“It’s a fine, fine day!” sang the smiling American to himself in his rented convertible.
Finally, Luke had untangled himself from the inner city London traffic and found the freedom of the more rural B road. For once, the weather was wonderfully warm in London, and he could feel the strength of the sun on his head and shoulders. The sunshine only enhanced his good mood. It was as though England was welcoming him back. He tried to think of a time when he had enjoyed the sun in New York lately. He used to before all the trouble had started for him there, he was sure. He’d enjoyed going to Central Park, particularly for a picnic with a sexy woman... lying on a blanket next to her... glasses of wine... wondering if he was going to get lucky later that evening. But that was before his vendetta against the Borelli Mafia Mob had taken up every minute of his waking day...before it was dangerous to do something as simple as go on a picnic... before the only women he met in that seedy underworld were loud and brash and only really cared about money and power... before he had ever even gone to the UK... a lifetime ago.
Now, for the first time in so long, he felt completely free. Why the hell hadn’t he escaped back to the UK sooner? Okay, so he had wanted to avenge Danny’s murder and there was no way he was letting the Borelli Mob get away with what they had done, but seven years away from the UK was too long. The stupid thing was, when he’d first been transferred to the UK as a special agent, he’d hated living there. It had rained constantly that first winter, and the food was weird, as were the people… the way they spoke and their funny little traditions. But slowly it had grown on him. His work had been the best part of it all to start with. It had been so rewarding and, let’s face it, he’d done pretty damn well on all the assignments he’d been given… well, him and Charlie had. And there was the other attraction of living in the UK, Charlie, his assigned partner.
Again, at first, he’d thought having Charlie as a partner was going to be a disaster. The idea of having to babysit a woman in the kind of cutthroat world he was used to had not exactly thrilled him. And even worse was when he’d actually first met her. She was the complete and utter opposite to him; a snobby, upper-class heiress who looked and dressed like a damn glamour girl. But it wasn’t long before he’d had to admit, to himself at least, that he’d been wrong about her. She was one hell of an agent and a damn good partner. Far from babysitting her, she could take care of herself, and had saved his life on more than one occasion. She knew how to use a firearm, that was for sure.
But, if he was honest with himself, there was another reason why he had enjoyed working with Charlie so much; she was so damn gorgeous and sexy! He’d have had to be made of stone not to be affected by that. Okay, so she had been snobby and standoffish at times, and trying to get her into bed had proved to be an impossibility; she hadn’t even let him so much as kiss her. But despite that, there were moments between them that were so intense. There was something there, a spark, a connection, something simmering, just waiting to explode; he’d felt it so strongly. And now he was back, he was going to find her. He just had to.
His only worry however, was how she would react to seeing him again. They hadn’t exactly left on the best of terms. She’d been so fuming with him for leaving for New York without telling her, that when he’d phoned a few days later to explain why he’d had to rush back to the USA, she had refused to even speak to him. Okay, so he should have told his boss, and Charlie, before he’d left that he was going, but he had been too focused on protecting Danny before the Mafia could get to him. Then, by the time he’d finally phoned them, he’d already lost his job in London. There was nothing his boss could do, he’d told him, it was out of his hands.
So he had spent the next seven years obsessing about bringing down the Borelli mob in New York. After all, Charlie had left MI5 and he had no job in London anymore anyway. He’d well and truly messed everything up! But now was his opportunity to at least speak to Charlie about why he had left and try to make her understand… that was, if he could find her. Besides, even if he couldn’t, he knew that it had been time to leave New York; it had become far too dangerous there for him lately.
So there he was, pulling into the exclusive Country Club in the hope that maybe, just maybe, he’d catch her there that day. How often did members go to English country clubs anyway? At least he knew for sure that she was still a member there. It hadn’t been too difficult for him to find that out, and her name had been down on all number of organizations related to the club, so she must be there quite a lot. His heart began quickening the closer he got to the entrance at the thought of actually seeing her again that very day.
Then an unsettling thought entered his head; what if, God forbid, she’d got married and she was with her husband...or children! Why hadn’t he thought of that? How awkward would that be? He paused at the entrance. Maybe he hadn’t thought this thing through properly. What should he do?
