, because of Leo’s attack?’
‘You were right that night at the Southleache,’ he said quietly, ‘I’m not suitable family man material, Victoria.’
‘You’re the man I love, and you’re Archie’s father.’
‘I’m a man with a broken past. Tainted by that past. Jesus, Victoria, you could have been killed!’ His eyes glittered suddenly with such fierce pain, she caught her breath.
‘So could you! But I wasn’t, and you weren’t.’
‘Archie, or any of the other children there, could have been hurt! And they shouldn’t have had to see something like that. Witness violence like that. You and Archie deserve some nice, ordinary, normal guy with a nice ordinary normal family, not someone like me. Life-scarred, embittered…’
‘Emotionally stunted, repressed, cold and ascetic as a monk?’ She waited a beat, then added quietly, ‘But you are all we want, Matt.’
There was a protracted silence. The storm outside was growing wilder, the waves sounded like thunder down against the rocks.
‘Dinner smells good,’ he said finally, his voice devoid of emotion, ‘And the cottage looks good. Thanks.’
She stood up and held out the biggest clean white towel to him. She forced herself to stay positive. ‘Come on, then. Let’s find you some dry clothes, and go and eat.’
‘What made you go out for a walk in this weather?’ She piled more casserole on to Matt’s plate and watched him eat. Physically he looked a bit better, she thought cautiously. Some of the strained whiteness had gone. The scar had lost some of its livid redness.
‘I’d planned to walk round to Port Isaac. The sun was shining when I left.’
‘Well, that’s something. You haven’t completely lost the plot.’
‘Although, as you’ve opted to take charge of your own recovery, going for a long cliff top walk was possibly not the most intelligent decision.’
Matt looked at her with a hint of annoyance.
‘You’ve driven all the way down here just to nag and insult me?’
‘Whatever it takes to get through to you!’ She felt her temper simmering underneath her concern for him.
He forked up more casserole and vegetables, and continued to eat in brooding silence.
She sighed, pushing her knife and fork together. ‘What’s happening about Leo Kent? Have you decided whether you’re pressing charges or not?’
‘His mother is coming over. He’s only 19. I’m not going to press charges, as long as he goes into re-hab. He took the money meant for his gap travel year, came to the UK, bought himself a truckload of drugs and alcohol, vented his fucked up feelings by stalking me and trying to attack you.’ Matt’s half-lidded eyes hardened, ‘He’s going to apologise to you for that. That’s another condition I’ve set.’
‘OK. I can’t pretend I’ll look forward to meeting him again, but I think I can see where you’re coming from.’
‘He’s just a kid, Victoria. Angry with his father for quitting the family the way he did. Suicide has that effect on people. Hurting me was the closest he could get to punishing his father.’
She got up, clearing their plates into the dishwasher and bringing the dessert to the table.
‘Jessica’s finest recipe,’ she said, handing him a generous slice and tipping cream on top, ‘If I’m going to be Mrs Matt Larson I’d better take a few cooking lessons from her, don’t you think?’
The silence which followed resounded around the candle-lit kitchen.
‘Right.’ Her temper was rising, ‘So you’ve got Leo Kent’s future all worked out. What about our future, Matt?’
He exhaled sharply, took a sip of wine. ‘I told you earlier. I’m no good for you. You and Archie will be better off with some nice, safe, normal bloke like Sebastian. Not someone like me, with a sordid past that puts you in danger.’
‘If you think you can just pull out on me now, you are so wrong.’
‘Victoria, listen to me… ’
The pain and anger were like a searing wound inside her.
‘No, you listen to me! How dare you! How dare you just…just disappear from the hospital like that! With Emma sodding Goodman, of all people! Without telling me! Turning your bloody phone off! Ignoring all my calls and texts and emails. God, Matt, I was worried beyond belief! A week ago, you asked me to marry you. You made a commitment to me, and to Archie. Now you sit there and expect me to accept that you’ve changed your mind? Just because of a 19 year old boy with a broken bottle in his hand?’
