Past & Present: Chapter Twenty-One – From Love Comes Strength

Two o’clock in the morning and silence threw its impenetrable blanket across the village of Helstone. Margaret lay within the loving ambit of John’s arms, sleep elusive as it continued to dance on the outer fringes of her consciousness long after John had succumbed to its all-consuming embrace. It was no good. She couldn’t sleep however much she closed her eyes and willed herself, her thoughts too full with the prospect of leaving to permit her any sort of respite. Her body was restless despite its craving for the sleep that eluded her, her limbs heavy with tiredness and yet aching for liberty beyond the confines of the bed.

Very gingerly she turned onto her side, feeling John’s sleepy hold on her slip as if in slow motion towards the sheet as she eased herself away from him and climbed out of bed as quietly as she could. She didn’t want to disturb him, not when he looked so peaceful. She stood watching him for a moment as she pulled on her dressing gown that lay sprawled across the bottom of the bed, gazing lovingly down upon his sleeping form, shafts of moonlight playing over his beautiful face and half exposed chest amongst the ethereal shadows of the room. She longed to touch him, to push back the hair that fell across his forehead, but she didn’t dare for fear of waking him. Instead she turned and padded quietly towards the chair sitting beneath the open window, her bare feet whispering against the soft pile of the carpet. In the darkness she curled herself up on the chair, tucking her feet under her, and hugged the thin fabric of her dressing gown closer against her body in response to the crisp air that washed so freely over her.

Looking out, she saw a village enveloped in the monochrome shades of night, gossamer cloud strewn like thin, erratic patches of silvered cotton wool across the limitless ebony sky. The moon’s subtle light, unhampered at present by cloud, caught the surface of the pond just across the road from where she sat, making the water gleam like very dark, molten glass, the arms of the willow at its edge drawn as if with thick black lines from an italic pen as they drooped towards the glistening water.

The very stillness draped her in its intangible shroud, the soft, steady rhythm of her breath the only sound to mar the all-pervading repose that surrounded her. It was a world away from the perpetual hurly-burly of Milton – its very urbanisation the very thing that would always deny it the peace that salved her soul now and made the prospect of leaving all the more difficult.

“Margaret…”

The hushed ambience was broken by his sleepy call of her name and as she turned towards the bed she saw him fling himself onto his side and instinctively gravitate towards the spot that she’d not long vacated, his arms thrusting outwards to wrap themselves around her, only to flop with a dull thump against the empty mattress.

She didn’t expect him to react or to even realise that she wasn’t there, but he did, the fact that she wasn’t where he expected her to be causing him to awaken in an instant, his voice a hoarse cry of alarm in the darkness.

“Margaret?”

She heard the tremor in his voice and sought to soothe his confusion as he reared up in disorientated panic. “I’m over here.”

He dragged his head in the direction of her voice, scraping the hand not being used to support his body through his rumpled hair, himself doing what she herself had ached to do. “What are you doing? How long have you been sitting there?”

“Not long, “she admitted. “I didn’t mean to wake you up.”

He pushed back the crumpled covers that ensnared his body and came towards her, a lithe, sleek panther, his long legs reaching her within seconds as he crouched down, laying his hands loosely upon her thigh. ”Are you all right? Is something wrong?”

She couldn’t bear to see the worry that leeched so readily into his eyes, the haunting doubts that dwelt within them suddenly. Didn’t he realise how much he’d given her just by loving her, by allowing her to love him? That he had no reason to doubt anything about her, about what they had found together?

“I’m fine,” she said, wanting to wipe clear those doubts, even though she couldn’t quite find the words to tell him just how fervently she longed to hold back the approach of morning because it would herald the end of their time together in Helstone. “There’s nothing wrong. I promise.”

I just don’t want to leave…I don’t want this dream to end, came the mute plangent call from deep inside her.

“We’ll come back again soon. I promise.”

Telepathy, she thought. He’s reading my mind. He knows; he can see what I’m thinking.

His hand moved to grasp hers, an inexorable warmth transferring from his fingers to her own. “Margaret, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to tell you how much the last few days have meant – how much it’s meant just being with you,” he said with softly intoned deference.

Her heart pierced at his heartfelt and poignant admission, itself a resplendent echo of her own feelings for him. “I feel the same,” she admitted, her voice barely above a whisper. “It’s been – “ She hesitated, thinking back to all those stories of her childhood, of princes and princesses, of love blossoming despite everything hurled in its path. “A bit like living a fairytale.”

An answering smile flickered across his lips. “My love,” he murmured, brushing her hair back behind her ears, an overwhelming tenderness in his eyes. “Just because we’re going back to Milton doesn’t mean this particular fairytale has to end – in fact, I will insist that it doesn’t.”

Something in the inflection of his tone made her shiver inside. She leaned impulsively towards him, extracting her hand from where his own loosely bound it, putting both hands on either side of his face, doing as he had so often done to her in the past. He responded by placing his own palms flush against the smooth backs of her hands, his eyes holding all the time to hers, emphatically refusing to deny the intensity that leapt so readily between them.

“Margaret?” He took her hands from his face after a timeless moment and held them against her legs once more.

“Yes?”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you – I wondered whether you’d come to the Mill Owners Dinner with me?”

Her spirits soared, his request so unexpectedly delightful amid the sombre prospect of having to return to Milton, it felt like a rainbow spanning brilliantly on the horizon of her mind. Just her sheer pleasure that he’d asked her pulled her lips into a beaming smile that was impossible to repress.

“John, I’d love to!” she cried with excited euphoria. “But where will I find a costume? I don’t know where to look – and I wouldn’t want to disgrace you.”

“You could wear a bin liner and you wouldn’t disgrace either yourself or me,” he replied with such unflinching certainty that the option seemed almost viable!

“I think your mother would despair of me completely if I turned up like that!” Margaret laughed, picturing the look of sheer horror that would surely paint itself across his mother’s face if she saw Margaret standing on John’s arm in little more than a bin liner.

“Well you don’t have to worry about my mother because there’s a woman in Milton called Lily Henderson who hires out period costumes. She’ll certainly be able to help you.”

“Even with just days to go?”

“Trust me,” he said, squeezing her fingers encouragingly. “And just think of Lily as your fairy godmother.”

She studied his face, the expression of which she couldn’t quite fathom. “I haven’t had one of those before,” she said.

He chuckled softly. “Then consider yourself to have one now.”

Perhaps the fairytale would pursue her to Milton after all…

“I know I should have asked you a long time ago – God knows, I’ve thought about it often enough,” he continued.

“I just can’t believe you’ve chosen to ask me at two o’clock in the morning! You certainly know how to pick your moments don’t you?”

“My only defence is that you have an unfailing habit of totally distracting me,” he replied, his tone dropping as his words melted over her. His fingers began to toy with the ends of her hair, twisting the strands into a thick silky ribbon, around and around, coiling and spiralling, before he lifted those binding strands to his lips and kissed where they imprisoned his finger.

“This is crazy! People don’t get asked to dinners at this time of night.”

“You do.” His gaze cleaved to hers, consuming her completely, letting her hair unravel from where it had bound him. “But that just makes you more unique than you already are.”

“Is that a compliment?” She could feel herself helplessly falling into his eyes, carried into their shadowed depths like flotsam on the tide, the mood between them altering, growing more intense.

“What do you think?”

She didn’t answer as she wrapped her arms around him, feeling the wonderful power and play of his muscles beneath his bare skin. He raised himself up to meet her embrace, kneeling to steady himself as he carefully slid her from the chair and onto the floor beside him, her dressing gown slipping against his hands, gaping slightly to reveal her legs as they draped across his.

“Come back to bed,” he whispered.

