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Authors: Eleanor Jones

A Heartbeat Away

BOOK: A Heartbeat Away
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A Heartbeat Away
Eleanor Jones

TORONTO • NEW YORK • LONDON
AMSTERDAM • PARIS • SYDNEY • HAMBURG
STOCKHOLM • ATHENS • TOKYO • MILAN • MADRID
PRAGUE • WARSAW • BUDAPEST • AUCKLAND

I would like to dedicate this book to my family,
who are my inspiration.

WHERE MY HEART BEATS BEST
by T J Darling

Like the backs of colossal elephants, motionless against the sky; here doth winter flourish, here stay I.

I walk upon these mighty slopes where the hardy fell sheep roam and my heart fills up with joy, for this is my home.

An awesome beauty fills my eyes and soothes my troubled soul; a harsh reality takes me back and helps to make me whole

And when I climb these lonely fells with peace my only goal, their stark tranquillity heals my heart and floods my soul.

A place to bide, a place to breathe

A place to be

CHAPTER 1

F
rom the moment I awoke I just knew today was…different, although I didn't yet know why. I climbed out of bed, and my bare feet cringed at the coolness of the gleaming wood floor, before they plunged ecstatically into the warm softness of a thick cream rug. In the bathroom, the sound of tap water filled my head like a waterfall crashing onto rocks, and when I looked at the sky through the bathroom window, it was so clear that I paused, toothbrush aloft, to stare with a kind of awe at the tiny white cloud drifting across the ocean of blue.

Hidden memories rushed in, unbidden. Memories of another, wider sky, a sky that seemed to stretch into eternity. Uncomfortable with my new awareness, unwilling to face the festering pain that the memories provoked, I closed my eyes, concentrating on the feel of the toothbrush against my teeth.

Alex's deep voice brought me sharply back to the present.

“I'll be late tonight.”

I glanced around self-consciously to meet his brooding gaze, the same penetrating gaze that had drawn me to him all those months ago.

I didn't think that there would ever be anyone else after Daniel, but Alex was just so compelling. His fierce dark eyes had locked on me from across the dance floor of the dingy club that Nicola had eventually succeeded in dragging me to. Every time I looked up, he was there, his expression impenetrable from behind those hypnotic eyes. And before the night was over, he had somehow prized my phone number from behind my painstakingly built defenses.

All that felt like a lifetime ago now, but still I stopped sometimes to wonder how he had managed to get past Daniel. For Danny Brown was the love of my life, and Alex was…Alex was just Alex.

He stood behind me now, confident and sure. Navy suit, pale blue shirt, dark blue understated silk tie, immaculate as always.

“Okay,” I murmured.

Nodding briefly, he pivoted on his heel; then his shoes tapped along the hallway and down the wooden staircase. The front door slamming reverberated inside my head, and I clutched my arms around myself, stifling the shiver inside me. For today felt different, although I didn't yet know why.

Realizing that I was going to be late for work, I dashed into the bedroom and flung open the closet door. Late or not, today I needed something bright and fresh to wear, something that would make a statement.

Black clothes hung in front of me, neatly arranged in utterly straight rows. The scent of expensive perfume floated into my nostrils. I felt as though someone else's life paraded before me. But it wasn't someone else's, was it? It was mine.

Long-contained emotion flooded me, and I shut my eyes tightly, clinging to the image of Alex's fierce black eyes, fighting off the memories I had forbidden myself for so long. This
was
my life now. These expensive, elegant garments belonged to me. Yet they didn't really. Like everything else in this perfect house, they belonged to Alex. Did that include me? Did I belong to Alex, too?

Frantically I began to rummage through the clothes, rebellion swelling as I searched for a glimpse of…And suddenly there it was, a flash of crimson at the end of the rack, resplendent against the ocean of black. Reverently I withdrew the vivid red suit, quivering as I lovingly stroked the material. I threw back my shoulders and held the suit high, reveling in newfound delight. It was perfect for today—I just knew it. Somewhere there were shoes to match. I remembered them vaguely, high-heeled and strappy, totally unsuitable for a day at the office, but totally suitable for me.

When I was ready, I preened in front of the mirror, imagining Alex's expression were he to see me now. He hated red—or any other bright color for that matter—preferring me to wear nothing but black. “Having class,” he'd called it while shaking his head at my casual jeans and nice big “lazy day” sweater. And eventually, I suppose, he had gotten his way, for I couldn't recall the last time I'd dressed in anything casual. Today, though…Today was for me.

I ran my fingers through my hair, allowing it to fluff into a cloud around my pale, heart-shaped face and stared critically at the image in front of me. I loved my hair. I hated my wide mouth and I thought my gray eyes were much too far apart, but I loved my long, dark, wavy hair. Alex liked me to have it pinned neatly on top of my head.

I closed my eyes, conjuring his handsome face. I was being disloyal. Alex had taught me to live again when I had felt my life to be over. I owed him for that.

For an instant, a picture of Daniel's happy-go-lucky, irregular features jumped into my mind. I pushed it away before the pain forced itself back from where it was locked deep in my heart, and turned abruptly from the mirror.

Outside, I walked along the pavement in a daze, taking in the sights and sounds of another busy weekday morning as if they were all new to me, savoring the bustling urgency of lives that never last. It had rained in the night, and the streets were a glistening gray, setting off the figures of people scurrying to work, heads low despite the colorful garments they wore to fend off the rain. Only the children lit up the morning. They wandered by in giggling groups, eyes shining with laughter, expressions mirroring the intensity I felt but could not understand. Some hugged their homework to their chests and chattered excitedly as they ran for the bus. Others threw their bags up into the air, loitering to sneak a cigarette behind the huge sycamore tree near the bus stop.

