The children standing by the edge of the pond with their mother began to cry as they realised that there was no more bread left with which to feed the ducks. From where she was sitting Margaret could see them clawing at their mother’s skirt, faces upturned, their high-pitched wails of disappointment resonating through the still, morning air.
Margaret smiled, the smile tinged wry and bittersweet. If only life could be as simple as that – that the only sorrow was in not being able to continue feeding the ducks…
Of course, when she’d played amongst these ageing headstones gathered before her as a child it had been that simple, she had herself been just like those children; everyday strife, if ever there had been any, shrouded from her by her parents who had striven continuously to shield her from the harsher sides of life. She had never once heard an argument between them when she’d been growing up; all she had seen was the devotion one had of the other. She had grown up with the idyll of a happy, felicitous marriage before her, the romantic novels that she’d started to devour in early adolescence, having taken one down from the bookshelf one day in idle curiosity, further fuelling that heady notion that love, when you found it, was something that stayed with you forever and was blissfully perfect in every way.
She had been ripe at that time for such romantic scenarios, riding on a precarious surge of hormones that seemed not only to change her very mindset but also to physically pull in her waist and push out her hips, moulding her body with invisible hands like a sculptor lovingly tending his work, giving her chest, so washboard flat all her life, a fuller shape which irrevocably altered her entire appearance and had the effect of endlessly fascinating Henry. She could remember how he had started to change towards her, his eyes seeming to follow her more often, covertly watching her when he thought she wasn’t aware of it. But it hadn’t been all on Henry’s side. She had spent hours dreaming of love. In the books she had read she had always pictured the hero with black hair and blue eyes, but in reality that ideal was clouded by what stood before her. She started to see Henry in a different light and it bred between them an awkwardness to which neither referred, a determination to hide what threatened to be exposed. She had intuitively known that they had teetered on the cusp of emotions that were no longer ruled by straightforward friendship, that those inherent changes in them had already launched them into a different sphere, leaving the innocence and uncomplicated feelings of childhood far behind.
Henry had been quite casual at first, taking her hand in his as they’d wandered home from school, or putting his arm loosely and casually around her waist as though it was the most natural thing in the world when they were standing together at a bus stop alone. She had felt both excited and disconcerted by his attentions in the beginning, a small part of her staunchly reminding her that it meant nothing because they had always shared a very easy friendship anyway. It wasn’t as though he’d never hugged her or held her hand before. The difference was that she hadn’t fully appreciated just what such seemingly innocuous gestures could lead to. The girls at school had teased her about Henry being her boyfriend, envious that one of their number had secured herself a boyfriend so quickly – the fact that she’d known him for virtually the whole of her life not seeming to make any difference to them at all. And when she’d casually mentioned to Henry the fact that her friends had the weird notion that he was interested in her, her face flaming all the while with embarrassment, he had merely looked at her and smiled. “Don’t you want me to be your boyfriend then?” he had asked her quite seriously.
In her awkwardness she’d laughed, laughed to try and break the tension she’d felt beginning to whir around them and sobering the buoyant mood that had existed between them before she’d perhaps too carelessly decided to mention it. They’d been lazing in the meadow just beyond Helstone under a vast, ancient oak at the time, the place they had always run to as children and now continued to do into their teens, led by instinct and old habits. On that day, however, it had become the place where their friendship had transformed into something quite different as Henry had leaned towards where she sat on the grass and put his mouth to hers for the first time. She’d been fourteen then and rather naively she’d thought that Henry was the love of her life.
“Like two peas in a pod.” How many times had she heard those words spoken over the years, following her like an eternal shadow right through the various stages of their friendship and relationship? From her parents – particularly her mother – and from Henry’s parents too, as well as those people in the village who had watched with benign fondness as she and Henry had grown up and become seemingly inseparable.
How wrong they’d all been. Her relationship with Henry, although thought of as a perfect match by many, had been, for her, rather like a rollercoaster ride – a rhapsody of pleasurable climbs and sudden descents into misery, a concoction of the worst and the best which they seemed to draw out in each other. She had allowed him to perpetuate her life. In many ways he’d been completely intrinsic to her very existence. When he’d left her she had thought she’d perish and wither like one of the roses in her parents’ garden. He had been so much a part of her life it felt as though a limb had been severed. And yet she’d found her strength, her sense of self – more particularly when she’d moved to Milton. What she’d assumed to be love had merely been about dependence and an eagerness to please, never about being the person who lived inside her at all.
If only Henry could have understood that things had changed. Understood and respected the fact that she had found someone else. All those sweeping statements proclaiming the fact that he wanted her back were, Margaret knew, just empty talk. She suspected them to have no foundation; they were pure whim, a desire to score some points by proving to himself that he could win her back. And yet, if he’d cared – really cared – he would have respected the fact that they could never revisit the past. Or rather the Henry she remembered would have realised that. The Henry of now understood nothing of sensitivity or finesse or respect. He cut a too selfish and self-centred figure with his superficial ways.
And because she’d dismissed any idea of resuming a relationship with him he had tried to hurt her…
Margaret saw the mother bend down to her two small children and say something, before taking their hands in each of hers and leading them away from the pond, off in the direction of the Post Office, which doubled as a general store-cum-newsagent. There had been a time, during the early days of her relationship with Henry, when she had thought that they’d eventually get married and have children of their own, that they’d raise them as they had themselves been raised, in the village, allowing them the freedom to run and explore in the way that they had. Now she smiled as she watched the mother leading her children away, all of them unaware of the fact that she was following their progress so closely from her solitary position.
Once upon a time that had been herself and Fred walking with their mother, skipping along beside her, laughing, excited by the prospect of sweets in the offing. Once upon a time, she thought wryly…the opening of every fairytale she had ever read, epitomising love conquering everything thrown at it. The promise of forever when all the demons had been slain in those final words: And they lived happily ever after.
For she and Henry there had been no happy ever after. And after yesterday afternoon there never would be…
A shadow crawled insidiously across her thoughts, eclipsing the nostalgia, cooling her emotions. If only Mrs Thornton had not been in reception and hadn’t been there when she’d picked up the phone to find Henry on the other end asking if he could have a couple of towels because the chambermaid had forgotten to replace the ones she’d taken out that morning. If only it had been Bess rather than herself who had answered the phone, her instead of Bess who had been sent by Mrs Thornton on a quick errand to the kitchen.