He raked both hands through his hair, and rested his forehead in his hands. When he lifted his head, she saw that, bleak, remote, detached expression, the one he’d used to deter her that first weekend at Jessica’s. It felt like a physical blow to her solar plexus. Oh God, she was losing him, all over again.
‘You left your scarf behind. At the hospital,’ she said unsteadily, ‘I’ve been trying to wash it, but I still can’t get all the blood out.’
‘Thank you. It doesn’t matter. Just throw it away.’
‘That was an excellent meal. I really appreciate your coming down, bringing food, making sure I’m alright. If you don’t mind, I need to go to bed.’
He looked bone-weary, suddenly. When he stood up, he swayed slightly. Abruptly, she jumped up and took hold of his arm.
‘I’ll help you upstairs,’ she said. He started to shrug her off, but then almost lost his balance again and accepted her help in silence.
‘You’re really not well, I should ring a doctor,’ she began.
‘A decent night’s sleep is all I need.’
‘You’re taking antibiotics?’
‘Yes. At regular intervals. I’m fine. Really. If I need medical attention, the local GP is a friend of mine. So there’s no need to worry.’
‘I see. Well, I’ll say goodnight then.’
Frozen with conflicting emotions, she saw him into his bedroom, then after a moment’s deliberation she retrieved her overnight bag and belongings and put them in one of the spare rooms.
The overriding feeling was still anger, she reflected, as she mechanically cleared up downstairs, turned off lights, and got ready for bed herself. She was too furious even to cry. She didn’t even phone or text Jessica or Megan. She had to do this, stay strong, work this out by herself.
She woke early to brilliant sunshine, quickly dressed and packed her things and went to make Matt breakfast.
It seemed ridiculous to tap on his door, but she did anyway, before she took in the tray.
‘Good morning. Bacon sandwich, juice and coffee. I hope that’s OK?’
Matt looked pale and rumpled, but rested. He sat up, and took the tray with a small frown.
‘You didn’t have to do this, Vic.’
‘I have to go,’ she said, her throat tightening.
For a split second, she saw a depth of despair in his eyes that made her heart contract. ‘You need to get over this, face your demons.’ She bent to quickly kiss him on the mouth. She tugged the diamond ring from her finger, and placed it on his bedside table with a shaking hand. ‘This obviously means nothing to you at the moment. Give it back to me when you’re ready.’
She forced herself to walk from the room and close the door behind her. It wasn’t until she was in the car and driving north that the reaction set in, and the hot tears blinded her so much she had to pull in to a lay-by until she could control her shattered feelings.
Christmas Day dawned icy cold and bright, with a white frost sparkling on roofs and branches. As the morning went on, the clouds rolled in to darken the sky to a leaden grey, and the temperature went up to a couple of degrees above freezing, enough to make everyone wonder breathlessly if it might snow.
By midday, Roundwell Farm, and the village of Harbridge, had taken on the appearance of an old-fashioned Christmas card. In the early twilight, fairy-lights twinkled in cottage gardens, lights glowed in mullioned windows, woodsmoke drifted from chimneys and scented the air. Organ music shook the old walls of the church as the morning family service came to an end, with the congregation bellowing out ‘O Come All Ye Faithful, born this Christmas morning’ with varying degrees of tone-deafness.
The dining room in Roundwell Farm was festive with holly, ivy and mistletoe and white and gold Christmas tableware. Fat white candles were on the table ready to light, and a log fire was already burning behind its child-proof guard.
In the kitchen, Victoria was enveloped in a red reindeer apron to protect her little black dress, frantically cooking. The turkey had just about finished roasting, the potatoes were just beginning to brown at the top of the hot oven, pans of water were coming to the boil for the vegetables, and bacon bits, shallots and chestnuts were sizzling in butter in a frying pan ready to mix in with the Brussels sprouts. Bread sauce and cranberry sauce were already in serving bowls. Little sausage and bacon rolls were keeping warm on the huge serving platter waiting for the turkey.
