Read From The Heart Online

Authors: Sheila O'Flanagan

From The Heart (11 page)

BOOK: From The Heart
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‘Oh, but Gabriella,’ I protested, my heart beating faster at the thought of going back to Spain even if it was miles away from all my friends there, ‘I have a job here. And I’m sure that there are plenty of people there already who would do a good job for you. Magdalena, perhaps?’
‘Isobel, why is it that whenever I offer you a job you always suggest someone else?’ There was a hint of amusement in her voice. She was remembering the time she’d offered me the promotion, when I’d been pleased and flattered but secretly terrified and had suggested that almost anyone else in the firm would be better at it than me. ‘You are doing well in your current position, yes? It is very senior. Very responsible. I thought you might be interested in this one. I know you liked living here. But if you have set up a new life in Ireland, that is perfectly fine.’
A new life in Ireland. Well, yes, to a point. But I was still living at home, hadn’t quite managed to get myself an apartment of my own yet and hadn’t quite managed to get myself a new social life either. My best friend, Julie, was in the States with her husband, Andy. Alison and Peter were inseparable. There weren’t many social opportunities in the new job. But in lots of ways that was what I wanted. To be busy. To keep my heart intact. To not get involved with people any more. To stay single!
‘Isobel?’ Gabriella’s voice broke into my thoughts. ‘It is up to you. But I would really like to have you here. I want someone I can depend on.’
I nearly laughed out loud at that. Of all the things that I was, I really didn’t think dependable was going to be that high up on people’s lists.
‘Let me think about it,’ I said.
‘Two weeks,’ she told me. ‘Then I must advertise for someone else.’
I didn’t need two weeks, of course. I never would have needed two weeks. I’d loved my life in Madrid even if it had been an escape and a reinvention. Maybe I could have a good life in Alicante too. I didn’t know the city but, I reckoned, I’d gone somewhere before where I didn’t know anyone and I’d made lots of friends and it had been good for me. So why not do it again?
My mother looked at me despairingly. My father shrugged his shoulders. Alison told me to go for it. Ian, my brother, muttered that maybe this time he’d get the chance to take a Spanish holiday with somewhere decent to crash out, and wasn’t Alicante on the coast, which would be excellent for a bit of R&R? Julie sent me an e-mail telling me that it would be good to live in a different country again for a while and asking me had I ever heard from Nico and what was the likelihood of bumping into him? I responded that I hadn’t and that Madrid was at least four hundred kilometres away from Alicante, so no, bumping into people from my life there wasn’t going to happen.
In the end it wasn’t really a struggle at all. I took the job and I went to Alicante.
Gabriella had set me up in an apartment in a tall but ugly block in the city which had the compensating factor of having a huge balcony and a view over the marina. The office, a mere five-minute walk away, was in a truly beautiful renovated building with high ceilings, marbled floors and elaborate wrought-iron Juliet balconies outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. It was the most elegant place I’d ever worked in my life.
The job was great. I recruited new people, set up course timetables, scoured for clients and generally worked my butt off. But I loved it. My social life revolved around my work because there was a vast amount of corporate entertaining to do. I did, occasionally, meet people for dinner or for drinks but it never amounted to much. In many ways I was at my most content on my own, in the late evenings, walking along the psychedelically tiled Explanada de España, listening to the animated chatter of the people around me as they strolled arm in arm (or, in the case of some of the older townspeople, sat on the red and blue wooden chairs that lined the Explanada), and not allowing myself to feel anything other than a feeling of relief when, on the way back to my apartment, I strolled along the Calle Gerona which housed some of Alicante’s most luxurious designer wedding dress shops. Whenever I stopped outside the windows and looked at the extravagantly elegant dresses I wished only good things for the girls who wore them and I didn’t think of a wedding for myself any more.
It was at the end of a busy November that Gabriella made an unexpected visit to the office and gave me the tickets for the Caribbean.
‘You don’t take holidays,’ she told me. ‘You go back to Ireland for a week or so. You take a day off from time to time. But you don’t take proper holidays and you should, Isobel.’
