Jill Mansell: Falling for you

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    Falling for you
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‘Are you OK?’ Looking concerned, Kerr McKinnon reached out to put a hand on her arm.

Maddy pulled away, nodding and wondering if she might actually faint, which would be ridiculous .. .

Needing to get out, she left the offices and stumbled down the stairs. The sun had turned the inside of the car into a furnace. Maddy sat sideways in the driver’s seat with her feet outside the car and her head in her hands. The greatest shock wasn’t seeing Kerr McKinnon again; if she had passed him in a crowded street in Bath, say, her knee-jerk reaction would have been far more straightforward: initial recognition swiftly followed by a rush of disdain. Or hatred. Maybe anger, followed by contempt. And then within a few seconds it would have been over. She wouldn’t, for instance, have raced over and started attacking him. If he’d caught her eye she would simply have shot him a look of loathing, before walking on.

But this was completely different, and the greatest shock of all was realising how much, after meeting and talking to Kerr McKinnon on Saturday night, she had been looking forward to seeing him again.

Maddy let out a groan of despair. She’d really liked him, and he had seemed to like her. There had been a spark there, the chemistry of mutual attraction. She had spent all of Sunday thinking about him, hoping he was as nice as she thought he was and, ironically, wondering what his name was. If Marcella hadn’t emptied the contents of the Hoover bag into the dustbin, all over her chucked-away white trousers, she would have hauled them out and retrieved his business card from the back pocket.

Then she would have known.

Ah, but would she have come here today, to Kerr McKinnon’s offices, bringing carefully prepared food to impress him with?

Of course she wouldn’t. Absolutely not.

And now she’d left the cool-box upstairs.

‘Hey, are you all right?’

Maddy jumped; with her face buried in her hands she hadn’t seen him emerge from the building.

Crouching down in front of her, Kerr McKinnon held out a bottle of iced water and said, ‘You poor thing, you look terrible. When I saw you turn white back there I thought you were going to pass out. Here, have a drink.’ He unscrewed the top of the bottle for her. ‘Are you still feeling faint?’

Maddy flinched as he pressed the flat of his hand against her forehead, just like Marcella used to do whenever she complained that she was too ill to go to school.

‘Hot,’ he observed. ‘Being in this car isn’t helping. Look, put your head between your knees. As soon as you feel strong enough, we’ll go back up to my office. Or I could carry you, if you like.’ He smiled briefly. ‘I had no idea I had this much of an effect on women.’

He was being kind, reassuring her that it didn’t matter. Maddy couldn’t smile back. She took a couple of deep breaths and said, ‘I’m not going to faint.’

‘Well, that’s good.’ He waited, then said, ‘It’s really nice to see you again. I was starting to wonder what I’d do if you didn’t turn up.’

He was even better looking than she’d imagined on Saturday night; he had the best eyelashes Maddy had ever seen. And as for those eyes ... God, even George Clooney would be jealous. Worst of all, he was being so lovely, so concerned about her being ill and possibly about to throw up all over his shoes.

‘By the way, they love the food,’ Kerr went on. ‘So it looks like we’re going to be seeing a lot more of each other.’ He paused. ‘You could look a bit happier if you like.’

This was truly awful. It was no, good, she had to tell him.

‘Look, I’m sorry, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.’ Maddy really was starting to feel sick now; why did he have to be so nice?

‘I’m not with you.’ Even as he spoke, he was encouraging her to drink more of the ice-cold water.

‘You don’t even know my name,’ Maddy said helplessly.

‘And that’s a major problem? How about if I – this is just off the top of my head – how about if I just ask you?’ He thought it was funny, that she was making a ridiculous fuss about nothing.

‘It’s Maddy. Maddy Harvey.’

She saw it register, saw it click into place. Finally Kerr McKinnon’s expression changed.

‘Shit. Are you serious?’ For a split second, doubt flickered in his eyes.

Maddy couldn’t blame him. She nodded, shivering violently despite the heat.

‘Maddy Harvey? But ... but you’ve ...’

For a traitorous second Maddy wished she hadn’t said it. Everything was spoiled now.

‘I know.’ Almost unbelievably she found herself feeling sorry for him. ‘I don’t look like I used to.

I’ve changed.’

JFK airport. Millions of people, and no one there to see her off. Kate was wearing her beige floppy-brimmed hat in the forlorn hope that it would divert attention from her face. When she’d stopped for a cappuccino at Heathrow three years ago, she’d been chatted up by a six-foot Australian archaeologist.

He’d even bought her another cup of coffee.

This time nobody chatted her up, not even the ancient lavatory attendant. Kate wasn’t surprised. She paid for her own coffee and thought of her mother, who was driving up to meet her off the plane at Heathrow.

At least someone would be pleased to see her again.

All my own fault, thought Kate, flicking distractedly through the New York Times. Nobody to blame but myself.

She paused at a photo of Brad Pitt, arriving at the premiere of his latest film. Once upon a time she had fantasised about meeting a famous movie star, someone the whole world drooled over.

They would bump into each other quite by chance, in a supermarket checkout queue or something, and fall effortlessly into conversation. Naturally, besotted by her ravishing looks and winning personality, the famous movie star would fall in love with her – oh yes, it would have been Notting Hill all over again, complete with dazzling Richard Curtis script.

Crossing her legs, Kate flipped over the page with the Brad Pitt photo on it. She didn’t bother having that fantasy any more.

Chapter 3

Jake Harvey had an audience, but he didn’t let on that he was aware of it. This was the way potential customers liked it to be. He carried on working, they stood and watched, and after a few minutes he would turn and smile at them, maybe exchange a friendly greeting, then return his attention to the task in hand. It was a low-key, low-pressure sales technique and it worked for Jake. He enjoyed his job and it showed. Sooner or later, curiosity always got the better of his visitors. He allowed them to open the conversation. His easy manner, indicating that he really couldn’t care less whether they stayed or not, more often than not did the trick. And when it didn’t, well, he genuinely wasn’t that bothered anyway.

These were tourists, impulse buyers, quite as likely to leave Ashcombe with a couple of postcards or a pot of homemade jam from the Peach Tree. You couldn’t win them all.

Then again, in his line of work, you never knew when they – or their relatives – might, at some time in the future, be back in touch.

Putting down his glue gun, Jake straightened up and stretched his arms. Stripped to the waist, wearing only a pair of drastically faded jeans, he knew he looked good. Working outside had tanned him to the colour of strong tea, and when he stretched, the muscles in his back rippled beneath his skin. Turning finally, he saw that the girl waiting was the type least likely to buy anything: the Scandinavian backpacker. He knew she was Scandinavian because she was blonde, and wearing khaki shorts, sturdy hiking boots and white socks.

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