HOLDING the steaming mugs high to avoid collision, Neve smiled an apology as she backed cautiously around a large, noisy family group who had bagged a much coveted table. One of them moved a bag out of her way as Neve continued to look around for Hannah, who was not where she had left her.
The mistake, she recognized, had been saying, ‘Don’t move, ’ before she went to queue at the bar for hot drinks.
She gave a silent sigh and thought, When will I learn?
Any instruction, no matter how innocuous, and Hannah could be guaranteed to do the exact opposite—the possibility that this half-term break might be a bonding experience had never been exactly realistic, but at that moment it seemed laughable.
Neve paused, her narrowed eyes moving across the heads of the people crammed into the low-beamed room, people like herself, stranded travellers who had found sanctuary in this remote coaching inn. Her glance strayed to the leaded window, and she shivered; the blizzard that had embarrassed the weather forecasters and brought the West Country to a halt continued to rage unabated.
She breathed in to let someone squeeze past and out of the corner of her eye she caught a flash of blue. The controversial streaks in the dark glossy hair identified the head as that of her stepdaughter, who had taken possession of a wooden settle by a window.
Neve took a deep sustaining breath and began to weave her way through the crowd. She managed to reach the window without scalding anyone with their hot drinks.
‘Nice work—you found a better seat. ’ Keep it light, Neve. ‘I thought I’d lost you, ’ she added, placing the mugs of cocoa beside the pot of fragrant blue hyacinths on the slate window sill before pulling the hat crammed down on her auburn curls from her head.
She shook back her hair, easing free the strands that had insinuated themselves down the neck of her sweater, and peeled off her jacket. The room heated by roaring log fires at both ends was warm. ‘I thought cocoa might complete the warming process, topped with cream and marshmallows—I couldn’t resist!’ Even to her own ears her attempt at camaraderie sounded unconvincing and slightly desperate.
Hannah clearly thought so too. Her stepdaughter flicked her a look of shrivelling contempt, of the type that it seemed to Neve only a teenager could pull off, before shrugging and ignoring the drink with a muttered, ‘Do you have any idea how many calories are in that? You should be fat as a pig. ’
So no lull in hostilities.
With her smile pasted in place, Neve wondered if putting on twenty pounds would make Hannah dislike her less.
Probably not. Also it would be pretty difficult: no matter what she ate her figure remained painfully skinny. She would have traded her boyish figure for feminine curves in a heartbeat, but it just was never going to happen.
The moment she sat down Hannah shuffled to the far end to avoid any possibility of physical contact. Giving her aching cheek muscles a break, Neve let her smile slip.
‘Look, don’t worry, I’m sure the snow will stop. ’
Though it showed no sign of doing so yet, and until it did they were well and truly stuck here. Though admittedly, Neve conceded, looking around the crowded bar, there were worse places to be stranded—like outside in the snow- covered Devon moor. She shivered as she slid another look through the misted pane of the window. This was not exactly roughing it.
Hannah bounced around to face Neve and so did her glossy dark hair, complete with the blue streaks that were responsible for Neve’s recent summons to the Devon school where Hannah was a weekly boarder.
Neve had responded dutifully to the summons and had sat, hands neatly folded in her lap, and listened feeling more like a pupil than a parent as the headmistress had voiced her concern—concern Neve shared.
‘It’s not just the hair, Mrs Macleod, or the cigarettes. ’ She dismissed the most recent episodes of rule breaking with a wry smile and consulted the file on her desk. ‘But I do feel this situation requires attention—a united approach?’
Wondering if she looked as inadequate as she felt, Neve had nodded agreement, too worried to feel patronized. She needed all the help she could get; her parenting skills, it turned out, were zero.
‘There have been any number of incidents and, as you know, not all so minor. We were very lucky that the owners of the delivery van did not choose to press charges. You do know that if it wasn’t for the sad circumstances that would have been an automatic expulsion?’
‘And we’re very grateful, ’ Neve had promised her earnestly. She saw no need to mention that Hannah’s ‘gratitude’ had taken the form of sulky silence
and poisonous glares.
‘It is Hannah’s attitude that concerns us most. She is very confrontational. ’
Tell me about it, Neve thought. ‘I’m sure it’s only temporary. ’
‘And her grades have slipped. ’
‘She’s had a tough time. She was very close to her father. ’
‘I know she was. It is sad for you both, ’ the older woman continued.
Neve was horrified when without warning her lower lip started to quiver dramatically—so much for projecting calm maturity!
The genuine kindness in the other woman’s voice had pricked the hard protective shell she had developed and done what all the sneers, sniggers and tabloid cameras had failed to do.
She took the tissue from the box pushed her way and blew her nose loudly.
‘Thanks, ’ she said, not meaning the tissue.
