The patisserie in the centre of Soho rang with the buzz of Saturday-lunch voices and the chink of cups.
“Delicious.” Laura Forbes wiped the froth from her lips. “This place serves the best coffee in London.”
“After the peace and quiet of my Devon cottage,” Aunt Clare said, “it takes me twenty-four hours to get my head above the din.” She looked squarely at her niece. “Happy birthday, darling girl … How are you?”
“Busier than ever.” Laura started on her avocado salad. “I’m writing a weekly newspaper column as well as being editorial director of Robinson’s monthly magazine. Turning thirty-five – if it weren’t for the fact that you’re here for a week, I’d have ignored it.”
“Isn’t there a lovely man in your life to wine and dine you?”
“I’ve completely forgotten,” Laura said wistfully, “what that’s like. Not the wining and dining bit. I do a lot of that professionally. But the lovely man—”
“So why aren’t you trying to find him?”
“No time, never an opportunity, work takes priority.” Laura grinned at her aunt. “Do you have anyone in mind?”
“Not exactly.” Her aunt dug in her handbag, fishing out a card. “But I know someone who might… Astrid Bellenger and I were at finishing school together. She’s run a marriage bureau from Marylebone High Street for thirty years. Why don’t you ring her? Mention my name while you’re at it.”
Laura stared at the card. “Can she be discreet? Even if I find the time to meet somebody, I wouldn’t—”
“Astrid is the soul of discretion.” Aunt Clare tucked the card into the pocket of Laura’s silk-lined jacket. “After all, my darling girl, you have nothing to lose.”
“You have many eligible qualities, Miss Forbes.” Astrid Bellenger scrutinised her notes. “You’re successful, solvent, handsome and young enough to attract a variety of men.” She stroked the diamonds at her throat. “Do you want a husband and children?”
Laura swallowed. “Not all at once!” She ignored the temptation to make a leap for the door. “I’d like a good companion: someone entirely separate from my work. There must be more to life than weekly columns and monthly magazines. Aunt Clare suggested—”
“Indeed, I do have someone in mind.” Astrid pulled out a new file. “I met him yesterday. He’s from South Africa, although he’s lived in London for fifteen years. He’s a successful estate agent and his name’s Patrick. If you’re interested, I can give you his photo, his CV and his phone number.”
“Thank you,” Laura said, longing to terminate the interview.
“Your cheque will cover a further five introductions, so let me know how you get on. I recommend you meet for an early evening drink. If you don’t want to eat together, you can simply get up, shake hands and leave.” Astrid gave Laura a cool professional smile. “But something tells me you two will get along just fine.”
The following Friday evening, Laura sat in the crowded bar of the Covent Garden Hotel feeling as nervous as she’d ever felt in her life. She’d rushed home early from work to shower and change, unsure whether to present herself as casual, pretty or powerful. Pretty won. She wore a long flowered skirt, a silk blouse and a cashmere cardigan, leaving her freshly washed blonde hair loose of its usual clips.
Patrick was fifteen minutes late and full of apologies: his clients, the traffic, the urgent last-minute phone call. Dark-haired, blue-eyed, slim and impeccably dressed, he had the easy charm and deft manner of a consummate salesman. Laura could easily imagine having a life with him but knew she’d no intention of planning one. There was something about the man she didn’t trust.
They sat and talked for an hour, then Patrick glanced at his watch. “Shall we take a walk? My car’s just around the corner. Let’s drive to Regent’s Park.”
Out in the sultry summer’s evening, Patrick relaxed. He drove well, his hands resting lightly on the steering wheel, the Jaguar immaculate. He told a joke about his elderly uncle that made Laura laugh, but still she felt uneasy.
They moved in step across the manicured grass to the river’s edge.
“Enough of this idle chit chat,” Patrick touched Laura’s elbow, guiding her towards a wrought-iron seat. “Come and sit here. You and me, after tonight, we’ll probably never meet again.” He turned to face her. “Am I right?”
Laura said quickly, “Yes, you are. Probably not.”
“Good,” Patrick said. “Oh, don’t get me wrong. You’re a terrific looking woman. We could have a great time together. But it’s not what you want and it wouldn’t last.”
