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The service was over.
Nell knew she must get up and walk outside, but she wasn't sure she could trust her legs to carry her. She had never felt so bereft, didn't know how to cope with the sense of loss.
It was so much worse today than twenty years ago, when they'd taken Tegan away from her. She had been in hospital then, too ill and medicated to fully understand what was happening. This week, a highway smash that rated a thirty-second mention on the six o'clock news had taken her daughter away from her for ever. Today there was nothing to deaden Nell's pain.
Her memories of Tegan were so few. And so cruel. The newborn bundle in her arms, the strong little limbs kicking against the tightly wrapped blanket, just as they had kicked in her womb. The little face and bright, dark eyes.
The soft cap of dark hair, the tiny red mouth. The unique, newborn smell of her.
The memories cut into Nell and she wished she could gather her pain around her and disappear completely. It was a blessing, at least, that everyone's sympathy had been showered on Jean and Bill Browne, the couple who had adopted Tegan. Nell knew she must go and speak to them, just as soon as she regained her composure.
Nell turned stiffly and saw Jean approaching the end of her pew, twisting a damp handkerchief as she peered at her anxiously.
'Jean.' With a hand on the back of the pew for support, Nell struggled to her feet. 'I'm sorry I haven't spoken to you yet.'
The two womenadoptive mother and birth motherstood, facing each other. Jean Browne looked exhausted, her pale blue eyes rimmed with red, her short grey hair flat and lifeless.
'Please' The women had met before, on the day after the accident, but now, unable to think clearly, to find the right words, Nell clung to formalities. 'Please accept my condolences.'
Jean's pale eyes swam with tears. 'This is hard for you, too.'
'Yes.' Fighting a dull headache, Nell gathered up her handbag and continued along the pew on unsteady legs. 'I've mentioned this to you before, but I want you to know that I'm very, very grateful to you and Bill. You gave Tegan a wonderfully happy home andand everything she needed.'
Jean nodded, sent Nell a fleeting, watery smile, then her face crumpled. 'You were such a help the other day. I've been hoping to speak to you. About the baby.'
Nell pressed shaking fingers to her mouth. She'd broken down completely during the eulogy, when the speaker had mentioned Tegan's little son, born just a few short weeks ago.
'I had to leave Sam with a sitter today,' Jean said. 'But I knew that you would like to see him again, especially as Mr Tucker's here as well.'
If Nell hadn't been clutching the back of the pew, she would almost certainly have fallen.
Jacob Tucker was here?
Had he been here throughout the funeral?
An unbearable, thrilling, panicky terror gripped her as Jean flicked a sideways glance back down the aisle. Like the needle of a magnet, Nell whirled around and there was Jacob, standing at the back of the chapel, near the door, tall and stern, with his shoulders back.
His face was partly in shadow but there was no mistaking his chiselled features. All trace of the smooth-skinned boy had vanished, but his strong brows and nose, the handsome cleft in his chin, were still, after twenty years, painfully familiar.
He was wearing a dark suit but, despite the city clothes, the Outback clung to him like a second skin. It was there in the tan on his skin, in the hard-packed leanness of his body, in the creases at his eyes, in the way he stood, poised for action.
And there was a roughness about him now that was unsettling. Devastating.
Nell could still remember with perfect clarity the first time she'd seen him in her father's stables, remembered the shock of attraction that had startled her, enslaved her. She remembered, too, the awful morning on the river bank, the last time she had seen him.
Apart from the occasional photo in cattle-men's magazinesand yes, she'd scanned them regularly, hungry for any news of Jacob Tuckershe knew next to nothing about his life. He'd become a very successful grazier, but there had been no contact between them in twenty years so his private life was a blank.
'I've already spoken to Mr Tucker,' Jean said.
On cue, from the back of the chapel, Jacob offered Nell an unsmiling, almost imperceptible dip of his head.
Her heart pounded. Now she could see the expression in his eyes, the way he looked at her with a mixture of pain and contempt.
She tightened her grip on the back of the pew. With another despairing glance at Jacob, she turned back to Jean. 'I'm sorry. What were you saying?'
'I thought Mr Tucker might like to meet Sam. And I wanted to talk to you both, if possible. I have a problem, you see.'
A stranger, a woman in a green felt hat, bustled into the chapel. 'Oh, there you are, Jean. Sorry, we thought we'd lost you.'
'I won't be long,' Jean told her, then she turned quickly back to Nell. 'I can't talk for very long now. I've got to take Bill home and collect the baby from the sitter. But there's something I need to discuss with you. And Mr Tucker.'
Jean blew her nose and darted another glance in Jacob's direction. And now, as if he'd been waiting for some kind of signal, he began to walk towards them.
