It was mid-morning before Danny managed to make eye contact with her. Either he was too busy signing copies of the book, or she was too busy smiling and handing out her information packs. Then the crowd cleared briefly, and he looked across and caught her eye. He grinned, crinkling up the corners of his eyes, even more amused when she looked around her to make absolutely sure that he was smiling at her. The return smile warmed him again; it was without artifice, a truly genuine gesture of friendliness. The crowd blocked her from view just as he was beginning to think that he might be able to make contact with her properly. Debbie turned up and whisked him off to the refreshment marquee, to a small screened off area with a separate buffet laid for him, and a very select group of others.
He caught a glimpse of her though, coming into the marquee looking for lunch, and finding that all but a few curling sandwiches had gone. He saw her expression of resignation, as she poured a glass of fruit juice, and admired the sway of her hips in the thin cotton dress as she turned and went back to her stall.
“Put some of this food on a plate please?” he barked at Debbie.
“Are you still hungry?” she asked, having watched him polish off several sandwiches already.
“No, it’s for someone who doesn’t seem to have got any lunch. I want you to take it over to her with this note – if you’re not too busy that is?”
Debbie looked slightly disgruntled, but did as he asked her and watched as he scribbled a few words on a paper napkin, pushed it under a sandwich, and gave her directions.
“Just make sure she reads it. Don’t let her throw it away.”
She shrugged and picked up the plate, only to be stopped briefly, as he selected a delicate cream rosebud from the vase on the table, and laid it beside the sandwiches. He watched as she picked her way through the crowd, losing sight of her as she left the small marquee, and crossed the grass to the larger one.
Diana looked up as a sullen-looking girl approached her, plate in hand.
“I was asked to bring you these as you appeared to have missed out on lunch.” She said in a bored tone of voice.
“Thank you. That’s very kind.” said Diana, as she placed the plate on the table.
The girl stomped back out of the tent, throwing the screwed-up napkin into a nearby bin, and grinning to herself. Diana turned her attention to the sandwiches. She was famished. Smoked salmon and cream cheese, prawns and mayonnaise, thinly sliced cucumber, and all on brown bread with real butter. She picked up the rose and sniffed it before tucking it into a buttonhole in her jacket. Alice looked on in awe.
“Where did that come from?” she asked.
“A kind and thoughtful person who saw that all the sandwiches had gone when I went to for lunch. I don’t know who it was. That’s all.”
“Honestly, that’s all.”
Alice obviously knew when she was beaten and stopped her line of questioning to pilfer a salmon sandwich, and hand out some more information packs.
It became busy again after lunch, and Diana sensed rather than saw him return to the book signing. Against all her better judgement, she felt a tingling at the back of her neck, and a thrill of excitement when she saw him glance over at her and smile again. Twenty-odd years of being married to a man who rarely gave her a second thought had taken its toll. The person who sent the sandwiches was probably just feeling sorry for her.
“Whoever it was should have gone for a full-blown rose that was past its prime,” said the snide voice of her ex-husband inside her head.
“No,” she said to herself. “This rosebud is the new me. I’ve cast off the shackles of an unhappy marriage, and there’s no earthly reason why I shouldn’t appreciate this gesture of kindness.”
The rest of the afternoon sped by as a constant stream of potential customers picked Diana’s brains, and took away her information packs. She and Alice tidied up the stall and put the remaining papers back into wallets ready to be returned to the company. The book signing had finished, and the man she now knew as Danny Vincent had gone.
Time for a third sigh.
As Diana was gathering up her handbag to leave, the stroppy girl from earlier on appeared.
“I’d like you to come with me please.” she said in a very formal tone of voice.
Diana’s first thought was that she must have done something wrong, and one of the organisers was about to haul her over the coals about it. She took a deep breath, smiled politely and followed the girl out of the marquee, across the lawn and into the main house. She was shown into the study, where Danny Vincent, was leaning against the marble mantelpiece. Diana had estimated that he was of a similar age to her, but she felt he was wearing a lot better, and his well-cut jacket, jeans and designer polo shirt showed off a very impressive physique. She was trying to remember all that Alice had told her the night before. The girl stood by the door, curious as to what this meeting was about. Danny turned to her and gestured with his head. “You cut along then, Debbie. Hitch a lift on one of the minibuses and I’ll catch up with you later. “
“No buts, love, just get a move on, or they’ll leave without you.”
