“The bread’s a bit stale, but you don’t mind, do you?” Moira Stanley asked softly. “Just nibble around the funky spots on the edge. That’s what I do.”
The rat didn’t answer. It gobbled up the chunk of white bread with all the gusto of eating the world’s most luxurious Christmas cake. And only the occasional muffled squeak telegraphed its delight.
Moira slowly reached down, picked up her Prada kitten heels, and placed them beside her on top of the bed.
Just in case.
Rats, cockroaches, spiders. She’d seen plenty over the years of cleaning other people’s homes, but she still liked to keep a healthy distance.
“I won’t have any bread for you tomorrow,” she continued in a quiet voice so as not to scare the little grey rat away. She looked at the handful of pound notes and coins laid out before her on the tatty bed cover. “Actually, I won’t have any bread for me either.”
Four days ago she’d been worth billions.
Today she was worth eighty pounds and thirty pence exactly.
She’d even left her credit cards behind. No, not her credit cards. His credit cards.
Picking up the four twenty-pound notes, she set them aside. “Well, that covers the room for today and tomorrow. Which leaves us…” she swiped the coins into a pile, “…thirty pence. Yay!”
She rubbed a weary hand across her face. Thirty pence might have bought her a bottle of water anywhere else in England, but in London, she’d be lucky if it bought her a bottle cap.
“And we need to make it stretch to breakfast, lunch, and dinner for God knows how long,” she murmured to the busily chomping rat. “That agency better get back quick with a job, or after tomorrow it’ll be a roofless, foodless, Merry Christmas.”
The rat ate on.
“You don’t care, do you?” she muttered.
The last of her bread, which she’d turned into a ketchup sandwich, was quietly dissolving into soggy mush on the bedside table. She’d bought the pack of white bread and the small bottle of ketchup days ago when the worst of the hunger pangs had struck. Cheap food that had quietened her stomach but tasted like tart paper mache. The rat loved the oozy bread though. It couldn’t get enough of the stuff after she’d coaxed it out of its hole in the wall three days ago.
“We have lunch…” Moira eyed the stale mushy sandwich half-heartedly. “But I understand if you don’t want to share. A few missed meals might do me good anyway,” she muttered, tapping her curvy hip. But then she frowned. “I don’t get it. There’s tons of cleaning work around Christmas time, what with the parties going on. But the agency keeps saying they’ve got nothing for me.”
The rat snuffled about and munched, oblivious to her plight.
Moira sighed. “I think they want me to stop pestering them and take Alessandro’s offer.”
Problem was, Alessandro’s offer was no longer about the job. It was now about her.
She moved the coins about in distracted little circles. She’d drowned in tears her first day here, but no one had come to dry her tears. The painful truth had faced her that without a paying job she wouldn’t survive. And she was determined to survive. So she’d gritted her teeth and returned to the work she’d known before her marriage. Housekeeping.
The agency she’d called for a job had given her details to a businessman desperate for a housekeeper. He’d turned out to be Italian and more than she’d bargained for.
She picked up her phone from the bedside table and flicked to Alessandro’s photo that he’d sent her. “Way too dark, handsome, and sexy for his own good.” She smirked at the rat. “Sorry to say it, you’re cute and all, but you’ve a long way to go before you’ll compete at this level.”
The rat scurried in small circles, searching for the last crumbs. And finding none, it twitched its pink nose in the air and headed for its hole nearby. Moira reached over to her sandwich and tearing off another soggy chunk, threw it near the rat. It jumped on the bread and settled down to a new feast.
Moira settled back against her pillow. “I think Alessandro likes me. You know… like a man would. But why me? He could have any woman he wants.”
She’d sent Alessandro a photo of herself when he’d insisted. She was good-looking to an extent, but her plain brown hair, prettyish features and ordinary blue eyes were unlikely to stun a man as striking as him.
“But he’s kind. He always knows what to say… or text.” She waggled the phone in the rat’s direction. “Take notes. He cares and knows how to show it. That’s how you reach a woman’s heart, not by scoffing her sandwich without even a ‘thank you’.”
And she returned to studying Alessandro’s photo.
His first texts three days ago had been impersonal, more of an interview. He worked at a hotel and said he was always on the job, so he needed an affordable housekeeper to keep his home. She’d answered his questions as best she could. But her answers had intrigued him, and his texts had come more often, becoming sweeter, wanting to know more about her. And she’d ended up telling him everything, right down to the sorry breakup of her marriage.
Now he wanted her, and not just as his housekeeper.
The rat scrabbled about on the wooden floorboards, hoovering up breadcrumbs.
“You’re right. I need the job and a place to stay,” Moira said. “But also… It’s Christmas, and truth is… I don’t want to be alone.” She paused. “Alessandro said I wouldn’t be if I’m with him. But… I’m not sure I’m ready…” She sat back with a weary sigh and regarded the busy rat. “At least you’re a good listener. Thanks for being here with me.”
A heavy thump landed on her room door.
Moira dropped the phone and sat bolt upright, her heart beating a frantic tattoo in her chest. The rat gave a terrified squeak and disappeared into its hole.
“Be careful, you dork!” A man’s laughing voice said right outside the door.
