The door swung back to its original position, leaving John alone. For a few moments he remained where he was, only too conscious of Margaret’s words echoing all around him. Damn it! His insides twisted at the way he had allowed Steven to undermine the resolute exterior he portrayed to the world just at the point when the daughter of his newest tenant had entered the room. The remembrance of her wide, horrified eyes shuddered through him with an icy chill. He had never wanted to see a woman look at him in that way at any time in his life. He threw himself against the stainless steel worktop, propping his elbows up on its shining surface and grasped either side of his face with his hands, hoping against hope that if he squeezed his skull hard enough he would be able to obliterate the shame coursing through him. He had always striven to keep family matters out of his business affairs but today that line, always so keenly observed in the past, had blurred.
His anger had abated very little even after Steven had left and Margaret had started to talk to him about the faulty washing machine. He had hardly been listening to her though. He had been too angry with Steven, with Fran, but most especially with himself. Towards Margaret he was only too aware that he had been rude and churlish, his utter lack of civility a cover for the humiliation he’d felt at being caught at such a disadvantage. Her sudden appearance had only added fuel to his already overwrought state – as had the fact that she hadn’t waited patiently, as he’d assumed she would, until he was ready to come and speak to her. Instead she had taken it upon herself to seek him out, thereby witnessing a side to him that he could now only regret.
Only now, as his heightened state of feeling began to dissipate, could he remember with any clarity her presence in the room. She could barely be much above twenty. In her face he had seen a determination to be heard and to deliver the message her father had sent her with. She’d seemed so petite as he’d towered above her, her slender figure wrapped in a pair of faded jeans and simple white t-shirt, her hair gathered back into a rough ponytail which, when she had left the room, had been in danger of falling free and unrestrained down her back.
An exasperated sigh passed his lips. He could imagine her going home and relaying to her father the spectacle she’d witnessed, assassinating his character with just a few choice remarks. He knew that he would have to try and explain that he wasn’t the monster she thought he was, that the unfortunate scene she had witnessed was not a commonplace occurrence in his day-to-day life. God knows, he had never hit anyone before in his life and when it had come to it he probably would have stopped short of hitting Steven.
Alerted from his reverie by chatter in the Function Suite beyond, his body reacted automatically by straightening to its full height, his shoulders shaking off their hunched attitude and becoming strong and broad as was so much his habit. It wouldn’t do for anyone to find him slouched in an attitude of despair – certainly half the staff thought him incapable of feeling such a thing. He hurriedly dragged his tie straight and smoothed the collar of his shirt before emerging into the Function Suite, adopting once more his customary air of authority and control, acknowledging two members of staff as he passed them.
Margaret’s initial reaction on her exodus from the hotel was to go straight to her father at work and tell him how disillusioned he was when it came to John Thornton. She even began to walk in the direction of Adam Bell’s office, carried along as much by her horror as by her disappointment, but stopped suddenly in her tracks, as the steady realisation of the possible consequences her actions would bring began to filter through her mind. Think about what you are doing, a small voice inside her head whispered, threatening to unbalance her resolve. Think about dad. For the first time in ages he’s happy. You know he likes the man, even if it is only through his dealings with him as our landlord…
In the end there was no choice. Her resolve vanished like winter snow. She couldn’t – wouldn’t – destroy her father’s regard for this man, whatever her own perceptions may be. She didn’t continue further but rather retraced her steps back into town and then on towards home, willing herself to put one foot in front of the other until she was safe inside the front door.
“Mr Thornton said he’d sort out the machine,” Margaret said, entering the kitchen where her mother sat peeling potatoes. Nothing about her betrayed the conflict she had experienced in the street not long before. She headed straight for the kettle, wanting to be occupied. “Do you want a cup of tea, mum?”
Maria rested her hands on the table for a moment. “Your father thought Mr Thornton would sort everything out very promptly,” she said. She spoke as though it pained her to admit that their landlord showed all the signs of being reliable and businesslike. It would have suited Maria much better if he had been someone about whom she could complain about endlessly. “He seems to be very taken with him, I must say.”
