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All day long the ocean had called to her. At a minute past five-thirty in the afternoon Caroline closed the shop, mounted her bicycle and pedalled with all the urgency of a prisoner making a jailbreak down to the beach. When she got there she left her bicycle in the usual place and all but ran down to the water's edge, breathing in the sharp, salty air with increasing needas if she had indeed been imprisoned in a dank, dark cell and deprived of clean fresh air for too long.
That was why she knew she could never live far from the sea. On some unexplored, mysterious level it had become part of her. It didn't matter what type of day she'd had, it was the only sure-fire thing that seemed to have the power to rejuvenate her and somehow help put her world to rights.
Caroline didn't know why she'd woken up feeling so intensely restless that morning. There seemed to be no good reason for her sudden strange inability to concentrate or even conduct a simple exchange with any of the customers who came into her little shop for art supplies. Yet she couldn't deny that there was a niggling disquiet deep within her that wouldn't go awaya disquiet that would act like a cattle prod until she relented and gave it the attention it deserved.
There had been plenty of work for her to do in between customer visits too, but because of her state of mind Caroline had barely applied herself to any of it. All she'd done all day was glance longingly at the clock, torn between displaying the 'Closed' sign on the front door and escaping down to her favourite little cove or painting out her agitation onto canvas.
In the end she had acceded to neither of those options.
Now, studying thewhite-capped waves breaking over the rocks, inching further and further onto the sand like an encroaching colossal army of silver-backed ants, she was taken aback by the intolerable ache that climbed into her throat. If she was honest, she'd been trying to suppress that ache all day, but nowin the one place where she could freely give vent to her feelingsshe no longer tried to fight it. It was an old, familiar ache that had its inception in events that had occurred seventeen years ago, and sometimes she wondered at its power to still affect her with such savage intensity.
But Caroline didn't want to start any emotional excavating right now. She would simply allow the feelings to temporarily deluge her, then slowly ebb away again. Just like the tide that so fascinated her. She had escaped to the sandy cove which she had come to secretly regard as her own private oasis hopefully to derive some peace from her unwelcome discontent of spirit, and diving into the past too deeply would surely only visit on her the very opposite to that.
All she could do was plant her feet as firmly as she could on the shifting sand, gaze out to sea and breathe. This same technique had anchored her so many times in the past, when despair had almost driven her out of her skin, and it would anchor her again today
Jack hadn't been back to this place for years... seventeen years, to be exact. Now he saw that the small coastal town that had haunted his dreams at night had more or less stayed doggedly the same. Summer was long gone, and it was coming on to winter. Thankfully there were no noisy arcades or stands selling sugar candy, as he'd fearedno burger bars polluting the pure sea air with unsavoury aromas, and the population hadn't discern-ibly increased. Not to his eyes, anyway. It still appeared to be the same unassuming and quiet, almost nondescript seaside town that it had always been. The march of time had not rolled over it and left it unrecognisable. The knowledge made Jack feel so hollow inside that for a moment anyone close enough to study his face would have seen the hard glitter of tears sheen his riveting blue eyes. Perhaps it would have been better if it had changed? At least then he wouldn't be so relentlessly attacked by memories that he'd sooner bury for good and forget. Now, the sight of a familiar row of buildings facing the beach, in much the same weathered state that they had been seventeen years ago, and a bend in the road that led to the small cul-de-sac where he had lived with his mother, brought it all back in an unforgiving tide of recollection.
One memory in particular stood out like a beacon in the dark amongst all the rest. Jack's first ever sighting of Caroline Tremayne. She'd been walking home from school with her friends, and his youthful attention had been immediately dazzled, entrapped, enchanted by her beautiful smiling face, her long, curling blonde hair, and the most sensational pair of legs that ever graced a pair of school regulation black tights. He had been under a spell from the moment he'd seen her, and not once since had his heart beat so hard and furious at the sight of a pretty girl
Shoving his hands further down into the deep pockets of his Burberry raincoat, Jack walked on, suddenly glad of the soft steady rain that wet his lashes and made his dark hair sleek as a pelt. He told himself she must be long gone from the small town where he had grown up, having moved there with her family the year that she'd turned sixteen. Most likely she had got married to some ambitious young doctor with the blessing of her father, who had been a local GP, and had probably gone to live either in the Home Counties or some gentrified borough in London.
Continuing his speculation on how her life had unfolded without him, Jack wondered if she'd ever done anything about her interest in art, as she'd intended, or whether instead she'd been content to stay home and raise a family while her husband concentrated on his career.
The thought automatically slowed Jack's brisk stride right down and with impotent rage he scraped his fingers through his sodden dark hair. He despised the fact that the thought of her being with somebody else still had the power to unglue himto make his heart beat as fast as a rally driver taking a dangerous bend way too fast. Having to make billion-dollar decisions for his companies was a walk in the park compared to the tormenting, blood-stirring and heartrending memories he had of Caroline Tremayne. And the brutal truth of the matter was that she didn't deserve him devoting even one second of the time he stupidly spent thinking about her. Not when she had blighted his capacity to trust for ever by what she had done to him seventeen years ago
Telling himself to snap out of his dark mood and concentrate instead on the main reason he had come back to this place, Jack started to walk on again, his pace determinedly resolute as he headed for the bend in the road that would take him back to the once dilapidated Victorian semi-detached dwelling that he had grown up in the house that he now owned outright and could do with what he damn well pleased
The driving rain had cut short Caroline's emotionally charged but somehow vital trip down to the sea. Negotiating the roads home on her bicycle, she blinked rapidly into the ensuing downpour, clenching her teeth as wind and rain stung her cheeks and cursing her luck that she should forget to bring her waterproof. Her light cotton jacket was no protection against such an onslaught from the elements.
