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The Veranchetti Marriage

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SUCH unexpected generosity upon Alex’s part shook her. Surprise showed in her strained features, and his hard mouth took on a sardonic curve. “Nicky gave me his version of the accident. It matched yours. The men concerned will be dismissed,” he revealed flatly.

“For…for what?” Kerry whispered, doubly shaken.

“You could both have been killed,” Alex retorted harshly. “But, apart from that, I will not tolerate lies or half-truths from anyone close to me.”

Or deception, or betrayal. There were no second chances with Alex; Kerry knew that to her cost. In the pool of silence, she was pained by his detachment, the almost chilling politeness which distinguished his attitude. She meant nothing to him, but Nicky did. Nicky was a Veranchetti, and Alex’s precious son and heir.

“Your van is, I believe, beyond repair,” he continued with the same devotion to practical matters. “I will have it replaced.”

She bit her lip. “That’s unnecessary.”

“Allow me to decide what is necessary,” Alex cut in ruthlessly. “Do you think I do not know how you live? Were it not for my awareness that Nicky goes without nothing that he needs, I would have objected to your independence.”

She said nothing. She was infuriated by his arrogant downgrading of the business she had worked hard to build up. He could keep his wretched money! She had never wanted it. It was a matter of pride to her that she was self-sufficient. And by being so she had won the cherished anonymity of reverting to her maiden name and finding somewhere to live where she was simply a woman living alone with her child. There were no headlines in Kerry’s life now.

“I want to go home tonight,” she told him.

“That would be most foolish.”

She thrust up her chin. “I have business which happens to be very important to take care of tomorrow.”

“You have a partner.” There was an icy whiplash effect to the reminder. She reminded herself that Alex did not like anyone to argue with him.

“He’ll be away tomorrow. In any case, I want to take Nicky home.”

Alex viewed her grimly. “Nicky is in bed, and perfectly happy to be with his grandparents. Leave him there until you are fit again,” he advised. “Even to me, it is obvious that you are still in a very emotional state.”

A humourless laugh leapt from her lips. “And you’re surprised?”

He lifted a broad shoulder in an unfeeling shrug. All of a sudden Kerry was on the brink of tears, and she wished that he would leave. So many times she had imagined what she might say to Alex if she ever received the opportunity. Not once had she dreamt that it might turn out to be so harrowing. A barrier the size of the Berlin Wall separated them now. Alex despised her. Alex, she sensed with an inner shudder, still believed that she had got off lightly, without the punishment he would have liked to have dealt her.

“You will be hearing from my lawyers in the near future,” Alex said, consulting the slim, gold watch on his wrist, and she had an insane vision of legal reps leaping out from beneath her bed. “It’s time that Nicky’s future is discussed. He will soon be of an age to start school.”

Dumbly she nodded, without noticing the intent appraisal he gave her. “Yes.

I know.”

“I am afraid I have an appointment in London now.” He was looking at the door, and she had the peculiar suspicion that Alex, insensitive or otherwise, was suddenly very eager to be gone. “I have naturally taken care of the bill here. When you are home again, I will call on you there,” he completed almost abruptly.

Her lashes fluttered dazedly. “My home? But why?” she demanded apprehensively.

“I will phone before I call,” he responded drily, and then he was gone.

Had he suddenly accepted the need for consultation between them concerning Nicky? Dear God, she preferred his use of third parties now! Fearfully, she wondered what exchanges had taken place between Alex and her parents, and whether something they had said had brought about this surprising change of heart. She shrank from the threat of another distressing session with Alex. It was much too late now for her to be civilised. She didn’t want Alex visiting her humble home, invading her cherished privacy and doubtless bringing alive again all those horrible feelings she had become practised at suppressing.

“Well, hi…”

Kerry glanced up in astonishment to see her half-sister posing in the doorway, her tall, slender figure enveloped in an oversized fur coat. “Vickie?”

“No need to look so surprised,” she reproved, strolling in. “I came home for the weekend. I got the shock of my life when I walked in and found Alex sitting there. When I realised he was calling back here to actually see you, I reckoned you’d need back-up. I’ve been sitting out in the car park waiting for his car to leave. He didn’t stay long, did he?”

