The eager light seeping through the narrow gap in the curtains, like a glowing finger of energy reaching out to her across the room, woke her early. As her bleary eyes flickered open, instinctively blinking as she made the transition from sleep to waking, she felt an unequivocal frisson echo through her as her brain registered the day.
It was here at last!
She turned on her side, contemplating the day ahead, her gaze darting automatically towards the wardrobe where her dress hung in patient readiness. In the morning light it shimmered with vivid radiance making her stomach somersault in anticipation of the evening to come. It had been so long since she’d had a chance to dress up for a formal occasion that she couldn’t wait for the day to be gone so that she could throw herself into the evening. The last time she’d had any opportunity of dressing up had been at her cousin, Edith’s wedding to Maxwell a couple of years ago in London. Not that she’d felt anything then like the excitement she was experiencing now.
She couldn’t wait. She could imagine how well the hotel would lend itself to such an evening, how evocative it would be of an era now long passed with everyone donned in period costume, echoing the celebrations of numerous Dinners before when the local mill owners had come to meet. Even the prospect of not knowing very many of the people who’d be attending didn’t hold the ability to concern her too much – nor did the fact that she would probably be watched like a hawk by Mrs Thornton for the duration of the entire evening.
She glanced at the clock ticking quietly on the cabinet beside her bed and saw that it was six-thirty. She would have to get up; she couldn’t lie here idly engaging in daydreams of what the evening would be like any longer. She was due at work in an hour and on this day of all days she knew that she couldn’t afford to be late. Her usual morning routine beckoned, its call becoming keener as she lingered a little longer. If she tarried any more she’d run out of time. She sighed as she reluctantly kicked back the duvet and swung her feet off the bed, pushing her dishevelled hair back from her face. The day would pass soon enough and at least work would help the hours to pass quicker than they would if she was at home.
She lifted her still torpid body from the bed to begin the process of getting ready for work, unable to resist sweeping her palm down the dress that awaited her and smiling with happy anticipation as she walked past it on the way out of the door.
Her parents were already up and dressed by the time she got downstairs to grab her usual mug of coffee and she saw her mother glance up at her as she came into the room.
“You’re a bit later than usual this morning, Margaret,” she said. “Did you oversleep?”
She wasn’t going to tell her mother that she’d been daydreaming. “My alarm didn’t go off.” Well, that was true – partly. It didn’t matter that she’d actually switched it off in the first place to stop its shrill, badgering call ringing through her head.
Her mother tut-tutted reprovingly. “You must have forgotten to set it last night.”
“Probably. Morning, dad.” She threw her father a broad smile of greeting before turning to the counter to make herself half a mug of coffee. She didn’t have time for anything more because she’d have to be out of the house in about ten minutes if she wanted to get to work on time.
“Would you like me to give you a lift to the hotel tonight, Margaret?” her father asked.
“It might be better than having to get a taxi.”
Margaret turned appreciatively to her father as she sipped her drink, leaning back against the kitchen counter. “That would be brilliant, dad, if you don’t mind.”
His eyes crinkled at the sides. “Of course I don’t mind. I’d be very proud to take my daughter to her ball.”
“It’s not a ball it’s a dinner,” Maria corrected.
“There will be some dancing. They’ve got a band coming in to play classical music,” Margaret said.
“It’s occasions like this that show that you really should have taken ballroom dance classes when you were younger, Margaret,” her mother went on, sighing reproachfully under her breath as she sipped her tea. She’d never really forgiven Margaret for refusing point-blank to involve herself in the classes. “I told you you’d need to be able to know how to dance properly one day. And now that day’s arrived and you can’t even waltz!”
She allowed her mother’s criticism to wash over her, deciding that nothing would spoil the prospect of the evening for her. “Look on the bright side, mum. No one will be able to see what steps I’m doing because I’ll have a long dress on. It’ll hide my lack of dance skills perfectly.”
Her father smiled in amusement while her mother shook her head in complete despair.
“That’s not really the point, Margaret,” she chided.
“I know, but it’s a bit late for me to have a crash course now, isn’t it?” Margaret replied, light-heartedly.
“Can John dance?”
Margaret shrugged passively. “I’ll find that out tonight.” She took another couple of sips from her mug and poured the rest of the contents down the sink. “Right, I’d better go to work. See you both later on.”
She kissed them both and was gone.
The streets were quiet as she walked the relatively short distance to work, her heels echoing against the puddle-strewn pavement in quick, decisive steps as she made her way from Winchester Way towards the High Street that was only just beginning to stir into life. Milton in the morning, she thought. The smell of wet concrete from the rain they’d had in the night drifted up to her. A couple of men were picking up the rubbish that was littered in places on the wet floor and emptying the overfilled bins, one of them whistling to himself as he worked. He glanced up at Margaret as she went past and nodded in acknowledgement before returning to his work. A number of people were walking in the same direction as her up the pedestrianised area, dressed smartly, on their way to their offices and, no doubt, to the station to catch a train, some with briefcases and newspapers folded under their arm.
“Margaret! Hang on a minute!”
Into her thoughts came a familiar voice and she turned automatically to see Helena coming out of a newsagent waving some sort of magazine that was clutched in her hand. Margaret stopped and waited for Helena to catch up with her so that they could walk the rest of the way to work together.
“The big day’s arrived then,” Helena said, looking fairly animated as she reached Margaret’s side. “You’re so lucky being able to go. I wish I was.”
Margaret smiled. Since she’d got back from Helstone people had started to make vague, mostly indirect comments about her relationship with John, not actually asking her outright whether it was true that they were seeing each other but just assuming that they were, just as they’d all assumed – correctly as it happened – that she was attending the dinner tonight with him. All except Helena, that was, whose curiosity always seemed to get the better of her.
“I bet you can’t wait,” Helena went on as they resumed walking in the direction of the hotel.
”No,” Margaret smiled, unable to hide the excitement she was feeling. “I’m really looking forward to it.”
“I bet John scrubs up well too.” Helena would never dare call John by his christian name to his face, Margaret mused, even though she was speaking about him now with a rather careless familiarity. “I was talking to Melanie yesterday and she worked last year and said that most of the women in the room looked like they were drawling over him – particularly that woman he took with him. Some friend of his sister’s, Melanie said. Not that she’ll be there this year. Not with you taking her place.”
“He only took her as a friend, Helena,” Margaret said, pertinently, seeking to quash the speculation she saw in Helena’s expression.
This didn’t appear to deter Helena. “There was loads of speculation about her – you must have heard about it on the grapevine at work. Not that I can remember her name now. I don’t really see her around the hotel anymore, now I think of it. Her father’s something in property.”
“I heard that.”
“But you haven’t met her?”
“Aren’t you curious to know about her?”
Margaret shook her head. “Why should I be?”
“Previous girlfriend and all that,” Helena replied, seeming intrigued by Margaret’s lack of interest.
“She wasn’t his girlfriend, Helena,” Margaret sighed. “She never was. Now, can we change the subject and you tell me whether you’re ready for your holiday tomorrow?”
John glimpsed down at his watch, his thoughts turning to the preparations that would go into full swing during the course of the morning, his weeks of discussion with Edward Lamb finally reaching fruition. His mother would be overseeing the arrangement of the tables in readiness for the evening, just as she did every year, her ever-watchful eye on the efficient working of the staff, as well as patrolling the corridors of the hotel bedrooms in her usual fashion to make sure that everything there was done properly. Nick would have the kitchen under tight control, every member of the kitchen staff from kitchen porter to second chef knowing precisely what his job entailed and exactly what was expected of him. Duncan would be dealing with the sorting out of the alcohol required for the dinner, bringing up the wines and champagne from the cellar in readiness, as well as sorting out the glasses that would be needed. He’d already told Duncan that he’d give him a hand with the boxes of wine and champagne from the cellar and the glasses and that Lisa would deal with the setting up of the bar in readiness for its usual opening rather than Duncan himself having to do it.
