'After that...' he went on, his voice softer, a sadness in it that galvanised her attention, freezing her resentments. 'Well, I thought your life would have grown a long way away from me. And it has.

Too far for me to reach you. I wish it were different...but there is no second chance.'

He reached into his shirt pocket and brought something out, his gaze dropping to it as he turned it over in his hand. A watch! An old watch! Barbie's heart lurched as recognition hit her.

Surely she was mistaken. It couldn't be the watch she'd given him...

'Take it,' he commanded gruffly.

She did, in a daze of disbelief, turning it over to see. There on the back was the tiny lamb she'd had etched on it—the silent promise to follow him anywhere. He had kept it all these years...

'I may not have looked for you, Barbie, but I never forgot you.'

Before she could even lift her head, or think of a word to say, he stepped around her, opened the door, and walked out of her life.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

One more chance...

Barbie willed it to be so as she carefully sprayed the silver glitter over the long gleaming waves of her hair. It was important to get her appearance absolutely right...as well as everything else. The fairy princess had to work real magic tonight. This was going to be the most critical performance of her whole life. Any possible future with Nick hung on it.

Surely he would realise it was hope driving her, not vengeance. Yet as she put the spray can down on her dressing-table and her gaze fell once more on the gift watch he'd returned to her, fear gripped her stomach. Had she killed hope...rejecting his explanations, rejecting his inner angst over her motives, rejecting the sexual attraction between them, rejecting everything he was?

She picked up the watch and rubbed her thumb over the etching of the tiny lamb for luck. She had meant what it had once promised—to follow him anywhere. If only she had carried that through this time— trusting instead of judging so badly—the terrible outcome with Nick might have been avoided. Following him tonight had to work. Had to.

She slipped the watch into her handbag. Nick had kept it for nine years. He hadn't thrown it away.

Maybe it would act as a good-luck charm, not letting Nick throw her away tonight.

Her mirror reflection told her she was as ready as she was ever going to be. If she made a total fool of herself, it didn't matter. It was impossible to lose more than she had lost, and if she won... Her heart quivered at the thought of having Nick look at her again as though she was the most desirable woman in the world to him.

She took a deep breath and set off on the journey that would settle her future with him one way or another. Leon Webster had picked up Sue two hours ago so the party for Nick's mother should be in full swing by now. Her appearance would be as much a surprise to them as it would be to everyone else, and Barbie could only hope Sue would understand.

Confiding in her friend might have triggered quarrelsome discussions and to Barbie's mind, there was nothing to discuss. Only this action could give her another chance with Nick. And she had the excuse that Carole Huntley had asked her to come and sing. If Nick didn’t' t respond... well, she could leave straight afterwards and the performance should have no bearing on Sue's involvement with Leon.

The mended fairy wings and magic wand had already been carefully placed in the car, along with the music she needed. Barbie double-checked she had everything before settling herself in the driver's seat. From Ryde to Pymble was a relatively easy trip, yet it seemed nerve-rackingly long to Barbie, having to concentrate on traffic lights and being in the right lanes for turns.

When she finally reached her destination it was to find the cul-de-sac crowded with parked cars. To her deep relief, there was enough space left on the Huntleys' driveway to get her car off the road and close to the house. It blocked other cars from leaving but that was of no concern right now.

She fumbled with the fairy wings, fumbled with the wand, fumbled with the tape recorder. It was a major effort getting the necessary items out of the car without dropping them, even more difficult to position the wings to slide into their slot on the back of her dress. She wished she had Sue to help her, but even now she felt it was wrong to involve her friend in what was—as Sue said—her private business.

Having settled the wings properly, and fiercely focusing her mind on carrying through what she'd determined to do, Barbie managed the walk down the front path without mishap. The party noise seemed to be emanating mainly from the back of the house, which, she told herself, would make her entrance easier. Silently reciting her set speech about being a hired professional act, she rang the doorbell and hoped whoever answered the summons would accept her explanation without question.

What if it was Nick?

Her heart stopped with the shock of that thought. Dizziness clouded her mind. She stood in a state of total paralysis until the door opened and she was faced with a blessed miracle.

Carole Huntley.

'Barbie...?' she queried in astonishment.

