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ADELE fought the urge to run from the bathroom screaming. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and ordered her hands to stop shaking. When she felt her heart rate slow a little, she opened her eyes again.
inhabited her bath. She took a few steps backwards, never letting her gaze off the spindly legs, checking for any twitch that indicated it was thinking of making a sudden move.
Once the edge of the tub obscured her view of the intruder, she fumbled on the shelf above the sink. Toothpaste and toothbrush went flying as she grabbed the glass they sat in. All she needed now was something flat and not too flexible. Her eyes darted round the room, hardly taking anything in. She made herself look again, more slowly this time.
Balanced on the washing hamper was the magazine she'd been reading last time she'd been having one of her ritual soaks. The sort of soak she ought to be having right now, if it weren't for the intruder. Righteous anger bubbled in her chest. How dare that nasty little squatter spoil her plans for the evening?
She seized the magazine and marched towards the bath, trying not to let her steps falter as she drew close. It had been much easier when she'd had someone else to do her spidercatching. But those days were gone. This was between her and eight-legged Freddy over there.
She lifted the upturned glass in her hand, hoping it wasn't going to slip. Even her fingertips seemed sweaty. Her breath came in gasps, punctuated by long gaps when the air stayed locked in her chest. Two more steps and she'd be close enough.
The glass was only inches away from the creature now. Everything went very still. Even the spideras if it sensedher approach. And then it darted. Straight towards her up the side of the bath.
Adele didn't stop to think; she just threw both glass and magazine in the direction of her attacker and raced out of the bathroom. And while the sound of shattering glass echoed in her ears, she slammed the door and leant against it. Just in case it was thinking of trying the door handle.
See? This was why she shouldn't be doing this! Her phobia made her irrational. She would have moved away from the door at that point, but a noise from inside the bathroom made her grip the door handle tighter.
No, she wasn't going to do it. She wasn't going to wish him here.
She did not need a man to catch a spider. Especially that man.
Her fingers forgot the door knob as she let out a long sigh and ran them through her long dark hair.
I can do this, she thought as she stood there in the silence. I've got to. No one else is going to do it for me.
Her hands shook as she smoothed down the folds of her spotlessly white towelling bathrobe and tightened the sash. It was a pointless gesture. Her furry friend in there didn't care what she looked like, but somehow she needed to present a calm and cool front, to be the Adele she knew how to be, the Adele who wasn't fazed by anything or anyone.
She turned to face the bathroom door and imagined herself in one of her business suits, her hair in its usual coil at the nape of her neck, not fanning over her shoulders and falling over her face. It was all about mental attitude, wasn't it? You could do anything if you put your mind to it.
She'd been sent on some stupid training seminar when she'd worked at Fenton and Barrett. She had pretended she was listening, but really she'd been plotting how she was going to start her own firm of management consultants. She'd made her dreams come true since then and she could certainly use the same trick now.
What had those people waffled on about? Oh, yes. Visualisation. She concentrated, and in her mind's eye the creature in the bath became a butterfly, brightly coloured and fragile.
Anyone could pick up a butterfly, couldn't they?
She wrenched the door open and marched over to the bath. Shattered glass covered the bottom, but the creature she sought was now halfway up the side under the taps. If she didn't know better she'd think it was giving her a cocky look.
"Butterfly," she murmured under her breath as she extended her hand forward and closed her fingers over it. The distance from the edge of the bath to the window suddenly stretched to the size of a football pitch. She tried to walk slowly, but after a step and a half she was running. "Butterfly!" she shouted as the legs started to twitch in her hand and she fought the reflex to gag.
"Yuck! Spider, spider, spider, spider!" she yelled as she opened the catch with her free hand and threw the horrible thing out of the window. Then she shivered and rubbed her hand on her robe over and over again until she thought she'd wear the little loops away.
She really needed that bath now. But before she could do that, there was a whole lot of glass to clean up. There was no one here to catch spiders and there was no one here to pull the shards out of her bottom if she missed a bit, so she'd better do a good job.
Her head was practically in the cupboard under the kitchen sink when the doorbell rang. The sun had only just set and it was light enough not to have to turn the lamps on, but dark enough not to be able to see what she was looking for. Her fingers stretched into the shadows at the back of the cupboard.
