Authors: Jessica Gilmore
Looking up, she saw Gabe. He must have seen her reading the packets. Heat flooded through her and she took a deep breath, trying her best to summon her usual poise.
She opened the door. ‘Hi.’
‘They have a room we can use.’ He stood aside as she got out of the car and waited while she gathered the dropped boxes, stuffing them into the carrier bag.
‘Won’t they wonder why we are checking in so late with no luggage?’
Gabe huffed out a short laugh. ‘Polly. They will think we are illicit lovers looking for a bed for an hour, or travellers realising we need a bed for the night. Or, more likely, they won’t think at all. Come on.’
He took the bag from her as if it were nothing, as if it didn’t carry the key to her hopes and dreams. To the freedom she had never even appreciated until this moment.
‘Come on.’ He strode off towards the hotel.
Polly hesitated. Maybe she could wait until she got home after all. In fact maybe she could just wait, wait for this nightmare to be over.
Her hand crept to her abdomen and stayed there. What if? There was only one way to find out.
The hotel lobby was as anonymous as the outside, the floor tiled in a nondescript beige, the walls a coffee colour accented by meaningless abstract prints, the whole set off by fake oak fittings. Gabe led the way confidently past the desk and Polly noted how the receptionists’ eyes followed him.
And how their eyes rested on her in jealous appraisal, making her all too aware of her old tracksuit, her lack of make-up. She lifted her head; let them speculate, let them judge.
They walked along a long corridor, doors at regular intervals on either side. ‘Aha,
,’ Gabe muttered and stopped in front of one of the white wooden doors.
Number twenty-six. Such a random number, bland and meaningless. It didn’t feel prophetic.
He opened the door with the key card and stood aside to let Polly enter. Her eyes swept around the room. The main part of the room was taken up by a large double bed made up in white linen with a crimson throw and matching pillows. The same tired abstracts were on the walls of the room; a TV and a sizeable desk completed the simple layout.
The door to her right stood open to reveal a white tiled bathroom.
Panic whooshed through her and Polly put out a hand to steady herself against the wall. It was time.
What if she was pregnant?
What if she wasn’t?
The thought froze her. That was what she wanted. Wasn’t it?
‘I’m going to order some food. I didn’t manage more than a couple of forkfuls of that omelette. You should eat. What do you want?’ Gabe’s voice broke through her paralysis like a spoon stirring slowly through thick treacle.
Polly blinked at him, trying to make sense of the words. How could he even think of food at a time like this? ‘I’m not hungry.’
‘I’m ordering for you anyway. I’m going to have a beer. What do you want to drink?’ He flashed a look at the bag on the bed. ‘You’re going to need a lot of liquid to get through that lot.’
As if the whole episode weren’t mortifying enough. Why hadn’t they invented tests you breathed on?
Gabe sat down on the bed and kicked off his shoes, one hand reaching for the menu, the other for the TV control. He looked like a man completely happy with his surroundings as he swung his legs onto the bed and reclined.
The one and only.
‘This is a double room.’
He grinned at her. ‘I can see why they made you CEO.’
‘You booked us a double?’
‘I took the room they had available so that you—’ he cast a speaking glance at the bag next to him ‘—could get on and do what you have to do. I might as well be comfortable, fed and watered while I wait. Panic not, princess. Your virtue is safe with me.’
Or what was left of it,
she silently filled in the rest of the sentence. What was she thinking anyway? She was potentially pregnant, definitely sick, had bags under her eyes big enough for a whole week’s worth of groceries and was wearing an old tracksuit, her freshly washed hair pulled back into a knot. Clothes she had put on after puking over her outfit, floor and cloakroom. She wasn’t exactly a catch.
To be honest she was surprised Gabe hadn’t got them separate rooms, not a double. Anything less sexy than Polly Rafferty right now was hard to imagine.
‘Right then.’ She took a tremulous step forward, then another, leaning forward and grabbing the bag. ‘Let’s do this thing.’