Mrs Thornton had glanced across at her in question when she’d come off the phone.
“One of the guests wants a couple of towels,” Margaret said by way of explanation. “Apparently he hasn’t got any.”
“You’d better see to it immediately then,” Mrs Thornton replied, looking slightly perturbed by the fact that one of the chambermaids had made this oversight, her manner towards Margaret herself decidedly clipped and frosty after their altercation following the lunch that had never been. “You know where the towels are kept in the chambermaids room.“
As if leaden weights had been bound to her feet, Margaret had left reception to go upstairs to get a couple of towels for Henry. After what had happened at lunchtime in Blues she had been in no mood to see him. She was still annoyed with him for trying to interfere yet again in her relationship with John – all for no other reason than to make things difficult between them.
She’d found the requested items and made her way to Henry’s room to deposit them. The thought crossed her mind to just knock on the door and leave them on the floor in front of his door but she decided against it. It would be her luck that Mrs Thornton had trailed her and was spying on her from some unseen corner and would suddenly materialise if she carried the notion through.
Henry was quick to answer the door when she knocked, standing there with his blond hair slicked back from where he’d obviously just been in the shower, a towel – one of those he had purported to have been missing – draped around his hips, displaying his toned torso that had, just as she suspected, been honed by a rigorous gym regime.
Irritation flooded through her at the sight of him, instantly realising the false errand on which he had seen fit to send her. “It doesn’t look like you need these after all, does it?” she said, throwing the towels at him, making him lurch forward in a bid to catch them as they fell to the floor in a small heap.
“Sorry to be so unoriginal, but I wanted to talk to you.”
“There’s no way on earth that I’m going into that room with you – not when you’re dressed like that!” she replied, backing away from the door.
He laughed at her, clearly amused by her stubbornness. “Scared you won’t be able to control yourself, Meg?”
She could feel the flames start to burn beneath the surface of her skin. “I’m going back to reception.”
“Oh yes, the formidable Mrs Thornton is on the prowl isn’t she? When I came back earlier I saw you coming out of that office next to reception looking less than happy. She’s not your greatest fan is she?” Margaret stared at him, her thoughts whizzing with questions. How the hell had he managed to see her when she hadn’t even noticed him? Where had he been skulking to see and probably, knowing Henry, hear what had happened between herself and Mrs Thornton? Suddenly she was aware of the ground shifting uncomfortably beneath her. Henry opened his door wide to expose the room beyond littered with his things. “Perhaps you’d like to step inside for a moment while I have a word with you,” he said. “Or I could, of course, give our Mrs Thornton a ring to let her know that one of her receptionists has been rude to me? What do you think, Meg? How do you think she’d take the news?”
What the hell was he doing this for? “Don’t threaten me!”
“I’m not. I’m – how shall I put it – laying down your options. Personally, I think the former choice is the better one. I don’t fancy your chances when pitted against Mrs Thornton’s wrath.”
Margaret stared at him in disbelief, deciding that however he chose to act would be preferable to having to be in the same room as him. He made her skin crawl just being near him. “I haven’t got time for this! Do what you like, Henry!” She turned on her heels in readiness to leave but he grabbed her arm and yanked roughly at her, seeming not to care that he was hurting her, his fingers digging into her skin, and taking no notice of the fact that she gave a small yelp of pain as she tried to free her arm from his grip. He hauled her with significant force into his room and shut the door, barricading the only way out with his body. She stumbled back slightly as he released her, rubbing her arm where his fingers had been.
“Now, Meg.” He came towards her, predatory, his eyes flashing with intent. She felt her heart begin to jump in uncertainty, although the expression on her face betrayed nothing of her fears, of her apprehension. She glowered with defiance, forcing herself to look him straight in the eye and not flinch at all.
“Don’t come anywhere near me! We don’t have anything to say to each other!” she snapped.
He ignored her words, threw them away as though they meant nothing at all. “You know I want you back, Meg. You know that’s why I came here.”
God, he sounded almost reasonable, as though the whole thing was quite palatable! “I’m not interested! Why can’t you accept the fact that I’m with John?”
He put his hand to her hair but she jerked away from him, her arm reaching up to knock him away abruptly. “Don’t touch me!”
“You used to like it – once you finally let me.” His eyes trailed over her with rapacious insolence, virtually undressing her in the process, as she stood there glaring warningly at him, utterly determined to stand her ground, to find the quickest way out and just get away from him.
“What are you trying to achieve, Henry?” she demanded, raising herself up, tilting out her chin with defiance, taking a step back, to distance herself from him, although moving further away from her point of escape. Her eyes didn’t leave his face.
He studied her pensively. “Come on, Meg. You can’t say it was all bad – that some aspects of our relationship weren’t very good.”
“I am well aware that it wasn’t all bad, Henry. But we wanted different things. You want a girl to blindly follow your lead and never think for herself. I don’t want to be in that sort of relationship – it has no substance.”
“And your relationship with John Thornton has substance does it?”
She shook her head, refusing to be drawn into a discussion about John. “Just leave me alone, Henry. Go back to London. I’m sure you’ll find some dim-witted girl to cling on to your every word!”
A second too late she saw the flash of anger in his face as he pulled her abruptly against him, the swiftness of his actions giving her no chance to react, his mouth groping clumsily and insistently for hers, even as her head swivelled instinctively in a bid to avoid it. Yet he held her to him with remorseless pressure, his grip too firm and unrepentant to allow her the leeway to escape. His mouth caught hers possessively, hungrily, even as she writhed against his touch, wanting none of it, repelled by the recklessness that drove him to act in such a way. Her mind spun. How could he even think to do such a thing? It was wrong, completely wrong! Surely he knew that?
“Henry –! Don’t!” She thrust her hands hard against his chest and pushed, pushed as firmly and as forcefully as she could manage, unlatching herself with an effort from his arms. She stepped back awkwardly, putting some distance between them, aware of her own rasping breath as well as his merging noisily in the air around her.
“Come on, Meg. Don’t get all precious on me,” he began somewhat impatiently, moving forward as if to resume what he had started, his eyes sparking with a desire that seemed to her wholly superficial, driven by the wish to possess and reclaim rather than by any feeling of love.