His adept fingers began to play with the sash bound about her waist as he unlashed it and smoothly pushed the lapels back and away so that the fabric fell with a satiny sigh from her shoulders. He looked upon her with fathomless reverence, incapable of escaping the drag of her allure. Her skin was initially cool as his fingertips travelled where his eyes so ravenously led, before languidly, assuaging the very call of her beauty, he lowered his head and let his mouth retrace the same path, his tongue moving against her with slow, connoisseur grace.

“It’s the middle of the night,” she sighed in breathless anticipation, her fingers massaging and digging into his hair.

He heard the words that came out of her mouth, a half-hearted resistance completely at odds with her body’s response. Her back was arching and stretching with the easy agility of a cat, her caress straying from the thickness of his hair and roaming with an unmistakably awakening urgency across the landscape of his back.

“I know.” His lips ran the length of her neck, sampling her skin as though it were nectar, smelling the sweet, lingering essence of her perfume. She smelt of flowers, the sensual resonance of jasmine.

“We should be sleeping…”

He snuffed out her words. They meant nothing, not in this moment as he felt once more the exquisite depths of his desire for her. “We’ll manage. We can have lots of breaks on the way home.”

“But you’ll be so tired…”

“No I won’t.” He drew her closer, pulled her down onto the soft surface of the carpet so that he was half draped across her, the hard masculinity of his body moulding against the inherent softness of hers. “Anyway, how on earth do you expect me to sleep now?”

Her hand ran from his shoulder to his torso with a long shuddering caress. “It’s going to feel so strange not to be with you tomorrow,” she mumbled, the words tearing from her as though they were being dragged out.

“It doesn’t have to be like that,” he responded hoarsely. Her skin was seeped in such a wonderfully intoxicating heat now, so warm…so warm… “You know it doesn’t – not if we don’t want it to be.”

“But we agreed –“

He groaned audibly, digging his fingers into her long mane. “I know what we agreed. But that doesn’t cast the decision in stone!”

“No, but –“

“Don’t say but! There are no buts!” he gasped back with some considerable force.

Her grip on his shoulders tightened compulsively, her breath coming now as raggedly as his own. “It’s too soon…”

“For you – or for everyone else?” he grated, the words a low guttural moan. His lips danced over her, consuming her hungrily.

“We should wait -just until everyone gets used to us being together,” she mumbled breathlessly through the haze of passion that engulfed her.

He brought his head up abruptly, his eyes stark with imploring as they stared down into her face, burning like furnaces in the darkened room. “I can’t bear the thought of leaving you in Winchester Way while I have to go back to the hotel.”

“I can’t either.” The words came out as an anguished sob.

“Then come back with me!!” he replied fiercely, his fingers splaying across her back. His emotions were a hair’s-breadth away from spiralling beyond his control. “It’s only the two of us who matter! Don’t try and deny it!”

“I don’t…John, you know I don’t…” She was as lost as he – the will of her body submerging the quandary whirling through her exhausted and besieged mind. All she wanted was for their parents to have the chance to come to terms with their relationship, to see that it went deeper than just simple primal attraction. And she wasn’t ready for Mrs Thornton bearing down on her just yet with her censorious glare. “But give them time to adjust…please…”

He groaned deeply. He couldn’t talk to her about it now. God knows, he couldn’t think of anything but her, the pliant and glowing closeness of her, about the way she was beginning to twist more fervently as the flames began to overcome them both. “Oh God, Margaret, I love you – nothing will change that.”

“And I love you.”

“I want you in my life,” he rasped, the words spilling out of him unchecked.

“I am in your life.” She turned her face, her lips parted as they skimmed across his with a shiver.

“I want you.”

“I’m here,” she said, raw emotion contorting her face in the moonlit shadows of the room as her eyes looked up into his. “I’m here now.”

He pushed back her hair, wanting to see her whole face, every detail of it. “I know.”

“Then love me,” she whispered, drawing his mouth towards hers insistently. “Love me now.”
***

Neither of them had much to pack. Margaret wandered around the room that had been their very own sanctuary of blissful privacy, searching for anything that she might have left behind while John was in the shower, before throwing the few remaining items she owned into her overnight case and zipping it shut. She sighed as she peered about her. The room seemed so empty and impersonal now that it bore little trace of their previous occupation. It was no longer theirs. Maybe tonight it would belong to another couple…

She heard the silencing of the shower as it switched off and a few moments later she saw John emerge into the bedroom from the en suite bathroom with a towel wrapped around his hips, his black dishevelled hair showing signs of having been hastily towel-dried to get rid of all the excess water.

His attraction was magnetic, so uncompromisingly powerful, she thought as she reflected on the night now passed, something about it having been their last night together adding to the piquancy of their heightened emotions that still left her reeling from the passion of their lovemaking.

“All packed?” he asked, noticing her bag by the door. His own sat upon the bed still, gaping wide, a shirt spilling out of it haphazardly where he’d neglected to tuck it in properly.

She nodded, drifting to the window and looking out upon the vista of the morning. The ducks were back on the pond, lazily gliding through the rippling water, all the while studiously ignoring a dog barking at them from the grassy edge.

She heard a movement behind her and felt John’s arms encircle her waist, his hands interlocking in front of her. She leaned back against him, the clean, familiar scent of her shower gel still lingering on his skin. “You smell of lemons,” she said with a giggle.

“I know. I borrowed some of yours. I ought to be grateful that it wasn’t something more feminine.” He kissed her cheek, resting his head against the side of hers. “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

He turned her about to face him then, his eyes probing hers, suddenly serious, looking for answers to questions he hadn’t yet asked. “Tell me the truth. Would you stay here if given the chance?”

She didn’t know how to answer him. It was true that half of her craved a continuum of what they’d shared over the past few days, but there was the more practical side of her nature that knew very well that she had to plunge back into real life once more and just get on with things. She had known that as soon as the first glow of daybreak had streamed into their room this morning. She also knew that she’d outgrown Helstone and that she could never return to live here permanently. Oh, to be here for a few days, a week, perhaps even a month, would be something she would have no problem in coping with – in fact she’d love nothing more than the luxury of being able to retreat here if she was able, but she would never reside here again indefinitely. Not any more. She no longer hankered after it as her mother still did. Milton, for all its noise and bustle, was her home now and that was something she had never expected it to be when she’d first moved there.

John was waiting patiently for her answer and so she gave it to him with simple honesty. “Milton is where my life is now – with you. I told you that last night.”

“We said a lot of things last night,” he said. “But thank you anyway.”

“What for?”

He put his lips to hers tenderly. “For letting me stay here with you. For last night. And for just being you.”

***

The motorway streaked ahead in front of them, an ugly cluttered gash cutting savagely through the countryside.

Car engines droned discordantly all around them as they merged, became one with the steady stream of traffic.

Helstone lay behind and Milton before them.

And real life beckoned, its stark call growing ever more resonant.

***

It was the last thing that she’d expected. To walk into the lounge to greet her parents to find Henry comfortably ensconced. She hadn’t thought that she’d actually see him again, so when her eyes did fall upon him she was unable to conceal the equal mingling of horror and shock she felt inside.

He immediately pounced up from where he was sitting, waiting until she’d kissed her parents in turn and said hello before he advanced somewhat purposefully towards her. Her first instinct was to shrink back but she stubbornly refused to. She wouldn’t allow him to think that he could intimidate her now. So she stayed where she was, resisting every temptation to run as far away from him as she could. As reached her side he bent his head forward and she turned emphatically away from him so that his cool, dry lips collided only very briefly with the side of her head, leaving him effectively dropping a kiss into thin air. She pretended not to notice and plopped herself down beside her mother on the sofa, realising that if they’d not been in full view of her parents she would have raised her hand and slapped him in angry indignation after what had passed between them the last time they’d met. As it was she contented herself with throwing him an icy glare that spoke quite clearly of the way she felt about him.