He was seriously considering turning around and leaving, when a young couple suddenly emerged through the front doors, passing him with questioning looks.
“Afternoon,” he smiled, strolling past them and finally entering. He had come here to see her; he couldn’t leave now. Besides, maybe she had done himself and his libido a favour and grown fat and ugly.
The interior of the Club was considerably cooler and darker, compared to the bright sunshine he had left outside. It was set in one of those old, historic buildings, like Luke had sometimes seen on the History Channel when he’d flicked through to find something interesting to watch in the evenings, and stopped to see if they would show somewhere in England that he’d been to. It looked like most of the stuff in there, the rugs, paintings, chairs and tables, were antiques. Charlie loved all that kind of stuff.
Luke scanned the reception area, which only had a few people wandering through it, apart from a small group of people at the desk who were chatting to the receptionist. He saw no signs of Charlie there and so move swiftly past the reception area to the sunnier garden room, with patio windows which opened onto the lawn at the back. He remembered this place from before. He had picked Charlie up from there in the past. They had used the extensive outer premises for all kinds of weird and wonderful English sporting activities. Today however, most people seemed to be sitting at the white, wrought iron tables and chairs arranged on the lawn, and enjoying afternoon snacks.
Luke couldn’t help but smile as he observed the scene. He’d been transported from something out of “American Gangster” to something out of a Jane Austen novel! Okay, so he was starting to stand out now. He’d sit at one of those tables and order something; give himself a chance to talk to the waitress or someone about Charlie.
It was as he walked across the lawn, heading for one of the empty tables, that his eyes picked out a head of dark shimmering hair amongst the diners and his heart did a little leap of hope. The head turned, and once in profile, he realized in an instant that it was her. Adrenalin coursed through him, freezing him to the spot when, for one moment, he thought she had seen him. She turned again however, back to the man she was sitting with. Damn. That could be awkward. He was hoping to find her alone, or with friends. Then again, of course she would have been with a guy; he should have expected that. Well, he’d come that far, he may as well see it through. He’d take a seat and wait for her to spot him. Then he’d have time to judge her reaction.
“Did you see Eddie’s face when he lost that last game?” Charlie laughed.
The tall, blonde man sitting across the table from Charlie laughed with her. “Sure. He was almost as surprised as Linda was for winning,” he replied in an American accent.
Charlie closed her eyes and shook her head, bursting into laughter again. “I can just see his wiggle as he rolled his ball across the green.”
“And his expression when Linda knocked the jack out,” the man added.
“Who’d have thought a few games of bowls could be so much fun,” she giggled.
“Yeah, it is when they’re playing.”
Charlie finished her glass of champagne and placed it on the table in front of her, folding her arms on the table top. “Well Richard, I can honestly say that I haven’t laughed so much in a long time. Thanks for today,” she smiled.
“No problem,” he replied, searching her face thoughtfully. “Oh what the hell,” he said suddenly standing up.
Charlie watched with dismay as he pulled a small, black box out of his trouser pocket and got down on one knee.
Not again! How many times did she have to make excuses for turning him down? He was persistent; she had to give him that. Maybe she should just give in and accept. Hmm, no, she wasn’t ready for marriage again... not now anyway.
“Charlie...” he began.
“Richie,” she interrupted, covering her hands with his and closing the box in the process, “we’ve had quite a lot to drink today; maybe this isn’t the right time.” Richie’s smile slowly faded. Charlie felt awful, but she just wasn’t ready to accept, as much as she did like being with him. “You might change your mind when you sober up tomorrow,” she joked. Okay, that didn’t work. “I’m sorry,” she said, withdrawing her hands. “Please don’t be upset.”
“Who me?” he shrugged, standing up again, brushing off his trouser leg and taking his seat once more. “Never. But I’ll ask you again you know. And I won’t stop until you say yes.”
She smiled reassuringly at him. “We could have one more glass of champagne though,” she said, trying to lighten the mood.
“Why not?” he smiled back.
