Venice. Florence. Rome. They were all that little bit more exquisite with Arthur by her side…just as she’d suspected they would be. She’d even picked up a sketch book and started to draw again, a mix of him and the sights, whatever took her fancy…okay, so mainly him.
But now the trip was coming to an end and though she’d come a long way in finding herself and going after what she wanted, she was more than aware their time was up. As it should be.
Simone was flying in to join her and Arthur would be flying out. Back to his own daughter and his work that had taken a back seat the past fortnight but she’d noticed the discreet phone checks, the pausing at the newsstand, the inability to shut off completely. She knew the signs well enough, had played second fiddle long enough to know that she couldn’t do it again.
Wouldn’t do it again.
Even for Arthur.
But there were times, like right now, when she was lying in the crook of his arm staring at the ceiling after an afternoon of thorough lovemaking, that she wondered at their connection and its longevity. She also knew that if he asked her for more, she’d struggle to refuse and maybe it was that realisation that had her rolling away from him and pulling on her gown.
She headed to the balcony with its breathtaking view of the Colosseum, the setting sun casting it all in gold, and even then, she knew that the greater view was behind her. A sheet strewn over his lower body, the torso worthy of a man half his age exposed to her hungry gaze. If only things could be different, if only he could be different…but then she’d been different before this holiday.
She’d been fearful of what came next, fearful that she’d walk the rest of her days alone save for her children, would have no desire for more…
But he’d opened her eyes to how much more she could have…to how different things could be if she took a chance on loving another again. To stop being fearful and take that opportunity…just as she was trying to encourage him to.
‘Why are you so afraid of retirement?’
He rolled onto his side, propped himself up on one elbow, his faithful phone in his hand still lit up from when he’d just checked it. Post-coital phone checking. Another habit she hadn’t missed and had no joy over witnessing again. ‘I feared I’d lost you to the view…’
She looked back to the window but wasn’t really seeing it. ‘As it happens, I think I’ve seen enough of Italy. I’m ready for my next adventure.’
‘Is that so?’
She nodded, imagining where she wanted to go next, but every time she pictured a city, he was there, front and centre. Not her on her own. Not her with her daughter soon to arrive. But them, the happy couple.
‘And don’t change the subject, Arthur.’
‘I’m not afraid.’ His voice was gravelly, vehement.
She gave a small laugh. ‘You are so.’
He dropped to his back, stared at the ceiling as he gave it some real thought. ‘Work is all I’ve known for the best part of my life. I wake up thinking of it. I go to sleep thinking of it…’
‘You won’t ever be ready to quit, will you?’ she said, numb. ‘You’ll be one of those men who keeps on going until you physically can’t anymore.’
He was quiet for a long moment, then said, ‘I can’t imagine waking up and not having it there—it’s been my reason for getting out of bed for as long as I can remember.’
‘The only reason?’ She padded back to the bed, sad for him, sad for her. She lay down beside him, her hand gentle on his chest. ‘Because right now, I can think of plenty of reasons, though a lot of them do involve getting back into it at some point.’
His eyes glinted in the glow of the setting sun. ‘I love your thinking.’
‘Me too…but seriously, think about it… Do you really want to spend the rest of your days watching over your daughter, making her feel like you don’t trust her to do as good a job as you, or do you want to entrust it to her and live your life for you again?’
His smile was both sad and wishful. ‘I don’t know, but I do know I don’t want to spend our last night talking about the future of my company, Natasha.’
Last night… It was all the reminder her heart needed, as was the too-familiar buzz of his phone between them—his daily update was in.
And she slipped into the background without even moving an inch.
Arthur checked the screen and pushed himself upright on a curse. No. It couldn’t be. She was supposed to wait.
‘What is it?’
He didn’t look at Natasha as he absorbed the message from Andreas. The Delaney Group had flown in a full month early to negotiate terms on the takeover he’d spearheaded before jetting off on this frivolous interlude of a holiday.
Either this was a strategic move on their part to take advantage while he was away or his daughter had taken matters into her own hands and invited them to. Either way, he needed to be stateside. Yesterday.
‘Something’s come up in New York.’