His mother was sitting across the table, the scratching of her knife against the toast she was buttering the only sound between them as they sat in a mutual silence. It would be a long day for her, he knew, the hours of helping to prepare blending seamlessly into the hours that would be spent actually attending the dinner and socialising with everyone who came. And yet he knew that her stamina would never flag, that she’d end the day as alert and as refreshed as she appeared now. He never really knew whether she actually enjoyed the occasion or whether it evoked in her memories of when she used to assist his father. Occasionally he wondered whether it was the wanting to fend off memories that was the true reason behind her need to keep herself busy during the day’s build up – so busy that she didn’t have time to think about those other times when her life had been so different from the way it was now. He’d never asked her – never really felt it his place to do so – not wanting to be the one to bring shadows into her eyes.
She glanced across at him then, as though sensing him watching her.
“Another year, another dinner,” he said, pushing aside his thoughts of other times, concentrating on the present rather than the past. God knows it was the present he was interested it.
She inclined her head, her bland expression shielding any feelings she might have on the matter, her knife resting on the side of her plate. “Is Margaret looking forward to it?”
“She says she is.”
“I don’t suppose living in Helstone created many opportunities for attending a function such as this.”
“You make Helstone sound like another planet, Mother,” he said with wry amusement. “I’m sure they’ve had their own celebrations there too in the past. In fact, if the people I met there are anything to go by, I should think they would have been pretty lively affairs.” God willing, he’d have the chance of finding out for himself if Margaret agreed to marry him.
“Helstone seems to have had quite an impact on you,” his mother said, her toast now seemingly forgotten, her attention centred solely upon him.
The last thing he was going to do was to deny it. “I enjoyed being there. In fact, I’m seriously considering buying a cottage in the village if one comes up.” He saw his mother’s eyes widen as she took in his words, the natural jumping to a conclusion that wasn’t entirely accurate. “As a holiday home, rather than somewhere to move to permanently,” he added.
“Does Margaret know about this plan of yours? Or was she the one to suggest it to you?”
“Yes, of course she knows. And no, it was entirely my idea.” He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms as he surveyed his mother’s face, now alight with suspicion as to what she must perceive to be Margaret’s influence upon him. “My decisions are my own and no one else’s – just as they’ve always been,” he stated, decisively. “In fact, when I told Margaret she was as surprised as you. I don’t think she expected it at all.”
“Don’t be too impulsive in your decisions, John.”
He sighed, feeling the iron tendrils of motherly protection closing around him. For years he had floated in an abyss, plodding from day to day, not really thinking of anything beyond his work, not really considering his own wishes and needs. It was this person his mother had become accustomed to. He had never really considered or realised how much until this moment, when her very resistance to his plans showed themselves to visible effect, unable to remain hidden behind nonchalant eyes. And now, more than at any other time in his life, he realised the need to be entirely honest with her.
“Any major decisions I make are rarely – if ever – impulsive, as you know.”
“I realise that, John,” she conceded.
“And at the moment the idea of a house in Helstone is only an idea. It may or may not come to anything.”
“When will you have time to go to Helstone anyway? It seems a long way to go just for the odd night or two.”
“I’ll just have to take a few more holidays then, won’t I?” he said, glancing briefly down at the headline in the paper before him, although he barely took any of it in.
“With Margaret I suppose?”
“Yes, of course with Margaret.” He sighed then, methodically folding the paper and putting it to one side, drawing in his breath. “I think you ought to know that I have made one other decision which will have more immediate consequences for this family.”
He met her eyes as he spoke. “I’m going to ask Margaret to marry me.”
Hannah Thornton looked into the face of her only son and felt the unusual sensation of tears pricking behind her eyes. Half of her wanted to tell him to wait, at least for a little longer, to be cautious, but just the expression on his face was enough to leech away all reasoned argument from her. It was so obvious, more so now than ever; it emanated from every pore. He loved Margaret.
“And you think she’ll accept?” she heard herself say as she snapped herself out of the silence that engulfed her.
“I hope so,” he replied, optimistically. “I’m counting on it.”
“When are you planning to ask her?”
“Don’t you think she might not want to get married yet? With the best will in the world, John, at twenty you were planning to travel abroad. You had no plans to settle down. And although Margaret may not want to travel the world, she probably enjoys the freedom of being single.”
“She’s not single. She’s seeing me.”
Hannah grimaced. “Oh John! For heaven’s sake, you know what I mean!”
He smiled as he acknowledged her words. “I understand your reservations – God knows, I’ve had them too – but it’s the right thing to do. At the end of the day, Margaret knows her own mind – as do I.”
She sighed. He was a grown man. She couldn’t change his mind even if she wished to. Logically she’d always known that. She’d have to accept Margaret as her daughter-in-law and make the best of it. “If Margaret’s your choice then that’s the way it has to be,” she said, attempting to sound philosophical about the entire thing. “As long as you’re happy. That’s all that matters.“
“You already know how happy she’s made me. I told you that the other day.”
Her thoughts shifted back to the evening he’d returned from Helstone. She had expected something to happen then – that the pair of them would stand before her and calmly announce that they were going to live together or, indeed, that they had planned to get married. When that hadn’t happened she had felt some relief, as though she’d been given a reprieve. His words to her about Margaret had, she knew, reflected the strength of his feelings that evening. And now he had made up his mind and she had no choice but to accept his decision. Refusing would only alienate him from her and she couldn’t bear to think of that.
She looked at him seriously, her tone conciliatory. “The things I’ve said in the past about Margaret have always been well meant, John. I hope you know that. One day – when you and Margaret have children of your own – you’ll come to understand that parents only want what’s best for their children and that that sentiment doesn’t alter with the changing attitudes of a modern society nor with the fact that those children grow up and become adults themselves.” Her voice wavered ever so slightly. She would always love him; as his mother she could do nothing but. It was programmed into her. And she, better than anyone, understood how much he deserved the happiness he seemed to have found with Margaret. The last thing she could do was to deny him that by tarnishing it with prejudice. “I hope Margaret realises how lucky she is,” she said, picking up her knife again, resuming the interminable scraping of her toast, this time with some marmalade hooked out of the jar before her.
“I don’t know about Margaret. I think I’m the lucky one to actually have met her in the first place,” he replied with a smile that spoke more than words possibly could.
“I’ll be interested to see your sister’s face when she finds out.”
“Let’s just get past today first and then worry about when I’m going to tell her,” he said. “I’m not sure I’ve got time to listen to Fran going into overdrive because I want to marry someone she hasn’t actually met yet.”
“They’ll be able to meet each other at the Dinner tonight,” she pointed out.
“I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing quite frankly,” he responded, finishing his coffee. He smiled across at her warmly, as though to assure her that everything would be fine and that she didn’t need to worry.
She watched in silence as he stood up and picked up his newspaper, just as he did every morning, before moving around the table to kiss her cheek before he left the flat to begin what would be a very busy day.
Only when he left to go downstairs to work did her guard begin to lower as she sat there alone at the table, the remnants of breakfast before her. Everywhere seemed so quiet suddenly. There was no sign yet of either Fran or Steven, their tendency being to sleep in at the weekends. She pushed her toast away, no longer having the appetite for it and sighed.
Memories clamoured into her usually unsentimental mind of John as a child, as a teenager, as a young man desperately trying to do his best by her and Fran in the wake of his father’s death. He had never complained about what he’d chosen to undertake when he’d taken the reins that had once been held by his father and he’d begun to run the hotel himself, pouring his energies into building on its success, bringing in more business by going out and courting it. She had never heard any expressed wish from him that his life should have been different.
Perhaps she should have paid more attention. Perhaps she should have asked him what he had wanted, what he had felt about taking over from his father. Instead she’d just accepted his decision without question, only too glad and grateful for his support. They’d never really spoken about what had happened. Even when Fran was discharged from the hospital and she’d been made a widow, they’d said nothing of their feelings, the trauma of it making the sharing of emotions impossible. And so it had remained since. Years of shutting away any expression of her own emotions had contrived to work against her. She’d been trapped – and to some extent still continued to be – behind a mask of grave severity, unable to convey anything of the sadness that still continued to occupy her heart.
