Copyright © 2015 by Christie Adams
November was no time of year to be sitting at the top of a sand dune on a deserted beach on the east coast of England. The sea, fringed with white waves scudding inland, was as grey as the sky, and the strong breeze brought an easterly chill with it. It was cold and damp, and neither quality was doing her old bones any good whatsoever.
To be fair, a woman of her age was supposed to be in her prime, but Faye felt old…older than the age her passport declared her to be. Her children were gone – had been for a while now. Christian was carving out a successful career for himself in Australia, while Helena was also thousands of miles away, enjoying everything that New York had to offer a career-orientated, ex-pat professional.
Faye was proud that she’d sent two such well-rounded individuals into the world, individuals who knew the value of honesty, hard work, high standards…doing the right thing. The twins had gone abroad to give their chosen careers a head start, said they’d be back soon, once they were established in their respective fields. Faye knew they’d believed it when they’d said it.
She, on the other hand, had believed differently. It was inevitable that they’d find lives beyond their work, and those lives would keep them in those faraway places. A couple of years after they left, her belief had been borne out. Christian was living in a fashionable part of Sydney, with a beautiful young man who’d bowled him over at a party. Helena’s constant companion was a tall, blond and strikingly handsome lawyer, a native New Yorker whom she’d met in her first month there. Preparations for a spring wedding in the city that never sleeps were already well under way.
Neither of them knew yet what had happened to their parents a few weeks ago – or that, as the instigator of the separation, it was all Faye’s fault.
When the children first spread their wings, Faye had turned to her husband, and for the first time in the almost thirty years she’d known him, had seen the man he truly was – aided by the scrunched-up hotel bill she’d found in the pocket of his jeans while sorting the laundry. It was for two people. The location was Paris, a city Faye had visited several times for business but never for pleasure. The dates indicated a weekend – it happened to be one of the weekends when Faye had been back in Yorkshire, looking after her ailing mother, while her other half had supposedly been attending a conference in Edinburgh. Definitely not Paris.
She and Stephen had fought, of course, and then he’d begged her forgiveness for what he claimed was a momentary aberration caused by her focusing on Chris and Hels, and her widowed mother. It wouldn’t happen again, he’d said. He’d promised.
It was a promise that meant nothing. On her guard, Faye had found evidence over time of other liaisons, both before and after that dalliance in Paris. When the latest affair came to her attention a couple of months ago, it was the last straw, the breaking point, the line in the sand – so many fitting metaphors.
Without a hint of regret she’d walked out of their marital home. Lots of other emotions, such as anger and humiliation, but no regret. She needed time to think, and she couldn’t do it surrounded by the cumulative results of what she’d thought was a happy and successful marriage but was in fact a pitiful sham.
Faye’s instincts had taken her back to the sea. The hotel where she’d stayed initially was small, clean and comfortable, and had served its purpose as a base for her search for a property to rent, where she could relax, be herself and work out how to play the hand life had dealt her. That search had lasted only until she found the small, cosy cottage by the sea, the perfect environment to resolve the issues that confronted her. And slowly but surely, she’d made progress – quite significant progress now, and in less time than she’d anticipated.
After she’d left the house that had once been home, Stephen had initially called her several times a day, but when she allowed every single call to go through to voicemail, those calls had gradually tailed off and currently came in at the rate of one or two a week.
She still wasn’t ready to talk to him. Did he truly think that some insincere grovelling was going to make everything all right? Was he really so self-obsessed that he couldn’t recognise the devastating consequences of his actions? If it had been just the one brief affair, she might have felt inclined to forgive him once she’d recovered from the initial shock, but subsequent events had dictated otherwise.
Her marriage was over, Faye knew that – even so, a stubborn part of her soul was having a hard time coming to terms with it. Stephen Griffiths was the only man she’d ever slept with, the only man she’d ever loved, and at one time the only man she’d ever wanted to grow old with. He’d given her the children she hadn’t known she wanted until she met him. She’d believed they were happy together, right up until she found that bloody hotel bill.