‘Is it your daughter? Is she okay?’
He flicked her a look, clocked how pale she was and how she’d misinterpreted his worry. ‘She’s fine. Physically at any rate.’
‘What is it then?’
He fired back a message to Andreas, quizzing him on the state of play. Who brought the meeting forward and why? Told him to keep any exchange between Anya and the Delaneys to a minimum until he got there.
‘I’m sorry, Natasha, I need to leave. There’s a meeting going down and I need to be there for it.’
‘Need? Or want?’
‘Huh?’ He frowned at her, unable to grasp her meaning or its relevance.
‘Do you really need to be there, or is it just that you want to be? Because from where I’m sitting, after everything you’ve told me of your daughter this past fortnight, she’s more than capable of managing whatever this is.’
‘It’s a hostile takeover that I initiated…’
‘And if she’s to replace you, she’ll need to deal with many more I’m sure and all on her own two feet.’
He was already out of the bed, tugging on clothing. ‘The Delaneys are hard-nosed, notoriously sexist and not to be trusted.’
‘Yet you’re taking over their company.’
‘Because I know what we can do with it.’
‘And your daughter will too.’
‘She will…once the deal is signed in our favour.’
‘And why can’t your daughter take care of the deal?’
‘Because—because she can’t.’
‘Now who’s being sexist.’
‘It’s not about her being a woman.’
‘It’s about you not trusting her to run the company as well as you.’
His fingers froze over the zipper of his trousers, a second’s hesitation as her words struck a chord, merging with the words from his own flesh and blood, Anya having thrown them at him before finally getting him to agree to this ludicrous break away. ‘I trust her.’
‘Then prove it. To her and to yourself. Let her deal with this.’
Or was it?
He shook his head, cleared the absurdity. Since when had he ever listened to someone else over his gut instinct, his business instinct? It had got him to where he was now and it would continue to get him where he wanted to be.
She climbed out of bed, her back to him. ‘Very well. I’ll leave you to pack.’
‘Where will you go?’
‘I have a date with myself for dinner…’
She turned to look at him, her blue eyes expectant, light with hope…
‘Can we see each other again?’
The light dimmed… ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea.’
‘It’s a great idea. The past fortnight has been incredible. There’s no reason to end this because I have to leave early. I can be back in a few days, catch up on your travels…’
Her head shaking stopped his flurry of words.
‘There’s every reason not to, Arthur.’
She slipped her robe from her shoulders, her naked body that he now knew so well calling out to him to go to her. But everything about her posture told him she wouldn’t welcome it. Eyes averted, she slipped into the dress she had pulled out for dinner, then walked to the dressing table where her make-up and hairbrush awaited.
‘You best hurry,’ she said to him in the mirror, all calm and serene as she brushed a comb through her ash-blond locks, but he could sense the storm beneath. A storm he didn’t understand but sensed anyway.
‘Name one, Natasha.’
She placed the brush down, swept some gloss over her lips. ‘One?’
‘You say there’s every reason—name one.’
She turned to face him. Dazzling in the shimmering blue gown, breathtaking with the emotion blazing in the same blue hue of her eyes. ‘Because this will always be a bit of fun for you, a bit of side action outside the office walls, and I’ve had my fun, it’s been great, but if I stay longer, I’ll want more. More that you can’t give.’
Something inside him creaked open, something willing and wanting, something warm and desperate and fearful…and he didn’t do fear. He didn’t do vulnerable, and staring back at her, he felt every shade of vulnerability, every doubt, his entire life and the way he’d lived it up until this point brought into question.
She stepped toward him and he couldn’t move. Immobilised by the power of her words and his own reaction to them. She stroked a hand up into his hair, her eyes searching his. ‘I was a widow long before I became a true one, Arthur, and I can’t go back to those days. But I’m grateful to you, so grateful that you’ve proven to me that it’s possible to find love again, to find that feeling of joy, of happiness, of true contentment with another.’
She reached up on tiptoes, pressed a kiss to his cheek, swept her lips to his ear. ‘Goodbye, Arthur.’
And then she fell back and was gone, taking the light in the room, in his life, with her…
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