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As Kelsie Summers floated in her gondola past St Mark's Square she thought of last night's Christmas-themed mass at St Mark's Cathedral and she rubbed the goose-bumps on her arms at the memory it evoked. The strings of Christmas fairy lights over the Bridge of Sighs had winked last night and now, though extinguished, they still decorated the canals and bridges of Venice on her way to the station.
Her bag was full of nativity scenes in glass and gorgeous Christmas-tree globes for her friends.
Even the crumbling mansions on the Venice waterways had gorgeous glass mangers and angels in their lower windows and she watched the last of them fade into the distance as her gondolier ducked under the final bridge.
The end of two weeks of magic and her trip of a lifetimeand so what if she'd originally planned to share it with someone long gone, she'd still made it happen.
The bow of the long black boat kissed the wharf and the gondolier swung Kelsie's bag up onto the narrow boardwalk the same way as he held the craft steady, with little effort. She'd chosen the strongest-looking gondolier for just that reason.
She stepped out, in not very sensible shoes but she was a little more dressed up than usual in honour of the coming journey, and then her tasselled-hatted hero abandoned her cheerfully as he pushed off.
Kelsie dragged her bag up the planking to solid ground, or as solid as she could get in Venice, and sniffed away the idea of tears.
Surely she wasn't weepy just because of the lack of gentlemen to help her move this huge bag! It was because she was leaving Venice. Because her lifelong travel dream was coming to an end.
Modern-day women didn't need male help, Kelsie told herself, but the Stazione di Venezia, and the Santa Lucia steps, mocked her as she glanced down with a grimace.
A passing Venetian 'gentleman' flicked his nicotine-stained finger at the tiny alley that ran up the side of the building for those who didn't want to hump their belongings up the steps and she smiled her thanks. Bless the inventor of suitcase spinner wheels, and her sense of independence was appeased.
She'd arrived in Venice in a blaze of anticipation via the front entrance to the railway station and it seemed fitting, she wasn't sure why, to be slipping home to the real world of work and her solitary flat more than ten thousand miles away in Sydney, out the back way.
Though once she'd dragged this bulging brick of a suitcase inside, the train she was about to board was anything but the back way, and she felt her spirits soar again.
The last part of her journeythe one she'd dreamt of since a long-ago friend had mentioned his English grandmother embarked on it every yearhad captured her imagination while she'd still been in school uniform. Venice to London via the Orient Expressthe world's most glamorous train journey. And she'd finally made it happen.
Which was why she was wearing her second-highest heels and her new cream Italian suit.
Maybe not so glamorous doing it by yourself, she conceded, but still very glam, and stiffened her spine as she entered the cavernous world of departure beside a tourist shop adorned with miniature gondoliers' hats.
Platform One. She'd entered at the correct platform, arrived at the specified time, so where was the blue and gold emblazoned wagon of the Orient Express?
Kelsie glanced around. Remembered the inside of Saint Lucia from arrivallike any other railway stationgrey concrete, cold underfoot, traveller-filled bench seats, matching-luggage families huddled together. Finally she saw a small white sign, very ordinary, very unostentatious, that read 'Meeting Point for Venice Simplon Orient Express'.
Connor Black watched the shoulders of the smartly dressed woman sag as she peered under her dark cap of hair with the perplexed countenance of the unseasoned traveller as she turned her back to him. Her head dipped down at what must be a horrendously heavy suitcase. It was almost bigger than she was, and he wondered if she'd dare try and perch on top of it. He sighed and stood to offer his seat, brushing away the niggling feeling that he knew her. Of course he didn't. He was in Venice. And if he didn't offer her his seat Gran would poke him with her silver-topped cane as if he were a six-year-old until he did. Gran was his one big weakness and the only woman he loved. Unfortunately she knew it.
He caught his gran's eye as she nodded approvingly and bit back a grin. Despite her age she looked like a million pounds in her pink jacket and skirt with her snow-white hair fresh from her Venetian stylist. The pink Kimberley diamonds at her wrist and throat glittered under the electric lights. Lord, he would miss the old minx when she was gone. Had to be the reason he was standing here in the first place.
He had very special clients, the Wilsons, a couple he'd worked with for years, whose tenuous assisted pregnancy had been particularly challenging, and they were all on tenterhooks until Connie Wilson had this baby safely delivered. He'd promised her influential husband, and more importantly the nervous Connie, he'd be available twenty-four seven.