A second man guffawed. “Wasn’t my fault! You can’t tell your right foot from your left.”
Moira breathed out.
This hostel was full of them, all looking for the cheapest place to stay in London.
“Hey Dave, bet you woke up whoever’s in there,” the second man continued.
“Nah, it’s past noon. There ain’t no one in there. Watch this…” Dave cleared his throat and rapped on her door. “Pizza Delivery,” he hollered.
Moira rolled her eyes but stayed on the bed.
The two outside snorted and giggled like they’d played the joke of the century.
“Come on, man. Let’s get out of here,” Dave said.
And they scampered away.
It was Friday lunchtime, and things wouldn’t get any better towards the evening. A hostel full of drunk and rowdy students wouldn’t exactly be heaven.
Loneliness washed over Moira, and she stared at the tiny room with its bare walls, sparse furniture, and one square window. Over the past four days it had become her home. Her prison.
She closed her eyes. At least she had a choice now. She didn’t have to live like this. But was going to Alessandro the right thing to do?
The phone buzzed, and Moira’s eyes flew open.
‘Time to come to me.’ Alessandro’s text flashed on screen.
Her stomach clenched. Her choice was being made for her.
And picking up the phone, she got off the bed and headed to the window. A lone black taxi waited outside the hostel entrance.
‘Is that taxi for me?’ she typed.
It shouldn’t surprise her. In the three days they’d been texting, she’d learned he was forceful when he wanted to be.
‘It’ll take you to the airport. Your tickets are booked for Paris.’
Moira stepped back from the window. ‘You know I’d like the job, Alessandro, but…’
‘But… you don’t trust me.’
‘I’m not sure this is a good idea.’
‘Don’t you trust me, tesoro mio?’
My darling. The typed endearment he now used for her wore down her resistance.
‘I do…’ She hesitated.
He must have sensed her hesitation. ‘Don’t be scared. You know me.’
Well, she knew his kind words…
‘Are we rushing this?’ She sneaked a look out the window again. The taxi was still outside.
‘What if your husband finds you?’
‘He isn’t looking for me. He’s too busy bedding his mistress.’
A pause. ‘He’s a rich man and a proud one, isn’t he? He’ll want you back.’
‘Why would he come after me? He’s the one who cheated.’ But then realization dawned. ‘You mean for revenge.’
Another pause. ‘Maybe revenge.’
Moira shook her head. ‘But he was never cruel like that when we were married, just distant.’
But uncertainty gripped her. Her husband had a ruthless streak. He’d wielded it in business, playing his opponents to their knees for his advantage. Would he now wield it against her?
Alessandro’s text had her staring. ‘You stepped on his pride by walking out on him. Men don’t easily forget a crushed ego. Do you still want to stay where he could find you?’
‘I never meant that much to him. He wouldn’t waste his time on me.’
‘But you’ve made him a laughing stock. Will he forgive that?’
Moira’s breath caught. The high-class circles they’d moved in were venomous, and her husband wouldn’t appreciate being made a fool in front of them. What if he tried to make her suffer for that? The fact that she’d loved him with all her heart wouldn’t save her.
‘You’re not alone, tesoro.’
She glanced at the hole the rat had disappeared into. Gone. Leaving her alone once more.
Maybe it was a blessing Alessandro had found her.
‘Come to me, Moira.’
‘It’s okay. I’m waiting for you.’
Moira’s unease ebbed a little, and she smiled at her phone. Alessandro’s words reached out and caressed her, holding her close in a foreign land.
She glanced around. The Paris train station heaved with bodies and noise on a Friday evening. The jingle of Christmas carols over the speakers mingled with the chatter of people as they rushed home from work. Tomorrow was Christmas Eve, and excitement hung thick in the air like fog.
Excitement gripped her too, nervous excitement, like stepping off a high diving board for the first time. But she couldn’t turn back now. Only heartbreak and soul-crushing loneliness waited back in England.
She had to see this through.
‘I’m just a day away,’ she typed before she could change her mind.
A group of businessmen hurried past, forcing her to sidestep them. She edged closer to the electronic display board. The Venice-bound Royal Express was due to leave platform ten in less than fifteen minutes.
Platform ten. She slipped her phone back into the pocket of her red wool coat and looked around, unsure whom to ask. Different uniforms scurried about, and any one of them might help. But her French like her Italian worked on guesswork, and it would take too long to make herself understood. She was already running out of time.
With a last glance up at the board, she took a step back and collided with a metal luggage trolley at least a foot taller than her five foot five. The metal jangled against her, sending her staggering backwards into a pair of strong male hands.
“Pardon, Mademoiselle! C’est ma faute,” the anxious-looking porter said, steadying her.
Moira quickly straightened. “Please don’t worry,” she said, flustered but giving him a reassuring smile. She righted her red coat over her Chanel jacket and curve-hugging pencil skirt. “My fault entirely. I should have looked.”
He returned her smile, and white teeth flashed against dark skin in a kind young face. Paris suddenly seemed less intimidating.
“Could you show me to platform ten? Um… s’il vous plait?”
“Ten… dix?” He pointed up at the electronic board. “You go on L’Express Royal?”
