Past & Present – Chapter Seven: Fledgling Beginnings

As the events of the previous evening began to finally settle into place, Margaret’s stomach somersaulted in exquisite remembrance at what had passed between her and John. After their encounter on the landing last night, with nothing more than a towel to conceal her from his probing eyes, it had been a shock to realise just how out of kilter her heart and mind had become with regard to him.

Turning onto her back in bed, she languidly watched a shaft of sunlight extend its illuminating brilliance across the smooth white surface of the ceiling, indolently tracing its source to the bedroom window where it had found a narrow slit at the central point where the curtains met. Its very ability to find a means of entry into her room reminded her of John’s stealthy ability to enter her heart. She hadn’t even been aware of it happening, not consciously at least, too entangled in her dislike of the man to actually acknowledge the subliminal echoes whispering beneath all the morosity. She hadn’t known how to react to him last night when she’d finally managed to calm herself down and go downstairs to where he had waited with her parents in the lounge. She had hardly been able to bring herself to even look at him, much less to speak, even though she had guessed that he’d been watching and waiting for some sort of response from her for most of the evening.

Only when the meal had finished had they actually really talked, although when he’d offered her the job at the hotel she’d been stunned. It had come out of nowhere, with no hint of a preamble that might have alerted her to its coming. At first she had suspected that he was teasing her in some strange, perverted way, trying to gauge what her reaction would be, but just the earnest turn of his expression had made her realise that this had not been the case. Yet it had seemed to her such a ludicrous suggestion! Even in the virgin light of a fresh day it still seemed ridiculous! She had promised him that she’d consider his proposal and since then she had done little else but think. It had been the last thing that her exhausted brain had thought about last night and it was the first thing she had thought of this morning and it still didn’t make any sense. Of course, had the job been presented to her from any quarter other than from John Thornton then her response would have been very different. She would have been delighted at the prospect of finding a job which, although not permanent, would keep her occupied for a good few months to come. But how on earth could she work for a man who had always instilled such dislike in her and had the unnerving power to pull her so eloquently into his orbit? What’s more, how could he think that it could possibly work? Their relationship – and that was a description which pushed it to the absolute limit – had been just one jarring clash after another. Surely two people with that sort of history, especially where one was an employer and the other an employee, couldn’t exist in a state of happy harmony for long?

Her suspicious mind suspected that it was unlikely he’d offered her the job out of pure generosity of spirit, that he might have acted with some ulterior motive, although she found it almost impossible to reconcile herself to the notion that maybe he felt something for her. She had been too frightened to try and find out, the magnitude of her own leap towards conciliation quite enough for her to take in at the time. The heady recollection of his eyes upon her brought a blush to her cheeks even now, so much so that she found herself pulling the duvet under which she was snuggled further up around her, as if to hide from her own emotions. His eyes, so very blue and capable of setting ablaze everything they came to rest upon, had finally melted away the glaciers of her freezing disapproval, leaving an inferno of raw aching desire bubbling frenetically in its wake. She didn’t know what to do with herself. Half the time she wanted to throw her arms around his neck in a very blatant display of her as yet undisclosed feelings for him and the next she was hesitating like a timid deer, forever wary of falling prey to an unseen assailant. Her relationship with Henry hadn’t prepared her for what she felt now. She was falling for a man for whom she had thought she could never actually like as a person. How could anything have prepared her for that?

Just because he’d managed to master the arctic wastes of her feelings did not necessarily mean that they could actually work together either! She found herself rolling every possible scenario through her head, endeavouring, somewhat unsuccessfully, to find a clear-cut answer as to the action she should take. It was true that she had the benefit of knowing Bess and Nick – and John, who had appeared such a different person last night to the one she normally found herself encountering. Yesterday evening he had appeared softer, more genial and considerate. He had even managed to charm her mother, which had been no easy task in itself! What was he – some sort of magician or wizard with the power to turn women who’d previously held him in such cold contempt into quivering wrecks of confused adoration? What spell had he cast over her that made her heart leap just at the thought of him?

