John was aware of every muscle in his body stiffening in immediate recognition as he took in the person who had seen fit to thrust himself so unexpectedly before him just at a moment when he’d been lost in thoughts about Margaret and the fact that she would be meeting him for lunch shortly. Now, however, as his eyes surveyed the smirking, tanned face that had ingrained itself so deeply into his mind like a malignant weed for the past few days, John realised that a right hand was being extended towards him. It appeared to be a gesture of goodwill even though it seemed to be distinctly at odds with the self-satisfied expression plastered inanely over Henry Lennox’s face.
“Henry Lennox, by the way,” Henry said, unnecessarily introducing himself.
John managed to somehow rally himself to shake Henry’s proffered hand, unpleasantly slick with the condensation from where Henry had been holding his pint glass. The gesture was brief, a faint nod towards a courtesy he far from felt. “I know who you are.”
Henry relaxed against the side of the bar, one suited arm draped carelessly along its smooth mahogany surface, his hand within easy reach of his pint. “From Meg, I suppose?”
Henry sliced his hand through the air casually. “I mean Margaret. I’ve never called her by that name myself – it reminds me too much of old women with perms who run the local WI!” He chuckled to himself at the thought. “And Meg’s anything but that, as you must know.”
“I can’t say that such a comparison crossed my mind,” John responded dryly, wondering just how many Margarets Henry had managed to insult in his time with such an insensitive remark. “Although I think you’ll find that the image of the WI has changed a fair bit over the years.”
The remark, however, went skimming straight over Henry’s head. “So,” he said with a familiarity John felt to be wholly incongruous. “How long have the two of you been seeing each other?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Well, considering I used to go out with her, I’d like to know she’s doing okay. And Meg’s being a bit tight-lipped and defensive.”
“Perhaps she doesn’t feel that it’s any of your business?” John said, his voice as cool as the ice jangling in his orange juice.
To this, Henry gave a short laugh of dismissal. “Oh, she’s just trying to be mysterious that’s all!”
John picked up his drink and took some of it down. “I’ve always found Margaret to be very open and honest,” he said.
“Have you now? I have to say I was surprised when I found out you were her boss. It’s not her usual thing.”
“Perhaps she decided it was time for a change.”
“Maybe.” Henry swilled back the contents of his glass and raised it aloft to indicate to the barmaid that he wanted a refill. “So are the two of you serious?”
“Why should that concern you?” He couldn’t understand what on earth had attracted Margaret to such a man in the first place – to someone who, even with his expensively tailored suit and good looks, still managed to appear somewhat vacuous and unrelentingly arrogant.
Henry shrugged nonchalantly as the barmaid took his glass away to one of the pumps in order to pour in more lager. “Well, in my experience of Meg, she’s always been a bit slow to come to the boil, if you know what I mean.” The barmaid put Henry’s refilled glass onto the bar beside him and, having received the money for it, sauntered away again to see to someone else who’d just come in. “You might be in for a long wait, that’s all I’m saying.”
“Is there a point to this conversation?” John said with ennui, doing everything in his power to retain a blank, impassive expression, determined not to rise to the bait that Henry was swinging deliberately before him, almost willing him to react. To retaliate, however, would mean plummeting into those murky depths occupied by Henry and he had no wish to be there.
“The extent of your interest in her is probably going to be pretty short-lived, isn’t it?” Henry went on. “And let’s face it, the chase is all very well, but you want to see an end result don’t you?”
“I’m absolutely certain that our ideas of what constitutes an end result would differ greatly,” John replied, dispassionately.
“Oh, I doubt that. Dress it up all you like, you can’t deny you don’t want her can you?” Henry nodded then in the direction of the barmaid who was safely out of earshot. “She’s not adverse to your charms either – you could wave your hand and she’d be eating out of it given half a chance. Whereas, with Meg, you have to make it seem like it’s all her idea – spend time tuning her up until she’s ready to let rip.” He laughed loudly as if at a particular private memory. “And, believe me, she does that very well!”
Rage billowed up inside John, erupting into a rash of flames. He’d stood here, endeavouring to be civil, to maybe try to find some obscure redeeming feature in the man, but all he’d found was someone who spouted insinuation and insolence; someone who showed very little respect towards someone he proclaimed to still care about.
