Past & Present: Chapter Twenty – Romance and Revelation

It seemed to John that his heart physically moved in his chest as he woke to find her lying there beside him. Just to be able to look upon her, to know that she was so very close, was the realisation of all his dreams, a moment that was as poignantly perfect as it was deeply affecting. For the first time in his life he felt totally complete, truly whole and it was because of her, because her innate understanding and love had given him the freedom to love her without reserve, without barriers of any kind lying between them.

His heart swelled as he watched the gentle rise and fall of her body next to his, his thoughts drifting irresistibly back over those incredible hours that had gone before. Their lovemaking had been all consuming, intrinsically borne and unrestrained, a rich tapestry of vivid emotion, melding together the beating pulses of hearts and souls, touching so profoundly the very essence of their beings in a way that transcended simple physical possession. In her arms he had found himself. He had found her. They had truly found each other…

He allowed his gaze to travel to those rich, glinting filaments of her hair that draped with such haphazard grace over her shoulders and across the surrounding pillows, its very beauty entreating him to touch its lustrous length. Very tentatively his long, graceful fingers followed the imploring call of his heart and caressed very lightly the path of those silken tendrils, unable to help but remember how not so long before he’d plunged his hands into its luxuriously cascading thickness and held her to him and loved her with such wanton abandon.

He was overcome by the longing to rouse her now from her state of glowing repose and to relight the passion they’d shared, longing to feel once more the insistent pressing of her body against his own. The allure of her being so close to him was too much, almost painfully so; he ached to touch her, even as his hungry gaze took in those shuttered lids fringed by the beautiful sweep of long, dark lashes that fanned out against her luminous skin, before moving irresistibly lower to the curving swell of her breasts hidden beneath the protective embrace of the sheet that had managed to delicately and seductively wrap itself about her.

I never want to be without you, he called out to her in silence, wondering whether she would hear his words in her mind. I want to share my life with you…

Like a magnet he was drawn into her orbit, the power of emotion she kindled inside him too undeniable to be thwarted. He removed his hand from the tangled strands of her hair, the tip of his index finger lowering to the satin bloom of her cheek with just the breath of a caress, noticing, as he did, a small smile of pleasure flutter across her lips and settle there like a butterfly resting upon the petals of a flower. Deep inside he felt his need trigger potently into life once more, even as his arm snaked lightly across the top of the sheet and rested comfortably in the hollowed dip of her waist so that she shifted slightly, turning onto her side to face him, her eyes still closed.

“I love you.” His words echoed into the room, a guttural whisper too overpowering to lock away inside, dancing into the stillness enveloping them, trembling upon the air that emanated with balmy summer benevolence through the partially opened window, the view beyond obscured by softly billowing net curtains. “I’ll always love you.”

I want to spend the rest of my life with you…

It seemed as though she’d heard him, her smile deepening as she stirred towards consciousness. He watched, delighting in the pleasure of having her wake up in his arms, his breath wedged in his throat in exquisite anticipation, as she drifted languorously into the present. Below the covers her body stretched itself and then relaxed before her eyes finally opened, blinked into focus, and came to rest upon him, the limitless love that dwelled within those hazel pools making his heart flip and his stomach somersault with crazy exaggeration.

“Hello.” She extended her small hand impulsively and sensuously stroked his roughened cheek where the beginnings of black stubble had started to pierce the surface of his skin.

“Hello sleepy.” He caught her hand possessively in his and pressed his lips vehemently against her flattened palm, watching her intently from below partly lowered lids, his pupils dilating as he took her in, his face so close to hers.

“How long have you been awake?“

“A while.” His eyes held fast to hers.

“You should have woken me. I don’t usually sleep in the middle of the day.”

“Nor do I, believe me.” He smiled tenderly. She reminded him of a rose, radiating a wholly natural beauty that was innately breathtaking and had no need for artificial adornment. ”You look so lovely when you sleep.”

“Do I?”

“Incredibly so.” He splayed his fingers outwards, flush across the middle of her back, and propelled her closer so that she moulded herself to him and snuggled comfortably against the solid strength of his chest, each one feeling the warmth of the other, their arms encircling in mutual possession. For a while they lay like that, completely unmoving, lost in a timeless embrace, vaguely aware of the serenading of birdsong from some unknown place beyond the window, content to be that way, giving and receiving so much in just that silence as they held each other close.

This is how I always want it to be, John thought. The two of us together like this…This is what I want…

Her fingers began to create little slithery patterns of sensation against the smooth bare skin where her head rested next to his heart, so that he groaned into her hair, burying himself in it, breathing his hot breath onto her scalp. Just to feel the tantalising effect of her touch upon him, to feel the sensual innocence of this simple gesture…He couldn’t believe that she could affect him so.

“I can feel the vibrations of your heart, “ she said, lifting her head up to look up at him. “It’s beating very fast.”

“What do you expect when you’re beside me?” he responded as their eyes locked, that same rapid heartbeat she could hear pounding, roaring in his own ears like bursts of thunder. He raised himself from where he’d been lying, catching her shoulders and easing her back so that he was above her, staring down at her with intently probing eyes that burnt straight into her heart and set it ablaze. “All I want – all I need – is you.” His gaze lowered to her lips, so delectably natural.

