Past & Present – Chapter Four: Doubts and Desires

The velvet timbre of his voice threatened to undermine her disdain in an instant as the warm embrace of unexpected familiarity enveloped her. As she met his eyes she saw that they, like the cadence in his voice, were at odds with the stern rather piqued expression he wore. She couldn’t tell what he was really thinking, whether he was vexed or amused by her audacious remark concerning his sister. Certainly she hadn’t meant to offend him; it had just seemed a natural question to ask in the light of the circumstances he had laid before her. She shouldn’t have to feel embarrassed by it, but even as this thought came into her head she became aware of an invasive heat seeping across her face, burning her skin like a brand. The fact that he noticed it mortified her even more and she turned her head abruptly away so that he was left with only her profile to consider.

“It was just a thought,” she began, overwhelmed by the need to defend herself. She didn’t look at him as she spoke, her gaze fixed determinedly upon the scene beyond the window. Several cars ambled by, their momentum greatly hampered by the speed bumps that reared like concrete monsters at regular intervals along the road. A lady in a rather florid headscarf pottered past the house with her dog, casting a vague glance about her as she went, quite missing Margaret watching her. Out there, there was movement and a feeling of continuity. In here, in this neat modest room, with this man who seemed to pervade it so thoroughly with his presence, there was only a sense of stillness as though time had ground to a complete halt.

“A very personal one considering that you don’t even know my sister,” John remarked brusquely.

Just the timbre of his voice restored Margaret’s dislike for him once more. “That’s true,” she conceded, feeling now that having recovered her loathing for the man she could look him in the eye. It was unlikely, of course, given the fractious nature of their association, that she would ever know his sister personally. Or Steven. Or any other member of his family for that matter. It didn’t stop her from continuing, her inherent reserve bowing like a reed to the potent pull of simple curiosity. “But,” she continued, thoughtfully. “Haven’t you wondered if she’s happy?”

“No,” came the somewhat terse response. He rubbed his forefinger and thumb across his forehead in mounting agitation. “I didn’t actually consider it to be any of my business.”

“She’s obviously come home for a reason – and if you’re going to talk to her about it then that makes it your business doesn’t it?”

How on earth did she manage it? Worming her way into his conscience the way that she so easily did, questioning him when he would rather be able to shut his mind to it until he was ready? She stood there, her back straight and her chin tipped upward in that defiant attitude which he had so quickly become accustomed to. She regarded him with the ignorance of a stranger, from the perspective of someone so utterly unaware of the history surrounding his family, yet with the intimacy of a long-standing confidante. He had thought that he could separate this matter with Fran and Steven from everything else, but it had been a futile hope. God knows, he knew now that he shouldn’t even have started this conversation. He was a fool to have done so, blindly following a desire to purge himself in Margaret’s eyes of the sort of thug she suspected him to be. He should have known that she would ask questions – more questions than he was prepared to answer.

Suddenly restless he paced abruptly towards the fireplace, standing before it, staring mindlessly down at the irregular lumps of artificial coal in the sparkling brass grate, all the time conscious of Margaret watching him from the sanctuary of the window. He had never felt so vulnerable, so exposed. Stirred into life once more, it was almost as if he could feel the icy tentacles reaching out from the past, seeking to ensnare him in absolute misery.

As though to save himself from the memories the past evoked he thrust his hands towards the mantelpiece, grasping so hard that his knuckles leeched of colour. He took a deep breath, desperately trying to conceal the turmoil that engulfed him from Margaret’s watchful gaze.

“She’ll probably appreciate being able to talk to someone,” he heard Margaret venture with rather more gentleness than she’d shown towards him in the past.

It made his heart lurch in recognition but he could not respond to her. Inside, despite managing to retain some sort of outward composure, he was battling to expunge the resentment, anger and sheer damned helplessness that had dogged him for the past ten years. After blocking it all out it had taken just a few innocently meant but shatteringly practical comments from Margaret to expose once more the hurt he carried like a dead weight in his heart, her words burning a chink into the implacable armour he wore like a second skin.

“I’m not sure she’ll appreciate it being me she’s forced to talk to,” John said at last with a certain irony, aware of the silence he had created splintering around him like shards of glass. He almost went towards Margaret, following a reckless instinctive impulse to do so, but checked himself. Instead he stepped deliberately into the middle of the room, feeling as isolated and alone as he had once felt, hugging his pain to him and yet longing to shed its burden and share it with her.

