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Holly held her breath as she closed the storybook, then backed out of the children's room with the stealth of a special ops soldier.
The caution was necessary. Really. These kids could sleep soundly through the familiar blast of car horns and sirens from the busy New York street below, but the tiniest squeak from within the apartment could rouse them to instant panicking wakefulness.
This evening, to Holly's relief, neither child stirred. They lay perfectly still in their matching bunk beds. In striped pyjamas, one dark head and one fair, they clutched their favourite fluffy toys—a kangaroo for Josh, a koala for Anna—and their eyes remained blessedly closed.
Holly reached the doorway without a mishap and quickly flicked the light switch, plunging the room into darkness. For once there were no responding squawks or protests. Just sweet, blissful silence.
She tiptoed down the hall and the silence continued.
Fanntastic. With a little luck, tonight would be a good night. No wet beds. No nightmares. In the past month there'd only been a handful of good nights. But, before Holly could even think about letting out a sigh of relief, her cellphone rang. No-o-o!
With the speed of a baseball short stop, she dived across the room, snatched the phone from the coffee table and darted into her bedroom, closing the door quickly but softly behind her.
The phone's screen identified the caller. Her boyfriend, Brandon. Wonderful.
'Hi, Brand,' she whispered.
No squeaks emanated from the bedroom down the hall and she sank gratefully onto the bed.
'Holly, why are you whispering?'
'I've just got the twins to sleep.'
'Oh, right.' Brandon gave an audible sigh. 'How are they coping this week?'
'A little better.'
Great wasn't quite the word Holly would have chosen to describe the small improvement in the children's progress, but of course she wouldn't correct Brandon. He'd given her fabulous support during the funeral and its aftermath.
'I got your message,' he said.
'Right. Thanks for calling back.' Holly took a moment to relax into the pillows and she deliberately lightened her tone. 'So, what do you think? Can you wangle a leave pass for this weekend?'
She crossed her fingers as she waited for his answer. Please come, Brand. I need you.
Brandon's family owned a dairy farm in Vermont and his dad's health wasn't the best, so the responsibility of running the enterprise had fallen squarely on Brandon's shoulders.
So, yes—it was asking a lot to expect him to get away to New York again so soon. Last month, after Holly's cousin Chelsea's sudden and tragic death, he'd taken almost a whole week off to be with her and to help with the children.
That was pretty amazing, actually. Holly had been touched and surprised. Since she'd moved away from Vermont to study in New York, she'd come to accept that if she wanted to see her boyfriend it was up to her to make the effort. She'd grown up on a dairy farm, too, so she understood the demands and she'd been prepared to be the one who did all the travelling. Even so, she'd only been able to see Brandon a handful of times in this past year.
If he came this weekend, she would make sure they had time alone together. She and Brandon had been an item since high school, almost six years. Very soon now, she would be finished with her studies, Anna and Josh would be settled in Australia with their father, and she was looking forward to going home to Vermont to settle down with Brand.
She could so easily picture their lives together—Brandon with his dairy herd, while she worked in the local school, the two of them balancing their day jobs with their life at home, and eventually, with a family of their own—copper-haired children like their dad.
Holly was very happy with that picture, and thinking about her boyfriend always made her feel cosy and safe.
Admittedly, most girls might not place cosiness and safety high on their wish list when it came to boyfriends, but Holly wasn't looking for a guy who spelled excitement and passion. Her cousin Chelsea, the twins' mother, had taken that risk and the result had been divorce and heartbreak.
'I don't know if I can get away this weekend,' Brandon said suddenly.
Holly suppressed a sigh. 'I do understand, honey, but—'
'Do you?' His voice bristled with unexpected impatience. 'Because I don't understand why you're complicating this, Holly. The children's father is on his way at last, so why do you need me? Why do you need my help if he's going to be there, too?'
'It would just be good to have your support. I've looked after the twins for a month and now I have to say goodbye.'
Holly suppressed a sigh. She needed to be calm and composed when she talked with Gray about his children, and she would have liked a little backup from Brandon. She needed to explain to Gray about Anna and Josh's schooling needs, their eating habits, their fears.
The twins had been at home on the day Chelsea had collapsed, and it was six-year-old Josh who'd courageously dialled 911. They hadn't only lost their mommy; they'd suffered a terrible trauma. Anna's nightmares were truly terrifying.
Holly needed to explain all this to their estranged father, but it would be so much easier if her steady and reliable boyfriend was there as well. As a buffer. An anchor. A safety net.
'Actually, Holly, I can't come this weekend.'
The sudden nervousness in Brandon's voice penetrated the whirl of Holly's thoughts.
Why was he nervous? Brandon was never nervous. Was something wrong?
'There's urn there's something I should tell you,' he said.
'What is it?'
'It's really hard to explain. I I don't know how to say this, but.'
Holly's insides froze and she was gripped by a terrible deer-in-the-headlights fear. Brandon cleared his throat.
She forced herself to ask, 'Brandon, what's the matter?'
'I didn't want to tell you before—because of Chelsea and everything.'
'Tell me what?' she almost screamed. He was scaring her.
Brandon cleared his throat again. Holly gripped the phone tighter, squeezing her eyes to hold back threatening tears.
Was Brandon trying to break-up with her? No. No. Surely not.
Like someone drowning, her mind flashed back through precious memories. The school dance when they'd first met. Brandon helping her with algebra homework at the big scrubbed table in her mother's cosy kitchen. The familiar, comfortable texture of his lips. The ruby heart locket he'd given her on Valentine's Day three years ago. The way she liked to bury her nose against the warm freckles on his neck when he held her. The cosy sense of safety that she'd always felt with him.
