“I didn’t think you fraternised with the staff,” Margaret said breathlessly, her voice catching in response to the all-encompassing embrace of his eyes.
“I don’t,” he replied thickly, finally releasing her hand to mould his own loosely against her hip. She tensed at the electric connection. Oh God, he was so close! She could smell the woody scent of his aftershave as his breathing became more perceptible. She could feel the pure earthy sensuality of him.
“But I’m one of the staff.”
A guttural laugh emanated from his throat. “I find it very difficult to think of you as one of my employees, Margaret. Virtually impossible, in fact, despite all my efforts to do so.”
In reception the telephone began ringing, cutting out just as suddenly as it had begun. It served as a pertinent reminder that they weren’t alone. She heard Helena’s congenial tones, her laugh, coming from reception. “What if Helena comes in? She’ll wonder what’s going on.”
His other hand rose to frame her face briefly before he started to stroke it in a long velvet caress from her temple to the base of her neck, triggering a response so intense that she was grateful to have the copier to support her. “And what’s going on, Miss Hale?” His eyes tangled with hers, deeply penetrating, challenging her to admit what was happening between them.
She couldn’t begin to explain. She was lost. Time ceased to tick in minutes, but in heartbeats, shuddering and erratic. She clutched tighter at the sides of the photocopier.
“I didn’t think you’d be lost for words,” he murmured. The tips of his fingers whispered like feathers over her skin, searching, learning, his blue eyes melding with hers. “You haven’t answered my question yet.”
“What question?” She could hardly breathe, his ambush on her feelings leaving her reeling.
“You know what question.” He craned his neck so that his mouth hovered at her ear, his breath licking like a flame. “Dinner tonight.” She felt her eyes flutter shut as a sultry heat invaded her entire body, drawing her further away from reality and deeper into that world where only the two of them existed. “Or shall I take your silence as your agreement?”
Beyond the window came the heavy metallic rolling of barrels along the pavement like a wave of approaching thunder as the brewery delivered a new order for the hotel cellar. A sudden hollow clang of an empty barrel falling over jerked Margaret back into the present, shattering the magic.
She knew that she had to create some space between them and her palms came up instinctively to rest flush against his shirt. She willed herself to ignore the incredible warmth of his body beneath the thin cotton, her elbows buckling ineffectually into the narrow chasm between them, trying without success to lever them a bit and push him back a little, even though he remained firmly rooted in place.
The shadow of Ann Latimer stole across her mind like a black approaching storm cloud marching upon a sunlit day, the reality of their situation pushing itself forward, screaming for recognition. “How can I say yes?” Margaret said, utterly bereft by the looming spectre of another woman inhabiting his life, that tender communication that had so enraptured them suddenly replaced by a frigid dose of reality. He took a step back so that her hands dropped away from his chest and she could stand upright at last.
“What’s the matter?” he asked warily, anxiety and confusion leaping in his eyes.
She remembered Bess’s words that had echoed her own thoughts and bit down on her lip, not really knowing how to begin. She couldn’t risk being hurt any more than she was already going to be. She’d already allowed herself to feel too much for this man. Her hands began to shake and in an attempt to hide just how much she slipped them into her jacket pockets.
“I think you should take your girlfriend out tonight. She’s probably expecting it.”
He stared at her, his eyes narrowing as his expression grew colder, harder, starker. “Where the hell did you get the idea that I had a girlfriend?” he demanded.
“It doesn’t matter,” Margaret said, avoiding his eye, hearing the first tremors of thunder in his voice as she twisted her attention back to the work she was supposed to be doing and the sheets of paper sitting in the tray. She snatched them up abruptly. “Just because you don’t talk about her – this Ann whoever she is.”
“Of course I don’t talk about her!” he interjected sharply, his voice rising to such a degree that they were in danger of being overheard. “Why would I want to? I’m not in the slightest bit interested in her!”
Margaret glared at him disbelievingly, the fact that she might have been wrong about him having a girlfriend in the first place making her all the more defensive. She darted past him and marched towards the desk, virtually throwing the papers down upon it so that they scattered across the surface and keyboard. She let out an impatient sigh, making a move to shuffle them back into a rough pile but John was immediately at her side and caught her by the shoulders to spin her around, his eyes plunging into hers so deeply that it was as though he wanted to sear her preconceptions about Ann’s connection with him.