He looked up from the menu, his eyes dark with concern. ‘Do you want...I mean is there anything I can do?’
‘You can hardly pee on a stick for me,’ Polly snapped. She took a breath, her cheeks heating up. Great, she could add scarlet and sweaty to her long list of desirable attributes. ‘No, really. I don’t think either of us will ever recover if you come in there with me.’
* * *
The tiles were cold on her cheek and hands and beginning to chill the rest of her body. She should move, get up.
But getting up was a pretty tall order right now. In fact, Polly wasn’t sure she was ever going to move again; she could spend the rest of her life curled up here, right?
Curled up in a foetal position. Now that was pretty damn ironic.
A bang on the hotel room door made her start. But of course, Gabe was there. He would take care of it.
She heard the mumbling of voices and the clink of crockery. If only they would shut up. Quiet was good. The bedroom door swung shut with a resounding
Good, peace again.
Drat the man. If she didn’t answer maybe he would go away.
‘Polly, your food is here.’
The tiles had gone from cold to numbing. Polly liked numb. It was peaceful.
‘Polly, if you don’t answer me right now I am going to break down the door.’
He wouldn’t, would he?
‘Final warning, three, two...’
‘Go away.’ Was that her voice so clear and strong? She thought it would be croaky with years of misuse. But after all it had only been fifteen minutes since she had shut the door.
It just felt like centuries.
‘Polly Rafferty, open the door this instant and come and eat some food.’
She pulled a face in the direction of the door.
Her peace had evaporated. He was evidently not going to give up.
She rolled round and clambered painfully to her feet, hugging herself as the cold from the floor permeated every pore, and walked slowly to the door, twisted the lock and inched the door open. ‘Satisfied?’
‘I ordered you chips. And bread. Carbs are good for sore stomachs.’
‘I thought you only ordered things full of vitamins.’
He didn’t answer, just walked away to lift the silver covers off the plates on the desk.
‘You’re having chips as well?’ Wonders would never cease. She’d bet half her trust fund that he would go on an extra run tomorrow and not stop until he had burnt off every calorie and gram of fat.
‘I wasn’t sure that you would cope with the smell of anything else.’
He hadn’t asked about the test, not even with his eyes.
A flash of something then; sorrow, a hint of anger but both overshadowed with concern. ‘They all agree?’
‘I only managed to take six, even after drinking a gallon of water.’
She sank onto the bed. ‘Oh, God, positive. What do I do?’
He handed her a plate. ‘Tomorrow you plan. But now...now you eat.’
* * *
Polly was showing no sign of wanting to leave the hotel room. She had managed to eat a few chips and drink the tea he’d ordered. Now she was lying on the bed seemingly absorbed in the music videos playing on the TV.
But Gabe could tell she wasn’t hearing a note.
He put the empty plates out into the corridor and walked back into the room. Polly hadn’t moved, not even a centimetre. With one eye on her, as cautious as if she were a feral cat, Gabe sat back onto the bed and stretched out alongside her. Close but not touching.
He put his hands behind his head and stared at the ceiling. The plaster was perfectly smooth, as featureless as the rest of the hotel.
‘I can’t bake.’
He turned his head to look at her. She was still propped up on the pillows and staring at the TV.
‘Of course it’s not okay. You have to be able to bake. No one cares if a mother has an MBA or an amazing job. It’s the cupcakes that count. I can’t sew either.’
‘No, but you work somewhere full of people who can do both those things so why care?’
She moved slowly until she was propped on her side looking at him. Her eyes were almost navy blue, matching the shadows deepening under them. Her skin pale under the rapidly fading tan. ‘I bet your mother can bake and sew.’
, but she doesn’t have an MBA.’
She didn’t answer, just continued to look at him, her eyes searching his face as if he had all the answers.
‘I don’t know his surname.’
Cold rage swirled. How could anyone seduce this woman and just walk away? There were women who knew the game, who enjoyed playing, who wanted little more than a night or two. They were the ones you played with. ‘We can find him.’
