Wapping, East London
The old man walking in front of her gave an agonized groan and fell to his knees. Caitlyn’s breath caught in her throat, her brain scrambling to understand what her eyes were telling her. When the man clutched his chest and sank forward, his forehead scraping the asphalt of the narrow pedestrian path behind the Tower of London, she dropped her bag and sprinted the ten yards separating them.
“Sir? What’s wrong? Are you okay?” She laid her hand on his back, then slid it to his shoulder so she could help him sit up.
He shook his head. “Pain.”
She frantically glanced around, but at 5:00 a.m. they were the only two people on the path. “It’s all right. You’ll be all right. Lean back against me.”
He was so skinny that she had no problem kneeling behind him, supporting his back as he sat on the asphalt. According to the first-aid courses she’d taken, this position might help stave off the big one long enough for her to call—
Crap! Her phone was in her bag—the bag lying on the ground, far out of her reach. You are such a moron.
She stroked his silver pompadour as she tried to figure out what to do. “You’re going to be okay. What’s your name?”
“Philip,” he whispered in a slurred voice, as if his mouth had filled with peanut butter. Or—more likely—as if a vise was squeezing his breath from his chest. “Please…”
“It’s okay, Philip. You don’t need to speak. I’m Caitlyn and I’m going to help you.”
He moaned, his body jerking. He collapsed against her and, on the verge of panic now, she eased herself out from under him and lowered him onto his back.
One, two, three. Caitlyn kept her arms straight as her flat palms compressed Philip’s chest, pushing hard so his rib cage would do the work his heart should be doing. She’d spent years working in countries the State Department warned people to avoid, but she’d never once had to use her first-aid training—and she’d prayed she would never have to. Go figure, on a normal London morning…
Don’t die, Philip. Fifteen…no, seventeen? Crap, she’d lost count.
Sunrise bathed the Tower’s white stones in pink light, and she was the only help poor Philip had.
This path was normally clogged with tourists taking photos as business-suited Londoners politely elbowed their way through to the neighboring financial district, but this early it was deserted. She wouldn’t have been here herself if she hadn’t been shaking off jet lag from her Sumatra trip. As an American who’d recently moved to London, she went out of her way to pass by the thousand-year-old Tower every chance she could. To think she might not have been here at all…
Twenty-eight, twenty-nine…please don’t die.
She tilted the man’s head back, pinched his nose closed, sealed her mouth over his wrinkled lips and blew two sharp breaths into him. She paused to watch his chest. Still not moving. Shit, shit!
She started chest compressions again. A man’s drunken voice, singing off-key, echoed off the tunnel leading to Tower Hill Tube station. Caitlyn’s arms burned but she ripped her gaze away from Philip’s chest long enough to see a young man in a suit stumbling toward her. Considering their proximity to the City, he was most likely an investment banker who’d spent the night getting shit-faced in a lap-dancing club at the company’s expense.
“Help!” Her yell was more of a pant, but it seemed to make a dent in his drunken haze. “We need help!”
The man glanced around as though he hoped to hell she was talking to someone else.
“Get your ass over here and help me now!” she shouted. The Suit paused, as if he wanted to ignore her, but his shoulders slumped and he veered her way.
“Call 999,” she demanded.
He fell onto his ass next to Philip, swaying as he patted his pockets.
“If you don’t have a phone, mine’s in my bag back there.” Twenty-nine, thirty. She tilted Philip’s head again and breathed into him. No movement. And his skin was turning gray. “Hurry!”
The Suit pulled out his phone, a model so expensive that Caitlyn’s charity could’ve fed a family of six for a year with it. When he hung up, he looked at her through sobering eyes. “Ambulance is on its way.”
“Thanks.” She broke off her chest compressions to breathe into Philip again. Her arms trembled from the strain. “Watch what I do. It’s your turn in a sec.”
She looked up to find the Suit leering down her shirt. Good to know Britain’s financial well-being was in such responsible hands.
