He watched, utterly mesmerised, as a multitude of expressions danced in quick succession across her face, her striking hazel eyes opening wider, her provocative mouth, just now so malleable and passionate beneath his, falling slightly agape even as her bottom lip began to tremble as she registered the words that had risen up from the burning depths of his heart to scorch the air between them.
“You look surprised,” he mused softly, his gaze searing hers, not once breaking the electrically charged communion between them. He ran his eloquent fingers through her mussed hair, gently disentangling it, feeling her body shudder unequivocally beneath his touch.
“I didn’t expect you to say something like that,” she admitted, her colour heightening. She laughed lightly, a little self-consciously. “You took my breath away.”
“You take mine away every time I’m with you.” He brushed the back of his hand across her cheek very gently, sliding his fingers to the nape of her neck where they circled and stroked with seductive slowness against her velvet skin.
In silence she placed her hand atop his shirt, pressing her palm flush against his chest, moving with excruciating languor towards his shoulder, the action so unbelievably erotic that he had to cover her hand with his, stopping its stealthy movements before he lost complete control. Without a word, he held her delicate fingers against him long enough for her to feel the tumultuous vibrations of his heart before raising them to his lips to kiss them one by one with deliberately suppressed ardour.
His eyes melted into hers, so much conveyed without words. It would be so easy to ease her down, to undo one by one the buttons of her blouse…to forget where they were and all the responsibilities that they so easily managed to eclipse whenever they were together. He loved her. Yet he needed her to be comfortable: with him, with what was happening between them.
“I’m not going to force you into anything, Margaret. I hope you know that,” he said with so much seriousness of tone that she raised her index finger to his lips and stopped him before he could continue further, her eyes conveying to him her implicit understanding.
“I know,” she said. “Just hold me.”
Willingly he did as she asked, relishing the developing intimacy between them as they settled back against the arm of the Chesterton together, her head resting against his chest in quiet repose. He could wait for her; wait until she was ready, he told himself. He was not about to rush her blindly into something she didn’t want, however much he wanted her. He stroked her back with absent-minded pleasure, just luxuriating in the nearness of her and the warmth that diffused the air around them.
How long they stayed that way, nestled together in contentment, he could not have told. Time seemed utterly irrelevant. Not even the phone rang to commandeer his attention, the reception staff, mindful of Steven’s accident, making sure that none but the most urgent calls were put through, just as he’d instructed Helena that morning. He had been left in peace for most of the day and he was pleased of it, even more so now because it gave him this precious time with Margaret.
He couldn’t think of his life now without her being a part of it. He couldn’t imagine not seeing her as she went about her work, her dulcet voice capable of lifting his spirits just at its very sound, her perfume with its exotic scent trailing in her wake as she walked by, surrounding her like a fragrant cloud that he wanted to lose himself in, even as he was intoxicatingly engulfed now.
“You look quite dishevelled, Miss Hale,” he said, glancing down upon her after some time of comfortable silence, stroking her wayward hair in an ineffectual bid to smooth its lustrous length a little, his scorching gaze roving over her rather rumpled blouse that had borne the earlier assault of his hands. “But still very beautiful.”
“I might say the same about you, Mr Thornton,” she replied with an affectionate smile snuggling closer and closing her eyes in blissful contentment.
“I think I’d better go and pick the post up off the floor,” Margaret said some while later, finally and reluctantly rousing herself from where she was nestled comfortably in the circle of John’s arms. The last thing she wanted to do was to have to move away from him and to break the cosy familiarity they had managed to discover so perfectly together and yet she knew that, however much she longed for it, they couldn’t remain as they were forever. The world would not let them. Sooner or later it would intrude.
John, it appeared, was just as disinclined to burst the bubble they were floating in. “I don’t know whether I can allow that,” he replied in a sensual whisper, his arm tightening about her waist as though to keep her in this idyllic state of imprisonment just a little longer.
“If the door opens now it’ll all crease up and be ruined,” she began as she endeavoured, somewhat half-heartedly, to extract herself from his embrace.
He held onto her tighter, allowing her no escape, his head lowering so that his lips brushed softly against her ear. “We’d better hope the door doesn’t open then.”
“If you sign them I can drop them off at the post box on my way home,” she went on, her body, following its own rules, seeking to cleave with his as he coaxed her back towards the dreamy state she had just now been in.