Henry resumed his seat and picked up his teacup, the delicate china handle of which was too small for his fingers to hook through. It was the first time she’d ever really noticed Henry’s hands and how thick and stubby his fingers were in comparison to the graceful, slender fingers John possessed.

“Good trip then, Meg?” He was the first to speak.

“Yes.” Single worded answers were all she cared to give him if she had to acknowledge his presence at all. She’d much rather ignore him and pretend he wasn’t there.

Her mother looked at her expectantly, her usually dull eyes suddenly hungry for news of her beloved Helstone. “At least you weren’t lonely – having so many people around that you knew. How is everyone?”

Margaret glanced towards Henry. Apart from herself, he was the only other person in the room who knew that she’d been with John in Helstone. Well, she’d rectify that now, she thought determinedly. She wouldn’t sit here while he made veiled comments about her having been with John. She took a deep breath, preparing herself for a barrage of animosity from her mother, whose very traditionalist attitudes towards relationships would probably view what she had to say like a bucket of cold water being hurled over her. But she wouldn’t hide it; the fact that they had been together, the fact that she loved him and that she was incredibly happy. She had already decided that she would respect her parents’ views and the fact that they wouldn’t appreciate her having John staying with her overnight in the house now they were back without a ring being firmly planted on her finger first, but she wouldn’t let them diffuse her joy at being in a relationship with him.

“Actually,” she began, her voice finding its own resonant strength as she met her mother’s enquiring eyes. “I wasn’t on my own in Helstone. John came down after me because he was worried about why I left Milton so suddenly. We came back together just now.”

Silence. A pin would have made more noise as the three people in the room with her digested her revelation.

Her mother, as she had guessed, was incredulous – and the first to say something. “So you and John stayed together in Helstone?”

“Yes.”

Her mother sighed despairingly, disappointedly. “Oh Margaret, couldn’t you have been a little more discreet?”

The impulse to say that they hadn’t actually shouted their room status from the rooftops was rigorously silenced. “We’re both adults, mum – well past the age of consent.”

“So you may be but that doesn’t make any difference. I know you have modern views but I still feel that some things should wait until you’re married.”

Margaret flushed. The fact that Henry was in the room and her mother didn’t seem to actually be accounting for this fact only made the whole thing more embarrassing.

“It’s not as though we offended anyone, mum!” she said, feeling her mother’s jarring censure splintering all around her. One glimpse at her father though, quiet, benign and knowing, showed someone wholly unsurprised by her announcement, as though he had guessed something of the sort all along. As for Henry – well, she wished that he’d just wipe that inane grin from his wretched face!

“What did John think about Helstone?” her father asked as he caught her eye. “He must have found the contrast between here and there quite marked.”

“He did. But he loved it, dad. And Jack and Cecil took to him very quickly.” Her lips tugged irrepressibly upwards as she spoke, refusing to permit her happiness to be tainted by the likes of Henry – or her mother for that matter, whose often-muttered asides of disapproval would doubtlessly be further inflamed by this latest admission.

“I can imagine!” her father mused with a hearty chuckle.

“I would have thought he’d find the likes of Jack and Cecil a bit quaint and eccentric,” Henry remarked unnecessarily.

Margaret’s lips tightened. “I think he just took them as he found them. Anyway, I thought you’d have gone back to London by now.”

“Margaret!” her mother exclaimed at what she perceived to be Margaret’s unfounded incivility towards Henry, her teacup clattering onto its saucer noisily.

“It sounds very much as though you’re desperate to see the back of me, Meg,” Henry said, his eyes fixed unwaveringly upon her, challenging her to react, to speak her mind.

Her eyes shot back at him, her answer modified for her parents’ benefit alone. “I just thought you were staying in Milton for a few days, that’s all.”

“Henry’s actually going back to London tomorrow,” her father said, before Henry or Maria could say anything. “He came round tonight to say goodbye, didn’t you Henry?”

“That’s about the sum of it.”

Her mother put her cup and saucer onto the tray before her. “I hope you’ll come and visit us again.”

“I’m sure that can be arranged,” Henry said with a charming and consoling smile in her mother’s direction.

If he was hoping to provoke Margaret with his comment of returning at some point then it fell on deaf ears.

“You know you’re welcome here at any time,” her mother said.

“I’ll go and make some more tea.” Margaret got up from where she was sitting, resolutely holding her tongue from recounting to her mother in graphic detail how Henry had not so long ago tried to force himself upon her in his hotel room. The only thing that stopped her was the fact that it would probably devastate her mother completely to learn that Henry’s charm was just a superficial sham.

She picked up the tray of her mother’s best china and carried it out into the kitchen, only just managing to get inside the door before Henry came sidling after her, obviously minded to make as much of a nuisance of himself as he possibly could. She exhaled a sigh of ennui.

“I have nothing to say to you, Henry.” Succinct and uncompromising, her words shot defiantly into the air between them.

He came to stand next to her, leaning back against the counter as he watched her carefully rinse the teapot under the hot tap. “That’s a bit ungracious of you, Meg.”

“After what you did the other day you’re lucky I don’t break this teapot over your head!”

He actually had the audacity to look wounded. “I made up for that though, didn’t I? In fact I rather thought I’d done you a favour by sending John to Helstone.”

”And you want me to be – what would you suggest? Grateful?” She put the pot down on the drainer more forcefully than she’d intended before starting on the teacups. “John would have found me in Helstone whether you’d told him or not, Henry.”

“Maybe,” he conceded with a careless shrug. “But you might have been on your way back before he’d actually got his act together and made his way down to Helstone after you. You could at least give me a bit of credit for not withholding vital information from him – and I could have done quite easily. Watched him sweat a bit.”

She stopped what she was doing then, her hands pausing in the cascade of warm water pouring from the tap, ignoring its splashes as she turned towards him. She could have slapped his face there and then, but the realisation that he really wasn’t worth her expending her energy on called a halt to such actions. She knew all too well that if she resorted to any means of physical expression – and it was very hard not to – then he’d assume that he could still have some impact upon her. No, her weapon wasn’t the palm that could deliver a blistering blow across his face, it was the strength of the love he had tried to wreak havoc on and the power of words that would linger on in his mind, whether he wished them there or not, long after the sting of a slap had faded…

“One day, when you finally meet someone yourself, you might come to understand that love’s not actually about scoring points or treating someone irreverently – that it’s actually the opposite,” she began with impassioned sincerity. “It’s about unconditional respect. It’s about real emotion – not some superfluous fancy that quickly passes. It’s about wanting the best for that person, come what may, and making them happy because that’s exactly how they make you feel.” As John’s image came instinctively into her mind she felt her lips turn upwards as though to welcome him. Her eyes softened. “It’s about falling in love and knowing that it will stay with you forever.”

“You talk as though John Thornton’s the love of your life.”

She met his eyes, her own filled with a raw conviction that she’d never shown before. Strong, resolute, unflinching, she stood there imperiously before him. And when she spoke again it was with a clarity that proclaimed proudly the change in her and the security she had found in loving someone like John.

“He is the love of my life, Henry. He always will be.”

And as sure as the tide retreats from the shore she watched as complete and irrefutable enlightenment finally dawned in Henry’s eyes. He saw beyond a doubt that she was serious – that she was being, in the final instant, completely honest about her feelings, even though she knew that she might well hurt that part of him where, buried deeply beneath all the superficial charm, the boy he’d once been still lived in quiet obscurity.

For a few moments the air hung heavy between them, not in tension but in the steady knowledge that the two of them had come so far that their ties upon the other had withered and perished. The tap was still running, splashing against her hands. She removed them and reached to turn off the tap. Silence loomed up. They were walking divergent paths now. There would be no friendship between them, she knew that well enough; it would be impossible after everything that had gone before.