So he should be somewhere closer to them, instead of sitting on a train for the next thirty-six hours playing nursemaid to an eighty-year-old lady who should be at home, knitting. But then even he laughed at the idea of Gran doing anything of the sort.
The original grande dame inclined her eyes sideways towards the woman several times and he settled her with his nod. And he'd better be quick about it.
Not used to taking orders from anyone, Connor decided this could prove to be a very long thirty-six hours as he stepped closer to the woman and spoke from behind her. 'Excuse me. Would you like my seat, madam?'
The woman turned, their eyes met, and recognition slammed him harder than being hit with a suitcase twice the size of hers. Sky-blue eyes. Snub nose. That mouth. The one it had taken him, admittedly in his callow youth, two years to banish from his mind. A face that seemed outlined with a dark crayon line instead of the blur every other face was.
Fifteen years ago. Kelsie Summers.
'Or perhaps you'd rather stand.' Luckily that was under his breath because his grandmother's eagle eye had spotted his reaction.
Stunned blue eyes stared frozenly back at his. He saw the movement in her alabaster throat as she swallowed, and then her tongue peeped out. Yes, you damn well should lick your lips in consternation, he thought savagely, when you left me at the registry office, cooling my heels.
He gestured to the seat beside his grandmother with all the reluctant invitation of a toddler giving away his last lollypop.
Damn if he didn't feel like sitting down again and turning his own back. But that would be childish and he hadn't indulged in such weakness for a long, long, time.
Stinking bad luck, though, to meet her here, and if he knew his grandmother it would be the perfect diversion for the boredom that, despite her assurances, would ultimately descend on her before they reached London.
Kelsie felt like sinking into the grey concrete, maybe even through that and into the murky bottom of the Venice waterways that were probably somewhere under the railway station.
This was the first time she'd seen Connor since the day she'd run away.
She'd written, trying to explain why she thought she'd ultimately ruin his life if she married him, sent the tear-streaked missive, had watched from around a corner as he'd paced in agitation waiting for her to arrive, committed every line of his worried face to memory because she'd never see him again.
Though one glance at his face this morning when he'd recognised her and she could tell there still might be something he wanted to say to her about all that. As time had gone on she'd had a little more insight into how he might have felt. She swallowed nervously.
Fifteen years ago, as a teenager, she'd wanted to expect more from herself, too, had wanted her own career, and even then she'd had a core of sense and clarity that the more romantic Connor had lacked. She had wanted to be a wife who brought more to the table than hero-worship.
She'd seen, through eyes that had seen it before between her mother and father, that her deference and his growing tendency to take control might just bring more than order to her sometimes scattered life.
Connor would always be her hero, but as the wedding date had grown closer, slowly it had sunk in further that she hadn't wanted to rely on Connor all her life. She'd wanted to be a woman her husband could be proud of and she wouldn't have been able to do that under his very protective wing.
Well, they were adults now. He'd morphed into a gorgeously handsome hunk with just a touch of silver at his templeswhere had those years gone? she wondered in awe. He certainly wasn't nineteen any more, and they'd been far too young to elope anyway. Everyone had told her that. She was also a very different woman now, she thought as he gestured her, less than graciously, to his seat.
'Thank you,' Kelsie said. Not much else she could do. He didn't answer as she sat down, just looked at the older lady in the gorgeous pink designer suit next to her and raised a mocking eyebrow. 'I'm having coffee. Would you like me to get two, Gran?'
'Three.' The older lady turned a sweet smile her way. 'Do you take sugar?'
Kelsie blushed when she realised the woman's intent. No. No. He wouldn't want to buy her coffee, and when she glanced at Connor his smile had such a bitter sardonic tilt to it she lifted her chin. 'White, no sugar. Thank you.'
Connor couldn't believe his stupidity. He'd just wanted to walk away, get his head togethernot that he wasn't over her, good grief it had been years ago, but it had been a shockand coffee had seemed a good excuse. Of course, now the conversation was open there would be no stopping Gran from pumping Kelsie. Her name echoed in his brain and travelled through his body and stirred every nook and cranny into alertness. He shook his head to be rid of it and sighed. Gran would burrow for all the information she could get.
If he'd stayed around and damped down the friendliness, instead of sloping off, he might have been able to hustle Gran onto the train and only bad luck would have made them meet again.
Too little, too late, too bad, and he'd just have to move on, he thought as he picked up the pace and clenched his fist in his pocket. Now he really needed the coffee to wash away the bitterness at the back of his throat.