His lips found her mouth, his kiss slow and seductive. “I’m not sure I want you to go home.”
“I can’t stay here forever.”
His head jerked abruptly back at her words, his eyes narrowing. “Why not? It’s where I want you to be – and where I think you want to be.”
“I do,” she admitted quietly, her fingers trailing the length of his strong neck.
“Then don’t go home. I don’t think I could stand to watch you walk out of that door just yet.”
“Do you always get your own way, Mr Thornton?” she asked, her eyes challenging him to reveal a truth she already knew.
“Most of the time, Miss Hale – except with you, as you well know.”
She smiled, nodding thoughtfully. “Well if you let me go and rescue the post, I promise I’ll stay for a bit longer.”
“And if I don’t let you get the post?” he countered.
“Is that a challenge?” Her eyes sparkled back at him.
“What would you do if it was?”
“I suppose I’d have to go home – even though I’d hate to leave you.”
He sighed resignedly, relaxing his arm so that she could get up. She stood there before him, brushing her hands over her clothes, still trembling at the remembrance of his touch. She’d never known anything like it. As she glanced up she saw that he was watching her intently, following her movements, drinking her in without any effort to conceal the fact or his desire for her. A shiver of pleasure rippled through her in echoing response. Never had a man made her feel so wanted! It was almost enough to make her hurl herself back into his arms again, to just forget everything else, to drown in the moment.
Forcing her feet to move, she turned and went to retrieve the scattered post from the carpet before taking it to John’s desk and laying it in a neat pile on his blotter. He was still watching her. Silent, dark, brooding: her perfect stranger. She smiled at the memory, of the first glimpse of him she’d had when he’d walked up the street completely oblivious to her watching him. She could never have guessed that she’d be with him now.
“Why are you smiling so secretively?” Her smile deepened as she wondered whether to tell him. “Well?” he asked, stretching up and walking with predatory intent towards her.
And so she told him, rather self-consciously, of her first sight of him, of how she had watched him walk into Blues and had wanted, more than anything, to run after him. As he came to a standstill before her his expression went from bewilderment to amusement to disappointment. When she had finished he told her that he wished she’d have followed him in and introduced herself.
“You’d have thought I was mad!” she replied indignantly at this last remark and he laughed back at her, all his cares and worries seemingly shed, dissolving like snow.
“Maybe,” he acknowledged pensively as his mirth faded. He slipped his arms about her waist, his voice dropping to that seductive velvety intonation that made her whole body shake with delicious anticipation. “As it was, I had to wait until you found me in the stillroom with Steven that day.”
Steven, she thought, as the present came rushing back from the outer borders of her mind. Fran. The accident. And John tearing off to the hospital and looking as bleak as if he had heard a death knell calling out for him. The events of last night surfaced again, reminding her of the way John had frozen her out when he’d spoken to his mother, the coldness that had scuttled through her to have to witness it and know that he was still hiding a part of himself away.
“What was your childhood like?” she asked suddenly, meeting his eyes with a mute imploring that cut deeper than a wish to hear mere generalisation.
His body stiffened instantly. She saw it happening, felt the tension spread through the muscles of his arms beneath her fingers. “It was normal. Like most people’s,” he said, his tone growing defensive.
His arms fell away from her, so easily putting that distance between them once more, as he walked away to go and sit down at his desk and look through the post she’d laid there just a few moments before, even though she knew that he wasn’t reading one word on the page. “It was happy. Much as yours was, I would think.”
“What about your father?”
“My father died when I was eighteen.”
“It must have been awful.”
“Do you miss him?”
“I try not to think about it.” His words were guarded, shot through with the pain of having to recount what had happened so long ago. He didn’t look up at her. His attention remained vigorously trained upon the letter before him.
“It’s all locked away inside you still isn’t it? I can tell by the way you’re talking to me now.”
“If you’re so perceptive of my feelings on the subject then you’ll know that I don’t want to discuss it.”
Well aware that she was venturing upon extremely unstable territory, Margaret moved slowly around the desk to stand behind his chair, plunging her fingers into the thick black depths of his hair, kneading his scalp in a soothingly sensual rhythm.
“Did you love him?” She closed her eyes briefly, stealing herself for the torrent that would follow such a personal question, only to find that into her sightless world came the sound of his breath sucking in, the noise of his chair squeaking quietly as he turned, her fingers losing his hair but finding instead the strong, masculine contours of his face.
