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Authors: Penny Jordan

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BOOK: The Perfect Lover
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'In
my
experience there are generally two reasons why
a
student suddenly fails to live up to his or her forecast academic expectations. One of those is that quite simply, and unfortunately for them, they can't. By some fluke of fate and the examination board they've managed to get themselves onto a degree course they are in no way intellectually equipped to handle. The other...'

He paused and looked calmly at her. 'The other is that for reasons of their own they have decided that they don't want to, that there are other and no doubt more important matters to claim their attention. The solution in both cases is, however, the same. For those who don't have the ability to continue with their course, to bring it to a swift end is, I think, the kindest way to end their misery. To those who have the ability, but who don't wish to use it... It isn't so much
their
misery one wants to bring to an end, but one's own, and that of their fellow students...'

Louise stared at him in furious disbelief.

'You're threatening to have me sent down. You
can't
do that,' she told him flatly.

Gareth Simmond's dark eyebrows had risen.

'No? I rather think you'll find that I can. But forgive me, Louise, I assumed that this must be what you wanted. After all...' he picked up her course work and threw it disdainfully across his desk towards her '...to judge from this, continuing with your course is the last thing you really want to do.

'Look,' he went on, when Louise continued to glare at him. 'If I've got it wrong, and the problem is that the work is too taxing for you, please tell me and I'll try my best to get you transferred onto a less... demanding course. There
are
university standards,' he reminded her, with deceptive gentleness, 'and I'm afraid that we do still strive for excellence rather than the mere pedestrian. If you feel that you're not up to the work—'

'Of course I'm up to it,' Louise snapped angrily at him, her eyes flashing. How dared he stand there and suggest that she wasn't up to the work? His predecessor had told her on more than one occasion, albeit perhaps in a roundabout way, that he considered her to be one of his most promising students. His predecessor... Louise clenched her fists.

'When a student's grades suddenly start to fall,
some
people believe that it's more the teaching that's at fault, rather than the pupil,' she challenged him feistily.

Gareth eyed her thoughtfully.

'Some people might,' he agreed coolly. 'But others might more intelligently suspect that the pupil's non-appearance at nearly half her lectures and tutorials might have something to do with the situation. Wouldn't you agree? I'm not a fool, Louise,' he said, at her look of surprise. 'I know very well that your sister has been standing in for you at my lectures.

'Look,' he continued, when Louise made no reply, 'we could argue about this all day. The fact is, Louise, that you've been skipping lectures and missing out on vital course work. And you've lost weight,' he told her abruptly, causing Louise to stare at him in astonishment. How on earth could he tell? Not even her twin or her mother had commented or appeared to notice-—and with good reason, since she had taken to wearing loose baggy tops over her regulation jeans, knowing how much her mother would start to fuss if she thought for one moment that she wasn't eating properly.

Olivia's mother, although only a Crighton by marriage, had suffered from bulimia for many years, and her behaviour during the years of her marriage to David, her father's brother, had left its scars on the family. Her own mother was fervently keen on healthy, sensible eating—mealtimes, until Louise had left home, had been old-fashioned family affairs, with everyone seated around the same table. Not that Louise had any problem with that—at least, not usually. She liked her food, and had a good healthy appetite, but just recently she had found herself unable to eat, too sick with longing and need, too hungry for Saul's love to satisfy her appetite with anything else.

'I appreciate that you're having personal problems...' Gareth said now.

But before he could finish, and suggest that she might benefit from talking them over with someone, she jumped in, demanding aggressively, 'Who told you that? They—'

'You did,' Gareth interrupted her levelly as he studied her mutinous face. 'You've lost weight. You're obviously not sleeping and you're certainly not working,' he reminded her quietly. 'The facts speak for themselves. I don't need a degree in psychology to interpret them.

'Professor Lewis told me that he confidently expected you to get a double first. On the basis of your current course work I'd say you'd be lucky to make a third. It's up to you, Louise. Either start giving your work some serious attention or...'

'You'll have me thrown out,' Louise guessed bitterly.

Without giving him the opportunity to say any more, she snatched up her papers and stormed angrily out of his room.

God, but she hated him.
Hated
him!