She shook her head vigorously, hurt and anger blending into a raging amalgam inside her, her arms extended defensively before her. “If you don’t leave me alone I’m going to scream blue murder!” she spat out bitterly, darting instinctively for the door before he could reach it. Only when she had her hand on the doorknob did she turn back to look at him. He hadn’t moved. He still stood in exactly the same place as she had left him, staring back at her in dismay, in sudden but unmistakable realisation of the error in judgement he had made with her. She drew her head up. “Don’t you ever come near me again, Henry Lennox,” she warned, her courage giving her the impetus to look him directly in the eye, to defy him still, despite the tears that threatened to fall. “Please, don’t ever come near me again.”
And with her words still ringing in the room behind her she had gone. Fled with tears at her own foolishness for allowing him to browbeat her stinging her eyes, her heart beating so hard it felt as though it would make a hole in her chest and erupt through it. She made straight for John’s office, wanting to be with him, but when she reached it she found that he wasn’t there, that the door was locked.
She made her way instead to the ladies toilets on the first floor to tidy herself up, managing to put her hair into some sort of order even though her fingers were shaking. How could Henry have kissed her? She wondered how she was going to get through the rest of her shift if Henry decided to deliberately come down to reception just to taunt her, knowing that she would have no choice but to treat him with civility and a respect she far from felt towards him now. Just his presence was likely to throw her – whether she betrayed the fact or not. God knows, she didn’t want to see him again! She couldn’t bear the sight of him!
When she returned to reception she acted only on those emotions driving her at that moment. When she questioned Bess about John’s whereabouts it transpired that he had driven to the hospital to pick up Fran and Steven to bring them home and still hadn’t come back. It was then she had made her decision, reacting purely on the impulse of the moment, of the need to get away. She asked Bess whether she could swap a couple of shifts with her so that she could take a few extra days on top of her usual two off. She didn’t mention Henry or anything of what had happened. She resolutely blocked him out, even though he was the overriding factor behind her desire to get away from Milton.
Her only option had been to leave John a note, telling him essentially nothing, not knowing how or where to start. Only that she had to go away for a while. The fact that she had left without saying goodbye to him hurt her the most. She imagined John reading her note, not understanding, not realising what had driven her to leave so suddenly, perhaps blaming himself, knowing that if he knew the truth then there would be no end to the anger it would unleash.
Now, sitting alone in the graveyard, listening absently to the plangent calling of a bird hiding in one of the ash trees dotted close by, she still had no idea what she would say to John when she went back to Milton. In fact, she wasn’t sure how she would ever be able to explain – or whether she ever could.
John climbed out of the car and locked it, stretching his body to ease the muscles that had been restricted from having to drive, feeling them loosen slightly, the tension in his neck beginning to slowly dissipate as he kneaded it firmly with his fingers. He ran his hands over his tired eyes briefly before once more giving the area around him a quick glance, his thoughts returning to Margaret. He had thought of nothing else on the journey. He had been listening to some CD that Fran had left in the car, too lazy to change it or turn it off, letting the music drift over him. It wasn’t his usual style of music, but none the less he’d found that some of the songs reminded him more poignantly than he could ever think possible of Margaret and the way he felt about her.
He didn’t even know whether she was staying with relatives or friends; he had left in a hurry and hadn’t thought to phone Richard and ask him. All he had was what Henry had told him yesterday; that she was – presumably – here in Helstone. He drew in his breath, shaking his head at his own impulsiveness and lack of thought in finding out more before he’d come charging down here, compelled purely by his love for her and the need to know why she had left him in the first place.
“You look lost, lad.” A voice, genial and questioning, came from his left and as John turned he saw an old man, his slightly wizened face half hidden by a grey beard, leaning against his stick, a temperate Labrador sitting patiently at his side.
John smiled in amusement. “You’re very perceptive considering that I’ve only just got out of my car,” he said.
“Strangers tend to stick out a bit.” The old man looked past him to the car and gave it the once over. “Looks like you take care of that. But I suppose you’re a bit old to be a boy racer now aren’t you?”
He never had been, he thought. “Just a bit.”
The man’s amiable, watery eyes, squinting slightly in the sunlight, narrowed slightly in curiosity. “What brings you to Helstone? We don’t really get tourists passing through in great numbers.”
“I’ve come to see someone,” John said, moving slightly so that the man wasn’t looking partially into the sun. “I’m just not certain where to find them.”
“Well if you tell me the person’s name I’ll be happy to point you in the right direction,” the man said happily, bending down slightly to pat his dog’s head absently. “I know everyone in this village.”
“Her name’s Margaret – Margaret Hale. Do you know her?”
The man’s face brightened immediately, the lines that scarred it with age seeming to almost miraculously diminish. “Oh yes, I remember Margaret. Such a pretty slip of a thing.” He met John’s eyes then, looking sympathetic. “But she doesn’t live here now. Her family moved northwards – to somewhere, oh, I never remember the name of the place. They did tell me, but my memory’s not so good now.”
“Milton?” John said and the man nodded, his dulling memory obligingly nudged into remembrance. “Apparently she’s come back for a few days’ holiday.”
“Well I haven’t seen her, I have to say.“ The man regarded John with deepening interest. “Do you know Margaret well?”
“I suppose I do, yes.”
“Well enough to come chasing down here to see her it seems.” The smile grew more profound. “Does she know what a lucky girl she is having someone care so much for her?”
“Are you reading my mind?” John laughed, wondering whether he had by chance come across the local soothsayer. He leaned against the door of the car and crossed his arms. “Because I know we haven’t met before.”
The old man tapped the side of his long, thin nose sagely. “I’ve been alive long enough to recognise love when I see it.” He shook his grey head. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be so personal. But if you’re the one who can make our Margaret happy then I’ll be very pleased. I can’t say I ever liked that boy she used to run with – a bit too lippy and full of himself in my opinion, although her parents approved of him as I remember. Everyone thought they’d get married, but he got other ideas into his head and took off for London. Poor Margaret. She was heartbroken.” His pensive expression lit a little then. “You’ll look after her though, won’t you lad?”
“If I ever find her.”
“Better try the pub. The landlord knows everything going on in this village because he eavesdrops on his customers for most of his waking hours. Come on, I’ll walk with you. I was on my way there anyway.”
