When Love Returns – a sample
… a sample from When Love Returns, by Vanessa Grant
Three steps toward the summer house, Julie realized she had forgotten to roll up the windows and lock her car. Nothing new in that, she admitted wryly. Years ago, David had once lectured her about carelessness until she cried.
The heels of her beige Italian pumps sank into the soft ground as she turned back to her small red Suzuki. Julie tensed as the sound of hammering echoed through the trees, her fingers curling around the door handle. What on earth was that sound? Building contractors launching an invasion on peaceful Gabriola Island?
She closed her eyes, breathing in the scent of sweet honeysuckle blossoms as she listened to the hidden pounding. A woodpecker! Of course! She strained her senses, but there were no cars, no sirens, just the incredibly noisy bird … and farther away, one of the McNaughton calves bawling for its mother.
Deliberately, she tossed her purse through the open car window onto the driver’s seat. Surely even David McNaughton wouldn’t get excited about locking up on Gabriola Island!
On the cabin, the shingles were littered with scraps from the drooping branches of the tall, sheltering cedar trees. The cedar siding had once been a warm brown. Now it was bleached white from time and sunlight. She loved everything about this place, yet she had neglected it for the last eight years. Foolish. She had thought the cottage would be haunted, but there were only summer smells … and solitude.
How often had David looked up at the empty summer home, thinking critical thoughts about its owner? She shook that thought away, knowing how insane it was for a grown woman to worry that she had failed her childhood idol’s standards.
The front door creaked as she swung it inwards. Inside, there was only emptiness and dust, a musty smell over everything. Miraculously, the windows were intact. Where else but Gabriola could you abandon a house for years, come back and find it untouched? She should have come years ago, but she might well have stayed away another eight years if her brother hadn’t been so persistent last weekend.
Sunday dinner was a family occasion for the Charters. Julie usually came alone. It wasn’t worth subjecting a date to her mother’s matchmaking urges. Between Mom’s “Are you seeing anyone?” and Dad’s words of wisdom on how to get promoted to principal, Wally liked to give his kid sister some Sunday advice. Julie usually escaped the barrage by playing with her nephews, but last Sunday both Wally’s boys had been away at computer camp, leaving Julie firmly at the mercy of big-brother wisdom.
“Time to get that cottage of yours on the market,” Wally had insisted. “A new coat of paint on the inside walls, a good cleaning. Mow the lawn and put up a For Sale sign.”
She had been oddly irritated at Wally’s invasion of the summer home that had been her share of the divorce settlement. “That’s not a lawn. It’s a ground cover that doesn’t need tending. They call it–”
“I’ll handle if for you if you like.”
Julie had hidden a smile. Wally would handle anything–for a commission.
“Now’s the time, before interest rates go up again and kill the market for summer homes.”
Her mother had slid a steaming apple pie onto the table and Julie had heard herself say, “I’m going over to the island next week.”
She had wondered uneasily how tarnished all the old fantasies of Mountainview would be after eight years. David had dubbed the hilltop Mountainview before the land was subdivided, long before Tom’s parents built the cottage as a wedding present for Tom and Julie.
Like everything else, Gabriola and Mountainview would have changed.
But they hadn’t, she realized now. An island removed from time. Today she had driven past the McNaughton farm on her way up here, had seen smoke wisping from the chimney. She had not heard David’s name in years, but he would be there. Once, she would have been drawn to the wisp of smoke, might have run to fling herself into his arms. But if she went down to the farm, Sandy would be smiling that mother earth smile, and David …
David had always known what he wanted from life. It had taken Julie longer, that was all. She had made mistakes, but her life was exactly as she wanted it now. She loved the challenge of teaching at Unlimited Potential. Loved her new condo in Vancouver’s False Creek. Loved evenings at the theatre, weekends exploring the waterfront.
Loved Mountainview cottage on Gabriola.
She had known it was stupid to come back, and yet–criminal to leave a beautiful cottage unoccupied just because Julie Charters Summerton couldn’t bring herself to make a decision. Silly to hang onto Mountainview, unthinkable to sell it.
