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It really hadn't changed at all.
Bits were different. More houses on the outskirts, perhaps, and a new roundabout on the access road, but fundamentally the same. And it still felt like home.
Bizarre, when it hadn't been home for eleven years, and even more bizarre that, after more than three, he could drive back into the little seaside town and feel a wave of nostalgia that brought a lump to his throat the size of Ayers Rock.
He cruised slowly in on the main road in his little rental car, slowly absorbing the changes to the place where he'd honed his bad-boy skills and broken a hundred hearts.
Including those of his family, he thought with regret.
He hadn't meant to. He'd only gone to Australia for a gap year after he graduated, but somehow it had stretched on and on, and he'd ended up so entrenched over there with his business interests that coming home for more than a flying visit had become all but impossible.
He sighed. He'd always intended to programme in enough time to come for longer, but the road to hell and back was paved with his good intentions and, in any case, for the last three years the matter had been taken out of his hands. The accident had happened just a couple of days before his father's heart attack, and when he'd realised how serious his father's heart condition was he'd been gutted that he couldn't get home, but there'd been nothing he could do about it. He wasn't fit to fly, so he'd played down the seriousness of the accident and told them he'd broken his ankle.
Which was true. Sort of. Then he'd missed Georgie's wedding a couple of months later, as well—he'd been gutted about that, too, and she clearly hadn't believed that his ankle wasstill responsible—after all, how bad could a fracture be?—but there was nothing he'd been able to do about that either so he'd just made himself unavailable, deliberately turning his phone off so he couldn't be reached. After all, no news was supposed to be good news, wasn't it, and Georgie was used to him not answering her calls.
Better to let them believe he was indifferent than add to their worries. Or so he'd thought. Had he been wrong?
Still, he was here now, and it was time to face the music. He wasn't ready for this, but he was beginning to realise he'd never be ready, so he might just as well get on with it.
But not yet.
Putting off the evil moment a little longer, he headed towards the sea front, past the newly revamped hotel at the entrance to the town, smothered in flags advertising its imminent opening as the area's premier health spa and leisure club.
It was impressive. The last time he'd seen it, it had been a tatty, run-down dump of a place, clearly struggling and in need of a massive cash injection. It had obviously had exactly that and, as always, his father had done a good job, he thought with pride.
Swallowing that persistent lump in his throat, he carried on down the main street, expecting the same old shops selling the same old stock. Except many of the shops were new, he noticed in surprise—in fact it was looking lively and vibrant and really rather inviting in a quaint and quintessentially English way.
Sleepy old Yoxburgh was clearly thriving in his absence.
He dropped down the steep little road to the sea front, past pavements clustered with tables spilling out of the front of the pretty Victorian houses now turned into hotels and cafés and trendy sea front flats, and cruised slowly along the prom and up past his sister's house.
A big Victorian Italianate villa overlooking the sea front, it was part of a redevelopment his father had been involved in the last time he'd been home, and it made a stunning house. Impressive, yet welcoming at the same time. And expensive. Easily seven figures, if his finger was truly on the pulse of the UK property market.
The development had been the biggest thing his father had tackled to that point, but he'd applied the same principles of quality and integrity that he brought to everything and, yet again, he'd done a good job. At least until his heart attack, and then Georgie had taken over.
From what he could see at this distance, she hadn't let her father down. Unlike him.
He shut off that train of thought and drove up past the side of the property, studying the small cluster of top-end homes grouped around behind it. Nick had ditched the previous architect's plans and commissioned Georgie to redesign and finish the project, and she'd done a good job, at least on the outside. Again impressive, he thought, and yet homely. Well done, Georgie. He was looking forward to seeing it all in close up, especially the lovely house where she was now living with her husband and children. She'd told him enough about it and sent him photos, but it looked even better in the flesh.