She was staring up at him with her large, expressive eyes, her lips silently beckoning him to act, parted slightly as though she wanted to speak to him but couldn’t find the words, waiting for him though, waiting for him to love her…

It was enough. His mouth settled upon hers with such ethereal softness that he heard her tiny moan of frustration at the deliberate restraint he showed in not deepening their kiss, kissing but not quite kissing, touching but not quite touching, his lips whispering with gossamer prowess over that sensitised surface that sought desperately to draw him into interaction, before he moved away from her lips altogether and instead travelled the length of her neck and then further still, exploring afresh with his tongue, with his fingers, feeling all the while her own fingers raking across his back and into his hair with increasing urgency.

“I love you.” He kissed her mouth at last in greedy rapture, as her body arched against his.

An undeniable intensity stirred profoundly within them both, as powerful as the moon’s pull on the tides of the sea, their rapid heartbeats thundering against each other as instinct pulled them recklessly into those fathomless depths where nothing else existed beyond the other and where, once more, they so willingly drowned.

***

Much later, as afternoon gave way to evening and the sun began its gradual descent over the countryside, John dragged himself from the sanctuary where they’d been cocooned for more hours than he had even imagined possible.

“Your mother really will have something to say if I take you back to Milton looking like a half-starved waif,” John said with feigned seriousness, resolutely closing his ears to Margaret’s protests and her wish to stay exactly where she was, all the time knowing how very easy it would be to relent and just remain as they had been since they’d first entered the room.

“I’m not hungry,” she replied, dismissively. “And I don’t think one day will make any difference to what I look like.”

It took nothing but sheer willpower not to waver as she swayed against him with a provocative smile, her fingers moving to the top button of his recently buttoned shirt and eagerly unlatching it. He put his hand over hers to stop her continuing, clasping it firmly, while his other hand lifted her chin so that his brilliantly blue gaze could look down upon her. “I’d love nothing more than to stay here with you, but you need to eat something – whether you realise it or not.”

She seemed to realise that she stood no chance at all of altering his decision and resignedly reached for the dress that had been abandoned earlier in a careless heap upon the floor.

“Turn round and I’ll help you.” She obediently did as she was told and felt, with a shiver of sharp sensation, the light tracking of his fingers as he did up her dress. “There. All done,” he told her, his eyes scorching her with their undisguised admiration as he turned her round to face him once more.

Some ten minutes later, they finally climbed into John’s car with the intention of heading off towards the neighbouring town with a view to finding somewhere to eat, John following Margaret’s directions as she took him along one of those narrow country lanes that she’d travelled a million times before in the past and which wove like an unravelling thread ahead of them, winding this way and then that, the roadside speckled with the vivid fauna of assorted wildflowers growing amongst the long blades of grass. Beyond the verges on either side of the road, fields of wheat rolled away into the distance, surrounded by woodland that stretched into an embrace with the horizon. The light was beginning very slowly to leave the sky, throwing out across its now bleached backdrop the florid crimson and orange skeins of a glorious sunset in the western sky, the sun burning more intensely in its final death throes as it sunk ever closer towards the land.

Margaret sat silently looking out across the landscape, her bare arm flush against the bottom of her open window, her wayward hair tugging around her face in the wind. The sight of the countryside revived her, the contrast so stark in comparison to the endless buzz of Milton’s streets, the endless to-ing and fro-ing. She couldn’t deny that she was pleased to be back and to experience the village’s close-knit sense of friendliness and community, everything so much better and more magical because she could share it with John. It meant more to her than she could ever tell him that he had come to find her – that he had loved her that much.

She still wanted to pinch herself when she thought of the day that had passed. When she’d seen John’s solitary figure standing there before her in the churchyard this morning, his shoulders hunched and heaving in an attitude of despair, it had seemed to her that the sheer power of her thoughts had willed him there. And when he’d looked up, his eyes coming to rest in wonder and awe upon her, the breath had left her body at the all-encompassing yet tentative look he’d bestowed upon her. Never had love felt more real to her than it had in those moments of her joy at seeing him there, despite all her reservations about what he must have been thinking.

Unable to resist looking at him now, she turned away from the vista beyond her window, her hair flailing unchecked across her eyes so that she had to hook those fluttering strands behind her ears to clear her line of vision. Her gaze greedily took in the contours of his profile, the strong line of his jaw, the aquiline set of his nose, the skin that bore the rugged attraction of black stubble, before lowering to the alluringly powerful column of his neck that seemed to want to drag her fingers towards it so that she could feel it, kiss it, just as she’d done earlier. She wasn’t even touching him and yet she was aware of a profound throb of longing racking through her like the deep echoes of a base drum. She laced her hands in her lap, adopting a somewhat prim attitude that sought to mask the more torrential feelings surging beneath the surface.

His love for her was overwhelming, incredible, so utterly steadfast and unswerving. She couldn’t truly believe that she had found him or that such a person as him existed in real life and not just in the pages of countless novels that prayed solely upon the wistful romanticism of every woman alive. When he’d made love to her it had been just like the first time a man had ever touched her so intimately. In his arms she had blossomed like a flower, finally and forever claimed as his, all that had gone before extinguished like a candle catching a breeze. And he had known it, implicitly he’d known, just as she had, the revelation knocking them both sideways and adding a deeper poignancy to the bond they shared.

“Happy?” John’s voice broke the silence of her reverie, distracting her.

“Yes.”

For a sublime second her eyes caught his as he glimpsed across at her to acknowledge her reply. He took one hand briefly from the steering wheel and reached across to take her hand, interlocking his fingers with hers. Even this wholly innocuous gesture had the power to stir her emotions, to make her body react with pleasure, every subtle movement of his fingers as they rubbed against hers sending tremors through her, leaving her bereft when she had to reluctantly set his hand at liberty again.