Perhaps she would stay here this summer. She had the new English literature course to write. What better place, with the deer outside her door and the fresh sea air blowing across the peak of the hill?
Did the deer still wander the island? Could she look out at sunset and find warm brown Bambis grazing on the wild field grass?
She swung around impatiently, focusing on a small speck on the counter. Mice. Of course there would be mice. No cat in residence. An empty rural house. Certainly there were plenty of spider webs, clinging to the rafters. Nature had been nibbling away for eight years, but Julie wasn’t about to start scrubbing now! Not dressed in a white skirt and sweater, clothes that had cost her two weeks pay!
The sun warmed her face as she stepped back outside. Wonderful smells. Cedar and maple. Frogs out back in the pond. A bumble bee cruising past. Did the ducks still come to nest at the edge of the pond each year? They’d used to, ever since David had dug out the hollow with his bulldozer.
Strange that David’s memory was more a part of this place than Tom’s, that David had always been more real than anyone else in her life. When Julie was ten, he had been a quiet, infallible nineteen. When she was thirteen … Her face flamed at the memory, but she supposed David had understood. Or had he forgotten?
If she really was going to stay, she had better get the ferry across to Nanaimo before the stores closed. The fact that she hadn’t packed jeans and a cotton shirt seemed stupid now, but she had really intended to breeze in and look the place over, then lock the door again and–
Forget the place for another eight years?
She stopped half-way between the house and the car, her eyes trying to see around the corner of the path. Were the ducks down there on the pond? She took one step towards the path, felt her shoe sliding on the loose soil. She bent to take off her shoes.
Be practical for once in your life, Julie!
She smiled at David’s echo. David, as always, was right. If she left now, she could buy jeans and sneakers in Nanaimo. Cleaning supplies, too. If she hurried, she could be back to see the sun set. She closed her eyes, warmed by the echo of old sunsets. She breathed in deeply and felt lighter, freer. Tom and Julie. They had been friends more than lovers. Even the marriage had not been momentous enough to leave lasting pain. Silly to stay away all these years.
She started her little car, humming as she reversed down the drive. She had never forgotten the shape of this drive. She could still speed backwards down it, her hands instinctively controlling the shiny little car. She could hear the grass in the middle of the drive rushing against the underside of her car. As her car’s back wheels crested on the culvert, Julie swung the steering wheel to turn neatly out onto Mountainview Lane.
David changed gear and urged the old dump truck over the peak of the hill. He would dump this load of gravel at Patrick’s, then go back to the farm. Tomorrow morning he would move the back hoe from the gravel pit, take it over to Pat’s place. David didn’t do landscaping services much any more, hadn’t time for it and didn’t need the extra money. This time was different, though. His brother Pat wanted to surprise his new wife.
David was smiling as the burdened dump truck started to pick up speed on the gravel road. Somehow, Molly the dinosaur lady fit right into his brother’s life. David was not a fanciful man, but he could easily picture Molly and Pat bent over a small baby sometime in the future. It would be nice to have more kids around the place. The farm seemed so empty now with Stanley gone to university, working summers in the city. If it weren’t for Sarah’s two kids stopping by, David’s home would have been echoing loneliness.
He frowned as he turned onto Mountainview Lane. He should go up for a look at Julie’s place. Not now, with the truck loaded, but after he delivered the load to Pat’s. He had chased some hikers off last week. He shifted into third gear and squinted against the sun, suppressing the familiar irritation. Damn Julie, couldn’t she either sell, or come and look after the place? She–
A flash of red in the corner of his eye.
A car! A car shooting out from the drive!
Abruptly, he slammed the shift lever down to second. Not enough time. Too close. Slow motion horror, no time at all. His loaded truck. Twelve yards of gravel. Threshold breaking. Not too much or he’d be steering a wild thing, out of control. He pulled down another gear. The engine screamed. The brakes. If he lost control of–surely whoever it was–
Little red car, hurtling onto the road. He jerked the wheel. So small. Inconsequential bit of red metal. Hit the ditch, try to ride it–somehow, miss that car. He felt nausea rise up, could see smashed red metal after the impact.