She looked down at her hands resting in her lap to see the index finger of her right hand fiddling with the thin gold band of her wedding ring. It had been so many years since she’d been a wife, too many years since she’d been left a widow, forced to endure the speculation of whether her husband had committed suicide or had had a fatal accident. She’d had to suffer the humiliation of discovering that she’d been left with a mountain of debt and potentially no home. How deeply he’d hurt her and how many times she had longed to be given just one more chance to be able to see him again and harangue him for everything he’d done, when in reality she’d been given no choice but to bury the pain. The only thing she’d done was to remove all the photographs, the past so unbearable to be reminded of when it still blazed so starkly inside her head and heart.
Of course, she knew, beyond a doubt, that Margaret would never endure the same fate as she had. John had been hurt too much by what his father had done to ever contemplate venturing along the same flawed path. She just prayed that Margaret would know how lucky she was and that she’d never, in her turn, hurt him by throwing everything he so blatantly felt for her back in his face.
He deserved the best. He had earned his happiness and it was his time to fly.
She gradually became aware of her insides starting to churn, the past beginning to push frantically towards the surface of that deep ocean of long-resisted tears. And then it came, the pain pouring through her, crushing every nerve and leaving it raw, seeping into every hidden corner of her carefully composed body, striking like an avalanche as she finally succumbed to the admittance to herself of what she had once had and then lost so horrendously, John’s announcement the catalyst that heralded this particular phoenix from the ashes of the past.
And as she sat there, so still, feeling the sweep of her emotions hurtle through her, a single tear fell from those usually hardened eyes followed by the steady trickle and then the final deluge of others as she finally gave way to her grief and began to weep for the first time in ten years.
Amid the ordered calm of the hotel’s atmosphere ran an underlying current of energy as preparations began in earnest for the evening ahead. When Margaret passed through the Function Suite on her way to the stillroom at eleven o’clock she found that the tables had all but been laid and decorated under Mrs Thornton’s critical gaze. There were ten circular tables each seating six to a table in total, snow-white tablecloths swathed smoothly and elegantly over them, the central displays on each of deep pink roses and lilies, freshly delivered that morning by the florist, setting off the place settings of polished glass and cutlery to perfection, a white napkin painstakingly fanned in the centre of each individual setting.
The sound of her heels resonating against the wooden floor ensured that Margaret’s presence did not go unnoticed as she saw Mrs Thornton’s bent head lift towards her.
“Margaret,” Mrs Thornton began, causing her to halt in her tracks to acknowledge her. “Margaret, would you let me have the table plan and place cards that Mr Lamb dropped into reception yesterday afternoon? I shall need them shortly.”
“Of course. Do you want them now?”
“If you don’t mind.”
Margaret nodded as she abandoned the destination of the stillroom temporarily in order to return to reception to retrieve the requested items. “Coffee’s coming,” she said to Helena as she headed for the reception office, her purpose set. “I’ve just got to get a couple of things for Mrs Thornton.”
Helena said something but Margaret didn’t catch it as she pushed the door to the office that was almost closed and went inside. Gasping in surprise, she found herself coming face to face with John who looked to be on his way out. They ground to a mutual standstill before each other just inside the doorway, in full view of Helena who was doing her best to appear completely oblivious to the pair of them as she stood sorting out a pile of leaflets to put on display.
“Oh! I didn’t expect to find you in here!” she said, recovering herself from the shock of finding him there.
“I have been known to frequent these parts sometimes,” he said with some amusement, his eyes melting at the sight of her.
Sensing Helena’s curious and barely disguised glances, she watched as John leant past her shoulder and gave the door a swift shove so that it swung backwards, coming to rest only just ajar rather than gaping wide open. It was enough to shield them from view and to muffle anything that they said.
“Now,” he began, his arms dipping beneath her jacket and encircling her waist as he guided her towards the wall to one side of the door to completely obscure them from view. She felt her shoulder blades touch the wall as he stood before her, so near that it made her pulse race. “What mission are you on looking so focussed?” He tilted his head in enquiry.
“Your mother’s just asked for the table plan and place names for tonight.”
“Oh,” he said. “So I’m holding you up?”
“You could say that.”
“As well as making Helena wonder about what’s going on right at this very moment between us.”
“She’s too busy to notice I should think,” Margaret replied, even though she knew her words didn’t quite ring true.
“We could always test your theory,” he said in a very low voice. “If I kick the door closed we could listen to see if she self-combusts with curiosity.”
Margaret responded by giving him a sharp but ultimately playful slap on the arm. “Don’t be so wicked!”
“Ouch!” He let go of her and rubbed his arm. “I should demand that you kiss it better for me.”
“No way! It served you right! You can’t say something like that and expect to get away with it. And if I don’t take those things into your mother she’ll be in here looking for them herself,” Margaret responded, endeavouring to appear serious but failing completely as her lips pulled into a grin.
His eyes flashed into hers, pretending not to see her perceived solemnity beginning to crumble so catastrophically. He gave her a piercing look of desire, his hand idly smoothing its way along the sleeve of her jacket with just enough pressure for her to feel the heat it transmitted. “Is that supposed to deter me?”
“I’m beginning to think that nothing deters you – and you can be very distracting, you know.”
His black brows arched. “Is that a good thing, Miss Hale?” he asked with a tinge of seductive formality.
“I’d prefer to be waylaid by you in private – well away from everyone else and from the threat of your mother appearing at any minute to find out what’s happened to me.”
“Well I’ve got to go out so I won’t be around to do any distracting for a while,” he told her.
“Why? Where are you going?”
“I’ve got to sort a couple of things out.”
“Sounds intriguing. What things?”
He shook his head, refusing to discuss what he was up to. “Nothing for you to concern yourself with, my love. “ He caught her face in his hands lightly. “I’ll see you later on.”
He dropped the briefest of kisses upon her lips, barely even touching them, ultimately making her long for more, before opening the door and leaving her alone in the room. His voice announcing his departure to Helena resounded through her head as she resumed the errand she’d come on. She found the items requested by his mother next to the computer on the desk and took them with her to the Function Suite, pretending not to notice Helena’s enquiring look as she hurried past her.
“I was about to come and get those myself,” Mrs Thornton said as Margaret reappeared. At this precise time she was the only person occupying the room, the girls who’d been helping her obviously elsewhere for the present.
“I got caught up with something,” Margaret said, coming to stand beside Mrs Thornton who stood at one of the white clothed side tables briskly wiping champagne flutes over with a cloth before placing them face down on a napkin covered salver. She didn’t stop what she was doing as Margaret approached her, although she did shoot her a rather more knowing look than Margaret expected.
“At least you’re here now. Just put those things over there for me and I’ll sort them out in a moment.”
“Can I do anything else?” Margaret asked politely, determined to be pleasant.
Mrs Thornton looked her straight in the eye. “When you see my son again you can ask him to let you get on with the job you’re supposed to be doing.”
She tried not to react. “Actually he’s just gone out.” She glanced about the room, at the elegance that pervaded it, aware of the subtle scent of flowers clinging to the air around her. “It looks lovely, doesn’t it?” she said in a bid to alter the way the conversation was headed.
Mrs Thornton glanced about the room in her usual appraising manner and nodded her head curtly before her surmising gaze returned to Margaret. “John tells me you’re looking forward to this evening.”
“I can’t wait.”
“You realise that John will probably spend the entire evening talking to people? You may well find that you won’t get his full attention.”
Was she telling her or warning her? She met Mrs Thornton’s eye squarely. “I’m well aware that he’ll have a number of people to talk to. As the owner of the hotel, it’s almost a prerequisite isn’t it?”
“And you don’t mind that?”
“Of course not. I’m more than aware of the fact that he needs to network.”
“In my experience, most young women hate not being the centre of attention, particularly when it comes to the man who’s with them.”
“Well I’m not like that. Besides I’ll know Lily Henderson so I can always talk to her.”
Mrs Thornton’s mouth twisted into a wry smile. “John seems to be very fond of you.”
“I’m very fond of him.”
She was rewarded with a quizzical, if not dubious look. “Are you?”
