CHAPTER EIGHT

P.J. LOOKED at Nell’s averted face, letting his eyes rest on the pure line of her cheek and the pulse hammering in her throat, and he remembered her as a girl, sitting across a caf? table in Paris, her expression vivid as she talked and argued and laughed.

Even then he had marvelled that this beautiful creature was really his. That she would love him had seemed too good to be true, and when Simon Shea had swept in and taken her away part of P.J. had told himself that he had always known it couldn’t last. Why would a girl like Nell want to be with him, with his big nose and lanky frame and utter lack of sophistication?

She was still beautiful, still slender and somehow elusive, and as he watched her P.J.’s earlier confidence drained away. He felt twenty-two all over again, awkward and unsure, dazed by her nearness and gripped by the fear that if he tried to hold on to her, she would slip through his fingers and leave.

As she had.

She had John now. She was happy. Why would she want to start all over again with him? Look at her, sophisticated and desirable in a dress that clung in all the right places. It was a dress that made you think about how soft and warm her body would be beneath the soft, floaty material, how it would slide and slither over her skin, what it would be like to ease down the zip…

P.J. swallowed hard.

‘You look stunning,’ he said, aware that he sounded abrupt and almost angry, but unable to help himself.

‘Thank you,’ said Nell a little warily.

‘I hope John appreciates that dress.’

John? For a terrible moment, Nell couldn’t think who he meant, but then she remembered her blind date, and she clutched at the idea. John represented the future, P.J. the past. Pretending that she had already chosen the future would make it easier in the end to say goodbye to P.J. again.

‘John doesn’t think clothes are important,’ she said. It was the first thing that came into her head, and P.J. wasn’t impressed.

‘You don’t have to think clothes are important to appreciate a beautiful woman in a beautiful dress!’ he said. ‘He sounds a bit worthy for you, Nell.’

‘He’s a very nice man,’ she said a little defensively.

‘Not just a little boring?’ P.J. suggested.

‘Of course not,’ said Nell stiffly.

‘It just sounds as if he might be, that’s all.’

Nell glared, so irritated by his needling that she almost forgot that she knew absolutely nothing about John. ‘He’s not like that at all,’ she insisted, lifting her chin defiantly. ‘He’s great. He’s…kind and reliable and…clever…and he’s got a great sense of humour,’ she finished as if laying down a challenge.

‘I suppose he’s incredibly good-looking, too?’ said P.J. nastily.

‘Not that it matters, but, yes, as a matter of fact, he is!’

In for a penny, in for a pound, thought Nell, wondering what the real John would make of all this. Would he have a sense of humour? Would he prove to be kind and clever? Would he be the man who could push P.J. back out of her heart and her mind and her life?

‘He sounds perfect.’ P.J. glowered down into his glass of champagne. ‘So, do you think this is it?’ he made himself ask, not wanting to hear the answer but needing to know if he should give up now. ‘Are you thinking about getting married?’

‘It’s too early to think about that,’ said Nell, deciding not to get carried away with elaborate wedding plans. ‘We haven’t known each other that long. Anyway, I’ve already been married once and engaged twice,’ she added, trying to make a joke of it. ‘My track record isn’t that good, is it?’

‘Maybe it’ll be third time lucky,’ said P.J.

It had been first time lucky, if only she had had the sense to realise it. Nell’s heart twisted.

‘Maybe,’ she agreed, an unconsciously wistful expression in her eyes.

There was a tiny pause. ‘What does Clara think of him?’

‘Clara?’ Nell echoed stupidly.

‘She comes with you as part of the package, doesn’t she? I presume how she and John get on is important to you?’

‘Of course it is,’ said Nell, thrown back on the defensive. ‘But she doesn’t know him very well yet.’

‘Clara struck me as the kind of girl who makes up her mind about people straight away,’ P.J. observed so accurately that Nell was taken aback. That was exactly what Clara did, just as she had done with P.J. that morning. She had looked at him, assessed him, and decided that she liked him, and that was that in Clara’s book. Nothing would change her mind now.

‘Do you know what I think?’ P.J. went on, leaning forward confidentially, and Nell swallowed at his nearness and clutched her glass harder.

‘What?’

‘I think Clara hasn’t got much time for your John,’ he said provocatively. ‘I think she thinks he’s a dull dog, but she doesn’t want to tell you, and that’s why you’re hesitant about committing yourself to him.’

‘Rubbish!’

‘If you loved John and you thought he was the right man, you wouldn’t hesitate,’ said P.J. ‘You’re someone who loves completely and unconditionally.’