Now, suffocating panic filled her throat.
She couldn't bear to think about losing him, especially not when she'd just lost Chelsea. Fear pulled tight knots in her stomach.
Brandon said, 'You have to agree it's not really working for us.'
'What do you mean?' she bleated.
'We only see each other a few times a year.'
'But I've almost finished my studies.' Her voice was shrill now. Pleading. 'I'll soon be home for good and we can—'
'I'm so sorry, Holly. You see, the thing is I I've met someone else.'
As the taxi pulled into the kerb on West 69th Street Gray Kidman was thinking about the first time he'd arrived at this red-brick apartment block. He'd been a bridegroom then, fired with love and certainty and hope, with no premonition of the heartache that lay ahead of him.
This time he knew what he was in for, knew the challenges and the very real chances for failure. Right now, as he stepped onto the pavement and looked up to the level where his children were waiting, his stomach felt like a jar full of jumping grasshoppers.
His hand was actually shaking as he pressed the security buzzer.
The children answered immediately.
Gray closed his eyes, momentarily stunned by the emotion his children's voices aroused. For three long months he'd been waiting for this. First, the wet season floods had held him up, then a broken ankle after a desperate attempt to cross a raging creek. Now, at last, he dipped his head to the speaker phone. 'G'day, scallywags.'
Anna squealed, 'I'll press the button to let you in.'
'I've already pressed it,' shouted Josh, full of self-importance and equally excited.
A wry smile tilted Gray's mouth and the glass doors slid open, allowing him access to the apartment block's foyer. He hefted his duffel bag over one shoulder and strode with only the slightest hint of a limp across the blue-tiled floor. As he pressed the lift button, he reminded himself that he must remember to call this an elevator now. His kids would be quick to correct him.
His stomach jumped like crazy.
Taking sole charge of Anna and Josh was a huge task, probably the toughest challenge he'd ever faced. He wanted the very best for them. If it was in his power, he'd give his children the perfect foundation for their lives—a safe and comfortable home, a loving family network, and the best possible education.
The irony was that they had all of the above right here in New York City. This apartment block was secure and modern. His ex-wife's teacher cousin was a first-rate nanny, and the children's doting grandparents were nearby. The school they attended had won all kinds of awards for educational excellence.
Although it had nearly killed Gray to let his wife walk away from his Outback cattle property, taking their children with her, he'd been forced to accept that Anna and Josh were better off here in New York than in his home in one of the remotest corners of Australia.
He hadn't given in without a fight but, despite his heartbreak, he'd eventually let his family go.
Yet, tragically, here he was, reclaiming his children and taking them halfway across the world to the very situation their mother had fled from.
Gray had no other option. Running a cattle station was his only income-earning skill. Jabiru Creek Station was the best he had to offer. It was all he had to offer.
He was very afraid it wasn't enough.
The elevator arrived and shot him quickly to the third floor, and when the doors slid open his children were waiting for him.
'Daddy!' Anna launched herself, like a small torpedo, straight into Gray's arms.
He let his duffel bag slip to the floor and lifted her high and she clasped him tightly around his neck.
'Daddy! My daddy!' She buried her face into his shoulder and her silky fair hair smelled wonderfully of flowers.
'Hey, Dad.' Josh was standing close, looking up expectantly.
Crouching, Gray juggled Anna onto one knee and hugged his son. What a fine little fellow Josh was. Gray had been moved to tears when he'd heard that his small son had been brave and quick-thinking when his mother collapsed at home, rushing to dial Emergency.
Now how good it was to embrace them both. At last.
They seemed fine. Gray had been worried he'd find them pale and pining, but they looked happy and healthy and bursting with energy. It was such a relief.
'That's some welcome,' a voice said and he looked up to see a young woman with dark hair and dark shiny eyes standing in the apartment's open doorway.
Holly O'Mara, Chelsea's young cousin. Gray sent her a smile that felt crooked with emotion. He winced at the twinge in his ankle when he stood once more.
'Holly,' he said, holding out his hand.
'It's good to see you, Gray.'
He didn't know this young woman very well. On the rare occasions they'd met at family gatherings, Holly had always been shy, keeping well in the background, as if she preferred her own company, so he'd never gone out of his way to chat with her. Besides, she was training to be an English teacher, which meant she was as well educated and cultured as his former wife, another woman destined to remind him of his inadequacies.
But he couldn't deny he owed her a great deal. She'd been sole carer of his children for three long, difficult months.
With the twins skipping at his heels, he followed Holly inside the apartment. It was then, without warning, that he was sideswiped by a new emotion—the realisation that his beautiful bride was gone for ever.
It was crazy to feel like this now. Truth was, Gray had already lost Chelsea three years ago when she left him. He'd done his grieving then, and in time he'd moved on, eventually finding comfort in a healthy cynicism for the married state.
Now, suddenly, the finality of her passing hit him like a physical blow. A sense of loss descended like black, suffocating cloud.
Don't break down. Not now. Not in front of the children.
He heard Holly say gently, 'You've had a long journey. Why don't you go through to the living room? Take the weight off. I have coffee brewing.'
Gray was grateful for the normality and everyday ease of her welcome. 'Thanks,' he said. 'Thanks for everything, Holly.'
Their gazes met in an unexpected moment of connection. Holly was smiling, but Gray thought he saw tears glistening in her dark eyes and he felt a painful tightening in his throat.
He spoke more gruffly than he meant to. 'Come on, kids, show me the way.'
Posted April 20, 2011
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Posted June 20, 2011
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Posted April 3, 2011
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