Past & Present: Chapter Fifteen – Where Dreams Lie Scattered

When she got home Margaret found her mother sitting at the kitchen table scanning a cookery book, a notepad and biro lying at its side in readiness for note-taking and the radio playing in the background. It was only a small room, about half the size of the kitchen they’d had in Helstone where the rustic charm of the low-slung black beams and expansive fireplace had made it a pleasure to be in. The kitchen Margaret stood in now was devoid of any such touches. In comparison it was a box – as featureless in terms of architecture as every other room in the house, entirely dependent upon homely touches to make it feel like a room you wished to spend any length of time in. The strains of Radio 4 created a constant stream of conversation from early morning and throughout the day whenever her mother was in this particular room just as it had in Helstone, the unrelenting babble of voices become so familiar over the years that they were almost like old friends.

As she heard her footsteps her mother’s eyes rose from the book she was diligently studying to settle expectantly upon Margaret as she moved forward to lean casually against the back of the opposite chair.

“How was your day?” her mother asked.

“Busy,” Margaret replied, wondering how to break the news of Henry’s re-emergence, realising that she had no choice but to do so. After all, the consequences of Henry phoning her parents to announce his arrival in Milton and the revelation that he’d already run into her and she’d remained silent about it were too unwelcome to think about. Her mother would, for one, probably never forgive her.

“Is John’s brother-in-law any better?”

“He seems to be.”

“That must be a relief to everyone.”

Margaret inclined her head, but refrained from going into detail. She knew very well that her mother was merely being polite, the extent of her interest in John or any of his family strictly limited. The very fact that Margaret was actually seeing John socially, outside the normal scope of working hours, had been received with distinct tepidness and silent disapproval. Only the sanction of her father had prevented her mother from voicing her true – and unfavourable – opinion, although it hadn’t stopped her from casting some very doubtful looks in Margaret’s direction whenever John was mentioned in conversation either by Margaret or her father.

“By the way, I thought you might like to know,” Margaret blurted out. “I’ve just seen Henry in the town.”

Her mother looked instantly and befittingly thrilled, her eyes growing suddenly alight with happiness. Ironically, it was probably the most animated Margaret had seen her mother since they’d moved to Milton. “Oh Margaret! That’s wonderful! How is he? He must still think a lot of you to come all this way to see you.”

Her mother, of course, had grasped – probably quite wilfully – the wrong end of the stick. “Our seeing each other wasn’t planned, mum. Far from it,” Margaret replied tightly, seeking to put her mother straight as quickly as she could. “I just ran into him by chance in the street.”

“But what’s he doing in Milton? Hasn’t he come to see you?”

“Of course he hasn’t come to see me! Why would he?” Margaret responded. “We haven’t seen each other for eight months.”

Her mother seemed undeterred. “Some people can be separated for years before they find each other again. It happens, Margaret.”

Margaret could almost hear the jubilant peeling of bells from Helstone’s parish church and see confetti showering the air like petals. Her first instinct was to run from the thought as fast as she could, even though there had undoubtedly been a time when she would have leapt at the chance to marry Henry.

“Well I’m happy as I am,” Margaret said decisively, drawing the shutters firmly down on what had always been her mother’s wish. How much she had changed, she thought. She couldn’t imagine being with anyone but John now. His effect on her life had been all-enveloping; it had completely eclipsed her relationship with Henry. “Do you want a cup of tea? I’m making one for myself.”

“That would be nice.”

From behind her, Margaret heard the cookery book shut with a heavy thud, relegated now in favour of a more pleasing subject – in her mother’s eyes at least. “Shall I do one for dad as well?”

“If you could,” her mother replied gratefully, glancing vaguely towards the kitchen window beyond which her father was gardening. “He’s in the garden mowing the lawn, but could probably do with a break. Has Henry changed at all?”

“He’s got shorter hair, wears a suit and from what I saw in the street, has developed a taste for garishly bright ties,” Margaret replied, concisely. She opened the cupboard door and took out three mugs and lined them up on the counter, depositing a tea bag in each in readiness for the boiling water.

“Where’s he staying? Did he tell you?”

“The hotel.”

“So the two of you will be seeing a fair bit of each other?” The hope in her mother’s voice was alarmingly and inappropriately palpable.

