Authors: Jessica Gilmore
‘That’s not true.’ His voice was low, intimate.
‘It is,’ she argued. ‘But Raff? He is utterly and completely himself. I think I’ve always envied that. And now he has Clara—which is great, she’s lovely and I’m sure they’ll be very happy. But my brother and best friend getting married? It leaves me with no one.’
She heard her words echo as she said them and flushed. ‘I am the most selfish beast, ignore me, Gabe. I’m tired and fluey and having a pathetic moment. It’ll pass!’
He regarded her quietly. ‘And you don’t eat,’ he said after a while. ‘Come on, I’ll cook.’
* * *
Polly was still protesting as Gabe rummaged through the fridge, trying to find something he could make into a meal a Frenchman could be proud of. It might have to be a simple omelette, he decided, pulling the eggs out of the fridge along with a courgette, some cheese and the end of some chorizo.
‘You really don’t have to cook for me,’ she said. ‘I’m quite happy with some bread and cheese.’
‘Do you ever cook?’ He looked at the gleaming range cooker, the beautiful copper saucepans hanging from their hooks looking as blemish free as the day they were bought.
‘I butter bread and slice cheese. Occasionally I shred a lettuce.’
‘That is some variety.’
He continued to chop onions as she watched.
‘So you’re a business whizz-kid, a gourmet chef, a triathlete. Is there anything you can’t do?’
‘I’ve never backpacked.’
‘Didn’t fancy the dirt and blisters?’
‘I didn’t have the time.’ Gabe scraped the onions into the pan and tipped it expertly so they were evenly covered in oil. ‘I went to university late and had a lot of time to make up. No chance to slack off.’
Polly was sitting at the counter, her chin propped in her hands. ‘Is that why you set yourself such a punishing schedule now?’
Was it? All Gabe knew was that once you’d spent a year confined to bed, without the strength to get a glass of water, watching your classmates grow up without you, that once you knew just what losing someone meant then you had to make the most of every single second.
‘You can sleep when you’re dead,’ he said. It was all too true; he’d thought about that long enough.
Now he just wanted to live every moment.
Polly continued to watch as he whisked the eggs. ‘What do your parents think? Of you working away? Did they expect you to work with them?’
Ouch, that was direct. ‘They found it hard to adjust.’ He poured the eggs into the pan with a flourish. ‘They wanted me to go to university nearby, stay in Provence. When I said I was going to Boston they were hurt. But they got over it.’
On the surface at least. The very worst part of being ill had been the despair in his parents’ faces whenever they thought he wasn’t watching. Or the forced positivity when they knew he was. It made it hard to say no to them.
‘You’re the son and heir.’ There was no hiding the bitterness in her words. ‘Of course they expect a lot.’
His mouth curved into a wry smile. ‘Son?
Heir? That remains to be seen. Celine is studying vineyard management in New Zealand and Claire is doing a very good job of opening the chateau up to guests and tourists while presenting them with a perfect trio of grandchildren.’
‘Three!’ She straightened up, pulling her hair back into a knot as she did so. He watched, fascinated, as she gathered up the silky golden strands and twisted them ruthlessly, tucking the end under. It wouldn’t take much to make it spill free. Just one touch.
‘Three in three years,’ he confirmed. ‘And Natalie is expecting her second. She takes care of all the advertising and marketing. So you see I have some formidable rivals for the vineyard. If I wanted it that is.’
‘Isn’t it funny? You and Raff could have it all on a plate. And you don’t even want it.’
‘We still have to work,’ he argued. ‘No one I work with cares what my parents do. Raff had to work his way up at Doctors Everywhere. It’s exactly the same. Pass me a plate, will you?’
Polly got up and took two plates off the dresser, handing them over. Gabe shredded some lettuce and added a couple of tomatoes before cutting the omelette in half and sliding it onto a plate.
he said, sliding it towards her.
‘Thanks, Gabe, this looks great.’ Her hair was coming loose and she gathered it up again, beginning the familiar twisting motion as she re-knotted it, before picking up her fork.
