AUTHOR'S NOTE: I just wanted to say a big BIG sorry for the delay in giving you the last chapter. :-/ My computer broke right at the wrong moment and then Christmas happened. But we're back now for the grand finale! Thank you for reading this far and I hope you've enjoyed spending time at Aspen Valley Stables as much I do. Remember there are FOUR more books in the series, the last of which is due to be published in February 2016, so keep an eye out for it at Amazon and other major online retailers.
Pippa tunelessly accompanied Avril Lavigne to the desperate sound of 'Wish You Were Here'. She stared forlornly at the opposite wall where Morning Stables was precariously balanced on a tatty armchair. 'Damn, da–'
She stopped singing at Tash's exacerbated cry from outside the room. 'Yes?'
Tash opened the door, her face a mixture of exasperation and pity. 'Pippa, sweets, I am sick to death of that song. Can we listen to something other than Avril Lavigne wailing over her lost love? Please?'
Pippa's look of gloom corroded even further at the thought of upsetting Tash. 'Sorry,' she mumbled. She leaned over and turned down the volume on her CD player.
Tash gave her a sympathetic smile and sat down on the bed next to her. 'You must have played that song about a hundred times these past few days.'
'Sums up how I feel though – desperate.' She looked down at her lap and listlessly pulled at a loose thread on her pyjama hem.
'Listen, Pip. There's something I need to ask you.'
Pippa saw anxiety cloud Tash's usually twinkling eyes and she nodded in understanding. 'You want me to move out? I know, I'm sorry. I was just going to wait for Hazyvale's sale to go through before –'
'Move out? No! Christ Almighty! I'm not going to kick you out!' Tash laughed and squeezed Pippa's hand.
Pippa gave a relieved smile. 'Okay then. What's the matter, Tash? You look really worried.'
Tash chewed her lip. 'I got a call. From Finn.'
Tash shifted uneasily on the mattress. 'Yeah. Well, you know how he arrived at your art exhibition the other day and the time before when he got shit-faced after the Gold Cup?'
'The thing is, see, I got to liking Finn. A bit.' Tash looked fearfully at Pippa. 'All right, quite a bit, but I knew he only had eyes for you.'
'Tash!' Pippa giggled. 'I knew you thought he was a dish. I didn't think you like-liked him though.'
Tash shrugged, looking abashed. 'But then at the art exhibition, while you were there thinking about Jack, I got chatting to Finn and well, you know, we got on. He makes me laugh.' Tash smiled sheepishly. 'And he just called and asked me out.'
Pippa gasped. 'Finn asked you out?' She laughed, part in disbelief, part excitement. 'That's wonderful, Tash!'
'Really? You're not mad, or upset, or – or anything?'
'No, of course not,' Pippa grinned. 'Why would I be?'
'Well, with everything gone pear-shaped with Jack, Finn was yours for the taking and...'
Pippa shook her head. 'Absolutely not. I don't like Finn like that, I don't think I ever have. And besides, Finn would never have been mine "for the taking" when he knows how I feel about Jack.' She sighed. 'How I feel about Jack, well, that shouldn't have any influence on you and Finn.'
Tash grinned. 'Thanks, Pip.' Her smile faded though when Pippa's expression deflated at the thought of Jack. 'You still think it was him that rang that night?'
'Who else could it have been? I mean, I just presumed it was someone in a French restaurant here in UK, but are there really any restaurants here so authentic that the waiters actually speak French to the customers? It had to be in France. But no one else I know of would call me from France. It has to be more than a coincidence that Jack was there at the same time.'
'You know what you've got to do then, don't you?'
Tash settled herself more comfortably on the bed so she was facing Pippa. 'Think about it – it's gone past midnight, he's in a country where he can't speak the language, he's got someone plying him with alcohol – he's missing you.'
'And I answer the phone sounding like I'm having a whale of a time and blurt out Ollie's name,' Pippa said with regret.
'Exactly. Now, put yourself in his shoes. Would you come after you if you had just heard all that?'
Pippa shook her head. 'No, I guess not.'
'Which means you've got to go after him!'
Pippa's eyes widened as Tash's words hit home. 'I do, don't I?'