She stalked out of the room, evidently piqued at not going back to the hotel in the Bentley.
Danny closed the door after her and turned towards Diana.
“We haven’t really been introduced.”
She held out her hand to him. “My name is Diana, Diana Mug…I mean Davenport.”
He frowned and took her hand in both of his.
“That’s not what the organisers told me.”
“My married name was Muggeridge; my divorce has now been finalised and my ex-husband moved out of our house three days ago. I think I’d rather be known by my maiden- name again.”
“Davenport sounds far more stylish than Muggeridge, more stylish than Vincent too.” He smiled, and she liked the way his eyes crinkled up at the corners. Diana smiled back, acutely aware that he was still holding onto her hand. He raised it to his lips and kissed the back of it so gently that it made her blush.
“What’s going on please?” she asked, feeling her cheeks reddening.
He pulled a face and let go of her hand.
“This is going to make me sound like some kind of a loser, a stalker or something. I saw you last night, laughing and talking to your friends, and when I looked around, I realised that you were one of the few people who didn’t seem desperate to attract my attention. I watched you all evening, but you never even noticed that I was there until I saw you in reception. You smiled at me, and it was the best thing that had happened to me all evening. I had them move the book stall from the other end of the marquee once I found out where you were going to be – which upset a few people, but I didn’t care. I wanted to see you again. How sad does that make me sound?”
He turned to walk away back towards the mantlepiece, and she reached out a hand so tentatively that her fingers just grazed the arm of his jacket; it was enough to make him turn back to her.
“Was it you that sent the sandwiches – and the rosebud?” she asked.
“I wrote you a note, on a napkin. I take it that you didn’t get it then? Damn that girl!” he said crossly. “I’m not sure if she’s stupid or deliberately manipulative. Either way, she’s marked her card again.”
Diana sat down on one of the ornately embroidered armchairs, hoping that it was meant to be sat on and not just for show.
She felt very confused.
“I had a feeling someone was watching me last night,” she said. “But I didn’t feel uncomfortable. I just wanted to find out who it was. With all those slim young things in front-less, back-less, side-less dresses, I was surprised that anyone would be looking at me at all.”
Danny shook his head and smiled at the memory.
“You were relaxed, happy, and all that a lovely woman should be. I wanted you to smile at me the way that you were smiling at your friends, and when you finally did, that smile just as I was leaving to go upstairs, it made me feel less alone. My wife Lisa died two years ago, and nobody smiles at me properly anymore. They look at me with pity in their eyes and it doesn’t help me.”
He looked over at her, his eyes narrowing. She smiled at him again, and although he could see some other emotions in her expression, there was no pity there, just an understanding. She got up and took a step towards him.
“I’m a nurse and I work in a hospice; I’m used to being there for people who are losing someone special. The last thing you need in that situation is pity. Empathy, friendship, the ability to listen and share. I hope I have all of those for the people I support and their families. It sounds to me as if we’ve both had a pretty crappy two years. I bet people keep telling you to man up and get on with your life?”
He laughed bitterly and nodded. “I’m so sick and tired of being invited to parties and dinners, with obvious extra women. It’s as if people can only accept me if I’m part of a couple. And if you stop going out then everyone calls you a recluse. How do you cope?”
“I keep being volunteered to go to fundraising events like this one. I’m sure they think I’ll meet another Mr Right one of these days. I thought I had many years ago, but he turned into a Mr Couldn’t-Keep-It-In-His-Trousers-Control-Freak.”
“You’re right,” he said. “We’ve both had a crappy two years.”
When she thought about it afterwards, she could never explain where she got the courage from at that moment; what inspired the impulse that made her touch his hand. He looked down at her fingers, then up at her face, slowly raising her hand and turning the palm to his lips before kissing it, with a tenderness that was starkly at odds with his alleged reputation. Diana’s stomach flipped, and the hairs on the back of her neck stood up.
“I smiled at you because you made me want to smile.” she said. “I haven’t wanted to smile like that for a long time either.”