“I’ll be working, mum. So will Henry.”

Her mother sighed in disappointment. “I wish he’d have let us know. He could have stayed here. It would have been lovely to have him in the house for a few days.”

“He’s here for work, mum. It’s not a social trip.”

Margaret poured the hot water into the mugs and finished off the tea, putting one mug on the table in front of her mother who was looking pensive, no doubt contriving various scenarios that involved throwing Margaret back into Henry’s arms once more.

“Well, if he can’t stay with us then he can certainly come for dinner,” her mother said. “You can phone him at the hotel and find out if he’s free tonight. Your father will be so thrilled. He always did approve of Henry.”

“I’ve already made plans for tonight,” Margaret said as she saw the threat to her evening looming into view. Her mother’s disappointment rose up before her and instinctively she found herself frantically searching for some sort of compromise to make up for the dampening of her mother’s spirits. “And if Henry’s staying in Milton for a few days – which is what he thinks – then we could all have dinner tomorrow evening instead.”

“What plans have you made?” her mother asked, a frown knitting her brows. “Because I’m sure Bess won’t mind if you alter them in the circumstances. It’s not as though we see Henry very often.”

“I’m not seeing Bess. That wasn’t what I’d arranged.” Margaret said. “I was actually planning to see John tonight.”

Her mother shook her head, her reservations distinctly marked – and deepened no doubt by the fact that Henry was in the immediate vicinity. “It really isn’t right to get involved with the person you work for, Margaret. It could all get very messy if you’re not careful. And he’s your father’s friend. If anything happens between you then it’ll be your father who’ll lose out.”

Even for her mother, despite her blatant scepticism, it was a step too far. Nothing could have sounded so selfish and naïve.

“I don’t think it’ll come to that. And if “something happened” between John and I, I doubt he’d behave like that towards dad,” Margaret replied.

Her mother shrugged. She was invariably the sort to comment on something and then allow others to tie themselves up in knots about it rather than allowing herself to be effected by it. Consequently, she was impossible to argue with and Margaret didn’t even attempt to try, despite being sorely tempted.

Maria sighed despairingly, her very nature alienating her from Margaret’s anger. She sipped her tea, eyeing her daughter’s impassive stance. Standing there, her body held with absolute rigidity, her head and shoulders framed against the kitchen window and silhouetted by sunshine, Margaret reminded Maria of Fred when he’d announced he wanted to go travelling instead of heading off for university to study. He’d been so determined. Now she saw it all in Margaret – the same stubbornness, the same defensiveness.

Margaret snatched up one of the two remaining mugs of tea from the counter and made her way to the back door, beyond which her father was slowly plodding the garden with the electric mower. “I’m going to give this to dad.”

“Will you tell him about Henry?” her mother asked as she pulled open the back door, letting in the sound of the mower and effectively drowning out the radio.

“Of course. I know he’ll want to know he’s in Milton.”

Richard’s benign eyes became pensive the minute Margaret mentioned that Henry had checked into the hotel that afternoon.

“You’ve told your mother?” he asked, astutely noticing the fact that Margaret didn’t appear overly happy with the turn of events.

Margaret nodded, looking around the garden that seemed so bare and soulless in comparison to the one they’d left behind in Helstone. Here, a swathe of turf spread like a tablecloth the length and breadth of the garden which was surrounded on three sides by a tall wooden fence, the narrow ribbon of a border filled with a few rather sorry looking flowers that vied half-heartedly for space amongst the tangle of rambling weeds that were in dire need of culling.

Her father smiled compassionately, his hand reaching out to pat Margaret’s shoulder gently and jerking her out of her brief ruminations regarding the garden. “You know how much your mother likes Henry.”

“She’s just told me that I shouldn’t be seeing John because she wants me to ask Henry to come for dinner tonight.” She knew that she sounded sour, rather like a quarrelsome teenager who didn’t wish to kowtow to the impositions being thrust upon her by her parents – or by her mother at least – but she couldn’t help it.

Her father sipped his tea. He was in an impossible situation. He couldn’t jump one way without offending someone, even though he understood both points of view. “I know how you feel about cancelling tonight, but Henry is only in Milton for such a short time, Margaret,” he said, his tone pitched in such a way that he sounded completely reasonable. “He’s a connection with Helstone and that means a lot to your mother. Perhaps we should indulge her this once – it might cheer her spirits a bit. And you know how low they’ve been since we came here.”