John slowed down as they came to a fork in the road where it divided in two directions. Where the road veered off to the left there was a sign for a pub situated a few hundred yards along. John, completely oblivious to the torrent of emotion that was swelling up inside her, turned to her quizzically. “Do you know that pub?” he asked her, nodding towards the sign.

She nodded, endeavouring to focus on what he was asking her, and told him that she did. “I used to go there occasionally with mum and dad. It’s very quaint, very pretty.”

“Do they serve food?”

“They always have done in the past.”

They turned off there instead of continuing into town, heading towards a half-timbered pub with casement windows, a multitude of hanging baskets overspilling with scarlet and fuchsia geraniums adorning its picturesque façade. The pub itself sat decorously in the middle of the countryside with no other signs of inhabitation in the immediate vicinity, as though this was the only thing to remain of a community that might once have flourished around it. The fact that people had to drive to reach it was portrayed by the crowded car park, as they took one of two remaining spaces situated to one side of the entrance. Getting out, they instinctively reached for each other’s hand as they came around to the front of the car and made their way to the door to go inside. The chink of glasses and the buoyant jocularity of numerous conversations immersed them as they entered the pub and headed for the bar where they ordered their drinks and some sandwiches.

Margaret took a sip of her wine and waved her hand vaguely in the direction of a door off to one side of the room where a gaggle of people stood in a huddle talking with heightened voices and much animation of features. “Do you want to go outside? It’ll probably be quieter out there,” Margaret suggested, aware of having to raise her voice so that John could hear her over the clamouring intonations of other people around them. Just a quick scan of the room showed them that it was full to bursting, all the seats taken up. Even if there was nowhere to sit at a table outside they could at least sit down on the grass for a while.

“Lead the way. You know where you’re going better than I do,” John said, giving her a gentle prod.

There were several tables free in the gathering shadows of the garden, but it was John who led her towards a table at the far end where they could sit side by side facing the pub and the rest of the garden that stretched before them.

Margaret lowered her head towards her glass and the pale liquid that filled it, her hair drifting forward to shield her face from him.

She felt him gently push her hair back from her face so that he could see her. “What are you thinking about?” he asked.

“Do my parents know you’re here?” Her eyes rose to meet his.

His arm crept across her shoulders, holding her close. “I was in too much of a hurry to talk to them. I could only think about you. Nothing else entered my head except that I needed to find you,” he told her, his voice shot through with the anguish he’d felt when he hadn’t known for sure whether the trail he had followed had been the right one and not just some perverted joke of Henry’s. “I just dropped everything and left. It was probably one of the few times I’ve ever behaved in a fashion that completely bemused my mother. She’s not used to seeing me put work second to something else – especially a woman.”

“I can imagine,” Margaret replied with heavy irony.

“She knew how I felt about you.”

Margaret grimaced, thinking of his mother’s critical assessing of her whenever she was around her at work, the curtness of manner that imbued every interaction. “I know she doesn’t approve of me. She’s been pretty obvious about that.”

John shrugged nonchalantly, as though to cast aside the views of other people, even of his own mother, dismissing them as irrelevant. “She’ll come round – she’s got no choice.”

“I can’t imagine her doing that.”

Her own reservations on the matter of his mother’s opinions made his eyes narrow. “I love you, Margaret. No amount of disapproval will change that.”

“I’m not her choice though, am I?”

“No,” he said with absolute honesty. “But you’re my choice. That’s the most important thing. I’ve spent too long living some sort of half-life to give up the one person that makes me happy.”

“Can it be as simple as that?”

“Yes it can. It is that simple.”

“I didn’t realise it before but your mother’s got so much in common with my own mother it’s frightening,” Margaret quipped, drinking some of her wine, feeling the liquid cool her throat with a refreshing tingle. “Neither one of them believe it’s anything other than a phase!”

“Time will prove them wrong,” he murmured against her ear, that velvet tone sending a thrill down her spine. “Because I’m certainly not going anywhere – and nor are you, even if I have to lock you up to make you stay.”

“I’d be very happy to be locked up with you, John.” She turned her head a little and met his eyes coltishly, feeling herself sinking into them, submerging readily in the love that resided there.

“I want you with me, Margaret. I want to go to sleep knowing that you’re lying there next to me.”

She shivered at the thought, a delicious sweetness consuming her, knowing all the while that the dream they were sharing now would inevitably alter when they went back to Milton in a few days. “I don’t think your mother’s quite prepared to have me sitting at her breakfast table in the mornings just yet, do you?” Margaret replied, quietly. “And I’d rather earn her approval than her disdain.”

“Are you trying to tell me that we should give our parents a chance to get used to the idea of us being together before you agree to stay with me overnight?”

“I suppose I am,” she said, even though her heart screamed out that it was wrong to let themselves be ruled by the sensitivities of parents who couldn’t see that what they shared was real.

He sighed, fervidly wishing that he had held on to one of the houses he had chosen to rent out rather than remaining at the flat at the hotel. His eyes flashed warningly at Margaret, letting her know that he didn’t feel the same compunction as she did. “I can guarantee now that I will probably try to make you change your mind.” He stroked her hair, his gaze alight with such deeply entrenched affection. “I must love you if I’m prepared to go along with you concerning our parents – for the moment at least.”

She leaned over and kissed him. “I love you too.” When she met his eyes again her own were filled with happiness. She had never felt so liberated, so caught up in the magic that radiated around them. She wanted to flaunt every dream she had, she wanted to open herself up to him, to shine for him… “Do you want to know when I actually realised I loved you?”

He looked at her quizzically, a little surprised by her words. “If you’ll tell me.”