John clenched his fists, digging his fingernails into his hand in an attempt to keep his temper from rearing up with all its volatile might. The sheer willpower that it took to contain was immense, almost too much.
Henry met his eyes intently, the false charm dropping suddenly to reveal the snake lurking beneath. “I’ve known her a long time, Thornton, and I intend to get her back.”
The blood was rushing now, throbbing hard through John’s veins like a river of scalding lava, hellbent on nothing short of destruction. His long fingers tightened still further, clamping harder, biting remorselessly into the flesh of his palms. The image of Margaret swinging around in Henry’s arms in the street erupted into his thoughts, clouding his judgement.
“The best thing you can do is to walk away. Chalk her up to experience,” Henry added, cajolingly. “She belongs to me. She always has.”
The final nail hit the coffin with a loud, reverberating bang. Liquid fire travelled straight to John’s hand, burning through the veins, the bones and sinew, flaring to the very tips of his fingers…
Margaret’s breath caught into a stifled gasp of horrified exclamation as she entered Blues and glanced in the general direction of the bar to see the nightmare scenario that she’d known would happen at some stage threatening to play out before her. John and Henry were standing facing each other, squaring up, their bodies drawn up to their full heights which surprisingly, now she saw them together, were fairly evenly matched, the pair of them glaring at each other like a couple of warring lions…
Her attention fell upon John. She saw with alarm the bristling stance of unmitigated fury, the hand hanging by his side crushed into a hard, tight ball that she knew only to well had the power to launch an attack as devastating as a precision missile in the direction of its victim.
And all the time there was Henry: smiling that infuriating smile, almost willing John to react adversely so that he could prove some perverted point of his own.
Two men, she knew, whose paths would never have crossed if it hadn’t been for her, their hatred for each other markedly palpable…
It seemed to Margaret that she was back in the stillroom again, walking in upon a scene that threatened to erupt into violence at any minute, one swing all it would take for the situation to skitter out of control. And just as she had in the past, she shot forward to stop it, to try and pull both men back from what they were about to do, all the time fearing John’s temperament when pushed to the extreme.
“Don’t even think about it, John!” she shot out accusingly, causing his eyes to jerk fiercely towards her, even as she achieved some rather surprised glances from a few people gathered around the tables in their immediate vicinity.
“What are you doing here?” John demanded, his voice rising slightly above its usual pitch. He appeared indignant that she should suddenly materialise before him like this.
She stared at him incredulously. “It’s one o’clock. You invited me for lunch earlier this morning!”
Realisation, having gone temporarily awry, came flooding back into his expression. “I’d forgotten,” he said, a little less severely now.
“So it seems.” She threw him an uncompromising and venomous look and then turned abruptly towards Henry, equally hostile in her manner, as he stood there looking more than a little smug by the stormy nature of the greeting he saw between the pair of them. “And you!” she erupted with a hiss. “You just had to stick your oar in!”
Henry was unrepentant, clearly enjoying the strife he was causing. “Just being friendly, Meg. Nothing more, nothing less.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Thought you might not. Never mind. We can work on that.”
“We’re not working on anything! I’m not interested!”
She felt John touch her arm lightly. “Come on. We can find somewhere else to eat.”
He had the gall to think about food! She couldn’t believe it! He’d almost sent Henry flying across the bar a few minutes before – if she hadn’t intervened! Her resentment towards the whole situation was so great that she spun about, shrugging John’s hand away from her with impatient abruptness. “I should just be grateful that this isn’t the nineteenth century shouldn’t I, otherwise you’d both be trying to kill each other with pistols or swords!” She was aware of the looks she was getting, but she cared little for the bemused glances. She shook her head. “I’m going back to work – I’d rather work my lunch than stay here!”
John watched as she headed for the door at rapid speed, like a startled deer fleeing its enemy.
Still smarting from what she’d said and her willingness to misinterpret the situation, he went after her, not even bothering to look back at Henry, not giving any thought about anything other than the fact that she was going in the opposite direction than the one he wanted, his dream of what he’d hoped to be a perfect lunch now exploding into thousands of tiny, jagged fragments in the air around him.
