(2011) Only the Innocent (10 page)

‘Didn’t Will tell you any of this yesterday when you spoke to him.’ Laura asked.

‘He just said that he’d break the news to her himself. He probably thought you already knew she hadn’t taken the flight, and you know what he’s like when he talks to me - or maybe you don’t. He’s clipped, short and to the point. He said he didn’t have time to chat and he’d let you know when he was going to be able to get here. I keep in touch with him from time to time - just in case he has a change of heart. But it’s a waste of time.’

Laura felt for Imogen, and could see the sadness hovering just below the surface.

‘Will you still be here when he arrives, Imo? Surely you need to get back to work?’

‘I’ve already contacted my boss. I’ve got my laptop, and you’ve got a wireless connection here. I can stay for as long as you want me to - at least until the funeral.’

Oh God, the funeral, Laura thought. Something else to think about. Maybe she could give her mother that job - it might just keep her occupied.

‘I’ve no idea when the funeral will be, though. I don’t know when they’ll release his body, as it’s a murder enquiry. But I suppose the damage is done now - so you may as well stay.’

Laura realised how ungracious that sounded, and moved on quickly.

‘Look, Imo, if you don’t mind I’m going to go and sit with Alexa for a little while, and then I’m going to have a bath. I need some time to think.’

‘Have you got any more reading for me to do?’

‘Are you sure you want to? It’s not obligatory, you know.’

‘Maybe not, but I need to understand. All of it. Is that okay?’

‘Not really - but I suppose it will have to be. Actually the next letter’s quite relevant, bearing in mind who we were just talking about. But Imo, whatever you read, whatever you think, please - I beg you - don’t let’s talk about it.’

CHAPTER 9

MARCH 1998

Dear Imo

What can I say, apart from “My bloody,
bloody
mother!” Much as I love her, when I saw her at the weekend, I could cheerfully have strangled her! She thinks she’s so perceptive, but sometimes she’s just hurtful. And I’d brought you a letter - the first one I wrote. But because of everything she said, it just didn’t seem right to give it to you. The excitement had gone. So I thought I’d write you another - and I know exactly when I’ll give it to you. When you’ve met Hugo and you know how ridiculous my mother is being!

It’s been a while since I’ve seen you all - you, Will, Mum and Dad - and I was really looking forward to it. Everything in my life seemed perfect, and the gorgeous warm weather - incredible for the end of March - just matched my mood. The roads were clear and I made good time, and of course I got the usual light-hearted grumbling when I rang the doorbell. You know what she’s like!

‘Laura, why won’t you just let yourself in? This is your
home
. But no, I have to stop whatever I’m doing to open the door for you because of some rather bizarre principle of yours.’

Of course, she wasn’t really cross and she gave me a big hug to let me know. I hugged her back, and asked where Dad was. I got the predictable answer.

‘God knows, and probably cares less than I do. Let’s get you in and then I’ll open a bottle of wine, I think. It’s that sort of time, isn’t it?’ It wasn’t, but neither of us really cared.

Despite the comments about Dad, I knew that Mum would know exactly where he was, and if he ever thought otherwise he was fooling himself. She’s not had such an easy time with him, has she? I do understand that. He’s not been blessed with much of a strong will, and I’m not sure he’s been blessed with any conscience
at all
. But he’s still a great dad, and I don’t think Mum’s prepared to give up her comfortable life just because he’s a bit lacking in the backbone department. I hope not, anyway.

We sat and drank some wine, and talked about pretty much everything. I say ‘pretty much’ because there was one thing that I was leaving out for the moment. But Mum’s no idiot. Far from it.

We chatted about the awards’ night for a while. I think the vicarious thrill of the glamour and sophistication gave her a real buzz. Then she told me all your news (which I knew already, but didn’t let on), although I could see she was watching me very carefully, and giving me one of her funny looks.

‘Okay, Laura. Out with it. You’re like the cat that’s got the cream, and it’s not just that award that’s doing it. You’re positively glowing. It’s a man, isn’t it?’

Typical! I was going to tell you all later, when you and Will arrived for supper (although I know you’d guessed there was something going on), but Mum’s so perceptive! I had to respond - no choice, really - and I couldn’t hide my self-satisfied smirk!

‘Yes, it’s a man. And this time, I think it’s the real thing. I’m actually in love!’