Beleaguered by the tumult of emotion coursing through him, he let his gaze skim the room There was no overt frippery about the lounge at all but it struck him just how appealing it looked, its comfort derived from the various textures of the pretty materials used and the careful choice of a few ornaments dotted around, mingling contentedly amidst the photographs that scattered the various surfaces. There were a lot, he realised, of Margaret during the various stages of her life. One in particular caught his eye of her aged about ten years old, her long hair in pigtails, standing in the middle of a lawn with a chocolate-box style cottage nestling serenely in the background. It struck him just how happy and carefree she looked, the innocence of childhood still firmly intact. How different their respective lives had been, he thought. There were other photos of her parents and some too of a young boy John didn’t know the identity of. In comparison the flat at the hotel he had called home for the entirety of his life contrasted sharply. No photos resting smilingly in their frames adorned the surfaces there. His mother had put them away long ago, buried them in some hidden place out of sight.

Almost instinctively his gaze came back to rest upon Margaret, her silhouette outlined in the sunlight which streamed in through the glass behind her. How had he not noticed how beautiful she was? Her long mahogany hair was loose, framing her face in soft, natural waves and draping her long ivory neck like a swathe of burnished silk. She was looking at him in the most disconcerting fashion, as though she could read in his eyes the turmoil he hid inside.

“If I was your sister,” Margaret began tentatively, stepping forward in a conciliatory manner, just the newfound softness of her voice having the strange effect of soothing his jangled emotions. “I would want to talk to you. After all, the age gap isn’t so vast between you is it?”

Was she implying that she would talk to him, despite their differences and their opposing views, he wondered? “There’s ten years between Fran and myself,” he responded. “I think that puts me well out of the confiding stakes, don’t you?”

“There’s eight years between my brother and I, but I would still talk to him.”

That, John realised, as he glimpsed again towards the photographs, satisfied the identity of the boy. “I didn’t know you had a brother. Your father has never mentioned it,” he said

Margaret smiled, affection spreading into her eyes. “He will, sooner or later. Fred’s what dad calls a serial traveller. The thought of settling down with a nine to five job and a mortgage isn’t what interests him.” Then she looked at him with such seriousness and sincerity that it made his heart bleed. “Talk to your sister.”

His eyes melded with hers, as he saw again her mute imploring to consider her words. He was overcome by an inexplicable aching to reach out and touch her face, to trace the contours of her features, to feel for himself whether her skin was as smooth and as tantalisingly soft as it appeared. Impulsively he took a single step forward, his whole body responding to the siren call of overwhelming desire that shot through him. His right hand, assuming a will of its own, began to move slowly from his side, anticipating touching her, as he advanced closer to where she stood watching him intently. It was as though he could hear her heart pounding in time with his in the charged silence of the room. As he stopped just in front of her he saw her lips part slightly, her hazel eyes widening as though she were struggling to take him all in.

Her name passed his lips to caress the air around him. “Margaret…”

At that moment the repairman gave a sharp knock and popped his head around the door, killing the heat of the moment like a bucket of ice water. John’s hand fell abruptly to his side as he turned, crushing down on his frustration, towards the man standing in the doorway.

“Well?” he asked, his voice curter than he actually intended.

“All fixed and ready to go,” the repairman announced brightly, before turning to Margaret who had, without John’s being aware of it, moved slightly away from him as though to place some distance between them. “It shouldn’t give you any more trouble, love.”

“Thank you. My mother will be very grateful,” she replied.

“Tell her she’s very welcome.” He flashed a smile and turned back to John. “I’ll just get my tools,” he said. “And then we can be on our way.”

John, bowing to the inevitable, nodded, watching as the man disappeared from view to retrieve his tools from the kitchen. He looked at Margaret. She was standing with her head lowered, her arms crossed before her, doing anything it seemed to avoid his gaze. He wanted to say something that might put right the unpleasantness between them, wishing that he could walk out of the house knowing that he had made some headway in gaining her good opinion, but the words would not form in his throat.

“I must go,” he said, wondering whether she could hear the regret in his voice. His hand twitched into sudden life as he felt once more the urge to settle his fingers beneath her chin and push it up so that he could see her eyes.

In the next instant she performed the task of her own volition, nodding in acquiescence, a faint, polite smile stretching tautly over her lips. “Thank you for dealing with the matter so quickly. I know my parents appreciate it.”

“It was the least I could do.”

Again she nodded.

