The Heartbreaker: A Novel (St. Benet's Trilogy)

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9780345466280: The Heartbreaker: A Novel (St. Benet's Trilogy)
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Deftly combining the sacred and the profane—the unmistakable hallmark of her fiction over the past decade—Susan Howatch gives us a spellbinding, suspenseful and psychologically intense new novel.

The financial heart of London—the City—is an adrenaline-charged square mile deep in recession in the 1990s, a place where sex is just another commodity to be bought and sold in the marketplace. And the City is where the life of Gavin Blake, who sells sex to high flyers, is finally about to unravel.
In the center of the City is St. Benet’s, a church that ministers to the casualties of this affluent but amoral society. Carta Graham, the St. Benet’s fundraiser, is at once attracted to Gavin when they meet through a mutual friend, but slowly she realizes that she has entered a relationship far more complex than she could ever have imagined.

Gavin is desperate to escape from his world of prostitution, pornography and violence, but as his involvement with Carta and St. Benet’s deepens, the dangers that encircle him escalate until his life itself is on the line. Carta is determined to help him—but will their mysterious journey together be lifesaving or soul-destroying? All she can do is fight her hardest to help Gavin survive.

Consistently surprising and powerfully moving, The Heartbreaker is Susan Howatch’s most gripping novel yet.
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About the Author:

Susan Howatch was born in Surrey. After getting a degree in law, she emigrated to America where she married, had a daughter and embarked on a career as a writer. When she eventually left the United States, she lived in the Republic of Ireland for four years before returning to England. She spent time in Salisbury—which was the inspiration for her Starbridge sequence of novels—and now lives in London.
From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One
Carta

I

Godless Morality richard holloway I In 1990 I survived a life-crisis. In 1991 I wound up working for a good cause. But never did I foresee that in 1992 my vital companion during the next stage of my journey would be a prostitute. Let’s face it, one doesn’t normally connect prostitution with church fundraising.

1992 . . . It was that long-ago year when mobile phones still only operated through terrestrial links, that era of technological pre-history before the word “internet” began to ricochet in earnest around the square mile called the City which forms London’s financial district. I had worked there once as a lawyer, but now I had opted for a different lifestyle.

This decision, which I never regretted, led to an invitation to reorganise the business affairs of a City church called St. Benet’s-by-the-Wall. The people there had supported me following the collapse of my brief marriage and the loss of my job; in fact they had supported me through a time so horrific that I still shuddered to think of it, so when I found myself in a position to repay my debt to St. Benet’s I seized the opportunity with both hands.

The opportunity arose when the office manager of the St. Benet’s Healing Centre suddenly died and the Rector was faced with the task of finding someone with financial expertise who was prepared to work for a pittance. I volunteered to work for nothing, and during 1991 I reorganised the office. This inevitably led to a vision of the future in which expensive computers were needed, and once the subject of money arose, the idea of expansion soon surfaced. Immediately all eyes at St. Benet’s swivelled to the derelict house across the road. The building, a rare City freehold zoned for residential use, was owned by the Church Commissioners, who had been hanging on to it in the forlorn hope that the property market would revive.

At that point the Rector moved fast. Having established that permission to change the use of the building would be forthcoming, he approached the Bishop for help, and the result was that the Church Commissioners agreed to lease the property at a moderate rent to the trustees of the St. Benet’s Healing Centre on condition that they raised the money to rebuild the interior as offices. The idea was that the Healing Centre’s administrative office would occupy the ground floor while the rest of the building could be leased to tenants who would pay our rent and cover the other running costs. In addition, removing the administrative office from the church would give us the chance to remodel the Healing Centre—another major expense.

“Wonderful!” said the Rector. “Now, how do we raise one and a half million pounds to cover all our costs?”

“Oh, that’s peanuts!” I said without stopping to think. “Five or six million’s routine in the fundraising game nowadays.”

A minute later I had been appointed director of the St. Benet’s Appeal and set squarely on the road that led to Richard Slaney and the seamiest of his many friends.