Charlie turned then to summon a waitress and that was when she saw him.
What? No, she must be seeing things; too much champagne.
She abandoned her effort to order the champagne and turned back to Richie, her face swiftly losing its colour.
“You alright?” he asked, placing a hand on her arm.
She cleared her throat. “Err, yes, urm...” She turned her head quickly to see if she had just been imagining things, but no. The rest of the colour left her face. It was him. He was looking straight at her. She swung her head back.
“Charlie, what’s up?” Richie asked.
“Well, it’s just that,” her head turned again, just in case she had in fact been wrong.
Luke gave her a small wave of his fingers.
No, it was definitely him.
She shook her head. “Sorry Richie, there’s someone sitting over there...” she gestured towards Luke, “He used to be my partner... when I was working as an agent. I haven’t seen him for years. In fact, he should be in New York...”
“Oh,” Richie turned to look.
“Anyway, what were we saying?” Charlie went on, trying to refocus.
“Oh yes.” She turned again, but again caught sight of Luke, who waved yet again.
She growled and turned back to Richie. “I’m so sorry, but he obviously wants something and he’s not the kind of person to just go away. Would you mind?”
Richie smiled, seeming not to be affected by her request. “No, go speak to him. I’ll see if I can order that champagne.”
“Thanks Richie. I’ll not be long,” she replied, taking a deep breath before rising out of her seat and beginning the nerve racking walk towards Luke.
A sudden strange sensation shot through the pit of Luke’s stomach as he watched Charlie stand and walk towards him. He’d forgotten what an impact just the sight of her could sometimes have. He’d seen the effect in other people too. She drew attention to her with her poise, figure and looks... and something else, something which just made it impossible for people not to look. One thing was for sure, she was nowhere near to being fat and ugly... he’d known she wouldn’t be... and he was very much afraid for his libido at that moment! But he wasn’t going to think about that. He wasn’t going to think about the way her hips swayed as she walked... about the knockout white dress she was wearing that clung to her waist and hips and stopped above the knee, exposing a smooth pair of tanned Charlie legs... or about the way, as she got closer still, he could see that the material fell in folds and dipped daringly down her front... and that, although nothing was exposed beneath the folds, the fun of the dress was to wonder how the folds stayed strategically placed so as not to revel a single thing. Did she do that on purpose, or was she just a natural tease without knowing it?
What the hell was he doing there? And how dare he be looking at her like that, making her feel all strange again... her legs all jelly-like. Damn it, he was watching every step she made, and in the most sinful of ways. Couldn’t he see what was happening just now; she was about to become engaged... wasn’t she? Well, anyway, he wasn’t to know that she hadn’t made up her mind yet. What right had he to look her up and down like that, in that slow, arrogant, Luke way of his? She’d forgotten about Luke’s looks. Nobody she had ever known had looked at her like that, in such an outrageous way. Nobody else had that much cheek! He hadn’t changed one bit... but she had. She had moved on. She had a new life now and she was happy with it thank you very much. If he thought he could come back as if nothing had changed and pick up where they left off, he was very much mistaken. Anyway, there was no reason for them to see each other now as they were no longer work colleagues, so that was an end to it.
She stopped in front of his table and placed her hands on her hips.
Wow! It was most definitely Charlie... in all her upper class, sexy, a little annoyed and bordering on sexually frustrated, glory.
“Hiyya Charlie,” he grinned, lifting the tea cup in front of him to his lips and taking a sip, whilst his eyes continued to assess her with interest. Apart from her hair, which was now shoulder length, smoother and sleeker, she looked exactly the same. Same bright, intelligent blue eyes, same baby nose, same peaches and cream skin, but most of all, same incredibly inviting, glossy pink lips.
“Adams... what?” she began, holding out her hands as she found herself suddenly speechless.
“What?” he echoed.
She shook her head to clear it. This was absurd. He was sitting there as if seven years had been seven minutes since the last time they saw each other.. as if it was perfectly normal for him to be there. She had so many questions, but the shock of seeing him had jumbled them up in her head. Finally she settled for,
“Err, is there any particular reason why you are sitting here in my country club... in England by the way?” she stressed.
