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British Military Base, Theatre of Operations. Thursday, 6.15 a.m.
The sun was rising, turning the sky pink and the sand to gold. Rubbing his hand over eyes that were gritty with sand and exhaustion, Kit looked out across the desert and idly wondered if he'd be alive to watch it set again.
He'd slept for perhaps an hour, maybe two, and dreamed of Sophie. Waking in the dark, his body was taut with thwarted desire, his mind racing, and the scent of her skin was still in his nostrils.
He almost preferred the insomnia.
Five months. Twenty-two weeks. One hundred and fifty-four days. By now the craving for her should have faded, but if anything it had got more intense, more impossible to ignore. He hadn't phoned her, even though at times the longing to hear her voice burned like a laser inside him, knowing that if he did it would only add fuel to the fire. And knowing that there was nothing that could be said across six thousand miles that would possibly be enough.
Just one more day.
In twenty-four hours he would be flying out of here. Flying home. There was a sense of suppressed excitement amongst the men in his unit, a mixture of relief and exhilaration that had been building over the last week as the days dwindled. It was a feeling Kit didn't share.
He'd been in bomb disposal for a long time. He'd never thought of it as anything other than a job; a dirty, awkward, challenging, exhausting, addictive, necessary job. But that was in the days when he thought rather than felt. When his emotions had been comfortably locked away in some part of him that was buried so deep he didn't even know it was there.
Everything was different now. He wasn't who he'd thought he wasquite literally thanks to the lies the man he'd called his father had told him all his life. But also, loving Sophie had blown him wide open, revealing parts of him he hadn't known existed, and now the job seemed dirtier, the stakes higher, the odds shorter. So much shorter.
One more day. Would his luck last?
'Major Fitzroycoffee, sir. We're almost ready to move out.'
Kit turned. Sapper Lewis had emerged from the mess hut and was walking towards him, spilling most of the coffee. An earnest kid of nineteen, he had the gawky enthusiasm of a Great Dane puppy. It made Kit feel about a thousand years old. He took the enamel mug and grimaced as he swallowed.
'Thank you, Lewis,' Kit drawled. 'Other men I know have curvaceous secretaries to bring them coffee in the morning. I have you to bring me something that tastes like freshly brewed dirt.'
Lewis grinned. 'You'll miss me when you get home.'
'I sincerely doubt it.' Kit took another mouthful of coffee and chucked the rest into the dust as he began to walk away. Not before he'd seen Lewis's face fall though.
'Fortunately you make a far better infantryman than a barista,' he called back over his shoulder. 'Bear that in mind when you get home, won't you?'
'Yes, sir!' Lewis hurried after him. 'And can I just say how great it's been working with you, sir? I've learned loads. Before this tour I wasn't sure I wanted to stay in the army, but watching you has made me decide to go into EOD.'
Kit stopped. Rubbing a hand across his jaw, he turned round.
'Do you have a girlfriend, Sapper?'
Lewis shifted from foot to foot, his face a mixture of pride and embarrassment. His Adam's apple bobbed. 'Yeah. Kelly. She's expecting a baby in two months' time. I'm going to ask her to marry me this leave.'
Narrowing his eyes as he looked out to the flat horizon, Kit nodded.
'You love her?'
'Yes, sir.' He scuffed the dust with the toe of his boot. 'We haven't been together long, but. .yeah. I really love her.'
'Then take my advice. Learn to make a decent coffee and get yourself a job in Starbucks after all, because love and bomb disposal don't mix.' With a cool smile Kit handed the enamel mug back to him. 'Now, let's get out there and get this done so we can all go home.'
'Sorry I'm late.'
Smiling broadly in a way that didn't remotely suggest contrition and trying not to knock over anyone's designer beer with her shopping bags, Sophie slid into the chair opposite Jasper at the little metal table.
He eyed the bags archly. 'I take it you were unavoidably detained in ' His brows shot up another inch as he saw the discreet logo of Covent Garden's 'erotic boutique' on the corner of the biggest bag. 'Kit's in for a treat when he gets home.'
