CHAPTER TEN

‘I’M SORRY I’m late.’

Nell stared at the hand on the dictionary, riveted by the whiteness of the cuff against brown skin, by the gleam of gold cufflinks and the fine dark hairs at the broad male wrist. Very, very slowly, her stunned grey gaze travelled up the sleeve of the dinner jacket, along the shoulder and up at last to the face that went with the voice.

P.J.

Still in thrall to utter disbelief, she dropped her eyes down to the dictionary as if to confirm it was what she thought it was, and then lifted them back to his face.

‘You?’ she whispered.

‘Peter John,’ P.J. reminded her. He pulled out a chair and sat down opposite her. ‘Janey and Thea decided you wouldn’t come if you knew it was me, so they used my second name instead.’

Nell sat mouse-still, staring at him like an owl, hardly daring to believe what was happening, and too stunned to understand anything beyond the fact that suddenly, miraculously, he was there. She felt almost frightened, as if she had conjured him up by the power of her longing and he weren’t quite real.

I thought I was coming to meet someone called Helen,’ P.J. went on, more unnerved by her silence than he wanted to admit. ‘Why didn’t I know that about you? I didn’t realise Nell was an abbreviation of Helen, although I know that’s not why you’re called Nell…’

He could hear himself burbling nervously and made himself stop. ‘I’m talking too much,’ he acknowledged, and looked straight into Nell’s beautiful grey eyes. ‘Do you mind?’ he asked simply.

‘Mind?’ echoed Nell, although the word came out as barely more than a croak.

‘That it’s me, instead of another John?’

The uncertainty in his expression broke the spell that held Nell motionless. This wasn’t a dream. This was a real man, unsure of himself after all, and she gave something between a laugh and a sob, and shook her head.

‘No,’ she said, smiling through the tears that brimmed her eyes, ‘I don’t mind.’

P.J. reached out and took her hands in his, holding them tightly across the table in a warm, firm grasp. ‘I’m glad,’ he said. ‘Part of me was afraid that you would be angry.’

‘I should be,’ said Nell, but fingers were twining round his. ‘But not with you. I presume this is Thea and Janey’s doing?’

‘They set it up between them, apparently. After they got in touch on that internet site, Janey couldn’t wait to tell Thea her favourite theory about me.’

‘What theory is that?’

‘The one that says that I’d never got over you,’ said P.J. with a rueful smile. ‘Ever since I came back to London, and she discovered from Thea that you were divorced, Janey’s been going on and on at me to get in touch with you, but I was afraid of raking up the past. I thought it would be better to leave things as they were…and then I saw you this morning, and I realised that Janey had been right all along, which of course she’s absolutely delighted about!’

Nell couldn’t help laughing at his expression. ‘Thea will be unbearable, too. She’s been doing the same thing. Why didn’t I contact you? Why didn’t I give you a ring and just say hello? You can imagine! And the more she talked about you, the more I refused to see you.’

‘Were you anxious about the past, too?’ asked P.J., and she thought about it a while.

‘That was part of it, of course, but mainly I was really intimidated because I’d heard that you were so rich and successful. It just seemed like we had different lives now and that it would be better to keep them that way.’

‘I know what you mean,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘It’s as if we’ve been on separate paths, that have gone off in different directions, and twisted and turned, but still somehow been meant to bring us back together today. We’ll let our sisters think it was down to them, but, really, I think we’d have met anyway. I think that was the way it was meant to be.’

‘I wonder,’ said Nell, thinking about what he had said. ‘Certainly the first two meetings today had nothing to do with Thea or Janey, did they?’

‘No, and the third time was me deciding to take a hand in my own affairs,’ said P.J. with a grin. ‘I thought fate had done enough and it was up to me to get you back-although, as it turned out, I could have left it to my sister!’

Nell smiled, and he released her hands at last. She took a sip of her wine, conscious of the tension slowly trickling away from her spine and her shoulders. ‘When did you know that it was me you were meeting tonight?’