The morning light behind the curtains was growing stronger, seeming to strain for unhindered passage into the room, forming a blazing aureole around the edge of the window. She threw back her duvet abruptly, suddenly hungry for the inspiration of the new day, and padded decisively towards the window in her pyjamas. With one tug she ripped the curtains sharply apart, permitting the sunlight to breach the boundary that had just now been denied it, drawing in her breath and closing her eyes, basking for a few moments in the unfettered and simple pleasure of being at the heart of the warm glow which cascaded over her like a golden waterfall.

***

By eleven o’clock Margaret was walking into the foyer of the Milton Hotel, passing through the double doors which had been pulled back as if to embrace all those who passed through them. She had spent the past hour and a half just wandering aimlessly around the town before finally sitting in a coffee shop staring down at a mug of untouched black coffee as though it had the power to still the butterflies softly circling around her stomach. She had told her parents that she was just popping out for a walk, but had made no mention to them about what John had said to her last night. She still couldn’t get it straight in her own head!

“Margaret! What are you doing in this neck of the woods?”

She had forgotten that it was Bess’s shift on reception. She now wondered how to begin. “I’ve come to speak to John – Mr Thornton,” she said, speaking his christian name aloud for the first time. She found it strange to say it, even though she had started to think of him as John in her mind rather than Mr Thornton. It seemed so intimate, as though she had crossed some sort of invisible boundary.

A twinkle gleamed in Bess’s eyes. “First name terms now, is it?” she laughed cheekily, before hopelessly trying to compose a more serious expression. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t tease you about him.”

Margaret wasn’t offended. She didn’t think that Bess could ever manage to offend her. “He’s offered me a job as a receptionist here,” She saw Bess’s mouth form a surprised ‘o’. “He asked me last night when he came for dinner with my parents,” Margaret continued, keeping her voice down, feeling that if she spoke any louder it would somehow be amplified around the entire hotel. It was enough to think that he was probably somewhere close by and could come upon her at any minute without any sort of warning.

Surprise quickly turned to avid curiosity. “What did you say to him?”

“I promised to think about it.”

“Are you going to accept? It would be fantastic if you did – we might end up working some of the same shifts!”

Margaret smiled, touched by her friend’s enthusiasm. “Don’t you think it’s a bit odd for him to ask me?”

“In what way?”

“I’ve never been a hotel receptionist before in my life.”

“Do you like people?” Bess asked.

She laughed in surprise. “What a strange question! Yes, of course.”

“And do you like talking to them – interacting with them?”

“Yes.”

Bess threw her arms out as though to stave off any doubts that might be skirting around Margaret’s thoughts. “Well that’s the most important bit about this job. Liking people and wanting to help them. If you can do that, the rest will be easy.”

Margaret nodded pensively. Little niggling doubts as to the wisdom of taking the job still whizzed through her mind. “It would be nice to have a job that’s for a prescribed period of time,” she said wistfully.

“It’s to cover Maxine’s maternity leave isn’t it?”

“That’s right.” As someone came to stand at her side, Margaret was momentarily startled. For a brief, breathless second she thought it might be John but it wasn’t his voice and the man was addressing Bess rather than her. Bess spoke to him for a few minutes before he handed her his key and strode off.

Bess turned back to Margaret, giving her her full attention once more. “Seriously, and casting all selfish thoughts on my part about working with a friend aside, I think you should give it a go.”

The last doubt began to slowly fade. She would see what was involved in the job, what he would expect from her. Perhaps she and John could manage to rub along in the same environment without scrapping like cat and dog. “I’ve virtually made up my mind to give it a go,” Margaret said. “Although I still need to talk to Mr Thornton about it first.”

Bess picked up the phone without even hesitating. “I’ll let him know you’re here then!”