She'd done well, but he'd never doubted she would, and if anyone deserved to be happy, it was Georgie. She'd had some rough times, got herself involved with a real bastard a few years ago, and it was great that she was happy now. But so many kids? Four and a half, at the last count. They must be nuts.
He suppressed a flicker of something that couldn't possibly be envy and drove round the corner towards his rather more modest childhood home, a solidly respectable, warm and homely three storey half-timbered Edwardian house full of nooks and crannies for a child to hide in. He knew. He'd spent his childhood hiding in them and infuriating his sister because she couldn't track him down.
He gave a hollow little laugh. Nothing different there, then.
He scanned the house and felt a pang of homesickness that took him by surprise.
It looked good. Freshly painted, the garden carefully tended, and his father, looking as solid and dependable as ever, was standing in the front garden with a slender, grey-haired woman who was smiling up at him with love in her eyes.
Not that he could see her eyes, but he hardly needed to. The body language said everything, but she wasn't his mother and it seemed—wrong?
'Don't be ridiculous,' he muttered, and kept right on past them, his heart thumping. Why shouldn't his father find happiness? Just because his own life had taken a sharp and rather vicious downward turn didn't mean his father didn't deserve to be happy.
Without thinking about it, he found himself driving out of town and down the winding lane through the golf course to the little community at the mouth of the river where he'd spent every available moment as a child.
Unlike the main town, the harbour hadn't changed a bit.
Or had it?
Sailing boats were pulled up on the shingle bank beside the quay as always, and there were cars parked outside the pub beside the little green, but the Harbour Inn looked as if it had undergone a revamp, like many of the houses at the smarter end. Nothing drastic, just the subtle evidence of a little more cash injected into the neighbourhood.
The harbour was a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde, torn between the fishermen and the yachties, the pub marking the dividing line; the smart houses in their fresh new paint were clustered together at one end and at the other, down near the ferry slipway and the entrance to the boatyard, the higgledy-piggledy collection of old wooden bungalows and huts and sheds that made up the rest of the little community were clustered round the scruffy but bustling café that hadn't seen a coat of paint in years.
It had sold the best fish and chips in town, though, he remembered, and he'd bet it still did.
He parked the car on the quay—pay and display now, he noticed, and realised he didn't have a single coin of English money. Oh, what the hell. It was the end of April. Who was going to check on him?
But, just in case, he went over to the café, bought a cup of coffee in a foam cup and put the change in the meter, stuck the ticket in his windscreen and went for a wander while his coffee cooled.
And saw other changes. A new chandlery, some very expensive craft tied up to the moorings in the river, a new clubhouse for the yacht club—all sorts of changes, but the old ferry was still tied up to the jetty, and there was a pile of lobster pots and nets heaped against the fish shack. They were probably the same ones that had been there in his youth.
He turned a little sharply, and winced. God, his leg hurt after the flight. He stretched, flexed his knee, limping slightly as he reached the jetty and stood there, breathing in the familiar air.
He turned his head, incredulous. 'Bob? Hell, you're still here?' he said with a laugh, and found himself engulfed in a hug that smelt of sweat and tar and bilge water, with more than a lingering trace of fish. It was the most welcome hug he'd had in years, and he blinked hard and stood back, studying the wrinkled, sun-trammelled face of the old harbour master, those shrewd eyes still brilliant blue and seeing altogether too much.
'They said you were coming home for the wedding. Your sister didn't believe it, but I knew you wouldn't let the old man down.' He jerked his head at David's feet. 'So what's this limp then?'
He shrugged and grinned. 'Nothing. A bit of bother with a propeller.'
Bob winced. 'Would have thought you'd know better than to do something daft like that,' he said gruffly.
David didn't bother to explain. Where to start? Or end, more to the point. That was the hard bit. He looked around. 'Don't suppose there's anywhere round here to rent for a few weeks, is there? I don't fancy a hotel.'
'Not going home to stay? That'll hurt, Davey. He'll be expecting you.'
