Authors: Jessica Gilmore
Gabe worked alone. He preferred it that way. Sure, he had good relationships with his colleagues, liked to make sure they were all onside but he didn’t want or brook interference.
Freedom at home and at work. That way he never had to worry about letting anyone down.
But this was a great opportunity—to be part of the team dragging Rafferty’s into a new age. How could he refuse? He took her hand, cool and elegant just like its owner.
her shoes with a sigh of relief. She was home, the sun was shining and it was Friday evening. This was exactly what she needed to get over this pesky jet lag. Surely the tiredness, the constant nausea and the lack of appetite should have gone by now?
It wasn’t exactly a weekend break, she still had a lot of work to do if she was to wow the board in a week’s time, but she could do it at home either in the little sunshine-drenched study at the back of the cottage or in the timber-beamed, book-lined sitting room. Away from the office.
Usually her office was a sanctuary but right now it felt alien. Gabe seemed to fill every corner of it. His gym gear in her cloakroom, a variety of equally disgusting smoothies on the table and, worst of all, Gabe himself.
He was so
, always on the phone, pacing round, chatting to every member of staff as if they were his long-lost best friend.
Even his typing was a loud, banging, flamboyant display. She couldn’t think, couldn’t concentrate when he was in the room.
But, although he had been living in Hopeford, in her house, for several weeks there was no trace of Gabe in the living areas of the cottage; his few possessions were kept neatly put away in the guest bedroom. Not that she’d snooped, obviously, but she had felt a need to reacquaint herself with her home, visiting every room, reminding herself of its quirks and corners.
It was odd being back after such a long absence. The cottage was clean, aired and well stocked, the rambling garden weeded and watered all thanks to the concierge service she employed to take care of her home. Mr Simpkins, the handsome ginger cat she’d inherited when she’d bought the house, was plump and sleek and bearing no discernible grudge after their time apart. But everything felt smaller, more claustrophobic.
For three months she had been someone else. Someone with no purpose, no expectations. It had been disconcerting and yet so freeing.
But that was over. She was home now and she had a lot to do. Friday night usually meant her laptop, a glass of wine and a takeaway. Polly put her hand to her stomach and swallowed hard; maybe she’d forego the latter two this week.
And think about a doctor’s appointment if the tiredness and nausea didn’t go away soon.
Hang on a second, what was that? Polly had visitors so rarely that it took another sharp decisive peal of the doorbell before she moved. Probably Gabe.
‘If he can’t keep hold of his keys how can I trust him with Rafferty’s online strategy?’ she asked Mr Simpkins. He merely yawned and turned over, stretching out in a patch of early evening sunshine.
Walking down the wide stairs towards the hallway, she took a moment to look around; at the polished, oiled beams, the old flagstoned floor, the gilt mirror by the hat stand, the fresh flowers on the antique table. It had all been chosen, placed and cared for by someone else. She lived here but was it really hers?
The doorbell rang again, impatiently. ‘I’m coming,’ she called, trying to keep the irritation out of her voice. It was hardly her fault that he had forgotten his keys. Unlocking the door, she pulled it open.
It wasn’t Gabe.
Tall, broad, hair the same colour as hers and eyes the exact same shade of dark blue. A face she knew as well as she knew her own. A face she hadn’t seen in four years. Polly clung onto the door frame, disbelief flooding through her. ‘Raff?’
‘I still have a key.’ He held it up. ‘But I didn’t think you’d want me just walking in.’
‘But, what are you doing here? I thought you were in Jordan. Or Australia?’
‘Sorry to disappoint you. Can I come in?’
‘Sorry?’ Polly gaped at him as his words sank in. ‘Yes, of course.’
She stepped back, her mind still grasping for a reason her twin brother was here in her sleepy home town, not trying to save the world, one war zone at a time.
Raff faced her, the love and warmth in his eyes bringing a lump to her throat. How on earth had four years gone by since she had last seen him? ‘Come here.’ He took her in his arms. It had been so long since he had held her, since she had allowed herself to lean on him.
‘It’s so good to see you,’ he said into her hair. Polly tightened her grip.
It wasn’t Raff’s fault their grandfather had favoured him, wanted him to take over the store. Yet somehow it had been easier to hold him culpable.
‘Hi, heavenly twin,’ she murmured and took comfort in his low rumble of laughter. They had been named for the Heavenly Twins, Castor and Pollux, but Polly had escaped with a feminine version of her name. Her brother had been less lucky; nobody, apart from their grandparents, used it—Raff preferred a shorter version of their surname.