Shoving the bags under the table, Sophie tucked the great big bunch of vibrantly coloured flowers she'd just bought into the empty chair beside her and tried to stop herself from grinning like a love-struck loon.
'I've just spent an indecent amount of money,' she admitted, snatching up a menu and sliding her sunglasses onto the top of her head to read it. The table Jasper had chosen was in the shade of a red awning, which gave a healthy glow to his poetic pallor. He was so different from Kit it was incredible that they'd believed they were brothers for so long.
'On some pretty indecent stuff, if I know that shop.' Jasper peered into a corner of the bag.
'It's just a nightdress thing,' Sophie said hastily, hoping he wouldn't take out the wicked little slip of silvery-grey silk and display it in front of the lunch crowd outside Covent Garden's busiest restaurant. 'I was passing, and as I just got paid for the vampire movie, and Kit is coming home tomorrow I thought, What the hell? But really, it was way too expensive.'
'Don't be daft. Your days of buying clothes from charity shops and bread from the reduced shelf in the supermarket are over now, darling.' Jasper looked around to catch the eye of the waiter, then turned back to her and rubbed his hands together as if in anticipation. 'Just a few hours left of single-girldom before Kits gets home and you become a full-time fiancée. Planning any wild parties?'
'I'm saving that for when he gets back, in about ' Sophie checked the time on her phone ' twenty-eight hours. Let's see they're five hours ahead of us, so he should be just finishing his last shift about now.'
Jasper must have caught the note of anxiety in her voice because he covered her hand with his. 'Don't think about it,' he said firmly. 'You've done brilliantlyI'd have gone out of my mind with worry if it had been Sergio out there, dicing with death every day. You're very brave.'
'Hardly, compared to Kit.' Her throat dried and she looked down at the menu as the waiter made his way towards them. She tried to picture Kit nowhot, dirty, exhausted. For five months he had been looking after a battalion of men, putting their needs above his own. She wanted him home so she could look after him.
Amongst other things.
'What? Oh, sorry.' Realising the waiter's pen was poised for her to give her order, Sophie asked for a Salade Nicoise, which was the first thing that caught her eye. Scribbling it down, the waiter moved away, his slim hips swaying as he wove through the tables.
'Kit's used to it,' Jasper said absently, watching him go. 'He's been doing it for years. How is he, anyway?'
'Oh you know he sounds OK,' she lied vaguely. 'But I want to hear about you. Are you and Sergio all packed and ready to hit tinseltown?'
Jasper leaned back in his chair and rubbed his hands over his face. 'The packing's ongoing, but, believe me, I have never been more ready for anything in my life. After everything that's happened in the last six monthsDad dying, the whole coming-out thing, Alnburgh turning out to be mine and not Kit'sI can't wait to get on that plane and just leave it all behind. I intend to spend the next three months lying by the pool drinking cocktails while Sergio's at work.'
'If I didn't know you better I'd say you were ruthlessly attempting to make me wild with envy.'
'Rumbled.' Jasper grinned as the waiter arrived, his tray held high. 'Is it working?'
'Nope.' The waiter placed a large gin and tonic clinking with ice in front of her. 'The pool and the cocktails sound lovely, but honestly for the first time in my life I have no desire to be anywhere other than here. Well, not here, obviously,' she said, nodding towards one of Covent Garden's famous street performers, 'since there's only so long I could watch a poncey out-of-work actor juggle with knives. But at home.
Jasper eyed her narrowly, tapping his pursed lips thoughtfully with a finger.
'I'm thinking alien abduction. I know there should be a more logical explanation for this complete character transformation from the girl who still has a phone on pay-as-you-go because a contract is too much commitment, to the woman whose idea of excitement is ' he waved a dismissive hand ' pegging out washing or something, but I just can't think what it could be.'
'Love,' Sophie said simply, taking a mouthful of gin. 'And maybe, having been on the move constantly all my life, I'm just ready to stay still now.' She glanced at him guiltily. 'I keep sneaking into furniture shops to look at sofas and I've developed a terrible obsession with paint colour charts. I suppose I just want a home.'
'Well, Kit's pad in one of Chelsea's most desirable garden squares isn't a bad start on the property ladder,' Jasper said, scooping up crab pate on a piece of rye bread. 'Better than Alnburgh, anyway. You had a narrow escape there.'