“Get your hands off me or I’ll scream the place down!” she shot out.
He did so almost instantly – perhaps reading the expression in her face that almost dared him to make her do it.
“The whole thing is just a rumour started by one very uninformed individual!”
“More than one!” she shot back pugnaciously. The way his manner could change so effortlessly from tenderness to anger was somewhat disconcerting, if not a little alarming to witness. “The entire hotel thinks you’re serious about her!”
He drew in his breath. “This is ridiculous!”
“You’ve been seen with her!”
“I’ve been seen with a lot of people and if these people – whoever they are – have seen me with Ann then it’s always been in the company of others!”
She felt the hole she’d dug with her accusations becoming deeper by the minute, the need to justify herself becoming more necessary. “You took her to the Dinner last year!”
“Only because I had to take somebody and because I didn’t know you then! If I had then things would have been very different!”
Margaret stared at him in shock, the force of his words knocking her sideways. She didn’t dare try and read too much into them for fear of setting herself up for more disappointment. “What?”
His eyes flashed. “You heard me!” he grated. He raked his index finger across his forehead, completely at a loss. “Do you really believe that I would want to hurt you?”
“No,” she admitted. Now ashamed of ever believing the worst of him, she lowered her gaze from his, unable to bear the sight of his contempt. How could she love him like she did and doubt his integrity so much? Why did she keep undermining every attempt he made to be close to her?
He wouldn’t allow her any evasion from the situation, however, and caught the underside of her chin with his fingers and lifted it slowly upwards, giving her no choice but to look up at him. “Then come out with me tonight,” he said. “Don’t say no. Just say you will.”
How was it possible for the hours to drag so slowly, John wondered? He was sitting in his final meeting of the day, shut in a dreary monochrome meeting room with several executives from Boucher Incorporated who wanted to thrash out a deal with him for the company to use the hotel for its employees who had business in the area and needed a hotel to stay at on a regular basis, starting the day after next because they had someone from their London office coming down. It wasn’t new territory for John. Several of the other large firms in the area already used the hotel to house its employees regularly so he already knew what would be expected. The fact that it would be an ongoing source of revenue for the hotel could only be viewed as a positive thing, particularly during the less busy months of the late autumn and winter when tourism slackened off as the cold weather took hold. He sat answering their questions with all the appearance of a man so utterly in control of himself, in an attitude that spoke only of confidence, but all the time he was more than conscious of his thoughts straying towards Margaret and the evening that awaited them.
An hour later, having escaped the confines of Boucher Incorporated’s meeting room and the starched suits that frequented it, he was still thinking about Margaret. The hours to eight o’clock could not pass quickly enough. Every one of them, particularly those still to come, felt like walls to scale and overcome, barriers put in the way of reaching the one person who constantly filled his thoughts. Physically, he knew that the attraction between them was palpable; this morning it had been more blatant than ever. The look in her eyes had conveyed the fact that she had felt it too, that intangible bond that existed between them and seemed to tie their very souls together.
He got into his car and drove through the bustle of the Milton streets, back towards the hotel, loosening his tie as he did so and throwing it to join his briefcase sitting on the passenger seat beside him. He thought back to his conversation with Richard earlier that day, of how he had approached him to gauge what his reaction would be to him taking his daughter out to dinner that evening.
Richard had glanced over his glasses at him as he’d digested John’s words, considering him with quiet contemplation. “I had no idea you were interested in Margaret. Have you actually asked her yet?”
“Before I came here.”
“And she said yes?”
“Well, she’s old enough to make her own decisions, although I am surprised that she agreed. She’s always seemed less than complimentary about you.” He smiled then, realising what he’d said, how it might sound offensive. “I’m sorry. That was rather tactless of me.”
“It’s nothing she hasn’t already told me, believe me,” John had replied, thinking of her remark about him being the most despicable man she’d ever met. Then his tone had changed, become more serious. “I’ll look after her tonight.”
Richard had nodded sagely, placid and unruffled, taking it all in his stride. “I have no doubts that you will, John. As far as I’m concerned, she could be in no safer hands.”