'Yes! Go set the record straight.'
Pippa scrambled off the bed. 'Otherwise he'll never know the truth.'
'Precisely! Go get your man, Pippa!'
Standing alert in her creased pyjamas, trying to decide whether she should put some clothes on first, Pippa's shoulders drooped as doubt once again sparked inside her.
'But what do I do? What would I say? Do I just knock on his front door and declare my love for him?'
Tash blinked, not seeing her dilemma. 'Yes.'
Pippa flopped back onto the bed again. 'I can't do that. It's just not me. I wouldn't know what to say.'
Tash glanced at the CD player from where Avril Lavigne was still baring her soul. 'Why not quote Avril? You said it's how you feel.'
Pippa raised a small smile and shook her head. 'I couldn't. It would make him feel awkward too. And it would put him on the spot.'
'Well, call him then! Give him some sort of forewarning so he can prepare himself.'
'I don't have his number,' she said, shaking her head sadly. 'I deleted it.'
'Oh, you muppet.' Tash looked at her impatiently and stood up. 'Pippa, you're going to have to make the first move here. He's not coming after you – he shouldn't have to come after you. You left him, remember?'
A black cloud of gloom enveloped her, seeping damp into her bones. 'I'm just not as brave as that. Not just yet, anyhow.'
Tash tutted and walked away. She stopped by the doorway. 'Don't leave it too long, Pip.'
Pippa sighed and fell backwards to stare at the ceiling. She let the tears trickle out of the corners of her eyes. Why was she being such a coward? Why couldn't she take a leaf out of Bridget Jones' Diary and run into the snow in her underwear and nab her Mr Darcy?
She rolled over and buried her face in her pillow. Because it's all a fantasy, she told herself severely, and fantasies are so easy to be brave in when you're assured a happy-ending. Reality really did bite.
The following day, Pippa tried another form of counsel. From Tash's thirty-two-inch plasma screen in the lounge, Billy Crystal looked imploringly at Meg Ryan and listed all the reasons why he loved her. Pippa wanted to cry. This wasn't the desired effect she was after. Why couldn't Jack love her for the way she ordered a sandwich? Why couldn't –
The front door slammed, interrupting When Harry Met Sally.
Pulling herself up on the couch and shaking herself from her failed therapy session, Pippa peeked over the backrest towards the front hall.
Tash appeared in the doorway. 'Don't you answer your phone?' she exclaimed, her arms flailing.
'It's charging in my room,' Pippa replied, taken aback. 'Why? What's wrong?'
'I've been trying to get hold of you. Finn has been trying to get hold of you.'
'Finn?' Pippa sat up, alert as a meerkat. 'Why's he calling me?'
Tash ignored her and marched through to the spare room. Pippa clambered to her feet and hurried after her. They bumped into each other in the bedroom doorway. Tash held out Pippa's phone.
'There. About five missed calls. He ended up having to call me.'
'Tash! What's happened? What's wrong?' Pippa cried, starting to panic.
'Peace Offering's ill! Finn said it was serious. Something about colic and they didn't know whether you could afford the cost of surgery.'
Tash thrust a pair of shoes and a coat towards Pippa. 'Nobody can get hold of you. Peace Offering might not make it! You have to go!'
Pippa gulped and stood rooted to the spot with fear. 'He's going to die?' she whispered.
'I don't know!' Tash said, pushing her towards the front door. 'Get down there and find out!'
'He can't die! Oh, God!' She hopped on one foot to pull on her shoes.
'Hurry, Pip!' Tash tossed her her handbag and car keys. 'Let me know as soon as you hear anything.'
Pippa practically slid down the two flights of stairs and out into the late Sunday afternoon sunshine. Everything looked so serene and so relaxed, basking in the warm spring weather. It seemed impossible to imagine Peace Offering fighting for his life at Aspen Valley at that precise moment.
Fear leant her strength and she raced down the uneven pavement towards her car.
As the M25 fed into the M4, Pippa put her foot down. The Beetle rattled in protest and the speedometer quivered in indignation as it rose above seventy. Pippa clenched the wheel in whitened fists to control the shuddering. The lane ahead was thankfully free-flowing and soon exits for Slough then Reading were flashing past in her rear-view mirror.
