Except for the unusual presence of security guards at the gatehouse of what was locally known as ‘Conway Manor’, everything was still the same. Carrie could feel her heart hammering as she manoeuvred the metallic-blue Golf through the wide gateway. The magnificence of the whole estate was as breath-taking as ever, and memories of the day she had first set eyes on the beautiful old mansion came flooding back.
“I can’t go in there!” she had exclaimed in awe on that day. “It’s – beautiful! It looks like a palace!”
To which her uncle had laughingly replied, “Yes, it does, doesn’t it? And Brad reigns like a king!”
Although she was experiencing some apprehension at being back, there were no feelings of inadequacy this time. Her confidence and self-esteem had increased to such an extent that she knew that she was excellent at her job, a job she loved doing too! She was also no longer filled with a sense of terror at being amongst the ‘filthy rich’. Over a year of living in the Conway household had taught her that their wealth was of little concern to their family life. Luxuries were taken for granted so much that they became insignificant, and money was hardly ever mentioned. In fact, Brad hated discussing anything to do with his wealth!
Was it really just another nursing duty that had brought her here today? Almost seven months had passed since she had insisted that her job was now over and she had to move on. There had been heated words between them and Brad had been furious that he had not been able to persuade her to stay. On her last day his anger had shown in his cold attitude, his icy politeness when he had thanked her for her nursing services, and said a brief ‘goodbye’, before turning on his heel and walking into his study, closing the door firmly behind him. He had deliberately tried to hurt her. And he had succeeded! They had not spoken again until he had phoned her two days ago and asked, - begged – her to come back!
There were two cars parked under the awnings in the long driveway and Carrie brought her Golf to a smooth halt behind the snazzy little sports car that she knew belonged to Vicki. Brad’s eldest sister was a teacher at the local primary school, which was now closed for the holidays. She was the only one of the family who knew part of the real reason why Carrie had decided to leave, and though she had never condoned it, she had at least appeared to understand.
It was Brad himself who came out to meet her as she climbed out of the car, and her heart gave a painful lurch. Although there was no denying that he was as devastatingly handsome as ever, he looked extremely tired and tense! He was thinner than she remembered too! His blue jeans seemed loose and even the pale blue T-shirt he wore appeared to be slightly too big. The smile that he gave was somewhat forced and uneasy, and as he came towards her, she could not help but notice that he was limping. Instinctively she took a step towards him, but he drew his shoulders back defensively, hesitating before he held out his hand formally.
“Thank you for coming at such short notice, Carrie. I know that it must be very unpleasant for you to have come back, as well as inconvenient!” The smooth velvet voice she had so loved was now cool, and as formal as his handshake, and the forced smile did not reach his eyes.
Carrie dragged back the hand she had slipped into his. “That is a horrible thing to say!” she declared hotly. “You know very well that I care deeply about this family! Nothing is either unpleasant or an – inconvenience!”
He bit back a retort, looking directly into her soft brown eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said, but without much conviction. “I’m very grateful that you agreed to come back. I’ll take your bags inside. Did you have any trouble at the gate?”
Still hurt, she turned away from him, opening the boot of the little car as she answered stiffly, “No. I gave them my identification like you told me. Has there been any change?”
Brad took the large suitcase and the hold-all out of the boot, and when he didn’t reply, Carrie looked up into his face, noticing the torment in his dark eyes. Impulsively she put her hand on his arm, almost expecting him to jerk away. But he didn’t.
He shuddered. “No, none at all. She just lies there like a broken doll. They found her in the old boat house on the other side of the lake. Naked and bleeding!”
He put the bag on the tarmac and brushed a hand over his eyes, allowing her a glimpse of his vulnerability. For a moment he stood, leaning against the car, trying to compose himself.
“The police said it was a kidnapping, but there wasn’t even a ransom note! God knows I’d have given anything to get Jess back safely!” He groaned. “But they caught the bastard who did this to her. A man who used to be in my own employ!”
Carrie squeezed his arm soothingly. “Yes, my uncle told me. A groom in the stables, wasn’t he?”
