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Just the one word, but it curled around her, invading every part of her, swamping her with its gruff warmth. Her heart went into overdrive, her breath stalling at the unaccustomed and yet, oh, so familiar sound of his voice. And then fear kicked in.
'Rob, what is it? What's happened?'
'Nothing's happened—yet,' he said quietly. 'I just wanted to warn you, Alec's going to ask Jenni to marry him this evening, and he wanted my blessing. I thought you should know.'
So the time had come. Maisie's heart sank. For the last three years, ever since her baby had started dating the gentle, humorous Alec Cooper with his smouldering eyes and teasing sense of fun, she'd been waiting for this moment, and now it was here. Her legs felt like jelly, her heart was pounding, her mouth was dry, and she wanted to scream, 'No! She's too young! Don't let her, she's not ready…'
'I'm OK,' she said, sitting down abruptly on the edge of the bed. The bed in which she'd given Rob her virginity over twenty-one years ago.
'Are you sure?'
'Sort of. Thank you for warning me, although it would have been nice if Alec had done it,' she said.
'I know,' he said, his voice sympathetic. 'I suggested he should, but he was afraid you'd try and warn Jenni off.'
'Rob, I'm her mother!'
'Exactly. And you have…'
'Issues?' she offered into the silence, and he gave a quiet huff of laughter that clawed at her insides.
'You could put it that way. I told him you'd be upset, but he was very reluctant in case you tried to speak to Jenni, to talk her out of it, because he's been planning it for ages, apparently, and he was desperate for it to be a surprise.'
'Rob, he should have spoken to me, too. I'm the one who's brought her up. Or doesn't my blessing count?'
His sigh was soft. 'Maisie, don't be like that. I asked him to talk to you, he said he'd think about it, but obviously he didn't feel he could, or he hasn't been able to get you. He asked me not to tell you until he had time to ask Jenni, and he's doing that now, as we speak, so I couldn't tell you any sooner. I gave him my word. You have to respect that.'
Of course she did. She just felt out of the loop, as usual, at the bottom of the heap when it came to knowing anything, and it hurt. 'It doesn't matter,' she lied, but he cut in gently.
'It does—and I'm really sorry. If it helps, he only asked me about four hours ago. And my mother doesn't know.'
A small crumb of comfort, but surprisingly perceptive of him to know she'd needed it.
She closed her eyes and gave a tiny, shaky little laugh. 'Rob, they're so young.'
'They'll be fine. I'm sure Jenni'll ring you the moment they're back. It might be nice if you act surprised.'
She swallowed. 'Sure—and, Rob…Thank you for warning me.'
'It's a pleasure,' he said, his voice low and gruff, and she felt the familiar shiver down her spine.
How could he still do that to her, after all these years? She should have got over him by now. She said goodbye and replaced the phone in the cradle, and sat staring at the wall blankly. It really was going to happen. Jenni and Alec were getting married, and even though she'd known it was coming, she was still reeling with shock.
'You're being ridiculous,' she told herself, and, getting up, she went back over to her wardrobe and carried on the weeding process she'd been engaged in when Rob had called.
She pulled out a hanger and stared at it blankly. Good grief, how ever long had she had these trousers? Far too long, she hadn't worn them for years. She dumped them on the growing pile, found a few other things and then realised she'd put her favourite dress on the pile by accident.
She wasn't with it at all, she was miles away, in Scotland, with Jenni, praying that common sense would prevail and she'd tell Alec they should wait. Hoping it would work for them. Worried that it wouldn't, that like their marriage, Jenni's would prove too frail to stand the test of time.
They'll be fine.
Would they? She didn't know, but Rob's deep, warm voice echoed in her ears, and if she let herself, she could almost believe it. But not quite, because he'd said the same thing to her over twenty-one years ago, when he'd asked her to marry him.
'We'll be fine, Maisie. You'll see. It'll be all right.'
