Enjoy a special romantic short story to celebrate Valentine’s Day from Mills & Boon author Clare Connelly. Originally published in The Advertiser on 09.02.2020.
‘He’s not going to be here. He’s not going to be here.’ She whispered the words to herself over and over again, almost like a talisman, a stranglehold on sanity when breathing was becoming impossible and her heart was hammering against her ribs. Eloise reached out absentmindedly, grabbing for one of the silky grape vines, the soft undergrowth so familiar to her fingertips. Having grown up in the Barossa, she knew these vines intimately, their ever-changing nature strangely reassuring. In summer, like now, they were a vibrant green, the gnarled vines giving themselves over to bursts of luxuriant foliage and burgeoning fruit. In the distance, the sound of the annual Valentine’s Day Mixer was in full swing, with local singers filling the area with their songs. A marquee was set up, with multi-coloured lights strung along each side and haphazardly beyond to create a dance floor.
Eloise barely saw the lights and hardly noticed the singing – her memories were devouring her. Every step she took brought her closer to her future, but also threw her into the past.
It had been an evening almost exactly like this the last time she’d seen him. Sunny and cloyingly warm, the air alive with humidity and crickets, their trill filling the summer’s air, underscoring the rushing of her pulse. Andreas had leaned towards her, his dark hair flopping over his forehead, reminding her of the millions of photographs she’d seen of him, except in person he was so much more.
‘I don’t have to go.’
‘Of course you do. You can’t ignore your responsibilities – or have you forgotten you’re a prince?’
His lips had curled in a half-smile as he lifted a gaze over his shoulder, to where two suit-clad security officers stood. ‘Kind of hard to forget.’ He’d reached over, brushing her chin with his thumb, his eyes lingering on hers a moment too long, so her breath had burned inside her oesophagus. He’d looked at her like that the first night they’d made love, in amongst the vines, alone then, no security in sight, no reminders that he was a prince of a faraway European country and she was the daughter of a local vintner.
‘Four years.’ His kiss had been barely enough. Just a light brush of his lips to hers, enough to spark a fever in her blood but not to quench it. ‘On this night in four years, right here at this little country dance you have, I will come back and then you can decide if this is really the life you want.’
‘I’ve already decided –’
He’d pressed a finger to her lips, a look of sadness in the depths of his eyes. ‘You need to think. Being with someone like me is not a walk in the park. The media, scrutiny, official duties…’
‘Would all be worth it.’
His smile was unsure. ‘And if it wasn’t? You’re too young to make a decision that might ruin your life. If you love me – really love me – you’ll love me in four years.’
‘Ellie!’ One of Eloise’s oldest friends appeared. ‘God, you look stunning!’
Eloise threw a casual look at her outfit. She’d dressed with way more care than usual – and way more attention than the mixer warranted. True, it was a well-known event in the area, drawing people from all the little towns clustered around the rolling hills that made up the Barossa Valley – leading to many engagements and happy relationships – but that wasn’t why Eloise had gone to the city to buy a dress she could barely afford. It was all for Andreas. To the world, he was His Royal Highness Andreas Al Vasindár, but to Eloise, over the summer they’d spent together – a hiatus from his official duties after graduating from university – he was simply Andreas.
It was ridiculous to think he’d come. They’d barely communicated in four years, and she’d ached for him, ached to speak to him, to tell him when she’d got a distinction at university and finally when she’d graduated. But all the while, she’d held his promise deep inside her heart, telling herself she could manage without him so long as he was true to his word.
Not once in the four years that had passed had she doubted her love for him, or the commitment they’d made.
Only now as she arrived at the end of the vines, a fragrant rose bush planted as a punctuation point to each row – a natural deterrent to pests – did she stop for a second to contemplate the enormity of what she was doing, and of what it would mean if he wasn’t there.
‘Ellie?’ Kari nudged her. ‘Why so dressed up?’
She hadn’t told anyone about their romance – the press intrusion would have been fierce and neither of them wanted that.
‘Oh, I just liked the dress.’ She shrugged, as though it were nothing.
‘Yeah, I can see why.’ Kari linked her arm with Eloise’s. ‘Come on, let’s go grab a drink.’
Eloise went with Kari, listening to her conversation and responding where needed, but she could barely process what they were discussing. Her mind – all of it – was focussed on scanning the crowd. There was a huge crowd; it felt as though everyone over fifteen had packed into the field – half under the marquee, half under the dusk sky, all drinking and laughing. Some were dancing, some sitting on the hay bales that had been propped around in lieu of chairs. The music was beautiful, the air was alive with excitement and relief – the dry summer was almost over. Soon it would be autumn and rain would come. They lived by those seasonal changes out here – it was one of the things she’d braced to leave behind. Because Andreas would come and the life she’d decided she’d wanted would be on the other side of the world.
A shiver ran down her spine because, despite the doubts, she’d never really believed he wouldn’t be here.
Where was he?
Hope was giving way to desperation. Disbelief.
‘Hey, Ellie!’ One of the local publicans threw his arms around her. He was already a few drinks in, if his ruddy cheeks were anything to go by.
He leaned closer to say something, his words drowned out by a noise in the distance. It took Eloise a few seconds to compute what she was hearing. Helicopter rotor blades.
It could be anyone. Anything. She stood where she was, but her heart was rabbiting hard against her ribs and finally, when she could stand it no longer, she lifted her gaze in the direction of the noise, just in time to see a sleek black bird set down in the field beyond.
Michael said something else and laughed; she laughed too, taking the wine Kari had fetched. But time seemed to slow down. The world was no longer spinning.
She held her breath. Seconds passed. Then minutes. She waited, staring straight ahead. It had all come down to this.
Two men appeared, dressed in dark suits, and a moment later, Andreas. A sob filled Eloise’s throat; she didn’t give into it. Silence seemed to fall – it didn’t of course, but Eloise could no longer hear anyone or anything.
Andreas’s eyes met hers across the crowded field, and the last four years faded into nothing. It was him, and her, and the love they’d felt almost the first moment they’d met.
She saw in his eyes the same nervousness she’d felt – a fear that perhaps she wouldn’t be here?
His brow lifted, his expression carefully blanked of emotion, the question obvious. Well?
She swallowed, her palms sweaty, and then she nodded. A single jerk of her head. Yes.
His lips quirked; she smiled. When he moved it was with one thing in mind – in the middle of the mixer, surrounded by happily dancing and singing locals, they kissed – a kiss that said everything they felt: I love you; I’ll always love you. Stars shone overhead, grape vines whispered to one another and in the field on the outskirts of Tanunda, true love was born.