‘I WOULDN’T have thought it would be that difficult,’ said Nell, thinking that she couldn’t be the only woman who had noticed what an attractive man he had grown into. ‘Surely billionaires get to have their pick of beautiful women?’ she added with an ironic look.
‘You’d be surprised,’ said P.J. ‘Janey says I’m impossible to please.’
He hadn’t been hard to please before, thought Nell. All she had had to do was to be herself. Her gaze slid sideways to rest on his profile, lingering on the corner of his cool mouth, before drifting down to the lean, tough body and the competent hands on the steering wheel, and something turned over inside her.
She looked away. Inside the car, the silence seemed suddenly loud, and she could hear her heart thumping.
P.J. seemed aware of the same constraint. ‘That’s enough about my financially rewarding but ultimately empty life,’ he said, mocking himself. ‘Tell me what you’ve been doing.’
‘Oh…’ Nell lifted her shoulders a little helplessly. ‘What is there to say? My life has been very unglamorous compared to yours. I’ve taken no risks and had no staggering success. I can’t boast about my transatlantic lifestyle. I haven’t even got a car, let alone one like this. I’ve just spent the last sixteen years getting through the days and bringing up my daughter as best I can. Not very exciting, I’m afraid.’
‘I hate to sound like a walking clich?,’ said P.J. with an ironic glance, ‘but bringing up a happy, healthy child has to be more worthwhile in the long run than making millions.’
‘It’s probably as hard work, especially when you’re on your own,’ said Nell in a wry voice. ‘Clara was hardly more than a baby when Simon left, so it was difficult to find a job that I could fit around looking after her.’
About to tell him about the expense of childcare, Nell caught herself just in time. She didn’t want to sound like a sad, single mother, consumed with bitterness about her divorce and perpetually moaning about money. If she couldn’t compete with him in the glamorous lifestyle stakes, she could at least convince him that she had a good life and no regrets.
Least of all about him.
‘Anyway, that’s the story of my life,’ she said with a bright smile. ‘No glittering prizes for me, but Clara and I have fun together, my family have been fantastically supportive, I’ve got lots of friends… I think I’ve been pretty lucky. And now I’ve even got a good job, so things are definitely looking up.’
Was that enough to convince P.J. that she was perfectly happy with her life? Nell wondered. If only he hadn’t been quite so successful! It would be much easier to be honest and open with him if she didn’t know how stupendously wealthy he was. As it was, she was terrified that he would think that she was hinting that she regretted having left him and was angling to re-establish their relationship just because of his money.
But P.J. showed no sign of thinking any such thing. He asked about her job instead. ‘I was wondering what you did.’
‘I’m in recruitment,’ said Nell, allowing herself to relax a bit. Talking about work was good. Work made for an excellent neutral topic of conversation. She should stick with it from now on, and not let herself get diverted by memories.
‘I used to work for an agency,’ she told him. ‘I dealt with mostly secretarial and clerical positions, but I’ve just got a new job with a firm of head hunters. It’s very small but very prestigious, so it’s a good move for me, but a bit scary at the same time. Everything is much more pressurised. I find it a bit stressful, to be honest.’
‘Can’t you go back to what you were doing before?’
There spoke someone who hadn’t had to worry about money for a while! ‘I’ve got this quaint little notion about paying my mortgage,’ said Nell, a little more sharply than she intended.
‘The brutal truth is that I need the money,’ she went on, with less of an edge to her voice. ‘And I want to prove myself, too. I’ve never had a chance to work like this before. Everything is much more professional and high-powered.’
‘In what way?’ asked P.J.
‘I’ve got a very demanding boss. She always looks immaculate, and I’m supposed to look the same.’ Nell’s mouth turned down at the corners as she thought about Eve and the impossible standards she set. ‘It’s all about the company’s image, she says, but it’s a bit of a strain having to look perfectly groomed the whole time.’
P.J.’s blue eyes rested for a moment on Nell in her jogging pants and trainers and old sweatshirt, and his mouth quirked.
Nell flushed. He didn’t need to say anything. ‘I change when I get there,’ she told him a shade defensively. ‘I had an accident last year and broke my ankle and my wrist. I’m fine now, but walking long distances is hard except in sensible shoes, so I tend to wear these for the commute and put on my work shoes when I get there.’
