And so, finally to the end. I can't believe this is 70,000 words long. That's the length of a novel! I never intended to write so much, and at times it felt like this story was eating my face off. But you all encouraged me to keep going, providing insights and feedback and great ideas for plot developments. And he we are. Thank you to everyone who has read or commented on this story. You guys are the best.
Will stretched towards the ceiling, his back popping. Pull-out sofa beds were not made for six-foot-three men. He rubbed his eyes and ran a hand over the stubble on his chin. He hadn't slept well the last two nights. In addition to the mattress springs poking into him, he'd had the frustration of lying next to Bess, unable to touch her. They'd been apart for almost a week – he promoting his new film in Sydney, while she caught up with friends and family here in Adelaide. And instead of reuniting with her in their favourite way, he'd had to lie there, restraining himself for fear one of her nephews would wander into the lounge room in the middle of the night.
So he was tired. Thank goodness everyone in Australia knew how to make coffee.
He found Bess sitting at the kitchen table, eating breakfast with her two nephews. Felix, four, had an elfin face and an inexhaustible supply of energy. Oliver was a chubby-cheeked toddler whose favourite expression was 'I do it myself'. He was saying it now as he fed himself pancakes, getting as much food on his face as in his mouth, and resisting Bess' efforts to help him.
'Morning, Will' cried Felix, running over to him and starting to climb him like a tree.
'Good morning, mischief', Will replied, swinging the boy up onto his back.
'Me too!' cried Oliver, reaching his arms out. Will scooped him up too, resigned to getting maple syrup on his sleep shirt. Oh well, at least he hadn't had a shower yet.
The toddler nestled his soft face into Will's neck, while Felix clung onto Will's shoulders. Will had only met them the day before yesterday, but they were already attaching themselves to him. He wasn't used to this kind of easy, family affection. Would he and Bess have kids one day? he wondered. He knew it was risky, with his past, but he couldn't help picture a little girl with green eyes and a cheeky grin.
'That's enough, boys', said Jane. 'At least leave Will alone until he's had a coffee'.
She brought one over to the table for him as Will deposited the boys back into their chairs. Jane was stunning, by any standard. A little taller than Bess, a little blonder, with a great figure even after two kids. She probably could have modelled, but Bess said she'd never wanted to. She seemed very kind, but for Will she lacked the fire and passion that defined her sister.
'Thank you, you're a lifesaver', he said, sitting down next to Bess and taking the first, revitalising sip.
'No worries', said Jane, smiling. 'Brett needs at least two cups to get out the door in the morning'.
'Has he left already?' asked Will.
'Yeah, he starts at seven so he can pick up the boys in the afternoons'.
While Jane busied herself making more pancakes, Will pressed a kiss on Bess' cheek. 'Good morning, beautiful', he said. Her hair was piled on top of her head in a messy bun, and she was still wearing the tank top and cotton shorts she'd slept in. Her skin had grown more tanned during their week apart. She looked relaxed and happy. He loved seeing her like this.
'Good morning yourself', she said, ruffling his hair. 'How did you sleep?'
'Not bad', he lied.
She shot him a look that said she didn't believe him but didn't push the point. Neither of them wanted to offend Jane, he imagined.
Jane placed a short stack of pancakes in front of Will.
'You can throw the top one at the wall to check if it's ready', Felix told him helpfully.
'I can?' asked Will, wondering where the kid was going with this.
'You most certainly cannot, Felix', said Jane, pointing the spatula at him. 'Where on earth did you get that idea?'
'Aunty Bess told me', said Felix cheekily.
'Ooh, I did not, you little fibber' said Bess, reaching out to tickle him. He ran away, giggling.
'But I might have let them throw a piece of spaghetti at the wall last night, to see whether it was cooked', Bess confessed.
'It stuck!' said Oliver. 'It stuck, mummy'.
Jane put her hands on her hips and mock-glared at Bess, though her eyes were smiling. 'You are a bad influence'.
'No, I'm just the fun aunty', retorted Bess.
Jane sighed and returned to the stove. Will dug into his pancakes.
'Jane arranged a surprise for us today', Bess told him. 'A VIP winery tour of McLaren Vale.'
'McLaren Vale?' asked Will.
'It's just south of Adelaide', Bess explained. 'The wineries run along the coast, between the foothills and the beach. It'll be gorgeous on a day like today'.
'Thank you, Jane' he said, trying to keep the disappointment out of his voice. He'd wanted to spend the day alone with Bess.
'There's only one catch', Jane said. 'My boss wants to take you himself'.
'Jane is the communications lead at SA Tourism', Bess explained. 'She reports directly to the Managing Director, Bill Lucas'.