“Yes.” She nodded enthusiastically, ridiculously grateful that he spoke English.
“Then follow. The train, it leaves soon, non? We will hurry.”
“Oh gosh, yes. I don’t want to miss it.” And grabbing her small travel case, she rushed after him.
He obviously knew this station like the back of his hand, because he weaved a quick path through the crowds, all the while handling the loaded rattling trolley like it was on wings rather than clackety wheels. And before Moira knew it, she was standing on platform ten with her frantic breath coming out in cold wintery puffs, and the majestic blue carriages of the Royal Express stretched out before her.
“Thank you!” she called after the porter as with a grin and a wave he pushed the luggage trolley away.
And she turned back to the train where blue-capped and uniformed crew were greeting the boarding passengers with smiles and pleasant welcomes.
Moira’s nerves cramped again. God, was she doing the right thing?
Her mother would have freaked had she still been alive. Which sane person ran off to Venice to be with a man they’d started texting three days ago?
Another announcement sounded over the station’s public-address system, pausing the Christmas carols. And Moira pulled herself together. She was here now. No more fear.
Time to throw all caution to the winter wind and let a new life take her. And tightening her grip on her travel case, she stepped forward into her new start.
* * *
“Damn thing!” Darren Tate tugged open the bow tie’s useless knot and yanked the strip of black silk from around his shirt collar.
He was a Tate, head of a multinational brewing company whose beers kings and presidents drank, and he couldn’t even knot a simple bow tie.
But he’d never had to bother with such mundane tasks before. He’d grown up in a household bursting with servants. Damn sure he’d had one for each shoe and one for each pair of socks. Faceless people who’d come but then run away with startling speed once they felt the full fury of the tyrant they worked for.
That had been his father. The man had played ‘Lord of the Manor’ to the hilt, even though his ancestors had been penniless refugees from Europe. His father hadn’t been a kind master, not to his servants, or his meek wife, or even his only son.
Darren grimaced. Everything and everyone around his father had had its place, and God help the brave soul who’d overstepped those invisible boundaries.
Still, even such a regimented childhood had had its upside. There had always been a servant on hand to do everything for Darren, except knot his bow ties. Bow ties had been his sweet mother’s speciality.
“It makes you look so smart,” she’d say with her soft smile as she tied it around his boyish collar. “My handsome lad.”
He rubbed the fine silk between finger and thumb. Maybe that’s why he still wore the wretched thing. It kept his mother close, the one soft spot in his life. She’d knotted his bow ties for him until her death. Then a few months ago the task had fallen to another woman.
He dropped the black silk onto the white marble vanity and stared into the tiny bathroom’s even tinier mirror.
He’d inherited his father’s aristocratic looks, including the cold turn of countenance and set of jaw that radiated command. And that same self-assured command had let him walk unchallenged into his father’s position as head of the company at just twenty-eight years of age when the old man died last year.
He studied his reflection. Looking at him now, no one would guess his marriage had just broken down.
With an irritated grunt, he strode from the bathroom cubicle to the window seat where his only case lay open. If everything went to plan, this overnight trip would see him in Venice tomorrow and in his woman’s arms and bed for the whole of Christmas weekend.
He reached over the case and slid the window open, letting in the noisy bustle of the station along with the sharp winter air. It smelled of diesel fumes, but that beat the cloyingly sweet floral scent they insisted on pumping into the cabins. At least they’d held back from pumping those infernal Christmas carols around the cabins too.
He sat down and pushed past the haphazardly folded clothes in the case until he came to the silk-wrapped bundle he’d hidden at the bottom.
Normally he had his assistant shop for gifts, but these were special and not meant for anyone’s eyes but his. And he opened the ivory silk wrap to expose the delicate red lace within.
A babydoll set complete with barely-there thong. He ran a hand over the soft material, and the image of her luscious body filling the sultry lace had him hardening right there. She’d wear it long enough for him to see, then he’d rip it off her and take her harder than he’d ever taken her before.
Hell, he ached for her.
He’d waited too long. Even one more night was torture.
Opening the red jeweller’s box nestled beside the lace, he took out the sparkling diamond ring inside. He should have put this ring on her finger long ago. He’d written his restless words of desire on a note beside it, but this diamond would speak louder than any scribbled words ever could. And when she wore this ring, she would know she belonged to him.
And placing the ring back in its box, he covered everything with the silk wrap once more. The end of his brief marriage had proven to be a blessing in disguise. It had opened his eyes to what truly mattered. Now the woman he craved was just a train journey away.
Impatience roared through him, but he tampered it down. No need to rush. He’d planned everything for them. Until now he’d let his work consume him, but for her, he’d take his time. They would uncover each other bit by bit until their hearts joined and beat as one.
But this damn train…
It hadn’t been his idea.
His wife had booked this vacation a month ago, but that plan had collapsed with his marriage. So what the hell. Why not put the ticket to better use?
Only trouble was, the entire train and its crew fancied themselves as throwbacks to the Roaring Twenties. Passengers had to dress to impress even to have a drink in the damn bar car. His position as CEO came with enough posturing and peacocking to last him a lifetime, and he’d have happily spent the whole trip in jeans and a t-shirt. But he had to blend in. He was keeping a low profile and didn’t want to draw attention to himself. Even his assistant, a draconian old lady he’d inherited from his father, had no idea about this weekend trip of his.
