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"PLEASE don't let it be Tom," Della Davis muttered when her mobile phone rang.
She reached into her handbag with one hand and skilfully steered the car around the corner with the other. She didn't need another call from Tom Dermont, client from hell. She'd spent most of the day dealing with him, and he'd turned her mind to mush.
After coming to a standstill in the side street, she delved deeper into the large leather bag. Retrieving the phone from the very bottom, she steeled herself to see the caller's ID. If it was Tom again, she'd scream. Better yet, she'd resign.
The phone stopped ringing as she flipped it open. Great. She closed it with a snap and dropped it into her lap, sorely tempted to switch it off. But her conscience wouldn't let her. Nor would she resign. She had too much to lose, including the promotion she'd worked so hard for.
Still, she'd had enough of Tom for one day—her least favorite person at the best of times and, in a PR crisis like today's, her worst nightmare.
"Remind me why I love my job," she said out loud. Silence was the only response, and she shrugged, wincing at the stiffness in her shoulders. She needed a relaxing soak in her favorite lavender-scented bath foam.
Rolling her shoulders slowly, she pictured herself collapsing into bed…but not to sleep. Not to do anything normal people did in bed. Fat chance. She'd brought piles of work home, and she'd be sitting up with it till she fell asleep on the laptop. Again.
A beep from the phone made Della jump. Accessing her voicemail, she sighed with relief at the sound of her best friend's bright tones. She rang Lyn straight back. Just what she needed. The perfectantidote for the way she felt.
Lyn answered on the first ring. "I'm in the car," she said. Della heard the familiar background track of Jamie, aged four, singing at the top of his voice and Cassie, six months, drowning him out with her wails.
"I have big news," Lyn said.
Della rolled her eyes, but smiled at Lyn's excitement. "Where are we going this time?"
"Where are we going?" "I have more than enough shoes, Lynnie, so I hope it's not another—"
"No, no. It's not a sale. Not this time. Luke's coming home. For good."
It took a moment for Lyn's words to register. Della blinked at the phone. 'What did you say?"
"Shock, isn't it? Good one, though. I can't wait to see him." Too stunned to speak, Della wondered what she'd done to deserve this. On top of everything else. Today of all days.
"Shock" was an understatement. Oh, she'd known Luke would come home one day. He'd always said he wouldn't stay overseas for ever. But she'd expected to have some notice. Time to prepare herself before seeing him again. With his wife.
"Dell, hon? Are you there?"
Della snapped out of her trance. After years of hiding her feelings from Lyn, the last thing she needed was to give herself away now. "Coming home?" Her voice sounded almost normal. "You mean he and Yvonne are going to live here?"
"Had enough of living in India, apparently. Moving back to little old Adelaide and his loving family." Lyn laughed. "Incredible, isn't it?"
"It's—" Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. She tried again. "When?"
"You know my brother," Lyn said. "Loves his surprises, doesn't he? He rang from Melbourne while waiting for a connecting flight. So, Mum wants you there for dinner tonight."
"Tonight…'Della's brain had gone into overload. It simply couldn't cope. She didn't know what to say.
"I'm on my way to Mum's now. Seven-thirty sharp. Okay?"
"But…" Della glanced at the digital display on the dashboard. "I won't have time to get home and back again."
"So don't. Come straight over. I've got some margarita mix and tequila on the seat next to me. I'll have a drink mixed and ready for you. I know how stressed you are after a day at work."
"Not every day," she murmured, while toying with the idea of declining. She couldn't. Lyn's mum had been more of a mother than her own ever had. She'd never disobeyed a summons from Dawn yet, and she wouldn't start now.
But. Luke. Would. Be. There. "Oh, cripes. I forgot," Lyn said. "Here I am rabbiting on and…" Her tone changed, became softer. "You had your appointment today, didn't you?"
The sympathy she heard in Lyn's voice made Della's breath catch in her chest.
"Yes," she squeezed out.
And there'd been no time afterwards to lick her wounds. Her workload hadn't allowed for such self-indulgence.
"Dell, hon, what did the doctor say?"
The knowledge was too new. Too raw. "Not yet," she said. "I'll tell you later."
Jamie's voice filled Della's ear for a moment, then Lyn said, "I'll make it a large margarita."
Della clicked off the phone and dropped it into her bag. She needed that drink. Tom Dermont. Dr Morgan. Now Luke and Yvonne. What a day.
