Past & Present: Chapter Sixteen – The Barriers Between Us

Blighted by jealousy John stalked from the hotel, stepping out into the cool of the fading summer evening. There were still people about along the road wending their way homeward from an evening out, spilling from the pubs that had now dimmed their lights and all but fastened their doors and from the bounty of restaurants scattered along the street. A man, more than a little drunk, veered into John as he passed by, his mood distinctly mellow and sanguine compared to the unchanging and rather thunderous scowl painted across John’s own face. Across the road a gaggle of girls, their spirits high, nudged each other and giggled as they spied his lonely figure pounding the pavement. He glanced briefly over and threw them a passing acknowledgement and continued on his way, knowing not where he was heading, listening absently to the echo of his footsteps against the unrelenting hardness of the concrete slabs he trod.

He turned the corner at the bottom of the road, finding himself in the solitary isolation of the High Street. There was no one else around in this area where, during the day, hundreds of people would throng and mingle and now stood deserted but for him, a singular figure shrouded by the shadows, almost a shadow himself. Ahead of him he could see the neon sign of the local snooker club, still open, at the far end of the road, embellished like an ugly psychedelic gash against the black inky density of the skyline. Shop fronts stood undisturbed and hushed. He covered the ground quickly, making it across the length of the pedestrianised section within a few minutes.

And so again into his barren world there came the intermittent droning of car engines, the footsteps of other people, evidencing the fact that he was alive, that he breathed oxygen into his lungs just as those other people did, even though he felt utterly dead and desolate inside…

He peered down at his watch. Eleven thirty. It was late and she’d probably be in bed, but he needed to hear her voice in spite of the vortex of emotions spinning through his head. Blindly following the impetus of the moment, John pulled out his mobile and brought up her number, his footsteps slowing, becoming silent, as he came to a stop, waiting, praying, that she’d hear the ringing and pick up her phone rather than let it click over to the answer-phone.

“John? Is that you?” She sounded dazed, bleary.

He knew at once that he’d woken her up and almost – almost – regretted his impulsive action. He wanted to rail at her, to demand what she had thought she was doing with that other man – a complete stranger to him – earlier that afternoon, but there was no way he would ask her on the phone when the first action she would probably take was to hang up on him.

“I need to speak to you. Tonight. Now,” he said, unable to keep the curtness from his voice.

“Where are you?” she asked in confusion. “I can hear cars.”

“I’ve just left the High Street. I’m walking towards Winchester Way now. I’ll be five minutes.”

“It’s gone half eleven,” she said, her voice clearing as she threw off her sleepiness. “I’m in bed.”

He resolutely blotted out the thought of her lying there and the image of her silhouette outlined perfectly by the covers thrown across it, her hair settled like a fan against the pillow. “I know, but this won’t wait.”

“I’ll get dressed.”

He had to bite his tongue that wanted to tell her not to bother getting dressed just for his sake. If he told her that he’d be sunk the minute he saw her; the distraction would be too overwhelming – and her presence was already distraction enough most of the time. “I’ll be there in five minutes,” he told her.

“You’d better not ring the doorbell. Mum and dad are in bed. I’ll come downstairs and look out for you.”

“Five minutes,” he repeated and rang off.

As he neared the house he saw the twitching of the curtains in the softly lit lounge and knew that Margaret was there and had seen him. His pace increased as he made his way towards the front door, seeing it open up to him. She stood there in the doorway in her jeans and t-shirt, her feet bare, her long hair tumbling about her face with the same wayward grace as it had in his office earlier in the day. He slowed, stopped before her on the doorstep, unable to help but admire her, to revel in the beauty that presented itself before him.

A second later and she’d filled his craving arms that had risen, seemingly of their own volition, to receive her, her lithe body pressing eagerly against his, initially cool but becoming rapidly warmer as the heat from their bodies blended into a hot amalgam of desire. He tightened his grip, holding onto her like a lifeline, so scared that if he let her go she’d vanish into thin air.

His thoughts spun as he tried to reconcile what he’d seen in the street with her behaviour towards him now. His mind drifted involuntarily back to this afternoon in his office, the closeness and intimacy that had existed so incredibly between them. Oh God, she still smelt of that elusive fragrance she wore. It was in her hair, woven magically and intangibly through it. It permeated every pore of her skin, delicately scenting her so that he longed to be able to trace those invisible fragrant avenues with his mouth. It diffused everything, even her clothes, captivating his already heightened senses that seemed to react and intensify every time she came near him.

He felt her further align her body to his and all the time he was aware of his heart cracking, beginning to bleed as the thought of her doing exactly the same thing with another man filled his head. It was more than he could bear.

“What did you want to tell me that you couldn’t talk to me about on the phone?” he questioned, evading, with an effort, the kiss she sought from him, pulling his head back and tensing his neck so that it was impossible for her to draw him down towards hers. In the shadowed light bestowed upon them by the street and the dim glow filtering through the curtains from the lounge, he saw the confusion dance across her lovely face at his apparent coldness towards her. “Well?” he questioned, rather more harshly than he’d actually intended, his eyes piercing hers like icicles. The embrace in which he held her became more imprisoning, his long, strong arms like rigid steel rods wrapped around her waist to prevent her from bolting from him if the mood took her. “We’re not on the phone now, are we?”

“I – you don’t have to hold me so tightly, you know. I feel like I’m in some sort of vice.”

“Yes I do,” he responded. “Who was he, Margaret?”

She looked perplexed. “What are you talking about?”

“The man I saw you with this afternoon. Who was he?”

He felt a ripple of shock travel the length of her body, even as she reacted by trying to yank herself away from him. But he wouldn’t let her go. He held fast to her, needing to see the expression in her eyes, needing to read what was written within them. She hesitated, looked uncertain suddenly, a dawning horror scurrying across her face. “I – I saw an old friend,” she said at last, albeit with reluctance, as though she didn’t want to talk about it. “It wasn’t any big deal.”

He would not let her derail his pursuit of the truth. Like a dog with a bone, he held tenaciously to his goal. “Judging by the look I saw on your face it was.”

Her eyes widened then, insult flaming as she realised exactly what he was thinking. “What are you implying?”

He couldn’t stop himself, all the insecurity inside him simmering to the fore. “He had his arms around you! What the hell am I supposed to think?”

She wrenched herself forcefully from his grasp, crossing her arms defensively, her eyes flaring in anger, in hurt, in incredulousness. “I can’t believe you think I’m seeing someone else behind your back! How could you?” Hurt blazed in her eyes. She shook her head, pushing her hair back from her face where it had fallen in her agitated fury. “I nearly slept with you for goodness sake! Doesn’t that tell you anything about my feelings for you? Or do you think – which is how it sounds to me – that I’m stringing you along with someone else?” Her whole body was rigid, labouring beneath a wounded fury that went deeper than he could possibly imagine.

He stood before her, bellicose, impervious. “Who was he?”

She flapped her arms around aimlessly. “Someone from the past. That’s all.”

“He looked very much in the present to me.”

They glared at each other, distrust rearing its ugly head, driving them apart, deepening the divide that his jealousy had cut between them.

“How could you even imagine that I’d want to see someone else?” She turned her back on him, her posture seeming to buckle in that very instant, as though the will to fight her corner, to defend herself, suddenly withered away. “You don’t even understand how I feel about you or how impossible the idea of being with someone else – someone who isn’t you – is to me. If you did you wouldn’t think what you so obviously do.”

The very deliverance of her words, so calmly and quietly executed, yet put with such finality, sent a cold shiver through him. He hadn’t even given her the chance to explain. As the silence grew between them, he was haunted by the fact that he’d gone about it all the wrong way, wading in without allowing her the right to talk to him in her own time, in her own way. Instead he’d basically accused her of carrying on behind his back, demanding an explanation like some sort of overbearing, Victorian husband trying to keep tabs on a young and beautiful wife. And he wasn’t her husband. He had no right to behave in such a way towards her – and even if they were married, he’d still have no right.

He felt a tight ball of emotion wedge in his throat, choking him, becoming more painful as he saw her raise her head, saw with a ruthless twisting of his heart the tears that slithered down her face, filtering from her glassy eyes. And all he wanted to do was to hold her – to tell her that the reason he had shouted was because he loved her and that he couldn’t bear the thought that he might lose her.

Remorse and self-reproach coursed potently through his blood. He hated himself for making her cry, for even allowing himself to doubt her or his feelings for her. His heart screamed out for the love it needed to make him whole and he reached out instinctively to try and touch her only to find her jerk abruptly away from him as though he were some sort of leper.

“Don’t touch me,” she hissed, wiping her hand across her face, endeavouring to try and eradicate the tears still slipping silently from her soulless eyes. “I don’t want to be near you. I can’t be near you. Not when you think the way you do.”

He sighed tiredly, at a loss as to how to make things right again. “Margaret, I saw you with another man. I couldn’t help how I felt about it,” he said, attempting to explain, his voice dropping, the accusation that had previously clouded his words vanishing to be replaced by raw emotion.

“You thought the worst, John. Without even taking the opportunity to ask me first, you just jumped to your own conclusions.”

He shook his head, running one hand through his hair, helpless, hating the figure he must cut: the jealous doubter, the man who loved her beyond everything because she was everything to him. “I can’t believe I’m standing on your doorstep at this time of night and we’re saying the things we are to each other,” he said.

“Neither can I.”

“I was jealous, Margaret. I admit it. What happened in my office this afternoon was so special and when I saw you so soon afterwards with that man – swinging around in his arms in that way – I just felt as though what had happened between us was ruined and that you didn’t feel so strongly about me as I did about you.”

“And that can’t have been much,” she lamented.

He felt her rejection like a blade slithering straight into his heart, felt the sheer physical pain of it as though she held the knife in her hand for real. He couldn’t bear it. “You’re wrong,” he murmured.

“How can you say that? How can you expect me to tell you who that man was – even though it was all completely innocent – when you’ve said the things you have? You might think otherwise, but you won’t listen to anything I say.”

“Try me,” he replied, meeting her eyes, seeing the hurt he’d put there. “I’ll listen.”

“No. The only thing you need to know is that the man you saw me with was someone I knew from when I lived in Helstone. I’ve known him since I can remember. In fact, we grew up together. When I saw him today he caught me completely off-guard otherwise he wouldn’t have got near me. I didn’t want him to touch me – not after you. All I wanted was you.”

She gave a melancholy sigh, casting a despondent and painful glance at him, clearly showing him that her heart was breaking even as his was. “Perhaps love isn’t enough after all,” she said and, stepping into the house, softly closed the door behind her.

***

She hadn’t slept, not in the sense of sleeping. It had been more of a fitful and torturous passage through the hours between night and morning, her brain too churned up with the fact that somehow she had allowed Henry, without even realising it, to sabotage a relationship that meant so much to her. Her pillow was still damp with the tears she’d cried in those hushed and lonely hours, her mind and body exhausted by the emotions coursing through her. Her own final words to him tormented her. She had told him that perhaps love wasn’t enough. Yet it was. It was everything. He was everything. And somehow she had to tell him that and pray that he believed her.

As the morning light filled her bedroom Margaret dragged herself from her bed and went to the bathroom to have a shower, trying to wake her sleep-starved body from its stupor before pulling on her work suit and heading downstairs to grab her usual mug of coffee before leaving for the hotel.

Her parents, always early risers, were both sitting at the kitchen table having their breakfast when Margaret came into the kitchen, the two of them immersed in conversation.

Her mother glanced up at her and smiled, completely oblivious to the fact that Margaret seemed paler than usual. “I was just telling your father how lovely it was seeing Henry again last night. He’s such a nice boy.”

Margaret grimaced. He was hardly a boy and hardly nice for that matter. All her mother’s plotting had done was to instil a very real disdain for Henry in her, one that had been amplified a hundredfold by the fact that he had managed to disrupt her relationship with John. He had certainly sounded as though he intended to cause trouble between them, wanting to claim Margaret like some sort of possession he had a prior right to and yet he’d managed to achieve his perverted ambition without even knowing it. The minute he’d seen Margaret in the street he’d thrown her relationship with John into disarray.

“If Henry’s firm have offices here he might be able to get a transfer from London,” her mother went on, pouring some tea into a cup for her father who sat methodically spreading some butter onto his toast in silence, although Margaret had no doubts that he was listening to every word, quietly ruminating what was being said.

“Why would he want to come to Milton?” Margaret responded as she went about making a coffee for herself at the counter. “He’s already in London and that’s got everything he’ll ever need.”

“But if the two of you work things out between you he might well transfer. I know you have issues that need dealing with, but I’m sure that you’ll be able to find your way through them.”

Her mother’s penchant for a monstrous hat and the fussy extravagance of a wedding dress had not dulled with having seen Henry. In fact it was as if seeing him again had strengthened her hopes.

Margaret turned, meeting her mother’s eyes, her conviction clear. The sooner her mother relinquished her dream of weddings and happy ever afters with Henry the better. “Henry and I will never get back together again.”

The teapot her mother was holding came to a halt in mid-air. “That isn’t what Henry wants.”

“It doesn’t matter what Henry wants. It’s what I want, mum.” Margaret took a couple of sips of the strong black liquid as she leant against the kitchen unit, facing her parents, seeing the slow dawning on her mother’s face that any reconciliation with Henry was nothing more than a futile hope on her part and recognising her father’s thoughtful expression that spoke to her of support and encouragement to follow her own heart rather than be influenced by what anyone else wanted – be it her mother or Henry.

The teapot found its way back to the table and her mother handed a cup and saucer to her father. “I think you might regret your actions in the long run, Margaret. After all, who can tell how long this thing you have going with John will last? Oh, I know it’s all very exciting and new now, but what about in a couple of months or even a few years’ time?”

“Mum!”

“Maria, I think Margaret has enough presence of mind to know what she wants.” They were the first words her father had uttered since she’d walked into the room and Margaret found herself smiling graciously towards him, happy to have his back up, even though it put him at odds with her mother.

Margaret poured the remains of her coffee into the sink and rinsed her mug, sensing that it was better to make her escape now before her mother had the chance to mount some sort of counter-offensive extolling Henry’s virtues over John’s. Besides, she wanted to see John. She needed to talk to him. “I’ve got to go to work,” she said, glancing down at her watch. “I’ll see you both this evening.”

“Would you like a lift Margaret? I’m taking the car with me this morning,” her father asked as she headed for the door.

She smiled at her father. “No thanks, dad. I need the walk. It’ll help clear my head.”

***

When Margaret walked into reception all her hopes of going straight up to John’s office to try and sort things out were scuppered by Mrs Thornton’s presence as she stood, tall and straight-backed, in the same manner as her son, talking to Bess. As Margaret approached, both women glanced up at her, their conversation that had looked rather one-sided with Bess dutifully listening and Mrs Thornton obviously telling coming to a halt. Bess glanced across at Margaret with a warm and somewhat relieved smile, while Mrs Thornton’s expression became beset with the most severe look Margaret had seen from her.

“Good morning, Mrs Thornton.” Margaret did not shrink from the older woman, holding her head up and her back straight, assuming a courteous tone that sent out the clear signal that she could not easily be intimidated. She would pretend that the last time she’d encountered Mrs Thornton in John’s office hadn’t really happened at all, that it had just been some awful nightmare – the bit with Mrs Thornton intruding upon them at least. The rest of it had been more like a dream, a living, breathing fantasy that Margaret had just wanted to submerse herself in and never swim away from.

“Good morning, Margaret,” Mrs Thornton responded curtly, casting a weather eye over her, taking in the fact that Margaret’s hair looked rather less groomed than usual. “May I suggest that you sort out your hair before dealing with the guests. It is so much more professional when it’s tied back and this is no place for sloppy habits.”

Margaret said nothing, letting the words drift over her, refusing to rise to the bait of Mrs Thornton’s insinuation that she was sloppy. Instead she headed for the small office where she could retrieve her comb from her handbag, together with a clip to pull her mahogany mane back from her face and into the more rigid style that she was used to wearing and which had obviously become expected of her – certainly by Mrs Thornton. The fact that John seemed to spend half his time doing battle with her hair clips in a bid to let her hair spill loose about her shoulders had been the main reason she’d left it down in the first place.

When she re-emerged into reception Mrs Thornton had gone much to Margaret’s relief. She could do without the coveted glances of disapproval being shot in her direction. Bess looked across at her and smiled to see that she’d bowed so serenely to Mrs Thornton’s demands.

“If it’s any consolation, you’re not the first to be told to put their hair up. I think it’s one of her pet hates – loose hair,” Bess said, sympathetically. “Anyway, are you okay? You look pale.”

Margaret shrugged, leaning against the doorway between reception and the office, her arms crossed before her. “I saw my ex-boyfriend yesterday afternoon and now my mother expects me to fall back into his arms and marry him and give her the massive white wedding she longs for,” she said. “And to top it all off, John now thinks I’m two-timing him because he happened to see me when Henry met me in the street.”

“Margaret!” Bess cried scandalously, her eyes agog at this latest turn of events.

“I know,” Margaret sighed, dismally. “I’ve got an ex who thinks he wants me back and virtually told me that he’d be quite happy to stir everything up between John and I just to provoke me and I’ve got a boyfriend who can’t believe that I wouldn’t ever jeopardise what I have with him – and with Henry of all people!”

“Henry’s your ex?”

Margaret nodded. “And he’s a guest in this hotel apparently. He checked in yesterday afternoon.”

“Have you explained about him to John?”

“He was so wound up about it that I didn’t bother. All he can see is the fact that there’s another man in my life.” She felt the same unrelenting ache seize her heart as she had last night after she’d closed the front door in John’s face, the same sense of impotence in being able to put right the situation in which she found herself ensnared.

Bess came across and gave her a brief hug of sympathy. “Why don’t you pop upstairs now? He’s probably in the office – he usually is at this time,” she suggested. “I can run the gauntlet with Mrs Thornton if she comes back, so don’t worry about that.”

“Knowing my luck, she’ll be ensconced with John when I get up there,” Margaret replied ironically, laughing in spite of herself.

But she went upstairs anyway, her heart beating erratically, dreading seeing him again and yet longing to be in the same room with him. Her feet felt heavy on the stair treads as she ascended the back staircase, her heels whispering against the carpet. The sounds of the chambermaids chatting as they started work drifted along the corridor towards her as she walked in the direction of John’s office, her arms crossed before her in a bid to hide the fact that her hands were shaking.

Taking a deep breath, trying to gather herself together, she raised one hand and rapped her knuckles on the closed door, waiting for a response to come from inside the room before she entered it. Nothing. She knocked again, the hammering of her heart beginning to vibrate through her with dull, heavy thuds, shaking her from head to foot. Still nothing. Tentatively she enclosed the doorknob in one hand and turned it. The door squeaked as it released and she eased the door back so that she could peer into the room. It was deserted, his desk cleared of clutter, the blotter empty. The computer on the table in the corner opposite the wall of bookshelves was turned off, a sure indication that he must only have popped briefly in here before heading off to do whatever he needed to attend to. Despair surged through her, her spirits rapidly deflating as she found herself robbed of the chance to try and explain. She pressed her forehead against the half-ajar door feeling increasingly hopeless.

“Are you looking for me?”

She nearly jumped out of her skin at the sound of his voice behind her, spinning about to face him in sudden panic, her left shoulder glancing his chest as she did so because he was standing so close to her. His expression gave nothing away; the shutters firmly closed, his blue eyes bereft of emotion of any sort.

“I wanted to speak to you,” she said, her entire body, her voice, trembling.

He put his hands in his trouser pockets, surveying her with the impassive look a stranger. “I’m busy,” he said.

Oh God, couldn’t he even bear to talk to her now? Was this how it was going to be from now on? Him glaring at her as though she were nothing to him while she longed for things to get back to the way they’d been before Henry had thrown a spanner in the works so successfully? She searched his face, feeling the sting of his rejection of her. Those tears that she’d thought she’d cried dry last night reared up once again, pricking in the corners of her eyes, threatening to fall. She clung to them desperately. She wouldn’t cry in front of him. She wouldn’t!

“Then when will you be free?” was all she was up to asking.

He shrugged. “I’ve got a lot on my plate today. Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow!”

“Take it or leave it,” he said, moving past her and, with the same finality as she had last night, closing the door to his office.

As he did so the first tear fell.

***

Ten minutes later, having spent some time in the ladies loo trying to curb the tears that had streamed so eloquently down her face, Margaret returned to the reception looking more or less herself, still slightly pale, but not as tear-stained as she had feared she might. She was taunted by the memory of her mother’s words last evening of making her life more complicated by becoming involved with someone she worked for. With the line between personal and professional blurred, almost completely obliterated, she found herself in a terrible limbo of not knowing where she stood with regard to John. He had been so cold towards her, so distant, as though she were nothing to him at all.

Bess took one look at her and smiled ruefully. “It didn’t go well then?”

“He wouldn’t even talk to me.”

“Oh dear. I’m sorry, Margaret.”

“So am I.”

“He does care about you, you know. I can tell from the way he looks at you. Half the time I think he looks as though he can’t believe his luck in finding you,” Bess said, optimistically, a smile transfusing her features. “Besides that, it’s clear that he’s –“ She stopped abruptly then, as though she thought she’d said too much.

Margaret looked at Bess, a look of confusion imbuing her features. “It’s clear that he what?” she questioned.

Bess threw her a knowing look. “That he’s in love with you, Margaret.”

“If he is then he’s got a funny way of showing it,” Margaret responded, ironically.

“The fact that he got so jealous about Henry tells you enough, doesn’t it?” Bess pressed, gently. “If he didn’t care so much he wouldn’t have behaved like that. Jealousy is a strange thing. It doesn’t always allow you to think clearly.”

“I know,” Margaret conceded quietly, her gaze lowering to the counter before her. After all, hadn’t she felt jealous of Ann Latimer at one point? Hadn’t it wounded her that she might have already held a prior claim upon John’s heart?

“You’ve got to talk to him, Margaret,” Bess concluded.

Margaret glanced up, meeting her friend’s encouraging eyes. “And if he doesn’t want that? What then?” she asked.

Bess smiled. “Trust me, that won’t happen. He’s probably as desperate as you are to make things right between you again.”

***
He couldn’t concentrate. All day long he had tried and failed. He had issued orders, filled his diary with forthcoming meetings, dictated letters, but he had done it all on some sort of automatic pilot, his thoughts and his heart centred firmly and resolutely upon Margaret. She had never felt so far away from him, even though she was only just downstairs, a flight of stairs away. He hated himself for the way he had treated her this morning when she’d come up to see him, the dismissive way in which he had closed the door on her without even giving her a chance to talk to him. In his own misery he had wanted to lash out at her, to inflict the same hurt on her as she had him. And it had only made him feel worse. He was slowly sinking beneath the weight of his own sense of helplessness, his own ravaged feelings of jealousy for the man he’d seen her with.

He looked down at his watch at three-thirty and found himself hoping against hope that she would suddenly appear in the doorway of his office. But she never did. She stayed away, just as he had told her to, even though it hadn’t been what he’d wanted.

By four o’clock he was sitting in an office at Bell Associates discussing hotel business with Richard, the meeting both a pleasure and a torture because it only served to remind him of Margaret. When he left Richard at the door it was six o’clock and he’d had enough. Phoning through to reception, he told Helena that he would be contactable on his mobile if he was needed but that he wouldn’t be back in the hotel for a few hours. He craved space, room to breathe and a place where he could be alone with his melancholia.

For reasons unbeknown to him he found himself in the local park where people were lazing in the cooling air of the late afternoon, basking in the warm, milky sunlight. He hadn’t been here for years, he realised, as he followed the path that cut through the open grassy spaces that were peppered along the way by the odd clump of trees offering shade with their vast leafy canopies. He took off his jacket and flung it over one shoulder, carrying it as though it were a sack of coal. Children ran around, every age group represented, coming together to enjoy the remains of the day. A couple, arm in arm, came along the path towards him, stopping briefly to slip into each other’s arms and kiss, making his heart scream out for the same look of love. The girl of the couple smiled shyly at him as they passed, as though she was aware that he had been watching their affectionate exchange.

He could remember how he’d come here years ago as a child, how his father had set up some stumps and handed him a cricket bat, teaching him to play, to hit sixes and fours, and then to bowl the perfect ball over-arm. They had been sun-drenched days just like this, soaked in the happy, innocent glow of childhood, lost now, gone forever into the mists of yesteryear. He saw them now, all around him, fathers with their sons, playing games, laughing; just enjoying the time they were spending together. His father had, despite having to run the hotel, managed to spend time with him when he’d been a child and so he would be with his own children if he ever had any. He would teach his own son – even his daughter – how to fish, to play cricket and football…his children who would have his eyes and Margaret’s smile…

Then he saw her just ahead of him, as if someone had waved a wand and magically brought her here, a shaded figure dappled with the sunbeams shafting through the foliage of the tree against whose trunk she sat. For a split second he was convinced that he was dreaming, that she was just a mirage, a figment of his imagination, but as he approached and came closer he saw that it was Margaret. That she was real not imagined. She had her eyes closed, completely unaware of him, her head tipped back slightly so that it was resting against the rough surface of the bark, her knees drawn up to her chest, her arms encircling them. She had slipped her shoes off, having discarded them beside her, her naked feet sunk into the velvet blades of grass. A bottle of mineral water lay on its side close by, the clear water glinting in the light that bounced off it. She looked in such a state of tranquillity that he wasn’t sure whether to disturb her, but in the end he couldn’t resist.

He had missed her so much. It had only been a day but he had missed her. Just seeing her there made him realise how much. Casting his jacket to one side, he crouched down before her and carefully, lightly, laid his hand on her knee, making her start for the second time that day, as her astonished eyes flew upwards to draw level with his.

“Don’t do that! You gave me a real fright!” she grumbled, the serenity that had imbued her features disappearing instantly.

He didn’t wait to be invited. He just sat down beside her on the grass, close to her but not touching her at all, even though his first instinct was to do so. He assumed the same position as her, bending forward to rest his arms on his knees.

“Do you always take your shoes off like that?” he asked, nodding towards her feet, so delicate and small, the toenails glistening with the delicate sheen of the palest pink varnish.

“Sometimes. The grass is nice and cool. You should try it.”

Without hesitation he took up her invitation and removed his shoes and socks, letting the bare soles of his feet plunge into the grass. The effect was refreshing, revitalising, incredibly relaxing. He would never have expected it. It had been years since he’d gone barefoot anywhere – certainly not in the park as he was now. And it was such a simple thing. When he met her eyes he saw that she was smiling at him, as though this one action had given her real pleasure and brought her that bit closer to him again.

“Have you ever danced barefoot?” she asked suddenly, her words completely unexpected, her hazel eyes glinting, almost challenging. “In a park? In front of everyone?”

“I don’t dance – and if I do I refuse to dance alone,” he told her categorically, although allowing himself to be led by the spell she was weaving over him rather than dismissing what she said. For these moments, so benevolent and free from the strife that had dogged him the whole day, he felt a contentment that he hadn’t felt for a long time. “Besides, there’s no music.”

“Who needs music? Use your imagination.”

“Are you offering?” His eyes met hers, plummeting deeply into their depths, desperately searching for forgiveness.

“Are you accepting?”

He hauled himself up in silence, extending his hand out to hers, caught up in this strange, perfect, surreal moment which he’d wandered into. He felt her hand touch his, seeking to meld rather than draw away, their fingers entwining as he pulled her tenderly towards him. He put his arms further around her and felt hers flatten against his chest as she laid her head softly against his heart. It was enough. The magic bound itself around them, fusing their hearts, so frantic for unity, as one once more, eclipsing the bitterness that had marred their previous exchanges. He heard a melody in his head and began to sway her gently against him, his feet hardly even moving, droplets of sunshine like spangled particles of gold dust settling at their feet.

“Margaret.” Her name tore from his lips with unrepressed urgency. “Margaret, please. Lift up your head.”

She didn’t move. In his arms she felt like a statue, like a beautiful sculptured piece of marble. He bent his head and sought to kiss her unruly hair, to lift one hand and raise her chin so that he could scatter feathered kisses from the centre of her forehead to the tip of her nose. She remained as she was, passive, restrained, although she didn’t try to push him away.

“Forgive me,” he murmured, searching her eyes, his face so close to hers that he could feel her breath. He groaned inwardly, desperate to recapture the closeness that they had once shared, inching slowly forward to trace a series of tiny tentative kisses across her cheek until his lips found hers at last. “Oh God, Margaret, forgive me.”

His mouth eased her lips apart, seeking her tongue with his, searching for forgiveness, for a reciprocation of those feelings he held inside him, willing her to feel something, to forgive him for his foolish paranoia and feeling, with a rush of emotion, the tentative movements of her mouth beneath his, giving him the response he longed for. A sweet euphoria stole over him and for some timeless eternity they lost themselves in each other, in the heady ecstasy of reconciliation.

Yet there were things that still needed to be said; explanations that needed to be given – both his and her own. He drew away from her, forcing his lips from the demanding bliss of hers, ranging about for a way to explain exactly what he was feeling.

“Do you remember when you thought I was leading you on because you’d listened to the gossip about Ann?” he asked softly, as cautious as a man treading quicksand.

She nodded quietly, her head bent forward so that her hair fell like a blind to all but obscure her face from him. “I remember.”

He pushed her hair back with his fingers, brushing the soft bloom of her cheek in the process, his blue eyes shining down at her. “When I saw you yesterday with another man it felt like a bubble bursting. I felt as though that I’d lost you.”

“But you hadn’t,” she replied, a returning shadow of hurt streaking across her expression and dulling the radiance that reigned there. “I told you last night. It wasn’t what it seemed. How could it be?”

He pulled away from her and gently lowered her with him back onto the downy grass so that they were sitting close together, their legs brushing, his hands imprisoning hers.

“You didn’t need to feel jealous,” she began. For a long moment their eyes held, both of them poised on the brink of some incredible revelation. “His name’s Henry Lennox. He’s an old boyfriend – my only ex-boyfriend before you start wondering how many more are about to jump out of the woodwork.”

He squeezed her hand and nodded slowly, pensively, glancing away from her to look across the park. “He’s a long way from Helstone.”

“He’s here on business. His firm has an office here. I couldn’t believe it when he stopped me in the street. He was the last person I expected to see.” She saw his frown and smiled reassuringly. “I didn’t even hear him calling me to start with because I was too busy thinking about you.”

“How long were the two of you together?”

“We met when we were about five years old. It sort of developed from there.”

“I knew there must have been others.”

“Only the one.”

“Why did you break up?”

Margaret shrugged, not with regret exactly but with something of an acceptance of what had been inevitable. “We grew apart. Henry went off to London to become something in computer programming and I stayed in Helstone. We wanted different things.”

John raised his free hand to her hair, reverently stroking through its length. “Has seeing him again made you wish you’d gone with him to London?”

She shook her head adamantly. “Not once.” When she met his eyes, her own shone with a resonance that spoke of complete certainty. “I wouldn’t have been happy in London.”

“No?”

“Never.”

She leaned against him then, resting her head against his shoulder, her hair dropping over his shirt in glossy mahogany skeins. His arm slipped around her shoulder, squeezing her to him as he moved them gently onto their sides, their bodies, turned towards each other, stretching full length. Irresistibly, her head rested against his chest where she could find a more comfortable position for herself.

After a timeless moment they drew back from each other, their eyes locked, unable to break the connection.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured with heartfelt sincerity. “I shouldn’t have over-reacted. I should have given you the chance to explain. I should have realised it was perfectly innocent – on your part at least – especially after what happened between us in my office.”

“You’re forgiven – this time.” She smiled back at him, her eyes soft with the forgiveness he longed for.

He put his hand to her face, splayed his fingers, holding her loosely, the apexes of his fingertips exploring in wonderment as if for the first time, as though he had never touched her before in this way. And he had – more than once. But it was different this time, although he couldn’t quite place why.

Bit by bit, like the slow unfurling of a bud into leaf, she had dismantled the controlled, impassive armour he occupied, awakening emotions he’d pushed aside and buried since the day his father had died. He had spent what felt like a lifetime distrusting love and yet he knew that he loved her. The ordered, functional, soul-destroying life he had known had begun to unravel from the day he had met her and the consequences were irrevocable. Because of her. Because she had made him love her when he hadn’t thought that he could bring himself to love anyone.

He watched as her eyelids fluttered shut, as she luxuriated in his caress, her head tipping back, exposing her neck where his fingers began to stray, trailing and tracing, following the graceful line to the hollow at its base, harbouring briefly before returning to plunge into her hair. She began to move her head, rubbing against his fingers, her eyes still closed, a look of pure enchantment etched upon her face.

“You’re treading a very fine line, Miss Hale,” he murmured hoarsely, as he nipped the lobe of her ear as a warning of the ardour she was igniting inside him. It made her gasp in pleasure, even as his hand brushed against her sensitised curves.

She raised her face to his, her eyes virtually closed, the eyelashes drawing two half-moons beneath her lower lids, her lips parted provocatively, silently imploring him to act. Unable to curb his need to touch her, he dipped his head and kissed her, feeling her lips bloom beneath his like a flower opening up to him so that he could taste the sweetness within. She tasted and smelt so good. Her scent was all around him, growing more intense as the heat between them rose.

“You’ve changed my life,” he said, breaking away from her suddenly, needing to tell her, needing her to understand the impact she’d had upon him. “I don’t think I’ve been alive for the past ten years.”

She met his eyes, her own searching. “Your father’s death must have been a terrible thing to have to deal with.”

He felt those claws that had forced his silence for so long seize him at her mention of his father.

“Please,” she said, her hazel eyes imploring. “Don’t shut me out any longer. Let me into your life, John, because that’s the only place I want to be.”

He stared down into those beseeching eyes, seeing there the fear that he might still rebuff her shining out at him. The fragile interior of his heart began to haemorrhage and bleed. He had held her at arm’s length for too long, he knew that now. He wanted to love her, he longed for that more than anything.

“Talk to me,” she said, softly urging him to open himself up to her.

He nodded, his gaze lowering to stare down at the grass. “I felt so let down by him,” he said, quietly. “He was someone who I thought of as being so strong – larger than life – but in the end he was just as fallible as the next person.”

“Is that the reason you’re so distant with everyone?”

He shrugged, feeling the words building up inside him, gathering, forcing their way up to the surface, needing and searching for release. And he let them flow out of him, no longer able to keep them contained. For the first time in ten years he let go of those feelings he had always fought to suppress.

“I can remember being at his funeral and feeling so much grief. I’d been planning to go travelling before I settled on what I wanted to do to earn a proper living, but any hope of that died with him. I had my mother and Fran to think about and although my mother never asked me to give up anything, I couldn’t just leave them with all the debt my father had accumulated. So I put my own aspirations aside and buried myself in work.”

“But what about the hotel? That must have been making a profit,” Margaret said, frowning in perplexity.

“What we made in profit went straight out to pay gambling and other debts,” he said, tenderly touching her cheek as he looked into her beautiful eyes and saw the acknowledgement of his pain, her willingness to share it with him. “We found out that he’d gambled the hotel in a card game and lost on the day he died – fortunately to Adam Bell whom he’d known for many years. I don’t know what would have happened if it had been one of my father’s other cronies. They all seemed to be driven by greed from what I knew of them. Adam, of course, knew of the debts and the precarious situation of the hotel. He ripped up the piece of paper my father had scrawled on during the game, although when I spoke to him he told me he thought that we ought to sell up before we incurred any more debt. But I couldn’t do that. I suppose it was at that point I realised that I couldn’t let the place go. To do that would have been like wiping out everything my father and mother had ever worked to achieve.”

His eyes brimmed with all the pain he’d been hiding for so many years, finally released, no longer hidden in shame. He could feel the burden of it lifting, that frozen and desolate place in his heart beginning to thaw at last.

“I buried myself in work. If I went out with a woman it was extremely short-lived because I couldn’t commit myself to any sort of relationship.” Their eyes melded. For the first time in his life those invisible chains that had bound him so fiercely slackened and fell away. “Then you walked into the stillroom that day and altered everything. You let the sunlight into my soul.”

To his surprise he saw a rosy bloom begin to flame beneath her skin and compulsively he reached across to take her hand, enclosing it in his, his fingers rubbing softly against hers. And when she looked up at him, he saw that her eyes were shining with unshed tears. He felt his throat constrict with emotion, with the incredible realisation of a love that shone with an unimagined purity and depth. A love he had given up any hope of ever feeling.

And now he did feel.

And he was free.

Free to love her if she would let him…

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