So needs must. And going into the bathroom cubicle, he took out his bottle of cologne and splashed a little on himself. The bow tie lay forlornly on the vanity, and he ignored it. There was a limit to the pain he was willing to take in his effort to merge with the locals. And he exited the bathroom with the top button of his white shirt left rakishly open.
He shrugged on his dark jacket, and sliding open the polished walnut door of his now cold cabin, stepped out into the warm corridor beyond.
* * *
Moira rummaged in the side pocket of her travel case and pulled out the monogrammed blue envelope that held her ticket.
The Royal Express oozed luxury, from the straight gold lines decorating the carriages, and the colourful coat of arms painted on the platform floor, to the expensive ticket in her hand.
In her ordinary life, she’d never have afforded to set foot on this platform. But she’d been living a billion-dollar dream life for a few months now. And before that dream ended at the stroke of midnight, she wanted to make sure it took her all the way to a new beginning.
Hiding her nervousness behind a learned confidence of wealth, she straightened her shoulders and approached the steward waiting in front of her carriage.
“Bonjour, Madame,” he said cheerfully, his eyes catching the flash of gold on her hand. “It is just you?”
He was a short middle-aged man with dark hair and eyes and an avuncular smile. And like all the other crew members, everything about him was blue and pristine and ironed to within an inch of its life, including his hat.
She handed him her ticket. “Yes. Just me. And…” She curled her left hand out of the way. “It’s mademoiselle, not madame. Mademoiselle Stanley.”
He glanced at the ticket and then back at her. “Ah…” And clearly choosing not to say more, he beamed. “You are in cabin G3, Mademoiselle.” He took her travel case from her and standing to one side, gestured for her to enter. “Welcome to the Royal Express.”
Stomach fluttering with nerves, Moira climbed into the carriage.
The steward handed her case to her. “You shall of course have an unforgettable journey, Mademoiselle.”
A delicate lily-of-the-valley scent filled the empty carriage. Moira inhaled in appreciation and glanced around at the opulent decor that transported her back to a bygone era of flappers and jazz.
The carriage’s blue-carpeted corridor stretched out before her. Wide windows lined one side, and a wall of polished walnut cabin doors lined the other.
Lilies were everywhere. Even the small lights dotting the ceiling were shaped like lilies with their cream glass petals curling away from their glowing yellow bulbs. Cream art-deco lilies swirled around the gold numbers etched on each cabin door. The door beside her was number six, which meant her cabin was further along the carriage.
She traced a finger over a gold swirl. This beautiful train didn’t judge or reject her. Its soft grandeur welcomed and soothed. And for the first time in what seemed like a lifetime, Moira dropped her guard and relaxed.
None of this luxury was new to her. Limousines, private jets, she’d seen them all. But she’d been an imposter in that rich world. She’d been the lowly housekeeper who’d become mistress of all she surveyed. Or to describe it in the language of the gossips: the low-life sponge who’d seduced her way into the big leagues.
“I didn’t know he’d married!” The older lady in glittering black had pressed her manicured hand to her bosom and stared at Moira in wide-eyed shock.
“Celine, where have you been these past days?” The polished brunette had hissed at her with a not-so-subtle head tilt in Moira’s direction.
“Oh… oh!” Celine’s eyes widened in realization. “The housekeeper,” she mouthed to the brunette who nodded sagely.
Moira gritted her teeth. The way these two were talking over her, she could have been one of the green potted palms at this exclusive business function. “We married last week,” she said, her tone sharp enough to bring their smirking attention back to her.
Celine looked her up and down as if trying to work out what charms someone like Moira had used to snag one of the most eligible bachelors in the country.
Moira raised her chin and stood her ground. She may not be born into money. She may not be elegant and sophisticated like these women, even in her designer dress. But she was the one he’d chosen.
“Well, stranger things have happened,” Celine said brightly. “And it’s all just sex to men, isn’t it?”
Moira sucked in a sharp breath. “We love each other,” she snapped. But the words rang hollow even as she said them. She loved, but did he?
The brunette’s smile was pitying. “It’ll be a great ride. Enjoy it for what it is while it lasts.”
“And you’ll never be poor again,” Celine chirped.
And with broad smiles they swept away, whispering and giggling to each other.
Moira stood stock still, refusing to let her eyes water or her chin wobble.
Don’t be weak. Not now. Not here.
People drank and chatted in the decorated party hall. This was their world, rich and elegant. And she didn’t belong.
She looked but couldn’t see him. They hadn’t been here ten minutes when he’d received a phone call and walked away from her to answer it. Business. It was always business with him. His phone was never far away.
He’d left her alone, and the harpies had immediately circled, sensing prey.
The loneliness that had been building over days squeezed her heart, and she couldn’t stop the tears from spilling any longer. Turning her back on the noise and elegance, she angrily dabbed her eyes with the back of her hand and hurried towards the balcony doors at one end of the hall.
Damn it. Now she looked like a mascara-dipped panda as well as a low-born housekeeper.
