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'You can come in, you know. Or do you city folk wear coffee patches and bypass the actual drinking process now?'
Lawrie Bennett jumped as the mocking tones jolted her out of her stunned contemplation of the ultra-modern building clinging to the harbour's edge. Turning, half convinced she had conjured up his voice along with her memories, she saw him lounging against the arty driftwood sign, the same crooked smile lurking in familiar blue eyes.
No, not a ghost. Subtle changes showed the passage of time: the surfer-blond hair was a little shorter, and a few lines round the eyes added new character to the tanned face.
Embarrassment, guilt, humiliation. Lawrie could take her pick of any of that ugly trio. Being caught hanging around outside her ex-husband's business like a gauche teenager with a crush was bad enough. To have been caught by her ex-husband really was a fitting end to what had been a truly terrible few weeks.
Trying to summon up an illusion of control, Lawrie switched on her best social smile-the one that had seen her through numerous meetings and charity balls. But her eyes hadn't got the 'cool and collected' memo, and flicked quickly up and down the lean body facing her.
The black tailored trousers and short-sleeved charcoal shirt were a startling change from the cut-off jeans and band T-shirt uniform of her memories, but the body underneath the sharp lines was as surfer-fit as she remembered. He still looked irritatingly good. And even worse- judging by the smirk that flared briefly in the cool eyes-he was fully aware of both her perusal and approval.
So much for control.
Jonas quirked an eyebrow. 'So, are you.. planning to come in?'
How, after all this time, could his voice be so familiar? It was such a long time since she had heard those deep, measured tones tempered with a slight Cornish burr. Yet they sounded like home.
'I was just wondering if I was in the right place,' she said, gesturing at the wood and glass building behind him; so shiny and new, so unfamiliar. 'Everything's different.'
And that, Lawrie thought, was the understatement of the century.
'I've made some changes. What do you think?' There was pride in his voice underneath the laid-back drawl.
'Impressive,' she said. And it was. But she missed the peeling, ramshackle old building. The picturesque setting for her first job, her first kiss. Her first love. 'Did you demolish the boathouse?'
Her heart speeded up as she waited for his answer. It mattered, she realised with a shock. She hadn't set foot in the small Cornish village for nine years. Hadn't seen this man for nine years. But it still mattered.
It was her history.
'I had it relocated. It was the start of everything, after all. Demolishing the old girl would have been pretty poor thanks. And we kept the name and brand, of course.'
'Everything?' Was he talking about her? Get a grip, she told herself. Walking down the hill and along the harbour might have sent her spinning back in time, brought all those carefully buried memories abruptly to the surface, but by the look of the building in front of her Jonas had moved on long ago.
'So, are you coming in or not?' He ignored her question, pushing himself off the sign with the languid grace only hours balancing on a board in the rough Cornish sea could achieve. 'The coffee's excellent and the cake is even better. On the house for an ex member of staff, of course.'
Lawrie opened her mouth to refuse, to point out that the building wasn't the only thing to have changed-that, actually, she hadn't touched caffeine or refined sugar in years-but she caught a quizzical gleam in his eye and changed her mind. She wouldn't give him the satisfaction.
Besides, clean living hadn't got her very far, had it? This enforced time out was about new experiences, trying new things. There were worse places to start than a good cup of coffee brewed the way only Jonas could.
'Thank you,' she said instead.
'This way, then.' And Jonas moved to the double glass doors, holding one open for her with exaggerated gallantry. 'And, Lawrie,' he murmured as she walked past him, 'Happy Birthday.'
Lawrie froze. Just half an hour ago she had reached the sad conclusion that you couldn't get more pathetic than spending your thirtieth birthday on your own-not unless you were unemployed, single and alone on your thirtieth.
Lawrie was all three.
Adding an encounter with her ex really was the cherry on top of the icing on her non-existent birthday cake. She should have listened to her instincts and stayed indoors and sulked. Damn her conscience for pushing her out to get fresh air and exercise. Both were clearly overrated.
'This is where you say thank you.'
He had moved away from the door and was leading her towards a small table tucked away at the back, clearly at his ease.
'Sorry?' What was he talking about? Maybe she was in some surrealist dream, where conversation made no sense. Any second now she'd be viewing the world in black and white, possibly through the medium of mime.
'I know you've been in the city for a while ' there was an unexpected teasing note in his voice '.but back in the real world when someone wishes you a Happy Birthday it's usual to acknowledge them-often with a thank you.'
For the first time in over a week Lawrie felt the heaviness lift slightly, a lessening of the burden. 'Thank you,' she said with careful emphasis. 'Of course I might be trying to forget this particular birthday.'