He stood where he was, making no move towards the door, his feet rooted like blocks of lead to the floor. Although she stood close to him he felt her remoteness like an icicle in his heart. So beautiful…so distant…so beyond his reach…

“Ready when you are, Sir,” the wretched repairman announced, popping up in the doorway, his expression portraying how completely oblivious he was to the chill that had infiltrated the room.

John inclined his head sharply and with only a cursory glance in Margaret’s direction, uttered a stark “Goodbye” before striding quickly from the room.

***

No one had disconcerted Margaret in quite the way John Thornton did; she was utterly certain of that. Concealed by the swathe of net curtain, she watched as he folded his tall athletic frame into the passenger seat of a small van and slammed the door with a somewhat frustrated thud, before the car pulled away and disappeared out of sight.

In the nature of any man unprepared to be drawn too deeply into emotional issues, she had quickly realised that he had settled on telling her only what was necessary in order to offer an explanation for his conduct yesterday. He had tried to skate across the surface of his sister’s marriage, offering only bare facts, clearly not wishing to answer her impertinent questions. She had not been completely oblivious to the change in his manner when she had pressed him further about talking to Fran, noticing within his face the anguish that seemed to speak of a situation he found too painful to contemplate. She could not understand why this should be, even if there was a considerable age gap between his sister and himself; and certainly he had chosen not to regale her of the facts, choosing instead to deny flatly that this was even possible for him to do. At one point Margaret had even noticed him grip the mantelpiece with such force that she had thought him quite capable of tearing it from the wall. She was instinctively aware of his unpredictable nature, the determination with which he clung to the persona of a man almost incapable of attaching any emotion to anyone or anything – not even to members of his own family.

And yet, she had seen too – perhaps more disconcertingly – an occasional flicker of warmth behind the coolness of his blue eyes when he looked at her, a gentleness that was as utterly beguiling as it was unsettling. He had been looking at her like that just before the repairman had come into the room…

Quickly she stamped swiftly down upon the thought, feeling suddenly uncomfortable remembering it and deciding that she was better off if she didn’t. It was healthier to dislike the man, she decided, rather than to try and second guess what he might have been thinking – at least then she knew where she was.

With the van gone and nothing left to look at, Margaret moved away from the window, glancing mindlessly about the room, not really knowing what to do with herself, feeling fidgety, wanting to do something yet not knowing what. She spied her latest re-read of Jane Eyre lying face down upon the sideboard where she’d left it last night and considered sitting down with it for a while but immediately discounted the idea. Having just encountered the paradox of one man, she didn’t want to have to read about another.

She had no doubt that John Thornton was a man used to getting his own way and that he didn’t expect people to question how he behaved or, for that matter, ask him probing questions about members of his family. Yet Margaret realised that she was guilty of doing both and had been since the day she had first spoken to him.

***
John was still brooding about his visit to Margaret when he returned to the hotel later that morning. He had been to two meetings since then, one with the manager of the local Tourist Information and one with his bank manager, but not even they had stopped his thoughts from dwelling on what had happened with Margaret. Now the prospect loomed before him of having to go and try and find Fran to see if he could get to the bottom of what the hell was going on between her and Steven.

“Good morning, Mr Thornton,” Bess said brightly from behind reception as she noticed him enter the foyer. “Here’s the post.”

Like an automaton he relieved her of the bundle of letters secured by a thick elastic band. “I have to go up to the flat for a while,” he said. “I’ll let you know when I’m back in my office. Until then, could you tell people I’m still out?”

The flat was hushed as he let himself in. He knew his mother would be patrolling the guest hallways as she always did in the mornings, keeping a weather eye on the chambermaids and making sure that the high standards she dictated were not compromised by slackness. Out of pure habit John made his way to the living room, relieved by his mother’s absence, only to be rewarded by the sight of Fran curled decorously upon the sofa, flicking absently through the glossy pages of a magazine. She looked quite intent – if it was possible to look intent when reading about the gossip pertaining to celebrities, he thought balefully.

Alerted by his footsteps whispering decisively upon the carpet she glanced up. “It’s unlike you to sneak off in the middle of the day,” she said.

“I’m not sneaking off.” She only had to open her mouth to annoy him. It was a state of affairs that hadn’t really changed since they’d been children, their relationship still pretty fractious. “I actually came up here to speak to you.”

“Oh? What about? Do you want me to put in a good word about you to Ann? She’s completely besotted with you, you know. I can’t imagine why because you’re always scowling – or working.”