But it hadn't been. It hadn't been all right at all, in the end, even though the beginning had been blissful. Stormy, sometimes, but they'd always, always made up after a row, and sometimes she wondered if they'd had fights just for the hell of it, so they could make up afterwards. She laughed at the memory, but her smile faded and she felt her eyes fill.
She'd married him not only because she loved him, but also because she'd been eighteen, scared, pregnant, and her family wanted nothing to do with her. Her options had been severely restricted, and she'd thought he loved her as much as she'd loved him, but she'd been wrong. She must have been. If he'd loved her, he'd have come after her, but he hadn't, so she'd concluded sadly that he'd only married her out of duty, when they'd hardly known each other—certainly not well enough to weather the birth of Jenni while he was away at sea and she was alone in Scotland with his less-than-enthralled parents.
It wasn't really surprising that it hadn't worked, under the circumstances. They'd been children, out of their depth in the welter of emotions they'd encountered, coping with a situation that would have challenged anyone. And when she couldn't bear it any more up there without him, when she'd left Scotland and come back down here to Cambridge, he'd done nothing about it, to her horror and distress. There had just been a terrible, deafening silence.
He hadn't come to her when he'd had his next shore leave, as she'd expected, hadn't tried to find out what was wrong, but had said nothing, done nothing for six whole months except send money to her account. She'd taken it because she'd had no choice, and she'd written to him begging him to come to her, to talk to her—anything, but there'd been no reply, and then at last there had been a letter asking for access to Jenni in their divorce settlement—a divorce that hadn't even been on her agenda until he'd broached the subject. Shocked, devastated, she'd agreed to everything he'd asked, and the only contact they'd had since then had been over Jenni.
She'd hardly seen him in all this time—scarcely at all since Jenni had grown old enough to spend time with him alone without needing her, and certainly not at all in the last five years. They hardly even spoke on the phone any more. There was no need. If there was anything relating to Jenni, it was discussed with her directly, which was why his call today out of the blue had been so shocking.
She couldn't remember the last conversation they'd had that had lasted more than a very few seconds, but she guessed they'd be having to talk to each other now, and the thought brought all her confused and tumbled emotions about him racing to the surface. Emotions she'd never dealt with, just closed off behind a wall of ice in her heart before they destroyed her.
She still loved him, she realised. She'd die loving him, but it was a one-sided, unrequited love that had never stood a chance. And she was far too old to be so foolish.
The phone rang again, and for a moment she stared at it, her heart pounding, knowing who it was, knowing what she was about to hear, but stalling anyway because until she heard it, it might not be true…
'Hello, darling. How are you?'
'Amazing! You'll never guess what—are you sitting down?'
She wasn't, but she did. Rapidly. 'OK. Fire away, what's happened?' she said, trying to sound fascinated and intrigued and enthusiastic instead of just filled with a sense of doom. She'd seen the look in Jenni's eyes, and Alec reminded her so much of Rob as he had been—young, eager, in love—
'Alec's asked me to marry him!'
She squeezed her eyes shut briefly and sucked in a breath. Hard. Her lungs were jammed up tight, her heart was in the way and she wanted to cry.
She didn't. She opened her eyes, forced a smile and said, 'Oh, my goodness—so what did you say?' As if she didn't know what the answer would have been…
Jenni laughed, her happiness radiating unmistakeably down the phone line. My baby. My precious, precious baby.
'Yes, of course! What on earth did you expect me to say? Mummy, I love him! You're supposed to be pleased for me! You are pleased for me, aren't you?'
There was a note of uncertainty, of pleading, and Maisie sat up straighter and forced some life into her voice. 'Oh, darling, of course I am—if it's what you really want…'
'You know it's what I want. I love him, and I want to be with him forever.'
'Then congratulations,' she said softly. And then, pretending she didn't already know, she added, 'I wonder what your father will say?'
'Oh, he's really happy for us.'
'That's good.' Her voice sounded hollow, echoing in her ears, but Jenni laughed again, unaware of Maisie's inner turmoil.
Alec asked him first, apparently. They're really close, and he wanted his blessing—it's so like him. He really wanted to do it right, and I had absolutely no idea. It was amazing. He took me up to the ruin and got down on one knee—and I just burst into tears. I think he was a bit shocked.'