She was aware of something snapping inside her, unable to quite believe that the woman had been so blatant in expressing her doubts. “Mrs Thornton,” she said, raising her chin in defiant surety, determined to be as candid as she would permit herself in an attempt to clear away any doubts once and for all. “I care about your son more than you’ll ever realise,” she said, willing herself to continue now that she’d set herself upon this path, even though she had no idea where it would lead her. “He means the world to me and it means a lot that he cares for me in return. And, before you ask, no I don’t expect my relationship with him to always run smoothly, but I know it’ll weather the worst because nothing could be worse than us not being together.” She paused for breath, shaking her head faintly. “I don’t know what else to say that can convince you that the last thing I want to do is to mess him around – let alone play havoc with his feelings.”
The delivery of her words seemed to visibly shock Mrs Thornton, who seemed to take a perceptible step back, her hands for the first time pausing so that the glass she was holding was still. For a timeless moment the two women looked at each other, one assessing of the other, before Mrs Thornton finally spoke. “You put your point across very succinctly, Margaret. That isn’t something I come across very often in the younger generation – and certainly not in such passionate tones.”
“It’s the way I feel,” Margaret replied simply and honestly. “Although I don’t really see why I have to explain myself when it’s not really anyone else’s business except mine.”
“Then I appreciate your frankness in telling me.” Those hands started to move once again, wiping the cloth against the glass she still held as though, now that the words had been said that things could resume as normal, almost as though it had never actually happened. “You’d better go back to reception now.”
That was the dismissal that signified her release from the conversation and Margaret turned away from Mrs Thornton, heading out of the room, glad to be free and unscathed, remembering only when she got back to Helena and saw the unspoken question on her face that she’d completely forgotten to return with the coffee as she’d promised.
The day seemed to pass in a whirl of activity. Some of the guests who were attending the dinner and staying overnight began to arrive in a steady stream from about lunchtime onwards, conspicuous by the costumes snugly housed in their clear plastic protective covers as they came to reception to check in.
But she didn’t see John again for the rest of the day.
Music floated through from the conservatory towards John as he stood just inside the Function Suite and cast another surreptitious glance at the watch hidden beneath one deep, white, cuffed sleeve peeping out from beneath his black dinner jacket. People were beginning to form little cliques around him, the buzz of dozens of indistinct conversations like an assault from every direction, weaving in marriage with the music being played in the room beyond. He stood essentially alone, even though among many familiar faces, a fixed smile of acknowledgement upon his lips, his mouth opening in response to a greeting from someone when they approached him. He engaged in small talk, banal and harmless, a prelude, he knew only too well, to more in depth discussions that would doubtlessly take place during the course of the evening.
And all the time, despite hearing his voice discussing something else, his thoughts were fixed on Margaret. When she would arrive. What he wanted to say to her.
It was completely by chance that he caught sight of his mother talking to Bernard Latimer and his wife just off to the left of him and for the first time that evening he actually noticed how different she looked. Her whole demeanour, always held proud and erect, also seemed somehow softer, much less harsh. Then he realised what it was. So used to seeing her donned in her obligatory black he hadn’t noticed until now that she was actually wearing a dress of deep emerald – still dark but certainly not black. The introduction of just this bit of colour seemed to transform her, lifting her features and wiping several years from her face. And she was laughing too, he realised suddenly, actually laughing, rather than merely making the required sounds out of courtesy. He smiled to himself, pride and pleasure at seeing her look genuinely happy coursing through him. It seemed that something had happened to her, that somehow tonight she had begun her own tentative journey away from the ghosts of yesteryear.
“I have to say, I don’t think I’ve ever seen your mother looking quite so perky!” Lily Henderson said as she sidled up to him, having noticed the direction in which his attention was concentrated. When he turned his blue eyes to her she beamed at him fondly. “Good evening, John. You’re mother’s not the only one looking attractive tonight, I see.” She gave him the benefit of a swift once over of approval.
He chuckled as he bent to kiss Lily’s cheek. He’d known her for many years and was extremely fond of her. She’d always had the vivacity for life that had always been lacking in his own mother. “Hello Lily. How are you?”
“Oh I’m fine! Very well. I’ve been looking forward to this evening for ages. I even had Martin practising the waltz and foxtrot with me to make sure I hadn’t forgotten the steps. Anyway, enough about me – where’s that young lady of yours? I’m dying to see her all done up.”
“She hasn’t arrived yet – or if she has, I haven’t yet seen her.”
Lily was jubilant. “You’re in for such a treat! She nearly reduced me to tears when I saw her in her dress. Such a picture!”
“The question is – will I actually still recognise her?”
Lily’s hand swished through the air in a flash of red varnish, which almost identically matched her flamboyant scarlet dress. “Of course you will! Every man recognises the woman he loves!”
His eyes narrowed. “And you’re an expert on the matter because?”
She eyed him with prophet-like knowing, which reminded him very much of the look Jack had given him when he’d first seen him. “It’s written all over your face! You can’t fail to miss it.” She put her hand on the black sleeve of his dinner jacket and squeezed his arm. “I’m just pleased to see you so happy. It’s about time.”
He smiled graciously. “Thank you, Lily.”
“And, tell me, how’s your mother about everything now?”
“She’s coming round slowly,” he said, thinking back to the conversations he’d had with his mother that day and then earlier this evening before he had left the flat. “Apparently she told me that she’d actually asked Margaret outright how she felt about me and got a more concise answer than the one she actually expected! I think Margaret’s shot up in her estimation just on the strength of that, although she shouldn’t even have been asking her anything so personal in the first place.”
“Maybe it’s just as well she did considering the outcome.”
“I hope you’re not hounding John, darling.” Martin Henderson interrupted as he came to stand beside his wife, a couple of glasses of champagne in his hand, one of which he gave to Lily who took an enthusiastic sip. “All well with you then, John? You’re looking very well I must say,” he said, wringing John’s hand firmly.
“That’s just what I’ve been telling him,” Lily said.
“And by all accounts it seems that you’ve finally managed to allay Lil’s fears of never finding any happiness? Something about you hooking up with an extremely pretty girl? Lil’s been talking about her endlessly over the past few days.”
“Not quite endlessly, dear,” Lily rebuked, looking a little embarrassed. “But I do like her. And she arrived on time when she came to see me – which is more than I can say for most people.”
As someone else drifted towards their newly formed group and became engrossed in conversation with Lily and Martin about the price of houses in the area, John contrived an excuse to extract himself from them, his eyes resuming a search of the sea of faces for any sign of Margaret. He found himself now growing more impatient to see her. It seemed almost as though he were walking through a tunnel and that the light at the end seemed always to be just around the next bend. His step increasing, he threaded his way through the mingling crowd, that fixed, courteous smile upon his face once more, as he passed from the Function Suite and into the conservatory where the band was playing a tune to which several couples were dancing. If he were with Margaret now he knew he’d be doing exactly the same thing, holding her in his arms as he led her around the floor. He continued his journey through the conservatory and towards reception where Bess was talking on the telephone. As she put the phone down she looked up at him expectantly.
“Bess, has Margaret arrived yet?” He knew he sounded impatient, probably more than a little love-struck, but he didn’t care one bit – and he certainly had little concern in allowing Bess to see his feelings. Although he hadn’t specifically asked and Margaret hadn’t actually volunteered the information, he was pretty sure that Margaret would have told Bess a little by now of what had happened between them in Helstone.
He saw Bess shake her head in answer to his question. “Not that I’ve seen, Mr Thornton. Sorry.”
Disappointment played across his expression despite his best efforts to feign a more accepting look. “When she does arrive, could you ask her to come and find me please?”
“I’ll do that.”
Paul Roberts, one of the staff from the local Tourist Office came striding towards him as he made his way back through the conservatory and into the Function Suite once more, a stocky man who looked as though he had been squashed into his dress suit, his gold cravat looking as though it were strangling him, his face rather more ruddy than usual. His hand stretched towards John and the two men shook hands.
“Good to see you John. Just popping out for a cigarette seeing as the wife’s busy chatting and won’t notice my absence.” He gave a short laugh that had the rather phlegm-like resonance of a man on at least thirty a day. There’d be many a trip out for air during the course of the evening without a doubt. “Good lord! What a vision she is!” Paul cried in unconcealed admiration as his attention strayed over John’s shoulder to the young woman who’d just walked in and was even now looking around her as though searching for someone. “And alone too by the looks of it! If I was twenty years younger and single I’d be over there like a shot!”
