Read the 1st Chapter of The Return here

THE RETURN

JAN BOWLES
Copyright © 2009





Chapter One

Standing on the observation deck, Marielle Stevens watched the plane in the distance—just a speck of light, against a backdrop of midnight sky.

Gradually, the speck grew closer until finally she heard the roar of jet engines and saw the red light flashing on its underbelly.

She craned her neck for a better view as the wheels of the plane touched down and screeched to a halt further down the runway.

With her forehead pressed against the cool glass, she breathed in a sigh of relief. Thank God he’s back. There would be a lot of explaining to do, but—he’s safe now at last.

She watched, as would a curious observer, the commotion caused by the press and media as they jostled for the best vantage point around the perimeter of the airfield.

Flashes of light rippled from their cameras like a giant fireworks display, lighting up the rain soaked buildings of the RAF base all around them.

“We’d better make our way to the room,” James said quietly behind her.

Lost in her thoughts, Marielle swung around. “Sorry? Oh, yes. Of course.” Her mind still focused on the occupant of the plane.

They made their way towards the private reception room. A sea of journalists covered their path. Attractively dressed in a rust-coloured silk blouse and blue jeans, Marielle at twenty-three would not go unnoticed, and she soon had a mike thrust towards her when a reporter noticed the security pass pinned to her chest.

“How long have you known Robert Tremayne?” the reporter asked officiously.


Marielle wondered how they could be so insensitive. Keeping her face impassive she ignored the question and pressed on through the tight throng of people, which descended quickly upon them. A barrage of questions immediately filled the air around them.

“Are you friends of Robert Tremayne?”

“Did you know he was held captive by the Islamic Jihad?”

“When did you find out he was still alive?”

“Two years ago the British Government gave him up for dead. How do you feel now that he’s returning home? Do you resent the British Government for not doing more?”

Dodging the questions, they cut a swathe through the intimidating mass. Thankfully their passes allowed them access to the private room where they would be able to meet Robert.

He had been a celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic before his disappearance. Now a media frenzy had exploded with his miraculous escape from Iraq.

She could only think of the suffering that he’d had to endure. Would he be thin? Would his mental state be affected by the ordeals he had suffered? Could he cope with returning to normal existence? Worse still, would he be angry with her when he found out the truth?

When she turned around, James had gone, and Robert stood watching her intently from the edge of the room. How long he stood there, she didn’t know. All she knew was that he was there.

Her first urge was to go to him, but she couldn’t move. Her legs felt rooted to the spot. She wanted to fold him in her arms and tell him how much she loved him. How much she missed and needed him. But how could she do that when just the mere sight of him arrested any movements, and constricted her throat to a silent gasp?

Robert had lost weight. His six-foot two-inch frame appeared even taller than she remembered. His face appeared more angular. His hair had grown and curled over onto the collar of his khaki jacket in crisp, dark waves. He looked ruthless and just a little bit dangerous.

Still she couldn’t move.

She pressed her back against the wall for support. The coolness permeated her blouse as she watched his jaw tense repeatedly. Did he know anything about her life since he’d gone away?

Unable to look at him directly at first, she now allowed her eyes to slowly travel to his, cutting a path across his smooth lips and slight Roman nose. Her breath caught in her throat as his vivid blue eyes finally locked with hers. She knew then that he had heard nothing from England.

He still loved her, of that she felt sure, but that gave little comfort. She was scared…scared of losing him all over again when he inevitably found out the truth. Hadn’t her life changed considerably in the two years since he’d left?

Within two strides, he stood before her. He pulled her into his arms and moulded his body, his lips desperately to hers, almost as though he feared she wasn’t real.

She was real, and so was he. His kiss automatically ignited her body to his as she melted so easily into his embrace. Of their own accord, her arms wound around his neck, and she savoured the delicious thrill that only his closeness could impart. She strained to get closer still, all her carefully formed plans to immediately tell him the truth now forgotten. She needed his kiss, needed the familiar taut sinews of his muscles wrapped around her.

“Marielle, thank God,” he whispered against her parted lips. “I prayed you would be here. I’ve dreamed of this moment for a very long time.”

He drew back and looked at her intently, making her knees go weak with all the remembered passion they had once shared. “You’re the only one that’s kept me going these past two years.” He brushed the back of his hand across her cheek. “Do you know that?” His voice croaked in a harsh whisper as the memories of his ordeal flashed briefly across his face.

Marielle felt his pain as though she was part of him, and she rested her head on his shoulder in an effort to blot the despair and loneliness out. She took comfort from his hands as they stroked softly through her hair.
“Oh, Robert, I can hardly believe it’s you. I’m so glad you’re safe.” She caressed the side of his face, to gently touch the prominent cheekbones and weather-tanned skin. “I’m so sorry darling I wish I could take your pain away. It must have been sheer hell.” She felt afraid of his answer and yet she wanted to know more. Her fingers smoothed a path down to his lips.

Then he smiled, and kissed her fingers to reassure her. “What’s two years now we are together again?”

He’d been light-hearted for her benefit, but that didn’t stop her realising that her life had moved on. “It turned my life upside down when you disappeared in Iraq. I—I was devastated. Everyone told me you’d died,” she sobbed. Knowing that nightmare scenario had brought her own world to an abrupt end. James, Robert’s best friend, had saved her from herself. He had picked up the pieces and helped her to rebuild her life without Robert.

“We only learnt what happened to you just two days ago when you stumbled out of the Iraqi desert.”
It had been a wonderful shock for her. A wonderful fairy tale come true. If only she had known. What could she do?

She needed to tell him the truth.

Marielle bit her bottom lip and pulled away. She turned from his bewildered gaze and focused on the coffee table in the corner of the room, her eyes tracing the stains left by a cup. She had to tell him. He had to know the truth, however much she hurt him.