She expected him to say something, one final jeering comment that would ensure that he had the last word, but he didn’t. He said nothing at all. He just walked from the room leaving her to watch mutely after him. It’s over, she thought. Cleanly, like the quick, sharp blade of a knife slicing through silk. She didn’t move. She wasn’t sure how she felt now that this particular chapter in her life drew to its inevitable conclusion. Relieved? Cruel? Sad? Hollow? Regretful? Still she didn’t move. She could hear her parents’ voices, Henry’s voice, the forced, rather strained jocularity that punctuated the air.

Presently the front door opened and shut and she knew that he had gone.

Just like that: without ceremony, without a furore, all his futile motives vanishing amid the simple truth of uncompromising and unwavering love.

***

It was gone eight o’clock by the time John walked into the hotel, having reluctantly dropped Margaret off at home. He had loathed leaving her, every part of him mutely screaming out to her to stay with him and to just come back to the hotel. He had so very nearly tried to persuade her to change her mind, but had kept his silence, forcing himself to respect the decision that effectively kept them apart.

When he’d finally released her from his embrace, he had watched her retreating figure feeling as though she’d taken his heart with her. Even the fact that he knew very well that this state of affairs wouldn’t last forever didn’t seem to make being apart from her any more tolerable. The prospect of not being with her, just sharing the nuances of day-to-day, settled like a merciless frost in his heart. He was helplessly and intoxicatingly in love with her, more so now than even a week before, and it made the being apart all the more difficult. If anything, it served to drive home the fact that he wanted to be with her – to talk with, to work with, to hold as he drifted off to sleep, to just sit in silence with. And however many times he tried to rationalise his feelings and the wilful desires of his heart, he still couldn’t escape the fact that he felt intrinsically bound to her, that he had found in her the other side to his soul that had for so long been eclipsed by work.

As he swung through the front door into reception he noticed Bess start in visible surprise at the sight of him. She looked like he was the last person she expected to see.

“Mr Thornton!” She stepped forward, trying to compose her features into a less shocked expression. “You’re back!”

For once in his life he allowed that indifferent mask of well-practised remoteness to slip a little. Ahead of him – and Bess for that matter – lay a new path that would link their lives more closely if he wanted a future with Margaret. “I’m back,” he confirmed, unable to quite keep the disappointment out of his voice. Back in the world he’d known for so many years with all its familiar routines. And like a pilot switching to automatic so his mind flicked invariably towards work. “So how are things here? No problems I hope?”

“None that I know about,” Bess replied.

“My mother hasn’t been ruling over you all with a rod of iron, has she?” He came into the reception having espied a few papers floating in the In-Tray. He gathered them up, casting a quick cursory glance through them. They were mostly phone messages that he’d have to deal with in the morning. “I know what she can be like sometimes.”

“She’s been fine – towards me anyway,” Bess said, elaborating no further.

“Very diplomatic of you, Bess,” he mused as he looked up at her to see her regarding him pensively, as though she were speculating about something she didn’t really want to ask him outright about. But he could guess what it was about. “In case you’re wondering,” he said. “I’ve been in Helstone with Margaret. I’ve just dropped her home.”

“I did wonder,” she replied with a perceptive nod, although she not make any attempt to ask him questions, ever respectful of his privacy.

He nodded, aware of a certain understanding seeming to pass silently between them, their individual feelings for Margaret giving them some common ground. “I thought you might. Now, I suppose that having left Margaret with her parents, I had better go and let my own family know I’m home,” he said, retrieving the bag he’d dropped at his side when he’d scooped up his messages.

Bess threw him a smile he couldn’t quite fathom as being sympathy or amusement as he headed for the lift that would take him up to the flat. He expected an inquisition, almost certainly from Fran who was already becoming more curious about Margaret and clearly couldn’t quite figure out what the attraction was on his part – especially when someone like Ann Latimer was interested in him.

He threw his bag just inside his bedroom door as he went by on his way along the hall, heading in the direction of the living room. To his surprise he saw that his mother was alone. As he came into the room she glanced up from the paperwork balanced on her lap, her pleasure at his unexpected arrival spreading across her usually stern features and softening the austerity in her eyes.

“I take it you found her then?” she said, as he crossed to where she was sitting and said hello, dropping a perfunctory kiss onto her cool cheek.

Found her. Found myself. Found each other…

“I did.” He went to pour himself a glass of brandy and then settled himself into one of the armchairs, relaxing back into the cushions, extending his weary legs out in front of him to stretch them out. It had been a long drive and despite the breaks in the journey he still found that his body was as stiff as a board, as though every muscle had seized up and was refusing to release the tension imprisoned within them.

“I expected you and Margaret to come in together,” his mother said, appearing a little surprised by Margaret’s absence from his side. He wondered fleetingly what her reaction would actually have been if he’d walked in hand in hand with Margaret and announced that she’d be staying with him indefinitely.

“I dropped her at home,” he said. “She’s no doubt telling her parents all the news from Helstone as we speak.” He put the glass to his lips, tasting the brandy, feeling its warm, relaxing passage down the back of his throat. “Where’s Fran? Or Steven for that matter?” His gaze swept idly around the immaculately tidy room, everything in its place, a vase of lilies set upon the highly-polished sideboard, and for a brief second he thought that Fran and Steven might have returned to their own house, but then he noticed one of Fran’s cardigans haphazardly slung across the back of a chair and this particular thought shattered in an instant.

“They’ve gone out for a meal. Their table was booked for eight so they won’t be back for a while yet.”

“How have they been?”

“Very well. I still don’t know exactly what went on between the pair of them but whatever it was they seem to have resolved it. They appear very happy.”

Happy now, John ruminated, remembering the mortgage arrears that he’d paid for them in the hope that that would give the two of them enough room to breathe and try to arrange a more constructive way to pay off their other debts. He only prayed that Steven had the strength to get the help he needed and Fran the strength to be able to help him through it. Only time would tell, but he hoped for Fran’s sake that they would survive this particular and rather fierce storm in which they found themselves.

“Fran will always land on her feet, whatever happens,” he told his mother optimistically, well aware that, whatever might befall her, he would always help her if he could.

His mother, having no notion of the problems that had bubbled so devastatingly beneath the surface of her daughter’s marriage, turned her attentions quickly to other matters. “What was Helstone like? Is it a very large place?”

“It’s very small, very tight-knit. But the people are very welcoming. Margaret refers to it as Helstone hospitality.” He laughed quietly to himself as he reflected fondly on Margaret’s description of the locals, absently swirling the contents of his glass before he finished off its contents.

“Have you eaten?”

“We stopped several times on the way”, he said, thinking back to those stops they had made, the desperate desire that had gripped them both to try and cling to the final vestiges of their time together before they reached Milton again. “I ate then.”
He saw his mother’s curt nod, the slight tendency towards a grimace that bespoke of her disappointment that she couldn’t perform some small task of taking care of him.

She sat with her hands resting in her lap, her paperwork now abandoned beside her, her eyes trained upon him, assessing, surmising, as she tried to read what his expression might betray of the previous few days. “I take it that you and Margaret managed to sort yourselves out?”

He leaned forward, his forearms resting against his thighs as he held the empty glass before him, watching idly as the cut crystal surface glimmered in the light. His head still slightly lowered, he slowly raised his blue eyes to his mother. “We found the time to talk, yes.”

“I have to say, I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone to take off as suddenly as she did.”

“She had her reasons.”

“She could have told you what she was planning to do rather than make you go chasing after her as though your very life depended upon it!”

My life did depend upon it. And now all I want is to marry her…

But he didn’t say it. It was probably more than even his mother could endure to be hit with such a confession the minute he walked back through the door.

“By the way, I’ve asked Margaret to the Mill Owners Dinner on Saturday evening,” he said, diverting the subject.

His mother regarded him archly. “Well if some people still don’t know that the two of you are carrying on together then they certainly will by Saturday.”