“Someone has to run this hotel. It won’t do it by itself.” He walked over to the side table under one window where a decanter of brandy stood on a silver tray with several glasses, along with a bottle of his mother’s dry sherry, which she partook of every evening before dinner. He extracted the thick glass stopper and poured out a small measure of brandy, drinking it down in one go.

Fran wisely declined from uttering something along the lines of him drinking in the middle of the day. “So if it’s not about Ann, what is it?”

“I want you to tell me whether you’ve left Steven,” he said, coming to stand over her.

She looked up at him, her brown eyes large and shocked. “What on earth gives you that idea?” she spluttered, letting out a short indignant laugh, her narrow frame tensing like an animal sensing sudden danger. “He’s at home decorating!”

“We both know that’s a lie,” John replied, pointedly, determined not to let her off the hook so easily. “I saw Steven yesterday. He wanted to know where you were.”

Fran’s complexion drained of colour as she realised that she’d been caught out. “What did you say to him?” she asked.

“I told him that I wanted to talk to you first.” His eyes drew level with hers, searching for the answers she was reluctant to impart. “What’s happened between you, Fran? Because I know that something has.”

She appeared on the verge of saying something in response, her lips parting to form the words, but then she stopped as though thinking better of it. Jumping to her feet abruptly, she met brother’s questioning look. The magazine, now completely forgotten, fell to the floor with a rustle. “I’ll talk to Steven when I’m ready to,” she said enigmatically, before darting rapidly from the room, letting him know in no uncertain terms that he was wasting his time if he thought he could interrogate her and leaving him with no choice but to stare after her.

***

In the days that followed Margaret rarely saw John and on the Tuesday evenings that he tended to visit her father Margaret was usually on her way out. She was glad not to see him. After the day he had come to the house with the repairman she had been dogged by a nagging uncertainty about him, feeling no wish to be near him and no desire to engage in any sort of communication with him anymore than she was required to in the company of her parents.

Milton was slowly growing more familiar. It no longer seemed the vast impersonal place she had first encountered on her fledgling trips around the town. Although her mother still bemoaned the absence of peace, Margaret herself enjoyed the wide variety of shops the town sported and the wealth of amenities that had been wholly lacking in Helstone. She began to find her own routine, occasionally popping into one of the many coffee shops scattered around the town centre. It was while she was sitting at a table by the window of one such coffee shop that a girl approached her. As Margaret glanced up she saw, with some surprise, that it was the receptionist she’d seen at the hotel the day she had gone to see John about the washing machine.

“I thought I recognised you,” the girl said, her manner exuding a friendliness that was like a welcome breath of fresh air. “The last time I saw you, you were rushing through reception like you had wolves at your heels.”

Margaret grimaced. She hadn’t realised that anyone had noticed the haste with which she’d left the hotel that day. “I had to go somewhere,” she lied, not wanting to admit the truth. “I realised I was late. Would you like to sit down?”

The girl slipped into the seat opposite Margaret. Immediately one of the waitresses swooped over, asking what she’d like to order before hurrying off in a waft of efficiency.

“My name’s Bess by the way. Yours is Margaret isn’t it?”

“You remembered.”

“It becomes a habit when you do my sort of job. People always like to be remembered.”

They fell easily into conversation. It turned out that Bess had moved from York to Milton as a child because of her father’s work, which gave them a mutual affinity because Margaret, although older than Bess had been, now found herself in the same position. They both knew what it felt like to be an outsider grappling to fit in with a new life. Bess had found it initially difficult because it had meant starting a new school where friendships had already been made. It had taken time but eventually she had been accepted into a small group of girls; friends, she said, she was still in contact with even now. She was also married and had been for the past year to a man she had known since school, both of them now employed at the hotel.

“What does your husband do there?” Margaret asked.

“Nick? Oh, he’s a chef. He’s so focussed it’s frightening,” Bess laughed, skimming the whipped cream from the top of her hot chocolate the waitress brought her and popping it into her mouth with relish. “He works so hard too.”

“Is he a tyrant in the kitchen?”

“Let’s just say that I don’t cook with him at home!”

“And John Thornton’s your boss?”

Bess regarded Margaret pensively, the merriment fading at the unexpected mention of her employer. “Yes. He owns the hotel. Why the interest?”

“He’s the landlord of the house my parents rent. That was the reason I went to speak to him the other day,” Margaret replied, matter of factly.