By the time he got outside, however, she’d disappeared. He couldn’t believe it, his fingers tearing through his hair in exasperation and disappointment. Where could she possibly have gone, for God’s sake? She couldn’t just vanish into thin air! The pavements were not overly busy on either side of the road, but he certainly couldn’t see her as he scanned for her retreating figure for a second and then a third time. A low, guttural groan of despair escaped his lips just as a woman pushing a child in a buggy passed him. She gave him a disconcerted look as she went by, as though she didn’t know whether to be curious or concerned. Let her think what she liked, he thought fleetingly. A stranger’s thoughts were nothing to do with him.
He began to pace purposefully down the road back in the direction of the hotel, eating up the pavement with his long strides, wasting no time at all. His heart was beating rapidly; he could hear it storming in his ears. God knows what he was going to say to her. He would have to make her listen to him somehow, although prising her away from reception would probably be an effort in itself if she had no intention of wanting to be near him. And he couldn’t just let rip, not in a public place, not when guests and other members of staff were constantly passing by.
“Where’s Margaret?” John questioned Bess as he appeared in the foyer, his face slightly flushed by the exertion of walking so briskly.
Bess looked at him in surprise, any awe that she may have once felt towards him now seemingly dispersed. “I thought she was with you.”
Of course, he thought. Margaret would have told Bess about them having lunch together. “She’s not come back here?”
“I haven’t seen her. Is she all right?” Now the concern came. He heard the tremor in Bess’s voice. She wouldn’t be looking at him so worriedly if she was covering for Margaret, he realised.
“She’s probably gone somewhere to find some peace and quiet,” he said, not wanting to alarm Bess but having no intention of wading through a myriad of details either. “I don’t blame her if she has.”
Bess appeared bewildered. “Sorry?”
“When she gets back, could you ask her to come and speak to me?”
“Of course,” Bess responded, still looking none the wiser, the worry still evident. “As soon as I see her.”
She spent a hour wandering aimlessly around the High Street, looking into shop windows but not really taking any notice of what she saw, wishing that she could just step back in time, back to yesterday, to earlier this morning, when she had felt that things between she and John had been perfect, when they had existed in a heady harmony that made her feel so unbelievably special. Only she couldn’t do that, she couldn’t magic herself back. She had to contend with the here and now, with the disappointment that had reared up inside her as soon as she’d seen John’s closed fist. He had looked so close to the edge, so ready to just let go. And she couldn’t stand the thought that he could have so easily have demeaned himself just by virtue of the fact that he often went into Blues and was known by some of the regulars there, as well as the staff. However, even though she might have stopped him, didn’t mean that her irritation had abated towards him. She was still angry with him for allowing himself to be drawn in by anything Henry might have said in the first place.
When she finally returned to the hotel, deciding that she would have as little as possible to do with John for the remainder of the day, she was greeted by Bess dutifully delivering a message from John that he’d given to her when he’d come back to the hotel after their non-existent lunch.
“He’s got another thing coming if he thinks I want to speak to him!” Margaret replied, sharply. She flung her handbag haphazardly into her locker, creating a quivering crash against the metal back as she did so. “I’m not sure I actually want to see him again!”
Bess frowned. “What on earth’s happened?”
“I went to meet John for lunch and found him with Henry. You should have seen John – he was fuming. He looked as though he was about to hit him.” She shook her head, even as Bess gaped at her in horror. “I don’t know what Henry was saying but nothing would have warranted John hitting him. Nothing!”
“But it’s not as if John has a violent nature, is it?” Bess replied, finally finding her voice to speak, her words making Margaret grimace. “Why do you look like that?”
“The first time I ever saw John Thornton was just at the point when he was about to hit his brother-in-law,” Margaret said, wincing at the memory.
Bess’s mouth fell agape, shocked by Margaret’s admission. “Steven? His sister’s husband?”
Margaret nodded. “And when I saw him earlier it was as if I was just about to watch the action replay. It was awful.”
“Would one of you care to tell me why there is no one on reception?” The stern, detrimental tones of Mrs Thornton resounded through the reception office, making both Margaret and Bess jump and putting an end to their conversation in an instant. Those dark, scathing eyes surveyed them both from the open doorway. Margaret was uncertain just what might have been overheard, although just the thought that Mrs Thornton might have caught a snatch of what they’d been discussing made her uncomfortable. Not that she’d show Mrs Thornton that; proud defiance was her only weapon. “Perhaps one of you would have the courtesy to enlighten me?”