Mum was so excited for me. She said I’d had nothing but deadbeats for years (charming!) and she couldn’t wait to meet him.

Oh - oh. This was when I knew it would get a bit tricky. I tried to explain that we don’t want anybody to know about us yet, so although I’d been given permission to tell my family, we weren’t ready to go public. Of course, she didn’t like the sound of that. Not straightforward enough for her.

So I explained.

‘The thing is, Mum, he’s quite famous. We’ve not been seeing each other for long - only a few weeks - and there are some things to be sorted out before we go public, because the press will be on us like a ton of bricks.’

That perked her up again. ‘Famous? Wow! Who is he? Don’t keep me in suspense any longer!’

I tried to keep the smug smile off my face.

‘Well you’ll probably have heard of him.’ I paused, for effect. ‘It’s Hugo Fletcher. Ring any bells?’

It was clear from her face that the name was certainly ringing bells, but plainly not the bells that I’d been hoping for.

‘You don’t mean
Sir
Hugo Fletcher, do you?’

‘I most certainly do. Sir Hugo Fletcher, famous philanthropist, property tycoon, multi-millionaire, thoroughly
gorgeous
man.’ I couldn’t resist the last bit, but it fell on deaf ears. She was on a roll.

‘Well of course I’ve heard of him, although I don’t care about his millions and neither should you. And certainly his title doesn’t impress me. He got that for all his charity work, didn’t he? I remember very clearly the number of television and radio programmes dedicated to his ‘good works’ that we all had to sit through in the months before the Honours’ List was announced. It was outright self-promotion, paid for by some of those millions, no doubt. If people do things for charity, it should be because they care, not because they want a title!’

See what I mean when I said my bloody,
bloody
mother? But things were about to get worse, and a full-scale argument ensued. I, of course, went on the defensive.

‘You don’t even
know
him, but you’ve judged him! He has to get publicity for the charity. It’s how he raises money. It’s not his profile he’s promoting.’

You should have seen her face, Imo! Her mouth was set in a hard line, and she had that dismissive look - as though everything I was saying was complete rubbish. You know the one, I’m sure.

‘Well, it’s all irrelevant anyway. Because if memory serves me right, he’s married. How
could
you, Laura, after everything this family has been through?’

Well, what could I say? We all know that Dad was a womaniser when he was younger, but this is different. This is not some grubby little affair. Hugo loves me and he’s getting a divorce! I explained all this as calmly as I could.

‘So tell me, madam. Are you the cause of this divorce, then? Are you going to be named? Is he going to drop you when the time comes and move on to somebody from his own world?’

Does she have no faith in my judgement at all? I tried again.

‘Look, he’s divorcing Annabel because of irreconcilable differences. His mother died recently, and he wanted to move back into the family home - it’s an ancestral seat, so he has to really. His mother was the daughter of an Earl, or something, and inherited Ashbury Park in Oxfordshire. It’s now in trust so that it can be passed down through the generations, so he has to live there. But Annabel refused. He gave her an ultimatum, but she said she wasn’t budging.’


That’s
not a reason to divorce somebody. You work things out. I’m sorry Laura, but the man sounds like a control freak to me. He didn’t get his own way, so he divorces her!’

She made that disgusted ‘phah’ sound; the one she always used to make when she was less than impressed with Dad’s excuses. I’m sure you know the one I mean.

‘Mum, how can you make a judgement like that on such little information? That’s just one example. They haven’t been sleeping together for ages - not really since Alexa, their daughter, was born.’

‘Oh, he’s got children too. Perfect. Laura, have I taught you nothing? He’ll tell you that he’s not having sex with his wife, because he knows you won’t like it if he is. No doubt he hasn’t told his wife that he’s having sex with you either. It’s what they do, child. If they’re still in the same house, I’d bet you a pound to a penny that they’re still in the same bed.’

This was going horribly wrong, and I was near to tears.

‘Mum, you really don’t understand. Not only has he moved out of the house and back into his family home, but for your information - although it’s none of your business - we haven’t made love yet, and don’t intend to until his divorce is finalised!’

That shut her up. She put her hands together as if in prayer, and lifted them to her lips.

‘Laura, my love, are you telling me that Hugo, if I’m allowed to call him that, is happy with this arrangement?’

