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Sam Penryn looked up from the paperwork he’d been staring at with what he hoped passed for intense focus but was really just a blank, buzzing brain. How long had he been looking at this brochure, needing to sign off on it, without taking in a thing? He blinked the world back into focus and saw his sister Althea was standing in the doorway of the spare larder he’d converted into a small office, the look on her face a weird mix of apprehension and intense curiosity.
“Yes?” He spoke moderately enough but he heard the impatience in his voice, felt it in himself. He’d been back at Casterglass for just over two months and the surging restlessness hadn’t yet gone away. Neither had the memories.
“There’s someone here to see you.”
There was no disguising the avid gleam in his older sister’s eyes. Sam had a feeling it couldn’t just be a deliveryman who wanted to see him, but then who? He’d made sure to avoid anyone from the village since he’d been back, and he didn’t have any friends here. He never had.
“Who is it?” he asked, and Althea bit her lip.
“It’s a woman. She said you won’t be expecting her… Her name is Rose.”
Rose? Sam felt a jolt go through him and then he went completely still, as if he’d been electrocuted and was now absorbing the shock. And it was a shock, because Rose, his Rose—except of course she hadn’t been his at all—she was in New Zealand. And the last time he’d seen her, before he’d flown home to help turn their family home into a tourist attraction, he’d never expected to again. Rose had made that abundantly clear. It was fun, but…
Yeah, yeah, he’d said so quickly he stumbled over his words. Yeah, exactly. As if he’d felt the same.
“Rose…Lacey?” he asked, hearing how befuddled he sounded, like his brain was misfiring, but he simply could not compute that Rose would come all the way to Casterglass. He hadn’t even told her where he’d lived, not really, although he’d probably mentioned Casterglass once or twice. They hadn’t talked very much about personal stuff, which at the time had suited him fine. When they’d said goodbye, she’d been talking airily of heading to Jamaica next.
“She didn’t give her last name,” Althea told him, “but she’s quite petite with lots of strawberry-blonde hair?” She raised her eyebrows, while Sam nodded dumbly. That definitely was Rose. “And…she’s pregnant.”
What? Another jolt went through him, this one worse than before, causing his whole body to tingle. He could only stare at his sister as her words reverberated through him. Pregnant…impossible.
“She’s in the morning parlour,” Althea finished helpfully, and then, although she looked as if she wanted to ask a million questions and demand their answers, she slipped away, back to the kitchen.
Sam sat there for a moment, staring into space, his body still tingling. He was remembering when he’d first met Rose just over five months ago, at a bar by the beach in Tairua, a surfing town on the Coromandel Peninsula in New Zealand. She’d been mixing cocktails with an assured gracefulness, her slender arms moving so quickly as she’d poured and shook the drink that he’d been transfixed. He wasn’t normally the kind of guy who chatted up a woman at a bar, especially not one serving behind the counter, but he’d been drawn to Rose like metal to a magnet.
He’d slid onto a stool and watched her for twenty minutes without speaking, as she whirled from customer to cocktail and back again with lightning speed, pouring drinks, trading witty remarks and barbs with the other bartender as well as some regulars who were clearly as besotted as Sam was, although perhaps they hid it a little better. They were able to joke with her, at least, while Sam had simply stared gormlessly.
Her red-gold hair had been piled messily on top of her head, and her body, in a midriff-skimming T-shirt and gauzy sarong over bikini bottoms, had been slender and lithe. There had been a whimsical energy to her, along with a steely focus, and Sam had been entranced by both.
The other bartender had taken his drink order, and he’d been halfway through his beer, having still said not a word the entire time, when she’d turned to him, hands planted on her hips, one eyebrow cocked in mocking challenge. “Well?” she’d demanded. “Are you going to ask me out or what?”
He’d spluttered his drink, nearly choking, wiped his mouth, and then said, sounding surprised, “Why, yes. I think I am.”
Sam started from his reverie, blinking the tiny office back into focus. He’d been back two months, but it still felt like a surprise, to be here at all. To choose it…although he wasn’t sure he really had. When your whole family decided to pitch in and help out, it felt mean and small not to come along for the ride.
Except he hated being here. Hated being home.
Outside rain clouds were homing in on what had been a beautiful, blue-sky morning. Typical Cumbria. It was the middle of July, but the thermometer hadn’t pushed much past fourteen degrees, hardly the balmy weather they wanted for tomorrow’s big opening of Casterglass Castle, your ultimate Lake District tourist destination! Poppy had designed the banner now strung between the gateposts, proudly proclaiming they were ‘Fully Open!’ Sam had six bookings for the glamping yurts for the weekend, and it was meant to be pouring with rain.
And Rose was here.
Slowly, as if walking through a dream, Sam rose from his seat and then headed down the narrow, stone-flagged corridor that had once been the domain of servants, past the kitchen, where he saw his sisters Althea and Olivia hunched over the table, whispering madly. As he walked past the open doorway, they both threw him not-so-covert, deeply speculative looks before they turned away quickly, and went back to their gossiping.
