‘Any word of her getting into the hospice yet?’

‘No, but she’s top of the list.’

Thinking how typical it was of Jez to be helping to nurse the woman who had fostered him for a while in his teens, Molly went back indoors. It was almost time for her to go to work. Jez had inherited his terraced house and garden in Hackney from a bachelor uncle. That piece of good fortune had enabled him to finance and set up a car repair shop where he was currently making a comfortable living. Jez had been quick to offer Molly a bedsit in his home and the valuable opportunity to use the stone shed in the back garden to house her potter’s kiln.

Success, however, had so far eluded Molly. She had left art college with such high hopes of the future, but even though she worked every hour she could for the catering company that employed her she still struggled to pay the rent and keep up with her bills. Her dream was to sell enough of her ceramics, which she made in her spare time, to make it worth her while to work full-time as a potter, and she often felt like a failure in the artistic stakes because she never seemed to get any closer to achieving her goal.

Like Jez, Molly had had a chequered background, which had encompassed constant change, broken relationships and insecurity. Her mother had died when she was nine years old and her grandmother had put her up for adoption while choosing to keep Ophelia, Molly’s elder teenaged sister. Molly had never quite recovered from the simple fact that her own flesh and blood had handed her over to social services simply because she, unlike her sister, was illegitimate and, even worse, the embarrassing proof of her mother’s affair with a married man. The sheer hurt of that unapologetic rejection had made Molly wary of trying to seek contact with her birth relations again once she grew up. Even now, at the age of twenty-two, she tended to block out the memories of the early years of her life and scold herself for the sense of loss that those dim recollections still roused. Molly was a survivor who, while priding herself on being as tough as old boots, had a heart as soft as a marshmallow.

That evening, her employers were catering for a wedding party at a big house in St John Wood. It was an upmarket booking for a new customer and her manager, Brian, was very anxious to get everything right. Molly tied her apron on over the narrow black skirt and white blouse that she wore for work. The bride’s mother, Krystal Forfar, an enervated and emaciated blonde dressed in an oyster-pink dress, was rapping out imperious instructions to Brian in a shrill voice.

Brian signalled Molly. ‘My senior waitress, Molly…There’ll be a bloke here tonight-’

‘Mr Leandro Carrera Marquez,’ the bride’s mother interposed haughtily, pronouncing the foreign name in the sort of hallowed tones that most people reserved for royalty. ‘He’s a Spanish banker and, as my husband’s employer, our most important guest. Make sure you wait on him hand and foot. Ensure his glass is never empty. I’ll point him out when he arrives.’

‘Fine.’ Molly nodded acquiescence and sped off back to the kitchen where she was helping to unpack equipment.

‘What was all that about?’ Vanessa, her fellow waitress, asked.

Molly explained.

‘Another toff with more money than sense, I’ll bet,’ the redhead opined.

‘If he’s a banker, it’s to be hoped he has both!’ Molly joked.

The bride, stunning in a sophisticated sheath of white satin, appeared with her mother to check the buffet table. Molly watched while Mrs Forfar fussed over her daughter, twitching her train into place and adjusting her tiara. Unappreciative of the proud parental attention she was receiving, the bride uttered a sharp complaint about the colour of the napkins-so last year and not what she had ordered. Brian surged forward to apologise and explain the substitution, while Molly wondered why she herself had failed to win her mother’s love, and why the only affection she had received during the first nine years of her life had been from her sister. Had her mother been so ashamed of her illegitimacy as well?

A few minutes later, Molly was summoned to the doorway to have the Spanish banker singled out for her scrutiny. The tall dark male engaged in conversation with the bride’s parents was so breathtakingly good looking that Molly felt her heart jump inside her chest as she studied him. He was downright dazzling, from the crown of his fashionably cropped black hair to the flawless planes of his classic bronzed features, and he was further blessed with the sleek, broad-shouldered, lean-hipped and long limbed muscular physique of a classical god.

‘Go offer the VIP a drink,’ Brian urged.

Molly snatched in a ragged breath, shaken and embarrassed by her excessively appreciative reaction to the Spaniard. It wasn’t like her. She had never been into men in the same way as her peers. Her birth mother’s volatile relationships with a long line of men who had treated her badly had left their mark on Molly even at a young age. She had known even then that she wanted something different for herself, something more than casual sex with men who didn’t want to commit, contribute to the home or play any real part in a child’s upbringing. And she didn’t want to be hurt or damaged, either. With the exception of Jez, the sort of men Molly had met in the years that took her to adulthood had merely increased her wariness and distrust of the opposite sex. There had been boyfriends but nobody special; certainly nobody she had had any desire to sleep with. So it was a total shock to look across a room and see a guy who, just by being there, stole all the breath from her lungs and all the sense from her thoughts.

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