‘I have worked at Rafferty’s since I was legally allowed to get a job. Before that I spent every moment there.’ Her voice was wistful, filled with love.
Gabe pictured the iconic store, its large dome and art deco façade dominating the expensive London street on which it was situated. It was always busy, exuding wealth and glamour and style. Exciting and as restless as its patrons, prowling in search of the bag, the outfit, the décor that would make them unique, special. It was easy to see why she loved it.
But then his mind turned to the chateau, to the acres and acres of vines, the scent of lavender and the scarlet flash of poppies. The old grey building, covered in ivy. He loved the buzz of retail but had to admit that no shop, no matter how magical, could match his home. The look in her eyes, the note in her voice spoke of the same deep connection.
‘It’s your home,’ he said.
‘Yes!’ Polly pointed her fork at him. ‘That’s it. But only temporarily. It was made very clear to me that I could work there but it was never going to be mine. Grandfather even wanted me to study History of Art instead of business, not that I took any notice of him.’
So much dwelling on the past; if Gabe had done that he would still be in Provence, weeping in the graveyard. ‘But now look at you. In charge of the whole store.’
Polly took a bite of the omelette, her face thoughtful. ‘I told you I went away to find myself. The truth is I had no choice. Grandfather came to see me three months ago and told me he was signing Rafferty’s over to Raff.’ She laughed but there was no humour in the sound.
‘My ex had just got engaged and Grandfather was concerned for me, or so he said. He thought I was leaving it too late, “letting the good ones get away”.’ She swallowed. ‘He said it was for my own good—I should concentrate on marriage, have children before it’s too late.’
‘That was unkind.’
‘It hurt me.’ It obviously still did, her voice and her face full of pain. ‘So I left my job, my home and I went away to try and work out who I was without Rafferty’s. But then Raff walked away, for good this time, and I came back.’
She looked at Gabe, a gleam of speculation in her eyes. ‘I have to admit I was thrown when I got back to find you already in place. At first I thought Grandfather was trying to replace Raff, but now?’ She shook her head, once more dislodging the precarious knot of hair. ‘I wonder what kind of game he’s playing.’
‘Maybe, he just knows I’m good at my job.’
‘Oh, that will be part of it,’ she agreed. ‘But with Raff engaged I’ll bet there’s something else. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s played matchmaker. You’ve got to admit it’s convenient, working together, living together.’ Her voice trailed off.
‘And I thought it was an over-ambitious developer tunnelling under my building. Your grandfather must have some extraordinary powers.’
‘You have no idea,’ Polly said darkly. ‘He’s pretty unscrupulous.’ She shook her head. ‘He just can’t stop interfering.’
‘You are just speculating. Besides, what does it matter? He can play all he wants.’ Gabe made an effort to speak calmly but his heart was thudding so loudly he was surprised the kitchen wasn’t shaking. Marriage? Children? If Charles Rafferty was looking at Gabe to fulfil his dynastic dreams he had a long, long wait ahead. ‘We don’t have to join in. Not on his terms.’
Light, fun and short-lived. That was all he wanted, all he could cope with. Polly Rafferty was many impressive things but were light and fun part of her enticing package? She hid it well if so.
But getting under her skin
fun. He was pretty sure, by the way her gaze lingered on his mouth, by the sudden flush that highlighted her cheeks occasionally, that she hadn’t forgotten about that kiss.
And he certainly hadn’t—not for want of trying.
‘Of course we don’t.’ She sounded more like her usual self. ‘I’ve never allowed myself to follow the path Grandfather thinks suitable. I’m not going to start now he has finally retired. I’m still so tired, I’m probably imagining things. You’re not my type at all. Even Grandfather must see that.’
This was where a wise man would stay silent. ‘I’m not?’
The soft words caught her, echoing round and around her head.
