Surprise Me (Page 68)

OK. Take a moment. No rush.

Actually, there is a rush. This woman probably costs a thousand pounds an hour and she’ll bill me even if she is Dan’s mistress. Especially then. And I haven’t even thought about how I’ll afford it. Shit. Why didn’t I find out the fee? Quick, Sylvie, talk.

I take a deep breath, gathering my thoughts, and glance out of the window of her door. And what I see makes me nearly pass out.

It’s Mummy.

She’s wearing a pink suit and walking quickly towards this room with a hugely fat guy in pinstripes, talking animatedly while he cocks his head to listen.

What the fuck is my mother doing here?

Already my legs are propelling me to the door of Mary Smith-Sullivan’s office. I’m grabbing the handle like a demented person.

‘Mummy?’ I demand, my voice strident. ‘Mummy?’

Both Mummy and the fat pinstriped guy stop dead and Mummy’s face freezes in a rictus of dismay.

‘So it is you,’ she says.

‘It is me?’ I look from her to the fat pinstriped guy. ‘What does that mean, “It is me”? Of course it’s me. Mummy, why are you here?’

‘I’m the one who called your mother, Sylvie,’ says Mary Smith-Sullivan behind me, and I swivel round to face her.

‘You know me?’

‘I thought it was you as soon as I saw you in reception. I’ve seen photos and your hair’s quite distinctive. Although of course, the false name …’ She shrugs. ‘But still, I was sure it was you.’

‘Darling, why are you here?’ demands Mummy almost accusingly. ‘What brought you here?’

‘Because …’ I stare at her, bewildered, then turn back to Mary Smith-Sullivan. ‘I want to know why my husband’s been texting you.’

Finally I’ve managed to get my line out. But it’s lost its sting. Everything has lost its meaning. I feel as though I’ve walked into a stage play and I don’t know my part.

‘Yes, I expect you do,’ says Mary, and she regards me with a kind of pity. The same kind of pity Dan had. ‘I always said you should know, but—’

‘Mrs Winter.’ The fat pinstriped guy speaks in a booming voice as he approaches me. ‘I do apologize, let me introduce myself. I’m Roderick Rice, and I’ve been dealing with this issue, along with Mary of course …’

‘What issue?’ I feel as though I might scream. Or kill someone. ‘What bloody issue?’ I look from Mary Smith-Sullivan, to Roderick, to Mummy, who is hovering outside the office door with one of her evasive Mummy looks. ‘What is it? What?’

I can see eyes meeting; silent consultations flying around.

‘Is anyone in touch with Dan?’ Mary says to Roderick at length.

‘He’s gone to Devon. To see what he can do down there. I tried him earlier, but …’ Roderick shrugs. ‘No signal, probably.’

Devon? Why’s Dan gone to Devon? But Mary nods as though this makes total sense.

‘Just thinking of the PS factor,’ she says quietly.

The PS factor. Again. I can’t bear it.

‘Please don’t call me that!’ My voice explodes out of me like a rocket. ‘I’m not a princess, I’m not Princess Sylvie, I wish Dan had never given me that stupid nickname.’

Both lawyers turn to survey me in what seems like genuine surprise.

‘“PS” doesn’t stand for “Princess Sylvie”,’ says Mary Smith-Sullivan at last. ‘Not in this office.’

‘But …’ I stare at her, taken aback. ‘Then what …’

There’s silence. And once again, she gives me that odd, pitying look, as though she knows far more about me than I do.

‘“Protect Sylvie”,’ she says. ‘It stands for “Protect Sylvie”.’

For an instant, I can’t speak. My mouth won’t work. Protect me?

‘From what?’ I manage at last, and turn to Mummy, who’s still standing at the doorway. ‘Mummy?’

‘Oh, darling.’ She starts blinking furiously. ‘It’s been so difficult to know what to do …’

‘Your husband loves you very much,’ says Mary Smith-Sullivan. ‘And I think he’s been acting for all the right reasons. But—’ She breaks off and looks at Roderick, then Mummy. ‘This is ridiculous. She’s got to know.’

We sit in Mary’s little seating area with cups of tea in proper cups and saucers, brought in by an assistant. I cradle mine in my hands, not drinking it, just gripping it tightly. It’s something tangible. It’s something real. When nothing else in my life seems to be.

‘Let me give you the bare facts,’ says Mary, in her measured way, when at last the assistant leaves. ‘It has been alleged that your father had an affair, many years ago, with a sixteen-year-old girl.’

I look back at her silently. I don’t know what I was expecting. Not this.

Daddy? A sixteen-year-old girl?

I glance at Mummy, who is staring at a distant corner of the room.

‘Is it … true?’ I manage.

‘Of course it’s not true,’ snaps Mummy. ‘The whole thing is falsehood. Wretched, evil falsehood.’ She starts to blink furiously again. ‘When I think of your father …’

‘The girl in question, who is now an adult,’ continues Mary impassively, ‘threatened to expose this affair in a book. This was … prevented.’

‘What book?’ I say, confused. ‘A book about my father?’

‘Not exactly, no. Have you heard of a writer called Joss Burton?’

‘Through the High Maze.’ I stare at her. ‘I’ve read it. She had a really hard time before her success. She had an eating disorder; she had to drop out of university …’ I swallow, feeling ill. ‘Did Daddy – no.’

‘It’s all lies,’ says Mummy tearfully. ‘It was all in her head. She became fixated on your father because he was so handsome.’

‘An early draft contained an account of her alleged affair with your father and its effect upon her,’ Mary resumes. ‘Obviously, at sixteen she wasn’t underage; nevertheless, it’s …’ She hesitates. ‘Not particularly easy reading.’

Not particularly easy reading. My mind registers this phrase and then veers away from it. There’s only so much I can deal with at one time.

‘Your father became aware of the book and engaged our firm. We applied for an injunction on his behalf, although in the event, the author was persuaded to excise the relevant passages.’

‘Persuaded?’

‘Dan was very helpful,’ says Mummy, wiping her nose.

‘Dan?’ I look from face to face.

‘Your father wished to keep the matter within the family, so he enlisted Dan’s help.’ There’s something about Mary’s tone that makes me look sharply at her. ‘I would say that Dan worked above and beyond for your father,’ she says. ‘He became our contact. He read every document. He attended every meeting with Joss Burton and her lawyers and managed to turn what were … fairly difficult discussions … into something more constructive. As your mother says, it was his personal intervention which, in the end, persuaded Joss Burton to retract the relevant passages.’

‘Dan was pleased to help,’ says Mummy defensively. ‘Only too pleased to help.’