He pretended to think about the question momentarily before he replied. “Yes, there is.”
Was he trying to wind her up?
“And?” she questioned, her voice rising in pitch as she felt her stress levels increase.
He glanced down at his teacup and picked it up with his forefinger and thumb, raising it again, before looking from the cup to Charlie.
“I’m having a cup of tea,” he grinned, taking another sip to demonstrate.
A frown of rising annoyance wrinkled her brow. “Don’t they have tea in New York, Adams?”
Ok, he needed her in a reasonable mood. He dropped the pretence.
“Can we go somewhere to talk?” he asked, lowering the tea cup down into the saucer with a clunk.
She folded her arms. “I’m a little busy at the moment, in case you hadn’t noticed,” she replied incredulously, gesturing behind her to Richie.
“Oh yes, such a touching scene,” he commented sarcastically. “Can I take a look at the ring?” he asked.
She narrowed her eyes at him and gritted her teeth with annoyance. He knew she hadn’t accepted it. He must have seen.
“Why don’t you just tell me what it is you want so we can get this over with?” she replied, avoiding his request.
“Now, that’s no way to talk to your partner is it Charlie? Don’t I get a welcome back kiss or something?” he said, his voice a little harder now too as he reacted to her tone.
“You might have done, yes... seven years ago... if you’d have told me you were going in the first place!”
Luke noted that she had kept count; she knew it had been seven years. So she wasn’t as damn cold as she was acting. Although he was beginning to wonder.
“Excuse me if my brother had been kidnapped and murdered by Mafia and I didn’t think to phone right away,” he retorted, under his breath, aware that heads were turning towards them.
She paused for a moment and searched his face suspiciously. “You don’t have any brothers.”
Luke tutted. “He was as good as.”
Charlie felt a hand on the small of her back and swung around a little guiltily. Had she been raising her voice a little too much? It was Richie.
“Sorry Charlie, I’m going to have to leave that extra glass of champagne; I said I’d help Eddie out after lunch. You stay here and catch up...” he glanced at Luke “... and I’ll phone you later,” he finished, passing her handbag to her.
Charlie’s guy was American. What the hell was she doing with an American?
She took hold of his arm however before he had a chance to leave.
“No, really, I’ll come too. Just give me two seconds...”
“Don’t be silly; stay and enjoy yourself. We’ll speak later, Yes?” he said, lifting a hand to place it in her hair whilst he leant forward to give her a soft kiss on the lips.
Luke wriggled in his chair and glanced away.
“Well, okay but...”
Richie was already heading towards the building. “I’ll phone tonight,” he said, turning briefly before striding away.
“Great. Thank you very much Adams!” she said, throwing her bag down onto the table and sinking into the chair. Well, she wasn’t going to stay there arguing with him. Fumbling in her bag, she searched for her mobile phone. She was going to phone for a taxi.
“What’ve I done wrong now?” he snapped back.
“What have you done wrong? I was having a perfectly wonderful afternoon before you came and messed it all up. Why are you here Luke?” she asked again, exasperated.
“Now you come to mention it, I wanted an explanation. How come you never phoned? No goodbye, nothing?” he accused. “We were partners. You owed me that at least!”
“I owed you!” her voice was bordering on a screech. She took a deep breath or else she wasn’t going to be able to say what she wanted to without exploding. “First of all, what made you think you were so special that you could just leave for weeks...disappear without a word...flouting all the rules and ignoring your obligations here... and then come back and everything would be the same? What made you think that, hmmm? And secondly...”
“You’re all about rules and regulations,” he barked out, standing suddenly. “What about people who go by their gut instincts,” he said, thumping his chest with one fist. “People who don’t have time to sit down and write a damn list of the pros and cons before they do anything. People who know whether they want to marry someone or not,” he said, gesturing to the table that Charlie and Richie had been sharing. “You want to know something, you can’t make no decisions in life ’cause you ain’t got no heart lady!”
And with that, he turned and strode angrily away.