“Count to thirty,” she told the jerk and started pushing, über-aware now of how her body jiggled.
It was so much easier in her first-aid class, where the dummies were made of plastic and something inside them clicked when you hit the spot in just the right way. She hoped she didn’t hear any clicking from Philip’s chest because it would probably mean she’d broken a rib. Her arms were ready to fall off by the time the Suit said thirty.
“Your turn,” she wheezed.
“N-no way I’m putting my m-mouth on him,” he stuttered.
You stupid piece of… But she couldn’t waste any more breath on him. She quickly shifted her body down to Philip’s chest and pushed thirty more times. She tried to ignore the pain radiating down her furiously pumping arms by examining Philip. His light brown sweater and cords seemed more country than city. He wore a wedding ring. Someone was probably waiting for him at home, not knowing they might never see him again.
She thought she heard a siren in the distance but in London it could just as easily be the cops on their way to an early-morning stabbing. It seemed like a thousand hours before the ambulance arrived.
While the paramedics loaded Philip into the ambulance and asked the Suit how long ago he’d collapsed, Caitlyn fumbled around in her massive shoulder bag. She found the generic business cards from work and, with shaking hands, wrote her name and phone extension on the back. Giving it to a paramedic, she said, “Will you ask the hospital to let me know if he…if he makes it?”
“Please leave me alone. I’m begging you, Spencer!”
Spencer sat next to the hospital bed, laughing as his tiny grandfather propped his wrinkled hands against Spencer’s broad shoulder and shoved with all his might. If he hadn’t laughed, he would’ve wept at how little strength those once-capable arms had in them. “Stop it, old man, you’ll hurt yourself.”
“Then don’t make me get out of this bed and rugby-tackle you. Just go to the pub and get drunk. Meet a woman. Anything but stay here irritating me.”
“Why couldn’t you be like this when I was sixteen and desperately wanted to get pissed and meet women?”
“Because you didn’t drive me mad when you were sixteen.” Granddad paused, exchanging annoyance for pensiveness. “Okay, you did, but in an entirely different way. You were always gone, probably at the pub instead of hovering over me asking if I feel okay. I don’t feel okay. I feel fed up.”
Spencer swallowed the terror that had threatened to swamp him ever since he’d been woken by the hospital’s call four days ago, the morning after Granddad had arrived for a visit. “Fine, but I’m only going to the hospital coffee shop—”
Granddad’s shaggy brows snapped together, his face turning an unhealthy shade of red. “Over my dead body! I may be a temporary invalid, but that doesn’t mean I’ll stand for you treating me like I’m your dying child. For God’s sake, boy, I used to change your nappies.”
Shock slapped at Spencer, and he stared in disbelief. “No you didn’t.”
Please, God, say you didn’t.
Philip’s ire dissipated and he shrugged. “Okay, I left that particular task to your gran. But my point stands. My faculties may be failing me, Spencer, but as long as I’m aware of what’s going on around me I don’t want you treating me like I’m half dead. You’ve always been a complete pain in my arse, and as long as I’m alive I expect that to continue.”
Granddad’s message was clear: we’ll pretend everything’s normal because to do otherwise wouldn’t be manly. Worse, it wouldn’t be English.
“Fine,” he sighed. “I’ll wander home—”
“Take your time about it.”
“—and I’ll return in time for dinner.”
Granddad’s face lit like a bulb. “Bring me something nice? A fish supper from that chippy near the river?”
“Nothing breaded and fried for you for a long time. I’ll find some carrot sticks you can gnaw, if those ancient gnashers of yours are up to the task.”
Granddad’s eyes might have narrowed, but Spencer sensed his relief at their return to normal relations. “They’ll chew your arse if you don’t treat me with the respect I’m due.”
Spencer pushed himself out of his chair. “I’ll be back in a few hours.”