“I’m not bothered about what other people think.”

“You might not be,” his mother remarked. “But that doesn’t necessary mean that Margaret shares your point of view. She might not like being the source of hotel gossip – because that’s what it’s become, John. Speculation and innuendo.”

Tension seeped over him, crawling through his veins. And yet he wasn’t shocked by his mother’s words. It was inevitable that the day would come when someone beyond the strict circle of his family would find out – although his fleeing after Margaret to Helstone had probably been the catalyst.

“What will you do about the gossip?” his mother asked, shifting slightly as though to see him better.

“Nothing,” he said, dismissively.

“Nothing?”

“Nothing.”

“Is that wise?”

“As you say,” he said with characteristic defiance. “Everyone will know on Saturday night anyway. By Sunday the rumours will be confirmed and that will probably be the end of it.”

“I hope you’re right.” She shook her head, seemingly despairing of his morose stance. “You haven’t given Margaret a lot of time to prepare for Saturday either, have you? Does she realise that she’ll need a costume?”

“I’ve told her to speak to Lily Henderson about it. She’ll have something for her.”

“I should think everyone who’s attending the Dinner has been to see Lily. There might not be anything left that will be suitable for Margaret.”

“Have a little faith, Mother,” he said, refusing to allow her words to cast a shadow over his delight that he was actually going to be able to take Margaret with him on Saturday. In truth, he couldn’t wait for the evening to come. “I take it everything is still on course for Saturday? No last minute glitches?”

“None. The florist will deliver the flower arrangements first thing on Saturday morning and your own costume is hanging behind your bedroom door. It came back from the dry cleaners yesterday.”

“It would mean a lot to me if you could at least try to like Margaret,” he said after a brief lull, getting out of his chair to put his glass next to the decanter. He didn’t return directly to his seat but walked across to the window, his hands in his pockets, and looked down onto the streets below. Familiar and unchanging, it was an eternity away from Helstone.

His mother’s voice sheared like a sword through his thoughts. “I don’t dislike her, John, whatever you may think.”

“But?”

He didn’t turn to look at his mother but he heard her audible sigh. “She’s still young. I know you don’t like hearing it but it’s simple fact.”

“People fall in love at a younger age than she is and stay together for the rest of their lives,” he answered, emphatically.

“In very rare instances.” Again the sigh of despair, the heavy heart.

The flashing blue lights and screeching of a siren jarred the rhythmic drone of cars as a police car went hurtling past below, tearing off to goodness knows where. It was the first time he’d heard a siren in three days and it had never sounded to him as alien as it did now. He was amazed by how acclimatised he’d become to Helstone.

“I just wish you to be happy, John,” she said, her tone infused with the warmth and affection that she’d always carried in her heart for him, the resilient boy who’d turned into an extraordinary man before her eyes.

“I am happy, Mother. She’s made me feel more alive than I’ve ever been in my entire life. She’s given me a reason to look forward. She’s the other half of me, the side I never saw. The side I buried.” For the first time in his life he saw emotion fill his mother’s eyes. “I want to hold onto that feeling,” he went on, his words emblazoned with a love that held him well and truly enchained. And he welcomed those chains, if it meant that he could love Margaret for the rest of his life. “Because she makes me whole.”

He felt his own emotions burn through his blood. Quietly he moved towards his mother who sat in stunned silence, staring at him. He rested his hand on her shoulder briefly, the gesture one of familiar and tender affection. He knew she loved him, that at the end of the day she only wanted his happiness. “Thank you for taking care of everything while I was away,” he said with sincere gratitude. Without her, he would never have been able to go to Helstone at the drop of a hat in the first place and for that he felt infinitely indebted. “I do appreciate it, believe me.”

She looked up at him as he towered over her. “I must say that I rather enjoyed it,” she said. “Although whether everyone else did is quite another matter.”

He laughed, thinking of Bess’s tactful remark. “It’ll be interesting then to see whether they all look pleased to see that I’m back,” he replied.

***

With the shadow of Henry no longer looming over her Margaret went to see Lily Henderson the following morning. She arrived at the address she’d been given by John at ten o’clock, arriving promptly, as was her habit, even though this appeared to surprise Lily considerably, who displayed all the signs of someone used to dealing with others who had no care for the timing of appointments.

“Margaret, you’d better come in. Don’t worry about the dogs – I thought a brisk walk would have made them less excitable, but as you can see it hasn’t really had the impact I’d hoped!”

Margaret looked down at the two dogs yapping around her legs in a frenzy of excitement. “What are their names?”

“Zeus and Apollo. I know. Why on earth does anyone want to name their dogs after Greek Gods?” Lily replied, flapping one well-manicured hand in the air as she gave a little laugh at her own perceived silliness. “Even I don’t remember what possessed me, but there you are. My husband thinks I’m completely crackers. Come on Zeus, Apollo.” She let out a cajoling whistle which made the dogs leave Margaret and pursue Lily down the floridly wallpapered passage towards the back of the house, their tails frenetically wagging, tongues hanging out. “Let’s get you out into the garden for a while, shall we? I can’t have you under my feet while I’m sorting out Margaret’s dress can I?”

Margaret stood in the doorway of the rather small and functional kitchen which still harboured a bowl filled with washing up, little heaps of assorted papers scattering the work surfaces and vying for supremacy amongst the numerous kitchen appliances on display. Margaret could imagine her mother’s face if she walked into this – her horror would be seeping from every pore of her skin. The dogs went tearing out of the back door after a couple of well-chewed balls Lily threw outside as a lure before shutting the door firmly after them. She turned back to Margaret, appearing rather apologetic as her gaze took in the disarray of her kitchen.

“You’ll have to excuse the mess. I’ve been so busy that I’m afraid the housework has taken a poor second place. Would you like a cup of coffee or tea? I’m sure I’ve got some clean mugs in the cupboard.”

“A coffee would be nice, thanks.”

“You don’t object to the instant granules do you? Some of the people I meet are alarmingly emphatic about their coffee – won’t touch anything out of a jar.”

“I really don’t mind how it comes.” Margaret said, watching as Lily bustled about the kitchen, making their coffee. “Do you hire out many dresses for the Annual Dinner?”

“A fair number, yes. Over the past few months I’ve seen women who, quite frankly, have absolutely no idea of what actually suits them. What they think will look absolutely stunning on them actually looks utterly ghastly most of the time! Some allow themselves to be guided by good sense and change their ideas, but others – well, you’ll probably see for yourself on Saturday how dreadful they can look.” She smiled sweetly at Margaret then. “You’re still young, of course. You can get away with anything. If I were your age and size I’d be in a mini skirt showing off my legs rather than hiding my assets in a pair of jeans. Anyway, shall we take these drinks through and have a look at the dress?”
“Do you ever go to the dinner yourself?” Margaret asked as she took a steaming mug from Lily and allowed her to lead her back along the passageway and into what was a rather spacious and equally busily-decorated lounge, wondering whether, having supplied the costumes, Lily actually had the chance to revel in the evening itself.

“Oh yes! It’s one of my yearly highlights, rubbing shoulders with the great and the good of Milton! John always comes up trumps each year too – mind you he runs a tight ship doesn’t he? No nonsense in that hotel! I’ve seen him looking quite demonic sometimes – not a pretty sight I can tell you!” Lily cried, throwing Margaret one of her more saccharine smiles. “I’m sure the last person he ever gets angry with is you though.”

“It has been known,” Margaret replied, taking a sip of her coffee.

“I don’t believe that for a minute!” Lily said, putting her mug on the mantelpiece over the open fireplace, which, instead of a grate, housed a large vase bursting with pinks. “Now, the dress is just over here. John thought it would suit you and I think he was right having seen you now.”