Nell's breathing faltered. She'd forgotten how big he was, how broad-shouldered and tall, and as his long strides closed the gap between them, she had to look up to see his face. She saw signs of strain in the bleakness of his eyes and in the vertical lines at either side of his grim mouth.
'Jacob,' she managed, but her mouth began to tremble. She was exhausted and dazed and seeing his stern face was almost too much.
He said, 'Mrs Browne has kindly invited me to meet our grandson.'
Nell wasn't sure which word shocked her more. Our suggested that the two of them were still united in some way. Grandson hinted at an intimate connection over many, many years, but they were strangers. And not yet forty.
'Maybe this is the wrong time,' Jean said, eyeing them both and sensing their tension. 'II have to go. But I couldn't let you both take off without speaking to you.'
'I'm so glad you did,' Nell said, clasping the woman's hand. 'And I'd adore seeing Sam again. That's very kind. We' She swallowed to ease her choked throat.
'Perhaps you'd rather come separately?' Jean suggested, darting a glance of sharp-eyed curiosity from one to the other.
Nell felt her cheeks grow hot.
'I think we should come together.' Jacob spoke directly to Jean, as if Nell wasn't there. 'You won't want too many interruptions.'
'It would certainly be easier if I could discuss my problem with both of you.'
What was this problem that needed discussing? Nell wished Jean wasn't so evasive, but it certainly wasn't the time to challenge her.
'Would tomorrow morning suit?' Jean asked. 'Will you still be in Melbourne, Mr Tucker?'
'Yes, I'm staying for a few days.'
'At around eleven?'
'Eleven suits me fine.'
'And me,' Nell agreed.
Jean shoved her damp handkerchief into her handbag and snapped it shut as if, somehow, the gesture ended the matter. 'I'll see you then.'
With that she turned and scuttled out of the chapel, clearly relieved to leave Nell and Jacob alone.
Jacob stood at the end of Nell's pew, blocking her exit. She took two steps towards him, as if she expected him to be a gentleman and make way for her, but she was out of luck today. He'd been to hell and back in this chapel, saying farewell to a daughter he had never known, had never held, hadn't so much as touched.
No one here could have guessed or understood how he had loved and missed Tegan, without ever knowing her.
And this woman, whom he'd loved and lost in one short summer, had given their daughter away. So why was she here now, pretending she cared?
'I didn't expect you to be here,' he said between tight lips.
Nell shook her head and she was so close to him, he could smell her perfume, elusive and sweet and unbearably intimate.
'Why wouldn't I come?' Her voice was so choked he could only just catch the words. 'This is our daughter's funeral, Jacob.'
'But you gave Tegan away.'
How could she lie? Jacob wanted to confront her, to demand that she retract her lie, but, heaven help him, she looked so vulnerable and tired. Too pale.
To his dismay, Nell swayed on her feet and sank down on to the pew, closed her eyes and hunched over, pressing her fingers to her temples. He stared at the top of her golden head and at the play of jewelled lights from a stained glass window throwing red and blue patterns over her.
Her hair was incredibly shiny and so much neater than he remembered. As a girl it had flowed in rumpled waves loose to her shoulders. He reached out a hand, but he didn't touch her. 'Are you OK?'
With her eyes closed, she nodded her head. 'Just tired and sad.'
A moment later, her eyes opened and she turned her head slowly, carefully, almost as if her neck were stiff, and looked up at him. Her blue eyes were lovelyeven lovelier than he'd remembered. Looking into them, he felt punch-drunk.
'I really need to go home now,' she said.
Her weakness launched him into gallantry. The questions consuming him would have to wait. 'Of course.'
This time, when he reached down, he touched her sleeve at the elbow. 'Let me drive you.'
Pink stole into her cheeks. 'That's not necessary.'
'Did you bring your car?'
'No,'she admitted reluctantly. 'I came by taxi.'
'Then there's no argument.' His hand closed around her arm and he watched the colour in her cheeks spread. 'Come on.'
To his surprise, she didn't pull away from him, but rose obediently. Everything felt unreal as they walked together out of the chapel into sunshine and fresh air. The mourners had disappeared and the late model Mercedes he'd hired stood alone in the car park.
From a distance of ten paces, Jacob unlocked it. Its lights blinked and Nell gave a little mew of surprise.
'It's only hired.' He walked to the passenger's side and opened the door for her, watching every elegant movement as she ducked her head and sat, drawing her slim legs neatly inside. Grimly, he closed her door, walked around the car and got in beside her, wishing he could feel calm.
Keep your mind on the traffic. Forget that it's Nell. And don't think about the past. No sense in dragging her into an argument now.
'Where to?' Jacob asked, forcing cheerfulness into his voice. 'Would you like to go somewhere for coffee?'
Nell shook her head. 'I just need to get home, please.'
'That's in Toorak, right?'