Authors: Kitty French
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“Ford’s coming to the wedding?”
Ruby didn’t look up from Emma’s pedicure, mostly because she didn’t want her friend to see the panic that would no doubt be obvious in her eyes. Ford wasn’t supposed to be coming to Emma and Niall’s wedding. He’d RSVP’d as much. She’d seen it herself several weeks back. As manager of a three-hundred-year-old Cotswolds country hotel, Ruby had happily taken control over the arrangements for the New Year’s Eve wedding of two of her oldest and best friends.
“Yeah. He emailed Niall a few days ago. Seems the Caribbean
manage without him for a few days after all,” Emma said, laughing.
Ford had always been the dreamer of their close-knit university group, the one with champagne wishes and lemonade pockets. Most of them had ended up scattered across inns and hotels around the UK when they graduated the hospitality management course that had drawn them all together. Not Ford. There was a hotel chain out there with his name on it, and he was set on finding it; somewhere glamorous and warm, probably with a bevvy of bikini-clad beauties on the beach outside his window if he was still the outrageous flirt he always had been.
Ruby screwed the top onto the bottle of nail polish and looked up at Emma with an overly bright smile. “That’s good. Really good.” She ignored the assessing look in her friend’s eyes. “Niall must be thrilled.”
“He is. It’s been too long. Keeping up with Ford on Facebook has been like a whistle-stop world tour, hasn’t it?”
Ruby lifted a nonchalant shoulder, not prepared to confess how often she checked in on Ford’s profile page. Drinking beer with the locals in Barcelona, his ever-present guitar propped on his knee. Getting a tattoo in Thailand. Surfing in Fiji. Playing football on the beach in California. He’d worked his way around them all over the last few years, but he seemed to have settled his restless backside in the Caribbean for longer than his usual stay of residence.
It had been hard to take her eyes off the latest photo tagged of him by a beautiful sun-tanned girl. He was sunbathing in a hammock, shirtless and barefoot in low-slung jeans with a Stetson pulled down to hide his dark curls and laughing green eyes. The Caribbean obviously suited him. Tanned to olive brown and naturally lithe, his body seemed to have filled out in all the right places in the years since she’d last seen him. They’d chatted online every now and then, strained Facebook messages that were mostly at breakfast time for Ford and bedtime for Ruby. It was hard to have a real heart-to-heart knowing that he was on the flip side of the world eating his cornflakes while she was on her third glass of wine and in danger of saying something she’d regret.
She’d recognized his handwriting as soon as the RSVP had landed on her antique desk, her heart in her mouth as she’d opened it. She wanted him to come. She didn’t want him to come. She wanted him to come.
He wasn’t coming
. Her heart had deflated like a pin-pricked balloon. She hadn’t heard his voice in over eight years, but that was all about to change.
She settled her eyes on the window, unsure how she felt about the news that he was coming back. Frost glittered on the deep wooden windowsills outside, and the forecast said heavy snow to ring in the New Year was highly likely. Maybe Ford wouldn’t make it after all. Ruby wasn’t certain if she hoped he’d make it all the way to England or if she hoped he’d get stuck halfway around the globe.
“When does he get in?”
Emma laughed again, her knowing blue eyes sparkling as she glanced down at her watch. “About two hours ago.”
Ruby flicked through her desk diary a little later, the words not really sinking in as her eyes skimmed over them. The Christmas rush was over, and the hotel and its few remaining guests seemed to be sagging under the weight of excess. There was an air of slumber, a pre-New Year catch-your-breath before people arrived for the wedding tomorrow.
The only person in the whole of the rambling building who seemed to be restless was its manager.
Ford was back in England.
Ruby had a ton of work to do, but all she could think about was the man who had taken her heart and travelled around the world with it in his back pocket. She’d re-lived their last evening together so many times that it was still as fresh as yesterday in her mind…
Eight years earlier…
“I can’t believe we’ve finally finished Uni. No more exams, no more classes,” Ruby said, kicking off her shoes and curling her bare feet beneath her on the old swing chair at the bottom of the garden. Mellow lights glowed in most of the upstairs windows of the house that had been her home for the last three years, along with two other girls who along the way had gone from strangers to close friends.
“Halle-fucking-lujah,” Ford grinned, leaning forward and unscrewing the cap from the bottle of Jack Daniel’s among the used glasses and empty beer bottles on the rickety picnic table. The garden had seen its fair share of student parties over the last few years, and tonight’s had been up there with the best of them. Almost all of their fellow course mates had wandered in and out at some point during the evening, euphoric when sober and tearfully nostalgic as the alcohol flowed freely. One by one they’d meandered away again, until just Ruby and Ford remained, side by side on the swing chair beneath the old apple tree with fairy lights drooping from its branches.
“You see the North Star, the brightest one in the sky right above us?” Ruby pointed skywards to indicate the general direction and Ford nodded, his head tipped against the back of the chair. “When I was a kid, my dad used to tell me that it was right above our chimney, so wherever I was in the world I could always look up and I’d know how to find home.”
Ford gazed up at the star overhead. “Looks like he was right.”