“Open your eyes, Margaret.” She did as he asked, the command in his voice bringing her eyes up to his. He silently manoeuvred her pliant and already overtly sensitised body so that she was leaning against his desk and he was standing over her, standing so close that it made her heart quake. She expected to see defensive anger in his eyes, the same shuttered blinds that he could almost sub-consciously draw across them, but what she saw was open need, a longing to give release to those feelings he bolted away so fastidiously.
“I will listen,” she whispered.
A heavy sigh, almost one of resignation, passed his lips. “I don’t know how to begin.”
“Did you love him? Was he a good man?”
John shook his head, seeing, as he did so, her steely determination to whittle away some of his reserve. It lingered there in her somewhat unnervingly intent gaze. “When I was a child he was the best father I could have hoped for, but he was essentially a weak man.” He saw her silent question. “But, yes, I did love him.”
She smiled up at him, the fact that he’d said anything at all touching her deeply. “Thank you,” she said. “It means a lot to me that you told me that.”
“Come here.” His tone, so deep and coaxing, settled over her like velvet. She wrapped her arms about his neck and surrendered to his mouth as its initially soft and tempered kiss blossomed into something so much deeper and intense, a kiss that was as much about love as a need to try and expunge the past and grapple for a better future.
The flame sparked and caught, began to radiate.
“I feel like I’m drowning,” Margaret murmured, her voice a weak gasp as the attraction that pulled them together grew stronger. Oh God, he was so close, so dangerously close! She could feel herself responding innately to him, to every nuance of his body’s movements.
“I think we both are,” he groaned in a muffled tone as their lips caressed and their tongues interwove with exquisite longing.
She raked her fingers across his back making him moan with pleasure, the pressure she exacted becoming firmer, more demanding, wanting to explore further, to find the skin that lay beneath the fabric of his shirt, to possess it and delight in it.
“Are you happy?” she asked through little sighs of intoxicated desire.
“I’m happy with you.”
“Even though we always argue?”
“Especially when we argue.”
His hands had worked their way to her ribs, rubbing against them as he travelled further to the buttons that stood there screaming to be undone, to be parted to reveal what lay so tantalisingly beneath. He dragged his mouth from hers and stared down at those tiny buttons of her blouse, his breathing hard and audible as he raised his blue eyes to Margaret’s half-closed lids to see that she was completely swept away in the moment.
Oh God, he could barely resist her! It wouldn’t be long and he’d be carried so far along that he wouldn’t be able to stop at all. It didn’t help his self-control when she suddenly arched her back and tipped her head right back so that her hair brushed against the surface of his desk, whispering across the letters still lying on the blotter, her fingers clinging fiercely to the sleeves of his shirt, almost pinching the skin beneath.
“What are you trying to do to me?” he grated as his hands tightened against her, feeling her instinctive response that threatened to push him right over the edge.
“I just want you to be yourself,” she answered.
“I can’t be anyone else except myself, especially with you. Oh God, Margaret, you should know that by now.”
“Don’t hide from me. Please John…Oh!” she cried in sheer abandoned delight as his fingers roamed urgently downward to free her blouse from the waistband of her skirt, travelling over the smooth softness of her skin, feeling the tiny contractions of desire that his fingertips afforded her as they found her breasts.
“My god, you’re perfect,” he rasped against her mouth.
The intensity between them was rapidly escalating out of control, all reason and logic hurtling away from them. Another minute and it would be impossible to stop. They both knew it; they both wanted to ignore it, to just let their emotions lead them wherever they would, to trust in the fact that they could immerse themselves in each other without the niggling fear of being caught by someone coming into the room. With an effort John drew away from Margaret, some semblance of thought forcing its way through the haze of passion.
“Come with me,” he said, the urgency in his voice piercing every syllable. “We can’t stay here.”
“Where are we going?” She sounded completely disorientated, but looked utterly adorable with her messed hair framing her flushed face and her blouse hanging loose over her narrow waist.
“I’m not sure I can walk. My legs feel like jelly.”
“Then I’ll carry you if I have to.”
“I might hold you to that promise,” she told him.
“I hope you do. Nothing would feel more natural than carrying you to my bed.” He kissed her again, teasing her with such a feather light caress that it made her press against him, made her hands skitter into his hair so that she could hold his mouth greedily against her own.
“You’d better take me upstairs,” she murmured breathlessly between kisses, utterly lost in the incredible sensations he evoked within her.