‘Of course not, you’re an exercise-mad smoothie drinker who flirts inappropriately with half my staff.’ Polly tried to keep her voice light but she could feel inappropriate heat rushing to her cheeks, a sweet insistent ache pulsing in her chest, reverberating all the way down to the pit of her stomach. She didn’t want to look at him yet somehow she had turned, caught in his dark gaze. ‘Not to mention that we work together.’
Had he leaned in closer? The dark eyes were even more intent than usual, black pools she was drawn to, the kind of bottomless depths girls could drown in. ‘I won’t tell if you don’t.’
‘Tell what?’ But her tone lacked conviction even to herself. ‘Gabe, I...’ Polly wasn’t entirely sure what she had been planning to say, whether she was going to lean in, close the distance between them and pull him in close—or turn away and tell him to grow up and stop with the innuendoes. She knew the sensible choice, the logical choice and yet she hesitated.
But the kitchen seemed to have shrunk, the space suddenly, suffocatingly small, the air so stuffy she could hardly breathe, the tumult in her stomach churning. She gasped for a breath, realising her mistake too late, pushing her stool back and running for the downstairs cloakroom horrifyingly aware that she wasn’t going to make it.
* * *
‘I am so humiliated.’ Polly leant forward until her forehead touched the kitchen counter, grateful for the coolness of the granite. ‘Thank you for taking care of me.’
That wasn’t quite enough but she didn’t want to articulate all the reasons for her gratitude. The gentle way he had rubbed her back, held her hair back from her face, waited with her until the last spasm had passed. ‘You’re good with sick people.’ She looked up and smiled but he didn’t return her admittedly pathetic attempt, his eyes filled with an unexpected pain.
‘I have some experience.’ His face was unreadable but his voice was gentle.
‘I wasn’t drunk.’ Bad enough that it had happened; it would be far worse if he thought she was some kind of lush.
‘You hadn’t eaten. Even one glass could have that effect.’ He looked at the glass she had poured earlier.
‘I didn’t even have one sip,’ she protested. ‘Just the smell made me feel ill. I must have picked up some kind of bug.’
He put a hand on her shoulder, just that one light touch sending shivers down her spine. ‘You should eat something now, some crackers maybe.’
‘No.’ Not crackers. Her body was very insistent. ‘I need...’ She paused, thought. She
a little hungry, now the churning had stopped. ‘Hang on.’ She pushed herself to her feet and walked over to the stone pantry.
Polly opened the door that led to the old-fashioned, walk-in cold room and looked at the shelves that lined the walls, at the marble meat shelf at the far end.
‘I know they’re here somewhere. I saw them just the other day. I would never buy them. They must be Raff’s, vile things. Aha!’ Her hand closed triumphantly on a cardboard box. ‘Got you.’
She hauled her prize triumphantly out, grabbing a bowl off the oak dresser and setting them both onto the counter. ‘Cornflakes! Now I need sugar, lots of sugar. And milk, cold, rich milk. I never usually crave milk.’ She pushed the thought away. ‘Must be the bug. Maybe I need calcium?’
Raff hadn’t said a word, just watched, eyes narrowed, as Polly poured a gigantic bowl of cornflakes, sprinkled them liberally with sugar and added almost a pint of milk to the already brimming bowl. ‘This looks amazing,’ she told him, almost purring with contentment.
‘That looks disgusting. Like something my sister would eat when she’s pregnant.’
The word hung there, echoing around the room. Polly put her spoon down and stared at him.
‘It’s just a bug.’ But her voice was wobbling.
‘Of course.’ He sounded unsure, almost embarrassed, the accent thickening.
‘Mixed with jet lag.’
‘I didn’t mean to infer that you were. I’m sorry.’
‘But...what if I
It should be impossible. It was impossible! Only technically...
Only technically it wasn’t.
‘Oh no,’ she whispered. She looked up at Gabe. He was leaning against the kitchen counter, his face inscrutable. ‘It was only once.’
His mouth twisted. ‘That’s all it takes,
‘How could I have been so stupid? What was I thinking?’ She pushed the bowl of cornflakes back across the counter. They were rapidly going soggy and her nausea rose again at their mushy state. ‘Obviously I wasn’t thinking. I was trying not to, that was the point.’
