Nurse Jenna Richards did not come all the way to Glenmore to fall head-over-heels for the first sexy doctor she saw. But what's a single mum to do when devastatingly dreamy Dr Ryan McKinley has his eye on you, and the entire island community is mischievously matchmaking...?
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'I can't believe you've dragged me to the middle of nowhere. You must really hate me.' The girl slumped against the rail of the ferry, sullen and defiant, every muscle in her slender teenage frame straining with injured martyrdom and simmering rebellion.
Jenna dragged her gaze from the misty beauty of the approaching island and focused on her daughter. 'I don't hate you, Lexi,' she said quietly. 'I love you. Very much.'
'If you loved me, we'd still be in London.'
Guilt mingled with stress and tension until the whole indigestible mix sat like a hard ball behind her ribs. 'I thought this was the best thing.'
'Best for you, maybe. Not me.'
'It's a fresh start. A new life.' As far away from her old life as possible. Far away from everything that reminded her of her marriage. Far away from the pitying glances of people she'd used to think were her friends.
'I liked my old life!'
So had she. Until she'd discovered that her life had been a lie. They always said you didn't know what was going on in someone else's marriage—she hadn't known what was going on in her own.
Jenna blinked rapidly, holding herself together through will-power alone, frightened by how bad she felt. Not for the first time, she wondered whether eventually she was going to crack. People said that time healed, but how much time? Five years? Ten years? Certainly not a year. She didn't feel any better now than she had when it had first happened. She was starting to wonder whether some things just didn't heal— whether she'd have to put on the 'everything is OK' act for the rest of her life.
She must have been doing a reasonably good job of convincing everyone she was all right because Lexi was glaring at her, apparently oblivious to her mother's own personal struggle. 'You had a perfectly good job in London. We could have stayed there.'
'London is expensive.'
'So? Make Dad pay maintenance or something. He's the one who walked out.'
The comment was like a slap in the face. 'I don't want to live off your father. I'd rather be independent.' Which was just as well, Jenna thought bleakly, given Clive's reluctance to part with any money for his daughter. 'Up here there are no travel costs, you can go to the local school, and they give me a cottage with the job.'
That was the best part. A cottage. Somewhere that was their own. She wasn't going to wake up one morning and find it had been taken away from them.
'How can you be so calm and civilised about all this?' Lexi looked at her in exasperation. 'You should be angry. I tell you now, if a man ever treats me the way Dad treated you I'll punch his teeth down his throat and then I'll take a knife to his—'
'Well, I would!'
Jenna took a slow deep breath. 'Of course I've felt angry. And upset. But what's happened has happened, and we have to get on with it.' Step by step. Day by day.
'So Dad's left living in luxury with his new woman and we're exiled to a remote island that doesn't even have electricity? Great.'
'Glenmore is a wonderful place. Keep an open mind. I loved it when I was your age and I came with my grandparents.'
'People choose to come here?' Lexi glared at the rocky shore, as if hoping to scare the island into vanishing. 'Is this seriously where you came on holiday? That's totally tragic. You should have sued them for cruelty.'
'I loved it. It was a proper holiday. The sort where we spent time together—' Memories swamped her and suddenly Jenna was a child again, excited at the prospect of a holiday with her grandparents. Here—and perhaps only here—she'd felt loved and accepted for who she was. 'We used to make sandcastles and hunt for shells on the beach—'
'Wow. I'm surprised you didn't die of excitement.'
Faced with the sting of teenage sarcasm, Jenna blinked. Suddenly she wished she were a child again, with no worries. No one depending on her. Oh, for crying out loud—she pushed her hair away from her eyes and reminded herself that she was thirty-three, not twelve. 'It is exciting here. Lexi, this island was occupied by Celts and Vikings—it's full of history. There's an archaeological dig going on this summer and they had a small number of places for interested teenagers. I've booked you on it.'
'You what?' Appalled, Lexi lost her look of martyred boredom and shot upright in full defensive mode. 'I am not an interested teenager so you can count me out!'