The car, backing towards him! A bloody tourist, ambling around, looking at the trees instead of–
His front wheel bit the ditch. David heard the scream of gravel, knew with sickening certainty that he would skid, moving sideways, ripping up the ditch and skating towards that car! He stepped desperately on the throttle, trying for forward momentum to regain control, pull off the road.
The wheels caught. Heavy truck. Impossibly small car. No one in the car would have a chance if–
He saw the red car jerk with the impact, changing direction. Inertia carried both vehicles another twenty feet along the gravel.
Then, suddenly, it was over. Quiet. The echo of violence. A cloud of dust rising all around.
David fumbled with the door, but it would not open. He slid across and out the passenger side. His feet hit the gravel. Heartbeat, breath, then bleeding–first aid procedures scattered through his brain as he tore around the front of the little car. It had to have been a hell of a blow. The whole back end of the car was caved in. The driver–
He tore the driver’s door open, demanded roughly, “Are you hurt?” praying for an answer.
A woman! A wild riot of warm auburn curls everywhere.
Pain seized his chest. Julie! If he had killed Julie …
Julie saw the truck in her rearview mirror and the tuneless song on her lips died to nothing. She tried to brake, get into first gear and moving, away from it, but there was no time. Monstrously big. Massive dump truck.
Only a total idiot went screaming out of a driveway without even looking! Her eyes were frozen on the rear view mirror, watching the hulk grow larger and larger. Then, suddenly, it slewed sideways.
She had a terrifying vision of the truck pulverized against a tree, the driver dead. The gravel pit at the end of Mountainview Lane was on McNaughton land. It had to be David in the truck, coming from the pit. Why else would a truck be…? She would live the rest of her life knowing she had killed David.
She heard the scream and it was her own voice. Then she felt the impact. The truck slammed into the side of her car, slewing sideways, taking her on a wild ride of suspended terror. They would both die. She and David. Forever …
Finally there was nothing but the echo of screaming metal and her own voice fading into the settling dust on the road ahead. She was still staring into the rear view mirror when he strode around the front of her little Swift–alive. He was alive. She tried to free her fingers, could not seem to move anything.
The door jerked open so quickly, she had the illusion she would fall out. She heard the urgency in his voice, tried to turn to look at him. The nightmare would not release her: the truck splattered against a big old tree, David slumped motionless over the wheel.
When his hand closed on her shoulder, she managed to turn to look at his face. Her first thought was that he had not changed at all, but of course he was older. He was tall, broad, his face marked by the sun and the wind. He was wearing a battered baseball cap as a shield against the sun. Black curls twisted to freedom around the edges of the cap as his eyes raked grimly over her body.
“Are you hurt?”
She swallowed. His fingers tightened on her shoulder.
“Julie? Can you move?”
She stared at her hands, fingers curling around the steering wheel.
“I can’t haul you out of there until I know if you’re hurt.” His voice was filled with suppressed anger. “Does it hurt at all to breathe?”
He crouched on the gravel beside her open driver’s door, his eyes dark and concerned. She felt a shudder go through her. Any minute she would get words together. His hand moved, exploring her shoulders, her arms, impersonal over her breasts as they probed for a sign of injury to her ribs. She wondered how his touch would feel if she were the woman he loved.
“Thank God you had your seat belt on,” he said harshly. “Can you move your legs?” His hand was on her thigh, probing, watching her face for signs of pain. “You’re in shock,” he decided.
She almost caught his hand back when he drew it away. He was right about the shock. It was years since she had succumbed to fantasy about David McNaughton. She supposed that he was always there, in the background of her mind, but the dreams had stopped forever the day he told her about Sandy.
“Come on, Julie. I want you out of here.” He captured her hand, pulled gently, watching her face for any sign of pain. The steering wheel was in his way. He was touching her so carefully. Anyone else might haul her out, but of course David would think of the possibility that shock might mask pain. David always did think first.
“Julie, swing your legs out.”
Somehow, her body obeyed.
“Now stand up.”
She swallowed, staring at the twist of dark hair that escaped the fabric of his shirt where it was open at his throat. He was so close. What had come over her? David … This was ridiculous! After all these years!
