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It had seemed like a good idea at the time. If only Lara had remembered her brother Sean's sage advice to 'expect the unexpected', then she might have thought twice about agreeing to stay at their parents' home while they took a much needed restorative break in the south of France.
But then Sean wasn't there any more to remind her of that particular little pearl .
And, in truth, she would never have dreamt of refusing her mum and dad's request to house-sit for them when they were still reeling from the tragedy that had hit them all six months ago. Their son, Sean, Lara's brother, was dead. He had contracted malaria whilst undertaking the charity work that he loved in Africa and had not recovered from it. It hardly seemed real that such a thing was possible in the twenty-first century, but sadly it was.
Having already been back in the family home for a week now, Lara still expected him to walk through the door with a cheery, 'Put the kettle on, sis, I could murder a cup of tea!' just like he had done when they were teenagers.
Time seemed intent on playing tricks on her these days. One minute it passed like a slow and choking mudslide, threatening to cut off her ability to breathe, and the next The next it seemed to vanish completely, leaving her feeling that she was stuck in a desolate and unhappy dream that she couldn't wake up from.
Whilst she loved her work, she was glad that the college term had come to an end. Her duties and responsibilities in the library had been particularly arduous this past month, what with so many students wanting help with research to take home with them. But now that that frenetic time was over she had no choice but to fully embrace her grief and process the soul-deep pain that she felt at losing Sean.
But, truthfully, she didn't relish the prospect of the endless summer days stretching ahead of her as she normally would have done. With nothing to lighten her mood but the daily walks she would go on with Barney, her parents' devoted Border Terrier, Lara had been dreading the time to be spent alone at her parents' house.
She could have arranged to go on holiday herself when they returned from France, but she hadn't had the heart for it. A couple of friends had asked her to join them on a trip to Italy but she'd declined. How could she possibly be good company when she was still grieving so badly for Sean?
Now, in the middle of her second week's stay at the family home, Lara was sitting at the sturdy oak kitchen table, making a half-hearted attempt at eating a bowl of unappetising breakfast cereal, when the doorbell rang. Such a lyrical bell-like sound shouldn't pierce her to the very core, but it did. In fact it made her flinch. She seemed to be afraid of everything these days. But Sean being taken from them so suddenly like that had made her fear that nothing good would ever happen to her or her family again.
Rousing himself from the relaxed position he'd assumed, lying across her feet, Barney shot up and started barking and wagging his tailjust as though he was anticipating a welcome friend or visitor. Lara's nerves were jangled even more. It was eight-thirty in the morning . Who on earth would be calling at this time?
'For goodness' sake,' she muttered beneath her breath, 'it's probably just the postman.'
Forcing herself to relax, she moved down the hardwood hallway in her bare feet, Barney eagerly following her. The day was already promising to be particularly warm, and the sun that shone through the door's decorated Victorian glass panes lit up the interior with the glare of a powerful spotlight.
Lifting her hand to shield her gaze, she squinted at the tall shadow behind the glass. Even though she didn't have a clue who it was she knew it wasn't the postman. Whoever it was, his straight, ominous stance suggested someone official. Lara's stomach executed a nervous cartwheel. Please, God, not more bad news.
She opened the door warily. 'Good morning.'
On the other side of the door stood a man with eyes so heartbreakingly blue that the sight of them made her catch her breath. Waves of disconcerting shock flooded her. Staring at the carved, high-cheekboned visage, with its cut-glass jaw and arresting dimple, Lara thought she was dreaming. To be confronted by the man that she'd thought never to see again, and so early in the morning, she found she was both lost for words and stunned right down to her marrow.
He was dressed in an exquisitely tailored dark suit with a dulled gold pinstripe, and the clearly custom-made clothing showed off her visitor's athletic, broad-shouldered physique to perfection. He had always looked classy, even when he was a student. Some people were just born with that exclusive air about them and this man was one of them.
As the sexy, expensive cologne he wore wafted tan-talisingly beneath her nose she wanted to pinch herself, just to make sure she wasn't dreaming.
Her visitor proffered a tentative smile and she immediately sensed his uneasiness, as though for a disconcerting moment he wasn't sure what the appropriate greeting was.