'Oh, yes, the big three oh.' He laughed as she grimaced. 'It's really no big deal, once you get used to the back ache and the knee twinges.'
'I hoped it might be like the tree falling in the woods-if no one knows it's happening then is it real?'
'I know,' he reminded her. 'Thereby foiling my cunning plan.'
A smile curved the corner of his mouth but it didn't reach his eyes. They radiated concern. For her. She didn't need the stab of her conscience to tell her she didn't deserve his concern.
'Well, now it's out in the open you have to celebrate. How about a slice of my signature carrot cake with chocolate icing? Unless, now you're a Londoner, you prefer elaborate cupcakes? Pretty frosting but no real substance?'
Lawrie looked up sharply. Was that some kind of cake metaphor?
'Or would you rather wait till your fiancé joins you?'
And just like that the heaviness engulfed her again. Lawrie searched for the right words, the right tone. 'Hugo and I parted ways. It seemed time for a new beginning.'
There was a lifetime of history in that one word. More than Lawrie could cope with this day, this week. At all.
Coming back had been a mistake. But she had nowhere else to go.
Lawrie hadn't exactly spent the last nine years planning how she'd react if she bumped into her ex-husband, but if she had spent time imagining every possible scenario she doubted-short of falling at his feet-that she could have come up with a situation as humiliating as this.
She looked around, desperately searching for a change of subject. 'The café looks amazing.'
It really did. She was standing in an open-plan space, with the driftwood counter along its far end and the blue walls a reminder of the ever-present sea. The real thing was a stunning backdrop framed through dramatic floor-length windows. It was all very stylish-beautiful, even-but once again Lawrie felt a pang of nostalgia for the small, homespun bar she had known.
The season was not yet fully started, but the café was buzzing with mothers and small children, groups of friends and the ubiquitous surfers. There were no menus. The day's choices were chalked up on boards displayed around the spacious room and notices proclaimed the café's values-local, organic and sustainably sourced food.
A flare of pride hit her: he's done it-he's realised his dreams. Long before celebrity chefs had made local food trendy Jonas had been evangelical about quality ingredients, sourcing from local farms, and using only free-range eggs in his legendary fry-ups.
'I'm glad you approve. So, what will it be?'
For one second Lawrie wanted to startle him, order something he wouldn't expect. Prove that actually she had changed in nine years- changed a lot. But the temptation to sink into the comfort of the past was too much. 'Skinny latte with cinnamon, please. And if you have the carrot cake in..?' She peered up at the menu board, running her eyes over the long list of tasty-looking treats.
'Of course I have it in.'
Jonas turned away to deliver her order, but Lawrie could have sworn she heard him say, 'It is your birthday after all.'
She was still there. Jonas tried to keep his concentration on the screen in front of him but all his attention was on the cake-eating occupant at the small table below.
The mezzanine floor that housed his office was situated directly over the kitchens, shielded from the café with blue-tinted glass that gave him privacy whilst allowing him to look out. Some days he was so busy that he completely forgot where he was, and he would look up and notice the chattering people tucking in below in complete surprise. There were bigger offices at his hotel but he preferred it here. Where it had all begun.
'Jonas? Are you listening to me?'
He jumped. 'Of course,' he lied.
'You didn't even hear me come in! Honestly, Jonas, if I want to be ignored I'll stay at home and ask my husband to clean.'
'Sorry, Fliss, I was engrossed in this email.'
Fliss peered over his shoulder. 'I can see why. It's not every day you get offered a million pounds just for letting somebody borrow your bank account, is it?'
Damn spam. 'The spam filter should be picking these up. I was just wondering why it's not working.'
She shot him a sceptical look. 'Delete that and turn your formidable mind to a real problem for a change. Suzy has been ordered to keep her feet up for the rest of her pregnancy and won't be able to project-manage Wave Fest for us.'
'Pregnancy?' He looked up in shock. 'I didn't know Suzy was expecting.'
'I expect she was keeping it a secret from you, knowing your less than enlightened views on working mothers,' Fliss said drily.
Jonas raised an eyebrow for one long moment, watching her colour with some satisfaction. 'I have no view on working mothers-or on working fathers, for that matter, I just expect my employees to pull their weight at work-not be at home with their feet up. Damn! There's only a month to go and we'll never get anyone to take over at this short notice. Fliss, is there any way you can take this on?'
