Past & Present – Chapter Nine: Dancing on the Precipice

Having left home slightly later than she had actually intended, Margaret arrived for her second shift precisely on time if not a little breathless and flushed from having had to run the best part of the way. Not that she’d been able to move that quickly; it had been more of a fast walk, the straight skirt of her uniform, in spite of its kick pleat at the back, inevitably having hampered her progress. If her face showed the healthy bloom of exertion, then her hair, having been perfectly ensnared by the constraint of its clip when she’d left the house, was now increasingly straining to work completely loose and fall into disarray.

John was behind the reception desk, in the process of checking out a guest, when she entered the foyer. She hadn’t really expected to see him working there and just the sight of him caused her to hesitate sharply in her tracks, her already unregulated breathing catching into a stifled gasp of surprise. If he heard her faint cry then he certainly didn’t react to it, nor did he seek to acknowledge the fact that she had arrived by turning to glance over his shoulder at her. His attention instead remained focussed upon the guest with whom he was entrenched in conversation. She was glad that he didn’t look back because at least it would give her some time to actually make herself look more presentable. She self-consciously smoothed the loose strands of errant hair from her face and made her way to the small office beyond reception.

Opening one of the lockers she slung her handbag inside and then remembered that she needed her comb. Out came the bag again and she dug around inside it to find the article she sought, locating it more easily than she had expected considering the amount of rubbish she tended to carry around with her. Without the aid of a mirror, she set about rearranging her unruly mane into a style more befitting her job description. The ‘just tumbled out of bed having forgotten to dislodge the clip’ look certainly didn’t fit in with the image of this particular hotel – as Mrs Thornton would have no doubt taken great pains to tell her if she’d been the one on reception instead of John when Margaret had come in.

Finally able to consign her belongings to the locker, Margaret wondered whether she ought to venture out into reception and see if anything needed doing. However with John already out there, there seemed to be little point. It wasn’t busy. The intervening period between the beginning of breakfast and the guests starting to check out was probably one of the quietest periods of the day. Spying a clutch of letters on the desk waiting to be typed, Margaret sat down before the computer and switched it on, watching as the screen blinked into life and the hard drive began to whir. No sooner had she brought up the template for the hotel’s letterhead and begun to pound away at the keys, John came into the room having finished with the guest.

“You came back.” He stood just inside the doorway, his hands in his trouser pockets, his dark head cocked slightly to one side as he considered her.

“I thought I’d get these letters done and then you can take them with you if you want.”

“Any time during the course of the day will be fine,” he replied. “By the way, I’m glad.”

“About what?”

“That you came back.”

“Oh.” She heard the unmistakable intimacy in his voice and, in an attempt to resist its allure, stared rigidly at her screen, seeing the words she’d just typed merge into a large black blur which made no sense at all. Like her feelings for John, she thought. They made no sense either.

“I’m aware that I was – well, that you might have thought that I took advantage of the situation yesterday,” he continued, softly. He hadn’t moved from where he stood, but his eyes reached out to her across the room, irresistibly drawing hers into interaction. Their very intentness pierced her heart.

She waved her hand in a casual gesture. “You don’t have to apologise. These things happen.”

“Do they?”

Thump, thump, thump, went her fingers on the keyboard. She blinked the words of the letter back into focus in a bid to concentrate, her fingers growing increasingly frenetic

Even though her eyes were firmly trained upon the letter she was aware of his approach. He moved across the room in a few easy strides, coming to stand immediately behind her so that he could peer over her shoulder at what she was typing. The hairs lifted on the back of her neck as though he had physically touched her, just the nearness of him creating sparks of sensation down the length of her spine. Against her will she remembered how he had been with her yesterday. It was as though she could still feel the gentle touch of his fingertips on her face, their very indentations etched onto her skin, forever branding her as his…

Only she wasn’t his. She didn’t know what she was to him…

She didn’t dare stop typing because then he would see just how shaky her fingers were becoming. She’d only just walked through the door and already she was reduced to this quivering state just from being in the same room as him! How could she hope to get through the rest of the day?

