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Authors: Penny Jordan

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BOOK: The Perfect Lover
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Thank Gareth for being so
helpful.
Oh, yes, and perhaps her mother would like her to fling herself into his arms and give him a big kiss as well...

Involuntarily Louise discovered that she was curling her toes into her shoes, her whole body threatening to tremble with aching longing.

It had been several years now since she had forced herself to make a constructive critical analysis of herself and to recognise certain self-destructive personality traits, chief among which had to be her self- willed stubbornness—the stubbornness which had kept her locked in the belief that her teenage crush on Saul was the kind of love that made them matched soulmates and him the only man she could ever love or want.

By the time she had learned that real love was a far more complex and sometimes less easily recognised emotion it had been too late. The damage had been done.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, it seemed incredible to her that she had never stopped to question just why she had been so determined, so eager, to go to bed with Gareth. Simply to shed the burden of her virginity? No! Oh, no. Somewhere all along, even though she had refused to recognise or acknowledge it at the time, among the anger, the resentment, the sense of furious anguished pain, there had been something else, something which had not merely been sexual curiosity or even physical attraction.

It hurt her to acknowledge even in the privacy of her own most secret thoughts that a part of her had wanted, needed, ached for Gareth all along—for Gareth himself, not just as a substitute, any substitute, for the intimacy she'd been denied with Saul. And of course Gareth himself must surely, at some level, have recognised that fact—he was, she suspected, far too intelligent not to have done so, which no doubt explained why he had been only too pleased for her to distance herself from him.

After all she had learned from her unwanted pursuit of Saul, she had been proudly determined she was not going to repeat that mistake with Gareth. She was not going to offer her love,
herself,
and be rejected—but oh, how she had ached for him to want her, to love her, and to show and tell her so. Stupid, impossible dreams of course!

'Gareth telephoned...' her mother had said, shortly after their return from Italy, and her heart had stood still while she fought to stop her body's physical reactions from betraying what she was feeling, from giving away any trace of that huge, weakening surge of need and longing that had swept over her.

'Mmm...' her mother had continued. 'He'd heard from Maria that we'd been called back unexpectedly, and he was just ringing to see if everything was all right...'

To see if everything was all right... Not to see if
she
was all right, not to speak to her...not to say, to ask... Fiercely she had swallowed back her tears, clenching her hands into tight fists.

Please God, not again...not a second time. This time she was not going to make a fool of herself by showing her feelings... This time...this time she was a woman, Louise had recognised painfully. This time she was not going to cry for a man who didn't want her, like a child crying for a denied need. This time she wasn't even going to let herself acknowledge her feelings. What feelings? She had no feelings—at least not where Gareth Simmonds was concerned. Why should she have? After all, he had no feelings for her!

 

'Anyone want more coffee?'

To Louise's initial chagrin, it had been Gareth who proved to be the more knowledgeable about the city's restaurants, despite the fact that she had lived there for much longer.

'I'm only going on what I've been told,' he had volunteered when Louise hadn't quite been able to conceal her reaction to his expertise.

The square where they had eaten was surrounded by streets on which fish vendors and restaurants displayed their wares on open stalls.

Predictably, it had been the more visually unappealing species of fish—to Louise's eye at least— which had caught the boys' enthusiastic attention.

'Ugh...it looks horrid,' Louise had objected when Joss had drawn her attention to a particularly vicious- looking glassy-eyed monster.

'Mmm... I don't know whether or not it's a sign of getting old, but I must say that these days I prefer not to be able to recognise the food on my plate in its original life form,' Gareth had calmly responded to the boys when they had derided her for her squeamishness. But Louise had been ruefully amused to notice that neither of the boys had taken the restaurateur up on his offer to go and choose their fish as they swam in their tanks.

The streets around the square were busy and bustling, creating an almost holiday-like atmosphere— which must be the reason she was feeling so dangerously happy, Louise decided as both boys declared themselves satisfactorily full in response to Gareth's question.