She stared after him in shock. How dare he! There was no way he was leaving her like that, not before she had finished having her say.
“Adams! Adams, I haven’t finished with you yet!” she shouted, running across the lawn after him.
Rather than walking back through the building, Luke headed straight for the car park around the front of the club. Charlie caught up with him just as he reached his car and she slipped between him and the door, preventing him from opening it. Her handbag fell from her shoulder to the floor with a thud. She stood with her back to his hand that was still on the handle of the car door. He could feel that the dress was backless as his hand was in contact with her bare skin.
“I haven’t finished yet Adams!” she shouted somewhat breathlessly.
“Oh really. Do go on then Charlie; I’m going to love to hear this,” he replied, observing the effects of her exertions...the redness of her cheeks, the rise and fall of her chest as she fought to regain her breath, the fact that, rather disappointingly, the folds at the front of her dress had not moved at all and were teasing him with what was beneath them.
“What do you think I thought when you disappeared for two days?” she asked him.
He stood motionless for a few moments, his eyes moving over her face.
“Well?” she pushed.
“That I’d gone somewhere,” he finally replied. He was surprised to realize that he had actually struggled to answer that question. He hadn’t thought of that before, only that she had been mad at him for not being there when he should have.
“No Luke,” her eyes were burning into his. She tilted her head. “I thought you were dead.”
“Someone works in that kind of job and then disappears for days, what did you think I would think? We were partners,” she stressed emotionally, “we’d faced death together time and time again. We relied on each other to keep ourselves alive, and I could handle that...but you go off without telling anyone...I...”
She paused for a moment and dipped her head, taking a steadying breath.
Luke’s frown deepened as he watched her and, without him being fully aware of it, his fingers on the hand that was pressed against her back uncurled and began to stroke the bare skin of her back.
“... I went out of my mind. Each hour that passed was like torture, not knowing... Thinking that you were dead.” She sighed and glanced away.
“Charlie,” he said softly.
She turned her head to him again slowly, her eyes wary.
“I’m sorry.” Pain flickered across his face. “It was a mistake. A damn stupid one. If I could change it all...” he faded out, as it suddenly hit him that if had he not made that mistake, he wouldn’t have had to go through all the pain and misery of the last seven years.
He ran his left hand through his hair and glanced around, as if trying to find an answer. Charlie watched him. He looked so lost.
“So, what are you doing here now then?” she asked.
“Remember I had heat on me in New York the first time?” he replied.
“Well, it’s an inferno now.”
“Are you back at MI5?” she asked, surprised.
He shook his head.
Confusion swept across her face. “So?”
“I just had to get away from them, simple.”
“I think you need a visa, or work permit or something Luke. You can’t just move here like that,” she pointed out.
“Yeah, I know, but I can’t go back, that’s for sure,” he stressed.
She thought for a moment and then gave a half-hearted laugh. “I had such a simple, uncomplicated life until you crashed back into it.”
“You mean ‘boring’,” he summed up.
“No Luke, normal,” she replied.
“That’s what I said. Same thing.”
A half smile hovered around his mouth. His fingers resumed stroking small circles on her back.
She was more aware of them this time, and of the silence that was stretching, and his eyes that were searching hers. Her heart skittered and her skin warmed. His eyes were scrutinizing her face and the slow smile that developed across his acknowledged her rising colour.
She broke eye contact with him suddenly. What was she doing?
“Well, this has been scintillating, but I really should get back to Richie now,” she said, turning and bending to retrieve her handbag from off the floor. As she crouched down, Luke had a very stimulating view down the curve of her back. She stood again, but instead of turning around, she remained facing the car for some reason. Luke didn’t care, he was still mesmerized by the sight of her bare back and the curve of her body underneath. It wouldn’t take much to slip that dress off. The thought snuck into his head.
“Hmm,” he responded, leaning closer to her, his face hovering by her hair, her perfume teasing his nostrils. If she didn’t move soon, his libido would get the better of him. Fortunately, or possibly unfortunately, he couldn’t decide which, her following question broke his spell.
“Why is there a dead body in the back of your car?”