The moment she started to walk away, having thrown him one final oblique glance of arctic disapproval, something snapped within him and he found himself impulsively thrusting his hand towards her, ensnaring the top of her arm in loose restraint. In her shock at this unexpected gesture she gave a start and almost sent the glasses she was holding crashing to the floor. Lost in her eyes as they turned towards his, he hardly even noticed. The tender softness of her bare skin felt strangely sensual beneath his slackened fingers, the impact of this first physical contact between them taking his breath away as exquisite frissons of sensation rippled like wildfire along every nerve-ending in his body. He could hardly believe his reaction to her, the feelings that just simply touching her could engender.
He had expected her to demand in no uncertain terms that he release her arm; and yet, in that instant, he found himself staring into a pair of wide, bewildered eyes. He could feel the air between them spark with an almost tangible energy and for one breathless second he was aware of some stunned echo of recognition passing between them before it was suddenly gone and reality came crashing back, bringing with it the familiar antagonism that seemed to dog every attempt he made at conversation with her. Reluctantly he set her arm at liberty before she had the chance to demand that he do so, a ragged sigh passing his lips.
“I wasn’t trying to offend you,” he told her, assuming once more some degree of self-possession. His mouth hardened. “And I wish that you would stop assuming that it is my sole intention to do so every time we meet, because I can assure you that it isn’t.” He found himself searching her eyes, plunging deep into their depths. Try as he might, he couldn’t read what she was thinking or whether she even believed what he said. His voice dropped lower to a murmur that only she could hear. “I’m not quite the villain you would have me painted, Margaret.”
She regarded him with cool indifference, seeming determined to petulantly cling to her preconceived ideas of him like a lifeline. She appeared so resolved to dislike him that he wondered why he even persisted in trying to make any kind of reparation. It was as though he were knocking his head against a barrier he had no hope of ever felling and yet he found that he couldn’t just throw up his hands in defeat. He was already lost. She was already inside him, her image always there in his mind, having managed, somehow, someway, to touch his very soul which had lain so cloistered and impervious for so long. Now he heard its plangent call for absolution and he knew instinctively that he would not rest until he got it.
“I am pretty certain that our paths will continue to cross from time to time,” he went on, keeping his tone even. “Could we at least try to be civil to each other?”
Her eyes seemed to challenge him, to beg the question of whether he was really capable, after the moods she had seen him in, of achieving such harmony.
“How about a truce then?” he proposed, as though she had spoken her doubts aloud. He could certainly hear them ringing in his ears. “Although it probably amounts to the same thing.”
“Why does it matter whether we get on or not?” she asked finally, appearing utterly perplexed by his resolution to smooth matters between them. “We have nothing in common with each other.”
“Perhaps with a little effort we might find some common ground,” he suggested, watching her carefully.
Instead of the conciliatory look he had hoped for, however, she threw him a dubious glance that did little to inspire him. “I can’t imagine what that might be,” she said.
Her resistance was like an insurmountable wall between them, one he knew he had to somehow raze if they were to go forward. It was as though she wanted to dislike him. Yet he wouldn’t let her force him into defeat. He was too determined.
“Well, let’s just try and maybe we’ll find out,” he replied. He tore his attention from her somewhat bemused expression, glancing across the room at Bess who sat at a table by the window waiting, watching their exchange with curious eyes. She averted her gaze as she caught his eye, her face reddening in embarrassment. He sighed, grateful for the fact that of all the people who worked for him that it had been Bess Margaret had befriended. At least Bess wouldn’t gossip with the rest of the staff about what she was witnessing between them. “You’d better go over to Bess,” he commented, bleakly resigned to the fact that he could not hold Margaret with him at the bar forever, however much he wished to. “She’ll begin to think I’m monopolising you.”
“She’d be right,” Margaret intoned.
“Margaret, please just think about what I’ve said.”
And in that brief instant as their eyes melded before she turned her back on him, he felt a sharp pang of regret sear his insides for once more having to watch her walk away with her opinion of him unchanged.
