CHAPTER NINE

‘I’M SURE John will understand,’ said P.J. ‘Why don’t you give him a call and tell him you’ll be a little late?’

Nell bit her lip. There was no way she was going to admit now that John was a blind date and that the only way she could contact him was to depend on him recognising her Swahili phrase book.

P.J. had picked up her mobile from the floor, so she could hardly claim that she had no way of getting in touch. And even if she did, he would probably just offer her his phone.

‘He doesn’t have a mobile,’ she said, driven into a corner.

P.J. looked surprised. ‘He doesn’t? Why not?’

‘He thinks they’re an intrusion,’ Nell improvised and then was vexed with herself for making the blameless John sound so boring. For all she knew, John had the latest technology coming out of his ears. ‘Anyway, I’m sure he’ll wait, but I’d better get going…’

‘Where are you meeting him?’

‘At Covent Garden.’

‘In a restaurant?’

‘No, in a bar-not that it’s any business of yours!’

‘Which one?’

‘Look, what’s with the interrogation?’ demanded Nell, ruffled.

P.J. held up his hands. ‘No interrogation. It’s just that I’m on my way to Covent Garden myself. I could give you a lift.’

‘There’s really no need,’ she began, but P.J. interrupted her.

‘I insist,’ he said. ‘As you’ve just pointed out, it’s my fault that you’re late, so it’s the least I can do.’

‘I’ll take the tube,’ said Nell stiffly, distrusting his motives. ‘It will be easier.’

‘In those shoes?’ P.J. nodded down at her feet. You didn’t need to be an aficionado of footwear to realise that those delicate straps and elegant heels weren’t meant for walking. ‘You know how far you have to walk along the tunnels underground, and I didn’t see a spare pair of shoes in that bag. It wouldn’t do that ankle of yours any good.’

That was unanswerable. This was Thea’s fault, Nell thought vengefully.

‘I wouldn’t have had to walk at all if you hadn’t made me come here,’ she grumbled, falling back on accusation. ‘I haven’t met a single one of your precious team and I’m just as much in the dark about your famous company culture as I was this afternoon! It’s been a complete waste of time.’

‘I wouldn’t say that,’ said P.J., and the undercurrent of amusement in his voice made Nell look at him sharply.

‘What on earth was the point of inviting me, then?’

‘I wanted to see you again,’ he said simply. ‘You wouldn’t have dinner with me, and getting you to come along this evening was the best I could think of on the spur of the moment.’

‘P.J…’ Nell wrenched her gaze away from the dancing blue depths. Couldn’t he see how impossible it would be? ‘I…I’d better go,’ she stammered, looking around for somewhere to put down her glass.

‘Yes, you mustn’t keep John waiting any longer,’ P.J. agreed affably. ‘Here, let me take that glass.’ As if by magic, a waiter materialised at his side and he put the glasses on the tray with a nod of thanks before turning back to Nell. ‘Ready?’

‘Really, I’ll be fine…’

‘Nell, I’m just an old friend offering you a lift,’ said P.J. patiently. ‘What’s the harm in that?’

None, if she could think of him as just an old friend. But he could never be that to her now. The current of awareness still ran between them too strongly for that.

‘What about everyone here?’ She hung back, gesturing around the crowded room.

‘What about them?’

‘I thought you were sponsoring this event. Won’t they miss you?’

‘It’s nothing to do with me,’ said P.J., unconcerned. ‘I don’t even get to sign the cheques anymore. It’s a corporate affair, and I’m just invited along with everyone else. Anyway, I’ve got a date myself.’

‘Oh.’ Nell was horrified at the wave of sickening jealousy that engulfed her.

‘That’s why I’m on my way to Covent Garden,’ he explained, flipping open a tiny mobile phone and pressing a button. ‘I’m meeting her there.’

‘Oh,’ said Nell again in a hollow voice.

‘Come on, let’s go.’

There was no point in arguing any further. One warm hand on her elbow, P.J. propelled her firmly through the crowd, nodding and smiling at various people, but stopping for no one.

By the time they made it to the entrance, his car was already waiting. The driver got out, and handed the keys to P.J. before vanishing discreetly.

‘Very convenient,’ said Nell, trying to recover some of her earlier combative spirit.

‘Isn’t it?’ said P.J. cheerfully as he opened the door for her. ‘I just buzz him when I’m ready to leave, and he has the car waiting for me outside.’

‘It must be nice never to have to worry about parking tickets.’

‘One of the bonuses of being a billionaire,’ he agreed with a sidelong grin, and got in beside her.