They fell silent, each privately acknowledging the fact that the home they’d known for the last few years would be someone else’s come the new term.
“Will you miss me?” Ford passed her a replenished glass, then settled back alongside her.
Ruby smiled lightly. “Stop fishing for compliments.” She shook her head and looked away, taking a little Jack Daniel’s into her mouth and letting it slowly burn its way down her throat. She’d deflected his question because the truthful answer was that she didn’t want to think about how much she’d miss Ford after he boarded that plane tomorrow.
They’d spent the last few years living in and out of each other’s neighboring houses, and he’d quickly become her self-appointed protector and best friend. He’d kissed just about every other girl in university except for Ruby and been routinely scathing about her choices of casual boyfriends.
Theirs was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of friendship; the sort that’s too precious to risk with a fumble because the idea of losing that person is too much to bear. Or else it had always seemed to be, until it was all drawing to an end.
“Because I’ll miss you,” he said softly, his voice stripped bare of his usual humor. “Come with me, Ruby red.” Fords fingers settled over hers on the seat between them. “Come and see the world.”
“You know I can’t. Phoebe needs me here.”
“She’s fourteen, Rubes. Isn’t that old enough to cope without you?”
But they both knew the answer. Phoebe lived with their grandparents officially, but she relied on Ruby as her only link to their lives before their parents had been killed in a car crash ten years before. At the tender age of eleven, Ruby had morphed overnight into half-sibling, half-mother to her four-year-old sister, and the two girls had grown up as close as two peas in a pod. Phoebe relied on her sister’s home visit every other weekend; Ruby could no more leave her than leave her own child.
“You don’t mean that,” she chided gently, knowing he adored her gangly-limbed little sister almost as much as she did. The wistful look in his eyes told her that yes, he understood, and that no, he didn’t mean it, but that hell, he wished it were different.
Ruby’s decision to stay was based on obligation, and Ford’s decision to leave was based on not having any obligations. His parents barely noticed whether he was there or not as long as there was whisky in the bottle; they were a small, dysfunctional family with a deep, mutual disrespect for each other, and Ford was desperate to put as much distance between himself and them as possible. The only real family he’d ever known was here amongst their close-knit university group; now that it was drawing to a close, he was forced to find his next star to follow.
“But yes.” She swallowed hard and met his gaze. “In answer to your question, yes. I’ll miss you, Ford.”
He sighed heavily and cast his eyes down, and Ruby found herself marvelling at the sooty length of his lashes against his tanned cheek.
The look in his eyes when he lifted his gaze back to hers stopped the breath in her chest. He’d never looked at her that way before, Jack Daniel’s or not.
“Ruby, I’m only going to say this once. I fucking love you.”
He took the glass from her hand and slid it on the picnic table, which was just as well as there was every chance it would have slipped from her suddenly shaking fingers.
“And because I leave tomorrow and might never see you again, I need to do this once too.”
Ford leaned his body in until Ruby’s back pressed against the wing of the chair and took her face between his big warm hands.
“I’m not asking to kiss you. I’m telling you that I’m going to.”
And then he did, and it was a kiss that packed the punch of three long years of suppressed feelings. They’d danced around each other since the day they’d met at seventeen, too young to fully understand the fine line their relationship walked between friends and romance. They adored each other, that was a given. Loved each other, even, but they’d never strayed over the boundaries, and if Ruby had really taken the time to consider it, she’d have known that the barrier was hers, not Ford’s. She’d kept him at arm’s length because her feelings for him scared her witless.
Ford tipped her head back to open her mouth up under his, letting his tongue slide between her parted lips. He tasted of Jack Daniel’s, of lust, and of sweet, sweet longing, a combination so heady and powerful that Ruby could only cling to him and kiss him back.
For a few precious, life-changing seconds, they let it happen. The glide of his tongue over her lips. The stroke of her hands over his shoulders. The slide of his body against hers. The dual bang of their hearts. It was the kind of kiss that romantic songs were penned over, the kind of movie-worthy kiss that made women around the world sigh with envy.
“Want me to stick around, Ruby red?” Ford’s voice was hoarse when he finally lifted his head from hers, his eyes scanning her face.
There weren’t any words to express how much she wanted to say yes, but to hold him where he didn’t want to be would be like clipping the wings of an eagle.
“Go on, puss in boots. Go and find some place where the streets are paved in gold.”
Ford pressed his lips against her forehead then for long, endless moments, and the scent of him imprinted itself on her heart.
“I’ll send you a postcard.”
He didn’t, as it turned out.
Ford left for Europe, and it was as if he’d fallen off the face of the earth. No postcards, no letters, no phone calls. It hurt Ruby’s heart to think of him, to know he was out there living his dreams without a second thought for her back in England. She had no call on his time, yet still she’d hoped, expected even, to hear from him. The kiss they’d shared had turned their friendship into something else … into unfinished business; yet he’d simply left her behind as he washed his hands of his university years and friendships in search of brighter horizons. Looking at the scattered pictures of him on the net, it seemed to be the pattern he lived by.