Her lips tilted upwards, her skin feeling suddenly very warm at the memory that came into her mind. She’d never forgotten that day; it had reinforced everything she’d initially felt the first time she’d ever seen him. “It was the evening you came to dinner with us and you found me on the landing after I’d just come out of the bathroom. You might not remember.”

How could he not have remembered that night? It was one of the many etched with indelible ink in his thoughts. He had known that something had happened between them that night, something unspoken but too real to deny the existence of.

“I wish you’d have chosen a smaller bath towel,” he chastised her teasingly, just enjoying the moment, this pleasurable foray into this particular time in their past. He couldn’t believe that it hadn’t been that long ago, that he hadn’t known her all his life. That there was a time in his life which she hadn’t been part of. “The towel you were wearing – from what I remember of it – virtually covered you from head to foot!”

“You weren’t even supposed to be looking at me like that!” she cried with mock indignation, giving him a gentle shove, laughing all the while.

“Ouch!” He rubbed his chest as though she’d mortally wounded him, but his eyes betrayed his amusement. “How could I resist you? You looked so beautiful with your freshly washed hair and your huge, shocked eyes just staring out at me. I knew I had to leave you because you were embarrassed by me being there, but I couldn’t bring myself to move. You completely bowled me over.” He shook his head, as though the restraint he’d shown then had been impossibly achieved. “You’ll never know how much willpower it took not to just march up to you and just sweep you into my arms. I longed to kiss you, to just be with you. I think I’d have probably made love to you there and then had I thought you’d let me, even with your parents downstairs in the lounge.”

“Oh John.” She was overwhelmed by the love that penetrated his voice as he spoke.

“You don’t know how hard it was to walk away from you and leave you on that landing. I couldn’t think about anything other than you all night. I wish I’d known without a doubt that you felt the same way as I did.”

They were interrupted then by one of the bar staff brandishing their sandwiches. Their heavy, muffled footsteps heralded their approach, causing John and Margaret to break away from one another and utter their thanks as he laid their plates before them and sauntered off in the direction of the pub.

Neither of them had actually appreciated until that moment that they were hungrier than they’d thought. They sat in silence as they ate and when they’d finished they leaned against each other in contented satisfaction, watching the comings and goings in the garden. The light had gone now, the sky turned to an endless expanse of darkened indigo, although the lights marking the outer perimeter of the garden served to illuminate it a little rather than plunging them into complete darkness.

“So tell me,” John said at last. “What were you doing sitting alone in the churchyard this morning? It wasn’t the sort of place I expected to be told to go and find you.”

Margaret shrugged. “I suppose the church represents so many stages in my life that it just seemed the most natural place to go.”

“Good memories?”

“Most of them.”

“You had a happy childhood didn’t you?”

She inclined her head reflectively. “We had a lot of freedom. I think every hour that we weren’t at school was spent out exploring and playing in the fields. We were very lucky really.” She looked down at the empty plate before her, fingered the base of her wine glass idly. We, she thought. We. She and Fred. She and Henry. She gave a wry smile of retrospection, realising that this was what Helstone represented to her now. An amalgam of memories, a landscape of the past. “I always thought my own children – when I had them – would have the same sort of upbringing as I did,” she admitted to him, not really knowing why she was bringing up the subject of children at all. “Of course, that went out of the window when I moved away from the countryside.”

“Which part?”

“The having children growing up here in Helstone part.”

“So you see yourself with children one day?” John kept his voice casual, pitching it as an idea that children would become a factor in her life at some time in the distant future, his heart thumping with the hopeful expectation that her response would be a positive one. The fact that he had already envisaged the children they might have was something he would keep to himself for the time being.

She seemed surprised that he might doubt her maternal instincts. “I think most people want children. If you love someone, it’s a natural progression in the course of a relationship.”

Their eyes tangled. “Very profound, Miss Hale,” he said. “And very true.” He couldn’t help but think of the beautiful day they’d shared and knew, without a single doubt in his mind, that if she came to him in a month’s time and told him that she was pregnant he’d be thrilled with the news, even though, equally, the traditionalist in him would rather make her his wife first.

His thoughts drew him up short suddenly: children, marriage, the whole domestic package. He wanted it so much; he wanted her so much. But she was still young. They were something for the future rather than the present – however much he longed for them for himself.

“It seems a long way away, doesn’t it?” Margaret sighed, settling her head against his shoulder, utterly oblivious to what was crashing through his mind at this precise moment in time. “Milton, I mean.”

“A very long way away,” John echoed, his thoughts coming back to the present, to the felicity of just being with her.

“I wish we could stop time and just stay like this – just be together.”

“We’ll be together whatever happens. That won’t change whether we’re here or back in Milton,” John told her, resolutely. “You work for me remember? Perhaps I’ll invest in a larger sofa for my office and then we can lock ourselves away.”

She felt heat invading her blood at the thought of being able to close her eyes and know that he was there, and that she wouldn’t wake up to find herself alone as her dreams vanished in the morning. But it was pure whim, a fantasy woven by the special chains of magic that draped around them now. At the moment she felt as though they had somehow stepped outside reality and were living an erotic dream, cocooned in their bubble of togetherness where no one could intrude upon them.

“What do you think then?” he asked her. “Should I invest in a new sofa?”

“It might raise a few eyebrows.” She could just see Mrs Thornton’s face and hear her staccato voice staunchly demanding what on earth he needed a sofa in his office for when he had a perfectly good Chesterton in there already.

