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The sign informing passengers to Fasten Seat Belts flashed on above Olivia's head and she automatically reached to check that her belt was in place.
"We'll be landing at Newcastle International Airport in fifteen minutes," the saccharine-sweet voice of the flight at- tendant announced smoothly. "Please ensure that all your hand luggage is put away in the overhead lockers and that your tray tables are securely stowed."
The aircraft dipped to begin its approach to the airport and Olivia's stomach lurched in protest. But it wasn't the amount of coffee she'd consumed that morning that was giving her such a sickly feeling. It was the knowledge that she was returning to Bridgeford after so many years that was tying her stomach in knots.
The landing was swift and uneventful. The airport was busy and the plane taxied efficiently to its unloading bay as passengers and crew alike began gathering their belong- ings together. There was little chit-chat. This was primarily a business flight, most of the passengers either on or re- turning from business trips, with only a handful of holiday- makers to make up the numbers. as her ridiculously high heels caught in the the stairway. But pride was a stubborn compan- Olivia was determined not to appear as desper- felt. walk across the tarmac and she was in the buildings, offering her passport for inspection and to collect her suitcase from the carousel. She'd one suitcase, leaving the rest of her belong- in London. Because that was where she was find herself an apartment, she told herself firmly. to Bridgeford was just to prove to herselfand there was no way she wouldn't recognise Linda. Whether Linda would recognise her was another thing altogether.
And then she stopped dead in her tracks, the suitcase she was towing behind her running on into the backs of her legs. But she hardly noticed the bump or the momentary discomfort it gave her. She was staring at the man who was standing at the back of the crowd of people, and, although she couldn't believe it, it seemed he was waiting for her.
She glanced quickly behind her, half convinced he wasn't looking at her at all but at some other person who'd followed her through the doors. But there was no one immediately behind her, no one else to coincide with his line of vision.
And then, to confirm her disbelief, he moved towards her, pushing his way through the waiting mob to fetch up by her side. "Hi," he said, taking the handle of the suitcase from her unresisting hand. "D'you have a good journey?"
Olivia stared at him blankly. "What are you doing here?" she asked, aware that it probably wasn't the politest thing to say in the circumstances, but she couldn't help it. If she'd been anxious on the plane, she was a hundred times more nervous now. Her heart was pounding, the blood rushing through her veins like wildfire. What the hell was Joel Armstrong doing here? She'd have expected him to avoid her like the plague. "Wh-where's Linda?"
If he noticed the stammer, he gave no sign of it. "At home," he replied evenly, and because he started walking away from her, she was obliged to follow him. "Your father's having a bad day," he continued. "She thought it would be wiser not to leave him alone."
Olivia blinked. She could have said all her father ever had were bad days in her estimation, but she didn't. She was too busy trying to keep up with his long strides. Trying to ally herself, too, to the man who was walking beside her. Fifteen years ago, he'd been little more than a boy. Now he was a man.
And what a man, she thought, permitting herself a covert look in his direction. he'd always been tall, but now he'd filled out, the shoulders of the leather jacket he was wearing owing nothing to padding she was sure. A lean jawline showed just the trace of a five o'clock shadow, while his unruly dark hair was shorter than she remem- bered, exposing the handsome shape of his skull.
Not that handsome described him exactly. His youthful good looks had given way to a harsher profile altogether. Fans of lighter skin flared from the corners of his cool grey eyes, while deeper ridges framed the narrow-lipped beauty of his mouth.
God, he was attractive, Olivia thought, feeling a pang of awareness she'd never expected to feel again. It hardly seemed possible that they'd once been married. Had she really allowed a sense of pride to rule her reason? Would things have been different if she'd chosen to stay and fight?
She stumbled as they stepped out into the watery sunshine of an April day. It had been cool in London, but it was amazingly mild here. As Joel turned at her muffled exclamation, she regretted the urge she'd had to dress up for the journey. She'd wanted Linda to envy her her trim figure and designer clothes. She'd even chosen the shortest skirt in her wardrobe to show off the slender length of her legs. As for how much it had cost to have the ash-blonde highlights in her honey-brown hair renewed She must have been crazy to think anyone would care. "You OK?"Joel asked now and she nodded automatically. "I'm fine," she said quickly. "Where are you parked?"
"Not far away," he responded, slowing his pace a little. "Be grateful it's not raining. It was earlier."
Olivia pulled a face, but she refused to answer him. Dammit, here they were, meeting one another after fifteen years, and all he could talk about was the weather. Why was she feeling so tongue-tied suddenly, when he was ob- viously quite at ease with her?
Whatever had happened to him in the last fifteen years had definitely changed him. And for the better, she mused. he'd left school at eighteen and, despite getting excellent results, he'd gone to work for her father. he'd wanted to marry her and they'd done so as soon as she was eighteen. Everyone had expected it would last, even Joel. Or at least she'd thought that was what he'd believed. Looking at him now, she was beginning to wonder if that was just another of her many mistakes.
