Margaret didn’t return to work for several days, having no choice but to rest her ankle until the swelling went down. Her mother fussed around her, muttering little asides about health and safety at work and generally deriding the shoes that Margaret chose to wear. She tried to insist that Margaret went to see the doctor so that her ankle could be checked, but Margaret flatly refused. It was only a sprain and as soon as the swelling had diminished enough for her to walk on it without being in absolute agony, she was going straight back to work.
The days Margaret was compelled to take off work dragged by, her spirits overhung by an acute sense of monotony. The fact that she couldn’t go out and was effectively confined to the house was the worst thing and even moving around was so painful it was much better just to sit. She missed work though, she missed her shifts with Bess and she was amazed by how much she missed John. She had secretly hoped that he might come to the house to see how she was, but after the fuss she’d created when he’d tried to kiss her she suspected that he had probably not considered it safe to be anywhere near her. Her response to him, she knew, had been completely irrational at the time – particularly after the consideration he’d shown her when she’d been hurt. It had been like witnessing another side to him, like watching another layer peel away from the armour he wore, bringing her closer to the man who hid beneath.
If the days were tedious then the evenings were more so. Margaret, never one for watching television much, found herself with no choice but to sit in front of it while her mother scoured the channels for all the home improvement programmes she could find, supplemented along the way by a dip into her usual diet of soaps. Margaret had endeavoured to finish off Jane Eyre but was too distracted by the television and in the end she just gave up, resting her head lethargically against the arm of the sofa.
“By the way, Margaret, I meant to tell you earlier,” her father began. “John sends his regards and hopes you make a speedy recovery.”
Margaret’s attention was instantly pulled towards her father at the mention of John’s name, her heart jumping in anticipation. “When did you see him?”
“This morning. Adam and I had to go to the hotel on business. We had a very pleasant lunch in the hotel restaurant as it happens. In fact, I might try and book a table for us to go one day when your ankle’s better. It’s open to the public and apparently, from what Adam tells me, is very popular with the great and the good of Milton.” He chuckled to himself, his eyes lowering once more to the book he was reading, settling himself comfortably into his armchair, no doubt thinking that having passed on the message his job was done.
“How was he?” Margaret asked, unable to stop herself. She desperately wanted to know if John had given any hint to her father about what he might think of her.
“Mmm?” Her father glanced up from his book again with an affectionate smile.
“Mr Thornton. How was he?” she persisted, wondering whether she was the only one who heard the faint edge of desperation in her voice.
“Very well, yes. He looked very chipper actually.”
Margaret wished she hadn’t asked. In her heart of hearts a part of her wanted to hear that he was miserable, that he was distracted because he missed her. But that obviously wasn’t happening. Her lack of presence hadn’t had any effect on him at all, it seemed.
Oblivious to Margaret’s growing gloom, her father continued on: “He’s looking forward to the Mill Owners Dinner, I think. It’s a lot of work by the sounds of it, but it’s clearly something he enjoys the challenge of.”
“I suppose he’ll be taking Ann Latimer,” Margaret said before she could stop herself, her morosity hardly disguised. Not that either of her parents seemed to take any notice. Her mother was too enthralled by the latest goings-on in the Platt household to care.
“As far as I know, he’s not actually taking anyone,” her father pondered. “I could be wrong, but that was the impression I got from him.”
“I just thought he would, that’s all,” Margaret replied, trying not to speculate upon the subject too deeply. After all, John may just have chosen not to bring Ann’s name up, wanting to keep his relationship with her private. Or maybe he’d already asked her and she’d said no. Not that Margaret could see that happening. No women would pass up the chance to spend the evening in a beautiful dress with John Thornton as their partner.
Not even her.
When John received the message from reception that Margaret would be returning to work the following day, his first thought was to question why she hadn’t seen fit to tell him herself. Were they so distant now that she couldn’t even bear to deal with him on any sort of personal level? If that was the case then he didn’t know if he could bear it. God knows, he knew they shared no real relationship to speak of – just a series of misunderstandings and wilful disagreements – but there had been a few times, fleeting and over all too soon, when he had felt that they’d connected on an emotional level. They were the moments he clung to. They were the times he would remember as he went about his work and when he went to bed at night.
