But Rowan wasn’t quite finished; she still had another layer of skin to strip off him. ‘And I’m not going to a bar, you moron. I’ve got a job tending bar so that I can make some cash to pay you back and get out of your stupid, judgmental face!’

With that last verbal slap—which he so deserved—Rowan turned on her heel and walked out of his house.

SIX

Rowan, exhausted and smelling of beer and bar, walked back into the hall of Awelfor shortly after twelve-thirty and sighed when she saw Seb standing in the doorway to the small TV lounge, dressed in casual track pants and a loose-fitting T-shirt.

She was still feeling raw, hurt and angry that Seb—smart, smart Seb, who apparently had the emotional intelligence of an amoeba—had assumed that she was backpacking baggage with the morals of an alley cat. She was exhausted from not sleeping much last night, from careering around Cape Town today picking up all the equipment she needed—haybales, paint guns, food—for the party the next day, and she was depressed that she hadn’t had a second to research the netsuke and that she’d been reduced to serving beers and martinis again. Dammit, she was twenty-eight years old—not nineteen.

‘I don’t want to fight, Seb.’ Rowan dropped her bag to the floor and rubbed the back of her neck. ‘If you’re going to take any more shots at me, can I ask that you do it in the morning? I’m wiped out.’

‘Come in here for a moment.’

Rowan cursed silently as he walked away without waiting for her response. Let’s just get this over with, she thought, following him into the messy room. A large screen, big boys’ TV dominated one wall and dark chocolate leather couches, long and wide enough to accommodate his large frame, were placed in an L-shape in front of the screen. A wooden coffee table held a large laptop and a bottle of red wine and two glasses.

Seb lifted the bottle and filled a glass, topping up his own half-full glass after he did so. He handed her the glass and nodded to the couch. Rowan, figuring that it was easier just to take the glass and sit down rather than argue with him, dropped to the couch and sighed as the pressure eased off her feet. She had forgotten how hard bartending was on the feet.

Seb sat down on the coffee table in front of her, his knees brushing hers. He held his wine glass between his knees and stared at the brown and cream carpet beneath him.

‘I owe you the biggest apology.’

Okay, she knew she was tired, but was she really hearing Seb correctly? He was apologising? Seriously?

‘Saying what I did earlier was...unkind and ugly and... Sorry. I really didn’t mean it. It was a stupid off-the-cuff-comment that slipped out because I was annoyed and tired and not thinking.’

‘Now, there’s a first—you not thinking,’ Rowan teased, and Seb’s face was transformed by a relieved smile.

Seb dropped a casual hand onto her knee. ‘Friends?’

‘Can we possibly be?’ Rowan asked him, cocking her head and looking into those dark blue eyes.

Seb tugged on his bottom lip, placed his glass on the table next to his powerful thigh and put his elbows on his knees. ‘Your verbal slap about making assumptions also hit home. Although I never believed those drugs were yours, I did think that you were reckless and rebellious and irresponsible as a kid.’

‘I was reckless and rebellious and irresponsible as a kid,’ Rowan pointed out.

‘But I carried on assuming that. I didn’t think that you had changed, that you’d grown up. There’s so much that I—we—all of us—don’t know about you. I don’t know you and I wonder if I ever did.’

Rowan felt her throat tighten. Finally. Finally someone from her past was looking at her differently, trying to see her and not the person they wanted her to be. Rowan put her fist to her lips and nibbled at the skin on her index finger. And, in fairness, how much did she know about him? About any of them? Surface stuff. Social media stuff. And how much of that was the truth?

She had to have some preconceived ideas about him and her family that weren’t based in reality either.

‘So, how about we try to get to know the grown-up versions of ourselves?’ Seb suggested.

There was nothing she wanted more. Acceptance and understanding. While she craved her freedom, she also wanted the freedom to be herself in this place where she’d always felt she could never be that.

Rowan dropped her hand and picked up her glass with a shaky hand. ‘I’d like that, but...’

‘But?’

‘But what about the other thing? The last night thing?’

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