"Sohow are you?" she managed at last, relieved when they turned between the aisles of parked cars. Surely it wouldn't be much further. "It's been a long time."
"Hasn't it just?"he agreed, a faintly mocking twist to his mouth as he looked at her and Olivia knew damn well he'd never looked at her like that before. It was as if she amused him. "You seem OK," he added. "I guess living in the States agrees with you."
It didn't, actually, Olivia was tempted to respond, but that had had more to do with the man she'd been living with than with the country itself.
Joel stopped behind a huge four-wheel-drive and juggled his keys out of his pocket. Flipping open the rear door, he stowed Olivia's suitcase in the back and then went round and opened the passenger door.
Olivia was still admiring the vehicle, its mud-splattered wing in no way detracting from its sleek appearance. Was this Joel's or her father's? she wondered uncertainly. Whosever it was, things at the farm must definitely be looking up.
"Nice car," she said, and wished he wasn't watching her get in. The seat was high and her skirt rode up to her bottom as she levered herself onto it. And she was fairly sure Joel was suppressing another of those mocking smiles.
"I like it," he said, without expression. He walked around the bonnet and climbed in beside her, the high seat offering no obstacle to his long legs. "All set?"
"As I'll ever be," said Olivia tartly, not seeing why he should have it all his own way. Then, as his hands gripped the wheel, she noticed the wedding ring on his third finger. Not the ring she'd given him, she realised, but a much more expensive band altogether. Her stomach tightened un- pleasantly. "Are you married?"
It was an impertinent question and she knew as soon as she'd voiced it that it was nothing to do with her. But dammit, he had been her husband first. Didn't she have a right to know if he'd replaced her?
"Do you care?" he countered now and, despite her de- termination not to let him see how she was feeling, Olivia felt the hot colour stain her cheeks.
"Inot particularly, "she muttered, turning her attention to a plane that was just coming in to land. "This airport's busier than I remember."
"Things change," said Joel, reversing out of the space and turning in the direction of the exit. "And I'm divorced. For the second time," he appended drily. "I guess neither of us has had any luck in that direction."
"What do you mean?"
Olivia's eyes were drawn to him now, and he gave her a sardonic look. "Linda told me your second marriage broke up," he said. "Isn't that why you're back in England?"
Olivia expelled a resentful breath. Linda, she thought ir- ritably. She might have known her sister wouldn't keep something like that to herself. "I've come back to England because my work's here," she retorted shortly. "I don't know enough about the US housing market to get a com- parable job in New York."
"Ah." Joel allowed the distinction, but Olivia still felt as if he didn't believe her. "So you're going to do what? Join an agency in Newcastle?"
"London, probably," she responded swiftly, hating the need she felt to justify herself in his eyes. Why did she care what he thought of her? If Linda hadn't seen fit to ask him to meet her, they might never have had this conversation.
Joel used the ticket he'd bought earlier to let them out of the car park, and then turned north towards Ponteland and Belsay. The sky had cleared and it was that shade of blue that seemed almost transparent. The trees were already greening with spring growth and here and there late daffodils bloomed along the hedgerows. Olivia had forgotten how beautiful the countryside could be. Living first in London and then NewYork, she'd become so much a city animal.
"Umhow is my father?'she asked at last, realising she was to blame for the uneasy silence that lay between them.
She tried to adopt a humorous tone. "Still as irascible as ever, I suppose."
"He has good days and bad days, as I'm sure Linda's told you," answered Joel, permitting her a rueful grin. "But since the stroke"
"The stroke?"Olivia didn't let him finish. "What stroke? Linda said nothing about a stroke."
Joel blew out a breath. "Didn't she?" His tone was flat. "Well, maybe I shouldn't have either. I dare say the old man doesn't want it broadcasting to all and sundry."
"Hey, I'm not 'all and sundry!" exclaimed Olivia, her efforts at conciliation forgotten at his words. "I'm his daughter. Don't you think I have a right to know?"
Joel's thick dark brows arched indifferently. "I suppose that depends on the kind of relationship you two have had over the years," he remarked mildly. "How long is it since you've seen him?"
Olivia huffed. "You know exactly how long it is. I wasn't exactly encouraged to come back afterafter we split up."
Joel regarded her for a brief compelling moment. "Is that supposed to be an excuse?"
"No." Olivia felt herself colouring again. "It's the reason why I haven't seen him. I have phoned, and written letters. I've never had a reply."
Joel moved his shoulders in a rueful gesture. "I didn't know that."
"No?" Olivia wasn't sure whether she believed him. "Well, why would you? I dare say you hoped you'd never set eyes on me again."
Joel shook his head. "you're wrong, Liv. I got over what you did years ago. I moved on. I got married. I had a son.
I realised we were too young when we got married. Neither of us knew what we really wanted out of life."