Kerry was very relieved to see Vickie. Her sister was the one person alive who could understand what she must be feeling now. Yet, paradoxically, they had never been particularly close. Kerry had barely been thirteen when Vickie left home, keen to escape her frequent clashes with strict parental authority. Since then fences had gradually been mended, but Vickie still remained something of a mystery to Kerry. Cool, offhand, not given to personal confidences and very much a party girl, Vickie had, nevertheless, become Kerry’s confidante. But the secrets they shared had still failed to break down Vickie’s essential reserve. After a brief phase of greater intimacy during her marriage, Vickie had once more become a rather patronising older sister with whom Kerry had little in common. They invariably met only in their parents’ home. But the watery smile curving Kerry’s mouth was warmly affectionate.

“No, he didn’t stay long. He only wanted to question me about the accident.”

Vickie tossed her pale golden hair, her bright blue eyes pinned piercingly to her younger sister’s face. “And that’s all?” she probed tautly. “He didn’t touch on anything else?”

Kerry didn’t pretend not to understand her meaning. “Why should he have? We are divorced,” she sighed. “But he still loathes me. I could see it in him. The condemnation, the disgust, the…”

“Oh, for God’s sake, give it a rest!” The interruption was harsh, exasperated, as Vickie flicked a lighter to the cigarette in her mouth and inhaled deeply. “Why wind yourself up about it? With Nicky in existence, you were bound to meet sooner or later,” she pointed out, and shrugged. “You know, I couldn’t sit about at home any longer listening to the parents pontificating on the possibility of you and Alex getting back together again. The two of them are so na;auive sometimes. Goodness knows what Dad was saying to Alex before I arrived. He’s been dying for years to preach at him.”

Guilty colour marked Kerry’s complexion as she watched her sister pace restlessly. It must have been very embarrassing for Vickie to walk into such a fraught scenario. After all, she knew the truth behind her sister’s broken marriage, and she had loyally kept that secret when she might genuinely have felt it her right to speak up. Kerry swallowed the constriction in her throat. She would never be free of her own conscience, as it was.

“Do you know what was said?” she pressed anxiously. Her father was a warm and kindly man, but her divorce had shocked him to the core. Her refusal to discuss her failed marriage had created a constraint between them which had not lessened over the years.

“Alex didn’t drop you in it, obviously.” Vickie made no bones about what Kerry feared. “They’d have been in need of resuscitation when I got there if he had! Stop fussing, Kerry. Their fond hopes aren’t likely to be realised. Do you know why they’re not here now? They knew Alex was coming so they decided to stay home. But he’ll hardly be visiting again, will he?”

So relieved was she by her sister’s assurance that Alex had not reviled her in any way that Kerry barely heard what followed. She slid her feet over the edge of the bed and breathed in. “Will you give me a lift home?”

“Sure. I brought your handbag and your clothes. They gave them to Alex. I’ll go out to the car and collect them. I wasn’t sure you would be fit enough to leave.” Vickie eyed her pallor consideringly. “You don’t look too hot.”

“I’ll be fine after a night’s sleep. Anyway, I’ve got that American buyer coming tomorrow. I can’t afford not to be there for him.”

Vickie made no comment. She had never shown much interest in her sister’s business. It was in no way as successful as her own modelling agency. But the dealer, Willard Evans, who regularly bought at Antiques Fayre, was a very important customer to Kerry. It might irritate Steven that Willard probably made a three hundred per cent profit on their finds back home in the States, but Kerry never looked a gift horse in the mouth. Since the building of the new bypass they had considerably less passing trade, and she was equally aware that, talented restorer or not, Steven was no businessman.

They were generally overstocked. Steven bought what he fancied at auctions, rather than what was likely to sell. Without the dealer’s visits she believed they would have run into trouble over the poorest months of trading, although she had to admit that their bank manager had always been very reasonable when they had exceeded their overdraft facility.

She thought longingly of home, and wished she could go there, instead of back to the empty cottage. Unfortunately there would be too many questions after Alex’s visit. She couldn’t face those at a moment when she was wretchedly conscious of the mess she had made of her life. Confession might be good for the soul, but it would create great unhappiness for her parents. She seriously doubted that they would find it possible to forgive her. How could they understand what she could not understand herself?

She had been brought up strictly. Her mother had met John Taylor when she was already well into her thirties. He had been a widower with a three-year-old daughter and a busy parish to maintain. Many had saluted his second marriage as one of extreme good sense. Kerry had never been in any doubt, however, that her parents were quietly devoted to each other. Within a year of their wedding Kerry had been born. Her childhood might reasonably have been described as having been idyllic. Unlike Vickie, she had had few stormy encounters with their parents during the teenage years.