She couldn’t be. He’d left her only two months ago. She hadn’t been pregnant then. Had she just found out? Then how on earth would Althea have known? Sam didn’t know all that much about bumps and babies, but he could count at least, and a woman who was two months pregnant wasn’t showing. Was she? Besides, they’d used protection all during their brief, intense yet casual affair. He’d made sure of it.
He stood in front of the doorway to the morning parlour, a small, cosy sitting room on the side of the Georgian addition to the thirteenth-century castle, where they had always received visitors, since the drawing room was too grand, and often too cold. He rested his hand on the doorknob, his heart starting to thud.
Rose. Pregnant. Here.
It was way too much to take in.
Realising he’d left her waiting for long enough, he opened the door and stepped into the room.
Rose had been standing with her back to him as she looked out the window at the side lawn, a verdant swathe of green, thanks to the rain, with a cluster of huge rhododendrons hiding the sea from view. Olivia and Will, who were responsible for the garden, had trimmed the enormous bushes substantially but they were still gigantic, now in full flower, their bright fuchsia blossoms looking like something you’d see in the Amazon, not the chilly, wet Lake District.
As Sam opened the door, Rose whirled around, her long, tumbled hair flying out, her golden-green cat’s eyes widening. Sam remembered those eyes. He remembered how they were flecked with gold, with luxuriant lashes, and how they crinkled at the corners when she was smiling at him. She wasn’t smiling now.
He couldn’t tell if she was apprehensive or angry or something in between, but she didn’t look happy. She was wearing a long, loose patchwork dress, and there was definitely a bump underneath it. Smallish but very much there. How far along could she be? Slowly, still feeling as if he were in a dream, he closed the door behind him.
They stared at each other.
A million memories tumbled through Sam’s mind—their first date, where they’d walked along the beach at Tairua as the sun set and the stars came out, one by one, filling the sky with flickering glimmers of light. He’d never seen stars like he had in New Zealand, and he’d been to a lot of places in this world. The night sky had been like a living, pulsing map scrolled across the heavens, twinkling with promises. They had kissed on the damp sand as the sky had lit up with the Southern Lights, a riot of pink and orange, green and gold, better than fireworks, more beautiful than anything he’d ever seen.
He remembered too how she’d danced away from him as they’d walked along, doing a cartwheel across the sand, tanned legs flying out, seeming so free, so wonderfully reckless, completely unburdened by responsibility, by family, by life…unlike him.
She’d been travelling the world for five years, never staying anywhere for long, all her worldly possessions kept in a single rucksack, which was exactly how she liked it. She’d been impossible to pin down, like a rare and beautiful butterfly, and he’d loved that about her, but he’d also fought the urge to do exactly what he knew she didn’t want, and trap her in his hands, let her wings beat between his palms.
Of course she’d never let him, and in truth he’d never really tried, not properly. He didn’t want to be pinned down either, even if he was fascinated by her. He travelled almost as much as she did, signing up for one charitable venture after another—climbing Kilimanjaro, scaling the Eiger, crossing the Kalahari—in between freelance work in data analysis. He convinced themselves they were both free spirits, even though he’d never felt particularly free.
They’d lasted for nearly three months, off and on, before he’d reluctantly decided to return to Casterglass, to take up the glamping and outdoor adventure course at his family’s home, a wreck of a castle that was slowly, so slowly, being renovated.
And now Rose was here. Her lips were pursed, her eyebrows raised, as some emotion flashed in her eyes in a shower of golden sparks.
“Well?” she asked, a bit tartly.
Sam’s mind spun. He still couldn’t actually process that she was here, that she was pregnant. And so he found himself asking, stupidly, the one question that was blazing through his brain, because how could it not be, considering the casual nature of their relationship? The dates?
“Is it mine?”
Wow, okay. Great start. Rose stayed still, trying to keep her expression neutral. Sam was looking poleaxed, which she supposed was to be expected, but was it his? Why on earth would she be here otherwise?
“Is that seriously the first thing you’re going to say to me?” she asked when she trusted her voice to be level. The truth was since she’d arrived at Casterglass this morning she’d felt as if she were jumping out of her skin. She had not expected a castle, and when she’d found out about that, she had not been expecting Sam to be the owner’s son, the son of a baron, as a matter of fact. He’d never mentioned anything about either. All he’d said was he was from a little village in the Lake District called Casterglass. You can’t say it’s in the middle of nowhere because it’s by the sea. It isn’t in the middle of anything.
“Sorry,” Sam said. He rubbed a hand over his face. “I’m just…surprised. I didn’t expect…” He shook his head slowly, as if to clear it. “Do you want to sit down?”
She didn’t really, because she felt too nervous to keep still, but she was also feeling faint, and the only thing she’d eaten today was a plastic-wrapped croissant bought at the train station in Lancaster that had managed to be both tasteless and disgusting. Her stomach was roiling now, even though it was empty. Wordlessly she nodded, and sank a bit unsteadily into a small, elegant chair with wood-carved arms and velvet upholstery. Sam was still staring at her as if she wasn’t real.
