Read The Orchid House Online

Authors: Lucinda Riley

Tags: #Historical, #Contemporary, #Romance

The Orchid House (7 page)

BOOK: The Orchid House
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‘No, we haven’t,’ Julia agreed. ‘And when I see her, I’ll decide whether or not to give her the diary. As Kit said, it might’ve been hidden by Grandfather Bill because what it contained was so distressing.’

‘Good point.’ Alicia walked over to the table to clear it. ‘Wash your hands and faces, you lot. Then you have half an hour’s TV before Rose comes home and it’s bathtime. Go on, off you go.’

The three didn’t need to be told twice. They ran from the room, and Julia helped Alicia stack the dishwasher.

‘So, you and Kit had a good chat?’

‘Yes, I swapped him
The Children’s Own Wonder Book
for the diary.’ Julia smiled. ‘He’s been away for years, abroad somewhere. He didn’t know anything about … what’s happened to me. Until his sister told him, that is.’

‘Maybe that’s a good thing,’ said Alicia. ‘He’s very … attractive. Don’t you think?’

‘I don’t “think”, no. Anyway, I must be going.’

Alicia could see by Julia’s sudden change of expression that she had overstepped the mark and inwardly kicked herself. ‘Listen, let me write down Elsie’s telephone number.’ She scribbled it on to a piece of notepaper. ‘There,’ she said, handing it to Julia. ‘Let me know what happens, won’t you?’

‘Yes. Thanks for the tea.’ Julia was heading for the door already. ‘Bye.’

Julia got into the car, slamming the door much harder than she needed to and set off at a fast pace for home.

She ground her teeth in frustration at her older sister’s unerring habit of upsetting her. She understood Alicia was only trying to help, to look after her, just as she had when they were younger. But her protectiveness only made Julia feel patronised and small.

Alicia was, and always had been, capable, excellent at ‘life’ – the ‘Golden Girl’, as their father had always called her. She could throw endless plates in the air and keep them spinning merrily around at the same time. And all achieved with her sister’s trademark serenity, and not a hair out of place on her shining, blonde head.

Julia had grown up in her shadow, simply struggling to organize
. She had been a loner, with no regard for her appearance, and only managing to scrape through her exams at school due to the countless hours spent instead on the piano. She’d always known she couldn’t begin to compete with Alicia’s perfection. Added to that, Alicia had always been closer to their father, whereas Julia was attached at the hip to their mother. Everyone used to comment how alike Julia and her mother were – not just physically, but in their other-worldliness and artistic nature.

Her childhood had ended on the day their mother had died.

When Julia arrived home, she stoked the fire aggressively, trying to return it to some of its earlier glory, still unsettled. The problem was that Alicia was a genuinely caring person – Julia couldn’t fault her. Which made her feel even more inadequate and guilty. She knew how hard Alicia had tried to fill her mother’s shoes when she was younger, and how difficult she’d been in response. But
no one
could fill her mother’s shoes …
And she’d only wished Alicia had stopped trying, had understood she needed a sister with whom to share the grief, not a ‘stand-in’ – albeit well-meaning – who could never replace what she’d lost.

And now, fate had conspired to put her in a position where she’d needed Alicia’s help again. True to form, Alicia had been there for her immediately, never once reproaching Julia for her woeful lack of contact since she had flown the nest at eighteen and subsequently moved to France.

But coming back here – Julia sighed sadly – it was as if history was repeating itself. Her life in ruins, juxtaposed against Alicia’s perfect one, compounded by her sister’s suffocating need to protect her.
And –
even more irritatingly –Alicia would often voice the thoughts Julia knew she was hiding from herself.

She sat down on the sofa with the diary in her hands, determined to focus on something else. She opened it at the first page, but couldn’t concentrate on the words. She sat instead, staring into the fire.

He’s very attractive, don’t you think … ?

Julia sighed, Alicia’s comment and her own exaggerated reaction to it forcing her to focus on why.