II

I first met Richard Slaney in 1989 when I began to work for the law firm Curtis, Towers. We were both partners, but while I laboured in the corporate tax department, he was involved with the private clients; he specialised in the making of wills and the administration of estates. Educated at Winchester and Oxford he had a wide circle of well-heeled, influential friends which made him a desirable contact for a fundraiser, and I decided to lose no time in seeking his advice.

I had no experience of fundraising, but I knew that at its most sophisticated level the buck-chaser was expected to combine high-grade diplomatic skills with the hide of a rhinoceros and the chutzpah of a street-trader. Because of the expense we decided against hiring a professional fundraiser to teach me the tricks of the trade, but unfortunately the more I told myself I could cope, the more stressed I began to feel, and soon I was wondering in panic if I had bitten off far more than I could chew.

Then I pulled myself together and called Richard at Curtis, Towers.

III

I met Richard for lunch at Hudson’s, an oak-panelled City restaurant where the food was modernised Olde English and the wine list was first-class global. Richard was an oenophile with a weakness for high-calorie puddings. He had never succeeded in giving up smoking and as far as I knew he had never attempted to diet, so it was surprising he looked no more than twenty pounds overweight, but I remembered him telling me that he lived an active life on weekends at his country house in Hampshire. He had an elegant wife, a son reading law up at Oxford and a daughter studying for her A-levels at Cheltenham.

“Carta!” he exclaimed warmly, coming towards me with his hand outstretched. “How very nice to see you again!”

Despite his excess weight and his smoker’s skin, he was attractive. Married men in their late forties were a group I now found wholly resistible, but I could see that other women lucky enough not to have my marital history would be quick to fancy him. He was tall, with black curly hair streaked with silver, dark eyes and a winning smile. His family had come from Ireland, but not recently. An eighteenth-century Slaney had made a fortune serving with the British army in India and had decided to settle in England afterwards—or so Richard always said. There was a rumour that his grandfather had been an immigrant called Slanowicz, but I never thought Richard was the type to lie about his origins—or indeed about any other basic fact of his private life.

“First catch your patrons,” he said when I asked for his advice. “You need a collection of distinguished names on your letterhead to give the cause street-cred and help with the networking—oh, and get a Royal to be patron-in-chief. After that you need first a glossy brochure explaining your aims, second a series of high-profile fundraising events, third a benign journalist giving you publicity in at least one of the broadsheets—”

“Wait, wait, wait—you’re describing life on Mars! This is a City church run by people who aren’t interested in the glamorous life and don’t know any Royals!”

“The Archbishop of Canterbury does—tell him the man you want is Prince Charles. He’s the Royal who’s interested in alternative medicine.”

“This is complementary medicine,” I said at once. “It works alongside orthodox medicine and not as an alternative to it. In fact the Rector, Nicholas Darrow, works in partnership with a doctor who has a branch of her National Health practice at the Centre.”

“All the better. Since healing’s so trendy nowadays that any charla- tan can make a mint out of it, you can’t stress the Healing Centre’s respectability too strongly. Tell Darrow he’s got to collar at least one bishop to be a patron, and get the Archbishop to write a foreword for the brochure.”

I had abandoned my food in order to scribble key words in a notebook. “The trouble is,” I said, “I can’t just rely on the Church. I’ve got to plug into the secular world as well to get the money flowing.”

“No problem—everyone’s interested in health. The real difficulty here is that you need this money for an office building, and office buildings just don’t press the buttons which open chequebooks . . . You say that the Healing Centre itself is to be remodelled?”

“An architect’s already drawn up plans.”

“Then here’s what you do: you highlight the expanded, redesigned Healing Centre and focus on this church’s very important special ministry. People will be intrigued by the idea of a priest and a doctor working together—hype that up, give your boss a high profile . . . What’s he like?”

“Lots of charisma but it’s subtle. We’re not talking about a televangelist wonder-worker here.”

“Just as well, since you need to present him as a man of total integrity.”