'I was wondering if I might have a word with Mr or Mrs Bradley?' he asked. 'I'm a I was a friend of theirs. I'm sorry I'm calling so early in the morning, but I've just got back from New York and I wanted to pay my respects to the family for their loss.'
Lara stared hard, her legs threatening to buckle beneath her. She was suddenly aware that Gabriel De-venish, her brother's best friend at university, hadn't recognised her.
Her initial reaction was to feel blessedly relieved, but that was quickly followed by a churning in her guts that made her fear she might faint.
The memory of Gabriel had haunted her for years.
He and Sean had studied for the same degree together. But while the big-hearted Sean had elected to go into charity work after graduating, Gabriel had followed in his rich uncle's footsteps and gone into the more lucrative and some might say cut-throat world of high finance.
Her brother had once told her that he'd heard on the grapevine that his friend had made an absolute fortune since moving to New York, but he'd said it in a way that had implied he almost felt sorry for him.
In any case, from the very first moment that Lara had set eyes on Gabriel, on a blistering-hot summer's day thirteen years ago, when she'd been just sixteen, she had developed the most massive crush on him. She might have been four years younger, and still at school, but that hadn't tempered her feelings. And a foolish impulse that she had lived to regret had once driven her to confess them to him.
Her memory was transported back to that night when Sean had thrown an impromptu party for some friends at the house when their parents were away.
Seeking to bolster her courage, because Gabriel had been there, Lara had drunk a little too much wine and had consequently embarrassed herself. Dancing with him a few hours later when the party was in full swing, delighted by his flirtatious comments and what she'd imagined was an invitational smile, she'd reciprocated by shyly telling him how much she liked him that she liked him a lot, in fact. Then, shutting her eyes, she had moved her face up to his for a kiss.
She still remembered the look of shock on his face and the sensation of hurt that had flooded her when he'd firmly but carefully moved her away, telling her that she was his friend's little sister and that she'd read him wrong he'd only been teasing her.
Lara practically remembered what he'd said to her word for word. He'd added, 'I'm sure there are plenty of boys your own age who would love to go out with you, Lara, but I'm a little too old for you, I fear. Anyway,
I have my sights set on that tall, slim blonde standing over there. She's one of my tutors and has made no secret of the fact that she likes me.'
Even the false sense of courage that the alcohol had given her hadn't been able to protect Lara from being devastated by Gabriel's rejection . Yes, devastated, and humiliated, too. Over and over again she'd speculated on the reasons why he'd spurned her. Had it really been just because she was younger than him and because she was Sean's 'little sister'? If you cared for a personreally caredthen what did it signify that there was a bit of an age difference?
Lara had been left with the conclusion that, apart from the bond of friendship that was between them because she was his best friend's sister, Gabriel didn't care for her at all. Even back then he'd set his sights on much more potentially lucrative opportunitiesa prime example being the slim blonde tutor from his university.
Ever since that painful incident at the party Lara's relationships with men had never seemed to progress much beyond friendship, even when she'd wished that they would. The trouble was she no longer trusted herself to read the correct signals as far as the opposite sex were concerned. Also, in spite of Gabriel's rejection, she realised that she still harboured impossibly romantic feelings towards her brother's friend. Had she turned him into a bit of a fantasy figure over the years? A fantasy that no other man could possibly hope to live up to?
He had definitely been a hard man to forget .
Lara's throat was uncomfortably dry, but looking back at him now, she somehow managed to speak.
'It's Gabriel, isn't it? Gabriel Devenish? You were my brother's best friend when he was at university. I'm sorry but my parents aren't here at the moment. They've gone away to the south of France for a break.'
Behind Lara, hating to be ignored, Barney started barking again. Glad of the momentary distraction in order to gather herself mentally, she instantly dropped down to her haunches to stroke his rough wheaten-coloured coat affectionately.
'Hush, Barney, you don't have to make such a fuss.'
'You're Lara? Sean's little sister?'
Lifting her gaze, she fell into Gabriel's mesmerising crystal-blue stare like a diver plunging straight into the sunlit Mediterranean.
With her heart slamming against her ribs, she nodded slowly. 'That's right. Though not so little any more, I'm afraid.'
Rising to her full height againfive feet seven of slim limbs and womanly curves in light blue denims and a fitted white shirtshe was nothing like the plump, awkward teenager she'd been when she was sixteen. It was no surprise that Gabriel hadn't recognised her.