'He heard me booking the trip', Jane explained, 'and when he realised who it was for, he insisted on doing it himself'.
Will frowned, despite his best intentions. He didn't want to spend the day being fawned over.
'Don't worry, he's a good guy, he won't make a fuss. And he knows all the winemakers, so you'll get really good service', said Jane.
Before he could reply, Felix came back into the kitchen and tugged at his mum's sleeve. 'Mummy, there's some men with cameras on the footpath outside the house'.
Will groaned. He'd hoped to fly under the radar here in Adelaide.
'I'm sorry Jane, would you like me to get rid of them for you?' he offered.
Jane looked to Bess for guidance.
'How about you call Mr Lucas and ask him to pull into the garage? They won't get a good shot that way. And can you wait until we leave before you take the boys to day care?'
Jane relaxed. 'Good plan'.
'We'll move into a hotel tonight', Bess continued. 'I don't want them following the boys around'.
Felix's bottom lip trembled. 'We don't want you to go' he whined.
'It's okay, sweetie', she said, pulling him into a hug. 'We can still come round for dinner, right? Maybe throw some more spaghetti at the wall when your mum's not watching?'
That got a giggle out of him.
'Why don't you and Oliver go and get dressed?' Bess suggested. 'I'll come and help in a minute'.
Will waited until the boys were out of the room. 'I do apologise, Jane. I thought you didn't have paparazzi here'.
She shrugged. 'It's not as bad as in England, but we still have reporters. People are interested in your relationship because Bess is from Adelaide'.
'What has the coverage been like?' Bess asked.
'Not too bad. Mostly "hometown girl makes good", with a side of "love overcomes her tragic past"'.
Bess raised her eyebrows. 'I have a tragic past?'
'You know, with mum and dad dying', said Jane.
'Oh, okay'. Both women fell silent. Will squeezed Bess' hand.
She mustered up a smile. 'I'd better go help the boys before they pull all the clothes out of their dresser'.
Will waited until she'd left to apologise again. 'This is a terrible way to repay your hospitality', he told Jane. 'It's been a rough year for Bess, and now we've brought the circus with us'.
Things were finally settling down in the UK, but it hadn't been an easy ride. They'd both learned not to read the comments on any online article about them. They made Bess cry and Darcy want to punch someone. Will still wished Bess would agree to a security detail, but with Wickham under arrest, he had no chance of convincing her. They did take a minder with them to very public places, which helped with both autograph hunters and drunk idiots.
Wickham had plea bargained at the last minute and got two years in prison. Not because he wanted to spare them the trauma of a trial, but because he'd seen the writing on the wall and realised he'd get a longer sentence if he plead not guilty. Darcy didn't think it was enough, considering all the damage he'd done, but at least his career was finished and everyone knew what he was like. It would be harder for him to prey on women when he got out.
Emma had flipped out completely when she saw the pictures of Bess' scars. She yelled at Will for hiding the truth from her and burst into tears every time she saw Bess. After a month of weirdness, Will staged an intervention with Gordon, telling Emma she should work through her feelings about the accident with a therapist, instead of dumping them on Bess. Emma had tearfully agreed, because she was a good person at heart, and was really trying. They could go round to dinner again now with just the usual amount of drama. At least they'd kept Freya out of the whole damn mess.
'It's okay Will, I know you don't want them here either', said Jane, recalling his attention to the present.
She turned off the stove and came to sit at the table.
'I have to be honest, I wasn't sure about you two dating'.
Will's gut tightened. Jane's was the only family Bess had left, and he wanted them to like him.
Jane reached out a hand to him. 'No offence to you, we didn't even know you, but it just seemed so strange. Bess is just an ordinary girl...'
'There's nothing ordinary about her', Will cut in.
'Well, yes, I agree, but you know what I mean. She works a regular job, she's not a celebrity, and then suddenly she's dating one of the most famous men in England? We were worried about her'.
'You should be', said Will. 'The amount of crap she's had to put up with, I wish there were some way to undo it'.
'I don't blame you, Will. In fact, quite the opposite. Now that I've seen you two together, I can see how good you are for her'.
Jane nodded. 'Bess is a naturally happy person, but after everything that happened with mum and dad, she was so serious. It weighed her down, you know? She kept it together, even after we lost the house, but she wasn't the same. And then, when she moved to London, I knew there were things she wasn't telling me'.
You have no idea, thought Will.
'And now', said Jane, 'she's the happiest I've ever seen her. She laughs more, fools around with her nephews more … she just glows, you know?'
Will exhaled. It was all he wanted, for Bess to be happy, and if he had some small part in that…
'The way you've stood by her, the way you put her comfort before your own … I'm really glad she has you'.
