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Thick grass spiked at Tessa King's bare knees as she sank to the ground beside the tiny, immaculately kept grave. Large trees shaded the cemetery and birdsong was the only noise that broke the drowsy afternoon serenity as she laid the bright yellow daffodils near the miniature marble statue of a kneeling angel.
Grief bloomed in her chest, sharp and fresh, rising in her throat, threatening to choke her. She squeezed her eyes shut and sucked in a breath, reaching for the headstone as the tsunamilike wave of emotion unbalanced her.
She let some tears escape. Just a few.
Even on the anniversary of his death she rationed her grief. It was ten years to the day since Ryan had died. Ten years of living life in greyscale.
The memories struggled for release but not even on this day did she allow herself the luxury of remembering too much. She rationed the memories too, his little body squirming against hers, his boyish giggle and that perfect little bow mouth.
The double cowlick that had refused to be tamed.
It was enough.
Tess opened her eyes, the simple inscription she knew as intimately as she knew her own heartbeat, blurring in front of her.
Aged 18 months.
Gone, and a cloud in our hearts.
She reached for the letters, the smooth marble cool beneath her fingertips. She didn't let them linger. She wiped at her cheeks, blinked the remaining moisture away.
Fletcher King ground his heels into the luxurious carpet of grass, resisting the urge to go to her as she sagged against the headstone. His butt stayed stubbornly planted against the bonnet of his Jag. She'd made it perfectly clear when they'd separated that it had to be a clean break. That she didn't want to see him or talk to him, and every overture he'd made the first year to keep in touch, to check on her, had been resoundingly rebuffed.
Frankly, after nine years of watching this ritual from afar, he didn't even know how to approach her. She seemed as distant today as she had for that awful year after Ryan's death when their marriage had slowly shrivelled and died.
He hadn't been able to bridge the gap back then and he doubted almost a decade of distance would have improved things.
It didn't mean he was immune to her grief. Even from this distance the weight of her despair punched him square in the solar plexus. Took him right back to the dreadful day as they'd frantically tried to revive their son, hoping against hope, trying to ignore the portent of doom that had settled over him like a leaden cloak.
His frantic 'Come on, Ryan, come on!' still echoed in his dreams all these years later.
A lump rose in his throat, tears needled and stung his eyes and he squeezed them tightly shut. He'd already cried a river or two; hell, he was probably up to an ocean by now, but he couldn't afford to succumb today.
He was here on a mission.
He needed his wife back.
Tess put one foot in front of the other on autopilot as she made her way to her car. Whether it was because of the dark swirl of emotions or the jet-lag, she didn't see him or at least register the identity of the tall, broad man leaning against the car parked in front of her rental until she was two metres away.
Then, as her belly did that almost forgotten somersault and her breath hitched in the same way it used to, she wondered why the hell not. She may not have been interested in a man in ten years but she obviously wasn't totally dead inside.
And Fletcher King in dark trousers and a business shirt that had been rolled up to the elbows and undone at the throat was still an incredibly impressive man.
In fact, if anything, the years had honed him into an even more spectacular specimen.
He looked broader across the shoulders. Leaner at the hips. There were streaks of grey at his temples and where his dark, wavy hair met sculpted cheekbones. His three-day growth, black as midnight last time she'd seen it, was lightly peppered with salt. There were interesting lines around his tired-looking eyes, which were the silvery-green colour of wattle leaves.
Did he, too, still have trouble sleeping?
The indentations around his mouth, which became dimples when he laughed, were deeper. Even his mouth seemed fullersexier. His lips parted slightly and she caught a glimpse of his still-perfect teeth.
Tess was surprised by the prickle of awareness as his soft voice rumbled across the void between them. The latent attraction was unexpected. She was so used to locking down anything that had an emotional impact on her she was amazed she could still feel a pull at all.
But this was Fletch.
'Fletcher.' So much lay unsaid between them she didn't know where to start. 'It's been a long time.'
Fletch nodded, stifled by their formality. 'How have you been?'
She shrugged. 'Fine.'