The doors were wide open, and a tall familiar figure stood on the balcony with his back to her. She halted in her steps. His broad shoulders were relaxed, and he listened to the phone at his ear with his blond head tipped down in thought.
Moira took a step back. He shouldn’t see her looking like this.
But he must have sensed her because he turned, and on seeing her, frowned. Then saying something into the phone, he lowered it and came to her.
“What happened?” he asked, his blue eyes searching her face.
“Nothing! I just wanted some fresh air.”
He studied her, his eyes narrowing. “This isn’t the place for you,” he said quietly.
And Moira’s insides froze. Where else would she be? She loved him. She belonged with him.
“I’m fine. You… you don’t have to worry about me.” She glanced back at the hall and its snooty horde and steeled herself. “I could go back and mingle.”
“Come with me.” And taking her by the elbow, he steered her towards the hall entrance, at the same time returning the phone to his ear and resuming his conversation as he walked.
Cheeks burning, Moira scurried along beside him in her high heels as he ploughed his way through curious onlookers. Once outside the hall, he raised his hand and signalled to the uniformed manager at the reception desk.
“Find my chauffeur. My wife needs to return home,” he said as the manager rushed over to them.
“Really, I don’t…” Moira protested.
“You’ll feel better,” he said. “I’ll see you back at home.” And returning his attention to his phone, he strode back into the party hall.
“If you’d come with me, ma’am?” The manager had hovered by her side, but Moira had stood staring after her husband.
Her husband who’d left her, handed her over like unwanted baggage for someone else to deal with.
He’d never taken her out anywhere after that, probably seen her as too much of an embarrassment. And then her fall had come, and a more beautiful specimen had replaced her. The gossips had been proven right.
There had been no mercy for her.
The phone in her coat pocket buzzed, and heart jumping in anticipation, she fished it out.
‘Are you aboard?’
Alessandro. And the rapid beat of her heart dimmed a notch.
But who else had she been expecting?
The all-too-familiar image of a blond god with arrogant sky-blue eyes and stunning chiselled features swept to mind.
She shook her head. What on earth was she thinking?
Alessandro should be filling her mind, Italian and dark-haired Alessandro, and the only person in the world who cared enough to check she was okay.
‘Safe and aboard,’ she texted back and didn’t have to wait long for his reply.
‘Good. Get comfortable, tesoro. You’ll be with me soon.’
Her stomach fluttered again. Tomorrow in Venice she would meet Alessandro.
“Henry! That was atrocious.” A woman’s laughing voice had Moira turning around.
A slim elegant woman with short iron-grey curls stood grinning at the cheerful stocky man climbing into the carriage after her.
“What?” he rumbled. “How else do you wish someone ‘good day’ in French?”
“Bonne journée not ‘bon jon’.” The woman shook her head. “But you won’t remember next time either.”
Henry made a face. “Next time, Nell, I’ll leave you to chat up the locals. As long as I can say ‘beer’ in any language, I’m good.”
“You give up too easily,” Nell said with a laugh. She grinned at Moira. “Are you travelling with anyone?”
Moira flushed at having been caught gawping. “I’m travelling alone.”
Nell came up and held out her hand. “I’m Eleanor, but call me Nell. This is my husband, Henry.”
“Moira,” She shook Nell’s hand and then Henry’s bigger one when he held it out to her with a smile.
“Have you travelled on the Royal Express before?” Nell asked.
Moira shook her head.
“You’re in for a treat then.” Nell pressed closer to Henry, and he slung a loving arm over her shoulders. “We come back every Christmas,” Nell continued. “This is our fifth trip. We’ve been spending our wedding anniversaries in Venice.”
Moira smiled. Their closeness was endearing, and their love obvious. “How long have you been married?”
“Too long,” Henry intoned in the voice of doom.
Nell elbowed him in the side. “Thirty-five years.”
“Congratulations,” Moira said. She’d once believed she’d found love as strong and everlasting as that. But what a lie that had turned out to be.
“You’re married too?” Nell pointed to Moira’s left hand and the plain gold band still on her finger.
Moira’s cheeks heated. “Not anymore.” How did she explain to strangers that her husband had thrown her over for another woman?
But Nell didn’t seem to need an explanation. Her brown eyes gentled. “I see.” Then she smiled, diffusing the awkwardness. “And which cabin is yours?”
“G3,” Moira said, glancing at the polished doors.
“Wonderful. We’re in G1, so not too far away. We’ll make sure you don’t feel lonely. But let’s get settled in. The train will be moving soon.”
Nell’s enthusiasm was catchy, and Moira smiled. The overnight journey to Venice was promising to be better than she’d expected. At least she’d have less time on her own to drown in her sorrows.
All the polished cabin doors they passed were closed, except one. This door was slid all the way open, but no one was inside. A case spilled its contents on the window seat, and a pair of men’s jeans dangled from the slim wardrobe door, while shoes and other clothes lay strewn about.
Messy. Moira’s innate need for tidiness raised its critical head, and she had to glance away. This mess was nothing to do with her. Out of love, she’d spent her married life cleaning up after a man, but no more.
“Here we are… G3.” Nell stopped in front of the cabin next to the untidy one.