But she had to think now; there was no point in giving into the rising panic swelling inside her. Her throat might be closing up in fear, her palms damp but she could override her body’s signals. If only she’d done that ten weeks ago...
Ten weeks! And she hadn’t even suspected, putting the nausea and the tiredness down to stress, jet lag, a bug.
It could still be! Two and two didn’t always make four did it? Not in some obscure pure mathematical plane. Probably.
‘I need a test.’
He was still expressionless. ‘In the morning I’ll...’
‘Not in the morning!’ Was he crazy? Did he think she was going to sit around and wait all night when liberation could be just around the corner? ‘There’s a twenty-four-hour supermarket in Dartingdon, I’ll get one from there.’
She was on her feet as she said it. Thank goodness for modern twenty-four-seven life.
‘You can’t drive.’
She stopped still, swivelled and stared. ‘I already said I didn’t drink anything.’
‘No.’ He shook his head. ‘But you’re in shock. It isn’t safe.’
So her hands were shaking a little, her legs slightly weak. She’d be fine. She’d driven the route a thousand times.
‘And what if you throw up again?’
‘Then I’ll pull over. You don’t have to take care of me, Gabe. I was big enough to get myself into this mess, I am certainly capable of sorting it out. I don’t need anyone.’
His eyes bored into hers. ‘If that’s true then how did this happen?’
Ouch! That was well and truly below the belt. ‘Want me to draw you a diagram?’ She could hear the tremor of anger running through her voice and tried to rein it back.
‘You fell out with your family here, went to find yourself, felt lost and lonely and so you what? Fell for the first smile and compliment?’
Polly stood stock-still, ice-cold anger running through her veins, her bones, every nerve and sinew. How dared he?
How dared he be so right?
‘That wasn’t what happened. Not that it has anything to do with you.’ Shaking with a toxic mixture of righteous anger, adrenaline and nausea, she marched over to the counter to grab her car keys but before her hand could close on the fob it was whisked away in a decisive masculine hand.
‘We drive on the left here. And do you even know where Dartingdon is?’ she added slightly lamely. Polly wanted to prove a point but part of her knew he was right. Annoyingly. She was barely fit to run a bath let alone drive twisty country roads.
‘I’m a big boy. I’ll figure it out.’
‘No.’ All the anger had drained. Now she was just weary, utterly, achingly tired. ‘You can drive but I’ll navigate. And I’ll scream if you take my beloved car even one centimetre over onto the wrong side.’
He regarded her levelly then nodded. ‘Okay. I still think you would be better staying here.’
But she was adamant. Polly had never waited for things to be brought to her—she’d never have made it this far if she had. ‘I can’t wait that long,’ she admitted. ‘I need to know straight away.’
‘And then what?’
That was the million-dollar question. ‘Then I can plan. Everything’s better with a plan.’
* * *
She was quiet. So quiet Gabe would almost swear that she was asleep except when he glanced over he could see the glare of her phone illuminating the whites of her eyes.
‘Concentrate on the road,’ she snapped but he could sense the worry under the anger. He had got used to that, with Marie. In the end when the pain had got too much, as the fear and anger and sheer bloody unfairness had overtaken her she had been cross all the time, barely able to be civil, even to those she loved.
Especially to those she loved.
‘I am,’ he said. He couldn’t resist one little provocative grenade. ‘If you drove a proper car...’
‘This is a proper car!’
‘It’s a grown-up’s toy,’ he teased. It actually handled pretty well, the small body taking the many twists and turns of the Oxfordshire country roads surprisingly well. ‘Shame you’ll have to get rid of it.’
He could feel her stiffen beside him. ‘What do you mean?’
‘It’s a two-seater...’ He didn’t have to say any more. From the intake of breath he knew his point had hit home.
‘Possibly not. We’ll know soon enough.’ But there wasn’t any hope in her voice.