Vickie had left home to become a model. In no time at all her true English rose beauty had ferried her up to the top of the ladder. By the time she was twenty-two, Vickie was a success story, renting a small apartment off Grosvenor Place. The summer that Kerry finished school, Vickie had suggested that Kerry use her apartment while she was abroad.

“It’s lying empty, and to tell the truth I’d prefer it occupied,” she had admitted. “You’ll look after my things. Isn’t it about time you cut loose from the nest? If you don’t watch out, they’ll stifle you.”

The Taylors had approved neither of Kerry’s delight nor Vickie’s generosity. But Kerry had been obstinate in her desire to spend some time in London. She had even managed to find herself a temporary job in a nearby travel agency.

“Just wait until you see the guy who uses the penthouse on the top floor,” Vickie had murmured before she left, giving Kerry the lowdown on her neighbours. “He’s devastating, but I’m never here long enough to make an impression. Anyhow,” she had laughed, “I guess he’s not really my type. He’s as conservative as hell. I stuck my neck out once and invited him to a party. He passed, giving me the hint that I shouldn’t have asked in the first place. Watch you don’t make a lot of noise. He also happens to own this building.”

Kerry had almost sent Alex flying on the day she moved in. She had come rushing full-tilt out of the lift as he was trying to enter it, and they had collided, sending the file in his hand skimming over the floor. With her usual sunny cheer she had scrabbled about picking up scattered papers and chattering about the amount of work he brought home with him. She had received the most glacial smile.

It had had no effect on her at all. She had taken her first proper look at him and her knees had gone wobbly. Devastating, Vickie had said rather scornfully. That combination of black hair and golden eyes had more than devastated Kerry. “Gosh, you’d make a marvellous portrait study,” she had said crassly, getting abstractedly back into the lift with him.

“I assumed you were going out,” he had drawled flatteningly. “Do you normally speak to strangers like this?”

“Oh, I’m Kerry Taylor, Vickie’s kid sister…you must know Vickie. Tall, blonde; she’s a model. She lives on the fourth floor.”

“I do not,” he had interposed drily.

She had reddened. “Well, I’m staying here this summer. I thought you might be wondering who I was. That’s why I explained.”

“Your floor,” Alex had slotted into the nervous flood, stopping the lift on the correct level and making it impossible for her to do anything but remove herself.

His unfriendliness had been an unpleasant surprise. Kerry had been born and brought up in a small community where she knew everybody. The anonymity of city life had been a shock to her system. But in her inimitable way she had made friends wherever she could. The security men in the foyer had quickly got on to first-name terms with her as she flashed in and out, generally late wherever she was going or rushing back for something she had forgotten.

Alex had only used his apartment when he was at his London office. She hadn’t known that then. Nor had she even begun to realise how wealthy he was. She had seen him regularly, stepping in and out of his chauffeur-driven car. And the women…Vickie had not warned her about the women.

She came in late one night from a party, and ended up sharing the lift with Alex and a svelte brunette. It had hit her that night that she was always looking out for Alex, and that the days she didn’t see him were distinctly empty ones. Meeting him with the sort of mature woman she naturally could not compete with had turned her stomach over sickly. She hadn’t been that na;auive. She had known very well that he wasn’t bringing a woman home in the early hours to play Scrabble. And it had hurt her. She could still remember standing in that lift, mutinously not speaking as she usually did, and feeling hatefully, agonisingly young.

“Goodnight, Kerry,” Alex had murmured silkily, almost as if he knew what was on her mind.

She hadn’t slept that night. She had paced the lounge, asking herself what kind of baby she was to let herself become obsessed by a male who didn’t know she was alive.

A week later she had accidentally locked herself out of the apartment. The caretaker had been out, the security guard sympathetic but unable to help beyond offering to force the door for her. In her innocence she had imagined that Alex might have keys and, screwing up her courage, she had gone upstairs. His manservant had only allowed her as far as the hall. Alex had frowned the instant he saw her. “To what do I owe the honour?” he had demanded drily.

But he had laughed when she muttered about her hope that he had a key. He had asked her if she would like to join him for supper. While she ate he had dredged out her life story and her ambition to study Fine Art at university. His manservant had intervened to announce that the caretaker was now available, and Alex had appraised her disappointed face and said, “Would you like to dine with me some evening?”

“When?” she had breathed, making no attempt to conceal her delight, and he had laughed again. That was how it had begun.

From the start she had feared that Alex thought she was too immature for him. At thirty, he was already head of the empire his late father had left him. As the eldest in his family he had assumed weighty responsibilities at an early age. In comparison, Kerry had been between school and university, and as carefree and unfailingly cheerful as Alex was serious. It was an attraction of opposites. Her dippy sense of humour and her penchant for disorganisation had fascinated Alex…but much against his will.