To keep her spirits up, Victoria was singing along to her varied selection of Christmas music pounding out of the I-pod on the dresser. Currently George Michael was going to give his heart to someone else next year. Me too, she thought darkly, hauling the enormous turkey out of the oven and setting it on the worktop with a thud.
She had invited the whole family to Roundwell Farm for Christmas. She’d set herself the challenge of doing Christmas lunch all by herself, following mother’s recipe book lent to her by Jessica. She’d met Jessica’s offers of help with polite refusal. Trying to prove she could be a domestic goddess, an efficient cook, good mother, and the perfect hostess, she admitted secretly.
Anything to take her mind off the fact that Matt had utterly, completely, totally failed to contact her since her flying visit to Cornwall. Hadn’t even bothered to send her a Christmas card. Hadn’t even deigned to drop her a brief line to let her know how he was, hadn’t even had the decency or courtesy to ring, text, email, or bloody well communicate by carrier-pigeon…
‘Hey, you’re only supposed to prod it once with a skewer, not treat it like a pin-cushion!’ Jessica said over her shoulder.
‘Yeah, its already dead you know,’ Megan added.
‘Do you think it’s done?’ Flushed and blinking away angry tears, Victoria turned to her sisters.
Megan had streaked her blond fringe with Christmassy red and gold, and in her short gold dress she looked like a very funky Christmas fairy. Jessica, in a clinging crimson velvet top and black silk trousers, looked her usual elegant self. She was now eyeing the steaming hot, fragrantly golden turkey in the huge roasting tin, surrounded by crumpled foil wrappings, and nodded. ‘That looks perfect. Well done you! Wrap it back up and keep it warm until the potatoes are crispy. And for God’s sake, go and have some champagne, I’ll sort out the veg and gravy, and dish it all up.’
‘And cheer up, sweetie,’ Megan said, ‘After lunch we can make marzipan Matt dolls and stick pins in them.’
‘That could work for me,’ Victoria grinned, ‘It’s so nice to have you back, Megs.’
The kitchen door burst open to admit William, pink-faced and breathless, with Archie following close behind.
‘Santa Claus is outside!’ William shouted, red hair tousled, his eyes so wide they seemed to fill his small face.
‘Really?’ Jessica smiled at her three year old son, ‘Well, Santa came down the chimney last night, didn’t he? So…’
‘He’s here! He IS! Look!’ William was pointing at the window.
Archie, in awe of his older cousin’s excitement, was looking on with silent expectation.
Victoria, Jessica and Megan exchanged bemused glances, then hurried to the kitchen window.
A big, gleaming red four-wheel drive Audi was parked in the drive. Walking towards the house strode Santa Claus, complete with bushy white beard and with a sack of presents over his shoulder.
‘Cool!’ Megan grinned, heading back into the hall so she could open the front door to greet their guests, ‘We get to give Santa more sherry and mince pies!’
‘We get more presents, hurray!’ William grabbed Archie’s hand and began to run after Megan.
‘I’ll just turn everything down a bit,’ Jessica said, ‘You know, Santa looks awfully familiar.’
‘What…?’ Victoria gaped at the tall figure coming closer, and began to pull off her apron. ‘Oh my God,’ She murmured to Jessica, recognition dawning, her heart thudding against her ribs, ‘I don’t believe it. It’s Matt.’
Jessica nodded, then shook her head at Victoria’s expression and added seriously, ‘I swear to you, I did not set this one up!’
‘So Matt has just arrived. Dressed as Father Christmas.’