 

'Well, how did it go?' Katie demanded. She had been waiting anxiously for Louise to return from her interview and now, as she came hurtling out into the quadrangle, almost running, Katie had trouble keeping up with her.'Slow down,' she begged her, catching hold of her arm, 'and tell me what he said.'

'He
said...
He
threatened
to have me sent down,' Louise told her flatly.

'What? Oh, Lou, no! Did you tell him, explain...? Did you...?'

'Tell him what?' Louise asked bitterly.

'About...about Saul... Did you explain? Did you—?'

Abruptly Louise stopped moving and turned round to face her twin.

'Are you
mad?'
she asked her grimly. 'Tell
Gareth Simmonds
about Saul?' She closed her eyes as she remembered the revolting pity she had seen in his eyes. How
dared
he pity her? How
dared
anyone?

'He's given me until Christmas to catch up...'

'Well, that shouldn't be too difficult.' Katie tried to comfort her. 'We've got the rest of the summer vac. And I can help you.'

'I don't
want
your help. I just want—' Louise began angrily, and then stopped.

The force, the futility of her own feelings frightened her. She felt oddly sick and light-headed.

'Why don't we spend the evening together?' she suggested to Katie, trying to make amends for her earlier bad temper. 'We could have supper and share a bottle of wine. I've still got that case in my room that Aunt Ruth gave us at the beginning of term. She said it would come in useful for student parties...'

'I'd love to but I'm afraid I can't,' Katie told her regretfully, shaking her head before explaining blushingly, 'I...I've got a date and...'

'A date? Who with?' Louise questioned her sister.

But Katie shook her head and told her awkwardly,

'Oh, it's no one you know... Oh, Lou,' she pleaded as she turned to give her twin a fierce hug, 'I do understand how you must feel, but please, please try to forget about Saul.'

'I wish to God I could,' Louise told her chokily. 'But I'm not to get the chance, am I? Not if I get sent down and I have to go back to Haslewich. Oh, Katie...' It was on the tip of her tongue to plead with her twin to cancel her date and spend the evening with her, but then she remembered the look she had seen in Gareth Simmonds' eyes when he had told her that he knew she had been using Katie to stand in at his lectures for her, and she resisted the impulse.

She was not, she assured herself fiercely, the selfish, thoughtless, self-absorbed person his look had implied. She would have done the same thing for Katie... if Katie had asked...

But Katie would not have asked, a small inner voice told her.

 

The summer afternoon had given way to evening. Louise stared tiredly around her room. Papers and textbooks covered every surface, and her head was swimming with facts she couldn't assimilate; they floated in her brain like congealing fat on top of her mother's home-made stock, coagulating and clogging.

Saul. Where was he now... ? What was he doing... ? She got up and walked into her small kitchenette. She couldn't remember the last time she had eaten, but the mere thought of food made her feel sick.

Out of the corner of her eye she caught sight of Aunt Ruth's wine stacked in a dusty corner. Dizzily she went and removed a bottle. Aunt Ruth had quaintly old-fashioned ideas about how Oxford's modern-day undergraduates lived. The wine she had chosen for her great-nieces had been carefully selected for its full-bodied richness. Ruth had imagined it would be drunk at the kind of under- grad gathering that featured in expensive TV dramas—adaptations of books set in a glittering gilded era.

Louise opened one of the bottles and poured herself a glass. She was not normally a drinker. Oh, she enjoyed a decent glass of wine with good food, and she had gone through the normal student ritual of drinking at the bar in the students' union during the first few weeks "at university, but that had simply been a rite of passage, something to be endured rather than enjoyed.

The red wine was rich and fruity, warming her throat and heating her cold, empty stomach.

Louise sank down onto the floor, owlishly studying the mass of paper she had spread all around her. Katie's handwriting danced dizzily before her eyes. Frowningly she blinked as she tried to focus and concentrate, quickly finishing off her glass of wine.

It was making her feel distinctly better—lighter, number. It was even making it possible for her to think about Saul without that wrenching, tearing pain deep inside her, threatening to destroy her.

..Saul...