Where was that darn dustpan and brush? It had to be here somewhere.
The bell went again and Adele banged her head on the top of the cupboard. She did not have the kind of doorbell you could ignore, all soft chimes, indicating someone was waiting patiently at the door, flowers in hand. Oh, no. This was one of those insistent ones that grated like an old-fashioned bicycle bell.
All she'd wanted to on a Saturday evening, after spending all day at the office, was to sink into a silky rich bubble bath and read the next four chapters of her book. That wasn't too much to ask, was it?
She rubbed the back of her head as she took silent, quick steps to the front door and yanked it open, not even caring she was in her bathrobe.
She was going to deliver a brisk "Yes? What do you want?" But the words died on her lips. Leaning against the wall, with a twinkle in his eyes and a dimple in each cheek, was the most infuriating man she'd ever had the displeasure of knowing.
She knew her mouth was hanging open, but she couldn't seem to get it closed again. He smiled and the dimples deepened.
"Hi, Adele." "N Nick!"
In the last few minutes the sun had tucked itself even further below the suburban skyline of slate roofs and chimney pots and the glow from the porch light made him seem warm and golden in contrast.
He looked so real. Not like the Nick she'd been screaming at in her head for the past nine months, anyway. In her memory she'd made him shorter, more boyish and much less attractive. She could feel the familiar chemistry starting to frazzle her brain already.
He looked deep into her eyes and she felt another few brain cells pop into nothingness.
He hitched an eyebrow. "The one and only."
She shook her head, not even knowing where to start. Why was he here? How long had he been back in the country? And more importantly, why was he standing on her front doorstep as if nothing had ever happened?
"Can I come in?"
She wanted to slam the door in his face, tell him he could get lost and contact her through her solicitor if he had to, but somehow she found herself nodding. He'd always seemed to have the irritating knack of getting her to go along with almost anything he said. And although he meant well, she was the one who always seemed to end up getting hurt or having to tidy up the resulting mess.
It had been a really bad idea to let Nick Hughes into her life. It had been an even worse idea to marry him.
Adele marched down the hall and Nick followed. She turned to face him once they got into the kitchen. "What do you want, Nick?"
This was the moment he'd been waiting for, the moment he'd rehearsed so many times in his head he'd lost count. Never once in all his daydreams had he felt this nervous.
Adele turned to look at him and he tried not to wince. He'd been afraid of this. He'd hoped that after all this time she'd be in more of a mood to talk. Obviously not. Time had made no impact whatsoever on the healing process.
Diving right in and telling her why he was here wasn't going to work; he would have to build up to it slowly. He swallowed the heartfelt plea on his lips and replaced it with the widest, cheekiest smile he could muster.
"That's a nice way to greet your husband."
Adele's eyes narrowed.
He took a deep breath. He had to do something to stop her throwing him out on his ear. Somehow he had to stay in the same building as her long enough to get her to listen. The urge to wisecrack was overpowering, like an itch begging to be scratched, but he managed to mumble something less inflammatory.
"How about a cup of tea?"
She just continued to stare at him, her pupils shrinking to pinpricks. OK, not one of his best efforts, but his brain was like fudge after what seemed like a week on a plane and a cup of tea would give him at least another fifteen minutes to talk Adele round.
"I've had a really long trip," he added.
She stayed as still and hard and cold as the granite on the kitchen worktops. And just when he thought she'd solidified and was going to stay like that for ever, she shook her head and marched over to the kettle. He kept a very close eye on her. When Adele was in this kind of mood, she was just as likely to throw the kettle at him as she was to switch it on.
She filled it with water, her back still to him, as she repeated her earlier question.
"What do you want, Nick?"
He waited until she turned to face him. "We need to talk."
Nothing funny about that statement. It seemed his valiant efforts to ignore the old joke-when-stressed reflex were paying off.
She shook her head. "No. We needed to talk months ago. It's too late."
"I've got something important I need to discuss with you." "Hah!"
He flinched. "What do you mean, hah?" "You don't do important, though, do you, Nick? Or responsible, or reliable, or anything that might involve getting serious in the slightest."
Adele was on the attack. All his good intentions crumbled and he resorted to the only form of defence that worked. A slow smile turned the corners of his mouth up. "It's part of my charm."