My bus was already waiting when I arrived at the stop. I hesitated, watching the line diminish as the waiting people poured through the bus door like sheep, knowing no better than to follow one another on the dreary road of routine.

But I had a choice. I lifted my chin, relishing the fresh breeze against my face, and carried on walking.

I took the shortcut across the park, where oak and ash and sycamore reached their branches way up into the graying sky, bringing a hint of the countryside into the city. I paused for a moment, marveling at their huge majestic shapes as a gust of wind brought autumn leaves fluttering down. They twirled around my head before settling gently on the ground to form a carpet of red and gold and glorious flame especially for me. With a smile in my heart I started to run, sliding through the leaves in my silly red shoes. Tripping over a tree stump and almost falling on my face in the thick, wet leaves—

“Are you all right?”

I didn't notice the man approaching at a jog from along the other pathway until he spoke. He was thirty something, tall and broad, his dark hair short and tousled. His honey-brown eyes sparkled with amusement as he slowed to a walk, then stopped in front of me. He leaned forward, hands pressed against the tanned muscles of his thighs, his pleasant face flushed with effort.

“Are you running away from something?” he asked.

His voice was deep, with the slightest Scottish burr.

I slithered upright and returned to the everyday world, my face as crimson as my suit.

“No…no…thank you. I'm just—”

“Enjoying the morning?” he said for me.

I couldn't help but smile. “Something like that.”

“Not the best footwear to go for a run in,” he commented.

“They match my suit,” I offered lamely, glancing down at my damp feet.

He laughed, a great bellow that echoed in the treetops.

“And a very nice suit it is, too,” he remarked, his eyebrows raised in appreciation.

“Aren't you supposed to be running?” I ventured.

He shrugged, pulling a face. “Well, as I'm not actually running anywhere in particular, I don't suppose it matters.”

“Ah.” I smiled. “I see. You must be one of those sad fitness freaks who get up at the crack of dawn to put in fifteen miles before breakfast.”

For a moment he caught my eyes again, and something stirred inside me, some distant memory of that exact expression.

“Have we met before?”

We said it in unison, then giggled like two old friends.

“Seriously, though…” he began.

“Have we met before?” I finished for him.

He smiled at me and I smiled back, mesmerized by the golden glints in his brown eyes. A peculiar warmth spread through my body, right to the ends of my fingertips.

“We can't have,” he told me. “Because I would definitely have remembered.”

An awkward moment followed, and then I set off again along the pathway. What was I doing anyway, talking to strangers in the park?

“Decided not to run anymore?” he inquired, falling into step beside me.

I walked sedately toward the busy hum of the city to reenter my life, focusing on the snowy carpet beneath my feet and trying to ignore him.

“You know, you shouldn't really talk to strangers in parks,” he told me, uncannily echoing my thoughts as we approached the gates.

Ahead of us I could see the traffic flowing by, hear angry horns honking with impatience. I hesitated, taking in the moment, my whole body bursting with awareness.

“Today is special, though,” I said.

“How? How is it special?”

His eyes met mine like those of a friend, and I was acutely reminded yet again of Daniel Brown. After months of keeping his memory at bay, today for some reason he was flooding my soul.

“I just feel…”

There in the gateway to the park, suspended between the glowing autumn beauty of the woodland and the harsh gray concrete of the city, I stared at the familiar stranger, wanting to share my odd, explosive emotions. But there are no words to explain what you don't understand.

“Special,” I told him. “Today everything feels special.”

“Well, I hope it will always stay special for you,” he murmured, touching my cheek in a gesture of farewell. And then he just turned and walked away from me, back toward the park, while I stood alone and confused in the busy street as the town hall clock began to chime.

Nine times its booming echo shattered the air, uncomfortably reminding me of just how late I was. I perched on the corner of the curb, waiting for a gap in the traffic while frantically searching the crowded pavement for one last glimpse of the familiar stranger. The clock went silent all of a sudden and responsibility clawed, drawing my reluctant gaze toward the tall, austere office building on the other side of the street.

Fawcett and Medley. The gold-and-black sign loomed. The sign I had read almost every weekday morning since Daniel Brown had…Since I gave up my job at the kennels and changed my life.

A gap appeared in the endless traffic. I stepped off the curb to run across the street, and an image flashed into my mind, of honey-brown eyes and a wide, lopsided grin. I hesitated, looking one last time at the undulating river of anonymous faces. And then suddenly there he was, looking back at me.

For an endless moment time seemed to stop. I heard someone shout, and then the stranger was shouting, too. Yelling at me, eyes wide with alarm. My heart contracted as I spotted with horror the big black car that was almost upon me. Confusion overwhelmed my brain. I wanted to run, but which way? My hands reached out toward the safety of the pavement, clawing at the air, and in the instant before the car struck, my eyes found his again—too late.

I heard the thud with a vague sense of astonishment, and my body went limp as it lurched to the side. I knew horror and confusion, but no pain, just a clinical awareness of what was going on and, ridiculously, disappointment. Disappointment at never being able to see those honey-brown eyes again.

Like a broken doll, my body was flung into the street. The sound of tires squealed inside my head—or was it my own screams I heard? Pavement grated against my flesh. Something white filled my fading vision, and with the second impact came such pressure that the air was sucked from my lungs. And yet somehow everything seemed to be happening through a mist, as if to someone else. Pale, terrified faces…the cold gray street rising up to meet me…crimson blood blinding my eyes.

I felt the crack of breaking bones, but still there was no pain, just a roaring inside my head and a swirling fear, as my body crumpled, broken and bleeding, to the hard, wet street.

BOOK: A Heartbeat Away
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