I tried to protest that I wasn’t a holiday kind of person. That working in a country where the sun shines and the weather is balmy (Alicante didn’t suffer the same bitingly cold winters as Madrid; in a lot of ways I preferred it there in the winter when the tourist hordes had gone and the locals reclaimed the streets) was as good as being on a permanent holiday.
Gabriella was having none of it. She handed me the tickets for a week’s stay in the five-star, all-inclusive, ultra-luxurious White Sands Hotel, and told me to go and have a good time.
Which was why I found myself standing on the balcony of Room 608, musing on the day’s cancelled wedding, remembering my own, thinking that Spain was a beautiful country and I now regarded it as home, but that the Caribbean was probably the most idyllic place on earth. You couldn’t actually live here, I thought, as I gazed at the setting sun disappearing into the silk-blue sea in a ripple of pink and gold. It was far too beautiful for everyday life!
I sat down in the plump cushioned recliner, stretched my lightly tanned legs out in front of me so that they caught the final rays of the sun and flicked through a copy of
Hola!
to catch up on the Spanish gossip.
It was because I was reading in Spanish that I didn’t at first realise that the people on the balcony next to me (who I couldn’t see properly but could make out as blurred images because all of the balconies were separated by walls of glass blocks) were talking in Spanish too. And it was the Spanish of Madrid – Castellano – not Latin American Spanish which might have been less unusual in this part of the world. It was strange to hear Spanish at all; most of the guests at White Sands were American or British, with one or two Germans; and so, when I heard my second language I tuned in to what they were saying.
It was a woman’s voice speaking, bright and cheerful, bubbling with enthusiasm.
‘We are so lucky!’ she was exclaiming. ‘Seems we got the right end of the deal for once.’
Her companion, a man, was obviously still in the room because I didn’t catch his reply though I could hear the timbre of his voice.
‘. . . and this is so great,’ she continued. ‘Look at the views. Much, much better than the other place.’
I caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye. She was hanging precariously out over the balcony, peering down into the colourful tropical gardens below. I could see her profile as she swept her long dark hair from her face – a perfect face, with smooth olive skin, long dark eyelashes and high cheekbones. She reminded me of Letizia Ortez, the elegant and ever more glamorous woman who’d married the Crown Prince of Spain and who was a regular cover girl for all of the gossip magazines. The woman next door caught sight of me and grinned. Her lips were rose-bud pink, her mouth wide and generous and her eyes chocolate brown. Then she drew back and called to her companion again.
‘Do we have time before going out, Nico?’ she asked.
Nico. My heart hammered in my chest at the familiar name. Nico.
Well, obviously not my Nico. Nicolas Juan Carlos Alvarez, who had told me he loved me and that he would have married me if that was what I wanted before storming out of my apartment in Madrid and never coming back. I moistened my suddenly dry lips. Nico, who had been such a wonderful lover and who’d made me feel wanted and cherished but who wasn’t really the man for me because I was still somehow in love with Tim. Or (at that point) the idea of Tim. After Nico left me, he started going out with a friend of mine, Barbara, who’d always fancied him. I’d met them once together when Tim had come to Madrid and it had been horribly embarrassing. I don’t think their relationship lasted but I never heard from him again.
Nico. The name brought the memories flooding back.
Isabella querida
.
I shook my head. Nothing to get in a knot about. Wherever Nico Alvarez was these days, and whatever he was doing, it certainly wasn’t hanging out in the White Sands Hotel with a Spanish beauty.
‘Pilar, let’s go!’ Suddenly he was on the balcony too because his words carried clearly to me although his body was distorted through the glass blocks. ‘We can’t be late. They’ll move us out of here if we are.’
My heart was beating even faster. For a moment it had sounded just like him too, a rich, deep voice. Musical. Nico had been musical. He played the guitar with some friends and they often got bookings in hotels around the city. He also wrote jingles for advertising companies. But his real job was in the pharmaceutical industry. He came from a family of doctors. He was the only one who didn’t practise medicine.