'I'm sure he wasn't, he knows you better than that. So, when are you talking about? Next year? The year after?'
As soon as I graduate—we thought maybe the third Saturday in June, if the church is free?'
'But, Jenni, that's only a few weeks!' she said, her mind whirling. Surely not—please, no, that would be too ironic if Jenni, too…
'Ten and a half—but that's fine. We want to get it over before the really busy summer season, and the weather will be best then. If we wait until autumn the weather up here could be cold and wet and awful.'
'Up there?' she said, the timescale forgotten, blanked out by this last bombshell.
'Well—yes, of course up here, Mum! It's where I live now, where everyone is, except you. We're all here.'
Jenni was right, of course, and she should have seen it coming. They all did live up there, light years away in the wild and rugged West Highlands. Everyone except her. Jenni's fiancé Alec, his family, Jenni's uni friends in Glasgow, Alec's friends—and Jenni's father.
Robert Mackenzie, Laird of Ardnashiel, king of his castle—literally. And she'd been nothing, a nobody; in the words of the taunting kindergarten rhyme, the dirty rascal, the girl who'd got herself knocked up with the heir's baby and then, little more than a year after their wedding, had walked away. Why had he let her go without a murmur, without coming after her, without trying to fix what was surely not that broken? She didn't know. She might never know.
And now her darling daughter—their daughter—was getting married, in the very church where she and Rob had made their vows over twenty years ago. Vows that had proved as insubstantial as cobwebs…
She shuddered and sucked in a breath, the silence on the phone hanging in the air like the blade on a guillotine.
'Yes, darling. Sorry. Of course you're having it there,' she agreed, squashing the regret that she wouldn't be married here, in Cambridge, from the home where she'd grown up. But that was unrealistic, and she was sensible enough to recognise that now. 'Where else, when you've got such a lovely setting? But—only ten and a half weeks?' she said, her voice perilously close to a squeak of dismay as she thought of the reasons that might exist for their haste. 'Don't you need longer to plan it?' she hedged.
The lovely ripple of her daughter's laughter made Maisie want to cry again. 'Oh, it's all planned! We're having the wedding here in the church, of course, and the hotel in the village can do the catering. They've got a brilliant restaurant, so the food will be great. And we'll have a marquee on the lawn and if it rains there's plenty of room inside, and we can have a ceilidh in the ballroom—it'll be wonderful! But you have to come now, because I need a dress and I've only got a week and a bit before I have to go back to uni, and you have to help me choose it. And we have to look for something for you, too—you'll need something really lovely, and I want to be there when you choose it. I need you, Mum. Say you'll come.'
Her voice had dropped, sounding suddenly hesitant, and Maisie knew she had no choice. Wanted no choice. This was her baby, her only child, and she was getting married, whether Maisie liked it or not.
'Of course I'll come,' she said, squashing down her apprehension and concentrating on being positive. 'I wouldn't miss it for the world.'
'Great. I can't wait, it's going to be such fun! Look, I have to go, we've got to tell Alec's parents before they go to bed, but I'll hand you over to Dad. He wants to talk to you.'
Oh, lord. Not now. Please, not now, not again. She needed to crawl under the covers and have a really good howl, and the last thing she needed to do was make small talk with the man who still held her heart in the palm of his hand.
'She wants me to come up,' she told him, sticking firmly to business.
'Yes. It needs to be soon, so I hope you aren't too busy. When are you free?'
Never. Not to go there, to the chilly, forbidding castle, with his mother still there despising her and him indifferent to her feelings, doing what was right instead of what mattered and riding roughshod over her heart. Except apparently he wasn't indifferent to her feelings any more. Maybe he'd grown up. Twenty years could do that to you.
'It's not too bad for the next couple of weeks. I interviewed someone today for a feature that I have to write up, and I'm doing a wedding tomorrow—'
'Can't you hand it over to someone?'
She shook her head. 'No. Not this one.'