“Are you asking me to cancel tonight as well?”

Her father smiled gently, hopefully. “I suppose I am,” he admitted.

“No one else would let their parents dictate their social life, you know dad,” Margaret replied with a fair degree of reluctance, although softening slightly as she saw the sympathetic gleam in her father’s eyes.

“John will understand, Margaret,” he ventured. “He’s a reasonable man and he thinks a great deal of you.”

“I know,” she admitted, staring down at the grass, her heart growing heavy at the prospect of spending the evening with Henry rather than the man she longed to be with at every moment of the day.

“Just let your mother have her evening, Margaret. It will mean a lot to her, you know.”

Margaret nodded half-heartedly. She felt as though her back was being pressed up against a wall. She thought of John, of the evening that they had planned to spend together and saw it fade slowly from sight as she felt herself give in to her father’s request. “All right, dad,” she said, although with little enthusiasm. “You can tell mum she can have her evening while I call John and tell him I have to cancel.”

***

Into the barren silence of the room came the ringing of the telephone by his side. Irritated by the intrusion, he snatched the receiver up in his hand.

“Yes?” he said, sharply.

“John, it’s me.”

The image that he’d spent the past hour trying to forget intensified at the sound of Margaret’s voice echoing through his head. “Margaret,” he began, a remoteness running through his tone that he found impossible to curb.

“You sound strange.”

“Do I?”

“Is something wrong?”

Everything. “Not that I’m aware of.”

“Oh.” She didn’t sound very convinced, although he was relieved when she chose not to question him further. “I phoned because I can’t see you tonight. We’ve got a friend coming to dinner and my parents want me to be here.”

Bile began to bubble up inside him. He could taste it, bitter and unpleasant. “I understand.” His tone was becoming cooler by the second, emitting anything but understanding.

“Are you sure everything’s all right? Steven hasn’t got worse has he?”

“No, he’s fine.”

“Did you see him when you went to the hospital?”

No, I saw you with your arms wrapped around another man. “No. Fran went in alone. They’ve got a lot to sort out.”

“What are you doing at the moment?”

Breaking my heart over you. Wondering why I don’t just ask you what the hell is going on. Hating myself for thinking the worst. Not wanting to believe what I saw. Loving you beyond anything I’ve felt in my entire life. Knowing I can’t ask you who that man was because I’m scared stiff of hearing your reply. Needing you now more than you’ll ever know… “Working.” If staring at the same piece of paper for the past hour constituted working, he considered wryly.

She laughed softly. To hear the lilt in her voice he could almost believe that he had imagined what he’d seen that afternoon. Yet he hadn’t dreamt it. He had witnessed her spinning around in another man’s arms only too clearly. “I thought you might say that. Have you signed those letters yet?”

Her pertinent reference to what had happened between them earlier was like her hand reaching out to physically grab his heart and twisting it. It only served to remind him of how they’d been with each other, the passion and the tenderness, which, in the light of the display of affection he’d seen in the street, seemed somehow tarnished now. The ironic thing was that if his mother hadn’t disturbed them when she had, Margaret would still be safely enclosed in his arms and what he’d witnessed this afternoon wouldn’t have happened. She would have been here with him because he would have been unable to bring himself to let her go.

“I signed them, yes, “ he said, peering at the small pile of envelopes on his desk before him, all sealed and stamped and waiting to be posted, the remembrance of when she’d brought them to him burning through his mind. The second she’d appeared in the doorway it had been like a cloud lifting from above him.

“I wish I was with you,” she whispered.

Hope flourished amid the barren desert of his mind. Did she? God only knew how much he wished he’d never let her out of his sight this afternoon.

“Tomorrow seems so far away,” she lamented, real regret in her voice even though his brain refused to acknowledge it.

“It’ll come soon enough,” he said, although he knew that it wouldn’t. Every minute would be excruciating and slow, just like every other minute he wasn’t with her. With or without her, he couldn’t contemplate never being able to see her.

“Do you really believe that?”

Of course he didn’t. How could he? “We don’t have a choice.”

“John?”

“Yes?”

“I need to speak to you about something tomorrow. It’s important.”