“Yes, but Nicholas is far too busy to be a fundraising asset—”

“Never mind, you can always play the Mother Teresa card and pre- sent him as totally dedicated, uninterested in worldly matters. How long’s he been working in the City?”

“Since ’eighty-one.”

“Then he must surely know a lot of people who have the potential to help. Look, why don’t the three of us have a meeting to discuss who should be patrons, who should be marked as potential donors and who should be networked? If Darrow and I have friends in common it’ll make your task easier.”

“Fantastic! Richard, I can’t tell you how grateful I am—”

“Never say I don’t do my best for my friends!”

The discussion of fundraising continued, and it was not until the end of the meal, after I had signalled for the bill, that he said suddenly: “You’ve changed. You seem less brash, less driven.”

“I got myself sorted by the St. Benet’s team after my husband died.” The bill arrived and when I signed it Richard commented: “I see you’re writing your first name with an A at the end. No longer ‘Carter’ as in President Jimmy?”

“No longer a high flyer. So now I don’t have to waste energy cultivating a masculine image in order to survive in a man’s world.”

“Ah, but is it really possible to live without cultivating an image which enables one to get on in life? We all do it, don’t we? We pick the roles we need to play.”

I stared at him. “But that’s the point. We don’t have to live like that. I’m through with role-playing now—I’m busy being me!”

He gave me his warm, winning smile. But he said nothing—and that was the moment when I should have begun to wonder exactly what went on behind that polished facade of his.

Yet the moment passed. I was too busy plotting my next move as a fundraiser.

IV

I see no need for me to describe in detail my work over the next few months as I launched the Appeal. Suffice it to say that Richard produced a steady stream of friends who were capable of assisting me in some way or other, while his wife Moira gave me tips on fundraising techniques; as a socialite of the ladies-who-lunch variety, she was used to raising money for good causes, and she soon appeared fascinated by the St. Benet’s Healing Centre. Or maybe she was just fascinated by the Rector. Most women were, but I had never found Nicholas a turn-on even before I had decided that married men in their late forties were best excluded from my bedtime menu. Fortunately Nicholas had never found me a turn-on either, and this mutual non-attraction explained why we were able to work so well together.

I was just wondering uneasily if Moira were about to make a fool of herself over Nicholas, when the reason for her fascination with the Healing Centre finally surfaced. In the March of 1992 she made an appointment to see Nicholas and turned up with her daughter Bridget. A glance at the girl was enough to tell anyone she was anorexic, and with the secret now disclosed Richard was able to talk about his daughter’s problems when he and I next met for lunch. I learned that her illness had caused her to drop out of school; hospitalisation had enabled her to gain weight which was soon lost when she returned home; Moira, at her wits’ end, saw St. Benet’s as a last resort.

Bridget refused to see the psychologist who worked at the Centre, but she agreed to talk on a regular basis to Nicholas and also to Val, the doctor. She then started to attend the weekly lunch-time healing service in the church, and Moira even went up with her for the laying-on of hands.

When I mentioned this to Richard I found myself adding: “Do you feel tempted to join Moira and Bridget at a healing service?”

“Not my scene.”

“Because you’re an atheist? I used to be an atheist myself,” I said rapidly, “but I found it just didn’t fit the reality I experienced around the time Kim died, and I couldn’t deny my own experience.”

He said nothing.

“Sorry,” I said more rapidly than ever, “religion isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Let’s change the subject.”

But he ignored this suggestion. “I’ve no objection to Jesus Christ,” he said flatly, “but that religion his followers founded has no time for someone like me.”

“Someone like you?”

“Someone rich. The Church does nothing but bang on about the poor—it behaves as if it’s taken over society’s naive belief that money solves everyone’s problems!”

“I’m sure Nicholas would tell you that Christ came for everyone, no matter what their financial status.”

“And that explains why Nick’s one of the few clergy I can tolerate, but I’m still not willing to get involved in Bridget’s healing programme. I know they like to treat the whole family in these cases, but I’m keeping my mouth shut and I’ve advised Moira to do the same. Our marriage is no one’s business but our own.”
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