To her surprise, she had an overwhelming desire to hold him, comfort him, but he was suddenly cool and guarded again, picking up her bags, and heading in the direction of the mansion. She followed him, suppressing a confused sigh. She had expected his worry and anxiety, but had hoped that the conflict of her departure would have been forgotten in the anguish of the past few days. But it seemed that he had not forgotten, or forgiven! Why, then, had he sounded so desperate on the phone? There were many excellent nurses in his brother Mark’s private clinic, right on the estate! Yet Brad had pleaded with her to come back! Was it only because his young sister had been brutally raped, the same as she herself had, and almost at the same age?
In the huge entrance hall of the mansion Carrie was almost knocked off her feet by the sudden impact of a wiry child’s body. The ten-year-old boy flung his arms around her as she hugged him, and he clung to her as if he would never let go.
“Carrie! You came back! I knew you wouldn’t leave us forever!”
She laughed as she extricated herself from his embrace, kissing the top of his blonde head. “Hello, Jamie. It’s nice to know that someone’s glad to see me.”
Brad turned to look at her. “We’re all glad to see you,” he said pointedly. He allowed himself to relax a little, smiling down at his young brother. “Jamie, please go and find one of the staff to take Carrie’s bags up to her room. You can talk to her later. She’s only just arrived and she must be tired.”
Sensing his reluctance to leave, but not wanting to undermine Brad’s authority, Carrie gave Jamie another quick hug. “Maybe you and Kyle can help me unpack later?”
The boy nodded, but he looked at Brad questioningly. “Can we?”
Brad winked at him. “You may. So long as you behave yourselves. Go on now. And tell Nanny that we’d like tea in my study, please.”
Carrie watched the child go off in the direction of the kitchens, and she followed Brad through the hall into a luxurious lounge area.
“It must have been particularly hard for the twins while Jessie was missing,” she said.
He opened one of the doors leading from the lounge and allowed her to go into his study ahead of him. “It was hard for us all,” he answered. “But Jamie and Kyle have only seen her once since she was found. And they won’t be persuaded to see her again!” He sighed. “I can’t really blame them. Not a pretty sight to see their sister like that.”
He indicated one of the grey leather armchairs in front of the large mahogany desk and waited for her to sit before settling himself opposite her. She noticed the slight wince as he sat and she gave him a questioning look.
“Are you having problems with your back again?”
The hesitation was barely noticeable before he answered, “No more than usual. The normal ache. I think I’m just tired. None of us are really sleeping well.”
He flinched as he moved in his seat and Carrie frowned. “Is the pain still bothering you so much?”
The hint of a smile crossed his face. “Maybe a little.”
Carrie frowned again, but her tone was light as she said softly, “Even if you were in excruciating pain, I don’t believe you’d admit it to me!’
Brad gave a short laugh and the tension between them was broken. “Probably not! But I was never able to hide my weakness from you, was I?”
Carrie studied his handsome face. “Your pain does not make you weak. I thought I’d managed to get that through to you! You’re the strongest person I’ve ever known!” She smiled, adding, “And the most stubborn!”
It was pleasant to be able to speak with him again, even under the grave circumstances that had brought her back. In the months she had been away there had not been one day that had gone by without her shedding tears for what she had lost. She knew that she could never really run away from her past, but even with her degree in counselling, she was unable to come to terms with her own fears. The fears that had made it impossible for her to stay here any longer. Fear that had made her take a post in a large hospital in Scotland at a salary far less than the one Brad was paying her.
When Mrs. Prince, the faithful old housekeeper that they all affectionately called “Nanny”, wheeled in the tea trolley, she greeted Carrie enthusiastically with a warm hug.
“It’s so lovely to see you again, my dear. We’ve all missed you so much! “
“I’m happy to be back, Nanny.” Carrie said. “I’ve missed you too!”
The housekeeper patted Carrie’s arm fondly. She had been with the family for many years, long before Joseph Conway had married the lovely lady who was the only mother Brad had ever known. “We must have a long chat when you’re settled again. It’s a pity that Brad didn’t send for you when he had his accident a few days ago.”
Carrie looked at Brad quickly. “You had an accident?” she asked, frowning
He was frowning too, but at Mrs. Prince, and he said coldly, “You knew that Carrie was in Scotland, Nanny. She couldn’t just leave her position there to come and nurse me!”