“Does he?” Margaret bit her lip, keeping her back to her mother so that she would not see the contradiction betrayed in her eyes. She was deliberately vague, already knowing the extent of her father’s respect for the man.
“You know what your father’s like, Margaret. He’s always respected anyone with a strong work ethos. It appears that Mr Thornton embodies that quality.”
“But he doesn’t really know him personally does he? It’s only through his dealings with him as our landlord that he has anything to do with him. We are, after all, just his tenants.” Margaret poured the boiling water from the kettle into two mugs.
“Your father told me he hadn’t met anyone so welcoming and affable.”
Welcoming? Affable? Her father hadn’t seen John Thornton this afternoon!
“Does dad really have that much to do with him then?” Margaret asked. “I just thought that it was a landlord\tenant relationship.”
Her mother picked up the knife and resumed peeling the potatoes. “He has a lot to do with him through Adam and from what your father has told me, Adam has been the accountant for the hotel since Mr Thornton’s father’s time.”
“That long? I didn’t realise.” Margaret put her mother’s tea down on the table beside her. She didn’t sit down but remained standing, thinking of her father and the fact that his dealings with the man weren’t purely transitory. Her father was usually an astute observer of people and yet in John Thornton’s case she wondered whether he had misjudged his personality.
“What did you think of him, Margaret?” her mother asked suddenly, glancing up. “You met him today. What was your opinion?”
Margaret stared at her mother, caught completely off guard by the question. How could she tell her that the Mr Thornton her father liked so much was someone who couldn’t control his temper in the way that he should? She bit down on her lip, struggling to find the words. “I didn’t see him for very long,” she said. “I didn’t really have time to form any sort of opinion of him.”
“That’s unlike you, Margaret. You can usually sum up someone’s personality within minutes of meeting them. You’re very like your father in that respect.”
For Margaret to reveal what she thought to be John Thornton’s character would have been like giving her mother a match with which to set ablaze all her father’s hopes for the future. “He was very busy,“ she said. “I just told him what I had to and then left.”
Maria, finally finishing the potatoes, got up and put the saucepan on the hob in readiness for later and disposed of the peelings in the bin. “Well, I’m sure you’ll have a chance to form an opinion of him at some stage if your father has anything to do with it,” she said.
By the time John finally walked into the flat his family occupied on the fifth floor of the hotel, having finally managed to catch up with Nick about the planned menus, it was nearly seven o’clock. His mother, rarely flustered by anything, came bustling into the living room as soon as she heard him.
“What on earth have you been doing? Ann and her parents will be here shortly!” she exclaimed.
John put out his hand to stop his mother from continuing. “It won’t take me long to get ready.” He scanned the room. “Where’s Fran?”
“In her bedroom. Why?”
“I expected to find her in here waiting,“ he said. He loosened his tie, drew it off and released the top button of his shirt. He wouldn’t tell his mother about the visit by Steven or the confrontation that had followed, unless, having possibly overheard something from the staff, she pushed him for an explanation. He needed to speak to Fran first, to find out why she had suddenly turned up on their doorstep last night without any sort of warning. She had told them that it had been a spur of the moment decision but now, having seen Steven, he suspected it to be more than that. He became aware of his mother watching him quizzically. “I’d better go and change,” he said, heading off any further questions before she had the chance to ask them.
Ann and her parents arrived almost as soon as John emerged from his room, freshened up and changed into more casual clothes, so he had no chance to take Fran to one side to question her about Steven. Instead he was forced to watch her chatting with Ann in hushed whispers, acting as though nothing were wrong at all. Even when Ann questioned her about the absence of Steven, Fran had merely laughed and shrugged in that unbothered way of hers, saying that he had things to do at home – namely some decorating – and that she had decided to take off for a few days to let him get on with it. John was the only one who knew that there was no weight to her words. She lied convincingly too, he thought, because no one, not even his mother, saw anything amiss in her manner. Mind you, his mother was more focussed upon Ann and her parents, determined that they would feel welcome. She had laid out the table in the dining room for the evening’s meal, something that seldom ever occurred, having made sure that everything was as it should be. The heady scent wafting from a vase of lilies lingered in the room, mingling with the musky fragrance he caught from Ann’s perfume.
