CHAPTER FIVE

AS SOON as she could, Nell rang Thea. ‘Guess who I ran into this morning?’

‘Um…Hugh Grant?’

‘No.’

‘Brad Pitt?’

‘No.’

‘More or less exciting?’

Nell hesitated.

‘P.J.,’ said Thea, and it wasn’t even a question.

Nell held the receiver away from her and gaped at it. Sometimes her sister astounded her. ‘How on earth did you guess?’

‘Let’s face it, Nell, most of the men we know aren’t exactly up there with Brad Pitt when it comes to exciting!’ said Thea. ‘P.J. is the only one I can think of who’d give you a moment’s pause if you had to compare him.’

‘I wasn’t thinking of him being exciting,’ said Nell, still more than a little unnerved by her sister’s perspicacity. ‘I was just going to say that meeting him was just as unlikely as meeting Brad Pitt… I can’t believe you guessed it was him!’

‘I suppose it’s just because we’ve been talking about him recently,’ said Thea soothingly. ‘I knew he was back in London and it would be a surprise to run into him, that’s all. Tell me what happened.’

‘It was so weird, Thea,’ Nell said. ‘I still can’t really take it in. One minute I was walking along with Clara, and the next he was there.’ She told Thea about falling off the kerb into P.J.’s car. ‘I thought I was imagining things at first. I thought it was the shock of the accident, but it really was him.’

Thea was delighted. ‘Ooh, Nell, you know what this means, don’t you? It’s fate, literally throwing you together again!’

Nell sighed. She might have known Thea would start on that line. ‘It was a coincidence, Thea, that’s all.’

‘A pretty amazing one, though! Well, go on, what’s he like now?’

‘He’s just the same…’ P.J.’s image rose before Nell with startling clarity. Those blue, blue eyes with their lurking laughter, the strong nose and jaw and the humorous mouth that seemed constantly about to quirk into a smile, and something clenched inside her. ‘But he’s…well, he’s different, too,’ she finished lamely. ‘He’s sixteen years older, for a start.’

‘Has he grown into his looks, then?’ asked Thea, straightforward as ever. ‘I always thought he would look better when he was older.’

‘Well…’

‘Oh, Nell, he was gorgeous, wasn’t he? I can hear it in your voice!’

‘Not gorgeous exactly,’ Nell protested, before her sister got too carried away. ‘But, yes, he’s quite attractive,’ she added, rather proud of her cool and casual manner.

Sadly, it didn’t fool her sister. ‘Gorgeous, then,’ she said with satisfaction. ‘Are you going to see him again?’

‘No, I don’t think so,’ said Nell, trying to sound as if she didn’t care one way or another. ‘He asked me to have dinner with him but…’

‘But what?’ demanded Thea ominously.

‘But I said I didn’t think it was a good idea.’

There was a pause while Thea made an audible attempt to contain her exasperation. ‘Why not?’

‘Thea, there’s no point,’ said Nell.

‘No point in meeting a single, straight, attractive billionaire who just happens to have been in love with you?’

‘He’s certainly not in love with me now,’ said Nell, alarmed to hear, too late, the unconsciously wistful note in her voice.

She made an effort to sound more casual and upbeat. ‘You should see him now, Thea. He wears a suit and tie now, drives an incredibly flash car. He’s very…assured.’

‘P.J. was always like that,’ said Thea to her surprise. ‘Even when he was a teenager, and all legs and nose, he always seemed quietly confident and at ease in his own skin. You don’t meet many people like that, especially not at school!’

‘Well, he’s even more like that now,’ Nell admitted. ‘It was so…odd. I felt as if I knew him, but at the same time it was obvious that I didn’t know him at all. Maybe it was just that I’d changed too much.’

‘You haven’t changed at all.’

‘Yes, I have. I used to be so young and so confident…’ She trailed off a little sadly. ‘I haven’t felt like that for a long time.’

‘I know what you mean,’ Thea conceded thoughtfully. ‘Back then, it was P.J. who seemed to be the lucky one, wasn’t it? Everyone liked him, but he was a bit of a nerd, wasn’t he? And you were always the pretty one with all the boys after you.’

‘He used to say that he couldn’t believe I would even look at him,’ Nell confessed. ‘He made me feel like I was some kind of goddess…and then, this morning… Oh. Thea, I just felt so dowdy and inadequate and a failure compared to him!’

‘I don’t suppose he’d ask you out if he thought that,’ said Thea.

‘I expect he just felt sorry for me,’ said Nell gloomily.

Thea clicked her tongue in exasperation. ‘Nell, you’re still gorgeous! If he asks you out again, you’re to say yes.’

‘He won’t. Anyway, he doesn’t know how to contact me.’

‘That’s not going to be much of a challenge to an intelligent man like P.J., is it? He just needs to ring Janey, who’ll ring me.’

Nell sat up straight in alarm. ‘Thea, you’re not to give her my phone number!’