Fletch suppressed a snort. Hardly. Each year she seemed to have faded away a little more. Gone were those curves that had driven him to distraction. There were only angles now. The legs sticking out of her above-knee, cargo-style pants were slender, her collar bones visible through the V-opening of her modest T-shirt were like coat hangers.
'You've got very thin.'
She shrugged again. 'Yes.' Tess ate as a matter of survival. Her pleasure in it had been sucked away with all the other things that had once brought her joy.
He regarded her for a moment. She was still a striking woman despite the angles. And the uber-short hairstyle. She'd cut it some time in that first year after they'd separated. She'd once had long white-blonde hair that had flowed down her back and formed a perfect curtain around them when they'd been making love. He'd spent hours stroking it, wrapping it around his hands and watching the light turn it incandescent as it had slowly sifted through his fingers.
It was darker blonde now, more honey than snowa direct consequence of moving far away from the sunshine of Brisbane to the drizzly English countryside. It was cropped closely to her head, the back and sides razored severely in. The slightly longer locks on top were brushed over from a side parting, blending in with the jagged edges.
His sister had called it minimalist. He'd preferred the term butchered.
It did, however, draw attention to her amber eyes. They sat large in her spare, make-upless face, dominating prominent cheekbones that fell away to catwalk-model hollows. They looked at him now, shadows playing in their sherry depths.
Her composure reached across the space between them and squeezed his gut hard. She projected calm detachment but he knew her well enough, despite their time apart, to see beyond. There was a fragility about her he'd have not thought possible a decade ago.
The impact of it rattled the shackles around his heart.
Tess weathered his probing gaze, waiting for him to say something more. Finally she could bear the silence no longer. She cleared her throat. 'I have to go.'
Fletch's gaze was drawn to her mouth. Her wide, full lips were devoid of any cosmetic enhancement, just as he remembered them. The same mouth he must have kissed a thousand times. That had travelled over every inch of his body. The same mouth that had desperately tried to breathe life into Ryan, that had begged a God she'd never believed in to spare their son.
Tess took a step towards her car. 'I have to go,' she repeated.
Fletch blocked her path, gently snagging her wrist. 'Could we talk?'
Tessa recoiled from his hold as if she'd been zapped, crossing her arms across her chest. 'There's nothing to talk about.'
'It's been nine years, Tess. You think we have nothing to say to each other?'
Tess bit her lip. Nothing that hadn't been said alreadyad nauseam.
Fletch glanced at her white-knuckled grip as her fingernails dug into the flesh of her bare biceps. Her wedding ring, his grandmother's ring, snagged his attention. 'You still wear your wedding ring.'
Tess, surprised by the sudden direction the conversation had taken, looked down at it. The rose-gold band with its engraved floral pattern, thinned with age and wear, hung loosely on her finger, only her knuckle preventing it from sliding off. She absently twisted it around with her thumb a few times before returning her attention to him.
'Yes.' She wasn't going to tell him it was her deterrent against unwanted advances from men. She glanced at his bare left hand. 'You don't.'
Fletcher glanced at his hand. It had taken a year after the divorce to take it off yet sometimes he was still surprised by its absence. The white tan line that had remained after he'd removed it had long since faded.
'No.' It had got to the stage where he hadn't been able to bear the memories it had evoked.
Tess nodded. What had she expected? That he would choose to hide behind his as she had hers? That grief would torpedo his libido as it had hers?
Tess dropped her arms to her sides. 'I really have to go.'
Fletch held up his hands. 'I just need a minute, please.'
She felt exasperation bubble in her chest. In less than twenty-four hours she'd be back on a plane heading to London. The same as last year. The same as the last nine years. Why had he chosen to complicate things now?
'What do you want, Fletch?' What could he possibly want to say to her after all this time? After all these years of silence? Silence they'd both agreed on despite his lapses early in their separation.
Fletch blinked as her familiar name for him finally slipped from her lips to claw at his gut. 'It's my mother
she's unwell. She's been asking for you.'