‘And … and I’m not hallucinating, am I? That’s Emma Goodman getting out of the car. Dressed as an elf?’ They both stared as the drivers’ door opened to emit the elegant figure of Emma, looking stunning in a slinky green shot-silk skirt suit and sexy high heeled black boots, the elegance marred only by the surprise addition of a floppy green elf-hat. Another figure emerged from the rear of the car, a lanky youth in a very smart dark suit, shirt and tie. He too wore a floppy green elf-hat. Together, looking rather reluctant, they walked towards the front door. ‘And… is that Leo Kent with her?’ Victoria finished up, on a note of rising hysteria. ‘This is not even funny. Matt had better have a good explanation for this, or I swear I will smash the nearest bottle of champagne and attack him with it myself!’
Everyone congregated in the big square sitting room. Outside, the first snow flakes were starting to fall from a yellow-grey sky, and the warm glow of the Christmas tree fairy lights and the flickering log fire made the atmosphere even more surreal. William and Archie shrieked and ran about with excitement. Jessica greeted Emma with a hug, and much laughter and questioning. Jonathan woke up from his nap, and was brought in by Mira, looking slinky in a shimmering silver dress. Andrew appeared from somewhere, and poured out glasses of champagne for everyone. Megan went over to talk to Leo Kent as he hovered on the sidelines, looking awkward. Victoria hung back, by the Christmas tree in the window, feeling as if she could hardly breathe, too frozen with outrage and annoyance to join in any of the social greetings.
‘You’re not really Santa Claus.’ William announced to Matt, who had removed his beard and hat and accepted a glass of champagne from Andrew. ‘He came down our chimney last night!’
‘That’s true. But he forgot a few things, so he asked me to bring them today.’ Matt said, deadpan.
‘Well, firstly, he forgot to send Leo here to make a big apology,’ Matt murmured, waving Leo over. Megan took Leo’s hand, and walked across the room with him, like a fierce little guardian angel.
‘I’m really, really sorry,’ he said, his eyes searching the room for Victoria. He took off the elf-hat and clutched it with both hands, smiled at her ruefully. He was tall, dark, broad shouldered, with dark brown eyes and nice, even white American teeth, really not bad looking at all, without the drug-crazed stare and the foul-mouthed abuse, ‘I’m really sorry for attacking you and Matt, and screwing up your engagement. I was a stupid dumb-ass…’
‘What’s a stupid dumb-ass?’ William said, listening intently.
‘Someone who sometimes gets things wrong.’ Matt met Victoria’s eyes, and she blinked at the intensity in his silver gaze, ‘Like me.’
She couldn’t speak, couldn’t get past her churning anger and indignation. Did Matt seriously think he could just disappear and reappear like this, and always with bloody Emma in tow?
‘Do we get more presents too?’ William was eyeing the sack by Matt’s feet. Matt squatted down and pulled out some wrapped packages.
‘This is for you,’ he handed one to William.’
Archie, thumb in mouth, was staring at Matt. He suddenly gave Matt a beaming smile and said, ‘Dadda!’
‘Hello, Archie, Happy Christmas,’ Matt’s smile was like melting ice as he acknowledged his small son. He gently gave a package to Archie, then took some more out of the sack before standing up and meeting Victoria’s eyes. ‘The rest of the presents I’ve brought are for your Mummy.’
William was rustling open his present, whooping with glee as he discovered Toy Story Buzz Lightyear dressing-up clothes. Archie was sitting on the floor, excitedly unwrapping a ‘Woody’ doll with a pull-cord that spoke lines from the film.
Megan had whisked Leo off to get him a glass of champagne. Amidst the general hubbub, Victoria found Emma beside her, her expression questioning.
‘Hi. You look a bit shell-shocked. I don’t blame you. But I’m only here as the driver, and to keep charge of Leo,’ she said quietly, ‘In case you were thinking there was some other reason?’
‘No. I don’t know. I’m not sure what to think right this minute! Except how on earth did Matt persuade you to wear that elf hat?’