“Does that matter?” He feigned a serious tone, but his blue eyes crinkled in devilish amusement, as his mouth whispered across her cheek. “Are you willing to risk it? You and me alone in my office?”

“How can you expect me to answer that sort of question?”

“With a simple yes or no, I suppose.”

“John!”

He looked at her innocently. “Yes?”

“It’s going to be difficult enough working in the same building as you and wanting to just keep running upstairs to find you every five minutes without you talking about sofas. Perhaps I should find another job?”

He looked mortified by her suggestion. “Don’t you even dare think about doing that!” he warned her with masterful assertiveness. “I want you near me. I want to be able to see you and talk to you.” I want to hold you all night and not let go, he added to himself, stopping short of telling her this as well, scared of where such declarations would lead him if he didn’t rein them in.

“Just to talk to me?” she replied, impishly.

“I think you can take the rest of my intentions towards you as red, don’t you?”

She smiled and sipped her wine, looking out onto the thinning populous of the garden as people left to go home and into the pretty exterior of the pub. John’s arm ensnared her waist, making her heart jump as his fingers began to stray from the confines of her waist towards her back. There was no one to see what he was doing as he continued to track those paths of acute sensation, stroking and caressing, moving unimpeded towards the nape of her neck, toying with the zip that they both knew would easily submit if he chose to give it even the gentlest of tugs.

“You can’t do that!” Margaret squeaked, reading his intentions, as he fiddled more assertively with the zip. She wanted to sound as though she was scolding him but the tremor in her voice was enough to tell him that he’d aroused her excitement with his actions.

He brought his lips against her ear, softly biting the lobe so that a faint moan echoed into the hot air surrounding them. “It must be the thought of being locked up with you in my office,” he told her, thickly. “And I’m not going to embarrass you in front of everyone – even though no one can even see what it is I’m actually doing.”

She shivered from head to foot; her entire body ready to submit to whatever he wished, despite her sensible mind demanding and yelling for decorum and restraint. “Don’t…You can’t, John…”

“I thought you liked it.” His tone was intimate, very low, very deep, an extension of his hand moving so idly over her, driving her headlong towards the point of total distraction.

“I do, but…” Her head fell forward to expose her neck more readily to him, basking in the delightful sensuality of his touch, even though the words that left her mouth were a total contradiction. “John! You can’t…You know you can’t.”

“No one can see us. It’s too dark and the only thing behind us is a tall hedge.” His tone was coaxing, bewitchingly drawing her further into the enchantment of the moment. “The only people out here are too far away to notice us, believe me.”

His lips travelled over her hair, rubbing softly, even though his senses were spinning at the emotions surging through him. He tugged the zip very slightly, hearing its soft sigh of release. She mumbled his name in a long moan of delighted disbelief as he pulled it lower, inch by inch, his touch firm as it travelled over her skin, before stopping and moving around to her side where he found the alluring outer curve of her breast.

She let out a breathless gasp which he silenced with his mouth, kissing her deeply and thoroughly, her body twisting into him, her arms fleeing to his neck, her lips trembling against his in response to his fingers on her sensitively exposed skin. Shockwaves flashed down her spine, vertebrae by vertebrae, setting off tiny explosions deep within her.

She clung to him, scared that she’d fall if she let go, her whole body feeling as though it were turning into molten heat. Her head spun dizzily as she lost herself in a whirlpool of pleasure.

Somewhere close by she could hear laughter, the seemingly distant clicking together of glasses being collected by one of the staff. Inside the pub a bell rang for last orders, its single clang resonating in her ears, jangling her already besieged nerves and reminding her that they weren’t alone, however much he made her feel that they were. And all the time he continued to kiss her, to expose more and more of her back to the night air, so that she could feel the refreshing coolness against her skin, further igniting the feelings that flooded through her so overwhelmingly and rendered her completely helpless in the face of their assault.

“I think we’d better go,” John said at last, giving a breathless sigh of reluctance, as his passionate wanderings finally calmed and he gathered her close to just hold her tight against him. He slid the zip back up in one smooth motion, but she could feel the warmth of his body through his clothes, through her own dress. She wanted nothing more than to melt into him, to be part of him. “I won’t be able to stop myself if we carry on like this,” he said, putting his lips briefly to her temple, burning her with the heat of his ardour.

He lifted her chin then, tilting her face up, seeing her unconcealed desire blazing back at him and in silence he got to his feet and helped her up, holding fast to her hand as they made their way quickly towards the car and headed back in the direction Helstone.

***

Bound in each other’s arms the following morning, they came to consciousness together, the realisation that they had woken to find the other there beside them more profound than any words could express. Against the window came the rhythmic patter of rain. A cool air invaded the room through the window that they’d neglected to close last night, soaking the net curtain where it lay at the mercy of the elements.

Not that it mattered.

Nothing mattered beyond the two of them.

***

Too late for breakfast, too early for lunch, they sat together on the small terrace at the back of the pub drinking the coffee that Cecil’s wife had kindly made for them when they’d finally emerged downstairs about half an hour ago. Lucy Brady had been very sweet, waving aside Margaret’s apologies for oversleeping, saying that it didn’t matter at all, all the while surveying John with an appropriation that spoke of the fact that she understood the situation perfectly. She’d ushered them onto the terrace, the rain of earlier having passed, telling them to just relax while she fixed them a pot of coffee. A short while later she returned with a doilly-covered salver housing two of what looked like her own personal bone china coffee cups, a jug of milk and coffee pot, together with a plate of assorted biscuits – telling them that the biscuits would help stave off the hunger pangs until lunch if they really didn’t want to trouble with a proper breakfast.