Kindness was not something that she had been on the receiving end of much, actually not at all, once the tabloids had portrayed her as a cold-hearted, manipulative, gold-digging bitch who had married a wealthy dying man for his money. The scarlet widow, they had labelled her. It could have been worse, her brother Charlie had joked at the time—they could, he pointed out, have called her ginger.
Initially there had been a few people inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt, but they had faded away after an enterprising journalist had dug deeper and found out about the money Charlie had embezzled from James’s firm.
Neve had not tried to defend herself. How could she? The fact was she had married a dying man who had left her pots of money and Charlie had embezzled a small fortune.
Nobody wanted to know she had not touched the money or that she’d agreed to James’s proposal as a way of finally repaying the incredible kindness he’d shown both her and Charlie.
‘And we have all made allowances for Hannah, but there is a limit. A child needs boundaries to feel safe. ’
Neve accepted the not-so-subtle reprimand and gave a guilty nod, thinking boundaries only worked if the child involved listened to a word you said. If she had half the natural authority that this woman projected there wouldn’t be a problem.
‘I have the impression that Hannah views this new suspension before the holidays as a joke. May I make a suggestion?’
‘Of course. ’
‘She will be spending the holidays skiing with the Palmer girl and her family?’
Neve nodded cautiously, because she was pretty sure she knew where the older woman was going with this and it would not make her life any easier.
It hadn’t. Her stepdaughter’s response to news that she was to spend the holiday at home with Neve and not in a fashionable ski resort with her friends had gone down pretty much the way Neve had anticipated—namely there had been shouting, abuse and finally sulky, sullen silence.
She had become enemy number one—so no change there—and the cause of every bad thing that had ever happened in her stepdaughter’s life, responsible for everything, it seemed, including the weather.
She had to be doing something wrong. It wasn’t meant to be this difficult, was it? Neve wondered wearily.
What had James said?
At twenty-three you haven’t forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager.
Well, she hadn’t, but she had never been a teenager like Hannah.
I’m not asking you to be her mother, Neve. Be her friend. She’ ll need one.
Need maybe, but not want! Not sharing James’s optimism, she hadn’t really expected Hannah to look on her as a best friend, but she hadn’t anticipated being the unwavering focus of all that youthful frustration and simmering hatred.
It was grueling, exhausting, and deeply depressing.
She thought things might not have been so bad if it hadn’t been for the generous provision James had made for her in the will. She knew he was only trying to be kind, but that kindness had backfired big time even before the press got hold of the story.
Hannah had already considered her young stepmother a gold-digger, and the money had merely confirmed her suspicions.
Neve felt like a total failure. James had trusted her, God knew why. The truth was she wasn’t qualified to look after a puppy, let alone an adolescent girl, and goodness knew what had made her agree to this in the first place.
‘Worried? I’m not worried, I’m bored. With you, ’ Hannah added just in case Neve had not got the message.
It would have been hard not to. It was becoming clear to Neve that the cheek-turning she had been doing was not working, but the tough love alternative wasn’t exactly proving to be a massive success either. There had to be some middle ground of parenting …didn’t there?
‘I’ve got some things planned for your break. I thought we could go
shopping, and maybe if you like we could— ’
The teenager cut across her. ‘Thanks, but I’m not into charity shops, ’ she drawled, rolling her eyes. ‘You do know that shocking pink clashes with ginger hair. ’ She gave a visible shudder as her contemptuous glance moved from Neve’s sweater to her unruly auburn curls.
Neve, who owned a shop selling vintage clothes—the sweater, which she had loved on sight, had never made it to the shelves—refused to take offence. The criticism was to some extent valid: before her marriage she had shopped in charity shops, developing what kinder friends called an individual style and the less kind called weird.
Her style had not changed even after her finances had. James had given her credit cards and a very generous allowance, but she had always felt uneasy accepting his generosity. It wasn’t as if they had had marriage in anything but name.
‘Vintage is very in, haven’t you heard?’ Her customers had—business was thriving.
‘That was never in. ’
Encouraged by the grin Hannah visibly fought as she looked at the sweater in question, Neve smiled and suggested, ‘You could always show me what I should be wearing?’
‘Look, there’s no one here to see your saintly act so why don’t you just drop it, Neve? It’s not as if you’re fooling anyone anyway. Everyone knows why you married Dad. ’
‘I was very fond of your father, Hannah, ’ Neve said quietly.
‘Fond of his money, you mean, ’ the youngster hit back. ‘Or are you trying to tell me you’d have married him for love?’
Neve’s eyes dropped guiltily. ‘Your dad was a lovely man. ’
‘And you are a gold-digging bitch!’
This last observation was made loudly enough for the people at the next table to hear it. While her stepdaughter stormed off, she sat wishing the floor would open up and swallow her.
When it became clear that nothing short of a miracle was going to get him to his meeting on time Severo was irritated but philosophical. The very real possibility he would be forced to spend the night in his four-wheel drive was not a pleasant one, but to his mind it constituted inconvenience rather than disaster.
