The aching loneliness in Elisaveta's voice haunted Theo as they finished their drinks and began the short walk back to the hall. She'd worked for him for several months now, and he'd relied on her willingness to work long days and weekends, her intelligence and proficiency in languages. It had never occurred to him to wonder why someone as young and attractive as Elisaveta didn't have better things to do than work late on a Saturday night, what she did with the little spare time she had, if anyone was waiting for her at home.
He cast his mind back, recalling the details of her CV. Great A levels, an administration course and two PA jobs, both for reputable companies. No higher education, no gaps for travelling. A life filled with work.
'Why didn't you go to university?' he asked abruptly as they cut through the small gate that joined the hall's parkland to the village, aware of the irony in the question - his own decision not to attend university had caused so much discord in his family. Discord partly healed thanks to his engagement to a suitable bride.
Elisaveta threw him a startled glance. Not surprising, he had never asked her anything personal before. 'Mama was ill. Luckily Dad had bought the flat when London was affordable and that area unfashionable, so we had a home, but the bills needed paying and I couldn’t take care of those and go to university. I was brought up trilingual – they speak both French and Italian on L’Isola dei Fiori and I took Spanish at school so it was easy to get a decent job despite my age.’
‘I didn’t go to university either.’ But he knew he couldn’t compare his situation to hers. She had headed straight to work, compelled by bills and responsibility. He had headed to the coast, spent a few months surfing before spotting a gap in the market for well-tailored, casual clothes. His success was thanks to his drive, his ambition, his eye for business – but he was aware that luck and his name had both played their part. Would he have been so successful if their situations had been reversed?
‘I did think about going after she died but I'm good at what I do, the money's good and I enjoy it. There's no point dwelling on what might have been. It's what you do with what you have that matters.'
This was what he had: a title he didn't want, an estate he didn't need, a duty to pass on both he couldn't avoid, a promise to his dying father to keep, a bride he barely knew. ‘Am I doing the right thing?' He'd always been so sure about everything. So confident that he knew what was right. Now he didn't know anything at all.
And it terrified him.
Elisavata didn't answer for a long moment. 'Theo, that's something only you can decide.'
They slowed as they reached the stable block where Elisaveta usually stayed. He knew he should say goodbye. Put their growing closeness behind them, ignore the attraction sizzling through him. But a recklessness seized him and he couldn't, wouldn’t deny it. 'Can I come in?'