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'I've found her.'
It was what he'd been waiting for since June, but now now he was almost afraid to voice the question. His heart stalling, he leaned slowly back in his chair and scoured the investigator's face for clues. 'Where?' he asked, and his voice sounded rough and unused, like a rusty hinge.
'In Suffolk. She's living in a cottage.'
Living. His heart crashed back to life, and he sucked in a long, slow breath. All these months he'd feared
'Is she well?'
'Yes, she's well.'
He had to force himself to ask the next question. 'Alone?'
The man paused. 'No. The cottage belongs to a man called John Blake. He's working away at the moment, but he comes and goes.'
God. He felt sick. So sick he hardly registered the next few words, but then gradually they sank in. 'She's got what?'
'Babies. Twin girls. They're eight months old.'
'Eight?' he echoed under his breath. 'So he's got children?'
He was thinking out loud, but the PI heard and corrected him.
'Apparently not. I gather they're hers. She's been there since mid-January last year, and they were born during the summerJune, the woman in the post office thought. She was more than helpful. I think there's been a certain amount of speculation about their relationship.'
He'd just bet there had. God, he was going to kill her. Or Blake. Maybe both of them.
'Of course, looking at the dates, she was presumably pregnant when she left you, so they could be yoursor she could have been having an affair with this Blake character before.'
He glared at the unfortunate PI. 'Just stick to your job. I can do the maths,' he snapped, swallowing the unpalatable possibility that she'd been unfaithful to him before she'd left. 'Where is she? I want the address.'
'It's all in here,' the man said, sliding a large envelope across the desk to him. 'With my invoice.'
'I'll get it seen to. Thank you.'
'If there's anything else you need, Mr Gallagher, any further information'
'I'll be in touch.'
'The woman in the post office told me Blake was away at the moment, if that helps,' he added quietly, and opened the door.
Max stared down at the envelope, hardly daring to open it. But, when the door clicked softly shut behind the PI, he eased up the flap, tipped it and felt his breath jam in his throat as the photos spilled out over the desk.
Oh lord, she looked gorgeous. Different, though. It took him a moment to recognise her, because she'd grown her hair and it was tied back in a ponytail, making her look younger and somehow freer. The blonde highlights were gone, and it was back to its natural soft golden-brown, with a little curl in the end of the ponytail that he wanted to thread his finger through and tug, just gently, to draw her back to him.
Crazy. She'd put on a little weight, but it suited her. She looked well and happy and beautiful, but oddly, considering how desperate he'd been for news of her for the last yearone year, three weeks and two days, to be exact it wasn't Julia who held his attention after the initial shock. It was the babies sitting side by side in a supermarket trolley. Two identical and absolutely beautiful little girls.
His? It was a distinct possibility. He only had to look at the dark, spiky hair on their little heads, so like his own at that age. He could have been looking at a photo of himself.
Max stared down at it until the images swam in front of his eyes. He pressed the heels of his hands against them, struggling for breath, then lowered his hands and stared again.
She was alivealive and welland she had two beautiful children.
Children that common sense would dictate were his.
Children he'd never seen, children he'd not been told about, and suddenly he found he couldn't breathe. Why hadn't she told him? Would he ever have been told about them? Damn it, how dared she keep them a secret from him? Unless they weren't his
He felt anger building inside him, a terrible rage that filled his heart and made him want to destroy something the way she'd destroyed him.
The paperweight hit the window and shattered, the pieces bouncing off the glass and falling harmlessly to the floor, and he bowed his head and counted to ten.
'He's found herin Suffolk. I have to go.'
'Of course you do,' his PA said soothingly. 'But take a minute, calm down, I'll make you a cup of tea and get someone to pack for you.'
'I've got a bag in the car. You'll have to cancel New York. In fact, cancel everything for the next two days. I'm sorry, Andrea, I don't want tea. I just want to see mymy wife.'
And the babies. His babies.
She blocked his path. 'It's been over a year, Max. Another ten minutes won't make any difference. You can't go tearing in there like this, you'll frighten the life out of her. You have to take it slowly, work out what you want to say. Now sit down. That's it. Did you have lunch?'