‘I most certainly will!’ said Thea in her most uncompromising voice. ‘You may want to throw away the chance of getting back together with a wonderful man who’d solve all your problems, but I’m not going to help you do it!’

‘Anyway, he won’t call,’ said Nell perversely. ‘I made it very clear I didn’t want to see him again.’

‘Oh, well, it seems a pity.’

Rather to Nell’s surprise, Thea left it there. ‘Now, what are you wearing tonight?’

‘Oh, I don’t know… My black trousers?’

‘You’re not wearing those trousers again, Nell,’ said Thea bossily. ‘You can wear that dress you bought for my wedding. You look wonderful in that.’

Nell sighed. ‘Do I have to go?’ she asked, thinking that if she hadn’t had this blind date Thea had set her up on, she wouldn’t have had to refuse P.J. that morning. She could have been thinking about looking wonderful for him instead. She would have let herself be persuaded. Just so as not to be rude.

‘It’ll be awful,’ she grumbled. ‘We’ll just end up talking about how wonderful cars are, or about our divorces the way I have with every other man I’ve been out with since Simon.’

‘Well, there haven’t been many of those,’ Thea pointed out reasonably. ‘Not enough to form a pattern, anyway.’

‘I’ve been on four blind dates this year,’ Nell objected, ‘and every single one has been ghastly.’

‘That’s because they were strangers from the lonely hearts column,’ Thea explained patiently. ‘It’ll be different tonight. Why would I set you up with someone awful? I know this guy tonight, and I think he’s great. He’s perfect for you.’

‘Then why won’t you tell me anything about him? Knowing his name is John and that he’ll be sitting in Bar Barabbas with a Swahili dictionary tonight isn’t much to go on!’

‘That’s because I don’t want you going with any preconceptions,’ said Thea. ‘You know what you’re like. You’ll make up your mind about him before you even meet him, and then you’ll get nervous and go all prickly on him.’

The way she had with P.J. that morning, thought Nell guiltily as Thea talked on. She wished she hadn’t been quite so short. It wasn’t his fault that she had felt so flustered, but if only he hadn’t been quite so…overwhelming. She could recall everything about him in vivid detail-his hands on the steering wheel, the twitch at the corner of his mouth, the warmth and humour in his eyes as he’d turned to look at her.

And the way she had longed to reach out and touch him. That was what had really made her uneasy. You couldn’t go around throwing yourself at ex-boyfriends, especially when they had turned into billionaires overnight…well, over sixteen years, anyway.

Thea broke off, suddenly suspicious. ‘Are you listening to me?’ she demanded and Nell caught herself up.

‘Of course I am,’ she lied.

‘I’ve just got a good feeling about today,’ said Thea. ‘You know how you used to tell me that one day I’d wake up, and not know that that was the day I was going to meet the man who would change my life forever? Well, you were right. One day I had no idea about Rhys’s existence, and the next, he was part of my life. All it takes is one day, and your whole life can change.

‘I think today is your day,’ she finished portentously, ‘so all you have to do is go out tonight, relax and be yourself.’

‘There’s no chance of me relaxing until this meeting is over.’ Nell lowered her voice. ‘Eve’s driving us all nuts about it. I’m so wound up now, I’ll be a gibbering wreck by the time we actually get there.’

‘Well, you would go for this high-powered job,’ said Thea unsympathetically. ‘It’s more important that you’re not a gibbering wreck tonight, so don’t be late back. I’ll come over early to make sure you don’t get those black trousers out.’

P.J.’s assistant opened her mouth to pass on a notebook full of messages but he waved her aside. ‘In a minute,’ he said. ‘Can you get my sister on the line first?’

‘P.J.!’ Janey was surprised to hear from him. ‘You don’t usually ring at this time… Nothing’s wrong is it?’

‘Far from it,’ he said cheerfully. ‘Guess who I knocked over this morning?’

‘You knocked someone over?’ Janey was horrified.

‘Not really, but it was pretty close.’ P.J. put on his best Humphrey Bogart accent. ‘But of all the pedestrians on all the pavements in London,’ he paraphrased, ‘I had to knock over Nell Martindale!’

There was a stunned silence at the other end of the phone. ‘Nell? You’re kidding me!’

‘No, I’m not.’ P.J. grinned. ‘And because I know sisters always like to be right, I thought I’d say it before you had a chance to say, “I told you so.” I’ve changed my mind and I do want to see her again. Can you get her number for me from Thea?’

There was another pause. P.J. could practically hear his sister thinking. ‘Why didn’t you just ask Nell out when you saw her?’

‘I did, but she turned me down. She said she had a date tonight.’

‘So do you,’ said Janey in a dry voice.

The smile was wiped from P.J.’s face. ‘Oh, God, I’d forgotten all about that!’ he said, clutching his hair.

‘Don’t even think about trying to back out of it now!’ Janey warned before he could say any more.