He placed his hands on the back of her seat, leaning over her slightly. She edged forward, avoiding any possibility of him inadvertently touching her.

“How can you possibly tell that you’re hitting the right keys?”

“Practice,” Margaret replied succinctly, wishing that he would move away from her. She didn’t know how long she’d be able to retain her composure if he remained where he was. “Although I type better when no one’s standing behind me.”

“You appear to be doing perfectly well at the moment.”

“That doesn’t mean I like it.”

“Is that your way of asking me to move, Miss Hale?” he questioned with mocking formality, his voice dropping so low that she shivered.

“If you don’t mind,” she replied, hoping that he would take her hint.

“I do mind.” His voice was husky, a sensual rejection of her request. He bent down to her then, his mouth coming so close to her ear that she could feel the heat of his breath. Her heart almost stopped at the onslaught of feeling it produced inside her. “I mind very much.”

Her pulse was racing out of control, her heartbeat thundering in her ears, almost deafening her. His words alone stilled her trembling fingers and she moved around abruptly, not certain of the path ahead but needing to see his face, her chair swivelling precariously beneath her as she did so.

He was staring down at her, consuming her with his eyes…

Her breath was so shallow that it was in danger of ceasing altogether…

“Presiding over your domain, I see – the great John Thornton of Milton Town! Shouldn’t have expected anything less, should I?”

John and Margaret jumped away from each other abruptly, their tacit connection severing as both turned simultaneously to see Steven standing in the doorway, a predatory gleam in his eyes. Perceiving danger, Margaret’s eyes jumped back to John, only to see a blackening expression seep across his features as he raised himself to his full height.

“Steven.” John’s attention fixed squarely upon his brother-in-law, the calmness of his voice only seeming to make the situation much more intense. “What do you want? You shouldn’t even be in here.”

Steven shrugged, laughing derisively, showing quite clearly just how little respect he had for the rules John sought to impose upon him. “I’m a member of this family. I can go where I like.” His attention dodging away from John, his eyes came to rest leeringly upon Margaret who sat silent and unmoving, her head lowered slightly. His eyes narrowed. “I remember you. You’re that girl from before aren’t you?”

In seconds John had darted into the centre of the room, squaring up to Steven like a lion defending his territory. As he did so, he noticed for the first time that Steven’s eyes were glazed and his clothes looked as though he had been sleeping in them. The first whiff of alcohol reached him, permeating the air with its stale, noxious stench. That was all he needed! Steven drunk and emanating an unmistakable aura of complete instability! The best he could hope for was to get Steven out of the hotel before any of the guests caught sight of him on their way to breakfast.

“Where’s my wife? I want to see her.” Steven swayed a little, rocking on his heels. His words weren’t slurred, but it was clear now that he was the worst for drink, an underlying menace beginning to surface as he spoke.

“Get out of here!” John replied sharply, automatically grabbing Steven’s upper arm in order to escort him outside into the street. He didn’t want him in the hotel, certainly not in or anywhere near the areas the public used.

Yanking himself free of John’s custody, Steven rounded on him with the same flash of violence he had shown in the stillroom on the last occasion he had stepped foot in the hotel. At that time John had allowed himself to foolishly respond by nearly striking the man. This time he wouldn’t let Steven get the better of him – certainly not in front of Margaret. He wouldn’t risk alienating her again. Although his eyes didn’t leave Steven’s face, John noticed out of the corner of his eye the fact that Margaret had left her seat and was now hovering just behind him.

“I told you – I want to see Fran! I have a right to see her!”

“I can’t help you. It’s up to Fran and she’ll see you when she’s ready.”

Outraged by the inflexibility of his brother-in-law, Steven veered towards John. But it wasn’t John who was there in front of him suddenly, it was Margaret; she had darted forward, sensing the precariousness of the situation that was evolving, seemingly determined to try and stop it from descending into the same scene she had witnessed between the two men once before. “Don’t! What makes you think that hitting him will help?”