“I just came in to get some brochures from the cupboard – we’re running a bit low,” Bess said in slightly faltering tones, indicating to the place where all pamphlets were stored in their respective boxes to be taken out as and when they were required.
“I suggest you get on with it then,” Mrs Thornton replied, staunchly.
Bess nodded and moved quickly to the cupboard to retrieve a stack of brochures in question before fleeing the room to resume her position behind reception, leaving Margaret and Mrs Thornton alone.
“I was under the impression that you were actually supposed to be having lunch with my son,” Mrs Thornton said, pushing the door separating the office from the main reception shut.
“I cancelled it,” Margaret said, raising her chin, determined not to be interrogated like a criminal.
Mrs Thornton gave a grunt of derision. “It’s a pity you didn’t tell him that.”
Margaret looked at the older woman standing there in her dour black clothes, her face gaunt and agitated, the lips drawn into a hard, thin line. “Have you spoken to him?”
Margaret’s words were obviously unexpected – as though Mrs Thornton didn’t expect to find herself being questioned. Those dark eyes riveted upon Margaret with icy wariness. “I’ve just come from his office. He’s sitting up there giving the impression of working but it’s clear that his mind is on something else – just as it has been from the day you stepped foot in this place. He needs peace – not you blowing hot and cold, not knowing from one day to the next what it is you really want.”
“I don’t know what you think you know about my relationship with your son but you obviously don’t know very much at all! Just because I’m not your choice doesn’t mean to say that I’m not his!”
“You’d do well to remember who you’re talking to,” Mrs Thornton replied, sharply.
“I know very well who I’m talking to! A mother who doesn’t want her son to be happy!”
“How dare you!”
“How dare you!” Margaret retorted, knowing that she’d overstepped the mark, that she’d been unforgivably rude to the woman who had the power to terminate her employment in the hotel there and then if she wished. But Margaret wouldn’t give her the chance if she could help it. “I’m not listening to this anymore!”
Blindly, carried along on a wave of ever-increasing emotion, Margaret charged past Mrs Thornton, her eyes fixed on the path ahead, out into reception and out into the foyer where she headed for the stairs, her only aim to go and demand of John exactly what he’d said to his mother.
She caught sight of him along the first floor corridor, leaving one of the guest bedrooms. Probably checking up on the chambermaids at his mother’s insistence, she thought to herself bitterly. Perhaps she wasn’t the only person who would have been sacked by the end of the day.
“John!” Her voice carried along the hushed corridor like thunder and she saw him glance up, at once in relief and then with cold indifference, the muscles on his face tightening even as she came nearer to where he had stopped just outside the room. “What have you been saying to your mother about me? I’ve just had her in reception laying down the law!”
He took one look at her irate face and quickly turned to unlock the door from which he had just emerged, before grabbing her arm and dragging her inside, slamming the door with a crash as soon as she was clear of it. There was a flash of dangerous intent in his stark eyes as they came to rest upon her.
“Tell me what’s been going on,” he demanded, grasping both her shoulders between his hands, overshadowing her from his lofty height. “And don’t you dare go silent on me now!”
“She’s virtually accused me of leading you on!” she shot back. “Why would she think that, John? What makes her think that I’m not good enough for you?”
He raised his eyes to the ceiling and took a sharp intake of breath. “Why the hell are you listening to her? You know she’s never going to be satisfied with the person I choose to be with! But the fact remains that it’s my choice alone as to the person I want to have a relationship with! At the end of the day it’s no ones business but mine!”
“Don’t be so petulant.” He released her shoulders and dug his hands into his trouser pockets, vaguely shaking his head, looking decidedly jaded.
“And you’re not? I saw you standing there at that bar, ready to prove to Henry just what sort of person you are! I saw you, John! I know what you wanted to do!”
“You know as well as I do that wanting to do something and actually following those actions through are two different things. I’ve told you that before.” The first echoes of deep regret threw a mist across his eyes, shrouding the emotions that lay there. His voice had significantly calmed, the desire to shout fading away.
“Henry isn’t even worth the hassle.”
His mouth twisted into a contorted half-smile. “I know he’s not.”