Startled by a car driving too fast, coming down the street towards her, she jumped off the saddle and steered her bicycle onto the pavement instead. She wasn't far from where she lived and would simply walk the rest of the way. She began to increase her pacehead down, her freezing hands gripping the bicycle handlebars and didn't see the man walking just as rapidly in the opposite direction towards her until it was too late and they unceremoniously collided.
His hands immediately shot out to steady himself, gripping her upper arms with a hint of steel in his hold as Caroline careened right into himthe front wheel of her bicycle catching him hard against the shin. He swore out loud, not sparing her blushes, and Caroline began to apologise profusely, blinking up at him in alarm and regret.
But as her dark, fair-lashed eyes locked onto the astonishingly vivid blue of the stranger's unrelenting waves of shock hit her like a high-pressure fire-hosethe ferocity of it almost knocking her over. Oh, my God
Her throat almost locked as she let the name out. She'd forbidden herself the use of it all these years, and now, in one blinding, devastating second, it was out there just as if it had been waiting to be let loose for the longest time
'Caroline.' He blinked the rain from his eyes, staring back at her with neither warmth nor pleasure, his hard jaw visibly tightening, as though having been dealt the most unwelcome of surprises.
His frigid, glacial glance cut her to the quick, and Caroline wanted to weep for all eternity at the sheer hostility she saw directed towards her. Instead she grazed her teeth anxiously across her bottom lip, immobilised by shock and distress, wanting to walk quickly away from this cruel encounter fate had dealt her, but somehow unable to make the necessary move to do so.
He abruptly let go of her arms. 'You've hardly changed at all' he ground out, almost as though resenting the observation.
Inside, Jack's senses were spinning and wheeling, his body protesting in silent agony, as though he'd fallen from a great height onto broken glass. What was she doing here? Surely she didn't still live here after all these years? If he had suspected for even one second that of all the people he might possibly bump into from his past Caroline Tremayne would be the first he would never have set foot in the place again never mind returned to buy the house he had grown up in!
He had loved and then hated her, with equally voracious passion, and now all he felt for her was ice-cold disdain. But as Jack held remorselessly onto his low opinion he couldn't deny the unsettling evidence of her disarming beautya beauty that hadn't faded in the slightest in all the time that had passed that had in fact blossomed into even more heartbreak.
Her skin was still as fine as the most expensive silk, her dark caramel eyes bewitching as an eastern princess, and her mouth devoid of lipstick and tempting as sin, with that delicately plump lower lip glistening damply with rain Apparently it still wielded the power to make Jack burn to taste it again.
'What are you doing here?' she asked him now, her hands curving tightly round the handlebars of her bicycle, the knuckles paler than pale.
'That's my business.'
'I'm sorry, I'
'You remember I never was one for small talk?' he said, raising an openly scathing dark brow.
Caroline stared. Hot, embarrassed colour surged into her face at his mocking remark.
Jack nodded, one corner of his hard mouth lifting with what might well have been satisfaction at her visibly acute discomfort. 'Well nothing's changed.'
Digging his hands deep into the pockets of his raincoat, he started to walk on.
'Is Dr Brandon finished for the day?'
'His last patient's just left, Miss Tremayne. Why don't you go on in?'
Not giving herself a moment's opportunity to change her mind, Caroline swept past the obliging receptionist to knock briefly at Nicholas's door, and at his automatic 'Come in' let herself inside.
The man who had been her father's best friend and closest confidante right up until his death was now hers, and as her agitated gaze fell upon his calm, smiling and familiar face she only just about held onto the last vestiges of composure that had so irrevocably unravelled at the sight of Jack Fitzgerald.
He walked round the large oak desk that occupied a fair portion of the room space and, pulling her towards him for a hug, kissed her fondly on the cheek as well.
'What a lovely surprise! I was just thinking about you.'
'You haven't any brandy, have you? Purely for medicinal purposes, you understand.'
She laughed a little harshly, blinking back the scalding sheen of tears that surged helplessly into her eyes.
Nicholas frowned, his steady, concerned gaze locking immediately onto her clear distress. 'What's happened? You're wet, and shivering too blasted weather! Come and sit down and talk to me.'
Hurriedly pulling out the chair in front of his desk the one reserved for his patientsNicholas saw Caroline settled into it before pulling open one of the capacious drawers and extracting a bottle of best malt.
'No brandy, I'm afraid, darling, but whisky should do the trick just as well.'
Pouring her a generous measure into a small tumbleralso retrieved from the desk drawerhe handed it to her, the grooves at each side of his mouth deepening as he watched her tip the glass towards her lips and drink.
'This is so unlike you. You have me quite worried,' he confessed, briefly squeezing her shoulder.
Feeling the whisky burn inside her, Caroline winced. After just a couple of seconds the uncomfortable burning sensation became surprisingly pleasurable and warm, providing a welcome if brief respite from the intense anguish she'd suffered since literally bumping into Jack just half an hour ago.
Turning her troubled dark eyes towards Nicholas, she offered him a shaky smile. 'You must think I've completely gone off the rails, or something. I'm sorry to land myself unannounced on you like this.'
'Caroline we've been friends for a long time now good friends since I lost Meg last year. You know if you're in any sort of trouble I'm always here for you, don't you?'
She knew that he meant it. Nicholas Brandon had been a rock for her since she'd lost her father. She had never seen him as a substitute parent, but her relationship with him and his wife Meg had helped her foster a sense of security that for a long time she'd lacked. When her father had died, Caroline had sorely grieved for the affection she had never had and had always longed for. Her friends had all been in London, and Nicholas and his wife had been unstinting with comfort and support when she'd decided to move back to her old home. But Caroline had never spoken about Jack Fitzgerald to the