The descending sun blinded her and she flicked the visor down. Images of Peace Offering filled her mind. Peace Offering lying on his side, heaving and sweating, gasping his final breaths.
Pippa wasn't sure what colic involved exactly, but she knew it was dangerous to horses. She imagined Jack and the vet, Mr Warnock, standing over her horse, shaking their heads. Of Jack saying, 'We can't get hold of her. Best let's put him out of his misery.'
The speedometer crept higher.
Pippa reached into her bag on the passenger seat and retrieved her phone. She tried Finn's number. The moisture in her throat evaporated as each unanswered ring peeled in her ear.
'Oh, come on, Finn!' she pleaded. Finally, his voicemail cut in. 'Finn, it's Pippa! Please call me back! Don't let them kill Peace Offering! Please! If he needs surgery, I'll pay – I promise!'
Saying the words out loud brought home the situation for her and a renewed flood of panic swept through her body as she hung up.
Such a darling horse as Peace Offering couldn't die.
Gritting her teeth, she picked up her mobile again and scrolled through to Aspen Valley's number. Her heart hammered in her chest as she pressed Connect and held it up to her ear. The pumping adrenalin gradually calmed as the office phone remained unanswered. She pictured the deserted office, the desperate ringing unheard by the sombre crowd gathered outside Peace Offering's stable.
She cut the call and scrolled again through her numbers. Ian Morrison, Inkwell Art Supplies, Jade Chinese Takeaway, Jayne Gurney.
'Dammit!' she cried, throwing her phone down on the passenger seat. 'Why did I bloody delete his number? Don't you dare let him die, Jack! Please save him!'
The birds singing their last chorus in the oak tree at Aspen Valley's entrance rose squawking into the air as Pippa's Beetle tore into the long driveway. The dust cloud in its wake infused with the gold rays of the setting sun. She skidded to a halt in the car park and hurtled out, nearly falling flat on her face as her heel caught in the gravel. The office was closed, no light shining from its windows. The whole yard was deserted of human life.
'Hello? Anyone?' she called.
Inquisitive equine heads appeared over their stable doors, but no humans emerged. She ran over to Peace Offering's box. The sharp ringing of her heels on the concrete brought more horses to their doors, but as she approached and Peace Offering's door remained void, her heart quickened. She was too late. She clung to the top of the half door, her eyes misting over when it creaked open. Inside, the floor was swept clear of habitation.
Was this the end? No more Peace Offering? Had she lost him as well as Jack? She shook her head. She wouldn't believe it. Not until somebody was able to convince her. 'Anybody?' her desperate plea resounded about the block.
Only a snort from the next door stable replied. Pippa shielded her eyes and looked at the neighbouring hillside where Jack's house lay just out of sight. Taking a deep breath, she turned and ran back to her car.
Her heart seemed to adopt a salsa rhythm on speed when she drove over the rise and Jack's barn conversion came into view. The sun reflected off the silver paintwork of his Land Rover parked by his front door. She took a moment as she got out to steady herself, feeling her legs quake. Then, pulling herself together, she scuttled up to his front door and leant on the doorbell.
She heard Berkeley bark from within, but no approaching footsteps. Maybe he was at the vets signing Peace Offering's death certificate? Did horses get death certificates? Panic fluttered through her and she banged on the door, bruising her knuckles in her urgency.
'All right! I'm coming! Just –' The door was wrenched open and Jack choked on his angry greeting when he saw Pippa.
'Oh, thank God you're here,' she gasped, closing her eyes. 'I thought you were at the vets signing his death certificate!'
Jack looked at her as if she'd dyed her hair green and suggested they both go chase butterflies. 'Pippa? W-what?'
She looked up at him with wide desperate eyes. 'Am I too late? Is he dead? Did you save him?'
'Who? What are you talking about? What are you doing here?'
'Peace Offering, of course! Finn said Peace Offering was dying. Is he okay? Please tell me he's okay!'
Jack stared at her and steadied himself against the doorframe. 'Yes, he's okay. Well, he was the last time I checked about an hour ago. He's in the paddock on the other side of the drive there.'