Sudden dread squeezed his heart, making him inwardly wince, that tentative, budding hope diminishing in an instant. With an effort he kept his voice banal. “If it’s urgent, tell me now.”

“Not on the phone.”

He could hear his heart thudding in his head. He put one hand to his forehead, clutching at it as though to eradicate the throbbing pain that was beginning to build there. “Come up to the office when you get in and we’ll talk then,” he said.

“All right,” she said. “Tomorrow.”

***
Margaret glanced up at the carriage clock standing on the mantelpiece for about the hundredth time. She wanted the evening to be over, for Henry to have been and gone, for her duty to be done. Even the fact that Henry had been a part of her life for so many years had little impact on her feelings. Seeing him again had produced no hankering for the past, no wish to retrieve those scattered shards of yesteryear’s dreams. If she hankered for anything it was for it to be tomorrow because then she would be able to see John again.

She’d been trying to read for the past hour while her mother went into overdrive in the kitchen preparing the dinner, her eyes flickering from word to word, from line to line, taking nothing in. Now giving up her futile efforts completely, she threw the book to the other end of the sofa on which she was curled and hugged the plump, soft cushion she’d commandeered from one of the armchairs closer against her body.

It would have all been so different had Mrs Thornton not come into his office earlier. They could have still been together, holding on to each other, loving each other. She could almost feel his arms around her now, the gently weighted pressure of his body against hers. Today, helplessly unable to control her body’s innate dialogue with his, she had asked him to love her, the words rising up from the inner reaches of her heart. It had been such a profound moment in time and she had been pivoting on a knife-edge, but she had heard his response, low and guttural. At the time she hadn’t really taken it in and certainly hadn’t been in any state to dissect the importance of his reply, but now, sitting here in the lounge alone, her body burning with unresolved frustration, she realised that they had both betrayed their feelings for the other.

She let her head fall back against the soft covers of the sofa, her eyes shutting. He was there, as she knew he would be, standing before her in her mind, smiling at her with disarming candour, those incredibly blue eyes inviting her to submerge herself, to blend into and become part of him. In her mind’s eye she cleaved herself to him, reached up to bring his head down to meet her kiss. She saw it, felt it as though it were actually happening, but there was someone else in the scene too, shadowy still but coming closer, their features becoming more defined; and then she saw who it was and her eyes instinctively snapped open, the vision vanishing like a hand covering the sun. Henry. Henry who had whirled her around so fast she had been completely disorientated with what was happening to her, and all the time he’d been laughing his jocular laugh, which was at once so familiar and yet so alien to her.

The doorbell rang through her thoughts, but she didn’t move. She stayed where she was, staring forlornly down at her phone, wishing that it would ring and that John would be on the other end telling her to leave the house now, to walk out of the front door and into the car that waited in the street for her…

Her mother’s voice drifted through to her from the hall, telling her what she already knew. “Margaret! Henry’s here!”

***
John had his eyes riveted to the newspaper, the financial section spread before him, but in reality he was reading nothing. To his addled mind the words were just a jumbled collection of weird shapes on the page, forming a crazy black pattern against an off-white background. He could hear Fran’s tuneless humming winging its way towards him from the other side of the living room as she flicked through one of those glossy magazines she seemed to so like reading, sounding like she hadn’t a care in the world, as though her husband wasn’t lying in a hospital bed and she wasn’t in the midst of the most appalling financial upheaval. Just like Fran, he thought derisively. The world could be coming to an end and she’d probably still be humming some tuneless song that no one but herself recognised.

Jealousy: pure, poisonous; it contaminated everything. How could Margaret have been the way she had with him, so abandoned and responsive to the intimacy of his touch, when all the time she had been heading straight into the welcoming arms of some blond Adonis type? If he hadn’t have seen her – if it had been Fran who’d witnessed it instead – he wouldn’t have believed it. He had thought they had something – something that spoke to him of a future – but now those fragile dreams lay strewn at his feet, crippled and broken by one fatal blow.

It made him feel more wretched than ever. After so many years of locking his heart away, of focussing on work, he found himself in love – this uncompromising, inescapable, passionate love for a girl who’d thrown herself onto the lonely path he’d been treading. He would never forget the first moment when their eyes had met, at a time when both of them had been fuelled by anger, and yet, for all this, without even being conscious of it, he had loved her even then. Right there, in that critical second as they had looked at each other, he had allowed her into his heart. And now she was there, embedded, and he knew, with fatalistic certainty, that she would be there forever.