Margaret frowned at Lily’s mention of John. “Has he actually spoken to you about a costume for me then?”

“Oh yes, a while back now! I thought you knew. He asked me to put aside this particular dress before the mad rush because he thought you might need it at some point.”

“He only told me that he thought you might be able to help – not that he’d actually been involved in any way.” No wonder he’d referred to Lily as her fairy godmother. He’d already known that there was a dress ready and waiting here for her to claim.

Lily waved her hand, as though to say “you know how spontaneously generous men can be sometimes”. “Well, let me show you what he had in mind,” she said. “Come over here and have a peek.”

As Margaret’s eyes came to rest upon the seat of one armchair, she gave an exclamation of amazement. The first item was a petticoat made up of multi-layered flounces of tulle that fluffed out into an exuberant ivory cloud when Lily picked it up, giving full view to the extravagant fullness created by the many tiers of net that spanned from waist to floor, each layer luxuriously and lovingly trimmed with a thin band of ivory satin ribbon.

“And this is the dress I put aside at John’s request.” Lily laid the frothy petticoat over the back of the armchair and bent down to pull the dress free of the tissue paper in which it was carefully nestled, holding it up before her so that Margaret could see it more clearly.

“Oh, it’s beautiful!” Margaret put down her mug on the nearest surface and stepped forward to tentatively touch the silk of pale gold as it spilt like hazy sunlight towards the carpet where it pooled in a glorious mass of voluptuous folds. It was breathtakingly simplistic in its design, with a single flounce at its hem, the plunging neckline embellished with an edging of lace trim and the dress itself made so that it would settle just off the shoulders of the wearer. The fitted bodice narrowed into a “v” just below the waist before flourishing into the sumptuous waves of its full skirt. In the light it had a very subtle sheen to it, a radiance that filled the room with warmth. “It’s perfect! Really lovely! I wasn’t expecting anything like this.” And John had been the one instrumental in it being here ready for her. She couldn’t believe it! How had he even known what would be right for her? What she’d instinctively like?

“He knows you well, doesn’t he?” Lily said. “And you’ll certainly be a rose amongst the thorns dressed in this!” Margaret looked at her distractedly and Lily smiled benevolently. “He mentioned that he had met some opposition from your mother concerning his relationship with you – nothing in any great detail, so please don’t think he’s told me any secrets because he most certainly hasn’t done that.”

“His mother and mine both,” Margaret replied.

“Can’t see the wood for the trees?”

“Something like that.”

“Mothers worry. It’s part of their make-up. I should know – I have two lads of my own and I still fret about whether they’re eating properly and taking care of themselves,” Lily said, casting a fond glance towards the mantelpiece where a photograph of two young men, obviously her sons judging by their features, held pride of place on the mantelpiece, ornaments flanking either side of it like sentinels. Lily looked back to Margaret. “That doesn’t mean that they won’t come round to your way of thinking eventually. At the end of the day both Hannah and your own mother want what’s best for you. And if they see that for the two of you, it’s actually each other, then they’ll quite happily go along with it.” She reached forward and patted Margaret’s hand consolingly. “They’ll surprise you one day. That’s another thing mothers do.”

Margaret nodded in acknowledgement, fingering the soft material of the dress, bowled over by its iridescent beauty. When on earth had John found the time to liase with Lily so secretively? She couldn’t even believe it had even crossed his mind to do something like that, particularly after he had taken so long to actually ask her formally. There were sides to him that she hadn’t even known existed, his capacity to both surprise and take her breath away with a single gesture like this touching her very soul.

“I think you had better try it on,” Lily said, gesticulating to the dress, bringing Margaret out of her thoughts. “We must make sure you fit into it – although I have to say I think John seems to have got your size fairly accurate. Come with me, you can use the spare room. Let me show you where it is.”

***

Margaret walked into reception that afternoon, her spirits soaring and her mood so unashamedly buoyant that she was gripped by the impulsive desire to just shout out at the top of her voice how happy she was. Her trip to see Lily this morning had further heightened her sense of exultation, her thoughts still preoccupied in astonished wonder that she actually had John to thank for the incredible dress that she’d carefully hung on the outside of her wardrobe in her bedroom when she’d safely got it home earlier. She still had no idea how he had managed to keep the secret from her, but she would find out…at a time when the opportunity presented itself to her she would find out.

“My goodness, Margaret! You look well! Helstone obviously agreed with you! Did you enjoy yourself?” Bess exclaimed the minute she spotted her coming into reception.

“Hello Bess.” She greeted her friend with a brief hug, glad that her first shift back was with her rather than anyone else. “It was lovely. Really lovely.”

For the first time she noticed that John was standing at the bottom of the staircase deep in conversation with a guest. She knew too that he must have heard Bess’s cries of delight and, sure enough, as she glanced across at him his eyes strayed to hers at precisely the same moment, so subliminally and yet so potently, as the one acknowledged the other with the very briefest of looks. The fact that she couldn’t just run over and throw her arms around his neck only heightened the feelings that immediately began to effervesce inside her at the sight of him. If they’d been in Helstone she wouldn’t have hesitated; she’d be in his arms right at this moment, searching for his lips impatiently with hers, but they were back in the midst of real life. They had obligations, commitments. She was one of a team of receptionists. He was her boss – during working hours at least. His reputation was steeped in the hotel and the last thing she would do to him was to jeopardise that with risqué behaviour.

Outwardly she portrayed absolute composure and equanimity – the very epitome of professionalism with her hair swept ruthlessly back from her face and restrained by its clip with little hope of falling free as was its perpetual wont. As always, her make-up was minimal, only a brief slick of mascara and the faintest bloom of naturally coloured lip-gloss, while her body was smartly donned in the rather rigid formality of the hotel uniform. Nothing, however, could dampen the unmistakable glow that seemed to beam from her like an internal fire.

“You got to sort everything out then, judging by the look on your face,” Bess commented, her head nodding slightly in John’s direction, implicitly confirming that she knew whom Margaret had been with in Helstone.

“We did.” Margaret smiled tenderly in John’s direction. His pull on her, even when he seemed otherwise occupied in something else, was ruthlessly powerful. It always had been though. Ever since the first day she’d seen him. He’d drawn her towards him then and he’d been doing it every day since. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw him there.” Her attention returned to Bess, her voice low. “I didn’t expect him to come after me like that. Not in a million years.”

“At least you know he loves you,” Bess said in equally hushed tones. “I’m really pleased for you both, especially after the way you left the other day. You looked so unhappy I was really worried about you – but I obviously wasn’t the only one.”

“It appears not, no.”

“He looks very happy too,” Bess commented. “He looks younger somehow. Less severe looking.”

“Perhaps he’s been using my anti-wrinkle cream on the sly,” Margaret laughed.

“I don’t think his new-found youthfulness is down to a jar, Margaret. At least I don’t think they can manufacture true love yet.”

“Shh, he’ll hear you!” Margaret said, colouring slightly, trying hard to keep her calm. Once again, she found herself looking towards John. He was dressed in a dark grey suit, almost charcoal in colour, his hair just skimming the top of his white shirt, its black layers neatly groomed into place. He looked so formal, the business suit replacing the jeans and casual shirts that he’d worn over the past few days. His posture was graceful, straight, relaxed, with no hint of severity about him at all. How anyone could think of him as forbidding and remote she didn’t know. “I love him so much, Bess. I didn’t think I could but I do. He’s so different from the person everyone here knows.”

“You say that, but Nick always thought he was a decent human being. But I think it’s the fact that they seem to share the same work ethic that makes him feel like that. And I’ve never found him too bad to work for – but you know that.”

“So, can you see yourself going out for a meal with the two of us one day? You and Nick. John and I.”

“Oh, I’m sure I’d manage it after I got over the fact that I was socialising with my boss.”