Yes … this morning, out on the spit, she had accepted she must move on, that she really had no choice. But even a hint that ‘moving on’ would almost certainly at some point include a
, was a step too far. The half-lit world she’d inhabited for the past few months had held no thoughts of the future.

How could it, when the future was gone?

Julia stood up and meandered into the kitchen. She opened the fridge, which was now brimming over with all sorts of food stuffs, and pulled out a pasta ready-meal. She wondered meanly whether she should take a photograph especially for Alicia, to stop her nagging.

As she carried her supper back into the sitting room, she acknowledged the source of her anger with her sister. She felt …
. Guilty because, despite herself, when Kit had been here she had enjoyed his company. And
, she did find him an attractive man.

After supper, Julia picked up the diary, but felt too distracted to tackle it. It had been a long and emotional day. She made her way up the stairs to bed and, for the first time since her world had been blown apart seven months ago, Julia slept without having nightmares.

The next morning, she was awake and downstairs by eight. A cup of tea, this time with milk, and a bowl of muesli stiffened her new resolve to face her life once more. She dug her mobile phone out of the drawer, switched it on and went upstairs to the bathroom, the only place in the cottage where there was a proper signal.

She now had nineteen voicemails, some of them stretching as far back as two months ago. The most recent were from Alicia, her father, Kit and numerous messages from Olav, her agent.

Her housekeeper in France had also contacted her, asking her to call back immediately. There was some problem with the house, but Agnes spoke French so fast, Julia couldn’t work out where the leak was. She sat on the edge of the bath and made a list of the other callers, her hand shaking with the fear of speaking to people from her past.

Today, she would tackle her housekeeper and her agent. Everyone else could wait.

She went back downstairs, threw herself on to the sofa and closed her eyes. She forced herself to picture the vine-covered terrace of her beautiful home, perched high up on the hill in the ancient village of Ramatuelle, with the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean sparkling far beneath it.

She sighed, knowing the memories she had avoided with such determination could no longer be ignored if she was to start on the road back to life. And, besides, perhaps she needed to begin to remember those precious moments and treasure them, not resist them …

The sun is on its descent as I watch it, its lustrous red-gold colours making the blue water beneath it look as if it is on fire. The sound of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 drifts across the terrace, reaching a zenith as the sun plunges gracefully into the sea.

This is my favourite moment of the day here, when nature itself seems to be still, watching the spectacle of the King of the Day, the force it relies upon to grow and flourish, make its journey into sleep.

We are able to be here together far less than I’d like, so the moment is even more precious. The sun has gone now, so I can close my eyes and listen to Xavier playing. I have performed this concerto a hundred times and I’m struck by the subtle differences, the nuances that make his rendition his own. It’s stronger, more masculine, which is, of course, how it should be.

I am ‘off duty’, with no engagements until the middle of next week, but Xavier must leave for a concert in Paris tomorrow, so this is our last night here together. When he’s finished playing, I know he will appear on the terrace with a glass of rosé from the local
, and we’ll sit together, talking of nothing and of everything, and luxuriating in the tranquillity of our rare solitude.

The heart of our life, the energy that binds us both together, is inside the house. When I bathed our son, Gabriel, and put him down for the night, I knelt quietly alongside his cot, watching as the tension fell from his face and he drifted off into sleep.

‘Bonne nuit, mon petit ange,’ I whispered, tiptoeing out and closing the door softly behind me.

I’m glad that I am able to share a further week here with him. Some mothers have the pleasure of watching their children twenty-four hours a day, catching each smile, each new skill they learn on the path to adulthood. I envy them that, for I don’t have that luxury.

As I stare at the darkening sky, I contemplate the question that has turned around in my mind since the day that he was born, wondering whether I should have put my career on hold to watch him grow. I can’t develop my thoughts, however, for here is Xavier with the promised glass of rosé and a bowl of fresh olives.