So here she was, beside the sea, trying to come to terms with the prospect of a future vastly different from the one she’d once envisioned. Divorce was inevitable, once she felt strong enough to start the ball rolling. The trust had gone from their marriage, and without trust there was nothing worth salvaging. What had surprised her most, though, was the realisation that she was mourning the demise of her marriage, but not the imminent permanent departure of Stephen Griffiths from her life.
There were several reasons for that, not least of which was that, at heart, she was a home-maker, always had been, and not the high-flyer with the booming career in advertising, whom her husband had made no bones about preferring. He’d always loved their life in the fast lane, whereas that was something that, deep down, had made her feel uncomfortable from quite early on. It still did.
For years she’d juggled a career, children and marriage, and thought that she’d never once dropped a ball. How wrong she’d been. Her marriage was the ball she’d unwittingly lost track of – and found out only later that it was a ball made of the most delicate glass, and not the rubber that any marriage needed, not just to survive but thrive.
Absorbed in the past, Faye had just resumed her walk when a sudden bark halted her in her tracks and brought her back to the present. She looked at the golden retriever standing at her feet, surveying her with eyes that could thaw the coldest heart, his tail wagging with an enthusiasm that could have bowled over the unwary. It had been such a long time since she’d had a dog – Stephen wasn’t an animal lover. Maybe, when she was settled in a place she could really call her own, she’d look at acquiring a canine companion. She bent to ruffle the big dog’s ears, smiled at the way he pushed his head against her hand.
“Hello,” she said warmly, crouching down to his level. “And who belongs to you?”
The voice was masculine, its tone rich with amusement. Faye straightened up with a start – she hadn’t heard anyone approaching, but on sand it was hardly surprising.
“My name’s Michael.”
In the space of a couple of seconds, Faye carried out a risk assessment. She was alone on a deserted beach, and a few feet away from her stood a man who was younger than her, stronger than her…and handsome and virile and so attractive, it should have been illegal. There was also something oddly familiar about him.
“Hello, Michael. I’m Faye.” With a natural, friendly smile, she held out her hand in greeting. Warmth flowed into her body from his strong grasp, driving away the chill of the North Sea.
“I’m very pleased to meet you, Faye. You don’t see too many people on this stretch of beach at this time of year. And I’m sorry about Artie.”
He glanced down at his dog with such love that Faye almost felt jealous. How ridiculous.
“He doesn’t usually accost strangers like that,” Michael continued, looking back at her. “He’s normally far better behaved.”
“That’s all right,” Faye said, and meant it. “I like dogs.”
A thoughtful look crossed Michael’s face. “Would you like to join us for a walk? That is, if you’re not busy?”
It was on the tip of her tongue to decline politely, but then again, where was the harm? She’d been on her own for a while now, with no one but shop assistants and the milkman to talk to – it would be nice to do more than simply pass the time of day with someone. Friends came in all shapes and sizes. And ages.
“I’m not busy. Are you sure?”
His eyes held hers in a way that, in other circumstances, might have been full of hidden meaning. “I’m very sure.”
And then he offered his hand again – not for a greeting this time, but to take hold of hers and tuck it into his jacket pocket. The overly familiar act should have alarmed her, but for reasons that eluded her, Faye found herself giving him the benefit of the doubt.
So they walked, and while they walked they talked about everything under the sun. They laughed at the same jokes, and at Artie cavorting in the waves. In no time at all, Faye realised that she felt as if she’d known Michael for years rather than a mere half-hour.
From the way he was talking he sounded like he was probably in his late thirties – maybe even as much as ten years younger than her. Going by his looks, she’d even have taken another handful off the number. It was so unfair – men seemed to wear their age so much better than women. Faye had an excellent hairstylist to thank for her blonde, shoulder-length style. The enhanced colour successfully concealed the grey that had started to appear a while back. She owed her good complexion to her mother, and the few wrinkles that were starting to appear could still pass as laughter lines.
Vanity, thy name is Faye Griffiths. At least she could still laugh at herself.