Something had changed, Nell thought suspiciously, eyeing him under her lashes as he slotted the key into the ignition. He had been unusually prickly earlier, almost unpleasant when he was needling her about John, and it had crossed her mind that he might even have been jealous, but there was no sign of that tension now. His normal good humour was completely restored. She could see it in the curve of his mouth and in the glint of his eyes, hear it in the undercurrent of teasing laughter in his voice. He seemed almost…elated was the only word that sprang to mind.

He was obviously looking forward to his evening, and why not? There was no reason for P.J. to dread his date the way she was dreading hers.

The news that P.J. was dating someone had left Nell with a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. She felt ridiculous. All that fuss she had made about the need to resist him! She had been so sure that he too was conscious of the surge and crackle of awareness between them, and she had been afraid that he would try and resurrect their relationship. Now it turned out that she could have spared herself the effort of worrying about it all!

P.J. hadn’t mentioned anyone, so she had just assumed that he didn’t have a girlfriend, but she should have known better. Of course a man like P.J. would have someone special in his life.

He had said that he wanted to see her, though, Nell reminded herself. But then, what did that mean? He might simply want to catch up on old times. It didn’t mean that he wanted to pick up where they had left off sixteen years ago, did it?

And now he had a date. P.J. was strictly a one-woman man, so obviously she really was just an old friend as far as P.J. was concerned. She ought to be pleased, Nell thought mournfully. Wasn’t it exactly what she had decided herself? She had been determined not to let him back into her life, and now it looked as if she wouldn’t have to. Everything was perfect.

Everything being perfect should have made things easier, but instead Nell felt even more awkward than before.

‘So…are you meeting someone nice?’ she managed at last.

‘Oh, yes,’ said P.J. and turned to smile his heart-stopping smile. ‘She’s the nicest person I know. And the most beautiful,’ he added.

‘She sounds lovely.’ Nell fixed on an answering smile so bright it made her jaw ache. ‘Lucky you.’

‘I hope so.’

She turned slightly in her seat to look at him in surprise. ‘What do you mean?’

‘I’m not sure how she feels about me,’ said P.J. carefully.

She was probably head over heels in love with him, thought Nell. How could she not be?

‘You should ask her,’ she said. That was the kind of advice one old friend gave to another, wasn’t it?

P.J. seemed very interested in her opinion. ‘Do you really think so?’

‘Of course.’ Nell managed a careless shrug, as if it didn’t make any difference to her one way or another. ‘At least then you’ll know where you are.’

‘But what if she tells me she doesn’t love me?’

Inside Nell, it felt as if a cold hand were clamped around her heart, squeezing it so painfully that it was hard to breathe. ‘It’s better if you’re both honest about how you feel, isn’t it?’ she managed.

‘That’s the thing,’ said P.J. ‘I don’t think she has been entirely honest with me so far.’

‘Why not?’

‘She’s been hurt,’ he said slowly. ‘She doesn’t trust me.’

‘Perhaps she doesn’t trust herself,’ said Nell, concentrating on breathing in and out and on not thinking about the pain in her heart at the knowledge of how deeply P.J. loved the new woman in his life.

P.J. glanced at her thoughtfully. ‘I think you might be right, Nell,’ he said. ‘How can I make her trust me, though?’

Nell’s throat hurt with the effort of not crying. ‘You need to be patient, that’s all.’

‘It’s hard being patient,’ he said.

‘I know, but if you really love her, she’s worth it, isn’t she?’ Her voice cracked slightly at the end, and she looked fiercely out of the passenger window.

‘Oh, yes,’ said P.J. ‘She’s worth everything.’

Nell couldn’t see his expression, but she could hear the warmth and the tenderness in his voice, and the cruel grip on her heart tightened, but she made herself swallow and take a deep breath.

‘I’m so glad you’ve found someone you can love like that, P.J.,’ she said, proud of how steady her voice sounded. ‘I hope it works out for you.’

‘I hope so, too,’ he said. He glanced at her. ‘And thanks for your advice, Nell. That’s helped me a lot.’

‘Good.’ Nell’s smile wavered a little, but she forced it back into place. ‘I’m really happy for you.’

But she didn’t feel happy. She felt desolate at the thought of him loving someone else.

Why had he come back? She had been fine on her own, Nell thought bitterly. She had been bumbling along with Clara, missing having someone to hold sometimes, wishing there were someone to hold her when times were hard, but on the whole…she was OK. More than OK. She had been happy. Happyish, anyway.

And now P.J. had spoilt that. He had made her think about how empty her life was beyond Clara. He had made the future seem bleak and lonely, where before it had simply been more of the same. It had taken her years to bury her memories of him, but a single day to bring them all back. It was like waking up to find a dream being dangled tantalisingly in front of her, only to vanish the moment she thought about reaching for it and making it real, and now she felt sick with disappointment and yearning.

And these might be the last few minutes she would have with him, Nell realised with a spurt of panic. He had a new woman in his life, and there would be no reason for them to meet again.