As John turned his wrist now to glimpse at his watch he saw that it was well past the time that Margaret would have finished her shift. Just as he had predicted, he would not see her now until later. Four hours to be precise. Four hours which stood like vanguards to overcome before he could finally reach her at last…
His mother was busy polishing the surfaces of his office when he walked in, grasping a collection of messages he had picked up from reception along the way in his free hand. She had just delivered a blast of fine mist to his desk, the smell of it hanging fresh in the air, duster poised in readiness as she looked up to see him come in.
“Good day?” she asked, resuming with the task in hand, creating large swirling circles as she worked.
He came towards her and put his briefcase and abandoned tie down onto the Chesterton. “Yes. I’ve just added Boucher Incorporated to our list of business clients. They’ll be sending their employees from their other offices when they have to come to Milton on business.” His mother inclined her head in approval, but he could tell that her thoughts were elsewhere. “Has everything been all right here?” he asked.
“The hotel is fine. It runs like clockwork,” his mother replied as the duster increased in speed and firmness, threatening to remove the varnish on the wood in the process. “Your sister has spent most of the afternoon in tears.”
His heart sank as the spectre of Fran and Steven’s fractious relationship intruded upon his thoughts. “Has Steven been here again causing trouble?” The idea that Margaret might have had to deal with another confrontation with the man left him cold.
“No.” The duster came to a halt and he watched as his mother dropped down onto his chair, her expression troubled. “He phoned her earlier and managed to upset her.”
John shook his head. He went to stand by the window, his arms crossed, looking petulantly down onto the familiarity of the streets below. His mother was silent. He knew only too well that she was becoming increasingly worried about Fran and her situation. “I don’t understand her,” he said, finally. “How does she think we can help her if she won’t say anything?”
His mother stood up, rescuing the duster and can of polish from his desk. “I really don’t know,” she sighed. “I’ll go up and see her now. Try and talk to her. Will you be eating with us this evening or have you got other plans?”
He turned. “I’ve got other plans. I’m actually having dinner with Margaret tonight.”
Disbelief reigned in his mother’s face. “Oh John! She’s one of the staff for heaven’s sake! You know what this place is like for gossip and there’ll be no end to it if anyone finds out that you’re – well – canoodling with Margaret!”
He had to stop himself from laughing at the quaintness of her comment. Canoodling with Margaret. The connotations were extremely pleasant but somehow didn’t quite equate with the depth of his feelings for her. “It’s my business, Mother. People can think what they like.”
“Isn’t she a little young? I mean, she can’t be much over twenty.”
“What does that matter?” he snapped. “I’d love her whether she was twenty or thirty.”
His mother’s eyes bulged in shock. “Love? Love! For heaven’s sake, John! You hardly know her!”
“When have any of us actually chosen the people we fall in love with? It happens whether we want it to or not.”
His mother’s lips tightened into a grim line. Her disapproval was evident, as were her reservations about the sense of his feelings. “I’d better go and see your sister,” she said curtly, making her way towards the door.
“I’m not thirteen anymore,” he said, addressing her back. “I know what I’m doing.”
The gravity of his words, the pure conviction that shot through them, made her turn back. She threw him a rueful smile. “Thirteen or thirty, you’re still my son. A mother’s feelings don’t change just because you grow up.”
He smiled in brief acknowledgement and turned back to the panoramic sweep of the town, hearing the door click softly shut and leaving him alone with his thoughts.
Margaret spent far too long lolling in the bath, her thoughts paralysed by her imminent date with John. Her stomach had been somersaulting manically for most of the day since he’d left her that morning, and had now, as eight o’clock drew ever closer, been joined by her heart doing exactly the same thing. She had thought that a bath would relax her but it had soon become evident that nothing would. She was beyond relaxing.
She pulled herself out of the fragrant embrace of bubbles, feeling those that still clung to her body bursting as she wrapped herself in a towel. When she caught sight of herself in the bathroom mirror, having wiped away the steam that had blurred the glass, she saw a woman whose skin was flushed by not just the heat of the bath water and eyes that shone back clear and bright with anticipation. All because of him. All because of John.
