Leaning back, he studied the play of expressions on her face. Her excitement made him feel old and jaded. But that was a good thing. It meant he was back in control. It meant that moment earlier, when it had felt as if he was losing his footing, had been just a momentary lapse.
Holding her gaze, he shook his head. ‘My grandparents didn’t think so. They were furious. Understandably. Helena was only twenty, and Lucien was hardly ideal husband material.’
‘He was a famous artist,’ she protested.
‘A forty-five-year-old artist with two failed marriages under his belt. And he wasn’t that famous—not then. Plus, they’d already lined up a far more suitable husband-to-be. So, my uncles went and found her and brought her back home, kicking and screaming.’
She blinked. ‘They did?’
He nodded, swept along by the familiar glamour of the story despite himself. ‘And then Lucien turned up at the house with a shotgun, threatening to shoot my grandfather, and got himself arrested.’
‘Then what happened?’
The dazzle of eagerness in her eyes caught him like a punch to the solar plexus and he shrugged. ‘Me. I happened.’ He paused, staring at her steadily. ‘My mother was already pregnant by then, and my grandparents realised they were fighting a lost cause.’
Watching her expression turn hazy, he felt a rush of vertigo. He could see it in her eyes. She was falling in love with the story and it sliced something
open inside him.
‘It’s like a real-life fairy tale,’ she said slowly.
His chest tightened. Most fairy tales ended with a wedding, not death and despair.
‘You think?’ He couldn’t stop the note of bitterness from creeping into his voice.
‘Of course.’ She frowned. ‘What could be more romantic?’
Her softly worded question pulled at his senses and, glancing over at her face, he tensed. She wanted to believe in happy-ever-after. Like most people, the aftermath—what happened when the happy-ever-after ended—didn’t interest her so much.
He shrugged again. ‘I suppose that would depend on your definition of “romantic”.’
There was a small beat of silence and then Frankie looked him straight in the eye. ‘Love conquers all. Every time.’
Turning his head, he glanced away from the open blueness of her gaze. ‘Then I’d have to disagree with you.’
* * *
Frankie stared at him in confusion, separately and vividly aware of both the pulsing tension in his jaw and the distance in his eyes. She’d been having such a wonderful day. And it wasn’t just the excitement of sailing on a real boat or the picnic which had taken her completely by surprise, it was Arlo.
Maybe it had been the freedom of being out on the boat, or perhaps if had been her opening up about her family yesterday, but he had talked more about his life in the last half-hour than he had done over the previous four days.
And that had been the sweetest surprise of all.
Only now it felt as if he had retreated into himself again.
She bit her lip. ‘I don’t understand...’ she said slowly. ‘How can you tell me that story and not believe in love?’
He shook his head. ‘I’m not saying that.’ His grey eyes held hers briefly, then flicked away again. ‘My parents’ love was mesmerising—like watching a magic trick. It was impossible to look away, not to be dazzled.’
She watched mutely as he stared up at the sky, his face expressionless.
‘Their love was so intense and beautiful. It flooded the world around them and the people around them, like me, with this incredible light. It was like standing next to the sun.’
His mouth made a brief curve, painful to watch.
‘But at the end of the day the sun is just a big star. All stars collapse, and when they do, they pull everything into the darkness with them.’
Frankie swallowed. She knew all about the darkness. The terrifying plummet into the abyss. But even though she knew that he’d lost both his parents, she hadn’t thought that Arlo felt that. He seemed so in control, so invincible.