Together they walked towards the pub, their pace slow and methodical, the dog moving obediently along beside her owner, keeping step with him. “The name’s Jack Short by the way,” the man said, sticking out his hand for John to shake.
The handshake was firm, hardy, friendly. “John Thornton.”
“Good to meet you John Thornton. Good to meet you.”
“Margaret, my dear girl!”
Startled out of her thoughts, Margaret turned her face to see Reverend Tandy standing there before her, his shock of white hair combed back from his forehead, dressed in his usual uniform of black shirt and trousers, his dog collar like a white flash at the base of his neck. He was smiling at her with affection and surprise.
“Hello.” She shielded her eyes with one hand as she looked at him. “I don’t suppose you were expecting to see me here.”
He wagged his head. “I can’t say that I was, but it’s a welcome surprise none the less.”
“I’ve come to visit for a few days,” she told him as he sat down on the bench beside her.
“Are your parents with you?”
“I came on my own.”
His brows rose as if intrigued by her admission and then he smiled benignly. “It’s nice to see that you still want to come back. It always seems to me that as soon as the young take flight they forget their roots. Life is very transient these days. And village life must be very dull for the young when the towns and cities have so much else for them.”
“You’re not telling me that I’m the only one to visit are you?” Margaret said.
“No, of course not. But I would say you’re in a minority.”
“That’s sad. I could never forget this village. It’ll always be special.”
“Never forget your roots,” Reverend Tandy told her, looking out across the headstones, some of them of people he’d known for many years and had had to bury; their stones a constant reminder of friendships forged and faded now with their passing, but never forgotten.
“No,” Margaret replied. “I don’t think I ever will.”
“A lot of your friends have gone off to find their fortunes in bigger places. There’s nothing here to hold them these days,” Reverend Tandy lamented. “It’s a shame because the young are the future – like you and that young Henry Lennox you used to be so taken with.”
Margaret felt her blood freeze in her veins at the mention of Henry, making her feel suddenly very cold, as though a frost had permeated the air immediately around her. She forced an acknowledging smile to her lips, feigning interest and indulging Reverend Tandy’s wave of nostalgia while hiding her own inherent prejudice.
“He’s doing very well from what his mother tells me,” he went on, thoughtfully. “She has high hopes for him getting to management level in a few years. I can see him doing it too. He’s certainly got the confidence for it.” He met Margaret’s eyes as she sat quietly beside him. “Do the two of you still keep in touch with each other?”
“Not really,” Margaret replied, knowing that she wouldn’t disclose anything about Henry’s visit to Milton or what had happened between them. “Our lives went in different directions.”
“To the disappointment of your respective parents, it has to be said.”
“The trouble is that we can’t live out our lives always in the way our parents wish,” Margaret said. “I know I couldn’t.”
“Wise words. So are you living the life you want, young Maggie Hale?”
“Let’s just say, I’m almost there.”
“So what made you come back to us?” he asked curiously.
She shrugged. “Impulse, nostalgia, the need to be somewhere very familiar. I wanted to be on my own for a few days to think about a few things. Helstone seemed to be the best place to come.”
“I hope you’ll not be a stranger while you’re here. My wife would love to see you while you’re staying – but I suspect that could be said for much of the village when they learn that you’re here too.”
“That’s a very sweet thing to say,” she said, touched by his benevolent words and the affection that threaded through them.
He extended one large hand and patted hers very briefly. “You forget that we’ve all watched you grow up before our eyes,” he told her. “We’re all very fond of you.”
The colour in Margaret’s cheeks grew suddenly rosier. “It’s good to be home,” she said with a fond smile.
Reverend Tandy nodded happily and rose stiffly to his feet, grasping the arm of the bench tightly as he levered himself up. “I must be off now but it was a pleasure to see you again. I’ve been asked to talk to the children in the school about my uniform – apparently it’s a topic they’re doing at the moment – and on my way there I’ve got to quickly drop some flyers into the pub for Cecil.”
“I’ll come and see you before I leave. I promise,” Margaret told him, knowing that she wouldn’t default on that promise, not now she’d made it.
Cecil Brady, landlord of The Ivy Leaf, a broad-shouldered man, with a belly that bore testament to a love of good food and drink, greeted John with a handshake and knowing smile when Jack explained what John was doing in Helstone. “Well, I can tell you she’s arrived. In fact, she’s staying in one of the rooms in the annex which we use for guests when they come here,” Cecil said, obviously gauging the importance of this titbit of knowledge as far as John was concerned. “However, her whereabouts at this moment I’m afraid I couldn’t tell you. She went out about a half an hour ago.”
“She’s not likely to have gone far, lad” Jack chipped in, patting John’s shoulder consolingly. “Have a drink with me while you wait for her to come back.”
Even though his first instinct was to leave the pub and try and search for her, John was acutely conscious of not wanting to offend these people who had been so welcoming and hospitable towards him and so he settled down to a pint, having bought a Guinness for Jack, deciding that if she didn’t emerge in the time he took to have this one drink then he would go and track her down himself. He listened as Jack and Cecil proceeded to tell him stories about Margaret as a child and how she had always been so full of beans, running all over the place, going off exploring with her brother or, more often than not, with young Henry Lennox who she’d always been with.
John felt his body grow tense at the mention of Henry, although nothing in his face betrayed the fact that he knew exactly who they were talking about. Instead he listened to their tales, laughed at their anecdotes, finding himself relaxing and enjoying their company. Being with them was like being that bit closer to Margaret. They didn’t even know him and yet they were treating him like one of them, embracing him with unquestioning friendliness despite the fact that he was a stranger. He thought of how many people, unknown and passing through the hotel alone, had sat in solitary isolation in the hotel bar over the years, their drink their only companion, keeping to themselves, watching the locals interacting with each other, never speaking to anyone but a member of staff when they’d traipse to the bar for another drink. And yet, here he was, a stranger, not so unlike those who stayed at the hotel, with people like Jack Short going out of his way to make him feel welcome rather than an outcast in their midst.