'Well, I'll be '
He seemed to be genuinely shocked. Lara even detected a faint flush of heat in his chiselled countenance.
'You have grown up. Look.'
Tunnelling his long fingers through his thick chestnut hair, he inadvertently drew her attention to his strong, indomitable browa brow that was etched with two deeply hewn furrows. It didn't suggest he utilised that devastating smile of his very often these days. Whatever road life had taken him down it hadn't all been plain sailing, she thought. He might be rich, but no matter how much money a person had it didn't protect them from the slings and arrows that life aimed at everyone along the way No one got off scot-free.
'I only learned of Sean's death yesterday,' Gabriel confessed. 'I saw an article in the newspaper about charity workers that had died of malaria and his name was mentioned. The piece said that he'd recently won a prestigious award for his work. I was stunned to hear that he'd died. I feel bad that I never kept in touch with him after we left university.'
'You took different paths.' Lara shrugged, her smile unsure.
She'd hate Gabriel to think she was criticising him, even though she'd never understood why he'd chosen to go into a profession that, in her view, was about taking rather than givinga profession that was the polar opposite of Sean's.
'But it's good of you to call round to pay your respects. Mum and Dad will be touched when I tell them. I'm sure you must know they were very fond of you. Anyway, you're probably busy, so I won't keep you.'
Lara fervently willed him to take the cue she'd offered and leave. There was no way she wanted him to think that she was especially pleased to see him again. She was no longer the foolish sixteen-year-old whose crush on him had probably painfully embarrassed him.
But Gabriel sighed and stayed where he was. 'Look I don't mean to be presumptuous, but is there any chance of a cup of tea? I promise not to take up too much of your time.'
As much as she wished she could come up with a convincing excuse that she was indeed busy, Lara had glimpsed an unexpected look of vulnerability in his eyes and she didn't have the heart to refuse him.
'Why don't you come in?' she invited. 'I was just about to have one myself.'
Feeling relieved, Gabriel followed Lara down the hallway towards what he remembered was a spacious and homely kitchen. As he walked slowly behind the brunette his astonishment that the sometimes shy and bookish teenager had blossomed into such a beauty made him stare at her shapely hourglass figure in wonder.
What her curvaceous body did for a simple pair of jeans and plain white shirt should be committed to art or poetry, he mused. Even though he wasn't remotely artistic or poetic himself, it certainly didn't mean he didn't appreciate the more aesthetically pleasing things in lifewhich was why he'd selected a New York apartment that had a stunning view of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Every now and then, when he found the time, he'd visit to remind himself that money wasn't the only thing in life worth appreciating. Yes, it gave a person a lot more options if he had it, but it didn't buy happiness. God knew he'd learned that to his cost over the years . The contemplation of beauty and art 'soothed the troubled soul', as one wise guide at the museum had put it to him once, and although he would never dream of sharing such a view with any of his colleagues, Gabriel had agreed. That was why he admired the artists who created it.
But his admiration of Lara's beauty was set aside as he entered the kitchen. It was indeed as homely as he remembered. And the old-fashioned standalone fixtures and fittings, including the 1930s pillarbox-red AGA, straight away transported him right back to when he and Sean had been young.
He recalled with fondness the countless delicious meals Peggy Bradley had made for themin particular during that seemingly 'endless' summer when he and Sean, in between revising for their exams, had laughed and joked together, listened to the music of their favourite bands, mercilessly teased Lara and generally enjoyed being young and free of care, not burdened with responsibility as so many of the adults that they'd known had seemed to be. It had been easy to fantasise then that that those halcyon days would last for ever .
Gabriel's senses were suddenly awash in a sea of poignant and heartfelt memory. As if to compound his feelings, he saw that the cream dresser was full of engaging family pictures, and taking pride of place was an eyecatching photograph of Sean as he must have looked before he died. His mischievous brown eyes were full of laughter and his wide smile highlighted the chipped front tooth that Gabriel had accidentally broken when he'd too zealously bowled a cricket ball in the garden for him to bat. He had been the closest friend that Gabriel had ever had, and even though he hadn't kept in touch with him it cut him to the quick to think that he was no longer here .
'Everything looks just the same,' he remarked huskily, reaching his hand up to loosen the shirt collar that suddenly felt constricting.