Words rattled out. 'I've come to sing for your mother. You asked me... 1 can tit it in after all and I thought...you said it would be something special for her...'

'Oh! What a lovely surprise!' Carole instantly enthused. Tra so glad you could make it. And coming from some other professional engagement...' Her eyes were busily taking in the fairy princess costume. 'You look wonderful, Barbie.'

'It's all right then...'

'Fantastic!'

'Will you put the music on for me, Carole?' She held out the tape recorder. 'All you need do is press Play.'

'Of course.'

'Are they all downstairs?'

Carole's vivid blue eyes sparkled with conspiratorial pleasure. 'Wait here a minute and I'll herd everyone into the family room. Where Stuart's party was, remember? We can make it the same kind of surprise you gave the children.'

Relief poured through Barbie. 'That would be perfect, Carole.1

An anxious frown suddenly appeared. I'll pay you for this, Barbie. I never meant to...'

'No. Please... let's just do it. If you leave this door open a bit so I can come in when I hear the music

Carole hesitated a moment. 'Well, we can talk about it afterwards. Can you stay?'

'Yes,' Barbie said with a hope and a prayer.

'I'm so glad!' Her smile was all delight. 'Five minutes maximum to get everyone in place and quieten them down. Just slip in and close the door behind you when the coast is clear and you can be at the head of the staircase ready to make your entrance when the music starts. Okay?'

'Fine! Thanks Carole. There'll be two songs and "Happy Birthday" is second, so don't think you've got the wrong tape.'

'This is fabulous, Barbie. Mum's going to love it.' Excitement beamed from a wide grin. 'I'm off to set the scene.'

Luck was with her, Barbie feverishly assured herself as she waited, hearing Carole ordering around everyone inside, footsteps obeying her bidding, heading downstairs, the party noise lowering to a mood of expectancy. She peered around the door, and seeing the coast was clear, carefully manouevred herself into the foyer. Her fingers gripped the fairy wand hard as she wished for more luck, all the luck in the world.

It was quiet below.

She stepped to the head of the staircase and willed her legs not to start trembling on the way down. She swallowed hard to moisten her throat. The music started, providing the right backing for her voice. She took a deep breath. This was it! No retreat. The cue came...and she sang, pouring all the hope and long-ing from her heart and soul into the words...

'"Somewhere over the rainbow...'"

Never had her voice been so true, so powerful... but Barbie didn't know it. She sang because she had to, and she walked down the stairs with all the majestic dignity of a fairy queen on the mission of a lifetime, not hearing the mutterings of surprise and appreciation, nor the hush settling as she descended to where the party guests were gathered.

Carole had obviously ordered them to circle the family room and those standing across the open entrance to it shifted aside to give Barbie a clear passage. Furniture had been moved back against the walls, probably to leave plenty of space for dancing. The centre of the room was completely empty.

As Barbie glided past the circled guests, she saw Nick's parents, Judy and Keith Armstrong, seated in armchairs at the far end. Beside them stood their family, Nick and a grown-up Danny near their mother, Carole and presumably her husband next to their father. All of them—except Nick—were smiling broadly, enjoying the surprise.

Barbie did her utmost to block his grim look out of her mind as she proceeded to the centre of the room, though she was conscious of her heart skipping into a faster beat. She couldn't let fear unfocus her. The song had to be sung without falter. She caught sight of Sue, and it was some relief to see her friend nodding approval and giving a thumbs-up sign.

Would Nick accept that after the most dreadful, damaging rain, a rainbow could appear, and he was the dream she was chasing tonight?

Barbie's whole being pleaded for that outcome as she halted and faced his mother to deliver the last

poignant lines of the song, starting with the fantasy promised in the word—" 'If.."' pouring faith and hope and optimism through her voice, needing to reach him, offering the chance—another chance—if he wanted to take it. She spread out her arms in a gesture of giving, willing him to understand, and the last line was a cry to him, if only his heart was open enough to hear it.

Loud applause erupted after the final note faded into silence. Judy Armstrong's face was crumpled with emotion, smiling through tears. Keith passed her a handkerchief, nodding benevolently at Barbie. She smiled back at both of them and risked a quick glance at Nick. He was not smiling, but his head was cocked to one side, his eyes narrowed on her, and his expression had subtly changed to a weighing look.

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