As she walked erratically back from the kitchenette, having refilled her glass, Louise tried to summon up Saul's beloved mental image and found, to her consternation, that she couldn't—that for some reason his beloved, adored features had become amorphous and vague, sliding away before she could crystallise them into a hard image. Even more infuriatingly, the harder she tried to visualise him, the more impossible it became. Instead, the male image that came most easily to her mind's eye was that of Gareth Simmonds.

Frantically Louise took a deep gulp of her wine, keeping a firm grip on it as she searched feverishly through her diary for the photograph of Saul which she always, always kept there.

Louise was clutching the photograph when she heard someone knocking on her door.

Katie... Her sister had changed her mind, cancelled her date realising just how much she needed someone to be with her. Tipsily, Louise lurched towards the door, yanking it open as she cried out, 'Oh, Katie, thank goodness you're here. I...'

Her voice faded away as her visitor stepped grimly over the threshold, firmly closing the door behind him.

'You!' she said shakily as she looked up into the merciless gaze with which her tutor had swept the room before finally coming to rest on her tear-stained face. 'What do you want...?'

'I came to bring you these,' Gareth Simmonds told her, and held some papers. 'You left them on my desk this morning...'

'Oh... I...' Awkwardly Louise reached out to take them from him, forgetting that she was still holding not just Saul's photograph but also a half-full glass of wine.

As she reached for the papers Saul's photograph slipped from her fingers. Immediately Louise tried to retrieve it, accidentally bumping into Gareth Simmonds as she did so, wine slopping from her glass onto both his wrist and her own arm.

Before she could stop him Gareth Simmonds was bending down to pick up Saul's photograph.

'No. Don't...' she began, but it was too late.

As he picked it up he paused, studying Saul's features thoughtfully and then looking from the photograph to her face before declaring ironically, 'He's a very good-looking man, Louise, I'll grant you that. But is he really worth messing up the whole of your future over? He's too old for you, anyway,' he added dismissively.

Louise's temper, rubbed raw during her earlier dressing down at his hands, burst into crazy pain.

'No, he's not...he's...' To her consternation she felt fiery tears beginning to burn the backs of her eyes. Pouring the rest of the contents of her glass down her throat, she gulped rebelliously, 'I'm not a child, you know. I'm a woman...'

The derisive look in his eyes demolished the last of her precarious hold on her temper and pushed her over the edge of caution into reckless fury.

'What is it?' she demanded. 'Don't you believe me? Well, I am, and I'll prove it to you... Saul
would
have wanted me if she—Tullah—hadn't come along...'

'How much of that stuff have you had to drink?' she heard him demanding as he ignored her furious statement and removed from her hand the glass she was still holding to sniff it with an irritated frown.

'Not enough,' she told him forlornly, adding aggressively. 'And give me back my glass. I
need
another drink...'

'No way. You've already had more than enough.'

'No, I haven't...' Angrily Louise reached out towards him, trying to snatch back her glass, but he was holding onto it too tightly, and as he lifted his arm to remove it even further from her reach she lost her balance and staggered heavily into him. His body had all the unyielding hardness of solid rock, only it felt much warmer... warmer and...

Louise blinked as she realised that the heavy thud she could feel beneath her hand was the beat of his heart.

It felt oddly reassuring...
comforting
... Dizzily she started to frown as her alcohol-confused brain tried to assimilate this unacceptable information. She had the most peculiar desire to put her head against his chest, just where her hand was resting, and close her eyes, to let herself be comforted by that steady, sure heartbeat, like a child being soothed by the comfort of its parent.

Experimentally her fingers flexed and relaxed. She could feel the springiness of his body hair beneath the fabric of his shirt. Her eyes widened as she took in this additional information. Louise instinctively let her body start to relax against the warmth of his.

The arm he had raised to steady her when she had first fallen against him was still there, holding her, supporting her. She wriggled closer to his body and closed her eyes. She could smell the man-scent of him—so much stronger than the elusive, hard-to-reach scent that clung to Saul's shirt. This was the real thing, a
real
man. Louise breathed in deeply and appreciatively. His hand had moved to her hip, hard and warm through her clothes. She
liked
the feel of it there.

BOOK: The Perfect Lover
11.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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