Richard pulled on a silk shirt, relishing the coolness of the fabric against his skin just as the front door clicked open.
A voice floated up from the hallway. “Are you home?”
He braced himself. “I’ll be down in a moment,” he said.
He found Bella standing by the walnut sideboard, decanting sherry into a crystal glass.
“Had a good day?”
“Not bad. I won the case. The jury took one look at me and couldn’t wait to leave the courtroom.”
As she turned in his arms, Richard held down the gasp of shock that still tried to force its way out, each time he saw her face close up.
He remembered the first time so clearly. She’d hired him as her escort for the evening. Entertaining rich women and dining at their expense came easily to him.
“I must warn you,” the agency said, “Miss Dawlish is not an attractive woman.”
He’d laughed it off. “I don’t care what she looks like, all I care about is how much money she has.”
They arranged to meet at the most expensive restaurant in town.
When he saw her, Richard had stood there, staring, unable to move. Her ugliness was so complete.
“Hideous, aren’t I?” she laughed, revealing a row of misshapen teeth. “Sit down and let me order you a drink. You look like you need one.”
Her features fascinated him. The knotted scar, her right eye almost hidden under its sagging lid. The hog like, misshapen nose. She looked like a cartoonist’s nightmare vision of a hideous old crone. It was hard to believe she was only thirty-six, she looked so much older.
Something strange happened that night. Because he wasn’t remotely attracted to her physically, he found he could hold a proper conversation with her, rather than trotting out the usual, flattering, meaningless lines.
The meal over, Bella invited him back to her place. In the event it wasn’t difficult to make love to her; in the dark, she felt and smelt like any other woman. When, after their third date, she invited him to move in with her, he said yes straightaway.
She gave him everything he’d ever dreamed of - a bottomless bank account, a brand new Mercedes, designer clothes and shoes.
A year later, Bella took him to her favourite restaurant to celebrate their anniversary.
“I love people’s reactions,” Bella said as they finished their meal. “There you are, with looks to rival George Clooney, dating the ugliest woman in Australia.”
“You’re not the...” he said automatically.
She cut him off. “Of course, I am. Do you love me, Richard?”
“We get on really well. I couldn’t wish for better company.”
“Yes, but do you love me.” Silence. “Of course not. Tell me, why do you stay?”
“I’m happy. You give me everything I want.”
“You mean you like being a rich woman’s plaything.” She sighed. “I need more than that. I may look like Medusa’s uglier sister but underneath I’m still a woman.” As she looked deep into his eyes he knew that if he but asked, she would offer him marriage.
He imagined what it would be like. It would all be his, the sprawling mansion, the cars, the flat in Paris…..“I’d rather keep things the way they are,” he said at last.
He leaned over to kiss her, but she moved away. “You need someone young and pretty, someone you’re proud to be seen with.” She paused. “I want you to leave. I’ve bought you an apartment in Sydney, and you’ll have a generous allowance. You’ll be very comfortable there.”
She interrupted him. “Go. Enjoy yourself for six months. After that, see how you feel.”
He tried to argue but she wouldn’t listen.
His time away from Bella passed in a blur. He flitted from beautiful woman to beautiful woman, like a bee drunk on nectar.
One morning he awoke, unable to remember where he was. He threw on his dressing gown, and stepped outside where crisp waves lapped against a white sandy beach. There was no sound but the sea.
Moments later, an arm slipped round his waist. “Come back to bed.”
He stood, frozen to the spot.
“What’s wrong?” The girl moved to face him, her perfect Cupid’s bow lips pouting.
“I need to be alone for a while.”
She shrugged, and went back inside.
Richard scanned the wonderful scenery searching for imperfections and was disappointed when he found none.
The next day, he went home to Bella only to find that his key no longer fitted the lock. He pounded on the door like a madman until, at last, Bella’s assistant answered.
“I’m afraid you’re too late. She said to wish you goodbye, and good luck.”
Richard blocked the door with his foot. “I’m not leaving until I see her.”
The man sighed. “You can’t. She’s in hospital.”
“Why? What’s happened?”