And Henry slid the door back to reveal the mirror image of next door, but far neater.
Moira walked in and glanced around.
“We’re just a cabin away,” Nell said. “Drop by whenever you like. I’ll also tell the steward to book us on the same table for dinner.”
“Thank you. You’re very kind,” Moira said, her heart warming with gratitude to know friendly faces were near.
She’d been alone after her mother died earlier in the year. But she’d picked herself up, and she’d survived. And she’d have continued to survive if she hadn’t met him…
She stopped herself. There was no more him.
And somehow she’d survive again.
But it was hard to find strength right now, and the kindness of strangers comforted her like a wool blanket in winter. First Alessandro and now Nell and Henry.
Everything would be all right.
Nell and Henry walked on to their cabin. Moira placed her travel case down and took in her surroundings.
This was home for the night.
The cabin was divided in two. The living area had an L-shaped blue seat that ran beneath the wide window and across one side, and the low polished table in front of the seat was perfect to eat or work on. But who worked on an overnight luxury train trip to Venice?
The small bulbous silver vase on the table brought a smile to Moira’s lips. It held a real calla lily. More lilies. They already decorated everything. The same art-deco lilies from the door were etched in delicate cream and gold wherever space existed on the polished wood walls.
Moira set her travel case on the seat. The luggage rack high above had plenty of extra storage space, but she didn’t need it. Her small case was all she had, and it contained everything she now owned in the world.
The cabin air was warm, and taking off her coat, she hung it up in the wardrobe that acted as a partition between the living area and the bedroom. A cubicle bathroom on the window side formed the other half of the partition.
The bed, attached to the cabin wall, took up most of the space in the bedroom. Two people would fit, but they’d have to sleep close and curled up against each other.
She twisted the ring on her left hand.
That wouldn’t have been a problem once. The man she’d loved had always slept with her tucked up against him.
That is… on the nights he’d bothered to return home to her.
The gold wedding band gleamed on her finger, mocking her. Every one of his nights that hadn’t been hers had belonged to Jenna Newham, his first choice. His only choice.
“This place is exactly as I left it.” Days ago, Jenna Newham had twirled on her red heels as she looked around the modern decor and furnishings of Moira’s husband’s penthouse.
Her keen blue gaze rested on a splatter of rainbow dots painted on a canvas on the wall, and her perfect red lips twisted in satisfaction. “And he kept the Missay I bought him for his birthday!”
Moira ground her teeth. She’d returned from college to find the beautiful blonde waiting for her. It wasn’t polite to boot guests from your home, but she’d happily make an exception for Jenna Newham.
Politeness be damned.
“Was there something important you wanted to talk about or are you here to waste my time?” Moira asked.
With a smirk, Jenna sashayed over to the fireplace, stroking a possessive hand over the fur throw on the couch as she passed. “You’ve been married six months, and you haven’t changed a thing here.”
“I’ve not needed to change anything. It’s fine as it is.”
Jenna laughed. “You’re too scared to change his home, admit it. You’re married to one of the wealthiest men in the country. Any wife with ambition would have remodelled this place by now.” She threw her arms wide to indicate the spacious living room.
“Why should I be scared?” Moira asked, bristling. “And I have other ambitions. Redecorating a perfectly okay home isn’t one of them.”
“I heard. Your business degree. Is that still earning you brownie points with him, or has he already forgotten you started it?”
Moira’s cheeks heated. She’d started that degree while still working as her husband’s housekeeper. She planned on running her own housekeeping company one day. A plan she hadn’t abandoned even after marriage. Her husband had always been supportive, but in the last couple of months it seemed like he’d forgotten about Moira’s ambition and Moira herself.
“He’s been busy,” she snapped.
Jenna smiled, and faint dimples flashed in her cheeks. She really was a beauty—long blonde hair, bright blue eyes, a face and figure that had won top modelling contracts many times over. She wore a short red shift today, the figure-hugging dress ending mid-thigh and putting her long shapely legs on display.
Moira bit back her envy. Her shorter curvier figure wouldn’t come anywhere near this woman in the beauty stakes. And as for that dress…
Red was Moira’s husband’s favourite colour, and Jenna Newham knew it well.
“I know he’s been busy,” Jenna said. “That’s what I came to talk to you about.”
Panic sent Moira’s heart racing, and all her suspicions of the last few months came to a sharp head. “There’s nothing I want to hear from you.” She pointed to the door. “Please leave.”
Jenna shrugged. “If you want to pretend nothing’s going on, that’s up to you. But this comfortable setup you’ve got here won’t last forever.”
Moira wiped clammy palms on the side of her jeans. She didn’t want to hear it. She didn’t. But a part of her had to know…
“Haven’t you wondered where he is when he’s not with you?” Jenna continued, her eyes narrowing on Moira.
“He’s busy… work…” Moira’s voice faltered.
“Busy, yes. With me.”
Moira shook her head in a daze. “I don’t believe you,” she whispered.
“When was the last time he slept here?”
Six days ago. Moira had slept almost a week alone in their huge bed.
“Six nights?” Jenna guessed with a smirk. “And I can tell you where he was on every one of those nights.”
Moira swallowed. “He didn’t want you. He married me.”