“Are you sure? Are you really sure this is what you want?”
The look in her eyes said it all. Enclosing her hand in his he led her in silence across the office towards the door.
Before they could reach it, however, the door opened, forcing them both to a halt in the centre of the room. Too late they realised that they had no time to rearrange themselves, to straighten clothes, to neaten hair. The severe and austere figure of Mrs Thornton stood there in the doorway before them, her quick assessing gaze, lanced with scalding disapproval, coming to rest upon the two of them before being
pulled to the Chesterton, beneath which a navy jacket lay entangled and forgotten with a tie. And all the time they stood hand in hand, John’s eyes fixed with compunction upon his mother. They were both flushed in the face and, Mrs Thornton assumed, not just from the fact that she had walked in to find them looking like they’d both been dragged through a hedge backwards.
“What can I do for you, Mother? I was just about to call it a day,” John said, his eyes not once leaving his mother’s face, his fingers grasping Margaret’s with a firm resolution not to let them escape just because his mother was in the room.
“So early?” his mother questioned, her gaze lowering to her watch before sliding towards Margaret, who was no doubt at the heart of John’s decision to finish work earlier than usual.
“I’m not getting anything done here so I’m going out,” he said, decisively. “After last night I need some peace and quiet away from this place for a while.”
“How’s your daughter, Mrs Thornton?” Margaret asked suddenly, meeting the older woman’s gaze.
Thrown slightly off guard by Margaret’s enquiry, Hannah Thornton threw the girl a brief courteous smile. “She’s a lot happier now she realises that her husband will make a full recovery.”
“It must be a relief for all of you.”
“It is, yes.”
“Has Fran gone to the hospital yet?” John asked.
“She’s just about to go now. I came down to ask if you would take her in the car. She’s not really in any fit state to drive – she’s far too distracted.”
“We can go out later on if you like?” Margaret said, turning to John without the slightest hesitation. “I don’t mind.”
John drew in his breath, the very idea of going anywhere near that hospital again making him cold inside. His mother, seizing upon Margaret’s desire to do what she thought was right and step aside so that he could be with his family, was looking at him with hopeful expectation. Fleetingly he wondered whether his mother would feel the same if she knew of the financial mess that Fran and Steven were actually in and which Fran had run away from because she hadn’t been able to cope.
“I would prefer it if you took her in the car, John,” his mother said. “You’ll only need to drop her off at the entrance as she’ll want to spend some time with Steven alone. That’s one of the reasons I’m not going with her.”
“She told you she wanted to visit him alone?”
“She’s his wife. What do you expect, John?”
He didn’t answer. He had no clear-cut answer to offer his mother, although after his conversation with Fran last night he knew that it had been the enormity of the problem that Fran had run away from rather than Steven himself. From what he knew of the situation, however, the future would test that love Fran professed to have for her husband to the limit and she had already run once. Would she do it again, he wondered?
“If anything, this accident seems to have brought them together and that’s something we should both be grateful for,” his mother went on, seeming to assume that John had already confided in Margaret all of Fran’s marital problems. “Perhaps when Steven gets out of hospital things will return to normal again.”
Margaret wandered home with a slow, unhurried step, deep in thought, remembering the emotions that had simmered almost to breaking point in John’s office, her whole body trembling at just the memory of it. Thank God they had stopped when they had, thank God John had managed to pull them back from that white-hot abyss that they had so nearly fallen headlong into. The thought that Mrs Thornton could have come into the room just a few minutes before and seen them wedged against the desk brought a heightened pink stain to Margaret’s cheeks as she walked along the pavement, her gaze cast downwards so that no one who passed her could read the look on her face. As it was, the sight they must have represented to John’s mother was embarrassment enough, the blatancy of what had been happening between them beforehand clearly etched in both their dress and demeanour.
“Hey! Stop! Wait! Meg! Meg!”
For a split second she didn’t react to the voice shouting from somewhere behind her and cutting through her reverie. But as the words filtered through her mind Margaret found herself automatically stopping and turning to look back, to see whether she had actually heard what she thought she had, and whether that voice she’d heard, as familiar to her as her own, really belonged to the person she thought it did.
“Meg! Wait up!”
He was running towards her, sleek and agile, his feet chewing up the distance between them in next to no time. As soon as he reached her he caught her possessively up in his arms and swung her around in a full circle, his face close to hers, his laughter ringing through her head, even as she tried to react, to believe.