'I don't think so.' The petite redhead was contrite. 'I still have a lot to do with the last café you bought, and if you do take over The Laurels I'll need to start on the rebrand there too. I can help with the PR-I usually do most of that anyway-but I cannot project-manage an entire festival. Suzy has all the information written out and timetabled, so at least all we need is someone to step in and run it.'
Jonas acknowledged the truth of Fliss's statement. Her workload was pretty full-on right now. He pushed his chair back and swivelled round, staring down sightlessly on the room below. 'Think, Fliss-is there anyone, any summer jobber, who's capable of taking this on?'
She stood lost in thought, concentration on her face, then shook her head. 'Nobody springs to mind.'
Jonas grimaced. 'We'll just have to bite the bullet and get a temp in-though that's far from ideal.'
It had been hard enough handing the festival over to Suzy when it and the rest of the business had got too big for him to manage comfortably alone, even with Fliss's support. Letting a stranger loose on such an important event was impossible to imagine.
But he couldn't see another way.
Fliss was obviously thinking along the same lines. 'A temp? That will take at least a week, and cost a fortune in agency fees.'
'Bringing outsiders in is never easy, but it looks like we have no choice. You and I will have to keep it all ticking over until we find somebody. We managed the first three, after all '
She flashed a conspiratorial grin at him. 'Goodness knows how. But we were young and optimistic then-and they were a lot smaller affairs; we are victims of our own success. But, okay, I'll let Dave know I'm working late so he'd better come here for dinner. Again. We were going to come back for Open Mic Night anyway.'
'Great. You drive straight over to Suzy's and go over all those lists and spreadsheets with her. We'll divvy up tasks later. Have another think about anyone internally, and if there really is nobody I'll call a couple of agencies later today.'
A sense of satisfaction ran through him as he made the decision. He was a hands-on boss- too hands-on, some said-but he liked to know exactly how everything was handled, from salad prep to food sourcing. It was his name over the door after all.
Fliss saluted. 'Yes, Boss,' she said, then turned round to leave the room, only to stop with a strangled cry. 'Jonas! Look-in that corner over there.'
'Why exactly are you whispering?' Although he knew exactly what-exactly who-she had seen. He cocked an eyebrow at her, aiming for a nonchalance he didn't feel. Lawrie's unexpected presence was no big deal. He had no intention of letting it become one.
Fliss obviously had other ideas. Her eyes were alight with excitement. 'It's Lawrie. Look, Jonas.'
'I know it's Lawrie, but I still don't know why you're whispering. She can't hear you, you know.'
'Of course she can't, but ' Her voice turned accusatory. 'You knew she was here and didn't tell me?'
'It slipped my mind-and it's obviously slipped yours that we were discussing a rather pressing work matter.' His tone was cool. 'Don't you have somewhere to be?'
'Five minutes?' Fliss gave him a pleading look. 'I can't not say hello.'
To Jonas's certain knowledge Fliss hadn't seen or spoken to Lawrie in nine years. What difference would a few hours make? But his second-in-command, oldest employee and, despite his best efforts to keep her out, best friend was looking so hopeful he couldn't disappoint her.
He wasn't the only person Lawrie had walked out on.
'Five minutes,' he allowed, adding warningly, 'But, Fliss, we have a lot to do.'
'I know. I'll be quick-thank you.' Fliss rushed from the room, casting him a grateful glance over her shoulder as she did so. Less than a minute later she had arrived at Lawrie's table, falling on her in a breathless heap.
Jonas watched as Fliss sat down at the table. He saw Lawrie look up in slight confusion, her puzzled expression quickly change to one of happiness, and the mobile features light up with enthusiasm as she greeted her friend.
When they both looked up at the office he looked away, despite knowing that they couldn't see through the tinted glass; he had far too much to do to watch them catch up.
Jonas pulled up a report he had commissioned on the small chain of restaurants in Somerset he was considering taking over and read it.
After ten minutes he was still on the first page.
He glanced over at the window. They were still yakking away. What on earth had they got to talk about for so long?
Typical Lawrie. Turning everything upside down without even trying.
When he had seen her standing outside, looking so uncharacteristically unsure, he had seized the opportunity. As soon as he'd known she was back-heard through the village grapevine that she was here to stay, that she was alone-their moment of meeting had been inevitable. Tren-garth was too small for a run-in not to be a certainty, but when it came he'd wanted it to be on his terms.
After all, their parting had been on hers.
Inviting her in had felt like the right thing to do. The mature thing. Maybe he should have left her outside after all.
He looked back at the computer screen and started again on the first line. It was gobbledy-gook.
Jonas's jaw set in determination. If Fliss had forgotten that she had a lot to do, he hadn't- and he was going to go down there and tell her. Right now.