***

“Tell her I’ll be down in a minute,” John said, before replacing the receiver of the phone with a gentle click, unable to quite believe the fact that Margaret was actually down in reception. All night and half the morning, even though he had given a nonchalant performance to his mother on the subject at breakfast, he had been fretting about whether or not Margaret would accept his offer. He knew that she had been taken aback by his suggestion and had seemed very hesitant about it. He had shocked himself too because he hadn’t gone to the house last night with any such intention in his head at all. It had just spilled out of him as a natural extension of his enquiry about her present employment. He told himself he had only asked her because he thought she might like something slightly more longer term, but in truth his motives were far less clear-cut and innocent. He had offered her the job on the back of a surge of impetuosity that had, until now, been held in strict check by a gruelling work schedule which he had so proficiently carved out for himself over the years. He felt the first flush of this powerful attraction to her with the sharpness of a knife; he was drawn to her so magnetically that he didn’t know how he managed to stop himself from divulging everything he kept hidden inside him. For the first time in his life he felt the feathered wings of hope brushing against him, the desire for a more fulfilling future that was as dazzling as any sunrise.

But, whispered that niggling voice that had for so long controlled every thought that had passed through him, she only said she would think about it. She hasn’t agreed. The anticipation of what was to come, of bringing her up to this very office so that they could talk without interruption, brought a fresh wave of agitation hurtling through him. He had never felt so uncertain of the path ahead.

He glanced down at his desk and bundled up the papers that lay strewn across it into a neat pile, banishing them to the far side of his desk so that it suddenly looked rather bare and forlorn. Better that than looking a complete mess, as though he were unable to keep his paperwork in any sort of order. This small task completed, and growing more aware of the fact that he was keeping her waiting, he leapt out of his seat and hauled on his suit jacket from where it sat on the back of his chair. The rogue vision of her marching upstairs to find him because she had grown impatient with waiting darted across his mind, making him smile despite himself. He wondered, after what had happened the last time, whether she would ever dare to do that again.

Bess, of course, was working on reception and he had no doubt that he would probably go downstairs to find the two of them talking in hushed whispers about why Margaret had come. He had used Margaret’s friendship with Bess as a lure in a rather underhanded way, trying to instil within her the fact that working for him would actually have some good points and hopefully override any negative thoughts. He speculated about what Bess might have said when Margaret had told her the reason for her trip to the hotel; what comments had passed between the two of them.

He wondered what stance to take with Margaret now. The fact that she had come about employment with the hotel and that he would ultimately, in these surroundings at least, be her employer, made him decide that he would have to approach the whole thing on a formal footing. He was at work, he was the owner of the establishment and as such he had to adopt that persona. He wouldn’t permit himself to veer off into familiarity – that, after all, usually had the detrimental effect of leading them both into an argument.

“Miss Hale, thank you for coming in so soon.” Even to himself he sounded rather too formal and austere as he came up behind Margaret, noticing her body jolt at the shock of becoming suddenly aware of his presence. He noticed a small knowing smile flicker across Bess’s lips before she quietly slipped away on the pretext of checking the reservations book.

As Margaret swung about to face him his breath caught. She was wearing the perfume he’d first noticed on her last night and looked so utterly beautiful that his heart stuttered in his chest. “I wanted to talk to you about the receptionist job.”

Her eyes were veneered so he couldn’t read what lay within them. “If you come with me we’ll go up to my office.” He met her eyes searchingly. “If that’s all right?” he added.

“Of course.”

He shot Bess a quick look, adopting his usual professional mask. “Could you let anyone who phones know that I’m in a meeting? And if Mr Lamb – the man we’re liaising with about the Mill Owners Dinner – rings, tell him I’ll get back to him as soon as I can?”

Bess inclined her head, accepting his orders without complaint or comment.

With quick, agile steps he ascended the back staircase to the first floor where his office was situated, aware of Margaret following silently in his wake. He thought about saying something about the previous evening but then decided against it, realising that it would probably colour everything that was to follow between them. He opened his office door and held it for her to allow her entry into the room, following in behind her and shutting the door softly.

“Have a seat,” he said, waving one arm in the direction of the studded Chesterton sitting facing his own chair over the decluttered surface of his vast desk where only the frayed blotter sat flanked on either side by his recently amassed papers and the ever-present in-tray. As she quietly sat down he walked around his desk to face her, sitting down in the familiar comfort of his own chair. “Have you had a chance to think about the job?”

