Once Given Never Forgotten

Derryn De Ceuster

 

Chapter 1

“Marry me.”

I froze and felt my fingers harden around the beer glass as a shiver chased up my spine, raising the delicate hairs on my nape.

He’d followed me.

Briefly, I closed my eyes, inhaling deeply as I tried to think, while a slow-growing dread silenced the din of the Scottish pub in the midst of New Year’s Eve celebrations. As I summoned clarity, I suddenly frowned, and a spark of irritation began to rise within me.

I turned, scowling, intending to jab a pointed finger into the solid chest of my next door neighbor and give him an earful. I’d made it clear I wasn’t ready for commitment, so if Colin thought chasing me halfway around the world was romantic, he was very much mistaken.

Unfortunately, midway through my pivot, my pint struck the shoulder of the man standing inches from me in the crowded pub, and I watched, like a slow motion replay, half the contents spill over the other tightly packed patrons.

“I’m sorry, so sorry.” I bent down to brush off the offending liquid, muttering my annoyance, when I tilted my head and narrowed my eyes. This voice lacked the familiar broad Australian drawl.

I straightened, eyeing off dark jeans leading to a dark, long-sleeved collared shirt with the neck buttons undone and the cuffs turned up. His appearance was, so far, unimpressive until I continued to crane my neck to capture his full height. His imposing stature was nearly as striking as the thick dark hair that hung down to his shoulders.

The revelers surged behind him and he adjusted his stance to the sway of the crowd, forcing him out of the shadow, and in doing so, dislodged a wayward lock of hair. The tips briefly grazed the heavily shadowed scruff on his chin before he raked the strand back into place with a languid motion.

It was the tall stranger I’d ogled on the street earlier this evening.

My breath quickened. Sudden feelings of paranoia stabbed at me before I quickly shook them away. Get a grip, Evie, I told myself. What possible reason would he have to follow you in here?

“Sorry?” I raised my voice to be heard above the noise, not believing I’d heard him correctly. “I didn’t catch what you said.”

A tiny fishhook smile caught the side of his lip, accentuating the straight bridge of his nose and the devilish glint in remarkable eyes that reflected his shade of hair. Not many men I knew could pull it off, but the urban pirate look suited him to perfection. The defecting hairs on my arm stood on end and I rubbed them self-consciously even though I knew they couldn’t be seen.

“Marry me.”

There was no mistaking what I’d heard as I watched his lips touch twice, or perhaps he mistook me for a Scottish woman named Mary Mee. The bar was, after all, dimly-lit and extremely noisy.

“Excuse me?” I stared at him, confused, as I considered the possibility he was drunk, although he didn’t appear so. His booted feet were planted firmly on the floor and he didn’t have that gum-tree sway like most intoxicated party-goers.

“Marry me.” His smile waned and the tone of his voice was slightly forced.

I stared into his remarkable eyes. It was a shame his eyes were, apparently, to be the only things remarkable about him.

Hello usually works best for me.” I turned away, disappointed, and placed the glass containing the remainder of the beer firmly on the table. I wasn’t in the mood for games. I knew I had been out of the dating scene for a while, but I was sure courtesy hadn’t waved the white flag.

Massaging the right side of my temple with my fingertips, I began to doubt that this was the night to escape my reticence and move on with living life after John. A twinge of nostalgia tugged at my conscience as I rubbed a hand over my abdomen…and Anna.

I felt the tall stranger move beside me, unfortunately not in the direction I’d hoped, swiftly ending my reverie. Setting my jaw, I fixed him with a determined glare. “Sorry, I think you have the wrong person.” I lifted my bag, wishing to dismiss the man who seemed reluctant to take a hint.

An unreadable smile teased at the edges of his lips while his eyes crinkled, his long hair shimmering as he gave a small shake of his head. “No, I think you are exactly the right person.”

My stomach tightened.

“Well, that’s certainly an impressive pickup line. Never heard that one before,” I commented, immediately regretting my words. A perfect retort always came to me hours later.

I stretched to full height, confident that the new, strappy high-heeled shoes would be good for something other than providing me with blisters. Wrong.

He continued his compelling gaze and a shiver of awareness coursed through me, although his stare was so intense I instead began to wonder if I had something smeared across my face. Then just as quickly, as though he had heard my thoughts, he averted his eyes.

