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Ellen stopped her car at the top of the steep drive and surveyed the icy track to her grandmother's house with dismay. Even if she could navigate the car down the slope she would never be able to reverse it back up without the danger of sliding into the deep ditches on either side.
She climbed out of the driver's seat and into the bitter wind and lightly falling snow. She'd been driving solidly for over ten hours and every muscle ached from hunching over the steering wheel as she'd raced north in an attempt to beat the snow that was predicted to engulf Scotland. Huddling into her ski jacket and cursing the high heels of her leather boots, she decided to leave her large suitcases in the boot for later and to walk down the drive.
Taking a deep breath, she filled her lungs with the sharp, fresh air of the Highlands and felt some of her exhaustion and doubt slip away. She had been right to come. This is where she needed to be right nowthe only place she had ever truly known as home.
The farmhouse roof peeked above the tops of evergreen pine and elder, smoke from the chimney curling into the grey afternoon sky. Ellen could already visualise Gran stoking up the fire, a batch of scones or bread rising in the oven, the kettle on the stove ever ready to make a warming cup of tea. A twist of anxiety knotted in Ellen's ribs and for a second she faltered. Was she being selfish coming back? She hadn't told Gran the true reason why she was coming to stay, only that she had been ill and needed time to get her strength back. If Gran knew the truth it would only upset her and she couldn't bear to do that to the woman who meant the world to her.
Puffing out her cheeks, Ellen swallowed hard. Her emotions were still all over the place; for a momenta split secondshe would forget, then the reality of her situation would hit her again, threatening to crush her.
Needing a few moments to compose herself, Ellen thrust her hands in her parka pockets, her eyes straying over the countryside until she picked out the Jamieson house. Memories rushed back: sitting in their large farmhouse kitchen drinking in the atmosphere of laughter and love pretending, if only for a short while, that she was part of a large and caring family. But the Jamiesons had moved away. And so had Sean. Where was he now? Gran had said that he planned to renovate the house his parents had left behind. Why? Was he planning to put down roots? Had he met someone and was preparing a home for them to share? Maybe even start a family?
Something she would never have.
Grabbing her overnight bag, she set off down the track, picking her way carefully in her three-inch-heel boots. Twice she nearly went over on her ankle, and twice she just managed to stay on her feet. Breaking a leg was the last thing she needed right now. Ellen suppressed a wave of self-pity that threatened to crush her. There was no point giving in to it. She had to look to the futurehowever bleak it seemed right now.
She was halfway down the drive when she became aware of a rhythmic banging noise cutting through the air. Glancing in the direction of the sound, to the side and rear of her grandmother's house, she saw a tall figure swinging an axe, making short work of splitting logs. For goodness' sake, whoever it was had to be freezing. He was wearing only a T-shirt and jeans in the sub-zero temperatures as he swung the axe over his shoulder.
There was something primitive about the way he worked, his muscles bunching with each lift of the axe, that made her pause to watch him. He seemed lost in his own world, oblivious to the snow falling around him, settling on his dark head.
Suddenly, as Ellen moved off again, her legs went completely from beneath her. She had been so intent on the figure in front of her, she'd taken her eyes off the slippery track. She yelped as she struggled to remain upright and the man turned. For a second their eyes held and then she was hitting the ground with a thump that forced the breath from her lungs. Even as she lay there, staring up at the sky, wet snow sneaking down the collar of her jacket, Ellen couldn't help thinking that there was something achingly familiar about those clear, pale eyes.
She heard footsteps crunching towards her and as she tipped her head back, squinting at the figure towering over her, the suspicion grew into certainty.
Sean was here! Her already pumping heart beat faster. She had always wondered how she would feel when she saw him again, but in her imagination that meeting had been on neutral ground with her dressed to impress and coolly dismissive. Not in a crumpled heap at his feet after an exhausting and tense drive and looking like a wrung-out dishcloth.
Oh, damn it! And he looked even more devastatingly handsome than she remembered. Or was that because she was looking at him upside down?
Mortified, Ellen tried to get back up but in her panic her high-heeled boots couldn't get purchase on the ice. Just great!
She was scrabbling around on the ground like some sort of flapping fish that had just been landed.
A hand reached down and before she knew it she was back on her feet.
'Are you okay?'
His voice still gave her goosebumps. After all this time?
Sean stood back, keeping a grip on her elbow, and whistled under his breath. 'Ellen Nicholson? If Maggie hadn't told me you were coming to stay, I would never have recognised you. You've changed.' He studied her with amusement. 'Or, then again, maybe not.'
His only-too-well-remembered grin made something in her chest squeeze. If she had changed, so had he. The last time she had seen him, and the memory made her cheeks burn, he had been tall and gangly. Somewhere along the way he had filled out. And in impressive style.
Flustered, Ellen wiped the snow off her jacket and the back of her trousers. Of course she'd changed. The last time he'd seen her she'd been a scrawny teenager with attitude and a terrible crush. Eight years later she was a grown woman with a death sentence hanging over her. Her past and present selves couldn't be more different. She had a sudden intense longing to be that old Ellen who still believed that miracles happened and that the world and life were simply waiting to give her everything she desired.
She could have done without bumping into Sean Jamieson right now. Just the sight of him had been enough to bring the memories of how she'd felt about him tumbling back. Suddenly she was that seventeen-year-old again, the one who had worshipped the ground this man had walked on.
Ellen pushed snow-dampened hair off her cheeks, trying desperately to regain a modicum of self-assurance. 'Oh, hello, Sean. Nice to see you again.'