It was enough to make John spin about to follow Paul’s transfixed gaze, his heart ceasing altogether as his eyes found their destination and settled upon her. She stood framed in one of the wide arches leading into the Function Suite, the glow from the chandelier above seeming to make her burn like a flame before him, full of life and radiance, so incredibly mesmerising, more breathtaking than he had ever imagined her being. Looking for him – searching the crowds of strangers in which she found herself for him. In those first seconds of recognition he didn’t move at all, his eyes sweeping over her from head to foot, taking in the tamed hair that had been secured off her face and was decorated with a few tiny white flowers that immediately reminded him of the poppy he’d put in her hair in Helstone, before lowering further to drink in the graceful column of her unadorned neck and creamy shoulders, the fitted bodice of her dress clinging to her silhouette, accentuating her narrow waist, the plunging neckline dipping seductively to reveal the gentle swell of her breasts. The skirt flared out in billowing folds that skimmed the floor, hiding her shoes beneath. Her hands, otherwise unoccupied, were linked loosely before her.
He took a step forward, just one initial step, reining back the compulsion to go rushing forward and sweep her up in his arms. Her head turned just at the moment he moved, catching sight of him. His pulse accelerated, becoming ever more rapid as his eyes plunged straight into hers, holding her as bewitched as he held her. Unaware of the quizzical looks being cast at him by Paul, he began to move towards her just at the point that she did him, each one answering the tacit call of the other. In a room filled with people it seemed that conversations blurred around him, became distant sounds. Even the music seemed to fade into the background. He was aware of people falling away from his line of vision, dissolving into the general haze of the room where, for him, only Margaret was the focus.
As they came to stand close to each other he let himself immerse in her hazel eyes.
“I was beginning to wonder whether you’d changed your mind,” he said, his voice hoarse. He put his hand to her face, his fingers stroking her cheek wondrously just to check that he wasn’t imagining her, his head tipped to one side as he took her in.
“I wouldn’t have missed tonight for anything,” she said, happiness shining out of her, making her almost glow before him. “You look very handsome in your costume, by the way.”
His hand dropped away from her face, moving to grasp her hands, interlacing them in the fraction of space between them. “And you take my breath away.”
Her skin tinged pink, as delicate as a rose, at his compliment. “So you think it looks all right?”
“You’re beautiful.” He bent his dark head and grazed her flushed cheek fleetingly with his lips, just the barest touch of her skin sending a charge through him. “Perfect.”
Around them the noise of the room slowly drifted back once more, the chattering, the laughter, the music; they merged into it, became part of its rich tapestry.
“Do you want a drink?” he asked as he saw one of the waitresses brandishing a salver still bearing several filled glasses coming in their general direction.
“Only if it’s champagne.”
“It is – and don’t pretend you didn’t know.”
“In that case, yes please.”
He whisked up a couple of glasses and offered one to Margaret. “Here’s to a lovely evening,” he said, his eyes dancing with effusive warmth – a heat that seemed to come from deep inside him as he raised his glass to her.
“To a lovely evening,” she repeated and they clunked their glasses to officially mark the start of their evening together.
Dinner was announced, setting in motion the process of people checking the table plan and then drifting towards their designated tables to sit down to eat.
Their table was one of mixed blessings for Margaret. As well as herself and John, they were seated with Lily and Martin Henderson and John’s sister, Fran, and Steven. She couldn’t help but look up at John in surprise; after all, although she had never actually met Fran as such she certainly remembered Steven – once as the seeming victim of John’s temper and once as the drunken perpetrator of an assault upon her on what had otherwise begun as a normal day.
“Don’t worry, it’ll be fine,” John said, squeezing her hand in encouragement, as though he could read in her mind her reservations concerning Steven. “I’ll be there to protect you.”
She gave him a dazzling smile. “It’s a lovely sentiment, but I don’t think I’ll actually need protecting.” No, she was quite capable of holding her own if it came to it – her little speech to Mrs Thornton this morning had empowered her considerably, although she had yet to mention what had happened to John.
“You never have, have you?” John replied.
As they headed off in the direction of their allotted table, she saw that Lily and a rather solidly-built man of roughly Lily’s age, presumably her husband, were already sitting down in readiness, chatting between themselves. As they approached Lily looked up and a broad smile spread from her lips to her eyes in a matter of seconds as she caught sight of Margaret for the first time that evening. She was immediately on her feet, the cumbersome nature of her red dress no hindrance to her at all, as she came darting over and gave Margaret a hug.
“Oh, you really do look lovely! Didn’t I tell you that you’d be the rose among the thorns tonight? And I was right.”
“Thank you. You’re very sweet,” Margaret responded, although she seemed to have no real conception of her own inherent beauty.
“You’re most welcome. But it’s nothing less than the truth.”
Releasing Margaret, Lily turned to John, flashing him a conspiratal smile. “I hope you realise how lucky you are, young man?”
He put his arm around Margaret’s bare shoulders and squeezed her against him, the pride and love he felt dancing like moonbeams in his eyes, unguarded now, there for everyone who cared to look to see clearly for themselves. “I do, Lily.”
“I thought I was the lucky one?” Margaret countered playfully, her head tilting up towards his as her own arm slipped across his back.
“I think you’re both very lucky myself,” Lily said. “To find what you two have is extremely rare.”
The call of Fran burst upon the conversation like a shaft of lightning as three pairs of eyes turned in the direction from which the rather shrill voice had come. There, coming towards them, followed closely behind by a man that Margaret immediately recognised to be Steven, was Fran, her eglantine dress adorned with several deep flounces at the bottom of the skirt swishing around her as she moved. She looked to Margaret as though she had stepped out of another era, the era that seemed to capture the spirit of the evening entirely, her blonde hair pulled into what appeared, even at a distance, to be a very elaborately plaited hairstyle that had been wound into a knot, several shorter blonde ringlets dropping down around her temples to frame her pretty face. Compared to her mother and John, her appearance was much more delicate, emitting too a certain vulnerability in spite of the confident manner of her approach. Her chocolate-brown eyes reminded Margaret of a deer’s even though they were at present flashing with unconcealed curiosity.
“Hello Fran,” John said as she reached them finally, his arm still draped around
Margaret. “Are you enjoying yourself?”
She acknowledged Lily but didn’t answer his question, her attention coming to rest upon the young woman at his side. “You must be Margaret? It’s nice to actually meet you at last. John’s been very secretive about you.”
“And you must be Fran. Hello,” Margaret responded with an affable smile, which extended to take in Steven as well as he stood just behind Fran in silence, seeming not to want to meet her eye at all. “Hello Steven.”
The fact that she’d addressed him directly gave him little chance of remaining silent and in the background. He briefly nodded his head to acknowledge her, looking rather uncomfortable as he said hello. Fran linked her arm through his, all smiles, seeming not to notice her husband’s evident discomfort.
“I was sorry to hear about your accident,” Margaret went on. “I’m glad it wasn’t serious.”
“Aren’t we all?” Fran replied, laughing awkwardly as though Margaret had touched a raw nerve.
“Thank you,” Steven replied graciously. He looked down towards the floor where he seemed to be looking to see whether he could see discern his reflection in the polished surface of his shoes. After the last time she’d seen him, Margaret thought how quiet and diffident he appeared now. Of course, he had been a different person entirely the last time – unkempt, reeking of alcohol, his angry and threatening behaviour towards both she and John fuelled by too much to drink. Now he was sober, introverted, smartly attired in a dinner suit and cravat and looked every inch as respectable as any other man in the room.
“We’d better all sit down I think,” Lily said in a chivvying fashion, her arm reaching out to guide Fran towards the table, assuming for herself the position of self-appointed leader as she moved around checking the place names. “I think you’re next to Martin, Fran. Yes, you are. And Steven’s beside you. Oh, and Margaret, yes you’re next to Steven and John, well you’re nicely sandwiched between Margaret and myself.”
The conversation was confined mainly to small talk for much of the meal. Lily regaled them with anecdotal wit of the holiday she and Martin had recently taken in the South of France.
“John went to Helstone for several days,” Fran remarked, as though to compare the two destinations, the intonation of her tone on the word Helstone assuming the fact that she considered it a far less superior place to go.