‘Oh God, I’d forgotten I had it on!’ She snatched it off quickly, smoothing a hand over her glossy dark hair, looking slightly embarrassed, ‘But basically, he had to bribe me with a salary increase! I’m taking Leo for lunch with my family, they only live a few miles from here,’ she added, ‘So we really have to leave in a minute. But just to let you know, Matt has been dealing with Leo’s family, the police, master-minding Leo’s re-hab, he was obsessed with getting the whole mess cleaned up before he mended fences with you.’ Emma shrugged, gave a wry smile, ‘Terrible for you, I know, but that’s Matt. He does the male compartmentalising thing to extreme.’
‘I see. Thanks for telling me. You obviously know him far better than I do!’
‘There’s never been anything between Matt and me, please believe that. But I do understand him.’ Emma said quietly, ‘I was fostered, and then adopted. So we have some childhood experiences in common. That’s probably how I got the job as his PA.’
‘Excuse me, Victoria, ma’am…’ Leo Kent had joined them, looking nervous, ‘I just want you to know that I meant what I said, one hundred percent, and if there’s anything, anything at all that I can do to make up for my behaviour that night, just say it!’
‘It’s alright, Leo. Apology accepted,’ she began, then stiffened as Matt spoke behind her.
‘Good job, Leo. But enough. It’s my turn now.’ She turned to see that he’d unbuttoned the front of his Santa outfit, revealing Levis, and a silky grey polo-shirt beneath.
Emma and Leo tactfully moved away.
She and Matt stared at each other in silence for a few moments.
‘Well, that’s the elves dismissed!’ she said.
‘Yeah. That’s the problem with elves. Give them an inch…’
She met his eyes, caught between laughter and tears, her heart lurching.
‘There’s a dressing-up theme to this visit,’ she said, unsteadily, ‘How did you know the kids love Toy Story so much?’
‘What can I say? I’m indulging in childhood fantasies. Blame my deprived background.’
Swallowing a lump in her throat, she let herself look at him properly, searched his face, her whole body tensing with suppressed emotion.
‘It’s healing well,’ she whispered, lifting her fingers to touch the scar.
He reached up and covered her hand with his, caught her fingers to his mouth and kissed her palm, snatching in a quick breath like a drowning man finding oxygen.
‘I want to give this back to you,’ he said, holding out the diamond ring in its box, ‘Along with the birthday present I never got round to giving you. And the Christmas present that I got to match.’
‘Matt, you don’t have to give me diamonds.’
‘I know I don’t have to give you diamonds,’ he produced a bigger box from his pocket, and she blinked at the sight of the exquisite diamond and rose-gold pendant and earrings it contained, ‘But I want to give you diamonds, and, well, pretty much repeat what Leo said. I’ve been a complete stupid dumb-ass.’
He reached to fasten the fiery diamond pendant at her nape, so that it lay between the curve of her breasts above the scoop neck of her dress. He was looking down at her with an expression which turned her bones to water.
She caught her lip in her teeth.
‘You do realise that you can’t just keep on vanishing on me,’ she began heatedly, ‘And changing your mind every couple of weeks, every time you have a bit of a wobble or need to think something over, or deal with one of your wide variety of emotional hang-ups!’
‘I do realise that. Christ, Victoria, I’ve missed you, stop talking and kiss me.’
She moved into his arms and wrapped herself around him, sliding her hands inside the red-felt suit, turning up her mouth to his, and losing herself in the sheer joy of physical contact with him. She was breathless, and every inch of her was tingling when they finally managed to break apart.
‘If you love someone,’ she picked up her lecture where she’d left off, ‘You have to take the rough with the smooth!’
‘I do love you, and I promise to keep on loving you, rough or smooth. We can even write that bit into our marriage vows if it makes you happy.’
‘Yes, well…I love you too,’ she expelled her breath on a shaky sigh, and took the ring box, flipped up the lid, ‘So, unless you’re thinking of disappearing again, I suppose you can put this back where it belongs. And stay for Christmas lunch. And stay forever?’
‘That sounds like an offer I can’t refuse.’
And, to a small ripple of laughter and applause, and Megan singing a few bars of ‘I saw Mummy kissing Santa Claus’, Matt took the ring, and slid it onto her finger.
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