“Will you have dinner with me tonight please, Diana?” he asked.
“Aren’t we supposed to be attending this dinner dance and auction?”
“Come and sit at my table, I’ll bump somebody boring, then you and I can sit and find out what else we have in common.”
“You’re the host of this event – it’s huge charity auction!”
“I’ve developed such a sore throat,” he said in a very croaky voice. “That means I’ll only be able to talk quietly to you. Somebody else can do the auction tonight.”
“Oh dear!” she laughed, and he felt a sudden rush of happiness at the sound.
“Come on, let’s go for a ride in my car,” he said. “I’ll ask my driver to take the pretty route, and you can tell me about the other things that make you smile.”
He held out his arm to her in a charming and companionable gesture, and she slipped her arm through his. He led the way back out of the house, and across the gravelled drive to the immaculate silver Bentley. The minibuses had all gone, and the only other vehicles left in the car park were those of the caterers and the men who were dismantling the marquees. Diana felt oddly unreal as she held on to Danny. The warmth of his arm through the cloth of his jacket was real though; he was so close she could smell a very faint trace of aftershave, something subtle and obviously expensive. She couldn’t deny the very solidity of him next to her with so much evidence, but she still felt confused and as if she were in a dream.
The chauffeur opened the car door for her and smiled with the very slightest of winks, whilst Danny got into the car from the other side. The interior was truly luxurious; leather upholstery soft as silk and just as she’d imagined it earlier. Walnut panelling gave the impression that the car was old and venerable, although she knew from the exterior that it was a very new model. Diana fumbled with the seat belt and felt Danny’s hand on hers, his head bent very close to her as he guided the belt into position with the clip. She couldn’t help wondering what her ex-husband would say if he could see her right now; in a top of the range car with a famous celebrity, who appeared to be a much nicer person than the media had portrayed him. She couldn’t stop herself from laughing; and Danny sat back, a look of bemusement on his face.
“What did I do?” he asked.
“Nothing! Nothing at all. I was just – well – I was just thinking about what my ex-husband would say if he could see me right now – he would absolutely die!”
“Does he have a mobile that can accept pictures?” said Danny with a very wicked grin.
“I’ll get my chauffeur to take a photo of us posing in front of the car when we get back to the hotel, and if you give me his number, I’ll send it to him.”
“No, don’t do that,” she said shaking her head. “He’s miserable enough as it is. That would just be rubbing salt into his wounds.”
“Who left who?”
“I told him that I wanted a divorce after my neighbour complained that he had been groping her. It turned out that she was just the latest in a long line of willing and unwilling participants. You think you know somebody after having children with them, and being married all that time, and then suddenly the whole world turns upside down. He admitted that he’d been having affairs for years because I was so boring; he’d been out with women that he worked with at the start, but then he turned his attentions to our female friends. Women that we’d both known for years, and some of whom had been looking at me with pity, but laughing behind my back.”
“Yes, I very quickly found out who my real friends were. He’d spun several tales about me; how I neglected him once I had the children to look after, that I was frigid, a poor cook and an even worse housewife, that my job meant more to me than he did. My ex’s private life suddenly became very public, and his latest flame came round to the house and told me that I should give up and let him go. That was the most ironic part. I was quite willing to let him go, but he refused to. He’s been living in our son Ben’s bedroom, only leaving to go to work or visit his current girlfriend. She’d managed to kick her husband out straight away. I had to wait till the divorce was finalised.”
“How do you feel about him now?” Danny asked as the car slid smoothly down the country lanes.
Diana stopped to consider for a moment before answering.
“Nothing can take away the early years, and our children. For a while I really hated him and the way he’d shattered our lives. I was terrified that he might have passed on some disease or infection to me so I made sure I had a thorough medical check-up. The more I get my life together, the more he seems to shrivel, and I see the pathetic fantasist that he really is. I felt sorry for him when he finally moved out; he was so determined to get his fair share of everything. You know, he even tried to wash out an old Worcester sauce bottle so that he could take half the cider vinegar. He was taking so long to get the plastic stopper out that I had to go and sit in the front room because I couldn’t bear to watch.”
