The coffee was dark and rich and each sip restored a little of his soul as Theo waited for Elisaveta to pack.
Her flat was small and a little shabby but it had something his own, expensively furnished apartment overlooking the Thames didn’t – it felt like home. Each piece of furniture was old and well-loved, from the melamine table in the kitchen to the lovingly crocheted throw over the back of the patched sofa. Nothing matched, there was no theme to the décor and the paper was peeling off the walls, but it was clean and bright and happy.
Pictures dotted every bit of wall space; Elisaveta as a baby, as a chubby, round-faced toddler, a solemn-faced girl in school uniform. A small Elisaveta with a stunningly beautiful, dark-haired woman who could only be her mother and a tall, skinny man whose grin radiated love and pride.
Theo picked up one of the most recent ones, Elisaveta with her arms around her frail-looking mother. He frowned. She never mentioned her parents. In fact, although she was pretty chatty, she didn’t talk about anything personal at all.
‘I know, I know.’ Elisaveta walked back into the sitting room, her hair still wet from the shower but otherwise looking as businesslike as she did every day in a black trouser-suit and a jewel-coloured shirt. ‘Pictures of me everywhere, I keep meaning to take them all down but Mama loved them so much, she told me the story about each one over and over until I don’t know what’s actually memory and what is just story.’
Her face twisted with a familiar pain. ‘Three years ago. Cancer.’
‘Thank you.’ She paused. ‘Theo. Can I ask you something?’
‘You can ask. I can’t promise to answer.’
‘It’s a little personal.’
‘Elisaveta, last night I discovered you know all the words to every single eighties rock ballad. I don’t think it gets more personal than that.’
She didn’t smile. ‘Do you want to get married?’
The question was no surprise. After all, he asked himself the same one every day. All he could do was give her the same answer. ‘My father died knowing the title, the estate were in safe hands, that I would soon have an heir of my own. Madeleine knows and loves Flintock Hall, she knows what’s expected of a countess and she was a great support to my mother when my father was so ill. Marrying her is a sensible decision.’
The first decision he’d made his parents approved of. No matter how popular his brand, how successful he was, they still would have preferred for him to have gone to university, worked in the City and dedicated his life to Flintock Hall. But when he’d announced his engagement to Madeleine they’d finally been proud.
‘Do you love her?’
‘That doesn’t matter. I gave her my word. I asked her in good faith. I can’t go back on it now. It would be dishonourable.’ He couldn’t throw his honour away because of an attraction, because of a kiss.
No matter how unforgettable that kiss may have been. He had to forget about it. He had no choice.