She had to pull herself together. It was lucky she was wearing one of her best business suits and had some makeup in her bag. She'd be presentable, at least. And it wasn't as though Luke had any inkling how she felt about him. She'd never made a fool of herself in front of him before and she wouldn't today.
She reached for the ignition, then hesitated, biting her lip. She couldn't do this. A fluttering sensation rose from her chest to her throat.
No. She wouldn't give in to anxiety.
She could do this. She was a crisis expert—the one her firm counted on to bring composure to chaos. She simply had to put on her work face, her mask.
Just like she had when he'd been over on his occasional visits during the last decade or so.
Just like she had when he'd brought his new bride home to meet the family a few years ago. She'd smiled and congratulated him as if she really had felt nothing more than a sisterly affection for him.
She'd fooled them then, she could do it again.
If only she'd had more time to get used to the idea of seeing the two of them together, living here.
Turning the car, she headed east. Lyn's parents lived in the same impressive house in the same leafy street in the same prestigious suburb where Lyn and Luke had grown up. A far cry from Della's own childhood home—not quite a slum, but only one step up.
Her own parents were blue-collar working class. Occasionally. Most of the time they were lazy slobs, and Della could hardly believe she possessed any of their genes. They'd hated her friendship with Lyn and the "big ideas" it had given her. What was so crazy about going to university and getting a well-paid job? She'd shown them, hadn't she?
She sighed. Even now, when they'd gone from her life for good, she still felt she had something to prove—she just didn't know what.
As a teenager, she'd spent every spare minute at Lyn's house. She loved it. It was a happy home. Not just because the Brayfords had money, but because Dawn and Frank Brayford had a genuine interest in their children. And they'd treated her like one of them. She'd had more support and encouragement from the Brayfords than she'd ever had from her folks.
After parking in the street outside the Brayford family home, Della sat for a moment, gathering her defences. Luke wouldn't be there yet, so she had nothing to fear. Not that she feared Luke. It was her own emotions that frightened her.
Thirteen years. Had it really been so long since he'd left Adelaide to take up his dream job? Why hadn't her feelings diminished in all that time? She'd expected to get over him. She'd intended to. But here she was, thirteen years later, feeling her stomach swish at the prospect of seeing him again.
It was hard to believe he was coming home to live. Settling down wasn't in his nature or, at least, it never had been. Maybe this was his wife's doing, although she hadn't seemed the type to want Luke's parents involved in her life.
Della wondered whether Lyn had got the wrong end of the stick. Or maybe Dawn, in her excitement, had read too much into his words. This was just another visit, surely?
But then it crossed Della's mind that he and his wife might be starting a family. The thought twisted her insides. Her stomach tried to squeeze its way into her throat.
She breathed. Deep, slow breaths.
In that case, the move was not so difficult to understand. Adelaide was the perfect place to raise a family. And, if it turned out she was right, she'd just have to get on with her life. She could do it, even if it tore her apart inside.
Calmer, she climbed out of the Mercedes sports car, locking the door, though in this locality it didn't stand out. Luxury cars were the norm rather than the exception.
Not prone to whims, she prided herself on carefully considering a financial commitment—any kind of commitment—but the car had taken her by surprise. In an unguarded moment, she'd fallen hopelessly in love. One look, one touch and she'd been hooked.
With a rueful smile she admitted it had been just the same with Luke, then she straightened her shoulders and turned into the front garden.
Lyn opened the front door. "You should see the kitchen," she said with a shake of her head. "Mum's trying to make every one of Luke's favorite dishes. I know it'll be great to see him, but honestly…"
As Della entered the house, Lyn jerked a thumb towards a door off the spacious foyer. "Come into the lounge. I've made you a drink like I promised."
"Perhaps I should offer to help Dawn?" Della flicked an uncertain glance towards the kitchen door.
"Uh-uh."Lyn tugged at her arm. "She wants to spoil her favorite son, and the best thing we can do is leave her to it."
Della allowed Lyn to drag her into the comfortable lounge. As she sat on a sofa, Lyn handed her the biggest margarita she'd ever seen.
"Where did you find this glass? Are you sure it's not a vase?"
Lyn shrugged. "If it is, it's one of a matching pair."She picked up its mate and took a sip. "Mmm. I make a mean margarita."
Della sipped and had to agree. Just enough lime to make her tongue curl, and plenty of tequila.
"I know you don't want to talk about the doc now," Lyn said, lowering herself cautiously onto the low sofa opposite, drink in hand. "But I want you to know, I'm here for you when you're ready. Any time. Day or night. I'm usually up with Cassie anyway."