“She told me not to say.”
“At least tell me where she is. If you don’t I’ll stay here, banging on the door, until you do.”
“She’s at St Luke’s, but I wouldn’t go there today, she’s…”
Richard didn’t wait to for him to finish, he was already racing to his car. He drove like a wild man to the hospital where a sympathetic sister led him to the private ward.
“Miss Dawlish is still unconscious. She won’t come round from the anaesthetic for a while yet.”
“What happened?” asked Richard. “Will she be OK?”
“We hope so. She’s been in and out of hospital for the past two months with all kinds of infections. I’m afraid she’s very weak.”
As the door opened, he prepared himself but there was no need; most of Bella’s face was swathed in bandages.
“Why don’t you come back later?” the nurse suggested.
Richard shook his head.
As he sat down beside her bed, an alien feeling surged through him. His heart ached with love. How could he have allowed this to happen? Six months, she’d said. He’d been gone eight. The only time she’d crossed his mind was when he spent her money.
For hours he sat there, willing her to wake up, willing her to come back to him. At last her one unbandaged eye fluttered and opened.
“Darling, I’m so sorry,” he said. “I’ve been all over the world, dated countless gorgeous women, but I haven’t been happy since the day I left you. Can you forgive me?” He squeezed her hand. “I don’t care what you look like, we’re good together. I love you, Bella. Say you’ll be my wife and I’ll sign any prenuptial agreement you want.”
She closed her eyes and made no reply.
Eventually tiredness forced him to leave. When he came back the next day, the same sister barred his way.
“Miss Dawlish said to give you this.”
As he read Bella’s words, he felt as though his heart would break.
‘You hurt me, Richard. I need time to heal. My assistant will call you when, and if, I’m ready.’
“But I must see her,” he grabbed the nurse’s arm.
“I’m sorry, Mr Walsh. Unless you leave, now, I’ll be forced to call security.”
For the next twelve weeks, he hardly went out. He could think of nothing but the pain he’d caused the woman he loved.
At last Bella’s assistant phoned.
The message was short and simple. If he still wanted to get married, he must be at St Martins, at eleven o’clock on June 10th where a solicitor would be waiting with a prenuptial agreement to sign. .
He was there an hour early. At half past ten, a man in a dark suit called to him from a cab. “I have the agreement. Are you ready to sign?”
He opened the door of the taxi, and Richard climbed on board.
The solicitor handed him a pen. “My client’s instructions are that you must sign the agreement without reading it,” he said.
“That’s fine by me,” replied Richard. The paperwork was folded so that the only piece visible was the line for his signature and that of a witness. He signed the paper and gave it back to the man.
After getting the taxi driver to witness the document, the solicitor put the document into his briefcase. “You are to wait for ten minutes, then go into the church.” Moments, later, the cab had gone.
Richard made his way inside. As he waited at the altar his mind raced. He’d heard nothing else from Bella, just to be there. He wondered if this was all some horrible trick, that she had no intention of turning up.
The clock ticked its way past the hour. By quarter past eleven, he’d convinced himself that Bella wasn’t going to appear, then the organ surged, changing from Chopin to Here Comes the Bride.
What felt like ages later, Bella was standing by his side, a heavy veil covering her face.
“I love you,” he said
“I love you too, Richard. Shall we get married?” She took his hand and he relaxed.
The ceremony was short and simple. Richard could hardly believe it when the vicar pronounced them man and wife. “You may kiss the bride.”
Gently, he lifted Bella’s veil. “You’re beautiful!” he gasped.
“I am, aren’t I.” She smiled, showing perfect white teeth.
“But……” He stared at her pretty nose, and her full lips.
“Sorry to keep you waiting so long. I needed an awful lot of surgery.” She hugged him. “You’re wondering why didn’t I do this years ago. I wanted someone who loved me, not my money.” She asked her bridesmaid to give her the prenuptial agreement then showed it to him. Apart from his and the taxi driver’s signatures, it was completely blank. “Now give your gorgeous wife a kiss,” she said.
And that’s exactly what he did.