Steven glared at her, his voice a threat. “Get out of my way!”

“No!”

“This has nothing to do with you!”

“Can’t you see what harm you’re doing?” Margaret insisted, standing her ground stubbornly.

John came to stand beside her, his arm outstretched as he tried to catch hold of her hand and drag her away from the immediate vicinity of Steven. There was nothing to stop Steven from striking her if the desire took him. He was already spoiling for a fight.

“Don’t get involved in this, Margaret.” There was a warning note in John’s voice, but if he hoped to sway her then he failed. She didn’t move and she certainly didn’t take his hand and allow him to draw her back. “Margaret!” John’s voice rose, but she still refused to relent.

Too far carried along on the waves of alcohol and his own sense of pathetic helplessness, Steven caught Margaret by the shoulders with such force that she winced, his eyes glinting into hers, before pushing her sharply back to remove her unwanted presence completely. He succeeded and John saw her fall backwards against the desk and was sure that he heard her cry out, but before he could turn and check that she was all right, Steven came at him, his fist swinging towards his head.

John’s reactions were swifter, more agile and he avoided the strike. Steven lost his balance and staggered uncertainly, stumbling against the wall, his arms flailing without any sense of direction.

John bore over his brother-in-law, his blue eyes stark. “I should knock you into next week – and I would if I thought it would make you see some sense! Now get out of here! Get out!”

He realised then that Steven was completely ignoring him, that his gaze instead was riveted in horror upon Margaret. Instinctively, John turned only to be faced with the sight of Margaret sprawled upon the floor, her body doubled over as she clutched at her ankle. There were tears streaming down her face.

“Oh my God, Margaret! Are you all right? Has he hurt you?” What the hell was he saying? Of course Steven had hurt her! It was obvious from the way she looked! Forgetting about Steven completely, and therefore permitting him to beat a somewhat hasty retreat, John rushed over to Margaret and crouched down beside her, his eyes filled with concern and remorse. He should have made her leave the room. Damn it, he should have protected her from Steven! He should have been more aware!

“It’s my ankle,” she mumbled, her face contorting at a painful spasm that brought fresh tears to her eyes. “I think I’ve twisted it.”

He didn’t even think about it. His arms went around her, bringing her towards him so that her head rested against his chest. Through the thin material of his shirt, he could feel her tears seeping through to his bare skin below. Gathering her closer, his hand roamed across her back, desperate to comfort, to calm. He hated himself for allowing Steven to hurt her. The fingers of his other hand rose to her hair, combing through it before meeting the barrier of her clip. He couldn’t bear the impediment of it and struggled awkwardly to unlatch it, letting it drop to the floor. Her hair fell in a heavy torrent over his hand, dropping feather light kisses against his skin. In his rational mind he was well aware that he should put some distance between them, that he shouldn’t be anywhere near her and certainly not holding her like this. He had even made a pact with himself when he’d watched her walking down the street with Bess yesterday that he wouldn’t compromise her again. And yet, here he was, holding her so possessively, and he couldn’t stop himself.

“What’s happened?” Bess came into the room then, having returned from the stillroom after making coffee. She stared in confusion at the two of them huddled in an awkward embrace on the office floor, seeing Margaret crushed and wincing against John’s chest, her arms hanging inertly at her sides. Bess hurriedly put the tray of coffee down on the side of the desk and hurried over, her face lit with unconcealed anxiety. “Oh, Margaret. Are you okay? Can I get you anything? What happened?”

“She’s twisted her ankle,” John replied with more sharpness than he had intended, but he wanted to speak before Margaret had the chance to let loose exactly what had gone on. He didn’t want Bess knowing about Steven, not when it was all such a mess. In spite of his reservations, he knew owed Fran the privacy from hotel gossip if he could possibly keep anyone from knowing. Of course, kneeling on the floor with Margaret like this could very well lead to speculation about them, but at this moment he was well beyond caring. Reluctantly, he pulled away from Margaret and looked deeply into her eyes. “Can you walk?”