“Did he manage it?”
“No,” she smiled and shook her head at the memory. “I came back in and told him to take the whole bottle of vinegar and I’d buy a new one. To be truthful I just wanted it over and done with. He looked so ridiculous that I even made him a cup of tea before he left.”
“How long was it between you splitting up and him finally going?”
“Two long and very dreadful years. It didn’t help that both our children took my side, or that having said the marriage was over, he wouldn’t actually get out. I had to watch TV in my bedroom, and none of my friends would come to the house when they knew he was there. If I went out anywhere, he would be asking me where I’d been and who with – so I stopped going out after a while.”
Danny closed his hand over hers and squeezed it gently. She looked over at him, her smile weakened by the still painful memories. She returned the squeeze, and a part of her hoped that he might kiss her, although another part hoped that he wouldn’t.
Although she felt slightly disappointed, it gave her the courage to ask him the question that had been on her mind all afternoon.
“What is it that you want from me, Danny? I’ve already worked out that you’re a very kind person, but I’m not sure why you approached me – or that I have anything left to give right now.”
He leaned back in his seat, still holding her hand but his grip had loosened. She watched him as he considered his words almost as carefully as she had done a few moments before. “Since Lisa died, I’ve had every skinny WAG, minor celebrity, and would-be hanger-on pestering me. I admit, some of them found their way into my bed, and most them left it pretty sharpish once I realised what they were after. It’s all about the money and the fame, not about me. I saw the way people talked and laughed with you last night, and how you seemed to connect with the people who came to your stall today. I would like to get to know you better Diana, if you’ll allow me to?”
She shook her head in amazement, still unable to believe that he would be interested in getting to know someone as ordinary as her, when there were so many beautiful women to around him.
“I’d love to get to know you Danny but …”
“After two years of hell and a marriage break up, the last thing you need is a fling with an infamous celebrity who might pick you up and discard you just as quickly, leaving you in a far worse state than you were before. It’s okay Diana, I understand,” he said sadly. “We’re adults, we could go back to the hotel and bonk each other’s brains out, and no one would bat an eyelid. The idea is very appealing to me I admit, but the last thing I want to do right now is to leave you feeling that another man has abused you. I promise to be a proper gentleman, if that’s what you want me to be.”
Diana felt the tears prickling behind her eyes and dug her fingernails hard into the palm of her free hand in an effort to control her emotions.
“I’m not sure that I’d recognise a proper gentleman after all this time,” she said with a feeble attempt at a smile.
“There are those who’ll say that I’ll never be a gentleman – especially when you think of my behaviour in the past – and some of the stuff I’ve done for TV!” Danny chuckled at the thought of his previous misdemeanours. “I’ve had my fill of one-night stands and sycophants. You are a lovely woman, Diana; warm and compassionate, and you have a good sense of humour, which you are going to need very shortly. Things could get awkward when we arrive back to the hotel, and I may have to behave badly in order to get my own way. As you’ve already seen, Debbie isn’t the most helpful of people. My wonderful PA Sally left to have a baby after a long spell of IVF treatment. Debbie is the latest in a endless procession of ambitious young women who think they can make their mark by ruling my life. She sat me with the most dull and boring group of people ever last night, and I’ve no intention of having that repeated. Just take everything I say with a pinch of salt, please?”
“I don’t want anyone being upset on my behalf,” said Diana hastily. “I hate conflict. I think that’s why I gave in to John for most of our marriage.”
“That’s the first time you’ve actually said his name. You referred to him as your ex before.”
“Maybe it’s because he’s finally gone, and I don’t have to think of him as being a permanent part of my life now. He can just be John, rather than my husband or my ex – he isn’t a part of me anymore. That’s probably a bit of a revelation. Thank you.”
“For helping me to face up to something I’ve been hiding away from. John’s gone, and I really can move forward now.”
“Good. And you can start by getting to know me better, and having dinner with me. You can see it as good works because if you aren’t sat next to me tonight, I’ll probably die of boredom, or behave very, very badly, and you don’t want that on your conscience, do you?” Diana’s smile triumphed at last and she shook her head as she laughed. Danny squeezed her hand again, happy to have broken through the melancholy.