Margaret heard it but chose to ignore it, knowing that Fran was speaking entirely from a point of ignorance with absolutely no conception of what John’s going to Helstone had actually meant. Fran’s remark wasn’t lost on John either because his hand found hers beneath the overspill of the cloth in a gesture that bespoke more of his understanding of what they had found together than any words could ever say as eloquently. She turned her eyes to his briefly and this certain knowledge they shared flowed freely between them, cherished and private.
“You don’t have to travel far to find some lovely places close by,” Lily replied conversationally to Fran, just the pitch of her voice enough to relay to Fran that she didn’t consider her own choice of destination any more worthy than John’s. “Martin and I spent many a happy holiday just touring around different parts of England with the boys. We had some wonderful times – probably some of the best. It’s only recently that we’ve actually started going abroad a bit.”
“I’d rather go abroad,” Fran replied. “The weather’s better for a start. After all, who wants a beach holiday in this country if it’s going to rain all the time?”
“I’m not a great beach person,” Margaret said. “I’d be too restless.”
Fran looked at her as though she couldn’t quite believe that someone would want to go on holiday and not just lounge on a beach with a good book amidst acres of sunshine. “Each to their own I suppose,” she replied, picking at her potato and taking a small bite. She’d spent half the meal pushing food around her plate, eating very little of it.
“It’s a long time since you’ve been away, John,” Martin said. “Must have done you good getting away from this place for a bit.”
“It was very pleasant,” John agreed amiably, his mood sanguine. “I’m hoping to be able to repeat it a bit more regularly.”
Margaret ducked her head, feeling her skin growing warmer as memories of Helstone crowded her thoughts. The hand holding hers beneath the cloth loosened slightly to allow his long fingers to caress her palm. She felt the tickling sensation it created shoot straight up her arm in a shivery rush and tried to clamp her hand shut but he wouldn’t let her, this playful tussle between them going on completely unnoticed by everyone. There was only so much she could stand, however, and, unable to bear the sweet sensations he was arousing in her any longer without turning and throwing herself against him in abandon, she pulled her hand away and wrapped her fingers around the base of her wine glass, studiously keeping her eyes averted so that she couldn’t look at him, knowing very well that she was in danger of melting completely if she did.
If she’d found herself distracted, John certainly didn’t seem to be. He was still talking about holidays and the fact that he had no intention of letting work rule his life as it had in the past.
It’s about time,” Fran intoned, almost to herself.
John looked across at her sharply, for he’d caught her words. “Meaning?”
“Well, you’re always working,” she replied, her tone defensive now that she realised he’d actually heard her. “It’s no wonder you never had time for anything else. You were always too busy holding this place together.”
“My “holding it together” ensured that you grew up with a roof over your head – not to mention got you the wedding you wanted so much, Fran,” John replied with some degree of irritation.
The colour deepened in Fran’s face at being put so assertively in her place by her older brother. “You know what I mean,” she said, shrugging her shoulders to no real purpose, trying desperately to back pedal a bit. “Anyway, it’s all water under the bridge isn’t it, because you’re going out with Margaret now,” she said, throwing Margaret a sweet smile that somehow didn’t seem to deliver that much in the way of sincerity.
“Let it go,” Margaret murmured in the barest whisper as she leaned slightly towards John, her words too quiet for anyone but him to hear.
Whether he heard her plea or not he turned his attention towards Martin and began talking about cricket, a topic that even Steven gradually began to join in with, as the women, led by Lily, ventured into the much safer territory of celebrity gossip – a topic upon which Fran was an expert.
After the meal people got up to dance and to mingle once more. Margaret remained at their table, Fran having come to sit beside her after John had excused himself to go and speak to a couple of people on the other side of the room. Steven had gone out for a cigarette and Lily and Martin had hit the dance floor with an enthusiasm no doubt aided by the copious amount of wine they had drunk during the course of the evening.
“He’s in his element,” Fran said as she looked towards John. “Lots of business talk and male-orientated discussions. He’s not very good at talking about his feelings though, but I suppose you know that by now.”
“I find him very open actually,” Margaret replied. “Maybe he never gave that impression to you because you’re his sister and he thought that you might tease him about it. I think that’s why my brother never lets his guard down in front of me.”
“Maybe,” Fran said, not appearing very convinced.
Margaret’s gaze strayed back to John, watching what appeared to be a somewhat animated conversation that he was having with someone. Standing there he looked the epitome of a man who was both successful and popular amongst his peers. He rose above many of them, tall and proud, his entire being surrounded by a powerful, all pervading aura of confidence.
And she loved him. Loved him more than anything.
“That’s Bernard – Bernard Latimer – he’s talking to. Ann’s father,” Fran told her, pointedly. “His wife is here somewhere. Ann didn’t come though, which is a pity.”
The spectre of Ann Latimer, Margaret thought. How easily this Dinner had brought it rearing up as large as life once more when she’d thought it gone. All because it was she who was with John tonight rather than Ann – and for no other reason than that.
Not that it mattered anyway. Not to her. Not to John. Other people could hark on about it all they liked but it wouldn’t have the ability to touch them. Ann, Henry. They were both gone now. But they were still here. Together.
“Excuse me, Fran,” she said politely as she stood up and pulled her full skirt free of the space between the chair and the table.
She made her way through the mingling bodies dotted in her path towards where John was standing still talking to Bernard Latimer about something. As she reached his side he turned to look down at her, his blue eyes blending with hers. “Sorry to interrupt you,” she said. “But I wondered whether you’d like to dance?”
Bernard Latimer laughed loudly. “Don’t women wait to be asked these days then?”
“Not always,” Margaret replied, pleasantly.
“I’d love to dance with you,” John said, his whole expression bright with vivacity. He turned to Bernard and excused himself before taking Margaret’s hand and leading her towards the dance floor. “You read my mind,” he told her. “I was about to come and find you myself.”
“Great minds think alike then,” she said with a dazzling smile.
It was the first time they’d danced together – truly danced. In the park, barefoot and tentatively seeking reconciliation, they had clung to each other rather than danced, but now they were dancing. His hands held her secure, resting with a natural ease about her waist, settled into that beautiful curve with tender possession, his other hand interlocked with hers, his feet leading hers, moving her, moving himself, moving them in unison around the floor. One, two, three…one, two, three…one, two, three…His eyes fused with hers: intensely, breathlessly.
“You look quite enraptured.” His voice, so velvet smooth, echoed through her head.
Enraptured. How well that summed up her feelings in those moments, she thought. She was dancing in his arms for the first time, the thrill of his touch warming her body. Irresistibly he tightened his hold on her waist and pulled her closer. Their bodies were now inches apart and she welcomed the intimacy, the feel of his closeness.
She could feel the music eddying all around her, filling the air with its melody. Or was she the one who was floating? It was as though she couldn’t feel the ground, that her feet were treading air, treading invisible notes where the floor should be. In his arms she twirled and glided, her head tipped back slightly as she closed her eyes to feel the music enter her soul, carrying on a dulcet wave to her very core, becoming part of her. When she opened her eyes again she could see herself mirrored in John’s eyes.
“I thought you said you didn’t actually dance,” she said.
“That makes two of us, except that you’re very good for someone who doesn’t dance as a rule.”
“So are you.”
She smiled coltishly. “You can’t see what my feet are doing beneath my skirt.”
The music came to an end all too soon, their feet, already beginning to slow, stopping completely so that they were standing there in the centre of the dance floor. Around them couples were beginning to move once more as the music resumed to a different refrain, swirling around them, movement on the periphery of their own stillness.
“Come with me,” he said, his tone suddenly urgent. “I need to speak to you.”
His manner seemed quite at odds with his gentleness of just a few moments earlier as he grasped her hand tightly in his and walked her hurriedly from the dance floor, dodging past those couples still dancing. She followed behind him, having no choice but to do so because he had her hand in such an iron grip, noticing that he was actually leading her away from everyone else.
“Where are we going?”
“Because I need to talk to you.”
“What about? What’s the matter?”
“I’ll tell you in a minute.”