‘Yes, well, maybe I’ve learnt to look before I leap,’ Nell said a little bitterly, thinking of Simon.

The look in her eyes made P.J.’s chest hurt. He was just taking his disappointment out on her, he realised. It wasn’t Nell’s fault that he was still in love with her. ‘I’m sorry,’ he apologised in a different voice.

‘John’s a lucky man,’ he went on seriously. ‘I was just trying to say that if I was waiting for you, and you walked in wearing that dress, I would be really proud.’

Nell looked at him, and her heart contracted so painfully that she almost winced. If only she were going to meet P.J. tonight, instead of the blameless John. The longing to tell him so made it hard to speak, and for a moment she could only stand dumb with wishing that everything could be different.

She didn’t want John. He was a friend of Thea’s, and he would be nice, and friendly and charming and probably attractive and a perfect date, but he wasn’t what she wanted. He couldn’t be. She only wanted P.J.

A muscle worked desperately in her jaw to stop her mouth from wobbling, and P.J., understanding that she was upset, but not why, did what he could to lighten the atmosphere.

‘That dress is the third outfit I’ve seen you in today,’ he said, ‘and it’s definitely my favourite. You looked very nice in your track suit and trainers, of course, but they don’t have quite same the same allure, do they? And to be honest, I didn’t think the cool, crisp look you had this afternoon was quite you!’

Grateful to him for changing the subject, Nell made an effort to smile and follow his lead. ‘I usually carry off cool and crisp better than I did this afternoon,’ she told him. ‘My pen always works, and I manage not to walk into the furniture. But then I don’t usually walk into a meeting to find that I’m shaking hands with my ex-fianc?! Did you know I was going to be there?’

P.J. shook his head. ‘Lester mentioned Eve’s name, but not that there would be anyone else with her. I couldn’t believe it when I saw you come in. After this morning, it seemed too much of a coincidence.’ He smiled crookedly. ‘Do you think fate might be trying to tell us something?’

‘Only that it’s as muddled as the rest of us,’ said Nell, as lightly as she could.

A waitress was hovering with a plate of spectacular canap?s. Desperate for a distraction, to look at anything other than P.J., Nell took a firm hold of her glass and wedged her sequinned bag under her arm to give herself a free hand. She selected a canap? at random, and was just lifting it to her mouth when someone behind her stepped back into her.

Nell’s arm was jolted, and she jerked instinctively to avoid dropping her champagne, but the movement was enough to dislodge the little bag, and, with her other hand full of canap?, there was no way of saving it. If she’d been able to close it properly, no harm would have been done, but the Swahili phrase book burst through the clasp’s precarious hold and shot onto the floor, followed by all the other contents.

Had she really had all that stuff in that tiny bag? To Nell, rooted to the spot, it seemed as if the contents had multiplied bizarrely and that she was standing in a scattered sea of keys and lipsticks, mobile phones and credit cards, tissues and perfumes and ten-pound notes, all interspersed with the change from the minicab, which was rolling merrily amongst the shoes in every direction.

‘I’m so sorry.’ The man who had bumped into her was full of apologies, stooping like P.J. to help gather everything up.

Why was there never anywhere in these places to put a glass down? Nell looked around helplessly. With both hands full, she felt marooned and ridiculous, the two men apparently grovelling at her feet, and she had no choice in the end but to pop the canap? in her mouth.

Still chewing, she bent to retrieve the little bag, and smiled embarrassed thanks as they handed back her scattered belongings. Someone brought over a pound coin that had rolled right into the middle of the room, another person found her comb. Thank goodness she hadn’t had anything really embarrassing in the bag!

‘I think that’s everything,’ she said, straightening, and turned to thank the man who had bumped into her for his help, and to assure him that there was no harm done, really.

‘Except for this.’ P.J. stood up with the Swahili phrase book in his hand, a strange expression on his face.

Nell’s heart sank at the sight of it. In all the confusion, for a minute there she had forgotten how odd the phrase book would look.

A smile hovered around P.J.’s mouth. ‘Don’t tell me you’re still trying to learn Swahili, Nell?’

‘No…I…I’m just lending it to John.’

‘Oh?’

‘Yes. He’s…um…thinking about a holiday in Kenya.’ Nell improvised as best she could, but it didn’t sound very convincing even to her own ears.

‘Really?’ P.J. smiled at her, a smile that evaporated the air in her lungs and made her pulse ring in her ears.

‘Yes,’ she said breathlessly, unable to think of anything else to say.