‘Not until you dropped your bag. All Janey would tell me about the blind date she’d set me up on was that I was to meet a divorced friend of hers called-she said-Helen, who was very nice and I’d know her because she’d have a Swahili phrase book with her. When I saw that it had fallen out of your bag, I felt…’

P.J. trailed off, trying to find the right words to explain how everything had suddenly fallen into place, and the world had lifted from his shoulders. ‘I can’t describe how I felt.’ He gave up at last. ‘When I dropped you at Trafalgar Square, I rang Janey and asked her straight out if it was you I was supposed to be meeting, and she confessed.’

‘Why on earth didn’t they just tell us?’ grumbled Nell.

‘I think they thought that we would bottle out if we knew what they were planning.’

‘I probably would have done,’ she conceded reluctantly, ‘but at least it might have saved me making a colossal fool of myself! I’m going to kill Thea when I see her! You must have thought I was an idiot, pretending that I’d found the perfect man in John!’

‘I’m just relieved that he’s turned out to be me, to be honest,’ said P.J. with a crooked smile. ‘The thought of him gave me some bad moments! I was pretty jealous of him.’

Nell put down her glass in surprise. ‘Surely you guessed that he wasn’t real?’

‘Only after I saw the phrase book. He sounded so perfect, so exactly what you wanted. I had no reason to believe that he wasn’t real.’

She flushed, remembering the fibs she had told. ‘I don’t know why I made up all that about him,’ she said, twisting the stem of the glass between her fingers. ‘I suppose I didn’t want you to think that I was just a sad divorcee.’

It was P.J.’s turn to look surprised. ‘There was no chance of that, Nell! Why on earth would I think that? There you were, with a lovely daughter, a good job and-it seemed-a great man. It looked to me as if you had your life under perfect control.’

‘Whereas in fact I’m chaotic and clumsy, with daughter who bosses me around and an imaginary lover,’ said Nell, amused at the very idea of her having her life under control. If only!

‘I know better now,’ P.J. agreed solemnly. ‘I’ll admit it was a relief to discover that you weren’t quite as perfect as you seemed at first.’ Smiling, he lifted his hand to trace the line of her cheek with infinite tenderness. ‘Although you’ll always be pretty perfect to me,’ he said softly.

‘Oh, P.J…’ Sudden tears trembled on Nell’s lashes. ‘How can you say that when I hurt you so much? I was so stupid about Simon,’ she told him. ‘I’m so sorry.’

‘I hurt you, too,’ he pointed out gently. ‘I should have paid you more attention when you needed it. I was too busy thinking about the future when I should have been listening to you and what you wanted in the present.’

Reaching for her hand, he closed his fingers around hers firmly. ‘That’s the thing about relationships. It takes two to make it, two to break it. It wasn’t just you, Nell. At least you were honest with me. You told me as soon as you realised that you were attracted to Simon, and that must have taken guts. It didn’t help that I went off the deep end. If I’d been older, I might have stuck it out, and given you some space to think about things instead of ending it all there and then.’

‘I was such a fool. I had no idea how lucky I was.’ A single tear wobbled over Nell’s lashes and trickled down the side of her nose until P.J. wiped it away tenderly with his thumb.

‘Nell, it was a long time ago.’

‘I just wish I could do it all again better.’

‘But then you wouldn’t have Clara, and I wouldn’t have my company. The last sixteen years haven’t been all bad, have they?’

‘No,’ Nell had to agree, thinking of her daughter.

‘I have missed you, though,’ P.J. confessed.

‘For sixteen years?’ She smiled, still a little tearfully. ‘I don’t believe you’ve been pining all that time!’

‘I wouldn’t say I’d been pining exactly,’ he admitted. ‘I haven’t been unhappy, and there have been women, yes. But none of them were you, Nell. Another of Janey’s theories is that all my girlfriends looked like you, and that I spent my time trying to find a substitute for you. She thinks that’s why my relationships never came to anything. I wanted them to, but subconsciously maybe I was comparing them to you.’