“Is there something going on that I should know about?” Bess asked, striking a casual note as she pushed two empty pint glasses towards the edge of the table in readiness for a member of the bar staff to collect. Her alert green eyes surveyed Margaret as she deposited their drinks upon the table, carefully sliding Bess’s glass towards her before settling down on the hard-backed seat opposite.
“I don’t even like the man. You know that!” Margaret replied staunchly, taking a large gulp of her wine. Despite herself, she found her eyes drawn towards him. He had removed his jacket and commandeered her bar stool; his back turned emphatically towards them. She thought about what he had said, about trying to get along with each other. For her part she couldn’t imagine that they could achieve such a state of affairs. After all, they stood at such opposite poles that she couldn’t ever imagine a time when they would finally find a subject upon which they wouldn’t argue or irk the other about. They couldn’t even manage to remain civil for more than a few minutes before some bone of contention was thrown into the mix and those gossamer threads of goodwill vanished as if they’d never been.
Safe in the knowledge that he could not see her watching him, she let her gaze travel over him, noticing for the first time how his black hair kissed the collar of his shirt, as though gently caressing the fabric with every slight movement of his head and how, because he was leaning forward against the bar, the thin white cotton of his shirt had pulled slightly taut to expose the long indentation of his spine. She found herself idly wondering what his back would feel like beneath her touch, how it would feel to trace the hard bones of his vertebrae one by one…
“You’ve turned a very fetching shade of pink, you know,” Bess said with an amused laugh, forcing Margaret to avert her eyes from John and feign a nonchalance she far from felt. With an effort she managed to stem that warm glow which had infiltrated her blood and was in serious danger of melting away her glacial indifference. “What were you discussing with such animation at the bar just now anyway?”
“He was asking whether I was settling into life in Milton,” Margaret replied, deliberately omitting everything else. She could hardly get her head around what had been said between them. One minute she’d been deriding him in a fit of passion and the next he had completely disarmed her by making a gesture that desired a better understanding between them.
“It certainly looked like an engrossing debate,” Bess considered as she took a sip of her wine. “Maybe Ann Latimer had better watch out.”
“Ann Latimer has nothing to worry about, believe me!”
Margaret absently circled the base of her glass with her little finger, noticing the ghostly ringed watermarks that besmeared the surface of the table, their erratic, ethereal pattern highlighted by the light surging in through the window. “What do you know about John, Bess? About his life I mean?” Margaret asked suddenly, looking up at her friend over the rim of her wine glass.
Bess took her glass from her lips, holding it slightly to one side as she regarded Margaret. “I don’t know,” she said, slightly at a loss for words. “He seems to work all the hours god sends, rarely takes a holiday…”
“What about his family?” Margaret interrupted.
Bess shrugged pensively. “He’s got a sister, but I don’t really know much about her. She seems to be around a bit more these days. I think she’s staying with them at the moment. She’s a bit scatty from what Nick says. As for Mrs T – well, half the staff live in fear of her!”
“What about his father? What happened to him?”
Bess put her glass on the table, a shadow crossing her face. She cast her attention towards where John sat alone at the bar. When she spoke her voice was low, as though if she spoke at a more normal volume he might hear her words. “It’s not something anyone talks about,” she said. “No one ever mentions him.”
Margaret frowned. “Why on earth not?”
“Because about ten years ago he committed suicide.”
Margaret found her life beginning to find its own rhythm. She no longer found herself thinking about Helstone, as she had in the early days when she’d arrived in Milton. Certainly she never thought of Henry, the miles between Helstone and Milton having done much to eradicate many of her memories of their time together from her mind. She began temping as a secretary for the various solicitors’ offices scattered around Milton, working on a week-by-week basis, usually filling in for people who were away on leave or sick. At first she found it somewhat daunting, always being the new person in the office, but she put her head down and did the work required of her and soon found that she naturally settled into casual friendships with the people she worked with.