“I’m too old for tears,” Laura found herself saying, much to her surprise. “Broken hearts are for adolescents. I’ve had my fair share—”
“And so have I.” He slung one leg over the other, clicking his fingers at a pair of interested ducks who’d clambered out of the water. “Neither of us wants to go there again. So: I have a more interesting proposition. I want to tell you something I’ve never told anyone else in my entire life.” He turned to look at her, running his eyes compellingly over Laura’s face, making her look at him. She noticed his thick lashes, the glorious heavy line of eyebrow, his sharply defined mouth. “It’s a real dark secret. And I want to tell you precisely because we’ll never meet again.”
“And what do you want from me?”
“I want you to do the same.”
Laura laughed. “But I have no secrets!”
“There must be something in your life you want to keep to yourself…. What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
“When I was a child,” Laura said reluctantly, “I stole a packet of jelly beans from the newsagent—”
“Come on, Laura! I’m not talking petty pilfering. I’m serious…. What’s the worst and darkest thing you’ve ever felt?”
Laura closed her eyes and shivered. “I had an older brother. My parents were besotted with him. Rupert was the apple of their eye. Nothing I could do made them love me as much as they adored him. God knows I did my best but nothing worked.” She tried to swallow. Bile rose into her mouth. “One night the phone rang. Rupert had been killed in a car accident. Of course I was devastated, and my parents never recovered. But the first thing I felt when I heard the news was a terrible wild joy. I thought: maybe, with Rupert gone, my parents would love me as much as they’d loved him.”
“That’s more like it!” Patrick clasped her hand. The ducks nibbled his pristine ankles. “Exactly what I wanted to hear…. Something so private you’ve never shared it with anyone in the world.”
“And never likely to again.” Laura left her hand lying in Patrick’s: it felt comfortable that way. “So what’s your dark secret?”
Patrick’s grip suddenly felt like iron. “I killed a man.”
“It happened twenty years ago, in South Africa. I got into a fight. I was a bit of a wild child, very strong, too: good on horseback, a brilliant swimmer. The fight started as bare knuckles but then I used a knife.”
He released his grip, standing to shoo the ducks into the river. “Nobody ever found out it was me.” He turned towards her. “And I’ve never told anyone the truth until now.”
Laura caught her breath. “And so … What are you going to do?”
“I’ll drive you home.”
“And in the morning, I’ll decide what to do.”
“That first date you had from Astrid Bellenger.” Aunt Clare sat opposite Laura in the patisserie, crowded with Christmas shoppers. “Did you ever see him again?”
Laura wiped the froth of coffee from her lips. “Not exactly, though it was a remarkable evening… Patrick and I talked about our lives in a most unusual way. And great things came of it.”
“I don’t understand—”
“Nor did I at the time. But a week later, because of something I told him, I made a decision.” Laura looked at Aunt Clare over her cup. “I’m on a six-month sabbatical. I’ve taken up painting and sculpting and learning Italian. I’ve stopped trying to be more successful than my dead brother.” Her voice choked. “I’ve stopped hoping my parents will notice me. They never will, so what am I trying to prove?”
“And will you have the time to find that lovely man?”
Laura smiled at her aunt.
“Good heavens, my darling girl! Are you telling me you’ve found him?”
“I’ve stopped looking. Once I’d shifted all that work onto someone else’s desk, I felt ten years younger. I slept for a week, then I spring-cleaned the house. I began to roam Hampstead Heath. I joined an art class, bought some books on Italy. I’m going to Florence in the spring.”
Laura hesitated. Then she asked, “Didn’t you miss it all, dearest aunt? When you finally retired. You spent forty years as an international photojournalist. Don’t you miss the travelling, the cameras, the excitement?”
Aunt Clare looked her in the eyes. “Of course. I miss the creativity, feeling that I’m making a difference to the modern world, giving it something it would never have seen if it hadn’t been for me. But I don’t miss the war zones, the cruelty, the endless succession of suitcases.”
“I can understand that. My life is so much more sedentary than yours. I need variety, I need movement, new people, new places.”
“And is there a man in all this fresh activity?”
“There might be two,” Laura said. “One of them is teaching me to paint in oils.”
“And the other one?”
“Patrick’s gone back to South Africa.” Laura dipped her head over her plate. “He’s involved in a court case and he’s pleading self-defence.”
“So you have nothing to lose, my darling girl?”
“Nothing to lose,” Laura said, “and everything to gain.”