Inevitably they turned their attentions towards him, asking him questions about himself, about his background, eagerly digesting his words, ruminating on his experiences of having grown up in a large town where the main focus was on industry. The noise and bustle of Milton had been bred into his bones, he was proud of the place, proud of what he had achieved in building up a successful business there. He had enjoyed his share of trips to the countryside as a child, runs in the park, but, by the very nature of their different environments, it had never been to the same extent as Margaret who had lived for so many happy years in the very heart of the countryside. He knew that her childhood had been the ideal, the one he would wish for his own children. He had passed a meadow on the way into the village, its long grass entangled with the vivacious scarlet blur of poppies, where a massive old oak tree stood in the middle of it like a benevolent giant, and he had found himself imagining walking through it, children running ahead, calling to each other, Margaret swinging her hand in his beside him. Their children, he thought, a small, tender smile suffusing his lips, as he recalled how he had imagined the children in his future once before. His eyes, Margaret’s smile; the image beckoned him again with the sun-kissed radiance of a life he longed to call his own.
The door to the pub opened with a decided creak and John’s head swivelled towards it, his heart stopping in his chest in unbearable expectation, hope vanishing as he saw a man, the local vicar, come through it. Oh God! How much longer could he sit here, waiting, hoping against hope that the next person to come through that door would be the woman he loved? He caught Cecil’s eye as he looked away from the door again, his disappointment clearly portrayed to those sitting with him.
“I’m sure she’ll be back soon,” Cecil told him, encouragingly.
Reverend Tandy made his way to the bar with a handful of flyers and asked Cecil if he would leave them on the bar for people to pick up if they wished. He was, however, much more eager to impart his latest bit of news to the three people, one of whom was certainly a stranger to him, congregated at the bar. He beamed at them all, looking like an excited schoolboy. “I’ve just had a very pleasant surprise,” he announced, addressing mainly Jack and Cecil, although his eyes took in John too. “I was on my way here when I came across little Maggie Hale sitting on the bench in the churchyard! I couldn’t believe my eyes at first, but there she was, right as reign and just the same!”
Cecil and Jack both looked towards John who was already on his feet. “Go and find your girl, lad,” Jack told him. “Before she gets away!”
His feet carried him with quick, decisive steps along the road, his eyes focussed unwaveringly upon the church ahead, seeing the open gateway that allowed passage into the well-tended grounds where gravestones reared out of the cropped grass in a rather unsymmetrical manner, as though placed where they stood on a whim. He passed under the porched gate, letting the path guide him, searching frantically for sight of her all the while, his heart beating hard at the thought of seeing her.
As he reached the bench where the local vicar had told him she’d be he found her gone. He let out a low moan of exasperation, clutching his hands behind his head, lowering his eyes to stare blindly down at the ground. Why the hell couldn’t something go right for them? Why couldn’t she just have stayed where she was?
Despair rolled over him. She could be anywhere now! Gone back to the pub, where Cecil or Jack would be only too willing to relay the fact that he was in the village himself and looking for her, or, which would be more his luck, gone off for a walk by herself with no notion of when she’d be back. He drew in his breath and raised his head, trying to think of where to go next, only to find his clouded, despairing eyes coming to rest unbelievably upon the figure standing so quietly there before him, the sunlight harnessing the naturally woven highlights in her hair. His heart filled with relief and overwhelming love for her, his blue gaze transfixed, drinking in the simply cut, sleeveless dress that descended almost to her ankles in soft folds of fabric, the cotton made almost translucent in the light and revealing beneath the shapely outline of her legs. And she was there before him. A dazzling mirage, the bewitching perpetrator of every dream he had.
She didn’t move but her expression spoke of her pleasure at seeing him, her eyes softly glowing out at him, relieved and yet hesitant too. In silence he moved towards her, his arms that longed to enfold her hanging loosely at his sides, his blue eyes, the gravity and dejection of not a few seconds before, melting now to reveal open need and the unguarded disbelief that she should appear before him just when he had all but given up hope of finding her here. Their eyes melded, neither one looking away from the other. He stood before her, forcing himself to keep a slight distance between them. She had left so suddenly and he still had no idea why.
“What made you leave?” he asked, unable to stop himself from asking her, his voice soft and warm.
“How did you find me?” Her voice was just as quiet. “Why did you follow me?”
“Love,” he said simply, longing to just reach out and touch her. “My mother and sister think I’ve gone completely mad. Neither of them knew what to say when I told them I was dropping everything to come and find you.”
His words brought a crooked smile to her lips. Oh God, to be able to hold her, to kiss that beautiful mouth…but still he held himself back, needing her to instigate any physical contact between them.
“What about work?”
“What about it? I don’t think I’ve ever had a holiday and seeing as you couldn’t wait until I took you away, I realised I’d have to come and find you if we were ever to get any time alone together.”
“Do you think that sends the right message to your staff?”
“I’m not interested in my staff – only in you. I’ve told you that before. What anyone else thinks doesn’t bother me at all.”
She nodded slightly, brushing a stray hair from her eyes, and walked towards the empty bench that she’d not long vacated. She sat down, just off centre, waiting for him, her hands in her lap, her hazel eyes tacitly conveying to him unequivocally that he hadn’t made a mistake in coming to find her.
“Why didn’t you tell me where you were going?” He searched her face, eager for her words that would finally explain her motives.
She gave a little shrug. “Because you’d have stopped me.”
“Would you have blamed me if I had?” he asked.
“No, of course not.”
“Then why, Margaret? You don’t strike me as the sort of girl who runs at the first sign of trouble.”
She ducked her head, the expression in her eyes shielded by her lashes. “It was mainly because of Henry.”
He frowned, not understanding her hesitance, her reticence. “I thought we were going to forget about him and concentrate on each other?”
“I know,” she said, her voice very quiet, almost a whisper.
He ran one hand through his dark hair, vaguely shaking his head in bewilderment. Then he told her who had told him where to find her, hoping that in doing so she would open up to him, tell him why she’d come here, seeing as he did so her gaze raise abruptly from where it seemed to be fixed on the ground towards him once more, her eyes wide with shock.
“Henry?” she repeated.
He inclined his head. “He told me he’d realised that he was never going to get you back and that he knew that you loved me. He wanted to know whether – to put it in his language – you were the ‘one’ as far as I was concerned.”
She stared at him, seemingly at a complete loss. “I don’t understand.”
“He’s let you go, Margaret, although I found it difficult to believe. His change of heart was nothing short of miraculous in my opinion,” John said with no uncertain irony.
Margaret looked across the churchyard towards the pond. People wandered about, going about their daily business. The birds chattered around them like old ladies gossiping. “I saw him yesterday afternoon,” she said. “He needed towels because he said he hadn’t got any in his room. I had to take some up to him.”