He rounded a bend and swore softly under his breath as he just managed to
stop before he collided with the car that was slewed half across the road. Dark head bowed against the driving snow, he got out to check out the abandoned vehicle. The fact the car was locked made it seem likely that the occupants had escaped relatively unscathed.
Continuing in these weather conditions was clearly no longer a viable option. According to the last news bulletin he had heard half of the West Country was snowed in and the police were appealing to motorists to make only urgent journeys.
Stay at home, they urged. You had to get there first, he mused as he tramped back to his own vehicle. He had almost reached it when he spotted the lights in the distance. It took him another ten minutes of painful progress before he reached them.
From the look of the snow-covered vehicles in the car park of the roadside inn he had not been the only snow-bound traveller that had chanced upon this sanctuary in the middle of the bleak moor.
He was reaching for the door when his phone rang. He glanced at the caller ID and was tempted not to respond; the last time his stepmother had contacted him she had just been arrested for shoplifting.
The time before when he hadn’t picked up she had raised the money she had wanted him to supply by selling off a piece of family jewellery that wasn’t hers to sell, and buying it back discreetly had been time consuming.
His stepmother was time consuming, but it was dangerous to ignore her.
When he’d been young and Livia had been making a fool of his father while doing her best to turn him against his son, Severo had comforted himself with thoughts of the revenge he would one day be in a position to exact.
Now he was in that position, but Severo’s priorities had changed. His father was in a place where his gold-digging wife could no longer hurt him, and the only power the woman who had once made his life hell wielded was to embarrass him. Actually not him—more the family.
When it came to embarrassment Severo was pretty much bomb-proof these days. As for pride in an old name, he took the view that less pride, less romanticising on past triumphs, and less being worried about getting their aristocratic hands dirty and the fortunes of the Constanza family would not have been so sadly depleted when he had been passed the mantle of power by his father.
The truth was Severo had simply lost his appetite for revenge. Not because he’d forgiven his stepmother or even that he had grown to pity her—and Livia
Larsen, one-time IT girl and society hostess, had become an object of some people’s pity.
Why waste time and energy when Livia was doing a pretty good job of messing up her own life without any help from him? All Severo wanted these days was for her to stay long enough in one of the expensive clinics she frequently booked herself into to actually clean up her act.
He held the phone a little way from his ear, wincing at the sound of his stepmother’s shrill voice berating him for his lack of feeling.
‘How am I expected to live on the pittance you give me?’ she demanded. ‘You have more money than you need!’ she complained. ‘Everyone knows you’re disgustingly rich. Everything you touch turns to gold. ’
Severo rubbed his hand across his eyes—they felt gritty with exhaustion— and continued to listen with half an ear. It was a familiar tirade and one that did not alter no matter how much money he gave Livia, but what was the alternative?
Livia’s voice became a coaxing whine. ‘Just a loan?’
Severo sighed. There had been many loans and he had no doubt there would be many more.
‘I’ll pay you back—with interest. I know it’s what your father would have wanted. Your father would have— ’ Her voice was drowned out by loud static before the line went dead.
He slid the phone back into his pocket, not feeling unhappy that the signal had been lost.
He was approaching the entrance to the inn when a small figure exploded from the double doors, barrelling straight into him. Coatless and hatless and seemingly oblivious to the arctic blast of air howling down from the surrounding hills, the slim jean-clad female wearing a bright pink sweater covered with yellow daisies righted herself before running past him, then stopped and turned.
‘Did you see her?’
Her eyes were wide, anxious and blue—very blue. So blue, in fact, that for a split second he registered nothing but the colour and then the moment and the opportunity to respond was gone. She was belting on and past him out into the snowy car park.
Her figure stood out, a dark blur in the swirl of white, still managing to emanate high-voltage anxiety across the space that separated them. Through the howl of the wind he heard her dismayed exclamation at the sight of a car pulling
out onto the road.
‘Oh, God, no!’
Severo was not a man who felt impelled to ride to the rescue of maidens in distress—such actions were open to misinterpretation and it was his experience that distress could be easily and often artistically feigned. Yet he found himself responding, albeit with reluctance, to some dormant protective instinct.
He was still a few feet from the flame-haired figure when her slumped shoulders straightened and she jumped into one of the parked vehicles and pulled away at a reckless speed. There was a time lag of several seconds before Severo realised that the lights receding into the distance belonged to his own car.
He had not only left the keys in the ignition and a laptop containing extremely sensitive information on the passenger seat, he had stood there and watched while someone stole his car, oblivious to everything except the brilliance of a pair of electric-blue eyes and a desire to offer his assistance.
He closed his eyes, called himself several rude names, not having any cathartic effect, then took a deep breath and strode into the inn.