‘You think?’ The hope in her voice was killing. But then she shook her head. ‘I don’t see how. All I know is that he’s Danish. What a mess. He probably wouldn’t want to be involved, but he should know.’
‘Who is he?’
‘Markus. I met him in Mancora after I finished the Inca trail—he was about my age, recently divorced. A little lost.’ She tried for a smile. ‘Like me.’
‘And I thought this was it, my life here, at Rafferty’s, was over, that I needed to start again. I needed to be a new Polly.’
‘That’s a shame,’ he said, keeping his voice level despite every trembling instinct. ‘I kind of like the old Polly.’
‘Me too,’ she whispered as if it were a confession. ‘But old Polly had failed. No job, nobody who cared about me. Oh, I dated, had serious relationships but I always walked away. Relationships need compromise, you see. Only what they wanted was for
to compromise. For
to work less hours, to attend
work dos. To make the relationship work I had to be less. They could just keep on doing what they were doing.’
Her mouth curved upwards. ‘I thought so. I would leave and move on. But old Polly never learnt. She always went out with successful men, businessmen, suits and chauffeured cars and busy schedules and she always, always failed. So why not try someone new? Someone different?’
That had always been Gabe’s philosophy. New, different, meaningless. It didn’t sound so pretty on her lips.
‘It makes sense.’ In a warped way it did. He understood exactly why she had thrown caution to the wind.
‘I had a list, of things I had never done, things most people did in their teens and early twenties. Swim naked, sleep under the stars.’ She flushed. ‘Have sex on a beach.’ She shook her head. ‘It sounds so childish.’
‘No, it doesn’t.’ Gabe knew what it was like to miss out on things. He hadn’t gone to teen parties, hadn’t experimented with girls or beer or flirted with danger. Instead he’d hovered on the brink of death, he’d fallen in love, he’d lost everything.
‘I’ve never done any of those things either,’ he confided, trying to push away the image of Polly, tall and willowy, tanned bare skin glowing in the moonlight.
‘It was supposed to mean nothing. Only now...’ Her voice trailed off. ‘I’ve messed up so badly. I finally have everything I always wanted but I don’t know what to do.’
‘You don’t have to figure it out tonight.’ Gabe was supposed to be keeping his distance, supposed to be the chauffeur, nothing more, but watching her tears spill out, hot and heavy, he couldn’t not act. Without thought he edged closer, pulled her in, wrapped his arms around her and allowed her body to settle along his.
She fitted like a glove, her head on his shoulder, her chest against his, hip against hip.
‘How could I mess up like this? I have never ever put a foot wrong. The one time I allow myself to just act, to not think and it explodes all over my dreams. I need to be a CEO, not a mother.’
‘Who says you can’t be both? When I was diagnosed I had so many plans. Plans to pull the hottest girl at school, to captain the rugby team. Plans to ace my exams. I had to rethink everything. In the end my plan was to live. And I did.’
‘And the other things?’ she asked softly.
‘I didn’t pull the hottest girl in school, but I fell in love with someone much better.’ Gabe tightened his grip and tried not to remember Marie crying in his arms. ‘I gave up rugby but took up marathons and triathlons—and I still aced my exams. Plans change, they adapt, you’ll be fine.’
Gabe sighed. It took time, adjustment, pain—but she wasn’t ready to hear that. Not yet. ‘We can figure it out tomorrow. It’s all going to be okay. I promise, it’s going to be okay.’
, the mattress firm and comfortable but not quite as firm and comfortable as the bare chest she was nestled against. Polly sighed and rolled in a little closer, allowing her hand to slip round the firm midriff to trail along the smooth back.
Hang on. Skin? Muscle?
She snatched her hand back and rolled away, swallowing back the all too familiar nausea that hit her the moment she moved. And with it reality came crashing through the sleep fog, harsh, bitter. Terrifying.
She lay there trying to summon up enough strength to move, and doing her best to ignore the almost overwhelming temptation to move closer to Gabe, to put her arm back around him, snuggle in close and go back to sleep.