He smiled and shook his head. ‘The crazy thing is that if you’d told me yesterday that that was what I felt-as Janey always did-I would have insisted that it wasn’t true, but all I had to do was look at you this morning, in your old jogging suit and trainers, and I knew that I had loved you all along.

‘I went straight into work and rang Janey and tried to get out of the date she’d set me up on tonight, but she wouldn’t let me. I should have guessed what she was up to, but I didn’t. I thought I was going to have to spend the evening making polite small talk with a divorcee when all I wanted was to be with you.

‘Janey was right.’ Still holding her hand, P.J. looked deep into Nell’s grey eyes. ‘It’s only ever been you, Nell. You’re my one and only, just like they used to say. Being near you again was like coming home for me. I was so desperate to see you again, and it was a real blow when you said you didn’t want to see me.’

Nell tightened her fingers around his. ‘I was afraid,’ she said honestly, and his brows drew together slightly.

‘Of me?’

‘Of the way you made me feel,’ she said. ‘I’m like you. I’ve spent sixteen years telling myself I’d forgotten you, and then a couple of weeks ago Thea mentioned your name… Since then I’ve been remembering, and regretting, and just wanting something I knew couldn’t have.’ Her smile twisted. ‘I’m not sure what it was. I think probably I just wanted to be that confident and certain again. I wanted to be loved the way you used to love me.’

‘Then why not have dinner with me when I asked you this morning?’

Nell sighed. ‘I don’t know… It all just seemed too difficult somehow. We were different people, and I thought everything had changed, but the more I saw of you today, the more it seemed that nothing had changed at all, and that made it even worse!

‘I told myself that it would be easier if I didn’t get involved, that it would be better to draw a line under the past again, all of that. I did my best to resist,’ she told him as if he had accused her of not making enough of an effort to forget him. ‘It didn’t do any good, but I couldn’t admit that deep down I wanted to see you again desperately. I was afraid you would think that I only loved you for your money now.’

Do you?’ asked P.J. urgently.

‘Of course not!’

His grip on her hands tightened. ‘No…I mean, do you love me?’

Nell let her eyes rest on the familiar, exciting lines of his face, seeing there the boy who had loved her, the man who loved her still, and her heart swelled with happiness.

‘Yes, I do.’ It was such a relief to be able to say it at last. ‘I know it’s crazy when we’ve only been back together a day, but there’s nothing I can do about it. Not loving you, letting myself forget you… It was like losing part of me, and, this morning, it seemed as if I had found it again.’

‘That’s how I feel, too.’ The smile that had started in P.J.’s eyes when she’d told him that she loved him spread over his face, and the strength of his feeling seemed to reverberate through the touch of his hands all the way up Nell’s arm. ‘I love you, too, Nell. I’ve always loved you. There’s been a bit missing from me, ever since we’ve been apart, and you’re the only person who can put it back.’

‘P.J…’ At the look in his eyes, the air evaporated from Nell’s lungs.

‘Come here,’ he said softly, leaning forward and pulling her towards him so that he could kiss her across the table.

The touch of his lips unlocked a torrent of emotion in Nell. It cascaded through her, a joyous blend of relief and release, of pleasure and promise, of excitement and the sheer exhilaration of loving and being loved. She had forgotten what a wonderful feeling that was, and she kissed him back with a kind of desperation, needing to show him how he made her feel.

‘Let’s go.’ P.J.’s voice was ragged as they broke the kiss at last. ‘I can’t kiss you properly here.’

Nell’s bones were liquid with desire, but somehow she got to her feet, belatedly remembering her bag and the phrase book. ‘My wine…’ she said, groping for some money.

‘Here.’ Too impatient to bother about change, P.J. tucked a ten-pound note under her glass. Picking up his dictionary, he took a firm hold of Nell with his other hand and they practically ran for the door.

