Chapter 14

Before I could leave for York, however, there was one more summer; one more golden summer. Amy, Peter, Marie, Sebastian and Saoirse and I were off to SA again, so, York both phoned and emailed to ensure I had a place in Hall for at least the first year, I turned my attention to packing.

As usual when there are three young women trying to pack their stuff together, the air was soon peppered with shouted accusations and questions. The case of me hunting down my make-up and shower cap was not exactly an exception to the rule.

"Saoirse, what the Hell have you done with my shower cap?"

"It's under the sink as usual! I never move it, you know that!"

"Well, you've moved it this time!"

"No, I haven't! You probably just need glasses!"

"I do not…Curses, I've found it. Apologies!"

"It's fine! Just give me my red fleece back!"

"I don't have it! Ma -Your mother threw it out months back!"

"Threw it out? Jesus, what did she do that for?"

"Ask her, but I think she figured you had your uni hoodie so you didn't need it."

"I will! Mama! Mama!"

Saoirse went charging down the stairs, shouting for her mother and, shaking my head, I began to pack everything into my wash bag…only to find that Marie had stolen my mascara. As it wasn't the first time she'd done that recently, I very nearly exploded.

"Marie, you've stolen my mascara again!"

"What does it matter, you never wear it!"

"That doesn't mean you can take it! It's too dark for you anyway!"

"You'd be surprised. Seb likes it on me."

"Oh, just give it back!"

Storming into my oldest sister's room, I snatched it off her bedside table and crammed it into my wash-bag before she could steal it again.

Passing Peter on the landing, I shot him a pleading glance from under my eyelids. "Can you stop her stealing my stuff? Please?"

"Ah, you're old enough to do that for yourself, Carolina," he laughed. I raised my eyebrows.

"I'm trying."

Ruffling my hair, he called, "Marie. Leave her alone. We need to be at the airport for eight tomorrow morning. We haven't got time to argue over whose make-up is whose right now. Worry about that in SA, okay?"

"Yes, Papa," Marie replied obediently, though she sent me a venomous look for having whined to him about it. Catching sight of it and how I reacted, instinctively scowling and sticking my tongue out at her, he laughed. "Sort it out between you, girls. I'm needed downstairs."

With that, he disappeared downstairs, just as Saoirse came back up.

"Are you two packed yet?"

"Nearly, why?"

"Because I'm nowhere near done, and I was kind of hoping for something of a hand."

"You do like leaving things until the last minute, don't you, Saoirse?" I teased, earning myself a playful slap on the wrist from her. "Sure, I'll give you a hand. Do you want me to go and get your dresses from the wash?"

"Oh, if you would," she sighed gratefully, so I hurried back down the stairs, just in time to overhear Peter saying, "I never thought I'd have to deal with arguments like that between the two of them. When I think back to how Carolina used to be…"

Despite myself, I lingered, curious. Amy hesitated, but then responded absently, clearly doing something else at the same time.

"Yes, I know what you mean. She was so shy as a little girl. She would never say no to either of them. Nor when she first came to live with us. Now, they can't seem to go two days without some sort of half-squabble."

"I'd rather have it that way, though."

"Agreed. At least now we know she feels comfortable with us. At least now she's living up to the name Carolina O'Brady."

"Yeah. Gosh, she's changed, though, hasn't she? Do you remember the first time she came in here after her parents had died? She was so quiet; so pale. I thought she was going to faint. And the way she let Saoirse decide everything for her."

"To be fair, that only really changed once David arrived on the scene."

"Oh God. Don't talk to me about him. Saoirse told me what happened between them. I dread to think how they're going to react to seeing each other again."

"He's had a hard time of it too, though. Maddie's illness, his crash on the moped…John says he's really grown up recently."

"He'd better have," Amy growled. "I do not want to have to confront him again."

"Surely Carolina wouldn't let him in again."

I heard Amy sigh and then say, "Peter, with all due respect, you were never a teenage girl. I was. I've been watching Carolina recently. Every time I mention David, her eyes spark for the briefest of seconds. She may not have even realised it herself, but I think she's forgiven him for what he did to her."

I didn't wait to hear any more, but hurried to fetch my older sister's dresses and then back upstairs. I helped her pack in near-silence, stunning her, for I had been buzzing ever since I passed my Baccalaureate.

"Cara, are you all right? You haven't been this quiet in ages."

"I'm fine, I'm fine. Just tired," I replied, before checking the door was shut, "Saoirse…"

"Yeah, what is it? You know you can ask me anything."

"Do you…Do you think I've changed?"

"What do you mean, changed?"

"I don't really know…just, have I changed?"

"Of course you have. You were a little girl when we first made friends. You're a young woman now. A beautiful young woman. But what's brought all this on?"