She didn’t say anything for the next few miles. Despite his confidence earlier, this was the first time Gabe had actually driven a left-hand drive and it required most of his concentration to stay on the correct side of the road as he navigated the narrow curves. He wasn’t helped by the car; low slung and powerful, she was absurdly responsive to his slightest touch, almost as if she were desperate to speed on.
Although there were no street lights in this country corner it wasn’t too hard to see his way as he drove through hedge-lined lanes, fields almost at their ripest stretching out on both sides towards gently rolling hills. The summer solstice was nearly upon them and it was barely dark out, more of a gloomy dull grey. Like his mood.
There was no reason for him to feel so...so what? Slighted? Gabe sighed; he really needed to get over himself. One kiss did not equal any kind of relationship.
And if it did he would be headed the other way, right back to France.
It was just, if Polly Rafferty had really indulged in a night of meaningless, no-holds-barred, anonymous sex he wished she’d indulged with him.
He could be wrong, she might often go out prowling bars and clubs for one-night stands but he would bet the oldest bottle of wine in the vineyard’s formidably stocked cellars that this had been a one-off occasion. And pregnant or not she was unlikely to indulge again.
‘This doesn’t have to change anything. It
change anything.’ Her voice penetrated his thoughts. Gabe risked a glance across at his reluctant passenger. Polly had pulled herself upright and was looking straight ahead, her jaw firmly set. ‘The timing is awful but I could make it work.’
‘Didn’t you want children?’
There was another long pause. ‘I don’t
children,’ she said after a while. ‘I don’t know how families work, normal ones. Raff and I were raised by our grandparents and they sent us away to school when we were small. It’s not something I’ve ever thought about.’ She huffed out a small laugh. ‘Not every woman hits thirty and starts counting down her biological clock, you know.’
‘But your house, it’s begging for a family.’ Five bedrooms, the large garden full of hidden corners and climbable trees. Despite the low ceilings and homely furnishings it felt too big, too echoey for just two people. And she had been living there alone for three years.
‘It’s just a building.’ Her voice was dismissive.
Gabe shrugged. He was no psychologist but he had been through enough counselling—support groups, family therapy, grief counselling, chronic illness groups—to know a little bit about the subconscious. The cottage was a family-home wish come true.
‘If you say so.’
She shifted, turned to look at him. ‘How about you? Dreams of
clustering around your knee one day?’
‘I’m a good uncle,’ he said shortly.
‘Guys can say that, can’t they? No pressure to settle down, get married, churn out kids. You have all the time in the world.’
‘None of us know how much time we have.’ He meant to say it lightly but the words came out too quick, too bitter. He shot her a quick glance. ‘I had cancer in my teens, a lymphoma. It teaches you to take nothing for granted.’
Polly gasped, a loud audible intake of breath as she put her hand to her mouth. ‘Oh, Gabe. I am so sorry. I didn’t mean...’
‘It’s fine.’ This was why he hated people knowing. A brush with mortality and they never treated you the same way again. It was as if you were tainted with the mark of Death’s scythe, a constant reminder that no one was safe.
‘Besides, I can’t.’ The words were out before he knew it, the darkness beginning to shadow the car giving it the seal of a confessional, somewhere safe.
‘Have children. Probably. Chemotherapy, stem-cell treatment...’ His voice trailed off; he didn’t need to add the rest.
‘Oh.’ Understanding dawned in the long drawn-out syllable. ‘Didn’t they freeze any?’ Her hand was back over her mouth. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to intrude.’
‘They didn’t think it would have any long-term effects.’ He smiled wryly. ‘I was seventeen. To be honest it was the last thing I was thinking about—or my parents thought about. But it took longer, needed stronger drugs than they expected. It’s okay. I’d rather be healthy.’
Her hand had crept to her stomach. ‘Of course.’
‘They did say it can change in time but I have never been tested. There’s no point. I don’t want them anyway,’ he surprised himself by offering. ‘The worst part of being ill was seeing my parents suffer. I’m not sure I’m strong enough to put myself through that.’