John watched her intently, wanting to question her yet knowing he had to let her tell him herself, in her own way. He wasn’t going to start demanding explanations. Instead he sat in silence, giving her his full attention, letting her speak, even though everything she said ignited his rancour to boiling point. He listened in incredulous disgust as she told him about Henry kissing her, trying his luck with her to see if he still held some sort of power over her. With every word he heard his fury rose and he knew that if he ever saw Henry Lennox again he would find it difficult not to remember what he felt so vehemently now.
”…And after what happened in Blues and the -“ She hesitated imperceptibly, her thoughts flickering over the altercation she’d had with his mother, deciding not to bring it up again. “…and everything else, all I wanted was to just get away.” Her words were punctuated with remorse; he could hear it flowing through every syllable she uttered. When she met his eyes again he saw the mute pleading for restraint, even though she could read in his tense expression that he was livid. “He was only trying it on, John. It wasn’t anything more than that.”
“For God’s sake Margaret, he virtually forced himself on you!” John bellowed, his feelings erupting into a blasting tirade. “He had no right to do that! I know you may think otherwise but he’s assaulted a member of my staff – which, in case you’ve forgotten, you actually are – and that’s not something that can be swept under the carpet! You can’t make up excuses for that sort of behaviour – whoever he might be! I ought to report him to the police! You realise that don’t you?”
“No!” She leapt to her feet, taking a few steps towards one of the more weathered and crumbling granite gravestones, her back turned towards him. He could see the slight shaking of her head, her hair swaying with the movement, glinting in the light. “No. I don’t want you to do that! I know what you think but I don’t want to have to go through that! I have a history with him, John. It would be his word against mine!”
He sat watching her for a long moment and then got up and reached out to gently pull her around to face him, seeing her truculent face, the resolute expression that warned him not to try and make her waver, knowing very well that he wouldn’t force her into something she didn’t want to do. He would have to respect her decision, even though it was a bitter pill for him to swallow.
Slowly she met his eyes. “He knew he’d done something unforgivable, otherwise he’d never have told you where I was,” she said, grasping at this one solitary gesture of kindness Henry had shown, as though that might wipe away what he’d done to her.
“You think he suddenly developed a conscience, do you?” John grated bitterly, still unconvinced by Henry’s change of heart. The man was a menace; it seemed that nothing he did was done without some sort of ensuing motive.
“I think he realised what he’d done, yes,” Margaret was saying, seeming to choose her words with care. “He must have known that I’d never go back to him.”
“Villain turned good Samaritan? It doesn’t quite fit his persona, Margaret.”
She shrugged listlessly. “Stranger things have happened. And no one’s completely bad.”
“How can you stand there being so – forgiving?” John asked, his eyes narrowing slightly. “After what he did?”
“Oh John, I just want to forget him, forget what he did and concentrate on the man standing in front of me now,” she said, looking like she regretted having said anything, her eyes pleading mutely with his.
“What about when we go back to Milton, Margaret? If he made you run once –“
He saw the shaking of her head, the snubbing out of his question. “I know what I did and I know I let him wind me up – so much so that I felt that what I saw in Blues between the two of you was your fault and not his. I saw only that you wanted to hurt him – I didn’t even consider what he might have said to make you feel that way. I was angry with you and with myself for allowing him to try and ruin everything between us and after what happened in his room I just thought, go, get away, don’t even think about it. I know it was foolish – it probably made him feel as though he’d finally won one over on me because he’d provoked a reaction.” She moved her hand up to his cheek, stroking it with a caress as soft as a butterfly’s wings. “But perhaps it had to happen that way. After all, he told you where I was for a reason, John. He didn’t follow me here, you did. Maybe he knew I loved you – and that he had no hope of ever changing that. Perhaps he thought it was the only way to redeem himself. Please, can we just forget him? I don’t want to think about him any more.”
He put his hand over hers, imprisoning it, pressing her palm more firmly against his face before moving it slowly, hypnotically, to his lips where he kissed each finger in turn before reaching for her at last and bringing her against him, allowing, in that moment at least, the past to fall away, sending all the demons that had plagued them vanishing into the ground like rainwater seeping into grass. His mouth found hers, tentatively touching it with the lightest of kisses.
“I love you,” he whispered, his eyes penetrating hers, reaching straight to the very heart of her. In her eyes he drowned. “All I want is to make you happy.”
“You do.” Her arms slithered up to his neck and found his hair, her fingers sinking into its thickness. “And I’m sorry I left the way I did, about the way I behaved – without saying goodbye properly – or for not waiting for you to come back and giving you any sort of opportunity to try and talk to me about it.”
He read her remorse and in his mind he waved it aside. He had spent too many years clinging tenaciously to the past, to injustices and hurt. He couldn’t afford to suffer the same fate because of his feelings concerning her and Henry. He had to let it go. “I forgive you. How could I not?”
Her eyes shone with the tears that suddenly gathered there; tears of relief, of joy, of the fact that they were together. “I don’t deserve you.”
He smiled lopsidedly, knowing that she was all he ever wanted. “You’re here inside me, Margaret,” he said, putting her hand against his throbbing heart that, with every beat, ached with overwhelming love for her. “You’re every breath I take and every thought I have. I can’t imagine my life without you.”
A silent tear teetered on her lower eyelid and slid over it, rolling unchecked down her cheek. He reached up and stemmed its descent, rubbing gently across her skin to erase it, a lump rising in his throat, hard and choking.
“I can’t believe you came to find me,” she murmured, still seemingly amazed that he had come so far just to be with her, that the days, though they would have been few, that would have separated them too many to contemplate without each other.
“I love you – it’s as simple as that. I needed to know that you were all right, that it hadn’t been me who’d made you leave in the first place.”
“It could never be you, never you.”
Those luminous hazel depths submersed him completely. He couldn’t hold back any longer. Everything he felt for her came rushing to the fore and he kissed her with all the love he had been carrying around with him since the day he’d met her.