“A mistake,” Jenna said brightly. “We all make stupid mistakes, right? And believe me he’s regretting it now. We both are.” She walked over to the closed patio doors leading to the wide terrace and peeped out. “He’s so damn proud. He said things in the heat of the moment…” She gave Moira an assessing look. “But you played your cards right, didn’t you? Hovering around him when he was missing me, always there. He only married you to spite me.”
“That’s not true!” Moira’s trembling hand went to the wedding band on her finger.
Jenna’s eyes locked on the movement. “He didn’t even buy you an engagement ring.”
And Moira’s breath shook. The night he’d proposed…
No going down on one knee.
No promise to love her forever.
He hadn’t even mentioned love. Ever. That had been all her. She’d been head over heels in love with him. Naively so.
“Do you know he’s promised me the biggest diamond?” Jenna’s smile was smug. “And you can bet I won’t be settling for a grotty registry wedding. Ours will be the event of the year. At least he doesn’t have to be embarrassed to show me off.”
“He’s not embarrassed about me,” Moira whispered, almost to herself. But she knew it was a lie as soon as she said it. And all the love beating in her heart couldn’t change that fact.
Jenna sauntered over to her. “Face it, darling. You were always second choice. He couldn’t have me, so he settled for you. And it was all just a game to get me back.”
A final weak hope raised its head, and Moira squared her shoulders. “No. He would tell me himself…”
“It’s only a matter of time.” Jenna’s tone was pitying. “Listen. Everyone knows you’re knocking about here alone and unwanted most nights. I’m just sparing you the pain. If you have any pride you’ll leave. Now. Before he throws you out.”
Moira wandered over to the blue seat by the window. Snow swirled outside. Tiny white flakes, thousands of them, drifted down to brush the concrete platform opposite and rest on the iron tracks below.
Would it be snowing in Venice?
Picking up her phone, she flipped through to Alessandro’s photo. He was a man women would stare at for ages, but he didn’t affect her, not with her heart in shreds. Why was this good-looking man being so kind to her? Was he after her money?
He knew why her marriage had ended, and though she hadn’t named her husband, Alessandro had guessed he was a wealthy man. Only problem was, she’d signed the prenup with the same blind love with which she’d signed her marriage certificate. She had no money.
She turned back to the snow-misted window. She’d never had love either.
“Fuck you!” Jenna Newham’s shriek had bounced through the penthouse.
And Moira had ducked her head and concentrated on wiping down the kitchen counter. She’d been in the middle of cleaning up after dinner when the woman had barged into the penthouse. And now the fierce argument in the living room beyond the thin partition wall had raged on for the past five minutes.
“Which slut have you taken up with?” Jenna’s vindictive voice came again.
“What is it about these words you don’t understand?” His tone was deceptively mild. “I told you weeks ago. It’s finished.”
“She’s trash. You fucking deserve trash. I’m too good for you.”
His bark of laughter was derisive. “You give yourself way too much credit.”
“Who is she?” Jenna spat. “She’s so fucking dead!”
“Come near me or anyone to do with me ever again, and I’ll make you wish you were never born,” he said quietly.
Moira’s hand tightened on the cloth in her hand. He meant it. In the month she’d worked as his housekeeper, she’d learned he didn’t throw words around carelessly.
A loaded pause meant Jenna must have got the message too. “This isn’t over,” she said with deadly venom. “You’ll be sorry. I’ll make you sorry.”
And the front door banged shut with a force that shook the walls.
His footsteps thudded on the stone kitchen floor behind her, but Moira didn’t pause her cleaning or turn around. He’d talk if he wanted.
Sometimes he’d talk to her when things were heavy on his shoulders, things to do with business, things she didn’t always understand but listened to anyway. Her listening seemed to give him relief. Most of the time though he’d brood and wouldn’t talk, just stand nearby as she worked, as if having her close was soothing enough. Then there were those rare precious moments he’d have a joke or comment ready to make her laugh. His blue eyes would soften then, and he’d grin at her giggles. Those moments had sealed her fate and made her his.
The fridge door opened and shut behind her, followed by the fizz of a beer can being cracked open.
“You can ask, you know,” he murmured.
Moira turned then. He was leaning against the counter, his head tipped back as he slugged the beer. And his beautiful profile had her staring as always. Would she ever get enough of looking at this man?
He lowered the can with a grimace, and the turmoil in his eyes had her heart aching.
They’d exchanged nothing but words, always proper, always distant, but always with an undertone of wanting more. But did he want more? Did he feel the tiny electric ripples whenever their hands accidentally touched? Did he think the world was brighter when they were together?
Or was that just her?
His eyes met hers, and hardness covered the brief glimpse of vulnerability in his.
Moira pulled back her yearning. It was just her. He felt nothing. And if he did feel anything, it would be for Jenna whom he’d been dating for the past two months.
“I don’t want to intrude,” she said, forcing lightness into her voice.
He placed the can down on the counter. “What do you feel for me, Moira?”
Heat flooded her cheeks. How on earth had she given herself away? She had to claw it back, immediately. She couldn’t afford to lose this job just because she’d been stupid enough to fall head over heels in love with her boss.