Tess felt her stomach drop as concern for her ex-mother-in-law caused her heart to leap in her chest. Fletch looked so grim. 'Is she
? What's wrong with her? What happened?'
'She has Alzheimer's.'
Tessa gasped, her hand coming up to cover her mouth. 'Oh, Fletch
' She took a step towards him, their baggage momentarily forgotten, her other hand reaching for him.
'That's terrible.' Her hand settled against his arm, her fingers on the sleeve of his business shirt, her palm against the corded muscles of his tanned forearm. 'Is it
Is she bad?'
Jean King was one of the sharpest women Tess had ever met. She was funny, witty, insightful and super-smart. Tess's mother had died when she'd been eight and Jean had filled a very deep void. They'd been close right from the get-go and Jean had been her anchortheir anchorin the dreadful months that had followed Ryan's death. Even when she and Fletch had separated and then divorced, Jean had been there for her.
Fletch nodded. 'She's deteriorated in the last couple of months.'
How long has she had it for?'
Tess had dropped in on Jean on her yearly pilgrimage home those first two years after she'd moved to the UK. But it had been too hard on both of them. Jean had wanted to talk about Ryan and Tess hadn't been able to bear it. So she'd stopped going.
Fletch, aware of her nearness, of her faint passionfruit fragrance, of her hand on his arm, waged a war within himself. Tess looked as devastated as he felt and it was as if the intervening years had never happened. As if he could walk right into her arms and seek the solace he so desperately craved.
It was a dangerous illusion.
He couldn't hope to execute what he'd come here for if he let emotion take over. He just hadn't been prepared for how hard it would be, seeing her again, talking to her again. He'd foolishly thought it would be easy.
He gave himself a mental shake and rubbed the back of his neck. 'She was first diagnosed five years ago. She's been living with Trish for the last two years.'
'Five years?' she gasped. Tess couldn't even begin to comprehend a world where Jean King was anything less than her larger-than-life self. 'Why.. why didn't you tell me?'
Fletch raised an eyebrow. 'Seriously, Tess? I rang you practically every day for a year after you went to England.. You made it pretty clear that no correspondence would be entered into. Anyway, what were you going to do?' he asked, surprised at the bitterness in his tone. 'Come home?'
Tess bit her lip. He was right. She had been ruthless with her no-contact request. 'I'm sorry.'
She searched his silvery-green gaze and saw apprehension and worry and for one crazy moment almost took another step forward to embrace him. But a decade of denial slammed the door shut and she dropped her hand from his arm, shocked at the strength of the impulse.
She shook her head. 'It's just so wrong. Your mum has always been as fit as a fiddle.'
Fletch felt her withdrawal from their intimacy as keenly as if it had been ten years ago. Damn it.
Did she really think because she hadn't moved on that things weren't going to change around her? 'She's seventy-four, Tess. She's getting old. Did you think she was just always going to be here, frozen in time, waiting for you to come around?'
Tess recoiled as if he had slapped her, colour draining from her face. 'I doubt your mother has been sitting around waiting on me,' she retaliated.
'You're like a second daughter to her, Tess,' he dismissed impatiently. 'She's missed you every day.'
I've missed you every day.
Fletch blinked at the thought. He had. Standing here in front of her, talking to her for the first time in nine years, he realised just how deeply he had missed her.
Tess felt the truth of his starkly delivered words wrap around her heart and squeeze. She wanted to deny them but she couldn't. He was right. They had been close. And Jean was getting older.
Fletch sighed as Tess gnawed on her bottom lip, looking utterly wretched. He raised his hands in a half-surrender.
'I'm sorry, I didn't mean to
' To what? Get angry with her? Make her feel guilty? 'Will you, please, just come and see her? She gets anxious easily these days and you're the one she wants to see the most.'
Tess was torn. She'd love to see Jean again. Had missed her wise counsel and warm hugs over the years. And if it helped ease some of her mother-in-law's anxiety to see her then that was the least Tess could do. But would it be Jean? And would it build an expectation, make it harder to walk away?
Because she was getting on that plane tomorrow. Just like she did every year.