“But you still listened to him!”
“I was trying to be civilised! You have a past and I can’t do anything about that, however much I’d like to erase it from existence.”
“But you still thought you’d hit him anyway?” she snapped
“No! Do you think I’d risk losing you like that? Let him get the better of me? For God’s sake, Margaret, you should know me better than that!”
He reached up, touched her cheek, a light vanishing in his eyes as he saw her flinch away irritably.
She saw the effect that her actions had upon him. She saw his hurt as she pulled herself out of his reach, even though part of her wanted to just sink into his arms, to have his hands caress her as they had in the park, at her parents’ house. Every part of her wanted to be close to him. And yet, she wouldn’t allow herself to just melt passively into him and submit herself to the tenderness that she knew him so capable of. She was too annoyed, too wound up by the fact that somehow Henry had again managed to disrupt her happiness.
“Margaret, don’t shut me out,” John was saying, reminding her of what she’d once implored of him, again raising his hand, again trying to touch her, to make some sort of physical contact with her.
She shook her head, her expression sullen, her arms hanging limply at her sides, nowhere near him. If she could have dissolved into the wall she would have done so. “Will you talk to your mother?” she questioned, archly.
He sighed tiredly. “I’ll talk to my mother.”
“What about Henry?”
“What about him?”
“What are we going to do about him?”
“Ignore him?” she screeched.
“Why not? What’s the point in being dragged any further into the games he’s playing when all they do is upset you and cause friction between us?” His eyes softened. “Look at what he’s managed to achieve in the space of a few hours, the two of us at each other’s throats. It’s what he wants. You know that yourself. And, besides which, he’ll be heading back to London soon and we won’t have to worry about him again.”
“Until he comes back!”
“He won’t come back,” John said, with unbelievable conviction.
Margaret met his eyes, not understanding how he could sound so certain. “You don’t know that.”
“Trust me,” he said. He took a purposeful step towards her, clearly intent on dispensing with any further mention of Henry. His blue eyes flashed with the ardour that was always there, always present just beneath the surface. “Now, Miss Hale,” he began in a low, seductive voice that alone began to melt her icy demeanour. “I think we have some making up to do, don’t we?” He leaned forward, his arms going about her and pulling her towards him. She didn’t react, didn’t try to push herself away, just stood there, her arms still at her sides. “Put your arms around me.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Yes you do.”
“You can’t read my thoughts, John Thornton, however much you might like to think you can!”
To this he caught hold of her arms and brought them up to his neck, placing them on either side. She didn’t protest but nor did she help him. “I think that’s what you wanted to do, wasn’t it?” She had no intention of admitting it. She watched as his lips moved towards hers, her eyelids flickering instinctively shut as she prepared to meet his kiss. “Kiss me,” she heard him growl as his lips hovered over hers, not quite making contact with her. “Stop being so stubborn and kiss me.”
“No.” Her voice betrayed the fact that she was deliberately trying to provoke him with her determination not to do what he wanted.
“Don’t say no,” he said, his mouth falling upon hers in a glory of blazing vehemence, parting her lips with a groan as she instantly and involuntarily began to respond, all her morosity seeping away from her at just one touch, the fire lighting, quickly inflaming them both with its heat. He propelled her backwards so that her back was flush against the closed door, his hands beginning to move over her, finding their way to the lapels of her suit jacket and pulling them out towards her shoulders.
“Do you love me, Margaret?” he asked, reaching up to her hair automatically to do away with its restraints, before thinking better of it and reluctantly removing his hand so as to retain its neat, rigid style. He pressed his splayed fingers against her back, holding her against him.
“Yes…” she breathed, well aware of her body’s rhythm beginning to change, to move more impatiently.
“I love you.”
She was on the brink of losing herself in him, her breath hot, burning like his, all her anger that had been building up inside her since seeing him with Henry and then the confrontation with his mother finally exploding inside her, the sparks created leaping from her like a firework. “I’ve got to go back to work,” she choked. “I shouldn’t even be in here with you like this.”
For a brief moment, as he gazed down at her, he seemed slightly disorientated. Then he laughed softly as he dropped little kisses onto her face, his hands holding her loosely at her hips. “You work for me. It’s up to me when I let you go.”