“What if I had said yes?” I asked, self-consciously rubbing away imaginary smudges from my nose and mouth. Call me vain, but I was intrigued enough to know what his “right” person was.

“No one ever has.” His gaze returned to mine, lingering on my mouth. I swallowed and lifted my chin.

“So you use it a lot?” I asked, leaning close to him so he could hear me over the sound of the live band. At least that’s what I told myself. It had nothing to do with the pull of force like magnets on iron filings.

“Only once a year…on Hogmanay.”

“Well—good job.” I gave him the thumbs-up. “Hope it works for you.” I immediately shrank, embarrassment overwhelming me, wondering why I couldn’t act normal around this guy.

We stood facing each other, and in those few moments his gaze traveled from my face to my clothes. Beneath my black jacket I wore a cream shirt accessorized with one of my mother’s leopard print scarves, camel-colored pants and the ridiculous high heels that Pippa had crammed into my bag at the last minute, but were the only remotely dressy shoes in my possession, other than boots. I had packed my suitcase for comfort, not fashion or style.

The moment stretched and I considered I had two choices; keep drinking and lose my inhibitions or quietly excuse myself and have an early night.

I straightened my watchband, glancing at the time. It was still a couple of hours before midnight and the train back to London left early in the morning. New Year’s Eve was a time for revelers, lovers and friends—all categories that I was at odds with. An early night was looking very appealing.

I realized he hadn’t even mentioned his name, not that it mattered anymore, so I decided to exit with the best excuse I could think of at the time, needing to go to the bathroom and quietly slipping out the door.

I looked up to see him studying me intently, a deep thoughtful expression on his face. I adjusted my bag, about to bid him farewell when he cocked his head to the side.

“Forgive me,” he dipped his head, “where are my manners? I’m very pleased to meet you…” I assumed he paused for me to state my name, but no sooner did he speak, he raised his hand to halt my response. “Actually, no,” he said with an almost imperceptible shake of his head. “Don’t tell me. I’d like to guess.” As he studied me, he raised his thumb to his lips. “Gladys?” he suggested, pointing his finger in my direction.

“Seriously?” I lifted my eyebrows. “Do I look like a Gladys to you?” I then remembered the scarf that I hastily tried to conceal. Maybe I did have a “Gladys” look.

“What’s wrong with Gladys?” he asked, feigning offence. “I have a second cousin named Gladys. Although…” His head drew near, his bearded face inches from mine, squinting as though he should be wearing glasses. “You’re right. Looking at you a little closer, you don’t look much like her.”

“Thanks…I t-think,” I stammered, heady from his closeness and his smell…like a delicious scented Christmas candle, spicy and sweet at the same time.

“My name…”

“No.” He raised an open hand. “Honestly, don’t tell me.” A smug grin spread across his face as though he’d found the last piece to a complicated jigsaw. “I’d like to figure it out.”

“And you are…” The drum intro from the band cut off my sentence.

“Pardon?” he said, cupping his ear.

I shook my head. He wouldn’t have heard me anyway.

For a moment we both shared a smile, knowing it would be impossible to hold a conversation over the loud music. He tipped his head toward the door leading to the outside courtyard and without waiting for my response, began to walk in that direction.

My gaze followed his retreating silhouette, then locked on the solid wooden front door of one of the oldest pubs in central Edinburgh. I tapped a silent staccato on the beer glass.

I was here because of John. All because of a stupid joke when we were young enough to believe we’d have forever together, that should one of us die before the other we’d use the life insurance money for an overseas holiday. I just hadn’t planned on taking a trip before I turned thirty.

Live a little, Evie. Pippa’s words echoed in my head. Your life is going to pass you by if you don’t snap out of your slump. This is a chance to travel, to see different places and meet new people. Martyring yourself won’t change the past and the distance might give you some perspective. Life goes on and who knows, you may even meet a tall, dark, handsome stranger along the way.

I ran my fingers along the delicate links of the chain around my neck until I found the plain band of gold, and tugged on it gently. A simple ring, with an equally simple inscription…the number 3 symbolizing three little words, I Love You. John wasn’t big on words, but in a crowded room he would hold up three fingers and I would know he was thinking of me even if we weren’t together.

I tucked the necklace under the scarf. It was time to get my life back. I needed to let go of the past. I smiled privately at Pippa’s prophecy. She’d got two out of three right, but my stranger was tall, dark and hairy.

I pushed open the doors to the courtyard.