He crouched down in front of her, thigh muscles bulging in his battered old jeans. “Dizzy?” he demanded.
She shook her head.
The lines at the corners of his eyes were deeper than they had been, but his eyes were that deep brown, still framed by heavy dark lashes. Yes, he was older. The cleft in his chin was deeper, sharper, and there were threads of silver among his black curls.
“It’s different to have you so silent.” He was almost smiling, urging her with his hands. “Come on, stand up. I know you’re shaken, but I’ve got to get you away from this car.” He held her as she stood, his arm around her shoulder. “Okay?” he demanded, staring down at her.
“So you can talk.”
She closed her eyes, heard the sound of an eagle somewhere. He felt hard and strong beside her, holding her. He swung her into his arms and she felt dizziness as he hurried across the road, carrying her. She had no idea where she thought he would take her, but in the end he deposited her on a big old tree stump at the edge of a clearing. She felt so strange, disoriented. His arms around her, holding her safe. Today’s hard, warm David meshed with the memories.
“Stay there!” he ordered.
“Where are you going?”
He ignored her question. Silly to think she could stop him, but if those fumes ignited … Julie shuddered and closed her eyes. She heard him come back a minute later, the gravel crunching under his boots. At any moment this could turn into an unpleasant scene.
“Is your truck damaged very badly?”
When he didn’t answer, she opened her eyes. He was staring at her, that old look, somewhere between worry and anger. He was wearing old faded jeans and a sleeveless sweatshirt that left the muscles of his arms hard and prominent. He closed his eyes briefly, said harshly, “I could have killed you, Julie. I damned near did. Bloody luck you don’t have two tons of gravel truck and twelve yards of gravel taking you to your grave.”
“I always was lucky.” She tried to smile but his eyes would not answer.
“Luck? More like stupidity! One day you’ll kill yourself with your nonsense!” His legs were slightly astride, his stance big and dangerous. Dark man. Tall. Muscular. Angry. She felt the old, breathless fear of childhood. Running up against David, holding her own, driven somehow to make him angry. His voice, growling, “It’s no bloody different than it was when you were a kid! Damn it, Julie! When are you going to grow up? Do you think I’ll always be there to bail you out?”
She shivered and hugged herself tightly. “There’s never anyone on that lane. I didn’t stop to think that–”
“Damn it, Julie Charters! Do you ever think?” He glared at the trees framing the mountains on the mainland. “I was there, wasn’t I? Your driving out of that lane without looking–that’s about as bright as diving into our bull pen when you were twelve.”
“Patrick dared me.”
David snorted and Julie couldn’t help smiling at the way her own words sounded. Childish, and of course it had been, but she’d always been a sucker for a dare, and David’s younger brother had always been a tease.
“And today? Who dared you to back into my damned dump truck?”
She shook her hair back, felt the curls spring free around her shoulders. She’d had two ornate combs holding the curls back, but they were gone now.
“Well?” demanded David.
“Is your truck damaged?” Somehow, he could always do this, turn her to anger and rebelliousness. She got to her feet impatiently, kept moving to cover the sudden unsteadiness. Shock, that’s all it was. She certainly wasn’t hurt.
“Damaged?” He shrugged. “I haven’t tried moving it yet, but the driver’s door won’t open.”
“Sorry,” she muttered. Damn the man. He made her feel like an irresponsible teenager again.
“You’re sorry?” He hooked his thumbs in his belt. “I need that truck, you know. Some of us have to work for a living.”
“I work for a living,” she snapped back. “Probably harder than you!”
He laughed, but his eyes were hot and black. “Play-work. I’m sure your divorce settlement covered most of your needs.”
“Oh, hell, Julie!” He raked one hand through the black curls, dislodging his cap. “I don’t know what made me say that. You always–”
“Bring out the worst in you?” She tried to ignore her heart beating with hard, breathless gasps. The sun overhead, beating down summer. David’s harsh anger echoing. As if there had been no time between. They’d hardly spoken during the years she was married to Tom. The last time they’d really talked to each other had been shouting and screaming when she was seventeen. And before that, all the way back to her thirteenth birthday.