‘Bravo,’ I utter, as he kisses me on top of my head and I raise my hand to stroke his face.

‘Merci, ma petite,’ he replies.

We speak in French together, his bad English verbs deemed worse than my dreadful French accent.

Besides, it’s the language of love.

He sits in the chair next to me and swings his long legs up on to the table. His hair, as always after he’s been practising, is standing on end, which gives him the appearance of a gigantic toddler. I reach across to him and smooth it down. He grabs my hand and kisses it.

‘It is sad I must go tomorrow. Perhaps next year, we could plan to take the whole summer off and be here together.’

‘I would love that so much,’ I reply, watching out of the corner of my eye as the moon unveils itself, taking the place of the sun and becoming Queen of the Night.

Xavier’s already pale skin is bleached whiter in the moonlight. I never tire of looking at him. He is so extraordinary. If I’m a creature of the day – of the sun – with my dark skin and dark eyes, then he is of the night – the moon.

His dramatic, aquiline features, inherited from his Russian mother, could never be described as classically handsome. His nose, for a start, is too long, his eyes – glacial in their blueness – set too close together. His forehead is furrowed and high, his thick black hair of a straw-like texture. His lips are the only perfect thing on his face, girlish in their fullness – pink, plump pillows – which open when he smiles to reveal a set of large, white, strong teeth.

His body is out of proportion: legs that could double as stilts they are so long, carrying a short upper torso which makes the length of his arms and his elegant, talented fingers seem as though they’ve been grafted on to the wrong body. He towers over me, a good foot taller than I am. There is not an ounce of fat on him and I am sure he will stay that way for the rest of his life. The nervous energy that even in sleep will not let him rest, as he tosses and turns next to me, twitches and fidgets – shouts out loud at some imagined foe – will eat up any middle-age spread his hormones care to produce.

And I have loved every millimetre of him, body and soul, since the day I listened to him playing Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B flat major at the Tchaikovsky piano competition in Leningrad.

I won.

He came second.

I look at his beloved face, so familiar to me and yet ever fascinating, because there are so many depths still to explore. I’m so much less complex than he is. I can play the piano, quite brilliantly, so I’m told. Just because I can. Equally, I can walk off the platform and return to being a normal human being. Xavier, however, carries his music with him everywhere, always thinking about how to perfect the next piece.

I truly believe that if they turned all the pianos in the world to firewood, he would throw himself on top of the bonfire.

We have laughed together about the fact that it is me and not him that is famous. But we both know that I look much prettier in a dress than he does, that I play much more photogenically … I am a ‘girl’, and therefore more marketable.

But I know that he is the genius, that he can take the Chopin ‘Études’ and add a touch of magic, a spark, that makes them definitively his own. I also know that one day the world will recognise this. And I will be happy to take second place.

I’m sure my playing has gone from strength to strength because of him.

And I adore him.

He is my piano. He is my bonfire. And if he was no longer there, I would throw myself on top of that fire willingly.


Julia found her face was wet with tears. She knew there were many more to come, as she continued to force herself to remember.

‘Xavier.’ She spoke his name out loud for the first time. ‘Xavier, Xavier …’ she repeated the word again, and again, knowing that when she spoke to her housekeeper and her agent, they were sure to speak it too, and she wanted to be practised in controlling her emotions when she heard it.

She went upstairs to take a shower, dressed and sat on the edge of the bath once more, steeling herself to press the numbers that would launch her back into her life.

Agnes, her housekeeper, did not answer her mobile, and Julia was grateful for the stay of execution. She left a message and asked Agnes to call her back.

Next: her agent, Olav. She checked the time on her mobile – it was ten thirty. Olav could be anywhere in the world; he had offices in New York, London and Paris. As she dialled his number, she hoped she would get his voicemail too, but it was rare that he didn’t answer his phone to her, even if it was the middle of the night for him.

The line rang and she waited, holding her breath. He answered after three rings.

BOOK: The Orchid House
4.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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