She wished P.J. would give her the book, but he was flicking through the pages. ‘Habarigani…how are you? Remember that? We used to practise it all the time.’

‘Not as often as we practised “two cold beers, please,’” said Nell, trying to make light of it, but her heart was thumping with memories.

P.J. screwed up his face and held up his hand. ‘Hold on…nataka beer mbili, baridi sana,’ he said triumphantly after a moment. ‘You see, I remember!’

‘I’m impressed,’ she said. ‘I would never have been able to remember that.’

‘I remember everything.’ His voice changed. ‘I remember how to say “I love you,” too. Nakupenda sana. I would have said that to you every day.’

Treacherous tears pricked at Nell’s eyes, and she bent her head, pretending to check that the bag was properly closed this time. ‘It’s all a long time ago,’ she managed after a moment.

‘Sixteen years,’ said P.J. ‘Remember what plans we had? We were going to do all the game parks, and climb Kilimanjaro and swim in the Indian Ocean…and then there was Zanzibar… Didn’t we talk about driving across the Sahara at one time, when getting on a plane seemed too tame?’

‘We must have been mad,’ said Nell, resisting the lure of the memories with a physical effort. ‘When you think about it now, it seems totally unrealistic.’

‘We were young,’ said P.J. gently. ‘Don’t you ever wish you could still be that unrealistic?’

Nell nodded sadly. She had had enough reality over the last few years. ‘You can’t recapture that feeling though. You’re never that young again.’

‘It doesn’t mean you have to give up on dreams,’ he said.

‘No, but it’s easier to be realistic in the long run.’ Nell bit her lip. ‘It’s less disappointing that way.’

P.J. closed the phrase book and handed it back to her. ‘Did you ever go to Africa?’

‘No.’ Nell shook her head.

Simon wouldn’t even consider an adventure holiday. They had always gone to expensive resorts where the rooms were air-conditioned and the plumbing always worked and the pool was carefully filtered. Nell had used to suggest going out to see something of the country they were in, but Simon had never been interested. ‘We’re here to relax, Nell,’ he would say exasperatedly. ‘It’s all right for you, but I’ve been working flat out for months.’

Nell pushed the memory aside. ‘What about you?’

‘I went to Tanzania once a few years ago.’

‘Was it as wonderful?’ she asked, trying to keep the envy out of her voice.

‘It was beautiful,’ P.J. said slowly. ‘Even more so than we imagined.’

But he hadn’t really enjoyed it being there without her. He had found himself watching the sunset and thinking about Nell and what it would have been like if they’d come together as they’d planned.

He had never asked for two cold beers in Swahili. Marian was strictly a champagne and cocktails girl, who wouldn’t touch beer and who complained about the heat and the insects and the lack of any decent shops. The whole holiday had been disastrous. It had certainly spelt the end of that relationship.

‘I’m glad,’ said Nell. ‘We spent so much time dreaming about that trip, it would have been a shame if neither of us had gone.’

‘Yes, a shame,’ P.J. agreed, and their eyes met for a brief moment before Nell’s slid awkwardly away.

She was having trouble breathing again, and the silence lengthened as she tried desperately to think of something to say. She had the strangest sensation of being trapped in a bubble, isolated somehow from the chatter and the crowds that surrounded them, so that there was only P.J. and the silence and the memories that clamoured and jangled between them.

She had to break out, to get away from the bittersweet knowledge of what might have been.

‘I…I haven’t met any of the other members of your team yet,’ she said at last with an edge of desperation. ‘Perhaps you could introduce me?’

P.J. didn’t move. ‘Eve’s busy chatting them all up.’

‘I should go and join her, then.’ Nell could hear the tell-tale huskiness in her voice and cleared her throat. ‘That’s what I’m here for, after all.’

‘I think Eve would prefer you to stay right where you are,’ he said with a lazy smile. ‘She’ll think you’re doing a good job of sucking up to the boss.’

In a strange way, Nell was grateful to him for making her cross. ‘I wasn’t aware that I had been sucking up,’ she said tightly.

‘You haven’t-but there’s no need for Eve to know that, is there?’

‘Then what was the point of making me come here tonight?’

P.J. feigned surprise. ‘I didn’t make you do anything, did I? I merely invited you for a glass of free champagne.’

‘Yes, knowing perfectly well that I was in no position to refuse,’ said Nell, deliberately feeding her anger, which was so much easier to deal with than the memories. ‘Never mind that I’ve got a date tonight, which you also knew perfectly well!’ She looked at her watch. ‘And now I’m going to be late!’

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