Funny how feelings he'd thought he'd forgotten rolled in his belly like it was yesterday, and he searched for the anger that had finally obliterated the hurt of her no-show at their wedding. The one person he'd thought he could trust. Damn her.
The forgotten embers flared and the heat of it gave him pause. The rational person he was now frowned it down and locked it away. Douse it. It was water under the bridge, and there were plenty of bridges in Venice to let it wash away, quite symbolic really.
It was just the shock. Not a huge deal after all. He began to feel better.
Sitting uncomfortably on a seat she didn't want, Kelsie watched Connor Black stride away, the man who used to be her best friend, so tall, so rigidly straight, waves of disdain emanating from him like mist from the canals, and she remembered the last time she'd seen him. She hadn't expected it would be fifteen years before she saw him again.
The elderly lady next to her leaned closer and the serene scent of Arpège perfume drifted across the seat. Kelsie inhaled it with a pang and the penny dropped that this must be the woman who rode the Orient Express whom Connor had talked about all those years ago. The reason Kelsie had sketched in this journey on her bucket list.
The elderly lady twinkled up at her, her faded blue eyes shone, brightly inquisitive, and despite the pit that had just opened Kel-sie couldn't help a small smile back.
'I'm Winsome Black. And if I'm not mistaken, you know my grandson, Connor?'
'Kelsie Summers. I knew him a long time ago.' She sighed for the idealism of a young Connor and her part in fracturing it.
Winsome snorted. 'Must have been memorable because I rarely see any expression cross my grandson's face and that was a positive grimace.'
'Gee, thanks.' Kelsie couldn't help the rueful smile that escaped. True, it hadn't been a happy face on poor Connor, and she couldn't help another swift peek to where extraordinarily broad shoulders were just disappearing into the station coffee shop.
He'd changed. A lot. She blinked the last image away. He'd always been a favourite with the girls but she'd bet his wife hated having him out of her sight. Where would they be now if she hadn't run away?
'So you're that Kelsie!' It wasn't a question. 'How fascinating.' This was accompanied by a demure smile and an even brighter twinkle in the eye of the older lady, and Kelsie almost wished she'd followed Connor. Her thoughts must have shown because Winsome touched her arm.
'Don't go. I'll be good. But it's Christmas in two days. You could humour an old lady's curiosity just a little.' Not waiting for permission, Winsome launched into her cross-examination. 'Are you married?'
Not a lot she could do about this, Kelsie thought as she accepted the inevitable, so she settled back for the interrogation with what composure she could muster. 'No.'
'Why not? A young, attractive woman like yourself must have had her chances.'
Kelsie shrugged. 'I didn't marry the man I did love. So I wasn't going to marry one I didn't.'
Winsome looked dubious. 'I think that makes sense.'
'And I love my independence and my work.' She hadn't meant to sound defensive. She wasn't feeling defensive!
'I know someone like that.' Winsome shook her head at a thought she didn't share. 'So you're not even engaged?' Inquisitive faded blue eyes twinkled at her again.
Kelsie lifted her chin. 'No.' Her life was good just as it was.
Winsome sat back. 'Connor's not married either.' She acknowledged Kelsie's narrowed gaze and obviously decided she'd pried enough. 'I'll stop.'
Kelsie raised her brows. 'You seemed to have acquired the salient information.' And imparted a bit as well. Why wasn't Connor married?
'My modus operandi, dear.'
'I consider myself warned,' Kelsie muttered to herself, but there was food for thought in her new knowledge. How could that be?
As if she'd heard the thought, Winsome added, 'He's been very busy with his career.' Then she smiled and Kelsie wasn't so sure she trusted the unholy glee in the older woman's face. 'And here he comes.'
When Connor arrived he handed Kelsie her coffee without a glance and ignored her murmured thanks.
Winsome accepted hers with all-seeing eyes and directed her attention to her grandson and pretended to sigh. 'I'm disappointed with the waiting room for the world's most glamorous journey.' There was a special twinkle in her eyes as if she knew a secret no one else did.
Connor glanced at the tiny white sign alone on the concrete. 'Me, too. If only I could make it happen for you, Gran, I would.' He snapped his fingers.
As if conjured up, like Mary Poppins's sister, a young woman in a gold-edged royal-blue skirt and high-collared jacket high-heeled her way across the concourse towards them, pushing a tall wooden reception desk on wheels. Another equally well-dressed young woman pushed a covered luggage trolley.
Kelsie blinked. It wasn't luggage on the trolley. It was furniture.
The hostess directed her junior to unroll a plush, deep red carpet stamped with a blue and gold insignia and then magic.