As far as John Thornton was concerned, Margaret found that her path hadn’t really crossed much with his since the day they had spoken in Blues. Her father continued to mention him, of course, dropping him into the conversation from time to time, always extolling the fact that he worked hard to make the hotel the success it was. Although he never strayed into such territory, Margaret occasionally pondered upon whether her father knew anything about John’s life beyond what he knew of his work and opinions. She wondered whether he had ever told her father anything about his father’s death or his concerns for his sister’s marriage.
It was one Saturday afternoon, just after she’d walked through the door having been out with Bess shopping, that her father announced that John was coming to the house for dinner that evening.
“It was a spur of the moment invitation,” Richard Hale said enthusiastically, his delight barely concealed.
Despite her father’s pleasure, Margaret felt her heart plummet to her stomach. “Isn’t he working?”
“Even men who work as hard as John need to have a night off, Margaret,” her father said, his voice gently chastising.
She nodded in concession. “How does mum feel about it?”
“Oh, she’s quite happy,” he dismissed with a smile. “She’s going to get a lasagne she made earlier in the week out of the freezer. It’s all working out very well.” He beamed at his daughter, as eager and excited as a young child about to visit a toyshop for the first time, before heading for the lounge to check the news headlines.
With the unwelcome prospect of having to make polite conversation with John looming over her, Margaret went into the kitchen to talk to her mother who was already busy with the preparations for dinner. Despite her father’s assurances that her mother wasn’t concerned about the imminent visit of his friend, Margaret found that she was already in a fluster and rather unhappy about the fact that her evening was to be commandeered by the prospect of having to entertain.
“I don’t know why your father had to ask him to come tonight,” she muttered as she hauled the lasagne in question from the freezer and put it on the window ledge. “I suppose if I give it a little while to start defrosting and then put it into the oven it’ll be all right. He’ll have to have salad with it. I hope he likes salad.”
Margaret smiled at her mother reassuringly. “Don’t worry about it, mum. I’m sure he’ll eat what he’s given and be quite happy.”
“Well I hope you’re right. As for a pudding – “
“I can cut out that fresh pineapple you got yesterday and fill it with pieces of the pineapple and some strawberries if you like? It won’t take long,” Margaret suggested helpfully, anxious to relieve some of her mother’s burden if she could. Besides, it would allow her mother to go and lay the dinner table and get everything else ready.
Maria didn’t hedge. She graciously accepted Margaret’s help and together, chatting now and then, both immersed in their own tasks, they spent the next hour and a half making sure that the meal was prepared and the lasagne was popped into the oven to be thoroughly heated through.
With her kitchen duties completed, Margaret made her way upstairs for a quick bath. She lowered herself into the warm bubbles with the new novel she had bought while she was out, but found that she couldn’t concentrate on it. Her thoughts kept drifting to the evening ahead and the part she would be forced to play in it. Her father, having no knowledge of her mixed feelings concerning his friend, would be expecting her to be courteous and attentive even though the very idea of it seemed a rather tall order when looked at against every other time they had been in the same room together. It would be a miracle if they didn’t end up arguing about something at some stage during the evening.
Sinking deeper into the foamy water, she put the book on the edge of the bath and closed her eyes, determined to think about more congenial things and banish the image of John from her mind. By the time she got out of the bath, forced into doing so by the water getting cold, it was virtually an hour later. Shivering slightly, she grabbed a large bath sheet from the heated towel rail and wrapped herself in its warm embrace.
She had no conception of the time she’d been in the bathroom until she happened to glimpse at her watch. She couldn’t quite believe that she’d been so long. She’d have to get herself dressed as quickly as possible if she was to be ready for when their guest arrived! Fastening the towel around her she unlocked the bathroom door and stepped out, a shocked cry of dismay tearing from her lips as she saw John coming across the landing. Clutching her towel closer in absolute horror, her skin flaming with the squally heat of embarrassment, she froze in the doorway of the bathroom, unable to help but register his equal astonishment at her sudden materialisation.