“I didn’t think you were going to stop!” He put her back down on the pavement, his arms releasing her as he stood back and let his eyes wander over her in blatant admiration. “You look as fantastic as ever, Meg.”
It was all she could say, all she was capable of saying, the shock of seeing him here in Milton, so far from London and Helstone, robbing her of speech completely.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost!” he laughed, clearly amused by the effect of his sudden materialisation upon her.
I have, she thought. I have.
“I’ve just got here – literally just got off the train. I was on my way to the hotel where my firm’s put me for the duration of my time here. I couldn’t believe it when I saw you. How are your parents?”
“Yeah? Your mum was a bit wobbly about it to start with from what I heard.”
Margaret looked at him sharply. “Who told you that?”
“Your mum wrote to my mum. They’re friends. That’s what friends do, isn’t it?”
“How is your mum?” Margaret asked, finally finding her voice and ignoring his sarcasm, forcing herself to be civil. “Is she well?”
“Very well thanks. Anyway, I’m here for a few days, could even be a week, so we’ll have to catch up. It’ll be great to spend some time with you again after all this time.”
He made it sound as though it was years when, in reality, it had only been about eight months since they’d last seen each other. Eight months since she had thought her life, with him no longer in it, had come to a crashing halt.
“If you like,” she said with a decided air of nonchalance, although she knew it would be a foregone conclusion that they would see each other at some stage if her parents got wind of the fact that Henry was in Milton on business. Her mother in particular would want to see him, especially as she had always been so fond of him. It had been heartbreaking for her – she who had wished for Henry as a son-in-law – when Margaret and he had split up.
He smiled brightly. “Great. Anyway, look, I’ve got to check into this hotel so I’d better get on.”
“Which hotel are you staying at?” Margaret asked, knowing before he’d even replied.
“Somewhere called the Milton Hotel. Do you know it?”
“I work there,” she told him.
His brows arched in surprise. “Really? So I’ll know where to find you then.”
She smiled politely, wondering whether she should ask John for a few days off – just until Henry had gone back to London. She wasn’t sure she wanted to be working there with her ex-boyfriend as one of the guests.
“Will you be working later?” Henry asked.
“No. I’ve just finished my shift.”
“What do you do there?”
“So yours will be the first face I see in the mornings,” he considered with an implicit and somewhat reminiscent smile. “That’ll bring back a memory or two.”
Margaret ignored the remark. She couldn’t think about what their relationship had been, how hurt she’d felt when it had all come to an end.
Something about her expression must have betrayed her discomfort because he threw her a knowing smile before growing more serious. “I would like to see you, Meg. I really would.”
“I know. I’ll arrange something with you when I see you next. Perhaps you can come round for dinner one evening? Mum and dad will be glad to see you.”
“I hope you are too.”
“Yes, of course I am. You’ve just caught me completely by surprise. This is the last place I thought I’d see you.”
“Never say never, Meg,” he said with certain gravity, moving forward to drop a swift peck on her cheek as if he still assumed a claim upon her; as though the time apart had never happened. “I’ll speak to you soon.”
Margaret stood watching as he walked away, retracing his steps: Henry Lennox, with his hands in his pockets as he sauntered down the road, his manner casual, a spring in his step. If she listened hard enough she was certain she’d be able to hear him whistling some tune or other to himself as he went. He didn’t look back over his shoulder at her but then, she remembered, he never did.
John returned to the hotel, his thoughts in turmoil. He didn’t even acknowledge Bess on reception as he headed to his office and shut himself inside, hurling himself dejectedly down into his chair. He put his head in his hands, distinctly aware of the bitter sting of jealousy flooding through him as he remembered the scene he’d been confronted with as he’d driven Fran along the main road towards the hospital. That image of a girl, her hands resting upon a young blond man’s shoulders, spinning recklessly around in his arms, her long hair dancing out behind her like a shimmering swathe of silk in the sunlight. It swept across his mind, burning like fire, stabbing like a knife…Margaret.
Margaret, whose hair had flown so recklessly on the breeze; Margaret who had not so long before been in this office with him, locked in his arms, flushed with desire. The girl who had invaded his very soul and now held him captive, whether she knew it or not.
Margaret, who he loved so much he ached with the sheer intensity of it and who he felt he’d lost the second he’d seen her in the arms of another man…