‘I watched my father die.’ Her voice was flat. ‘That wasn’t much fun either.’
They didn’t speak the rest of the way there. Gabe was too absorbed in his thoughts and Polly had returned to jabbing furiously at her phone as if it could give her all the answers she needed.
Following the signs, he navigated his way around the roundabouts that ringed the old town, pulling off into an ugly development of warehouses and cavernous shops.
‘We’re here,’ he said.
Polly didn’t move, just looked out of the window at the neon orange streetlamps and the parking signs. ‘Okay.’
‘Why don’t I go for you?’ he suggested but she was already shaking her head.
‘Thank you but I really need to do this by myself.’
* * *
‘Are you sure you have enough?’
Polly bit her lip. Maybe two each of five different brands was slightly excessive but she had to make sure. If Gabe was potentially harbouring an alien life form inside him he would want to know one hundred per cent too.
‘No.’ She twisted the bag nervously. ‘Do you think I should have got three of each?’
‘I think you should leave at least one test on the shelves, just in case someone else is tearing through the night in need of answers.’
‘Let’s just get home.’ She tugged impatiently at the car door, glaring at Gabe as he made no move to unlock it.
‘Are you sure?’
She stared at him. ‘What? You want to pop out for a nice meal first? Maybe go for a moonlight stroll? Of course I’m sure.’
He didn’t react. ‘I meant maybe you wanted to take the test now. Find out one way or another.’
‘Oh.’ How had he guessed?
Polly looked around the car park. There were several chain restaurants but they were all showing signs of closing for the night. Or the supermarket toilets; they would still be open.
She bit back a hysterical giggle. She had never actually imagined taking a pregnancy test, let alone taking it in the strip-lit anonymity of a supermarket loo. It wasn’t the cosy scene depicted in the adverts.
But then she wasn’t the hopeful woman on the advert either.
‘There’s nowhere here.’
‘Not here exactly.’ Finally he clicked the button and the doors unlocked. ‘We can find somewhere a little more salubrious than this.’
It took him less than five minutes to exit the car park and start back round the ring road, retracing their earlier route.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said as Polly looked worriedly at the sign pointing the way back to Hopeford. ‘I’ve got an idea.’
‘I trust you.’ And she did. Maybe because she had nobody else—not even herself.
At the Hopeford roundabout Gabe took a different exit, driving into the car park of a large redbrick building. Polly must have driven past it dozens of times but had never registered it before. Why would she? Anonymous roadside hotels offering business deals and cheap weddings weren’t her usual style.
‘Wait here.’ He was gone before she could formulate a reply. Resentment rose up inside her. Who was he to tell her what to do? She half rose out of her seat, determined to follow him, to regain control.
But no, she reminded herself, she had relinquished control, tonight at least. Polly sank back into her seat and tried to control the panicked race of her heart.
The bag was on her lap, the sharp edges of the boxes an uncomfortable fit against her thighs. Pulling out a handful, Polly turned them this way and that, reading the fine print on them curiously. Fancy being thirty-one and never having even properly seen a pregnancy test before!
But why would she have? She had been good to study with but she had never been the kind of friend others turned to. Not for panicked confidences and surreptitious tests in the school bathrooms or university toilets.
And she had never been the type to slip up herself. Not careful Polly Rafferty.
Not until now.
How could she have not known? Suspected that the bug she just couldn’t shift might be something more? But she had continued with the pills her doctor had prescribed her for her trip, relieved to be spared the inconvenience of her monthly cycle, and missed nature’s most glaring warning.
‘Okay,’ she muttered. How hard could taking one of these be? A blue line, two pink lines, a cross for yes. A positive sign? That was a little presumptuous. Another simply said ‘pregnant’. She swallowed, hard, the lump in her throat making the simple act difficult. Painful.
She jumped as a knock sounded on her window, muttering as the packets fell to the floor. She hastily gathered them up. They felt wrong, like contraband. It was as if just being seen with them branded her in some unwanted way.