‘Thanks for looking after everything.’ She disentangled herself slowly, although the temptation to lean in and not let go was overwhelming. She led him down the wide hallway towards the kitchen. ‘Looking after the house, Mr Simpkins.’ She swallowed, hard and painful. ‘Taking over at Rafferty’s.’
‘You needed my help, of course I stepped in.’ He paused. ‘I wish you’d called, Pol. Told me what was going on. I didn’t mind but it would have been good if we had worked together, sorted it out together.’
‘After four years? I couldn’t,’ she admitted, heading over to the fridge so that she didn’t have to face him. ‘You stayed away, Raff. You went away, left me behind and you didn’t come back. Ever.’ She swallowed painfully. ‘I didn’t even know whose side you were on—if you had spoken to Grandfather, knew what he was planning, if you wanted Rafferty’s.’ That had been her worst fear, that her twin had colluded with her grandfather.
Raff sounded incredulous. ‘Surely you didn’t think I would agree? That I would take Rafferty’s away from you?’
‘Grandfather made it very clear that nothing I had done, nothing I could do was enough to compete with your Y chromosome.’ She turned, forced herself to meet the understanding in his eyes. ‘It destroyed me.’
Raff winced. ‘Polly, I spent three months running Rafferty’s while you were gone and I hated every minute of it. How you manage I don’t know. But even if I had come back and experienced an epiphany about the joys of retail I
wouldn’t have agreed. I don’t deserve it and you do. You’ve worked for it, you live it, love it. Even Grandfather had to admit in the end that his desire to see me in Father’s place was wrong, that his fierce determination for a male heir was utterly crazy. I’ve agreed to join the board as a family member but that’s it. You’re CEO, you’re in charge.’
Polly grabbed a cold beer and threw it to her twin, who caught it deftly with one hand, and pulled out a bottle of white wine for herself. She checked the label: Chateau Beaufils Chardonnay Semillon. One of Gabe’s, then.
‘So where have you been?’ Raff was leaning against the kitchen counter. He raised the beer. ‘Cheers.’
‘Oh, here and there.’ Polly’s cheeks heated up and she busied herself with looking for a corkscrew.
Remember the new bucket list,
she told herself, ruthlessly pushing the more reprehensible details of her time away out of her mind. ‘I went backpacking. In South America.’ She flashed him a smile. ‘Just like you always said I should.’
He smirked. ‘When you say backpacking, you mean five-star hotels and air-conditioned tours?’
‘Sometimes,’ Polly admitted, breathing a sigh of relief as the stubborn cork finally began to give way. She eased it out carefully, wrinkling her nose as the aroma hit her. She held the bottle out to Raff. ‘Is this corked?’
He took it and inhaled. ‘I don’t think so.’
She shrugged, and poured a small amount into a glass. She didn’t sip it though; just the sight of the straw-coloured liquid caused her stomach to roll ominously. She put the glass down. ‘But I did my fair share of rucksacks and walking boots too, along the Inca trail and other places.’ She grinned across at him. ‘You wouldn’t have recognised me, braids in my hair, a sarong, all my worldly goods in one bag.’
‘I had no idea where you were.’ He didn’t sound accusatory; he didn’t need to. She had read his emails, listened to his voicemails. She knew how much worry she’d caused him.
‘I didn’t want you to. I didn’t want pity or advice or anything but time to figure out who I was, who I wanted to be if I wasn’t going to run Rafferty’s.’
‘I was still figuring it out when Clara emailed me telling me to come home. So, don’t think I’m not glad to see you but why are you here? Did you miss Mr Simpkins?’
‘My shirts don’t look the same without a covering of ginger fur,’ he agreed. ‘Polly, there’s something I need to tell you.’ He turned his beer bottle round and round, his gaze fixed on it. ‘I’m not going to be working in the field any more. I’ve accepted a job at the headquarters of Doctors Everywhere instead and I’m moving here, to Hopeford.’
Polly stared. ‘But you love your job. Why on earth would you change it? And you’re moving here? Hang on!’ She looked at him suspiciously. ‘Do you want to move back in? I’m not running a doss centre for young executive males who are quite capable of finding their own places, you know.’
‘For who?’ His face cleared. ‘Oh, Gabe? He’s still here? How are you getting on with him?’
‘No.’ She shook her head, unwilling to discuss her absent houseguest. ‘No changing the subject. What’s going on?’