“Can you imagine John and Nick together?” Margaret giggled. “I wonder what they’d find to talk about?”

“Work, because that seems to be what takes up most of their waking hours,” Bess intoned, shaking her head in despair. “We probably wouldn’t be able to shut them up about it.”

The pair of them dissolved into a bout of restrained laughter just as John’s conversation with the guest ended and John turned to meet Margaret’s eyes. The pair of them sobered instantly in response to his attention before Bess discreetly left Margaret’s side to get on with some work in the adjoining office, allowing the two of them to at least say hello to each other.

Margaret stood riveted to the spot as she watched his approach. Even with the presence of Bess in the next room, she was convinced that if she allowed herself to move even a fraction it would be enough to trigger the longing to go crashing headlong into his arms. He moved into the reception area where she stood so solidly rooted, the barrier of the desk no longer a hindrance between them. He wasn’t even touching her and yet it was as though he was caressing her with his eyes. Her skin pricked, an ever-increasing bloom of colour spreading across every exposed surface. Desperately she defied the tug of her body towards his, the current that flowed between them almost too much to fend off.

“I missed you last night,” he said, the cadence of his voice hitting that deeply intimate note that threatened to melt her bones. He came towards her so that he was standing very close. If she put out her hand even slightly she’d be touching him. “Not to mention all the hours since.”

“I missed you too.”

And she had, the emptiness she’d felt in not being with him as she’d been in Helstone like an interminable sentence marked by those long, slowly crawling hours from which there had seemed to be no let-up. It was the closeness, the sharing of the moment that she’d missed most, the physical presence of him as the steady rhythm of his heart had lulled her into the tranquil folds of slumber. Then she smiled, living the moment presented to her now, cherishing it, clinging to it. “I’m here now though.”

“So you are.” Her stomach felt as though it had been invaded by butterflies, all of which were flapping frantically in a bid to escape. How was it possible for him to make her feel so exposed just with the slightest inflection of his voice? The fact that he seemed to be able to look straight into her, his eyes so capable of peeling away all the layers to reveal what lay inside, was disconcerting enough.

And how could it be that he could make her feel like this – as though they were standing here utterly alone? Bess was working just beyond the door she’d discreetly pushed to so that it stood just ajar, and the sounds of the hotel, of people’s chatter, and the noise from the street beyond buzzed all around her.

And yet it seemed to her that they were entirely removed from all that activity…that it was just the two of them…nothing else…no one else…just them…And she had to fight against it, against the all-encompassing presence of him. Just the fact that they were somewhere so exposed to the scrutiny of other people should be enough to stop them…shouldn’t it? Shouldn’t it?

“I want to kiss you,” he said hypnotically, his gaze lowering to her prettily stained lips.

Her hazel eyes flashed provocatively. “I don’t think that would go down very well, do you?”

His own gaze ranged around them. “Who with? We’re on our own as far as I can tell.”

“Alone, but surrounded by people,” she reminded him. “Listen.”

“I can’t hear anything,” he said, edging even closer, his eyes boring into hers, drinking her in. Her heart was thudding so hard that it was incredible he didn’t comment that he could hear it.

“You’re not listening then.”

“True, but I’d much rather look at you.”

“John! I’m supposed to be working!”

“So am I. But I still want to kiss you.”

“People will see. And you don’t want to be the source of gossip do you?”

“If you’re trying to put me off it won’t work because it already appears that we’re the topic of frenzied speculation.” Margaret’s face paled a little. She appeared surprised, a little discomforted. “Does it bother you?” he asked searchingly, hating to see her uncomfortable.

She shrugged. “I don’t know. A little, I suppose. I don’t really want our relationship being talked about.”

“I think they’re probably too busy trying to work out what on earth possessed you to come anywhere near me,” he said with a heavy dose of ironic self-depreciation.

“And I don’t suppose they’d believe that it was your magnetic charm would they?” she responded, her mood lightening.

“Is that what it was? I thought you just fell madly in love with me.”

“I did.”

“Truly, madly, deeply?”

“Truly, madly, deeply.”

“You’re amazing.”

Before Margaret had a chance to answer him Melanie, having been assigned to the bar in the absence of Lisa, came darting out from the bar to hand in a note of items needed from the brewery, her face flushing as she saw them standing barely within inches of each other. The intimately charged bubble burst abruptly around them. In Melanie came the overwhelming evidence that they weren’t alone at all and that life shimmered all around as they’d stood transfixed in their noiseless world of togetherness.

“Oh! You’re back!” she gasped.

John stepped quickly away from Margaret and looked towards Melanie, his countenance changing to one of impassive enquiry, his voice cool. “Do you want something Melanie?”

Her eyes darted towards Margaret, her mouth opening as though a suspicion had been answered in very loud, booming tones. Margaret threw her a quiet smile before turning her attentions to some menus that Nick had left to be typed up, her eyes staring down at the words but seeing none of them, her attention entirely upon John who, adopting his usual mask, had taken the piece of paper wafting aimlessly in Melanie’s hand and was talking to her about the list of items that had been written down for phoning through to the brewery.

“And we have enough in the cellar for Saturday night?” he said when he looked up at her. “Because I really don’t want to find that someone has neglected to order something.”

“Duncan says we have. The cases of champagne were delivered yesterday and they were the only things we were waiting on as far as I know. Duncan could tell you though.”

“I’ll speak to him later. You’d better get back to the bar now and give Duncan a hand.”

“Oh, it’s very quiet in there at the moment,” Melanie replied, her blase attitude doing little to instil her greatly in John’s esteem.

“Then I suggest you find a suitably constructive way to use your time,” John said rather icily, to which Melanie scampered off at top speed, back to the relative safety of the bar and the ever-tolerant Duncan.

“Poor Mel. You scared her half to death!”

John ignored the sympathetic ring to Margaret’s remark. “The last time I saw that ex-boyfriend of yours he was sitting in that bar monopolising Lisa – leaving Duncan running about like a headless chicken. I have no intention of allowing Melanie to think she can do the same.”

“Well Henry’s gone so he won’t be bothering us or anyone else again,” Margaret said without thinking about the words tripping out of her mouth.

Surprised satisfaction streaked across John’s face. “How do you know?”

She smiled vaguely. “My parents.” Well, it was true to a certain extent.

He nodded, although she was surprised – and relieved – that he didn’t question her further. “I have to say it’ll be nice not to turn round and find him lurking in the shadows like some malicious goblin,” he replied, adding on a rather more brutal note: “And it’s probably just as well I didn’t see him before he left, after what he tried to do to you the other day. I’m not sure I’d have been able to control myself.”

She saw that he meant every word and that, although he tolerated Henry having once been a part of her life, he would probably never forgive him for his behaviour towards her. Oh God, if only she could just put her arms around him and show him that she understood how he felt! Show him that it didn’t matter anymore! “It’s better this way though. Letting him just go without any more confrontations.”

His mouth twisted. “I know. But it might have offered a very satisfying conclusion.”

“Restraint is more devastating than reaction as far as dealing with Henry is concerned,” she said.

He went to reach out and touch her cheek, but even as his hand moved up towards her face she saw him lower it again, resisting the temptation. His eyes clung to hers. “How much more wisdom is there in that head of yours?”

“I have no idea. All I know is that none of it matters now. Henry’s gone.”

But she stopped short of divulging the fact that Henry had been at the house when she’d got home last night.

No, she thought. Save it for another day. It didn’t matter now.

***

They were alone. For the first time in the few days since they’d been back at work they had gleaned some time together at last. His mother had gone out, off to her book group, armed with the latest novel that was being slowly digested and discussed within an inch of its life, and Fran and Steven had left some half an hour before – according to the note in Fran’s flamboyant scrawl that had been left on the sideboard.

