Polly came rushing out of the house, hair flying. ‘Hello hello hello hello hello do you remember me?’ she cried as soon as they got out of the car.
‘Of course I do, Paulina,’ said Robbie, and Polly squealed and gave him a hug.
‘Come on, come out of the rain, and I will give you a tour of the house. Mummy has a headache and she says she won’t be up before teatime, so we have to be quiet as mice.’
Robbie winked at Emily as he retrieved his bag from the back seat. Polly immediately grabbed his hand and tugged him into the house. As they followed, Emily restrained herself from asking her father what he thought. He didn’t speak until they’d gone through the front door. ‘Very cordial young man, isn’t he? He seems excited to be seeing the world.’
She didn’t quite trust herself to answer one way or another; she knew she’d give away how much it mattered to her. The fact that her mother had gone up to bed with a headache didn’t bode well, but if her father liked Robbie, he might be able to sway her . . .
‘You like him very much, don’t you?’ her father asked. She nodded. ‘Then I hope we shall all like him, too.’
‘Polly already does,’ said Emily, wincing as a blast of Petula Clark came from upstairs.
It took some doing to manage to escape Polly’s clutches and go for a walk, just the two of them, together under an umbrella, holding hands. They wandered down the muddy and dripping lanes, hidden by hedgerows, and Robbie stole kisses every few steps.
Emily had never felt so incandescently happy.
‘Your family are nice,’ Robbie said.
‘You haven’t met my mother yet. She’s being . . . difficult.’
‘Well, she hasn’t met me yet. I’ll win her over with my Yankee charm.’
‘Not to doubt your Yankee charm, but Mum is very good at not changing her mind. We have an interesting relationship, where she tells me everything that’s wrong with me and I’m not allowed to return the favour.’
‘Your father seems great, though. And Polly’s a peach.’
‘Polly doesn’t have the same problems with Mum that I do. It’s easier between them, for some reason. But Dad is great, yes.’
‘I see why you admire him so much.’
‘I want to be just like him. Except a quiet country practice doesn’t really appeal to me; I’d rather be somewhere that I can really help people. In a hospital, or maybe abroad.’
‘If you keep practising, you can be a sailing doctor. Going from port to port, helping all that are in need.’
‘Wearing a swimming costume and a tiara like Wonder Woman.’
‘Well, I wouldn’t complain.’ He stopped them and kissed her, thoroughly. ‘I’m so very glad to see you, sweetheart. I thought about you every day.’
‘I know,’ she murmured. ‘I’ve had your letters.’
‘And I’ve had yours at every port. You can’t imagine how long that made every journey, knowing I had a letter from you waiting for me when I got there.’
‘You shouldn’t be.’
She kissed his forehead, his cheeks, his eyebrows. He didn’t feel like a stranger at all. ‘This is crazy, you know.’
‘It’s a good kind of crazy.’ He wrapped his arms round her waist and lifted her up. ‘I think it’s the kind of crazy that only happens once in a lifetime.’
‘I hope so. I couldn’t deal with the stress, otherwise.’
He put her down. ‘I’ve had a lot of time to think while we’ve been apart.’
‘Dennis and Art must have loved that.’
‘They laugh at me and call me a changed man. Art is convinced it’s his chance to become the boat Casanova. By the time I’d left Italy, I think he was engaged to seven different girls.’
‘Maybe he’ll stay and marry them all.’
‘More likely he’ll be forced out of the country by Italian grandmothers carrying pitchforks and flaming torches.’ He smiled. ‘They were planning to go on to Greece, and then maybe North Africa, if they could get work. Bring the Nora Mae back next spring.’
‘You’ve missed that. That’s what you wanted to do – travel and see the world. You should have gone with them.’
‘Nah. I wanted to see you more.’ He hugged her tight. ‘Anyway, this is a nice part of the world to see, too. England is so ridiculously green.’
‘That would be all the rain.’
‘I’d rather be in the rain with you, than in the bright sunshine with a dozen grandmotherless Italian girls. Speaking of which . . .’ He dug into his pocket and pulled out something. It was a small leather box. He put it into Emily’s hand.
It was red, with gold edging. Emily stared at it. ‘This had better not be what I think it might be.’
‘Open it and see.’
Slowly, she opened it. Nestled on white velvet was a gold ring. It was fashioned into the shape of two clasped hands, smaller female inside larger male. She caught her breath.
She had never seen it before, but it was perfect. Two equal hands clasped, together, captured in gold, forever.
‘I couldn’t afford a diamond,’ Robbie was saying, ‘but this is a traditional Italian ring. It’s not new, either, so if you don’t like it, I can find something—’
Tears brimming, she raised her eyes to his. He stopped talking.
For the first time since she had met him, he looked less than entirely confident. The realisation made her swallow, hard.
‘It’s beautiful,’ she managed. ‘It’s . . .’ She wiped a tear from her eye. ‘Robbie, we can’t.’
‘We’re not even from the same country. And you want to travel, and I . . . I have four years left before I qualify, and then all the training. We can’t get married.’
‘Sweetheart, we can do anything we want to do.’
She shook her head. ‘Where would we live? How could we be together? You have dreams and I have dreams too.’
‘From the minute I met you, I haven’t had any dreams that didn’t include you somehow.’
‘I don’t know. I can stay in England for a while, working in boatyards. Maybe we’ll just have to write to each other until you’ve finished your degree. Whatever we have to do, we can do it. I don’t mind waiting, Emily. I don’t mind waiting years.’
‘We hardly know each other.’
‘We know everything that matters. Don’t we?’
She gazed up at him through a haze of tears. Robbie was crazy – impulsive, risk-taking, brave, able to change his entire life on a chance encounter. She . . . was not. She planned, made goals, took baby steps, worked hard.
She loved him. She had no idea how it had happened, but she did. He had lodged himself inside her heart and changed every single thing about her.
Robbie hit himself on the forehead. ‘Oh wait, I’m doing this totally wrong. Let’s try this.’ He took the ring box, gave her the umbrella, and knelt down in the lane in front of her. His knees were in muddy puddles. The rain immediately began to run down his face.
‘Emily Greaves, I love you. However it happens, whatever it takes, I want to spend my life with you. Whatever life throws our way, I promise you, we will find a way through it as long as we’re together.’ He took the ring out of the box and held it up, a perfect gold circle, two clasped hands.