“I’d like to know more about what’s involved – if you don’t mind going through it with me,” she replied.

And so they began to discuss the nature of the work, the shifts she’d be expected to do, the training the hotel would give her – probably, he told her, under Bess’s instruction because they already knew each other. The fact that she smiled at this made him feel as though he may have scored a few bonus points at least. Lastly, he went through the salary and holiday entitlement. In her turn she told him about her previous employment record and the work she’d undertaken, leaving him in little doubt, whatever his personal feelings towards her, that she was up to the demands that would be placed upon her. Also, he liked to think that she was interested in what he told her, about the job and briefly about the history of the hotel. He only touched upon the fact that it was once run by his father. It wasn’t the time to go into further details on that score, even though a part of him cried out to do so. Since coming into the room he noticed that she had begun to relax a little, her posture not seeming quite so rigid, as it had when she’d sat down. Hope flickered like a flame into life that she was beginning to feel more comfortable with him.

“So, what do you think?” he asked as their discussion came to a natural conclusion, looking at her with enquiry, even though his heart swelled in painful anticipation of her answer.

She was pensive for a moment or two. “Do you think that we could work together in the same place?”

He would have been lying to himself if he’d denied that the same thought hadn’t occurred to him. The very nature of the comment, however, drew them back to the fact that things between them up until now had not been particularly pleasant. He had asked her once whether they could call a truce. If anything would test whether they were actually capable of achieving that goal, surely this would? He smiled at her wryly. “We are both professional people who, I think, know how to behave in a working environment, Margaret. Besides, our differences have never been anything other than personal and hopefully they can be rectified in time.”

“Maybe,” she replied, he liked to imagine, rather wistfully.

“You’d be doing me a huge favour if you said yes, not to mention saving me the trouble of having to interview a string of unsuitable people.”

Her hazel eyes widened, indignation surfacing rather too readily. “So, the only reason you actually asked me was to cut a few corners and save some work on your part?”

“Not entirely, no,” he replied with a straight face, wondering whether he would ever be able to tell her what some of his real reasons were. “The reason I asked you was because, among other things, I thought you’d be the best person for the job.”

“Not that you’ve asked anyone else.”

“How do you know I haven’t?” he challenged.

She flushed but held her ground, just as he could have guessed she would. “Because Bess told me.”

***

About fifteen minutes after he had walked Margaret back downstairs to reception and said goodbye to her and then returned to his office, his mother came bustling into the room. She had just come back from her regular morning sweep of the guest bedrooms and was none too happy with one of the chambermaids to whom she had just spent the last ten minutes berating the slapdash work of. He sighed to himself as he let his mother rail on for as long as she felt necessary, glad that as far as that side of managing the hotel was concerned he had left it to her. She always had, since the very early beginnings, taken pride in the comfort and cleanliness of the bedrooms and John doubted that that would ever change.

When she had said her piece, having run her fingertips critically over the various surfaces of the room which she came into contact with as she paced about in her irritation, he allowed her a few minutes reprieve before telling her that Margaret had accepted the position of receptionist and that, all being well, she would be starting work in a week’s time after she had finished her last assignment with the temping agency.

Hannah, having had reservations from the start about her son deciding to employ the daughter of a man who was really just another one of his tenants, regarded her son with one of her more formidable looks. “So you won’t be going through an agency then?”

“No.” He averted his eyes, retrieving his diary from the heap of stuff in his in-tray and scanning the pages therein on the pretext of finding a suitable date and time for Mr Lamb to come and discuss the Dinner preparations. He would have to speak to Nick as well, because he would want to be involved in any discussions.

His mother threw him a look of dissatisfaction. “I hope you gave her some sort of interview when you saw her.”

“Of course I did, even though it only compounded what I already knew anyway,” he said with a touch of annoyance, that stubborn gleam she knew so well entering his eyes.