‘Pilar!’ He laughed. I didn’t know what Pilar had done, but I could imagine it was something to do with kissing him. And maybe more than that.
I shook my head again. It didn’t matter what they were doing. But I wished I could get the unexpected memory of Nicolas Juan Carlos Alvarez out of my head.
They weren’t at dinner. I was shown to my usual table in the corner of the restaurant overlooking the underwater-lit sea and from which I could observe everyone else. Once or twice since I’d arrived at the hotel I’d eaten with other guests – there was another woman here on her own and I’d joined her one evening, though I hadn’t been able to get a word in edgeways as she’d recounted her life story as the private secretary to an industrial magnate; and there’d been a sweet American family who wanted to take me under their wing and were horrified when I didn’t join them every evening. There was a second solitary woman who (according to Dee, the private secretary) was a famous novelist who was doing some research on the island. Fancy, Dee had said, we could all end up between the pages of a book! I shuddered. I couldn’t bear the thought of my life ending up between the pages of a book. In fact I liked being alone, reading my own book, eating my dinner and drinking a couple of glasses of ruby-red wine. I used to hate being by myself in public places but now I was used to it. And, as I often told people who called me solitary and worried about me, there was a world of difference between being on your own and being lonely. Sometimes you can be lonely in a crowd of people. Sometimes I’d felt lonely even with Tim beside me. I wasn’t lonely now.
Tonight I nodded at the tall coloured guy who had been one of the guests at the aborted wedding the day before; smiled at an elderly lady who was also on her own but who’d made it clear that she didn’t welcome company; and managed to avoid catching the eye of the talkative private secretary. But there was no sign of the Spanish beauty and her Nico.
Then the waitress came to take my order, telling me that due to circumstances beyond their control there was no fresh lobster that night, and frowning as she said so. I didn’t care. I ordered the Caribbean salad followed by wahoo and steamed vegetables. Then I opened my book and lost myself in the fictional world I’d brought with me.
Night life at White Sands was fairly limited. After dinner people gravitated towards the piano bar where the conversation was general and where card games or backgammon were often played. I wished I was any good at either but I wasn’t. I tucked myself into a huge bamboo chair, read a little more and then chatted briefly to a girl who I’d seen around the hotel and always in the company of her elderly parents but who, tonight, was on her own in the bar and was reading the same book as me.
We exchanged a few comments about the book (a kind of crime caper novel) and then she told me that she had some things to do. As she left the bar I saw Pilar walk by. She was wearing a black silk bustier and a calf-length red silk skirt overlaid with a delicate pattern of flowers in black lace. She’d pulled her hair into that severe, tight bun favoured by flamenco dancers which served to highlight her wonderful cheekbones and her almost aristocratic beauty. She was tall and slender and, despite the precarious height of her heels, moved with the grace of a dancer through the crowded bar. There was no sign of her companion. I looked at my watch. Almost eleven. Things generally wound down by midnight, and although I was used to the much later night-life of Spain I was getting used to it.
I closed my book and finished my drink.
It was starting to rain. Actually it seemed to rain every night on the island around this time; fat, hot drops of water that instantly soaked you to the skin.
I hurried along the wet path and let myself into my room. As abruptly as it had started, the rain stopped, but I knew that there would probably be one more downpour before the skies cleared again. I changed out of my wet clothes and into a casual beach dress, then opened the patio door and stepped on to my balcony.
Cigar smoke wafted from next door. I don’t know much about cigars (my asthma means that I hate smoke of any description) but I knew that Nico occasionally smoked an expensive Romeo y Julieta after dinner. I had no idea what cigar was being smoked on the adjoining balcony, but once again the image of Nico imprinted itself on my mind.
This is ridiculous, I muttered to myself. Nico Alvarez is in Madrid. Thousands of miles away. And if you were ever to meet him again, how likely is it that it would be on an island in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. Get a grip, Isobel!
But I couldn’t. I kept thinking of him. I’d been thinking of him all through dinner and all through the evening in the bar, even while I buried my nose in my book and chatted to the girl called Gala. I couldn’t stop thinking about him.
BOOK: From The Heart
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