The days she’d been away had seemed unending, even though he had enough work to occupy his time with. The daily grind didn’t alter. He got up, showered and shaved, had breakfast and went down to reception at seven o’clock to cover the period between the Night Porter leaving and the reception staff coming in. Then there would be phone calls, meetings, banking, invoices and the like to wade through, guests to converse with before finally returning to the flat more than twelve hours later. He hadn’t really realised until Margaret had come along just how much of a treadmill he was on – always striving to do his best by the hotel because he couldn’t bear the thought of failing his parents, more particularly his mother.
Fran had been in a foul mood ever since he had told her about Steven hurting Margaret, refusing to acknowledge him most of the time, particularly after he had decided that, in view of Steven’s erratic behaviour, he would tell their mother what had happened. She had responded by demanding of Fran what was going on, only to find herself up against that same brick wall as John, getting nothing from Fran who just took flight to her room and kept her lips sealed. His mother had been concerned too that Margaret might want to go to the police about Steven, but John hadn’t thought that that would have crossed Margaret’s mind. Certainly, nothing from his conversations with Richard suggested her to be considering it. He didn’t think her to be vengeful by nature. Stubborn, maddening and utterly irresistible maybe, but not vindictive. It was the one thing Fran ought to be grateful about; at least with Margaret there was little chance of her chatting about it amongst her work colleagues as a means of ridiculing the family. But Fran couldn’t see that, of course – she saw nothing beyond the blame she felt was being heaped in healthy doses upon her.
“She was far too young to get married in the first place,” Hannah muttered for the umpteenth time after another one of Fran’s outbursts. “She knew it too because otherwise she’d have married here rather than getting married on holiday on the spur of the moment.”
“You know what Fran’s like, Mother. Action before thought.”
“She must know that she can’t stay here forever?”
“I really don’t know what she thinks,” John replied, wearily. He had just about given up all hope of being able to fathom his sister. If she wouldn’t talk to him then he couldn’t help her. “I don’t think she does either and that’s the problem.”
His mother sighed, leaning forward to pick up her teacup from the table. “Is everything ready for the Dinner now?” she asked, changing the subject to a more palatable topic.
John inclined his head. “We’re just awaiting the final numbers.”
“Have you asked Ann to be your guest yet?” He couldn’t help but hear his mother’s hopeful expectation.
“No, I haven’t asked her. I haven’t asked anyone.” He reached over from the sofa to scoop up the newspaper, thinking that he would try and have a go at the crossword. At least that would give him a focus. “I was actually thinking of going on my own.”
His mother looked horrified. “You can’t go on your own!”
“Why on earth not?” he countered, raising his eyebrows.
“Because people will expect you to have someone with you. You took Ann last year as I remember.”
“That was last year. And you should know by now that I’ve never been interested in what people think.”
His mother grimaced. He could be so obstinate when he wished and not so unlike Fran in that respect, except that he did it in a much quieter way. “I’m pretty sure Ann will be expecting you to ask her.”
John, however, would not be swayed by his mother’s attempts to pair him off with someone like Ann. Oh, she might well look lovely on his arm but it wasn’t enough. He wanted a woman who was more than a decoration – he wanted Margaret. He would never be able to predict how an evening with her would go. She might be sweetness and light one minute and tipping champagne over his head in indignation the next. The thought of this made him smile to himself.
“What are you smiling about?” his mother asked.
“I was just wondering whether to ask Margaret to the Dinner,” he replied, knowing exactly what reaction he would get.
“Margaret! Oh, for heaven’s sake John! She works for you!” Horror and panic leapt across Hannah’s face in quick succession that he might actually be seriously considering the idea. “You can’t ask Margaret!”
“Why ever not? As far as I’m aware I can ask anyone I like.”
“What about Ann?”
“I’m not interested in her. I never have been. End of story.”
The tetchiness in his voice conveyed his irritation and unwillingness to pursue the conversation any further and his mother, although he had just managed so concisely to squash flat all her hopes for Ann, knew better than to continue. He was his own man, no longer dependent upon her and he would make his own decisions; he was certainly well beyond the age where she could influence those decisions to any great extent.
And so, mother and son settled into a mutual silence and didn’t speak on the subject again for the remainder of the evening.