She tried to stand, to put pressure on her foot but it buckled under her, making her cry out and collapse against John once more. John met Bess’s concerned eyes. “I’ll take her up to my office. Can you manage here on your own?”

“Of course,” Bess replied. “Just make sure Margaret’s all right.” She rubbed her friend’s arm encouragingly. “I’ll come up when I get a break and see you.”

Margaret nodded, smiling at Bess gratefully. “Thank you.”

John, his arms having not yet released their grip on her, turned to Margaret. She was leaning into his side to keep the weight off her foot. “Can you put your arms around my neck?” Confusion played in her eyes and he smiled down at her tenderly. “If you can’t put any pressure on your ankle then I’ll have no choice but to carry you.”

“You won’t be able to,” she mumbled.

He laughed softly at the insinuation that she was too heavy. “I’m sure I can manage.” And with that he scooped her up into his arms. “No problem,” he said. “Just hang onto me.”

Her arms tightened about his neck in silent gratitude, feeling the strength of muscle and bone against her hands, the texture of his hair against her fingertips. He carried her out of the office and quickly but carefully up the back stairs to his office. Once inside he took her to the Chesterton and sat her down upon it, kneeling down beside her, his attention straying to the offending ankle that had now begun to swell. “You need something cold on that to reduce the swelling and bring out the bruise,” he said. “Are you going to be all right if I go and get something for you to put on it?”

She nodded, not even looking at him, her eyes closing against the pain. Her tears had begun to subside bringing exhaustion in their wake. She looked deathly pale, a shadow of the girl he’d been talking to before Steven had chanced upon them.

He went up to the flat, vaguely aware of the fact that Fran was nowhere to be seen, and found an as yet unopened packet of mixed vegetables in the freezer and a clean towel in one of the kitchen unit drawers. Then he sprinted back to his office to Margaret.

She had managed to straighten herself up a little, her back flush against the back of the chair, her feet curled up, the offending ankle resting on the top of the other leg. Her elbow was propped up on the arm of the chair, her head passively resting on her hand.

He crouched down before her and carefully folded the frozen vegetables into the tea towel before laying it carefully on her ankle. He held it there, looking up at her with tender concern.

“Thank you,” she whispered, the pain subsiding as the coldness pressed firmly against her skin. “I’m sorry I interfered.”

“You just got innocently caught up in the whole situation – again. After last time, I should have known what he was capable of.” He shook his head ruefully. “It’s me that should be apologising to you, not the other way round.”

“I can’t believe that your sister is married to someone like him.”

He shook his head, understanding exactly what Margaret meant. He found it hard enough to believe himself. That Fran could have married such a man as Steven. Well, no more, John decided. Steven had gone too far; he had assaulted Margaret and that was too much. “I’m so sorry, Margaret,” he whispered, his voice filled with recrimination. He couldn’t bear the thought that she was hurt. He only thanked God that she hadn’t fallen against the side of the desk and knocked herself out. He didn’t know what he would have done then.

Silence came and claimed them both, each one trapped by their unexpressed feelings. John moved his hand away from the frigidity of the tea towel with its frozen contents and laid it beside her, longing to touch her, to gently brush her hair away from her face.

He saw her lips part slightly, her pupils dilating so much that they left only a narrow rim of hazel iris around them. His gaze swept over her face, stained with the ethereal rivers where the tears had fallen. Her head was inches from his. He could feel her warmth, its sultry presence invading his senses. It was not even eight o’clock in the morning and already he was lost, the events of the morning and his relief that it had only been her ankle that had been hurt conspiring to overwhelm him completely.