Getting into bed with strange men had got her into this situation. It looked as if she hadn’t learned anything!
Not that the two cases were at all the same. She was still fully dressed in the tracksuit she had thrown on last night.
She was still pregnant.
An ache began to throb, squeezing the side of her temples, the sticky soreness of her eyes an unwelcome reminder of the tears she had shed the night before. The weakness she had displayed.
Polly put her hand over her mouth, stifling the groan that threatened to escape. What had she done? She had
. Cried in front of Gabriel Beaufils of all people. She had just handed him the keys to utter humiliation. How could she spin this situation as a positive thing when he could expose her any second? Tell everyone that she had messed up.
That she was fallible.
But would he? Heat burned her cheeks as she remembered his gentleness, his words, his confidences.
No, somehow Polly knew deep down that he wouldn’t expose her. But he would still
. Know that she wasn’t strong, that she had allowed herself to lean on him.
It couldn’t happen again.
Polly turned her head slowly. Gabe was propped up on one elbow facing her. His expression was warm, radiating concern. Concern that she didn’t need or want.
Polly slowly pulled herself up to a seating position, glad that the nausea seemed to have abated after that first rush.
‘I thought we had a deal,’ she said.
‘A deal?’ He looked surprised.
‘That you were going to keep your shirt on.’
A slow appreciative smile spread over his face. It wasn’t fair, Polly thought as the breath hitched in her throat. He already had soulful eyes and a well-cut jawline. Adding a smile that made you want to respond in kind, that sent a jolt of appreciation into the pit of your stomach, gave you a sudden urge to reach out and trace the firm mouth was too much.
‘That agreement was only for the office,’ he said. ‘We are no longer in the office.’
‘No.’ Polly looked around at the generic bland furnishings. ‘We certainly aren’t. I’m sorry.’
‘There’s every need,’ she corrected him. ‘I dragged you out here. I’m pretty sure this isn’t your usual style.’
Gabe’s eyes swept over the room, coming to rest on Polly. She fought the urge to fidget, to straighten her mussed hair, pull at her baggy top.
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I’ve had worse evenings.’
Polly stared at him, an unexpected bubble of laughter rising. ‘Of course you have,’ she said. ‘What’s more fun than a little vomit, a crazy late-night car ride and a night with a weeping woman in a downmarket hotel?’
‘It was more than a little vomit. How are you feeling?’
Polly put a hand to her stomach, allowing it to linger there for a moment. Somewhere in there was the beginning of new life. A life she had created.
‘Better,’ she said, surprised that it was true. She thought for a moment, savouring the hollow feeling that had miraculously appeared. ‘Hungry. Really hungry.’
Polly shook her head. ‘I need to get out,’ she said. ‘Although...’ she looked at herself ‘...I’m not really fit to be seen.’ But she didn’t want to go home yet.
‘How hungry are you?’
She was grateful that he didn’t insult her intelligence by telling her that she looked fine. She had eyes and she still had the tattered remnants of her pride.
‘If you can wait half an hour,’ he suggested, ‘I’ll pop back to that supermarket and pick up a toothbrush and hairbrush and anything else you need. Then I think we should go out for the day.’
‘Go out?’ Polly leant back and eyed him suspiciously. ‘To do what? We have papers to write, remember?’
‘We’ve both put in a ridiculous amount of hours this week.’ Gabe rolled off the bed unperturbed and picked up his T-shirt from the floor, shaking it out fastidiously before putting it back on. ‘And it was an emotional evening.’ He smiled across at her as he said it, taking any possible sting out of the words. ‘I need a walk, some fresh air and a change of scenery. Are you in?’
A vision of her laptop floated into Polly’s mind. The half-written report. The statistics and recommendations and examples. The spreadsheet full of costings and projections and risk analysis. ‘I should work,’ she said, pulling her hair out of its ponytail and running her fingers through the tangled lengths.
Gabe didn’t say anything, just regarded her levelly. Polly glared back.