The minutes had never dragged so slowly, John thought with mounting impatience as he glanced towards the old grandfather clock standing against the opposite wall of the foyer for the countless time. Outwardly, he appeared the epitome of the cool, controlled employer so many of his staff were accustomed to, his dark suit and crisp white shirt accentuating an aura of unmistakeable professionalism. Inside, however, he felt anything but composed. If he felt anything, it was complete uncertainty as to the sort of reception he would get from Margaret when she arrived.
He picked up the reservations book only to discard it; he straightened a pile of leaflets trumpeting the tourist attractions of Milton in an unnecessary attempt to give his hands an occupation. And all the time his eyes continuously roamed towards the clock in the expectation of time having passed and feeling only bitter disappointment when it hadn’t. He sucked in his breath, dragging his fingers through his black hair, watching the hands crawling at a snail’s pace towards seven-thirty.
Bess had already come into work and, rather quicker than John would have expected, was now returning with two mugs of coffee – one for her and one for him. It crossed his mind that she had decided that she wanted to be in reception when Margaret arrived, not only to welcome her back but also to protect her from him. He hadn’t mentioned anything to Bess about the scene she’d come across after Steven had slinked away like the coward he was, unable to face up to the consequences of his actions, and she hadn’t said anything to him about it either. She probably wouldn’t. If Bess wanted to know what had happened she only needed to speak to Margaret. They were good friends and he didn’t doubt that they shared many a confidence with each other. The fact that he had heard no hushed murmurs circulating about Bess finding him with his arms around Margaret led him to assume that she wouldn’t talk about it to anyone in the hotel, except perhaps Nick but John wasn’t even sure about that. Nick had a kitchen to run and had no time for idle chit-chat and gossip.
“There you go,” Bess said, casting him a polite smile, as she passed him his coffee.
He took it from her. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” She walked off into the small office door and started filing, humming quietly to herself as she did so.
Hearing the door pull open, John’s eyes jumped towards it in expectation and suddenly she was there, standing before him. She looked so different from the wounded young woman he’d put in a taxi a few days before, her hair pulled back into a ponytail plait and snaking down her left side at the front, her face bearing only the faintest trace of make-up. Immaculate, radiating professionalism, she appeared ready to tackle anything. All he wanted to do was to catch her up in arms and hold her as he had once before and tell her just how much he’d missed her. Mind you, he could just imagine the consequences of such an impulsive gesture! Their surroundings and the fact that Margaret would probably seek to attack him with the nearest object to hand, followed swiftly by Bess doing the same to protect her friend from him at all costs, all contrived to stop him.
He was the first person she saw, however. Their eyes met, holding on each other for a breathless second before Bess broke their silent connection as she abandoned the filing and came out into reception.
“How’s the foot?” John asked as he nodded towards Margaret’s offending ankle, noticing that it had more or less shrunk back to its normal size. “It looks better.”
“It still twinges a little but its fine. The frozen vegetables must have helped.”
Her comment was aimed specifically at him and was, he knew, a direct reference to what had happened in his office. “I’m glad to hear it,” he replied, his voice softening.
Margaret pulled her handbag from her shoulder, turning towards Bess with an animated smile. “Did you miss me then?”
“Of course I did – I didn’t have anyone to talk to.” She spoke without reserve and coloured slightly as she caught John’s eye. “You know what I mean, don’t you, Margaret?”
“That it’s nice to be able to chat with your best friend while you work?”
The two of them disappeared off into the small office, falling into their usual banter, leaving John in reception. He could hear Bess telling Margaret about what had been happening while she’d been away, although in a guarded way that conveyed to him just how aware Bess was of the fact that he was probably listening to their conversation. Of course, she was right. He was listening, even though he knew very well that he shouldn’t be. They were only in the office for as long as it took Margaret to put her belongings into the locker and then they came back out into reception again, both looking at him expectantly, as though to query why he was still standing there. It had felt like a lifetime since he’d seen Margaret and he was reluctant to leave. He had work to do, meetings at various places to attend; and yet for the first time in his life he didn’t really feel as though they mattered as much as being close to Margaret.
Then he remembered something; the unusual lost property item that had been found in the reception office next to one of the lockers the other day. “Margaret, have you lost anything recently?”