Pippa gaped. 'He's not dying?'
'No, he's not dying. What on earth are you talking about?'
Pippa chewed her lip and squirmed in her shoes. She gave Jack a suspicious look. He looked puzzled and ever so slightly irritated. He didn't look like he was lying.
'But Finn said...'
'What the hell does Finn know? He doesn't even work here anymore!' Jack said, looking exasperated. 'What is going on, Pippa?'
Relief that Peace Offering was alive and kicking was very quickly replaced by the realisation of her friends' deception.
Jack glared at her, his arms folded across his chest.
'A misunderstanding, I think,' she said quietly. 'I think Tash and Finn tricked me into coming here.'
Jack swallowed. He stood silently defensive. 'You needed tricking?'
'No,' Pippa was quick to contradict him. 'Well, maybe, but not how you think...' Her voice trailed away when she saw Jack's eyes darken. 'Jack, I –' Why was it so hard, so terrifying to tell him how she felt? Her mind turned back to the conversation she'd had with Tash the day before. She took a deep breath and hoped it had worked for Avril. 'I thought I could be tough. And strong,' she said falteringly. 'But with you I've found that I'm not. I – I can't stop thinking about things you've said and times we've shared. You've always been you and well, I miss that.' She tried to read the set expression on his face.
'Sounds like you've been rehearsing that,' he said bluntly.
Pippa's courage wavered. You have no idea, she replied silently.
They faced each other in silence, the birds' singing in nearby trees and Berkeley's whining from behind Jack muted to their ears. She searched his face for some sort of softening, anything that would remove the invisible barricade that stood between them.
'I miss you,' she whispered.
'What am I supposed to say to that?' he asked, his brow creasing in frustration.
'That you miss me too?'
He raked a hand through his hair. 'Pippa, you drive me crazy when you're around. And you drive me crazy when you're not. I don't know how to deal with that. I can't.'
Pippa felt like he'd wrenched her heart out with his bare hands. She wasn't going to beg and she'd be damned if she let him see her cry. She swallowed a sigh and gave him an apologetic smile. 'Then I'm sorry for disturbing your evening,' she said.
Jack didn't reply. Only the muscle in his jaw throbbed in response.
Her shoes scratched the gravelled ground as she trudged back to her car. Her senses were keenly attuned to Jack watching her leave, but not stopping her.
As she pulled out of the driveway, she looked back in the rear-view mirror to see him turning back inside.
Pippa sighed with exaggerated effort as her car trundled over the crest of the Gallops. Who's the fool now, she thought wryly? A mirthless breath escaped her when she recognised a small herd of horses grazing in the adjoining paddock. She hadn't even noticed them when she'd hurtled past a couple of minutes earlier.
Peace Offering raised his head as she rumbled towards them.
Pippa thought of the endless drive she'd have back to Tash's now. Exhaustion flopped over her. Maybe she could spend the night at Hazyvale? Emmie and Billy hadn't moved in yet, and no money had exchanged hands yet so technically the cottage was still hers.
She pulled up next to the four horses. Her mobile gave a plaintive beep from the footwell where it had fallen and she bent to retrieve it. There was a text message from Tash.
Sorry to make you panic, sweets. We had to do it. Hope you understand and all is well. T xxx
'No, Tash. All is not well.' Pippa tossed the phone down again and got out.
Peace Offering sauntered over to the fence, the blaze down his face tinted pink by the setting sun. She stepped carefully across the verge and went to greet him. In the distance she could hear a tractor's growl.
'What now, Peace Offering? I have no idea what to do now,' she murmured, stroking his long bony nose. She smiled when she noticed a small wild flower among the grass shoots hanging from the side of his mouth. He looked like a typical country lad.
'May I have that?' she asked.
She threaded it out of his mouth, smiling as he tried to lip it back.
'He loves me, he loves me not,' she began. One by one, the white petals floated down to her feet.
'...he loves me not,' she concluded. She looked at the bald flower still in her fingers and ruefully threw it away.