Mrs. Prince fixed him with one of her disparaging stares. “She would have come, if you’d asked her!”
Brad compressed his lips, and Carrie could see that he was annoyed with the housekeeper for bringing up the subject.
“What kind of an accident?” she asked anxiously. “Were you badly hurt?”
Before he had time to reply the housekeeper answered without restraint. “Another preventable mishap! Dr Craig wanted to ….”
“That will be quite enough, Nanny!” Brad interrupted sharply, but she gave him a rather smug smile, and continued, “Your uncle wanted to contact you, but Brad was insistent that you didn’t want to come back here! I’m so pleased that he was wrong. Jessica will soon recover now that you’re here! And things will get back to normal again!”
It was obvious that the subject of her return had been a bone of contention between Brad and the beloved housekeeper. When Mrs. Prince left the study, a smile of complete satisfaction on her face, Carrie poured the tea for both of them, while Brad sat stiffly and silently, trying to calm his embarrassed anger.
He took the tea she held out to him, keeping his eyes fixed on the floor. Carrie smiled, changing the subject completely as she took one of the side plates and selected a variety of little sandwiches and petit fours from the platters on the trolley. “It looks like Nanny is still determined to feed me. I’ve really missed her delicious treats with my morning tea! I shall have to start watching my figure again!”
She offered him a plate, but he shook his head, looking up into her face. “I’ll have something later, maybe.” He watched her settle back into her chair. “Would you like to have a couple of hours to rest before you see the rest of the family? They’re all so excited to have you back but I warned them to let you get settled in again before they overwhelm you with their enthusiasm. In fact, I warned everyone to stay out of my way today too!”
“I’d like to go and see Jess as soon as I’ve finished my tea, if that’s ok?”
“Of course,” he replied. “If you’re sure that you’re not too tired. You must have been driving for hours!”
She shook her head. “The drive wasn’t at all bad actually. I left yesterday afternoon, and spent the night at a bed ’n breakfast in Yorkshire. I left early this morning and stopped a couple of times for petrol. I’m not tired. Besides, at the hospital in Glasgow I used to work a full fortnight of night duty, and as you know, I’m not one for sleeping much during the day. I think I just learnt not to need a lot of sleep.”
He scowled. “You should have come by plane. I didn’t expect you to drive here.”
Carrie shrugged, swallowing the savoury vol-au-vent she had in her mouth. “I like driving!” She smiled. “And I’m fond of my little car. It’s the most valuable thing I’ve ever owned!”
She met his eyes, but he pointedly chose to ignore that last remark. He had made it clear when he had bought her the Golf that it was a necessity for her to have her own transport. And he’d given it to her for her twenty-ninth birthday so she couldn’t refuse to accept it! He himself had been the one who taught her to drive! So, she went on, “In any case, there was no guarantee that I’d have been able to get a flight immediately and I’d have needed to be picked up from the airport! It was a much better idea for me to come by car. After all, you did ask me to come as soon as possible!”
“My chauffeur would have fetched you at Heathrow! Or I could have picked you up myself!”
“Well now you don’t have to. And I have my car here if I need to go anywhere.” She grinned, adding, “Or maybe for a quick getaway if you throw one of your tantrums!”
It had been meant as a joke, but he merely glared at her. So, she said, “My uncle said that Jessica would be more likely to respond if she was at home instead of in the clinic!”
“We put her in the room next to yours!” he told her, knowing she would recall the months when he himself had been her patient in that same room, but when she did not react he asked, “Did they give you any hassles about your leaving in such a hurry?”
She paused, biting her lip before she answered reluctantly, “Actually, Uncle Max arranged my transfer a few days ago, when Jess went missing. He said that even if I didn’t hear from you, I was to come anyway, and he’d arrange a position for me at the general hospital if necessary.” She swallowed. “I – I think he thought that you might object to having me back.”
Brad was silent for a moment, his eyes on her face, and then he said quietly, “You know that I’ve always wanted you to come back. You should never have left in the first place! There was no need for you to have decided to take that position in Glasgow. You had a perfectly good job here!”