‘Very sensible,’ said P.J. gravely, but his eyes danced in a way that made Nell feel distinctly ruffled.
‘Normally I’d be dressed properly by now,’ she told him, even as she wondered why she was bothering to justify her appearance to him. ‘But I’ve got an important meeting this afternoon, and I’m going to pick up my suit from the dry-cleaner’s on the way in.’
If she hadn’t overslept, she would have had her makeup on by now, too. It wasn’t fair. If she had to bump into P.J. she could at least have been looking her best. That was just typical of her life at the moment, thought Nell fatalistically. It was about time something started to go right for a change.
‘How is your ankle now?’ he asked.
‘It’s fine,’ she said truthfully. The rest had done it good, and she could only feel a slight throb now. ‘I won’t have to walk much further on it today, anyway. We’ve got an important meeting this afternoon, but fortunately my boss is a great believer in taxis, so we’ll probably get driven door-to-door.’
P.J. looked interested. ‘What’s the meeting about?’
‘I don’t know much about it, to tell you the truth,’ Nell admitted. ‘I know that we’ve got an important contract to recruit someone for a senior position in some big company, and Eve-my boss-seems to think that if we do a good job, we’ll be in a good position to do a lot more recruitment work for them. She wants me to go along and learn the ropes about finding out what they
‘And won’t you?’
‘No,’ said Nell frankly. ‘I’m terrified that someone will ask me a question, but I’m hoping that if I keep my mouth closed and look enigmatic enough, it won’t be too obvious that I haven’t got a clue about what’s happening.’
‘Ah, then you have already learnt the secret of professional success!’ said P.J., amused. ‘I can tell you’ll go far!’
They both laughed, but found their smiles fading at exactly the same moment, as if both unnerved by how quickly they had slipped back into the old, easy ways.
Constraint seeped back into the air. Nell stared desperately out of her window at the commuters streaming out of the tube station they were just passing. She was one of them usually. That was her life, not sitting in this luxurious car, cocooned in comfort with P.J. beside her. She belonged in the crowd, glancing enviously at those who could travel in such comfort. She didn’t belong with P.J., not now.
She must remember that.
It would be too easy to forget if she were to spend any longer in P.J.’s company. The tug of attraction, the tug of the past, was very strong. Nell was conscious of having to dig in her heels mentally to stop herself falling back under the old spell, the one that made it seem as if everything were easy and natural between them.
But how could it be after all this time? This was just a chance encounter, a brief interlude, and it would be a mistake to pretend that it could always be like this. P.J. was a different man, one whose assurance and attractiveness had left her feeling flustered and more disturbed than she wanted to admit. Things might feel the same, but they weren’t, and if she forgot that it would make going back to her real life so much harder. The past was the past. Better if it stayed that way.
As the silence lengthened in the car, and the memory of their shared laughter thrummed in the air, P.J. drummed his fingers on the steering wheel and thought about what Janey had said.
‘You’ll never move on until you’ve got Nell Martindale out of your system. Look her up. She won’t be the same pretty young girl, and you won’t feel the same about her.’
P.J. hadn’t wanted to do that. He hadn’t wanted to see that Nell had grown older, or to think that she had lost her charm. He hadn’t wanted to face the fact that the old dream had died.
But now fate had put her in his way, and she was older, just as he had feared. Older and warier, with faint lines starring her eyes, but she was still beautiful, and the warmth and the charm were still there. Why not see if the spark could be rekindled?
They were edging over Waterloo Bridge now. They would be in the city soon, and then this strange meeting would be over. Why not take advantage of coincidence?
‘What are you doing tonight?’ he asked, breaking the silence so abruptly that Nell started in her seat.
‘Tonight?’ she echoed a little breathlessly.
‘I was wondering if I could take you out to dinner to make up for almost knocking you over,’ said P.J., hating himself for sounding so stiff and awkward. This was Nell, for heaven’s sake. They had been friends and lovers for years. He ought to be able to ask her to dinner without stumbling over his words or making up an excuse to want to see her again.