Keep it professional.
“You’re a good employer…” she faltered.
His lips twisted in derision, and in two strides he was before her. He reached up and cupped her face in his strong hands.
Moira stared up at him, forgetting to breathe. And when he lowered his head and brushed his lips over hers, she gasped.
He took the opening, sliding his arms around her and pulling her to him to deepen the kiss. And her whole world hung on his touch, his taste, his divine scent of spice and wood. His tongue teased and explored, and she died inside, praying for him to never let go.
But then he broke the kiss, and stroking a thumb over her trembling lips, frowned down into her mesmerized eyes. “Marry me,” he said.
“What?” Her voice was barely a whisper.
“Marry me, Moira. Be my wife.”
Had she just fallen down the rabbit hole into wonderland? She searched his eyes for the joke but found none. And her heart pounded as the weight of his words settled in her dazed mind. “You’re serious…”
“I’ve never been more serious in my life. Marry me.”
One small word had changed her fate forever. They’d married within the week with only his lawyer as witness. They’d parted straight after, her new husband going to his office, and she back to the penthouse to do the work she’d always done. And she’d called it love.
Moira shook her head in self-disgust.
Her every night with him had been magic, opening her to pleasure and sensation she’d never known before. He’d take her again and again as if starved of her, and she’d still called it love, until she’d learned love meant more than hot sex.
If only he’d cared enough to know who she was beyond the woman who kept his home neat and warmed his bed at night. But then he’d married her to get back at Jenna Newham, and she’d been the fool who hadn’t realized it.
She looked at the phone in her hand. Alessandro cared. She had to believe that.
‘No turning back,’ she typed.
His reply came on the heels of her message. ‘I wouldn’t let you. You belong with me.’
‘You’re always so wonderful with your words :)’ Her gaze flicked to the snow outside. ‘Thank you for everything. It means a lot to me.’
‘In what way?’ he asked.
‘Christmas Day is my birthday.’
‘Then you’re even more special than I imagined.’
A smile touched her lips, and his text came again. ‘What should I get you for your Christmas birthday?’
‘You don’t have to get me anything.’
Moira gave a wry shake of her head. There was no point arguing. ‘My mother used to get me something sweet for my birthday every year.’
‘Something sweet it is then.’ He paused. ‘Wear something beautiful when you get off the train tomorrow.’
‘It’s Christmas Eve. I want to take you somewhere special.’
Warmth hugged her. He wasn’t embarrassed to be seen out with her. ‘That sounds wonderful.’
His reply came. ‘Rest now, tesoro. We’ll see each other soon.’
With a smile she placed her phone down, and opening her case, rummaged inside until she found the carefully folded dress. Her favourite. It was red sequinned silk, sleeveless and drop-waisted, but its cut still hugged her curves and the gently flared skirt ended at her knee. She hadn’t been able to leave this dress behind. And now she thanked her instincts. Alessandro would love it.
But why red?
Frowning, she held the dress up to the light of the window. The sequins twinkled, and memories speared her heart. The dress crumpled in her grip.
Her husband loved red. He’d said it made a sexy woman damn irresistible.
Moira dropped the dress back in the case. Why did she bring this dress? Why not any other colour?
She studied her gold wedding ring. Why was she still stuck on him, her husband?
What did it matter if Alessandro wanted her money? What did anything matter? All she wanted was a promise of not being alone right now, a hope of a new beginning.
And pulling the ring off her finger, she dropped it beside the silver vase on the table.
It wouldn’t be leaving the train with her.
“Mesdames et Messieurs…” The manager’s tinny voice came over the speaker. “Welcome aboard the Royal Express. We are now ready to depart Paris.”
Unease gripped Moira. This was really happening.
She was leaving Paris behind just like she’d left London behind this lunchtime, and tomorrow midday she’d be in Venice.
The horn blared loud and long, once… twice… and the train juddered around her, then slowly pulled forward. Within seconds the station had slid out of sight.
Moira drew herself together. No regrets. She’d chosen to go to Venice and start again. Time to look forward not back. And she turned to her case on the seat.
But the train’s movement had shaken open the door between her cabin and the one beside it, and now the wide door flapped into her space. The cabins on this train doubled up if needed, but whoever was next door wouldn’t appreciate her gawking into their personal space. Hopefully the door had a lock.
She moved to close it, but the mess in the other cabin had her stopping and poking her head in. The clean freak in her yearned to quickly tidy up, no one would notice, but she kept a tight leash on it. Other people’s mess wasn’t her problem. She wasn’t anyone’s servant here.
Moira drew back into her space ready to close the door, but something familiar had her pausing.
She sniffed the air.
Someone had left the cabin window open, turning the air cold, but a faint strain of something that wasn’t the lily-of-the-valley smell of the train stirred her senses. With a small frown, she entered the cabin and followed the tantalizing scent.
Something exclusive. Something expensive. Something loaded with memories… spice and wood.
She came to the open bathroom, and there on the white marble vanity sat a familiar bottle of cologne. But it was the discarded black bow tie beside it that had her hands trembling.
The cabin door swished shut behind her, and she spun around, her shaking hands going to her mouth as she stared in disbelief at the man who’d just walked in.