THE VIRGIN’S WEDDING NIGHT
‘WHAT do you mean—you can’t go through with it?’ Harriet Flint stared at the flushed defensive face of the young man on the other side of the table. ‘We have an agreement, and this lunch is to finalise the arrangements for the wedding. I’m relying on you.’
‘But things have completely changed for me now. You must see that.’ His mouth set stubbornly. ‘When we made the original deal, frankly I didn’t care what happened to me. The girl I loved was out of my life, so the chance of earning a bundle of cash and heading off round the world seemed a fair option.
‘But now Janie’s come back, and we’re together again, for good this time. We’re going to be married, and I’m not allowing anything to jeopardise that.’
‘But surely if you explained to her…’
‘Explain?’ Peter Curtis gave a derisive laugh. ‘You mean actually tell her that, while we were apart, I agreed to marry some total stranger—for money.’
‘Couldn’t you make it clear it’s not a real marriage—just a temporary arrangement for a few months—and on a strictly business footing. Wouldn’t that make a difference?’
‘Of course not,’ he said impatiently. ‘How could it? She’d never accept that I could be involved in something so bizarre. And even if she believed me, she’d think I’d gone stark raving mad, and I wouldn’t blame her.’
He shook his head. ‘So—I’m sorry, Miss Flint, but the deal’s off. I’m not risking her walking away from me again, because she’s all that matters to me. Surely you can understand that.’
‘And I have an inheritance that matters to me just as much,’ Harriet returned coldly. ‘And which I stand to lose if I can’t produce a husband before my next birthday. Clearly you’ve never understood that.’
She paused. ‘Consider this. Marriage is an expensive business, these days. I’m sure your Janie realises that. Surely you could persuade her that a tax-free lump sum is worth a small sacrifice, especially if I was able to manage an increase on the original fee.’
‘No,’ he said. ‘She wouldn’t see it that way at all. Why should she?’ He rose to leave, then paused, looking down at her, frowning a little. ‘For God’s sake, Miss Flint—Harriet—you don’t have to buy a husband. If you wore different clothes—did something to your hair—you could be quite attractive. So, why not tell yourself this was a lucky escape, and concentrate on finding some real happiness instead?’
‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘For the unsolicited advice. But I prefer to do things my way. And that does not involve harnessing my marginal attractions to some man. Not now—not ever. I prefer my career.’
‘Well, I can’t be the only one who answered your advertisement. Sign up one of the others.’
But you, she thought, were the only one that my grandfather would have believed in as my future husband. You’re his idea of the perfect clean-limbed, upstanding young Englishman. Judas Iscariot probably looked like you.
She watched him fumble for his wallet, then shook her head. ‘No, I’ll pick up the tab, along with the pieces of our agreement. You see, I’d have kept my word, right up to the moment the annulment was validated.
‘I hope you always feel you made the right decision,’ she added, smiling as he turned to leave. ‘And I wish you well.’
It wasn’t true, of course. She’d have liked to kill him. Him and his smug bitch of a girlfriend, who only had to crook her little finger, it seemed, to send all Harriet’s hopes into chaos.
And what the hell, she asked herself, as she watched him walk away, was she going to do now—with Grandfather’s ultimatum on one side, and this—gaping hole on the other?
Well, for this afternoon, at any rate, she would have to relegate her unexpected problem to the back of her mind. She had a tricky meeting, which would require some serious focussing.
She signalled to the waiter, who arrived, his eyes scanning her untouched plate of penne arrabiata with open distress.
‘There is something wrong with the food, signorina?’
‘Not at all,’ she assured him. ‘I—wasn’t very hungry, that’s all.’ Something killed my appetite stone-dead.
‘Quite attractive,’ she thought, smouldering. And then shook her head. How condescending was it possible to get?
She supposed that, in looks, she must take after her unknown father. Her hair was undoubtedly her best feature, brown as a horse chestnut with auburn lights. And, if she’d permitted it to do so, it would have hung waving to her shoulders. Her eyes were clear and grey, and thickly lashed, but the rest of her face was totally unremarkable. So—if this had been Dad—what on earth had the blonde and ravishing Caroline Flint seen in such a man—unless, of course, he’d had oodles of charm.
If so, I missed out twice, Harriet thought cynically.
Not that she allowed it to trouble her. She had no wish to resemble her mother in either looks or temperament, so she’d been deeply riled by her grandfather’s on-going assumption that she couldn’t wait to kick over the traces and bring a double helping of dishonour on the family name.
Unlike Caroline Flint, she’d never shown the least inclination to indulge in a welter of short-lived and very public affairs with any man who took her fancy, married or single.
Not, she had to admit, that the opportunity had ever presented itself. She’d done a little perfunctory dating when she’d first arrived in London, but none of those encounters had ever developed as far as a full-blown relationship. Nor had she wanted it to happen. And recently there’d been nothing. Which was fine by her too.
She rose, suddenly impatient to be off, picking up her bag, and slinging the jacket of her dull black linen suit over her arm as she made her way across the restaurant to the desk at the front where Luigi the owner held sway.
Only, he was already occupied with a tall young man who’d just walked in off the street, while Harriet had been negotiating her passage between the crowded tables. And the street looked as if it was the place where he belonged, Harriet thought, resenting that she was being forced to wait in line. And by someone like this too.
Because torn jeans, worn-out trainers and a much faded tee shirt were hardly the fashion choices of Luigi’s usual male clientele. And the over-long, untidy dark hair, and thin, unshaven face hardly struck a reassuring note either.
In fact, by now, Harriet would have expected the newcomer