He sat obediently and stared at her, wondering what the hell she was talking about. 'Lunch?'
'I thought so. Tea and a sandwichand then you can go.'
He stared after hermotherly, efficient, bossy, organisingand deeply, endlessly kind, he realised nowand felt his eyes prickle again.
He couldn't just sit there. He crunched over the paperweight and placed his hands flat on the window, his forehead pressed to the cool, soothing glass. Why hadn't he known? How could she have kept something so significant from him for so long?
He heard the door open and Andrea return.
'Is this her?'
'And the babies?'
He stared out of the window. 'Yes. Interesting, isn't it? It seems I'm a father, and she didn't even see fit to tell me. Either that or she's had an affair with my doppelganger, because they look just like I did.'
She put the tray down, tutted softly and then, utterly out of the blue, his elegant, calm, practical PA hugged him.
He didn't know what to do for a second. It was so long since anyone had held him that he was shocked at the contact. But then slowly he lifted his arms and hugged her back, and the warmth and comfort of it nearly unravelled him. Resisting the urge to hang on, he stepped back out of her arms and turned away, dragging in air and struggling for control of the situation.
'Goodness, aren't they like you?'
She was staring down at the photos on the desk, a smile on her face, and he nodded. 'Yes. Yes, they are. I've seen pictures of me'
Was that his voice? He cleared his throat and tried again. 'I must have been that sort of age. My mother's got an album' And then it hit him. She was a grandmother. He'd have to tell her. She'd be overjoyed.
Oh, hell. His eyes were at it again.
'Here, drink your tea and eat the sandwiches, and I'll get David to bring the car round.'
The car. A two-seater, low, sexy, gorgeous open-top sports car with a throaty growl and absolutely nowhere to put baby seats, he thought as he got into it a few minutes later. Never mind. He could change it. He tapped the address into the satnav and headed out of town, the hood down and the icy February wind in his hair, trying to blow away the cobwebs and help him thinkbecause he still had no idea what on earth he was going to say to her.
He still had no idea nearly two hours later, when the satnav had guided him to the centre of the village, and he pulled up in the dusk and looked at the map the PI had given him.
There was the bridge over the river, just ahead of him, so it should be here on the right, down this drive.
He dragged in a deep breath, shut the hood because he suddenly realised he was freezing and it was starting to mist with rain, and bumped slowly down the drive, coming out into an open area in front of the house.
He saw a pretty, thatched, chocolate-box cottage in the sweep of his headlights, and then he saw her walking towards the window in a room to the right of the front door, a baby in her arms, and his heart jammed in his throat.
'Shush, Ava, there's a good girl. Don't cry, darling Oh, look, there's somebody coming! Shall we see who it is? It might be Auntie Jane!'
She went to the window and looked out as the headlights sliced across the gloom and the car came to rest, and felt the blood drain from her face.
She sat down abruptly on the old sofa in the bay window, ignoring the baby chewing her fist and grizzling on her shoulder, and her sister joining in from the playpen. Because all she could do was stare at Max getting out of the car, unfurling his long body, slamming the door, walking slowly and purposefully towards the porch.
The outside lights had come on, but he must be able to see her in the kitchen with the lights on, surely? Any second now.
He clanged the big bell and turned away, his shoulders rigid with tension, hands jammed into the pockets of his trousers, pushing the jacket out of the way and ruining the beautiful cut.
He was thinner, she realisedbecause of course without her there to nag and organise he wouldn't be looking after himselfand she felt a flicker of guilt and promptly buried it.
This was all his fault. If he'd listened to her, paid more attention last year when she'd said she wasn't happy, actually stopped and discussed it But no.
Don't expect me to run around after you begging. You know where to find me when you change your mind.
But she hadn't, and of course he hadn't contacted her. She'd known he wouldn'tMax didn't begand she'd just let it drift, not knowing what to do once she'd realised she was pregnant, just knowing she couldn't go back to that same situation, to that same man.