“Bess will be sending out a search party if we’re not careful.” But she closed her eyes, putting her hands into his hair to make him lengthen those chaste, peppered kisses.
“Bess wouldn’t do that. She understands how I feel about you,” he rasped when he at last moved away from her mouth. It felt swollen, she realised. Swollen from the passion caused by too much kissing – if ever he could kiss her too much. “But I suppose we shouldn’t take advantage of her friendship with you,” he continued, reluctantly.
“No we shouldn’t. Now let me go, Mr Thornton. You’ve kept me here long enough.”
Ruefully, he did as she requested, his arms falling away from her with an almost excruciating unwillingness. He peered down at her wistfully, longing for privacy and time alone with her, knowing both were impossible at this time of the day. “I’ll see you later?” he asked.
“We’ll see.” She manoeuvred herself swiftly and opened the door, blowing him a final kiss before suddenly she was gone.
She bit down on her bottom lip.
It was the only way.
She sat in the reception office, her handbag beside her on the table in readiness to leave now that her shift had ended, and scribbled out a short note to John. Once she’d done it she put it in an envelope and sealed it, putting it in the In-Tray on her way out, knowing that he would scoop it up along with everything else when he passed by reception later on in the afternoon.
He threw the contents from the In-Tray he’d just been down to retrieve onto his desk, walking over to the window and peering down at the world that spread out beneath and before him, seeing the trains passing at regular intervals through the station close by, buses rumbling along the streets, fighting with the traffic to be free of the inevitable congestion, sirens wailing impatiently as emergency vehicles endeavoured to part the traffic to continue on their way. He had grown up with this scene, with these streets. He knew all the sounds, the visage of the town as familiar to him now as his own face. He couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
Drawing in his breath he returned to his desk and sat down, beginning to methodically work through the papers before him. Most of it was just messages asking him to return phone calls, delivery notes and a batch of invoices to be sent off to businesses where their staff had been staying at the hotel, together with several invitations to various evenings to do with the local tourist office that he knew he would have to attend. Then an envelope caught his eye. It was sealed but the writing on the front he recognised with some surprise to be Margaret’s. His heart jumped in his chest as he slid his fingers under the seal and tore it open, his hands starting to slightly tremble as he did so.
He pulled out a folded piece of paper and opened it, devouring the words she’d written, realising with dawning horror that with every sweep of the pen there was contained the message that she had gone away:
“Call me a coward for leaving like this, but I couldn’t find the words to tell you.
I’ve swapped a couple of my shifts with Bess so there will be no problem in finding someone to fill in for me. I didn’t want to leave you in the lurch, although I suppose I am just by leaving, aren’t I? Creeping away without even saying goodbye. The trouble is, I wouldn’t have been able to leave you had I seen you first. I wouldn’t have had the willpower to walk away – and that’s what I need to do, for a little while at least. Henry coming back has caused nothing but upset. I can’t explain what I’m feeling. I wish I could. I’ll be away for several days. I tell myself it isn’t a long time, but who am I trying to deceive? You? Me? Both of us? All I know is that every day will feel like an eternity without you…”
He stared down at the handwriting, watching as the words merged together, becoming black indecipherable blotches on the page. He didn’t understand what had happened, why she’d decided to leave so abruptly, especially without telling him first. He had thought – perhaps foolishly – that things had been repaired to some extent between them after the incident with Henry in Blues, and yet her note seemed to tell him something else entirely. He let the paper slip from his fingers and flutter to the desk with a sigh as he buried his head in his hands and fought back the overpowering inclination to cry like a child.
She hadn’t even told him where she was going or what time she was even planning to leave Milton. She had probably assumed that he would go after her and try to stop her…Well, she was right about that, he thought. He would have done exactly that. He would have physically hauled her off a train or out of a car had he got to her before she had managed to leave. He would have held on tight and refused to let her go.
But she hadn’t even given him that opportunity. She had known very well what time he’d come downstairs to retrieve stuff from the In-Tray, otherwise she wouldn’t have risked leaving it in there for him to find.
Into the silence of his office came the sound of one word, every consonant and vowel like a dart lancing his heart with bitter regret. “Margaret.”
“Is Bess still here?” John demanded, his eyes resting on Melanie as she stood at reception sorting through some papers. “I know her shift finished a while ago but is she waiting for Nick to finish up in the kitchen?”