At some point – and Faye couldn’t have said when – they’d turned around and were heading back in the direction of both her cottage and wherever Michael had come from. All too soon they were back at the groynes where they’d first met, just a couple of hundred yards from her temporary home. She expected a few words of farewell, the usual parting pleasantries between strangers who never expected to meet one another again, but when Michael turned towards her, instead of releasing the hand he still held, he took her other hand in a gentle grasp as well. And then he looked at her, with such warmth in his clear green eyes that Faye almost felt as if she were glowing from within.
“Will you be here tomorrow, Faye?” he asked.
The unexpected question threw her, and from his tone, it seemed that the answer was important to Michael. “I…I –”
“Please say yes.”
And before she could react, he pressed a gentle kiss to her lips. Not the perfunctory peck of a stranger, but a real kiss that implied a desire to ask for more.
“Same time tomorrow, Faye – I’ll be here.”
For a few moments she stood and watched him carry on down the beach. Oblivious to the rain that was now falling like icy needles, she was conscious only of the young man, his parting kiss, and the mad dog barking at seagulls he couldn’t hope to catch.
While she waited for the kettle to boil, Faye tossed more wood in the burner to help ward off a sudden drop in the ambient temperature. A cup of tea to warm her up and calm the butterflies in her stomach was just what she needed. As she’d made her way back towards the cottage, with the odd glance down the beach at the receding figures of man and dog, she’d told herself she wasn’t going to make a fool of herself by being out there at the same time tomorrow. She wasn’t. She was too old and too emotionally bruised to place any faith in a kiss from a younger man.
She could still feel his lips on hers, and it was scrambling her common sense.
When her tea was ready, she poured some into a china cup and took it through to the sitting room, to curl up in the comfortable, overstuffed armchair, sip the soothing brew, and think. Not about Michael, but about everything that had led her to this time and this place. She sighed heavily – even though she’d already made her decision, she still couldn’t help but retrace her mental steps on the path to that decision.
Although not a great fan of daytime television, at times like this Faye accepted that it did have its uses. She switched on the set that occupied a corner of the room, just in time for a repeat of a cookery programme from a few years earlier…and promptly almost spilled her tea in her lap.
For there, looking impossibly young, was Michael, one of the chefs competing on the programme. No wonder she’d experienced that flicker of recognition – he was Michael Townsend, celebrity chef, TV presenter and cookery writer. How could she not have recognised him immediately?
Faye laughed to herself. Context was everything, and she’d seen Michael in a context that was about as far away from his usual environment as it was possible to be. No wonder she hadn’t identified him.
Fascinated now, she continued to watch, finding herself smiling at his obvious zest for what he was doing. With so much enthusiasm, it was clear to anyone that he loved his chosen career. It was a long time since Faye had done anything with that kind of passion – even her work was just a job these days. And ever since she’d taken on her current role, work had more to do with business than the creativity that nourished her soul.
Back when the TV programme was made, Michael Townsend had been outrageously attractive. Any woman would fall for the twinkling eyes alone, but with medium brown hair – longer than he wore it now – and the kind of looks and build that any male model would kill for, he was gorgeous. If she remembered rightly, there’d even been features on him in magazines, including a lot of speculation about the woman in his life. Youthful he may have been, but he was always discreet and said next to nothing about his private life.
And now, several years down the line, on a deserted windswept beach, he was absolutely devastating. Youthfulness had been replaced with a maturity that had an attraction all of its own – the good-looking, fresh-faced chef had grown into a breathtakingly handsome man.
Faye went to her laptop – she had to find out exactly what sort of age difference was going on here. Not that it mattered, because she really wasn’t going to do anything to encourage him. It was just idle curiosity that had her searching his website for the biography link.
The year he was born drove a coach and horses through any idea she might have been entertaining to see him again. There was no way she was going out on that beach tomorrow, for so many reasons, not least of which was that kiss…
What she needed right now was a distraction. Faye went back to the seascape she’d been painting. She’d thought it pretty much complete, but now she knew there was something missing – the suggestion of two small figures, such as a man and his dog.
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