‘I can’t tonight.’ Nell didn’t know whether to be glad or sorry that she had a real excuse. ‘I’ve got a date.’
P.J. looked so taken aback that Nell was ruffled. ‘There’s no need to sound so surprised!’ she said shortly, wondering if he had been expecting her to fall at his feet with gratitude at his casual invitation. ‘It’s allowed. I’m a free agent.’
‘I didn’t mean that…’ P.J. wasn’t sure what he
‘It’s just that you said very firmly that you hadn’t married again,’ he tried to explain, ‘and I assumed…’
‘…that I was too old?’ Nell finished his sentence for him, and P.J. could tell from the brilliance of her smile that he had somehow made things worse for himself.
‘No, of course not-’
‘I know. I’m one of them.’ It was P.J.’s turn to be provoked. He had just asked her out, hadn’t he?
There was an antagonistic pause.
‘So, who’s your date tonight?’ he asked after a moment, wanting to sound casual but afraid that he might have sounded belligerent and sulky instead.
‘His name’s John.’ Nell was feeling spiky and defensive for some reason.
‘Have you been seeing him long?’
There was a distinct edge to P.J.’s voice now, which only made her more determined not to admit that John was a blind date. She didn’t need to account to P.J. for what she did, or whom she met, did she?
‘No, not long, but it’s going very well,’ she said, spotting an opportunity to impress on P.J. that she stood in no need of charitable invitations to dinner from him or anyone else. She wasn’t a sad divorcee, desperate for a night out, whatever he thought.
A muscle tightened in P.J.’s jaw. ‘So, what’s he like, this John?’
‘He’s lovely,’ said Nell, improvising freely. ‘Very kind and funny and intelligent. We get on really well.’ At least, Thea had said that they would. ‘I’m beginning to think he might be the one for me. We’ve started to talk about the future, and, well…it’s still all very new, but I feel quite excited.’
Which would be news to poor John.
‘How did you meet this paragon?’ asked P.J. tightly.
‘Through Thea.’ It was a relief to get back to the truth. ‘She actually set us up on a kind of blind date.’ Nell even managed a laugh as if the very idea of her going on a blind date was absurd. ‘She said we’d be perfect for each other, and we are.’
‘Well, I’m glad you’re happy,’ P.J. made himself say, although privately he couldn’t help thinking that her precious John sounded too perfect to be real. He just hoped Nell wasn’t setting herself up for another bitter disappointment. He hated the thought of her being hurt again.
‘I am,’ said Nell, lifting her chin defiantly, and spotting a familiar row of shops with relief. She didn’t want P.J. interrogating her about her supposedly wonderful relationship with John. She wasn’t cut out for elaborate fibs.
‘Oh, that’s the dry-cleaner!’ She pointed gratefully. ‘Could you possibly drop me there, P.J.? I need to pick up my suit.’
P.J. pulled over obligingly, and turned in his seat to watch her as she gathered up her bag. ‘Shall I wait for you?’
‘There’s no need. I just work down there.’ Nell gestured in the direction of some office blocks along the road. ‘I’ll walk from here.’
To P.J. it was as if she were deliberately being vague so that he wouldn’t be able to note where she worked. Obviously she had moved on, he thought with a trace of bitterness. There was no place for him in her life anymore, and if he had any sense he would leave it there, but somehow the thought of saying goodbye and losing her as soon as he had found her again was unendurable.
‘What about another evening?’ he asked, and she paused with her hand on the door.
‘For dinner,’ he said as she looked at him uncertainly. ‘I wouldn’t want to come between you and your hot date, of course, but there’s no reason we shouldn’t meet as old friends, is there?’
Only that it was too hard to think of him as an old friend now that he had thickened out and grown into a disturbingly attractive man. But how could she say that?
‘I…don’t think so, P.J.,’ she managed after a moment. ‘We can’t go back. It was good to see you again, and I’m really grateful for the lift, but the past is the past, and I think we’d better leave it that way.’
She opened her car door, and got out, leaning back in to give him a final word of thanks before she shut it firmly on his hopes and turned quickly away.
A taxi swung past, blaring its horn at P.J. for blocking the road, but he hardly noticed. He just sat there and watched as Nell walked away from him all over again.