Wow, had that come out as gauche as it had sounded to her own ears? 'Not that I expected to see you here. I mean I thought you were away somewhere.' Great. Now she was babbling.
'Are you okay?' he asked. 'Did you hurt yourself?'
'Not at all. I'm perfectly fine, thanks.' And to prove it she took a step forward. Rather too quickly as it transpired. To her horror, she found herself once more flat on her back and staring up at the snow-darkened sky.
'I think I'll just stay down here till the snow melts,' she mumbled, mortified.
Sean bent down on his haunches next to her and grinned. The way his smile still made her insides turn to mush dismayed her.
'You could be out here for a while you know. Can I bring you anything?'
Despite her ridiculous situation and the crazy sensations ricocheting around inside her, she smiled. 'A cup of tea would be nice and perhaps a hot-water bottle.'
'Mmm. Jam and cream.'
And now she was laughing along with him.
This time she held out her hand for him to pull her to her feet. It was as if the years had melted away and they were back to the way they always used to be all those years ago.
Sean kissed her lightly on her cheek and something sizzled below her skin, making her flustered all over again.
'Still getting into scrapes?' he asked, still smiling. 'Looks like some things haven't changed. Would you like me to have a look at your ankle?'
No, she damn well wouldn't. The last thing she wanted was for him to peel off her boots. She hadn't shaved her legs for days. Heavens, what was she thinking? Unshaved legs were the least of her problems.
'What are you doing here?' she asked. 'I thought you were working in Glasgow, or Australia?' He should be in Glasgow. Or Australia. Yes, Australia was better. As far away from her grandmother's home as was physically possible. Aware she sounded annoyed with him, she softened her tone. 'Are you here on holiday? I mean, Gran mentioned you were going to renovate your old family home, but I suppose I thought you'd wait until the summer to get started.'
Even better. Not. Now she was letting him know that she had been thinking about him, talking about him.
His smile widened. 'Which one of your questions would you like me to answer first?'
'Take your pick!' She smiled breezily. At least she hoped that was the way it appeared to him.
'I am renovating the house but it's had to be completely gutted and is uninhabitable at the moment.' He brushed flakes of snow and mulched leaves from her jacket and it took every ounce of willpower not to jump away from his touch. 'Maggie's letting me use the old gatehouse in the meantime.'
The gatehouse? The one on the perimeter of her gran's land? The one that was barely a stone's throw from where they were standing? The knowledge dismayed Ellen. The biggest advantage of coming here to be with Gran was that she could hide herself away and not have anything to do with anyone. Damn, damn, damn. Why did Sean have to come back into her life? And now of all times?
'So you're renovating while you're home on holiday, then?' Ellen asked hopefully.
Sean looked puzzled.
'No, I'm here permanently. Or as permanently as I stay anywhere. I plan to move into the old house as soon as it's ready.' He looked back at the pile of chopped wood in front of him. 'Your grandmother needed some logs. I had some extras from my own delivery so I said I'd split some for her.'
Ellen shivered. It wasn't just from the cold, although the ice on her trousers was beginning to melt, seeping through her clothes and freezing her skin. It was a shock, seeing him. Almost as much of a shock as falling on her backside.
'Look,' Sean said, 'Maggie's been like a cat on a hot tin roof all morning, waiting for you. If we don't get you inside she'll come looking for you. We can catch up once you've said hello and you're out of these wet clothes.'
As usual he was right. In that respect he hadn't changed. He was still the honorary older brother looking out for her. It was ridiculous to stay out in the cold and wet, particularly seeing as she'd recently been so ill. Not that he could or would know about that. Not ever.
He picked up her bag and, still holding on to her elbow, steered her towards the door.
A face appeared at the window and the next moment the door was swung open and her grandmother was standing there, gathering her up in her arms. Ellen inhaled the familiar sweetness of her gran's perfume and wished she could stay closeted in her soft, warm and safe embrace for ever.
'Ellen, child. You're soaked!' her grandmother said. 'Come away in to the fire and get warmed up. You too, Sean. I'll never know how you youngsters put up with being outside with hardly anything on. Don't you know you can catch your deaths? And you, Ellen, you should be taking more care. Especially after being ill.'
Her words made Ellen wince, but she forced a smile to her lips. It was wonderful to see Gran again. Even if her fussing made her want to break down and spill out the horror of these past couple of weeks. But she forced her emotions back down. She'd promised herself that she wouldn't burden Gran and she would keep that promise, however tempting the need to share her secret.
'Ill?' Sean frowned at her. 'With what, Ellen?'
Slipping off her jacket and scarf, Ellen took her time shaking them out and hanging them up on the coat hooks by the door. The last thing she needed right now was their concerned looks. Or Sean ever finding out about her illness. She didn't want people's pity or their well-meaning concernhow would she be able to carry on as normal then? But she'd have to be very careful around Seanshe knew from past experience those penetrating blue eyes of his missed very little.
She shrugged. 'Nothing reallya chest infection, that's all. I'm fine now.'
'I'll leave you two to catch up, then,' Sean replied. 'I want to get these logs finished before it gets dark.'
'Yes, thank you. Please don't let us keep you back,' Ellen said quickly. She wanted time to recover after seeing him. Time to transform herself back into the cool, calm and collected woman she wanted to be. At the very least, she still had her pride.
'Come in for a cup of tea before you go back to the gatehouse,' Maggie said, with a frown at Ellen.
Sean sniffed the air and grinned. 'Is that scones I can smell? In that case, I'll be back as soon as I've finished the last pile of logs. It shouldn't take me long.'