Their short courtship had been erratic. Alex had tried to keep their relationship cool. Kerry had been wildly and quite frantically in love with him, and probably the whole world including Alex had been painfully conscious of the fact. The one strong card she had had then, without even realising it, was Alex’s almost fanatical possessiveness. One afternoon her door had been answered by another man when Alex called unexpectedly.

Roy had been one of Vickie’s friends. He had only come to collect stuff that Vickie had let him store in her guest room. Kerry had merely offered him coffee. Alex had misunderstood. By the time that was cleared up, all pretence of playing it cool was over. Alex was laying down the law like Moses off the Mount. Somehow he had started to kiss her, and not as he had indulgently kissed her before. Things had got out of hand and perhaps, knowing Alex, they had done so more by design than accident. He had swept her off to bed in a passionate and stormy mood. Afterwards he had looked down at her and murmured, “Now you are mine, and damn your age, we’re going to get married.”

It had been a breathless, whirlwind romance. Alex had bowled her parents over with his well-bred drawl and cool self-assurance. Kerry had not had a similar effect upon his family. She had soon appreciated that, behind the polite, cosmopolitan smiles, they all thought Alex was marrying beneath him and, what was more, choosing a female totally untutored in the talents required of a Veranchetti wife.

But, possessed as she had believed herself to be of Alex’s love, Kerry had had no doubts. Their beautiful wedding had been followed by a fabulous honeymoon in the West Indies. Alex had then calmly dumped her in Rome with his mother. Athene had disliked Kerry on sight and nothing had given Athene more pleasure than when she was guilty of some social or fashionable gaffe. Within six months, even Kerry’s even temper was strained. Confined as she was to an existence of idle ease, it had seemed to her that Alex had only married her to imprison her. He jetted back from abroad, swept her arrogantly off to bed and brushed aside her justifiable complaints with a maddening air of masculine indulgence.

He thought she was too young to run a household of her own. He didn’t think she ought to travel with him. All the women in his family had always stayed very properly at home, awaiting their menfolk. The first cracks had come early in their marriage. Lonely, isolated by her poor Italian and family indifference, Kerry had been quietly clambering up the walls when Vickie took a job with a Venetian fashion house.

Against Alex’s wishes she had gone to Venice to spend a week with her sister. Alex had flown into Venice and dragged her out of Vickie’s apartment as if she was a misbehaving child. She had flatly refused to go home with him. She had not given way. As a result, Alex had labelled Vickie a bad influence.

Amazingly he had, however, agreed to buy them their own house shortly after that episode. They had moved to Florence, and while Alex had grudgingly said that Vickie was welcome to visit, he had not been prepared for Kerry to visit Vickie in Venice again. The crunch had come over Vickie’s birthday party. Alex had been in London when she phoned him to ask him to attend the party with her.

She had already been in Venice when she called, which had not precisely soothed Alex’s ruffled feathers. “You realise that if you remain there you are putting our marriage in serious jeopardy,” he had smouldered down the phone. “Per Dio I was wrong to marry a headstrong teenager, but do we have to advertise our differences to the world?”

He had also cast several unforgivable remarks on her sister’s moral principles. Kerry had come off the phone angry and upset.

“I warned you,” Vickie had drawled ruefully. “Foreigners are different. Alex would have given you a marvellous affair, but he’s no fun at all as a husband. My God, he’s locked you up and thrown away the key! He’s made you pregnant because he wants to tie you down even more. Don’t you see what he’s doing to you? He’s suffocating you!”

Sooner than cast a wet blanket over Vickie’s enjoyment that evening, she had done her best to put up a sparkling front. She remembered little about the later stages of that crowded party. She did recall dancing with an American photographer called Jeff, and he had made her laugh. She must have had too much to drink. The next morning, Vickie had frantically shaken her awake and Jeff had been lying in the bed beside her. A split second later Alex had appeared in the doorway, and if she hadn’t been pregnant, she honestly believed that Alex would have killed her there and then in the kind of crime of passion Latin countries understood. Without a single word he had turned on his heel and strode out of the apartment.

Jeff had beat an incredibly fast retreat. Kerry had simply been in shock, horrified that she had gone to bed with another man. Vickie had blamed herself for the whole scenario.

“I didn’t give a hoot what you did last night,” she had cried. “I thought it was time you got to let your hair down, but how could I have known that Alex was going to arrive at seven in the morning and practically force his way in?”