She frowned. “I don’t think so. Why?”
“I’ll show you,” he said and went off to the office to carefully take down the fragile object from where it had been residing on a top bookshelf out of harm’s way. When he came back to Margaret he uncupped his hand to reveal the small dried flower lying in his palm. It looked so frail and yet its beauty remained intact and perfect. “One of the girls found it on the floor in the office the other day. Is it yours? No one else appears to have claimed it.”
He watched as recognition and delight suffused Margaret’s face. “It’s mine,” she said, carefully picking the flower from his hand, her fingertips very briefly skimming across his palm as she did so and creating an unbelievable, shimmering sensation at the point where her fingers touched him. He couldn’t believe that she didn’t feel it too and yet her focus was solely on the rose. He couldn’t help but feel that she was looking at it wistfully, as though what it represented made her sad. “It must have dropped out of my bag somehow. I didn’t realise,” she said.
It was so delicate and yet the petals still burnt with the same vivid sheen as they had on the day she’d picked it, their radiance forever captured in time, an echo of a memory, illuminating the present.
“It’s a beautiful colour,” Bess said in admiration. “I used to press flowers years ago. Do you remember those presses you used to be able to get? The ones with the screws in the four corners with the wood and those hexagon pieces of green paper and board? Where did you get that rose from?”
“Helstone. I brought it with me when we moved here.” Her eyes flew to John’s. He knew what she was thinking; that she remembered their expressed differences between Helstone and Milton with as much clarity as he did. “I was keeping it in my diary and meant to put it under a heap of novels to press it properly, but forgot.”
His gaze followed her as she went and undid her locker and put the flower into a thin book in her handbag before coming back again. “I’ll leave you two ladies to it then,” John said, finally managing to stir himself. “I’ll be in my office.”
“Can I be really nosey and ask you something? What’s going on between you and Mr Thornton?” Bess asked Margaret as they sat in the coffee bar they had begun to fall into the regular habit of visiting as soon as their shift had finished. She had noticed that for much of the time that day Margaret had been distracted, as though something was troubling her. “It’s just that things seem a bit strained between you.”
Margaret stared down into her coffee cup at the strong black liquid she was absently swirling around with her teaspoon, even though it didn’t need stirring at all. She didn’t know how to answer Bess. Not when her feelings for John were scattered like seeds in the wind.
She raised her eyes to Bess. She knew that Bess had suspected that there was something between the two of them since she’d seen them together in Blues, but on that occasion she had asked Margaret if there was anything going on with light-hearted jest. This time there was only seriousness and concern that her suspicions might be true. Margaret bit her bottom lip, uncertain of trying to explain. Up until now she had been so casual whenever his name had come up in conversations, so quick to deny that she felt anything other than a healthy dislike for him.
“I think I’ve fallen in love with him,” Margaret said, quietly. It was the first time she had said the words aloud, but even they were a lie. She didn’t actually think she had fallen in love with John Thornton – she knew for certain that she had.
If Bess had expected her to say anything, it certainly wasn’t to reveal such depth of emotion. She paled slightly at Margaret’s admission, searching her face in complete bewilderment. “I thought you hated him.”
Margaret threw her a wry smile. “Hate, love. They’re not too dissimilar are they?”
“Only that they stand at completely opposing extremes,” Bess replied, ironically. She leant forward slightly, her fingers grasping the base of her hot chocolate mug. “Does he love you?” she asked hesitantly, as if she knew what unstable territory she was on.
Margaret shrugged. Sentiment flooded through her, making her want to cry foolish tears of remorse. “I don’t know, Bess.”
“Has he given you any indication of how he feels about you?”
“I suppose you could say that we’ve shared a few ‘moments’. The trouble is that when he tried to kiss me I just freaked out.”
Bess looked scandalised at her admission. “You’ve kept information like that to yourself? When did he try and kiss you?”
“In his office – after I twisted my ankle.”
“Margaret!” Bess shrieked, her voice rising to a squeal that made the man reading on the opposite table look across at the pair of them with slight annoyance. “He must feel something for you. He’s hardly the sort to just go around kissing women just for the sake of it – and he’s never shown any interest in any member of staff before you came along.”