He led her through to the guest lounge and drew her inside sharply and shut the door, his manner so much changed that she wondered what on earth the matter was. After all, he had seemed fine while they’d been dancing.
For a timeless moment he stood with his back to the door, his hand lingering on the doorknob, just staring at her. Her heart began to thump like a drum, making her entire body vibrate. She couldn’t read his expression, although as he suddenly stepped closer, his eyes smouldered like fires about to kindle into resplendent life.
She could still hear the music playing, the raised voices of people enjoying themselves. And yet in here, in this hushed room that was empty but for the two of them there was suddenly tension and she had no idea why.
“Please John, tell me what’s wrong,” she ventured, breaking the silence that was beginning to wrap itself around them. “You seem different.”
“Yes. Annoyed, I suppose. And I don’t know why.”
“I’m not annoyed. Far from it.”
“That’s not the impression you’re giving.”
He came towards her, put out his hands to catch up hers. He looked hesitant, uncertain. “Margaret, I –“
His voice broke off as the door flew open without any warning. His hands dropped hers abruptly, letting them fall to her sides as he stepped quickly back. Margaret glanced towards the door as it opened, not knowing what to expect, hating the unwelcome intrusion upon their privacy.
“Excuse me Mr Thornton?”
The moment broke like glass shattering. But the tension only seemed to manifest itself further as Melanie appeared in the room looking both hesitant and intrigued by the fact that they were together.
“Um, your mother’s looking for you. Mr Lamb’s about to do his speech.”
John let out an aggravated sigh and rolled his eyes heavenwards. “Your timing is perfect as always, Melanie,” he said, although it seemed to be more to himself rather than directed at Melanie.
“Sorry Mr Thornton?” Melanie said, not catching his words.
“We’re on our way now,” he said more clearly.
“Right-ho.” Her eyes flickered from one to the other of them before, saying nothing further, she scurried off, leaving the pair of them alone once more.
He shook his head and rubbed his forehead with his thumb and index finger, unable to believe that he could be interrupted at such a moment. He should have asked her in Helstone when he’d first thought about it! He groaned with audible vexation. “I’ll be glad when tonight’s over. Perhaps then we can have some peace.”
“It is a party,” Margaret chastised lightly. “By their very nature they attract lots of other people.”
He grimaced. “Well at this precise moment I just wish that the evening was over and they’d all gone home,” he replied rather gruffly. “At least the end’s in sight with Edward about to give his speech.”
Margaret frowned at him, not quite understanding where his change in attitude had come from or what had actually sparked it so suddenly. “Haven’t you enjoyed yourself tonight then?”
He seemed to register her concern because he allowed some of the tension to seep from where it held his mouth so rigidly. “I’m afraid I’m just guilty of wanting to spend some time with the woman I love.”
“I’ve been by your side most of this evening, John Thornton!” she laughed.
“I meant just the two of us. Alone.” He threw her a veiled look, but his voice was intense. “Let’s just hope this speech doesn’t go on too long and that everyone leaves quickly because then you’re mine for the rest of the night.”
“Well I suppose I might allow you to monopolise me for a few hours.”
He shook his head. “Believe me,” he said with shuddering intimacy. “A few hours is nothing in comparison with what I have planned for you.”
Edward Lamb’s speech was mercifully shorter than John had expected, even though it still seemed to drag on relentlessly. As he listened all he wished for was the moment that he and Margaret would actually find themselves alone, completely and utterly alone, shut away from prying eyes, so that he could at last to spill out everything he’d been waiting the entire evening to tell her.
The prospect of laying his soul bare to her both thrilled and terrified him. Even though he knew she loved him, still he wondered whether she’d say yes. Standing at his side now, where she’d been more or less since she’d arrived, she seemed so incredibly complacent and beautiful. He couldn’t be more in love with her than he was. And all he wanted was to be able to tell her. Even now the desire to do so strained for liberty, building within him like the steady pressure of the bubbles in the champagne he’d been drinking tonight, forcing the cork towards its final release. He felt the pressure rising up inside him and he knew that if he had to wait any longer then he’d probably explode. And yet the incredible thing was that she was completely unaware of what lay ahead. Of the night he had planned. Of the things he would say. The turmoil of his emotions were hidden behind the feigned calm of his expression and the fixed congenial smile that clung even now to his lips.
Finally Edward’s speech drew to its close and a wave of appreciative clapping rippled around the room before people began to dissipate from the circle they’d formed. The process of leaving slowly began soon afterwards. People came towards John, thanked him heartily, said goodnight and wrung his hand, one by one in a seemingly endless stream.
“Another successful evening,” Edward said jovially as he came up to John and gripped his hand in appreciation. “Consider us penned in for next year.”
He had lost sight of his mother and sister. Not that it mattered. The only thing that mattered now was standing at his side. He turned towards her some half an hour later as the last guest walked away, taking her hand in his and raising it to his lips.
“And then there were two,” he said, kissing the smooth back of her hand, searing the skin with his breath. “Come with me.”
“Where are you taking me now?”
“Shouldn’t we say goodnight to your family?” she asked as she followed in his wake. “I haven’t even spoken to your mother tonight.”
“Don’t worry. She’s had enough to think about without worrying about us.”
“It seems a bit rude that’s all.”
They came to the lift and he punched at the button to call it. Then he turned to Margaret, his eyes boring into hers, his voice lilting. “Forget about my family. Let’s just concentrate on us now.”
The lift came and as the door closed, the fact that they were now finally alone for the first time that evening was like floodgates opening as they moved at precisely the same moment into each other’s arms, their lips colliding in hungry anticipation.
“You can’t begin to imagine how much I’ve wanted to do that this evening.” His eyes burnt intently into hers, lit with unequivocal love. Just to feel her arms wrapped around his neck, her fingers delicately tugging at his hair as they kissed was enough to nearly tip him over the edge. He tightened his grip on her, gathering her nearer, the billowing of her skirts frustratingly sandwiched between them. When, with the jarring of the lift grinding to a halt, he finally released her, he said nothing as he took her hand in his and walked her quickly down the hall towards the room he had booked especially for the two of them for the night.
He saw her bewilderment immediately. “Do you really think that I’d take you to the flat tonight?”
“It did cross my mind,” she admitted.
His motives were more simplistic. “I’m not prepared to share you with the rest of my family tonight,” he told her as he came to a halt outside the door of the Honeymoon Suite.
“But the Honeymoon Suite?” she said in surprise.
“You didn’t need to do that.”
“Yes I did,” he said with raw conviction.
He came close to her and impulsively put his hand to her hair where it was held in place by several pins. He felt the rounded end of one of those pins against his palm and felt the urge to pull it free. Margaret suddenly put her hand to his and pulled it gently away from her hair before she returned to deftly divest herself of the pins herself. He watched as her mahogany hair dropped down around her shoulders and back, the tiny flowers woven into her gleaming mane remaining firmly ensconced.
He ran his fingers through the glistening waterfall of its length. “Spend the night with me, Margaret,” he murmured, his fingers finding her nape, gliding sensually and hypnotically across her skin. “Stay with me tonight.”
He turned the key in the door and held it open for her, watching as she moved past him into the room. The lights were already on, dimmed down to a soft luminous glow. He came to stand behind her, pushing the door shut as he did so, before turning the key in the lock. At last, he thought, peace and quiet, the freedom just to be together alone.
He moved towards her, his body pressing into hers, his fingers travelling from her shoulders to her waist before moving towards the swell of her bodice where they covered her with a longing he’d been struggling for the last week since their return from Helstone to restrain. But no longer…to feel her…to be with her…His mouth found hers, his kisses quickly becoming deeper. She responded with equal desire, her small fingers fleeing towards the lapels of his jacket and tugging it away from his shoulders, wanting rid of it, needing to be rid of it, as she began to manipulate the buttons of his waistcoat, liberating them one by one in quick succession, pulling that away too, needing it gone, just as he did, taking them one layer closer to the skin that so desired the skin of the other. She was returning his kisses with as much vehemence as he offered them, her nimble fingers now at his throat, fiddling with the cravat which stood like a vanguard between her and his neck, tugging at it with an urgency he’d never felt in her before, the fabric slackening under her grasp, ebbing away from him. She dragged it away, throwing it aside nonchalantly, to reveal the open necked shirt.