"Oh, nothing, just something I heard Papa say."

"Papa?"

"I mean your father," I corrected myself quickly, but Saoirse shook her head, smiling.

"I heard you. You called him Papa."

"I shouldn't…I shouldn't have said that," I mumbled, flushing, sliding my eyes away from hers. Getting up from where she was kneeling beside her suitcase, she put her arms around me.

"Why not? It's not as if you're betraying your parents' memories. You never called them Mama and Papa, did you? It was always Mum and Dad that you called them, wasn't it? And anyway, they knew how much you loved Marie and me. They'd be thrilled to see you felt so much a part of our family."

"That's as may be, but I still shouldn't call your parents Mama and Papa without asking them."

"You don't need to ask. They'd be honoured. I'm sure of it."

Feeling me relax at her words, Saoirse smiled wider and kissed me, before saying, "Now come on, I need your help or I'll never be packed in time.

Laughing, I turned my attention back to the heaps of clothes that she had scattered over her bed and desk.

Two weeks later, we were racing each other through the South African downpour and each striving to be the first to get to her uncle's front door. She won, as usual, her longer, stronger legs holding out better than mine ever could.

"Not fair!" I panted, "You're faster; you should have given me a head start!"

"Those days are over, my lady," she laughed, reaching above my head to pull strongly on the doorbell.

Her uncle opened it not a second later, greeting us both effusively.

"Cee-Cee! Carolina! It's lovely to see you. Come in, come in, you'll get soaked!"

"John, it's good to see you," Nudging Saoirse to remind her not to complain about the nickname he was giving her, I hugged him tight and then moved towards Amanda but before I could reach her, Amy called, "Carolina, come and give us a hand with the bags, would you?"

"Sorry, Amanda, hang on. Sure, Mama. Coming," I nodded, pushing past John on my way out of the door, avoiding his eyes so that I didn't have to see the strange look he gave me when he registered that I had just called Amy Mama. I knew it would be odd to them; after all, I was eighteen and about to leave home; it wasn't the usual time one started calling your adoptive mother Mama, if one hadn't done it before, but I didn't care. I'd never really been one for following tradition, and anyway, Amy didn't care. She hadn't stopped me. Nor had Peter stopped me calling him Papa. Since they were the ones whose opinions I cared about most, I would carry on doing it until they said any different.

Though David didn't come out to greet us, since he was busy riding out to check on the animals when we arrived, he was there when we went down to supper that evening.

"David," I greeted him coolly, thanking God and all the saints I knew that the Dutch tradition of three kisses, two on one cheek, one on the other, meant nothing; nothing more than courtesy, at any rate.

"Carolina," Taking my hands, he clasped them briefly. "It really is good to see you. How's everything in Holland?"

"Fine, thanks. I've passed the BAC now and I've made my offer, so I can relax for the next three months, rather than panicking, as I know some of my friends will be doing round about now," I chuckled, relieved to see him smile.

"But never mind that," Marie broke in, clearly hoping to help me through the first awkward moments of this reunion, "How's the leg doing? And how's Maddie? She hasn't relapsed, has she?"

"No, no, she's just very tired, what with being in and out of hospital recently. She's in bed now, but she should be up tomorrow." David reassured his cousin and I nodded, "Good. I liked your sister last time we met."

"And the leg?"

"Still stiff, but I can count myself lucky it wasn't worse," David replied, sighing. Marie nodded.

"David, with all due respect, racing a moped through a herd of already scared goats when you're drunk on New Year's Eve was never a good idea."

"I know that now, Marie."

"Anyway," Amanda broke in quickly, obviously not keen on her son's failings being aired so openly, "Shall we sit down? Carolina, can I get you a drink?"

"A rosé would be great, if you've got some, please," I agreed, turning back towards the laden table.

Marie and David did the same and the nine of us were soon lost in the pleasantries and small talk that goes alongside every family dinner.

Although I didn't deliberately spend an awful lot of time with David over the next few days, I had to admit that he seemed a lot more mature than the last time we'd seen one another. Despite our history, he respected my space and didn't try to push me one way or the other.

I could see he still liked me; that much was clear in the way he kept stealing glances at me as I helped his mother or spent time chattering to either his sister or mine; in the way he would always offer me any treat before his cousins or open the door for me, rather than for them; in the way he could still finish my sentences as well as Saoirse or Marie could, but, both still missing Robbie and unsure of whether he was sincere or not, I let it pass without responding.

Though I would ride out with John whenever he gave me the opportunity, or maybe the two of them, I didn't ride out alone with him the way I had done before.

Not until our last afternoon. That was the afternoon when he came up to me as Saoirse and I were leaving the kitchen after having cleared up the lunch things.