'Thank you', said Will, trying not to choke up. 'That means a lot. I promise I'll always take good care of her'.
She laid her hand over his. 'I know you will'.
He tried to lighten the mood. 'Speaking of which, would you be able to book us a hotel for tonight? Whatever you think Bess would like best – a swimming pool, a spa, maybe a hamper of those Haighs chocolates she talks about?'
Jane laughed. 'You really do know her well. Don't worry, I'll get you a good deal'.
'Thank you, Jane, for everything. You know, I could fly you all to London any time you want to visit. And we'll try to get back here more often too. I don't want Bess to be separated from her family'.
'You're family now too, Will'.
Will's mind blanked. Was she saying what he thought she was saying? Could he really make it official, with her family's blessing? Excusing himself from the table with hurried thanks, he went to check on the engagement ring in his suitcase.
The road ran along the top of the cliffs, which glowed in the late afternoon sun. To the left, the white beach ran for miles, the sand disturbed only by the occasional dog walker or beachcomber. The ocean was flat and calm, stretching out to the horizon where it merged with the brilliant blue sky. To the right, rows of vibrant green vineyards gave way to gently folded brown hills.
Bess sighed. She loved London, but she hadn't realised, until she got here, how much she missed home. In her eyes, there was no place more beautiful.
In the back seat of the car, the men unknowingly echoed her thoughts.
'S'beautiful' said Will tipsily. 'S' lovely. I had no idea'.
'S' the best place on earth' slurred Mr Lucas.
Bess smiled. She should stop mooning over the scenery and turn her mind to more pressing problems.
She called Jane on the car's hands free.
'Bess? How's it going? Were the wineries okay?'
'They were great, thanks Jane. You were right, we got brilliant service everywhere'.
In fact, the winemakers had been falling over themselves to offer Darcy and Lucas their special reserves and best vintages. Bess, never a big day drinker, had taken over the driving from Mr Lucas after the first stop.
'And did you see the cube?'
'Yes, we've just come from there. We got some cool photos'.
The d'Arenberg Cube was a crazy blue and white glass Rubik's cube building, rising four-storeys above the surrounding vineyard. It was a popular destination with instagrammers. They'd only meant to stop off for a photo, but the owner had recognised Will and whisked them off to the top floor for a private tasting. Which had led to the current situation.
'Listen, Jane, I need your help'.
'I've got your drunk boss and my drunk boyfriend in the back seat, and I need to get some food into them stat'.
'We are not drunk', the guys chorused.
'Just a wee bit mellow', Will clarified.
'So drunk', Bess insisted, even though they weren't that bad. 'Wasted. Hammered. Completely munted'.
'Bess Bennet, wash your mouth out!' Will reprimanded.
'Calm down, it's not an obscenity. It just means drunk'.
'Australians have too many words for drunk', he muttered. Mr Lucas snorted.
'Anyway', said Bess, turning her attention back to Jane, 'I need to get food into these idiots. We only had bread, cheese and olives for lunch, and it clearly wasn't enough to soak up the alcohol'.
'Where are you now?'
'Almost at Aldinga Beach'.
'Perfect. Do you remember the Star of Greece? I can call ahead and get you a table. You'll be there in ten minutes'.
'You'll never get a table at such short notice'. The Star of Greece was a whitewashed restaurant, perched right on the clifftop overlooking Port Willunga beach. You had to book weeks in advance to get a table.
'Don't worry about it. I have connections'.
'Thanks Jane, you're a lifesaver'.
On arrival, they were quickly shown to the best table, on the edge of the verandah overlooking the ocean.
'This can't have been free at this time of day', said Bess to the waiter who was quickly resetting the cutlery. 'What happened to the people who were sitting here?'
'Don't worry', he said, 'we offered to comp their meal. They were happy to take a walk on the beach and come back later'.
'We'll get it' said Will, reaching for his wallet. Mr Lucas waved him away. 'Put it on my account', he told the waiter.
'Of course, sir', he said. 'Would you like some starters?'
'Can we please get a dozen oysters and some fries?' said Bess, selecting dishes that could be made quickly.
'And to drink?'
'Just water', she said firmly, her eyes daring the men to argue. They didn't.
Once the men had some food on board, they became noticeably less silly. Bess relaxed. Truly, they hadn't had that much to drink, but wine tasting could sneak up on you if you didn't have anything in your stomach.
Over dinner, they discussed plans for their visit. Bess wanted to walk through the university and along the river with Will, to show him the places she'd hung out as a student. The Malls Balls, a stainless-steel sculpture in Rundle Mall which served as the unofficial meeting point in the city, was a must. She wanted to get coffee in the Central Market, early in the morning before it got too busy. She also wanted to take Will to her parents' graves, to introduce him to them, but she didn't say that in front of Mr Lucas.