Well, Hannah thought, she would see for herself when the girl began work in a week’s time exactly how well she could actually do the job.

***

A week later, just before seven-thirty in the morning, Margaret arrived at the Milton Hotel to begin her first shift dressed in the navy blue uniform, consisting of a suit and white shirt worn by all members of the reception staff, and which Bess had given her on John’s instructions a few days’ before. Her hair was bound up into a knot, lifting it off the back of her neck and having the effect of making her appear so much more professional and elegant, even a little taller, than if she had opted to haul it back into her trademark ponytail.

Bess was already there, an excited smile of welcome suffusing her bright face, having been charged with the duties of helping Margaret to settle into the routine of the work involved. She had been looking forward to Margaret joining the staff and had spent the best part of the last week enthusiastically giving her a short biography of all the people who worked there so that she would have a vague idea about who everyone was when she finally got to meet them.

“Welcome to the Milton Hotel, Miss Hale,” Bess said, doing her best to adopt the same formal intonation as John had on the day that Margaret had come to speak to him about the job, only to descend into peels of laughter at how stuffy she sounded. It had the effect, though, of shattering in an instant the nervousness that had been steadily mounting in Margaret’s stomach, her whole body relaxing in response.

They didn’t have much time for talking and Margaret had only just managed to throw her bag into a locker in the small abutting office just off the reception before John materialised before her.

“I thought you might like a tour of the building before you start work,” he said, dispensing with any words of welcome completely.

“Of course,” Margaret replied, glancing at Bess who mouthed a silent ‘good luck’ as Margaret followed John into the reception foyer in readiness for her guided tour.

Despite the fact that the hotel extended to five floors it seemed to Margaret not to be as vast as she had suspected. As he led her through the lounge, into the breakfast room where a few guests were already seated and on into the silence of the Function Suite she found herself retracing a familiar route.

“This is the way I came when I came to see you about the washing machine,” Margaret said, deciding not to mention Steven by name.

A cloud drifted unbidden into his eyes as he turned to her. Their eyes met, the one drawn to the other, the uncomfortable recollection of that day passing between them without the necessity for words. “I don’t suppose you ever thought you’d actually be standing here with me now,” he said with an ironic half smile.

“No. I thought you were the most despicable man I’d ever met,” she replied without even thinking. She instantly wished she had kept her mouth shut, although it was too late to claw the words back.

His black brows shot upwards at this first direct impression she had formed of his character. His eyes searched hers, hungry for redemption. “And now?” he asked, his voice softening to a deep intimate timbre.

“I don’t think you’re despicable anymore,” she said more pleasantly.

“Is that a compliment?” His voice dropped lower, his eyes becoming more intense and challenging.

“It’s a statement of fact,” she countered firmly, tearing her eyes from his and glancing about her, refusing to be drawn any further into a conversation that was becoming more unwieldy by the second. “Is this where you’ll be holding the Mill Owners Dinner?” she asked.

“It is, yes,” John replied. “And it’ll extend into the conservatory area. There’ll be a quartet playing classical music for anyone who wants to dance as well.”

The Function Suite in which they were now standing certainly lent itself to such a formal occasion. To Margaret’s mind it complimented the sense of history that the Dinner itself would endeavour to draw people’s attention to. “It’s a pity you don’t all dress up in Victorian costume for it,” she said, thinking how impressive that would look: the men in their dress suits and cravats, the women in their ball gowns with their skirts billowing as they waltzed around the floor in their partner’s arms.

“Actually, we do.”

He spoke with such a deadpan tone that Margaret couldn’t stifle her gasp of surprise. Her first thought was how wonderful he would look in period dress, all brooding, forbidding masculinity. Her second was that they must really be quite devoted to their local history to want to immerse themselves in it so completely. “Does anyone come as a mill worker?”

“No one has yet, but then it isn’t exactly fancy dress.”

“It sounds as though it is. What would you call it?”