The air stroked them with the merest breath of a breeze. He closed his eyes momentarily, feeling the comforting familiarity of Margaret resting against him as he leaned back into the bench, his body and mind finally beginning to relax. Although they were set back from the main hub of the village, still he found it strange not to hear the endless drone of traffic passing, the surging of people bustling in the streets. All around him was an ambience of repose, of people quietly going about their business. It was like stepping into another era, where traditional values still held true, where people knew each other and cared for each other. Above him, in the vivid forget-me-not sweep of sky he saw swallows skim the air. In a tree close by came the cool, soft call of a wood pigeon, the song of a thrush. Their voices carried on the currents of breeze, imbuing further the sense of tranquillity.
He tightened his arm around her shoulders and she nuzzled against him, her breath warm through the cotton of his shirt. He could feel, on his bare arms where his forearms were exposed by his rolled up sleeves, the sun beating its heated pulses of energy upon him.
She was like a panacea, an elixir. Like drops of water merging into a stream, so he had begun to gather up the scattered shards of his life, to cast aside, with her help, the doubts and uncertainties and despair and find hope and the need and desire for love. What he had found was something pure and true in the most fundamental way. The turmoil that had raged so relentlessly inside him had finally been released forever when he’d conveyed to her the trauma of his father’s death; and now, although he knew that there could be a dozen Henrys out there and even more pretenders, he realised that she would never veer from him, this certain knowledge giving him an inner peace he’d never realised could truly exist.
Let it go, he thought with gathering optimism. Let it all go. Live only for the future ahead.
They didn’t move for some time, too content to just sit quietly on that bench together, just enjoying the closeness, Margaret’s head resting comfortably just below his shoulder, his cheek rubbing every so often against the shining lustre of her hair, the presence of the other all they needed in those moments when time stood as if suspended. Whatever happened in the future he knew that he’d never let her go, that he would never make her feel as though she had to run away from a situation. He wanted her close, with him, always and forever.
He moved his head slightly to scatter tiny kisses into her hair before tilting her face towards his to kiss her once more and he knew for the first time in his life, with absolute certainty, the path that lay ahead of him, ahead of them both.
After a timeless moment they drew away from each other. His loving gaze took in her face, every part of it so well known to him and yet always possessed of the power to take his breath away. Now, sitting here, he saw how serene she was, all her previous edginess smoothed away.
“Are you hungry?” she asked after a moment or two.
For a split second he very nearly told her that the only thing he hungered for couldn’t be found on any restaurant menu, but he kept it to himself. The last thing he was going to do was to put any sort of pressure on her, particularly after the way Henry had behaved. He forced his thoughts to the matter of food. “Where do you suggest then, Miss Hale? After all, you’re the leading authority on this particular issue out of the two of us.”
“Unless we drive into town there’s only really the pub in the village.”
“The pub it is then,” he said, getting to his feet and pulling her up by the hand.
They wandered hand in hand from the churchyard out into the heart of the village again, back in the direction of the pub with the idea of getting some lunch, pausing to watch the ducks paddling across the pond.
“How many times have you stood here do you think?” John asked her, squeezing her hand.
She shook her head, unable to estimate it. “Too many times,” she said. “But this time means the most.”
“Because I can share it with you.”
He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it, everything he wanted to say to her there in that one intensely brief but intimate gesture.
They walked into the pub to be greeted with delighted calls from both Jack and Cecil and virtually the rest of the pub too, who had been relayed the news that Margaret had come down for a few days and that her young man, whom she’d somehow neglected to bring with her, had come to find her. It took them some time to actually get to the bar where Cecil was waiting for them because Margaret found herself coming face to face with so many people she had known all her life and who wanted to talk to her, to hear her news and to learn more about John. There were also the questions about her parents to field, about her mother in particular whom a few still corresponded with on a regular basis, the links still holding strong.
“All the way from Milton he’s come,” John could hear Cecil telling someone who’d just walked in. “Got his girl though I see.”
John smiled over at the landlord, unable to contain his joy that he had indeed found his girl.
“Now all you need to do is hold onto her,” Cecil called across to him with a conspiratal wink.
They finally managed to sit down at a table and order some lunch, just enjoying being together, all their troubles put to one side.
“I can’t believe how friendly everyone is,” John said, shaking his head in amazement.
“It’s what you might call Helstone hospitality,” Margaret told him airily, beaming with unrepressed pride. “It never changes – at least it hasn’t since I was a child.”
“Well, they all seem to love you! I’ve been listening to lots of stories about you from Jack and Cecil this morning.”
Her hazel eyes danced with intrigue and suspicion. “What did they tell you?”
He couldn’t resist teasing her. “I’d rather not tell you. You might be embarrassed.”
“You can’t make such a sweeping statement and then refuse to tell me anything!” she laughed indignantly. She turned to see Cecil coming towards them with two ploughmans and narrowed her eyes accusingly. “What have you been telling John? Apparently you’ve been regaling him with all sorts of stories.”
Cecil’s eyes twinkled with mischief. “Can’t divulge what was said, young lady, I’m afraid.”
He put their food down in front of them. “Now, enjoy your food. You know how much we pride ourselves on it.” Then he winked at Margaret and went back towards the bar, leaving them alone once more.
Margaret ripped a piece of her baguette apart. “You seem to have wormed your way into their affections rather quickly,” she said. “What on earth did you say to them?”
“I thought you said it was Helstone hospitality.”
“I think this might go beyond that considering you’ve only been here for a few hours.”
“You should be glad they like me. Can you imagine what they’d have been like if they didn’t?”
Margaret sobered slightly. “Unlike your mother regarding me. I’m sure she thinks I’m some sort of floozy out to ruin her son’s reputation.”
John looked across at her and feigned seriousness, even though what his mother thought seemed completely irrelevant to them now. “Are they your intentions then, Miss Hale? To ruin me?”
“I don’t think I’d stand a chance,” she laughed. “I know you wouldn’t let anyone take what you’ve built up away. You’re too self-contained and self-controlled to be led astray.”
“Well, I struggle a bit when I’m with you,” he replied with unconcealed honesty. “In fact, all I want is be completely uncontrolled when you’re near me.”
His words set a chain reaction of incredible sensation pulsing through her entire body. She shuddered inwardly, in anticipation, in desire, in longing. She wanted to leap into his arms right there and then, to touch him, to feel his mouth questing hers with as much need as hers seeking his…
”And all I want to do is to throw myself into your arms,” she admitted, telling him at least a little of how she felt at this particular minute.
His eyes penetrated hers, his voice low, pensive. “Is that what you want to do now? Throw your arms around me?”
