Gemma gasped. On a black cloth inside the glass cabinet lay the almost complete skeleton of a large sea reptile. Gracie was the plesiosaur Jamie had unearthed.
Two metres or so, end to end, it was the most superb specimen she’d ever seen. The tail was flat and tapered with four paddles rather than limbs attached to a squat body. The neck was incongruously long. The head was still covered by clay but sharp teeth were discernible in the open mouth. She could have sworn it was grimacing at her.
Jamie moved behind her, distracting her momentarily by hanging a bare globe from a hook above the cabinet. In the sudden glare, she caught the excitement in his dark-blue eyes.
‘Isn’t she a beauty?’ His deep voice was filled with pride, his self-satisfied smile uncontainable.
She looked down. The bright light shining over her shoulder created a fairyland. The hairs on the back of her neck rose as a rainbow of riotous colour leapt from the surface of the skeleton, dazzling her with brilliance. Ribbons of peacock green, flashes of royal blue, warm sparks of blood-crimson; the fossil was alive with an electrifying iridescence of the richest colours imaginable. Drawn irresistibly closer, she could see every bone exposed so far was either completely opalised or ringed with opal.
She almost stopped breathing. She’d had hopes of the fossil being outstanding but this ...
‘This is the most staggeringly beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.’
She wrenched her gaze away from the case to meet his eyes. His elation matched her feelings so exactly her pulse jumped. Here was the Jamie of old: the romantic idealist, everything a young girl could wish for—the Jamie she’d fallen in love with.
He grinned at her and for the briefest moment she enjoyed having him hold her heart as helpless as he once had. Until the ever-present warning bell sounded in her head.
The Jamie she’d known would never, ever consider destroying something as uniquely beautiful as this. She had to swallow down the resentment welling inside; nothing to be gained by dwelling on the betrayal of his once high-held ideals. For now, at least.
She turned her mind to more immediate concerns. ‘How did you find her?’ Her words emerged in a whisper.
His dark eyes lit up. ‘A few months back I came across a seam of opal like nothing I’d ever seen before and—it’s hard to explain—I had this feeling.’
Gemma shivered and, despite not wanting to, found herself smiling at his sheer enthusiasm, fully identifying with the thrill of the discovery.
‘Usually with a find I extract the opal piece by piece but this time I decided to move the dirt from above and below the seam. Bit by bit I could see the ribcage and neck bones emerging.’ He shook his head. ‘I had no idea she’d be this magnificent. When I finally unearthed all of her I moved her in here. I’ve been cleaning her up little by little ever since.’
‘Why haven’t you exposed the head yet?’
‘It’s too fragile to clean completely and I didn’t want to do any damage.’
‘I think you should leave it like that,’ she suggested. ‘The difference between the original skeleton and how spectacular it is when it’s cleaned up is fascinating.’
She gazed down again, her eye caught by something she hadn’t originally noticed, and the pulse in her throat accelerated. Molecule by molecule, opal had replaced bone, preserving all the amazing details of the plesiosaur’s internal anatomy.
‘This here,’ she said, pointing with trembling fingers to a cluster of tiny, glittery bones in the region of the plesiosaur’s stomach, ‘did you realise it’s an embryonic skeleton? Your Gracie was pregnant.’
Jamie nodded. ‘Yeah, I know. Kinda sad, isn’t it?’
Sad? God, yes. But it also made this specimen an unparalleled discovery.
Her pulse quickened and her words escaped in a rush. ‘Gracie’s very special, Jamie. There’s only one other pregnant plesiosaur fossil in existence.’
‘Is that right?’ He seemed genuinely interested.
A tiny glimmer of hope beckoned. If she could just calm down and take things slow, continue working away at his conscience, she might actually be able to get through to him.
‘It was unearthed in America a few years back. The man who found it sold it to a museum in Kansas. He wanted it to remain in the same state it was discovered.’
Subtle enough? Jamie’s response was a flippant ‘Yeah?’ Apparently not.
He gestured grandly at his fossil. ‘Bet it’s not as beautiful as mine, though.’
‘The other plesiosaur is larger but it isn’t opalised. You do realise what that means, don’t you? It makes Gracie one of a kind. She’s totally unique, Jamie.’
He shook his head at her. ‘Do you honestly think I don’t know what you’re trying to do here, Gem?’
Her heart plummeted; he knew her too well.
Suddenly it was all too much. ‘Please don’t dismantle her.’ The pleading note in her voice made her cringe inside but she plunged on regardless. ‘Gracie’s irreplaceable. A ... a miracle.’
He opened his mouth, no doubt to cut her down, then a change came over his features. She held his gaze and for the first time thought she detected lines of self-doubt around his eyes. Had she managed to prick his conscience?
‘I don’t want to argue with you anymore,’ he said at last. ‘We should go.’ He reached up to remove the hanging globe.
No. She couldn’t leave it like this. He was obviously battling something within himself and she needed to keep him talking, needed to keep the lines of communication open between them until she worked out a way to make him accept the enormous importance of his discovery.
‘One last look. Please.’
Her body sagged in relief at his reluctant nod. She spaced her fingers on the edge of the display case and leaned over it, drinking in the beauty of the stunning relic inside, this priceless glimpse of life from the ancient past. How privileged she was to have seen it. How unutterably sad to never have the chance to see it again.