“I’m surprised you’re not out with Margaret tonight, John.” Through the discordant notes of Fran’s nameless tune and his own equally dissonant thoughts came the sound of his mother’s voice from the opposite chair. Her tone was conversational, neutral. She hadn’t said anything to him about the scene she’d been met with in his office.

John lowered his newspaper from where it had shielded his inscrutable face and looked across at his mother. She was sitting slightly forward in her chair, diligently driving a needle through a piece of material stretched within an inch of its life between two small wooden hoops. She embroidered to relax, on those occasions when she felt more taxed by the events of the day than normal. By the way the needle was weaving in and out so briskly she had obviously had a more trying day than usual and some of it, he knew, was down to his relationship with Margaret.

“I’ll see her tomorrow,” he said.

“I take it she’ll be working?”

“In the morning.”

“I hope you’ll allow her to get on with her job,” his mother replied, the need to impart some sort of comment fighting its way to the surface and making the newspaper grumble in complaint as his fingers tightened automatically against it.

“There has never been any question of me doing otherwise,” he replied, tightly. From tomorrow he might not have any other choice.

“It certainly didn’t look that way this afternoon when I came into your office.”

His knuckles were white from the pressure he was inflicting upon them as he allowed his mother to see just how annoyed he was by her offhand remark. “What happened in my office between Margaret and I was private – and she had finished her work by then so there was no harm done.”

“It was the middle of the afternoon, John! What’s come over you? It seems to me that some wisp of a girl turns your head and you forget your responsibilities.”

He felt tension closing like a fist in the pit of his stomach.

“What’s this? What are you talking about?” The humming ceased, but it was replaced by something far more irritating in the shape of Fran’s curiosity.

John’s mouth tightened, drawing a harsh, straight line across his rapidly darkening features. “Perhaps I’ve realised that there’s more to life than work!” he snapped, ignoring Fran’s question as he cast the newspaper to one side. He felt the claustrophobic ambience of the room settle around him. He felt it choking him. For years he had lived like this, day in, day out. Working, always working, living this soulless, half-life existence. Of all people, he would have hoped that his mother, knowing his feelings for Margaret, would understand that he needed more in his life than just work. Ten years had slipped away like grains of sand through an hour- glass; he wasn’t prepared to let the next ten go the same way.

“Oh, this must be about Margaret,” Fran was saying with a liberal dose of ennui. “I’m surprised you’re interested in someone like her, John. I mean – she’s not exactly your type.”

He glowered at his sister. “How would you know what my type is?”

“Well, you always gave the impression that Ann was your type, until you met Margaret, that is.”

“I don’t think so, Fran,” he responded, tersely.

“You broke her heart!”

“Oh, don’t be so melodramatic Fran,” Mrs Thornton chastised, more for John’s sake than for her own and making Fran gape resentfully.

“I’m sure I did no such thing,” John replied. His patience was slowly but surely beginning to ebb. Fran harking on about Ann did nothing to make him feel any better – and nor did his mother’s claims of him shirking his responsibilities to the hotel. God knows, he would never jeopardise that. He’d slogged too long and hard to let it all slide into disarray and neglect.

“I should know – she’s my friend,” Fran retorted stubbornly, still going on about Ann, determined, it seemed, to have the last word.

“Ann won’t have any difficulty finding a boyfriend, Fran.” He rose wearily to his feet. He’d had enough. More than enough of having his relationship and movements monitored when it was nothing to do with anyone else except himself and Margaret. “I’m going out for a while,” he announced. His brain was yelling out for order amid the chaos that seemed to have taken up permanent residence in his head.

His mother’s head jerked up from her sewing in dismay. “At this time of night?”

“I won’t be long,” he said.

***

“It’s so lovely to see you, Henry. Such a surprise!”

Her mother had been gushing and repeating the same sentiment at regular intervals all evening, treating Henry like the returning prodigal son, while Margaret sat at the dinner table opposite him, seeing not Henry but John, remembering when he had come for dinner and how she’d spent the entire meal popping out to the kitchen to get a glass of water. She’d been so on edge, just being in the same room as him. With Henry all she felt was the insidious creeping of boredom.