They could hardly wait until they were outside. P.J. pulled her into the nearest doorway and they kissed hungrily.

This time there was no table between them, and it felt so good to be able to put her arms round him at last, to cling to the glorious granite strength of his body, to hold him and touch him and smell the deliciously clean male scent of his skin. Nell couldn’t kiss him long enough, hold him close enough, and it was only the need to breathe that made her break away at last and rest her face against his throat with a long, shuddering sigh of contentment.

P.J. smiled into her hair as he held her. ‘We could do without all these bags and books,’ he pretended to grumble. ‘They’re hampering my style!’

‘It would be nice to have two hands,’ Nell agreed, laughing. ‘Let’s find somewhere to sit.’

They wandered round the busy piazza in search of a bench, but ended up sitting on some stone steps. At least they could put down the books, and hold each other properly.

‘It feels like being teenagers again, doesn’t it?’ said P.J. as Nell nestled into the circle of his arm. ‘Trying to find somewhere to kiss where no one would walk in on us-particularly your mother!’

Nell smiled, but then sobered at the realisation that they weren’t in fact teenagers anymore. ‘I wish things could be as simple as they were then,’ she said wistfully.

‘I love you and you love me,’ he said. ‘It seems simple enough to me.’

‘But it isn’t, is it? There’s Clara to think about.’

‘Of course.’ P.J. turned to look down into Nell’s face, and he frowned at her worried expression. ‘You don’t think it will be a problem for her, do you?’

Nell thought about what Clara had said about P.J. ‘To be honest, I think she’ll be delighted. She worries about me being on my own, and she liked you. She thought you had smiley eyes.’

She shook her head. ‘No, Clara won’t mind…but will you? I don’t exactly come unencumbered. I’m not the same person I was before, P.J. I’ve got all the emotional baggage of a nasty divorce, and a child who takes up a lot of my attention. Clara’s fantastic, but it’s not always easy.’

She sighed. ‘I wish we could just pick up where we left off, but I don’t see how we can do that.’

‘We can’t, but we can start again, can’t we?’ P.J. took her hand and turned it over, running his finger over the veins and the faint beginnings of fine lines. ‘I did love you in the past, Nell, and it’s true that I carried a dream of you all these years, but I’m not in love with a memory. Clara is part of who you are now, and that’s the you I love. I don’t want you the way you were, because I’m not the way I was then either.’

Gently, he touched the edges of her eyes. ‘I want the Nell who’s older and wiser and has laughter lines around her eyes and wears sensible shoes to walk to work.’

And he drew her close and kissed her again, and Nell felt her last doubts dissolve. ‘Marry me, Nell,’ he said. ‘Marry me, and we’ll take Clara to Africa with us on our honeymoon. Let’s do all the things we always dreamed of doing, but let’s do them together this time.’

Nell drew back slightly, her eyes intent as she looked at him. Like her, he was older, a little bit battered around the edges, but he was still P.J. She loved the boy he had been, and she loved the man he had become, and it was hard to believe how lucky she was. Against all the odds, she had been given a second chance, and she had to grasp it with both hands.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘let’s do that,’ and she smiled back at him as he pulled her towards him to seal their promise with a long, sweet kiss.

It was much later when a yawn caught Nell by surprise, and P.J. hauled her to her feet. ‘It’s time I took you home,’ he said as they laughed ruefully at the stiffness of their definitely non-adolescent bones after sitting still on the stone steps for so long. ‘It’s been a long day.’

‘It’s been an incredible day,’ said Nell, rubbing her bottom, weary but ballooning with happiness. ‘I can’t believe how much has happened,’ she marvelled. ‘Twenty-four hours ago, I couldn’t have imagined meeting you again, loving you again, actually agreeing to marry you again, and yet, here we are, just a day later, and my life has changed utterly and completely.’

P.J. smiled and put his arm around her to lead her back to the car and take her home. ‘Sometimes a day is all it takes,’ he said.

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