So I told her that it was
his
idea. Not mine. He’s got his reasons. He’s still not divorced, and he doesn’t want my name dragging through the mud. On top of that, he thinks that if Annabel gets wind of a relationship she’ll try to up the ante on her settlement, so he wants to keep me out of it. I think that shows enormous restraint, personally, but apparently I’m the only one who does.

Obviously Mum thought this all a bit odd. She gave a derisive snort, but then seemed to collect herself and asked ‘Are
you
happy with this, Laura?’

Well, actually I’m not. I wasn’t about to admit it, though. I am desperate to be with him, Imo. I am aching for us to make love. But I respect his views, and I wasn’t about to show my mother the slightest chink in my armour. However, there was no stopping her.

‘Have you asked yourself if this is entirely normal? You’re not exactly a vestal virgin who has to be protected from the evils of pre-marital sex, are you?’

Sometimes, my mother even surprises
me
!

‘Look, Laura, I know exactly when you had sex for the first time, and who with. I’m your mother. It’s my job to know these things. You’re not a tart, but you’re no saint either, and I know that you have a healthy sexual appetite. The question is, does Hugo?’

That is something that I’ve never tried to hide. I find it very difficult to keep my hands off him, so of course he knows.

‘No, love, you misunderstood me,’ she said quietly. ‘I meant, you have a healthy sexual appetite, but does
Hugo
?’

So that’s why we were so subdued at supper. I couldn’t tell you all this, I didn’t give you the original letter, and now I just feel dejected.

Sorry, Imo - you must have thought I was in a mood. But it had nothing to do with you. Nothing at all.

Lots of love

Laura

*

JUNE 1998

Dear Imogen

How did you feel just before you got married? It’s such a time of charged emotions, isn’t it? I suspect every bride-to-be feels like I do.

Things are moving, but moving slowly. Hugo is divorced now. He managed to get that through really quickly, and it’s been in all the papers. No doubt you’ve seen it. Nothing about me yet, though - which is just the way he wanted it. He says we’ll make an announcement when the time is right. So we have to stay under the radar. We meet for lunch two or three times a week, on the grounds that I’m researching a documentary about his charity (which he still won’t actually allow) - but apart from that, we only speak on the phone.

I hardly ever see him in private - maybe we get the odd half hour alone in his office (if he can keep Jessica out of the way). He says that until we announce that we’re together, it will probably just look like a sordid little affair if I’m seen coming out of his house in the early hours of the morning.

And he still hasn’t met any of you! He hasn’t got any family to meet, other than Alexa - and up to now, he’s consistently said it’s too soon for her. She’s only two, though, so I’m not sure why he thinks she would even register anything.

Anyway, back to you, Will, Mum and Dad. I’ve tried and tried to set up a date, but even though you’ve said you’re happy to come to Oxfordshire, Hugo is adamant that he doesn’t have the time. I thought I’d have one more attempt to try to arrange a meeting. I waited until I knew he was having a peaceful evening in Oxfordshire, then at the end of a long and loving conversation, I introduced the subject.

‘Hugo, it’s really important to me that you meet my family. I want them to love you like I do.’

‘Darling, you’re worrying too much. They’ll adore me! I’m sure they’re thrilled that you’re marrying me.’

Hugo clearly has no idea about my parents, and if he expects Mum to be bowled over by his status, he’s in for a surprise. But I couldn’t persuade him.

‘Laura, I work all day and every day. Most evenings are spent at some charity function or other, and at the weekends I have Alexa to stay. I really value any quiet time that I can squeeze in. So I’m afraid it will just have to wait. Speaking of Alexa, though, I think the time is right for you to meet her.’

Well, honestly! That made me mad. But only for about two minutes. I do appreciate that Alexa is more important - she’s just a child - and I really am looking forward to meeting her.

I was hoping that he would say that I should come to Oxfordshire - because I’ve still not seen my future home! It’s all to do with this ‘low profile’ business - which must end soon, surely? I’ve said that I would be happy to just come for an hour or something - so I can see it! But he says it’s a long way to drive there and back. (Ridiculous, of course. It’s only an hour or so along the M40. If he’s so concerned he could always send a driver.) But then he did say that at the weekend he’d take me to my favourite restaurant in London - for lunch, of course. He’s decided that we can begin to be seen together as a couple soon, and then things will be much easier, I’m sure. I wonder if that means that finally we can be a couple in
all
ways? Somehow, I daren’t ask the question. How strange.

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