John arrived a little before eight. The moment she heard the screech of the doorbell her heart had increased its rhythm, every pulse point throbbing at the idea of seeing him again. She stood as if frozen in the centre of the pale turquoise haze of her bedroom, knowing that she had now well and truly jumped off that precipice and was in free fall, unsure of the consequences of her actions and where they would lead her. The call of her father drifted up to her, telling her what she already knew – that John was here and waiting for her.
“I’m just coming,” she called back, slipping her feet into her higher than normal black sandals. She looked down at them, at the painted pink toenails peeping out above the thin straps. Her ankle had shrunk back to its original size but, very briefly, she did wonder whether she dared to risk a slightly higher heel. Of course she dared, she decided, banishing the image from her mind of tripping up on an uneven piece of pavement and breaking her ankle. The extra elevation would give her a little more height, even if it was only an inch or so above the sensible heels she usually wore. At least she wouldn’t feel as though John was towering over her to quite the same degree. And that could only be a good thing.
The minute he saw her he wanted to take her in his arms and hold her. He couldn’t help but stare, his eyes travelling the length of her body, unable but to notice the way that her simply cut and understated black dress moulded itself to every curve as she came down the stairs, her hand skimming along the banister rail. Her mahogany hair was swept back from her face and had been lifted from her creamy neck. She stole the breath from him. For a fleeting moment, as their eyes met, there passed between them the silent affirmation that they were together again after the interminable hours since the morning. His lips lifted to a smile. He had told Richard that he’d take care of her and he was determined not to break that promise.
“Shall we go?” he asked, stretching out his hand as she reached the bottom step, his long fingers extending out to hers. He did it without thought, without reservation. It felt natural and right, the desire to touch her instinctively borne from the love that had grown and blossomed inside him.
“Of course.” She descended the final stair, her fingers lacing with his without the hesitation he had expected, that same current of sensation that had pulled them together just that morning returning with the same powerful magnetism. Finding her eyes, he saw that she’d felt the same jolting realisation as he had. “Where are we going?” she asked.
“Wherever you wish to go,” he said, squeezing her fingers. “I thought I’d leave the choice to you.”
“You might regret saying that.”
His eyes flashed. He didn’t think he could regret anything about the evening awaiting them. “We’ll see shall we?” he murmured.
In the end they went to a Chinese restaurant Nick had recommended to them both on separate occasions. The fact that they hadn’t made a reservation for a table could well have caused a problem had two people not been leaving as they’d arrived. It had not long opened and therefore interest in it was rife, as was the curiosity to sample its extensive menu. A petite Chinese lady in an immaculate suit came towards them in a flourish of red linen, with a welcoming smile. John requested a table and her black eyes skipped from one to the other of them, quietly assessing.
“I only have a table in one of the alcoves. I don’t know whether this will suit you? If you would like another table I can pencil you in, but it won’t be available for a few hours.”
John had no doubt which option he preferred. “Shall we take what’s on offer?” he asked, turning to Margaret who nodded quite readily. “We’ll take the alcove,” he said decisively and the woman inclined her head with a knowing smile.
She led them across the packed restaurant to the table. As she had told them, it sat in a shallow alcove, giving the impression of being slightly more intimate because it was just a little bit set back from the other tables. A tealight in frosted glass flickered in the centre of the white damask cloth next to a narrow vase housing a singly dramatic orchid. She waited until they had both sat down and gave each of them a menu.
“Can I get you both a drink?”
John looked across at Margaret in question. There was so much he didn’t know about her, so much to explore between them. And yet he loved her with absolute conviction – this beautiful girl who he didn’t know what her preference for a drink was.
“Can you give us a moment?” he asked the woman and she nodded, leaving them alone so that they could make their decisions.
“I don’t even know what you’d like to drink,” he said with a wry, somewhat apologetic smile, his eyes meeting hers across the table. “The last time we ate a meal together at your parents’ house you spent most of the evening drinking tap water.”
“That was because I was so nervous,” Margaret replied quietly, dropping her eyes to the menu.
He leant across, careful not to knock over the orchid that stood guard between them, lowering the top of her menu with his finger, his gaze searching her still downcast face. “Why were you nervous?”
“Because of you.”