Even if she still cried herself to sleep at night because she missed him. Even if, every time she looked at his children, she felt a huge well of sadness that they didn't know the man who was their father. But how to tell him, when he'd always said so emphatically that it was the last thing he wanted?
Then Murphy whined, ran back to the door and barked, and Ava gave up grizzling and let out a full-blown yell, and he turned towards the window and met her eyes.
She was so close.
Just there, on the other side of the glass, one of the babies in her arms, and there was a dog barking, and he didn't know what to do.
You can't go tearing in there like this, you'll frighten the life out of her. You have to take it slowly, work out what you want to say. Oh Andrea, so sage, so sensible. Jules would approve of you.
But he still didn't know what on earth he was going to say to her.
He ought to smile, he thought, but his mouth wasn't working, and he couldn't drag his eyes from her face. She lookedhell, she looked exhausted, really, but he'd never seen anything more beautiful or welcome in his life. Then she turned away, and he felt his hand reach out to the glass as if to stop her.
But she was only coming to the door, he realised a second later, and he sagged against the wall with a surge of relief. A key rattled, and the big oak door swung in, and there she was, looking tired and pale, but more beautiful than he'd ever seen her, with the baby on her hip and a big black Labrador at her side.
That was it? A year, two children, a secret relationship and all she could say was 'Hello, Max'?
He didn't know what he'd expected, but it wasn't that. He felt bile rise in his throat, driven by a rage so all-consuming it was threatening to destroy him from the inside outa year of grief and fear and anger all coming to a head in that momentbut he remembered Andrea's words and tamped it down hard. He could do this, he told himself, so he gritted his teeth and met her eyes.
He was propped against the wall, one arm up at shoulder height, his hair tousled and windswept, his eyes dark and unreadable. Only the jumping muscle in his jaw gave him away, and she realised he knew.
Julia, not Jules. That was a change. She wondered what else had changed. Not enough, probably. Inevitably. She gathered her composure and straightened up, taking control of the situation if not her trembling body.
'You'd better come in,' she said. After all, what else could she do? She had a feeling he was coming in if he had to break the door down, so she might as well do this the easy way.
He followed her back to the kitchen, his footsteps loud on the tiles, and she could hear Murphy fussing around him and thrashing his tail into all the furniture and doors. She thought of Max's suit and how it would look decorated in dog hair, and stifled a smile. He'd hate that. He was always so particular.
'Shut the door, keep the heat in,' she instructed, and he shut it and turned towards her, that muscle jumping in his jaw again.
'Is that all you've got to say? A whole year without a word, and all you've got to say is "Shut the door"?'
'I'm trying to keep the babies warm,' she said, and his eyes tracked immediately to the baby in her arms, his expression unreadable. Supremely conscious of the monumental nature of the moment, she locked her legs to stop them shaking and said, 'This is Ava,' and, gesturing with her free hand towards the lobster-pot playpen near the Aga, added, 'and this is Libby.'
And, hearing her name, Libby looked up, took the bubbly, spitty teething ring out of her mouth and grinned. 'Mum-mum,' she said, and, holding up her arms, she opened and closed her hands, begging to be picked up.
Julia went to move towards her, then stopped and looked at Max, her heart pounding. 'Well, go on, then. Pick up your daughter. I take it that's why you're here?'
He was transfixed.
Oh lord. It was ages since he'd held a baby. He wasn't even sure he'd ever held one this age. Older, yes, and probably walking, but not small, dribbly and gummy and quite so damned appealing, and he was suddenly terrified he'd drop her.
He shrugged off his jacket and hung it over a chair, then reached into the playpen, put his hands under her armpits and lifted her out.
'She's light! I thought she'd be heavier.'
'She's only a baby, Max, and twins are often small, but don't be scared of her. They're remarkably robust. Say hello to Daddy, Libby.'
'Mum-mum,' she said, and, reaching up, she grabbed his nose and pulled it hard.
'Libby, gently,' Julia said, easing her fingers away, and told him to put her on his hip, then handed him Ava, settling her in the curve of his other arm. 'There you go. Your children.'