It hadn’t been Vickie’s fault. In a maudlin, depressed state of mind, Kerry had had to accept that she had fallen into bed with a virtual stranger. It was an unbelievable six months before she set eyes on Alex again. She had returned to their home in Florence to find that he had moved out. Within a week a lawyer arrived and served separation papers on her. It had seemed so important to her then to try and tell Alex that Jeff had not made love to her. A woman knew when she had made love, just as Kerry had known later that day when she calmed down enough to be sensible.

In response she had tried hard to trace Jeff before she left Venice, desperately grasping at the hope that he would tell her exactly what had taken place between them. Unpleasant as she would have found such an embarrassing confrontation, at least she would have had the proper facts. And at the back of her mind had lurked the rather na;auive prayer that Jeff might have some mitigating circumstance to proffer, or even some innocent explanation which would turn the entire episode into a storm in a teacup.

But she hadn’t even had a surname or an address to work on. Vickie had disclaimed all knowledge of him, confessing that she didn’t even know who had brought him to her party, and voicing the opinion that it was a matter best left alone. In her unsuccessful efforts to find him, Kerry had clutched at straws, stubbornly refusing to see the point. That she had been touched at all would be sufficient for Alex. A kiss, a caress, a shameful frolic in the dark…it made no difference. It was not the degree of the offence, but the betrayal of trust.

Those months of pregnancy in Florence had been a nightmare. She had stayed indoors all the time, torturing herself hour by hour with guilt, and praying that Alex would eventually relent enough to visit her. He hadn’t. His family had left her alone, too. Heaven knew what he had told them. She had finally had to face the fact that Alex had not been satisfied with his marriage before Vickie’s party. Why then should he even be prepared to listen to her when she had broken her marital vows?

“We’re here. Why are you so damned quiet?” Vickie complained.

Sprung back to the present, Kerry peered out at the gloom of her unlit cottage. Vickie dropped her bag on her lap. “Thanks,” Kerry sighed. “Are you going home again?”

“No, I’m driving back to town.” Vickie stared at her with disconcerting anger. “Honestly, you look practically suicidal. Alex isn’t worth any more grief. He was a lousy husband. He was the most selfish, tyrannical, narrow-minded bastard I ever came across. I thought he was about to strangle you that day!”

“Vickie,” she implored wearily.

“You can’t still be that sensitive. So you went to bed with another man! Do you think darling Alex spent all those business trips of his sleeping alone? You still have a lot to learn about rich European men,” she condemned cynically.

Sometimes she had wished he had killed her that day. Instead he had deprived her of the one thing she could not live without then. Him.

* * *

REFUSING EVEN A CUP of coffee, Vickie drove off. Disappointed by her quick departure, Kerry tiredly unlocked her own front door. Empty. She felt so achingly empty. The cottage was freezing cold. She didn’t bother putting on a light. Lifting the phone off the hook in the hall, she passed by into her room and stripped on the spot before sliding into the icy unwelcome of the bed. Ever since the divorce she had kept a strict control on her emotions, and it had worked. Nothing had ever hurt her since. It hadn’t worked with Alex today. It would have been a wondrous gift to be frozen and emotion-free with him.

She fell into a doze around dawn. The doorbell woke her up. Her drowsy eyes fixed on the alarm clock, but it had stopped. She crawled out of bed, shivering in the morning chill. Yanking on her robe, she hurried to answer the door.

“I did attempt to phone when I realised that you had left the hospital last night,” Alex drawled sardonically. “But your phone appears to be lying off the hook.”

“Alex…” Kerry curled back behind the door, much as if a black mamba had appeared on the step. Peering round the edge, she said, “Could…could you come back in an hour?”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” His hand firmly thrust the door wider and he stepped in, flicking an unreadable glance over her. “I warned you that you should stay in hospital.”

Alex could always be depended on to say, I told you so. She reddened, miserably conscious of being caught on the hop. He looked sickeningly immaculate in an expensively tailored dove-grey suit. “I’ll go and get dressed,” she muttered, and pressed the door of the lounge open reluctantly. “You can wait in there.”

After a quick wash she pulled on jeans and a sweater. When she walked into the lounge he was standing almost on top of the electric fire with all three bars burning. She studied his dark, urbane face and clear, golden eyes from beneath the veil of her lashes. Tension hummed in the air in a tangible wave.

Abruptly she dragged her eyes from him. “Exactly why are you here, Alex?”


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