Okay, she’d known this was going to be a surprise, a big one. She’d made it very clear when they’d said goodbye that their fling was over, that she was off to Jamaica. Then she’d started having second thoughts…about a lot of things. But even though she’d had plenty of time to think on the twenty-four-hour flight to London, not to mention the six-hour train journey to this far-flung place, she still had no idea what to say, or even what she wanted. So she simply looked at him, waiting for him to speak.
Slowly Sam lowered himself into a chair opposite her, resting his hands on his thighs, like he was bracing himself. Somehow she’d managed to forget how crazily good-looking he was, which was a bit annoying. It made her feel off-kilter, because she just wanted to stare at him. His hair was a little darker and a lot shorter than it had been in New Zealand when it had a messy mop of sun-bleached curls. His eyes were the same deep, piercing blue, the colour so intense that Rose had teased that he wore coloured contact lenses. She remembered how he’d sputtered in outrage when she’d said it, which was one of the things she’d loved about him. How could someone who was so outrageously handsome be so shy and unsure of his own overwhelming appeal? And yet Sam was.
She hadn’t loved it about him, Rose automatically corrected herself. She’d liked it. They’d had a case of deep like—that was all. A fling, like she’d said, but now there was a baby.
“So it is mine?” Sam asked, and Rose let out a huff of breath.
“You’re kind of fixated on that,” she remarked, and he shrugged, spreading his hands.
“It’s just…I’m gobsmacked, I guess. Considering…I mean…” He shook his head as if to clear it. “How far along are you?”
“Seventeen weeks.” She patted her bump. “I’m showing quite a lot, I know, but when you’re short, apparently that’s what happens.” She looked like a toothpick with a bowling ball sticking out of its middle. Not exactly the best look.
He was clearly doing the math in his head. Rose couldn’t keep from rolling her eyes. “It probably happened the first time. You remember?”
He blushed. He actually blushed. Yes, he remembered, and so did she. She didn’t have flings, even though she acted as if she did, all part of the persona she’d taken on at eighteen and was now so much a part of her it had to be real, at least a little bit. She usually kept herself to herself, but something about Sam had slid right under her skin. They’d slept together right there on the sand, on their second date. She never did stuff like that. Never, and neither, it seemed, had Sam, because afterwards he’d looked as shellshocked as she felt.
“Wow,” he’d said, shaking his head slowly, and she’d burst out laughing, even though part of her had felt like crying, and she didn’t even know why. She’d felt exposed and vulnerable and outrageously happy all at once. Way too many emotions.
“But we used protection?” he asked, and Rose shrugged.
“Protections fails, I suppose. Ninety-eight per cent rate and all that.”
He nodded, accepting but clearly still reeling. When were they going to get past the shock? Although what came next Rose still had no idea. She wasn’t even sure what she wanted to happen next.
She really had not thought this through. Now, she realised, would be a very good time to have a plan, but the reality was she was reeling as much as Sam was. Yes, she’d had time to get used to the idea that she was having a baby, sort of, but she still had no idea what the future might look like. Coming here had been her end point rather than her beginning.
“Okay,” Sam said, apropos of precisely nothing, and they both stared some more. All right, she needed to get to grips with this conversation.
Rose drew herself up, ignoring the dancing of spots before her eyes, the wave of dizziness and nausea that crashed over like the white-capped surf at Tairua. The taste of that croissant was in her mouth, along with something nastier. She swallowed it all down.
“I came here because I thought you should know,” she stated as matter-of-factly as she could. “I’m not expecting anything from you, and you don’t need to panic that I want a wedding ring or something ridiculous like that.” Sam blinked, said nothing. After a second’s pause Rose continued, her voice growing steadier even as her conviction that she was doing the right thing started to drain away. “You don’t need to be involved at all. I won’t ask for money or anything. I just think a man ought to know if he’s got a child in the world, that’s all.”
Sam was silent for a few seconds. “You couldn’t have sent an email?” he finally said, and Rose made a choked sound that she bit back as soon as she could.
Seriously? “I didn’t have your email address.”
She felt tears crowding behind her lids and she blinked them back fiercely. The dizziness came back, along with the nausea. She realised, with a distant sort of surprise, that she might actually vomit. Breathe. Blink. Swallow. Sam was staring at her, his expression so nonplussed Rose had no idea what he was feeling. Not much, it seemed, at any rate. He looked annoyed, if he looked anything. Sorry for this minor inconvenience of bearing your child.
Well, what she expected, really? The truth was she hadn’t let herself expect anything, because she knew how people let you down, even, especially the people closest to you. And yet his cool indifference hurt more than a little. A fricking text?
“Sorry to have bothered you then,” she managed, the words coming out thickly because she suddenly realised that she actually was going to vomit, and the carpet looked very old and expensive, if rather threadbare. She lurched out of her seat, way too fast, because in addition to trying to swallow down the need to retch, she also felt like she was going to pass out.
The room swam and Sam’s face loomed up in front of her, looking weirdly pale.
He sounded panicked, which she supposed was better than annoyed. The room was lurching about like they were on a ship, and her stomach was too. She really wished she hadn’t eaten that stupid croissant. Or come here, actually.
Sam grabbed her arm. “Rose—”
“Sorry,” she mumbled, and then she felt herself crumple.
End of Excerpt