'Try it, Lexi,' Jenna urged, wondering with a lurch of horror what she was going to do if Lexi refused to co-operate. 'You used to love history when you were younger, and—'
'I'm not a kid any more, Mum! This is my summer holiday. I'm supposed to have a rest from school. I don't want to be taught history!'
Forcing herself to stay calm, Jenna took a slow, deep breath; one of the many she'd taken since her daughter had morphed from sweet child to scary teen. When you read the pregnancy books, why didn't it warn you that the pain of being a mother didn't end with labour?
Across the ferry she caught sight of a family, gathered together by the rail. Mother, father, two children—they were laughing and talking, and Jenna looked away quickly because she'd discovered that nothing was more painful than being around happy families when your own was in trouble.
Swallowing hard, she reminded herself that not every modern family had perfect symmetry. Single-parent families, stepfamilies—they came in different shapes. Yes, her family had been broken, but breakages could be mended. They might heal in a different shape, but they could still be sturdy.
'I thought maybe we could go fishing.' It was up to her to be the glue. It was up to her to knit her family together again in a new shape. 'There's nothing quite like eating a fish you've caught yourself.'
Lexi rolled her eyes and exhaled dramatically. 'Call me boring, but gutting a fish with my mother is so not my idea of fun. Stop trying so hard, Mum. Just admit that the situation is crap.'
'Don't swear, Alexandra.'
'Why not? Grandma isn't around to hear and it is crap. If you want my honest opinion, I hope Dad and his shiny new girlfriend drown in their stupid hot tub.'
Relieved that no one was standing near them, Jenna rubbed her fingers over her forehead, reminding herself that this was not the time to get into an argument. 'Let's talk about us for a moment, not Dad. There are six weeks of summer holiday left before term starts. I'm going to be working, and I'm not leaving you on your own all day. That's why I thought archaeology camp would be fun.'
'About as much fun as pulling my toenails out one by one. I don't need a babysitter. I'm fifteen.'
And you're still a child, Jenna thought wistfully. Underneath that moody, sullen exterior lurked a terrified girl. And she knew all about being terrified, because she was too. She felt like a plant that had been growing happily in one spot for years, only to be dug up and tossed on the compost heap. The only difference between her and Lexi was that she had to hide it. She was the grown-up. She had to look confident and in control.
Not terrified, insecure and needy.
Now that it was just the two of them, Lexi needed her to be strong. But the truth was she didn't feel strong. When she was lying in bed staring into the darkness she had moments of utter panic, wondering whether she could actually do this on her own. Had she been crazy to move so far away? Should she have gone and stayed with her parents? At least that would have eased the financial pressure, and her mother would have been able to watch out for Lexi while she worked. Imagining her mother's tight-lipped disapproval, Jenna shuddered. There were two sins her mother couldn't forgive and she'd committed both of them. No, they were better on their own.
Anger? Oh, yes, she felt anger. Not just for herself, but for Lexi. What had happened to the man who had cradled his daughter when she'd cried and spent weeks choosing exactly the right dolls' house? Jenna grabbed hold of the anger and held it tightly, knowing that it was much easier to live with than misery. Anger drove her forward. Misery left her inert.
She needed anger if she was going to make this work. And she was going to make it work.
She had to.
'We're going to be OK. I promise, Lexi.' Jenna stroked a hand over the teenager's rigid shoulder, relieved when her touch wasn't instantly rejected. 'We'll have some fun.'
'Fun is seeing my friends. Fun is my bedroom at home and my computer—'
Jenna didn't point out that they didn't have a home any more. Clive had sold it—the beautiful old Victorian house that she'd tended so lovingly for the past thirteen years. When they'd first married money had been tight, so she'd decorated every room herself…
The enormity of what she'd lost engulfed her again and Jenna drew in a jerky breath, utterly daunted at the prospect of creating a new life from scratch. By herself.
Lexi dug her hand in her pocket and pulled out her mobile phone. 'No signal. Mum, there's no signal!' Panic mingled with disgust as she waved her phone in different directions, trying to make it work. 'I swear, if there's no signal in this place I'm swimming home. It's bad enough not seeing my friends, but not talking to them either is going to be the end.'
Not by herself, Jenna thought. With her daughter. Somehow they needed to rediscover the bond they'd shared before the stability of their family had been blown apart.