"Cara, will you ride out with me this afternoon?"

"David…"

"Oh, go on. The doctor says it's good for my leg," he pleaded.

"Stop blackmailing me," I retorted teasingly. I felt a hand on my shoulder and glanced up to see Saoirse nodding encouragingly.

"Go on, Cara. Go and ride Moonlight one more time. I know you want to."

"Saoirse…" I pulled her aside, "Have you forgotten what happened last time I went riding with him? Alone?"

"He's grown up since then. You can tell he has. He's not going to try and seduce you. Go on. Give him the benefit of the doubt. For my sake?"

Because I still wanted to make things as easy for Saoirse as possible after our last difficulties over her boyfriend, I nodded and turned to David.

"All right. Give me a few minutes to get changed."

Running upstairs, I switched my winter skirt for a pair of riding trousers and a fleece and stuffed my feet into my riding boots. Clattering down the stairs as I tried to buckle my hat on the move, I grabbed my jacket and followed David out to the barn.

Within ten minutes, we were clip-clopping out of the yard and down towards the edge of the woods.

At first, I tried to concentrate on my riding, but when David asked, "So how are things in Holland?" it would have been churlish not to answer.

"Fine. I told you, I passed the BAC."

"That's not what I meant, Cara and you know it. How are you? How's Robbie? It is Robbie you're going out with, isn't it?"

"Yeah, it was." Unable to help the note of regret that crept into my voice, I glanced down at Moonlight's pretty grey ears.

"Was?" David queried, but then cut himself off quickly. "Sorry, I shouldn't have said that. It's none of my business."

"No, it's fine. We broke up at the beginning of the summer. Before you ask, there was no particular reason. We were still fantastic together, but he's going to the States. We couldn't have kept the relationship going at that distance. No way. And what about you? Did you pass your final exams?"

"Yeah, I did. Engineering?"

"Oh? Where?"

"Funny you should ask that. I was going to go to Scotland, so we wouldn't be that far apart. Closer than you and Robbie, at any rate."

I sensed something creep into David's voice and looked across at him.

"David…"

"Cara. Please. Just hear me out a minute. I know I was a brat to you. I know I was a jerk and I know I deserved every single thing that you and Saoirse threw at me. In fact, I deserved worse. I haven't got any excuses for what I did. I could tell that you that I was just used to having my own way, and you not giving me your body when I wanted it was a shock; that it's the South African girls' fault for falling for me so easily; that it's my parents fault for not realising what I used to do and giving me a real rollicking for it, but it's still not an excuse. I'm sorry. I know it's not good enough, but I'm sorry. And believe me when I say that if I'd known what would happen in the last few months; if I'd known that I'd never be able to get you out of my head, I'd never have treated you like I did. I'm really, really sorry."

I half-longed to throw his apology back in his face, but his voice rang with such sincerity that I found that I just couldn't do that.

Kicking Moonlight on, I thundered down the path ahead of him whilst I thought about how best to respond.

I heard him stifle a curse and then Mars was beside me, matching Moonlight stride for stride.

Eventually realising I was never going to throw him off, I drew rein and looked at him.

"Very well, David. Apology accepted."

"Cara, please. Can you not give me a second chance? Just one more, that's all I'm asking for."

Stunned, I looked at him sharply. "How can you ask me that? After what you did to me?"

"I know, I know, it sounds mad, but I really do care for you. It's you I can't get out of my head; you, not any of the other girls. Please, Cara. I'd never hurt you again, I promise. We could be David and Carolina O'Brady, all over again. And this time, it won't go wrong. I promise. I'll have myself under control. I swear."

Taking a hand off the reins, he caught hold of my wrist. "Please. One more chance. One more."

Suddenly, I sighed, unable to deny that my heart still sang at his touch.

"All right, all right. I hear you, I hear you. But I'm not going to say yes; not right now. I'm leaving tomorrow morning. There's no point now. And come September, we'll be way too busy. But if you want to stay friends; try and meet up in the Uni holidays, then that's fine by me. Let's start with friendship, David, before we race into love again. Let's get through our degrees first. If you still feel the same way when we're 21/22 and out of Uni, then it'll be a different matter. But not now. I'm not ready yet."

Seeing that he was about to protest, I squeezed his hand gently by way of apology and then pulled Moonlight's head away from under his hold.

"Anyway, let's not worry about that now. We've still got this afternoon. Bet you can't reach that oak tree before I can!"

Shouting the challenge over my shoulder, I spurred Moonlight on, determined to put all my worries out of my mind and just enjoy this last afternoon in SA; enjoy David's company the way I had once done.

After all, after everything Carolina Francesca Greenwood had been through, Carolina Francesca Aisling O'Brady deserved to have this afternoon of enjoyment. I deserved it.