He felt his breath catch in his throat at her admittance. He lowered his head a little to try and catch her eye and finally he did so, seeing within them a vulnerability that made his heart ache. “Is that why you avoided looking at me all evening?” he asked softly, remembering only too lucidly how religiously she had evaded his eye that night and how, when she finally had looked at him, it had been with reluctance and reticence.
He smiled. “Shall I warn the woman serving us that there might be a rush on tap water this evening too?” he asked, seeking to lighten the mood between them, his voice gently teasing. “Or do you think we could risk a bottle of wine?”
“I’d love a glass of wine.”
“White or red?”
The woman came back and they ordered a bottle of white wine, although neither of them had come to any decision about what they wanted to eat. John hadn’t even looked at the menu and even Margaret’s initial intent study of it seemed to have produced no enlightened decision.
In the end they chose a variety of dishes and ate with chopsticks, their mutual clumsiness in the art of managing to eat with them making them both laugh as they negotiated the food from plate to mouth.
“How long have you been managing the hotel?” Margaret asked, prising her chopsticks apart to catch up some of the chow mein from her plate.
It had been inevitable that it would come, the straying into that area of his life that he still couldn’t divulge. Memories of his father sabotaged his mood, just as they always did, sinking their talons into those still raw wounds that refused to heal.
“For about ten years now,” he heard himself say. He felt himself transported a million miles away from where he sat now, a young man not much older than the woman who sat opposite him with her soulful, questing gaze, standing at a graveside, his emotions tortured by doubt and tragedy. His feelings, his father’s grave, the secrets buried, the stain that would always infiltrate his future…
“You must feel proud to carry on the family tradition.” She had managed to seize a morsel of food and carefully raised it to her mouth, smiling as she closed her lips around it at the victory of another tricky manoeuvre completed.
To her comment he merely nodded, whisking up his glass of wine and drinking down the little bit remaining. “Would you like some more?” he asked, picking up the near empty bottle, poised to top up her glass.
“No thanks, I’m all right at the moment.”
He drained the last of the bottle into his own glass.
“I heard about what happened to your father. I’m sorry.”
Words. Unremarkable when separated and yet like a vicious icicle stabbing at his already frosted heart when spoken at once. He heard her sympathy and it only made it worse and harder to bear because he was trapped by the irrepressible need to cling to the emotional wreckage that his father’s death had created inside him. He could hardly bear it. He wanted to blot it out, forget it, to concentrate on Margaret, on the feelings that he cherished for her. He laid his chopsticks down beside his plate, memories crippling him with despair. He’d been drifting in this painful abyss for so many years, so scared of letting in the sunlight, of throwing the windows wide, fearing so much the losing of the iron grasp he had on his cloistered emotions…and yet the sunlight was beginning to penetrate through the cold interior of his heart where his father’s memory dwelt in isolation, little by little as Margaret burrowed her way further inside him.
Something in her expression changed. The lights in her eyes dulled; her body stilled as she looked across at him. Suddenly she seemed unsure of him, of what she had said. He longed to be able to rescue her from the fear that she’d hurt him, albeit in the most unintentional way, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t do anything, even though that troubled part of his heart yelled out to hers for deliverance, for the peace from misery it so craved…
“What is it? What have I said?” she questioned.
“I can’t talk about this, Margaret,” he said, shaking his dark head. “Not now. Not tonight – especially not tonight.”
“It’s not your fault. You don’t need to apologise.”
“I just wanted to say –“
Silence came to claim them, cloaking them in doubt. Margaret had lowered her head and was staring down at her plate, just as she had during the other meal they had had together with her parents, the same awkwardness and hesitation rearing up between them, keeping them apart.
The minutes seemed to merge into one another, jarring and agonising. “Margaret,” he began at last, knowing that he had to say something. His inability to talk about his father’s death wasn’t her fault; God knows it wasn’t. It was his – he couldn’t even discuss it with someone like Fran, who had lived through the whole experience with him!
At the sound of her name her eyes flew to his searchingly. “Why did you ask me out tonight?”
Her question took him aback. It was the last thing he expected. “I wanted your company.”
“But you see me all the time at work.”
“It’s not the same thing – you know it isn’t. There’s never any privacy at work for one thing.”