'This is a great opportunity to try a few different things. Develop some new interests.'
Lexi gave her a pitying look. 'I already have interests, Mum. Boys, my friends, hanging out, and did I say boys? Chatting on my phone—boys. Normal stuff, you know? No, I'm sure you don't know—you're too old.' She huffed moodily. 'You met Dad when you were sixteen, don't forget.'
Jenna flinched. She had just managed to put Clive out of her mind and Lexi had stuffed him back in her face. And she wasn't allowed to say that she'd had no judgement at sixteen. She couldn't say that the whole thing had been a mistake, because then Lexi would think she was a mistake and that wasn't true.
'All I'm asking is that you keep an open mind while you're here, Lexi. You'll make new friends.'
'Anyone who chooses to spend their life in a place like this is seriously tragic and no friend of mine. Face it, Mum, basically I'm going to have a miserable, lonely summer and it's all your fault.' Lexi scowled furiously at the phone. 'There's still no signal. I hate this place.'
'It's probably something to do with the rocky coastline. It will be fine once we land on the island.'
'It is not going to be fine! Nothing about this place is fine.' Lexi stuffed the phone moodily back in her pocket. 'Why didn't you let me spend the summer with Dad? At least I could have seen my friends.'
Banking down the hurt, Jenna fished for a tactful answer. 'Dad is working,' she said, hoping her voice didn't sound too robotic. 'He was worried you'd be on your own too much.' Well, what was she supposed to say? Sorry, Lexi, your dad is selfish and wants to forget he has responsibilities so he can spend his summer having sex with his new girlfriend.
'I wouldn't have cared if Dad was working. I could have hung around the house. I get on all right with Suzie. As long as I block out the fact that my Dad is hooked up with someone barely older than me.'
Jenna kept her expression neutral. 'People have relationships, Lexi. It's part of life.' Not part of her life, but she wasn't going to think about that now. For now her priorities were remembering to breathe in and out, get up in the morning, go to work, earn a living. Settling into her job, giving her daughter roots and security—that was what mattered.
'When you're young, yes. But he's old enough to know better. They should be banned for everyone over twenty-one.' Lexi shuddered. 'Thank goodness you have more sense. It's a relief you're past all that.'
Jenna blinked. She was thirty-three. Was thirty-three really past it? Perhaps it was. By thirty-three you'd discovered that fairy tales were for children, that men didn't ride up with swords to rescue you; they were more likely to run you down while looking at the pretty girl standing behind you.
Resolutely she blocked that train of thought. She'd promised herself that she wasn't going to do that. She wasn't going to generalise and blame the entire male race for Clive's shortcomings. She wasn't going to grow old bitter and twisted, giving Lexi the impression that all men were selfish losers. It wasn't men who had hurt her; it was Clive. One man—not all men.
It was Clive who had chosen to have a rampant affair with a trainee lawyer barely out of college. It was Clive who had chosen to have sex on his desk without bothering to lock the door. There were moments when Jenna wondered if he'd done it on purpose, in the hope of being caught so he could prove how virile he was.
She frowned. Virile? If she'd been asked for a word to describe Clive, it certainly wouldn't have been virile. That would have been like describing herself as sexy, and she would never in a million years describe herself as sexy.
When had she ever had wild sex with a man while still wearing all her clothes? No one had ever been that desperate for her, had they? Not even Clive. Certainly not Clive.
When Clive had come home from the office they'd talked about household accounts, mending the leaking tap, whether or not they should have his mother for the weekend. Never had he walked through the door and grabbed her, overwhelmed by lust. And she wouldn't have wanted him to, Jenna admitted to herself. If he had grabbed her she would have been thinking about all the jobs she still had to do before she could go to bed.
Blissfully unaware that her mother was thinking about sex, Lexi scuffed her trainer on the ground. 'There would have been loads for me to do in London. Cool stuff, not digging up bits of pot from muddy ground. I could have done my own thing.'
'There will be lots of things to do here.'
'On my own. Great.'
'You'll make friends, Lex.'
'What if I don't? What if everyone hates me?'