The ambience of the square was one of relaxed enjoyment and a warmth that one might more readily have associated with Paris rather than Brussels, with its unfairly 'staid burgher' reputation. Because of its present-day association with the Common Market and modern politics, one sometimes forgot that Brussels was a city with a long and distinguished history.

Louise also shook her head in response to Gareth's offer of more coffee. The evening had gone surprisingly well. It had amazed and, yes, if she was honest, piqued her just a little to see how quickly Gareth had re-established a very strong rapport with both her brother and her cousin.

Of the four of them she was probably the one who felt the most self-conscious and wary, she recognised, and that was because... She bent down to reach for her purse, determined to ensure that she paid for her own and the boys' meal.

There had been moments during the evening when she had found herself joining in with the boys' laughter as Gareth told them a particularly funny story about his own family, but her laughter had quickly been replaced by a feeling of envious sadness.
She
would never be a part of his life.
She
would never be special to him, as his sisters and his nieces and nephews so obviously were. He would
never
love her the way he loved them; his eyes would
never
light up warmly when he spoke of her, thought of her. If he had cared he would never have ignored what had happened between them—and ignored her!

'Well, if everyone's ready, I think we'd better be going,' Gareth announced as he glanced at his watch.

To Louise's relief he made no objection to her statement that she intended to pay their bill.

Jack, she was relieved to see, was looking much happier than he had done at the beginning of the evening. Louise ached to be able to reassure him that whatever Max had said to him, however hurtful it must have been, could never be a true reflection of what the other members of their family felt, but she could sense that he would close up on her if she did, and that he was still feeling too sensitive for the subject to be easily broached. And besides, she guessed intuitively, it wasn't so much
her
reassurance he craved and needed, nor even that of her parents, but rather that of his own parents, and most especially his father.

As they left the restaurant Louise discovered that the boys were walking ahead of her while Gareth fell into step beside her. Instinctively she started to walk a little bit faster, but Gareth kept pace with her. In her haste to make sure that she wasn't left on her own with him, she almost stumbled.

Immediately Gareth's hand shot out to steady her, his body offering a bulwark for her to lean into while she got her balance. Weakly Louise closed her eyes. The evening air was heavy with the scent of the traffic and the city, but stronger by far was her awareness of the sensual warmth of Gareth's body, its scent dizzying her, robbing her of the ability to fight her desire to move closer to him, her illusion that he
wanted
her to move closer.

To her chagrin she discovered that her hand was resting against his chest. No,
clinging
almost to his jacket, she recognised, her head inclining helplessly towards his shoulder.

'Are you all right? Your migraine hasn't come back, has it?' she heard him asking her, his voice almost short and terse, as though... As though he was uncomfortable with the way she was practically leaning against him, Louise decided. But when she struggled to pull herself away he wouldn't let her. The boys had stopped several yards ahead of them to study a sculpture in the centre of the small square they were walking through, their faces absorbed.

'It must have been a shock for you to have the pair of them turn up on your doorstep so unexpectedly,' she heard Gareth saying to her as she weakly allowed herself to relax back into the warmth of his body, and the arm he had placed so securely around her. 'I must say I think you've handled the situation very well.'

'Er...thanks for stepping in the way you did,' Louise responded. 'My parents said to give you their thanks as well, by the way. I spoke to my mother after you'd gone. She's going to ring me back later to discuss what arrangements they're going to make to get the boys home...' She paused, and looked worriedly across at her brother and her cousin.

'Has...? Did...? Jack wants to find his father... and—'

'Yes, I know.' Gareth interrupted her gently. 'I take it that no one does know where he is?'

'Dad's tried to find him,' Louise told him, 'but without any success. Oh, I could wring Max's neck. He must have
known
how upset Jack would be by what he said. He really is the most selfish, thoughtless...'

'Unlike the rest of his family, who, from what
I've
seen of them, are extremely caring and concerned for one another,' Gareth told her.