Carrie eyed him over the rim of her teacup as she sipped the delicious brew. She really did not want to start the argument about her departure again, but she said, “My job here had been over for a long time. I had to leave. You were completely recovered, and I was taking a salary that I was no longer earning - and living here scot-free!”
“That is utter rubbish!” Brad snapped. And then, out of the blue, his anger flared up and his words came out in a rush. “You knew that I was in love with you. That’s why you left! You just don’t want to admit that you feel anything for me,” he spat out. “Is it my responsibilities to my family that you hate so much, or my blasted medical condition? At least Barbara was honest enough to tell me that she could never be married to a cripple!”
It took a few seconds for it to register in Carrie’s brain exactly what it was that Brad had implied, and when it did, tears stung her eyes and she slowly and shakily placed her cup and saucer back on the tea trolley. She raised her chin and stared at him in disbelief as the tears spilled over. And her voice was almost a whisper as she said, “That is the most despicable thing you could ever have said to me! You are not a cripple, but even if you were, it wouldn’t have made a difference to the way I ………..”
She bit her tongue, suddenly appalled at what she’d almost said. Standing up, she rummaged desperately in the pocket of her grey denim jacket for a tissue as she headed for the door, not really knowing where she was going but not wanting him to see her cry. But he was there before her, barring her way, trying to apologise for his outburst. He caught hold of her and spun her around to face him, putting his hands on the wall at either side of her, trapping her. Frantically, without thinking, she pushed against him as hard as she could with both hands. He stumbled backwards against the chair, and a cry of pain escaped him as he tried to avoid falling.
Very suddenly, he was in obvious agony, blindly clutching at the back of the chair, his face ashen and contorted. Carrie gasped, catching hold of him as he swayed.
“Brad! Oh, God! I’m sorry. Come, sit down. Are you ok?”
He almost fell into the chair, closing his eyes tightly and biting hard to stop himself from crying out again. “I’m – ok!” he gasped.
“I’ll get Uncle Max,” Carrie said, reaching into the pocket of her grey jeans for her mobile phone, but he yelled, “No! I’m ok! I - I’m fine!”
As the pain gradually receded his breathing became less strained, but his face remained very pale. After a moment he muttered, “I’m sorry, Carrie. I – I fell off my horse a week or so ago and – and –.” His voice trailed off, knowing he didn’t have to elaborate.
“You were riding your horse?” Carrie cried out in disbelief. “My God, Brad! Why on earth didn’t you let the doctor send for me? How badly were you hurt?”
She reached for his pulse as the nurse in her took over the situation, but he caught hold of her wrist, taking a deep breath as he tried to relax. “Max seemed to think it was quite bad. But it’s not my back this time. I just slipped in the shower this morning and I came down pretty hard on my knee! It’s bruised I think. At any rate, it’s damn sore! But I’m not an invalid! It’s Jess who needs nursing, not me.”
“Oh, for God’s sake! I can manage more than one patient, damn it!”
“Forget it!” Brad said, a grim smile making light of his pain. “Being your patient again wouldn’t be good for my heart, - and it’d probably send you running away again!”
Carrie could feel her cheeks growing red, and she glared at him. She brushed away the last trace of tears in her eyes and said, “That isn’t funny! I did not run away from my job.”
“No, you didn’t,” he agreed. “Just from me!”
She tried to pull away from him but his grip on her wrist tightened. “Don’t be angry again. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. But we do need to talk, Carrie. You know how I feel about you. But we could at least be - friends – as we were before!” He drew her wrist to his lips and kissed the inner side gently, before letting go.
She stepped back, but her eyes were fixed on his, her heart pounding, and she could hardly breathe. After a moment, which seemed like an eternity, she came to her senses. Finding her voice, she asked softly, “Has the pain gone?”
He smiled slowly. “Sort of. It‘s eased anyway. Don’t worry. I’m used to pain.”
“Have you got something for it?”
He nodded. “Yes, I have the usual pain killers.’ He grinned. “It’s ok Carrie. Relax! I promise to behave myself and stop upsetting you. In fact, maybe you could give me another cup of tea and tell me what’s been happening in your life. Did you enjoy working in Glasgow?”