In that silent office reality vanished into inconsequentiality, narrowing down to the look on her face and those expectant lips he had dreamt of kissing so often in the past few weeks. If only he could kiss away her pain…if only he could tell her everything she meant to him…

Did he imagine it, he wondered, or was her body inching towards his, pulling inexorably away from the back of the chair? The movement was barely perceptible and he could hardly believe it, but an answering echo welled inside him. With all the love he felt within him, he brought his hands up to her astonished face, reverently cupping it like a precious rose between his fingers. In the unbearable hush of the room he quested her large, staring bloodshot eyes.

“I shouldn’t be doing this,” he murmured, drawing slowly nearer, pulled by a power he could no longer deny. “God knows, I shouldn’t…”

His hands tightened against her, his long, pliant fingers rubbing over the satin of her skin. Their eyes locked and clung for a timeless eternity before, unable to remain still any longer, he drew her face irresistibly towards his.

***

“No, don’t!”

Disorientated, Margaret wrenched herself away, tearing herself from the warm, intoxicating cocoon of his embrace and jarring her ankle in the process. Her lower lip trembled. Yet it wasn’t the pain of her injury that flooded her thoughts in that moment, it was the shocking realisation of what she had almost allowed him to do. She hadn’t meant for it to happen, but she had felt so safe and cared for. His very nearness had virtually hypnotised her!

His dismay was evident, his brows knitting into a frown, creating three deeply entrenched lines across his forehead. “What’s the matter?”

Her thoughts raced in discord. He didn’t know the power he had over her – he really didn’t know! He had nearly kissed her! She had almost allowed him to do it! Every time he came near it was though her body went into some sort of meltdown!

“This is wrong! It’s so wrong!”

“Believe me, wrong is the last thing it feels,” he said, hauling himself to his feet and standing over her, his expression darkening. She saw him inhale deeply, his chest expanding and then deflating, his fingers digging into his hair in that way she had seen him do so many times when he was at a loss to know what to do next.

“I work here,” she countered, lamely.

“I know that well enough. I employed you.”

“I want to go home.”

”And I want you to tell me what’s wrong,” he grated, his eyes dark with emotion. “Yesterday, even this morning before Steven came into the room – even just now – we shared something. And don’t you dare sit there and tell me that I was imagining it!”

Margaret’s eyes lowered to the floor where her shoes lay abandoned. No, he hadn’t imagined it. She knew that well enough. But there was already someone else in his life, even if she had managed to block that person out until this moment.

“Please, I want to go home.”

For a long moment he peered down at her as though he were trying to fathom her feelings and the reason why she had suddenly become so aloof. Then he turned and picked up the phone to ring for a taxi.

***

Although he needed to see Fran as soon as possible, events conspired that day to keep him from doing anything. He found himself swept along on the tides of a near continuous stream of telephone calls and meetings with various heads of department concerning the arrangements for the Dinner. As with every year, it was the one occasion that seemed to take up so much of his time in the run up. He went about his work in his usual fashion, dealing with problems with his characteristic finesse, but he couldn’t help but think of Margaret. He wanted to phone her and make sure that she was all right but he didn’t get the chance.

He returned to the flat feeling utterly jaded later that evening, long after his mother and Fran had eaten their dinner. His mother had phoned down to his office at about seven o’clock and asked whether he had wanted her to keep his dinner warm in the oven but he’d declined. Now it was after eight-thirty and his mother had gone out to her Book Club, leaving only Fran in the flat. She was watching something on television when he came into the lounge, hurling his suit jacket onto the back of one of the armchairs. He dragged off the restrictive band of his tie from around his neck, glad to be rid of it at last. Fran was so deeply concentrated upon what was happening in her detective drama that she barely acknowledged him at all.

“Steven came into the hotel this morning, Fran.” That got her attention. He picked up the remote control lying on the coffee table and pressed the volume down to zero so that he didn’t have to talk in competition with the voices of actors. “He was drunk.”

Fran stared up at him. He couldn’t quite read the expression on her face, but she had certainly paled significantly at the mention of her errant husband. “I didn’t know he’d been here,” she said at last. “Who was on duty on reception when he came in?”

