He had reduced her to the level of a tearful, pathetic supplicant, utterly destroying her pride and self-esteem. She had never had a great deal of confidence, but by the time Alessio had finished with her she had had none at all. And yet before their marriage, before everything had gone wrong, Alessio had done wonders for her confidence. He had built her up, told her off for undervaluing herself, frowned every time she cracked a joke at her own expense. He had kept on telling her how beautiful she was, how special, how happy she made him feel. Was it surprising that she had fallen so deeply in love with him? Or that when cruel reality had come in the door and plunged them into a shotgun marriage their whole relationship had fallen apart?
A fantastic boyfriend, a lousy husband. He had married her purely for the sake of the baby she’d been carrying. But the minute the wedding had taken place the baby had become a taboo subject. He had never mentioned her condition if he could avoid it. It had been as if he was trying to pretend she wasn’t pregnant. And then one night, when the curve of her stomach had become too pronounced for him to ignore, he had abruptly turned away from her, and for those final, wretched weeks he had moved into another bedroom. The ultimate rejection...he had severed even the tenuous bond of sex.
Within days, Bianca, his twin, had been smirking at her like the wicked witch. ‘Fat is a total turn-off for Alessio. Only four months along and already you look like a dumpy little barrel on short legs. He wouldn’t be seen dead with you in public. Now he doesn’t want to sleep with you either. Can you blame him?’
No blow had been too low for Bianca. Daisy shivered in remembrance. That spiteful tongue had been a constant thorn in her flesh. Brother and sister had been very close. She had often pictured Alessio confiding in Bianca and had cringed at the suspicion that nothing that happened in their marriage was private. She had imagined Alessio describing her as a dumpy little barrel and had wept anguished tears in her lonely bed. Strange that it had occurred to none of them that the sudden increase in her girth was not solely the result of comfort eating but a sign that she was carrying two babies and not one...
Janet’s house was only round the corner from her flat. Daisy headed for her aunt like a homing pigeon, praying that Tara was still at her friend’s house, wondering if some sixth sense this morning had prompted her to give in to her daughter’s pleas for a little more freedom.
Janet was on the phone when she came through the back door. ‘Put on the kettle,’ she mouthed, and went back to her call.
Daisy took off her suit jacket, caught a glimpse of herself in the little mirror on the kitchen wall and stared in horror. She rubbed at her cheeks, bit at her lips for colour but could still only focus on the stricken look in her eyes. She hoped she hadn’t looked stricken to Alessio and then questioned why it should matter to her. Pride, she supposed. Why hadn’t she managed to be cool and distant? Why had she had to rave at him the way she had?
‘You’re quiet. Tough morning?’ Janet was drawing mugs out of a cupboard.
‘I bumped into Alessio today—’
A mug hit the tiled floor and smashed into about twenty pieces.
‘It affected me like that too,’ Daisy confided unsteadily.
‘Let’s go into the lounge,’ her aunt suggested tautly. ‘We’ll be more comfortable in there.’
Daisy couldn’t stay still in any case. Her nerves seemed to be leaping up and down with jumping-bean energy. She folded her arms, paced the small room and briefly outlined the bare bones of that meeting. ‘And just wait until you hear this bit... His lousy father told him I took the money he offered me!’
Her aunt’s angular face was unusually tense. ‘Alessio mentioned the money?’
‘He wouldn’t believe me when I said that I’d refused it!’
Janet’s bright blue eyes were troubled, her sallow cheeks flushed. ‘Because I accepted it on your behalf.’
Daisy stopped dead in her tracks. ‘You did...what?’
Her aunt walked over to her desk and withdrew a slim file from a drawer. She handed it to Daisy. ‘Try to understand. You weren’t thinking about the future. I was worried sick about how you would manage with a baby if anything happened to me.’