“What did you think of him?” Bess cocked her head to one side, her blonde hair spilling sideways. She studied Margaret for a moment, her expression intrigued.

“I’m not sure I like him very much,” Margaret conceded.

Bess didn’t appear surprised. “He likes things done his way, that’s for sure. Mind you, so does his mother. She’s always interfering, even though no one would dare to tell her.”

“Does the family live in the hotel?”

Bess nodded. “They have a flat on the top floor. Great views over the town apparently. Mind you, I suppose Mr Thornton will be finding somewhere of his own soon.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Because everyone thinks he’s going to marry some girl called Ann Latimer. It’s the talk of the hotel. His mother approves of her by all accounts – which is incredible because she doesn’t approve of anything,” Bess replied, her tone laced with irony.

Margaret stared at her, her eyes widening in shock and surprise at Bess’s admission. Of all the things that she had thought that Bess might say, the announcement of John Thomton being on the verge of marrying was certainly not one of them. “He’s never mentioned it – not even to my father,” she said.

“Well, it is only a rumour,” Bess replied. “Perhaps he hasn’t actually proposed yet?”

“Maybe.”

“Nick says its just idle gossip and wishful thinking on his mother’s part. Mind you, he never takes any notice of any of the rumours floating around or accounts for the fact that they could be true.”

“Do you think there’s any truth in this particular rumour though?” Margaret pressed, wondering why just the thought of a difficult man such as John being on the brink of marrying was suddenly so disconcerting. It wasn’t really any of her business.

Bess shrugged nonchalantly, taking a sip of her hot chocolate. “I don’t know,” she began, ponderously. “I suppose the only way is to turn it around and think whether you would want to marry him. Can you see the attraction? I have to say that I can’t, although technically my opinion doesn’t count because I’m already married. You’re not though. So what do you think? Could you see yourself marrying John Thornton?”

***

It was by complete chance that a few weeks after first meeting Bess that Margaret found herself agreeing to meet her for lunch in Blues, the wine bar into which she’d watched John disappear on her first day in Milton. She had been initially reluctant to go, particularly knowing that her father’s friend seemed to favour it. It seemed rather ironic to her now to think back on how she had wondered whether she would ever step foot in the door, hoping to catch just a glimpse of him, when all she wished now was to avoid him at every cost. However, Bess had seemed fixed on meeting there and in the end, to save having to explain the aversion she harboured, Margaret had agreed, firmly resolving to put any idea of a chance meeting with the man she would rather avoid out of her mind completely.

That resolve lasted until the day she was due to meet Bess for lunch. Even as she turned into the road where Blues was situated a little before one o’clock she almost knew that she would find herself coming face to face with John. Every nerve in her body seemed to prickle with the expectation of it, her heart beginning a quickening rhythm in her breast with each step she took. Instinctively, she searched the pavements for him, knowing that if she looked hard enough she would see him. Sure enough, as she approached Blues she suddenly caught sight of him stepping out of her godfather’s office. He was donned in a dark suit, laughing at something being said by a person inside the office. Margaret felt her feet freeze in place in the middle of the pavement, her eyes riveting themselves upon him. He was laughing. It was the first time she had seen him smile or laugh and it was like a revelation. His entire face seemed to soften and become brighter, more youthful somehow.

As the door to the office closed he caught sight of her on the other side of the road and almost immediately his expression altered, hardening in recognition. He paused very briefly before he began to move in her direction. She couldn’t be sure whether he was making his way towards her or a parked car and she didn’t wait to find out. With the haste of a startled rabbit, she forced her feet from their rigid state and darted swiftly through the doors of Blues, seeking refuge amongst strangers.

She went straight to the bar and ordered herself a glass of wine, making a quick appraisal of the room to see if Bess had already arrived. She noted that quite a few of the tables were already occupied with businessmen out for lunch, the odd couple or group of friends scattered here and there, but, rather disappointingly, no sign of Bess. Margaret glimpsed down at her watch and saw that it was just past one.

“Margaret?”

She didn’t have to look up to know that he was beside her. “Did you follow me?”

“Would you believe me if I told you I was coming in here anyway?”

Now she met his eyes. “So you weren’t following me?”

“No,” he replied, dryly. “I don’t in general do that sort of thing. It usually unnerves people.”