“Margaret and I,” he responded. “He managed to push Margaret so hard that she fell back and twisted her ankle. She had to be sent home in a taxi.”

Fran just gawped at him, clearly not knowing what to say. Eventually, after much opening and closing of her mouth, some words came out. “Is she all right?”

“She will be, although quite what sort of place she thinks she’s working in is another matter!”

“I didn’t know he came in.”

“He was drunk, Fran. How long has he been drinking like that? Is that why you left him?” he demanded, his eyes trained intently upon her.

He watched Fran get up from the sofa and cross to the window, her fingers reaching out to fidget with the curtains. Her discomfort was patent, even as her mounting distress was.

He sighed heavily. “Fran, I can’t afford to risk the welfare of my staff, or the hotel’s reputation for that matter, by not knowing whether Steven’s going to show up again and cause more aggravation. This whole business is getting completely out of control! What the hell is going on that keeps you here and Steven goading me for a fight? I can’t run the risk of him coming back to the hotel. You have to sort this out with him once and for all. Do you hear me?”

He stalked over to the drinks tray and poured himself a large brandy and took down nearly half of the measure he’d poured himself in one go. He finished the rest of it in one further gulp and placed the glass back on the tray.

Fran swung about, her hackles rising. “As long as your precious hotel remains untouched! You make me sick, John! I’m sorry about your receptionist but it’s not my fault!” Then the tears came in pure dramatic fashion, gushing forth without reserve, her hands clamping her face.

He looked at her coolly, not really understanding what was wrong. “What on earth is the matter?”

“It’s you!” she wailed, peering at him through the slits between her fingers. “Always picking on me! You treat me like a child, John, and it’s not fair!”

“Is that all it is? Oh, for heaven’s sake, Fran! You’re so over-sensitive about everything!”

“You expect me to tell you what’s wrong between Steven and I and yet you don’t really care one bit, do you? It’s only your hotel that you care about! It’s not me or mum or even Ann. Especially not poor Ann! It’s this flaming hotel! I wish it would just burn to the ground sometimes just to see whether you’re capable of showing any sort of emotion at all!”

“I work hard for the sake of this family, Fran,” he retorted, barely able to retain his temper that flashed and leapt, wanting to shout and rant back her. “I work to make this place a success so that the reputation that our parents gave it is not undermined by anything. If I let it go to rack and ruin, it would be like I had failed them.”

“Well, it didn’t stop Father from failing us did it? He didn’t care either!”

“Don’t you even think about dragging his name into this,” John warned, feeling his anger building to boiling point. He opened and contracted his hands that had formed into fists, fighting strenuously to remain impassive.

“Why the hell not? He was my father as well as yours. I should be able to talk about him if I want to!”

“After what he did to us I can’t imagine why you would want to.”

“Maybe I think we need to talk about him. We don’t even have photographs on display because of him!”

“You know as well as I do that that was Mother’s decision.” He had had enough. He needed to get out of the flat, away from his haranguing sister, away from the hotel. He needed space, away from everything, away from the memories of yesteryear, away from the throes of his feelings for Margaret. He moved purposefully for the door, casting a quick look back at Fran who had slumped back down on to the sofa and had her head in her hands. “Go and talk to your husband, Fran. Before it’s too late. Talk to him.” Then he was gone, the door slamming with a resounding thud behind him as he left.

***

Somehow, without even realising that he had done it, he found himself standing outside the house in Winchester Way. His grandmother’s former home; Margaret’s home now. He looked up at the windows, curtained against the fading light, the glow from the electric lights in a couple of the rooms visible through the chinks where they joined. She would be in there, he thought. If he knocked on the door now, would she want to see him? A crushing sense of hopelessness shot through him at the thought of her. He longed to be able to explain how he felt about her, to try and make her understand that there was no one else in his life that could possibly measure up to her. That there was only her, just her – but now even she felt so removed from him that he didn’t know whether he would ever be able to reach her again.

 

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