“Following on with tradition,” he said dryly, beginning to walk with her towards the stillroom. “Years ago, when the hotel was first built in the mid-eighteen hundreds, the local Mill Owners used to have their annual dinner here. I suppose what happens here each year is a tribute to that time.” He turned to her. “We are all very proud of our heritage.”

“I can tell,” Margaret replied a little breathlessly, smiling at a couple of the kitchen staff, fully kitted out in their whites, as they came into the stillroom in readiness for the start of the breakfast rush.

As they walked through the main kitchen, all sparkling stainless steel surfaces with a long preparation table down the centre of the room and banks of fridges and freezers at the far end on a mezzanine level, Margaret saw Nick bent over a stove where bacon was sizzling in a large frying pan, creating the most delectable smell.

“You know Nick, of course,” John said.

Nick, at the sound of his name, turned to smile kindly at Margaret and bobbed his head slightly in recognition of John. “How’s it going, love?” he asked with a gleam in his eye.

Margaret smiled. “So far so good. Ask me again at lunchtime.”

“I might just do that, although if you’re working with Bess today then I think you’ll have a high old time.”

“Through here are the storerooms,” John said, curtailing any further chitchat between the pair, as he led Margaret off out of the door leading off the kitchen to several rooms where dry goods and cleaning equipment was kept. “And further along is the laundry.”

He then took her back into the kitchen and up some stairs to the first floor. Continuing further along a corridor and passing through a fire door they walked with muffled footsteps past the guest bedrooms, which he pointed out were singles, twins, family or doubles.

“On the fourth floor we also have a wedding suite,” he said.

“Does it have a four poster bed?” Margaret asked lightly.

“Of course.” There was an unmistakable gravity to his tone. “And a bath big enough for two.”

At that last remark Margaret had to duck her head so that he wouldn’t see the deepening stain that pervaded her complexion. She couldn’t be sure if she was imagining the implication in his voice or not but she was aware of him watching her, the two of them coming to a grinding halt in the middle of the hushed corridor. She trained her eyes on his feet, on the shining surface of the black leather which had been buffered to within an inch of its life. She was back on the landing again, her guard down, feeling his gaze roaming over her with penetrating indulgence. If she looked up at him now she would drown in his eyes, unable to fight against the strength of the current that would surely pull her into them. The shoes moved forward slightly, just a step towards her and her heart jumped in response, making her breath catch sharply in her throat. She was on a precipice, wanting to launch herself off, yet scared of doing so; scared too of him asking her to jump, to make that leap into the unknown with him.

“Margaret, I –“

“John?”

As Margaret looked up, she knew instinctively that the lady dressed from head to toe in black and walking with such a sense of purpose towards them must be John’s mother. Bess had given her a very graphic description so that she would know exactly what to expect. The countenance was certainly severe, the dark eyes critical and surmising, directed not on her son, who reluctantly drew back from Margaret looking bitterly disappointed at the interruption, but on Margaret herself.

John’s manner changed in an instant. “This is Margaret Hale, our new receptionist. I’ve been giving her a guided tour of the hotel so that she has an idea of its layout.”

Margaret smiled graciously at Mrs Thornton and said good morning, rousing all her strength so as not to appear as if this woman intimidated her.

“I hope you enjoy your time with us,” Hannah said, scrutinizing Margaret’s uniform, the hair that thankfully had been twisted and pinned and sprayed for good measure in order to stop it from drifting loose during the course of the day, and the application of make-up which had been administered with the lightest of touches and only served to illuminate her features further. The girl was well turned out for sure, but whether she could actually do the job remained to be seen.

Margaret endured this censorious assessment with a friendly smile stapled to her lips, understanding now exactly why half the staff lived in fear of the woman. There was something so hard and unfeeling in the older woman’s face, as if she were devoid of any sort of benevolence or emotion. Raising her head aloft, she continued to smile at the older woman, her face a picture of flawless courtesy. “I am sure I will, Mrs Thornton,” she said, demurely.

And for a timeless moment the two women’s eyes met, locked on the other, both trying to get the measure of the other, both instinctively, unequivocally perceiving the challenge that lay ahead.

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