Melanie’s head snapped up at the sound of his voice. “She’s still in the office, yes,” she said, appearing confused. “Do you want me to get her for you?”
“If you could. And then can you take this down to the kitchen for me. I know Nick’s been waiting for it.” He thrust a piece of paper containing the latest information concerning the Mill Owners Dinner into Melanie’s hand as he entered reception and waited for her to go and fetch Bess from the room beyond. Almost immediately Bess appeared, looking surprised and uncertain as she saw him waiting for her.
“I’ll just take this down to Nick then,” Melanie said, her eyes darting curiously between the pair of them before heading towards the kitchens.
John stepped forward. “Do you know where Margaret’s gone, Bess?” he asked simply, the strain of the day portrayed clearly in his eyes. “I know she’s swapped a few shifts with you, but do you know where she was planning to go?”
Bess shook her head. “No, no she didn’t tell me. She just asked to change shifts and then she left.”
“How did she seem to you?”
Bess shrugged, torn between saying too much and saying too little. “Upset,” she ventured, eventually seeming to come to the conclusion that there was no point in hiding what little she knew from him.
“She was all right when I spoke to her earlier,” he considered, a worried frown rumpling his brows. “She didn’t say anything to you? My mother hasn’t upset her again, has she?”
“Not that I know of.”
He nodded reluctantly. “Thank you, Bess,” he said, casting a small gracious smile in her direction before turning away and heading out of reception to go into the bar to ensure that everything was running smoothly, his thoughts beginning to whirl in anxiety. Perhaps he should give Richard a ring and see whether he knew where Margaret had gone? He ran his hand through his hair, knowing that he wasn’t going to rest until he saw her again.
As he entered the bar he espied Henry Lennox standing there, leaning casually against the bar, monopolising his barmaid, Lisa, with his superficial charm when she should have been paying more attention to her work and not leaving her counterpart, Duncan, to run around looking more and more like a headless chicken. Immediately, riled by just the sight of Henry before him, he felt his hackles rising.
“Lisa!” he called as he advanced towards her, causing her to spin about, her eyes as wide as a startled rabbit as they came to rest upon him. Her face flamed red, as if she knew immediately why he was so annoyed. “Will you get on with your work and give Duncan the help he needs, please? He can’t do everything himself.”
“Sorry, Mr Thornton.”
He gave her a curt nod and then moved his eyes towards the reptile propping up the bar. A smooth smirk greeted him. “Well, Thornton, you certainly manage to keep them on their toes don’t you? Nice girl too. Pity you had to ruin it.”
“She’s here to do a job, not to flirt with the guests.”
“I thought working a bar was all about flirting with the clientele, getting them to part with their money?”
“Not in this hotel.” He noticed Lisa shoot a quick look at him and when he met her eye she turned hers away quickly, looking increasingly uncomfortable.
“You certainly have a way with women, don’t you? One, it seems, from what I overhead of your conversation in reception, has done a runner and this one looks like she’s so petrified that she might possibly do the same. There seems to be a pattern emerging here, don’t you think?”
John ignored the jibe, although the realisation that Henry had heard his conversation about Margaret with Bess galled him immensely. “Excuse me, I’ve got work to do,” he said dismissively and left the bar, heading back towards reception.
“Wait a minute, Thornton.”
John turned and glared over his shoulder to see Henry standing behind him. “What do you want?” he asked, dispensing with any mode of civility. He was past that with Henry Lennox. Way, way past it.
Henry advanced a few steps, digging his hands into his trouser pockets. “I’m surprised you don’t know where Meg’s gone,” he said, his expression inscrutable.
“If I knew I wouldn’t be here.”
Henry nodded thoughtfully. “Tell me, Thornton. Is she really the “one”?”
John glanced towards the reception and saw Helena watching, obviously listening even though she was trying not to give that impression. He looked back at Henry. “I don’t think that’s any of your business.”
Henry shrugged nonchalantly, completely unfazed. “You know, it’s not rocket science – guessing where she’s gone. In fact, it’s pretty obvious if you think about it.”
“What are you talking about?” John demanded, feeling his patience dissipate entirely.
“I can tell you where she is,” Henry offered. “If you’d care to listen, of course.”