“You look very nice this evening,” he heard his mother saying to Ann with an approbation rarely bestowed upon anyone.
Ann blushed, her eyes lowered but unable to help the smile spreading so readily across her lips. He knew very well what his mother was trying to do. She wanted to draw his attention to Ann, to see what an excellent girlfriend she would be for him – in her eyes at least, if not his own. He liked Ann but there was something too placid about her, a lack of spark. She was one of life’s pleasers, someone who willingly allowed herself to float along on the tides of other people’s wishes and desires, keeping any expression of her own character closely guarded.
“You’ve rented Winchester Way I hear,” Bernard Latimer said in his loud, staccato voice, leaning forward in his armchair to address John. “What are your new tenants like?”
“They seem fine. Richard Hale has just started working at the office of my accountant. He seems very personable. I haven’t met his wife yet.”
“But you met the daughter didn’t you?” Hannah said, frowning slightly, recalling their words in the office earlier in the day.
John nodded. “She came to speak to me about the washing machine that’s at the property.”
“Is that all it was? Surely they only needed to pick up the phone?”
The memory of Margaret’s words flooded into John’s head. “She thought it was more civilised to come in person.” He was virtually repeating what Margaret had said to him earlier. Apart from the inevitable conversation he was going to have to have with Fran, the only other thing he had thought about for the remainder of the day, in spite of going through the motions of work, had been of what he would say to Margaret when he saw her again.
“How did you find her?” his mother asked.
He shrugged, feigning a nonchalance he far from felt. He couldn’t tell them that Margaret Hale had been haunting him since the moment she’d left him in the stillroom, the undaunted manner in which she had conducted herself striking him anew every time he thought about it. “She put her point across very concisely.”
“Does she not work?”
“I have no idea. Our dealings were short and succinct. There was no social chitchat. I didn’t have the time for one thing.”
Fran grunted, casting a sympathetic look at Ann. “You never have time for anything.”
He ignored the jibe and finished the last of his wine.
“Did you manage to sort the problem out?” Ann asked.
“I told her what she wanted to know,” John replied, trying to dispel the image of Margaret that seemed to have taken root in his brain. It was useless. She was too firmly entrenched there. “Would anyone like another drink?” he asked, turning his attention to his guests as he jumped to his feet abruptly. Perhaps if he thought about something else…
“Another glass of your red would be excellent,” Bernard Latimer replied, extending his wine glass to John.
“Anyone else?” John let his eyes wander blandly from one to the other of the people around him but they all declined. Excusing himself, he went into the kitchen and filled Bernard’s glass and his own, aware of the sense of tedium he felt for the evening that lay ahead of him.
Margaret had just about managed to push the incident at the hotel from her mind the following morning when the man came round to mend the washing machine accompanied by John. She was the one to open the front door and almost immediately was aware of his eyes seeking hers, desperately trying to read her reaction. Studiously she averted her own gaze, refusing to acknowledge him any more than she had to without appearing blatantly rude as she lead the two men in silence down the passageway to the kitchen where, because her mother had gone out, it was left to her to try and explain what was wrong with the machine. All the while she was aware of John watching her. It was as though he were assessing her, judging her, and in turn that made her feel both embarrassed and annoyed. He had no right to stand in judgement of her after what she had seen him do at the hotel!
As the repairman got on with the job in hand, John came to stand at Margaret’s side. “Could I have a word with you?” he asked, his voice low but striking a determined note.
“I don’t think we’ve got anything to say,” she bristled, her posture erect and rigid.
“I think that we have. I would like to explain about yesterday.”
“I don’t want to be reminded,” Margaret hissed back, folding her arms.
“Well bad luck!” he snapped impatiently. “You’re going to listen to what I have to say.” He glimpsed across at the repairman who was busily going about his work and then at Margaret. “Can we go into another room?”
