Aiden was right, of course. Here amongst Australia’s élite, with vintage champagne flowing like water, Tabitha felt way out of her depth.
Aiden hiccoughed softly, staring moodily into his drink. ‘Tab?’ he said gently. ‘What’s the matter tonight? And before you say “nothing”, just remember that we’ve been friends too long to pretend everything’s all right when it clearly isn’t. It’s not just the wedding that’s upsetting you, is it? What’s going on?’
She didn’t answer, her long fingers toying with her red curls, coiling them around her fingers in an almost child-like manner.
‘Is it your grandmother?’ As she bit into her lip Aiden knew he’d hit the mark. ‘What’s she done now?’ There was a touch of humour in his voice as he tried to lighten the mood and cajole the problem out of her. ‘Sold the family jewels?’
Tabitha’s eyes weren’t smiling as she looked up. ‘My family’s not like yours, Aiden; we don’t have “family jewels”. Sorry,’ she added, ‘this isn’t your fault.’
‘What isn’t? Come on, Tab, tell me what’s going on.’
‘She remortgaged her house.’ Tabitha let out the long breath she had inadvertently been holding. ‘To pay off all her gambling debts.’
‘You already told me that—last month, if I remember rightly,’ Aiden pointed out. ‘You went to the bank with her and helped organize it. Can’t she manage the repayments?’
‘She withdrew the loan,’ Tabitha started in an unusually shaky voice, ‘and promptly fed it back into the poker machines at the casino.’
‘All of it?’
Aiden’s open mouth and wide eyes weren’t exactly helping, and Tabitha nodded glumly. ‘So now she’s got all the old debts that were causing so many problems plus a massive new one, and it’s all my fault.’
‘How on earth do you work that one out?’
‘I shouldn’t have left her with access to so much money. She’s like a moth to a flame where the casino’s concerned; I don’t even think it’s the gambling she’s addicted to, more the company. I should have made her pay off her bills…’
‘She’s not a child,’ Aiden pointed out, taking Tabitha’s shaking hand.
‘She’s all I’ve got.’ Tears were threatening now, and Tabitha put her hand over her glass as the waiter returned, but Aiden had no such reserve. ‘Just leave the bottle,’ he ordered while waiting for Tabitha to continue. ‘Gran brought me up after Mum and Dad died, devoted her life to me, and now she’s old and lonely and terrified and there’s nothing I can do. I’ve asked the bank for a loan, but the second you put “dancer” down as your occupation you might just as well rip up the application form.’
‘Let me help you.’ He ignored her furiously shaking head. ‘Come on, darling, it would be a drop in the ocean. I haven’t told you my good news yet. I sold a painting yesterday.’
‘Aiden!’ Despite her own problems, Tabitha’s delighted squeal was genuine and, wrapping her arms around Aiden’s neck, she planted a kiss on his cheek. ‘That’s fantastic news.’
‘Please let me help you, Tabitha. You can always pay me back. We’re on our way, darling.’ Aiden grinned. ‘I can feel it.’
But Tabitha shook her head. ‘You might be, Aiden, but in my case “on my way out” would be a more apt description.’ Her gloom descended again, but she did her best to keep the bitter note from her voice. ‘I’ve been asked to audition for the next production.’