“Margaret…” Her name echoed into the air as he reached for her back, searching for her zip.
“Undo it…please John…undo it.” Her voice was a husky, compelling invitation as she arched her back into him, willing his fingers to move.
He kissed her neck as he caught the zip and pulled it downward, tugging the dress away from her and letting it fall with a rustle to the floor, leaving her in just her strapless ivory basque that moulded itself like a second skin to her body and the fullest petticoat he’d ever seen. As he picked her up he felt the petticoat froth up around her and he couldn’t help but laugh because it seemed as though it were somehow rising up in some sort of defence of her virtue, a tangible barrier between them.
“Where are you taking me Mr Thornton?” Her voice was warm against his ear.
He glanced down at her languorous body lying so pliantly in his arms. “Where do you think Miss Hale?” he replied with equal formality.
“I hope you’re not going to take advantage of me…”
“I think it’s fair to say that that’s one thing I can’t possibly begin to guarantee!”
He laid her down on the navy cover and perched on the edge of the bed beside her, leaning forward slightly so that his face hovered over hers. For a timeless eternity they just gazed at each other, barely breathing, their bodies held still as though suspended by the moment. The frantic desire was suddenly replaced by something altogether more breathtaking as each one acknowledged in the other the full strength of what really existed between them; something so much more lasting than simple physical desire and need.
“I’m so in love with you.” He spoke into the silence, lighting it with the eternal flame of emotion raging inside him.
She reached up, touched his temple as though to feel the pulse that beat there. “I love you too.”
He moved closer so that he was lying beside her, his hands beginning to stray, ever wilful, playing by their own rules, craving intimacy, running over the satin basque to feel the shape of her body beneath. With iron willpower he somehow managed to still his hands upon her. There was no way on earth that he was going to allow his control to fail him before he’d said what he had to say, much as he wanted to make love to her and to drown in the very nearness of her, in her alluring scent.
He traced the apex of his index finger down her cheek with tender adoration, the close proximity of his breath making those wayward strands of hair drifting across her forehead quiver as if dancing to a silent melody. He saw her eyelids drop, covering her eyes so that those long half-moon lashes framed against her creamy skin in that familiar way he so adored.
Her head rested comfortably against his shoulder, her breath on the bare skin at the side of his neck just above the rigid band of his collar, her fingers gliding up and down the cotton of his shirt, slipping into the spaces between the buttons to lightly caress the naked skin beneath.
Oh God, she had no idea of the feelings she instilled in him! She had no realisation at all of the power she wielded so unconsciously.
“This is how it should be, Margaret. The two of us being able to do this and me not having to worry about taking you home later.”
“It’s wonderful isn’t it?”
“Margaret?” His insides clenched, began to knot into a tight ball of tension. All evening he had been waiting for this moment.
Words…they were whirling around and around in his head, waiting for his voice to give them expression.
Four words – I’ll always love you.
Three words – Stay with me.
Two words – Marry me.
“Margaret?” Tentatively he spoke her name, nudging her very gently.
“Lift up your head.” He turned onto his side so that they were facing each other and slid his finger towards her chin and rested it beneath, raising it irresistibly upwards, so that her eyes opened automatically in response as she looked into his face lying on the pillow so close to hers. His heart was jumping against his chest, battering his ribcage with the strength of its pounding rhythm.
Her eyes tangled with his. “Yes?”
He cradled her face, his gaze penetrating hers.
She stared at him in stunned silence as time became suspended. He held his breath, waiting for her reply. Then he saw, with some relief, the sparks begin to dance in those hazel depths, the irrepressible tugging at the corners of her mouth into a broad smile of disbelief.
His fingers rubbed compulsively across her cheek, feeling the tremor of her emotions as they rocked through her. “Is that a yes?” he asked, gently, breathlessly.
“Yes,” she replied, before she threw her arms about his neck and hugged him euphorically. “Yes!”
His arms tightened around her, pulling her closer against him, every nerve in his body aflame, his heart ready to burst with the sheer overwhelming magnitude of hearing her response. And for some moments all he was up to was to hold her, to register and savour her acceptance of him, feeling the overpowering strength of his emotions threatening to overcome him.
When he pulled away and looked into her face once more he saw that her own eyes were shining like glass, her emotions as heightened as his, the feelings he evoked within her as strong and as tenacious as those that she instilled within him.
“I know you may want to wait for a while…”
She put her finger to his lips to halt the flow of words. “I’d marry you tomorrow if I could.”
When he spoke again his voice was hoarse, close to fracturing. “I’ve got something for you. Stay there.”
She looked at him in question as he left the bed to go into the bathroom. When he emerged again he saw that she was sitting up on the bed, resting against the headboard. He was carrying a bouquet of a dozen creamy-white roses, their long stems bound together with a thick satin band that had been tied into a simple bow. He placed them in her arms as he sat down next to her, watching her reaction, seeing the mingling of pleasure and emotion playing in her expression as she touched the velvety petals of one of the blooms.
“They’re so beautiful. Thank you, John.”
His heart lurched in anticipation, the timbre of his voice suddenly more hesitant. “Look at the ribbon.”
He watched as she lowered her eyes, her breath catching into a gasp of exclamation as she saw a small, perfectly cut diamond gleam at her from where it was nestled, almost hidden, in the centre of the bow. His fingers were trembling as he released the bow and retrieved the ring, a single diamond mounted on a simple gold band, exquisite and delicate. He caught hold of her left hand and slid it tenderly onto her finger.
“For you,” he said, as his eloquent gaze rose once more to hers. “I know you didn’t choose it and we can change it if you want to, but I didn’t want to ask you without having something to put on your finger.”
She shook her head, tears of happiness glistening in the corners of her eyes. “I don’t want to change it. It’s perfect. It really is.” She leaned forward and kissed him. “Thank you.”
He watched, deeply touched, as a tear escaped from her eye, reaching up to brush it away tenderly with his finger. “I’m glad you like it.”
“I love it. It’ll never leave my finger.” She held her hand out, watching delightedly as the ring harnessed the light and shone with the luminous presence of a star in the night sky.
He chuckled. “I’m afraid it’ll have to come off – for a few hours at least – to allow me to put a wedding ring on your finger when we get married.”
A radiant smile suffused her entire face. “So when are you planning to do that?”
He hugged her to him, wondering whether it was possible to be any happier. “Whenever you want, my love. Whenever you want.”
“Well in that case why don’t we get married next year on the nearest Saturday to the day you came to find me in Helstone?” she suggested, even if a little hesitantly, as though she wasn’t certain of what his reaction would be. “It just somehow feels as though it should be the first anniversary of us being together – and it would give everyone a chance to get used to the idea as well.”
He tipped his head to one side and studied her affectionately, thinking how closely she could mirror his own thoughts. “The day we found each other,” he said, the sweet recollection of memories flitting into his thoughts as he trailed his fingers through her hair lovingly. That first perfect day they had spent together – discovering themselves, discovering each other. “Perhaps Reverend Tandy would agree to marry us in Helstone if we asked him?”
She looked delighted, so bewitchingly beautiful, ever the sunlight that lit his life so completely.
“Do you mean that? About us getting married in Helstone?”
“What was it you said to me the other day? Something traditional? A church with bells ringing out, a dress that makes you feel beautiful, and a reception filled with celebration? Not to mention the chance to allow your mother to wear a hat. You were thinking of Helstone weren’t you?”
“Yes, I suppose I was,” she admitted, quietly. “But that’s only because I grew up there.”
“And I found the love of my life standing in its church’s grounds and realised there and then that I’d never let her go again.”
“Well I’m not going anywhere so I’m afraid you’re stuck with me for the rest of your life,” she replied cheerfully, but her meaning was implicit.
“Believe me,” he said, taking the flowers from her lap and placing them on the floor carefully before drawing her into his arms, so strong and secure, and easing them both back down onto the bed. “I can think of nothing more pleasurable than being bound to you for the rest of my life.”
And in those perfect and tender moments as he slowly began to make love her, it seemed to him that as he looked into her loving eyes he saw the past melt away like snow in sunlight to reveal the beautiful landscape of their future.