“Yes.” She picked at her salad with her fork, her mind on anything but the food in front of her.
“How much?” he asked.
“You know how much.”
“I know how much I’d like to kiss you.” His voice was tinged now with that low, deep, velvety timbre he so often used to convey intimacy.
She put her knife and fork down on her plate with a clatter, her appetite vanishing. How could she even think about food when he was saying things like that, implying more in the inflection of his voice than in the words themselves? “Oh John.”
“The trouble is that I don’t think anyone around us would appreciate it if I kissed you in the way I want to at this moment, so I suppose it will have to be a simple perfunctory peck on the back of your hand. Very chaste and proper.” His gaze rested steadfastly upon her, searing her, as he extended his hand across the table and laced her fingers with his, pulling her hand irresistibly to his lips, softly blowing against the skin before delivering upon it the briefest of kisses that made her shiver with desire.
For a subliminal second he watched as her long lashes lowered and her lips parted very slightly with the pleasure of his touch. He wanted more than anything to lean over and draw her mouth towards his now, to kiss her slowly, deeply, to feel the unbelievable thrill of her response, his need for her becoming increasingly difficult to repress. “It’s taking every ounce of willpower I possess not to act on what I’m feeling at this moment.” His eyes fixed upon hers, holding them captive. “You have no idea how hard it is, Margaret.”
But she knew. She understood implicitly what he meant. They were sitting in the middle of a busy pub, in the most secluded corner they could find, but there were still people around them and the words they uttered were almost whispered to avoid being overheard, but every part of her wanted him. Her thoughts raced as swift as her heart, the heat between them escalating with every second that passed…
He noticed the hot bloom of desire diffuse her velvety complexion, shading it a deeper pink than usual in the most engagingly seductive way.
“Do you want to leave?” he asked.
She nodded, her whole body beginning to throb at the thought of what was to come, of the direction in which they were heading.
He inclined his head in silent acknowledgement, but still he asked the question, needing to know for certain that she wanted the same as him. “What do you want, Margaret?”
She didn’t take her eyes from his, the words that carried from her lips spoken clear and true. “I want you to show me how much you love me.”
They somehow managed to slip out of the pub without anyone noticing, and those that did kept their silence, smiling knowingly to themselves as they watched the pair of them leave. They headed straight to the annex, silently climbing hand in hand the stairs that led to several of the guest rooms where Margaret was staying. As they reached the door of her room, John gathered her to him and lifted her into his arms and carried her inside, carried her as he had once done when she’d hurt her ankle and he’d taken her up to his office, carried her as he’d dreamt for so long of doing in his dreams, feeling now the wonderful reality of it, her body leaning against his chest with a gentle pressure he instinctively welcomed, her arms coiled in a slackened circle about his neck. And all the while her fingers twirled in his hair before moving down a degree, finding the sensitive area at the back of his neck, making him shudder inwardly, making his senses reel at what her touch could do to him.
Only when they were inside the room and he had locked out the rest of the world did he set her onto her feet again. Without a word spoken between them, he ran his fingers wondrously along the outer sides of her face, reverently tracing its outline before gently cupping it, his eyes plunging headlong into the dreamy mists of love in her eyes. He lowered his mouth to hers, tenderly leading her, the light, feathered sensations of those kisses growing ever deeper and more intense as the embers rekindled intuitively into life.
His hands lowered, tracing their inevitable path downward over her neck, his caresses moving across the cream cotton of her dress, its very thinness revealing to him the willowy silhouette of her body still hidden beneath. He skimmed the path of her concealed spine, causing within her a quivering frisson to dart rapidly along its entire length at his touch, quickening the rhythm of her heart, making her weld herself to him with impatient desire, as she felt the muscular strength of his body mould itself flush against hers.
“I can’t believe that you’re here – with me like this,” he murmured, releasing her lips from his very briefly, his face hovering so close that his dark hair fell forward to almost touch her forehead, his heart drumming ferociously with the heady realisation that this was reality, that she wasn’t the ethereal image of another dream that would leave him desolate and empty when it evaporated on his waking, leaving him aching for the very nearness of her. No, she was warm, living, breathing; her body responding innately to his.
In response to his words, she reached up and touched his cheek with the back of her hand, her soft, luminous eyes lit with more love than he had ever thought to find. His heart turned to see it. She put her index finger softly to his lips. “I love you, John. I’m where I belong. Here with you.”
“Oh Margaret.” He drew his mouth inexorably back to her lips, his tongue finding hers, as he guided her gently back, rested her softly upon the sumptuously plumped, embracing pillows, her long hair spilling across the cool linen in silken swathes.
His hand settled at her waist, the two of them laying as they had in the park, facing each other, their bodies so close but not quite touching, holding each other, their caresses beginning to become more insistent. It wasn’t long before he pulled her up to sit beside him and traced the zip down the length of her back, before letting the fabric fall away from her with a whisper. His heart almost stopped as his gaze took in the beauty of the landscape before him, affirming what he had known all along…that she was utterly beautiful…that she was so completely perfect…irresistible…so incredibly irresistible…
He tenderly traced those sensual curves with his fingers, put his mouth to those sensitised peaks, his tongue sliding and slipping with provocative grace, even as her head tipped back, her lips parted in a sigh of abandonment, her hair hanging away from her head like a dazzling mahogany waterfall. He could hear her shallow breathing, could feel the heat that sparked like flames between them. Her arms tightened around his neck, pulling him closer.
He could hardly see through the barrage of feeling she was evoking in him, desperately trying to keep some control over himself, to take his time, to cherish every second. She had sat herself more securely and now her fingers started on the buttons of his shirt, working their way down its length with deft determination, sighing satisfactorily as she freed that final button, her hands moving greedily to the bare skin of his smooth chest, feeling and delighting in the solid strength of the bone and muscle that lay beneath the surface, adding to the potently charged layers of desire building up inside them both and impatiently straining to be freed.
Her perfume eddied in the sultry heat of the air around them, heady and potent, dazzling him.
“Come here,” he murmured with unsuppressed passion, unable to hold himself in restraint any longer, needing the closeness of her as much as the air filling his lungs, pulling her down with him, their bodies touching, melting together, the full strength of their desires, repressed for so long, free at last to indulge, to savour, to delight in. “Come here and let me love you.”