Meri Fairweather pulled her lace wrap more tightly around her shoulders. Out on the water the breeze was quite strong causing the little launch boat taking the next group of guests out
to the island to sway alarmingly.
A fellow passenger stumbled and Meri offered a hand to help her. Fortunately Meri had good sea legs thanks to a childhood growing up on the coast, most of her school summer
holidays spent in the little boat belonging to Patrick’s parents. Their deal had been that she had provided the picnic and bars of chocolate whilst he had rowed them to their destination of
the day – either along the coast or inland, up the little waterway creeks.
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” The woman smiled apologetically. “I’ve never been one for boats but when you get invited to the Royal Hythe Grant Charity Ball you forget that a rowing boat
on the lake in the park makes you nauseous and just hope you manage to reach Hythe Island without being sick!”
The woman, now gripping the railings of the boat so tightly her knuckles were white, added: “Is this your first time at the ball?”
“No I used to attend every year but this is my first time for three years. I’ve been away, working in France for a while.”
“Oh, lucky you. I love France, we always holiday there. Are you a friend of the Hythe Grant family?”
Meri nodded. “Yes, that’s right.” A friend of the family. Three years ago she had been more than a friend of the family.
Six months ago she had returned to her home county of Norfolk after spending two years working in France. She had thrown herself whole heartedly into her new job as marketing
manager for a tour operator who organised walking and cycling holidays in the area. Decorated the little cottage she was renting on the edge of town. Tried to settle back in; but Obery Staith wasn’t the same without Patrick around.
A few days ago Patrick had also returned to Norfolk, after spending three years in London working in top hotels, gaining the knowledge and expertise he would one day apply to his family’s business, the poshest hotel in town, The Obery Royal.
The Royal was on the waterfront with views over the marina and out to sea. It boasted five stars, a Michelin restaurant with an extensive and highly desirable wine list befitting its well
to do guests, and prices that made the average person break out in a sweat. The hotel had been in his family for generations.
He had come home just before the annual Hythe Grant Charity Ball, an event for which all monies raised went to the local hospice, as tradition dictated. The ball had been held as far
back as the memories of the people of Obery Staith could remember and Meri knew from experience that the memories in this town were very long indeed. The locals had an eye for the details of everyone’s lives and an ear for the gossip to go along with those details. Which, of course, was why she knew that Patrick was back in town.
Three years since he had sought the challenge of London and its hotels.
Three years since she and Patrick had ended their relationship.
She wondered if he’d changed much – not just in the looks department but also in his personality. Driven, ambitious, creative, determined, these were all words she would use to describe him. Other suitable words would be kind, fun, her best friend. Gorgeous would probably be in there too.
The wind gusted, rocking the boat even more, causing it to sway rhythmically from side to side and Meri reached for the railing to steady herself, not just against the rocking but also against the idea of seeing Patrick again. They were only a few minutes from arriving at the island now and she could see the white fairy lights in the trees, dancing in the breeze. Music, something classical, drifted across the water to greet them.
The island was owned by the Hythe Grant family and guests at the hotel could opt to take the launch out to visit for a spot of sunbathing or private dining, but not tonight. Tonight it was
strictly by invitation only.
Part of her had wondered if she should have come along to the ball, perhaps she should have made an excuse once she’d found out that Patrick was going to be there. She dreaded seeing
him after all this time. But then again she couldn’t avoid him forever. If not tonight then she would have run into him somewhere in town, at some point.
Some of the gossips – namely Megan who worked part time in the restaurant at The Royal – had said Patrick looked more handsome than ever. Others, mostly the menfolk, had said he
still had that air of authority which made all the staff at The Royal call him Mr Hythe Grant, even though he had always encouraged them to just call him Patrick. One thing all of them
did agree on though was that he had returned to Obery Staith alone. No girlfriend, at least not here, if there was one then she had chosen to remain in London. Surely though any girlfriend
would have been far too tempted by the charity ball to stay away?
What woman dating Patrick, if given the choice, would have chosen to stay away from him, let alone the ball? Meri certainly had found it difficult to be apart from him. He had his dreams of working in London; she had her dreams of working in France. They had agreed to part, give each other time to grow up, experience life, fulfil their dreams and ambitions.
Agreed to end their relationship, rather than put it on hold.
