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Why on earth had she come back here?
Penhally, Cornwall, on this November day seemed grim. Grey and bleak.
And so cold. Megan was quite sure the temperature was a single digit and having come from an African summer where a cool day could still be thirty degrees Centigrade, this was like being inside a fridge.
It didn't help that she'd lost so much weight in recent weeks, of course. Dengue fever took a huge toll, especially the second time around. Her old coat hung so loosely on her that Megan could wrap it around her body like a blanket. Which was exactly what she did as she stood there, shivering, a suitcase by her feet, looking out over Penhally Bay as the taxi disappeared down the hill.
The sky was a deep, ominous grey and looked ready to unleash a torrent of rain at any minute. The sea looked equally menacing with white-caps on the steel-grey water, moored yachts rocking on the swells and huge breakers crashing onto dark, wet sand. Seagulls circled overhead and the sharp, plaintiff notes of their cries echoed perfectly how Megan was feeling.
It was too cold to stand here in the street, that was for sure, but the view as she turned towards the cottage was just as dispiriting. The gate was barely visible in the wild growth of what had been a neatly trimmed hedge. The small garden was a wilderness but not high enough to disguise the coils of long-dead plants in the hanging baskets on either side of the front door or the broken panes in the lattice windows, some of which had curled pieces of cardboard trying to fill the small squares.
How long had it been since the last tenants had gone? Since she'd fired the rental agency who had failed to fix the issues like the broken pipes that had driven the tenants away? At least six months, but Megan had been too far away and too busy to cope with the hassle of putting new arrangements in place. Angered too by the flood of queries coming in from developers who were always waiting in the wings like vultures to get their hands on such a desirable piece of real estate.
And then she'd been too sick.
It was a ridiculously hard effort to push the gate open and drag her suitcase along the flagged path now choked with weeds and the branches of perennials like lavender that looked like they hadn't been cut back since she'd left two years ago. Megan felt the prickle of tears at the back of her eyes. This had all been so pretty once. Not that she'd ever managed to keep it as picture-perfect as her grandmother had but she'd tried her best to keep it the same.
To preserve the memories of how it had been in her childhood, when this cottage and her beloved gran had been the most precious things in her life.
And that, of course, was what had brought her back now.
This was where her roots were.
Not that she'd actually been brought up here. No After her parents were tragically killed in a car accident, Megan had gone to live with her grandmother in London. But Gran had been brought up in Penhally and that was where she'd taken Megan for a seaside holiday, every summer. They'd rented this very cottage, year after year, and the memories of those weeks had always been tinged with the rosy perfection of being the best time in the best place in the world. The cottage had been the home of her heart for as long as she could remember.
When she'd been so dreadfully ill, nearly losing her life after losing the baby, Megan had been forced to finally tell her grandmother the truth. Despite being already frail, Gran had gathered up all her strength, wrapped it all with the unconditional love she had for her granddaughter and declared that they needed a new beginning, starting with a seaside holiday. When she'd found that their beloved rental cottage was on the market, Gran had simply moved their lives back to her home town and, by doing so, had allowed Megan to put the pieces of her shattered life back together.
So this cottage and its memories, the sea and the village all added up to home. And home was the place that drew you back when you needed comfort. A safe place to recover and reassess your life.
Besides, the cottage badly needed sorting out. It would have been unforgiveable to let it crumble into some sort of ruin. Megan could hear the kind of 'tsking' sound her grandmother would have been making as she pushed open a front door stiff with disuse and stepped into a space that felt just as cold as it was outside. A space that reeked of damp and mould and mice. Oh hell
This was far worse than she'd expected.
It wasn't just the evidence of appalling neglect. The horrible smell of the rubbish left by the tenants littering the hallway or the ominous sound of trickling water coming from the kitchen. Or was it the bathroom upstairs? Probably both.
It wasn't the knowledge that there would be no electricity on yet and it mightn't even be safe to have it turned back on until she found someone to check the wiring. It wasn't even the wave of incredible weariness as Megan contemplated the energy it would take to sort any of this out.
No. It was the feeling of being so alone.
The result of the emotional punch of the memories of not being alone in this house.
Not that Josh had ever stayed here. But this was where it had ended, wasn't it? Her feet seemed to be literally treading memory lane. Taking her down the hallway and into her kitchen while her head and her heart conjured up the figure of Josh following her.
Her feet crunched through pieces of broken glass on the kitchen floor.
Her heart had been broken long ago. How on earth could it still hurt this much?
Because it was here that Josh had prised that jug of water out of her hands? Just before he'd kissed her as if it was the end of the world and she was the only thing that mattered to him.
Here that Josh had told her how much he loved her?
When he'd told her that he couldn't be in love with her any more because his wife was pregnant.
She could actually hear echoes of his voice.
I love you so much, which is why this is the hardest thing I've ever had to do It was just one night, weeks before you and I
I love you, Megan but no child of mine will grow up as I did, without a father. I won't do that. I have to make this work
Yes. That had been when her heart had really broken. With the realisation that Josh had been lying to her when he'd told her the marriage was over. When she realised he'd still been sleeping with his wife at the time as he'd shared her bed.
That was when she'd known that it was truly all over. When any hope had died. She had known that, despite the love they had for each other, they could never, ever be together. Nothing could change that. If Rebecca's death hadn't even made a dent, then being back in Penhally certainly wasn't going to. That sense of betrayal was clearly still there. She'd thought she'd got over it all but the pain she was feeling right now was proof that she'd only managed to hide from it.