She should work. She’d just had three months off, for goodness’ sake. So what if she felt as if a steamroller had run her over physically and emotionally before reversing and finishing the job? She wasn’t paid to have feelings or problems or illnesses.
She should work.
Polly glanced over at the window. The sun was peeping in around the blinds. Was that birds she could hear singing, their tuneful chirps not quite masked by the roar of passing traffic? She’d spent all of the previous summer indoors, working. The strangest part about travelling had been adjusting to being outdoors, the blissful heat as the sun soaked into her weary bones. She had missed out on so many summery weekends.
And next summer everything would be completely changed. There would be another person to take care of.
She glared at Gabe, who was still waiting, arms folded and an enquiring eyebrow raised.
‘Oh, okay then. Let me write you a shopping list.’
* * *
Polly spent the entire half-hour of Gabe’s absence in the hotel’s surprisingly powerful shower, letting the hot jets blast away the kinks in her shoulders and back, beat the tangles out of her hair and massage the worry out of her mind. By the time Gabe rapped softly on the door she felt vaguely human again.
Wrapping the towel tightly around her, she took the proffered carrier bag Gabe handed through the bathroom door. Polly was conscious of an unprecedented intimacy. Gabe had selected her clothes, underwear, her shoes.
It was disconcerting, made her feel vulnerable. Which was ridiculous; she often ordered outfits or lingerie when she needed a quick change for an unexpected meeting or lunch. They were picked out and delivered by any one of the many anonymous salesmen or women she employed and she never felt a moment’s hesitation about wearing things they had handled.
She didn’t even pick her own toothpaste; her concierge service took care of all her household purchases.
But Polly couldn’t help staring at the pretty lilac bra and pants, the sleeveless, fifties-style summer dress in a vibrant blue, the flared skirt ending just before her knees. Had he just grabbed the first things he had seen—or were they chosen especially for her?
Either way it was a choice between the dress or the tracksuit she’d slept in.
Slowly Polly slipped on the underwear and buttoned up the dress, her hands uncharacteristically clumsy. They fitted perfectly. Her figure was unchanged—for now.
Luckily she always carried a selection of miniatures from her favourite make-up brands with her and in just a few minutes she was ready, tinted moisturiser hiding the last of the damage from the evening’s tears, mascara and some lip gloss an armour to help her through the day. Slipping her feet into the flowered flip-flops Gabe had provided, she stepped out of the bathroom strangely shy.
‘Better?’ she asked.
‘That colour suits you. I thought it would.’ There was a huskiness in his voice that reached deep inside her and tugged, a sweet sensual pull that made her sway towards him.
‘Matches my eyes,’ she said, aware what a lame comment it was but needing to say something, to try and break the hypnotic spell his words had cast.
Gabe was still staring at her as if she were something deliciously edible. ‘Your eyes are darker.’
Polly felt exposed before the hunger in his eyes. The dip of the dress suddenly seemed horribly low-cut, the hemline indecently short, her arms too bare. ‘I’ve never worn a supermarket dress before,’ she said.
‘No.’ He gave a quick bark of laughter and just like that the air of sensuality that had been swelling, filling the room, disappeared. ‘Polly Rafferty in prêt-à-porter. There’s a first for everything.’
‘I wear ready-to-wear all the time,’ she protested.
‘Designer diffusion ranges?’ He laughed again as she nodded. ‘What about while you were away?’
‘It pays to buy quality. It lasts longer,’ she told him, unwilling to admit that even her travelling sarong had cost more than the entire outfit she was currently wearing. ‘Now, I believe you promised me breakfast and then we need to decide what we’re going to do.’
‘We could just drive and see where we end up,’ Gabe suggested.
‘Oh, no, if I am taking a day off it needs to be well planned so I make the most of it,’ Polly told him. ‘And if you think I’m letting you drive my car one more time you’re crazy. My nerves won’t take the strain.’
Gabe grinned. ‘We’ll see,’ was all he said. ‘Come on, Polly. Let’s go and organise a day of spontaneous fun.’