The Henry who sat before her now was slick, buffered and groomed, a bit too good looking with his sun-kissed blond hair and gym-honed physique. In fact he looked like the sort of man she would go out of her way to avoid. The Henry she had cared for may have had the same coloured hair, the same jovial laugh, but the Henry she saw now was someone different, someone she couldn’t even relate to, although her parents seemed to have no difficulty recapturing their original rapport with him at all.

Henry caught her eye over the vase of scentless, mass-produced roses in the centre of the table. “It’s good to be here.” The words slid smoothly from his thin lips with ease. “I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw Meg earlier. She didn’t hear me calling her – that or she was just ignoring me,” he added with a smirk.

Her parents laughed in polite amusement, much to Margaret’s chagrin.

“I didn’t hear you,” Margaret said, seeking to clarify the point with vexed decisiveness.

“You did look rather engrossed in thought, I must say,” he went on, his attention fixed solely upon her.

“I was.”

“Good thoughts I take it?” Henry questioned, slyly.

“Yes.” Better than good – they transcended good. Her body instantly responded to the thought of John, became knotted, tightened with longing. She would have leapt into his arms without hesitation if he had appeared in the room before her, eagerly foregoing restraint just to feel his lips on hers, his hands on her skin again. A frisson shot through her at the thought of how his fingers had sought her, roamed and explored, making her body scream for more – much, much more.

“You can still blush like the best of them, I see,” Henry laughed, gesturing to her face and making her colour deepen even further. “Perhaps you should share your thoughts with the rest of us, eh?”

“I don’t think so,” Margaret replied, tightly.

“Why not? I’m sure we’d all like to hear them.” He was probing, teasing, trying to delve into her psyche, to wheedle his way into her thoughts.

“They’re private.”

The ambience of the room began to cool. Maria took a deep breath, determined to salvage some goodwill between Henry and Margaret at any cost. “I can see you two have a lot of catching up to do so you probably don’t want Richard and I cramping your style,” she began, getting to her feet swiftly.

Margaret looked towards her mother in horror, wondering whether the evening could get any worse. “This evening was for all of us, mum.”

“Your father and I realise that you two have things to talk about.”

“We don’t have anything to say which can’t be heard by anyone else,” Margaret said in a desperate bid to stop the evening heading off on the tangent her mother intended. She glanced over at Henry who didn’t even back her up. He was silent, watching her with a predatory gleam that she found quite unnerving. She really didn’t want to be left alone with Henry. She wanted John. Oh God, how she wanted John to ring the doorbell and just rescue her from the situation!

Her mother was already clearing the dishes, readying to depart for the kitchen where her father would invariably follow.

“I’ll give you a hand, mum.”

“No, that’s all right. You and Henry have a chat. Your father can help me.”

“I don’t mind.” Feebly she hoped for a reprieve.

“Your father will help me,” her mother repeated.

Her father obligingly rose to his feet and began to assist her mother with the clearing of the table. “There’s more wine in that bottle if you want it,” he said. “Help yourselves.”

Laden down with assorted crockery and cutlery Margaret watched as the pair of them left the room, managing to discreetly shut the door as they went so as to afford them some privacy, leaving her alone with Henry. She looked across the table at him. He was smiling, silently assessing her.

And it felt to her as though she was looking straight into the jaws of hell.

***

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you didn’t want to be alone with me.”

Henry leant back in his chair, his posture relaxing somewhat now that they were alone and Maria and Richard were no longer in the room, fingering the delicate stem of the cut-crystal glass that had been hauled from a box gathering dust in the back of the larder since the move and had finally been brought out in honour of his visit. His eyes didn’t leave Margaret’s face.

“In fact you’ve been like a cat on a hot tin roof all night.”

She was immediately on the defensive. “I haven’t.”

“I beg to differ, Meg!” he laughed, faintly shaking his head at her tendency towards outright denial of the facts as he saw them. “Why is that, eh?”

“I think you’re reading too much into this evening, trying to find feelings that are no longer there.”

He regarded her reflectively. “And what feelings would they be? You’d better enlighten me.”

“Mum has been less than tactful since the moment you came through the front door – work it out yourself.“

“She likes me. What can I say?”