"It's why our marriage fell apart."
There wasn't a flicker of a smile on her lips. It definitely wasn't going the way he'd planned. He was so tired he could hardly think straight and he tried the one thing left in his arsenal that was guaranteed to get a reaction.
Desperate times called for desperate measures. It was time to break out the dimples.
He widened his smile just that little bit more and watched Adele's eyes closely to see if he could detect a thaw. She couldn't resist his dimples.
"Stop it, Nick."
The air of innocence in his shrug should have won him an Oscar.
"I know what you're doing and it's not going to work." That'd be a first. Obviously Adele had grown another inch of armour plating while he'd been away. But there were always chinks; it was just a case of locating them. It was one of the things that had attracted him to her in the first place, the frosty outer shell hiding a scorching core. Fire and icethat was Adele.
He walked towards her and she backed away from him. "You said you wanted to talk? Well, I'm busy at the moment."
"I can see." He looked her up and down and felt a familiar surge of heat as he saw one shapely leg revealed by the split in her bathrobe.
Adele straightened and yanked the knot of the sash even tighter. "Call me at the office next week. I'm in the middle of a big project, but I may have a few minutes to spare on Thursday. Where are you going to be staying?"
Nick raised his eyebrows and looked around the room. "No way! You are not staying here."
He blinked. "It's my home too." "Correction. It might be your house, but it stopped being your home the moment you waltzed off across the Atlantic and didn't bother to come back for nine months."
Adele crossed her arms and looked at him. Now was not the time to remind her that he had come back, as soon as he'd been able to. Two short weeks after their massive fight, he'd travelled five thousand miles to patch things up. But he'd walked into the house and found it empty. Adele had moved out and was staying with her best friend.
No, it wouldn't do to remind her. She wasn't in the mood to be confronted with her mistakes at the moment. To be honest, he didn't think he could face the memories either. So he tucked them away at the back of his brain and ignored the sick feeling building in the pit of his stomach.
He took off his jacket, slung it over the back of one of the chairs surrounding the big pine dining table and dropped into the squashy sofa tucked into the corner of their countrystyle kitchen.
He was in a big enough hole as it was. He might just as well carry on digging. Anything to keep her mind off shoving his six-foot frame through the front door. Adele might be petite, but she was surprisingly strong.
"How about that tea?"
Adele closed her eyes and her shoulders sagged. He'd won the first round, but he felt like kicking himself in the behind for making her look so tired and world-weary.
"Get it yourself. I'm going upstairs. And if you think you're putting that bag you dumped in the hallway in my bedroom you can think again. You know where the spare room is."
Nick grimaced as Adele spun round and stomped up the stairs. He had not handled that well, but arguing back would have made her dig her heels in deeper. He'd learned long ago that getting her to laugh was the solution.
She had a good sense of humour; she just kept it on a tight leash most of the time. And if there was one thing he was good at, it was making his wife smile.
Seeing Adele defrost was a wonderful thing. She started off all spiky and hardlike one of those puffer fishand he'd just keep being impossible until he could see the glint in her eyes and the way her jaw worked overtime to keep a straight face. If he timed it right, he'd give one last smile, one last look, and she'd let out a big puff of air and deflate, becoming the warm, passionate woman he loved so much.
He let his head fall back onto the sofa cushion and closed his eyes.
He knew what she thought: that her husband had chosen a once-in-a-lifetime job over her, but that wasn't the way he saw it at all. Adele was too busy being self-righteous to see that she was the one who had refused to budge an inch. It had been her decision to put the marriage on hold.
There might be two sides to every story, but Adele was always, always convinced hers was the right one. The annoying thing was, most of the time she was right. However, now and again she got things spectacularly wrong. And when she did, it was usually something big.
He wiggled into a more comfortable position. The jet lag was catching up on him and this sofa was so comfy. The jacket of one of her business suits was draped across the back. It smelled of her perfume, warm and spicy. If he closed his eyes, it was almost as if she were sitting next to him.
They'd spent many happy evenings cuddled up together on this old sofa with glasses of wine after the evening meal was finished. And there had been other times when they used the sofa for much less relaxing pursuits
He smiled to himself as he drifted off to sleep. Less relaxing, but so much more fun.