Raff took a deep breath. ‘You’re not the only one who’s been working things out recently. I have to admit I was pissed when you left with no word—I hotfooted it straight here, convinced that Clara knew where you were. I was determined to get it out of her, drag you back and get on with my life.’
‘She didn’t. I didn’t even really know what my plans were.’
His mouth twisted into a smile. ‘I know that now but things were a bit hostile for a while.’ He shook his head. ‘I can’t believe it’s only been a few months since I met her, that there was a time I didn’t know her. Thing is, Pol, meeting Clara changed everything. I’m engaged. That’s why I’m staying in the UK, that’s why I’m moving to Hopeford. I’m marrying Clara.’
* * *
Polly should get off the sofa, should open her laptop, look as if she were working.
But she couldn’t. Her appetite for the game, the competition had gone.
‘Hi.’ She looked up wearily as Gabe walked into the room. He was so tall his head nearly brushed the beams on the low ceiling.
‘Nice run?’ she continued. Small talk was good; it was easy. It stopped her having to think.
He stretched, seemingly unaware that his T-shirt was riding up and exposing an inch of flat, toned abdomen. ‘A quick ten kilometres. It ruins the buzz though, getting the train after. I might try biking back to Hopeford one evening. What is it? Just fifty kilometres?’
‘Just,’ she echoed.
Gabe looked at her curiously. ‘Are you okay?’
‘Yes, no.’ She gave a wry laugh. ‘I don’t really know. Raff’s engaged.’
‘Your brother? That’s amazing. We should celebrate.’
‘We should,’ she agreed.
The dark eyes turned to her, their expression keen. ‘You’re not happy?’
‘Of course I am,’ Polly defended herself and then sighed. ‘I am,’ she repeated. ‘It’s just he’s moving here, to Hopeford. He’s marrying my closest friend and joining the board at Rafferty’s.’
She shook her head. ‘I feel like I am being a total cow,’ she admitted. ‘It’s just, I have spent my whole life competing against him—and he wins without even taking part.
‘And now...’ she looked down at her hands ‘...now he’s moving to my town, will be on the board of my company and is marrying the one person I can confide in. It feels like there’s nowhere I am just me, not Raff’s twin sister.’
The silence stretched out between them.
‘I have three sisters,’ he said after a while. ‘I’m the youngest. It can be hard to find your place.’
Polly looked over at him. ‘Is that why you’re here? Not working at the vineyard?’
‘Partly. And because I needed to prove some things to myself.’ He walked over to Mr Simpkins, who was lying on the cushion-covered window seat set into the wall on the far side of the chimney breast.
Gabe should have been an incongruous presence in the white-walled, book-lined sitting room, the soft furnishings and details were so feminine, so English country cottage. He was too young, too indisputably French, too tall, too
for the low-beamed, cosy room. And yet he looked utterly at home reaching over to run one hand down Mr Simpkins’ spine.
He was wearing jeans, his dark hair falling over his forehead, his pallor emphasised by the deep shadows under his dark eyes and the black stubble covering his jaw. He worked so late each night, rising at dawn to fit in yet another session in the gym—and the lack of sleep showed.
Polly watched the long, lean fingers’ firm caress as her cat flattened himself in suppliant pleasure and felt a jolt in the pit of her stomach, a sudden insistent ache of desire as her nerve endings remembered the way his hand had settled in the curve of her waist, those same fingers moving up along her body, making her purr almost as loudly as Mr Simpkins.
‘Is that why you went away?’ he asked, all his attention seemingly on the writhing cat. ‘Because of your brother?’
Polly flushed, partly in shame at having to admit her own second-class status to a relative stranger—and half in embarrassment at her reaction to the slow, sure strokes from Gabe’s capable-looking hands.
‘Partly,’ she admitted. ‘I had to get away, learn who I was without Rafferty’s.’
‘And did you?’ He looked directly at her then, his eyes almost black and impossibly dark. ‘Learn who you are?’
Polly thought back. To blisters and high altitudes. To the simple joy of a shower after a five-day trek. To long twilight walks on the beach. To lying back and watching the stars, the balmy breeze warm on her bare skin. To the lack of responsibility. To taking risks.
It had been fun but ultimately meaningless.
‘No,’ she said. ‘I saw some amazing things, did amazing things and I had fun. But there was nothing to find out. Without Rafferty’s I don’t have anything...I’m no one.’