It was impossible for her to see his expression properly now that it was dark, but Louise could hear an intensity of emotion in his voice that surprised her.

 

Gareth looked down at the top of her head. Protecting one another obviously came easily and naturally to most members of the Crighton family.

He could still remember how determined to protect her twin her sister Katie had been, when she had explained to him just why Louise was skipping so many lectures.

'Louise...about this morning...'

Immediately he could feel her tensing, and starting to withdraw from him.

'I don't want to talk about it,' she told him quickly. 'I...it shouldn't have happened. I...'

Cursing himself under his breath, Gareth immediately let her go. What a fool he was. Just because for a few moments she had relaxed in his arms, that didn't mean... Mind you, he derided himself inwardly, it was probably just as well she
had
put some distance between them. Another few seconds of standing close to her like that and she would surely have discovered exactly what kind of effect she was having on him.

He saw the way she was studying Joss and Jack and, guessing what she was thinking, tried to comfort her.

'Try not to worry,' he advised her. 'I'm sure your parents will find some way to reassure him.'

'I hope so,' she agreed. 'But they can't...they aren't... I was thinking earlier, when we were in the restaurant...trying to imagine how
I
would feel if I were Jack. It must be hard for him, and I can understand
why
he would want to find Uncle David.'

'Yes,' Gareth agreed quietly, 'but there are other, more effective ways of doing so than giving up his studies and hitch-hiking all over Europe...as I'm sure your father will be able to explain to him.'

It was an odd and very disconcerting experience to have Gareth trying to comfort her instead of criticising her. Somehow it had been a lot easier to try to cope with her feelings when they were antagonists.

At Gareth's insistence he and the boys saw her back to her own apartment, and Gareth even insisted that she open the door and go inside before they left her.

Impulsively Louise turned to hug first her brother and then Jack.

'Thanks for everything, Lou,' he told her gruffly, returning her hug with teenage embarrassment.

'There's nothing to thank me for,' Louise told him, ruffling his hair. 'You're my...you're family.'

Quickly blinking back the tears she knew he would be embarrassed to see, she turned to thank Gareth once again for his help, and then gasped back a smallsound of shock, as instead of keeping his distance i from her, he was actually taking her in his arms and hugging her just as fiercely as Jack had done. But the sensations she felt in
Gareth's
arms were a world apart from those she had experienced when hugging her cousin.

'Gareth—' she started to protest, but he was already dropping a light kiss on her forehead, and then a far less light, breathtakingly intimate and far too brief one on her startled parted lips.

'Goodnight,' he whispered against her mouth. 'Sleep well and don't worry... They'll both be safe with me and I'll bring them over in the morning.'

He had turned to go, marshalling the boys in front of him, before she could say or do anything.

Her hands, she discovered as she locked and barred the door after them, were trembling slightly, and her heart was racing as though she had just sprinted a hundred metres.

Why
had he kissed her like that? Simply as an automatic reaction following the boys' example? But
his
kiss had not been... His kiss. His
kiss.
She closed her eyes and felt her face start to burn.

In the sitting room her telephone had started to ring. Quickly she pushed the memory of Gareth and the unexpected, heart-jerking, sweet tenderness of his brief kiss out of her mind, and went to answer its summons.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

'Lou, it's me,' Louise heard Olivia announce herself. 'Your mother's told me what's happened. Where are the boys now? Are they...?'

'Gareth has taken them back to his flat with him for the night. I don't know whether or not Mum mentioned to you that he's working here in Brussels now, and—'

'Yes, yes, she did.' Olivia interrupted her quickly. Louise knew that Olivia would have remembered Gareth from Tuscany, and guessed that her cousin was far more anxious to talk about her brother than to discuss past acquaintanceships. She knew that she was right when Olivia cut across her to ask her worriedly, 'Lou, how is Jack? Is he...?'

BOOK: The Perfect Lover
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ads

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