The launch crept closer to the island, a wooden pier waiting for them all to disembark. Within minutes Meri and the other guests were clambering ashore, being greeted by Patrick’s mother
and offered champagne by the young waitress at her side.
“Meri, sweetheart, we’re so glad you could come along tonight. It’s been far too long since we’ve seen you.” She pulled Meri into a hug. “You must have heard that Patrick is back in town now too? He’s so looking forward to seeing you again.”
“I’m delighted to be here Mrs Hythe Grant.” Meri smiled and accepted a glass of champagne.
“Please, less of the formality, it’s Kathryn as well you know! There was a time when Martin and I were convinced that the next generation taking over the Royal when we retired, the next
Mr and Mrs Hythe Grant, would be you and Patrick.”
“Really? Well, that was all so long ago now. Things change, people move on.”
“He isn’t seeing anyone you know, at the moment,” Kathryn added.
“Isn’t he?” Meri asked, taken aback, glancing around. Wondering what it would be like the first time she saw him again. Hopefully she would catch sight of him before he saw her. It would give her chance to analyse her feelings, compose herself.
She didn’t know if it would still be there or not, the chemistry between them, the attraction, the connection. She doubted it, not after all this time. Not after they had agreed, if somewhat
reluctantly, to end their relationship. It had seemed the sensible thing to do, end it rather than try to make a long distance relationship work. The hotel industry was notorious for long and
unsociable hours. He would be in London. She would be in France. They would rarely get to see each other. It wouldn’t have been fair on either of them.
Plus they were both so young. No, it was best to set each other free. Wasn’t that what you were supposed to do when you loved someone? Let them be free, do what they needed to, and hopefully they would, eventually, come back. If it was meant to be. It hadn’t stopped her thinking about him though. Being tempted to follow him to London even though she hated the place, hated bustling, chaotic cities. So many times she had thought about ringing him, sending an email. Something simple, chatty and friendly. But she never had. It was as though they had an unspoken agreement, no contact whatsoever. It was easier that way.
She’d immersed herself in France, loving the culture, the language, wanting to expand her horizons. She’d worked for a British company who marketed gites for holidaymakers. Then ten months ago, out of nowhere, she’d felt the desire to return home. It was time to put down some roots. She’d thought, hoped, she had been away long enough, that it would be okay to be back after two years. It hadn’t. Obery Staith had never been the same without Patrick around.
Meri jumped as Kathryn placed a hand on her arm. “Are you all right? You seemed miles away.”
“Yes, sorry. I’m fine.”
“Memories of you and Patrick by any chance? I was just saying he isn’t dating anyone these days, are you?”
“No. No, I’m not.”
Then it happened.
She saw him chatting to some guests by one of the many buffet tables arranged on the beach under the canopies of white cloth and fairy lights.
He was wearing a navy suit, well cut, designer probably, he was always immaculately turned out. His hair was cropped shorter than it used to be, suiting the shape of his face. In the past
he was usually clean shaven but today he was sporting something that was more than stubble but less than a beard.
He finished chatting and looked up, across the stretch of beach, and he saw her, smiled and started walking towards her.
“Patrick, hello,” she managed, unsure whether to kiss his cheek, hug him, offer a hand to shake.
He made the decision for her, slipping a hand to her waist, stepping forward, kissing her lightly on the cheek. A kiss so light, yet so effective. She lifted a hand to his shoulder, smelt
the scent of him, he still wore the same aftershave.
“You look stunning,” he said. “Beautiful. As always.”
He allowed his glance to discreetly take her in. She knew green was his favourite colour and she watched as his gaze skimmed over her emerald green, knee length silk dress and strappy
but flat sandals, her auburn hair, loose around her shoulders.
“Thank you.” she replied. You’re as handsome as ever, she thought but for some reason didn’t say the words out loud.
He was too. Close to him she could see his hair was flecked with gold as though it had been streaked by the sun and his face was lightly tanned.
He smiled at her again, the smile which had been embedded in her memory all these years. It hadn’t changed.
“It’s great to be home.”
“It is. Are you staying long?” she asked.
“Yes. For good. Time to put down some roots I think. Take on the running of the Royal. My parents want to start edging towards early retirement.”
“It’s lovely to see you again,” he added, reaching for one of her hands and holding it between his own. “It really is. I’ve missed you.”
“It’s lovely to see you again too,” Meri replied, looking into his deep blue eyes.
And she meant it with all her heart.