He shook his head at the old man. 'I need my space, Bob, and so does he. Anyway, he's got better things to do than entertain me.'
'If you say so.'
Bob nodded thoughtfully, then he jerked his head towards the posher end. 'You could try Molly Blythe. She takes paying guests sometimes. I don't know if she's up and running yet for the summer season, but it's worth a try. Up there—the little white place at the end— Thrift Cottage. Molly'll look after you if she can, and I know she can use the money right now. Just go and bang on the door. The kid'll be around if she isn't. I saw him heading back that way a little while ago. He's been crabbing off the jetty.'
Crabbing. Hell, he hadn't been crabbing in an English river for—well, for ever, and even the word was enough to bring the lump back to his throat.
He thanked Bob, drained the coffee and walked along the sea wall to the house Bob had pointed out, past the coastguard cottages and the little church, past the smart houses with the flashy cars, and, at the end of the cluster, set slightly apart from the others, was a pretty little white cottage set in a chaotic and colourful garden that looked as untended as the house.
There was a sign outside that said, 'Bed and Breakfast', but it was tired and peeling and faded with the sun. That didn't bode well, and he could see, now he was close up, that the sign was just a reflection of the rest of the property. The barge boards were flaking, the garden was overgrown and the rose on the front wall was toppling gently over into the shrubs beneath, taking the drainpipe with it.
Thrift Cottage, indeed. It didn't look as if anyone had spent anything on it for years, with the exception of the roof, which had new windows in it. Perhaps it was in the process of being done up—hence her need for money. He wondered what the neatly trimmed neighbours thought of Molly Blythe and her scruffy little house.
Not a lot, probably.
He went through the front gate that hung at a crazy angle on its tired hinges, walked up the steps to the door and rang the bell.
'The bell doesn't work. Who are you?'
He turned and studied the tow-haired, freckled child sitting cross-legged on the grass and studying him back with wide, innocent eyes. 'I'm David. Who are you?'
'Charlie. What do you want?'
His tone was simply curious, and David relaxed. 'I'm looking for somewhere to stay. Bob told me to come and find Molly—'
But he was up, legs no thicker than knotted rope flying as he pelted across the garden and shot round the corner. 'Mum!' he was yelling. 'Mum, there's a man. He wants to stay here!'
He reappeared a moment later.
'Mum's coming,' he said unnecessarily, because she was right behind him and looking flustered.
'Sorry, I didn't hear the bell—not that it works—I was gardening out the back. Well, more slash and burn, really. I was trying to find the shed so I could cut the grass. I'm Molly, by the way.' She grinned, scrubbed her hand on her equally grubby jeans and held it out.
He realised his jaw was about to sag, because that wide, ingenuous grin so like her son's had got him right in the gut, and he shut his mouth, collected himself and took her outstretched hand.
Somehow he wasn't in the least surprised at the strength of her hot and slightly gritty grip. She was tall, athletically built with curves in all the right places, and her smile, below green eyes as curious as her son's, was wide and genuine. She had a smattering of freckles across her nose just like Charlie's, and her auburn hair was scraped back into a ponytail. A wisp had escaped, blowing across her face and sticking on the fine sheen of moisture he could see on her skin, and he had a ridiculous urge to lift it away with his finger and tuck it behind her ear—
'I'm David,' he said, letting go of her hand and dragging his eyes back up from the low, slightly twisted V of her T-shirt. There was a leaf stuck in her cleavage, trapped against the soft swell of her breasts, and he felt the air temperature go up a notch.
Hell, maybe this wasn't a good idea after all, he thought a trifle desperately, trying to forget about that soft and enticing valley so he could concentrate on what she was saying.
'Um—Charlie said you were looking for a room?' she said, her voice, warm and slightly husky, lilting up at the end of her sentence. 'Are you on your own?'
'Yeah. It's just me. I need somewhere to stay.'
'How long for?'
'I don't know yet. A minimum of two weeks, at least.'