“What are you doing up here?” she gasped. She could barely get the words out, so exposed did she feel. Her heart was pounding so hard in her chest that she was almost knocked sideways by the vibrations that shuddered through her.
He had stopped the second he had seen her coming out of the bathroom, but now he advanced towards her a couple of steps. She felt an automatic response to shy away, to keep a distance between them, but found her retreat impeded by the unyielding presence of the doorframe. He took one further step nearer and stopped, as though he had reached a line in his mind. She stared at him, still too stunned by his unexpected appearance before her to speak. Her whole body was burning, consumed by a fire that she could barely control. Embarrassment mingled with a very real awareness of how close he was.
If he reached out to her…
The air, ripe with tension, seemed to crackle all around her, like a multitude of tiny, unseen sparks exploding into glorious colour.
His blue eyes bored into hers, filled with an expression she couldn’t altogether fathom. “I came up here to find you,” he said, his voice deeper, softer, than she’d ever heard it.
“What for? Why?” Confusion screamed through her, her mind spinning like a carousel.
“Your mother asked if I could give you a shout and when I didn’t get a reply I came upstairs to find you. She told me that you were probably in your room.”
“I was in the bath.”
His gaze ran over her in what appeared to be appreciative acknowledgement. “I know.”
She felt her skin prick as his scalding gaze trailed the length of her svelte body, leaving a blistering glow in its wake, before returning to her furiously blushing face once more. Her long hair, freshly washed, clung around her shoulders as though it had been glued to her flesh. She hugged the towel closer to her body, glad at least that she’d picked up the bath sheet which covered her to the knees. His eyes scorched hers. Her breath caught, her lungs screaming for oxygen.
“You arrived early.” She couldn’t believe that she had said it, that she was standing on the landing with nothing but a towel to protect her from his penetrating eyes, initiating a conversation with him. It was too surreal to contemplate with any sort of logic.
“Slightly early,” he amended softly, mercifully keeping his eyes on her face rather than letting them slide any further down.
“You gave me a shock.”
He inclined his head. “I know. I’m sorry.”
Quite suddenly, without warning, he smiled at her. She hadn’t ever seen him smile like that before and it immediately reminded her of that warm glow inside upon seeing a rainbow on a rainy day. “Shall I tell your mother you’ll be down in a minute?” he asked quietly, his voice so velvety and deep that she felt herself shiver inside.
“Yes. Thanks. I’ll be down in a minute.”
But she didn’t move and nor did he, their eyes fused, each one waiting for the other to break the connection first. From some distant place she was aware of the sound of her parents talking, their voices an indecipherable hum, completely oblivious to what was going on up on their landing. The cool air licked her damp skin and she gave an involuntary shudder.
“You’re shivering,” he said, his voice barely audible, like someone waking from a dream and still a bit dazed by the daylight of a new day. Then he seemed to recover himself. “I’m sorry. I’ll leave you in peace so you can get dressed,” he said, almost too abruptly, spinning on his heels as he retreated downstairs, his footsteps thundering as hurriedly on the treads as Margaret’s heart beat in her chest.
For a few moments she stood there unmoving, wondering what had passed between them. Something, some incredible sensation, had – she knew that only too well. Her entire body tingled at the recollection of his eyes upon her, the way in which he had looked at her with such a bewildering mix of gentle reverence and unconcealed appreciation. She had not thought him capable of such emotions and it only served to heighten her own innate reaction to it.
As if in a daze, she moved automatically across the landing to her bedroom and stepped inside, shutting the door firmly behind her, leaning against it, endeavouring to slow her heartbeat with deep, steady breaths. The thought of having to go downstairs and sit in the same room as him brought a fresh bloom to her cheeks. She didn’t know whether she could do it. It was as though an undefined line had been crossed and now there was no way of going back.
The immediate attraction she had felt towards him on that very first day seared through her with unmistakable force, imbuing within her the simple truth which, despite her most valiant efforts, she would never be able to deny: that she wanted to shine for him, to reach out and touch his very soul in the way he had entered hers.