Margaret didn’t reply, welcoming the return of the barman with her glass of wine. She handed him the exact money and he moved on immediately to sort out John’s request for a glass of orange juice. She now faced the quandary of whether to stay where she was, perched precariously on a stool at the bar, or to go and sit down at a table and wait for Bess. She opted to stay where she was, deciding that if she went and sat down somewhere he might somehow interpret it as an unspoken invitation on her part.

“Are you meeting your father?”

“I’m waiting for a friend,” Margaret replied. “She’s a receptionist at your hotel.”

The dark brows furrowed. “Oh?”

She had expected an inquisition but he didn’t choose to pursue the conversation. It would become clear as soon as Bess walked through the door.

“What about you?” Margaret asked, remembering Bess’s talk of a woman he appeared to be so interested in that he was at the point of proposing to her. “Are you meeting someone for lunch?” She didn’t go as far as asking him whether he was waiting for a girlfriend because he would probably think she was prying again.

“No,” came the rather curt response.

They stood side by side draped in an awkward silence for what seemed to Margaret to be an eternity. She was aware of the tension between them hanging in the air, eddying all around, and more than anything she wished that Bess would arrive and therefore release her from his company. She wondered if he would mention the day he had come to the house when the washing machine had been fixed. She stole herself for some remark about the smooth running of the washing machine, ready to relate to him her mother’s delight at having it working properly if it meant that they could avoid anything that might hit a nerve while she awaited Bess’s arrival.

“I haven’t seen you for a long time,” John said at last, casting her an oblique glance. “Although your father tells me that you’re settling into life in Milton very well.”

“It’s getting more familiar.” It didn’t seem as though he was going to mention that day, which was a relief. She felt the tension dissipate and took a sip of her drink, the coolness of the wine and its slight effervescence making her mouth tingle pleasantly. “Of course, it’s not like Helstone.”

“I shouldn’t imagine it is. This is a town with a thriving tourist trade, thanks mainly to the mills scattered in and around it that have been preserved. Helstone – from what I understand – is a tiny village in the middle of nowhere with little more than a small school, a church and a pub to recommend it.”

Margaret’s innate deference for the home she had known her entire life was instantly roused. She wouldn’t allow him to effectively label Helstone a backwater not even worthy of a second glance.

“Have you ever been to Helstone?”

“No,” he told her simply, stating the fact clearly and without abashment. “I haven’t ever been to Hampshire.”

Her father must have told him what county it was in. “Then,” she replied, sharply. “Don’t pass judgement on it. Milton may have the qualities you describe but it isn’t perfect either. It’s busy and noisy. Compared to this, Helstone is like another world! It’s very pretty and rural and it has a real sense of community. Milton, from what I have seen, has no community spirit at all!”

She was on the verge of becoming carried away, the feelings of finally having to leave Helstone now fully acknowledged with a fierceness of passion that had been building inside her since the day she’d left. Now it bubbled up, overspilling with as much force as a volcano spewing lava. She scooped up her glass and took several gulps of wine, hoping to quell the turbulence inside her, slightly disturbed to realise that several people were casting surreptitious glimpses in her direction.

He regarded her calmly, seemingly unmoved by her impassioned argument for the home she’d left behind. He was unlikely to even understand how much she had loved Helstone. Oh yes, she had known that she had had to leave it, to allow it to blend into the tapestry of her past, but she would not have anyone – certainly not John Thornton – belittling it in such a way! He’d probably never been anywhere remotely rural in his life! Teeming crowds and traffic fumes were all he probably knew!

“Are you unhappy here in Milton?” he asked. “Do you wish that you had stayed in Helstone as your mother does?”

“I’m not like my mother. I came here resolved to make the best of it and that’s what I’ll do. My father called our moving here a new adventure and he was right, but that doesn’t mean to say that I am happy for you to stand there and trample over my memories of Helstone.” Out of the corner of her eye she was aware of someone coming into the wine bar and saw that it was Bess. She also saw the surprise on Bess’s face when she saw whom she was with at the bar.

“My friend’s just arrived,” Margaret said as she slid off the bar stool with as much grace as she could rally, noticing that Bess wasn’t the only one looking surprised, a small smile tweaking his lips as he saw who her ally was. She nearly asked him what he found amusing about her being friends with Bess, but Margaret bit her lip and let it pass. She was too pleased to see that Bess had finally arrived because that gave her a chance to escape.

And she made the most of it. She caught the barman’s eye and smiled pleasantly, her attention turning from the man who stood at her side. “Could I have another glass of wine please?”

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