The conversation veered back to mundane things. Carrie urged Brad to tell her about his accident but he refused, and the most he would say about his fall in the shower that morning was that his knee hurt like hell! She found that she could no longer relax in his company. She had half-hoped that his feelings for her had changed! That would have made her return easier for both of them!
She wondered just how badly he had injured his back this time. It had been over nine years ago that he had been so badly injured in the car accident that killed his father and step-mother, that it was believed that he would never walk again. Whether it had been the break-up letter from his fiancé, stating that she “could never be married to a cripple”, or that his seven step-brothers and sisters needed him, it was sheer stubbornness not to admit defeat, plus an unshakeable faith, that caused the miracle that put him back on his feet within eight months! And, according to Brad himself, he and God had ‘an understanding’! But he would never say exactly what that understanding was!
During his second, and then his third and final spinal operations, Carrie, then a shy yet highly intelligent registered nurse, had been brought in by her uncle, the family doctor. Brad would never be completely free of pain, and his startling allergic reaction to antibiotics and anything but the mildest painkillers, inherited from his biological mother, had certainly hindered his recovery. But he could walk, and usually without a limp! He was, in fact, able to do most things that a normal, healthy man could do; though riding horses was something that she still hoped he would have avoided! Carrie had secretly fallen head over heels in love with him. And he had never made a mystery of the way he felt about her. It was exactly because of that reason that she was also terrified to be near him!
Noting her discomfiture, Brad finished his tea and stood up, with difficulty she noticed. He gave her a slight smile, saying, “I’ll take you up to see Jess. I think Vicki might be with her. Max asked us not to leave her alone in case there’s any change. So, we’re taking it in turns to sit with her. Last night Mark sent in one of the night nurses from the clinic. We can have a nurse from there every night - and whenever you need a break.”
“I don’t think that will be necessary,” Carrie said. “I’ll leave the adjoining door open. Do I still have the monitor in my room?”
Brad nodded. “Yes, everything is ready for you”, he replied formally, adding, “And you only have to ask for anything else that you might need.”
He opened the door and allowed her to go ahead of him. She knew her way around the enormous house very well, but she kept glancing over her shoulder to see that Brad was all right. The limp was even more pronounced now, but he had become so much of an expert in hiding his pain that it was not easy to know whether either his back pain or the injured knee was causing him difficulty, especially on the wide marble staircase. She could tell from his expression, however, that he was extremely stressed, and hoped that he wasn’t already regretting his decision to ask her to come back.
The twins were sitting on the floor outside one of the bedrooms, leaning up against the wall. Both of them scrambled to their feet and Kyle gave Carrie just as big a hug as Jamie had previously. They were very small for their age, identical except for a tiny scar above Kyle’s left eyebrow which was unnoticeable to anyone who did not specifically look for it.
Kyle eyed his elder brother tentatively, whispering to Carrie, “We’re not supposed to disturb you. Brad said you’d be tired!”
“And as usual, you boys ignore whatever I say,” Brad interjected in mock displeasure. But he smiled and winked at Carrie, adding, “This is their way of making themselves scarce! I’d have thought their PC games would have kept them occupied until you settle in again!”
“You don’t like us playing PC games for too long,” Jamie put in solemnly, “And we’re not allowed to go anywhere out of the grounds! Did you see the policemen outside, Carrie?”
“I didn’t notice,” she lied playfully. “I was in too much of a hurry to see if I could still remember which of you is which!”
Both boys beamed at her, and Jamie replied, “Of course you can! I’m taller – and older!”
Kyle gave his brother a playful push. “By three minutes! But I’m cleverer!”
“And both of you are obnoxious little beasts,” Brad put in gravely, but the twinkle in his eye belied the words, and he gazed at them fondly.
“I’m going to see your sister,” Carrie told them. “Do you want to come with me?”
The twins looked at one another, shaking their heads, and it was Jamie who said, “No thank you. Someone hurt her, and she won’t talk to us anymore!”
“But you can talk to her!” she replied. “Come in with me!”
Her eyes met Brad’s as she took their hands, and as he pushed open the door of the bedroom, she gently but firmly led the reluctant boys into the room.