He had grander ideas. He offered the pair an Adelaide Oval roof climb, cage diving with great white sharks in Port Lincoln, or koala cuddling at Cleland Conservation Park. Bess politely declined, explaining that they wanted to stay out of the spotlight.
At the end of the meal, Mr Lucas excused himself to go to the bathroom, and didn't return.
The waiter came over to their table. 'Mr Lucas was called back to the city on business. He took a taxi, and said that you should drive his car back to your hotel. He can collect it in the morning'.
'That was kind of him', said Will as the waiter left. 'I think he could tell we wanted to be alone'.
'Would you like a swim?' said Bess impulsively. 'I chucked our bathers in the boot, just in case'.
'I'd love to'.
The sea was still as glass. Will dived under, the cool salt water clearing the last dregs of alcohol from his mind. He wiped his face and shook the water out of his hair.
The tide was in, and the bay shallow. Will walked out slowly, sand squelching under his toes. Bess swan beside him in her neat, efficient crawl.
He stopped when the water was up to his chest. Bess turned and floated on her back.
She normally wore speedos, but she'd evidently bought a new bikini for this trip. Unable to resist, he reached out a hand to stroke the smooth planes of her stomach.
She folded up and went under, spluttering. She popped back up and started splashing him.
'What did I do?' he asked, lifting his arms to shield his face.
'You know I'm ticklish!'
'Come here and I'll kiss it better'.
He pulled her into his arms and kissed her salty lips. She wrapped her legs around him and kissed him back. Her damp breasts pressed against his chest through the thin fabric of her triangle bikini top. Panting, he pulled back and looked out to sea, willing his nether regions to calm down.
The slate blue ocean met the mauve horizon, the sun a glowing orange semicircle at the junction of the two. The sky above lightened to pink and then a brilliant gold. The warm light bathed her face, picking out the curve of her cheekbone, the corner of her lips.
'So that's where it comes from', he said under his breath.
'Where what comes from?'
'The light. Your light'.
'Will, are you still drunk?' she teased.
He shook his head, searching for the right words.
'The light is different here. It's brighter, whiter than in London. The way it reflects on the eucalypt trees - you hadn't noticed?
Bess smiled, relaxing in his arms. 'Oh, I know what you mean. It's one of the things I miss most about home'.
He looked the other way, up to the houses perched on the clifftop. Maybe he could buy one as a holiday home. Then he and Bess could visit any time they wanted.
'And you brought the light with you, to England'.
'I what?'. Her nose scrunched up in confusion.
'You've always glowed, ever since that day we walked to Freya's school to pick her up. You turned your face up to the sun and it just seemed to radiate out of you'.
'Don't be silly', she said, burrowing her face in his shoulder.
He gently lifted her chin and looked into her eyes.
'Bess, my life wasn't bad before I met you. I was successful, and I had Emma and Gordon, and Fitz when he was in the country. But it was cold and dark. I was always drawn to your warmth, though it took me a long time to admit it'.
He ran his hand down her back, feeling the old scars under his fingertips. 'You've been through so much, but it's never put out your fire. Even on the worst days, when it feels like you and me against the world, you keep burning'.
'Will, it's only because I have you'. Her eyes misted. 'I've never had someone so completely in my corner. The way you take care of me, the way you stand by me – I think I could get through anything so long as you're there'.
This was it. This was his moment. His heart raced as he searched for the right words.
'Bess, in the car, when you said I was your boyfriend, it jarred a little'.
She frowned, pulling away.
'Please don't look at me like that. I love being your boyfriend, it's the best thing in the world, only I want more'.
'I want to be your husband', he rushed out. 'If you'll have me'.
Her mouth dropped open and she stared at him in shock.
The water was too deep to go down on one knee, and the blasted ring was in his pants pocket in the car. He held her close with one arm, cupping her cheek with his other hand.
'Bess, you know I love you. Will you be my wife? Will you let me love, honour and cherish you, all the days of our lives?'
She choked, and threw her arms around his neck, squeezing tightly. Her skin was warm and vital under his palms. He waited, holding his breath, for her answer.
'Yes', she breathed against his skin. 'Oh yes, of course I will'. Her voice broke. 'I love you so much'.
Elation filled him, robbing him of speech. He'd never been so shatteringly, blindingly happy. He kissed her damp hair, her face, and when she lifted her head, her mouth. The ocean was cooling around them, but he felt the heat everywhere their bodies touched. With Bess by his side, he would never be cold again.
Out in the bay, unseen by the pair, a single dolphin leapt from the water, cutting a silver arc across the sun as it sank into the ocean.