“Goodbye?” she suggested somewhat cuttingly.

“Ouch! Better put those claws away, Meg. They don’t suit you.”

She sucked in her breath, letting him know that she wasn’t particularly happy to have been left to speak to him on her own – that it wasn’t really something she wished for.

“Milton seems to have hardened you.”

“And London’s changed you.”

“It’s not an entirely bad thing is it? You do what you can to get ahead.”

“Is that what you’ve done?”

“I’d be foolish not to.”

“So what did you have to do to get on?”

“Did I have to commit murder or steal a fortune you mean? No need. They saw my potential.”

“Followed swiftly by your newly cultivated arrogance I suppose,” Margaret replied, caustically.

“The acid’s fairly flowing tonight isn’t it? I never expected that of you. Where’s that sweet-natured girl I used to kiss under the tree?”

“She grew up.”

“I miss her.”

Margaret felt her skin start to flame, the heat coursing across her face and making Henry smile smugly as though in some sort of victory for having touched a nerve.

“You know what your mum wants don’t you?” he said.

She couldn’t bring herself to answer him.

“She wants us to get back together again.”

“That’s not going to happen.”

“Why not? I knew I wanted you back as soon as I saw you in the street this afternoon,” he said, candidly. She sat, frozen, rigid, entirely disbelieving his sincerity, utterly unable to speak. “Come on, Meg. It wasn’t all bad was it?” he went on, meeting her eyes in question.

Alarms were screaming in her head. She stared at him. The last thing she wanted to hear was what he felt for her – or what he thought he felt for her. He didn’t have any place in her life now – and certainly not as a lover.

“I’m seeing someone,” she replied, impetuously.

Immediately his curiosity was fired. “Oh? Who?”

She glared at him, wishing that she’d just kept quiet. “A man,” she responded, succinctly.

He laughed in amusement, refilling his wine glass and moving to fill hers too. Margaret put her hand over the top of her glass to stop him and he replaced the bottle on the table. “I expected the person to be male. What does he do?” he asked, picking up his glass and meeting her eyes in curiosity. “Is he some high-flying executive or solicitor?”

“He runs a hotel.”

The penny dropped immediately and he laughed sardonically. “Don’t tell me you’ve fallen for your boss? Not very professional of you is it?”

Margaret ignored his derision. “The fact that I work for him doesn’t come into it.”

“It will when he dumps you.”

Her eyes burnt with indignant scorn. “He’s not like you.”

“I would hope not.”

She glared at him, all the old hurt returning, the old wounds re-opening. “You left me, Henry. It was your decision, not mine.”

“You could have come with me.”

“I didn’t want to go to London.”

“But that’s where my job was.”

“You could have found something closer to home.” Like an uncontrollable torrent, all the pain she had buried away when they’d split washed over her.

He sighed impatiently. “I wanted to get out of the village. You know I did. I told you often enough and when I got my chance I took it. You should have done too.” His eyes rolled over her. “Anyway, perhaps I did you a favour if you’ve got this thing going with your boss. I’ll have to make sure I introduce myself to him at the earliest opportunity.”

“And say what?”

“I’m sure I could think of some choice words. Why are you looking at me like that? Scared I’ll say something too personal about you? Well, he must realise you’ve had other boyfriends. He must know he’s not the first.”

“Don’t say things like that!”

“Oh come on, don’t get all highly-strung on me.” Then he smiled knowingly, thoughtfully. “You haven’t even told him about me have you? Now why is that?”

“Because it hasn’t come up in conversation.”

“I really will have to introduce myself to him then.”

“Why are you behaving like this?” She shook her head, at a loss. “We split up, Henry. You can’t expect me to jump straight back into your arms because it suits you at this moment. Tomorrow you’ll have changed your mind and moved on to someone else.”

“That’s a bit harsh.”

“Your wanting me back is more to do with convenience than love. If it wasn’t then you’d have been back long before now.” She scraped her chair backwards a little and got up, picking up her empty wine glass in the process. “I think that’s everything we need to say to each other said. I’m going to take this out to the kitchen and tell mum and dad it’s safe for them to come back in now.”

“You’ve only won this round, Meg,” Henry called after her as she walked out of the room. “You haven’t won the battle. I’m not giving up.”

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