Every day will feel like an eternity without you.
She had gone to sleep thinking about those words last night after she’d arrived in the village. She felt intensely that aching void that separated them – the one she had herself voluntarily put between them, throwing up more obstacles, more barriers, at a time when she had felt finally free of them – feeling it so severely that she cried at her own stupidity.
Now it was morning, a fresh day beckoning, and she was standing before Helstone church, staring up at it, her thoughts drifting back, remembering snatches of memories that she’d thought long since forgotten.
She saw herself running and laughing as a young child among these very gravestones, pleased to be free of the constraints that had been imposed upon her by the church service she’d had to attend, until her mother had reprimanded her for behaving discourteously towards the people over whose graves she’d scuttled…Then, some years later, the vicar, Reverend Tandy, with his shock of white hair, his tanned face the texture of soft leather, placing that circle of rice paper in her eager, upturned palm as she’d received her first communion after being confirmed…While rain had knocked in a tattoo against the stained glass windows on a cold, February day and she had listened intently to her father give a reading to a congregation of mourners at her grandmother’s funeral and thinking to herself how well her father’s voice had risen and carried through the church, reaching into every nook and cranny, every shadowed place, with strong, clear tones…And her mother’s proud smile too as Fred had sung in the choir as a boy, his angel’s voice so distinct, instantly recognisable…
Just a church, Margaret thought now. Yet it held for her a bounty of memories, a proliferation of incidents and events that she had foraged away like nuggets of gold without even realising.
She ventured beneath the porch of the gateway leading into the church grounds, following the path, no longer the discourteous child, seeing that the headstones she’d once run between had become increasingly eroded with age and by the unpredictable tempest of the weather, fading the inscriptions they bore, making them almost indecipherable. The church itself stood before her, its heavy arched doorway half ajar just as it had always stood, letting people in, offering anyone who wished for it a sanctuary in which to spend time quietly, to pray if they wished, to contemplate.
Margaret didn’t go into the church. She went to sit down on a bench standing just in front of the church wall facing out onto the village, past the gate towards the pond around which the heart of the village itself was centred. From where she sat she could see a mother with two children, a boy and a girl, pointing out the ducks that glided across the water, creating soft ripples that fanned outwards as they went.
Home, she thought with a rush of sentimentality. Home.
But, said a tiny voice tugging at her conscience, how could it be when John wasn’t here?
He’d caught the rush hour that morning, just as he knew he would, the sheer volume of traffic hampering his progress to a frustrating degree when all he wanted was to get to her, to see her again. What made it worse was the fact that a lorry shed its load a few miles ahead and he was forced to leave the motorway at the first available junction and therefore try to find his way back onto it again further along the route. It took him longer than he expected, but when he had finally managed to get back onto the motorway he had been able to drive at a steady speed all the way until he had turned off at the junction that led towards Helstone.
Lush and verdant, the countryside spread before him in every direction. Idyllic and tranquil, a dazzling portrait of rural beauty and serenity, he knew now why Margaret had tried to keep a part of it with her in the dried rose she kept stashed away in her diary. He drove down a road that was almost a lane, narrow and winding, the trees that lined either side of it arching into a loose embrace above his head, creating a tunnel that extended ahead of him in a green blaze of natural glory.
He passed a sign at the side of the road, almost obscured by foliage, that told him that he was entering Helstone and further along, just around a bend, he found himself in what was the very hub of the village itself, the church off to one side of him, a scattering of chocolate-box style cottages, some of which appeared to be shops, dotted around a large central pond where a mother with her two children were watching and feeding the ducks.
He eased the car to a stop against the curb where no double yellow lines forbade parking and cut the engine, his eyes dodging about him. He had never suspected Helstone to be this sunny haven of complete repose. But, now he saw it, he could imagine Margaret here, growing up, playing by that pond, chasing around in the churchyard, that little girl in pigtails that he knew from the photographs in her parents’ lounge in Winchester Way.
But the young girl who’d run free around this very place had grown up, the pigtails had disappeared and a beautiful young woman had emerged like a butterfly into his life.
All he needed to do was find her…
Note: I have deliberately left a scene out of this chapter which will become clear in the next in case you are confused by Margaret’s abrupt departure.