“But he’s got a girlfriend, Bess.”
“I know he can be described as many things, but I don’t think he would lead you on with the intention of hurting you like that. Besides, the talk about Ann Latimer is only hotel gossip. There may not be any truth in it.”
“And if there is?”
“There’s only one way to find out isn’t there? Ask him outright.”
Margaret was busy typing in a booking when she glanced up to see John standing in front of her. She jumped, having not even been aware of him coming into the room.
“Are you all right?” he asked, concerned.
“I think so,“ she replied. “Do you want something?” They had hardly spoken in the past few days since she’d returned to work and it had led her to believe that he had been deliberately avoiding her after what had happened between them.
“I’m about to go to the accountants,” he said. “Then I’ll be going out for the rest of the afternoon, but I’ll see you this evening at about eight.”
Margaret stared at him, her stomach somersaulting wildly at his unexpected words. “Why will you see me this evening?” she managed to say, although her voice sounded faint, as though the power had been taken from it.
“Because you’re having dinner with me,” he replied with such an air of confidence that it managed to effectively restore Margaret’s tendency to want to argue. He was making quite an assumption that she’d even want to see him in a social capacity!
“Most people ask when they want to have dinner with someone. They don’t just assume,” she said, kicking her chair back so that she could take a couple of things over to the photocopier situated in the corner of the room. John followed her, coming to stand beside her with his arms crossed before him. She prodded the button of the copier and shut the lid. It was safer not to look at him. His presence was enough to contend with without having to meet his eyes as well.
“I didn’t want to give you the opportunity to refuse,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”
“I might have other arrangements.” Not that she did.
“You’d better cancel them.”
She couldn’t believe his arrogance. “That sounds very much like an order to me. I might work for you, but I don’t recall the term ‘slave’ being included in my job description!” She couldn’t help it. The last thing she wanted was for him to think that he could order her around whenever it suited him to do so.
It was the wrong thing to say. His blue eyes roamed over her, deliberately lingering, as though he were assessing her worth. “That might be interesting,” he said softly, in such a suggestive way that it brought an unwelcome rush of colour to Margaret’s cheeks.
He moved then, positioning himself so close behind her that she could almost feel him. For the past couple of days he hadn’t been near her and now he was so close that if she turned around her nose would probably hit the base of his neck. Treacherous currents of pleasure flashed through her entire body at the thought, making her every nerve tingle. She lowered her head, trying to concentrate on the photocopying she was supposed to be doing, trying to ignore the little voice whispering in her head and telling her that if she moved just an inch back her body would be touching his. Her mind was racing. What if he tried to kiss her again?
He didn’t say a word as his hand extended towards hers as it hovered over the start button of the copier. Her heart started to thud, erratically quivering, even as his long fingers sought to imprison hers. Oh God, she thought, staring down at their interlaced fingers, feeling the energy vibrate from his hand to hers and sending waves of exquisite sensation up her arms. Oh God! Driven by the need to see the expression in his eyes, she half turned towards him, her shoulder rubbing across his chest as she did so. He was looking down at her with such probing intensity that it took her breath away, his long, dark lashes half lowered, but below which the blue of his eyes blazed back at her with undisclosed desire. He fastened his grip on her hand, his eyes holding hers as they both silently acknowledged the frisson that shot between them.
With an effort Margaret tried to drag herself back to her surroundings and the fact that, albeit out of view, there was another receptionist on duty just beyond the office. Yet she wanted to cling to the moment, to remain in this intoxicating existence that lay suspended somewhere between reality and fantasy. Being with him was all she wanted. Somewhere, in some obscure area of her mind, was a niggling voice reminding her that things were not as they seemed, that he had a girlfriend already, but she was too lost in his eyes to listen to the warning.
“So, Miss Hale,” he murmured at last, his voice hoarse, still holding her hand prisoner as he pulled at it slightly to move her around to fully face him so her back was pressed against the photocopier. He moved forward, his body meeting hers with an almost indiscernible pressure. Her heart pulsating frantically, she tried to draw enough oxygen into her lungs to breathe. “Margaret.” Her name was a soft illumination as his head moved barely perceptibly towards hers, his eyes captivating her as fully as if he physically held her in his arms. “Will you have dinner with me tonight?”