'You can say that again. So, are you planning to move in when you get back from LA, then?'
Jasper grimaced. 'God, no. The windswept Northumberland coast is hardly the hub of the film industry and I can't exactly see Sergio walking down to the village shop and asking Mrs Watts for foie gras and the latest copy of Empire magazine.'
Taking another mouthful of gin, Sophie hid a smile. He was right; Sergio had shown up in Alnburgh for Ralph's funeral and it had been like seeing a parrot at the North Pole.
'So what will happen to it?' She speared an olive from her salad. Curiously, she cared much more about the future of Alnburgh Castle now there was no question of it involving Kit or her. She'd been so miserable there when she'd gone up to stay with Jasper last winter that the thought of actually living within its cold stone walls was enough to bring her out in goosebumps. But now that possibility had been removed, and sitting in the sunshine in the middle of Covent Garden, she could feel a sort of abstract affection for the place.
'I don't know.' Jasper sighed again. 'The legal situation is utterly incomprehensible and the finances are worse. It's such a bloody messI still can't forgive Dad for dropping a bombshell like that in his will. The fact that Kit isn't his natural son is just a technicalityhe was brought up at Alnburgh and he's taken responsibility for the place almost single-handed for the last fifteen years. I guess that if I'm gutted by the way things have turned out, it must be even worse for him. Has he mentioned it in his letters or anything?'
Not meeting his eye, Sophie shook her head.
'No, he hasn't mentioned it.'
The fact was he hadn't mentioned anything much. Before he went he'd warned her that phone calls were frustrating and best avoided so she hadn't expected him to ring, but she couldn't help being a bit disappointed that he hadn't. She had written to him several times a weeklong letters, full of news and silly anecdotes and how much she was missing him. His replies had been infrequent, short and impersonal, and had left her feeling more lonely than if he hadn't written at all.
'I just hope he doesn't hate me too much, that's all,' Jasper said unhappily. 'Alnburgh meant everything to him.'
'Don't be silly. It's not your fault that Kit's mother disappeared with another man when he was just a little boy, is it? And anyway, it's all in the past now, and, as my barking-mad mother would say, everything happens for a reason. If Kit was the heir there'd be absolutely no chance I'd be marrying him. He'd need a horsey wife who came complete with her own heirloom tiara and a three-year guarantee to produce a son. I'd fail on all counts.'
Her tone was flippant, but her smile stiffened slightly as she said the bit about the son. Jasper didn't seem to notice.
'You come closer than Sergio. You'd both look good in a tiara, but you certainly have the edge when it comes to bearing heirs.'
'I wouldn't bet on it.'
It was no good. To her shame both her voice and her smile cracked and she had to press her hand to her mouth. Across the table Jasper looked horrified.
'Soph? What's wrong?'
She grabbed her drink and took a gulp. The gin was cold, bitter, good. It felt as if it was clearing her head, although that was probably an ironic illusion.
'I'm fine. I finally saw a doctor about the monthly hell that is my period, that's all.'
Jasper's eyes widened. 'God, Sophit's nothing?'
She waved a hand. 'No, no, nothing serious. It's as I thoughtendometriosis. The good news is it's not life-threatening, but the bad news is that there's not much they can do about it and it could make getting pregnant a problem.'
'Oh, honey. I had no idea having children was so important to you.'
'Neither did I, until I met Kit.' Sophie slid her sunglasses back down, feeling in need of something to hide behind. Having spent years listening to her mother and the women in the haphazard commune in which she'd grown up analyse everything in minute, head-wrecking detail, she usually went out of her way to avoid any kind of serious discussion, but there was part of her that wanted to share this bittersweet new feeling. 'Finding out it might be difficult has made me realise how important it ishow's that for irony?' She sighed. 'Anyway, the doctor didn't say it was impossible, just that it could take a long time and it was best not to leave it too long.'
He reached across the table and took her hand.
'So when are you going to start trying?'
Sophie looked at her phone again and looked up at him with a determined smile. 'In about twenty-seven and a half hours.'