"I know, and I will talk to you, but I need time to take it in first. What about a night out this week? We can talk and eat."
"Excellent idea. I'll check when Patrick can watch the kids. I'll try for tomorrow night." Her face creased with concern. "Will that be too soon?"
Della shook her head. Hopefully, she'd have a few minutes to herself in the next twenty-four hours. Quiet time to think. To accept.
A wail reached them. "Bummer," Lyn said with a sigh. "Cassie's awake and right on cue. I hoped she'd sleep through dinner."
"Where's Jamie?" "With Dad in his den, looking at model planes. I'd better go and see to Cassie."
Della watched her leave, before placing her drink on an end table and taking the opportunity to nip into the nearest bathroom. Fixing her make-up, she thought for the millionth time that she was lucky to have Lyn as her friend. She'd always felt that way. Ever since the day at the beach when they'd been fourteen and Lyn had come to her rescue, paying for the fish and chips Della had ordered before finding she didn't have enough money for them. Rigid with embarrassment, she'd stood by while Lyn had stepped in, paid for her order, insisted on buying her a cold drink, and stayed by her side for the rest of the day.
Della shook her head. That day was as clear to her as if it had happened yesterday. Lyn probably didn't even remember it.
Before parting from her new friend, Della had made a careful note of her address, intending to repay her as soon as she could scrape together the money. But, when she'd finally made it, she'd stood at the wrought-iron gate, too scared to press down on the heavy catch.
Then Luke had arrived. To her, he'd seemed much more than one year older. He had such a physical presence even then. Muscular from playing football. Tall. Of course, it didn't help that she was such a tiny thing. He'd towered over her and would have scared her if not for his smile. That mind-melting, breath-stealing, knee-weakening smile.
Della sighed and tossed the make-up into her bag. Emerging from the bathroom, she heard a commotion near the front door.
"It's a taxi. It's them!"
Della recognized the voice as Lyn's younger sister, Megan. Poppy, the baby of the family at twenty-five, called to her mother and Dawn's excited voice joined the mix.
Della didn't go to them. Time for family. Real family. As inclusive as they'd always been, she wasn't real family. Back in the lounge, she picked up her glass and made for the French doors which opened to an expansive deck. She leaned on the waist-high balustrade and sipped her drink while gazing down on the established garden. Dense shrubs screened out the neighbors, and low-growing plants packed the curving flower beds. She'd always loved this garden. So different from the weed-infested lawn and corrugated fencing of her parents" place. She soaked up the sense of peace the garden offered. She needed it more than ever.
"There you are, Shrimp."
Della gave a violent start, sending a minor flood of margarita onto the lawn below. Luke's deep and teasing voice was unmistakable. It had the same effect on her it always had, making her nerves jump to attention, ready to react to every provocative word he said. She turned.
Oh God, he looked amazing. The last time she'd seen him, his dark-blond hair had been short, but he'd changed jobs since then and his hair had grown past his collar. More like the young Luke. Casual. She guessed appearances didn't matter so much now he wasn't on TV any more.
His smile widened as he observed the so-called glass in her hand. Her hand tightened, as did her stomach. That killer smile had no doubt served him well. Even a hardened, guntoting rebel couldn't refuse an interview when faced with such a smile.
His warm grey eyes twinkled as he raised them to her face. "You must be thirsty," he said.
Suppressing the urge to fling herself at him, she shrugged. "Stress relief,"she said, regretting the words the moment they left her lips. Even more so when he frowned.
"A hard day at work," she said quickly.
His frown deepened. "Don't you like your job?" "Yes, of course I do. You don't need me to tell you work can be stressful, no matter how much you enjoy it."
He should know if anyone did. For ten years as a foreign correspondent, he'd traveled the world's hot spots, mainly in Asia, covering stories of conflict and disaster. He'd pioneered solo journalism, working completely alone, traveling and reporting without a crew, carrying a backpack of portable digital technology to shoot, write, edit and transmit multimedia reports. He hadn't chased headlines or taken part in pack journalism, but had specialized in pursuing stories that were not getting mainstream news coverage and putting a human face to them.
Della lifted the glass and gulped a mouthful of margarita. Too much. When she'd managed to swallow it, she said, "Well, anyway, what about you? How are you?"
"Fine." He watched her for a moment. "So where's my kiss? My hug? I've had them from everyone else. I haven't been around for a while, in case you haven't noticed."