“She obviously has a soft spot for you,” John said as Lucy left them alone, singing quietly to a song that filtered out to them from the radio playing in the bar.

“She’s a lovely lady,” Margaret replied fondly, pouring out the coffee into the cups, adding a dash of milk to John’s in the way she remembered from when he’d come to her parents’ house in the past.

“You remembered,” he said as he followed her movements, looking surprised and touched that she would know something as mundane as how he took his coffee.

“I just paid attention,” she mused as she handed him his drink. A jolt of electric energy shot through her fingers as they brushed his, making their eyes fly straight to the other in unspoken affirmation of the closeness that bound them to each other.

For a few moments they sat in silence, taking stock of their surroundings, listening to the strains of the radio, of Lucy calling out to Cecil about something from the bar.

“I passed a meadow which looked very pretty on my way into the village yesterday. I don’t know if you know it but there’s an oak tree in the middle of it. I thought we could go for a walk, particularly as the rain’s cleared up,” John said, looking at her expectantly. ”I thought you could show me all the places you used to explore as a child.”

Margaret glanced up from her coffee cup, seeing John’s innocently quizzical expression peering back at her. She feigned complacency, not reacting and therefore not showing the discord she felt shoot through her. She wasn’t sure she wanted to go back, to revisit some of the memories that this particular place held for her. Not after the other day with Henry. Not after trying so hard to just forget his entire existence, blotting out the fact that there were memories everywhere she looked in Helstone, that the essence of their very childhood danced all around her whether she chose to admit it to herself or not. She tightened her grip on her coffee cup and lifted it to her lips to take a sip of the black liquid within.

“Do you know the one I mean?” John went on, his voice probing.

Of course she did. Henry had first kissed her beneath that oak tree. It had been where they’d always run to – the association with Henry was intrinsic to it. “Yes,” she admitted.

He smiled at her expectantly, perceiving none of her discomfort. “Shall we go then?”

She thought about telling him what she was thinking but pulled herself back from doing so. His mood was sanguine, mellow, his blue eyes filled with so much light that she couldn’t bear to have to watch it fade – as it surely would if she brought up Henry’s name in the conversation.

Cecil came outside then, weighed down by a watering can filled to the brim with sloshing water, his face beaming at the pair of them sitting under the sun parasol drinking their coffee. “Don’t mind me,” he called as he proceeded to pour water into the tubs of flowers scattered around the small terrace. “Just let me know if you want anything else.”

His genial mood made John smile. “I could do with him behind the bar at the hotel,” he said to Margaret in a low voice. “The regulars would love him.”

“You’ll never prise Cecil away from this pub. He’s been the landlord here for years,” she replied in equally hushed tones so that Cecil couldn’t hear what she was saying.
“The locals wouldn’t allow it either.”

“I can believe it. He seems very popular. Like someone else not sitting so far away from me now,” he added, pertinently.

Margaret laughed modestly, although she knew that her own affections for the people she’d known since she was a child were as durable as flint and would probably never change. “That’s only because they’ve all known me since I was born. Most of them were probably at my christening!”

“Little Maggie Hale,” John said affectionately, putting the back of his hand to her face and stroking it pensively, with wonder. “They’re probably all discussing you over their breakfast this morning.”

“I won’t be the only one they’re discussing.”

“Let’s just hope none of them correspond with your mother before we get back to Milton, considering everyone there thought you were coming down here on your own.”

Cecil came over to their table, having finished attending to the plants. “So are you going to give John a guided tour of Helstone, Margaret? I shouldn’t think he’s had much opportunity to see the place yet.”

While Margaret flushed furiously as Cecil winked with conspiratal mirth at her, John told him of their plans. “We thought we’d go for a walk. There’s a field with an oak tree which looked like a nice place to go.”

Cecil inclined his head, immediately knowing to where John was referring. “Some say the oak’s as old as this village,” he said, his eyes sparkling with the wistful romance of what had become a local legend over the years. “But no one really knows for certain. Nice spot though. Very popular with young couples if you know what I mean.”

Margaret’s blushes deepened, Cecil’s words too close for comfort. She could see John looking at her, even as Cecil wished them a good day and went back indoors.

Her eyes dropped to the table, studiously studying the worn surface, the wood that now lay exposed to the elements because the varnish had worn completely away, allowing long, narrow grooves to appear in the grain. She rubbed her finger over the surface. The wood was rough. It had seen better days.

“You’re blushing.”

“I’m not.”

“Don’t lie to me. I can see you are.” She saw his hand reach out to hers that was still rasping mindlessly over the wood, all movement stalling as her hand became engulfed by his. “Now, look at me,” he said, his tone gently commanding. “And tell me why.”

“It’s nothing,” she replied, waving her arm dismissively, although she kept her gaze averted. She could feel his blue eyes boring into her as though he were trying to peer into the very heart of her.

“We both know that’s not true,” he told her, making it clear that he wasn’t prepared to let her sidetrack him.

She jerked her eyes to his abruptly, her own searching. “Do we?” How did he know? Could he read her mind?

He nodded, waiting patiently for her to speak, his fingers tightening against hers. “Yes we do.”

“It’ll only -”

“Try me,” he interrupted her. “You might be surprised.”

She took a deep breath, well aware that what she was about to impart would probably destroy the mood between them and perpetuate it with those destructive tentacles of everything she had wanted to get away from. Yet real life drew her back; she should have known she couldn’t escape it, especially here in Helstone.