‘But, Janey, you’re the one who wanted me to get in touch with Nell!’ said P.J., baffled as ever by his sister’s perverted logic. ‘I’ve admitted that you were right and I was wrong. I do need to get Nell out of my system. Don’t you think it’s a bit unfair on what’s-her-name to pretend I’m looking for another relationship when I’m really only interested in another woman?’

‘Her name’s Helen,’ said Janey coldly, ‘and I don’t think it’s as unfair as standing her up at such short notice. She’s a lovely person, and she wasn’t that keen on being set up on a blind date with you either, to be honest. It would be awful for her if you didn’t turn up.’

‘I wasn’t thinking of leaving her sitting there,’ said P.J. defensively. ‘I thought you could ring her and explain-’

‘Explain what? That my brother is totally perverse? You said you didn’t want to see Nell again, P.J. You said you didn’t want to rake up the past, and that you were perfectly ready to move on to another relationship. And when I suggested introducing you to Helen, you said you’d like to meet her.’

‘I know I did,’ said P.J. through gritted teeth, ‘but that was before I saw Nell again. Everything’s changed now.’

‘So you’ve changed your mind! Who’s to say you wouldn’t change it again when you meet Helen?’ asked Janey. ‘Your trouble, P.J., is that you’re spoilt. You’re too used to getting your own way. You think that because you’ve got all that money you can snap your fingers and have whatever you want. Well, you can’t just dump your date with Helen just because it doesn’t suit you to meet her tonight anymore. I’m not one of your flunkies who’ll say, “Yes, sir, no, sir,” and do your dirty work for you.’

‘You know, Janey,’ said P.J. thinly, ‘if one of my directors spoke to me the way you do, there would be a spare place on the board!’

Janey snorted, unimpressed. ‘You go tonight, and you be at your most charming. If you give Helen so much as an inkling that you don’t really want to be there, you’ll be off my board!’

‘All right.’ P.J. swallowed his wrath with some difficulty. ‘I’ll stick to the arrangement, but will you get Nell’s number for me? I really want to see her again.’

‘We’ll see,’ said Janey, enjoying having her brother on the run for once. ‘That rather depends on what Helen tells me tomorrow, doesn’t it? If she’s happy about the way the date went, then I’ll give Thea a call.’

‘Thank you,’ said P.J., his jaw gritted.

If he’d known Janey would carry on like this, he’d have found out Nell’s number some other way. He could have asked one of his ‘flunkies,’ as Janey called them, to track Nell down, but he’d thought she would be delighted to hear about his change of mind. That was sisters for you!

‘And who knows?’ said Janey, amusement threading her voice. ‘Maybe you’ll decide that Helen is the right woman for you after all, and you’ll ring me tomorrow and tell me you don’t need Nell’s number anymore!’

P.J. didn’t think that was very likely. When Janey had rung off, he sat for a while, staring down at the phone.

He had been so sure that he was over Nell, and, after the years spent dismissing Janey’s suggestions that he was simply searching for a substitute for her, it was galling to realise that his sister had been right all along.

Irritably, he swung his chair round and prowled over to the window. Part of him had been overjoyed to see Nell that morning, but there was part of him too that wished she hadn’t stepped out in front of him and that he had simply driven past her without knowing that she was there.

No, not that, P.J. corrected himself. He had wanted to see her. He just wished that she hadn’t been so familiar, that she hadn’t still been so easy to talk to, still so beautiful… Now it felt as if everything had changed. Nell wasn’t just part of his past, whatever she might say about it. Now she was his present, too. She had been ever since he had looked into her grey eyes that morning and felt his heart squeeze in his chest at the realisation that it was really her, after all this time.

He turned back to his desk, but he didn’t sit down again. He felt edgy and restless, almost cross, and it was because of Nell. She had shaken him so easily out of his own sense of certainty. P.J. didn’t like the feeling, and he especially didn’t like the thought that she had found someone else. Janey had told him that she was divorced, but she hadn’t known that Nell already had the oh-so-perfect John to make her happy again. She didn’t need P.J., and she had made it plain that she didn’t particularly want to see him again.

It had all changed so suddenly, too. He had woken up that morning not knowing that Nell would be part of his life once more before the day was even halfway through. Not knowing that sixteen years of missing her would lead to this moment, and that he would have to face the fact that he still wanted her, and needed her, and that, in the end, nothing had changed at all.

What was it Janey had said about him being too used to having whatever he wanted? P.J. hunched his shoulders uneasily. He didn’t think that he was like that, but there was no doubt that realising that he might not be able to have Nell had left him feeling tense and twitchy and exposed. It was a long time since he had felt like this.

Sixteen years, in fact.

But he wasn’t twenty two anymore, P.J. reminded himself. He was a grown man, and he didn’t have to just accept things anymore. He might not be able to have Nell, but he would do whatever he could to get her back, John or no John. He would go on this date tonight as Janey had insisted, but after that he was going to find Nell, with or without his sister’s help. He would have to. He couldn’t face the thought of losing her all over again.

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