He made an explosive sound. “I don’t usually carry on verbal wars.”
“Only with me?”
“You can be so damned exasperating.” His lips turned down, but the laughter was lurking in his eyes now.
She said defensively, “My insurance will cover the damage to your truck.”
“That’s my Julie. Let someone else look after the chaos you’ve caused.”
“That’s not fair!” Oh, lord! She grimaced and made her voice quiet, but the anger was still there, boiling up. “I don’t run around causing chaos, and I don’t leave other people to look after my messes. And what the hell do you think insurance is for, anyway? If you think I won’t pay for–Have you any idea how my insurance rates are going to skyrocket after this?”
He growled, “At least you have insurance.”
She said rigidly, “It’s against the law not to have auto ins–”
“Or you wouldn’t? I can believe that.” The laughter was all gone. She saw his fingers curl, as if he wanted to shake sense into her.
She muttered, “Will you shut up?”
He shrugged. “Does it occur to you that I need that truck? That I can’t afford to have it laid up weeks for repairs.”
She snarled, “Some of us have to work for a living?” echoing his earlier words. “You’re a great one to talk, David McNaughton. You and your damned relatives own half this island. You–”
“That’s a wild exaggeration.”
She exploded, landing on her feet on the field grass with a soft thump, pacing away, then back, unsteady in her city shoes. “That’s David! Let’s be accurate by all means–even in the middle of a raging battle! Gentleman farmer! You’d probably float to your grave in comfort if you never dug another ditch for those cows! You–”
“Julie. Shut up.”
She broke off, knowing from the look in his eyes that he would not hesitate to shake sanity into her. She could still hear the echo of her own voice from the trees. Hysterical, raging, screaming at him.
A big bumble bee circled David’s head. He ignored it.
“How the hell do you do it, David?” She bit her lip. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I hit your bloody truck, but you’ve got the greatest talent for rubbing me the wrong way …”
“Yeah. Well …” He ran his hands roughly through his hair. “Forget about the truck. You’ll have enough problems over this without my adding to it by putting an insurance claim in on it.”
She shook her own hair back, finger-combing it and finding it wildly tangled. “David,” she said breathlessly. “I’m not a kid. You don’t need to protect me. Of course you’ll put–”
He shook his head abruptly. “When I saw that car–Have you any idea how small that car of yours looks from the cab of my truck?”
She pushed damp hands down along her skirt. “Look, could you–please stop raking me over the coals.”
“Raking you–Don’t you ever take anything seriously? You could have been killed.”
“All right! I know it!” She could have caused David to die trying to avoid the accident. She knew that, too, but could not say the words with his eyes watching her, criticizing what they saw. Her fingers clenched in on themselves and she managed to calm her voice. “Could you just stop it? I don’t need a David lecture. I’ve had enough of them in my life. So I made a mistake. I can look after it. I’m sorry if your truck’s laid up, but I can’t do much about that, either. I’ll certainly make sure my insurance pays for–I–There’s a car coming.”
He turned to look over his shoulder. “Police.”
“On a sleepy place like Gabriola, with one RCMP cruiser, how on earth–?”
He jerked his head towards his dump truck. “I called them from the truck.”
She grimaced. “You’ve got a phone in your truck? Why did you call? To get me charged with careless driving?”
“Driving without due care and attention?” he said softly. “No, of course not, but it’s got to be reported. There’s surely more than five hundred dollars damage done to that little bug of yours.”
She felt tired suddenly. “And, being David, you go by the rules?”
He said dryly, “It wouldn’t hurt you to go by the rules. Like looking before you cross the street. And, anyway, you can’t take that car in for repairs on insurance without an accident report.”
Predictably, he was right. Being right was one of David’s more irritating qualities. She said wearily, “Damn you, why don’t you get out of my life. Go home to your wife.”
She knew she was being unreasonable, but somehow he did that to her. Whenever she saw criticism in his eyes, heard censure in his voice, something deep inside her snapped.
He said quietly, “Sandy died, Julie. Three years ago.”
… When Love Returns is available as an eBook through the following retailers: