Past & Present: Chapter Seventeen – In Sunlight and in Shadow

It seemed to Margaret that she had never felt such closeness with another person. He had told her everything, his voice choked with long held suppression, and she had done as she had always promised him and had listened, feeling his pain as if it were her own, that invisible cord that seemed to connect them tugging her heart to such an extent that she found her own eyes fill with tears as he’d recounted the events of a decade before with such sobriety and regret.

When, at last, he had finished, his blue eyes blazing with a lifetime of unshed tears, they had fused together, each one instinctively needing the other’s touch, silent now, but content with the silence, needing nothing more than the presence of the other.

I love you.

Emotion flowered inside her like a rose, even though no words passed her lips. She turned her head to where he lay beside her on the grass, the side of his head resting against one arm, his eyelids closed, denying her his beautiful eyes. His face, darkened by the stubble that poked through his skin, was totally peaceful, the tension dissipated, a serene, relaxed smile settled upon his lips. His other arm was slung across her waist, embracing her lightly, not at all possessively, although she knew that if she moved even slightly his hand would stiffen to restrain her. Not that she wanted to move. She was with him, he had found her and they were together. She glanced beyond him to see people filing past their perfect oasis beneath the tree, seeing children playing merrily, shouting jubilantly. The delicate sigh of the breeze made the leaves dance above them, scattering the light that spilled through the prolific foliage.

As though he sensed her watching him, his eyes flickered open to reveal their blue depths to her at last, his smile deepening at the sight of her.

“You’re so beautiful,” he said, his tone striking that irresistibly intimate chord that had become so familiar to her. Sparks of pure desire burnt their way down every vertebrae of her spine. He propped his head up on his hand, his elbow rigid against the grass to support him, his eyes devouring her with a mixture of both candid ardour and sheer wonder, as though he couldn’t quite believe that she was lying beside him.

His eyes were threatening to drown her, the spell they bound all-encompassing. “Am I?”

“Yes.” He moved his free hand from her waist to her cheek, stroking it with the lightest of caresses, running his index finger along the line of her jaw before tracing the outline of her incredibly mobile lips.

She closed her eyes, letting herself feel his touch as it charted the contours of her face and neck, before moving towards her shoulders and travelling over their creamy nubs. She could feel her heart starting to jump, his touch all it took. Her breath caught in aching anticipation of what he might do next. She heard him shift closer. His hand slid the length of her from her shoulder to her waist, following the graceful lines of her body. She felt the somewhat perfunctory brush of his lips on the tip of her shoulder before his lips suddenly parted, allowing his tongue, within the closed boundary of his mouth, access to circle luxuriantly against the bare skin exposed to him by her strappy top.

“John…”

His lips moved, barely even touching her, up the side of her neck to her ear. “I love you,” he rasped, his voice like a fervent flame that reached out to engulf her in its pure, molten heat. “I love you so much!”

Her eyes opened as his words washed over her, their warmth all-encompassing; and yet for an evanescent moment she was convinced that she was dreaming. The look on his face, however, blew away the clouds of doubt from her mind. “I love you too,” she whispered, her own voice barely even audible through the haze of emotion. She threw him a radiant, diffident smile. “I have done since the first day I saw you.”

“Margaret…”

His lips found hers, his kiss searing through her, the sheer physical power of it knocking her sideways, even as she responded to him with a passion that matched his own. She blocked out the rest of the world, caring nothing for the looks that those who passed by them might be throwing in their direction, her only thoughts those that concerned his mouth and what sensations were stirring with such cataclysmic effect within her. His tongue darted into her mouth, an arrow of fire, its deliberately deft caresses teasing her, driving her almost to the point of distraction, piercing her heart every time it interlaced with hers.

They were falling, falling through air… They must be, because she felt weightless, lifted high above the ground. She clasped him tighter, their bodies locked together, one of his legs thrown over hers, one bare foot rubbing and tickling in an exquisite torture she didn’t want to ever stop.

She moaned blissfully against his mouth, unable to leave it, wanting to stay this way forever. He was above her now and her back was flush on the grass, his weight half upon her, but she didn’t care. She wanted to feel it, the hard masculine strength of him; she welcomed it…

“Do you realise how severely you’re testing my resolve?” he told her, his breath strangled with unashamed need. He strew her face with little kisses that fell upon her skin with the lightness of snow, even though they scorched her with their vehemence.

“Does it need testing?” she asked demurely, even thought the way her body was responding to his was anything but.

“More than you’ll ever know.”

His lips joined hers once more. He pulled her willing and pliant body onto its side, creating a tiny, private shadow of space between them so that the hand not having to support him could tentatively wander from her hip up across her stomach to tantalisingly brush her breasts. She felt an electric charge screech through her at his touch, the intensity of her feelings overpowering her completely. She let out a low moan of delight, wanting his hands upon her, needing his hands. Just from the way her body was responding to him was enough to betray her desire. Her response to him came from somewhere deep inside her, blossoming under his adept fingers, her body no longer languid but alert, filled with increasing longing. She wanted so much just to grab his hand and place it against her, to wantonly and carelessly surrender to what he might do to her given the chance. But they were out here, in an extremely public place; they were bound by laws that seemed, in these moments of unimaginable feeling, to mean very little at all.

“I think I’m going to have to take you away somewhere for a weekend,” John said, nuzzling into the side of her neck, dotting feathered kisses along it. “And the sooner the better.”

She lifted her head and met his eyes, her own dancing at the prospect of taking off with him to a place where no one would be able to bother them. “I’ve heard about that sort of weekend,” she mused, impishly. “Isn’t that where I have to sign the register in the name of Smith?”

“Mrs Smith to be precise,” he corrected, one finger absently stroking the inside of her arm, making every nerve tremble along the route he took.

“Perhaps I could vary it and use Brown instead?” she suggested, her expression glowing with the happiness that effervesced within her.

“You’re not going as anyone but yourself,” he said, firmly. He swept her dishevelled hair away from her face, his eyes overspilling with his love for her. “I just want to spend some time with you – away from all interruptions. Away from everyone and everything.”

“How would we fill our time?” she questioned mischievously, feigning complete ignorance to the real motives behind his suggestion, even though her insides were twisting unbearably in heady expectation.

His gaze roamed her face, taking in every feature, before lowering to the body that lay so close to his. “How you do think?” he replied, his voice thick with fervour. “I want to be able to kiss you and know that I don’t have to stop unless you ask me to.” His expression changed then, sobered slightly, grew pensive, the timbre of his voice heartbreakingly honest. “Just to go to sleep with you beside me and wake up to find you still there in the morning would be like a dream come true. Every time I have to leave you it’s like my heart’s being ripped out.”

She stared at him, realising how much his feelings mirrored her own. She touched his cheek reverently, feeling the stubble prick her fingertips.

“How did I manage to find you?” she asked, shaking her head in disbelief that she had ever met him, that she should be here, lying on the grass in a park filled with people, completely mesmerised by his presence.

“Serendipity,” he replied, lowering his lips to hers. “That’s how I found you.”

***

By the time they roused themselves from where they’d been lying on the grass it was almost two hours later, the air around them grown cooler as the sunlight weakened. They had been so wrapped up in each other that they hadn’t noticed how the park had become more and more deserted as the time had gone on. Now only the odd couple strolled by, arm in arm, hand in hand, while several others were taking their dogs for an evening walk. Having put their shoes back on and retrieved their belongings from the grass, John helped Margaret to her feet, watching as she swung her head forward and shook out her hair to get rid of any bits of grass, before taking her hand in his and walking back towards the gate he had entered with such despondence only a few hours before.

“I have something I need to tell you,” Margaret said after some moments of silence between them, a faint but unmistakable twang of unease inflected in her voice.

He stopped, turned to look at her, a frown penetrating his brows, wondering what the hell she was about to tell him. He saw her bite her bottom lip. “What is it?”

“It’s about Henry.”

A cold chill swept through him, disturbing the enchanted equilibrium in which they’d been cosseted since he’d found her sitting beneath the tree. His voice tightened, grew cooler. “What about him?”

“He’s staying at the hotel as one of the guests.”

The chill became a frost, pinching mercilessly with freezing fingers. “Why didn’t you tell me before?”

“The last few hours have been so perfect. I didn’t want to spoil it.”

“At least I’ll know him if I see him.” God knows the wretched man’s face was ingrained in his mind, however much he tried to wipe it away!

“There’s something else. He’s told me he wants me back,” she said, more than a little hesitantly, as though she were ashamed to admit such a thing.

The frost that had perpetrated his insides turned instantly to ice, became utterly arctic. “What did you tell him?”

“That I’m not interested,” she told him simply, searching his face uncertainly as though she knew the impact this might have upon him. “You realise that I wouldn’t ever go back to him, don’t you? That it wouldn’t ever be possible for me to?”

Oh God, how scared she looked, so worried that he wouldn’t understand, that he might start to doubt her feelings for him. “I have no intention of letting you slip away from me now, believe me,” he told her, his conviction clear and plain.

Relief softened her expression, easing away those tense furrows of panic. “I wouldn’t want you to. And if you tried, I’d just cling to you and refuse to let go.”

He pulled her towards him sharply, enclosing her with strong, masculine arms. As far as that wretched ex-boyfriend of hers went, he had another thing coming if he tried to get between them. “How long do I have to tolerate having him under my roof?”

“A few days, perhaps a week. He wasn’t sure when I spoke to him.”

“I saw your father this afternoon. He didn’t mention anything about him.”

“He wouldn’t. He’s not as vocal about Henry as my mother.” She wound her fingers through his dark hair, looking rather morose.

“You look lovely when you scowl, you know. It’s very sexy,” he said disarmingly, deciding that he’d had enough of talking about Henry, wanting to forget him and concentrate on her – entirely on her. He craned his neck to kiss her, the lure of her mouth too much for him to ignore. “God, I love you so much.”

“I’m going to wake up in a minute. I know I am,” she said.

He smiled down at her, his blue eyes melting into hers. “Why do you think you’re dreaming?”

“Because I’ve just told you about Henry and we’re in each others arms rather than yelling the odds at each other in a jealous rage.”

***

There was no light on in the hall as they stepped into the house some hours later, having tarried over a meal for much longer than they’d even realised, talking and sharing their thoughts with each other with more freedom than they ever had before.

Margaret waited for John to ease the front door to a close as gently as he could so as not to disturb her parents sleeping above them. She went to put a side light on in the lounge and it threw a soft glow across the gloom of the room, evoking a serenity and softness in the décor, enriching the cosy, family-orientated atmosphere that had struck him so profoundly when he’d visited before.

He came to a standstill in the centre of the room, throwing his shadow onto the wall he stood with his back to, a shadow that became two as she came to stand before him and then became one as they merged together, became seamless, arms encircling, mouths colliding in mutual and hungry realisation that the feelings felt by one were answered by the other. Still entwined, they fell upon the sofa. She felt so warm, her scent made so much more intense by her body heat. Jasmine, he realised suddenly. That was what he could smell. Sweet, delicate, exotic, sensual, it blossomed at the very heart of the fragrance she wore. He rubbed his cheek compulsively against her hair, once, twice, three times.

“Well Miss Hale, I’ve seen you safely to the door. Now I think I’d better go,” he said at last, more than a little reluctant to leave her. “You must be tired and we’ve both got work in the morning.”

Her hands curled into small fists as she gripped tenaciously to his shirt in a bid to keep him where he was. “Don’t go yet. I don’t want you to go.”

He looked in her eyes and didn’t have the will or the inclination to fight her. “This isn’t a good idea,” he said at length. “Perhaps you should move to the other end of the sofa out of harm’s way.”

“I’ve told you before – I don’t need protection from you,” she said, wrapping her arms around his neck, doing everything but dampen his desire for her.

“Perhaps it’s the other way round. Perhaps it’s me who needs protection from you.” He tilted his head to one side, seeing a recharged energy dancing in her lovely eyes. “I love your perfume,” he told her. “It makes me want to kiss you.” He was aware of her entire body tensing. He groaned to feel it, the closeness of her playing havoc with the self-control he had no choice but to hold to, their bludgeoning need for the other making it more and more difficult to take things at a less frantic pace. “I want you so much,” he grated, his hands moving up her back, firmly massaging the soft skin that her top revealed to him, before moving towards those thin straps and dragging them impatiently from her shoulders. “God knows, I shouldn’t be doing this,” he rasped, his breathing ragged. “Not here. Not when your parents are upstairs.”

“Forget them,” she sighed, her fingers playing with his hair, twirling and twisting it around in the most distracting way. They sunk backwards and down, the cushions seeming to rise up to meet them. He heard her soft cry of satisfaction as the back of her head found the arm of the sofa, her long, burnished mane hanging in a cascade over its edge. “They won’t wake up. They never do.”

“I wish to God I could believe that,” he responded with an anguished groan, his lips moving with increasing urgency, their kisses growing deeper. “Oh God, Margaret, we can’t do this. It would be like abusing your parents’ trust.” He was saying these things, he could hear himself saying them, but his fingers were already tentatively running along the edge of her top. “I should go…”

“No! Don’t go. Hold me. Please, just hold me.” She coiled herself around him, her limbs imprisoning him.

His thoughts reeled, heading further and further along the avenue that was rapidly leading them towards complete recklessness.

“We both know it won’t stop at that,” he warned her, the tips of his fingers trailing over her top, tracing idle patterns with increasing pressure.

Her back arched as she reared up to meet his hands. “Oh God…”

Her plea was like bait. Willingly he took it, staring down into her abandoned face, seeing the rapture that dwelt there and making him want her all the more. The crazy doodles he drew with his long deft fingers became more insistent as he savoured the different textures revealed by her thin top; the curving smoothness of her breasts pinnacling into hard, tightened buds that strained against the fabric like sunflowers searching for the sun.

“Do you know what you’re doing to me?” he said, his voice croaking with the passion he was finding it increasingly difficult to contain. The feelings that had escalated so rapidly between them in his office yesterday returned with a vengeance, but this time they seemed a hundredfold more intense.

A smile of pure satisfaction spread across her mouth, so infuriatingly sexy that he couldn’t help himself. His lips plunged towards hers, sinking into her, losing himself in her as he sought the edge of her top and burrowed beneath it, his hands meeting her skin where he could feel without further restriction the profound impact of his artistry upon her.

“Where do we go from here?” he murmured against her ear, knowing that he would let her decide their fate tonight. “Do you really want to risk it? Or would you rather wait until we’re completely alone and can take as long as we want knowing that no one is around to ruin everything?”

Her eyes opened as he lifted himself so that his weight no longer covered her so completely. A cool tunnel of air invaded the space between them. “I want to be alone with you more than anything else in the world. You know I do.”

“You’re so special to me,” he said earnestly. “I don’t want to lead you into something that you might regret – if not tonight, tomorrow morning when you wake up.” He gave an ironic, bittersweet smile that endeavoured to hide the aching for her that had no less faded with their decision to stop. “This reminds me of being a teenager again. A few snatched moments on a sofa, hoping and praying that no one in the house wakes up.”

“You spent a lot of time doing this as a teenager then?”

“Not really. Mind you, none of it was anything like this – the way it is with you. Nothing even comes close. You only need to be in the same room and I want to touch you. Even when you’re not with me, you’re in my head twenty-four hours a day. You have been since the day we met.”

“I didn’t know.”

“How could you? I couldn’t even believe it myself.” He gazed down at her beneath half lowered lashes, his fingers fanning out over her beautiful face, softly stroking. “I loved you from the moment I saw you, even though I didn’t realise it at the time. Not consciously anyway. I only hated the fact that you’d seen me at my worst.”

“You were so closed off – I never thought I could reach you,” she said.

“And I never wanted anything as much as I wanted you to love me.”

“I did. I do. I think I always will.”

He put his mouth to hers once more. “I’m glad,” he said when he finally pulled back from her. “Because I’ll never love anyone else the way I love you.”

***
Hannah Thornton glanced across the breakfast table at her son and ruminated the fact that never in his life had he ever hummed a tune at any meal. It had always been Fran’s habit, albeit a somewhat grating one on account of the fact that Fran had no ability for singing or music. What Hannah heard now actually had a tune, although she could not make out what it was. She certainly saw a change in him this morning – it wasn’t just the humming, it was the whole way he held himself, as though he had finally unburdened the leaden weights that she’d always suspected him of carrying around with him. His eyes were positively shining like two dazzling blue beacons and his mouth seemed to be having a difficult time not tugging into a perpetual smile. Compared to the previous evening and his cool indifference, his manner was markedly altered.

“You were late coming back last night,” she said. “I must have gone to bed at half twelve and you hadn’t come in.”

His tuneful melody came to an abrupt stop as he raised his eyes from his newspaper to look across the table at her. “I was perfectly all right. I can look after myself.”

She picked up her cup filled with coffee mixed liberally with boiling milk so as to mellow the bitterness of the coffee. “I take it you saw Margaret?”

“I did, yes. Why do you ask? “

“You just seem very happy this morning,” she said, a dart of jealousy stabbing at her heart that it should have been Margaret who had managed to achieve this effect upon him. He was completely besotted with her, this young slip of a girl who Hannah herself feared would end up hurting him in the final event. Margaret had still so much of her life ahead of her, choices to make about what she wanted to do with that life, whereas John was older, giving every indication that the time had come when he wanted to settle down.

“I am very happy, Mother.” He threw her a carefree smile, one that spoke only too clearly of his feelings for the girl who’d managed to outrank Hannah’s own choice of girlfriend for her son. He folded over the paper. “By the way, I’m taking Margaret away for a few days in the next week or so. I’ll let you know when, but I’d appreciate it if you could oversee the last minute preparations for the Annual Dinner. Nick has everything his end organised and the extra waiting staff have been booked, but there may be the odd thing to sort out. You don’t mind do you?”

What was he asking her? That she didn’t mind stepping into his shoes and running the hotel while he went swanning off to goodness only knew where with Margaret? Or that she didn’t mind the fact that he had decided to take Margaret away in the first place and therefore emphasising the fact that his relationship with her had obviously intensified? “I’ll deal with what needs doing, of course,” she said, blandly. “Where were you thinking of taking her?”

“I have a few ideas. I just have to get it organised.” He pulled himself from his chair, standing before her in his tall, lean way, a man now, no longer the child she’d so lovingly nurtured and had been forced to watch helplessly sinking under the burden of grief when he’d lost his father. She was struck now by the inevitable realisation that she stood on the verge of losing him – losing him to a girl who’d somehow found a way to reach him when it had seemed that no one could, not even her, his very own mother. She watched as he came around the table towards her and bent to briefly kiss her cheek, his affection for her evident in these small everyday gestures that she still cherished. “And when Fran finally manages to drag herself out of bed, can you ask her to come down and see me in my office? I want a word with her about something.”

Hannah frowned. “What would you need to speak to Fran about that can’t wait until you’ve finished work?”

“It’ll only take a few minutes of her time.”

“You know Steven is coming out of hospital today? She’ll be busy with that.” Hannah remembered then the question she had meant to ask her son this morning. The question that Fran had rather hesitantly put to her last night but she had said that she wouldn’t give an answer to until John had been asked. “I actually wanted to ask you –“

He put his hand out to stop her in mid-sentence. “It’s fine, Mother. They can stay here for a few weeks – as long as it is only a few weeks.”

Hannah smiled in relief. Fran had been so worried about the fact that John wouldn’t allow Steven anywhere near the hotel after the unfortunate incident with Margaret in reception. The fact that he didn’t seem unduly bothered by the prospect of being under the same roof as his brother-in-law only made Hannah wonder exactly what spell Margaret had cast over him.

Her son walked away from her, head high, completely at peace for once in his life, that tune he had previously been humming resuming once more like notes dancing invisibly in the air around him.
***

When Margaret had finally gone to bed she had dreamt about John; sweet, sensual, luminous dreams that had surrounded her in a silken web of passion.

By the time she’d woken up she was thinking about Henry.

She’d managed, by some good fortune, to avoid seeing him at all yesterday either when he’d gone down for breakfast or out to work, but it seemed too much to feel that it would happen for a second day on the trot, that some of that luck would spill over from yesterday into today.

Bess took one look at her and laughed as she came through the front door. “Well, you look better today! Things must have taken a turn for the better somewhere between you leaving here yesterday and this morning. Am I right?”

A luminous smile danced across Margaret’s lips, animating every part of her face in the process. She unhooked her handbag from her shoulder, the same one that John had lovingly kissed yesterday, and put it briefly on the reception desk, turning to her friend who stood watching her with amusement. “You’re right,” Margaret told Bess. “I’ve spoken to John.”

“I take it you’ve managed to get rid of your differences?”

“I told him about Henry – everything about Henry that he needs to know anyway.”

“Did you now?” The sound of a voice – Henry’s wretched voice – from behind her left shoulder made Margaret jolt and her face flame in embarrassment at having been overheard by him. “And what did he have to say on the matter, eh?” He came to lean casually against the reception desk beside her, making Margaret move immediately away and position herself in the centre of the reception area. Irritation coursed through her blood at the smug smile on Henry’s face.

“Nothing – because there’s nothing to say is there? It’s not as if you’re a threat to him.”

“So it’s all right with you if I introduce myself to him? I’d like to meet the man who’s finally got my Meg.”

“I’m not your Meg, Henry. I haven’t been for a long time,” Margaret snapped.

He shrugged nonchalantly, seemingly unbothered by any of her protests, waving them aside with casual indifference. His attention fixed then upon Bess for the first time, an appraising gleam in his eyes, leering rather than simply looking at her.

“Are you Meg’s partner in crime then?” he said, giving her a wink that was studiously ignored.

“We’re friends,” Bess replied, seeing the warning look Margaret shot her as she glanced obliquely in her direction.

“So you’ll know she’s got this thing going with your boss, won’t you?”

Bess said nothing, her lips tightening.

“You don’t know where he is do you?”

“Not at the moment, no.”

“Perhaps you’d like to locate him and tell him that one of his guests would like to see him for a quick chat?”

“Henry!” Margaret cried, filled with utter rancour for this one person she’d always held in such high regard throughout her life and who now filled her with complete loathing. “John already knows who you are! I’ve told him! He’s not bothered about you!”

Henry smiled, undeterred. “Well if that’s the case then a quick chat won’t hurt, will it?”

Margaret glared at him, thoroughly nettled. “Don’t you have to go to work?”

“After I’ve had my breakfast.”

“Well, the breakfast room is through there.” Defiantly, Margaret thrust out her arm and pointed her finger in the direction that Henry should go. “Alternatively, the front door is that way if you’d like to walk out of it. Either will be fine by me, but the last option is the most preferable.”

“Is she always this fired up about things?” Henry laughed, turning his attention back to Bess.

“It depends on who it is.”

“You could get quite fired up at certain times during our relationship as I recall,” Henry said, smirking with insinuation at Margaret. “Perhaps I should compare notes with this boss of yours?”

“Oh, just go away Henry. If you don’t want anything in particular then go away. I don’t want to see you.”

“And we both know that’s only because you won’t admit your feelings.”

“I think it’s a case of you not getting the hint!” Margaret snapped, grabbing her handbag and marching into the small office beyond, shoving the connecting door shut behind her so that it created another physical barrier between Henry and herself.

She slumped down on the seat before the computer and stared at the blank screen, trying to think of a way to head off the collision that was becoming more and more inevitable if Henry kept on going the way he was. Why did he have to be like this? Why couldn’t he just accept that they’d moved on with their lives and that she was happy with someone else? Why couldn’t he just go back to London and vanish as rapidly as he’d materialised?

A few minutes later, Bess appeared in the doorway. “He’s gone.”

“To have breakfast?”

Bess shook her head. “He went off to work.”

Margaret put her head in her hands. “Thank god. At least I know I won’t have to see him for the rest of the day!”

***

John sat in his office staring intently at the computer screen, taking in the pictures and information displayed before him. He wondered fleetingly whether to discuss what he had in mind with Margaret first, before he booked anything, but the thought was short-lived. He wanted it to be a surprise – the hotel, the location. He wanted to sweep her away for those few precious days like a prince in a fairytale taking his heroine away from the humdrum routine of everyday life. The thought of his own romanticism brought a smile to his lips. A few months ago he would never have expected to be sitting here, grinning like a schoolboy, his heart full to bursting with this unbridled love that had stolen into his life so amazingly, busy scouring hotel information for himself and Margaret.

Like he had told her yesterday, she had changed his life. Inexorably altered the pattern of it, the entire nature of it. A few months ago – even a few weeks ago – he would never have considered leaving the hotel even for a few days, during what were the busiest months of the year and when the Mill Owners Dinner was virtually upon them. His mother had swallowed his request with as much grace as she could muster, although her eyes had betrayed her uncertainty concerning his choice of companion in Margaret, echoing words of caution that he had already heard and already knew by heart.

The door to his office opened, the usual knock before entering discarded, and he looked up to see his sister coming into the room. She was wearing a pretty floral dress that seemed to float around her like a cloud, her blonde curls freshly washed and her face lit with hope and a certain strength that hadn’t existed there before this day. It was as though she had grown up overnight and come to a decision about what she wanted from her life. And immediately John knew that it was all for Steven’s benefit – that it was Fran’s way of showing that she was ready to face the future as a wife standing at his side rather than running away at the first sight of trouble.

“Morning, Fran,” he said in an upbeat tone that he’d seldom ever used when addressing his sister.

She smiled, a little smile that spoke of her inability to truly interpret his mood. Where, after all, was that sullen, stoic brother who she had never felt able to converse with very easily on any sort of level in the past? “Mother said you wanted to speak to me?”

She was still harbouring by the door, appearing like a rather self-conscious guest who isn’t quite certain of what might be expected of her. “Come and sit down. I need to have a word with you about a few things,” he said, turning his back on the computer and getting out of his seat. He gestured in the direction of the Chesterton and she came towards it, sitting down upon it just as he had indicated to her, while he came to stand before her, leaning against the edge of his desk, his arms crossed before him. “I hear that Steven’s coming out of hospital today.”

“They told me yesterday when I was at the hospital visiting him, yes. Mother said you’d agreed to him coming here for a few weeks. Thank you for that. I didn’t know whether you would – not after what happened.”

“There is a condition to him staying here,” John said. “And that is that he gets some help for his problems. He can’t go on like he has been – neither of you can for that matter.”

Fran’s head lowered in shame, some of that confidence he’d first noticed when she’d come into the room seeping away. She was still as vulnerable as she ever had been, he realised. “I know that,” she said quietly, looking like a child being reprimanded by a teacher for being naughty. “And I’ve already told him things have got to change. I told him that the day after he had the accident.”

“And he’s agreed?” She inclined her head silently. “Do you believe him?”

“Yes.”

“What about the debts you owe? The mortgage payments on the house?”

“We’ll have to try and sort those things out, won’t we? We don’t really have any choice in the matter.”

“No you don’t.” He looked at her pensively, thoughts whizzing at speed through his head. “How far are you behind on the mortgage payments?”

“Several months.”

He couldn’t believe it. “For God’s sake Fran! You should have said something to me as soon as you found yourselves in trouble!”

Her brown eyes rose to his. “How could I tell you anything? You hated Steven – you probably still do. Telling you what I did on the evening of the accident was bad enough.”

“Thank God you did tell me. At least now I can try and help you.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I want the two of you to sort out and pay off the smaller debts you owe and I’ll arrange to pay off the outstanding mortgage arrears for you. I haven’t said a word of this to Mother because I think it’s probably better she doesn’t know. She’d only worry – and she’s already concerned enough about the state of your marriage.”

Fran stared at him, completely dumbfounded. “But you hate Steven – I know you do after what he did to Margaret. Why would you help us like that?”

John shrugged, throwing her rather lopsided smile. “Because you’re my sister. I care about you,” he admitted. “Besides, do you really think I would let you lose your home when I can do something about it?”

In an instant, as his words hit home, Fran jumped to her feet and threw herself into his arms. “Thank you, John. Thank you!”

He gently unlatched her from him. “Steven must get help, Fran. Whatever happens, he must. You know what it did to Father. It destroyed him – and very nearly destroyed you too in the process.”

Shadows flickered across her expression. “I try to forget what happened that day with Father. I’ve blocked it out.”

“It’s no way to live, Fran. I should know. I’ve spent what feels like a lifetime trying to forget, never talking about what happened. It just eats away at you.”

“So what’s changed with you?”

“I fell in love with someone who was prepared to love me – despite everything,” he told her simply, with no embarrassment, no reluctance to divulge how he felt. “I only hope that you and Steven love each other enough to weather all the upheaval.”

“I know he loves me, John. I think the accident made him realise that.” She sat back down onto the seat, one hand resting on the leathered arm. “He is sorry for how he behaved and for what he did to Margaret. He didn’t mean to hurt her. He’s told me that more than once.”

“Well, perhaps he’d like to tell Margaret that when he sees her – because he will if you’re staying here for a while longer.”

“So is Margaret ‘the one’?” Fran asked him. “Am I going to have to start looking upon her as future sister-in-law material or anything like that?”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself, Fran,” John responded enigmatically, refusing to be drawn.

“Mother won’t like it.”

“Well, if and when it ever happens I’m sure she’ll find a way to get used to the idea,” he said.

***
John walked purposefully into the reception office, casting a courteous smile in Bess’s direction as he passed her, and shut the door with a gentle click behind him. Margaret was sitting at her computer immersed in something, although she glanced up and smiled in pleasure as she saw him come into the room. The fact that he had closed the door spoke volumes to her of his intentions. He strode across the room towards her, not one word spoken between them as he moved around the desk and pulled her to her feet so that he could encircle her waist and lower his mouth to hers.

He eased himself away from her. “Good morning,” he said, softly. “I came down here to tell you that I’m taking you out for lunch.”

“Are you telling me or asking me?” she replied playfully, massaging his head with absent-minded indulgence.

“Well if you refuse I’ll have no choice but to insist.”

“And how would you do that – bearing in mind the fact that Bess is just on the other side of that door?”

His gaze travelled over her, admiring her, cherishing these few stolen moments between them in the midst of an otherwise busy morning. He hadn’t been able to stop himself from coming downstairs to see her – not even the cynicism of his mother could have prevented him from acting on his need just to be with her. As to her question, he shot her a dangerous look loaded with insinuation. “I’d find a way to make you change your mind,” he said, ambiguously.

“How?”

“I’m hardly likely to tell you.”

“Why not?”

“Well, for a start you’d know what to expect.”

“True. But I don’t like surprises – seeing Henry again made me realise that.”

The light-heartedness faded. Henry Lennox! God, how he detested the sound of that man’s name! Every time he heard it, it was as if an ice pick was taking a strike at his heart. “Have you seen him today then?”

She nodded. “Earlier.”

Those insidious stirrings of jealousy began to crawl through his blood at just the thought of Margaret being in the same room as the man. He couldn’t get it out of his head that once upon a time Henry had held her in his arms, kissed her, shared moments with her that would always be their own. They had a past; and, however much Margaret professed to dislike the person Henry had become, they still shared a fusion of memories that spanned numerous years…

“Don’t look like that, John,” she said, noticing something in his expression change. “He’s no threat to you. You know that.”

“You loved him once,” he said ruefully.

“No.” She shook her head adamantly. “Not in the way I love you.”

“You must have been close.”

She knew immediately what he meant and smiled up at him as though she understood the torture he felt inside. “Shall I tell you something?” she said softly, coiling her arms possessively around his neck. “When you touch me it feels as though it’s the first time anyone’s ever done that. You’re so much a part of me that nothing that happened before feels as though it was ever real. And I know,” she went on, her face flaming as she threw aside her modesty. “I know that when you make love to me it’ll be like the first time. Because you’ve wiped out my past with Henry just by loving me.”

Her words reached deep inside him, touching his very soul. He took her face between his hands, his long fingers resting gently against her, searching her eyes that seemed to shine with such a fathomless depth of love, her lips trembling slightly. “I don’t know what to say,” he said, realising that simple words just couldn’t describe the feelings inside him.

“You don’t need to say anything. Your eyes are telling me everything I need to hear.”

***

Henry Lennox sat at the bar in Blues contemplating his surroundings in the manner of someone used to the far more illustrious and altogether trendier places that London had to offer. As far as places went, Milton wasn’t bad from what he’d seen of it. Bustling, rather impersonal, traffic choking up the roads in just the same way as it did in other parts of suburbia. He could well see why Maria disliked it. All dirt and chaos compared to the haloed grounds of Helstone village. Margaret seemed happy enough – defiantly so, determined to show him that she’d moved on with her life. She had been quite adamant about it in fact. Dogged. And as for this new bloke she was seeing…well, that was hardly likely to last the course. The man was her boss and was probably just leading her a merry dance, using her until he got fed up and moved on to the next pretty girl.

And Margaret was pretty – incredibly pretty. She hadn’t changed. She could still outstrip any other girl in Helstone – and probably most of the women he knew and socialised with in London too! But then, she’d always had an aura of class about her; she had never followed the pack, doing things because the other girls were doing them. She’d always done them in her own time, refusing to be hurried or bullied into any situation in which she wasn’t comfortable – and he should know. He’d spent weeks, months, doing everything in his power to lure her into bed when they’d first got it together. But she’d had none of it. She’d refused point blank to be rushed. The frustration he’d suffered at her hands had been excruciating but at the same time it had kept him dangling on the end of a bit of string, keeping him interested. He had nearly ended it once or twice when her rebuffs had got too much for him, but had never taken that final step. And even when he’d finally achieved his ambition of getting her into bed it was as though she had just accepted it as a natural progression in their relationship, perhaps thinking that it would paper over the cracks that had already begun to develop between them.

When he’d applied for and secured that job with Boucher Incorporated he had been met with a frosty reception to his news. He had even asked her to go with him, but she’d had none of it. She’d effectively refused to leave Helstone. It seemed ironic to him that only eight months later she was here in Milton. Still beautiful, but not the girl he’d known for so many years in Helstone. And attached to this bloke who obviously wanted some casual fling to help pass the time away.

“Hello! What can I get you?” Henry heard the barmaid say with a friendly tone just a little further along the bar from where he was sat.

“I’ll have an orange juice please.”

“Ice?”

“Thank you.”

Henry glanced up with idle curiosity, seeing the unmistakable admiration in the barmaid’s eyes, hearing her simper as she chatted to the man she was serving. She was flirting with the man in a way that she never had when she’d served Henry. Compared to how she was now she’d been positively tepid!

Extending the scope of his vision, Henry’s eyes turned towards the man who stood along the bar from him. He was taking a ten pound note out of his wallet to give the barmaid, telling her to have a drink herself, his dark head lowered. Tall, athletic, with strong proud shoulders, kitted out in a rather well tailored black suit and a white shirt he’d unbuttoned at the neck, it was little wonder the barmaid had turned into some sort of foolish schoolgirl, Henry acknowledged with a fair degree of grudging.

Henry watched as the barmaid laid the change for his drink in the man’s palm, her fuchsia nailed fingers gliding almost imperceptibly across his upturned hand as she did so. “Thank you, Mr Thornton,” she said.

Thornton! Well, wasn’t that a turn up? The bloke who owned the hotel in which he was staying, the one Margaret had become embroiled with! A slow, malicious smile crept across Henry’s lips. He had no idea who Henry was. And Margaret wasn’t around to stop him from introducing himself was she? It was too good an opportunity to miss.

Henry raised himself up and picked up his drink, sidling down the bar towards Thornton. As he came closer, Thornton looked up at him in question, a frown penetrating his dark brows and narrowing his eyes.

Henry smiled, flashing his professionally whitened teeth. “Mr Thornton?” he asked.

“Yes?”

“I believe we have something in common,” Henry said smoothly, his voice friendly, concealing the dislike bubbling beneath the surface. “Her name’s Margaret Hale. I understand you know her?”

 

 

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