‘Wise girl. Right, then. I’ll probably be gone by the time you finish this viewing. You have all the details in the folder. It’s a woman. Phone and let me know how it goes, and let’s put a date in the diary for you to come up with the little one for the weekend. Diana says it’s too long since she saw you!’
‘You’ve got a deal.’
‘And feel free to bring the young man…’
‘I’ll have to think about that one. Maybe.’ Introducing him to Aubrey and Di would be like introducing him to family, a big psychological step towards cementing their relationship onto another level. By now, they had enjoyed dinners out, the occasional theatre outing and one Sunday lunch, and she was content to keep it to that level until something kicked in and told her that the time was right to accelerate things. She had only been seeing him for three months. Why rush things along?
‘Is our viewer a local person?’ she asked, walking with Aubrey to the door. ‘Will they be familiar with the property, or do I have to play up the location?’
‘Definitely not from around here, so yes, let’s hear it for the great transport links and rural setting.’
Rural being the operative word, Charlotte thought, as she left behind all vestiges of bustling provincial life and drove out into the country. It was stunning scenery. A profusion of trees raising naked branches upwards, and wintry fields stretching on either side of the winding road. In summer she imagined it would be awash with greenery.
She found herself slowing down so that she could absorb her surroundings. It really didn’t matter how many big houses she walked around in London, none could compare to something in a setting like this because there was no such thing as perfect privacy in the city. You could part with millions and still have neighbours around within shouting distance. Whereas here your millions would buy you all the solitude you could ever need.
She wouldn’t have minded having a look around the gardens before her viewer but that would have been an indulgence, and she was slightly relieved to find that the option was denied her because, lo and behold, there was her car randomly parked at an angle in the courtyard—a long, very expensive silver Bentley Continental, the sort that cost roughly the same price as some people’s houses. Unfortunately for Charlotte, no one was in it. Nor was the woman anywhere to be seen at the front of the house. Well, there was no way she would be inside, not unless she had decided to embark on a little breaking and entering.
With a sigh of frustration, Charlotte walked back up to the front door and glanced around her, then she set off. She had to look at the brochure to see where the boundaries of the house lay. Frankly none were within sight, and the prospect of trekking through acres of land in search of one errant old lady with more money than sense filled her with dismay.
She was circling the back of the house, vaguely admiring the lawns and the extensive copse behind, which was all part of the package, when she heard his voice from behind her and for the first few seconds she really didn’t recognise it. But only for a few seconds. Then her body froze in utter shock. Just an ordinary, polite apology that he had missed her.
Charlotte turned around and there he was: the man who still visited her in every sweet dream and every nightmare she had had over eight years. God, she had been thinking of him only this morning! Had that been some sort of dreadful, sick premonition? She blinked to dispel the reality of him standing not more than five metres away from her, and then she closed her eyes and, for the first time in her life, she blacked out.
She surfaced to find herself flat on her back with her head resting on something soft, like a cushion. There was also someone peering down at her. Oh God. She struggled to sit up and wriggle away from him at the same time, all the while keenly aware of the image she would be presenting—neat bob all over the place, snappy grey suit creased and soiled beyond redemption, hands covered in dirt and little chips of gravel from where she had tried to hoist herself away from him.
‘Well, well, well…’ Riccardo said softly. ‘It’s you, isn’t it?’
‘What are you doing here?’ She sat up, gritting her teeth to ward off the sudden giddiness, and shakily got to her feet.
He hadn’t changed. At least, not much. When she had occasionally imagined herself bumping into him again, she had always helpfully reconstructed him as overweight, balding and prematurely aged from the stress of all those little Italian bambinos his mother told her he would one day have, with an Italian girl from his own class and not a foreigner without a penny to her name.
But eight years had sharpened his killer looks. The black hair was short now and there were a few lines on his face but he was still devastatingly good looking. He had been kneeling next to her and he bent to brush the knees of his trousers, his expensive, hand-tailored trousers which were probably as ruined as her skirt would be but had cost ten times as much. Tough.
A ball of resentment welled up inside her like acid. ‘I was told to expect a Mrs Dean.’
‘You’ve changed.’ He circled her like a tiger that had somehow managed to corner some interesting prey and didn’t want to devour it just quite yet.
His eyes on her felt like a physical assault and she found herself cringing back. It would have to stop, she told herself. She was no longer a vulnerable eighteen-year-old girl! She was a woman with a child…Gina.
Fear rammed into her but she managed to keep her expression steady. She would have to get rid of him, and fast, because there was no way that she was going to allow him to find out that she had had a child by him. No way! She had left Italy eight years ago with her life in ruins and she wasn’t going to let it happen again.
‘I realise you might think me unprofessional, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to let someone else show you around this house.’
‘Isn’t it obvious? We had a disastrous relationship eight years ago and that’s bound to be reflected in my attitude towards you.’
‘If I want this house then I’ll buy it, whatever your attitude happens to be.’
‘That’s as may be,’ Charlotte said coldly. ‘But I’m not prepared to be in your company.’ She reached into her bag for her mobile phone, but before she could flick it open his hand was around her wrist and he was there, invading every atom of her precious personal space.
‘Well, that’s just too bad. I’ve driven quite a way to get here, and I’m not about to get back into my car until I’ve seen this house, so you’re going to get the key out of that briefcase of yours and you’re going to show me around, room by tortuous room, until I’m satisfied. Got it?’
‘Or else what?’
‘Or else I lodge a formal complaint to your boss and make sure he understands that he’s lost a potential sale, a very big potential sale, because of you.’ Riccardo looked at her, hands stuffed into the pockets of his camel coat. His jacket, she realised, was still on the ground from where he had folded it to put under her head.
‘I apologise for your jacket.’ She stooped to pick it up and then stretched it out to him, making sure not to close the safe distance between them. Inside, every bit of her was shaking like a leaf.
Cornered, she stuffed the phone back into her bag and pulled out the keys to the house.
‘Good girl,’ Riccardo said approvingly. He had been shocked to see her, and even more shocked by his reaction which was a certain curious satisfaction, as if the wheel had come full circle, as if he had been waiting for just this moment.
Which, of course, he hadn’t been. That episode in his life had been consigned to history a long time ago. She had been the casual fling who had turned, suddenly, into someone hell-bent on pinning him down. Still, it was amusing to see how much she had changed. Gone was the long, streaky hair, the fresh face, the open smile. In its place was a tailored bob and a guarded, wary expression. She was still as slender as she had been then, though, he thought as his eyes appraised the lines of her body under the business suit. As though it had been yesterday, he remembered the feel of her body under his, and was disconcerted by the impact that fleeting memory had on him.
Abruptly, he turned away, knowing that she was following him.
‘I suppose you ought to know that the land extends to…there…’ Charlotte pointed to various landmarks and made sure she didn’t look at him. ‘There’s the option to buy the adjacent field, but that wouldn’t be necessary as this is all a green-belt area. There’s no chance that planning permission would be given for any domestic housing.’