She longed to touch P.J. one more time. She wanted to reach over and put her hand on his thigh, to lean across and press her lips to his throat. She wanted to make him stop and pull the car over and kiss her. She wanted to roll back time, to go back sixteen years and have her chance again, and this time she wouldn’t blow it. She would make the right choice.

But there was no going back, was there? Time only went one way.

The silence was excruciating. Nell was afraid that P.J. would hear her heart thumping, and the pounding of her pulse as she clutched her hands around the little bag to keep them from crawling across to him. The traffic was very heavy, and the journey seemed to take forever.

By the time they got to Trafalgar Square, Nell could stand it no longer.

‘I think it’ll be quicker for me if I walk from here,’ she said as the traffic light turned red once more.

‘But what about your feet?’ P.J. asked in concern. ‘It’s still quite a walk from here in those shoes.’

‘They’ll be fine,’ Nell insisted. ‘It’s not that far now, and I don’t want to keep John waiting any longer.’

‘Well, if you’re sure…’

Nell didn’t know whether to be relieved or sorry when P.J. made no further protest. His mind was obviously on the evening to come and the woman he loved.

‘I’m sure.’ She undid her seat belt with hands that trembled slightly and reached for the door handle. ‘I hope you won’t be late for your own date.’

P.J. glanced at his watch. ‘I think she’ll understand if I’m a few minutes late,’ he said, and a smile touched the corners of his mouth in a way that made Nell’s heart clench. ‘Anyone can see what the traffic is like tonight. You might even find that you get to your bar before John,’ he added. ‘But I’m sure that won’t be a problem. He sounds like a guy worth waiting for.’

‘Oh, yes,’ said Nell, wishing she had never embarked on the whole John fantasy. Still, it was too late to put P.J. right now. ‘Yes, he is.’

She opened the door. ‘Well, good luck with everything,’ she said, as casually as she could.

‘You, too.’

The lights would change if she didn’t get on with it. It was all Nell could do to get out of the car and fix on a bright smile as she closed the door and bent to say goodbye through the open window. ‘Thanks again for the lift.’

P.J. smiled. ‘Goodbye, Nell,’ he said softly.

At the last moment, Nell’s brave smile slipped. ‘Goodbye,’ she said, a treacherous wobble in her voice, and she turned quickly and made herself walk away before he could see the tears in her eyes.

She was limping badly by the time she made it to the bar where she was to meet John, but in a strange way it was almost a comfort to concentrate on the pain in her feet rather than on the pain in her heart.

Never had she felt less like a blind date! The thought of sitting and trying to be friendly and interested in a man who, however nice he was, wasn’t P.J. made Nell feel more miserable than ever, but she was here now, and it wouldn’t be fair to John to just leave him sitting there.

The fairest thing would be to tell him straight that she was in love with somebody else, she realised. There was no point in pretending anything else. Thea would be cross with her, but if John was as nice as her sister had said, he would understand. He would probably rather be told the truth. Hadn’t she told P.J. that it was better to be honest about how you felt?

Nell looked at her watch. After all of that, she wasn’t as late as she had thought. Pushing open the door, she went in and hesitated just inside, looking around for anyone who looked as if he might be called John. The bar wasn’t too busy, and there were only two men there on their own, neither of whom looked old enough to be John. Nell tried not to look as if she was staring as she walked past the tables where they were sitting, but there was no sign of a Swahili dictionary, and, anyway, neither of them appeared to be looking for her.

The traffic was bad, though, as P.J. had pointed out. Maybe John was stuck somewhere. She had better give him a chance to turn up, anyway.

Choosing a seat where she could be seen from the door, Nell ordered herself a glass of wine and carefully put the Swahili phrase book in full view on the table in front of her. She would give John half an hour, and then she would go.

Normally Nell would have felt very conspicuous at being so obviously waiting for a blind date, but right then she didn’t care about anything other than the fact that she had just said goodbye to P.J. again. How was she going to bear it?

For something to do, she picked up the phrase book and studied it dully, but it was too full of the memories that P.J. had brought back so vividly. She thought about the good times they had had, the dreams they had dreamed together, and just for a moment she let herself imagine what it would have been like if she hadn’t chosen Simon.

But she had, and she had to take responsibility for that. Nobody had made her choose him, she had done that herself. She had made a mistake, and she had to live with it. In so many ways she was lucky, Nell reminded herself. Clara was healthy and happy. She had loving family and friends, a place to live, and a good job.

She just didn’t have P.J.

Well, she had managed without him before and she would manage without him again…but, oh, it was going to be so much harder now. In spite of her determination to keep up a good face, a tear trickled down Nell’s nose and she brushed it angrily away just as a Swahili dictionary was laid quietly on the table in front of her.

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