It had only been when they were inside the living room that John had realised that it was the first time Margaret had ever visited the flat, this place he called home. As he had stood back and watched her survey her surroundings he had noticed the frown that had perpetrated her expression as she’d realised that there were no photographs on any of the surfaces.

“They reminded my mother of things I think she wanted to forget,” he said, pre-empting her question that he knew would come. After all, the lounge in Winchester Way was so markedly different from this room. Even the presence of the white lilies favoured by his mother did little to soften the solely functional aura of the room itself. It was a room, he realised now, that he had always existed in rather than actually lived in.

She looked at him. “Like your father’s memory?” she asked softly.

“Something like that,” he admitted with a painful smile. Even though he had spoken to her about the past, still he found it stab at him like a dart whenever it was mentioned. But he wouldn’t hide from it, he wouldn’t lock himself up in it again. The fact that he could actually bring himself to speak about it at all was something he owed solely to Margaret.

“I think it was her way of dealing with it,” he said.

“Did you ever see her cry?”

He shook his head. “Never. Not even at the funeral. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her cry in the course of my entire life come to think of it.”

“She must be a remarkable woman to have come through it all,” Margaret said, thoughtfully.

“She is,” he agreed. “She has a lot of fortitude and courage, despite her offhandedness.”

“A bit like her son then,” Margaret replied, coming purposefully towards him and linking her arms around him loosely.

He drew her down with him onto the sofa then, reclining back and pulling her against him so that her head settled against his chest comfortably, the pair of them just happy to be together, to share the peace of being alone again. This was what he had craved for – just being together, solely together, whether talking or in silence.

“You never did tell me – was there any reaction when you told your parents you were with me in Helstone?” he asked after a while, his curiosity getting the better of him. He had wanted to ask her since the first time he’d seen her after coming back to work, but had always found himself sidetracked by one thing or another.

“Apart from my mother thinking I’d brought shame on the family by staying with you without being – um – shall we say, formally attached, they didn’t really say much,” Margaret said, seeming to immediately realise what she’d said and lowering her eyes from his.

He wouldn’t indulge her embarrassment, however, and put his fingers beneath her chin to raise her face towards his, his focus entirely upon her, consuming her, absorbing every nuance of her veiled and now demure expression. “In plain English, I think that the word you’re searching for is married isn’t it?”

A faint bloom crawled unmistakably across her complexion, her sudden shyness endearingly touching. “That would be the more concise way of putting it, I suppose,” she answered, trying to sound casual, as though he were referring to an item on a shopping list rather than something as serious as marriage.

Again he found every hope he held so tight inside come rushing to the surface, demanding to be heard, to be given free vent. I want you! I want to marry you! He forced the words down, showing nothing of the battle waging within him in the infinitely tender expression he bestowed upon her. “Your mother’s just got old fashioned values, Margaret. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“I know.”

“So,” he said softly after a brief pause, unable to resist the question, tipping his head to one side as he considered her, his eyes not once leaving hers. Just one question and then he would stop…”Tell me what it would be like.”

“What?”

Our wedding…”Your wedding.”

She gave a small, astonished laugh, as though she couldn’t quite believe he’d asked her. “Why are you asking me something like that?”

He shrugged as he feigned complacency, praying that she wouldn’t notice how fast and hard his heart was pounding. Every part of him sparked with anticipation.

“I’m just curious, that’s all,” he said neutrally, seeing her lower her eyes self-consciously.

“I don’t know. Something traditional,” she told him, and then, without warning, her gaze lifted to his, the clouds of her bewilderment clearing as she openly permitted him access to the dreams that she’d never shared with anyone. “The usual thing: a church with bells ringing out, a dress that makes me feel beautiful, and a fantastic reception filled with celebration.” She smiled wistfully. “I suppose it’s what every girl wants, isn’t it?”

“The ubiquitous fairytale?” he mused, tenderly.

“Well I couldn’t deprive my mother of wearing some monstrosity of a hat, could I?” she laughed.

“Maybe not.” He was determined to keep the conversation light-hearted. “What is it about mothers and hats? I’ve never understood it myself.”

She smiled, unable to offer any sort of explanation. “You’d have to ask my mother, I’m afraid.”

Just one more question, then he promised himself that he’d leave the subject alone…“Is it something you think about very often?”

“Getting married?” He nodded silently, aware of himself holding his breath in anticipation of her answer. “Not really. It’s for the future isn’t it? A bit like having children.”

He let the air fill his lungs, his breathing returning to a more regular state, despite her rather guarded response. Was it his imagination or was her voice shaking just a fraction? He was well aware that she was trying to work out where he was leading with his enquiries. Goodness knows, he was close to throwing caution to the wind and dropping to his knees right at this very moment and asking her! As it was, he’d very nearly asked her twice already – once in that field in Helstone when she’d stood there before him looking like an angel with a startling scarlet poppy bound in her hair and then again during those intensely passionate hours of their last night together when he had wanted to cry out everything that was in his heart…

He dipped his head to deliver a series of very brief but extremely sensual kisses onto her mouth, as her arms coiled about his neck, the hairs on the back of his head lifting at her touch. He slipped his hands beneath her top, feeling the velvet softness of her skin, roaming lazily, tracing the path of her spine up and down, up and down, feeling her little shudders of pleasure beneath his fingers, the murmurings of joy that escaped her lips.

“You haven’t told me whether your trip to see Lily was successful – although bearing in mind the fact that the dinner’s in a few days’ time I assume you found something suitable,” he said, forcing his thoughts to veer towards the safer territory of the forthcoming dinner.

“Well you should know how it went.”

“What do you mean?” He pulled slightly back from her, adopting a look that was entirely innocent, even though that was the last thing he was. Just the gleam in her eye spoke of the fact that he’d been rumbled.

“John Thornton, don’t you sit there looking so innocent! You could have told me that you’d spoken to Lily about a dress for me! And don’t pretend you didn’t because she’s already told me as much!”

He grinned at her, his blue eyes sparkling, the concealments dropping. “Did you like the dress?” he asked, knowing that if it hadn’t been suitable then Lily would have been on the phone telling him so straight away.

Margaret inclined her head, her expression reflective. “It was beautiful.”

“Can I see you in it?”

“You can wait until Saturday.”

He threw her a look of feigned disappointment. “Don’t I get a sneak preview?

“No you don’t!”

“Please?”

“No!”

He kissed her softly. “I love you.”

“I love you.”

“Why don’t you bring it into work tomorrow and show me what you look like in it?” he said, doing his utmost to sound suitably persuasive, wondering whether she would actually buckle under enough pressure from him to do as he requested. He was counting on the fact that she wouldn’t relent. Half the pleasure was in the waiting.

Thankfully for him, whether she thought he was seriously asking her or not, she shook her head firmly, refusing absolutely to be swayed. “No! And before you ask me again – No!”

He couldn’t resist one last prod. “So I have to be like everyone else and wait until Saturday?”

“I’m sure you’ll survive. You’ll have too much else to think about.”

“With what?”

“Work?”

“Oh yes, that.”

She ran her finger over his lips like a feather, her gaze lowered in intent study of its progress. “Don’t worry I’ll still be here.”

He propelled her closer, his eyes searching hers. She was so beautiful, so bewitching. “But for how long, Miss Hale?”

“For as long as you want, Mr Thornton.”

He felt every nerve ending in his body tingle at her reply. He might not be proposing, but it didn’t stop him from wanting to know whether she was as serious as he was. “Is that a promise?”

“It’s a promise,” she whispered, as she wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled his mouth impatiently towards hers, sinking into him, delighting in the love that spun them in its silken web.

His last thought as his lips found hers was that he was going to ask her – that he wasn’t going to put it off indefinitely while he flailed helplessly in the ensuing agony of having to hold all his desires and wishes inside of him.

He was resolved. He would do it.

He would throw himself at her feet and let her decide his fate…
 

 

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