The chirrup of her mobile phone announced a text message. It was from Tashathe only friend she'd really kept in touch with over the last couple of years. Maybe because Tash had also left Penhally. Or because she'd understood. How ironic was it that Tasha was Josh's sister?
U there yet? The message read. How's it going?
Megan's breath came out in a snort of wry amusement as she pulled off a woolly glove and tapped a response.
Just got here. Bit messy.
Would Tasha wonder what she was referring to? The house? Her emotional state? Her life?
Maybe she knew. Hugs, came back. U OK?
I will be. Thnx. Call u soon.
Tasha would be worried about her. Her friend had been dubious about the return. Why not come somewhere sunny to recuperate? she'd suggested. Like San Savarre? Or London, which would be close enough to make sorting things out a little easier and she wouldn't be so alone because Charles would be there, wouldn't he? Being with such a good friend who knew the whole story would be the best protection from being vulnerable to ghosts from the past.
She could cope, Megan had assured Tasha. It wouldn't be for long. Yes, she knew that Josh had moved from the smart St Piran town house he'd shared with Rebecca and was living closer to Penhally now. Of course he had moved. He'd needed a bigger house and a garden for the children and for his mother, who'd gone to live with them. By tacit agreement, she and Tash rarely talked about her brother but in those early days Megan had needed to know that the babies had survived their dramatic entrance to the world and had gone on to thrive. She hadn't really needed the later snippets that had told her Josh was a perfect father to little Max and Brenna. Or that his emergency department at St Piran's hospital was considered to be the best in the county.
Or that there were no women of any significance in his life. That he'd taken some sort of vow not to mess up anybody else's life.
His children and his career were all that mattered to Josh now. He probably wouldn't even be interested that she was visiting the area. There was no reason for their paths to cross other than the fact that this was a small village.
Megan closed her eyes to the view of Penhally Bay she still had in front of her through the kitchen window.
Maybe it was time to really let go of the past.
All of it.
Sell her grandmother's cottage and move on for ever.
If the memories were this hard to handle, how on earth did she think she would cope if she actually met Josh again?
The sooner she got out of here the better.
Maybe she didn't even need to think about fixing up the cottage. It wasn't as if it would make much difference to the kind of money a developer would be happy to offer.
She did need to find a place to stay for the night, however, and she really didn't want to contact any old friends from St Piran's even though she knew they would be happy to help.
The information centre in the village should be able to direct her to somewhere that would have a room available. Too weary in both body and spirit to face carrying her suitcase, Megan locked it into the cottage, taking only her shoulder bag as she set off to walk down the hill.
When she went back through the gate, however, the small path down to the beach caught her eye.
Just a look, she told herself. A glimpse into part of her past that wasn't associated with Josh. If she could feel the sand beneath her feet and close her eyes and breathe in the salty air, maybe she could remember something happier.
A summer's day, even. Building sandcastles and collecting shells and pieces of seaweed. Sitting on the damp sand with her bare legs stretched out in front of her, waiting for the thrill of the last wash of a wave to foam around her. Running back to the cottage to show Gran her new treasures.
Maybe it should have been running into Josh unexpectedly that she should have prepared herself for.
The dog on the beach was large enough to be quite frightening as he came loping towards Megan with a piece of driftwood clamped between his jaws. In the periphery of her vision, however, Megan could see a woman and children who had to be the dog's family because the beach was otherwise deserted. Nobody with children would have a vicious dog, would they? Besides, his teeth were occupied with the large piece of driftwood. And his tail was wagging in a very friendly manner.
'Crash!' The woman called firmly. 'Come back here.'
Crash? The name was unusual enough to ring a bell. He'd only been a gangly, half-grown puppy then, of course, but Megan could remember him wearing a big, white ribbon around his neck at a summer beach wedding. Luke and Anna Davenport's wedding.
It wasn't Anna coming towards her now, though.
'I'm so sorry.' The woman, bundled up warmly in a coat, hat and huge scarf, was very apologetic. 'He's a bit too friendly, so he is. But he wouldn't hurt a fly.'
She had a strong Irish accent and the lilt took Megan immediately into a space she really didn't want to be. Was everything and everybody here going to make her think instantly of Josh? She took a deep breath and focused on the dog.
'It's fine,' Megan said. 'I don't mind.' To prove it, she scratched the dog behind one of his ears, which was easy to do because Crash was leaning on her leg. 'Isn't this the Davenports' dog?'
'Indeed it is. We mind him during the day when they're both working. The children love him to bits, so they do.'
The children were half hidden behind folds of the woman's coat as she held their mittened hands. Megan could see cute hats with ears on them and bright plastic boots. A pink pair with red flowers and a green pair with eyes that made them look like frogs. The owner of the frog boots peered out from the folds of coat.
'Cash naughty,' a small voice pronounced.
Crash wagged his tail harder.
The woman looked down to smile at her charges. 'Say hello, children.'
But the children said nothing. Neither did Megan. Her gaze had also dropped and she could see that the children were no bigger than toddlers. That they seemed to be close enough the same size as each other to be twins.
And oh, God the cheeky smile on the little boy's face had a charm out of all proportion to his age. His eyes were too dark to determine their colour but they were so alive. His face danced with mischief and Megan could feel the pull of a personality that went past being cute or attractive.
It was the kind of pull that made it impossible not to get sucked in.
To fall in love.