‘Why have you called her Gracie?’ she asked, shifting her gaze from the fossil to him.
‘I named her after my mother.’ His smile was sad around the edges and unexpectedly tugged at her heart.
‘I remember you talking about her,’ she said softly. ‘You were just a kid when she ... passed away.’
‘Fourteen. She may have died a long time ago, but I can still see her.’ His hands rested possessively on the glass case.
‘What was she like, your mum?’
‘She laughed a lot. And she was beautiful ... before she got so sick.’ He coughed into a hand. ‘Chemo’s brutal. I wanted to keep her safe but ... ’ He gazed down at his find.
In the sudden silence Gem felt his sadness. Her heart ached for him, for what he must have suffered growing up without a mother. At least she’d had the unwavering support of two loving parents until she reached adulthood. And she couldn’t bring herself to even imagine Drew’s future if anything happened to her.
She placed her small hand over his large, scarred one and squeezed. ‘I know how hard it is.’
* * *
Jamie nodded without speaking. Talking about his mother always affected him more than he liked to show, and Gem’s sympathy made the sadness almost too difficult to bear. This woman aroused so many conflicting emotions in him. One minute he couldn’t wait to get as far away from her as possible, the next he wanted to pull her into his arms and kiss her senseless.
The warmth of her hand on his made him intensely aware of her. On impulse, he reached out to push the blonde hair back from the angel face he’d once loved so much. Recalling from all those years ago the taste of her, the touch of her, his body responded as it always had where she was concerned, instantly alive with longing.
Nostalgia proved too powerful.
He moved his hands to her slim shoulders, held her gently for a moment before wrapping his arms about her and pulling her to him. Her slender body felt shamelessly pliant against his, and beneath the violence of his heartbeat he could hear her quickened breathing. He pushed her away slightly. The anticipation in her eyes was more than he could stand and he lowered his face to seek the sweet taste of her.
The kiss was almost unbearably seductive, her mouth softly mobile against his. As her breath mingled with his, he cupped her face with his hands. Her lips parted and, with unspoken consent, his tongue slipped inside to savour the warmth and texture of her mouth. Through the thin fabric of her dress the lush contours of her body curved into him, the sensation so intense he found himself pushing the hardness of his body against the soft give of hers.
Beneath his hands a shiver went through her. She stiffened against him, breaking the spell. Her small hands, now balled into fists, pushed at his chest. Somehow he pulled himself back.
She wouldn’t look at him, instead gazing at the floor for several seconds. ‘You seem to have forgotten I’m married,’ she said at last.
The tone was one of censure but she spoke through lips still swollen from his kisses, and he sensed something not quite genuine going on. Before he could put his finger on it she reiterated, separating each word for emphasis, ‘I’m married.’
‘You are.’ She was. What the hell had he just done? ‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that.’ But married or not, she’d been into the kiss just as much as he had, and a woman happily wedded didn’t lock lips with another man that way. ‘Let’s put it down to nostalgia.’
‘That implies happy memories.’
‘My memories of us are happy,’ he insisted. ‘We had a lot of good times, Gem.’
The tightness in her face testified to her disagreement. ‘Had is the operative word. As you pointed out earlier, the girl you used to know doesn’t exist anymore.’
‘I’m not so sure about that now.’
‘Believe me, she doesn’t,’ Gem said with sad finality, before raising newly reproachful blue eyes to his. ‘You, on the other hand, are still a hopeless dreamer.’
‘Then why are you going to destroy this beautiful creature? Why sell off your dream?’
The probing made him uncomfortable. While his reason for having to sell to the highest bidder was valid she’d never accept the fact without further explanation and he wasn’t willing to share that with her. Not yet, not until he found out for himself whether Gracie was worth as much as he hoped.
Helpless to answer, he shrugged and spread his hands. ‘It’s complicated. In a few more days—’
‘In a few more days, what?’ she interrupted coldly. ‘You’ll be rolling in money? Good for you. Of course the world will be a poorer place, having lost a unique treasure, but hey, what does that matter, right? The logic of greed isn’t complicated, Jamie.’
Despite her escalating anger he kept his cool. ‘Greed doesn’t come into this.’
She barked her disbelief. ‘I don’t know why you’re trying to justify your actions to me. It’s obviously not your conscience—you don’t have one!’
The resentment in her eyes before she turned and stormed from the room, slamming the door behind her, cut deep. And the thing was, he couldn’t blame her. At times he disliked himself for what needed to be done with Gracie, although he’d never admit that. To anyone. Everything came at a cost and if the price of his and Harry’s future included a nagging moral doubt then so be it. It was a burden he was prepared to shoulder alone.
He kicked at the floor in disgust. The impulsive urge to show off Gracie before she was dismantled, knowing how much it would mean to Gem to see such a treasure, had well and truly backfired on him. Nothing he did or said would make her understand. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
The simple, sad truth was that he couldn’t give Gem what she so desperately wanted without abandoning his dream, a dream tantalizingly close to fruition. He’d finally found a way to repay his father and, as much as he cared for Gem, his responsibility to Harry outweighed his personal yearnings.
With a regretful look at his prize possession, he removed the overhead bulb. ‘G’night, Gracie.’ He couldn’t tell if she was grimacing or smiling at him.
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