Margaret wasn’t sure she wanted to be anywhere alone with him but her curiosity got the better of her and she made her way through to the lounge. To her surprise and discomfort he pushed the door shut, thereby isolating them from the rest of the house. She stepped backwards, instinctively putting some distance between them, not wanting to have him looming over her the way he had at the hotel. She was so deeply conscious of him, despite the fact that she continually told herself that he was just the sort of man she had no wish to know.
He didn’t close the gap separating them but rather stayed where he was, effectively using his body to barricade the door, making it impossible for her to flee the room unless she chose to try and physically remove him. She tipped her chin up, allowing him the full impact of her disdain.
“You got the wrong impression of me yesterday,” John began. “I know what it must have looked like.”
“You were about to hit that man!” Margaret interjected, unable to hold herself back. “And you would have done it had I not come into the room!”
His eyes flared, even as his anger ignited, despite his best intentions to remain civil. He had come here in the hope of making amends not to aggravate the situation further, but only too lucidly he saw what she thought of him. He saw how negatively she viewed their first meeting and how it marred and hampered any step towards conciliation between them now.
“I admit that it crossed my mind – God knows, I felt like doing it,” he admitted. “But at the end of the day I didn’t touch him.”
“You still thought it!”
“Thought it – yes! Acted on it – no!” He sucked in his breath. The very presence of her, even in such a defiant and indignant state, unsettled him more than he liked to admit.
“Who was he?” The same tone of demand as she’d used in the stillroom rang through his ears.
He stared at her, wondering whether she had always spoken so impudently.
“He’s my brother-in-law.”
Her eyes widened in surprise. He sensed the change in her attitude, the way that she suddenly seemed to be listening to him. Would she be open to an explanation if he chose to offer one?
He hesitated. He had never discussed anything to do with his family with anyone, the scars from the past still too raw to permit any openness in that particular area of his life. And yet now he stood on the threshold of sharing a confidence with Margaret, compelled by some greater force he didn’t fully understand. “I think my sister’s left him,” he began, his voice lowering. He had never felt so exposed, so at the mercy of someone else’s opinion. “I wanted to talk to her last night but we had people to dinner and I had to go out early this morning on business so have had no chance to speak to her today either. Steven wants to see her. He came to me yesterday demanding to know where she was. I would have told him but there was something in his manner that disturbed me. Something has happened between them, I’m sure of it. He’s angry and she’s just pretending that everything is normal. She told us last night that Steven was doing the decorating and that she’d come to stay with us to give him some space to get on with it.” He raised his eyes at last to Margaret who stood there in silence, her full attention focussed upon him. “Because I wanted to speak to Fran first I told him to go away. It developed into an argument from there – and that was when you disturbed us.”
“But that’s no reason to hit him.”
“You’re forgetting that I didn’t hit him,” John replied pointedly. Were they never going to get past this one point? He raked his fingers through his hair in frustration. He’d already told her more than he would tell a stranger. And yet she was a stranger; he didn’t even know who she really was, except that she was the daughter of a man with whom he had formed the tentative beginnings of a friendship. The fact that she thought badly of him not only sullied him in her eyes but potentially in the eyes of Richard if she spoke against him.
“Do you think your sister will want to see him?” Margaret asked, rousing him from his thoughts.
He had enough to think about with work without having to try and mediate between Fran and Steven. Even without having received any coherent explanation from either side, he found himself forced into the middle where he didn’t wish to be. “I have no idea what she’ll want,” he said.
“But he wants to see her?”
John nodded slowly. “I think you know how strongly he feels,” he replied, not saying it aloud but referring to the argument that had erupted in the stillroom.
Margaret was silent for a minute. He watched her move towards the window and push back the net curtain as though to gain a better view of the street beyond. She appeared preoccupied. Then she turned her head towards him once more, as though a thought had just struck her. “Do you think Steven loves your sister?”
John stared at her. “That’s a very personal question to ask,” he said, his blue eyes penetrating hers, even as his voice lowered to a deeper more intimate tone. “Tell me. Are you always so direct?”