“I’m listening,” he urged her. “You once asked me not to keep things from you. Well now I’m asking the same of you. Don’t shut me out, Margaret.”

“The meadow – the meadow where the oak tree is,” she began, not knowing how to say the words, in the end just letting them blurt out as they wished. “It was the place where I used to spend a lot of time with Henry – both before and after we started going out together.” There, it was said. He would know now why she would hesitate to go there again, that she had no wish to revisit those particular memories.

John watched her for a long timeless moment, as though digesting her words. She could see his mouth tightening at the mention of Henry, his reaction just as she had suspected it to be. Why couldn’t she have just stayed quiet? Why had she said anything at all? Then, quite suddenly, the tension dissipated from his expression and amazingly she saw him start to smile with such incredible warmth that it seemed to seep through the currents of air between them and into her blood through the pores of her skin.

“I am very aware that this village holds a lot of memories for you, Margaret. I’m not insensitive to that. Jack and Cecil told me enough yesterday to make me realise that,” he said. “But you shouldn’t pretend that your past didn’t even exist. After all,” he added. “How can you have a future if you haven’t had a past?” He dipped his head as he tried to engage her eyes with his. “You taught me that when you listened to me tell you about my father.”

“They’re everywhere I look, even though I keep trying to blot him out of my mind,” she admitted, contritely.

“You grew up together. Henry will always be part of those memories,” John told her pragmatically, the attitude he showed to her now being immeasurably different to yesterday. “And I can’t ask you to forget great chunks of your life just because I dislike your ex-boyfriend, can I?”

She eyed him thoughtfully. “So it doesn’t bother you?”

He shook his head. “No – not any more. And you shouldn’t worry about it either. After all, he’s not the same person as the boy who ran around here with you is he?”

“No, he isn’t. I don’t know where that boy went,” she said, sadly.

John put his finger to her forehead, pressing very lightly, his eyes intense. “He’s in here. Accept him and remember the best. It’s part of who you are, Margaret.”

“Is that what you’re doing with the memories of your father?”

He inclined his head. “You taught me that, remember?”

She smiled, touched by his confession, her gaze glancing beyond him to the beautiful panorama around her.

“So, Miss Hale,” John said after a brief lull in the conversation, making ready to get up and finishing off the remains of his coffee. “I think you can take me on that guided tour of Helstone now.”

“You really want me to?”

“Of course.” He pulled her up with him and embraced her loosely at the waist, his head dipping to hers to kiss her briefly. “I’d be very honoured if you’d share your past with me.”

***

It had only been several months since she’d last visited the place, when she had sat beneath the thick parasol of leaves and remembered everything that had gone before and wished for it to be that way again. It had been at a time when she had been at her most uncertain. Her father had just announced that he had received the job offer from Adam Bell and that they were moving up to Milton. She had been depressed further because she’d been thinking about Henry because it had been his birthday. So she’d taken flight here, to their old haunt, to the peace and sanctuary it offered just by its very position in being that bit set apart from the main part of the village. She had drawn her knees up to her chin and hugged her legs and cried…cried for the past that lay in trampled ruins, cried for the future that loomed so uncertainly before her. Cried because she’d felt so empty inside and didn’t know whether she would ever be able to feel anything other than that awful desolation again…

Now, however, she walked across the long blades of grass where poppies interwove with random grace, a different person now to the one who’d last come to this spot. Gone was all the hopelessness, all the desolation and the helpless despair that had plagued her on that previous occasion. The place itself wasn’t altered, but she herself was. With every step she took she realised it more profoundly.

The fields drifted into the distance, as far as the eye could see, cloaked in stillness, the only sounds those of birds twittering and grasshoppers merrily churping in the tangle of nature beneath their feet. And there, ahead of them, solitary in its majesty, stood the giant oak with its thick, sturdy trunk and extensive network of branches where the vibrant verdant leaves grew in abundance, creating a massive and almost impenetrable canopy that had caused the ground immediately below this shadowed harbour to turn sparse and yellowed because neither sunlight nor rain could find a way through the denseness to nourish the grass.

It was an imposing sight, Margaret thought as she looked towards it, her footsteps drawing ever closer, keeping time with John’s as he walked along beside her. Suddenly he stopped in his tracks and Margaret turned, not quite understanding why they had drawn to such an abrupt halt, only to see him stoop down towards the grass and snap the stem of a dazzling, scarlet poppy. He held the lusciously vivid bloom between his fingers briefly before he reached up in silence and threaded it through the loose tendrils of her hair close to her ear, his eyes not leaving hers as he did so.

“I couldn’t resist,” he said when he’d finished, his eyes shining in unfettered admiration. He cupped her face softly between his hands and kissed her. “You look lovely with flowers in your hair.”

Just the look in his eyes made her feel lovely under his gaze, as though she were soaring through the sky, suspended somewhere between heaven and earth in a kind of dreamlike limbo. And she had a poppy in her hair. Never had she ever had flowers of any kind put into her hair before.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“You’re welcome,” he replied. He tore his gaze from her and let it travel over the panorama around them, every ounce of tension completely dissipated from his face. His blue eyes were as bright and as vivacious as the azure sky above, cloudless and luminous in their very brightness, his black hair rumpling as a faint breeze ruffled its layers every now and again. “I can understand why you spent so much time here. It’s the perfect spot for children.”

He turned back to see her incline her head in agreement, the spellbound expression on her face taking his breath away. She looked so much a part of the place with the poppy lodged in her wayward hair and her light cotton skirt stirring in voluptuous folds around her ankles. So undeniably beautiful and feminine, she would be the one woman he’d love forever.