He ruffled his granddad’s gray hair—just to irritate him—dodged his swatting hand and walked out of the room. After winding through dozens of corridors, he burst into the bright midday sunshine and squinted against the blinding pain. He’d been folded into that tiny chair every daylight hour since receiving the phone call he’d dreaded for two years, since his granny died. He’d nearly lost his grandfather—his gentle, affectionate granddad—who now wanted nothing more than to get rid of him.
Instead of heading straight home, where his granddad’s belongings and barmy dog would remind him of all he’d nearly lost, Spencer strolled into the riverside pub next door to his building. He pushed his way through the working lunch crowd to the bar, remembering why he hated this place. Too many journalists from the nearby newspaper offices. Dozens of the parasites sitting around waiting for a story. Didn’t even have to be true. His arrest eleven years ago might have been short-lived, but the memories of how the tabloids vilified him would never die. Like zombies. But he was only here to give Philip some breathing room. One drink and he’d break his promise, go back to the hospital and hover again.
“What kin I gitcha?” the blonde Aussie behind the bar asked.
Spencer stifled a shudder at her accent, which doused him like ice water splashed on his bollocks. Australian women’s voices had filled him with sickening shame for over a decade. Why couldn’t he meet an Italian or Spanish woman? “Pint of lager.”
He reached into his pocket for his wallet, but his hand grabbed the cheap white business card the nurse had handed him the day his granddad had been admitted. International Disaster and Emergency Aid, the typeface on the front read. In an unsteady hand, the name of his granddad’s savior had been scrawled on the back.
Emergency aid—exactly what Granddad had needed a few days ago, when Spencer had been too soundly asleep to know any better. Not that he’d have had any fucking clue what to do if he had been with the old man that day.
Spencer carried his pint to one of the booths under picture windows big enough to drive a double-decker bus through and stared along the river at Tower Bridge.
“Anyone sitting here?” a throaty—English—woman’s voice asked.
Spencer glanced up from his glass into eyes that promised him everything. “Be my guest,” he replied, leaving it up to her to figure out whether he was answering the question posed by her mouth or her eyes.
“I’m Kendra,” she said, sliding into the booth across from him.
“I know. My ex was a fan.”
Strike one. Not being a baseball fan, he wasn’t sure how many strikes she would get before being out. He figured it’d be obvious when it happened, though.
“I went to a game with him once. I was amazed at how you move. I thought maybe you could show me some of your moves.”
Strike two. Too easy.
He caught himself. Too easy? A week ago he wouldn’t have thought there was such a thing. Okay, he avoided women during rugby season because they were too distracting, but he loved easy women in the summer, right? Every summer he had one month off. One month with no training, no practice. One month when he could drink beer and even eat fat if he wanted to. One month to get a year’s worth of sex. This was his rutting season because he’d stayed celibate every autumn, winter and spring since he was nineteen to focus on his game. On rebuilding his career and his reputation. This past rugby season had lasted longer than most; he’d been chosen to play for England during the June tour of South Africa, so his month off had been delayed. He hadn’t had sex in a year. A fucking year.
“I’m not up for moving much right now, Kendra,” he heard himself say.
She pouted in a way he once would have found sexy as hell but now just seemed immature and pathetic. “Are you injured? I could help ease your pain.”
How could he answer that? The truth was, he felt injured. Battered and bruised to within an inch of his heart’s life. But no way would he explain to a stranger that he’d nearly lost the person who meant the most to him.
“No, just tired. It was nice to meet you, Kendra, but I have to get back home.” He stood to leave. Apparently it took two strikes to walk away from a willing woman and a full pint.
He strode out of the pub. Within a few steps he faced his building’s security door. Instead of punching in the numbers on the keypad, he fingered the business card again. Caitlyn Sweeney. Irish?
Suddenly he couldn’t wait to hear her voice—the voice of the woman who’d blown the breath of life into his granddad’s wrinkled lips, who’d kept his heart going until the paramedics arrived.
The woman who’d kept Spencer’s own heart beating.