Brushing the pollen dust from her hands onto her jeans, she looked up at Peace Offering who was regarding her with a quizzical air. She turned to the valley below, drinking in the peace and solitude and the exquisite masterpiece the sky was being painted. Wispy apricot clouds trailed across the deep amber horizon and the white-washed walls of the stables shone pink in the distance. Pippa sighed, knowing she'd never seen skies like this anywhere else in her life. And now she was going to leave it?
'Okay, best out of three. What do you reckon?' she consulted her horse.
She bent down and picked another flower from the tuft growing by the fence post. If this came out right, then it was meant to be. It would be fate, beyond her control.
'He loves me, he loves me not,' she whispered.
If he loved her by confirmation of this flower, she would march back to his door and tell him so. She could be brave.
'He loves me, he loves me not.'
If he didn't love her by confirmation of this flower, she would leave and that would be the end of it. She could live life without him.
'He loves me, he loves me not.' Her voice wavered a little louder. 'He loves me, he loves me not. He loves me –' Pippa's fingers trembled over the last remaining petal. She bit her lip, unwilling to cast this final sentence and seal her fate.
She started as a hand reached out and enfolded hers and the flower. She spun round to face Jack. The softness she had searched for earlier now lit his eyes. She opened her mouth to speak, but only her escaping gasp filled the space between them.
Jack's eyes twinkled. He slipped the flower from her hand. He held it between them for a moment, twirling it between his fingers by its stem. A smile twitched the sides of his mouth and he tossed the flower nonchalantly over his shoulder.
'He loves you,' he said gruffly.
Stepping forward, he gathered her into his arms. Warmth flooded through Pippa as she met his long slow kiss, feeling the solidity of his body against hers, tasted the sweetness of his mouth, the tenderness of his touch. Her heart thudded in her chest, restored and jubilant. Was this fantasy or reality? Could it be both? She had to be sure. She drew back from Jack to look at him, to make sure he was real. 'He does?' she said.
Jack nodded, his smile deepening. 'I've been a fool. We've both been fools. You only drive me crazy when I can't have you.'
'But you can have me,' Pippa replied.
He threaded a lock of auburn hair behind her ear, away from her face. 'I know that now. But love distorts things until you don't know what to believe or which way is the right way up. I'd shut you out before because what I felt scared the hell out of me. Then I convinced myself you had gone back to that Ollie guy –'
'No!' Pippa interrupted him, desperate to set the record straight. 'Not at all. Was it you that called that night?'
'I was in France,' Jack said, nodding sagely. 'Sitting in a bistro with just about everyone around me looking like they were happily in love. It made me miss you even more. So I tried to call... I've learnt never to go to Paris if you're suffering a broken heart.'
Pippa wrapped her arms around his neck, pulling him closer. 'I'm sorry. Tash had taken me out to cheer me up. Then Ollie walked through the door. I promise I didn't even speak to him. I didn't want to.'
'Really?' Jack looked relieved.
'In fact it made me realise just how little I cared for him compared to you. I don't want you to have a broken heart.'
He unwound her hands from his neck and placed one on his chest. 'All better now.'
Pippa grinned, feeling the rapid thud against her palm. 'I love you, Jack Carmichael,' she whispered.
'And I love you, Miss Pippa Taylor,' he replied, humour glinting in his blue eyes. 'Will you come home with me? Promise never to go away again?'
'Hand on heart.'
Jack laughed. 'My heart.'
Drawing her close again, he sealed the promise with a slow kiss.
Pippa closed her eyes, seeing the swirling colours of everything around her in her mind's eye. The greens of the paddocks, the pinks of the stables in the sun's reflection, the oranges, the golds, the silvers, the blues... the Brandeis blue.
Copyright © Hannah Hooton, 2015
ONE LAST AUTHOR'S NOTE: If you've enjoyed this book, then I'd be mighty grateful if you left a review on Amazon. Reviews drive sales and allow me to keep writing, so they are not to be underestimated. PLUS, while you're there, you can pick up a FREE e-copy of Keeping the Peace (limited time only) to download and re-read at your leisure.
Wishing everyone a Happy New Year and a healthy and prosperous 2016 from everyone at Aspen Valley. xxx