* * *
Of course it had begun to rain. Why had he given up the golden beaches of California or the flower-strewn meadows of his home for this grey, drizzly island?
Although Paris could be rainy too, Gabe conceded. But somehow in Paris even the rain had a certain style. In the English countryside it was just wet.
‘Thoughts, Mr Spontaneity?’
Gabe sat back in his seat and considered. The prospects weren’t appealing: a walk, a tour round a stately home, a visit to yet another of the exquisite market towns where the old houses were built from the golden stone with which the region abounded. If they were going to do that they might as well return to Hopeford—the most exquisite and golden and historic of the lot.
The sea? But they were in the middle of the country and the nearest coast was over one hundred miles away.
He could, if he hadn’t been overcome with a ridiculous chivalry, have been on a train into the city right now. A visit to the gym, a couple of hours in the office and then a few beers in Kensington with some other émigrés. But there had been something vulnerable about the elegant Polly Rafferty slumped on a cheap hotel bed, that golden hair piled up into an untidy ponytail, red-eyed, white-faced. The circumstances couldn’t have been more different, the women more different, but for one heart-stopping moment she had reminded him of Marie.
Of Marie as she began to give up.
The irony was that he had spent the last ten years turning away from women who provoked even the smallest reminder of his ex. One hint of vulnerability, of neediness and he was gone—so why was he sitting here watching the rain lash the windscreen on a magical mystery tour to nowhere?
Was it because he respected Polly? Knew that once she adjusted she would pick herself up and walk tall, head high, daring anyone to criticise her choices?
Or because he instinctively knew that she hid her weaknesses from the world. He might have been in the right place at the right time—or the wrong place at the wrong time—for her to collapse on him the way she had.
No matter why his usual ‘turn tail and run’ instincts weren’t functioning normally. Not yet.
But they would. He didn’t have to worry.
‘What do you want to do?’ He turned the question onto her.
‘Not get wet?’ Polly glared at the windscreen as if she could stop the rain with pure force of will. ‘I took the day off to enjoy the sunshine. Besides, my new outfit doesn’t include a cardigan or an umbrella.’
‘It was warm just an hour ago. I forgot to factor in the crazy British weather.’
‘Between May and September it’s wise to carry an umbrella, a wrap and sunscreen at all times. Let that be your first lesson in British life. That and always have an indoor alternative.’
‘I would suggest lunch but after that breakfast you just ate...’ he said slyly.
‘I’m eating for two!’ The colour rose high in her cheeks. ‘And I’ve barely eaten anything for the last week or two. I was in a major calorie deficit. Hang on, what does that sign say?’
Gabe peered through the slanting rain at the colourful poster, gamely flapping in the wet and cold. ‘Probably some kind of fete,’ he said. ‘The British summer, always wet and cold and yet full of outdoor events. You’re an optimistic isle, I’ll give you that. Or crazy,’ he added thoughtfully.
‘No, it’s not that. Oh!’ With that squeal she put the indicator on and turned down the winding lane indicated by the poster. ‘It’s a Vintage Festival. Do you mind?’
‘As long as it’s dry and indoors.’
‘What? Mr Triathlete scared of a little rain?’
, just a man from the South of France who likes summer to be just that, summery.’
‘Oh, boy, are you in the wrong country.’
The small country lane was long and winding and it took Polly a few moments to navigate its twists and turns before she followed another sign that took them through wrought-iron gates and up a sweeping, tree-lined driveway. Gabe caught a glimpse of large, graceful house before the road took them round to a busy car park.
‘Wow.’ Polly’s voice was full of envy as she pulled to a stop, her eyes eagerly looking around. ‘People have come in style.’
Hers was by no means the only modern car there but even her sporty two-seater was put firmly in the shade by the array of well-loved vintage cars from all eras. ‘If I’d known we were coming I’d have brought Raff’s Porsche,’ Polly said sadly. ‘It’s a seventies car so not really vintage but older than this.’