The Rings that Bind(4)

By: Michelle Smart


She looked back at the gift. ‘It’s lovely. Thank you.’ Then she made the mistake of turning it over in her hand and catching sight of the duty-free label on the bottom.

It brought to mind the old T-shirt she recalled one of her foster sisters continuously wearing: ‘My dad went to Blackpool and all he brought me was this lousy T-shirt’. Most likely it was the only gift the child’s father had brought her.

In Nico’s case he had been to Morocco. And all he had brought her was some duty-free perfume. As a birthday present.

If she hadn’t known how offended he would be she would have laughed. Although generous to a fault, Nico was simply not wired to lavish gifts on people. He hadn’t even bought her a Christmas card—had been astonished to receive the gift of a silk tie and cufflinks from her.

She would bet none of his lovers had ever been kissed off with an expensive piece of jewellery. His brain did not work that way. The very fact that he had bought something for her touched her deeply, lodging a crumb of doubt into her certainty.

‘So, what did you do for your birthday?’ he asked as if he hadn’t stood her up at the very last minute, as if she hadn’t been all dressed up and waiting for him.

Since she had stopped working for him he had stood her up at the last minute a couple of times. She tried very hard to be philosophical about it—with his line of work, and the different time-zones he travelled between, it couldn’t always be helped.

When she had worked for him they had spent around half their time abroad. Since she had left Baranski Mining three months ago they had shared a roof twenty-nine times. She had counted.

She had never been able to shake the feeling she was being punished for having the temerity to refuse his offer of a permanent role.

His failure to return home for her birthday had felt like having a twisting knife plunged into her heart.

‘Stephen took me to La Torina.’

‘Stephen?’

For the ghost of a second she could have sworn his sensuous lips tightened, that the pupils of his eyes pulsed. She blinked, certain she was imagining it, and found his features arranged in their usual indifference.

She nodded, challenging him, willing him to make something of it.

‘Do I take it Stephen is the sender of the flowers on the reception table?’

‘Yes. Aren’t they beautiful?’ She took a sip of her coffee and waited for some form of reaction from him.

‘They certainly brighten the room up.’ His tone was casual. They could be discussing a dull day at the office. ‘Did you sleep with him?’

She didn’t flinch or hesitate, simply held her chin aloft in silent defiance. ‘Yes.’

Her stomach clenched as she gazed into the piercing green eyes of the man she had married. She searched intently, looking for a sign of something—some form of emotion, something to show he cared. But there was nothing to be found. There never had been. It shouldn’t matter. After all, emotions had never been part of the deal between them.

Their marriage hadn’t been all bad. For the most part it had been good—at least until she had left Baranski Mining. They had worked fantastically well together, both professionally and socially.

She remembered one evening when they had attended a charity auction and the auctioneer had had a large dollop of cream stuck to his ear. She and Nico had sat there like robots, not daring to look at each other, the corners of their mouths twitching with mirth. It hadn’t meant anything, but it had been one of those rare moments when she had felt perfect alignment with him.

It was a moment of togetherness, and they had become few and far between.

And it did matter.

His indifference hurt more every time she looked at it.

‘I would say good for you,’ he said, studying her closely. ‘It is time you took a lover. But there is something ironic about you falling into bed with the man you married me to escape from.’

The irony had not been lost on her either.

If Stephen had called ten minutes earlier the outcome would have been very different.

She had just come off the phone to Nico, and he had given her a brusque explanation of why he wouldn’t make it back in time to take her out for her birthday.

She’d been all dressed up with nowhere to go.

And she’d made the mistake of reading her brother’s text message for possibly the hundredth time.

It had been one of the lowest points of her life.

Then Stephen had called to wish her a happy birthday. If she hadn’t felt so heartsick she would have hung the receiver up. Instead she had found herself agreeing to a meal.

Company. That was what she’d craved. Freddy Krueger could have offered her a date and she would have accepted.

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