I never want to lose you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I want you to be my wife…His declaration hovered on the tip of his tongue, so close to being spoken yet never quite being able to find the voice for her to hear those heartfelt words. He wanted so much to ask her, to tell her that he could see the children they’d have together playing here when they came for holidays. Yet still he stopped himself, keeping the words buried deep inside him.

“What’s the matter?” She was looking at him quizzically, as though she had perceived the inner struggle beginning to rage inside him between what he emphatically wanted and what he knew he could not possibly ask her just yet.

“I was just thinking about Helstone,” he said, grappling for some sort of response to offer her that would mask his true thoughts. “Maybe I ought to buy a cottage here so that we could come down more often? It would give your parents somewhere to stay if they ever came back to visit as well.”

Her eyes widened incredulously. “John Thornton, are you telling me – in a very roundabout way – that you actually like this village that much? I thought you were a townie right down to your bone marrow.”

“Even townies can be swayed, Margaret,” he mused, realising that he’d well and truly been seduced by Helstone – not to mention the locals.

“Are you serious?”

“Very serious. It would be a good investment apart from everything else.” He caught her around the waist and linked his hands at the small of her back, drawing her against him, feeling her arms coil about his neck and twirl in his hair at the back of his head in that careless way of hers that was addictively pleasurable to him.

“Where did all this impulsiveness come from?” she asked him, her fingertips rubbing the nape of his neck silkily.

He tilted his dark head to one side. “From you,” he told her as he lowered his gaze to her upturned lips and moved towards them, following the urge to kiss her with infinite slowness, cherishing the moment, making it last and last, until he eventually pulled away to see her eyes still closed, her bee stung lips still parted. Her shallow breath hung in the air between them. “Oh Margaret,” he murmured raggedly, returning his mouth to hers once more, unable to hold himself back from pulling her down with him onto the grass and showing her just how impulsive he was prepared to be.

***

It was as though she had somehow become completely disconnected from the girl who’d spent her life living in this village and the one who’d returned just a few days ago. By the time she and John had eventually left the field where the shadow of the oak had watched over the love they’d shared with such careless abandon, she knew that everything else that had happened between she and Henry in the past was now completely inconsequential, a product of another lifetime – one that she couldn’t even relate to now.

She also knew that from this day forward, the only person she’d ever associate with the oak tree would be John.

***

“So, it’s away back to Milton tomorrow is it?” Jack asked, as he sat with John and Margaret at the bar in the Ivy Leaf on their last evening. His eyes were twinkling with the sure knowledge that the young slip of a thing he now looked upon was where she belonged – with a man who would love her unreservedly for the rest of his life. Whether she knew it or not was, of course, another matter entirely. He might plant the idea in John’s head before he said his goodbyes, just to help things along he decided.

Margaret threw Jack a half-smile of regret. He could see her reluctance to leave quite clearly. “The time’s just flown past. I can’t believe it.”

“We’ll be back though,” John interjected, tipping her chin up and smiling into her eyes. “Remember what I said the other day?”

Jack’s ears pricked up. Sounded hopeful, he thought. Although, surely if they were getting married they would have told them all by now? Unless, of course, they had decided to tell their respective parents first off – which would be perfectly understandable in the circumstances.

John caught Jack’s eye and almost intuitively noticed the hopeful expectation on Jack’s face. “I was thinking of buying a cottage in the village,” he said by way of explanation.

Jack’s heart sank a little at the fact that it obviously hadn’t been a proposal they’d been discussing. Never mind, back to Plan A, he thought. Get John to one side and put the notion in his head. However, the idea of John buying a house in Helstone sounded like an extremely good one. Obviously he had decided he liked the place. Not so unusual, of course, given the fact that he loved Margaret so much.

Margaret smiled at Jack. “You might see more of us in the future.”

“Well that’s something for me to look forward to, young lass,” Jack chuckled. “How about another drink to celebrate?”

“It’s only an idea at the moment,” Margaret replied, laughing brightly, leaning her head back against John’s chest with all the ease of a girl deeply in love and who didn’t care who knew it.

“And a very good one,” Jack answered. “I’m sure it’ll win your mum’s approval too when she hears about it. Won’t do you any harm either, lad. Get the mother on side and you’re halfway there.”

Cecil came over at that point, having managed to extract himself from a conversation about fly-fishing. “So you’re leaving us tomorrow,” he said, regretfully. “Back to real life again is it?”

“Something like that,” John intoned, ruefully, thinking of the work that awaited him on his return. “But thank you for everything you’ve done for us while we’ve been here. We appreciate it.”

“Hospitality doesn’t cost anything, John. You know that as well as me.”

John nodded sagely. “Very true.”

“I don’t think I’ve seen you looking so happy as you have these past few days, Margaret,” Cecil said thoughtfully as Margaret’s complexion heightened to an engaging shade of pink. Cecil, uninhibited by her inherent modesty, smiled. “It’s a joy to see two people so happy and in love with each other. You don’t seem to see it as much these days.”

“Here, here!” chorused Jack, raising his pint to the pair of them. “I’ll second that.”

John peered down at Margaret with a loving smile, squeezing her against him, his hand at her waist. “I didn’t realise it was that obvious,” he mused.

Both Cecil and Jack looked at him incredulously. But only Jack had the nerve to say what was in both their thoughts. “Oh, it’s obvious. Just make sure you don’t let her to get away, lad.”

“Believe me,” John replied with a chuckle, meeting Margaret’s eyes with implicit tenderness. “That’s the last thing I’ll ever do.”

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