He watched as she scooped up her wine and raised the glass to her lips and took a sip. The little lip colour she’d been wearing had vanished completely, her mouth now naked, effused with its own natural bloom. The longing to kiss her, always so close to the surface, rocked through him. Following the impulse of the moment, acutely aware of a need to touch her, he slid his hand across the table towards hers where it lay at the base of her glass, easing the small fingers away from it with gentle pressure, silkily massaging the back of her hand with his fingertips in a tiny circular motion, reading the answering shock of pleasure in her eyes. He couldn’t believe how the depth of connection between them could intensify so strongly with just the lightest and most innocuous of touches, how powerful the erotic sensations that surged so potently through every nerve in his body were. And yet his love for her transcended the desire to possess her physically, it craved the irrevocable linking of his heart with hers and her soul with his – and yet how could he hope to capture such an equilibrium when he was always holding a part of him back?
“Why do you hide so much of yourself away?”
Her emboldened words broke the breathless quietude that bound them, even as her hand turned against his so that she could hold on like a limpet to stop him pulling away and therefore distance himself from her physically. The strength of those taper fingers amazed him; he read only too lucidly her determination to try and fight against his automatic reflex to isolate himself.
“Is that what you think I do?”
“I know that’s what you do. I just wondered why you did it.”
“Don’t pursue this, Margaret,” he said, warningly. “I’ll tell you one day, but not now. Not tonight.”
“Why not? After all, if you won’t open yourself up to other people, what’s the point in being alive?” She seemed so wise suddenly, so open and willing to listen to whatever he might say. “Please,” she implored. “Talk to me.”
He was saved from answering her by one of the waiters coming to clear their table, although Margaret stubbornly refused to set his hand at liberty so that waiter had to work around them.
“Do you want anything else?” John asked, looking across at Margaret.
“No, thank you.” She smiled up at the waiter. “It was lovely, thank you.”
He turned to the waiter. “Could we have the bill please?”
Loaded with plates and bowls the waiter went to sort out their bill, leaving them alone once more.
“Would you like me to walk you home?” John asked. He wasn’t sure he really wanted to know her answer, fearing her agreement to his only half-hearted suggestion, yet knowing that he had to give her the option.
The look she gave him was filled with pure, unfettered conviction. “I don’t want to go home. I want to be with you.”
He didn’t know how he managed to pay the bill and then help her on with her jacket without pulling her tight against him and betraying everything she meant to him. He didn’t touch her, knowing that it would not stop at just one simple touch.
Outside the air was still and balmy, the sky above them a deep indigo as night settled over the town. The streets still throbbed with activity, the pavements filled with people, all of them strangers bound by the one common desire to prolong the summer’s evening for as long as possible. In the half-light of street lamps and lighted shop fronts he turned towards Margaret beside him. Her face was shadowed but her eyes shone out at him like two beacons shining luminously against the darkness. Her perfume drifted around him in a fragrant haze, intoxicating his senses.
“Where would you like to go?”
She didn’t care where they went, just as long as she was with him. That was all that mattered.
“I think there’s live music at Blues tonight,” he said.
If it meant she was with him then she would go anywhere. “That sounds nice,” she said, her heart throbbing at the thought that where there was music there was probably dancing too and all she longed for was the feel of his arms around her. The realisation of where her thoughts were leading her made her skin flame. Thank God he couldn’t see it. Thank God for the darkness. She stole a furtive glance at him as they began to walk along side by side, easily falling into step with each other, his hands in his trouser pockets. He was looking straight ahead, much in the same way as she had seen him look that first day she’d ever clapped eyes on him, and she felt again that need to suddenly throw herself into his direct line of vision and drown in his eyes.
If curiosity could be powerful then impulsiveness was stronger still. Margaret put out her hand and laid it lightly on his sleeve as she came to a stop in the middle of the pavement, causing people to sidestep around them. Her heart was beating so fast she could hardly catch her breath, the certain knowledge of what she was about to do only making it thud more frantically.
John stopped as soon as he felt her arresting hand, a frown penetrating his brow as he moved about to face her. “Are you all right?”
She didn’t reply; she was completely incapable of speaking. As she took that first step towards him, glad now that she had worn a higher heel, her fingers slid up to his shoulders and very fleetingly she brushed his lips with hers…