Stiffening her back, she fortified herself with the last vestige of her courage. “Robert, there’s something you should know.”

He sighed. “We’ve only got a few minutes. There’s a press conference and debriefing. I don’t know when I’ll see you again.”

Marielle looked at him, almost melting under the impact of his gaze. She had to tell him. How long could she go on like this? How long before someone else gave up her secret? She felt like a cornered wild animal that had no means of escape.

“What ever is wrong Marielle?” His voice mirrored his concern.

She hesitated, glancing towards the door she had entered. “James is here,” she whispered, unable to turn and face him in case he should already guess the truth.

He grinned and instantly relaxed in view of her trivial statement. “Oh, is that what you are worried about, keeping me from James? Surely you must know, no one is as important as you.”

He lightened the mood. “I hear the old devil’s got married. Must be some woman to capture that male chauvinist.” He laughed. “I would never have suspected that James could be dragged to the altar. I certainly look forward to meeting her.”

When she looked at Robert she felt the blood drain from her face, and he immediately knew something was drastically wrong. He reached out and smoothed his hand under her chin, as he forced her to meet his gaze.
Her whole life seemed on hold as his eyes sought the truth from her. It felt as though her heart had stopped beating and her lungs had stopped breathing altogether. She could do nothing but stare back.

When she spoke, her breath hissed through her throat, and her heart slammed wildly against her ribs. “You’ve already met her, Robert. I married James twenty months ago.”

She felt him tense beside her. His arm dropped to his side. After what seemed a lifetime he spoke in a broken whisper. “Did I hear correctly?”

While his eyes cruelly watched her every move, Marielle wished that the floor would open up and swallow her whole. “Yes!” she sobbed. She lowered her eyes from his, unable now to stand the despising glare.
“Then what the hell is this welcoming committee for?”

Try as she might, there could be no getting away from the truth. She’d been selfish and cruel. She had wanted to believe that nothing had changed between them. That everything remained the same.

What a fool she’d been.

A single teardrop fell from the corner of her eye and meandered slowly down her cheek. “I didn’t want it to turn out this way, Robert. I’m sorry.” Through her carelessness, he had suffered even more. It appeared tightly etched across his face.

What could she do or say to make it right?

She felt the teardrop flow down her face to where she wiped it jerkily away with the back of her hand.
Rendered impotent, Robert stood and stared at her. “I can’t believe what I’ve just heard. James, my best friend. What sort of a homecoming is this?”

She could see the anger now rising in his throat as he swallowed hard. He lifted her limp left hand, and looked at the shiny gold band that sat so noticeably on her marriage finger.

He thrust her hand away in disgust. “I thought we meant something to each other,” he stated bitterly. “Though it seems you forgot me after only three months.”

Marielle lifted her hand to his arm, but he twisted away from the comfort she so dearly wanted to offer. Her fingers stilled mid-air, as he pulled away from her. “That isn’t true Robert. Believe me, I do still love you.” Her lips trembled. “I—I always will—” Her voice broke as an unbearable pain seeped into her very being as he stared down at her with utter contempt.

Hate had erased any gentleness in his eyes. She wanted him to look at her with love, not this crushing hostility. “Please Robert. Please understand the circumstances. This is not what you think.”

“Then what is it?” She flinched at the censure in his voice. “You’re wearing his ring.” He looked down at her, making her feel small and miserable. “I take it you are living together.”

When she couldn’t deny anything he had said, he added angrily, “Just what is there to understand?” He clutched a hand to his forehead. “My God. All that time surviving in Iraq, I never dreamt that you would turn to James.”

“Listen Robert, you must listen to me,” she begged, her plea surfacing from deep inside her. “I had—”
He pressed his hand to her lips, stifling anything she should say. “No.” His fingers bit painfully into her cheeks and puckered her mouth.

“You little bitch.” His voice rose in anger. “I don’t want any more excuses. It’s obvious you thought I’d died. After all, what’s three months? It must be a lifetime to you. Three months, Marielle.” He held up his hands in silent appeal then pressed them hard to his chest. “And now I’m back, do you intend to drop James in the same way? Is that what all this is about? To see if you could still have me?” He shook his head. “Willow Hall is worth a fortune in comparison to what James has to offer. I can see now what a heartless, mercenary little bitch you really are. I’m surprised James stands for you.”

 He seemed to look right through her as he spoke. “Perhaps I’ve had a lucky escape. You’re really not the woman I thought you were.” He moved to leave, then turned back to her, his eyes cold and unseeing. “One thing that piques my curiosity is how you managed to get James to marry you? As far as I remember James was a party animal, a different woman everyday of the week. Though, maybe I didn’t know him after all. I certainly would never have suspected him of this.”

He let out a bitter laugh, then held up his hand. “Spare me all the details, I don’t want to know about your sordid affair.”

Tears flowed unchecked down her face. She hadn’t wanted to hurt him. He looked so beaten and tired of life. It broke her heart. He’d been through so much, and now she added to his misery. “If you won’t listen to me,” she said wearily as she turned towards him. “At least hear what James has to say.”

She knew by the look on his face that he’d stopped listening. He had made up his mind about what had happened. He obviously hated her already.

“Why should I talk to James?” he asked, as he stared at a point behind her head.

“Because he is your best friend, Robert. After all, you grew up together.”

“I don’t think that that would be a good idea, Marielle.”

It broke her heart to ask, but she had to anyway. “Why not?”

He looked directly at her. “The way I feel, I might just kill him.”

Her heart now finally broke in two. She had mourned for his loss two years ago. Now she mourned that she would never ever see him again just when she had thought him reborn into her life. She watched in sadness as he finally left the room, not looking back or acknowledging her existence.

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